It seems to me…
“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” ~ Molly Ivins.
On 7 January 2015 two Muslim religious fanatics entered the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, and murdered 12 of the newspaper staff. Two days later on 9 January 2015, another Muslim religious fanatic entered a kosher Hypercacher supermarket in Vincennes murdering four customers and taking an additional fifteen hostage. By the conclusion of the attacks, a total of 17 people had been killed at four locations between 7 and 9 January, plus the three suspects, and at least 21 others were injured, some critically.
Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly newspaper, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, the publication describes itself as strongly anti-racist and left wing publishing articles on the extreme right, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, politics, culture, etc.
Those twelve people at the satirical newspaper were killed simply because it printed jokes a group of radical extremists found offensive; al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack stating it was in retaliation for the magazine’s cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In this country we take it for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the untouchable or sacred but the murders in Paris should remind everyone it’s a right for which some people are inexplicably forced to die.
Heads of state from across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East came to Paris on Sunday, 11 January, to participate in a massive street demonstration alongside an estimated 1.6 million other people just in Paris, the largest demonstration in France’s history, to show defiance and unity following the attacks. The world leaders disregarded risks for their own safety to be in Paris to demonstrate solidarity with those killed and as a statement that they are united against terrorism.
While over 40 world leaders attended the unity march; including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov along with numerous religious leaders; neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden chose to attend. Nor did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who has deep ties to France. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris at the time attending a security summit on combating terrorism, recorded interviews that appeared on several U.S. news outlets, but also did not participate. The U.S’s very obvious absence drew well-deserved universal criticism from every side of the political spectrum.
The administration’s apparent excuse for not attending was that the rally planning began on very short notice and President Obama’s personal attendance, given the security challenges, would have had a “significant impact” on the march. With only 36 hours to prepare, the outdoor event with large crowds was felt to pose significant security risks. While true, those same security concerns didn’t dissuade Netanyahu or Abbas or other leaders from showing up. France is one of the U.S.’s closest allies and it would have been a meaningful image to have the President or a senior administration member standing shoulder to shoulder with other leaders. Attendance at events such as this is a typical role for the Vice-President – Biden did not have any public events scheduled and decided to spend the day at home. It is embarrassing that the supposed leader of the “free world” chose not to participate.
Publication of Charlie Hebdo originally began in 1960 as a monthly magazine (later a weekly) entitled Hara-Kiri. It has been banned several times by the French government including in November 1970 following a spoof after the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle. To continue publishing following the ban, its title was changed to Charlie Hebdo (Charlie apparently took its name from Charlie Brown, the lead character of the Peanuts cartoon, and as an additional indirect reference to Charles de Gaulle). In December 1981, it ceased publication until publication of the new Charlie Hebdo began in July 1992.
The Charlie Hebdo killings were part of a string of recent threats toward journalists and freedom of speech with more than 100 journalists killed while working in 2014; many executed only because they were journalists. There also have been other recent attempts to suppress freedom of artistic expression including the North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures in December 2014 over the movie The Interview which comically depicts the assassination of Kim Jong Un. Prior to that, in 2005 there were the threats and protests against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989 against the writer Salman Rushdie. Mockery of Muhammad, either actual or perceived, has been the stated justification for nearly all the Islamic-motivated attacks over what was considered blasphemous.
While it normally is recommended that individuals avoid discussing sex, religion, or politics; that it never is appropriate to intentionally belittle, disparage, or insult others; and that the indecent or obscene is generally unacceptable, that advise should not be assumed to also universally apply to artistic freedom. In the U.S., someone believing they have been defamed or slandered is permitted to file suit against the offending party but without any assurance of restitution.
Everyone everywhere should unite in their opposition to censorship and threats. No one will agree with everything said or printed but should support the rights of someone to say it.
It is true that increased sensitivity to the beliefs of others is necessary. Even Pope Francis said he believes there are limits to freedom of expression. But that increased sensitivity must be forth coming from both sides. Teachings of Muslim imams must instruct that freedom of expression is regarded as one of the important aspects of our culture and that right must be accepted by everyone regardless of personal beliefs. The predominant beliefs of different faiths influence the policies within a country but cannot be used as an excuse for violence. Everyone is entitled to express their personal opinions within socially acceptable venues and media. Anyone considering that unacceptable has another alternative – LEAVE! No one agrees with all of a country’s laws or mores. If anyone concludes what is acceptable to a nation’s majority to be sufficiently intolerable, they have the option to go elsewhere more in accordance with their personal beliefs. Violence is never acceptable.
The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo paid for their work with their lives. The fanatics responsible for the atrocities in Paris are not representative of the majority of Muslims but too many Muslims have been intimidated into silence rather than repudiating intolerable extremism. I have not read all of the Quran (English translation) but have been told neither the Quran nor the Hadith decree any earthly punishment for either blasphemy or apostasy (abandonment or renunciation of the faith). The Quran instructed early Muslims who routinely faced mockery for their faith by pagans “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them”. This definitely seems more similar to the Christian “turn the other cheek” than a command to murder anyone considered objectionable.
The Quran praises other prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and even tells Muslims to “make no distinction” between these messengers of God. Yet for some reason, Islamist extremists seem to obsess only about the Prophet Muhammad rather than any higher spiritual entity.
Since the attacks, some Muslim groups have pointed out that they still find the cartoons offensive although they do not condone the attacks. Others worldwide have championed the magazine’s right to free speech.
To most westerners, the God and teachings of extremist Islam are cruel, uncompassionate, intolerant, and evil; not a God with which they are familiar. To be fair, some Christian ministers preach a doctrine of fire and brimstone that also is unrepresentative of most Christian beliefs. It doesn’t help when some news commentators intentionally inflame their viewers with false information (e.g., the majority of Fox News’s Sean Hannity’s “supposed” facts about Islam in Europe were substantially less than accurate).
The most important task for Europeans following these most recent attacks, especially in France which has supplied the most jihadists to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, is understanding the path its young citizens take from disillusionment to terrorist. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority who disproportionately live in the grim high-rise housing estates of the banlieues that ring many French cities. Nearly three weeks of riots in these banlieues in 2005 illustrated the potential for violence among a French-born generation with a grievance[i]. The primary incentive for political extremism, in the U.S. as well as Europe, remains poverty, corruption, oppression, lack of education, and absence of opportunity. These challenges must be addressed if the threat is to be reduced.
Attacks similar to what occurred in Paris can be expected in the U.S. Many in the U.S. seem to believe if we had gotten more involved in Syria much earlier, we would be safer. This in many ways seems similar to the supposed Domino Theory argument espoused to justify U.S. entry into the Vietnam War. It was wrong then and is equally wrong today. Contrary to what some such as U.S. Senator John McCain advise, a more aggressive strategy from the U.S. military across the greater Middle East, with ground troops and a no-fly zone in Syria, and more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to be counterproductive – it was U.S. intervention in the Middle East that inspired many to become jihadists. If the U.S. was to become increasingly involved, it most likely would only attract additional foreign fighters inspired to fight the “Great Satan” and not just Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime.
The murders in Paris were not even the most deadly atrocities committed by Muslims fanatics during that week as possibly 2,000 people were massacred by Boko Haram militants in several northern Nigerian villages and nearly 40 killed most likely by an al-Qaeda car bomb in Sana’a, Yemen. Where are the protests, the demand to respond, and the condemnation to these terrorist attacks?
The transnational and predominantly religious characteristics of the jihadist challenge illustrates that the military aspect of our response is less important than the battle for the hearts and minds of the extremists. Too frequently in the recent past U.S. provided weapons have been used against us such as to the Afghan mujahedeen in their battle against the Soviets or to the Iraqis who abandoned their weapons to ISIS forces. Even our “supposed” allies have aided and abetted Muslim extremism; Qatar and Saudi Arabia have funding the global spread of the radical Islam teachings of Wahhabi Salafism; Pakistan’s thousands of fundamentalist madrassas (Islamic schools) provide training for little other than jihad and secessionists movements.
The ISIS threat is more formidable than previous insurgency organizations due to its propaganda skills and astute use of modern media platforms, its brutality, and its readiness to ignore mainstream Islamic teaching and interpretations of the Quran. Additionally, the jihadist threat now also encompasses not only Iraq and Syria but also Yemen, Libya, and the Sudan. The time has come when national interests are most effectively furthered by psychological and cyber methods rather than only through military intervention, something for which we are not well prepared. Generals always prepare to fight yesterday’s wars but now is the time to move into the future.
While increased direct involvement militarily has a simplistic appeal, the most effective response must be more convoluted and nuanced with support provided to those Middle East governments primarily threatened by the jihadi terrorists to the political and geographical integrity of Iraq, including the southern oil fields and the energy-rich Kurdish region. Unfortunately, no regional allies other than the Kurds have provided surrogate ground forces in either Iraq or Syria where ISIS has its strongholds.
After the Paris attacks, the phrase Je suis Charlie, French for “I am Charlie”, was adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression who were reacting to the shootings. The phrase identifies a speaker or supporter with those who were killed at the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and by extension, a supporter of freedom of speech and resistance to armed threats.
Je suis Charlie….
That’s what I think, what about you?
[i] After The Atrocities, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21639540-attacks-charlie-hebdo-and-kosher-supermarket-brought-french-together-unity?fsrc=nlw|hig|15-01-2015|NA, 17 January 2015.