On Charlie Hebdo: A Letter to My British friends
On Charlie Hebdo: A Letter to My British friends
By Olivier Tonneau / blogs.mediapart.fr

Dear friends, last week, a horrid assault was perpetrated against the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, who had published caricatures of Mohamed, by men who screamed that they had “avenged the prophet”. A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the “myth” of laïcité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic - with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed “Muslim question”.

            As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters.

            Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece).  Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

            This being clear, the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. And to me, the one question that this specific event raises is: how could these youth ever come to this level of confusion and madness? What feeds into fundamentalist fury? How can we fight it?

            I think it would be scandalous to answer that Charlie Hebdo was in any way the cause of its own demise. It is true that some Muslims took offence at some of Charlie’s cartoons. Imams wrote in criticism of them. But the same Imams were on TV after the tragedy, expressing their horror and reminding everyone that words should be fought with words, and urging Muslims to attend Sunday’s rally in homage to Charlie Hebdo. As a militant in a party that is routinely vilified in the press, I don’t go shoot down the journalists whose words or pictures trigger my anger. It is a necessary consequence of freedom of expression that people might be offended by what you express: so what? Nobody dies of an offence.

            Of course, freedom of speech has its limits. I was astonished to read from one of you that UK, as opposed to France, had laws forbidding incitement to racial hatred. Was it Charlie’s cartoons that convinced him that France had no such laws? Be reassured: it does. Only we do not conflate religion and race. We are the country of Voltaire and Diderot: religion is fair game. Atheists can point out its ridicules, and believers have to learn to take a joke and a pun. They are welcome to drown us in return with sermons about the superficiality of our materialistic, hedonistic lifestyles. I like it that way. Of course, the day when everybody confuses “Arab” with “Muslim” and “Muslim” with “fundamentalist”, then any criticism of the latter will backfire on the former. That is why we must keep the distinctions clear.  

            And to keep these distinctions clear, we must begin by facing the fact that fundamentalism is growing dangerously and killing viciously. Among its victims, the large majority are Muslims who would surely not want to be confused with their killers. So I return now to the question: what is the cause of the rise of fundamentalism?

            A friend told me that it was “the West bombing Muslim countries”. I am deeply suspicious of a statement that includes two sweeping generalizations and is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”: the western world vs. the Muslim world. The only difference between George W. Bush and a leftwing stance would be that whilst Bush sided with the western world, the leftwing activist sides with the Muslim world. But to reverse Huntington’s view is a perverse way of confirming it. So let us try to address the issue otherwise.

            It is obvious that the rise of fundamentalism is intertwined with the complex series of tragedies that unfolded from colonialism to the present times, including the Israel/Palestine conflict. Yet I think we should recognize one thing. Just as the Christian religion caused an enormous lot of problems in the West for centuries, problems which were not always peacefully resolved, Islam has caused enormous problems in the Muslim world to a lot of people, too. Anywhere in the world, the space for individual rights has always had to be opened by rolling back religion a few miles. And this is something that the Muslim world has begun doing as early as the nineteenth-century, with difficulties not dissimilar to those experienced in the Christian world – for those who would like to explore the parallel, I recommend reading Sami Zubaida’s excellent book Beyond Islam.

            Few people even know today that there was a period, beginning in the mid-ninetieth century to the mid-twentieth century, called the Nadha (Rebirth, or Renaissance), which saw a wide-ranging process of secularisation from Morocco to Turkey. Few people care to remember that, in the 1950s and 60s, women wearing the veil were a small minority in Tunis, Algiers and even Cairo. This does not mean that they were not Muslims, mind you. Just as in the West, where a lot of Christian girls started having sex before marriage or taking the pill, principles were evolving, with some inevitable tensions.

            Much as it offends the Edward Saïd vision of cultures as bound to devour or be devoured, the Nadha was fuelled by ideas developed by European thinkers and enthusiastically endorsed by local students and intelligentsia – and before you accuse me of Western paternalism, let me stress two things. First, “ideas developed by European thinkers” are not “western ideas”. The anti-colonial movement referred to Marx, Freud and Robespierre, who had – and still have – fierce critics in the West. Second, at the very same time as the anti-colonial movement was drawing inspiration from the history of struggles in Europe, Claude Levy-Strauss was transforming the Western understanding of civilization by studying other cultures, just as Leibniz had extensively studied Chinese language, law and politics in his quest for Enlightenment. Peoples are neither homogeneous nor self-enclosed units: within peoples, people organize themselves and oppose themselves around principles and ideas.

            It is on the ashes of the Nadha that fundamentalism as we know it emerged. I say “emerged”, because we should not be fooled by the fundamentalists who claim to restore Islam in its original purity. The ideology they promote – literal, violent, legalistic, narrow-minded, other-worldly – is a radical novelty in the history of Islam. It is the dramatic perversion of a culture. So how did such a perversion take place? This is where the story gets complex – more complex than that of the West vs. the Muslim world.

            Anti-colonial movements in France’s former colonial empire (in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco but also in Egypt) were secular (which of course does not mean that their members were atheists): they intended to create modern nation-states independent from the tutelage of Western exploiters. Thus in Algeria, the Front de Libération Nationale was fighting for the creation of a Democratic And Popular State of Algeria (note the distinctly communist touch). Yet the chaos that emerged during and after independence wars (for which the West clearly has a serious responsibility) provided an excellent opportunity for fanatics of all sorts, who had deeply resented the evolution of their countries, to return to prominence with a vengeance. Thus in Algeria, an extremist wing that had already subverted the FLN during the war eventually came into power after decades of political and economic instability, only to unleash atrocious violence. I have friends of Algerian origins who deeply resent to this day the fundamentalists who robbed them of their secular state and persecuted them to the point that they eventually migrated to France. I am not an expert on “the Muslim world” – if such generalization even makes sense – but I think a similar sort of process took place in many other countries.

            So France is home today to many Arabs, some of them Muslims, who were chased away from their home country by fundamentalists as early as the 1960s. They were exposed to racism of course, especially in the workplace – it’s the story that goes back to the Middle Ages of workers who fear the threat of outsiders – and also bullied by the police and treated like second-class citizens. They fought for equality and justice, with the support of many on the left of the political spectrum, for instance during the 1983 Marche des beurs. Believe it or not, none of the protagonists of the march were making religious claims; they were not walking as Muslims but as French citizens who demanded that France truly provides them with Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.

            The spirit of the Marche des beurs is that of Charlie Hebdo: justice for all citizens, including migrants and minorities. Now let me fast forward. Last year, a film was produced, commemoratingLa Marche des beurs. The producers asked famous rappers to collectively record a promotional number. One of the rappers threw in the verse: “I demand a Fatwa on the dogs at Charlie Hebdo”. He also contrasted “our virtuous veiled girls” with “the make-up wearing sluts”. Yet there were many women in theMarche; none of them were taking a religious stance and few of them were wearing the veil. How could a secular movement for equality be rewritten in religious terms? This raises the question of the rise of fundamentalism in France.

            Let us be clear: fundamentalism is not caused by immigration from Muslim countries. It is very easy to demonstrate this: Muslims migrated in France as early as the 1950s and the issue of fundamentalism only arose in the last fifteen years. Moreover, among the young men who enlist to fight for Daesh, many are actually disenfranchised white youth with no familial links to Islam. Fundamentalism is something new, that exercises a fascination on disenfranchised French youth in general – not on Muslims in general. In fact, the older generation of French Muslims is terrified by the phenomenon. After the killing of Charlie Hebdo, Imams demanded that the government take action against websites and networks propagating fanaticism. 

            That the emergence of fundamentalism is posing serious problems to Arabs also sheds an interesting light on the law banning the hijab – a law that is routinely mentioned as a proof of France’s anti-Muslim bias. I do not have a definite opinion on this law. I was, however, stunned when I read a very angry article by a writer I admire, Mohamed Kacimi. The son of an Algerian Imam, deeply attached to his Muslim culture yet also fiercely attached to secularism, Mohamed Kacimi lashed out angrily at white, middle-class opponents of the law, who focused on the freedom of Muslim women to dress as they please. They were not the ones, he said, who had their daughters in the suburbs called prostitutes, bullied and sometimes raped for the sole reason that they chose not to wear the veil – let us remember that many Muslim women do not consider wearing the veil as compulsory: again, we have here Muslims being persecuted by fundamentalists.

            France has a long tradition of secular Islam, fully compatible with the laws of the Republic, but at war with fundamentalists. In the nineties, the Paris Imam was shot by fanatics whose violence he denounced; more recently, the Imam of Drancy, who expressed displeasure with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons but firmly denounced the fatwa issued against them by Al Qaida, was himself condemned to death by the terrorist organization and is living under the protection of the police.

            So the question is: how has a fraction of the French youth (of either white, black or Arabic origin) become so responsive to fundamentalism? The answer to this question cannot be directly traced back to “the West bombing Muslim countries”. I think it has primarily to do with the complete failure of the Republic to deliver on its promises of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Here, there is an important point to make.

            I often read in the English press, or hear from British friends, that French laïcité is a “foundational myth” – as if France lived under the illusion that religion could be eradicated once and for all. This has nothing to do with laïcité properly defined.Laïcité does not deny anybody the right to express their religious beliefs, but it aims to found society on a political contract that transcends religious beliefs which, as a result, become mere private affairs. The beurs who marched on Paris in 1983 were performing a laïc demonstration. They were not the only ones to demand that the Republic be true to its own principles. In a beautiful book titled La Démocratie de l’Abstention, two sociologists trace the heartbreaking story (at least it breaks my republican heart*) of how the French citizens who arrived from the former colonies vote massively: they are proud of their right to participate in democracy. They try to convince their children to do the same; but the latter are not interested. Decades of social segregation and economic discrimination has made it clear to them that the word ‘French’ on their passport is meaningless – there is no equality, no freedom and clearly no fraternity.

            The process of disenfranchisement was gradual. Riots in the banlieues started erupting at the turn of the eighties, and gathered pace in the nineties. They had no religious subtext: they were expressions of anger at discrimination and police harassment. Yet the need to belong is a fundamental human need: if French youth of Arab descent could not feel that they belonged to France, what would they belong to? La Démocratie de l’abstention describes how the conflict between Israel and Palestine – which had been going on for decades already - suddenly caught the imagination of the youth: it was their Vietnam, their cause. They had found their brothers overseas. When, in the 2009 European elections, a bunch of crazed conspiracy theorists launched an anti-Semitic party which had strictly nothing to do with Europe or with the issues that these youth faced, they registered high votes in many suburbs. And as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself degenerated from a political conflict into a religious conflict, so did the French youth begin to read the world in religious terms.

            Youth is the age of self-sacrifice and revolutionary dreams. In the sixties, young middle class Frenchmen who felt alienated from their conservative milieu idolized Mao’s cultural revolution – no less nihilist than Islamic fundamentalism –, dreamed of throwing bombs and sometimes did so. But this case is different. The middle-class Maoists belonged to a privileged class. They were highly educated. They had the intellectual, economic and social means to move out of their nihilist craze and back into the world. The disenfranchised, ostracized youth are an easy target for indoctrinators of all sorts. Their world-view becoming ever more schematic, they endorsed a West Vs Muslim grid that apparently made some of them incapable of recognizing that a newspaper such as Charlie Hebdo, who was standing with Palestine, for ethnic minorities, for equal rights and justice, was on their side – a precious ally: the sole fact that Charlie Hebdo had poked fun at their faith was enough to make them worthy of death.

            And yet perhaps this narrative (which, be reassured, is nearing its end) helps you understand what Charlie Hebdo was trying to do. It was precisely trying to defend the republican ideals whereby it is not religion that determines your commitments but justice. It mocked not the religion that Muslims have quietly inherited from their fathers and forefathers, but the aggressive fundamentalism that demands that everybody defines themselves – ethically, politically, geographically – in religious terms. It stressed that a religion that lays a claim to ruling a society is dangerous and, yes, ridiculous, whichever religion it may be – Islam is no sacred cow.

            To conclude. I firmly condemn the bombing of Middle-Eastern countries (or any country for that matter) by Western governments. I vote for political parties that condemn it, and I demonstrate against it. I was shocked when such demonstrations were outlawed by the French government – but happy when the same government recognized the Palestinian state. In these demonstrations, I walk with people of all colours, origins and religious creed – we take a political, not a religious stand. And I despair to think that a fraction of the population of my country refuses to regard me as their ally because I am no friend of religions. Being aware of the root causes of the madness that took hold of these young people, I detest politicians who have done nothing to resolve the deliquescence of the banlieues, to fight routine discrimination and control police persecutions. These issues play as big a part in my view in the rise of fundamentalism in the French youth as do events in the Middle East; that is why, had I been in France today, I do not know if I would have wanted to march together with Angela Merkel and David Cameron – much less with Netanyahu and outright Nazis such as Viktor Orban.

            This is the difficult argument I am having with my French friends: we are all aware of the fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be exploited by the Far right, and that our government will use it as an opportunity to create a false unanimity within a deeply divided society. We have already heard the prime minister Manuel Valls announce that France was “at war with Terror” – and it horrifies me to recognize the words used by George W. Bush. We are all trying to find the narrow path – defending the Republic against the twin threats of fundamentalism and fascism (and fundamentalism is a form of fascism). But I still believe that the best way to do this is to fight for our Republican ideals. Equality is meaningless in times of austerity. Liberty is but hypocrisy when elements of the French population are being routinely discriminated. But fraternity is lost when religion trumps politics as the structuring principle of a society. Charlie Hebdo promoted equality, liberty and fraternity – they were part of the solution, not the problem.

            With all best wishes,

            Olivier

* It was pointed out to me that, should this article be read by American friends, my use of "republican" might be misleading. By "republican", I do not mean anything to do with the North American party; I use the term in its French sense - the "république" referring to a secular and democratic Res Publica.

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On Charlie Hebdo: A Letter to My British friends