#JeSuisCharlie – What became one of the most popular hashtags ever used – involving more than 3.4 million tweets within a twenty four hour time span – stemmed from an event where two extremist gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris and began indiscriminately shooting at workers on January 7, 2015. Charlie Hebdo, known for inflammatory and satirical work, published nearly pornographic and overly-sexualized images of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. The two gunmen ultimately killed twelve people in what was quickly deemed an expression of the violence inherent to Islam, an act of terror against the state of France and ultimately an attack on the values of the Western world.
These events quickly reminded an already hostile world of the growing and great divide that exists between the Western and Arab worlds. Major media outlets have recently focused a great deal of attention on ISIL and the power struggle occurring in Syria and northern Iraq and have given little attention to other happenings of the Arab world. Very little coverage has been designated for elections in Israel (arguably American rule through proxy of Middle Eastern affairs), injustices against journalists in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East, the sufferings of Palestinian children in the aftermath of the 2014 campaign against Gaza, and the list grows larger every day. Coverage has been selectively reserved for the most extreme parts of the Arab world – uniquely relating to Islam – compounding the misunderstandings of the region by an uninformed population.
As news of the Paris attacks unfolded, anti-Islamic rhetoric and activity heated up. After it was shown that the gunmen were Islamic extremists, fifty anti-Islamic attacks on mosques and Muslims occurred within a week. Comments by voices along the entire political spectrum gained momentum in the mainstream media; Sean Hannity lambasted the religion as a whole for endorsing such violence in a Fox interview with Imam Anjem Choudary, and Rachel Maddow spent over ten minutes detailing attacks by Muslim Westerners on her show. The acts were quickly deemed acts of terror in the same breath that an attack by a white male against the Colorado NAACP was deemed suspect. All of this anti-Islamic sentiment rose while extremist attacks were condemned by Hezbollah, Hamas, and other “terrorist” organizations and states. The leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, while not speaking directly on the Paris attacks, said that Islamic extremists had done more harm to Islam than any cartoon mocking the religion. Yet, the condemnation of such attacks by groups perceived to be radical had little influence with the Western media in its portrayal of the events.
What became evident in the media coverage surrounding these events was that Muslims and the Arab world could not avoid being found guilty by association. Now, there were certainly those that have vehemently defended Islam since the attacks, but these attempts typically offer a perspective that is not nuanced enough to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, both of which certainly exist. The coverage brought the vast majority of citizens in Western nations to queue their support against Islam – something they viewed as a disease that was close to infecting their world. You will hear plenty of people argue for their token Muslim friend saying, “I know a really nice Muslim” or “I don’t think they are all like that, but their religion calls them to Jihad.” What these types of buzzword phrases articulate is a fundamental disconnect between the Western and the Arab, Islamic worlds. As a whole, the Paris attacks and the coverage of these events have added to the widespread, Western belief that Islam is a social cancer whose very essence is violence against the non-believer.
The West talks about these types of events in terms of religion being the cause of the violence. By doing so, the West attempts to acquit itself from any involvement in the roots of the violence itself. We who are in the West have a tendency to wonder, “Why can’t Arab and Islamic countries see that secularism is socially and politically superior to other systems? Are they truly that committed to their religion to not enjoy the benefits that the West can offer?” and by doing so, we lose sight of our role in the disorder and problems surrounding the histories of these places. The Islamic world and France have a long history and relationship with one another. France colonized a great deal of the Middle East and at one point considered Algeria an extension of the French state, not simply a colony. Although France has been heavily involved in the Islamic world for multiple centuries, it has never seemed to be able to find a way to integrate Muslims and Islamic tradition into French society, one of the major social failings that has undeniably led to greater discontent among these populations. While France offers a specific example of colonization in the Arab world, one can extrapolate its consequences as being applied to the whole of the West. There is no longer a direct dichotomization between the West as an entity and the individual states that comprise it. In many ways, the entire Western world becomes implicated in the violence of the individual actors.
Furthermore, the recent violence against Charlie Hebdo is an event that has united France and the Western world – pitting, once again, the West against the Arab world. What quickly came from these attacks was the slogan Je suis Charlie, which is French for “I am Charlie.” Essentially, the French population stood in solidarity with the satirical magazine that had so offensively depicted a major religious figure, whose adherents the French state has clearly had a long, difficult history with. The French, nationalistic fervor created in the immediate aftermath parallels the surge of unity across America after 9/11. However, the slogan quickly transformed from standing in solidarity with those murdered to a political statement about the freedom of speech and against the perceived Islamic attack against the values of the Western world.
As the nationalistic reaction manifested in a massive unity march, bringing over three million to the streets of Paris, one could quickly notice prominent world leaders leading the way. Some of these leaders included French President Francois Hollande, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The irony of having leaders such as this leading a march of unity is that they have societies built on the oppression of the freedoms they hypocritically champion. For instance, France is the only European state that has a complete ban on Islamic face veils and head scarves. With the exception of Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel have killed more journalists than any nation in the world, killing seventeen journalists in the most recent attacks against Gaza in the summer of 2014. Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Bahrain, all represented in the unity march, have made blatant attempts to jail and imprison journalists for crimes against the state or under the umbrella of other arbitrary accusations. Furthermore, blogger Raif Badawi has been jailed for an extended period of time and sentenced to public floggings in Saudi Arabia (for a more exhaustive list of public leaders present and their violence and oppression of freedoms, follow the footnote below). For every Arabic, Middle Eastern, or Islamic state that oppresses journalism and the freedom of expression and speech, there is a Western counterpart that operates in a similar fashion, albeit more discreet. Is it possible that the level of freedom of speech is simply an illusion of the Western world? Do we acknowledge this freedom when it comes to the values of those outside the moral majority? Perhaps these freedoms are not as accessible or socially holistic as we have tried to make them appear.
In a photo that spread across Twitter following the unity march, a younger man is shown holding a sign that reads, “Je marche mais je suis conscient de la confusion et de l’hypocrisie de la situation” (I’m marching but I am conscious of the of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation). This photo perfectly embodies my position on the unity march and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. I do not condone the violence of the two gunmen in the same way I do not condone the death penalty – I have a high value on human life. I do not condone a great deal of American and Western policy in the Middle East and Arab world – which again comes down to a value on human life. The slogan Je suis Charlie does not resonate with me because I will not be led down a path of humiliation, led by some of the greatest offenders of the freedom of speech and expression. The path of these world leaders is one that will only bring further discontent and division into an already divisive global landscape. A campaign to seize further control of Arabic and Middle Eastern affairs has come disguised as a distrust of Islam as a religion and hypocritically as the championing of Western values, emphasized through the popular slogan. As millions continue to chant Je suis Charlie, I simply and humbly respond, Je ne suis pas Charlie.
Cade is one of the founders of Undone Network and received his B.A. in History and French from Grand Valley State University. He will be attending Wayne State University to earn an MA in History, focusing on Arab studies. He has spent time living in Sarajevo, Bosnia, was the Assistant Editor-in-Chief for the Grand Valley Journal of History, and has an affinity for the Arab world.