Is free speech the issue?

January 22, 2015

Joel Reinstein adds to the debate about how to respond after the Paris killings.

THE CHARLIE Hebdo killings in Paris have predictably resulted in a wave of Islamophobic bigotry, across both Europe and the United States. With major politicians and corporate news media exploiting the tragedy to aggressively promote Islamophobic ideas and a disturbing "national unity," the International Socialist Organization responded in ("Don't let this horror be used to stoke bigotry").

This statement generally asserted our longstanding opposition to Islamophobia. However, it was uncharacteristically equivocal in doing so, coming "dangerously close to repeating some of the dominant frameworks of the mainstream media," as ISO members Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady stated in a critical letter ("No tolerance for Islamophobia"). Arias and Elasady further were joined by Aaron Hess ("Real and vicious Islamophobia") in criticizing's decision to publish a statement by Dave Kellaway, of Britain's Socialist Resistance, which was unacceptably ambiguous on Charlie Hebdo's clear racism.

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Arias and Elasady also argued that socialists should, in some circumstances, pursue bans on hate speech. Discussion in has since centered around this question, and the ISO's long-held position that in the hands of the bourgeois state, bans on hate speech are usually perverted from their original purpose.

While this debate has been useful and warranted to a point, it's moved away from the crucial question in our response to the Paris killings. There's currently no risk of a ban on Islamophobic hate speech, in France or any other western country. On the contrary, as Alan Maass and Todd Chretien note in their defense of the ISO's statement ("Resisting the tide of racism and repression"), we agree that the killings have been followed by a dangerous backlash against French Muslims.

We're also agreed that the invocation of "free speech" by the political establishment and corporate media is hypocritical. But I would take this further, and argue that freedom of speech is not politically relevant here. Affirming freedom of speech in the context of Charlie Hebdo is unnecessary and politically confusing.

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?

In identifying the Paris killings as a threat to free speech, Maass and Chretien approvingly quote Guardian columnist Gary Younge, who writes that "any cartoonist will now think more than twice before drawing the kind of pictures for which Charlie Hebdo became notorious." Of course this is narrowly true, but then some cartoonists might not have previously thought even once about it: The Islamophobic backlash means there will be more racist caricatures, not less. Quoting Cinzia Arruza ("Is solidarity without identity possible?"): "[T]he repeated publication of vignettes caricaturizing Islamists by adopting religious symbols and stereotypical representations that by the same token identify 5 million oppressed people living in France was not an act of courage."

The Paris killings were not carried out by any state, nor by a right-wing group aligned in any sense with those in power. On the contrary, the speech for which Charlie Hebdo was targeted was in line with the racism of the political establishment, and the imperialism it promotes. While I generally agree with Maass and Chretien that "threats to free speech should not be minimized in today's world," it's a mistake for socialists to raise political concerns over isolated threats to racist speech--speech that's not threatened but largely endorsed by those in power, and that actually threatens the rights of an oppressed group.

MAASS AND Chretien also defend the decision to publish Dave Kellaway's article from Socialist Resistance, writing that they share many of the criticisms made against it, and that SW published it not to endorse every point it made, but to "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."

Certainly republishing an article is not an explicit endorsement, but the problems with Kellaway's piece were not trivial. As Arias and Elasady note, Kellaway fails to recognize Charlie Hebdo's clear Islamophobia and appears to defend the magazine's politics. Aaron Hess was right in identifying "vague slander aimed at those who've refused to ignore the very real and viciously bigoted treatment of Islam that regularly appeared in Charlie Hebdo in recent years."

Kellaway further repeats the line that the magazine "lampooned the Catholic Church mercilessly, too," which we all reject as acontextual apologism for bigotry. And then there's this:

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.

This reads to me as a partial justification for imperialism, one that obscures imperialism's history in crushing secular Arab resistance. In the context of an unwillingness to identify Charlie Hebdo's Islamophobia, it also seems to defend what we consider racialized attacks on Muslims. Endorsed or not, it didn't belong in SW.

Arias and Elasady write that "the ISO has a proud history of defending Arabs and Muslims against campus witch hunts, hate crimes, and FBI entrapment and prosecution," and that "we stood our ground when it was not the popular thing to do." This is true. Now, Islamophobia continues to grow in the U.S. and Europe, where it's accompanied by the rise of the far right. We should insist that there is no place for it on the left.

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