The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France and the ensuing terror caused by the manhunt for the perpetrators has made for a scary and unsettling week for millions of people around the world. For most of us this death and violence just seems so senseless and so frightening. Whatever your politics or beliefs, there is no justification for killing and wounding people in this manner (please read here for more information on the victims). In my mind, these tragic events highlight the huge disconnect between immigrant populations and the places they relocate to. We have, thus far, responded to this gap by either doing nothing, proclaiming that our borders should be shut, or responding with violence in the places we think this extremism is coming from. Very little is being done to actually engage with those who immigrate and those who oppose immigration, but time and again these voices have erupted with a bang in the form of 9/11 in the US, the7/7 bombings in the UK, the far-right gaining more supporters across Europe, and now the Charlie Hebdo attacks. What I will tell my kids about this latest attack and its implications?
The first thing I will tell them is that the gunmen shot indiscriminately. They killed people born and raised in France, immigrants, men, women, atheists, Muslims, etc. They were intent on killing, not on defending their faith. This was an entirely un-Islamic thing to do and can, in no way, be a reflection of Muslims in France or anywhere else in the world. It takes more than a few phrases shouted in Arabic to make you a Muslim, just as it takes more than buying presents at Christmas to make you Christian.
Second, this debate is not about free speech. It’s not about free speech because this magazine pokes fun at everyone from everywhere so who exactly was being defended by these killings and who should be the most offended by what the magazine is publishing? Our response, however, is also not about the freedom to draw or write without fear of being killed (by a Muslim. That is what people are both thinking and saying). Freedom of speech/press could be an entire blog post on its own but just as a summary point, France is one of the numerous countries in which it is a crime to deny that the Holocaust happened. If that is not a violation of free speech, then what is? This is an absolutely crucial point that cannot and should not be overlooked. It’s not about whether or not denying the Holocaust is something that you want to ever do, it’s about defending your right to do so. Or at least that’s what the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag would proclaim.
Third, I’ll talk to my kids about how we report on this issue being a major part of the problem. For the first 36 hours of this ordeal, there was much talk of how the gunmen were immigrants (they were in fact born in France to Algerian parents and raised in orphanages and foster homes). Once their ids had been established they were still referred to as ‘French citizens’ and not just ‘French’ or even ‘French nationals’, hinting at their not-quite-Frenchness. For those first 36 hours virtually nothing, however, was said about how some of the Charlie Hebdo staff were also immigrants or about the fact that the police officer who was shot was Muslim. At the end of the day a life is a life regardless of nationality, creed, religion, sexual orientation, etc. BUT you cannot on the one hand treat these extremists as immigrants (read other, different, foreign) and the victims of their crimes as French (or in other words normal and one of us). This approach is part of the problem of alienation and isolation that immigrant populations feel that then make radical fringe groups more appealing to them. Please understand that I am no in no way explaining the actions of these men. I am merely highlighting the very real ‘us vs them’ mentality we have towards immigrants both in the Western media and in our everyday lives. We want them to be just like us in our society but we look at them differently, we treat them differently, we never truly accept them as part of our social fabric. As a first generation Brit with immigrant parents, I am speaking from experience. My children will grow up in the US as first generation Americans with immigrant parents. They too may feel that sting of rejection when they tell people their Arab-sounding names (wait, you’re not called Steve?) or explain their background. They will never be quite American or British or Danish enough.
Fourth I will speak to my children about how it’s possible that two men who were French (I cannot find any news reports that state that they ever held any other nationality) grew up to slaughter their own countrymen. This is terrifying to me. I lived in Manchester when the 7/7 bombings happened in London and I remember back then thinking to myself ‘these boys grew up like my family, as Asians born and brought up in the UK who were British. They could be my cousins or my brother. How did they slip through the cracks?’ Unfortunately we have been so busy fighting violence with more violence (the War on Terror) that we have forgotten to address the social implications of immigration. How does someone who is born in the UK or the US or France, who grows up there, who goes to school there, and has friends who are the same nationality and part of that culture, how do they feel so isolated and so alone and so detached from their own society that they feel closer to jihadists halfway around the world than their neighbors, teachers, and friends? How does that happen? France can respond to this latest attack by killing those responsible and possibly breaking up some camps in Syria or Iraq, but that is merely dealing with the manifestation of this social disconnect and not the root cause. As long as we continue to ignore those root causes, this disconnect will be a problem. That is a terrifying thought to me but if my generation is not able to look for these answers, it will fall to my children’s generation to do so if they ever hope to live in any kind of peace.
And this is a two-way street. I absolutely do not agree with right-wing policies regarding immigration across Europe and the US. But there have to be reasons why these parties are gaining support. In order to combat this radicalization we need to understand why this problem exists and the extent of the problem. Merely dismissing far-right policies as (insert choice phrase here) because they don’t agree with yours is not helpful, it’s not smart, and it’s not going to fix the problem. We need to start talking about immigration seriously. I’m British, of Pakistani descent, my husband is from rural Denmark, and my son is a Muslim, mixed race boy who is American, Danish, and British. Clearly I believe in the benefits of immigration and the mixing of cultures and races but I also believe that both migrants and the communities receiving them need support in ensuring that the transition is as smooth as possible.
So no, like so many others I am not #JuSuisCharlie. I will tell my kids that this attack goes way beyond that debate. Be respectful of those who were killed and acknowledge what a senseless and awful loss their deaths were. Then look to how two boys who grew up as French nationals in France felt so isolated and so far removed from their own country that they turned to radicalism and slaughter instead. The chances are if this is their story, it’s about to be someone else’s too. Maybe instead of fighting guns with more guns, it’s time to start addressing the poverty and isolation many migrants feel. We have tried being aggressive and it hasn’t worked yet. Maybe the time has come to start a dialogue with both immigrants and those who oppose them to understand their issues and start to construct homegrown solutions to tackle this extremism on both ends of the spectrum. Maybe it’s time for us to kill (homegrown extremism) with kindness. I will tell my kids that engagement, tolerance, and dialogue across the board will go a long way to tackling radicalism around the world and at home.