Charlie Hebdo


The people who murdered the journalists at Charlie Hebdo were French-born Algerian Muslims. Without much thought and diligence, the incident is reported as driven by Islam since the attackers were identified as Muslim. The ‘problem’ with Islam and, by extension, religion, is brought up in all further discussions, and Muslims around the world are expected to condemn the incident, apologize and distance themselves from it. Guilt by association is how one may put it, writes HAROON SIYECH.


In this article I am going to try and bring together a few threads of discussion that have erupted after the attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices that has resulted in the death of twelve people at that time. Following the attacks the resulting manhunt for the alleged killers and a separate hostage situation brought the final death toll up to seventeen. In the days that have followed the incident, the media (corporate and social) has erupted into a state of agitation over the death of their colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. A variety of people on social media have taken up to using pictures and hash-tags saying – jesuisCharlie – which is I am Charlie in French.

The hash-tag jesuischarlie, in extension, is an expression of support for the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo,and is also, again by extension, an expression of support for free speech and freedom of expression, as well as opposition to any restrictions on free speech. The popular media has also erupted with renewed vigour into the ‘problem’ with Islam and deliberations will ensue from this attack on further restrictions on Islam in the West – as has been the case after every such incident. In order to understand this issue within its context, one has to take a step back and look at two different aspects that are being conflated as one in the media.

One of the issues is the narrative that is set up in the media immediately after such an incident. The people who murdered the journalists at Charlie Hebdo were French-born Algerian Muslims. Without much thought and diligence, the incident is reported as driven by Islam since the attackers were identified as Muslim. The ‘problem’ with Islam and, by extension, religion, is brought up in all further discussions, and Muslims around the world are expected to condemn the incident, apologize and distance themselves from it. Guilt by association is how one may put it.

It is a usual spectre in the media nowadays – the calls for condemnations and apologies from all Muslims for the actions of a few. The finger is pointed at ‘problems’ within Islam and how extremism and radicalism is not being handled effectively in the community. But how is this justified? As is the case in most incidents that involve perpetrators identifying themselves as Muslims, their grievance is against the foreign policies of western nation that have affected – and still continue to affect – the Muslim world. This is not to say that the actions of the West gives people the right to be judge and executioner in one; extrajudicial murders are wrong, but it would best suit all parties involved to remember that.

Any attempt to honestly analyze and study the cause of terror attacks are usually dismissed as support for the terrorists. But one needs to realize that the result of wars in the Muslim world is to breed disenchanted youth who would affirm one aspect of the Islamic teachings and reject a whole lot of others in trying to set right what they believe is an unfair fight. That they would take such steps in the name of Islam is consolation only to them and has nothing to say about the vast tradition that is Islam. Thus, the context within which apologies and condemnations are demanded is flawed and superficial. Even in the current case, one of the perpetrators of the crime got on the phone saying that western powers wreaking havoc and killing innocents is the reason he was involved in the attack.

The actions of western powers in motivating such activity are usually missing from the media and political narrative. If these were people who were, in fact, out to set right the wrongs of western democracies, then they do so in a context where they consider dialogue as unproductive and meaningless. This is true of setting up of many of the past armed movements examples of which abound within our global human history. As every incident such as this takes place, the leaders in the West need to take account of their nation and their policies in determining future steps. However, this is rarely the case. An attack such as this causes more discord as heavier policing, discrimination and exclusion are seen as the way forward. Support for such movements are drummed up by far-right politicians through a public fed a one dimensional view of the world.

This single dimensional approach also extends to the issue of freedom of expression. Everywhere one turns while following this incident, whether online or on TV, one is bombarded with the opinion that the incident is not just an attack on some journalists, but is an attack on the principle of freedom of speech. To put it in context, Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine whose purpose was to poke fun and to ridicule ideas, had drawn caricatures of the prophet Muhammad (saws) that was considered vile and offensive by Muslims across the globe.

After the publication of the cartoons, the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine was firebombed. The now deceased editor, Charboneair, declared that they would not be threatened by such attacks and would never limit themselves. Doing so would mean the attackers had won. In the same vein, Charlie Hebdo has now announced that they would publish a million copies of a commemoration issue that would depict the Prophet Muhammad (saws).

It is sad and unfortunate that the discourse surrounding the incident has degenerated into another ‘Us vs. Them’ debate. Looking at the discourse, one would believe that on the one hand, there are the liberals who believe that freedom of speech is sacrosanct and this should never be denied and, on the other hand, are the Muslim minorities who would attempt to limit this freedom by violence if need be. This sentiment has been picked up in the mainstream media as well as by world politicians who have gone so far as to term this as a sort of ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ The general public has been further riled by such positions and has taken to protesting the presence of Muslims in Europe as well as resorting to intimidation of Muslims and vandalism of their properties.

This ‘Us vs. Them’ approach is, however, a disingenuous position. Every country has laws in place that deal with slander, libel and defamation. Over and above that, there are many no-go areas even today that any decent journalist would avoid. A very common example these days is the negative depiction of Jews and the holocaust unfavourably labeled as anti-Semitism and the negative depiction of black people as unfavourably considered as racism.

Glenn Greenwald, who has been on the receiving end of a US establishment determined to keep him from exposing their compliance in the spying on the general public, published an editorial with many cartoons depicting Jewish people in poor light. His views would not be shared and publicized but rather he would be treated as an Agent Provocateur and would be attacked for anti-Semitism.

A thought-experiment by the Oxford academic, Brian Clug, further demonstrates the mass-hysteria surrounding freedom of speech position and how people can be misled into disregarding its applicability. He proposes:

“Suppose that while the demonstrators stood solemnly at Place de la Republique the other night, holding up their pens and wearing their “je suischarlie” badges, a man stepped out in front brandishing a water pistol and wearing a badge that said “je suischerif” (the first name of one of the two brothers who gunned down the Charlie Hebdo staff). Suppose he was carrying a placard with a cartoon depicting the editor of the magazine lying in a pool of blood, saying, “Well I’ll be a son of a gun!” or “You’ve really blown me away!” or some such witticism. How would the crowd have reacted? Would they have laughed? Would they have applauded this gesture as quintessentially French? Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech? Or would they have been profoundly offended? And infuriated. And, then what? Perhaps, many of them would have denounced the offender, screaming imprecations at him. Some might have thrown their pens at him. One or two individuals — two brothers perhaps — might have raced towards him and (cheered on by the crowd) attacked him with their fists, smashing his head against the ground. All in the name of freedom of expression. He would have been lucky to get away with his life.”

These examples are important because what it shows is that laws and norms that are in place puts in a huge responsibility on the majority from exploiting and marginalizing the minority in the public sphere in the name of freedom of speech. Satire can be a powerful tool in lampooning people in authority and undermining them to bring about dialogue. However, the case of Charlie Hebdo cannot be misconstrued as the above. In France, the majority Muslim population is made of people of Algerian and North African origin, with a smaller percentage of Muslims of French origin/ ethnicity. This is significant because as a minority population in France, the Muslims are viewed suspiciously by the establishment and the public.

Thus, what Charlie Hebdo printed amounts to bullying and racism that fails to produce meaningful dialogue and just fans the flames of polarization. The non-productivity of the debate regarding freedom of speech is further highlighted when considering the media reaction following the Breviks killing. Motivated by a far-right Christian agenda, Anders Breviks killed nearly 70 people in Norway and yet world leaders did not see it fitting to stand together against extremism and the protection of freedom of speech.

Charlie Hebdo might have exercised its right of freedom of speech by depicting the Prophet Muhammad (saws), however racist that may be considering the existing situation. Yet, one has to understand the difference between defending the right to free speech and defending the content of that speech unequivocally. That the speech caused offense to a sizable population of the world may seem irrelevant to those who purport freedom of speech as the ultimate human value. However, it could be argued that its unrestrained application would never be tolerated by all members of the society at some time or the other.

As Rabbi Michel Lerner stated in his blog post following the incident:

“No, individual human liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, and respect and seeing them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred. Individual liberty is a strategy to promote this highest value, but when that liberty gets abused (as for example in demeaning women, African Americans, gays in public discourse) we often insist that the articulators of racism, sexism and homophobia be publicly humiliated (not shut down, but using our free speech to vigorously challenge theirs).”

In conclusion, I would like to say that we, as human beings, need to take a long hard look at ourselves and at the way we perceive the world. There are deaths and oppression occurring across the globe that requires our immediate attention. What happened in Paris is wrong, but it is not less wrong than what is happening in other parts of the world. If we were to say that one is more wrong than the other, then we are discriminating on the basis of our biases. One could accuse the media playing up to these biases by not presenting a nuanced picture of the world to pander to corporate interests and politics. If we were to believe this discussion wholesale without being conscious of our role and value in society, we would only be letting ourselves down.

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