Makhlouf ’16: Je ne suis pas Charlie

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, January 22, 2015

Two weeks ago, as I walked through the now-deserted city center of Paris, pens littered the ground. A day earlier, some 1 million people had stood in that same place, stretching from Place de la Republique to Place de la Nation — from Republic to Nation. It was an almost ironic reminder of the democratic fervor that descended upon the city. The pens were supposed to symbolize a defense of free speech, one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy, but the attack on Charlie Hebdo had transformed from an attack on an individual magazine and its freedom into an attack on the West.

Such grand evocations ran rampant in the news in the days that followed. Most commentary and analysis came across as a thinly veiled recitation of common tropes and preordained facts. The boldest of the political pundits were quick to point out that not all Muslims are fundamentalists and that these acts have been condemned by many Muslims. They recycled basic truths. In the days following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the opportunity for honest, critical reflection was lost.

Time and time again in the wake of tragedy, we see two mutually linked elements come to the forefront: first, simplifications; second, a lack of honest criticism. After the shootings, a constellation of world leaders descended on Paris and monopolized the discussion with both their presence and their statements. They turned a critical moment for self-reflection into a moment for politics. Bold, politicized rhetoric stood front and center, and a chorus of voices insisted upon national and international unity. Freedom of speech was framed as the central issue presented by the attacks.

Of course, the biting irony is that the right to free speech is often abridged by political leaders, even those who condemned the attack.

Their affirmation of unity and moral vigor concealed not only the West’s selective application of such values but also the immediate instrumentalization of such a tragedy. Political opportunism foamed at the mouth. The viewing public was expected to ogle at the unity marches and marvel at the supposed triumph of republican might in the face of barbarism. The hope was that the public would be so enthralled that they would overlook the criminal pasts of several of those world leaders. Saudi Arabian Ambassador to France Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh stood in line with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The former’s country has since flogged an online blogger, and the latter’s has since arrested a Palestinian cartoonist who drew images that criticized the Israeli regime.

Even President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a joint press conference, pledged to abridge civil liberties in the hope of security. Marine Le Pen, president of France’s far-right National Front party, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the massacre raises questions about Muslim immigration into Europe. Massacres do not raise questions. Politicians do. Cameron and Le Pen are choice examples, and they shed light on a larger trend: When attacks occur, leaders are often concerned insofar as they can derive some political utility.

Now, Obama, Cameron and Le Pen certainly had real agendas at hand that drove their reactions to the attack. At the same time, co-opting the subsequent response, as world leaders did, was a defensive strategy. Part of this defensive strategy was to insist upon unquestionable solidarity and unity. Attempts to contextualize, criticize or probe were seen as unpatriotic, illiberal or apologetic of terrorism. This sort of diversion and drastic simplification is a fairly common tenet of the politics of fear that has become part and parcel with the West’s “War on Terror.” Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric in the days following Sept. 11 aptly mobilized public sentiment for his imperial policies overseas. Governments and leaders from across the political spectrum have similarly played into this diametric opposition and crude nationalism after these most recent attacks.

A comprehensive analysis would have begun to pose questions about the rise of fundamentalism and clerical politics in recent decades.

Historical analysis would have demonstrated that Western intervention doomed the fate of secular politics in many parts of the Muslim world. Instead, the questions raised were about why Muslim communalism is at odds with secularism and liberalism. Thus, there was a complete reversal of factual insight: Rather than probe Western aggression, which gave rise to radicalism, analysts asked, “Why is Islamic culture incompatible with the West?”

Some horrific cross-breed of liberalism and nationalism was born in the wake of this disaster, uniting both liberals and conservatives in unavowed fanaticism. The racist protests opposing Muslim immigration in Germany are only one such example. And if we are going to be critical across the board, we must recognize that even such banal platitudes as “Je suis Charlie” become toxic when they encourage this fanatic response. Any reasonable person is fully able to comprehend the moral implications of such attacks, so it seems strange that French citizens everywhere — and non-French citizens, too — demonstrated this compulsive need to repeatedly condemn.

The response from both the media and the populus needs to shift from fear-mongering and repetitive adherence to political slogans to a more acute analysis of why such attacks occur. When will it become clear that, in the wake of tragedy, thoughtful reflection requires more than frantic mantras? “Je suis Charlie” does not fix the problem; it only adds to it.


Peter Makhlouf ’16 can be contacted at


  1. Reality Check says:

    Stop apologizing for wahhabi nutjobs. The transgressions of “the West”, real or imagined, are a red herring at best. They don’t even “hate us for our freedom”.

    They want to kill you because you’re not one of them. Period.

  2. Leave it up to Peter to embrace the killers while ignoring the victims their families and their dear ones.

  3. Peter, the following is a test.
    What is the common denominator? Think hard before answering.
    The Barbary Coast wars declared due to non-stop Muslim jihdaists attacking American shipping vessels.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists attacking along Russia’s southwest border.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists attacking China’s NW population.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists attacking (and killing 4,000 Buddhists) along Thailand’s southern Malay border.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists capturing Spain in the 8th century.
    Insurgent Muslim jihdaists attacking the gates of Vienna in the 17th century.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists committing genocide in Sudan two decades ago.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists killing (what some historians claim is 70 million Hindus) during the Muslims centuries long jihad against the Hindus of southern Asia.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists burning 2,000 Christian women and children to death in Nigeria.
    Insurgent Muslim jihadists killing UN workers, international aid workers and journalists like you.
    Peter, is the common denominator here the policies of modern western governments or is it Islamic jihad in the pursuit of a worldwide caliphate? This is NOT a trick question.

  4. Fascist Democrats support the Charlie Hebdo killers.

  5. What an idiot you are to infer that somehow people bring murder and terrorism onto themselves. Terrorists, murderers and rapists are psychotic individuals, not some average Joe who suddenly became murderous over some picture they saw on the internet. Anyone who became murderous over a drawing would be psychotic by definition. If your theory were true then someone could shoot you and say they did it because your own actions caused them to do so and were therefore not guilty of any crime. No one would be guilty of anything. Any idiot or loon can rationalize their bad behavior. If you are receiving student aid they should discontinue it immediately, you should have to pay out of your own pocket for the privilege of being so hateful and anti-American. If you hate everything about this country then move somewhere you like better. Try Cuba, Venezuela or Iran.

  6. Lyle Chipperson says:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *