A lot more people are experiencing mixed feelings over the Charlie Hebdo massacre on Wednesday, after the immediate reaction of absolute horror had worn off, myself included. While the right-wing pundits wax lyrical about Muslim fanatics, and the liberal Guardianistas change their Facebook profile pictures to ‘Je Suis Charlie’, there seems to be more issues raised by the shooting than answered by the press.
On the one hand, I’m a staunch believer in ‘freedom of speech’ (or the fallacy of which, as in the West our freedom of speech isn’t as far reaching as the liberal elites tell us it is). The cartoonists were from the left wing institutions, involved in Paris ’68 and pro-migrant organizations and probably enemies of a lot of the rightwing presses iconizing them right now as martyrs against “Muslim tyranny”, when in fact this is a small, very violent, reactionary sect.
Ive also lost extended family in the bowels of Abu Grahib prison to a censorious, murderous dictatorship, and wouldn’t be alive today if my family hadn’t managed to flee from political persecution. Like many who are often intimidated by the twiterrati cliques, I find the post-modernist liberal tumblr often violent tirades against ‘offensive’ and ‘problematic’ politically baseless, reactionary and redundant. There is a lot of discussion raging right now at the topical and off-the-mark nature of the Hebdo cartoonist’s work, but the conclusions all seem to boil down to silencing potentially offensive material as a pre-emptive measure against people getting offended, hurt and upset- as if Hebdo was acting separately to mainstream discourse. As if the cartoonists were ‘asking for trouble’.
The media reflects what is already present in society. I think therefore I am. ‘Being’ determines ‘consciousness’. While the media is also a separate tool which the upper classes use to influence and impose hegemony and dominance, it is merely one of its facets, not its malignant core, and is in constant state of flux depending on the direction in which its subscribers lean to at different points in time. Such as the BBC is neither right nor left orientated per se, but will change which way it’s facing depending on where British society stands. In addition, material conditions and a complete removal of the current system change society, not banning words or images. In such, it is a liberal notion that you can just tweak the nasty bits of capitalism through policies and minor cultural shifts (or violence, for that matter) to make a more pleasant society- the schema behind ‘conscientious consumerism’ and the ‘capitalism with a human face’. You need to challenge the source, and Charlie Hebdo’s more ‘problematic’ (apologies for using liberal intersectionalist language) cartoons reflect attitudes in that society- arguably in all of society. While you can criticize them openly and challenge them on that basis, to ascertain that they are ultimately a cause and not a symptom too, that they deserved to be shot for causing offense or shouldn’t have incited that offense, while those tensions bubbled away underneath anyway, is lacking in historical and material understanding of how society works. The media stokes fires but there has to be a flame already there beforehand. And in any case, Hebdo were hardly a neo-nazi organization- and even if they were- they have the right to position themselves without threat of violence. It’s a nice liberal idea- and one the gunmen, ISIS and other terrorist groups as well as left wing “ultras” using machismo posturing- that you can stop an idea by destroying those who speak it aloud without challenging what causes that idea to arise in the first place.
Also Muslims aren’t a homogeneous group who exist permanently in a state offense, on the contrary. Like every other section of society, members react differently to different stimuli. Many have defended Charlie Hebdo and see the cartoons as a reflection of the regressive issues within a particular, and very minor in comparison, subset of the Islamic world. On that note, the whole of Islam isn’t responsible for what happened in the Hebdo offices. Religion isn’t just some oppressive force or fairy tales- it is a social vehicle. It is society speaking to itself. There are millions of Muslims worldwide who will differ hugely even within their readings of the Qu’ran.
ISIS and Al Quaeda are power-hungry thugs looking to capitalize on the widening gap between Middle Eastern and south Asian society. They are charlatans getting blinded angry young men to do their bidding for them.
The reason this has stuck with me is due to the fact my mother was also accused of drawing a ‘racist’ cartoon by Britain’s biggest union, Unison, who at the time was witchhunting socialists and hardline leftwing shop stewards, in a ludicrous case. Not least as my mother and one other member of the four accused aren’t white and the cartoon was only deemed to be racist by the union executive body and a handful of other people (members of Unison’s black caucus told my mum they hadn’t even seen the cartoon until after they’d got angry about it, as Unison told them it was ‘too offensive’ to even show it to them, then they saw it and realized Unison had well and truly played them). A lot of the cartoons being reported as racist, such as the Quenelle image, aren’t, but haven’t been properly translated or completely misunderstood. Some are clearly very racially-charged and this deserves to be pointed out, perhaps not the day after the shooting as common courtesy dictates. Either way, as I said above, it is a reflection on society at large and not deserving of death or censorship.
On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo were a select group of highly educated and predominantly white men with illustrious careers rubbing elbows with a very dogmatic and conservative elite. France, like most other European nations, is institutionally racist and has a brutal colonial past which the establishment is not one least bit apologetic about. The conditions of black and arab French migrants living in squalid ghettos outside of Paris is deplorable. The FN got 20% of the vote in the past government elections and France is one of the heavyweights on the ‘Belt of Bigotry’. Even the French left themselves aren’t distant from racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, though seemingly it takes form in Hitchen’s/Dawkin’s ‘anti-religion, pro- middle class white guys criticising religion from lofty pillars’ and ‘oh, but Islam isn’t a race’ guff. The cartoon of the Boko Haram girls which was disgusting and pathetic is really not becoming of a supposedly leftwing rag. While I don’t believe the Charlie Hebdo journalists have swatzika tattoos and goose step by the banks of the Rhine, they certainly aren’t exempt from any criticism at all. I don’t wish they had to die and suffer as they did, but if there is any introspection to be gained here, and I argue there is more than people think, a point is one has to be concerning the prevalence of racism in society.
However, the debate on freedom of speech is a shallow representation of what really went down at the Charlie Hebdo’s offices yesterday, and ties into why ISIS is recruiting so heavily from the west- which is the isolation, ghettoization, poverty, institutional racism and gaping inequality within capitalism. I’m not trying to portray the gunmen as innocent victims, as they were clearly murderous and maligned individuals with a distinct lack of empathy and blinded by some twisted logic bordering on the psychotic, but someone who feels included in a society isn’t going to take up arms and vow to burn it down. Just as middle class white boys get their mental health makeup analysed when they shoot full lecture halls of university students, or when they kill people because they haven’t got a girlfriend and are in the “friendzone” we get told it’s all down to ‘society’s ills’- why isn’t the same applied here? Does society wash its hands of all responsibility of creating incredibly destructive situations if the monsters which arise from them are the subaltern?
If you really want to get rid of the plant you get to its roots- these aren’t senseless killings born out of thin air. They were mediated, constructed and come from a very dark place which the west has just as much responsibility in creating. The iscolation and impoverishment, alienation and distortion of reality, which make prime breeding ground for violence and fanaticism. Ive seen it happen in the grey concrete suburbs of London’s East End- the lack of hope, the bashing down of immigrants and people of colour by the establishment, by the media, by advertising, by various institutions such as schools and prisons. Anyone raised in a negative and stilting environment begins to absorb the instability and destructive nature around them. Poverty and its following social ailments are more than just ‘having no money’- it’s a mindset, it gets adopted into who you are, your very nature.
I’m sure the media and establishment are going to make this about ‘big bad Muslims vs the nice, peaceful liberal west’ but this goes much deeper, and is only going to get worse as racial tensions, oppression and the global political swing to the right continues. It has provided excellent fodder for the parties riding above the waves of anti-immigration racist sentiment, such as Front Nationale, Perdiga, UKIP, Golden Dawn, etc. What happened at the Charlie Hebdo site was deplorable, but if we really want a ceasefire in the war on terror, we need to take a look inward too.
Above all, I have a lot of solidarity with the families of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the Muslims suffering revenge attacks that are being reported in France right now. They must feel wracked with uncertainty and sorrow.
And we thought 2015 would be a better year.