The recent terrorist attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo brought to the foreground the threat of terrorism. On January 7, 2015, two Islamist gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and a M80 Zolia forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot into the staff of the journal, wounding eleven people and killing twelve others, including Stéphane Charbobbier (“Charb”), one of its chief editors. This wasn’t the first time Charlie Hebdo, known for its left wing bent and daring satires of social and political issues, became the target of protests and attacks for its irreverent cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad. The first reaction, on February 11 2006, was a peaceful Muslim march in Paris to protest the publication on February 9, 2006 caricature of Muhammad. The cartoon featured the prophet weeping along with the caption “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” (“It’s tough being loved by idiots”). The Grand Mosque of Paris sued the magazine (the lawsuit reached French courts in 2007), claiming that it included racist cartoons. In 2008 the executive editor of Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val, was acquitted of the charge by the French court, which reasoned that the cartoon did not attack Islam per se, but rather Islamist fundamentalism. This wasn’t the end of the controversy, however.
In 2011 Charlie Hebdo published an issue renamed “Charia Hebdo”, alluding to Sharia law, citing Muhammad as stating “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing”. This time the Muslim reaction was more menacing. On November 2011 the journal’s office was firebombed. Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, issued a statement condemning “the very mocking tone of the paper towards Islam and its prophet but [reaffirming] with force its total opposition to all acts and all forms of violence.” In 2012 the journal published satirical cartoons of Muhammad again, some of which featured the prophet naked. This too caused a lot of controversy, prompting the government to preemptively increase security at French embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The journal defended its series of Muhammad cartoons in the name of the freedom of speech, stating that they caricaturize many different religions–including Catholicism and Judaism—rather than targeting Islam in particular.
The deadly terrorist attack on January 7th generated widespread international support for Charlie Hebdo and for the freedom of speech in general. Millions gathered in Paris and other major cities around the world holding up the banner “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). The day following the attack the journal announced that it would continue its publication. On January 14, it featured the prophet Mohammed on its cover once again, holding up a banner “Je suis Charlie” with the title “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”). This controversy raises important questions not only about protecting the freedom of speech in democratic societies, but also about the nature of terrorism itself. Many believe that the biggest threat to contemporary democracies comes not so much from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, as from terrorism.
What is terrorism? The concept isn’t easy to define. In his groundbreaking book, Inside Terrorism (originally published in 1999, revised edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)– a classic on the subject—Bruce Hoffman starts off by exploring the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the term, which, he argues, prove unsatisfactory. The first set of definitions offered, “ a system of terror,” “a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; methods of intimidation” are too broad and anachronistic. These descriptions apply equally to the terror instigated by Robespierre during the French revolution, to Stalin’s “Great Terror” and to contemporary terrorist attacks.
One of the main reasons terrorism is so difficult to define, Hoffman explains, it’s because it’s an inherently historical concept, which has changed meaning drastically over the centuries. During the French Revolution of 1789, the term “regime de la terreur” had a positive connotation, associated with revolutionary government overthrowing the monarchy. The revolutionary leader—and tyrant—Maximilien Robespierre viewed terror as the only way to uproot the old social order and institute a new revolutionary regime. Once the revolution got out of hand, however, and practically everyone could be seen as its enemy and sentenced to death by guillotine, la terreur (terror) acquired the negative connotation we retain today. Edmund Burke’s description of the revolutionaries—“Thousands of those Hell hounds called Terrorists…let loose on the people”—strikes us as surprisingly modern.
By the 1930’s, “Terror” became associated with the rise of totalitarian regimes—Nazism and Communism—which acquired almost total control over entire countries by instilling fear in the population. The democratic concepts of freedom of speech, human rights, and justice became meaningless. Hoffman cites the Nazi Minister of Interior Hermann Goering addressing the German people to announce measures against the communists and Jews: “My measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking. My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. Here I don’t have to worry about Justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more.” Hoffman then continues to discuss how Stalin launched his fear-instilling purges in a deliberately arbitrary fashion, to instill fear not only in those who opposed to regime, but also those who could or might oppose it: in other words, in everyone.
Following WWII, however, the term “terrorism” became, once again, associated with revolutionaries—fighting for national liberation or self-determination—usually working against the system and fighting against entrenched regimes. Many terrorist organizations, including the PLO, see themselves not as terrorists but as “freedom fighters” (as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat called the PLO in 1974).
Today, although “terrorism” is even more dissipated and difficult to define, it is not hard to identify. It pervades the news, from the 9/11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Centers and Pentagon to the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo. An inherently negative term, “terrorism” refers to acts of violence and/or the threat of violence, particularly against civilians. Their target is not only their specific victims, but also all those who see their punishment, which potentially includes the entire world that reads the news: particularly citizens of the nations they declare “enemies”.
Most importantly, Hoffman explains that terrorists do not observe the ethical codes laid out by the Geneva and Hague Conventions (from the 1860’s to right after WWII in 1949), which prohibit taking civilians as hostages; govern the humane treatment of surrendered prisoners of war; outlaw reprisals against civilians and POW’s; uphold the inviolability of diplomats and other government officials. Terrorists express a fundamental disregard for such rules and for the very concept of human rights. Usually terrorists defend their actions, stating that the means justify their ends. The concept of “terrorism” becomes much more murky when democratic societies also engage in acts of terror against civilian populations to further their political ends. Such actions risk diluting the concept of “terrorism” and taking away from the moral righteousness with which they condemn terrorist activities. But that is a whole other can of worms…