The Double Edged Pen: Charlie Hebdo Attack Didn’t Just “Happen”

Almost 100,000 people are rallying across France after a terrorist attack against a French publication. Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris that is known for publishing mocking cartoons of Prophet Muhammad as well as other notable political and religious figures, was the target of these attacks.

As a Muslim and budding journalist, I feel the need to preface — though it should go without saying — that I condemn the actions of these self-identifying Muslims. Their actions go against every belief that has ever been taught by Islam and its values. The lost lives and their families are in my thoughts and prayers.

Unfortunately, the world is uniting under #JeSuisCharlie to protect our freedom of expression without truly understanding the power of free speech. In this moment of grotesque violence and profound sadness, we need to reflect on the positioning of racist publications such as Charlie Hebdo and the role of the press in fueling fundamentalism, particularly in France where there exist deep-rooted tensions between the secular government and Islam resulting in the marginalization of the French Muslim population.

Even in the midst of the Islamophobic response and mainstream media coverage coming out of France, there is no mention that among those killed was Muslim police officer named Ahmed Mrabet, who was one of two police officers killed during the attack. 

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The expectation is that freedom of speech allows for open discourse and riveting debate. However, it is often forgotten that the press plays a significant role in shaping attitudes and hegemony. Controversial, offensive, and disrespectful cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo often served no purpose in furthering conversations, but rather used Islam as a platform for mockery. Political cartoonist Sam Romero commented:

“I like that coverage of this deplorable act of terrorism describes a paper that publishes racist anti-Muslim garbage in a state where the Muslim population is criminalized as ‘satirical.’

The Syrian cartoonist who had his hands busted by Assad for mocking his brutal government, and continuing to draw afterwards; THAT’s a free speech hero. The Palestinian cartoonist murdered by the Israeli government twice (physically, and then by blowing up a statue in his honor); THAT’s a free speech hero. Sorry, but I’m holding the profession’s martyrs to a higher standard than Hebdo’s anti-Muslim stuff.”

It must be stressed that no amount of ink or mockery calls for murder. But as we take to the streets waving our pens in the air, we need to acknowledge that France’s press has played a role in disenfranchising French Muslims, pushing a minority few who feel their beliefs and values are being threatened towards extremism and militancy. The Charlie Hebdo attack did not occur within a vacuum, but is a response to a larger framework of merging political and socioeconomic forces spurring religious fundamentalism. Journalists have a heavy hand in instigating — or diffusing — atmospheres of intolerance and for that we must hold them accountable.