Sunday, 15 November 2015 20:30

Paris Attacks: Requiem for the Nameless

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

As friends in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad reach out to tell me they are safe after recent attacks by Islamic State (IS), a myriad of thoughts and images run through my mind. Huge obscenities and small graces alike.

I think of the billions of dollars that Dick Cheney and his cohorts made on the back of an illegal invasion and occupation that spawned its own counter-barbarism that unleashed itself on three nations this past week.

I think of the shy Iraqi altar boy with a sweet smile I photographed on Christmas Eve in Baghdad in 1998, three days after the Desert Fox bombing by (U.S.) President Bill Clinton.

I think of the massacre of Algerians by French police in 1961 – technically the worst in Paris since World War II. And of the romantic postcard vision of Paris vs. the reality that France is currently the fourth biggest arms exporter in the world with Saudi Arabia its biggest client.

Luxury of security

I think of my friends living in war zones and am reminded of the luxury of security here in Canada and the open-heartedness of those preparing for the arrival of refugees.

And I remember the time I spent living in Paris in the early 90’s. Then, in between writing about Algerian intellectuals fleeing FIS, metro bombings and the cinema of the banlieue, I earned my keep singing on weekends in le Marais – not far from one of the six attacks on Friday.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][I am] reminded of the luxury of security here in Canada and the open-heartedness of those preparing for the arrival of refugees.[/quote]

Under the old archways of Place des Vosges, I would sing flamenco incantations – often accompanied by a Senegalese pal who chimed in African rhythms  (until he got deported back to Dakar). I would also play gypsy songs from war-torn Bosnia and of course — as a patriotic Canadian — the songs of Leonard Cohen.

I think of some now … music as a balm for my soul — and for all our broken hearts — the same songs I sang with friends in Beirut and in Baghdad and Sarajevo that helped stave off the darkness and somehow reach the emotional truth of our war-torn world. As a Palestinian singer from Sabreen once told me, “We have tried every kind of resistance … now all that is left is to sing.”

I remember songs like Stories of the Street “All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?”)

When Love Calls You By Your Name – “Between the newsreel and your tiny pain”

There is a War – “why don't you come on back to the war, let's all get even”

And of course the Partisan song Cohen sang of the French resistance – “through the graves the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come.”

Compassion for all

I also remember the (Chilean nueva cancion) Victor Jara songs I used to sing – especially right now - El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (the Right to Live in Peace)

These songs are full of struggle and despair but also of hope – from a time when the Vietnam War raged and atrocities ran rampant. They still lift the human spirit and speak to universal values.

I sing them now silently in remembrance of all this week’s victims, and wonder why this new barbarism can’t spawn once again — instead of more hate — a mass movement of peace, justice and solidarity.

I hope that – like the refugee crisis that has affected so many nations – this fresh new barbarism will be an opportunity for the human family to transcend petty tribalisms and unite in protest and calls for peace, dignity and compassion for all.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]I sing them now silently in remembrance of all this week’s victims, and wonder why this new barbarism can’t spawn once again — instead of more hate — a mass movement of peace, justice and solidarity.[/quote]

Each generation has its horrors and counter-responses. The recent Remembrance or Veterans Day – before it was co-opted for glorification of the military – was a day initiated to refuse war and violence.

Admittedly, compassion is often very selective and culturally determined and really is about who we identify with — mostly. It's quite an art to transcend that. But I hope by now, we are up to the challenge.

And so as the names of the dead in Paris are slowly, terribly revealed on 24-hour news channels around the world, I say a prayer for them, but also for the nameless in less televisual climes. Those who had the misfortune of being blown up on their way to work, taking their kids to school, shopping in the market, while going to church or praying in a mosque, in some remote corner of a Baghdad suburb, where journalists dare not dine.

I say a prayer for Beirutis, who have lived this so many times before; a prayer for innocent Palestinian families, burned to death by settlers with American passports; a prayer for all the Kenyans, killed in terrorist attacks, who also had names and hopes and families. A prayer for the Rohingyan widows and orphans and those murdered in the name of democracy. A prayer for Yemenis whose wedding parties are routinely bombed to no great alarm.

A prayer for all the Syrians who experience scenes like those in Paris every day and as they flee, are conflated with the very terror they run from. A prayer for us all who struggle to make this life one of meaning and dignity.

May we all sing a Requiem together as one human family, and pierce the darkness with our tears of light.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 

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Published in Commentary

by Mourad Haroutunian (@MHaroutunianTO) in Toronto

From the anti-terrorism bill, Charlie Hebdo and William Schabas’ resignation to Ontario’s new sex education curriculum, ethnic media covering the Arab world has had its hands full. Here’s a look at the top five headlines that have made the most waves in January and February from Arab media.

Anti-terror Bill: Be Careful

In a Feb. 11 editorial, Salah Allam (pictured to right), editor in chief of the biweekly newspaper Arab News, calls for more caution and more parliamentary supervision to be included in the new anti-terror bill that Parliament is about to enact. 

Allam says that although many political analysts agree to the new bill, which aims to serve the country’s national interests and hunt international terrorists at large, his request is important. “We have to be very careful while accepting the bill in its current shape,” he writes.

Allam admits that the new legislation boosts the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP’s powers, but warns that, in the meantime, it affects civil rights protection.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“A bird’s-eye view on the new bill shows that it will be considered an illegal act when a person incites terrorism or slams Canada’s policies, even if it is merely haphazard talk.” - Arab News[/quote]

He cites the absence of effective mechanisms for the Canadian parliament to oversee the way security agencies perform their duties in this regard.

“A bird’s-eye view on the new bill shows that it will be considered an illegal act when a person incites terrorism or slams Canada’s policies, even if it is merely haphazard talk,” he writes.

The bill will forbid “propagating for terrorism” via any audio-visual medium, website or social networking platform. It will also simplify legal procedures required to detain suspected terrorists and restrict their movement.

“Thus, it is not yet clear,” Allam continues, “how such impact on existing freedom might secure more protection for Canadian citizens.”

Charlie Hebdo: All Guilty

Only Canada survived criticism over the Charlie Hebdo incident in a Jan. 22 editorial by Jamal Alqaryouti (pictured to the left), editor in chief of the biweekly newspaper Al Wattan. All are deplorable, from his perspective: the criminals, the victims, the host country and the mobs across the Muslim world, as well as the Israeli prime minister, who attended the Jan. 11 Paris march in solidarity with France.

Alqaryouti writes that the event might have repercussions in Europe, but not in Canada: “Canadian society is fortified against racism and stereotypes as evident through the common reaction to the dual crimes of Ottawa and Quebec a few months ago— and their reaction to heinous attacks on some mosques and Islamic centres.”

He says that in Europe, “the crime, even before proving Muslims are behind it, will give European right-wing [populists] a justification to act against Muslims, in particular, and immigrants in general, and will further justify the ‘Islamizing the West’ myth.”

Furthermore, he adds: “Even with Charlie Hebdo being a leftist magazine that used to ridicule religious or political figures without discrimination, I categorically reject making fun of any beliefs. I deplore reactions to the magazine’s behaviour, noting that the Prophet Mohammed helped treat patients of some people who had offended him by throwing their garbage on his house and himself.”

Schabas, Israel

Nazih Khatatba (pictured to the right), editor in chief of the biweekly newspaper Meshwar, declares via a Feb. 6 editorial, “William Schabas’ resignation will not hide Israeli crimes.”

Schabas, a Canadian academic, was heading a three-member commission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate all alleged violations of international humanitarian laws carried out by Israel during the Israel–Gaza conflict last summer.

Schabas resigned in February in response to Israeli accusations of bias because he had billed the Palestine Liberation Organization for $1,300 in 2012 for legal advice he gave the organization at its request. Israel said the precedent constituted evidence of a conflict of interest with his position.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Schabas is not the first person who has been exposed to Israeli rudeness, pressure and threats.” - Meshwar newspaper[/quote]

“Has Israel achieved a political victory by pushing Schabas to step down by posing pressures on him or even by threatening his life?” asks Khatatba.

“Schabas is not the first person who has been exposed to Israeli rudeness, pressure and threats,” says Khatatba, pointing to a former Israeli critic, Richard Goldstone.

“From the Israeli point of view, everyone who criticizes it is anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, greedy or even manipulated by external directives.

“Schabas refused to be like many people who disregard practices being carried out by Israeli leaders and the Israeli army. He said he wanted to see Netanyahu and Liebermann in the dock, and asked, ‘Why are we going after the President of Sudan for Darfur and not the President of Israel for Gaza?’

“Schabas has to pride himself on his humanitarianism and bias to the victim and the truth, and to standing by the Palestinian people against war crimes executed by the leaders of the occupation state, which lauds itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.

“It’s the Israeli terror that imposes its will on the international community with force,” Khatatba writes.

Sex-ed Curricula: Oral, Anal

Abram Makar (pictured to the left), editor in chief of the biweekly newspaper Good News, earmarks its Feb. 14 editorial to lamenting Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum.

“The fear of sex approaching our kids has become a reality for us, the residents of the Canadian province of Ontario. This reality was imposed by the Liberal government of the province via minister of education, Liz Sandals, who resubmitted the sex education curricula project for primary school students in Ontario to be effective as of the coming fall. It’s the same project that Kathleen Wynne submitted in 2010 when she was minister of education and was aborted, thanks to opposition spearheaded by Canadian Christian advocate Charles McVety.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Minister Sandals says these ages are suitable to study those topics, but the minister has failed to tell us where she obtained this information.” - Good News[/quote]

The article reports that under this new curriculum, Grade 3 students will be taught about homosexuality and same-sex marriages, Grade 6 students will study maturity and masturbation, while Grade 7 students are going to learn about anal and oral sex in the context of how to prevent the transfer of sexual diseases.

“Minister Sandals says these ages are suitable to study those topics, but the minister has failed to tell us where she obtained this information,” Makar writes. “Did she conduct research and learn that children at these ages are capable of understanding these matters?

“The project advocates claim they want to teach kids such sex-related topics lest they learn this information from unreliable sources.

“My question is: who guarantees that [teachers] who instruct such topics are reliable sources?”

The writer, at the end of his editorial, calls on all who reject teaching such topics to their children and grandchildren at these early ages to join in opposition of the new sex-ed curricula before the start of the coming school year and take part in a protest, organized by Parents as First Educators, to be held before Ontario Parliament on Feb. 24.

‘Copy-paste’ Media

The monthly newspaper Sakher Sabeel conducted an interview with Yilmaz Jawid, a Canadian–Iraqi social activist.

Jawid (pictured to the right), who immigrated to Canada in 1994, served as the president of the Iraqi Canadian Association for two terms. He also founded the Jawid Seniors Services Foundation, which offers free services for newcomers and free taxation services for low-income senior citizens.

To Jawid, culturally based media activity in Canada is swinging between for-profit activity, with some newspapers relying on advertising and publishing materials “copy-pasted” from other newspapers and online outlets, and not-for-profit political activity, with some newspapers depending on publishing controversial news stories.

“Successful cultural activity should focus on social life to solve problems that face immigrants. These should not be the job of newspapers only, but also of all organizations and associations,” he explains.

As such, Jawid says he has posted more than 270 articles on the Al Hewar Al Motamaden website, a leftist online platform.


Mourad Haroutunian is a Toronto-based journalist. Born and raised in Cairo, Haroutunian has worked in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, for Bloomberg News, CNBC Arabiya and Nile TV International. He holds an M.A. in journalism and mass communication from the American University in Cairo. Visit his Facebook page.

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Published in Arab World
Thursday, 05 February 2015 21:17

Boko Haram: Where is the Global Outcry?

by Maryam Mirza (@MsMMirza) in Ottawa

#JeSuisCharlie

#IAmBaga

Both powerful hashtags. Both ways for people all around the world to express public outcry over the mass killings of people in France and Nigeria respectively. But, only one garnered millions of social media posts. The question that many people have taken to the Twitter verse with is: why? According to one Canadian expert, it has a lot to do with the mainstream media’s need to present a contrast between the forces of good and evil.

“In the Nigerian case that dichotomy is not clear-cut,” said Dr. Tope Oriola, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, during an event held recently at Carleton University titled “Boko Haram in Nigeria: A Critical Roundtable”. “There are really no good guys. There are only bad guys and less bad guys. And so how do you pick sides? How do you frame what is going on in terms of the chaos there?”

Oriola, joined by Carleton University professors Dr. Pius Adesanmi and Dr. Nduka Otiona, aimed to provide context to the lack of mainstream coverage and understanding of Boko Haram, an extremist group that has claimed over 5,000 lives in northern Nigeria since its emergence in 2002. Perhaps the under reporting of this more than decade long turmoil was most apparent in the aftermath of the killings in Paris at the beginning of this year – claiming the lives of 12 journalists at the Charlie Hebdo publication – which received considerably more media attention.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]In both instances, radicals with similar ideologies attacked the cities, however, the global reaction to each was quite different.[/quote]

At the same time the world, and the media, was fixated on Paris, Boko Haram made its way through Baga, a city in northeast Nigeria, murdering 2,000 people in what Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the group’s history. The attack began on January 3 (Hebdo shooting happened on the 7th), lasting almost an entire week as the extremist organization ploughed through the city, leaving a trail of bodies behind and displacing thousands of people from their homes.

In both instances, radicals with similar ideologies attacked the cities, however, the global reaction to each was quite different.

Forty world leaders marched in Paris. Protests were held in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Hashtags trended globally. The world expressed outrage over the events. However, the attention to the massacre of women and children in Baga, Nigeria paled in comparison. The panel presented various theories as to why this was. 

[youtube height="315" width="560"]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qETzz5kBNmU&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

Watch a clip from "Boko Haram in Nigeria: A Critical Roundtable" held by Carleton University's Institute of African Studies.

Video Shot & Edited By: Maryam Mirza

Media Power

According to Oriola, the shooting in Paris held importance because of its unusualness. The frequency of the attacks by Boko Haram has reduced its level of extraordinariness, in turn, reducing the news value of what is going on, despite the shock of the recent mass killings.  If what happened at Charlie Hebdo were to occur often in France, it would become stale news as well. The sheer volume, Oriola argued, is difficult to keep up with.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“It is epic displacement of priority to focus on under-representation of Boko Haram incidents in the world media rather than finding solutions to the problem.” - Dr. Tope Oriola[/quote]

Further to that though, is the role of the colonial mentality in the coverage of the tragedies in France and Nigeria. The colonizing country validates the worth of the colonized subject, he explained. In order for the world to pay attention, the countries that hold media power – the west – need to deem it important enough. The hegemony of global media lies quite obviously in the hands of the west, in turn influencing the coverage of certain issues over others, Oriola explained, though he pointed out that he does not believe this is driven by racism.

“Valuing the lives of Nigerians begins with ensuring provision of security, a decent living standard, education and other basic infrastructure,” he added. “It is epic displacement of priority to focus on under-representation of Boko Haram incidents in the world media rather than finding solutions to the problem.”

Oriola’s last argument shifted the perspective of Boko Haram from being an international responsibility, to being, first and foremost, a national one. The emergence of Boko Haram didn’t happen overnight. After its establishment in 2002, it existed as a local organization for a few years until mobilizing in 2009, seeking support from partners across the Sahel, growing and strengthening in numbers since that time. This brings into question why this extremist group hasn’t been dealt with before becoming a threat to national security.

A Country Divided

Adesanmi explained the issue as being rooted in a lack, or “absence of national or regional will.” Many of Boko Haram’s young recruits come from northern Nigeria, where the region suffers from a lack of socioeconomic benefits that the south or the rest of the country enjoy.

Understanding the longstanding disconnect between the northern region and the rest of the country and its residents helps to contextualize the lack of concern and response to Boko Haram, Adesanmi said. The lack of a unified, national identity, in a sense, leads the rest of the country and the government to become disengaged with the pressing issue of Boko Haram.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Boko Haram or no Boko Haram – there is no regional sense of feeling. The absence of a national will and the absence of a regional will combine to exacerbate the absence of a political will." - Dr. Pius Adesanmi[/quote]

Adesanmi also argued that the lack of regional will and the divide between Anglophone and Francophone countries within West Africa are both issues in this conflict. Take, for example, Yayi Boni, president of the West African nation, Benin. In a photo that went viral online, he was seen weeping over the killings of Charlie Hebdo staff, and on the day he flew out of Cotonou to France, Boko Haram killed 2,000 West Africans. Yet, as of now, he has still not released a statement about the Baga massacre.

“Is there a pan-Nigerian structure of feeling, of ownership, of this crisis in a fundamental sense?” asked Adesanmi. “Boko Haram or no Boko Haram – there is no regional sense of feeling. The absence of a national will and the absence of a regional will combine to exacerbate the absence of a political will. All three of these should be taken into consideration when discussing Boko Haram.”

As Boko Haram continues to strengthen and claim lives, the issue is hardly black and white. According to Adesanmi the discussion must be had regionally as well as internationally. As he explained, understanding the circumstances that created this extremist group, the vulnerable area of northern Nigeria exploited by Boko Haram, and the disconnect between the people of northern Nigeria and the rest of the world lie is crucial in this discussion.

“The inability to comprehend the character of the group is at the core of stopping Boko Haram,” said Otiono. “This delay in understanding Boko Haram is related to the delay in containing it too.”

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Published in Top Stories

by Richard M. Landau (@richard54)

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent hostage-taking and murders at the Paris kosher supermarket were supposedly in retaliation for the blasphemous manner in which the satirical publication portrayed Muhammad, the seventh century common era prophet of Islam.

Take #1: The true nature of satire

When satire first appeared in Western culture, it utilized good-natured humour to achieve its ends. Practitioners such as John Dryden believed that good satire nicked someone, as with a rapier. One did not conduct satire with the plunge of a broadsword. From what I have observed, the Charlie Hebdo practitioners often use a broadsword, not a rapier. Their depictions of Muslims – not to mention Jews and Christians – is hateful. It is often a blunt and not clever expression that borders on racism. Good satire was never intended in the first place to decimate one’s target. But, of course, satire today often eschews subtlety for crudeness.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Good satire was never intended in the first place to decimate one’s target.[/quote]

Take #2: Blasphemy?

Blasphemy, they say. These very same people who call aloud the Almighty’s name (“Allah-u-akbar”) while mercilessly executing others? The Charlie killers called out the Almighty’s name in the street as they randomly executed a French gendarme, a co-religionist – a Muslim. They targeted and killed innocent Jews as they engaged in carefree shopping for Shabbat; tell me that isn’t a blasphemy that deeply offends the Almighty.   

Blasphemy? The ISIS killers who chanted the Almighty’s name while slowly sawing off the head of Daniel Pearl? The bomb-jacket Palestinian blowing up a restaurant filled with non-combatants in Jerusalem? The 9/11 hijackers as they flew planes into buildings and randomly extinguished thousands of innocent lives?

All of them calling out Allah’s name, as if the Almighty blesses their vile acts. Now you tell me: which is the real blasphemy? Some sophomoric cartoon or someone who kills the innocent while imagining he has God’s blessing? Blasphemy indeed.

Take #3: A likeness of Muhammad?

I think that image on the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo looks more like seventh century merchant Ali bin Jiddah than it does Muhammad. I jest. I say this to make the point that it is ludicrous to get upset over some racialized drawing of a random Arab likeness and to allow the ignorant cartoonist to tell you that it is a likeness of the beloved Prophet of Islam. Would people be as upset if the cartoonist had drawn a face on a banana and declared it to be the prophet’s likeness? I think not.  

Take #4: Fanaticism

Quit with the manufactured anger, people of Islam. The anger over some poorly drawn image – like the random anger every time there is a rumour that some non-believer has burned or defaced a Qur’an is pointless. Stampeding crowds of hysterical men only serves the anti-Islamic narrative that all Muslims are raging fanatics.

Take #5: Canada responds

Back when people around the world were indeed going crazy over the so-called Danish cartoons and stomping and burning flags, Canada’s Muslim community was largely a model of decorum and sang-froid. The response here was “more in sadness than in anger.” That’s how you respond to being offended.

Take #6: Legitimate Responses

Here in democratic societies, we have a number of legitimate methods for responding to a medium that offends us – none of which involve violence. 

  1. Write a letter to the editor
  2. Don’t buy the publication
  3. Boycott the advertisers and vendors
  4. Protest peacefully at the offending publisher’s location
  5. Publish an electronic or hard copy medium that presents an opposing point of view
  6. Invite the offenders to a public debate
  7. If you are truly religious, leave the extraction of vengeance to the Almighty.

See? No violence.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Here in democratic societies, we have a number of legitimate methods for responding to a medium that offends us – none of which involve violence.[/quote]

Take #7: Media responsibility

Even though we have access to it, none of us in the mainstream media present the images of Daniel Pearl or others being beheaded. Why? Good taste - something I believe is in short supply at Charlie Hebdo. In many jurisdictions, I could easily publish such images, alongside images of women being raped and babies being slaughtered. I could print full page images of physically challenged people with an insulting caption about their condition but my conscience and public standards of morality will not allow me to do so.

In other words, not everything publishable should be published. I don’t believe that is for the government to determine, but in an educated society we trust that the publisher/producer and the public will arrive at that destination of good taste and editorial judgment.

Take #8: A senseless death
The staffers at Charlie Hebdo were murdered for some poorly drawn offensive cartoons (a few of which remind me of the Nazi-era caricatures of hooked-nosed Jews). They didn’t die for revealing a government or corporate cover up or for opposing a corrupt government policy or defending the downtrodden. I repeat: they died for some poorly drawn, not-very-funny cartoons.  This is not Pulitzer Prize stuff, not a Daniel Pearl or Zahra Kazemi death. Yes, their murders offend us and violate our sensibility about freedom and innocence. Yes, they have died for freedom of expression. But to me, dying for some mean-spirited cartoons seems a terrible waste.

Take #9: When two bullies collide

Part of me believes that the rest of us have been caught in a fight between two bullies. The first bully yells offensive taunts and draws offensive images. The second bully overreacts and brings guns to the schoolyard knife fight, so to speak. On both sides there have been bullying, taunting behaviour; though, in magnitude, they are incomparable.

Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992.  He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa.  A leader in interfaith dialogue, Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-Based Initiatives.  He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions.  He is author of “What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.”

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Published in Commentary

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver

As the Academy Award nominations briefly usurp global terror headlines, I recall how watching events unfold in Paris last week was a somewhat cinematic experience.

More often than not, it was a bad B movie. Images of a femme fatale terrorist Hayat Boumeddiene – alternately a Bond girl in bikini turned fantasy villain in niqab and cross bow (cross bow!? really?) – were surreal at best, grotesque at worst.

There were some definite Hollywood moments – including the police stand offs, the hostage taking and even a few unlikely heroes, like the Muslim worker at the kosher deli who saved his fellow citizens by hiding them in a freezer.

It was a thriller of a movie that kept much of the “free world” glued to CNN and culminated with a march that saw world leaders – many of them perpetrators of gross violations of freedom of expression in their own countries – link arms in solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

And it was myopic in the extreme – what about Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the 17 Palestinian journalists killed by Israeli forces during the attack on Gaza last year that killed over 2,100 people, the Palestinian cartoonist recently released from prison who was critical of both Hamas and Netanyahu, or the journalists locked in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new gulags in Cairo? And what about the hundreds of Iraqi journalists (including cartoonists) murdered since the invasion in 2003 (Iraq has consistently been the most dangerous country for journalist for years), unmourned by the world at large, or their Syrian colleagues caught in a half-decade-long nightmare fuelled by proxy militias funded by international players?

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][H]ow was it that the Kouachi brothers just happened to conveniently leave their ID lying around for the police to discover? Or, that they had apparently been on the radar of French intelligence for years?[/quote]

Of course, we’ve come to accept myopia from Hollywood. But even by the usual standards, there were more than a few cracks in this narrative, not to mention some thin plotlines.

How was it possible that the killers of the cartoonists, the Kouachi brothers – linked to kosher deli hostage taker Amedy Coulibaly by a dodgy video broadcast to the world after the attack – were working in tandem with a rival jihadist group? The Kouachi brothers claimed to represent al-Qaeda in Yemen, while Coulibaly claimed to be with Islamic State (IS) – two factions currently at each other’s throats in Syria.

And how was it that the Kouachi brothers just happened to conveniently leave their ID lying around for the police to discover? Or, that they had apparently been on the radar of French intelligence for years? Or, that police killed them all before due process might determine whom they were working for and why. Or, that the head of the local police investigation happened to kill himself a few days after the attack? It all began to resemble an Islamist version of Three Days of the Condor meets The Battle of Algiers.

Emotional truth in film

My cinematic lens on the scenario can be blamed on the fact that I watched it all unfold whilst attending the Palm Springs International Film Festival, mainly on the flat screen television in my mid-century modernist hotel room deep in the desert. But just as on September 11, 2001, when I found myself in the middle of a cultural festival in Jordan celebrating East meets West (we all carried on, trancelike, with a scheduled performance of Sufi chanting at the Citadel), there was something oddly comforting about sitting in a darkened theatre with strangers watching world cinema.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]...After so much of [journalism] has been compromised by official stenography and disinformation campaigns, perhaps the emotional truth of cinema is more reliable.[/quote]

Discerning what is real and what isn’t used to be a job for journalists. But after so much of that profession has been compromised by official stenography and disinformation campaigns, perhaps the emotional truth of cinema is more reliable.

When I lived in Paris from 1994 to ’96, and wrote about cinema for Sight and Sound magazine, it was the era of cinema de banlieue and of films like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine  and Malik Chibane’s Douce France that celebrated suburban anti-heroes, many from immigrant backgrounds, and many of whom were becoming radicalized.

It was also the era of FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), when hundreds of Algerian intellectuals fled death threats from an Islamist group many claim was actually fed by the regime, and faced the same very real racism that 10 per cent of France’s population deals with every day.

Echoes of Ferguson

Selma, which opened the Palm Springs Film Festival and was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, with its compelling chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, seemed uncanny in its post Ferguson timing. Particularly with its depiction of the live broadcast of state troopers beating peaceful black protestors as a key turning point in the struggle – a timely reminder of the power of the image.

Dancing Arabs, an Israeli film by Eran Riklis based on two novels by Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, spoke to the civil rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, some 20 per cent of the population whose struggle resonates in some ways with that of North African youth in France. The film’s protagonist, a young man who must assume the identity of his dying Israeli classmate in order to keep a job and a tenuous place in society, reminded me of the francization of minorities in France and the intolerance of “difference” vs. the more Anglo-Saxon idea of “multiculturalism” (where you have community representatives who keep tabs on people for the authorities, as was explained to me by a young maghrebin organizer in Paris, who kept a low profile to avoid police harassment).

Timbuktu, a sublime piece of cinema about the Islamist take over of Mali in 2012 by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako – nominated for an Oscar – offered a nuanced, lyrical approach to the whole issue of extremism and intolerance. Through a series of powerful images, ranging from a group of schoolboys playing a phantom game of soccer with no football (banned as “un-Islamic”) to a Malian musician being whipped for her art and singing through her tears, to a former follies bergeres dancer turned local mad woman standing tall and proud in a ragged costume blocking a jeep full of armed men, in gorgeous defiance, the film showed how foreign the jihadi culture is to traditional Malian, Sufi influenced Islam.

Just as foreign as Wahhabist extremism is to kids from French ghettos whose parents emigrated from the Maghreb. Just as foreign as IS is to traditional Iraqi culture: “Who are these people?” an Iraqi friend asked recently, “they don’t even speak Arabic.” And just as foreign as the National Security Agency (NSA) is to the U.S. constitution.

Cry from the heart

In my fantasy Hollywood ending to the march in Paris, all those world leaders linking arms will spend the next several years visiting widows and orphans in Iraq and Syria and Gaza and the dispossessed in inner-city ghettos from Detroit to Marseilles, consoling and offering their heartfelt apologies to the relatives of drone strike victims in Yemen and Pakistan, of journalists murdered in less telegenic climes and the victims of warlordism in Afghanistan and of torture and extraordinary rendition. In my dream, Je Suis Charlie will become a global cri de coeur for actual liberté, egalité and fraternité.

In the meantime, celluloid dreams aside, we still have culture as a form of self-defence, and as a reminder of what’s real. Just as the final image of Timbuktu – a jihadist secretly practising a beautiful, fragile dance of his own creation – suggests: Peut-être je ne suis pas Charlie, mais certainment je suis humaine.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. A fifth generation Canadian of mixed ancestry, she lived in Paris in the 90's and wrote for Sight and Sound and The Independent. Her next book is a political travelogue of ancient sites in Iraq.

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