The Charlie Hebdo Attack: A Tragedy Triggering Stupidities

« Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former. » Albert Einstein

These past two days have been emotionally exhausting. As a French national, A former Parisian, a blogger and a reader of satirical magazines, I felt deeply shocked, saddened, but was also quite baffled at the interpretations made by many authors in the aftermath of the attack. But my first reaction was neither « I hate all Muslims », nor  « I need to protect freedom of speech no matter what». All I felt was sadness. I felt powerless in the face of a tragic and traumatic attack.

It is a normal human reaction to try to make sense of an event which is of incommensurable violence. Everyone tries to find reasons in order to understand how this could happened. The debates have been particular emotional in the past two days, especially because the attacks have been put into a symbolic context, putting into question subjects such as religion, minorities, immigration, national identity, liberal values and the war against terror. All these subjects are extremely sensitive, because it touches upon the views, political convictions and beliefs of everyone of us. This makes the beauty of the diversity of human ideas and cultures, but also leads to strong contradicting opinions, especially in very emotionally loaded times.

I hope that the following ideas I put out there will be read as an additional contribution to the (often heated) debates in the aftermath of the tragedy. I do not wish to offend anyone – all I want is push people to think beyond their usual boundaries. Because that is what freedom of expression in a democracy is about.

Je suis charlie_2

1. Defending some values does not mean hating those who don’t abide to it.

Quoting my friend Chris Fazio here : « It is just hard for people to say : yes, the attackers come from a dispossessed background ; yes, they have undoubtedly been victims of racial and religious hatred ; yes, they have been excluded from civic life – but it doesn’t change the fact that the events like these threaten the foundations of our society in ways beyond what the culprits intended. » Word.

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2. By trying to find reasons for this bloodshed and criticizing the cartoons, you may unintentionally legitimize the acts of those fanatics. That’s not what you actually want to do (hopefully).

 Many people tried to explain that the Mohammed cartoons were racist and homophobic, that Charlie Hebdo was a bad publication. I’m far from endorsing all of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

The debate about whether Charlie Hebdo was poor satire, insensitive or just not funny is a legitimate one.

But saying that the cartoons were so bad that they should be forbidden means that you censor a voice. It also implicitly legitimizes the reasons why those 9 courageous and talented journalists, which are highly recognized as such in France, got brutally killed by fanatics.

Of course, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of criticism. But criticizing cartoons is easier than to admit the failure of our societies.

Charlie Hebdo was a voice amongst others, which was silenced because some people felt threatened by it. I don’t like the editorials of Le Figaro, but I adhere to liberal values, the French constitution and I consider freedom of expression as extremely important for our democratic society. I learned to accept that voices should be heard, whereas I like them or not.

Every restriction of the freedom is a loss to our democratic rights.

Whether it will be because a minority feels offended, or because it is a political opinion some people don’t like. (N.B. That is, hate speech, incitement to violence do not contribute in any way to an open public debate and should therefore be prohibited. Of course, the question about the limits on freedom of expression means opening Pandora’s box.)

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<img class=" wp-image-912 aligncenter" src="×108.jpg" alt="Ceci n'est pas une religion" width="413" height="149" srcset="×108.jpg 300w, http://www.untoldeurope cialis 553w“ sizes=“(max-width: 413px) 100vw, 413px“ />

 Finding Nemo film trailer

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3. Restricting freedom of speech does not improve social cohesion.

Taking « extra care » in what you publish because a minority feels offended equals self-censorship. Moreover, it doesn’t solve integration and inclusion problems, or reduces racism in daily life. It doesn’t give more opportunities to those marginalised. All it does is, guess what, restrict freedom of speech.

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4. Charlie Hebdo is part of a particular French media culture.

Being provocative is an integral part of freedom of speech, especially in France. Charlie Hebdo was equally „unfair“ to everyone, be it Jews, Catholics, Muslims. The publication pushed people to think beyond the traditional boundaries of the « politically correct ». It’s 5th degree humour. Charlie Hebdo is far from being a right wing racist and xenophobic paper as many articles claimed it to be, especially in the english-speaking world. And btw :

L'amour plus fort que la haine

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5. The cartoons are not the problem. The failure of civic inclusion and social integration is.

The question which needs to be asked is: Why are the cartoons about Muslims so sensitive to deal with, much more than the ones of Jews or any other religious or cultural minority? The issue is that Muslims are a marginalised minority in France, facing daily racism in French administration or by people in the streets. It shows that there is an inherent problem in society.

Charlie Hebdo is not responsible for the state’s failure to include this minority. They just point out the issue through satire.

It’s supposed to make us question exactly why there is so much more public outrage about cartoons of the prophet Mohammed than about a caricature of the pope. Putting a value judgement on whether the cartoons about Mohammed were « too racist to be published » just misses the point.

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6. It’s a terrorist attack. Not just a killing.

To say that this terrorist attack is simply a « killing » downgrades the meaning of the tragedy. No, it was not « just another » killing by some « crazy people ».

It was « terror » because the aim of the fanatics was to scare France, to kill those people whose voices they did not want to hear.

The journalists were killed because of their profession. When leaving the bloodshed, the terrorists shouted « We revenged the prophet Mohammed, we killed Charlie Hebdo». The fanatics put this event into a symbolic, meaningful context in the first place – not the media. (Although many media responses misused the symbolic meaning in the aftermath.)

The Charlie Hebdo attack is an attack on freedom of expression, and by extension also an attack on the democratic values of France and Europe. This attack is a symptom of a deeper « malaise » in our societies.

It shows the failed integration of minorities with the larger majority into one «people » who can agree on a set of values and rights which are then put down in a constitution – a « social contract ». This failure to achieve such a consensus means that French society has become dangerously communitarian, due to the failed integration policies, the radicalization of the right, increasing racism, but also due to other factors such as economic exclusion, unemployment and poverty.

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7. It’s not « us » against « them » – The attack is a symptom for the fragmentation of French society itself.

Media and many politicians jumped on the occasion to put the discourse into a « we » against « us » perspective à la Bush after 9/11.

But who is « we » and who is « us » in the first place ?

This type of discourse cam be found on the right and on left of the political spectrum. On the right is was « them » i.e. the fanatics, i.e. « all those Muslims » against the « we », i.e. « the victims », i.e. « the good real French people ».

On the left it was the reverse, becoming apologetic and interpreting the event as follows : « We, the neo-imperialistic, racist Westerners oppress, mistreat and misunderstand our traumatised minorities with our unfair democratic system and that’s why this attack happened ».

Here’s an example for the latter : « (…) we don’t want to talk about causality, because this raises uncomfortable questions about the legacies of colonialism, racism and economic exploitation that remain firmly enmeshed with the ideas purported by the very same Western liberalism that shouts “freedom of expression! (…) „These populations are traumatised. And from traumatised communities emerge these acts of violence that seem senseless and barbaric. » (The Daily Vox, „The Paris attacks were not about freedom of expression“)

As much as the „right wing narrative“ is openly seen as fallacious, it is more difficult to see in what ways it is wrong to blame ourselves – after all, I’m arguing that the missing social cohesion is part of the problem. But the „we against „them“ narrative is wrong in both ways –  it’s dogmatic and unbalanced.

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8. Our « Western » liberal democratic system is not per se responsible for this attack.

I agree that European countries are morally flawed: Minorities are largely oppressed, foreign and economic policies are questionable, immigration policies have become restrictive and sometimes inhuman. The « war against terror » has fueled communitarianism. It’s politics of fear. It misuses the concept of freedom, as in freedom = freedom from terrorism which then leads to : freedom = surveillance = securitization and communitarization = looking for culprits = fragmentation of society and generalised fear. That is fundamentally the wrong approach to have. (Thanks Bush.)

But criticizing democracy without differentiating between the idea itself and the reality is a dangerous intellectual leap.

The principle of democracy is still to give people as much liberty without harming others thanks to a social contract. (Thanks Benjamin Constant for pointing that out.) When every citizen abides to a set of values and rules in society, it allows us to all live peacefully together. It’s too easy to blame the system as a whole.

But it’s not the system which is to blame – it is ourselves, our politicians, and what we have done out of our states (i.e. a majority voting for extreme right, populist parties, supporting political ideologies which become more and more individualistic, selfish and unfair, increasing the divide between rich and poor, increasingly oppressing minorities and stigmatised communities, handling politics as technocracy, taking democracy as self-evident and becoming complacent).

Rather than to blame the foundations of our societies which took years to built  and are still a miracle of humankind, we should rather look at ourselves and what has happened to our liberal democracies since the 1980s.

We have failed to adapt to a globalised world, to multiculturalism, to complex economic developments. We (yes, the „Western world“ – this includes minorities and immigrants living here) are stuck in a « liberal ideology » in which the idea of « liberty » and « equality » are slowly losing their sense.

But despite all these shortcomings, one cannot pretend that freedom of expression does not exist – it (still) does, and it needs to be upheld by a strong media tradition, by cultural acceptance, by valuing our democratic rights and understanding their importance. Because democracy is not self-evident at all.

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9. Whether you like it or not, this attack puts into question identity, culture and values.

The discourse about identity and value is completely dominated by the right-wing. It is thus impossible to debate in a constructive way. It shows how difficult it has become to openly discuss subjects without being categorised and stigmatised. Just because I consider a subject important does not mean I support those having « taken ownership» of the topic.

After all, it is only because French citizens can relate to each other that they all accept to abide by the same rules – and exactly this point needs to be discussed urgently. Because once citizens don’t feel related to each other, the foundations of democracy are threatened. Unfortunately, the debate about the «common identification with each other and the state» of citizens also includes debates about religion, identity and values, about what is seen as « right » and « wrong ».

It is a subjective debate about a normative framework – and it’s bloody difficult (excuse this politically incorrect and insensitive pun.)

These questions need to be asked, because what I fear most after this attack is the use of those events and fear to legitimate an extreme right nationalistic narrative, as we can already see it happening. (Yes, I was especially referring to those kind of stupidities in the title.)

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10. What we can learn from the attack:

Freedom of expression is a fragile value we need to cherish. But we also need to accept that this tragic attack shows the failure of many policies, and the inability of France to create enough social cohesion to ensure that our democratic values are not threatened.

Resisting to communitarianism, hatred and violent retaliation are the most important things to do in the current situation.

 But in order for that to happen, people need to properly understand the significance of the attack, and why this attack is (also) about freedom of expression. The criticism which has been made to the « Je suis Charlie » slogan » was interpreted in many ways. In my opinion, it is not because I say « Je suis Charlie » that I endorse all cartoons ever produced by Charlie Hebdo. The slogan is simply a sign of solidarity with the victims, and a clear « no » to barbarism.

„Je suis charlie“ means that I stand for an open-minded, tolerant society, which respects freedom of speech and expression. That’s all.

Je suis Charlie

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To finish off that emotional piece, I’ll just let the cartoons speak :


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All the pictures are taken from: Cartoons by Stephen Strydom, Ruben L. Oppenheimer, Jean Jullien, , Robert Mankoff, James Walmesley.

French-German twentysomething living in Berlin. Winner of the blogging competition "Zukunft Europa", organised by the debating magazine "The European" and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The views expressed are mine and mine only /// Deutsch-Französin und Berlinerin. Gewinnerin des Blogger-Wettbewerbs "Zukunft Europa" des Debattenmagazins "The European" und der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Die Ansichten, die auf diesem Blog vertreten sind, sind meine (und keine Anderen.)

1 Comment

  • Antworten Januar 10, 2015


    Thanks for daring to write about this! It’s good to read an analysis taking into account the social question behind this drama.

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