Extremists Make Extremists of Us All

I am not Charlie.

I have been uncertain about writing that phrase ever since it came to my mind just hours after Wednesday’s horrific murder of twelve satirists in Paris.

I fear I may be opening myself to attack from friends and acquaintances – potentially from all sorts of strangers on the globe-circling Internet.

But it is the truth. I am not anything like Charlie Hebdo.

I do not ridicule or insult others’ heartfelt beliefs. I would no more draw Mohammed with his genitals hanging out than I would paint Jesus having sex with Mary Magdelen or a Jewish man with a humpback and an exaggerated hook nose (as the Nazis did).

I believe in building bridges between people, not throwing up unnecessary walls.

On the other hand, my faith rests not only in freedom of speech but also in the sanctity of expressing differing, even diametrically opposing opinions and ideas. Without that essential debate, our lauded freedoms are built on hollow ground.

However, what I am seeing in the aftermath of that murderous assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices are the furthest thing from debate. Instead, I see knee-jerk reactions and the parroting of a single phrase — “I am Charlie” – with no more thought behind it than a surface skim of scrolling headlines.

And isn’t that kind of mindless reflex to selective stimuli what is behind all extremism?

In my novel The Winter Boy, the protagonist Rishana uses the metaphor of a snake biting its own tail to describe the downward spiral of hate and anger. “When the snake feels the bite,” she explains, “it reacts by biting more, which makes it even more painful, so he’ll bite even harder, and so on. It continues round and round, until it dies. If the snake could learn not to bite in reaction, it could break the cycle and live… Instead, it reacts instinctively, in anger and pain.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, I find myself flashing often on that image of a snake biting its tail.

My discomfort with the way even close friends whom I usually respect have reacted became even more pronounced after reading Saaleha Bhamjee’s thoughtful post on her Afrocentric Muslimah blog. “I’m reluctant to call racism/hate speech on things I see,” she wrote, “because often what the media would have us believe is either of or both of these, is too often stupidity, alcohol or plain ignorance in action. And also because I refuse to continue being a victim… But these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they shocked me. I tried to see how it was that they added something of value to the conversation around Islamic ‘Fundamentalism’/Extremism but couldn’t.”

What worries me is that, when we mimick each other’s unthought-through reactions, retweeting and reposting an easy to digest sound bite , we are playing right into the hands of the terrorists, becoming more like them and less like the ideals we hold dear. We aren’t engaging in conversation with moderates like Saalesha Bhamjee or other concerned individuals. In fact, we are slamming doors in their faces.

Yes, show sympathy for the murdered cartoonists, and defend to the death their right to freedom of speech (according to that Voltaire quote so many are espousing). But why can’t we go further than that? Let’s not be that snake biting its own tail. Instead, let’s use this tragedy as an invitation to thoughtful discourse, even animated but mutually respectful arguments.

The path upward is far more difficult. After all the downward spiral of hate has gravity and mob-rule centrifugal force on its side. Then again, freedom has ever been hard-won, hard-to-keep, and the best defense against extremism.

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