Given Luc Besson‘s unfortunate portrayal of Egyptians in his movie The Fifth Element (in Indiana Jones fashion, they come across as lazy, shifty, and duplicitous), I wouldn’t have taken the French director for a fan of Islam.
I may have been wrong, though, and now, at a minimum, I must give Besson — who himself is “not so much” religious, he said last year — sincere props for trying to reach out to young French Muslims. You see, he wrote an open letter to the Le Monde newspaper the other day, in which he addressed his Muslim “brothers” with humility and understanding.
And that’s not bad. Not bad at all. But predictably, the director just couldn’t bring himself to mention the elephant in the room: the scriptures and teachings of Islam itself, and the inclination of millions of Muslims to follow through on those dark edicts.
My brother, if you knew how much I hurt for you today, you and your beautiful religion which has been defiled, humiliated, blamed. Have you forgotten your strength, your energy, your humor, your heart, your fraternity? What has happened is unfair and we all must fix this injustice. We love you very much and we will all help you. But first things first. What is society offering you?
Based on money, profit, segregation, racism. In some suburbs, unemployment for those under the age of 25 is 50%. You are turned away because of your color or your name. Ten times a day you are checked and you are put into crowded apartment blocks where nobody represents you. Who can live and thrive in such conditions? If you raised a child, or even an animal, without giving them food and affection for months on end, they would die.
I would’ve stayed away from comparing Muslims to children and animals, but that’s just me.
Honestly, I know this line of thinking pretty well. It’s a well-meaning argument that dispenses with personal responsibility, and that lays the blame for violent people’s ghastly actions not or barely at their own feet, but instead mostly at society‘s doorstep.
For instance, I still recall that a few days after Theo van Gogh was murdered, a Dutch radio program interviewed a friend and colleague of his. She sounded understandably distraught. Then it turned out that her pain was caused not just by Theo’s assassin, but by the lack of hospitality of the Dutch. Here’s what she said:
If you treasure freedom of speech, or you think it’s so terrible that human beings can be killed just like that, you could ask yourself, ‘What do I do about it? How many Moroccan friends were at my birthday party, and how many black people?‘ I can tell you how many: 0.007 percent.
She really did seem to be arguing that if only the Dutch were (even) nicer to others, bloodbaths like Theo’s murder might not occur. And so, in a specific way, the killer was really the victim; and the native Dutch (or French) are painted as collective racists who, by allegedly withholding birthday-party invitations from Muslims, compel otherwise peaceful believers to become murderers.
Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo’s killer, said this at the end of his trial:
I take complete responsibility for my actions. I acted purely in the name of my religion.
And still Dutch liberals insisted that the van Gogh assassination and other terrorist acts just had to be the result of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and so on.
Different versions of this narrative, both about the micro (personal) scale and the macro (economic/political) level, are still being pumped out almost every day. Like so. In this world view, the fundie terrorists aren’t really motivated by Islam, we are told; they are merely dispossessed. They aren’t primarily carrying out the ideology of a wretched religion whose insistence on vengeful cruelties has been drilled into their heads; they are instead driven, or so we hear, by the fact that they are poor, or oppressed, or neglected, or radicalized by far-away wars, or all of the above.
And none of that is nonsense, per se; it’s just that we can’t lose sight of the fact that other groups of poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised people — let’s say, Mexican immigrants in the U.S., or the Roma in Europe — don’t resort to large-scale, persistent, retributive violence.
But back to Besson:
And you, my brother, you also have a job to do. How to change the company that is offered to you? By work, studying, taking a pencil rather than a Kalashnikov. Realize the power democracy offers you the noble tools to defend yourself . Seize your destiny in your hands, take power.
It costs 250 euros to buy a Kalashnikov but it’s only three euros to buy a pen — which can be a thousand times more effective.
Take the power and play with the rules. Take power democratically, together with all of your brothers. Terrorism will never win. History is there to prove it. It is the fantasy image of the martyr walking in both directions. Today thousands of Wolinski and thousands of Cabu have been born.
That was actually pretty damn good.
But then Besson promptly returns to absolving the tenets of Islam of responsibility, and he goes all “no true Scotsman” on the Kouachi brothers:
Today know that these two bloody brothers are not yours — we all know that. We know the perpetrators of this tragedy are not yours, they were just two weak-minded individuals, ostracized by society.
Seriously? Were Chérif and Said Kouachi not Muslims to the core? Did they not shout Allahu Akbar and “We have avenged the prophet!” after they mowed down the Charlie Hebdo staff? Were they not another link in a seemingly endless chain of freelance Muslim killers who target train commuters in Madrid and nightclub-goers in Bali and bus passengers in London and marathon runners in Boston?
Watch just two minutes of this video, starting at 3:30, and then tell me the difference between “normal” Muslims and “extremist” Muslims. That’s not to say that the people raising their hands in that footage are wannabe terrorists; but the video does make it clear, I think, that the beliefs of perfectly mainstream “good” Sunnis are, for the most part, indistinguishable from those of “bad” Sunnis who the media call Islamic radicals.
Continues Besson in his letter:
The radical preachers who [mislead youth] only play with your misfortune and have no good intention. They use your religion for their own advantage. It’s their business, their petty business. Tomorrow, my brother, we will be stronger, more connected, more united. I promise. But today, my brother, I cry with you.
It would have been classy if the director had also mentioned crying for the Charlie Hebdo victims and their families; or if, as an artist of considerable repute, he had at least said something forceful in defense of French people’s right to freedom of expression.
(Photo via Wikipedia)