31 January 2015

"Bêtes et Méchants" Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo I: The French Case

UPDATE: I decided to divide this post into two parts. Apparently it was too long to be read in one shot.


When the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred I was in an airplane. Upon landing, I found several messages on my cell phone from well-meaning friends.

You could say that it was my second John Lennon moment.

The friends who called knew that, in my misspent youth, I used to read Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor Hara Kiri magazine religiously. No pun intended.

People like Wolinski, Cabu, Reiser, Delfeil de Ton, Professeur Choron were my anarchist heroes. Even when I completely disagreed with their point of view, I admired their offensive humor and daring stances.

In that sense, that is, as an expression of grief and empathy, I say "Je suis Charlie" without any hesitation.

Je suis Charlie.

But the more I spoke to friends, the more I realized that the moniker Je Suis Charlie was quickly appropriated and turned into a shorthand version of the Clash of Civilizations argument. Indeed, I was struck by the polarizing anger both sides had for the other and the competing narratives full of errors and omissions.

It was a dialogue de sourds designed to present their respective positions as absolute and to ignore the other side's context and arguments. Clearly, no one wanted to hear anything other than a full-fledged corroboration of their stand.

Initially, my intention was to write about the Lone Wolf theories and how terrorists and extreme right wing parties are partnering up to shape the future of Europe.

But, when people I spoke to began urging me to write about "the freedom of expression hypocrisy and European Islamophobia" and the "beheading barbarians who live in our midst to slaughter us" I decided to pull a Charlie Hebdo.

You see, "Journal bête et méchant" [Stupid and vicious magazine] was the slogan of the predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, the Hara Kiri magazine.

I decided that a proper tribute to them would be to write a post that offends everyone.

What follows are the constructed and distilled versions of my many conversations with friends and acquaintances and random individuals.

Muslims go first.

Conversations with Muslim Friends

- What do you think about these attacks?

- I know that killing people is terrible but I cannot condemn the Kouachi brothers because Charlie Hebdo people committed a grave sin.

- What was that?

- Depicting the Prophet. It is forbidden by the Koran. It is a big sin.

- No, it is not.

- What do you mean?

- Just that. It is not. That specific act is not mentioned anywhere in the Koran. In some of the Hadith, that is, the sayings of the Prophet written down many decades after his passing, he is reported to have said that it was not a good idea to represent him because this might turn him into an icon.

Over the centuries this suggestion was turned into a ban to represent any sentient being in any form. And as usual, this absolute ban is the work of the House of Wahhab in the 18th century.

There are countless pictures of people and of the Prophet in previous centuries. When it came to the Prophet they simply omitted to draw his facial features, but the rest of the people were all represented normally.

There is a hand drawn picture of Mohammed in the previous link if you want to see it.

- This can not be true.

- It is. Look at the miniatures, the Ottoman archives are full of them. They depict people in all walks of life.

What is more, the Ottoman Sultans have all had their portraits done.

- Why is that relevant?

- The Ottoman sultans doubled as Caliphs from Mehmed II onward. He claimed the Caliphate when he invaded Constantinople in 1453. His grand son Selim I attacked the Mamluk dynasty and took the actual title from Al Mutawakkil II in 1517.

The Caliph is the ruler of the Ummah and the political and religious successor of the Prophet. There is no higher authority in Islam. If they had their portraits done and displayed them proudly, can you claim to know better and tell me that depicting people is forbidden in Islam?

- OK, I see what you mean but this case is more than depicting the Prophet. These people made fun of Islam.

-  I am not so sure that this was their goal but let's say that they did. Do you know what is the recommended course of action in the Koran when someone makes fun of Islam?

- Yes, our imam told us: Kill them, make them stop, shut them up by any means necessary.

- It is just the opposite.

There are two passages in the Koran that specifically mention the reaction you are supposed to have if you, as a Muslim, see someone making fun of Islam and the verses of the Koran.
The first one is in the Al-An'am sura (68)
And when you see those who engage in [offensive] discourse concerning Our verses, then turn away from them until they enter into another conversion. And if Satan should cause you to forget, then do not remain after the reminder with the wrongdoing people.
This was revealed when the Prophet was in Mecca and the context was the mushrikun making fun of Islam. If you have any notion of Islam you must know what a seriously offensive situation this was. Yet Allah simply tells him and all Muslims to move away and to not come back until these people stopped making fun of Islam.

That is it.

And this is not all. Later when the Prophet is in Medina, Christians and Jews make fun of him and his teachings, Allah intervenes again. This is what he says in An Nisa sura (140).
And it has already come down to you in the Book that when you hear the verses of Allah [recited], they are denied [by them] and ridiculed; so do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation. Indeed, you would then be like them. Indeed Allah will gather the hypocrites and disbelievers in Hell all together.
Where do you see Allah ordering you to kill people who committed blasphemy?

He clearly says, walk away, I will take care of it myself later on. In fact, he reminds the Prophet that he had already sent him a message about this.

Now, what part of the above makes the Kouachi brothers or anyone else an agent of God to kill people? What kind of arrogance should one have to substitute one's own judgement with Allah's? Do you know what a grave sin this is in Islam?

- What you say cannot be true. Our imam told us that the Koran unequivocally orders the killing of people who made fun of Islam.

- Then ask him to show you the exact verses. Just like I did. Incidentally, how can you not check the accuracy of his claims? Especially if he tells you that it is okay to kill someone, should you not even look it up?

- Well, he is a holy man, he would not lie to us.

- If he told you that the Koran orders the killing of such people then he definitely lied to you. In any event, he is most probably a Salafist whose salary is paid by Saudi Arabia and he has been indoctrinating you in Wahhabism.  That hardly makes him a holy man.

I'll bet he has been telling you not to say anything critical of the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Koulibaly.

- Yes, he has.

- There you go. This is how these radical imams are forcing you to side with them. You are either with us all the way or you are against us.

Can you see the irony in all this? Charlie Hebdo people were your most natural allies. They've always stood up for the downtrodden, the immigrant, the outcast, the marginal. They railed against racism, xenophobia, the Front National, the government and institutionalized religion. Their favorite target was the Catholic Church.

Kouachi brothers killed your staunchest defenders.

- Actually I am not so sure that it was the Kouachi brothers who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists.

- Really? How do you know that?

- Well, the killers hid their faces and acted like professionals, people like that don't lose their ID cards. So some other people must have set them up.

- This only shows that they were not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Or they were so French that they went to kill people with their papers in their pockets. If they had nothing to do with it, how do you explain the call they placed to a journalist to brag about their exploits and to claim the attack in the name of AQAP? How about AQAP confirming it subsequently?

- I don't know. But the whole thing is suspicious. Is it a coincidence that. François Hollande became very popular after these attacks?

- This is one of the oldest logical fallacies: it is known as "post hoc ergo propter hoc." The fact that event B comes after event A does not make them causally linked.

Besides, let's assume the 9/11 conspiracy framework, that is, let's say that the French secret services knew about the attacks but did nothing to stop the Kouachi brothers in order to bolster Hollande's approval rating. It is a stupid idea because they wouldn't lift a finger for Hollande but let's stipulate it for the sake of the argument.

It still leaves you with two Muslims reacting violently to acts that are not deemed offensive in the Koran and using a remedy that is explicitly banned by Allah.

Notwithstanding the secret services conspiracy, what kind of a Muslim does this act make them? And what kind of a Muslim are you to stay silent and to find excuses for their actions?

- You don't understand because you are not one of us. French people hate us so much. When they pass by they look at us funny. They roll their eyes when they see our women in their Islamic garb.

- I get that. I know that you have become "the other."

But do you also see how hard you have been trying to look and act like "the other"?

France is unique among European countries in that, here, racism is cultural. Nobody pays attention to what they call interracial marriages in the US, but you become an instant pariah if you don't do things the French way. "Ça ne se fait pas" [this is not done] is the most often heard phrase in daily life.

Imagine how these people, who freak out when you use the wrong salad fork, feel when they see young men parading around Saint Denis in shalwar kameezes as if they were in downtown Tora Bora. Or women with headscarves.

- What is wrong with that? According to the Koran, women should be completely covered in public. At the very least, they should cover their heads and disguise their bodies.

- That is not true. Hijab, burqa, niqab are not mentioned in the Holy Book. Typically, verses 30-31 of An-Nisa (24) surah is quoted by people who want women to be covered.

But these verses actually talk about beauty that can be revealed in public and beauty that should remain private and the latter does not include face, hair, hands, feet, etc:
Such a striking of feet or walk could only reveal a limited number of parts of the body, e.g. the private parts, buttocks, thighs, breasts, hips, thus any part not revealed by such an action should not be considered part of hidden beauty and therefore part of apparent beauty. Of course, this means such things as face, hair, hands, feet etc would not clearly fall into the category of beauty that is meant to be hidden. 
This understanding would also fit with The Quran's instruction on the body parts that are to be cleansed during daily ablution (hands, arms, face, head and feet), see 5:6, 4:43
In other words, there is no actual religious reason to turn women into black ghosts or even to force them to cover their heads. It is something that came into prominence in the last 40 years and almost everywhere as a result of Salafist push.

Remember these pictures from Afghanistan in the 1960s? Show me a woman with a headscarf.

Or take a look at this clip from 1953 Nasser and Egyptians politicians laughing so hard at the idea of women wearing the veil that they have tears in their eyes. It is in Arabic with French subtitles.

As you can see in that clip, even at the time, the highest priority of conservative Muslims was turning women into black ghosts. They could not do it until the Salafist imams sponsored by the House of Wahhab began pushing for it after 1979.  In fact, as I noted in my last post, they reduced Islam to women covering themselves and to banning alcohol.

They want to prevent you from assimilating into larger society and to continue to exert control over you in your besieged ghettos. They are also creating a very sharp divide between you and the rest of society and forcing you to take a Salafist position. There is no gray area, you are either with them or you are against them. Just like in George W. Bush's crusade.

That is why they insist on shalwar kameez outfits, long beards and headscarves and why they promote the practice of shutting down traffic to have Friday prayers on the streets.

- Why is praying a problem, isn't it our right? What is it to them? They have banned them anyway.

- Tell me honestly, if a priest stopped traffic and held an open air mess in any Muslim country, including a Coptic priest in Egypt where there are 9 million Christians, what would be the reaction of Muslims? Wouldn't they see this as a provocation, as Christians sticking it to them?

Why is it not a provocation when you do it in your adopted country?

If you do, and I agree that it is your right, then why are you surprised when the non-Muslims react negatively?

- These are all excuses, they despise us regardless of what we do. They want to get rid of us.

- They do. But is it solely due to their inner racism? Or does your unwillingness to criticize the radical imams, the extremists among you and your willingness to side with them and segregate yourself from society have something to do with it as well?

Do you remember the 1980's movement behind the slogan "Touche pas à mon pote"? It was supported by a large segment of French society and it was to express their solidarity with immigrants. If they were inherently racist, would they have bothered?

But since then, they changed and you changed. So, don't blame them for everything. You listened to your Salafist imams and retrieved into your community and emphasized visible symbols of being Muslim to signal that you were not interested in being French. And in turn, especially after 9/11 they began to look at you as alien beings.

Everything is dialectical in life.

- So you are blaming us. That is not fair they are the majority they can do what they want to us. They can even deport us even though I lived here most of my adult life and my kids know no other country.

- I am not blaming you. I am simply telling you that it is not helpful to only find fault on the other side. You should also think why they perceive you in a certain way and how their opinions are formed.

- They don't do it either.

- I know and that is my whole point. Unless this mutual intransigence is removed, things will get really nasty. You are right about the deportation business. It is on the agenda. Besides if this government does not do something that will appease the French public opinion (and deporting some people is definitely part of that) the next right wing government will go further.

It is already happening elsewhere as Norway has been deporting record number of Muslims since 2013.

In any event, deportation is just one measure. They could achieve the same result by simply creating a very hostile environment. Look at Germany. Last year 63,000 Turks moved back to Turkey. And they expect similar numbers this year.

- That hostile environment is already there, our kids cannot get jobs. If you have a Muslim name, your application is not taken seriously.

- I understand that. I also know that it is true. In France it is 2.5 times harder for descendants of immigrants to find jobs than anyone else. That is largely because they have recognizable names which allow companies and organizations to remove them from their list.

In that respect, let me make a point. I understand and agree that you have every right to name your kids what you want.  But names matter. There is evidence that suggests that they influence a kid's school performance and even her career opportunities.

Famous musician Frank Zappa named his daughter Moon Unit. And because she was his daughter she became a minor celebrity and the name helped. But if I named my daughter Moon Unit she would very likely end up in a marginal job. Can you imagine, "this is Dr. Moon Unit, the surgeon who will perform your angioplasty"? Or "meet your defense attorney Ms. Moon Unit."

We don't get to select names and then ask the larger society to not attribute any meaning to it. You are free to name them, they are free to react to them. Professor Latanya Sweeney found that Google searches for distinctly black names triggered 25 percent more arrest report ads despite the fact that the person being searched had no criminal record.

I would venture that the Algerian-born French actor Kad Merad would not have become a famous actor if he was named Abdurrahman Rashid al Ansari like your son. In fact, his name at birth was Kaddour and he shortened it to make it sound less ethnic.

What is wrong with that if it is to help your kid overcome some prejudices?

- I named my son Abdurrahman Rashid al Ansari because I don't want him to forget his roots.

- You know what a French person might say to you: if your roots were so important to you why did you uproot your family in the first place?

But let me ask you something, did you teach him Arabic and told him extensively about his country of origin?

- I never had the time. So, he only learned French. Thank God the new imam took him under his wings and taught him Arabic so that he can recite the Koran. He also arranged him to visit Muslim countries.

- In other words, you felt guilty about being an economic refugee and you tried to alleviate this sentiment by branding your son. But you were too busy or too lazy to teach him about his roots. So he grew up in French society, knowing only this culture but feeling like a foreigner who couldn't get a job and who was ostracized at every turn.

When you realized that he did not fit in and was acting up you pushed him towards the Wahhabi imam. And you felt relieved that he was turning him into a good Muslim. Right?

- Yes, he was doing everything I failed to do.

- And got him to visit the holy places in the Middles East and you said nothing.

And your son grew a beard and stopped talking to you. You felt it was OK because he was a good Muslim.

- Yes.

- And he left six months ago to join ISIS and now you are upset. Because you believe it was the fault of French government for not keeping an eye of him.

- You don't understand.

- I think I do.

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