The Africanists

Insights. Comments. Thoughts. Analysis. Africa.

Je suis Nigeria

The great surge of marchers in Paris on Sunday the 10th of January was impressive and very moving but what was it for? We know what it was against:

murdering cartoonists – or anyone else – is a bad thing and should not happen. But what was the message to the world?

 The politicians will welcome this response because they can use it to introduce lots of new security measures which no one will question.

France’s security services will be given lots of money. I suspect we will soon see waves of arrests of Muslim activists in France.

Politically I expect France will swing to the right and become a less tolerant society (especially of Muslims).

 I will not be joining ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Why? Because although I would defend their right to draw and say what they like, these cartoonists did not respect or care about ordinary sincere believers who would have been deeply hurt by the violent dehumanised images of the founders of the great religions of the world. These were not just Muslims, but Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists as well. Some of those images came close to the sort of cartoons that the Nazis drew to depict Jews in the 1930s.

 I am not a believer. I was brought up a Catholic and worked for the Catholic Church in different ways for 10 years but now I would describe myself as a sceptic, an agnostic. As a good liberal I defend the right of everyone to write, draw or compose whatever they want.

Let the adult public decide whether they want to see it or not. They can mock the politicians and the Pope as much as they wish.

 But if writers and cartoonists use the power of their pens to attack and mock the sincerely held beliefs of the poor and voiceless in society who cannot reply, that is not just mean, it is unjust. It is also provocative and will lead to violence. That is not a moral judgement. It is a fact.

 France has a bad history with the Arab world. The vicious war for Algeria in the 1950s and 60s and the murder of many Arabs – some reports say more than 200 – in Paris in 1961 have not been forgotten.Muslims still feel discriminated against in jobs and at schools. Arabs I met – and still meet – in France complain that racism is directed at them far more than other Africans. Arabs remain at the bottom of society.

 But there is a terrible irony here. The Wahhabi Islam that has created Islamic militancy has its origins in a close ally of the West; Saudi Arabia. Wealthy Saudis, such as Osama bin Laden, from a country that grew rich on our need for their cheap oil, fund terrorism against us.

Just as in the 1970s and 80s much of the IRA’s money came from Britain’s ally, the United States.

 Friday’s siege and shoot out and the outpouring of solidarity with those who suffered and the people of France in general was deeply moving. The world will have sympathy for France. But was it also a nationalist march making a statement about the strength of France?

Will France now swing to the right and use the march to create a less open society?

 

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I first went to Africa in 1971 as a volunteer teacher in Uganda and spent nearly two years there. It was the first two years of Idi Amin’s rule. My next trip to Africa was to South Africa in 1979. In 1980 I joined The Times Foreign Desk and then moved to The Independent as Africa Editor when it was founded in 1986. I joined the Economist as Africa Editor in 1995 and became Director of the Royal African Society in 2003. Throughout this time I travelled to Africa continuously and have now visited and written about almost every country on the continent. I made three television documentary films for the BBC and Channel 4 and continue to write and commentate on Africa for various media including The Times, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera and Sky TV. My book: Africa – Altered States, Ordinary Miracles was published by Portobello Books in 2008.

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