Charlie Hebdo and the limits of solidarity

Michael Williams

As of Tuesday, France has seen 54 anti-Muslim incidents, including 21 reports of shootings and bombings of Islamic buildings since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. If bystanders refer to the Charlie Hebdo attacks to justify hate crimes, then they really ought to duct tape “Je suis Charlie” to their mouths.

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

The two men who shot up the office of France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week were Algerian. They followed orders from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

France invaded and occupied Algeria from 1830 until 1962. France violently oppressed Algerians and instituted social hierarchies that preferred French émigrés.

France ruled enormous swaths of Africa, stretching from the tip of the continent to far south of the equator.

It was called colonialism. It was a calculated, brutal and murderous system that dominated European international relations for centuries.

France, in fact, is still fighting wars in Mali and other parts of Africa. These points are rarely mentioned in mass media dialogue about Islamic terrorism, discussed as if it were born in a vacuum, void of history and memory.

The Intercept presciently published an article the day before the Paris shootings documenting cases of Muslims “prosecuted and even imprisoned by western governments for their online political speech.”

Citizens were sentenced years for “writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channel in a cable package.”

Free speech, then, would appear a selective privilege in the United States and Europe.

New York Times editor Andrew Rosenthal opined in 2012 that the United States created a “separate justice system for Muslims” after 9/11. He wrote that leaked FBI training materials describe Arabs as “‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personalities.”

That western governments provoke this mentality in the populace remains largely unchallenged. That these stereotypes are racist is countered with horrific images of extremism, stifling charges of hypocrisy.

Almost four million people marched in solidarity through Paris Sunday, many holding signs reading “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”

Among the front lines were world leaders, many of whom detain or murder journalists within their countries.

A Democracy Now! correspondent lamented this hypocrisy. “Yemen should have sent the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye as their representative,” who was imprisoned “for years on the direct orders of President Obama” for reporting “secret US strikes in Yemen that killed scores of citizens.

Or Sudan should have sent Sami al-Hajj, the Al-Jazeera cameraman who was held for six years without charge in [Guantanamo Bay prison] and repeatedly interrogated by U.S. operatives who wanted a link between Al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda that never surfaced.

The reporter then cited examples of US operatives killing other Al-Jazeera correspondents. These journalists did not slander the United States so much as report on it.

By cherry-picking solidarity, world leaders and free speech activists risk their own integrity. Perhaps they only care for press that defends their policies.

Charlie Hebdo holds no group sacred. They have depicted Muhammad kissing men and Jesus Christ sodomizing one. Neither of these pictures offends me, because I adhere to neither faith. Both made me laugh.

However, they have also published cartoons that are blatantly bigoted, including one where African sex slaves are depicted as welfare queens.

What’s more, Charlie Hebdo fired and then sued a writer for an allegedly anti-Semitic sentence (which, frankly, was more an attack on the French president’s son than a slight against Judaism).

The Intercept article noted that today demonizing Islam is portrayed as free speech, but that demonizing Judaism or Israel constitutes hate speech. (That Arabs are ethnically Semitic remains a non-noteworthy bit of irony.)

If I am Charlie, I am every murdered, detained and censored journalist. But if “Je Suis Charlie” becomes a defense of slandering Islam, then I am not.