Charlie: humanist and warmonger

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DeloriMathias Delori, MW Fellow 2008-2009, Centre Emile Durkheim of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France ([email protected]) (*)

I was an SPS Max Weber fellow during the academic year 2008-2009. I currently work as a CNRS research professor at the Centre Emile Durkheim of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France. My new research focuses on the role of emotions in wars. I would like to say a few words about this because it resonates with some recent development in French and international politics, namely the collective and political reactions to the terrorist attacks of January 2015 in Paris[1]. In a book co-authored with Gilles Bertrand, I have proposed a critical assessment of the mainstream reaction to the attacks (Bertrand and Delori 2015). I summarize the argument in the following paragraphs.

Like many observers, I was astonished by the collective reactions provoked by the attacks of January 2015 in Paris. People started gathering on the evening of January 7 and continued to do so over the following days. On 11 January, about two million people, including more than 40 world leaders, met in Paris for a rally of national unity, and 3.7 million people joined demonstrations across France. Parallel to this, a slogan spread through facebook and some other media: “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). On January 14, Charlie Hebdo published a new issue – the first after the attacks ‒ with another[2] representation of Prophet Muhammad. The issue’s print run of almost 8 million copies became the record of the French press.

Based on what people have said, written, and done (symbolically), one can say that those reactions took two different forms. The first, outrageously racist, stated that Islam had declared war on the West and that the West had the right to defend itself. Several Islamophobic opinion leaders put forward this interpretation after the attacks. This reaction materialized, for instance, in the French conservative party contribution to the French fight against terrorism: the submission of a bill banning the Muslim veil in universities. The second interpretation proposed, instead, not to confuse Islam with terrorism and to make war only on terror. This second approach, dominant in official speeches and editorials of the mainstream press is more nuanced than the first in that it denounces the impropriety of the assimilation of one billion people to the acts of a few. It also presents itself as “humanist” in that it condemns the hateful ideologies and calls for peacefully gathering in solidarity with the victims of the attacks.

Although different at first sight, these two interpretations have at least one thing in common: their highly emotional dimension. Indeed, they are not based only on articulated reasoning but also on a constellation of different feelings and emotions. On the one hand, coarse Islamophobic reactions are driven by negative emotions: fear and hatred of the other, vengeful instincts, etc. On the other hand, the “humanist” reaction seems crossed, first and foremost, by positive emotions: compassion and sympathy with the victims, emotional attachment to grand values (freedom of the press, liberal democracy, the republic, etc.). In the book, I analyze this second set of reactions – the “positive” ones – because it has not, apparently, the belligerent and rude character of the first.

  1. Butler wrote a series of essays on the “positive” emotions provoked by the September 11 attacks in the United States (Butler 2010). She observed that those emotions took a “humanist” form whilst relying on a particular and selective notion of “humanity”. More precisely, she notes that the “humanist” discourse organized the celebration of the 2992 victims of the September 11 attacks but found no words nor sympathy for the victims, incomparably more numerous, of the US war against terrorism. Hence, Butler asks: “How is it that we have not been given the names of the dead from that war, including those that the US has killed, those whom we will never have a picture, a name, a story, never any testimony fragment of their lives, something to see, to touch, to know?” (Butler 2010: xx).

Now, this observation finds a profound resonance with what has happened in France since January 7, 2015. On January 14, thousands of Muslim people went onto the streets in order to protest against the decision of Charlie Hebdo to publish a new front page representing – again[3] – Prophet Muhammad. Some of those demonstrations turned into riots. French embassies were attacked. Local police forces replicated. In Niger, the symbolic violence of the Charlie Hebdo front page materialized in a tragic way (at least 10 people were killed). Simultaneously, French Forces intensified the strikes against the Islamic State while launching some other “special” operations. So far, the so-called “humanist” discourse – which people call the “spirit of January 11[4]” in France ‒ has not found any words for the victims of the Nigerien riots and those of the French war on terror.

The practical corollary of this observation is that these scenes of public compassion are not trivial. Behind their screen of positive neutrality, they are symbolic performative acts. These ceremonies teach us which lives we should grieve over, but above all whose lives remain excluded from the modern and humanistic economy of compassion. In other words, the political decisions which followed the demonstrations of January 2015 – the war on terror and the institutionalization of a state of exception (MPs are about to vote a French patriot act) did not betray the “spirit of January 2015”. Rather, they are two faces of the exact same coin, namely that of humanitarian violence. Indeed, it would be mistaken to think that wars and violence sprout solely from negative emotions. Contrary to a widespread idea, the hatred of the “Boche” and “Franzmann”[5] was not the prime cause of the First World War. This war also took root in the most positive feelings on Earth: compassion for national victims of past wars, attachment to the national community or love of universalist values such as “civilization” in France and “Kultur“ in Germany.

One has the right to think that the war against Islamist terrorism is a legitimate war. But it is important to be aware of a statistical reality. Since 2001, Islamist terrorism has had 30 victims in France[6]. These 30 deaths are 30 personal and family disasters that deserve recognition. This number, however, is smaller than many others. To give only one example, domestic violence has amounted to approximately 2,000 deaths in France over the same period[7]. Now, this necro-economy (Weizman 2012) is certainly too cold. However, it teaches us that our political attitudes are fogged by our differentiated sensitivity to violence. Indeed, no one would think to send 250 kg bombs to the houses of the (secular, liberal and “humanist”) perpetrators of domestic violence. Why such unanimity in the French public discourse about the need wage a war (in the literal sense of the term) on Islamist terrorism?


Bertrand Gilles and Mathias Delori, Terrorisme, émotions et relations internationales. Essai d’actualité, Paris, Editions Myriapode, 2015, 81pp.

Butler Judith, Frames of War. When is Life Grievable?, London, Brooklyn, Verso, 2010.

Weizman Eyal, The Least of all Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence for Arendt to Gaza, London, Verso, 2012.


[1] On January 7, 2015, two individuals entered the offices of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed 11 people. One day later, on January 8, another individual also shot a police officer and took hostages the next day, at a kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes. All the gunmen claimed to belong to a terrorist group affiliated to Al Qaida.

[2] The authors of the attacks wanted to protest against the numerous representations of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo.

[3] Charlie Hebdo had published numerous caricatures and representations of the Prophet Muhammad since 2001. The individuals who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo claimed to have done so in order to « avenge the Prophet ».

[4] Referring to the date of the huge national rally which followed the attacks.

[5] French and German offensive terms used during the wars in order to describe the Germans and the French.

[6] This number include: the 5 French casualties of the attacks in New York in September 2001, the 8 deaths of Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012, and the 17 casualties of the killings in Paris in January 2015.

[7] The French interior ministry publishes a study on this issue every year. In 2014, for instance, 121 women were killed by their partner. See:


(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme