Je Suis Charlie: What it Means to Identify with Charlie Hebdo

The terrorist attack by “radical” Muslims on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo left twelve people dead and many more wounded, and it has created a show of solidarity for “free speech” all over the world. But what does all of it really mean?

There are many voices of opinion on the matter. A few have explained the attack as revenge for French foreign and domestic policy. Others have blamed Charlie Hebdo for publishing ill-advised cartoons aimed at nothing more than baiting and antagonizing Islam. Nearly everyone is joining in the chorus of “Je suis Charlie,” however. I am Charlie, they say.

It reminds me of the We are Virginia Tech mantra that sympathizers employed to push back the phantom waves of malice that had washed over Virginia Tech in the form of a serial shooting then suicide. These words reek of desperation. As if some show of solidarity now will make a difference. But it really won’t. All it does is join us all together in victimhood.

Charlie Hebdo largely stood alone before it was targeted. Very few other institutions were willing to expose themselves to the threat of violence by poking fun at Islam. It’s why Charlie Hebdo was able to be targeted. What could radical Muslims really do if everyone were engaging in some form of organized protest to the evils of Islam? And what would have happened if Charlie Hebdo had been allowed to arm themselves with more than just cartoons?

The fact is that we are not all Charlie. Cowards in office and cowards in offices have made Charlie Hebdo a lone target. I don’t agree with everything Charlie Hebdo said or did. I think a lot of what they did was tacky and tasteless at best, in fact. But I still believe they were attacking Islam in the best possible way—by not taking it seriously. I say that even after Muslims attacked Charlie Hebdo, and I understand that sounds like a foolish conclusion.

Many will say that Charlie Hebdo made the mistake of not taking Islam seriously, and that is precisely why they’re where they are now. No. That’s just the point of terrorism. Terrorism targets the fearless first. Because killing the fearless is a two-pronged attack. It removes the biggest threat to terrorism’s power, for one, by actually killing those who refuse to be terrorized. But secondly, it also encourages cowards to double down on their cowardice.

It’s strange to me that I wrote about this very thing a mere week before the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

Muslims take themselves so seriously, and they demand that everyone else in the world take them seriously (or else!), but then they make and promulgate this kind of zany stuff [the “How to Stab a Jew” video, in this instance], and you just sit there thinking, “How can I take these guys seriously?” I understand this video is vile. But I think perhaps being horrified by it is the less healthy and effective response. Muslims want us to watch this video and be outraged and intimidated. But what if we just laughed at Islam instead?

So, at the end of the day, if you really want to say with any degree of honesty that “I am Charlie”… if you want to be part of the defense of free speech, and the attack on Muslim terrorism, be willing to engage in the solidarity of Charlie Hebdo’s courage. And not just solidarity in its victimhood.

It’s fitting that the motto of Charlie Hebdo sympathizers should be I am Charlie rather than We are Charlie. Because one of the central lessons to learn from Charlie Hebdo is this: if you stand against the manipulations of terror even to the point of death, you should be prepared to stand alone.