Charlie Hebdo and The False Narrative of Islam Versus The West

On January 14, French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested for posting the words “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” on Facebook, referring to Amédy Coulibaly, gunman behind the kosher supermarket shooting and associate of the Charlie Hebdo shooters. The arrest took place just 3 days after the Unity March, which upwards of 3.7 million french citizens and over 100 thousand internationals attended in protest in protest of terrorism and, nominally, in support of free speech. Dieudonné was only one of 54 individuals in France arrested in the last week for “glorifying terrorism.” Interestingly enough, among the various world leaders who attended the march, one could find representatives from some of the most notorious countries for media censorship. To what end were so many people marching, and what were they trying to accomplish? Certainly, they were protesting for something, but it definitely wasn’t free speech.

In early January, Boko Haram rampaged through the Nigerian fishing village of Baga, killing an estimated 2,000 civilians. Where were the protests? On May 23, 2014 misogynist Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, murdering 6 and wounding 13. The vigil for the victims had a turnout of around 20,000 – a mere 0.5% of the charlie Hebdo protest attendance. Where is the international outrage? Why so few protesters?

The real reason for the enormous response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in comparison to those of similar massacres is that this particular event happened to fit into the pervasive and long-standing cultural narrative of Islam Versus The West. The Baga attack does not fit the narrative: the crimes carried out by Boko Haram, for the most part, have been Muslim-on-Muslim violence. Notice that the primary ideological conflict between Boko Haram and the rest of Nigeria is characterized by ultra-conservative, militarist, and authoritarian extremism on one side, versus the relatively progressive ideals of democracy, education, and women’s rights. This is not a conflict between Muslims and Westerners, it is a conflict between two separate value systems, with large numbers of Muslims on both sides of the battle. To recognize this, one is forced to acknowledge the enormous ideological diversity within the practitioners of Islam – this contradicts the narrative, and thus is ignored. Likewise, the Isla Vista killings were westerner-on-westerner violence, and furthermore neither the perpetrator nor the victims were Muslim. This also contradicts the narrative: terrorism is supposed to be an external threat, not an internal threat (despite the reality that less than 2% of terrorist attacks in the EU are religiously motivated). Taking this attack seriously would force western society to look long and hard at itself and ask real questions regarding our gun culture and our misogyny culture. Thus, this attack is also ignored.

To be perfectly clear, the Charlie Hebdo shooting was an appalling and unforgivable act of murder. You obviously cannot conduct violence against someone because they drew cartoons you don’t like, and to do so makes you a coward and a criminal. Regardless of what they published, the Charlie Hebdo authors did not deserve to die.

That being said, let’s not mince words: Charlie Hebdo is a disgustingly racist publication. They punch down, and frequently make marginalized groups the butt of their jokes for shock value and cheap laughs. Charlie Hebdo is not Jonathan Swift – you can’t base half your jokes on crude stereotypes and then pretend to be smart and subversive humor. It’s perfectly okay to criticize religion, but it’s not okay to depict child sex slaves as big-lipped, blackface welfare queens because you think it’s hilarious.

If it doesn’t concern you that 3.7 million people just rallied to declare solidarity with a racist magazine, consider the context: 7.5% of France’s population lives in predominately Arab/Muslim ghettos. Meanwhile, the far-right National Front gained 24 seats in the EU parliament in the most recent election, winning more French seats than any other political party. The French city of Marseille recently forced its homeless population to wear yellow triangles until the policy was cancelled due to public disapproval. Across Europe, fascism is gaining traction.

I’m not saying that modern France is 1930s Germany, but I am saying that it’s probably not a great time to be a European Muslim right now. So how does the idea of Islam versus The West play into all this? Note that the people most invested in this narrative are reactionaries and authoritarians on both sides of the perceived conflict – both white nationalists and Islamist militants very much want you to believe that there is a fundamental conflict between Muslims and Western society. Therein lies the heart of the false narrative: both the “Western World” and the “Islamic World” are granfalloons. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals to which the labels “Muslim” and “Westerner” could equally apply. Meanwhile, far-right factions both Muslim and non-Muslim share far more ideological DNA than they would like to admit.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by theocratic extremists peddling the false story of Islam versus The West to disenfranchised Muslims. Shortly afterwards, neoconservatives peddling the same story to a frightened and shaken nation orchestrated the invasion of Iraq, a country which had virtually no relation to the attacks whatsoever. This resulted in over 100,000 civilian casualties – 9/11 more than 30 times over. If this doesn’t horrify you, there is something seriously wrong. My point is, when false narratives are taken as truth people die. I truly hope we can avoid repeating the same mistakes again.

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