First thing first: no one should have been murdered over those cartoons, even if those are racist, xenophobic or sexist. Nothing can justify the hideous violence we have witnessed this week.
That being said, as we are all mortified by the killing of those cartoonists, editors, police officers, and innocent bystanders, I think it is a good time to reflect upon what happened, instead of jumping on the bandwagon of whatever we think right and just, or initiating some kind of moralistic discussion that would often if not always have recourse to the language of cultural degradation.
The first thing to say, I suppose, is that I am neither Charlie nor Ahmed the dead cop.
To be sure, I enjoy satire, I laugh at overt provocations that reveal the fundamentalist’s stupidity, and I do believe that freedom of speech is not merely our right but also an important principle on the basis of which public debates are to be organized in a democratic society. Yet, for I do not have appropriate knowledge of the French tradition of satire, I do not think I am qualified to say, ‘I am Charlie.’
Even if we are to understand the viral phrase as a way to identify ourselves with those who were murdered, and by extension to identify ourselves as advocates of freedom of speech, what the hell does it mean? How can I occupy someone else’s selfhood? How can I adequately appropriate the experiences of those murdered? I cannot. While the New Yorker admonishes us, in that “we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” I cannot. Adding #JeSuisCharlie when tweeting or posting a picture of ‘I am Charlie’ on facebook is not my way of showing solidarity. For the same reason, I cannot say, ‘I am Ahmed the dead cop.’ Besides, no one has ridiculed my faith and culture, nor have I sacrificed my life in defense of someone else’ right to do so.
Many of us are certainly experiencing a form of vertigo: all that was once solid is now melting into the air – our security, social order, secularism, liberty, egalitarianism, pluralism, you name it. Suddenly we see a void in our society, and this void is much bigger than we would like to think otherwise. I hope it will not be filled with repercussion, hatred, violence, alienation, and stigmatization. But at the same time, it is impetuous decision to fill the void with ‘one-ness’ epitomized by ‘I am Charlie.’ Surely it serves an emotional end, but behind this credo of ‘I am Charlie therefore I am’ – indeed very Cartesian – is a totalizing rhetoric of negating plurality of our being: if you do not add #JeSuisCharlie, you are colluding with the murderers; if you do not show your solidarity by posting ‘I am Charlie’ photo, you are complicit. Isn’t it precisely what Charlie Hebdo purports to ridicule? Stephane Charbonnier himself once said, their cartoons, polemics, and jokes reflected all components of left wing pluralism and even abstainers.
I am neither Charlie nor Ahmed. I am writing this as nobody but one who comes from a place where pluralism and all other European liberal principles are not deeply foregrounded in the socio-cultural/-political consciousness and have not (yet) been promoted to the ranks of the absolute and irreducible, but who nevertheless have firm conviction, belief, and perhaps hope in the principles. I am writing this as to exercise my right to freedom of speech. And this is how I show my solidarity.
Then, what can I say?
For me, what happened in Paris did not immediately translate itself as an attack on the principles that partook of the nature of the sacred. Rather, it has revealed the arbitrary nature of what many of us consider fundamental in organizing our society. Skepticism is not negation. The instance in which we question what we hitherto never question constitutes a site for reflecting upon our values, beliefs, and convictions, and of course limitations thereof. The killing in Paris reveals as much about ‘our’ society as it does about ‘their’ society.
Indeed, there are so many questions to be asked.
On cartoons, polemics, and jokes: How can we expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists while showing a modicum of respect to different faiths, values, and creeds? Can we ridicule something that we consider mere ideas and opinions but that others perceive the most fundamental for their subjectivity? Where can we draw a line between provocation and insult? What is the role if anything of satire (think Voltaire, the god of satire for godless Frenchmen, and his slanders of “medieval,” “barbaric” and weak minority. Think Kierkegaad and his fantasy that claims superiority over the weak and that loathes the inferior)?
On freedom: Can we grant the media a special role as the primary bearer not only of freedom of press but also of freedom of speech? How can we negotiate secularism with freedom of religious expression? Is freedom of speech not only universal but also all-inclusive? Wait, is it really universal to begin with? Is it really an attack on freedom of speech? Isn’t it rendered so problematic to make freedom of speech an European value (although it is European in its origin), for the attack will be translated, on the basis of this claim, into a binary oppositionality between European value versus Islamist retrogression? And ‘I am Charlie’ certainly feeds into this ‘part of us’ or ‘part of them’ logic, doesn’t it?
And, on political faultline: Given the increasing resentment of cultural/religious minorities in Europe, and increasing popularity of political parties such as National Front and UKIP, and of anti-migration protest in Germany, does the current political climate in Europe prove that Samuel Huntington is right? Or, as Amartya Sen argues, is diversity “a feature of most cultures in the world [and] Western civilization is no exception”? Is the violence a consequence not of the clash of civilization but of as Edward Said puts it “the clash of ignorance”? How can we address the heterogeneous nature of human beings without falling into the pitfall of dichotomized logic of us and them, same and difference, inside and outside?
I do not yet have a specific answer to each of these questions. But I would like to emphasize, critical reflection is what is required to cultivate our imagination of the different; to defamiliarize the axioms that are in fact a projection of our desires for and investment in the structures and dynamics that govern our society; to reveal the culturally and historically specific condition of what we consider as the absolute, the irreducible, and the sacred; and ultimately, to think about possible political solutions.