#jesuischarlie: Will the real Charlie please stand up?

loading In France, the famous Where's Wally books by Martin Handford is known as "Où est Charlie?" (Where's Charlie?) The placard reads "I am Charlie and I am here".

As tragic as the Paris attacks were, France needs to do some soul searching before it can move on, as do we all.

Within hours of the first terrorist attacks in Paris, the hash tag “#jesuischarlie” (I am Charlie) began to rapidly trend on Twitter. As the violence continued for two more days, the hash tag was retweeted more than three million times. Among those killed at Charlie Hebdo were well-loved political cartoonists – cultural celebrities who lampooned all religious and political figures. Although they produced a particularly extreme and quite tasteless brand of satire, most French people accepted it as part of their culture; the cartoonists were national icons that generations in France had grown up with.

Initially at least, “Je Suis Charlie” was the spontaneous outpouring of solidarity in reaction to their shocking deaths. Later, the press was quick to characterise the killing as an attack on freedom of expression.

As more information was released by the authorities, it was reported that the first two attackers, orphans and brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were reported to be radicalised, trained, funded and sent on a mission by Al-Qaeda in Yemen to avenge the Prophet Mohammed for blasphemous cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. (The attackers even stated this during their raid.)

Subsequently, Amedy Coulibaly and his girlfriend Hayat Boumeddiene killed a policewoman and later Coulibaly himself, acting alone, took 16 hostages and eventually killed five of them at a kosher supermarket in Paris. He too made a special effort to inform the authorities of the reasons for his attack: he claimed he was sent by ISIS to “avenge the children of Palestine” killed by Israeli aggression.

We are told that all four terrorists knew each other and planned the attacks together. This is the official line, but it is puzzling how their declared allegiances were towards different and competing jihadist organisations. Furthermore, during the siege, one of the Kouachi brothers told a civilian to “go away because we do not kill civilians”. In stark contrast, Coulibaly purposely targeted a public place and took civilian hostages, including a young child.

Not the first

The attacks in early January received unprecedented levels of media and global attention, being dubbed by observers as the beginning of France’s war on terrorism. However, the country was already on a very high level of alert.

According to official reports, just a month earlier in France, a lone attacker drove a van into bystanders in Dijon city, injuring 13 people. A day later, another individual also drove his car into a crowd at a Christmas market in Nantes, injuring 10 and killing one. In Toulouse, in March 2012 Mohammed Merah killed seven people, including soldiers and children, at a Jewish school. Merah told the police, before they fatally shot him, that he was avenging the deaths of Palestinian children and protesting France’s wars overseas.

"We are all Charlie", a variation of "I am Charlie" – a show of solidarity seen on buildings and shop fronts in Paris.

The nature of these acts of terrorism seem to be too varied (not just against “freedom of expression”) to be carefully planned action closely orchestrated from afar by the usual bad guys, as politicians and the media try to present. The only really solid motive they shared was to randomly lash out at their adopted western society. Much has been said about French imams radicalising disenfranchised youth and turning them into jihadist terrorists, but that is as far as the explanation goes. Not much is said about how these Muslims youths became disenfranchised in the first place. Perhaps by answering the question, “Who were Kouachi and Coulibali?”, it might reveal who Charlie is.

Root of the problem

In the 1960s, France experienced an economic boom; huge numbers of immigrants, mainly Muslims, arrived in France from its former protectorates and colonies, Morocco and Algeria. The immigrants were welcomed as there was an urgent need for labour at that time. The government also launched numerous public housing programmes to meet their needs; these areas were inevitably low cost and high density environments.

An economic slowdown in the 1980s meant that many of the second and third generation immigrants faced unemployment; crime rose within their enclaves, spilling over into the city. Those who could afford it left to seek better conditions, while those who remained were perceived as part of the problem and, largely ignored, found themselves marginalised and trapped in a cycle of discrimination and frustration – one only has to remember the Paris riots in 2005 as an illustration of the tensions that built up. (The riots did not have anything to do with Islamic Fundamentalism.) France had imported poverty to fill a shortage of cheap labour, but only very few of the subsequent generations have been able to escape their situation.

Today, France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe – estimated at five million to six million. French policies insist that immigrants integrate fully, leaving their culture behind and adopting the French way of life. France is well known for its secularist foundations and strict separation of religion and state, known as Laïcité. There is a ban on veils being worn in public, and the discussion of religion is not allowed by teachers or students in schools, who are not allowed to dress in any way that identifies them with any religion either. It is not permitted to keep official records of any kind relating to religious, ethnic or racial data, making it difficult to fully analyse the current situation.

Despite the effort to promote integration, the divide persists; Muslim immigrant enclaves surrounding Paris have been long established and are still acting as barriers to French society. At the extreme end of the problem is a small percentage of young Muslims who are finding it difficult to find equality in education; those who can afford it tend to send their children to private schools or move to other neighbourhoods inside catchment areas of better performing state schools, whereas those who cannot end up dropping out. As a result, they find it difficult to access the workplace.

Reign of terror: France is not afraid.

Exacerbating the situation, the European economic crisis in 2009 strengthened the positions of far-right opposition parties who, as usual, maintain that immigration is to blame for the country’s woes. Their rhetoric emboldens supporters, heightening tensions with immigrant communities. For example, since the Paris shootings, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front party, called for a referendum to bring back the death penalty. Because it is likely that the Paris attackers came from one of these enclaves, the feeling is that new tougher laws are targeted at Muslims.

So, who is Charlie?

On the following Sunday after the attacks, a rally in Paris was held so that its people could show their unity against terror and their support for the freedom of expression. People gathered in unprecedented numbers – 1.5 million in Paris alone, and two million in the rest of France. At press time, the first issue of Charlie Hebdo to hit the shelves since the shootings are being printed. Incidentally, its front page features a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed shedding a tear while holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign, below the words “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven). It is reported that three million copies will be printed – a staggering increase from its usual 60,000; sales are expected to compare to the numbers that attended the rally.

Many were there that day, but not all.

I attended the rally too; it was overwhelming to see the streets of Paris filled with people holding up the now-familiar “Je Suis Charlie” sign. The staggering momentum that the slogan has gained across the world struck me as curious; despite the powerful sentiment, I knew that I wasn’t Charlie. As I looked at the mass of faces on the streets that day, it hit me that the crowd was not the usual cultural and racial mix. Yes, I could pick out a variety of faces, but it was not as fully represented by the immigrant population that I would normally see in and around the city. They were not there. I felt that there was more to the story than what was being presented on TV. Not everybody in France was “Charlie”.

On Boulevard Saint-Martin, converging at the start of the rally at Place de la Republique, I could see crowds up to three kilometres away. All access to public transport was free for that day, and the Metro trains were packed.

Most probably by sheer coincidence, on the day of the attacks a well-known and controversial French author, Michel Houellebecq, launched a book titled Soumission (Submission). It is a story about France electing a Muslim president in 2022. My guess was that its plot was attempting to tap into a deep-seated fear some have about having such a large Muslim population.

Thinking about it and talking to my French friends, I’ve since realised that the “Charlies” are the affluent “haves”. Perhaps they are coming together because they are the ones with something to lose: the quality of life, freedom of expression, job security and now, perhaps due to the reaction to increasing terrorist activity around the world, fear that they will lose some more of their civil liberties too. (EU leaders are discussing more coordination between each country’s security services and pushing through new laws to allow more eavesdropping on its civilians. Also, the existing Shengen agreement could now be amended in an attempt to make it more difficult for would-be jihadists to enter and circulate in Europe.)

It follows that the self-styled “jihadist” terrorists are the “have nots”; they have nothing left to lose. It seems the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly had accepted this fact, clumsily executing their attacks with little regard for their survival. Perhaps the acts we have seen are not wholly the result of France’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa, but also a reaction to French society’s attitude towards its Muslim immigrants.

People sporadically sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

Empathy, not apathy

I have tried not to be too negative in my observations of this situation; I really believe that France will do the best it can to heal. What makes me especially sad about these events is that the acts mostly involved young people who, in desperation, ended up turning to the wrong people as examples of what to believe and how to behave. Surely, people at that age should be having fun, making friends and building a life – maybe even starting a family. Perhaps it’s what they would be doing if they could find a way to make a living and be left alone to decide what is right for themselves, free from religious dogma and injustice coming at them from all sides.

All said I feel that the rally in Paris was uplifting in the short term, but futile. Its aim was to express solidarity and unity against violence, but not “us against them”. Rather, it should be “us against an erroneous idea” – an idea that is holding all of us back from solving the real underlying problems, that the world is a simple place where problems can be solved by broad and bold strokes.

Pens and pencils became the symbols people used to show their support for freedom of the press.

Campaigning politicians perpetuate this because their electoral success is based on the ability to present broad and bold solutions that are compact enough to fit into a manifesto speech. They know that few people will vote for someone who attempts to fully explain complex issues and freely admits that the time taken to fix the problem will outlast their tenures. The same is true for the jihadist would-be puppeteers – they understand that it is far more seductive to tell volunteers that bold and decisive action will yield instant results, so they preach, “go forth and kill those who believe in what you do not, and if you do this you will be defending Islam. This is all you need to do to free yourself.”

It is a dangerous lie.

Bram Tan is an industrial designer, photographer and Penangite living in Paris, France. He is married with two kids and loves motorbikes.

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