Charlie Hebdo Massacre: a Tragic, Universal Failure

Kouachi brothers, who mass murdered 12 French journalists

UPDATE: Thanks to Middle East Eye for publishing an earlier version of this piece here.

The mass murder yesterday in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 10 staff members and two policemen were gunned down, represents a gross failure of so many. Most obviously, it represents a failure of the French security forces who failed miserably in their job.  It represents the failure too of Francois Hollande and the nation’s political class, which have done little to address both Islamophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments that seethe just beneath the surface of French life.

Now let me say a few controversial things: it represents a failure of the French Muslim community from which the killers sprang.  It represents a failure of the French press and public which fostered the puerile satirical farce represented by the magazine’s portrayal of Islam.  It represents the failure of the French right which simmered the cauldron of Islamophobia to which the killers, at least in part, responded.

Elaborating on the failures I listed above: one of the mass-murderers served a three-year prison sentence for recruiting French Muslims to join Middle East jihad.  It’s now being reported that one of the brothers trained with Al Qaeda in Yemen in 2011.  Why didn’t the security services raise his level of threat assessment to the highest one possible?  Why wasn’t he monitored and surveilled intensively?  Why did they not ensure he didn’t get access to firearms?

Charlie Hebdo was under constant threat from Islamists.  Yet the police offered two officers to guard the offices, both of which gave their lives doing their duty (one of the murdered policemen was a Muslim).  And is it possible that two men can commit mass murder in broad daylight in France’s capital and manage to get away without any security force (except the two guards) intercepting them?

Remember the same lapses that occurred in the case of the Toulouse Jewish school attacked by a different Islamist gunman.  That individual managed two separate attacks which killed both French Jews and soldiers.  He too had a history of association with Islamist terror which should have flagged him and drawn much greater attention from the authorities.

As for the failure of the French political class, Angela Merkel last week nationally denounced anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant fever which was gripping her country.  She stood up for what was right.  What have French politicians done in the face of the surge in racism from the National Front?

No doubt, this attack will draw even stronger support to this Party which thrives on hatred of the Other in French society.  The blood of these French men and women fertilizes the soil of racism and hatred on which Marie Le Pen thrives.  We shouldn’t forget that Israel’s far right too has made common cause with her in their joint jihad against the “Muslim hordes.”

The statement above in which I noted the failure of the French Muslim community was not made to cast blame on all Muslims. I understand that there are killers in the name of God among all religions and ethnic groups.  The acts of the psychopathic few aren’t the fault of the many.  But just as I do soul-searching when I read of the murders committed by mad-dog settlers Jews, and mourn their perversion of Judaism as I know it, it becomes more important than ever for the real Muslims to rise against this hate and fight it with every fiber of their being.

Charlie Hebdo cover

Regarding Charlie Hebdo itself…during the Jyllands Posten controversy, I wrote critically about the deliberate provocations of the cartoonists which led to the attack.  Not that I dismissed their right to draw what they liked.  Not that I dismissed freedom of speech and the press.  But both the Danish and Hebdo cartoons were perverse provocation for its own sake.

Title (rough translation): “Yes to wearing the burqa…in the ass.”

Political satire through the medium of cartoons is a hallowed tradition, which I both admire and support.  Think of the moral, social crusades fostered by such distinguished satirists as Honore Daumier, Thomas Nast and Herblock.  And the power and empathy that Art Spiegelman brought to the Holocaust in Maus.  But why waste such a sharp instrument on such a dull subject as Hebdo did?  Why employ this exalted art in the service of base, degraded sentiments?

For example, there is much in Judaism and especially some of its adherents which I criticize.  I regularly display cartoons that ridicule and lampoon not just Israeli policy, but the religious tenets of settlers and their ilk.  But why would I attack the founders of my religion: Moses, the Biblical prophets?  There are plenty of anti-Semites to do that.  Similarly, unless you’re the equivalent of an anti-Semite, why would you debase the founder of Islam and its foundational tenets?  Why would you not distinguish between Mohammed and those of his followers who’ve deviated from the right path, unless you hated all Islam and all Muslims?  And if you do, what right do you have to the support of the news-consuming public?

Satirize Islamist terror?  By all means.  Criticize sects of Islam like Wahabism? Certainly.  But imagine if Charlie Hebdo drew a big-nosed Moses sitting amid buckets of cash.  Does no one understand why if one is wrong the other is as well?  In fact, a Hebdo cartoonist derided Nicholas Sarkozy’s son for “doing well” by converting to Judaism to marry a wealthy Jewish heiress.  The cartoonist was fired.  But cartoonists ridiculing the Prophet are now folk heroes (see Latuff’s cartoon above).

Let me clear, nothing I’ve written above justifies in any way the murder of ten French journalists.  But I am questioning the value, wisdom and quality of their enterprise as they pursued it before this attack.

The final and equally sad failure in this tragedy is that Bibi Netanyahu will, if he hasn’t already done so, release a statement to the French and the world saying: I told you so.  He’ll dance a silent hora and thank his lucky stars that carnage like this has been thrown into his electoral campaign.

The real reward for tasteless political exploitation of mass slaughter goes this time to Tzipi Livni, who said this:

“We [Israelis] feel the same anger when terror hits us – and that is why we will not accept any attempt to sue our soldiers in The Hague.”

If you think this is overly cynical, not at all.  If you can think that, you don’t understand the way his mind works.  After 9/11 he publicly said that that sort of attack was what it would take for the world to understand what Israel faces every day.  In a perverse way, he was right.  The Israeli right has reaped a bitter harvest from Islamism and the west’s war on terror.  It put back the Palestinian cause by years if not decades.  Islamist terror is the bitter fruit on which Israeli extremism feeds.

I’ve been noting a significantly different response in progressive circles between the earlier Mohammed cartoon controversy and this one.  Back in 2006, I felt like I was one of the few progressives trying to walk a fine line between denouncing the threat to Jyllands Posten while also denouncing the disgusting taste and Islamophobia of the cartoons.  As I recall, reaction in some quarters especially among Jews was extremely hostile.  But in the aftermath of the Hebdo attack, there have been thoughtful, nuanced pieces written both by cartoonists themselves like Joe Sacco and political journalists like Glenn Greenwald.  This piece in The New Yorker is also terrific.  That may be because the world has more distance from 9/11 and more sensitivity to the danger of Islamophobia.

Finally, it’s interesting to remember that way back in 2006, in response to an Iranian Holocaust denial cartoon contest, Israeli graphic artist Amitai Sandy created the Anti-Semitic Cartoon Contest.  Despite what you might think, it was mostly hilarious and dead-on (with some nasty exceptions of course).  It’s worth revisiting it.  The point is: there are ways to satirize religious traditions that are sharp, cutting and honest without being gratuitously hateful.