Paris – and then?

By Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

January 12, 2015

What happened–known all over the world–is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. As inexcusable as 9/11, the coming Western attack and the Islamist retaliation, wherever. As inexcusable as the Western coups and mega-violence on Muslim lands since Iran 1953, massacring people as endowed with personality and identity as French cartoonists. But to the West they are not even statistics; “military secrets”.

However, the unacceptable is not unexplainable.

In this tragic saga of West-Islam violence, spiraling downwards, the way out is to identify the conflict, what is this violence about, and search for solutions. I wonder how many now pontificating on Paris–a city so deep in our hearts–have taken the trouble to sit down with someone identified with Al Qaeda, simply asking, “what does the world look like where you would like to live?” I always get the same answer: “a world where Islam is not trampled upon but respected.”

“Trampled upon” sounds physically violent. But there are two types of direct violence intended to harm, hurt: physical violence with arm-arms-army; and verbal violence, with words, symbols. For instance with cartoons, with a touch of art giving them some impunity; for some. A human being–body, mind, spirit–can be hit somatically, mentally, spiritually. Maybe symbolic violence even hits more deeply?

The naiveté in blaming the secret police for not having uncovered the brothers on time is crying to the heavens. What happened to Charlie Hebdo was as predictable as the reaction to the cartoon in Jyllandsposten, whose cultural editor thought he should save Danish media from the self-censorship he had found in Soviet journalists. But one thing is political criticism of and in the former USSR, quite another is existential stabbing right in the heart of the basis of existence. The French wisely invented the expression raison d’être, the reason for existing, deeply embedded in French culture like satire: listen.

Undermine the spiritual existence of others–like Charlie Hebdo did all over the spiritual world–but there may be reactions to that verbal violence. Some of the others deeply hurt by Charlie Hebdo and its cultural autism, sitting in some office sending poisoned arrows anywhere, may celebrate the atrocity; inside themselves, not publicly.

The West has one presumably killing argument in favor of verbal violence for spiritual killing: freedom of expression. A wonderful freedom, deeply appreciated by those who have something to express. And very easily undermined, not by censorship by self or some Other, but by freedom of non-impression, the freedom not to be impressed: let expression happen, let them talk and write but do not listen and read, make them non-persons. Nevertheless, a major achievement of, by and for the West more than elsewhere.

How simple life would be if that freedom were the only norm governing expression! Say or write anything about others as if they were stones, inanimate objects, unimpressed by oral and written expression. But human beings are not. Of course the targets of verbal violence can opt for the freedom of non-impression, shutting themselves off from the perpetrators, neither read, nor listen. Do we really want that, a society now polarized by cartoons–in those who laugh and enjoy, and those who are hurt, suffering deeply?

We do not, and that is why there is another value, norm, in the land of expression: consideration. Decency. Respect for life. We have libel laws asking not only “is it true?” but “is it relevant?” to cut down nastiness in for instance political “debate”. We rule out hate speech, propaganda for torture, genocide, war, child pornography. Some people enjoy public sex talk, others do not, that is why we have limitations. Some people unable to argue about issues insult persons instead; that is why they are often–perhaps not often enough–called to order: stick to the issue, where is the beef, the question!

Many, unable to understand or argue with converts to Islam in France, overstep norms of decency instead. The easy way out. Should I add “for the feeble-minded”? No, but I do say for the inconsiderate.

Islam retaliated, and in Paris overstepped its own rule about doing so mercifully. No Muslim can retaliate with spiritual killing of Judaism-Christianity since they believe in both as the “incomplete message”. They killed bodies in return for spiritual killing instead.

Incidentally, there is somebody else doing the same: the USA, very attentive to critical words as indicative not only of somebody being anti-American, but even a threat to America, to be eliminated. Could the “freedom of expression” also be a tool to lure, smoke them out in the open, making them available for killing by snipers?

How should the Islamic side have handled the issue? The way they tried, and to some extent managed, in Denmark: through dialogue. They should have invited the Charlies to private and public dialogues, explaining their side of the cartoon issue, appealing to a common core of humanity in us all. There is no argument against humor and satire as such, but there is against verbal violence hitting, hurting, harming others.

The Islamic side should also control better its own recourse to self-defense by violence: only legitimate if declared by appropriate Muslim authority. That the West fails to do so–just look at the enormities of violence unleashed upon Islam since 1953–is no excuse for Islam to sink down to Western governmental levels; using democracy as a blanket check for war.

The two sides have millions, maybe billions of common people who can easily agree that the key problem is violence by extremist governments and others. The task is to let such voices come forward with concrete ideas. Like the next Charlie on line hiring a Muslim consultant to draw a border between freedom and inconsideration? It could have saved many lives, in Paris and where the West retaliates.

First published at Transcend Media Service here.

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