Je Suis Charlie

Yesterday’s news about the horrific massacre in Paris shook me really hard. I spent the day very upset, and the night puzzled by my extreme reaction. Terrorist attacks have become fixtures of the daily news, with yesterday alone seeing over a dozen killed in Iraq. Why did this bother me so much?

I think I’m beginning to know the answer. I was born and raised in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who maintained an iron grip on all forms of communication in the country. No newspaper or TV station or media outlet of any kind was allowed to so much as squeal about the government’s brutality or incompetence. Criticizing Saddam, outside of the tightest and most trusted of family circles, was unthinkable. I developed strong and trusted friendships in elementary school, but never once did the subject of the regime, the most important and profound aspect of our daily lives, ever come up in conversation. And it was common knowledge why. If even one of my friends snitched, everyone else who did not would be in trouble. This was elementary school.

I would often day dream about running up to the roof of our building and shouting at the top of my lungs that I despised Saddam, that I wished him dead. I was 6 or 7 at the time, and that was my day dream.

When I immigrated to the United States, I was skeptical that in any country it would be possible to speak freely. Were people really able to criticize their president? Even call him (or one day her!) names? I was unconvinced, and remained so for years. I would come to discover that there were in fact limits. One cannot incite violence, or knowingly slander a non-public figure. But these were rules that made sense, that enabled as much free speech as possible while protecting everyone’s right to life and liberty.

If there is a single right, a single convenience, a single perk of living in the West that I would not depart with, it would be my right to free speech. Let me repeat this. If there is one single thing I would retain about my life in a democracy, it is the right to free speech. It is that important to me. More than my ability to do research. Or to code. Or do the many other things that define my identity. I would give all those up without giving up my right to free speech.

The reason yesterday’s attacks bothered me so much is because they were directed squarely at me. Je suis Charlie indeed.


  1. The right to free (or relatively free) speech, and journalists who criticize and satirize powerful individuals and institutions, are taken for granted in the US and a handful of other countries, including France. The farther east one goes, however, the less likely average citizens have the same desires or expectations. Too much liberty leads to disorder, so their thinking goes, and they are not that far off base, given the relatively fragile nature of their political systems.

    For example, in Germany, overt expressions of Fascism are serious crimes and Scientology is banned. By the time you get to Turkey. Russia, Egypt, the Gulf States and beyond, the limits on freedom of expression are severely restricted and alien religious beliefs are persecuted. Even in some modern, democratic societies, news outlets only operate openly with permission from the state and religious authorities. Accordingly, I’m not surprised that religious hotheads such as Jihadis, who identify with less-free societies, are motivated to physically attack journalists who dare to insult their fundamental beliefs. Acts which are clearly barbaric by our lights, are righteous retribution to a jihadist.

    Granted the apparent perpetrators at Charlie Hebdo are French citizens, several generations removed from their immigrant forefathers. However, its clear they were not assimilated into French society and took their culture and action cues from Jihadis in Yemen and Iraq. France does not have a US-style melting pot. In fact, Europe in general is headed for trouble in the years ahead as they import large numbers of immigrants without the intention to assimilate them into European culture and civil society. I love liberty and do not condone violence against non-combatants, but it is important to understand the motives of Jihadis and others who feel otherwise. – Chas Winters

    • The lack of assimilation of immigrants in Europe does seem like a recurring problem, at least in some countries and for some ethnicities. I’m not sure of the root cause of this, vis-a-vis the US for example. Perhaps because Europe is historically more homogeneous, it is more difficult for a newly arrived foreigner to assimilate. My favorite pet theory is that the strong social security of European countries places less pressure on new immigrants to find jobs and hence integrate, leading them to do what is only natural when one first finds him or herself in a new place; congregate with other immigrants.

  2. I can safely say that most French people are extremely sad because, over the years, these cartoonists have been indiscriminate when taking down the powerful of all kinds in their drawings. Another aspect of this which has not translated well in the foreign press is that some, like Cabu, “raised” us by being the friendly cartoonist/adult companion figure children would look up to on a kid’s TV show every Wednesday afternoon. For U.S. folks, think Mr. Rogers, for others Big Birdie might fit the bill.

    In a way, and I think this crosses over to many cultures (which is why so many people I know find the muslim angle so irrelevant): some of these people were our collective “crazy uncles”. You know, the element of the family that you get to see every once in a while at a family gathering and who will have widely different ways of expressing his/her own views than the general consensus you are accustomed to around your parents. The kid in you knows they mean well. Yet, their ways of expressing their views creates an element of tension. As a kid, this will be your first exposure to criticism: you will learn from them tremendously from only the few hours of exposure to them. Later, the adult and citizen you have become will eventually realize that you owe much to them.

    Borrowing from Camus’ Sysyphus conclusion “Cet univers désormais sans maître ne lui paraît ni stérile ni futile. Chacun des grains de cette pierre, chaque éclat minéral de cette montagne pleine de nuit, à lui seul, forme un monde. La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Charlie heureux”

    translation: ” This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Charlie happy.”

    • Thank you very much Igor for posting this; I found it very helpful and reassuring. Many US Leftists seem to find it necessary to qualify their support of Charlie Hebdo by asserting that they were exceedingly racist and focused specifically on Muslims. I dislike the argument because regardless of the content of the speech, its defense should not be negotiable, and those who die for the mere act should surely be honored. Nonetheless, hearing that they were in fact indiscriminate in their caricature further increases their esteem in my mind. RIP.

  3. A rapid sample of the different parties who went after them in lawsuits show that they were unequivocably equal opportunity “critiques”. So to a certain extent, the argumentations you mention come out of ignorance as this is a clear cut case of freedom of speech…without the hate speech. People love Charlie because they know there is no hate speech hidden underneath.

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