Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I am not only Charlie

The act – the premeditated cold-blooded murder of 12 innocent people going about their daily business – was shocking. Horrifying. As no doubt it was intended to be. That is the point, pretty much the definition, of terrorism.
How many of the consequences were also intentional is impossible to tell. But few of the effects we have seen so far should have been unforeseen.
Within two hours of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, commentators were speculating that the killers hoped to die in a dramatic shoot-out with police. As, two days later, duly and appallingly happened.
Whether Said and Cherif Kouachi truly wished to die as “martyrs” will probably never be known. But once they had been identified, as they rapidly were, it was always likely. Depending on how you interpret that term “martyr” – and what “cause” you might think they were “martyred” for.
Islam? Hardly.
Another consequence, less ghastly but equally predictable, was the near-instant reaction of cartoonists the world over – well, the “Western” world over, anyway.
With five of their number so shockingly slaughtered, it was inevitable that those who wield a pencil with satirical intent should all turn to the same subject. And do so in a wide variety of ways, but all with passion and grim wit.
The raised cartoon middle finger rising from the front page of The Independent was a memorable image.
 So, in a sadder, less defiant mode was the picture of Peanuts character Charlie Brown sitting head in hands under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
That slogan appeared rapidly in windows, on posters, placards and front pages all over France and beyond. The spirit of solidarity, and defiance, that encapsulated was profoundly moving.
But it begs slightly the questions few, so far, seem to have asked. Solidarity with whom? Defiance against what?
The popular answers would be: for freedom of speech, and against terrorism. And who could argue with that?
If only they were complete answers.
And if only governments such as ours didn’t leap to defend freedom of speech by immediately – and predictably – plotting fresh curbs on our freedom of speech. (Tighter surveillance, anyone? Closer policing of the internet?)
As Dave Smith, creator of that Independent cartoon, puts it: “We’re dealing with ideas: religions are ideas, political philosophies are ideas. It’s a cartoonist’s job to challenge these things and to offend where necessary.”
Crucially, and rightly, he sums up: “There is no right not to be offended.”
That does seem, however, to be a right claimed by a great many people who espouse religious views – be they radical Muslim nutters or evolution-denying Christian nutters.
Those who exert their right to hold irrational views so often seem for some reason to claim an extra right not to have them challenged or mocked. Which is precisely what satirists and cartoonists vitally do.
As the killers left the office around which they had sprayed bullets last Wednesday, they are reported to have remarked: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo.”
If they really thought that, the actual consequence of their murders was the opposite of what they intended – but wholly predictable.
Despite the loss of its editor and so many of its most talented contributors, the magazine will appear as usual tomorrow. Well, not quite as usual – the regular print run of 60,000 copies will be raised to three million, and it seems unlikely that will be enough to meet the demand.
Another consequence – this one deeply regrettable – is almost certain to be an increase in anti-Muslim feeling throughout France, and probably right across Europe.
Al-Qaeda no more represents Islam than the IRA or their Protestant antagonists represented Christianity. But however often that is said, the bigoted hard-of-thinking will continue to jump to nasty conclusions.
The treatment of ordinary, decent Muslims in Western societies will get worse, as it did after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Which you might think was an unintended consequence of the Kouachis’ murderous activities. But in fact it is exactly what Al-Qaeda wants.
Because increasing tensions and injustices between communities is what drives recruitment to such anti-social causes as theirs.
Just as it drives up support for right-wing parties like France’s National Front, which will also benefit from last week’s violence.
Of all the cartoons of homage to Charlie Hebdo, there was one whose impact was not quite as immediate or obvious as others. It took a little thought to appreciate it fully.
The drawing by French artist Tommy shows the murdered cartoonists, pencils in hand, approaching Heaven’s Pearly Gates. Before them, enthroned on a cloud, sits a white-haired bearded man in a long robe. “Oh no,” he is thinking, “not them”.
Clearly this is a tribute both to the goodness of the murder victims and their willingness to cause offence in all quarters.
More subtly, and more powerfully, it illustrates the madness of those who consider the portrayal of the Prophet Mohamed in a cartoon to be a capital offence.
Because we all know who that white-haired old man represents. And we know that this fatuous depiction of “God” is such a commonplace that none but the craziest zealot could take offence at it.
Before this confirms you in thinking “we” are more moral than “them”, however, take a moment to ask how many innocent people were killed last week in Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan    all countries destabilised by Western interference.
Don’t know how many? Neither do I, because those casualties go largely under the media radar.
But here are some figures to consider.
According to analysis published last month by international human rights group Reprieve, up to November 24, American drones had been sent to kill 14 men in nine years, mostly in Pakistan. In the process they had actually killed 1,147 people, most of them innocent, many of them children.
And that’s only counting the missions with specific targets (not all of whom were hit).
The independent American Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 500 drone strikes outside Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 people.
I am Charlie. But I am also Sareef, Rachid and Rahela, Hussein, Ali and Asmah.

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