By Nick Pendergrast
Right around the time that twelve people were killed in the shooting at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the office of the NAACP, one of the oldest civil rights groups in the US, was bombed by a white man. While fortunately the NAACP bombing did not result in any injuries and deaths, justifying a greater media focus on the French shooting, this bombing was pretty much ignored in the mainstream media until African American people on Twitter managed to get #NAACPBombing trending.
While most people will be well aware of all of the details of the French shooting and subsequent acts of violence in France, what has been lacking in most of the media coverage has been a discussion on the context behind the actions. In this article I will look into the recent violence in France and media coverage, free speech and Islamophobia.
Context, Context, Context
Journalist Robert Fiske recent published an article which provided an in-depth look into the French repression of Algerian people. A huge majority of France’s Muslim population are Algerian. Fiske points out that this context is often neglected in stories about violence covered by the media:
Maybe all newspaper and television reports should carry a “history corner”, a little reminder that nothing – absolutely zilch – happens without a past. Massacres, bloodletting, fury, sorrow, police hunts (“widening” or “narrowing” as sub-editors wish) take the headlines. Always it’s the “who” and the “how” – but rarely the “why”.
There are several reasons why we often don’t get the full context from the mainstream media when they report on atrocities. Part of it has to do with commercial constraints, where a simplified/shorter explanation of ‘why’ (or even no explanation of all) is more palatable to a larger audience, meaning commercial media outlets do this so they can get more papers sold, more clicks to their website, more advertising and therefore more money. After all, the primary function of commercial media, by their very nature as businesses, is to make money.
But I think people often don’t want to look into the ‘why’ because it is seen as excusing the actions. I believe it is not about excusing anything, but about understanding what is going on around the world in a deeper way. That is what I will try and do in this article.
A Free Speech Issue?
The attack on Charlie Hebdo has often been framed purely in free speech terms. For example, the organiser of a “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) rally in Melbourne, mourning and supporting the people killed in the attack, explained:
But more because it’s just not a terrorist attack against France, it’s a terrorist attack against freedom of speech and it’s something like, it’s very important all around the world. So I think when somebody attacks freedom of speech, it’s the beginning of the end.
I will not be a part of the “I am Charlie” campaign – I am NOT Charlie.* I think it is very possible to condemn the Paris shootings while also condemning the Islamophobia of Charlie Hedbo, which will be outlined below. While free speech is important, I believe we shouldn’t look at this issue purely through the lens of free speech without also without also looking into the broader context of white supremacy and Islamophobia.
Comedian Aamer Rahman does this in relation to the repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia, which makes it illegal to insult people on racial grounds. This repeal was proposed by the Abbott government, on free speech grounds. The idea has since been dropped, although the Paris shootings have led some in the Abbott government to once again call for the section to be repealed.
The cartoon below is from Charlie Hedbo, making light of Muslim vs Muslim violence, in reaction to 1000 Egyptian people being killed.
“But Islam isn’t a race” we often hear when the issue of Islamophobia is raised. Well, just because it isn’t racism, doesn’t mean it’s okay. Secondly, when the attacks are often made by white people against people of colour, it is certainly wrong to say there is no racial basis at all behind Islamophobia.
Richard Dawkins recently posted on Twitter:
I think what Dawkins leaves out of his analysis is context, power and privilege. Maybe in a different world “atheophobia” would be exactly the same as Islamophobia, but that’s not the world we live in. While atheists certainly face some discrimination, in conservative parts of the US, for example, it is certainly not to the same extent as Muslims face Islamophobia in countries like France. This Islamophobia is state-sanctioned, including the French state banning pro-Palestine rallies, headscarves in schools or the public service, and burqas and niqabs everywhere.
Predominantly Muslim countries are being bombed all around the world and where Muslims are the minority in countries like Australia, they face a lot of discrimination, such as street harassment. I think comparing the two is like saying racism against people of colour is exactly the same as “racism” against white people.
Others argue that Charlie Hedbo mocked the pope and orthodox Jews ‘in equal measure‘. First of all, this is highly debatable, in fact Maurice Sinet was fired from the magazine for making comments against Judaism, while Islamophobia is laughed at by the magazine.
Even if hypothetically this was the case, I think this is besides the point, as such mockery takes place in a completely different context. It’s like saying a magazine had some sexist stuff but they also made fun of men, it had some racist stuff but also made fun of white people – these things aren’t equal because of the context – see Aamer Rahman’s video above.
Charlie Hedbo’s cartoons mocking Muslims, such as the one pictured above, helped to play a role in maintaining the position of French Muslims as “second-class citizens”. As Asghar Bukari wrote:
White people don’t like to admit it, but those cartoons upheld their prejudice, their racism, their political supremacy, and cut it how you will — images like that upheld a political order built on discrimination.
This doesn’t make for good satire. As comedian Aamer Rahman has tweeted:
This is obviously not to say that satire that “punches down rather than up” should receive violence but we also should not celebrate Charlie Hebdo on free speech grounds without also looking into the broader context of white supremacy and Islamophobia.
Racism, Islamophobia and the Media
Speaking of racism and Islamophobia, the mainstream media often perpetuates both of these in the coverage of terrorism. As the NAACP bombing mentioned at the start of the article showed, terrorism by white people who aren’t Muslim often gets far less media coverage than violence carried out by Muslim people. Not only that, but the coverage is very different, as is shown in the coverage of the NAACP bombing compared to the Paris shooting:
Headlines fit expectations.
Perhaps this media narrative of who is and isn’t responsible for terrorism explains why the media has virtually ignored the fact that one of the twelve people killed in the French shootings was a Muslim police officer. This media coverage is also likely to play a role in the predictable call for moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism whenever violence by Muslim people is in the news.
This struck me the morning I woke up after the Sydney Siege, where hostages were taken in a Lindt chocolate shop and two people were killed – one by the gunman and it has been recently revealed that one of the victims was killed by the police. Muslims in Australia, like everyone else, would have felt saddened, upset and scared by the Sydney Siege but then on top of that would have to worry about the backlash they could face. This is an additional burden that non-Muslims don’t have to worry about when such violence takes place.
Soon after the Sydney Siege, Sociologist Randa Abdel-Fattah highlighted this pressure that is unjustly placed on Muslims to “distance themselves” from actions that have nothing at all to do with them:
There is another issue though, too. And that is whether Australian Muslims will be entitled to grieve the deaths of the two hostages and the trauma suffered by the survivors in a way that does not make their empathy and grief contingent on condemning, apologizing and distancing themselves from the gunman.
As Muslim leaders condemn the violence in Paris, others point to the Qu’ran being inherently violent and hateful. I am an atheist who has not read the Qu’ran so, unlike Richard Dawkins, I won’t have a say over who is being a “true Muslim” and who isn’t, as I have no idea.
What I hope most people can agree with me on though is that we need to stop blaming a whole group for the actions of individuals, as well as challenging this pressure placed on Muslims to condemn acts of violence by other Muslims – particularly as this pressure is not placed on other groups.
*An earlier version of this article contained Charlie Hedbo cartoons depicting a French politician as a monkey and Boko Haram’s sex slaves as “welfare queens”, as examples of racism from the magazine. These cartoons (and many others from Charlie Hedbo) were certainly racist in that they relied on and perpetuated racist tropes, although I originally pictured the cartoons without the context. The cartoon of the French politician was actually lampooning a far-right’s group depiction of this politician and the Boko Haram one was actually criticising the right-wing’s opposition to welfare for immigrants. While this was done in a problematic and racist way, as this context was not included originally, I have decided to delete the cartoons from the article and focus on the Islamophobia of Charlie Hedbo.