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