Tag Archives: Nicolas Anelka

L’affaire Anelka draws towards a climax

Nicolas Anelka’s case to be heard next weekThe three-man independent regulatory panel’s hearing is expected to last several days. West Brom’s French striker faces a minimum five-match ban after being charged by the FA with performing an alleged anti-Semitic gesture during his club’s match against West Ham on December 28. The 34-year-old has denied the gesture was anti-Semitic and requested a personal hearing. I wrote a blog on L’affaire Anelka a few weeks ago. Now, as the case draws towards a climax, I reproduce it …

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It’s often assumed that people who are part of a group victimized by history are somehow immune from the bigotry that drives their assailants. A naive assumption, perhaps, but one with enough plausibility to make us think twice about accusing people who have been on the receiving end of racism of dishing it out. Of course, we don’t know whether Nicolas Anelka, the French footballer with parents from the Caribbean island Martinique, has ever experienced racism firsthand; but, as a black man, he would surely have been uncomfortably familiar with its effects in Europe and elsewhere. And, having played in England on-and-off since aged 17 (he signed for Arsenal in 1997), he would be aware that racism has been one of the most bedevilling problems in English and, for that matter, European football for several years. Yet he stands accused by the Football Association (FA) of an offence, which, if not exactly the same as racism, is certainly on the same continuum. In the unlikely event that some readers are not au fait with the Anelka affair, let me offer a brief summary: Anelka is a personal friend of a Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian who is also black and is notorious for what some believe is antisemitic humour. Last December, Anelka, playing for West Bromwich Albion, celebrated scoring a goal by making a a gesture in which he thrust out his right arm and tapped it with his left hand (see the photograph above). No one in England knew the meaning of the behaviour, but it soon came to light: it is called a quenelle and has been popularized by Dieudonné. The probability is that Anelka gestured to show his solidarity with his controversial friend, currently under pressure from French authorities. The Football Association has been sorely exercised for the past two years by the reappearance of racism in football and decided to investigate the possible meanings of Anelka’s signal.  After three weeks of deliberations, the FA charged Anelka with making a gesture that is “abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper.” We don’t yet know the full content of the accusation or Anelka’s apparent rebuttal, but it seems fair to conclude that Anelka will resist any claims that he intended to make a sign that would be offensive to anyone, including Jews, and he was signalling a more common attitude of defiance against authority, or what many people call the establishment.

“The object Dieudonné’s satire is an Establishment dominated, as he sees it, by Jews, who have secured positions of power and insulated themselves against criticism

Before we go further, let’s pause to consider this term establishment. It typically takes a capital E and refers to a group in society exercising power and influence of matters of policy, or even taste, and seen as resisting change. The concept of an Establishment was popular in the 1960s when a rebellious spirit coursed through society, leaving no aspect of life unchanged. Figures such as Martin Luther King (1929-68), James Dean (1931-55), Che Guevera (1928-67) could all, in very different ways, be described as anti-Establishment. Dieudonné would presumably align himself with comedians like Lenny Bruce (1925-66) and Bill Hicks (1961-94), both of whom achieved a kind of infamy. But the object Dieudonné’s satire is an Establishment dominated, as he sees it, by Jews, who have secured positions of power and insulated themselves against criticism. This is not a worldview derived from conspiracy theories, though it’s not totally inconsistent with theories, such as those promulgated by the Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion, an monstrously spurious document that purported to reveal a plan for world domination. Anelka has followed Dieudonné in rejecting accusations of antisemitism, by which he presumably means he has no hostility towards Jews. Dieudonné is, on his own account, critical of Zionism, which was originally a political movement, launched in 1897, for the establishment and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel. It’s predicated on a distinct Jewish identity and culture and, in some versions, opposes integration. Its critics interpret this exclusivity as a form of racism. So the complexities of the Anelka case multiply: a black man is accused of issuing a gesture that may be antisemitic, but which he claims is anti-Establishment. On closer examination, the Establishment he opposes appears to be a particular arrangement rather than the more generic society.  Anelka has used Facebook to defend himself, marshalling the support of prominent Jewish leaders to argue the quenelle is not an antisemitic gesture and that he didn’t intend them to be interpreted as such.

“Very few people own up to being antisemitic, anti-Islam, anti-Arab or anti-anything

My fellow member of  the British Sociological Association’s Race & Ethnicity Study Group/Forum Leon Moosavi, of the University of Liverpool, accepts this and points out that the gesture is not imbued with what he calls a “coherent meaning.” It’s a fair point. But gestures, signs and symbols can acquire coherence if they are used in a particular way and, however ambiguous the gesture might have been, there is no denying the quenelle has been used outside synagogues, at Auschwitz, in front of the Jewish school where Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah killed three children, by signs for rue du Four (Oven Street) and rue des Juifs (Jews’ Street) and in front of the trains that transported French Jews to the concentration camps. Even in the improbable event that Anelka was not aware of the antisemitic connotations of the sign, is his intention a defence? Forum member Brendan McGeever, a doctoral candidate at University of Glasgow, thinks that, while intent should be considered, the reception of signs, representations and so on is just as if not more important. Author Tom Wengraf is even more dismissive of Anelka’s stated intentions because very few people own up to being antisemitic, anti-Islam, anti-Arab or anti-anything. But that “doesn’t mean that we can’t claim (with good evidence)  that they are, despite their occasionally sincere words.” Deeds are more powerful than words in this instance, reckons Wengraf. Aaron Winter, of the University of Abertay, points out that, while the term anti-Establishment historically has associations with rebelliousness and insurgency and sounds progressive, even revolutionary, the term has “floated to the right.” In other words, the term is vulnerable to hijacking by groups that have far-from revolutionary agendas. Criticism can be easily absorbed and turned into evidence. So groups that believe powerful minorities control society have a tendency to explain attacks against their own views as proof of the validity of those views; so there is a kind of self-corroborating logic at work. Anelka is not the first prominent black figure to be involved in an incident like this. In 1986, US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (1941-), who had campainged alongside Martin Luther King, was embarrassed after making offensive remarks that purportedly poked fun at Jews. Al Sharpton (1954-) has had to defend himself several times against accusations of antitsemitism. Louis Farrakhan (1933-), the Black Muslim leader, became notorious in 1984 when he spoke of Judaism as “a dirty religion.” Anelka himself converted to Islam in 2004 and bears the Islamic name Abdul Salam Bilal Anelka, though he has no known affiliation with Farrakhan’s organization.

“Issues of race, religion, culture and multiple prejudices will be addressed

Kick It Out chairman Lord Ouseley has criticised both the FA and West Bromwich Albion for their lack of quick action. The club perhaps might have asked Anelka to clarify his intentions in public, but has otherwise acted properly in refusing to react in a way that could have prejudiced subsequent investigations. And the FA has sensibly taken time to gather evidence and seek advice before deciding to charge Anelka. This is a much more complicated case than those that ended in the punishment of John Terry and Luis Suárez. It is a tangle of thorns; many people will get spiked.  If — as we expect — Anelka is fined and suspended for eight or more games (Suárez was banned for eight games and fined £40,000), he will likely appeal and implicate the FA in an unseemly legal conflict that is sure to outlast Anelka’s stay at his present club. The conflict will be forced to address issues of race, religion, culture and multiple prejudices.