It goes without saying that the inconceivable tragedy in Paris yesterday brought out the best and worst in people, and nowhere was this more evident than on social media. The Je Suis Charlie hashtag may have been a misrepresentation of what yesterdays attacks constituted, a point to which I’ll return, but the outpouring of solidarity around it was genuine and moving.
However, online reactions to the shootings started to take a predictably ugly turn early on and by midday my Twitter feed was flooded with Islamophobic abuse, calling for the mass deportation if not wholesale killing of French Muslims.
Herein lies the problem. By framing yesterday’s shootings in terms of a concerted attack on fundamental Western values, #jesuischarlie was playing into a broader narrative about a ‘clash of civilisations’. The architect of this narrative Samuel P. Huntington summarised his position as follows: ‘The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power’.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by devoting the rest of this article to explaining why Islam isn’t a homogeneous entity. Many commentators, Edward Said among them, have already debunked Huntington’s ideas elsewhere. The problem is that this orientalist narrative of ‘us and them’, of Western enlightenment values versus Islamic barbarism, continues to have a powerful hold on the Western imagination.
For example, yesterday there was a suicide bombing in Yemen which killed 37 people and wounded 66, but this received nowhere near as much coverage as the Paris shootings. Why? Because these attacks, which happen every day in the Middle East, don’t fit the narrative of ‘us and them’. The reality is that most of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims and that Islamic extremism is the product, not of age old ideological rivalry, but concrete socio-economic problems facing much of the Middle East.
Now let’s return to those cartoons. One of the issues with these cartoons not being discussed is the racist imagery they employ. In his seminal work Orientalism, Edward Said draws comparisons between the antisemitic depictions of Jews in Nazi Germany and later depictions of Arabs. These comparisons are starkly realised in Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations of Islam’s beloved prophet, who is depicted with a hooked nose, naked on all fours. Homophobic undercurrents aside, if a prophet of the Old Testament was being depicted in this fashion, many would have rightly decried these cartoons as antisemitic hate speech. It’s worth giving these double standards some thought before you share those cartoons in the name of freedom of expression.
Let us be clear, this is in no way to mitigate the horror of those shootings. But let’s not lose sight of what really happened yesterday. Three misguided and intolerant individuals shot 12 journalists and cartoonists in cold blood. Three people. This was not part of a conspiracy to enforce Islamist values on ‘enlightened Europe’. To portray it as such is to ignore the fact that Muslims suffer more than any other group from terrorism and extremism. Terror attacks like the one yesterday should unite us, not divide us, against the tiny minority who carry them out, a minority who really do believe in a ‘clash of civilisations’ and want to bring it on. Let’s not give them what they want.
Posted on January 8, 2015 by Nathan Beesley under Uncategorized