Impossible Solidarities: Islam, Feminism and (fortress) Europe’s shifting frontiers
Whilst co-organising a vigil this past week commemorating those who drowned in the Mediterranean attempting to breach fortress Europe, I came across a passage by the late James Baldwin that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The passage comes from an interview Baldwin did for the NY Times on the occasion of his 52nd birthday and his return to New York after more than a decade in Paris. Time constraints won’t allow me to give you much of a background, but given the ways in which racism and the tropes it perpetuates again and again remain as prevalent today as they were in 1977 when this article was published, it’s perhaps better you hear it as if Baldwin is speaking about Baltimore or Ferguson or even Lampadusa or Calais when he says,
there is a history we all have to contend with…For a long while, liberty was a privilege in this country–if you’re doing well, you can shout to your heart’s content, provided no one starts listening to you and your message doesn’t threaten too many people. We act as if this is a free country, until the White people tell us its not by jailing us or killing us. And a lot of us have been locked up or murdered over the centuries we’ve been here. Its a hard thing to talk about…Some people have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries, but people can cry much easier than they can change.
Thinking about James Baldwin in relation to Charlie Hebdo I am reminded of Baldwin’s essay No Name Street where he criticizes William Faulkner, the celebrated American writer, because Faulkner ‘could see Negroes only as they related to him, not as they related to each other.’ And for Baldwin, Faulkner’s depictions of African Americans had far less to do with them as people than with ‘the torment of their creator who was seeking to exercise a history that is also a curse.’ One of the reasons why I mention this essay is because Baldwin isn’t only writing about Faulkner, but about France and his growing understanding of the coutnry’s vexed relationship to its ‘homegrown underclass.’
And there is probably no essay more revealing of these vexed relationships, especially that of what Baldwin calls the ‘French-Algerian complexity,’ than a short essay he wrote about spending 8 days in a Parisian prison. The essay is called Equal in Paris and he writes,
I consider the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however, that ancient glories imply…present fatigue and, quite probably, paranoia: that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into the possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price, they cannot, of course, assess, but it is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions.
The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is one such thoroughly French institution, at least that is what has been repeated ad nauseum across social media with comments like:
You cannot understand Charlie Hebdo if you are not French!
Charlie Hebdo has been a pillar of the French popular culture that shaped us. It is our tradition!
American media coverage was predictably worse, with commentators denouncing the violence as an attack on ‘Democracy and the West.’ And across the global North, people rallied around the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ as the symbol of their allegiance to the ‘fundamental values of the French Republic.’
I’m certain at this symposium there will be ample discussion on the history of French colonialism and its relationship to art and satire – especially in relation to what Nigerian novelist Ben Okri calls the legitimizing narratives of empire or the ways in which satire was bounded to the ‘scientific’ knowledge that Western Europe produced to justify the superiority of the white race and the necessity of its imperial expansion – satire that added callous amusement to the rationalising of colonial violence.
That is not to say that looking to colonial history can seamlessly explain the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. In fact, claiming that this is all about the colonial past runs the serious danger of glamorising jihadists as anti-colonial ‘freedom fighters’ resisting imperialism – which they certainly are not.
The geopolitical crisis that they are a part of cannot be read exclusively through a colonial lens. Right-wing, (fundamentalist) political Islam, like their mostly secular right-wing European counterparts, are both deeply involved in manipulating the languages of imperialism and resistance.
A language that those of us connected to the Islamic world know all too well as its formed so much of the political rhetoric of our lives. And though the Green movement in Iran and the Arab Spring had thrust the quagmire of post-coloniality into the living rooms of the global North in 2011 – the way that was paved for an open-ended unfolding of these revolts–the public space has been expanding for a very long time, and the political act is now being charged and redefined to accommodate it.
But the public facade of unity across social classes and between different political tendencies which has characterized the uprisings at the very outset, has been and will continue to be fractured.
The hope was (and maybe still is) that these fractures would expand the public space, not diminish it. That societal expansion of the bedrock of political in much of the Islamic world will not be along ideological lines. These ideals, though, for their realisation to be real, require painstaking and detailed work, beyond the reach of the state or the smug pragmaticism of the civil society sector – it will be by enabling and mobilising the grassroots that resistance to the ever increasing power of the emergent state can happen.
For those of us active in the global North, I think there needs to be a reckoning with the identity that clings to us as tightly as we cling to it – the idea that our societies are the most modern, the most progressive, the most democratic, the most sophisticated – that ours is a gender utopia or that we can continue to play arms merchant and economic dictator to the rest of the world without blowback.
Of course, as a friend reminded me, a difference should be made between those who feed us on the ‘no alternative to capitalism and austerity’ diet, and the vast majority who are fed it, and the small minority who continue to resist it.
But returning to the topic of this symposium, and to the argument I am attempting to make with the title of impossible solidarities – I think there is a point to raise in translating the events in Paris as a battle over symbols and in this vein I really like what journalist Mehreen Kasana has written:
Through the dominant culture’s created satire, everything that is valuable – culturally and religiously – to the incapacited Other, is defiled – be it her one God or many Gods or no Gods at all, hymns and canticles, symbols that offer her respite and hope.
Nothing, she is informed, is sacred. But if she dares to apply the same belief of no sacred-belief to the Master, she is asking for punishment. She forgets that he Master, while claiming nothing is sacred, hypocritically hold many myths sacred to his heart: The myth of European superiority, the myth of White innocence, the myth of irredeemable Blackness and Brownness…and the myth that the savage represents the sheer ‘incompatibility’ between the West and the rest. The Master, the Other realizes…is as invested as she is in multiple revered convictions. It just so happens that the Master can guard his, and the Other cannot due to a simple equation involving the relentless subtraction of the colonized’s biopolitical power.
Though I haven’t much time I’d like to make a few concluding remarks:
From my personal experience living in Europe, and the ‘impossibilities’ of solidarity where my personal identity or at least those I claim (and those that claim me) continue to exist in a highly politicized and increasingly polarized space. For me, this has meant holding in tension– an understanding of Islam informed by imperialist legacies and the patriarchal, politicized currents seeking prominence in Islam.
To hold (have) an identity that is constantly narrated as outside the dominant culture is one kind of alienation, but in the context of a deep economic crisis where so called solutions are simply institutionalizing further inequality based on race, gender, class, etc. there is a whole other level to the precarity and isolation that makes carefully crafted ideologies like political Islam seem intoxicating to people seeking a sense of community, identity and purpose in those places where they have historically been disenfranchised.
Of course I can’t claim to know what led Charif and Said Kouachi to take up violence, and I don’t believe this alienation in any way justifies their actions, but I just present that those who would put forward the view that their actions were strictly a ‘reaction to images’ is at best naive.
Prior to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, much debate on Islam and Europe centred on the so-called ‘veil wars’, with forums like this devoted to answering questions like ‘How can a Muslim woman be French?’ or ‘How can a French woman be Muslim?’ which were all just ways to explore the issue of what constitutes publicly visible signs of being secular and French. And who has, or should have, the power to decide on visible signs of belonging to a national or extra-territorialized Islamic community?
Another form in which similar questions were raised– the rise of Pegida in Germany and how, once again, another racist movement is designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse it mobilizes is extremely widespread in Europe. The question of identity and what is means to be German is once more central to this movement.
Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of ‘crazy people’ who have nothing to do with ‘normal Dutch people.’ ‘Dutchness’ here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism, and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism, but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject – a European – that needs to be preserved.
For me, its about recognizing the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ or the ‘limits of European tolerance’ vis-a-vis the endlessly unassimable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.
So in conclusion…
The malaise of Charlie Hebdo is not the extremely racist depictions of Muslims as large-nosed pedophilic Arabs surrounded by flies, perforated by bullets passing through the Qur’an or Black woman as welfare queens or Black politicians as ‘primates’ or other highly homophobic and sexist depictions of other figures but in Hebdo itself.
It is indeed true that Hebdo lampooned everyone and everything equally in the attitude that nothing is sacred, but its focus fell squarely on those living on the bare margins of society.
For those situated on the razor sharp ends of a nation that refuses to accept them for their Otherness and in a global spectrum and discourse that posits them as criminals par nature, religion becomes exponentially sensitive – and prone to injury, as Saba Mahmood said – because of the incommensurable schism erected between them and secular effect.
The malaise is in creating art that waltzes dangerously close to political militaristic notions of Muslims in France.
Satire should, naturally, be at the expense of others, always. But its extremely vital for any aspiring artist to remember the nature of the ‘others’ targeted. If others include the demonized Other, it is not satire. It is the popular imagination of the paranoid public illustrated on paper. In Hebdo‘s instance, the satire affirmed the violence the French State deployed on Muslim bodies.
Unlike the audience of competent satire that becomes a progressive ally for the underclass, satire of a reactionary and fascist nature creates a cannibalistic audience that feeds on the misery of the poor and pulverized.
With every passing day, it is evident that there is an ill-conceived interpretation – particularly in the global North that understands free speech as the right to hurt everyone.
Often, free speech is more about the power-play of identities, privileges and social portability than it is about the religious and the secular. Time and again we learn that free speech isn’t so free as we would like to think it is…
In the name of good and righteous satire, the powerful do not laugh, they tremble. The powerful feels threatened by the deployment of wit for the cause of equality and social advancement; the powerful feel cornered.
In the face of bigotry masquerading as free speech and satire, the underclass does not laugh. There is no laughter for a simple reason: the relentless subtraction of biopolitical power from the minority allows for little appetite for such reckless humor.
One does not laugh simply because such production of images and text reminds him of their Otherness, their not-belonging-here-ness, their despised status in a society that refuses – from colonial past to imperial present – to accept them in their beings with their many sacreds.
There is no laughter.
The Other, like the dominant class, has no wall to feel cornered into. There is no wall because there is no home. In that perilous state-authorized displacement, the Other lives on the edge of society.
And when you inhabit the bare periphery of any nation, it is a little difficult to laugh with the crowd.
I imagine if James Baldwin were here to write more insightful essays interpreting these times, would he allege in light of Charlie Hebdo, if in fact, its easier for people to laugh, than to change?