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.
My contribution to the debate:
Questions for France
First, I’d take issue with the notion of a monolithic West. Across different countries there is a huge diversity in social, political and economic contexts. But in this specific case, we’re talking about two French nationals. They are not immigrants. They are the product of marginalised suburbs who their entire life may have felt excluded. That doesn’t make attacking and killing people acceptable. But it gives you an idea of where social policies fail, leaving people open to messages which can have a devastating impact on society. When French nationals commit acts of terror in France, we have to ask “what is it that is happening in France which is contributing to individuals taking up arms against their fellow citizens?”
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, columnist at the New Statesman
you can read the whole piece here
There is growing realisation that perhaps the tragic attack at the Charlie Hebdooffices on Wednesday was not actually about the cartoons themselves. Instead,Charlie Hebdo represented a strategic target as part of a broader tactic of polarisation.
Information is gradually trickling out that suggests that at least one of the gunmen involved, Cherif Kouachi, had long-standing terrorist links to Iraq as a middle man funnelling funds to extremists and as an aspiring fighter himself. His record of terrorist activity dates back to 2005 – at least one year prior to the Danish cartoons controversy. This suggests that while the cartoons were certainly a motivating factor, they cannot be labelled the impetus for Kouachi’s motivations. He may, as it turns out, fit into the increasingly familiar pattern of a disaffected European Muslim youth, with little religious inclination aside from an interest in a politico-religious narrative of vengeance against the “west”.
What’s more, although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that Kouachi waited several years to undertake his revenge on Charlie Hebdo following their publication of offensive images – the last major scandal dates back to 2012 when the magazine published a series of cartoons in the aftermath of the protests over “The Innocence of Muslims” Youtube video. Rather, it is increasingly probable that Kouachi may, as the Journal of Long War Studiessuggests, have received the military training abroad he seemed to aspire to. He may have pledged allegiance to a terrorist group, perhaps al-Qaeda, perhaps Islamic State (formerly Isis). The former has a long history of selecting targets to cause maximum chaos, both structurally, but also symbolically – think of the enduring power of the 9/11 attacks. There, the target was not random. Al-Qaeda purposefully selected the tallest buildings in America’s most iconic city, a financial centre, and a symbol of American prosperity. Similarly, the London Underground was selected on 7/7 for maximum disruption of the city. Perhaps what these men were actually targeting here was a symbol, a European flashpoint which they were aware could reignite heated debates over the place of Muslims in Europe. In so doing, they could deepen already profound rifts in French society and establish an atmosphere ripe for the recruitment of alienated youths, struggling to find their place in a society ever more hostile to their presence.
Why France? After all, the Danes initiated the cartoon controversy. In recent years, France has seen increasing restrictions on religious freedom, denounced by Amnesty International and other bodies monitoring human rights. From the ban on headscarves in schools to face veils in public spaces, alongside countless controversies over everything from prayer rooms to halal food, the cycle of media ire directed at Muslims has become near-incessant. This has not gone unnoticed by extremists, who have used these issues in their output to proclaim France as a land of inequity where Muslims can never truly be at home. They have even used these events in propaganda videos to argue for Muslim emigration to Isis-run territory. We know that France has one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters recruited, which suggests some of this rhetoric is resonating.
Secondly, why Charlie Hebdo? The magazine was, of course, the French focal point of several controversies surrounding incendiary depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. As a consequence of its choice to print images that many other publications considered pointlessly offensive, it was eulogised by anti-Muslim hate-mongers who used the issue to assert a fundamental clash between “Islam and the west”, understood in the sort of monolithic terms which refused to recognise western Muslims or westerns who objected toCharlie Hebdo on grounds of prejudice, not religion. Although these earlier controversies were polarising, there was middle ground for both Muslims who either didn’t object or refused to care about what they saw as an attention-seeking publication and various mainstream voices, including a former Charlie Hebdo employee, Olivier Cyran, who denounced the magazine for aggravating an already toxic atmosphere for French Muslims.
By targeting Charlie Hebdo, the nuance of this discussion has been lost entirely and the attackers have succeeded in their attempt at polarisation. The #JeSuisCharlie and #IamCharlie Twitter hashtags, which required uncritical support of the magazine in lieu of sympathy with the murdered, only entrenched this schism. It is, of course, entirely possibly to have little sympathy with a publication which often crossed the line into racism, while having total empathy and solidarity with the individuals murdered. For many Muslims, these hashtags were an alienating challenge posited as “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists”. Some responded with their own, alternative hastags to underline the desire for solidarity with the dead and their disgust with the actions of the gunmen. Writer and activist Dyab Abou Jahjah initiated#JeSuisAhmed with:
For him, like for many Muslims and critics of Charlie Hebdo, a key principle was to avoid falling into precisely the sorts of binaries it seems this attack was designed to create.
Various outlets have made much of the fact Charlie Hebdo mocked “fanatics” – yes, they did, they mocked the sacred symbols of many groups, but those of Muslims on a particularly frequent basis and in a distinctly racialised tone. Not that this should ever warrant a violent response, but the eulogising of the magazine for some sort of mastery of European satirical tradition is a white wash of its chequered history as well as a capitulation to a simplistic narrative of “you’re either with the racist satirists or you’re with the terrorists”. That narrative serves only the extremes on both sides who want to perpetuate the notion that Muslims have no place in Europe – they now appear to be working to the same end to “make life harder for Muslims” (to quote one British neo-con writer), with al-Qaeda sympathisers and far-right stirrers converging to create the kind of schisms which would validate their narrative.
If these men turn out to be adepts of the cult that is Isis – the last tweet onCharlie Hebdo’s account was a cartoon of the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – then rather than usurping the tragedy as a means to berate Muslims for the alleged incompatibility of their faith with “European mores”, much more has to be done to ensure this greater alienation (the same variety which breeds identification with counter-cultural groups) isn’t deepened. We must ensure slogans of solidarity become more than just narrow and questionable support for the targeted publication and instead provide resistance to all those voices which seek to divide France, to entrench camps and harden the already worrying divides. Mosques and Muslims in France have already begun to experience a violent backlash, including a grenade attack, and it really is time to counter the hate behind these murders by rallying together behind a common solidarity – a solidarity rooted in the acceptance of difference, in respect for others, and a commitment to defeating those hell-bent on destroying the common fabric of our society.