Je suis Charlie, I am Ken Saro Wiwa, I am Victor Jara
Wednesday 14th January 2015
Why the media insistence that only Islamists commit atrocities? Governments, including that of France, are just as capable of inflicting bloody violence, writes Victor Grossman
Writing from Germany, I had planned to discuss the rise of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or Pegida, movement, which is based in Dresden.
But then came the atrocious murders at Charlie Hebdo.
Like so many millions I was shocked and horror-stricken. But I was also frightened. Now the Pegida crowd would shout: “You see! We told you so!”
Even before the attack, polls showed 57 per cent of non-immigrant Germans mistrustful of Muslims.
But only small numbers had gone on the virulent marches. How many would now join in with flags, crosses and slogans? How many right-leaning leaders would once again find their raucous voices?
And how could they now be counteracted? Would the tragic shots fired in the rue Nicolas Appert echo menacingly down the Alleen and Strassen of Germany?
With so many people understandably stricken and determined to oppose murderous Islamists and defend freedom of a critical press, why am I stricken by so many doubts?
Must sharp, iconoclastic satire, bravely spiting the powers-that-be with sharp pens and sharp words, purposely insult deeply felt religious beliefs?
A convinced atheist all my life, I have no sympathy whatsoever for religious fanatics, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist.
For centuries fanatics have caused far too much misery in our world.
Attacking Isis is good. But lampooning the beliefs of so many Muslims in Europe who face daily discrimination in schools and jobs, with mosques and minarets often attacked too?
Should satire be unfettered? Almost always, yes.
But perhaps not the ridiculing of prophets and beliefs which still provide solace to many.
Bloody fanatics must be opposed. But Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed are long dead. Is attacking them courageous or good?
Nothing can justify assault rifle attacks and cold-blooded murder, in this case of artists, writers and satirists.
But why this repeated insistence that only Muslims or Islamists can be bloody?
Must I recall the uprising in France’s colony of Madagascar in 1947, whose people, dreaming of independence, naively hoping for US assistance, began their fight, armed mostly with spears?
A well-armed French army of 30,000 men adopted “a strategy of terror and psychological warfare involving torture, collective punishment, the burning of villages, mass arrests, executions and rape … In Mananjary, hundreds were killed, among them 18 women and a group of prisoners thrown alive out of an airplane.”
An official estimate of the number killed was 89,000, but if one counts those who fled into the forest and were believed dead, it was more likely over 100,000.
And what about press freedom?
“The French media reported little on the event and few details of the rising and subsequent repression were reported … outside France.”
On the 65th anniversary of the uprising in 2012, Madagascar’s prime minister requested that the French government declassify archival materials on the uprising. The request was not approved.
Why must I recall the French war in Indochina, soon after? And what about Algeria?
In 1841, 11 years after its conquest, the visiting historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented: “Whatever the case, we may say in a general manner that all political freedoms must be suspended in Algeria.”
After World War II Algeria also wanted independence — and had to fight for it.
In the battle of Algiers in 1957 General Massu’s paratroop division made use of its methods in Madagascar and Indochina, also against civilians, with illegal executions and forced disappearances, in particular through what would later become known as “death flights.”
Viewing Algerians as a subhuman race made the use of torture more agreeable if not enjoyable for the torturer. General Paul Aussaresses referred to Algerian fighters and sympathisers as “rats, criminals, rebels, militants and bandits.”
In his memoir he wrote of the “disappearances” of many prisoners: “Only rarely were the prisoners we had questioned during the night still alive the next morning.”
“First, the officer questions the prisoner in the ‘traditional’ manner, hitting him with fists and kicking him.
“Then follows torture: hanging … water torture … electricity … burning (using cigarettes, etc) … Cases of prisoners who were driven insane were frequent … Between interrogation sessions, the suspects are imprisoned without food in cells, some of which were small enough to impede lying down … some of them were very young teenagers and others old men of 75, 80 years or more.”
Communist journalist and writer Henri Alleg disclosed that the French military, besides torturing actual suspects, even buried old men alive. He was himself tortured and described in horrifying detail the method now known as waterboarding and also electrical torture with hand generators.
And press freedom? With the French state denying its employment of torture, more than 250 books, newspapers and films in metropolitan France and 586 in Algeria were censored.
Alleg’s factual book La Question and Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Petit Soldat were forbidden by a Socialist government headed by Guy Mollet.
No. Then and now, press freedom can never be taken for granted.
The war with Algeria still raged in October 1961 during the “Paris massacre.”
Under orders from police chief Maurice Papon, later convicted as a war criminal, French police attacked a demonstration of 30,000 Algerians.
The results were horrifying. Many died when they were violently herded by police into the river Seine, with some thrown from bridges after being beaten unconscious.
Others were killed in the courtyard of police headquarters while senior officers ignored pleas by other police officers shocked at the brutality. Some 10,000 were arrested, estimates of those killed range from 70 to 200.
No, brutality is not somehow restricted to Islam or Muslims.
Even my short-term memory and US nationality force me to remember Abu Zubaydah, father of four daughters, arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and in US custody for over 12 years.
During that time he was waterboarded 83 times, subjected to forced nudity, sleep deprivation, confinement in small dark boxes and stress positions.
After physical assaults he lost his left eye. Videotapes were destroyed, but we know that the waterboarding sessions “resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms” and “hysterical pleas.”
In at least one such session, he “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” After medical intervention he regained consciousness and “expelled copious amounts of liquid.”
In 2006 he was transferred to Guantanamo’s Camp 7, where conditions were especially miserable.
In 2007 the review tribunal told Zubaydah that he was “not significant … They told me: ‘Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter’.”
Gul Rahman was arrested at his doctor’s home after travelling to Islamabad for a medical check-up.
He too was subjected to “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment.”
Rahman died on November 20 2002, reportedly after being stripped naked from the waist down and shackled to a cold cement wall in the “salt pit” in 2°C temperatures.
As one CIA interrogator reported: “A detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him.”
His team found one detainee who, “as far as we could determine, had been chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days.”
Some prisoners were said to be like dogs in kennels. In 2006, during a CIA briefing, president George W Bush expressed discomfort at the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.”
This man was chained with one or both wrists to an overhead bar for 22 hours on two consecutive days. His imprisonment was concealed from the Red Cross international committee.
British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith reported on as many as 20 teenagers imprisoned at Guantanamo, some in long-term solitary confinement.
One Afghan human rights worker asserted that one lad was only 12 or 13 when he was captured.
Such victims’ names are rarely known or quickly forgotten.
Again, must I recall how in July 2011, Nato planes — 35 per cent of them French — bombed the Libyan state TV station, killing three journalists and injuring 15?
The International Federation of Journalists stated: “We utterly condemn this action, which targeted journalists and threatened their lives in violation of international law … Our concern is that when one side decides to take out a media organisation because they regard its message as propaganda, then all media are at risk.”
For some the action recalled April 1999 when Nato planes destroyed the TV and radio station of Belgrade, killing 16 Radio-TV of Serbia employees with a single well-aimed rocket and calling it “a legitimate target” because it was a “propaganda mouthpiece.”
But the men of Charlie Hebdo were writers and creators, unique and irreplaceable. True without a doubt.
Does that not apply to Charles Horman, US journalist and filmmaker, killed during a US-supported putsch in Chile in 1973 (and famous after the film Missing)?
Or, on the same occasion, to the wonderful singer-songwriter Victor Jara?
Or the Belgian-organised, US-supported torture and murder of the Congolese poet and political leader Patrice Lumumba?
Or in Nigeria to novelist and filmmaker Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged with the connivance of Shell?
Or the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani, considered one of the greatest modern Arabic authors, whose car was booby-trapped by Mossad in July 1972?
I cannot help thinking that there are far more too many bloody criminals still at large in the world, of many beliefs and nationalities, even though most media, so defensive of freedom of the press, keep such names from the people or distort their contributions and fates.
Nor do their ideas of a free press always extend to a Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or Mumia Abu-Jamal.
What I now fear is a renewed misuse of the latest assassinations, encouraging mass feelings of revenge not just toward a few fanatic assassins of often twisted religious beliefs but toward anyone with a darker skin colour and differences in language or clothing.
Attention is thus directed away from the true perpetrators, those worsening the very social conditions which breed fanaticism, and their marionettes, who have career goals but no consciences and are already spouting their now hardly muted poison, cashing in on renewed hatred.
We must work to close the gaps, to clasp hands and work together for a better world.
We dare not forget all the countless bloody deeds preceding the horror of Paris.
This is what makes me join in saying: “Je suis Charlie!” but then adding: “I am Gul Rahman! I am Abu Zubaydah! I am Charles Horman and Ken Saro-Wiwa! I am Ghassan Kanafani and Victor Jara!”