Charlie Hebdo's Raison d'être

In the last month, Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban fighters stormed a school and gunned down 130 children. In the past couple of weeks, Nigerian Boko Haram militants razed two neighboring towns and slaughtered what the Nigerian army said was 150 inhabitants, with the actual death toll perhaps as high as 2,000. And in that same timeframe, a pair of Islamists retroactively tied to Yemeni al-Qaeda killed 12 people in the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that had gained notoriety for depicting the prophet Muhammad.

I'll give you a second to guess which event had, by far, the largest Western media coverage. Which event prompted a massive manhunt and then caused a rally that included world leaders and millions of people? Here's a hint: it was the one with the smallest body count.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, an answer that's probably intuitive.

And it's intuitive not because of any active sin against countries and cultures elsewhere in the world, and it's intuitive not because of any conspiracy to treat the blood of one people as of greater or lesser value than the blood of another. Western media covered the story at Charlie Hebdo with more intensity and more scrutiny because the victims were their own. It got more attention because the shock value--the amount of raw fear that comes when a basic assumption that underpins our world crumbles--was so much higher.

These same media outlets have been reporting on massacres in Pakistan and Nigeria, and the countries around them, for years. But Western journalists exercising--although some would say abusing--a fundamental Western right to free speech aren't very often victims.

Charlie Hebdo was a bigger deal because people die by righteous bullet in Nigeria, and in Pakistan, but not in Paris.

Today, in our digital age, very few facts are left to stand as such. Every splash of oil, or blood, is plucked up and slotted into something. Everything has to fit, everything has to make sense. We superimpose logic on tragedy and keep building theories upward so we can lose ourselves in the structures and forget the foundations.

It's worth noting here, I think, that hypocrisies and fallacies pervade coverage of these events. France, home to very stringent anti-hate speech laws that have led to the government butting heads with Charlie Hebdo on numerous occasions, has ordered a crackdown on hate speech, anti-Semitism and those speaking in defense of terrorism. This doesn't mean France is necessarily a bad or evil place, simply that nothing is ever as simple as we would like it to be.

Perhaps the idea that this was an attack on free speech is too romantic, and too simplistic. There is a distinct possibility that this was intended to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment, and continue the marginalization of European Muslims that is feeding the growing wave of radicalism supplying ground soldiers for hardline Islamic organizations around the world. Even if that is an unintended consequence, it's happening anyway.

The net effect on both Western government policies, and on Muslims in these countries, is yet to be determined. We can make guesses, but time will tell.

However, there's a simpler idea that I'd like to convey here. Charlie Hebdo released its first edition following the attacks this week, and it's flying off shelves around the world. A normal publishing run of sixty thousand has been bumped, first to three million and now to five million copies. People are buying the magazine to show support for free speech, perhaps, but I think a better explanation is simpler.

People are buying it to show support for this group of men and women, who produce deliberately inflammatory content and suffered in doing so. People are buying the new edition to show support for a group of people who faced the choice to walk away or carry on and chose to pick the pieces back up. Charlie Hebdo was an exemplar of the long French tradition of "gouaille", relentlessly attacking authority and hierarchy because nothing and no one is sacred, and it will continue to be so.

I don't agree with much of what Charlie Hebdo publishes, both before and after the attack. It's no surprise to me that their most recent cover had the words "Tout est Pardonné" emblazoned across the top. It's no surprise to me that Muslim communities are offended around the world, wondering why exactly the magazine continues to blaspheme. It's no surprise to me, but remains strangely inspiring, that they continued doing exactly what they had always done.

I found myself looking at the cover, shaking my head and yet deeply touched as I saw Muhammad crying and holding a sign that said "Je suis Charlie." There is a disease rippling through Islam, a toxin of vitriol and hatred poisoning a small sect in a noble faith and twisting it into acts of brutality like the three with which I started this piece. In seeing that cover, in seeing the prophet weeping--and interpreting it as the prophet saddened that blood had been shed in his name--I think the people behind Charlie Hebdo distinguished the two.

But it's so much simpler than all the analysis and all the confusion and all the touchpoints of anger and savagery and misunderstanding. A group of men and women came together to build something, lost their friends, and carried on the only way they could have. And they drew the same image that had been the grounds for their tragedy, defiantly proclaiming their determination--and their forgiveness.

It's crass, offensive, and irreverent, as always. And in those last two words lies one other, quieter virtue of the crass, offensive, and irreverent people behind it: courage.

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