Wij/zij-denken en de terroristische aanslag op Charlie Hebdo (Engels)

MASTER ANTROPOLOGIE – De terroristische aanslag op het satirische tijdschrift Charlie Hebdo in januari dit jaar, bracht nogal wat teweeg: een debat over de vrijheid van meningsuiting, een wereldwijde media-hype en verklaringen van solidariteit (‘je suis Charlie’). Maar ook: groeiende moslimhaat en wij/zij-denken. Een case om een antropologische lens op los te laten. Hieronder een essay (Engels) voor mijn master Social and Cultural Anthropology.

The terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January the 7th provoked a lot: debates over the (limited?) freedom of speech, a media hype all over the world and, above all, emotions. The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ dominated front pages and social media to show solidarity with the ‘freedom fighters’. The media and other manifestations about the recent events didn’t leave one topic behind. The reactions show a huge solidarity and feelings of nationality in Western states, but… at the cost of Muslim citizens. Often in storytelling, from Harry Potter and tales of the Three Pigs to a documentary about WWII, the good guys are separated from the bad guys. The bad guys, in this case, being ‘Muslims’. The events and the subsequent debates hereby increase the already existing ‘us/them-thinking’ in Western societies. Now how come we make this us/them-distinction and what does it imply? What does this binary opposition say about Dutch culture? In this essay, I attempt to answer these questions by the cognitive anthropological approach of, especially, Stephen A. Tyler.

The debates around the Paris attack show a contrast between the West and Islam, says the Dutch anthropologist Martijn de Koning. In De Volkskrant (2015) he writes, condemning this kind of portrayal: “It’s suggested to be ‘our’ freedom opposite Islam or extremist political Islam, ‘our’ weapons (the pen) opposite ‘theirs’ (the Kalashnikov). ‘We’ would be civilized and superior and ‘they’ are out to profit from us, by migration, or want to destroy our freedom by terrorism.” These binary oppositions did not just arise in the current debates, they are in our minds all the time.

Order out of chaos

Cognitive anthropologists attempt to understand these kinds of abstract thinking patterns, the structures of thought underlying behaviour; they enter, thus, from the superstructure. The world is full of chaos, and to make sense of things and events, such as these terrorist attacks, we need to create order. In the view of cognitive anthropologists, that is done by classification.

But how exactly do we classify? Following Sapir and the Prague School, Tyler argues that the particular categories need to be sought in native language. His work is to a great extend concerned with how people name the things around them, and how these names are organised into larger groupings (Tyler, 1969 in McGee&Warms, 2012: 357). Central in cognitive anthropology is the investigation of semantic domains, i.e. groups of things or concepts that belong together. Objects within a domain have at least one feature in common which differentiates them from other semantic domains (Tyler, 1969 in McGee&Warms, 2012: 359). Harold C. Conklin points out that the categorisation of colours is harder than it looks. He notes that contrast is a key issue to this categorisation (1955, in McGee&Warms, 2012: 349). The same counts for categorising people.

The ethnic other

How do we categorise Dutch inhabitants? Semantic domains should only be explained in native terms (here Tyler follows the cultural relativist view of Boas). In Dutch society, we use a typical term for ‘the ethnic other’: ‘Allochtone’, which could be considered a semantic domain. Davis and Nencel describe how they, US-born immigrants, are being excluded by a pattern distinguishing between ‘Dutch-ness’, a white/ethnic national identity, and all ‘others’ (Davis & Nencel, 2011: 479). Althought the term ‘allochthone’ is used in the Netherlands to designate all foreign-born who live in the Netherlands for an extended period, in practice, it is only used for immigrants as Moluccans, (black) Africans, Antilleans and Muslims.

Dutch culture? Some reflections

What does the binary distinction imply, and does it tell us something about Dutch culture? Tyler sees culture in purely mentalistic terms. That is, it has no predictable effect on ‘the real world’. He also notes that cognitive anthropologists focus on “a set of logical principles, which order relevant phenomena. To the cognitive anthropologist, these logical principles rather than the material phenomena are the object of investigation.” (McGee & Warms, 2012: 363-364). In denying the importance of behaviour resulting from a certain underlying thought , I think cognitive anthropologists miss a critical point. Categories are not static: they are made relevant in certain situations, which change all the time, and result in behaviour. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the murder on Theo van Gogh, the us/them-distinction between Westerners and Muslims increased. The Dutch government broadens security measurements against terrorism after the attacks. And to a great extend, we allow them to. We are willing to give up certain rights (of Muslims as well), such as privacy, to fight terrorism. In addition, cognitive anthropologist do not explain why things, concepts and people are classified in a certain way in a certain society, and why other societies make different classifications. Why do we find it so important to blame a fixed victim? Is it, maybe, because then we can justify to feel ‘superior’, as De Koning (2015) points out? Is it a method of classifying derived from the perceived ‘goodness’ of the Dutch? This is argued by Davis and Nencel (2011: 481), who investigated patterns of inclusion and exclusion. In my opinion, it is poor and incomplete, when studying culture, to exclusively focus on mental thought and not analyse the results seen in behaviour, in patterns in the base.

Reflecting on the branching diagram, one could divide ‘Muslims’ not only into ‘Turks’ and ‘Moroccans’, who form the largest groups of immigrants in the Netherlands. We could also distinguish extremist Muslims from all other, ‘normal’ Muslims, for it is extremist, terrorist Muslims that attacked Charlie Hebdo. However, in the the current debate, this distinction is not made. The enemy of ‘our’ freedom of speech, is called Muslims, which implies: all of them, either for or against these attacks, either orthodox or moderate. It would only make our pattern of thought more complex if we would distinguish acurately. So we accuse one enemy. De Koning (2015) states: “This […] enables us to feel ‘superior’.” This statement brings me to another paradigm which implies us/them-thinking: 19th century evolutionism, which clearly remains in some people’s minds. I could write another article about the use of terms like ‘barbarians’ in the current debate, ‘they’ being the underdeveloped, who use violence and emotion instead of rational thinking and the pen when dissagreeing with another. To stick with cognitive anthropology: the attacks made the contrast between us and them more present. We can now point at one culprit. Isn’t that convenient? Some order in the chaos!


Conklin, H.C., 1955. Hanunóo Color Categories. In Anthropological Theory, R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms. 5 ed. pp. 352-369. New York: McGraw Hill.

Davis, K. & Nencel, L., 2011. Border skirmishes and the question of belonging: An authoethnographic account of everyday exclusion in multicultural society. Ethnicities, 11(4), pp. 467-488.

De Koning, M., 2015. Denk even na voor je islamofobe cartoons verspreidt. Retrieved 17 January 2015, from Volkskrant.nl: http://www.volkskrant.nl/dossier-aanslag-op-charlie-hebdo/denk-even-na-voor-je-islamofobe-cartoons-verspreidt~a3831512/

Tyler, S. A., 1969. Introduction to Cognitive Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory, R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms. 5 ed. pp. 352-369. New York: McGraw Hill.

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