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MARY SCULLY

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 4/15/2017 |



Now that the furor over the Charlie Hebdo massacre has abated we can assess the political experience: the issues, ironies, problems, and consequences, starting with the still unanswered questions about the crime itself. 

The attack by gunmen on the Paris offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was barbaric. Twelve people were mowed down with assault weapons in cold blood. Police and witness reports conflicted. Witnesses reported two gunmen; the police reported three. Two got away in a car and initially no one knew where the third disappeared to. They didn't know much about the crime at all, most of all who committed it, but of course the assumption right off-the-bat was that it was Muslims since the magazine gained notoriety from mockery and insults to Islam--as if Islamic theology mandates mass murder when offended.

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, French citizens of Algerian descent, were identified within hours, along with the 18-year-old brother-in-law of Chérif Kouachi, initially accused of driving the getaway car. What's puzzling is where that accusation came from since videos of the getaway do not appear to show a third person waiting in the car and when he turned himself into police he was found to have a solid alibi.

The Kouachi brothers are either among France's dumbest criminals or the story doesn't add up, starting with their leaving an ID card in the abandoned getaway car and going on a crime spree involving hijacking another car and robbing a petrol station. Why would well-trained jihadists, as police claim they were, draw such attention to themselves when they're on the lam? And then, when they holed up in a manufactory, they allegedly did everything possible to draw police attention to themselves (including leaving a hostage go free) before police laid a several hour siege to the building and took both brothers out. 

Although it doesn't appear to play much role in the official narrative now, Amedy Coulibaly, who allegedly knew the Kouachi brothers from jihadist circles, linked the story to antisemitism by going on a shooting spree ending up with a shootout in a Jewish supermarket where he killed four people and demanded the Kouachi brothers be freed. Coulibaly apparently played no role in the Charlie Hebdo massacre but at the time his murder of four Jewish shoppers was presented as even more damning evidence of "Islamic terrorism." There are several inconsistancies and unanswered questions here. Did Coulibaly become part of the narrative after they learned the brother-in-law was not involved? Did they have to contrive another third man? They also need to explain why French police violated all sorts of search and seizure rights hunting for the suspects. 

Skepticism about the official narrative is called for but we aren't likely to learn the full truth about this incident and it's not politically productive to fixate on it anymore than on 9/11 or other alleged conspiracies because it dead-ends politically and has us wrapped up in debating whether Mossad  and French intelligence, or even the CIA were involved. It's very possible, maybe even likely, they were involved but our political work lies with figuring out how to respond to the problems this assault creates for civil liberties, antiwar opposition and Palestinian solidarity, not in second-guessing and speculating about the possibilities of a covert operation when we cannot know that for certain. 

Charlie Hebdo is described as a satirical and iconoclastic weekly newspaper that comes out of a left-wing tradition and reportedly offends all religions without prejudice or favoritism, from Catholicism to Islam. Of course, the flaw of that defense is that Catholicism is not under attack in France, while Islam is being targeted. You don't have to read French to see the xenophobia and racism in the cartoons that pandered to the most reactionary political forces in France. It wasn't so much satirical as scurrilous hate-mongering. One nearly imbecilic and not at all flattering defense of the cartoons is that they are quintessentially French satire rather than racist as they appear to the rest of the world. Political cartoons by their very nature exaggerate what they are skewering. But the civil rights and feminist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s threw cartooning for a loop because new sensitivities were required. Racist and misogynist caricatures were recognized for what they were. Many cartoonists have let their consciousness lag behind their art form which means a good share of caricature is unusable by progressives if you want to post on political figures like Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Netanyahu. Many cartoonists continue to mask social hatred behind caricature and their work is too racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic to use. Cartooning is a very international art form and social hatred entirely identifiable in much of it.

Art is not sacrosanct nor artists immune from social responsibility. We would wish the cartoonists had found higher purpose for their art than racism but they didn't. The distinction between satire or social criticism and racist, hateful propaganda is striking, not subtle. And definitely not distinguished between France and the rest of the world.

One media source offered the pompous justification for racism in Charlie Hebdo that freedom of the press is "absolute"--which is simply not true in any country. Freedom of the press, which is part of freedom of speech, has all sorts of restrictions including on porn, defamation, incitement, obscenity, copyright violations. In France, the Press Law of 1881 governing media has a rich political history with specific provisions identifying hate speech and incitement to racism or violence as crimes. Other European countries also have hate laws implemented in the wake of the holocausts of WWII. Charlie Hebdo was prosecuted and acquitted in 2007 for inciting social hatred against Muslims and firebombed in 2011. It's editor, killed in the attack, was under police protection from numerous death threats. They paid a heavy price for their interpretation of freedom of speech.

The pandering to reaction does not mitigate one iota the outrage over the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Even if it expressed fanatical Islamophobia, freedom of speech is an achievement of the French Revolution that ended feudal rule and introduced popular democracy. If it is abridged in an ill-conceived attempt to defend Islam, it will be abridged most of all for those who oppose Islamophobia--because Islamophobia is the guiding ethos of neoliberal politics & military policy today.

Those who want to change the world don't have to be pacifists or sheep led to slaughter. Self-defense is a human right but progressive movements do not use the death squad methods of terrorist states like Israel, the US, Mexico, and so many other regimes because barbarism is incompatible with social transformation. The way to shut down racist journals is to create a movement--like the massive protests held in Paris and around the world last summer in solidarity with Gaza. The way to oppose xenophobia is to build solidarity with Afghans, Iraqis, the Black community in the US, the disappeared in Mexico. The only way to defeat social hatred politically is to out-mobilize its proponents.

The victims weren't yet buried nor the suspects apprehended before the tsunami of backlash crescendoesd from a clamor about "Liberté" and freedom of speech and took a decidedly Islamophobic turn. How do you say in French 'not everything that glitters is gold'? Sometimes it's just the sun reflected off merde. Every crowd that gathers is not an expression of human solidarity nor every "Je suis Charlie" sign a defense of civil liberties under attack. 

Perhaps it's fitting that what began as tragedy ended up as farce in the official French tribute to Charlie Hebdo. After all, if we've learned nothing else from this massacre, it is that you can play anything for a laugh. Right? It was satire writ large to see Hollande, Merkel, Netanyahu, and an entire entourage of war criminals lead off the political rally in Paris for "Liberté". But they adhere the right of terrorism entirely to themselves. It was disturbing to see them lead a march for free speech when they send riot cops with tear gas, grenades, water cannons, rubber bullets against unarmed protesters in their own countries. Did the Russian foreign minister go back to Putin and argue against repression? Will they stop incarcerating dissidents? Will France stop banning Palestinian solidarity rallies? Did Eric Holder come back and have a chat with Obama about pulling SWAT teams out of the Black community? And will the US now rethink that surveillance system that monitors our every email and FB post? It's not an accident Netanyahu was center stage in this criminal line-up. Israel's murderous siege on Gaza discredited the Exodus myth so carefully cultivated for 66 years and this jeopardizes neoliberal capitalism's plans for the Middle East. This protest wasn't just street theater and farce; it was an act of aggression against Muslims.

Thousands of protesters were going after Muslims under the guise of "Liberté". Islamophobia is the ethos of neoliberal capitalism used to justify massive restrictions on civil liberties and scare-monger us into supporting unspeakable crimes against humanity. Those who do not stand with Muslims against this choose to stand with tyranny, war, colonialism. One hopes the millions tweeting "Je suis Charlie" will be at the next antiwar protest chanting "Je suis Afghani and "Je suis Iraqi." And that those tweeting "Today we are all French" will remember Palestinians the next time Israel goes on a murderous rampage and tweet "Today we are all Palestinians."

Actually they can drop the facade on that free speech stuff. The demand for free speech is something you direct at governments, not two (or is it three?) dead gunmen. Reportedly, France is cracking down on people who even make smart cracks about Charlie Hebo. They arrested a teenager who did a satiric post about Charlie Hebdo on Facebook, accusing him of defending terrorism. Is that uniquely French sarcasm too? Or just commonplace political repression? What's not farcical is that attacks on Muslim businesses and mosques in France have increased (60 since the shooting); that an Islamophobic march in Germany attracted 20,000 thugs; and that Belgian police had a shootout against what they called an Islamist terrorist cell. They took them all out by claiming they were conspiring to commit acts of terror. Since when do you summarily execute people on an allegation? Why didn't they arrest them, interrogate them, prosecute them instead of killing them all? What about that "Liberté" free speech thing?

This Islamophobic stuff is going to crescendo and the only way to respond to it is to build the antiwar movement & Palestinian solidarity (which both involve Islamophobia). You can't talk people out of this rubbish. You have to answer it with power--which if it doesn't persuade, does silence the haters and intimidate the thugs.

You also can't stop this reactionary trend by "speaking truth to power"--unless when you speak truth to power you bring a million people with you. It can only be defeated by mobilizing the power of human solidarity against social hatreds of every kind and standing against their murderous wars. For those who think that too daunting and can't be done, think again. Over a million people around the world stood with Gaza last summer; the antiwar movement is weak now but in the past has mobilized millions on a single day around the world. The world is changed not by those who give up without a fight but by those who believe in the possibility of social transformation. Is there any proof of that? Is there any proof it doesn't? Is there any reason not to try?


[MARY SCULLY]

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