|"Love: Stronger than hate." (Source: charliehebdo.fr)|
When I saw it, I instantly thought back to Le Monde's famous September 12, 2001 editorial "Nous sommes tous des américains". Many also shared the hashtag out of solidarity with the victims. But statements that some posted alongside the hashtag imbued those simple words with wildly differing meanings: an impassioned defense of free speech, a battle cry for embattled secular values, a simple statement against violence, a denunciation of Islamist terrorism, a cry of French national pride... The reasons people shared those words were infinite.
I realized this a few hours later, as I watched the backlash start. (If you don't live in
the Muslim world, maybe you missed it.) I'm not talking about the fools who expressed solidarity with the attackers over social media—they do not merit words. I'm talking about a more enlightened pushback. One Facebook friend posted this, which I have translated from the French:
Charlie is dead, the whole world denounces this supposedly "terrorist" act yet all the while thousands of Palestinians and Iraqis (women and children) die each day and nobody says a thing. I am strictly against all sorts of violence and I'm not ok with what these pseudo-Muslims have done today, but #iamnotcharlie.That statement, like others I have seen today, is messy and draws some questionable parallels. But I have seen the pain that exists in this part of the world, and on which such statements draw. That resonates with me, but it doesn't tell me where I stand. I'm left wondering: What does it mean to "be Charlie"? Am I Charlie?
* * *
Freedom of expression is dear to me. I come from the United States, a country with relatively fewer limits on free speech than even many fellow established democracies (many of which censure Holocaust denial or other offensive speech). In many less tolerant environments, I have often found myself defending America's obsession with free speech to the bitter end. Several years ago in Rwanda—a country with strict speech limits that it justifies as necessary to avoid a return to genocide—I remember debating these principles with several Rwandan friends. I cited the then-current example of the Westboro Baptist Church, arguing that their right to picket soldiers' funerals as some twisted statement against gay marriage—though at once baffling and hideous—was nonetheless an essential part of our democracy. But does defending some wackos' right to free speech mean that I identify with their message? Absolutely not.
The same goes for Charlie Hebdo. The magazine's cartoonists, writers, and editors poked every eye they could reach. Nobody was spared their profane treatment (though they sure didn't poke them all equally). Was some of it funny? Sure. But a lot was also far too offensive for my taste. I question Charlie Hebdo's taste, not their right to publish. I question their intentions: Did they seek to poke fun and expose hypocrisy, as all good satire does, or sometimes to malign and hurt? I'm not so sure. I will defend their right to publish, but I'm not quite comfortable "being Charlie".
This is the uncomfortable in-between at which I have arrived in my reflection thus far. There is more thinking and debating to be done.
* * *
Whether "we're all Charlie" or not, what happened yesterday in Paris was reprehensible. That it is provoking some important thinking and conversations on intercultural relations and identity may prove valuable. But I fear that within Europe (and perhaps beyond) this event will also stir some dark forces that feed off the enmity generated by such attacks. Middle East scholar Juan Cole shared an important reflection to this effect yesterday, calling it a "deliberately polarizing atrocity" engineered by, and to the benefit of, extremists on both sides.
Immediately after the attack, a particularly insightful friend (who happens to study these questions, or at least their historical roots, for a living) shared this reaction on Facebook:
Dark days ahead. We've arrived at a zero-sum game for the (often Islamophobic) defenders of French laïcité [secularism] and the increasingly globalized movement of radical Islam. The crime is heinous, the response will be also.Let us hope that "L'amour", as Charlie Hebdo's most famous cover put it, will prove to be "plus fort que la haine". Let us also work, in our own daily lives, to make that a reality.