I Am Not Charlie: Invisible Victims and Freedom of Expression
By Angela Williams
30 Jan 2015
Invisible victims and freedom of expression
Attempting to create an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, Boko Haram killed more than 10,000 people last year. On January 3rd 2015, the group struck Baga, a fishing town in Borno State and surrounding settlements; Amnesty International estimates the number of dead at 2,000. That’s 2,000 people murdered in one day. In Nigeria.
A week later, a car exploded outside a police station in Potsikum, Yobe State, Nigeria, killing two. In neighbouring Borno State, on that same day, a little girl aged 10 was used as the carrier of a bomb which killed 19 people as well as the child herself.
Next day, in Potsikum again, 4 people were murdered and 26 injured in a crowded market by a suicide attack launched by a woman and a 15 year old girl. It appears they were strapped with remote controlled bombs: “The second bomber was terrified by the explosion and she tried to dash across the road but she also exploded,” said a witness. Another stated: “I looked up and saw body parts everywhere, and then the body of a little girl cut in two”.
Meanwhile, on that very same day in Paris and in cities throughout France, the ‘national rally of unity’ took place to honour the 17 victims of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a Parisian kosher store and to stand up for freedom of expression which, they seemed to feel, Charlie Hebdo, and France itself, represents; this is despite the fact that it is a criminal offence in France today to deny the holocaust, and that Maurice Sinet, political cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo for 20 years, was fired for being deemed to be anti-Semitic.
The slaying of the Parisians is deeply repugnant and the rally was no doubt an expression of sincere grief yet strength in the face of violence and horror. One wonders, however, at the news coverage of the loss of mainly white European lives, at the huge turnout in Paris, in contrast to the muted reaction to Nigerians’ trauma.
The Belgians must have their work cut out for them, trying to ‘spin’ to their school children the massacre of 10 million Africans in the Congo
Even the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, seems to value white lives above those of his compatriots, the people he allegedly represents: his office released this statement on the tragedy in France: “The President believes that the cowardly and ignoble attack by violent extremists is a monstrous assault on the right to freedom of expression.” Regarding the nightmarish slaughter in Nigeria, he made no such robust statement but will launch an ‘investigation’; (inverted commas supplied by the Daily Vox, Johannesburg.)
Michael Jennings, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, explains the discrepancy in attitudes: Paris was viewed by the mainstream news media as an assault on “fundamental liberty”, “an existential attack on all of Europe”. The Nigerian bloodbath is presented “as part of the ongoing history of violence between communities.” We are trained by this presentation of world events to remain unaffected by, indeed indifferent to that little black ten year old girl used as a human bomb in Borno State, to those 2,000 men, women and children whose bodies were strewn across Baga. Globalisation should have brought us closer together in a sense of shared humanity but in case we get too cosy with our global neighbours, in case we notice the obscenity of our comfort in the face of their malnourished wretchedness, Westerners (and Goodluck Johnson) are efficiently programmed to regard ex colonial subjects as lesser beings whose lives just don’t count.
The selection and presentation of news is all when it comes to determining the visibility or invisibility of the victims. An almost-never mentioned chapter in the history of France is the Paris Massacre of 1961. Up to two hundred Algerians were murdered by the Paris police on 17th October 1961, many of them thrown into the Seine and drowned after being tortured. Decades of official denial followed this atrocity; the French government finally owned up to it in 1998, but admitted to the murder of only 40 Algerians on that terrible day. The 37 year hushing-up and denial of this massacre had no legal consequences and the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Turks may be denied with impunity anywhere you like in modern France. That’s freedom of expression; (just don’t mention the holocaust.)
In 2012, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the independence of Algeria, the French were keen to emphasise ‘the positive aspects of colonialism’, to whitewash their crimes. The British have always done the same and also, cutely, came up with the word ‘Commonwealth’, an excellent example of an oxymoron. The Belgians must have their work cut out for them, trying to ‘spin’ to their school children the massacre of 10 million Africans in the Congo by the agents of King Leopold II of Belgium who cut off the hand of every African killed as proof that the expensive bullets had been validly and properly used, not for mere animal hunting, but to terrorise villagers into producing the required quota of rubber. Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ was based on this horror. Today Belgium conjures up images of lovely chocolate and Agatha Christie’s charming detective, Hercule Poirot. Adam Hochschild’s book ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ refers to this process as ‘the great forgetting’.
In his excellent article for Al Jazeera, Mark Le Vine, Professor of Middle Eastern History of the University of California states that the system of which we are all part has made murderous horror ‘both predictable and inevitable’.
“Radical Islam has today charted a path that mirrors radical capitalism; using violence only shocks ‘us’ because we’ve managed to make the violence unleashed and supported for so long in our name morally and politically invisible.”
Professor Le Vine regards the catastrophe of Nigeria’s Biafran war (directly backed by the West) in the late 60s, involving starvation of little children and the death of at least one million people as “one of the rarely discussed causes of the Boko Haram phenomenon.” Similarly, the West’s decision to overthrow the democratically elected Islamic party in Algeria in the early nineties, leading to civil war which cost an estimated 100,000 lives, together with the atrocities of the Algerian war of independence in the 50s until 1962, may help to explain the Algerian connection to the current assault in France.
Finally, let us take a look at an October 2014 front cover of Charlie Hebdo, the freedom of expression magazine which everyone in the West, except Pope Francis, seems to be now falling over backwards to support: it depicts four screaming, thick lipped women of colour, all heavily pregnant and covered in Islamic attire except for their faces. The title states: ‘Sexual slaves of Boko Haram are angry’ and the women are screaming: “Don’t touch our welfare benefits!” This is hateful racism and because of all the above, I was not with those whose immediate response to the Paris killings was: “Je suis Charlie!” I am not Charlie. But I am Baga.