Paris rally after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks.The sign on the right reads, "Jews, Muslims, atheists, Christians united... Everyone united for liberty/freedom." Photo by sébastien amiet;l.
In a world where innocent people are murdered every day, how do we determine whether a tragedy is worthy of public mourning? As many commentators have noted, we Americans appear much more likely to grieve over tragedies in other western, largely white societies than atrocities in non-western countries, whose victims are largely non-white.
But whether or not we have been selective in our grief, the more important question following the Paris terror atacks, in both the United States and France, is whether the threat of xenophobic Islamic fundamentalism will strengthen our belief in multicultural, multiethnic societies, or whether it will instead strengthen existing xenophobic forces in our own countries.
I've spent nearly six years in France at various points in my life. Although there are many ways in which the French differ from Americans—diet, work hours, church attendance, smoking rates—I'm always quick to tell people in both France and the United States that our countries are in fact very similar. Both are extraordinarily diverse, the result of both historically welcoming policies towards immigrants as well as shared ugly histories of slavery and colonialism in far away lands. Similarly, while both states have historically articulated a vision of enlightened multicultural equality, both are home to deep-seated prejudices that prevent that vision from being fully realized.
At a gathering of Francophones and Francophiles that I attended at a bar Sunday night in Austin, Texas, the message was clearly that France’s racially, ethnically and religiously diverse population was an asset, not a handicap, in the fight against ISIL-style extremism. Indeed, the event, which had been planned before the attacks as a celebration of Franco-African culture, emphasized that it would be through understanding and friendship between religious communities that France would prevent other citizens from being lured by ISIL’s hateful extremism.
A rabbi sang a song that paid tribute to various segments of France’s society that had fallen victim to Islamic extremism in the past year, including its Jewish community (“Je suis juif”), its large Muslim population (“Je suis Ahmed”) and of course, the devout non-believers of Charlie Hebdo (“Je suis Charlie”). I’m not sure how those in attendance felt about France’s decision to bomb ISIL positions in Syria, or whether they support President François Hollande’s request for broader government powers to fight terrorism, but it was clear that they believed gaining allies through tolerance and compassion was at least as important as defeating the bad guys.
That is not a view embraced by many U.S. political leaders. Among Republicans, expressing anything but acute fear when discussing Muslims has become politically incorrect. All of the major GOP presidential candidates have said the U.S. –– whose toppling of Saddam Hussein created the power vacuum from which ISIL sprung –– has no business sheltering those fleeing the enemy we helped create. In statements that might as well have been crafted by ISIL propagandists, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz said that accepting refugees would be OK –– as long as they are Christian. Oh, and Ben Carson doesn’t think a Muslim should ever be president.
In the circus that is the GOP presidential primary, it’s not too big a deal that a has-been and a couple of never-will-be candidates would engage in such casual bigotry, but it’s shocking to see so many governors in both parties demand that no refugees come to their states. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being too diplomatic, but even he emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace when he was waging war in Muslim-majority countries. And he accused lawmakers who balked at allowing a company based in the United Arab Emirates manage New York’s Port Authority of sending a bad message to U.S. allies.
Of course, the Islamophobia expressed by politicians is selective and insincere. Nobody is demanding that we cut ties with Saudi Arabia’s despicable government, whose close ties to terrorist groups is overlooked because of its equally close ties to U.S. oil interests. But it speaks to a very sincere fear held by many voters who are unaware of those inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy. And more importantly, it sends the message that we are no less an enemy to oppressed peoples than ISIL.
In France, the populace and its political leaders are similarly at risk of responding to the attacks with lazy xenophobia. I fear the woman who I saw refer to Arabs as a “dirty race,” shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks is only further convinced that France’s millions of Muslim citizens can’t be trusted. A decade after France put in place a tone deaf law barring religious garb from public buildings –– ostensibly aimed at Muslim veils –– many French people seem to believe that a Hijab is a show of solidarity with terrorists. Indeed, on Monday a New York Times reporter described seeing a group of veiled women harassed while mourning the victims of the attack.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, the growing far-right party founded by her racist and anti-Semitic father, is smacking her lips at the opportunity the renewed fear of Islamic radicalism has offered her to call for closing borders and deporting immigrants and refugees en masse.
The silver lining is that so far, there are leaders in both countries who recognize that vilifying Muslims isn’t helpful in the global fight against Islamic extremism. Hollande has not backed down on his plans to accept Syrian refugees. Nor has President Obama or Hillary Clinton. As for the people of France and America, who knows? Only time will tell.
Jack Craver is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.