Just a twenty minute car ride from Marais, the chic quarter of Paris in which the Charlie Hebdo offices are located, lies Gennevilliers, a northern suburb home to 10,000 Muslims where the Kouachi brothers were raised. Seven miles separate the two locations, yet they are worlds apart.
What was once a typical Parisian suburb, replete with Gallic cyclists and crusty loaves, is now a Muslim enclave dominated by a disenfranchised immigrant population. As in the British cities of Bradford and Birmingham, or the German cities of Hamburg and Bremen, multicultural policies have led to insular Muslim communities in which people are actively encouraged not to integrate. Consequently, the overwhelming sentiment is one of mistrust.
Writing for the Daily Mail, journalist David Jones reported: “A decade ago, after the incendiary Parisian race riots of 2005, I ventured to another of these seething ‘banlieues’, to be greeted with extraordinary courtesy by youths who had, a few hours earlier, been hurling petrol bombs.
“Then, they were eager to air their deep sense of disaffection. Yesterday, in the Arab café and kebab shop Cherif frequented, I met with shrugs of indifference and hostile stares.”
Gennevilliers was first transformed in the 1960s and 70s, when immigrant labourers from Morocco, Algiers and Senegal were imported to help rebuild post-war France. However, in line with other Western European nations, France made no effort to integrate the new population, instead pushing them to the margins.
The Indian-born British writer Kenan Malik has widely documented the same phenomenon in Britain. In his paper The Failures of Multiculturalism, Malik notes: “First- and second- generation postwar immigrants [to the UK] were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, four big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle for equality in the workplace; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality.”
Mohammed Benali, president of the local mosque in Gennevilliers, which has a congregation of around 3,000 explained how the results manifested within the second generation: “They saw how their parents were treated and felt deeply resentful,” M. Benali told the Mail. “After the 2005 riots I was among a Muslim delegation who met Nicolas Sarkozy (then interior minister) and I’ll never forget his words.
“He told me that ‘to humiliate is to radicalise’ – and that is exactly what came to pass. This second generation felt excluded, discriminated against, and most of all, humiliated. Added to which, they were deeply mixed up – they spoke and felt French, but were regarded as Arabic; they were culturally confused.”
As Malik explains, the authorities reacted in the worst possible way: by enacting multiculturalism, further excluding the immigrant population from mainstream society. As in France, so in Britain:
“It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism became institutionalized,” he wrote. “Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights, but the denial of the right to be different. Black and Asian people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity.
“Rather, different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.”
Wherever the policy was enacted across Europe, the consequences have been catastrophic. According to Benali, whenever Charlie Hebdo would publish their cartoons mocking Mohammed, feelings would run high. Yet he insists that the worshippers, particularly the younger members of the congregation, were encouraged to accept free speech, and to embrace French values alongside Islamic beliefs.
But, he says Cherif Kouachi, the brother believed to have masterminded the murderous plan, rejected the mosque’s teaching. “When the imam told everyone to enrol on the register of electors so they could take part in elections, and play their part in society, he refused. He said he wasn’t a French citizen and wanted nothing to do with the democratic process. He then walked out of the mosque. But these beliefs didn’t come from the imams who teach here. He had been who knows where. He was using the internet. He was crazy; brainwashed. He was beyond our reach.”
Eric Badday, a Tunisian-born writer, lived next door to Cherif for seven years. He was unsurprised to learn that Cherif was a terrorist. “Cherif wore Western clothes, unlike his wife who dressed traditionally, but he was the type who believes Allah is the cure for all life’s ills, from social problems to depression,” he told the Mail. “You could just tell he was a fanatic.”
According to Professor Olivier Roy, a French expert on political Islam, Cherif typifies young radicalised Muslims who have had their cultural identities – both French and Muslim, stripped away. “These are second or third generation descendants of immigrants,” he said. “They don’t speak Arabic; they don’t wear traditional Arab clothes or eat traditional Arab food or listen to traditional Arab music. They do not speak the language of their parents and have not been educated in religion by them.
“They have the sense that they are living in a disenfranchised ghetto and then there is a process of self-radicalisation… it is a form of Islam totally opposed to any culture, Eastern or Western, and has its own set of explicit order – do this, don’t do that. These young people are out of reach of the traditional Muslim authorities. They don’t care what the imams say or the leader of the Grand Mosque in Paris. They radicalise between themselves.”
It is a problem that Malik has been predicting for years: “in the real world, where societies are plural, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others,” he notes “Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important, because any social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society.
“But while multiculturalism constrains the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, it also unleashes the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. It transforms political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, makes such collisions both inevitable and insoluble. That is why, if we want to preserve diversity as lived experience, we need also to challenge multiculturalism as a political process.”