For a number of reasons, the death of Ahmed Merabet should provide a way to understand Wednesday's horrific shooting in Paris. Merabet, one of the two policemen shot and killed in Charlie Hebdo massacre, was a French Muslim man who died defending the laws that allow satirists to mock his religion.
It's particularly surreal then that the footage of Wednesday's carnage involved the terrorists approaching Merabet and executing him as he sat wounded on a sidewalk in the 11th arrondissement, begging for his life. Following the attack, many of the cartoons drawn or tributes delivered to the victims focused either on the journalists or the greater ideal of free expression. This leaves the story of Merabet (and fellow officer Franck Brinsolaro) as a footnote.
There may be more to this than just a predictable oversight; the seeming inconsequence of Merabet's identity speaks to a growing divide within France itself, a divide that Merabet's death symbolizes.
La Grande Nation famously cherishes itself, hems and haws about the status of its language, and closely safeguards its culture in ways that lend themselves to caricature. An overwhelming majority of French citizens continue to view globalization as not only a bad thing, but a particularly bad thing for France. Most saliently, in France, being French is widely viewed and taught to be the pièce de résistance of one's personal identity.
"The traditional understanding of the French Republic is that it's based on certain universalist claims," Robert Zaretsky, who specializes in French history at the University of Houston, said over the phone. "It insists that one becomes fully French, that he or she accepts the values of the republic."
Unlike what he characterizes as an American "communitarianism," Zaretsky said, "there's no place really for ethnic or linguistic communities in France." He added:
'Communitarianism' is another word for the American way of life, which the French are very skeptical of. What many intellectuals in France are worrying about now, both legitimate intellectuals and polemicists, is that France has lost this universalist idea. This undermines more than 200 years of history in France.
One of these fretting intellectuals, according to Zaretsky, is Michel Houellebecq, the author of the book Soumission that graced the cover of Wednesday's issue Charlie Hebdo. "Houellebecq has been one of the biggest critics of the disappearance of this universalist idea in France," Zaretsky said. Soumission darkly imagines France under the rule of a conservative Muslim leader.
The link between Merabat's identity and his death did catch some eyes in the United States. An early Twitter tribute to Merabat in English garnered attention while one post in the Daily Caller's coverage of the massacre placed the officer's death within the context of how "Islam explicitly condemns killing other Muslims."
Zaretsky called this "a telling detail," adding "that this does reflect something deeper that distinguishes the way the French see themselves and the way Americans see themselves."
Within France, this universalism has been both the source of tension and the source of violent exploitation. An example of the former is France's ban of religious headscarfs and burqas, which has been debated, challenged, and upheld for over a decade now. An example of the latter was yesterday.
"One remarkable thing about France, one admirable thing about France," Zaretsky said, is that "we don't know how many Muslims are French citizens. The French census doesn't ask citizens questions about their religion."
One reaction to this idea might be to think it's heartening to think religion doesn't matter in France. Another might be to think it's disheartening to think religion doesn't matter in France.
A telltale development is the emergence of a secondary hashtag, #JeSuisAhmed, that riffs on the ubiquitous #JeSuisCharlie initiative that has been trending worldwide since the shooting. As thousands of images of #JeSuisCharlie have been documented at vigils and as digital avatars, #JeSuisAhmed prods at that French universalism. One moving example:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed— Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) January 8, 2015