An op-ed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, published in Al-Akhbar English in January 2015.
In the past three years since I first moved to Lebanon as yet another French journalist, I have come to learn the shared anguish stemming from acts of violence that can shake a country. I have grieved with the Lebanese, and shared the sorrow of Palestinians and Syrians as they face widespread devastation in their countries.
News of the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris left me reeling on Wednesday, and the pain – both over the lives lost in the tragedy and its possible repercussions at the national and international levels – unexpectedly felt like a punch in the gut. The uncertainty stemming from the manhunt and subsequent killing of the perpetrators by French security forces, the deadly hostage situation in a Paris Jewish grocery store on Friday, as well as instances of anti-Muslim violence in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, have all made the situation even more difficult to bear.
It says a lot about our nation that such an attack leaves us in an intense state of shock, when many across the globe live with the ever-present fear of death. In a twisted sense, we French are privileged to have the luxury to mourn our dead on such a global scale, to commemorate their lives and remember their names while far too many die in anonymity and general indifference.
That this level of violence hadn’t struck France in decades is understood to somehow amplify our grief. Two centuries ago, French writer Félicité de Genlis wrote that “we are too surprised by what we see rarely, and not enough by what we see every day,” and these words have sadly maintained their relevance in the current context. Many of us are desensitized to recurring acts of violence, to violence we see as far removed from us geographically; violence we detach ourselves from even when perpetrated in our own names; then we find ourselves floored when faced with the magnitude of similar violence when it happens on our doorstep.
Many will rightly point to the double standards at play, both over the issue of freedom of speech stirred by the Charlie Hebdo killings, and in regards to the scale of the condemnation afforded to specific acts of violence, whether by individuals or states.
And while I may be acutely conscious of such privileges, made all the more visible by this attack, and be painfully aware of the glaring imbalance when it comes to which deaths are worthy of outrage, and which lives are deemed expendable, my distress is still there. Because no matter how much I may criticize France or scoff at blind patriotic posturings, these criticisms, at the end of the day, are because I want push my country to be better.
Such events hurt because they are an affront to the concept of justice, to the inalienable human right to life, wherever they may take place. And I am embarrassed when so many across the world, including here in Lebanon, rush to express their solidarity while their own tragedies are too often met with French indifference.
The solution to this imbalance is not to be cynical about the grief surrounding the murder of French citizens and to seek to minimize it, but to strive to extend the same level of outrage to all victims of violence. This may be a naive hope, but it feels necessary.
This event leaves France with a choice: to either take shelter in the comfortable dichotomy of “us versus them,” and be staunchly defensive in the face of anything that might constitute criticism of what Charlie Hebdo or France represent; or to seize this opportunity to examine the deep-seated divisions at the heart of French society, which constitute a violence so insidious that its effects are only noticed when they burst forth in dramatic ways such as Wednesday’s attack.
For France is a violent society. Mass attacks with assault weapons might feel foreign to us as a country with a quasi-inexistent gun culture, but French society has been founded over decades, if not centuries, on the marginalization and exclusion of some of its own people. I am not only talking about its history of colonization and state-sponsored xenophobia – which has affected Blacks, Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Roma alike – but also of the myriad of ways which make moving through life harder for the less privileged.
France’s educational system alone is a bastion of elitism, which shuts out those who do not fit its narrow conception of intellectual success. Though France does not include ethnicity or religion in its census, we know all too well that there is a strong correlation between these factors and the likelihood of living in poverty. We know who lives in Paris’ infamous suburbs. The country’s prison system also overwhelmingly targets people of immigrant origins, with Muslims representing between 60 to 70 percent of France’s prison population, when they make up an estimated 12 percent of the general population. Visible signs of religious belief are banned in schools, women can be fired from their jobs for wearing the hijab, or fined for wearing a niqab or burqa. The routine antagonisation of Muslims, as well as Jews, is trivialized in the name of France’s sacrosanct laïcité and freedom of speech. These unacknowledged aggressions wound deeply, and contribute to the terrible sense of alienation felt by too many fellow French citizens.
Nothing justifies killing those with whom we disagree. However, we cannot ignore the context in which these attacks occur, and that, for us to move forward from this traumatic moment for our country, we need to make some serious changes. I am speaking of structural reform, but also of the difficult discussions we should have had years ago regarding the growing space we have given for all types of intolerance – including the xenophobia fueled by right-wing extremists, as well as religious fundamentalism – to take root in our country. The perpetrators of these attacks most likely hoped to drag France into another cycle of fear and collective mistrust, which would only provide more fuel for their toxic ideology. Let’s not give them what they want.