Putting the Charlie Hebdo attack in context

The news from Paris hit like a punch to the stomach and to the heart. Ten employees of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were shot in cold blood for practicing freedom of expression. Two policemen were killed for trying to protect them. Eleven more were wounded. The killers screamed out Allahu Akbar. The thought that cartoonists and journalists can become anyone’s enemy, no matter how provocative and even racist their content, is outrageous.

The reactions and classifications were of course quick to pour in. Writing in The New YorkerAmy Davidson called it an attack on journalism everywhere:

This was an attack on a publication and a neighborhood, a country and its press, and on any journalist, in any city.

On Twitter, Jeffrey Goldberg called it “possibly the most direct attack by Islamists on Western ideals to date” and penned an article called “Europe is Under Siege.” The New York Times‘ Roger Cohen unleashed a rather visceral tweet:


To which Palestinian American writer and analyst Yousef Munayyer replied:

But there were also efforts on social media to contextualize the killings. For example, American novelist and LGBT activist Sarah Schulman wrote the following on her Facebook page:

The Paris murders are not about ‘Freedom of Speech’ but instead show how unabated racism, occupation, endless killings of Muslims in US wars in iraq and Afghanistan, the murders in Gaza, intense European racism against Muslims, including French laws limiting religious expression, the rise of the National Front- all of these have the consequence of producing violence. Cruelty has consequences and things happen for reasons. If we want to end this kind of terrorism we need to end the range of state terrorisms that create desperation and enforce apocalyptic responses. Of course people must be free to speak. All people.

In Israel, Channel 2 news analyst Arad Nir called it “France’s 9/11.” Prime Minister Netanyahu said of the attack that the “same extremist forces attacking Europe are attacking Israel. Israel stands by Europe – Europe should stand by Israel.” Netanyahu was clearly implying criticism of various European parliaments’ move to recognize Palestine in recent months. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman used the incident to lump together the Islamic Movement in Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as all being exactly the same.

One reaction that caught my eye and I thought was an interesting perspective worth sharing was a Facebook status by a Palestinian citizen of Israel and Arabic teacher, Hanin Majadli. She wrote (my translation):

On the Charlie Hebdo attack:

I thought to open this post by condemning (as a Muslim) the terror attack that took place yesterday in France against a satirical newspaper that I don’t find funny, perhaps because I do not understand French humor. But that is not the point, and there is no justification for hurting or murdering anyone. It is psychotic. Let’s go back to me wanting to condemn the attack that was purportedly done in the name of Islam, my religion. It took me a minute to realize that I have nothing in common with the heinous murderers, and that their Islam is nothing like my Islam, but rather a problematic political Islam. So no condemnation. Just condolences and global hopelessness.

Majadli goes on to note that Israeli reactions included the predictable, sweeping comparisons between “Palestinian terror” and “Islamist terror.” She also adds that she read an Israeli commentator note that a rally in Paris Wednesday, in which thousands gathered in solidarity with the victims, included no chants of “death to Arabs” or “revenge,” nor did anyone say anything like “let’s see them suffer 60 years of it.”

I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say or if I’m trying to make any specific statement at all. I guess I just think it is important to consider the various responses to this vicious attack and pay attention to context. Even the most sick and awful situations always have context – they are not detached from time and circumstance.

We must remember that although free speech is absolutely crucial to any society that claims to be free and democratic, the line between free speech and incitement is often unclear. Furthermore, although Muslim extremists use Islam to promote a political ideology that kills those it disagrees with, from 2007-2011, between 82 percent and 97 percent of all victims of terrorism were Muslim.

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