Of France and Muslims

“unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut
don’t do it”

Words to live by, in our “buzzified” world,  said by none other than the master, Bukowski…

Well, here it is. It’s been on my mind for weeks, it kept me up nights on, tossing and turning, and was the subject of numerous heated debates with friends and foes, online that is, because, well, covid…

France, immigration and Islam: the impossible union, the eternal battle. I am a muslim, not the most devoted one, but still a muslim. Not that I have a choice, really, as skin color and religion go in pair, obviously, in the common psyche. I’ll try to argue with neutrality, here, to the best of my ability. I am an immigrant too, although a fairly new one. So this concerns me. I landed, by mere chance, in Brussels, where everything, from friends to opportunity, pointed to France as a destination for my immigration attempts.

  Truth is, I am disheartened, somewhat angry at the French. I used to be in love with everything French, the culture, the language, the music… I grew up reading French novels, consuming them like ‘‘petits pains’’, as the French would say. I collected old French music cassettes, from the likes of Aznavour, Edith Piaf, and Lara Fabian. I still listen to the music sometimes because, well, the heart wants what it wants…I wrote articles and a mini-novel in French, which brought me joy and even a little moment in the sun. Today, it is difficult for me to reconcile that with what I see unfolding before my eyes. The very choice of language here is a form of revolt. It seems the love is not reciprocal, that France, as a nation and as a people, abhors everything that looks like me or shares the same faith. Not to fall prey to easy  generalization – that would make me guilty of the same thing I condemn-  it seems that at least the part of France who holds these beliefs is growing in numbers, that it is the most vocal and has contaminated the nation’s officials, while nothing is being done to counter the hate speech it spews on a daily basis in the media, social networks and, more importantly in legislation.

The debate about Muslims’ place in France was stirred again after the horrible assassination of Samuel Paty, a French teacher, who had shown the infamous caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), as a teaching material to his pupils. He had done his due diligence and announced it beforehand to the Muslim ones, who could be shocked by these, so they could choose not to attend. In doing so, he’d been exemplary, short of avoiding to present them in the first place, but we’ll get to that later.

Let me say, first, and threefold, that I condemn his barbaric murder, just so we’re clear :

I condemn the barbaric murder of Samuel Paty, violence is never the answer

I condemn the barbaric murder of Samuel Paty, violence is never the answer

I condemn the barbaric murder of Samuel Paty, violence is never the answer

That being said, and more importantly, I hope, believed, I feel like there’s here an aggression that needs to be addressed. Why do I need to justify myself to you ? The French asking each and every Muslim to vocally condemn these acts in all platforms, and complaining that there are not enough muslims – sorry, brown looking people, because how do you recongnize a muslim? –  in the condemnation marches afterwards, is an implicit accusation that, in other circumstances, should not be dignified with an answer. So, to you, we’re all terrorists, until proven otherwise. How would that even go ? How does someone prove, beyond doubt, that he would never do something ? Would a tweet, a televised declaration suffice ? I think not. To the best integration efforts from muslims,  you respond with accusations of “taqiyya”, according to which they’re ALL supposedly only doing so to gain your trust and strike better afterwards. Ah, the lengths to which you go to discredit them…

Yes, that is a barbaric act. No, Samuel Paty did not have it coming. No, the caricatures do not justify any kind of violence.  No, the atrocity of the deed does not also justify antagonizing all the others who happen to share the same religion. It does not also justify the French shutting down any kind of adverse thinking or counter arguments. You’ d be excused if, in the heat of the moment, you had the legitimate reaction of yelling your distress and anger, and implementing drastic measures to circumvent terrorism. It is understandable and salutary. However, drastic does not mean unjust. It does not mean painting everybody with the same brush. It does not give you ‘carte blanche’ to virtually persecute all muslims on the French soil by depriving them from any recourse when they’re subject to islamophobia, gaslighting everybody under the pretense that the latter is non-existent. It does not absolve you from the obligation of providing proof of wrongdoing when you engage in legal or disciplinary action against citizen and organizations pertaining to the muslim faith. This still remains the act of one 18 year old  lone terrorist : An unhinged lunatic, might you say, if he had other extremist beliefs and donned another skin complexion. People who delve in violent acts are violent by nature or by virtue of past experience; the religion or belief merely serves as an outlet for a propensity that was always there. There are violent people in all religions. Antagonizing every muslim there is can also be counter-productive, as it plays in the hand of the terrorists : It creates an atmosphere of rejection, alienation and distraught which makes the recruitment process much easier. That is, in fact, one of the intended outcomes. 

Now, for the issue of freedom of expression, and the French  insisting on publishing the infamous and inflammatory drawings as a tribute to Samuel Paty and to defy the terrorists .  In absolute terms, or “dans l’absolu’’ as the French would say, I understand the sentiment behind. The freedom to express oneself, to say your piece,  is paramount to our coexistence, and should be protected by all means. However, the freedom to say is not the freedom to hurt, and it certainly is not unlimited. Morality, and coexistence, are always necessary safeguards against bigotry that could otherwise be disguised as such. The drawings are of the most sacred person in the muslim world, and they do not just depict him, they humiliate him. Muslims, in the whole world, have expressed their profound discontent with these drawings, with marches, slogans, and even boycott campaigns…Personally, they do not indispose me, as I choose to ignore them when I come across them online, and I urge all to do the same, so as not to give them more importance than they have. But maybe it’s too late. Artistically, they’re not even that good, I’m told, and I concur… I can, however, understand  people being hurt by them. It’s this little thing called empathy, from which people seem to be severely lacking, lately. The French insisting on turning the knife in the wound just makes more big a gap between the muslim community and the rest. Yes, you might have the constitutional right to publish these drawings, yes it might be protected by the law, but you choosing to double down when I told you multiple times and through multiple channels that they’re deeply hurtful to  me tells me a lot about my place for you and your intentions towards me. That is not how coexistence and cohesion are facilitated in a nation. The cities projecting the drawings in buildings is, besides being paradoxical, as the state is supposed to be secular and not delve in religious matters, a big fallacy when done under the pretense of protecting the freedom of speech. France is not the USA, it is not the martyr of the Freedom of speech it falsely prides itself of being. You cannot pretend that, having done what you did to Dieudonné , to Tariq Ramadan,  and so many dissident voices…You could say this is the way forward, but that is yet to be proven, and recent history doesn’t support that claim, save from maybe in the far right realms… Your embassy punished a caricaturist for drawing Macron as a snake, and,  in the aftermath of the worldwide boycott calls, you responded through your diplomacy nonetheless, by injunctions to sovereign states to immediately stop these, in a rather tone-deaf fashion. While I don’t necessarily condone the boycotts, as I believe the situation needs de-escalation – An eye for an eye only makes everybody blind-  they still remain a peaceful way to make your voice heard.  

You could discuss the very sacredness of the Prophet, and say there should be no tabous whatsoever, that everything should be criticizable. That is a beautiful idea, in theory. It is also extreme. You might say that catholics didn’t react violently to the depiction of Jesus and you would be right. We didn’t either. Some of us did, and I am sure that, given enough occurrences, some lone wolf could react violently too, if a similar thing were to befall Christians in a similar setup . Also, it is beside the point :  If it’s ok for you to be slapped in the face, it doesn’t mean it should be for me. It doesn’t give me the right to react violently, but doesn’t undermine my right to be offended and seek peaceful/legal recourse against it. Also, the freedom of expression is not inherently indefinite, it is always bound by the limits of the shared values of societies and the circumstances of the world. Blackface and depicting pedophilia, for example, were viable in the past. Let’s see you try to reenact those today, and watch the backlash you’ll receive. That is to say, freedom of expression is not unlimited, per se. it obeys the laws of time, circumstance, and more accurately, the balances of power.

    Maybe you believe that man has to get past religion, like you did. You cut the head of a monarch and abolished the power of the clergy, you had the ’’siècle des lumières’’,established secularism and led the world in matters of philosophy, literature and culture. Kudos to you, and you should be proud of that, but that does not give you the right to adopt this holier than thou attitude towards the rest of us. You are not the sole possessor of the truth. You might say that this is your way of life, and that foreigners should either embrace it or get out. That might be the problem: The times are –a changing. If you are to thrive, you, along with all the nations of the world, have to abandon the idea of a homogenous/hermetic people, comprised of lookalike individuals who share the same ideas and past. The saying, the world is a small village, however cliché, remains true. Diversity, in origins, beliefs, genders and sexual orientations, is not a choice anymore. It is a must, and the sole control the states have are the laws these communities have to abide with, so long as they are just and written in the spirit of the cohesion of the diverse many.       

 It seems like France is adamant on educating the “delinquent’’ muslim community, like a teacher with a bad student, by using the stick first, instead of the carrot. France’s problems with Muslims are ongoing. They didn’t stem from the backlash of the assassination, but are to be witnessed everyday in the media. While France is struggling with major issues such as, to only mention that, the general social upheaval and the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement, the focus in the public eye and the media seems to only be on muslims. Why do they only eat halal food, not condoning OUR way of killing animals  ? Why won’t their women succumb to OUR injunctions and wear what WE want them to wear, in our own twisted version of Women’s freedom in their choice of apparel? Why don’t their men show their genitalia at the gym’s showers ? At this level of detail, this borders on persecution, especially when it targets people that were born in France, and whose “frenchness” is still rooted in their social status, their achievements, in a continuous lifelong scrutiny. When Benzema wins the Champions league, he’s French. When he misses a penalty or engages in some less than perfect behavior, he’s French-algerian. For some media outlets, to be French is to be perfect, pristine, and everything bad can only come from your foreign roots. I always believed that the dehumanization of foreigners by holding them to the highest standards of conduct in all aspects of life is the first sign of racism. This seems like it’s another subject, but it’s not. Race and religion are often intertwined, as it is the same people at the end of the stick : Pain is seldom compartmentalized.

This relentlessness stems, partly, from a theory that is very popular among the right leaning : The Great Replacement. The gist of it is that the original, white French man, is being intentionally replaced by his brown counterpart, through immigration, and that, sooner rather than later, the whites would become the minority in their own country, our kind being supposedly more fertile and more prone to do the deed. Besides being factually incorrect* and biased, it is undoubtedly xenophobic and dangerous. The French are, like so many peoples, afraid for their identity, and this fear is being pried on by the right. They ask the immigrants to ‘‘integrate’’ to their society, in a rather intrusive way, to the point where ‘‘integration’’ rhymes with suppression instead. You are to eat, dress, and basically mimic the behavior of an original Frenchman, all the while denying everything that makes you the person you are. Some try, sometimes aggressively so, to comply, and are more often than not met with the greater challenge that is convincing the general public, beyond the private sphere. Your coworkers, your friends at the gym might know who you are and what you stand for, but what about that passerby, that drunk passenger in the Noctilien, the people who don’t know you on a first name basis. Far from me to diminish those sacrifices –  God knows how debilitating they can be-, but I believe that the best solution for all is if we all met each other halfway. Peace is never obtained by tendering to the extremes…

To a certain extent, France is only harvesting the fruits of its colonial past. It brought masses of people from the colonies for the hard labor. They built the infrastructure, the roads and railways, but were put in different neighborhoods, separated from the indigenous French, and that set the tone for their future in the country. They would always be considered as second hand citizens, a separate community that would always struggle to find it’s place. Those ‘’cités’’, with time and generations passing by, became a hotbed for joblessness and crime, by virtue of the socio-economic circumstances, and, let’s be honest, the reluctance of the successive generations to pursue education for them and their offspring, as a means to get out of the ghetto,  financially, and symbolically. Relying on the help of the state, sometimes illegally,  they rested on their laurels and rarely resorted to pursuing higher education to further their careers and improve their social status. In doing so, they settled in the role of the victim, and only recently started to wake up to that reality, thanks to, in part, the efforts of the state to encourage education and success through careers in these parts.  I know I’m playing on the stereotype here, but some part of the responsibility has to be shouldered by the community itself, and stereotypes usually have some truth in them, statistically.  I’m only bringing this up in a spirit of fairness, to give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and  because of the correlation that exists between these communities, Islam, and violence. An important aspect of the roots of terrorism, that is often overlooked, is the socio-economic one : If we allow ourselves to humanize the terrorists, not to absolve but to understand why they chose to forfeit the most precious thing they have, their lives and the subsequent scrutiny their cherished ones would endure afterward, we find that poverty and joblessness, or in general the absence of the perspective of something better, plays a big part in that decision.  Surely, the ideological indoctrination is an element too, but it is merely the accelerator, the sparkle that ignites an otherwise already explosive recipe. 

Solving this relies on the shoulders of  the communities themselves first who, not to be patronizing,  have to get out of the mentality of the victim and start internalizing the fact they’re wholly citizen, by law, whatever the bigots say, and actively seek education and social status, by lawful means, which has always been the key to any kind of progress. France, for all it’s sins, is a lawful country for the most part, and that is a luxury that is not necessarily available in their respective “original’’ countries.  

  In conclusion, the France-muslim issue is a complex matter, it is difficult to understand without taking into consideration all the social, economic, and historic aspects of the French context. Harmony will only be achieved if the communities play their part, but most importantly if the governing bodies play theirs; Ultimately, they’re the few ones, easier to talk to and manage, and they’re the ones with the decision power and the resources. If you can decide to lock us up in our homes for the greater good, you can decide not to project a drawing for the greater good, not to budge to terrorism, but to preemptively safeguard coexistence .



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