Reading news coverage about the recent attacks on the French satirical magazineCharlie Hebdo left me with many unanswered and uncomfortable questions. A very complex French, European and international event was summarized with simplistic headlines such us: “How remarkable that a humour magazine has led the fight against fanaticism” or “Paris attack illustrates the power of mockery.”
After the deadly attack, many cartoonists reduced the event to a confrontation between an armed, bearded jihadist and a pen. A simple representation, yet it is both powerful and misleading.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush and many like-minded politicians and media outlets confined the attacks to a fight between evil (the “Islamic terrorists”) and good (the United States and its allies), or between the free world (led by the United States) and oppression (led by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban).
When Bush famously proclaimed “you are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” he truly believed that he had received a divine message to liberate Muslim countries from oppression. He consequently built all of his political and war strategies around this sort of “prophecy.”
Meanwhile, all the dissident voices that denounced this dangerous war were silenced, labelled anti-patriots, and accused of siding with the extremists (remember the “Taliban Jack” label satirically attributed to the late Jack Layton by the Harper government).
Today, after many years of a failed “war on terror,” numerous scandals about abuse of political power, torture and indefinite detention, people have come to realize that this dichotomy is false and that security for all can’t be achieved without respect of human dignity for all.
Unpacking the layers of a tragic event
Following in the footsteps of Bush, French President Francois Hollande, his friends, as well as many media outlets, want to reduce tragic events to a fight between the enlightened French freedom of expression and barbaric fighters affiliated with Islamic groups. Even if this seems the case from outside, there happen to be many layers behind the event that shouldn’t be ignored if one wants to conduct a serious and honest analysis.
Without giving any reason or excuse for the use of violence against journalists — which is not acceptable under any circumstances — one should remember that France is at war in many Islamic countries: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Mali… Even if the human costs of these wars are not always clear to the French masses, as civilian casualties are not always reported in the headlines, there is a lot of resentment within the local population with regard to these policies. This resentment travels very well within the French Muslim community.
Moreover, France has a heavy colonial, racist and violent past with Muslim countries like Algeria, for instance (one can only state here the assassination and torture campaign against Algerian dissidents). The large wounds of the Algerian war of liberation — a struggle that ended costing Algerians a million lives — never healed, even more than half a century later.
Furthermore, the relationship between France and its Muslim population, estimated today to be close to 10 per cent, has never been an easy one. The ghettos surrounding Paris and other big cities, the violent riots between police and unemployed youth from marginalized North African communities, speak for themselves.
The concerns raised recently by some French politicians with respect to French prisons that are crowded with Muslims, a number estimated to be around 40,000 prisoners representing 60 per cent of the prison population, are real. Many see in these prisons the breeding ground for a new class of resentful and disillusioned Muslim groups that are vulnerable to political violence.
It is not a simple coincidence that about 700 French citizens travelled to the Middle East to join the ranks of the Islamic State. One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is the counter-reaction expressed by some youth to their lack of integration and their marginalization by French society.
But most importantly, the powerful concept of secularism, used so well by many French politicians as a political tool to justify controversial policies, is at the heart of the issue. When banning the religious veil worn by Muslim girls in public school was introduced by the French government in the ’90s, secularism was widely evoked. The Muslim French population’s concerns with respect to freedom of religion were brushed off. Later, when another related law was introduced to ban the burqa in public spaces (even though the estimated number of women wearing it in France was estimated to be around 1,900 in 2009), once again, the “sacred” principle of secularism was evoked and the many voices who tried to argue with this controversial law were mocked as defending the oppression of women and obscurantism.
Defending ‘freedom of expression‘
Freedom of expression, a noble concept, came to be perceived by many marginalized French Muslim youth as an empty slogan used by the powerful elite to justify the silencing of Muslims and to allow the right-wing to bash Muslims at will. This in turn created a feeling of victimhood among many disfranchised youth.
The debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic, as was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Why are the media and politicians pushing us to choose a side: liberty or oppression, freedom of expression or violence, secularism or religion?
In their pursuit to make us choose the “right” option, politicians and media pundits create a new holy entity called freedom of expression. It becomes another sacred, holy, untouchable “cow.” Another religious concept which if you’re “killed” promoting, you become a “martyr.”
When Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents that implicated the United States and its allies in many scandals, the concept of “freedom of expression” was completely rejected by these governments. Many journalists in the U.S., and even some in Canada, sided with their governments and were not sympathetic to his plight.
The freedom of expression that everyone nowadays rushes to defend is not as simple to understand or to practice. The same thing can be said about religion. Why do we have to choose between one or the other, or accept a self-serving version of both?
This column has been first published with rabble.ca