Society


It is now over a month since the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo; since the ensuing siege, the solidarity marches and vigils, the seemingly endless outpourings of opinion and comment; and a month since the publication of the special issue of Charlie, financed by the French state to the tune of 3 million copies. The dust has settled somewhat, the news cycle has moved on, but the reverberations continue to thrum in the background.

Typically, the cover image of this special issue was controversial. It portrays the Prophet Muhammad holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ placard and shedding a tear. The caption above him reads ‘All is forgiven’. If the wording is ambiguous – who is forgiven? Who is doing the forgiving? – the image is ambivalent. It simultaneously distances the Prophet and, by extension, ‘ordinary’ Muslims from the terrorists that committed this atrocity in his name, and at the same it mocks those same ‘ordinary’ Muslims by offending their belief that the Prophet should not be visually represented. This doubleness – some might call it duplicity – warrants further investigation because it raises some very important and awkward moral questions that have not yet been posed.

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On Monday night, as the riots spread throughout London, the Home Secretary – freshly returned from her holiday – looked like the proverbial bunny trapped in the headlights of oncoming disaster. She seemed to have lost the facility of coherent speech, repeating again and again the same mantra: the riots were ‘sheer criminality and thuggery’ which are ‘completely unacceptable’, and for which there can be ‘no justification’. The thing is, what is the point of saying this? It is entirely obvious that the riots were acts of wanton criminal damage, and nobody was suggesting that they were in any way ‘acceptable’ or justified. The argument was reprised by the hapless Nick Clegg on his visit to Tottenham when he said, ‘It was needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more, nothing less.’ (By the way, there was an almost classic Thick of It moment when he was confronted by one resident who asked if the cuts would mean that this would now happen all over the UK; Clegg, clearly at a loss, responded with a less-than-resounding ‘Um, I don’t think so…’ Wrong, already.)

The trope that is emerging that there is ‘no justification’ for the riots, or that the violence is ‘sheer criminality’ – ‘no more, no less’ – is a ruse designed to close down explanations. Its purpose is to deliver a paradox, namely that the only explanation is there is no explanation. This suits the politicians very well indeed, because it diverts us away from awkward questions about the relationship of these events to the austerity programme; about the growing inequality and lack of opportunity that have built up over three decades of neo-liberal capitalist fundamentalism; about whether the anger being vented on the streets of the capital might not, in fact, be not so far removed from the anger that so many of us continue to feel about the bankers bringing our economy to the brink of collapse and then getting away with it (and being handsomely rewarded for it too) – after all, it is completely patronising to suppose these young men and women on the streets do not share this completely ubiquitous sense of unfairness; about whether, deep beneath the ‘mindless thuggery’ there might not, in fact, be an explanation after all.

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