Charlie Hebdo – Unity in condemnation and solidarity

by Nick Wrack, a member of Left Unity in Southwark.

All socialists should join in the condemnation of the murderous attack on the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and the linked shootings that followed. Our condemnation should be unequivocal. Nothing can justify them.

The attacks were carried out by members of a violent, reactionary theological cult that claims adherence to Islam. ISIS in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaida and other similar organisations desire an end to all democratic forms of society; they are hostile to elections, to trade unions, to a free press. They stand for a theological dictatorship. They tolerate no dissent, allow no religious freedom and impose the most brutal and savage sanctions to those who break their rules.

The horrific events have repulsed millions in France and around the world. They have responded with tears, sympathetic tweets and vigils. On Sunday 11 January 3.5 million people took to the streets of France, with anywhere between 1.2 to 1.6 million in the capital Paris on what is claimed to be the biggest demonstration in French history. They were demonstrating their grief, their shock, their anger, their determination to stand firm in the face of a barbaric assault on long-won liberties, especially the right to free speech. But they also manifested a desire for unity, a determination not to allow these events to divide people along racial or religious lines.

All those who wish to defend the democratic gains won by centuries of struggle – including the limited freedom of speech we enjoy – and who celebrate the multi-cultural society that surrounds us in large parts of Europe must now ensure that these horrific attacks are not used by the right-wing heads of state who led the march to curtail our civil rights with the introduction of new legislation or to turn fire on religious and ethnic minorities. We must not allow the far right parties such as the French Front National or the new Pegida movement in Germany to inflame hostility towards Muslims.

The well-planned attack on the weekly editorial meeting of the Charlie Hebdo magazine on 7 January 2015 killed nine members of staff, including its well-known cartoonists, a 42 –year old maintenance worker on his first day at work, and one guest to the meeting.

As they left the building the two killers shouted “Allahu akbar, allahu akbar” (“God is great, god is great”). One of the two police officers shot dead as the two gunmen fled was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim.

A separate but simultaneous murder of a female police officer in the Paris suburb of Montrouge was followed up by a deliberate targeting by the killer of a Kosher supermarket, chosen because it was Jewish. The police siege of that shop ended with the murderer killing four hostages – shoppers who happened to be there at the wrong time. In total 17 were killed.

The Charlie Hebdo killers – brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi – and the supermarket killer Amedy Coulibaly are reported to be part of the same jihadist group. They are said to have been in regular and frequent contact with each other. In a telephone interview with Cherif Kouachi with BFM TV, conducted while he and his brother were under siege inside a printing factory 25 miles to the north east of Paris, he claimed that he had been sent by al-Qaida in Yemen. BFM TV was also able to interview Coulibaly in which he said that the two attacks – Charlie Hebdo and Montrouge – had been synchronized. He also claimed to be a member of ISIS. A video published after his death showed him pledging allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bark al-Baghdadi. All three terrorist killers were killed in the breaking of their respective sieges.

Charlie Hebdo was targeted because of its history of satirical cartoons ridiculing Islamic prophet and founder Muhammad. There is no doubt that these cartoons caused offence and distress to many Muslims who saw them. Some on the socialist left have described the cartoons as racist and indefensible. That is clearly a debate to be had. But at times this complaint has been raised in a way that seeks to explain the attacks. This is a mistake.

Those of us who want to convince others of the need for socialist ideas have to make clear that we stand for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That must include the right of all to publish offensive and provocative words and drawings. Opinions cannot be imposed by dictat; arguments cannot be won by banning publications or circumscribing content with which we disagree. We have to win people to our ideas through persuasion, using the strength and rational force of our arguments. Socialists, of all people, should beware the call to limit free speech because we will be among the first to feel the censor’s blue pen.

There is no doubt that overall Charlie Hebdo stood politically to the left in its editorial policy. It attacked those in power, the privileged and the powerful. It attacked all religions, exposing their irrationality and hypocrisy. It was irreverent, ribald, scatological and childish. But it was of the left. There is some justification to the argument that in the way it attacked aspects of Islam – using crude racial stereotypes, for example – it may have reinforced the Islamophobia that is growing in Europe, including in France. Charlie Hebdo may be criticised for being crass or in poor taste but that can’t justify a murderous attack on those who are deemed to transgress elusive boundaries. Who decides if and when a line has been crossed?

That is why, notwithstanding criticisms that I may have of some Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or even of its overall approach towards those with religious beliefs, I had no issue with the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) that understandably erupted immediately in France and which millions of people echoed around the world. Charlie Hebdo had a print run of just 60,000. I doubt that any but a tiny fraction of those who retweeted that hashtag or murmured it to themselves on watching events unfold had ever seen a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, or even read French. They were saying, “I’m with the cartoonists against the jihadists. I’m with free speech against the imposed dictatorship of an irrational cult. I don’t believe that people should be killed for drawing a cartoon, no matter how much it offends. When you attack them, you attack me.” It was clearly meant to emulate the slogan “I am Spartacus”, popular with socialists. I can also understand those who did not want to identify with ‘Charlie’ but who still condemned the attacks.

Charlie Hebdo may not have taken due account of how its material would be received. Or, more probably, it didn’t care and carried on deliberately to provoke, irritate and to enrage. Many might disagree with its approach to religious believers, many might say it’s all fair game. But, surely, none of us can say they have or had no right to produce their magazines. Those who dislike or disagree with their approach equally have the right to express their reasons, point out their errors and even to protest outside the offices. But freedom of expression should not be curtailed by terroristic violence or by state edict.

Ostensibly, the attacks on 7 January were in response to the offence deliberately caused by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad. But how does that explain the synchronised murder of the French woman police officer in Montrouge? Only anti-Semitism can explain the deliberate targeting of the Jewish supermarket and the killing of four shoppers there. On another day the target could have been a shopping centre, as in Nairobi in 2013 or a tube or train station as with 7/7 in London or the 2004 Madrid bombing. One of those shot by Coulibaly on 7 January attack was a jogger, shot in the back and leg, who is now in a coma. What offence had he caused? In the same week the Islamist Boko Haram attacked the town of Baga in north-eastern Nigeria, killing 2,000 people, mainly women, children and the elderly who could not run fast enough.

Is it really the case that al-Qaida or ISIS took offence at the portrayals of Muhammad or of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, (Charlie Hebdo also carried a satirical cartoon of him)? And, even if this were the case, could anyone take seriously the supposed affront to the sensibilities of those who take no offence in the beheading of those who refuse to convert to Islam and the capturing of young girls as sex slaves, as we see in ISIS-controlled Iraq?

In reality, the jihadists have decided upon a strategy of tension deliberately intended to ratchet up antagonisms towards Muslims from the majority living in the west. It is designed to provoke the state into increasing its counter-terrorist measures, increasing the surveillance of Muslim communities, stopping young Muslims and generally making life intolerable for Muslims living in Europe. It intentionally aims to generate fear and hostility towards Muslims from the non-Muslims. It aims to push Muslims not to seek integration but separation, to persuade especially the young that they must support, if not join, the extremists in fighting for an Islamic state, both in the middle-east and in Europe. The aim is to drive Muslims into a ghetto where the right-wing radical Islamists hope to win greater and greater support.

The right-wing jihadis and the right-wing anti-immigration parties are the only beneficiaries from these barabaric attacks. These opposites play the same role from different ends of the spectrum. These events play deliberately into the hands of the far-right, anti-immigrant advocates such as Marine Le-Pen and her Front National (FN) party, which came first in France in the 2014 European elections, receiving 4.7 million votes (25%) and winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in the European parliament. Already there have been increased attacks on Mosques in France since the Charlie Hebdo murders.

The far-right will play even more now on fears that there will be more such terrorist attacks, generating greater hostility towards Muslims and towards anyone who looks like one. Islamophobia does not just affect Muslims but anyone with a dark skin. It is a form of racism. The danger is that fear among the Muslim communities, who now face increased attacks – firebombing of Mosques, street attacks or just the regular hostile looks on the bus or tube, will drive many to isolate themselves, retreating within their own community, thus achieving what both the jihadis and the likes of Le Pen and the FN want.

In the UK UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage blamed the Charlie Hebdo murders on “a fifth column” living in Europe, a clear reference to the Muslim populations of France, Britain, Sweden, Holland and other countries. The ultimate victims of these terror attacks will be Muslims themselves, the overwhelming majority of whom will be as shocked and disgusted by the events as everyone else.

As always, there are demands from idiots, racists and bigots for ‘the Muslim community’ to denounce the terror attacks, as though there is one uniform Muslim community with one Muslim opinion. Muslims are not a homogenous block. One only needs to look at the civil war in Syria to see that not all Muslims want the same thing. Muslims are no more collectively to blame for the Charlie Hebdo murders than Christians are responsible for the war crimes of Tony Blair and George Bush.

Marxists know only too well that many of the 20th century’s worst crimes – from Stalin’s forced labour camps to the mass murders of the Khmer Rouge – were committed in the name of communism. Claiming to act in the name of an ideology or religion cannot make all those who adhere to it responsible.

One positive aspect of the events has been the refusal of the non-Muslims protesting against the attacks to blame all Muslims. Those interviewed on the television in France in the immediate aftermath of the shootings not only condemned the attacks but also expressed the importance of not allowing the FN or others to abuse the events to vilify or blame Muslims. In Dresden, Germany on Saturday 10 January 35,000 demonstrated for “open-mindedness and fellow-feeling”, in a response to the right-wing anti-Islamic Pegida rally of 18,000 in the same city just a week earlier. Events like this should encourage socialists. It shows a significant progressive strand in society that could be the embryo of a movement of fellowship of all communities – an antidote to nationalism and religious sectarianism.

It needs to be restated, that the followers of the jihadi cults like ISIS or al-Qaida are a minority trend within the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. This refusal to be conscripted into anti-Muslim sentiment gives hope that the majority of French people will not allow themselves to be divided along racial or religious lines. On the other hand, we cannot tell yet how many more might be tempted to vote for the FN as a result of these events. We are in dangerous times, and the direction in which people travel will depend in large part on who gives a lead, who presents the better argument and offers the better answers.

Socialists must both defend free speech and defend Muslims from attack. We have to answer the arguments of the FN and other anti-immigration parties like UKIP. They are no defenders of free speech. Freedom of speech must extend to the right to practise one’s religion. Freedom of expression must extend to the right of Muslim women to wear whatever clothes they want, including the hijab and the niqab, or of Hasidic Jews to wear their distinctive clothing. A secularism that bans religious clothing, as in France, is not a secularism that socialists should support.

Socialists should stand for a complete separation of church and state, including an end to state funding for religious institutions, including schools, charities, youth clubs and other organisations. This cannot mean claiming to appeal to secularism while giving greater priority in practice to Christianity. Socialists defend the right of religious communities to organise and pay for their own religious institutions. We defend the right of all religions to worship as they choose.

The French ruling Socialist Party, led by President Hollande, has responded to the attacks by appealing for a ‘national unity’. There can be no unity with the FN or the other right wing parties who seek to place the blame for society’s problems on immigrants. We need a unity of the working class and all who stand for a genuine extension of our democracy. We must stand alongside all minorities, whether Muslim or Jewish, who face racist attacks. We have to stand against xenophobia and bigotry.

Socialists have to give a lead in defending freedom of speech and freedom of expression and expose the hypocrisy of those in power who falsely claim to be doing so. We must oppose the introduction of new counter-terrorist laws and the extension of surveillance methods that will undermine our civil liberties, already seriously diminished by decades of counter-terrorist legislation.

Most of all, socialists must become more confident and forthright in arguing the case for socialism. A genuinely democratic society cannot exist when there are state secrets; where the secret services purport to act in ‘our’ interest but we are not told the facts; where opinion is monopolised in the media by the rich and powerful; and where the voice of the majority working class is marginalised.

More fundamentally, there can be no genuine democracy when the resources of society are owned and controlled by a small group of capitalists who run society in their own interests. A society without racism, bigotry, exploitation, borders, poverty, freedom of speech and the freedom to worship or not, can only be achieved where there is also a full economic democracy, in which we all collectively share, own and control the earth and its resources and can take decisions democratically that benefit all of us.

How can we explain the attraction of the jihadist call – including its desire to martyrdom in the cause – except by looking at the world around us? Of course, we can point to the imperialist exploitation of the world over several centuries, to the carving up of Asia, Africa and the Middle-East in the 20th centuries, to the more recent interventions in Iraq, Syria. All of these give context to the rise of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ and France is implicated by its own imperialist and colonial past more than most countries. But there is something beyond those events and much more important. It is the complete dead-end of modern capitalist society, in which many on the margins of society – the youth, the unemployed, the immigrant, the minority – find nothing of worth in what they experience.

And it is not only those on the margins. Many are increasingly alienated from a world in which they have little if any say, which appears to have little meaning or purpose. Few have the benefit of a job they can truly say they enjoy – that has some meaning. Work, work or be condemned to penury; and then die. Religion can provide some solace. It can deliver a feeling of purpose, of self-worth and of self-respect, even the respect of others, otherwise absent from their lives. For a few, that solace is found in the extreme religious ideology of the jihadis; an ideology that promises salvation in a paradise after martyrdom. Unless and until socialists can provide the inspiration for the youth of society to join the struggle for a paradise on earth we will see more events like Charlie Hebdo.

In the past many of the youth who are today attracted to a radical version of Islam would have at least had the option of joining socialist or communist parties, with a secular outlook and at least a vision of a more egalitarian society. But these parties have largely disappeared or dwindled in size and significance.

It must not be forgotten that in the Middle East and north Africa also there have been mass communist parties and mass Arab socialist parties. These show that the ideas of a better, more egalitarian world once had influence over millions in the Muslim world. And can again. It was the failure of the communist parties, influenced by ‘official communism’ or Stalinism, and the failure of the Arab socialist parties influenced by nationalism to solve the problems faced by the Arab masses that led those millions to abandon them. Into the vacuum stepped the various forms of political Islam – a barren dead-end as much as Stalinism or Nasserism.

The ideas of secularism and socialism are ideas that have flourished in the past and can flourish again. If we want to win the youth to the task of creating a new society based on equality and full democracy, then we need to talk about our vision of that society and set about creating the means of achieving it.

In France, the cry of the French Revolution Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is echoing today. To make the slogan real, we must fight for socialism.

This article appears in The Project Issue 5:

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8 responses to “Charlie Hebdo – Unity in condemnation and solidarity”

  1. John Penney says:

    There is a lot of good analysis in this article – but in seeking to align his argument seamlessly with the current , very politically simplistic and highly ambiguous “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon, I think some serious mistakes have been made. In particular the article says:

    “Those of us who want to convince others of the need for socialist ideas have to make clear that we stand for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That must include the right of all to publish offensive and provocative words and drawings.”

    When have radical socialists ever been in favour of completely unconditional “free speech” ? We are not naïve bourgeois liberals. We well understand the power of words and images – both as weapons of education and liberation – but also as reactionary tools for sowing disunity and reinforcing the capitalist status quo. Do we really think that this completely unfettered “freedom” is so important that it should allow racists and fascist for instance to spread their message unimpeded ? If so, the entire “No platform for fascists” position has been a big mistake – and many on the Left have wasted a lot of time , and bruises, and fines, convictions and prison time opposing the “freedom” of racists and fascist to spread their highly corrosive racist poison on the streets and via their publications, and access to the airwaves, over many decades.

    The old adage that “no one has the right to shout FIRE in a crowded cinema” still holds true today. As socialists we are surely not in favour of allowing a complete, unconditional freedom for viciously derogatory, misrepresentational, racist, sexist, homophobic, chauvinist, cartoons about oppressed or endangered minorities to appear in publications or the mass media generally ? A civilised society must be prepared to tolerate the publication of all sorts of challenging and unsettling opinions and images – up to a point – but being a “civilised” society also surely involves trying not to allow this free expression to be so poisonously defamatory , insulting or reinforcing of racist, homophobic, sexist, prejudices that it causes or deepens major social division – and indeed leads to physical attacks on minorities and women. The whole purpose of the poisonous cartoons and racist lies in the notorious Der Sturmer Nazi newspaper from 1923 to 1945 was to demonise the Jews – to dehumanise them – to make the eventual Holocaust much more palatable to the mass of German non-Jews. Freedom to spread racist lies and vicious stereotypes cannot be unlimited in any civilised society.

    Charlie Hebro , despite being generally “on the Left” politically all too often printed gratuously offensive , distinctly anti Jewish and anti Islamic , cartoons, which simply played into popular racist sentiment – even if intended “ironically” , and are completely unjustifiable for a publication of ”the Left”. This in no way justifies the murderous outrage of a few brainwashed Islamic clerico-fascists – trying to implement their own version of a “strategy of tension”. Nevertheless the Left should not be persuaded by this tragedy to adopt a naïve “ free speech for any view whatsoever” position. In an interesting article in The Guardian on the huge Paris “Je Suis Charlie” demonstration, Paul Mason, pointed out that large numbers of fascists also turned up on the day – repeatedly singing that distinctly dodgy refrain from the Marseilles , which contains the words “Let an impure blood water our furrows” ! – and no doubt gleefully anticipating a free run in future for their poisonous propaganda .

    I am an atheist , but I have no desire to see images reproduced which simply serve to demonise, humiliate, misrepresent, mock, the profound beliefs and sacred imagery or taboos of religious groups – whether that be offensive cartoons about Jesus Christ, Mohammed, The Buddha, Krishna, etc . The idea, which far too many Lefties, particularly on the anarchist wing, hold to, that only AFTER they have sloughed off all the false consciousness of religious belief in its entirety , can Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, workers participate in class struggle , is complete baloney. This is particularly obvious historically in Britain, where radical Methodist Christianity has played a major role in the development of both trades unionism and socialism. No, I’m afraid we, as atheist socialists, have to simply accept that religous belief will continue as a mass phenomenum well beyond the socialist revolution, and that workers with religious beliefs can also be good socialists . We should therefore be less willing to accept that the deliberately insulting , via the excuse of “free speech” of the most profound beliefs or imagery of religious groups. Ridicule will do nothing but alienate workers with religious beliefs from the socialist message – which ironically actually encapsulates so much of the underlying positive social and personal value systems of the three great “Religions of the Book” , Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and others too. This is not to say that as socialists we should have any truck with those deeply reactionary aspects of most organised religions , in their more fundamentalist/traditionalist forms, eg, their pretty general justification of the oppression of women , their intolerance of sexual non-conformity , their hostility to scientific and philosophical enquiry, their hostility to democracy. Nevertheless, unless we, as socialists, can show empathy and solidarity with the profound religious beliefs of working class people in minority communities, and beyond, we will never recruit them to the socialist struggle, and we will, in tolerating the more extreme manifestations of abusive images and articles about their beliefs, simply end up “tailing” the rise of abusive intolerance of minorities – which today has often hidden behind the grossly over-simplistic “Je suis Charlie” slogan.

  2. Jane Kelly says:

    I agree with much of John’s comment. In particular I also question the absolute right of free speech and freedom of expression. With the right to say or make images of anything you want goes also responsibility When Islamaphobia is rife in a country like France (and the UK) left-wing journalists and cartoonists have to decide which side they are on. Are they going to reinforce that hatred or fight it? And the excuse of irony or satire is not enough.

    The hypocrisy of the French state in defending an abstract concept of ‘free speech/free expression’ is astounding. This is a country that bans the wearing of the hijab in schools, the burka/niqab in public and has banned demonstrations in support of Palestine. What of the exercise of free expression for a young Muslim girl to wear what she likes? What of a Muslim woman’s right to wear what she wants? The argument in favour of these clothing bans, including from some on the left, is that the hijab and niqab are oppressive to women, are determined by men and we should oppose their right to wear them. It’s true of course that Islam (like many other religions) oppresses women, but the French state hasn’t asked nuns to take off their habit. And how are feminists and others going to discuss with women wearing the hijab/niqab/burka if we oppose their right to wear what they want?

    The other argument is that Charlie Hebdo lampooned all religions. This is partly true, but more recently Islam was the religion most often caricatured. In any case drawing vulgar images of the Pope is not the same as depicting such images of Muhammed. Roman Catholicism is still, despite the French revolution, the dominant religion, running large numbers of schools, receiving financial support from the state for the use and maintenance of churches. It is not an oppressed religion in the way that Islam is.

    Obviously none of this excuses the appalling atrocity against the cartoonists and the Jewish people in the supermarket which has already and will continue to make the lives of Muslims ever more difficult. But the context is an important issue when discussing free speech.

    • Chris S says:

      Accepting that there is no absolute right to free speech simply strengthen the policing and censoring of politics and culture to the state in order not stop offense or upset. Such a position only helps those who would silence our criticism of religions and their leaders. Just because something offends your sensibilities or plays into a dominant discourse does not mean we should ban it or ask for artists and journalists to self censor.

  3. Ray G says:

    Just one short comment that i have not seen raised anywhere else.Gay News was sued for blasphemy in the late 70s by Mary Whitehouse for carrying a poem written from the point of view of a (male, obviously) Roman centurian in love with Jesus while he was on the cross. Is that offensive and, John, should it be allowed either under capitalism or socialism.

  4. sandy says:

    I seem to remember Socialist Challenge (the weekly newspaper of the IMG) republishing that gay news poem at the time in solidarity with Gay News

  5. sandy says:

    Good article from nick wrack above…/Equivocation_in_the_face_of_blac…

    some useful background material in the above article from Paul cCockshott


  6. sandy says:

    “We must never forget one basic truth: the terrorist violence of these fundamentalist movements is directed first and foremost against people in Muslim countries. They attack all freedoms and all fundamental rights. They play a major counter-revolutionary role – against the progressive aspirations of the “Arab springtime”, for example. They mete out levels of terror reminiscent of fascist movements in the 1930s. They are enemies of humankind. Our comrades in Pakistan characterize some of them as religious fascisms, a label which is certainly open to debate. But these forces must be fought, at a time when they are carrying out an increasing number of barbaric acts from Paris to northern Nigeria. We must fight them in each of our countries, but also through international solidarity – by fighting against imperialist wars; by supporting progressive movements resisting the fundamentalist offensive against Kobanî, against Aleppo and in Pakistan; and by defending victims of their intolerance wherever they may be.”

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