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The Charlie Hebdo attack — and the ‘rage against modernity’

REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal
A man holds a placard reading "I am Charlie" as he attends a Paris vigil on Wednesday.

Add Charlie Hebdo to the list of satirists and provocateurs who have suffered greatly for their unflattering portraits of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.

Wednesday’s assault on the magazine’s Paris headquarters was particularly horrifying. Attackers rampaged through editorial offices, shooting the editor and seven other staffers, a maintenance man, a visitor and two police officers. 

The magazine in the past has offended nearly everyone in France from time to time, but it seemed certain the attackers were motivated by the magazine’s treatment of Islam.

In that, this latest bloodshed is one more blow in a culture war stretching back through the shooting death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, the angry response to Danish satirical cartoons and a failed attempt to kill Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard nearly two years ago.

Going back further, recall the reaction of Ayatollah Khomeini to Salman Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses.’ Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 that Rushdie should be killed, forcing the author to spend years in hiding.

It’s a dangerous folly to generalize about a group of people who make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population, as Muslims do. But we also know that it is often those on the extreme fringes whose actions set the agenda we all must confront.

The initial reaction in France was angry solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, including white-on-black web banners and protest signs declaring “I am Charlie.”

In the short term, this latest spasm of violence is likely to further harden anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes in France – and probably much of Europe.

France is the home of Europe’s largest Muslim population, about 5 million of its 65 million people, whose presence is in part the legacy of French colonial rule over North African countries such as Algeria and Tunisia. France has suffered numerous terror attacks in the past. This is the worst in more than half a century, though, and the tensions are likely to be acute. 

As this article points out, the attack on Charlie Hebdo coincided with the publication of a novel that imagines the election of a Muslim president, who begins to impose a conservative brand of Islam on France.

While reactions to the work of fiction have been mixed, Charlie Hebdo featured the author on its latest cover. And the thrust of the book goes to the heart of European anxieties about a stew of issues that include immigration, jobs, the continent’s continued economic troubles and the future of the European Union. Germany has seen weeks of protest over immigration and fears of creeping Islamization.

In France, that debate inevitably encompasses widespread disgust with traditional political parties, disdain for President Francois Hollande and the prospects of Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Since taking over from her xenophobic father, Jean-Marie — who was widely accused of racism and anti-Semitism — Le Pen has had some success in bringing the party into the mainstream.

The new novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq, in fact, has mainstream parties throwing their support to a Muslim candidate in order to stop Le Pen from becoming president.

More broadly, although this violence on one level is undeniably about religion, there is a strong argument that it is even more about culture and modernity. If you have the time, work your way though this piece from Britain about the long-term impact of the Rushdie affair.

Europe and the West have a rich tradition of political satire. Think about Voltaire in 18th-century France. Those in power never want to squirm because of how they’re portrayed in print or on film. Religion has been fair game, too. In recent years, conservative Christians have been deeply offended by unflattering depictions of Jesus.

But satire is most pointed precisely when it is aimed at a society’s most pressing issues. So you really can’t expect Europe’s newest generation of satirists to avoid poking fun of Islam. And satire is enough a part of the Western cultural landscape that it is not often answered with this kind of violence.

It’s also worth sharpening the focus just a bit more. Consider this analysis published a few days ago that looks at this clash of cultures through the prism of modernity.

Decades ago, anti-Western sentiment was about colonialism – and it tended to use the framework of Western thought, casting itself as a way to modernize the developing world while pressing the West to stay true to its ideals.

Now, says Kenan Malik, such religious violence should be seen in the broad context of an “inchoate rage against modernity.”

“There is considerable disenchantment with many aspects of modernity, from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the soullessness of the contemporary world,” he noted.

Lacking the broader philosophical framework of the past, militant Islamists have turned violence and terror into ends in themselves.

For its role in exposing that, Charlie Hebdo has paid dearly.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2015 - 11:19 am.

    ….Lacking the broader philosophical framework of the past, militant Islamists have turned violence and terror into ends in themselves….

    Two comments about that phrase:

    The first part of that sentence would better read, “Ignoring and denying the broader philosophical framework of Islam of the past…

    The last part of that sentence would better read, “militant Islamists turned to violence and terror to achieve their vision of Islam.”

    It is entirely about re-ordering the world to meet their peculiar outlook. And apparently, there is the contradiction of an all-powerful god that requires protection from the actions of all-to-frail humans. The “sword of god”, indeed.

    It’s not random violence without any clear end.

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