After the murder of twelve people at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, we are once again having to deal with questions of free speech, of Islamism, and reprisal attacks by the neo-fascist far-right.
The first job of any principled socialist should be to unequivocally condemn the attacks on the journalists. Some have accused the newspaper of being needlessly provocative or even Islamophobic. But the cartoonists who were murdered at their place of work were killed for no other reason than they drew images that were considered blasphemous by the killers, and the right to blaspheme is an integral part of the right to free speech.
Right across Europe we have seen both Islamist militancy and anti-Muslim far-right movements surge.
Of the two reactionary movements, it is clear which is the larger. When thousands of violent people are mobilised on the streets of European capitals, it is almost always the work of the far-right. But the Islamist violence, while much more minority-based, is more intense.
Anti-immigrant bigots and racists attribute the new Islamist militancy simply to the rise of immigration in Europe and an Islamic culture that is somehow “alien” to Europe. But Islam is no more alien to Europe than algebra or alcohol. For much of the past millennium Islam has been present in Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Balkans and even France (due to its colonial history). Islamism however is a firmly modern phenomenon. Its reactionary ideas have gained ground in Europe because they have gained ground in the Muslim world – where ordinary Muslims are their chief victims, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in ISIS-ruled Iraq and Syria - and because the Left has not done enough to challenge them and offer an alternative.
As France is a country of five or six million Muslims, more than can be found in Lebanon or Palestine, it is particularly important that the Left can engage with the Muslim population, who are particularly hard hit by racism, by unemployment… and by the Islamists’ hostility to democratic and secular-minded Muslims.
The rise of Front National in French politics shows just how difficult it has been for the Left to win ground for a militant anti-racism combined with anti-clerical ideas. More and more support has been going to the demagogic forces of the FN racists. The latest attacks in Paris are likely to lead to an increase in support for the far-right party. In fact, the whole record of the supporters of ISIS and Al-Qaeda shows that they welcome and deliberately seek to incite such a backlash, on the calculation that a polarisation will bring them more support.
The clash of these reactionary forces has consequences not just for France’s Muslims. We have seen in the past year and in the past decade as a whole, an increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish attacks in Europe. Just two years ago, a young French-Algerian man killed seven people, including three children, at a Jewish day school. Last summer, following the Israel-Gaza war, assaults were unleashed on several synagogues, a kosher supermarket and a Jewish-owned pharmacy.
As horrific as the attack in Paris was, most murders by Islamists are of ordinary Muslims, in Muslim countries. In places like Raqqa and Mosul dozens of people are killed daily for acting contrary to the Islamists’ special version of Islam. In parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, car-bombs and suicide attacks are common. For this reason the fight against theocracy is an important one that will have wide reaching consequences well outside of Europe. The European far-right is a threat to Muslims, but the biggest threat to Muslims world-wide is the Islamist clerical-fascist far-right. The Left too often fails to remember that.
Charlie Hebdo is not a socialist publication. But it has always been a left-leaning anti-racist paper that was as firmly opposed to the Front National and anti-immigrant rhetoric growing in France as it was to blasphemy laws and theocracy. In its last issue before the attack, it ran a strip mocking French writer Michel Houellebecq and his alarmism about France becoming dominated by Islam.
Try as we might to insist that this attack must not allow us to be afraid, it is simply impossible to see how this won’t be the case. The instinct to self-censor for fear of offending is bad enough, without the threat of death being shown quite graphically in the 11th arrondissement to be a very real possibility. But this is a constant battle that must be fought. Freedom of speech is too often taken for granted, to the point where we forget about how many people have to suffer every day in order to protect this right.
Socialists must not let views on immigration become conflated with the need to discuss secularism and opposition to Islamism, for this is exactly what the anti-Muslim far-right do. In their bigoted zeal in opposing “Islam” in Europe, the far-right condemn immigration by people who are often migrating to flee Islamist terrorism.
We must support free immigration; defend civil liberties; and resolutely oppose clerical fascism; and give full support to the right to offend religious sensibilities.