The new cover of the French publication Charlie Hebdo depicts the prophet Mohammed beneath the words “Tout est pardonne,” or “All is forgiven.” A columnist for the satirical newspaper said the headline is a message to the terrorists “that we can’t hate them.” But here in Dubai, many found the cover to be merely a continuation of Charlie Hebdo’s long proclivity to insult and confront Muslims. One colleague of mine who supports the cartoonists’ right to express themselves called it petty; another characterized it as childish. Yet another said: “It’s like they’re asking for trouble.”
Among the casualties of France’s 9/11 may be the relationship between Muslims and the West. After the horrific slaughter of 17 people in Paris, this already strained connection has been stretched to the breaking point.
Reactions to the terror are moving in different directions. The latest in a series of anti-Islam, anti-immigrant demonstrations in Dresden, Germany, reportedly drew 25,000 people, up from 18,000 at the gathering held before the Charlie Hebdo killings and from 350 when they began in October. Attacks on Muslims are on the rise in Europe.
But when world leaders gathered in Paris to mourn the dead, many in the Middle East wondered why there would be such an outpouring over 17 deaths when thousands have been killed in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere, and countless Muslims have been killed by drone strikes. They ask: Why are heads of state attending memorials for the Charlie Hebdo victims but not, say, for the 132 schoolchildren slaughtered in Pakistan in December?
To Muslims, it is bad enough that these children’s deaths appear to be taken less seriously in the West, but now cartoonists who drew purposefully offensive drawings are being hailed as heroes. I do not know anyone who sympathizes with the killers, but there are those who understand their anger.
Suspicion is flowing both ways. As nativist right-wing political groups such as Britain’s UKIP, Germany’s Pegida and France’s National Front gain popularity in Europe, Middle Easterners feel threatened and become defensive. Nobody in my classroom believes Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty. My students are convinced he is being set up. I explain that there appears to be a great deal of evidence against the young man, but they will have none of it. To them, the United States has a serious credibility problem.
Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, they remind me. To get to Osama bin Laden, the United States organized a fake vaccination drive in Pakistan. The United States told Syrian dictator Bashar Assad that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” but did not enforce it. The list goes on.
I tell my students that, although the cartoons are offensive, tasteless artists have the right to draw what they wish. We don’t have to look at their work. Some understand; some don’t. Part of the reason is cultural. In Middle Eastern society, we deny ourselves comfort to make someone else comfortable. That’s why one student said she wished the cartoonists had demonstrated self-restraint and not been insulting to so many religions and ethnicities. I tell her self-censorship is an unfortunate path.
Her reply: “Any more unfortunate than this one we’re on?”
Yasmine Bahrani is a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.