No tolerance for Islamophobia

January 13, 2015

Sofia Arias and Wael Elasady, members of the Boston ISO and Portland ISO, raise their differences with the ISO's statement on the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

AS MEMBERS of the International Socialist Organization, we were disappointed with the statement put forward by the ISO on ("Don't let this horror be used to stoke bigotry"), as well as some of the responses of some sections of the European Left, which were chosen to be included.

While the ISO statement correctly condemns the massacre in Paris as well as rejecting the use of the murders to stoke Islamophobia, it drifts dangerously close to repeating some of the dominant frameworks of the mainstream media.

For example, the statement says, "There is no justification for this murderous assault on journalists and cartoonists, even if some of the content of their publication was highly offensive and provocative," which is absolutely right, but the statement then barely poses any challenge to the main tendency that developed in the aftermath of the massacre, which is not (except perhaps on Islamic extremist websites) a defense of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, but rather a veneration of the racist publication as an example of "heroic" and "enlightened" Western values in the face of Muslim intolerance.

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The statement goes on to say: "What is needed to combat anti-Muslim oppression in Europe, the U.S. and the West is a stronger international left that defends both the freedom to practice religion without state harassment, as well as the right to free expression."

While this statement is correct in abstract terms, in the concrete situation, it contains a contradiction. One cannot imagine that "anti-Muslim oppression" in Europe can be combated without challenging (obviously without murder) the very type of racism and bigotry published by Charles Hebdo, which is the same "free expression" that the statement says must also be defended.

Furthermore, after stating that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons mocked "Islam using vile racist stereotypes of the right," the statement seems to reverse course with the qualification "But Charlie Hebdo also mocks Christianity and other religions, along with other beliefs and political ideologies across the spectrum."

It is not clear why this line is even included in the statement, especially when this line of argument is used to justify and rationalize racism. There is simply no equivalent between mocking the Vatican and scapegoating Muslims and immigrants for cuts in the welfare state in a time of austerity. How can we talk about Charlie Hebdo's criticism of the Catholic Church in the same breath as the scapegoating of Europe's most oppressed people in a time of capitalist crisis and the growth of fascism?

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?

These problems seem to at least partly arise from importing into the statement the dominant liberal interpretation of "free expression," which has been repeated ad nauseam by the media and ruling-class politicians. Marxists do not take "free expression" or "free speech" to be an absolute principle above any other principle, including the safety of an oppressed section of the population.

That is to say, Charlie Hebdo journalists have the right to publish racist material without being murdered. We however, do not need to relinquish the right to challenge and in some circumstances even work to BAN racism like Charlie Hebdo's from being published through legitimate means, such as political organizing and public pressure.

To us, organizing for laws protecting Muslims from hate speech can and should be a part of a broader fight against Islamophobia and racism that needs to be taken up by those who advocate for justice. Thus, exposing some of what Charlie Hebdo publishes as hate speech and working to curb this type of "free expression" is exactly what is needed to "combat anti-Muslim bigotry" by the likes of the National Front party of the French far right.

On this point, the growth of the National Front, which is leading at the polls, and the prospect of a fascist being elected president, is surprisingly missing from our statement. In this context, "free expression" is not an abstract question. The stereotypes fomented by Charlie Hebdo threaten the rights, liberties and safety of Muslims in France and across Europe.

THE ISSUES with the ISO statement are only aggravated by the choice of statements chosen to be published, especially the article by Dave Kellaway, of the group Socialist Resistance in Britain. This article in particular reads as a defense of the politics of Charlie Hebdo, stating:

Two of the slain cartoonists, Cabu and Wolinski, were very familiar to me, and their pieces were picked up and used by the left and progressive publications all the time. They were justly recognized as some of the most talented and original satirical cartoonists, not just in France, but internationally.

The magazine has always been very secular. It is a trenchant critic of all religions and any other beliefs they wanted to poke fun at. After the May '68 events, it became very popular indeed. In subsequent decades, its fortunes and circulation went up and down. It became less clearly aligned on the left, but could still be defined as progressive insofar as its main targets were bourgeois politicians and reactionary ideologies.

The article musters little more than a neutral statement that "Some critics see Charlie Hebdo's principled defense of total secularism slipping into a simultaneous to a certain islamophobia." It may be worth reminding ourselves of some of Charlie Hebdo's work, which includes a vignette published on the cover of the paper the day after Sisi massacred over 500 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the image of a Brotherhood supporter holding a Koran, with bullets piercing the Koran, then his body, along with the subtitle, "The Koran is shit, it does not stop bullets."

Contrast that cruel smug humor at the largest massacre in Egyptian history, of more than 500 people, to the compassion we are asked to feel for these men after their own killing. As revolutionaries, we supported the right of Egyptians to overthrow the Morsi government, but opposed the military's orchestration of a counter-revolutionary coup, which used the horrific Raba'a Adawiya massacre to roll back the revolutionary process that started in 2011 and gave hope and inspiration to billions of people around the world.

Every global revolt, in recent years, from Greece to Ferguson, is incalculably indebted to the Arabs and Muslims who rose up to remind the world how to resist. Against all arguments about their inferiority, their barbarism and their savagery as Muslims and people of the Middle East, they toppled dictators, gave us courage and continue to fight against imperialism and sectarianism. We watch in horror as many in the left defend this publication's right to its cherished free speech and its Islamophobia, doing the work of laughing at the retreats and attacks on our side, erasing the solidarity and the recent memory of the greatest revolutionary process to unfold in a generation.

Another such image showed several pregnant Black women wearing hijabs reading "Sex Slaves of Boko Haram: Don't touch our welfare checks." When one considers just these two examples, it is difficult to understand how any author can leave the question of the paper's Islamophobia open, and associate them with left-wing principles.

The rest of Dave Kellaway's article is a warning against "mealy-mouthed formulations, 'excuses' or justifications [of the attack, which] just make it even more difficult to win people to our ideas." This kind of formulation is completely acceptable if one had clearly spelled out the oppression and marginalization that Muslims face in France, the imperial wars they have carried out, which continue to this day, and most importantly, of a straightforward, non-"mealy-mouthed" condemnation of Charlie Hebdo's racism had been forthcoming.

Of course, Dave's statement included none of this, so one is left to wonder what exactly are "mealy-mouthed" formulations and "excuses," and what are legitimate attempts to more deeply understand the context of this attack in France and to point out hypocrisies in the ruling class response. This ambiguity only helps to enforce the ideological straitjacket the ruling class is trying to impose, with its repetition of the need to defend "Western values" in the wake of this tragedy. The left must help break this opportunistic charade, not help impose it.

AS GRAMSCI once put it to his Italian comrades, "All they ever teach you here is a stupid anti-clericalism, quite misguided intellectually and politically...There are plenty of bourgeois atheists who make fun of priests and never go to church, yet they are anti-socialist, interventionist and wage war on us."

We watch as thousands of French troops are redeployed to Africa, and Muslims constitute 60 percent of those imprisoned in France's mass incarceration system, even while they constitute only 12 percent of the population. There is no relief from abuse and violence against Muslim women who wear the hijab and dare to venture out in public. And there have never been reparations to the Algerian people for the brutal French occupation and murder of over a million Algerians. Whatever anti-clericalism the left is using to defend its Islamophobia must be fiercely challenged. There should be a deep shame associated with using the most oppressed people as your punching bag.

The ISO has a proud history of defending Arabs and Muslims against campus witch hunts, hate crimes, and FBI entrapment and prosecution. We march to shut down the KKK wherever they dare to show themselves. We train our members to fight against police terror against Black people and the deportation of immigrants. We train our members to protest against college newspapers that publish hate speech and fraternities that issue violent threats. When 9/11 struck, we faced abuse for our unconditional defense of our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters in this country and around the world. We stood our ground when it was not the popular thing to do. We are a better organization for it. We must hold the international Left to the same standard,

At this time in which Charlie Hebdo is being used by a united ruling class to silence debate and escalate the violence of imperialism and racism, and the left denies its role in making it easier for them to do so, we need to stand firmly in defense of Muslims, without reservations or qualifications.

Here are four statements from comrades in the Parti des Indigènes de la République in France, rs21 in the UK, En Lucha in Spain and Socialist Alternative of Australia which we believe do exactly this.

Parti des Indigènes de la République: No to the "national union" backing imperialists! Yes to an anti-racist and anti-imperialist "political union"!
rs21: The bitter fruits of racism and imperialism
En Lucha: Apuntes tras el ataque a Charlie Hebdo: ¡No a la islamofobia!
Socialist Alternative: Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils

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