Je suis Charlie, Je suis AUSSI Fatimah

ABSURDIA by Carla Montemayor

A lot has been said in the Philippine media about the Charlie Hebdo killings, much of which has been expressions of solidarity with the murdered satirists. And understandably so. As Filipinos, we have our own pantheon of martyrs who died exposing corruption and tyranny.

From Jose Rizal (our first satirist) to the nationalist press of the late 1800’s, from the “mosquito press” during the Marcos dictatorship to victims of the Ampatuan massacre. We easily identify with the struggle for free speech and against violent repression. 

What’s missing, in my view, is an equally robust denunciation of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry, both of which underpin the context of recent events.  

Context

Some insist that these are not relevant to the current discussion and should not cloud our response to the clarion call of Je suis Charlie. And then we get the strident demand for all Muslims to apologize for terrorism. 

From where I sit, it is impossible to address Charlie Hebdo without untangling questions of race, religion, colonialism, immigration and democracy in France and throughout pluralist societies everywhere, including the Philippines. (Has anyone suggested that we ignore Moro history and focus on Abu Sayyaf when we discuss conflict in Mindanao?) 

Examining the context does not in any way diminish our stance against extremism. Instead, it will help mitigate the predictable backlash against French, European and other Muslims who have no hand in this outrage. It will also inform continuing efforts to address festering problems that compound existing social tensions: poverty, gross inequality, isolation.

Being an immigrant in Europe myself (if Britain is indeed in Europe), solidarity with murdered satirists – racist or not – is as important to me as solidarity with Muslims and other minorities in Europe who routinely face not just racism but violence and outright exclusion, with or without the Charlie Hebdo massacre. 

It is but right that we defend freedom of speech but we also have to consider why by itself, among all the freedoms that we should champion for all, it might sound hollow to  pauperized immigrants banished to the outer banlieues of Paris. This is a population that regularly riots in protest against unrelenting police violence, the lack of jobs, prospects and even platforms to demand their rights as French citizens. 

This is not an exaggeration, not an abstraction or PC outrage. Ex-Europa, it is easy to romanticize the idea of France as a liberal, cosmopolitan, democratic polity. The reality was shocking and difficult for me to comprehend even after having seen it first-hand as a clueless visitor. 

Miserable cites

It is hard to imagine that French Muslims (and many non-Muslim immigrants) occupy a separate, oppressive political and physical space not quite in keeping with French ideals. But they do. Far removed from the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees, those cites around Paris are miserable, seething ghettoes for disaffected second or third-generation immigrants from former French colonies. It’s like a different country altogether.

It would then be ridiculous for me to demand that, say, French-Algerian slam-rappers respond to Charlie Hebdo cartoons with caricatures of their own depicting Sarkozy or Hollande as Satan without bringing the gendarme and prison sentences on their heads. Besides, how would they even publish and sell comics? They could try and get an office in central Paris, I suppose, and somehow nab editorial power and column inches in Le Monde and Liberation. Sure.

This colossal asymmetry in voice and opportunity, and in the sustained application of violence, is neither visible nor relevant to admirers of Brand France, defenders of absolute free speech and purveyors of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant prejudice. Liberté, egalité, latté for all, right?  

To be clear, none of this systemic and historical oppression justifies present-day terrorism by Muslim extremists or by any other ethnic and religious grouping. But it is far from being irrelevant. The brutal slaying of a dozen satirists is tragic and unacceptable, as is the  mass murder of peaceful protesters who happened to be Muslim and Algerian. Nearly 300 killed in the heart of Paris in 1961, their bodies thrown into the Seine—all kept out of media scrutiny and history books until recently.

We are outraged by some tragedies more than others because some have been edited out of the curated catalogue of tragedies. And even when we become aware of them, our reflex is to dismiss them as blips in history, as something that happens only to troublesome Others whose lives are less valuable than the protagonists we admire.

Implications

What will the blanket indictment of Islam and the misguided demand for Muslims to be accountable for terrorism mean for Muslims and immigrants in Europe? 

In France, Marie Le Pen and the ultra-rightist National Front have been steadily gaining power on the back of a racist and anti-immigrant platform. This has been a trend in France over the last decade, long before the Charlie Hebdo killings.  

There’s Pegida in Germany, mobilizing in the tens of thousands against the “Islamisation” of Germany. They’re not Nazis, they claim, though it’s hard to take their word for it looking at the finessed but blatantly anti-foreigner rhetoric.  

Here in the UK, which is thankfully not (yet) as bad as France, we’ve got  UKIP, a populist party that would have EU migrants repatriated. We’ve got proposed anti-terror measures to monitor toddlers for signs of extremism and a creeping police state steadily  eroding civil liberties, among them free speech. 

Racism and xenophobia have never been far removed from the fragile diversity on this continent but these last few years, I sense their menacing resurgence in British life. I live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world next to large Turkish, Irish and Afro-Carribean communities and the largest Orthodox Jewish (Haredi) community in Europe. For centuries this corner of London has sheltered dissenters, abolitionists, hippies, activists, waves of refugees and immigrants.

Yet swastikas have been appearing lately with alarming frequency, matched by a huge rise in Islamophobic hate crimes. Not even in the aftermath of the 7/7 London bombings or the July 2011 riots did I sense tensions surge this high, fuelled by a cocktail of economic decline and racist populism. 

The current climate is turning more toxic and threatening not just for Muslims but for all immigrants of color. The way forward is not to demand that minorities take it on the chin (relax, swastikas are just graffiti), or to bear the hatred of bigots who are always keen to exploit old stereotypes and divisions. 

To elide the realities we face because of some pure and abstract allegiance to freedom of speech is myopic and dangerous. This is not just about a bunch of faiths and ideas; these are my neighbors. We have to find a way to live together in peace and safety.  

So yes, I am Charlie. But I am also Fatimah. We can and should condemn fanaticism, bigotry and violence in the same breath. – Rappler.com

 

Carla lives in London and works with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.