It’s been a week since the terrorist attacks in Paris and the hacktivist group Anonymous has further expanded its online confrontation with the Islamic State (IS). Its campaign was originally captured under the #OpISIS banner, but is now titled #OpParis.
While on the surface this seems like an overall positive outcome against IS, given its highly regarded and consequential online presence, the reality is much more complex and nuanced. It demonstrates the risks of vigilante style action being undertaken in areas of sensitive national security matters.
When not to take down IS content
Action in this domain, regardless of its quality and the implications, can be seen as inherently beneficial. But an absence of context, proper understanding and incongruent purposes can make the counter efforts of the state more difficult.
When a government is looking at IS content online, the context varies depending on the outcome it seeks to achieve and for the department or agency involved. In a law enforcement context, IS content can be used to form the basis of a search warrant or a control order, or as evidence in a prosecution.
For an intelligence agency, an IS website may prove to be a vital element in ongoing surveillance, or form part of a broader assessment of an individual or a cell’s behaviour.
Beyond this, even the military may make use of IS online content as part of offensive information warfare targeting.
The distinction here is that the mere presence of IS content, while negative in the discreet sense, is part of the broader apparatus that is IS. It is multifaceted and complex, as is the response to it by the agencies of national security.
It is simplistic to think that merely removing IS content from cyberspace is sufficient, or even necessarily positive in the overall sense. There can often be a greater good achieved by leaving certain pieces of content in play.
This greater good is not supported by the interdiction of people unaware of the broader operations of government agencies, flawed and less than perfect as they may be.
For the public’s safety
The purpose for which Anonymous removes IS content is relatively narrow when contrasted with the public protection purposes of the state.
When a government, in collaboration with those companies responsible, removes online content, it is because it has been deemed both detrimental to public safety and security. It’s also because it’s considered that the content does not serve any other additional purposes, such as those mentioned above.
But Anonymous removes IS videos because IS disagrees with, and acts against, free speech. This presents both an ironic contradiction and also a much more self-interested motivation for Anonymous’ actions.
Tolerating vigilante style action by people affiliated with Anonymous would be an easier exercise if they were in some way representative, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, acting in the name of a public good they have determined to be overwhelmingly important.
When things goes wrong
The actions of Anonymous are also undertaken in a publicity-seeking manner. As further details are revealed in relation to #OpParis, it has been demonstrated that some of the personal details hacked and publicised by Anonymous were inaccurate.
While the state is not free of these types of errors, democratic states are at least accountable to some form of electoral and rule-of-law consequences.
In this heightened political and societal environment in the aftermath of a terrorist attacks, when a group such as Anonymous errs in identifying an individual as an IS recruiter or financier, it places those individuals in substantial danger while remaining largely free of consequences.
This is separate from the fact that much of the process of obtaining the data in the first instance is likely criminal.
While the actions of Anonymous in a range of domains, and in relation to many issues, can be seen as an overall positive, there are some very sensible reasons as to why its followers perhaps ought not to play in the national security space.
The takedown of IS content is generally viewed as being of fairly low impact when governments are involved, let alone when a vigilante style organisation adds additional risks of exposing innocent people, and undermining broader efforts to counter IS.
Perhaps most importantly, it does nothing for the people of Syria or Iraq, or those suffering within the controlled territory of IS.
Levi J. West, Lecturer, Terrorism and Security Studies; Program Manager, Masters of Terrorism and Security Studies
When in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, I wrote a column suggesting that we all had to demonstrate a new toughness.
At that time, I thought the scale of ISIS’ attacks on Western targets was contained by its avowed doctrine of territorial legitimacy. I assumed any attacks in the West would be carried out by lone wolves or with one or two partners. I was wrong.
Ever since it first declared a caliphate, ISIS’ leadership consistently expressed the intent of fighting a more or less conventional war in a well-defined piece of territory spreading across Iraq and Syria.
Their surprising initial victories reinforced that strategy. And it allowed them to pursue a war against the Yazidis, which the American Holocaust Museum has declared a genocide.
But then the Americans arrived, eager to engage a Jihadist army in direct combat.
So ISIS responded, by shifting its strategy towards new tactics: fighting a more common, irregular, guerrilla war, as the Taliban had often done successfully in Afghanistan and militants had done in Iraq before them.
Then the Russians arrived to support Syrian President Al Assad.
Although their initial targets have not been ISIS strongholds, it has changed the dynamic once again.
ISIS leaders understand that with the US on one side and the characteristically merciless Russians on the other, time is running out.
It is one thing to take on one of them. It is quite another to take on both.
They can replenish their forces with raw new recruits. But they probably can’t do it fast enough to hold off all sides. And the apparent execution by drone of Jihadi John, their poster child, threatens a further dent in their recruitment campaign.
So, the ever flexible ISIS leadership has moved to a new stage in their tactics – war by terror.
The goals are predictable.
First, killing civilians at home in Europe in highly symbolic settings. Their intent here is to provoke a debate about these countries’ involvement in Syria and Iraq and thus break the political will of the western countries. There is, in other words, a cost to be paid for military intervention.
Second, to convince potential new recruits that with limited training they can still play a crucial role as a martyr. After all, if you are going to die as a martyr, you don’t want to do so by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. You want to do so on the streets of Paris where everyone will know who you were and what you did.
Third, to convince the west that you are still a formidable force – everywhere.
The new tactic involves soft civilian targets. They involve country nationals and foreign recruits. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is a classic terrorist response.
I spent the evening of the attacks frantically trying to reach my family and friends. My sister-in-law, Lorene Aldabra, is a professional singer and musician who often visits the Bataclan concert hall, scene of so much carnage. When you have to spend time tracking down loved ones, you really understand what this new war means.
The declarations of support are encouraging and touching. President Obama was as eloquent as ever. London’s mayor Boris Johnson sounded mildly Churchillian. Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel was blunt and forthright. But we can assume these attacks won’t be the last ones.
France is in a state of emergency. The security services in Europe and North America are on a state of alert. My spouse traveled on the Washington, DC-to-New York train Friday night and it was full of sniffer dogs and police. We risk a return to the national fear that gripped us after 9/11.
Parisians got it right when they assembled in large numbers and unfurled a sign saying “not afraid” in the hours after these attacks.
On the streets of Paris Yves Herman
But not afraid of what?
The terrorists for sure. But also let’s not be afraid to distinguish between terrorists and Syrian asylum seekers. Between those who invoke the forces of evil and those imams who decry it. Between our Muslim friends and neighbors and our fanatical enemies.
The lives of Parisians will not be the same after November 13. But, knowing the city and its inhabitants well, I believe that they will not be deprived of oxygen and disappear into the vortex of hate preached by jihadists – or Europe’s extreme nationalists. Civility, albeit wrapped in an iron fist, will be their response.
On Sunday I came across an article in the International Business Times, reporting a posthumous publication by slain Charlie Hebdo editorial director Stephane Charbonnier. The book, completed two days before the attack that killed him and nine of his colleagues, denounces the western media, politicians and those commentators who mute their criticism of Islam for fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’. “By what twisted logic”, Charbonnier writes, “is humor less compatible with Islam than with any other religion? … If we let it be understood that we can laugh at everything except certain aspects of Islam because Muslims are much more susceptible than the rest of the population, isn’t that discrimination?”
In the knowledge that the poor man is now dead, a victim of religiously-motivated killers, and with news of the Melbourne arrests dominating the headlines all weekend, I found the article both poignant and pertinent.
We all understand the reasons why our politicians urge caution in addressing the issue of Islam and its interaction with democratic, secular cultures such as Australia’s. No-one wants to see moderate muslims scapegoated or blamed for the crimes of a few extremists.
We understand that the particular interpretation of the Quran which fuels the global jihad is not shared by muslims as a whole. There are extreme Christians too, and Hindus and even Buddhists, who advocate violence in the name of their respective deities. The history of Christianity is awash with conquest and innocent blood. The non-violent, non-extremist practitioners of these religions are not responsible for the crimes of the past, or for the actions of present-day radicals on the periphery. The same point applies to muslims, many of whom have spoken eloquently and forcefully against jihad.
We also know that those young men and women, often from secure middle class, moderate backgrounds, who choose to join the jihad do so for many reasons other than the religious.
But for that reason, too, analysis of Islam’s vulnerability to such hijacking should not be interpreted as an attack on muslims as a whole, or as ‘islamophobia’. On the contrary, as Charbonnier writes, failure to scrutinize Islam in the media and elsewhere, in the same way that we should scrutinize all religions and belief systems, is itself a kind of discrimination. It patronises Islam to say that its adherents are too sensitive to be treated with the same intellectual rigor and scrutiny as, say Christianity or Scientology.
Reluctance to draw attention to and satirise the absurdities of Islam – and all religions are absurd in their own ways – will in the end breed more public anger than it prevents. Moreover, it is an important sign of acceptance of democratic political culture that Islam’s leaders, even if they disapprove of what is said, should embrace the satirist and the heretic alike, without feeling the need for a fatwa. Christians had to swallow Life Of Brian, after all, though many church leaders called for bans. How offensive would we think it today, had bishops and cardinals called for the deaths of the Monty Python team?
So let’s be clear. Critiquing Islam in the media and elsewhere is not ‘islamophobia’.
It’s not racism, since being a muslim has nothing to do with ethnicity.
It’s not anti-muslim, since many muslims are critical of the extremists in their ranks, and ashamed of how the name of their religion has been tarnished.
It is, rather, a legitimate and increasingly necessary engagement with a uniquely (for our time) toxic variant of a belief system which, whether or not one disagrees with its tenets, can easily coexist with secular society in the same way that other religions do in a multicultural society. Anything less than vigorous, skeptical media discussion of those beliefs, including its still-medieval attitudes to women and homosexuality, does moderate muslims no favors.
No-one doubts that Europe, or more specifically the European Union, has got more than its fair share of problems. Even before home-grown jihadists inflicted their version of divine retribution on an unambiguously irreverent group of archetypically Parisian artists and intellectuals, the EU was wracked with political, economic and social problems.
Paradoxically enough, though, the spectre of religious intolerance may yet bring out the best in Europe. Recent events may remind Europe’s leaders – and the rest of us, for that matter – just what Europe represents and why it remains the greatest experiment in transnational political cooperation the world has ever seen.
For all Europe’s problems, if it fails and falls apart, the symbolic consequences may come to outweigh the practical chaos.
No doubt many readers are already rolling their eyes in disbelief. Isn’t the EU synonymous with a bloated bureaucracy, unaccountable, overpaid (if not corrupt) officials, and chronic inefficiency? Perhaps so. But the EU is also the most enduring reminder of the possibility of co-operation across borders and of the active creation of an enduring peace where none existed before.
It is worth remembering that Europe has already been responsible for some of the most important turning points in the history of the world. Hyperbole? I think not. Whatever you may think about the system of sovereign states that now dominates the international political system, for example, it had its origins in Western Europe.
If there’s one date undergraduate international relations students manage to commit to memory it is 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia established the principles of sovereign rule and put an end to the interminable blood-letting associated with Europe’s religious wars.
Modern Europeans’ ancestors could teach the jihadists a thing or two about gratuitous, pointless, cold-blooded murder on an epic scale – all in the name of God, of course – or some theological difference we have thankfully forgotten about or no longer take seriously.
Political pluralism and tolerance were painfully won, important artifacts of centuries of conflict and slaughter. They remain profoundly important parts of the architecture of European political and social life to this day. It is precisely this unprecedented achievement that is at stake now.
To be sure, having more or less solved the religious problem, Europeans subsequently found other reasons to tear each other apart. The First and Second World Wars had their origins in Europe and remain the gold standard for megalomania, folly and carnage on a truly epic scale. And yet, Europeans also seem to have gone a long way toward solving the hitherto insoluble problem of war, too.
The sight of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande walking together in solidarity will no doubt be dismissed by some as meaningless political theatrically. I think this would be a mistake. No doubt Hollande will be pleased about the up-tick in his personal approval ratings, but there was still something of great symbolic importance about the leaders of France and Germany expressing common purpose in this way.
I don’t think it is too fanciful or hubristic to say that the response of many of Europe’s leaders and peoples is an expression of something rather important – even magnificent – about “Western civilization”. Even to invoke this phrase will no doubt invoke howls of protest and derision. And yet if Western civilisation is about anything, it is about a hard fought respect for, and protection of, individual rights, tolerance and pluralism.
Yes, I know what Gandhi said about Western civilisation, and he was right: it does sound like a good idea. The challenge, as ever, has been translating good intentions and noble principles into reality. But it is worth considering the alternative: religious zealots and theocratic states leave little room for the unbelievers and the radicals – to say nothing of gays and women, of course.
I also recognise that imperial Europe pioneered new forms of control over, exploitation of, and violence toward the rest of the world’s population. But that was then and this, as they say, is now. We must deal with the world as it is and try to identify forms of political and social organisation that at least hold out the prospect – in principle, anyway – of providing individuals with the chance to live their lives as they wish.
We should not be squeamish or reluctant to say that some values and principles are more likely to bring this about. Universal suffrage, racial equality, the emancipation of women, religious and ideological tolerance and – yes! – freedom of speech are all good, universally applicable principles and unambiguously better than the alternatives.
At great cost and with immense effort, Western Europe has gone further and played a more prominent role than any other part of the world in developing and implementing such values. Europeans – and the rest of us – need to remember that it this unprecedented, unlikely achievement that is at the heart of all that is best and most important about Europe. Long may it continue. Je suis European.
ABC NEWS 13 January 2015: The latest front page of Charlie Hebdo has been released, showing the Prophet Mohammed holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner “All is forgiven”. This week’s publication, the first issue of the French satirical weekly since last Wednesday’s deadly attack in Paris, will be offered in 16 languages. The surviving members of the magazine prepared the edition in the offices of French newspaper Liberation, which said three million copies would be printed – [100 times the usual sales of 30,000 copies]. “Charlie Hebdo will be in kiosks this Wednesday, January 14. Like it is every week,” Liberation said.
The slaying of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists because of their work is the grossest attack on the value of free speech, and of course the right to life. In the deadly attack on the magazine’s office, the sword has crushed the pen: an unspeakable outrage.
An attack on liberal values
Any attack motivated by the pen upon that pen’s purveyor, whether he or she be a journalist or academic or author or satirist, is an attack on free speech. And journalists are tragically the victims of persecution, including murder, every year. Since 1992, 731 journalists have been murdered worldwide due to their work, not counting the further 373 killed in crossfire or combat, or while on dangerous assignment.
The murders of journalists tend to take place in countries with a weak rule of law. They are virtually unknown in developed liberal countries such as France. Furthermore, most work-related murder of journalists arises because they bravely speak, or attempt to speak, truth to power.
The motivation behind the Charlie Hebdo murders seems different. The cartoonists were killed, presumably, because the murderers believed its portrayals of Muhammad and Islam were blasphemous. They were killed because they refused to abide by the cultural values of the murderers, who lethally enforced their own views on the societal limits of free speech in France. This led to the outpouring of solidarity and defiance mixed with grief in huge gatherings in Paris and other European capitals.
The right to offend
Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier and his colleagues are now martyrs to free speech and satire, and in particular the right to offend. Leaving aside the obvious point that no-one should be killed because of what they have drawn, how does one characterise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Were they cheeky cartoons, wholly within the proper bounds of freedom of speech, or were they the product of “a racist publication”?
There is a human right to free speech, including the right to offend, a right held dear by cartoonists the world over. But there are limits. Of relevance, hate speech is prohibited in international human rights law, including that which is likely to incite hatred on the basis of religion.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were generally more likely to offend members of the targeted group than to generate hatred against that group. For example, its depictions of Muhammad and Islam were more likely to offend and hurt Muslims rather than generate hatred by non-Muslims against them. Such speech, to my mind, falls outside the definition of hate speech.
However, some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons seem clearly racist – though racist speech is not always, legally, hate speech. For example, one particular cartoon portrays the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria as greedy welfare recipients. However, this discussion of that cartoon reminds us of the importance of context, which I lack as a non-French speaker who hasn’t read that edition.
The murders were more likely inspired by the images of Muhammad themselves, rather than any Islamophobic cartoons. The depiction of Muhammad, regardless of negative (or positive) connotations, is considered blasphemous and therefore grossly offensive to many Muslims.
However, there is no human right not to be offended on a religious basis. Blasphemy laws themselves are breaches of the human right to freedom of expression. That is not to say that the gratuitous giving of offence to Muslims, or the people of any religion, is desirable. But “desirability” must not be the measure of permissible free speech. And it is dangerous to hold up any religion as something which must be free from ridicule.
Charlie Hebdo deliberately published cartoons which its staff knew would offend some people deeply. It has done so throughout its history of more than four decades, with its targets including the French political and cultural establishment, and religions of all kinds. Islam was not disproportionately targeted.
Clashes between extremist Islam and freedom of speech have been prominent for more than a quarter of a century. Iran’s supreme Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 over the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 in Amsterdam over his film about violence against women in Islamic societies, Submission. In 2010, an episode of the cartoon South Park featuring Muhammad was censored, against the wishes of its creators, in response to death threats.
In late 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 cartoons which were critical of Islam, including portrayals of Muhammad. The episode led, in early 2006, to protests and riots, particularly in Islamic countries, and death threats against the cartoonists. In 2010, one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home with an axe.
In 2006, Charlie Hebdo republished all 12 Danish cartoons, along with some of its own of a similar ilk. It has since published numerous depictions of Muhammad, as well as cartoons ridiculing Islamist extremism and aspects of Muslim life, such as the niqab. Charbonnier was placed on an al-Qaeda hitlist. Al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement in his assassination.
Death threats against material perceived as religiously offensive are not unique to Islam. In October 2014, an exhibition of Catholic iconography using Barbie and Ken dolls was cancelled in Buenos Aires due to death threats.
Australians may remember the 1997 controversy over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix in a vat of urine, when a Serrano retrospective in Melbourne was cancelled after the work was physically attacked. A Serrano exhibition in Avignon in 2011 closed prematurely after death threats against museum staff.
Protection was supplied to actors in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which attracted charges of anti-Semitism.
Outside the realm of religion, in late 2014, persons unknown – though suspected to be the North Korean government – threatened major acts of terrorism if the film The Interview was released. The movie is a comedy which depicts the violent assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Production company Sony caved in to the threat, before reversing its position and authorising an internet and limited theatre release.
Nevertheless, it seems that threats motivated by the offence felt over forms of expression (for example, a book, movie or cartoon) arise more often and more credibly, and with greater lethal consequences, from extremist Islamists.
Republication of the cartoons
A final consideration is the treatment of the cartoons by the media in the aftermath of the killings. While I have argued that the cartoons should not be banned, a separate question is whether the cartoons should be displayed.
Many major media outlets, such as CNN, have refused to show the cartoons, or have shown them with pixelated images. Others, such as Daily Beast, are showcasing some of the magazine’s controversial covers. Outlets in Europe differed. In Denmark, four papers republished Charlie Hebdo cartoons (interestingly, not Jyllans Posten).
In judging the merits of such an editorial decision, context and motive are crucial. Self-censorship out of fear hands a shocking win to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, but I cannot put myself in the shoes of the editor who is genuinely concerned over the safety of staff. Nor can I criticise self-censorship out of respect for the feelings of Muslims (and others).
The tragic demise of the victims does not mean that one has a duty to offend swathes of people who have nothing to do with the atrocity. And many see the cartoons as racist and will not be morally blackmailed “into solidarity with a racist institution”. Hatred of the murders does not have to translate into love of the cartoons.
For others, it is important to show the public what the fuss is about, just as, for example, Wikipedia displays the Danish cartoons. Finally, some media outlets have published the controversial cartoons to reflect the widespread mood of “Je suis Charlie” – that is, to speak defiance to the perpetrators of this atrocity. It is one way, alongside the wonderful tributes drawn by cartoonists in response, of reinforcing the pen, and proving it can never be truly crushed by the sword.