Freedom fries, anyone?

Three more contributions to the Charlie Hebdo debate to think about.  The first is from Pankaj Mishra at the Guardian.  Not sure about his call for a ‘new Enlightenment’ – though there was certainly much wrong with the old one – but it’s a luminously (sic) intelligent argument.  He writes about ‘a profound clash – not between civilisations, or the left and the right, but a clash of old and new visions of the world in the space we call the west, which is increasingly diverse, unequal and volatile.’

It is not just secular, second-generation immigrant novelists [Hari Kunzru, Laila Lalami and Teju Cole] who express unease over the unprecedented, quasi-ideological nature of the consensus glorifying Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam and Muslims. Some Muslim schoolchildren in France refused to observe the minute-long silence for the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo mandated by French authorities.

It seems worthwhile to reflect, without recourse to the clash of civilisations discourse, on the reasons behind these striking harmonies and discords. Hannah Arendt anticipated them when she wrote that “for the first time in history, all peoples on earth have a common present … Every country has become the almost immediate neighbour of every other country, and every man feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe.” Indeed, it may be imperative to explore this negative solidarity of mankind – a state of global existence in which people from different pasts find themselves thrown together in a common present.’

Construction of Statue of Liberty in Paris.comI think that’s right, which is why I’m disconcerted by Pankaj’s focus on Europe; I certainly don’t think the murders in Paris can be assimilated to ‘an assault on American values’ (far from it), but the complicated and often confounding relations between the two republics need excavation too.  They go back far beyond the gift of the Statue of Liberty to the US in the 1880s – I discussed this in what is still my favourite chapter in Geographical Imaginations – and reach forward to include the double, displaced misadventures in Indochina (not least the conviction that the US would sort out Vietnam after France had failed to do) and, still more proximately, France’s refusal to support the US-led invasion of Iraq (“freedom fries“, anyone?).

NIVAT Bagdad zone rougePankaj is simply brilliant on the ghosts of the colonial past, as you would expect, and they reappear in a different spectral guise in a short essay by Anne Nivat at Warscapes.  She provided some of the most reflective reporting from occupied Iraq (see her Bagdad, zone rouge), and in ‘Charlie Hebdo and the Boomerang Effect’ she mines that rich vein of experience to reflect on the knee-jerk responses to the murders in Paris:

In a democracy, one has the privilege of freedom of expression, and it is in the name of this that, for years, I have been traveling to the lands of “Islamist” wars.

For some time, I have been amazed, and even hurt, to hear friendly voices claim not to understand why I continue to give the floor to “the other side”; to those who make us afraid; to the “bad guy”; the “barbarian”; the “jihadist”; the Taliban; the “Islamic fighters” – the ones our allies have sought out to fight, or to “bump off in the outhouse,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin so elegantly put it in 2000 in reference to Chechen separatist fighters (Western military and political leaders typically use less violent vocabulary, but the meaning remains the same).

I regret that the attempts to know the “enemy” – my work, and others’ – have not been sufficient, as evidenced by the onslaught of hate on social networks.

And at the same site Andrew Ryder explores the multiform versions of ‘hate’ in ‘Charlie Hebdo and the limits of nihilism’.  He maps the gavotte between iconoclasm and nationalism and in so doing returns us to the figure of the Republic and to the dilemmas exposed by Pankaj Mishra.

Three years ago, [the editor of Charlie Hebdo] said, “If we say to religion, ‘You are untouchable,’ we’re fucked.” His idea was that no religion should be free from mockery, because to allow this is to permit the continuing subjugation of human freedom by religious superstition…

However, Charb also said, that same year, “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.” This is the point where this apparent commitment to freedom actually masks French nationalism. What he is really saying, whether he was conscious of it or not, is that traditional French secularism, the products of a distinct national revolutionary tradition, should take absolute precedence over the values of immigrants. The secularism takes the shape of social chauvinism. In this context, it’s no longer a progressive contribution to the liberation of human beings. The apparent irreverence is bound to a greater advocacy of European heritage over the cultural character of the immigrants who now comprise such a large part of its society, and who were traditionally colonized and exploited by the ostensibly progressive and liberal nations whose secular values are then rhapsodized… [T]his complicity with racism was probably unrecognizable to him. We can see this today in the irony of the French right, paying homage to a magazine that hated them.

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