Some reflections on Charlie Hebdo

By Hira Amin

9/11 is often cited as a watershed moment in contemporary history. The pervasive narrative was that these extremists hated Western freedom and democracy and Islam is an inherently violent and dangerous religion. In the wake of the brutal Charlie Hebdo attacks, one of the most striking features of the coverage was simply the lack of depth, historical analysis and contextualisation.  Fourteen years after 9/11, once again the narrative was that Islamic extremists were attacking Western values of freedom and democracy; that they hate the West for our rational liberalism and free speech. The mantra ‘Je suis Charlie’ was born as people changed their Facebook statuses; Whatsapp photos and twitter accounts buzzed with hashtag ‘JeSuisCharlie.’ Through this simple narrative the debate was polarised. Either you are Charlie and with Western values of freedom, or you are not Charlie and with the perpetrators. A clear dividing line appeared and criticism was tantamount to justification.

The narrative is much more complex; it is about time we recognise this. The two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters were born and raised in France. Academic studies show that French Muslims are twice as likely to be unemployed than their non-Muslim counterparts. Institutional racism means they are imprisoned at higher rates and graduate from high school at lower rates. Living in densely populated areas they are less likely to have access to the opportunities other citizens receive.[1] The marginalisation of Muslims in France cannot be ignored. Moreover, in the name of ‘Western Freedom’ seven Muslim-majority countries (Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria) have been bombed in just over a decade. Drones circulate the skies in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘preservation of life.’ The two brothers stated they were affiliated with Al-Qaida and ISIS – both are which have at their roots foreign political and military interventions.[2]  This is not the same as saying they are ‘products of the West’ or that the ‘West have created them,’ – that would be another overly simplistic narrative – but it illustrates the complex entanglement of Western foreign intervention as yet another factor that cannot be ignored.

Moreover, it is imperative to step back from Muslim communities in the West, and the Muslim world more broadly, in order to contextualise these events on a global scale. Dr. Thomas Scott in his excellent book, ‘The Global Resurgence of Religion,’ challenges our conventional thinking on religion, terrorism and fundamentalism by placing them in the framework of wider debates going on in theology, social theory and the study of international relations regarding modernity, postmodernity and secularisation. He argues that the global resurgence of religion is a far more wide-ranging phenomenon than religious terrorism or extremism. New movements, he states, such as charismatic Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostal Protestants, New Age spiritualists, Western Buddhists and Japanese traditionalists all reflect a deeper and more widespread disillusionment with a modernity without religion or spirituality.[3]

Until we start complicating the narrative and conducting deeper analysis, the problem will not only persist but will also get worse. If we repeat the same slogans, we are not closer to solving the issue today than we were 14 years ago. Where will we be after the next 14 years depends on how we reframe the narratives and move forward from now.



[2] Al Qaida was formed after the American covert operation in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Occupation and ISIS was formed after the invasion of Iraq which upset the balance of power between ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Shias’ in the region.

[3] Scott Thomas, The Global Resurgence Of Religion And The Transformation Of International Relations (New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). pp. 10-11.

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