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Are We All Charlie Hebdo Now?

The brutal attack on the Charles Hebdo office by gunmen belonging to either Al Qaeda or IS and the killing of 12 people there including some of the leading cartoonists in France, is without doubt a heinous act that need to be unequivocally condemned. It also raises a number of troubling questions. Does “I am Charlie” sentiments that have swept various parts of the world mean a solidarity with Hedbo”? Or is it also an endorsement of their cartoons? What is freedom of speech and does it include the right to insult other peoples' deeply held beliefs? What is the relationship between Islam and terrorism? What has been France's role in encouraging Islamic terrorism, from Libya to Syria? Are the western powers not deeply complicit, along with their allies in West Asia – Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Monarchies, Turkey, and not the least, Israel – in the rise of sectarian Islamic forces, be it Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (Syria) ISIS, and what is now known as the Islamic State (IS) or the Islamic Caliphate? Have they not armed and funded these forces for the last seven decades?

The troubling part of the freedom speech argument is that all those who rejected the attack on Hebdo are also supposed to become Hebdo themselves: “I am Charlie”. Protecting the right of free speech is now to be transformed into also endorsing the content of this speech. This is deeply problematic as much of the output of Hebdo was an attack on Islam. True, Hebdo did attack other religions and religious figures. They have also rejected the support they have received from regressive quarters. But it is difficult to distinguish a lot of their cartoons from the common garden variety of Islamophobia that now grips the west.

Hebdo picked on the easy target of Islam and Mohammad. On attacks on Jewish figures, there was a great deal of self-censorship, a part of the unspoken compact of a section of progressives with Israel: Progressive Except on Israel (PEI). Hebdo sacked one of their cartoonists for being “anti-semitic” for which they were penalised by the courts. It is this double standard on what constitutes free speech in the west that Latuff, one of the most brilliant cartoonists today, and Glen Greenwald talk about.

In various countries, there is no right to absolute free speech. The right to free speech comes up against the prohibition of hate speech, accepted in large parts of the world including France. Where does one draw the line? When does satire cross the line into hate speech? Why is it so easy in the west to identify the same when it comes to anti-semitism but so difficult when it comes to Islam?

Even in the US, where supposedly free speech is protected under the First Amendment, there are laws connected to the “war on terror” that are routinely used against various groups and individuals. Hezbollah has been designated as a terrorist organisations under such laws. People have been jailed for circulating Hezbollah material or providing a feed including Al Manar, the Hezbollah's TV channel.

Seeing the attack on Hebdo as one of only attack on freedom of speech is seeing the world through a singularly myopic lens. It neglects to even register that the attackers were second generation French Muslims of Algerian origin, who live in ghettoes and are largely marginalised. The intelligence and security agencies in France were fully aware of their involvement in Jihadi politics. Much in the same way that the Tsaranev brothers were allowed to be the tools of the US secret (or not so secret) policies in the Caucasus against Russia, the French foreign policy looked upon these elements as allies against the larger “war” against Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. This has been a national policy in France. If Sarkozy waged his war against Gaddafi and Libya in alliance with various “Islamic” groups, Hollande was all set to bomb Bashir al Assad on behalf of similar groups, based on the highly dubious claims of a sarin attack by Assad's troops.

Manishankar Aiyar, the Congress leader, has termed the Hebdo attack as a blow-back of the west's war on terror: Aiyar's position is that if the west invades and bombs Islamic nations, there will be consequences, a kind of simple action reaction theory. What Aiyar misses that it is not the west's war on terror that is the cause of such attacks but on the contrary, its unholy alliance with a particular kind of Islam.

The alliance of the west with sectarian Islamic groups is not just the more recent one of supporting (or creating) Al Qaeda and various Talibani forces against the Soviet backed Tarakki and later Barbak Kamal governments in Afghanistan, but an older one of allying with Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia (and other monarchies) against Nasser in Egypt and Hafez al Assad in Syria. This alliance was and is against progressive forces and nationalist forces in the battle over natural resources in the region, particularly oil. The Afghan war was a continuation of the same policies. Even after 9-11 and the attack on the twin towers, the half open, half tacit alliance with this kind of sectarian Islam has continued from Caucasus, Syria to Libya. These are the groups that NATO supported in its open war against Gaddafi and its covert war against the Syrian government.

What is this variety of Islam that the west is in alliance with? This is what is called Takfiri Islam or Wahabi Islam that is practiced by the Saudi Arabian monarchy and its various Gulf monarchial allies. IS is just another variant of this toxic version of sectarian Islam. It is a particularly brutal and medieval form of Islam, allowing no rights to women, and holding a particularly distorted view of Islamic or Sharia laws. It regards all others, including Shias, as heretics that need to be “purged” from Islam. Hassan Nasarullah, the leader of Hezbollah has declared that Takfiri Islam has damaged Islam much more than any set of cartoonists.

While the west today talks about the regressive nature of this variety of Islam, it has no compunction of certifying Saudi Arabia, whose state policy is propagating this Wahabi version of Islam as moderate. Nor continuing to arm and fund such forces even today in Syria. Destruction of Gaddafi's regime has destroyed the Libyan state, letting loose forces of destruction in North Africa far beyond Libya.

The problem is not just what happens at home. The extremely stupid set of policies that the west has followed in West Asia is de-stabilising an arc that covers North Africa, West Asia, South Asia and also large parts of South East Asia. It encompasses the most oil and gas rich regions of the world, and about 2 billion people. For an attack on twin trade towers and a Hebdo, numerous battles and massacres are taking place in these regions. At almost the same time that the Hebdo attack took place, there was a massacre in Nigeria conducted by the Boko Haram, where up to 2,000 were probably killed and 20,000 displaced. A few days before Hebdo, we had the Peshawar massacre. The world had little patience with these stories. At least not for long. Obviously, in the calculus of death, third world dead do not count or count for much less. That is why Hebdo trumps the children in Peshawar.

The existential question that the west needs to be face is can it fight “terrorism” and “extremist” Islam at home and ally with it outside? Globalisation today means that the two fights cannot be separated by a firewall; if you feed the fire in Syria by encouraging Jihadi militants in France to go and fight there, it is inevitable that it will come back to singe you at home. This is the same lesson that Pakistan is learning in its fight against Taliban. There is no good Taliban and bad Taliban; they are two sides of the same coin. And it does not help freedom, when then murders of children of Gaza and the prison guards of West Bank, march for freedom of speech in Paris.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick





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