In the final months of 2020, the entwined forces of terrorism, political Islam, and the French ideal of laïcité (secularism) bubbled over in France and roused fury overseas.
Last September, four people were stabbed outside the former Charlie Hebdo headquarters by a Pakistani immigrant. In October, Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher, was decapitated by a Muslim teenager enraged that Paty had displayed the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a class about free speech. Less than two weeks later, three people were stabbed to death at a church in Nice by an attacker shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
French President Emannuel Macron marked the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks on January 7th with a tweet: “6 years. The same emotion. The same determination never to back down from those who attack our lives, our Nation, our culture and our values.”
Just three days ago, Macron delivered a New Year’s speech to the French military in the port city of Brest. In a dark suit, hair blowing in the wind, he implored the soon-to-be President Biden “to make key decisions that will mark a greater commitment and awareness in the fight against terrorism and stability in the region.”
Without a trace of irony, without the faintest of appeals to the raw seeds of terrorism, Macron called for “a Europe that is stronger, more united, more conquering.”
The United States of America, he concluded, will soon be, “I hope, re-engaged in several places of conflict.”
All of these mechanical narratives, with predetermined protagonists and antagonists, subjugated mainstream interpretations of the events. They drew upon the lingering blindnesses, whether willful or unconscious, that permit neither history nor self-examination more than the most minimal of roles in the ways we distinguish between terrorism and warfare, between terrorists and conquerors.
After last year’s attacks, Macron defended free speech and attacked the “menace” and “separatism” of Islamists. Progressives criticized Macron for Islamophobia and marginalizing an already “ghettoized” Muslim minority. But both sides missed a critical point.
The cartoons of Prophet Mohammed at the heart of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo ambush and later attacks are often treated in an isolated fashion — emblems of free speech and Islamic intolerance. The most context they receive is a presently disadvantaged Muslim community in France. Missing from the conversation is a history of violent French colonialism and an ongoing French military presence in Arab and African countries that, while masquerading as noble interventionism, does indeed wreak the sort of destruction for which animus is surely not wholly incomprehensible. While blasphemy and racism have caught the attention of more recent assailants, the juggernaut of Jihadism to which they subscribe is entrenched in and fueled by this violent history.
In the days following Paty’s beheading, President Macron cracked down on allegedly “Islamist” institutions — the “enemy within”, in the words of the Interior Minister — by raiding dozens of Muslim aid organizations and arresting or threatening to expel hundreds of “radicalized” Muslim residents. Macron’s defense of all forms of free speech stirred protests, effigy burnings, boycotts, and governmental denunciations in Turkey, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Palestine.
Macron went on to host an anti-terrorism video conference with EU officials and the leaders of Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. While his continental counterparts expressed solidarity with France’s position, American newspapers were a little more reproachful, advising Macron against making Islamophobic generalizations and further isolating France’s Muslim population. Macron, angered by the critical commentary, went as far as pressuring international publications to pull unfavorable editorials.
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” he told the New York Times, referring to the attacks across Paris in November 2015. Macron wasn’t wrong. At the time, French President Francois Hollande received somber commendations for his vow to wage merciless war against jihadists. This was partly because Hollande was able to rail against ISIS, a (now mostly defeated) enemy easier to isolate from larger Muslim communities and multilaterally vilify.
But Macron also governs over a considerably more delicate social climate, one defined by heightened race- and ethnicity-consciousness.
With statues of colonizers, imperialists, and slave owners threatened or torn down around the world following the murder of George Floyd last summer, Macron's call to uphold the right to free speech and crack down on religious separatism was not viewed as favorably as it might have been just a year or two ago. In fact, marches for racial equity and justice have posed a challenge to the truisms of nationalism that we haven’t seen in some time, one that might be uniquely situated to prod certain institutional practices — and a history of such practices — into question.
That France ought to celebrate its principle of free speech is perfectly reasonable. And I’ll add here that slivers of the Muslim world beyond so-called “Islamic terrorists” can display morbid degrees of humorlessness. Indeed, certain applications of fundamentalist Islam are positively medieval. But the transparently obsequious measures — Macron will be running for re-election against the far-right National Rally party — by which French liberty is allegedly being fortified has thus far entailed detaining schoolchildren as young as ten years old, banning homeschooling, proposing to restrict filming the police, and adding French residents who “excuse acts of terrorism” to a database (in which, perhaps, even I might appear, were I writing this from an apartment on the Seine).
In other words: France’s attempts to preserve its famously enlightened principles are only eroding them further with reciprocal authoritarianism, while eliding the root causes of the threats themselves.
To delve into such root causes, perhaps we ought to contextualize the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed that have so outraged Muslims around the world. If the cartoons were an isolated instance of satirism, French politicians might be forgiven for worrying about a seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide. But France has a long and eventful history of deadly Orientalism. France colonized Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Niger, Djibouti, and Mali. The Algerian War — which ended only 60 years ago — left a million people dead by some estimates, some of whom were tortured before being killed. France participated and, in certain cases, is still participating in American ventures of violent intervention and imperialism in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. It has contributed nearly half a trillion dollars to NATO, a military alliance that has killed or displaced untold numbers of Arabs and Muslims.
ISIS and al-Qaeda speeches that advocate for attacks across Europe rarely refer to the disenfrachisement of Muslim Europeans or strains of continental racism. Instead, they are concerned precisely with the invasions, airstrikes, occupations, bases, and proxy wars that have for decades shaped political realities across North Africa and west Asia. Only recently have some set their sights on “this vile campaign of blasphemy”, as al-Qaeda proclaimed earlier this month.
As it stands, conventional coverage of terrorist attacks on both sides of the aisle often fails to address French history. France and NATO’s current presence in Africa and the Middle East is taken for granted as either good or necessary. Their airstrikes are trusted to spare civilians, and collateral damage that does occur is shrugged off as the cost of war — a far cry from the horror with which attacks on homeland soil are characterized by the international press (and they’re never “war” at home, only “terrorism”).
Just yesterday, Human Rights Watch issued a press release urging France to investigate reports of a French airstrike in Mali that targeted a wedding, killing 19 civilians. French media barely bristled.
The ethos of irreducible nationalism that grants militaries the pedestal of valor and factious reactionaries the designation of “terrorists” has been fully internalized, it seems, by the industrialized world. As a result, with history forgotten and new bouts of warfare cloaked with intentions of counter-terrorism, the protagonists become not just “good guys” but non-actors, sheer victims — wholly incomplicit, despite their culpable representative governments. The “militants” being bombed, on the other hand, are systematically, if unconsciously, dehumanized, their political motivations derided as irrational and barbaric. It all amounts to a fascinating civilizational superiority complex that is particularly interesting in our age of racial and colonial reconciliations.
French writer Caroline Fourest’s column for Marianne, which was later translated into English for Tablet, perhaps best captures the partisan logic, blind spots, and conveniently abridged conceptions of cause and effect that characterize deeply internalized nationalism. “Was the free speech of a magazine like Charlie the cause of this fanatical violence?” she asks. “Come on. This violence didn’t start with some drawings.” She’s right, of course. But for Fourest, it starts and ends with jihadists, the “murderous fundamentalists” that kill everyone, inside and outside of France. They represent a “new totalitarianism”, an evil which must be stopped — an evil with no explanation, no possible cause. France must stand up for its freedoms or die trying, she says. After all, “the French president wants only to avoid the interference of countries like Turkey and Qatar, who fund and support radical groups and imams on our soil.” France, for her, seems to be an innocent victim of smaller and more debased nations, one with no history (or presence) that falls short of benevolence and enlightenment.
Fourest was a columnist for Charlie Hebdo until 2012, and while this doesn’t excuse her chauvinism, it gives us some insight into her outrage. And she’s certainly correct in affirming “the right to make fun of everything and also to be offended by caricatures that cause debate — as long as violence is not the answer”. Charlie Hebdo has never been the problem, and it ought to continue satirizing without restraint. The problem lies in our interpretations of jihadi violence and what such interpretations eschew.
Might some acknowledgement of the extent to which French (and German and British and American) citizens are at war — that wars, not only against Islamists but against Muslim civilians, are being fought in their name, with their money, and often with their votes — lend critical context to the tragic attacks that pop up on the picturesque streets of Paris, Nice, London, and Berlin? Might it give them some broader meaning, some de-randomization, and thus the power to galvanize policy reform?
After the Paris attacks of 2015, military enlistments in France skyrocketed. U.S drone strikes targeting anyone and anything deemed affiliated with ISIS killed a huge number of unaffiliated civilians. The Iraq War is arguably the greatest crime of our generation, in terms of a violent death toll, and the war in Afghanistan continues to devastate local populations. That human costs “here” have never been proportional to those “there” is an eternal truism, and our “defenses” in that sense aren’t really defenses at all — they’re merely escalations of an industrial complex that masquerades as national security.
With each attack, we “defend” ourselves by killing the terrorist (usually followed by applause and sighs of relief), intensifying military operations, and further militarizing police. What we don't do is censure our governments and demand they pull out of the regions we have been occupying, terrorizing, and interfering in for the last century. We don’t express contrition, or use our NATO budget to stem the refugee crises for which we’re chronically responsible. And then when the next attack comes along, we are shocked that they're still happening.
The point is not that the last few years of terrorist attacks in France aren’t horrific. Neither is it that French Muslims don’t find them horrific too (or don’t number among their casualties). It’s that the doctrines and sentiments of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, of freelance “extremists", of the broader Muslim world, don’t necessarily stem from arbitrary or incoherent ideologies. There is political context, one whose severity and history exceeds Muslim disenfranchisement in France. And though teenagers swinging knives in the name of Allah may be as brainwashed and idiotic as the next jingoistic crusader — there is never nobility in harming civilians — the political rationale that galvanizes such resentment and purpose has a historical and contemporary bedrock that is clearly outlasting ISIS and ought to, for that and other reasons, be acknowledged and addressed.