The racist backlash against France’s Muslims

January 12, 2015

Leaders of the world's most powerful governments claimed to march for "unity" in Paris--but they actually stand for racism and repression, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

THE JANUARY 7 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine by men claiming to be Islamic militants has fueled an anti-Muslim backlash in France, with political leaders the world over trying to use this horrific act of violence to further a xenophobic and repressive agenda--all while claiming to stand for "unity" and "peace."

More than a dozen attacks directed at Muslims were reported around France within 24 hours of the massacre at the magazine, in which 10 journalists, cartoonists and other workers were killed, along with two police officers. Examples of the anti-Muslim violence included three training grenades thrown at a mosque in the city of Le Mans, gunshots fired at a mosque in Port-la-Nouvelle, and a boar's head and entrails left outside an Islamic prayer center in Corsica with a note reading: "Next time it will be one of your heads."

There is a target on the backs of Muslims, in France and around Europe, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo--and the far right is moving quickly to try to exploit the fear that followed the attack to expand the audience for its vile racism.

François Hollande stands for a moment of silence at police headquarters in Paris
François Hollande stands for a moment of silence at police headquarters in Paris

This cynical scheming couldn't be more different than the deeply felt expressions of sympathy that began within hours of the killings on January 7 with huge gatherings in Paris and elsewhere, and that continued after more people died in hostage incidents in the following days. On Sunday, millions of people gathered in Paris' Place de la République.

But any sentiment in opposition to violence, any opposition to the scapegoating of Muslims, any concerns about civil liberties, whether for a free press or freedom of religion--none of that meant a thing to the political leaders who marched at the front of "unity" demonstration on January 11.

Their "unity" was around exploiting the shocked grief and sympathy of millions of people in France and around the world to further their own ends--most obviously, continuing and escalating the worldwide "war on terror," which is now synonymous with a war on Muslims, in Europe, in the U.S., in the Middle East and around the globe.

CALLING THE gathering in the name of "national unity," President François Hollande, the leader of France's misnamed Socialist Party, stood beside right-wing former President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with a Who's Who of world leaders who have an interest in demonizing Islam and promoting empire--among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the lead-up to the big rally, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls made the Hollande government's goal clear: "It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity."

For these reactionaries and war criminals, the tragedy in Paris is an opportunity to turn up the heat in the never-ending "war on terror," along with the racism and repression that goes along with it.

By several accounts, however, these attitudes weren't universal among those who marched on Sunday. There were French flags and the slogan "Je suis Charlie," adopted by many without regard to the notoriously Islamophobic cartoons published by the magazine. But socialist John Mullen reported that the slogan "I am Jewish, Muslim, Christian" also appeared on many signs, whiles others held placards stating "I am Ahmed," after the French Muslim police officer who was killed.

Mireille Bournaud told a New York Times reporter that she feared a backlash against Muslims. "We reject any conflation between Arab Muslims and terrorists. My daughter will marry a Muslim man in a month, and I don't want him to suffer from this confusion."

In response to the Hollande government's cynical attempt to funnel people's sorrow and outrage into support for war and repression, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) criticized the call for a "united" demonstration in a statement titled "After the dreadful attack on Charlie Hebdo, national unity is a trap: Let's unite for democracy and solidarity against racism":

There is a huge danger that we will see a surge of racism and Islamophobia. We've already seen anti-Muslim activity such as attacks against mosques and people. We must resist this without making any concessions. More than ever, we must fight against all forms of stigmatization of communities and every sort of discrimination. We must also reject all measures which give more power to the security services or restrict civil liberties...

[The mainstream French parties, along with the far-right National Front] are all trying to conceal their responsibility for the social and political deterioration and the noxious climate in which we are living. While pretending otherwise, they are cultivating a xenophobic and racist atmosphere, fear of foreigners and people who are different. It is a breeding ground for hatred. They want to divide working people and subordinate them to their politics and to their social order, which causes the barbarism they claim to oppose. The epitome of cynicism is Marine Le Pen, whose main business is xenophobia and targeting immigrants and foreigners.

This murderous violence comes from somewhere. It's created in the heart of the social and moral violence, which is very familiar to large numbers of the young people who live on the working class estates. It's the violence of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and the violence of unemployment and exploitation. This barbarous violence is the monstrous child of the social war that the right and the left are waging in the service of finance.

On top of this, there are the wars they have started against Iraq, in Afghanistan, Libya, Africa and Syria. There is also the decades-long war against the Palestinian people. These are wars, the only purpose of which is to maintain the dominance of the multinationals and their right to plunder, while empowering the most reactionary fundamentalists. This barbarous military violence creates another sort of barbarous violence.

There is no answer to the social decomposition, of which the crime against Charlie Hebdo is a dramatic expression, unless we fight the politics which make it possible.

THE REALITY is that neither the French government nor the world leaders who came to Paris last weekend are seeking unity. On the contrary, they are trying to sow divisions that will help them stay in place and protect the status quo.

Naturally, the French government increased its already heavy police presence in the days following the Charlie Hebdo attack, convening a security summit just before the Sunday march that brought together intelligence and law enforcement officials from across Europe and North America. The U.S. government's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, was there--and he announced White House plans for holding an international Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

Could there be any greater hypocrisy than the U.S. government--accurately criticized by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world"--holding an international conference to counter violence? When it comes to both arsenals of high-tech weaponry and the willingness to use them, no country even comes close to the United States.

While the leaders of the "free world" decry the killings in Paris as an assault on free speech, their measures in response to Charlie Hebdo murders will mean more surveillance, more police powers, more money diverted from social services--and fewer and fewer civil liberties.

The preparations for greater violence and greater repression will be carried out in the name of protecting us from violence. Meanwhile, the rhetoric used to justify that violence and repression will give a green light to greater racism and violence against Muslims.

Political leaders from Hollande to Sarkozy to Eric Holder all claim that they are not targeting all Muslims, but only "radical Islam." Yet the pressure is on Muslims themselves to prove themselves innocent of any such associations, since they are presumed guilty.

What's more, as a statement by the International Socialist Organization pointed out, referring to self-identified Islamist "radicals," "[T]hese reactionaries have only gained strength as a result of the endless wars waged by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim countries. And the Islamophobia pushed not only by far-right organizations, but the political mainstream, including the center left, only produces more bitterness toward the governments of the world's most powerful countries."

We know all this ahead of time because of the experience following the September 11 attacks. The U.S. "war on terror" has reduced the Middle East to a seething mess of sectarian conflict and deadly violence, all so the rulers of America could maintain control over the world's main source of oil. Meanwhile, inside post-9/11 America, Arabs and Muslims face daily suspicion, routine state harassment and all-too-frequent vigilante violence.

We have to expose the attempts by world leaders to manipulate the terrible killings in Paris to advance their own ambitions, and use the strongest weapons we have to defeat them: solidarity and unity. Not the false unity of Hollande and Sarkozy and the leaders of the "free world," but the unity and solidarity of working people everywhere with Muslims and every victim of persecution and oppression who bears the brunt of the global war on terror.

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