As the hunt for the shooters responsible for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris yesterday, Said Kouachi and his brother Chérif Kouachi, continues, a one minute silence and 35, 000 strong march in Paris last night demonstrated the unbreakable solidarity felt with those 12 journalists, police officers and visitors who were murdered on what should have been a normal day at the office. Globally they have been mourned; demonstrations in Berlin, London, New York and Montréal have all shown their support for the victims of the attack and the loved ones who are now grieving. It is certainly touching to see how many people can extend their condolences and take the time out to show their sympathy to other human beings they have never known or even known about.
For me however there is a pervading hypocrisy that I have not been able to ignore since the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie first began trending on twitter.
As I understand it, to be Charlie in the wake on this attack on a group of controversial cartoonists is to believe in free speech, and that no one should be punished for printing what they believe, even if it will inevitably offend or anger certain people. This is a sentiment which at its core I wholeheartedly believe in. Last year I remember following Al Jazeera’s #FreeAJStaff campaign as a group of journalists were imprisoned in Egypt for doing their jobs. I often hear tragic stories about journalists killed in their line of duty and as Rafia Zakaria pointed out yesterday over half of the 61 journalists listed by the CPJ as killed for doing their job last year were Muslims fighting extremists. There are few things as important as good journalism which tells the stories and spreads the messages that inform and educate people in order for them to understand the society around them. Often, I struggle to find the kind of brutally honest, agenda-free journalism that I am talking about.
Charlie Hebdo is an incredibly controversial publication that has made a number of enemies since its debut. Despite being branded racist or islamophobic, they continued to print what they deemed honest in a series of cartoons that offended masses of people and was often connected with a growing anti-islamic sentiment among the French public of today. Whether or not you believe that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were acceptable, simply playful, misunderstood, antagonistic, insensitive or downright racist, we all agree that no one should have died as a result of them being printed. But that does not make you Charlie.
In the UK comedians and public figures are constantly going through the rigmarole of saying something they mean or genuinely think is funny, getting in trouble for it, and then being forced to apologise and retract it, from Russell Brand to Jack Whitehall to Jeremy Clarkson. The infamously neutral BBC is constantly losing comedians and reporters to other networks such as Channel 4 or Al Jazeera for being too censored or too politically correct. Can any of their journalists really claim to be Charlie? The vast majority of US media representation of Israel does not leave a shred of space for even the most moderate pro-Palestine voice. Who among them can claim to be Charlie? Those who spend their careers attempting to make heard the issues that the mainstream media, powerful businesses and the political class would rather avoid suffer the biggest paradox in freedom of speech. They have the right to say whatever they like, but never have an audience for their truths. Once you have the crowd’s attention, there’s a script to follow, if you don’t want to follow it there is a queue of people behind you waiting to do so. None of those in it are Charlie.
And there is no obligation for them, or you, to want to be. I can objectively sympathise with the pointless loss of human life and simultaneously admit that I would have never dreamt of printing many of the cartoons I have seen in Charlie Hebdo. Often, if not always, telling your truth is going to upset at least one person, we don’t all agree on everything. By the same token all good things, political correctness included, are effective in their correct doses. Censorship does stifle comedy but if you spend an hour offending everyone in the room, there will be no one left to applaud, like anything it’s about balance. For me, ridiculing a president or a religious leader is not the same as ridiculing an entire religion, especially at a time where many members of that religion are already under attack from so many angles. I am not Charlie.
That is of course not the only reason I had no enthusiasm to join in this hashtag. The innate reluctance I felt at jumping on the bandwagon was later reinforced as more and more islamophobic sentiment became apparent as the day went on (#KillAllMuslims, for example, which was thankfully overrun by those as outraged and disgusted as myself in no time). I then realised that I didn’t want to be Charlie because I didn’t want to pick sides. This attack has nothing to do with me I don’t need to stand in solidarity with one thing in order to condemn another. It’s an unnecessary return the Us vs Them dynamic whose divisive effects I’ve always avoided. If it were simply Cold Blooded Killers versus Those With Sympathy, I would have far fewer reservations, but it never is. First is the sympathy, then the anger and before you know it we’ve declared war again.
If this was indeed the terror attack that it has been made out to be than it was really very well done. Strike Paris. Make a martyr out of ‘Charlie’ who will then become the best-selling symbol of liberty and democracy, erasing any murkiness that ever surrounded the magazine itself. As another terror attack inevitably breeds more islamophobia in a country already struggling to overcome its rise in fascism, create a wider base of young disillusioned Muslims in need of a purpose and a channel for their anger and frustration. Be the organisation that these young people turn to. That’s how you make a terrorist right?