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British media dips toe into abyss of Hebdo attack Open in fullscreen

Tim Llewellyn

British media dips toe into abyss of Hebdo attack

All the whats, whens, whos, and wheres - but no whys [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2015

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The British public was given all the drama of the assault on the satirical magazine in Paris, but received little in the way of an explanation as to why it happened.

As the Charlie Hebdo attack began to unfold on Wednesday, it occurred to me that whenever Islam or the Middle East is in the headlines, the British media covers the what, the who, the how, the when and the where, but never the "why".

British television did its usual professional job concerning the events as they happened, but as the day ran on there was little explanation of any intelligent or searching kind, and the newspapers the next day were little better.

It was all about "freedom of speech", an "assault by barbarians on all the values we hold dear". Voltaire, inevitably, was wheeled out. It was all about a few odious and insulting cartoons. We were all Charlie Hebdo, except many of us were and are not, refusing to equate freedom to speak out and criticise as we may any faith, political party or leader or even god, with racist and demeaning depictions of revered figures.

Asghar Bukhari, the head of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, pointed out in a lively exchange on Sky news with neocon Douglas Murray, of the Henry Jackson Society, that it is one matter for, say, the Private Eye magazine to ridicule establishment figures who can take it, such as Tony Blair, David Cameron and even the British Queen, but quite another to excoriate in unpleasant depictions the already downtrodden who have no such defensive mechanisms.

Pain and fear in Paris - Reem Abd Ulhamid reports on the mood in one mixed neighbourhood


Few British newspapers or broadcasters had the nerve to point out in the midst of all the pro-democracy and Enlightenment proclamations that Hebdo's editors and cartoonists knew what they were doing and expected trouble - their offices had been attacked with fire-bombs after they depicted the Prophet on their front page in 2009.

There is a flaw at the centre of much British and western journalism and in our political system: and that is that explanation is conflated with justification. No one civilised or humane, religious or not, could condone what happened in Paris on Wednesday morning, but it took at least 48 hours before most of the media looked more deeply.

On Thursday Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian that we must not treat the attack "as an act of war". Satire, he said, "is one of democracy’s most vital weapons… ridicule reaches the parts of the political and personal psyche that reason cannot touch." Maybe. But where does satire stop and racist abuse begin?

The brilliant American graphic artist Joe Sacco, who has done such poignant and revealing work in Palestine, took a page in the Guardian on Saturday to display his own belief in press freedom and his disapproval of Hebdo's "vapid way" of using a pen, "tweaking the noses of Muslims".

He compared the Hebdo cartoons with 1930s US caricatures depicting black people as monkeys, and the Nazi depictions of Jews as hawk-nosed predators obsessed with money.

UK law would prevent the Hebdo cartoons being published. In France, a double standard reigns. The magazine fired a cartoonist for alleged anti-Jewish sentiment.

     There is a flaw at the centre of much British journalism and in our political system: explanation is conflated with justification.


But there are wider questions than those of the cartoons. On Radio 4's Any Questions on Friday. Majid Nawaz, a former Egyptian political prisoner who is now a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, thought the gunmen attacked Hebdo in an attempt to convince their brothers-in-arms-and-religion that Muslims cannot live among and beside non-Muslims.

Another familiar theory in the British media was that the attackers aimed to force Western societies to limit the very freedoms they boast of. If so, they appear to have been successful - by Friday, the head of the MI5 was calling for stricter and enhanced surveillance. Max Hastings echoed his appeal in Saturday’s Daily Mail. We are to believe, it seems, that more restrictions on our freedoms will defend us against those who want to... restrict our freedoms.

For me, the largest hole in the coverage was the failure to explain the reasons why there is an endemic resentment of the west in the Mashreq and the Maghreb.

We didn't hear much about the long and continuing war against Muslims, the west's open-ended, almost uncritical support of Israel, and the dreadful conditions in which many Arabs live under ruthless masters approved by western democracies. There was hardly a mention of France's nearly 200-year poisonous relationship with Algeria and Algerians, in Algeria and in France, which continues to this day.

What now for France? Al-Araby speaks to Alain Gresh, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique


One thanked Robert Fisk in Saturday's Independent for finally drawing our attention to this malign history. "Algeria remains the most painful wound within the body politic of the [French] Republic… and provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France," he said.

Perhaps the attackers' motivation at least in part stemmed from that Algerian factor, now made manifest in the banlieues seething with under-employed Maghrebi youth, that surround the chocolate box of central Paris.

In the same newspaper on the day of the attack, Patrick Cockburn pointed out that it was inevitable that the war in Syria and Iraq would have explosive consequences for the western world.

The Guardian, in its editorials, insisted that the carnage of Paris was not part of "a war". Not in the classic sense of armies marching across frontiers, no. But are we and our editors and our politicians so sure this is not another kind of war?

No one in the media had any bright ideas about averting such a war. Perhaps one organ might have reminded readers that Israel killed 17 journalists in the occupied Palestinian territories last year. No one in London or Paris lit candles for them.

The concept that the west might begin the long haul of fundamentally rethinking its tragic historical relationship with the Arabs was nowhere to be heard or seen.

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