Birmingham, Alabama, residents viewing the bomb-damaged home of a civil rights attorney in 1963. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko
Last Tuesday, the Colorado offices of the NAACP were targeted with homemade explosives. The FBI has been looking for a balding, middle-aged white man in a dirty pickup truck. If this man turns out to be the perpetrator, his act of terrorism fits neatly within an established American tradition of white people bombing black churches, homes, and community centers—a tradition so prolific that Birmingham, Alabama, was often called "Bombingham" in the 1960s.
In the wake of the bombing, there wasn't any question as to whether the incident represented the inability of white people to live peacefully within a diverse society. Nor did sparse commentary on the attack make use of terms like "barbarism" and "civilization," speculate on what it meant to be modern, or question whether white people had sufficiently expressed their grief and outrage. The media did not ask for collective statements from an imaginary "white community" or cite European and American histories of conquest and destruction as proof that white people cannot be trusted.
Violence only poses a threat to civilization, apparently, when it is inflicted upon certain bodies. In US policies and practices both domestically and abroad, the torture and murder of people of color finds institutional support. In Europe, violence against Muslims is rising. Hate crimes against Muslims reportedly increased in London by 65 percent in 2014. In the past decade, 40 percent of the Netherlands' 475 mosques have been subjected to violent acts. A recent wave of attacks have been directed at mosques in Sweden. But somehow, white and Islamophobic terrorism cannot seem to find adequate recognition as a global crisis.
Mike Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, said on CBS Morning News, where he is a senior security consultant, that the Charlie Hebdo shootings were "the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the attacks in London in July of 2005." He conveniently forgets white nationalist Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 murder of 77 people, which Breivik performed in the hopes of saving Europe from Muslim domination.
Terrorism is perpetrated against Muslims around the world, but Muslims overwhelmingly respond to the violence, harassment, and calls for their mass annihilation by explaining over and over again that they are peaceful and rational people. Similarly, in the aftermath of the NAACP bombing, African Americans did not make #killallwhitepeople trend on Twitter. However, the #killallmuslims hashtag was posted all over social media after the Charlie Hebdo attack, exemplifying the reactionary response some whites have when faced with isolated acts of violence perpetrated by members of a group of people who don't look or worship like them.
I have written more than my share of offensive material. Particularly in my earlier work, I blasphemed against everything that my Muslim sisters and brothers hold sacred. For this reason, following the Danish cartoon controversy, the UK edition of my novel, The Taqwacores, was published in a highly censored form. I allowed for these editorial purges on the condition that every instance of censorship was marked within the text by an asterisk, turning the censorship into a kind of performance piece. My history with The Taqwacores leads some to assume that I stand with racists and xenophobes, but I can defend freedom of expression without upholding white supremacy. I am not Charlie.
I am, of course, horrified by mass murder, whether performed in the name of my religion or my country or my skin. I am also horrified by what comes next. Violence in retaliation for bigoted art gives bigotry the power of a courageous and principled stand, and freedom of artistic expression will now find its chief defense in another wave of racist caricatures. To further dehumanize others and promote the prejudices that affirm military invasions, drone attacks, mass incarceration, and "enhanced interrogation" will be positioned as righteous defiance in the face of fanaticism, and Muhammad cartoons will be imagined as occupying some noble station independent of empire and war. As with the Muhammad cartoons and Innocence film, violence has produced more violence. The Charlie Hebdo shootings will provide a rationale for more brutality from states, mobs, and individual maniacs alike. The next Breivik is on deck somewhere, perhaps wearing a uniform or signing executive orders.
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