*We interrupt your regularly scheduled parent-themed ranting to bring you this message*
Last week, along with millions of others, I tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. I am not deluded; I am it was a pithy and easy action, but it was the only one I could think to take whilst I sat on my sofa, watching the 10 O’clock news and hearing the chant echo around the squares of Paris. The slogan has since found itself everywhere from the Golden Globes to a US Basketball court. As such it has been co-opted by some and scrutinised by others.
Almost as soon as the attacks happened, the commentary on them began. I have yet to see a terrorist attack that hasn’t been exploited within a week, by left or right, in order to prove the point. Whatever that point maybe. Most of the arguments I’ve heard have been regressive comments about Islam and immigration. Neither of which, in my opinion, have much to do with the attacks in Paris last week.
But this has not been the only response to emerge. A day or so after the murders I began to see posts questioning the ideas behind ‘Je suis Charlie’. They challenged the ‘us and them’ nature of many people’s reactions and argued that you didn’t have to agree with the views of Charlie Hebdo to condemn the attacks as abhorrent.
These articles are often thoughtful, sometimes angry. They made many good points (links below), but they also left me cold. Usually I love that stuff. I’m all like ‘yeah you question that post-colonial perspective’ and ‘go you, challenging those polarising discourses!’. But not this time. This time I found it all a bit odd that less than two days after the attacks people had chosen these things to write. That they had sat down with the intent to ‘respond’ intellectually to what is largely a movement of sentiment. I also felt that, largely, these articles had missed the point. Or at least they had misinterpreted the intent of many who have posted or hashtagged or graffitied or chanted ‘Je suis Charlie’ in the past week.
I don’t find the posts offensive at all, but I do feel the need to put a few things straight, so here goes:
Je suis Charlie. But I don’t think you have to be.
I am not suffering from the delusion that those who choose not to use this phrase are somehow ‘with the terrorists’. Any such suggestion (and there have been too many) is ridiculous and should be dismissed as such. You don’t feel comfortable saying it? No worries. I can understand that, given the offensive nature of some of what the magazine published.
I didn’t tweet #JeSuisCharlie out of some feeling of liberal obligation, as if not doing so would say something about me. I just wanted to. Perhaps it was a little self-important, but there you go, that’s what I did. When others read into this some sense in which I was compelling them to join in then, well, perhaps they are being a little self-important too.
Je suis Charlie. But I don’t agree with Charlie.
Having looked into it, I find many of the images Charlie Hebdo have printed offensive. Not just the ones about Islam, but these seem to go the furthest. We must remember that this ‘humour’ in a context where many Muslims already feel are increasingly marginalised by secularist policy and widespread suspicion. France is a country in which women have to choose between wearing their headscarves and working public service. If there is a time and place to mock the extreme views of militant Wahhabi Muslims (and you won’t find many in France) modern day Paris is not it. I don’t think the images should have been censored, but I certainly wouldn’t buy the magazine myself.
To me, that’s not what ‘Je suis Charlie’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘I agree with the aims and ideologies promoted in the publication Charlie Hebdo’. Why would it? Most people hadn’t even read it before last week!
Je suis Charlie. And the sentence ends there.
Perhaps when you read ‘Je suis Charlie’ what disturbs you is the subtext. You hear ‘I am Charlie, and I am not one of those people’. Perhaps, ‘I am civilised, liberated and equipped with a sense of humour, whilst you are…’ Or even simply ‘I am Charlie: You are not’. That would be judgemental and offensive, obvs.
When I heard the chants on the news that first night they did not strike me as divisive, but unifying.
“Aaaaah” I hear you cry, “but unity requires a common enemy. You must be uniting against something!” And you’d be right. Of course we were uniting against something. Against the horror, the calculated brutality of these attacks. Against the misguided, perverted notion of vengeance, cloaked in a ‘holiness’ no God would recognise, that led these men to this end. We are humans uniting against the brutalised, inhumane actions that are bred by hatred and anger.
But – whilst I can’t speak for the millions who have since adopted the slogan – I am quite clear that what these men did has nothing to do with 99.9% the Muslims on this Earth. Or to do with Syrians in general. Or immigrants. Or men. Or any race or creed of people.
So please do not assume that ‘Je suis Charlie’ is a label of exclusivity, applicable only to those who are ‘secular and forward-thinking’. To me, it is quite the opposite. Anyone, anywhere could write that slogan. And indeed they did.
Je suis Charlie. But I know I am not Charlie.
I am fully aware of my inability to inhabit the experience of another. There no sense in which ‘somehow we all suffered with them’ is true. We will never know that terror, God-willing. And I don’t think I would be as brave as those who had lived under death threats for years but kept going (you can think it was questionable content and still call it bravery). I am not somehow claiming this tragedy as my own.
Nor do I think because I write a blog that people read sometimes I am somehow part of the uncensored media, fighting the good fight for free speech. I’m not, I’m sitting in a very cold ‘study’/storeroom writing some stuff. What I have in common with those journalists is not ‘my craft’. It is something far more basic. It is, in essence, something I have in common with their killers too.
Je suis Charlie.
This cry was not born out of reason. Those who chanted it on that first night in Paris hadn’t workshopped it and reached a political consensus that they could all get behind. No one had written a policy document to accompany the slogan. I don’t suppose anyone even knew it would become a slogan. They just wanted to say something. And to say the same thing, in the midst all of their differences.
The point missed by all the analyses of the motivations behind these three little words that have spread like wildfire around is that, by and large, they are not a rational response. These words were brought forth by grief and incomprehension. They did not emerge into the world laden with ideologies.
And of course the right-wing bullshit brigade have appropriated these sentiments. Of course Islamophobes have twisted them to fit their divisive, polarised world view. But I will not let these people be the only ones to speak. Nor will I let my penchant for left wing intellectual analysis erase the impulses of the less logical, more compassionate voice within me. I will not be belittled or analysed out of a debate because my reaction is more emotional than political.
This morning millions of copies of Charlie Hebdo will be circulated far wider than they ever have before. I will not be buying one, or even commenting here on its cover. But I will be saying Je suis Charlie, Je suis Charlie, Je suis Charlie. Not because of what I think, but how I feel.
Please let me know what you think about this post in the comments below, or tweet me @aafew
Some other stuff about this stuff (worth a read, especially if you’ve made it to the end of this post!):
Arab newspapers around the world react to Charlie Hebdo attack (these are brilliant!)
There are loads more, google them!