The #JeSuisCharlie Backlash: France’s Illusory Atonement
What does it mean to say
“It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” — French Prime Minister Manuel Valls
Last Friday, the backlash to the Charlie Hebdo killings gave us a hint. Echoing their prime minister’s call to war, French racists moved quickly to reassert their dominance over the Muslim community, blowing up kebab shops, shooting up Muslim prayer halls, throwing grenades into mosques — assaults, which go beyond their normal, frequent attacks on Muslims.
One mosque in Bayonne was left with scrawls of graffiti that proclaimed both “Charlie freedom” and “Dirty Arabs.” This message, vaunting “Western freedom” and devaluing the “barbaric orient,” perfectly reflects the imaginary “Clash of Civilizations” struggle that al-Qaeda and Western governments hope to reawaken fresh off the tragedy.
On the one hand, in attacking the office of Charlie Hebdo, al-Qaeda consciously played into the Orientalist tropes the West trots out about Muslims as irrationally murderous (in this case, over cartoons). The bloody strategy is an adaption of a textbook al-Qaeda tactic: bait Islamophobia, incur Western aggression, and gain more recruits; but it could only work by playing into a deeply entrenched and recognizable stereotypes about what the West’s narrow and uncritical perception of the Islamic world.
Without missing a beat, Western leaders did their part in this tragic charade, immediately echoing these racist broad brushed tropes. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, framed the attacks as part of an international war between Western and militant Islamic values, “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” In the immediate aftermath of the killings, the French government even pledged $1.2 million to Charlie Hebdo, proving what a financial stake it has in keeping the show going. Never to be outdone, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the attacks “brutal acts of savagery” and explained, “The attacks of radical Islam know no boundaries – these are international attacks and the response has to be international. The terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and our civilization.” Netanyahu even flew to France to march for “Free Speech,” fresh off his army’s slaughter off at least a dozen Palestinian journalists last summer.
While it is true that Western regimes have long exploited and ruined the lives of many peoples across the Middle East, such rhetoric is misleading in that it assumes a homogenous civilization under attack, despite the numerous ideologies, histories, cultures, and resistance movements present in the region. This simplistic rhetoric on the part of Western leaders only make sense if we assume militant Muslims are all the same – a racist generalization that ignores the Muslim world’s complex historical development. Nonetheless, reifying this reductive identity politics simultaneously serves to “explain” the West’s domination of remarkably different Muslim societies from Libya to Pakistan in the name of national security. At the same time, it also allows al-Qaeda, a fundamentally authoritarian group, to claim the mantle of resistance to this domination, regardless of the fact that their ideology does not by any means reflect the struggles of tens of thousands of other muslim revolutionaries and militants around the world.
Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon, for example, explicitly declared the killings did more to insult the prophet Muhammad than did Charlie Hebdo’s racist journalists. Similarly, Hamas militants in Palestine, for example, condemned the Charlie Hebdo killings, deriding, “the desperate attempts by [Israeli prime minister] Netanyahu to make a connection between our movement and the resistance of our people on the one hand and global terrorism on the other.” Clearly, al Qaeda’s authoritarian ideology no more represents militants in the Islamic world than it does France’s muslim population, where it has barely made any inroads.
Unfortunately, the white French public, encouraged by top Western leaders, have played right into al-Qaeda’s trap. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the robust #JeSuisCharlie movement has endangered Muslims in every corner of France, and increasingly in other European countries like Germany and the Netherlands.
Thus, the al-Qaeda assailants, who committed the highly symbolic attack on Charlie Hebdo, and the French government, who is now funding Charlie Hebdo, are both fulfilling the same strategic mission: reinforcing the orientalist clash of civilizations idea (East vs. West, Muslim vs. Secular etc.) and positioning themselves as the legitimate agents of force within that clash. The insincerity reeks.
Nonetheless, this “they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms-and-cartoons” charade allows France’s liberal establishment to continue attributing the growing resentment young Muslim people feel to an exported fundamentalist ideology, rather than its homegrown failure to provide them with employment, health care, safety, and hope.
As it stands now, French Muslims are twice as likely as non-Muslims to be unemployed. And though France’s Muslim population is only 12%, France’s inmate population is 60-70% Muslim. Even in prison, the French state discriminates against Muslim inmates, refusing them enough religious leaders, halal options, or even holiday privileges enjoyed by their fellow Christian prisoners.
In 2005, thousands of young French Muslims took over their streets, rioting against unemployment, police killings, and dismal public housing conditions. But France’s intelligence service concluded the movement was not motivated by religious extremism and France’s proudly liberal society largely ignored their demands for help. Curiously in that moment, Western leaders globally did not jump in to frame the burnings of thousands of cars or the numerous clashes with police as an attack on “our civilization,” though it clearly was.
In stark contrast, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, France’s white majority, and its sympathetic Western allies, immediately responded with collective violence to an extremely isolated “attack on Free Speech.” By attacking Muslims across the country who had nothing to do with the executions carried out by a handful, the French public viciously reaffirmed for itself the illusion that the fundamental divisions in society are due to Muslim immigrants’ homogeneous religious extremism, rather than their own institutional racism.
Since 2005 France’s young radical Muslims have not stopped asserting their very real and tangible needs, constantly rioting against dismal living conditions, poverty, and police violence. Yet because these protests, actually representative of France’s subjugated Muslim youth, fail to fall under the fantastical “Western Civilization vs. Barbaric Islam” framework, they continue to be ignored and France’s liberal order continues to sleep easy.
With the #JeSuisCharlie movement, the French white public affirms the seductive orientalist binary al-Qaeda offered with the attack. It will take up its role as defenders of “the rights of man” and al-Qaeda will take its role as the fundamentalist Islamists, hell bent on achieving the caliphate, squeezing out any recognition of the righteous anger of radical French Muslims.
But regardless of how much the white French public deludes itself, young French Muslims continue to dissent from any authoritarian civilizational ideal, be it that of the West or that of al-Qaeda. As one angry police officer reported after a 2010 riot, their real intention is “to break the cops and attack the capitalist and imperialist state.”
So let’s not fall into the trap of picking between al-Qaeda militants and Western governments, who feed off each other in the same farce. As young protesters chanted at the same riot, “À bas l'État, les flics et les patrons” (“Down with the state, the cops and bosses”).
—Edited by Hanna Hurr of Mask Magazine