Thinking about Charlie Hebdo

I’ve been trying for several days to write about what has been happening in Paris.  To me, these attacks feel very close to home – much closer than the siege in Sydney last December (which, as far as I can tell, sprang from an entirely different, and rather more common, set of motivations).  While I haven’t been to Sydney for years, I was in Paris earlier this year, and spent several days exploring the Marais area, which is close to the Charlie Hebdo offices.  A very dear friend of mine was in the Marais at my behest the day before it happened.  And then there was the hostage situation on Friday, which occurred just a few hundred metres away from where I stayed on my last visit.  Paris is a city where I have always felt at home when I’ve visited, but it has also always felt like a wonderful dream to me.

So reading about the killings, about reactions to the killings; reading all the anger and fear and distress and horror that comes out of it hurts not just because I feel for the people living in Paris right now, but also because it feels like a loss of innocence.  It feels personal.  I know I have no real right to these feelings, but that’s how it is for me.

This post is not going to be an organised post.  While I feel compelled to write, I don’t have any conclusions, or any words of wisdom.  Just a lot of confusion and a lot of sadness.  And a lot of things I just don’t understand.

Frankly, I find the whole situation unfathomable.  While I understand on an intellectual level what has happened, a part of me simply cannot grasp how it is possible for anyone to think that killing people for writing a cartoon is the right thing to do.  Interestingly, when Cherif Kouachi was interviewed, he consistently refused to acknowledge having killed anyone – he had ‘avenged the prophet’, but he avoided the word ‘kill’, except to repeat that he would never kill a woman or a civilian.  Evidently, despite what he had done, Kouachi had difficulty with the idea of killing outside of a war context – and so journalists and cartoonists are re-classified as non-civilians in order to justify his actions.  This makes me angry, but also incredibly sad.  The whole train of thinking – the whole denial of having killed anyone, even at the same time as admitting to have done so – says to me that he wasn’t conscienceless – he just let his conscience be overruled by his religious beliefs.

And in doing so, he has destroyed the lives of the journalists and police he killed, he has destroyed his own life, and he has almost certainly made life harder for those who share his religion, even while they abhor his extremism.

(There is, clearly, a distinction between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’.  I know Muslims make this distinction.  Do Islamists?)

I don’t understand how he could do that.  I don’t understand how he could possibly think his God wanted him to do that.

One article I read suggested that in fact destroying Charlie Hebdo was never the goal of the attack.  The goal, it is posited, was rather to polarise Europe, and divide Muslims from non-Muslims, in the hope of creating more supporters of Al Qaeda.  The logic is that one organises a big, public act of violence, and the inevitable backlash against the Muslim community will drive Muslims into the arms of extremism.

I find this possibility horribly plausible, and even more repellant than the attack being simply an end in itself, because it requires a mind that is willing not only to kill ‘enemy’ civilians, but also to injure its own in order to further its agenda.  And yes, there have been ‘reprisal’ attacks on Muslims.  Of course there have been.  People feel attacked, and so they attack back, and it’s incredibly hard to break the cycle, because you need everyone choosing to be thoughtful in order to fight this strategy – and only one person willing to be a violent idiot to promote it.

(Incidentally, I see that the head of Hezbollah is being quoted as saying that islamist violence is harming Islam far worse than the cartoons ever could.  I’m torn between thinking “Good on him” and thinking, hang on, since when is Hezbollah non-violent…?)

I’m trying to be hopeful that this won’t work.

It was heartening to see Mourad Hamyd’s schoolmates proclaim his innocence, and that they, at least, saw their classmate as a person first of all, and not as a stereotype. (Hamyd, who turned himself in after he saw his name in the media, was released without charge on Friday)

I was glad to see the article about Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shop assistant at the Jewish grocery store attacked on Friday, who hid and protected fifteen people during the siege, and then escaped to provide the police with information about what was going on inside.

Finally, I love the #jesuisahmed movement, celebrating Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who was shot defending Charlie Hebdo’s offices, is also a beautiful one.  I was ambivalent about the #jesuischarlie movement, simply because while I feel deep sympathy and solidarity for those killed or hurt and their families, I really do find a lot of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons pretty objectionable. (Speaking of things I don’t understand, why do people draw cartoons that have no purpose but to offend?  I honestly don’t get the appeal.)  But Merabet  embodied Voltaire’s words – he may not have agreed with what Charlie Hebdo had to say about his religion, but he defended to the death their right to say it.  A true martyr for free speech, if that’s what you are looking for.

This is how we fight extremism.  We see the people around us as our brothers and sisters, and we help them, defend them, and care for them, regardless of their religion or colour.  Just as these students did, and just as these two men – and many other men and women like them – did.And we refuse to grant prejudice a toehold.

And right now, we grieve for the dead, and we grieve for Paris.

A few more articles about Charlie Hebdo that I think are worth reading…

The Charlie Hebdo Massacre and how we think about religion

Dismantling Prejudice and Misconceptions

Understanding is the least we owe the dead

Cartoonists don’t live by the sword, we live by the pen

Drawing the Prophet: Islam’s hidden history of Muhammad images

And another massacre that has gone under the radar, because it happened in Nigeria

Islamic extremist attack in Nigeria named the deadliest massacre in history

10 thoughts on “Thinking about Charlie Hebdo

  1. While acknowledging the horror of what has happened, I am ambivalent about some of the reactions. Yes I know the French prize their right to free speech, yet the French government has just banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations: Anyone even publishing details of such a rally can be imprisoned for up to a year. Liberte, egalite, fraternite? I think not.

    I’m told that 70% of the French prison population is Muslim, yet they make up only 9% of the total population. People of North African appearance find it extremely difficult to find jobs, so poverty and disadvantage is endemic in the suburbs where they live. Even a university education does not help. The unemployment rate for graduates of French origin is 5%, while for those of North African origin it’s 26.5%.

    Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were extremely rude and provocative, almost to the point of hate speech against Muslims. Countering extremism with extremism may not be the solution.

    I’m suspicious of all the identical “Je suis” placards being held up – all the same size, colour and font. It looks almost too organised. And that in turn makes me question motivations. When there is covert racism, does this play into the hands of the xenophobes and the far right?

    • Hi Sandra,

      Thanks for your comment. To be honest, I’m ambivalent about a lot of this. I avoided commenting too much on the free speech thing and the nature of the cartoons because, while I find many of the cartoons in question deeply offensive, I really don’t want to go within five miles of the word ‘provocation’ in this context. Violence is never a justifiable response to mere words and images, however vile, and every conversation I’ve seen about the cartoons themselves has degenerated rapidly into “Well, people offend me all the time and I don’t go around shooting them”, which is missing the point and rather infuriating.

      As for the rest… yes, I’m beginning to understand that France has problems with religion and ethnicity, though it wasn’t something I felt qualified to comment on. And yes, I think this sort of attack can’t help but play into the hands of the far right. Unfortunately. The placards – look, it doesn’t take that long to print out a lot of placards, if one is motivated, and it’s such a politically-useful thing to do that I imagine people were motivated. (And I am extremely hesitant to get on board with the conspiracy theories I’ve seen online regarding this, as many of them seem to forget or shrug off the actual deaths of people like Ahmed Merabet in their eagerness to make a point. I’m not sure if this was what you were alluding to, or whether it was something else.)

      It does seem to be something that is very hard to discuss without a lot of personal baggage being brought to the table.

    • Hi Sandra,

      There are laws in France to limit free speech, and they are rather stringent (to protect privacy is one big exception, to protect civil order is another one – so inciting people to join a demonstration that cannot be properly followed and monitored by the police is quite understandably frowned on. What if the crowd gets out of control and people get trampled, what if a minority of hotheads take control and start destroying everything on their path). Inciting racial, disability-related, sexual-orientation related or religious hate is also banned. Back in 2005 Charlie Hebdo was indeed sued by the great rector of the Paris mosque about the original caricatures – and he lost. Drawing the prophet might not be the best use of one’s time, but in that instance an independent court of law said it was not unlawful. (as a comparison, that was the only lawsuit against Charlie by a Muslim authority – there were 16 by Catholic authorities in the same timeframe. They are not anti-Muslim as much as anti-religion, something they have in common with the 1870 founders of the République)

      The point of the JeSuisCharlie movement as I see it was that this is the way things should be – a proper court of law should smacks wrists when things get out of hand, not censorship (or, worse, self-censorship). I never used to read Charlie Hebdo because they are the frat boys of the French press, irreverent and scatological and frankly usually not that funny. But it’s precisely because they pushed boundaries (including that of good taste) that their freedom of speech should be valued and protected – otherwise it’s a slippery slope to also censoring opinions and thoughts that really should be debated.

      • Thank you so much for dropping in, and for explaining more about how the free speech laws work in France. I’m very glad to hear that you think the JeSuisCharlie movement is something that will bring French people together, rather than the opposite.

        I’ve been reading endless debates about the cartoons and their nature (I sort of tried not to go there in this post, because conversations on the subject seem to degenerate into one side accusing the other of being racist and then the other side accusing the first of thinking it’s OK to shoot people for drawing offensive cartoons), and one of the things that has really struck me has been this assumption among people from English speaking countries that of course the French, being Europeans, must obviously think like us and share our political and cultural values… and in some areas we do, but there are certainly things that seem foundational to the French worldview that go completely over our heads.

        I find the emphasis on secularism particularly fascinating in this respect – because Australians see ourselves as being a secular society (we find public acknowledgments of God a bit daggy and weird, and feel generally embarrassed on behalf of most American politicians on this score), but we also tend to assume that half the schools around the place will be religious (and that they will get state funding as a matter of course), that there will be the odd nutter proselytising in public spaces, and that a big ecumenical procession carrying a cross through the streets on Good Friday is possibly annoying if one is trying to get things done, but is otherwise a nice human interest piece for the end of the TV news that evening. And, of course, wearing religious attire is a matter of personal expression (except when we go all ‘ban the burqa because terrorists’).

        In fact, personal expression is the key, here, I think – being religious is seen as a personal, not a political, value – so our left wing in politics tends to be reasonably protective of people’s religious sensibilities because they are seen as a matter of personal identity and thus to be respected, rather than a political issue to be addressed. I get the impression that religion and its incursion into the public sphere is a much more political thing in France.

        I think I’ve wandered off on a tangent, but I’m wondering if this explains the response of the left wing in English-speaking countries to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? When they offend (and they often do) it feels more like a personal attack than a political one, and so we get a lot more upset about it.

        It also sounds like your free speech laws are much stronger than ours – I’m not actually sure whether we have any, per se – because I can’t imagine Charlie Hebdo being published here without a huge outcry – the cartoons seem to be offensive on so many different fronts. And I don’t think it’s because Australians are intrinsically politer than French people. But I really can’t think of anything published here that is in quite that style…

  2. I’ve also been trying to work out what to say about this. The Boko Haram massacre is just so appalling, and should (and would I think) have caused much more outrage but for timing. There has been a lot of debate about the nature of the original cartoons – to be honest I think the social problems in France have played far more of a role than the satirical magazine.

    As I said, I’m struggling here – I don’t like the cartoons, but as other people have pointed out I’m also missing a large part of the context (and my French isn’t good enough to be sure that I’m translating correctly.) I still don’t think this is a reason to kill people – but then again I’m part of a majority group who are secure.

    As to Hezbollah – I am suspecting that like other groups they are moving towards becoming a political entity with an armed wing, who they don’t officially recognise. I could be wrong on this of course.

    • Yes, I read a commentary somewhere – and I haven’t been able to find it again, alas, or I’d have linked to it – that in fact Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons were extremely left wing and anti-racist, and that non-French people lack the cultural context in which this makes sense. I’m not sure what I think of this argument, to be honest.

      If Hezbollah is moving in that direction, that is a very good thing. And yes – the Boko Haram stuff is just beyond words. Horrific.

  3. I’ve read other commentary similar to the article you mention. I find it very plausible that the long-term goal was polarization resulting in more supporters for Al Qaeda. I keep hearing claims that terrorists are cowards and not smart in what they’re doing, but I think the leaders are often anything but stupid and cowardly. They keep doing things that result in the rest of us play right into their hands.

    I heard on the news this morning that the shop assistant is going to be given French citizenship. I’m glad to see that the French are recognizing his heroism.

    • That is lovely news about the shop assistant. As for the rest, yes, I’m inclined to think that you couldn’t run any sort of organisation, terrorist or otherwise, without a certain amount of intelligence and strategic thinking. It’s notable to me that the people who kill a lot of people and then get killed themselves are generally quite young – but the people running the groups are rather older. I suspect the killers are tools as much as anything else. (And I wouldn’t call them cowards, precisely – they must know that they risk being killed themselves as a result of their actions. I think bullies might be a more apt term – their choice of target is certainly cowardly enough).

  4. Somehow LJ wouldn’t let me reply so I’ve come here instead! I wanted to say: the app sounds like a great idea, let us know when it’s ready 🙂

    Interesting thoughts. There were really massive a-political demonstrations in the aftermath, which I think will make it very difficult for any party to take advantage of it. It’s like this has woken up from feeling low self-confidence, as a nation, to a renewed awareness of the values that make us French and that we would actually stick our necks out to defend. Several of the cartoonists killed were household names and it feels a little bit like we’re mourning friends, which also helps bring people together.

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