Cartoons were nothing compared to Abu Ghraib

We need a far deeper and broader conversation about violence if we’re to avoid continually repeating these tragedies, writes Tony Karon

Protesters in Marseille hold a sign reading "Terrorists won't win". Photo: Anne-Christine Pouioulat / AFP
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I am not Charlie Hebdo, even though I defend the right of all people to freely express ideas that I detest. And I abhor violence against civilians. The murder of staff at a satirical magazine and at a kosher supermarket in Paris were unforgivable acts of terror. Despite all of that, I am not Charlie Hebdo.

The obligation to condemn the vicious attacks on a magazine that was often given over to puerile mocking of the faith and culture of so many people does not extend to taking ownership of that magazine’s project. And the “I am Charlie” hashtag, #je­suischarlie, does not exactly encourage the more nuanced conversation that last week’s events in Paris deserve.

Some tried to do that in social media exchanges. “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop,” tweeted the Belgium-based commentator Dyab Abou Jahjah. “Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”

In a scathing and thoughtful cartoon-critique, the celebrated cartoonist Joe Sacco wrote that it was permissible to tweak “the noses of Muslims”and other groups but “it has always struck me as a particularly vapid way of using the pen”.

He urged readers to “try and think about the way the world is the way it is”. Over an image of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Sacco continued, “and what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image”. Failure to accept the challenge of dealing with complexity, he warned, would simply lead to more violence.

The backgrounds of the men involved in the Paris attacks suggest that it was far more than offence at cartoons that spurred them to violence. Cherif Kouachi was arrested almost a decade ago on his way to join the insurgency against the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was convicted of being part of a group sending fighters to join Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda chapter in Iraq, and later served 18 months in a French prison. He had told the court that he was driven by his outrage at the events in Iraq and cited photographs published in 2004 of Muslims being humiliated.

While in prison, he was mentored by Djamel Beghal, an Algerian Al Qaeda associate, and he became associated with Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the kosher supermarket and said that he supported ISIL in Syria. Cherif’s older brother, Said, is believed to have been trained by Al Qaeda in Yemen in 2011.

So, these men were radicalised while western powers were locked into massive military conflicts in Muslim countries following the attacks of September 11, 2001. But far from the progress the authors of those wars had promised, they fuelled a backlash that has swelled extremist ranks by tens or hundreds of thousands – all angry young men seeking to avenge what they deem to be an attack on their faith and culture.

For hardened Al Qaeda militants, Charlie Hebdo presented an opportunity to burnish their appeal to potential recruits and supporters. By presenting themselves as avengers of insults by cartoon, they believed they could “prove” western malfeasance towards Islam.

University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has said that acts of violent provocation have served to polarise societies and spur hostility towards Muslims, which in turn further radicalises the people that the extremists would like to recruit. The real political impact of a terror attack, Mr Cole warned, should be measured by the response it provokes. Trying to divide the Muslims from the rest of France is precisely what the perpetrators of last week’s horrors wanted.

There were other, diverse responses, not least George Packer’s piece in The New Yorker. The Paris attacks, he wrote, were “the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades”. He added that everything from Iran’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie to the rise of Boko Haram and the Pakistan Taliban were part of a sinister ideology that is seeking power through violence.

He wrote that because this ideology is the product of a major world religion, “a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam”. But he provides a quick answer: “Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique.”

It takes an epic degree of chutzpah to call out others for pursuing their goals through violence as if they don’t notice your own established willingness to do the same. Packer was among the “liberal hawks” who backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, rationalising a war that ultimately left many thousands of Iraqis dead as an exercise in liberation, democracy and progress. The wars that secular western democracies have waged in the Muslim world may reflect their own ideology of progress through violence, but the effect of that violence is simply not up for discussion. It should be. Cherif Kouachi committed horrible crimes in Paris last week at the end of a 10-year journey that began with a radical preacher promoting violence as “jihad” in Iraq and making his case by showing the young man pictures of detainee abuse in Iraq.

No, that doesn’t mean the US invasion of Iraq is to blame for last week’s atrocities in Paris. But it does remind us, as Joe Sacco says, that we need a far deeper and broader conversation about violence if we’re to avoid continually repeating these tragedies.

Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York