Demonizing and Othering in the Wake of Charlie Hebdo Killings

Juan Cole’s statement “Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.” pretty well sums up to motivational goal that promotes Al-Qaeda recruiting.

But here’s the problem: most people are versed only in one religion and perhaps not well versed in it.  Most don’t care to compare other religions with their own nor explore their precepts.  And, so people are isolated and view followers of other religions as somewhat different from themselves.  Historically in the west this has been the setting, especially concerning Islam.  Since 9-11, the ignorance about the precepts of Islam has created a setting in which the media’s overwhelmingly slanted response of the followers of this religion may only solidify further a western construction of the follower of Islam as little more than a “self-virtuous murderer seeking Divine reward”.

Media often slants, skews and exploits reporting in order to draw and recruit followers to their own services. After all it is by and large a capitalistic enterprise. As a product of the goal to sell stories and capture the civilian audience a public or crowd-like frenzy may be constructed. Consequently, within such a climate of fear it takes very little truth or evidence to drive the crowd like, emotion driven behavior of the citizenry. The response may be fear, hate, love, sympathy or ambivalence to “the other”.  Hence, in our post 9-11 era non followers of Islam are swept along in a current which readies them to discredit and strike out against the other; followers of Islam. Once an other, is demonized people are desensitized in their behavior toward treatment of the other. Similarly, the follower of Islam has become the other.  The entire group of individuals are being pressed into a constructed mold where individuality is blurred into a singular identity.

One outcome of this process of demonizing and othering is polarization of the group identities.  Once polarized social institutions and organizations my victimize the groups who may move along blindly, responding to concepts such as patriotism, God, racism, phobias and the like  Both polarized groups come to see their identity turning on religion as Islam or non-Islam.  Ironically the defining concept of religion has been constructed by external forces rather than the internal precepts associated with each religion and tradition.

Now the groups are poised for exclusivity and there follows an escalating spiral that feeds fear, distrust and ultimately the potential to hate the other. This may ultimately and ironically create among a few who are being demonized a desire to join act out the externally created identity.  In short to become a terrorist, seek out a terrorist group or act alone, and become “the best at” what has been imposed upon them. This analysis is similar to criminological Defiance Theory where the ‘actor of the perceived criminal behavior’ interprets that their punishment is unjust, wrongful and inequitable treatment by the status quo.  Ultimately the unjust treatment may create within the accused a desire to fulfill the prophesy. Moreover they seek not only fulfill the externally imposed identity, but be the very best at playing out the new role assigned them. Simply put a group that is wrongfully and unjustly singled out and sanctioned for a prolonged period may create within some members of the group a desire to become what they were not; and lead to a decision to be the best at what society fears.

In closing, let me emphasize that no action taken such as that taken by the perpetrators of the killings at Charlie Hebdo can be accepted.  The perpetrators must be caught and suffer the full consequences of the legal authority, else we have chaos in society.  I extend to the family, friends and acquaintances of those murdered at Charlie Hebdo, including Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, and Berbard Verlhac (Tignous) and all others.

Malcolm L. Rigsby J.D., Ph.D. is assistant professor of Sociology and Coordinator of Criminal Justice in the U.S.  He is a publication peer reviewer, is published in journals and news columns, is active in presentations in sociology and criminology and serves on discussion panels. His interests include social movement, religious conversion in prison, comparing Islamic and Christian conversion, and transforming sociality.  He is active in documentary film review and travels in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle-east