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Barry Finger: Charlie Hebdo and the politics of anti-imperialism

21 February 2015

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Workers’ Liberty, 9 February, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the politics of anti-imperialism
by Barry Finger

"Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction." (Bill Donohue, Catholic League)

"Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication." (Richard Seymour, Lenin’s Tomb)

I do not mean to suggest an amalgam between Donahue and Seymour. There is no reason to believe for instance that Seymour would have aligned himself in solidarity with the (US ) Catholic League to demand that Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” be removed from public display. I can’t further imagine Seymour offering apologias for those who vandalised it at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia. And if gallery workers had been murdered, it is inconceivable that he would have ferreted out an anti-papist history of the National Gallery (assuming for argument’s sake that one exists) to contextualise the slaughter. He would not have demanded pre-emptive self-censorship against Papal criticism as a defence against terrorism and proof of good intentions towards Catholics. The same with the multitude of lesser Seymours on the radical and liberal left.

No, I don’t wish to suggest any of that. But I do wish to raise the question as to why entire sections of the socialist movement are consistent and dependable defenders of revolutionary republican values, fierce secularism, gender equality, working-class internationalism and consistent democracy … on all issues save that of one broad expression of clerical authoritarianism. When during the fifteen times that the currently far less politically extreme Catholic Church sued Charlie Hebdo (CH) did any section of the left express sympathy with the Church?

At bottom, this is clearly not about free speech or blasphemy laws. These are just the masks behind which are concealed deeper, more fundamental political questions. So, what is it then about Islamism that has allowed it to become a dividing line on the left? What is it about Islamism that causes otherwise sensible people to allow themselves to be aligned on this issue – and only on this issue — with other medieval obscurantists embedded in our midst?

One can perhaps understand why people refuse to identify with the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan. Many American (and I suspect British) socialists are unfamiliar with CH. Still, even fence sitters on the Anglophone left profess a vague recognition that CH is somehow situated within the French anti-imperialist, anti-austerity, pro-immigrant wing of radical republicanism, but its specific politics remains broadly unknown, even enigmatic. Fair enough, as far as it goes. Although in the age of the internet, it only goes so far.

But assuming that to be the case, I doubt, for instance that I, nor many here, would say “I am the Revolutionary Communist Party” or “I am Workers World” had members of these organizations been targeted. We would stand in humanitarian support of the innocent victims of senseless bloodshed, but we could not issue the sort of carte blanche organisational solidarity with Stalinist and Stalinoid parties such slogans suggest. So why would one extend organisational solidarity with a journal one professes to be unfamiliar with, or with which one (intentionally) refrains from acquainting oneself?

Wariness here may reside in political principle; or it may be a political dodge. For, it is fascinating – if not at least as an aside – that those who cannot fully extend themselves in solidarity for similar reasons to CH have been known to abandon wholesale their political scruples when confronted by Islamic movements of resistance. “We are all Hezbollah”; “We are all Hamas” are chants as pervasive as “We are all Lebanon” and “We are all Palestine” in demonstrations against Israeli aggression. Despite a workable familiarity with the politics of Islamic reaction, many of these same oh-so punctiliously principled leftists, strident abstainers with regard to the “unknown” CH, evince a remarkably promiscuous enthusiasm for a red-brown (socialist-reactionary Islamist) alliance against imperialism. They draw Maginot line against IS, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda perhaps today, but even this wall may yet be breached, if the exculpatory murmurings about the al-Nusra Front germinates and if pervious support for the Taliban and the Mahdi Army are portents.

This affinity for clericalist apologetics requires an infinite analytical regression. A reactionary ideology must be telescoped with a religion, which is further equated with a race. In the present context it is even suggested that CH is the equivalent of Der Stürmer because “Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism.” Opposition to clerical fascism becomes opposition to the religion whose symbols have been politically appropriated by fascism, (as Spanish fascism and Central European fascism once appropriated Catholic imagery), which becomes opposition to the spiritual community which gave birth to those symbols, which is taken - by socialists, mind you - as an expression of hostility to a race apart. From here it is just a gentle leap to merge the rejection of religious fundamentalism and its extreme expression, clerical fascism, with “race baiting.” Pakistanis, Moroccans, Algerians, Turks, Albanians, Chechens Kurds, Azerbaijanis … all one nation/race self-identifying with a unitary political and religious outlook. The poisonous traditional political brew of right-wing xenophobia and nationalist populism is now accepted as the new recipe for socialist solidarity. Where once socialists predictably rejected nationalism as the basis of oppositional politics, we are now admonished merely to upend the right’s reactionary conclusions.

Third World fascism advances itself by ransacking the political grievances of the left: against foreign occupation, the pillaging of resources and the betrayal of interests by comprador ruling elites answerable to imperialism. But crucially it also vehemently and violently opposes the left, because socialism prioritises class interests over national unity and because left insurgency elevates secularism and democracy against the received traditions of the national patrimony. Socialism upends traditions and received hierarchies, including most pointedly the privileged clerics, associated with those hierarchies. The left is, in a word, divisive. It sows perpetual political and social discord. Echoing post-modernist themes, Islamist reaction sees the left as an alien cultural infection implanted by the west to sap the national resolve to resist imperialist domination. The left is despised as insufficiently anti-imperialist because it is inauthentically nationalist.

Paradoxically, this post-modernist invocation of left “cultural imperialism” overtakes itself coalescing in as pure a form of Orientalist essentialising – and Islamist apologia – as one is likely to find. Our anti-CH leftists know the “Muslim mind” just as surely as imperialist sociologists once claimed to know the homogeneous “Arab mind,” the “Asian sensibility” and the “African outlook.” Seymour and his co-thinkers condescendingly assure us, from the wisdom of their advanced dialectical insights, that “Muslims" are uniformly offended by the scabrous mockery of a Mohammed hijacked by political jihadists and religious mountebanks. And, less lest there be doubt, they – unlike the racism-oblivious “Je Suis Charlie” clique - stand defiantly with the oppressed. And the oppressed are the new French and the new French are Muslims. And the Muslims are fundamentalists. For “the ascendant form of resistant politics had become” between the 1967 war and the Iranian Revolution “one or other variant of Islamism” (Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, p. 57). To deride jihadism is to stand with imperialism, to stand with racism, and to cloak these outrages under the pretence of free speech and secularism.

Polite noises deploring the actual assassinations of CH cartoonists must, it seems, be uttered as an aside. But why deplore it? Perhaps because it would predictably unleash a right-wing backlash against Muslims? Why not mouth the cautionary Marxist objections to individual terrorism, while standing foursquare in “anti-racist solidarity” with the “resistant politics” of the murderers? After all, didn’t Trotsky defend Herschel Grynszpan, who, in 1938, murdered a Nazi diplomat in Paris, knowing full well it would intensify the onslaught against the Jews? Solidarity, at least, would be the politically consistent response. Slanderous in this case, idiotic and repugnant … but politically consistent.

This political rot starts with studied ignorance and cultural arrogance and proceeds with bet hedging and ends in betrayal. How do you interpret imagery that seems politically offensive without considering context? No one doubts the respectably liberal provenance of the New Yorker magazine. In July of 2008, it ran a cover cartoon depicting Barack and Michelle Obama, dressed as Muslim gun toting militants fist bumping, while an American flag burned in the fireplace. It faced a tremendously foolish backlash as incendiary and irresponsible. Anyone, on the other hand, with a functioning brain cell understood this not as an editorial statement but as a parody of tea party and Fox News hysteria. Of course, we as American and British leftists consider ourselves fully qualified to recognise tepid satire when it originates from the upstanding liberal epicentre of our establishment. How brilliant are we!

But what do we know of the French tradition? How do we know whether that incendiary CH cover depicting pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves demanding welfare is not an expression of CH’s racism? It didn’t appear in the New Yorker so we have no frame of reference other than that modicum of grey matter we now insist on reserving for future use.

Charlie Hebdo aimed to ridicule Islam until “Islam is just as banal as Catholicism,” that is, until Islam is fully accepted as the equal, integral, authentic, retrograde and scurrilous aspect of the French national character as is Christianity. No more, but no less. “(A) hundred lashes if you’re not dying of laughter”, as one cover had it, both at actual jihadi blowhards and at the National Front’s comically deflated Islamic scarecrows.

The Charlie Hebdo divide brings into stark relief a growing division that has emerged between two wings of the socialist left. The anti-CH section, by giving license and moral legitimacy for Islamists to be offended, has also given them “left” and “anti-racist” cover to act on that offence. And in so doing, it has dismissed and abandoned the secularists, gays, feminists, socialists and democrats within these minority communities and the nations from which they emigrated. They have retrofitted their tactical calculations to accommodate the nationalist assumption that the most politically active Muslims are and will for the foreseeable future be social reactionaries and clerical fascists; and that they, therefore, constitute the most promising material out of which any meaningful anti-imperialist alliance can be fashioned. The late Chris Harman, of the British Socialist Workers Party, spoke to this explicitly:

"On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combatting racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.’" (The Prophet and the Proletariat, IS, Autumn 1994).

A movement in determined opposition to both imperialism and authoritarianism is ruled out. It is abandoned as a necessary shifting of gears, first as a concession to “reality” and then as an alternative strategy in accommodation to that reality. It is a product of profound demoralisation at the collapse of the workers movement and the socialist project in the Arab world. But its repercussions are profound. For this "red-brown" alliance between socialists and clerical-fascists effectively severs the traditional link between anti-imperialists of the metropole and our embattled third-world compatriots, allies and comrades who wished to broaden and complete the socialist transformation on a global scale based on shared revolutionary ideals and democratic values. This alternative alliance with reaction is a pre-emptive assault against the future ability of Arab revolutionaries to regroup and revive.

At its core it is also disingenuous, and, more importantly, nationalistic. The calculation is this: every blow against imperialism, from whatever its source and whatever its domestic consequence for Arab and Muslim nations, is also a blow against capitalism in the global north. It thereby strengthens our prospects for social transformation and liberation. But let us not be accused of abandoning the victims of imperialism to the tender mercy of authoritarians, quite the contrary. We are simply expressing our profound respect for their identity and the paths chosen based on that identity. Charlie Hebdo is racist because it doesn’t accede to the actually ascendant politics of anti-imperialism chosen by its victims.

Rather than linking our fates, this red-brown movement accepts the severance of humanity on a global scale – emancipation from exploitation and oppression here; the rule of a reactionary ummah appalled by the liberating impulses of social revolution and upheaval there.

Worse, it makes our emancipation from capitalism contingent on their enslavement to clerical reaction.

Barry Finger is a socialist activist and writer based in New York. He is a member of the editorial board of the socialist journal New Politics

P.S.

The above article is reproduced here from Worker’s Liberty for educational and non commercial use