Why I’d rather be Ahmed than Charlie

On the 7th of January, 3 masked gunmen got out of a car in France. By the time they returned, 2 police officers and 10 journalists were dead. It was a sickening reminder of the evil of humanity, and the horrors that can be done in the name of religion. The response has been a ritualised outpouring of solidarity. However, some parts of the public response have been less noble.

For the first time, there are disadvantages to telling people I am Muslim. When I saw posts on Facebook that seemed adamant that Islam is a violent religion, there was an immediate barrier. Admitting that I am Muslim meant that before I could enter a discussion, I had to first convince people that I believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in equality, for women’s rights. All because once again, a terrorist attack has sparked a knee-jerk reaction that justifies Islamophobia.

Where people have said that Islam is a religion of war, or that we need to protect free speech from Islam, or “what do you expect from a religion where the main guy is a polygamous, child-raping murderer?” they are all operating within the same broad narrative of “Religion of violence spurs Extremists to slay heroic free-speech journalists.” This is a generalisation, but I think it’s a fair one, given the media portrayal. Addressing the contradictions of this narrative is the only way we can force a more positive one to emerge.

Problem # 1 – It suggests Islam is responsible for either extremism or extremists’ actions.

This week, Al-jazeera reported that Christian militias have conducted ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Central African Republic. It didn’t even make the BBC’s top ten stories. There is no public appetite for a narrative that blames Christianity for the actions of Christian militia. But the Charlie Hebdo attack slotted nicely into an existing narrative that a radical interpretation of Islam is creating ever greater atrocities.

No media outlets ever try to deal with what the Qu’ran actually says. Instead of being able to inform the views of extremists and Islamophobes alike, people are free to read quotes from the Qu’ran out of context, and walk away believing that’s what it’s about. The most the papers will give is  a reference to “radical Islam”, as if to imply that that is a legitimate interpretation that one can come to after reading the Qu’ran.

Why aren’t the majority of Muslims terrorists if it really is a religion of war?

There is no mention that God is frequently referred to as the “All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful,” or the “Source of All Goodness.” The papers never bring attention to the fact that “Islamic terrorism” is a logical implosion in the context of a compassionate God. Or the fact that Muhammad (pbuh) set a peaceful, humble precedent for what to do when insulted by enemy parties. When his enemies wouldn’t sign a peace treaty while it referred to Muhammad as the prophet, his scribe refused to alter it because he felt insulted. Muhammad, unable to read, asked him to point out the words “Messenger of God,” took his scribe’s pen, and struck them out himself. If only those Muslims taking offence knew.

Explaining why it beggars belief that Islam could ever motivate violence could bolster the public perception of Islam. So would pointing out that mainstream Muslim scholarship unconditionally condemns terrorism. But instead, the silence of mainstream media allows the reputation of Islam to be continually damaged without any reasonable defence being mounted.

Let us approach this another way. There have been many revenge attacks in the days following the Charlie Hebdo Massacre. Why is it that if Jean Claude commits murder then only Jean Claude is to blame, but when Ahmed commits murder it’s militant Islam? My critics might play the numbers game, and try to argue that there’s no existing media narrative for other faiths because other faiths don’t commit as many atrocities.

But let’s play the numbers game correctly: Europol found from 2006-2009 that 99.6% of terrorist attacks were committed by non-Muslims.[1] A blog that examined evidence of US attacks found that even when taking a liberal interpretation of Islamism, attacks by Jewish groups were almost double that of Muslims (4.9% vs. 2.5%[2]). Moreover, it found that religion was responsible for less than 7% of attacks. Professor Robert Pape, a terrorism expert, says “Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”[3]

The question here is not whether Islam drives people to commit terrorism. The real question is, why is the public perception so different from the reality? And why do we have a double standard with Islam when it comes to pointing the finger?

The true human cost of Charlie Hebdo has not even peaked yet. (click for full size)

Problem # 2 – It sets up an opposition between Muslims and the West

Constant media focus has set up terrorist attacks in the context of a clash of civilisations. Us vs. Them. It started when the media talked about Sharia Law. A typical article in the Daily Mail would force you to conclude that it is absolutist, unyielding system being imposed without consent on people: incompatible with Western values.

The average Muslim. Source: Daily Mail

The article includes some balance, but it drowns in the volume of quotes like “He refuses to accept the notion that values of human rights are enshrined in the British way of life.” There is no mention of the fact that there is no consistent system of Sharia Law that exists anywhere, despite continual references to it. There is no recognition that the first Sharia Law was agreed upon after discussion and only enforced by consent [8], or the fact that some scholars believe Sharia Law was always intended to be updated with new circumstances.

These sloppy journalistic descriptions legitimise the unhelpful way both Islamic Terrorists and European xenophobes see the world. Several Prime Minister’s have echoed words like David Cameron’s: “We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values.”[4] As if those values are solely European. As if you can’t be a Muslim against the misrepresentation of Islam and still want freedom of speech. Those aren’t European values, they are human ones.

The truth is that Al-Quaeda’s victims are disproportionately Muslims[5], as high as 85%. The first victim of the Charlie Hebdo attack was a Muslim police officer, Ahmed. He is an important example of how terror hurts everybody. His role cannot be emphasised enough.

Just as French as everyone else

Problem # 3 – It canonizes the victims, giving credence to anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant agendas

The attack has consistently been held up as an attack on the freedom of speech and by extension, Western ideals. But this is not necessarily accurate. What if the purpose of this attack was to further stimulate the West into making its Muslims feel more marginalised, thereby boosting their own cause.

This latter interpretation makes far more sense than the nonsense that freedom of speech is in any real danger of being abandoned. I’m just not convinced that satirical magazines are going to stop taking the piss because of an attack that everybody agrees was barbaric. The media reaction on the 8th of January on Twitter showed solidarity (and rightly so), proving that it is not threatened.

They did really well considering they’re not allowed to print this stuff anymore.

The narrative that free speech is really in danger from Muslims only supports those who would only escalate tensions further. The Sharia Law, the terrorist attacks, and now Charlie Hebdo have all been used to portray the West as under threat, needing protection, requiring rescue. If the far-right had their way, I have no doubt that good Muslims who contribute to society would be further scrutinised and marginalised.

It will be Muslims who require rescue and protection when further Islamophobic attacks are seen, policies like the Burqa ban are expanded, and diplomatic solutions to the crises in the Middle East become ever more elusive. By making a public enemy out of Islam, we will only be giving our young Muslims the political motivation to oppose us. Remember that political motivations, not religious ones, are the primary reason for people to adopt terrorist tactics.

Problem # 4 – It implies Charlie Hebdo and the West are categorically good, unbiased advocates of free speech.

What has happened to the journalists of Charlie Hebdo is nothing short of martyrdom. Encouraging the victims to be portrayed as free-speech heroes is an oversimplistic and ultimately inaccurate viewpoint. The blog Counterpunch writes:

“In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media.  In 2008, another of Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoonists, Siné, wrote a short note citing a news item that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. Siné added the comment, “He’ll go far, this lad.” For that, Siné was fired by Philippe Val on grounds of “anti-Semitism”.  Siné promptly founded a rival paper which stole a number of Charlie Hebdo readers, revolted by CH’s double standards.”

The #JeSuisCharlie movement was also disappointingly one-sided. A very impassioned Facebook friend of mine observed, “in practice people tend to bring out the free speech argument not when they want to speak up in support of oppressed people, but when they want to punch down.” It’s a good point. We cannot claim to be in support of unedited free speech in any context while turning a blind eye to the West’s free speech record. Occupy was globally disciplined for inconveniently protesting in public places. The UK places sensible limits on free speech that stop people espousing violent views or inciting hatred. But even here, anti-terror legislation was even used to silence a dissenting 82 year old Nazi refugee during the Labour Party conference in 2005.[6]

It’s a good thing the West has never done anything wrong or this would probably require a complex understanding from newspapers.

This is the exact reason why allowing suicide bombers to pass themselves off as martyrs is so damaging. It makes them seem like they’re undeniably good. The reality of the West’s involvement in international affairs is steeped in human rights abuses, corruption and torture. Recent abuses include the CIA report on torture, the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, and the still open-for-business Guantanamo Bay. When it comes to our governments, we are steeped in as much blood as the terrorists. And if we continue to scrape the barrel of inflammatory rhetoric our abuses will get worse, not better.

The Solution

What I want to see is this. When atrocities like this happen, I want to see the West respond as Norway responded to Anders Breivik. Breivik was a man filled with hate, who wanted to see action taken against Muslims to further marginalise them. Were people calling for retribution? Well, yes. Professor Frank Aarebrot, a Norwegian political scientist, was in Britain at the time. “These liberal Brits immediately said, ‘Why didn’t they shoot him? Why didn’t they shoot him?‘” Norway’s response was the total opposite, and utterly inspiring. Their prime minister said, “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.[7]

A visual metaphor for right-wing extremism today.

Norway had the strength and goodwill not to let an atrocity stimulate a desire for revenge. But instead, I expect UKIP, the Front Nationale and other far right forces will undoubtedly experience a boost in support after this tragedy. That is the most harmful path we could possibly choose. We’ve already started to go down it by shooting the perpetrators instead of championing that other bastion of Western civilisation, the rule of law. The West should reject aggressive rhetoric, confrontation and revenge. It can start by embracing, including, supporting their Muslim communities. By calling them friends and treating them so. Such a response would undoubtedly right many wrongs.

[1] http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/terrorism-in-europe/

[2] http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2013/05/muslims-only-carried-out-2-5-percent-of-terrorist-attacks-on-u-s-soil-between-1970-and-2012.html

[3] https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts/suicideterrorism_3836.jsp

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/11331616/Britain-will-never-give-up-freedom-of-speech-David-Cameron-says-after-Charlie-Hebdo-attack.html

[5] https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/deadly-vanguards_complete_l.pdf

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1499466/Heckler-82-who-dared-called-Straw-a-liar-is-held-under-terrorist-law.html

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/15/anders-breivik-norway-copes-horror

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Medina

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8 thoughts on “Why I’d rather be Ahmed than Charlie

    1. hassassin30 Post author

      I really don’t see the problem with that. If you’ve actually checked the citation, then you will agree that it has links to the Europol reports for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

      I could have cited each one individually, or I could have cited the Europol website which would have meant you’d have had to find the information yourself.

      It’s important that I credit where I got my information from, rather than the original source, especially when where I got my information from links to the original source.

      So, no, I am not joking.

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  1. Katie

    I agree that attacks like this might make things difficult for Muslim communities. However, I completely disagree that the appropriate response is to generalise that non-Muslims are treating them as tautologically associated with extremist ideals.

    Firstly that’s just as large a generalisation of non-Muslims as that supposedly made of Muslims. I agree there are anti-Islamic attacks following extremist events and the individuals who do that can’t be defended any more than terrorists. But it’s completely wrong to attribute the mentality of these attacks to populations. What about #illridewithyou trending in Australia? That was much more widespread than any anti-Islamic response. You cite David Cameron’s quote as somehow implying Muslims aren’t allowed to want freedom of speech. David Cameron talks about “French people” and “our values”, but there’s no suggestion in the quote you give to say that the values of French and UK people aren’t held by Muslims. France has a much greater Muslim community by % than the UK and there’s no reason to think all of those people aren’t included under “our”.

    Secondly, that kind of response might actually promote division. I can empathise that Muslim communities might feel like a handful of non-Muslims are pointing fingers at them and shouting “you’re all extremists”. But pointing a finger back and saying “you’re all narrow-minded and generalising” isn’t going to help anyone. What’s more important is showing solidarity with the victims of the attacks, their families and the community. That’s much more effective in demonstrating shared values than anything else.

    Thirdly, “I’d rather be Ahmed than Charlie” is very insensitive to what’s happened. As well as Charlie Hebdo employees, we have civilians and police officers who have died in the attack. No-one would “rather” be anyone. These people died. And that’s heartbreaking whether you’re Ahmed, Charlie or anyone else. I agree that the associations with free speech circling social media are hazy. But the point isn’t really about free speech; the point is that they were murdered for drawing cartoons. A cartoon can be offensive but it never caused bodily harm to someone and it never physical attacked someone. But two people made plans, got guns, stormed a building and murdered the cartoonists. The point is not that these cartoonists were “categorically good” as you say, but that they were categorically undeserving of murder. And in that respect there is absolutely no difference between anyone who was a victim of the attack.

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    1. hassassin30 Post author

      Hey Katie. You raise some important points, but I fear I might not have been clear because I actually agree with you. Let’s take them one by one.

      First. the idea that I am generalising about Europeans. I am not. My contention is that there is a media narrative which is indirectly encouraging a minority of French people with anti-Islamic views through its focus on negative stereotypes of Islam. I tried to show that the media narrative exists, and that people are committing revenge attacks. It’s up to you whether you think the two are linked. I would like to see more positive stereotypes of Islam come through so we can see if it would make a difference.

      Secondly. I think the reason you disagree with me here is you believe I’m trying to blame all Europeans. I don’t believe all Europeans are responsible, just the perpetrators. But I have to ask whether the media narrative is encouraging narrow-mindedness or not. I 100% agree that solidarity is needed, and that’s why you will see very many Muslims marching with the rest of French Society today. What is also needed is for European governments to start acting more positively towards Muslims. It’s not fair for you to say, oh Muslims need to show they support us, when you can’t wear any religious symbols in France and a significant group of the population wants to hear Muslims apologise for this attack en masse. I want to see that France supports Muslims too.

      Thirdly, I chose that headline because I wanted to intrigue, rather than offend. That is not my intention. However, I have to point out the deep irony of telling me that I’m being offensive, when what we have seen in the media is an embracing of Charlie Hebdo’s right to print whatever the hell they want (and rightly so).

      I hope that answers your points. Feel free to reply, I welcome debate and criticism 🙂

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      1. Katie

        Actually, I think it is fair to say that an appropriate response to the attacks from Muslim people is to show solidarity with the fact that the attacks were unwarranted, barbaric and disproportionate. Showing shared support of common values is the best way to unite communities. To mention religious symbols (I assume you mean the headscarf in France) is a gross oversimplification of the issue; the arguments behind the laws imposed are issues of misogyny, gender equality and repression more than they are about religion. The freedom from being murdered in your workplace is a basic human right and has nothing to do with religious freedom or symbols. Therefore I don’t see why it’s unfair for Muslims to show solidarity with that.

        It’s also quite a dogmatic claim to say to a “significant group” of the population wants to hear Muslims apologise for the attack en masse. I live in France. I’ve spoken to enormous number of people about it from a huge number of backgrounds and age groups. No-one I’ve spoken to has this view. There is also nothing in the French media narrative (and it’s still being reported non-stop here) that suggests in any way that the Muslim community en masse should be held accountable; actually the feeling is quite the opposite. News programs, bulletins and interviews are explicitly condemning anti-Islam attacks; I’d say that’s a clear example that the media doesn’t victimise Muslims in France. Of course France condemns Islamic-extremism, but this has nothing to do with Muslim people, which I think is what your arguing for anyway.

        As regards the title, free speech doesn’t mean having the “right to print whatever the hell you want”. I’m not completely clear from your comment whether you think that the celebration of Charlie Hebdo’s work in light of the attack is uncomfortable given that a lot of it was quite offensive but your article implies it so I’ll run with it. I agree if so – but I completely and absolutely disagree that it’s ironic. If you really think that Charlie Hebdo’s work shouldn’t be celebrated as an example of free speech (because it was offensive) and that their “right to print” what they did was questionable then you should be doubly concerned about posting an article under a title that’s actually quite offensive. To say that their work shouldn’t be embraced because it’s offensive, then to defend your own offensive title isn’t irony, it’s a double standard.

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        1. hassassin30 Post author

          Oh dear, I’m not making myself very clear. I’m going to try and condense what I think so you can see that we agree.

          I think it is a good thing that Muslims stand in solidarity. This attack could mean Muslims are affected in a far more profound way than Western society as a whole, if further legislation targeted at them is passed off the back of anti-Muslim sentiment.
          I think France needs to stand with its Muslim population. If what you say is true and it’s being reported fairly, then I applaud that. It’s exactly what needs to happen.
          I unconditionally condemn the taking of civilian life. No ifs, ands or buts. So does Islam.My focus on the media coverage doesn’t negate that.
          There is a significant part of European populations (including French) that have their anti-Muslim prejudiced fuelled by attacks like this, and are represented by parties like the Front Nationale and UKIP. People like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ad3TaNit7k)
          In my judgement, the headline isn’t offensive because I never say in my article I think the taking of life is justified.
          I’m not trying to offend anybody, whereas Charlie Hebdo didn’t mind printing offensive things. But if you call me offensive, of course I’m going to come back and say you’re expecting me not to be offensive even though Charlie Hebdo often is. That’s an equal double standard.
          I never said Charlie Hebdo’s work shouldn’t be embraced because it’s offensive. My point is that it has been held up as a sacred cow for free speech when in fact there was evidence to suggest they were only for certain kinds of free speech (ie. not ones making jokes about French people marrying Jewish people).

          Look, I can see you’re intelligent and your heart is in the right place. But you’re arguing against points I never made. Look back over what I said and see if you can interpret my article in a different way.

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          1. Katie

            Maybe I didn’t get to the heart of your points as you’d like because to be honest, I’m still confused on some of them. For example, you say you agree with Muslims showing solidarity. Then previously you said it’s unfair to support Muslims to show solidarity.

            I completely agree that arguments about free speech have been mis-attributed in the wake of the events, and I also know you’re not trying to offend anyone. Maybe Charlie Hebdo did, but it’s not really an issue of intentions. Of course you condemn the taking of human life, and of course Islam does too. Like I said, this is the biggest tragedy. I reiterate again, therefore, that it’s insensitive say that we should emphasise any of the victims’ role to a greater degree, especially not solely because of their religion. I understand the complex and important point you’re trying to make (that terrorism is an issue for everyone irrespective of their background) but titles are very often taken in abstraction, and in abstraction it could be highly insensitive to the memory of other victims and their families to claim that you’d “rather be” one victim than another. It’s also very confusing to claim this preference/cause for greater emphasis solely on the basis of religion when you’re also arguing for religious equality between Muslims and non-Muslims. I think what you want to argue is that they’re all victims; but celebrating one victim and belittling others over factors which were completely arbitrary to their deaths is utterly detrimental to doing that.

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  2. Gunnar

    Thanks for this post, Zack. I whole heartedly agree and feel for muslims across the world who suffer from these small minded views of too many people. Information about the islam is everywhere if you look and ask. lack of coverage in mainstream media is sad, but not an excuse for ignorance and lazyness.

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