Youssef Rakha: Who the Fuck Is Charlie


From the Miraj Nama of Shah Rukh, 15th century, showing the Prophet Muhammad astride his Buraq. Source:

The mere idea of contributing to the Charlie Hebdo colloquy is a problem. It’s a problem because, whether as a public tragedy or a defense of creative freedom, the incident was blown out of all proportion. It’s a problem because it’s been a moralistic free-for-all: to express solidarity is to omit context, to forego the meaning of your relation to the “slain” object of consensus, to become a hashtag. It’s a problem above all because it turns a small-scale crime of little significance outside France into a cultural trope.

Charlie Hebdo is not about the senseless (or else the political) killing of one party by another. It’s about a Platonic evil called Islam encroaching on the  peaceful, beneficent world order created and maintained by the post-Christian west. Defending the latter against the former, commentators not only presume what will sooner or later reduce to the racial superiority of the victim. They also misrepresent the perpetrator as an alien force independent of that order.

It’s as if the Kouachi brothers are not products of French society. It’s as if Arab immigration to France was not a result of French conquests in North Africa, and the rise of political Islam not a consequence of the revolutionary, colonial, and Cold War legacies of the west. The commentary suggests, rather, that the Kouachis are time travelers from an age when theocracy and Enlightenment fought over world dominion (never mind the historical truth of the Muslims’ role in that fight, never mind the present-day Muslims’ de facto inability to alter the course of civilization).

How cowardly to face the pen with a gun; we must unite against censorship in all its forms; the offending cartoons should be reprinted; then again they were truly politically incorrect, maybe they shouldn’t be reprinted; no one is questioning the  horror of the crime but we must be wary of a possible backlash against innocent Muslims in Europe… But to engage with that discourse is to be cowed by what is even worse than any such platitude: the presupposition that taking offense to secular irreverence is something to which all Muslims are preternaturally prone.

No response to Charlie Hebdo seems aware of the existence of Muslims to whom the idea of “avenging the Prophet” is nothing more than a jaded joke. Aside from beliefs — and this Muslim will agree that beliefs are a personal matter anyway — Muslims exist whose only possible gripe with the infidel’s tendency to “insult religion” is said infidel’s rabid racism. They routinely satirize the orthodox dogma with which they are forced to live, let alone Wahhabi and Salafi excesses, and they do so at significantly greater risk to their persons than any ever consciously taken by Charlie. Surely they can’t be expected to apologize for their failure to publicly renounce the culture into which they were born?

The presumption that all Muslim-born human beings are automatically incensed by Charlie Hebdo — that Charlie Hebdo’s avowed abhorrence for Islam is something they must fight their inherently homicidal response to, which I suspect was a significant part of the motivation behind the cartoons — is shared by both right- and left-wing responses to the incident. It is what this Muslim finds most offensive of all — not least because it has so much in common with repeated attempts by the world order to repackage and ship its Islamist Frankenstein back to the Arab Muslim world.

Ironically, the commitment to freedom of expression that informs Charlie Hebdo solidarity echoes the commitment to democratic transformation in the Arab Spring, which as it turns out could only ever amount to an Islamist takeover of government. The result is that, where an authoritarian old guard has not violently recouped power, oil money and sectarian warmongering have resulted in permutations of the monster, such as ISIS (to which, by some convoluted route via Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Charlie Hebdo attackers apparently also answer).

Just as all Muslims are assumed to be an anti-secular threat to freedom, so freedom is exported to Muslim-majority countries in sectarian form. This is done through both military and diplomatic means; and in every case, whether presented as humane “liberation” or punitive “counterterrorism”, the intervention is politically counterproductive and potentially, often actually genocidal (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria).

But not even counting the military retribution it has prompted (perhaps most evident in Gaza), Islamic terrorism has claimed infinitely more Muslim than non-Muslim lives — and I’m not talking about the fact that one of the victims of the initial Charlie Hebdo attack was a Muslim security guard.

Seen in this light, murder in Paris looks less like a genetic defect of Muslim DNA than an inevitable side-effect of the capitalist and discriminatory medicine unilaterally administered by the free world. It looks less like a fight over freedom of expression than an effort to put down Muslims, even less by identifying them with terrorism (which those of them who choose political Islam are doing a great job of anyway) than by suggesting that they are incapable of assimilating the values of the Enlightenment.

That is why having to pander to platitudes about moderation and tolerance, having to “improve the image of Islam in the west”, is an even graver insult than being called a terrorist.

And perhaps it is possible to engage with the Charlie Hebdo colloquy without insulting oneself, but from where I stand, at least, to engage is to deny, if not one’s brown skin per se, then one’s capacity for irreverence, rebellion, and subversion; one’s belief in reason, science, and equality; one’s commitment to personal freedoms and individual rights denied by political Islam.

It is to deny the very possibility of being the Muslim I want to be: not my identity as a potential fanatic who upholds an increasingly irrelevant religious dogma, but my claim to a glorious part of civilization’s past to which I happen to have a birthright — and which I try, against truly impossible odds, to live up to.