By Oset Babur
On January 7, social media and traditional news sites alike started filling up with hashtags like #jesuischarlie and #charliehebdo. For many Europeans, Charlie Hebdo is a common household name for satire, much like The Daily Show is for Americans. Arguably, political satire’s greatest strength is its ability to dare us to engage in difficult discussions. The Wednesday morning terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office have generated international grief, confusion and fear. But perhaps most important to consider is the direction of discussions generated in response to the attack. Should we be focused on analyzing the motivation for such attacks? Can any reasonable person truly discern such a motivation? Should we be concerned that Islamists are rising to threaten the values we Westerners hold dear? Is grouping the blame on “Islamists” hypocritical of the forward-thinking values on which we pride ourselves?
Discussion threads on news sites like The New York Times, CNN, and the emboldened Huffington Post, which released the cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad (a sacrilegious act according to Islamic doctrine, all imagery and iconography of the prophet is considered sacrilegious), display a number of perspectives in the online debate. One is that the attacks must be viewed as a threat to the freedom of the press, a privilege fundamental to Western societies. To this end, companies like Google have reached out to defend the publication’s future. Another view, unsurprisingly supported by some Muslim newspapers, is that the violence was perhaps not completely unfounded. In Iran, both conservative and reformist publications began their limited Charlie Hebdo coverages by criticizing the publication’s blasphemous cartoons. Sharq, an Iranian news outlet close to the government, wrote “It is not acceptable that the president of France defends the freedom of speech after the attacks. This popular journal had published an insulting illustration of the Prophet of Islam.”
To be certain: terrorism is terrorism. There is no asterisk or footnote to qualify these events. No cartoon, painting, image or public speech can justify the actions that took place in Paris on January 7. However, the attack’s blatant inhumanity means there is an urgent need for salient reflection.
To this end, the debate should be focused on how to distribute responsibility for the attacks. Blaming Islam as a religion is, as a knee-jerk reaction, emotionally understandable. For the families who lost grandfathers, siblings and husbands, the request to rationalize the thinking behind these events might be asking too much too soon. For the rest of us watching from our homes around the world, educated discussion is valuable because it can help us prevent similar instances of terrorism.
Consider mass blame as the first link in a chain reaction: the term “Islamist terror” comes to account for all Muslims. This isolates and scares millions of Muslims who do not identify with al-Qaeda, ISIS or any of the actions motivated by the so-called Islamic values these groups cite. However, indiscriminate hatred is an extremely effective way to marginalize and motivate new factions of terrorists who feel the world is grouping them into a category they cannot be rid of. This indignation generates new brands of hatred towards the West. If we view all Muslims as terrorists waiting to pounce, we are essentially shadowing the generalization that Westerners are sacrilege-committing infidels.
We need to assign responsibility strictly to those responsible parties. In the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the responsible parties are Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In the September 11 attacks, the responsible parties are the members of al-Qaeda who actively participated in horrendous violence. The responsible parties are not the Muslim families of Boston or New York City who watched from their televisions at home, filled with deep shame and sorrow.
If we approach the Charlie Hebdo attacks through thoughtful discussion, we are helping prevent the formation of hundreds of terrorist factions by beating the perpetrators of such violence at their own game. Employing this mentality is asking us to be rational in a situation where it is natural to respond emotionally. However, if we can accomplish this feat we can prevent grassroots terrorism from forming out of marginalization, mass blame, and misunderstanding. But this is a process that must begin immediately.