in theory, you'd like to think that you could turn to the media that we all pay for [yes, including private broadcasters] to provide information, but if you're in north america, that's a bit of a stretch. i'm not even talking about the bilious invective of fox news, either, although god knows [whatever god you choose to believe in] their viewership is low enough on the evolutionary scale they don't believe in that they accept the network's increasingly daft claims as gospel. [which is strange since they pick and choose what they want from the gospels that are supposedly foundational to their beliefs.] cnn, the place to turn when you want the mainstream conservative perspective [i.e., wall street instead of arkansas] on current events, has been flailing wildly trying to play connect the dots between their usual party line on islam and its militants while displaying their woefully inadequate knowledge of the world outside their borders. even normally liberal-leaning msnbc indulged in some pretty gross baiting, repeating without reflection ill-documented reports that 90% of muslims support death by stoning for women who commit adultery or anyone who leaves the faith. [ever notice how no one who quotes those numbers provides any details on how those statistics were obtained? how many people were surveyed? what age groups? what was their educational background? did they identify as conservative within their religion? what was the split between men and women? when was the study conducted? who conducted it? what specific questions were asked? honestly, that's information that should be readily accessible with polls of all kinds, but that's a whole different subject.]
so in the interests of promoting rational discussion, i thought i would offer up a few points to ponder as we are all flooded with mis/information over the coming days, before another explosion or kim kardashian's ass arises to focus media attention elsewhere.
it doesn't matter whom the terrorists identify with.
already, questions have started about whether the mass murderers in france were affiliated with isis, al-qaeda or another, heretofore unknown group. asking that is about as useful as asking what their favourite colour is. what's important is finding the individuals responsible and disabling their immediate organisation. isis and al-qaeda are not s.p.e.c.t.r.e. there isn't some top secret group meeting in an underground lair taking reports from the secretaries of terrorist bombings, religious genocide and misogyny. these are separate groups with varying degrees of experience and training who are united by an extraordinarily vague ideology. police and armed forces cannot fight an ideology [protestors and civilians who refuse to be intimidated into sacrificing their freedoms do that], they must focus on the individuals who perpetrate violence in its name. a lot of time will be spent trying to determine the loyalties of these particular terrorists and every minute thus spent is a minute wasted. the correct response to the question of group affiliation is: "who cares? move on."
we're allowing extremists to dictate our understanding of islam.
it seems to be a given that the impetus for today's attack was the publication of images of the prophet mohammed in charlie hébdo. the line of logic adopted by almost every media source is that it is forbidden to create or show images of mohammed. regardless of the blasphemous content of the charlie cartoons, goes the narrative, muslims have a fundamental problem with anyone showing a likeness of their prophet. if you ask people what they know about islam, chances are this is one thing they'll bring up.
but the edict against images of mohammed isn't even in the qu'ran. it is included in a hadith, which is a term for a tradition of scholarship surrounding the holy book. for christian-influenced north america and europe, this is a difficult concept. christians have the bible and believe that it is the only source of religious doctrine, islam and judaism, on the other hand, have a central book and a body of religious study surrounding it which is sometimes taken to be a foundation of religious doctrine as well. as with judaism, the extent to which these teachings shape the individual's practice of islam varies wildly. taking this specific example from one of the associated texts, it's far from universally accepted.
broadly speaking, sunni and shia muslims have different ideas about images of mohammed. followers of the shia faith are generally fine with depicting the prophet. a shi'ite might be offended by a particular illustration, but would be unlikely to hold the belief that the problem was with the existence of an illustration at all. sunni muslims are more likely to take the caution more seriously, but even then there are significant differences in how it's interpreted. more liberal sunnis take the stance that the proscription was meant to deter idolatry [something forbidden much more directly for jews and christians] and therefore that it is limited in scope. another understanding is that it is forbidden for mulims to create or show images of mohammed. the belief that no one is allowed to show an image of the prophet is limited to extremely conservative groups, who believe that islamic law should apply to everyone. for comparison purposes, think of fundamentalist christians who seek to create laws that follow the teachings of the christian bible. their interpretation of their own holy book is highly selective and they would impose their will on others because they believe they are mandated by a higher power. the best way to win an argument with either group is to know their source material better than they do.
we're allowing extremists to dictate our understanding of france.
much of the admittedly confused reportage from american news outlets today has spoken in hazy terms of france's "immigrant problem". that this idea can even be mooted in the public sphere without someone getting fired should be fucking terrifying to thinking human beings. why? because to treat the idea that france has an "immigrant problem" seriously is to allow the far right to dictate the terms of discussion. because they're the ones who came up with the idea that immigration was a problem.
in modern history, france has maintained a greater openness to immigration than its european counterparts. the notion of a "path to citizenship" originates with the french, who allowed a "fast lane" for those born in french colonies and former french colonies. many took advantage of the opportunity and as a result, france has had consistently high levels of immigration for decades. often [and this will sound familiar to many who have observed the american debate on immigration], the process was encouraged because immigrant labour was cheaper and those who wanted to move were often poor men and women who could not find stable work in their home countries, so ensuring a steady flow of new immigrants ensured that companies could keep wages low.
after world war ii, france faced an exceptional conundrum: the country had been devastated by the wars and was in desperate need of infrastructure repair. for the first time in decades, the country's population increased sharply- really sharply. the baby boom in france was proportionally larger than the one in the united states and this after a lengthy period where population decline was such a concern that politicians considered offering a greater number of votes to households with more children. suddenly, france had an acute need for labourers and domestic workers, but after two world wars and a years of declining population growth, it didn't have french people to fill the positions. although the french empire was clearly on the wane, former colonies were full of people who spoke fluent french and could be naturalised in short order. thus did france solve her postwar labour shortage: by welcoming large numbers of immigrants to meet their needs. [side note :: france's liberal immigration laws were mocked lightheartedly by american journalists who pointed out that bill clinton, upon completing his second term as president, could move to france and be fast-tracked to citizenship in order to run for the presidency there. that's because his birthplace, arkansas, had been a french colony before it was sold to the united states as part of the louisiana purchase. french law was tightened in 2006 by then interior minister nicolas sarkozy, himself the gradson of a sephardic jew from greece and the son of a minor hungarian aristocrat who immigrated to france in 1948.]
france continues to be a significant destination for immigrants to europe, especially those from former french colonies who still learn french in schools and often speak it as a first language. however, there are also millions of french whose parents or grandparents were more or less imported as additional labour decades ago, people who were born in france, educated in france, raised in french culture and who have often been politically marginalised by the only home country they've known. others arrived in the seventies and eighties, when the labour markets dried up, and have found themselves living for generations in abject urban poverty and subject to vicious racism. many whose origins are in the former french colonies in north africa are old enough to remember that the french were culpable for a brutal civil war in algeria. some of them lost family members or were made refugees. the thing that unites all of these groups is that they are french and that they are as vulnerable to radicalization as any immigrants. tying terrorism to immigration suits the aims of the front national, who have opposed immigration and linked crime rates to immigrants for years, but the truth is not so easy.
beware of journalists playing six degrees of osama bin laden.
with the rise in violence caused by the islamic state and the number of attacks happening in the name of islam all over the globe, it can be tempting to believe that there is a sinister terrorist web that links them all together. there is a concerted attempt by much of the media to impose that web simply by talking about theses incidents together, but don't buy it. links between the attacks in france, australia, canada and iraq are tenuous at best.
in a way, i sympathize with the urge to impose a sort of grid on recent events, because if we really are fighting one organisation with one aim, then at least it's clear what and who it is. furthermore, there is some comfort in believing that there really is a big, scary monolith lined up against us, because the alternative is that our societal problems are bursting like sewage from a damaged pipe and the task of stopping terrorist rage becomes multifaceted and overwhelming. i've always felt the same way about conspiracy theories: you can move in a linear fashion through a conspiracy, inspired by the knowledge that you can, at some point, reach the centre, the answer, the light. seeing vaguely related problems pop up all over the place is like being in a minefield- there's danger everywhere and dealing with one source doesn't protect you from the others.
nor should the fact that these terrorists claim kinship be sufficient to treat them as the same. the differences between them, including the circumstances which lead to their crimes, are far more compelling than their similarities. there will be instances where connections should be made, however there are a lot of cases which are the result of different issues entirely and it's incumbent on each of us to learn which is which.
it's profoundly depressing to me that on a day so crucial to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, that so much of the press coverage has been abysmal. as much as i think that people should take it upon themselves, in this era of freely flowing information, to learn as much as they can, there should be some place where people can turn to have some summary that doesn't require them to spend a good chunk of every day studying all angles of an issue. [or five and a half hours writing a blog post. -ed.]
i don't know enough to offer any more. i wish i could. i wish i could write something that would explain every part of this tornado of horror and point the way to something better, but i'm not that person. in fact, i don't think that person exists, at least not as an individual. i think we all need to be that person. nous sommes tous charlie. ensemble.