By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
[UPDATE: It seems that my post is being interpreted by some as a criticism of the Charlie Hebdo collaborators. Nothing could be further from the truth; I align myself completely with their Enlightenment ideals -- so I'm intolerant too! -- and in fact deem humor to be a powerful tool to further these ideals. Moreover, perhaps it is worth stressing the obvious: their 'intolerance' does not in any way justify their barbaric execution. It is not *in any way* on a par with the intolerance of those who did not tolerate their humor and thus went on to kill them.]
I grew up in a thoroughly secular household (my father was a communist; I never had any kind of religious education). However, I did get a fair amount of exposure to religion through my grandmothers: my maternal grandmother was a practicing protestant, and my paternal grandmother was a practicing catholic. In my twenties, for a number of reasons, I became more and more drawn to Catholicism, or at least to a particular interpretation of Catholicism (with what can be described as a ‘buffet’ attitude: help yourself only to what seems appetizing to you). This led to me getting baptized, getting married in the Catholic church, and wearing a cross around my neck. (I have since then distanced myself from Catholicism, in particular since I became a mother. It became clear to me that I could not give my daughters a catholic ‘buffet’ upbringing, and that they would end up internalizing all the dogmas of this religion that I find deeply problematic.)
At the same time, upon moving to the Netherlands in the late 90s, I had been confronted with the difficult relations between this country and its large population of immigrants and their descendants sharing a Muslim background, broadly speaking. At first, it all made no sense to me, coming from a country of immigrants (Brazil) where the very concept of being a ‘second-generation immigrant’ is quite strange. Then, many years ago (something like 13 years ago, I reckon) one day in the train, I somehow started a conversation with a young man who appeared to be of Arabic descent. I don’t quite recall how the conversation started, but one thing I remember very clearly: he said to me that it made him happy to see me wearing the catholic cross around my neck. According to him, the problem with the Netherlands is the people who have no religion – no so much people who (like me at the time) had a religion different from his own.* This observation has stayed with me since.
Anyway, this long autobiographical prologue is meant to set the stage for some observations on the recent tragic events in Paris. As has been remarked by many commentators (see here, for example), the kind of humor practiced by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must be understood in the context of a long tradition of French political satire which is resolutely left-wing, secular, and atheist. Its origins go back at least to the 18th century; it was an integral part of the Enlightenment movement championed by people like Voltaire, who used humor to provoke social change. In particular in the context of totalitarian regimes, satire becomes an invaluable weapon.