Politics, Comedy, and the Danger of Satire: Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

On Friday evening, the Department of Performing Arts, in conjunction with Myriad Voices and the Lab for Global Performances and Politics, hosted “Politics, Comedy and the Danger of Satire,” a panel discussion on the implications the Charlie Hebdo massacre have had on the world of comedy and cartooning in Islam.

The panelists included experts and distinguished professionals from across many forms of media including television, theatre, and cartooning who seek to create better understanding of Muslim culture through their works.

As the moderators of the panel, Professor Derek Goldman noted, often times this exploration of Muslim culture occurs through the use of comedy and satire. “We explore the deep roots of social comedy as an often dangerous form of social commentary,” Goldman said.

The panel opened the discussion by commenting on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Iranian-Canadian cartoonist, Nikahang Kowsar, who was imprisoned in Tehran, fled Iran, and received death threats for a cartoon mocking a top religious figure, said that the Charlie Hebdo massacre shows when it comes to intercultural understanding between Islam and the West, both sides need to understand the power that media has in forming relationships. “Cartoonists have a huge effect. In a way their words became sacred for so many people because they became sacred to so many people,” Kowsar said.

According to the panel, the massacre shows that both the Western and Islamic worlds are in dire need of active engagement and understanding. “France has failed to engage Muslims, but Muslims have also failed to engage America and the West,” Imam Yahya Hendi said.

Creator of the first Western sitcom about a Muslim family, Zarqa Naraw said that in the production of “Little Mosque on the Prairie”, she experienced firsthand the importance of understanding the cultural norms of the Islamic community. “Even though I had no intention of mocking Islam [through the show], people were looking it through their own cultural lens,” she said.

Shahid Nadeem, who has written several plays that have been banned in Pakistan, said that while it is difficult to comment on Muslim society, well-employed humor is a way to push the boundaries and engage in dialogue.

“Whenever that humor is connected with reality, then it starts making people nervous. Especially when it relates to religion… When you want to make people realize their contradictions…the only way to do it is through humor or through satire,” she said.

Looking forward, Imam Hendi expressed his hope that instead of inspiring violence, media will be able to facilitate peace between the Islamic world and the West.

“It’s an issue of images…help destroy and promote. We are in the business of dealing with images and how images can promote peace or make a relationship better,” he said.

Photo: Georgetown University

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