Universality and Specificity of Cultures
By Bahjat Rizk
The January 11 demonstrations in France, in response to the attacks and assassinations at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket in Central Paris, have once again raised the issue of universality and specificity of cultures. Theoretical, there are indeed universal humanist values common to all cultures, but in realty each culture holds universal values rooted in its own experience, and it sometimes wishes, in all good faith, to impose them on others. Every culture tends to be dominant, even hegemonic, towards other minority cultures. The point is therefore not to make any absolute value judgment, but to stress the part of irreducible subjectivity in every culture and its legitimate propensity to defend and preserve itself.
Each will present the other’s aggression as prior and motivating a retaliating reaction. A subjective identification process would then prompt us to position ourselves, according to our own cultural constituents, on one side or the other. Given the irreducible, and even conflicting, aspects of cultural differences, they could be resolved either by dialogue or by cultural shock; sometimes by an alternation of both. So the day of demonstrations between Place de la Republique and Place de la Nation (highly symbolic sites in France’s history) through the Boulevard Voltaire (the symbolic father of a certain French satirical and anticlerical spirit) ended in the synagogue des Victoires, with the Israeli Prime Minister (fierce architect of colonization) acting as if he owned the place.
The demonstrations continued the following day on two simultaneous and parallel axes; one at the police headquarters around the three national and municipal police officers killed, reflecting French diversity, in the presence of President Francois Hollande and almost the whole French government, and the other in Jerusalem, under a huge Israeli flag around the four Jewish civilian victims in the presence of Ségolène Royal. The seven victims were decorated almost at the same time with the Légion d’Honneur; in the background, the bells of Notre-Dame could be heard in Paris, and the Judaic ritual chants in Jerusalem. A general memorial for all 17 victims will take place next week at the Invalides. In the afternoon, Prime Minister Manuel Valls addressed the National Assembly, singing all together the Marseillaise (which had not happened in this symbolic place since November 11, 1918), and stated that France was "at war against terrorism, jihadism and radical Islam”.
Meanwhile, with much publicity, the printing of three million copies of Charlie Hebdo was announced for the week after the deadly attack. It came out with a cover representing the Prophet weeping under the title "All is forgiven" and waving a sign with the rallying slogan that became a cult: "I'm Charlie." The author of the cover, who himself escaped the massacre, admitted having cried while completing the cover that was widely censured in the Anglo-Saxon press, denounced in Muslim countries and reprinted in a certain press in Turkey.
In the meantime, the same prime minister, who could not pronounce the killers’ names, decried the comedian Dieudonné for having said: "I'm Charlie Coulibaly", and a drunken man was condemned to four years in prison for having applauded in his drunkenness the Kouachi brothers. Coulibaly had killed a municipal policewoman, a 26 year old trainee from Martinique, who was settling a traffic accident blocking the road near a Jewish school, and the brothers Kouachi had savagely killed on the sidewalk a Muslim police officer in charge of the sector, called in reinforcements and whose vehicle had also blocked their way. So on one hand there were police agents who were not identified but who belonged to a professional body (who were therefore victims of their duty) and, on the other hand, cultural targets, the satirical cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish clients of the kosher supermarket who were identified (therefore victims of their belonging).
With all the victims as cultural scapegoats of an increasingly fractured society trying to regain its unity a hundred years after the beginning of the WWI, 70 after the end of the WWII, 67 years after the creation of Israel (forcibly seeking a new eternal capital), 40 years after the start of the Lebanese war, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 14 years after the September 11 attacks in New York, four years after the start the Arab Spring, the world continues, as always, to endure cultural ideological confrontations, each side trying to brandish its relative culture as an absolute ideology or a sacred and universal cause to conquer or preserve.
We will never know how one goes from being an executioner to being a victim, and vice versa. We will never know to what extent people are driven by humanist idealism or by opportunistic ideology. What is certain is that, while we are universal, we necessarily belong to and are structured by specific cultures based on our different religions, ethnicities, languages and habits. Since the dawn of time, all cultures have carried out emancipation, freedom and richness in their positive aspects, and oppression, tyranny and indoctrination in their negative aspects. Our societies need myths, heroes and saviors, as much as they need monsters, rebels and criminals in order to refocus and restructure themselves. It is therefore up to us to reinvent our universal and eternal references without losing sight of the fact that, just like us, they remain specific and temporary.