North Africa, West Asia

Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door

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Daesh's depravity may be as much imitative as original; and the writer considers how the battle over freedom of speech is part of a bigger game, driving a wedge between France and its Muslims.

Martin Rose
24 February 2015

A warped mirror 

There’s a picture that comes up quite often in the social media, of a line of severed heads on a drystone wall in Morocco. It’s actually a picture postcard, with the caption SOUVENIR D’AGOURAI. NOS TIRAILLEURS FURIEUX DES MUTILATIONS INFLIGES A LEURS MORTS SE VENGENT, and the example I find on the web is stamped, and addressed to a Mme Robin in Bourges. The postmark is military, and it seems perhaps to be a trophy photograph taken when Senegalese tirailleurs had their sanguinary revenge on the Rifi bands who had bested them at the battle of Ehri in 1914.

A very nasty picture. But what is more extraordinary than the subject is that the sender—a young French officer writing to his mother, or aunt—writes nothing at all about the picture on his card. He tells her when he’s next coming home on leave, and says slightly resentfully (which may be the oblique point of the picture) that people back home think the army in Morocco is just doing rear echelon duties. No, he seems to be saying with his photo, we do the real stuff. So whenever it was that this card was sent to Madame Robin, the sight of a line of severed heads was so unexceptional as to need no comment. It was interesting, but mundane enough to be turned into a postcard suitable for mothers and aunts, and to be put proudly on a mantelpiece in Bourges.

The picture came to mind when I read last week that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre Marine Le Pen had called for the return of the death penalty in France—the death penalty for Muslims, of course, though she was too circumspect to put it quite like that. It is still not a very distant memory. The last public execution in France took place outside the prison at Versailles in 1939, and the fact that it was both photographed and filmed, and that those pictures were widely published, led to the more discreet prison-yard execution of future decapitees. The last was a Tunisian called Hamide Djandoubi, found guilty of a spectacularly nasty murder, and then judicially decapitated, in 1977.

The French penal system is an instrument disproportionately geared to processing Muslims. Andrew Hussey, in his 2014 book The French Intifada, explains that we can’t know for sure what proportion of the prison population is Muslim because Marianne is blind to her citizens’ faiths and has no record of them, but you can make a reasonable guess from the fact that no fewer than 70 percent of France’s prisoners order halal food. The total population of France is 66 million, the Muslim population perhaps 5 million, or about 7.7 percent. So that figure of 70 percent is a bit of a shocker. Even assuming that thousands of devoutly Catholic inmates order fattoush and tabouleh because, as Hussey puts it, “non-Muslim prisoners find prison food so disgusting that they buy halal food,” a mere half of that percentage figure – 35 percent – would still be a national scandal. It suggests that the majority of those executed to the clicking of Madame Le Pen’s knitting needles would be, like Djandoubi, Muslims – even before the additional business generated by jihadi terrorism.

France’s favoured method of execution since the Revolution has been the guillotine, and it would presumably remain so in the event of Mme Le Pen’s getting her way. Heads would roll once again, and this at a time when the beheading of Europeans by the thugs of the Raqqa ‘caliphate’ is causing such traumatic shocks. It would be a very unfortunate and unattractive symmetry.

It leads me to a book I have just read, published like Andrew Hussey’s, by Granta. Severed, written by a British anthropologist called Frances Larson, explores the polyvalent significance of the human head when it is separated from the body. Dr Larson’s fascinating account ranges from the relics of saints to the skull collections of phrenologists and race theorists, from trophies of war to anatomists’ subjects and painters’ models. What is very clear (and scarcely surprising) is that the human head is a part of the body endowed with a very special significance; and its removal is a highly symbolic act. More of a surprise is the extraordinary lengths of barbarity and illegality to which ostensibly respectable westerners—soldiers, scientists, priests and painters—have gone over the last couple of centuries to get hold of human heads, and in astonishing numbers. Massive grave-robbery, the commissioning of murder, the ruthless encouragement of local wars, the taking of trophies—all filled museums, studies and billiard-rooms with bleached white skulls. There were thousand upon thousand in Europe and North America by the early twentieth century. And quite a few lined up on walls in Europe’s colonies.

Today we’re getting numbly accustomed to the horribly choreographed public executions of the Raqqa ‘caliphate,’ designed to shock and terrify, to mesmerise the west with the spectacle of frightened men kneeling in orange jumpsuits while a young ‘Muslim’ cuts their throats. We are dimly aware too that the much more numerous executions of fellow-Muslims serve also to keep wavering jihadists on-side. (As Voltaire—yes, him again—put it, commenting on the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757, it is done pour encourager les autres)The images run ahead of the rampaging hordes, in mujatweets and Instagrams, like news of Tamburlane’s ferocity, so that defenders of Mosul and other cities simply throw down their weapons, shed their uniforms and run.

Habituated as we are becoming to the news of such violent deaths, we find it difficult, I think, to place this savagery in a historical context. Dr Larson is helpful here.

First, lest we think that the Raqqa executions are in some way unique, she tells us a good deal about the cutting off of heads by American soldiers in the Pacific War. Mostly, but by no means exclusively, done after death, this trophy-collection (for such it was) is most common in wars between nations that see themselves as being of different ‘races.’ It was commonplace in the Pacific theatre, where racial differences were constantly stressed: demonisation of the enemy, deliberately honed by military trainers, led, as it does, to this kind of objectification of human beings on both sides. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60 percent of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Marianas Islands in 1984,” writes Dr Larson. And there have been reports of the same kind of trophy hunting (if generally of more portable body parts) by soldiers in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But I think what is most important is the macabre fascination with decapitation that the internet allows and encourages. The west has been profoundly shocked by films of the beheading of French, British and American hostages; but it has also lapped them up. Dr Larson reports that three weeks after the execution of Nick Berg in 2004, the top ten internet search-terms in the USA were all for film of his execution. Kenneth Bigley’s killing was downloaded more than a million times in its first month online. “One survey, conducted five months after Berg’s death, found that between May and June, 30 million people, or 24 percent of all adult internet users in the United States, had seen images from the war in Iraq that were deemed too gruesome and graphic to be shown on television” and “half of those who had seen the graphic content thought they had made a ‘good decision’ by watching.”

Now I certainly haven’t watched any of this stuff. But I am strongly reminded of a comment that I quoted in this blog a few weeks ago, made by the American documentary film director Steve Jarecki, talking about the Daech and its use of film: “we [the USA] are also a page-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over. If we are watching Isis come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.” In other words the depravity of Daech is as much imitative as original. And whether it’s imitating the behaviour of colonial troops, or the makers of American horror films, or satisfying the apparently bottomless appetite of internet-users for the pornography of gore, real and constructed, it isn’t simply some kind of parthenogenetic barbarism, but something more complicated and even nastier, in which the west is culturally complicit. A warped mirror which may distort reflections, but doesn’t simply invent them.

I had an inkling of this a year or two back when channel-hopping on the TV in a Gulf hotel room. Up from nowhere came an appalling American film called (as I have since established), The Saw, of which I wached a minute or so. It turns out—as I discover when writing this piece—that there were seven of these feature films made, called with a pedestrian flight of imagination, The Saw 2The Saw 3 and so on, each one devoted to ingenious and graphically filmed ways of chopping up living human beings. They are one of many blood-soaked franchises. I find myself asking what it means for a culture when a significant part of its own preferred entertainment is a mindless theatre of blood. In what sense is the murder of a compatriot on video different from the killing of a gore-spattered actor, or the messy destruction of an enemy in an on-line game? There’s no shock left, except for proprietorial outrage, and I suspect only a dim, and often elided, distinction understood between the real, the enacted and the virtual.

This is what Jarecki meant: we look into the Heart of Darkness and find ourselves. The guillotine, itself a theatre of blood, would simply push the tempo up a few notches. In some as yet unimagined way it would be reciprocated and amplified, and the dreadful ascending spiral of barbarity endorsed. Plus ça change …


An interesting footnote on Raqqa comes from a letter written by Edward Luttwak to the LRB:

“The significance of the selection of ar-Raqqah as the Islamic State’s capital rather than very much larger Mosul has been missed: when in 796 the Abbasid star caliph Harun ‘Al-Rashid’ turned from carousing and culture to jihad against the Romans, and had another go at Constantinople (his huge venture in 782 had come close), he removed himself to ar-Raqqah from Baghdad’s urbanity, and long stayed there.”

Or are we simply assuming too much cultural literacy on the part of the modern ‘caliphate’? I remember a great deal of pedantic speculation about the date of 9/11 having been chosen with the Siege of Vienna in mind. But perhaps this new ‘Caliph’ just likes Raqqa. By now he is probably in a diminishing minority in doing so.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in January, 2015. 

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Am I a right Charlie? Or a real Ahmed?

Four million Frenchmen and women marched through the streets of France last weekend to protest against the murders at Charlie Hebdo. It was a devastating event, evil in the purest sense of the word—the cold-blooded murder of a bunch of mostly elderly cartoonists at an editorial meeting. It has brought France together—or so it seemed by Sunday evening—in a huge demonstration of national unity, an affirmation of ‘French values’ and an effusive demonstration in fervent support of absolute press freedom. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormous outpouring of emotion from almost all quarters of the nation for ‘liberty’ and for France.

But there’s a flicker of doubt in the back of my mind, even as I think about this tricky business of freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are (and we need to be quite honest about this) a sludge of potty-minded schoolboy squibs, insults levelled with a snigger against anyone in authority, any faith, any institution. If you like gratuitous insults, florid copulation, foul language and savage mockery of anything you may think serious or feel sacred, then Charlie Hebdo’s graphics are your thing. If you don’t, or indeed if you like your jokes funny, they really aren’t; and while this week’s 3,000,000 copies will no doubt sell like hot cakes, they are unlikely to find much actual readership beyond eleven-year old boys with some growing-up still to do. (Though as we are constantly reminded, savage scatological lampooning is a French Revolutionary Tradition, and therefore in some sense a Good Thing that may be enjoyed today by adult eleven year-olds, too).

So Charlie Hebdo and the awful, savage slaughter of its editorial team pose the question of press freedom in a very pure form. Are we so strongly committed to the right to publish offensive drivel that we are, as Voltaire allegedly claimed to be, prepared to die for the right to publish it of a magazine that makes Fat Slags look sophisticated? This is a question that relates to the world outside the Charlie Hebdo office as well as to those who worked there, because those who drew for and published the magazine had made a decision on their own behalves and knew the risk that they were taking in repeatedly choosing the Prophet Mohammed as their butt. Others were not consulted.

It ought not—of course—to have been a risk, but they knew quite well that it was, and the Charlie Hebdo office was guarded by armed police in recognition of that fact. The editor, ‘Charb,’ was clear, discussing radical Muslim threats to him and the magazine, saying rather magnificently that he’d rather die standing than spend his life on his knees. “Yet in spite of you, there is one crown I bear away with thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own...and that white plume,” as Rostand’s Cyrano puts it.

Now that’s his prerogative, and although at the time he was probably being mostly rhetorical, he knew he was genuinely at risk and pressed ebulliently and aggressively on. It is hard not to admire this quixotic sang froid. His death and those of his colleagues are a tragedy; but a tragedy foretold and not, I would wistfully suggest, as much of a tragedy as the death of the young policeman Ahmed Merebet who was shot in cold blood by one of the Kouachi thugs as he responded to the call for help from the Charlie Hebdo office. Charb dared the shadowy terrorists to react to his barbs, to come and get him. Ahmed on the other hand did exactly what Voltaire claimed to be prepared to do, to die for the right of someone else to publish material that he personally must have found nasty at best, and profoundly offensive at worst. And just as the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie gathered record numbers of posts on Twitter, the alternative #JeSuisAhmed assembled many of the more thoughtful. A Muslim French policeman, doing a job of which he was clearly very proud and at which he was very good, placed before the muzzle of an assassin’s assault rifle by the determination of a group of cartoonists to insult the beliefs of his co-religionists.

Freedom of speech and freedom to publish are very slippery concepts, and in no human society are they—or have they ever been—absolutes. Pretending otherwise is dishonest. And exercising a perfectly real ‘right’ with the specific purpose of seriously upsetting people, just because you can, is ethically contemptible. It is no more than bullying—not the satirising of the strong by the weak that constitutes France’s, and England’s prouder traditions. If you know too that the people you are upsetting are liable to retaliate violently, your choice to publish has consequences for other people that are very hard to justify. Publishing and brandishing the cartoons in support of the dead cartoonists is quite understandable, a show of defiance, but it too has consequences: it may be a small thing, but the refusal of the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Salaheddin Mezouar, to march in Paris was because, despite his sympathy and support, he could not march beneath cartoons lampooning the Prophet. Now we hear that there will be a cartoon of the Prophet on the cover of three million Charlies this week: this seems gratuitously to risk alienating ordinary, civic Muslims in another act of—this time state-sponsored—bullying.

It is tempting to echo the splendidly defiant and unambiguous words of the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, addressed to the terrorists in France: “It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom,” he said. “But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven’s name pack your bag and leave … There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself. Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists. And if you do not like it here because humourists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.”

Tempting, but wrong, because wannabe terrorists will not take the blindest bit of notice, and those involved this week have already packed their bags and left—for Paradise and Raqqa. As for the rest of the Muslim population of Europe, they probably do not want—or need—such stark binary choices put to them. Binary choices are the problem, not the solution—there are too many bearded Svengalis putting binary choices from the other side for more to be a good idea. What has happened to nuance, to subtlety? To the pragmatist’s ability to smooth over differences and find mutually acceptable reticences? How can French Muslims be expected to “like freedom” when one of its most vaunted privileges is being abominably rude to them in ways that are carefully calculated to hurt, and to remind them of their relative powerlessness? This kind of graphic bullying works best with the weak and the unpopular, as Charlie Hebdo itself illustrates so clearly: they dish it out to Muslims and claim absolute freedom of expression, but in 2009 Charlie fired a cartoonist called Maurice Sinet for lampooning the Jewish connections of Sarkozy’s less weak, less powerless, son. As our own Private Eye might have said, “Shome mishtake surely? – Ed.”

But freedom of speech is only the superficial battleground here, the epiphenomenon. There is a bigger game being played out, and that is the driving of wedges between ‘France’ and its Muslims, the deliberate cultivation of alienation. It is the game that guerillas and insurrectionists play all over post-colonial world, the same game that Iraq’s jihadis played when they started the systematic targeting of Shi’ites and Shi’ite shrines a decade ago. It is the deliberate provoking of repression, animosity and violence with the aim of polarisation and ultimately war, and it is very dangerous. Into this already lethal game Marine Le Pen steps with deliberation when she decries Islam and calls for the restoration of the death penalty. The death penalty, of course, for Muslims—since it is in response to what the right sees very clearly as ‘Muslim’ violence. Pegida, Geert Wilders and even Britain’s own Abu Faraj al-Ukipji in his beery way are all pouring petrol on the same fire.

So France’s enormous outpouring of emotion, shaped by a will to empathy, is certainly very moving, and may perhaps turn out to be important. But it isn’t universal. In the Place de la Republique on Sunday there are reports of groups singing repeatedly the chorus of the Marseillaise which ends “Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons” (May impure blood run in our furrows), to raucous cheers and equally raucous boos. More importantly, the Front National was not invited to the party, is not part of such consensus as there is, and stands tall and dark in the background like one of Goya’s giants, with more than a quarter of the popular vote in its pocket.

It isn’t a very popular view right now, but I find it hard to escape from the feeling that we are all largely missing the point. Those who value the future of France, Europe and Britain too need to be looking at root causes, not epiphenomena. The Kouachi brothers were orphaned early and brought up in a state orphanage. Amédy Coulibaly was one of seventeen children of poor Senegalese (or perhaps Malian) immigrants, brought up in poverty and soon delinquent and imprisoned. His wife, Hayet Boumedienne, was thrown out of home very young for objecting to her father’s remarriage too soon after her mother’s death, and serially fostered, quickly becoming delinquent herself. All three men were radicalised in prison (where some 70 percent of all prisoners are thought to be Muslims—thought because the only way of counting them in laique France is to count the halal meal orders): prison appears to be France’s very own factory of jihadists. These are marginal, brutally damaged people—and they have become very evil people under great pressure. They are the lost souls of the bleak concrete suburbs, hopeless, despised and insecure. But their adherence to the ideology of the jihad in all its intellectual and theological poverty is not to do with Islam per se (pace Rupert Murdoch) but with the awful need for a port in a storm, a simple and all-too available explanatory ideology, an undemanding solace and a casuistic justification to underwrite their inchoate passion for revenge. Fanon, in other words, not Ibn Taymiyyah.

Solutions must start with providing altogether different ports in which young men and women, migrants to Europe or children of migrants, can find shelter, and from which they can start new voyages in life. This means different education, different opportunities, different aspirations. The shining example of all this is the same Ahmed Merebet, a child of the 93ième who had worked his way up from the bottom, starting and running a cleaning business before becoming a policeman: he didn’t come from a broken family, as his funeral so poignantly demonstrated. He worked hard, seized opportunities and loved his job. There’s an awful symmetry about the two trajectories that crossed on the pavement of rue Nicolas Appert last week—the successful Muslim Frenchman casually murdered by (as his brother put it) “men pretending to be Muslims.” That’s why je suis Ahmed.

Paul Mason wrote on Monday in the Guardian, “Islamist terror cannot be stopped by the security and intelligence services alone. It has to be fought culturally and economically. But the only cultural response that is going to beat them is one that doesn’t play their game. It has to be based on the core values of European democracies—and this is true whether or not we like the Eurozone or even the EU as institutions. Where to start? Eradicate the slums, remove religious bigots from all educational contact with children and give kids brought up in obscurantist faiths an education that insists the prejudices of their parents may be mistaken. And find the young people jobs.”

Let us fight terrorism culturally and economically. And find the young people jobs.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in January, 2015. 

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