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.