Reaping What You Sow

Terrorists shootout in Paris
Islamic Jihadists firing assault rifles on Parisian Street

 Darkness in the City of Lights

If the terrorists attacks that struck Paris recently were not such tragic events, listening to the attempts by western journalists to explain the causes of the random slaughter of innocent patrons in a Kosher butcher shop and the planned assassinations of twelve workers at the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo that repeatedly published cartoons of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the founding prophet of Islam – which millions of devout Muslims consider blasphemous – their vapid prattle would be funny.  More often than not their explanations boil down to the conclusion that it’s just some crazy Muslim terrorists who fell under the spell of mad mullahs that are jealous of the wealth and progress of western civilization, lost souls wilding on the streets of Paris with machine guns.

According to this narrative the shooters – native born French Muslims of Arab/African origin – are a murderous, misguided lot who are ungrateful to the French nation and people for graciously allowing their parents to settle in the affluent enlightened realm of French Civilization, rescuing them from the backwardness and poverty of their Arab homelands. Even Barack Hussein Obama, the son of an African Muslim, offered a paean to the superiority of French civilization and their “shared values” with American civilization – cherry picking the admirable ideals while conveniently forgetting the values that produced a history of oppression, slavery and genocide against people of color spanning centuries – helping to create the backward conditions in these countries. Viewed from the perspective of western commentators the terrorist actions are inexplicable; there is just no way to explain it logically.  This accounts for the endless stream of confusing prattle that masquerades as serious analysis from government officials and media talking heads.

However it is not ignorance alone that accounts for the low level of commentary, self-censorship is also at play.  For instance, President Obama is a brilliant man who is an astute observer of world affairs and knows this is self-serving BS, but he dare not admit that the Jihadists are motivated by any complaints that reasonable people can understand.  For to admit even the possibility of a rational motive would amount to challenging the master narrative that these terrorists are not inspired by any real grievance against western civilization but are driven to madness by a poisonous irrational Islamic theology.

The news anchors well understand that to admit the Jihadists have any legitimate complaint against domestic conditions in France, or the aggressive foreign policy of western nations against the Islamic world, could quickly end their careers.  Hence self-censorship is the rule…mum’s the word.  If it were not for the independent experts featured on these news shows we would have no understanding at all of what motivates the Paris assassins.

As I listen to the conversation I find myself reflecting on an encounter I had while strolling about the grounds of Notre Dame on a clear February morning during a visit to Paris in 1996, when the city was on high alert for terrorist attacks.  I had come to deliver a lecture on Wynton Marsalis at the Sorbonne.

The Gardens of Notre Dame
Notre Dame cover_image_492
Overlooking the Siene it is one of Paris’ grandest landmarks

As on previous trips I noticed the tentative somewhat downtrodden posture of black Parisians as they went about their business.  There was a kind of “hang dog” attitude that seemed to hover about them which was so different from the bold posture projected by black Americans as they strode about the streets of New York, exuding an attitude of confidence that the streets belonged to them as much as anyone. So when I happened upon a black man in the gardens of Notre Dame, and discovered that he had lived in the city for over twenty years, I pounced upon him with a barrage of questions about black life in Gay Paree.

Having been nurtured on tales about the French fascination with Black American music and dance; their racial tolerance, and the open cosmopolitan milieu of Paris that provided a safe haven for Afro-American artists and intellectuals – Josephine Baker, Sydney Bechet, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, et al. and produced the first black military aviator in the Ace fighter pilot Eugene Bulliard.  A people who cared so little about racial etiquette that the First lady of France had caused a major scandal in the US when she kissed the great Afro-American pugilist and elegant bon vivant “Sugar Ray” Robinson in the 1950’s.  I wondered how much of that racial good will remained.  It was hard to tell in the circles I was moving in because the only blacks I met were academics who dwelled in the rarified atmosphere of the academy.  So I put my questions about how the folk were faring to the brother in the garden.

Like Othello, he told “a round unvarnished tale.”  As it turned out his name was Trevor and he was of Jamaican origin.   He had migrated to Paris from London to pursue his profession as a thespian.  A triple threat actor, singer and dancer he initially found success and had a royal ball.  But then an anti-immigrant sentiment began to grow in France; the more that black Africans from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Afro-Arabs from Algeria, Libya and Morocco poured into France the more intense anti-immigrant racism became.  He told me that the atmosphere had become so poisoned that he was moving to Berlin.  On the morning that I met him he was just walking about the city conjuring up fond memories before bidding the City of Lights adieu.

Trevor went on to explain that Paris was still a tale of two cities, only now it would have been more accurate to call it a “tale of three cities” because Charles Dickens’ reference in his classic novel was to the class divide; now the city was divided on the basis of class, race and religion.  He explained that you don’t see many blacks on the streets of Paris at night because they lived in the suburbs where the bulk of poor blacks and Arabs lived. They were out of sight and definitely out of mind.  Most had but little contact with the swells, the creme de la crème who dwelled in the city.  And what is worse, even Arabs and blacks who had acquired advanced university degrees in business and the professions often could not find employment commensurate with their training.  The situation sounded a lot what I had observed in London in 1981 (see: “On Being Black in London, ” posted on this blog, which is why Trevor had quit London for paris in the first place.

That same morning I noticed for the first time platoons of Africans in overalls and rubber boots washing down the streets and the monuments that adorn this sparkling squeaky clean city.  In such a social environment, where the life’s chances of young people are circumscribed by race and religion, there is bound to be a critical mass of alienated dispossessed youths seething with anger i.e. social dynamite.  Just nine years later, on October 27th 2005 these suburbs exploded and it took French authorities three weeks to quell the riots/rebellions.

The rioters, who were described as largely unemployed youths from the projects located over two hundred towns and villages ringing Paris, set fire to almost 10, 000 cars and many buildings of all sorts including daycare centers and schools.  Almost 30,000 people were arrested and over 100 policemen were injured.  A year later on October 1, 2006 in the same suburbs, and there have been violent flare ups as recent as 2013.  It is safe to say there will be more.  The poet Langston Hughes asked the essential question here: “What happens to a dream deferred….does it corrode or does it explode!”

What we are witnessing with the rise of home grown terrorists in France is an explosion of pent up anger and frustration whose causes lay not just in local conditions but in their identification with the wider world of Islam.  Hence their anger has taken on a sense of religious purpose which provided inspirational myths of a glorious past and a triumphant future through the establishment of a global Caliphate based on Sharia Law; which is the vision of Al Qaeda and ISIS.   The vehicle by which the New Islamic empire will be brought into being is the Jihad; it is a vision that limitless legions of young Muslim men are prepared to kill and die for.

 Wall Art in the Suburbs of Paris
Wall art in Paris Suburbs
An accurate reflection of the mood of many alienated Afro-Arab Youths

 Consider the statement of Boubakar al Hakim, a French Jihadists who fought American forces in Iraq, given to a French Radio station from the battle front in 2003 and reprinted in the New York Times on January 12, 2015.   “All of my friends…I tell them to come do the Jihad.  All of my brothers who are over there, come to defend Islam.  They are wimps, wimps and buffoons. The Americans aren’t anything.  I am ready to fight on the front line.  I am even ready to blow myself up, to put dynamite and Boom! Boom!  We will kill all of the Americans.  We are the Mujahedeen.  We want death.  We want paradise.”  We hear echoes of this declaration in the statements of the Kouachi brothers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo and announced that they sought “Martyrdom.”  It proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a country with a Muslim population numbering in the millions there is obviously no easy solution to the problem of Jihadists.  The French President Francois Hollande has strongly denounced the terrorists and called for “moderate” Muslim clerics and scholars to repudiate the theology of the Jihadists, and for assimilated Muslims to engage with the youths to show them the error of Jihadist tactics.  Added to the police powers of the state these initiatives represent the core of government involvement with Muslim youths.  Central to their strategy is to vigorously deny that there is a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West; hence they must insist that the Jihadists are misrepresenting Islam.

The problem is that such a strategy has little chance of working with alienated youths fed up with the racism and economic discrimination heaped on them by white French society.  It is a policy that amounts to little more than a public relations offensive but offers no concrete solutions to the real problems faced by Africans and Arabs in France, which are exacerbated by the prolonged stagnation of the French economy and the rising racism expressed as anti-immigrant xenophobia fanned by the far right National Front Party headed by Marine Le Pen.

 Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, National Front Leader
Is She the Next President of France?

During my 1996 visit to Paris I blundered into a demonstration by the National Front at which its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, called “The Devil of the Republic” by his opponents, was the featured speaker.  It was a raucous affair and the hostility of the stares directed at me and my companion was palpable, because they had no way of distinguishing me from the hated Africans they wanted to drive out of the country.

A former intelligence officer and Paratrooper with battle decorations Le Pen witnessed the collapse of the French empire in Southeast Asia and North Africa symbolized by the French defeats in the battle of Diem Bien Phu and the Algerian War.  He is a ultra-right wing nationalist politician who champions the superiority of French culture and built a loyal political constituency among those who feel threatened by nonwhite immigrants.  Although he fought to preserve the French Colonial Empire he now demonizes their former colonial subjects who have immigrated to France.

 Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie-Le-Pen
Purveyor of a racist xenophobic populist politics of rage

Back then they were a fringe party, now they are the largest party in France by some estimates.  Spurred by the Jihadist assault, a resurgent right wing political force is making their agenda crystal clear; there was no shame in their game.  Angered by not being invited to what many are saying was “the largest mass demonstration in French history,” Marine Le Pen sounded like Sarah Palin – the Alaskan Barbarian who almost became Vice President of the United States.

For instance, casting herself as an outsider, and her disparagement of Paris,  sounds quite familiar.  “Ms. Le Pen’s embrace of exclusion perfectly fits her politics.” Reports the New York Times.*  “Using old tropes of the far right in France, she took pride in avoiding the capital, Paris, which she and her supporters view as the center of political corruption an cynicism, for ‘La France Profounde,’ the ‘real France’ of genuine patriots tied to their land and their provinces.”

It is amazing how the right wing everywhere adopts these silly tropes of the virtuous provincials vs. the corrupt cosmopolites; sounds remarkable like the new Republican Senator from the hayfields of Iowa who delivered the Grand Obstructionist Party’s reply to President Obama – Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, the ultimate cosmopolite!  When coupled with her racist rants against the African and Arab population in France, Ms. Le Pen’s arguments echo Hitler’s appeal to the German Volk.  It’s just new wine in old bottles.

Alas this reactionary attitude will not, indeed cannot, bring peace and internal stability to France.  Confronted with clandestine Islamic Jihadist forces composed of soldiers who welcome death and thus are not deterred by the threat of dying, this is essentially a war of ideas….and Ms. Le Pen is propagating the wrong ideas.  It may make her followers feel good, just like Sarah Palin, but it won’t win the hearts and minds of the alienated Muslim youths of France who are joining the Jihad in increasing numbers.  In fact, should they take power in the next election, as many observers are predicting, Marie Le Pen and the National Front will make a powerful recruiting poster for ISIS.  And they shall reap what they sow.

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Janurary 25, 2014

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