Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Islamophobia: a response to Leigh Phillips

Well, it's certainly been a while since I've posted anything but since I still have this blog thing in my name it seemed a better place to post something longer than just on facebook. There has been a lot of debate about the terrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo and what it means from the point of view of why it happened, the character of Charlie Hebdo itself (was it racist or not) and how to characterize the movement. What has been interesting has been how bifurcated the response has been from the English-speaking left. Some have wanted to claim that the murders were an attack on our freedoms by people who hate us for them. Others have claimed that this has to be seen as part of a bigger picture involving racism in France and imperialism in the Middle East, in which France is implicated directly and indirectly. I'm of the latter camp.

This is specifically a response to Leigh Phillips, a Canadian socialist and journalist who is appalled at the response of people like myself. You can read it here.

Firstly, I applaud Leigh on the effort he has put into defending his position. This is important to work out because it shapes how we respond. Nonetheless, I strongly disagree with his argument for the reasons I detail below. I want to deal with them as follows: the character of Charlie Hebdo, the character of the terrorist reaction, the nature of opposition to the dominant narrative about the attack and, finally, some strategic thoughts. First, let's start with a quote regarding a specific cartoon from Charlie Hebdo, below, that he brings up in his piece.

In response to people who have raised concerns about the cartoon offending the cultural sensitivities of Muslims, he writes: "To my mind, if there's anything homophobic going on here, it's the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals." But this is a mis-reading of why the cartoon is problematic. It's not that Muslims who are homophobic ought to be challenged on their homophobia, which they should be. The problem is the suggestion that the real obstacle to gay rights is Muslims - when the campaign in France against gay marriage was not led by Islamists, it was led by white, Catholic French people.

This speaks to a general dismissal of concerns that Charlie Hebdo had a penchant for publishing cartoons meant to insult the oppressed Muslim community of France and was part of a pattern of Islamophobia. Leigh, and other commentators, want to claim that these aren't racist at all and that it's just the "Anglo left" not understanding French humour or the context. As he writes: "Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended." But is that what is going on here?

First of all it is simply not true that accusations of racism are limited to anglo leftists, there have been plenty of critiques from Arab Muslims and they have been penned by French progressive journalists, including a former journalist from Charlie Hebdo itself, who worked on the magazine for almost a decade. Not that the spurious attempt at cultural relativism applies in any case - the publishing of the Danish Prophet cartoon, the racist portrayal of Muslim women in the veil, is there to see and no amount of "you don't know the context" can explain this away. Below is a Charlie cartoon mocking women who wear the veil and the response by Olivier Cyran, available on the Leninology blog by Richard Seymour.

It is this drawing by Catherine that comes to my mind, but I could point to so many others amid the torrents of Islamophobic sewage that you others, producers of humour inflated by the winds of fashion, flush from your tanks every week. That drawing accompanied a pseudo-investigation into “sex jihadists” in Syria. This “scoop”, we learned a little while later - it’s true that it seemed plausible on first reading - was a tissue of stupidities belched out for propaganda purposes. Let’s note that you haven’t even taken this mess off your website; apparently, some subjects lend themselves better than others to retraction.When you’re laughing at veiled women, you can let yourself go, allow yourself some confusion between exciting yet weakly-sourced information, and barracks-room banter.

But I’m not writing to talk about good taste; rather, about this country which you’ve made a nastier place to live in. A country which now forbids a woman to work in a crèche on the basis that the piece of cloth she wears will traumatise the kids. Or a tertiary student, wearing a bandanna judged to be too wide, is excluded from her college with the blessings of a UMP [conservative - trans.] mayor, the socialist Minister of Education, and the rabid press. Where you’re hard-pressed to find a café counter or a table of literary notables which, without a moment’s notice, won’t erupt in the kind of joke which, at “Charlie”, makes you soil yourselves laughing on deadline day. Where every woman who covers her hair is considered the vanguard of a fifth column, to the extent that she’s forbidden to participate in a school outing or to do volunteer work to feed the homeless.

I know that, in your eyes, these vigorous measures are crucial for the survival of the Republic and of secularism. Recently, you found it useful to publish an interview with your lawyer, Richard Malka, the valiant defender of Clearstream [a corporation infamous for tax evasion - trans.], of Dominique Strauss-Kahn [politician arrested for attempted rape - trans.] and of the spirit of the Enlightenment. “The veil is the annihilation, the burial of the Republican trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, your mouthpiece declared as if at a Toastmasters’ meeting for vacuum-cleaner salesmen. He would first have to explain to us for whom this famous trinity has any real meaning, and for whose profit, but let’s move on. What he’s hammering into your readers’ heads, though they’re already fully instructed on the subject, is that a few square centimetres of cotton, perhaps mixed with polyester, threaten to spread the plague across our beautiful country. That the veil is so dangerously infected that it’s not wise to waste any time worrying about the person who wears it.

And he continues later on:

The obsessive pounding on Muslims to which your weekly has devoted itself for more than a decade has had very real effects. It has powerfully contributed to popularising, among “left-wing” opinion, the idea that Islam is a major “problem” in French society. That belittling Muslims is no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but a “right to offend” which is sanctified by secularism, the Republic, by “co-existence”. And even - let’s not be stingy with the alibis! - by the rights of women. It’s widely believed today that the exclusion of a veiled girl is a sign, not of stupid discrimination, but of solid, respectable feminism, which consists of pestering those whom one claims to be liberating...

Speaking of which, we could say a lot about the sleazy aspect of your motivations. The euphoria with which Charlie Hebdo welcomed the topless activists of FEMEN suggests that the grease of Islamophobia blends perfectly with a splattering of testosterone. The ode of Bernard Maris to Amina Sboui, a Tunisian FEMEN-ist who posed topless on the Internet, offers a good example of the hormonal muck dripping off your pages: “Show your breasts, Amina, show your genitals to all those bearded retards who hang around on porno sites, to all the desert pigs who preach morality at home and pay for escorts in foreign palaces, and dream of seeing you stoned to death after raping you... Your nude body is of an absolute purity, compared to their jellabas and repugnant niqabs”. Paging Dr Freud...

Nor is Olivier Cyran alone in his criticisms. The editor of Le Monde Diplomatique has also penned a short, critical history of Charlie for al Araby al-Jadeed titled "From anti-colonialism towards Islamophobia". He points to the fact that publisher Phillipe Val, who relaunched the magazine in 1992 ended up supporting NATOs war in Kosovo, and not supporting the Palestinians after the Second Intifada. This represented the shift to attacking Islam that went much further than just poking fun.

One example, of many others, of this Islamophobia was the 2006 publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark. It was in March of that year that Philippe Val, along with Bernard-Henri Lévy, Caroline Fourest and Antoine Sfeir signed The Twelve’s Manifesto: standing together against the new totalitarianism, published in L’Express. It stated that, “after having conquered fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world faces a new, totalitarian global threat: Islamism. We, writers, journalists and intellectuals call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunities and secularism for everyone.”

Nor is it useful to point to CH's origins in the radicalization of 1968, almost fifty years ago. Things have changed a lot since in then - at the publication and in French society. Frankly, other than as a point of historical interest, this fact is utterly irrelevant. To put it at its most extreme: Mussolini started out on the left of the Italian Socialist Party. Similarly, the reference to historical examples of anti-clericalism. First of all, the Bolsheviks supported Sharia in Muslim majority nations within the old Russian empire. And in Latin America Catholic priests were often in the forefront of struggles against oppression. They were in the central leadership of the FSLN in Nicaragua during the revolution. The reformism of the current Argentinean pope, for instance, isn't an accident. Things change and people change. And sometimes religion is an ally and sometimes it is the enemy. Context is everything.

But the question of Charlie Hebdo's politics is really only significant in that we are expected to demonstrate solidarity not only with the victims themselves but to also support the political message of the newspaper itself. We don't need to think that they were fascist or a "racist magazine" to not want to provide support for their Islamophobic cartoons or the Islamophobic use to which it is being used by the mainstream press. Too many are using this tragedy as an excuse to print cartoons that can only be viewed as racist outside of their context (accepting the argument that their original intention was as a meta-commentary on French racism, etc). Of more significance is the analysis of the meaning of the attack and the political response to it.


First the idea that this is about identity politics vs free speech is just plain nonsense. It is precisely about, in part, the question of freedom of expression. Where is the real threat to freedom of expression - is it Islamists in France or is it the French state. Since the French state has, in the last ten years banned the hijab in public schools and public sector jobs, banned the niqab and burqa (which applies to a vanishingly tiny percentage of the population and is really just an exercise in Islamophobia, as it was in Canada when the Tories did the same at voting booths), banned sidewalk prayer while Muslims were systematically prevented from opening new mosques, banned protests against the Mohammad cartoon in 2006 and protests against Israel's murderous assault on Gaza, the idea that it is Muslim fundamentalists threatening French republican freedoms is obscene, especially now as the French state rounds up dozens of people for the crime of "apology for terrorism." Would providing context for the attacks constitute an apology for terrorism? Do we believe in banning free speech in order to protect free speech?

In fact, what is shockingly missing from Leigh's analysis is a single mention of the conditions of the Muslim French population. There is no discussion of the concrete experience of racism in France, which predominantly affects people whose origins lie in Muslim majority countries. Not only the laws, which reinforce social exclusion, but also the poverty, the discrimination in jobs and housing, the conditions in the banlieues, the differentiation in government spending in these areas, etc. etc. To again return to Cyran:

On the political level, its influence is zero: six million Muslims in our country, none of whom are members of the National Assembly. For a parliamentarian, it’s safer to plead the case of commercial lawyers and to pass laws making veiled women invisible than to worry about eruptions of Islamophobic violence. Nor is there a single Muslim among media owners, information officers, heavyweights among employers, big bankers, important editors or union big-wigs.

Of more importance to an analysis of how the left should respond is related to the point made above about the real threat to freedom of speech on the one hand and an analysis of the origins of a kind of Islamist fundamentalism that believes in terrorist attacks on civilians. There is a spurious argument in the article that goes: "To reduce these murderers to automatons responding to military interventions in Iraq (a war France did not participate in) or Mali actually erases subaltern agency and thus is its own species of 'noble savage racism. Historically, anti-imperialist Arab resistance was primarily secular and socialist, not Islamist."

This is wrong both logically and historically. The defeat of secular forms of resistance from nationalism to Communism in the Arab world have historical roots, from co-optation (Egypt et al) to outright defeat (Iran viz Mossadegh). Pakistani Islamism was sponsored by Britain as a counterweight to Ghandi's (problematic) Indian nationalism. Islamism's rise has to be understood not as an "automaton" response but one historical and social response amongst many. One look at the Egyptian revolution reveals all of the possible permutations of response that arise from a population in crisis - some of those were forms of Islamism. Just as in Egypt or Ireland (or Africa or China or...) or other places, the oppressed - precisely because they aren't automatons - respond in different ways depending on a multitude of factors. Even within Islamism there are many strategic and political responses - from the Marxist Islamism of Dr. Ali Shariati prior to the Iranian revolution to al Qaeda, which was inextricably linked to US-Saudi imperialism. That is why in some circumstances socialists work with Islamists. As the British Marxist Chris Harman wrote in an excellent analysis back in the 90s - "with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never." Even with the example of the terrible Islamist attack on the military-run Pakistani school, we can't understand this attack - certainly not as a clash of civilizations - without understanding the specificity of the Pakistani military offensive in the tribal areas and the anger and tragedy and destruction that it has caused. That is not to justify that attack but to place it in the context of a contained civil war. Incidentally this relates directly to Charlie Hebdo. When the secular Egyptian coup slaughtered hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood Islamists, Charlie didn't mock the pretensions of our Egyptian allies (and recipients of massive aid) for their brutal hypocrisy, they instead mocked the murdered activists. I'm not sure if, in that instance, it makes them racists but it definitely makes them assholes.

Further, pointing to support from journalists and cartoonists in Muslim majority countries does nothing to advance our understanding either of the attack or its meaning. France is not Saudi Arabia or even Yemen or Iran where the character of the struggle is different, the balance of forces viz certain forms of Islamism, etc. are different. And this is actually important because Saudia Arabia is a key prop for western imperialism, a counter-revolutionary force during the Arab Spring and a prop for the most reactionary Islamism in the world. The USA backed Saudi Arabia in its creation of the most conservative opposition possible to the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. It did likewise viz Syria and Libya. It was happy to have the House of Saud undermine the Egyptian revolution. Wahabbism, like Zionism, is a key element in western imperialism's hegemony in the Middle East. Opposing that form of Islamism within Muslim majority countries is part of the struggle against US and western imperialism. But we aren't in those countries, are we? Our job is to point the finger at our own governments.

Back to the Anglo world, the attempt to link this to censorship or identity politics on the left in western countries is simply wrong-headed. I do agree that the retreat of the movements in the west, the failure of Occupy to break through, etc. has led to a certain turning inward in many places. I have seen this online and off - splits, infighting, accusations of a personal nature. But the reaction to this tragedy has largely not reflected that. If anything there are as many "identitarians" who have supported attacks on "reactionary Islam" as have resisted it. And the biggest reducer of free speech remains the state and its allies, with opponents of the Gaza conflict finding their university positions eliminated or speaking engagements canceled. Again, it's worth re-stating that nobody has opposed freedom of expression. The concern is that this was rooted in imperialism and a limitation of freedom of expression and a suppression of rights of the Muslim population of France - and an acceleration of that for the rest of us as well in the days following, with an expansion of the security state.

Finally, what is lacking is a sort of "what is to be done" in the face of the tragedy and the subsequent mobilizations in France. There are no millions on the streets in the UK, Canada, Australia or the USA. That implies strongly that the reaction of the left must be different. The same holds in sections of the Middle East - what would leftists say in Egypt where the regime emphasizes that it is attacking MB terrorism? How about in Bahrain or Iran? Were I in France I would probably have been on the protests and handing out leaflets with an independent position that emphasized what needs to be done to defend freedom of speech (like opposing a crackdown) - eliminating restrictions and discrimination against the Muslim population. But in the English speaking world the emphasis ought quite rightly to be against Islamophobia, imperialism and any hypocritical attempt to use this as an excuse to expand the security state, which is what some on the left have done. And that includes opposition to idealizing CH precisely because it has been used to pretend this is just about blasphemy, not racism. Just like after 9/11, aiding the idea that Islamism or Islam is the biggest threat or that the reason for these attacks was "hatred of our freedoms" a la George Bush, only feeds into the racism and xenophobia of our rulers and our state. We can do better than that.
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