Over the past two years, the debate among French Muslims over Islam’s place in France — who it represents, what it stands for, why a small minority murder in its name and how to stop them — has intensified with each new terrorist attack on French soil.
Following last week’s appalling events in St Etienne du Rouvray, when two Islamic State jihadists slit the throat of a Catholic priest, the French Muslim community reached a turning point. Last Sunday, in the widely read Journal du Dimanche, 42 prominent French Muslims signed a “call to action.” Having been silent for too long, they declared they now had to speak: “Islam has become a public affair and the present situation has become intolerable.”
And speak they did — with honesty, clarity and urgency — on the institutional and ideological changes that French Islam must undergo. And yet, while their call suggests that French Islam has reached a turning point, one particular (and deafening) silence in the text hints that the turn is less than complete.
The manifesto opens with a catalogue of the terrorist acts that have battered and bloodied France. “After the assassination of the caricaturists [the staff of Charlie Hebdo], after the assassination of youths listening to music [the audience at Le Bataclan], after the assassination of police [the couple, both of whom worked for the police, in Mangnanville], after the assassination of children, men and women who were part of the festivities of Bastille Day, and after the assassination of a priest celebrating mass: horror and yet more horror.”
The authors’ use of anaphora — the rolling and repetitive use of words born with the Hebrew psalms — is powerful. But it is also perplexing. As scattered commentators in France have already noted, certain clauses are missing from this opening passage. In this litany of victims, there is no “After the assassination of a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse,” just as there is no “After the assassination of shoppers at the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris.”
What are we to make of this silence? Is it, to quote that virtuoso of the so-called “non-dit,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, a mere “detail of history”? Or rather than being a sin of omission, is it instead a sin of commission?
So far, there has been no official or public response by the letter’s signatories to these questions. (There was one private response, though. According to the journalist Hugues Serraf, one of the call’s signatories explained on his Facebook page that by “caricaturists,” he and his colleagues also meant “Jews.” When I tried to locate this odd explanation, I found, oddly enough, that it had been taken down.) Can we, in the interim, try to make sense of this silence?
Inevitably, the interpretation of silence is a dicey affair. Serraf, who writes for Atlantico, turned to Freud for guidance. Could it not be, he wondered, an instance of repression — namely, that these omissions are the deliberate, even necessary repression of a painful memory? But short of lining up 42 couches and spending the next ten years listening to the signatories, this approach will lead to more questions than answers.
Another possible line of interpretation — the writers, seeking to underscore the common humanity of the victims, deliberately elided all mention of religion and ethnicity from the passage — offers possibilities. Tellingly, the text makes no mention of the French Muslims also killed in these various attacks, just as it makes no mention of the two French Muslim soldiers murdered by Mohamed Merah just days before he stormed the Ozar Hatorah school.
But what, then, are we to make of the reference to Father Jacques Hamel officiating at mass? Perhaps the tableau of a priest at mass is nothing more than a synecdoche — a kind of universal shorthand for “France” — used by the authors. But this, in turn, obviously raises problems for French Jews, Muslims and sundry other religious sects, not to mention secularists.
In the end, only the authors of this “call to action” can explain this unhappy omission. And the reasons why they should are clear. Clarity and candor are essential in the face of France’s feverish climate of finger pointing and demagoguery, fear and suspicion. As the signatories declared, these homegrown jihadists are seeking to “set the French against one another and destroy what still remains of national unity.” Moreover, just as these attacks have transformed Islam from a “private affair to a public affair,” they have also transformed the practice of Judaism. Though it never sought this status, it has become, by dint of the dangers it faces, a public affair as well.
In their manifesto, the writers affirmed that civic and religious imperatives compelled them to “act and assume their responsibilities.” An admirable declaration, but one that can be fulfilled only by recognizing those it passes over in silence.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”