Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie: What Our Response to Tragedy Says about Us

2 years ago ccwa 0

470829_1280x720Around dusk on January 7th, two men, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hidden behind hoods, stole the lives of 12 innocent people. The words of the perpetrators would be quoted and analyzed throughout the day. The words would come to characterize the actions of the gunmen: “God is great… we have avenged the Prophet. We have killed Charlie Hebdo.” They did neither. In the hours and days that followed the attack, however, much of the media and commentators treated them as if they had. We took the gunmen at their word and in turn, allowed the extremists to set the agenda. In the process, the faith they claim to represent was indicted for an action that was laden with much deeper political and social motivations.

The perpetrators’ agenda was exclusionary, political and deadly. Their agenda stems from a brand of religious fervor that is cultivated in the underbelly of suffering around the world. It is reactionary by design. This extremist agenda invokes a perverted sense of holy justice and emboldens individuals to enact it. It has spread through the education of young minds in an extremist tradition, one that promotes what may be called “anti-knowledge.” Rather than the pursuit of religious understanding through reasoning and intellect, “anti-knowledge” promotes blind fanaticism. This anti-knowledge is disseminated through the exploitation of isolated or politically maligned individuals. There are a variety of motivating factors: political power, agency, honor, heaven, etc.

This network has found global footholds and is adept at targeting those most vulnerable to its promises wherever they reside. Recruitment into this network is dependent upon the exploitation of broken political systems. Using religious rhetoric, recruiters provide a false sense of power and control to individuals who feel victimized by those systems. The empowerment of extremists relies on the proliferation of rigid rules and an uncompromising set of beliefs. These individuals espouse punishment and prosecution as personal responsibilities, a responsibility that can be placed into the hands of individuals who feel otherwise powerless. The weapon wielders’ belief in their divine decree grants them final judgment over others. In the hands of the extremist, a rifle is not only a weapon of death; it is a tool of holy will.

It has been said that the perpetrators were reacting to the publication’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Although that story is true, it is not complete. Their bullets represent an idea much larger than this instance. The violence, and the global reaction to it, is seeped in the sociopolitical happenings of the last several decades. The positioning of their actions was deliberate, they were acting to provoke, to agitate, and to propagate their myth that Islam is at war with the West. They were missing one crucial fact: they do not represent the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. Rather, the tragedy’s silent hero, Ahmed Merabat, does.

Ahmed Merabat was the first of the 12 innocents killed in Wednesday’s attack. The French Muslim police officer was on guard outside of Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters when he was executed at point blank range. In his position as a civil servant, Ahmed Merabat protected and served his communities, defending the principles of both his faith and his nationality. Ahmed Merabat, and the many other western Muslims like him, exists as an example of the inexistence of a divide between French (or Western) and Muslim identities. Despite innumerable examples, we have become fixated on the broken discourse of an Islamic incompatibility with the Western world.

When the gunmen attacked Charlie Hedbo last week, they did so within the context of a xenophobic Europe, and an increasingly Islamophobic France. The gunmen’s misguided bullets struck at the heart of Islamophobic sentiment in the world today by provoking a revanchist response to French Muslims (and Muslims worldwide). They have promoted a discussion that is tethered to the notion of opposing poles, with “the West” and its principles on one side and radical interpretations of Islam on the other. This false binary is one repeated by both extremists and Islamophobes with similar fervor. In effect, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims must make an impossible choice – aligning themselves with extremists who have betrayed the religious tradition because of political motivations, or radicals who demand the disappearance of a religious tradition altogether. Actively engaging in this nefarious debate affords the extremists a victory they neither won nor deserve. The notion of a “clash of civilizations” only serves to justify the Islamophobes’ distrust and bigotry toward all Muslims and the extremists’ aspirations for perpetual global warfare.

In the wake of Wednesday’s horror, a great deal of publications chose to run the debased “clash of civilizations” argument. The tired and incorrect Islam vs. The West dichotomy blankets the facts at the cost of sharp analysis. We have come to expect irrational argumentation (rooted in fear mongering) when it comes to Islam. The fact is incidents of extremist violence that result in western victims receive more global coverage and concern. Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda affiliate group based in Nigeria, carried out a 2000 person massacre in the matter of a few days in the town of Baga, burning 16 other towns down in the process. This horrific terroristic action went largely unnoticed by the global news cycle. The killing of the Charlie Hedbo journalists generated more than 50 times more news stories worldwide. Large-scale terrorist attacks, like the one in Nigeria, that result in majority non-western or Muslim deaths are not met with the same urgency and mourning as those that take place in the West. The lack of responsible reporting is not accidental. In fact it is a direct result of the simplistic story telling that accompanies these incidents. The murder of ordinary Muslims by extremists doesn’t neatly fit the specific narrative that Islam is an existential threat to the West.

“Je Suis Charlie”, the slogan of support for the victims of the Charlie Hedbo attack, has come to represent global support for freedom of speech. And although this notion seems innocuous on its face, it is representative of a deeply skewed vision of global solidarity. Not every journalist that lives and dies in the service of freedom of speech is honored with universal acclaim. The day after 10 Charlie Hedbo journalists were senselessly murdered in France, two Tunisian journalists, Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, were beheaded by Islamic State militants in Libya. Their deaths were met with overwhelming silence. Silence has become the customary response to the deaths of non-Western and Muslim journalist deaths at the hands of extremists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that more than half of the journalists killed in 2014 were Muslim. Meanwhile, the international media narrative has focused on the horrific killings of white journalists, particularly James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Camille Lepage. We must ask ourselves – who, then, is Charlie? For whom does international outcry for freedom of speech ring?

Rather than conflating the senseless deaths in Paris with an assault on freedom of speech, the narrative needs to focus on motivational causes and the global proliferation of violence. To combat the extremist violence we continue to witness, we cannot sacralize Charlie Hebdo as we process this tragedy. Spilt ink should never result in spilt blood, but it so often does because the extremists know the strength of the pen. It is precisely because of this power that we should not allow this tragedy to lend Charlie Hebdo more dignity than it deserves as a publication. Good satire punches up at power, it does not lend crushing blows downward (as in its horrific portrayals of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram as “welfare queens” or their many depictions of black people as monkeys). Of course, we must mourn the innocent lives lost, we must protect free speech, and we must protect free expression. Ahmed Merabet, the police officer outside of Charlie Hebdo, died in that endeavor. However, it is also our right (indeed, our duty) to not valorize Charlie Hebdo. We reserve the right to exercise freedom of speech to speak against white supremacist publications everywhere.

Unfortunately, the rush to identify with and iconize Charlie Hebdo (even as we condemn the inexcusable atrocities in Paris) seems bound to prevent reasonable discussion on the larger context of war, drone attacks, displacement, refugee status, racist and anti-immigrant policies and practices, that all contribute to the precise climate for radicalization. Questions of root causes and international responsibility for peace are simply taken off the table. In this sense, the terrorists achieve their intended creation of mindless fear and hysteria. The criticizer is not above criticism. We can fervently believe in freedom of speech and fight for it without upholding a broken institution as its hallmark.

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by Ilhan Dahir

(photo credit: cdn.abclocal.go.com)