by Sher Afgan Tareen
On December 16th, nine members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e- Taliban killed one hundred and thirty-two students attending Army Public School at Peshawar, wiping out the entire 9th grade except one boy who overslept and fortuitously skipped school. Nearly a month later, two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent killed 5 cartoonists, an economist, two police officers and a few others at the Paris headquarters of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo. Why has Charlie Hebdo turned into an event, a disaster that demands attention, while Army Public School has only drawn disgust and anger from predominantly Pakistanis? The answer I suggest lies not so much in the act of murder itself that the two stories share in common but rather in the ways in which the murder in Paris, unlike the murder in Peshawar, secured a story of secularism under the siege of terror. What is this story? Who are its protagonists? How does the story explain why Paris matters but Peshawar does not?
Let’s reflect on the framing of the Newsweek column titled “After Charlie Hebdo, moderate Islam must speak out.” The title reduces an ongoing discursive tradition thousands of years old to a straightforward human subject asked to defend Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that has similarly undergone a human-like metamorphosis by the catchphrase ‘Je suis Charlie’. Embedded in this rhetoric of transforming Islam and a magazine into two subjects, one expressing contrition to the harm suffered by the other, is a form of dramaturgy that allows for the possibility to imagine the incidence in Paris as a disaster. The fulcrum of this drama is a peculiar anxiety about Islam’s compatibility with secularism attached with a plea to moderate vanguards of Islam to save Islam from itself. If the ‘moderate Muslims’ do not speak up and remain a “silent majority of the religious Muslims”, the “goons in black” will win their war against French secularism. All of a sudden, “women in headscarves in Paris and Marseille and London will report that they are being shoved in grocery stores, or spat upon on the streets or given the fisheye on the Metro or tube.” The longer the moderates remain silent, the greater the chance that extremists will render “France’s tolerance” intolerable for all Muslims.
A curious irony afflicts the way in which the Newsweek column portrays the leading actors of this drama. The mundane everyday existence of the two Algerian brothers who carried out the attack is rendered bizarre and otherworldly by the descriptor ‘goons in black’. On the other hand, “moderate Muslims”, an imagined category that somehow binds all Muslims on the basis that they do not “pick up Kalashnikov for Allah”, are made a tangible, concrete population as the silent majority of Muslims. Both the ‘real’ moderate who is actually a fictitious category and a fictitious goon who is actually a real person inhabit a secular space where Muslim/Islam is haunted and possessed by a spirit of terror. The drama suggests that when the two Algerian brothers killed those journalists they concomitantly threatened to beguile the French Muslim community, entrancing the women for instance to start imagining they are getting shoved around in grocery stores. If the moderates remain silent, they will fail to excommunicate this spirit residing in the bodies of these women that seeks to disenchant them from the secular spaces they inhabit in France.
By rendering the two Algerian brothers as ghosts that will continue to haunt Muslims from cherishing French secular society unless moderates condemn their acts, the drama obfuscates the ways in which the ‘goons in black’ are not spirits falling off the sky but a product of that society. Cherif grew up in an orphanage in the western city of Rennes. He trained as a fitness coach. He then lived with his brother in Paris, working as a pizza delivery guy. His neighbor described him as a calm person who would help old and disabled person. Yet he and his brother also killed. Constituting the Algerian brothers as terrorists juxtaposed against moderate Muslims effectively dissociates them from the rest of Muslim migrants in France. Such a classification leads one to assume that the two brothers merely used Islam as a rhetoric to snatch Muslims from the comforting nestle of French secularism. By reducing their violent act to a recycled narrative of angry erroneous Islam at war with secular pluralism, we fail to question the extent to which they in fact embody the failure of French secularism and its promise of inclusion and equality.
From banning the headscarf in public schools to dismissing the anger against depictions of Prophet Mohammad, this failure rests on a secular conception of religious symbols and imagery as merely representations of something else. In her article “Religious Reason and Secular Affect”, Saba Mahmood astutely points out that the bewildering curiosity shared by both liberals and conservatives as to why Muslims get so darn angry at the image of the Prophet fails to recognize that for many Muslims the Prophet is not just a historical figure, such that one may easily separate the person from the image, but a life that one strives to simulate and cohabit. This anger did not suddenly erupt on one disastrous day at Charlie Hebdo. It existed before; it will linger hereafter. By remaining silent, moderate Muslims may not assuage this anger. However, by being called upon to end their silence, the Newsweek column invents ‘Charlie Hebdo’ as a disaster in which an anger that like a forest fire inflames unannounced must be urgently counteracted by a solemn defense of freedom of speech.
In his book The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America, Kevin Rozario attends to how disasters become disasters through specific kinds of mediation. Disaster does not represent the incidence itself but rather emerges through narratives about the incidence and the meanings derived from it. Disasters then exist by ways in which happenings turn into events and a series of affective sensations overcome an otherwise dull observer. Following Rozario, I argue that Paris matters more than Peshawar because although Peshawar lost far more lives, invoking moderates affixed the incidence in Paris with a discourse of disaster. Meanwhile, the carnage at Army Public School embodies the trauma endured by people living in the liminal spaces of Pak-Afghanistan borderland, a disaster that did not unveil itself in a sudden act of terror but coalesced over the past three decades through specific international and domestic policies, corporate and governmental interventions that created and manipulated terror. Moderates do not actually exist. But one hundred and thirty-two students who should be attending school today but instead rest in graves do. They did.
Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.