“I fear this is the beginning of something much bigger.”
— Eileen Horowitz Bastianelli, Paris resident at Charlie Hebdo Demonstration —
On Wednesday 7 January 2015, two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, stormed the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and gunned down 12 people. Eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor were killed in the attack, including the newspaper’s editor.
Charlie Hebdo — already under police protection after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists — is known for its provocative and controversial (often inflammatory) satirical social commentary and has been warned in the past by the French government to tone things down, especially when provoking the religions of the world.
However, freedom of expression and freedom of speech is a value (and a human right) the French hold very close to their hearts… One they will defend to the death — something that became a reality last week Wednesday as the terrorists shouted Allāhu Akbar (God is greatest) as they committed their cold-blooded tribal savagery. The massacre, they claim, was in retaliation of the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
The drama came to an end on Friday when raids were conducted almost simultaneously on a printing plant in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, north-east of Paris, where the Kouachi brothers were holed up, and a Paris Jewish supermarket where Amedy Coulibaly (the third terrorist, who had already shot dead a policewoman south of Paris) killed four hostages.
France, the rest of Europe and the World was left in shock and yesterday, Sunday 11 January 2015, 3.7 million people gathered across France in a moving tribute to the 17 people who were killed during these horrific three days of mayhem.
In Paris alone, 1.5 million tear-streaked faces slowly shuffled through the streets of the grieving City of Light — white, brown, black; left-wing and right-wing. United. There were old men in berets; Jewish people in yarmulkes; Muslims in headscarves. They marched for France… against hatred… against extremism… for history.
In the crowd there were cries of Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie), Je suis Ahmed (I am Ahmed — a reference to the Muslim police officer who lost his life in the attack), Je suis juif (I am a Jew — in memory of the Jewish supermarket victims).
The mood of the crowd was a mixture of sombre defiance, determination and even joy. One sign in the crowd read: “They wanted to bring France to its knees. Instead they brought Europe to its feet.”
Forty-four world leaders linked arms and led the masses down Boulevard Voltaire. Among them were Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Britain’s David Cameron, France’s François Hollande and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Speaking with passion, France’s President François Hollande said: “Today, Paris is the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up towards something better.” The people chanted, Liberté, egalité, fraternité (Freedom, equality, brotherhood).
And so we reflect.
We have to reflect. It’s our duty as citizens of the World — Muslims, Jews, Christians, Liberals, Free-thinkers, Conservatives and everybody in-between — to carefully digest this travesty. In order to make sense of the spider’s web of raw emotions and frustrations, complex opinions, and conflicting beliefs, values and ideologies that burst open like an infectious boil during the past week, we must think, we must make sense and we must make better. Collectively.
The picture of unity and togetherness we saw on Sunday, heart-warming and reconciliatory as it was, is not the initial reaction many of us showed in the wake of this tragedy. In fact, the tone of news reports and social commentary quickly turned into flagrantly offensive Islamophobia as it emerged that the terrorists committed these hideous acts in the name of Islam.
After all, in the West, aren’t we conditioned to see Islam and the Muslim Community as a threat to our Secular multicultural values? We are subtly fed a fear for this secretive culture with its veiled religion where women hide their faces, practicing medieval customs and where men dictate almost every aspect of life with a brutal and unforgiving force.
There is certainly enough proof to sustain our phobia. Terror in the name of Islam has now become endemic. There is no refuting the fact that it has reshaped the world over the last 20 years: The twin towers. The Tube bombings in London. A nightclub in Bali. A memorial in Ottawa. A café in Sydney. A magazine in Paris.
It’s a harsh reality. It exists.
However, the mistake we make is that we believe Islam lies at the heart of this onslaught against our values.
However, on Friday night, sharia official Harith al Nadhari from the branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen, claimed the group directed the attack on the Charlie Hebdo Paris offices, saying: “The leadership of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully… It is better for you to stop your aggression against the Muslims, so perhaps you will live safely.”
The truth is, al-Qaeda has very little to do with Islam… if anything at all. In fact, if Islam really is as radical as these bloodthirsty militants want us to believe, we certainly would’ve seen a civil war erupt between the French and Muslims, in the past few days. Muslims would’ve joined them in their droves to avenge their Prophet. But this didn’t happen, for the simple reason that these extremists are part of a minority death cult that uses Islam (and being Muslim) to achieve their goal: They want to cause division and they want to separate us.
I believe the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were not really offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They don’t care about satire. For all we know they may not even care about the Prophet Muhammad.
Instead, they merely pretend to be offended by the West’s freedom of speech and expression, as a pretext to commit murder in the name of Islam. Murder so horrifying, so unWestern, that non-Muslims – blinded by grief and rage – turn on innocent Muslims. Blame them. Persecute them. Burn the Quran, attack their Mosques, threaten them in the street and demand their expulsion from Western societies. Actions that, in turn, scare Western Muslims, isolate them, alienate them. And thus drive some of them to support — and even become — terrorists.
Result: terrorists swell their ranks for a civil war they long to provoke non-Muslims into starting.
Divide and conquer, right?
Besides, has religion not been used throughout history to wage many a war?
Like many others, I took their bait in a knee-jerk reaction. I spoke angrily and harshly. I felt unforgiving. Fortunately, it’s a relief to see that the message is beginning to sink in that the enemy is not Islam but a wicked group of people trying to stir hatred among people who can and have been living side-by-side in peace.
I hope, as a lesson, we will remind ourselves in the future (because these attacks are far from over) that these men of violence and hatred are not just a minority, but a fragment of a fragment.
We are stronger. Our common enemy is radical, extremist Islam – not normal Islam.
However, I also believe that both sides — the West and the Muslim Community — must take stock and own responsibility for a few things before we can move forward in our united war against extremism.
It’s evident that in a liberal and free society we value our freedom of expression and the right to free speech. This is why the attack on a newspaper, a symbol of these freedoms, wrenched our guts and why we cry out in defiance: We will not be silenced.
We are indeed prepared to die for this liberty. But with this freedom and fundamental value comes a great responsibility.
I don’t think (and many believe the same) that any religion is immune to being questioned and satirised. No one has the God-given right to be offended. If that was the case, then we all should be silent because one man’s silly cartoon is another man’s existential threat. However, our commentary, satire, and questioning of people’s religious beliefs should be measured and balanced. There are boundaries that must be respected. Certain things should be granted sanctity.
For a truly devout Muslim, the Quran demands that the image of the Prophet must not be recreated. According to their scriptures, the Prophet is an immaculate being of perfection, purity and beauty, and it is impossible and indeed blasphemous to even attempt to depict Him. Standing in their shoes (no matter how archaic it may seem for outsiders), Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons must’ve been shocking (if not nauseating) to see.
Even I think, as a non-religious person, they were a bit too much — too provocative — and designed to cause harm.
Is that what we want in a Secular society? All for the sake of pushing boundaries, under the guise of upholding our rights and freedoms? Are we not wise and cunning enough to still say what we want to say without being blatantly crude?
There is a great big difference between fear and ignorance. Censoring ourselves for the greater good cannot be seen as caving into the demands of a small militant group of terrorists. In the words of Martin Luther King: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Out of respect for others, surely we can give deities, saints and Holy men amnesty from ridicule… even if we don’t believe in them ourselves.
Among the crowd, in Paris on Sunday, a man said: “I am Kabyle and I am Muslim. The killers were not true Muslims. I am here to say that I support the democratic values of France and I am also a devout Muslim.”
That’s a beautiful statement. It demonstrates the willingness to integrate into a society with starkly different values from your own.
For all the hand-wringing about Western society’s decadence, it is still a society that retains core values of decency, compassion and tolerance. Muslims need to understand this and should be willing to integrate with our values and abide to the laws that uphold them when they choose to live among us and share in the freedoms we enjoy, in the same way that Westerners must abide to the laws and customs of the land in Muslim countries — there is nothing racist, phobic or discriminatory to the notions of ‘give and take’ and ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’.
It is all fine and well to walk with us in solidarity after a terrorist attack and to claim: These actions are not representative of our faith and religion… The Quran does not teach violence… etc… etc.
However, the fact remains, these extremists hide in the dark corners of the Muslim Community and they are damaging the image of the peaceful majority of the global Muslim community. It is therefore the responsibility of Muslim leaders and the community they lead to show us what Islam really stands for. Set the example. Teach us. Educate us. Move into the mainstream. Not to convert or dominate us but to help us understand the essence of your beliefs and customs.
There are times when silence equals consent. The time to be silent has long passed. Action is now required. Stand up against extremists and weed them out in your communities. Speak out against your hate preachers. Tell them they are not welcome. Expel them. Expose the darkness. Teach Muslim parents how to protect their children from being radicalized and spread your message of peace, love and unity. Do it consistently… not just when tragedy strikes.
Knowledge is power. For all of us. We have a lot to learn from each other.
Now that the banners are down, the flag-waving politics are over, the chants are silent and the streets are empty again, we must cherish this truth: It is within the walls of our homes, around our kitchen tables, in our schools, Churches, Synagogues and Mosques that we plant the seeds of unity, peace, love and tolerance no matter what our religious convictions are… but these places can also be where we breed fear and hatred.
The choice is ours. Everyday.
Images: Open Source see credits
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes