Je suis Charlie Hebdo

I’ve been very quiet on FaceBook lately and my promise to keep a blog for 2015 has fallen by the wayside. However, I am taking a course in my master’s program at Mount Saint Vincent University in Media, Culture and Society. I thought I would post the journal entries that I have been submitting. This was submitted on January 20, 2015.

Fourteen years after the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, I still don’t understand Islamist terrorists. These last few weeks, while I was reading about communication theory and society, I have also been trying to understand the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the aftermath that lead to the death of seventeen victims and three gunmen. Somewhere in my media bath that week, the phrase “conflicting narratives” attached itself to this event. This essay is my attempt to parse meaning from the actions of Wednesday, January 7th and the week that followed.

First I had to reject my preconception that the medium of the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Boko Haram is the Internet. In his first chapter of “Understanding Media” (1964) Marshall McLuhan explains that a night time baseball game is possible because of the electric light—therefore the light is the medium and the baseball game is the content. The content is a “matter of indifference”—it could be a baseball game, it could be brain surgery. What is important is that human association and activity has happened because of the electric light (McLuhan 8). Federman, in his very helpful essay “What is the meaning of the medium is the message?” defines a medium as anything from which a change emerges. That change in human association and activity is McLuhan’s message.

After the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office, Western media drew attention to the cartoons in that week’s issue of that magazine. Media panels debated both sides of the perceived issue: freedom of press versus offensive content. But the content of the Charlie Hebdo magazine was a matter of indifference. The medium that the Islamist terrorists used was violence, and the message was the reaction to that violence in the Western world.

In The Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland) columnist Gwynne Dyer said the Paris gunmen acted out a sophisticated strategy as part of a Muslim civil war over modernity. Despite the innocent people killed last week in Paris, even adding seven thousand killed in New York and victims in London and Bombay, the overwhelming majority of deaths in this civil war are Muslims killed by other Muslims. The message of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission” (Dyer 2015). The message was the reaction of the West to that violence.

Islamist terrorists include many groups that disagree with each other, but are united in their disapproval of modernization in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, for the terrorists, most Muslims like modernity. Violence outside of the Muslim world, in Paris last week, is not to send a message to Westerners but to modernized Muslims. Islamists claim that democracy, free press, and Western education, are acts of colonization. An attack on a Western target triggers Western military invasions into Muslim countries, proving the jihadi contention that modernity is a Western plot (Dyer 2015).

I don’t want to minimize the deaths of seventeen innocent people. But this event perfectly fits the four characteristics of what Daniel J. Boorstin called a “pseudo-event”.

  1. It was not spontaneous. On the evening of the shooting a security expert on CBC’s The National, with nothing but an amateur video to analyze determined that these were professionals acting on a plan.
  2. It was designed for reproduction. One of the three gunmen, Cherif Kouachi, gave credit to al-Qaeda in Yemen, in an interview with a journalist (IBT 2015). This interview was taped during the hostage taking. A video was released two days after the death of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman in the Paris kosher supermarket. In the pre-recorded video Coulibaly pledged allegiance to ISIS (CBC News, January 11, 2015).
  3. Both released statements had an ambiguous relationship with reality. “We are not killers! We are defenders of the Prophet,” Kouachi told his interviewer. (IBT 2015) In real news events journalists tell us what happened, but reports of Coulibaly’s video and Kouachi’s interview explored motive and their conflicting claims of allegiance. Like all media releases, the content of their press statements was predictable and of little interest to Western audiences.
  4. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The cover of the next issue of Charlie Hebdo was a cartoon of the Prophet weeping with the words “All is forgiven.” In the Western narrative this was a gracious response, showing how the true Mohammed would feel about the killings. Western media largely represented the event as an attack on the freedom of the press, but modern Muslims were the targets of the violence. Modern Muslims were not reconciled by the cartoon image of the Prophet, but were offended and it placed them in a difficult position. The jihadists accused the West and modern Muslims of blaspheming. By representing the image of Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo showed that the jihadists were right, and any Muslim who said “Je suis Charlie” was demonstrably a blasphemer. It could be argued that the terrorists designed Charlie Hebdo’s cover cartoon.

In a sense all communication is a crude caricature, a clumsy attempt to say who we are and what we value. As our technology grows lighter, our world shrinks, our social contacts grow and our messages can be misunderstood by, and offensive to more people. The Islamist terrorists have discovered how to use media to create social change. But we need to understand more than how to use the media. We need to know when we are being played, and not continue to give violence a positive feedback loop. In a media-saturated society, we need to learn how to control both the medium and the message. Events like the attacks in Paris are recruitment tools attracting Western-raised and educated youth to join the Islamist terrorists. The West is in danger of losing a communications battle over the hearts and minds of modern Muslims because we don’t know what we are saying.

Boorstin, D. (1961). The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Random House.

Dyer, G. (2015, January 17). “There’s a strategy behind the Paris attacks.” The Telegram. p. 18A.

Federman, M. (2004, July 23). “What is the meaning of the medium is the message?” Retrieved from http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm .

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill.

(2015, January 11). “Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly pledges allegiance to ISIS in video.” CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/paris-gunman-amedy-coulibaly-pledges-allegiance-to-isis-in-video-1.2897127

Riva, Alberto. (2015, January 9). “Cherif Kouachi, Charle Hebdo Killer, Told French TV He Was Sent By Al Qaeda.” International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/cherif-kouachi-charlie-hebdo-killer-told-french-tv-he-was-sent-al-qaeda-1779176

(2015, January 9). “Timeline/ Charlie Hebdo shooting: Key events in the attacks.” CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/charlie-hebdo-shooting-key-events-in-the-paris-attacks-1.2896084

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