French police guard Paris’s main mosque during Friday prayers. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
The whole play of history and power is disrupted by this event,” wrote the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, reflecting on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, “but so, too, are the conditions of analysis . . . You have to take your time.” But barely a week after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris left 17 dead, and after three million people marched in unity across France, the analysis has come nonetheless, restless and relentless, posing arguments and counterarguments, filling Twitter threads and spanning news banners, spilling across global media of all kinds.
The drama of the past week unfolded in the kind of hyperreal time that is impossible to decelerate and in which it is hard to think clearly. The accumulation of breathless analysis is indicative of how desperately we seek clarity in moments of crisis, and how difficult that is to secure. While the ground of the debate has shifted back and forth (from absolute claims of freedom of speech to discussions of the merits of #JeSuisCharlie, to how we distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and how best to rebuke Rupert Murdoch), the names of the dead and the voices of their families have remained a sobering reminder of how unequal we are to the task of understanding these events.
Those names and voices are chastening, alerting us to the impropriety of our analysis, which despite our every decent intention speaks too much, or too little, too soon. Yet we offer it nonetheless, undeterred even by the knowledge that our paltry reasoning and rationalisation could not in any way mitigate, justify, explain or redeem the death of 17 people. If there is one truth we might venture, it is that there could be no possible cause deserving of their senseless murder – neither Islam nor free speech. But there are no other absolute truths to which we can cling here. It is worth reflecting how, in this frantic business of securing and settling on decisive moral judgements, we pitch clarity against complexity. There have been so many claims made in the name of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of the Hyper Cacher massacre, and despite the unadulterated tragedy of the deaths, those claims must be understood as caveated, contested, more complicated than we might wish to allow. There is so little comfort to be derived from this complexity, but we must insist upon it.
Even François Hollande’s statement denouncing the Charlie Hebdo massacre as “barbaric” requires a discomforting inspection. Violence is barbaric: uncultivated, crude, brutish and stupid. But the word comes from the Greek for barbarians, barbaros, the strangers at the gate of the city. The name derives from the babbling sounds of a foreign language that to Greek ears would have seemed like incomprehensible noise. If the gunmen were certainly barbaric, they were not strangers at the gate; they were, instead, French-speaking citizens of the state, just as the unrepentant street executioners of Lee Rigby were shamefully British.
To draw attention to this complication is not to empathise with murderers, nor even to try to “understand where they came from”, but to resist that instinct to sever ourselves from the horror in our midst: to implicate ourselves precisely when we might prefer to disavow. Home-grown terror is confusing. We know to reject the rhetoric of an “us v them” formulation of liberal democracy and its (Islamic) assailants. We know that such reductions are faulty, yet the challenge is not simply to avoid that language, but to reconceive of ourselves (in Britain, as well as France) as an “us” that includes “them”. This is something that, at times, could be as distasteful as it is difficult, perhaps especially in France, where the boundaries between religious and civic life seem so firmly drawn. And yet not to acknowledge it is to risk yielding to apocalyptic, Farageian pronouncements of a “fifth column”. If, as Murdoch put it, there is a “jihadist cancer” threatening the west, it is one that demands the attention not only of Muslims, but of all members of the societies where it seeks violent expression.
The questions facing Europe in its relationship to Islam now are about how to live peacefully with contradictions and how to find solidarity in a multitude of irreconcilable forces. There is nothing straightforward or uncomplicated about such a Europe. It is a place where attacks like those of the past week can be understood simultaneously as an attack on secularism and an attack on ordinary Muslims, too. One of the complexities we must start to fathom is that of a profoundly varied Muslim identity. Not all Muslims would agree on the nature of “offence” given by images of the Prophet, and many of them would find such images of considerably less concern than experiences of racism or relative deprivation.
If we accept the possibility of contradiction and complexity, we might assert the absolute right to speak without threat of violent reprisal while also drawing attention to the variegated history of freedom of speech, which is never really “free”, even in France, from its historical and social contexts. It is possible to take pride in a society that privileges freedom, but also to refuse to labour under the illusion that free expression is always in the service of good, when often enough it has served the purposes of diminishing different groups of people, not because they warrant it, but because they are somehow undeserving of a shared nationhood. It is entirely possible to treasure both the freedoms that secure the right to speech and those that protect religious beliefs. This is not some fantasy of a future Europe, free from crisis – it is the difficult, imperfect, contradictory, decent and functional Europe we live in now. It just might take us time to remember that again.
Shahidha Bari is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London