Sunday, January 18, 2015

How France makes jihadis

National unity
In the aftermath of the massacre, French newspapers lauded a return to the union sacrée, the coalescence of the parliamentary right and left in the name of national unity.  Hollande did not waste a second in declaring that there would be national unity, in effect, whether you like it or not.

Of course, national unity is an impossible thing.  A survey in 2013 found that 74% of French people believe that Islam is "incompatible" with 'French values', and 70% believe that there are too many immigrants in France.  This was hardly a promising vista for French Muslims once the political class smelled blood.  And the anti-Muslim backlash, ranging from dozens of mosque attacks to individual assaults to murder.  (Nor has the violence been restricted to France.  In Birmingham, where #foxnewsfacts is no longer quite as funny as it was, eight Muslim-owned businesses have been attacked by men armed with guns and hammers.)

So who would march under the banner of national unity?  The fascist Front National demanded its right to be on the platform, with other political leaders.  They too were 'Charlie', even if old man Jean-Marie was not.  They pointed out that they came first in the European elections last year, polling at 25%.  Hollande avoided having to bring them on board, and risk fragmenting the whole unified front, but a recent poll found that most French people think that they should have been included.

And of what those who did not march, and who did not wish to say 'Je Suis Charlie'?  For, in addition to the national unity rally, the government insisted that schools would observe a minute's silence.  School children were encouraged to declare 'Je Suis Charlie', just like it said on Twitter.  In seventy schools, resistance to this procedure was reported.  Many French Muslims, when interviewed, said they were angry about what was being demanded of them, and at least ambivalent about the hashtag.  Why should they pay tribute to a magazine that evidently despised them?  What about the double standards?  Why free speech for some and not for others? 

Here, the media and the state converged.  The political editor of France 2Nathalie Saint-Cricq, and the French education secretary, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, both declared that these young Muslims need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.  The ones who said they were not 'Charlie', who raised "intolerable" questions about double standards and such - they had to be integrated.  The schools were the "front-line" they said: was Althusser so wrong to consider schools the dominant ideological-state apparatus of capitalism?

The hard edge of this policy has been a series of arrests of people for the 'glorification of terrorism'.  And this is where 'free speech' unspools into something else. 

Free speech
Free speech must be defended, everyone agrees.  Yet as soon as we start to concretise this, there are dilemmas.  Consider that, a day after the massacre at the Rue Nicolas-Appert, the Berliner Zeitung published an antisemitic hate cartoon.  

It was an easy mistake to make in the circumstances.  The paper had merely intended to pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo, and make a stand for free expression.  The image was actually a faked version of an authentic Hebdo cover, which the Zeitung had thought was real.  The original bore the banner 'Sharia Hebdo' and featured a cartoon imam, while the fake bore the banner 'Shoah Hebdo' and featured a cartoon rabbi.  As I say, it was an easy mistake to make.

The Zeitung, horribly embarrassed by the gaffe, offered profuse apologies for hosting an antisemitic cartoon but, following the logic of its position to the letter, did not apologise for hosting the Islamophobic cartoons.  Because free speech.

This is not a chance outcome.  The right to freedom of expression, like every other value held dear by liberal democracy, is always relative and conditional.  Rights are only meaningful in situations where they can be convoked and protected by political authority, the state: as such, they are relative, and come with conditions and obligations.  It is a naive libertarian fantasy to suppose that the state in a capitalist can simply get out of people's way, or that the right to free speech could be realised in an absolute sense: only absolute monarchs have absolute rights.

Given this, it is logical that the emphases of repression and permission in modern racial states would - especially if conceived in a formally 'colour-blind' sense - would be racialised.  And that the invocations of free speech in the dominant media would follow a similar logic.

Never lacking in resourcefulness, the popular antisemitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has thrived on exploiting and showing up this racialised logic.  Lately, he attended the national unity rally and then, by declaring on Facebook, "I am Charlie Coulibaly" - referencing the jihadi who killed Jewish civilians at a kosher supermarket - he got himself arrested for 'glorification of terrorism'.  Perhaps his defence will be that it was just 'satire', but it was ideal spectacle-positioning for Dieudonné, who builds tremendous political capital by incurring repression, thereby acting out in a spectacular form the victimisation and oppression of Muslims, while offering some sort of compensation through his rebellion.  As always, he is heavily invested in the superegoic injunctions of the state that he is rebelling against.  

It also gratifies the antisemitism of his supporters, reminding them of his contention that "the organised Jewish community" are suppressing free speech - hence the double standards - and have crowded out the field of victimhood, depriving France's indigenes of their visibility and full recognition as citizens.  It is no surprise to see him marching for national unity, in fact, for his argument is that the real obstacle to such unity is the "tribalism" of Jews.

In this context, arguments over free speech become arguments over racial exclusion and privilege.  Who is privileged to speak and thus represent the nation, and who must be excluded.  National unity is impossible.  The Islamophobes blame the Muslims.  The antisemites blame the Jews.  To externalise antagonism is the reactionary political gesture par excellence.  But the reason it is impossible is because the 'root causes' of massacres such as the one we have seen are internal to our societies.

France, of course, is dedicated to secularism.  In the name of secularism, it banned the wearing of religious garments at schools, with a particular eye to preventing girls from wearing the hijab.  In the name of secularism and women's rights, it banned the public wearing of the burqa, leading to harassment, discrimination, arrests and a de facto state of house arrest for many women who would be breaking the law by stepping outside.  

It may seem a very strange secularism that involves the state becoming directly involved in the private religious affairs of citizens.  But then, like free speech, the separation of 'church and state' is always relative and conditional, and in a racial state it will always be racialised in its application.

It is not a coincidence, perhaps, that the hijab controversy began in 1989, the bicentennial of the French revolution being commemorated after a decade of renewed 'fundamentalisms', and amid the world-historic collapse of 'Communism' and almost all hangers-on.  The 1980s had seen a new configuration of imperialism emerge under the rubric of the ethnic absolutisms of the Christian Right and Zionism.  Culturally, this defined itself against Arabs but also increasingly against Islam in particular.  This increasingly had the effect of forcing Muslims in the imperialist countries into identitarian boxes, a tendency that was sharply increased by the Rushdie affair.

So, the discovery that three school girls wanted to wear a garment that was open manifestation of Islamic affiliation, already seen as problematic, prompted a lot of 'republican' bombast.  And the rising arc of French Islamophobia was then punctuated not only by the 'war on terror' and the ludicrous 'antitotalitarian' revival - in which jaded, corrupt old reactionaries took to the public stage like some faded rockers, to reprise a tune that was hackneyed upon first release - but also by the French state's war with the GIA, itself an outcome of France's subversion of Algeria's elections with the result of bombs going off in the Paris metro, and the 2005 banlieue riots in which Islam became the focus of a national moral panic.

Islam came to symbolise both a security threat and a threat to national values, and any garb indicating affiliation with Islam became synonymous with those threats.  In this situation, secularism became a tool of counterinsurgency.  The response to the massacre has compounded these trends.  A particularly silly article in The Week is typical in querying whether Islam will ever be compatible with 'liberalism', before ground-breakingly concluding that some versions of Islam will never be rendered commensurate with liberal values.  

Yet the author cited, in order to sustain this point, a poll which it claimed showed 1 in 6 French Muslims, and 1 in 7 British Muslims, were in favour of ISIS tactics and goals.  It is worth saying, then, that this poll, carried out by a Russian news agency, actually canvassed all French and British citizens, and the results cited in The Week were actually those from across the board.  The Washington Post pointed out that the proportion of respondents who declared in favour of ISIS was much higher than the proportion of Muslims in each society.  Therefore, even if every Muslim responded in favour of ISIS, the majority of those who favoured the Islamic State, were non-Muslims according to the poll.  It would suggest, were it accurate, that there was a far deeper disaffection with the political systems of Europe than had previously been suspected.  Secularism as counterinsurgency once more offers a means to displace and externalise Europe's own dysfunctions.

Finally, it has offered a means of rendering racism invisible.  Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently declared that he will not use the term, 'Islamophobia'.  He repeated the arguments of French intellectuals who aligned with the 'war on terror' such as Pascal Bruckner, who said that the term was used to suppress criticism of Islamists.  No doubt it can be used in this way.  Yet, the term 'antisemitism' can also be used to suppress criticism of Israel, and indeed is so - but the only people who suggest abandoning that term are antisemites.

The machine that makes jihadis
France is a colour-blind imperial republic.  It does not collect information on the race, religion or ethnicity of its citizens, for they are all the same in the gaze, "as blank and pitiless as the sun", of the French state.  As such, it cannot tell us how many of its citizens are Muslim, or how many of those are unemployed, or in jail, or killed by police, or being failed at school.  It falls to academics and social organisations to do the homework.

We can learn that youth unemployment in the banlieues where most French Muslims live stands at 40%, or four times the national average.  We can find anti-Muslim labour market discrimination.  We can find out that social inequalities in the French school system are bad and widening every year.  Most shockingly, we find that 65% of prisoners in France are Muslims.  That figure rises to 80% in the ile-de-France, the most populous region of France which incorporates the capital.  Often, the imprisonment is for petty, morality offences like drug taking.  You are not imagining this: France's prison system is actually a far more efficient race-making apparatus than the American prison system.  The prison system is where racist ideology most clearly organises the material infrastructure of the French state.

There is also now an attempt to finally get a measure of police violence against Muslims, as this website was set up for precisely the purpose of documenting and exposing such systemic violence.  The author of the website is a woman whose brother was murdered by police.  It is worth noting that, following the logic of France's free speech ideology to the letter, Prime Minister Valls attempted to shut the website down, claiming that it was defamatory.  Until rigorous statistics become available, we have only the reports of the likes of Amnesty International, which document systematic racist violence against French Muslims and immigrants, with impunity.

But is it racist?  Islam is not, after all, a race.  Those who seriously take this view and attempt to justify it will tend to end up like Eddington's ichthyologist: saying, in effect, that 'whatever my net can't catch isn't a fish'.  By adopting and sticking to a narrow understanding of racism as being something that is based on a biological conception of race, they will find themselves struggling to explain and identify a great mass of historical and contemporary experience, from the Third Reich to Enoch Powell and beyond.  Here, for example, are a list of people against whom, uncontroversially, racism has been directed: gypsies, the Irish, black people, 'Africans' (usually sub-Saharan), Jews, 'Arabs' (usually includes non-Arabs such as Iranians), Nigerians, Pakistanis, Italians, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and 'Asians' (south or east).  Of these groups, how many constitute by traditional racist definitions, a 'race' unto themselves?  Jews were held to belong to the race of Semites rather than being a race.  Gypsies were held to be members of the Aryan race.  All the others are either nationalities or regions.  This is just to advert to the messy historical experience that isn't captured in the somatic net.

A flexible, working theoretical account of racism would start from what has almost become a truism.  Race does not produce racism; racism produces race.  Races are made: the only existence race has is as a social construct, and it not necessarily constructed out of skin colour.  There are sites of essentialism other than the body, markers of difference other than melanin.  This is a thumbnail sketch of what an account of Islamophobia as racism looks like:  i) Islamophobia, at the representational level, involves a set of stereotypes linked to an essentialism (albeit of culture, rather than the body); ii) these stereotypes are linked to an ascriptive hierarchy (in this case, a hierarchy of cultures in which Muslims are deemed culturally inferior to 'the West'); iii) this ascriptive hierarchy is linked to a set of special repressive measures, exclusions, and systems of discrimination in employment and education, as well as imperialist violence; iv) these race-making practices are a crucial means of organising class hegemony, structuring the combinations of consent and coercion.

In this sense, Muslims are undergoing a process of racialisation.  They are becoming 'a race'.  And this race-making has, as suggested above, clearly informed the political response to the massacre.  The narrative was already embedded before the massacre happened, so that as soon as it hit the headlines, people just knew that the murders happened because Islam contains within itself an evil seed, waiting to sprout in the minds of the devout.  Only assimilation can help, by as much force as is both plausible and necessary.  For example, consider this CNN report, in which Amedy Coulibaly's problems are traced back to his being an 'unruly' child at school, and a constant 'discipline problem'.  The fact that he is the child of an immigrant family is mentioned, the implied inference left unspoken.  The French ambassador to the US outlined the unspoken implication: the problem is that French Muslims aren't integrated.  More explicitly, the French correspondent of Newsweek suggested that the ideology of French youth is that of ISIS.  Were this true, it seems, the only question would be why there were not more massacres.  This is the racist response to the massacre, and it is not Fox News: it is mainstream.

As we learn more about Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, it becomes obvious that they were no more psychologically prepared to be jihadis, than they were not recruited into a well-oiled global network.  If there was an evil seed, it was not in their minds but in the society in which they lived.  It was in the racial hierarchy they both grew up in, as second-generation French Arabs, as wards of the state.

The pair first attended the Stalingrad mosque at the age of 20, in the same year that the invasion of Iraq was launched.  They met Farid Benyettou, a Salafist preacher.  One can have a guess at what he told them.  He would have told them that French society was ruined by placing the rule of corrupt men above the rule of God.  He would have told them that Islam was globally under attack by America and the Jews, the Crusader-Zionist alliance, and that the people who ruled France and held Muslims down were part of that alliance.  He would have said that as Muslims their duty was to fight for their brothers and sisters.  He would have warned them that apostate Muslims and revisionists were weakening the faith against this global onslaught, and that to defend it, it would be logical and necessary and just to kill them.

One would surmise that some of this would have been difficult to hear at first, but the more interesting question is why enough of it resonated with their experience and common sense for them to be impressed, keep coming, and gradually be converted.  To a politically untrained eye, after all, it could look as though Islam was globally under attack.  From Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine to the banlieues of Paris, there always seemed to be a boot on the Muslim neck - be it the boot of a state declaring itself the state of all Jews, or that of the most powerful empire in history.  The phases of French moral panic about Islam would seem to confirm the diagnosis.  And it might appear on the face of it that the French political class is corrupt and bought, that it is remote and indifferent to the poor, and that it is leading the global offensive against Islam.  And, killing apostates?  A hard sell, perhaps, but less so if it is understood as a war to the finish, to extinction.  Fundamentally, what Benyettou offered the Kouachi brothers is what Islamists always offer potential supporters: the revival of Islam (in this case, a strictly literal Islam) as the means to overcoming oppression, subordination and humiliation.  Ironically, the Salafis sometimes do a better job of policing an anti-drugs morality than the state, by offering users an alternative thrill: that of being purposeful political agents.  

The religious obscurantism and childish conspiracy theories of Salafism might not have stood a chance in the 19th arrondisement of Paris, and perhaps not even Dieudonné-Soral, were the left able to respond effectively to the facts of racial oppression.  That would require an understanding that 'race' is the modality in which the racially oppressed experience their class situation.  It would require foregrounding as an axis of struggle ever bit as material as trade union militancy, the building of anti-racist political organisation among French Muslims with a militant, anti-national, anti-statist edge.  Something other than SOS-Racisme.

Still, the fact is that there was a political space, the jihadis did fill it, and religious reaction did become the main mode by which the Kouachis and a small group of friends, mostly poor and unemployed or in bottom-feeding jobs (Chérif delivered pizzas) or engaged in petty crimes, decided to strike back against their oppression.  They amateurishly put together "the first jihad school in France".  Like everyone else, they get their information about current events, American war crimes, and how to use an AK-47, from the internet.  And even when they initially embarked on their journey to fight the jihad against the US, they were frightened, panicky, reluctant warriors.

It took the racist structure of French society to make them into jihadi recruits.  It took their circulation through the hard, racist prison system to bring them into alliance with Coulibaly.  But it took war to make them ready to kill unarmed people at close range.  The Iraq war made many sociopaths out of US soldiers, as ample testimony has revealed.  But this massacre was justified on the basis of a distinctive political morality forged through Islamist pedagogy and battle.  Chérif Kouachi was interviewed by French media while on the run.  Part of Kouachi's training consisted of a political education and hardening.  His jihadi confederates had him closely study images from the US war against Iraq: a lesson in the harsh realities of the world, the better to wear down his resistance to killing, and made a more effective soldier out of him.  This is to say nothing of the brutal, hardening experience of fighting US troops in Iraq. 

Asked by his interviewer if he intended to kill again "for Allah", he countered his morality to that of the French state.  "We are not like you", he said.  We can kill people if they insult the prophet, "there is no problem", but we "do not kill women" or children.  In fact, a number of women were murdered, but it is true that one of the potential victims was apparently told that she would not be killed because she was a woman, and was told to read the Quran.  He went on to say that "you" kill civilians, women and children, "in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan".  And on that point, he did not lie.

And rather than panicking about where the next outrage is going to occur, or being mesmerised by the Islamic State, or trying to taxonomise the good and bad in Islam, it seems as if paying attention to the antagonisms and injustices that are immanent to European societies is the single most necessary precondition for finding a solution.