Adam Shatz & Hari Kunzru on Charlie Hebdo

In the LRB and Guardian

In an LRB blog post, Adam Shatz argues that we need to look beyond ideology and to social causes to understand the terror attacks in France this week: 


In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent. It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.

Last night I spoke with a friend who grew up in the banlieue. Assia (not her real name) is a French woman of Algerian origin who has taught for many years in the States, a leftist and atheist who despises Islamism. She read Charlie Hebdo as a teenager, and revelled in its irreverent cartoons. She feels distraught not just by the attacks but by the target, which is part of her lieux de mémoire. A part of her will always be Charlie Hebdo. And yet she finds it preposterous – and disturbing – that even Americans are now saying ‘je suis Charlie.’ Have any of them ever read it? she asked. ‘You couldn’t publish Charlie in the US – not the cartoons about the Prophet, or the images of popes getting fucked in the ass.’ Charlie Hebdo had an equal opportunity policy when it came to giving offence, but in recent years it had come to lean heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are among the most vulnerable citizens in France. Assia does not believe in censorship, but wonders: ‘Is this really the time for cartoons lampooning the Prophet, given the situation of North Africans in France?’

That’s ‘North Africans’, not ‘Muslims’. ‘When I hear that there are five million Muslims in France,’ Assia says, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about. I know plenty of people in France who are like me, people of North African origin who don’t pray or believe in God, who aren’t Muslims in any real way. We didn’t grow up going to mosque; at most we saw our father fasting at Ramadan. But we’re called Muslims – which is the language of Algérie Française, when we were known as indigènes or as Muslims.’ She admits that more and more young beurs are becoming religious, but this is as much an expression of self-defence as piety, she says: French citizens of North African origin feel their backs are against the wall. That they are turning to an imported form of Islam – often of Gulf origin, often radical – is no surprise: few of them have any familiarity with the more peaceful and tolerant Islam of their North African ancestors. Nor is it surprising to find an increasing anti-Semitism among French Maghrébins in the banlieue. They look at the Jews and see not a minority who were persecuted by Europe but a privileged elite whose history of victimisation is officially honoured and taught in schools, while the crimes of colonisation in Algeria are still hardly acknowledged by the state.

Assia is typically Parisian, in her dress, accent and lifestyle. But that did not prevent her from being reminded, at every turn, of her otherness. ‘Assia, what sort of name is that?’ people would ask her since she was a child. With its strong centralising traditions, France shuns expressions of difference, notably the hijab, but continues to treat French citizens of Muslim origin as foreigners. Second and third-generation citizens are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’. The message: don’t wear the hijab, you’re French; but don’t bother applying for this job if your name is Mohammed. ‘When my brothers were growing up,’ Assia told me, ‘they would be stopped by the police ten to fifteen times a day – on the bus, getting off the bus, on their way to school, on their way home. Girls weren’t stopped; only boys. The French are more comfortable with “Fatima” than with “Mohammed”.’ French women of North African origin are doing better than men – which in part explains why some of the unemployed men take to dominating their mothers and sisters, as if they were their property, their only property. Assia is one of many French Maghrébins who have found it much easier to live outside France.

To say that France has an integration problem, and that it’s in urgent need of repair, isn’t to let the killers – or, pace Packer, their ideology – off the hook. It is to take the full measure of the moral and political challenge at hand, rather than to indulge in self-congratulatory exercises in ‘moral clarity’. If France continues to treat French men of North African origin as if they were a threat to ‘our’ civilisation, more of them are likely to declare themselves a threat, and follow the example of the Kouachi brothers. This would be a gift both to Marine Le Pen and the jihadists, who operate from the same premise: that there is an apocalyptic war between Europe and Islam. We are far from that war, but the events of 7 January have brought us a little closer.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Hari Kunzru similarly highlights the complexity of the situation, and traces the jihadi movement’s roots to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789:

I’ve just been on Skype with my wife, who’s teaching in Paris. Our conversation was interrupted by sirens and she took the computer over to the window to show me the view. The street had been cordoned off by police. She didn’t know why. We checked social media for clues. Nothing. As we spoke, the cordon was lifted and together we searched the internet to see if the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo murders were still thought to be “headed towards Paris”. Not a day to visit a museum or sit on a cafe terrace.

Today I feel tired. I feel depressed and afraid. Above all I feel old. Somehow this attack, with its mix of the grotesquely familiar and the unforeseen, has brought home to me in a way other recent atrocities have not, how much of my life has now been lived inside this war trapped in its logic of permanent emergency. I never want to see another man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit. I never want to stand in another security line wondering if today will be the day. I am hollowed out by disgust. I am worn down by outrage. I want to get off the damn bus.

Of course I can’t. None of us can. The war will go on until it doesn’t, until it runs out of fuel and the historians take over, arguing about who or what won. I no longer expect to see an end in my lifetime. It will take a generation, and many enormous geopolitical shifts, before the wheels of this juggernaut shudder to a halt. Until there are no more self-dramatising young men who prefer the abstraction of death to living a meaningful life, until there are no more wealthy pious bigots to fund them, until there are no more disenfranchised migrants pressed against the border fence and no more hard-faced “realists” eager to turn the war dial up to 11, this will go on and we will have to live through it.

I would have said nothing, had I not felt that – on this, of all days – it would be an admission of defeat. Freedom of expression is empty if it is not used, but I can barely bring myself to sit down at my desk and read the commentary, let alone add to the pile of hopeful platitudes, lofty sentiments about liberty, calls for solidarity and compassion and moderation, or firmness, or bloody, bloody revenge. Why did this happen? Multiculturalism, drones, Guantánamo, the inherent viciousness of Islam, the inherent viciousness of religion more generally. Take your pick, whichever one suits your politics, whatever tin drum you want to bang on.

Just don’t bang it near me. I don’t want to read about how “we’re all” anything, because wishing away complexity is inadequate and juvenile. I want to hear no talk about cracking down on anyone or tightening anything up. We have cracked and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect.

Above all I want to hear nothing about barbarism. The caricature of the jihadi as a medieval throwback, animated by ancient passions, may be comforting to those who would like to wrap themselves in the mantle of civilisation and pose as heirs of Voltaire, but as a way of actually understanding anything, it’s feeble. Understanding is the very least we owe the dead.

The jihadi movement is a thoroughly modern beast, which ironically owes much to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789. Though they are religious millenarians, looking to bring about global submission to the will of God, they are also utopian revolutionaries, and have adopted tactical thinking from the various movements that trace their legacy to Paris, and that inaugural moment of modernity.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was, of course, intended to raise the price on the exercise of freedom of speech. It was intended to cast the shadow of the guillotine over every editorial conference, every pitch, every keyboard and pen. It was meant to make us think twice. This much we understand. And it’s working. It has been working since the days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of crude confrontational religious satire was already a rarity. It will only become more so.

But the attack was also intended to sharpen contradictions, to harden positions and polarise opinion, pushing France (and the rest of the world) away from complexity, from nuance, from the recognition that one can be, for example, a believing Muslim and a loyal French citizen, towards the simple binary opposition between “us” and “them”, the binary of war. Why, asks a friend, did they do this, when they must surely realise that ordinary French Muslims would pay the cost? Because that was their intention. Serious repression by the French state will complete the circuit of the Charlie Hebdo attack, widening the gap between the poles. It would be a sort of collusion with the terrorists, a collaboration. In Britain we have only to think back to the disastrous consequences of internment in Northern Ireland. In the United States, the Bush government’s authorisation of torture has, far from keeping anyone or anything safe, been the most effective jihadi recruiting sergeant imaginable.

Those of us who want to short-circuit the logic of confrontation have our work cut out. Even if the French keep their nerve, even if the state and people do not succumb to this bloody provocation, we still have to distinguish our position from compromise. Mumblings about “respect” and “avoiding giving offence” seem cowardly and dishonourable. And compromise with the jihadi position is meaningless: the jihadi is absolute because otherwise he is nothing. Without the childish simplicity of binary logic, all his power and glamour leak away, and he becomes just another lost boy, picking up a gun in the hope that it will have the answer written on the barrel.

But refusing to compromise with the jihadi does not mean becoming his mirror. When I’m stupid enough to switch on cable news here in New York, the optics are different but I hear much that is familiar. Big hair and bright teeth instead of black flags and balaclavas, but the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team.

If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.

Here in Brooklyn I’m writing in a room half a block from a busy shopping street. The supermarket and pharmacy are owned by Egyptians. Between the dental surgery and the Korean-run bodega is a mosque. It’s prayer time, and a double line of taxis and limos is parked under my window, as it is every day. This is the world, the real world, into which I will soon go out for a walk, wishing my wife were back here with me, safe.


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