I am not Charlie, and if that is blasphemy so be it. After all, blasphemy is what the magazine wanted.
1. It is September 11, 2001. Two airplanes fly into the World Trade Centre. I am 17 years old. Being from Iran has already made me familiar with the discourse that the West, especially the United States, is behind many atrocities in the world. Being from Iran has also made me familiar with the atrocities of extremism in Islam. Myself, my brother and Aladin, my brother’s friend from Bosnia, are sitting in front of the TV and watch in disbelief. Aladin is Muslim too. So are many students at Hugo de Groot high school in Charlois, one of the neighbourhoods in the south of Rotterdam, at the heart of what the Dutch call “the black neighbourhoods”. They are called that because they are full of immigrants, and among these immigrants are many Muslims.
2. It is 9am on September 12, 2001. Having had many discussions about what we saw on TV the previous day, all of a sudden we get an announcement, saying that all students have to gather in the canteen of the school, the place where there are many tables and where we spend our breaks. For the first time, students from all classes are present. The school principal comes in and starts an utterly emotional speech, repeating media speculation over who is to blame. The sensation has grown overnight, and people are trying to find ways to channel their emotions and thoughts. A few students challenge the mainstream accounts, starting a discussion among themselves. They get angry looks from everybody else, including a few fellow Muslim students. I am taking the middle ground and getting more and more confused. My background, I guess, made the difference. I am a first generation immigrant to the Netherlands and many of the other Muslim students are second or third generation immigrants, whose parents or grandparents are from the Middle East and North Africa and had come to the Netherlands as guest-workers. Hence, the discourse of extremism in Islam has not been present in their family conversations.
3. In the days after September 11, 2001 sensationalism continues to build: Officials, the media and the people who are interviewed on the streets begin repeating that the people who had attacked the World Trade Centre were jealous of our freedom in the West. The 17 year-old me becomes more and more confused and is all of a sudden taken by the media sensation that maybe the attacks really are the fault of Muslims. Also, being in Europe and surrounded by Iranian figures who are opposed to the Iranian government, I saw how some of them fell into this hysteria that the ‘evil’ regime in Iran was finished and the West, led by the US, was going to ‘take care of it’. And then Iranians would be able to be live happily ever after. Many family friends who used to come to our house would say the same thing. They seemed to be happy because the West was going to put a democratic regime in place in Iran and they would all be able to go back to the country, which is still full of oppression.
4. I am 20 years old. US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, with devastating effects. I am sitting in the living room with my family and a political discussion breaks out with my brother, who is two years younger than me. He does not follow politics that much, yet he is still sharp and thinks critically about issues. I defend these wars, because I still believe the hysteria that has been created: It is insurgents that are causing problems for the Iraqis. Suddenly my brother tells me: “You should not buy too much into what they are saying on TV. Have the wars of the West and the US not created so much death and destruction?” He then uttered a sentence I have thought about a lot since – to this day, and every time I need to take a position on something. “You are losing your humanity.”
5. I start university at the age of 21. I study psychology and political studies. I read and read and read and read, and one day wake up to feeling betrayed by the younger, naive me, the older generation Iranians, society and the media, the system – that in my opinion strives for war – and the hysteria. I read that this is not how democracy is created. I read about political theories, about post-colonialism. I read more and more and more.
6. It is 2011. I start a job at Mount Eden Prison in New Zealand. My job involves talking to prisoners to help prevent suicide attempts and self-harm. I talk to many from different backgrounds, I have conversations on different levels with many of them. One day I am talking to Joseph, a lovely Maori man with the most compassionate heart, who had worked for years in the prison as a counsellor. I tell him, “There are many sad stories here.” “They never end,” is his reply. “Sometimes I shed tears while talking to them.” A few months pass before my mind begins to understand the scope of the tragedy. “Oh god,” I tell myself. New Zealand was once called a social laboratory. Among Western states it was an example for all other countries. If we have so many people with so many tragic stories in this country, what is happening elsewhere? Then I read, read, read and read again. I learn about child poverty and marginalised communities, about health issues of the poor, about the poor state of housing and lack of social care. I go back to university to get a Masters degree and to write a thesis on social justice. In the meanwhile, the romanticised image of the West that I have held onto since I moved here from Iran starts to fade away. Is this what the enlightened, rational, humanist West is all about? Was this what Voltaire foresaw when he talked about humanism? Has humanism given way to a new religion: an aggressive form of capitalism and consumerism, wherein the compassion of our societies is fading and people are seen solely as economic units, to be held entirely to blame for their miseries? Do wider political and social structures get to evade all responsibility?
7. The narrative now seems to be repeating itself when it comes to wars in the Middle East and North Africa. It is them, those backward people, that are responsible for their own suffering and it is us – the freedom-loving, humanist, rational West – that needs to protect them from themselves and show them the path to achieving what we have done, and at the same time to protect ourselves from their evil. Under this pretext and instead of looking at the real roots of the issues, the ‘rational’, ‘logical’, ‘freedom loving’, ‘humanist’ West (‘the good’) went into wars to protect itself from ‘the bad’, that is those who are against the West. In reality, the roots of terrorism and extremism in Islam could be found in post-colonialism, imperialism, poverty, exploitation, oppression and many other things. Those roots, however, were ignored and instead Western imperialism – assisted by mainstream media, sensationalism and racism, and the industry of war – repeated the blunders that had caused terrorism to grow in the first place.
8. January 12, 2015. Three gunmen massacre 12 people working for a satirical French magazine. Within a few hours, like many times in the past 14 years, hysteria begins to again build in societies around the world, the media and social media. Many people put up banners that say “Je suis Charlie”, identifying themselves with the magazine, Charlie Hebdo. It seems the hysteria is back and people in the West are looking in the wrong place again. It seems, in my opinion, that the hysteria that surrounds these events becomes a channel through which the individualistic, alienated (often Western) consumer gets a moral kick and finds a new cause, which they often only uphold for a short term. The effects, however, can last for a very long time. It strikes me that the hysteria resembles the hysteria George Orwell points out in his much celebrated work, 1984:
“In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.“
9. Do most of these ‘humanists’ really care for the people that die? If so, why do I not see people changing their profile pictures or holding banners on daily basis with contents like: Je suis Mourad, or Ismail, or Fatima? After all, millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa have been killed and displaced, children bereaved and injured, infrastructures and civil societies have been wiped out and terrorism has grown out of these wars, by getting involved in military operations. Do they forget that France (the victimised good), has been partly responsible for that? Have they forgotten that France has been among the countries that have assisted the destruction of Libya, and it is also the country that has armed several militant groups in Syria, to name just two examples? Acts like these are not, however, considered acts of terrorism while they are conducted for financial, political and geopolitical purposes, even though scores of civilians have been killed, creating fear that can indeed also be considered the legacy of terrorism. It seems that the concept of radicalism is only used to define people who are considered ‘other’ – inhumane fanatics – not us. It is never the other way around: Constant interference in other countries, with devastating effects, is not called terrorism. Why are most of the lovely, sympathetic people who identify with Charlie not concerned about that? Why are they not concerned about thousands of people dying in the wars that their governments have helped to wage? Why are they not concerned about the crippling sanctions their countries impose on ‘governments’ (read: people) of other countries to achieve their political goals? Are the effects of sanctions on citizens not considered an atrocity? It seems to me that Orwell is right again when he says:
“This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or prevailing attitudes towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous. On the contrary, war hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of the whole population to slavery and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by own’ side and not by the enemy, mysterious.”
10. For this, and the other reasons mentioned above, I will not engage in this hysteria. How do you expect me to condemn again and again, while you are not condemning your own politicians and political systems for being part of the reason for what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa? How do you want me to mourn your victims while you cannot even acknowledge that the people in those regions are the victims of the policies of your leaders and political systems? I will not engage in this hysteria. Because I believe that this hysteria is part of the reason we do not have any real discussion on what is behind terrorist activity. And if that is blasphemy or heresy, so be it. At the same time we need to take a stance, and that is exactly the point Charlie Hebdo was trying to make (although that is also what they were apparently saying when, in 2008, the magazine fired one of their writers for making a joke about Jews). We need to move away from double standards and speak up against tyranny in all its forms. But we also need to acknowledge our mistakes and hold our political systems responsible. We need to create environments in which all of us can speak up to find solutions for our problems and for our common pains. All of us are human, wherever on this planet we live, and all lives matter equally.
P.S. This note is not a justification for any form of terror and I as the author condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting deeply and wholeheartedly.
All illustrations © Farzad Zamani, 2015. Title image from Charlie Hebdo.
Shahriar Tehrani was born in Iran, and also grew up in the Netherlands and New Zealand. He has a Master of Policy Studies from the Auckland University of Technology.
Illustrator Farzad Zamani was born and raised in Iran, and completed a Master of Architecture at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is currently doing a PhD in Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland.