“I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as a plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man.” Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) [i]
“We must believe in the possibility of a fuller life, or in the possibility of progress to be able to progress at all.” William Du Bois (1868-1963) [ii]
The events that took place this month in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper have been devastating in many ways. They resulted in a tragic loss of life which is not acceptable in any way, as it is equally not acceptable what is happening in eastern Ukraine or in northern Nigeria, or in other parts of the world where extremism of all sorts takes root and affects the lives of millions of people. The events that took place in Paris have had a strong impact on the moral fabric of Western societies and have the potential of reigniting societal tensions and conflicts. It has increased violence between communities of all sorts and of different beliefs and it has again managed to create a new “Other” that politicians and the media have been keen to point the fingers at. If this continues it will be highly damaging to the idea of unity and can affect the progress made until now and future generations. In this sense, I would like to argue the following: the events in Paris should teach us, Europeans and people from all over the world, to be more emphatic and to show more solidarity with people of different gender, class, race, religions, political or sexual orientation. In other words, to enhance our cultural solidarity. It is the diversity of the European people and the strength of its culture that can tackle internally bred fanaticism of all sorts, be it political or religious based. I will reflect on this in the following paragraphs pointing to some of the re-occurring questions I had in the aftermath of the events.
Europe is a cultural construct and the European Union is based on both cultural and political foundations. We should understand that our differences strengthen our identity. Much of the way in which the media has portrayed things was misleading, drawing on a wave of sentimentalism which inherently led to demonizing some communities. Nowadays, in the social media world, news travel at the speed of light. But prejudices and biases can travel faster. As much as I was adhering to the Charlie Hebdo cause I found it difficult to say “Je suis Charlie”, not because I didn’t believe in what they stand for, but because I felt this would create a rift and lead to the development of labels such as “Us” and “Them”, which in this case, I think, exacerbates the problem and creates a politics of exclusion.[iii] This was pointed out by other authors immediately after the event. For instance, Cas Mudde argues in an Open Democracy piece during the 7th of January that “Too often Islam and Muslims are treated as foreign, either linked to immigration or to a foreign country/region. But the majority of Muslims in most European countries are citizens, born and raised in Europe.” [iv]
I would go even further and not delineate between European Muslims and people of the same belief that are based throughout the world. Muslims are wrongly condemned as a community. They are some of the people that have endured horrific problems within and outside their own community. I will always remember the conversations that I had with Abud, an older colleague of mine from Sudan, with whom I worked in a kitchen dishwasher in a Dutch restaurant. There is no “Them” in this story but only “Us”. The “them” is only a handful of fanatics and a whole community should not be judged and labelled due to what 0.00001 % have committed. Even the previous statement I’ve made may be illogical because it assumes that the fanatics are part of the community and that there is a community A and a community B. In fact, we are all one, part of the same world. If political, economic and religious inspired ideas have divided us, they can also be the source of our re-connection. However, before that one element needs to be addressed.
Freedom of speech is a concept that needs further update. Voltaire advocated for an uncensored society and for challenging all types of authority.[v] Inevitably, all the discussions in the aftermath of the Paris killings lead to the idea of free speech. Freedom of speech has helped topple authoritarian regimes and injustice and has contributed to progress in many fields. As much as I am an adherent to this value, I am also an advocate of the idea that there should be a strong public debate about what is freedom of speech in contemporary society and when does it become something else.[vi] As much as intelligent and critical of everyone the Charlie Hebdo satire is, it may have been that the editors did not fully understand the cultural implications of their statements. This was much debated after the tragic events. I think that reflections on freedom of speech should not be dealt in an obtuse, one sided manner. For instance, I liked how the debate unfolded in some parts of the British media[vii], possibly because some of the views expressed were closer to mine.
In this respect, when freedom of speech creates problems within and between communities, that are not suffering from oppression, injustice or cultural discrimination, then a question mark should arise not only on the effects of freedom of speech on the latter three, but also about the elements themselves. In other words, if communities that seem democratic, equal and prosperous prove not to be inclusive, then some of the tenets of freedom of speech can be harmful. To be more concrete. Theoretically it may be that the concept of freedom of speech has not been updated in time as to reflect on the wider changes within European societies. By this, I mean that the European standards of the term need to be audited and improved alongside to the change within the society itself. I am not saying that freedom of speech should be cast aside or censored because it might offend other members of the community. What I argue is that the concept should not be used by only some members of the society at the expense of others. This often can lead to oppression, injustice or cultural discrimination.[viii] Freedom of speech should apply equally to every member of the society as long there are some cultural checks and balances in place and when the rule of law is respected. However, to my mind the root of the problem is possibly even deeper.
Tackle the hate at the core. La Haine[ix] is a well-known French movie that depicts the life of three young people, with an immigrant background, that live in riot-ridden Paris suburb. It speaks to many about the every-day life inequality in France, about racially and class abused youngsters, that can turn violent. The movie also shows that the destiny of each individual is subject to complex circumstances. I am not an expert on the situation in France and probably my French friends have a more in depth understanding of how things have evolved from in France since the 90’s. However, the events in Paris may show the failure of La Republique in many different respects. First, treating every individual as a French citizen is a flawed state logic because it entails that everyone, irrespective of background, will be similar to someone with strong French roots living in Bordeaux or Lyon. This of course can lead to a lack of integration and alienation and can create the basis for some lost souls to develop. In light of these issues, I could not stop asking myself the following questions: How a can a handful of fanatics develop such strong ideas? What are the conditions that drive them to cause violence in the first place? How is the State helping to integrate its young citizens and what is it doing to enhance inter- and intra-community dialogue and solidarity? These are some of the most fundamental questions that should be addressed by the French authorities, possibly with even more urgency than the enhancement of anti-terror laws.
Second, politicians should glue communities together and not contribute to further dividing them. The statements made by figures like Le Pen after the events shows how dangerous opportunistic political discourses can be. The fact that a handful of World leaders showed up for the “Solidarity march” may have been visible, although many pointed to the poor democracy and free speech CV’s of some of those present.[x] With all this, politicians should think deeper about what initiatives they can launch in order to tackle extremism and to ensure societal solidarity. From this point of view, the European Union, and especially the European Commission, should be a strong advocate of cultural solidarity and promote it through various actions and programmes. Provided that they can mobilize the communities themselves at the grass-root level, and not through what may be an inefficient top-down approach.
Third, although an overstatement, it seems to me that countries like the United Kingdom or Belgium are more open in promoting the diversity of each individual, irrespective of their political or religious beliefs. In the UK this came across well during the debates about the events. It’s not only a matter of “political correctness”, as some people would call it, but it’s really about a genuine connection between communities. It’s about respecting differences and minorities, and to allow them to prosper and develop alongside the mainstream parts of the society. Apart from tackling with hard issues such as authoritarian regimes or religious sourced violence, promoting cultural solidarity will probably be one of the key challenges of the 21st century.
Finally, there is a need for everyone, you and me, to act responsibly, deal with injustices, and challenge the mindset of people around you. As emphasized by a letter from Albert Einstein to William du Bois (philosopher and American civil rights activist that inspired Martin Luther King) one of the keys to fighting racism was to challenge inferiority sentiments.[xi] Therefore, address the apocalyptic advocates that live in your circles and challenge their views. I think that everyone has a duty to contribute to improve the connection between people and to reach out to all sides. That’s why Ahmed and Charlie we’re one, and cultural solidarity should be part of their legacy.
[i] The Philosophy Book, 2011, DK London, p. 86
[ii] The Philosophy Book, 2011, DK London, p. 234
[v] The Philosophy Book, 2011, DK London, p. 147