When will we learn? That was the question of the hour, asked by some of my French colleagues in France.
As Charlie Hebdo hit the stands in defiance of terrorists that killed eight of its staffers last week – of course, with a Mohammed cartoon on its cover – French prosecutors were busy investigating a popular Muslim comedian for “apology for terrorism.”
Funny that you can insult a group of people (Muslims) and millions come out to stand by you but when you disrespect the dead (Muslim, Jewish, Christian), you can be investigated. What happened to equal-opportunity disrespect?
That’s what the Muslim community of France is talking about in the aftermath of the attacks last week that left 17 dead – cartoonists, police officers, Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Instead of turning a corner, France is regressing, say my journalist colleagues, and guess what, they add, we are not Charlie.
While reporting and shooting this story since the attacks, we have come across some unbelievable scenes and heard some insane things. But the interesting thing was realising how little things changed, and how little they probably will.
Yes, more than a million hit the streets to honour the dead, and show they would defy terrorists – it was an unprecedented show of solidarity in France. Yes, French Muslims – and others around the world including Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon that some label terrorists – came out to say, “not in my name’” and show solidarity, or sympathy or anger. All of a sudden everyone became “Charlie” and “Flic” (police officers) and “Ahmed” (one of the two police officers that died) and “Juif” (Jewish).
But after, as my French colleagues noted, there were attacks on Muslims, and unlike after 9/11 or Australia’s attack, there was no escort to stores or work in the U.S., or #I’ll ride with you as there was in Australia.
Little had changed.
Yesterday Charlie Hebdo published its first edition since the attack, full of cartoons depicting terrorists, Islam and anything else they found funny, sad or inane. The cover, with the Prophet Muhammed, showed him with a tear: “All is forgiven,” read the headline.
New Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard, recalled the reaction by staff when they saw the cover. “When Luz showed us the drawing (for the front-page), we all burst into laughter and jumped in each other’s arms,” he said. “We knew we needed to figure out how to continue to laugh and making others laugh.”
Even so, they knew they would offend.
“It wasn’t the cover that the world wanted, it wasn’t the cover that the terrorists wanted, because there were no terrorists in it – there was just an old chap in tears,” Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Renald Luzier “Luz” Luzier, who drew the cover, speaking at their temporary offices.“I am sorry we drew him again, but the Muhammad we drew is, above all, just a man in tears.”
Reaction was mixed.
Some said it didn’t go far enough.
“It’s almost too kind,” said Yann Legall, 58, of Paris, told us.
Others thought it went too far.
For Mohamed Abdel Salam, 28, in Cairo, Charlie Hebdo is not drawing the prophet, “They are drawing us,” he said.
“They are drawing the stereotype of the backward Muslims today, it is their superficial look at us because for them we are the representation of the Prophet,” he said. “Politically, they want to make Muslims in Europe to be part of a bigger clash, by creating a new type of polarisation in Europe. They are simply afraid of the widespread Islamic culture.”
The fear is certainly there. Their security is stepped up.
My colleague, a photojournalist on the scene of the massacre at the Kosher supermarket, saw the dead body of the terrorist Amedy Coulibaly just lying on the ground, no cover, no one around. She shot pictures, tasteful as can be in a situation like this. When she tried to sell them to French media, they said, “we can’t – it’s too provocative.”
They still fear terrorists, after all this outward defiance.
The polarisation is there too. We covered the Monday demonstrations in Germany organised by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) movement that began in the eastern city of Dresden three months ago, and has grown and spread across Germany and to other European. The protests last Monday were larger than ever, with 25,000 coming out in Dresden and a few thousand more in other German cities. Interestingly, counter demos topped 100,000 across the country.
At the heart of this is attitudes, freedoms and fear – and unfairness.
I don’t think French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala’s comment is funny. He said on his Facebook page in response to the Unity rally in Paris that watching dignitaries arrive and hearing praise for the rally: ” I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly,” he wrote, referring to the killer of the supermarket massacre.
After he wrote it, people were quick to criticise it on his page, even his fans. It’s not amusing, and he can often be offensive to people of Jewish faith, and insensitive to others.
When did this double standard become OK?
It is either equal-opportunity insults or not. It’s equal application of the law, or it’s not. Charlie Hebdo is celebrated, Muslim comic faces prosecution.
I think the Muslim community has a point when they say there are differing standards for them.
I have seen this before: In Germany, in 2010, Thilo Sarrazin, a prominent politician and board member of the Central Bank of Germany, wrote a book: “Germany’s Doing Away With Itself.” In it, he talked about how Muslim immigrants to Germany were dumbing Germany down to the point it was threatening the country’s future.
He described them as propagating a population of “headscarf girls and vegetable sellers.” He wasn’t forced to resign his position until he spoke about how he would welcome immigration by Jewish immigrants because of their “superior genes” – you don’t talk about genetics in Germany because of its history of deadly racism, especially against people of the Jewish faith. The Jewish community leader in Germany refused to accept the backhanded compliment openly, and defended the Muslim community.
What came up then, in columns, blog posts and on social media was the fury against “political correctness” as it is perceived in the American sense. It was equated to censorship.
This is coming up now.
I keep seeing commentary in the French and German press how society shouldn’t bow to political correctness. But I think it is defined incorrectly here in Europe: It is being taken as a muzzle on public debate and on individual expression.
What is lost is the American idea of it: That in discussions of the important topics, you maintain respect for one another – and that precludes tired old stereotypical cartoons of figures held sacred by certain groups (Charlie Hebdo often drew the Prophet Mohammed with a hook nose in a menacing figure).
We should talk about the issues that matter. We should be open to speaking about why people don’t – or can’t – integrate, and how to solve issues that involve our societies, and the problems of the day.
We should talk about how extremism happens, and why, and stop blaming entire communities for the actions of a few that belong to them, and then expect them to apologize, or condemn openly or loud – as if an entire community is responsible for the actions of an individual.
Most of all, we should learn how to respect each other, carry each other and apply freedoms granted to us by law equally – not just to a select few.
Then we might actually stop the alienation, and stop the hate, and the murderous rampages that result.
* Cover image via LAURENT CIPRIANI/AP 2010
*Jabeen Bhatti has worked as a print journalist in the US and abroad for almost two decades, writing for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg and other publications. Originally from the Washington, DC area, Jabeen has lived in Poland, Denmark and South Korea, before moving to Berlin in 2003. In the US, she covered local and national news, and a variety of beats; overseas, she has covered spot news, and written news analysis and features on politics, society, arts, law and business, as well as covered energy/environment issues and intellectual property/data protection law. She has reported from Europe, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and North Africa. Jabeen holds a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She was a Fulbright scholar in 2006. She founded Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA Network) in 2008 and currently serves as its managing editor, where she works with more than 100 reporters around the globe.
You can follow Jabeen on Twitter @ARA_Network