#PortesOuvertes

Like many other people, I’ve been trying to make sense of the horrific attack in Nice on 14 July. I’ve delayed writing about it because so much remains unknown – though that has not stopped a cascade of malignant certainties spewing from those on the Right who see every event as an opportunity to foment fear, harness hatred and deepen division.

A Tunisian man with no known history of political activism or religious affirmation kills 84 people by deliberately driving a truck through crowds along the Promenade des Anglais who were celebrating Bastille Day; a man who lived on the margins with a record of petty crime and domestic abuse; somebody with precious few resources, yet able to rent a truck and acquire weapons; and a claim to have ‘inspired’ the attack from Islamic State, which then hailed him as a ‘soldier’.

No wonder that Peter Beaumont agonises over ‘a new kind of terror – one we can’t define‘, where the systematic recruitment, training and organisation of other terrorist attacks bleeds into the savage violence of the ‘lone wolf’ prowling undetected in the darkness.  The incorporation and adulation of individuals and small groups with no previous connection to IS or other jihadi groups reverses what he calls the standard ‘polarity of responsibility: encouraging acts of violence that it accepts as bloody tributes thrown at its feet.’

The link with petty crime is not surprising.  Scott Atran notes that

Serious jihadi involvement with petty criminal networks began after the September 11 attacks as an unintended consequence of the ability of the United States and allies to cut off the flow of funding to suspect groups, especially through Islamic charities. So al-Qaeda and others began looking for funding and arms in criminal networks instead. And in these networks there were large numbers of marginalized immigrant youth, especially in France.

Indeed, Joseph Micallef makes a plausible case for IS expanding its involvement in criminality as its territorial hold on Iraq and Syria comes under intensifying assault: ‘The smuggling networks that are used to bring in armaments and militants can be just as easily be used to traffic in drugs and illegal immigrants.’  His inclusion of ‘illegal immigrants’ should give us pause for thought; I have no idea if he intends this to include refugees from the turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya (it shouldn’t).  But to the extent that IS is involved in human trafficking then this is a double victimisation of its prey.

All of this may be granted; but a causal link between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s murderous drive through crowds of innocent people and the designs of IS or any other radical version of political Islam is proving remarkably elusive.  There is a wider debate in France about whether the terrorism serially inflicted upon its people is at root about ‘the radicalization of Islam’ (Gilles Kepel – below left) or the ‘Islamicization of radicalism’ (Olivier Roy – below right) – there is a good summary here – but in this instance it is far from clear that either of them is relevant.

Gilles Keppel and Olivier Roy

Indeed, Farhad Khorokhavar, a sociologist at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, doubts that ‘radicalisation’ is the appropriate term at all:

“I don’t think he was radicalised at all… It’s a case of raw violence. He took a decision to kill in a moment of despair. My guess is that it’s much more like a mass shooting in the US than [Islamist] radicalisation.”

He speaks instead of ‘mimetic violence’, where previous attacks have furnished ‘a model that fragile people can imitate.’

So I don’t know whether the atrocity in Nice can be attributed to IS or not – but I have no doubt that the precipitate rush to do so has substantive consequences.

One place to start thinking critically about them is this photograph of a woman consumed by grief as she searches for her son after the attack:

Nice July 2016

The image serves to remind us that – if, to repeat, this does prove to be an attack whose trail can be traced back, however indirectly, to the dismal doors of Islamic State – the victims of such atrocities include people of many cultures and faiths.  Theirs is not a ‘war’ against a single, monolithic enemy; Nice is far from being a homogeneous city – like France, like the rest of Europe – and Alissa Rubin captures what she calls its ‘many-layered’ geography better than most:

There is the Nice of popular imagination, the old-world resort dotted with palm trees and cafes that look out on the Mediterranean Sea, suffused with an incandescent light prized for centuries by artists.

Then there is the other Nice, one that begins to show its face a few blocks inland from the seaside Promenade des Anglais, the majestic arc of a boulevard where 84 people were killed by a 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant at the wheel of a 19-ton truck. This Nice is home to many Muslim immigrants from North Africa, including a secular middle-class that has lived alongside non-Muslim French, and is also a place that local officials estimate has sent as many as 100 young people to fight in Syria with extremists.

“It is rare that these two worlds mix with each other except at the moment of festivities or of agreement, like the gatherings on Saturday,” said Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Muslims of the South, an organization that fights radicalization, referring to the public mourning for those killed in the truck attack.

“Yet the first victim was Muslim, and a good number of the victims were Muslims,” Ms. Mohamed added. “Just yesterday I was on the promenade reflecting on what had happened, and a journalist asked me if I was there to apologize in the name of Muslims. I said to him, ‘No, I came to weep for the dead like everyone else.’”

You can read another (short) essay by Farhad Khorokhavar on these divisions in France, ‘Jihad and the French exception’, here.  In Nice they have been intensified, not only by recruiters for the butchery in Syria – and there is no doubt of their success in Nice: Alpes-Maritimes was one of the first French départements to implement a counter-radicalisation strategy of sorts – but also by the advance of the far right National Front, and no doubt by memories of France’s colonial adventures in North Africa and the Levant and its deepening military involvement in Syria.

For now, France seems under repeated attack: the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015; the attacks on the Bataclan and other public places in Paris last November; and now the murder of more than 80 people in Nice.

Martin Rowson cartoon Guardian

Each of these mass murders is truly, wrenchingly shocking: but those of us who live in Europe or North America cannot afford to allow those shock-waves to be refracted by geography because this would erect the bloody partition that is one of IS’s central objectives.  Nihilism meets narcissism.

I made much the same point about Paris and Beirut last year.  Now we might twin Nice with Baghdad. Like Nice – like all cities worthy of the name – Baghdad is far from homogeneous, for all the ethno-sectarian ‘cleansing’ that occurred during the US occupation (see my account of ‘The Biopolitics of Baghdad’: DOWNLOADS tab), and those tensions continue to roil.  The truck bombing and subsequent fire that killed 300 people in the Karrada district as they broke their Ramadan fast at the end of the day on 3 July may have seemed like the ‘new normal’ to commentators watching the rising tide of violence in post-occupation Iraq; it too was claimed by IS.  So too many of us doubtless shrugged our shoulders.

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

Documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq 2003-July 2016 (Iraq Body Count)

And yet, as Walaa Chahine so movingly testified after another bombing there on 12 July, ‘We may be used to bombings in Baghdad, but Baghdad isn’t‘:

We are used to it, so we don’t make hashtags, change our profile pictures, or memorize their names. By taking away these rights away from them, and yes, they have become rights, as long as other victims are given them, we are taking away their connection to us as humans. We forget that we would probably never get used to having our hometowns bombed every day, that just like us, they are humans who don’t forget, can’t forget.

No, the eleven people killed today weren’t used to dying. The 292 killed last week were not used to it. Their families will never get used to it. No matter how long you spend in a war area, you never get used to it. Ask a soldier, ask a refugee, ask someone who experiences violence and pain on the daily if they ever truly get used to it. We might be able to tune out their screams, but we weren’t the ones screaming in the first place.

Iraqi woman grieving in Karrada July 2016

And so, as this contrapuntal geography shows, it bears repeating – until even the tone-deaf Donald Trump gets it – that most of the victims of Islamic State’s terrible violence are other, innocent Muslims.  And they live – and die – outside Europe and North America too.

More terror from the skies

IS drone imagery Syria

Commentators have been worrying away at the likelihood of terrorist groups turning to small commercial drones not only for surveillance – IS have been doing that for some time now (see the image above) – but also for air strikes (see, for a recent example, Robert J Bunker‘s report for the US Army War College here).  The surveillance capabilities of quadcopters have been used to direct attacks by IS ground forces, including vehicles carrying suicide bombs, but the Pentagon now reports that the drones have also been equipped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In response, the Pentagon has asked for $20 million for its Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency to develop counter-measures: to ‘identify, acquire, integrate and conduct testing’ of methods that are able to ‘counter the effects of unmanned aerial systems and the threats they pose to U.S. forces.’

Perhaps they should also look closer to home.  Two men in Connecticut have contested the right of the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate their use of ‘recreational drones’ equipped with a handgun and a flamethrower.  Here’s a video clip:

And other commentators are already looking beyond war zones: systems like these enable groups like IS – and individuals – to carry the fight far beyond the territory they control and into the heart of cities in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Security Theatre

Security Theatre

At the Or Gallery, 555 Hamilton Street, Vancouver: Security Theatre, an exhibition featuring works by Karl Burke, Harun Farocki, An-My Lê and the Bureau of Inverse Technology.

Security Theatre revolves around methods of simulation and documentation and their hold on respective truth claims about modern war. Specifically, this exhibition looks at how modern warfare is rationalised, remembered and portrayed across image based media such as electronic games, video and photography. The exhibition examines how these systems manifest and evolve into the 21st century, which sees war increasingly fought by proxy and through remote digital means. While claims of possessing the humanist high ground remain tied to the Western Bloc, they are no longer linked to the policy of deterrence seen in the 20th century, but instead are tied to myths of precision and expedience in a preemptive first strike context. Just as there were efforts in the 20th century to socialise people to the omnipresent threats of nuclearism, so too is there an effort to socialise people to the endless need for conflict underwritten by the ubiquitous threat of terrorist states and actors. This requires the creation of dissociative mental states. While the past mass dissociation of the Cold War addressed the need to prevent nuclear war by preparing for it, today’s dissociation follows the need to prevent terrorism by engaging in it. The technology used and the social conditions required were developed incrementally with the aid of experts in various fields, with the aim of gaining either tacit or explicit endorsement of so-called “security policies” which are largely maintained through obfuscation and manipulation. The artists included use media and techniques that provide an intrinsic sense of objective documentation when making reference to armed conflict and related events, which interpret and manage expectations of modern war.

The exhibition opens on 13 May and runs to 18 June; the gallery is open 1200-1700 Tuesday-Saturday, and admission is free.  More information (including profiles of the artists) here.

Paris of/in the Middle East

Paris:Peace

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for last night’s co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, calling them the ‘first of the storm’ and castigating the French capital as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.   Walter Benjamin‘s celebrated ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ has been called many things, of course, and as I contemplated the symbol that has now gone viral (above), designed by Jean Jullien, I realised that Paris had been the stage for the 1919 Peace Conference that not only established the geopolitical settlement after the First World War but also accelerated the production of today’s ‘Middle East’ by awarding ‘mandates’ to both Britain and France and crystallising the secret Sykes-Picot agreement struck between the two powers in 1916 (more on that from the Smithsonian here).

Margaret MacMillan has a spirited summary of the conference here, with some lively side-swipes at the astonishing lack of geographical knowledge displayed by the principal protagonists.  Much on my mind was the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon:

French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon

For as I watched Friday night’s terrifying events in Paris unfold, I had also been reminded of the horrors visited upon Beirut the evening before.

Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Burj el-Barajneh in the city’s southern suburbs; the attacks were carefully timed for the early evening, when the streets were full of families gathering after work and crowds were leaving mosques after prayers: they killed 43 people and injured more than 200 others.

Islamic State issued a statement saying that ’40 rafideen– a pejorative term for Shiite Muslims used by Sunni Islamists – were killed in the “security operation”’ and claimed the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.

beirut60s

In the 1950s and 60s Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ (above) – widely seen as more chic, more cosmopolitan than the ‘Paris-on-the-Nile’ created by Francophile architects and planners west of the old city of Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Now I’ve always been troubled by these city switchings – the ‘Venice of the North’ is another example – because they marginalise what is so distinctive about the cities in question and crush the creativity that is surely at the very heart of their urbanity.

And yet, after last night, I can see a different point in the politics of comparison (from Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner to the post 9/11 insistence that “we are all New Yorkers…”).  More accurately, in the politics of non-comparison: as Chris Graham asks (and answers): why the silence over what happened in Beirut on Thursday?  Why no mobilisation of the news media and no interruptions to regular programmes on TV or radio?  Why no anguished personal statements from Obama, Cameron or, yes, Hollande?

Beirut:Paris

Nobody has put those questions with more passion and justice than Elie Fares writing from Beirut:

I woke up this morning to two broken cities. My friends in Paris who only yesterday were asking what was happening in Beirut were now on the opposite side of the line. Both our capitals were broken and scarred, old news to us perhaps but foreign territory to them….

Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head. It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.

When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context.

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

Here we might pause to remind ourselves that most of the victims of Islamic State have been Muslims (see, for example, here and here).

Here Hamid Dabashi‘s reflections are no less acute:

In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Of course, the attack on the French is an attack on humanity, but is an attack on a Lebanese, an Afghan, a Yazidi, a Kurd, an Iraqi, a Somali, or a Palestinian any less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? What is it exactly that a North American and a French share that the rest of humanity is denied sharing?

In his speech, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking as a European, was emphatic about “our way of life”, and then addressing the French he added: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight, and together, we will defeat these terrorists.”

What exactly are these French and British values? Can, may, a Muslim share them too – while a Muslim? Or must she or he first denounce being a Muslim and become French or British before sharing those values?

These are loaded terms, civilisational terms, and culturally coded registers. Both Obama and Cameron opt to choose terms that decidedly and deliberately turn me and millions of Muslims like me to their civilisational other.

They make it impossible for me to remain the Muslim that I am and join them and millions of other people in the US and the UK and the EU in sympathy and solidarity with the suffering of the French.

As a Muslim I defy their provincialism, and I declare my sympathy and solidarity with the French; and I do so, decidedly, pointedly, defiantly, as a Muslim.

When Arabs or Muslims die in the hands of the selfsame criminal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gangs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, they are reduced to their lowest common denominator and presumed sectarian denominations, overcoming and camouflaging our humanity. But when French or British or US citizens are murdered, they are raised to their highest common abstractions and become the universal icons of humanity at large.

Why? Are we Muslims not human? Does the murder of one of us not constitute harm to the entire body of humanity?

BUTLER Frames of WarElie’s and Hamid’s questions are multiple anguished variations of Judith Butler‘s trenchant demand: why are these lives deemed grievable and not those others?

To ask this is not to minimise the sheer bloody horror of mass terrorism in Paris nor to marginalise the terror, pain and suffering inflicted last night on hundreds of innocents – and also affecting directly or indirectly thousands and thousands of others.

In fact the question assumes a new urgency in the wake of what happened in Paris – where I think the most telling comparison is with Beirut and not with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (see my commentary here) – because the extreme right (the very same people who once elected to stuff “Freedom Fries” down their throats) has lost no time in using last night’s events to ramp up their denigration of Syrian refugees and their demands for yet more bombing (and dismally failing to see any connection between the two).  You can see something of what I mean here.

And so I suggest we reflect on Jason Burke‘s commentary on Islamic State’s decision to ‘go global’ and its tripartite strategy of what he calls ‘terrorise, mobilise, polarise’.  The three are closely connected, but it’s the last term that is crucial:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

extinction-of-the-grayzone

More from Ben Norton here.  The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.

UPDATE (1):  For more on these questions – and the relevance of Butler’s work– see Carolina Yoko Furusho‘s essay ‘On Selective Grief’ at Critical Legal Thinking here.

As it happens, Judith is in Paris, and posted a short reflection on Verso’s blog here.  She ends with these paragraphs:

My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police. The political question seems to be, what version of the right-wing will prevail in the coming elections? And what now becomes a permissable right-wing once le Pen becomes the “center”. Horrific, sad, and foreboding times, but hopefully we can still think and speak and act in the midst of it.

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through. It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement” [gathering].

UPDATE (2): At Open Democracy Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed has a helpful essay, ‘ISIS wants to destroy the “grey zone”: Here’s how we defend it’: access here.

Art in another age of mechanical destruction

Paglen (Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs)

Anthony Downey‘s beautifully illustrated and generously hyperlinked essay on The legacy of the war on terror for Tate Etc (34) (2015) is here.

For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.

The essay considers the art works of Trevor Paglen (see his Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs, above) Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Gregor Schneider, (see his Passageway No 1 from White Torture below), Wafaa Bilal, Coco Fusco, Hasan Elahi and Gerhard Richter.

20150519_photo1

If you know Anthony’s previous work (for example his essay on ‘Exemplary subjects: Camps and the politics of representation’), or his Art and Politics now (2014), you will not be surprised to find that – as the image above suggests – there’s much in this essay about Guantanamo — but also much more besides.

Here is the Introduction:

In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 a significant number of artists and cultural practitioners compared the events, in all their visual impact and operatic pitching of good against evil, with a work of art. These comments were dismissed at the time as reactionary and in bad taste, but they did reveal an imminent desire to develop a degree of distance – be it aesthetic or otherwise – from the emotive, ‘spectacular’ and brutal realities that unfolded on that fateful day. In the months and years that followed, under the political logic of a so-called war on terror, we saw yet another unprecedented attack, this time on the legal systems protecting basic civil rights. The war on terror segued, in short order, into an assault on human rights. For some, terrorism has become the single biggest challenge facing democratically elected governments worldwide. For others, it is the political reaction to it that has done more to weaken democracy than any act of terror.

Executed as it was in the name of justice, the war on terror has resulted in a nominal state of emergency being declared across North America and Europe. Since 2001 we have witnessed the repeated suspension of due legal process, the revocation of constitutional law, the institutionalisation of torture, the withdrawal of civil rights, the deployment of mass surveillance, the routine collection of information on innocent citizens and arbitrary detention without trial for countless people worldwide.

Contemporary artists, in examining the ambiguity of this state of affairs, often create narratives and forms of speculative visual rhetoric that expose the anxieties surrounding these acts.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Once you decide you want to engage with audiences beyond the academy – one of my reasons for starting this blog, which also spirals in to my presentations and (I hope) my other writing – you run the risk of accepting invitations to comment on issues that lie far beyond your competence.  Even supposed ‘experts’ can be caught out, of course: think of  Steven Emerson‘s extraordinary claim earlier this week on Fox News (where else?) that in the UK ‘there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in…’  Emerson is the founder and Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and ‘is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing and operations’ – or so he says on his website – and he subsequently apologised for his ‘inexcusable error’.

Emerson was being interviewed as part of Fox News’s continuing coverage of the murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris on 7 January, and specifically about the supposed proliferation of what he called ‘no-go zones … throughout Europe’.

A good rule is to treat areas you know nothing about as ‘no-go zones’ until you’ve done the necessary research.

Academics need to take that seriously too, especially as universities become ever busier pumping up their public affairs, boosting their media profiles and offering journalists ready access to the specialised knowledge of their faculty.  Don’t get me wrong: I believe passionately in the importance of public geography, especially with a little g, and I also understand how producers and journalists racing to meet a deadline need talking heads.  But we need to be careful about the simulation of expertise.

This is, in part, why I haven’t said anything so far about the murders in Paris.  But on Thursday I was invited to lead a lunch-time discussion about them at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies; one of the many wonderful things about the place is the trust that emerges out of a commitment to the irredeemably social nature of intellectual work, and so – beyond the cameras, the microphones and the notebooks – I tried to sort out what I had been reading and thinking.    In many ways, it was an extended riff on Joe Sacco‘s cartoon that appeared in the Guardian just two days after the attacks (if you want to know the reactions of Arab cartoonists, then see Jonathan Guyer here and here):

joesaccoonsatire1200

My starting-points were provided by The colonial present.  First, many commentators have suggested that the attacks were ‘France’s 9/11’; Le Monde‘s banner headline declared emphatically ‘Le 11 Septembre Français’.

le_monde_11_septembre

I think this absurd for many reasons, but there are several senses in which the comparison is worth pursuing, particularly if we focus on the response to the attacks in New York and Paris.  Both events, or more accurately television and video feeds of the developing situations, were relayed to watching audiences in real time.  This sense of immediacy is important, because it says something about the ways in which viewers were drawn in to the visual field and interpellated as subjects who were enjoined to respond – and crucially to feel – in particular ways.

Since this is emphatically not what Dominique Moisi, author of The geopolitics of emotion, had in mind when he insisted that ‘the attacks in Paris and in New York share the same essence’, that both cities ‘incarnate a similar universal dream’ of ‘light and freedom’, perhaps a different comparison will clarify what I mean.  Think of the killing of hundreds, even thousands of people by Boko Haram in Baga in northern Nigeria two weeks ago; reports began to appear in Europe and North America just one day after the murders in Paris, but the focus on France remained relentless.  There were surely many reasons for that (see Maeve Shearlaw‘s discussion here and Samira Sawlani‘s here), but the contrast between the live feeds from Paris and the scattered, inchoate and verbal reports from Baga is part of it – particularly when you realise that the scale of that distant atrocity was eventually  ‘laid bare’, as the Guardian put it, by satellite photographs released by Amnesty International showing more than 3,000 houses (‘structures’) burned or razed in Baga and Doron Baga.  For all the importance of surveillant witnessing in otherwise difficult to reach locations, the distance between bodies and buildings, an ordinary camera and a satellite, and live television and static imagery is telling, and sustains an affective geopolitics that is at once divided and divisive.

(Imagery is important to the Paris attacks in another sense too: when the murderers stormed in to the offices of Charlie Hebdo the focus of their rage was a series of cartoons mocking Mohammed – but they were radicalised by quite other documentary images, including coverage of the wars in Iraq and photographs showing the atrocities committed by American troops in Abu Ghraib: see here and here, and look at Joe Sacco’s cartoon again).

My second borrowing from The colonial present was a re-borrowing of Terry Eagleton‘s spirited invocation of ‘the terrible twins’, amnesia and nostalgia: ‘the inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else’.  In the book I suggested that these are given a special significance within the colonial memory theatre, where the violence of colonialism is repressed and replaced by a yearning for the culture of domination and deference that it sought to instill.   And in much (fortunately not all) of the commentary on the Paris attacks, France’s colonial past has been effaced.  But here is Tim Stanley writing in the Telegraph:

The ability of a society to forget its recent past is like the amnesia that follows an accident – the body’s way of protecting itself against trauma. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, as France tried to cling on to its African colonial possessions, political violence was far more common than today. Muslim Algerian nationalists (their race and religion regarded as interchangeable by the French) bombed the mainland, assassinated officials and killed colonialists en masse. The reaction of the state was shocking. In 1961, 12,000 Algerian immigrants were arrested in Paris and held in a football stadium [and at other sites: see the map below]. Many were tortured; more than a hundred disappeared. For days, bodies were found floating in the Seine.

Carte.ParisAlgerie1961Bis

EINAUDI Bataille de ParisYou can find more on the events of 17 October 1961 – on the arrests, torture and summary executions following a mass rally to protest against a curfew imposed on Algerians in Paris – here and here, but the definitive account remains Jean-Luc Einaudi‘s Bataille de Paris (1991).

DIKEÇ BadlandsThis is but one episode in a violent and immensely troubled colonial history.  To point to this past – as Robert Fisk also did, in much more detail, in the Independent – is to loop back to 9/11 again, when attempts to provide similar contextual explanations were dismissed (or worse) as ‘exoneration’.  To be sure, one must be careful: although Chérif and Said Kouachi were the Paris-born sons of Algerian immigrants, Arthur Asseraf is right to reject attempts to draw a straight line between violence in the past and violence in the present.  But can the continued marginalisation of Muslims in metropolitan France, particularly young men in Paris’s banlieus, be ignored?  (Here there is no better place to start than Mustafa Dikeç‘s work, especially Badlands of the Republic).  Doesn’t it matter that more than 60 per cent of prisoners in French jails are Muslims? For the Economist all this means is that jihadists ‘share lives of crime and violence‘ so that structural violence disappears from view, but Tithe Bhattacharya provides a different answer in which the ghosts of a colonial past continue to haunt the colonial present.

And doesn’t the responsive assertion of a ‘freedom of expression’ that is, again, highly particularistic seek to absolutize a nominally public sphere whose exclusions would have been only too familiar to France’s colonial subjects?  Ghasan Hage reads its triumphalist restatement in the aftermath of the Paris murders as a colonial narcissism – a sort of colonial nostalgia through the looking-glass – fixated on what he calls a strategy of ‘phallic distinction’ in which ‘freedom of expression’ is flashed at radicalised Muslims to tell them: ‘look what we have and you haven’t, or at best yours is very small compared to ours.’  (And whose governments have done so much to prop up authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and beyond that thrive on the suppression and punishment of free speech?)

There are, as Joe Sacco’s cartoon makes clear, real limitations on what can be said or shown in France too, including how somebody can present themselves in public – think of the arguments over the veil and the headscarf.  There are also limitations elsewhere in the world, of course, which is why the sacularisation of Charlie Hebdo and, in particular, the march in Paris on 11 January seemingly headed by politicians from around the world, arm in arm (in some cases arms in arms would be more accurate), processing down the Boulevard Voltaire (symbolism is everything), was a scene that, as Seumas Milne noted, was beyond satire:

from Nato war leaders and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s foreign minister, who between them have jailed, killed and flogged any number of journalists while staging massacres and interventions that have left hundreds of thousands dead, bombing TV stations from Serbia to Afghanistan as they go.

True enough, but here too appearance is everything: the photograph was artfully staged (even before one ‘newspaper’ airbrushed the women from the frame) and took place in an otherwise empty side-street.

Paris photo-op PNG

If I can make one last nod to The colonial present, not surprisingly many of these politicians have also used the murders to justify the continued violence of the wars being fought in the shadows of 9/11; if you are in the mood to reverse the looking-glass, then Markha Valenta‘s sobering reflection at Open Democracy is indispensable:

[E]verything that might be said about revolutionary Islamist movements – when it comes to global violence – could be said about global Americanism and US foreign policy. It has been ruthless, cruel, illiberal, anti-democratic. It has wreaked havoc, killed innocents, raped women, men and youths, tortured viciously, violated the rule of law and continues to do so…

It does so in our name. In the name of democracy. And those who expose this … are shut up ruthlessly, cruelly and in ways designed to degrade. (Yet we did not march then.)

This matters because it clarifies what our condition is today, the condition under which last week’s violence took place: an extended and expanding global war between those who claim the right to intervention, brutality and terror in the name of democracy and those who do so in the name of Islam.

No less predictably, one of the immediate and dismally common responses to the murders, amidst the clamour for freedom of speech, was a renewed call for more state surveillance and regulation.  As Teju Cole wrote in the New Yorker,

The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

But it’s not only politicians who are guilty of appropriation.  Putting on one (far) side the extraordinary attempts to turn “Je suis Charlie” to commercial account – to ‘trademark the tragedy and its most resonant refrain‘ – there are other, less venal and more complicated appropriations.

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Heat map of #jesuischarlie hashtag; animation is available here

So back to the looking-glass.  You might think that “Je suis Charlie” is an affirmative gesture born of anger and horror but also of sympathy and compassion, a simple human reflex that has become virtually commonplace – comparable to, say, “We are all Palestinians“.  That was my first thought too. But the trouble is that such a rhetorical claim comes with a lot of baggage.  David Palumbo-liu suggests that  “I am Charlie” can be an assertion of empathy, solidarity or identification.  Even empathy is far from straightforward – why do we extend our fellow feeling to these people and not those? – but, as he shows, the other two progressively raise the stakes.    Sarah Keenan and Nadine El-enany wire this to appropriation with exquisite clarity in a short essay at Critical Legal Thinking:

The #JesuisCharlie hashtag and its social media strategy of solidarity through identification with the victim is … an appropriation of what was a creative and subversive tool for fighting structural violence and racist oppression, perhaps most famously in the “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. When young black men stood up and said “I am Trayvon Martin”, they were demonstrating the persistent and deeply entrenched demonisation of black men which not only sees them killed in the street on their way to the local shop, but also deems their killers innocent of any wrongdoing. When predominantly white people in France and around the world declare “Je Suis Charlie”, they are not coming together as fellow members of a structurally oppressed and marginalised community regularly subjected to violence, poverty, harassment and hatred. Rather, they are banding together as members of the majority, as individuals whose identification with Charlie Hebdo, however well-​meaning, serves to reproduce the very structures of oppression, marginalisation and demonisation that allowed the magazine’s most offensive images to be consumed and celebrated in the first place.

As the invocations of Voltaire should have demonstrated, there is a substantial difference between defending the right to draw a cartoon and celebrating what is drawn.  Too many commentators clearly want to elide the difference, but there is another distinction to be made too.  A Muslim friend who lives in Paris was distraught at the murders, but when he heard the calls for the cartoons to be re-published immediately after the killings he told me he felt brutalised all over again.  Those who made such demands, who casually sneered at the ‘cowardice’ of those who failed to comply, either forgot or chose to ignore the existence of a far, far larger Muslim audience than the terrorists against whom they vented their spleen: or, still worse, it never occurred to them that there is a difference between the two.

So: je ne suis pas Charlie; I think I’d rather ‘be’ Joe.

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I am grateful to my friends and colleagues who helped me think through these issues – I realise there’s a lot more thinking to be done, so please treat this as a first, fumbling attempt – and to Jaimie.