The Charlie Hebdo attack is still serving as a hook on which to hang discussions about freedom of speech. So I’m posting here the text of a talk I gave (not quite word for word) at a meeting of the Edinburgh Branch of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) on 16 February.
A couple of days before the meeting, a gunman had opened fire on an event in Copenhagen entitled “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression”, killing one person, and had then opened fire again the following day outside a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing another person. The suspected gunman was subsequently shot dead by police.
Freedom of speech is a precious and complicated thing and warrants discussion. But the demonstrations that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the images and slogans that went with them, didn’t have anything to do with freedom of speech at all.
When I was asked to speak at this meeting, I thought that the passage of time since the attack in Paris would help to give some perspective on it. The murders in Copenhagen over the weekend mean on the contrary that the issue is still a raw one. The background to the Copenhagen incident remains unclear and the repercussions are still to be seen, so I’m going to focus on the Paris attack last month.
The men who carried out the attack in Paris weren’t simply some hotheads outraged by Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the Prophet. The firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices a few years ago might perhaps be seen like that, but the attack this year was obviously more calculated.
It wouldn’t have happened but for the wars instigated by the US and Britain that have been tearing the Middle East apart since 9/11. Possibly it still wouldn’t have happened but for the fact that everyone seems to be expecting an escalation of the conflict with ISIS in Iraq in the next few months.
The attack was horrible, but it’s important to keep it in perspective. It has been described as France’s 9/11, but of course it was far smaller than 9/11 or the 2005 London bombings, and far smaller than the killings that are happening now in Nigeria and Syria.
What happened immediately after the Paris killings was another matter, and deserves a lot of thinking about. About 1.5 million people demonstrated in Paris that Sunday in solidarity with the murder victims. There were large demonstration in other cities in France too, all mobilised in just a few days. The Paris demo was probably the biggest ever held in France. It was on the same kind of scale as the February 2003 demonstration in Britain against the Iraq war. But it wasn’t remotely the same kind of thing.
Perhaps people would quite often march in their millions for murder victims, if they had the opportunity to do so and came to believe there was some momentum and purpose behind what they were doing. But that doesn’t in fact happen. When two Kurdish women activists were assassinated in their Paris office in January 2013 – probably by agents of the Turkish state – nothing remotely like this year’s demo happened.
The mass mobilisation this year can’t be explained by empathy alone. It was focussed on symbols and ideas, not people. For a lot of the French media and political leaders, it was about the “values of the Republic.” For their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, it was about “European values.”
Even the phrase “Union Sacrée” was used – exactly the phrase used when French socialists capitulated to war fever in 1914. Whenever that phrase is used in France, you can be sure that something very dirty is afoot.
For all the people demonstrating with those cute pen symbols, it was about “freedom of expression.” The only good thing to come out of the demo was that a lot of people noticed that the world leaders lining up to be photographed in Paris weren’t exactly champions of a free press, and that French law itself has a rather shaky grasp of freedom of expression.
I don’t think it’s quite right to see this as hypocrisy. Hollande and Netanyahu and the other world leaders who lined up in Paris knew that the freedom of expression thing was just a code for something else. The “freedom of expression” slogan was actually no more about the right to express yourself than the tricolour is about colour coordination.
If you want to understand what 1.5 million people on a state-friendly demo really means, you only have to listen to what the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, had already said.
He had said the day before the demo that France was engaged in “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”
The war against terrorism isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a real war fought with planes and tanks and detention camps and torture. Manual Valls seems to proposing a war of that kind against radical Islam and anything thought to be un-French.
A symbol that was everywhere – on the streets of Paris and beyond – was the slogan “Je suis Charlie.”
Charlie isn’t much of a thing to be. The Charlie Hebdo magazine directed its satire at a lot of targets, some of them the kind of targets that satire washes off like water off a duck’s back. But it seemed to particularly like targeting Islam, and Muslims, and Arabs. It did it with images that borrow from every nasty racist stereotype you’ve ever seen, and every islamophobic dog-whistle phrase you’ve ever heard.
What’s called the right to freedom of expression really amounts to the right to colonial plunder. It goes something like this:
“You guys have got a Prophet? Right, we’ll have some of that. You don’t make images of your Prophet? Fantastic! Our images will have so much more impact.”
It’s just another form of cultural appropriation. It’s interesting that some of the people who were quickest to see it were anti-racist activists in the US, especially people who had been active over Ferguson and the “Black Lives Matter” protests.
It used to seem that here in Europe our proximity to the Islamic world led people to take a more nuanced approach to the so-called “war on terror” than was usual in the US. That’s changing, and it creates new dangers as well as some new opportunities to form progressive alliances.
Every time we hear the old “clash of civilisations” junk, we need to think back 3 or 4 years and remember how Tahrir Square became the inspiration for the Occupy movement, for movements against austerity in Spain, for movements against austerity in Greece. The way that the Arab Spring was subsequently undermined and destroyed and soaked in blood isn’t very different from the strategy that we see working to destroy resistance to austerity here.
Charlie Hebdo’s racism is a symptom of a wider problem in France.
At the moment, France is the most islamophobic country in the EU, in terms of state and institutional islamophobia. The extent of islamophobia in daily life is harder to assess, but the entrenchment of islamophobia in law, in politics and in public institutions is very clear.
The French left hasn’t attempted to organise against the National Front and Le Pen in anything like the way UAF has managed here. Hand-in-hand with that, there’s been a failure to challenge islamophobia within the left.
In the French municipal election last March, a lot of Muslims voted for the National Front. The media generally reported that as a backlash against gay marriage. But when I was at an islamophobia conference in London in December, organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, I heard a different story.
Muslims had voted for the National Front not because they believed it had anything to offer them, but in order to punish the left in the sharpest way possible.
It worked. The left began to take Muslims seriously.
But that was in December. Now the French Prime Minister is at war with radical Islam, people have been arrested in France for expressing vague sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo attackers, and there is a mass campaign in French schools requiring children to say “I am Charlie Hebdo.” And inevitably there has been a spate of attacks on mosques and Muslims.
Most probably we’ll soon see Hollande trying to use the theme of national unity and the “Union Sacrée” to prop up the austerity measures that caused his Socialist Party such losses in the March elections.
Here in Britain, we’ve seen the Charlie Hebdo attack used to give an extra push to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act that was already being railroaded through Parliament.
The Act is potentially the most far-reaching and the most directly islamophobic and divisive of all the anti-terrorist legislation enacted over the last 15 years. There are still opportunities to resist it, especially here in Scotland where key parts of the Act depend on statutory instruments that are still to be agreed by Westminster, and that require consultation with the Scottish Government. We need to seize these opportunities.
Photo: Demo in Paris in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, 11 January 2015. © Kelly Kline, Some Rights Reserved