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The Politics of Provocation: What the Firebombing of Charlie Hebdo Magazine Means

We refrained from commenting on the controversy surrounding the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for several reasons. First, before the firebombing it was quite clear that the piece and the accompanying front cover cartoon of Prophet Muhammad saying “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing” while distasteful and stupid to many, was protected and legitimate under free speech.

The cartoon itself however did have elements of Islamophobia, just take a look at it:

You have the cartoonish hook-nosed-goofy-smirking-Ayrab-Mooslim with some weird looking turban on his head.

Charlie Hebdo knew what it was doing, they wished to provoke, they created a buzz and got world-wide media attention for their magazine which had little following outside of France.

A proper response by those offended or upset would have been to peacefully protest, or to satirize the Charlie Hebdo publication, or to do as most have done and simply ignore it.

Alas, some idiot firebombed the Charlie Hebdo offices. Who did it, we don’t know yet, but in the media the presumption is it’s a Muslim. According to reports,

A police official cited a witness saying that someone was seen throwing two firebombs at the building.

Muslims under the spotlight again because of some lone-wolf’s actions have universally condemned the firebombing.

No one has claimed responsibility but let’s assume this “someone” is a pissed off French Muslim for now, that would make it 1 guy out of 5 million French Muslims responding to the magazine with violence. Not really the expected conflagration of riots, embassy burnings, deadly protests, etc. that the Islamophobesphere hoped for.

Let’s be real, the Islamophobes want another Danish Cartoon controversy so they can gloat and further their ideology of excluding Muslims from Western society. That’s what they wished for after Geert Wilders released the movie Fitna, and they failed. It’s what they wished for during the tempest-in-a-teapot South Park controversy, and they failed.

It is also important to once again note the double standards involved. It isn’t as if Islam or Muslims have a monopoly over violence against perceived offenses to sacred subjects. The website What If They Were Muslim makes that much clear! It wasn’t hard to find this story, from France itself about Christians destroying a piece of artwork they found offensive:

April 20, 2011

ANDRES Serrano’s Piss Christ has been destroyed by Christians who broke into a French gallery and slashed the photograph after weeks of protests.

The New York photographer’s controversial work shows a small crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine.

It outraged the US religious right in 1987, when it was first shown. It was vandalised in Melbourne in 1997, and neo-Nazis ransacked a Swedish show by the artist in 2007.

Why wasn’t the above, as serious a story as the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo, treated the same way in the media? Why do we not hear about the incompatibility of Christianity and modernity? Why do we not hear cries for limiting the practice of Christianity in the West? Why do we not hear pundits and intellectuals pontificating about the unique inability of Christianity to take satire and ridicule? Because Christianity is not the “other.”

Lastly, the untold context in which this French saga must be viewed is the souring relations between the French establishment and their Muslim minority. Islam has been “otherized” in France and across Europe, just as it has in the States, but in France it is taken to the next level.

In the past few years, anti-Muslim bigotry has risen to epidemic proportions. The hijab was banned from public schools, the face veil has been banned altogether, and after a surge in popular support for Marine Le Pen’s anti-Muslim nationalist party, Sarkozy and co. instituted an unprecedented “national dialgoue” on Islam.

According to a recent report Islamophobia is rapidly on the increase in France as it is elsewhere in Europe, and just today we have news of another arson attack on a French Mosque by an anti-Muslim group called Lucky Escapes:

Paris – A mosque in eastern France was damaged after unknown attackers set fire to the building using a burning rubbish bin early Thursday, France 3 television reported.

The head of the mosque in Montbeliard, located about 170 kilometres south of Strasbourg, near the German border, discovered the fire when he arrived to open the building for morning prayers, the report said.

One wall was badly damaged. The attack on the mosque is the second in a month, according to France 3.

A group calling itself Les Echappees Belles (The Lucky Escapes) claimed responsibility for the incident in tracts left near the mosque. The group – believed to be a group of women loosely influenced by right-wing extremists, according to France 3 – had claimed responsibility for setting fire to the mosque’s van in October.

All this of course in no way justifies the bombing of Charlie Hebdo. However, it provides much needed perspective on the politics of provocation as well as to the deep double standards not only inherent in the biased Islamophobesphere but also in the uncritical media.

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