In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, proclamations of “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) started trending across social media. But left silent was the roaring and implicit question, “Et toi?” (And you?).
How does one answer that question as a Western Muslim? What does it mean? What was I supposed to say? Is there any option available, save a full-throated “Mais oui”—but yes? Of course, that proclamation alone is insufficient. As after any such incident, I find myself having to prove my bona fides, to respond to demands that I choose sides in this war. My answer is determined by the nature of the unfolding war.
The murders in Paris represent one of the many battles being waged in a larger war. It is a war I’ve grown up with most of my adult life. It has no real name. Some would deny it is happening at all. But through the fog of this war and its complexity, it’s possible to discern two distinct sides “in dubious battle on the plains of Heaven.”
Each side frames the war exclusively on its own terms. As in any war, each side believes that this framing justifies acts of murder, torture and terror—as acts that are unfortunate but necessary. Each side deploys traditional tactics of dehumanisation and delegitimisation to justify acts of violence. Each side finds meaning and political capital in the shedding of blood. Each side believes that its way of life is right and that of the other side wrong.
One side sees itself as “the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” This is the side that speaks the language of democracy, freedom and justice. This side possesses the might of force, air power, nuclear weapons, and the legitimacy of the State. Constituted by the United States, the United Kingdom, other Western governments, as well as their allies (such as the Gulf States) and supported by its resident intellectuals, this side can be thought of as the establishment.