Communalism, Violence and History: What France Can Learn from India

A sense of the ironic inheritances of colonialism is desperately needed in France, where the nation bids communities to disappear even as it begs them not to go.

Citizens carrying placards reading “Charlie it is us” and “The religions united against the hatred” take part in a French citizens solidarity march in Paris, January 11, 2015.  Credit: Reuters

Citizens carrying placards reading “Charlie it is us” and “The religions united against the hatred” take part in a French citizens solidarity march in Paris, January 11, 2015. Credit: Reuters

The attacks that shook Paris in January and November of last year were met across the globe with horror, and also questions about the limits of Western sympathies. As millions tweeted ‘Je suis Charlie’, others asked why attacks outside of Europe seemed unworthy of such gestures. At their crudest, these questions could smack of competitive victimhood. Yet they remind us that the Paris attacks were part of a tide of communal violence eroding liberal democracy throughout the world. As scholars, journalists and politicians ask how things have gone so wrong in France, they are beginning to come across answers already hit upon by historians of South Asia, whose work offers insights and warnings.

French politicians from both the left and right argue that Muslim communalism is a critical factor in the spread of terrorism, and offer a variety of symbolic gestures to combat it. Manuel Valls, the socialist prime minister, recently proposed a ban on overt signs of religious affiliation in universities, a seemingly general rule that targets Islamic headscarves. Other members of his party call for a ban on preaching in Arabic, a move that would perhaps do less to encourage a feeling of Frenchness among imams than to facilitate the government’s monitoring of them. Leaders of the center-right Republicans, competing to be their party’s champion in the general elections, are falling over each other to demonstrate their own commitment to the indivisibility of the nation and suspicion of Muslim difference.

Respectable politicians of the left and the right insist, however, that there must be no conflation of terrorists with the vast majority of French Muslims. They warn that declaring Islam and French identity to be incompatible, as the far-right does, will only alienate Muslims, creating a reservoir of support for radical networks. Their proposals, however, presume that Muslims must be corralled into Frenchness with new laws limiting their freedom of dress or speech. Still more strangely, even as right and left alike decry communalism, their electoral networks are rooted in communal institutions. The likely front-runner of the center-right, for example, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has long-standing ties to the French Council of the Muslim Cult and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France.

Courted by politicians, representatives of the ‘Muslim community’ are also called upon to speak on behalf of their community — even as their existence as a community is often imagined as a symptom of national decline. In the weeks after the January attacks, no French talk show was complete without a segment featuring a priest, a pastor, a rabbi and an imam, offering an ecumenical message of tolerance and solidarity. The secular nation could not mourn without calling upon its religious communities.

As these interfaith panels reveal, Muslims are only one of many communities imagined both to constitute and undermine the nation. Jews, too, are a community at the limits of Frenchness. Targeted in the January shooting at Hyper-Cacher and in other recent attacks, Jews are increasingly vulnerable to Islamist and neo-fascist anti-Semitism that identify all Jews with Israel and the shadowy ‘Zionist’ forces said to pervade French politics. This vulnerability fuels immigrate to Israel, which grotesquely but predictably reinforces French Jews’ perceived condition as outsiders linked to a foreign state. In response to the flight of Jews, Valls has insisted that a ‘France without Jews’ is no longer France, linking the identity of the nation to the presence of (certain) communities within it.

As the nation seems ever less able to integrate, shelter, or even decide what it wants from its communities, and as Jews and Muslims are ever more widely seen as vulnerable or sinister outsiders, a few researchers are uncovering the historical roots of communal violence. The most provocative account, perhaps, comes from Ethan Katz, author of the The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France (2015). Katz shows that Jews and Muslims, who had lived together relatively peacefully in North Africa before the French conquest, continued to be neighbours and friends both in the French colony of Algeria and in immigrant communities in France. In a pattern familiar from South Asian history, the colonial state pitted the two groups against each other, placing the communities on different legal, economic and social tracks, and planting the seeds of mutual hostility. Exposing the history of Jewish-Muslim friendship and the role of the colonial state in undermining it, Katz hopes to offer “a way out of the present” of communal violence, racism and terror.

Historians of South Asia have long shared such aspirations. For decades, leftist and liberal scholars have argued that conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, from massacres to everyday essentialisms, must be understood in terms of their roots in colonialism. As Partha Chatterjee, Romila Thapar, Gyanendra Pandey and others demonstrate, the notion of an eternal enmity between Hindus as Muslims was an Orientalist fiction crafted by British officials and opinion-makers. They show, moreover, that colonialism created the conditions for both self-conscious communalism and the anti-colonial nationalism that sees the former as the greatest enemy of the nation. The very idea that ethnic and religious groups are an existential threat to the nation (or to its secular, liberal values) they suggest, is no less a product of colonial thinking than the two-nation theory.

A sense of the ironic inheritances of colonialism is desperately needed in France, where the nation bids communities to disappear even as it begs them not to go. French politicians will go on arguing about which language or article of clothing needs to be banned in order for Muslims to integrate. Scholars, taking a cue from historians of South Asia and building on Katz’s work, must expose how the false choice between community and nation came to be constructed. If not, the fear that France will be torn apart by its inability to incorporate ethno-religious minorities risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of the kind that led to partition.

Blake Smith is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, finishing his thesis on Indo-French relations in the eighteenth century.