A day ago, a group of three gunmen broke into the office of the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot four of the cartoonists there; the story suggests that they were angered by a handful of cartoons with less-than-flattering things to say about Islam. And the rest of the world has been reacting with shock and grief. Especially on social media, where the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” is spreading like wildfire. About eight of my friends on Facebook posted messages in support of the Charlie Hebdo staff within a single hour – either repeating “Je Suis Charlie” as their statusues, or posting links to live video feeds of the demonstration in Paris. There have also been a lot of comments about the pen being mightier than the sword, or how true bravery is all about speaking up when fascists are out to kill you, or the like.
And while that is indeed true bravery, that’s also not what happened here.
It’s taken me a day to figure out why I was so reluctant to join in the adulation of the Charlie Hebdo staff. Was I horrified at their killing? Absolutely. Did I think their killers should be prosecuted? Of course. Do I think they had the right to print what they did? Shit yes.
But. These were not brave freedom fighters trying to daringly speak truth to power. Don’t forget – in France, as with in most of the West, the Muslim community is a minority underclass, which has had to struggle for its own freedom of expression. For the past ten years, France has banned students from wearing “conspicuous religious garb” in school – a move that prevents Muslim girls from wearing hijab, and also prevents Sikh and Hindi students from wearing turbans and Jewish students from wearing yarmulkes. (Crosses are “discreet”, though, so the Christian kids are okay.) A similar law prevents women from wearing burquas in public places. And a study conducted three years ago found that French Muslim job seekers are discriminated against; Christian job seekers are almost three times more likely to be hired than Muslim ones. When you consider the whole of the society they were living in – where they were poking fun at the same people their government was oppressing themselves – the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo come across more like the guys who sat in the back of your study hall making fart jokes.
But the perception is that the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo were bravely standing up to oppressive threats of violence. And they probably did get a couple threats – just like every media platform has done at one time or another, from one crank or another. I worked as the production assistant for a fishing show for about four years, and even we got a threat from someone – a woman who accused us of working in collusion with Steven Spielberg and Patrick Swayze to send her coded messages over the radio and on the sides of trucks. To our good fortune, she just wanted us to stop. But if she had somehow made her way to our office and held us all hostage, our shows about marlin catching would not have been lauded as some great triumph of free expression, and her motivation would have been rightly dismissed as largely stemming from her own madness. And anyway, we reacted the way most media platforms usually do in such a case – passing the letter around the office so everyone could have a good laugh, and then throwing it in the “chuckles” file, making corkscrewy gestures around our ears as we did so, and then getting on with our day. And I’m sure that’s exactly what the Charlie Hebdo staff did when they received their earlier threats.
That same kind of madness affected the shooters in Paris two days ago. Sure, they may have believed they were acting out of a strict adherence to Islam, but – by the same token, David Koresh believed himself to be a prophet, and that belief spurred him to commit horrid acts, but that belief didn’t mean he was a prophet, was he? No – David Koresh has been largely dismissed as a madman, and his actions the tragic work of a madman who had an unusually high level of charisma.
I’m afraid that the only thing I can see which is leading most of the rest of the world to hold the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists up as brave heroes, and the shooters up as oppressive terrorists, is the fact that the shooters were Muslim and the cartoonists were critical of Islam. It’s the current narrative of our times – the Muslim world are the bad guys, and everyone fighting them is the good guys. It isn’t enough for this to have been a horribly tragic incident perpetrated by a team of maniacs – people are compelled to paint the cartoonists as martyrs in a war that they weren’t even losing, and which they probably weren’t even consciously trying to fight to begin with. And already, in the wake of the shooting, there have been counterattacks against French mosques, and an upswell of Islamophobic comments online, sitting right alongside the “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag.
And I want no part of that.
I’ll say it again – I absolutely do not believe that the cartoonists deserved to be killed for what they printed. I just don’t think that they should be canonized either.
EDITED TO ADD LATER:
….I’ve since learned that in 2011, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed by an earlier group of attackers. I will admit, absolutely, that that is rather more of a concrete prior threat than I had previously thought, and it probably took somewhat more courage for them to return to work after that.
And yet I still don’t categorize that particular act of courage as that of the brave freedom fighter speaking truth to power. It was courage, yes – but more like the courage of the people who returned to the World Trade Center after the first time someone tried to bomb it – in 1993. That also took courage for people to go back to work – but back then, it wasn’t about “not letting the terrorists win”. It was simply about “this is where I work, so screw you.”
And that is a courageous narrative all its own, without having to dress it in any anti-fascism clothes.