Oubliez Charlie, qui sommes nous?

Updates and Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Shooting

“I just want to tell you that we are defenders of the Prophet. I, Chérif Kouachi, was sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen. I was over there.  I was financed by Imam Anwar al-Awlaki.”

These were the words spoken by one of the two Kouachi brothers responsible for the attacks at Charlie Hebdo on January 7th. Recordings of the telephone conversation between him and a BFMTV radio station host reveal him to have been calm, purposeful and clear in his justification for his actions (Lichfield).

“We are not killers. We are defenders of the Prophet. We are not like you . . .We can kill. But we don’t kill women. It is you that kill the children of Muslims in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria. That’s not us. We have a code of honour, us, in Islam.”

Some experts, however, argue that this direct connection with al-Qaeda may be bit of a stretch. Al-Awlaki, the man they claim financed the operation, was killed in September 2011, and despite a video by a top al-Qaeda commander claiming responsibility (Michael), Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, thinks the video may be more “aspirational” than anything else, explaining “ . . . terrorists groups do like taking credit for events that they may or may not have actually been responsible for” (Brennen).

It was shortly after that interview took place when in a small village north-east of Paris, Michel Catalano, the owner of CDT Printworks, saw the two men approaching dressed in combat clothing and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and a rocket launcher (Gardiner, Evans). The Kouachi brothers would make their final stand against police from his warehouse, eventually allowing Catalano to go free, while unwittingly leaving his one employee hiding under a sink, texting pertinent details to the police (Gardiner, Evans).

Two days later on January 11th, one of France’s largest recorded demonstrations took place, with approximately 1.6 million people gathering around the Place de la République (Paris). Many carried flags or signs which bore the now ubiquitous phrase Je Suis Charlie, while others upheld the pen, symbolic of how these attacks are being more broadly seen as an attack on “republican values” (François). Global leaders have been unanimous in their condemnation and in their likening it to an attack on free speech and the fundamental principles of “freedom-loving nations” (Francois). In a “show of solidarity”, many joined together at the demonstration to walk arm-in-arm including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and EU President Donald Tusk (Paris).

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It isn’t difficult to understand the need for such profound and sweeping reactions. Frustration at not being able to solve the problem of extremism, while reckoning with the realities of a seemingly uncontrollable threat to safety in a nation generally distanced from prosaic violence, has reasonably shaken many people. Much of the dialogue that has followed, along with the mobilization of so many people, is a necessary response to tragedy, and an important and valuable one in a democratic society. It is precisely at such times that we need to be wary of the line between genuine discussion and grandiose sentimentality, and of using our value statements as shovels for trenching in ideological warfare.

The real threat to our society’s principles, I would argue, is not terrorism, but frantic allegiance–be it to country, flag, leader or value–anything that would be seen as so sacrosanct, so irreproachable that to be ‘done in it’s name’ is, by its own definition, intrinsically good. We cannot fight fundamentalism on one side, with fundamentalism on the other, and we cannot have a discussion about the values of the democracy, let alone use them as a rallying cry, without asking ourselves what those values mean to us today, what kind of actions they justify, and to whom these values serve. In short, what kind of society are we fighting for?

Many have pointed out some of the hypocrisy of holding up Charlie Hebdo as a bastion of free speech. The magazine’s attempts at satire often skirted a fine line between satire and racism, while unequally applying such criticism amongst its targets (Samuel). For example, after taking an anti-Semitic jab at Jean Sarkozy, the son of Nicolas Sarkozy, the cartoonist known as Sine was fired from the publication in 2009 and later charged with “inciting racial hatred” (Samuel). Satire, when done well, is meant to attack and undermine the powerful and shake up systemic complacency. When used to reproduce stereotypical images of the powerless, however, it can also be racism masquerading as satire. The world is made up of fallible people, drawing important yet still arbitrary distinctions between right and wrong, and often where the line is drawn, depends upon the artist. If we want to have freedoms then we must choose them, carefully and deliberately, and be wary of easy feel-good sentimentality and subtexts of segregation; and we must ensure that we use these values as principles of action, not privileges.


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