World Politics

Cynicism of colour-blind equal opportunity racism

Published on Wednesday, 28 January 2015 17:57
Written by Radical Socialist

 

 

 

The horrible atrocity of Charlie Hebdo shooting, resulting in the death of 12, has aroused indignation across the world and has given rise to the twitter campaign ‘Je suis Charlie’ (meaning ‘I am Charlie’). The anger and revulsion, that an atrocity like this generates, is understandable. People want to show solidarity with the victims and also stand up for the principle of free speech. Some have claimed that ‘Muslims’ need to apologize, and ‘Muslim leaders’ are not doing enough to fight terrorism. This public outcry brings out a few questions which have been largely ignored in the reporting of the corporate media and in the general public discussion: the fact that we do not live in a vacuum but instead in a society fraught with Islamophobia (and other forms of racism); while we defend an abstract principle of free speech we also have to remember that there is a difference between free speech and hate speech; and the origin of political Islam – imperialism.

 

Islamophobia

 

It should be said at the very outset, to avoid any misunderstanding, the attacks were horrible, and need to be mourned and condemned. Who would not? But, we need to be careful of the repercussions of such denouncements (the backlash that Muslims, Arabs and other people of colour faced in the aftermath of 9-11, and the ideological backing a discourse of Islamophobia provided for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).

 

We need to remember that it is the Muslims who have had to bear the brunt of fundamentalist Islam to begin with. It is the ordinary people in Pakistan who have been at the receiving end of school shootings in Peshawar1. Huge majority of Muslims are opposed to the ideas espoused by groups like the IS (Islamic State) and Al-Qaeda, and the people fighting IS on the ground today are Muslims. Yet, too often we find that the public denunciations have linked the atrocities to ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslims’, and talk about a ‘clash of civilizations’ leading to a further increase in Islamophobic discourse.

 

Islamophobic attacks are nothing new in France. According to one estimate, there have been 110 instances of Islamophobic violence from January to September 20142. Hence expectedly, within the first 24 hours of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, more than a dozen attacks were carried out against Muslims3. More than 50 attacks against Muslims have been reported since then, including gunshots, grenades, firebombs, carcass of pigs strewn across mosques, threats of violence via letters and insults4. This is similar to the backlash that Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis and other people of colour faced in the US in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Immediately, people have been identified, on the basis of a particular piece of clothing, skin colour or the kind of religious place they visit, to be against free speech and desirous of inflicting murder on unsuspecting victims. According to a survey done by Ipsos in 2013, 74% of French respondents feel that Islam is incompatible with French society5. Thus, these attacks or the backlash against Muslims in the wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks, are not happening in a vacuum. There is a long history of Islamophobia and non-inclusion of immigrant Muslims in French society, for which French colonialism in North Africa is to be blamed in no small measure. But, all we hear is about ‘clash of civilization’ narrative, where the West with all its history of colonialism and empire are the good guys and on a ‘civilizing’ mission.

 

Empire

 

It needs to be identified that the cause of what we see in the Middle East in general and in the Islamic countries, and the rise of political Islam is a direct consequence of imperialism. Britain and France had divided the Middle East amongst themselves. The egregious history of colonialism and empire, at the time, was defended by a large number of western philosophers in the name of ‘enlightenment’, ‘civilization’, ‘reason’, ‘rationality’ etc. The United States of America inherited the burden to ‘civilize’, and bring ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to the rest of humanity from Britain and France after World War II. Since the world had transformed from being based on coal to being based on oil, suddenly the vast oil reserves in the Middle East were an enormous source of wealth and power. The United States now considered the Middle East region as 'the most strategically important area of the world' and 'one of the greatest material prizes in world history'6. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to a British Ambassador in 1944:

 

Persian oil ... is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it's ours.’7

 

It was absolutely vital for any country that wished to be the super power to have control over those territories, not just for directly using the oil reserves (surely that) but also to decide who gets access, how that is decided and so on. The US strived forward to do so by crushing, not only any communist aspirations in the region (as elsewhere), but also all secular Arab nationalistic aspirations. It carried out coups, and toppled democratically elected governments across the Middle East, including in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan8.

 

Its most dependable allies in the region were Israel and Saudi Arabia. The former, a settler colonial apartheid state, and the latter espouses the most regressive interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, and have spent billions of dollars spreading this toxic ideology across the globe. The US State department website (updated on August 23, 2013) reads the following:

 

The United States and Saudi Arabia established full diplomatic relations in 1940. Saudi Arabia's unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its possession of the world's largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location make its friendship important to the United States.9

 

The price for imperial chess game played by the US had to be borne by ordinary working class people of the region. At the same time, the corporate media had maintained that the people in the Middle East (read Muslims) are so medieval and regressive that they do not want democracy or are not ready for democracy. This idea was proved to be untrue by the Arab Springs movements. While the peace loving USA in its commitment to promote ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ continued to support the Egyptian dictator10 and provide them with teargas canisters11, the medieval and backward Muslims took to the streets to fight brutal regimes in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. The more recent of the US interventions is the war on Iraq, carried out on fabricated evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Some estimates count the number of Iraqis killed to over a million12.

 

The recent occupation of Iraq followed an earlier regime of harsh economic sanctions, which led Denis J. Halliday, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq from September 1997 until 1998, to resign. He characterised the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq as 'genocide' and said the following:

 

I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take Security Council orders, the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq. I did not want to be complicit. I wanted to be free to speak out publicly about this crime.

 

And above all, my innate sense of justice was and still is outraged by the violence that UN sanctions have brought upon, and continues to bring upon, the lives of children, families – the extended families, the loved ones of Iraq. There is no justification for killing the young people of Iraq, not the aged, not the sick, not the rich, not the poor.

 

Some will tell you that the leadership is punishing the Iraqi people. That is not my perception, or experience from living in Baghdad. And were that to be the case – how can that possibly justify further punishment, in fact collective punishment, by the United Nations? I don’t think so. And international law has no provision for the disproportionate and murderous consequences of the ongoing UN embargo – for well over 12 long years.’13

 

Democrat Senator Madeline Albright when asked about the death of half a million Iraqi children, said that they were worth the price for US policy objectives14. The renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky speaks of the 2004 Fallujah attack as a war crime, where men aged between 15 to 45 were not allowed to flee the conflict zone, and the ground offensive included the attack on Fallujah General Hospital, where patients were restrained on the ground15 (what would clearly constitute war crimes). The recent Senate Committee report describe in detail some of the inhumane methods, like rectal feeding, used to torture prisoners16. The US government called it enhanced interrogation tactics. That is the civilized white man’s word for torture. This could be satire too, one which water-boarded medieval Muslims would not understand.

 

This is the backdrop for radicalization of a generation of young people—occupation and foreign intervention, and ideological indoctrination to the most regressive interpretation of Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia, a close US ally. Not to forget that France has had a particularly violent history of colonialism and occupation of Algeria and other North African countries. No coincidence that the two brothers carrying out the Charlie Hebdo shootings were of Algerian descent. This is not a defence of the killing of 10 cartoonists. This is an attempt to understand what drives people to murder cartoonists. Some people have asked all ‘Muslims’ to apologize for this atrocity, committed by a group of unelected minority claiming to be acting on behalf of a community. No such calls for apology by all Americans for droning of wedding parties, using depleted uranium, agent orange and white phosphorus, all authorized by elected representatives who were voted to power by ordinary Americans. No twitter campaign decrying the using of rectal feeding. Because the civilized and enlightened do not apologize17. They don’t count every nose they ‘schwack’ either18.

 

Free Speech

 

An estimated crowd of 3.7 million people were joined by many world leader including Netanyahu and General Sisi among others in Paris displaying signs reading ‘Je suis Charlie’ and proclaiming the inviolability of the right to free speech19. We should ask ourselves this question: what kind of free speech movement would allow people like Benjamin Netanyahu, General Sisi and US president Obama to be participants? In the summer of 2014, Israel launched a genocidal campaign on Gaza, where among others they killed 17 journalists in one instance20. Mohammad Saba'aneh, an acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist, was sentenced to five months in prison in Israel for contacting the publisher of a book about Palestinian prisoners' rights21. The situation for journalists have significantly worsened under General Sisi as described in a report prepared by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)22, and most notably 16 journalists, including three from Al-Jazeera, have been held since December 2013 for 'spreading false news' and 'membership of a terrorist organisation'23.

 

President Obama championed the cause of free speech and said the following of the Charlie Hebdo killings:

 

The fact that this was an attack on journalists, an attack on our free press, also underscores that these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press

 

Yet, it is this Obama who had personally called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and 'expressed concern' over the release of a well-known and independent journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye (effectively asking the journalist to be held in prison).24 According to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Leonard Downie Jr. and Sara Rafsky25, President Barack Obama has the worst record when it comes to freedom of journalists, ranked lower than George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. Obama administration's treatment of Edward Snowden and Chelsey Manning has not been anything less than vicious26.

 

France, on the other hand, is the first country to have banned protests against the settler colonial apartheid state of Israel27. France banned the usage of face covering in public places, which prohibited Muslim women to wear the burqa or niqab in public places. One reported incident records the miscarriage of a baby when a pregnant Muslim woman was attacked and kicked in the stomach for wearing a veil28. In 2005, France passed the act ‘French law on colonialism’, repealed in 2006, to teach the positive values of French colonialism in schools. Free speech indeed. This is true satire. This would be funny if the subject was not so grim. Jeremy Scahill would call this ‘a circus of hypocrisy’29.

 

But Charlie Hebdo and their supporters have claimed that they are equal opportunity racists – meaning they have ridiculed and hurt all religious sentiments and that they have been racists towards black people. For example Teju Cole writes the following:

 

Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.’30

 

They claim to have a proud history of attempting to be anti-Semitic, except, once in 2009, Charlie Hebdo ended up firing a cartoonist for anti-Semitism31. So much for equal opportunity racism and free speech. Commentators have pointed out that Charlie Hebdo in the recent past (last 5-6 years) have become Islamophobic and have unfairly targeted Muslims in France. Olivier Cyran, a previous employee of Charlie Hebdo, wrote an article about the Islamophobic nature of their cartoons back in 201332.

 

So the question arises: what would be satire, and what is hate speech? Are we allowed to use the N-word referring to blacks and say it was just a joke? Can we portray stereotypes most commonly associated with Jews (hooked nose, all Jews are bankers etc.) and say this just for good fun? Or is there anything called hate speech? It is important for us to recognize that while we would want to defend the principle of free speech, given our politics, we are opposed to all forms of hate speech, especially when directed against the socially disenfranchised. Thus, we cannot celebrate the magazine which depicts the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb instead of a turban in his head, buttressing the stereotype that Islam is based on violence or all Muslims are of violent disposition etc., just as we would not defend a magazine depicting a hooked nose Jew counting money. And yet, we would not want anyone to be physically harmed because someone drew an anti-semitic/racist/sexist/islamophobic cartoon. We would want to fight their ideas politically. This is precisely the reason why we deplore the Islamophobia of Charlie Hebdo as we mourn the deaths of their cartoonists.

 

Furthermore, there is something to be said about the difference between free speech from bullying. The politics of mocking, at best, is limited. But the politics of mocking when directed to the socially disenfranchised, towards the weak, becomes the politics of bullying. While those who mock the weak should not be attacked physically, we need not valorise them to be heroes either, in fact our responsibility is to contest their ideas politically. Muslims are yet to have equal citizenship in practice in France. When cartoonists and free speech defenders proclaim that freedom of speech is a peculiarly French trait, they do not include Muslim French citizens, they mean it to be a non-Muslim French trait. So mocking Muslims in France, USA and elsewhere, is not the same as mocking Obama, Netanyahu, Hollande and Sisi for their ‘circus of hypocrisy’.

 

A true show of international solidarity would be a position of anti-war and anti-imperialism, which recognizes the nature and origin of fundamentalist violence and locates it in imperialism. We need to show solidarity with secular aspirations in all these nations, fighting imperialism. One way would be to build an anti-war, anti-imperialist movement which would not only challenge theocratic governments in their own country but also challenge the role played by USA and other western nations, cynically supporting vicious dictators with money and military training against the general will of the people of the region. Such a movement would never find amongst them people who sit down every Tuesday to decide who would be the target of their next drone strikes33, or would not find amongst their midst who call ‘incremental ethnic cleansing’ ‘mowing the lawn’34. We need to elevate the level of our politics and criticisms for this to be a true solidarity worth upholding. And let us be honest, this was not about free speech, if it had been, France would not have curbed free speech in order to defend it35. But, maybe this is irony or satire I would not understand as a brown person bereft of civilizational values. - By Kolpona, January 24, 2015.

 

1 (22 December 2014) Pakistan school massacre: Who are the dead? BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-30508689 (Last accessed Jan 23, 2014)

 

2 (13 January, 2014) Anti-Muslim acts escalate after Paris terrorist attacks. France 24. Retrieved from http://www.france24.com/en/20150113-france-anti-muslim-acts-spread-charlie-hebdo-terrorist-attacks-islam-mosques/ (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

3 Fisher, M. (January 10, 2015). This map shows every attack on French Muslims since Charlie Hebdo. http://www.vox.com/2015/1/10/7524731/french-muslims-attacks-charlie-hebdo

 

4 (13 January, 2014) Anti-Muslim acts escalate after Paris terrorist attacks. France 24. Retrieved from http://www.france24.com/en/20150113-france-anti-muslim-acts-spread-charlie-hebdo-terrorist-attacks-islam-mosques/ (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

5 Scheller, A. and Diehm, J. (10 January 2015). Anti-Muslim Attacks After Charlie Hebdo Highlight France's Long History Of Islamophobia. The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/09/islamophobia-in-france_n_6445064.html?ir=India (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

6 Chomsky, Noam (January/February 2005) "Imperial Presidency", Canadian Dimension, Vol. 39, No. 1 p. 8

 

7 Yergin, D (1991) The Prize: The Epic quest for Oil, Money and Power New York: Simon and Schuster p 401

 

8 We confine ourselves only to the Middle East. Besides this, USA has carried out similar policies across Latin America, Vietnam etc.

 

9 http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3584.htm (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

10 Hillary Clinton considered the Hosni Mubarak, the brutal dictator of Egypt, a family friend (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/01/secretary-clinton-in-2009-i-really-consider-president-and-mrs-mubarak-to-be-friends-of-my-family/), until it was embarrassing to admit it.

 

11 Lennard, N. (23 February, 2013) Egypt imports 140,000 tear gas canisters from U.S. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2013/02/22/egypt_imports_140000_tear_gas_canisters_from_u_s/ (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

12 A September 14, 2007, estimate by Opinion Research Business (ORB), an independent British polling agency, suggests that the total Iraqi violent death toll due to the Iraq War since the U.S.-led invasion is in excess of 1.2 million (1,220,580), confirming the earlier count of a Lancet study. On January 28, 2008, ORB published an update based on additional work carried out in rural areas of Iraq. Some 600 additional interviews were undertaken and as a result of this the death estimate was revised to 1,033,000 with a given range of 946,000 to 1,120,000. A more conservative estimate on MIT's website claims that approximately 600,000 people have been killed in the violence of the war that began with the U.S. invasion in March 2003 (The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study 2002-2006 http://web.mit.edu/humancostiraq/reports/human-cost-war-101106.pdf)

 

13 Halliday, Denis. "2003 Gandhi International Peace Award Acceptance Speech". http://gandhifoundation.org/2003/01/30/2003-peace-award-denis-halliday-2/ (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

14 Madeline Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, said on CBS's 60 Minutes (May 12, 1996) in reply to Lesley Stahl's question "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" :'I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.' Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbIX1CP9qr4 (Last accessed Jan 23, 2015)

 

15 Chomsky, N. (April 4, 2006). Noam Chomsky on War Crimes in Iraq. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/73753/

 

16 Snyder, J. (Dec 10, 2014) CIA Detainees Dragged Naked Down Corridors, Force-Fed Rectally. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-09/detainees-held-in-cold-cells-force-fed-rectally-in-cia-program.html

 

17 "I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." - said then Vice President of the United States, George Bush, on Aug 2, 1988, after a civilian aircraft carrying 290 passengers, 66 of which were children, was shot down by the reckless USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988.

 

18 "[W]e don't have the ability to -- to count every nose that we schwack." said Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby, when asked about the number of Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) fighters killed in ongoing coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/pentagon-isis-deaths-we-cant-count-every-nose-we-schwack_823287.html

 

19 Fantz, A. (January 12, 2015) Array of world leaders joins 3.7 million in France to defy terrorism. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/11/world/charlie-hebdo-paris-march/

 

20 (August 29, 2014) These 17 Journalists Were Killed by Israel In Gaza. http://countercurrentnews.com/2014/08/these-17-journalists-were-killed-by-israel-in-gaza/

(November 19, 2012) Israeli spokesperson admits to targeting journalists in Gaza. http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/charlotte-silver/israeli-spokesperson-admits-targeting-journalists-gaza

 

21 Robbins, A. (April 12, 2013). Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh sentenced to 5 months in prison http://mondoweiss.net/2013/04/palestinian-cartoonist-sentenced

 

22 Mansour, S. (August 14, 2013) On the Divide: Press Freedom at Risk in Egypt. https://cpj.org/reports/2013/08/on-divide-egypt-press-freedom-military.php

 

23 Tran, M. (January 11, 2015) Presence at Paris rally of leaders with poor free press records is condemned. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/11/paris-rally-charlie-hebdo-free-press-reports-without-borders

Radsch, Courtney C. (June 3, 2014) Press freedom is now el-Sisi's choice. https://cpj.org/blog/2014/06/egypts-newly-elected-leader-abdel-fattah.php

 

24 Scahill, J. (March 13, 2012). Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen? http://www.thenation.com/article/166757/why-president-obama-keeping-journalist-prison-yemen

Abdulelah Haider Shaye's case is covered in Jeremy Scahill's documentary Dirty Wars which was nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

 

25 Downie Jr., L. and Rafsky, S. (October 10, 2013). The Obama Administration and the Press. http://www.cpj.org/reports/2013/10/obama-and-the-press-us-leaks-surveillance-post-911.php

 

26 Colson, N. (October 17, 2013). High-risk journalism http://socialistworker.org/2013/10/17/high-risk-journalism

 

27 Allen, P. (July 19, 2014). Outrage as France become first country in world to ban pro-Palestine demos. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2697194/Outrage-France-country-world-ban-pro-Palestine-demos.html

 

28 Nelson, Sara C. (June 19, 2013). Pregnant Muslim Woman 'Miscarries Baby After Veil Attack'. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/06/19/pregnant-muslim-woman-miscarries-baby-veil-attack_n_3464409.html

 

29 (January 12, 2015) "Circus of Hypocrisy": Jeremy Scahill on How World Leaders at Paris March Oppose Press Freedom. http://www.democracynow.org/2015/1/12/circus_of_hypocrisy_jeremy_scahill_on

 

30 Cole, T. (January 9, 2015). Unmournable Bodies. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/unmournable-bodies

 

31 Samuel, H. (Jan 2009). French cartoonist Sine on trial on charges of anti-Semitism over Sarkozy jibe. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/4351672/French-cartoonist-Sine-on-trial-on-charges-of-anti-Semitism-over-Sarkozy-jibe.html

 

32 Cyran, O. (5 December, 2013) “Charlie Hebdo”, not racist? If you say so…. http://posthypnotic.randomstatic.net/charliehebdo/Charlie_Hebdo_article%2011.htm

 

33 Obama decides who to drone every Tuesday

 

34 Israel’s term for intermittent ‘incremental genocide’ (term used by eminent historian Ilaan Pappe) of Palestinians in Gaza

 

35 Abunimah, A. (January 19, 2015). France begins jailing people for ironic comments. http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/france-begins-jailing-people-ironic-comments

Greenwald, G. (January 14, 2015) France arrests a comedian for his facebook comments, showing the sham of the West's “Free Speech” celebration https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/14/days-hosting-massive-free-speech-march-france-arrests-comedian-facebook-comments/