And Baghdad, and Qatif, and Jeddah, and Dhaka, and Istanbul.

But especially Medina.  The others are terrible, awful, upsetting – worse, in fact, in terms of loss of life – but somehow these sorts of attacks by Daesh have become normal.

Medina, only two days before Eid, feels different, especially shocking.  When I read the news, I found myself reacting physically – I gasped, and felt cold all over.  This attack is something so far beyond what I imagined they might do. It feels like sacrilege.  (Is sacrilege a word that can be used in the context of Islam?  If not, I apologise.) It feels especially terrifying, because if even their own holy places are not safe (not sacred, I am tempted to say), then what is?

As usual, I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand how anyone can think religion justifies killing people.  But even if I could understand the disturbed kind of thinking that makes murder permissible, what sort of believer sets off bombs at his or her own holy places, during his or her own holy days? How does that make sense, in any context whatsoever?

(And surely this is where we must cease calling Daesh the Islamic State – there is, now, nothing about them that could possibly be identified as Muslim, even to the most biased eye.)

My shock and sorrow and sense of blasphemy are not, after all, particularly relevant.  I’m not sure why I’m writing this, except that to ignore it seems even worse than writing something this personal and essentially inadequate.

But for my Muslim brothers and sisters – I am so sorry that this is happening to you.  I am sorry that there will still be people who equate Muslims with terrorists even now.  I am holding you in my prayers.  And I’m wishing you Eid Mubarak for tomorrow.

May we find peace together.


I wanted to make and suggest a donation to the Red Crescent (which is the Middle Eastern branch of the Red Cross), but their site appears to be down at present.  I hope this is because they are overwhelmed with donations already! The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies seems to be working, though very slowly, and now I really do think that people are overwhelming them with donations!  I hope so.  You could also try Medecins Sans Frontières, who go pretty much everywhere and are secular and very good.


Of Paris, and of Fear

I’ve spent most of the last fortnight thinking about Paris.  With the huge project I’ve been running at work coming to an end, I can start looking ahead to next year, and I’ve been thinking about taking some long service leave, even a visit to Europe.  Then, I’ve been playing with a project where I’m writing short stories set in Paris, so I’ve spent a lot of my spare time recently reading histories of Paris, learning about the old geography of Paris, and its now-underground rivers.  On good nights, I’ve been dreaming about Paris.

And then this morning I woke up and heard the news.

News reports are now talking about more than 120 dead – some sources are saying as many as 160.  Seven coordinated attacks.  Terrorists who blow themselves up rather than be arrested. Daesh is taking credit.

I am heartbroken and I have no right to be.

Continue reading

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