I am a child of the War on Terror. 9/11 is my historical landmark. I still recall being in Math class when the news of the towers falling made it to my school. All the channels in Mexico featured the news, and most of us were in shock. It did not matter that several years before Salvador Allende had been killed on the same day on a US-supported military coup d’ etat, or that the EZLN had been fighting a seven-year war for autonomy and against the violence of the Mexican state and neoliberalism. These facts got little media attention and were blurred in the post-9/11 frenzy. What followed these events was the Mexican president, Vicente Fox, offering the US its “unlimited” support in the fight against terrorism and the organized crime. Thirteen years after that promise Mexico has over 80,000 dead people and thousands more who have “disappeared,” including 43 students in the tragedy now known as the Iguala Mass Kidnapping. Yet, the point, is that what I remember of my teenage years, are the Twin Towers falling, and the war(s) and policies that followed.
At the time of 9/11, I was neither Muslim nor did I live in a country with a big Muslim community. The 9/11 attacks triggered a variety of responses in Mexico. Some promoted conspiracy theories about George W. Bush secretly preparing the attacks to justify war. Others, saw the attacks as an anti-imperialist act that, although not justifiable, was expected. Some more felt empathy and offered their support to people in the US. Many of those had family members living in New York… actually, many Latin Americans, including an unofficial number of 15 Mexicans, died in the attacks. Nonetheless, one of the things that I will never forget was the general feeling that my generation’s history would be divided in two periods: before 9/11 and after 9/11. As a Latin American child, 9/11 presented to me, for the very first time, the idea that Islam was directly correlated with terrorism. The very limited knowledge that many of us had about Islam and Muslims was shaped by the media, political discourses and, above all, the fear of the West.
Since I moved to Canada, I have seen little change in the rhetoric. What followed were anti-terrorism laws, security protocols that often violate human rights, bans on hijabs and niqabs, anti-immigration movements, far-right parties appealing to the masses and policy proposals that seek to “contain” religion. We can also mention many harassment instances and attacks against “visibly” Muslim women, vandalism against mosques and racial profiling against those who are presumed to be Muslim, Eastern, “brown,” “black,” and anything in between.
Thirteen years later, 9/11 still lives. The structures that were created in response to those attacks continue to exist and to be reproduced. Guantanamo is still well and alive, along with many other facilities where torture and incarceration without fair trial happens. Many of those facilities are housed outside American soil… at the end of the day, many Americans do not want “to know” about human rights violations, and do not want the “criminals” in “their” country. But what is worse, I believe, is that these past thirteen years have given many people licence to perpetuate colonial stereotypes and Orientalist views about Islam, Muslims, people of colour and the Third World, in general.
9/11 made it O.K. to be scared, to feel hatred, to marginalize people of colour. This is not to say that this did not happen before, on the contrary, 9/11 provided the language for existing racist and discriminatory attitudes to be acceptable in everyday life. So pervasive was this rhetoric around the world, that it is not uncommon among “not-racist Latin Americans” (as they call themselves) to display the same racist and Islamophobic attitudes that many right-wing, white and privileged folks in Western countries do (never mind that many are treated with the same disdain).
It is with this background that I look at the Charlie Hebdo attack. First, I would like to express my condolences to the families of the victims, and to the communities that knew them. And I would like to recognize, that there are many forgotten victims and communities out there that have been affected by extremism (not only Muslim), but that have never made it to the media.
Then, I think a point needs to be made about the type of “satire” that the magazine upholds. Their satire further blurs the limits of freedom of speech by perpetuating stereotypes and creating material that is highly racist and Islamophobic. Although, that, by no means, justifies the attacks against the cartoonists, it does mean that Muslims living in France have probably dealt with the figments of racist and Islamophobic rhetoric that political cartoons in this magazine reinforce and promote.
Next, I would like to acknowledge that extremism is real. Extremism enables individuals to carry out violent acts by providing the language, the money, the weapons and the “right” targets. However, extremism is not inherently Muslim and will never be. Extremism exists across the board. It is even present in the political sphere through figures like Le Pen and Wilders. The issue is that how we define “extremism” is selective. Some extremists are allowed to provide policy advice, while others (often not the right colour or religion) are prosecuted or killed.
Muslims are being called to apologize for the attack on Charlie Hebdo and to condemn the acts, just like we have been asked to do in other instances (not too long in Canada)… And we can go ahead, release statements and apologize profusely, but after thirteen years of apologizing it is obvious that we are not being heard. More importantly, why are we being called to share the responsibility for terrorism and extremism? No one has apologized to Muslims for colonization, invasions, occupations, Islamophobia, anti-immigration policies, Palestine, etc. Do we even expect societies as a whole to be responsible for these? What is more, I hope I am wrong, but I foresee some difficult times for Muslims in France and other Western countries. Often times, targets are women of colour and women wearing hijabs or niqabs. Who will apologize to them and their communities?
So, where do we go from here? Omid Safi offers some hopes about France’s reaction. Yet, I think that much of what follows has to do with us and those who consider themselves allies. It is not about apologizing or going around condemning other’s actions. It is about caring for one another, making sure that despite our differences we work together. We do not have to like one another in the personal sense, that’s not realistic. But we can work together to resist, to bring awareness, to make sure we reach home safely, to address human rights violations, to empathise with one another, to support those who need it, and, above all, to commit to the ideals of social justice that many of us see embedded in Islam.