Reflections post the Paris attacks

Steve Miller

Like everyone I’ve scanned a lot of comments, blogs and some much longer pieces in the press and online. I’m not sure that I have anything near a definitive response or reached conclusions that are much more than ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. 

What is clear is that these events have been painful and distressing to large numbers of people, and at the same time appear – as often happens with traumatic events – to have opened doors for positive engagement, activism and conversations that might not have happened otherwise.

Some of these conversations have been around ideas of freedom and the nature of a free society. Obviously there are associated ideas. Some people have linked ideas of freedom to ideas of obligations and responsibilities. Some have explored the nature of freedom itself. In the Jewish cycle of readings from the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) we are just beginning to read the story of the Exodus fro Egypt and a number of recent sermons have explored the distinction between freedom from oppression, and freedom to create a fair society.

When exploring ideas of freedom – especially if you are linking it to liberation and freedom from oppression – then notions of power inevitably come into the conversation. Who is powerful and who is not. In some contexts this equation is very clear but in many others the balance and perceptions of power are more ambiguous or confusing or constantly changing. In this context perceptions of Muslims and perceptions by Muslims are certainly mixed. Who is powerful, how do they use that power, and over who?

There has also been something in the air about victimhood. I think we are all repelled by the idea that there is some kind of mental ladder of victimhood with some victims being ‘more’ than others. But I have been struck at how quickly sections of the public and media responded to the notion of a rise of antisemitism. This is a more easily understood notion than understanding the meaning of the victims in the Charlie Hebdo building, let alone the Muslim victims of hatred around the world. With so many acres of space on the mass media front pages covering the rise of antisemitism, people may not be aware that this is being hotly contested within the Jewish community. The majority view seems to be that not only in the UK but also in France, experiences and perceptions of antisemitism are not quite as dramatic as some would suggest.

And there has been an aspect of these conversations that have, predictably, been subject to political and populist opportunism. At one level the obvious soundbites are important. It is important that Prime Ministers and Presidents stand up against violence and terror, prejudice and discrimination. But we also expect more from our political leaders. We expect a level of understanding that goes beyond simplistic polarisations. We are right to expect governments to think and act in ways that reflect the complex nature of the society we live in. Cohesion, participation, integration, inclusion and empowerment are interesting and useful policy slogans but they also act as proxy shorthand for a range of patterns of behaviour which need to be unpacked and understood. Understanding the detail is essential; looking at the big picture is useful, but getting to grips with people’s lived experience is what makes the difference.

And for ourselves around the table, where does this leave us? We can also be guilty of generalisations, platitudes and truisms. We need to take our eternal values and principles and look to how we can apply them at a local, regional and national level. By sitting around the table we are already taking the first step. We need work together in solidarity – not to compare my suffering to your suffering – but to see an attack on anyone as an attack on us all. A society based on solidarity is a society in which all of our diverse identities can exist together, flourishing and without fear. 

Originally published on LBFN site here with additional comment from Malik Gul.