The Charlie Hebdo furor: when free speech collides with defense of the persecuted
Monica Hill
volume 36
issue 2
April 2015

Graffiti carrying the message “no Muslims” on a mosque in central France. Photo: Laurent Cipriani / AP

See an editorial correction to this article.

In the wake of the traumatic murders at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, debate revolves around the right of free speech in relationship to the rights of the persecuted. As Marxist feminists, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) stands for fighting racism and upholding free speech — not either/or.

But what to do about racist speech? And how should this be defined? To understand the Charlie Hebdo events means taking into consideration France’s decaying economy, a rising far-right movement, and Hebdo’s reactionary, anti-Muslim politics.

Satire or racism? In 2006 the National Comrades of Color Caucus of the FSP and its sister organization, Radical Women, put out a statement denouncing publication of several anti-Muslim cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The statement provided a succinct definition of racism that illuminates current disputes:

“To dehumanize, to make different, to make unassimilable and forever foreign, to turn a targeted group into the other — this is racism and justifies a group’s heightened exploitation by the bosses. Racist stereotypes also isolate people of color by creating distrust and hatred among fellow workers who buy into them.”

Charlie Hebdo seems to fit this description to a T. Progressive critics say that the weekly has become increasingly racist since Sept. 11, 2001. In France, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush led to the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists.

The magazine’s “obsessive pounding,” says former Hebdo cartoonist Olivier Cyran, has “powerfully contributed to popularising ... the idea that Islam is a major ‘problem’ in French society. ... Every woman who covers her hair is considered the vanguard of a fifth column, to the extent that she’s forbidden to participate in a school outing or to do volunteer work to feed the homeless.”

The publication’s incessant portrayal of Muslims as sexually deviant, medieval fanatics bent on barbaric destruction of a “superior” Western civilization is both racist and sexist. It is a chilling reminder of Nazi caricatures of Jews and of Ku Klux Klan portrayals of African Americans. Hebdo and its defenders are legitimizing Islamophobic policies and anti-Muslim persecution in the name of satire and free speech.

Charlie Hebdo offers not satire against the abuse of rulers, which is the noble job of satire, but ridicule against the oppressed. Racist mockery is also a staple in the U.S. The film The Interview, which lampoons North Koreans, is one example, but movies and news reports by the thousands portray immigrants and people of color as job robbers, “perps” and buffoons.

France’s persecuted. France has the longest record as an imperialist bully in the Muslim world. In Algeria, it imposed 134 years of often barbarous rule. Algerians at last won their independence in 1962 after a long war in which more than a million Algerians died.

The legacy of that colonization is decades of systemic, racist discrimination in France against 4-5 million French Algerian citizens.

French Algerians live in destitute housing, go to bad schools, get menial jobs if they’re lucky, and end up jobless or in prison. Only 10 percent of people in France trace back to former colonies, but they make up 70 percent of French prisoners. This is the background for the three men who killed people at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.

Racism has been steadily rising for years, specifically targeting Muslims and Roma (Gypsies) as the new scapegoats. So has resentment over that racism. In 2005, French Algerians exploded with rage against their exclusion from society — a social uprising that, at base, had nothing to do with religion.

Despite the government-organized Unity March on Jan. 11 that featured heads of numerous imperialist powers and the pervasive Je suis Charlie slogan, France is not unified at all. It is engaged in a heightening class conflict between the haves and the have-nots, struck hard by massive layoffs and unemployment, austerity-starved social services, and ongoing military ventures.

Over three million people participated in the Unity March, including anti-racists. But the mass participation in that rally and similar ones betrays a gross insensitivity, at best, to the plight of the outcast in France, and to the government’s racist manipulations and bald pretense of honoring free speech.

Conspicuously, there were no demonstrations in defense of the mosques and Muslims attacked by individuals after the Jan. 7 killings. Notably, Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front party has gained popularity since then, and is predicted to win the biggest share of the vote in regional elections in late March.

It comes down to class. Should Charlie Hebdo be banned? Absolutely not.

Working people everywhere need freedom of expression and the right to organize, because it’s the only way to persuade others to join in battling the ruling class. Pro-capitalist politicians represent big business, and our free speech is vital to exposing their lies and corruption. Free speech is indispensable to all, especially those who are up against racism, xenophobia, sexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism every hour of every day.

As many other socialists do, FSP opposes laws that limit free expression, because prosecutors will use them against workers. We don’t even favor official censorship against the Nazis or KKK, because this drives bigots underground, and they need to be combated aboveground.

The best way to counteract bigoted speech is with stronger speech and organizing. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, this could include a huge boycott, multiracial demonstrations, campaigns to improve conditions for Muslims and immigrants, and spreading socialist ideas in alternative publications and social media.

Genuine leftists will go up against anyone, any place, including the KKK and Nazis. That’s our job — to fight their ideas. It’s how to win the whole working class to the idea of dumping the rotten capitalist system that relies on racism to survive. Aiding in that task will be countless authentic satirists taking careful aim at the powers-that-be.

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