Thursday 29 September 2016

A year after Charlie Hebdo, have we learnt anything?

As French cartoonists continue to fight for freedom of expression last week, the German public battle with a self-censoring media, writes Rachel Lavin

Rachel Lavin

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Memorial: A picture taken on January 7, 2016 shows a makeshift memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris. Photo: Getty
Memorial: A picture taken on January 7, 2016 shows a makeshift memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris. Photo: Getty

January 7 marked one year since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, which saw 17 people killed by two jihadi gunmen, including 12 staff at the offices of the popular French satire magazine.

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The cartoonists marked the anniversary with a surprising front cover. The cartoon depicts the Christian God with an illuminati symbol on his head, running away with a gun and blood on his hands. The title reads 'The assassin is still at large'.

Rather than making Muslim extremists the butt of their joke, which was perhaps expected, the cartoonists are targeting a popular Western religion. It was something many religious publications condemned as 'anti-religious', yet that is exactly the point.

Charlie was proving that it's not just about criticising Islam, which is too often conflated with 'Islamophobia', but all religion. And by painting a Christian figure as 'the assassin', it was again reinforcing the argument that it wasn't Muslims or Arabs or people of colour that killed their co-workers last year, but religious extremists like any other. Any religion that believes itself immune to criticism is the enemy. The latest cover not only clarifies who those enemies are, but defies them yet again.

Across the border, however, there was an eerie silence in German media as the new year chimed in. A crowd of approximately 1,000 men were reported to have carried out dozens of sexual assaults and robberies of women as the city of Cologne celebrated New Year's Eve with more than 120 criminal complaints. However, it took several days for the story to make the national news, with one senior politician claiming there was a "news blackout" and that the media were operating a "code of silence" on the issue.

The contentious detail that kept media and politicians from reporting such a serious crime? The perpetrators were reportedly described as "of North African or Arab appearance". Eighteen of 31 arrested were later confirmed as being asylum seekers.

What is troubling about this incident is less what it says about the men involved, but rather what it reveals about the establishment's view of the general public.For are we so fearful of the ordinary person's critical reaction to the incident that we predict a violent backlash against refugees or a move to the far right? Do they fear that the German people, who have opened their arms to refugees in recent months, will suddenly turn to hatred and xenophobia over the actions of a few opportunists?

Sure, the far right would have taken advantage of this event, try to skew the facts of the events to fit their political narrative, and some racists may even have used it as an excuse to be abusive or violent. But far right radicals will always be sensationalist, violent and abusive, often without an excuse. It is the assumption that the public cannot be trusted to act rationally and fairly with the information given to them about this event that is most worrying.

Furthermore, if the political establishment deny the crimes of asylum seekers because it highlights potential problems with the integration of the recent influx of refugees, are they capable of dealing with those issues at all? Or will other conflicts be swept under the carpet in favour of a happy narrative?

At the end of the day, if a large group, be they immigrants or not, are acting unlawfully, they should be demanded to be dealt with by German law. If asylum seekers act particularly heinously, Germany reserves its right to deport them. If poor attitudes to women are a problem, then let's work on better social and cultural integration and education. And if incidents like these leave the German public feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of integration and wanting to slow the influx, is that such an awful thing for a country that has already accepted over one million refugees in a year?

Overall, let's not be afraid to admit that integration is difficult. It has problems and takes serious investment of time, energy and money. But an inability to admit and confront these problems is not going to help anyone. And an aversion to standing up, unafraid, to criticism over incidents like these will only hurt the refugee effort more.

In some good news in the fight against radicalism, last week, it was reported that Isil has lost 40pc of Iraq territory and 20pc in Syria as international air strikes support operations on the ground. But tensions over who will fill the resulting power vacuum are already mounting. In the Syrian city of Madaya, it was reported that residents were dying of starvation as the city is being held under siege by Assad's regime and Hezbollah.

The siege is an attempt to pressure rebel opponents to agree to a population transfer with two other towns so that the regime can regain control over supply lines to their strongholds. "People here have started eating earth because there's nothing left to eat," one resident told the BBC. "Grass and leaves have died because of the mounting snow."

At last, Assad agreed to allow aid access to the town this today or tomorrow, but the town is still surrounded to stop any residents escaping.

In Yemen, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran mounted last week as Saudi Arabia reportedly bombed Iran's embassy in Sanaa. Already divided by their respective Sunni and Shiite alliances, Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently backing opposing sides in the Yemeni civil war. These sectarian tensions follow Saudi Arabia's recent establishment of a largely Sunni-led 'anti-terrorist' coalition, which is meant to target Isil but has created paranoia amongst Shiite nations. Furthermore, last Saturday week, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric on terrorism charges.

Elsewhere, North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb on Wednesday. Interestingly, in a week when Europeans battled with self-censorship and freedom of speech over comparatively smaller conflicts, South Korea's first reaction to a nuclear bomb threat was to use words as its only weapon, blaring news of the outside world and criticism of Pyongyang, as well as bouncy South Korean pop music, across the border.

Now that's a response that Charlie would be proud of.

Sunday Independent

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