I am a self confessed news junkie, I always seem to have my nose pressed against the screen of my tablet and I follow a range of trusted correspondents and news organisations around the world.
I am also a francophile. I was lucky enough to go to a private kindergarten run by an eccentric couple who used the fees to finance their travelling round Europe during school holidays; so I started learning the French language at about six years old; I then learnt it again from scratch at school where despite dreadful pre-war text books I was very well taught. I first visited France as a spotty fifteen year old schoolboy when I spent the Easter Holidays with a family in Provence where I learned to drink wine, eat yogurt and to eat a pear with a knife and fork. I was hooked and I suppose that it became inevitable that for most or my working life I worked for a French company.
Last Wednesday morning I had taken the dog for a long walk and when I got home I soon became aware that something truly awful had happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and that from there things just got worse.
I grew up with the satire boom in England during the 1960s, I confess that I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo but I do understand what they do and how they do it. I also believe that there are a great many things that need to be mocked; this was the position of charlie Hebdo though some would say that they took it to the extreme.
As things developed I decided that it was something I wanted to write about, but what to write was the problem. Cartoonists worldwide came up with a stream of brilliant cartoons; I could write about this but others were already doing so and better than I could. then came the inevitable stream of awful comments: those condemning Islam, those supporting Islam, those condemning violence, those supporting violence, those demanding apologies from one group or another, the extremists from each side of the political spectrum and frankly I was getting nowhere. The whole situation appeared to be turning into a stick to beat Muslims with but this is a fundamentally wrong position which was crystallised for me in the statement from the brother of the policeman murdered outside the Charlie Hebdo offices; he pointed out that Ahmed Merabet was a French Republican who happened to be a Muslim. this made me think.
Islam isn’t perfect; I was brought up in the Church of England but attended an English school run by the Methodists where I learned of the old Islamic values of tolerance, art and science and of leading the field in medicine and architecture; well it doesn’t look a whole like that these days. It is too easy to lash out at minorities and blame them for everything and I don’t need to list examples as they are too well known to need repeating and France has a minority Muslim population which is hardly surprising when you look a their old colonial territories. There are around three thousand Imams practicing in France but of these only about four hundred are French, the rest are from other countries and bring the practices and policies of those countries with them however we must not lose sight that the “awkward squad” within the Muslim population are a vanishingly small minority and the root of the problem has little to do with religion.
The Kouachi brothers who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre and Amedy Coulibaly who murdered a policewoman and the four hostages in the Kosher delicatessen were all known Islamists but the all had another thing in common – they were all known criminals. They had all products of the notorious banlieus that exist round Paris; banlieu is French for suburb but the word has taken on a more sinister meaning. About thirty years ago I used to attend business meetings in Gennevilliers where the Kouachi brothers came from, it wasn’t nice then (and I only visited the industrial part) and it’s gone downhill since; I certainly wouldn’t go there now. When there is trouble in the banlieus we see news footage and interviews and it is clear that these are not good places but it is the refuge of people who have the least and the impoverished minorities end up. If you have no money, poor health, no job, no prospects and live crammed into awful and unsafe housing you clutch at any straws that come along and if religion, any religion, offers you some of the things you desire you will probably follow it. This is one of the reasons that the banlieus have become a breeding ground for malcontents and terrorists.
In the years I spent driving round the towns and cities in this countries I have also seen areas that fall in pretty well with the profile of the banlieus so we shouldn’t be in the least bit complacent.
The terrible things that have happened in Paris this week will be music to the ears of extremists of the political right and will be a good recruiting sergeant for them, nothing works like fear; it may well be that jihadists will relish this too as it will feed their message of the persecution of Muslims. The security forces will need to get better at the things that they do as well but in the final analysis if we don’t address the social, economic and educational needs of anyone living in places like the banlieus this will just go on and on.
This is the problem we all have to address.