Je ne suis pas Charlie, because it is more complicated than that

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was absolutely appalling, and no-one should ever be murdered for the opinions they express, the cartoons they draw, or anything else. As one commentator put it, the only excuse for killing someone else is if they are about to kill a large number of people – and even then, it is the least worst option. The murder of 17 people in cold blood is a horrible atrocity.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack. Photo by Godefroy Troude. Source: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

I am also horrified by all the killing of Palestinians, the murder of black people by cops in the US…. And a lot of the people who posted “je suis Charlie” have not been posting about that.

 Condemning the murderers does not mean you have to endorse everything that the victims did. Criticising the actions of the victims does not mean you endorse the actions of the murderers.

I am disgusted that there have already been reprisals against ordinary Muslims, who have already expressed their condolences and repudiated the extremists. The behaviour of the extremists is NOT the norm for Islam. But why do so many people claim that Islam is a religion of violence, when there are many instances of violence, murder, and torture committed in the name of secular democracy (Fallujah, Abu Ghreib, extraordinary rendition, torture by the CIA), and in the name of Christianity (trying to force children not to be gay, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the bombing of abortion clinics, Anders Breivik) but hardly anyone claims that all Christians, or all supporters of secular democracy, are somehow responsible for these crimes. Thousands of Muslims joined the demonstrations of mourning for the murdered cartoonists. Despite this, many people are still claiming that “not enough” Muslims have repudiated the attacks, and that all Muslims should apologise. As James O’Brien put it, that is a bit like claiming that all Richards should apologise for the shoe-bomber, who was called Richard.

And some of the people claiming that they support free speech are surprising, to say the least.

When a Jewish man assassinated a leading Nazi in the 1930s, the Nazi regime used it as an excuse to launch the horror of Kristallnacht, in which thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were smashed and destroyed. The people harming Muslims or their homes or mosques in revenge for the Charlie Hebdo murders, and for the murder of Lee Rigby in London last year, are no better than the Nazis. The notion of collective responsibility and collective punishment was part of Nazi ideology, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One Muslim died in the Charlie Hebdo shooting (the policeman, Ahmed Merabet), and another Muslim, Lassana Bathily, saved a number of hostages in the siege of the kosher supermarket by hiding them in the walk-in refrigerator. He also helped the police to break the siege by explaining the layout of the building – despite the fact that the police tried to arrest him because they thought he was one of the terrorists.

Meanwhile the media is almost completely ignoring the flogging of blogger Rafi Badawi by the Saudi regime (perhaps because that’s where the West buys most of its oil?)

And where is the mass outbreak of rage, grief, and despair at Boko Haram’s recent murder of 2000 Nigerians? Men, women, and children were slaughtered and their bodies are still scattered through the bush.

The media are also mostly ignoring a very positive Muslim-related story, that Muslim groups have donated $100,000 to end water shut-offs in Detroit (hardly the action of an “inherently violent” religion).

But whilst I am appalled by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff, I did not post “Je suis Charlie” on my Facebook wall. For one thing, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to express solidarity in these situations (we are not each other), and for another, I thought the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were in very poor taste. That still does not provide any excuse for shooting them, of course. However, the Boko Haram cartoon that they produced, with the missing Nigerian girls depicted as “welfare queens” coming to Europe to claim benefits, was in very poor taste. Those girls were sold as sex slaves and raped. Some of their other cartoons were just being deliberately provocative, and could easily provide ammunition for racists to target Muslims. Satire is meant to attack the powerful, not to denigrate marginalised minorities. And Muslims are a marginalised minority in France – most of the Muslim population of France is from an Algerian or Malian background – countries that were colonised by France, and where resistance and dissident movements were brutally crushed. The Muslim population of Paris lives in the run-down suburbs of Paris.

Western media also conveniently forgets that since it was the West that armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order to undermine the Soviet Union, and some of those mujahideen went on to form the Taliban, and that jihadism and Muslim fundamentalism is not in fact a return to earlier forms of Islam, but a modern ideology fomented by Western interference in the Muslim world.

Rabbi Michael Lerner writes in the Huffington Post:

“don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media-circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in.”

The relationship between Islam and the West is complex and multi-faceted, and cannot be reduced to a simple binary of us versus them.  There are many Muslims who want democracy and freedom; there are feminist Muslims and queer Muslims; there are millions of Sufis and Shi’ites and Sunnis who just want to live in peace with their neighbours, yet many sections of the media want to lump all these different groups together and claim that they are all the same. There are also many white people pushing a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic agenda, and behaving little better than the Nazis. And there are deeply irresponsible commentators on Fox News and the like claiming preposterous things like the idea that Birmingham, UK is a “Muslim-only city” (which he has since retracted) and that parts of London, UK, are no-go areas for non-Muslims (also untrue, but he didn’t retract it).

Some people have claimed that if Muslims do not post “je suis Charlie” on social media, then they support the extremists. The idea of making expressions of mourning compulsory rather debases the meaning of freely chosen acts of solidarity and mourning. Others have claimed that freedom of speech is an absolute right and that anyone who doesn’t agree with them should shut up (surely some contradiction there?)

Complexity is a wonderful thing. You can be opposed to anti-Semitism in Europe, yet oppose Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. You can appreciate Jewish culture but be critical of some Jewish men’s attitude towards women. You can be against the Saudi regime’s appalling treatment of bloggers and LGBT people (recognising that it is fuelled by Wahhabi extremism) and the horror of the murders of Charlie Hebdo staff, and yet realise that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceable, kind and charitable folk. You can be vehemently opposed to the Westboro Baptist Church and other right-wing Christianists, but highly supportive of liberal and progressive Christians like John Spong, Gene Robinson, Marcus Borg, etc. You can criticise Christianity’s evangelising and proselytising, but still appreciate its charitable efforts. You can think Dawkins is a pompous windbag, but appreciate the wonders of science, and the intellectual rigour of atheism and the scientific method. You can also be aware that some atheists wouldn’t know what intellectual rigour was if it got up and bit them. And so on.  It’s complicated. Very few things are either this or that.

The media must do better at presenting the complexity of these issues, and the complexities of religion. All too often, adherents of religion are presented as a bunch of extremist and/or homophobic bigots, when the reality is that those people are in a minority (65% of Christians believe that same-sex marriage is a good idea). Many media commentators (especially atheists) also write and speak as if fundamentalism was the “pure and original” form of religions, and more liberal interpretations are new-fangled and modern – whereas in fact, there has always been a liberal contingent in every religion. The Sufis (the liberal and mystical wing of Islam) go right back to the very early days of Islam. You can trace the tug-of-war between liberal mystics and legalistic bigots (and the whole range of people in between) throughout the text of the Bible, if you look at the textual analysis that has been around since the nineteenth century. And look at how the media depicts Pagans – it’s getting better, but there was a time when we only got coverage at Hallowe’en, and they always sought out the weirdest and wackiest members of the community to interview and photograph.

Freedom of speech is a good thing, but let’s use it to promote dialogue, tolerance, and mutual understanding, instead of using it to undermine, belittle, and trivialise.

Further reading

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