The emergence of critical decolonial responses is crucial to coming to terms with and addressing the shooting at Charlie Hedbo
The horror of the 7th January attack on staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is unspeakable. It is one of those terrible incursions of senseless violence into realms that we thought sacrosanct. Past the initial raw emotion, though, is the dilemma of finding appropriate ways to express our anger, sadness, disbelief and solidarity.
This process is incredibly tricky in the circumstances: those of a world that is still blighted by ‘war on terror’ geopolitics; of a continent, Europe, that is undergoing the most ominous resurgence in nationalist/fascistic tendencies since the 1930s; of a country, France, which has never, since its original sin of colonisation, purged its Islamophobic demons. Most of all, it is Samuel Huntington’s self-perpetuating prophecy, the infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’, which is at risk of being replayed once again. In the overwhelming majority of media, political and popular responses to the tragedy, the story is that of an Enlightened West whose liberal values are under attack from obscurantist forces, coming from, yes, the Orient.
“Orientalism,” wrote Edward Said, “is never far from…the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying ‘us’ Europeans as against all ‘those’ non-Europeans.” This “idea of Europe” is what is being reinforced every time we use the polarising, rigid dichotomies of civilisation vs barbarism, liberalism vs fundamentalism, western ‘Enlightenment’ vs ‘Oriental’ obscurantism. These dichotomies have been the framework upon which colonialism was built in the 19th and 20th century, and they continue not only to uphold the edifices of systemic racism, but also to keep overshadowing western foreign policy.
“But it’s not what we’re intending to do!” liberals will cry, “we’re only talking about an extreme branch of Islam, we don’t have anything against ‘good’ and ‘moderate’ Muslims.” The issue is that these good intentions are too often overtaken by the unintended consequence of perpetuating a discourse which advances the interests of some and encourages the oppressions of others. For instance, in an article published yesterday in Le Monde, the journalists and editors thought it perfectly appropriate to mention (in passing) that one of the Charlie Hebdo suspects had a sister-in-law who worked for a childcare centre in France and “wore the veil since her pilgrimage to Mecca in 2008”. In other journalistic accounts, the link between radical and everyday Islam is even more eagerly made: George Packer, in the New Yorker admonished people who “tiptoe around the Islamic connection” and enjoined readers to recognise the link between Islam as a religion and various crimes committed in its name.
How, then, to express outrage, solidarity or heartbreak about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, without broadcasting oppressive narratives? The stakes are high in France – which already suffers from rampant Islamophobia and has a presidential election due in two years that is increasingly likely to be won by a straight-out fascist party, the Front National – but also in the rest of Europe and the US, where the clash of civilisations narrative is paradigmatic.
A first step might be to refrain from adopting the trendy #JesuisCharlie slogan. While the few critics who raised objections to a blanket support of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line and pointed out the racist nature of many of its cartoons have been lambasted as ‘terrorism apologists’ on social and regular media, we must insist that our condemnation of the atrocities perpetrated against the Charlie Hebdo team is in no way undermined by our clarity about the nature of the paper. Rather, as Voltaire’s saying, supporting free speech is arguably even more meaningful when you strongly disagree with what is being said.
Charlie Hebdo’s history is that of a racist, misogynistic and particularly Islamophobic publication, and its editors have never displayed an ounce of critical reflection on the consequences of their indomitable resolve not to back down in the face of cultural sensitivities or any reasoned critiques. The fact that they might be playing into the hands of the Front National, which they claim to loathe, has never made them waver. The apparent bravado that is now presented as heroic journalism is, in fact, deeply patriarchal and imbued with white, male privilege – the privilege not to care about hurting others or perpetuating injustice. To recognise these truths is not a way of justifying or even relativising any act of violence or censorship. But solidarity can be expressed in ways other than identification. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, but I am not Charlie Hebdo.
Another step towards mitigating the harmful effects of the public response to the shooting could be to refrain from participating in Grand Interpretive Narratives. Even before the identities of the shooters were determined, and still very little is known about them, only one interpretation has been collectively embraced: that of the radicalised Islamists unable to accept the innocent jokes against their religion and exerting personal revenge upon French enlightenment ideals. I am not in a position to evaluate the accuracy of this interpretation, but that is exactly the point: for now, nobody is. There has been no room for alternative interpretations, such as mental illness or the possibility of retaliation following acts of war from a nation that France is currently bombing, for example. It has been pointed out that in the aftermath of shootings in which the assailant is white, such as in the case of Anders Breivic, commentators are far less eager to insert the perpetrator into a grand narrative of race, politics or culture, but much more likely to treat the horrifying act as an isolated anomaly. Rushing to blindly adopt the dominant narrative does not only validate prejudices, it also prevents us from asking questions about what really happened and why; it stifles our drive to try to understand.
The January 7th shooting is a tragedy on many levels. It is a tragedy for the victims and their families. It is a tragedy for the future of French politics, almost certainly bound to be as constrained by this event as US politics continue to be by 9/11. It is a tragedy for Muslims, in France and around the world, whose daily struggle against cultural and structural discrimination is likely to be worsened. But it is not a tragedy for freedom of speech, freedom of the press or democracy – these are under attack, for sure, but not by gunmen or Islamists. They are threatened by the Surveillance State, corporate power and financialisation, to name a few. To care about these civil liberties is not simply to hold them out as banners of the west against foreign barbarism when events compel us to do so, but to fight for them when it means resisting our own governments and plutocrats, when it means not just using a fantasised ominous Other to comfort us about our own civilisational superiority, but to use them to challenge our own shortcomings.
The current media outcry following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is dominated by impassioned defences of freedom of speech, thought and opinion – let us be deliberate in using these freedoms to embrace rather than run away from critical thinking. And most of all, let us be responsible in making use of them in non-oppressive, decolonial and emancipatory ways.
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