In the wake of the massacre at the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, the American media, both mainstream and social, has almost become a satire of itself. We have a media landscape in which everyone feels the need to say everything there is to say about an event within the first few days afterward, and which rewards those with the loudest voices and the hottest and most controversial takes. Americans who had surely never even read an issue of Charlie Hebdo decided to twist what the magazine stood for to fit their predetermined agendas based on what seems like a few Google image searches for a small sample of its cartoons.
To some, they were the bad boy defenders of free speech who were really righteously sticking it to those reactionary Muslims. To others, they became a racist magazine who used their satire to punch down. We are in the somewhat surreal situation of using the chilling murder of satirists to discuss ethics in satire journalism.
This has lead to an frankly bizarrely earnest hashtag war between #JeSuisCharlie and #JeNeSuisPasCharlie.
If ever you've doubted American media and discourse is going down the toilet in the internet age, then there is no better evidence than the fact that we've responded to a major tragedy that could have far reaching effects across the globe by arguing over the proper use of Twitter hashtags to represent how we feel about silly cartoons.
Unfortunately, no one actually decided to explain to America what exactly Charlie Hebdo was before we all made up our minds about it. Thankfully, the internet did reply, a little slowly, by filing itself up with articles putting what, at face value, seemed like the magazine's most controversial cartoons into context. Here's one, and another, and one explaining why its similar to South Park, and one more and here's an entire website devoted to it.
Though, to get a full understanding of what the magazine stood for, you can't just cherry pick and discuss its most outrageous cartoons. Head over to Charlie Hebdo's Facebook page to view a wide selection of the magazine's covers from the past five years.
You'll notice that, in fact, the Prophet Muhammed was not even close to being Charlie Hebdo's most frequent cover star. That honor belongs to a rather angry looking woman with shoulder-length blonde hair. Understanding who that woman is is much more important to understand exactly what is going on in France right now and the potentially dangerous fallout it could lead to.
Meet Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front National party, a far-right, and many would say fascist and straight up Islamaphobic, organization that is currently the country's third largest party. Le Pen inherited leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie, a loudmouthed man who had been convicted of racism and inciting racial hatred at least six times. Since taking control, Marine Le Pen has worked hard to rehabilitate the party's image by putting a more politically correct face on policies that are still inherently racist, and she's been rather successful at it too.
The Front National shocked much of the world by coming in first place in France in last year's European Parliamentary elections (Charlie Hebdo was not pleased), and they only seem to be gathering more power. Recent polls suggest Marine Le Pen has a real chance of being a contender in France's 2016 presidential elections.
So what does Le Pen stand for? Well, your basic mix of nationalistic and fascist policies. She want to put an immediate halt on all immigration to the country, and eventually wants to cut the amount of immigrants allowed in each year to just 5 percent of the current levels. (Indeed, Muslims are the biggest immigrate group in France). She wants to pass stricter laws to deport Islamic "fundamentalists," but that some worry could be used to deport any Muslim for any reason whatsoever. She wants to use France's traditions of secularism to strip Muslims of their identity. She wants laws that would make it easy to strip French nationality from immigrants for just about any reason. She wants to enact "French First" policies in employment and welfare. And while she's careful with her language, she has at times made statements that bely her anti-Muslim immigrant stance. She's blasted restaurants that provide halal meat as "bowing down" to Islamic extremists. She's also compared Muslims praying in streets to the Nazi occupation of France. Time and time again she's said that its up to Muslim immigrants to prove that they are worthy of French citizenship and most work to be truly French, whatever that means. This of course is all rather ironic coming from the country that gifted us the Statue of Liberty, the most famous pro-immigration monument in the world.
Now, if a European politician whose policies all seem to point to the fact that France's biggest problems are a small religious-ethnic minority group sound a bit familiar to you, well, Charlie Hebdo was right there to spell it out for you.
In a twisted bit of Irony, it is Le Pen and her Front National that could possibly politically benefit the most from the murders of some of her fiercest critics. Le Pen staged her own counter-march to last weekend's demonstration by French and World leaders. She's also taken to the press to use the attacks to bolster support for her party's policies.
But, of course, one can't talk about the Hebdo massacre without talking about those who carried it out.
Despite what you might have heard on Fox News, the goal of most Islamic extremists is not to invade our countries and put Sharia law in all our courts and halal meat in all of our school cafeterias. Perhaps a few groups' wildest plans involve one day seeing the Islamification of the West, but that's really the final step in a 100 part plan. It is not the Islamic extremists' immediate goal, and most would rather see the West weakened to the point that it has no influence in the Middle East at all.
They also frankly don't care that much if Westerners make crude drawings of Mohammed once in a while. In the larger scheme, thats used as justification to carry out provocative acts of terrorism with larger goals in mind.
Islamic extremists are also no friends to moderate Muslims, especially those who have immigrated to the West. This should be obvious by now, considering Al Qaeda and its cousin organizations have killed vastly more Muslims than they have Westerners. They really don't care about Muslims being offended by cartoons, because, well, for the most part they really don't care about Muslims who have immigrated to France.
In fact, Al Qaeda was born to combat Western influence in the Middle East and moderate Muslims in the area who supported it. Islam forbids the killing of other Muslims, but Al Qaeda's operations are only possible because they decided to distort the religion by deciding that more moderate, secular, or Western Muslims were not in fact real Muslims, and therefor free game to kill.
Now perhaps you're thinking, Radical Islamists want to keep the Middle East free of any outside influence or cultural views of anyone who is not quite "Islamic" enough by their twisted standards as an enemy. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen wants to keep France free of outside influence by twisting the country's tradition of secularism to its extremes and kicking out or disenfranchising any immigrants who she doesn't think have proven to be "French" enough. Those sound like eerily similar world views. Indeed, in a strange way the politics of radical Islam and the politics of Fascist party's like Le Pen's Front National are two sides of the same coin.
And that's where things get potentially dangerous, and Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers who directly carried out the attack, are a haunting reminder of that. They were born in France, but in part because of lingering Islamaphobia in France (which does exist in less extreme ways beyond Le Pen's parties) never quite felt that they belonged. These are exactly the types of people terrorist organizations target for radicalization.
One of the things that the vast majority of Al Qaeda recruits have in common is the fact they did not grow up in very religious households. This is how Al Qaeda is then able to indoctrinate them with their perverted, murderous view of the religion. Terrorists organizations who target the West also greatly prize potential recruits from the region. (Many of the 9/11 terrorists had experience living in the West.)
France also has the largest Mulsim population in Western Europe. Though because French law forbids keeping track of people by their ethnicity and religion, it's hard to come across concrete numbers, but it's estimated that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the country is now made up of Muslims. Muslims in France are also, as a group, some of the most irreligious Muslims in the world. At best, many of them only observe Ramadan out of tradition, and that's about it. They also by and large say they feel more French than Middle Eastern, but many still feel that their advancement in French society is limited simply because of their ethnicity.
Much like Marine Le Pen can benefit from the Charlie Hebdo murder, Islamic extremists could benefit from Marine Le Pen and Islamaphobic politicians like her being swept into power across Europe and especially in France.
Le Pen's most extreme policies could create scores of potential recruits who feel that they now have no place in France. Al Qaeda would love to see nothing more.
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She wants to deport any Muslim that she deems any sort of threat regardless of whether they are, but does she really think that they'll go back to Middle East or Africa and live peaceful lives? No. In fact, they'll return and be prime targets for recruitment by Islamic terrorist organizations.
And we could talk about these things, or, you know, we could just use hashtags to complain about how we found some out-of-context cartoons by some recently murdered satirists problematic. Whichever.