How to respond to Charlie Hebdo?

Twelve people have died in the attack on French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, and the response from many people – from a New Zealand perspective fairly divorced from the immediate impact – is familiar.

We’ve been here before, with violent extremists attacking media organisations for publishing inflammatory cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, though this attack is far more serious. And with the “benefit” of distance, there’s a lot to unpack – about the nature of satire, about the targets of satire, about the freedom of the press, about the right to cause offence – but what worries me is the instinctive reaction many Westerners have to declare “these people died because of these cartoons, ergo these cartoons should be published everywhere!”

It’s especially concerning in the context of this excellent article from Informed Comment, which posits a more complex explanation for the Charlie Hebdo attack – beyond just “they hate our cartoons and attacked us because they hate us”:

This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram).

If we accept this explanation, then the cries to republish the cartoons as widely as possible simply play into the extremists’ hands. Likewise demands for greater government surveillance and further compromises of civil liberties can actually make us less safe by making it a hell of a lot easier for violent extremists – of any persuasion, because there’s nothing unique to Muslim extremists about hating governmental authority – to persuade others that hey, you’re in a fight for your very existence here.

And I just don’t know what the point of republishing the cartoons is. Many journalists have already shown solidarity with the victims at Charlie Hebdo. Many cartoonists have already created their own works in support of the freedom to satirise. Without context – and especially, as I’m seeing in a lot of places, without even a translation of the original French – the cartoons don’t serve as satire, and publishing them seems to simply be “neener neener neener, look at this picture of Muhammad, you can’t stop us” thumb-biting.

As Fredrik deBoer notes, the question of whether we should crack down on violent extremists in defence of the freedom of the press is a “dead moral question”:

Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years.

So any talk about needing to steel our nerves or reinvigorate our efforts against terrorism is frankly a smokescreen.

What really worries me is that none of this is new. We know that aggressive responses just breed more conflict. We know that trying to “bomb them back into the Stone Age” just creates more violent extremists.

In the Informed Comment article above, Juan Cole notes that we have an alternative model to dealing with these kind of acts: the approach taken by Norway against Anders Breivik, which steadfastly denied him the opportunity to become a martyr for his cause.

So why don’t we take it? Why is the first instinct to say let’s arrest them, expel them, and drone-strike their families?

The depressing reality is that in the West, Islam is our generation’s Communism. “Foreign fighters” are our “reds under the bed”. There are many authoritarian people – across the political spectrum – who simply want to increase the reach and repressive power of government (as long as their particular end of the spectrum is in office).

They may paint themselves as moderates, liberals who just really, really love freedom of speech – but you just have to look at the kinds of comments their followers leave and upvote (and no, I’m not linking, but you know exactly what I’m talking about). They know the score, and it isn’t about a careful, thought-through reaction to the acts of a specific, tiny minority of the Muslim population.

It’s only natural to react with abhorrence and disgust at the violent massacre of innocent people. It’s natural to take up the rallying cry of “Je suis Charlie” and march in the streets against acts of terror.

What I fear is that abhorrence being manipulated to justify further erosion of our basic rights and freedoms – the very things George W Bush told us the terrorists hate us for.

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