Hebdo, hashtags and hatred: Probing the inconsistencies and inequalities of Paris – by Ben Kasstan

Whilst MJC welcomes guest contributions to its blog, writers express their personal views and the content of guest blog posts in no way represent the views of MJC. 

Much has been written about the Paris attacks since Wednesday 7 January, raising many questions and creating many illusions about the values of France, as well as the position of its Jews and other minority and migrant communities. Whilst being in France over the days of blood and pain which saw the murder of seventeen people – including staff and contributors of the Charlie Hebdo, a Muslim security guard, a male and female police officer, and four French Jews – I found it incredibly difficult to speak on the issue.

The inferno at Charlie Hebdo and its attempted assault against the ability to write freely was deeply disturbing to me as an Anthropology PhD candidate and writer, whose use of words is a license to provoke meaningful changes in thought and policy. Moreover, as a member of Liberal Judaism I felt wounded by the murder of four Jews at a kosher store, murdered for no other reason than they were Jewish. The days after the horrific events have since allowed me to process these thoughts into words and probe the inconsistencies and inequalities I observed since last Wednesday, and the global discussion that has ensued.

As Head of External Affairs for the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC) – an international organisation dedicated to interfaith dialogue and cooperation between Muslim and Jewish activists – I have been asked by friends and colleagues for my thoughts on the situation. The typical question directed to me was “how can we have any ‘faith’ in interfaith when such cruel acts of terror are carried out in the name of Islam”. I explain that actually working with Muslim colleagues taught me more about Islam(ophobia) and the juxtaposing identities of being Muslim in Europe or North America. I recount how my Muslim colleagues fear religious extremists in the same way I do, but they now feel threatened by representations of their religion as fundamentalist because of a corrupted sect and violent force. I reflect on the inspiring narratives of Muslim and Jewish collaborations, discussions, and relationships built over five successive years since the inception of MJC. I share another narrative of being Muslim and of Islam.

#JeSuisJuif, #JeSuisAhmed, #NousSommesFrancais by Jacob Kohn of MJC

#JeSuisJuif, #JeSuisAhmed, #NousSommesFrancais by Jacob Kohn of MJC

This makes me feel a great sense of discomfort at the thought of Muslim youths feeling the need, or being made to feel the need, to launch a #NotInMyName campaign. I struggle with the view that Muslims should be (made to feel) responsible for publicly denouncing extremism, perhaps so that they are not seen as terrorists themselves by wider society. The expectation to speak on behalf of co-religionists in our increasingly global communities is also a challenge for Jewish youths, who have been held accountable on UK campuses for Israeli occupational or military actions.

The UK’s Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently commented on the ‘special burden’ of British Muslims to detect the signs of extremism within their communities, but is the societal expectation that ‘moderate’ Muslims stand up and denounce extremists as ‘false’ Muslims enough? A bilateral contract might be more effective (and less of a one-sided imposition) if wider society was also better educated about what ‘true’ Islam really is. Such a possibility might allow people in the UK to move beyond portrayals of Islam in the Daily Mail. This would lend pragmatic support to Muslim communities and offer mainstream society a better understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in Britain, as well as an awareness of Islam as a religion, identity and outlook.

The Paris attacks, which pierced the heart of France, also point to the hierarchy and privilege of blood in our world that is undeniable. Over the course of the shootings and hostage situation, and its proceeding days, a range of human tragedies occurred yet fell behind the front page news. 40 people, mostly prospective applicants queuing to enrol at Sanaa’s police academy, were torn to pieces by a bomb explosion in Yemen. Boko Haram’s most recent rampage in Nigeria was so monstrous that recovery services gave up trying to count the dead. And, also in Nigeria, suspected child suicide bombers razed a market to the ground in Yobe state. But during the last week no hashtags of solidarity such as #IAmNigerian or #IAmYemeni stormed the Twittersphere.

Instead, our eyes were not only on Paris but also the solidarity marches organised in London. Is it because such tragedies in states with Muslim majority populations or the presence of political Islam are considered customary? And because of that do we neither mourn nor bat an eyelid at the loss of innocent life? Or perhaps the geographical and cultural closeness of Paris brought the experience of extremism and terrorism closer to home, via the media of course. This second point is more understandable as an explanation for our focus on the Paris attacks over others. But at the same time it isn’t good enough for me. We simply cannot be selective in the atrocities we deplore, or the blood we walk for, or Tweet about.

Of course there is also a great difference between the democratic nature of France compared with the examples of Yemen or Nigeria, especially when upholding the right to freedom of expression and not being murdered when exercising that very right. But should the democratic nature of a country determine how we regard the innocent victims of calamitous acts inflicted by others? And of course France is democratic, but is it the national embodiment of LibertéÉgalitéFraternité which the now iconic solidarity marches imply? Does it truly uphold the right to freedom and freedom of speech, and equality in that freedom? For example, it is illegal to deny the Shoah in France but attempts to ban the denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 were considered unconstitutional and an infringement to the freedom of speech (see BBC News 8 July 2012).

Image 2: Reactions to the Paris attacks in Perpignan, France. Photograph by Ben Kasstan

Image 2: Reactions to the Paris attacks in Perpignan, France. Photograph by Ben Kasstan

Freedom of speech in France is therefore selective, and the fine line between freedom of speech and incitement is blurry. The disgusting Quenelle gesture was quite rightly seen as inflammatory for example, yet the 2011 Charlie Hebdo depictions of the Prophet Mahammad were not. Perhaps this selectivity in what is freedom to speak or to incite is even a barometer for the social position and feelings of disenfranchisement amongst Muslims in France, as French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani remarks on in her Guardian article. Needless to say, the controversial Hebdo illustrations in no way warrant firebombing or the brazen murders that were carried out. But could this have been avoided if French society were ‘equal’ in its sensitivities to minority and migrant communities and set the tone of civil codes of conduct accordingly?

(Whilst it is dangerous for governments to impose limitations on the freedom of speech, society certainly has the power to unite against what is perceived as intolerable and apply pressure for change. One such example is the recent e-petition which attracted over 150,000 signatures to ban Julian Blanc, a so called “pick-up artist” that is sexually abusive in nature, from entering the UK (See BBC News, 19 November 2014). The threat of sexual offence posed to women by Blanc’s presence was voiced significantly by the public, and the government listened and acted accordingly.)

We must also bear in mind that France is a country which banned the display of religious insignia in state schools and those working in the public sector, apparently in defence of the core value of secularism that defines la patrie and overrides the right to liberty. It is my opinion that the debate about religious insignia – especially its archetypal symbol of the headscarf – provides a thin ‘veil’ over the implicit racism and (in)tolerance towards minority groups in France. This reality was captured excellently in the 1995 film ‘La Haine’ (Hatred), but whether the sentiments explored in the film have changed over the last twenty years is indeed debatable.

One only needs to reflect on the French riots of 2005 following the deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, as well as the 2013 riots, and now the recent acts of retaliation against Muslim communities in France which saw blank grenades and bullets directed at Mosques and prayer halls to understand this. Moreover, allegations that Christian Leclerc, mayor of Champlan (situated outside Paris), remarked that a Roma child could not be buried in a local cemetery as priority had to be given to ‘those who pay taxes’ (See Willsher 2015). Note: this followed the demolition of Roma camps in France and ‘repatriation’ (perhaps read: deportation) of numerous members of Roma communities to Romania despite them holding EU citizenship (see Fichtner 2010; BBC News 2010).

Image 3: Anti-Muslim attacks in France following last Wednesday, via TellMamaUK

Image 3: Anti-Muslim attacks in France following last Wednesday, via TellMamaUK

These examples should be viewed against a broader and deeper historical background of (dis)integration, institutionalised discrimination and violence inflicted against minority communities by the French establishment. Nabila Ramdani also articulated the important consideration of the notorious history of intolerance and bloodshed inflicted during the colonial domination of Algeria, then against Algerian émigrésin France, but also against its own citizens (The Guardian, 8 January 2015). And, as we now know, France’s complicity and barbarism in the Shoah was widespread yet France was slow to admit its role, with such acknowledgement coming only in 1995. Perhaps I am missing the point, but the social history in France of those perceived as outsiders illustrates (to me at least) that entitlement to liberty, equality and fraternity – in life and evidently in death – is subject to terms and conditions.

The Paris attacks have renewed debates regarding the future for Jews in France and Europe. The amount of people making Aliyah (immigrating) to Israel from France in 2014 rose to approximately 7,000 cases, and recent news reports expect this to soar in 2015 (see Y Net News, 2015). For the first time, the amount of French olim (those immigrating) surpassed that of any other country. The motivations for leaving France are economic but also the reality of anti-Semitism that is increasingly coming from a minority of Arab and Muslim communities. Prior to the hostage situation at the kosher shop last week, 2014 saw the burning of Jewish businesses and firebombing of a synagogue in July, the rape of a 19 year old Jewish woman in her flat, and numerous assaults on French Jews – one of which occurred on the Paris metro.

At a time when the strength and safety of French Jewry is literally bleeding away, issues regarding the future of the Jewish community in France must be addressed. Francois Hollande’s call to increase police presence around Jewish community and educational institutions is a positive start in helping to boost the resilience of French Jews and their sense of security. However, we should also be asking how this will counter the longstanding problem of inter-community relations in France.

Benyamin Netanyahu was then quick to seize the crisis as an opportunity to welcome European Jews to Israel with open arms yet we should also be realistic about the sustainable and regional security (or lack thereof) that living in Israel could offer French Jews. This invitation was particularly disheartening because it implies Aliyah is the only solution to safely living a Jewish life. It was unconstructive to actively combatting anti-Semitism in Europe, and can be interpreted as a statement which negates the belief in cooperating with global Jewish communities to ensure the endurance and diversity of Jewish life outside of Israel.

The fact that the Jewish community in France is the largest in Europe, is mainly composed of the Sephardim (a vibrant minority group within the world’s Jewish population), and is so deeply rooted, makes the reported ‘exodus’ of Jews in France a deeply painful prospect. Instead I like to believe that this is just one narrative in the subjectivity of being French and Jewish, and others show the belief and confidence in France and Europe being home (see Jackson 2015). Whilst nobody is doubting that times are not only difficult but also agonising for France’s Jewish community, it is my hope that they can envision a strong, sustainable and safe future here. I remain firm in the conviction that France (and Europe) is a traditional and thriving space of Jewish life; one that continues to be rich in intellect, activism, and creativity.

Neither states nor people are static; they demonstrate an infinite capacity to develop and grow in the face of a changing world. Perhaps France is still on a trajectory of realising how to achieve a state of liberty, equality and fraternity for all its population, and yes, this includes all the multi-layered and over-lapping communities who call France home. Equity can and must be fort for, and the extent of the marches we saw in France are an indication that today’s French population and establishment have the strength to strive for this.

Ben Kasstan
United Kingdom
Head of External Affairs
Muslim Jewish Conference

Works reflected on

BBC News. Yemen bomb blast kills dozens near Sanaa police academy. 7 January 2015.

BBC News. Paris attacks: France to deploy 10,000 troops. 12 January 2015.

BBC News. Julian Blanc: UK denies visa to ‘pick-up’ artist. 19 November 2014.

BBC News. French President Hollande vows new Armenia ‘genocide law’. 8 July 2012.

BBC News. France sends Roma gypsies back to Romania. 20 August 2010.


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Elgot, Jessica. France’s Jews flee as rioters burn Paris shops, attack synagogue. The Huffington Post, 22 July 2014.

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Freedland, Jonathan. Charlie Hebdo: First they came for the cartoonists, then they came for the Jews. The Guardian, 9 January 2015.

Irish, John. France to pay $60 million for Holocaust victims deported by state rail firm. Reuters, 5 December 2014.

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The Jerusalem Post. Jewish woman targeted in Paris rape-robbery told: You Jews always have money. 3 December 2014.

Willsher, Kim. French mayor in racism row after dead Roma baby refused cemetery place. The Guardian, 4 January 2015.

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