When criticizing Islam isn't punching up
When I was at LSE, there was an anti-Islamophobia measure up for a vote in the Student Union. The measure had come about because some shitty things had been shouted at Muslim students on campus, a few racist things had been posted in online forums, and, in the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society private Facebook group, someone had posted a copy of the comic “Jesus and Mo.”
“Jesus and Mo,” if you haven’t read it, is a pretty mediocre atheist comic that is broadly anti-religious. The two main characters are Jesus an Mohammed, so obviously, it’s controversial because it depicts the prophet. I’ve never found it to be racist or explicitly anti-Muslim, I’ve just found it to be a pretty boring representation of the typical atheist arguments against religion.
But the new anti-Islamophobia measure would have made it illegal to post the cartoon online, and that’s what the ASH Society wanted to push back against. I’m an atheist and a writer, so I agreed that they should be allowed to post the comic, and I decided to help out with the messaging. The campaign culminated in a rally outside of the Houses of Parliament that was headlined by no other than famed atheist Richard Dawkins. After the rally, we all stuck around to talk to him. After five minutes, my stomach had totally left the fight.
Dawkins, it seemed to me, was an old school British colonialist and racist. He actually referred to Muslims as “backwards people” while talking to us. I have no doubt that he’s a genuine atheist, and I still think his arguments against religion are solid, but I no longer believed that his motivationagainst religion was coming from a place of pure rationalism.
As an aspiring satirist, I was horrified by the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I am unfamiliar with their work, but even if they were far-right – which they aren’t – I would be horrified. Satire and humor should be totally untouched by violence. They can and should be criticized, but the proper response to language is never violence. So I don’t mind jumping on board the “fuck those murderous assholes” train, and I get super irritated by the victim-blaming that came from much of the left after the attacks: “Well, if you publish purposefully provocative cartoons, what did you expect?” No: fuck that. No matter how offensive the illustration, there is no justification for murder.
With all of that said, there is an oft-unfollowed rule in comedy and satire that asks that comedians “punch up.” The idea is that if you’re going to make jokes about a controversial issue, the right thing to do is to attack the party with the most power in the issue. Always side with the victims and the oppressed. So if you’re going to make a rape joke, target the rapist, don’t target the victim. If you’re going to make a joke about race, target the racist, not the oppressed minority. It’s basically a rule that’s designed to make comedy less about supporting systems of oppression and more about defending the underdog.
The problem with cartoons of the prophet Mohammed is that the creator usually feels they are targeting people like the murderous, misogynistic assholes in ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Taliban. They are “punching up” at the violent thugs who shoot little girls who want to go to school, or at the assholes who massacre defenseless villagers.
But in reality, these cartoonists live in Western societies where Muslims are often the discriminated-against minority. Muslims in France have to deal with a rising extreme right wing, led by the racist fuckwit Marine Le Pen, and Muslims in the United States have to deal with police surveillance, right wing hysteria over the placement of their cultural centers, and violent attacks by racists. Since the Muslims who actually live in these countries are the ones who actually have to deal with anti-Islamic sentiment, they are the actual – if not the intended – targets of anti-Islamic satire.
None of this is to say that ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Taliban don’t deserve mounds of ridicule. But the ridicule should target the groups themselves, not the religion that the groups nominally belong to. Attacking Islam for something a small extremist Islamic sect is doing is like nuking a city to kill a single person. It’s lazy humor, and it’s targeting the victim more than it’s targeting the oppressor.
And this type of satire or language can be coopted by the racist or colonialist forces that the left supposedly wants to fight against. Look at Christopher Hitchens: the famous atheist spent his life speaking out against dictatorships and religious fundamentalism, and later in his life, he became one of the left’s biggest supporters of the Iraq War. His moral justification was that the West should be active in bringing about the downfall of dictatorial regimes and fundamentalism in the Middle East. It was a justification that was cynically used as a moral cover by an administration that had much different reasons for invading Iraq.
If we were really interested in fighting fundamentalism, we would start at home – targeting our own racists, misogynists, murderers, and sectarians – and then we’d enable our allies within other countries to do the same. It’s pretty much impossible to “punch up” when you’re not even in the system or culture, so we should leave that job to Muslim comedians, satirists, and journalists instead of stepping on their toes by ham-fistedly trying to do the job ourselves.
Here’s a place to start: Raif Badawi is a Saudi blogger who is being imprisoned and flogged a thousand times because of a website he set up. Write a letter to the King of Saudi Arabia and tweet your support for Raif here.