Although I am an atheist and half French, it is not easy for me to find my identity in this debate and my views are more complicated than simply posting a Facebook photo stating 'Je Suis Charlie'. Even in Colombia there has been social media support and even protests supporting the cartoonists, which is a little surprising. This is the only issue I have ever seen the comments on the Daily Mail and the Guardian be so similar. This has pushed the left to the right without them even knowing it. Farage and Le Pen will be high-fiving each other.
I feel like many are jumping on this bandwagon because it has a cool social media tagline and they feel comfortable from their positions of privilege. As soon as the tables are turned, however, these same people would not agree to their children shouting racist or xenophobic comments to minorities at school because it’s funny, so what's the difference? Offensive jokes of the same nature would (I hope) also be frowned upon by the very same people, so why is Charlie Hebdo an exception? Would the reaction have been more diluted if the 12 had not died?
Although some of Charlie's drawings have been what I consider political satire, and were intelligent and interesting, most did nothing to further intelligent conversation or encourage political debate. Most people reply to the focus on the offense caused to Muslims with 'but they drew Christians, Jews and others too'. But surely that the fact that they did it to other groups makes it worse, not better. I do not believe that anyone should take another's life under any circumstance and nothing justifies what the terrorists did. For me, however, this is not a binary issue of either being with Charlie or with the terrorists. The world is far more complex than that and so should the post-attack debate be, instead of this imagined dichotomy that appears to dominate.
I believe that most of what Charlie published was rude for the sake of being rude, whether to Muslims, Jews or even the English. However, Muslims were disproportionately targeted, so is it still under freedom of expression if one, already marginalised group is targeted over others, such as elites and leaders who would arguably be better targets? One particularly repugnant depiction was of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram as veiled, pregnant and ugly "sex slaves", demanding that no-one touch their welfare cheques. How can mocking kidnapped victims of rape in order to make a loose critique of benefits to immigrants be seen as instructive or funny? Their version of freedom of speech was simply exercising the right to offend.
In an interview a couple of years ago, Charb himself said that Charlie's aim was to ridicule Islam "until it was as banal as Christianity". In his own words, this was not satire, it was not exaggerating the right's views to make them look ridiculous, it was anti-religion. How is it useful for a multicultural society to believe that religion is stupid? Were they trying to embarrass them out of their beliefs? If so, they were poorly informed about the nature of religion and, quite frankly, were being bigots. I would go as far as to say that they were an anarchistic publication targeting any form of power or institution. So, although they self-identify as a leftist publication, I'm sure very few on the left would agree to anarchism. Of course people have the right to be anarchists, but let's call it what it is. Let's not pretend they were heroes of Western values or defending the left. They were anarchists who used images against the right and for it. Leftist satire is meant to ridicule the right, not simply display its view.
The sociopolitical position of Muslims in the modern world is very different to that of Christians and Jews for whom similar insults may not cause the same offense (just like if I received racist comments about being white, it would not affect me as much as if I were black, as I am in a more privileged social position). Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe and some Muslim countries are experiencing very difficult times that inundate the Western media. So, saying that Christians and Jews did not go in and murder the authors, so why did these terrorists, does not mean that the drawings are not offensive, and whether something is right or wrong is not judged by how people react to it. And if the reaction of one group is severe and utterly criminal, it does not cancel out any wrong-doing of the publication. It certainly does not justify a violent reaction, but we are dangerously close to overlooking responsibility and justifying racism and xenophobia in order to condemn, or even vilify, the murderers. But the two are not mutually exclusive.
Respect and tolerance are surely ideals that should be promoted and protected over boundless freedom of speech. Freedom of speech laws were enacted to protect oppressed groups, not fuel their oppressors. Freedom of the press comes with responsibility and freedom of speech comes with limitations when it conflicts with other, more peaceful values. This is something that has been conveniently forgotten by the right and left alike in the midst of the sudden call for broad and absolute freedom of speech. In the UK, for example, freedom of speech is legally restricted when it includes threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviours which will cause harassment, alarm or distress. Even in France itself, the law limits freedom of speech when it is based on hatred, discrimination, slander, racial insults or xenophobia. These also specifically apply to the press. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights also outlines limitations. How many other rights would people sacrifice for this absolute freedom of speech? Maybe a lot, until it starts affecting them. Romanticising freedom of speech does nothing to further society or reflect all the facets of this event.
The difference between the social media backlash here and after a similar attack in Australia is starkly apparent. The hashtag #I'llRideWithYou stands in solidarity with Muslims against islamophobia and is conscious of the potential affect this would have on the rights and safety of Muslims. Joining '#JeSuisCharlie', on the other hand, lends your identity to a publication that printed negative portrayals and generalisations of religions or national groups and heralding the cartoonists as heroes and martyrs is likely to drown out the details and controversy of their work.
Although, of course, the killings are important and must be dealt with, the reason why I focus on islamophobia is because this is the misguided repercussion that this event has been used to justify and it is important to situate such events in their sociocultural and political landscapes.
Even if Charlie's depictions hadn't been offensive at all, a conversation about islamophobia would still be relevant. You can be concerned about islamophobia without agreeing to murder.
The wave of islamophobia has been growing in Europe (and the USA, of course) for years and there is a very real problem with terrorism, but doesn't help us to deal with it when instead we so easily slip into bigotry by painting everyone with same brush. Islam doesn't promote violence or peace. Islam like all religions is people and if you are violent then your Islam will be violent.
The reason why there are problems in some Muslim majority countries is that religion fills the vacuum when social, political and economic instabilities arise and there is a scramble for identity within the chaos. We risk putting in more effort to protect the oppressor, by asking for complete freedom of speech, than the oppressed. Again, I am not defending acts of violence and totally agree they should go to prison, I am just pointing out that acts such as these do not occur in a vacuum.
The colonial experiment to civilise these 'barbaric' groups and the continued domination of the West through neo-colonialist political and economic forces have undeniably left them with some problems. However, these are very location-specific and Islamic states such as Turkey and Indonesia, for example, are very different in terms of rights and safety than Iran and Pakistan. It is no surprise, though, that the images that dominate in the media of Islam as a restrictive, backwards and violent religion are based on cherry-picked examples that serve the Western ideology. However, these occurrences are not a product of Islam and originated in pre-Islamic Arabia so should be categorised as cultural, rather than uniformly religious, phenomena. For example, the US media conveniently overlooked the mass beheadings in Islamic Saudi Arabia as they are one of their closest allies and preserve national interests. Furthermore, there are Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering people, but would anyone say that Buddhism is a violent religion? Would the media report this incident? No, because it does not have political gain.
By the logic being increasingly used to generalise about Muslims, however, extremist terrorist groups should be given credit for all the amazing things that Islamic organisations do. No-one would do this so why implicate peaceful Muslims for the acts of extremists? Sisters In Islam, for example, is a Muslim women’s organisation in Malaysia that promotes the equal rights of women from within an Islamic framework. They draw from parts of the Qur’an that assert that men and women are equal and they abrogate Shari’ah law. Islamic Relief is a major non-profit organisation that is deeply involved in sociopolitical and humanitarian issues for Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. In the Central African Republic, for example, Islamic Relief are attempting to solve the religious conflict between Christians and Muslims and ensure they can live in harmony. Islam is, like any other religion, complex and varies depending on who is practising it.
I believe that the advocates of #JeSuisCharlie's fight for freedom of speech above all else would not adhere to it in other, less trendy contexts. The intolerable actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, are not seen as representative of the entire Christian religion and no-one has been protesting to protect their freedom of speech, which has incidentally been legally limited as they incite hatred.
Many seem to conveniently forget that the only difference between terrorist and non-terrorist violence is whether it is authorised by an official body or not. The atrocities committed in the name of Western values (could anyone remind me what they are, as they seem to be changing), are only not terrorism because they are government-approved and tax-payer funded. This does not make them better or morally neutral. If anything it makes them worse as they should know better. The idea that terrorist and Muslim are somehow synonymous overlooks centuries of white, Christian and other acts of violence for political gain. The IRA’s extensive terrorist attacks spanning over three decades appear to have been forgotten and, again, the Irish were not uniformly blamed. There are multiple examples of other terrorist attacks that have not conjured up the same shameless lack of critical thought as those perpetrated by Muslim terrorists.
What the terrorists want is to incite more islamophobia as this widens their pool of recruits as Muslims in Europe will feel oppressed and alienated, all the while widening the divide between West and non-West, further justifying the extremists' position in Islamic states, leading to more acts of violence. These terrorists are led by greed and power, not religion. Islam is, like all religions, a complex religion of which most of its followers are peaceful. The terrorists use religion to further their claim to power and recruit Muslims using religion as their common ground. To not see this is to assume that if Islam never existed, violence from people of middle-eastern or central African heritage would not exist. If it wasn't religion, it would be something else.
Instead of leading by example, the reaction seems to be to homogenise and demonise them which will undoubtedly fuel more conflict and isolation, rather than inclusion and respect. There are thousands of European Muslims who are stuck in the middle and will be targeted by retaliation attacks. This has already happened with Mosque attacks and physical attacks on Muslims, including the murder of a 20-year old Muslims refugee in Germany. Have we learnt nothing from the persecution of the Jews, or the morally abhorrent invasion of Iraq? How can we stigmatise another people, another diverse group? How can we forget our own parent’s teachings of respect for diversity and difference? Is it easier to ignore these as the issues and victims are so far removed from our own identities? These terrorists were not psychopaths, they were people who took a rational decision because of the experiences and life they have had. Let's try to understand these causes in order to prevent such horrific acts and ensure that our opinions reflect the complexity of the situation and do not cause harm to innocent people.