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The Meaning of Charlie Hebdo…for Islam and the West

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The power of the web has been demonstrated very powerfully the last 5 days in just how many cogent positions have been staked out so rapidly re the Charlie Hebdo murders. It also says something about how powerfully the shootings in Paris have touched so many Westerners emotionally to galvanise such strong responses.

That in itself, though, is part of a disturbing narrative that feeds into the terrorists’ hate-fuelled ideology. Just 17 people are massacred in Paris and the Western media – formal and social – goes into meltdown. In comparison the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights documentation of over 76,000 deaths in 2014 in the Syrian conflict – the vast majority innocent civilians – warranted around one smallish article per newspaper – eg: The Guardian’s 28 lines – or one short item per news broadcast. The subtext of this comparison is that French lives are worth an awful lot more than Syrian lives – and this comparison is then easily meta-stated into the Western media being racist, anti-Arab, anti-Islamic, etc, etc. It’s one more piece of evidence to support such frames of reference from a line of evidence that notably includes the Americans counting Western lives lost in Iraq 2003-2011 but not Iraqi. According to a recent estimate, 100 times more Iraqis (some 450,000) died than Americans (over 4,000) (Juan Cole, 2013).

Johan Galtung & Marie Holmboe Ruge (1970) identified cultural proximity as a key ‘news value’ in the way editors tend to select (construct) what is portrayed as ‘the news’. Stories about people who speak the same language, look the same and have similar values and norms as the audience receive more coverage than those which do not. Events happening in cultures very different to the domestic one tend not to be seen as being inherently meaningful to domestic audiences. This reflects the so-called ‘McLurg’s Law’, named after a legendary British news editor who reputedly claimed that one dead Briton is worth 5 dead Frenchmen, 20 dead Egyptians, 500 dead Indians and 1000 dead Chinese (Stephen Moore, Steve Chapman & Dave Aiken, 2009).

Blogger Bianca Britton (2013) recounts a conversation with a couple of Americans that gets to the heart of this narrative: “I then proceeded to ask why they thought this American event [the Boston Marathon bombing] dominated the news substantially and why the events in the Middle East and Africa hardly even got a mention. And in that moment, without a second in delay, one of them responded: ‘It’s because they’re not as important.’”

Othering, Multiculturalism and Meta-National Boundaries
This discrimination is patently othering, as defined by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1985) – ie: the building up of one identity through distancing it from another. It leads to the in-group/out-group effect described so well in Social Identity Theory by Henri Tajfel & John Turner (1979). As part of the process of social identification, the members of the in-group immerse themselves in their group’s values and norms whilst taking in the very worst stereotypes of the ‘others’ and objectifying them as the out-group.

This process is driven by the PURPLE vMEME in its search for security-in-belonging. As part of belonging, you need to know who you do belong to and who you don’t belong to – those who are not-of-our-tribe. The more obvious markers of difference include colour of skin, accent in speech, traditions of dress and religious obeisance. The more different those who are not-of-our-tribe are, the more adaptive it is to fear them, according to Evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson (1975). PURPLE makes othering a natural process to create distance. See Is Racism Natural…?

All it needs then is for some RED-driven self-aggrandiser – whether a media tycoon wanting to sell more newspapers or an imam wanting to increase his followers – to exploit PURPLE’s distrust and fear of the ‘others’ and social comparison can be created in which one group attempts to demonstrate its superiority over the other(s) by whatever means, including smart bombs dropped from 15,000 feet and audacious attacks on ‘sinners’ in the middle of a modern city.

So, for all the GREEN platitudes in the West about everyone being of equal worth, whatever their race, colour or creed, there is in fact a quite nasty sub-tone of PURPLE-born discrimination – racism, even! – which underpins the way white, middle-class, male-dominated, Christian-heritage Western society treats ‘others’ – whether at home or abroad.

In their reflections on how and why Charlie Hebdo happened, arguments put forward by the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen (as reported respectively by The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt & Rowena Mason and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Angeline Benoit, Sandrine Rastello & Caroline Alexander) about GREEN’s multiculturalism having been the wrong path to take in Western Europe are clearly a little disingenuous. Yes, multiculturalism hasn’t worked – see David Cameron’s right about Multiculturalism BUT… – in that its message ended up becoming, in the words of then-Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Lord Jonathan Sacks: “There is no need to integrate.” However, there is clear evidence that not all ethnic groups and religions have been treated equally or fairly under the banner of multiculturalism. So the failure of multiculturalism is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon which a quick shot of French or British ‘national values’ in a school’s low-priority Religious Education or Social Education class is not going to fix any time soon.

Attempts to integrate Muslims into Western secular cultures are complicated by the issue of ‘brotherhood’. As with most religions, the believers comprise a brotherhood (Surat al-Hujurat 10). This brotherhood crosses national boundaries and so the believer has to look 2 ways: the country of which they are a citizen and their brotherhood which straddles multiple boundaries across several continents. On top of these religious obligations, there are pressures from the cultural heritages immigrant groups bring with them – eg: gender roles, modes of dress – and the discriminatory behaviours of the majority indigenous group(s) which impact on attitudes and behaviours.

Where the state is perceived to act against the interest of the brotherhood – as the British and Americans were widely perceived to be doing against Muslims in Iraq – then the believer is conflicted. It is relatively easy for a radical imam to resolve the believer’s cognitive dissonance by caricaturing the British and the Americans as ‘evil’ and portraying fighting against them as jihad.

Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck (2002c) recognises that the West must reach out to the “millions of people who are trapped in abject poverty” in the Middle East. He writes: “We should consider sending in food and medical supplies into many of the deprived areas instead of first launching cruise missiles.”

It’s long been acknowledged that one of the reasons for the success of fundamentalist organisations like the Islamic Brotherhood in recruiting new members has been their charitable work amongst the rural poor – charity (zakat) being one of the 5 Pillars of Islam. Effectively Beck is advocating beating the fundamentalists at their own game. Since, through the internet, young Muslim men in Cardiff and Lyons are well aware of the suffering amongst the rural poor in Egypt and Pakistan, Western agencies proving themselves better at alleviating that poverty than the fundamentalists will help undermine some of the messages put out by the extremists.

If the West really wants to avoid the kind of ‘Clash of Civilisations’ scenario Samuel Huntington (1993, 1996) sees as an inevitability, it must become genuinely more even-handed in the way it deals with different ethnic and religious groups both at home and abroad. That does not mean all societies throughout the world are treated as equally capable – as GREEN thinking would have it. Rather, it means they are treated as having equal worth and equal value -a dead Syrian is as valuable as a dead Briton -but each society’s capability (as assessed using the lower quadrants of 4Q/8L) and the expectations of it need to be treated in accordance with the principles of Stratified Democracy.

Western countries also have to recognise that they cannot approach the phenomenon of Islam individually. Islam is a meta-national phenomenon…so it requires meta-national policies. The same with any world-wide religion advocating brotherhood which is going through an expansionist/evangelical phase.

GREEN’s freedom of speech fallacy
The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, along with several other Islamist terrorist incidents in the West over the past decade, have been presented as attacks on free speech. Thus, we have had the astounding rise of the #JeSuisCharlie marches, vigils and protests, with the cartoonist’s pencil as symbol of the West’s cherished value of freedom of speech.

#JeSuisCharlie Copyright © 2015 Jean Jullien

#JeSuisCharlie Copyright © 2015 Jean Jullien

The No freedom without freedom of speech meme these protests represent is portrayed as being an absolute – “an inalienable right”, as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) of the French Revolution puts it.

In fact, what you can and can’t say or write/publish varies from society to society and culture to culture and what you can say or write/publish can vary within each context over time. Eg: back in the 1960s in the UK, white people could call black people ‘niggers’; now they can’t. It’s against the law to say or write/publish anything that will incite racial and/or religious hatred. Back in the 1970s the Paedophile Information Exchange campaigned openly and explicitly for abolition of the age of consent so that adults could have sex with children – and received mainstream news media coverage. Today, not only would that be illegal, but totally unacceptable to the vast majority of people in the UK.

What was allowed as freedom of speech in revolutionary France 226 years ago will only partly match what is allowed as freedom of speech in Britain today.

Thus we have established that, while the concept of freedom of speech is a universal principle – and is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – what actually is allowed to be said and/or written/published varies over society/culture and time.

From this point, we can look at the forces which drive what is and isn’t acceptable within the concept of freedom of speech.

The GREEN vMEME assumes that any form of expression which liberates or ennobles the ‘human spirit’ is OK – except where it demeans or disadvantages a group of people. Thus, for example, ‘nigger’ is widely perceived as demeaning to black people and its use is outlawed both formally and informally in most Western societies.

Charlie Hebdo would most likely have been subject to both legal action and protests outside its offices if it had published an issue about niggers and making fun of angst over the slavery roots of the ‘nigger’ concept.

So how is it unacceptable to make fun of niggers but OK to lampoon the major figure in one of the world’s biggest religions?

The answer may lie in the scientific/logical rational thought of BLUE/ORANGE and ORANGE thinking among the Western intelligentsia which preceded the advent of GREEN but provided the platforms for it at a cultural level.

Modern scientific/logical rational thinking readily undermines the a priori assumptions of Pre-Modern religions founded in ages of superstition and pre-scientific, pre-rational thought. When those who adhere to such religions are seen to carry out practices which are detrimental to the ‘human spirit’, then GREEN thinking will legitimise such undermining. Thus, the beheadings and crucifixions perpetrated by ISIS and the continuing insistence on female circumcision by Shafai’I Sunni are labelled barbaric and clearly detrimental to human well-being. For GREEN, it is totally appropriate to use whatever means possible to undermine such religions, including satire and cartoons – ridicule being one of the most potent means of undermining authority.

What GREEN, in its myopia, doesn’t appreciate, though, is that its view that it has a ‘right’ to ridicule is not seen as a ‘right’ by those who venerate what it is ridiculing. In its own way GREEN actually shows discrimination against those whose views it denigrates because they are contrary to its own. A number of commentators, both Muslim and non-Muslim – including White House press officer Jay Carney (Daniel Greenfeld, 2015) – have criticised Charlie Hebdo for the level of offensiveness in its publications over the past few years.

Survey after survey has found sizeable percentages of ‘moderate’ Muslims in the West are offended by scurrilous depictions of Muhammad and Islam – eg: a WND poll found 40% of Muslims in its sample thought parodies of Muhammad should be prosecuted criminally in the United States (Bob Unrah, 2012). The Observer’s Mark Townsend & Tracy McVeigh found this sentiment reflected very personally when they interviewed young Muslim men following prayers in London this Friday. ‘Ahmed’ told them: “It’s very painful. Far worse than insulting my father, my family. It causes us great pain but people do not seem to understand this.” ‘Abdul’ added: “It’s very hurtful: they are abusing the freedom of speech by doing this. We are passive but some people are more emotional. They will react differently.”

Ahmed and Abdul articulate the moderate Muslim view: that there should be freedom of speech but it is being abused and causing great hurt to a section of the population.

The extremist position is exemplified in radical activist Anjem Choudary’s open letter to USA Today: “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”

So GREEN’s attacks on what it sees as an archaic, primitive and barbaric religion are not recognised as legitimate by a section of that religion’s proponents. Not only that but its ‘right’ to make those attacks is not seen as legitimate. Rather, those attacks legitimise punishment. Which is how the Kouachi brothers seem to have seen themselves: legitimate punishers.

It’s not my purpose here to debate statements like Nick Clegg’s assertion that “in a free society people have to be free to offend each other” – other than to point out it’s a viewpoint and that viewpoint is completely incompatible with the viewpoint of someone like Choudary.

In Gravesian terms, it’s a values conflict between a vMEME harmonic of RED/BLUE zealotry and a vMEME harmonic of BLUE/ORANGE/GREEN secular rationalism, with each vMEME harmonic totally convinced that it is right.

Moderate Islam needs to challenge extremist Islam…
Muslim organisations and individuals around the world have issued statements and taken to the internet to condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings. While there may have been an element of expediency in some of the organisational denunciations, the sheer volume of outpouring from individual Muslims speaks volumes for a worldwide revulsion at what happened in Paris. Phrases such as “nothing to do with Islam” and “not in the name of my religion” are all too frequently embedded in these posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

While many Muslims, as perhaps represented by Ahmed and Abdul, are seriously offended by the cartoons and other parodies, they will plead for freedom of speech to be used more responsibly. They will not resort to violence in an attempt to destroy freedom of speech.

#JeSuisAhmed - tweeted by Dyab Abou Jahjah

#JeSuisAhmed – tweeted by Dyab Abou Jahjah

A symbol of this Islam is perhaps Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer casually executed by one of the Kouachis as he lay wounded on the ground. The Arab political activist and author Dyab Abou Jahjah tweeted a video capture of the wounded Merabet about to be executed with the hashtag ‪#‎JeSuisAhmed and the commentary: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”

‪While not as popular as #JeSuisCharlie, #‎JeSuisAhmed has become the rallying call for those who want to portray ‘moderate’ Muslims as perfectly capable of playing their part in modern Western secular society and those who want to state that Islam and the West can coexist.

Merabet’s brother Malek has been widely reported – eg: BBC News (2015a) – as saying that Ahmed had been “very proud of being a policeman and defending the values of the Republic…. Islam is a religion of peace, love, of sharing. It’s not about terrorism, it’s not about madness – we have nothing to do with that. My brother was a Muslim, and he was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists – that’s it.”

Another wonderful example of this kind of modern, integrated Muslim is Lassana Bathily. Not only did he work in a Jewish supermarket – as if that wasn’t bad enough from the fundamentalist viewpoint! – but he risked his life to save Jewish customers when the supermarket was attacked by Amedy Coulibaly and then gave the police critical information which enabled them to end Coulibaly’s siege.

Beck refers to these 2 types of Muslim – with 2 different value sets in their selfplexes – as ‘ancients’ (driven by a vMEME harmonic of PURPLE/RED/BLUE) and ‘moderns’ (driven by BLUE/ORANGE/GREEN). For Beck, though, the time is long past for the moderns to challenge the ancients – viz: “The very best people to detect and snuff out this virus are the moderns who embrace Islam, live within the Arab societies, and are constantly threatened by some ancients who are driven for a multitude of reasons to attack Western society. Arab societies and Islamic believers now face an existential moment of truth. They will not be able to straddle the fence on this matter.”

Beck’s imperative is echoed in the title of Olfa Alouini’s piece in The Observer: “Silence is not an option. We must all speak out to win this fight”.

There has been intense criticism of the moderates in Islam for failing to take on the extremists – eg: the immaculately-researched and well-constructed works of Ray Harris (2005, 2006). Alouini shows she understands Harris’ depiction of ‘Ordinary Joe Muslim’, who doesn’t challenge the extremists because he wants a quiet life, when she writes: “To lay claim to beliefs that run in opposition to those of the fanatics is a risk, sometimes fatal. Expressing different opinions can be enough to justify them using limitless violence to annihilate those who think and act differently.”

However, Alouini then goes on: “Today this silent and peaceful majority, including myself, no longer has the luxury of silence. Its only asset is its size, its number. Left on your own to face barbarism, annihilation is assured. Together we can say ‘no’ more strongly and silence the maniacs.”

Of course, between the poles of extremist (ancient) and moderate (modern) there are in reality a whole spread of differing degrees of extremism and ‘moderatism’. However, it seems even some of the lesser extremists are now saying enough is enough. Heads in the West were certainly turned when Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah was widely reported – eg: Anne Barnard in the New York Times – to have said: “The behaviour of the takfiri groups that claim to follow Islam have distorted Islam, the Qur’an and the Muslim nation more than Islam’s enemies … who insulted the prophet in films… or drew cartoons of the prophet.”

So, with Islamist fundamentalist terrorism seeming to provide an endless series of ever more brutal acts against peoples of all faiths and none right around the globe, perhaps a point has been reached – or is at least fast approaching – when the voices of the moderates will indeed challenge the unwavering extremists.

…and the West needs to help!
As discussed in Will the West seize the Opportunity the Peshawar Massacre may offer…?, the West needs to facilitate dialogue with moderate Muslims in line with the Assimilation-Contrast Effect – to make common ground with the moderates (assimilation) and draw them further away from the extremists (contrast).

Ever since Why is the West ignoring a Leading Moderate Muslim? in 2010, I have wondered why the West, both politicians and media, don’t provide more support to the increasing number of Islamic scholars and clerics who denounce terrorism and issue fatwas damning extremists.

Although it’s tempting to give some credence to the conspiracy theorists and the idea that it suits Western politicians and influencers to have an existential threat such as radical Islam, I’m also highly aware of the argument that the lack of hierarchical structure in Islam means there is no Pope-type figure to deal with, to negotiate with and, therefore, any agreements made are far from guaranteed to be conveyed to the mass of Muslims. However, the fact that anyone with a scholarly knowledge of Islam and its scriptures and something of a charismatic personality can set themselves up as an imam and recruit followers could actually work to the advantage of the West. Rather than having to deal with a particular authoritative figure no matter how difficult and obnoxious they might be, Western agencies can pick and choose which scholars and clerics they choose to support and deal with.

Western media should be giving extensive profile to leading moderate clerics and scholars so that Muslims in the West can see their teachers being given credibility in the public eye. This can create a virtuous circle whereby the cleric or scholar increases their following via media profile which increase then justifies more media profile – all of which helps to spread a moderate interpretation of Islam.

While clearly such approaches are manipulative, the West needs to engage with Muslim concerns throughout the world in meta-national strategies. Some of this the West will not find easy. As Beck indicates, such engagement will need to include a fair and just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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