It should go without saying that the killing, apparently by militant Islamists, of the editors, journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, should be condemned by the working class movement. The people responsible are guilty of some pretty heinous crimes and obviously need to be caught and prosecuted. As humanists, communists are opposed to such wanton killing of unarmed people, with the suffering that it will undoubtedly cause to those close to them. That much and no more should the working class movement stand formally with the mainstream politicians who are loudly condemning these killings.
We must condemn this action, not because it ‘outrages’ the sensibilities of the French government or its imperialist allies regarding ‘free speech’ or the alleged sanctity of human life – they have no respect for these things themselves. But we condemn it not least because it will inevitably result in an increase in anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred, and will lead to the victimisation of Muslims in France and elsewhere. Those who took this action, who appear to have had military know-how and training, no doubt will welcome such a reaction as it tends to further drive angry and alienated young Arab and African people of Muslim background towards them.
However, while the killings are to be condemned, it is not appropriate to pollyannaishly celebrate the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff as martyrs for free speech. While they have the right to publish and that right should be defended, that should not imply approval of the material they published about Islam. Not from any squeamishness about criticising religious beliefs. But rather because such things as the Muhammad cartoons, originally published by the right-wing Danish journal Jyllands Posten in 2005, or the more recent publication of similar cartoons by Charlie Hebdo, including one depicting a supposed image of the Prophet Muhammad naked, are hardly profound criticisms of religion. Rather they are aimed at strengthening that which they claim to be satirising, and provoking a storm.
The purpose of such things is acutely symbolic, and expressly designed to rub salt into an open wound. That, and not ‘religious fanaticism’ per se, is why such provocations cause anger among a considerable number of Muslims and extreme violence among a minority of ultra-radicalised elements. Those who put this down to ‘religious fanaticism’ per se are indulging in idealistic fantasy, and failing to examine why such radicalised ‘religious fanaticism’ even exists.
The reason it exists, the open wound they are rubbing salt into, is not hard to fathom: it is because the Western imperialist powers have systematically thwarted and destroyed normally more congenial and ‘secular’ nationalist regimes and movements in the core area of the Middle East. One of the most important mechanisms of this is the West’s fulsome support for Israel over several decades, tacit support for the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people in the Middle East by mainly European Jewish settlers. We saw far greater mass murder carried out with Western arms as Israel flattened Gaza last summer, with precious little condemnation from those now screaming the place down over the murders in Paris.
The effective suppression of conventional nationalist roads to some level of national emancipation in the Middle East has led to a growth of a kind of substitute, surrogate nationalism based on the pan-Islamic quasi-national concept of the Umma, the Islamic community in a broader sense. This has acquired its own autonomous dynamic, and spread well beyond its places of origin.
The Western powers and their Israeli partner-in-crime have for decades cynically used Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ radicalism for their own purposes, when the opportunity has so arisen. In Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s, the US and its UK and other allies funded the most hardline Islamic ‘fundamentalists’ they could find to wage war against the left-nationalist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and when that regime was ‘helped’ and subordinated to their weaker USSR imperialist rival in 1979, they continued to fund an overtly jihadist insurgency that actually gave birth to both the Taliban and Al Qa’eda.
Given the current demonisation of the mass Palestinian Islamic party Hamas by the conventional and Jewish/Zionist bourgeoisie, it it also telling that its Islamic predecessors in the 1970s were covertly given a certain amount of aid and encouragement by Israel, in order to make mischief for the secular nationalist PLO, whom they then regarded as their main enemy. That hardly did them much good.
More recently, in Libya, the West – including France – blocked with Islamist opponents of Qadaafi’s regime to bring down his regime and kill the former Libyan leader. Likewise in Syria, the Western powers in the earlier period of the civil war the West covertly funneled aid to Islamists; and then received a very nasty shock when some of those were aiding consolidated and merged into the force that is today known as Islamic State. It is also no accident that this was the case for these two ‘radical’ secular regimes, that for all their capitulations to Western imperialism in a more general sense, had not, as is true in Egypt for instance, subordinated themselves to Israel.
Thus Islamist opponents of Assad were getting covert support from the Western powers even while Egypt’s regime was sentencing hundreds of supporters of the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Morsi, to death. This is of a piece with their destruction earlier of Iraq; anything that stands in the way of the Jewish/Zionist imperialist alliance/hydra faces the threat of destruction by any means to hand, no matter what the risk of blowback. This now applies to Islamic State, as the US-Israeli hydra/alliance, through its too-clever-by-half machinations, has created yet another enemy that it needs to exterminate.
Indiscriminate – or not?
If anything, of recent killings by radical jihadists, this was among the least heinous. The recent killing by the Taliban of over 100 schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan, was far worse, targeted at kids who by no stretch of the imagination could be held to be guilty of anything. This was a indication of the bankruptcy of the Taliban in Pakistan, much of which is actually too socially advanced to allow them to gain power easily – unlike Afghanistan. Likewise, many previous actions by Al Qa’eda linked militants have simply indiscriminately targeted civilian populations, from Mombasa to New York to London, from Madrid to Bali. Unlike theses indiscriminate acts, the Paris attack was at least targeted against identifiable people who were indeed guilty of what amounted to racist provocations against Muslims, even if they did not deserve death for doing it.
This is true even though their cartoons and satire were often targeted at others in equally strident fashion. If a publication fills its pages with strident abuse directed at a wide variety of targets, only some of which has an objectively oppressive and racist meaning in the real world, the mere existence of the satire or abuse directed at other targets does not absolve them of the objectively racist meaning of the material which helped to provoke this. In the face of this, communists would seek to demonstrate this through protest and argument, not through murder and mayhem. But the point stands irrespective of this.
We need to fight against the resurgent anti-Muslim bigotry and militarism that is likely to result from this.