No act of violence or terrorism can ever be justified. The purposeful arousal of fear in any country’s general public is never right. This, then, explains the huge outrage that followed the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack: twelve men were killed for exercising their freedom of speech, a fundamental right that should never be waived or impeded.
In the days following the attack, thousands of people throughout France paid tribute to those killed with the JeSuisCharlie hashtag. The attacks seemed directly to contradict the national motto of France, attributed to Maximilien Robespierre, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“Liberty, equality, fraternity”). For obvious reasons, the adage spread like wildfire in the Western world. To tweet JeSuisCharlie soon became a trendy way of taking a stand for freedom of speech, and we were all very keen on expressing our outrage that this right had been broken.
And yet no one really stopped to think what we were actually saying. Yes, we were defending our freedom of speech, but do we have to support a satirical magazine to do so? Let me put it this way: if twelve members of the English Defence League were shot by terrorists, would we all be tweeting IAmEDL? No, I think not. Maybe the odd person would misquote Voltaire, and a few closet-racists might express their indignation, but the attack would not get half the public and media attention that the Charlie Hebdo attack received. In fact, dare I say it, I reckon a few people would be thinking: “The EDL got what they deserved.”
Now, as I said earlier, this attack was an outrage, and it was completely unwarranted. However, that does not mean that we all have to stand by Charlie Hebdo and support their cause, and I for one refuse to do so. I might tweet ‘JeSuisCharlie’sRights’, but I will not tweet JeSuisCharlie. I will not declare my allegiance to an Islamophobic magazine that stirs racial hatred, simply because their rights were impeded. Maybe another analogy is in order: if someone tells a member of the public that they are fat, and they get punched, would you stand up for their freedom of speech? No, because calling somebody fat is cruel and unnecessary. Yes, the person should not have been punched, but one can understand the other person’s upset and anger.
In the same way, although these terrorists committed atrocious acts, we can at least understand why: their holy prophet was repeatedly mocked, ridiculed and insulted. Please do not take the George Bush approach and accuse me of supporting terrorists: I am simply saying that Charlie Hebdo are not the best people to associate oneself with. That is why I tweeted JeNeSuisPasCharlie: I stand by their rights, not by them. Just look at the government officials who attended the march in Paris: all of them had impeded the right to freedom of speech in one-way or another, and I will not nonchalantly join this band of hypocrites. No, instead I am Malcolm Little, I am Malala Yusafzai, I am Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hundreds more. I am anyone who has fought for the right to liberty and equality without satirising others’ religion in the process. I am also Palestine, I am Nigeria, I am Syria, and all those largely ignored by Murdoch’s media monopoly. Religion is the most important thing in many people’s lives, and so to ridicule it is a horrible thing to do. No, I can proudly say that I am not and I never will be Charlie Hebdo.
For similar reasons, I will not stand by the West’s War on Terror with as much zest and zeal as many people do. Yes, we are now the victims of brutal terrorist attacks, but should we be surprised? I certainly am not. It was morally wrong of Adebolago and Adebowale to murder Lee Rigby, but what was their reason: the atrocities that we ourselves have committed in the Middle East and indeed throughout the world. Our treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya, our interventions in Palestine, our relentless production and selling of arms: all of this (and more) is coming back to haunt us. All you have to do is look at the photos of Abu Ghraib. It is no wonder a vast majority of the world hates the West: because, in the past, we have used our imperialist powers to colonise, take over and abuse nations and races throughout the world. As Jeremiah Wright said: “The stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards… Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism.” The terrorist attacks in Paris, the 7/7 bombings, 9/11, none of this was justified; but we must remember that our hands are also bloody.
Russell Brand made a good point when he said that we cannot just condemn these acts. We must look in the mirror, we must look at ourselves in an effort to try and solve this problem. Because it is, in fact, a problem that we have helped to cause, with our wars, our drones, our terrorism. It is, therefore, our job to fix it, and we can only do that by changing our ways first. It is not by heightening surveillance and cracking down on extremism that we can tackle the root of the problem, although this may be necessary. We need to make a positive change to our approach to others, and we can start by welcoming Muslims into our society peacefully and by treating all people equally; not by ridiculing people for their faith. I do not think Charlie Hebdo should be banned or censored. However, I think they, too, need to have a long, hard look at themselves.