Charlie Hebdo: More Than Pens Will Be Needed Against Guns

Opinions |Author: Angel Petrov | January 10, 2015, Saturday // 13:38|  views

On Wednesday, people who gathered in Paris at a unity rally after the Charlie Hebdo attack piled up pens to show their solidarity in the face of terror. Photo by EPA/BGNES

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not about questioning the limits of freedom of speech. It rather reflects conflicting priorities of two sides involved in an already fierce battle which turns ordinary citizens into victims. For the West, it is about the right to life. For radical groups, it is about power.

The Apparent ‘Vengeance’ Concealing Divide-and-Rule Tactics

"We are from Al-Qaeda", the two gunmen told Charlie Hebdo's editorial team on Wednesday.

"I am from Islamic State," Amady Coulibaly told hostages at the kosher food supermarket in Vincennes, Paris. It is hard to imagine the two groups working together, and since the Kouachi brothers and Colibaly were acting together, either one or all of them are lying. 

They might have been from Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Al-Nusra or any other group, experts say while authorities are still investigating to uncover the truth, reminding that associating oneself with a wider, larger-scale cause is still considered a good motivation for any kind of wrongdoing. Establishing their allegiance, however, will not help solve a deeper problem.

At the time the West was mourning on Thursday for the victims of the terrible attack, but also for the blatant assault on democracy, freedom of speech and rule of law, it had already been a few months since a US-led coalition (also comprising Arab countries, and including France) was involved in the fight against Islamic State. Even more time had passed since France embarked on a mission to help eradicate extremists in Africa's Sahel region. Both ventures have so far claimed some successes. But their mentioning gave another angle to the message of "pens versus guns", which millions of people around the world voiced in the hours following the brutal attack.

The truth is that the West is using both "pens" and "guns" against intolerance, against violation of human rights (also committed by terrorists in democratic countries) and against the state of lawlessness that is sprawling in IS-controlled regions. IS, Al-Qaeda and other organizations, however, are doing the same, portraying their moves as a means to deliver "their point of view."

France, for its part, is one of the Western countries most actively using both “tools”: a very strong culture of debate, quite an influential “soft power”, active involvement abroad. Organizations like the abovementioned extremist networks have a wonderful “playground” in the face of France, where they could both organize (because it was undoubtedly organized, and not a spontaneous outcry of “insulted, disgruntled Muslims”) such a violent attack and then let the West exert its own “free speech” tool to open internal rifts in society, dividing those who believe Charlie Hebdo crossed the line from those who do not.

An analysis posted Friday on the Al-Monitor website argued the attack had been the outcome of infighting between Al-Qaeda and the IS. If we admit one of the two groups could be involved, it seems neither hard nor soft power are sufficient to put out the extremist fire. If they have nothing to do and it was another group that planned the attack, we are reminded that radicalist networks are too complicated to handle by merely helping destroy one or two of them. The January 7 events have thus marked the beginning of a new era when old notions of defending a society from an enemy “on the outside” or “within” have to be thoroughly revised.

Nobody Is Saying Ahmed Died in Vain

Charlie Hebdo cartoons, some of them not touching the subject of Islam, are now displayed outside the French Embassy in Sofia. Reducing the weekly's work to "anti-Islamic" activity, a process trying to gather force online, would be an insult to the victims.

An online discussion about violence and infringement on free speech flared within hours after the attack. A vast part of Internet users showed it has set its faith on freedom of speech; there was, however, also a vast part which did not.   

Truly, conservative Muslims across the globe put in a lot of effort not only to distance themselves from the killings, but also to make their point, defending their own right to free speech; the act of saying you dislike an "insult" (where you perceive one) where the majority does not share your opinion is also free speech and fits perfectly into that image. No wonder that, while Europe is grieving, part of the debate among social media users has shifted toward a more complicated picture.

Twitter and other social media are already abounding with comments under the slogan “Je sui Ahmed” or including the “Charlie Ahmed”, a notion mixing up the death of a policeman called Ahmed, obviously a Muslim, during the attack.

These comments neglected the initial souce of concern for those sharing values such as freedom of speech: yes, Ahmed died while defending a "magazine's right", in fact a “society’s right”; but why should anyone attack it in the first place? More and more Ahmeds' lives could be lost; and it is not only Ahmed, but also Adam, Abram, Arjun or Akira, anywhere on the world map. In this hypothetical case Adam might be a Buddhist, Abram a Christian and Akira a Muslim, since we live in a world where everyone should be free to choose his own religion; the right to life would have been claimed anyway, regardless of which faith the victims belong to…

Ahmed died because he was not supportive of the bloody attack, but had chosen to protect citizens instead of taking their lives. No “non-Muslim” Western citizen has yet downplayed his death, which reminds there is no self-evident faultline between people born Christians and those born Muslims when it comes to values. Ahmed’s right to life was also infringed and this reminds that, even if “pens” could finally prevail over guns, the latter would be claiming lives on both sides in the meantime.

The significance of the fact that both Christians’ and Muslims’ lives were claimed seems to be ignored by some prominent intellectuals in Bulgaria – and in Europe, America and elsewhere as well – who were quick to condemn the “hypocrisy” of those voicing their solidarity, saying Charlie Hebdo (which in fact used, and uses, its pen to target each and every aspect of French citizens’ togetherness, sparing no religions, institutions and taboos) was not taking feelings of other sides into consideration. What about feelings of the dead? What "sides" are there at all when the right to life is concerned? Yes, Bulgaria's media landscape does have some issues and self-censorship is not quite unfamiliar here. But what if a huge part of an editorial team were brutally executed merely for having spoken out?

For all those people of all faiths sharing the perception that the lives of their families and relatives, their compatriots and themselves does matter, it is time to look for some soul searching and think what they could personal contribute to fighting extremism (not only "Islamist") and ignorance (in no way just "Muslim") before too big a number of people start to believe the "right to life" is just another point of view worth debating.

Fighting Battles Is Not Simply a Matter of Values 

While police had besieged both the printworks warehouse in Dammartin-en-Gloene and the kosher supermarket in Vincennes, Paris, the abductors at the former spot, the brothers Kouachi, had taken one person hostage saying they would like to die as martyrs. After the to Charlie Hebdo bloodshed, they could have done so without complicating things so much.

But both the Monrouge shooting, the hostage crisis in Vincennes and the manhunt for the Kouachi brothers made redundant any attempts at portraying their actions as part of a campaign simply avenging for an insult. The attack could have been carried on any other occasion; Jews at the Hyper Cacher had not anyhow infringed Muslims’ religious feelings. This is only a part of a war aimed at inciting divisions in which any act of discrimination and any political or societal backlash would complicate things further. It is now up to the French society, and to all democratic societies, to try to heal the wound the Charlie Hebdo attack opened. It seems neither “pens” nor “guns” will do here, since extremism also uses both tools and is evidently finding a way to use each one reciprocally when attacked.

In a world growing increasingly multi-polar, "pens" are not unilaterally used as a tool of "enlightenment"; they have rather become a vital instrument in a war where both sides score victories, just the same ways they serve lobbies, within a political or an economic system, to achieve their goals. To make things worse, we the citizens of Europe put an emphasis on discussing issues of concern, even though our system has its defects, and this is both our edge and our weakness: each and every attack like the one on Charlie Hebdo, triggered on any occasion, could leave us divided and affect the very way we are looking at our societies. Evidently, this is what has already happened and is still underway across the Atlantic. However, sometimes drawing a line, pointing the limit to debate and consideration is not tantamount to narrow-mindedness. In the face of Wednesday’s event, we should voice our solidarity even just to firmly state we will never tolerate this happening again, anywhere in Europe.



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Tags: Ahmed, France, Amady Coulibaly, Kouachi, al-Qaeda, Islamic state, guns, pens, Charlie Hebdo


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