The great surge of marchers in Paris on Sunday was impressive and very moving but what was it for? We know what it was against: murdering cartoonists – or anyone else – is a bad thing and should not happen. But what was the message to the world?
The politicians will welcome this response because they can use it to introduce lots of new security measures which no one will question. France’s security services will be given lots of money. I suspect we will soon see waves of arrests of Muslim activists in France. Politically I expect France will swing to the right and become a less tolerant society (especially of Muslims).
I will not be joining ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Why? Because although I would defend their right to draw and say what they like, these cartoonists did not respect or care about ordinary sincere believers who would have been deeply hurt by the violent dehumanised images of the founders of the great religions of the world. These were not just Muslims, but Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists as well. Some of those images came close to the sort of cartoons that the Nazis drew to depict Jews in the 1930s.
I am not a believer. I was brought up a Catholic and worked for the Catholic Church in different ways for 10 years but now I would describe myself as a sceptic, an agnostic. As a good liberal I defend the right of everyone to write, draw or compose whatever they want. Let the adult public decide whether they want to see it or not. They can mock the politicians and the Pope as much as they wish.
But if writers and cartoonists use the power of their pens to attack and mock the sincerely held beliefs of the poor and voiceless in society who cannot reply, that is not just mean, it is unjust. It is also provocative and will lead to violence. That is not a moral judgement. It is a fact.
France has a bad history with the Arab world. The vicious war for Algeria in the 1950s and 60s and the murder of many Arabs – some reports say more than 200 – in Paris in 1961 have not been forgotten. Muslims still feel discriminated against in jobs and at schools. Arabs I met – and still meet – in France complain that racism is directed at them far more than other Africans. Arabs remain at the bottom of society.
But there is a terrible irony here. The Wahhabi Islam that has created Islamic militancy has its origins in a close ally of the West; Saudi Arabia. Wealthy Saudis, such as Osama bin Laden, from a country that grew rich on our need for their cheap oil, fund terrorism against us. Just as in the 1970s and 80s much of the IRA’s money came from Britain’s ally, the United States.
Friday’s siege and shoot out and the outpouring of solidarity with those who suffered and the people of France in general was deeply moving. The world will have sympathy for France. But was it also a nationalist march making a statement about the strength of France? Will France now swing to the right and use the march to create a less open society?
Or will the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement open out and include all those suffering at the hands of extremists? I can think of other countries – Mali, Kenya and Nigeria to name just three – which have suffered far more recently. In north east Nigeria an estimated 2,000 people were killed last week alone by Boko Haram, which is inspired by the same philosophy and uses the same terror tactics. How much coverage has it had?
The editors could argue that Paris is a few hours away and France and Britain are close allies with shared economic and security interests. But today distance is less of an issue. The fanatics who killed in Paris are inspired by and inspire the fanatics of Boko Haram. These are not about local grievances. The death of distance means we are close; “every man is a piece of the continent” as John Donne put it 400 years ago, we are all “involved in mankind”. So where is the Je Suis Nigeria movement?
In the UK we have recently seen a lot of ceremonies, books and TV programmes all about Britain’s role in the First World War. But I see no attempt by the government or the media to mark the outbreak of the World War I as a global catastrophe and how the settlement that followed it created World War II. We still mark our historical events as tribes, not as members of the human race.
This weekend has witnessed a huge emotional expression of solidarity with the French. But I notice that an immense celebration of the battle of Waterloo is being planned for next year – another great British victory over an evil enemy. Who were we victorious over? Oh, Er –the French.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter @DowdenAfrica