By Rokhaya Diallo
PARIS — Like a large number of my fellow citizens, I will remember for the rest of my days what I was doing when I heard about the cold-blooded assassination of the Charlie Hebdo team and two police officers. This unimaginable crime continues to make my blood run cold with fear and sadness. Two days later another self-proclaimed jihadist killed Jewish customers in a kosher market. What has happened to our “Country of Enlightenment”?
France has always bragged about being a model of coexistence where the universalist and color blind philosophy of our Republic was supposed to protect us from racial tension. If we don’t want our country to plunge into the abyss, the republican fable we are telling has to come to an end.
About 10 years ago, popular neighborhoods lived through unprecedented uprisings following the deaths of two young men, Arab and black, electrocuted while fleeing from policemen. The popular reaction interpreted these acts as resentment in the face of poverty, ghettoes, dead-end schooling, massive discrimination, unemployment and no hope for the future and police impunity. Cars and buildings were burned throughout France.
What has happened since then? Nothing. The same poverty aggravated by the economic crisis infected urban neighborhoods. Impoverished white French citizens became more open to the call of the extreme right politicians that they elected to the European Parliament. Doubt of the compatibility of French culture and Islam has become more and more open. Although Muslims, on the poorest fringes of society,make up less than 10 percent of the population, the perception persists of an imminent Muslim invasion that would drastically change the nature of the French identity. This is the theory of the “Great Replacement” not only propagated by the extreme right but also by public opinion leaders to whom the media complacently gives loud speakers.
The context of hate and defiance existed before the Charlie Hebdo attack. This is a country that placed the apocalyptic furor of the journalist, Eric Zemmour, in his book describing the Muslim threat to France, at the top of the 2014 bestseller list. One of its top novelists is Michel Houellebecq , obsessed by Islamophobic dread, National Unity proclaimed by the politicians seems no more than a sinister mise en scene.
Civilizational anguish, identity obsessions, phantasms of the purification of the “French base” — all the most anxiety-provoking theories find fertile ground in a France still struggling to digest its colonial past. Cries of “civil war” and denunciations of “internal enemies” abound as the witch hunt begins.
“I AM MUSLIM”
The evening of the attack, January 7th, I was part of the “on Refait le Monde” RTL radio talk program’s special edition dedicated to the tragedy. The discussion took an unexpected turn when Ivan Rioufol, an editorialist for Le Figaro, called upon France’s Muslims to demonstrate against the attacks.
I don’t usually mention my religious affiliation when I am speaking publicly, but I felt the need at this particular moment to say, “I am Muslim,” adding that I had nothing to do with assassins who claim to be of the same religion.
I am offended by the fact that people imagine that Muslims would “naturally” support such horrible acts that filled me with sadness. How could I detach myself from an abominable act without implicitly admitting that I had at some point been attached to it? I thought of the four million Muslims who, like me, would be ordered to answer for monstrous acts but who, unlike me, would not have a mike on French radio.
“I foresee Islamophobic attacks against mosques.”
I foresee the end of national consensus because of the pain caused by these murderous aggressions. I foresee Islamophobic attacks against mosques.
No one suspects Christians of being “naturally sympathetic” with the Ku Klux Klan or anti-abortion commandos. No one asks them to detach themselves from the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, who presented himself as the “crusader of Christianity,” and who on July 22, 2011, perpetrated targeted massacres in Norway that claimed 77 lives.
Yet Muslims are the accused. A general climate of suspicion seems to set in where Muslims are required to justify themselves in the face of what happened — as if they carry a particular burden differentiating them from the rest of the population.
Furthermore, the distinction is already present day to day: Arabs and blacks in France are six to eight times more likely than whites to have their papers checked by police. What’s going to happen to our fellow citizens, Arab and black, who look like the terrorists who committed these crimes?
I am afraid these events will favor legislation that will take away our civil rights. Fear is a poor counselor; the Patriot Act in the U.S. is a sinister reminder that could inspire legislative measures that would cause us to abdicate our fundamental freedoms.
Marine Le Pen is already expressing her willingness to reinforce military strength and Nicolas Sarkozy is questioning the “part of responsibility” attributable to “Muslim representatives” while asking for reform in immigration policy that, depending, would create “difficulty in integration.”
And why shouldn’t we look at this directly? The Koran didn’t produce these monsters. They were born and raised here in France. These killers are the products of French social realities. This crazy murderous rage that drove them is not the fruit of religious teachings transmitted by their families but stems from a French sociopolitical context. If it is not, then how do we explain the proportion of the number of Muslims in France who are jihadists fighting in Syria to those coming from majority Muslim countries such as Egypt?
“Through denial, France has created its own monsters.”
In 2004, young girls wearing the hijab or traditional Muslim headscarf were refused school attendance; since 2010, Muslim women wearing the burka, or traditional full body garment, are forbidden on the streets. Didn’t they think these measures would cause certain Muslims to seek refuge in more welcoming arms? When the mother country rejects its children, the least stable will look for replacement parents.
The resentment of an enraged, pauperized and maligned youth makes it more receptive to the siren call of religious extremists who find in them the ideal terrain to plant their catastrophic ideologies. This in no way excuses the vileness of the acts committed this week. Nevertheless, we must recognize that a French dysfunction is at the origin of these acts.
While veiled women are barricaded at home in fear of being attacked on the streets, I can’t help but think that at the same time, my fellow Jewish citizens fear attending their synagogues to pray or hesitate to wear their yarmulkes in public.
We will not be able to rebuild our “national community” with simple declarations. Politicians must adopt a can-do posture so that no one in France feels so desperate that his only life project is to organize massacres.
We learn through pain but we also grow from our mistakes. This is the lesson we should learn from this tragedy.
Translated by Alberta Wilson
This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 13, 2015 and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker, widely recognized for her work in favour of racial, gender and religious equality. Born and raised in Paris, she became involved early on in local politics, chairing the Youth Council of the City of La Courneuve . In 2007, she co-founded LES INDIVISIBLES, an association that created the “‘Y A BON AWARDS”, an annual parody of the Academy Awards “honoring” French public personalities who made the most outrageous racist STATEMENTS during the year. She is the co-creator and host of the TV program Egaux mais pas trop (Equals but not too much) on LCP (French Parliamentary radio Channel) addressing issues of diversity and equality. She regularly contributes to THE RTL radio program, On refait le Monde (The World, done over).
Rokhaya directed and co-produced the documentary The steps to liberty, in 2013 for Public TV Channel France O, exploring the issues of race and multiculturalism through a transatlantic lens. In 2014, after, being the target of a call to rape on Twitter, she directed a documentary, Networks of Hate, for French channels LCP/AN and France 3, on hate speech and freedom of speech online. Today, Rokhaya lives in Paris and is working on several soon-to-be-released books.