This week’s massacre of twelve individuals at the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was an attack on the very heart of French identity. Having lived in France with a French family for a year as a pre-teen, I have some insights into the culture clash that gave rise to this tragedy.
One was the absence of church. The only time my French family entered one was either when they were showing me some great cathedral in Paris, or when we all attended the communion ceremony of an extended family member. Whereas, I grew up attending services every week without fail, and in a family that regularly turned to God in prayer. I never heard my French parents or their friends or family members talk about religion or God or prayer, except to discuss it from a political perspective. I learned later about the overall decline in church attendance and religious sentiment in France, and also the concept of “secularism” as a treasured, hallowed ideal in French society.
Another closely-held French value was satire. Over dinner the family would often watch a TV show which looked like a spin-off of the Muppets, called “Le Bebete Show,” a political satire program which featured then- French president Francois Mitterand as Kermit the Frog and other prominent politicians as Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear, etc. I recall being shocked at how they could make fun of their leaders so obviously and rudely, and imagining the unlikelihood of then-American President Ronald Reagan being portrayed in like manner.
Another topic I often heard around the table was lamenting the rising tide of “les Arabes,” immigrants from France’s former colonies in North Africa and the Middle East. I remember wondering who they were and why did they detest them so! It’s interesting to think that, even in 1988, there was widespread resentment about the impact these people were having on French society and concern that the country’s scarce public resources were being diverted to “foreigners.”
Which brings us to this week’s events of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo perpetrated by individuals in the name of Islam. When viewed through my French immersion lens, I see a tension that has long been mounting between a fundamental clash of values—secular vs. religious, satire vs. sacred, and French vs. ‘Other”. The French have a right to their culture and the right to express it with complete freedom and safety and without fear of reprisal or intimidation. And yet the country also cannot ignore that it forced its culture upon others as it implemented harsh policies of assimilation when it colonized many of the Arab and African countries from which these immigrants are coming.
Europe as a whole is seeing a quickly growing Muslim population, and France’s is the largest in Western Europe, estimated between 5-10 percent. We may see more of these types of acts of terrorism throughout the continent as those of a radicalized minority bent on instilling fear, conflict, and hatred. We believe strongly that the antidote to these three scourges of society is found in their opposites: hope, unity, and fellowship. There are many more Muslims in Europe who eschew violence and terrorism than support them, and that group of moderates is whom the French and other Western nations must embrace.
–Janessa Gans Wilder, Euphrates Institute Chief Executive Officer
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