Reacting to an ISIS attack with increased hostility and persecution toward Western Muslims plays perfectly into ISIS’ hands. This film illustrates how close France is to doing exactly that.
Yesterday, the New York Times published an article that was deeply alarming from the headline to the last line: “After Paris Attacks, a Darker Mood Toward Islam Emerges in France.” It describes how the relationship between France and “its Muslim community” is now “tipping toward outright distrust, even hostility” in the aftermath of last Friday’s violence. It highlights the fear experienced by French Muslims as they endure government vows of radical domestic crackdowns, a growing far-right anti-Muslim party, and waves of violently bigoted sentiments spreading on social media.
The NYT suggests this is a new phenomenon by contrasting it with the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders, which prominently included “grand public appeals for solidarity with Muslims.” But now, says the NYT, there is “a palpable fear, even anger” toward Muslims.
But over the summer, Max Blumenthal and James Kleinfeld traveled to Paris to examine the post-Hebdo climate for French Muslims. They interviewed numerous Paris residents whose voices are rarely heard in these debates — French Muslims, immigrants, French Jewish leftists — as well as other French citizens expressing the more conventional anti-Muslim views (including Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice (one of France’s largest cities) who warns of national television of a “Fifth Column” composed of French Muslims and calls the battle against it “the Third World War”).
Those interviews form the backbone of a new documentary Blumenthal and Kleinfeld produced, titled Je ne suis pas Charlie, which has been updated to include a discussion of last Friday’s attack. With the permission of its producers, you can watch the full 55-minute film on the video player below. I highly encourage it: Especially now, doing so is a very worthwhile use of your time.
Aside from offering typically excluded viewpoints, the primary value of the film is to highlight the serious dangers of overreaction, fear-driven persecution, and ugly backlash after terrorist attacks: pathologies with which any Americans who lived through 9/11 should be familiar.
Among those featured is Amal Paluskiewicz, spokesperson for the French League of Muslim Women, who said of French Muslims wearing religious clothing: “There was a pre-Charlie situation and a post-Charlie one. It’s undeniable. Before Charlie, there was discrimination, there was Islamophobia. But after Charlie … we are easily identified with Islam and we are then conflated with the extremists.” Hanane Karimi, a French student, describes “a moral panic in French society which makes [Muslims] even more stigmatized than beforehand.” Several of the interviewees cite multiple French laws passed over the last few years to regulate and restrict the wearing of headscarves and veils by Muslim women as a key trigger of this pervasive animosity.
The film also examines France’s history as a brutally violent colonial power in predominantly Muslim countries, particularly Algeria, and the role that history still plays in how France treats its Muslim population. Houria Bouteeldja, the leader of a party of indigenous French people, noted ongoing French military actions in Asia and the Middle East and argues that “we are not in a post-imperial situation. We are still in imperialism. … We, who live in France, are part of the French empire.” This mentality continues to drive national controversies: Last summer, France actually outlawed protests against the Israeli attack on Gaza, and arrested scores of its Arab citizens who protested anyway. Citing those restrictions and the resulting alienation of French Muslims, Blumenthal told The Intercept: “Roaming around the suburbs of Paris, I was distinctly reminded of occupied Palestinian territory.”
None of this, of course, is a comment on the motives of the perpetrators of the most recent attacks. But it does powerfully illuminate the questions of how France and the West generally respond to such attacks.
As my colleague Murtaza Hussain has demonstrated, the prime strategic objective of ISIS is to convince Western Muslims that they cannot assimilate or even coexist in the West because those societies are so uncontrollably hostile to Islam that persecution is the inevitable outcome. Convincing Western Muslims that the West is at war with them — destroying what ISIS calls the “grayzone” of coexistence — will, ISIS believes, lead Muslims to abandon allegiance to the West and instead want to wage war back on their own societies. For that reason, reacting to an ISIS attack with increased hostility and persecution toward Western Muslims plays perfectly into ISIS’ hands, and this film illustrates how close France is to doing exactly that (to see this danger in its most vivid form, watch this repugnant CNN International interview with a French Muslim civil rights activist, Yasser Louati, as the hosts all but blame him and his “ranks” (i.e, all Muslims) for the attack).
The emotions inspired by the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the subsequent march suppressed many of these dynamics. Earlier this year, a French philosopher, Emmanuel Todd, published a controversial book about the Charlie Hebdo parade; the book’s title highlights what he believes was really behind it: Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class. He argues that it is anxiety over the decline of Catholicism and rising uber-nationalism and xenophobia among France’s middle and working classes that drives the country’s increasing anti-Muslim animosity, which, in turn, fueled the Hebdo march. “Even more than an America so often mocked for its emotional excesses,” he argues, “France overreacted” and “succumbed to an attack of hysteria.” As often happens to a majority that feels besieged and threatened, they have turned against a “group that is weak and discriminated against” in that country.
Blumenthal and Kleinfeld’s film provides the critical context for understanding key pieces that are deliberately omitted from most American media coverage of these issues in Europe. Rather than subjecting yourself to more of the endless CNN and MSNBC cascade of fearmongering and U.S. military officials spouting bromides about Paris, take the time to watch this film instead. It is a vital counter-balance to most of what we hear.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the job of Christian Estrosi, Mayor of Nice, and has now been corrected to reflect his current position.
Top photo: Screen grab of a wall at a French school, where laïcité, secularism, is added to the national French motto of liberty, equality, fraternity.