Zombie Catholicism

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Book Review: WHO IS CHARLIE?  Emmanuel Todd (Polity, 2015)

whoischarlieThe targeted killing of staff at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris took place on 7th January 2015 and on the 11th of the month a mass protest demonstration in the city attracted between 1.5 and 2 million people. The march had an impeccable pedigree, headed as it was by the likes of Angela Merkel, François Hollande, David Cameron, Jean-Claude Juncker, Nicholas Sarkozy and Donald Tusk. ‘I am Charlie’ became synonymous with ‘I am French’ and when the now state-subsidized satirical magazine was relaunched its cover showed Muhammad with a penis-shaped face and wearing a turban from which hung two round shapes like testicles. For protestors a pencil on a poster became a symbol of liberty, forgetting the way caricatures of Jews had been a stock part of Nazi anti-Semitism.

The people on the protest march did not represent a cross-section of French society: the less well-off from the suburbs, whatever religion they did or did not profess, were not on the streets of Paris; nor were the working class of provincial France well represented. It was a largely middle-class affair with its roots in the old Catholic substratum of France and not in the secularism of the country’s republicanism. Emmanuel Todd sees his country lying to itself, provoking the thought that Charlie is an impostor, and reminds readers that two years earlier Paris had witnessed another huge demonstration, between 340,000 and 800,000 people, protesting at the legalisation of homosexual marriages. Such large numbers did not characterise reactions to the spread of anti-Semitism in France that resulted in the killing of three Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012 or the killing by a French citizen of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014.

Religious beliefs and practices have dramatically declined in France, just as elsewhere across Europe, with the proportion of children born out of wedlock increasing from 5.5% in 1960 to 55% today and the numbers of practising Catholics falling from 33% to 6%. Such a change can destabilise the group psyche of regions where Catholicism was deeply rooted, creating metaphysical anxiety, and Todd’s term for the anthropological and social fallout from this is ‘zombie Catholicism’. Therapy involves finding an enemy, someone to blame:

 Islam fits the bill, both in our French suburbs, disorganized as they are by the crisis in advanced capitalism, and in Islam’s own countries of origin, which are overwhelmed by the crises brought on by their transition to modernity. Without ignoring the very real existence of Muslim fundamentalism or terrorism, we have to be able to admit that if the France of unbelievers is to regain its balance, it will need a scapegoat to replace its own Catholicism, which has become unusable.

Islam has to be demonized to bolster the faltering sense of identity in French, de-Christianized society and this helps explain why so many secular citizens marched as zombie Catholics in order to defend the right to ridicule a religious figure respected by only around 5% of France’s populations, a percentage that includes many of the poorest and most vulnerable members of that population.

Todd, a sociologist at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris, argues his case with a careful statistical analysis of who attended the protest march and from what regions of the country they belonged. Comparing the turnout from different cities and regions, he sees evidence that the populations of the Catholic periphery were far more likely to protest than those in longstanding secular conurbations and that this distribution correlates with a social class map of France. Regions in the west of the country, where the working class is not predominant and where the zombie Catholic syndrome is strongest, had the highest proportions of demonstrators. Todd finds statistical evidence for the existence of a social coalition – mixing the Catholic influence with managerial and liberal professions – that he labels ‘neo-republicanism’, its bedrock being those regions that most strongly resisted the establishment of the Republic in the first place.

Islamophobia is spreading across Europe. In 2012 there was an attempt in Germany to outlaw circumcision; hate crimes against Muslims in Britain has catapulted in recent years. Its genealogy is not just traceable to Catholic regions of the Eurozone – Bavaria, Baden, the Rhineland, Austria, the southern Netherlands, Flanders, Ireland, northern Italy, northwest Spain and the periphery of France – but also to zombie Protestantism in the north of the continent. Who is Charlie concludes with pertinent observations on Islamophobia, reasons for some young Muslims become jihadists and, on a hopeful note, how if Islam dissolved the antifeminism of Arab culture (and for Indonesia’s 250 million Muslims women have no such marginal role) it might become a positive force for egalitarianism. The alternative – a confrontation with Islam – will create further recruits to radical Islamism but Todd makes clear that an accommodation with Islam does not make any less absolute the right to blaspheme.

Who is Charlie? is an important little book, timely and pertinent, and not just for what it says about France. In all Western societies it is the middle classes who enjoy what globalization has created and it is the middle classes who would keep the dispossessed excluded by means of wage inequality and control of education. At the same time, no longer buttressed by the metaphysics of religion, an anxiety haunts the vacuum of the hollow culture that has replaced Catholicism and Protestantism. Charlie seeks a scapegoat, needs one, and the kind of hysteria that gripped France after the events of 7th January is capable of manifesting itself in countries outside of France.




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One Response

  1. Gabriel

    November 3, 2015 1:53 pm

    The penultimate sentence concludes, about French society, “…no longer buttressed by the metaphysics of religion, an anxiety haunts the vacuum of the hollow culture that has replaced Catholicism and Protestantism.” Is a similar ‘hollow culture’ replacing the deepening vacuum in Ireland? Is it a tabloid culture when the working classes mostly read the Sunday World and the ‘Oirish” versions of British redtops? When people become anxious in a post-christian agnostic society who or what do they turn to? Look at Netherlands, look at England, look at Norway, Denmark or Belgium. Do people turn left? I think of Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’ and some lines from his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, and I don’t feel optimistic about our current prospect.