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Where’s Charlie?


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

In the wake of the brutal attacks in Paris, 7 and 8 January 2015, against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher, the hashtag ‘I’m Charlie’ (Je suis Charlie) quickly spread in the news and social media. It soon became a watchword for manifesting adherence to the French national body. On 11 January, a Republican March in Paris saw one and a half million participants and approximately four million nationwide, making it to one of the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history. The day after, ‘We’re all Charlie’ echoed throughout the news media. According to one journalist the march was ‘a national communion on a par with the liberation of Paris’. In following months French citizens wore the logo ‘I’m Charlie’ pinned to their clothes, as car stickers and as the profile photo in social media. People who had never read Charlie Hebdo paid a subscription and the post-attack edition sold seven million copies, compared to the regular 30,000.

But not everybody wanted to be Charlie, nor was everybody allowed to be Charlie. Those who thought to problematise the being of Charlie – a whole palette of French anti-racist organisations, critical sociologists and post-colonial feminists – were quickly criticised. As the aforementioned journalist put it, they were seeking to understand the irrational, legitimising the unlegitimisable, whereas the answer was simple: ‘There’s a war going on between the West and Islamism’. Yet another journalist accused them of practising sociologism, a wicked ideology resulting in their being the gullible puppets of the Islamist onslaught. While not being representative of what was partly a nuanced public debate, statements of this sort epitomise important ideological functions of the nationwide ‘I’m Charlie’ movement. Thus, when the security alert system (Plan Vigipirate) is on highest alert, careful reflection is unwanted; we, the leaders of the Republic, already know what is in play: the enemy of the French people is not just on the doorstep, the enemy is among us. In this moment, you are either with us or against us, with the Republic and against Islam(ism); you are either Charlie or not. And to protect Charlie, exceptional measures are called for. This gives rise to the question: Where was Charlie located post 7/1?

In this chapter I set out to answer this question by analysing what I call the discourse of religious violence. This means understanding how certain statements at a given period, despite being potentially contradictory and paradoxical, share common ontological and epistemological groundwork. It also implies stressing the creative, proscriptive, and disciplinary power of discourse: how discourse targets the production of subjects and the performative dissemination of power through them. As such, the discourse of religious violence during the post-Charlie debate was construed on three interrelated discursive tropes: identification, displacement and expansion.

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