Jessica Rohan

Lassana Bathily, the grocery clerk who hid shoppers in a freezer when gunmen entered the store where he worked, received French citizenship on Tuesday, January 20th in a ceremony presided over by Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve and attended by Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The predictable backlash against French Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks was swift and awful - at least 15 incidents of hate crimes against Muslims across France were reported in the first two days alone, journalists for major news outlets made asinine comments about the nature of Islam, and politicians used the opportunity to propose a “French-style Patriot Act” and tougher immigration laws. 

Cazeneuve praised Bathily’s actions as “a symbol of an Islam of peace and tolerance.” Bathily’s heroism has been used widely as a counter-example to the Muslim terrorist stereotype. Idolizing Bathily as an icon of Muslim tolerance and human decency, however, merely provides the moderate ethos for Islamophobia.

Candace Plattor inscribes this mainstream narrative binary quite well in her piece on the Huffington Post, in which she describes Bathily, who emigrated to France from Mali in 2006, as “an extraordinarily courageous and compassionate human being who saved a number of lives in the Parisian Kosher Market, at precisely the same moment that another man was fanatically intimidating and killing others in that same store, all in the name of religion.”

Given that both Bathily and Coulibaly, the gunman, are Muslims from Mali, one might reasonably conclude that a Malian Muslim identity provides no insight into a particular individual’s disposition. Instead, the two are cast as discursive archetypes, pitted against each other in a cosmic battle for the souls of Muslims worldwide. 

In our current political climate, the good Muslim/bad Muslim discourse usually serves to reify the idea that non-extremist Muslims are an exception to the rule. As Mamdani argues in his seminal work on the subject, the distinction is made “not between good and bad persons, nor between criminals and civic citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims.”1 If terrorism is the child of modernity, the good Muslim is the millennial noble savage.

Sam Harris describes his own bull’s eye version of the global Muslim community in the now-infamous showdown with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show: “At the center you have jihadists...outside of them you have Islamists...those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world...we have to empower the true reformers in the Muslim world to change it.”

These “true reformers” become the sugar with which liberal pundits push bitter racism down leftist throats. On a larger scale, this mythical Muslim subgroup is used to justify Western state interests, as in the Iraq invasion (for the oppressed women in burqas) and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan (for Malala Yousafzi’s fellow schoolchildren).

The good Muslim often appears in Islamophobic discourse as an important rhetorical tool to counter accusations of monolithic stereotyping. He makes Islamophobia more palatable to the public, assuages guilt and makes arguments against “the majority of Muslims” seem more reasonable.

Bathily’s heroism, then, is not his own, but subsumed under the larger banner of Islam apologism, which attempts to discredit Islamophobes by painting Islam in a positive light without rejecting the foundational assumptions of Islamophobic discourse. Its key elements include “Islam is a religion of peace,” the Muslim hero, and obligatory Muslim condemnation of Muslim perpetrators. Islam apologism engages the false pretense that religious doctrine is the only valid prism through which to view the actions of individual Muslims, rather than dismissing that framework as a rhetorical mirage. 

In this sense, the good Muslim is comparable to the “righteous Gentile,” a title which some are asking Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to formally award to Bathily. Using Muslim do-gooders to combat Muslim terrorists merely reifies the notion that religious affiliation is a valid spectrum within which to compare relative human worth. 

Furthermore, news coverage of Bathily as an explicitly Muslim hero does nothing to address the under-representation of the majority of Muslims in mainstream media. As the Daily Beast points out, less than 2% of European terrorist attacks were committed by Muslims in the past 5 years. Acts of heroism are, of course, similarly rare. But we ascribe religious affiliation only to these extreme events, and only for Muslims, effectively rendering all other Muslims invisible outside of their tightly prescribed roles: terrorist, or pretext for Western intervention.

The greatest irony of Bathily’s story is that before he was proclaimed a hero of the Republic, he was arrested and held for over an hour before police realized he was not affiliated with the terrorists, despite being a black, Muslim immigrant. 

The Paris attacks have only exacerbated an increasingly draconian immigration climate, from the legacy of Sarkozy’s “immigration by choice” and deportation quotas, to the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic Front National party. Bathily, who moved to France 9 years ago, is by all accounts a reliable employee who’d bonded with his Jewish coworkers and customers; yet if he hadn’t saved the shoppers’ lives, what is the likelihood that Bathily would have seen a successful result from the citizenship application he had submitted a year before the attack?  

It remains the job of Westerners to distinguish ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims’, usually by virtue of service to causes of Western concern. It is highly unlikely an online petition on Bathily’s behalf would have received 300,000 signatures if had he intervened in the recent massacre of thousands of Nigerians. Like the calls for Muslim solidarity marches, only Bathily’s exceptional and extraordinary act of heroism is considered acceptable proof of his loyalty to the Republic.

We have seen this political logic before in the debates over hijab in public space. French secularism demands that (brown, Muslim) immigrants declare their loyalty to the state above all other affiliations before they are granted the honor of citizenship. In Le République, everyone is equal but some are more equal than others - for millions of French Muslims, this means ever more outlandish demands for proof that they support the very civil liberties from which they were traditionally excluded. 

Media extremists’ polarizing depictions of Muslims could in theory be balanced by sharing images of mundane daily life - Muslims doing laundry, walking to school and feeding their children; surely U.S. surveillance programs have amassed copious footage of such events by now. For a simpler solution, we could reject the hopeless rhetorical binary and allow the actions of individuals to speak for themselves alone.

1. Mamdani, Mahmood, Good Muslim. Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Pantheon, 2004.

Jessica Rohan is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is a freelance writer and researcher based in Philadelphia. She received a BA in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied sociology, anthropology and global studies with concentrations in the Middle East and North Africa and conflict/conflict resolution. She is interested in global media and the role of public art in social movements. Twitter @jessica_rohan

Feature image via NBC News.