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What was worse, Charlie Hebdo or Boko Haram? Religion, violence and clicktivism.

Date:16 February 2015
Author:Religion Factor
Je suis Ahmed
Je suis Ahmed

The fallout from the Charlie Hebdo attacks around the tensions between “religion” and “freedom of speech” continue to feature prominently in public debate across Europe, particularly in the aftermath of the Copenhagen cafe shooting over the  weekend.  But the vastly different responses to these events and the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria raise numerous questions about how we are analysing and responding to these problems, whether so-called “clicktivism” is simply a hollow effort to assuage “Western, liberal guilt”, whether understanding these events as conflict between free speech and religion is even the most relevant or useful way of framing them.  Kim Knibbe  reflects on these and other questions in today’s post.

It is now some weeks since the terrible attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. The world, as observed via social media such as Facebook and Twitter, seems to have moved on to other issues such as the consequences of the Greek elections for the debts and the European Union.

The diversity of reactions to the Paris attacks on social media and the traditional news media however, raise some questions I would like to reflect on here. One reaction in particular struck me: the many people pointing out the horrendous attacks by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, leaving an unknown number of people dead. Curiously, the world (at least at first) seemed to ignore those attacks, including the President of Nigeria himself, Jonathan Goodluck, who nonetheless joined other world leaders in condemning the attacks in Paris and called on the media not to be discouraged by this attack on freedom of expression.[i] This prompted many of my friends, and myself, to ask why it is that ‘the world’ and even the Nigerian president seems to have no problem identifying with and massively mourning for the victims of the attacks in Paris (#jesuischarlie), but ignores the far larger numbers of (often Muslim) victims in other ‘terrorist’ attacks in regions outside Europe, a reaction in the same rhetorical vein identified with the Muslim police officer that died at the hands of the attacks in Paris (#jesuisahmed).

Asking these kinds of questions is a form of identity politics, protesting against the opposition between freedom of speech and Islam, resisting the polarization between ‘the secular/Christian West and ‘ Islam’ as a monolithic entity, pointing out that Muslims themselves are more often victims of terrorism than non Muslim westerners. Expert commentators point out the long history of injustice and violence in which Western countries are complicit that create the breeding ground for recruitment of terrorists as well as the conditions of plausibility for the worldview that paints ‘ the west’ as the enemy of Islam. Some will stress that the perpetrators are often young men, who are attracted by the romance of violent struggle in the service of an uncompromising worldview, as young men have been throughout history and the world over.

Often, this is put down as ‘ apologetics’ in the immediate aftermath of attacks. There is little room for analysis, except the essentialist kind: ‘Islam’ is to blame. The burden of proof is shifted to Muslims (see this video critiquing the ways this affects children) that they are not terrorists, to apologize for Islam, a burden they have been carrying conspicuously since 9/11.

So naturally, those of us trained to question essentialist explanations, aware of the complexities of history and politics and the diversity within Islam ask questions in order to make plain the ‘ faulty reasoning’ of those who blame Islam or demand all Muslims to take a stand against attacks of this sort.

But is it actually useful to ask these questions? Is it not just a lame, liberal knee- jerk reaction, a form of ‘clicktivism’ to absolve our own conscience, show that we are not Islamophobic, relativizing our own position to judge since what right do we have to claim a position of moral superiority?

Thinking about this I was reminded of a conversation I had, together with a colleague from Germany and from the United Kingdom, with a Sufi scholar in Jos, Nigeria in summer 2007. Jos is a city in the middle belt of Nigeria, where relations between Muslims and Christians are tense. The city, like other places in Nigeria, has known fierce clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Talking about these clashes, the Sufi scholar asked us directly: ‘why do you attack Muslims everywhere?’ In the context of Jos, the ‘you’ he was addressing were people identified as white, and therefore probably Christian missionaries, and certainly from western, affluent countries. The attacks on ‘ Muslims everywhere’ he referred to were the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This was during the George W. Bush presidency. I answered that I had actually protested against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as had millions of other citizens in Europe and the US. He was surprised, and gratified: he did not know that there had been many Europeans and Americans who did not feel comfortable with the ‘you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists’ politics of the US. Having successfully deflected a potentially polarizing question, the conversation went on to other things.

But what would have happened if I had defended the invasions? In this conversation, the burden of proof was shifted the other way: we, as white, probably Christian westerners had to prove that we were not out to kill Muslims, or enemies of Islam. I could have argued that the participation of the Netherlands in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was not motivated by the fact that these are populated by Muslims, that the ‘preemptive strikes’ were justified by the need to prevent another 9/11, that it was aimed only at terrorists and evil dictators, and the rest was regrettable collateral damage. How believable is that? No more than the official reasons that were given: to defend democracy and freedom.

Even if we could have reached an agreement on the ‘ real reasons’ (if those can ever be conclusively identified), the fact of the matter is that the transatlantic allies did, and do, disproportionately meddle and wage war in Muslim majority countries. Given recent history, the argument that ‘freedom and democracy’ are under attack and have to be defended is not believable to all those people whose freedom and democracy have suffered and still, or again, suffer from all the different ways the US, supported by their allies worldwide, protects its own interests. Here, I agree with Žižek’s invocation of Horkheimer in an opinion piece reacting to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

“To think in response to the Paris killings means to drop the smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal and to accept that the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a  false  conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s – those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”[ii]

In short, ‘liberal democracy’ does not deliver to many people what it promises. Like in the Middle East, in Northern Nigeria ‘democracy’ does not protect people from predatory elites who violently defend their interests, nor against Boko Haram. Democracy has brought about a switch to sharia in many Northern states, but this has not delivered on its promise either. In fact, Boko Haram says it fights against the corruption and exploitation of opportunistic politicians who only apply sharia when it suits them. The problems Boko Haram identifies are real and pressing, yet there is no other group that is believably addressing them. Furthermore, the government troops sent to fight Boko Haram kill, rape and loot rather than protecting the communities attacked by Boko Haram. That and the fact that Boko Haram operates under the flag of Islam makes it hard for the local population to unite against Boko Haram.[iii] If the condition of coming to their aid is that they have to fit in with a scheme of ‘freedom and democracy’ against Islam (and oppression and tyranny), this is not only untrue (democracy has not put a stop to corruption and oppression in Nigeria), but also unhelpful.

So let me return to my earlier question: yes, I think the ‘liberal knee-jerk reaction’ of identity politics is in fact a good way to start thinking towards solutions and creating lines of solidarity between groups across national, ethnic and religious boundaries. Identifying Islam, or even religion in general, as the enemy exacerbates the problem: it creates a false choice between people’s religious conviction and defending ‘freedom and democracy’. In order to create understanding, solidarity and effective action, the many ways that the current ‘freedom of speech’ advocates in Europe are using secularism as a way to whip up anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiments needs to be criticized, just like the double-talk[iv] of some born again Christians in the US and worldwide casting the war on terror in an end of time narrative needed to be criticized.

For the same reasons, there is an important point where I do not wish to go along with Žižek’s use of Horkheimer. He seems to employ a classic ‘ false consciousness’ argument: the inequalities and injustice that give rise to (non violent) fundamentalism and religiously justified terrorism are real, but the analysis and therefore the strategy employed to combat these causes are wrong. As he points out in the same piece, the Taliban, as well as Boko Haram and many other religious groups that turned violent exploited the fault lines between socio-economic classes to create a power base among the poor and oppressed populations. This analysis sees religious fundamentalism and religiously legitimated violence as caused by poverty, inequality, exploitation, marginalization and exclusion.

This analysis is not wrong, so much as it is incomplete and can lead to an undesirable exclusion of other (including religious) ways of understanding and experiencing injustice and calls to action. Scholars such as Asad and Butler discussing the cartoon crisis under the apt title ‘is critique secular?’ already debated the limitations of such a form of ‘critique’.[v] Understanding the situation only in this way, reducing religion to a form of false consciousness, seems to imply a call for creating lines of solidarity based on class-consciousness. However, nationalist, ethnic and religious identifications often prove to be more compelling than those based on class-consciousness (not to mention the fact that attacks on religious and ethnic identifications by so-called “secular” worldviews, such as socialist and communist, have often turned violent as well). This is not the place to go into the question (or lament) why this is so. What is important is to recognize that it is simply not fruitful to see those kinds of identifications as forms of ‘false consciousness’, or to equate critique with secularity.

Rather, what is important is to work on creating solidarities across such identities, sharing a commitment to resist oppression, violence, injustice and war. Ethnic, nationalist, feminist, political/class and religious grounds can all be valid ways to unite and speak up against injustice. Like Erin Wilson argued in a previous post, I think that creating a more ‘post-secular’ public sphere allowing for uncertainty and a diversity of languages is an important step. Transnational public spheres in which people from all backgrounds can represent their concerns without attracting scorn and ridicule or even threats, contribute to the analysis of the problem and the solutions that are needed, are a necessary precondition to address the real problems. Distancing oneself from religious conviction should not be a precondition for bringing to attention injustice. However inadequate by itself, ‘clicktivism’ is a small, but crucial way of contributing to creating these transnational public spheres #letsunite.

Kim Knibbe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, Department of Comparative Religion, and a Fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.


[ii] “Slavoj Žižek on the Charlie Hebdo Massacre: Are the Worst Really Full of Passionate Intensity?,” accessed February 6, 2015,

[iii] M.-A. Pérouse de Montclos, ed.,  Boko Haram: Islamism, Politics, Security and the State in Nigeria  (Leiden and Zaria: African Studies Centre and IFRA NIgeria, 2014),

[iv] Coleman in Galina Lindquist and Don Handelman,  Religion, Politics, and Globalization: Anthropological Approaches  (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012), 178–179.

[v] Talal Asad et al.,  Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech , 2009,


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