By Nesreen Salem
From a Western perspective, one can see why it is convenient to propagate the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a direct attack on their way of life, on the values they perceive their societies to have been built on, and how global jihadism is a real – nay – the only threat the modern world currently faces. Commence operations ‘tighten borders’, ‘alienate immigrants’, right-wing politicians: politicise the massacre; simultaneously. A pattern that has become so predictable since 9/11, yet the realisation that this is essentially not decreasing terrorist threats has not yet dawned.
On the same day of the French massacre, 38 Yeminis perished in an attack carried out by similar fanatics in Yemen. As of writing this article, 2,000 people lost their lives at the hands of Boko Haram. Another ninve were killed in a café bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon. But they were, collectively, as Teju Cole put it so eloquently in his New Yorker essay: ‘unmournable bodies’. They weren’t martyrs of free speech or any particular value, neither were they Westerners. It is regrettable that the value of human life does not surmount any other value; consequently no hash tags or media fireworks will go off at news of their deaths. Just like the deaths of thousands of Muslims killed at the hands of other Muslims in Iraq, Syria or Yemen.
It is convenient to audaciously scapegoat an entire religion or an entire race and make the enemy visible and attackable. It saves a lot of time on thinking reasonably about the real underlying grievances, and the effort to intelligently and peacefully tackle them from the root. Salman Rushdie and Rupert Murdoch notably made statements following the massacre. The former claimed that Islam as a religion is the problem, while the latter concluded that Muslims collectively are to be blamed and held responsible for these attacks. This absolutism is as useful to fighting terrorism as the peace talks between Israel and Palestine have been to achieving lasting peace between the two nations.
Meanwhile, notable Islamic scholars and Imams across the globe condemned the massacre, and rightfully so. However, one cannot take these condemnations seriously, just as one cannot take seriously any alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the terrorist threat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Condemning the murder of 12 cartoonists, while in the same breath they wish the severest of punishment upon any political dissidents, atheists or members of the LGBT community, portrays a type of pathology that is difficult to assimilate or reconcile when explicit and implicit messages are so conflicting. In fact, when governments are in control of religious institutions, or vice versa, any condemnation of this sort serves only to appease foreign relations and strengthen diplomatic ties. A closer look at what lies behind this hypocrisy immediately reveals how many Middle Eastern regimes have been responsible for the lead up to the events that occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and which undoubtedly continue.
Raif Badawi, a Saudi liberal blogger who started an online forum to communicate his political grievances with the Saudi government and defend human rights, was flogged in public this week and will continue to be flogged weekly for the next 19 weeks, after being accused of the crime of blasphemy. He is one of the symbols of a post-, so-called Arab Spring who strived for a space for those same values the West claims ownership of. If it were the value of free speech Arab leaders and Islamic scholars were grieving in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, then Badawi’s sentence has stripped their hypocrisy stark naked for all to see and no one to condemn.
I admire the West’s ability to ignore or brush away its colonialist past, yet exhibit its colonialist mindset when it comes to foreign policy with no sense of irony. I equally resent the Middle East’s inability to let go of its autocratic history when it comes to governance, even priding itself on upholding it despite the chaos it continues to ensue. But being stuck between a wall of Western audacity and Middle Eastern hypocrisy leaves little to no space for those who are trying to pave a way for a liveable present or a better future.
All humans are created equal, but some blood is more precious than others’; history has taught us that, and present events confirm it. The West is curious about the Middle Eastern Other. The Other is good for business; entertaining to watch; makes for amusing satirical material; best viewed from afar, caged by a state security apparatus, which is fully supported and resourced by the West. But when it comes to issues that are arguably identifiable as sameness, it’s best to turn the other way and feed the narrative that these are the barbaric ways of so-called third world countries.
On the other hand, the ‘barbarians’ of ‘third world countries’ continue to flood social media with hash tags of solidarity to ease the sense of guilt by association that has not stopped swelling since 9/11. Though beautiful in spirit, it does little to appease pontificators who are clueless about the degree of heavy handed oppression and corruption exercised by autocratic regimes that are fully supported by Western governments for their own interest, nor does it address the reality that something within is broken and desperately needs fixing. In Egypt for example, many have expressed their solidarity on #JesuisCharlie, yet have openly supported the crackdown on political activists, or have not objected, if not fully supported, to the passing of the vague blasphemy law that seems to fit all intents and purposes of capturing anyone who will not toe the line of the state. In Kuwait, an ex MP was arrested for criticising Al-Sisi’s visit to Kuwait. New laws seem to appear daily, aiming to normalise a state run by a security apparatus, eliminating any hopes for a civil society.
Audacity and hypocrisy seem to be the rule of the political game. While people are trying to decide whether they are Charlie or not, Badawi will receive another 950 lashes; political activists will continue to starve and rot in Egyptian jails; dissidents and freedom fighters will continue to be bullied into silence; educational, economic and social reforms will not happen; change will not occur. Meanwhile, autocratic leaders and dictators will march alongside the French in Paris in solidarity, fully comprehending their hypocrisy, nonchalantly allowing the plotting of the next attack.
Nesreen Salem is a writer/commentator on political and cultural affairs. She is a doctoral student at Birkbeck University of London and the Egyptian Women’s Union representative in the UK. Follow her on Twitter @_Schehrazade_