Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people are taking to the streets in France and elsewhere in Europe and North America to protest the brutal murderous attacks by Islamist extremists on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket in Paris.
At Charlie Hebdo, the death toll of 12 included the paper’s editor and some of its major cartoonists; a further 23 staff members were wounded. Several more were murdered at the Jewish grocery store.
The unifying slogan of these protests is “Je suis Charlie!” I am Charlie, the implication being that the targeted publication — notorious in France for its ridicule of minority religious beliefs, especially Islam — had merely been exercising its right to “freedom of expression.”
That is the theme being propagated by the establishment media and politicians. Many on the left have chimed in. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says it was a “terrible attack against democracy and freedom of the press.” Québec solidaire leader Amir Khadir, speaking for the party, said it was a “black day for free speech.”
There is indeed a great tradition in France of caricature journalism famous for its acidic commentary on contemporary political issues. An early exemplary was Honoré Daumier. His 19th century satire targeted “the foibles of the bourgeoisie, the corruption of the law and the incompetence of a blundering government. Garguanta, his caricature of the king [Louis Philippe] led to Daumier’s imprisonment for six months….” (Wikipedia) Daumier targeted the rich and powerful, and sympathized with the poor and oppressed.
So also the 20th century revolutionary left employed cartoon satire with devastating effect. Here is one of my favourite posters from the early Soviet Union:
Lenin cleanses the earth of priests, potentates and plutocrats. No confusion there as to the appropriate targets.
Not so Charlie Hebdo. Although many classify it as on “the left,” it targeted Muslims, who make up almost 10% of France’s population but 60% of its prison inmates — about the same percentage of prisoners as that of Canada’s indigenous peoples. France’s “Muslims” — more accurately, immigrants from North and West Africa and their descendants for the most part, since many do not practice the Muslim religion — are among the most oppressed, packed in poor housing in the banlieue (suburbs) of Paris and other major cities. Many are unemployed; almost all suffer discrimination based on racial identity and religion.
And today a major far-right party, the National Front, polls 20% or more and has elected mayors in many towns and cities. The Front campaigns against French residents of immigrant origin; its militants are often involved in racist violence.
Freedom of expression? But there is content, and there are consequences. An excellent statement by the French Jewish Union for Peace explains the context:
To express the least indulgence or understanding for those who kill cartoonists or the murder of people because of their ideas is insane.
But Charlie Hebdo conducted a political battle. And to hide or obscure the context in which it published its cartoons was a part of its political battle.
Can we imagine cartoons in progressive newspapers criticizing the Jewish religion in the 1930s, during the rise of anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews?…
How could the criticism of religions abstract from the relationship between the dominant and the dominated? This criticism of religions occurs in a context, at a political moment that is not at all neutral toward Muslims. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and articles… have been part of the development of Islamophobia in France. The development of scorn and racism toward all Muslims, of the laws to protect ‘French-style secularism’ against them, of the mosques that are attacked, the physical assaults against people ‘who look Muslim.’ For years now they have been made the scapegoats for the economic and social crisis….
Free speech as an abstraction is a liberal concept. Liberal public opinion claims its ideas are universal when in fact they are not, notes a commentator in The Islamic Monthly.
The liberalism of Charlie Hebdo is absolutely contemptuous of the French Muslim underclass, the disenfranchised dark-skinned immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and other parts of North and West Africa who came to France to work for the most part because the native French population no longer reproduces at a positive rate. If this were America, Charlie Hebdo would be a newspaper publishing blackface cartoons that ridicule, denigrate and otherwise disparage the black underclass of the inner city for being violent, drug addicted criminals. The free speech defended by Charlie Hebdo is not the free speech of everyone, it is the free speech as defined and codified by liberal sensibilities rooted in the European enlightenment and espoused by an elite, largely white intellectual class. It is only free for those who believe in what liberalism defines as sacred. The rest of us must choose to either accept this paradigm and let go of our own sense of what is sacred, or be ostracized, ridiculed or worse for rejecting it….
And he adds:
To be fair, not all liberals revel in the excess of Charlie Hebdo. But at liberalism’s core is a widely held belief that should anyone express a value in accord with liberal sensibilities, they are in fact adopting liberal values. This need not be the case, people can have values of kindness, compassion and mercy without coming in contact with European liberalism. When Malala Yousafzai advocates for girls education, it need not necessarily demonstrate her embrace of liberal values. It could indicate that her own traditions have led her to that thought, irrespective of whether Nick Kristof can trace her realization back to Locke or Rousseau.
Imperialist war and its discontents
Organized public mourning like the “Je suis Charlie” actions has now become a standard response when a vast public, caught unawares by a tragic event the causes of which it does not fully understand, is easily manipulated on the basis of raw emotion. There was an early manifestation in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers. But why is the number identifying with this Islamophobic French journal so much greater — with the notable exception of the mass protests on the eve of Bush’s 2003 assault on Iraq — than the number of those who have demonstrated against imperialist war since the beginning of the War on Terror? Are we still so ignorant of the national and global roots of such atrocities?
In a remarkable article, Canadian Muslim Monia Mazigh explains that context. Herself of Tunisian origin, Dr. Mazigh (she has a PhD from McGill University) is well-known for her courageous battle to free her husband Maher Arar from the torture dungeons of Syria, which had jailed him on the basis of false claims by the RCMP that he was a “terrorist.” She writes:
Without giving any reason or excuse for the use of violence against journalists — which is not acceptable under any circumstances — one should remember that France is at war in many Islamic countries: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Mali… Even if the human costs of these wars are not always clear to the French masses, as civilian casualties are not always reported in the headlines, there is a lot of resentment within the local population with regard to these policies. This resentment travels very well within the French Muslim community.
Moreover, France has a heavy colonial, racist and violent past with Muslim countries like Algeria, for instance (one can only state here the assassination and torture campaign against Algerian dissidents). The large wounds of the Algerian war of liberation — a struggle that ended costing Algerians a million lives — never healed, even more than half a century later.
Serious as they are, the crimes of the Parisian Islamist assassins pale in comparison with those of global imperialism, not just French but American, Canadian and all the others. Suffice it to mention the genocide of the American indigenous peoples, the wars of colonial conquest and occupation, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Holocaust and the bombing of Dresden. Or the millions of dead produced in the inter-imperialist World War I, the “war to end all war,” its centenary celebrated with such enthusiasm by the Canadian government.
Mazigh notes as well the hypocrisy in the official claims that Canada and its Western allies defend freedom of expression. “When Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents that implicated the United States and its allies in many scandals, the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ was completely rejected by these governments. Many journalists in the U.S., and even some in Canada, sided with their governments and were not sympathetic to his plight.”
A clash of civilizations?
After the deadly Paris attack, writes Monia Mazigh, “many cartoonists reduced the event to a confrontation between an armed, bearded jihadist and a pen. A simple representation, yet it is both powerful and misleading,” she notes.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush and many like-minded politicians and media outlets confined the attacks to a fight between evil (the ‘Islamic terrorists’) and good (the United States and its allies), or between the free world (led by the United States) and oppression (led by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban).
When Bush famously proclaimed ‘you are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,’ he truly believed that he had received a divine message to liberate Muslim countries from oppression. He consequently built all of his political and war strategies around this sort of ‘prophecy.’
Meanwhile, all the dissident voices that denounced this dangerous war were silenced, labelled anti-patriots, and accused of siding with the extremists (remember the ‘Taliban Jack’ label satirically attributed to the late Jack Layton by the Harper government).
The jihadist-pen confrontation has been depicted by countless cartoonists in recent days. A particularly egregious example was a cartoon published in an Australian daily. Here it is:
Get it?, asks Corey Oakley in Red Flag, the newspaper of Socialist Alternative. “In the face of a medieval ideology that only understands the language of the gun, the West — the heroic, Enlightenment-inspired West — responds by reaffirming its commitment to resist barbarism with the weapons of ideas and freedom of expression.
Reality could not be more at odds with this ludicrous narrative.
For the last decade and a half the United States, backed to varying degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.
It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.
To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that bore the brunt of ‘shock and awe’ bombing in Iraq; to those whose bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib; to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western ‘civilisation’ fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
Is religion the problem?
Again, I turn to Monia Mazigh for a point overlooked by many other commentators on the Paris events. At “the heart of the issue,” she writes, is “the powerful concept of secularism, used so well by many French politicians as a political tool to justify controversial policies.” She notes the alienation of many French Muslims as a result of government bans on the hijab or veil, or other clothing, worn by many Muslim women, girls attending public schools being a primary target.
Those who argue against such laws are “mocked as defending the oppression of women and obscurantism.”
This is in effect an attack on a particular expression of speech, the right to the public expression of an individual’s religious belief. The French prohibition is a legislated example of its “clash of civilizations,” a pretext for the marginalization of all Muslims. As a result, “freedom of expression, a noble concept, came to be perceived by many marginalized French Muslim youth as an empty slogan used by the powerful elite to justify the silencing of Muslims and to allow the right-wing to bash Muslims at will. This in turn created a feeling of victimhood among many disfranchised youth.”
Although Mazigh does not mention it, Canada has its own versions of this “clash of civilizations” mentality, in Quebec’s case a reflection in part of the influence of French republicanism and its particular concept of laïcité or secularism. The Charest Liberal government introduced a bill that would require Muslim women or others who wear face coverings to remove them if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials. The bill, had it been enacted, would have limited some women’s access to government programs such as medicare.
Although that legislation, Bill 94, was not adopted, the later Parti québécois government introduced a “Charter of Quebec Values” that reproduced the main provisions of Bill 94 and went considerably further. Although not adopted before the April 2014 election, the bill proved highly divisive and is generally considered to have played a major role in the PQ government’s defeat.
This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The repressive “war on terror” feeds on such exclusion and divisive approaches. Already, Harper is promising — no, threatening — further security laws that will restrict our freedoms in the name of… freedom of expression. In Europe the rise of the right-wing parties is fueled above all by anti-immigrant feeling, which often first takes the form of restrictions on freedom of religious expression.
Long ago a young Karl Marx, struggling to understand why so many conceived the world in religious terms, concluded that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” What did he mean by that?
For Marx, religion was “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man,” of those who had not yet found their place in the world as members of society, recognized by the state. It was “an inverted consciousness of the world, … the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” It was a struggle to restore humans to their essence as self-acting self-conscious makers of their destiny in harmony with nature.
Religion, said Marx, “is the opium of the people.” This is often misinterpreted as meaning that Marx thought religious belief was simply an illusion that could be dispelled through fighting religion itself. But that is to miss the meaning of the words that introduced that expression: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The opium of the people…. We know that “the war on drugs” is exactly the wrong way to go about eliminating drug addiction. Instead, we advocate for social measures that can eliminate the poverty and oppression that produce such abuse, and we express our solidarity with its victims through social and medical programs that can help them navigate a way out of their predicament.
Can’t the same approach apply to the religion of the oppressed of our societies? Put aside our unease with the ideological representations that divide us and focus on the social measures, the solidaristic strategy that alone can create the material basis for overcoming religious illusion.
Above all, we must not allow ourselves to make the same mistake made by the Charlie Hebdo assassins — identifying the source of their oppression with its ideological representation, not its material, class basis. And allowing ourselves to be coopted into demonstrations of solidarity with their oppressers in the name of “freedom of expression” or other trite phrases stripped of their social context.
In 1968, when France was immersed in the largest general strike of its history, a government official dismissed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student movement that had sparked the strike, as “a German Jew.” The students responded by marching en masse through the streets of Paris shouting “We are all German Jews.” A valuable historical precedent, all too often forgotten today.
Je suis Charlie? No, today we are all Muslims.
This essay originally appeared on Richard Fidler’s blog, Life on the Left.