The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

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MAR 2015 Issue
Field Notes

Wars, Fears, Humiliations, Surveillance

The great demonstration Je suis Charlie on January 11, 2015 was celebrated by the media, the government, and the near-majority of the political class as a symbol of “national unity” in the face of the “terrorist threat.” It figured also as an image of international unity against “terror.” The few discordant voices who called for reflection on the causes, the stakes, and the predictable consequences of this demand for emotional unanimity were reduced to supporter of “terrorism” in a binary logic pounded out all day long: if you are not Charlie, you support the attacks. The seeds sown by this “national unity” have begun to yield their bitter, poisonous fruits. It’s time to take stock.


Relegitimation of War

All the NATO powers and their allies were represented at the demonstration. To understand the meaning and the function of this family photo we need to take into account the global context and its balance of forces.

Imperialist wars for oil and strategic minerals, and the weakening of developing governments have multiplied in recent decades. Wars of pillage in which the only goal is superprofits, these military adventures can’t be presented as such. To be carried on without resistance requires the cosmetic of “just wars”: against obscurantism and terrorism, for the emancipation of women, for the defense of an oppressed minority, against genocide, etc. Islamophobia is one of the ideological ingredients diffused, at least since 9/11, to produce an “ideological aroma”1 favorable to war. Negrophobia2 is another ingredient, corresponding to the many recent discoveries of petroleum, gas, and minerals in Africa, in addition to the deposits already known in this continent, which has been called a “geological scandal.”3

France is particularly involved in all the imperialist aggressions of recent decades. From Afghanistan to Syria by way of Iraq, from Mali to Central Africa by way of Libya, the French army seems determined not to miss a single aggressive war. The ideological pressure of Islamophobia and Negrophobia is all the stronger given the need to justify military interventions in African and/or “Muslim” countries. The government website for legal and administrative information provides the following data: France has intervened militarily on African soil on nearly 40 occasions during the last 50 years, on 20-odd occasions between 1981 and 1995, during the two seven-year presidencies of François Mitterand. Some of these operations lasted only a few days, others involved much longer deployments (such as the operations Manta and Épervier in Chad).4 To these figures for Africa alone must be added interventions in Lebanon (1983), Iraq (1990), Bosnia (1992), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Syria (2014), etc. These foreign interventions of the French military are part of NATO’s global strategy, described in the alliance’s Strategic Concept. The latest version of this concept, published in 2010, included the capacity to intervene in several theaters simultaneously, the inclusion of Eastern Europe in the areas to be kept under watch, the possibility of a “limited” nuclear war, and the “distribution of the strategic burden.” “The main issue of the NATO strategic concept is in some way to summon the Europeans to define the nature and extent of the obligations they are ready to assume in its framework.”5 The multiplication of European military interventions in general, and of France in particular, fits into the framework of the new NATO strategy.

But the historical moment we are living through on the global level is also one of the obstacles to the United States’s control of the world. These obstacles are certainly very different in kind, but together call into question the “new world order” which the “West” has attempted to impose on the world, including its own populations. Everywhere military aggressions and blackmail by means of war or sanctions get nowhere. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in South America is experimenting with new modes of regional solidarity to loosen the stranglehold of global capitalism. Russia and China use their positions at the U.N. to counter the international legitimation of military aggression. The wars in progress increasingly reveal that their only result is chaos.

The instrumentalization of emotion, domestically by the discourse of “national unity” and internationally by that of the “global war on terror,” has in this context a double objective: on the one hand, to announce new imperialist wars; on the other, to legitimate them, in particular in the eyes of the French people. It is an attempt to mobilize and strengthen a camp, to give it popular legitimacy, to set it in order for new wars. It is thus that the National Assembly approved, by 488 votes to 1, the prolongation of French airstrikes in Iraq on January 13. The Senate voted the same, by 327 votes, with 19 abstentions. The first bitter fruit of national unity is war. Today as yesterday, in 2015 as in 1914, the “Sacred Union” always has the same taste for war.


The Rehabilitation of Murderous Allies

But the great instrumentalization of emotion was also an occasion to reinforce links with “friends of the West” and to rehabilitate those among them discredited by their crimes in the eyes of public opinion. I give two examples that contradict the discourse of a mobilization for freedom of expression and against terrorism.

The State of Israel was represented by three ministers—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. After this summer’s massacre of Palestinians by state terror, their presence was a provocation for tens of thousands of French demonstrators who have given their support to the Palestinian people in nearly daily demonstrations. “The presence of these ministers,” as journalist Alain Gresh summed it up, “is an insult to all the values to which the organizers of the demonstration pretend to hold, a hold-up that must be denounced.”6

Need we be reminded that 17 journalists were killed this summer in the Zionist bombardments of the Gaza strip? We should also remember the expulsion from Israel of the French journalist Maximilien Le Roy, who had gone to attend a graphic novel/comics festival, because his drawings were deemed pro-Palestinian: “They explained to me … that I could criticize Israel in my own country, but not on their territory. I knew from the first minutes that they would expel me, but I didn’t expect to be prohibited from entering the country for 10 years. They treated me as if I were a terrorist.”7

The “democracy” of Saudi Arabia was also Charlie last January 11, thanks to the presence at the demonstration of its Minister of Foreign Affairs Nizar al-Madani. Two days earlier, the Saudi blogger Raïf Badawi received his first 50 strokes of the whip. He has been condemned to 10 years of prison and 1,000 lashes (50 every Friday) for having criticized the religious dignitaries of the kingdom. The allies of the new world order are too important to keep him safe. They are free to hold up the freedom of expression to ridicule without any fear and to finance groups that destabilize their neighbor states, while covering their aggression with the name of Islam. These two examples are enough to unmask the hypocrisy of the march with regard to freedom of expression, defended only when it serves the interest of the powerful and forgotten when it questions those interests. The rehabilitation of murderers and of the financiers of death is the second poisoned fruit of the Sacred Union which the state instrumentalization of emotion attempted to construct.



Let us now talk about the effects of “national unity” on the territory of France. The first is obvious: the creation of a climate of fear, pervaded with danger. The media coverage of this situation, in the form of a breathless, summary, and unverified mode of news reporting based on the “principle of recurrent amnesia,”8 laid the foundation for an oxygen-free environment. The constant use of the vocabulary of war (from the “Yes, we are at war”9 of Valls to Sarkozy’s “War has been declared on France”10) in the position statements relayed by journalists, experts, and crime newspapermen, reinforces this climate.

The deployment of 10,000 soldiers, with much media publicity, adds to the sense of a permanent and omnipresent danger. The idea, developed by the Ministry of Defense, that there is no frontier between the external and internal theater of operations put the finishing touches to the exaggerated warlike language producing a generalized social fear:

This is a real internal operation. There are ongoing external operations, and this is an internal operation which will mobilize 10,000 men, that is, nearly as many as are mobilized today for our external operations.11

The same effect is produced by the discourse of war that our politicians have not hesitated to use vigorously: A declaration of war sets in play a simplified discourse of friend versus foe—the external foe and the internal foe. The threat engenders fear, fear leads to hate, hate leads to preventive action. Solidarities tighten up: there is unity and exclusion.12

It is hardly surprising that the discourse of war should lead logically to the multiplication of Islamophobic actions, which came by the dozens in a few days. “Some 116 anti-Muslim acts have been registered in two weeks,” according to the newspaper Libération.13 The real number is, of course, much higher. Many acts are not noted in the present noxious context. We should not be surprised if a climate of fear pervades populations originating in postcolonial immigration. This fear is not irrational but is to be explained by the multitude of little aggressive acts experienced everyday, which are added to the open aggressions noted above: racist remarks, silence, and a tense atmosphere in public transportation, etc.

Women wearing headscarves are especially affected by this invasive fear. Having spent January 15 with a group of Maghrebi and black women from the Blanc-Mesnil neighborhood, even I was shocked by the number of stories of verbal aggression and gestures of rejection these 30 women told. While their reactions varied, many had serious consequences: “I don’t leave my home except to go shopping,” “For the first time I thought about removing my scarf, because I’m afraid,” “I don’t let my daughter go out, I’m afraid for her,” etc.

The origin of this increase in Islamophobic acts and the fear it gives rise to can be found in a certain number of themes recurrent in the media and political discourse. In a France in which Islamophobia has increased regularly over the last two decades, it is irresponsible to multiply opinions on Islam and “its link or not with terrorism,” on “the absence of certain people at Je suis Charlie demonstrations,” on “the so-called silence of certain people on the topic of the murders,” etc. The large increase in indirect or direct Islamophobic violence is the third rotten fruit of the political and media-driven instrumentalization of emotion.



This fear is often accompanied by a feeling of humiliation, that is, of “the perception of a gap between the place demanded in the name of equality and the place in which one is reduced.”14 Humiliation as the reduction of the human being, doing violence to her dignity, has serious consequences. The Arabic word Hoggra is used daily in conversations between family and friends. I have also encountered it frequently at the meetings that I have had this week with several collectives in working-class neighborhoods. Here is how I defined it already in 2000, as a way of capturing the lived experience of many young working-class people: “This term used by young people expresses a mixture of the negation of lived reality, an impression of being scorned and put down at will, and a discrimination lived as permanent.”15


Am I exaggerating?

Is it humiliation when one thinks about taking off a scarf simply because of the fear caused by a multiplication of Islamophobic acts? When one is constantly enjoined to “distance oneself from these attacks.” When a schoolboy is removed from his class because he doesn’t want to “be Charlie”? When the authorities won’t even listen to the reasons why this child thinks the way he does? When someone grabs your scarf in the street in front of indifferent passersby?

Of course, there are always people complaining about being victimized. Of course, “experts” on TV can discuss at length how anodyne and unimportant these humiliations are. Other observers seem to see in them the signs of a paranoia with no objective basis. It remains that when a subjective feeling is so widely shared it should at least be critically examined—exactly the opposite of what our minister of education proposes. She considers “unacceptable” the reactions of a number of pupils to the governmental injunction to be moved by the Charlie affair:

Even where there have been no incidents, there are too many questions on the part of students. And we have heard the “Yes, I support Charlie but…” the “Different groups are treated differently,” the “Why defend the freedom of expression here but not there?” These questions are unacceptable to us, especially when they are asked at school, which is supposed to transmit values.

And we thought that school taught our children to debate contested topics, that it taught critical thinking, argumentation, and free thought. No, the answer looks to repression rather than to refutation, to forced silence rather than argumentation, to exclusion rather than to debate. In a clear expression of the underlying logic of repression, the journalist Nathalie Saint-Cricq declared on France 2, “We have to identify and treat those who are not Charlie.”

But where do fear, humiliation, and the denial of speech lead? First of all, to violence against oneself, sooner or later to an externalization of that violence. All the silences forced on schoolchildren reinforce the feelings of isolation and injustice, from which can emerge nihilistic behavior leading to the destruction of themselves or those near them, to collective neighborhood revolts by small minorities tipping over into terrorist attacks. The creation of an increase in nihilistic behavior is another dangerous fruit of the actual state of affairs.


A “Hysterical” Repression

We borrow the term “hysterical” from the association of magistrates, who made the following assessment of the last two weeks:

It is thus that the last few days have seen expedited procedures, in which examination has been made of the context, but not the circumstances of events, and hardly of the persons accused of having supported terrorism. Accused not of having organized a demonstration supporting those who carried out attacks, of having written and widely distributed arguments, participated in networks, but of making comments when drunk or excited: in fact, of the sadly common forms of outrage. Heavy sentences rain down with pre-hearing detentions. This is the disastrous justice produced by the immediate processing which the law of November 13, 2014 has made into a new weapon in the struggle against terrorism. And if penal justice becomes the executor of moral condemnation, it could take the place of a careful scrutiny more necessary than ever in these troubled times. As if some of those acting in its name had completely forgotten that justice should be rendered with distance on the basis of serious inquiries, with a care to avoid amalgams like those which assimilate urban violence and support for terrorism, and, above all, with an avoidance of hysterical reactions, which delegitimize society along with it.17

Official figures published on January 20 provide the following data: 251 legal proceedings since January 7, including 117 for “support of terrorism,” 77 judgments, 39 sentences, with 28 leading to prison, and 22 others called before the tribunal of corrections.18

The association of magistrates is correct to speak of a deviation of “urgent justice.” To habituate us, to acclimatize us, to get us used to a retreat of democratic liberties on the pretext of assuring our security is the only possible result of such practices. Already new laws are being announced, even though a law to “fight against terrorism” was already adopted last fall. Since 1986 there have been 14 laws voted on to protect us. We can already taste another bitter fruit of national unity: the creation of conditions for majority consent to the weakening of democratic freedoms.

It is not imperialist war, fear, humiliation, hysterical repression, or the weakening of democratic rights which will roll back “terrorism.” The measures announced by the government attack none of the structural causes of the emergent nihilist attitudes in our society: massive social inequality, systematic racist discrimination, humiliating Islamophobia, police profiling, and wars for petroleum and strategic minerals. Nonetheless, there is no other serious solution than to attack the real causes, for without justice, there can be no peace.


  1. The concept of “immediate ideological aroma” was proposed by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. See my Dictionnaire des dominations de sexe, de race, de class (Paris: Syllepse, 2012), pp. 46-49.
  2. Under the form of an essentialist presentation of African cultures as marked by historylessness, tribalism, ethnicism, and a “culture of violence.”
  3. Hubert Deschamps, “L’héritage de Léopold,” dans Jean Ganiage and Hubert Deschamps, L’Afrique au XXe siècle (Paris: Syrey, 1966), p. 453.
  5. Zaki Laïdi, Le monde selon Obama (Paris: Stock, 2010).
  6. Alain Gresh, “D’étranges défenseurs de la liberté de la presse à la manifestation pour ‘Charlie Hebdo,’” Les blogs du Diplo, January 12, 2015.
  7. “Maximilien Le Roy, graphic artist, expelled from Israel,” Interview by Lucie Servin, L’Humanité, October 28, 2014.
  8. Jean François Tétu, “Les media et le temps, figures, techniques, mémoires, énonciation,” in Les Cahiers du journalisme 7, June 2000, p. 84.
  9. Manuel Valls, speaking to the National Assembkly, January 13, 2015.
  10. Le Figaro, January 9, 2015.
  11. Jean-Yves Le Drian, speech on January 12, 2015.
  12. Yves Ternon, Guerres et genocides au XXe siècle (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2007), p. 315.
  13. Libératioon, January 19, 2015.
  14. Vidal, Dominique, “Sentiment, moralité et relation d’enquête. Un regard sur les femmes domestiques,” in Vincent Caradec and Danilo Martuccelli (eds.), Matériaux pour une sociologie de l’individu: perspectives et débats (Lille: Septentrion, 2004), p. 216.
  15. Said Bouamama, “Le sentiment de ‘Hoggra’: discrimination, negation du subject et violence,” in Les classes et quartiers populaires (Paris: Editions du Cygne, 2009), p. 51.
  16. Najat Vallaud Belkacem, January 14, 2015, cited Mediapart, January 20, 2015.
  17. Communiqué of the Syndicat de la magistrature, January 20, 2015.
  18. Agence France Presse.


Said Bouamama

Said Bouamama is a French sociologist of Algerian ancestry; he is the author of many books, including, most recently, Figures de la libération africaine. De Kenyatta à Sankara (2014), Femmes des quartiers populaires, en résistance contre les discriminations (2013), Dictionnaire des dominations du sexe, de race, de classe (2012). This article appeared in French on the site Investig’Action on January 22, 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

All Issues