Charlie Hebdo and the Responsibility of Privilege

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I’ve often been asked why I refused to follow suit and post #JeSuisCharlie on my social media accounts. I’ll be honest—I’ve read some great articles and some terrible ones arguing the rights and wrongs of both the comic writers and the attackers. However, I find that the element of privilege is often overlooked. Yes, murder is bad. Yes, freedom of speech is a great ideal. But, you know what? Behind every narrated incident, there lurks an elephant-shaped gap that is too often left unexplored. I am reminded of my all-too-pessimistic theory that people take their voices for granted. They say, write, express whatever bullshit comes to their minds without considering the social-political implications of their unchecked utterances. In my mind, this applies to the Charlie Hebdo comic writers, the journalists who reported on the attacks, and even the general population with their #JeSuisCharlie posts pervading social media sites. In this post I will attempt to clarify the context surrounding the attacks, focusing on the French-Muslim relationship over the last century, by responding to exaggerated arguments I’ve heard over the last few weeks.

Let’s start chronologically. I’d like to take you back to 20th century Algeria, a formerly independent state that followed the religious and political governing of Islam, which was then colonized by the secular and imperial French. As we all know, the French were world-famous colonizers, especially in Arab and African countries. I hope everyone also knows that being colonized isn’t fun; it destroys the indigenous economies, governments, cultures, and spirits. But on top of the general dissatisfaction of the Algerian people, in 1905, when the French passed the law of separating “Church” and “State” (laïcité), they also decided that the law would be implemented in Algeria as well as the other French colonies. This means that they were not only working to colonize the land, but they also had every intention to rid it of its government and religion, and replace them with French secularism. While in the case of Algeria, independence was gained before the law’s full implementation (not to say that French Algeria was wholly unaffected by the colonizer’s attempt to control Islam—on the contrary, the colonizers were quite thorough), the example still manages to bring to light a piece of the historical baggage surrounding French scorn of Islam and the power of privilege supporting it.

~But, Alice, that was like sooo long ago and who even cares about the 20th century and Algy-ree-ah or whatever? Colonizers didn’t make those terrorists kill Hebdo peeps!

While I can try to see maybe an ounce of truth behind this claim, perhaps in that it would be physically impossible for 20th century French colonizers to force modern day people to aim guns and pull triggers, I’d rather go straight to the source to explain how the indirect impact of French colonialism justifies my point:

The legacy of colonialism remains alive today.  Colonialism altered the geographical map of the Muslim world.  It drew the boundaries and appointed leaders over the Muslim countries.  After WWII,  the French were in West and North Africa, Lebanon, and Syria; the British in Palestine, Iraq, Arabian Gulf, the Indian Subcontinent, Malaya, and Brunei; and the Dutch in Indonesia.  It replaced the educational, legal, and economic institutions and challenged the Muslim faith. […]
The colonialists were modern Crusaders – Christian warriors going out of their way to uproot Islam. The only difference was that the Europeans came, this time, not with cavalry and swords, but with an army of Christian missionaries and missionary institutions like schools, hospitals, and churches, many of which remain in Muslim countries to this day. […]
The Muslim world’s centuries of long struggle with Western colonial rule was followed by authoritarian regimes installed by European powers.  The absence of stable states has led many to ask whether there is something about Islam that is antithetical to civil society and rule of law.  The answer to this question lies more in history and politics than in religion.  Modern Muslim states are only several decades old and they were carved out by European powers to serve Western interests. 

Aha! So because this is a blog post and not an academic article, I will make this explanation short, sweet, and full of expletives: the French colonized Muslim countries. The French fucked up the governmental, economic, and religious structures—among other things—by fucking with the Islamic rule. The French played a big role in remapping the geographical areas, choosing which pawns to place in power, and basically leaving a mess in their wake. The colonized countries, even if now independent, still suffer from the effects of the previous methodical fucking-over. So, these “terrorists” are emerging from countries that are still suffering the aftermath of French colonizers fucking with their countries and with their religions. Ok, 2+2=4, and voila! Context!

~Ok fine that really sucks for those Arab countries or Muslim countries or whatever (don’t know the difference so whatever), but like that’s not our problem, I mean the French outlawed racism and discrimination because this is America ok. So like if you’re in France you need to do as the Romans do and be French ok.

Mmmmm… alright, I can try to work with this. I just want to start by emphasizing how much of the world was affected by French colonialism and was, therefore, somehow fucked over into giving political and economic advantages to the French today: link to list of French colonies. Make sure you scroll all the way down and see how many countries you can recognize. With that link I also want to clarify that this isn’t only about Algeria. I used Algeria as an example because it is the most well-known, seeing as it was a French colony for more than one hundred years. However, as the link can show you, this affects much of the area popularly (albeit falsely—let’s save that for another post, shall we?) known as the “Muslim world.”

Since colonialism, the French have had a complicated relationship with Muslim people. As a Lebanese person from a Christian family, I’ve had a different experience. When I go to France, I’ve got French people fawning over me, telling me how much they looooove “ta-bou-lé” and how they’ve dreamt of visiting the beautiful and ~exotically chaotic~ land of le Liban, also a former French mandate. However, I’m totally aware that if my name was Fatima or Abdullah or if I was wearing a veil, I’d be prey to living a completely different experience. In fact, according to the French National Observatory of Islamophobia, 2011 saw a 34% increase in anti-Muslim attacks, then 2012 saw another 42% increase compared to the same period. I’m not very good at math, but I think that means there has been a stark upwards trend in anti-Muslim violence in France. Hell, even Amnesty International has been on France’s ass for years condemning its rampant anti-Muslim discrimination.

Yeah, okay. People are racist. People suck. But, what about the government? Let’s not forget the discriminatory “l’affaire du voile islamique” which started being discussed on an institutional level back in 1989. Three female students were suspended from school for refusing to remove their headscarves. In response, the minister of education decided that, instead of students having the right to freely express themselves by wearing a scarf if they so choose, the ball was in the educators’ court as they had the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not a student could wear the scarf in class. In 1990, three other girls were also suspended for the same reason within a different school in a different city in France. The response? A general strike protesting students’ rights to wear the scarf in schools. Finally in 1994, the headscarf was outlawed in public schools in the François Bayrou memo by differentiating between acceptable religious symbols—discrete ones (like, let’s say, a Christian cross necklace under a shirt)—and unacceptable religious symbols which were not hidden. According to this Wikipedia article, around 100 students were suspended or expelled between 1994 and 2003 for wearing the headscarf in class.

What does this have to do with anything? This Islamic scarf controversy is an echo of the French desire to control all that is Islamic at whatever cost, even if it means risking the educations of an entire population. Imagine how many girls were forced to face the question, “Should I even go to school?” because of this ban against their cultural and chosen identity expression. Not to mention the 2010 law banning all full-face coverings, supposedly regardless of religion, which would clearly include Islamic garb such as the burqa or the niqab. I’m not going to dissect the French arguments against wearing the scarf in schools or wearing the full-face coverings in public because that would take us on quite the tangent. My point is that discrimination against French Muslims is still prominent today, not only among the general population through acts of violence, but also on an institutional level through laws and societal structures.

Now let’s return to Charlie Hebdo. They are known worldwide for being an asshole satirical magazine ready to criticize all that is good and holy. Martyrs for their freedom of speech, they continue to champion anyone who clashes with French laïcité and their own Left-wing political beliefs. Right? Well, anyone except for the Jews. That shit is NOT funny.

In 2009, Charlie Hebdo fired and pressed charges against (with help from the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, of course) cartoonist Maurice “Sine” Sinet for apparent anti-Semitism when joking that the son of the then-President Sarkozy, who was marrying a Jewish heiress, was converting to Judaism for the money. The flip slide that isn’t often talked about is that Sine actually won a 40,000-Euro court judgment against the magazine for wrongful termination in 2010. And, of course, under the directorship of Philippe Val (the man who fired Sine in the first place for the offensive Jew-joke), 2005-2007 saw a period of publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, a lawsuit for inciting “hatred against Muslims,” with the court concluding in Hebdo’s favor: “The acceptable limits of freedom of expression have not been overstepped, with the contentious pictures participating in a public debate of general interest.” So, basically, according to France and especially to Charlie Hebdo, mild Jew-jokes: bad; purposefully offensive Muslim-jokes: good. Yet again, we see proof that this is not about the freedom of speech to criticize religions or to endorse secularism. Charlie Hebdo has had a history of racism targeting Islam, and despite being aware of the implications (I think a court case would make it as clear as day), Hebdo is not backing down.

Don’t even get me started on the unity rally/protest for freedom of speech that happened in Paris, with a slew of political leaders in front of the march. Suffice is to say that several of the ~40 political leaders themselves have committed real crimes against the freedom of speech—such as imprisoning, torturing, and murdering journalists. A quick Google search could provide all the evidence needed to support this claim. Links for the lazy: one & two.

If that isn’t convincing enough, let’s talk about what satire is supposed to look like. Satire is a method for the powerless or the oppressed to use their freedom of expression to criticize those in power over them. For example, let’s say you’re living under an oppressive regime that you do not have the power to escape. Satire can be used as a way to criticize those in power. Or even something lighter—let’s say you’re afraid of the genetically modified food industry, and you feel powerless against them. Satire can be used to criticize the industry and emphasize the need for food labeling, thereby regaining some form of empowerment, for example! But guess what isn’t satire: using the power you already have to criticize those who are powerless. Now that we recognize the history behind the secular-French and the Muslim-French relationship, we must also recognize the political power—the PRIVILEGE—of the secular-French over the Muslim-French, which means that “satire” making fun of Muslim traditions is actually just bullying.

~Ugh ok Alice like fine they’re kinda racist but like that doesn’t mean they deserve to be KILLED by Muslims for not following Muslim rules or whatever, like honestly we don’t want Sharia law here ok, this isn’t Iraq or something, we need all the Muslims who condemn this to be like THIS IS NOT OK otherwise what does it even mean you know?

I absolutely agree that no one deserves to be murdered by anyone. However, a lot of amendments need to be made before I can agree with the above statement. I think this message has been repeated across every news channel in the Western world: “This is out of our control. Moderate Muslims need to contain this and express their indignation for the terrorist attacks.” While on the surface this might sound tolerant, as it could perhaps be twisted into being seen as empowering to moderate Muslims and showing Western trust in a fine-line separation between moderate and extremist Muslims, statements such as these are actually quite damaging. Let’s get something straight. There are people who commit murder and there are people who don’t. Those who commit murder are generally (and I would say rightly) considered to be fucked up in the head. Over the last few centuries we’ve seen murderers of different colors and religions. It doesn’t take a religion to make someone murder. It takes a murderer to murder. It just so happens that this particular strain of murderer identifies with a certain religion, Islam. This does not mean that Islam embraces these murderers. In fact, Islam has become the scapegoat. Instead of focusing on the fact that we have extremists committing international crimes left and right, we are focusing on the religion that they twist into calling their own. As I see it, there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim.” There are Muslims and there are extremists who commit murder and wrongly use Islam to justify their actions. In other words, there is no connection between your Muslim neighbor and the extremists committing murder. It is not the responsibility of every “moderate” Muslim to contain this extremism because it is not a product of their religion; it is a product of extremism.

The importance of making this distinction cannot be ignored. Since these irresponsible reports of the “Moderate Muslim’s Responsibility,” Islamophobia has only increased. Countless anti-Muslim “misguided reprisal attacks” have occurred since the hysteria following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. French-Muslims are being killed for the actions of extremists due to racism that has been allowed to perpetuate in France and due to the burden of responsibility to end extremism placed on the shoulders of regular people. This cannot be allowed to continue.

In conclusion, I will repeat this to ensure that I have made myself very clear: murder is bad, and murder is caused by murderers, which is an entirely separate issue. Furthermore, when one takes into account the history of privilege French people have over Muslim people, one must be aware of the responsibilities of that privilege. Sometimes accounting for your privilege means understanding when to withhold that power; and yes, if that means deciding to be considerate of others and not take advantage of your freedom of speech, then so be it. So no, I do not identify with #JeSuisCharlie.

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2 comments

  1. An excellent piece of exposition!

    For those of us who are not kept abreast with political conflict and/or upheaval, this is a perfect introduction into the under-explored realm of social privilege. I really appreciate the time you took to contextualize the significance of contextualization, and how the inclusion of the element of privilege helps to strip seemingly one-sided arguments of their bias.

    This has definitely been most informative. Thank you, and I do hope you’ll keep sharing your well-worded thoughts with your faithful readers. I look forward to having you elegantly pluck me out of the black-and-white world of politics with future posts.


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