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Charlie I am Not


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 and 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,” TimWise.org, 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.

14 Comments

  1. george patterson January 22, 2015 8:04 pm 

    Paul Street, as usual , is right on the mark in condemning the hypocrisy of US and the West in protesting vociferously the violence of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but failing to condemn and protest the massive systemic violence of the US and the British in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US systematic violence elsewhere in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen along with US economic and military backing of Israel’s assault, occupation,
    and invasion of the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon, and its criminal an illegal occupation of the Golan Heights of Syria, and periodic indiscriminate attacks against Syria. By the way, the massive systematic killing by the US in Vietnam amounted to roughly four million people rather than two million people, and Vietnamese are still dying from the effects of chemical warfare and land mines; and that does not include those with serious diseases and birth defects caused by the chemical warfare and those who had been and had been maimed and seriously inured and land mines.

  2. avatar
    Paul D January 15, 2015 5:24 pm 

    John Goodr,

    My reply will be brief, but there is much wrong with your comment. You are confusing cause and effect to a serious degree. It is not religion that is driving militant forces like ISIL or Bolo Haram, or the State of Israel, it is hunger for power which arises as a reaction of a long history of oppression and disempowerment. Paul Streets anecdote of Marx and his daughter was spot-on. Religion arises from the “vale of tears of which religion is the halo. And it provides fertile soil for sowing and reaping by the power hungry when a people are oppressed and disempowered. I recommend a re-read of the full passage of Marx’s critique of religion in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”.

    • avatar
      Paul Street January 15, 2015 7:14 pm 

      I share Paul D.’s discomfort with John Goodr’s assault on religion (which includes a predictable and nauseating Hitchens citation…why not creepy Richard Dawkins too?). Kelly G. I agree about the endless GWO/OT’s prospects for disastrous escalation and would add that all this GWO/OT insanity pushes the leading issue of our or any time — eco-cidal and anthropogenic climate change — further into the deadly realms of denial and forgetting. BTW: Here in the US we have now the provocative and vicious movie “American Sniper,” which celebrates the racist and imperial US assault on Fallujah (2004). “American Sniper” is I guess a nice complement to the vicious US movie “Zero Dark Thirty’s” defense of racist and imperial US torture practices. As I have been arguing for years, US “entertainment” media is a big and richly ideological (far more than merely Huxlean diversion and infantalization) part of how the state capitalist corporate media works to manufacture mass consent to reigning authoritarian power structures and doctrine. Just as significant, if not more significant in that regard as the “news” media.

    • Philip Mayall January 16, 2015 12:29 am 

      Yes, but we shouldn’t support some inhuman practices in order to condemn other inhuman practices.

  3. Glenn Fritz January 15, 2015 3:03 am 

    I don’t consider taunting to be exercise of free speech.

    Taunting, rather than being praised as free speech, is penalized in
    America’s National Football League. As if these big strong men had emotions
    more powerful (and they do) than their ability to control them.

    The US has been waging a Crusade against Muslims for decades–as George W. Bush
    unwisely uttered and retracted after an inappropriate spate of
    truth-speaking. And as Obama has continued without a
    stutter.

    The inability or unwillingness of Muslims to avenge their millions of
    dead over the decades of crusades results in what amounts to a futile and puny
    striking back at a taunt after taking a humiliating beating.

    I don’t find it wise or charitable in the least to taunt someone who
    has reason enough to hate and yet is precariously balanced enough by
    reason to use restraint.

    Martin Luther King Jr. never thought law could make whites love
    people of color, but hoped law could make whites refrain from their
    hatred inspired activities against them.

    To see France’s free speech protests one would think that the all world was at peace until these ungracious few who responded in anger to being taunted spoiled the joyous, freedom inspired celebratory mood of the republic.

    It seems the West forgot it was waging a Crusade against Islam because the deaths and casualties were so one-sided. How decadent to leave the killing machine unattended and full on, so the deaths you are responsible for, you lack even awareness of.

  4. John Goodr January 15, 2015 12:52 am 

    Religion is the reason for Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine .
    Religion is the reason for Boko Harum ‘s atrocious behavior.
    Religion is the reason for the Holocaust – a very anti-Semitic Europe.
    Religious Catholics led all the fascist movements under Salazar, Franco, Mussolini and in Croatia where the movement was led by a Catholic cleric.
    Religion is behind every suicide bomber.
    Religion is behind the genital mutilation community.
    Religion is explicitly totalitarian .
    All religions from the first Volcano god or whatever of the 1000 or so that have been created, worshipped and then trashed have been poison to humanity and belong to humanity’s infancy.

    They demand blind obedience
    It is nothing to which a principled democrat should ever submit and the fact that so many different religions have so many brutal and primitive rules and regulations which are often punishable by death ( read Leviticus) prove that these religions are manmade.
    An omniscient and omnipotent God would hardly act this way.
    I believe all religions in which there is a dictatorial supernatural god deserve not only ridicule but condemnation as forces for evil that far outshadow the good they do.

    Try reading Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything ” or for a quick 13- minute denunciation of couple of religions go to You-Tube and request : “Christianity Is False and Immoral: Hitchens.”

    I believe most people greatly underestimate the harm done by religion.

    I also believe that U.S. imperialism is in a transition where the new and more powerful enemy will be Islam which seeks to spread its primitive beliefs by the sword as did the prophet.

    This time it isn’t Richard the Lionhearted et al fighting the Saracens . It’s the civilized and educated peoples of the world against people whose thinking is based on primitive and brutal fairy tales and you cannot debate against faith of that sort .

    .

  5. Kelly Gerling January 14, 2015 10:35 pm 

    The hypocrisy is as breathtaking as the crimes of the U.S. in the Mideast, and the blowback crimes. They are all crimes. We can have a war of terrorism. Or we can have enforceable laws. The former will result in escalating violence. This violence will eventually include weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological and incendiary. 9-11 was mostly incendiary, which led to the massive deaths due to the fire-based collapse of the towers. I prefer law. This has been the constant mantra of former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz who is a great mentor for anyone who wants to explore the implications of enforceable domestic and international laws. He’s a co-founder of the ICC. See more at http://benferencz.org. Law, not war is his slogan. It’s a good one. While the Bush and now the Obama administrations are pursuing a Rumsfeld/Bush policy of conquering and/or destroying eight nations in the Mideast (as revealed by Wesley Clark) it would be in our interest to pursue law instead of force. Paul, your article is an excellent example of the biases against law and towards the demonization and biases that make war culturally acceptable instead of law.

  6. avatar
    Mike John Elissen January 14, 2015 9:43 pm 

    Excellent article. In addition i would like to remark that after the Anders Breivik massacre in Norway, him killing 77 innocent people (69 youngsters just because they were members of the Social Democratic Party of Norway) there were no #campaigns, no massive demonstrations to condemn Right-winged violence and ideology. Just a lame condemnation by EU politicians. Makes one think.

  7. Danica Jorden January 14, 2015 7:30 pm 

    Chérif and Said and Charb and Cabu were united against the Front National, but some of them used the wrong weapons and got the target wrong.

    Amédy’s targets should have been imperialism and racism and not Yoav and other innocent shoppers.

    Dieudonné can say he is Charlie and Coulibaly at the same time. Is it right to arrest Dieudonné while at the same time lionize Charlie Hebdo?

    It sounds like everyone was trying to make sense of a terrible world and may have made terrible mistakes along the way. We are all imperfect. Except maybe Yoav.

    http://www.cafebabel.co.uk/brussels/article/zl-yoav-rest-in-peace.html

  8. avatar
    David Jones January 14, 2015 4:53 pm 

    It is so easy to be for “human rights” and go buy a copy ( look! I own a piece of History!) and so difficult to stand for justice and try to get History moving again. Thanks Paul.

  9. Joe Marcin January 14, 2015 4:49 pm 

    Needs to be said over and over and over again.
    Thank you Paul

  10. gary olson January 14, 2015 3:37 pm 

    Paul’s insightful piece and 4-5 other related articles on today’s ZNet list are absolutely essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the context of the Charlie Hebdo affair. They merit wide circulation.

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