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Charlie Hebdo: How to talk about terrorism

Terrorism always shines a light on the human condition. The aftermath of an attack is often coloured with blame, apologies, and almost mind-numbing debate about the problem. More importantly: the aftermath can also shine a light on those who are interested in democracy and the political sphere, while simultaneously unmasking those who do not care about a plural, inclusive democratic state.

Unfortunately, after the debris is cleared and the victims are eulogised, the latter (ie the anti-democrats) are almost always in the majority. These people take the form of politicians who use acts of violence as a free pass into the emails, bedrooms and telephone conversations of free citizens. Or people who spend their days engaged in insidious hatesplaining (borrowed from the patronising example of mansplaining, where men explain things to women).

It’s already happening. People are already trying to explain why the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo occurred (and perhaps even, why it is understandable!), and in doing so attempt to rationalise the taking of life and the assault on the political sphere.

This isn’t a difference of opinion; it’s a patronising attempt to hatesplain the situation and diminish the severity of terrorism and political violence — acts which bypass legitimate political engagement and undermine democracy.


Perhaps the people behind “I don’t stand with Charlie Hebdo” would claim they are merely raising points about the problematic nature of some of the content published by this magazine, or attacking the people who think that freedom of speech and expression are entirely non-derogable and sacred. As TO Molefe tweeted:

“Nothing is sacrosanct! Slay the holy cows!” billows the Western man, as he proclaims freedom of speech sacred. #intellectualimperialism

Molefe speaks directly to the issue I hope to raise here: Democracy and politics must allow for constant revisability and self-reference. There can be no holy cows; everything must be up for political contestation in a truly plural, inclusive democracy. This doesn’t reduce the value of freedom of speech or other rights; it merely allows for contestation surrounding the content and substance of these rights. Of course, such political flexibility must be protected against majoritarianism and allow for inclusivity and pluralism at all times.

This inclusive democracy must also be protected against political violence and acts of terrorism, for these are illegitimate means of political contestation. In pursuing fear, death and destruction, these acts have the capacity to weaken dialogic debate and the abovementioned political contestation. That’s why hatesplaining, like terrorism, cannot be condoned.

I have previously argued that the Islamic State (Isis) is a casualty of our history and the unipolar democracies we’ve upheld over the last 20 years. This wasn’t condonation of Isis. That article was an attempt to show that we need to encourage inclusive democracies, where people can have their voices heard. Hatesplaining doesn’t seek to address the problem of terrorism or illegitimate political contestation. On the contrary, it rationalises the act of violence and ignores the importance of legitimate political contestation in its entirety.

There’s an ever present “but” in the vocabulary of hatesplaining: “Life has been lost, but … ”, “Terrorism is not good, but that magazine was so offensive.” These “buts” undermine democracy.

Democracy cannot survive acts of illegitimate contestation that foreclose the political space and exclude voices and citizens by way of fear.

Likewise, democracy is weakened where the system may force people to turn to violence to have their voices heard. It is important to engage in discussions surrounding terrorism with these thoughts in mind. Hatesplaining ignores the political frontier at a time when we most need people who are interested in affirming, protecting and reforming democracy.

By prioritising politics and democracy when we speak about terrorism, we can change the nature of the conversation. The debate is less likely to veer towards Islamophobia and support for the encroachment of our civil liberties, and instead encourage a political terrain that values contestation, debate and peaceful protest.

Image – People hold up pens during a gathering in front of the city hall of Rennes, western France, on January 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. (AFP)


  • Thorne Godinho has been a struggling freelance writer, blogger and editor for years. He completed his law degree at the University of Pretoria, and is embarking on an LLM focusing on the intersection between law and democracy at the University of Cape Town where he is a Claude Leon Scholar in Constitutional Governance. Thorne is a committed social liberal. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on twitter: @ThorneGo.


  1. Haiwa tigere Haiwa tigere 9 January 2015

    When I was growing up in the village we used to build a mound of soil and name the said mound “my mothers breast” if another guy builds his mothers breast as well then comes and kick you mound or tamper with it in any way shape or form. He has disrespected your mother and you go and do the same to his mound and usually a ding dong of a fight ensues. None of the village boys could stand their mother being dishonored. Imagine how much worse it would be with a deity a person who will ask you when you are at the heavens gates why you allowed this slight to happen to him.
    Imagine starting a game in your family you make the rules and then expect your neighbour to play the game with you. Freedom of speech is a western concept which the west is trying to export to other regions. Some regions will see this as a destablising force and will resist it with all their might.

    Charlie Hedbo people were warned to cease and desist from playing this game called satire which they invented and made the rules for without consultation with anybody else. Instead of putting the breaks their insults grew to a crescendo .
    Its been argued that they insult everybody catholics , jews etc. Yes they do but if these people dont take insult (like if someone destroys your mothers breast and you dont mind him doing so) then its up to them. If someone destroys your mothers breast and you think they are too big for you to take on in a fight then you dont fight. No need to get your teeth loosened in a fight you cant win.
    I am sorry for the Charlie Hebdo people but they were bullies, picking a fight where there was none. Were warned and warned again never took heed for a principle not universally agreed on – this freedom of speech. The islamists never signed up for this and they will stand up to bullies.

    From another angle America told Saddam to cease and desist from having weapons of mass destruction. When Saddam said he did not have any they said he was lying and went in and hung him by the neck until he died..The world applauded even though America was lying.When Iran said it wanted to have a nuclear bomb they said cease and desist otherwise we will invade you. Iran ceased. So many examples in the world where warnings were given and when not heeded the culprits got a hiding.

    Chub one of the guys who was killed said “I would rather die than live my life kneeling down” (who asked him to kneel down just dont insult peoples sensitivities). Keep satire to people who understand it. Westerners. Can we say he got his wish?

    In some quarters the guys at Charlie are labelled heroes. Nothing heroic about insulting people is there.

    I feel sorry for their families. I feel sorry for the collateral damage the police and council workers.
    A country to the north of you has laws stipulating and word denegrating Robert Mugabe wil see you spend time in prison. Free speech is for those who can afford it. Its not Universal. Western opinion is not the only opinion

  2. Paul S Paul S 9 January 2015

    A lengthy read but well worth the effort. Your points regarding extreme insult and sustained provocation are well-founded. There is a lot more to this argument than Gohdino’s dangerously one-dimensional view of what constitutes freedom of speech and expression.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 10 January 2015

    For understanding of anything to be able to develop humans require complete freedom. Freedom and fear are incompatible and yet you are saying that it is right for people to create fear in others in respect of territories which the ‘fear mongers’ define as sacrosanct. In reality this is a position which obstructs the growth of human understanding.

  4. Anayo Anayo 10 January 2015


    Get your facts
    straight, Charlie Hebdo did not invent satire. Satire has been there in different
    guises in public discourse for centuries.

    As for your
    childhood story, I have nothing to say other than when I was a child I spoke
    like a child and acted like one, but when I reached the age of majority, I did
    away with those childish ways.

    As mortals, one
    is bereft on why anyone should be put in an invidious position where there is a
    clarion call upon them to defend the honour and pride of a deity. If that is
    the case, one has to reconsider whether it was worth it to have such deity exalted
    and given befitting obeisence.

    Our common
    humanity should be an important starting point at all times–if we consider
    ourselves human–and not when it is convenient. When one starts with “them” and
    “us” as your post seems to suggest, on a very fundamental issue such as
    freedom, then one needs not complain when one gets the short shrift from the
    other (out group), as a result of the introduction of a binary construct in
    public discourse. After all the journalists were plying their trade in an
    environment that is underpinned by liberal democracy. The preachers of hate–who
    would rather live in a mediaeval society–had the choice, could up sticks to an
    environment more salubrious to their pernicious ideology.

    Your argument and analogy are not materially any
    different from that put forward by rapists–she deserved it because of the provocative
    skimpy dress she wore on the day. Further, buttressing your argument using
    Mugabe’s Zimbabwe did no favours to your argument. Free speech is affordable in
    saner climes, it is not a “Western opinion” or construct, but underpins our
    common humanity.

  5. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 10 January 2015

    ?? so now satirists should come shoot in your house because you disagree with them ?? Where does it end? This was in FRANCE. France is considered to be a ‘western’ country. You are also harping on about a cartoon that was drawn over 3 years ago. If our country believed in the philosophy that you should never, ever do anything that would bother a crazy person with a gun, we would still have apartheid.

  6. The Praetor The Praetor 12 January 2015

    ‘I have previously argued that the Islamic State (Isis) is a casualty of our history and the unipolar democracies we’ve upheld over the last 20 years’.

    I would beg to differ on this view… If you have followed events recently, you would have noticed that the origins of IS happened exactly when the West started interfering in the politics of places like , like Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria. By arming rebel groups in fighting these governments, and hoping for ‘democracy’ it has led to an escalation in militant Islam, and total lawlessness.

    I would argue then that people like Ghadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Al Assad etc, were pivotal instruments in maintaining order in the Middle East, and as history has now shown us, by attempting to democratize these countries and removing these leaders, it has had the opposite effect and caused these countries to implode into sectarian violence, between Sunni and Shia, genocide and displacement of Christians(which is never mentioned in the press), and the conspiracy by the various revolutionary groups to seek a Muslim Caliphate. The world is a much less safer place since, with the Middle East a complete no-go area, if you value your life and would like to keep your head on your shoulders

    The Middle East has no history of democracy, and democracy will not work in that region.

    The Praetor

  7. margarita margarita 12 January 2015

    Charlie Hebdo is tragic but let us not forget terrorism comes in many forms, including state terrorism.

    As Noam Chomsky writes: ‘We Are All – Fill in the Blank’

    He reminds us how American and western gunmen killed journalists at Radio Television Serbia in 1999, and how American gunmen mowed down innocents at Falluja General Hospital, a major war crime in itself.

  8. divvie divvie 12 January 2015

    I read somewhere the the Koran describes how the Prophet insulted, parodied, mocked, deliberately misinterpreted the Christian faith…….

  9. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 15 January 2015

    You read wrong. Look it up for yourself

  10. Haiwa tigere Haiwa tigere 16 January 2015

    Please allow me to paraphrase what the pope said today,
    ” I am no dentist but should someone kick my mound of earth representing my mothers breast I will take his teeth out ” Childish stories Ha!
    Funny I never saw the pope in my village as I grew up but I guess he is a brother from another mother. I am not religious but keep on poping Pope. Keep telling it like it is.
    If you insist badmouthing people dont be surprised if someone smacks you one in the mouth. Thats the way of the world

  11. Anayo Anayo 16 January 2015

    The comment by the Pope–which you might have regarded as an
    imprimatur to you childhood story and logic–neither gives traction to your
    logic nor release your story from the childish cage of incredulity.

    With all due respect, the Pope does not speak or represent a
    Liberal Democratic institution. He is the leader of an institution that is
    neither liberal nor democratic.

    As I mentioned in my previous post, those seeking a salubrious
    medieval environment have no business with an environment where the public
    discourse is underpinned by freedom gained from years of Liberal Democratic

  12. Haiwa tigere Haiwa tigere 20 January 2015

    Pope and by extension me 6million (in manilla) :Anayo 0
    Keep your liberal democratic hogwash mate. Those 6 million dont want to hear of you or from you.They can vote with their feet if and when they want to but they chose to actively go and hear the pope. Pope does not give a fig what you think Neither do I. Rather stay in my cage of incredulity.

    I am rather amused how this week you have been pissing against the wind. Everything you have said the pope has demonstrated the exact opposite.
    Gods way of washing away your sins I guess.. “Pope does not speak or represent a democratic institution. ” my foot You want your own form of democracy not anybody’s. You in fact you are a dictator prescribing your own form of democracy and doing it so badly.Pope did not shoot his way into power he was voted there- with smoke signals to make the American Indian purple with envy. More importantly people go to his masses or sermons and billions follow him and adore him.

  13. Heinrich Heinrich 25 January 2015

    An insult does not change the insulted person in any way. Anyone who thinks it does, only shows lack of confidence in that person – as if the insult could perhaps be applicable.
    Insulting someone is just bad manners – it should not lead to a barbaric reaction.

  14. Haiwa tigere Haiwa tigere 27 January 2015

    “An insult does not change the insulted person in any way” REALLY Heinrich???. Abusive men who call their wives fat ugly bs call them cellulite capital does not alter their self esteem or psyche. Words can hurt more than fists. or guns. After all all people say the pen is mightier than the sword or is that just all talk.

    Wars have been fought for honor people have been killed for honor . You insult someone in a clever way say he does not have a comeback because he is not that clever or as clever as you but is much bulkier than you and can pack a punch. He is allowed to respond in the best way he knows how. You make your rules he will make his own.

  15. Heinrich Heinrich 27 January 2015

    We were actually talking deities here – that is what the barbaric terrorism is actually about.

    If Christina Aguilera was someone’s favourite, for instance, and I called her a fat arse slob, would that justify someone killing me? Would it change Christina in any way?

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