Can France combat terrorism with tolerance?

After the Paris attacks, French comedian says humour and tolerance can start healing the country’s collective wounds.

More than 60 attacks and threats against Muslim targets have been reported [Christine Buckley/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – There hasn’t been a lot of laughter in the French capital since the attacks that terrorised the city last week.

But just as for the journalists at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, comedy remains the weapon of choice for Samia Orosemane, a born-and-bred Parisian, a practising Muslim of Tunisian origin who wears a headscarf on stage and exhorts attackers to “Please choose another religion.” 

Well-loved French poet and singer Boris Vian once said, “Humour is the polite response to desperation,” and Orosemanes brand happens to be several shades more civil than Charlie Hebdo‘s.

In response to last weeks attacks that played out over three days at multiple locations around the city that killed 17 people, Orosemane reposted video that she originally recorded in late October 2014, days after Canada was hit by two separate and deadly attacks by lone gunmen citing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organisation as their inspiration. 

“Hello, this is just a little message for all the crazies, crackpots and the mentally ill who have decided to declare themselves Islamist(s), fundamentalist(s), jihadist(s), pianist(s), cyclist(s) and all that in order to commit their wrongdoings. Be nice now, leave us alone, OK? Were tired; its already complicated to live here in Europe. If on top of everything you start to bring all the hatred towards us, it starts to get a little bit too tiring, you know? So please choose another religion. Thanks. Bye,” Orosemane said.

Samia Orosemane [Christine Buckley/Al Jazeera]

In light of recent events, the video has gone viral on social networks – approaching 100,000 YouTube views on Wednesday night – and has received an overwhelmingly positive response on Orosemane’s Facebook page.  

‘Not the religion for you’ 

One of Islam’s main problems, Orosemane told Al Jazeera, is that becoming a member of the faithful is too easy. “I mean, all you need to do is say two sentences, and you’re in,” she said.

Both Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and the perpetrator of the Quebec ramming attack, Martin Couture-Rouleau, were adult converts to Islam. 

“So I just wanted to say to crazy people like them, hey, why don’t you do your research?” Orosemane said. “This is not the religion for you.”

She cited numerous requests for “the Muslim community” to speak out against this and previous attacks “supposedly committed in the name of Allah. But we don’t have a representative to speak for us. So who, exactly, should be doing the speaking up?”

Wednesday night at Place de la République, which has become a rallying place for free speech demonstratorsOrosemane nodded as she read former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine’s Le Monde editorial that echoed her own views.

“There is no Sunni Pope to excommunicate Daesh [ISIL], al-Qaeda or any other movement of pseudo-vigilante assassins,” Védrine wrote. “Not even a Muslim council, or a Muslim consistory with certain theological powers.”

Védrine underlined the fact that three-quarters of the victims of attacks committed in the name of Islam are themselves Muslims.

He called on French authorities and the society as a whole to “truly integrate, in a short few years, the part of the young French Muslim population that has been abandoned, even set adrift, that feels wronged or discriminated against, that is asking for respect as much as it is asking for jobs, to spare them from becoming the vulnerable prey of the recruiters of hatred and of death, and to dry out the breeding ground of nihilistic jihadism”.

Orosemane responded: “I’ve been saying the same thing for three years now, and no one’s wanted to listen. It’s sad to see that it takes a massacre for people to pay attention. I guess people right now are looking for the ‘nice Muslim’ and that’s me, I guess.” She looked wistful for the first time.

Orosemane praised Sunday’s Paris unity march attended by record numbers of French citizens and foreign residents from all walks of life. Some estimates placed the attendance figure at two million. The country hasn’t seen that many people take to the streets since Victor Hugo’s state funeral in 1885.

I cried because I couldn’t be there with everyone, but I was happy to see it so unified,” Orosemane said. “Many Muslims attended even though they knew [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would be there, too. That alone gives me hope.”

Thousands of security officers have been deployed to protect buildings, including mosques [Christine Buckley/Al Jazeera]

Nevertheless, the list of attacks against Muslim targets in France has exploded over the last week, with more than 60 incidents – attacks and threats combined – reported by the interior ministry. 

The state’s security alert system, known as Plan Vigipirate, remains at its highest alert level. Armed police and soldiers are on guard at houses of worship, schools and any other potential targets, such as newspapers and television stations.

Love, stronger than hate

Most responses to Orosemane’s videos in the past few days have been positive, despite the presence of a few internet trolls.

“But you have to engage with people like that, respond with love,” the comedian said. “Two or three people have insulted me, saying that Muslims are responsible for what happened. One of them started the ‘conversation’ by saying ‘I piss on your prophet.'”

After a short Facebook exchange in which she engaged him calmly and peacefully, the man who had started out so aggressive signed off by wishing her well, Orosemane said.

“Either we feed the hatred by insulting the person, or we try to understand what would push someone towards such verbal violence. I’ve chosen the second solution, following the example of the prophet, peace be upon him.”

The comedian shrugged when reminded that her theme was also the subject of a Charlie Hebdo cover that stirred up so much controversy back in 2011. It features a Muslim man kissing a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist with the headline: “Love, stronger than hate.”  

“I have never liked Charlie Hebdo,” Orosemane said. “But we live in a free society, and the best thing to do is just ignore them.” 

Anticipating the criticism of those who will say she’s also ignoring the world’s harsh realities by preaching simple tolerance, Orosemane said: “Try it and you’ll see that if everyone tries to improve himself in his own small way, the whole world will be a gentler place. It’s up to us, artists and individuals, to change things bit by bit.” 

On January 9, she offered her first response to the Islamophobes on the island of Corsica and elsewhere. “Hi, just a little message for all the fascists who’ve decided to attack mosques … recently they put a pig’s head in front of a mosque along with some insults. Just to let you know one thing: A pig is not like kryptonite, you know? It’s not like, ‘Oh please, not a pig!’ Find something else.”

Freedom of expression has its limits

Controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has been in the spotlight for his anti-Semitic commentary and seen his one-man shows repeatedly banned by the French government, was arrested Wednesday for “inciting hatred” and being an “apologist for terrorism, after a remark posted earlier in the week on his Facebook page implied empathy with the Paris gunman who killed a policewoman last Thursday and four hostages the following day at a kosher supermarket.

“Tonight, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” Dieudonné wrote, a mash-up of the tribute slogan “Je suis Charlie” and a reference to supermarket shooter Amédy Coulibaly. 

Dieudonné’s statement has since been removed from the Facebook page. According to French authorities, there have been 69 arrests for hate speech since the January 7 attacks, a number that keeps going up.

The comedian’s defenders have decried what they see as a double standard, but there are no blasphemy laws in France. Free speech law, as interpreted here, protects individuals, not ideas, concepts or entire religions, from slander or libel. Charlie Hebdo itself has been sued dozens of times, winning most of the cases.

Meanwhile, the first post-attack issue of the controversial weekly sold out its initial print run of 700,000 copies by 10am Wednesday. Three-to-five million additional copies are scheduled for delivery to newsstands, a global edition that will be printed in five other languages: English, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and Turkish. 

The cover image depicts the Prophet Muhammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign with a tear running down his cheek, under the headline, “All is forgiven.” Anticipating that such a provocation could spark more violence, Orosemane posted her latest video recorded on Wednesday afternoon in her car.

“Just a message to all the Muslims listening to us. Just one thing. Today Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of ‘Mahomet’ [French spelling of Muhammad]. Don’t get all worked up. Mahomet, we don’t know who that is. Because our prophet’s name is Muhammad peace be upon him. Muhammad means ‘the praised one’. ‘Mahomet’ means the opposite. So stop getting all panicky and move on to something else.”

Follow Christine Buckley on Twitter: @christibuckley

Source: Al Jazeera