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Paul Street: Charlie I am Not

Z Communications Daily Commentary

Selective Sympathy and Scale
The murder of seventeen French civilians including five cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris was a horrific crime. It must, of course, be condemned. At the same time, there are far bigger crimes than last week’s Paris killings, which elicited giant demonstrations of support and sympathy within the beyond the city.

Where were the record-setting crowds of millions to protest murder in France, across Europe and around the world in May of 2009? That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed one hundred and forty civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just twenty two were males 18 years or older. The province’s governor told the Afghan Parliament that “the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…. Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.” [1]

Where were the millions in the streets of Paris and across Europe in April and November of 2004, when Fallujah, Iraq was the site of colossal atrocities, war crimes including the indiscriminate murder of civilians and the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals – the practical leveling of an entire city by the U.S. Marines?

Where were those millions at any point during the US occupation of Iraq, which killed more than 1 million Iraqis and maimed and displaced millions more?  How about when reports were first released of the savage torture of thousands of mostly Muslim detainees conducted by the CIA and US military intelligence? Where were they when Israel undertook horrific, openly mass murderous assaults on Palestinian civilians in the open-air apartheid prison that is the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and again last summer? The high tech military power and US client Israel – a nation that developed nuclear weapons with the assistance of France during the 1950s – killed 490 Palestinian children last July and August.  According to one report:


“[Israeli] Missiles have struck several sites in Gaza, including a park inside a refugee camp and an outpatient building of the strip’s largest hospital, disrupting a relative lull at the start of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday. Eight people, including seven children, died following missile fire on a park inside the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City, medics said. The children were playing on a swing when the strike hit the park, Ayman Sahabani, the head of the emergency room at Shifa hospital, told reporters. Munzer al-Derby, 35, who witnessed the strike, told Al Jazeera: ‘The kids were playing on the wheel… A rocket fell and cut them apart…I know some of them. They were from Al-Helou family who left their homes in Shujayea (east Gaza city, where massive [Israeli] artillery fire destroyed neighborhoods). They came here and rented an apartment last week.’” [2]


Let’s hope that marches as big as those responding to the Charlie Hebdo killings take place in Paris, France, and across Europe and the world when the United Nations Climate Change Conference takes place in Paris next November.  The stakes behind the movement to stem anthropogenic global warming? Nothing less than prospects for a decent future and even species survival.

Making Fun of Others’ Religion
With massive crowds showing sympathy for Charlie Hebdo’s martyred atheist satirists and others murdered by religious fundamentalists, I was tempted (as an occasionally satirical and always non-religious writer) to join in the chant, “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).  But for me this would be disingenuous.  While I find last week’s murders contemptible (it is telling that I feel compelled to repeat that), I am NOT Charlie for at least four reasons.

I am NOT Charlie, first, because Charlie Hebdo openly, proudly and repeatedly mocked Islam and it goes against my grain to make fun of another person’s or peoples’ religion.  Religion is a very personally felt emotional and spiritual matter for millions, even billions of people. That I happen to be an atheist does not give me the right to ridicule and lampoon the religious beliefs and symbols to which others adhere.
According to a Marxist history professor of mine many years ago, Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny once bragged to Karl about how she had made fun of a British worker for his silly religious superstitions. Expecting approval from her father, she received instead a stern lecture on her inappropriate behavior from the Old Mole, who argued that religion would not be abandoned by the working class until the vicious and alienating conditions of class exploitation that made religious sentiments seem necessary to the proletariat had been abolished.

I’ve never tried to verify that story but I’ve always agreed with Marx’s sentiments as related in the tale. It is insensitive and politically foolish to deride and shame others’ religious beliefs and icons.

Piling On
It is especially offensive to do so when and where people whose religion you are scoffing at are marginalized, powerless, and under attack. I am not Charlie, secondly, because I agree with anti-racist commentator Tim Wise that the proper targets of satirical scorn are the privileged and powerful, not the weak and poor.  As Wise wrote after the Paris killings:


“In France, satire aimed at Muslims, who are the targets of organized attempts to restrict their rights and even their presence in the country, is not brave; it’s piling on. Likewise, for Jews to satirize Palestinians in Israel would be asshole behavior, while satirizing the nation’s Jewish religious leaders who have such outsized influence on state politics would be the very definition of legitimate satire. In the U.S., where Christians hold the bulk of political and economic power, satirizing the religious right is quite different from satirizing Muslims who are being targeted in regular hate crimes and who are facing communities trying to block them from having mosques in which to worship…..In short, power dynamics really do make a difference. To satirize people who are the targets of institutionalized violence (whether for religious or racial or cultural or linguistic or sexual or gendered reasons) is not brave. It’s sort of shitty, in fact.” [3]


French Two-Facedness
I am not Charlie, thirdly, because France and the atheists at Charlie Hebdo have exhibited quite a double standard when it comes to mocking religion.  As Tariq Ali notes:

“Charlie Hebdo…[which] sees itself as having a mission to defend republican secular values against all religions… has occasionally attacked Catholicism, but it’s hardly ever taken on Judaism (though Israel’s numerous assaults on Palestinians have offered many opportunities) and has concentrated its mockery on Islam. French secularism today seems to encompass anything as long as it’s not Islamic. Denunciations of Islam have been relentless in France….Defending its right to publish, regardless of consequences, is one thing, but sacralising a satirical paper that regularly targets those who are victims of a rampant Islamophobia is almost as foolish as justifying the acts of terror against it. Each feeds on the other….

Under French law, free speech and public assembly can be suspended to prevent violence and civil unrest. The law has been invoked to prevent public appearances by a well-known anti-Semitic comedian and (quite tellingly) to prohibit pro-Palestinian demonstrations.  It has never been used to ban marches and demonstrations by the nation’s many right-wing Islamaphobes or Israel supporters. [4]

A Predictable Tragedy that Makes a Bad Situation Worse
I am not Charlie, fourthly, because the terrible Paris killings and their consequences were thoroughly predictable. The magazine had every reason to expect a bloody assault resulting from its determination – of which it made no secret – to continue provoking believing Muslims by mocking the prophet.  There was nothing surprising about the murders. The consequences include a ratcheting up of the deadly conflict between the “liberal secular” West and the Muslim world.

The Western “Free Press”
Many who chanted “I am Charlie” in the wake of the Paris killings did so while holding pens in their hands, meant to symbolize their commitment to a free press.  It would be a mistake, however, to see the fear of inciting Islamist assault as anything remotely like the major threat to such a press in the West.  The much bigger and more relevant dangers come from corporate ownership and the related power of a dominant neoliberal state-capitalist and imperial ideology that prevents “mainstream” reporters, commentators, and editors from offering any serious challenge to reigning Western power structures and the policies (including the endless and self-reinforcing Global War of/on Terror [GWOOT]) that reflect and advance those structures. Thanks to those forces, the “free press” has become something of a joke in the United States, where, media operatives “who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion…skirt[ing] around the most important parts of a story… [They] avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance.” (Michael Parenti) [6]

“Collective Autism” on the Deaths of Muslim Others
One way that a US and Western reporter or commentator proves their “balanced” safety to those who wield power is by respecting the great doctrinal distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.”[5] Under US-led Western rules, people killed and maimed by official enemies of the US and Europe and their allies in the world-imperial geopolitical order are worthy victims. They deserve empathy, mourning, and serious efforts to identify their killers and to redress, even avenge, their deaths and injuries.  The vastly greater number of people the US, the West, and their clients and allies kill and maim abroad (the US-to-Iraqi death ratio during Washington’s criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq was 1 to 200) receive no such acknowledgement and concern. They are unworthy victims in US and Western political and media culture.

The “casualty aversion” that tends to repeatedly undermine US public support for Washington’s global wars is always mainly about the deaths of U.S. military personnel.  It has little to do with the much bigger swath of humanity the US kills abroad (more than two million people in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and probably as many as 2 million in Iraq from 1990 through 2011).  The West’s shocking “absence of concern,…absence of sympathy” and “collective autism” regarding civilian suffering in the Muslim world is shaped by a dominant US political and media discourse that refuses to seriously discuss “the deaths of others” at US hands and makes “even the scattered attempts to account for the [foreign] dead [i.e., Iraq Body Count]… [into] a highly charged endeavor” (John Tirman) [7]

This massive Western moral indifference regarding the deaths of others is no small part of why terrible events like the Charlie Hebdo killings come to seem inevitable. As Western media could only barely mention in passing, the Paris killers were “radicalized” among other things by the incredible atrocities committed by the US forces in Washington’s (brazenly racist, criminal, and petro-imperial) invasion and occupation of Iraq. The savage moral coldness of the US and West towards Muslim lives means that the US and the West will probably continue to commit yet more crimes against the Muslim world, fueling yet more Muslim rage and more Western war-of/-on terror response: mutually ensured escalation.  It all feeds the profits of the great US and Western corporate military-security-and surveillance-industrial complex, deeply invested in the waging of a permanent GWOOT.

And so the vicious circle persists and deepens, unless and until more and more US citizens and Europeans begin to say also “Je Suis Bola Boluk,” “Je Suis Fallujah,” “Je Suis Abu Ghraib,” “Je Suis Guantanamo,” and  “Je Suis Gaza.”

I strongly recommend the responsible self-suspension of arrogant secular and/or Judeo-christian Prophet-mocking until the deadly Western and petro-imperial occupation of, and assault on the Middle East and Muslim world is thoroughly dismantled– and until Arabs and Muslim people (believers and non-believers) are accorded full civil and social rights in Europe, Israel, and the US.

Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa City, Iowa.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Selected Endnotes
1. New York Times, May 6, 2009.  The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident (one among many mass U.S. aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001) was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about loss of innocent life, but the Administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11 (New York Daily News, April 28, 2009;  Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009).

2. “Children Killed in Gaza Playground Shelling,” Al Jazeera, July 29, 2014

3. Tim Wise, “Not Just a Joke: Reflections on Free Speech, Violence and Mislabeled Heroism,”, January 8, 2015.

4. Tariq Ali, “Maximum Horror,” Counterpunch , January 9-11, 2015.

5.  Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), Chapter 2: “Worthy and Unworthy Victims.”

6.  Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2007), 7

7. John Tirman, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12-13.  Tirman is Principal Research Scientist and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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