Charlie Hebdo: Here is what Boubacar Boris Diop had to say…

The killings perpetrated on the premises of the Charlie Hebdo magazine have stirred up a great deal of emotion in Senegal and in the entire world. With his usual insightfulness, writer and journalist Boubacar Boris Diop takes an unbiased look at the events which overtook him during his recent stay in France.


The carnage at the premises of Charlie Hebdo currently dominates the news. What was it like for you to be in Paris at the time?

There was no panic, everyone was just completely shocked, and I could sense a certain embarrassment; people were deeply uncomfortable with the fact that such a thing should happen in France. In the subway, the North Africans immediately felt they were being looked at askance and a number of them were visibly distressed. Yes, it’s all very complicated….

Are you Charlie?

I think the slogan only makes sense in France, and even there, its use should have been restricted to the members of the press. Just imagine a bunch of fanatics killing a dozen of our well-known media celebrities here in Senegal, all in one day: the outpouring of grief would be immense, and no one would waste time speculating about that kind of thing, people would immediately side against the perpetrators. So, over there, «I am Charlie» was an attempt to express a certain solidarity, or rather to close ranks in a country, I mean France, that found itself on the verge of chaos. Unfortunately, the slogan immediately went global and has sparked off a lot of polemics. For me, even to say «I am not Charlie» would mean falling into the same trap, and that is something I would like to avoid.

The presumed terrorists have all been killed. Isn’t that cause for concern?

I understand your skepticism. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers had decided to die a martyr’s death, but chances are they would have been killed by the police anyway. A court case would have meant twisting the knife in the wound for many months to come - something the French government clearly did not want.

One feels there is a degree of duplicity in the manner the West approaches terrorism depending on whether they are dealing with Arabs or Jews. Those who offend Jewish values are constantly being reprimanded or even chastised…

It is extremely important to steer clear of the pitfalls of Manicheism. In the current situation, that would only feed into a frenzied digging up of old memories - the perfect recipe for making things go from bad to worse. It is laudable that anti- Semitism is being systematically suppressed everywhere. Since the Holocaust, the Jewish community has managed to organize itself with great determination and that has paid off. The others are not going to the same amount of trouble… Due to a lack of means or will power? A bit of both, I suppose. When in January 2014, Nicolas Bedos on Canal+ mocked the victims of the Genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in the most vulgar of terms, hardly any protest was heard on the African continent. This said, seeing Nathanyahou right at the front of the march on January 11 is a scandal. The Israeli atrocities in the Gaza strip, now that’s something to be indignant about!

There is a widespread sense that Charlie Hebdo deserves support in the name of freedom of speech. The question is: is this freedom of speech a good enough reason to insult the faith of billions of people?

Everybody was talking about those caricatures, but hardly anyone actually saw them.

Just like hundreds of millions of others, I discovered them on the social media. Well, I find them quite simply distasteful, just like those about Jesus Christ that were posted alongside them. But don’t get me wrong, please: nobody should be killed for his drawings, no matter how offending and irresponsible they may be. This dreadful tragedy must make us all more circumspect. You cannot plunge a country into political turmoil under the pretext that you can say whatever you like. The same secular “intellectuals” who refuse to allow Muslim women to wear the niqba in France expect them to endure the most degrading insults against their faith without flinching. Is that fair?

And how do you feel about the right to laugh at everything?

Laugh at everything if you must, but it depends how you do it. A magazine as irreverent as Le canard enchaîné has always observed a certain level of restraint in its derision and has thus managed to evade accusations of hate-speech. Incidentally, I would like to add that this notion that anything goes, is exclusively French – this freewheeling permissiveness doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Western world, except as some holdover from the revolutionary sixties. Mainstream American and European news corporations have wisely elected not to replicate the Charlie Hebdo caricatures. The French press, on the other hand, feels the need to show its bravado in the form of a childish «I’m not scared»-kind of attitude, but I am pretty sure they will soon calm down.

Apparently for reasons of solidarity, certain African heads of government «deported» themselves to Paris in order to participate in a solidarity march. Isn’t it shocking then that right next door to us Boko Haram can massacre thousands of people without any sign of such «Parisian solidarity» being seen in either Nigeria or Cameroon?

I take your point, but once again, I must warn against an approach that veers toward oversimplification. You can’t blame African heads of government for not attending a demonstration against Boko Haram, something their Nigerian colleague never got round to organizing anyway, because he is too busy with his own re-election…

Does it mean you approve…?

No, of course not. I definitely don’t approve, but for different reasons. The heads of government who made the trip in order to march across Paris have more respect for President Hollande than for their own fellow countrymen.

When we look at our governments and their tendency to behave like helpless little children in need of guidance, don’t you think that there is a problem somewhere regarding respectability and sovereignty?

You have indeed hit the nail on the head. The question of sovereignty is more crucial than ever for our countries and it’s proving, particularly in the francophone space, to be the key issue for us today. All six of the African presidents who showed up in Paris last Sunday come from the French backyard in Africa…It is not a good idea to go marching up and down the Place de la République in Paris, giving the impression you’re a second-class president. Unfortunately, the images speak for themselves and they are quite humiliating.

Do you think President Sall was right to travel to Paris although he had already signed the condolence register at the French Embassy in Dakar?

In my opinion, his trip was not to our country’s benefit. Religion is a very sensitive issue in Senegal and he should realize that this whole affair can come back to haunt him one day, causing him all sorts of problems. Our former President, Abdoulaye Wade, who no doubt didn’t expect this, ended up paying a hefty price for his trip to Benghazi when Mouammar Gadhaffi was in trouble ther. The fact is that due to a number of incidents and events a growing, although still diffuse, anti Western sentiment can no longer be ignored in the countries of the South. It is important for political leaders to be aware of this.

And what do you make of the march itself?

I sometimes wonder whether we are not overestimating the powerful of this world by crediting them with perfect control over their emotions. The summit in Paris, improvised in a matter of hours, was intended as a show of strength, but it quickly turned into a revelation of the West’s sense of fragility. We saw the West desperately clinging to its cherished self-image as the driving force of the universe, without really being able to believe in it anymore. The West has grown weary of its own fairy tales of self-deception.

How do you react to the increasingly common comparison between these days and 9/11…?

With surprise, but the comparison is justified in the sense that from now on nothing will be the same in France. One of the major differences is that the attacks on the World Trade Center were perpetrated by foreigners, while the terrorists who hit on Charlie Hebdo were young French citizens.

They have been described as drifters, lost and abandoned by French society etc…Does that suffice as an explanation of how vulnerable France has become?

Identity crisis is no doubt a major factor in France, but there is another important aspect, which is frequently overlooked, and that is the foreign policy of the French government. The young radicals of the suburbs receive their training in Raqa, Benghazi and Baghdad. But who is actually responsible for the viral proliferation of these incubators of international terrorism? After declining to participate in Bush’s war in Iraq, Paris was then at the forefront of the attacks on Libya and Syria, followed by the intervention in Mali. The desire of French leaders to continue playing their role on the international stage is understandable, but they seem to have become almost obsessed with it. Can France and its citizenry still afford it? I have my doubts.

Do we need to be concerned that French society is about to fracture internally, for good?

Like I said, nothing will be the same in France. Ever. A few years back, people started talking about a “lepénisation of the minds” and in my opinion, this will intensify in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. There are people who are talking quite openly about emergency measures, and newspapers that used to be proud of their moderation and sobriety are becoming more and more radicalized. The legal system, too, has started to hit out very hard. All this is cause for concern.

Globally speaking, what would you say is the most important lesson we should learn from all this?

At the risk of repeating myself, I think we must above all eschew the trap of Manicheism with its tendency to make the world completely indecipherable for us. Extremely complex situations are reduced to the contrasting images of goodies versus baddies, or gentle humanists masquerading as protectors of human rights versus barbarians. I am nevertheless hopeful that there are enough women and men of goodwill in the West who are able to look at things from the right angle. I would like to remind them of a saying by Césaire : “A civilization which plays games with its principles is a moribund civilization.” It is simply not acceptable in our day and age to show oneself incapable of truly appreciating the sincere feelings and worldview of others, while at the same time stroking one’s own ego and praising openmindedness and respect for differences at every turn! This inability to look at oneself objectively results from sheer autism.


Alassane Guèye – a Senegalese journalist made this interview.


Translation:  Vera Leckie

by Boubacar Boris Diop
Cara a cara | 27 January 2015 | Charlie Hebdo, France, freedmon