Paris – Acounter Narrative

The display of collective grief at the Paris murders on January 7 of the personnel of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is understandable. But there is also a degree of hypocrisy in this narrative. Apparently, some victims of violence are more equal than others. Specifically the bodies of Muslims are considered less worthy compared to the French.

France has been supporting death in many Muslim countries including Syria, where the number of deaths far exceeds, on a daily basis, the twelve killed in Paris. The narrative fails to understand that effects have causes and that freedoms need to be asserted empathetically.

The Paris incident has brought to the fore very familiar narratives about Islam, Muslims, the west and secular liberalism; and especially the incompatibility and inferiority of the former compared with the latter. The recurring themes in the narrative start with the self-congratulatory, where secular, liberal people and establishment of the west – in this instance France – laud themselves for their stoic bravery in the face of violence and intimidation by religious extremists who wish to curtail their liberal democratic freedoms. Next in line is myopia (ignoring what is happening now in the Muslim world under the aegis of western liberal states); and amnesia (ignoring the genealogy of how present-day Muslim countries were constructed by western power). In the French colonies nationalists demanding freedom were silenced in one way or another.

If stoicism under adversity is to be lauded then Muslim populations of the countries and regions attacked by western powers should all be called heroes and given gold medals. The extremism of western military action that Muslim populations have had to endure in the aftermath of western intervention in their countries trumps anything the populations of the west have had to suffer at the hands of Muslim extremists (or zealots). Compare Paris and its environs after the attack (and four or five previous ones) and twelve deaths, with the situation of Damascus, Allepo, Tripoli, Kabul, Baghdad, among others.

The dominant narrative in the response to the Paris attack is couched in terms of a conflict between the west and Islam, each championing different values: democracy, secularism, liberty and reason attributed to the former; and tyranny, intolerance, religion, authoritarianism and violence to the latter. The idea of blasphemy clearly belongs to the latter and is seen by secularists as a constraint on the freedom of speech, if not on freedom itself, that is guaranteed by democratic principles and by the pursuit of reason so central to western culture.

Free speech, the Paris narratives assert, is central to democracy. Conversely, these narratives assert the absence of ‘democratic traditions’ in Muslim societies to explain Muslim reaction to the coercive notion of blasphemy and their inability to grasp the supreme importance of freedom and free speech.

But this is simplistic. Although democracy, free speech and freedom are central to the west, democratic republics are as capable of legislating repression at home and depriving the liberty of weaker peoples abroad – by military or economic means. If blasphemy indicates a limit transgressed, secular criticism does not necessarily signify liberation. Because western societies do, of course, have legal constraints on communication. Thus there are laws of copyright, patent, and trademark, and laws protecting commercial secrets, all of which limit in different ways the free circulation of expressed ideas. In the UK there is legislation against incitement to racial hatred. In the lived life, constraints of power and socio-economic class may limit the freedom and liberty of the individual and groups.

There is no discussion of causal factors for the incidence in the Paris narratives. Instead myopia and amnesia allows them to almost entirely overlook the manner and means by which the historic and contemporary processes and institutions have been constructed by western power – which Muslims in the diaspora and in their homelands have to negotiate in their lived life. Liberal powers have used massive force and liberal arguments to make, unmake, expand and dissolve states violently.

The French revolutionary war helped form modern France and also liberalise Europe. The continental expansion of the US against the indigenous population culminated in the Mexican-American War; the American Civil War helped construct a modern American state. It was the liberal Allies who dissolved the Austro-Hungarian empire after the First World War, and established independent European nation states in Europe in its place. At the same time they destroyed the Ottoman Empire and replaced it by Mandates governed forcibly by two liberal European governments, Britain and France.

The clashing liberal principles of national self-determination (the right to independence) and national sovereignty (cession as treason) have justified various kinds of political violence. The French state, though fiercely secular at home, tried to Christianise the Muslim population of Algeria; supported a minority sect to power in Syria; and in the Lebanon a non-Muslim minority was empowered above the Muslim majority. The list goes on.

The solution to the problem of Muslim extremism is located by the Paris narrative in acculturating its Muslim populations into French culture, and to spread secularism in Muslim countries by separating religion from politics. This would be to remove the ideological support that buttresses the continuation of Muslim extremism.

The narrative that is missing is an analysis of the motives for and repercussions of western policy of military intervention and regime change, which has resulted in the death of well over a million people, as well as devastation and destruction in Muslim countries. This silence is not limited to the French alone. Much of Pakistani media is uncritically reproducing the mainstream narrative of the western press on the Paris attack. This is not to say that the twelve deaths in Paris ought not to be lamented but they should be analysed in the context of death on a wider geographical and historical context.

Do Muslim societies/states need to change? Of course they do. But so do trigger-happy western societies and states. For those who say that Muslims do not, and do not want to, integrate in western societies one would say look at the US. The African-Americans who are similar to the white majority in culture and religion are in the US – but are not of it. They have had to struggle very hard to secure their (unguaranteed) basic human rights. And they still face discrimination and segregation.

By: Pervaiz Nazir, A Senior Fellow, POLIS at the University of Cambridge.

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