Like many people around the world, I have been stunned and devastated by the events in Paris last week. There have, of course, been warning shots for years in the Republic: France has failed fairly miserably in its efforts to integrate the country’s huge and growing Muslim population into its society; most immigrant and native born Muslims live in what might well be called impoverished ghettos on the far outer arrondissements of Paris.
When I have taken trips to Paris my experience is probably familiar to any reader who has been there: it is a city of sublime and incomparable architecture, the markets and food are cause for endless joy and celebration, the museums filled with so much priceless art one could spend several lifetimes exploring them. I adore Paris (my husband and I have plans to retire in France). I love the culture of France: formality mixed with intellectual openness and daring; joy intermingled always with a slight sense of loss; the utterly unapologetic worship of beauty and aesthetics; and an overall public, societal comprehension – so different from this country with its black and white, simple-minded politicians – that life is complicated, that people are complicated, and that complication, whether it is cerebral or emotional in form, should not be cause for fear.
The satire of the magazine Charlie Hebdo grows out of France’s curiosity and willingness to challenge authority. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo didn’t have it in for Muslims, they had it in for authority and hypocrisy in every form, whether it be the Catholic Church, which the magazine apparently pilloried at every turn, to public leaders like the lifeless Hollande and his ridiculous romantic scandals, to intellectuals on the right and the left. “Nothing is sacred” was their motto, a motto from which we can all learn, not because it is true but because such a statement asks one to look at one’s beliefs, and to take a step back from them. If one cannot laugh at one’s god or political convictions or history then not only is one perhaps lacking a sense of humor but it is possible the beliefs themselves might lie on shaky ground.
The editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo aligned themselves, almost religiously (an interesting paradox, no?) with no one. This is why I am bemused, and rather sad, to see the millions of “I am Charlie” signs at marches and rallies around the world. “No”, I imagine the slaughtered satirists saying, “You are not Charlie Hebdo. WE are not Charlie Hebdo; Charlie Hebdo exists precisely to excise the group-think that has taken over the aftermath of this tragedy.”
How, then, to come to terms with and react to the unspeakably violent actions of the Muslim extremists who committed these atrocities? I have no concrete answer. But it is possible to begin, I believe, with the lesson taught by the motto “Nothing is sacred,” and instead of responding with a collective joining together of affronted, hardened condemnation of the sort that only increases alienation and incomprehension on all sides, one might experiment with the courage and fearlessness of being willing to look at the events from multi-faceted angles.
The terrorists, as egregious as their actions were, did not arise from a vacuum of hate. Their lives had a context, and one of the contexts was their homelessness. The two brothers who steadily pointed and shot those guns had first no country (they were French-Algerian), then no father, and then became motherless children after their mother died while they were at boarding school. Said and Cherif Kouachi lived profoundly on the margins of a wealthy society, and for all there is to love about France, the country has a shadow side: it is more and more willing to place its poor, its outsiders, further and further away from societal inclusion. The current rate for unemployment among poor Muslims in France is more than twenty percent; this figure alone, regardless of religious differences, is like a tinder box close to a match.
As much as France embraces liberty and the notions of equality that evolved from the Enlightenment and the revolution, the country continues to exhibit a deeply confused hypocrisy when it comes to its Muslim population. The Paris that I know and dream about, the winding streets of the Marais, the view from Sacre Coeur at dusk, the bird market on Sundays by Notre Dame, simply does not exist for literally millions of France’s people. And many of those people practice Islam, and come from impoverished and violent places formerly under France’s colonial thumb (the same thumb that helped to create the current conditions of poverty and violence), a fact which presents to the country, I believe, a deep responsibility not only to accept these people, but to somehow come to grips with integrating them into its society.
It appears France’s idea of integration is something like this: come to the country, speak only French (of course), embrace the historical ideals that helped to form this great nation, do not demonstrate behavior that goes against the aesthetic and moral beliefs of France – put away the damn headscarves! – and then, perhaps, one might be an acceptable immigrant. Never French, of course, because to be French is, well, to be French, and that belongs only to “us,” but in order to join one must act and believe as the French do. The French are famously rigid in their opinion about their own language – it must be spoken perfectly – and elitist about the status of their own culture (superior to any other). Some outsiders, such as myself, might find these traits almost charming in their confident self-esteem, but it is hardly a recipe for mutability or cooperation.
On the other side, if one might call it that, is the inflexible conservatism of Islamic culture and belief. Even moderate Muslims possess a worldview that is almost inherently at odds with a society such as France’s, whether it be in its attitudes toward women or its rules about the Prophet. As a feminist, I cannot reconcile the Hijab or Chador, or even the more forgiving Shayla with any possibility of women’s equality. However, to say France botched the job by banning such head coverings is a gross understatement. It is natural, then, that the more France attempted to push out of the public square and marginalize the Muslim faith, the more the Muslims pushed back. Some of them, out of desperation, the insanity brought on by a combination of homelessness – and lack of a homeland – and seemingly permanent privation, or perhaps just general insanity, want to push back in the most extreme way possible. And such extremism of course has the backing, blessing, and support of myriad groups.
There is, then, as far as my limited eye can see, no simple answer. There are certainly no answers that can fit on a sign. The French, and the countries who stand with them, speak of “solidarity.” What does this even mean, in the face of such difficulty and complexity? The only solidarity there should be, in my opinion, is the determination to analyze the devastating problem of a displaced people in a wealthy European country, and attempt, somehow, to approach the issue with clear headed compassion.
Every day I listen to dharma talks, which almost always address the nature of suffering. Today the dharma teacher mentioned the evening of the Buddha’s enlightenment. After his release from samsara (the cycle of birth, life, death), the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree with luminous, open eyes. He saw all the peoples and animals and sentient beings of the world. He saw the craving for happiness, the universal desire to be free, and the manner in which we each to a person thwart that desire through our continued illusion and delusion. And the Buddha wept. As the story goes, as the Buddha’s tears fell upon the earth the goddess Tara was born. She is the goddess of compassion, of the all embracing heart. More than anything right now we need the presence of Tara.