The decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to print three million copies of its satirical magazine, with the depiction of the Prophet on its front cover – albeit declaring mercy and forgiveness – was undoubtedly an act of defiance against the terrorists who murdered twelve of its journalists. The depiction of a beneficent Prophet stands in stark contrast to the demeaning caricatures that had previously earned the magazine its notoriety. But why depict a beneficent Prophet articulating a message of forgiveness – Je SuisPardonné– a portrayal that could equally be interpreted as an indictment of journalistic hubris as much as a condemnation of those who killed in his name? Could it be, I asked my Muslim friends, that the magazine was attempting to bridge divides and heal the pain wrought by the unleashing of terrorist violence?
The response from the majority was a resounding no and they believed that the magazine’s decision to print a picture of their Prophet was an act of deliberate provocation aimed at the Muslim community. Others were angry that the magazine had been elevated into a totemic symbol of Western freedom. Why, they asked was there no acknowledgement of the sacrifice of Muslim victims of the Arab spring who were fighting for the same freedoms as the two million French citizens on the unity march?
That essentially is the problem with the entire Charlie Hebdo affair: the values that are shared by people the world over have been claimed by the West and interpreted in culturally specific ways that deny the non-Western world their essential humanity.
132 children were gunned down in Peshawar by Pakistani terrorists and more than 2000 Nigerians were killed by Boko Haram Islamists within days of the Paris killings. Yet no world leaders came to mourn their passing, nor was there a unity march to commemorate the dead. If the freedom of expression and the sanctity of life are inalienable, why was the same dignity not accorded to the murder of innocents on foreign shores? The Paris Unity March did not even make a passing reference to their deaths or acknowledge that terrorists have taken more Muslim than Western lives.
So I would like to declare that ‘Non je ne suis pas Charlie’– ‘No, I am not Charlie’ because the hashtag asserts White and Western privilege; it arrogates the values of freedom and liberty to some mythical notion of Western moral superiority; and in the end it is reductive, polarizing and hypocritical.
The French President, François Hollande cast the Unity March as a battle for the soul for the nation’s founding principles of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. If indeed these values are absolute, why have its Muslim citizens, who wear the veil, been denied that choice? How is the French nation asserting the principle of egalité when France’s black communities are relegated to the deprived, suburban banlieues where crime, unemployment and deprivation run like a weeping sore? Where is the fraternité when under the cover of secularism its ethnic minorities are subject to assimilationist polices, which aim to homogenise its citizens into a version of French identity that is racist and xenophobic in its expression?
The truth is that freedoms are not sacrosanct. Whether it is the Official Secrets Act, the laws against libel, hate speech or defamation, the state is ultimately implicated in the curtailment of the absolute freedom of expression. It is part of the social contract between citizens and the State, which acknowledges that with freedom comes responsibility.
If ever there was a gaping chasm between the rhetoric of freedom and its reality, it was in the spectacle of world leaders implicated as serial offenders in the curtailment of press freedom, showing mock solidarity with those marching for unity. Likewise those same leaders of the Western world – David Cameron, François Hollande and Angela Merkel – who stood in solidarity against the terrorists have resorted to the curtailment of civil liberties and human rights as a first response to terrorism? Already the French President has declared that he is contemplating the introduction of a version of the US Patriot Act, while in Britain the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014-15 is making its way through Parliament.
However you dress up these legislative fiats, the Snowden revelation of extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence in which the British GCHQ was implicated, demonstrates that the State is equally implicated in the curtailment of its citizens freedom to hold its governments to account.
So my message to the #JeSuisCharlie brigade is this: ultimately terrorism and the surveillance state are flip sides of the same coin as both are implicated in the curtailment of justice, liberties and rights. No one should be killed for drawing satirical depictions of the Prophet just as no Western government should claim to have the monopoly on morality. The unity march is ultimately premised on the notion of an Us and Them. If we truly believe in our freedoms then those rallying under the #Je Suis Charlie hastag must demand a new paradigm that holds both terrorists and governments to account and acknowledges our common humanity.
(A version of this article appeared in the Yorkshire Post).