by SPENCER BRANDT
The more I follow the news of the world, the more the world seems to be going absolutely haywire. So, in a moment of noble introspection, I decided to find out if this feeling of disarray was really just a result of my addiction to the news cycle. “I’m laying off this week,” I told myself. “This is for your own good.”
Three days later I broke that vow because the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was too horrifically fascinating not to follow. A publication whose livelihood is rooted solely in it’s ability to make people laugh, was attacked by Islamist terrorists. At around 11:30 AM, Chérif Kouachi and his brother Saïd encountered a Charlie cartoonist leaving the magazine’s office building, and forced her at gunpoint to open the fortified door with her security code. After killing a total of ten people, one of the men reportedly told a witness, “If the media asks, tell them it’s Al-Qaeda in Yemen.” Since then, video from leaders of Al-Qaeda in Yemen taking responsibility for the attack has surfaced.
What really brought me back into the world was the video. Two men jumped out of a car wielding AK’s, and promptly began firing at a man standing out front of what I presume was the offices of Charlie. The victim collapsed about 40 feet away on the sidewalk, and attempted to cover himself as the gunmen jogged towards him. One of the terrorists can be seen pausing nonchalantly, and firing a round into the victim’s head – killing him. I’ve always been able to handle raw videos, but something about this one startled me for second. I later read that the man shot execution style wasn’t even a Charlie employee. He was an unarmed security guard.
Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical magazine, known for it’s strong opposition to racism, the right, and religion. No stranger to controversy, the magazine was actually censored by the French government twice in the late 60’s, which it found ways to sidestep through name changes. But by the early 80’s, readership had declined and the magazine folded altogether. In 1992, it saw a spectacular rebirth, selling 100 thousand copies of it’s inaugural issue. In the past decade, it’s most notable controversy has come over the publication’s periodic depiction of Mohammed. After naming him honorary ‘Editor in Chief’ for an issue in 2011, it’s offices were promptly firebombed, and it’s website, cyber attacked. In the wake of the controversy, the editor known as ‘Charb’ infamously proclaimed, “Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we’re dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat.” Charb was murdered in these latest attacks.
So why is it that this story has dug into me the way it has? A tragedy, nonetheless. But the world is full of suffering and tragedy – why is it that this specific story has animated me?
Last Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, speaking for the leader of the free world, gave his thoughts on the attacks. “These terrorists are individuals who would like to cloak themselves under the veil of a particular religion. But based on the fact that the religious leaders of that religion have roundly condemned their actions; those religious leaders have indicated that their actions are entirely inconsistent with Islam – I think the fact that the majority of the victims of terror attacks that are carried out by Al Qaeda… are Muslim, I think is a pretty clear indication that this is not a matter of the world being at war with Islam: the world is at war with… these violent extremists.” He later went on to announce that the White House would be holding a summit on the topic of ‘violent extremism.’
“But – extreme what?” the rest of us are left to wonder. I am under the impression that in order to be an extremist, one must have an ideology to take to the extreme. And on a broader level, any individual comfortable with carrying out a military style raid on an office building must be animated by something. So aside from his categorically false assertion that these terrorists are extremists without an ideology, I am confused that Mr. Earnest and the White House see the jihadists as people who merely “cloak themselves under the veil of a particular religion.” Jihadism’s roots are Islam; there is no question about it. The idea that these organizations are truly concerned with power and resources – and are only ostensibly religious, using it as a facade – sort of falls flat on it’s face in the wake of the past week’s events. Why would an organization concerned primarily with regional power attack a bunch of cartoonists in a country thousands of miles away? The uncomfortable answer is the usual one: Ideology. Organizations like Boko Haram (whose full name translates to ‘Western education is sinful’) and the Taliban continue to destroy schools, and massacre their students. Not just any schools – the ones that are actually teaching. These are the schools that have strayed from their role as Islamist indoctrination centers. The one’s that activists like Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai relentlessly promote. This oddly specific focus of resources suggests a larger underlying force than the primal urge for power. Maybe if the country Mr. Earnest represents had not just spent the last decade fighting against a plethora of well funded jihadist organizations (Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, to name a few) that all profess to be carrying out the will of the prophet, I would be more inclined to take his explanation at face value.
What Earnest and the Obama administration know but refuse to acknowledge, is that rather than using Islam as an excuse for bad behavior, these fanatics are driven by it. And as the cliche goes, the first step of solving a problem is acknowledging it.
That is not to say that jihadists are correct in their theological interpretations. That is for theologians to decide. And religious leaders. And Muslims of all backgrounds – not the President of the United States. It is definitely not to say that all Muslims, or even a majority of them, believe speech deprecating Mohammed should be met with violence, or that secular education is ‘unclean.’ But the White House’s second grade logic, ‘they said it’s not their fault so it isn’t,’ justification is a distortion of truth to fit a preconceived narrative. If Mr. Earnest had taken the podium and explained that the attacks on a satirical magazine occurred because Islamism — the belief that a society should be governed by Sharia — contains values that are in direct contradiction to western, and specifically, American values — freedom of expression, secular government, equality under the law, trial by jury — I would be more comfortable with the current administration’s handling of situations in the Middle East at large. The failure to recognize and cite the ideology that leads the world in the propagation of human suffering is a moral travesty. Is it too much to ask that Americans stand up for American principles, and fight real evils, rather than sensationalizing lesser ones?
Unfortunately, the dialogue in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre shows little progress on the other important issue at hand: The West has again failed to recognize that freedom of expression – by it’s very nature – does not exist if limits are placed on it. Freedom of speech and limits on free speech are mutually exclusive. If I have the freedom to speak my mind on whatever I choose, except my nation’s government, it would be fair to say that my nation does not have freedom of speech. If I have the freedom to criticize whatever I choose, except Semitic religions, it would be fair to say that my nation does not have freedom of speech. Pope Francis made comments earlier this week seeming to support the exemption of criticism of religion from protected speech. “As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good… But if Dr. Gasbarri (the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him), a good friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him… One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” Just as the Obama Administration continues to blur the lines between Islam and Islamism in order to further their narrative of pluralistic harmony, the Pope has blurred the lines between what is morally right, and rights. He subscribes to the toxic idea that freedom of speech is a means to an end. I prefer to side with the US Supreme Court, which has ruled that freedom of speech is an end to itself. The principle of being free to express yourself in any way you choose – that is not impeding on the rights of others – is not only a way in which our society is made more tolerant, and good, it is a good in itself.
What Charlie Hebdo did was disrespectful to a large number of people. I myself, am not interested whatsoever in working at that sort of a publication. But their legal right to say what they would like without repercussions is indescribably more valuable than the feelings of those who are offended by it.
Despite what some in the media have suggested, the staff at Charlie was far from a bunch of conniving bigots. You can see so for yourself – they were profiled by the New York Times’ Op-Doc series in 2006, in the wake of the murder of Danish cartoonists for their own depictions of Muhammad. I encourage readers to watch it.