As the world continues to debate freedom of expression in the wake of the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week, Swedish sociologist Jan Oberg explains why he feels Swedes - and others - are not Charlie.
Published: 13 January 2015 11:22 CET
Stockholm's Je suis Charlie rally on Sunday. Photo: TT
1. What was this an attack on?
Was it an attack on freedom of speech as such, on democracy, even on the whole Western culture and lifestyle? Or was it, more limited, a revenge directed at one weekly magazine for what some perceive as blasphemy?
2. Is freedom of expression practised or curtailed for various reasons?
How real is that freedom in the West? Just a couple of days before the Paris massacre PEN in the U.S. published a report – Global Chilling – finding that about 75 percent of writers report that they are influenced by the NSA listening in and therefore abstain from taking up certain subjects or perspectives. Self-censorship, in other words. Finally, most of the political leaders marching in Paris on Sunday January 11th have clamped down on media, such as Turkey and Egypt.
I must admit that I have experienced limitations in the practise of that freedom in my work with western media and it is decades ago I draw the conclusion that things like political correctness, ownership, commercial/market considerations and journalists’ need for good relations with power – e.g. to obtain interviews – play a role.
I’ve been on the ground in conflict zones and returning home to see reports so biased they tell very little of what I’ve seen myself. And we’ve recently seen lots of cases from the U.S. academic world where there’s been a clampdown on certain views, pulications, courses and professors – not the least in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Or, you look at the proportions between government funds available for peace research and military research in virtually every Western society; free research is a vital element in the self-understanding of the West. But how much of do we have?
3. Freedom doesn’t mean duty
Is freedom of expression really 100 perecent the right path, irrespective of how much the practise of that freedom is hurtful, offending, humiliating or discriminatory against other peoples, religions and cultures? Even if you can express your opinions freely, it is not always what you should do. I can still abstain from making a remark about somebody’s religious or political beliefs because I see no point in offending that person in regard to something he or she holds dear. But, sure, I have the right to do so.
Using a right to the maximum isn’t necessarily the wisest or most mature thing to do. I draw the distinction between issues that touch personal identity – e.g. religion, nationality, gender – and other issues. It is neither fun nor wise to produce satire based on what people are. One must indeed ask in the chilling times we live: What happened to words such as solidarity, respect, empathy and to the values of common humanity? There can be no rights without duties as Mohandas K. Gandhi briliantly expressed it.
4. Are anti-Semitic cartoons OK now?
Why is it so important to some media people and Je Suis Charlie people to accept or practise disdain, blaspheme, ridicule or depict (even naked) Muhammad when we know that that is offending at least quite a few of the 1600 million Muslims around the world. What constructive purpose does it serve? Really, why is that OK when anything similar against Jews would immediately be categorized as anti-Semitism and found appalling by the same people – not the least advocates of the free press.
One, after the Muhammad caricatures, shouldn’t we have learnt something – in Denmark in particular where all main dailies except Jyllands-Posten chose to publish drawings from Charlie Hebdo the day after to manifest their expression of freedom.
Two, the West – spearheaded by NATO countries – has been in violent conflict in a series of Muslim countries – on their territory, not the other way around – of many years years. Much can be seen as rooted in about 100 years of colonialism, interventionism, chopping up empires – think Sykes-Picot, Balfour – and the Western press has just said less about the death of more than 2000 Palestinians than about 17 killed in Paris.
Jan Oberg says he his not Charlie. Photo: Private
5. What is satire?
It is to skewer, to ridicule anything and everyone- even on their identity? To depict naked somebody who is acred to others? Good political satire kicks upward, at powers that be, not downward on minorities of vulnerable people. It may surely provoke and challenge but it definitely is not provocation for the sake of provocation. I happen to think that much of what I have seen now of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical drawings are coarse, rarely funny and more focused on Islam than on other religions.
6. What purpose does the broad interpretation serve?
The interpretation that this was a strike against freedom of opinion as such and on the Western world – compelling “us” to stand up together in self-defence – is unfounded, chosen for convenience and bordering on the bizarre. The attack took place at a particular address at a particular journal and that sends a message. It was not directed at a major media, at a parliamentary building symbolising democracy or a democratic governments, let alone for instance a politician. A small French satirical magazine also can’t symbolise the European Union or Europe as a whole.
Rather, this “broad” interpretation – that has hardly been challenged – is a chosen, convenient interpretation not unlike that immediately invented after September 11th. That was an attack on the US, the physical structures of the empire’s economic, political and military centres. The advantage of using a “total” or broad interpretation is, of course, that it helps us all gang up against the enemy now our whole system is, allegedly, being attacked. We are now all potential victims, the threat is huge; we’re innocent and we did not deserve this. We must fight back.
Making the threat much larger than there was/is any empirical evidence of also serves to legitimize an out-of-proportion response; in the 9/11 case it was to involve everybody in an ill-conceived terror-promoting “war on terror” – the miserable consequences of which we are seeing now 13 years after: One failed war after the other and more terrorism than ever.
7. The West is in denial: Denmark as an example
Danish Television chose – at this occasion but not other conflicts and wars – to arrange a one-hour party leader debate on January 8th. From the left to the right two things were agreed on: such a horrific act committed by madmen is not caused by anything we have ever done and there is no reason to even analyse or speculate on why it took place because – if we do so, there is a risk that an explanation will begin to look like a defence of the terror act and the terrorists. We do not want to understand them, they are madmen!
Now human beings have motives and needs. By saying that they are irrelevant in this case, these party leaders deny the perpetrators a part of their humanity. Secondly, they evidently – but unwisely – propagate the view that you can combat or solve a problem without being the slightest interested in that problem’s causes. Third, they thereby conveniently avoid asking questions such as: Have Danish and other Western policies vis-a-vis the Muslim world been wrong in hindsight in even a tiny way? Has the ‘war on terror’ been a failure to some degree? No, the bottom line and standard answer was and remains: We are not party to this conflict. We have done nothing wrong. Don’t ever say that this is a reaction to anything we in the West did, it was an action directed at us innocents and on our fundamental democratic values.
Well, a couple of the Danish party leaders stated, when pressed a little, that of course one could say that this whole drama went back to the wars of religions several hundred years ago and then added that the new thing in this was that the battle was now taking place on European soil. It seemingly didn’t occur to anyone in this debate that people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya or Syria could say that the old thing was is that it always took place on their territories!
Whether there is something particularly Danish in this interpretation can be discussed. Denmark has been at war in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and was willing to bomb Syria and is now bombing IS in Iraq. It was host to the publication of the Muhamad caricatures and then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (later S-G of NATO) refused to speak with ambassadors from Muslim countries and also to respond to a letter from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which count 1,6 billion Muslims in 56 countries. In addition, Denmark spearheaded a xenophobic trend in the 1980s through the Progress Party and, from 1995, the Danish People’s Party.
Furthermore, the Danish Social Democratic party has long ago dropped earlier program elements such as international solidarity, a strong UN, disarmament, anti-nuclearism etc. and continues Fogh Rasmussen’s policy of allying as closely as possible with the United States/NATO in all matters.
In addition, the traditional left-wing parties have long ago dropped anti-militarism and jumped on the de facto brutalising idea of humanitarian intervention. Thus, the decision in the Folketing – the Danish Parliament – to participate in the war on Libya was supported by all parties and no single MP breaking the party discipline either.
Perhaps it is quite understandable if Danish party leaders agree that causes and history are fundamentally irrelevant and insist with one voice from right to left that their policies are unrelated to anything that happens which involved Muslims, their countries and culture.
Denmark's Prime Minister (centre). Photo: TT
8. Psychological violence may be underestimated
Let’s look at the whole affair from the point of view of violence/non-violence. We are used to perceive violence as physical diected at individuals or groups. However, violence can also be embedded in drawings, texts and then falls under the category of psychological – or gender, cultural, identity – violence. The problem here is that since psychological and the other categories of violence are much more difficult to make visual on a TV screen or in a video, this type and its effects on the receiver tend to be underestimated.
9. The media are blowing this up because it is about their colleagues
The media world has not exactly given the death of first 12 and then 5 more people too little attention. The very same days large terror actions happened in both Yeman and Pakistan but received little attention even though killing and wounding many more. The interpretation could easily be that some lives, some victims of terrorism, are more worthy than others of attention. The fact that the killed persons were Europeans and most of them belonged to the media profession are likely to explain why this horrific deed got so much more attention than the more horrific consequences of, say, drones, sanctions, Israel’s mass killing of innocent Palestinians or 6 million dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Regrettably, quite a few media in the Western world turned tabloid in those days or began to resemble publications of a journalist professional association. Editors forgot about their duty to strive for multi-perspective, as-objective-as-possible, critical coverage and good journalism. It isn’t compatible with such standards to just publish “Je Suis Charlie Today” on the entire front page.
Protestors in Paris on Sunday. Photo: TT
10. The Western world’s comparative disadvantage
It goes without saying that the West, like other cultures, have a right to state and defend its culture. Its comparative disadvantage, however, is that it has done so for centuries around the world and particularly since 1945 to such a degree that its values are perceived as authoritarian, arrogantly insensitive to local cultures, exploitative and bullying.
The West itself would not accept another culture practising such dominance with reference to “our values are universal”. One culture among many cultures cannot – with bible and sword in hand – expect to be accepted as better or universal by all others and even less use it technological and violence superiority to impose those values. It should expect – sooner or later – to be opposed, challenged and even fought against.
Perhaps we are living in the era of the boomerangs? Perhaps things have gone sto smoothly for so long that we in the West lost humility and got carried away with hubris – not the least in our triumphalist interpretation of the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact?
And is the denial of any co-responsibility for the conflicts throughout the Middle East and the terrorism on “our” parts of the world a clue to a civilisatinal anxiety – that the U.S. and Western leadership is gradually getting weaker and others will take over and show humanity that there are other ways of doing it in the next phase of humanity’s history?
11. We need a new type of response – a balance between security measures and reconciliation dialogue
You may not agree with some – or any – of the above. But at the end of the day there is only one way ahead: We have to invest in and create spaces for much more inter-cultural education, mutual understanding, perhaps even a truth and reconciliation process between Europe/the West and the Arab/Muslim world, the Middle East in particular.
We need fierce and open debates, yes, but no provocations – psychological or otherwise. We need self-critical analyses on all sides and much much less war, interventionism and other types of violence. We also need a West that is willing to listen and learn and not just teach and master. And we need that for our own sake.
Not a matter of guilt – it’s a matter of recognising history and shaping a new policy. I’m aware that some may interpret my views as apportioning guilt – something like “oh we ourselves just got what we deserved in this Paris attack”. That simply is not so.
A few desperate, extremist people with Kalashnikovs can not be interpreted as speaking on behalf of culture, religion or 1.6 billion people, 99.9 percent of whom cannot be called extremists or fundamentalists. But there are individuals who feel humiliated historically and whose situation at the bottom of society adds to their anger, rootlessnes and normlessness – to their violent impulses.
The important thing now is that this horrific act in all it cruelty and sorrow should be seen as a welcome opportunity for us all to re-think today and tomorrow what we thought was so simple and evident yesterday.
It simply must not lead to more hatred, confrontation, denial and more wars, neither big nor small.It must not lead to more curtailing of democracy and more surveillance of everything and everybody.
The only way we can achieve such a constructive dialogue within ourselves and with the others is by being open to look at the West’s long-term and contemporary history in the Middle East. NATO countries are at war or in deep conflict with all and everything, except perhaps a few such as Israel, Saudi-Arabia and Bahrein.
And neither the US, NATO nor the European Union has a single sensible, overarching idea of where we want to be in that region in, say, 2020 or 2025. No idea. The agenda at the moment is – “we kill people who kill people because it is wrong to kill people” and thus we bomb IS, fight terrorist groups we have nurtured to quite an extent ourselves and move from one crisis (mis)management to the next. And leave ravaged countries behind such as Iraq and Libya.
If the West shall have any leadership in the future world, it will have to pass the exam called the Middle East and do so in the light of the last good 100 years of our colonial paradigm and “Orientalism”. Even if you think everything the U.K., France, Italy and the U.S. did has been right be sure of one thing: It no longer works and will not in the future.
So: No to Islamophobia and discrimination! No to Muslim terrorism and Europhobia. Yes to future countries and regions with mixed cultures, empathy and respect and a recognition through education and dialogue that we will all be enriched by celebrating diversity instead of nationalism and other parochial isms.
And what if the others won’t go down that road?
Take the first courageous step and show you are not weak. Stop doing what creates hateful, traumatised and very angry people – recognise that a-symmetric colonial-style wars do just that. Don’t mirror their fears! Don’t use them as an excuse because then you submit to their game. Start your own more constructive game and you’ll be applauded and get followers.
And so: No I am not Charlie. I cannot be. Instead I believe that at the end of the day we are all human beings.
Jan Oberg, PhD is based in Lund, Sweden and is Director of TFF which provides research and public education "related to the basic UN Charter norm that 'peace shall be established by peaceful means'."
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