Charlie Hebdo: The ‘them and us’ narrative is a dangerous downward spiral

Nesrine Malik
January 8, 2015

It may suit cynical politicians to push the ‘clash of civilisations’ line, but such polarised thinking is simplistic and can be deadly

It has already started – the talk of a clash of civilisations. After the horrific Paris attack in which 12 people were killed, there is a palpable sense of a Europe on the edge, teetering between righteous anger and tense restraint. Many of the subsequent reactions have fallen along the predictable lines of reasserting the difference between “us” and “them”.

But the Paris attack was not yet another front in the “clash of civilisations”. The term civilisation in itself is meaningless in this context. What civilisation do the terrorists represent? It is understandable that, on the face of it, the attack highlights the perpetrators’ and the victims’ starkly opposed values, one barbaric and silencing, and the other enlightened and freedom loving.

But this is a false dichotomy. It omits a far more uncomfortable and complicated truth about racial tension in France, immigration, and how Muslims are settling in an increasingly secular Europe where the resurgence of rightwing parties has further racialised religion.

In the past few weeks we have seen anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany, attacks on mosques in Sweden and, over the past few years, several isolated attacks on Muslims in a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals. In this context, it is impossible to reduce the Charlie Hebdo tragedy to anything as simple as two cultures clashing over the sanctity of a prophet.

This is not to suggest that any attacks of such a nature are ever justified. There are no grey areas, no matter how offensive Hebdo could be, no matter how particularly offensive to Muslims the magazine was in the eyes of some. But this is nothing as sophisticated as an attack on secular values of freedom of speech. Whether it is offensive cartoons or films or blasphemy, these are merely totems around which the insecure and unhinged wrap their causes. Which is not to say that this has nothing to do with religion. There is far too much cowardice and equivocation when it comes to such issues, which certainly give ideological and moral succour to the most violent in Muslim communities all over the world.

It is, however, important to not keep repeating the same mistakes, trying to trace the perpetrators to some certain origin. They have none. They belong to no single community or country or mosque. There is no viper’s nest that can be burned down, and with it the problem. That way lies the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, where non-state actors such as al-Qaida were conflated with states and regimes, resulting in the killing of millions of innocents, and further fuelling a race to the bottom of hate.

Some would say this is not the time for what might seem like academic nuance, that it is a time for mobilisation and drawing the battle lines, reasserting the important values that are under assault. But with these understandable impulses come tribalism, broad-brushstroke thinking and entrenchment. And with those come cynical politicians capitalising on fear and a media intent on fuelling polarities.

It is certainly not the time to issue rallying cries, and to ventriloquise on behalf of terrorists that speak for no one, something Juan Cole has called “sharpening the contradictions”. It is not the time for “I told you sos” and point scoring or for bombarding people with the most offensive of cartoons to make a racist point under the moral guise of freedom of speech. This only enhances the separation of two communities under siege, brought there by individuals that represent neither.

The victims of the attack are not only French journalists, but also French Muslims, one of whom died in the attack, and the rest who have not condoned it but will nevertheless feel the backlash.

To engage in war talk – about a Muslim threat that needs to be combated by an aggressive reassertion of whatever composite identity of liberal values one believes is under attack – is to give in to the reductionism demanded by terrorists.

Whether it is Islamic State (Isis), al-Qaida or lone actors, they will use religiously focused grievances as a vehicle for political, personal and mental maladies. Don’t buy it. The way to honour the dead and find a way out of what seems like a depressingly inevitable downward spiral would be to resist the polar narrative altogether. It will not only heal painful rifts, it might even save lives.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Saturday, 10 January 2015 - 12:23 am

    Ask why the first and second Iraq-West wars happened, and we would be told that it was because the West needed to protect its oil supplies. That is a half-truth of course: nobody would mention that the Saudi and Gulf sheiks had a security arrangement with the U.S. and they invoked it aganst Iraq. So if the West’s hands are wet with blood, so are those of the Muslim allies of the West. This is what the ISIS fellows have been saying all along.

    We in Malaysia are either very confused, or we are too polite, to critisise the extremists. However, when the shxx hits the fan, we will rush to the West for protection. So why not adopt the better policy of prevention is better than cure?

    Nobody wants the Huntington fellow’s hypothesis proven right. Meanwhile, my dear silent-majority optimists, unite against the extremists! The real enemies of Islam are not the West or Christians. Even the Jews are not as cruel to people as are the so called holy-warriors of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaedah, … .

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