Charlie Hebdo is at it again. They are saying the unsayable. And once again, we have to sit back and enjoy the ménagerie of muddled thinking on offer. I was hoping that the recent editorial would go unnoticed by the standard bearers of the regressive left. I should learn to curb my optimism.
The worst of the bunch seems to have been penned by Teju Cole. In his response to the Hebdo editorial, he makes the usual charges that are levelled against Hebdo by the regressive left, but he does so dishonestly – twisting the meaning to suit his regressive agenda.
Like any true orator wanting to frame his readers’ understanding of a piece in terms that will serve his pre-determined conclusion, he opens with the crushing and dishonest accusation that Hebdo states “clearly that Muslims, all of them, no matter how integrated, are the enemy.”
No it doesn’t. At all.
Cole isn’t alone in his dishonest depiction of the editorial. The Independent screams “Charlie Hebdo criticised for calling Brussels attacks tip of Islam ‘iceberg'” – notice the use of the phrase “Islam ‘iceberg'”.
What was actually written? Hebdo wrote that the Brussels “attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed. They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale.” If you actually read the article, it’s not an Islamic iceberg – it’s an iceberg made of fear. It’s the fear felt by the secular, a fear of criticising or offending the religious.
Attacks like the ones in Brussels cannot happen in isolation. They require the existence of a rich spectrum of connecting opinions, norms, customs, interactions and thoughts.
As an example – take the recent summary execution of an injured and prone Palestinian by a Jewish State militant in Palestine. That attack, undoubtably a war crime, is only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg. The support and impunity that the soldier receives requires a wider complimentary framework. The framework touches every part of Israeli society. It requires the conformity of thought, the nationalism, the racism, the impotence and malleability of Israel’s Arab minority. It requires countless small interactions, innocent exchanges. I write this, and only Zionists would accuse me of bigotry. No reasonable person would assume I was being antisemitic.
Hebdo’s article is about connectedness. It is about the thousand inconsequential thoughts and interactions we have and the tapestry they weave. This tapestry has edges. At one edge is the seemingly insignificant. The innocent. And at the other edge is a confused young man carrying explosives.
I don’t like the word ‘Muslim’. I don’t like the word ‘Islam’. I think it makes this tapestry possible, or at least binds together a patchwork that doesn’t need to be bound together. In linguistics, there is a thing called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It essentially posits that the language we use to describe something frames, guides and alters the way we think about a particular subject. The Inuit, for example, have over 50 different words for snow. And because of this rich linguistic framework, they think differently about snow. The different snows are distinct. Separate. It is inconceivable to the Inuit that we can have any kind of meaningful discussion about snow with such limited vocabulary.
And yet, we take 1.6 billion people, people all over the world, people with such a wide spectrum of beliefs, and use one word to describe them: Muslim. This is a sentence which Muslims impose on themselves. It creates a linguistic and therefore cognitive framework lumping them together. A framework that allows the Muslim baker and the veiled mothers described by Hebdo to be part of the same patchwork tapestry as the young man in the taxi carrying the bomb.
You and I can’t talk to the man carrying explosives. We can’t talk to the man who convinced him to blow up an airport. We can’t talk to the man who supplied the explosives. We can’t pull on that edge of the tapestry – but make no mistake – there *are* people pulling on that edge of the tapestry – and that pull is virtually unopposed, and the effect is that it drags the whole shambolic patchwork that way.
It is the job of secularism to pull back, unafraid.
I’m a devout atheist. I reject religion. I reject the worship of invisible sky gods. I don’t like any of the Abrahamic faiths – and Islam is the worst of the bunch. By far. It is embodies the worst of regressive misogyny. It embodies the worst of individual subjugation. It embodies the worst of violence.
I’m unafraid to offend people and lose friends. I’m unafraid to pull on my side of the tapestry.
If you think Hebdo’s article is racist – you’re part of the iceberg.