Islamophobia And ‘Free Speech’ Hypocrisy

(In this feature we seek to examine the Islamophobia and racism in Europe that have escalated with the Paris attacks, and the hypocrisy of various regimes as well as right-wing forces in the world as well as India, who are speaking of ‘freedom of expression’ in the wake of the attacks. In particular, we examine certain recent instances of attacks on freedom of expression in India, by the Sangh Parivar emboldened by the Modi Government.)

Paris Attacks

The massacre of the journalists and cartoonists at the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo is heinous and condemnable. Terrorist actions like the Paris massacre can only become fodder for the global campaign of Islamophobia that is being used to justify wars, occupations, and torture.

Along with the Paris massacre, the Norway massacre by the Islamophobic Anders Breivik; threats against Salman Rushdie; the persecution of Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh and in India; the Peshawar massacre; the harassment of MF Hussain, forcing him to leave India; the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book under threats from Hindutva groups; the recent vandalisation of theatres showing the film PK, and the hounding of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, forcing him to announce his ‘death as an author’ – all are instances of violence and terrorism in the name of religious fanaticism and xenophobia. There are countless other instances of Governments (from the USA to Israel to France to India) hounding dissenting political journalists, whistleblowers, writers, filmmakers and so on.

Violence or demands for bans against cartoonists, writers, filmmakers or artists who are irreverent to one’s faith, cannot have any place in a democratic world. Undoubtedly everyone has a right to take offence to or express dissent or protest against writings, art or films. But such opposition should be expressed in words, in art, in films, or in peaceful protest. Threats, actual violence or bans stifle the very spirit of democracy.

Why We Can’t Say ‘We Are Charlie’

Condemnation of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo staffers, however, cannot mean condoning the content of their cartoons. The magazine had its origins in the student uprising and Leftwing resurgence of the 1960s. But the bulk of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons since 2001 have been of a coarsely racist, misogynist, Islamophobic variety. It is true that Charlie Hebdo did carry cartoons that sought to ‘offend’ other religions too, including Christianity. It is the overt racism if the cartoons, not the use of images of the Prophet in defiance of religious prohibitions, in itself, that makes the Charlie Hebdo cartoons offensive.

Steeply rising Islamophobia the world over took the form of anti-immigrant xenophobic politics and hate-inspired violence in France in recent years. In this backdrop, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons caricaturing Muslims for wearing beards and veils, displaying humiliating sexual violence against Muslim men and women, and sexist comments on Muslim women getting welfare benefits, are indistinguishable from garden-variety racism and xenophobia. Contrary to their claim, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons cannot be celebrated as Leftist iconoclasm or atheist irreverence. A former staffer of the magazine, Oliver Cyran, had in an article written before the massacre, scathingly criticized Charlie Hebdo for its racist, Islamophobic turn post 9/11.

When French ‘Secularism’ Meets Racism

The official ‘secularism’ of the French State also is beset with much the same problems as the Charlie Hebdo magazine. France’s ban on the hijab or the display of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols (which can be interpreted to mean bindis or turbans also) – which France claims is in the best tradition of French secularism – coincides with the xenophobic slurs and attacks on those same symbols. When wearers of bindis, burqas and turbans are vilified as ‘pinheads’, ‘ragheads’ and so on in many European countries and USA, the wearing of those symbols becomes a defence of identity and dignity. To ban those symbols amounts to serving the cause of racism, under the cloak of secularism and feminism! A recent article on Charlie Hebdo in a prominent Indian daily, that claimed the magazine was ‘anti religion not anti Islam, commented that increasing immigration and “people of colour from former French colonies moving in as citizens of France” has caused “considerable strain on French identity.” But if French ‘secular’ identity comes under “strain” thanks to diversity and immigration from the countries France itself colonized, then surely there is something deeply flawed about such ‘secularism’? Can it be called ‘secularism’ at all if it cannot accommodate the social, cultural and religious self-expression of the ‘Other’ who are its former colonial subjects?

The claim that freedom of expression is absolute – in France in general as well as in the Charlie Hebdo magazine – is false. France and other European countries have laws against anti-Semitic hate-speech. Charlie Hebdo sacked a staffer who was misleadingly accused of anti-Semitism on the grounds that he mocked at a French politician for marrying a Jewish heiress for money. Yet the same magazine saw nothing racist or Islamophobic in content mocking at Muslims or immigrants for their clothes or colour, with crude images of sexual violence. The problem seems to be France’s inability to recognize Islamophobia and anti-Arab xenophobia as hate-speech at all.

It is no coincidence that France is the first country in the world to ban pro-Palestine protests. It is no excuse that some of those protests were violent or anti-Semitic. After all, innumerable instances of Islamophobic violence has not resulted in any bans or curbs on Islamophobic ‘self-expression’ in France! The French State could and should have acted to prevent and punish any anti-Semitic violence, as also Islamophobic and xenophobic violence. But banning pro-Palestine demonstrations smacks of hypocrisy on its claims of holding high the standard of ‘Liberty’ and ‘free speech.’ In France, sociologist Said Bouamama and rapper Saidou have been put on trial, under pressure from a far-right group, for a book and song they brought out in solidarity with French working class youth, and in protest against racism. In a statement after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Said and Saidou have called out the hypocrisy of the French State and warned against an explosion of racism and Islamophobia against working class immigrants.

‘We Are Hypocrites’

The response of most ruling regimes to the Paris Attacks has been marked by hypocrisy and a self-serving agenda of boosting Islamophobia. One article exposing such hypocrisy notes, “The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks.” A cartoon on the internet points to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hypocrisy, with a caption saying “I assassinated 17 journalists, among 2143 other Palestinians in Gaza, only last summer. Today I walked in the first line in the Paris Rally, protesting terrorism and assuring freedom of speech is a basic right.” Another cartoon lampoons the world leaders marching in Paris, by replacing the image of the ‘I am Charlie’ banner with one that reads ‘We Are Hypocrites’.

Hypocrisy in India

The instances of hypocrisy from India also abound. The Sangh Parivar is trying to use the Paris massacre as a pretext to spread hatred against Islam and Muslims. It must be remembered that the Sangh Parivar and other Hindutva groups are the ones responsible for acts of horrific violence in the name of ‘defending’ their faith. These acts of violence include the assassination of MK Gandhi, the burning alive of Graham Staines and his two little sons, and numerous communal pogroms targeting Muslim and Christian minorities, as well as the organized intimidation against writings of Wendy Doniger, Perumal Murugan, Rohinton Mistry, AK Ramanujam; Anand Patwardhan’s films; Facebook posts by Mumbai girls; MF Husain’s art, to name just a few. Anders Breivik who massacred many young people in Norway, was inspired in part by the ideology and violent actions of the Sangh Parivar in India. The Modi Government is treating protests against land grab or destruction of forests as a form of ‘blasphemy’ against pro-corporate development, and has just prevented an activist from flying out of the country on these grounds.

Any attempt to frame the Paris Attacks – as 9/11 was framed – as an attack by Islam on Western values of ‘democracy’ and ‘free speech’ and to stoke Islamophobic panic and hatred, must be firmly resisted. Yes, the attacks are a heinous, terrible, unconscionable crime. But this crime cannot be used to shield and justify the crimes against humanity and freedom committed by the very same powers that masquerade as defenders of ‘democracy’ now. Racism, Islamophobia, communalism, wars and occupation, as well as repressive muzzling of critics of capitalism and imperialism, are real and present dangers to democracy as much as are the ISIS, the Taliban, the Boko Haram and other such outfits.


Excerpts From Statement by Said and Saidou

Our book and song came about in the middle of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign to impose a racist definition of national identity.

One spontaneous response from young people in working class areas was to write graffiti on the walls saying “Nique la France”—“Fuck France”.

This graffiti was political, and showed the youth’s opposition. Of course, the mainstream media presented it instead as a danger to the republic.

Our book and song were intended to make sure this youth wasn’t left isolated, by bringing the visible support of a sociologist and a musician.

They highlighted the France that we don’t and can never love. The France of the counter-revolutionaries that put down the Paris Commune in 1871, Nazi collaborators, police searches, racist crimes, Islamophobia and Zionism.

A far right group attacked us for racism against “white people”—and the court decided to take their complaint seriously.

Apparently the book’s tone is unforgivable. It is a call for the mobilisation and self-organisation of people in working class areas.

What’s also unforgivable is that we’ve linked together different fights in one common denunciation of the global system.

In France’s crisis-stricken society, the mere expression of revolt is considered dangerous.

Our trial is an attempt to intimidate activists in the hope that they stop expressing the anger that’s present in the poorer classes and especially among young people from migrant backgrounds.

Now politicians and the media have captured the emotion that people feel at the Charlie Hebdo attack.

They are sending out a message of fear to justify repressive measures against working class areas that are living through massive impoverishment and racial discrimination.

The debate in the media is already focusing on the need for a French equivalent of the US Patriot Act passed after 9/11.

The calls for national unity are actually an attempt to divide ordinary people according to their religions—or their assumed religions. To do this, the state has to present young Arab and black people as a danger to safety.

In three days 50 Islamophobic acts have taken place in France.

The anger is great among people from migrant backgrounds. But the media hype is drowning it out.

Thousands of school and college students refused to take part in the minute’s silence of the “I am Charlie” campaign.

Others put up their own posters, graffiti or tweets such as “I am Palestine” or “I am against Islamophobia”.

We need to bring together these forces to refuse national unity and respond to the official campaign.

We want to send a message to working class areas of refusing to be intimidated, cowed or afraid. And it’s a call for self-organisation and solidarity against the unprecedented repression that is on its way.

Liberation Archive