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Charlie Hebdo – one week later

It has been exhausting having to confront the visceral divisions among us about the nature of what happened, the roles of religion, geopolitics, and racism. And the possibility that the west, thinking it ‘is Charlie’, has been spitting on their graves.

News kiosk in Nice where first edition of Charlie Hebdo has sold out. News kiosk in Nice where first edition of Charlie Hebdo has sold out. Brendan Donnelly/Demotix. All rights reserved.The discussions about the events in Paris this last week have been exhausting. Most exhausting of all has been having to confront the fact that there are visceral divisions among us about the nature of what happened and how to weigh the respective roles of religion, geopolitics, and racism. Equally exhausting has been the sense that the public responses we have witnessed, deeply felt as they were, have both been misplaced and obscure what is at issue.

To begin with, there is simply the problem of what to do about all the attention this event is being given – its sacralization as something which makes history, shatters well-being, creates “shock.” To shock is to jolt painfully; to shake as with an explosion or tremor; a collision. It is clear that many in the west are shocked by what happened. Deeply. What is less clear is why. 

Why are we shocked by the ruthless, planned, cold-blooded murder of 17 people? When our media are filled daily with more deaths and worse news? So shocked that millions march in dozens of countries, that fifty-odd world leaders join hands in Paris, and that we are told nothing will be the same after this?

This is the wrong feeling to have. 

Given how widespread the feeling is, let me make this argument as carefully as I can.

Even now, one week after all this, there are few who could tell you the names of each one killed, much less something as personal as the color of their eyes, how they look when they are angry, or in love. Most could not recount the life-story of even one among them, and have no sense at all, not the least bit, of the warp and weft of their lives. 

The phrase, “Je suis Charlie” masks this. Radically. It feels deeply personal yet is utterly impersonal. Because Charlie is not a person, any more than the New York Times or Al Jazeera are. 

This personalization of the magazine is not only striking and deceptive but dangerous. It plays a crucial role in persuading our societies that “we” are under attack. It is not only an expression of solidarity but of identification. Saying “I am Charlie” allows people to think and to feel that this could have been them. 

But it could not have been. 

Those killed at Charlie Hebdo were picked out, one by one, personally and individually by highly trained men carrying out a carefully planned operation. This was deeply personal, in a way that the marches we have seen over the last few days were not. The last ones to refer to them by name in this life were their killers, as they murdered them for what they, as themselves, had drawn, written and said. 

In doing so, al-Qaeda was making good on an earlier vow, to intervene anywhere in the world where its interests are at stake. For many in the west, this is horrifying. It is precisely this that they fear: that the power of al Qaeda and other global Islamist revolutionary movements will expand to the point of conquering the west.

While this is indeed their intention, they are not alone in such ambitions. Like revolutionary Islamists today, the intention of the west, for centuries, has been to expand across the world through brute force and force of persuasion. More recently, the US has quite openly and explicitly stated that its official international policy is to claim as its right and necessity the possibility of intervening anywhere in the world it deems US interests to be at stake.

At this point, some of my readers may well become furious. They will say this has nothing to do with the murders. That such an analysis constitutes an injustice to those who were slain. Some will even insinuate that such thinking can only lead to excuses for the brutal executions.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Taking seriously what happened means daring to look at the why and the how of it. Others have made this argument as well. But in their case: the better to assert that the problem is Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. 

A clash of barbarisms

The essential shortcoming with such analyses is that everything that might be said about revolutionary Islamist movements – when it comes to global violence – could be said about global Americanism and US foreign policy. It has been ruthless, cruel, illiberal, anti-democratic. It has wreaked havoc, killed innocents, raped women, men and youths, tortured viciously, violated the rule of law and continues to do so blatantly even as I write. 

It does so in our name. In the name of democracy. And those who expose this, as did Chelsea Manning, are shut up ruthlessly, cruelly and in ways designed to degrade. (Yet we did not march then.)

This matters because it clarifies what our condition is today, the condition under which last week’s violence took place. To wit: an extended and expanding global war between those who claim the right to intervention, brutality and terror in the name of democracy and those who do so in the name of Islam. 

Long before these targeted executions, the US was kidnapping people off the streets of Europe to send off for rendition. Without the benefit of legal protection or any protection whatsoever from torture or death. Indeed, what is said to have first radicalized the Kouachi brothers were the images of barbarous brutality coming out of Abu Ghraib. These images cracked open their consciousness, the feelings of horror and injustice they evoked, laying them wide open to Islamic radicalization.

This is a very different argument from saying that what happened is the fault of US imperialism. It is no such thing, in any straightforward fashion. There are millions across the world, including millions of Muslims, who saw those images and did not become radicalized. The brothers’ decision to join al-Qaeda was all their own and not forced on them. The brutal revolutionary Islamism of al-Qaeda attracted them as it repelled most others. At this point, we cannot say why. We know the Kouachi brothers less well even than we do the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. We do not know what mix of psychology, social and political experience, and pure, random happenstance led to their actions. But the US helps to instigate, enable and justify such decisions as long as it fundamentally violates its own principles, international law, and the most basic rules of ethical humanity. Its violence and the grotesque depravities of its prisons, drones, and wars – all of which the west as a whole has condoned – call forth an answering violence. Even as the Islamic revolutionary fundamentalists who violate the basic tenets and principles of Islam do the same.

So today there is a clash not between civilizations, as such, or even between democratic civilization and barbarity (as some would have it) but rather between two universalist, radical barbarisms that are both willing to go to extremes in order to attain victory: an Americanist-led war on terror and a  revolutionary global Islamicism. Most of this conflict is being fought out in the Middle East. But sometimes, just sometimes, it strikes closer to home.

Charlie Hebdo and collateral damage

The journalists of Charlie Hebdo were the victims of this cycle of violence, this war between terror in the name of democracy and terror in the name of Islam. Indeed they clearly aligned themselves with one side of it. Under the editorship of first Philipe Val and more recently Stephanne Charbonnier, the journal has prominently profiled itself as fighting what it claimed was the newest totalitarian threat after fascism, Nazism and Stalinism.

Invariably, this stance is read in one of two ways. For some they are white Frenchmen deriding the religion and culture of a marginalized minority, colluding in the racism and ethnocentrism of French society. For others, they are cartoonists with the courage to “make fun of, ridicule and laugh at those who blow up trains and planes and mass murder innocents”, as Val himself phrased it. Satire, they say, is an open society’s answer to violence, threats and barbarity. While others take up arms, they take up their pens. While others fight with bullets, they fight with ideas.

Nothing could be less true. In both cases.

As a number of commentators have pointed out at this juncture, both the magazine and individual journalists through the years have been fiercely anti-racist and pro-immigrant. To read the magazine as simply another form of European racist discrimination, pure and simple, is to misread it. 

And yet, just as true is the fact that at the moment that they set out to fight “Islamicist totalitarianism”, they were aligning themselves fully with the mainstream. Gone was their resistance to conformism and collectivist thinking. While part of a committed anti-racist minority, they were at the very same time reinforcing an anti-Islam majority within Europe. Precisely for this reason, their spoofs on all that is sacred to Muslims, most especially regarding the representation of Mohammed, constitutes neither a cheeky snub of the powers that be nor a courageous stance for freedom of speech, but simply an insulting denigration. It is not the sign of a free society but of an unequal society.

Not only that, but while they themselves did not take up arms, they were clearly aligning their pens with those who did: most notably, George Bush and his invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of precisely the values for which they said they stood. This is important to note, given widespread French opposition to the Iraq War as such.

That is to say, the American-led invasions of the Middle East, openly and explicitly were carried out to “bring democracy” to the Middle East. We would like to think – and in every way our societies act as if – what happens there, in the name of democracy, under American leadership, has nothing to do with what happens here. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens there – the “collateral damage”, the violence, and our governments’ support for autocratic regimes that brutally repress democracy and free speech – undermines any argument that the west stands for justice and democracy. Until that is addressed, the notion that denigrating Muslims reinforces the fight for a free society is a joke of the vilest sort.

Different perspectives on the world leaders. Fair use.It is precisely for this reason that the official tribute to Charlie Hebdo became such a show of hypocrisy: leaders known for their suppression of free speech walking arm in arm in solidarity for the cameras. Indeed, they were in solidarity. But it was the solidarity of those who sell out democracy and equality in the name of fighting terror. 

David Cameron notoriously ordered The Guardian to smash up the hard drives that stored the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Now he is suggesting banning Whatsapp in order to prevent communication that the government cannot spy on. Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was in prison for years on the direct orders of President Obama for having reported on secret US strikes in Yemen that killed scores of civilians. Meanwhile, the Sudanese Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was held for six years without charge in Guantánamo on the suspicion that Al Jazeera had some links to al-Qaeda. And under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Israeli assault on Gaza consciously targeted Palestinian journalists, killing more than were killed by the Kouachi brothers. Not to be outdone, Turkey in 2012 and 2013 led the world in jailing journalists.

These are just a few of the many journalists harassed, incarcerated and killed by the very leaders gathered in Paris to protest the killings. The irony and hypocrisy of this scene have infuriated journalists who face daily threats to their freedoms, leading Reporters Without Borders to issue a forceful statement saying it “condemns [the] presence of 'predators' in [the] Paris march … [and] is appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted such as Egypt ... Russia ... Turkey ... and United Arab Emirates.”

Rather strikingly, this has been much less of an issue for those identifying with Charlie. As before, they accept such politicians and their symbolic gestures, as do our media. Much more appropriate and significant would have been for our media to launch a wave of cartoons skewering these politicians and these hypocrisies in the scatological, pubescent style of Charlie Hebdo

The media, however, has done no such thing; instead is has been widely reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons. The idea has been to express their commitment to freedom of speech. In light of their effective indifference to actual threats to freedom of speech embodied in the politicians gathered in Paris, however, this seems sheer hypocrisy. Going with the crowd, with the emotion of the moment, it attests instead to their variously explicit or suppressed longing to put Muslims in their place, locally and globally, by forcing them to accept the west’s insults – along with its interventions in others’ economies, politics and territories.

If our real concern is freedom of speech, democracy and human rights, then let’s first get our own house in order. Anyone asking Muslims to distance themselves publicly from these attacks, needs to first distance themselves from the violence, repression and denigration done in “our” name. 

Anyone fearing Muslim totalitarianism, needs to first challenge our governments’ warm support for totalitarian friends across the world and the opportunistic suppression of free speech in the name of security at home. Until then, as Reporters without Borders puts it, we will be letting “predators of press freedom spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.


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