Turkish storefront. Berlin, September 2012.

With repetition, truth accretes. So I mumbled, as I looked up at the newsstand, and saw dozens of copies of the new Charlie Hebdo on display. “Intouchables 2,” read the lead headline. Beneath it was a drawing of a Haredi Jew, pushing a disabled Imam sitting in a wheelchair. “Faut pas se moquer!” (“Don’t mock us!”) he says.

Displayed in a heavily Muslim neighborhood, in Paris’ 17th Arrondissement, I wondered what the newsagent had in mind in making this edition so prominent amongst her offerings.

Sporting a cover story that had been the top of the news for nearly a week, it was a pretty obvious, if insensitive gesture, that took all kinds of risks. At best, customers would feel compelled to purchase the paper, if only out of political curiosity.

I was one of them. Buying not one but two copies, I assumed I was acquiring something historic, as well as for my work. Pitched as the next Jyllands Posten (the Danish paper that sparked worldwide rioting over its anti-Muhammed cartoons) in the wake of the then-recent Innocence of Muslims controversy, Hebdo’s cover story – featuring equally unflattering portraits of the Prophet – might very well trigger more such violence.

That, however, was not what I had in mind. Just off the train from Berlin, I’d spent the previous week at home, in Neukölln, encountering adverts for German tabloids BZ and Bild, repeatedly promoting stories about Muslim kids beating up a local rabbi. Displayed, primarily on Turkish newsstands, I marveled at the complexity of the installation. Was it just a commercial gesture, or were they trying to say something?

Most likely, neither, I wagered, as I surveyed the Parisian installation, looking for equally suggestive visual cues. Figaro, Liberation, Jeune Afrique. There was nothing unusual about the offerings here. All that was being sold were news periodicals. It wasn’t so much the the product that was the problem as the news itself. In this case, the story being the media, not what it was reporting. That was the difference.

Hence, the connection with the Neukölln newsstands. The attack on the rabbi, in a city renown for its racial violence (to this day) was nothing extraordinary. However, it offered an ideal opportunity for rightwing tabloids to transfer German responsibility for anti-Semitism onto Muslim shoulders. Considering how unfairly singled out Germans feel for racism, the intense media focus offered them a rare moment of relief.

Still, there was no denying that the youths who attacked the rabbi had committed a hate crime. Making matters worse, they’d committed it in place with a history of  anti-Semitism. Their lack of self-consciousness was upsetting. Did they have any idea what kinds of politics they were implicating themselves in? Subject to intense racism themselves, did they not imagine the excuses they were granting their own persecutors?

Looking at the cover of Charlie Hebdo, I felt as though I was reading a confession as to how such excuses might be made. Published in response to Muslim violence, in the wake of the The Innocence of Muslims controversy, the satirical weekly used the film’s reception as a though it were an excuse to criticize French minorities. Featuring lurid depictions of Muhammed’s testicles and buttocks, with unflattering references to his wife, (who is depicted as a hemaphrodite,) Hebdo took every conceivable liberty.

Anti-fascist/Muslim flyer montage. Berlin, August 2012.

Anti-Nazi/Multicultural flyer mix. Berlin, August 2012.

The question is, to what end. Are Jews and Muslims so unbearable that they warrant this kind of reproach? How could we possibly impose ourselves more upon Europeans than Europe already imposes itself upon us? There is something highly unfair about it all. Especially the suggestion that it is reasonable to resent minorities, because they are prone to making complaints about discrimination.

“They’re anarchists, holding up French Republican values of secularism,” an Israeli-American friend wrote to me, in defense of the periodical. “If only we had that kind of disrespect for religion.”  “I’m with you,” I told her. “But I’m not so sure that what’s best for us at home  is the best here, in Europe. The situation is not the same as in the US, or Israel.  Defending secularism can also be a covert way of discriminating against minorities.”

For Jews, this is an especially difficult idea to stomach, as secularism, especially in the United States, (not to mention, of course, France) has been fundamental to our integration in both countries. How else would we have secured the equality, and the tolerance, that has allowed us to flourish, for so long? Even as highly traditional, religious persons, for whom religion is not a matter of politics, but of private practice.

Unfortunately, in Europe, secularism doesn’t serve the same ends anymore. Not because people have gotten religion again, but because of the ways in which the idea has been repurposed to promote racism. Appealed to by populists, it is often voiced as though it were a liberal criticism of multiculturalism. Since minorities (and by association, immigrants) practice archaic ways of life, their cultures are inimicable with a non-religious public sphere.

Accordingly, democracy, womens rights, homosexuality, and animals are directly threatened by diversity. Their defense naturally demands that the state adopt less tolerant dispositions towards those whose cultures threaten its core values. In this case, those persons happen to be Muslims, and, increasingly, Jews. The logic is clear. The nationalist ideologies underlying it less so. The strategy is old, but still, familiar.

This is what was so upsetting about the Hebdo cover. A leftwing, satirical magazine, it was indulging this discourse, at the risk of promoting a rightist minorities-versus-Europe conspiracy. In the absence of equally popular leftwing counter-initiatives, that promote the compatibility of religious diversity with secular mores, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon might as well have come from the extreme right. Unsurprisingly, National Front leader Marine Le Pen came out in defense of the publication.

Why give Len Pen the opportunity to build credibility this way? After all, she can say that the left shares her discomfort with minorities. Is the problem with this event the fact that Le Pen is, in fact, right? That she speaks for a broad constituency, which crosses political boundaries? Quite possibly so, insofar as one can point at Socialist support, for example, for headscarf restrictions, and conclude that a good many of its members share reactionary anxieties about Islam.

The problem is that someone has to be a champion of diversity, and that has traditionally been the left, in France, as it has been in other European states. One cannot escape the feeling, that what we call the left, as exemplified by the Hebdo hullabaloo, doesn’t know how to conceptualize it anymore, let alone defend it. Exactly, one might add, a time when multiculturalism is under its fiercest assault since the 1930s.

Hence the symbolism of the assault on the Berlin rabbi, let alone all such instances of Muslim-Jewish violence in Europe. What good does violence do either community, when its only beneficiaries are European extremists, eager for evidence that we cannot play by civilized rules? That Muslims, and Jews espouse beliefs which are, at their core, too delicate to play the liberal, secular game. There once was something to that idea. I’d hate to think we’ve succumbed to the caricatures promoted by Charlie Hebdo.

 

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit