Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo staff

I lived near where the attack took place and, as an avid reader of Charlie Hebdo during my five years there, I felt sick in the stomach when I heard the news today coming out of Paris writes Dave Kellaway. Two of the slain cartoonists, Cabu and Wolinski , were very familiar to me and their pieces were picked up and used by the left and progressive publications all the time. They were justly recognised as some of the most talented and original satirical cartoonists not just in France but internationally.

WolinskiThe magazine has always been very secular. It is a trenchant critic of all religions and any other beliefs they wanted to poke fun at. After the May 68 events it became very popular indeed. In subsequent decades its fortunes and circulation went up and down. It became less clearly aligned on the left but could still be defined as progressive insofar as its main targets were bourgeois politicians and reactionary ideologies. The magazine defended women’s’ rights while some of its portrayal of women was controversial. It courted danger the moment it maintained a position of supporting the right of a Danish magazine to publish satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. There was a bomb attack in 2011 and frequent threats. Its current issue has a front page on the newly published book ‘Soumission’ by Michel Houllebecq which is provocative and reactionary, stoking up fears of an Islamisation of France. Some critics see Charlie Hebdo’s principled defence of total secularism slipping into a stimulus to a certain islamophobia.

Already on Facebook and elsewhere some left wing people are using similar arguments to the ones we heard around the time of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses i.e. that the magazine sort of had it coming to it for its virulent secularism and its supposed Islamophobia. Even if you accepted that there was a degree of Islamophobia or at least an accommodation to those people promoting it, there is still no justification for such extreme violence to be unleashed on it. These people were journalists and cartoonists using images and words, they carried no guns and they lampooned the Catholic Church mercilessly too.

People have to accept that these currents of Islamist terrorism – like the ISIS – are not just constructs of imperialism whose actions are primarily consequences of it. They have a distinct, autonomous history that goes back to the Wahhabi tradition in Saudi Arabia and intersects with the theocratic notions of the Iranian regime. Yes, the legacy of imperialism provides fertile conditions for their growth but political actors have choices. Before Khomeini the dominant focus of people fighting for change and against imperialism was Nasserist and Marxist – exemplified by the PLO currents at the time of Arafat. Imperialism was just as strong and aggressive then as it is now.

CabuNeither should the old maxim of ‘the main enemy is at home’ blind us to the necessity of politically confronting the crimes against humanity of these Islamist currents. Indeed, our chances of building support for a socialist alternative to Labour depends partly on us having credible positions on these sorts of issues. Mealy mouthed formulations, ‘excuses’ or justifications just make it even more difficult to win people to our ideas.

Clearly these terrible events will be grist to the mill of the growing Islamophobic fervour being cultivated by right wing and fascist forces in Europe. We have seen the actions of groups in Dresden, in France around the Front National, in Italy with Salvini’s Northern League and in the UK with Farage’s UKIP. No doubt the mainstream media will amplify all these reactionary responses to the events.

Consequently, people who believe in defending democratic rights have to condemn both these Islamist terrorists and the role of imperialist terror too. Socialists should work with all forces who want to develop an anti-racist coalition to stop attempts to use these events to further build anti-Islamic hysteria. A communique released by the New Anti-capitalist Party in France expresses these ideas very coherently.

  1. I agree with this statement in the article: ‘Even if you accepted that there was a degree of Islamophobia or at least an accommodation to those people promoting it, there is still no justification for such extreme violence to be unleashed on it.’ However the context of this appalling atrocity in Paris also has to be taken into account. You are talking of a country that has banned the wearing of the veil in public places; a country where Islamaphobia is rife, with Le Pen’s FN high in the polls; a Europe where thousands of people in Germany are demonstrating against the so-called ‘Islamification’ of Western civilisation, etc. So I don’t accept the inevitable right of ‘freedom of expression’, even in cartoon form, without taking into account the consequences of siding with those who oppose the right of Muslims to live without fear of racist attack, whether by individuals or by the state.

  2. “Even if you accepted that there was a degree of Islamophobia or at least an accommodation to those people promoting it, there is still no justification for such extreme violence to be unleashed on it.”

    I don’t believe in choosing violence, no matter what. So rationally while I sit relaxed behind my desk I agree with your conclusion (although people are usually not at their most rational when they make those decisions).

    But as to the first clause, we’re really not talking about “a degree” of Islamophobia, and it’s really not up for debate. For example, at this link is a cover of CH which followed the military coup of Egypt in July 2013 after which thousands of demonstrating Islamists were killed and wounded by the army:

    The captions call the Koran “shit” and helpfully point out that it does not stop bullets. One of those is, presumably, the punch line.

    CH has been publishing this sort of thing regularly for years. On the receiving end of it, this is understandably taken as not just subtly racist, but as vile, deeply offensive hate speech.

    While free speech and the ability to criticize are important to me, I also see some situational ethics and double standards being applied right now. If someone came up to me on the street and mocked the recent violent deaths of people in my identity group, etc, and did this consistently over time with lots of other people witnessing it, at some point that humiliation and the constant pushing on me that it represents are going to change me, and I am probably going to lose my cool and punch them in the face.

    In my own cultural context, I would probably get a round of applause for doing so. This is really some very basic and understandable tribal/playground social self regulation that we are talking about. Again, I’m not saying killing people is OK. It’s not, obviously. But let’s not pretend that there is no relationship between cause and action, or that we categorically would never cross the same line of violence in response to speech ourselves albeit to a lesser degree.

  3. The Paris Massacre January 7, 2015
    The cold-blooded massacre of 12 people was a deeply shocking, reprehensible and horrible massacre of journalists and employees of Charlie Weekly. The misguided killers have committed the most despicable crime in the name of a great religious figure.
    But countless millions of ordinary, peace-loving and hard-working Muslims around the word have nothing to do with these criminals and murderers. There is also the danger of inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions because many neo-Nazis, political extremists and right-wingers in Europe will use the tragic killings to stir hatred against Muslim communities living in European countries, put the blame on Muslims and provoke people against them.
    Let’s hope and pray that all people with religious and non-religious affiliations and identities stand united and condemn the Paris murders and uphold the banner of freedom of expression and speech for all, everywhere. No religious maniacs, hoodlums or murderers should be allowed to dictate and impose their barbaric views on free and secular people and societies.

  4. Statement by the
    New Anticapitalist Party
    (Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, NPA

    “An act of barbaric and reactionary madness”
    “The attack on the headquarters of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo causes indignation and anger at such indiscriminate and deadly violence perpetrated against journalists and employees.
    It aims to spread terror against freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in the name of reactionary and obscurantist prejudices.

    We have often had the opportunity to engage, debate and even argue with designers and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, with whom we have had common struggles .
    The NPA address its solidarity with the relatives and families of the victims, its journalists and employees.

    But we will not seek national unity with the sorcerer’s apprentices who play with racism, fanning hatred against Muslims , foreigners, or use of this case to set up new draconian laws . They bear a heavy responsibility in the xenophobic and poisonous atmosphere that we know today .
    Both are enemies of democracy , freedom , enemies of the workers, the working classes , the enemies of a world of solidarity.”
    NPA Montreuil , January 7, 2015

  5. Although I signalled in the article the shift of CH from the 70s to its more recent obsessions with Islamic fundamentalism based on its radical secualrism it is clear that certain cartoons go beyond offensive satire of religious or political ideas and cross the line into a form of islamophobia. There should have been a stronger sentence on that shift. The example given above in relation to the muslim brotherhood and the koran of merde is a case in point. There is another one, of the supposed wives of Boko Haram in Nigeria shouting for their welfare allocations which I think is worse. These should be criticised. However there are others, including the famous mohammed ones which I think are more debatable. They do not target identifiable muslim people living in the here and now like the two examples above. Nevertheless if we on the left polemicise against these portrayals do we then declare the whole magazine utterly racist and call for protests against it (or its closure?). As far as I know no left group or progressive force in France has done this – of course they could all be infected by islamophobia – but I think that suggests the situation is more nuanced. Certainly there are many cartoons against the catholic or Jewish religion too. There is a distinction between condemning certain cartoons and calling for restrictions on free speech. Personally I have thought the no platform position for fascists (often extended to racists) leads to all sorts of problems. For me the crucial question is whether there is a clear link between CH and an incitement to racial violence. Nobody has made a convincing case for that. Where offence ends and incitement starts is a very difficult area to define.

    I also think some people on the left are:
    a) reducing all the actions and activity of the islamist terrorist currents to a mechanical consequence of the imperialist wars and intervention. They thereby take away the conscious political choices these currents have made and their continuity with the centuries old ‘purifying’ radical islam tradition, originating in Saudi. I mean imperialist intervention does not just lead to this choice. If it is just imperialism the specific political condemnation of these groups politics is seen as a far less important task that denoucing imperialism
    b) linked to this is a downplaying of the democratic rights/freedom of speech element in the events. Threats to the muslim communities are counterposed to the free speech issue and made overwhelmingly more important. The group involved certainly saw it as an issue about whether the CH people could express themselves and they said they had ‘murdered CH’ and avenged the prophet. It is no joke for journalists or satirists or their publications when they have to limit what they have to say because there has been a murderous attack. we have seen with ISIS in Iraq Syria and Kurdistan that they eliminate all democratic rights. So taking this issue up is also highly relevant within the muslim communities. It is silly to sort of weigh up the importance of racism and democratic rights in a balance and just choose one side. Islamist terrorists do not want these sorts of debates.
    c) seen the demonstrations in France as immediately part of glorifying of liberal democracy and somehow insufficient because they are not straightaway attacking Le Pen or denouncing potential racial attacks. They also define the Je suis Charlie slogan as a capitulation to accepting the islamophobia that does exist in some cartoons in the magazine. A lot of those people demonstrating are probably unaware of all the contents of the magazine and they are identifying with dead journalists rather than the publication as such. It seems that such a concern on defending democratic rights among ordinary french people is a gain for working people if there are future circumstances where a rightwing government , maybe led by Marine le Pen, restricts democratic rights.

  6. Hi Steve, sorry to have not replied to your point earlier. I deliberately inserted the word ‘sort’ of before the idea of CH had it coming because clearly no one has actually said directly that they had it coming. If i were writing it now i would rephrase it further to avoid false debates. However there have been posts – e.g. Richard Seymour – that has simply defined CH as racist and others talk of a racist institution and call for it to be shut down. Now I have seen at least one cartoon – the one with the Baka Horam hostages in veiled muslim dress shrieking where are our allocs (welfare benefits) which is unacceptable because it goes beyond satirising ISIS type Islam to making a link with racist stereotypes of Muslim communities living in the here and now. Other people such as Cinzia Arruzza have mentioned the one about Egypt where the massacre of the Brotherhood is ‘satirized’ by a muslim holding a koran to ‘stop’bullets but instead he says is shit cos it doesnt. To me that goes across the line since you are talking about people who have just been murdered. Apart from that I have looked at the cartoons available and they are offensive to Islam and all the other religions altho it is true Islam features more as a target. They would argue they clearly identify the fundamentalist wing but it is not always clear. Nearly all the other targets are bourgeois politicians and the FN and Marine le Pen against her racism and in favour of migrants and their rights. So although their are problems with a few of their cartoons I would hesitate to define it as racist or even responsible for stirring up islamophobia. However many people here (not so much in France which has followed it more) have accepted the argument that is islamophobic. There is a lot more to say but havent got time now.

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