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Charlie Hebdo and the meaning of a massacre

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Two jihadists, the brothers Cherif and  Said Kouachi, stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, and killed ten of its staff members and two police officers. This much is clear, undebatable, and unquestionably horrible. Then what? It is an attack on freedom of expression, we all say. Many add that it is an attack on journalism. Rick Salutin counters that, no, it is not an attack on journalism but rather on satire. Before asking whether Salutin has it right or wrong, there is a first point to be made, which his analysis illustrates and on which it depends (along with all others, including this one): the meaning of the event is not self-evident, transparent, pre-given, but rather it emerges from how the event is analyzed. But how do we decide what it means? What features of the event deserve to be taken into account in our analysis? And who is "we," doing the deciding?

In trying to figure out what the Charlie Hebdo massacre means, shouldn't we be interested to know how the killers made sense of their actions? Isn't their motivation relevant? Many will say that we shouldn't dignify the killers' outlook by paying attention to their beliefs (religious and otherwise). I shouldn't have to point this out but, given the horror of what the Kouachi brothers did, I have no doubt that I need to say it: trying to see how they made sense of their actions does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horror of what they did. Rather, if we are to understand the meaning of the event, factoring-in the outlook of the killers is a necessary piece of the puzzle.

At a very basic level, the Kouachi brothers attacked Charlie Hebdo because they believed what they believed; and they came to hold these beliefs through their lifetime of social and political interactions. It is in fact obvious that they didn't give a damn about journalism or satire as such: Charlie could have satirized viciously the Catholic Church and French politicians until the end of time, and the brothers would have been blissfully indifferent. What offended them deeply was a specific thing that Charlie printed, and against which they acted: in their own words, they aimed to avenge the Prophet of Islam. So, they weren't attacking journalism or satire, but rather they were striking back against blasphemy -- but, again, not blasphemy as such, for they couldn't have cared less about blasphemy against some tenet or other of Hinduism or Catholicism. It is, specifically, Charlie's blatant disrespect for Islam (at least as they understood it) that marked it as their target. The fact that Charlie Hebdo also has no respect for other religions is as undeniable as it is irrelevant to the killers' motives.

It is not an accident that, once the massacre has been fully condemned, many Muslims (and others) in France and throughout the world share the brothers' outrage at Charlie Hebdo's treatment of Islam: the revulsion of the brothers at this treatment, far from being idiosyncratic or indeed lunatic, is deeply embedded in the reverence that Muslims have for the Prophet Muhammad and, as such, it is easily understood. (How they chose to act upon it, of course, is another matter entirely.) In this respect, many reactions of Muslim children and teenagers in Paris suburbs to last week's events are telling: whatever they thought of Cherif and Said Kouechi's actions, they believed that Charlie Hebdo had been wrong to disrespect the Prophet -- and therefore their religion and their own community. But such concerns tend to be easily dismissed, if they are even heard at all: coming from embattled French Muslims, they are not granted the kind of attention that would inform our analyses.

In the end, we all know this: that it is Islam's place in Western democracies that is in question. This is why there has been so much pressure from so many quarters over the last few days for media organizations and individuals (through their social media profiles) to re-publish Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad covers. Nobody cares today, politically speaking, if the cartoon of Catholic Cardinals doing a daisy chain of sodomy is re-circulated: it is the image of Islam's Prophet, that many find blasphemous, that must be shown. Keeping in mind Muslims' discontent with the publication of this image, we then end up with specific media "content," on both sides, that is at issue: it must be shown, it must not be shown.

So, what is it that was attacked last Wednesday? It is not inaccurate, per se, to say that freedom of expression, journalism and satire are at stake in the Charlie Hebdo killings: the freedom of journalists and satirists to denigrate certain beliefs of (at least a subset of) Muslims is clearly included in the broader category of freedom of expression. And it is quite true that freedom of expression is meaningless if it does not include the right to offend.

But it is also the case that the denigration of Islam is a problematic feature of our present - not just in France, but across Western democratic countries. It was so before the 7th of January, and it will be all the more so after. As such, there is a way in which it is a category mistake to highlight the generics, and it is a mistake with specific political consequences: focussing generically on freedom of expression, journalism and satire serves to steer our gaze away from our societies' Islamophobia and marginalization of communities of non-European origin -- and from what members of these communities might have to say about the situation.

Before last Wednesday, there was a deepening malaise in France over the country's failure through the past twenty years at integrating Muslim and African immigrant populations economically, socially, culturally and politically. This is, after all, what the cover of last week's Charlie Hebdo was about: the novelist Michel Houellebecq's paranoid fiction of a France controlled, only seven years from now, by an Islamist president.

There was a dawning realization that it didn't suffice to blame Muslims for being somehow unassimilable -- that French society at large, and the French state, have been failing in their Republican mission. But there is now a real danger that, by overshadowing the concerns of minority, marginalized populations, the unanimist defense of freedom of expression, journalism and satire will allow France -- and the rest of us Western democrats -- to retreat to the comforts of  our high principles.

Claude Denis is a Full Professor and former Director at the School of Political Studies, U. of Ottawa, where he was also director of the Centre on Governance and adjunct professor in the Institute of Canadian Studies. He is the author of We Are Not You. First Nations and Canadian Modernity, many articles, and editor of two books. He works on federal politics and conflicting nationalisms in Canada and on Mexican politics, with a focus on the interplay between democracy, citizenship, security and human rights. He has also published on indigenous politics and francophone minorities in Canada.

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