BY SHEIMA BENEMBAREK
I woke up on January 7th 2015 thrilled to begin the second semester of my graduate publishing studies and to continue as publisher of the On the Danforth magazine. Thrilled, that is, until I found out that eight staff members of the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had been shot and killed by Muslim extremists during their daily editorial meeting that morning. A dark day not only for those working in media and publishing, but for all.
As a publishing professional and a Muslim living in Canada for the past ten years, I was struck deeply on several levels. I was both angry and worried. Angry at these so-called Muslims who were, yet again, using my religion of peace to promote their distorted and sick message of hate. Worried that non-Muslims might react to their own confused pain with justified hostility. That morning, on the streetcar, I was devastated. “Not again,” I kept thinking. “Will I have to explain what real Islam is about? Will I have to listen to ignorant statements against my faith and tell myself that it’s a normal human reaction to such an atrocity? Will I have to stand up and declare that I am a Muslim and that the majority of us are well-adjusted and peace-loving individuals?”
Because I am an editor and a Muslim, both aspects of the disaster concerned me. I’ve always been uncomfortable discussing my religious beliefs. I can’t identify as a firm adherent of the faith, but I can’t deny that my Arab roots tie me to Islam culturally and spiritually. In these moments I struggle to vocalize a stance. I was also deeply heart-broken. Editors were shot and killed. Editors like myself and the other 38 publishing students in my program. A few friends even sent me messages expressing their outrage at what happened and mentioned how they thought of me when they heard editors had been executed in cold-blood.
At the end of that day, however, I was relieved to realize that my fears were unfounded for two reasons. Firstly, the people in my environment did not need my frantic explanations. Canadian society is open-minded and seeks to understand cultural and religious differences — many societies don’t. Secondly, I understood that this story is not about Islam. A true Muslim would never attempt to destroy another life. This tragedy is the result of political domination, strife, and inequality. Islam is simply an easy cover. I won’t get into the historical details and possible political reasons for such despicable acts of violence, as there are enough articles analyzing the many theories. But I’d like to bring up one specific article that discusses an angle of this situation that is both horrifying and informative. I had the pleasure of reading modern Middle East and South Asia academic/commentator Juan Cole’s article, Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris, that has been circulating the Web. I encourage you to look it up. It explores the notion that these types of horrific acts are a documented political strategy to heighten the misunderstandings between groups of people in order to create uncontrollable chaos and dividing hatred, a “strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians.” Cole expresses a thought, which I believe should come naturally to all of us, when he concludes: “Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance”.
If you would like some insight into the unfortunate makings of an Islamic fundamentalist, I recommend the 2012 film directed by Nabil Ayouch entitled Horses of God (Original French title: Les chevaux de Dieu). In this poignant film, Ayouch delves into the fateful lives of three young Moroccan men who end up being physically responsible for the 2003 Casablanca bombings. This film opens up the discussion about how human beings, like you and I, find themselves using perverted religious views to make sense of the horrors of poverty and inequality that are the breeding ground for religious extremism in the Arab world.
While I may not necessarily agree with everything that is published, such as the satirical cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, I support with every cell in my body the right to freedom of thought and expression. I’m not a political analyst, but I’m a Muslim and an editor in mourning. And as one of my professors reminded me, the only way to “fight” such atrocities is to go on. So please, let’s continue to have opinions and strive to not only understand our differences but also celebrate them.
Think, speak up and keep publishing!
Featured image from http://mashable.com/2015/01/07/charlie-hebdo-demonstrations/. Protesters raised pens during rallies in support of the victims of the attack. Article image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-the-papers-30737826.