There's only so much stupid from the internet that I can tactfully ignore. So let me say this. No: as it happens, I don't think the racism of Charlie Hebdo toward Muslims by itself even approximately explains the massacre. Much less do I think the killings a 'natural' response to racism, as this Charlie
suggests. Really, internet? Really?
I have to say this? Okay, apparently I do.
I very explicitly suggested that it was "too soon" for a complete political narrative of the killings themselves. The rush to understanding invariably leads to people reaching for what they already know, which is usually not much. And I also very clearly said that Islamophobia is an inescapable element of the political context which shapes the immediate political instrumentalisation of the murders. I said that the pressure to engage in a mawkish and narcissistic solidarity with "people like us" - in this case, with a magazine which put out crass racist stereotypes - would be part of that instrumentalisation. In this, I have been borne out. The reactions demanding that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons be widely republished, or that news media rebrand themselves 'Charley Hebdo' (dixit Michael Moore), are at the very best obtuse as to the message that will send. At worst? Well, if readers will look to their left, they will see the literal proximity of such 'solidarity' with violent racism in the form of a seemingly popular call for the extermination of Muslims.
To put this in some context, notice that the Right has been absolutely unapologetic in the instantaneous way in which it has deployed these murders, before the blood was dry and the bodies cold, to score reactionary points about 'Western values' and immigration. Samaras was crude in the way he did this, to bash Syriza. Cameron, Hollande and Merkel are more subtle and strategic, but the re-affirmations of what Cameron calls 'muscular liberalism' were more or less to script, and more elaborate articulations cannot be far off. And that very much is about providing an explanation, or pseudo-explanation, for events: we have people among us who don't share our values, and every now and again some of them go off on one and start killing. This is linked to a spurious 'tolerance'. Tolerating someone implies that they're a burden, that we're just putting up with them, and that essentially is the view of Muslims. The 'good' Muslims can stay, but they have to assimilate, they have to moderate their presumed values, culture or beliefs, and accept something called 'Western values'. They have to root out the evil within. Most importantly, they have to stop their attempts to mobilise politically in their own interests, to address their structural oppression, to articulate anything but the most tame obeisance to patriotic truisms. We're watching them. Tolerance in this sense is a disciplinary mechanism.
Yet hypocritically, there is always an implied blackmail levelled at the Left at such times: don't you dare question the manner of our
politicisation of this massacre, or we will hold you
responsible for politicising a massacre. Worse, we will accuse you of defending it - never mind your bona fides. Of course, those suggesting that we have to observe decorum and good taste when we're discussing Charlie Hebdo are probably unaware of the irony of their position. It is more than a little odd, isn't it, that Charlie's reactionary defenders - to a man, vigorous exponents of anti-PC laffs and the 'right to criticise' - are suddenly so humourlessly morose and politically correct about this. Of course, some elements of the liberal-left, with wearisome inevitability, gave in to this blackmail, pleaded innocence before the imaginary tribunal, and reduced their politics to sweet nothings, windy exhalations, vacuous assertions of the obvious. It is, of course, a psychoanalytic truism that when people begin to stridently assert that which no one has denied, or which seems obvious - killing is bad, free speech is good - one should start asking questions. But the pissy, sanctimonious and usually breathtakingly stupid reactions not just to my article but to those thoughtful articles
which merely attempted to take a distance
from the feelgood #jesuischarlie hashtaggery, betray the capitulation here. They may not literally say 'how dare u support the isis u fukkn sick cunt fuck off back to afghanistan', but the educated variants of this basic sentiment are no less stupid.
On top of this, we see once more the mobilisation of what Dan Hind called the 'folk Enlightenment', the invocations of some disembodied principles from French or English 18th century philosophers, and the completely unironic claims for the authentically French or European or Western nature of certain values, such as 'freedom of expression': in the same states where such freedoms as the right to wear a hijab, or 'mock the troops', or tell the Prime Minister he has blood on his hands, or protest against Israeli massacre are routinely suppressed. As always, the Enlightenment is a contested legacy, and this mobilisation of a fetishised 'folk Enlightenment' which is somehow the property of a geopolitical axis or an imagined community called 'the West', is part of an attempt to capture that legacy for exclusionary, racist, authoritarian and imperialist ends. What can I say? It's all very 2001.
As we get more information to hand, we will be able to start to piece together the beginnings of some sort of serious political understanding of the killings. But to even begin that process, we will have to unpick the pseudo-explanations. For example, there are reports
that the killers were 'radicalised' by a jihadi organiser of the 'Nineteenth Arrondisement Iraqi Networks' named Farid Benyettou. 'Radicalisation' is a problematic term, embedded in counterinsurgency
discourses. In the sense often applied to Muslims, it means that they have become more 'extreme' in their Islam, more Islamic than before, less 'moderated' by their assimilation to 'Western values', by virtue of being exposed to 'extremism'. So the critical thing, then, is to surveille Muslim students and communities, to make sure they don't get too much exposure to 'radical preachers'. This, of course, doesn't explain anything. People have to make a choice to listen to someone like Benyettou, decide that he is convincing, begin organising, and take up training to become a footsoldier.
There are also reports that the killers were 'radicalised'
by the 'war on terror' and the deployment of torture by the CIA. Again, this is an essential detail, but it will be totally inadequate by itself as an explanation. Millions of people have been radicalised by war and imperialism, and the accompanying politics of racist authoritarianism. Less than a handful of people went into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, declared themselves loyalists of 'Al Qaeda', and executed people at point blank. And now, of course - almost as if from central casting - another less-than-handful reportedly linked to the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are holding hostages and killing people in a kosher supermarket. The rational kernel in the 'values' argument is that the perpetrators have gone out of their way
to solicit the disgust and outrage of the social mainstream, to distinguish themselves as unapologetic, hard-headed footsoldiers who reject what they undoubtedly regard as utterly hypocritical liberal values. Anyone who follows the propaganda from ISIS, for example, will know that they make a quite explicit and unabashed argument for rape and slavery. So, we need to start filling in the gaps, the mediations, that lead from birth to 'radicalisation' to becoming glad instruments of a frankly sociopathic agenda.
We need to understand the politics of the jihadi groups involved, which have their own particular dynamic, their place in the French social formation, and their relationship to imperialism. We have only the beginnings of a narrative
here. The two lead suspects, we are told, are second-generation French Algerians. They were both raised as wards of the French state after they were orphaned, both ended up poor and unemployed. That much is an old story: the way in which France has imported labour from the former colonies and then dumped them on the unemployment rolls and in the banlieues when they were no longer required. They both went to the same mosque in the Stalingrad quarter when they turned 20, in around 2003: the same year in which the Woolwich killers began to have contact with a British Islamist sect. Here, a familiar logic of proselytism seems to have played out, as their acquaintance with Benyettou - only a year older than them - provided them with a sense of comradeship, worth and moral purpose. They gave up drugs and tobacco, soon began fitness and armaments training, and by 2005 were being trained in Salafi schools before crossing the border to join the Iraqi insurgency.
So, here are some obvious questions to start with. What is it about the lived experience of being a working class second-generation French Algerian Muslim at the margins of society that might lead to Salafist ideology making some degree of sense? What is it about the structures of global politics that the jihadi mentality can make some sense of? What is it about the nature of French politics, and particularly working class politics in the suburbs, which means that this section of the working class is somewhere that religious reactionaries can recruit? What is it about this strain of Islamist politics, its history, its patterns of organising that would appeal to detached, marginal, racially oppressed French Muslims? What is it about fighting a guerilla war against an occupying force in Iraq that may have killed around a million people, both directly and through General Petraeus's trained death squads, that would consolidate and 'radicalise' the jihadi politics of those involved? And what kind of strategic impasse would lead to them brutally lashing out at two, what I must imagine are utterly peripheral targets from their perspective: a satirical publication, albeit one with a line in crass racist humour about Muslims, and a kosher supermarket? It's important at least to ask, because if you leave it to the mainstream news, the tacit pseudo-explanation viz. "Muslim nutters threatening our way of life" will be the one that dominates.