Ideas and Arguments

Charlie Hebdo: the responsibilities of the left

The mood in Paris seems very reminiscent of the mood shortly after 9/11 following initial reports from New York. This began by drawing in many who were genuinely shocked by what had happened- but over a period hardened into a hugely reactionary current of opinion whose consequences we are all familiar with. Its very clear that it will take very little to transform the defence of ‘our values’ into attacks on minorities. The difference seems paper thin. Already, it is all about ‘our’ values and ‘theirs’, Bernard Kouchner holding forth on the need to bring democracy to the Middle East, others speaking of the need for Muslims who have ‘chosen to live among us’ to reform their religion etc, and much worse to follow it is suspected. Charlie Hebdo magazine was at the sharp end of promoting these kinds of resentments about Muslims in France for a very long period of time (and yes it was indeed a magazine with a background in the left in ’68, but this doesn’t change much: if anything it makes it worse).

What is rapidly becoming an almost compulsory ideological gesture of solidarity is one which means that, like after 9/11, many will be too frightened to tell the other side of this story: the racism, the disenfranchisement, the discrimination, the utter lack of solidarity every day and in every way. This is not anti-racism, this is not solidarity, this is not opposition to fundamentalism, this is not freedom of speech. This is a kind of compulsory loyalty oath and is really about intimidating anyone who wants to speak otherwise and not according to the script. Its considerably more difficult to speak out against this script than it is to talk about how ‘its time to have an open discussion about Islam’ (a conversation that has been going on non-stop now for a decade).

The left need to break this silence: not help impose it. The left should be speaking about the urban uprisings against police oppression, about the near segregation in employment and in housing, about the disenfranchisement, about the discrimination, about the wars ravaging large parts of the world. None of which is happening because of a failure of Muslims who live here to ‘reform their religion’. This idealist rubbish about evil ideologies masquerading as the values of Enlightenment and Secularism is in fact the dominant ideology of a world where these horrors actually occur. Those who are being left isolated are not those who think that it is a priority to establish the right to mock the religious beliefs of minorities, but those minorities worried and frightened by what the future holds living in a society caught up in a triumphalist chauvinism where every basic liberal and leftist value appears twisted and upside down. And those are the people the left has a duty of solidarity towards, whether or not we agree with this or that religious belief. That actually is the real meaning of Voltaire: the defence of minorities against majorities, not the other way about.