Thursday, 15 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Islamism and the Western State - Critique from the Standpoint of Damaged Life

The killings in Paris last week, at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes, were brutal, ugly and dangerous in themselves – for their ruthlessness, for the attitudes to free speech and to Jewish people which they manifested.  The responses, however, have been equally extraordinary, and in many respects deeply troubling

Spontaneous demonstrations developed in many French cities within hours of the killings, and also in London and Berlin.  Within a short time, the Twitter hashtag ‘I am Charlie Hebdo’ took off.  On the weekend, a massive march was organised in Paris by the French government, with participation by leaders from all over the world, including our Taoiseach Enda Kenny. 

All of these demonstrations, marches, protests have purported to be in defence of ‘free speech’, and were apparently intended as reiterations of the foundational values of the French republic – liberté, egalité, fraternité.   Demonstrations, one organised by the National Union of Journalists, have been held in Ireland.  Meanwhile, further actions have been taken by the French government – a massive deployment of 15,000 police and soldiers to defend media and transport infrastructure, to defend government installations, and to defend Jewish institutions. 

These actions and sentiments seem to be unimpeachable.  What could be more important in the liberal democratic West than to stand up for free speech?  What could be more natural than to look to the state to defend its citizens?  

Unfortunately, what we must realise is that an account of the situation which goes only this far has unknowingly performed a kind of radical askesis, in lifting the contrasting issues of this murderous incident and of free speech out of the context in which they find their true meaning.  Our task is to reconstruct that context.  Doing so, we find it is slashed and cross-hatched by a multiplicity of vectors of culture, law, power, and ideology.

The real need at a moment such as this is for clear thought.  Mass demonstrations and simple slogans, huge mobilisations of state power, do not make for such clarity.   How to cut through the easy affirmations of freedom of speech and the chest-beating declarations against terrorism and barbarity?


A few basic initial questions we need to think about:

1)      is there really such a thing as pure free speech?

2)      what does it mean when a marginal low-circulation magazine run by former leftists is embraced by the political establishment not just of one country but by many, by the mainstream corporate media, and by the French state?  What does it mean when Francois Hollande, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Enda Kenny, Tayyip Erdogan, Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu all can talk together about ‘freedom of speech’?

3)      why are people so agitated by the need for freedom of speech at this moment, and not the right to privacy?  Amongst the governments talking sonorously of freedom of speech at the moment are many involved in high levels of surveillance of their own populations, in signing over the right of foreign powers to eavesdrop on their own citizens (in the case of Ireland), and in listening to just about everybody (the United States in particular).

4)      just how ‘radical’ and ‘leftist’ is Charlie Hebdo?  Are its cartoons – far more of them imaging the Prophet Muhammad than other religious figures – racist?  Certainly, it is the case that the magazine has published cartoons which were individually racist (images of black women as monkeys or welfare spongers), though it’s also been penalised dozens of times for infringements of regulations curbing ‘free speech’.  What precisely is the positive satirical value of their irreverence vis-à-vis depicting the Prophet?  Do they, have they in the past, amounted to hate speech or incitement?

5)      the Kouachi brothers were French citizens of Algerian background; their murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists have been claimed by Al Qa’ida in Yemen – can one really talk about fraternity, equality and liberty without context?

6)      what does it mean when the four Jewish victims are buried in Jerusalem?  The victims were French Jews: what does it mean when their funeral is attended by Netanyahu and the President of Israel?


To think properly about the Charlie Hebdo murders it is necessary to try dialectically to grasp, on the one hand, the slaughter of the journalists by Islamist gunmen who were citizens of France, and, on the other, the honourable ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity which have moved huge crowds in France and elsewhere in Europe, as part of the same historical juncture.  It is necessary for us to recognise that there these two apparently separate worlds of action and ideology actually co-exist and are intertwined.  There is a structural but hidden relationship, in other words, between the high-minded Enlightenment-republican values to which millions recently publicly cleaved, and the murky secretive world of Sunni extremism, cohabiting as these elements do in a world rifted and striated by powerful forces of great power politics, resource greed, immiseration, migration and suffering.  How do we start to reveal this negative, unspoken connection?

As Stanley Fish has famously pointed out, there is no such thing as ‘free speech’.  All discourse – spoken, written, visual, aural, hardcopy, electronic – has a context, and finds its meaning in that context.  Freedom of expression, in Fish's analysis, is an empty discursive vessel which only becomes meaningful when filled by specific ideas or statements.  The struggle to take control of the rhetoric of 'free speech' is always a political one: to think that it can be raised 'above' the realm of the political by enshrinement in constitutions or bills of rights is a kind of category mistake.  As Fish acknowledges, even in the United States, where freedom of speech legislation is much more radical than in Europe, one can be charged with hate crimes, with incitement, with slander.  The limitations on free speech are often so obvious as not to be noticed: if I stand up in a crowded Dublin cinema on a Friday night, and yell ‘Fire!’ and cause a stampede, I am likely to end up being charged, if not in regard to my speech, then with some infraction of the peace, unruly behaviour, antisocial behaviour, and so on.  In France specifically, denial of the Holocaust is illegal – already in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, several dozen persons, including the stand-up comic Dieudonné, have been arrested for alleged anti-Semitic statements and for defending the murderers.  In Fish's terms, however, it is the very limitation on discourse which is its fundamental condition of possibility.  That is, the idea of 'freedom of speech' entails the carving-out of a  discursive space, the existence of which only  becomes apparent when it is breached.  Expression of any worth is not the exercise of some pure value or good which is at perpetual risk of infringement - such a realm of pure ideality is a liberal fantasy.   Rather, expression is generated by limitation. To put the matter crudely, not all speech is free, and some statements and sentiments are freer than others. 

So it is very easy to say that one supports freedom of speech, and that one wishes to protect liberty, equality and fraternity.  But the question must arise: whose freedom of speech?  Whose liberty?  Whose equality?  Whose fraternity?   Just how much access to the public sphere is available in France to the young, often very poor, often unemployed French North African community?  Like many great cities (London, New York), Paris has undergone various historical stages of reconstruction and gentrification – from the seventeenth century, through Haussmann’s destruction of the old mediaeval core in the 1860s, to the destruction of Les Halles in the 1970s, and on up to the present day.  It  is very easy to see that the city within the périphérique is, except for its northeastern rim, increasingly middle class or haut bourgeois and white – this despite the rising population of African and Arab origins living in the poor banlieues, for whom the prospect of living in ‘old Paris’ and partaking of its gilded culture is a distant fantasy.  The divisions of Paris show that there is a class and ethnic context to the purported ‘freedom’ of Charlie Hebdo to publish its offensive cartoons, and to the purported ‘freedom’ of Muslims to reply.

These current ethnic divisions of France stem from a very bloody history in regard to Islam, the Maghreb, and the Middle East.  From Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, through the invasion of Algeria in 1830, right up to the decolonising moment of the 1960s, France has attempted to achieve and maintain a relationship of domination and influence with various parts of the Middle East and the Arab world – supporting the Lebanese Maronite elite from the mid-nineteenth century; misruling Syria under its League of Nations Mandate in the 1920s and 1930s; arming Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, and selling it nuclear technology; with Britain and Israel attacking Nasser’s Egypt in 1956 in an effort to maintain European control of the canal zone; refusing to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq but eagerly taking part in the ousting of Qaddafi in Libya, leaving that country in the hands of Islamist militias. 

The conquest and colonisation of Algeria was accompanied by the utmost brutality.   Algerians were routinely massacred, and their villages destroyed to make way for white French planters.  Ben Kiernan estimates that between 500,000 and one million native Algerians died violently in the first three decades of the French presence.  In 1832, the entire El Oufia tribe of approximately 500 people was slaughtered in one night.  In 1845, the whole Ouled Rhia tribe was trapped in a cave, and asphyxiated by fires lit at the cave’s mouth.  The first French governor-general Bugeaud advocated razzias, or punitive raids and massacres, as a way of making the native people come to accept the French presence.   A French officer, Montagnac, described a razzia in 1842: ‘The inhabitants, woken by the approach of the soldiers, come out pell-mell with their flocks, their women and their children; all of them are fleeing in all directions; rifle shots come from all sides on these miserable people surprised and defenceless; men, women and children are pursued and soon rounded up by a few soldiers who lead them off’.  Montagnac described a system of war which meant expunging the presence of the Algerian Arabs, destroying their ‘means of existence’.  That same year, Bugeaud urged French forces to ‘destroy the villages, cut down the fruit trees, burn or uproot the harvests, empty the silos, scour the ravines, the rocks and the grottoes to seize the women, the children, the elderly, the flocks and the furniture.  Only in this way can one make these proud mountain people bend’. 

In 1945, Algerians celebrating the end of the Second World War were attacked by French security forces for carrying nationalist flags and posters, in the town of Sétif.  In the subsequent massacre, thousands died or were injured.   The exact number of people slaughtered is still discussed – figures from serious sources vary between 1300 (the conclusion of an official government report) and 6000.  As portrayed so brilliantly in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, Battle of Algiers, the French response to the Algerian nationalist agitation and war of 1954-62 included the extensive use of torture. 

In Paris itself in October 1961, in an event only acknowledged officially in 2001, a peaceful protest of French Algerians was attacked by the police, led by Vichy war criminal Maurice Papon.  Papon had personally been involved in torture in Constantinois in Algeria in 1954, and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by De Gaulle.  At least 40 people were murdered by the gendarmes; in La bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961, historian Jean-Luc Einaudi estimated that up to 200 people were killed.  People reported seeing the bodies of victims in the Seine for days afterwards.  This is the background to Michael Haneke’s chilling cinematic masterpiece Caché, a brilliant film about the colonial past catching up on Paris's narcissistic liberal, TV-enthroned intelligentsia, memorably labled a 'mediocracy' by Dominique Lecourt.   No-one has ever been prosecuted for this crime; Papon was eventually convicted of war-crimes for assisting in the deportation of French Jews during the Holocaust.  

Algeria won its independence in 1962.  The attainment of that independence was accompanied by very great trauma and violence - the death toll may run to as much as 1.5 million.  Violence and counter-violence were deployed by both the French armed forces and their FLN opponents.  Nearly a million French colonists - the 'pieds noirs' - fled Algeria in the immediate aftermath of the war.  Tens of thousands of Algerian Harkis, who had allied themselves as auxiliaries with the French  but were now regarded as traitors and collaborators by the FLN, were injured or murdered.  Nearly 100,000 fled to France, where they have suffered decades of neglect.  The war split French politics down the middle.  The Right, and significant elements in the Army, led by General Massu, were prepared to oppose French withdrawal from Algeria violently, and a coup was prepared against the French government.  The OAS plotted De Gaulle's assassination, and launched a massive bombing campaign against Muslims and the French armed forces in the run-up to the French and Algerian referendums which voted through independence.

The war continues to echo through French and Algerian history.  The hopes engendered by Algerian independence and liberation were eroded by the institutional sclerosis of the FLN as a ruling party.  In much the manner so powerfully analyzed and predicted by Fanon in Les damnés de la terre, Algerian freedom and democracy developed into a 'sterile formalism' - less of nationalism than of a kind of Stalinism.  Oil wealth was controlled by the state, farms were collectivized.  The very authoritarianism of the FLN in power created a vacuum on the Algerian left, which made room for the FIS, Algeria's major Islamist coalition, to become the main opposition.  A FIS victory in the first round of a general election in 1991 led the government to suspend the second part of the electoral process.  A state of emergency was declared, which would last 20 years.  Armed insurrection by the GIS, FIS's military ally, brought a civil war in Algeria, prosecuted with extreme brutality by both Islamist insurgents and the state.  This struggle eventually sutured with the 'Arab Spring' in 2011.    Meanwhile, France has continued to conduct itself in Africa much like a colonial power, feeling free both during and after the Cold War to make interventions into North and West Africa.  The political fig-leaf for such incursions has usually been 'invitations' by postcolonial elite governments, but the ideological importance of the mission civilisatrice has never entirely vanished.

In the current moment of shifts in great power influences and alliances, France, like its peers and rivals, maintains a policy mostly characterised by the cynical pursuit of what Conrad famously termed ‘material interests’.   As the self-conscious home of the ideals of the Enlightenment, France’s rhetoric at home and abroad is that of Kantian rationalism, cosmopolitanism and law.  But its international actions bear the stamp of a Hobbesian realism.  The difference between the national and international arenas, for most Western states including France, is that while domestic politics takes place, at least nominally, under the sign of the rule of law, international politics takes place in a system where, though various agencies such as the UN seem to offer the possibilities of a Kantian peace, no final global authority – no ‘Leviathan’ – exists to enforce ‘international law’.  The result is a disjuncture between rhetoric and realities, particularly in political questions that straddle international and domestic spaces, but also a concomitant effort of the most powerful states – as yet America, though maybe not for long – to create a body of political actors and interests known as ‘the international community’: another triumph of hegemony.  This is the framework within which France defines itself as one of the homes of secular ‘freedom of expression’ in its domestic sphere, but allies itself with reactionary theocracies or ethnocracies like Saudi Arabia and Israel in the international realm.

And one must move on to discuss Saudi Arabia and Israel specifically.  The Saudi kingdom is the wellspring of much of the ideological fervour which structures the understanding of Salafis such as the Kouachi brothers.  The Kingdom is and always has been predicated on an alliance between the Saud family and the doctrines of the adherents of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a famous eighteenth-century theologian in the Arabian peninsula: Wahhabi clerics give the Saud familial oligarchy ideological legitimacy, and the House of Saud places Wahhabite ideology – an ultraconservative and puritan form of Sunni Islam – at the heart of the Kingdom’s law, education, political system and public morality.  The Kingdom’s enormous oil wealth has permitted it to disseminate its ideological tenets all over the Muslim world, funding and thereby influencing journalism, publishing, education and creative and intellectual culture.  Saudi Arabia helped to fund the great effort to channel Islamist activists to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union from 1980s onwards.  Saudis were instrumental in setting up Al Qa’ida: Bin Laden was a Saudi of Yemeni background.  And Saudi citizens have contributed to funding and ideologically legitimating ISIS.

Saudi officials attended Saturday’s huge march in Paris.  This came just after a dissident blog writer had been sentenced to 1000 lashes for his work in the Kingdom.  But France, noting America’s soured relations with Saudi Arabia since 9/11 and its relative rapprochement with Iran, has been seeking over the last few years to supplant the United States as the Saudis’ chief armourer, in deals which would be worth upwards of $500 billion.  No mention of the Saudi human rights record, which is one of the worst in the world.  How long would Charlie Hebdo last in the Kingdom?   Such hypocrisy is the product of the oscillation between Kant and Hobbes. 

So too with the obnoxious Netanyahu, who has caused embarrassment in Israel with his apparent efforts boorishly to push his way to the front of the leaders’ march.  In an extraordinarily vulgar and sick display, the Israeli Foreign Ministry contacted the families of the Vincennes victims, offered burial in Jerusalem for their loved ones, and then asked each family for $13,000 for the privilege.  The funeral was attended by Bibi and by President Reuvin Rivlin.  Netanyahu had already ruffled a few feathers in France by calling on its Jewish community, while he was in Paris, to make aliyah, or emigrate to Israel: that is, while he was in France to march for French liberal freedoms, he compared the situation of Jews in France to that of Jews in Spain before the Inquisition.   Zionism reaches out to claim its own no matter how cynical the timing or crass the gesture, and France, where recently some pro-Palestinian protests have been banned, will do very little to stop it.  The supposed universalism of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ segues into the blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism of Zionism, without skipping a beat.  From French colonialism to Zionist colonialism - no wonder Israel supported France during the Algerian independence struggle.


The responses of France’s intellectuals to this history have varied.  The father of modern French liberalism, Alexis de Tocqueville, firmly believed in the importance of control of Algeria to the consolidation and security of the French republic.  Even as he was writing Democracy in America, and criticizing the emerging American polity’s genocidal policies regarding native peoples, Tocqueville was supportive of France’s punitive actions in Algeria: as ably demonstrated by Melvin Richter, nationalism triumphed over Tocqueville’s liberalism.  A century later, Camus would lurch away from justice to the defence of his mother on the same terrain: he saw the Algerian nationalist uprising as part of a new ‘Arab imperialism’.  But Sartre, prefacing Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre in 1961, had a better grasp of the trends of history, noting that France, along with the other European empires, had made the toxic mistake of ‘laying claim to and denying the human condition at the same time’ in its approach to its erstwhile colonial subjects.  Here is Fanon himself:

Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry.  Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.  For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience.

Fanon’s critique of French humanism in Algeria took place in parallel with the critique of humanism by a great generation of French thought: Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard.  Helene Cixous, one of France’s leading feminists, is also an Algerian Sephardic Jew who noted years ago the conjuncture of radical French philosophy with the Algerian war and decolonisation – Derrida, also an Algerian Sephardi, developed the same theme. 

Today, alas, we live in the era of a renewed French liberalism (developed by the likes of Pierre Rosanvallon), and the leftovers of the ‘nouveaux philosophes’.   Ludicrous figures such as Bernard-Henri Levy (so memorably described by Perry Anderson as a ‘crass booby’), and mediocrities such as Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard Kouchner dominate French public intellectual discussion.   If the new philosophers saw their task in the 1980s as the demolition of a non-existent French ‘totalitarianism’, they now are tireless in their support for Western ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and in the defence of Israel.  In their reactionary Thermidorian response to 1968, the new philosophers exemplify Walter Benjamin’s famous point that ‘every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution’.  Yet so also do the killers of Charlie Hebdo, whose grim butchery is the outworking of the failures of the secular left (rarely assisted by Western powers) in so many Arab countries.  In this sense, the state-worshipping outraged liberals find their dark doppelgängers in the religiously-motivated terrorists. 


What can we deduce from the foregoing?

1)      that no cartoons warrant the extra-judicial execution of artists and journalists anywhere;

2)      that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nearly always tasteless, offensive to many, and of debateable satirical force, and have been published in the context of the marginalisation, embattlement and poverty of much of the French Muslim population;

3)      that the marriage of spontaneous demonstrations with state-organised marches under the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ amounts to a triumph of statist ideological conquest and hegemony;

4)      that the presence of many leaders at the government-organised march – Saudi representatives, Netanyahu, Abbas, Erdogan – threatens to eviscerate the noble ideals of the Revolution;

5)      that the best position is a critical understanding of the contexts that have produced such savage violence, sympathy for the victims, and an articulate distance from the cynical efforts of powerful states (France, Israel) to make political capital from such terrible crimes.


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