Middle EastWestWorld

Charlie’s questions

By Friday 30 January 2015 No Comments

2015- democracyHow should we respond to an attack that hits so close? The initial reaction was an unambiguous and unanimous “Je suis Charlie”. Which was an appropriate way to start. But does that mean that everything has been said and done? What happens after this initial reaction, and how far does this identification actually extend? What are the questions that have been raised, and what should we do with these questions, assuming we are even able and willing to do something with them?

One thing that struck me about the initial reactions to the murderous attack on the editorial staff of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, was the unambiguous and definitive language being used to describe an event which was as horrible as it was complex. From the very first moment after the attack, even before we could think and talk with our friends and colleagues about what had happened, we were being exposed to opinions expressed and shared through various media.


The freedom which we enjoy, is certainly something that we must speak out to defend. In that sense it’s really quite simple. And of course we should immediately respond, particularly in marches and on city squares, or through social (as well as anti-social) media. However, there are also other, slower, more thoughtful ways of responding, articulating and reflecting upon something which is, in fact, utterly beyond our comprehension. This requires time as well as critical questioning. Questioning everything we read, hear, see and understand. It also requires us to empathize with perspectives other than the most obvious ones.

“It is a privilege to be able to distance ourselves and make fun of our own identity and ideals; but when people feel disrespected or even humiliated in their identity and ideals, then these can quickly degenerate into something entirely different. Everyone is familiar with the search and struggle for identity; but when this is combined with a feeling of homelessness, a need to connect and bond, to be valued and recognized, and to play a heroic role in a grand narrative, then this search and struggle can turn into something explosive. “

It was a privilege to be a staff member of Charlie, and it was a horror for those who died for that privilege. But I am not Charlie. And I have no idea what’s going on. I still don’t know what it is exactly I should be expressing myself for or against, to whom and in whose name. Next thing I know, I too may be tempted to use the rhetoric of the opponent.

I probably wasn’t the only one who read Annabel Nanninga’s “En nu is het oorlog” (“This is a declaration of war”) as a parody of some weird right-wing warmongering rhetoric, but also a parody of islamophobia. Actually I found her piece a rather brilliant exposure of how vulgar, simplistic, dualistic and just plain stupid our reactions can be in the face of something so terrible, something so terribly complex. If we manage to forget for a moment the author and the platform ‘Jalta.nl’, we can read the piece as an eloquently formulated caution.

Something is wrong here. What’s that supposed to mean exactly, “this is a declaration of war”? There’s been a war going on for ages; that’s the whole point! Except that it it’s been going on far away from here. And war, according to various thinkers including Hannah Arendt, has nothing to do with unrestrained hatred. Nor is it a matter of one hatred against another hatred. If only things were so simple, so symmetrical.

Yes, there is such a thing as a legitimate fight. One party is upset with the other and vice versa, there is a mutual understanding of the conflict, both parties use means which are appropriate and proportionate, eventually whoever wins is declared the winner and that’s that. But already long before the 9/11 attacks, the fight had become something more complex and tragic, something deeply asymmetrical and impossible to understand. Something that could never be reduced to this against that, for us or against us. Still, if I must: the unhinged powerlessness and antipathy of a few, exploding into sheer madness, into a nearly blind hatred that always goes hand in hand with resistance, with immediate and collective protest in the inflated name of our freedom.


I might say ‘not my freedom’, just like one might say ‘not my Islam’. It’s not so much a matter of our freedom, and it’s also not a matter of pointing this out to those who attack this freedom. I think they know very well what they are attacking and why. No one uses such methods when they could have done otherwise. I’m not trying to understand or defend such attacks; I’m trying to make some sense of why we simply cannot understand them – certainly not from the opposite poles of liberal freedom vs. Islamic fundamentalism, which seem to sustain rather than oppose or cancel out each other.

When my lover and I decided in 2007 to go to Beirut (as spoiled Dutch citizens, we had already visited Berlin and New York, went camping in France, and traveled through other parts of the world, but we hadn’t seen Lebanon yet), we were given a travel warning by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since our reason for travelling was not political but touristic, we followed the government’s advice and flew to Damascus instead. We had enough time, so we stayed there for more than a week, during which we traveled through Syria before finally crossing the border in a weird kind of taxi which brought us to Beirut.

Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ in the days when my father (who died long before his time) grew up in Egypt and was given a camera, a real Olympus, by his aunt from Beirut. In Beirut people were ‘modern’, a magical word. People had contemporary products, fashion, ideas and freedoms, art and humor. And in spite of a long and depressing history of civil wars, attacks and car bombs, Beirut in 2007 seemed to be an ‘interesting’ destination for us. However, just a few weeks before we booked our travel, a new ‘situation’ broke out. And ‘because of the situation’, many doors remained closed for us in Beirut. But still: what a city.

Previously, in Syria, we could not fail to notice the relative state of calm, diversity and coherence. We saw a wide variety of people and there appeared to be no visible or hidden threat. The hotel owner in Aleppo seemed proudly gay in his snake-leather boots and pink shirt; we saw women in various degrees of veiling and unveiling, in Hama and Latakia and everywhere else we went… We observed and we noticed. In a restaurant in Damascus we had an interesting conversation, which soon turned into a discussion, with two local residents, about the local situation and international politics; we drank without getting drunk, exchanged opinions without getting angry, and parted in a good mood, hoping we might run into each other again someday, in Damascus, Beirut, Paris or Amsterdam.

Where does it start?

Today of course, someone traveling from Amsterdam or Paris to Syria is not doing so to take part in an interesting exchange of views. People who leave a clean and safe country to go fight in a dirty war which is so complicated that no one truly understands it, is obviously driven by an extreme form of despair and ‘motivation’.

There seems to be two sides to this motivation: on one hand negative reasons, resulting from the accumulated, grown and cultivated experience of not really belonging to the country one is leaving behind; and on the other hand positive reasons, in the form of promises and ideals projected on the country where one is arriving, in this case Syria or another of the countries currently affected by the narrative of the so-called ‘Islamic State’.

It is a privilege to be able to distance ourselves and make fun of our own identity and ideals; but when people feel disrespected or even humiliated in their identity and ideals, then these can quickly degenerate into something entirely different. Everyone is familiar with the search and struggle for identity; but when this is combined with a feeling of homelessness, a need to connect and bond, to be valued and recognized, and to play a heroic role in a grand narrative, then this search and struggle can turn into something explosive.

Recruiting, training, forming a subculture, propaganda and brainwashing are all effective methods for convincing people of a goal and a strategy, for channeling a wide variety of motivations towards a single collective mission. This is nothing new, nor is it specific to any particular location. Anything that can help reinforce the fighting spirit and sharpen the focus is welcome. And hate is certainly a useful ingredient.

But does it necessarily start with hate? Does it not rather begin with confusion and frustration, with a feeling of not being at home anywhere, further fuelled by a sense of vulnerability, exclusion and humiliation, before finally ending in stateless terrorism in the inflated name of a god who certainly doesn’t need anybody’s help? And what is our answer to this unfortunate process, which inevitably ends in hate and violence?

Mystifying knot

It is somewhat arrogant and naïve to believe that we live in a truly free country, in which everyone is so satisfied with themselves and each other that freedom of speech, with or without humor, is always the very first thing that should be defended. Usually without humor to begin with, since humor requires time, as does nuance. So whatever happens, any rational analysis is always preceded by total outrage and defensiveness. As if anyone could ever forget all the liberties we enjoy, and the fact that no one should ever be allowed to deny us these liberties. Of course not. An act of terrorism is an attack, an expression of hatred and a denial of our freedom. And our freedom is a tremendous asset, something for which we have fought and will continue to fight. So, once again the same two poles.

It often seems as though we always go on struggling with one single method against one single problem. Everything is focused on defending our freedom against a fundamental attack upon this freedom. As if this wasn’t already blindingly clear; as if everyone didn’t already know and realize this. As if this didn’t amount to continuing the war with democratic means, and as if this wasn’t already universally known.

The tragedy is that this one single method is of so little use in preventing such extreme and relatively small-scale acts of terror. The result of the methods applied on both sides is that the problem remains trapped in a vicious circle. These methods make it impossible for us to clearly see the complexity of the issues and the many questions that remain unanswered. What exactly brings people to commit such acts, how such processes unfold, that is and remains the mystifying knot. And this knot drives both parties to madness, though on a different scale and with different forms of manifestation, presentation and representation.

Yet, there is almost no knot that cannot be at least partially unraveled. However this takes longer than the time needed to identify, capture or kill the perpetrators, and turn the whole event into a great narrative about freedom. Of course we must demonstrate, identify, join up or on the contrary distance ourselves. But it is intellectually lazy to not even ask ourselves what might bring a young person to volunteer to fight to the death, or else to survive such a fight as a witness of the most horrific murder and destruction.

Those who somehow survive do not come back frustrated, since it is precisely the most hopeless frustration which drove them to go there in the first place. In combination with the inevitable traumas, the effects of all this confusion and misery soon become impossible to contain. There is no way to understand how a young man can, in full consciousness, walk into an editorial room, call another person by his name and then shoot him dead.

Who are we?

There is a European country of departure, an Arabian country of arrival, and again a European country of return, and in all these places, something goes terribly wrong. So wrong that it becomes irreversible. If there’s any way this can be understood, it’s not through expressing dualisms and simple opinions, but rather by asking questions and trying to observe the phenomenon as though we’re seeing it happen for the first time, or by examining prior or similar events from a new perspective.

These may seem like inappropriate requests or unpleasant questions; but I see no point in banishing such thoughts from my mind, and focusing exclusively on defending that which is being attacked. It doesn’t help me to march with a sign in front of my face saying that I am Charlie. Identification is not the solution. It’s actually the problem.

Of course no one should shoot journalists and editors, no one should bomb villages, kill innocent civilians and children, no one should carry out attacks against train stations, trade centers and shopping malls. No one should, and yet such things happen. There’s no way we can defend these actions, but simply repeating that they are atrocities, is the same thing as emphasizing that rain is wet, or that pain hurts.

What we can do, as individuals, is to try to form some understanding of where and how it all began. Not in order to defend anyone’s violent acts, but rather from the desire to see the whole picture from the perspective of the impossibility of summing it up in simple terms; in other words, attempting to grasp the complexity.

What is our role, as ordinary citizens, as boys and girls who allow themselves to be recruited to fight for this or that state, as cartoonists, journalists, politicians, readers, viewers and artists? Fighting for something is often also a form of defense. Almost everyone wants to belong to something: if not a mass culture, then a subculture, even a sectarian fellowship or a fight club. What we fight for and why, is something we usually choose based on whatever it is that gives us some sense of security and connection. The fact that we forget, all too often, how this security is inevitably connected to the freedom or lack of freedom of others, is something that is tragically sad as well as terribly dangerous.

New imagery and ideas

Who will help us move on, with texts and drawings, beyond satire, if necessary with ‘group layout’ and role-playing exercises, in order to better understand the views of others, instead of automatically thinking we know better than them? In order to discover new perspectives on our own positions, and to help us better understand who all of us can be and become? In order to sharpen and strengthen the positions we take (while remaining open to the possibility of reevaluating them when necessary), not so that we may fight but so that we may act? A form of political action that goes further than chanting ‘hands off our freedom’ and ‘those who don’t understand this can go to hell?’ Acting takes time and requires critical questioning, thoughtfulness and doubt, as well as the courage necessary to reexamine old strategies and try out new ones.

We keep getting stuck in attacking and defending, in denying and confirming. Events such as these challenge us to think outside of predominant frameworks, categories, polarizations and categorizations; to explore and visually express that which we find lacking in mainstream visions. We have a unique ability to generate new experiences through images as well as bold, original strategies; to expand the public’s perception and interpretation; to turn received ideas inside-out or upside-down; and even to set new ideas in motion, sometimes almost imperceptibly.

Is liberty not the ability to think and explore freely, to experiment and use as many questions marks as you want? What will we do with all these question marks? What will I do?

Esma Moukhtar

(studied philosophy, teaches theory in art education and writes)

Translation by Joe Monk (commissioned by Florian Cramer, Research Center Creating 010, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences)