Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Charlie Hebdo: "How the Hell Did I End Up Here?"

Charlie Hebdo on the Brussels attacks

Almost a year ago we reported that Charlie Hebdo announced that it would no longer draw cartoons of Muhammad. There has been much internal disagreement at the magazine about its direction following the horrific Muslim terror attack of January 7, 2015  and the resulting huge inflow of monies from donations, grants and increased sales.

The current state of he magazine is a topic for another post. But I want to reprint the lead editorial from the first edition to come out after the recent Brussels attacks. It's a rejection of the notion that the problem Europe faces is merely "extremism" or even "Islamic extremism." Instead, to quote the piece, we must ask the deeper question, "how the hell did we end up here?"

Some of you may be annoyed at the way the question is perhaps partially presented at the end, as secularism (good) versus religion (bad). It's a bunch of grumpy French atheists. What do you expect? But the larger points--about "moderate" Muslims, the obligations to think and speak, and what happens when we give those up so as not to offend or worse, out of fear--are spot on. And the piece frames it brilliantly: That harmless academic, that nice veiled woman, that pleasant baker--surely they are not my enemies? Surely it must be wrong to do or say anything that labels or stigmatizes or blames themHow the hell did we end up here, indeed.

A note on the cover. It features Stromae, a "multi-cultural" Belgian rap singer, whose biggest recent hit was “Papaoutai” (Papa, where are you?). Against a Belgian flag, multiple flying body parts declare "Here I am!" Is that sick? Of course. So was Paris, Brussels and Cologne. 


Par Charlie Hebdo - 30/03/2016  
For a week now, experts of all kinds have been trying to understand the reasons for the attacks in Brussels. An incompetent police force? Unbridled multiculturalism? Youth unemployment? Uninhibited Islamism? The causes are numerous beyond counting and everyone will naturally choose the one that suits best their own convictions. Law and Order fans will denounce the haplessness of the police. Xenophobes will blame immigration. Sociologists will rehash the evils of colonialism. Urban-planners will point to the evils of ghettoisation. Take your pick. 
In reality, the attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed. They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale. Our noses are endlessly rubbed in the rubble of Brussels airport and in the flickering candles amongst the bouquets of flowers on the pavements. All the while, no one notices what's going on in Saint-German-en-Laye. Last week, Sciences-Po* welcomed Tariq Ramadan. He's a teacher, so it's not inappropriate. He came to speak of his specialist subject, Islam, which is also his religion. Rather like lecture by a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker. Thus judge and contestant both. 
No matter, Tariq Ramadan has done nothing wrong. He will never do anything wrong. He lectures about Islam, he writes about Islam, he broadcasts about Islam. He puts himself forward as a man of dialogue, someone open to a debate. A debate about secularism which, according to him, needs to adapt itself to the new place taken by religion in Western democracy. A secularism and a democracy which must also accept those traditions imported by minority communities. Nothing bad in that. Tariq Ramadan is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting. Nor will he ever cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse. Others will be doing all that kind of stuff. It will not be his role. His task, under cover of debate, is to dissuade people from criticising his religion in any way. The political science students who listened to him last week will, once they have become journalists or local officials, not even dare to write nor say anything negative about Islam. The little dent in their secularism made that day will bear fruit in a fear of criticising lest they appear Islamophobic. That is Tariq Ramadan's task. 
Take this veiled woman. She is an admirable woman. She is courageous and dignified, devoted to her family and her children. Why bother her? She harms no one. Even those women who wear the total, all-encompassing veil do not generally use their clothing to hide bombs (as certain people were claiming when the law to ban the burqa was being discussed). They too will do nothing wrong. So why go on whining about the wearing of the veil and pointing the finger of blame at these women? We should shut up, look elsewhere and move past all the street-insults and rumpus. The role of these women, even if they are unaware of it, does not go beyond this. 
The visible part of a very big iceberg. 
Take the local baker, who has just bought the nearby bakery and replaced the old, recently-retired guy, he makes good croissants. He's likeable and always has a ready smile for all his customers. He's completely integrated into the neighbourhood already. Neither his long beard nor the little prayer-bruise on his forehead (indicative of his great piety) bother his clientele. They are too busy lapping up his lunchtime sandwiches. Those he sells are fabulous, though from now on there's no more ham nor bacon. Which is no big deal because there are plenty of other options on offer - tuna, chicken and all the trimmings. So, it would be silly to grumble or kick up a fuss in that much-loved boulangerie. We'll get used to it easily enough. As Tariq Ramadan helpfully instructs us, we'll adapt. And thus the baker's role is done. 
Take this young delinquent. He has never looked at the Quran in his life, he knows little of the history of religion, of colonialism, nor a great deal about the proud country of his Maghreb forefathers. This lad and a couple of his buddies order a taxi. They are not erudite like Tariq Ramadan, they don't pray as often as the local baker and are not as observant as the redoubtable veiled mothers on the street. The taxi heads for Brussels airport. And still, in this precise moment, no one has done anything wrong. Not Tariq Ramadan, nor the ladies in burqas, not the baker and not even these idle young scamps. 
And yet, none of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone's contribution. Because the incidence of all of it is informed by some version of the same dread or fear. The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist. Really, a kind of terror. And that thing which is just about to happen when the taxi-ride ends is but a last step in a journey of rising anxiety. It's not easy to get some proper terrorism going without a preceding atmosphere of mute and general apprehension. 
These young terrorists have no need to amass the talents of others, to be erudite, dignified or hard-working. Their role is simply to provide the end of a philosophical line already begun. A line which tells us "Hold your tongues, living or dead. Give up discussing, debating, contradicting or contesting". 
This is not to victimise Islam particularly. For it has no opponent. It is not Christianity, Hinduism nor Judaism that is balked by the imposition of this silence. It is the opponent (and protector) of them all. It is the very notion of the secular. It is secularism which is being forced into retreat. 
Above all, in a sense, this stops us asking perhaps the world's oldest and most important question - "How the hell did I end up here?". "How the hell did I end up having to wander the streets all day with a big veil on my head?" "How the hell did I end up having to say prayers five times a day?" " How the hell did I end up in the back of a taxi with three rucksacks packed with explosives?" Perhaps, very sadly, the only people who are still asking themselves that most important of questions are the unlucky victims. "How the hell did I end up here, six yards away from that big bomb?" 
The first task of the guilty is to blame the innocent. It's an almost perfect inversion of culpability. From the bakery that forbids you to eat what you like, to the woman who forbids you to admit that you are troubled by her veil, we are submerged in guilt for permitting ourselves such thoughts. And that is where and when fear has started its sapping, undermining work. And the way is marked for all that will follow. 
* Sciences Po is an elite French public research and higher education institution.


  1. One reason is their very own, they stopped drawing pictures of Mahomat!

    1. Yeah. That's right. Looking back, I think that July 2015 statement may have been the expression of one side in an internal struggle over the direction of the magazine. For a while that side may have had the upper hand, but, partly due to the "migrant crisis" and the recent attacks, things may be changing again.

  2. By talking too much. And when your brakes fail and you're heading toward the cliff, you had better be figuring out what you're going to do, not how you got there.

  3. I'm not sure that's Charlie's role. Or at least it doesn't have to be. Before you figure out what to do, you have to get a critical mass of people (from a diversity of backgrounds) to correctly identify the problem. I think this essay does a powerful job of helping to do that.

    1. I guess it will provide some thought-provoking reading to people trapped in the Hell that Europe is becoming.

  4. Very good Oakes. Wonder how many more terrorist attacks will be necessary before the truth can be spoken?

  5. Is there any chance at all that Europe will begin to actually DO something about Islam or Muslims in their own nations, or do you all think it is too late.