Pencil Politics: Cultural Figures as Targets

Casey Williams

Bennett_Abstraction (Citizenry)_2011_Sutton Gallery

It has now been over a year since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and the ensuing cultural debate. The pencil wrapped in a clenched fist: this became the symbol of solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. For defenders of liberalism, the image of the raised pencil pits their imagined tolerance against the perceived violence of Islamic fundamentalism – words against deeds, one kind of lead against another. The fist, wrapped tight, suggests a militant peace, an unbending tolerance. But this image conveys something more insidious than a commitment to free expression: It points to the centrality of culture and art in conflicts between the West and its imagined foes and it invites us to see the pencil as a stand-in for a history of representational violence – violence maintained by words and images – targeted at Islam, illiberal thought, and difference. Slippery and pervasive, the pencil’s representational violence not only legitimates and directs physical violence towards Muslims, but also gives shape to a conflict that unfolds in and through the stories we tell about the violence perpetrated by both sides.

In the conversations that erupted after the Hebdo shootings, cultural products became flashpoints of debate. They framed conversations about tolerance and hatred and became keys to understanding a shifting political landscape – maps on which people could locate their own anxieties as well as the motivations of their enemies. Commentators dissected Hebdo’s cartoons, lodged philippics against Michele Houellebecq, and traced threads to Salman Rushdie. Even Marine Le Pen, president of France’s right-wing National Front party, turned to Camus to make sense of the attacks. (“To misname things is to add to the world’s unhappiness,” she wrote, quoting Camus, in an op-ed in the New York Times.)

To understand the deep and troubling implications of the turn to culture provoked by the Hebdo killings, we have first to reject the idea that the Hebdo cartoons were non-racist displays of liberal secularism – images emerging spontaneously from the irreverent enemies of dogmatism. And next, we should dispense with the debate’s pretense: that free speech is being assaulted and is at stake – that, as Rushdie writes, the attack compels us to defend “the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”

The issue is not freedom of expression – a procedural issue that ignores what is being expressed – but the way certain kinds of expression ratify a dispersed and hushed violence against people seen as different, backwards, dangerous. If we loosen our fixation on free speech, what becomes central is the historical and contemporary marginalization of Islam and its adherents – a marginalization that is expressed, legitimized, and sustained by images and words that cast Islam as medieval, unknowable, menacing. The force of the marginalization only emerges from the shadows when we understand that cartoons, novels, and other texts are more than they are – that, within them, an entire history of oppression can condense, congeal, and ooze out like blood.

If Rushdie did not seem so lately seduced by the fictions of liberalism, I might be surprised by his failure to see the terrain of the conflict. Unlike Rushdie’s trenchant critique of religious literalism, Hebdo’s ribald depictions of Mohammed fall astonishingly short of luminous satire or thoughtful critique. Nor are they merely distasteful jabs. They index a long history of anti-Islamic sentiment, policy, and practice and conjure fresh hatred toward Muslims. They trade on a set of beliefs about Islam that presents the religion and its cultural concomitants as undeserving of respect, worthy of contempt, and in need of either secularization or eradication.

Seen in this light, the attacks in France do not appear as an invidious assault on free speech, an embodied cry shouting something like “We hate your freedom.” They look more like violence responding to violence: the persistent, quiet violence of a discourse designed to marginalize, as well as the overt violence of military assaults justified by that discourse. I hesitate to append the pro forma disclaimer to this point. The demanded but also deeply felt need to disclaim, to assert one’s neutral position, evinces the power of a discourse that frames the impulse to understand – to uncover conditions that might urge violence – as an apology for terror. To say that violence happens for reasons is not to say that the Paris massacre was “justified” in any absolute sense. It is to say that these attacks express hatred not just for what the West stands for, but for what it has done and continues to do.

Just after the attacks, a cartoon appeared in an Australian newspaper depicting a flurry of sharpened pencils and pens raining down on two black-masked men gripping Kalashnikovs. The pencils were meant to represent the West’s commitment to free speech and the masked figures to stand in for the anti-liberal force of radical Islam, which, the cartoon suggests, will soon experience annihilation at the hands of secular liberalism.

There’s a lot to unpack in this image, and Corey Oakley, in his piece “Charlie Hebdo and the Hypocrisy of Pencils,” supplies a helpful critique. The conflict between the West and radical Islamist groups, if there really is such a conflict, is not a battle between tolerant, pencil-wielding liberals and fanatical, gun-toting fundamentalists, but, rather, a wildly asymmetrical conflict between the most powerful militaries on earth and, more than actual militants, civilian devotees of what the West perceives as a foreign faith. In this context, it does not make sense to see terrorist attacks as senseless aggression, skirmishes in an evenly matched ideological battle, or even outsized responses to minor provocations. We have to see them, at least in part, as reactions to a sustained colonial and neocolonial violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

France has a colonial history – troubling and bloody, as all colonial histories are. In Algeria, to which many French immigrant families have ties, the French colonial authorities murdered, tortured, and systemic dehumanized to consolidate and perpetuate their century-long rule.6 France’s colonial history complicates the problems of integration and assimilation that so vex and worry the white French – issues which have caused anti-Islamic sentiment in France to swell in recent years.7 “The French need to recognize that the Algerians, the North Africans, and the West Africans from the former colonies are in France as immigrants because the French were in their countries in the first place,” Mahmood Mamdani explains. Seen in the light of history, complaints by white French about foreign settlers glare with irony, and the frustration simmering in some immigrant communities becomes visible, explicable, understandable.

Both in France and elsewhere, the violence perpetrated against Muslims was not, and is not, only physical and immediate – bombs and missiles and showers of bullets. It is structural and discursive. It is a testament to the strength and effectiveness of the Western pencil that the dominant narrative remains one in which an enlightened, free, and peaceful West combats a medieval, repressive, and violent Islam not with guns, but with words and ideas. It is the West’s control over narrative that perhaps accounts for the greatest violence, since stories that paint Islam as irrational and threatening make physical violence directed at Muslims possible. The image of pencils raining down on jihadis is, even more apt than the cartoonist realizes, not because the West values free expression, but because violence against Islam is carried out by pencils employed to maintain the fiction of Western moral superiority.

So too for the pencil and the clenched fist. Squeezed in that fist, the pencil becomes a weapon that, because its violence is disguised by an association with peace, neutrality, and tolerance, does a kind of damage that the gun cannot. Pencils might not draw blood, but the ink they spill supplies politicians and militaries and angry vigilantes with narrative support for violence that unfolds over generations and which not only breaks bodies, but also assails psyches, fractures communities, and erases cultures.

In pointing to the atrocities committed by Western militaries under the banner of freedom, Oakley locates the site of conflict in the world of bodies and bullets, battlefields and blood. But in doing so, he understates the violence contained in what Western cultural institutions have drawn and written about Islam. Although it is also wrong to consider the conflict “ideological” – which suggests a clash between beliefs meeting each other on relatively even discursive terrain, with agreed upon rules, criteria for evaluation, etc. – confining the “War on Terror” and its converse to physical casualties and structural damages, overlooks the fundamentally representational nature of the present conflict.

If there is something like a war raging between “liberal humanism” and “Islamic fundamentalism,” it is, at least in part, a war of words and images, stories and depictions. It is a dream war. Each side strikes the other by twisting historical evidence, telling stories that give actions justifications and moral force, and charging physical atrocities with symbolic meaning. Even the categories in which we lodge the opposing armies (Secular Liberalism v. Islamic Fundamentalism) speak to the importance of words, images, and narratives in framing battles that confront us as bloody clashes in crowded streets. The idea of a “war” is a narrative conceit. To use the word “war” – a term rich with the imagery of the battlefield, the Newtonian stage on which equal, opposing forces meet – to describe the massively uneven distribution of death is already to cede discursive ground to the West, allowing the West to benefit from the appearance of evenness, symmetry, balance. In this imaginary war – spun from words, invested with imagined equality – the West emerges the victor.

The war is simultaneously imaginary and real with lives and bodies broken and buried. Across the Middle East, people with little appetite for war have been dealt decades of violence by Western militaries. Since the American military invasion of Iraq in 2003, over 130,000 Iraqi civilians have died on account of violence.8 Drone strikes across the Middle East and North Africa – largely in countries with which no Western country is officially at war, like Yemen and Pakistan – have killed almost 2,500 people, many of them civilians.9

Though many deplore these attacks, the dominant account remains one in which violence perpetrated by the West is considered a legitimate, and even necessary, reaction to the chaos threatening to spill over the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or, as Barack Obama said in reference to the Islamic State, “wherever they exist.” Western military assaults are framed as defensive maneuvers – reactive measures required to protect the homeland and, in some cases, promote democracy abroad. Not everyone buys this story, but it has nevertheless become the official account. The danger of this narrative is not only that it legitimizes violence perpetrated by Western militaries, but also that it obscures the reasons people might choose to fight back. Narratives that frame American or NATO interventions as retaliatory, while casting terrorist attacks as senseless and unprovoked, deny motivation, reason, and agency to people who have long been terrorized by Western violence. They transpose the motiveless malignity of Iago onto the imaginary Moor, and, in so doing mark him as a legitimate target.

In a clash of stories, attacks on cultural products or publications are not merely symbolic acts. They do not simply stand in for other conflicts. As symbols, they are real, offensive maneuvers in a war that unfolds in and through what is written about physical actions and events. It is the symbolic character of cultural products that makes them real. In the fight over competing stories, violent physical attacks on cultural institutions become discursive moves – the masks, the guns, the bloodied bodies all become part of a cultural text and that text gains its actuality as a part of a representational war. The violent acts are both real and imagined, with both immediate physical victims and cultural reverberations that will victimize people who have not heard the bombs and bullets, have not lost limbs, loved ones, and sanity. In the age of digital media, the physical movement of bodies through space, captured on film and mainlined into our Twitter feeds, is immediately processed as a kind of utterance and incorporated into diverse narratives about the imagined conflict between liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Violent attacks become a flurry of competing images and meanings responding to the violence of the cartoon, the novel, the video.

These attacks – these insurgent utterances – don’t rewrite the narrative of the conflict in a way that convinces Western audiences of the attackers’ virtue. They most often do the opposite: consolidate rabid opposition to fundamentalist politics and shore up the narrative of a violent and repressive Islam. But the consolidation of fear and opposition is largely the result of media accounts that overstate the frequency and severity of Islamic terrorism in the West – sensationalism that helps terrorist groups spread an outsized fear over Europe and North America. What violent assaults might succeed in doing, however, is exposing the contingency of Western political and ideological superiority. They remind us that the world does not have to be as it is. They open the possibility of a new order, new values. This, perhaps more than their brutality, is what makes such violence terrifying.

In the raging representational war it does not really matter how many people die, who has what territory, what person occupies the presidential office. These things have meaning but are ancillary. The central question is whose account of the conflict prevails, for what reasons, and with what consequences. But most war is like this; the coherence of conflict emerges in the stories we tell about it. War might be motivated by resource demands or religious zeal, but war is not defined by its motivation. War is not about body counts or how much territory is won or lost or whether governments are preserved or ousted. The most relevant criterion for victory in war is this: Who can tell the best story? Which side can convince its audience that it has been right all along?

Cultural products like Hebdo’s cartoons do not merely reflect and tap into a history of violence directed at Islam. They are also the agents (certainly partial, and perhaps unwitting) of this violence. As such, they become the targets of murderous assaults that are themselves representational acts. Horrific and clear-eyed, such attacks recognize that a key part of the conflict happens not on the battlefield but in the press, the movie theater, the bookshop.

Even decidedly non-radical appraisals of the world appreciate the power of narrative. In a recent article, Steven Pinker reminds us that the West’s fear of Islamic terrorism vastly overstates the likelihood that a European or North American will ever die in a terrorist attack.10 Islamic terrorism is not a material threat, but one contained in stories – an imaginary war that is no less real for being so. Pinker suggests that we replace these stories with a statistical picture of the world, since, in his view, “The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count.”

But Pinker is wrong to claim that statistics express the uncut truth about the world. Like words, numbers are tools for weaving tales, and statistics are stories that disclose the world in particular ways. Statistical stories disavow their particularity (indeed, claim to be “impartial”) by appealing to supposedly neutral numbers, which, like the sense of evenness implied by the language of “war,” cleverly hides the story spinners’ political investments. Substituting a statistical picture of the world for a more obviously narrative one does not amount to trading fact for fiction. It simply trades one fiction for another.

Still, Pinker’s argument illuminates an important point: It is the fictive character of our contemporary war that gives war its particular reality. The persistence of a narrative in which Islamic fundamentalism lurks as an omni-present, potentially existential threat does not mark a failure of human risk perception. Rather, the fictive narrative points toward a triumph of liberal discourse in framing its enemy as a force in need of immediate and unchecked repression.

The pencil and its menace prevail.

[Image Credit: Gordon Bennett. Abstraction (Citizenry), June 2011. Sutton Gallery.]


  1. Andrew Hussey. Algiers: a city where France is the promised land – and still the enemy.
  2. Angelique Chrisafis. Fears of turning point for French politics after Charlie Hebdo attack.
  3. Iraq Body Count.
  4. Jack Serle. Almost 2,500 now killed by covert US drone strikes since Obama inauguration six years ago: The Bureau’s report for January 2015
  5. Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack. The World Is Not Falling Apart.
  6. Andrew Hussey. Algiers: a city where France is the promised land – and still the enemy.
  7. Angelique Chrisafis. Fears of turning point for French politics after Charlie Hebdo attack.
  8. Iraq Body Count.
  9. Jack Serle. Almost 2,500 now killed by covert US drone strikes since Obama inauguration six years ago: The Bureau’s report for January 2015
  10. Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack. The World Is Not Falling Apart.
  11. Andrew Hussey. Algiers: a city where France is the promised land – and still the enemy.
  12. Angelique Chrisafis. Fears of turning point for French politics after Charlie Hebdo attack.
  13. Iraq Body Count.
  14. Jack Serle. Almost 2,500 now killed by covert US drone strikes since Obama inauguration six years ago: The Bureau’s report for January 2015
  15. Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack. The World Is Not Falling Apart.