Je suis Charlie? I’m glad someone, not everyone, is.

“Je suis Charlie.” Your expression of solidarity reaffirms that we, the enemies of extreme intolerance, are everywhere. But, if you really were like Charlie Hebdo, then you would look for sacred targets – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, secular, left, right – to skewer in a highly public and provocative fashion. And you would do so in the face of actual death threats.

Are you still Charlie? Will you start being more like Charlie now, knowing that you could be gunned down? That you might lose friends and alienate family members?

In a way, I hope you are. The target for extremists might be harder to identify if it’s everywhere. But remember: Charlie Hebdo savagely ridiculed anything, not just Muslim extremism. To be fair, you’ll need to have fun with the pope, Nazis, and, yes, Jesus and Mary.

Charlie Hebdo was heroic because it continued to consciously offend even after being firebombed in 2011. As David Brooks notes, our world is a better place because of such provocateurs. I hope that these attacks increase rather than decrease people’s everyday commitment to free, open speech.

But I’m not Charlie. I censor myself all the time. When living overseas, I’m bound as a diplomatic-passport holder to not cause controversy, but that’s not the whole story. In fact, sometimes it might be a convenient excuse.

I’m also chicken. When an Indonesian revealed online that he was an atheist, a mob gathered and threatened him; he eventually lost his government job. What would happen if I mentioned to students or colleagues at the University of Indonesia that I had no spiritual beliefs? Or what would happen if I ridiculed Ramadan? The most I did was to ask respectfully how Muslims in the Arctic Circle could cope, if the sun wouldn’t set for months. In Uganda, the general support for killing active homosexuals led me to withdraw socially, but, even though I have some expertise on this topic, I limited my involvement to a blog post and research distributed within the U.S. Embassy.

Anyway, can an anthropologist be Charlie Hebdo? My desire is to understand and to be understood. As an activist, my goal is to persuade. Seeking to offend people who disagree with me will almost always endanger these goals. It’s mean, in a way that usually increases solidarity among like-minded people but that rarely builds bridges. Thus, for me, it’s also ineffective.

So, while I consider most spiritual beliefs to be ridiculous, I focus on spreading my own understanding rather than on attacking others‘ beliefs. In that sense, while I mourn and celebrate the people who have produced Charlie Hebdo, I am not them.

On the other hand, I hope I can claim, “Je suis Ahmed.”


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