In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, proclamations of “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) started trending across social media. But left silent was the roaring and implicit question, “Et toi?” (And you?).
How does one answer that question as a Western Muslim? What does it mean? What was I supposed to say? Is there any option available, save a full-throated “Mais oui”—but yes? Of course, that proclamation alone is insufficient. As after any such incident, I find myself having to prove my bona fides, to respond to demands that I choose sides in this war. My answer is determined by the nature of the unfolding war.
The murders in Paris represent one of the many battles being waged in a larger war. It is a war I’ve grown up with most of my adult life. It has no real name. Some would deny it is happening at all. But through the fog of this war and its complexity, it’s possible to discern two distinct sides “in dubious battle on the plains of Heaven.”
Each side frames the war exclusively on its own terms. As in any war, each side believes that this framing justifies acts of murder, torture and terror—as acts that are unfortunate but necessary. Each side deploys traditional tactics of dehumanisation and delegitimisation to justify acts of violence. Each side finds meaning and political capital in the shedding of blood. Each side believes that its way of life is right and that of the other side wrong.
One side sees itself as “the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” This is the side that speaks the language of democracy, freedom and justice. This side possesses the might of force, air power, nuclear weapons, and the legitimacy of the State. Constituted by the United States, the United Kingdom, other Western governments, as well as their allies (such as the Gulf States) and supported by its resident intellectuals, this side can be thought of as the establishment.
The other side sees itself as fighting incursions on sacred soil in addition to “crusader armies” and historic injustices. This side is constituted by the cell-armies of the Islamists, with pretensions to khilafah, the State. This is coupled with a far more dangerous pretension of representing the Ummah, the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. They have little or no religious authority, instead they have copious amounts of anger. These are irregulars, half-seen figures fighting in the shadows, tactically unable to operate in the open. They appear on our screens masked. They are the insurgency.
Both sides believe that they are the light, fighting the forces of darkness. Each side operates within its own cultural milieu, is characterised by its own discourse and is largely incomprehensible to and unaccepted by the other side.
The forces of insurgency live their lives through shared experiences. These experiences lived either directly or vicariously, are marked by trauma. Their lives and ideas rotate around constant encounters with bombing, torture and death, all of which are now commonplace in regions such as Iraq, Syria and Gaza.
Even for those who are geographically far from these places, such as young Muslims in South London, the “empire of trauma” is never far way—accessible through YouTube and the internet in general.
For some, the vicarious experience becomes a real one. They plot and undertake terror attacks, they make their way to either the training camps or battlefields of Iraq or Syria, they rot in jails and they are no strangers to torture. Their radicalisation is a phenomenon that’s largely beyond the comprehension of the establishment.
It makes no sense in this world that young men in London would feel the trauma of a Syrian man who has lost his family in a complex, far-away conflict. The idea that a young Londoner would be moved—rightly or wrongly—to violence by the news of atrocities is an idea belonging to a younger civilisation.
It is incomprehensible to this world that a young man in London would draw links between British foreign policy, French satirists and American snipers as being the root causes of Muslim trauma. These linkages are largely dismissed as fantasy.
This cultural milieu is the world of international institutions, of human rights discourse, of law, and of the justness of policies. This, for better or worse, is largely a world of white privilege, a world where events can be condemned in isolation (“it’s about freedom of speech,” “nothing justifies this” or “they’re just barbarians.”).
This is a world where religious beliefs have no place in the public domain, yet sexuality does. This is a world where Western Muslims are constantly asked to denounce homicide—just in case they don’t. This is a world where, when a non-State actor takes to recourse throughforce and violence, it is at best a vigilante effort and at worst an attempt to undermine the very foundations of civilisation, hence justifying non-judicial force.
In sharp contrast, the leaders of insurgency have grown up with feet in both worlds, looking first at one milieu and then another, trying one and then the other. They live in a world where they confront (either in reality or in their imaginations) the State apparatus of Arab dictators, financed and armed by the establishment. This State apparatus tolerates no dissent. It is the world their people are confined to and trapped in. “Je suis Gazan” might be their tagline.
Denizens of the world of insurgency probably speak English and know how to use Adobe products. They also perceive no route to justice—restorative or retributive—for the murdered victims, for tortured bodies in prisons. They see not the rule of law, but two rules, one for themselves and another for white people. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that they see deep hypocrisy.
This contradiction is one that stalwarts of the establishment rarely, if ever, confront. At best the contradiction is confronted as an abstraction, an argument on Facebook or on TV maybe. It may be acknowledged with a little intellectual nod, but it is hardly the kind of crisis that one would stay awake worrying about.
The core problem is that both sides assume equivalence, when in fact we are dealing with a deep incommensurability. On one hand people say things like, “Well, I’m a vegetarian, I don’t go around shooting people when they insult me.” To an insurgent, the notion that insulting the Prophet can compare in anyway to vegetarianism is an absurdity, and yet another example of disrespect. When an insurgent glowers at the camera to address the American President in London-accented English, there is an assumption that because the words are in English they mean the same thing in the corridors of the establishment as they do in the deserts of the Middle East. They don’t.
The assumption of equivalence that underpins all attempts to talk across sides is false. The milieus of the establishment and the insurgency are characterised by a fundamental incommensurability that cannot be wished away.
Into this context, enter the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.
The slain cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were satirists. They lived in their cultural milieu, and not the cultural milieu of the insurgency. In their milieu, it was their job to provoke and provoke they did. Their job was to slaughter sacred cows for a living. But, in the cultural milieu of insurgency they were simply proxies, soft targets in the larger war.
As the years have passed, tactics in the various battles have become clearer. The battlefield is a global battle space. There is no well defined “inside” or “outside,” and there is no single nation that contains the fight.
The basic tactical pattern of conflict that unfolds is as follows. One side is provoked into an incursion, be that of boots on the ground or a war waged in air. Inevitably, this results in more damage to the side on the receiving end of the incursion. This therefore provokes an insurgent response, ranging from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) to suicide-bombings.
The insurgent’s provocation is a tactic to draw the other side into incursion, and open up the flank of a conventionally undefeatable foe. The more outrageous the insurgent response, the more likely that another incursion will follow. This is a fairly predictable pattern.
These tactics and counter-tactics form an ongoing cycle of violence. The origins of this cycle and the policies that have led to this pattern are rooted in the support Western governments have given to Arab despots over the decades. That support, that Faustian bargain, was to keep their populations in undemocratic check.
And when those despots failed, Western governments were caught in their lie. They were forced to ask, “Do we really believe in the right of people to self-determine their futures?” or “Do we not trust Muslims to govern themselves?”
This lie, unless confronted, will continue to fuel the cycle of violence. The route to ending this cycle is clear. It is justice. If there is to be equivalence then there must be equivalence of justice. Where we tolerate injustice, double standards, murder and torture, we fuel the cycle of violence.
There should be justice for the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo. But, there should also be justice for those tortured without due process. There should also be justice for Yemenis and Pakistani civilians at the receiving end of an American Hellfire missile.
If we can muster up this justice, transform it from an abstract idea we bandy around in conversation to lived experiences, then we will end the war. If we do not manage this, then we are likely condemned to perpetual war and an expanding series of tactics and counter-tactics. The end result will be the realisation of an observation made by Ibn Khaldûn almost 700 years ago, “Injustice brings about the ruin of civilisation.”
As I scrolled through page after page of hashtag activism, denunciation after denunciation, I came across a cartoon that stopped me in my tracks. Drawn an hour after the attacks, it was an image of a bearded Arab man in green robe (I hesitate to say whom it’s supposed to represent) sodomising a pig, both of them saying “Oh Jesus” accompanied by this statement:
In a democracy you have to respect humans. But you don’t have to respect things like beards and books and silly hats. You also don’t need to respect religions laws in a non-religious state. You can make as many jokes about Moses as much as you want.
I live in a world where for some, the image of an Arab man sodomising a pig posted on Facebook represents a stand for freedom. For me, as a Muslim man, born and living in the West, this raises difficult questions about the type of society I am a part of. The implications of the statement are troubling.
Does it mean that to qualify as a “human” I must renounce my belief in the sacredness of beards, books and “silly” hats? If I don’t do that, then what does that make me? Not human? More importantly, what does that mean for Muslims in Europe as a demographic?
It further begs the question, what does “Je suis Charlie” want from me as a Muslim man? Denouncement of murder, sure that’s easy, but what more? What must we as community renounce to be recognised as human? And will we be believed? Where am I to stand in relationship to the grievances raised by those who turn to insurgency?
As I watch my flickering screen, I cannot help but imagine the torches of the mob, of the pogrom, marching against anyone they deem to be the enemy. Will they ask me, “Je suis Charlie. Et toi?” And I wonder what my unwillingness to choose a side in this senseless war will mean for my family, my community and me.
Zaid Hassan is a strategist, writer and facilitator. He is author of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach To Solving Our Most Complex Challenges (2014 Berrett-Koehler). He is based in Oxford, England. Follow him on @zaidhassan.