One of the only people I know who went to the marche républicaine is a devout Muslim immigrant from Morocco. In my frank and nosy American fashion, I had been asking around, trying to find out who had gone among my friends and colleagues and hear their experience of what I'd missed. He hadn't stayed long, this friend told me; there were too many people, he didn't feel comfortable. And, he added significantly, some people were carrying the caricatures of Mohammed. It wasn't the place for him, he decided, so he went back home.
Another friend, a Muslim of Moroccan origin who grew up in France, shrugged when I asked him if he'd gone. He supported freedom of speech and was upset about the attack, but he wasn't sure he would be wanted at the march or even safe.
"No matter now long I live here, I'll never be considered French," this second friend had told me before, very matter-of-factly. "When I go to Morocco, I'm not considered Moroccan, either." He didn't feel he belonged anywhere. But that was just the way it was, and with his engineering diploma and abilities (he is hands-down the best software developer I've met in my career), he could go anywhere, so he left first for Dublin, then Barcelona, learned to speak English and Spanish fluently, and picked up some Catalan. It was only reluctantly that he came back to France, and he still isn't sure he will stay forever. He has options, he explained, but the kids in the projects, with no education and no prospects, who are denied a national identity as well... though no justification, is it surprising a tiny minority turn to violence?
For my part, I feel that "Je suis Charlie" is awkwardly chosen. Flashed across television screens, reprinted on billboards, and taped to shop windows, it is everywhere right now in France. I am certain that the sentiment behind it of respect and solidarity is true and laudable. Yet instead of making a unified statement of what we believe, it calls for us to make a unified statement of who we are.
What if who you are has already been decided for you?
"Portraits from the March: 'French before being Muslim or Jewish'" was the title of an article which appeared in Le Monde on January 12. Why the hierarchy of identity? wondered the American side of me, though I know full well that the French notion of laïcité requires religion to be personal, private, and secondary. I thought those interviewed for the story were brave, both for showing up at the march and for telling their story.
"Up until now, I'd never been insulted," said Hanane-Nina Kaji, a librarian who attended the march wearing a headscarf. "Now, it's almost as if I'm a considered a terrorist! I've heard 'You, you are all the same,' or 'Go home!' But home for me, that's here...'"
I won't pretend I was comfortable when my friend admitted he had turned around at the march and gone home. We both agree on the essential: that acts of terrorism and violence are unequivocally unacceptable. But I would have wished that he'd come to the same conclusions that I had: that since Charlie Hebdo had used the same crude humor against Catholics and Jews, against the far-right Front National party as well as mainstream politicians, caricaturing Mohammed was fair game. That we should allow symbols to be questioned and even ridiculed because it is simply too dangerous when we do not. Instead, he disagreed with me and I learned just how deeply he had been hurt by the caricatures. France, according to him, is afraid of Islam without attempting to understand it. While I talked of freedom of speech, he wondered where were the voices in the press who were willing to explain his faith and his culture. We weren't talking about exactly the same thing, but I still knew I should listen.
Some of the signs carried in the march started with "Je suis Charlie," and then continued, with one or usually several of the following: I am Muslim. I am Jewish. I am a cop. I am French.
I'm reassured by this that we've got half the conversation right.
So much for me, now, I'd like us all to say. "Et toi?"