Resistance is futile
20 October 2017 12:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ben Cashdan

Am I Charlie?

  • Ben Cashdan
    ben-cashdan.jpg
    Ben Cashdan

    Ben Cashdan is a filmmaker and television producer based in Johannesburg. He produces South Africa's town hall discussion programme "The Big Debate".  Previously he was an economic advisor in the Mandela Presidency.

I am Charlie because 12 people were executed in cold blood.

I am not Charlie because I am troubled by the crowd of mostly white middle class liberals who took to the streets in Paris to protest the killings, many of whom apparently feel their culture and values are superior to others. Many of them also enjoy the privileges of being white and middle class in Paris, a city where much of the lowest paid work is done by Africans, including Muslim North Africans.

I am Charlie because no one has an inherent right to the protection of the dignity of their religious or national identity, under threat of execution. For example, we should all be able to critique and even ridicule Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any faith when its scriptures are used to justify human rights abuses against women or gay and lesbian people.

I am not Charlie because racism is rife in France, and five million French people voted for the Front National last year, a far right party that blames immigrants, most of whom are black, for the ills in French society. And I believe the publishers of Charlie Hebdo played into that racism by invoking cultural stereotypes, whether intentionally or not.

I am not Charlie because I live in South Africa, and every day in this country, even in 2015, there are white people who try to erase the legacy of slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. Some of them argue against the use of affirmative action to redress past discrimination. Their aim seems to be to protect their privilege, and I believe many white liberals in France would like to do the same when it comes to their history of colonisation of North Africa.

I am Charlie despite the fact that I live in South Africa, because South Africa desperately needs satirists to expose the hypocrisy of our leaders. South Africa is now more unequal than it was under Apartheid, such that two rich men have the same wealth as 50% of the entire population, and yet instead of focusing on addressing this, many of our leaders are black billionaires, preoccupied with personal self-enrichment. And when cartoonists such as Zapiro or artists such as Brett Murray have tried to use satire to criticise the corruption of our leaders, they are warned not to insult the dignity of the president or his comrades.

I am Charlie because political leaders here try to use race to silence their critics, arguing that it is only white cartoonists and artists that would humiliate an older person who deserves respect in black culture, just as some in France have argued that only non-Muslims would ridicule or satirise their prophet. And yet this is not true in either case. In South Africa, artists like Ayanda Mabulu and musicians like Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh also use art and music to challenge and ridicule black leaders.

I am not Charlie because Barack Obama continues to roll out his “war on terror” around the world in the name of American values, using drone strikes against whole families and communities, plus routine torture and execution, arguably creating more terror than many of his ‘terrorist’ opponents. And in order to legitimise these wars and prevent his terror being morally compared with that of his opponents, he needs us all to be Charlie. He needs us all to buy into a distorted dichotomy between Western liberalism that defends freedom of speech, and the barbarism of religious fanatics and terrorists whose only motive is to murder Americans.

I am not Charlie because it’s not a crime for a policeman to murder a black youth in Ferguson.

I am not Charlie because “concomitant action” in Marikana left 34 striking miners dead.

I am Charlie because Boko Haram used Islam to justify the abduction and sexual enslavement of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014. And yet I am not Charlie because there’s another story here of the systematic marginalisation of millions of Nigerians in the North and the East of the country and the theft of their natural resources by a Nigerian elite in cahoots with multinational corporations.

I am not Charlie because they called it a democratic Arab Spring and yet after the NATO planes were returned to base, cities were left to burn, dreams were forgotten and the only thing left was the rubble.

I am not Charlie because until 2008 Nelson Mandela was officially considered a terrorist and yet he is now remembered as one of the greatest people to have ever lived.

I am not Charlie because it just isn't that simple. We cannot create a more just society simply by defending the right of everyone to speak out freely, using the social and economic power they currently have. We need to redistribute power and wealth to create a just society, whether in South Africa, France or elsewhere in the world.

I am Charlie because without freedom of expression, we cannot organise people to transform our societies to create more justice, equality, harmony and solidarity. DM

  • Ben Cashdan
    ben-cashdan.jpg
    Ben Cashdan

    Ben Cashdan is a filmmaker and television producer based in Johannesburg. He produces South Africa's town hall discussion programme "The Big Debate".  Previously he was an economic advisor in the Mandela Presidency.

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