Je suis Charlie, Je suis Juif, Je suis Ahmed: cest fini?

If only. I fear that the events this week in France actually mark a beginning, and a beginning which will lead to more blood and hatred.

Frank Fateh Singh, a Sikh based in the USA, wrote to me the other day to say:

There are two important values here that can compete with each other: there is the commitment to freedom of expression and the commitment to freedom of religious expression. I maintain, as a devout but far from perfect Sikh, that the latter must take precedence, particularly in these troubled times. I would put it this way. My religion may not be the same as yours, but I will neither denigrate your faith nor will I satirise it.  Responsibility should NOT be thrown out of the window in the interests of freedom of expression, particularly if the only result is some short-term humour. I am as opposed to poking fun at Jesus, Moses and the Buddha as I am to poking fun at the prophet Mohammad.

When Frank engages with “Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie (postscript)” he will see that, far from the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists acting irresponsibly, they have been acting responsibly by exposing the absurdity of Muslim and other manifestations of religious extremism, and, in the process, emphasising that, if he were alive today, Muhammad would be profoundly disturbed by what extremists are doing in the name of Islam. When people in the name of religion behave contemptibly (or in ways far worse than contemptibly, as recently in France), they deserve to be treated with contempt. However, the key thing is to target the people worthy of contempt (in this case, the people who subscribe to extremist interpretations of Islam) and not innocent bystanders (in this case, the great majority of Muslims who agree that people should live in the ways that they wish to live, especially if, in so doing, they do no harm to others).

The murder of the young female police officer and the siege at the kosher supermarket (hence “Je suis Juif” in the title of the post), both in Paris, confirm that it was neither satire nor cartoonists’ “contempt” for Muhammad or Islam that led to the unforgivable events at the offices of “Charlie Hebdo”. The murderers sought to inflict permanent damage on their stereotyped (and therefore highly selective and inaccurate) image of how the French see themselves. But the murderers did not appreciate that the French do not have a single image of themselves. For all the emphasis that France places on assimilation rather than integration, French society is as diverse and as fragmented as society in every other major developed nation state. The murderers may think that they were striking a blow against a detested version of Frenchness, but they were not. By attacking the offices of “Charlie Hebdo” they singled out a target that represented only a small section of French society (this is confirmed in what routinely are the magazine’s very small circulation figures), and a section of society frequently at odds with ALL faith groups represented in France AND many sectors of the French secular establishment (I admire the cartoonists’ even-handedness. If only we could all be so even-handed). But the murder of the cartoonists, the murder of innocent police officers and the siege at the kosher supermarket (where four hostages died) have done more to unite (albeit temporarily) the great majority of French citizens than anyone would have imagined possible (and this therefore means that, when “Charlie Hebdo” is next published, the special edition of one million copies that roll off the printing presses will be snapped up by many people who, until before this week, felt almost as much disquiet about the magazine’s content as Muslims who lack a sense of humour or a much-needed sense of proportion).

Initially, the new-found sense of unity and common ground among the French people will find expression in dignified and restrained responses to the needless murders and deaths of the last few days (note the very large and extremely moving gatherings of people of all backgrounds that began on the night of 7th January and have continued through to their climax on 11th January), and in pronouncements from leading national and international figures that the French must remain true to the most laudable values said to underpin that much-discussed concept of French civilisation. But, in time, the cracks within French society that existed before the last momentous week began will reassert themselves and the far right in particular will engage in increasingly damaging attacks (verbal and physical) against Muslims and their property. It is at this point that those who are in sympathy with what the murderers have done (sadly, there are such people, and they exist in larger numbers than we would like to imagine) will feel that they are winning.

It is already the case that, every year, Jews in quite significant numbers migrate from France because of problems they encounter with their Muslim neighbours and the anti-Semitism that exists among some non-Muslim sectors of French society. I imagine that there are now many more Jewish families in France who feel that this is the right time to leave the nation state where liberty, equality and fraternity will soon be in far shorter supply than they already are (and for this we have the contemptible “Charlie Hebdo” murderers and their sympathisers to “thank”. Yes: blame must be placed where blame lies).

Robert, a self-declared atheist very active in interfaith dialogue in North-East England, wrote to say:

The murder of the young female police officer far from where the carnage was at its worst, and the hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket today (Friday 9th January), confirm that it wasn’t really satire directed against Muhammad and the increasingly fragmented religion of Islam that provoked the attack on “Charlie Hebdo” (such satire was just an excuse for the attack): the assassins had as their target their stereotyped idea of how France perceives itself. What is sad is that there will now be a sometimes savage backlash (which is exactly what the murderers wanted, of course) that cannot help but isolate and then antagonise “ordinary”, “moderate” Muslims (who, of course, have taken insufficient action to confirm that Islam need not be the sort of religion which it increasingly appears to be, in conflict with individual and civil liberties, brutally oppressive, inclined toward genocide – and absurd. Oh yes. At times very, very absurd).

9/11 was one of those moments you knew the world would never be the same again (and thereafter would be considerably worse than for many, many decades). Sadly, the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists and the related events in France amount to a moment almost as seminal. And this has happened at the end of a fortnight during which I have still to add up all the reported deaths at Muslim hands (such deaths are mainly Muslim on Muslim, of course). Oh my goodness: I have yet to include in the total the hundred people killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria on Wednesday. Yes: events in France must be seen in their global context.

Thank goodness for the moving and conciliatory words from family members of the Muslim police officer shot dead (hence “Je suis Ahmed” in the title of the post) outside the “Charlie Hebdo” offices, and for the life-saving intervention by the brave Muslim employee working at the kosher supermarket. At times when despair seems the only realistic response, some human beings respond in ways that defy expectations, stereotypes and confessional loyalties. Hope springs eternal (just).

P.S. Sorry: one last excellent contribution to the discussion, this time from the most recent “Hope not Hate” Newsletter printed in the UK:

“Charlie Hebdo” is well-known for its satirical cartoons and articles, a few of which caused deep offence to some. Yet, as one British Muslim tweeted today, those who kill for mere reason of offence have done far more to damage their faith and community relations than anyone with a pen or a cartoonist’s brush.

So today we hang our heads and mourn, and offer our sincere condolences to the families of those killed. Tomorrow, I want to ask you to stand with us as we move to expose the people and ideologies behind militant jihadism, as well as those who would seek to harm Muslims in response.

Yet let us not fool ourselves: a new page has been turned and things could get very difficult in the coming days and weeks.

Anti-Muslim protests are likely to gather pace across Europe, community relations will be tested to their limits and violent attacks could well increase. Under the guise of free speech, it’s likely that the haters will emerge – from both sides – seeking to drag us all down into the quagmire of their hatred and a world which they would happily turn to ash.

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

Guess what? I’ve not yet heard a word from people who engage in or are committed to interfaith dialogue that anything will be done locally or regionally in response to the events in France. Pathetic? Pathetic.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

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