The Meaning of Charlie

After the events of 7-9 January 2015, without hesitation, I posted a “Je suis Charlie” message on social media and marched on 11 January in the streets of Paris, alongside friends and millions of others, French and foreign, young and old.

As the days went by, the process of analysing what had happened naturally began to replace the raw emotion that so many felt (and displayed) on 11 January.  Part of that analysis has focused on the simple message in white text on a black background that spread across the web, including my own Facebook page.  Dissenters, for a great variety of reasons, claimed they were not “Charlie”.  They objected to the contents of the magazine, they felt too cowardly to replicate Charlie’s provocateur stance or they objected to what they saw as mindless groupthink.

I began to think about why I had displayed that message on my page.  A small act; smaller even than being one of millions on the streets; insignificant and with no perceptible impact on the world.  And yet two questions persist: why did I say that week that I “was” Charlie; and why this week have I declined to buy the first edition of Charlie Hebdo since the attack?Everybody Loves Charlie (now)

Charlie Hebdo is a difficult phenomenon to explain to the world and it has no foreign equivalent that I have seen.  The magazine is a pure polemic, its role being to disrupt, challenge and offend.  It isn’t against everything: its hard-left and strictly atheist bias means its favourite targets are organised religion and big business.  Within the religions, the easy to offend Catholic church and Islam proved to provide them with much material.

I never bought Charlie Hebdo.  On the rare occasion that I flicked through it, I found its content to be predictable, crude and often unfunny.  I chose not to purchase Charlie (like many – its circulation was usually around 30,000) and Charlie never seemed to have much of a problem with that.  But whilst it frequently shocked, Charlie Hebdo scrupulously stuck by the law.  It regularly sought legal advice on on each weekly edition, walking the tightrope between truth and defamation, insult and incitement to hatred.

For the reasons that caused me not to buy Charlie then, I do not particularly want to purchase a copy now, even though I am told by mass media that the print run of now 7 million copies is historic.  Grubby rumours swirl of mass purchases of copies to be kept under wraps, ripe for resale at some point when the price will have climbed to stratospheric heights.  People tell me it is my duty as someone who values free speech to own a copy.  Friends of mine who have never purchased it before (at least never ostensibly) express delight at discovering its contents.  Charlie is cool.

Charlie or Bust

But that is not “being” Charlie means to me.  When I turned up to the march on 11 January, a friend exclaimed that I hadn’t brought a sign with me, or a pen (in the days immediately after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, people demonstrated with pens aloft, a symbol of freedom of speech).  I deliberately didn’t want to march with a particular slogan or symbol.  By then the attacks in Montrouge and Vincennes had reminded us all what was under attack was not a particular aspect of French society, freedom of speech and a secular tolerance of criticism (however harsh or vulgar) of religion, but all of the values we hold collectively.  I didn’t know how to express that in a slogan or symbol.  I was disturbed that the attack on a police officer and a group of Jewish shoppers appeared to have taken second place to the celebrated cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.  It wasn’t deliberate by the general public or the media, nor was it an act of covert anti-semitism minimising the horror of the killings in Vincennes, it was simply that “Je suis Charlie” had become shorthand for a simple statement of defiance and people had begun to simplify in their minds the frenetic sequence of events of that week.  “Je suis Charlie” was a catchphrase that fitted neatly in a Facebook profile picture, or a printed banner held in the street.

Charlie for All

The word “Charlie” represents us all.  It isn’t about agreeing with what Charlie Hebdo did, or what they are doing with in their current issue.  Similarly, marching on 11 January didn’t mean that I supported the policies of some of the world leaders that joined President Hollande at the head of the cortege.  I can deplore the duplicity of the President of Niger attending the march for free speech one week and facilitating protests against Charlie Hebdo that result in the death of 10 people and churches raised to the ground the next, and still be Charlie.  I can be Charlie whilst regretting that they continue to deliberately offend.  But I can no more reject them for doing that than I can reject a dog for barking.  Being Charlie means I stand for something other than a totalitarian outlook on all aspects of life; I can accept difference; I can tolerate those whose words and attitudes I abhor.  I can, and indeed, it is my duty to others to do so.  I am not driven to destroy them, because they have the right to disagree with me as much as I disagree with them.

Being Charlie isn’t a message for non-Muslims against Muslims.  There is plenty of diversity within different strands of Islam and the millions of people who practice it – Islam is perfectly comfortable with diversity of thought and practice and has demonstrated that for hundreds of years with a clarity that Christianity has often lacked.  Not being Charlie says that the absolute is the only possible form of existence.  Perhaps it is this that separates Charlie from those who view the events of 9-11 January as either justifiable, or, more frequently and more insidiously the natural consequence of “playing with fire” (whether it is offensive cartoons, intervention in a country by the West, failure to intervene in a country by the West, tolerating homosexuality, empowering women, anti-clericalism, secularism and the rest of the laundry list of issues that are used as examples of provocation): the idea that a different point of view doesn’t weaken the collective, it strengthens it.

You may not agree.  Charlie for you may be about a specific event.  It might be a symbol of secular ignorance.  It might be freedom of speech and the dangers of Islam.  It might be about a war against Islam by the West, or a plot by the CIA to discredit the Arab World.  It might be the Jews, the gays, the Arabs, or any number of groups.

That’s ok.  Voice your opinion.  You can do that, and I’ll listen.  Because I am Charlie.

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