Monday 26 January 2015

I am Charlie (’s neighbour)

The 11th of January saw more than 50 leaders from across the world join more than a million French in a march through Paris as a show of solidarity following the 'Charlie Hebdo' terrorist attacks that killed 17. It was the largest exercise in collective national self-expression since the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. The beleaguered French leader Francois Hollande looked presidential; Paris was the capital of the world. And the French are once again united in fraternity? Well, not quite.

A CNN correspondent, reporting on the eve of the attacks, said that France's large Muslim population represented '5 million problems'. He clearly misspoke, but at least his analysis was clear - no one else can agree on what exactly the problem is, let alone alight on a solution. Predictably, when asking why so many young citizens (in both the UK and France) seek to fight in Syria or kill their fellow citizens, the two poles of opinion have lined up against each other in their usual order.

On one side the liberally-minded, with Nick Clegg (the deputy Prime Minister of the UK) as their spokesperson, decry a 'perversion of Islam' and maintain that 'many, many British Muslims feel fervently British but also are very proud of their Muslim faith'. Topping that, the Financial Times decided this weekend to interview five different French Muslims about their views on discrimination and racism in French society - they all feel 'French' but are not accepted as such. Whilst this is a fair indictment of French society, the FT clearly isn't really interested in their views. Their not-so-subtle point is that the French are to blame for the attacks - they (kind of) deserved it because they weren't/aren't particularly tolerant.

And on the other side are the socially conservative; Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, called certain British Muslims a 'fifth column' and raised questions about the 'gross policy of multiculturalism'. On both sides of the channel, such individuals have used the incident as a podium to, not-so-subtly, brand Islam as fundamentally incompatible with "western" values.

The French and British government responses have been equally predictable - they are endeavouring to pass more anti-terrorist legislation and crackdown on 'extremism'. In the UK, through legislation to force internet companies to store content, they prescribe a slightly updated form of the remedy offered in 1914, 1939 and during the Troubles in Northern Ireland - to protect our liberty we need to give greater powers to the security services. If that sounds like a paradox - ceding our freedoms to protect our liberty - its because it is. The basic bargain is that we should trust the security services to use their extra power responsibly because they're the good guys; this doesn't quite stand up in the post-Snowden era. Even worse, there is no appetite to update the confusing plethora of hate and anti-terrorism laws, restricting freedom of speech, which are hopelessly out of date, selectively enforced and hypocritical in places. Somewhat bizarrely, controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala was arrested the week after France marched in defence of freedom of speech for saying that he felt like he was Charlie Coulibaly (one of the attackers); apparently he was 'apologising for terrorism'. Why should the French state defend the rights of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to publish what they wish - thereby tacitly justifying the magazine publishing its latest cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad - but crack down on Dieudonné's less-popular, but equally legitimate view?

If the debate and analysis is stale, media coverage of such incidents is even worse. It is the same, tired post 9/11 narrative that the UK and US governments used to justify costly and largely pointless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - society itself is being targeted by shadowy 'radicals', who are given orders by mysterious organisations in Yemen or Afghanistan; places that don't have internet or mobile phone signals. Al-Qaeda may well run training camps, but is it really co-ordinating a global network of operatives, with sophisticated cells in London and Paris? Or could this possibly be a home grown phenomenon? Not everyone has to be 'radicalised' by 'extremist' online preachers - perhaps multiple loyalties and identities, long encouraged by liberal approaches to integration and cultural heritage, have reached a logical conclusion? In most places around the world (from Ukraine to Egypt), 'extremist' and 'terrorist' have become bywords for people governments don't like - we're rapidly approaching a similar situation in the UK and France.

On balance, it does seem that the lot of British and French Muslims has been worsened by the actions of a few bad apples. The insipid debate that has followed hasn't really proposed any interesting or helpful solutions. Perhaps its because we know that the real, long-term antidotes to (all) religious fervour are iPhones, Starbucks coffee and Burberry jeans. It is abundantly clear that people are more fervently religious in the tribal areas of Pakistan than in the upmarket cafes of Oslo. In the UK, not much will change in the short run - there might be more attacks; there will certainly be more hysterical media coverage. The security services will probably be given more power and use it unwisely. And in the long run, as in 1914, 1939 and during the Troubles, Britain will endure - she always has, she always will.

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