Resisting the tide of racism and repression

January 14, 2015

Alan Maass and Todd Chretien reply on some of the debates about the Paris murders.

SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG is publishing a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, and we wanted to respond to a commentary by Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady ("No tolerance for Islamophobia") that was critical of an International Socialist Organization statement published by SW ("Don't let this horror be used to stoke bigotry").

We want to start by listing some of the many points of agreement we have with Sofia and Wael:

The murders are being used by French and other Western leaders to unleash a "Racist backlash against France's Muslims," as the headline of an SW article this week put it. This takes place in the context of the worsening scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims for the economic and social crisis in Europe. The backlash is intended to silence dissent, further marginalize the oppressed, and build support for repression and war.

The media and political establishment's claim to be champions of free speech is hypocritical and designed to cover for an agenda that curtails democracy, not defends it.

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During the "war on terror" era of the 2000s and since, Charlie Hebdo has become best known for publishing Islamophobic cartoons and other material. They are inexcusable. The claim that the magazine was merely satirizing this religion like all others cannot be accepted when the satire used the vile racist stereotypes of the right to contribute to the us-versus-them mentality that underlies the "war on terror" and a reactionary social agenda.

These common starting points are critical to the urgently needed left-wing response to the tide of patriotism and reaction, familiar to us from the experience following the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Like then, the horror of the murders carried out by three men who identified as militant Islamists has given the French ruling class the perfect opportunity to--in the name of opposing violence and intolerance--demand support for imperialist wars abroad, attacks on immigrants and citizens alike who are Muslim or of Arab descent, and the strengthening of the French state in the interest of the rich.

What else to read readers are debating the response of the left to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. The discussion began with an International Socialist Organization statement titled "Don't let this horror be used to stoke bigotry."

Further contributions include:

Aaron Hess
Real and vicious Islamophobia

Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady
No tolerance for Islamophobia

Alan Maass and Todd Chretien
Resisting the tide of racism and repression

Keith Rosenthal
How far does free speech go?

Mike Friedman, Mike Healy and Daniel Factor
Views on Paris in brief

Don Lash
Who do we trust with our rights?

Joe Allen
Free speech and the state

Joel Reinstein
Is free speech the issue?

All the contributors to the exchange agree on the need to challenge this right-wing tide. What's more, so do Arab, Muslim and immigrant community and political groups in France, as well as revolutionary socialists and other radicals. The "space for solidarity," as feminist and socialist activist Cinzia Aruuzza aptly called it, must be defended--it is heartening to know that it is.

We think the ISO statement was based on the common starting points listed above, and we hope Sofia and Wael agree, even if they believe it should have had different emphases. But we wanted to highlight those areas of agreement first, before taking up those where we think their criticisms are misplaced.

FIRST, WE don't think that combatting anti-Muslim oppression should be seen as contradictory to defending the right of free expression. On the contrary, the latter is indispensable for the former to succeed.

To begin with, threats to free speech and press freedom--whether in the form of pressure and censorship or outright violence--should not be minimized in today's world. The drug barons of Mexico and the security services of Pakistan target journalists alongside independent popular and working-class movements. Guardian columnist Gary Younge was right to raise this in relation to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

Clearly, this was an attack on free speech. Despite the bold statements of the past week any cartoonist will now think more than twice before drawing the kind of pictures for which Charlie Hebdo became notorious. This principle should be unequivocally defended. It should also be honestly defined.

Younge's final sentence is important. We do not in any way stand with political leaders who package further repression against Arabs and Muslims, including restrictions on free expression, as a defense of "liberty." We reject the idea that, as George W. Bush infamously put it, "They hate us for our freedoms." Every word in that sentence drips with racism and hypocrisy. Our rulers' rhetoric about free speech and freedom of the press obscures their aim to restrict it for anyone who challenges their agenda. Socialists have a very different vision of freedom.

Sofia and Wael suggest that we should seek to "BAN racism like Charlie Hebdo's from being published through legitimate means, such as political organizing and public pressure." But bans have to be administered. Sofia and Wael acknowledge this when they propose "organizing for laws protecting Muslims from hate speech [which] can and should be a part of a broader fight against Islamophobia and racism."

Socialists in the ISO's political tradition have opposed such laws. While we sympathize with the anti-racist sentiments that lead people to propose them, in practice, they accomplish the opposite. They strengthen the hand of the state or institutions that uphold a system based on oppression--and the consequence, again and again, is that laws against hate speech are used against the oppressed.

Just last year in the U.S., a Palestinian American academic, Stephen Salaita, was fired from his new position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his blunt criticism of Israel on social media--administrators claimed his tweets in opposition to the war on Gaza were "uncivil." Meanwhile, in France, the government is prosecuting rapper Saïdou and left-wing sociologist Said Bouamama for their 2010 book and album Fuck France: The Duty to Be Insolent--a title taken from graffiti slogans during the youth revolts of the recent past.

Perhaps most telling of all, during the Israeli onslaught against Gaza last summer, the Socialist Party government banned pro-Palestine demonstrations, supposedly because they would incite hatred. There was no ban on Islamophobia, of course. Radicals defied the government's prohibition and proudly stood for free speech and against Islamophobia.

Socialists must be champions of basic democratic freedoms, as well as the struggle to ensure that the most oppressed sections of society and the working class are able to enjoy them.

It is true that socialists specifically oppose free speech for fascists--or, put more concretely, we refuse to allow fascists the freedom to express their agenda unchallenged because their speech is aimed at destroying the right to free speech for those they seek to exterminate.

Fascist organizations seek to build a mass movement that uses physical violence against its opponents. Thus, challenging the "free speech" of Nazis is a form of self-defense for the oppressed and the working class. But even so, we rely on mass mobilizations to confront the fascists--we don't call on the state to ban the Nazis because, again, history teaches us that such bans are used, more often than not, against the left.

Outside of this specific circumstance, however, we depend on freedom of expression to ensure that backward ideas are challenged. We want to win people away from those ideas by criticizing, polemicizing, debating and protesting. Free speech doesn't negate criticism of the likes of Charlie Hebdo--it makes it possible and absolutely necessary.

The capitalist state is predisposed to restrict or eliminate basic rights for the oppressed and the working class. We, on the other hand, want to expand these freedoms to more effectively challenge oppression and exploitation politically. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, we want to "win the battle of democracy." The Russian revolutionary Lenin expanded on the point:

The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms...We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.

While capitalism exists, these demands--all of them--can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then, in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses, and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms.

Lenin's case is that socialists need to combine the fight for multiple democratic rights in order to expand our side's ability to struggle. This may be complicated in practical terms--like when the objects of our protest cloaks themselves in claims of free speech--but it is a necessary component of socialist strategy.

THE RACIST and Islamophobic cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published have overshadowed and compromised a history of the magazine generally challenging authority and oppression in many forms.

Charlie Hebdo is a product of the French left, emerging from the mass struggles of 1968. Before the current era, it was probably best known as a relentless opponent of the far-right National Front, and particularly its leaders, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen.

Despite its growing obsession with Islam, the magazine's critique of the right continued. The last issue of Charlie Hebdo before the January 7 attack satirized the anti-Muslim ravings of Michel Houellebecq and his prediction of France being taken over by sharia law by 2022.

It's important to know this history to understand why Charlie Hebdo is still generally considered to be on the left in France, and why so many people feel solidarity with it as a champion of dissent, rather than a purveyor of bigotry.

Some of this is a political weakness in not recognizing and opposing Islamophobic caricatures. But there is also the fact that Charlie Hebdo's left-wing cartoons and articles "were picked up and used by the left and progressive publications all the time," Dave Kellaway wrote in an article at the Socialist Resistance website in Britain, and republished by last week.

We share many of the criticisms of Kellaway's article made by Sofia and Wael, and by Aaron Hess in a separate Readers' View ("Real and vicious Islamophobia"). SW decided to publish this and other statements from the left--as we continue to do now--not because we endorse each point, but because they give a fuller picture of the issues at play. Kellaway's article helps show why Charlie Hebdo was viewed by the French left as a publication generally on its side, whatever their criticisms.

Take the cartoonist Cabu, one of the victims of the January 7 murders, who Kellaway singles out in his article. One collection of Cabu's cartoons collected in a post at the Daily Kos website shows how left-wing and anti-racist his work could be, even in recent years. One drawing stands out as particularly insightful: It shows two lines of people, one for those dissatisfied with the right-wing former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the other for those angry with current Socialist Party President François Hollande--with Marine Le Pen directing both lines toward the National Front.

So people on the left in France have some reason to remember Cabu and Charlie Hebdo with affection. But it must also be said that the same Cabu authored cartoons satirizing Islam--not the most racist ones, but drawings that critics are right to connect to the magazine's Islamophobia.

For example, Cabu drew the cover illustration for the 2006 issue in which Charlie Hebdo republished 12 cartoons from a Danish newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Mohammed. Muslims were rightly angered by those cartoons--their publication, despite strong protest, was a particularly cruel and humiliating event in a seemingly endless stream of abuse.

The wars in the Middle East and the scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs in Europe, like in the U.S., has an ideological accompaniment--of portraying Islam as uniquely violent, irrational and primitive. That is precisely the effect of the Danish cartoons and others that Charlie Hebdo produced in the years that followed. The claim that they are just satire can't be separated from this political content.

And that's not to mention the material in Charlie Hebdo that engaged in simple mockery of Muslims, not Islam as a religion--seemingly for the sole purpose of being provocative.

Charlie Hebdo's trajectory on this issue is an extreme expression of a weakness that plagues the left in many countries, including France. Some parts--not all--of the French left don't share our sharp critique of Charlie Hebdo.

Specifically, there is a long-running debate about how to understand what the French call laïcité, which can loosely be translated as secularism. The concept stems from the French Revolution of 1789 and the struggle to abolish the power of the Catholic Church in political affairs. To make a long story short, the problem is that this concept has morphed into a one-sided denunciation of all religions--which ignores how Islamophobia has become a critical part of the ideological justification for imperialism and repression.

This is a real disagreement, which the ISO and Socialist Worker have raised publicly over many years. However, it shouldn't be used as an excuse to draw a straight line between Charlie Hebdo and the French left as a whole.

It's one thing to argue that, from the ISO's point of view, elevating laïcité in all circumstances weakens the French left, particularly in its ability to challenge racism and Islamophobia directed at Muslims. It is another state that they are not committed anti-racists and anti-fascists at all.

At various times in the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people in France have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the National Front or the government's anti-immigrant policies--often mobilized by immigrant communities themselves to begin with, but with the support of the left and unions. That's not to speak of the immense class struggles--certainly the biggest in Europe until the 2008 economic crisis struck.

The political weakness on Islam is rooted in all of French society, not the left alone. There is popular support for the Islamophobic measures when they are couched in the name of "keeping religion out of French politics." Thus, the 2004 law passed in France against the hijab, or Islamic scarf, being worn in school actually prohibits "signs and dress that ostensibly denote the religious belonging of students." Islam isn't mentioned at all--though everyone knows who the law is aimed at.

There has been a struggle on the left over this issue. For example, Ilham Moussaid, a 21-year-old Muslim woman, describing herself as "feminist, secular and veiled," ran for European parliament in 2010 as a candidate of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA, by its initials in French). An argument broke out within the party over whether her choice to wear a scarf was a violation of laïcité. In the end, NPA leader and former presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot supported Moussaid's candidacy, and she did run. But later in the year, she resigned from the NPA.

This illustrates a very real political weakness, of course--but the story of the French left is not only weakness. This past summer, the party played a prominent role in organizing the protests to break the government ban on pro-Palestine demonstrations. In December, the NPA also helped sponsor a major conference in Paris under the title International Day Against Islamophobia, alongside 20 leftist, Muslim, immigrant and youth organizations.

As for Charlie Hebdo, the NPA has been a critic. In 2012, when the release of the vile racist film Innocence of Muslims led to international protests, most famously in Libya, the NPA denounced another provocative caricature from the magazine:

[A]s is its habit, Charlie Hebdo is perpetuating the imbecilic "clash of civilizations" idea. This is more than a blunder. The people--particularly the people who made the revolutions in Tunisia and Syria, the people who rose up for their emancipation--deserve better than this demagogic one-upsmanship.

The commitment to anti-racism will be important in the weeks ahead. France's right-wing parties haven't noticed the weakness of the left in not challenging Charlie Hebdo. Instead, they are engaged in a campaign to blame the left--along with, of course, the Muslim population as a whole--for the January 7 attack.

In the face of this and everything else that has happened in the last week, the French left has taken courageous stands. The anti-racist Parti des Indigènes de la République, Lutte Ouvrière and the NPA all refused to attend the national "unity" demonstration called by the French government on January 11. The Left Front attended, but organized a separate feeder march in an attempt to establish an alternative presence. The PIR and NPA statements explaining their decisions, republished or excerpted by SW, send a powerful message.

This is why we disagree with Sofia and Wael's statement that the French left is "making it easer" for "a united ruling class to silence debate and escalate the violence of imperialism and racism." On the contrary, the initial NPA statement we republished, written within hours of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, pledges to do the opposite:

[W]e will not be part of any national union with the sorcerer's apprentices, who play with racism, stir up hatred against foreigners and in particular Muslims, or make use of this event to introduce new repressive laws. They have a heavy responsibility for the xenophobic and poisonous climate in which we live today.

WE WANT to make one final point, though it isn't specifically at odds with what Sofia and Wael wrote.

It was clear within hours after the killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices that, like September 11 in the U.S., French leaders would exploit this horror to promote their agenda. It is absolutely right for socialists to be focused on stripping away the rhetoric and exposing this aim.

But we should also say more about the political attack that took place on January 7. It is important not only to denounce the murder of unarmed journalists, cartoonists and others, but to spell out why this is a disaster for Muslims specifically and anyone who wants to organize against hate and for social justice.

The killers at Charlie Hebdo and in the hostage situations afterward were self-identified militant Islamists who embrace a reactionary ideology. With their actions, they have handed the ruling class a gift--the justification to cloak itself, hypocritically, in the language of democracy and freedom, while pursuing an agenda that is the opposite.

It was important for the ISO statement to point this out, and not only the dire consequences to follow. The killings have made the job of the left--especially the immigrant, Arab and Muslim left--much harder. Thousands of people will stand in the crosshairs of the repression that inevitably follows such attacks--and that will have a hold on the French public, if the events of 9/11 are any indication, for at least months to come.

We sympathize with the victims of this violence, and their family and friends. We do not, however, stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Whatever its origins and its history, it failed on one of the most decisive social questions of today.

But we do stand in solidarity with the French left as it faces a wave of patriotism and bigotry--and we likewise commit ourselves to confronting repression, Islamophobia and injustice in the aftermath of January 7.

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