I've been scrounging the internet looking for good articles about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the public's response. It is such a difficult things to make sense of, because while for some it is very simple, crazed terrorists attacked some cartoonists and police because of cartoons, and the end of the discussion is everyone stand tall claiming "Guahu Si Charlie lokkue'!" from their cellphones, ipads and Facebooks. But in the larger scheme of things, this generally isn't productive. You can focus in on this one instance, but such can be deceptive, it can prevent you from seeing how that may actually change or help little. It is easy to look at the relationship between societies and say this society is bad and this is good. This society allows this while the other does not. In terms of free speech there are definitely key differences between some Western and some Islamic societies. But if you are truly trying to improve things, you also have to acknowledge the fact that while individuals attached to Islam may be very likely to commit terrible acts of terrorism, you have hundreds of thousands of people, with hi-tech weapons and giant bombs occupying entire nations and being involved in the killing, intentional or accidentally killing of millions. When George W. Bush proposed that the new War on Terror or the attack on 911 was a case of "them" hating "our" freedoms, people eagerly lapped it up, because it basically made possible the erasing of an entire history of Western countries screwing with the governments and lives of people in the Middle East, making it seem that they were crazy, they were evil, and therefore justifying bombing and invading their countries.
Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils
by Corey Oakley
To be fair, he wasn’t wholly responsible. If it wasn’t for all the
lunacy that preceded him, I probably would have dismissed his cartoon as
just another Herald Sun atrocity, more a piece of
Murdoch-madness to be mocked rather than trigger for outrage. But
context is everything. And after days of sanctimonious blather about
freedom of speech and the Enlightenment values of Western civilisation,
his was one pencil-warfare cartoon too many.
The cartoon in question depicts two men – masked and armed Arab
terrorists (is there any other kind of Arab?) – with a hail of bomb-like
objects raining down on their heads. Only the bombs aren’t bombs. They
are pens, pencils and quills. Get it? In the face of a medieval ideology
that only understands the language of the gun, the West – the heroic,
Enlightenment-inspired West – responds by reaffirming its commitment to
resist barbarism with the weapons of ideas and freedom of expression.
It is a stirring narrative repeated ad nauseam in newspapers
across the globe. They have been filled with depictions of broken
pencils re-sharpened to fight another day, or editorials declaring that
we will defeat terrorism by our refusal to stop mocking Islam.
It is well past time to call bullshit. Knight’s cartoon made the
point exceptionally clear, but every image that invoked the idea that
Western culture could and would defend itself from Islamist extremism by
waging a battle of ideas demonstrated the same historical and political
Reality could not be more at odds with this ludicrous narrative.
For the last decade and a half the United States, backed to varying
degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained
violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity
that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.
It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza
and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings
dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives,
with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and
watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses
that bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose
bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the
parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu
Ghraib; to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that
Western “civilisation” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
And that is only to concern ourselves with the latest round of
atrocities. It is not even to consider the century or more of Western
colonial policies that through blood and iron have consigned all but a
tiny few among the population of the Arab world to poverty and
It is not to even mention the brutal rule of French colonialism in
Algeria, and its preparedness to murder hundreds of thousands of
Algerians and even hundreds of French-Algerian citizens in its efforts
to maintain the remnants of empire. It is leaving aside the ongoing
poverty, ghettoisation and persecution endured by the Muslim population
of France, which is mostly of Algerian origin.
The history of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world – a
history of colonialism and imperialism, of occupation, subjugation and
war – cries out in protest against the quaint idea that “Western values”
entail a rejection of violence and terror as political tools.
Of course the pen has played its role as well. The pens that signed
the endless Patriot Acts, anti-terror laws and other bills that
entrenched police harassment and curtailed civil rights. The pens of the
newspaper editorialists who whip up round after round of hysteria,
entrenching anti-Muslim prejudice and making people foreigners in their
own country. But the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue
of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the
powerful and their guns.
Consideration of this context not only exposes the hypocrisy of those
who create the narrative of an enlightened West defending freedom of
speech, it also points to the predictability and inevitability of
horrific acts of terrorism in response. Of course we will never know
what was going through the minds of the three men who carried out this
latest atrocity. But it is the height of ahistorical philistinism to
ignore the context – both recent and longstanding – in which these
attacks took place.
The idea that Muslim outrage at vile depictions of their religious
icons can be evaluated separately from the persecution of Muslims in the
West and the invasion and occupation of Muslim countries is the product
of a complete incapacity to empathise with the experience of sustained
and systemic oppression.
What is extraordinary, when even the most cursory consideration of
recent history is taken into account, is not that this horrific incident
occurred, but that such events do not happen more often. It is a great
testament to the enduring humanism of the Muslim population of the world
that only a tiny minority resort to such acts in the face of endless
In the days ahead, a now tired and exhausting theatre of the absurd
will continue to play out its inevitable acts. The Western politicians
who lock up their own dissidents and survey the every movement of their
citizenry will go on waxing lyrical about freedom of thought. Muslim
leaders of every hue will continue to denounce a terrorism they have
nothing to do with, and will in turn be denounced for not doing so often
or vigorously enough. The right will attack the left as sympathisers of
Islamist terrorism, and demand we endlessly repeat the truism that
journalists should not be killed for expressing their opinions. They
will also demand that we accept that white Westerners, not Muslims, are
the real victims of this latest political drama.
Meanwhile, Muslims in the West will, if they dare to walk the
streets, do so in fear of the inevitable reprisals. And pencils aren’t
what they will be afraid of.