Clash of civilizations?

In responding to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, best to avoid simplistic narratives of left and right

It is worth appreciating the immense outcry that has flooded the pages of broadsheets in the days following the senseless slaughter of satirists. A series of appraisals, explanations, and condemnations are in wide selection, and a simple inventory of this mass of text reveals a freedom of speech in recuperation.

This diagnosis, however lacking it may be, is corroborated by the choice of certain publications, including the Manitoban, to reprint the blasphemous images that made Charlie Hebdo a litmus test for freedom of speech.

However, much of the content of the current discourse is far from helpful. In fact, it would seem that the temptation of vacuous cliché and platitude has taken hold of more than just the mainstream press, where it is expected, but has become the de facto manner of speech.

The mainstream is not alone in this (I intend to be an “equal opportunity offender”), as many on the left have taken it upon themselves to speak of, or for, a singular indivisible “Muslim community” and to know more than I suspect one can about the causes, or at least antecedents, of this act of murder. This is to say nothing of the vitriol and bigotry that the far-right employs in an unjust backlash against those of the Islamic faith.

By now immersion into the rhetoric of war is complete with many world leaders echoing sentiments similar to those of Stephen Harper, who said that “they have declared war on anybody who does not think and act exactly as they wish” – “they,” in this case, referring to the nebulous “international jihadist movement.”

The tired expression those in power are reaching for is the “clash of civilizations.” When 22,000 people are killed in non-Western countries compared to just 12 in Western countries as a result of terrorist attacks in 2013, it might be prudent to ask where this supposed clash is really taking place.

Many who are weary that the press is adopting the rhetoric of those who have the ability to curtail liberty for security or launch unjust interventions will be made uneasy when Ethan Cabel, in a Jan. 14 article in the Manitoban, writes that “we are at war with radical Islamism” which is a “well-organized movement that seeks to impose theocratic Islamic fascism on the rest of the world through the use of violence.”

There is no doubt Cabel is right when citing al-Qaeda in Yemen as an example of “Islamofascism” and there are many others whose ideology fits the ticket. But to say that there is a “well-organized movement” seeking imposition of fascism, presumably on Western countries, is to be nothing more than unsophisticated as one resorts to accepted assertion. It is an ironic claim to make after announcing the need for “an honest account” of the terrorist threat’s “origins, aims, and motives.”

The fault of mainstream journalists is their indolence; their lack of examination into the socioeconomics of French society and the Islamic world, the context in which radicalization arises, but also the abnegation of the responsibility to criticize, for example, the free speech crimes of world leaders who proclaim “Je suis Charlie.”

The mainstream may not remedy our myopic discourse, but neither does much of the left.

In Jacobin magazine Richard Seymour describes Charlie Hebdo as a “frankly racist publication.” From this charge many claim that Charlie has been stoking the fire for the far-right, the other fascists, who might enact violence and discrimination upon France’s impoverished Muslim community. This and the fear of reprisal ought to be shared.

Understanding Charlie as Islamophobic seems to follow with the idea that the Muslim community is a unitary one. Seymour and his comrades are wrong to “essentialize,” as Seth Ackerman puts it, Muslims in just the same way the right does. There is no one Muslim sensibility to be spoken for and those who act as though there is are also resorting to the superficial.

The freedom to deride religion in the most vulgar way is to be upheld against those who feel the censorious impulse. For this reason one ought to feel solidarity with Charlie, while simultaneously repudiating the clichés that are the current narratives of right and left.