Tonight Charlie Hebdo bleeds: are we paying attention yet?

Violence is endemic to humankind. There is no group of people or period of history that has been spared at least some level of violence.

When you are at the business end of gun, you probably do not really care what the motive is. But the rest of us should. The staff of Charlie Hebdo were targeted because they spoke their mind. The fact that 10 of them lie dead tonight is an attack on us all.

There is a qualitative difference between violence inflicted from personal torment versus violence inflicted with public intent and political purpose – i.e., terrorism. (Violence experienced in war is just as or more horrific – it’s just too vast a category to discuss here.)

The debate over what, exactly, defines terrorism has kept academics busy for quite some time. It has been muddled by bad faith arguments equating state violence inflicted through warfare and non-state violence inflicted through terrorist tactics. Again, from the victims’ perspective, the debate is moot. But from an intellectual and even moral perspective, it’s not.

As I’ve said before, the Western democratic state is a care-taker state. But more importantly, it does not demand ideological or religious fealty in return for its services. We are free to think as we please.

Whatever its crimes, from unfair economic policies to racial or religious electoral gerrymandering to heavy-handed or even brutal foreign policy, it is still the most progressive and beneficial system of human organisation in history. I write this both as an observer of history and politics, but perhaps more as a female with an (almost) total right to self-determination and autonomy unseen throughout history and still heretical in many parts of the world.

Non-state actors who organise violence against the democratic state claim legitimacy via their superior moral or ideological stature, or by pointing to injustice or oppression, using these arguments to challenge the state’s long-held monopoly of violence.

While the narratives they craft may be appealing to those both inside and outside their immediate sphere of influence, the movements are – across the board – inherently anti-democratic and leave those who live under their rule with no safe avenue for dissent.

All political systems are imperfect, but given this, we must all ask ourselves one question. To whom will we give the benefit of the doubt: state actors or non-state actors? By adopting a strategy of terrorism, a movement automatically assumes the role of judge, jury and executioner, against its enemies and against its supporters. This is wrong, no matter how appealing the underlying ideology or how understandable the underlying grievance.

We have completely overlooked this fact under the sway of traditional left-wing thought. Terrorism, especially today’s Islamist terrorism, is the only place where it remains acceptable to blame the victim.

Take for example, a previous terrorist attack in France, in 2012 in Toulouse, where a young criminal turned Islamist radical went on a killing spree that included three small Jewish children at the gates of their school.

In writing about Mohammed Merah, the gunman who grabbed a little girl by the hair and put a bullet into her head at point blank range, one scholar used words like “soft-hearted” and “at a loose end.”

Politics and religion, much less anti-Semitism, were certainly not to blame. Instead Merah “was himself a victim of a social order that had already doomed him” to being “the definitive other.” France itself was to blame.

The uncomfortable truth is that while our humanities-educated, fair-trade purchasing media elites have been busy scrutinising the unpleasant mechanics of how states attempt to squash the threat of terrorism, Islamist radicals of various affiliations have been loudly and with utmost sincerity proclaiming their intention to slaughter as many people as they see fit. And they carry out that threat across multiple continents, every day.

Those same elites who vigilantly look for examples of Islamophobia after every Islamist inspired act of violence, who praise US military leakers as battlefield heroes, and who loudly and self-righteously castigate all those who fail to show total loyalty to their politically correct principles, have wilfully been ignoring the vicious totalitarian rhetoric of Islamists since Ayman al Zawahiri released al Qaeda’s dismal but oft-quoted DIY propaganda manual Knights Under the Prophets Banner.

“Tracking down the Americans and the Jews is not impossible…Killing them with a single bullet, a stab…or hitting them with an iron rod is not impossible…With the available means, small groups could prove to be a frightening horror for the Americans and the Jews.”

Radical Islam enjoys an ideological cohesion that is by no means complete. But those of us who believe in core Western values — with the powerful exception of the Charlie Hebdo staff — have lost the courage of our convictions.

The Islamist message is simple and resonates powerfully across a wide spectrum of people, including many people born and raised in secular, Western societies. And despite media hand-wringing after every terrorist event in the West, it is the populations Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria who have suffered the most from this ideology.

We haven’t been listening to their cries. We have been cowed by accusations of ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and imperialism.

Western democracy, for all its flaws, still holds at its core liberties that I, as a woman, a secularist and an egalitarian, am acutely grateful for. It’s time for us to coalesce behind the message that attacks on religious, intellectual and personal freedoms will not be tolerated.


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