It has been a difficult two weeks on Earth. There were, of course, the horrific Charlie Hebdo, police, and hostage murders that took place in Paris. I recently read that Saudi Arabia has carried out its 10th execution – beheading, that is – of the year. Which is to say, of the last two weeks. Perhaps most horrific of all, the entire town of Baga in Nigeria was razed to the ground, with what Goodluck Jonathon and his mates would like us to believe left behind 150 dead bodies, whilst in Realityville is looking much more like 2000+.
It is not easy being human these days.
Trying to wrap my head around the violence and brutality in the world leaves me feeling adolescent; I want to shout at the teacher, why? But there is no teacher anymore. Adulthood can be terribly lonely. I just read an excellent article written by an Israeli activist named Lilach Ben David called “Losing my faith in humanity: six years since Operation Cast Lead.” And whilst I do so with great respect and humility, I would like to take this opportunity to contradict Ms. David in one respect: she has not lost her faith in humanity. Otherwise, she wouldn’t continue to be committed to what often seems like a losing battle six years later.
Consequently, in spite of her article’s title, her life and her work serve to do just the opposite for me and her readers. When all hope seems lost, we must force ourselves to recall that there are many thousands of great heroes out there fighting to put things right, and they are making gains, if very slowly.
Charlie Hebdo wasn’t for everybody. I bought a copy of the weekly not long after we moved to France, amused by its bright, provocative cover. Now I can’t even remember the cover, but at the time I found it quite shocking. My French was horrible, but my sense of American prudishness (puritanism?) made it difficult to find humor in all the penises. C didn’t waste too much time trying to help me understand – we both adore satire, and we both appreciate that sometimes it’s too vulgar for our tastes – but then, that’s the whole damn spirit of the thing!
The very best of all humor comes from the very basest, darkest parts of us: depression, rage, violence, and even -isms have all made for deliciously silly comedy, as Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chapelle, Gary Trudeau, Jon Stewart, Woody Allen, George Carlin, and so many more (I wish more females were on this list, and I blame my lack of culture, in addition to decidedly chauvanist slant of this particular artistic medium) have proven. Not everybody gets it. Okay.
In keeping with the stream-of-consciousness nature of this post, I will switch tracks for a moment. The two men who were at the heart of this whole mess were brothers. The Kouachi brothers came from the Parisian suburbs, which, for those who may not be aware, are the opposite of the American model. In France, as in much of Europe, the wealthiest live in the inner cities, whilst the poorest live in the outskirts. Much can be said – and has been said in the last several days – about the intense isolation felt by many French Muslims, many of whom come from former French colonies. As any member of the first generation (i.e., the children of immigrants) will attest, there is often a deep sense of disconnection at this generation of a family’s immigration. Young Jamaicans with whom I worked – both as colleagues and beneficiaries – in London told me how they felt neither British nor Jamaican, particularly with regard to how they were seen. That is to say, when visiting Jamaica, they were considered British, but in their hometowns in London boroughs, they were considered Jamaican. Never belonging, always apart, always other, always outside. This, of course, extends beyond mere sentiment and into life experience: schools, employment opportunities, and day-to-day events are not the same for those perceived as “other” in any society, and this can have a profound impact on a person’s behaviour. Sometimes it is to empower them to effect change in a positive way; very rarely (and I think we underappreciate just how rarely) it is to drive them to desperation to force change in a violent way.
So the Kouachi brothers were easy targets for those looking to groom the disenfranchised. They were vulnerable, and their sense of detachment was addressed by those seeking to exploit vulnerabilities for destructive purposes.
A very sad side effect, among many sad effects, was that in murdering these cartoonists they perceived to be insulting their faith, they also murdered cartoonists whose work insulted the mistreatment of the socially and economically disadvantaged of the world…namely, the Kouachi brothers. It is grotesquely unfair to fixate on Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of religious groups. They take the piss out of religion, politics, celebrities – anything that puts the wrong wind in society’s sails, moving it away from progress and enlightenment. Charlie Hebdo never mocked Islam – they provoked those who thought it acceptable to commit acts of violence against those who laughed at them.
They shat on social mores to remind us that, while teachers and doctors and chefs should be going about their business of teaching and treating and cooking, satirists should also go about theirs. And that is to make people stop and think about things we take for granted in a different way, in a very uncomfortable way, even in an enraging way – because there is a problem with the status quo.
Context. Is. Everything.
What if the Kouachi brothers had met someone like my Sociology teacher from community college, who gave form and substance to the things I knew were wrong with the world, but I couldn’t articulate? What if they met someone who, instead of using them as weapons, saw them as beautiful human beings? What if someone helped them to understand the rich complexity of the world, rather than feeding the stupid human notion of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong?
Yesterday I rejoiced a little when I heard that Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi would not receive his second of twenty sets of 50 lashings to be carried out every Friday, because a doctor deemed his health too poor to endure them. This man, who has articulately – and courageously – presented his political views in a blog, hoping it might serve as a forum for public discourse for people disenchanted with the Saudi government, did not cry out when they beat him the first time, in spite of what must have been unbearable pain.
Since it opened in September last year, Dr. Taj Hargey’s gay-friendly mosque in South Africa has been firebombed three times, and yet he refuses to shut down. At the entrance to the mosque, he has painted some gentle reminders: “Gender Equality,” “Intercultural,” “Qu’ran-centric.”
Lassana Bathily, a Muslim immigrant working at the Kosher grocery where the hostage crisis took place last week in Paris, could have run. He could have simply fended for himself. Instead, he risked his life to save six others, and then presented himself to the police to help in any way he could.
Chelsea Manning. Raed Fares. Glen Greenwald. Rachel Parent. Malala Yousafzai. Ilham Tohti. Ghoncheh Ghavami. And many hundreds if not thousands more…
Here’s hoping that Lilach Ben David and her ilk – our modern-day heroes – do not lose their faith in humanity, because their courage and activism is the lifeblood of my faith in the species. But we must remember they are out there, fighting the good fight, with the right sort of weapons, for our rights and freedoms as well as those of the generations to come.
We must remember we are not alone. We are inextricably dependent upon one another’s behaviour, but also upon their hope and faith. We are together. Nous sommes ensemble.
Je suis vous, et vous êtes moi.