Well it didn’t take long did it? After a brief wave of unequivocal solidarity with the victims of last week’s savage attack on French society, cracks and, ultimately, gaping crevasses began to appear in the West’s resolve.
It has been heartening to see solidarity, from across the political spectrum, with the victims and the principles of free speech and openness that were assaulted last week, but there are already far too many of us who would rather blame anyone but the perpetrator and sympathise with anyone but the victim.
Before the dead had even been buried Charlie Hebdo was subjected to accusations that they had somehow brought this on themselves by being “racist” or insulting the core beliefs of “over a billion people” (there is the thinly veiled threat again) – all the while hedged with empty caveats to the effect of “although I don’t believe that violence is ever justified…”. This of course echoes the many instances of victim-blaming, in this repetitive cycle, that began with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie who apparently “knew what he was doing” or the publication of the now infamous Danish cartoons after which followed a wave of vile pogroms.
The essential fallacy in all of these cases is the “root causes” argument which is a now well-worn get-out clause liberals employ to blame anything except Islamic extremism for the activities of Islamic extremists. With that in mind I would like to address some of the ridiculous positions adopted by the liberal media in the past week:
It’s all about colonialism and/or the past injustices committed by us: In this particular case this has frequently taken the form of listing a catalogue of French colonial crimes and how they have led us to this point, essentially transferring responsibility for these crimes to a historical record that current French citizens are powerless to change. Of course there is historicity to any major event but to absolve the murderer of their crime and transfer the responsibility to their victims because of the actions of their forebears displays a sinister moral attitude reminiscent of the religious pogroms of the 19th and 20th century or that most debased religious concept of the transference of sins across generations of children. These men were not powerless outcomes of an unjust history, they had agency, they were trained for this and they believed in what they were doing.
Perhaps even more appalling, or at least more dangerous in terms of the precedent they set, are the arguments that this was retaliation for offences against Muslims, as they suggest responsibility on the part of French citizens alive today. Again, this is merely a repetition of the same pattern we saw after 9/11 and the attacks on London, such as that they were a response to US or UK involvement in Iraq. I would love to hear a valid explanation as to how a commuter on a London bus is responsible for UK foreign policy or how an Australian holidaymaker in Bali is responsible for the liberation of East Timor. Also, what role did Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket in Paris play in the oppression of Muslims? There is no appeasing this kind of tyrannical mindset unless you want to commit suicide on a civilizational level. All that is achieved by peddling this kind of rhetoric is to excuse future acts of mass murder in advance.
Just because the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo didn’t deserve to die does not mean they deserve admiration: This tends to be the argument most laden with half-hearted caveats but still wilfully misses the point and tacitly absolves, at least in part, the responsibility of the attackers. The phrase “Je Suis Charlie” adopted worldwide in solidarity with the victims has been attacked by some as undue adulation for a trashy and intolerant rag that does not deserve to be held up as an icon of free speech and democracy. But whether or not you like the content of the magazine the symbolism that followed was an inevitable result of the fact that the attack itself represented the negation of free speech and democracy. Probably the most tawdry and cheap arguments in this vein are those that accuse Charlie Hebdo of being “racist”, usually thrown around by those who haven’t taken the time to look into their work in the correct topical context.
It is wrong to ask Muslims to condemn terrorists: This statement is correct in principle, but is applied in such a way as to avoid asking hard questions about religious doctrine and fundamentalism. It is obvious that most Muslims are not fanatics and I would not expect them to have to restate that, but these moderate Muslims are let down by Muslim authorities and spokespeople who refuse to offer any kind of condemnation unless it is balanced against an attack on the so-called offender for “inciting” the actions against them and a framing of Islam as the victim in the situation. Here are some recent examples, specifically the reactions to the, frankly innocuous and quite touching new cover of Charlie Hebdo which, while it shows an image of the Prophet, implies that he was a more enlightened individual who would not have condoned the attacks:
“My reaction to the cartoon is disgust, but tending more to annoyance as well because I feel that what’s happening here is not that different from what we witnessed back in 2005 with the Danish cartoons when media outlets went into a cycle of just publishing the cartoons just to show defiance. And what that caused is more offence.” – Omer el-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain
“If the cartoon had read “Je suis Ahmed”’, given that many were carrying that badge after the policeman Ahmed Merabet who was killed, might not have put more salt to the wound.” – Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan
“This action is an unjustified provocation against the feelings of 1.5 billion Muslims -This (magazine) edition will result in a new wave of hatred in French and Western society. What the magazine is doing does not serve coexistence and the cultural dialogue Muslims aspire to.” – Statement from the Dar al-Ifta (Egyptian state-sponsored Muslim authority)
The breathtaking arrogance of using such language such as “salt to the wound” actually implies that Islam and/or Muslims are the wounded party in this scenario. Not only that, but the president of the Muslim Association of Britain (hardly a fringe organisation) essentially blames the cartoonists (in both the French and Danish cases) for the campaign of murder inflicted against them. Further, the Dar al-Ifta predicts, without disapproval, dangerous consequences for the West and throws in a threat that this was an “unjustified provocation” condoning any further terrorist action in advance.
Free speech does not include the right to insult someone’s core identity: This is partly a continuation of the ongoing confusion between race and religion. A person’s race is a part of their identity in the sense that it is something that they cannot change and are born with, but does not compromise their faculties in any way. A religion, on the other hand, is a set of ideas and truth claims which, although some people are raised and indoctrinated with them, can be changed and/or rejected and have the potential to have a mitigating influence on a person’s critical faculties and view of the world (as is obvious by the actions of many fundamentalist religious people, Muslim or otherwise). The right to criticise beliefs and ideas is the basis of all our rights as a free society and yet some of us seem all too willing to give this up. I have witnessed non-religious peers of mine from school and university on social media, openly calling for a curtailing of free speech on supposedly “liberal” grounds – that it offends the sensibilities of the religious. This is not a liberal argument but a brazenly totalitarian one.
A further problem with this conflation is that it is itself essentially racist. Unlike Christianity, Islam is given a privileged position as a kind of no-go area or taboo by much of the liberal elite. But by suggesting that an insult to Islam is equivalent to racism (or exactly the same as many incorrectly refer to it) there seems to be an implicit suggestion that, because a great deal of Muslims have a different skin colour, to insult their beliefs is taboo – thus holding them to a different standard as everyone else in society and rendering them a kind of unknowable “other” immune to reason.
Ironically, one of the few Western responses to hit an appropriate tone of defiance without hedging it with elements of moral surrender was the one by the hacker group, Anonymous, declaring unequivocal war on terrorists wherever they may be. It is perhaps the saddest indictment of the state of our moral conviction and values, that the only ones who are willing to say what needs to be said are those who hide behind a mask.
Featured Image Credit: “The Flagellants”. Still from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) Source: YouTube