The British left's desperate confusion over Charlie Hebdo

Focusing on calling murdered cartoonists racist is useless and problematic. The left needs to come to terms with reality, and prepare to fight the far right.

John Smith
9 January 2015

Three days ago, no-one, or almost no-one, on the British left had heard of Charlie Hebdo. Now, however, the internet and much of the leftwing blogosphere is awash with pronouncements about the paper, its contents and its political character. Since Wednesday’s shootings, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed that the cartoons of the paper are in fact racist. Perhaps most interesting and problematic in the context of recent days is the fact that so many commentators, for instance Richard Seymour, have sought to lay emphasis not merely on critiquing Charlie Hebdo’s contents, but to confer a category upon it – that of a “racist publication”.

The charge of producing problematic content levelled against Charlie Hebdo should be relatively uncontroversial. Its depiction of Muslims and Islam has certainly been orientalist and propagated racist stereotypes. Sure, the magazine is irreverent and insulting to absolutely everyone, but in the social context of France in the early 21st century, there is clearly a material difference between depicting Francois Hollande’s penis (or its savaging of Catholic church figures, or its satirisation of Michael Jackson’s death) and the hook-nosed stereotypes of Muslims clutching sabres.

But the real question is why the contents of Charlie Hebdo are being scrutinised and denounced so thoroughly. Is it because the magazine is alone, or even particularly egregious, in its depiction of Muslims? It isn’t: France’s political and satirical culture is awash with anti-Muslim bigotry and casual orientalism, including on the left, and this is far from the first time that Muslims have been portrayed in such a way. Is it because the cartoons appeared recently? They haven’t: most date back years.

In the context of the inevitable racist backlash from the murders, the strength of the Front National, and the inevitable attempts by governments across Europe to use the incidents to introduce more draconian measures, it is certainly right to say that while solidarity should be shown for the victims, the far left’s energies are best spent opposing state racism and fascist capitalisation on the atrocities.

But the reason why many on the left are now concerned with attacking Charlie Hebdo is, in the vast majority of cases, not because they have been consistently concerned with the plight of French Muslims, but because several members of Charlie Hedbo’s editorial team have been murdered in cold blood, their bodies barely cold. The fact that this situation is a trigger for an emphasis on attacking the victims of the atrocity would, in a healthier political culture, be regarded as utterly perverse, even chilling. Instead, we are witnessing a desperately confused attempt to ward off a racist backlash not by opposing state violence or fascists, but by attacking the dead cartoonists as racists.

Far worse, the past few days have witnessed an attempt to point to Charlie Hebdo as a “racist publication”, and to somehow use this category. Perhaps we should leave aside what constitutes a ‘racist publication’ (if persistently depicting Muslims in an orientalist manner makes something a racist publication, then entirety of the mainstream media is one; and Charlie Hebdo was in fact very critical of the far-right). But, even if it is true, what is the usefulness of such a category in the current context? Does writing for a “racist publication” mean that they had it coming?

On the left, there is a standard response to external events which involve violence or vandalism – such as smashing windows on a demonstration – which one wishes to implicitly condone: we say that we did not and would not organise such actions, but that we will not condemn them, and fully understand the anger which informed them and the failures of official channels of dissent which made them necessary. This approach is not being exactly reproduced in the context of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity – almost everyone will directly condemn the attacks – but there is something about the logic of some responses which ought to stick at the back of the throat: “of course we condemn the attacks, but the victims were racists, weren’t they?”

To put forward a narrative that identifies the source of the attacks as the cartoons themselves, explicitly or not, is not just distasteful but deeply problematic: it strips away and buries all complexities and nuance, leaving the gunmen and their supporters as inanimate reactors to western-orientalist cultural output. In the context of a major atrocity against a number of journalists, some sections of the British left are intent on robotically replaying the debates around the Danish cartoon controversy.

Those issues – Islamophobic provocation, “freedom of speech”, freedom to criticise religion, the limits of liberty, racism versus religious bigotry – are not the key ones in play here. In fact, replaying them with the same conclusion only serves to refocus the debate around a set of issues which have by now become a comfort zone for the political establishment. Charlie Hebdo’s staff were not murdered by misguided anti-racism campaigners who took issue with racist stereotypes in cartoons. The real issues at stake are about how to combat the rise of fascism in France and across Europe, and the fact that what has happened in Paris is merely one intrusion of what has become daily life in some areas of the globe – reactionaries targeting journalists and critics for their own political reasons.

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