Wednesday, 25 February 2015


I. The 'China price' on Freedom

There is a certain kind of inertia that leads people to rehash old tropes and repeat worn-out formulas of political thought, applying stale or long-past-expiry date cookie-cutter critical approaches to new and emerging political problems. In the wake of the tragic shooting of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris a few weeks back, a range of responses emerged on the left. Some simply condemned the shootings, some condemned the shootings but expressed some concern about Charlie Hebdo's allegedly 'racist' cartoons, suggesting that perhaps there should be some limitations on free speech or that we should use our rights 'responsibly', while some condemned the shootings unconditionally but nonetheless felt the need to invoke any number of things as a possible 'explanation' - the history of colonialism, 'Western' foreign policy and involvement in the Middle East, French racism and the marginalized status of French Muslims, and so on. And of course they all express concern about the far-right backlash against Muslim populations in Europe and the West.

The thing that strikes me about leftist or critical school constructions of 'The West' and 'The Muslim World', such as this one, is that they are no different from the ones that underpin contemporary right-wing and neoliberal political thinking. All the while that leftists decry the 'war on terror' and the grand narrative of 'a clash of civilizations', many of them subliminally incorporate its basic assumptions into their thinking - that there even are monolithic cultural entities such as 'the West' or 'the Muslim world', for instance. Thus even in leftist thought the battle here is between 'Western' liberal values of 'free speech' and democracy on the one hand, and the religious sensibilities of the 'Muslim world'. Because, naturally, all the people living under despotic regimes in that 'Muslim' world, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia and Morocco and Mali, presumably have no interest in free expression and other 'Western' values and human rights. It's their culture.

Meanwhile, a Muslim Saudi blogger recently received a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashings for the crime of 'insulting Islam', Boko Haram slaughtered another 2,000 people in Nigeria (their deadliest massacre to date), journalists are routinely sent to jail in Egypt, and a Saudi cleric just issued a fatwa against building snowmen. (In addition to 'idolatry', the crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia include apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, sorcery, witchcraft, adultery, and drug use.) In Afghanistan, as a folio in last month's Harper's magazine reports, women routinely run away from their families to escape being forced into arranged marriages, as well as abuse including facial disfigurement by acid or severed lips and noses, forced prostitution, and honour killings. And in Bangladesh this week, an atheist writer was hacked to death by a group of machete-wielding extremists who took exception to his views on religion - he wasn't drawing or mocking the Prophet, he was Bangladeshi (so it's not like this is about the history of colonial repression), and his attackers weren't members of a marginalized ethnic minority in Bangladesh - just a bunch of fascist whackjobs.

Also, let's not forget that the most famous fatwa ever issued was against Salman Rushdie, an Anglo-Indian writer born to Muslim parents in India, for writing The Satanic Verses - a novel seen as a grave insult to Islam, punishable by death. This is not a coincidence.

But even more to the point, one of the most significant events in the world in the past decade, if not the most significant, has been the wave of spontaneous uprisings and revolutions throughout the Arab world collectively known as the Arab Spring, which has seen governments forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, and Yemen; civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria; as well as major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Israel and Sudan, along with minor protests in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Primary motivating factors have included dictatorship and state repression, human rights violations, political corruption, and economic inequality. Many of these movements were notable in their effective use of social media to organize uprisings, in the face of state attempts at repression and censorship.

So, what about all that?

Some responses on the left seem to be on the right track, pointing to the hypocrisy of 'Western' states in selectively protecting free expression, but they too somehow miss the bigger point here - or fail to make one at all. For just as they ascribe (or condemn) free expression to the pantheon of 'Western' values, they seem to disown it in a way, guardedly, as leftists - with some absurd outcomes on occasion, such as a recent petition in a debate between two feminist camps, under the banner 'Student political protest is under threat, not free speech' - as if these are two totally separate things. Formulating a discourse that sees the 'right to protest' as an independent right, not derived from the right to free speech, the left thus undermines its own prospects - in the long run, any official limitation on free speech will wind up being used to clamp down on protest, as one of the most 'outspoken' forms of speech.

So what is the point exactly, of those who emphasize that 'this isn't about free speech' or that Western governments don't consistently protect free speech? Does this mean that we should give up fighting for freedom of expression? That we should allow free speech to be curtailed in cases such as that of Charlie Hebdo, even insist on it, since the position of Western governments is inconsistent? Why should the behaviour of governments influence my position at all, other than to oppose any and every curtailment or infringement of fundamental rights, by government or by terrorists?

Surely, the point here is that these aren't simply 'Western' values we are talking about at all. Of course Western governments routinely attack freedom of expression, there is nothing surprising or categorically hypocritical about this. These are not rights that somehow culturally belong to us 'Westerners', or that our governments impose on us. It is all too easy to forget that even in the so-called West these are hard-won political rights, the product of bloody and violent struggles, the result of revolutions and fierce battles against the state, and they still have to be protected and watched and fought for at every turn, at all costs. Giving up one inch can cost us all dearly.

It is no coincidence that, for instance, France, which happens to be the home of this most outrageous and offensive satirical magazine, is also the country that most vocally opposed the US war in Iraq, a war fought against the will of the majority of people in the nations involved. This is not to the credit of the French government, but the French people above all. This is the legacy of May '68. How, one might ask? Or even better, what was May '68?

Of course, there were protests around the world in 1968. But the level that they reached in France is unprecedented in history, and dwarfs even the largest popular mass movements today. A protest that began with a few students occupying the Sorbonne, it culminated in the largest general strike in history, with a wildcat walkout of 10 million workers - two-thirds of the entire French labour force at the time - the occupation of universities and factories across the country, and so on, bringing the French economy to a standstill, and a government to its knees. This movement may not have achieved all its political goals in the immediate aftermath, but it was a turning point that resonates in French politics to this day. Its legacy means that any French government will think twice before going head-to-head with the will of its people. And Charlie Hebdo, whether anyone likes it or not, is a part of that legacy.

Greece's new leftist finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, writing in the guardian about how he became an 'erratic Marxist', reminds us of this tension in leftist political discourse - the leftist movements of the 20th century, in his view, "failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals. Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational…"

"Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies."

In Marx's (and Engels') own words, from the Communist Manifesto: "in a communist society, the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all."

The emphasis (with or without my italics) is clearly on 'free' and 'each' - individual freedom. Collective freedom, the free development of the whole, cannot but be premised on this backbone - the free development of each individual unit. It is, after all, precisely neoliberal capitalism, despite all the sermonizing and lip service to freedom and individual rights by its acolytes, that in practice demands the sacrifice of individual and social interests for the abstract notion of the market and its needs, which in reality means the interests of the wealthy few - those who appropriate surplus value and accumulate capital.

It is worth remembering that in the early 20th century, the term 'libertarian' - today associated broadly with fringe right-wing anti-statism - was broadly applied to a range of left-wing anarchist and communist movements, especially in Europe. What many leftists seem to have forgotten, somewhere along the way, is that even communism only truly comes into its own as the state 'withers away', as societies become more capable of direct democracy or self-governance, and that the state form known as 'socialism' only marks the transition from the capitalist state to a communist society.

It is in this sense that Soviet and Chinese constructions of 'communism' rely precisely on a neoliberal conception of freedom and equality, coupled with authoritarian politics and some vaguely socialist ideas about the redistribution of wealth. In today's increasingly globalized and yet ever more restrictive world, this divergence is becoming even more clear - the global 'free' market means the free movement of capital, not of human beings. And China, communist or not, is more eager than most to take advantage of this situation, imposing restrictions on the freedom of its citizens while allowing capital to flow across the border in all directions.

There are however glimmers of hope, and other enlightened responses have emerged on the left - again, if not to Charlie Hebdo specifically, then to the broader issue(s) of human rights and freedom - even among committed Marxists, such as a recent piece by Nina Power.

(I would only add a couple of points or 'derogations' to her contribution, on my part - individual rights as discussed by Marx are not human rights in the modern sense, strictly speaking - private property rights, for instance, are legal rights but not typically mentioned or universally recognised in international human rights documents, as fundamental human rights. Even international instruments such as the ICESCR which protect 'economic rights' as human rights don't mention property rights as such, at all, to my knowledge, but rather the right to decent work, housing (for all, not as an individual property right, but in the sense of 'having a roof over one's head'), social security, healthcare, forming/joining a labour union, etc. Such distinctions are important, and formulating a truly Marxist or leftist approach may be a bit more complex. Also, rights aren't only against the state (i.e. union organising), nor are they strictly speaking 'part' of the state as Power's piece seems to suggest. What has always made human rights both problematic and enduring is precisely their claim to the status of 'natural' or universal rights that exist independently of any legal mechanism or document.)

II. 'You're with us or against us'

Still, my question to those on the left who continue to regurgitate the aforementioned worn-out 'critical' tropes on the hypocrisy of the West is - what do you want? Because that other long-standing problem with leftist discourse seems to be very much in play here - formulating demands. What is your point? These things are never made clear. One big mistake in all this 'monolithic' circle jerk groupthink on the left is the refusal to take an absolute, unequivocal stance against Islamic extremism, or Islamo-fascism, for instance. It's as if you can't do that on the left, it's just not the done thing, because, well, it would be taking sides with this mythical, monolithic 'West' we hear so much about. It's an imperial war. Best not to get involved.

But isn't this precisely the type of neocon-Bush-'war on terror'-type thinking that leftists supposedly abhor? Doesn't this amount to forcing us into a neutral or at best mildly critical stance towards something we should absolutely and unequivocally oppose - what amounts to Islam's version of far-right fascist politics - simply because certain 'imperial' powers are also involved in that fight? It's the old 'you're with us or against us' type of thinking, or alternately 'the enemy of my enemy isn't really my enemy'?

Yet if we struggle against this religio-fascism does it really have to be as 'Westerners', rather than as human beings, as Muslims, as Kurds? Isn't their struggle also our struggle? And isn't our struggle also their struggle? Aren't the same or similar forces at play here?

Recognizing with Deleuze that the greatest difference is always internal to a system - to an Idea - allows us to establish the proper relation here - the real fight is never between systems, between Ideas, civilizations, but between versions of one and the same, between different actualizations of the same Idea, between the Idea and representation, between a system and its shadow.

Or as Freud suggests, the struggle between 'civilization' and 'barbarism' is internal to civilization itself. The choice we are continually forced into - between, for instance, saying that the crimes committed by Islamic fundamentalists 'have nothing to do with Islam' on the one hand (as the liberal left insists), and on the other hand holding Muslims in general somehow 'responsible' for these crimes (as some on the right claim) - is a false choice. Both of these claims are wrong. Of course this Islamo-fascism has 'something to do' with Islam; but this does not mean that Muslims in general are in any way 'responsible' for it, any more than liberal democracy or Christianity or Science or any other discourse is responsible for its appropriation by fascists, or its excesses.

The discourse of 'political correctness' on the left is itself a kind of proto-fascist 'thought police' that panders to a disguised, latent racism. Leftists, in their barely disguised apologia for Islamofascism, perpetuating the narrative of victimhood that the extremists themselves use to drive recruitment, end up being ‘circle jerk’ apologetics for the very things they claim to hate the most - racism, sexism, fascism, oppression, and the slaughter of civilians. Or they simply fail to take up a coherent position on the issue - and this plays very neatly into the hands of the far right, the military-industrial complex, and our neoliberal oligarchs. But especially the racist far right, as an account in the Guardian by a formerly radicalised Muslim suggests.

So I don't quite follow the logic of those who say that the Paris shootings were "totally unjustifiable, but…let’s talk about how the shooters are part of a marginalized group dealing with French racism, etc". If the killings are totally unjustifiable, then what exactly is the point here? Well, since it's being thrown around, let's talk about racism and marginalized groups. As a kid I lived for several years in Egypt, where I witnessed first-hand the racism of Egyptians toward African black people - incidentally, most of my friends at school were black. And this is not a fringe phenomenon, it was rife. Imagine if the sentiments felt by the very fringe far-right in Europe towards minorities and immigrants were seemingly felt by the majority of people, and more pronounced. Systemic. That's what it's like to be black in Egypt, and most Arab countries.

And let's not even talk about sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism. Anti-semitic cartoons, for instance - not the Charlie Hebdo 'equal opportunity satire' variety but rather more of the Nazi Der Sturmer type, exploiting a range of racist myths about Jews like the 'blood libel' - are a regular feature in mainstream media throughout the Arab world. It is common, it is seen as totally acceptable by vast numbers of people, and nobody does a damn thing about it. As may be obvious from previous posts on this blog, I am a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, for instance, and opposed to militant Zionism - but racism and racist myths have no place in that debate. While it may be understandable for Palestinian rage to turn racist on occasion, it isn’t quite so for those who aren’t exactly suffering under the yoke of Israeli occupation.

What it comes down to is that there is a lot of hypocrisy here all around. And while most Muslims would certainly distance themselves from the violent extremists who brutally killed the French cartoonists in Paris, there is a broader problem of racism in the Arab world that the whole community needs to recognize and deal with, just like Europe has to deal with its own racism.

III. The Menagerie of Civilization and its Contents

There is also a historical reality that adherents of the 'clash of civilizations' idea and leftist cultural relativists alike seem to have missed - the way in which these civilizations that are supposedly clashing are actually far more intertwined than many today suppose, and form a continuity in fact - a sort of Moebius strip.

Long before the modern era and the means of sharing information we have today, before the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Europe went through the Dark Ages - ruled by the Church and by Christian kings who enforced their faith by the sword. Freedom of thought and expression was at such a low that the bulk of what we see today as the heritage of 'Western civilization' - the literature, philosophy, and science of Greek and Roman antiquity - was deemed contraband by the Church, and lost to history. For a time, at least - a good several centuries longer than our modern age has lasted, to put things in perspective. Books were burned and banned (as well as people), and the only way to get an education at all was through the Church.

It turns out, however, that many of the 'pagan' texts from European antiquity long thought lost in the Dark Ages were in fact preserved - by Muslim and Arab scholars who acquired their own copies from the Greeks and Romans, translating and expanding upon them during what is commonly known as the 'Islamic Golden Age' - an era of scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing that lasted for about 500 years, from the 8th to the 13th century.

Starting with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 8th century, where scholars from all over the world sought to gather all the known world's knowledge into Arabic, Islamic scholars built upon Persian and Indian mathematical systems, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry and medicine. This is why, for instance, along with our Latin alphabet, we use a numeric system based on Arab numbers, rather than the cumbersome Roman numerals. It is also why we use algebra - the name itself comes from the Arab word 'al-jebr', meaning "reunion of broken parts". Symbolic, that.

Later, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, Arab traders and scholars brought this knowledge back to Europe, in works of their own along with copies of the Greek and Roman originals. And in Europe, the rediscovery of this ancient heritage ushered in the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment.

Today, sadly, it seems it is ISIS militants who are looting libraries, and burning the very same ancient texts that their ancestors preserved while they were being burned by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. The only upshot here is the suicidal nature of such acts, as one might expect from extremists, I suppose - in the long run, as history has shown time and again, any political movement or institution that destroys knowledge undermines its own credibility and viability. The most successful empires in history, for better or worse, and for all their faults and crimes, thrived in large part thanks to their multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.

Incidentally, one work of ancient philosophy particularly reviled by the Church fathers in the Dark Ages and long thought lost in Europe (its story partly dramatized in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose), though preserved and later brought back by the Arabs, was Aristotle's Poetics - a work in which the famed Greek philosopher discusses, among other things, comedy and laughter. In the same way in which modern Islamic fundamentalists don't like being ridiculed, not to mention having their Prophet portrayed in any way, the Church fathers of old considered laughter itself immoral. Comedy was contraband - as was Aristotle's work on the subject, for merely suggesting that it had a legitimate role in human intellectual life.

As a matter of fact, it is very likely that Aristotle and Plato would be totally unknown to us today, were it not for the work of one Averroës (his name is the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd), an influential 12th-century Andalusian Muslim thinker who wrote on a range of scientific and philosophical subjects, including logic, Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy, theology, psychology, music theory, geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and physics.

Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), another one of the most important thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, was an 11th-century Persian scholar who has been described as the "Father of Early Modern Medicine".

Most interesting of all perhaps (for the present discussion), Averroës sought to reconcile Islamic philosophy with Aristotelianism and Platonism, along with a form of proto-humanism - among other things, he was a proponent of women's equality with men, going so far as to suggest that women should be educated and allowed to serve in the military, and could even become philosophers or rulers. This from an influential 12th-century Muslim scholar, writing long before the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and women's suffrage - centuries before gender equality was even mentioned in the West, let alone considered a valid political discourse.

And Averroës certainly wasn't importing 'Western' values or ideas on gender here, either, in any meaningful sense - Aristotle and Plato both held fairly conventional views on the subject, typical of patriarchal ancient Greek societies, while the status of women varied widely between Greek city states. Among the ancient Greek schools of thought, only the Stoics and the Cynics were known to espouse gender equality, but few of their writings survived and there is no indication that they had any influence on Averroës.

Of course, the views of a philosopher by no means reflect those of his social milieu, and many are in fact lone voices in the wilderness. Nonetheless, even if Averroës is merely an early harbinger of modern liberal humanism - a voice that inspired and predated Voltaire and Montesquieu by several centuries - it is telling that this voice is of an Arab Muslim scholar.

It is however also notable that, even after the Islamic Golden Age was over, Arab and Muslim societies as a whole were nonetheless far more progressive when it came to religious and racial tolerance. When Jews, Muslims, and Christian heretics were driven out of Europe during the Spanish Inquisition - those who weren't forcibly converted or burned at the stake, that is - they all found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, of all places, where they thrived and freely practiced their religion. Some made it to my hometown Sarajevo in Bosnia, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

But it hardly stops, or begins there. If we go far enough in time and space, we find that these so-called 'Western' values - of modern liberal humanism - are rooted in traditions and schools of thought that span the globe. Early European humanist thinkers drew on or were influenced by a whole range of ideas, from Averroës to the Stoics, from Taoism and schools of Buddhist thought to the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia.

It should be clear that the broader historical context allows us to view the modern-day schema of 'civilizations' in a totally different light. Iran in the 1950s, for instance, was a far more progressive society than today, where women didn't wear the veil and achieved greater gender equality than many European societies at the time - before their democratic socialist government was overthrown with the help of British and American agents who installed the Shah. The Iranians weren't simply adopting 'Western' attitudes, and even surpassed much of the West in terms of social progress - and as already pointed out, they discovered the ancients centuries before the West did. The return of Islam several decades later was precisely that - a return, a reactionary force that sprung up as a result of British and American meddling in the region.

Even today, there is rumour that among the Iranian Ayatollahs there are adherents of various 'Western' schools of thought, including at least one Kantian. It is perhaps precisely the distortion of Hegelian dialectics in our 'Western' thinking, combined with historical ignorance, that leads to the conceit of Western uniqueness and progress, and a linear view of history. Forgetting, as it were, that history is full of throwbacks, regressions, cul-de-sacs, diversions, digressions, schisms, and that these sometimes last centuries, like the Dark Ages.

IV. The Internal Contradictions of Politically Correct Fundamentalism(s)

Of course, it is not enough to say that liberal humanist values are not uniquely 'Western', historically or philosophically. We should also recognize the inverse - the historic contingency of the despotism, extremism, sexism, mysogyny and other ills commonly associated with the Muslim world. Just like the 'clash of civilizations' discourse, the leftist cultural relativism that speaks of 'Western values', merely disguises a latent cultural racism under the banner of political correctness and cultural sensitivity: it is a racism that, deep down, thinks 'let them have their different (read: 'backward') culture, why should we impose on them our 'Western' values of democracy and humanism, equality and rights? It is a cultural racism that, despite its best intentions, deep down sees the autocratic, fascist, misogynist Islamism of a state like Saudi Arabia as somehow representative of the Islamic 'other' in its own historic milieu - when it is in fact representative of nothing more than one form of Islamic modernity, informed by patriarchal misogynist fascism - a thoroughly modern, atavistic fascist monarchism. Which just happens to have, in this case, instrumentalised the Muslim faith for its establishment - a religion no more susceptible to such appropriation, on its face, than any of the main monotheistic faiths.

It is an open secret, for instance, that the very Saudi elite who maintain this Islamic regime at home - who forge ties with the neocons and Bushes in America while funding terrorist organizations, who own prime real estate across the globe and control major multinational corporations - make regular trips to less restrictive neighbouring countries like Egypt, where they do their whoring and boozing. All under the eyes of their Prophet. Which is not to say that they don't do these things back home, too - child sex slaves, often trafficked from neighboring countries or Africa, are common among the Saudi elite. And even ISIS (with whom the Charlie Hebdo attackers are apparently affiliated) recently published a magazine, which appears to justify taking women and children as sex slaves.

The nuance, subtlety and complexity of well-crafted and provocative political or social satire often gets lost in the turmoil of political violence. In the wake of the Paris massacre, much has been made of Charlie Hebdo's latest literary cover star, Michel Houellebecq, and his latest work, Soumisson, a satirical novel about an Islamic party winning presidential elections in France in 2022, and instituting Sharia law across the country. Many people assumed, without reading the book or even a substantial review, that it was an 'islamophobic' tract that panders to far-right fears of an Islamic takeover.

Yet a review in The Guardian, of all places, suggests that something very different is at work here. "The real target of Houellebecq’s satire – as in his previous novels – is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man." There is no violent takeover, but a thoroughly democratic one, and many French happily go along with the new Sharia system - including the narrator, a middle-aged academic who looks forward to his own conversion and a future of endless sexual gratification through polygamy, with wives of varying ages.

What Houellebecq is suggesting, in other words, quite apart from any criticism of Islam or religion, is that the lecherous misogyny on display here is by no means limited to Muslims. As to what really lurks beneath the surface in the psyche of some 'Western' men, real-life examples abound - from the white American college frat boys we see in Sacha Baron-Cohen's Borat film, making racist and sexist remarks and yearning for the days of slavery and women's subordination to men, to American televangelist Pat Robertson advising a man whose wife 'refuses to submit to [male] authority' to move to Saudi Arabia, among other things.

Far from pandering to right-wing fears, Houellebecq's fiction very much seems to furnish Borat's project, suggesting that the European far-right and Islamic religious extremists have far more in common than they realise. And once you strip away the cultural veneer, what's left, really?

It is interesting to contemplate Houellebecq's work alongside another novel where a fictional religious regime comes to power in a Western country, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In this far more dystopian work of speculative fiction, it is a totalitarian Christian theocracy that overthrows the United States government. It is far more brutal, and Atwood's target is primarily fundamentalism and religion. Her plot is arguably even more far-fetched, as it involves a coup d'etat (rather than a democratic election) and, despite some fundamentalist leanings in the U.S. political establishment, no Christian theocracy exists in the world today - modern Christianity has not quite found its political dimension the way Islam has, most notably in the form of wealthy and powerful states like Saudi Arabia.

Despite all this, the book has made its way around the world and into high school reading lists, even in god-fearing Texas, despite being frequently challenged as 'anti-Christian' and 'pornographic'. Ironically, it has even at times been challenged for portraying brutality towards and mistreatment of women, and alternately, for being 'anti-Islamic'. (The Christian theocrats in the novel mandate women to wear the veil, and allow polygamy).

V. Cartoonish Racism

As to the alleged racism of Charlie Hebdo, it seems many people here missed the point. For starters, out of the two or three cartoons bandied around the internet as examples of Charlie Hebdo's 'racism', one of them is a cover published in 1980 - 35 years ago - satirizing a papal visit to France. That fact alone is telling - that even to find an example of a non-racist cartoon that in today's context is being misrepresented as racist, Charlie Hebdo's accusers had to search far and wide, all the way back to 1980. And what does the cartoon say? It shows the pope greeting his French supporters, with the headline: "The Pope in Paris: The French are Cunts Just Like Negroes." It just so happens that the pope's historic visit to France in 1980 came on the heels of an extended tour of Africa - thus the words are presumably Charlie Hebdo's take on what the pope might be thinking.

Another of the handful of allegedly racist Charlie Hebdo cartoons portrays Boko Haram kidnap victims as French welfare queens saying 'Ne touchez pas nos allocs!' ('Don't touch our welfare payments!') This is clearly a jab at the anti-Muslim rhetoric of right-wing politicians who actually see French Muslim women in this light. By taking the claim to an absurd extreme - suggesting the same of Boko Haram kidnap victims/sex slaves (who are neither French nor on welfare) - Charlie Hebdo is satirizing this view point, in much the same manner as Baron-Cohen's Borat (who has been sued and/or accused both by minority groups and by the racist misogynists he exposed); or, even better, Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in fact, was not only accused of racism on various occasions, but numbered among his fans, at least in the early days of the show, many conservatives or right-wingers who didn't quite catch on to the satirical aspect of his talk show.

Another example in the English-speaking world, perhaps more relevant because it also involves cartoons, is the TV cartoon series South Park - which has itself been involved in a number of controversies over the years due to its particular brand of 'equal-opportunity' satire. A running theme of the show, apart from ridiculing everyone and everything under the sun (including Canadians), is that one of the main characters, 4th grader Eric Cartman, while repeatedly making racist statements, has a particular penchant for calling out and casually insulting his friend and fellow 4th grader Kyle as a Jew. Also, the only black kid in their school is named 'Token' - another frequent target of Cartman's casual racism, rage and fear.

I have no doubt that the thought police of political correctness would see much of South Park as racist - but to me it seems a fairly obvious jab at the deeply ingrained and institutionalized racism of Middle America in all its whiteness, its pretense to racial equality, its political correctness (which only serves to disguise racism and white privilege), and the struggles of four ordinary fourth-graders in coming to terms with all this in small-town Colorado. We cannot confront institutional racism - in fact we only affirm it - by pretending it doesn't exist. And that is precisely what 'political correctness' amounts to - a ruse, a disappearing act that masks and affirms latent institutional racism by purging our language and cultural production of its forms, satirical and otherwise.

As for depictions of Muhammad, it should be noted that aside from any explicitly offensive content, the prohibition in Islam relating to any depictions of the Prophet (positive or negative) is by no means universal. It is primarily a precept of Sunni Islam, it does not actually appear anywhere in the Quran, and - like similar prohibitions in ancient Judaism or Christianity (pertaining to 'idolatry' or the 'making of graven images') - it is addressed to believers of the faith, mainly Sunni Muslims. (Images of the Prophet are quite common in Iran, I am told, where the majority of Muslims are Shia. Yep – Iran.)

At its radical origin, this commandment is not about forbidding anyone depicting the Prophet, it's about believers themselves not making or worshipping images ('false idols') because it taints or weakens true faith. In principle, there is no reason why a Muslim should be offended by any and every depiction of the Prophet by a non-Muslim, any more than they should be offended by a non-Muslim eating pork, or violating any other religious rule. So this relatively modern and extremist take on it, where the prohibition becomes absolute and applies to all non-Muslims too, crosses the line between practising faith and imposing one's religion on others. And that is especially the case if in the process of imposing your religion on others, you violate someone else's belief system, which in this case includes freedom of expression, pluralism, and the right to life as fundamental tenets. As the slogan goes, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.

Let’s also not forget, as we affirm the complexity in all this, that the very point of the cross-cultural dialogue, the insight that no community is monolithic, that there are violent extremists of all stripes – that it is precisely for this reason we cannot see these particular killers simply as members of a disadvantaged minority group. They are not killers because they are Arab, and they are not killers because they are Muslims, so by extension they are not killers because they are members of a disadvantaged minority in France. If you want to distance their extremism from the larger community, then don't rationalize their act as in any way expressing the marginalized status or the interests of that community. If anything, their group affiliation is primarily with the likes of ISIS (a recent target of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and likely motivation), which in those parts of the world where it operates is certainly not a repressed minority, but an oppressive scourge on the face of the earth – primarily oppressing other Muslims. Throughout history, fanatical religious extremism has taken many forms, from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day cults – and its motivation or driving aim, more often than not, is some form of domination over others, not liberation from oppression.

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