​Charlie Hebdo tragedy: Will 'clash of civilizations' become self-fulfilling prophecy?

Sonia Mansour Robaey
Sonia Mansour Robaey is a Middle East observer and analyst. Sonia tweets at @les_politiques.
People queue to get a copy of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.(Reuters / Stephane Mahe)
As the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has shaken France and the world, prompting a new discussion of Christian versus Muslim values, let's put the attack into a wider frame to answer the question what may trigger the so-feared ‘clash of civilizations’.

The tragedy

Imagine an editorial meeting discussing the next issue of a satirical magazine. Imagine gunmen searching and finding their way to this meeting. They assassinate, execution-style, twelve people, calling some by name: cartoonists, journalists, editorial writers, an economist, a policeman protecting cartoonists, a maintenance worker, and even a guest who happens to be there. They claim they are avenging the Prophet and chant “Allahu Akbar.” They escape the authorities, provoking a coordinated attack that targets a Jewish supermarket; another massacre; 17 killed in total. They give a TV interview crediting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS aka ISIS) for the Jewish supermarket massacre. They die in a hail of gunfire during a final confrontation with France’s special intervention forces.

This is the Charlie Hebdo tragedy as it happened. Many compare it to 9/11, despite being on a smaller scale. But like 9/11, the target was symbolic, sitting at the core of national identity and rallying many in indignation. In the Charlie Hebdo case, the target is a form of expression rooted in the national psyche – satire. In solidarity and mourning, the world has become Charlie; "Je suis Charlie" was a “magical moment,” said a French TVjournalist, referring to the slogan that was adopted in the aftermath of the tragedy. But "Je suis Charlie" was also challenged by many Muslims and non-Muslims because of its black-and white narrative: us versus them.

A 'clash of civilizations?'

In the aftermath of the tragedy, journalists, experts, analysts, politicians and activists offered the stricken masses the only narrative available, the one popularized after 9/11: the ‘clash of civilizations.’‘Je Suis Charlie’ became synonymous with the battle for the freedom of expression against radical Islam.

But Charlie Hebdo did not merely exercise its right to freedom of expression by representing the Prophet; it represented the Prophet in a way shocking to Muslims and claimed the right to offend. Under their pen, not only did the Prophet become an ordinary man, but he became an undignified man.

For Muslims, the Prophet is not God, but he is the best of men. A man to whom most Muslims feel close and obligated to protect. A better self, an alter ego. Historically, not much is known about the Prophet, so Muslims’ understanding of the Prophet is mainly phenomenological, not historical. He is an integral part of their everyday experience and the way they see themselves. Muslims consider the Prophet as a better self, and this better self is the only thing that was left non-humiliated by hundred of years of colonization, injustice, and submission to the West.

These nuances are lost on many, and especially on French courts. Those courts ruled, more than once, in favor of Charlie Hebdo, distinguishing between offending real people – which is sanctioned by an anti-hate law – and offending religious beliefs, not sanctioned by any law but encouraged by many among French politicians and intellectuals, on the right and on the left.

Western advocates of military intervention and military solutions for the crises of the world, like the neoconservatives, have interest in the clash of civilizations, since a convergence of civilizations may produce more sympathy in the West for the Muslim world, and consequently for its open wound, the injustice done to Palestinians. The chances for a resolution of the Palestinian problem have been going down, as terrorist attacks and the war on terror have become central to the preoccupations of international actors. Palestinians themselves didn’t help reverse this tendency because a movement like Hamas has been ambiguous about its affiliations and acquaintances with the Islamists, who rose to meet the neo-Cons’ program for a clash of civilizations.

Islamist radicals have interest too in producing a clash of civilizations to keep the Muslim community in check and control the everyday life of Muslims, while preventing their religion from opening itself to influence and change.

The danger that lies in the theory of the clash of civilizations is that it is self-fulfilling. Once we stick to it as an explanation of terrorist actions, we stop wanting to understand, and once we stop wanting to understand, we realize and further extend the reach of the clash of civilizations.

Edward Said labeled it the ‘clash of ignorance.' But he could not have imagined when he wrote his critique of the clash of civilizations in October 2001 in The Nation, that ignorance can be extremely dangerous and that 13 years after 9/11, the world has extended the reach of the clash of civilizations with the reset of the war on terror, in what many politicians promised would be a generational war against terrorism.

For France and Europe in general, it was only a matter of time before the narrative of the clash of civilizations – nurtured by both the neocons and their arch-nemesis, Islamist radicals – became self-fulfilling, not only marginalizing their populations of Muslims and hindering their integration, but reversing it, with scores going to fight for jihad in Iraq and Syria, and feeding anti-Semitism at the same time. It is no coincidence that the Charlie Hebdo attack was accompanied by an attack on the Jewish community, provoking calls from Israel to French Jews, and everywhere in Europe, to make aliyah.

Mainstream media in the service of the ‘clash’

The clash of civilizations focuses on the non-resolvable nature of cultural and religious differences between the West and Islam becoming the source for conflicts.

But a demographic study of Muslim populations worldwide has demonstrated: a heterogeneity in Muslim societies, explained by factors tied to secularization; an equal rise in literacy among men and women; a decrease in fertility; and an erosion of endogamy. The authors of the study speak of a convergence of civilizations, directly challenging the clash of civilizations narrative with empirical data. But the authors warn that such a transition could fragilize the community and expose it to extremism.

The convergence of civilizations is a fine line that the West and Muslims have to negotiate and walk together – not battle all the way from one tragedy to the next, until something horrible happens.

A dialogue of civilizations aimed at a convergence of civilizations must take place now if we are to triumph over Islamist terrorism and prevent more killings. The best place to realize this is in the public sphere. But the mainstream media that occupies the public sphere is not allowing the dialogue of civilizations to happen, because it has been hijacked by people who want confrontation, not understanding and dialogue.

Imagine a press going from one economic crisis to the next, with the emergence of alternative media and technologies. Imagine businessmen making profits from weapons searching to diversify after the end of the Cold War, finding their way to editorial rooms across France. They use their economic and political leverage, put their men at the helm of regrouped news outlets, and finally enter editorial meetings. They claim they are saving newspapers. They have total support from politicians who facilitate their takeovers and to whom they offer protection from public scrutiny and from political adversaries. They escape accountability by creating new companies for their media business, allowing them to claim their activity as 100 percent media. They vassalize a press previously fiercely independent. They fire, they hire. They assassinate freedom of expression, corporate style, in silence.

Now imagine an editorial meeting in a new press overtaken by corporations making profits from wars and acquainted with the powers in place. The editorial meeting would look like Charlie Hebdo’s on the day of the tragedy – less gruesome, less spectacular, no physical killing, and no blood, with profits and political friends replacing automatic rifles and ‘Allahu Akbar,' lowered as a Damocles sword over editorial freedom.

This happened to the most read and most prestigious press titles in France – Le Parisien, Le Fiagro, Liberation, and Le Monde – from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Oil and weapons magnates put their men in editorial rooms across France. They dispatched trusted "journalists" and "intellectuals" to manage these journals. This was most obvious in 2013, after the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks, when Le Monde’s editor-in-chief penned an opinion calling for military intervention in Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Nougayrede’s editorial was so hawkish and close to certain circles bent on war that her own journalists revolted against her. In a recent book on Syria, Chesnot and Malbrunot reveal how Le Monde journalists served as "mules," not investigators, for Free Syrian army doctors and certain elements of French intelligence in the chemical weapons accusations against the Syrian government by France.

The vassalization of France’s most prestigious press by the interests of corporations tied to the political class, having their own "royal" court of journalists and intellectuals willing to serve while serving their careers, was accompanied by the vassalization of France’s foreign policy by Gulf money and the neo-Cons – who are almost always tied to international corporations. Influenced by Gulf countries, France started seeing the problems of the Middle East through Sunni political Islam, and its obedient press was infiltrated by interests tied to the war establishment and the neocons. This combination explains the puzzle of France’s stance on regime change in Syria, the most hardline of all, which led France to work against its own interests and turn a blind eye on its youth traveling to make jihad, with the consequences that might ensue. Retrospectively, and with the problems France has had with its Muslim youth in the banlieues for the last two decades or so, it was a foolish thing to do.

Gulf "investment" overtook France’s long neglected banlieues and replaced the republic’s imams with their own, quick to exploit the banlieues’ rage to convert to their intolerant brand of Islam, which is alien to the republic’s values.

In this context, "Je suis Charlie" is a rallying cry and at the same time a "cri de guerre," excluding, inside France, scores of Muslims and non-Muslims who do not adhere to the idea of the clash of civilizations and its realization.

Perverting satire from expressing rage to producing rage

In the media landscape in the US after 9/11, satire has taken over a mainstream media complicit of false narratives, torture, and illegal wars, with people turning to Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Michael Moore to understand the news. Satire is salutary whenever the powers in place try to stifle and intimidate free expression, and this is one of many reasons why Charlie Hebdo’s satire and its context are so important.

The voice of satire is the freest of all. It reveres no one, it knows no boundaries. In its new form since the French revolution, satire has been used to voice social and political rage.

But now, warmongers are using satire to produce rage.

Most often, satire is unencumbered by nuances, it plays with the extremes, even when it is aware of nuances. The presence of satire of the Prophet in Western publications is taking place amid a general ignorance of nuances concerning Islam and Muslims, and it is this ignorance that can transform satire into a scathing attack that sharpens the dividing lines between civilizations.

According to Stéphane Mazurier, a history professor who did his Master’s thesis on the sociocultural history of Charlie Hebdo, the Charlie Hebdo supposedly resurrected in 1992 had nothing in common with the publication of the same name that was discontinued in 1982, except for some cartoonists.

From 1992 on, Charlie Hebdo was going to reinvent itself, with Philippe Val at its helm until 2009. Val is a controversial figure, supposedly from the left, but with political positions close to the neo-Cons, a staunch pro-Israel stance, and closeness to the powers-that-be. He was against free speech at Charlie Hebdo when he fired Siné for a cartoon on Sarkozy’s son's conversion to Judaism before his nuptials with a French Jewish heiress. He also invited onto Charlie Hebdo’s editorial board Caroline Fourest, a public figure from the French left known for her anti-Muslim stance.

Under Val, Charlie Hebdo published the Danish cartoons and the publication became obsessed with the Prophet. Its public seized on the satire of the Prophet to vent frustrations at immigration and the rise of the Muslim minority in France, made visible post-9/11. Leftists who attack Le Pen could not bear being labeled racists, they would rather prefer to be labeled Prophet-bashers, in the name of freedom of expression and the defense of French secularism.

Muslims and the religion of Islam challenge a central tenet in France’s peculiar and extreme form of secularism, la laïcité. La laïcité not only calls for the separation between religion and state – something that I believe Muslims do not challenge in France – but it takes secularism a step further and asks for religion to be totally removed from the public sphere, confined to the private sphere.

This is where Muslims, who literally wear their religion on their skin, have been challenging the French state and French society. But the French state has been unable to address the challenges to its laïcité from its modern multicultural society, and has unequally treated different religious communities according to different standards. In reality, France’s version of extreme secularism is an ideal that is difficult to attain in a multicultural society. It requires total assimilation.

Does the Muslim world play any role?

The realization of the clash of civilizations has also been encouraged by reactions from Muslims.

Each media attack against Islam receives unanimous response from Muslims, and each terrorist attack in their name elicits a unanimously defensive attitude. The common point between the overreaction in the first case and the absence of reaction in the second – and this has been ongoing since 9/11 – is the absence of diversity and initiative, at least in the public sphere, and concurrent to this, the absence of a conversation inside Islam on what’s being done in their name. This is a dangerous trend that takes the initiative from Muslims and puts it in the hands of both Muslim-bashers and Muslim extremists. This leaves most Muslims entrenched in an attitude of persecution and denial. As Muslim French philosopher Abdennour Bidar poignantly put it: The Muslim world is nurturing a monster in its midst and this monster will keep coming out as long as a profound transformation of Islam and the Muslim world is not operated to expel this monster.

This transformation will necessitate the emancipation of the individual, the last stage in the secularization process. Individual emancipation from religion does not necessarily mean leaving religion or becoming atheist, it means moving comfortably between different sets of values, and making singular and individual choices about these values. The impact of this is in loosening the hold of religion on the individual. Some philosophers, like Canadian Charles Taylor, defend a communitarian stance on religion, as they see the community as a moral space for defining good.. But Taylor thinks upholding the community is a value in itself, rather than upholding the values of a precise community.

The war of civilizations that the neo-Cons and Islamist radicals have initiated against Muslims and the rest of us not only risks defeating the integration of Muslims in the West and the transformation of Islam toward more openness, allowing the marginalization of extremists, but it risks sucking in its spiral of exclusion those who are left behind in the West by an increasingly unequal society. Indeed, the ailment of the West is not communitarianism, but extreme individualism that leaves many people behind. Isolated and rejected individuals feel welcome in the false warm embrace of the community of extremists.

This is happening now in Syria and Iraq. Europe, with its history of anti-Semitism, its current Muslim population mainly formed by immigration, conflicts from Asia and Africa at its door, and with its inability to successfully tackle economic and social problems as a united geopolitical space, it is particularly vulnerable to attempts to make the war of civilizations a reality.

And to Charlie Hebdo, a publication that found itself in the midst of the war of civilizations and that was decimated by terrorism, I say: "Tout est pardonné." All is forgiven.

Now let’s rise to the challenge of starting a civilized conversation about Islam and Muslims in the West before extremist voices on both sides drown the voice of reason and compromise the convergence of civilizations for generations to come.

The author thanks Ivor Crotty, head of social media @RT_com, for inspiration, encouragement, advice, and editing.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.