Je Suis Jeremy

Photo by Raph_PH | CC BY 2.0

Last Sunday Jeremy Corbyn faced a large demonstration calling for his resignation as leader of Britain’s Labour Party. He is vilified for his defense (or lack of condemnation) of an artist’s use of Jewish racial stereotypes.

Tolerance of ‘artistic’ images offensive to sections of the community is well established. The exhibition of a statue of the Virgin Mary covered in a condom was defended as freedom of expression all over the world in 1998. In 2017, a sculpture of a phallus was set beside an Austrian Catholic church (off Church property) and the predictable objection of the believers was countered by demands that they observe the artist’s rights. A compromise was reached, the sculpture was wrapped in a tarpaulin – a ‘condom’.

It was years after a punk rock group’s right to desecrate a Moscow cathedral was universally defended as freedom of expression. Non-believers cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with the concept consecration and blasphemy but believers have a right to hold those beliefs especially as they relate to a designated place of worship. Even the Christians that build the churches and pay for their upkeep observe certain rules while inside.

Support for the annihilation of the rights of Christians was apparent when the punks were arrested for their anti-Putin lyrics. There was outrage. Two BBC presenters were at pains to hold the Church responsible rather than the State with one saying “That’s too much power for the Church.” Fortunately the public didn’t take up the incitement.

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity is not closely linked to ethnicity. Therefore, an attack on Christians does not necessarily amount to a racial attack and is acceptable. By the time Charlie Hebdoe focused on the Church, members knew the futility of protest. It is only after the assassination of twelve Charlie Hebdoe staff by people who had even less respect for social norms than the victims, that many of their racially and otherwise abusive caricatures became known to a wider public.

A French politician of Guyanese descent, Christiane Taubira had been depicted as a monkey. (The cartoonist was later sentenced to nine months in prison). The then still missing children abducted by Boko Haram were shown as pregnant ‘welfare queens’ demanding (presumably French) state assistance. By that time freedom of expression had become freedom to offend. Leaders from the UK, Germany, France and elsewhere marched to defend the right to offend, desecrate, denigrate and devalue others on the basis of their race and/or religion.

This would have played in to existing racial tensions resulting from France’s racially violent history. At least forty Algerian demonstrators were beaten to death or drowned by police in the Paris Massacre of 1961. The Algerians were protesting France’s colonization of Algeria and the vicious repression of during the Algerian War (1954–62) during which close to one million Algerian Muslims were killed and two million displaced, many to die of hunger. France’s activities in Algeria are some of the most depraved in colonial history. Frantz Fanon identified a new epidemic in which physical paralysis took hold of many Algerians causing them physically to stoop in response to the situation in which they found themselves.

In the 1980s French youth organized a movement with the slogan “Ne touche pas à mon pote”or Hands off my pal. They encouraged witnesses of public attacks against African citizens/residents of France to defend the victims. The attacks continue and increase in proportion to economic hardship. Yet persistent racism against Jews and Africans as well as anti-Islamic sentiment had no impact on Charlie Hebdoe’s sense of responsibility. They exercised their right to offend to the full and that right does not stop where the rights of others to be offended begin.

After the massacre, I was offended – again privately and without recourse – by an invitation arriving in my inbox to sign a petition in defense of Hebdoe even though, as the petition organisers said, some of their output could be seen as racist. In other words, the offended were being asked to support their tormentors. A letter of protest sent to them was counted as a signature.

During that time, everyone felt obliged to preface their every mention of the incident with the caveat: “I do not support terrorism, but….” It was a false dichotomy; supporters of terrorism on one side and supporters of freedom of expression on the other. Mehdi Hasan, argued at the time “I disagree… that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend.” Quite.

Speaking for ordinary human decency, Lassana Bathily, a Muslim African who protected potential Jewish victims of the terrorist who was of the same religion and ethnicity said, “I did something that had to be done.”

Still, nearly four million people marched in defense of Charlie Hebdoe’s right to mock people’s most dearly held values and most revered personalities and thereby humiliate whole countries and communities. Prime Ministers David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar and other leaders joined the demonstration.

What is not clear is how all this squares with current calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign for questioning whether the offending caricature should be removed from a mural. Those of us who, had we seen the caricature in question earlier would have found it offensive, had long ago been forced to accept the right of the majority gratuitously to offend the minority. But one wonders where the Hebdoe-Rights supporters stand on this latest manifestation of ‘enlightened’ artistic expression. How does it differ from the Hebdoe drawings?

It has been said that the drawing fed in to an escalation of anti–Semitic attacks in the UK. But so did Hebdoe’s work in Europe – as caricatures of Muslims and Africans continue to feed in to anti-Islamic and traditional racial sentiment. The magazine’s depiction in 2016 of dead and dying Italian earthquake victims as a variety of pasta dishes gave a new group of people the experience of being mocked in their adversity.

Returning to the caricature using Jewish stereotypes, it was admittedly surprising to find that Jeremy Corbyn bought in to the facile politics that tolerate this type of thing. However, that tolerance has been universal. Therefore the responsibility to re-think and ‘do what has to be done’ (in Bathily’s words) is also universal. Demonizing and making Corbyn a scapegoat will not cut it. Je suis Jeremy.

Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan law graduate who has worked in public sector reform and spent several years in advocacy, and as a volunteer care worker for asylum-seekers. Her essays have been published in Transition (Hutchins Press), The Elephant, Pambazuka News, Foreign Policy Journal, Africa is a Country, the Observer (Uganda) and King’s Review. The Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt website carries her articles on debt.