Home > Daily life > Of course I am Charlie

Of course I am Charlie

Back in my beautiful Paris bathed in its particular silvery light, the January 7th mass murder of cartoonists and journalists at the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo seems ever unreal. Did the victims measure the scope of the fanaticism they were up against? Did they not know that freedom of expression is a luxury that not every imbecile on this planet understands? I like to think, given what I know of Wolinski, Cabu, Charb and the others, that they didn’t give a damn, that they liked their profession and would have continued, regardless of sensitivities. Good for them. Sad for us and their families that they had to pay such a price.

The profane and iconoclastic Charlie Hebdo journalists split their sides laughing at hearing the fortune-teller’s hilarious prediction: “You will be assassinated by terrorists. The bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral will toll for you. There will be a great march with (former French President) Sarkozy, (present President) Hollande, (Prime Minister) Valls, (German Chancellor) Merkel, (British Prime Minister) Cameron, and even (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu attending. The tricolor flag will fly and the (national anthem) Marseillaise will be sung. There will be proposals to enshrine you. Both Nasdaq and the French Academy will claim ‘We are Charlie’ and the Pope will pray for you.”

The profane and iconoclastic Charlie Hebdo journalists split their sides laughing at hearing the fortune-teller’s hilarious prediction: “You will be assassinated by terrorists. The bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral will toll for you. There will be a great march with (former French President) Sarkozy, (present President) Hollande, (Prime Minister) Valls, (German Chancellor) Merkel, (British Prime Minister) Cameron, and even (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu attending. The tricolor flag will fly and the (national anthem) Marseillaise will be sung. There will be proposals to enshrine you. Both Nasdaq and the French Academy will claim ‘We are Charlie’ and the Pope will pray for you.”

The mood here is somber, the arguments on all sides heated, not least those of Muslims who present themselves as the real victims, the usual discourse of people who for whatever reason choose to emigrate to countries other than their original one and give lessons—on morals, virtue, the true faith, etc.—to people there while criticizing customs different from what they know. No one should be asked to understand this frightening lack of logic. If I am to understand individuals being pulled into dangerous belief systems, be it honor or creed, then I should also understand Mafia members in Sicily, MS gangs in Latin America, youngsters from foster homes who fall into criminal ways, and extend my sympathy to terrorists. But I don’t. Not that being poor, disenfranchised, uneducated, with no hope, no job and no future, and living in inner cities does not merit extreme sympathy but the fact is that the majority of people in dire circumstances, including the poorer Muslims in Western countries or African Americans in the United States don’t take up arms.

One remark about the Charlie Hebdo carnage. We hear that the slain journalists provoked it. To me, the statement shows the low esteem in which we hold not only, rightly, the perpetrators of this or any other act of terrorism (Charlie Hebdo, September 11 or the Boston marathon murders) but the Muslim community at large. Think about it, even the mildest among us are provoked on occasion, sometimes to the point of blind fury—by an illogical response, by rudeness, by a sense of injustice. That doesn’t cause us to grab the nearest kitchen knife or the Kalashnikov conveniently provided by puppet masters who know exactly which strings to pull. It doesn’t translate into killing whoever provoked us. Saying that we “understand” the provocation to the Charlie Hebdo murderers implies that lowlifes such as the perpetrators and others of their ilk are incapable of reacting otherwise when provoked. (For the indoctrination of young Muslims, see the remarkable Pakistani film “Silent Waters” by the female director Sabiha Sumar.)

Here’s a point about Islam. After the attacks of September 11, whatever prompted George W. Bush to proclaim that Islam (Izlam in his pronunciation that has become the default one on the other side of the Atlantic) is a religion of peace? Granted, the 43rd President was neither a history buff nor endowed with the sharpest intellect. Still, the absurd statement would rightly offend the Prophet Mohamed far more than the cartoons that caused the mass murder in Paris ten days ago. Mohamed’s life events are sketchy at best and greatly enhanced by the hadiths or traditional stories about him. What we do know is that he was a merchant, a tribesman used to fighting rivals over water rights or ownership of caravans carrying goods and people. As he started spreading the new religion, he turned warrior and, we can imagine, proudly so. Why else would he do battle with armies of thousands, (ten thousand for his takeover of Mecca), why else would the Arab Conquest convert populations by the sword, why else would Mohamed and his son-in-law Ali, revered by Shiites, glory in having their horses standing chest-high in the blood of enemies? So, “religion of peace,” I don’t think so. One can imagine the Prophet disgruntled and even greatly insulted by being made out to be a gentle soul or the innocuous originator of a new faith who says in effect to would-be followers, “Here’s Islam, brother. Embrace it or not, I’m cool with that.”

Another point. That men should be Muslim is understandable. No man can let his natural machismo shine through to the extent allowed, nay, encouraged, by this faith. They can act tough, be the undisputed head of their family, their neighborhood or their tribe, they can take any number of wives (four are officially allowed but all it takes to repudiate one is a quick formula.) Shiite men, by the way, are also allowed as many temporary wives as they wish, again all it takes is a formula and the woman is theirs from one hour to a lifetime; Sunni men are learning to avail themselves of this service. Also, as we know, good Muslim men go to heaven where they are given as a reward 72 virgins whose virginity is constantly restored. As a woman, my question is this: Why would women be Muslims? They’re subjugated, made to cover up so they won’t arouse men (yes, they are responsible for ensuring that men suffer no discomfort, hence the headscarf of burka or whatever, the covering that women so hate in the countries where it’s the law and that women in Western countries claim as their right, particularly converts, always the more fanatic). They owe strict obedience to the men in their family, be it father, uncle, brother or spouse, who decide for women whether they are allowed to get an education, to work outside the home, to travel. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, they cannot drive or have a bank account; under the Taliban, they are not allowed to go to school. Their testimony doesn’t count and their share of inheritance is half that of men. The punishment for adultery or any act of disobedience may be death. In mosques, women can pray only in segregated sections, not in the main halls. Female genital mutilation, although not prescribed by Islam, is the norm in a number of Muslim countries. (For more on how Islam treats women, see the film “Passion” by the Syrian director Mohammad Malas.) It needs to be said that these rules don’t always apply in Muslim countries or even in many Muslim communities in other parts of the world but they do exist. Also, the vast majority of Muslims the world over don’t live by these rules but, again, they exist. So why would women, in countries where they do have a choice, where they are educated professionals and the equal of men as a matter of course, still profess to belong to a faith so degrading to women?

I have no answer save that blind ideology and the certainty of possessing the only truth probably makes life easier. Voicing questions and having doubts lead us down an uncertain path but, ultimately, that may be how we can build a more generous, tolerant, and inclusive belief system.

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  1. Dr. Burlie Brunson
    January 18, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Saïdeh- thank you for a wonderfully insightful and courageous post. It is the best commentary on the current state of extreme Islam and its associated terrorism prevailing in so many parts of the world that I have ever read. It is particularly insightful for the view it presents of the state of women under Islam. Bravo!

    • January 18, 2015 at 8:47 pm

      Thank you for the kind comment.

  2. January 18, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    As usual, you make things so clear.

  3. January 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Saïdeh, I second the previous commentary. I believe however that the issue is not one of any given religion being fundamentally one of peace or violence, but rather the courage and the insight of leaders to move it beyond being what it might have been in different times and to remove it from being just the tool of a segment of the population (the kleptomullahs in Iran, the buddhist leaders in Sri Lanka, the “caliph” of ISIS, etc.) to exploit other groups. What is a problem is that not enough mainstream muslim leaders (and they are many) raise their voices high enough against these barbaric acts that bring shame to the very causes they pretend to protect.

    Conversely, it is not by saying to the mainstream followers of a religion that “your religion is all crap” that we would make it easier for them to evolve it. All religions were at some point in the history utterly misogynistic and “crappy” but Islam is one that started about 150 years ago reverting to more obscurantist views after centuries of enlightment (compared, say, to Christian Europe) . No doubt that it too will evolve but in the meantime the barbarians are among us.

  4. Sue Ellen Hearn
    January 19, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Yup!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  5. Bijan Namvar
    January 19, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Dear Saideh,
    There are always different views from different angles to each phenomena. Rely only on one view point, however convincing, is misleading. For example look at Chris Hedges’ view point; can this point of view be ignored all together?

    “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts”

    A Message From the Dispossessed

    ​The Rage of the Dispossessed Did not Arise From Islam or the Quran. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris.

    By Chris Hedges
    Chris Hedges previously spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

    The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.
    We have engineered the rage of the dispossessed. The evil of predatory global capitalism and empire has spawned the evil of terrorism. And rather than understand the roots of that rage and attempt to ameliorate it,

    we have built sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance,
    passed laws that permit the targeted assassinations

    and torture of the weak, and amassed modern armies and the machines of industrial warfare to dominate the world by force.

    This is not about justice.
    It is not about the war on terror.
    It is not about liberty or democracy.
    It is not about the freedom of expression.
    It is about the mad scramble by the privileged to survive at the expense of the poor. And the poor know it.

    If you spend time as I have in Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan, as well as the depressing, segregated housing projects known as banlieues that ring French cities such as Paris and Lyon, warehousing impoverished North African immigrants, you begin to understand the brothers Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, who were killed Friday in a gun battle with French police.

    There is little employment in these pockets of squalor. Racism is overt. Despair is rampant, especially for the men, who feel they have no purpose. Harassment of immigrants, usually done by police during identity checks, is almost constant.

    Police once pulled a North African immigrant, for no apparent reason, off a Paris Metro subway car I was riding in and mercilessly beat him on the platform.

    French Muslims make up 60 to 70 percent of the prison population in France.

    Drugs and alcohol beckon like sirens to blunt the pain of poor Muslim communities.

    The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts.

    Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

    Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the RedBrigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence.

    The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures.

    This is why France’s far right, organized around Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant Front National, has so much in common with the jihadists whom Le Pen says she wants to annihilate.

    When you sink to despair, when you live trapped in Gaza, Israel’s vast open-air prison, sleeping 10 to a floor in a concrete hovel, walking every morning through the muddy streets of your refugee camp to get a bottle of water because the water that flows from your tap is toxic, lining up at a U.N. office to get a little food because there is no work and your family is hungry, suffering the periodic aerial bombardments by Israel that leaves hundreds of dead, your religion is all you have left.

    Muslim prayer, held five times a day, gives you your only sense of structure and meaning, and, most importantly, self-worth. And when the privileged of the world ridicule the one thing that provides you with dignity, you react with inchoate fury. This fury is exasperated when you and nearly everyone around you feel powerless to respond.

    The cartoons of the Prophet in the Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo are offensive and juvenile. None of them are funny. And they expose a grotesque double standard when it comes to Muslims.

    In France a Holocaust denier, or someone who denies the Armenian genocide, can be imprisoned for a year and forced to pay a $60,000 fine. It is a criminal act in France to mock the Holocaust the way Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam.

    French high school students must be taught about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but these same students read almost nothing in their textbooks about the widespread French atrocities, including a death toll among Algerians that some sources set at more than 1 million, in the Algerian war for independence against colonial France.

    French law bans the public wearing of the burqa, a body covering for women that includes a mesh over the face, as well as the niqab, a full veil that has a small slit for the eyes. Women who wear these in public can be arrested, fined the equivalent of about $200 and forced to carry out community service.

    France banned rallies in support of the Palestinians last summer when Israel was carrying out daily airstrikes in Gaza that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.

    The message to Muslims is clear: Your traditions, history and suffering do not matter. Your story will not be heard.

    Joe Sacco had the courage to make this point in panels he drew for the Guardian newspaper. And as Sacco pointed out, if we cannot hear these stories we will endlessly trade state terror for terror.

    “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts,” the Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, an American who lives in California, told me in an email. “In some Latin countries people are acquitted for murders where the defendant’s mother was slandered by the one he murdered. I saw this in Spain many years ago. It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West. Ireland is a western country that still retains some of that, and it was the Irish dueling laws that were used in Kentucky, the last State in the Union to make dueling outlawed. Dueling was once very prominent in the West when honor meant something deep in the soul of men. Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion.

    Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one.
    I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

    Charlie Hebdo, despite its insistence that it targets all equally, fired an artist and writer in 2008 for an article it deemed to be anti-Semitic.
    Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows. Trash littered the stairwells. Spray-painted slogans denounced the French government as fascist.

    Members of the three major gangs sold cocaine and hashish in the parking lots amid the burned-out hulks of several cars. A few young men threw stones at me. They chanted “Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden!” By the door of an elderly Jewish woman’s apartment someone had spray-painted “Death to the Jews,” which she had whitewashed out.

    In the banlieues Osama bin Laden was a hero. When news of the 9/11 attacks reached La Cité des 4,000—so named because it had 4,000 public housing apartments at the time of its construction—young men poured out of their apartments to cheer and chant in Arabic, “God is great!” France a couple of weeks earlier had held the first soccer match between a French and an Algerian team since Algeria’s war of independence ended in 1962. The North Africans in the stadium hooted and whistled during the French national anthem. They chanted, “Bin Laden! Bin Laden! Bin Laden!” Two French ministers, both women, were pelted with bottles. As the French team neared victory, the Algerian fans, to stop the game, flooded onto the field.

    “You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit to La Cité des 4,000. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

    “America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

    It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins.

    ​The rage did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris.

    As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

    • January 19, 2015 at 9:36 am

      Thanks for the comment. What your author says (at extreme length) is that it’s fine to kill cartoonists. My post was about why it’s not.

      • Bijan Namvar
        January 19, 2015 at 4:50 pm

        Dear Saideh,
        Anatomy of terrorism is different from immorality of terrorism. By targeting only immorality of Terrorism, you can not fight this ugly new phenomena: by recognizing the anatomy and roots of Islamic terrorism perhaps there is better chance to overcome it.

  6. Ed
    January 19, 2015 at 6:13 am

    Always enjoy your blog. So thoughtful and insightful.

  7. Jonathan Agronsky
    January 20, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    Chris Hedges makes the argument, quite unconvincingly I believe, that the victims of the Muslim murderers are the bad guys (how dare they insult Islam?), and, further, that “the West” is populated by criminal capitalists bent on exploiting and destroying poor Muslims and others around the world who are less privileged. What an incredibly naive, hateful, distorted point of view. I too have traveled to and reported from the Third World, including the Palestinian territories. The majority of the people I met and interviewed, including Israelis and Palestinians, simply wanted to live their lives, raise their children, not be dragged into the political struggles that their leaders seem to perpetuate. The most important thing I learned, and that Mr. Hedges apparently has not, is that the most enlightened citizens, of both developed and developing countries, are decent, law-abiding people who understand that they are responsible for their actions and know that it is wrong to harm others simply because they happen to disagree with or dislike them. As another reader pointed out in a post, it is long past time that so-called “moderate” Muslim leaders speak out against the hate-filled fanatics bringing shame upon them through their vicious crimes.

    Jonathan Agronsky

  8. January 23, 2015 at 2:20 am

    Saideh, you have valuable insights here. But Islam is hardly the only religion to subordinate or oppress women. And most if not all religions have their fanatic periods or sects.

    At its root, Christianity seems to be a religion “of peace.” Yet the Christian church, or churches, have fomented some of the most horrific wars and committed some the most atrocious crimes in history.

    Buddhism follows a moral philosophy which aims toward achieving peace. And yet, the BBC recently observed this about Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Burma:

    “Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?”

    Such inconsistencies bring to mind Mark Twain’s observation:

    “[Man] is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.”

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