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#JeSuisCharlie: Choosing sides?

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Zeena Starbuck asks if the #JeSuisCharlie campaign is exacerbating an already tense situation.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks there have neen numerous outcries. Some have defended what the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine stood for, the ‘idea’: freedom of speech and freedom to offend. Comedian Stephen Fry asked that everyone ‘publish a Charlie Hebdo cartoon,’ while the New Yorker pro- claimed that ‘we must all try to be Charlie.’ Some have searched for reasons for the attacks, looking for the perpetrator. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted that all Muslims should be held responsible.

However, amidst these issues lies a problematic notion that is omnipresent in coverage of terrorist attacks – we all must take a side, either with the terrorists or those who have been terrorised. While the killings were an act of extremism, attempting to polarise populations through creating fear and evoking anger, Western media coverage supports the discourse that there is an all-pervading ‘they’ who is to blame, and that if you are not publically with Charlie and the victims, then you must condone these attacks.

The general reaction tying religion to the attacks is a problematic one. While extreme anti-Islam responses such as Murdoch’s were highly criticised, they show a larger problem with how we view these attacks. News outlets like the Daily Mail standardise the representation if Islam, and thus Muslims are obliged to apoligise for the Jihadists and defend their religion. This implies that the religion as a whole must bear the brunt for the actions of a few, making Islam guilty by association.

Yet when atrocities are perpetrated by a Western individual, there is no need for anyone to defend themselves. Anders Breivik killed 77 people, citing nationalism and Islamaphobia, yet there was no outcry that Norway’s nationalist Progress Party should apologise for him or defend their beliefs. Rather, because he was from inside Western society, it was portrayed as a tragic but random incident caused by a crazed individual. So why should all Muslims have to pick a side to prove their innocence? This behavior, if anything, reinforces the idea that Islam and Western society are not compatible.

The notion of picking sides cuts plagiarism out of the picture. Social media was flooded with declarations of #jesuischarlie and #jesuisahmed, the Muslim policeman killed by the perpetrators. While these show solidarity with the victims, the language evokes a discours that we all must choose a side. Do we side with the satirists? If so, we support their work unquestionably and thus support the belittling of Islam, and everything else that they satirise. Or, do we side with the innocent Ahmed and law enforcements? If neither, we must side with the terrorists, since there are only binaries and we must belong to one or the other. By saying ‘I am,’ by supporting the notion that we have to declare our allegiance, it reinforces the idea that cartoonists differ from Muslims, religion matters, and pluralism cannot exist.
While there may be a specific agenda behind the attacks that so far is unknown, one thing is clear- extremist attacks are designed to breed extremism on all sides. Terrorist attacks divide nations: 9/11 saw the USA fly into a nationalistic frenzy, which has since become embedded in its domestic political atmosphere. Race and ethnicity have dictated how people are viewed not just by law enforcements but by the public; random checks by the TSA are not truly random, and there is around the clock coverage by Fox news reinforcing the distinction between Americans and everyone else.

Polarisation is a breeding ground for extremism. With the rising popularity of the National Front, France is incredibly susceptible to polarisation. Leader Marine Le Pen can use the attacks to fuel a nationalistic, anti-Islamic sentiment within France: a common enemy at which to direct anger and confusion. Sides will be taken, people homogenized and subsequently discriminated against. Suddenly, anti-Western sentiments will seem justified, and extremism becomes a valid option. It is a vicious cycle that is fuelled not solely by the attacks, but also by our perception of them. Our desire to blame and adhere to self-proclamations in support of one side or another, to prove our individual innocence, is the first stage in the provocation of extremism on both sides. As Aurelien Modon suggests, this is not a clash of civilisation- Christianity versus Islam, us versus them, humanity versus barbarism- but a clash of extremisms that aids the causes of both Al Qaeda and Le Pen.

Western media coverage encourages us to take sides. Social media does the same. If you are not Charlie or Ahmed, you are the terrorists. However, in reality this black and white perception is fabricated and reinforced by trendy social media activism. Sides are dangerous. They encourage the concept that the West and the rest are fundamentally different, that this act of terrorism is part of a clash of civilisations.

While we should show solidarity with the victims, it is more important that we show unity. Following the hostage situation in Sydney in December, the online trend #illridewithyou showed unity and a refusal to submit to the notion that all Muslims could potentially be extremists. It showed unity, not sides.

#JeSuis should become #NousSommes. I am not Charlie. I am not Ahmed. I am part of a strong, diverse, pluralistic ‘we’ that will not give in to polarisation and extremism.

Zeena Starbuck

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