31 January 2015

"Bêtes et Méchants" Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo II: The Muslim Case

When the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred I was in an airplane. Upon landing, I found several messages on my cell phone from well-meaning friends.

You could say that it was my second John Lennon moment.

The friends who called knew that, in my misspent youth, I used to read Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor Hara Kiri magazine religiously. No pun intended.

People like WolinskiCabuReiserDelfeil de TonProfesseur Choron were my anarchist heroes. Even when I completely disagreed with their point of view, I admired their offensive humor and daring stances.

In that sense, that is, as an expression of grief and empathy, I say "Je suis Charlie" without any hesitation.

Je suis Charlie.

But the more I spoke to friends, the more I realized that the moniker Je Suis Charlie was quickly appropriated and turned into a shorthand version of the Clash of Civilizations argument. Indeed, I was struck by the polarizing anger both sides had for the other and the competing narratives full of errors and omissions.

It was a dialogue de sourds designed to present their respective positions as absolute and to ignore the other side's context and arguments. Clearly, no one wanted to hear anything other than a full-fledged corroboration of their stand.

Initially, my intention was to write about the Lone Wolf theories and how terrorists and extreme right wing parties are partnering up to shape the future of Europe.

But, when people I spoke to began urging me to write about "the freedom of expression hypocrisy and European Islamophobia" and the "beheading barbarians who live in our midst to slaughter us" I decided to pull a Charlie Hebdo.

You see, "Journal bête et méchant" [Stupid and vicious magazine] was the slogan of the predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, the Hara Kiri magazine.

I decided that a proper tribute to them would be to write a post that offends everyone.

What follows are the constructed and distilled versions of my many conversations with friends and acquaintances and random individuals.

This is the French people's turn.

Conversations with my French Friends

- What do you think of these attacks?

- I am very upset. I knew something like this was going to happen one day. With these people around, it was a matter of time.

- What people?

- You know, Arabs. Muslims. These people came to our country and now they try to impose their views on us and limit our freedoms. Freedom of expression is the foundation of our republic and it is sacrosanct for us.

- Actually that is not true. Freedom of expression is quite limited in Europe, especially in France. Denying the Holocaust will earn you a lengthy prison sentence. As this blogger notes "to deny the Holocaust is massively stupid but (...) being a moron isn't against the law. Or at least it shouldn't be."

Moreover, in recent years, we witnessed many attempts to limit and criminalize free speech. Here is a bunch of examples. A more recent list can be found here.

Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks over 100 people were arrested for hate speech.

In Toulouse, three guys were fast-tracked to ten months in prison for shouting obscenities to cops. Another one got a one-year prison sentence for making fun of the slain police officer, Ahmed Merabet. While these are reprehensible forms of expression, they should have been protected. They were not.

But even if we stay with the limited example of Charlie Hebdo, the magazine was banned several times by the authorities. In fact, its birth is due to a ban imposed on its predecessor Hara Kiri (for a fairly innocuous joke about De Gaulle's passing).

In the 70s some of its issues were removed from the newsstands, most notably the 8 April 1976 issue which was banned in most of Europe.

- Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, it is free to make fun of everyone. Muslims cannot be an exception.

- Very true. But this principle does not seem to be applicable in every situation. Remember l'Affaire Siné?

In 2009, Charlie Hebdo fired one of its journalists, Maurice Sinet, for making fun of the rumors that Sarkozy's son was going to convert to Judaism to please his future father in law, the owner of the Darty chain. He wrote: "He'll go a long way in life, that little lad."

This quip was deemed anti-Semitic and he was promptly fired by his Editor-in-Chief and he was charged with a hate crime by the State. (He was acquitted and subsequently won a judgement against Charlie Hebdo for unfair dismissal).

His dismissal was encouraged by a large and vocal segment of the French intelligentsia, the very same people who invoked an absolute freedom of expression when the magazine published the infamous Prophet cartoons.

You can see why some people charge your side with hypocrisy.

- You must be supporting Dieudonné's Je suis Charlie Koulibaly FaceBook outburst.

- I don't support anyone or defend any side. I am aware that he is an anti-Semite but I disagree that writing in your FaceBook "Je suis Charlie Koulibaly" should be punishable with a prison sentence. By the way, what you just did is a perfect example of what both sides have been doing. You both present your position as a principled absolute and when shown many contradictions, you accuse people of siding with the enemy.

If you are curious about my position on this matter, I wrote about freedom of expression and religion two and a half years ago. My points still stand. I stated that while I support a much larger definition of freedom of expression than French jurisprudence currently allows, I am also cognizant of the context and power dimension of any speech and how it is perceived by different groups.

Which is another way of saying that the same joke told by a woman might be funny but when told by a man it might become sexist.

My post was about the silly Muhammad movie trailer but I made my point using a Charlie Hebdo cover. Their 8 April 1976 issue had a penis on the cover and the headline was "Notre envoyé special à Rome nous cable: Dieu existe, j'ai enculé le Pape."

The picture on the right is a later reprint.

I argued that while I personally was not offended by the headline and would defend their right to make offensive statements, I could understand why a Catholic, who sees religion as his personal identity and who feels powerless and marginalized in a staunchly secular society (which France was at the time), might take offense.

I suspect you never saw the actual Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons. Here is a description of some of them.
Muhammad, labelled as such, is shown naked and bending over, begging to be admired. Then the Prophet is crouched on all fours, with genitals bared. “A Star is Born!” the caption reads—a reference to the attention given “Innocence of Muslims,” a trifle of murky and unpleasant provenance, that has been invoked in attacks leading to the death of almost fifty people to date.
You see what I mean?

- These are both very offensive, but as Manuel Walls reiterated the right to blasphemy is absolute. Your example about the Pope supports that.

- Actually, the April 1976 issue was removed from the newsstands in France, Belgium and Portugal. I used to own that issue. And when it was subsequently reprinted, the penis on the cover was no longer there.

So, even the right to blasphemy is not absolute in France.

My point was that while making fun of a group that perceives itself as powerless and ostracized is (and should be) legal and permissible, I do not see it as a worthwhile endeavor. And I understand their outrage even if, as a non-believer, I do not share it.

As Will Self put it "satire is supposed to prick people's consciences and challenge the powerful." If the power structure and societal hierarchy is not there, it becomes problematic.

- These people are not powerless. They occupied entire districts and they behave like they own the country. Women with burqas are everywhere in Europe.

- Do you know how many women were wearing burqas or niqabs in France when the law banning them was passed?

- Tens of thousands, maybe more than one hundred thousand.

- According to the French police, there were 367 women who wore burqas or niqabs in France. 367, out of roughly 2.5 million Muslim women. When the lawmakers did not believe them, they asked the French secret services to do a recount and they obliged and offered a revised number as "up to 2000 women."

There are about 400 burqa/niqab-wearers in Holland and about 100 in Sweden and 150-200 in Denmark. Incidentally, most of them are younger than 40 and a bit more than half of them are Europeans who converted to Islam.

Your anger prevents you from seeing the dynamics behind these religious symbols.

Do you remember the first wave of Algerian immigrants after independence? Anyone with a niqab or an Islamic headscarf among them? They were all happy to be assimilated into the French way of life.

The so-called Islamic garb is a relatively new phenomenon promoted by radical imams and used as a symbol of defiance against the perceived discrimination of Muslims. It cuts them off from the society at large through visible symbols and allow these imams to have greater control over them,

- OK, maybe burqa or niqabs are not as common as I thought. But what about those headscarves?

- Covering women's hair is probably one of the most universal obsessions in human history. For instance, do you remember 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and how a man does not have to cover his head because he is the image and glory of God whereas a woman should have her head covered because she is only the glory of man?

Or this Wikipedia observation "though head covering was practiced by most Christian women up until the 1960s, it is now a minority practice among contemporary Christians in the West."

It is also mandatory in Orthodox Judaism. In that sense, it has more to do with patriarchy than religion. It is one of those outward symbols that give men control over women's sexuality. Do you think it is a coincidence that the clergy in all religions is overwhelmingly and in most cases exclusively male?

The Muslim headscarf was introduced systematically and purposefully in the last 50 years. For instance, in Turkey "patient zero" was a woman by the name of Sule Yuksel Senler who campaigned in the 1970s for women to cover their heads. This style that you see on the right was created by her and it is now sported by most Turkish Islamist women, including the President's wife.

- If what you say is true and it is the work of radical imams, why don't the Muslims go against them?

- In a perfect world they should. But the current situation is set up to make this extremely unlikely. First, most of the first generation Muslims are economic immigrants who never lived in a civil society. They bow to authority and could not dream of going against a powerful figure as the community imam.

Second, their offspring grew up in Europe without a tangible identity, ostracized by their names and awkward integration into society. At some point (especially after 9/11), with the help of radical imams, they adopted Islam as their primary identity. There was no way they could question the authority of these imams.

Third, after 9/11, the groundwork laid by these imams came to fruition as European and North American societies began to display open animosity towards Muslims. Now, Muslims feel besieged in their communities and they already have a very sharp Us vs Them mentality. Speaking up against the imams or ISIS or Kouachi brothers would be unthinkable as it would be construed as a terrible betrayal.

By the way, most of the imams in France come from a foreign country and more than half of them do not speak French.

But let me ask you this: why hasn't the French government stopped these imams from coming to France and preaching their radical version of Islam? Even if you were unaware of what they were doing, after 9/11, it must have been crystal clear.

Was it complacency or the notion that it was good that they were keeping these people in their banlieue ghettos?

- I don't know the answer to that. Probably both. Or the misguided belief that the state should not get involved in religion.

- The French state gets involved in everything so that cannot be it. North Americans may not understand how much information the French state has on its citizen. If the state knew the exact number (and therefore the identity) or burqa/niqab wearers, it should have known who these imams were and what they were doing.

But it did nothing until 9/11.

After 9/11, they talked about deporting imams who incite violence but it was a half-hearted effort: between 2001 and 2013 only 31 imams were expelled. But even this modest effort was perceived as a crusade against Muslims because it took place after 9/11 and the polarizing perspective promoted by these imams was already well established.

The state is also guilty of not trying harder to solve economic and social problems that turned Paris banlieues into dystopian nightmares. Remember the movie Banlieue 13? It was a science fiction film but in recent years it felt more like a documentary.

The American inner city issues are all part of the daily life in Paris suburbs. Terrible housing, high unemployment, rampant crime and low quality education destroy any chance the second generation might have to escape these miserable conditions.

Did you know that it is two and a half times harder for second generation immigrants to find a job?

And there was sufficient warning about the radical change that was taking place. In 2004, an official report warned that the word Jihad was perceived as something heroic by high school students in these suburbs. But nothing was done about it.

On top of that, the larger society looks upon them as welfare abusers, criminals and unsavory people to be avoided at all cost. Like Americans crossing the street not to be on the same sidewalk with young black males. Unsurprisingly, many of these young people dress like American hip-hop kids and act loud and obnoxious.

In that context, when radical imams turned them around, their families felt relief and gratitude. This is also why you read that many ISIS recruits are formerly petty criminals and drug and alcohol abusers.

- Are you saying that after all the terrible things they have done, we should cater to these bearded barbarians?

- I am not saying anything. It is up to you, But if you do not find a solution, a way to integrate them into your society, you will end up doing terrible things. And that is never good for one's self-image.

Extreme right is on the rise everywhere in Europe, look at Pegida in Germany. In the last European elections the National Front in France was the winner with 25 percent of the vote and got 24 seats out of a total of 74. In Austria Freedom Party has the support of 24-29 percent of the electorate (and 42 percent of those who are under 30). In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats hold 14 percent of the seats in parliament. In the Netherlands PVV still is very powerful force despite a recent decline.

UKIP in the UK is doing very well. In Greece, Golden Dawn won 17 seats despite the fact that most of its leadership was in jail during the campaign.

- So what if we deport some of them?

- Just like post-9/11 animosity was perfect for the radical imams and their message, such a move would strengthen the hands of Islamists in the recipient countries. They will be able to push an even more drastic Clash of Civilization message and will be able to portray Muslims as perennial victims.

Do you think having Turks, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Egyptians and Libyans see Europe as a threat to Islam and their identity is good for European security?

Also, what about the European identity based on freedom and tolerance and other fundamental principles?

In an Us vs Them context, the Islamists win and you lose.

In case you are not sure, ask the Canadian and American people regarding their decision to block Jewish immigration and to intern Japanese Canadians and Americans during the Second War.

Hasty decisions taken in polarized situation and using dubious information rarely give good results.

But it is your call. I am just a contrarian observer.

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