Before the War Came Home

Millions of people from the colonies
Were living in the far-away cities
Home of those who killed their country
Who tried for over a century
To bring Jesus back to Africa
From Mali to Algeria
And they fired into the protesters
Dumped them in the rivers
There were lots of folks getting along
Lots of folks feeling they’d been wronged
In the crowded Paris streets
In the patrol car’s back seats
In the land of the catechism
In the land of secularism
Where the learned taught the learning
Where the cars were sometimes burning
Before the war came home

There was rising real estate
Fear of the Caliphate
No question what it meant
When Le Pen got 25%
Fighter jets in flight
Lighting up the night
More enemies were made
When the armies of the west invaded
There were lots of talking heads
Quoting something someone said
There were blasphemous cartoons
Pouring salt upon the wounds
More countries to attack
Now Syria, now Iraq
Fighters returning
Who had seen the cities burning
Before the war came home

There were people in the cafes
Having meetings, drinking au laits
There were tourists in the tower
There were girls picking flowers
There were Muslims praying
There were others saying
This is a secular nation
No room for religious demonstration
There were people talking about blowback
There were occasional attacks
There were many people asking
What kind of beer was brewing
There were ringing church bells
And Al-Qaeda sleeper cells
Passersby without a clue
What those masked men were about to do
Before the war came home

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“Before the War Came Home” appears on the CD and Bandcamp album, The Other Side (2015).

I wrote this a day or two after the deadly attack on the offices of the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France on 7 January, 2015. The song will appear on the 2015 album, The Other Side.

I wanted to try to unpack, to some extent, a horrible, complicated and very divisive thing — the massacre of 12 people, most of them cartoonists. Most sensible people condemned the attacks. But then the opinions differed widely, including among people who would identify as progressives. For many, the attacks became an opportunity to condemn Islam, and anyone who would dare be offended by something so pacific as a cartoon. The Muslims are intolerant, the line goes. The Christians don’t bomb newspapers that make fun of Jesus, after all. (No, they bomb women’s clinics in the US and make child soldiers kill their parents in Uganda. But those aren’t the Christians the Islamaphobes are referring to.)

But there is a history here. France has a very ugly colonial history. The French empire, and the French crusaders before France became a colonial power, have killed a lot of Muslims and others over the centuries. Stolen a lot of countries, subjugated, enslaved, and massacred a lot of people. And now any visitor to Paris can easily see the second-class nature of the existence that many people of color have. The more run-down, crowded neighborhoods, the racist police.

In a situation like that, is insulting the prophet of the religion of a colonized, subjugated minority similar to insulting the prophet of the dominant (Christianity or secularism, take your pick) religion? Most people in the US don’t say the “n” word in public, and I don’t hear anybody complaining that this is infringing their freedom of expression in any serious way. Is it any different for cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo to have to work around their desire to depict the Prophet Mohammed? No. It isn’t.

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