After the Paris attacks, we need to renew our commitment to a democratic and just world

Within the first ten days of 2015, militants from the Islamist Boko Haram group massacred as many as 2,000 people in northern Nigeria; the UN published a report showing clear evidence that Christian militias had ethnically cleansed Muslims from towns and villages in the Central African Republic; and the Saudi Arabian government delivered 50 lashes, the first weekly instalment of a thousand, to Raif Badawi for the “crime” of blogging about free speech. Between 7 and 9 January, three gunmen, two proclaiming allegiance to Al Qaeda in Yemen and one to Islamic State, shot dead 17 of their fellow citizens in Paris: 11 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, including the editor and several of its cartoonists, two police officers, and four shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

Only one set of events – the shootings in Paris – truly commanded the attention of the world’s media. Among the various murders carried out by the three gunmen, it was the killing of the cartoonists who worked at Charlie Hebdo that dominated the coverage. I think there are several reasons for this. Our media may be “global”, but it does not give equal voice to the world’s population. Nor does it value lives equally: when atrocities are committed, they are given far more prominence if they affect citizens of the wealthy white-majority countries generally regarded as belonging to “the west”. Even within these countries, the level to which people can access the media – either to have their stories told or to tell their own stories – is heavily dependent on their social and ethnic background.

But the attack on Charlie Hebdo was significant, too, because it was a direct attack on people’s right to say, draw, publish or broadcast whatever they like without fear of violence. This isn’t a right that exists in the abstract; it exists only as far as we can practise it. Each attack, even if it’s one in a generally safe European capital city, chips away at our collective right to do that. Free speech may not exist equally or consistently in today’s world – and those inconsistencies need to be discussed and challenged – but it’s vital that we do not discard the underlying principle.

As leader of the Front National, the far-right party he took from the fascist fringes to the mainstream of French politics, Jean-Marie Le Pen was well known for his periodic verbal slips: every now and then, he would shock the French public by saying something openly racist or anti-Semitic, as when he dismissed the Holocaust as “a detail of history”. Often, these were regarded as gaffes, errors of judgement that undid all the work he had put in to make the FN look like a respectable political party. Historians of the FN, however, argue that these slips played an important function in building the FN’s support.

Each time Le Pen caused outrage with such statements, it drew battle lines, forcing sympathisers who had been toying with the idea of support to decide whether they were in or out. “You’re either with us or against us” was the message. It’s one reason the FN, now led by his daughter Marine, has seen its support grow steadily over the past three decades.
A similar logic was used by the Paris gunmen, who chose targets they thought would cause maximum division in French society. Charlie Hebdo was targeted because it occasionally but prominently published cartoons that mocked Islamic religious leaders. It had already been the subject of violent attack – a firebomb, in 2007 – after it published a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, which is taboo to many Muslims. Much of the debate that has followed the attacks has centred on the notion of offence, and whether or not there are limits to satire. These are important subjects, but to jump straight into them without first considering the intentions of the killers seems to me to miss a crucial point. If “offence” was at the root of these attacks, then why did one of the three gunmen target Jews?

The European far right and the violent jihadism espoused by groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State have different historical roots. They differ in that the far right seeks to purify a national community, whereas Islamic fundamentalists draw their authority from a “pure” interpretation of a religious text. But that idea of purity is crucial to both; and what they both abhor are diverse societies where people from a range of ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds are able to coexist, to communicate with, debate and criticise one another. It seems to me that the aim of these attacks was to frighten people into two rival camps: “Muslims” on the one side, and everybody else on the other. In our responses, we need to be wary of falling into this trap.

Was Charlie Hebdo an “equal-opportunity offender”?

I don’t feel particularly well placed to judge this, because I’ve never actually read the magazine. And to be perfectly honest, my initial reaction to this question, which has been heatedly debated since the attacks, is: who cares? The fact remains that nobody should be killed for what they publish, and this discussion can easily sound like a way of excusing or justifying the attacks.

Certainly, the magazine saw itself as anti-racist, anti-clerical and secularist. Some of the cartoons it published, circulated online after the attacks, deliberately employ racist imagery – sometimes to make an anti-racist point (as with one that depicted the black Socialist minister Christiane Taubira above a Front National logo); other times for reasons that appear less clear and could easily be taken as cruel (as with the cartoon of pregnant African women demanding benefit payments). That’s often true of satirical cartoons: they trade in the grotesque. Its depictions of Mohammed or stereotypical Muslim clerics were ugly and insulting, but apparently no more or less so than the magazine’s other targets, which included politicians as well as all the major religions. One former staff member, writing before the attacks, accused Charlie Hebdo of having drifted towards anti-Muslim racism; this was vigorously rebutted by another member of staff, herself from a Muslim background.

Certainly, the magazine saw itself as anti-racist, anti-clerical and secularist. Some of the cartoons it published, circulated online after the attacks, deliberately employ racist imagery – sometimes to make an anti-racist point (as with one that depicted the black Socialist minister Christiane Taubira above a Front National logo); other times for reasons that appear less clear and could easily be taken as cruel (as with the cartoon of pregnant African women demanding benefit payments). That’s often true of satirical cartoons: they trade in the grotesque. Its depictions of Mohammed or stereotypical Muslim clerics were ugly and insulting, but apparently no more or less so than the magazine’s other targets, which included politicians as well as all the major religions. One former staff member, writing before the attacks, accused Charlie Hebdo of having drifted towards anti-Muslim racism; this was vigorously rebutted by another member of staff, herself from a Muslim background.

The French tricolour was prominently on display, as were slogans that evoked the secular republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet France, like other European nation-states, is deeply divided by class, by ethnicity and by its legacy as a colonial power that exploited large parts of the world – under that same tricolour banner. Not all inhabitants of France will feel that their country embodies the values proclaimed in its constitution. Does that make them any less “French”?

The question is an important one, because Europe appears to be entering a period in which rival claims to nationhood are once again coming to the fore. A combination of economic uncertainty and disaffection with political elites has breathed new life into right-wing movements that exclude large swathes of the population from their definition of the nation. If you’re tempted to think this is due to some intractable clash between “Western values” and those of Muslim populations, just look to the far-right Pegida street movement in Germany. Their protests are, on the face of it, about the “Islamisation” of Europe. But the way their rhetorical target slips so easily between “Muslims”, “immigrants” and “refugees” suggests this is more about the protesters’ own identity crisis. Studies of Pegida supporters – like similar studies of the Front National, or Ukip, or Greece’s Golden Dawn – reveal that they are motivated more by a sense that their lives are being pushed around by forces beyond their control than they are by a fear of Islam, or immigrants.

Nations are fictions – sometimes, perhaps, necessary ones, but fictions all the same. We should treat claims about national identity, even when they seem as benign as those made at the unity marches, with scepticism. This isn’t to dismiss the people who turned out in their millions across France: such moments of coming together need to be the beginning of a conversation about how to bridge our differences, rather than paper over the cracks.

Two images from the Paris rally have stuck with me.

One was of a young man holding a placard that read (in French): “I am marching but I am aware of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.” The other was a picture of world leaders and other assorted dignitaries posing for a photograph on an empty side street, to make it look as if they were leading the march. Among them was the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently used the Paris attacks to call for new surveillance powers that could result in a ban of the popular online messaging services WhatsApp and Snapchat; the Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country was named the world’s biggest jailer of journalists in 2013 and 2014; and Victor Orban, whose right-wing government of Hungary has been accused of undermining the country’s democratic constitution. Already, Amnesty has criticised France for scores of arrests of people under the vague charge of “defending terrorism” since the Paris attacks.

I’m less interested in the individual hypocrisy of these leaders attending a march for free speech than what it tells us about where such freedoms come from. One view of the state is that it’s a bumbling but essentially benign policeman that exists to protect our rights. I don’t think that’s true. My personal view is that throughout history the state has been – and largely continues to be – a tool for one class to assert its dominance over everybody else.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a country where you have the right to vote, to oppose your government or to criticise the established religion without fear of punishment, then it’s because those rights have been fought for and won by ordinary people in conflict with their rulers. Our political systems only preserve those rights insofar as we pressure them to do so. I don’t expect every New Humanist reader to agree with me on that point – but we need to be wary, at the very least, of politicians who pass restrictive laws under the guise of defending freedoms.

The same goes for the alliances that liberal democracies make with repressive regimes in other parts of the world. The struggles in the Middle East since 2011, for example, have shown how millions of people there want neither religious nor secular dictatorship. Solidarity with them means opposing both.

After the mass murder committed in Norway in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik, the country’s then prime minister Jens Stoltenberg promised that the response would be “more democracy, more openness and greater political participation”.

They’re easy words for any politician to say, yet it’s striking how rarely we hear that sentiment expressed in the wake of such terrorist attacks. New Humanist‘s position is that a more democratic and just world is possible, and that open, reasoned discussion based on evidence rather than belief is essential to achieving this.

We’ll be returning to the themes sketched out above in the coming year.

Published 11 March 2015
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 1/2015

Contributed by New Humanist © Daniel Trilling / New Humanist / Eurozine

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