Charlie Hebdo: A Return to Tribalism?

Charlie Hebdo: A Return to Tribalism?

            I don’t know, of course, I wasn’t there. People that were, though, and the records others left, attest to a shift in attitudes during the later half of the Twentieth Century. It’s true, the USSR was busy oppressing its populations, and the Americans were eagerly establishing their hegemony everywhere else, but, so I’ve been told, perspectives of some people were shifting.

Done away with was the old mode of thought, and there was a realisation that we’re all in this together – one species, one planet, and a fragile balance that we could readily tip towards disaster if we so chose. In short, for some, the concept of Tribalism was dying off. Shortly around the time of my birth, the rotten fabric of Stalinism ripped itself apart, and even that division looked as if it were gone (though we all know how that has turned out). I suspect this was, at least in part, the frame of mind Fukuyama possessed when he declared the future to be over, even if he himself helped build the road we walk now.

I’m having some trouble with this piece – I feel as if I’ve not the right to authoritatively talk about the situation, that I’ve nothing new nor insightful to add. A large part of the desire to say anything, on this subject, is due of course to the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo paper in France, and its aftermath. Trying to make sense of it.

There have been reams of position papers and statements and blog posts over the last couple of days, from every perspective under the sun. Some of which, are quite good. A lot of them, though, and the language they frame the situation in, provide evidence for a return to tribalism, and that is more of what I want to talk about, here. The conversation around Charlie Hebdo is only the latest piece in this development.

I guess the mask really came off back in 2001 – it was clear following the start of the “war on terror” that we were returning to an “us vs. them” narrative. Since then, the majority of Western nations have seen reductions in civil freedoms, ironically enough usually in the name of defending those same “founding” freedoms and “core” values. Muslims of all ethnicities have been vilified, portrayed as the sole-source of violence and perpetrators of “terrorism.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are well-established connections between fundamentalist Islam and violence. The key point, however, is the fundamentalist part. Fundamentalist Christians have chalked up a higher body count – granted, they’ve had a longer time to kick at the can. Fundamentalist Buddhists, contrary to the Western stereotype of peaceful saffron-robed mystics, are doing a great job out in Myanmar at slaughter – killing Muslims, I might add.

Invariably, the fundamentalist aspect points to people’s religiousity being co-opted politically. Using ostensible differences between groups of people to drive a wedge between them, manipulating them for power/gain/what-have-you. There’s likely a conversation to be had about how much any religion is a mere power-play, but I don’t think that this is the place for it.

We see this division happening elsewhere, as well. Invariably, post-2001, it is tied up with difference of religion, but the nascent success of UKIP, and the Front National, and the Dutch Party for Freedom (I can go on…) are all couched in the masterful use of dividing domestic populations against “immigrants” (so long as the “immigrants” are brown/Muslim/Eastern-European) – positing all of, or the most grievous of, society’s ills on the Foreigner, rather than looking at the situation in a systemic and nuanced manner.

Furthermore, on the level of geopolitics, we’ve seen the recent, tri-directional, flare-ups between Russia, the EU, and the States, played out in the Ukraine. We here in the West have been handed a stock narrative – the Russians are bad, and they are motivated to do bad things because they are Russian. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter, as ever, is much more complex. The pro-EU Maidan protests were, from the start or shortly following that point, co-opted by fascists. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, including what has become the Donetsk Republic, are filled with a variety of perspectives, including strong voices for autonomy from both Kyiv and Moscow. We don’t really hear about that, though. Another situation, thrown into decidedly stark relief by all the attention, demonstrations, and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, is the on-going slaughter of Nigerians at the hands of Boko Haram. Mainstream media is beginning to look into the situation, as they well should, but solidarity for the people affected there is minimal in comparison with the few to be killed in the attack on the magazine. And why would it be? They aren’t white, nor Euro, nor even, you know, civilised – it’s just black people killing black people, like they always do. Like, in Rwanda, right? Who saw that one coming? Another geopolitical example – Kobane. The Kurds were able to fend off Daesh, by the way. I imagine you didn’t hear about it, though. Doesn’t really serve to stoke the fears of ISIS, does it?

Even those with comparatively positive messages are buying into this narrative – this article, here, for example, argues that Muslims world-wide ought to speak out against atrocities. The author states

“CNN featured a Muslim American blogger whining about the fact that Muslims are expected to condemn jihadist attacks.  I no longer have any patience for this sort of view.  Those of us who are proud of our heritage, who have diverse and complex relationships with the Islam of our forebears, can make a difference by speaking out against every single one of these crimes whose miserable perpetrators wrongfully claim to act as agents of the religious heritage we value.”

I don’t take issue with anyone speaking out against the ills they see in the world – but the fact that the author so brusquely throws aside nuance – “I no longer have any patience for this sort of view” – is problematic. Speak out if that is what your conscience compels you to do, but don’t essentialise people based on creed, “race,” or gender. American Muslims speak out against the assumption that they should comment on these atrocities for a very good reason – because the assumption that they ought to is tantamount to lumping them in with the offenders, with stripping them of their agency as persons, and declaring that their faith is the totality of their being, incontrovertibly setting them apart from “the rest of us.” For my part, I’ve not any patience for patsies, however well-meaning they may be.

I don’t think I’m proposing anything new here – if you’ve been paying attention this last decade and a half, none of this should come as a surprise. It’s just that, for myself, I’ve always looked at the world as a totality – we might have our cultural differences and our experiential ones, but, for me, those were ephemeral, accidental to who we were as human beings. Our commonalities outweighed our differences, and it was through that, through exploration of common ground and the things that we hold together, that progress could be made. As it stands, the world is being carved up, and we are being told to believe that there are Others out there, outside the well-known walls of the Tribe, that we can never know nor come to agreement with. There is no conspiracy here, no cabal with a master plan. Like everything else in this world, this path to division is built of an aggregate of small choices, decisions made day-to-day. The path, though, is leading us to a world I don’t think is worth living in. Don’t settle for the easy answers. Don’t let yourself be twisted against your brothers and sisters. All we have on this ball of rock is one another.


Posted on January 10, 2015, in Maunderings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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