It is with a heavy heart that I write, as this week doubtless stands as one of the most difficult in recent memory. The tragic attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo are indefensible, and the threat that such an attack poses on the values of Western Europe is truly frightening.
Make no mistake- the point of this post is not to spread some sort of obscene, hate-filled garbage under the guise of freedom of expression. Quite the contrary. Indeed, as pointed out in articles by Gawker and David Brooks, the history of Charlie Hebdo seems to shield some interesting closet-skeletons. Again, the point of this post is not to criticize the victims of an attack for saying something they should not have said. Many of the articles written during the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo attack make a decent point- quite a lot of their material (albeit decontextualized, poorly translated and ignoring the juvenile streak present in much French comedy) seems deliberately inflammatory. But as soon as we start trying to separate the world into spheres of ‘what should be said’ and ‘what shouldn’t be said,’ we approach a situation in which this sort of psychological censorship can be applied to silencing critique of our own nations and governments. This censorship, especially in the context of a militarized police force, surveillance and torture does not fill me with confidence, and represents the erosion of vital cultural values on which the West was built.
In the past few decades since Islamic fundamentalism has become a force to be reckoned with, we have been fed the narrative that these radical terrorist attacks will serve to cripple and destabilize the West. Not only does this fear serve as a further defense of the authoritarian creep, it is also fundamentally wrong. Terrorist attacks in the West are tragic and indefensible, but radical Islamist violence poses a far more immediate physical threat to other Muslims– residents of Muslim countries- than it does in the West. The threat to the West is far more pressing in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack than it is in the moment the bomb goes off.
When we mistake individual, peaceful Muslims for terrorists- when we seek to generalize and categorize without subtlety or realism- we commit several sins. The first and most visible is, obviously, the sin of racism, which is ironic, as Muslims are not a race. While stemming racism should be the most pressing reason to stop these generalizations, we all know that racism is wrong, and to debate that fact further implies that there is anything left to debate. There isn’t. Racism is wrong and we shouldn’t do it.
The subtler sin in engaging in senseless generalization is the narrative it creates. When we assume all Muslims to be terrorists, we create a narrative in which a monolithic West stands in opposition to a monolithic Islam- a dated and frankly idiotic us vs. them mentality. The irony here lies in the fact that radical Muslim clerics want nothing more than to be accepted as the unquestioned representatives of Islam, to the exception of more sensible, moderate interpretations. Even more ironic is that the exact same binary narrative is pushed by the radical right in Western countries, with only the protagonists of the story and their goals switched. Ultra-conservatism on both sides serve the same purpose- to wear away at the already precarious pool of Western values on which we have to draw. It is thus incumbent on us- the value-driven, peaceful people who make up the overwhelming majority of people in our world- to resist the crypto-fascist creep that imperils our world.
It would be marginally acceptable if this were the first time we failed so tremendously to do the mature thing when faced with the prospect of Islamist terrorism. But we- and by we, I mean the most powerful Western governments- have been consistent in our failure to deal adequately with Islamist terrorism throughout our attempts to do so. Icing on the cake: it probably wouldn’t have ever become a political force in the first place if it weren’t for us.
The first groups to espoused an Islamic fundamentalist ideology- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Fedayan-e-Islam (lest we forget, there is nothing ancient about Islamic fundamentalism, it is purely a 20th century development) arose as a result of hostility toward Western colonialism and Mohammad Reza Shah’s pro-Western regime. Throughout the mid-20th century, the West consistently turned a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalism, under the assumption that it was preferable to Marxism-Leninism. Famously, for the same reason, the US and the UK largely downplayed the hostility of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalists until they entered power and their true colors were shown. President Reagan then proceeded to fund the Iranian fundamentalists against Iraq, and the Afghan fundamentalists- the forebears of the Taliban- against the Soviets. And, finally, when the various alliances of convenience ended, and they ‘turned against us,’ we responded by buying their divisive propaganda and adding our own propaganda to it, gutting civil liberties of our own people (Muslim or otherwise) and beginning a campaign of persistent, unceasing warfare.
Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is, at its heart, a death cult with little respect for anyone, Muslim or otherwise. But when we witness an act as horrific as what we saw on Wednesday, we cannot ignore that we did precious little to hold the responsible actors and figures within our own countries to task. We cannot ever forgive those with blood on their hands- whether they wear breads and robes or impeccably tailored suits.