In which I lose patience with pretending things are fine
A warning: I ordinarily save my most scathing prose for the wrongs in American society. Some of my European readers may have acquired the expectation that they can read me in safety, seeing it as a lesson in how horrible things are in the U.S., and aren’t we glad we’re so much more civilized here. If this is what you are looking for, you probably want to stop reading right now.
When the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked in early 2015, many people around the world were quick to rush to their defense, with hashtags like #JeSuisCharlie and praising the importance of their freedom of speech and their right to criticize Islam. What people tried very hard not to say at the time — and there was considerable pressure not to say it — was that everybody had long known that “criticizing Islam” was always a fig-leaf for the left-wing variation of European racism. It was mere misinterpretation, people tried to say, that whenever this magazine satirized or criticized Islam, it always seemed to be doing so in the form of suggesting that Muslim immigrants were dirty, mooching beggars at best and Fifth Columnists at worst.
This past Thursday, Charlie appears to have given up on even the fig-leaf, with their unsigned op-ed “How did we get here?” arguing that there is no such thing as an innocent Muslim. When Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan gave a talk at Paris’ Sciences Po, they tell us, “[h]e came to speak of his specialist subject, Islam, which is also his religion. Rather like lecture by a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker. Thus judge and contestant both.”¹ While he will never personally pick up a Kalashnikov or build a bomb, they say, his job is to provide cover for those who do, apparently in his role as part of the International Muslim Conspiracy.
The rest of the article, unfortunately, degenerates from there.
Teju Cole has written a very apt response. He gets right to the heart of the matter:
Reading this extraordinary editorial by Charlie, it’s hard not to recall the vicious development of “the Jewish question” in Europe and the horrifying persecution it resulted in. Charlie’s logic is frighteningly similar: that there are no innocent Muslims, that “something must be done” about these people, regardless of their likeability, their peacefulness, or their personal repudiation of violence. Such categorization of an entire community as an insidious poison is a move we have seen before.
The fact is that a profound and violent racism has always been at the heart of far too much of European society. It has always centered the rights of “true Frenchmen” (or “true Germans,” or “true Hungarians,” or “true anything-else;” each locale has its own version of this) over any outsider, by a definition of “outsider” which can easily run to many generations. This is far from new; European law from the fifth century until the fifteenth equated citizenship with membership in the local church, and equated all rights — up to and including the right not to be murdered — with citizenship.
While this seemed to recede with the Enlightenment, those groups not so privileged as to be considered “true Europeans” have always had good reason to doubt that. The Jews were gradually permitted to become citizens over the 19th and early 20th century, and apart from one minor slip-up this seems to have gone just fine.² The Roma have always been legal and social outsiders, openly despised and legislated against. And now that Europe has a substantial Muslim population, the old system has come to realize that they exist, as well.
Nehama Sobernheim’s op-ed from a few days ago captured this from the Jewish perspective: after the November attacks in Paris, or last week’s attack on Brussels, journalists described each as “the first such attack on ‘normal’ people,” driving home the reality of terrorism. But in both cities, there had been significant terror attacks against Jews less than a year earlier; those were not perceived as being attacks on the French or the Belgians, but as part of what one simply has to expect, being a Jew. It’s this sort of thing that puts the lie to the European claim that people who assimilate and embrace their Europeanness become truly European.
The Muslims are, of course, the bête noire of the day.³ And who can blame Europe, after two horrific terrorist attacks within a space of four and a half months? Yet the underlying situation which has so enabled radicalization — the fact that Europe’s Muslims overwhelmingly live in segregated ghettos, viewed as dangerous, untrustworthy, and unemployable, the frequent target of political venom and discriminatory legislation (Is the clothing of any other group banned by law?) is far older.
In the postwar era, Europe has managed to convince itself that racism is not a problem the way it is for those crazy Americans. The far right, still proudly trumpeting its “Europeans first!” attitude (that being the local equivalent of “White power!”), sank into obscurity. The left trumpeted the rights of one oppressed group after another, so long as they were all comfortably far away. And the large center could ignore it all, thinking that everything in Europe was fine. In a strange way, it was: the real effects of racism were either far away, in Europe’s collapsing colonies, or directed at groups which were either largely eliminated or largely invisible.
But the arrival of immigrants from the ruins of Europe’s colonial projects, and the open borders of the Schengen Region which allowed them to become part of every European country, has suddenly placed Europe in a bind. The automatic claim, so deep a part of the modern European identity, that anyone can become European by accepting local values was sorely put to the test when people who were actually different in things like language, dress, and custom showed up. The children who had been raised uncritically on stories of being “stolen by Gypsies” or of terrifying Moorish raiders, while at the same time learning a vision of Europeanness in which everyone who was a part of that vision looked basically the same, were now adults encountering foreignness en masse for the first time.
And so we entered the hallucinogenic days of the 1990’s, the 2000’s, and the 2010’s, in which Europe paraded itself as the defender of human rights while trying to quietly wrestle with its own profound discomfort with immigrants. Especially after Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding, Europe found a way to rationalize this: the Muslims (at least, the bad Muslims) were the enemy of the freedom of expression, something which is a fundamental European value. The right to criticize Islam, like the right to criticize any religion, is foundational.
All of which would be well and good, but it was never the end of it. Especially as immigrant populations rose, critiques of Islam kept coming out as critique of Muslims. European Leftists continually marched for Palestinian causes, but they regularly seemed to come out in the form of anti-Semitism.⁴ And right-wing parties have once again come to the fore, in Europe as in the United States.⁵
Charlie Hebdo has long been a standard-bearer of the French center-left. It rarely gets that title officially, but their satire tends to define the bounds of acceptable political satire, and their covers, visible across the country each Wednesday, have long fueled the political conversation.
Here are some of these covers:
Now, to be fair, Muslims and Jews are not their only targets. Charlie is an infamous enemy of the Pope, as well:
However, to treat these as evidence of “fairness” is to indulge the mother of all false equivalencies. Western Europe is more than half Catholic, and Central Europe nearly three-fourths. France is 88% Catholic, roughly half practicing and the rest self-described as lapsed. Catholics are not, nor have they ever been, the subject of legal disabilities, social stigma, or exclusion from the halls of power. (Even during the Reign of Terror, the worst the Church suffered was that it lost some privileges and became an official part of government) Muslims, meanwhile, are routinely portrayed as violent monsters, permanent aliens, and moochers on society. If you were a Muslim and saw this in the street, what would you think?
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we were treated to an unending stream of public discussions of the importance of freedom of the press. I myself participated in this, writing about the importance of the powerful never being immune from mockery. And while I stand by what I wrote there, I increasingly regret ever associating Charlie Hebdo with that idea. The covers they printed would stand for this idea if they were separated from all context; but in the context of modern French politics, of the people who would surely see them on the street, they were no better than blackface.
The magazine’s decision to drop all pretense is not going to put them out of business, or even cause a major flap in their circulation. They are simply aware of the shifting preference of their audience (and their writers) for a mask of tolerance. They will claim that this is part of the reaction to terrorism, but the fact is that this position has been part and parcel of their editorial stance for decades. They will claim that Europe is and has always been a place open to migrants who will join Europe, but will not admit that belief in this idea seems to only occur among the groups seen as “assimilable.”
I am not, and I have never been, Charlie, because to be Charlie requires that one be seen by others as part of this society. I can never be Charlie, because to be a Jew in Europe is always going to be slightly alien, slightly suspicious. And I would never want to be Charlie, because to be a Muslim in Europe is to be hated, and I will not stand by while my cousins are treated with contempt.
¹ Quite apart from the intrinsic vileness of this entire op-ed, I find their choice of simile rather odd. Wouldn’t you expect a Professor of Pies to be a pie-maker? Why would you see any conflict of interest in such a thing? The job of a Professor of Pies is not to criticize the existence of pie; but they seem to believe that the principal role of a Professor of Islamic Studies is to criticize Islam, and so no Muslim could ever be suited to the job.
² I joke, of course. Even apart from that “minor slip-up,” it has not gone particularly fine.
³ What, you don’t find the phrase appropriate?
⁴ I particularly remember the chants, “Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the Gas!,” brought to us by Dutch soccer fans last year.
⁵ It’s been charming to watch Marine le Pen at National Front rallies, telling everyone that her party is just about protecting France, and isn’t about racism, only to have her father, party founder Jean-Marie le Pen, keep showing up and yelling that it’s all about the racism to raucous cheers. She is, alas, quite moderate by European far-right standards, simply standing for overt and legal racism. Her party has few overt links to the Nazis, which is more than I can say for analogous parties elsewhere.