by Niamh Doyle
I have a few things to justify before starting this article. First of all, terrorism is awful and barbaric and deafeningly sad – this is a point I need not articulate further. Secondly, freedom of speech is one of the most important rights we have, and should be protected. Lastly, I believe that showing unity and strength in a time of global tragedy is beautiful and important. This all being said, I have to admit that the #JeSuisCharlie movement that has swept the world makes me uneasy. After much thought and deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that no, I am not Charlie Hebdo.
I’ve been taught to be wary of anything that occurs en masse. Ideas can be misconstrued, meaning takes many shades, and hypocrisy can be shamelessly exposed. The masses, in short, are too massive to be taken at face value, and #JeSuisCharlie is a prime example of this.
“Je suis Charlie” is on the lips of journalists showing their allegiance to the satirical magazine, on the posters of citizens of Paris who passionately protest the terrorist attack. This side of the movement is touching and inspiring, highlighting the need for unity and strength in a time of grief. At the same time, “je suis Charlie” is being shouted by Islamophobes all around Europe, and whispered by Muslims who show support of a racist and offensive cartoon so as not to be labeled as terrorists by overly zealous atheists and members of other religions. Suddenly “je suis Charlie” is no longer a call for unity and solidarity, but a message that attacks and strikes fear in the hearts of an already oppressed minority of the French population.
It’s important to contextualize the cartoons that prompted the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. Muslims constitute roughly seven and a half percent of the French population, with immigration from previous African French colonies supplying the bulk of the individuals who diversify France’s majority Catholic demographics. There has been controversy in recent years over a law passed in 2004 that notoriously denies Muslim girls the right to wear headscarves to school, highlighting some of the tension that arises daily between France’s prominent nationalist party and the Muslim minority.
On the other hand, there’s the National Front, France’s far right party, led by Marine Le Pen – daughter of founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Le Pen is infamous for his public anti-semitism and insistence on the nationalization of France. His daughter maintains her extremist father’s core values, but has taken a modern disposition, ditching her father’s criticism of Judaism and focusing on a more contemporary opposition to Islam, hoping to eradicate the minority group. The National Front is the third largest party in France (trailing behind the center right party, the UMP, that shares a similar anti-immigration ideology).
So here we have it: a Muslim minority being politically attacked by a prominent portion of the French population, and then there’s Charlie Hebdo: a satirical magazine that has for years been known to attack Islam (among other religions) with crude, offensive humor that directly confronts some of Islam’s core principles.
Sure, Charlie Hebdo attacks Islam and Christianity alike, and it’s true that the magazine has the right to publish whatever they desire. Here’s #JeSuisCharlie, a global movement commending Charlie Hebdo for their bravery, brandishing them as the poster child for freedom of the press. But where’s the heroism in attacking an already oppressed minority? Where’s the bravery in catering to the masses by subjugating the few and disadvantaged? Cartoonist and victim of the attack Stephane Charbonnier said that he would “prefer to die standing than to live on [his] knees” – a quote that has echoed eerily around the internet over the past few days. Charbonnier and his fellow cartoonists were never on their knees – not even close. Not posting the article would not have been backing down or any kind of moral submission. Under the threat of physical violence it makes sense to stand one’s ground, but in this case, I have a hard time finding the bravery in Charlie Hebdo’s actions. Charbonnier had the voice of the majority on his side, and his racist cartoons only served to further religious tension in France. To proclaim “je suis Charlie” is to declare oneself to be a racist, tasteless cartoon whose publication may have brought more moral trepidation than comedic appreciation. Tragedy, in short, does not redeem the publication of its faults.
In the chaos that followed the attack, the cartoon has been splattered across Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the internet, captioned with a hashtag and a quote about freedom, unity, and solidarity. Mosques have been destroyed in France, and painful memories of 9/11 evoked. “Je suis Charlie” may be a symbol of solidarity to some, but for me it foreshadows the Islamophobia that will inevitably heighten in its wake, as it did in the years after 2001. Unity is beautiful, but it will fade. The cartoon may be forgotten as time passes, and the shock we experienced upon hearing Paris’ news will dull. Hate fades less quickly though, prejudice seems never to die. I, for one, am not optimistic for whatever comes next. Je ne suis pas Charlie.