“…I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”
Those words, spoken in 2012 by Stéphane Charbonnier, lead editor of the satirical French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, echo tragically as I write this, one day after he and 11 others were murdered in an attack on the magazine’s Paris office.
The attack was apparently carried out by two brothers, Muslim extremists, supposedly in retaliation for the magazine’s lampooning of Islam and their caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed (considered a grave insult to fundamentalists of that religion). While Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed other religious leaders, political figures and populist causes, including the Pope, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and current President François Hollande, it was their often vulgar and provocative baiting of Islamic beliefs that gained them their strongest notoriety.
It’s not the first time Charlie Hebdo had been targeted: in 2006 they were criticized for running the controversial Danish cartoons of Mohammed that caused worldwide riots and hundreds of deaths, and in 2011 their offices were firebombed after they published a particularly provocative issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Mohammed. Due to threats and tensions raised by their satire, the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo was under police protection (one of the murdered policemen in the attack on Wednesday was 49 year old Franck Brinsolaro, who was serving as a bodyguard for Editor Charbonnier).
Many sources are warning, though, that Islamic fundamentalist outrage is just part of the motivation for Wednesday’s attack. Noted Middle East authority Juan Cole believes that an additional intent behind the attack – or how groups such as al-Qaeda may utilize the attack – is to galvanize the mostly non-political and mainly disinterested French Muslims to band together in an ethnic identity, not through the attack itself (which most would vehemently denounce) but due to the backlash that they hope will ensue. In his thought provoking essay, “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris”, Cole states:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
Already there have been reports of retaliation. According to the French press, blank grenades were thrown at a mosque shortly after midnight in Le Mans, west of Paris, and shots were fired in the direction of a Muslim prayer hall shortly after evening prayers in the Port-la-Nouvelle district in southern France. Also, an explosion occurred at a kebab shop near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone on Thursday morning.
It’s a lot to take in, from the vantage point of my warm comfy chair here in the American Midwest. There’s a gentle snow falling, belying the frigid temperatures that have driven most of us inside to warm our hands on cups of fresh brewed coffee and, for those lucky enough, to nestle under cozy lap robes with adorable golden retrievers snoozing at our feet. Paris seems a long way away.
And yet, I am restless, disquiet. I harbor a sense of unfocused outrage at the events unfolding a half a world away.
Outrage at the attack, yes. Searing pain, for reasons I can’t even adequately articulate. At the loss of life, yes. Vibrant, literate, creative life. At the audacity of thinking that eliminating the writer will silence the words. That anyone could reason an image on a page is justification for the loss of life. That we frail, imperfect humans could have the arrogance of believing we can judge in the place of God, or could worship a deity who needs to be defended by bloodshed, especially against those whose only shield is their own belief in humanity.
But then the outrage grows. It includes those who will now feel justified to retaliate, picking out the innocent and defenseless simply because they come into a line of sight with the wrong look, the wrong way of speaking, the wrong type of dress, going into the wrong building or the wrong part of town. How ignorance will most likely fan the flames of hatred that should instead be tamped down by everyone working together to staunch the threat of indiscriminate incineration – for once the flames catch hold, one household is indistinguishable from another; everyone burns. How easily reactionaries will be led by the nose to do the very thing hoped for by the agitators they claim to be against. How disassociated hate groups will grasp at the chaos and try to bend it to their own agendas.
There is only one way to fight back, and that is to not be silent. Not to strike out, but to speak up. Not to move against those who cut down the unarmed and courageous editors, writers, cartoonists, office workers, maintenance workers, security personnel, and dammit, guests at Charlie Hebdo, but to add our voice to their incredulity in the face of extremism – any extremism, all extremism, that insists that there is only one way to view this vast, diverse, infinitely marvelous world of ours. To not let intimidation drown out those questioning absolutism, hypocrisy, manipulation. To not let hatred – even now when the pain is sharpest – to continue to dig deeper into the wounds already inflicted.
But once we have declared that we will not be silent, we must also listen. Listening is not a weakness. Listening is not silence – it is learning. It builds understanding. It allows for empathy, for acuity, for perspective. It does not mean acceptance, or complicity, nor does it necessarily validate what is being said. But it does breed awareness. It does foster tolerance. It does allow for information to be shared, for unknowns to be experienced, for new insights to be revealed. We do not need to like all that we hear, we have every right to reject what we hear – but we still need to listen.
No voice should be silenced, especially not by bloodshed. And that is why we need to stand with Charlie Hebdo, not react for them. We need to be Charlie Hebdo: je suis Charlie. We need to reject violence, intolerance, hatred, through our words, through our images – not through bullets and bayonets, not through intimidation. Even if our content is quite different, our context needs to be clear: we will not be silenced. We will speak out.
We will not live life on our knees.