Adam Shatz in the LRB:
In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:
If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?
The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’
Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist.
Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial ‘How did we end up here?’ is a case in point. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels ‘are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed,’ the cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau (‘Riss’) writes. The less visible parts of the ‘iceberg’ include the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan, who has been accused of speaking a ‘double language’, pretending to be a moderate but secretly lobbying for the imposition of sharia in Europe. To be sure, Riss jokes, he ‘is never going to grab a Kalashnikov with which to shoot journalists at an editorial meeting’, or ‘cook up a bomb to be used in an airport concourse. Others will be doing all that kind of stuff.’ And we shouldn’t forget the ‘veiled woman’ on the street, or the local baker who no longer makes sandwiches with ham or bacon. No terrorist attack ‘can really happen without everyone’s contribution’. Like the Arab in Baldwin’s time – or the Jew in an earlier era – the Muslim of today is ‘always hiding something’, either a terrorist plot or a plot to Islamicise France, or both. He preys on the bien pensant ‘dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist’.