Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ahmed. Je suis ...

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Ahmed. Je suis ...

by Robert Azzi

Personally, as a photojournalist, although I’ve been jailed in several countries, held hostage once, and was once beaten by a mob in Tripoli, Libya and medivaced to Beirut with a couple of broken ribs and concussion, I’ve never had to endure the risks taken by a James Foley or the publishing challenge of a Charlie Hebdo.

Professionally, I believe there’s nothing more valuable than free speech and the free exchange of ideas; the more offensive a piece may be the more strongly the right to publish should be supported, whether they’re cartoons of Jesus or Prophet Muhammad, photographs by Andres Serrano or the soft-core tortured prose of romance novels.

Today, let’s be clear: The attack on  Charlie Hebdo was both a barbaric criminal act and a betrayal of Islam.

To Muslims the massacre was a monstrous repudiation of the Word of God, a rejection of the Prophet’s life and a betrayal of the Umma, that multitude of 1.6 billion adherents who daily commit their lives to the struggle to live in harmony with the Beloved.

Condemnations of the barbaric attack were universal and immediate, including from every major Muslim organization from Mecca to Washington, DC. The attack on the satirical weekly was an attack on all of us: #JesuisCharlie.

As civilized people we also define limits: We reject hate speech. We abhor racism and the “N” word. In France, Holocaust deniers can be jailed. We slap down those who tweet, blog or exploit for profit or humor children, the weak and the vulnerable — all because we see ourselves as decent humans who don’t exploit those who’ve been exploited, those who have no power to speak for themselves.

Today, I’ll risk going further. While it’s important to re-emphasize that freedom of the press is unassailable, and that there’s no justification for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, I’d like to offer some context.

What Charlie Hebdo legally publishes is often racist, exploitive, appalling and offensive. It’s (d)evolved from a French tradition exemplified by Honoré Daumier that one way to challenge authority is to ridicule it — 19th Century cartoons of corpulent monarchs, frolicking priests and naughty nuns outraged oligarchs while amusing the proletariat.

Charlie Hebdo’s commitment to being an equal opportunity offender isn’t absolute. When cartoonist Maurice (Siné) Sinet wrote that Jean Sarkozy, son of the French President, “has just said he intends to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, who is Jewish, and the heiress to the founders of Darty,” and added, “He’ll go far, that kid.” Siné was either fired or forced out for comments that “could be interpreted as drawing a link between conversion to Judaism and social success.”

It’s equally important to acknowledge that Charlie Hebdo’s right to be offensive, sexist and racist comes from a privilege based within its white European tradition. If we offend ourselves out of privilege we understand it — it’s our privilege — but that’s different than privileging ourselves to attack and offend the Other — who often have no way to respond.

For example, it’s OK for some people to say about Muslims what people can’t say about Jews. If what people can’t say about Jews — anything anti-Semitic — is wrong then people can’t say it about Muslims — unless you invoke privilege.

It’s legal for Charlie Hebdo to denigrate Islam but it doesn’t take much intellectual fortitude to attack the weak and disadvantaged. Reflecting the irony that a Muslim policeman died defending Charlie Hebdo’s free speech, political activist Dyab Abou Jahjah tweeted: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed.”

We underestimate the power of disenfranchisement and how it leaks into every aspect of our lives. While not many murderers reach Saïd and Cherif Kouachi’s level of violence we must be cognizant of the toll that such despair takes on our citizenry.

In France most Muslims are a disenfranchised people without privilege. From the 1830s, when France brutally occupied North Africa, it has only seen the Muslims as second-class peoples. In 1843, French Lt.Col. de Montagnac, speaking of Algeria, wrote, “... Everything must be seized, devastated, without age or sex distinction: grass must not grow any more where the French army has set foot…” After France formally annexed Algeria any Algerian who wanted to become a French citizen had to renounce Islam.

Algerians rose against French occupation in 1954 and after a long and bloody civil war won independence in 1962 — the only Arab country to have successfully fought and won independence from a colonial occupier.

Riots in 2005, 2007 and 2009, in primarily disadvantaged suburbs populated by Muslims, scornfully referred by the French as banlieues défavorisées, were warnings that a disenfranchised community marginalized by prejudice, poverty and lack of opportunity was in despair, deeply unhappy. It is out of this milieu that the Kouachis emerged.

Ervin Staub, in The social psychology of morality writes, “even though there are many societal, cultural, and institutional forces at work, the proximal influences leading to genocide or mass killing are psychological. As the participants undergo a grim evolution, progressing along a “continuum of destruction” (Staub, 1989), moved by psychological and social forces, moral principles and orientations can be subverted. As people respond to these forces, they may engage in profoundly immoral actions without even struggling with the immorality of their thoughts, feelings, and actions.”

Embracing parallel narratives of discontent stemming from discrimination, isolation and lack of integration for many young Muslims in France on one hand, and drawn by a seemingly quixotic vision of fighting for the dignity, honor and freedom of Muslims ruled by western supported dictators and monarchs on the other, the Kouachi brothers, Charlie Hebdo’s killers, took the Islamophobic bait and like many jihadists, seemingly unable to distinguish between the inalienable rights of a free press, legitimate political grievances, religious illiteracy and personal impotence, they struck with terror.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was profoundly immoral. I cannot imagine any despair so disorientating that can justify the act of taking a single life under such circumstances or any interpretation of scripture that can justify such acts. The Islam embraced by nearly all Muslims has nothing to do with the political ideology embraced by the Kouachis, by Al Qaeda in Yemen or by ISIS.

This morning, as I finish writing, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper-Cacher stand-offs have just ended with hostages freed and gunmen reported killed yet the crisis — the conflict between darkness and light — still threatens us. It won’t be decided today, or on the battlefield, or in dark interrogation chambers; it will be decided in Baghdad, Boston and in the banlieues défavorisées when the isolated and disenfranchised can safely shelter their families, educate and feed their young and be employed with dignity. When that happens false preachers like Al-Awlaki and Al-Baghdadi will find no audience for their hatred.

The Qur’an cautions, “Hence, if you have to respond to an attack (in argument), respond only to the extent of the attack leveled against you; but to bear yourselves with patience is indeed far better for you, since God is with those who are patient in adversity.” 16:126

A story is told of a woman in Medina who would daily throw trash on Prophet Muhammad as he walked past her house. The Prophet never responded or retaliated. One day, when there wasn’t an attack, he went to her home to inquire and see if she was well.

“You do not do evil to those who do evil to you,” a hadith advises, “but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.”

 Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He may be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


  Also published on Seacoast Online