No, I am not Charlie

IssueFebruary 2015 - March 2015
Feature by Jan Oberg

Image1. What was this an attack on?

Was that attack an attack on freedom of speech as such, on democracy, even on the whole Western culture and lifestyle, as was maintained throughout? Or was it, more limited, a revenge directed at one weekly magazine for what some perceive as blasphemy?

2. Is freedom of expression practised or curtailed for various reasons?

How real is that freedom in the West? Just a couple of days before the Paris massacre, PEN [the literary and human rights group] in the US published a report – ‘Global Chilling’ – finding that about 75% of writers report that they are influenced by the NSA [US National Security Agency] listening and abstain from taking up certain subjects or perspectives. Self-censorship, in other words. Finally, most of the political leaders marching in Paris on Sunday January 11 have clamped down on media, such as Turkey and Egypt.

I must admit that I have experienced limitations in the practice of that freedom in my work with Western media and it is decades since I drew the conclusion that things like political correctness, ownership, commercial/market considerations and journalists’ need for good relations with power – eg to obtain interviews – play a role.

I’ve been on the ground in conflict zones and then returned home to see reports so biased that they tell very little of what I’ve seen myself. And we’ve recently seen lots of cases from the US academic world where there’s been a clampdown on certain views, publications, courses and professors – not the least in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Or, you look at the proportions between government funds available for peace research and military research in virtually every Western society; free research is a vital element in the self-understanding of the West.

But how much of it do we have?

3. Freedom doesn’t mean duty

Is freedom of expression really 100% irrespective of how much the practice of that freedom is hurtful, offending, humiliating or discriminatory against other peoples, religions and cultures? Even if you can express your opinions freely, it is not always what we should do.

I can still abstain from making a remark about somebody’s religious or political beliefs because I see no point in offending that person in regard to something he or she holds dear, it may even be part of their identity. But, sure, I have the right to do so.

“Good political satire kicks upward, at powers that be, not downward at minorities of vulnerable people.”

Using a right to the maximum isn’t necessarily the wisest or most mature thing to do. I draw the distinction between issues that touch personal identity –
eg religion, nationality, gender – and other issues. It is neither fun nor wise to satirise what people are.

One must indeed ask in the – chilling – times we live: What happened to words such as ‘solidarity’, ‘respect’, ‘empathy’ and to the values of common humanity? There can be no rights without duties as Mohandas K Gandhi brilliantly expressed it.

4. Are anti-Semitic cartoons OK now?

Why is it so important to some media people and ‘Je Suis Charlie’ people to accept or practice disdain, blasphemy and ridicule, or to depict (even naked) Muhammad when we know that that is offensive, at least to quite a few of the 1,600 million Muslims around the world. What – constructive – purposes does it serve? Really, why is that OK when anything similar against Jews would immediately be categorized as anti-Semitism and found appalling by the same people – not the least by advocates of the free press.

One, after the Muhammad caricatures, shouldn’t we have learnt something – in Denmark in particular where all main dailies except Jyllands-Posten chose to publish drawings from Charlie Hebdo the day after the attack to manifest their expression of freedom.

Two, the West – spearheaded by NATO countries – is currently in violent conflict with and intervening in a series of Muslim countries – on their territory, not the other way around – and has been for some years. Much can be seen as rooted in about 100 years of colonialism, interventionism, and the chopping-up of empires – think Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Agreement – and the Western press has just said less about the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians than about 17 killed in Paris.

5. What is satire?

Is it to skewer, to ridicule anything and everyone – even on their identity? To depict naked somebody who is sacred to others? Good political satire kicks upward, at powers that be, not downward at minorities of vulnerable people. It may surely provoke and challenge but it definitely is not provocation for the sake of provocation. I happen to think that much of what I have seen now of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical drawings are coarse, rarely funny and more focused on Islam than on other religions.

6. What purposes does the broad interpretation serve?

The interpretation that this was a strike against freedom of opinion as such and on the Western world – compelling ‘us’ to stand up together in self-defence – is unfounded, chosen for convenience and borders on the bizarre. The attack took place at a particular address at a particular journal and that sends a message itself. It was not directed at a major media, at a parliamentary building symbolising democracy or a democratic government, let alone for instance an MP. A small French satirical magazine also can’t symbolise the European Union or Europe as a whole.

“We also need a West that is willing to listen and learn and not just teach and master.”

Rather, this ‘broad’ interpretation – that has hardly been challenged – is a chosen, convenient interpretation not unlike that immediately invented after September 11. That was an attack on the US, the physical structures of the empire’s economic, political and military centres. The advantage of using a ‘total’ or broad interpretation is, of course, that it helps us all gang up against the enemy now our whole system is, allegedly, being attacked. We are now all potential victims, the threat is huge; we’re innocent and we did not deserve this. We must fight back.

Making the threat much larger than the empirical evidence also serves to legitimise an out-of-proportion response; in the 9/11 case to involve everybody in an ill-conceived terror-promoting ‘war on terror’, the miserable consequences of which we are seeing now 13 years later: one failed war after the other and more terrorism than ever.

7. The West in denial: Never discuss causes – Denmark as an example

To this can be added a Western refusal and denial. For instance, Danish Television chose – on this occasion but not in relation to other conflicts and wars – to arrange a one-hour party leader debate on 8 January. From the left to the right, two things were agreed on.

Firstly, such a horrific act committed by madmen is not caused by anything we have ever done.

“We need fierce and open debates, yes, but no provocations – psychological or otherwise.”

Secondly, there is no reason to even analyse or speculate as to why it took place because, if we do so, there is a risk that an explanation will begin to look like a defence of the act of terrorism and the terrorists. We do not want to understand them, they are madmen!

Now human beings have motives and needs. By saying that they are irrelevant in this case, these party leaders deny the perpetrators a part of their humanity. Secondly, they evidently – but unwisely – propagate the view that you can combat or solve a problem without being in the slightest interested in that problem’s causes. Third, they thereby conveniently avoid asking questions such as: Have Danish and other Western policies vis-a-vis the Muslim world been wrong in hindsight in even a tiny way? Has the ‘war on terror’ been a failure to some degree?

No, the bottom line and standard answer was and remains: we are not a party to this conflict. We have done nothing wrong. Don’t ever say that this is a reaction to anything we in the West did, it was an action directed at us innocents and at our fundamental democratic values.

Well, a couple of the Danish party leaders stated, when pressed a little, that of course one could say that this whole drama went back to the wars of religions several hundred years ago and then added that the new thing in this was that the battle was now taking place on European soil. It seemingly didn’t occur to anyone in this debate that people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya or Syria could say that the old thing was that it always took place on their territories!

Whether there is something particularly Danish in this interpretation can also be discussed. Denmark has been at war in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and was willing to bomb Syria and is now bombing IS in Iraq. It was host to the publication of the Muhammad caricatures and then prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (later secretary-general of NATO) refused to speak with ambassadors from Muslim countries and also refused to respond to a letter from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (an association of 56 countries containing 1.6 billion Muslims). In addition, Denmark spearheaded a xenophobic trend in the 1980s through the Progress Party and, from 1995, the Danish People’s Party.

Furthermore, the Danish Social Democratic party has long ago dropped earlier programme elements such as international solidarity, a strong UN, disarmament, anti-nuclearism etc and continues Fogh Rasmussen’s policy of allying as closely as possible with the United States/NATO in all matters.

In addition, the traditional left-wing parties have long ago dropped anti-militarism and jumped on the de facto brutalising idea of humanitarian intervention. Thus, the decision in the Folketing – the Danish parliament – to participate in the war on Libya was supported by all parties and no single MP broke party discipline.

Perhaps it is quite understandable if Danish party leaders agree that causes and history are fundamentally irrelevant and insist with one voice from right to left that their policies are unrelated to anything that happens which involved Muslims, their countries and culture.

8. Psychological violence may be underestimated

Let’s look at the whole affair from the point of view of violence/nonviolence. We are used to perceiving violence as physical, directed at individuals or groups. However, violence can also be embedded in drawings, texts and then falls under the category of psychological – or gender, cultural, identity – violence.

The problem here is that since psychological and the other categories of violence are much more difficult to make visual on a TV screen or in a video, this type and its effects on the receiver tend to be underestimated.

9. The media blowing this up because it is about colleagues

The media world has not exactly given the death of first 12 and then five more people too little attention. On the very same days, large terror actions happened in both Yemen and Pakistan but received little attention even though killing and wounding many more. The interpretation could easily be that some lives, some victims of terrorism, are more worthy than others of attention.

“The standard answer to terror attacks was and remains: we have done nothing wrong.”

The fact that the killed persons were Europeans and most of them belonged to the media profession is likely to explain why this horrific deed got so much more attention than the more horrific consequences of, say, drones, sanctions, Israel’s mass killing of innocent Palestinians or six million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Regrettably, quite a few media in the Western world turned tabloid in those days or began to resemble publications of a journalists’ professional association. Editors forgot about their duty to strive for multi-perspective, as-objective-as-possible, critical coverage and good journalism. It isn’t compatible with such standards to just publish ‘Je Suis Charlie Today’ on the entire front page.

10. The Western world’s comparative disadvantage

It goes without saying that the West, like other cultures, has a right to state and defend its culture. Its comparative disadvantage, however, is that it has done so for centuries around the world and particularly since 1945 to such a degree that its values are perceived as authoritarian, arrogantly insensitive to local cultures, exploitative and bullying.

The West itself would not accept another culture practising such dominance with reference to ‘our values are universal’. One culture among many cultures cannot – with bible and sword in hand – expect to be accepted as better or universal by all others and even less to use its superiority in technology and violence to impose those values. It should expect – sooner or later – to be opposed, challenged and even fought against.

Perhaps we are living in the era of the boomerangs? Perhaps things have gone so smoothly for so long that we in the West have lost humility and got carried away with hubris – not the least in our triumphalist interpretation of the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact?

And is the denial of any co-responsibility for the conflicts throughout the Middle East and the terrorism in ‘our’ parts of the world a clue to a civilisational anxiety – that US and Western leadership is gradually getting weaker and that others will take over and show humanity that there are other ways of doing it in the next phase of humanity’s history?

11. We need a new type of response – a balance between security measures and reconciliation dialogue.

You may not agree with some – or any – of the above. But at the end of the day there is only one way ahead: we have to invest in and create spaces for much more inter-cultural education, mutual understanding, perhaps even a truth and reconciliation process between Europe/the West and the Arab/Muslim world, the Middle East in particular.

We need fierce and open debates, yes, but no provocations – psychological or otherwise. We need self-critical analyses on all sides and much much less war, interventionism and other types of violence. We also need a West that is willing to listen and learn and not just teach and master. And we need that for our own sake.

Not a matter of guilt – it’s a matter of recognising history and shaping a new policy.

I’m aware that some people may interpret my views as apportioning guilt – something like ‘oh, we ourselves just got what we deserved in this Paris attack’. That simply is not so.

A few desperate, extremist people with Kalashnikovs can not be interpreted as speaking on behalf of culture, religion or 1.6 billion people, 99.9 per cent of whom cannot be called extremists or fundamentalists. But there are individuals who feel humiliated historically and whose situation at the bottom of society adds to their anger, rootlessnes and normlessness – to their violent impulses.

The important thing now is that this horrific act in all its cruelty and sorrow should be seen as a welcome opportunity for us all to re-think today and tomorrow what we thought was so simple and evident yesterday.

It simply must not lead to more hatred, confrontation, denial and more wars, either big or small. It must not lead to more curtailing of democracy and more surveillance of everything and everybody.

The only way we can achieve such a constructive dialogue within ourselves and with the others is by being open to looking at the West’s long-term and contemporary history in the Middle East. NATO countries are at war or in deep conflict with all and everything, except perhaps a few such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

And neither the US, NATO nor the European Union has a single sensible, overarching idea of where we want to be in that region in, say, 2020 or 2025. No idea. The agenda at the moment is – ‘we kill people who kill people, because it is wrong to kill people’ and thus we bomb IS, fight terrorist groups we have nurtured to quite an extent ourselves and move from one crisis (mis)management to the next. And leave ravaged countries behind such as Iraq and Libya.

If the West shall have any leadership in the future world, it will have to pass the exam called the Middle East and do so in the light of the last good 100 years of our colonial paradigm and ‘Orientalism’. Even if you think everything the UK, France, Italy and the US have done has been right, be sure of one thing: it no longer works and will not in the future.

So: No to Islamophobia and discrimination! No to Muslim terrorism and Europhobia. Yes to future countries and regions with mixed cultures, empathy and respect and a recognition through education and dialogue that we will all be enriched by celebrating diversity instead of nationalism and other parochialisms.

And what if the others won’t go down that road?

Take the first courageous step and show you are not weak. Stop doing what creates hateful, traumatised and very angry people – recognise that asymmetric colonial-style wars do just that. Don’t mirror their fears! Don’t use them as an excuse because then you submit to their game. Start your own more constructive game and you’ll be applauded and get followers.

And so: No, I am not Charlie. I cannot be. Instead I believe that at the end of the day we are all human beings.

Einstein was right, unconditionally right, when he said farewell to a Danish visitor I happen to have known with these words: ‘Remember your humanity, remember Gandhi and forget the rest!’