By now we've all heard. Gunmen today shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, apparently while shouting "Allahu Akbar" and "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad!" Editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier is among the dead; he had received death threats in the past and was living under police protection. Charlie Hebdo’s offices were bombed in 2011, after the magazine released an issue in which the Prophet Muhammed was satirically billed as "guest editor." The issue included cartoons lampooning Muhammed and was redubbed "Charia Hebdo," a reference to Shariah law. The new attack is said to be the deadliest in France since 1961, when rightists who opposed Algerian independence bombed a train, killing 28 people. (BBC News, NYT)
The New York Times headline states all too obviously, "Paris Attack Reflects a 'Dangerous Moment' for Europe," quoting Peter Neumann of the UK-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation: "This is a dangerous moment for European societies. With increasing radicalization among supporters of jihadist organizations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head." The example is cited of the recent anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rallies in Germany, under the banner of Pegida—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
[I]n the moments after the news broke about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I found it impossible to ignore a sinking feeling: the recognition that we were being pulled further into a cycle of distrust and division.
It grew as I read through the responses online. The straightforward reaction from far-right extremists was the hashtag #killallmuslims, which would have been easy to ignore as empty words if it hadn’t reminded me of the firebombing of mosques after the Lee Rigby murder.
Less violent but still divisive was the way the attack was depicted as a battle between Islam and freedom of speech, or between Muslims and satire—a clash-of-civilisations argument that splits the world neatly into "them" and "us", by ignoring the staggering death toll of terrorist attacks abroad (most recently the massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan).
There is some important truth here. We have also emphasized that the principal concern of jihadist franchises like ISIS and the various Qaeda affiliates is the struggle within Islam against secularism and internal heresy such as Shia, and only secondarily the jihad against the West. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, contrary to the Western media "narrative." And indeed patronizing demands on Muslims to repudiate such extremism is a form of stigmatization which is sure to backfire—especially as no such demands are placed on Jews (by mainstream voices, anyway) to repudiate Israeli state terror.
But this also obscures a point: in resisting the "clash-of-civilizations narrative," we must advocate an analysis that emphasizes the clashes within "civilizations." There are Muslims, and non-Muslims living within Muslim-majority nations and communities, who oppose the ever-more-reactionary rule of political Islam—just as there are white Europeans who stand up to the current paroxysm of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Thousands of Germans have taken to the streets to repudiate the ugly Pegida. But those in the Middle East and Muslim communities in the West who similarly stand up to the increasingly hegemonic Islamist reaction are too often portrayed by "progressives" as dupes or agents of imperialism.
In previous irruptions of the interminable cartoon controversy, "progressives" have repeatedly raised the absurd fallacy that freedom of speech is a scheme to allow the white male power structure to shout down the rest of us. A case in point this time around is the commentary of one Jacob Canfield on the Hooded Utilitarian blog. His title concedes: "Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism; You can condemn the attacks without embracing the cartoons." But he doesn't write like he means it about the "free speech" part. He says Charb "comes across as a racist asshole" for having dared to state, "Muhammad isn't sacred to me… I live under French law. I don't live under Koranic law."
As we have noted, an inherent right to blasphemy was precisely the position that progressives took in the controversy over art photographer Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." It's true that Christians are not oppressed and marginalized in the West as Muslims are—but does that entirely justify the double standard? Would progressives defend intentionally offensive anti-Muslim art in countries where Christians are oppressed and marginalized by Muslim majorities, such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt? How many "progressives" who protest the sophomoric humor of Charlie Hebdo came to the defense of Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher imprisoned in Sudan a few years back for innocently naming a class teddy bear "Mohammed"? How many have opposed the ugly Jew-hating cartoons that appear regularly in the Arab press? No, that is left to be exploited by the Zionists and Islamophobes. And around it goes.
There will be some progress in this world when Jews protest Israeli state terror and Muslims protest Islamist terror—and not in response to condescending demands that they do so, but because it is necessary to oppose atrocities committed in the name of one's own group identity. The Germans who are protesting Pegida get this. So too did the NRIs (non-resident Indians, presumably including some of Hindu background) who protested Narendra Modi on his much-hyped US tour last year. The dueling Twitter hashtags #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) and #JeSuisMusulman (I am Muslim) suggest a pathological dichotomy: we can extend solidarity both to artists and satirists (no matter how sophomoric) and to Muslims under xenophobic attack.
At the rally this evening in the bitter cold of New York's Union Square, a crowd of mostly French protesters held matching mass-produced signs reading "Je Suis Charlie." Amid the crowd was one young man, seemingly of Arab background, who held a hand-written sign that read "I am Charlie" in Arabic.
More of this.
I am Muslim