Olivier Tonneau, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, writes: [H]ow has a fraction of the French youth (of either white, black or Arabic origin) become so responsive to fundamentalism? The answer to this question cannot be directly traced back to “the West bombing Muslim countries” [an explanation which mirrors in reverse Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”]. I think it has primarily to do with the complete failure of the Republic to deliver on its promises of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Here, there is an important point to make.
I often read in the English press, or hear from British friends, that French laicité [secularism] is a “foundational myth” – as if France lived under the illusion that religion could be eradicated once and for all. This has nothing to do with laïcité properly defined. Laïcité does not deny anybody the right to express their religious beliefs, but it aims to found society on a political contract that transcends religious beliefs which, as a result, become mere private affairs. The beurs who marched on Paris in 1983 were performing a laïc [secular] demonstration. They were not the only ones to demand that the Republic be true to its own principles. In a beautiful book titled La Démocratie de l’Abstention, two sociologists trace the heartbreaking story (at least it breaks my republican heart) of how the French citizens who arrived from the former colonies vote massively: they are proud of their right to participate in democracy. They try to convince their children to do the same; but the latter are not interested. Decades of social segregation and economic discrimination has made it clear to them that the word ‘French’ on their passport is meaningless – there is no equality, no freedom and clearly no fraternity.
The process of disenfranchisement was gradual. Riots in the banlieues started erupting at the turn of the eighties, and gathered pace in the nineties. They had no religious subtext: they were expressions of anger at discrimination and police harassment. Yet the need to belong is a fundamental human need: if French youth of Arab dissent could not feel that they belonged to France, what would they belong to? La Démocratie de l’abstention describes how the conflict between Israel and Palestine – which had been going on for decades already – suddenly caught the imagination of the youth: it was their Vietnam, their cause. They had found their brothers overseas. When, in the 2009 European elections, a bunch of crazed conspiracy theorists launched an anti-Semitic party which had strictly nothing to do with Europe or with the issues that these youth faced, they registered high votes in many suburbs. And as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself degenerated from a political conflict into a religious conflict, so did the French youth begin to read the world in religious terms.
Youth is the age of self-sacrifice and revolutionary dreams. In the sixties, young middle class Frenchmen who felt alienated from their conservative milieu idolized Mao’s cultural revolution – no less nihilist than Islamic fundamentalism – dreamed of throwing bombs and sometimes did so. But this case is different. The middle-class Maoists belonged to a privileged class. They were highly educated. They had the intellectual, economic and social means to move out of their nihilist craze and back into the world. The disenfranchised, ostracized youth are an easy target for indoctrinators of all sorts. Their world-view becoming ever more schematic, they endorsed a West vs Muslim grid that apparently made some of them incapable of recognizing that a newspaper such as Charlie Hebdo, who was standing with Palestine, for ethnic minorities, for equal rights and justice, was on their side – a precious ally: the sole fact that Charlie Hebdo had poked fun at their faith was enough to make them worthy of death.
And yet perhaps this narrative (which, be reassured, is nearing its end) helps you understand what Charlie Hebdo was trying to do. It was precisely trying to defend the republican ideals whereby it is not religion that determines your commitments but justice. It mocked not the religion that Muslims have quietly inherited from their fathers and forefathers, but the aggressive fundamentalism that demands that everybody defines themselves – ethically, politically, geographically – in religious terms. It stressed that a religion that lays a claim to ruling a society is dangerous and, yes, ridiculous, whichever religion it may be – Islam is no sacred cow. [Continue reading…]