17 January 2015

A difficult future - Anger and historic hurt may not vanish, but a start could be made


Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Of all the global grandees who attended last Sunday's street theatre in Paris, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas should have had least difficulty in understanding the fierce passions behind the tragedy they mourned. Indian and Vietnamese ambivalence towards yesterday's enemy is reflected in the Filipino slogan, "Yankee Go Home - And Take Me With You!" Japan's former adversary is its closest friend today. Jews and Arabs never forget. Jews have triumphed over fate without surrendering an unforgiving memory: Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust organizer, was hunted down and hanged 17 years after World War II. The Muslim's less focused but no less rankling sense of injustice explodes in one bloodbath after another and will continue to plague the world until past wrongs are addressed.

None of this can excuse the brutal killing of 17 men and women in the Charlie Hebdooffice and a kosher supermarket. But Netanyahu's reiteration of Israel's Law of Return was more than an invitation to 550,000 French Jews who haven't forgotten the Dreyfus affair 121 years ago. Resonating with echoes of Emile Zola's J'accuse, it held the tacit threat of compounding Muslim grievances by gobbling up even more of the Palestinian West Bank to house an expanding population. Abbas can't afford to be as forthright. He isn't president of a "Republic of Palestine" but of an amorphous entity called the Palestine Authority over which he exercises limited authority. Even that grace and favour job can be snatched away if he displeases Netanyahu or, worse, his three hard-Right rivals (two ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, and Eli Yishai, leader of Israel's new Haredi party) who were also in Paris. It seems Israel's prime minister accompanied the trio rather than the other way round.

Not that Abbas, whose doctoral dissertation at Damascus University was titled, "The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism", should be underestimated. According to Abu Daoud, who planned the 1972 Munich Olympic Games hostage-taking which ended with the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German policeman, Abbas funded the operation though without knowing what the money would be used for. Predictably, Hamas, which cocks a snook at the Palestine Authority from its Gaza stronghold, accuses Abbas of "hypocrisy and political juggling" for going to Paris where pictures showed him standing only a few feet from Netanyahu.

Cherif and Said Kouachi, the Algerian-origin brothers, were more straightforward in their enmity. Like many Algerians, Cherif fought for Iraq when George W. Bush attacked Saddam Hussain. "Bush, an honourable man, might have made a good president - without Iraq," says the British writer, Alastair Horne. "His fault was to heed too often the voices of the Zionist lobby in Washington. Never before has the Israeli tail wagged the American dog quite so vigorously; the results threaten to prove as disastrous for Israel as for the Western alliance." The Kouachis' French-born but ethnically Malian associate, Amedy Coulibaly, who led the supermarket attack, unapologetically supports the "Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria".

There is always a context. Every contemporary conflict emerges from the shadows of the past. The millions of Palestinians who were uprooted and evicted in what they call the Nakba (Catastrophe) are still trying to regain a homeland. The Jordanian army's butchery of Palestinians during the 1970 "Black September" recreated the Nakba. "The Nakba lives on in them: in their conflicted political ideology, in their second-class citizenship, in their awkward place as a minority in an ethnically conceived state, and in all the ways these play out in their daily lives", writes the English-Canadian historian, Jo Roberts, of Palestinians who remain in Israel.

France's five million Algerians (out of six-and-a-half million Muslims) also feel like second-class citizens in the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Most are poor. None can forget France invaded their country and occupied and exploited it for 132 years. Algerians were reduced to a subject race while the colonists lived comfortably in the small French towns and chateaux they built all over the colony. They even converted mosques into churches during the early 19th-century Roman Catholic revival and tried to convert local Muslims. When the war of independence broke out in 1954, the government's bombs and booby traps, assassinations, torture and executions provoked Albert Camus's anguished protest. It took six years of vicious struggle to drive the French soldiers, paratroopers, Foreign Legionnaires - including German ex-Nazis - and paramilitary police, out of Algeria.

Even then, what Horne called "a savage war of peace" didn't end for the ordinary victims of history, Algerian and French alike. Those colonists who refused to accept Algerian independence formed the terrorist Organisation Armée Secrète. They tried to persuade French troops to mutiny and even threatened to take over Paris. Although Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front (for years the only permitted party) promised to protect French citizens who stayed back, there were mass killings in Oran and more than a million French men, women and children returned to France. With them went thousands of Algerians who had served in the French army. The FLN would have slaughtered them if they had remained.

In October 1961 - only five months before the official ceasefire -the French authorities banned an Algerian independence rally in Paris. When 30,000 Algerians staged it nevertheless scarcely a mile from Charlie Hebdo' s present office, the police attacked the marchers with exceptional ferocity. About 600 were murdered, some beaten to death in police barracks and others thrown into the Seine river. Maurice Papon, the police chief who directed the attack, was convicted 37 years later of deporting hundreds of Jews to certain death in German concentration camps during France's Vichy regime. Meanwhile, he had risen high in politics to become a minister under Valery Giscard d'Estaing. It was another satirical magazine, Le Canard Enchaine that exposed Papon's indiscriminate criminality.

History repeated itself between 1991 and 2002 when Algeria was torn apart by the struggle between the FLN and Islamist rebels. Torture, disappearances and village massacres were again resumed. France quietly supported a dictatorship whose military leaders were suspected of salting away millions of dollars in Swiss banks. Back from fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan, Algerian jihadists joined the rebels in the mountains, killing some of the few remaining French citizens, or went to fight for the so-called caliphate like Coulibaly. All Muslims, not just fanatics like them, would have found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as offensive as earlier material in Danish and German publications. They couldn't accept it as impartial "fun", certainly not after reports that Charlie Hebdo sacked a journalist for anti-Semitism.

What of the future? Nearly four million people grieved for the dead and celebrated the fundamental principles on which the French republic - indeed, any liberal modern state - is founded. Slogans like " Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), "I am Ahmed" (the Muslim police officer who died during the Charlie Hebdo attack), "I am Muslim", "I am Jewish", "I am Black" and "I am a cop" vigorously reaffirmed diversity. But there is little reason for hoping that Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism have been exorcized for all time. The politicians whose staginess transformed Paris into "the capital of the world" should know there is no such thing as a final solution in the continuum of history. They should know, too, that the Jew's ability now to shape his destiny threatens the peace as dangerously as Islamist murderousness.

There is no quick solution to either challenge. But a start can be made by removing a major grievance. A sovereign Palestinian republic free of Jewish settlements won't immediately vanquish al-Qaida and the "Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria". But Muslim anger will not even begin to be assuaged unless an independent Palestinian homeland is conceded.

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