There is little doubt that solidarity in favour of free speech is positive. The Je suis Charlie movement is a current example of how people can stand together and allow their voice to be heard nonviolently. When juxtaposed with the mindless massacre it is reacting to, there seems to be little room for criticism. Yet, there has been a growing movement that proclaims ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie‘. So how, in the climate of such horror and devastation, can anyone oppose?

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, © 2015, public domain
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, © 2015, public domain

First, it should be clear that most proclaiming ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie‘ are not pro-terrorism or religious extremism. Those that I am referring to do not believe that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo somehow ‘deserved’ this heinous assault. I do not doubt that there are those with such opinions but they are in no way a part of the dialogue that should or will be included in this discourse.

Supporters of this counter-perspective are certainly not solely Muslim and the illusory dichotomy of Western against Eastern and secular against religious is part of these issues concerning the Je suis Charlie movement. Islam is not the only religion they attack of course and Muslims are not the only people they parody. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo have become notorious for depictions of sensitive subjects ranging from priests sleeping with children and the kidnapped girls by Boko Haram as ‘pregnant welfare queens.’[1]

Because the attacks were concerning Islam, the subsequent Je suis Charlie movement is difficult to deduce as a simplistic critique on free speech. The attackers have become symbols of Islamic barbarism and the cartoonists, symbols of western, secular freedom. Since the event, the internet has been erupting with clashes between Muslims and non- Muslims and those who feel need to mourn and pay respects to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists but also come to the defense of what they feel is an attack on Islam as a whole. But, as aforementioned, this is not solely a Muslim concern. Many are coming forward are proclaiming that, ‘from the perspective of many Muslims, to declare oneself “Charlie” is to affirm a national identity of exclusion.’ [2]

In the current international climate that includes ISIS, Boko Haram, and widespread sectarian and regional violence and unrest in the Middle East, it is an understatement to say that there is mass turmoil and disorder. An example of this is the attack by Boko Haram on the northern Nigerian town of Baga. This occurred on January 3rd whereas the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred on January 7th. Justifiably, immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the world was blanketed in Charlie Hebdo news, Facebook cover photos proudly declared ‘Je suis Charlie‘ and the #JesuisCharlie is now among the most hashtagged phrases in Twitter history with 3.4 million tweets in the first 24 hours. [3]

This kind of international attention to these lost lives is astoundingly positive, but no event occurs in a vacuum and the reaction to one event no doubt says equally as much about the lack of reaction to another. It seems incongruous that the 2,000 Nigerians that lost their lives in a massacre by Boko Haram only marginally helped incite this worldwide solidarity against Islamic extremism and freedom of expression. Are we so desensitized to non-western death? This exemplifies how this discourse has been reduced to a one-dimensional idea of secular freedom versus religious oppression.

Furthermore, when Je suis charlie is being hashtagged next to #Killallmuslims it is clear that the reaction of the Charlie Hebdo attacks is being grossly distorted and ‘demands for solidarity can “quickly turn into demands for groupthink.”‘ [4] [5] Subsequently, the valiant ideas we began with disintegrate into something alarmingly similar to Islamic extremism.

The term Je suis Charlie is easy to chant and easy to hashtag but it, in itself, does not facilitate helpful dialogue about the real issues and real people around the world. When people condense such complex subjects and occurrences down to three easily digestible terms, it can then be easily used as a tool of conformity and the demonizing of a ‘common enemy.’

Significantly, at the forefront of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. They are being killed in the thousands and displaced in the millions throughout the Middle Eastern world. The extensive suffering that afflicts this region in the past decades and especially in recent years is almost unimaginable for most westerners to conceptualize. So, one of the most prominent arguments for countering Je suis Charlie comes from Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times. He succinctly expresses, ‘the journalists braving the most dangerous places in the world could claim the courage to be Charlie […] “but the rest of us, like me, who sit safely in an office in western Europe […]–we are not Charlie.’ [6]

Many news sources irresponsibly dehumanize Islam as a savage absolute devoid of redemption or predisposing all of its members to acts of terrorism. And when these outlets then tout Je suis Charlie and sacrifice a beneficial conversation of the larger, more multifaceted issues surrounding Eastern and Western relations and Islam, they demean their audience’s intellectual capacity just as the three words themselves can incline. It is true that the attackers attacked in the name of Islam but what of the Algerian, Muslim officer that died protecting the Charlie Hebdo building or Raif Badawi imprisoned and flogged for creating a website called Free Saudi Liberals or those thousands kidnapped and killed by Boko Haram? Do they not also represent Islam?

These victims certainly do not help advocate for a one-dimensional view of Islam but instead a desperate plea for delineation between them and extremists. They are the primary sufferers under extremism so these simplified notions, whether in the form of the Je suis Charlie movement, little action to isolate ideas of Islamic extremism with all Muslims, or not proportionally covering mass Muslim deaths by extremists, are not constructive at best and irreparably distorting at worst.

To aptly exemplify how a three word slogan can blur the intricacies of endlessly labrinthine concepts, a surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz summarily explains, ‘All at once, everyone was saying “I am Charlie” and for ourselves becoming a symbol is difficult because Charlie fought against symbols. […] What an irony to see that behind us was a representative from Saudi Arabia, where the blogger Badawi is in jail for 10 years, where they lash him every week. All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia says “I am Charlie” but it is not.’ […] But it happens in Syria, in Africa, in some other places. We’re not used to this fear, this terror, but a lot of people are.’ [7] The Je ne suis pas Charlie movement does not have to inflame, it is not terrorism rising up in defense of these monstrous attacks. It is saying that the reaction to these attacks goes beyond a stance on free speech and can either help or hinder future relations with Islam and Muslims. These terrible events can be a platform for building positive relations between Muslims and non-Muslims that are victims of extremism, not conforming to groupthink and disengaging with the complexity of issues, because if there is one thing that the journalists of Charlie Hebdo did not represent, it’s conformity.

[1] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/09/trolls-and-martyrdom-je-ne-suis-pas-charlie.html

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/01/je-suis-charlie-france-patriotism/384990/

[3] http://www.thedailyaztec.com/62517/opinion/je-ne-suis-pas-charlie/

[4] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/09/trolls-and-martyrdom-je-ne-suis-pas-charlie.html

[5] http://www.theweek.co.uk/world-news/charlie-hebdo/62060/seven-reasons-why-people-are-saying-je-ne-suis-pas-charlie

[6] http://www.theweek.co.uk/world-news/charlie-hebdo/62060/seven-reasons-why-people-are-saying-je-ne-suis-pas-charlie

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2934446/Charlie-Hebdo-cartoonist-attacks-hypocrisy-leaders.html

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