Foreword: Following the publication of my most recent article, there were accusations that I was being an apologist for the so-called “racist rag” that is Charlie Hebdo, and absolving them of their ‘racism.’ It’s funny to see reactions from both sides. If you try to take a nuanced position, you’re either writing an apology for terrorism, or an apology for racism. Saying that I don’t believe Charlie Hebdo is a “racist rag” per sé, doesn’t mean I agree with everything that they have ever published – unlike what some believe. As I said in my previous article, I think their depictions of the prophet of Islam were senselessly hurtful, adding to an already toxic environment. It also doesn’t mean I absolve them of their responsibility, when it comes to publishing such cartoons in an era of mounting Islamophobia. On the other, this also doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the racist environment prevalent in French society. In fact, quite to the contrary… The attack against Charlie Hebdo was merely the latest manifestation of France’s underlying problem with bigotry, xenophobia, and racism. A manifestation of how France like most Western societies – and Canada is no different – creates the so-called ‘other,’ the ‘non-French.”
The January 7 Massacre was the manifestation of that, but CH was the wrong target!
This article is about the systemic racist violence that is perpetrated on a regular basis against French citizens of Muslim heritage or faith, and how the mainstream discourse in the aftermath of January 7 continues to perpetuate the estrangement of the ‘other.’ Here is another article, which in my view should be read by all. This article is the perfect answer to those that say that CH is a “racist rag.”
The name of the game in France now is “National Unity.” Politicians from all walks of life have called the French people to unite, in a joint effort to defend the principles and the values of the French Republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. This being said, one has to ask: Unity against what? Unity in the name of what?
In the wake of the attacks against CH, the mainstream media, the French Left, right, and extreme-right put the emphasis on the fact that the Cherif brothers were Muslim. The French mainstream, just as most of the media in the world, portrayed the assailants as violent Muslims, thereby paving the way for the French political elite to jump, right away, onto the bandwagon of France’s ‘Muslim problem.’ France’s problem of ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ which subliminally suggests that the French nation has to defend itself against the ‘Muslims’ among them, perpetuates the same racist and xenophobic discourse that suggests that if you’re a Muslim, you can’t truly be ‘French’. The same racist and xenophobic discourse, which alienates French youth from the banlieues on a daily basis, and produced the revolt of 2005 is at the origin of all of this affair now.
By overemphasizing the fact that the four assailants were Muslim, the mainstream French media and the French political caste are attempting to absolve France and the French society of all of the racist and xenophobic crimes it has committed against Arab, Muslim, North African populations in the past and even today.
There isn’t a ‘Muslim problem,’ there’s a French problem; a crisis of French integration, which underlines the hypocrisy and voidness of the French national slogan: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. There’s a French problem which is manifest in the way the mainstream media depicts the assailants. The Cherif brothers are French citizens; they grew-up in France, lived all of their lives in France, were discriminated against in France, and were alienated by the French society in France. Their ‘radicalism’ was not a product of Islam, but of the shortcomings of French society, of the systemic and institutionalized racist, and symbolic violence omnipresent in French society that treats French muslims citizens or French arabs citizens, as ‘non-French,’ and as second degree citizens.
But this is nothing new. In 1950s and 1960s, during the French occupation of Algeria, white French colonizers were considered as fully-fledged French citizens, with the right to vote, the right to hold public office etc… The majority of Arab, Berber and Kabyle Algerians were also de facto French citizens, yet didn’t have any of the rights held by the colonizers. Still, they had to pledge their allegiances to the motto of the tricolour: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
The French problem stems from the fact that the French society has never recognized the crimes it has committed during the Algerian War – the millions of “French citizens” of Arab, Berber or Kabyle descent, who were brutally murdered, tortured and mutilated by French forces. Up until recently in French schools, the war of Algeria didn’t even exist. It was called ‘the Events of Algeria.’ France also never recognized the massacres committed in France during that time against French citizens of Muslim descent. Consider the infamous affair of Le Pont de Neuilly, where more than forty Muslim French citizens were kettled by French law enforcement and pushed into the frigid waters of Seine River and drowned to death. The doubled edged economical oppression of French Muslims in France during the War of Algeria is depicted amazingly in the movie Ici on noie les Algeriens. And thus French society has in many ways perpetuated this état de guerre against its Muslim population – everyone is equal in France, but some more than others.
The rhetoric of national unity is used as a weapon against “Freedom of Expression,” which it ironically is supposed to defend. French comedian Dieudonné, along with more than fifty others have already been charged for making the ‘apology of terrorism,’ or, in other words, for daring to make comments critical of CH. Although I don’t necessarily agree with Dieudonné, in the same way that I don’t agree with everything CH said or depicted, I have to say: If you defend “Freedom of Speech,” you must defend Dieudonné’s right to speak.
National unity is the French take on the Bushian concept of, “You’re either with us or against us.” And while all of France is focusing on national unity, mosques are being torched throughout France. Marine LePen and Sarkozy are on every airwave, making Islamophobic and anti-Muslim comments under the cover of national unity. Thus ‘National Unity’ is just a magical wand of rhetoric, which allows racists to become the sole defenders of free speech, and on the other hand enables any deviant speech to be banned and silenced.
It’s interesting to study the usage of the concept of national unity in French history. First, during the War of Algeria, the French government called for national unity as a tool to unite the French nation in its colonial oppression of Algeria. Second, it was used in the 1930s, a time during which anti-Judaism – not anti-Semitism, since not all Semites are Jewish – was rampant. The extreme-right staged several coup attempts, all of which culminated in a march on the National Assembly that almost overthrew the French government. In 1930, like today, the political caste called for national unity – a union of the right and the Left forces to fight the threat of fascism. The Left refused to make alliances with the centrists and the right-wing, complacent, in many ways accommodated the rise of fascism. Instead, the Left decided to form a Popular Front, made up of Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists and won a majority, bringing along with them the first Jewish head of government in French history: Léon Blum. The Front Populaire is a period that is occupies a significant place in the imaginary of the French Left. Today, instead of a Union Nationale, France needs a Front Populaire to fend off the xenophobic, and racist Islamophobic onslaught that is under way.
Unless French civil society can look its demons in the mirror, and stop projecting its problems onto its minorities; unless France comes to terms with its colonialist past, the massacres it perpetrated in its colonies; unless France stops its neo-colonialist interventionist foreign policy; unless France can strike a balance that truly respects its Muslim and Arab citizens as French citizens first and foremost, equal in every way to their non-Arab counterparts; unless all of this happens, tragedies such as CH Massacre will happen on a regular basis. Until then “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité” will remain a hollow slogan.
A luta continua.