Finding answers for France’s questions in the USA

France-USIn Paris, the procession of millions has come and gone, and the dead have been buried. Now the hard work must begin for the French Government. It must address the fallout from the murders in the Charlie Hebdo offices and in the kosher supermarket.

The killings have been a body blow to the French, and European body politic – even more so than previous deadly attacks by Islamists in Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. These latest atrocities demonstrated the violent nihilism of extremist Islamism, and the real and present danger it poses to France and other European countries.

The Paris attacks require responses to a multitude of challenges on security, intelligence, communal relations and more.

In addressing them, the authorities must chart a path that does not give any ground to radical Islam or the far right, but that does not also generate support for either camp. At the same time, France must be unstinting in reassuring those most threatened by this extremism: from the Jewish community to dissenting journalists.

The attacks also raise critically important questions about what France (and other Western European countries) stand for, in terms of value,s and how they should be realized in a way that neither creates social unrest nor dilutes them to the point of irrelevance.

The French Government must find a way to give full expression to the values that underpin its free society while also making all its citizens – of all backgrounds – understand what this means in practice.

By way of a model, France would do well to look to the United States, the country with which it once shared an ideological kinship based on similar notions of liberty, anti-monarchism, and a rejection of state clericalism.

The US may seem like a peculiar example considering that much of the Moslem world sees it (along with Israel) as Islam’s greatest enemy.

But America offers a positive example in terms of its own Muslim population, which fares better socially and economically than communities in Europe. A poll carried out a few years ago revealed that US Muslims reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than their counterparts in Western Europe. It also showed that European Moslems are far more likely to place greater importance on their religious identity rather than their nationality.  In short, American Muslims are more integrated, moderate and successful than their European co-religionists.

There are a number of reasons that help explain the differences including, education, national origins and more. But the main factor marking the variation between Muslims on different sides of the Atlantic is the unapologetic assertion of values in the US, which rightfully puts notions of freedom for all, far above the sensibilities of any particular section of society.

The First Amendment of the Constitution says it all, in prohibiting an established religion while protecting freedom of religion, speech and the press.

This is not an easy proposition in practice, and has caused much division and debate about how such rights should be upheld. In 1978, US courts backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois, home to many Holocaust survivors.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) more used to representing the injured rights of African-Americans, took on the case of the swastika-bearing marchers.

The ACLU’s lawyers (some of whom were Jewish) said freedom had to come first, in spite of the grave offence that would be caused to the people of Skokie. The civil rights of neo-Nazis to express their constitutional rights in marching and voicing their views must be protected. And this is where America has it right and Europe (until recent events) has had it wrong.

Causing deliberate offence is part and parcel of freedom of speech. The ACLU and the courts understood that the right belonged as much to hateful neo-Nazis as it did to everyone else in society.  Europe has in recent years shied awayfrom  such assertions in dealing with materials offensive to Muslims in order to buy (an illusory) communal peace and avoid anything that might fuel extremism. But such tactics are seen only as a sign of weakness by those who challenge such freedoms, provoking rather than appeasing.

The US has demonstrated through its uninhibited free speech that such values must be given life and cannot sit as inert ideas to which lip service is paid, but in reality are absent of tangible meaning.  It has welcomed huddled masses to its shores on the proviso that they take on board – as Americans – the principles embodied in the Constitution. It has promised freedom in exchange for an understanding that such liberties cannot be infringed upon whatever your origins or beliefs.

I have written previously  of the strangeness of seeing my children pledge allegiance to the American flag in school. They stand hand on heart to attention vowing loyalty to the country as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. I have also spoken of the prevalence of the American flag and the reverence felt for it by Americans of all political stripes and origins.

Coming from a background which saw the British flag as a threat rather than a promise, I originally found such devotion disconcerting. But as Europe has discovered, if you cannot articulate your views and you will not assert your values of liberty and freedom, they will be progressively challenged, threatened, and weakened.

I feel nervous in viewing France from here, seeing the fears, passions and hatreds unleashed by events of last week.  But just as French Revolutionaries looked across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century to the new United States of America for ideas and inspiration, now the leaders in Paris should the gaze in the  same direction for a way ahead to reinvigorate and protect their society and its ideals.

One thought on “Finding answers for France’s questions in the USA

  1. The major difference though between Europeans and Americans is that Americans have a huge sense of who they are. People can be Irish American or Italian American and nobody feels threatened by this ‘other’ identity as the ‘American’ unites them all together. This makes it much easier for America to unreservedly protect freedom of speech. Contrast this to Germany and the response to the anti islamisation marches. They are understandably terrified that this signals a return to Nazism. European history has made Nationalism a dirty word. Until Europeans reinvent themselves so that they know who they are and are proud of that identity they can’t possibly hope to integrate their immigrant population in the way that America (on the whole) as been able to.

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