The Paris Assassinations in Global Context

Kevin B. Anderson

The killings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in the context of global jihadism and imperialism, which feed on each other, and of free speech/ethnic oppression and their contradictions, especially in France – Editors

paris-banlieues-creaphis.1181308035(Persian Translation)
(Spanish Translation)

Two hundred years ago, the German philosopher Hegel wrote of the dehumanization that occurred during the Great Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1789 as a form of “death that achieves nothing, embraces nothing within its grasp; it is thus the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water.”

The Great Terror, which impersonally executed thousands even suspected of opposition to the newly constituted liberal order, destroyed the French Revolution from inside, paving the way for a turn to the right under Napoleon. In lopping off the heads of the aristocracy and secularizing the state, it also created space for the impersonal form of domination that is modern capitalism. However, as Hegel also acknowledged, this form of Terror, which emerged out of revolution, did not erase all of the gains of 1789 in terms of human rights, for France or the world.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on the kosher supermarket in Paris, while equally dehumanized, come from another direction, from an utterly reactionary ideology and movement with global reach, radical Islamist jihadism. The two gunmen who assassinated the 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo affirmed openly their allegiance to Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, while the one who murdered 4 French Jews at the supermarket spoke of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These violent and vile fanatics, whose ideology has a lot in common with fascism, insist that their authoritarian and intolerant form of Islam be imposed upon the world, by force if necessary.

In the same days, their counterparts in the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria used a ten-year-old girl as suicide bomber in a marketplace, killing nearly twenty people. The Nigerian events underscored two other facts relevant to the Paris attacks. First, the vast majority of the victims of these movements are other Muslims deemed not Muslim enough, or collateral damage. Second, the lack of discussion of the Nigerian deaths, even by the Nigerian government, showed that when the victims are African, Middle Eastern, or South Asian Muslims, the world holds a double standard in terms of acknowledgment of the humanity of the victims.

It would be wrong, however, to limit our outrage to the most extreme forms of Islamism, like those of the Paris attackers, ISIS, or Boko Haram. For more than four decades, a close ally of the U.S. and Western European powers, Saudi Arabia, has used its vast financial power to spread across the globe its reactionary, virulently sexist form of Islam, Wahhabism, an ideology that lies at the root of most modern forms of Sunni fundamentalism. (On this point see the interview with Gilbert Achcar on “Democracy Now.”) Those forms of Sunni extremism that are too unpalatable for the Saudi state itself to fund, like Al Qaeda or ISIS, have often found support from individual wealthy patrons from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies.

Western capitalism and imperialism have given these movements plenty of fertile ground for their development and growth, not to speak of outright aid to them, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s. For example, U.S. intelligence agencies helped to wipe out the left in places like Iran, Iraq, and Indonesia, creating a vacuum that could be filled by radical Islamism, a newer, reactionary form of anti-imperialism. This was most spectacularly the case in Iran in 1979. In the last decade, the U.S. occupation of Iraq opened the door to several forms of radical Islamism, a Shia faction of which, supposedly moderated now, is currently in power. The other examples are too numerous to mention here.

But the French domestic context is equally important. There, as in the rest of Western Europe, immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries and their descendants are relegated to ghettoes in the suburbs (banlieus) of Paris and elsewhere, where they suffer economic and racial oppression, as well as police brutality and mass incarceration. With six million members, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and one of the most alienated and oppressed among them. At 9% of the population, this community has little representation in the state or civil society, and its youth are constantly harassed and criminalized by the police.   It should also be noted that these communities originate in French colonial rule in North Africa, where the French murdered people on a vast scale in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not only is the racist and destructive heritage of that colonialism not fully recognized, but in recent years a law was passed to enjoin teaching the “positive” elements of colonialism in French public schools.

Moreover, in part as the heritage of the Enlightenment tradition, French society, including some parts of the Left, remain “colorblind” in a way that shows, at best, an extreme insensitivity to cultural difference. This, as well as outright racist Islamophobia, was behind the headscarf ban in French schools, a practice that in my view should neither be prohibited (as in France) nor required (as in Iran). Thus, a magazine like Charlie Hebdo, whose cartoonists traced their worldview to the 1960s, prided itself on its secularism and opposition to all religion. These talented and creative artists failed to recognize that the world had changed since 1968, and that ridiculing and profaning Islam constituted the humiliation of a largely voiceless oppressed minority within their own country.

It is one thing to defend those like Salman Rushdie or Malala Yousafzai, critics of the dominant forms of Islam who have emerged from within such communities. It is another matter when relatively privileged outsiders like Charlie Hebdo, drawn from what is perceived, and rightly so, as the dominant cultural institutions of a racist society like France (or the USA, or the UK, or Germany) criticize or ridicule Islam, in societies where Muslims form oppressed minorities. Of course they have the legal right to do so, but what about the moral right? For this reason, our 2006 article on the Danish cartoons saw them as an example of Islamophobic racism, while also opposing their instrumentalization by reactionary Islamists and opportunistic politicians in the Muslim world.

For the above reasons, the massive demonstrations in France of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo need to be seen as contradictory in character. On the one hand, they represent a humanist revulsion at a brutal political assassination – and a racist murder of Jews — that sought to suppress free speech and secularism. But they also show the hypocrisy of modern Western liberalism, especially when one sees people like Netanyahu, the butcher of Gaza, in the front row of the photo-op before the march among the respectable “world leaders.”

Those who carried out these brutal attacks in Paris, seeking martyrdom for themselves at the same time, would no doubt like to spark a civil war in Europe against Muslims, in hope of radicalizing the community in their alien and retrogressive direction. Rightwing anti-immigrant groups like the French National Front are after the same thing. (On this point, see Juan Cole’s article.)

Do the Paris attacks represent a new wave of radical Islamism, or its twilight? It is too early to tell. One can hope, however, that the worldwide revulsion, including among the vast majority of Muslims, will help to dry up the pockets of support that exist for Al Qaeda and ISIS. That will depend a lot upon how France and other societies where Muslims form minorities react to the Paris events. And that will depend in turn upon whether progressives and leftists can carve out more space there and globally for an agenda that opposes class domination in such a way as to allow more space for the variety of human experiences and cultures, and to take greater account of forms of oppression based upon race and ethnicity, religious identity (or not), gender, and sexuality.

 

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9 Comments

  1. hamid

    I think the article is suffering from the lack of objective reality of the Islamic/periphery world; Islamism as an Ideological-political component, which is embedded within the superstructure of reproduction system, which in turn is synchronised with the globally pre-determined cycle of capital accumulation.
    I understand your concerns with the anti-Muslim/raciest aspect of the massacre. However the “project” like this is normally planned and implemented from the source, i.e., Islamic periphery; e.g. Iran Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabian… We don get into the degree of Western imperialist’s involvements here.
    To separate Islam as an ancient religion from politically ideologiezed Islamism is one thing, but to ignore the role of the latter in suppressing whole region with almost perfect harmony with imperialist needs and demands of the core of capitalist world; i.e., maintaining the cycle of capital accumulation running, is something else.
    One needs to have some live experiences from the Islamic periphery to understand that there is no much difference between Jihadism and Islamism of Khomeini, Taliban, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi… The latest experience/experiment with Islamism in Turkey with the AKP inside the state machinery can be a case study for those who are still seeking the truth.
    hamid

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  2. Ayala Leyser

    That’s the big picture at which we need to look to draw some useful lessons. Thanks, Kevin, for an excellent analysis of some very disturbing as well as confusing world dynamics.

    Reply
  3. D. Beltaigne

    Kevin Anderson’s article, in putting the Paris assassinations, not only in a global context, but a historic and philosophic one as well, went a long way in giving meaning to these two events in France and those in Nigeria. Much was said that needed to be said, particularly with respect to the Left and the satire of Charlie Hebdo:
    “Thus, a magazine like Charlie Hebdo, whose cartoonists traced their worldview to the 1960s, prided itself on its secularism and opposition to all religion. These talented and creative artists failed to recognize that the world had changed since 1968, and that ridiculing and profaning Islam constituted the humiliation of a largely voiceless oppressed minority within their own country.
    “It is one thing to defend those like Salman Rushdie or Malala Yousafzai, critics of the dominant forms of Islam who have emerged from within such communities. It is another matter when relatively privileged outsiders like Charlie Hebdo, drawn from what is perceived, and rightly so, as the dominant cultural institutions of a racist society like France (or the USA, or the UK, or Germany) criticize or ridicule Islam, in societies where Muslims form oppressed minorities. Of course they have the legal right to do so, but what about the moral right? For this reason, our 2006 article on the Danish cartoons saw them as an example of Islamophobic racism, while also opposing their instrumentalization by reactionary Islamists and opportunistic politicians in the Muslim world.”
    With each and every event like this, we become witness to the growing irrelevancy with which the Left is held. There are many in France and elsewhere, while against the terrorism perpetrated against secular society, don’t view the tauntings of Charlie Hebdo toward the Muslim community as fair. I believe their instincts to be correct.

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  4. Jose

    Very interesting and insightful article, with a precise historical illustration. Also, Anderson’s highlighting of the nearly 20 people killed in Nigeria those days, brings up another important topic: what subjects are seen as most relevant?, where does “global” attention go (among the thousands of issues available to debate)?, whose deaths count?, etc.

    The theatre of the leaders of European countries “demonstrating” in Paris to condemn terrorism (and defending freedom of expression) may illustrate the interests behind wide discussions about Islamic fanatism. An illustration of the cynicism of the power, is that the president of Spain attended the “demonstration”, and he leads the government that has just passed the “Gag law”, that condemns with fines between 600 and 6000 euros to those who take a picture of the police, also if they are beating peaceful people, among other hard represive measures implemented to erradicate demonstrations in public spaces.

    Nevertheless, one doubt that I think a part of the radical left has since very long ago, is to what extent the Islam is a religion compatible with a profoundly socialistic free society, without class, gender or religious forms of domination. In his essay, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed how the Protestant morality and values are much more compatible with capitalism and capitalist world life-styles than the previous Catholic morality, which, among other things, do not consider work as necessarily good or particularly moral. Among many other issues, the pessimist views towards Islam (which started to expand militarily already with Muhammed, who started the jihad, and in 100 years had militarily expanded to Baghdad in the East, and to Spain in the West) is that the Koran claims to have been literally dictated to Muhammed by god, and that poses a serious problem to any radical reinterpretation, as it has happened with Christianity, of which the theology of liberation, which spread not long ago in South America, is a clear example…
    Jose

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  5. Paulo Morel

    Unavoidably the Western centric perspective is also operative in the Left when it comes to the examination of the Paris murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, if I understood correctly both Kevin Anderson’s well written piece and the comments by Hamid. The public spectacle of hypocrisy by the so called “world leaders” in Paris together with the right wing Israeli prime-minister exploring the tragic events for their reactionary socio-political agendas, is nauseating enough. It fools only the already “converted”, those who “want” to be fooled. It was a manipulated media creation: at this point we don’t know any more who dictates to whom between the political establishment and the media establishment…

    Kevin writes about the contradictory character of the demonstrations in Paris following the cold blooded assassinations. Amplifying his idea, I can suggest that the events themselves are contradictory and cannot be simplified in their “contradictoriness”, so to speak. A lot of willful misinformation was reported about Charlie Hebdo as a “racist” publication targeting Islam. The three monotheisms: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Israel, the National Front and other right wing political organizations, conservative politicians, etc., were also through the years the target of the aggressive satire characteristic of the publication. Among all the “insulted” parties, the Islamists reacted with a barbaric act. We can see in it both the “spontaneous” desperation of those driven (by their marginal condition or by other reasons) to kill and be killed in the name of religion, and the calculated strategy and organizational structures of those who plan, direct and fund terrorist actions from the distance. To suggest, as many did, that the cartoonists “provoked” the attack and therefore are responsible for their tragic fate is already to accept the “logic” of “holy terror” and “divine” punishment. According to this logic, we are all now at the mercy of “divine revenge” everywhere, that is, the terrorist “message” has indeed been delivered.

    We can like or dislike Charlie’s “style” or genre. The aim of Charlie Hebdo, however, was to contradict “l’air du temps”, the dominant “politically correct” sensibility of our neoliberal times. And if we question Charlie Hebdo’s “symbolic violence” for the reasons pointed out by Kevin, as well as many other analysts, we have at the same time to problematize the dominant “discourse of tolerance”, the various discourses of “difference” and “identity” that are tributary of the liberal and neoliberal ideological atmosphere of our times in the West and elsewhere (also having in mind the fact that the meaning of “political correctness” varies from place to place: as an ideological discourse it has its own internally and externally contradictory aspects). The failure to defy the prevailing ideology exposes a problematic limitation of radical critique nowadays countering the dominant ideas of the time.

    As indicated by Hamid there is a structural complementarity between the Islamic periphery and the Neoliberal center. Zizek has pointed out the ideological complementarity between Liberalism and Islamism. The “war of religions” or the “war of civilizations” are instrumental in preserving the status quo in the US and Europe as well as in the Arab countries and in Iran. As long as that complementarity is not vigorously brought to light and critically surpassed by the Left, we will all be the unwilling accessories to the demise of radical critique by the mis-evaluation of what is at stake in the present crisis. Among other things, at stake is also the critical heritage of the Enlightenment, as absorbed and recreated by Socialism in the 19th century.

    To put it rather bluntly: if we indeed refuse the right wing ideology of the “clash of civilizations”, we must as well refuse the complementary generic discourse of “colonial guilt” (as against the critical examination of colonialism and imperialism) that, among other things, can and is in fact used to paralyze the much needed radical critique of the various discourses of identity in the center as well as in the periphery. The “critique of the critique” is an urgent task in these times of ideological mis-perceptions and generalized confusion.

    Going at step further I will ask: what have we, radical socialists, to do with ideas as “blasphemy”. “profaning”, and the like? Do we de-politicize the debate and assume a “moralizing” view of social reality by utilizing such notions?

    Paulo Morel

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  6. Ayala Leyser

    As suspected, the Paris assassinations, did increase awareness and further polarize communities everywhere. Unfortunately much of the awreness raised was focused on the light under the lamp-post. While Pegida gained some muscle, so did anti Pegida 100,000 demonstrators who marched this week thru Germany. But numbers are not the most scary part of Pegida, rather, the change in profile, as more educated, younger, (not youngish) people, not affiliated with the NSD, join in. And while racism was not directly implied, the slogans “smelled” very white, with raised flags of other European countries as well as the German flag, and new calls for reconciliation with Russia. Looks like we are facing an escalation in fear and hate, which mask the underlying ulcer of Class/Race, and I wonder how can we use the momentum to enlarge the scope of attention.

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  7. Jonathan

    Again, this seems, like so many other articles, trying to circumvent the real issue by presenting us with an image that the West is imperialistic, and these minorities are oppressed, hence their rage – conveniently ignoring the fact that Western nations don’t bear the brunt of terrorist attacks, whom the Muslims only seem happy to murder the citizens of.

    What is important to understand is that like all religion, Islam is a choice that people make, and largely survived by hijacking the host culture that fell victim to it. It is not anything like race, or an ethnic group, a trait no one has the ability to choose at will. While the Muslims may indeed by a oppressed minority, that in no way justifies what they did. Attempting to present us a view on where they came from is dangerous, because it seeks to minimize the culpability of those who picked up a gun out of their own volition and murdered those individuals. Being oppressed is not a good enough reason to murder like a coward.

    “It is one thing to defend those like Salman Rushdie or Malala Yousafzai, critics of the dominant forms of Islam who have emerged from within such communities. It is another matter when relatively privileged outsiders like Charlie Hebdo, drawn from what is perceived, and rightly so, as the dominant cultural institutions of a racist society like France (or the USA, or the UK, or Germany) criticize or ridicule Islam, in societies where Muslims form oppressed minorities. Of course they have the legal right to do so, but what about the moral right? For this reason, our 2006 article on the Danish cartoons saw them as an example of Islamophobic racism, while also opposing their instrumentalization by reactionary Islamists and opportunistic politicians in the Muslim world.”

    They have the legal right to, a moral right is then irrelevant. I might not be morally correct in insulting Christianity, but why should my freedom be impeded by your sensibilities, especially concerning a religion that actively encourages misogyny, misandry, child sex, pedophilia, murder and rape?

    While you may have reservations, or even a false sense of obligation not to, insulting Islam, may of those who’ve endured it don’t, such as myself. To me and many others, Islam is like right wing ideology. You’re just afraid of criticising it because it’s not your “culture”.

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  8. Jose

    It is important not to mix texts and make a soup of confusing concepts. One thing is the West-commodity-media-pseudomoralist text about what it means or does not mean to be a Muslim, which leads to the false consciousness or ideology on which Marx wrote about. And something very different is to go to the religious texts themselves, and to the history texts, and to think, discuss, etc. about them. It seems strange to consider sacred and out of discussion the Koran, a text with so much power and weight since more than twelve hundred years, while limiting the radical left discussion to an oft-heard critique of Christianism, imperialism, etc.

    Nau sei what critique of the critique or what would be an ubercritique, although it would be strategic to be good compañeros on the sea on a broad scale, while navigating towards or a new world…
    Jose Cano

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  9. Peter Hudis

    Kevin Anderson’s piece represents an excellent analysis, and I’m glad to see that it has spurred so much discussion.

    For now I would add this much: Jonathan’s statement “While the Muslims may indeed by an oppressed minority, that in no way justifies what they did” shows a lack of perspective. “Muslims” did not attack Charlie Hebdo or the synagogue; a handful of individuals who CLAIM adherence to a small, marginal sect of Islam rejected by the vast majority of Muslims did so. It makes no more sense to refer to “the Muslims” than to refer to “the socialists” in denouncing Auschwitz (after all, Hitler did call himself a “socialist,” yes?).

    Moreover, while religion is not the same as a race or ethnicity, that does not mean that those who attack wholesale an entire religion without making any distinctions as to its various tendencies and interpretations are not operating in accordance with the same twisted logic as used by racists. There are moments (unfortunately) in which racism and prejudice against those who adhere to a given religion dovetail with one another.

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FROM THE SAME AUTHOR