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Moral Clarity

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After 9/11, Le Monde declared: ‘Nous sommes tous Américains.’ The love affair was short-lived: as soon as the French declined to join the war against Iraq, American pundits called them ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and French fries were renamed ‘freedom fries’. When Obama took office, relations warmed, but the tables were turned: the new administration in Washington shied from foreign adventures, while the Elysée adopted a muscular stance in Libya and Mali, and promoted a more aggressive response to Bashar al-Assad’s assault on the Syrian rebellion. Neoconservatives who had vilified the surrender monkeys now looked at them with envy.

Today a new cry can be heard among intellectuals in the US: ‘Je suis Charlie.’ It is a curious slogan, all the more so since few of the Americans reciting it had ever heard of, much less read, Charlie Hebdo before the 7 January massacre. What does it mean, exactly? Seen in the best light, it means simply that we abhor violence against people exercising their democratic right to express their views. But it may also be creating what the French would call an amalgame, or confusion, between Charlie Hebdo and the open society of the West. In this sense, the slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ is less an expression of outrage and sympathy than a declaration of allegiance, with the implication that those who aren’t Charlie Hebdo are on the other side, with the killers, with the Islamic enemy that threatens life in the modern, democratic West, both from outside and from within.

Already, anyone who dares to examine the causes of the massacre, the reasons the Kouachi brothers drifted into jihadist violence, is being warned that to do so is to excuse the real culprit, radical Islam: ‘an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades’, as George Packer wrote on the New Yorker blog. Packer says this is no time to talk about the problem of integration in France, or about the wars the West has waged in the Middle East for the last two decades. Radical Islam, and only radical Islam, is to blame for the atrocities. We are in what the New Yorker critic George Trow called the ‘context of no context’, where jihadi atrocities can be safely laid at the door of an evil ideology, and any talk of pre-emptive war, torture and racism amounts to apologia for atrocities.

We have been here before: the 11 September attacks led many liberal intellectuals to become laptop bombardiers, and to smear those, such as Susan Sontag, who reminded readers that American policies in the Middle East had not won us many friends. The slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience.

Packer’s article isn’t surprising, but it’s also symptomatic. He reacted to 9/11 by supporting the invasion of Iraq. He later became a critic of the war, or at least of its execution. Yet he responded to the Paris massacre by resorting to the same rhetoric about Islamic ‘totalitarianism’ that he invoked after 9/11. He even hints at a civilisational war between Us and Them – or, at least, some of Them, the ‘substantial minority of believers who countenance… a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique’. That such rhetoric helped countenance the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq seems not to occur to him, bathed as he is in what liberal hawks like to call ‘moral clarity’. To demonstrate ‘moral clarity’ is to be on the right side, and to show the courage of a fighting faith, rather than the timorous, context-seeking analysis of those soft on what Christopher Hitchens called ‘Islamofascism’. Packer’s New Yorker article is a declaration of this faith, a faith he confuses with liberalism.

In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent. It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.

Last night I spoke with a friend who grew up in the banlieue. Assia (not her real name) is a French woman of Algerian origin who has taught for many years in the States, a leftist and atheist who despises Islamism. She read Charlie Hebdo as a teenager, and revelled in its irreverent cartoons. She feels distraught not just by the attacks but by the target, which is part of her lieux de mémoire. A part of her will always be Charlie Hebdo. And yet she finds it preposterous – and disturbing – that even Americans are now saying ‘je suis Charlie.’ Have any of them ever read it? she asked. ‘You couldn’t publish Charlie in the US – not the cartoons about the Prophet, or the images of popes getting fucked in the ass.’ Charlie Hebdo had an equal opportunity policy when it came to giving offence, but in recent years it had come to lean heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are among the most vulnerable citizens in France. Assia does not believe in censorship, but wonders: ‘Is this really the time for cartoons lampooning the Prophet, given the situation of North Africans in France?’

That’s ‘North Africans’, not ‘Muslims’. ‘When I hear that there are five million Muslims in France,’ Assia says, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about. I know plenty of people in France who are like me, people of North African origin who don’t pray or believe in God, who aren’t Muslims in any real way. We didn’t grow up going to mosque; at most we saw our father fasting at Ramadan. But we’re called Muslims – which is the language of Algérie Française, when we were known as indigènes or as Muslims.’ She admits that more and more young beurs are becoming religious, but this is as much an expression of self-defence as piety, she says: French citizens of North African origin feel their backs are against the wall. That they are turning to an imported form of Islam – often of Gulf origin, often radical – is no surprise: few of them have any familiarity with the more peaceful and tolerant Islam of their North African ancestors. Nor is it surprising to find an increasing anti-Semitism among French Maghrébins in the banlieue. They look at the Jews and see not a minority who were persecuted by Europe but a privileged elite whose history of victimisation is officially honoured and taught in schools, while the crimes of colonisation in Algeria are still hardly acknowledged by the state.

Assia is typically Parisian, in her dress, accent and lifestyle. But that did not prevent her from being reminded, at every turn, of her otherness. ‘Assia, what sort of name is that?’ people would ask her since she was a child. With its strong centralising traditions, France shuns expressions of difference, notably the hijab, but continues to treat French citizens of Muslim origin as foreigners. Second and third-generation citizens are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’. The message: don’t wear the hijab, you’re French; but don’t bother applying for this job if your name is Mohammed. ‘When my brothers were growing up,’ Assia told me, ‘they would be stopped by the police ten to fifteen times a day – on the bus, getting off the bus, on their way to school, on their way home. Girls weren’t stopped; only boys. The French are more comfortable with “Fatima” than with “Mohammed”.’ French women of North African origin are doing better than men – which in part explains why some of the unemployed men take to dominating their mothers and sisters, as if they were their property, their only property. Assia is one of many French Maghrébins who have found it much easier to live outside France.

To say that France has an integration problem, and that it’s in urgent need of repair, isn’t to let the killers – or, pace Packer, their ideology – off the hook. It is to take the full measure of the moral and political challenge at hand, rather than to indulge in self-congratulatory exercises in ‘moral clarity’. If France continues to treat French men of North African origin as if they were a threat to ‘our’ civilisation, more of them are likely to declare themselves a threat, and follow the example of the Kouachi brothers. This would be a gift both to Marine Le Pen and the jihadists, who operate from the same premise: that there is an apocalyptic war between Europe and Islam. We are far from that war, but the events of 7 January have brought us a little closer.

Comments on “Moral Clarity”

  1. brian klug says:

    Superb! A perfect example of intellectual clarity — an indispensable part of (or condition for) ‘moral clarity’.

  2. Johnlp says:

    I have read this post a couple of times, and to be honest, I still cannot discern your point. If your point is that North Africans are treated differently in France than other non-ethnic looking French men, then I don’t really see how this is anything but a statement of the obvious. Is there any way that you can condense this piece – say to perhaps 100 words – and say something that actually provides any sort of insight? I am an American, living in America, with a degree in English from a reputable university, and I find this article to be pseudo-intellectual dribble.

    • Lily says:

      It is, I believe, to say our response is only as good as our discourse. That mainstreams reduce this issue to a narrative that engages with the very cyclical, retributive war we are trying to part from. To stop the cycle, one must look, think, and act beyond it.

    • Alan Benfield says:

      Well, each to his own, I guess.

      But did you mean ‘dribble’? ‘Dribble’ is what runs down your chin (normally accompanied by the mouth hanging open vacantly): maybe you intended to say ‘drivel’?

      Anyway, to characterise the above as drivel (or dribble) seems a little peremptory, even for someone with a degree in English from a reputable American university: could you expand upon your argument a little?

    • McFault says:

      What a coincidence, Johnlp! I too have a degree from a reputable university, where I majored in English Drivel. I really wanted to study Dribble instead, but I was afraid that nobody would ever take me seriously.

  3. alumedia says:

    Kudos for illustrating the dichotomy of life as a beur in the banlieue. Funny how these homegrown terrorists start off smoking weed until they suddenly find themselves able to become the moral arbiters of life and death. So it was here in Boston, so it is in Paris.

    Also no shortage of Americans are familiar with Charlie Hebdo, especially after the Danish cartoon brouhaha. Most Americans of a certain age probably are reminded of the porno mag Hustler of the 70’s & 80’s whose cartoons and no holds approach bore similarities. However the long tradition of cartoons and satire allow for French cartoonists to be accorded far greater respect than their American counterparts. Still, Larry Flint and Hustler did prevail over a far right religious organization in a freedom of speech case at the Supreme Court so perhaps reminding ourselves JeSuisCharlie we remember that it is the worst of speech that must be defended in order for all speech to be free.

  4. alethia says:

    This is rubbish. Sad that Adam Shatz’s lesson after 13 long years is that it’s still our western fault. The people who perpetrate these crimes own them. They are personally responsible and no search for “root causes” can excuse that fact. No one welcomed immigrant Jews to New York (my ancestors) and made it “nice” for us. They worked hard and fit in. These men are treated the way they are because they have earned it: they did not fit in and they chose to their actions.
    Since before 9/11 we’ve been at war. In war you make mistakes like Abu Grahib and torture. These mistakes do not abrogate Islamist responsibility for their own actions nor for the actions of Algerian thugs looking for glory as Jihadis.
    Trying to pin their familial failure to adjust after years of European multiculturalism and bending over backwards is the true cowardice of western liberals like Adam Shatz. Despicable.

    • deMan says:

      ” In war you make mistakes like Abu Grahib and torture.”

      Yeah guys, whatcha gettin all upset bout, Merca just made a few mistakes. they never ment no harm.

      Unfortunately all actions have consequences and in this case both are, to borrow your word alethia, “despicable”.

      • Harry Stopes says:

        Such an honest mistake that they immediately owned up to it as well.

        • Amateur Emigrant says:

          Not forgetting the original mistake which made the mistake of Abu Ghraib possible: “Ooops, we invaded Iraq.”

          To Alehtia’s original point, it is sad that after 13 years (though I’m sure it goes back further than that) people are unable to distinguish between explaining and excusing.

  5. Timothy Mason says:

    An excellent article.
    As a French citizen, I was myself first reluctant to use the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. To some extent I still am. But I have to recognize that Charlie Hebdo was an important part of my life at the time when I was coming to discover French culture. And, moreover, that the men who died were still at the very centre of that culture, however peripheral the magazine had become. Cabu, & Wolinski were household names, and had an impact far beyond Charlie’s readership (Cabu used to appear regularly on children’s television when my two were growing up in the late 70s & early 80s). If you followed Wolinski’s work through the same period, you were witnessing a man, like so many others, coming to terms with feminism, and attempting to learn its lessons. And Bernard Maris, friend to Michel Houllebecq, was a recognized expert in economics, who was a member of the committee of direction of the Banque de France, was also far more than a simple journalist for a bizarre little publication of declining importance.

    So most French people can recognize a part of themselves in Charlie Hebdo, and many of them will have felt directly touched, as I did. If they were not overcome by the media brouhaha, they could also see in their assassins some echoes of La Bande à Bonnot, or of Jacques Mesrine. The two brothers may have killed in the name of Islam, but they were recognizably French.

    So, yes, that Americans or the British should say “Je suis Charlie” is bleakly comic. But the French – we – can say it. Yes, Charlie is a part of me – a part I had largely forgotten, a part that was not altogether agreeable, but a part, nonetheless.

  6. peter.fisher says:

    I also find it hard to extract an argument from this article. It seems to boil down to: yes this is awful, BUT there is a serious problem in France with the integration of second and third generation immigrants. Both parts of that statement are self-evidently true, but they don’t belong in the same sentence, any more than when we discuss a rape or a murder we should immediately bring societal ills into the spotlight. If it sounds like the author is making excuses for individual acts, then that is because he is, passing the blame onto society as a whole. As an argument, it has about as much merit as pointing out that a rape victim shouldn’t have been wearing the clothes she had on.

    There is nothing morally unclear about killing journalists or shooting up a kosher supermarket, and these crimes should not form the basis for scoring political points about integration in France. In seeking to link the two, the author is parroting Marine le Pen, who also thinks this is a good basis on which to conduct the debate on immigration.

    I resent that op-ed authors and politicians immediately want to bring this attack into their analysis of a broader context, whether to say that France is a racist country and had it coming, or to declare a “war” on radical islam. In the face of a crime, any crime, the correct action is to deplore it, punish it, hold fast to our values of tolerance and the rule of law, and get on with our lives. Mature politicians and analysts don’t base their discourse on individual acts of violence, and they don’t seek excuses for criminals who acted of their own free will. The author should be able to maintain a distinction between the individual case and the societal ill.

    • isibuko says:

      Are you suggesting that these acts should be interpreted and considered completely without the societal context in which they took place? it seems necessary to me thy you can’t regard them as distinct, because to a certain extent every action is part of the societal narrative and a product of the social context in which it occurs.

  7. stettiner says:

    ” They look at the Jews and see not a minority who were persecuted by Europe but a privileged elite whose history of victimisation is officially honoured and taught in schools, while the crimes of colonisation in Algeria are still hardly acknowledged by the state”.

    And that’s why they rape, murder and assault Jews, attack Jewish businesses and synagogues.

    Moral clarity indeed….

    • quasimodo5000 says:

      Brilliant — you would think this argument would dissuade Shatz, Ali and other anti-Israel propagandists, but no, they hold fast. For Brits the idea of Jews must be unbearable — Britain is of course historically a Jew-hating country which, after first trying to banish the Jewish people permanently from England, were then defeated in their colonial outpost when the Jews reclaimed their independent homeland.

      • Alan Benfield says:

        Sorry, where does the ‘Brits’ come from? Adam Shatz is an American Jew. Certainly, (I assume Tariq) Ali is a Brit, but he was born in Lahore (then India, since partition Pakistan) and I think would call himself a communist atheist (or maybe the other way round). While I am sure that he would be perfectly happy to be regarded as a Brit, Mr Ali is far more than just that. By the way, while on the subject of these two gentleman, could I make clear that, while I may not agree with everything they write, I admire both of them as balanced, nuanced, engaged and engaging commentators, whatever they are writing about.

        But anyway, are we talking about the same Brits? The Brits who issued the following declaration in November 1917?:

        “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”

        Ah, you must be referring to the Brits who, having begun the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, attempted (in the words of the Balfour Declaration quoted above) to defend “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” against Irgun terrorism in Mandate Palestine. They failed, of course, ultimately leading to what Palestinians refer to as the Nakbah.

        Or are you suggesting that, rather like Franz Rademacher (and later Eichmann) with the plan to ship all the Reich’s Jews to Madagascar, Balfour was really a closet anti-Semite who just wanted to rid the UK of Jews altogether by shipping them to Palestine?

        While not wishing to suggest that anti-Semitism has never existed in the UK (far from it), I find your reading of 20th-Century history eccentric, to say the least.

  8. epoqueepique says:

    When I read this part of your article : “Assia told me, ‘they would be stopped by the police ten to fifteen times a day – on the bus, getting off the bus, on their way to school, on their way home”, I lost interest in the rest of your statements.
    Please check your source, Assia. This is ridiculous, an extreme exaggeration. It kills your article.

  9. mmeilleu says:

    Two small points: The phrase ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ was coined by the writers of The Simpsons in 1995, and delivered tongue-in-(Groundskeeper Willie’s) cheek. That Jonah Goldberg appropriated it hardly gives ‘American pundits’ authorship.

    And ‘freedom fries’ was a coinage of Congress, though perhaps they had help from the pundits; that it is profoundly bombastic and stupid is no proof one way or the other.

  10. Loic Marsillac says:

    The men who attacked the magazine were politically powerless and most likely insane (i.e. deranged), they and political provocateurs would be the only ones likely to unleash an attack on such a periodical–well balanced people, regardless of religious persuasion, who are not social or political provocateurs would of course never think to commit such acts, which begs the question: Who was Charlie thumbing its nose at by drawing exaggerated Mohammedan noses and beards in satirical contexts, sane Muslims who seek only to lead tranquil lives, or an extremely marginalized minority of unbalanced banlieue thugs? Who else would pay such a magazine that much notice apart from the aforementioned young, socially marginalized and mentally alienated male minorities and their fringe-imam manipulators? Why provoke the desperate, the powerless, the insane? Why was Charlie Hebdo not hated, but rather the protected pet of the political establishment, while, on the other hand, keeping a constant guard against elements from the most disprotected sectors of French (post-colonial) society? The only people who would wish Charlie Hebdo destroyed are intelligently psychopathic (irreligious) provocateurs and deranged and marginalized Muslim male youth whose strings the former dispassionately pull.

  11. stanly says:

    I share Adam Shatz’ views on the vulnerability and otherness of North Africans/Muslims in France. I do also agree that charlie Hedbo’s cartoons were politically incorrect. But what I fail to understand, even from the article above, is that why the violence against the magazine? There could have been legal cases, argumentative responses, even protests through democratic means. But what did the Kouachi brothers drive towards violence? or take India for an example. The Dalits (untouchables) in India have been subjected to centuries of social discrimination. They are the “other” in this vast country, which happens to be the world’s largest democracy. But dalits’ response towards this structural injustice has hardly been violent. They are fighting it by mobilising social capital through democratic means. So otherness or cultural or economic deprivation should not always lead to violence. This is where the ideology of the attackers matters. As Shatz rightly points out, the social causes of any form of violence should certainly be analysed. But such analyses should not discount the subjectivity of the ideology the attackers– a tendency predominantly seen among liberals and post-modernists.

  12. bo tong says:

    Against the canvas of the liberal’s imagination, why does the vulnerability of minority groups show up but never the criminality?

  13. Remonstrater says:

    Perhaps the best response to Adam Shatz’s absolutely contemptible, full-scale justification and rationalisation of the murderous Islamic attacks in Paris is to be found in this article by Slavoj Žižek [http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity], where he writes the following:

    “We should, of course, unambiguously condemn the killings as an attack on the very substance our freedoms, and condemn them without any hidden caveats (in the style of “Charlie Hebdo was nonetheless provoking and humiliating the Muslims too much”). But such pathos of universal solidarity is not enough – we should think further.

    Such thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra of “who are we in the West, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the Third World, to condemn such acts”). It has even less to do with the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia. For these false Leftists, any critique of Islam is denounced as an expression of Western Islamophobia; Salman Rushdie was denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) responsible for the fatwa condemning him to death, etc. The result of such stance is what one can expect in such cases: the more the Western liberal Leftists probe into their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam. This constellation perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: the more you obey what the Other demands of you, the guiltier you are. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be…”.


  14. Higgs Boatswain says:

    I also have some problems with the content of this post, but not because it is a “justification” or “rationalisation” of the Paris attacks or because it is a betrayal of the Western liberal tradition – quite the opposite.

    I fear that this self-consciously liberal characterisation of radical Islam as a social and cultural phenomenon arising from certain material conditions neutralises its critique of dominant Western ideologies (secularism, democracy, and liberalism itself). If you can present radical Islamism as just the product of economic conditions in the banlieue, there is no need to take seriously the challenge that it poses to our most cherished sacred cows. We can “critique” (in Zizek’s rather euphemistic phrase) Islam, but we cannot allow Islam to critique us because it is merely a manifestation of conditions that we – enlightened liberals that we are – are able to decode and read aright. Ultimately there are no Muslims! There are just urbane Parisian North Africans who look different but are just like us. Difference is ultimately something we don’t even have to deal with, because dissent from the supposed liberal consensus is just unimaginable.

    Maybe Packer is correct to see radical Islam in Europe as an ideological challenge to liberalism and all that it stands for. And perhaps his inchoate response reflects the weakness of the liberals’ position: desperate to defend to symbols of the old religion and unwilling to admit that they too cling to an ideology that looks increasingly like the preserve of a small and self-serving priesthood. Being neither a liberal nor a Muslim I don’t really have a dog in this race, and between the liberal dogma of free-speech-at-all-costs and Muslim reverence for the person of the Prophet Muhammad I don’t really see all that much to choose. Oddly I think Slavoj Zizek is saying much the same thing.

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