Charlie Hebdo: A Clash of Extremisms, not of Civilizations

By Aurelien Mondon | The Conversation | —

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an abominable tragedy. It struck the heart of one of our capitals and symbols of our democracies as terrorists attacked our freedom of the press. It is now essential to pay our respects to those who lost their lives yesterday and hope that those responsible for the attacks are arrested as soon as possible.

In terrible circumstances, where shock and confusion prevail, it is also crucial to remain level-headed in our response to these horrendous events. While we must stand on the side of the victims and in defence of our inalienable rights, this should not lead us to simplistic, uncritical conclusions and further divisions.

Much of the reporting so far has had the tendency to pit a “Muslim community” against a French or European one in the most essentialist manner. While most commentators, be they journalists, politicians or academics, have warned against laying indiscriminate blame against Islam, their initial disclaimers have too often been lost in simplistic and stigmatising analysis. Many have inadvertently blamed Islam in their subsequent arguments. In the prevalent discourse, the “Muslim community” is commonly described as foreign to our land, values and beliefs.

To cite but one example, Alain Juppé, former French prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, while warning against divisions, told French Muslims on the radio after the attacks that it is their responsibility “to speak up”, as he believed that “there can be a responsible, enlightened Islam [islam des lumières]”.

This reaction is of course patronising and more than a little reminiscent of colonialist attitudes. The white, educated man brings the light of civilisation to the savage. But it is also an insult to all those French Muslims who are given the impression that their religion is not compatible with life in a Western country. They are even rendered guilty by association for not speaking out against terrorism – an accusation only and always levelled in the aftermath of Islamic terrorism.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Utøya terrorist attack in Norway, in which 77 people, including many teenagers, were killed, the many western commentators Anders Behring Breivik quoted in his book were not asked to speak up and apologise by the common/mainstream discourse.

Muslims across the world, on the other hand, are commonly lumped together when disaster strikes. They feel (or are made to feel) compelled to openly state that they do not support the despicable acts of a few extremists, as was recently shown by the #notinmyname campaign, an explicit show of solidarity against Islamic State by young Muslims across the world. Of course acts of terrorism should be denounced but the pressure put on Muslims to do it demonstrates their unequal standing in our societies.

Our first task then, if we are to defend the concepts of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is for us to stand together against such atrocities and their perpetrators, regardless of religious or ethnic background. French Muslims should not be required to prove their allegiance to the values of the French republic in the wake of this event. They already do on a daily basis in all their diversity, the same way all French people do.

In the short term, one can only hope that the French will react as many Australians did in the wake of the Sydney siege when they tweeted offers to accompany Muslims who were feeling intimidated on public transport.

A more calculated form of recuperation has also begun to emerge. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, concluded a speech after the Paris attack by warning that we should make a distinction between “our Muslim compatriots, attached to our nation and values” and “those who believe they can kill in the name of Islam”.

Her call was far from unifying. Le Pen told us that we should not be in “denial” but should name things for what they are. It is time to talk about Islam openly, she suggested.

This is, at best, out of touch with contemporary French society. Currently, two of the best-sellers in France are filled with virulent anti-Islam rhetoric and countless vocal anti-Islam commentators are given air in the mainstream media on a daily basis. Islam is definitely not absent from the public debate.

What is absent from our mainstream media and politics is a careful analysis of what Islam is in France today. This would show once and for all that the Muslim “community” is not the monolith Le Pen would like us to believe. The terrorists who massacred 12 people on 7 January are apparently Muslim but so was the policeman who lost his life trying to stop them. Mustapha Ourrad, Charlie Hebdo’s copy-editor killed in the attack, was born in Algeria.

This is not a clash of civilisations, this is not a war between the West and Islam, but a fight waged by some very few, marginalised yet extremely dangerous people, for whom division is key. Ultimately, condemning Islam and Muslims indiscriminately would play in the hands of those seeking to terrorise and divide us, as well as fuel the kind of nationalism that Charlie Hebdo has always fought.

The Conversation

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Aurelien Mondon is Lecturer in French Politics at University of Bath.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wotchit: “Paris Attack: Europe’s Far-Right Gets Media Spotlight in Wake of Killings”

4 Responses

  1. Ultimately, condemning Islam and Muslims indiscriminately would play in the hands of those seeking to terrorise and divide us, as well as fuel the kind of nationalism that Charlie Hebdo has always fought. Unfortunately Charlie Hebdo went out of their way to gratuitously offend and insult in the most crude and provocative manner, not a wise thing to do, in other countries it would be called hate speech, in France any anti Semitic speech could be met with a jail sentence, or in the case of a former employee, was sacked for not apologizing to the family of Nicholas Sarkozy whose son was about to be married to a wealthy Jewish family who where sickened by his comment “He’ll go a long way in life, this lad” which was supposed to be anti Semitic on the grounds that it could be interpreted as making a link between conversion to Judaism and social success. The moral of the story is You can be as nasty as you like to Muslims and/or their God, but say anything anti Semitic, you are toast.

  2. What always seems to be missing from these alleged terrorist attacks is a group claiming responsibility for them. This seems odd to me because it is not clear what political objective can be furthered without knowing why the attack occurred, and so the attacks are purposeless? Back in the days of the IRA or the PLO, both these groups made certain they were clearly responsibility and had an objective that they wanted to achieve.

    • Yes, but Western governments got too good at fighting organized resistance, so resistance learned how to decentralize. You might recall the warnings of a few about what would come if the US “wiped out” al Qaeda: an endless procession of tiny movements united by ideology.

      But the same could be said of Timothy McVeigh, or the very successful terrorist movement against abortion clinics, which caused no backlash against their patriarchal ideology. This is how extremism works today, with frustrated individuals indoctrinated to blame modernity and dream, in unison, of an ideal past. It’s like they all stand at a line and then try to whip each other into a frenzy to be the first to step over it and commit terrorism – then the rest step back and deny everything until the next round. But it works because people just want to join anything that seems to gouge a mark in a world that is too big for individuals to improve. Only the right-wingers are allowed by the elites to make a difference anywhere in the world because both the elites and the extremists worship inequality.

  3. It would be good for the author not to fall in the same generalisations that are denounced. The fact that Mustapha Ourrad was born in Algeria does not mean he was a muslim. Rather, working at Charlie, it is likely that he was an atheist (just read on wikipedia one of his favorite authors was Nietzche!).

    It is time to talk about Islam, but not on the FN s terms. This is a debate to be had primarily by the people of that faith (which of course does not mean the french government and society do not have a HUGE amount of work to do to improve on the integration of muslims). I recommend the below open letter to the muslim world (in french, sorry!)

    link to marianne.net

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