« Je suis Charlie »

'Je suis Charlie' gathering in Cannes on Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je suis Charlie gathering in Cannes on Sunday, January 11, 2015

On January 7, 2015, two heavily armed terrorists entered the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly French magazine, and murdered eleven people, including eight members of the editorial staff. They claimed to be avenging the Prophet Muhammad who had supposedly been insulted by cartoons published in the magazine. During their getaway, the murderers shot and killed a police officer, bringing the death toll to twelve. Eleven other people were injured in the attack, four of whom seriously.

The next day, an accomplice of the perpetrators shot and killed a policewoman in a suburb south of Paris. On January 9, the same man murdered four people at a kosher food mart and took another thirteen customers hostage.

In the meantime, the two Charlie Hebdo attackers had been tracked down and were under siege in a print shop on the outskirts of Paris. At precisely 4:57 p.m. on January 9, police forces stormed both the print shop and the mart, killed the three terrorists, and freed all hostages without further loss of life. All three terrorists were French citizens.

To even begin to understand how French nationals can perpetrate such acts of terror against their own country, it is necessary to look at French history and its impact on the country today. I believe the most important thing is to understand that while the problem is clearly one of radical militant Islamism, the conflict is of socio-economic, not religious nature.

There are an estimated six million Muslims in France today. Exact figures are not available because the strict secular nature of the country makes it illegal for census takers to ask questions that would provide more accurate data. Still, six million is a close enough approximation, and considering a total French population of some 65 million, Muslims represent a sizable minority of over 9%.

Where do all these people originally come from? Mainly from Northern Africa, and initially mostly from Algeria. In 1830, using a three-year old diplomatic incident as a pretext, French troops landed in Algiers, conquered the city, and eventually most of the country. Algeria first became a French colony, then a part of France itself. By 1913, some 140,000 Europeans lived in Algiers; they vastly outnumbered the few thousand natives who still remained in the old city center. The metropolis on the shores of the southern Mediterranean was considered one of the most important and beautiful French cities.

The ideals of the Third Republic (1870-1940) were based on the values of the French revolution: democracy, human rights, and freedom of worship. In Algeria, however, these things only applied to the French and other Europeans. To become a French citizen and thus acquire the right to vote, an Algerian had to renounce his Islamic faith; many were understandably reluctant to do this. Between 1899 and 1909, only 551 Algerians applied for French citizenship. 337 of these applications were granted, 214 rejected. Considering that back then, the country's population consisted of roughly 720,000 Europeans and approximately 4.5 million Algerians, this is a shamefully low naturalization rate, especially because Algerians had far fewer rights and paid much higher taxes. While they could hold jobs within the French administration, all officials from mayors up had to be French.

In 1962, after eight years of an extremely bloody war, Algeria proclaimed its independence from France. Almost a million Algerian French and some 100,000 Algerians who had collaborated with the colonial power fled to France, fearing reprisals in the former colony. Most of these refugees, a majority of whom had never lived anywhere but in Algeria, found it difficult to integrate metropolitan France. In 1963, an estimated 43% of them lived in shantytowns. To be sure, many immigrants from France's former African colonies and their descendants held regular jobs, married, raised children, in short, became French in culture and behavior. A large percentage of these people and their offspring, however, live in the inner cities of Paris or the slum-like poor neighborhoods of Marseille and other communities. They form a kind of alternate society with its own rules, laws, and values.

Over time, the Maghrebi population has increased, partly through normal population growth, partly through new immigrants that were brought in by the thousands during the economic boom that started in the late sixties. When things slowed down, a large percentage of these people became unemployed. Members of this alternate society and their descendants are for the most part supported by the welfare state. They live without hope of ever having a decent education or holding a respectable job. They have no future, no dignity, no self-respect, and not the slightest expectation that this will ever change. It is in this ideologically barren wasteland that radical Islamists find fertile ground for their murderous seeds, that they are able to recruit young men and women by treating them with respect in the name of a religion that most of them share for only historical reasons.

When French Prime Minister Manuel Valls used the term "apartheid" to describe the situation in France, there was an uproar from the political right. Yet, it can be argued that what France instituted in Algeria was something akin to apartheid, and no doubt this made it far more difficult for the country and the inhabitants of its former colony to reconcile. In a sense, this apartheid continues today; legally, of course, the Northern Africans have the same rights as everyone else, but now the difference is made socially rather than racially.

On Sunday, January 11, 2015, an estimated 3.7 million people gathered peacefully all over France. In Paris, it was the largest congregation since the liberation in WW II; countrywide, it was the largest gathering in French history. The main theme was the same everywhere: Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie), an expression of solidarity with the first victims of the terrorists. But one could see other signs as well, proclaiming, "I am a Jew", or "I am a policeman", all in solidarity with the victims. Rabbis, imams, and priests marched together, prayed together, and embraced in public. People sang their support for the police, something never before seen in France. One scene that went around the world was that of a middle-aged man with a hat walking up to a member of the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the tough French riot police) and trying to hug him. The officer was visibly embarrassed and not used to such public displays of affection, but eventually submitted to the man's embrace under the applause of onlookers.

Many heads of state marched together in Paris that day. Who would have thought that we would ever see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas march, if not side by side, then at least in the same line? My only regret is that there was no representative from the United States.

In the French Assembly, after a minute of silence to honor those who had been murdered, a member spontaneously broke into the Marseillaise, and the entire chamber, including all politicians from all parties, joined in the singing of the French national anthem. It was an amazing display of unity that echoed what was happening across the country.

Finally, a word about the magazine that started it all. Charlie Hebdo is calling itself a satirical publication, but I disagree with that self-assessment. I find the publication more obnoxious than funny, more interested in provocation than humor. I don't understand the desire of the editors to publish things that are hurtful to some people just because they can, because free speech guarantees their right to do so. It simply creates resentment without generating anything positive in return. The French expression that in my opinion describes this best is bête et méchant, stupid and nasty, but of course in our society, people have a right to be stupid, and up to a point, nasty.

Certainly, none of this is meant to legitimize the horrible acts of terror that took place. They are truly unforgivable, and they also hurt Muslims by mere association. During the 8 o'clock evening news on January 29, French television station France 2 published the results of an INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) poll revealing that two thirds of the French population were able to make a clear distinction between radical Islamists and Muslims. While this was presented as good news, it still leaves a third that apparently cannot make this differentiation, so the situation is likely to remain tense for a while.

So what happens next? It's anyone's guess. Jewish schools, Muslim places of worship, and many public places are patrolled by very visible army personnel and police carrying automatic weapons. The unity between the political parties is starting to unravel, something that was to be expected. I don't know what the long-term answer to the problem is, but right now everyone needs to calm down and refrain from giving radicals more excuses to recruit young people and manipulate them into embracing their violent and destructive cause that has everything to do with power and politics and nothing at all with religion. As a society, we should absolutely continue to defend our core values, but it certainly isn't necessary to stoke the fires of divergence and hatred for the sole purpose of proving that freedom of speech makes it possible for us to do so.

Cannes, France
February 1, 2015

A few photos of the January 11, 2015, gathering in Cannes may be viewed in one of our web galleries.

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