I believe there is not a person on the internet this week who hasn’t heard about the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or seen a hashtag JeSuisCharlie. Or, a day later, after some of the media reported about the dead cop, Ahmed, a new one – JeSuisAhmed (although that was/is less popular).
Last couple of days have been hectic in the social media world. People on facebook changed their profile pictures, cover photos, they created support groups, they raged, they tagged, on twitter they tweeted and retweeted like crazy, they used their hashtags vigorously… I think way bigger effort went to showing support and expressing anger instantly than to pausing and understanding the event and the ‘big picture’. I am sure it did, for this is not a first time of such reactions, after all – we do live in a world of superficial social media (re)actions, actions that are sort of an aesthetic undertaking, a virtual creation born out of need to ‘participate’ which is more of a need to show others you’re participating, you have an opinion, you are up to date. To me, it often seems so repetitive, impersonal and just – fake.
So, yes, everyone had the need to say something, to comment. There were those who found this as a great opportunity to mask their own racisms and diverse phobias and aim it at muslim radicals, and denouncing Islam in general. It comes as no surprise that Bill Maher used this chance to slam Islam again. He said millions of Muslims are supporting the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, although he offered no statistical data to prove his claims (as usual).
He did not stop to think, like Joe Sacco did, saying: “But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is. And what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image.”
Sacco, a great cartoonist and journalist, also asked himself about the nature and purpose of satire in this time and place: “In fact, when we draw a line, we are often crossing one too, because lines on paper are a weapon and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And WHY?”
/from Joe Sacco – On Satire, via Guardian/
Yes, free speech is important, always. It didn’t become important after this attack (attack from the outside), it is something extremely valued in the West for a long time, atleast that’s the impression we get… But is it actually, and do we indeed act (both governments and the public) like it is?
Teju Cole writes about it in the New Yorker, saying: “Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history as well and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
He continues: “Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”
So yes, when it comes to free speach and the attacks from the inside – we are not always that loud. And we – our governments and mainstream media – tend to punish those who fight for free speach, free thinking and free information. In relation to this and reflecting on Mannings and Snowdens of the world, this attack is not really about free speech, and it is not about religion (although it is reported with emphasis on those two, so, in a way – it is being made about it and that is why we should reflect on those aspects too). This attack is about war and terrorism, and like all wars and terrorism in general – it is about those who profit making wars and installing terrror. Terrorism and religion should never be regarded as the same thing. Terrorism is not born out of religion. It is mainly born out of oppression, poverty, despair, but also – greed and will for power and resources.
In his latest piece for The Independent, Robert Fisk writes about Charlie Hebdo attackers:
“Algeria. Long before the identity of the murder suspects was revealed by the French police – even before I heard the names of Cherif and Said Kouachi – I muttered the word ‘Algeria’ to myself. As soon as I heard the names and saw the faces, I said the word ‘Algeria’ again. And then the French police said the two men were of ‘Algerian origin’. For Algeria remains the most painful wound within the body politic of the Republic – save, perhaps, for its continuing self-examination of Nazi occupation – and provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France.(…)
/photo: Clichy-sous-Bois (Paris) is not served by any motorway or major road and no railway (not served by any station of the Paris Métro, RER, or suburban rail network) and therefore remains one of the most isolated of the inner suburbs of Paris (located only 15 kilometres from central Paris). Clichy-sous-Bois has a high unemployment rate and the vast majority of its population is made up of African heritage./
But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.
The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons the cohabitation of these two peoples in France. However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions, they were born at a time when Algeria had been invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation. Perhaps five million of France’s six and a half million Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard themselves as second-class citizens in the land of equality.”
Like the film La Haine illustrated years ago, France does have a lot of minority issues, and is, in many aspects – a racist country. Now, more than ever (with all the media attention), it is time to finally talk about it, not to keep on sweeping it under the rug while at the same time waving the old Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité flag. Long gone are those days…
One of the things France and its people should discuss is the fact that even today fourteen African countries are obliged by France, trough a colonial pact, to put 85% of their foreign reserve into France central bank under French minister of Finance control. In 2014, Togo and about 13 other African countries still had to pay colonial debt to France. African leaders who refuse are killed or victim of coup. Those who obey are supported and rewarded by France with lavish lifestyle while their people endure extreme poverty, and desperation. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin also writes how under “Defence Agreements” attached to the Colonial Pact, France had the legal right to intervene militarily in the African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities in those countries, run entirely by the French.
/French military bases in Africa, photo via SiliconAfrica/
The article ends with: “For historical comparison, France made Haiti to pay the modern equivalent of $21 billion from 1804 till 1947 (almost one century and half) for the losses caused to french slave traders by the abolition of slavery and the liberation of the Haitian slaves. African countries are paying the colonial tax only for the last 50 years, so I think one century of payment might be left!”
In March 2008, former French President Jacques Chirac said: “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power.” Well, atleast he admitted it. But what do people of Africa have from it? Maybe an illustration from the film Touki Bouki can help:
/Touki Bouki snapshot/
Lastly, the attack in Paris is not the only horrible thing that happened this week (horrible in terms of media horrible scales). On the same day of Charlie Hebdo attack around 40 people died, and more than 60 were injured in a suicide attack in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Two days ago, another massacre in Nigeria happened. Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from an Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram (estimates are that around two thousand people have been killed). Most victims are children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents. Around 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence so far, many of whom will not be able to vote in the polls under Nigeria’s current electoral laws.
There’s no epidemic of profile pictures changing and hashtagging for that. Our (western) focus is, as Teju Cole writes: “part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.”
As John Donne wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.”