Charlie Hebdo attack: Why Western satire especially riles some nations and groups

The attacks on satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in France and 'The Interview' film lampooning North Korea are proportional to how vulnerable those being mocked feel, say experts. 

The power of satire to unleash retribution from those offended – as in the cases of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine, and cyber-attacks on Sony over “The Interview” – may be amplified by how “vulnerable” those being lampooned feel.

“In both instances of the French magazine and The Interview, you have an example of regimes being hit in their Achilles' heel – these were salvos lobbed in the battle for hearts and minds where maybe these regimes are vulnerable," says Amber Day an assistant professor in the English and Cultural Studies Department at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., says in a phone interview.

The spread of Western culture and ideas has long provoked a backlash in more conservative – religiously, morally, or politically – nations that see those ideas as a threat. Responses vary from condemnation to the banning of Hollywood movies and Western music to outright attacks. 

“How satire is handled is a question of how vulnerable the people in a culture and in power feel. In America, the media can get away with almost anything at all because the government and its leaders don’t feel threatened. However, in cases such as North Korea and in the case of most Arab states, the people feel the West is a powerful player effacing their cultures,” says Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, Md., in a phone interview.

The Associated Press reported that gunmen fleeing the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo magazine, after killing at least 12 people Wednesday, shouted "Allahu Akbar!", Arabic for "God is great!"

In November 2011, that the same magazine's offices were firebombed shortly after the magazine had announced a special issue dubbed, "Charia Hebdo," a play on sharia, or Islamic, law.

 “In the Arab world, laughter is often viewed a tool to denigrate and humiliate. So when a people or leaders feel vulnerable, satire is not tolerated,” says Mr. Ahmad, who holds a doctorate in astrophysics and holds a unique perspective on cross-cultural understanding (or misunderstandings) between Muslims and non-Muslims. 

He was born in 1948 to Palestinian parents. His father became a naturalized American citizen aboard a ship bearing an American flag. Ahmad, who was born on board, became a naturalized US citizen himself as a toddler.

In addition, Ahmad is married to Frances Eddy, an American who is Christian. “My husband’s favorite verse in the Koran is, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion,” she says, in a phone conversation.

Minaret of Freedom works to counter cultural misunderstandings regarding Islam and Muslim culture and to promote education about Muslim and Islamic culture in the United States.

Ahmad says Arab culture embraces some forms of satire, citing the Tales of Juha [also spelled Joha], who Ahmad describes as "The Wise Fool.”

“These stories satirized social and political issues and were very powerful tools against those in government at times,” he explains. “However, it is one thing to make a joke about a rich man or a powerful man who slips and falls. It is something entirely different and not funny to make a joke about your poor old grandmother slipping and falling. To the Muslim people, jokes and cartoons about the faith of an oppressed people are not funny. They hurt.”

Ahmad adds, “Because governments in the Middle East and North Korea have control over what is in the media and in print, they can’t really accept that it’s not the same in the West and America. They don’t believe that in America there is no prior restraint on what is published or released online or in film.”

A case in point is a statement released by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency attributed to a “spokesman” for the policy department of the National Defense Commission. It denounced President Barack Obama as “the chief culprit who forced” Sony to distribute the film, “appeasing and blackmailing cinema house and theaters” with a “dishonest and reactionary movie hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and agitating terrorism.”

Other experts in satire also offer similar insight.

“Satirical humor requires sophisticated thinking.  It uses irony to encourage an audience to think critically about a subject. But not everyone exposed to satire will 'get' the joke or appreciate its intent. And this is exactly what has happened in both the case of The Interview and the attack on Charlie Hebdo,"  writes Sophia McClennen, who directs Penn State's Center for Global Studies and is author of "Colbert's America: Satire and Democracy," in an e-mail interview.

“What we have is a situation where people feel mocked and angered and they respond with violence,” Prof. McClennen adds. “Rather than see the satire as an effort to open up debate on a sensitive topic, they do everything in their power to shut it down. Sadly, their response proves the power of satire to encourage public debate of major issues, but in these cases it proves it through manipulation and tragedy.”

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