People hold placards reading 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) during a silent gathering in Montpellier, southern France, 7 January 2015, after the attack by masked gunmen on the satirical newspaper 'Charlie Hebdo' headquarters in Paris earlier the same day. - EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO
THERE is no doubt that the brutal attack on French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo on Jan 7, 2015 deserves condemnation. The immediate response in social media, particularly #JeSuisCharlie and the rather belatedly #JeSuisAhmed helped to galvanize online sentiment and spur debate surrounding freedom of speech, the nature of satire, national security, xenophobia, rise of the extreme right, (de)legitimizing hate speech, and the radicalization of minority communities.
In this article, I would like to draw some attention to the question of representation and the role that media plays.
We are all fairly familiar with the idea that whoever owns a media outlet or platform practically decides or even dictates the editorial slant and the political bias (left- or right-leaning) of the news that’s presented.
Thus it is interesting that the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag was picked up by mainstream “Western” media very early on as a form of “manifesto of what I believe” of social media users. This was then translated into graphics and placards used by vigil-goers and became the “rallying cry” in defence of freedom of speech.
Yet #JeSuisCharlie is problematic. Perhaps it is because in employing #JeSuisCharlie one is using a manufactured symbol that has been packed and imbued with a particular socio-political meaning that is practically non-negotiable. It is also binary in a “you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us” way, as we have witnessed in the rising tide of Islamophobia and the growing number of ultra rightwing rallies (that also employ #JeSuisCharlie) in many parts of Europe.
While a clear and strong statement must be made against the radical and militant extremism of the Kouachi brothers, ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and their ilk, an equally clear and strong statement must be made against those who employ crude, hardline reductionism and hide behind a façade of “free speech” (e.g. Rupert Murdoch’s tactless tirade that Muslims are to be held responsible for militant extremism).
But is that possible? Is there room for an intelligent, nuanced response that may not necessarily follow the crowd? Is it even okay to hold a contrary position, not for the sake of being a contrarian but because of one’s conscience?
Is it possible to resist being part of the crowd in times like these? Is there space anymore for discussions that upholds human dignity, that deeply respects both the Self and the Other, that indefatigably defends fundamental rights and liberties, that calls for the building trust and mutual confidence despite the growing clamour for the building of walls?
I believe it is possible. In fact, I believe that it is morally demanded that such a possibility not only exist, but is realized. It can happen through acts both small - not giving in to anger, for instance - and big - dismantling the geopolitical frames that underpin and nourish the rise of militant extremism, for example.
But at the heart of it, I believe that it is morally demanded that we find the will to realize this possibility. It begins by disrupting and deconstructing the underlying messages of mainstream media, and then reconstructing the narratives with signs and symbols that nourish understanding and positive action.
No, I am not Charlie Hebdo. I never can be, in the sense that I would not be able to understand the socio-historical context of their particular brand of French satire.
And neither am I Ahmed Merabet. I never can be, in the romantic sense of things.
I am me.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.