Sunday, July 12, 2020

Bias and Nostalgia in Hergé’s Tintin

This article is by

Share this article

Article Contributor(s)

Anant Jani

Article Title

Bias and Nostalgia in Hergé’s Tintin


Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 12, 2020


A collection of Tintin Comics

A collection of Tintin Comics | Source: Mills Baker via Flickr

Some of my fondest memories involve sitting under the guava or the European gumtree, perched on the wall of our garden as the sunlight dappled on an old copy of a Tintin comic. For some years, at least, before the gumtree was cut down, the leaves bore witness to me following the globe-trotting adventures of the Belgian reporter, replete with hilariously-named companions and witty play of words. My nostalgia is as much for the inked characters and words on the paper, as for the musty smell of the oft-thumbed and yellowed pages of the comic, and the permanently romanticized view of the sunny garden. The comics have left a palpable imprint on my sense of humour and love of a certain kind of literature. And perhaps it is this imprint, along with my pleasant nostalgia, that makes it a struggling task to accept Hergé’s racism through his Tintin comics.

Hergé’s (or Georges Prosper Remi’s) writings were, undeniably, a product of their times. His first two series in the Adventures of Tintin comics, Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929) and Tintin in Congo (1931), have famously been the subject of much debate, since the late 1900s. In Soviets, Hergé offers a crude critique against Marxism – meant to inculcate anti- Soviet sentiments in the European youth at the time, by portraying the Bolsheviks as inherently evil without a full comprehension of how they rose to power or what their political views were.

In Congo, African tribes and leaders are portrayed as either infantile, or in need of saving, to the extent that Tintin becomes the embodiment of fairness for young Africans, even having a temple made after him. Congo itself was a colony of Belgium from 1908 to 1960, one of the two colonies that Belgium governed, and the comics grossly ignore the labour politics of the Congolese and their efforts in both the World Wars. It was not until after the decolonisation of Africa that European perception of ex-African colonies changed.

Much of the modern debate surrounding the banning of select Tintin comics is centred around the depicitons of big-game hunting in Congo and the anti-Semitism in the The Shooting Star. Besides the uncomfortable portrayals of the Congolese, a few panels in the 1931 edition of Congo depicted Tintin drilling a hole into a live Rhinoceros, filled with dynamite, and blown up. In the 1946 edition, this scene was replaced, with Herge apologizing for what he recognized as “youthful transgressions''. In the Shooting Star, the villainous financer was renamed, from the Jewish Blumstein to the innocuous Bohlwinkel.

Hergé’s subsequent works became politically neutral, written after the German occupation of Belgium and the German takeover of Le Vingtième Siècle, the conservative Catholic newspaper he wrote for. While the white-saviour narrative continued with Tintin leading as the embodiment of Europe that “natives” had to follow, the later works are much less politically biased.

However, he prefaced Tintin in America with a critique against the racism in the United States, alongside his anti-imperial stance in The Blue Lotus. He is also known, famously, for not joining with the far-right extremist forces in German-occupied Belgium at the time, as many of his colleagues had. Michael Farr, a British expert on The Adventures of Tintin series, claimed after a meeting with Hergé that “you couldn’t meet someone more open and less racist”. Others have called him an opportunist, heaving towards the side that was popular. Perhaps this was indeed the case, or equally, perhaps Hergé did change his views, and his writings in Soviet and Congo are merely reflective of the predominant Belgian culture at the time.

At any rate, the question still remains: how do we read, or re-read, Hergé (or many such childhood-favourite authors, like Dr. Seuss)? Shelving the books and forgetting the authors is undoubtedly impossible, and misguided besides. A recognition of the biases, and a plethora of context surrounding these texts must be made available at all times. A celebration of a character or a person must not come at the cost of ignoring their uncomfortable stances.

The depiction of Africa in 20th century comics has been abysmal. A tendency of depicting the 'other' as a 'noble-savage' is a familiar concern to those readers who have spent much of their lives in recently liberated colonies. It is, perhaps, especially imperative for such readers to keep this in mind and not repeat them.

In our Consumerist times, it seems, we sometimes forget to start dialogues on themes that are unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable to us. We forget which stories desperately need to be told and which have not seen the light of day under the shadow of popular literature.

This, at least, is what I have strived to do: to maintain a balance between nostalgia and a recognition of biases. My memory of the Tintin comics will remain just as romantic as the idyllic memory I started with in the beginning of this article.

Support us to bring the world closer

To keep our content accessible we don't charge anything from our readers and rely on donations to continue working. Your support is critical in keeping Global Views 360 independent and helps us to present a well-rounded world view on different international issues for you. Every contribution, however big or small, is valuable for us to keep on delivering in future as well.

Support Us

Share this article

Read More

July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

Read More