I Don’t Know if Je Suis Charlie
But in Paris, the lines between freedom, anger, and extremism are messier than we can admit.
By Quinn Norton
was two hours from Paris when France suffered its most deadly terrorist attack in more than 50 years. Two brothers walked into the office of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and killed 10 of its staff, as well as two police officers who responded to the crisis. The world responded in a paroxysm of horror to the slaughtering of cartoonists, and watched as more strange violence unfolded in manhunts and hostage situations and police raids all around Paris over the next two days.
At the same time that I was watching the Charlie story unfold, a group of white supremacists on Twitter had found my recent articles on race in America and were deeply offended. One accused me of hate speech, another of participating in the genocide of whites. Another was saying that monsters like me needed to be fought by any means necessary. Laying aside the obvious irony of White Power people obliquely quoting Malcolm X, I found the whole thing ridiculous. I believe a Twitter threat is a thing so common it hardly seems to be a threat. But a little while later I found the tweet that went the furthest, the “by any means necessary” tweet, had been deleted. Apparently that one had gone too far. It suddenly felt much more sinister as I watched the Charlie drama continuing. It occurred to me that sometimes angry people really do shoot you.
Depending on how one counts, the Charlie Hebdo killings were the 16th or 17th terrorist attack of 2015, and the year was barely a week old. There had already been several strikes in the usual hot spots — Afghanistan and Iraq—and it had been a particularly bloody week in Nigeria, with suspected Boko Haram members clearing whole villages, displacing thousands of people, and killing a still-unknown number. Turkey had dealt with a suicide bomber, and the day before the Charlie shooting, someone left a badly built IED and a gas can next to an NAACP office in Colorado Springs. It was a reminder that in America our homegrown terrorists tend more toward violent racist extremism than violent religious extremism.
But the extremism isn’t optional. The violence always comes with extremism.
I arrived in Paris on Thursday, the day after the shooting, to a pervasive and quiet mourning. People wandered around Place de la République late into the night, creating little shrines to the dead. They lit votives and laid flowers, signs, and notes. They left piles of pens for the dead artists. They spelled names in lit candles, and when the candles blew out in the wind the next people relit them. The piles of gifts and notes at the police barriers near the Charlie Hebdo offices were high and too wide to manage, but people added more. A drunken and emotional man showed up and yelled at everyone that the dead cartoonists would have hated the votives, would have hated the overtones of religion and worship. He may very well have been right; they weren’t the sacrosanct kind. But mourning, like arguments, politics, and decisions about the future, are for the living, not the dead.
Journalists milled around and spoke in whispers near the police barricades. It was all a bit measured — not just the mourners, but the press — and I felt it myself. This didn’t have the usual distance of our disaster-scene lives. We, the members of the supposedly aloof press, just didn’t know how personally to take all this, how to keep the proper distance.
Friday morning I set out in search of the other focus of violence the day before: French muslims. The day after Charlie Hebdo had witnessed tragedy, blank grenades had been thrown at a mosque in Le Mans. Someone shot at a prayer hall in the South of France. Somebody else blew up a kebab shop. No one seemed really sure what was going on. It was bad: Chaos every time you looked at the media.
Abdoulaye, of Mosque 77 in the 18th District of Paris, spoke to me through a translator. He was a tall black man in a striking white robe, friendly and calm, but with a small note of worry. We spoke on the sidewalk outside the mosque. He was careful of the people passing us, interrupting the interview to help with the door, and greeting the locals coming to the mosque.
“We’re watching the news and telling our people, ‘Don’t enter this game, and avoid confrontation… if people insult you, don’t answer them,’” he said. “A lot of people are getting insulted on the street.” But he believed it would pass. As for the reaction of white France, he was confident of his countrymen: “Some people might be scared, but most people will understand this was not Islam. I was born and raised [here]. France is traditionally inclined to be open to different things. I think there won’t be a problem in the next days and years.”
I asked him about the attacks on mosques around France, but he was again sanguine. “It’s people exclaiming their rage, we have to let this go,” he said. “We will wait and not focus on stigmatizing people.”
The stigmatizing is starting. The usual suspects of conservative politics, in both America and Europe, are making the usual cries that we must protect free speech and cultural freedom by destroying it, but only for Muslims. Besides the obvious self-contradiction of this idea, there is another notion embedded in it: that Islam has some magical quality that generates extremism. But extremism isn’t really an Islamic affliction if you look at the question historically and in depth. Like all forms of violence, as well as addiction and property crime, extremism seems to follow poverty around, like little hell ducklings that have imprinted upon the most vulnerable among us.
It was true before Charlie, and it still remains true, that the majority of contemporary victims of terrorism are Muslims, and the main capturers and killers of journalists are governments and their political groups. As if to throw this point into sharp relief, politicians around the EU began calling for more ways to restrict speech online. The UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, citing the Paris attack, called for legislation that would allow for universal surveillance in the UK, saying, “Do we want to allow a means of communication between people which… we cannot read?” A question to which the majority of journalists would answer: “Hell yes.”
Antiterrorism measures the world round seem to be doing little to stop terrorism, but the tools and laws get used against activists and journalists disproportionately. Even in America, courtesies extended to journalists are suspended if something is considered “national security” — a fuzzy phrase with no technical definition, but nonetheless used against journalists like James Risen.
By Friday afternoon, after my chat with Abdoulaye, everything was getting weirder. Both of the original gunmen were in a warehouse near Charles de Gaulle Airport, and a third gunman had walked into a kosher market in another part of Paris and taken hostages, threatening to kill them if the Kouachi brothers — the Charlie Hebdo gunmen — were rushed by the police. All my meals and chats, my cups of coffee and interviews, took place in cafes in Paris with the standoffs on every TV. It was all too much, and by silent agreement no one seemed to acknowledge that the TVs were on beyond the occasional glance over, someone quietly asking if it was still going on.
Down near Opera I met Mohamed Tharwat Abdelhamid, a Frenchman of Egyptian extraction and a Muslim, studying political science at the prestigious Panthéon-Assas University in Paris. While Abdoulaye was greeting his tight-knit community around the 18th, Abdelhamid was spending his time at his university, one of France’s more right-wing institutions of power. “People will not try to understand what has happened,” Abdelhamid said with emotion in his voice. “What happened will divide us one more time. Not only as French citizens, but as humans.” Abdelhamid repeatedly deplored the attacks, but he was also bothered by the uncritical view of Charlie Hebdo as a publication. “The problem with Charlie Hebdo, they were stigmatizing. They were provocative in every single way… Charlie Hebdo was mocking absolutely every single thing in France: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Republicans, the Right,” he said.
For Abdelhamid, what the magazine published often crossed the line from satire to bigotry. They hurt people, and didn’t seem to care. “I am not Charlie,” Abdelhamid said. “[But] I want to insist on a point — I was defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to express, to use their pen. [I wanted] to prove that I can answer in a better way than them.”
He wanted to make it clear it wasn’t the satire that put him off. “I like Le Canard,” Abdelhamid said with a smile, referring to France’s more polished, respected, and popular satirical newspaper.
“I am a French Muslim, not a Muslim French,” he said. An Islamic identity can coexist with a citizen identity. For the vast majority of Muslims, there is no conflict between the two, despite what’s commonly portrayed by Western media and Islamist extremists.
“In France, [if] we are around 7 million Muslims, then there’s around 7 million kinds of Islam… Charlie Hebdo tried to make out one kind of Islam, one kind of Christianity,” said Abdelhamid.
So does al-Qaeda. So does ISIS. Despite all their ways of hating or provoking, despite being enemies in our society, they have that in common.
Abdelhamid doesn’t know what’s coming. Of everyone I talked to, he had the least confidence in France’s ability to handle this extremist attack maturely. “Today I was frightened because of my beard.”
Extremism is a kind of insanity made of anger. Most people, white, black, Christian, Muslim, man or woman, never live with that kind of anger — the kind that makes you want to throw your life away just to hurt someone or something.
I think that I have been that angry. I have wanted to kill people, and felt ready to, when I was much younger. I was stopped by a friend while walking down the street with a rifle in my hands, intent on taking another life. That friend helped me get back to my senses, get back on the right side of the line. It was many years ago, and it’s not my story to tell, but it is a moment I will never forget. So, when I turned to my computer and saw the images of the armed assailants, and the smiling portraits of the writers and artists they had murdered, I saw a little bit of myself in both. Je suis Charlie, people hate me for offending their way of life. But I have crossed over to the hate, too. Thank whatever there is to thank, I got back.
There will always be those who have left the territory of civilization — those people for whom the rules and the punishments don’t matter anymore. But they are rare. The everyday profusion of horror in something like the attack on Charlie, the bombing of the NAACP, the terrible acts of Boko Haram: There are too many to be only the violently insane and insensible. The commonness speaks to the swaths of unwanted humanity we have now, people living without a better dream than killing those they disagree with.
Extremism doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It’s not the territory of a particular religion or ideology. It isn’t some easy path. It doesn’t happen overnight. As a person who has walked down the street, gun in hand, thinking that I would kill, I can say this: You don’t get there overnight. You don’t get there alone. You get there after everything else you could imagine being good in life is gone, or you are sure the last good things are going to be taken from you. For most people, the day you pick up a gun is the day you don’t think anyone will hear your needs any other way.
I met a teacher — let’s call her Emma Martin, although that isn’t her real name — who works with 11- to 15-year-olds in the Parisian suburbs, an area called Montreuil. It’s not the worst of the suburbs, and not the poorest schools, but many of her students are immigrants or from immigrant families, and plenty live in housing projects. Their families are from all over: Morocco, Algeria, Ivory Coast, and Russia, and many are Muslims.
“The kids were very shocked because one of the men killed came from Montreuil,” said Martin. This was Bernard Verlhac, known at Charlie Hebdo as Tignous. “Some of my students knew him and worked with him last year. They had drawings made by Tignous. They asked to talk about it when they came to class.”
Despite knowing one of the artists, most of the kids had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the shooting appeared on their TVs, followed inevitably by the caricatures of Mohammed that had created so much controversy. There was a lot to try to understand the day after the attack.
She canceled her planned lessons on Thursday to talk to her students.
“The kids were shocked by the facts, but they didn’t understand why Charlie Hebdo did these drawings. They felt insulted and were angry… [We had] a lot of talk about limits and freedom of expression.”
They were confronted by so many satirical images aimed at Islam in the news reports on the shooting that few students understood that Charlie wasn’t specifically aimed at humiliating French Muslims. Nevertheless, the main horror was reserved for the men who had murdered in the name of Islam.
“[My students] felt insulted that someone took their religion and their Prophet to kill someone. In every class I had at least five students who said to me, ‘They are not real Muslims,’” said Martin.
Several recited lines from the Koran in class, which Martin translated as: When a man kills an innocent, he has killed all humanity. “Many of the kids wouldn’t believe that the Kouachi brothers thought themselves to be Muslim at all, and wondered if they were doing it to harm Islam,” Martin said. She pushed back, and talked about the fact that people like the killers can believe they are real Muslims.
This opened up a new topic in her class: How do you know when you’re crossing the line?
Despite coming from a room of teenagers, it’s the question at the heart of this shooting and its ongoing fallout: political, legislative, cultural, personal. How much speech is okay? What is on the right side of the line, and what’s the right way to fight something that isn’t? What should you do when someone tries to take away your rights? When does satire become hate? When does it just become one more expression of the institutional racism that holds back these children and other children all over the world?
And when does religious passion slip into religious madness? One of Martin’s students asked, “What if my friends think like this?” Others chimed in, afraid that their friends or brothers could be influenced by whatever had gotten to the Kouachi brothers.
“It was a difficult day,” Martin told me.
I don’t know if je suis Charlie, if I am Charlie. I don’t like the caricatures that reproduce racist images of Jews, or paint all Muslims as bearded Arabs with giant noses. Some of my French friends have said Charlie Hebdo is more anti-racist than racist, but it’s complicated. They could be right, I don’t know enough about French culture or the nuances of what Charlie Hebdo does to understand. That’s why we have free speech, to make room for things we don’t understand. I don’t want to post them, and I won’t, because my free speech means I don’t have to post things I don’t like. But I think the portrayal of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front party, with her racist father as an Alien-style jaw within her jaws, is pretty funny. It was made by Cabu, who died on Wednesday. I could get a bit Charlie for that.
I am not the Kouachi brothers, but I can see how it went wrong for them, at least in the abstract. I can see how people leave sanity behind and pass into violence, how extremism and hate can swallow them up. If, someday, someone shoots me because they hated what I wrote, I will be like Charlie. I am not particularly interested in what happens to my attacker if I am attacked. I’m not sure I’m very interested in justice, per se. I’d rather not get attacked in the first place. I’d rather we prevented people from getting to that point.
I am sure of this: If, as a society, we want to starve extremism, to save cartoonists in France and prevent the strange fruit of the American South, to stop suicide bombers in the Middle East and the violence of the Nigerian countryside, we do that by not starving children. We do it by feeding their bodies and minds and hopes.