“This was a deliberate attack on people taking part in cultural activities,” said Karima Bennoune, the new UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, as news from Paris filtered through to the final session of the cultural rights conference I was attending Saturday in Copenhagen.
As an Algerian American of “Muslim heritage”, Bennoune – Professor of Law at the University of California – was acutely aware of the cultural significance of the attacks. She told us, by way of introduction, she has been both an insider and an outsider all her life. She was horrified by the fact that the attackers cried “God is great” as they went in for the kill. So far as we know, from the available information, the attacks were perpetrated by disaffected young Muslims, who deliberately targeted people enjoying themselves at a rock concert, a sports stadium, bars and restaurants. Victims who included Muslims, and many young people of different nationalities. One of the bars was owned by a French Algerian.
My Irish second cousin, a drama student who has recently moved to Paris, was lucky not to have gone out that night. So, the atrocity has touched me personally too – and involved a flurry of texts to his worried mother, living in Northern Ireland. “Where is Myles, is Myles safe?” … “Yes, he’d planned to go into town, but decided not to.”
We may tend to think of culture and cultural rights in terms of “high” culture. Something elevated, distinctive, a tad precious. The conference speakers (who included me) and audience in Copenhagen (lawyers, scholars, students, UN staffers, journalists, curators and culture wallahs of all kinds) had just spent two days discussing culture and cultural rights in rather grandiose terms. This atrocity was a jolt, a return to earth. As Prof. Bennoune sharply reminded us, cultural rights are of course much wider and more mundane than that. They include the right to simple enjoyment of sharing music, drinks, food and conversation with friends on a Friday night, in a beautiful city.
There are many different ways to interpret these events, and they will be interpreted ad nauseam over the coming months. The French government and citizens immediately leapt to defend their national values in cultural terms. As BBC television news reminded us Sunday, “the French are proud of their cultural values – liberty, equality, fraternity. Tonight the French state is fighting hard to defend these values.”
But these are also values that go beyond nation, nationalism, locality or community. We are surely reminded this week that we share far more than divides us. We share the right to simple enjoyment of freedoms, and association, whether they are dubbed “cultural” or not.
The perpetrators reportedly hoped their (thwarted) attack on the football match in Paris would be broadcast live on TV. So they themselves were aware (and we know so-called ISIS is supremely media aware and IT adept) of using globalized “cultural” means of propaganda. Foiled by security checks at the gate, the “jihadist” withdrew and blew himself up a few yards away from the stadium. The match went on, fans and players oblivious to what was happening outside.
I will write about what came out of the conference some other time. Right now, let’s consider how this attack was not just an attack on “the West”, or supposedly “Western values”, but an attack on all our cultural rights and freedoms. Whoever we are, wherever we are, we have freedoms to defend against a new form of fascism that misuses and abuses the notion of “culture”. Equally, responses to the attacks should not involve trampling on and trashing the cultural rights of others.