The aftermath of Charlie Hebdo: The Dangers of "Us" and "Them"

By Saqib Deshmukh

The dangers of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative

More than a week on from the tragic incidents in Paris we have some time to analyse and reflect on the events that have taken place and the impact that this will have for all communities in the UK.

We are all living in difficult times nationally and internationally and if you are Muslim and living in the West particularly so. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative has continued to grow and the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings have magnified this.

The recent travesty of Fox News reporting that places like Birmingham are now wholly Muslim enclaves is at one level laughable but sadly has deep resonance in the context of the current fear and Islamophobia that exists.

In a recent Guardian article Gary Younge refers to the polarisation of society, and the false dichotomy that exists framing you as either for us or against us. Sadly this subsumes the different range of opinions that exist and those who are critical of the attacks, the magazine and the role of the French and UK governments. What this also leads to is entrenched positions, and amongst many Muslims a sense of defensiveness and over-apologetic positions on this matter.

Over calls to protect the right to satirise and of freedom of speech it is ironically our general freedoms that are being threatened under the new Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. These latest incidents have provoked the government into looking at granting the state the further powers to trawl through a person's communications, including emails, social media activity, and telephone calls without the need for a warrant. We are already in a situation where passports are being removed of British Citizens and we are not far from citizenship itself being revoked.

The offensive nature of some of their other cartoons has been largely overlooked and this magazine has had a patchy record of how it depicts minority groups in recent years. Charlie Hebdo sacked one of its own staff for anti-Semitism in 2009 and has peddled many images that could be seen as being offensive – something only a few in the media have highlighted. In no way does this justify the attacks but it give us an insight into the role of the French media and how Muslims in particular are depicted.


The worry for anyone working in the voluntary sector and on the frontline is the fall out of this on muslim communities. Race and hate faith crime is on the rise but not on the agenda. Just in the last week there have been reports of racist incidents and attacks in Birmingham and Wales.

What do Third sector/VCS organisations and the sector do in this context?

Given the tough times that we are operating in it is even more important that we provide support and leadership, and provide ways of developing Muslim participation especially for young Muslim people in civil society. It is important that infrastructure and larger organisations reach out to the faith sector to try and prevent a siege mentality developing. Other groups such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission have bravely made a decision to withdraw from any consultative processes and talking to the government to challenge the consensus that is developing around terror.

But crucially one of their roles is to critique and challenge rather than accepting given narratives/agendas. Muslim organisations dealings with PREVENT needs to be examined and how see radicalisation taking place – that if someone has extreme views that he or she will act upon them:

The concept of radicalisation emphasizes the individual and, to some extent, the ideology and the group, and significantly deemphasizes the wider circumstances – the “root causes” that it became so difficult to talk about after 9/11, and that are still often not brought into analyses. So long as the circumstances that produce Islamist radicals’ declared grievances are not taken into account, it is inevitable that the Islamist radical will often appear as a “rebel without a cause’.

Mark Sedgwick, ‘The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion’, Terrorism and Political Violence (Vol. 22, no. 4, 2010),

In many ways we have vulnerable young men and women and there are mental health issues at play that are often overlooked and need to be engaged with, but it is also about ensuring that they have a voice and are able to articulate their concerns.

One of the consequences of all of this is that, for young Muslims in Britain, there is little space to express strongly worded criticisms of foreign policies that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa. Those who passionately denounce such policies are dubbed extremists and seen to be on a pathway of radicalisation rather than as fellow citizens exercising their right to dissent. That is bad for civil liberties and bad for countering terrorism: without a legitimate outlet for political grievances, violence is more likely.’

Arun Kundnani, Rethinking Radicalisation and Extremism

Civil society needs to examine how we engage with those who’ve returned from Syria and how they and their families both are treated by the authorities and Muslim organisations. We need to develop new narratives that counter the dangerous ones that are propagated and that respect communities autonomy but at the same time ensure that justice especially social justice are rooted within these. Finally we need to ensure that our communities report hate crime that is directed to them on their basis of faith/race. If there is no faith in reporting to the authorities then voluntary sector must come forward and develop independent reporting mechanisms.

No one is looking at causes and to why in our towns and cities young Muslim people are getting involved in terrorist activity and the underlying issues.

But also no one is looking at the role the intelligence services are playing in this and how routine surveillance and harassment has become normalised. I don't think this has always being done in a way to prevent incidents but to flush out others.

In front of us a dangerous game is being played out and mixed and contradictory messages are being sent out to both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Unless there are interventions and leadership from all civil society institutions (not just Muslim ones) we will continue to pay a high price for our lack of response and resolve.