“We Are All Charlie” – But Is That Story So Simple?

By Jan Oberg

Eleven points as a reflection on the terror in Paris and – not the least – the reactions to it*:

1. What was this an attack on?

Was that attack an attack on freedom of speech as such, on democracy, even on the whole Western culture and lifestyle, as was maintained throughout? Or was it, more limited, a revenge directed at one weekly magazine for what some perceive as blasphemy?

2. Is freedom of expression practised or curtailed for various reasons?

How real is that freedom in the West? Just a couple of days before the Paris massacre PEN in the U.S. published a report – Global Chilling – finding that about 75% of writers report that they are influenced by the NSA listening and abstain from taking up certain subjects or perspectives? Self-censorship, in other words. Finally, most of the political leaders marching in Paris on Sunday January 11 have clamped down on media, such as Turkey and Egypt.

I must admit that I have experienced limitations in the practice of that freedom in my work with Western media and it is decades ago that I drew the conclusion that things like political correctness, ownership, commercial/market considerations and journalists’ need for good relations with power – e.g. to obtain interviews – play a role.

I’ve been on the ground in conflict zones and returning home to see reports so biased that tell very little of what I’ve seen myself. And we’ve recently seen lots of cases from the U.S. academic world where there’s been a clampdown on certain views, publications, courses and professors – not the least in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Or, you look at the proportions between government funds available for peace research and that for military research in virtually every Western society; free research is a vital element in the self-understanding of the West. But how much of do we have?

3.  Freedom doesn’t mean duty.

Is freedom of expression really 100% irrespective of how much the practise of that freedom is hurtful, offending, humiliating or discriminatory against other peoples, religions and cultures? Even if you can express your opinions freely it is not always what we should do.

I can still abstain from making a remark about somebody’s religious or political beliefs because I see no point in offending that person in regard to something he or she holds dear, even part of the identity. But, sure, I have the right to do so.

Using a right to the maximum isn’t necessarily the wisest or most mature thing to do. I draw the distinction between issues that touch personal identity – e.g. religion, nationality, gender – and other issues. It is neither fun nor wise to make a satire about what people are.

One must indeed ask in the – chilling – times we live: What happened to words such as solidarity, respect, empathy and to the values of common humanity? There can be no rights without duties as Mohandas K. Gandhi briliantly expressed it.

4. Are anti-Semitic cartoons OK now?

Why is it so important to some media people and Je Suis Charlie people to accept or practise disdain, blaspheme, ridicule or depict (even naked) Muhamad when we know that that is offending at least to quite a few of the 1600 million Muslims around the world. What – constructive – purposes does it serve? Really, why is that OK when anything similar against Jews would immediately be categorized as anti-Semitizm and found appalling by the same people – not the least advocates of the free press.

One, after the Muhamad caricatures, shouldn’t we have learnt something – in Denmark in particular where all main dailies except Jyllands-Posten chose to publish drawings from Charlie Hebdo the day after to manifest their expression of freedom.

Two, the West – spearheaded by NATO countries – is in violent conflict with many Muslim countries – on their territory, not the other way around – all these years. Much can be seen as rooted in about 100 years of colonialism, interventionism, chopping up empires – think Sykes-Picot, Balfour – and the Western press has just said less about the death of more than 2000 Palestinians than about 17 killed in Paris.

5. What is satire?

It is to skewer, to ridicule anything and everyone- even their identity? To depict naked somebody who is sacred to others? Good political satire kicks upward, at powers that be, not downward on minorities of vulnerable people. It may surely provoke and challenge but it definitely is not provocation for the sake of provocation. I happen to think that much of what I have seen now of  Charlie Hebdo’s satirical drawings are coarse, rarely funny and more focused on Islam than on other religions.

6. What purposes does the broad interpretation serve?

The interpretation that this was a strike against freedom of opinion as such and on the Western world – compelling “us” to stand up together in self-defense – is unfounded, chosen for convenience and borders on the bizarre. The attack took place at a particular address at a particular journal and that sends a message itself. It was not directed at a major media, at a parliamentary building symbolizing democracy or a democratic governments, let alone for instance an MP. A small French satirical magazine also can’t symbolise the European Union or Europe as a whole.

Rather, this “broad” interpretation – that has hardly been challenged – is a chosen, convenient interpretation not unlike that immediately invented after September 11. That was an attack on the U.S., the physical structures of the empire’s economic, political and military centers. The advantage of using a “total” or broad interpretation is, of course, that it helps us all gang up against the enemy now our whole system is, allegedly, being attacked. We are now all potential victims, the threat is huge; we’re innocent and we did not deserve this. We must fight back!

Making the threat much larger than there was/is any empirical evidence of also serves to legitimize an out-of-proportion response; in the 9/11 case to involve everybody in an ill-conceived terror-promoting “war on terror” the miserable consequences of which we are seeing now 13 years after: One failed war after the other and more terrorism than ever.

7. The West in denial: Never discuss causes – Denmark as an example:

To this can be added a Western refusal and denial. For instance, the Danish Television chose – on this occasion but not for other conflicts and wars – to arrange a one-hour party leader debate on January 8. From the left to the right two things were agreed on: Such a horrific act committed by madmen is not caused by anything we have ever done. Two, there is no reason to even analyse or speculate on why it took place because – if we were to do so, there is a risk that an explanation will begin to look like a defense of the terror act and the terrorists. We do not want to understand them, they are madmen!

Now human beings have motives and needs. By saying that they are irrelevant in this case these party leaders deny the perpetrators a part of their humanity. Secondly, they evidently – but unwisely – propagate the view that you can combat or solve a problem without being the slightest interested in that problem’s causes. Third, they thereby conveniently avoid asking questions such as: Has Danish and other Western policies vis-a-vis the Muslim world been wrong in hindsight in even a tiny way? Has the ‘war on terror’ been a failure to some degree? No, the bottom line and standard answer was and remains: We are not party to this conflict. We have done nothing wrong. Don’t ever say that this is a re-action to anything we in the West did, it was an action directed at us innocents and on our fundamental democratic values.

Well, a couple of the Danish party leaders stated, when pressed a little, that of course one could say that this whole drama went back to the wars of religions several hundred years ago and then added that the new thing in this was that the battle was now taking place on European soil. It seemingly didn’t occur to anyone in this debate that people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya or Syria could say that the old thing was and is that it always took place on their territories!

Whether there is something particularly Danish in this interpretation can be discussed. Denmark has been at war in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and was willing to bomb Syria and is now bombing IS in Iraq. It was host to the publication of the Muhamad caricatures and then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (later Sec-Gen of NATO) refused to speak with ambassadors from Muslim countries and