World leaders stage a photo opportunity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Front row, left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
As the refugee crisis intensifies, not even a new round of pictures of drowned children could squeeze a drop more sympathy from Europe’s political elite. The drawbridges are being raised. Thus far, Europe has barely lifted a collective finger to alleviate the misery it has helped to create in the Levant, and even those suffering few who have managed to squeeze through the barbed wire gates now face persecution and suspicion from their apparent saviours. There is no more room at the inn, we are told, and what little room is left is certainly not for people who don’t share our culture, our religion, or our skin colour.
While Lebanon and Turkey have taken in millions, the urban areas in Western Europe that opened their doors to a handful of refugees now find their communities in far-right uproar. Islamophobic fascism is sprouting up like a weed, with bands of neo-crusaders and white supremacists flocking to the streets with violent words, and violent actions. Fascism is back, baby.
Pregnant Muslim women have been kicked in the streets. Mosques have been defaced with swastikas and dead pigs. Eight year old children have been arrested for terrorism. These crimes, naturally, do not warrant international coverage or a discussion about “European culture”, and in the face of such brutality the only people capable of demanding justice – the media – issue bland, matter-of-fact reports or ignore the issue entirely. Those who unapologetically defend freedom of speech are nowhere to be found either, including those who proudly declared that they stood with Charlie Hebdo after the brutality they endured. Their silence suggests that beating a pregnant woman until she miscarries her baby is bad, but not half as bad as a European victim of a terror attack. One victim is simply more worthy of coverage and sympathy.
Nowhere is this grassroots crusade more prevalent than in France, a country that some five million Muslims dare to call home. Of these approximate five million Muslims, exactly nine have committed mass atrocities against civilians in recent months, first at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo last January, then across Paris last November, although Islamophobic hate crimes precede these attacks by years. On orders from a would-be Caliphate two thousand miles away, these nine individuals have sealed the fate of France’s Muslim population, and now countless innocents find themselves on the receiving end of humiliation, isolation, and the constant risk of physical violence, with a disinterested press and a platitude-giving political class.
Much has been said about the so-called ‘radicalization process’ in Muslims, an intellectual farting competition which typically descends into scientific racism. Intellectuals so often point the finger at Iranian scholars, Hamas, and local hate preachers, all of whom apparently make quite the impression on Muslims living in Europe. But this theory usually assumes that Muslims are secret weapons waiting to be activated, and there is little evidence to support this ticking time bomb theory. Muslims do not simply wake up one day and decide to bomb a government building while they’re spreading jam on their toast. Perhaps it takes a revelation much more powerful, and much less divine.
Those who choose not to descend into scientific racism sometimes blame Western society’s ills instead, an ascription that infuriates the mind-numbingly patriotic. And why shouldn’t it? After all, we are perfect. This line of thinking, which sees the origins of the radicalization process in Muslims to be the same as the process in any other social group, was at one time even attributed to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who initially blamed the Charlie Hebdo attacks on the emerging racial and religious apartheid in France, although he refused to elaborate.
Ghettoising housing policies, police brutality, and an extreme lack of social mobility among French minorities all accumulate and translate into a hatred of the French state. A hatred bolstered by religion, not caused by it. Needless to say, Valls was adamant that this theory would have to take a back seat – a vicious assault on civil liberties had to be planned, and there was no time to consider whether it would make things worse.
“[Valls] said the government’s reaction [to the November massacres] had to be purely focused on ‘security and the fight against terrorism’ because French people’s priority was to feel safe and it was not the moment to open up debates about society’s ills” – Angelique Chrisafis
Before he dismissed his own theory, Valls appeared to be right: Although Muslims make up just 8% of France’s total population, they make up 70% of its prison population, and many Muslims who avoid prison live in banlieues instead, suburban housing complexes that are severely underfunded and segregated from surrounding communities, not to mention subject to repeated harassment by corrupt police officers.
So bleak are these communities that they are referred to as the “Other France“, and many who live there are treated as illegal immigrants despite living there all their lives. Drugs and robberies flow freely, but because the perpetrators are Muslim, their religion is blamed, not their social environment, and locking them up and throwing away the key appears to be the only solution worth considering. The French state has given these Muslims more than enough reason to hate the country they grew up in, though this of course will never, ever justify acts of terror.
But what of non-Muslim French people, who also terrorize their fellow civilians, and who are also motivated by hatred and suspicion based on ethnic and religious lines? Where is the discussion about their ‘radicalization process’? Where are documentaries, the books, the academic studies? Do Muslims have a monopoly on terror?
If we accept Valls’ train of thought, the way Muslims are radicalized is at least similar to how other French citizens are radicalized: Social immobility, a lack of hope, and a disinterested state. Just as Valls’ connect-the-dots between the conditions of many banlieues to a hatred of France makes far more sense than the “they hate us because we’re free” narrative for Muslims, perhaps this is true for the enraged white supremacists and Islamophobes beating pregnant women in Paris and marching through the streets of Berlin. Perhaps the state has given them no reason to get along with their fellow citizens either.
This brings us to a notable trend that has emerged since the declaration of the 4th French Republic. In the Hollande-Valls government, efforts have been undertaken to build upon their predecessors’ regressive liberalization of the economy, by curtailing regulations (and therefore, worker protections), and handing over the keys to France’s economy to the private sector. Nowhere has this been more evident than The Macron Law. Passed by executive prerogative instead of by popular approval in 2015, this ‘restructuring initiative’ is predicted to enhance French GDP by 3.5% over the next ten years, and hopes to “peel away layers of red tape that have strangled the country’s economic growth”, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Far from peeling away “layers of red tape”, what The Macron Law actually does is strip workers of some vital protections in the private sector, creating more distance between government and citizen and undermining the prospects for social mobility. It may not immediately be clear what laissez-faire economics has to do with Charlie Hebdo, so let’s spell it out: The more that people feel brutalized or ignored by the state, the more they feel like the state’s rules do not apply to them. So long as the state provides protections and offers opportunities, it is able to quiet the animalistic nature of some of its citizens, but if the distance between citizen and government grows to big, this quieting ability falters. After all, the brothers who committed the Charlie Hebdo attack were raised in orphanages, institutions notorious for their social isolation and lack of government support.
“Wherever [austerity measures] have been implemented […] they have been unsuccessful, engendering an increase in poverty, unemployment, and public indebtedness as well as leading to the dismantling of the welfare state through the destruction of public services and a drastic lowering of state revenues” – Salim Lamrani
Now, nobody can sensibly argue that growing up in an orphanage or living under austerity is enough to turn somebody into an Islamic extremist. Additionally, nobody should ever blame victims of terror for bringing it on themselves. Even Charlie Hebdo, racist and foul as its cartoons are, did not deserve to be massacred. All this analysis attempts to do is understand how we can avoid giving birth to a new generation of attackers who feel the seductive pull of the Caliphate. The typical approach is to watch them like hawks, treat them like animals, and ban public expressions of their religion. It hasn’t worked. Another approach would be to rectify societal ills and try to give people a reason to enjoy the benefits of a liberal democracy again. Is it not at least worth trying?
But what of the Islamophobes? What relation does neoliberalism have to their rage? Well, between de Villepin’s First Job Contrast, Gallois’ Pact for Competitiveness, and The Macron Law, successive French governments have pissed on the working class and told them it’s raining. After decades of opposition, France has finally joined the IMF-led effort to undermine public services, which invariably has dangerous consequences on the consciousness of citizens. Because this effort typically relies on promoting myths about deficits, public spending nightmares and even immigration, it fosters an “us versus them” narrative.
This narrative forewarns that Europe will become a sinking ship overrun by migrants, free-loaders, and worst of all, Muslims, unless significant efforts are undertaken to liberalize the economy further. That is why asylum seekers looking for safety are met with greater hostility than fat-cats looking for new ways to exploit the populace.
Would brigades of proto-Nazis be marching through the streets of Berlin once more, if everybody had the opportunities and the comfort they craved? Some might, because some people are backwards. But others seem to be there due to a lack of education, understanding, and their “us versus them” mentality thrives under social immobility. Would Muslims attack kosher supermarkets and cartoonists if the state took an active role in their welfare? Some might, because religion can be a primary motivation for terror, but to overlook the economic rationale for terror is to damn oneself to further misery.
Don’t mistake this attempt to understand white supremacists or Islamic fundamentalists as sympathy with their cause – everything that can possibly be done to undermine their ideologies should be done, it’s just that perhaps we haven’t considered wielding our greatest weapon against them: equality.
In short, France’s disharmonious economic system is creating discontent not only in Muslims in banlieues, but white working class citizens are too, for like many Western European countries, the ubiquity of capitalism in France has decimated working communities, undermined social safety nets, and driven ordinary people into the hands of the far-right. There is a reason that the likes of UKIP, the Golden Dawn, and the Front National can all boast about their weighty working class membership. On the other side, mainstream political parties have to repeatedly convince working people that they’re still on their side, to little or no avail.
The French state, normally content at having properly decided where politics and religion should part, now seems utterly incapable of figuring out what Islam’s role, if any, in French life should be, and seems equally incapable of balancing individual liberty with the magnetism of totalitarianism, and the attraction of neoliberalism. Add into this mix a decline in safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable, and a toxic concoction awaits. The political consequences of this inability and instability, which will be discussed in Part II, could prove disastrous for the working class and French Muslims alike. As we will discover, those who now extend an olive branch to the working class are in fact their worst enemies.