Salut! has become, more than anything, a repository for my articles in The National* and elsewhere, with occasional input from guest writers - Bill Taylor promises another of his exhilarating Not a Native New Yorker pieces soon - but less material that is exclusive to this site. You need only to look at the visits-to-site statistics to see why this is the case. Only when I pick a subject that has niche interest, and promote it accordingly, do the numbers encourage me to go beyond reproduction of published articles to a broader approach. This one, an instalment of my column about words dealing with one important aspect of the Paris attacks, speaks for itself ...
A snarling gunman, rifle by his side, clenches his left fist. “Me, I’m a true Muslim,” he declares. “Not at all,” a small boy replies, “just a true murderer.”
The simple imagery and words, conveying the profound truth of Islam’s rejection of terrorist self-justification, are found in one of a series of cartoons published by Mon Quotidien, a daily French newspaper for children, since ISIL’s Paris shootings and bombings.
The publication is one of three aimed at different age groups between six and 17. These newspapers – Le Petit Quotidien (for those aged six to 10), Mon Quotiden (10-14) and L’Actu (14-17) – have used many images and thousands of words to explain the horrific atrocities, and also the French values seen to be under attack.
It is a painful but necessary initiative. A desire to preserve the innocence of childhood is natural but even young minds need to be aware when terrible loss of life is inflicted, whether the victims are in France, Lebanon or other countries scarred by terrorism and war.
Among education and child psychology specialists, there is broad approval for adults talking to children about tragic events. Cool, measured terms are essential, the approach varied to take account of age and individual sensibilities. Sensationalist language and shocking pictures are to be avoided. The task is delicate whatever care is taken, but parents and teachers should realise that even small children will usually find out about major incidents.
“Do not assume your children live in a bubble where the radio, television, internet and playground do not exist,” says Francois Dufour, editor-in-chief of the newspapers. When he said children should be encouraged to pose their own questions, his young readers responded. Why are the terrorists targeting France? Why do they kill themselves, too? Is it normal to be afraid? Why does religion make people do horrible things?
Since France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, the final question in that condensed list is a tricky one.
A few Muslim parents have protested that Dufour’s coverage falls into the very trap it seeks to avoid. Being devout, they remind him, “doesn't make us terrorists”.
As it happens, Dufour agrees. “Do not confuse the religion of Muslims, the strict interpretations of its rules and a wish to impose your ideas by violence and terror,” he says. But he took the criticism to heart and encouraged young Muslims to share their thoughts and experiences.
The impact on these children is disheartening. Le Petit Quotidien quotes nine-year-old Ayman, understandably distressed when, on his first day back at school after November 13, some classmates treated him “like a terrorist”. His teacher wisely took time to lecture the class on the distinction between faith and violence.
Among 14 Muslim teenagers quoted by L’Actu, some raised discrimination and the feeling of being seen as worthless in French society – factors extremists happily exploit. In ensuring these views are also heard, the newspapers have performed a valuable service.
More than 600,000 people have downloaded online versions of the special editions. Printed copies have been sent to 140,000 subscribers and there is warm praise from teachers for keeping children properly informed, answering their perceptive questions and understanding their fears.
Cartoons have, of course, been known to cause real offence to Muslims. But in the gentle style of those selected for the children’s newspapers, strong messages are communicated with dignity.
On the front page of one issue of Mon Quotidien, two children are shown walking to school. The girl says: “The terrorists say they’re Muslims like us.” The boy corrects her: “Impossible. If they were Muslims, they wouldn’t be terrorists.”
* This is an instalment of my regular column about words which appears in The National, Abu Dhadi. My work for that newspaper - not all, but some of it - is reproduced with the editor's consent