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The issues after Charlie Hebdo’s and kosher supermarket’s islamist executions

mercredi 14 janvier 2015, par Yves

(Une version plus longue paraîtra bientôt en français. Cet article a été publié en anglais dans "Workers Liberty" l’hebdomaire de l’AWL et en néerlandais sur le site du groupe Doorbraak. Merci aux traducteurs !)

The issues after Charlie Hebdo

13 January, 2015
Author :
Yves Coleman

This article will not deal in detail with the facts about the two murderous attacks, on 7 January at the headquarters of the weekly Charlie Hebdo and on 9 January in a Parisian kosher supermarket, which have been widely explained in the media ; but with some of the problems and discussions inside the radical left and anarchist circles

Most of the left and the anarchist groups, in France, as in other countries, have adopted one of two opposite and wrong attitudes.

One part of the left sees “Islamophobia” everywhere. It has closed its eyes when it has faced antisemitism. That is shown by their reactions to the murder of Jewish school children and others by the Islamist Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in March 2012 [1] — and by their refusal to criticise religion (or, at least, refusal to criticise Islam, because these activists are always denouncing the American Tea Party and its... Protestant supporters ; and criticising the Jewish-orthodox colonialist movement in Israel, etc.)

This underestimation of antisemitism in France has been justified in the name of “anti-Zionism”. The refusal to criticise Islam has led some militants to present all religions as inherently progressive, or to defend the myths of Islamic feminism or liberation theology.

A famous anti-racist intellectual (Pierre Tevanian) has written a book denouncing “the hate of religion” supposedly propagated by the left, even falsifying quotations from Marx and Lenin to prove his point.

These groups or activists tend to present “Zionists” as a lobby which controls the French media and supports Sarkozy and Le Pen because “Zionists” are supposedly all anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, etc.

This deep political confusion inside the radical left led a party like the Trotskyist NPA to cooperate with pro-Islamist groups during the last murderous Israeli offensive against Gaza in July 2014, and it has had disastrous consequences.

Most left groups are unable to fight antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism at the same time. They are unable to criticise the conservative social and political role of all religions, including Islam. Therefore they have not been at ease to clearly denounce the Islamist murders in Paris without either overstressing the importance of “Islamophobia” — or overstressing the reactionary character of Islam (as if the three killers had anything in common with the millions of French Muslims [2]).

Thus, some on the French left have dealt with Islam as the workers’ movement dealt with Catholicism or Protestantism a century ago in Europe. They have presented believers as backward, ignorant, and stupid people. They have cited the examples of Islamist rule in Iran or Taliban rule in Afghanistan as the future awaiting us in Europe [3].

This has led some groups or individuals to support the anti-hijab law in France, and to make alliances with so-called secular groups or intellectuals who criticise Islam in the name of atheism or of the Enlightenment tradition but who, at the same time, express very dubious (not to say racist) feelings about Arabs and migrants.

These left groups or activists have rightly supported feminist movements in the Arabo-Muslim world and Islamic reformers, but refuse to criticise their very moderate political positions. In France, for example, several Muslim intellectuals who want to reform Islam were (or are) quite silent about Ben Ali’s dictatorship or the corrupt Moroccan monarchy.

What will be the immediate consequences of these attacks ?

The first immediate consequence has been a massive brainwashing operation by the government, politicians and mass media in favour of police efficiency, democracy, the virtues of the French Republic, freedom of expression, civilization and national unity.

The Socialist government called all French parties (except the National Front) to demonstrate together to “defend the Republic and democracy and to denounce terrorism” and numerous chiefs of State came on Sunday 11 January... just after a meeting of eleven European ministers of the interior to “fight terrorism”, by which they surely mean more limitations to the freedom of circulation in Europe.

Hundreds of thousands if not millions of marchers applauded the police, shouted “I’m a cop, I’m Charlie, I’m a Muslim”), sang the national anthem, and waved national flags.

President François Hollande and his government were very unpopular before these attacks, and they used these events to regain popularity. Public transport in Paris was free on Sunday 11 January... at least until 1.20pm.

The French Socialists, with the help of the right and far right, will try to impose new anti-terrorist laws.

These murderous attacks will be used by the National Front, who want to stop immigration and strip some recently-naturalised French people of their citizenship. This extremist populist party propagates racist ideas in the name of the “freedom of expression” and “secularism”.

The murders will also be used by intellectuals who claim that “Islam is incompatible with democracy”. Their essays and novels are quite popular for the moment in France, and they appear often on TV.

The murders will also be used by all those who don’t like “Arabs” and disguise their racism under the pretext of a fake defence of the “unique” French form of secularism.

In general these attacks may unfortunately contribute to dividing workers and unemployed in France along religious or “ethnic” lines, and to transforming French society into religious so-called “communities”.

What will be the impact of the governmental campaign for national unity and the media manipulation of fear and anxiety after the attacks ?

It’s too early to tell.

Nevertheless, if we look at past experience, such campaigns for national unity led by the Socialist Party have had no long-standing effect : the antiracist campaign “Don’t touch my pal” (which started in 1985) ; the campaign against the National Front after the profanation of Jewish tombs in Carpentras cemetery (1990) ; the French victory at the World Cup promoting the “Black/White/Arab” integration model (1998) ; and the anti Le Pen-campaign before the second round of the presidential election which led most of the Left to vote for... Jacques Chirac in 2002 - none of those mass mobilisations stopped the rise of the National Front.

In interviews outside mosques and schools, some Muslims were reluctant to support the freedom of expression of “Charlie Hebdo” even if they were absolutely horrified by the vile murders. “Do you think that having the same skin colour and same name as the killer of the kosher supermarket will help me find a job even if I marched for several days ?”, remarked a young Malian Muslim named Coulibaly.

This reluctance, although understandable, is not a good sign. It may be exaggerated by the media and politicians, but it was not denied by Muslim religious leaders.

If this is really a significant trend, it shows the left has so far not been able to make itself heard and understood by part of the Muslim youth, probably because its fight against institutional racism has not been consistent enough and its presence in working-class districts is too weak. It shows also that the necessary critique of all religions and defence of materialist atheism have to be renewed, rejuvenated, and based on a deeper understanding of how religions, and specifically Islam, shape the attitudes and values of their believers.

If not, if we let the ideological initiative to the ruling classes and their opinion-formers, future struggles will be impeded or at least slowed down by growing ethnic and religious divisions which will prevent common political battles by all the exploited against the ruling classes.

What have been the main slogans launched by the bourgeois parties, from the Socialist Party to the National Front ?

They have obviously promoted “national unity”. They have denounced “terrorism”, which is formally correct — but French elites can’t be trusted when they invite the Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or representatives from Qatar to the “Republican march” in Paris, when French businessmen massively sell weapons and military airplanes to all sorts of undemocratic regimes, and when French governments maintain in Africa.

Defending “freedom of expression” is a good slogan, but then it has to be explained (specially for all the millions of people who watch Dieudonné’s racist videos or applaud his shows) why prosecuting this antisemitic stand-up comedian or putting in jail a Holocaust denier like Vincent Raynouard is right.

I don’t defend the fascists’ freedom of expression. Let’s recall that even the US government, which lets fascists and Nazis publish and meet freely on its territory, criticised the French government because Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons depicting Muhammad which brought Danish journalists death threats in 2006.

“Freedom of expression” is not a miracle slogan.

"We are at war” is probably the most dangerous of all the concepts propagated in the public sphere. The word “war” is aimed to produce a total alignment of the population behind the State authorities and the leaders of the armed forces.

“We” certainly do not have the same agenda as the Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who wishes to “integrate people and transform them in soldiers of the Republic” !

“We” have not forgotten where the wars in Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, etc., have led us and who it has benefitted to. “We” know the barbaric acts which have accompanied all these wars and how Western armies killed millions of civilians and were not even able to install or restore bourgeois democracy.

We must fight this ideological offensive, whose main themes are shared by the “reformist” Left, the Conservative Right and the Far Right. Sunday’s demonstrations show that a long and difficult job lies ahead of us.

What is Charlie Hebdo ?

Charlie Hebdo is the heir of a monthly called Hara-Kiri, describing itself as “dumb and nasty”, created in 1960.

At the beginning, it mainly published satirical drawings and (vulgar) photos and photo-montages ; but then it published more and more “political” texts expressing various left sensibilities.

It violently denounced the French armed forces, popes, presidents, generals, CEO’s etc. It promoted ecology when being green was not trendy at all. It was anti-Stalinist (although some caricaturists also worked for the Stalinist press), very critical of social-democracy, and ferociously hostile to all the right-wing, conservative and fascist parties.

It has survived with difficulty since 1991 — after being shut down for ten years after 1981— even though it tripled its sales when it reproduced the Danish “Muhammad” cartoons in 2006 and when it produced a special anti-sharia issue (in 2011 when Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, was in power, and the adoption of sharia law was being discussed in Libya). After that issue, the magazine headquarters were burnt down. Charlie Hebdo had received many death threats before the 7 January killings.

It is absurd to say that Charlie Hebdo is a racist newspaper.

However, it has published more caricatures with an “Islamophobic” trend — while at the same time always defending migrant rights and denouncing all the nationalist propaganda of Sarkozy or the National Front. It has also been criticised and sued for being anti-semitic because it published anti-Zionist caricatures with dubious “jokes” about Jews (for example, one drawing of an orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier).

What’s special — and can be sometimes shocking — about Franco-French humour when it deals with religions and specially ethnic issues ?

There is an old tradition of Franco-French humor which uses racist stereotypes (for example a so-called “Arab” or “African” accent ; a specific body language ; popular words mainly used by young working class migrants, etc.) in order to ridicule these stereotypes and fight racism. Unfortunately good anti-racist intentions are not enough and the humour often misses its target.

This humour can be perceived as patronising by non Franco-French and is certainly disconnected from the reality and diversity of origins of France’s population today.

The Franco-French stand-up comedians who use this form of humour pretend they are “only joking” but at the same time they often want to deliver a humanist political message : no to racism. The coexistence of these two explanations is quite confusing for those who are not familiar with Franco-French humour.

Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and caricaturists have always practiced this humoUr without questioning its ambiguities. They thought they were right because they made fun of every institution and religion, and because they did not want to produce a serious political newspaper. The cartoonist Luz, one of the rare survivors from 7 January, says in a very interesting interview translated into English : “We work on details, specific points in correlation with French humour and our way of analysing things à la française” (bit.ly/luz-iv).

Some people think this Franco-French humour is a colonialist or neo-colonialist humour. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, at least, this accusation is false : they have been hostile to all French military interventions since the Algerian war. (One exception was the war in Kosova, but that created many internal problems.).

What has changed in the situation of Muslims in France ?

A process began more or less 30 years ago, between 1982 and 1984, when several minority strikes for dignity, and against sackings, occured in the automobile sector.

These migrant strikers asked, among other things, for prayer rooms inside their factories and were attacked as “Islamists” by the Socialist government... They were also physically attacked by some of their Franco-French workmates (organised in a scab trade union) who shouted “Arabs in the oven, Blacks in the Seine, we want to work !”

Today French and foreign Muslims living in France are not only car workers, street cleaners, or low-wage workers ; they are also doctors, lawyers, teachers, executives, etc. Today a significant fraction (at least 30%, certainly more than a million people) of Muslim migrants (foreigners with a stay permit, recently naturalised French and their children) want to practice their religion in normal conditions like any other believers.

They want their democratic rights to be respected in the public space. Their demands have faced many obstacles. In France it’s difficult for Muslims to find pieces of land to build mosques, or to buy buildings for that purpose. Physical attacks on Muslim women wearing the hijab (or the tiny minority wearing the burqa) and racist slogans painted on mosques and Muslim cemeteries are becoming more common.

Charlie Hebdo and, more broadly, many French left anti-racists have not fully understood the political implications of this new situation. They maintained the same anti-religious and anti-clerical credo which was prevalent in the early 20th century, inside the workers’ movement but also inside the bourgeois republican parties hostile to the Catholic Church.

They believed that they could (in the name of atheism and of a fully justified critique of all religions) treat believers of a relatively recent religion in France like Islam in the same way as believers of much older religions (Protestant and Catholics) who had painfully learned to stop fighting bloody religious wars and (to some extent) respect the separation between religion and state.

Muslims are more “touchy” than the other believers of other religions because all the media (not only Charlie Hebdo !) attack them all the time and because they are physically attacked in the streets and harassed by the cops, which never happens to Catholics or Protestants in France.

In addition, as we know, young people of African or North African origin, practising Muslims or simply “racially profiled” Muslims, are discriminated against at school, on the labour market, in the media and in social life.

It should not surprise us that reactions against institutional racism take different forms : traditional democratic protests against police violence and harassment ; involvement in left and right parties, local associations and trade unions — but also politico-religious forms : sympathy for the religious forces fighting Bashar Al-Assad, sympathy for the prosecuted Egyptian Muslim Brothers, for Hamas or Hezbollah, etc. ; religious forms (salafist separatism) ; and even, for a tiny handful, jihado-terrorist criminal actions.

The situation requires tact, intelligence and sensitivity. The use of a gritty, vulgar, provocative, blasphemous humor has had disastrous political effects in the recent years, especially after the “Muhammad cartoons” business in 2006. To the great misfortune of the Charlie Hebdo team, their jokes have also been well received by truly “Islamophobic” people (i.e. anti-Muslim racists) and extreme right-wingers.

If we don’t recognise this fact, we can’t understand why Marine Le Pen wanted so much her xenophobic and racist party to be accepted on the 11 January march and why, in many towns outside Paris, the National Front has participated in marches honouring the journalists of Charlie Hebdo...

A publication which always denounced them as fascists, and was sued several times by Le Pen and its lieutenants. A magazine which collected 350,000 signatures to ban the National Front !

1. Will the far left learn from the Toulouse murders ? (2012)

2. It’s worth noting that several hostages were saved in the kosher supermarket on 9 January by a Malian Muslim worker who hid them, escaped and... was handcuffed for 90 minutes by the cops when he escaped ! In 2011, this wise and brave young guy had led a struggle for his right to stay in France with the support of the RESF network.

3. I can’t find a better (worse) example to illustrate this attitude than Mansoor Hekmat’s Islam and De-Islamisation. This interview contains useful remarks but tends also to present Islam as the main danger in the world today, as a religion worse than all the others. “These people [living in ‘Islamic’ societies] like all others are yearning for freedom, equality and an end to discrimination, (...) the strongest characteristic of these people, despite all the pressures, is their desire for a western type of culture and lifestyle”. As if Western culture could offer “freedom, equality and end of discrimination” !