Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie: Context of Charlie Hebdo

Oluwa Jones '15 Assistant Opinions Editor

On Jan. 7, two masked gunmen, later revealed to be brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the office of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. A total of 12 people were killed including French national police officer Ahmed Merabet. It was later found that the gunmen belong to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. On Jan. 11, more than two million people and several major world leaders joined together for a unity march in support of “free speech.”

Amongst those world leaders were French president Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie began trending worldwide, followed closely by the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie. The French were quick to link this terrorist attack to freedom of speech, instead of the real issues of ethnocentrism, Islamophobia and French imperialism.

The world’s response has focused narrowly on Charlie Hebdo, without placing it in the context of power. As noted by Robert Brimlow, “Terrorism is a tool of the desperate. It belongs to those who perceive gross injustice and oppression and who lack the political power to effect change through peaceful means.”

The French are deeply hated by many throughout the Arab world, and for good reason. Hollande’s decision to fight radical jihadists in Mali in 2013 earned France the nickname the “gendarme of Africa.”  In the 1990 Algerian Civil War the French chose to side with the Algerian military against the Algerian people and against the democratically elected president. This was a violent conflict that radicalized many – perhaps even the two gunmen who were of Algerian descent.

The French owe all their wealth to the underdevelopment of their former African colonies. According to Silicon Africa, there are currently 14 African countries obliged to pay colonial debt to France. These nations are forced to place 85 percent of their foreign reserves into the French central bank, which is roughly $500 billion U.S. dollars. Any leader who fails to do so is either assassinated or falls victim to a French-backed coup. In exchange for their compliance, these leaders are rewarded with a life of luxury while their people continue live in abject poverty.

The French also have broader issues of how they treat Muslims and immigrants. Xenophobia is on the rise in France. Political parties such as the anti-immigration National Front, are now more popular than ever. Domestic policies, such as the 2004 decision to ban the wearing of headscarves in public schools, have angered many. Some claim that this law is not grounded in Islamophobia because it also applies to the crucifix and the yamaka, but it’s clear to many European leftists that this law was meant to target Muslim women. As those in West have long obsessed over the veil and the surrounding stereotypes about Islam and gender oppression.

Charlie Hebdo in particular was one symbol of disrespect and Islamophobia in France. Sure, they took occasional swipes at other religions, but their comics disproportionately target Muslims. The magazine publishes hate speech masquerading as satire. The goal was to mock and insult a religion. Satire is supposed to make its audience uncomfortable, but real satire doesn’t go after easy targets like oppressed groups. Real satire goes after politicians, celebrities, the ruling class, systems of power - people with the means to potentially fight back. Charlie Hebdo made no use of rhetoric, provided no insights, and reaffirmed its xenophobic audience’s view that Muslims are laughable. A better example of satire is Jon Stewart’s comparison of media coverage of the Paris Unity March to the lack of coverage on the Boko Hwaram on “The Daily Show.”

One of the biggest issues dividing the Arab world and the West more broadly is the status of Palestine.The presence of Benjamin Netanyahu in the front row at the Paris Unity March on behalf of the 11 journalist killed has been roundly criticized. During Israel’s 50-day war against Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip last summer, at least 2,143 people were killed, including 17 journalists. Israel Defense Forces purposefully targets Palestinian journalists, especially those affiliated with Hamas, while Israel’s Prime Minister marches for free speech in Paris. Western nations continue to finance and defend Israeli terrorism while condemning global terrorism against the West. This hypocrisy demonstrates the general disregard for Arab life and is a powerful recruiting tool for terrorist networks. There are several problems that the French, and the west more broadly, need to address, the least of which is freedom of speech.