This article is an abridged version. The original text can be found at Society and Space
People want us to demonstrate. Very well, but tomorrow what do we do? They point their finger at us with a nasty look on their face? I don’t want to be part of this France for a single afternoon, but every single day. –Youssouf from the Bondy banlieue
In the immediate aftermath of the horrors of 7 January, emotions run high, oscillating between a feeling of urgency to do something, and a feeling of resignation, whereby everything seems futile. For what can anyone do against such reckless hate? On this day – almost a month after the release of the US Senate’s report on the gruesome CIA torture programme, and three weeks after the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan, the Peshawar school massacre where 145 people, 132 of them schoolchildren, were killed – a minibus full of explosives went off in Sana’a, killing at least 37 people and wounding 66. This was added as yet another news item on the long list of terrorist killings, without anyone organising rallies or identifying themselves with the tortured or murdered victims of such terror. No one even wiggled a pen in the air.
But the horrors of 7 January were not limited to Yemen’s capital city. For three days, the French capital was caught up in murderous events, and Parisians had a taste of what it might be like to live with terror, experienced on a daily basis in other parts of the world. Unlike those parts of the world, however, Parisians do not live under the constant threat of established armies, private mercenaries, or drones operated from the Nevada desert. They might also take some relief that the perpetrators of the crimes of 7 January were identified and hunted down by legitimate authorities, which is rarely the case in regions destabilised by constant terror, induced by military interventions and other forms of violent attacks.
In a sign of solidarity, millions of French citizens stood up against terror, to show the world that they were ‘a united people’. The gatherings were massive, emotional and, in a way, encouraging – encouraging in that despite everything that has happened, the citizens of this country can publicly manifest their solidarity and unity. But the murderers of 7 January were French citizens, too, born and raised in this country. The details of their lives that have started to emerge suggest that they all went through a radicalisation. They were not born with an inclination, or bred from childhood, to plan and kill journalists, police, or Jews in their own country of birth and residence. This suggests the possibility that their indoctrination and radicalisation into murderers could not have happened in the absence of long-standing and deeply entrenched grievances.
It is the hate stemming from such grievances that the ideologues of terrorism mobilise, which is why the deprived and disenfranchised neighbourhoods in the peripheral areas of cities – banlieues, slums – where unemployment hits as many as half the youth population are targeted as potential recruiting grounds. But what could cause grief to a French citizen, in this cradle of human rights, united under the ‘one and indivisible Republic’?
Let me make it clear that I am categorical in my condemnation of what happened. There is no justification for these murders. But if we are troubled about what has happened, troubled enough to take a hard look at, rather than falling in love with, ourselves, then it is important to inquire about the conditions that made such a mobilisation of hate possible. In the highly emotional aftermath of the incidents, it is hard not to feel moved by the extraordinary mobilisation of citizens. Newspapers are full of comments about how proud we should be as French citizens, how a united and solidaristic people we are, how the spirit of May 1968 continues despite the attack on its inheritors, how we value equality and freedom of expression, and so on. If all were nice and dandy, then what made such radicalisation of these three French-born and raised citizens possible? Why, a decade ago, did 300 cities go up in flames for two weeks, and what has been done since? How is it that the extreme right has become the second major political force in this land of freedom, equality and fraternity? Marine Le Pen, the leader of an extreme right party, had already topped the presidential polls before the incidents, in September and November 2014, and extreme right leaders are now having a field day in France and the rest of Europe (for example, see here and here).
This is not at all to suggest that the murderers’ actions can be justified by the circumstances. But to warn that despite the timely and admirable display of unity under an alleged one and indivisible republic, French society is deeply divided as a result of its long history of discrimination and increasing hostility towards immigrants – a poisonous mix of xenophobia and Islamophobia that several French politicians, endowed with the authority of the state, have unashamedly mobilised for their political ends. Muslims are the most stigmatised group of this divided society, spared neither by satire nor political discourse and action. We are living in a deeply divided society where discrimination against Arabs, blacks and Muslims does not even shock anyone and where political power is concentrated in the hands of a homogeneous political elite, despite token appointments.
The perpetrators of the hideous crimes of 7 January had the somatic features and names that could have easily made life a nightmare in France. It is no secret that France has a solid track record of discrimination against its Arab and black citizens, including in job and housing markets, and identity checks by the police . Now, of course, the police are more popular than before, and this is not surprising – even François Hollande’s popularity went up in the polls after the incidents. The police are cherished, and rightly so, because they risked – and some lost – their lives while trying to protect citizens. But this should not make us forget the deep-seated tensions between disenfranchised Arab and black youth and the police, which is fed by a long history of police harassment and violence against these populations, the perceived immunity of the police, and the colonial history of France. As Abdel from a banlieue of Lyon once put it with reference to the tension between banlieue youth and the police, ‘The Algerian war is not over in France’ . The mutual hostility between the two groups is played out on an uneven terrain, since the former is stigmatised and delegitimised by official statements, while the latter are typically spared of much criticism, even when their use of force exceeds legitimate limits and turns into violence disproportionately visited upon the former group.
It is the coupling of everyday hardship and discrimination with stigmatisation that creates the conditions that turn resentment into hate, hate into radicalisation. The appeal of fundamentalist discourse resides in its potential to turn a feeling of powerlessness into one of being all too powerful, guided by a divine source and a heavenly objective, as experts on the appeal of jihad for disenfranchised youth explain. If there is an element of truth in this observation, if the fundamentalists do indeed capitalise on the imposed inferiority of youth and provide them with doctrines and fora designed to make them feel somewhat powerful, then the French state has been doing exactly the opposite – not just in terms of concrete policies, but also by the deployment of stigmatising language by its high-ranking officials that went unsanctioned. The successive French governments not only failed to address the problems leading to such discontent, they flamed the fire of resentment by tolerating inflammatory language that combined xenophobia and Islamophobia.
In light of the emerging accounts from the survivors of the massacre, it turns out that the issue of ‘what the French state has done for banlieue youth’ was also a point of contention within Charlie Hebdo, some arguing on the side of ‘nothing’ and others of ‘plenty’. Of course this sounds like a very French take on things that asks too much from the state. Perhaps one could ask: What has the French state done to prevent their disenfranchisement and stigmatisation? Has it sought effective policies to curb unemployment? Has it sought effective policies to end discrimination in employment and housing markets? Has it done anything, rather than covering up and justifying, police harassment and violence? Has it sanctioned government ministers for making publicly racist and Islamophobic remarks? Has it not itself, through its policies and the public discourses of its officials, including its President, contributed to the further stigmatisation of this group?
It is one thing to criticise powerful and dominant groups in a society, another to constantly take the piss out of its most stigmatised, by mocking their dearly held religious beliefs. The misdemeanours of Islamists and the abuses of Islam to mobilise hatred and violence are already widely criticised in the Muslim world. Even without the help of French May 1968 inheritors, many courageous people in Muslim countries are themselves capable of criticising, through mockery, such aberrations made in the name of Islam, without recourse to what one journalist called, with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic cartoons, ‘repeated pornographic humiliation’ of this religion, its prophet and followers. Charlie Hebdo was right to practice and insist on freedom of speech, but it was far from even-handed in its attack on organised religions . After 9/11, a former Charlie Hebdo journalist wrote in 2013, an ‘Islamophobic neurosis gradually took hold’ in the journal. If the whole point of satire, vulgar or not, is to criticise uses and abuses of power, just what a cartoon depicting a naked Muslim prophet asking ‘Do you like my butt?’ achieves remains obscure .
It is one thing to feel resentment for discrimination and stigmatisation, another to kill people, and the path from one to the other is neither short nor straightforward. But a warmongering response similar to Bush’s after 9/11, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls chose to adopt in his immediate response to the attacks, will only aggravate the tensions, problems and grievances. There are already many reported assaults on mosques and insults on Muslim women depicting signs of their religious affiliation through dress, who, once again, seem to be disproportionately victimised. It is also highly likely that Arab and black male youth will suffer a backlash that will do little to improve their already precarious position in the job and housing markets, or in the face of police harassment. It is the hate arising from such everyday grievances that the fundamentalists will seek to mobilise for recruiting future terrorists. The rally and its political theatre is over now. Very well, but tomorrow what do we do?
I am grateful to Claire Hancock for her comments and suggestions, and to Natalie Oswin for her invitation to contribute this piece.
 On job and housing market discrimination, see, for example, the 2010 report of HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité) and a 2013 report for Le Défenseur des Droits. On abusive and discriminatory identity checks by the police, see the 2012 Human Rights Watch report and the website of an association that was founded in 2011 to fight against such practices and other forms of police violence.
 This imbalance led some commentators to argue that ‘the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie were racists’.
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Mustafa Dikeç is professor at the Institut Français d’Urbanisme in Paris, and member of the Society & Space editorial board. He is the author of Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics and Urban Policy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), and Space, Politics and Aesthetics (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). His new book on urban revolts in liberal democracies, Urban Rage, will be published by Yale University Press in 2017.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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