Public Violence, Terrorism

Je ne suis pas Charlie

The week of January 4, 2015, saw several notable events around the world. These included the detonation of a car bomb in Sana’a, Yemen killing 37 and injuring 66 people, a massacre in Baga, Nigeria by the Boko Haram, killing anywhere between 700 and 2000 people, and attacks on the Parisian satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Only one of these captured the conscience and commanded the attention of the western world in a way that is likely to be a defining event of this decade (as evinced by the rise of the now ubiquitous hashtag #JeSuisCharlie).

Without a doubt, the attacks were carried about by veritable cowards whose collective IQs would barely register in a competition for cerebral mediocrity. But let’s not let the radicalists define the course of our intellectual thought (after all, isn’t that what they want?), let’s instead introspect on what the attacks meant, and what is the best way to respond to them.

The response that followed the attacks from the international media can be broken into three categories: there are those who believe that all muslims are somehow guilty of the attacks and should be punished (let’s call these the crazies), there are those who believe that this is just another attack by the “Islamists” (a collective term for Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and whoever else) and it should be combated in the global war on terror (let’s call these the moderates/conservatives), but perhaps the loudest of the bunch are those who believe that the attacks are smoking gun evidence of the irreconcilable differences between the Muslim world and “Western values”, and the only way to prevent future attacks is to incite cultural change in the Muslim world (several amongst these call themselves modern liberals).

A theme that has been represented again and again from many within this final group is that of a pencil being destroyed by masked Islamic attackers, but the pencil recovering and attacking the attackers, not with bullets, but instead by itself. This theme speaks to one’s mind the old phrase: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But implicitly, it also boasts a sense of superiority of the pencil (subliminally – western values), over the gun (subliminally – the radicalists).


Article 1: By Banksy

It’s hard to criticize Bansky, it really is. But the reason I find this easy-to-sell theme simplistic and dis-appealing is because it invokes an amnesia of history and washing out of the many complex reasons that have pitted western values against Islamic radicalists in the modern world. On an absolute level, of course the moderate, liberal and even conservative denizens of the Western world have the higher moral ground in this battle, but the same cannot be said for their governments. While Obama and western EU countries talk of equality and collect Noble Peace awards, their militaries bombard civilians with drones and B-52 bombers. There of course can be some justification to destroying “terrorist” hideouts and operational bases, but the declaration of all killed as either enemy combatants or terrorists, de-spires confidence in these militaries’ ability to self-meditate and inspires confidence in a very real and systematic turtle stacking situation.

George W. Bush is gone, but the term he so lovingly gave birth to – “evil-doers” still lives. If not verbatim, then just the idea behind it, that of the radicalists just being “evil people who do what they do because I just told you they are evil” is what still dominates the western mindset. It forgets that those that we call terrorists are not purely an artifact of the religion under which they commit their horrendous crimes, but instead, of being at the end of half-a-century of political experiments with questionable objectives. These experiments included but were not limited to colonialism, occupation, militarization, social clustering, and severe forms of general meddling.

In reality, the west’s moral superiority is built upon the confinement and suffering of many from the “east”. This does not excuse the behaviour of the Hebdo attackers, but it does help explain it; it should also help us push the brakes on judgement of Islam as a religion of hatred and violence, and in acquiescing the global Islamic terrorist movement as a function on the history inflicted upon it. Whether you grew up in Gaza, where you saw any and all legitimate paths to international credibility your people tried to take being washed upon by the international media, or in Iraq where a war that was supposed to topple the villainous dictator and bring peace and stability, but instead witnessed your country being ripped apart powerless, giving rise to organizations like ISIS, or in Algeria, where French colonialism and hegemony created such a disharmony that you found it better to move to France itself, but are now subject to Islamophobia and ghettoization, you are likely to see the world with a lens of a victim. Freedom of Speech should and does stand supreme in any nation that is to be respected, but flagrant and irresponsible caricature of an already victimized population under its banner is not particularly respectable.

The pen with which western ideals are written, and that is drawn in so many illustrations after the Hebdo attacks is now supposed to destroy the radicals. But it is the same pen that for several centuries has caused mass subjugation of Islamic civilians. It is also the same pen that drafted the Patriot Act, and the same pen that powers the industry that so ruthlessly exploits foreign lands and its people for profit, and the same pen that continues to write foreign policies that will only further alienate and impoverish those on the other end of the spectrum. This belief that western values support a culture of “exchange of ideas” and reify the ideals of the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité, is virulent and blinding. Leaving this culture of self-superiority and self-victimization behind requires willingness to sit down and understand the true roots of the problem, not fanning flames for the sake of humour.

Inciting “Je Suis Charlie” is supposed to say to the world “I am for Freedom of Speech”, or if you look at it in another way “I am not afraid”. But then again, few in the international sphere disagree. Is repeating the hashtag really helping? Or is it driving the wedge further to a group that is already alienated? The people who attacked Charlie Hebdo did so because they saw the magazine’s flagrant contempt of what’s so sacred to them as an exaggerated symbol of all the other injustices they feel have been dealt to them. Should we really keep pushing that button? If I were one of those on the other side, I would ask “Why was the media that is now being so bold so quiet though all the injustices that were committed against us?”

As a person who strongly believes that Freedom of Speech should be protected at all costs but also that that right should be meted in a responsible and progressive manner, I am not Charlie Hebdo.


3 thoughts on “Je ne suis pas Charlie

  1. Webb Phillips says:

    I suspect there would be less coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack if the victims weren’t white and the attackers weren’t non-white self-proclaimed Muslims. That much seems obvious. I also think that if the attackers had been white, there might have been initial interest of a “how unexpected!” variety, followed by a trickle of grim, Reefer Madness-style ongoing reporting to warn white America of the dangers of converting to Islam, but the lack of stereotype conformity would have enervated the story for most readers.

    Here are two other possible factors that may be less obvious.

    First, journalists may care more about aggression against other members of the press, and about aggression against free speech. My intuition is that the free speech angle in this case isn’t that compelling to readers, but it still gets a lot of emphasis in the articles.

    Second, Charlie Hebdo seemed to be specifically picking a fight with Radical Islam, and got one. Imagine it had quickly come out that the killers, though Muslims, were actually just there to rob the place. Everyone would be pretty disappointed in the story and interest would dissipate quickly.

    This two-sided opposition is consistent with Pope Urban II’s and Osama bin Laden’s clash of civilizations narrative. And it fits the narrative in a way that flatters the West, e.g., pen vs sword, high class vs low, brave (speaking one’s mind despite danger) vs cowardly (shooting unarmed people). The problematic topics of France’s history of colonialism in Algeria and failure now to integrate Muslim immigrants threaten this flattery by blaming the heros and empathizing with the villains. Mention of alternate causes also weakens the force of the usually but not always implicit argument that this is all ultimately caused by the fact that Islam and civilization are incompatible, an argument which supports U.S. aggression against Muslim countries, radicalizes the people there, and preserves continued U.S. military and political support for Israel’s land appropriation.

    Here also maybe interesting:

    query              n killed  google results  GDP per capita*
    pennsylvania sniper       1     1280000
    "trayvon martin"          1     6950000
    yemen bomb               38    12300000       $1473
    "eric garner"             1    12900000
    "michael brown"           1    18800000
    norway attacks           77    34900000     $100819
    nigeria boko haram      700**  50500000       $3006
    pakistan school attack  150    64000000       $1275
    charlie hebdo attack     14   197000000      $42503
    "taylor swift"***         0   267000000  $195800000

    ***for scale

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