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The Dangers of Being Charlie Hebdo

I remember growing up in Baathist Iraq, just one example of a country destroyed by hypocritical notions of “freedom” and “democracy”, how school children, state employees, and people from different walks of life were expected to join the official state-sponsored and planned gatherings to show support for the Party, the President, and the nation. In such gatherings, most common slogans chanted included: “We are all Saddam Hussein”, “We all love Saddam Hussein,” and so on.

The connections between “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Saddam Hussein” are powerful. Undoubtedly, Many of those chanting “Je suis Charlie” are concerned about their freedom of expression and speech, just the same way Iraqi people loved their country and hoped for nothing less than a life of prosperity and freedom. But Iraqis, like French Muslims, also wished to have a political system that is fair, and treats each and every citizen with respect and dignity. Yet, going out to streets and chanting “we are all Saddam Hussein” was hardly the ideal way for Iraqis to have a meaningful dialogue to discuss their freedoms, frustrations, dreams, and aspirations with the ruling Party.

As such, it is fair to say that most of those who chanted such slogans probably did not mean them; they merely repeated such sound bites like parrots. Iraqis, to put their case into context, might have chanted for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: feeling intimidated by the regime, fearing that they would lose their jobs, or may send the wrong signal of being unsupportive of the Party’s teachings and ideology, and some may have truly believed in such slogans.

What is certain is that few dared to opt out, to speak their truth, and to pay a hefty price for doing so. Those who rebelled against the official script knew well that it is absurd to chant “we are all Saddam Hussein,” because they knew it was simply not possible to embody someone else, no matter how much we care about and feel connected to that person or the institution they represent. Indeed, how can anyone other than Saddam Hussein himself be Saddam Hussein? Can all Iraqis at once embody one man; know his intentions, how he feels, how he wakes up, how he sleeps, and how he thinks and acts?

These questions must be borne in mind just the same before we chant “je suis” any person, institution, or thought. What they simply tell us is that no person can truly get under the skin of another, let alone speak on behalf of another, even if that other is alive, let alone if they are dead. If not thought carefully, our solidarity for just causes can backfire, especially when we are selective in reacting against injustice.

And so, I am not Charlie Hebdo. Chanting the worn out, oppressive, and unfree slogan of “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” not only shows the strong connections between the ruling elites in different parts of the world, but it also shows that we the people are not thinking critically; that we are not taking seriously the consequences of claiming to be somebody about whose feelings, senses, intellectual mission, and, more importantly, intentions know little or nothing.

I am neither Charlie Hebdo staff nor their killers. I am neither the supporters of Charlie Hebdo nor the supporters of their killers. The killed and the killers are no longer, but I still am. My duty as a conscientious writer who didn’t know these people in person is not to be them. It is not to vilify or sanctify any party. And it is certainly not to assume what their message was and reduce that message to a short slogan like “Je suis Charlie.” Our role is to interrogate all actors involved in the crime—including the hidden ones—and try to understand not just how things are, but how they have become the way they are. To do so, we need to look at the problem from all angles and come up with explanations that are elaborate rather than shortcut, brutally critical rather than mesmerizing, and meaningful rather than claiming to be je suis this or je suis that.

Further, more pertinent to Middle East commentators, we need to acknowledge that being Middle East scholars does not automatically grant us a God-sent wisdom to comment on events on the same day or the next day they take place. We should think carefully before we condemn based on frenzy produced by mainstream reactions. As soon as the so-called Islamic State invaded the city of Mosul in Iraq, one of my friends said to me: “I can’t believe you still haven’t commented to condemn the evil ISIS.”

My response to him was: “I need to observe, follow, listen, and sense carefully before I can comment. For now, I have little to say about ISIS other than the fact that Syria has long been on the ‘axis of evil’ list and a pretext to intervene militarily in that country, without causing public outrage like that caused in Iraq and Afghanistan, had to be manufactured. If a reason for military action in Syria didn’t exist, it had to be invented.”

So, for all these reasons, I repeat once more: I am not Charlie Hebdo. I wish I could reincarnate into the bodies of the killed and the killers so I may truly tell you how each one of them felt and acted during their lives and at the moment of their death. Without this reincarnation, I can’t speak for them or on their behalf. As Emile Cioran says, “Anyone who speaks in the name of others is always an imposter.”

I am not an imposter. I don’t have any slogans of “freedom” to chant in the streets of Western Europe and North America, because some events, their consequences, and the actors orchestrating and benefitting from them take time to slowly unfold to observers who genuinely want to know what really happened. Likewise, many events are not what they are at the moment they take place. Rather, they are the accumulation of everything that has been happening up to the moment of their occurrence. The image of such events only emerges to us like our faces emerge slowly in the bathroom mirror after long and steamy showers.

Louis Yako is an Iraqi-American poet, writer, and a PhD student of cultural anthropology researching Iraqi higher education and intellectuals at Duke University.

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Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.

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