Were the Tunisian men, who stormed into a church in Nice and attacked the worshippers, prompted to resort to such barbarity by their love of the messenger of Islam, who lived in a more hostile world, and suffered the barbs and humiliations heaped upon him with calmness and equanimity that shocked even his bitterest enemies, or were they prompted by more primordial feelings of hatred and revenge? For the world, the very presence of these immigrants as refugees/citizens in a country like France attests to the magnanimity of the French people and the lofty principles governing its policies. But for the majority of North African Muslims, they would not have been in France, if France had not been in their country in the first place; and not simply been there but hadn't wrought untold savageries there, looted their wealth, raped their women and massacred their forefathers.
Historians' accounts of the French atrocities in North Africa vary regarding the number of those killed, raped and maimed, but they are unanimous about its barbarity and ruthlessness. While some estimates, e.g. by the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, place the number of those killed at a staggering 10 million, others place it at a less intimidating 1.5 million. Whatever these estimates mean to the world, for the Algerians and Tunisians it meant millions of skulls, limbs, lives, faces and fates attached to them. The French occupation of Algeria that lasted 132 years was one of the most barbaric chapters of modern history which the French are eager to sweep under the carpet, but is still a festering wound for the African Arabs. It was in 1962 that this occupation came to an end. In 1961, a large contingent of Algerians took out a rally in Paris demanding their country's independence. The French police dealt with these peaceful protestors with guns and bullets. More than three hundred people were massacred in the carnage that followed. For a country that now clamours loudly about its credentials as a bastion of free speech, those Algerian men simply had no right to express their desire for independence. Worse still, France refused to acknowledge the carnage until 1998, and that too after reducing the number to a mere forty. In other words, it took nearly forty years for the French to count forty bodies!
In fact, the French discourse on Islam and North Africa from the Napoleonic times onwards has been informed by an idiom saturated with racist and supremacist notions. This is despite the fact that the Corsican had at one point declared himself to be a Muslim and talked of the prophetic visitation he experienced in a dream. In Paris's famed Museum of Mankind, a skull is displayed with the label 'criminal' engraved beneath it. For years, this skull was displayed to the medical students in Paris as a specimen of the skull of a fanatic, with the minor bump in it being invoked as the epicentre of fanaticism. This skull belonged to Sulayman Al Halabi, an eighteenth century Syrian, whose crime was murdering the General of the invading French army, Jean Baptiste Kleber. Halabi was executed in a savage fashion by the French who burnt his right arm to the bone to extract a confession concerning his mastermind. If the British had applied the same standards to India, they would have not only executed Bhagat Sing, but preserved his skull in the British Museum. But historians are of the view that the British were far more 'compassionate' as colonialists compared with the Portugese/Belgians/ the French. But as Collins and Lapierre said, the British were not conquering the world in the name of Bible or Jesus as the Portugese/French were, but in the name of Mammon the Greek deity of money. However, Halabi's was not the only skull that the French had in their museums. It was only this year that the French decided to return the skulls of 24 Algerian freedom fighters to their mother country.
Though the French are now busy flaunting their secular credentials, they will need to do a lot of ostriching to camouflage their horrific and catholic crimes. As the celebrated Christian French writer Amin Maalouf pithily observes, the Catholic countries were rigorously purging themselves of all religious minorities at a time when Muslim cities like Istanbul and Jerusalem practised tolerant cosmopolitanism. The question is: why do the French need Algerian skulls as specimens of fanatics? France was the hotbed of Catholic fanaticism, the country where the inquisition originated and where non-Catholics and heretics and 'witches' were subjected to savage punishments. The victim list includes France's own greatest heroine Joan of Arc burned at stake in 1431. Why has France taken the trouble of shipping a Syrian skull into the Museum of Mankind, when any of its cemeteries would have provided more fitting specimens? In fact, all the perfumes of Paris would not be enough to sweeten the crimes that the French committed in the name of religion and empire. Genetic determinists might be inclined to pin down the cause of this to some hereditary flaw since, as historians have rightly testified, some of the earliest evidence of cannibalism have been traced to the Moula Guercy caves in France.
In fact, the whole western discourse on the freedom of expression is a deeply flawed idea firmly wedded to its ultranationalist and capitalistic outlook. There was a time when religion and Jesus were important to the Europeans. At that time anyone who blasphemed them were consigned to racks, stakes and fire. Then, when Europe decided that Jesus had to be junked in favour of Darwin and national flags, it took upon itself the task of blaspheming other people's faiths and practices. If we have junked our religion, you too should junk yours was the childish but urbanely articulated logic behind this. But still, there are things that are inviolable in the West. In 2010, when an Algerian immigrant under the memory of the colonial ravages that the French wreaked on his country, vented his fury on the French flag, he was instantly prosecuted. Desecrating national anthem and the flag are punishable crimes in many European countries that are now croaking loud about freedom of expression. In most European countries, holocaust denial is an imprisonable crime, whereas the denial of Stalin's genocide invites no penalty.
In fact, Western capitalism has made sure that only certain voices are audible in their societies. This is what post-colonialist thinkers have described as the great chain of speaking where only certain people are allowed the right to speak and be heard. Maalouf describes how Western entertainment industry and publishers are touchy about the ethnic and racial sensibilities of their audiences. They make sure that even in a thriller, a white criminal is seldom arrested by a black cop and textbooks never show inter-racial couples in the depictions of a contented family. There are all kinds of legal, and tacit, restrictions on people's speech and many invisible mechanisms to censor and black out unpalatable facts and opinions. This ranges from academic boycott to deliberate and selective renderings of history.
However, nothing in the Masters' practice can be cited to justify the deeds of those who kill and spill blood in the name of a man who perfected the magic of turning enemies into friends, by magnanimity of spirit and character. Among those who thus became the Prophet's followers were Omer who had set out to eliminate him with an unsheathedsword and Ka'b ibn Zuhayr, the poet who packed his lines with venomous hatred for the messenger. At least in this, there is a model in the example set by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Akbar had only once declined a wish of his mother's and that was when she wanted him to tie a Bible around a dog's neck in retaliation for a similar treatment to the Quran by the Portuguese. He wisely said that one crime will not simply condone another. The sooner the Muslims understood that epistemic violence can neither be countered nor condoned by physical violence, the better it is for them and the world.
However, the world owes a big thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for providing some much needed relief during this tense drama. Modiji rules over a country where one might get lynched if s/he refuses to say Jai Sri Ram or if one is a Dalit/ Muslim and asked for drinking water from an upper caste man. It is also the country, from where a supremely gifted artist like MF Husain had to flee for depicting Hindu deities in the same fashion they are depicted in many temples and scriptures. But Modi, in a Rafaelesque camaraderie, has sprung to Macron's aid against fanaticism. The only question is whether Macron needs any enemies when he is blessed with friends like Modi? Plus, whether Hindu and secular/'Sickular' fanaticism would make comfortable bedfellows for each other?
(Umer O Thasneem teaches in the department of English, University of Calicut. His recent book Orhan Pamuk and the Poetics of Fiction has been published by Cambridge Scholars, UK)