Leonid Bershidsky writes: The record influx of Muslim refugees last year coincided with a sharp decline in the number of violent anti-Semitic incidents in major European countries, many of which bore the brunt of the refugee crisis.
The wave of so-called new anti-Semitism of recent years largely stemmed from anti-Israeli rather than racist beliefs, and had often been linked to the persistence of such attitudes among the growing Muslim population. Yet data from the 2015 report on global anti-Semitism, published on Wednesday by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, clearly show that as the refugees started coming in by the tens of thousands per day starting about a year ago, Europe became a safer place to be Jewish.
According to data collected by the Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola, France, the U.K. and Germany are the European countries with the biggest core Jewish population, defined as people who describe themselves as Jews. In France, the number of major violent anti-Semitic attacks dropped to 72 last year from 164 in 2014. The U.K. saw a similarly steep decrease, to 62 from 141. In Germany, there were 37 attacks, down from 76. Throughout Europe, anti-Jewish violence is at the lowest level in a decade. [Continue reading…]
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes: The whole universe may be found in a grain of London life,” wrote Peter Ackroyd. Sadiq Khan knows the grainy, multifarious life of the capital intimately. He is a real Londoner, and that is why he is the best choice for mayor. It matters more than his race, religion or class. Khan’s Pakistan-born father was a bus driver, his mother a seamstress. They had eight children, seven of them boys. The parents saved up to buy a home, and sent all their children to university. Khan has lived in public housing, used public transport, known deprivation, and epitomises urban aspiration.
Zac Goldsmith was born in London yet he could never acquire the same sensibility, or even pretend to know what it means. Goldsmith has never had to strive, and his privilege shows in his lack of passion, his lack of the kind of energy that drives most true Londoners.
I moved to London, from Oxford, in 1978 with my mum, ex-husband and a six-month-old baby. Exiles from Uganda, we had little money then, and lived in a one-bedroom flat near Shepherd’s Bush. It had rats, damp, a bath in the kitchen and broken furniture. My boy was starting to crawl, and one day picked up some rat droppings. I sobbed. But on the common, in the evening, surrounded by lights and sounds, we felt we had arrived. Eating a Wimpy burger from a box was the biggest treat. Upstairs lived Noreen, a young woman from Kent who had escaped from a violent husband. Next door was Elsa, a sweet Jamaican granny who made excellent gingerbread in an oven with a broken door. The building belonged to a shady man who had several such properties. He got rich and fat, and died of a heart attack. Noreen found a new man, a Yorkshireman who was training to be a bespoke tailor. Elsa started selling her gingerbread to neighbours, and moved to a better place. My ex-husband and I found good jobs and bought our first flat, where I still live.
This is what London ever was, and still is: big, busy, mysterious. By turns miserly and bountiful, chaotic and serene, shockingly unequal yet welcoming: a tough place that is always changing but where a future is always possible. This is where the British dream can come true. London belongs to no one, and so everyone can at least hope to claim a place in it. It is a hub, a fabulously diverse ecosystem that draws in people from other parts of the kingdom and the globe. [Continue reading…]
Owen Jones writes: peak out now, decent Tories, or forever be damned for your complicity. Zac Goldsmith is gratuitously exploiting anti-Muslim prejudice in order to win this Thursday’s London mayoral election. His campaign has secured its place in the history books, joining a political hall of shame along with the Tories’ infamous racist 1964 Smethwick byelection and the homophobic Liberal Bermondsey byelection campaign in 1983. There are no excuses. Lifelong Conservative Peter Oborne has described Goldsmith’s campaign as “the most repulsive I have ever seen as a political reporter”. Former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan has denounced the campaign as “racist”. “This is not the Zac Goldsmith I know,” says Tory Baroness Warsi. “Are we Conservatives fighting to destroy Zac or fighting to win this election?” A number of erstwhile Conservative voters have contacted me to share their revulsion. For other Tories not to follow their lead leaves them sharing the blame.
Confronting those on your own side is not easy, but it is sometimes necessary. For the last few days I have been pilloried as an establishment lackey, a stooge of the Israeli government, a rightwing careerist and a sell-out. Why? Because I condemned what Jeremy Corbyn rightly described as Ken Livingstone’s “unacceptable” comments, backed the leadership’s suspension of the former London mayor, and supported their commendable decision to launch an inquiry into antisemitism. I do not turn a blind eye to allegations of antisemitism because they involve my own political tribe. The vast majority of leftwing activists I know are violently opposed to antisemitism, but the left can have no complacency when it comes to the menace of racism.
Racism is not an issue of point-scoring to me. It is deadly serious. I do not look at Goldsmith’s poisonous campaign and feel any pleasure, any excitement that its bigotry can be used for political advantage. I am left deeply frightened by it. Frightened because the Tories wouldn’t be doing it unless focus groups and polling suggests it works. Frightened because it’s happening in 2016. Frightened because of the hurt it is causing to Muslims, the damage it is inflicting to community cohesion, and that a horrible lesson is being taught about what happens when a Muslim stands for prominent public office – which will undoubtedly only aid recruitment efforts by extremists. [Continue reading…]
Robert Mackey writes: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An outsider politician who owes his station in life to the hundreds of millions he inherited from his father is running a failing campaign for office based on stoking fear of Muslims.
The word “failing” — as in 20 points down in the polls days before the election — is a clue that we are speaking about someone other than Donald Trump.
In this case, the politician’s name is Zac Goldsmith, and he is the millionaire scion of a prominent British family. He was thought of, until recently, as a mild-mannered Conservative member of Parliament, known mainly for his environmentalism and his sister’s friendship with the late Princess Diana.
For the past two months, however, he has generated waves of disgust and, polls suggest, not much sympathy, by pursuing a mayoral campaign filled with racially divisive innuendo about the supposed danger of electing his Labour Party rival, Sadiq Khan, a son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants.
The heavier the defeat for #NastyZac on Thursday, the longer it will be before the Tories dare to run a vile, racist campaign again. Vote!
— Pete Sinclair (@pete_sinclair) May 2, 2016
Things reached something of a crescendo over the weekend, when Goldsmith — advised by a political consultant whose website boasts that he was “described by Newt Gingrich as the U.K.’s own ‘Lee Atwater’” — published a dog-whistle appeal to voters in the Mail on Sunday, a right-wing tabloid, that implied Khan, a moderate member of Parliament, would somehow fail to defend the British capital from Islamist terrorists. [Continue reading…]
Peter Oborne writes: I live in Chiswick in west London, just across the Thames from Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond constituency. I heard reassuring reports that he was an excellent constituency MP. For this reason, like many other Tories, I welcomed his emergence as Tory candidate for mayor of London and planned to vote for him.
Wild horses could not make me do so now. Goldsmith’s campaign for mayor has become the most repulsive I have ever seen as a political reporter.
Only two other campaigns bear comparison, both before my time. One was the infamous Bermondsey by-election of 1983 when the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell was targeted on account of his homosexuality. “Which Queen will you vote for?” asked an anonymous leaflet sent round the constituency in the final week of the campaign.
The other was the Smethwick campaign in the 1964 General Election. Peter Griffiths stood as the Conservative candidate against the shadow foreign secretary Patrick Gordon-Walker. Griffiths used the campaign to make a statement about immigration. “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” was the Tory slogan. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In the days after the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., when pictures of the hijab-wearing suspect filled television screens and newspapers, Zarifeh Shalabi’s mother and aunts stayed at home.
With their home just a few miles from the scene of the attack that left 14 dead, they worried about an anti-Muslim backlash. When they went shopping, Zarifeh, 17, said, other mothers pulled their children away when they saw the women wearing head scarves.
“We were more afraid that someone was going to hurt us,” Zarifeh said.
But this month, Zarifeh received the ultimate symbol of teenage acceptance: She was crowned prom queen after her non-Muslim friends campaigned for her by wearing hijabs in solidarity.
“We saw it as a chance to do something good, to represent something good,” said a friend, Sarahi Sanchez, who like Zarifeh is one of a few dozen peer mentors at Summit High School. “This was a way to prove we don’t have problems with bullying or racism.”
Zarifeh said her win “proved that not all Muslims are something to worry about.” [Continue reading…]
Arwa Mahdawi writes: The skies are no longer a very friendly place to fly if you’re brown or “maybe-Muslim”. A few days ago, an Iraq-born researcher at UC Berkeley was removed from a Southwest Airlines plane for speaking Arabic. A passenger heard the guy end a phone call with “inshallah” and decided it must mean “this plane full of infidels is going down”. In reality inshallah (which translates as “God willing”) is a versatile Arabic phrase that can be used to mean everything from “hopefully” to “never going to happen” to “I’ve stopped listening now, kthanxbye.”
This isn’t the first time someone has raised suspicions simply by speaking Arabic – the world’s fifth most-spoken language – on a plane. Fearmongering around terrorism has ignited a vicious vigilantism in air travel. The 17th century had the Salem witch trials; the 1950s had McCarthyism; today we’ve got Mile High Hysteria.
Last November, for example, two Palestinian-Americans were blocked from boarding a Southwest flight after another passenger heard them speaking Arabic and felt “uncomfortable”. Shortly after that incident, Spirit Airlines kicked four passengers of Middle Eastern descent off a flight because one of them was making calls in another language.
You don’t even need to be speaking Arabic to raise suspicions among “concerned citizens”, you simply need to be doing something a little “terroristy”. Like not being white. Last month, Laolu Opebiyi, a (Christian) Brit of Nigerian descent was removed from an easyJet plane after another passenger saw the word “prayer” in his Whatsapp messages. [Continue reading…]
Karl Ove Knausgaard writes: Norway is a small country. It is also relatively homogeneous and egalitarian. This means that the distance from top to bottom is short, and that great disasters affect the entire populace. For example, every Norwegian knows someone who knows someone who died when the Alexander Kielland drilling rig capsized, in 1980 — I recall that my brother had a schoolmate whose father died in the disaster — or when, a decade later, a ferry, the Scandinavian Star, burned and a hundred and fifty-eight of the passengers died. There is also something deeply sincere, almost innocent, about Norwegian culture. Practically every time something about Norway or one of its people appears in the foreign press, the Norwegian media mention this with pride. And every May 17th, National Constitution Day, people don their nicest clothes, whether these be bunads, suits, or dresses, retrieve their flags and ribbons with Norwegian colors, and spill onto the streets to watch children sing songs about Norway, while everyone shouts hurrah and waves flags in a show of patriotism that encompasses every layer of society and plays out in every part of the country. The celebration takes place without irony and is essentially unpolitical — both the left and the right are united in this sea of flags and children. This says something about the country’s egotism, but also about its harmlessness.
It was out of this world that the thirty-two-year-old Anders Behring Breivik stepped when, on the afternoon of July 22, 2011, he set out from his mother’s flat in Oslo’s West End, changed into a police uniform, parked a van containing a bomb, which he had spent the spring and summer making, outside Regjeringskvartalet, lit the fuse, and left the scene. While the catastrophic images of the attack, which killed eight people, were being broadcast across the world, Breivik headed to Utøya. That was where the Workers’ Youth League had its annual summer camp. There Breivik shot and killed sixty-nine people, in a massacre that lasted for more than an hour, right until the police arrived, when he immediately surrendered.
He wanted to save Norway. Just a few hours before detonating the bomb, Breivik e-mailed a fifteen-hundred-page manifesto to a thousand recipients, in which he said that we were at war with Muslims and multiculturalism and that the slaughter of the campers was meant to be a wake-up call. He also uploaded to YouTube a twelve-minute video that revealed, with propagandistic simplicity, what was about to happen in Europe: the Muslim invasion.
The shock in Norway was total. After the Second World War, the most serious political assault in the country had been the so-called Hadeland Murders, in 1981. Two young men, members of a small neo-Nazi underground movement, Norges Germanske Armé, were killed. Breivik’s crime was radically different. The television broadcasts of the scene were chaotic; the journalists and anchorpeople were just as affected by the events as the people they were interviewing; one read in their eyes and their body language incredulity, shock, confusion. The usual detachment with which news is delivered had collapsed. Indeed, at that moment it seemed as if the world stood open. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who killed 77 people in a bomb and gun rampage in 2011, lives in conditions that would seem luxurious by American incarceration standards: a three-room suite with windows that includes a treadmill, a fridge, a television with DVD player and even a Sony PlayStation.
But on Wednesday, a Norwegian court found that the government had violated his human rights, concluding that his long-term solitary confinement posed a threat to his mental health. Mr. Breivik has virtually no contact with other inmates and is subjected to frequent strip searches and searches of his cell. At a trial in March, he argued that his isolation amounted to torture.
Judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic of the Oslo District Court, who oversaw the trial, which was held at the prison for security reasons, found on Wednesday that prison officials had violated an article of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” She directed the government to reduce the extent of Mr. Breivik’s isolation — though she did not specify how — and ordered the government to pay Mr. Breivik’s legal fees of 331,000 kroner, or about $40,600. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic.
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.
He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said. But the conversation seemed troubling to a nearby passenger, who told the crew she overheard him making “potentially threatening comments,” the airline said in a statement.
Mr. Makhzoomi, 26, knew something was wrong as soon as he finished his phone call and saw that a woman sitting in front of him had turned around in her seat to stare at him, he said. She headed for the airplane door soon after he told his uncle that he would call again when he landed, and qualified it with a common phrase in Arabic, “inshallah,” meaning “god willing.”
“That is when I thought, ‘Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,’ because it was so weird,” Mr. Makhzoomi said.
That is exactly what happened. An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent came to his seat and escorted him off the plane a few minutes after his call ended, he said. The man introduced himself in Arabic and then switched to English to ask, “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?” [Continue reading…]
Ishaan Tharoor writes: Islam is not a monolithic thing. It’s embraced by multitudes that speak different languages, think different thoughts and grapple with different challenges every day. It has no central, governing institution and no shortage of internal debates and schisms.
Some analysts point out that the attacks on Islam aren’t really about religion, per se. “Their ‘cultural racism’ portrays Muslims as an irremediable, jihadist fifth column,” writes journalist and critic Adam Shatz in an incisive essay about the Charlie Hebdo editorial and its boosters. “Their fear of Islam has less to do with the religion than with the people who practice it.”
That was very much on show in the face of Europe’s migrant crisis, when fears of a “jihadist fifth column” consumed a segment of the Western public and shaped the response to what aid groups and the United Nations desperately plead is, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East.
Given the violence in Brussels and Paris, these fears are understandable. But it’s a case of seeing a vast forest when there are only a few trees.
“Claiming that Europe faces a Muslim invasion has become standard fare for a range of politicians and political parties in Europe,” noted Nate Schenkkan, the project director behind a recent Freedom House report on the rise of illiberal politics in parts of the continent. “This kind of speech undermines democracy by rejecting one of its fundamental principles — equality before the law. There is a danger that this kind of hateful, paranoid speech will lead to violence against minorities and refugees.”
This “hateful, paranoid speech” has its obvious political uses, though. Fiery populists on both sides of the pond have pointed to the threat of Islam when campaigning, often with success, in recent local elections.
The trouble is that pinning the radicalization and criminality of a small minority on whole communities — a whole religion, even — obscures more than it reveals. It reduces to abstraction what are far more complicated and important problems to consider, such as lapses in security and intelligence as well as troubles over assimilation and integration.
And, as myriad experts on counterterrorism policy and the Middle East have argued, it trades in the same logic that is employed by Islamist organizations.
“Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the ‘gray zones’ of toleration,” writes Marc Lynch, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal.” [Continue reading…]
Governments in Britain have tended to treat Muslim citizens much like colonial administrations treated their subjects. Intermediaries – tribal leaders or religious figures – are found to establish communication between the empire and its people. One positive thing about a recent ICM poll of British muslims is that it offers an alternative. The survey, carried out for a Channel 4 documentary, was never going to be able to reflect the complexity of British Muslim life accurately, but it does signal a shift by engaging directly with Muslim citizens.
How poll data is used is one way to test how colonialism’s legacy might linger on. The Daily Mail chose for its headline the quote: “Muslims are not like us and we should just accept that they will not integrate …” while Sky News highlighted that: “Half of British Muslims want homosexuality banned.”
Few media outlets rushed to use the headline that “86% of Muslims feel strong affiliation with UK, higher than the national average”, although this too is one of the findings from the survey. It is an “us and them” framework that fails to spark debate about who “we” might be and why “they”, with all their differences, might need greater integration with us, as the report has suggested.
We don’t have space here to discuss how the category Muslim may be broken up across class, regional or ethnic background. Nor will we get into comparisons with others: whether, for instance, British Catholics, or for that matter, members of the Conservative Party, might have similar sentiments towards homosexuality.
BuzzFeed reports: The fire department called before dawn. Daoud Abudiab and his 13-year-old daughter were already awake, so they got in the car quickly. From about a mile away, Abudiab saw a plume of black smoke rising above the low skyline and started getting nervous. He thought back to the arguments over whether to mark the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee, the only mosque in the hundred-mile stretch between Nashville and Huntsville, with a large sign or a small, unassuming one. They had opted for a large one.
Abudiab and his daughter could feel the heat of the fire when they stood at the yellow police tape. A black swastika was spray-painted on the mosque’s facade. Flames pushed out from the burst windows and up through the collapsed roof. Abudiab’s wife arrived with the rest of the kids, followed by other congregants and their families.
Abudiab looked at the women and all he saw was headscarves. “Go home,” he pleaded. “Don’t go out. Don’t go to Walmart. Don’t go anywhere.”
The ringleader of the band of white supremacists who burned down the mosque with Molotov cocktails justified the act by saying, “What goes on in that building is illegal according to the Bible.” This was February 2008. The theory of Barack Obama’s crypto-Islamism was faint chatter on the fringes. But in the years after Obama’s election, Tennessee became a key battleground in a national anti-Muslim movement whose influence has culminated, for now, in the presidential campaigns of Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are being advised by people whose views on Islam were once considered too extreme for mainstream politics. [Continue reading…]
The Intercept reports: The FBI’s plan to enlist community leaders in “Shared Responsibility Committees” all across the country with the goal of identifying “radicalized” individuals is raising alarm among civil rights activists.
The Shared Responsibility Committees, known as SRCs, “are expanding the informant program under the guise of an intervention program, which it is not,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
The FBI’s ideas is to have social service workers, teachers, mental health professionals, religious figures, and others interdict young people they believe are on a path towards radicalization. The program was first revealed last November, and while details remain scant, it is widely believed to have been developed along the lines of similar “anti-radicalization” programs in the United Kingdom.
The FBI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Experts acknowledge the need to have options beyond sending young people to jail for making threatening statements. The committees purport to offer such an option, by allowing members to offer non-binding recommendations to law enforcement about whether certain individuals should be arrested or offered rehabilitation for their alleged radicalization.
But critics say that despite the FBI’s benign characterization of the SRCs, the proposal amounts to nothing more than an expansion of already existing FBI informant programs. The committees “would be doing the work of the FBI, gathering information. This initiative failed in the U.K., it’s not like this is a new idea,” said Ayoub.
The U.K. program called “Channel” has been widely blamed for alienating the communities it targeted while inflaming attitudes towards authorities. Arun Kundnani, an adjunct professor at New York University and expert on U.K. counterterrorism policy, said he worries that the U.S. program would “suffer from the same problems, such as drawing non-policing professionals into becoming the eyes and ears of counter-terrorism surveillance, and thereby undermining professional norms and relationships of trust among educators, health workers and others.” [Continue reading…]
Robert Zaretsky writes: For nearly a century, laïcité [which originally assured “the liberty of conscience” for all French citizens] worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.
Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding. While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.
In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.
Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”
The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”
Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”
In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society. [Continue reading…]
Adam Shatz writes: In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:
If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?
The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’
Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist. [Continue reading…]