Podcast: The struggle against Islamophobia in France

Interview

Friday, December 18, 2020

In this episode of Who Belongs?, we speak with two activists based in France — Yasser Louati and Houria Bouteldja — about the intensification of Islamophobia and state repression unfolding in the country following Samuel Paty's gruesome murder. Our guests help us understand the current situation as it relates to the country's history of racist marginalization and terror attacks, what strategies affected communities must embrace to combat Islamophobia, and what this means for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. 

Yasser Louati is a human rights advocate and head of the Justice & Liberties for All Committee. Houria Bouteldja is a decolonial activist, author, and founding member of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic. The music heard at the introduction is La carte de residence” performed by Algerian singers Sliman Azem & Cheikh Nourredine.

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Transcript:

Yasser Louati: If the government today can crack down on Muslims, shut down their organizations, criminalize their leaders, et cetera, it's because people at the top of the government know they can do it and get away with it.

Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to Who Belongs?, a podcast from the O&B Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid here with co-host Erfan Moradi. In the background you're listening to “La Carte de Residence” performed by Algerian singers Sliman Azem & Cheikh Nourredine.

Erfan Moradi: In this episode, we'll look at the heightened social tensions in France in the wake of the beheading of a school teacher by a Muslim immigrant in October. In response, the French government is trying to impose a ‘global security law’ which would increase surveillance on the population and effectively ban filming the police if passed. This bill has led to widespread protests.

Marc Abizeid: But what's received much less scrutiny is the creeping Islamophobia within the state. In October just prior to the attack on the school teacher, French president Emmanuel Macron promised to crack down on so-called ‘Islamic separatism’ with a new law. Following the attack, French authorities dissolved two influential Muslim organizations: the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, known as CCIF; and BarakaCity, an Islamic charity group.

Erfan Moradi: For a critical analysis of these actions by the French government, and to better understand what's happening on the ground, we'll talk to human rights activist Yasser Louati, head of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, and decolonial activist and author Houria Bouteldja, founding member of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, both based in France.

Marc Abizeid: Here was our conversation. 

So what we wanted to try to do was try to understand the context of what's happening in France, try to understand this increase of tension between white French society and the Muslim population, and this attempt by the French state to show the Muslim population as not only a national security threat, but also a threat to French values — whatever those values may be, we hear a lot about laïcité or secularism. But we know that this kind of analysis is simplistic and false and it neglects some of the deeper foundational sources of that tension. So we just wanted to start off by getting your assessment of how you interpret the recent events in France.

Yasser Louati: Well, what we're seeing right now is just an acceleration of a process that has been started for the past multiple decades. The structural analysis [is] that we already live under an extremely authoritarian regime called the Fifth Republic. This Fifth Republic was born out of a coup d'état in the midst of the colonial repression and actually gives tremendous powers to the president and very weak checks and balances, whether it be the judicial system or parliament. What Emmanuel Macron is doing today is not only using that position as a president to his advantage to run for reelection, but also for him to further legitimize the ideas of the far-right that went from the fringe of the political spectrum to becoming mainstream today.

Now of course, anytime there is an attack in France, the typical response is, “We are all in this together, we shall overcome, we will win.” But the footnotes says that there are no Muslims, despite a Muslim presence that can be traced back to over a century from multiple generations that came throughout the various decades of the past century. We see that Muslims as you said in your introduction are inherently perceived and portrayed as what I call a ‘triple threat’: a threat to national identity, a threat to national security and a threat to the national economy. What has further polarized the relationship between the French government and the various Muslim communities is [that] any time they organize and leave the position of just abstract statistics like, in 1983 in the historic March Against Racism and for Equality [Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme] and throughout the decades and any time they organize, that further polarizes the dominant narrative that these Muslims are questioning the status quo. Emmanuel Macron today is not doing anything new, it's just growing exponentially.

So today, the two flagship bills he's proposing, the first one of course being the comprehensive security bill, which will further shield the police away from scrutiny, accountability — you cannot film the police, drones will be used on public events, et cetera. But instead of looking at the second flagship bill called the ‘law on separatism,’ the comprehensive security bill needed Islamophobia to be legitimized. The second bill that will be specifically targeting Muslims [in the name of] separatism is nothing short of clear violations of the French constitution [and] the laïcité law. Emmanuel Macron is asking for the rights to meddle in clerical and religious affairs, and for him to decide what can Muslims be and not be, say and not say, do and not do.

And my last point if I may, is the term ‘separatism’ actually came in reaction to the anti-racism marches of the last summer, and instead of Emmanuel Macron addressing the issues brought forward by these marches, he came up with the term separatism through his government and the second one was ensauvagement which means people acting like wild beasts. We see that his reaction is a similar to the reaction we had in the early 1980s when Blacks and Arabs from the banlieue [ed: suburbs, especially low-income and migrant communities] organized. But this time there has been a forty year, how can I say, period that allowed Emmanuel Macron to go beyond mere rhetoric and to pass these drastic laws that only confirm that it's no longer a question, “Does France have a problem with its Muslim population?” It becomes an affirmation: France does have a problem with it's Muslim population and this Islamophobia targeting Muslims today has also allowed France to become a further authoritarian state, if not a police state.

Marc Abizeid: Houria did you want to add to that?

Houria Bouteldja: So the situation in France is quite worrisome, as you know. Since the decapitation of Samuel Paty by a Muslim terrorist, the government took this opportunity to repress even more the Muslim community. You know, the government dissolved the CCIF, which is the main anti-racist organization, the most important organization regarding the number of members in France — maybe Yasser can confirm this point. The government dissolved also BarakaCity which is a Muslim charitable organization. And the government decided also to close certain number of mosques, whereas there is no link between the mosques and terrorism. But the aim of the government is to charge Muslims, to make them support the responsibility of its own responsibility in the phenomenon of terrorism. I don't need to say here that France is involved in the war in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, or in Libya. Charging Muslims means making France innocent. 

The rage against Muslims is also due to our political progress. Actually, there is a pessimist way of analyzing the development of Islamophobia in France and an optimist way. The pessimist one is to say that Muslims do not have any power in France so they can't protect themselves actually. The optimist way is to say that our struggle is progressing. CCIF was a quite powerful organization. Decolonial thought is now penetrating the university and the political parties. So we can analyze the panic of the government also as a reaction against our capacity of resisting. 

Nevertheless, the Muslim condition in France is one of the worst in Europe. Last month, three Turkish children were arrested, moreover 400 children have been singled out because they refused to observe a minute of silence for the assassinated professor and 150 complaints have been filed against children accusing them of justifying terrorism.

When we add to all this, that the repression of Muslims is made on the idea that freedom of speech is threatened by Muslims, you have a quite good idea of the way everything is reversed: the victims become the torturers; the dominated become the dominant; Islamophobia is negated whereas anti-white racism is promoted. Actually the debate in France about the freedom of speech that is threatened by Muslims is only a hypocritic offensive for the leading classes to defend, to protect their own rights of being racist. Today Muslims cannot escape the fact that they are really treated like the indigenous [ed: indigène, the native population of a French colony, i.e. subjects to discrimination] during the colonial past. I think that what is interesting today is that Muslims are condemned to be lucide, aware of what they are really in Europe. It means that now the representatives of Muslims have to get rid of their dreams of becoming citizens inside the French nation-state. They have to put it in question. In one word, they have to get rid of what we call intégrationnisme.

Marc Abizeid: That's very powerful and there's a lot of strands we can pick from that, but one thing that you both mentioned was that what's going on now isn't really new. It seems like after a certain period, after a certain attack, there's just this intensification of the targeting of Muslims. So I was hoping that you could give us a little bit of background and history about the social and political context for that. I remember back in 2004 when they had the headscarf ban for example. We know that there's a lot of history rooted in colonial legacy of France in North Africa and the creation of the banlieue and so can you talk a little bit about that context and that history and how it brought us to where we are today?

Yasser Louati: You have to understand that there has been a process of manufacturing the ‘Muslim problem,’ and that the Muslim population in France has been part of France for a very long time. Now I won't get into a history and to the early sites of Muslim presence, but regardless of how long Muslims have been here, they are constantly put in the box of a foreign entity. This can be further illustrated or is further illustrated, for example, when we take a look at how France dealt with Muslims in the 1970s and '80s. It was always through the lens of international events: the Iranian revolution, the Salman Rushdie affair, the Middle East, the civil war in Lebanon, and the list goes on. Every time you had international events, they would look inward and try to find a voice from within Muslim communities as if they were somehow directly or indirectly connected to what's happening abroad.

The second thing we see is that while manufacturing the Muslim problem, we also manufacture the enemy within. So in France when Muslims again became visible entities organizing for their rights and daring to demand equality from the dominant power structure — in this case the centralized French government — of course there has been a series of backlash. Now we can take a few dates to see how this is not new, for example, we have the 1983 march that I mentioned earlier. But one of the most notorious dates is 1989 and the first historic case of banning of the Muslim headscarf in public schools; but what is interesting during that episode is that institutions stood with Muslim girls in their right to wear a headscarf in public schools. The counsel of the state in its decision clearly stated that these girls had the right to wear a headscarf, which means the people who fed the controversy targeting Muslims as trying to assault France's republican institutions, et cetera, it failed. It was loud, it was very audible, yet institutions held and protected their rights. 

But we see that throughout the years we saw an erosion through what we see the so-called human rights or republican front. In 1994, then-minister of education François Bayrou, published a circular [ed: clickthrough link article is in French] that goes around the council of the state decision and allows them to expel Muslim girls from public schools if they feel that they are using their headscarf to proselytize. So if they're [practicing] their religion, they could be accused of it and then expelled, which is of course — I mean, how would you accuse someone of proselytizing? That becomes of course an arbitrary decision. 

But from 1994 until 2004, we saw that the assaults kept growing and we have seen an ever-growing front that amalgamates, or that brought together people from the right and the left, but most importantly, from the left. And we saw that even French left-wing unions were preparing, setting the field for the banning of 2004, but the burning of 2004 came after a series of well orchestrated operations.

The first one was of course seizing the opportunity of 9/11, that's for one; saying that whatever America was faced on 9/11, France should stand in solidarity and start treating Islam as a domestic terrorist threat. Then came the year 2003. We had a two-sworded event: for example, in 2003, the beginning of the dismantling or the acceleration of the dismantling of the welfare state with the first pension reforms under the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. As you had hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets against this pension reform, the media focused their attention on the Muslim problem and the threat represented by the headscarf in public schools. If you take statistics, for example, in early 2003, French public opinion was split forty-seven and forty-nine percent in favor and against [respectively] banning of the headscarf. But after a year of media harassment and the continuous coverage of the Muslim problem, there was a shift that allowed public opinion to accept that this specific law of 2004 is passed.

So two commissions were set up which were rigged from the start. For the Stasi commission — I hope our listeners keep these names in mind so they can trace back what's happening today — the Stasi commission was set up by Bernard Stasi, a friend of Jacques Chirac, to try to find out whether a law was necessarily to ban the head scarf or whether or not there was an ‘Islamist’ — between quotation marks — threat against the Republic. If you go to his first interview after the commission, he said, “Had we been asked whether we should legislate or not, or push for a law, we would have said, no, a law is not necessary. But after auditioning [interviewing] around a 113 people, it became clear that there was an Islamist assault on the Republic.” The problem is the 113 people who were auditioned were all of them against the presence of the Muslim headscarf in public space and public schools and not a single Muslim woman wearing the headscarf or a student wearing it was auditioned. And that further legitimized the passage of a law that was a clear violation of human rights for Muslim girls, but also a clear violation of laïcité because laïcité is about the neutrality of the state, not neutrality of users of state services. 

And from that date, 2004, there has been a continuous erosion of human rights for Muslims: the 2009 ban of the full-face veil; in 2010, the debate on national identity; and of course, the burkini hysteria, the chasing around of Muslim girls wearing long skirts, et cetera. So this manufacturing is not a series of incidents or a series of events that happened to happen. No, they have been well-orchestrated.

I think I will be quite — how can I say — sharp in my criticism on the front fighting Islamophobia in France is that: there is one thing to blame Emmanuel Macron and his policies, but we also have to take a look at how people standing for liberal values went from one defeat to another which allowed this conservative revolution that started in the 1980s to push forward and bring together Islamophobes from the left and Islamophobes from the right. What's happening today — of course I can be criticized and will accept it — but it's actually a debacle because what we see is a political decision taken to dissolve CCIF and BarakaCity on political and ideological grounds. There is absolutely nothing legal in what was done to those two organizations. And yes, CCIF was the main organization fighting Islamophobia — I happened to have been their spokesperson between 2015 and 2016. 

But this also raises questions on the effectiveness of the struggle against Islamophobia. How come an organization that's been in place for twenty years could be dismissed in a matter of two-and-a-half, three weeks without a radical struggle to push back against this arbitrary decision not only because it penalizes Muslims, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent that the government can shut down an organization based on a decision taken by the executive branch of power. This is why France today is at a crossroads and this is why Muslims today are the barometer not only of democracy, but also of the rule of law and human rights in the so-called cradle of human rights.

Marc Abizeid: Yasser, let me ask a quick follow-up to that because both you and Houria have implied or even been direct about your critiques of the French left and that they stand... They've resisted against for example the new national security law, but they're not standing against these attacks against CCIF and the separatism law and this kind of thing. So it's like they're picking and choosing whatever's convenient for them.

Can you kind of talk about that? You know what those coalitions look like, what your relationship is like with the French left?

Houria Bouteldja: The white left is protecting and defending only the interests of the white labor classes. [This] is something that is not new among the decolonial activists. We know for a long time that we are not defended, that we are not protected by the whites in general. This is why we decided in 2005, just after the law against the veil, that we have to get rid of this dream of converging with with the whites and with the left. This is why we created the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic [Parti des Indigènes de la République] which was against the left, against the right, against the extreme right, but also against the white [left]. We decided to rely only on us. This is an autonomous organization and this is an autonomous consciousness because we know what we see now around this question of the global [security] law and the fact that the white political field on the left in particular are not fighting the law against the separatism, they're making a distinction between the two laws. This is why I think that we have to develop a strong decolonial consciousness in France.

Yasser Louati: If I may add to that, it is actually the French left is really out of — how can I say — out of touch with the realities of the so-called ‘grassroots’ it pretends to represent. We have seen the French left actually standing against non-white minorities anytime they organize. I can give an example of the 1970s rise of Mouvement des travailleurs arabes, the Movement of Arabian [sic] Workers [ed: for more information, read section heading "The ‘Beur Generation’"]. They had to split from the mainstream left-wing unions because the questions of discrimination at work, police brutality, and the paperless [undocumented] immigrants applied did not interest the main unions. These Arab workers had to organize outside of the usual unions and face tremendous hostility, for example, from the mother of all unions the CGT [General Confederation of Labour or Confédération Générale du Travail]. 

So this is not new. What is worrisome is that throughout the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and 2000s, to this day, the French left systematically betrayed minorities in their struggles and I will use various examples to make sure that I am understood and not misquoted.

First, we have to understand that these white organizations, they would welcome blacks and Arabs and Muslims per se in the beginning of a social movement to show how open they are to minorities. But anytime the ‘struggle’ — between quotation marks — or the movement gets to the negotiation table, it becomes a white-to-white conversation and the vital issues raised by these minorities are immediately dismissed as unimportant and that might jeopardize negotiations either with company owners or the corporations or the government. This has happened systematically. When white people call out police brutality, I really have a hard time to be sympathetic — and you'll have to forgive me on that — because when white people refer to May 1968 as a major event that highlighted police brutality against white youngsters in Paris, they do not mention the hundred people killed in the West Indies by the French police. They don't say a word about it. [When] it happened, they did not feel concerned by it. 

I will just fast forward to, for example, the state of emergency in 2015, '16, and '17, until it became a permanent, I myself was organizing with the anti-state of emergency France. I saw vehement left-wing organizers that refused to acknowledge that Islamophobia was at the core of the state of emergency, that Muslims were by far the first victims of the brutal police raids, hundreds of house arrests, so much so that over four thousand police raids had been carried oftentimes in open brutality against innocent families in mosques, in halal businesses. [Only] 0.16% of those raids led to an investigation on terror grounds, and even the French Ombudsman mentioned that ninety-nine percent of those raids targeted Muslims. Yet for this so-called French left, they started counting the abuses of the state of emergency the day it was used against opponents to the environmental summit in Paris in late 2015. I was at a meeting and it was unbelievable. We had seen for two-and-a-half weeks, three weeks, Muslim being literally brutalized by the police and the gendarmerie and for these leftists, their problem began when they began throwing tear gas at the demonstrators facing the COP-21 or the environmental summit. 

And this did not change and that's why it is extremely important for minorities to organize and be autonomous not only from mainstream state-sponsored organizations, but also from the left because the left does not care as we see today they march against the comprehensive security bill, but [turning] a blind eye on the law targeting Muslims. [This] is almost laughable if not tragic because Article 24 — which will ban filming the police — may be rewritten or redrafted or maybe even taken away from this comprehensive security bill, but will be slid into the anti-separatism bill as Article 25. [It] means white people might call it a victory if that Article 24 is removed, but since they do not mobilize against the anti-separatism bill, that same measure will be applied on to them. 

The last point, and I think this one is crucial if I still have the time: it is one thing to call out white organizations, but it is also on banlieue and minority organizations to take note that if the government today can crack down on Muslims, shut down their organizations, criminalize their leaders, et cetera, it's because people at the top of the government know they can do it and get away with it. What happened to CCIF today and against BarakaCity also happened to other organizations. Nor CCIF or BarakaCity said a word when for example, another anti-Islamophobia organization called the CRI, Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia, faced tremendous violence from the police, from the prosecutor, and to the point of people losing their jobs and their health. It is easy to come today and ask for solidarity, et cetera, but when other smaller organizations were targeted, nobody said a word about it. 

I speak to you today as a free man, but I don't know what's going to happen to me in the next few months. I myself am facing four lawsuits from the government because we made a series of investigations that revealed the death of a Black woman on her workplace in the city hall in the 20th arrondissement in Paris. We revealed the over-budgeting and over-militarization of the police in Colombes, the west side of Paris. We revealed how the far-right infiltrated city halls and prevent Black and Arab workers from getting promotions. We also revealed how the far-right is working with the left when it comes to Islamophobia.

Yeah, I got arrested. I'm facing four lawsuits and I never had any support. Now of course I'm not holding any grudges. I'm just saying that because so many people were silent for years when other activists were targeted, the French government — pardon my language — they are not stupid nor blind. They see that the banlieue grassroots are extremely atomized and divided. They can go one after another without these autonomous organizations daring to come together. The sad example was the march of the 10th of November of last year that was of course a media success because it was centered or held by La France Insoumise, [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon's political party. Yet a month before that on October 17th, a rally was organized by Muslims without interference of the left and that autonomous rally had been boycotted by the organizers of the march of the 10th of November. This is very sad because we see the results today, and I am very pessimistic on the developments because Emmanuel Macron does not listen and he has surrounded himself with the most brutal Islamophobes of the past thirty years.

Erfan Moradi: Both Yasser and Houria you've mentioned one, the sort of necessity of a decolonial consciousness and of the atomization of migrant communities. I'm wondering what can a decolonial program and project offer in response to this atomization? How can a decolonial mindset set in marginalized communities and how can it tap into broader frustrations with austerity measures, with police violence, with capitalism and racism as a whole?

Houria Bouteldja: Decolonial consciousness is a global analysis, on the situation in the world. It means that when we are decolonial, we are anti-capitalist; we do the criticism of the nation-state; we do the criticism of structural racism; we do the criticism of Eurocentrism; we do the criticism of white power; we do the criticism of imperialism. So everything is connected. Islamophobia is connected to police brutalities. Police brutalities are connected to the crisis of the migrants, et cetera, et cetera. We can say that this is like Marxism, this is a global thinking, a global analysis. But a global analysis [in] decolonial thought is not enough. What we need is power. What we need is organizing ourselves around this idea of decoloniality. But decoloniality in itself is not enough. We have to think how to reach power. This is the only aim we should have. 

But as you can see it's very difficult to think about how to get the power because the obstacles are everywhere. When we are non-white in the West, the obstacles are everywhere. You have to know that the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic [PIR], which is a decolonial party that has existed since 2005, until this year I have resigned from the PIR. I have resigned even if we were able to develop a new political idea in France — which is decoloniality, which is the question of race which didn't exist before, the question of whiteness, the question of white power, et cetera, et cetera — even if we are successful in making this idea emerge in France, we are not authorized to develop ourselves in the political field. This is why I resigned.

Yasser talked about last year's demonstration against Islamophobia. We were excluded from this demonstration. We were excluded as the political party which struggled [against] the French Islamophobia [for] fifteen years and we were excluded from this demonstration [by]  the organizers, and CCIF was among the organizers. They decided to exclude us because they wanted to make an alliance with the left. The price for this alliance was to exclude the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic and a certain kind of Muslims: Muslims who were seen as radicals. Actually the Muslims who were excluded were — how can you say — conservative Muslims. But even if they are conservative Muslims, they should be authorized to demonstrate like the others because they have the right to be conservatives. I just want to point the fact that we know what we have to do. The problem is not what we have to do, the problem is how.

Erfan Moradi: The question is of course about strategy too, right? I don't think we should exclude conservative Muslims and conservative immigrants from our organizing fields, but it is also about a political strategy of directing these energies towards programs that resist being subsumed into conservative or reactionary politics, right? So how do you suggest taking these energies and directing them into progressive, radical, transformative politics?

Yasser Louati: Well if I may on this one.

So first, I mean like what I would like to say when it comes to decolonizing, acting independently, et cetera, and the redefining the relationship with the white majority organizations is that first: it's about seeking autonomy from thought to action, and to stop outsourcing strategies, thinking, and validation or legitimization from white organizations. That's for one. And of course it also means being capable of seeking information, properly analyzing it, disseminating it, and training the right people with that information in mind. I always use the example of how white media operate [and] how they assign minorities to specific roles. They may not realize it, but we notice it. For example, and I put in this all white-majority media outlets, and I know it might be harsh, but from experience this is what I have seen. It's that they will invite the Black or the Arab or the Muslim woman wearing a head scarf, et cetera, or people of the banlieue to come and act as victims and complain of discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or poor housing, et cetera. But if you take a look, anytime a solution is to be proposed or any time a structural analysis is to be made, it always comes — okay, I will take it back and say — maybe most of the time it will come from a white person. 

This draws on what Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi wrote in his book The Ideological Battle [La lutte idéologique] is that the white progressive will welcome the indigenous when he carries the rifle; but the day he steps into the arena of the ideological debate, which is perceived as the most noble form of struggle, he is immediately expelled and cast aside. White media, for example, have deprived minorities from properly carrying their own narrative without the validation of white editors and white journalists, et cetera.

The other one is for minorities to develop their own solidarity networks, which means instead of seeking the approval of white organizations — be it NGOs, grassroots organizations, human rights organizations, political parties et cetera. It's that they set up their own safe spaces to agree and disagree and debate and promote their own ideas so they can develop naturally, by accepting whoever is part of this network and developing a coherent agenda where people feel like they are stakeholders — even though I hate the term — and that they are part of something, instead of a solution being imposed upon them either by powerbrokers or by minority- or community-leaders who are in return guided by white political parties. Of course when it comes to speaking of whether you are a migrant of a conservative tendency or progressive tendency, this is where we need to see political maturity. Both sides of the coin are sharing the same space. White supremacy will target them both whether they are conservative or progressive and that requires them to speak to one another and accept that there are areas around which they will disagree, but that most probably they will agree on most things. That's very difficult. I've been extremely critical of religious Muslim organizations that come with this — just like tele-evangelists in the US — they have these ideas, they can not see otherwise. But the reality of minorities is not necessarily the realities as they are imagined by those clerical and religious leaders. This is why I think to me the basis that is missing in all these movements: safe spaces to talk to one another and not wait to speak to one another [until] the white man invites them to the table. 

This is something my generation has seen. I hope not to see it in the next generation and this is something we cannot minimize, because if you don't speak to one another, if you don't create a safe space, you won't trust one another and therefore you will never act with each other. I think we've had forty years of documented failures any time we overlook the necessity to have spaces where we can get together and come up with ideas where everybody feels that he was listened and, most importantly, that the common interest is safe. We may disagree on the methodology, but at the end of the day we are bound to face the same discrimination, the same violence from the state, the same narrative being taken away, the same invisibilization, if the word exists, rendered invisible by people who are more organized and better funded

Erfan Moradi: Yeah. The last thing that I want to ask about is, of course, you both are drawing on the decolonial or anti-colonial traditions especially laid out by Frantz Fanon. Of course Fanon wrote about how revolutionary struggle has to produce a new humanism based on mutual recognition. To be clear, this quote-unquote ‘humanism’ isn't the liberal-centrist concept of loving one another and everything will be okay, but it's one that reminds me of Noel Ignatiev words, “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” you know, abandoning white supremacy is the path towards a new humanity or towards a new humanism. I'm wondering, in your eyes and in your words, what possibility exists now for a new humanism? What does this look like for you?

Houria Bouteldja: I'm very pessimistic because we are in a very dangerous period. On one side, we are happy that whiteness is declining and this is what is happening right now, because there is the emergence of China, the emergence of Russia, the emergence of Iran, and other countries. It's clearly a moment which is the decline of the West, and in same time, of whiteness. So we have to be happy about that, but in the same time, this decline is very, very dangerous. Because they are declining, fascism is [seen as] a solution for them. So if fascism is a solution it means that hard times are in front of us. If the left was really anti-racist and if non-white people were organized, [we could react,] but this is not the fact. Even the left, even the progressive movement are in big difficulties.

Yasser Louati: Again, I repeat myself when I say that everybody is at a crossroads, both minorities and the majority population. And indeed, yes, fascism today is no longer hiding itself behind discourses of individual emancipation, et cetera. Today things are pretty straightforward, which can of course represent a direct threat, but also a direct opportunity for people to organize differently. This can only happen when we stop taking shortcuts and that popular education is implemented as widely as possible. We cannot mobilize people who don't know what the hell is happening around them and that means a heavy investment in individuals and for them not only to be aware or better prepared to face the world they live in, understand what went right, what went wrong in the past decades, but because you would also give them a platform to learn together, they will be able to act together. So there are reasons to be optimistic, but this is [conditional on] how much the current generation of activists is willing to invest itself and to go beyond their individual, personal dreams of shining and get the recognition of the white power structure. 

The white power structure will always make sure that minorities occupy the role that has been historically defined to them. If they integrate, white media [will ensure] that they re-enforce the white narrative and that they act as a powerbrokers or speakers for minorities. If they integrate political parties, they will be expected only to first pledge allegiance to white supremacy, which is the glue of this Fifth Republic in France, but also they will only speak when asked to speak, for example. And we see that the various people from migrant communities who promise to change the system from within, they all failed and the system not only changed them, but also exposed them.

So really it's about this current generation that I am part of. How are we willing to go beyond ourselves? This is not about me or us individually speaking, it's about leaving a legacy of liberation behind us the day we are gone, and not try to keep things centered around us because we are too small at the end of the day. This is bigger than us. This goes way beyond us. This requires us to be honest: are we really in this to liberate or to get something in return?

Marc Abizeid: And that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs?. We'd like to thank our guests Yasser Louati, head of the Justice & Liberties for All Committee, and Houria Bouteldja, founding member of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, for their sharp insights on the recent and ongoing events in France.

Erfan Moradi: We also want to mention that Yasser hosts an English-language podcast called Le Breakdown, which you can find on his organization's website. Houria meanwhile is the author of a recent book Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love published by MIT Press. We'll put links to their work along with the transcript of this interview on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs.

Marc Abizeid: This has been Marc Abizeid.

Erfan Moradi: And this is Erfan Moradi.

Marc Abizeid: Thank you for listening.

 

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