For the past week, the television has blared fierce conversations full of provocative labels that have been circling like sharks for the past year – “Extremists,” “Islamists,” “Jihadis,” “terrorists”, “anti-Semites,” “ISIS supporters,” “murderers,” and “victims.” It was really not until last Wednesday, January 7th, when all of these words suddenly landed together, crashing into a multi-media debate on the spread of militant Islam and the virtues of freedom of speech and the extremists who seek to demolish it.
As time has passed, there seems to be no closure to this tragedy. Conflicts not always related suddenly stood up together like old friends and demanded they be heard as one voice. Debates that until 11:30AM in Paris on January 7th had no function together gained ground and power. The death of twelve employees of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo is a tragedy. First and foremost because the lives of twelve people were extinguished too soon and so violently. No matter the articles they published or cartoons they drew in the days before their death, we should respect them and mourn their loss as fellow human beings who were on this planet two weeks ago and now are not.
But in the attempt to understand this tragedy, the media has lumped together ideas that should remain separate and separated those which ought to remain together. These are the terms that we should review not only because they are important, but also to misunderstand them is in itself a tragedy because it means that we still have failed to learn. So, with careful analysis and respectful consideration, we should explore these debates on freedom of expression, fears of extremism, and the conflicts in the Middle East. As much as the Charlie Hebdo tragedy concerns the eleven men and one woman who died, it also concerns the lives of 63 million people who are alive in France and must now make sense of what has happened.
Anyone can be an extremist. It is not hard to do. By definition, it means taking an idea to the extreme, to the end of the spectrum and to submit to a principle to such an extent that it defies reason, social customs, and the ability to change. The principle either demands complete isolation – perhaps in a compound or fortress – or it demands that everyone around it submit to it. We notice extremism because it affects those who are not extremists. We notice extremism because when it cannot exist in isolation, it turns violent and greedy. No one religion or political regime can claim absolute control over extremism. It has existed long before January 7th and will no doubt continue, in one form or another, for long after.
However the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has raised the issue of the responsibility for extremism. A tweet by Rupert Murdoch on January 9th suggested that all Muslims should be held responsible for the Paris shooting, that until they could destroy their “Jihadist cancer” they are accountable for the disease. If we accept this version of accountability, then it follows that all whites are responsible for the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School or that all Nigerians are responsible for the kidnapping of 250 school girls by Boko Haram or that all French citizens be responsible for the fatal stabbing of a Moroccan man in France last week.
Extremism is a double-edged sword. As much as it attempts to revitalize a community, to forge an identity, and empower a principle, it has the devastating effect of isolating most of that very community. Extremists seek to glorify their beliefs and, in that very act, they tarnish them. In this way, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo not only claimed twelve victims, but victimized the nearly 5 million Muslims in France by making them responsible and accountable for a belief very few of them uphold. Within a week after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, there were over 50 anti-Muslim hate crimes including shootings and bombings registered against mosques, schools, and individual Muslims in France.
What is perhaps most curious is that as the media rambles on about ISIS and its allure to foreign Muslims, it was the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Saying “Je suis Charlie” was any easy way to show support for the lives lost in Paris. In a short sentence, anyone could declare themselves on the side of free expression, be supportive of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and against the violence of radical Islam. The phrase suggests that you are not only in support of the victims, but that you yourself are a victim.
In the front line of one of the many impressive rallies over the past few weeks, world leaders from France, Germany, Israel, Palestine, Mali, and Great Britain marched in Paris. They offered words of support, sympathy, and sadness. But perhaps the word that stood out most was “asylum.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a declaration welcoming all French Jews to Israel where they would be received and saved. “Israel is being attacked by the very same forces that attack Europe,” he said as reported by the New York Times. The Prime Minster likened the attack on January 7th to the rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
They might have different names — ISIS, Boko Haram, Hamas, Al Shabab, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah — but all of them are driven by the same hatred and bloodthirsty fanaticism…We understand we are in a common battle for our values and a common battle for our future.
He added that because Israel stands with Europe, Europe must, in return, stand with Israel. Netanyahu’s attempt to link the attacks in Paris with the conflict in Palestine is part of a view held by many Israelis that any terrorism by Islamic extremists is “part of a larger clash of civilizations.” They are outraged that the world can be so angered and upset over acts of terrorism in Paris or London, but unsupportive of the “Islamists attacks in Jerusalem.” They see Israel as part of the larger picture of Islamic radicalism in which Israel is the helpless victim.
Netanyahu used the Paris attacks to reinforce the justification of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. By comparing Israel’s conflict with Palestine, and specifically Hamas in the Gaza Strip, he links the decades old conflict as part of a larger issue caused by religious fanaticism, not the establishment of Israel and not by the ongoing occupation. Netanyahu used the attacks on Paris and those which have targeted Jews to further prove that Israel is the only place where Jews can be safe. By placing Israel in the role of victim, the state becomes justified to take any action, no matter how violent or extreme, against those who threaten this justification. If the gunmen at Charlie Hebdo had any desire to liberate the Palestinian occupied territories in their path to Islamic power, they have inadvertently given the policies of the state of Israel – or Mr. Netanyahu – more reason than ever to exist.
Netanyahu’s presence in Paris was far from a selfless, comforting act. In the wake of a long, bloody war in Gaza this past summer that damaged the reputation of Israel in the West, he is seeking to reestablish the policies of the Israeli government as justified and legitimate. He has wrongfully conflated Arab and Muslim, Palestinian and Islamist. He has conflated two very distinct issues – that of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that of ISIS and al Qaeda (and even those two should remain separate as well). He has pushed together anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism such that we can no longer criticize Israeli politicies without earning the label anti-Semite. These are words that should each demand its own consideration. To ignore these distinctions is to do the words injustice.
Freedom of Expression
“Je suis Charlie” means more than supporting the victims, however. The slogan and the raised pencil represents support of freedom of expression. But, as it is a common thread in this article; there is extremism in freedom of expression as well.
The debate about the limits of freedom of expression hits upon a delicate point: how does the secular French society coexist with its religiously-oriented citizens?
In 1798, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, France authorized freedom of religion. In 1905, they passed a law on the separation of church and state. In 2004, France passed a law ordering the ban of all religious symbols in public schools and government offices. The ban was primarily directed at Muslim girls who wore the hijab. In Joan Wallach Scott’s book, The Politics of the Veil, she writes,
Banning the headscarf or veil is a symbolic gesture; for some European nations it is a way of taking a stand against Islam, declaring entire Muslim populations to be a threat to national integrity and harmony.
The ban ultimately says that you can be French, but can no longer be Muslim in public. The demonstration of affiliation to a religion – particularly Islam – detracts from French nationalism.
If we say groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda follow an extreme form of Islam, then it could be said that France follows an extreme form of secularism. It suggests that you cannot be fully a French citizen until you renounce your ties to your religion. The attack on the veil unintentionally became a rallying point. Those that did not wear the hijab took notice and those that did refused to shed it. The wearing of the hijab became a way to symbolically defend common religious values and this ensured a firm identification for Muslims where it had not existed so strongly before. Today, Muslims have a noticeable presence in France. They are not an obscure religious sect but a community with important and visible members. France needs to learn how to accept all of its people – regardless of religion – as French citizens.
The debate of freedom of expression challenges the line between what should be legally as opposed to socially acceptable. What are the cultural conventions that we uphold today that fall under self-censorship and demand greater respect than our legal system allows? What constitutes satire, what constitutes a hate crime, and what is disrespect for your fellow citizen?
The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo legally has the right to publish such cartoons. They are not hate crimes, they are not threatening. Charlie Hebdo has published many cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammad. Some can, in fact, be called satire. One cartoon has the Prophet Mohammad saying “I am the Prophet Mohammad!” while at the knifepoint of an ISIS executioner. The executioner replies that even the Prophet is an infidel, making the point that ISIS follows an extremist Islam even the Prophet Mohammad did not intend.
It would be counterproductive to impose speech codes in France. The issue French society faces is where to acknowledge and respect the values of their fellow citizens and where to allow satire. The trouble with the Prophet Mohammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo is that they are needless. It is needless to draw him as wired and harried, with wide, spiraling eyes and ruffled robes. It is needless to draw him at all – the cartoonist’s point could be made in other ways. The issue with freedom of speech is that we need to find the point where we stop making drawings simply because we can and instead respect those things others view as sacred. Is it our right to disturb their peace of religion for a short-lived laugh?
On January 14th, exactly one week following the attack on the magazine’s headquarters, the new issue of Charlie Hebdo hit the stands selling out within minutes. Gracing the cover once again was a familiar face. Holding a sign like so many others had done that past week with the words “Je suis Charlie.” Prophet Mohammad with his bulging eyes and lips turned down into a deep frown stared out at the world. Above him in French were the words, “All is forgiven.”
But everything is clearly not forgiven.
Because there is still anger, still backlash, still repulsion against the Muslim community in France. Still the desire to shove the French freedom of expression in their face or to attack mosques or Islamic community centers or people in their own homes. We have not learned from the attacks.
We should learn to respect each other more. We should learn when our words are mean, when they hurt those who are already hurting, when we tread on those already downtrodden. We should learn that the gap between the “French” and the Muslim communities will only grow if we insist on devaluing their opinion. We should not risk living peacefully and harmoniously with each other for the sake of exercising every aspect of our personal freedoms. It is not necessary. Freedom of expression is a legal term and as with any legal term is comes with the caveat that it must be acknowledged with discretion, with jurisprudence, and with respect.
It falls on us to create this respect in our communities. In the same way that millions, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling, rallied to the defense of Muslims following Rupert Murdoch’s offensive tweet, now it falls on us – no matter our race, creed, or nationality – to step up and call out cartoons that offend others, to actively form a society in which we respect those who deserve respect, while still acknowledging our personal rights.
When we find that balance, then all will truly be forgiven.