Published on January 23, 2015
By Juleus Ghunta
The Charlie Hebdo shooting in France has been, quite rightly, widely condemned.
Some jihadist groups, however, including the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have celebrated it as an inevitable backlash, in a broad sense, to the West’s violence and neo-colonialist exploits in the East, and in particular, to Charlie Hebdo’s (alleged?) racism and Islamophobia.
In what has become a global stand in solidarity, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) has been flashed across millions of screens.
Equally visible, are the views of a growing number of contrarians who have lashed back with hashtags of their own: #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (IamNOTCharlie) and #JesuisAhmed.
Ahmed Merabet was the French Muslim police who was murdered by the shooters while guarding Charlie Hebdo staff. Ahmed, like most Muslims, was not a violent extremist.
Invoking the spirit of Voltaire, sympathisers claim that Mr Merabet died in defence of Charlie Hebdo’s right to “attack and insult” what was sacred to him.
The line between satire, racism and sacrilege can be a thin one.
The magazine’s caricature of Christiane Taubira, France’s black minister of justice has been largely misunderstood.
Depicted as a monkey, the caricature (poorly) satirised the racist remarks of Front National’s (FN) former candidate Anne-Sophie Leclere.
Ms Leclere compared the minister to a monkey on national television and was slapped with a nine-month prison sentence and a £39,500 fine.
This image has been referenced prominently by #JesuisCharlie detractors, including notable Muslim writer Mehdi Hasan. Let’s take Charlie Hebdo’s word on this one.
But what of the magazine’s depiction of Muslims?
Critics contend that Charlie Hebdo is decidedly anti-Islamic.
One such critic is Olivier Cyran, a former employee in the 1990s.
Responding to a piece on Charlie Hebdo’s ‘anti-racist stance’, written by former editor ‘Charb’ and published in Le Monde, Mr Cyran (Article 11, 2013) noted “the distressing transformation” of the magazine following the events of September 11, 2001:
“Islamophobic neurosis… bit by bit took over your pages from that day”, he wrote. “‘Muslim bashing’ dressed up as ‘intransigent defence of freedom of expression’ (became) your front-window showcase… Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women… became a central axis of (your) journalistic and satirical production. ‘Investigations’ began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact…”
In the past week many writers have elevated satire to a deific status, and satirists as humanity’s wardens of truth and free will. I agree with blogger Scott Long (A Paper Bird) that “Satire can sometimes liberate us”, but that doesn’t make it “…immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds…The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister.”
Charlie Hebdo is intransigently opposed to all forms of organised religion except Judaism.
Pressured by the French government and Jewish elites, the magazine fired cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2009 after he wrote an “anti-Semitic” column. It accused the son of former president Nicolas Sarkozy of converting to Judaism for monetary gain.
A clear double-standard? It’s an open secret that Charlie Hebdo benefits from the largesse of many influential anti-Islamists such as notable public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy – who happens to be Jewish.
Oliver Cyran contended that Charlie Hebdo has promoted and sponsored racial, religious and political humiliation and marginalisation of a minority in France. Charlie Hebdo is not content, he believes, with merely satirising socio-religious dissimilarities – the magazine is keen on widening them.
Oliver Cyran (Article 11, 2013): “You (“Charb”/Charlie Hebdo) pretend not to know the fundamental difference between (anticlericalism) and Islamophobia. The first comes from a long… struggle against a Catholic priesthood which actually had formidable power… and still has – its own newspapers, legislators, lobbies, literary salons and a huge property portfolio. The second attacks members of a minority faith deprived of any kind of influence in the corridors of power. It consists of distracting attention from the well-fed interests which rule this country, in favour of inciting the mob against citizens who haven’t been invited to the party… for most of them – colonization, immigration and discrimination have not given them the most favourable place in French society.”
These are highly contentious issues in France. In May, 2014, The Guardian reported the resignation of Mr Zaïr Kédadouche, a former French ambassador to Andorra. Mr Kédadouche, who is of Algerian descent, later sued the foreign ministry, accusing the French government of institutional “racism and classism”.
There is ‘freer speech’ in the West compared to Arab states, but there are obvious thresholds that civilians cannot, ‘properly’, access. This is clear from the jailing and exile of American whistle blowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. In 2003, a US aircraft bombed an Al Jazeera TV station in Baghdad, killing one journalist and wounding others. The journalists were accused of ‘endangering American troops’. In March 2012, Azhar Ahmed, a British teenager, was arrested and sentenced for making ‘anti-military’ remarks. Holocaust denial is punishable by imprisonment in many countries in Europe, including France. French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, who according to the BBC, “likened himself to (supermarket) gunman Amedy Coulibaly”, was recently arrested for “defending terrorism”. Free speech is not at all free.
It seems too that freedom of speech is a secondary issue in this matter. In his article, ‘The pen vs. the Gun’, Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker referred to militant Islamists as “…the deadly foes of our civilization.” Other journalists from The New Yorker and in media such as Aljazeera and The New York Times have exposed the clear hypocrisy in such statements.
This hypocrisy is no more evident than in the number of ‘undemocratic’ world leaders who participated in what many have called a ‘freedom of speech photo-op’ in Paris recently. In a press release, Reporters Without Borders stated that they were “…appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted, such as Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.”
To many of the #JeSuisCharlie advocates, the terrorists’ actions have further legitimised the West and her Allies’ interference in Arab states. But even as we justly condemn the violence of the shooters and movements like Boko Haram, let’s be truthful about the role of the West in the World’s unending paroxysms of murderous rage. Consider, for example, the fact that the Charlie Hebdo shooters were radicalised during America’s invasion of Iraq. It’s undeniable, from whichever angle we take it, that ‘France’s worst terrorist attack in 50 years’, cannot compare to the millions the West have killed in the East or the scores that US drone strikes will kill in Pakistan in coming months. In our discussions on radical Islam, let’s not downplay the crimes of the radical West.
Juleus Ghunta is a peace activist.