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Paris attacks: terrorism, free speech and secularism

Faline Bobier

January 26, 2015

Millions of people inside and outside France were horrified by the violent attacks in Paris, and 2 million joined a rally in solidarity with the murdered journalists. But framing the issue as terrorism vs free speech and secularism is misleading.
The motivations of those on the march were not the same. The fact the march was led by political leaders like François Hollande, Angela Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu and endorsed by Western leaders such as David Cameron, Barack Obama and Stephen Harper, underlines the hypocrisy of these butchers. They are responsible for visiting mass destruction and death on the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, and in giving rise to organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS by leaving many people in the region with no hope or way forward.
It’s only a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims who look to methods of terror to try and find justice, whereas Western leaders have practiced the politics of terror on a continual and mass basis for centuries. The hypocrisy of commentators and politicians, expecting all Muslims to apologize for the actions of Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, has not been lost to some.
Anne Cameron, well-known Canadian writer, whose work has been inspired by Northwest Coast First Nations' mythology and culture, wrote the following about the attempt to make all Muslims responsible for the actions of a few: “And people, many people, are calling for Muslims to take a stand against the jihadists. People who know virtually nothing at all about the teachings of Islam are calling on all Muslims to actively work against the polarized and radicalized wing-nut (few). When Tim (McVeigh) blew up the government building in Oklahoma, did these same well-meaning people call for all white male Christians to actively work against such arseholiness? Were there massive marches in the streets? When the FBI shot and killed a woman who was holding an infant in Ruby Ridge, were there millions of people protesting and demanding that virtually everyone on earth decry the very existence of the FBI? When Christian radicals took to bombing abortion clinics and shooting doctors, where were the millions in the street? Was there a call for all Christians to rally against the murdering arstles? Where are the millions protesting the drone strikes?”
As socialists we do not support or condone terrorism as a method for change. It is the politics of despair, based on the notion that the mass of ordinary people will never fight for justice and that the brave few must fight on their behalf. It is an elitist and anti-democratic method and it often helps to shore up the power of the very rulers the terrorists claim to be fighting, as it has done in this most recent case. As Trotsky wrote in Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism, “individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission…The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen.”
Free speech
What should be the response of socialists and the left to the shootings in Paris and their aftermath? In some quarters there has been a defence of the publication Charlie Hebdo, arguing that it is a leftist publication and that the important question here is the defence of freedom of speech. The French state itself debunked the argument about free speech, by arresting more than 70 people in the aftermath of the attacks—including a comedian—for exercising their freedom of speech in a way that the authorities claimed condoned terrorism.
To understand the attacks on Charlie Hebdo we need to look at the broader context. It may be true that Charlie Hebdo began its life as a left publication, springing from the radicalization of the 1960s. However, it is also true that over the last ten years the publication has routinely published racist cartoons and attacks on Islam. It is no good arguing, as some have, that Charlie Hebdo also criticizes other religions, or that we need to understand the “special” case of the French secular tradition.
In the context of the war on terror, of ongoing racism and marginalization of France’s Muslim population, the publication of these types of racist cartoons and attacks on Islam have helped to legitimize the racism of the French state. Some on the Western left have defended Charlie Hebdo by claiming it is a “left” publication engaged in “satire”. But what does that mean? It’s not what you say, or how you define yourself, but what you do that matters. In this context it is the refusal to understand that by putting the religion of an oppressed and brutalized minority on the same footing as the religion that has dominated French society, the left has essentially abdicated any responsibility to challenge the growing threat of racism and fascism across Europe. This turns satire on its head, from challenging the state to joining its attack on a persecuted minority.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of its journalists are justified in any way. But we need to understand the historical context for why these attacks might be happening and also how we can build the broadest possible solidarity that can give people hope that there is a better way forward.
Marine Le Pen and the National Front, an openly fascist party, are using the recent tragedy in France to try and increase their popularity by pointing the finger at all Muslims, who need to act more “French.” In recent weeks attacks on Muslims and mosques inside France have increased dramatically. 
Sections of the French left supported the French government’s attacks on Muslims when they passed legislation, first banning the wearing of the hijab by girls and young women in French schools, and now banning the wearing of the hijab in any public places in France. This legislation was passed under the guise of defending the French secularist tradition. But secularism is about removing the dominant religion from the state, not attacking the religious freedom of oppressed communities. While France continues to tacitly support Catholicism through funding of private schools, it uses Islamophobia as a means to divide and conquer. In France the attacks on the wearing of the hijab, which is a practice of only a tiny minority of the population, coincided with an attempt to push back huge fightbacks on the part of French teachers and other workers against job loss and cutbacks. It was at least partially successful in diverting teachers’ attention from the attacks on their jobs and working conditions by the French state to the question of the supposed “threat” posed by a small number of girls and young women wearing the hijab in French schools.
Atheism is not automatically progressive, and there’s a proud Marxist tradition (buried by Stalinism) of defending religious freedom. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote: "All they ever teach you here is a stupid anti-clericalism, quite misguided intellectually and politically...There are plenty of bourgeois atheists who make fun of priests and never go to church, yet they are anti-socialist, interventionist and wage war on us."
The biggest danger we all face is not that of religious beliefs, be they Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Buddhist, but of allowing ourselves to be divided by our governments. In order to forge the chains of solidarity we need to unite whenever Muslims are attacked. As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once argued, socialists need to be the tribune of the oppressed. In the current context it should be clear to those who call themselves socialist that Islamophobia is becoming the tool of choice to divide and conquer.

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