There is much sanctimonious twaddle being written about the Charlie Hebdo attacks yesterday. I want to make three points here that hopefully don’t fall into that category.
Firstly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.
We should not, however, confuse the journalists with the journal. I have on occasion read some of the content of Charlie Hebdo, and although that doesn’t qualify me to comment on it in detail, I have read enough to know that I am sceptical about whether it represents “good journalism” – much of what it seems to me to portray is simple old-fashioned prejudice, and in relation to the Middle East and Islam, this was based on racist and Orientalist stereotypes.
I believe it was Finley Peter Dunne, writing a century ago, who said that “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whilst I categorically condemn attacks on any journalist, I want to ask of Charlie Hebdo: who was being comforted by its journalism, and who was being afflicted? Prejudice, racism, Orientalism – these are not, to my mind, indicators that the magazine was getting the comforting and afflicting right.
Such a view does not detract from an intrinsic belief in the freedom of speech. Even if a publication espouses vile and repulsive views, that does not mean it should be banned. I think it is our task in society, however, not to buy and support such publications and keep them afloat: the continued sales success of the Daily Mail and The Sun makes me despair of our society at times (I’d rather they went bankrupt because nobody bought (into) their sexism, racism, homophobia…). So Charlie Hebdo can be as offensive as it likes, and whilst I will defend its right to be offensive and for its journalists to write and draw whatever they like, I will not support and identify myself with a journal that bases its success on simply exploiting prejudices.
I am not Charlie Hebdo: none of this Je suis Charlie stuff for me.
Secondly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.
Whether that can be a fair trial is another matter after the French President François Hollande immediately described the event as a “terrorist” act, rather than a “criminal” one. He is doing the same as those mad old warriors Bush and Blair, who preferred to use the pejorative language of “terrorism” rather than the more accurate but less politically useful language of “crime” – and doing so served their purposes well.
It is depressing that Hollande appears to be doing the same. Would he have used that language had the gunmen been from some far-right movement, for example? Or basically any non-Muslim group? I would welcome corrections to this statement if appropriate, but: I don’t recall Hollande or anyone else using the word “terrorism” in relation to supporters of the Jewish Defence League trying to murder an anti-Zionist journalist in 2012. Our language needs to be much more careful, even in, or especially in, times of great stress. However, we can only be sensitive to language if we are used to using it correctly in the first place, and the great tide of Islamophobia in France and the rest of Europe that our politicians have done so little to counter mitigates against that. We need actively to address such prejudices, or we will struggle to articulate what we should be doing in times of adversity such as these.
Thirdly: it is terrible that these journalists and the police officers were murdered. I hope the perpetrators are caught and put on trial.
Equally, all those who have carried out drone attacks in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in many other places should be brought to trial for the murder of the countless innocents who happened to be nearby when someone was being targeted for extra-judicial assassination (itself, of course, illegal). The stories of those murdered by invading armies – our armies – need to be told and justice needs to be done and seen to be done (for example, where the hell is the Chilcot Report?!). Yesterday the West was (rightly) grieving and marching and protesting about the deaths of the Parisian journalists, and yet at least 37 people were murdered in a suicide attack in Yemen (see here and here) – where are the thousands of Westerners grieving, marching and protesting for them? Last night, commentator Habiba Hamid noted (apologies for the Daily Mail link…):
We in the West export war, either by invading and attacking other countries, or quite literally by exporting huge quantities of arms so that people can kill each other whilst our arms industry gets rich. Occasionally, just occasionally, some of the consequences of this horrific immorality reaches back to our shores and it’s our police officers and our journalists who are murdered, rather than police officers and journalists in countries that are (supposedly) far away like Yemen. My heart is heavy for the murdered Parisians, but equally for those that we, one way or another, have caused to die through our foreign policies, even though they don’t live in a pretty European capital; Lindsey German is worth reading in this regard.
Everything is connected – denying this and doing nothing about it means we will never stop things like yesterday’s Charlie Hebdo shooting, the 2005 London transport attack, the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the 2001 Washington and New York attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the…
UPDATE 9.1.15, evening: please note that I am closing comments on this blog posting. I have tried to engage with as many perspectives as possible in the last two days, but I cannot devote yet more time to comments now. Thank you for reading this, and I hope you find the comments below of interest.
Update 10.1.15, evening: this discussion, chaired by Cathy Newman, with Martin Rowson and Will Self, is from last night’s Channel 4 News, and is well worth watching on this issue; neither of them endear themselves to those who argue for Je suis Charlie.