19 January 2015

MLK Day 2015

Today marks the day we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I sat down to write this post, I told myself I wasn’t going to cite any inspirational words that the slain civil rights leader said while he was alive. Forty-seven years have passed since King’s assassination. Yet America’s social institutions and cultural attitudes are still structured such that many of us enjoy privileges we did not earn that black-skinned people, brown-skinned people, women, and pretty much every minority you can think of do not.

Because of this fact, I feel like my calling attention to something uplifting King once said would white-wash all of the injustices that have been inflicted upon black people since King helped start the civil rights movement.

And I’m thinking of everything that has happened in the United States in recent years that tells me just how deeply divided its people still are. I’m thinking of Michael Brown and Ferguson. I’m thinking of Eric Garner and the NYPD. I’m thinking of Rumain Brisbon. I’m thinking of Tamir Rice. I’m thinking of Trayvon Martin. I’m thinking of all of the black lives that should have counted as much as mine but did not, those stories that made the news and, just as importantly, those that did not.

I wasn’t going to quote King. But he said these words during the Montgomery Bus boycotts in 1958:
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”

Some fifty years since King uttered those words, they rip through me. They haunt me. Because the black boys and men I have mentioned did not get justice. They’re families and friends did not get justice.

I do not think that no progress has been made since the civil rights movement began. Nor do I think that King’s inspirational words carry no weight. We should be awed by the power of his words to uplift, to encourage, to motivate. But I think that, every day and especially today, we need to stop and listen to the stories that King, civil rights leaders, and the black community have been telling us. And that story is that black lives matter. That story is, no justice, no peace.

14 January 2015

E pluribus unum: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo, Baga, Etc.

I am still reeling from the attacks last week that snuffed out the lives of sixteen people in Paris and at least 2000 villagers near Baga in Borno State, Nigeria. And these are not the only tragedies that deserve our attention.

I mourn for the people of France. I mourn for the people of Nigeria. I am troubled by the string of attacks that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban have carried out since the New Year began, not just in Paris and Baga but also in other parts of Nigeria, in Cameroon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Last week in Yemen, a car bomb that exploded in the capital Sanaa killed 33 people and injured 62.

But I am also troubled by some of the responses I am seeing directed at Muslims by western societies in the wake of these horrific events.

Much of the rhetoric promulgated following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo has been framed as an attack on freedom of speech. I don’t buy this. TejuCole has eloquently shown how western societies have sought to control what their citizens can and can’t say, often with impunity and with chilling results. Freedom of speech, then, has been under attack by the very people who purport to defend it.

Nor are the surveillance apparatuses that countries like the United States have put in place dismantled when a new administration with ostensibly different objectives takes over the reins of governance. Rather, these tools are continually tweaked and updated in the name of free speech. Barely seven days have passed since English Prime Minister David Cameron, in expressing his solidarity with France, stated that we must defend this right and others. Yet Cameron vowed yesterday that, if reelected, his government will move to curtail free speech by givingpolice and surveillance agencies virtually unrestricted access to phoneconversations and online communications.

I want to be clear. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban present an immediate danger, particularly to Muslim women, but also to people from all walks of life. They are made up of men who seek to impose their extremely narrow-minded world view on everyone, frequently through violence, rather than welcome differing points of view. We should be outraged when they commit atrocities in the name of that world view. We should take more than a passing interest when they seize land and resources as they did in Nigeria last week in an effort to remake the world as they see fit. And we should mourn for the innocent people they rape and slaughter.

But here’s the thing. In our rush to condemn the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many of us have quickly distilled what happened down to a caricature of what the Muslim world as a whole looks like. Many people took to twitter with the hashtag #killallmuslims. Many people, some of whom I love, have made comments that Muslims who do not appreciate the freedoms that they are afforded by western societies can get out and stop threatening “our” way of life.

These kinds of distilled responses have consequences that can be difficult to see from the point of view of those who make them but have a real and lasting impact on those whom they target. First of all, they go against the tenets of free speech that we purport to cherish in that they quickly dominate the discussion and silence differing views that are not necessarily opposed to our own, such as the views of Muslims in France who have condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but who also rightly point out that they are treated with suspicion and mistrust by their fellow citizens and by their government.

These responses also obscure the real suffering that Muslims within and without the western world have endured. Few of the people decrying this attack on free speech have recognized that Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer, died in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, though some have via the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed. Likewise, as Teju Cole and others have pointed out, western media outlets provided almost no coverage of the attack on Baga. This despite that the attack there took place before the events in Paris. Despite that Boko Haram spent five days raping and killing women and children. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an atrocity that deserved our attention. But that news should have reached us on the heels of news of the attack on Baga rather than vice versa. So too, the attack in Yemen, which took place hours prior to the attack in Paris. And this is to say nothing of the history of violence that has been enacted upon Muslims since Islam’s inception.

I am outraged and troubled by the events we have born witness to over the last week. We all should be if we are the kind of people we think we are. But our outrage and grief do not gives us carte blanche to trample on the rights of others who are every bit as outraged and grief stricken as we are yet are concerned about how we view and treat them. And while I hardly think we’d be better off under the kind of policies and doctrines that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban would give us, I also don’t think we do ourselves any credit by sweeping under the rug our own attempts to monitor and silence ourselves and those who disagree with our sometimes narrow minded views, all in the name of liberty.

07 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I assume most everyone by now has heard of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, by at least two and possibly three Islamist extremists. Or if you haven’t heard and you’re reading my blog, the very short version is that 12 people at the magazine were killed, including editor and chief cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier and three other well-known cartoonists. The gunmen were heard to say in French that “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad” and in Arabic “God is Greatest.” The attack appears to be a reprisal for several cartoons and tweets that lampooned Muhammad, some of which go back to 2012. Charbonnier had been living under police protection prior to the attack.

Let me make my views clear. I unequivocally do not condone attacks on the magazine or any attacks, for that matter, that target civilians. Like many people the world over, I am deeply troubled by these events. At the same time, I am also troubled by the rhetoric I am reading in the aftermath of this attack, both by those who, in rightly sympathizing with the victims, are tweeting and posting images saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) and by Western leaders. I’ll start with the former.

I think the idea behind “Je suis Charlie,” an idea that the offices of Charlie Hebdo started, is well intentioned. The idea is that the newspaper will not be cowed by acts of terrorism. And those who have taken the time to retweet and share this message are trying to say “We are with you. We support you” as well as “We could have been among the dead.”

What troubles me about “Je suis Charlie” is not the intention behind the message but the impact. For one, if you can tweet or share “Je suis Charlie,” unless you were at the offices of Charlie Hebdo that day (less than a day ago as I write this), you’re not a victim. It’s a little insensitive to pretend you are. More troubling still, the message “Je suis Charlie” in and of itself is a bit divisive. I need to get into what Western leaders have been saying about the attack as well as the history of Islam in France to show you what I mean here.

Not surprisingly, leaders from the West, as well as of a few other countries like Egypt, have condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Also unsurprisingly, at least to me, Western leaders have couched their outrage at the attacks in very specific terms that defend Western ideas about democracy in one way or another. Along these lines, French President Francois Hollande in particular has made several seemingly innocuous statements such as “Freedom is always bigger than barbarism,” and “This is a difficult moment for France. We have prevented several attacks. We knew that we were still under threat because we are a country that cherishes freedom.”

Hollande is not alone in characterizing France as a bastion of freedom. In condemning the attacks, President Barack Obama said that “the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended.” Echoing these sentiments, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the dead cartoonists as “martyrs for liberty.”

And in a speech given with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, English Prime Minister David Cameron said that “We stand absolutely united with the French people against terrorism and against this threat to our values-free speech, the rule of law, democracy. It’s absolutely essential we defend those values today and every day.”

All these leaders talk about a people’s right to defend their ideals. And in the abstract, I absolutely agree. But the reality of democracy, the rule of law, and freedom in France when it comes to its Islamic citizenry is much more complicated than these statements allow.

The history of Islam in France goes back to at least 1830, when the French invaded Algiers on the flimsiest of pretexts. The French occupied the African nation until 1962, when following 8 years of brutal war marked by acts of terrorism committed by both sides, the Algerian people won their independence. For some 132 years then, France occupied Algiers, an occupation which led to forced, mass emigrations of Algerian peasants to France and vice versa. For this reason and many others, Islam is the second largest religion in France today.

Yet Muslim citizens of France are hardly first class citizens. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the French enacted schemes and laws designed to pressure and in some cases force Muslims living in France to leave. In the 1990s, France enacted further restrictions on immigration and tightened security around the country against concerns of possible terrorist attacks, some of which may have been legitimate but which ultimately did nothing to make North Africans and their descendants living in France feel welcome. France enacted similar anti-immigration measures as recently as 2012.

Likewise, France has not exactly given equal space to Islam. Despite the significant Muslim population in France (the largest in the EU), many of the country’s “mosques” in reality are little more than prayer rooms, some of which have been intentionally or unintentionally tucked away in the basements of buildings. Also, the French have not always taken kindly to the wearing of traditional Islamic garb. Tensions flared on several occasions, most notably in 1989 when a French school teacher banned 3-girls from wearing head scarves because, in his view, these religious symbols went against the “secular tradition” of France’s schools. In 2004, France passed a law preventing school children from wearing religious symbols of any kind. And in 2013, France contemplated extending the ban on religious symbols to universities.

I don’t bring up any of this to suggest that the people of France have it coming when extremists attack the innocent. Nobody but nobody deserves to die because of religious differences or differences of any kind, and I deplore that the gunmen, who proclaimed that they are men of faith, did so at the moment they took human lives.

At the same time, and this is what is truly important to me here as far as the rhetoric I am reading goes, I do not see that France as a whole can claim to be a united country that values each and every one of its citizens equally. I do not see that the rhetoric President Hollande or any of the other Western leaders I have cited applies equally to everyone when France systematically enacted laws that clearly singled out one particular group (and France is hardly alone in adopting such tactics against minority communities). Even the ban on all religious symbols, while perhaps well intentioned, has the greatest impact on the country’s Islamic community.

And so I am troubled by “Je suis Charlie” not merely because it is insensitive to the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo but also because it unintentionally but no less problematically leaves out France’s Muslim population, Charlie being a traditional French name with decidedly Western roots.

A very smart person I know has taught me that the Jihadists (by which I think is meant extremists, because at its root the word jihad does not mean holy war but is closer to struggle and does not necessarily imply military action of any sort) are never going to stop, no matter how much we might wish that were true. And I agree with that, so we must fight acts of terror. At the same time though, I don’t believe this latest terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo was random even as it was cold, calculated, brutal, deadly. Martin Luther King once said that violence is the language of the unheard. No, I don’t think terrorism is ever an appropriate way to express yourself. No, I don’t think the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo are sweet, innocent, misunderstood. They made clear statements of who they are in both word and deed. But I do think the attack on Charlie Hebdo is entangled with the way that France and the West as a whole has historically seen Islam as foreign, threatening, and so on. That doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot. But it tells some of it, and we’d better damn well start listening to ourselves, because I promise you the Muslim world is listening, and what we’re saying on the one hand and doing on the other hand doesn't square up.