There’s something gripping about watching Aussie stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman in action. Beyond an undeniable personal charisma which has certainly contributed to his sell-out tours here in the UK, Australia and the US, the multi-award-winning comic has the ability to shock and challenge in equal measure, with sketches touching on some of the most controversial issues of the day, from the Islamic State group to Anders Breivik, skin heads to the detention of asylum seekers.
The power of Rahman’s comedy lies in a confrontational style which forces audiences to contemplate the pervasiveness of prejudice, and many people’s awkward complicity in its perpetuation. I caught up with him during his most recent UK solo tour, “The Truth Hurts” – dubbed one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Comedy Shows of 2014 – to talk politics, racism and the limits of comedy.
Until his career took off last year when his now infamous “Reverse Racism” skit went viral, Rahman had been considering giving comedy up altogether. Having split from the award-winning comedy duo “Fear of a Brown Planet” he says: “I felt comedy was at a real dead end, Australia was too small and too limited an audience.”
Despite accolades and critical acclaim – he won the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Best Newcomer Award, opening for hit US comedian Dave Chapelle, and even a TV show to his name – the struggle to turn his niche comedy into a viable career remains a challenge for the 32-year-old, who cringes at some of the proposals sent his way. He reads me out a recent pitch to his agent involving a Muslim pub landlord – to be played by Aamer himself – whose job it would be to “challenge preconceived notions of Muslims”.
“I wanted to throw my phone at a wall,” he tells me. “That is one of the most offensive things anyone has ever sent me. Muslim pub landlord – coming soon,” he jokes sardonically.
I ask him why he thinks his Reverse Racism clip – in which he imagines a scenario where the very concept of “reverse racism” could actually be viable – went viral the way it did. The video now has well over a million YouTube views. “It hit a nerve – it’s an argument that so many people have had. Whenever racism is discussed, reverse racism is discussed. I always say this is actually the point of comedy. People think comedians are very original. No, the comedian confirms what you already know. That’s why you laugh, you already bought that but they re-articulated it in an entertaining way. What I said in that clip, everyone knows, we’ve all felt that our whole lives – it confirms a deep frustration that so many people have.”
Most recently, a poll by the MCB found that 95 percent of Muslims in the UK feel loyalty toward Britain – but is questioning the loyalty of British Muslim citizens the way forward in his view? “I don’t think it changes anything” he says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t convince racists any more than when there is a terrorist attack and Muslim organisations and leaders come out and say: ‘We are British/American/Australian just like you.’ It is fundamentally premised on the idea that maybe these people are all trying to kill us. Surprisingly they’re not, here’s a good news story for the day!”
So, what does he make of the argument that linking Islamophobia and racism shuts down valid criticism of the faith? “I see Islamophobia as a flavour of racism. It is a type of racism. To restrict racism to just skin colour, or just culture – it’s not something I agree with. Racism I see as a systemic oppression, ‘otherising’, marking of a group of individuals according to race, ethnicity or culture, so you are on paper ‘white’, but you are also Muslim, which ticks you as ‘other’ – it is much more complicated than this notion that people don’t like the way you look so they start being horrible on the train.”
For Rahman, anti-Muslim sentiment is deeply political in nature. “The anti-Muslim paranoia which is generated in the West is so useful, because racism is based on imaginary things. The idea of the Muslims can trigger so many things in people’s imagination, you can use it to justify foreign policy, because we’re fighting ‘these kinds of people’. You can use it to justify reparation policies and asylum policies, because these people are coming to invade and steal your jobs. You can use it to attack poor and working people because some of them are or look Muslim. That’s the best part of Islamophobia, you don’t even need to be Muslim – they just need to fall somewhere in the net of vaguely Muslim. It is good value for money.”
So what’s at the root of racism? Is it as simple as what we often hear – the idea of “hatred”? “The biggest mistake people make when they talk about racism is to talk about it without talking about class,” Rahman says. “So racism always has some sort of economic imperative. It isn’t just we hate people like this because their food is different and they wear funny things, and they have beards and headscarves. It is about poor working people, it is about asylum seekers, it is about foreign policy, which are all economically driven. We need to invade these places, so we need to construct the idea that these people need to be invaded – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve to flee those places and come and live amongst us – and we need to construct the idea that they don’t deserve benefits and they don’t deserve housing.”
Rahman isn’t just an armchair theorist on this issue. His adopted brother runs RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, and a group within which he himself has a history of activism. In one of his skits, he describes being part of a group of activists who trek out into the Australian desert to help free detainees. Without giving away the punch line, it involves blood, a woman handing her baby to strangers through a fence and Rahman spending some time in police custody.
Discussing the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, I put to him the widely touted idea that Muslims are just too sensitive to accept criticism: “This is what came out during the whole Charlie Hebdo situation – you just can’t talk about Islam, you can’t criticise Islam, as if Islam hasn’t been under the microscope since 9/11, as if Islam hasn’t been systematically dissected and pulled apart in the media non-stop for the last decade. The idea that Muslims can’t be criticised – we’re in the middle now of the fourteenth year of a global war specifically targeting Muslims. Muslim communities have been subjected to unprecedented surveillance, monitoring, policing – these are all criticisms of Islam.”
Should some topics be off-limits in comedy then? I ask. Who gets to decide what those topics are? “I’m not for censorship,” he quickly interjects. “I think Muslims hold some things sacred in a way that it is difficult for non-religious people and maybe even religious but non-Muslim people to understand. Given where Muslims sit socially and politically, crossing those lines has quite deep implications. Because Muslims are often poor, marginalised, under-employed, etc.. Obviously any provocation is much much worse. If Muslims were rich and comfortable, I don’t think they’d be as upset about these things – they’d definitely still be upset, there’s no question, but I think that context is important. In France, when you live in a country which is more offended by your headscarf than racist pornographic cartoons that bully a minority, that’s got to be upsetting.”
As we wrap up our interview, I ask Rahman whether his flippant style of comedy can ever transcend the racist divide it speaks to – can it ever speak to the racist? “No,” he responds. “It can’t speak to the racist. It isn’t designed to speak to the racist, it is designed to validate victims of racism and what they think – one thing we’re always told growing up when we experience racism is that it isn’t there. You’re too sensitive, you’re misunderstanding, they didn’t mean it like that, it’s just a joke. It’s not – we have a sixth sense about it because we’ve experienced it our whole lives. It’s absolutely true, I’m not crazy, they shouldn’t have said that – that’s who my comedy is for.”
So when can we expect to see him back on stage in the UK next, I ask as he’s about to embark on the US leg of his tour. In his now trademark style, he smiles: “Look, if this Muslim pub idea takes off, I could franchise that and turn it into a tour show of me opening a franchise of Muslims pubs – Mubs.”
Aamer Rahman is starting a two-month tour of the US; find out more about his tours here.
You can read the original piece on the MEE website, here
Media Society-Sandford St Martin Trust religion panel – Groucho Club: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”
This article by the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade is a write up of the event mentioned above: “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”. Ed Stourton chaired the panel discussion on the media’s coverage of religion, featuring Dame Ann Leslie, Roger Bolton, Professor Steven Barnett and Myriam Francois-Cerrah.
GUARDIAN: As an atheist, I didn’t expect to be engaged by a panel debate about religion. But last night’s discussion on the topic turned out to be one of the most illuminating Media Society events I’ve ever attended.
And that’s because the most stimulating contributions were all about the need to see beyond a professed faith in order to discern the reasons for people’s actions.
In fact, those opinions appeared to turn the title of the debate, “Damned if you don’t? Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion”, on its head.
Roger Bolton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Feedback, certainly argued in favour of greater journalistic understanding. In modern multi-cultural Britain, he said, religious literacy is essential.
But the problem is that we are illiterate because our journalism is just not fit for purpose in terms of covering religion. The BBC has no editor of religion and there is no centre of expertise to consult at our public service broadcaster.
Bolton thinks British culture is informed by Christianity regardless of whether people go to church, describe themselves as Christian or even believe in a Christian god.
This makes it difficult for non-Christian immigrants to understand our society. Similarly, seen in reverse, the indigenous “Christian” population cannot understand the religious cultures of immigrants.
As for our journalists, they are a largely liberal secular metropolitan crew, according to Bolton, and they cannot therefore understand what motivates people of other faiths and, by extension, cannot help the public to understand.
Freelance journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who writes and broadcasts on the Middle East, and Steve Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster university, were having none of this.
They accepted that knowledge of religion, as with all knowledge, was of value. But what was of overriding importance was to grasp that there were deeper reasons for people taking outrageous actions that only appear to stem from religion.
They were, of course, referring to various deeds by those we call Muslim fundamentalists – suicide bombings, 9/11, the formation of Al-Qaida, various atrocities in Britain, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the rise of Isis.
For Francois-Cerrah, the examination of such deeds and movements through religion is overstated. Socio-economic factors were far more motivating and it was those that required closer investigation.
Religion, in her view, was a rallying point for people in order to confront power. Note, she said, that most of the autocratic regimes overthrown by Muslim groups were secular.
Note also that suicide bombings were a desperate response to territorial occupation. See beyond the veneer of religion, she said, to the real ideological reasons behind people’s apparent adherence to religious extremism. If she said it once, she said it a half dozen times: it’s all political.
Barnett agreed. There were political rather than religious reasons for what has happened across the Middle East. Self-described as “a militant atheist”, he rejected the notion that we should create a religious specialism in journalism because there were far more important and pressing journalistic concerns.
Privileging religion was unnecessary because there were too many other issues that needed greater attention. For example, he pointed out that too many British journalism students know nothing about the workings of government in their own country. They are unaware, he said, how our constitution operates.
Sure, get to know about religion if you must. But knowing how our democratic institutions work is far more important. That was also a task for the BBC.
One telling point made by Barnett was his reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Seeing it as clash between Catholics versus Protestants, he suggested, concealed a deeper economic and historic reality of poverty and power.
Ann Leslie, the former Daily Mail foreign correspondent, did not really get involved in the central tussle between Bolton on one side and Francois-Cerrah and Barnett on the other.
But she did think it important for people to know more about other people’s religions, stressing particularly the need to grasp the tenets of Islam. Her view was informed, she said, by growing up on the sub-continent as the daughter of a British colonial family.
“Religion is important to Muslims,” she said firmly. But she provoked gasps from a keenly interested audience – and wide-eyed amazement from Francois-Cerrah – by telling an anecdote about her father’s kindness in hiring Muslim servants.
Bolton didn’t back down. But I felt Francois-Cerrah carried the day. Her warning against Islamic exceptionalism is one that needs to be taken to heart if we are to come to terms with what is too easily regarded as primitive religious fundamentalism and barbarism.
*The panel debate at the Groucho Club was chaired by Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, and it was co-hosted by the Sandford St Martin Trust.
In the wake of the tragic murders in Denmark of a filmmaker attending a panel discussion on blasphemy and a member of the Jewish community outside a synagogue, the temptation is to read everything through the ideological lens of the clash of civilisations. Charlie Hebdo was strike two some have already started to contend, in reference to the clear parallels between the targets of the attacks. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has been quoted as saying, “We do not know the motive for the alleged perpetrator’s actions, but we know that there are forces that want to hurt Denmark. They want to rebuke our freedom of speech.”
The simplistic narrative of such attacks representing the hard edge of an intractable Muslim community who’s inability to accept “our” values of free speech and tolerance is now the leitmotif of such incidents. The acts of politically motivated criminals, more likely – as it is the case with the alleged culprit in Denmark as it was with the attackers in France, both have a background in gang violence and criminality more than mosque attendance and devotional activities – yet are taken to reflect a broader latent threat posed by Europe’s Muslims.
The discourse is hardly novel. It represents the resurrection of the narrative of the perpetual Muslim “other”, a return to the historical pattern of European identity constructing itself as an enlightened bastion of rationality, in opposition to the backward barbarians out there – the only real difference now being that they’re out here.
There are two predominant alarmist claims made at such times.
The first is a variation on the “problem of Muslims in Europe”, the idea that something about their faith impedes Muslims from being fully integrated citizens. Examples of this include the various discussion programs on “Muslims and free speech”, implying a presumed tension, incessant focus on Muslim dress codes and dietary practises, as well as sensationalist claims concerning an alleged “demographic threat” – posed we are told by a Muslim community which represents just 6 percent of the European population and is set to rise to a still single digit 8 percent by 2030.
European Muslims having children, regular scaremongering tells us, represents a potential threat to the very core of European values. A recent article in a mainstream British paper illustrated this prejudice disguised as legitimate fear by asking its readers “Worried about Muslims in Britain?” – as if somehow this were a legitimate concern – before suggesting that fear might be rooted in the fact “the number of Muslim children is rising”.
Ask yourself if any other community’s children could be used as a scare tactic in this fashion?
The second alarmist claim made at such times is the increasingly common trope that such attacks on Jewish individuals or institutions reflects a broad climate of anti-Semitism among European Muslims. The argument is linked to the alleged incompatibility of Muslims with European values of which tolerance is allegedly one, despite figures showing increasing intolerance across the continent.
Certainly, there are significant tensions between Muslims and Jews over the Israeli occupation. And recent events indicate that Muslim extremists often mistakenly view European Jews and Israel interchangeably. Polls also indicate a growing climate of anti-Semitism within Europe, but despite the rhetoric of “Islamo-facism” being to blame, the same polls indicate that anti-Semitic attitudes are highest in countries with some of the smallest Muslim populations – Greece, Italy, Poland – while some of the countries with the highest Muslim populations – the UK, France, Germany – actually hold more favourable views of Jews.
As Yascha Mounk recently pointed out, “a European anti-Semite remains far more likely to be Christian than Muslim.” The question, he asked “is not whether Muslim immigrants will learn to tolerate Jews, but whether, in countries such as Sweden, Italy and Poland, the majority can learn to think of Muslims and Jews as true members of the nation.” Indeed, a 2008 Pew poll indicated that “publics that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.”
Not only is the narrative of a hostile, anti-Semitic Muslim Trojan-horse in our midst part of a broader discriminatory lens, it actually undermines the shared struggle against rising prejudice across Europe of which both communities (and others!) are victims.
And this climate of fear is not without consequence.
In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, attacks on Muslims in France skyrocketed. Here in the UK, a recent report points to Muslim pupils across Britain suffering a backlash of bullying and abuse following the Charlie Hebdo murders, in addition to a spike in physical and verbal violence against Muslims more broadly.
When Muslims are painted as exclusively more violent than other groups, it renders targeting them seemingly socially acceptable. When we accept the fallacious claim of the attackers that they represent the voice of Muslims, or the incendiary assertions of those who draw a line from widespread Muslim anger over images to the murder of cartoonists, we are playing into a dangerous agenda. Such attacks are far less a challenge to free speech than they are to the fabric of our diverse societies.
The Copenhagen attack may well be a copycat of the Paris murders – if it is, the key will be for Denmark not to imitate the suspicion, division and hostility of the French aftermath. Al-Qaeda aficionados and the increasingly normalised far-right have lots to gain from such a climate – the majority of us however, have the most to lose.
This is the transcript of a speech given by Myriam Francois-Cerrah in an Oxford Union debate on 12 Feburary. She was speaking in favour of the successful motion “This House believes that feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women”, alongside Ava Vidal and Linda Bellos OBE. In opposition: Inna Schevchenko from FEMEN, Michael Kaufman and Natalie Bennett (Green Party).
Ladies and Gentleman, it is a pleasure to be here with you this evening.
I know, I know – the apparent irony of my being a white middle class woman who believes feminism has been hijacked by white middle class women will, I’m certain, not be lost on you.
But – it is in many ways a vindication of my case.
After all, I am a minority within my own community – unrepresentative of Muslim women either here or in the global south, in terms of my either socio-economic profile or ethnicity, despite the frequency with which I am called upon to speak from within that subjectivity.
Before attending today, I thought long and hard about whether I should trade my place for one of my many personal heroines, women of colour whose voices are so often overridden not only by a white narrative, but white privilege, which however mitigating my headscarf might be of aspects of it – I nevertheless embody.
I ultimately decided to partake for one central reason and that is to emphasise that critique of white feminism – or white culture more broadly – is not a discussion about race – but of a political category, implying an unequal balance of power between dominant white culture, and subaltern identities.
The term “white people” doesn’t refer to the colour of people’s skin as much as it refers to people’s identification with the dominant power relations which continue to subjugate people of colour to a second class status and relegates women of colour specifically to the bottom of the heap.
I can’t and refuse to speak for Muslim women – I speak only as a feminist Muslim woman whose solidarity lies first and foremost with the global south. And I speak as an intersectional feminist who believes race, class and gender are critical to feminist discussions.
Arundhati Roy once said: “There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.” When it comes to alternative conceptions of feminism, the feminist movement has been doggedly resistant to including alternative voices. And by including, I don’t mean merely recognising that alternative voices exist on the margins, a benevolent nod to those who don’t quite conform to “our ways”.
Nor do I mean the superficial diversity of different faces – I’m talking about the substantive diversity of different conceptions of female flourishing. I mean accepting that the white liberal secular framework is not the only acceptable lens through which women can articulate their struggles.
Rather than the predominant assumption that alternative feminist voices are playing “catch up” with western feminism, I mean realising that feminism isn’t about “saving” women from the global south, it’s actually about learning from them as true equals in a shared struggle.
Although this recognition is slowly trickling through, it is often too tokenistic and at times deeply patronising.
My PhD research is on Morocco where many of the women I interview identify as committed religious believers – in their society, they are the forefront of struggling for the reinterpretation of religious texts in an egalitarian light, they combat the notion of male supremacy or ultimate authority but they also – in many cases – reject the term “feminism” as a western concept which is ill fitting to their needs as Moroccan Muslim women, an import that one woman described as “another form of cultural imperialism design to alienate native women from the real source of their power” – their own culture.
While as a Muslim feminist, I am well aware of the struggles for equality within my faith, I also recognise that the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone. In fact, poverty and authoritarianism – conditions not unique to the Islamic world, and produced out of global interconnections that implicate the west –are often more decisive.
The feminism I relate to, the feminism I draw on, is the feminism of women resisting imperialism, exploitation, war and patriarchy – it is the feminism of Indian women fighting back against rape culture, Palestinian women resisting Israeli occupation, Bengali women demanding basic safety conditions in sweat factories producing clothes for fake fashion feministas – the innumerable women of the Arab uprisings and their ongoing resistance!
When I say feminism has been hijacked by white women, I mean white culture continues to dominate the narrative in all fields and renders alternative points of view as quaint contributions permitted to confirm the eternal truth of western supremacy.
I mean the instrumentalisation of the Malala Yousafzais of this world, local heroines turned into political pawns to justify ongoing wars and occupations, which ultimately hit women hardest. Women’s education recast as a justifiable motive for western imperialism.
Malala’s example serves only to validate white feminism’s priorities and perceptions of otherised women, as in need of saving, as grateful recipients of foreign interventions.
For all the feminist justifications for the plunder of Afghanistan, its maternal death rate today stands among the highest in the world. A recent UN report blames decades of grinding conflict in addition to repressive attitudes towards women.
The same pattern is replicated elsewhere – when 200 Nigerian schools girls get kidnapped by Boko haram, rather than focus on finding the girls, the story is used to justify the ongoing global war on terror. Which incidentally, still hasn’t appeared to have helped return the girls.
There is plenty of research on the impact of conflict on women, who are among its primary victims, not only in terms of actual casualties of war, but also in their struggle for autonomy because what conflicts actually do, is polarise gender roles: masculinity becomes more aggressive and women are idealised as “the bearers of a cultural identity” – women’s bodies become part of the battle field.
This is as true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as of Afghanistan.
And this is where white feminism continues to fail the true test of feminist solidarity in taking on-board the critiques coming from the margins. There has been far too little introspection, far too much reticence to question white supremacy
White women were active participants in, proponents of and key beneficiaries of the system of slavery in the US as well as in the colonial empires and arguably continue to be beneficiaries of imperialism and exploitation.
The cheap clothes we buy, the petrol we fill our cars with, the diamonds we covet – they are all tied into the feminist struggle because, to paraphrase bell hooks, if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because western society does not view all men equally.
There can be no equality between men and women until there is a redress of the global inequities which posit whiteness at the top of human hierarchy and consequently posit white bourgeois women as the benchmark for female emancipation.
And this is where groups like Femen are part of the problem – with statements such as “as a society, we haven’t been able to eradicate our Arab mentality towards women“, because we all know that ALL Arab men hate women right?
In response to a campaign by Muslim women to actively denounce Femen as racist and patronising, Inna Shevchenko – who graces us with her presence tonight, responded “They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.” White saviour complex anyone?
This brand of pseudo feminism which confirms the idea of passive, voiceless women of colour who need saving from their men, if not from their own selves, is not one I recognise.
Do women in the global South struggle with issues of patriarchy?
Err – yeah – alongside all the other problems fostered by an unequal capitalist system, they also struggle with local variations on the virtually universal problem of patriarchy.
Those who seek to proclaim a hyper-arching female solidarity need to start by tackling many white women’s ongoing complicity in the broader conditions of subjugation – military and economic – which keep their so-called “sisters” in the global south down.
A South African activist once said: “Come to my space”, “respect the people in that (…)Do not come and project.”
If it takes my white privilege to amplify this message, at least it will have served one positive purpose in the broader struggle for human equality.
The concept of national unity is an appealing one to our politicians – let us rally around a visionary leader – and in the case of Francois Hollande, around one of the most unpopular presidents in French history at a time of huge national division over everything from economic policy to gay marriage.
In his speech during the “Republican march” on Sunday 11 January, Hollande stated: “Clarissa, Frank, Ahmed – died so we could live free,” in reference to the three police officers gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The image of diversity – black, white, Arab – united under the republic encapsulates the French ideal, all differences subsumed under the national banner, erased in the unity of principles and values. Ahmed, the Muslim police officer, Hollande told the crowds, died defending the principle of laïcité, a central principle of the French Republic and an incarnation of which has been used to advance ever more restrictions against Muslims in contemporary France.
Moments of real national unity are incredibly rare and in many cases, quite sinister. Because despite the rhetoric, national unity can provide a glorified cover to the stifling of differences of opinion and the opportunity to impose a singular narrative, the nationalist narrative of “who we are” which can only be contested at the risk of being expelled from the national body and in so doing, of becoming the suspect “other”. Sunday’s march gathered people for various reasons – among them to remember the dead, to oppose terrorism and to support freedom of expression.
Vigils to remember the dear are typically solemn affairs – the strength of emotion is consistently aimed at those who lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Vigils aren’t about us, they’re about them. And that’s why, watching the largest ever public rally in French history, it was clear to me that this was no vigil. This wasn’t so much about “them”, the victims of political violence, but about “us” and about what we, the French stand for.
What we stand for, we were told, was opposing terrorism. But this begs the question of who exactly supports it? Or perhaps more to the point, who is perceived as supporting it? After all, protests are generally the purview of a minority which feels its voice isn’t being heard, of the besieged who must take a stand against the status quo. But when the protest becomes the status quo, surely the question shifts to whom exactly is being targeted by the message.
Some may claim the banners were directed at the terrorists – presumably not the dead ones – but the international networks to which they claimed allegiance. Are terrorists thought to be responsive to public protests? Or perhaps the message targeted elsewhere. If the target wasn’t the terrorists, is it the perception of an enemy much closer to home – the implied enemy within?
Many juxtaposed “opposing terrorism” with “supporting free speech” – but with Charlie Hebdo taken to symbolise free speech in the context of the march, this particular publication, which deliberately produced incendiary and at times racist images targeting Muslims, has come not only to define free speech in France, but it has been incorporated through this march into the definition of national values.
In becoming the heroic voice of French freedom of expression, its previously contested maligning of Muslims and minorities has been reimagined as the quintessential expression of French identity.
To realise just how problematic this is, it is worth considering that this alleged beacon of anti-racism was publishing demonising images of Muslims in a country in which, just last month, a popular TV presenter was sacked for saying Muslims “should be deported to prevent civil war”; where France’s best-loved novelist Michel Houlebecq’s most recent bestseller was described by one journalist as “when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.
For a leftwing magazine, it seemed oddly blind to the struggle of the Muslim working classes, siding with a near societal consensus that their presence represents an inherent problem within European societies. In a 2013 poll, 74 percent of the French admitted they perceive Islam as incompatible with French society.
Recast in this sense, a nationalist rally of this magnitude which has as one of its central themes a perception of free speech embodied by a magazine which sought to denigrate an already much maligned minority within a broader climate of hostility and discrimination should perhaps raise some concerns. To speak of national unity at a time when France has rarely been so divided could only occur in the face of a perceived, existential external enemy – a common threat behind which all citizens must unite.
Ethnic minorities and Muslims in particular experience acute levels of discrimination at every level, from education, to housing, to employment. In France, a Christian citizen is two-and-a-half times more likely to get called for a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. Verbal and physical abuse of Muslims was up 47 percent last year.
This march was in fact part of the construction of the national self in contrast to the demonised Muslim “other”, expanded from the ahistorical, evil terrorist, to the broader Muslim threat, of which the terrorists are the mere violent tip of the proverbial iceberg. So much so that Muslims present at the march often felt the need to clarify their position within this potentially exclusionary lens – holding up placards to protest their innocence and respond to the presumption of guilt which assumed from their Muslim-ness a potential sympathy for murder.
This is the same republic which was constructed historically against the colonies from whence many young Muslims originate and which continues to this day, to largely exclude them not only from centres of power, but also from the sort of social mobility which might provide a stake in the constantly evolving national identity. Historically, the republic’s civility was built off the back of the presumed barbarism of its colonies, its sense of self constructed in opposition to the “unenlightened” Muslims which France conceived of as its civilising burden.
This so-called anti-establishment magazine which provided the pictorial illustrations of some of the bilious representations of Muslims, has since had its funding guaranteed by the French state, simultaneously undermining its journalistic independence, anarchic credentials and stamping its discriminatory output with a state certification.
I have previously argued that the targeting of Charlie Hebdo seems to have been a strategic decision by al-Qaeda, because it was known for selecting symbolically significant targets, in this case, which had previously polarised French society. Targeting Charlie Hebdo would allow them to appear to be acting in the name of all aggrieved Muslims, despite the fact even those troubled by the images have been vocal in their condemnation of the use of violence as a response. Sadly, the perception that they were indeed acting on behalf of broader sentiment appears to be prevalent.
In the wake of the attack, former prime minister Alain Juppe, while affirming the right of Muslims to live in security, called on Muslims to “assume their responsibilities” by affirming the values of the republic, while also calling on them to advocate gender equality. Unless you assume the attack was in any way connected to the broader Muslim community – and to a perceived conflict between republican and Muslims values, the call appears somewhat misplaced. I’m going to suggest it is misplaced either way.
French author Yann Moix went on, declaring that from hence forth “we will only call Muslim those who marched with us,” suggesting the republican march served a broader political ideal of not only narrowing the space for dissent, – ironically – but it also cemented a sense of Muslims as suspect citizens whose allegiance was to be proven, not accepted as given. Evidence of this new climate was immediate, as Rokhaya Diallo, a French Muslim broadcaster was reduced to tears on live radio, as a prominent writer badgered her to distance herself from the actions of the terrorists, a call she felt placed her and all Muslims on “the bench of the accused”.
Even if the objective of this horrific attack had been freedom of speech, the global response which has included widespread reprinting of the images in question, as well as the continued publication of Charlie Hebdo, suggests free speech has thankfully not been dented by the terrorists. It is, however, under threat from the immediate passing of ever more intrusive surveillance laws, the state of exceptionalism serving to justify ever more restrictions even before the banners extolling freedom of expression have been put away, and the massive police and military presence which only presages greater freedom for those who haven’t consistently been the victims of their abuses.
The republican march meant many things to many different people. But it has unquestionably been instrumentalised to further a sense of the republic inherently at odds with Islam and as requiring of its Muslim citizens to caveat their presence within it.
Sunday’s rally was a reminder that there is nothing quite so unifying in French politics as anti-Muslim prejudice.
You can watch the interview here:
You can watch my contribution to this episode of the Listening Post examining media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo affair.