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Why ‘I am not Charlie’

To Charlie Hebdo and all who sail in her, I say:
as Salam-O-Alaikum!
Shalom Aleichem!
Pax Vobiscum!
Peace Be With You!

Est. read time: 20 min


T   he metres upon metres of newsprint that followed the Paris attacks have been a masterclass in the contortions of a post-colonial Europe seeking to come to terms with its redefined self.

Most commentators agree that the murder of those 12 people, including one Muslim policeman, cannot be justified, however much some Muslims and non-Muslims found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and lampooning of Islam/the Prophet/ Islamist extremists/Muslim terrorists gratuitously offensive and recklessly provocative.

Those, like me, who declared ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’ because we considered Charlie Hebdo’s take on ‘free speech’ and ‘the right to freedom of expression’ without boundaries abhorrent were judged by some commentators to represent the extended arm of the ‘war on freedom’.

To see this tragedy in terms of barbaric murders of journalists who, in the best and ancient tradition of French satire were simply lampooning religious fundamentalism and the Islamist terrorism that is seen as its companion is to fail to understand French society today as part of a reconstructed Europe.

The argument that Charlie Hebdo draws all faiths and secular hierarchies into its net and that therefore Muslims should not be assumed to be exempt, or to have any right not to be offended simply doesn’t wash. What is more, the very reactions to the killings signify how ill at ease Europe is with itself and why it needs to change the lens through which it views such events.

At the heart of the debate is the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. We the indigenes who rightfully belong versus them the aliens whom we have allowed to make our advanced civilisations their home, but who refuse to embrace and express our superior western values and who use the same freedoms we enable them to enjoy to wage jihad upon us.

Worse yet, they join foreign forces who are a real and potent threat to our national interests and to the safety of our troops in heathen lands in order to wage jihad abroad and in our land of their birth in the most barbaric manner. It is as if allegiance to the land of one’s birth is not only enough to preclude any other form of allegiance, but a sufficient reason for not adopting a position in relation to how the country of your birth conducts itself abroad.

Let me hasten to add that I abhor terrorism and consider it not just wantonly destructive, but ultimately futile. I abhor state terrorism even more, for not only does its effects impact on entire generations, destabilising countries, perpetuating poverty, ruining lives and life chances and invariably installing tyrants and plunderers who oppress their people while amassing obscene amounts of wealth.

When oppressed people take up arms and organise the oppressed masses to rid themselves of those tyrants, they are invariably regarded as ‘terrorists’ and the installed tyrants could typically depend upon their western masters to arm them to the hilt and deploy ‘counter insurgency’ agents to displace the ‘terrorists’.

It appears that, free speech notwithstanding, we should not encourage a debate about state terrorism when we seek to understand catastrophic events such as 9/11, 7/7 or the Paris killings.

The trouble I have with this self-righteous trumpeting of Western values and ‘fundamental British values’, however, is that they are so evidently relative and are invoked so whimsically that only blind and unquestioning patriotism could make anyone take them seriously.

The Paris killings took place 10 days short of 54 years since Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was assassinated by the USA and Belgium with the collusion of the Congolese ruling elite. Writing in the Guardian on the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja noted:

In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.

The USA and Belgium proceeded with an orgy of plunder and pillage, laying claim to the Congo’s extensive natural resources and exploiting local labour while at the same time supplying weapons to fuel decades of civil war. The USA, that paragon of human rights across the globe, had no moral difficulty in joining with Belgium to murder Lumumba and spread chaos across the Congo.

What might that vast expanse of the African continent have become and how might the rest of the continent have developed if that great Pan-African leader and strategist had not been murdered by the USA and Belgium?

This is the same Belgium that, under the rule of Leopold II had stolen huge swathes of the Congo and established the Congo Free State, an act of plunder which European colonisers endorsed at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885, as if it was their land to hand over to Leopold. Leopold presided over genocides in the Congo on an unimaginable scale, massacring some 15 million Congolese. Enslaved Congolese people had their limbs routinely cut off for failing to collect sufficient quantities of ivory and to meet stipulated quotas of rubber sap.

In 1972, I had the privilege of hosting with some other comrades the visit of Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), Amílcar Cabral, who spoke to a packed house at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Cabral held a private meeting with us, the organisers of the rally, and described in some detail what the PAIGC was doing in the Guinea-Bissau liberated zones, especially with regard to schooling and education, women’s development and building civil society organisations.

He stressed that this was an important precursor to declaring independence of the liberated territories and freeing the people from the oppressive choke of Portuguese colonialism. He was urgently seeking the support of the free world in helping to consolidate their revolutionary gains.

On 20 January 1973, Amilcar Cabral was assassinated in what is widely regarded as a plot between certain disaffected members of ethnic nationalities in the PAIGC and the Portuguese colonial government which was at war with both the PAIGC under Cabral and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) under the leadership of Samora Machel (since 1970), its founder leader Eduardo Mondlane having been assassinated in 1969.

Machel himself was killed in an unexplained plane crash in South Africa in 1986, while returning to Mozambique from Zambia. The South African Government was believed by Frelimo, Graca Machel and the international community to be responsible for the crash.

South Africa became an international pariah because of state terrorism, having itself imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the then leadership of the ANC for terrorism and treason against the republic. Margaret Thatcher famously condemned Mandela as a ‘terrorist’.

Despite the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Massacre, Britain, France and the United States routinely vetoed United Nations sanctions against South Africa, or if they did not get their way, they systematically broke those sanctions anyway.

I was a member of the British Council of Churches (BCC) in the 1970s and in that capacity worked with the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism (PCR).

The PCR supported liberation movements, including the ANC. Year after year, there were churches in the UK withdrawing financial support from the BCC on account of its collaboration with and financial support for the PCR, because as far as they were concerned, that ‘left wing’ organisation was promoting terrorism and that was fundamentally alien to the Gospel.

It was sickening to see many of those same people fawning over Mandela on his visits to the UK. At least they had the decency not to wear signs, Charlie Hebdo style, proclaiming ‘all is forgiven’.

And then, there is Britain’s Iraq wars and those elusive ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘the conjoined USA/UK ‘war on terror’ and the terror unleashed by US military personnel and the CIA on detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison, in the form of the most barbaric human rights violations, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, sodomy, rape, torture and murder.

Underlying those human rights violations was a contempt for Islam such that detainees were made to commit acts which the perpetrators knew would cause them not just humiliation, but ontological anguish and self-revulsion.

And then there is Guantanamo and the not dissimilar practices sanctioned by Donald Rumsfeld who, even after Barack Obama condemned the barbarity of the regime in Guantanamo Bay, went on news media to defend and justify robustly the use of such barbaric practices, euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. The world was given a graphic image of one hooded detainee, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, being tortured in Abu Ghraib.

And then, there is secret detention and extraordinary rendition:

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency embarked on a highly classified program of secret detention and extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects. The program was designed to place detainee interrogations beyond the reach of law. Suspected terrorists were seized and secretly flown across national borders to be interrogated by foreign governments that used torture, or by the CIA itself in clandestine “black sites” using torture techniques.

Globalizing Torture is the most comprehensive account yet assembled of the human rights abuses associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations. It details for the first time what was done to the 136 known victims, and lists the 54 foreign governments that participated in these operations. It shows that responsibility for the abuses lies not only with the United States but with dozens of foreign governments that were complicit.

Further still, there is the widespread use of surveillance drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their impact upon civilians who are not suspects, especially women and children. The use of such unmanned surveillance devices by police and security forces in the UK, not only as part of the government’s counter terrorism measures but also in regular policing raises some disturbing questions about privacy and human rights.

If police forces could use those devices to tackle anti-social behaviour and track the activities of young people, we can guarantee that ‘Stop & Search’ would soon become yesterday’s concerns as whole communities are subjected to a level of intrusive surveillance which is totally unwarranted and most likely illegal, but which the government and Chief Constables everywhere would seek to justify as legitimate measures for countering terrorism and combating crime.

So, while the government, aided by a hysterical media, has us focusing on Islamic extremism and the threat of terrorism and busies itself force-feeding us with British values, it is systematically sweeping aside our fundamental human rights and clandestinely imposing a police state upon us all, extremists, conformists and patriots alike.

What then does all of that have to do with Charlie Hebdo and the Frenchmen, Said and Chérif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly?

President François Hollande described the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a “terrorist attack of the most extreme barbarity”. The words ‘barbarity’ and ‘barbaric’ were used frequently to describe the attack, especially by the media.

Although all three men were born and bred in France, it is their Algerian and Malian heritage that most commentators focused upon. Very much like 7/7 and the killing of 52 people on the transport system in London in 2005, the issues that exercised people arguably more than any other were: how could they, by implication, renounce their Britishness and betray the country of their birth and do this? And why did they do it?

In much of the noise that there was after the killings in France, was the suggestion that the ethnic origin of the killers, rather than their French-ness, that explained the barbarity. After 7/7, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed:

This is a very sad day for the British people, but we will hold true to the British way of life.

In other words, these murderous acts were committed by people who were born in Britain but were not ‘British people’ and part of ‘the British way of life’. They were aliens and foreigners who subscribed to a religion that patently was not part of ‘the British way of life’ any more than suicide bombing was part of our way of life.

However, rendering the London killers and the French killers eight and a half years later people who belong among us, but whose acts we cannot and do not own, does not by itself make anyone feel safer.

On the contrary, it legitimises placing everybody else who look like them under surveillance and adopting all sorts of draconian measures, under the guise of ‘preventing’ terrorism, to ensure that they are not harbouring anti-state views, irrespective of what they see the state doing in their name as British people, both to them and others like them in foreign lands, especially in theatres of war.

And here’s the rub. In France, it is futile to ask questions such as: what percentage of people such as the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly are unemployed; what are their schooling outcomes and those of young people whose elders are from the Maghreb, as compared to their white French counterparts; how long does it take school leavers from such groups to find a job; what percentage of them go on to university in any one year?

Futile, because the French do not collect this monitoring data. ‘We are all French’…, until you start identifying with those acting against our interests, even if they subscribe to the same interpretation of Islam (or anything else) as you do. Yet, the reality is that whether they are measured and counted or not, all those indicators of equality of opportunity and of access, if not of outcomes, translate into the marginalisation of such groups in French society, no less than in Britain.

What is more, there is an interaction between the way they are perceived by the society and the treatment they receive from institutions of the state, especially the police. Sarkozy unashamedly called them ‘scum’. In Britain, Blair suggested that the “severe disorder” that arose from serious youth violence was not a symptom of a wider social problem but caused by individuals who needed to be “taken out of circulation“.

When race and faith get conflated and there is a structural intolerance of and antipathy towards the open expression of one’s faith, the experience of marginalisation and of being under threat from hostile forces becomes accentuated.

It is in this context that Charlie Hebdo’s right to uphold the proud French tradition of free speech as expressed in satire needs to be viewed. Let me add straight away and leave no one in any doubt that I believe blasphemy laws are ridiculous. It is even more absurd for people to seek to avenge a deity by attacking, let alone murdering someone who blasphemes against them.

As far as I am concerned, by their very nature, God, Olodumare, Mohammed, Buddha, or whoever, are more than capable of looking after themselves. Again, by their very nature, they do not and cannot command me to take up arms in their defence, however much I exercise my right to be offended by the way people choose to represent or depict them. But, context is important.

If I am a journalist, cartoonist, broadcaster or anyone else whose craft has to do with mass circulation of ideas, comments, drawings, speeches, etc., I have a duty to be aware of the context in which my creative products will be received and to ask myself whether I might be further contributing to making the subjects of my creative products further targets for those who are already negatively disposed towards them, to the extent that they would gladly put the lives of those who belong to that group in danger and feel justified in so doing.

I believe that for decades the National Front and the British National Party genuinely believed that they were performing the patriotic function of controlling black people and curbing our freedoms on behalf of the state and of ‘the silent and long suffering white majority’ who were presumed to want to keep Britain white.

Those Far Right groups felt emboldened in that belief not least because of how the state itself and societal institutions (in the form of the police, the courts, the schools, the media) were treating its black population.

To take cognisance of that and avoid inciting bigotry, racial hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia and the rest is NOT to curtail free speech, but rather to defend the right of African people, Asian people, Muslims, Hari Krishna devotees and others who are already rendered ‘other’ by the society to go about their daily business without some fascist or ‘keep France white’ fanatic attacking them because of the colour of their skin, or on account of their manner of dress.

Secular fundamentalism in this context is no less odious than Christian or Islamic fundamentalism. And as for British values, it is only those who are as arrogant as David Cameron, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles and others in the Westminster bubble who would not be suspicious of that notion for the hypocrisy and humbug that it is.

This is especially so because it would appear that British values are seen to be absent or under threat only when it comes to African and Asian people, especially members of faith groups. Here, again, once sees the conflation of faith and race.

Britain had an entire army of home grown ‘terrorists’ who waged a protracted war against the British state and claimed many lives on mainland Britain and even more in Northern Ireland. They were not Shia and Sunni, but Catholic and Protestant.

At no point during that conflict, despite the massacres, the denial of opportunity to Catholics, the kidnappings, beatings and knee-cappings, the attempts on the lives of the British Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet, was the Primate, the late Reverend Ian Paisley, or anybody else asked to demonstrate how their brand of Christianity that was undergirding murder and mayhem was helping to promote British values.

This, despite the fact, that most of what Cameron lists as fundamental British values were transparently absent in both those groups’ dealings with the British state and with each other.

But then, both were spawned by the British Empire, an empire that was built on barbarism on a global scale. All empires indulge in barbarism on an epic scale, however they might try to justify it. That is as true of the British Empire as it is of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the rest.

The barbarism of ISIS and of Boko Haram pales into insignificance when compared to that of the British Empire and of European imperialists, including France and Belgium. Yet, Britain of all countries dares to stand on the moral high ground and encourage a popular narrative which infers that these barbaric and uncivilised Middle Eastern, Asians and African types are seeking to engulf us in terror.

This racialization and Islamicisation of barbarism simply serves to alienate more and more of those who see Britain and the USA as complicit in the subjugation of the Palestinians and the suppression of regimes in areas where their ‘national interests’ effectively mean their control of the supply of oil.

Today, those former imperialists make common cause with other barbaric nations. The USA and British onslaught on the Gadafi regime in Libya was justified on the grounds that the world could not sit by and watch Muammar Gaddafi murder his own people. ‘Rebels’ were provided with military and logistical support and assisted in wiping out Gaddafi.

Bashar al-Assad has murdered considerably more of his people than Gaddafi ever could. Jeremy Bowen, reporting for the BBC on 12 November 2014 stated:

Is there a way to end the war in Syria? Not at the moment, or in the foreseeable future. That is extremely bad news for…. every Syrian caught in the nightmare of a fourth year of bloodshed. The UN estimates that nearly 200,000 people have been killed. Almost 11 million Syrians, virtually half of the population, have been forced to leave their homes. Of those, more than three million have fled the country…

In the year or so after a series of local uprisings in March 2011 escalated quickly into a shooting war, President Assad’s opponents hoped it would end with the rapid collapse of the system that his father had established in 1970. Presidents in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen had been forced out. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi had been killed…..The UN has another ceasefire plan, but it is at a very early stage. Diplomatic attempts to stop the war, or even slow it down, have failed. Syria’s connections with the rest of the Middle East, and the rivalries of big powers left no room for diplomacy.

The focus of the United States and the UK just now is on defeating ISIS, to the extent that, rather than ensuring that Syria’s Assad goes the way of Gaddafi, they are debating doing deals with Assad so that they could better arraign their forces against ISIS.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu joined other heads of state at the front of the solidarity march in Paris on Sunday 11 January, following the Charlie Hebdo attack. He marched in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and in defence of free speech. Those heads of state marching with him presumably failed to see the irony of Israeli support for journalists killed by jihadists in France while the Israel defence force kills even more journalists in Gaza as they try to alert the world to Israeli and other atrocities there:

During the recent War on Gaza, a disproportionate number of civilians – many of them children – were killed in attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces. But there is another casualty of war which has received surprisingly little international attention. Since the bombing raids began, 17 journalists have been killed in Gaza, prompting calls for war crimes charges to be brought against the State of Israel and those involved in carrying out this war.

For example, back on July 9, a driver for the local agency Media 24, Hamid Shihab, died when his car was bombed by an IDF air strike. The car was clearly marked as press but it was hit by an Israeli strike anyway.

What is disturbing about the mass hysteria that followed the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that the media especially, with some notable exceptions, locked on to the ‘war on free speech’ narrative and failed to ask some searching questions about the state we’re in and the implications for the future of France and Europe of having sectors of the population, French, British, Belgian as anyone else, resort to measures which hit at the very heart of those societies themselves.

As Gary Younge reminded us:

In times of crisis, those who would like us to keep just one idea in our heads at any one time are quick to the megaphones. By framing events in Manichean terms – dark versus light; good versus evil – an imposed binary morality seeks to corral us into crude camps. There are no dilemmas, only declarations. What some lack in complexity they make up for in polemical clarity and the provision of a clear enemy…..

These were, for the most part, not accidental targets. Nor were they acts of insanity. They were calculated acts of political violence driven by the incoherent allegiances of damaged and dangerous young men. They are personally responsible for what they did. But we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them. And if we want others to turn out differently – less hateful, more hopeful – we will have to keep more than one idea in our heads at the same time.

Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie!

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