A brilliant hashtag emerges in the aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo massacre.
In the wake of every crime perpetrated in the name of Islam, nothing is more predictable than the responses on my social network feeds. On Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, my Muslim family and friends waste no time in posting their denunciations, condolences, and explanations of every terrorist attack—and each one of them gets qualified with the phrase, “As a Muslim...” As news of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris spread, revealing that the gunmen were not only Muslim, but inspired by political agendas cloaked in the language of Islam, the cycle and spectacle of Muslim response was set in motion. A Twitter search for the phrase “As a Muslim...” yielded thousands of real-time results, all of them related to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.
The prevalence of the “As a Muslim...” qualifier reveals what is common between the Muslims who attacked Charlie Hebdo and the rest of us trying to do damage control: the compulsion to speak for all Muslims. “As a Muslim...” packages Muslims as one group, effectively saddling us all with the burden of collective accountability. Of course, when “As a Muslim...” is most frequently deployed, the speaker’s intended aim is to disabuse others of the notion that Muslims are, in fact, a cohesive, monolithic group. What ultimately emerges from this phrase, however, is a form of a cognitive dissonance: “These Muslims don’t speak for us, but, as a Muslim, I do.”
“As a Muslim...” is a predictable reaction to an ideology that reduces complex and contemporary human beings to a uniform swath of Muslim-ness. Furthermore, it excludes them from the experience of collective grief. Muslims, it implies, are incapable of experiencing events as any other humans do. Instead, they experience things only in the capacity that their Muslim identity allows. It inadvertently feeds into the anti-immigrant fears and anxieties currently afflicting European countries—that Muslims are unfit for Western society. While “As a Muslim...” allows Muslims to assert narratives that contradict the mainstream story, we remain ensnared in the trappings of a religious identity claimed by 1.6 billion people around the world.
Nothing is more indicative of this crisis than what happened during and in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. For several hours after the attacks, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie—“I am Charlie”—trended overwhelmingly on Twitter, an expression of solidarity with those mourning in Paris. But shortly after, another hashtag began popping up alongside and sometimes instead of #JeSuisCharlie. This one read #JeSuisAhmed. It referred to the 42-year old police officer killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. His killers reportedly cried, "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad," as they went forward with their assault. Ahmed Merabet’s first name is derived from the same root word as Mohammed, which means the chosen one in Arabic.
#JeSuisAhmed is an inspired attempt by Muslims to participate in the collective grief without capitulating to the demands that they apologize or condemn a massacre in which they had no part. It also allows them to avoid proclaiming support for a publication which routinely published extremely racist caricatures of Muslims, as well as other marginalized groups. But, perhaps more importantly, it forces non-Muslims to recognize the ways in which the crimes of religious extremists not only target them but victimize whole groups of Muslims. After all, is it not the crimes of Muslim extremists that are being used to justify anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany and mosque burnings in Sweden? Isn’t ISIS responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims? This latest episode of violence will only spur another tide of Islamophobia in France, a place that has never been friendly towards Muslims, and, undoubtedly, elsewhere in the world. Already, there have been reprisals against Muslims in Paris for the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Ahmed represents the tensions that within many Muslim communities: Defending ourselves against Islamophobia, we are often forced to engage in narratives that draw divisions between us and the rest of the world. And as a Muslim…, I want a different option.