Charlie Hebdo: the double arch of extremism
"An age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it." - Salman Rushdie, "Shalimar The Clown."
A terrible drama has played out in the streets of Paris that crystalizes the dark clouds gathering over our times. Wednesday's attack on the Charlie Hebdo paper in France, where masked gunmen killed 12 people including the paper's editor, and Friday's hostage stand off which resulted in three of the suspects killed by French security forces, promises to fuel a gathering storm where extremists from all corners are being pulled in.
One of the first great tragedies of this gruesome event is the Western World's response to it. Yes, it was an assault on freedom itself, and the ability to freely publish and critique should be protected and encouraged, we as a small college paper highly value this right. The fact that the attack was in retribution for cartoons the paper published satirizing the Prophet Muhammad is testament to the power (and danger) of using art as a tool of satire, analysis, and observation.
But as with most terrorism, most mainstream outlets and commentators are ignoring the deep roots of such violence, and they are giving the floor to right-wing, nationalist voices demanding we start marching in goose-step towards a cataclysm. Already mosques have been attacked in France. The Daily Mail reported on Thursday the gunfire and grenade attacks on mosques and the blowing up of a kebab shop. Fascist political parties, already profiting from Europe's economic crisis in the polls, are rushing to cast themselves as prophets who knew this was coming. Notoriously anti-immigrant and xenophobic, this is now their much hoped for dark hour.
France's National Front, headed by fascist harpy Marine Le Pen, is making bold speeches about "confronting the enemy" while England's UKIP thugs are calling for an end to the "gross policy of multiculturalism." In the United States gasbags such as Bill Maher are already hitting the airwaves to proclaim this is essentially all about Islam being some kind of inherently crazy religion. Ironically, on Friday the president of Iran and Hassan Nasrallah, the General Secretary of the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, condemned the Paris attacks, calling the jihadis offensive to Muslims. Not to say these figures are saints (no political party or state is), but the irony cannot be missed.
Wednesday's attack must be condemned by anyone who cares about the freedom to think and express, but we cannot allow ourselves to just sink into xenophobia and nationalism, we have to soberly look at what is happening. Underneath all the roar and fury dominating the airwaves, journalists such as Patrick Cockburn and Juan Cole, who have been covering the Middle East are pointing truths that can taste like bitter pills.
They are alerting readers to the fact that the flames of the Syrian Civil War and of a region in turmoil, are beginning to touch western Europe. In fact, the roots can be traced back to the U.S. occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. Sharif and Said Kouashi, the two brothers involved in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, grew up in a generation marked by a post-9/11 world of East vs. West, framed by the images of the United States invading Iraq, shattering it and unleashing sectarian strife all over the Arab world. Born and raised in France, in 2003 the brothers joined a local mosque known for recruiting young men to go fight the Americans in Iraq. As Sharif told his lawyer and as Cole reports, "It was everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that, which motivated me.” By taking a sledgehammer to an very complex region, the U.S. left schisms and broken pieces now finding a terrifying whole.
The brothers were stopped and interrogated by French police in 2005 before they could make their way to Iraq, but it appears that in 2011 they managed to get into the current hotbed of militant jihadi combat, Syria.
The Syrian war, which has turned into a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, has been exasperated by the original support western powers, along with Saudi Arabia, gave to the armed, Islamist rebel groups trying to overthrow the secular government of Bashar al-Assad (who we hate because he is allied with Iran). Europe has become a provider for fighters as Muslims already feeling like outsiders in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere make the trek to wage a messianic war in their homelands.
So what we're living through as a time when young Muslim men are being raised watching the West invade their countries, support corrupt regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Somalia), and when these same individuals emigrate to Europe, they find societies that are undergoing economic uncertainty and immediately see them as alien and tarnished. In this atmosphere, anything as rightfully free to do as a cartoon can spark or inspire action in enraged minds seeking solace in radical doctrines. Paris also saw major, violent protests over the summer when Israel cruelly attacked and invaded Gaza as the U.S. and Europe simply looked on as the death toll rose to 2,000.
Radical Islam is simply filling a void that has been left in a post-Cold War world where the Middle East has seen communism, socialism and other secular ideologies discredited (or supposedly discredited). It is dangerously irresponsible to lay the blame for what has taken place in France on an entire culture, religion, or people.
There is of course no excuse for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it was an act of barbarism and fanaticism, the killers, had they lived past Friday's hostage siege, should have been fully prosecuted for their heinous actions. And the world of journalism, including its cartoonists, should have the freedom to express an idea without the fear of violent terror.
But now the other extremists, the ones like Le Pen, Greece's fascist Golden Dawn party and others will use this terror to inject their own brand. They will attempt to continue pushing this into a fevered conflict of race, culture, and paranoia. They will move continents and regions into deeper conflict. They will take advantage of the fact that we gasp (with reason) at the what but never take the time to ponder the why. It will be their own holy war, and the fire will burn the marrow of us all.