Photo Credit/Sébastien amiet;l

On social media recently I’ve seen numerous comparisons to the recent shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and Islamist group Boko Haram’s murder of an estimated 2000 in Baga, Nigeria. The message of the comparison is commendable; its point is that we should not treat the Charlie Hebdo shooting as a distinct tragedy when even more staggering tragedies occur in the global south regularly. The second, equally commendable component of this message is that people are more likely to care about those who live like and resemble them, and thus the disproportionate attention given to the Charlie Hebdo attacks is an illustration of the racist nature of Western sympathies.


I agree with the basic points of this comparison, but I would argue that Boko Haram example is not the best one to go with. One has to consider why this comparison has in fact, managed to gain as much ground as it has and note that the slogans of “Je Suis Charlie” and “n’oubliez pas les victims de Boko Haram” are not actually incompatible, as seen on the placard of this Abidjan protester.


I would argue that the success of the comparison owes to the fact that many Westerners were in fact protesting the acts of Boko Haram less than a year ago with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The hashtag was so completely within the realm of the politically acceptable that Michelle Obama was photographed displaying it. While it is fair to say that Western governments have failed to provide meaningful help to the victims of Boko Haram, it would be misleading to say the West has ignored the problem. More fundamentally, it would be wrong to describe the West’s foreign policy faults in general as the fault of ignoring.


In May 2014, ie just eight months ago, #BringBackOurGirls was trending, and Nigerian-American columnist Jumoke Balogun was not happy. She noted that non-Nigerians sharing the hashtag were not in a position to change Nigeria’s internal approach to Boko Haram, but instead in a position to encourage Western military intervention. She further argued that #BringBackOurGirls was not a twitter social-movement pressuring an unwilling government, but rather a trend that helped the US government feel confident about a policy it was already pursuing. Balogun notes that in 2013, America’s AFRICOM unit carried out 546 military activities in Africa. She further points out that the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup was US trained, as is, to a degree, the Nigerian military which has a fairly abysmal human rights record in its own right.


Therefore, to say the problem with Western civilian/government attitudes is the ignoring of problems elsewhere in the world might seem like a scathing criticism, it in fact absolves the West of much of its criminal record. Those who say the problem with the West is that it does not stand against Boko Haram (or the LRA, or the Rwandan Genocidaires), ignore that there are times when the west does take actions that its portrays as humanitarian. These actions include the “liberations” of Iraq and Libya, which have simply led these countries to devolve into perpetual conflict zones, while conveniently removing anti-Western governments. Notably in the case of Libya, the West presented its intervention as being for the sake of protecting Arab lives, but did so at the expense of African migrant-worker and dark skinned Libyan lives, as these people were presented in the Western media as mercenaries.  


There are valid comparisons to be made between the Charlie Hebdo and Baga attacks, but I would argue they are not the ones being made at the moment. Rather than thinking in the short term about how one attack was publicized and one ignored by the West, we must think in the long term about how elements of both tragedies have been fit to a Western imperialist narrative.


Photo Credit/Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady

In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we were told a story of free speech being assaulted, and in some cases their being a clash of civilizations, rather than the story of a few individuals reacting disproportionately to satire that accidentally or not (depending on your interpretation of the magazine’s politics) offended a massive number of innocent and marginalized people. Similarly, in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign we were told about an evil Islamic group, who’s actions could be countered by the goodwill of Westerners.


So yes, the West did react disproportionately to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but comparing the attention paid to these attacks to the lack thereof paid to the Baga attacks does not address this problem. The West’s problem is not whether or not it pays attention to the world’s problems, its how it chooses to do so.

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