The Limits of our Rage

Earlier this week, masked gunmen attacked the offices of controversial French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 and wounding 11 others. The loss of life is tragic and heinous crimes always deserve to be punished. This is a time for grieving, tolerance and coming together. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the attack has been predictable in that pesky post-9/11 way that refutes reason and history in favour of division and emotive buzzwords like freedom, terrorism and response.

Understanding what happened in Paris is naturally a challenge because it is time that allows for reconciliation and context. Tragedy tends to impair our perception of reality and context. We have duped ourselves into simplifying tragedy for manageable grieving, easy answers and quick fixes that invariably lead to future tragedies. Due to our steadfast aversion to nuance and complicity, the media, with our permission, is ignoring a series of important issues requiring public attention. Here are some disjointed thoughts on those issues.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were often self-righteous, offensive for the sake of it and ultimately poor satire. As Jacob Canfield at the Hooded Utilitarian put it, “White men’s punching down is not a recipe for good satire.” Jordan Weissmann of Slate pointed out that this satire exists in a country where “Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia.” No, this does not in any way condone attacks but it does challenge the victim discourse that would suggest free speech martyrdom. It also ignites an interesting discussion on free speech and its limits and value to society. There is more going on here than cartoonists killed for their work. Not all victims are heroes despite our best efforts to make them out to be — and that is all right. It does not make their loss of life any less senseless or tragic.

Attacks like this are not new in France nor is the sentiment behind them. This is not the first attack of its kind and judging by the response to the attacks, it is unlikely the last. France’s post-colonial legacy is not going anywhere. Algeria’s war for independence ended in 1962 and the post-war climate in France has been perpetually tense. Society is deeply divided and reconciliation is still awaiting priority status. French nationalism and French identity have made assimilation or some semblance of healthy coexistence impossible. In his piece in The Independent, Robert Fisk points out that history cannot justify contemporary crimes but he also suggests, “Maybe all newspaper and television reports should carry a ‘history corner,’ a little reminder that nothing – absolutely zilch – happens without a past.”

Contributing to Islamophobia or buying into the rhetoric behind anti-immigration laws will result in more disenfranchised, segregated members of a French subclass with little hope for progress. A sense of belonging and connection to the national identity has eluded many who are often perceived as immigrants in France and their so-called home country. As long as stupid questions — let’s call them “Don Lemon Questions” — like “does Islam promote violence?” occupy TV news screens and discussions in mainstream media try to justify ignorant generalizations, relevant questions that deserve attention will continue to be ignored.

Condemnations from the Muslim community are natural and sensible but apologies imply responsibility. Many media outlets do their best to ignore condemnations from the Muslim world and, in doing so they seem to forget altogether that Muslims are the primary targets and victims of so-called “Islamic radicalism.” Muslim cartoonists, activists, citizens and religious leaders are condemning the attack and bracing for inevitable repercussions. Heck, there is now an app that tracks Muslim condemnations.

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting massacre. He makes the news on occasion, often refered to as a “right-wing extremist,” “mass killer” or “lone wolf.”  While it is true Brevik was a lone wolf in his act of violence, his ideology, in varying degrees of extremism, can be found across the most “civilized” nations in Western Europe. Islamophobes are a lot of things, but lonely is not one of them.

In the same world where innocent Muslims are expected to apologize for terrorist attacks after grocery shopping in Dearborn or as drones fly over their heads in Pakistan, no Christians felt obligated to apologize for Breivik’s actions and righfully so. Breivik made the news last year for requesting better video games (PlayStation 2 was deemed unacceptable) and more outdoor time. Finding a mainstream news article calling him a terrorist from any year proved difficult. Finding an article referring to his christianity as a factor in the attack is laughably challenging. However, there is room in the mainstream media for “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson to tell millions of Fox viewers about fictional Muslim religious police in London that beat up anyone who does not dress in religious Muslim attire. Ignoring condemnations from the Muslim community is irresponsible and expecting apologies is absurd

Somewhere along the way we bought into a system that allows us to exclusively subscribe to one way of thinking about a particular issue. You are either for free speech or religion, for the victims or the assailants, for peace or against it, for all counter-terror measures or a terrorist sympathizer. If transnational groups like al-Qaeda and some of the more staunch nationalists have it their way, you will soon be with or against Muslims, also known as nearly two billion people. This is not only economically and politically impractical in the 21st century, but also leaves the vast majority of Muslims without hope for peace. In order to move forward with a more enlightened and useful discussion, the focus needs to shift from topics of free speech and religion to more pressing issues of xenophobia, nationalism, cosmopolitanism and the like.

The trouble is we don’t have much honest interest in combating terrorism. Until violence extends itself from the periphery, sometimes referred to as the Global South, and hastily lands in the scope of Western media, calls to action and to arms are withheld. The failures of The War on Terror and subsequent versions of it are rooted in the selective nature of our outrage.

This selective outrage or double standard applies to freedoms as well. Cartoons are fine; hijabs are not, According to Glen Greenwald, “Usually, defending free speech rights is much more of a lonely task. For instance, the day before the Paris murders, I wrote an article about multiple cases where Muslims are being prosecuted and even imprisoned by western governments for their online political speech – assaults that have provoked relatively little protest, including from those free speech champions who have been so vocal this week.”

Speaking out against Israel can lose you a career while speaking out against Islam can make you one. To combat transnational violence, the dark side of globalization cannot be ignored, history needs to be found a place in the present and the lives and livelihoods of those in the Global South must be equal in reverence to those in the West, even if it hurts profits.

When your TV gives you Lemons, go to the airport, book a plane ticket to somewhere in the news and talk to someone on the other side of the clash of civilizations over a refreshing drink. I recommend the lemonade. Those Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslims may hold things sacred and lack a sense of humour but damn do they make a mean limonada.

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