09 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Avoid Two Pitfalls

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A woman holds up her hands bearing the words "Not afraid" in French during a gathering in solidarity of the victims of a terror attack against French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. (Source: AP Photo) A woman holds up her hands bearing the words "Not afraid" in French during a gathering in solidarity of the victims of a terror attack against French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. (Source: AP Photo) http://indianexpress.com/photos/picture-gallery-others/je-suis-charlie-france-united-in-grief/2/#

Like you, I’ve been glued to the media since Wednesday’s dastardly killings at the headquarters of the satirical French weekly. The outpouring of solidarity the world over has been impressive. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” has lit up both the streets and the social media.

At first glance, this is understandable. Such a heinous crime against journalism (even if it’s not the journalistic “establishment”!) goes to the very heart of what a democratic society cherishes – free speech. Censure the press and you lose a key pillar of a free polity. Then pretty soon political opponents are jailed and even tortured. As I wrote recently, this and much worse has happened to Egyptians who just four years ago toppled their dictator of thirty years and rejoiced that freedom had finally come. Democracy is both a cherished dream and a long, arduous road to follow.

“Je suis Charlie” is a cri du cœur … also a shout of outraged determination to resist those who would force their twisted worldview on us at the barrel of a gun.

That’s the first pitfall we must avoid in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack: roll back our liberties out of fear of further violence. As the New York Times editorialized, “It is absurd to suggest that the way to avoid terrorist attacks is to let the terrorists dictate standards in a democracy.”

Charlie Hebdo does raise issues about the use of civility in the public sphere, but you have to admire their courage – holding fast to the centuries-old Parisian tradition of iconoclastic wit. Never mind too that it was a throwback to the generation of May 1968 that rebelled against all authority figures, starting with Charles de Gaulle and then all religious figures and creeds. And never mind that their influence had dramatically declined over the decades. They thrived on controversy, and provoke they did with gusto at every turn. All symbols of authority were lampooned. Andrew Hussey, cultural history professor and dean of the University of London’s Institute in Paris, noticed Charlie Hebdo’s cover picture this Christmas – “a goofy-looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even goofier-looking Jesus.” Say what you want, but Charlie Hebdo and especially its chief editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, always spoke their mind. No religious group was exempted.

In 2006 Charbonnier published the Danish cartoons that had already roiled the Muslim world and in 2011 he published a special issue with Muhammad as the guest editor, temporarily changing the paper’s name to Charia Hebdo (French for Shari’a). The day after, their offices were firebombed. Then on the day of the attack the latest copy hit the stands with the French novelist Michel Houellebecq on the cover for his novel about a 2022 France ruled under Shari’a law.

As I said, Charlie Hebdo has long been pushing the limits of free speech, but, as Cas Mudde argues, people “are not Charlie” in part because they believe in “civility” – a notoriously difficult notion to define. In fact, it’s more likely the case that, down through the ages, civility “has been defined in line with the interests of the political establishment.”

Add to that the particular cultural ethos of the moment. At least in the US right now, the kind of virulent anti-Muslim discourse spewing out in certain circles would never be tolerated if directed to any other religious group. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) 2013 report on Islamophobia. Even when taking into account the fact that this is a Muslim civil liberties advocacy organization, the facts are overwhelming.

A press release that should sound the alarm for all of us came from French far-right National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen who wasted no time after the attack to press for political advantage. In her speech she castigated European political correctness and stated that this was “a terrorist attack carried out in the name of radical Islam.” Well, of course, and that’s what French president François Hollande had just said on the spot of the attack. But before all the facts were known, Le Pen had launched into how we are all threatened by this “murderous ideology.”

This leads me to the second pitfall with which this Paris attack might tempt us.


Blaming Islam and/or a billion and a half Muslims

To my mind, Nicholas Kristof has the right idea. In his column he asks what many are asking, “Is there something in Islam that leads inexorably to violent, terrorism and subjugation of women?” Examples of such extremism abound in each of these areas, he concedes, yet Muslims around the world immediately rushed to condemn this barbaric attack. Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, trenchantly declared his opposition to the terrorists in the words, “This is a deafening declaration of war.”

That said, this attack was nothing new, despite its relative novelty in France. In fact, on the same day, forty people were killed by a suicide bomber outside of a police college in Yemen, likely the work of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Ironically, the older of the two brothers, Said Kouachi, apparently trained with the AQAP around 2011 and declared on the site of the shooting that he was avenging the Prophet in the name of al-Qaeda. Though details are sketchy at this point, it is likely that this is one more act connected in some way to the globla Salafi-jihadi movement.

For more historical background on this see my two-part blog (“Holy Wars” and “Jihad Revisited”). Suffice it to say here that the contemporary jihadi ideology is rooted in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966. Several groups, militant offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that had foresworn violence in the late 1950s, arose in the 1970s, including the group responsible for assassinating president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. But the true birth of the jihadi enterprise dates back to the last decade of the Cold War when thousands of foreign fighters converged to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan. In that effort they benefitted from US money and weapons and it was there that Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.

I mentioned “Salafi” – this is a theological/legal puritanical movement that was developing at about the same time, often with close ties with Saudi Arabia’s brand of fundamentalist Islam, Wahhabism. Yet the jihadis have always been a minority branch of that wider Salafi movement.

Marine Le Pen is right in calling Islamic jihadism a “murderous ideology.” ISIS is the latest incarnation of it, and to date its most virulent and ominous form (see my blog, “Justice Breakdown”). But she is wrong to manipulate it as a fear-mongering tool to boost her presidential run in 2017. She won 25% of the electorate in the May elections and could easily improve on that.

But it’s not just about the potential gains of Europe’s far-right parties. Anti-immigration feeling is at all-time high and especially in Germany, which has made more effort than others to welcome refugees from the tragic Syrian civil war. A coalition of German groups came together in October 2014 to form PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”). At a time when the Eurozone struggles to kick start its anemic economy, it’s easy to see why immigration is such an issue.

Mixed in with economic factors are cultural ones as well. As Mideast violence spills over into Europe (including jihadi fighters coming home from Syria and Iraq), the older tensions caused by the need to accommodate different religious customs (halal foods, Ramadan fasting, and female dress) become more intense. Hence, the rise of right-wing politics.

Yes, there is more here than just Islamic jihadism. As we Americans rediscovered last summer in Ferguson, MI, the French hopefully will pay closer attention to the way ten percent of their population is marginalized and stigmatized. Read this piece by Adam Shatz and this plea by top scholar of European Islam Jocelyne Césari. Racism and all its attendant social and cultural stigmas and bondages, rears its ugly head in all human societies -- in one way or another. This is one known factor behind the radicalization of some European youth. But it's never just black or white. I've got to factor my own sin (collectively) in the equation too.


Being part of the solution

Unfortunately, the jihadi threat will be with us for the foreseeable future. But beyond its military containment, it’s not a problem that can be fixed by force. Muslim leaders have, and will continue to speak out against this perverse ideology. Ordinary citizens too can play a positive role.

You and I can be part of the solution by honoring more than just freedom of speech. Let’s do what Islamic Studies professor Omid Safi (Duke University) urged us to do as a response to this atrocity:


“Yes, let us cherish and stand up for the dignity of the freedom of speech. And let us always remember that speech, like religion, is always embodied by human beings. And in order to honor freedom of speech, we need to honor the dignity of human beings.

May we reach out to one another in compassion
May we embrace the full humanity of all of humanity.”


That, of course, is what this website is about – Christians linking up with Muslims and all others who will recognize and honor the inherent dignity of every human being in tangible ways. It means reacting to hatred with love, as Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg declared after the horrific acts committed by a “Christian” terrorist. It means too that those of us who claim to follow the One who died to save his enemies (including each one of us), will reach out in love and affirm their solidarity with their Muslim neighbors like many Australians did after the recent hostage crisis (“I’ll ride with you”).

By all means, join groups like those sponsored by my friend Rick Love at Peace Catalyst International. Or sponsor an interfaith peace-building art exhibition in Paris like pastor Paul-Gordon Chandler.

If anything, the Charlie Hebdo attack should move us to action to foster love and understanding, and not give in to fear or hatred.


[I wrote this the day before Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the two perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, were killed and the tragic standoff with Amedy Coulibaly at the Jewish grocery store took place. Coulibaly's random killing of four Jews in that kosher store is chilling and apalling in a different way. My heart and prayers goes out to the French Jewish community who have been leaving France in droves over the last few years. This anti-Semitic edge of Islamic militancy is something very troubling (sadly, not new) and deserves more comments in a future blog.]