The horrible events that happened in Paris on 7 January are beyond words. They constitute a terrible attack on the freedom of speech and these days, it feels as if they are leaving the world speechless. The solidarity is overwhelming. One cannot go online, open a newspaper or switch on the television without reading the powerful words, “Je Suis Charlie”. I have seen them repeatedly on the streets of Basel yesterday and on the streets of Luxembourg. I read them constantly in Facebook feeds, on Instagram and Twitter. It seems as if everyone is in shock, overwhelmed by the horror of the attacks, exposing the vulnerability of free speech, and the danger of expressing one’s opinion. Michel Houellebeqc, whose controversial new book has already been contested prior to its publication (a daring and provocative portrait of a France ruled by an Islamic party), has fled the city. It is Rushdie all over again, it seems! These days, Paris, a city in the heart of Europe, does not appear to be a safe place anymore!
Yes, this is scary, and yes this is frightening, and yes, the freedom of press is fundamental and should by no means be in danger. No one, anywhere, should be afraid of criticising, speaking out their opinion, of satirising – whether we share the opinion or not. As Tucholsky stated 125 years ago: ‘Was darf Satire? Alles.’ (‘What is allowed in satire? Everything.’)
But ‘Je Suis Charlie’ means so much more than that and this becomes more evident every day. When I see pictures on Facebook for instance, I don’t think about my friends’ support for freedom of speech, but more about their wish to express their empathy for the cause and the events themselves. Therefore, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has become a symbol, not merely a symbol for the freedom of press, but a symbol for the subsequent movement that following the terror attacks.
The world appears to be a horrible place these days, and whilst we, in the West, have had the chance of feeling more or less secure since the end of the Second World War, others have not. What about the civil wars, famines, human rights violations, torture, executions, mass killings, violence, child soldiers, slavery, human trafficking that occurs daily around the world? What about people having to flee their countries, risk their lives and die as they try to get away from civil wars and corruption? And what about the deaths of the journalists in Paris worse than journalists and foreign correspondents being murdered or kidnapped elsewhere? After all, they have been attacked for the same reason, for embodying the idea of free speech too!
How it is possible, then, that we are organising silent marches and minute’s silences for them and not for the 2000 Nigerians murdered by Boko Haram? Why has the media barely touched this seemingly ignored subject? Why has the West not reacted to this events in the way that they have to Paris? Why are we Charlie and not them?
We cannot defend the idea of freedom of press, when we don’t seem to have a clear picture of what it really means, when emphasizing some events and ignoring others clashes with the idea of pure press freedom. Furthermore, how can we be Charlie when most of us have never dared to speak openly? Who of us can say about ourselves that they have bravely stood by their opinion and satirised things that go wrong in our society, knowing that such a behaviour may be dangerous?
What we are doing here is adopting a dangerously Eurocentric point of view. The attacks in Paris affect us so much more, because they breach our personal comfort zone because the danger is much closer and poses an imminent threat. In July, a very pertinent comment was published by The Guardian, stating that the horrors happening in Syria; the mass killings, tortures, executions, are part of a war that has grown too complicated and messy for us to understand. With multiple sides executing horrible deeds, rendering a simple, Manichean narrative of the war impossible, the war has disappeared more and more from the media and, in turn, the response to the war becomes less intense. Besides, Syria is far away, as are the atrocities and violence that do not pose any imminent threat to us.
The events in Paris are different. Not only have we been hit where we thought ourselves safe and secure, but the attacks have increased the narrative that, seemingly, we are the ‘brave Westerners’ who have been attacked by evil terrorists. In reality, the situation is at least as messy and as complicated as such examples as the war in Syria. The problem we are faced with – problematic given that we tend to simplify conflict as being between the East and the West – is not simple, and not Manichean. No, we may not be saying that every Muslim is bad, but we are hinting, ever so often, that the bad ones are Muslims. But no! There is no Good vs. Evil here and the West is no innocent victim. We find ourselves in danger: a danger of stigmatising, of dehumanising and of mistrusting everyone whom we believe to be Muslim. We start seeing Islamists instead of Muslims. The danger is evident, and already confirmed by attacks on several Mosques. Not only has our comfort zone be violated, but it has been such in a way that makes it seemingly easy to make out who are the bad ones.
As a result, because we can relate, we are perceiving the attacks as something much worse than so many other horrors that are happening in our world. However, these horrors continue to occur, and a lot of them have been ignored, or never gain much media attention – at least not in the West. Because they happen far away. Because we cannot imagine them happening to us. Because we are not in danger. Because we cannot emphasize.
We are being Eurocentric and this is why I am not Charlie!
Yes, we should grieve. Grieve for the victims in Paris, grieve for an attack on free speech. We should grieve – but we should grieve for so much more. The world is a cruel place and violence and hate is to be found in all its corners, and above everything, we should beware of falling into the trap of making homogenising simplifications and accusations, beware of demonising and adopting a Manichean point of view, stripping a vast and difficult problematic of its complexity and reducing it to a simplified and dangerous Good vs. Evil tale. Amidst all the grieving, we should never forget that whilst we openly dismiss and regret some acts of violence, others tend to be forgotten. Grieve! But beyond all grieving, don’t forget to think!