The Paris murders and the demand to understand

In the Paris tragedy, the murderers offer nothing for us to comprehend; it is an opaque act.It does not matter how hard we try to move beyond the categories of classical logic and take into account the incommensurability of different life-worlds, an imaginary identification with the murderers is not possible.


Today, a considerable part of the left searches for meaning and strives for comprehension in the nothingness of reactionary acts of extremism. It is ironic that the same section of the left considers the Kurdish fighters—also Muslim—who have led alternative forms of living while under the attacks of ISIS and its allies hard to understand for non-Kurds, unworthy of attention, and/or none of their business. Yet, the same groups consider the recent terrorist attacks in Paris “more complicated” than merely reactionary violence. Hence, it is not about proving that the “clash of civilization” is false—the case of Kobane; it is not about challenging the equation between Muslims and Islamic extremism—the case of Muslims being the victims of extremists’ acts. Rather, it is about finding an image that looks like the “clash of civilization” and then patronizingly trying to comprehend its roots. It is in the latter that the sections of the left search for meaning, and staunchly consider a mere condemnation of it to be theoretically and morally unacceptable. Sheer condemnation of the Paris murders is consequently considered shallow, and we are urged to examine the “Muslim extremist other,” or sometimes blatantly put, to comprehend “Muslim sensibilities.” Hence, an organized strategic military attack against Charlie Hebdo is mistakenly assumed to be the same as the grassroot street-level Muslims’ protest against, e.g., Danish cartoons, as Mahmood Mamdani explains.[1] Consequently, the comprehension of  the “Muslim extremist other” is sometimes interchangeable with learning about “Muslim sensibilities.”


Since the Paris tragedy, there has been a tendency to focus on the roots of the recent murders in French society. This tendency produces the dichotomous constructions of essentializing categories of “Muslims” versus “Europeans,” or liberal values versus “the values of Muslims.” Whereas, an alternative response that delves into transnational extremism, which occurs in the Muslim world as well as outside of it, would challenge such essentializing categories. As Kevin Anderson states: “the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on the kosher supermarket in Paris […] come from […] an utterly reactionary ideology and movement with global reach […]” [2]


There has also been a popular stance which unconditionally condemns the murders, however, states that solidarity with “a racist publication” is bad politics. Balibar explains that the imprudence of satirists towards a discriminated community can deliver them “to manipulation at the hands of organised fanatics.” However, to Balibar, the time of mourning only gives us a space of celebrating the imprudence as heroism, and the question of imprudent satire targeting the disenfranchised remains to be discussed. [3] Ross Wolfe’s response to the stance that considers Charlie Hebdo racist is as follows:


“Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. […] Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair.” [4]


One implied assumption in the race-based analyses of the terrorist attacks is that the murderers were influenced by a racial consciousness; one that they share with the broader marginalized Muslim communities in contemporary France. According to this stance,  extremists’ acts are representative of the social consciousness of marginalized Muslim communities. Therefore, extremists taking offense at the mocking of their religion represents the offensiveness of the cartoons to the larger Muslim community in France. Consequently, the only difference between the fundamentalists and the larger Muslim community in France is the disparity in their tolerance threshold of satire of Islamic holy subjects, or extrimists “anger taking a wrong turn.”[5] These propositions lead us to conclude that fundamentalists are the least tolerant of Muslims; that Muslims generally lack tolerance for liberal values (when it comes to their religion); and that Islam is the “other” of liberalism. Such beliefs have become so widespread that in one of the most informative and progressive interviews on the topic, French Journalist Jade Lindgaard explained that the lesson from this tragedy is (for journalists) to be careful about what they say about the Muslim community and to not stigmatize them. [6]


Several leftist/progressive commentators have suggested that the Paris tragedy must be examined in terms of the social status of the murderers, or the racial and anti-colonial consciousness of Muslim immigrants in France. For instance, Chris Hedges put forth a class analysis of the terrorist attack. [7] Hedges’ analysis disregards the idea that the state of living in downtrodden conditions does not lead a Muslim immigrant or citizen into terrorism, and that the murderers were from an urban middle class background. Monia Mazigh suggested that the murders must be looked at in the broader historical context of the French colonization of Algeria. Mazigh overlooks the fact that the terrorists were born and raised in France. Analyses that use the French colonization of Algeria to examine the Paris tragedy frequently turn Algeria into an producer of terrorism. The rich and diverse anti-colonial struggle of Algeria is reduced to a political background to make sense of the recent murders of those from Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. Moreover, such analyses disregard the fact that not all the similar acts throughout the world are conducted by Algerians, nor can they all be framed into an anti-colonial consciousness. Additionally, Mazigh argues that “the debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic […]” [8] The concerns over the disenfranchisement of Muslim immigrants in France (or, more broadly, in Europe) are justified, however, discriminations against Muslims must end because they are unjust, not because Muslims communities, in poor circumstances, potentially produce terrorists. Hence, the anti-discriminatory struggle for Muslims (or immigrants in general) must be built on the necessity of a more egalitarian and just society; not on the  belief that some Muslims have “dangerous” dispositions. Also, transnational reactionary groups—such as ISIS—are the result of various global sociopolitical conditions. Hence, the connection between the state violence (e.g., the violence of the states of Israel, Turkey, and Syria) and the fortification of reactionary groups (such as ISIS) must be considered. [9] In addition, the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, Jewish people in the kosher supermarket, Kurdish people in Kobane and Iraq, and Pakistani school-children must be scrutinized together.


There is also no coherent argument proving that the recent terrorist act is distinct from other similar ones. For instance, a few months ago in Iran, para-state forces threw acid in the faces of several women because they perceived their hijab “improper” and the victims’ appearances against their religio-ethical values. In Pakistan, Taliban forces killed 145 people in a school. CNN had explained, upon learning  that “a lot of the children are under the benches,” Taliban forces had ordered to “ ‘kill them,’ ” in the recent school attack. [10] In these examples there is no anti-(neo-) colonial consciousness allocated to the attackers, nor is there any talk on the clash of civilization, or the lack of tolerance in Muslim communities due to being marginalized or carrying the social memory of colonialism, etc. The tragedy in Paris turned into a source of truth production about Muslims and their sensitivities, the other examples however—such as the Taliban murder of schoolchildren in Pakistan, para-state forces against women in Iran—are observed as blind acts of violence based on various branches of fundamentalism backed by various states and “individual wealthy patrons” [11] carried out transnationally.


The voices that are repressed in these narrations


Reza Rakhshan, an activist from Khuzestan, Iran, in his essay on the Paris tragedy, suggested that freedom of expression is a class privilege. [12] Along with his argument, I think that the voices that do not have the privilege of being expressed, the voices that are repressed both in Muslim-phobic and “anti-colonial and anti-Islamophobia” analyses, are the utterances of ordinary Muslim people. The voices of the ordinary Muslims—such as singers, writers, and satirists, whose “blasphemous” works have caused them their lives or security, and the ordinary people, the audiences of such works—are repressed in most of these narrations.


In both Muslim-Phobic and “let’s understand the Muslim other” essays, Muslims turn into the irrational religious people whose sensitivities are not respected by the irreligious and insensitive European radicals. Consequently, “let’s understand the Muslim other” essays ask for comprehending the “religious other,” for taking into account the colonial injuries, for not provoking “them,” etc. Muslim-phobic essays however, ask for reformation of “Islamic culture” as a resolution to the “clash of civilization.” In all of these, extremists represent Muslim communities and their acts represent the reaction to colonial traumas—for the left— and clash of civilization—for the right. Contrary to these patronizing treatments, the mocking of religious beliefs and practices is not the “civilizing misdeed” of “white politically-incorrect radicals” whose murders “let’s understand the Muslim other” essays nevertheless condemn even though they were uncool to Muslims. Such critical and satirical stances towards religion and cultural religious practices exist among Muslims themselves.


The dilemma is that the deepest Muslim-phobic propositions are sometimes produced in the “let’s understand the Muslim other” essays. The dilemma is the neat divisions—that we reproduce in our so called progressive stances—based on religious, lingual, spatial, skin-color “borders.” Moreover, the dilemma is the incapability of mourning for the losses that are not considered to be “ours.” It does not matter whether one agrees or disagrees with the content of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, it matters whether one takes the reactionary blind acts of violence of this or that extremist group to represent the anti-discriminatory consciousness of Muslim communities or not.



[1]: “This is one difference we need to appreciate. The response to the Danish Cartoons was in the main a street-level response of ordinary Muslims who saw themselves as being framed and set up by forces of bigotry. The Charlie Hebdo killings were done by a military cell, coordinated and guided from a centre. This was a strategic strike, not a spontaneous demonstration. This is a second difference we need to appreciate.”






[7]: “The terrorist attack in France that took place at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was not about free speech. It was not about radical Islam. It did not illustrate the fictitious clash of civilizations. It was a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.”

[8]: “[…] France has a heavy colonial, racist and violent past with Muslim countries like Algeria, for instance (one can only state here the assassination and torture campaign against Algerian dissidents). The large wounds of the Algerian war of liberation — a struggle that ended costing Algerians a million lives — never healed, even more than half a century later.”







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