I Am Not Charlie
By Nayyer Ali MD
Last month two French brothers of Algerian descent attacked the offices of a satirical French magazine called “Charlie Hebdo”. They murdered 11 people there, including several elderly cartoonists that had worked there for years. Charlie Hebdo is a relatively small magazine, unknown to most outside of France, and usually sells only about 60,000 copies per issue. It has a reputation for lampooning all sorts of targets, and it has often gone after Islam by its depictions of the Prophet.
While most Americans, and even most Muslims in Muslim countries, have never heard of the magazine, it had attracted the attention of the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). This group is only very loosely affiliated with the original Al-Qaeda created by Osama Bin Laden, which for the most part has ceased to exist, but Al-Qaeda as a brand, is still a very potent name. Any Salafi Sunni extremist can basically designate himself as part of Al-Qaeda as there is no formal “membership application” so to speak.
Back in March of 2013 AQAP released a “hit list” of targets in its magazine “Inspire”. On the list was was Stephane Charbonnier, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo. The two French brothers, Said and Charif Kouachi, have unclear links to AQAP. There is evidence that one of them traveled to Yemen in 2011, and there are claims that AQAP sent the brothers 20,000 dollars to facilitate attacks. After the attack, one of AQAP’s leaders, Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, claimed responsibility for the attack and stated that AQAP had directed the operation. It’s still not clear if there is much truth to that or not.
What is known about the brothers is that they had a very hard life. Raised in a poor immigrant neighborhood, their father died when they were young, and their mother, who already had five children, turned to prostitution out of desperation. The two brothers found her dead one day when they were 10 and 12 years old in their flat apparently of a drug overdose. The orphans were sent to an orphanage, and were not religious as adolescents. In 2003 they became more radicalized after the US invasion of Iraq, and ended up in prison for planning to go to fight in Iraq against the US. Two years in one of France’s toughest prisons completed their radicalization, partly because they came under the spell of an al-Qaeda member that had been sent to France by Osama Bin Laden and arrested. Eventually their path led to the murders in January.
The reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings have been contradictory. It is notable that one of the dead was a French-Algerian Mustapha Ourrad, who worked as a copy editor at the magazine. Another was a Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet. Their deaths attracted little attention. A massive demonstration was held in Paris, where many used the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a statement of solidarity with the murdered and as an endorsement of free speech as a concept.
But what Charlie Hebdo was doing had little to do with defending free speech in my opinion. It takes real courage to publish something that the majority of your society despises or rejects, but that was not what Charlie Hebdo did. In addition, while suggesting that Muslims be tolerant of any and all attacks on their religion, many European countries place limits on anti-Semitic speech or criminalize Holocaust denial. So from a purist standpoint the freedom of speech issue is not credible. In general, what gives satire its punch and value is that it afflicts the powerful and corrupt and speaks for the weak and the powerless. The Muslims of France are not the powerful, they are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
If Europeans or Americans or anyone, including other Muslims, want to criticize the Saudis or the Iranian clerics, or mock Bin Laden or ISIS or Hamas, I say more power to them. In most cases I would join them as I share a very negative view of many of those sorts of things. We all know there are huge problems in the Muslim world that need to be fixed, and a free press shining a light on those problems is part of the solution. But when people shift from attacking particular Muslims, or particular interpretations or practices of Islam, to attacking the Qur'an or mocking the Prophet, I don’t get the point of that. What is interesting is that no matter how outrageous or anti-Jewish or anti-Christian the rhetoric Muslim extremists engage in, no Muslims ever actually attack the Torah or the Gospels or the Hebrew Prophets or Jesus. In fact, Muslims revere all these as aspects of God’s message. Why some non-Muslims believe that free speech is advanced by mocking the Qur'an or the Prophet is not something I understand.
In 2012, Stephane Charbonnier defended his attacks on Islam by saying that “we have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.” If his goal was to help Muslims develop a more enlightened and tolerant understanding of their religion, one compatible with modernity, democracy, and gender equality, I share that goal, I just don’t think his methods added anything at all to the process. They just strike me as gratuitous attacks on a weak minority in France.
In fact, in 2009, Charbonnier fired one of his columnists on rather vague charges of writing something anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, France arrested 54 people for verbally supporting the attacks, and sentenced 12 of them to jail terms. So much for principle.