“A tone of genuine puzzlement always seems to accompany terrorist attacks in the centers of Western power.” wrote Teju Cole in his January 9th column for The New Yorker. “Unmournable Bodies” lamented how Western culture celebrated the nobility of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after 12 of its staff were murdered by Jihadists. Few beyond a small readership in France had ever heard of Charlie Hedbo yet many implicitly now promote the romantic notion that “The Pen is mightier than the Sword”. Hence satirical cartoonists had to be GOOD whilst Jihadists had to be bad. We love such simple narratives: cartoon good guys (US!) versus bad guys (“THEM”!). The violent act was so reprehensible that it served the vision of our western society as being moral and just – even if that is utter illusion.
Cole describes Charlie Hedbo as a satirical comic that they had pretty much offended everyone. Their cartoons didn’t just single out Islam but were equally offensive to others through countless depictions of obscenity and racism. It was known to its select readership as a publication that ruthlessly parodied the French hard right and all the major religions. They condemned the Israeli bombing of Gaza & campaigned for the right-of-stay in France of illegal immigrants. Some may have been offended even by this. Indeed there was a brief moment after the attack when it seemed equally probably that French nationalists could have been guilty of the attack. The really sickening irony of the choice of the Jihadists target was spelt out by Olivier Tonneau in The Guardian on the 13th January:
“…two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme rightwing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly attack Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism.”
Charlie Hedbo had the right to offend people in Western culture. This is what we in the West defend as ‘right’ and ‘just’. Any attack from ‘others’ is seen as more than just mindless violence. It is, for want of a better phrase, a ‘clash of cultures’. Two different world views. This narrative plays an important and self-reinforcing role for us in the West in that it anaesthetises us against the uncomfortable realities of our own crimes. In reality the threat to Jihadists to our own freedoms in the west are minor. They are trivial if you wish to trace the violence back to its source. What ‘they’ have done to us in nothing in comparison to what we have been doing to them. Violence begets violence. What we lack is introspection. Like the events of 9/11 the recent shootings in Paris became an opportunity for us to whitewash our own crimes. Since we are not ‘them’ thus we become whiter than white. On Sunday 11th January Parisians became exposed to the lowest depths of hypocrisy when leading representatives of Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes marched through Paris in “solidarity”. Of course, in their own countries they would have long since incarcerated such cartoonists, tortured them to death and dumped the bodies out at sea. “We have to put all this in context…” says Lebanese-French academic Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in his January 8th interview with Any Goodman from Democracy Now!,
“The Western intervention, the Western action in the Middle East, has been creating the ground for all this. And this is what I called previously the clash of barbarisms, with a major barbarism represented by Western intervention, by especially the United States’ conduct in this region, provoking a counterbarbarism, which is minor compared to the major one, but which is nevertheless a barbarism, this is.”
These are not isolated voices. A similar point was made by Robert Fisk in The Independent and by the Stop The War Coalition. There is little really controversial about this yet it is taboo within mainstream-thought which is established through exposure to establishment media. How many of the mourners for the victims in Paris wish to soil their fantasy of Western virtue with these uncomfortable truths? How many of the people sporting their ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banners and pens held aloft, stopped to consider how little they have done to mourn the loss of a million innocent Iraqis whom we have murdered? We mourn only people we identify with. We do not mourn the OTHERS. They are the unpeople. Our victims have no names and do not exist. It fell to Nafeez Ahmed in his 8th Jan piece “Blowback in Paris” (from Middle East Eye) to point out what (for some of us) has now become the bleedin’ obvious:
“A kneejerk response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre would be familiar: crackdowns, monitoring and curbs on Muslim communities, including racial profiling; wild promises of “punishing” the attackers and taking decisive action to root out terrorists once and for all; ramping up military intervention in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere to increase the heat on the terrorists at source, and teach them a lesson. The problem is that these are tried, tested, and failed strategies that serve largely as useful recruiting sergeants for terrorist networks like IS and al-Qaeda.“
In one of the most un-observed ironies of the aftermath Banksy was attributed (inaccurately) with devising a cartoon of a pencil cut in two becoming two pencils. Did anyone ask whether or not if you cut a Jihadist in two whether you get another two such combatants emerge in their place? So how should we react? To end the cycle of violence we have to remember what it is that the Jihadists really want. It is too easy to believe the simplistic fairy tale that they just “hate us” and want to conquer us to enforce Sharia Law. This isn’t going to happen in England or anywhere else in Europe. In fact quite a few people who live in countries dominated by Islamic populations don’t want that either. It is a minority view of cranks. Al Qaeda’s original mission was simply to eject non-muslims from the land of the Holy Mosques – Saudi Arabia. How easily we choose to forget that we invited disaster upon ourselves with our Western medieval mindset. How little we have really moved on from the opinions of the Crusaders. We would not even be entertaining the regimes in the Middle East if it wasn’t for the geopolitics surrounding the control of oil supplies. Our need to dominate the ebb & flows of the energy markets with covert & overt military intervention has given way to belligerence and violence on all sides. It has not been diffused because the status quo serves a purpose. The West has followed a quite Orwellian path in seeking the next ‘enemy’. We can only define ourselves (it seems) by what we fight against. When the Soviets withered there was the brief ‘War on Drugs’ before we hit pay dirt with the ‘War on Terror’. If that runs out of steam we may finally resort to the ‘War on Climate Change’. Each has been touted by Pentagon planners as the next great threat. And as with every previous threat we will meet it with guns and soldiers rather than understanding and compassion. Real action to win the war is never part of the strategy. It was Owen Jones in his 8th Jan column for the Guardian who reminded us of how Norway responded to the murders committed by terrorist Anders Breivik:
“His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.”
We do know how to defuse violence. We chose to ignore the lessons because we continue to entertain the fiction that this conflict represents an irreconcilable clash of cultures. We think we are reasonable and they are not. Yet all we need is a fresh perspective. So let us play a useful thought experiment. What if America had never had a Civil War? What if the slaves freed themselves? Imagine for one moment that in 1860 an armada of ships from Africa had sailed up the Mississippi river… Imagine an army of poor Africans pouring forth from those ships to kill white slavers as they slept, to burn down their Churches and to bomb the slave auction houses. How would history relay a perspective of such events? At the time no doubt the Americans will have vilified their attackers as pirates and evil-doers. There were many words for “terrorist” in the 1900s but no doubt such attacks upon god-fearing white people by heathen blacks will have will have been termed in such ways. “Why do they hate us?” will cry the people of Carolina. “It is a clash of civilisations!” would cry the leaders. Looking back upon such events with the perspective of 150 years would paint a vastly different picture. Maybe there would be African heroes from that war of liberation to rival Lincoln? There is no good reason why any of us in the liberal Western powers would not celebrate how the slaves threw off their shackles. Few today would doubt that the Civil War to end slavery was anything other than a just war with the right outcome for mankind. Yet it was a bloody slaughter white Christian man versus white Christian man. Imagine the rivers of blood that would have flowed if it had been a purely black-on-white conflict? Race has everything to do with it. Peace came between the white people of North America but it was to be another hundred years before blacks in the USA gained equal rights. We are barbarians and our history is decorated with the evidence. Are we treating Islam today with any less lack of respect as that we lacked for blacks in 1860s or even the 1960s? After-all we have plenty of evidence that Islam is far more peaceable and respectable culture & religion that western culture has yet to attain. The first victim of the Parisian Jihadists was, after-all, a Police Officer who, by coincidence, happened to be a Muslim. Ironically it fell to a comedian Mark Steel writing in The Independent on the 8th January to so succinctly satirise the mess we are in. In the heart-achingly funny “Charlie Hebdo: Norway’s Christians didn’t have to apologise for Anders Breivik, and it’s the same for Muslims now” he wrote:
“One way in which we’re ensuring we protect those values, is by demanding all Muslims denounce the gunmen. [..] ..to truly distance themselves from the shooting, every Muslim should have to draw their own satirical cartoon involving Muhammad trampolining on a pig, so we know we can trust them. Similarly, when the Norwegian Christian Anders Breivik committed his massacre, all decent people marched straight down to the church and yelled “oy vicar, why haven’t you issued a statement condemning the shooting”? And politicians insisted Special Branch must infiltrate every C of E jumble sale to prevent similar radical movements growing throughout Surrey.”
Thus it was that we were exposed to the over-whelming ignorance of Rupert Murdoch who, in an act of unprecedented hypocrisy, demanded that all Muslims be held accountable for the acts of Jihadists. To extend this logic to its ultimate conclusion we now hold all Catholics accountable for the gas chambers. Hence when some Evangelical Christian operates a drone that kills men, women and children a wedding party in the Yemen we are to conclude that all Christians are accountable. After-all this is the logic of the terrorists – the idea that nobody is innocent. Hence everyone is a legitimate target. Let us not pretend for one second that today’s enemies are any different from us in this respect. Hence if you wish to end this cycle of violence then you must entertain the truth. It may shatter your illusions but that is what illusions are for.