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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

Long Live Charlie Hebdo!

Saturday 31 January 2015

The author writes about the January 2015 terror attack on the Paris satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and its gross misinterpretation by people of Left liberal sensibilities in India and much of the world.

by Harsh Kapoor

We recently witnessed a devastating terror assault by fanatics who gunned down close to 200 children in a school in Peshawar. Was this a desperate cry of the dispossessed in Pakistan? I am glad that the various tiny fractions of the Left in Pakistan stood up and condemned it openly, some in India also stood up for the first time. It provoked widespread shock and disdain.

But the terrorist assassination of 12 cartoo-nists, journalists and workers at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015 has provoked very different reactions. Geographical location of the murder seems to drive this.

I am utterly astounded and shocked at the manner in which many in the Left-leaning and liberal circles in India have reacted to the devastating terror attack in Paris. Has a section of the Left gone mad? Why do they have to deflect a straight-forward issue and start providing rationalisation for terror attacks from the Muslim fundamentalists. We are being given an endless spiel on French colonisation, the war for decolonisation in Algeria, the exclusion of the so-called Muslim ‘community’ in France, the blowback for France’s foolish involvement in the recent wars in Libya and Syria and so on. The role of the poor and dispossessed is being invoked.

Commentators from the Anglo-Saxon world and even our desi Left intelligenstsia who are waxing eloquent on the Charlie Hebdo massacre are making the most absurd amalgam between the French establishment and a truly radical far Left-wing magazine which shared absolutely nothing in common.

Charlie Hebdo is presented as the centre of all evil that existed ever and that it had it coming, that their cartoons were racist and hurt sentiments. All this reminds me of 1989 and the Rushdie affair when this hurt sentiment industry made it big and has since become globalised. India’s Picasso, M.F. Hussain, was forced to leave his country by the wrath of the Hindu Far Right, all in the name of hurt sentiments. Many of the same radicals who stood by M.F. Hussain are now shamelessly standing up with free rationalisation for the Charlie Hebdo killers. Why such different treatment for different religio-fundamentalist strands? Were the poor and dispossessed involved in going after M.F. Hussain or in the assassination of M.K. Gandhi? What about the assassination of Salman Tasseer? Poor and oppressed, any takers?

Charlie Hebdo was born in rebellious times of May1968 in France. It had been preceded by other radical magazines like Hara Kiri and Enragé and many others. But they are in many ways part of a lineage of a very long historical tradition dating back to the French revolution and Jacobins of radical caricature-making and mocking the powers that be—religious or other —in every sphere of life. The French revolution was the time of incredibly powerful irreverence and it gave birth to a very incisive form of satire and lampooning. Many magazines, with satirical drawing accompanying the text emerged during this time and have continued since. Later a much softer version of this developed in Britain and elsewhere.

The 1968 generation Charlie Hebdo has had an even more militant libertarian non-conformist view of the world, groomed by a radical antipathy to the political power of the religious authority, and a deep identification with ideas of the broad Left. Pungent depictions the magazine runs are devastatingly funny that poke fun at everything, just everything that makes for daily life. This vitriolic humour has come to be a vital part of French intellectual and popular culture and there is a social acceptance for it. Millions read satirical comics, satirical newspapers, and magazines. Its anti-religious politics takes apart the clergy, most of all the nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis, all who represent the high and mighty and, more recently, the Dalai Lama, the new cults, and also in the recent times imams, mullahs as the gate-keepers of religion.

Charile Hebdo has a bawdy, burlesque-style of black humour. Not for the weak-hearted. In 1970 Charlie Hebdo made fun of Charles de Gaulle, the President and leader of the Resistance, on the day of his death, provoking demands from the Right for its ban.The publication ceased in 1981 and was revived in 1991. Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists have faced hundred of court cases since its creation. But it has continued to strike against powerful capitalists, bureaucratic and religious elites. The many targets of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and journalism have been the Far Right extremists, police repression, war- mongering, the big corporate media, anti- immigrant policies, capitalist and employer wrongdoing, the big banks and stock markets, cuts in public spending and the military industrial complex, nuclear industry, homo-phobia, conservative social values, denial of climate change, food industry, the big pharma etc. etc.

In the English-speaking world, there is practically no tradition of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo or, say, a newspaper like Le Canard Enchainé (A Duck in Chains — Canard/Duck is a French slang for newspaper) that deploy sardonic cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion pieces as standard fare. The kind of fiercely brutal cartoons that appear in Charlie Hebdo and the like in France have no chance of appearing in Britain, in the United States, Canada, Australia and most of the world. This would pass as obscene bad taste. It is a matter of culture as to what is obscene or distasteful. In a country like India, the Charlie-style cartoons would be unacceptable to both the Left and Right and the non-ideological and unthinking.

Thanks to the French revolution, there are no blasphemy laws in France (except for Alsace and Moselleregions which joined France after the revolution). However, France has strict laws on hate speech, anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, and so hateful activity is under the scanner.

Blasphemy or “religious insult” and racism are two different things. But with the rise of identity politics all over the world, there has been a successful push by many to collapse these into a single block that turn’s religious identity into ethnic or racial faultlines. In keeping with this, all of French of North African descent get sweepingly described in the media as Muslims (less than five per cent go to mosques, 20 per cent are atheists) or Arabs (a vast majority are from Berber origins) and all of the ‘White’ French get labelled as Christian, a huge mistake this—a misnomer for the French. But in this age of easy clichéd (black and white) representation who cares for complexity—just an SMS does the fixing.

The politics of Charlie Hebdo has been progressive as it gets and informed by the New Left around the world. They have been anti-fascist, pro-abortion, pro-contraception in solidarity with the feminists, they stood up with the anti-nuclear movement unlike their own friends on the Left. The main anti-racist platform in France, SOS Racisme, teamed up with Charlie for campaigns against anti-immigrant policies. They denounced the Right-wing opposition to legalise gay live-in relations. During the 1990s war in Algeria when there were violent attacks from the fundamenta-lists on the local media and the artists, writers and cartoonists, many were forced into exile. Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to numerous Algerian journalists and cartoo-nists in exile. All this goes back in fact because people like Bob Siné (the anarchist celebrity cartoonist from the 1950s and 1960s, Siné is one of the oldest cartoonists who worked for the Charlie Hebdo magazine till 2008) faced umpteen law suits for supporting Algeria’s independence movement in the 1950s.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo has been condemned in France by the trade unions, by the anti-nuclear movement, by women’s groups, by organisations of homeless, by the immigrants organisations all have offered help and solidarity. Journalists in Algeria and the Tunisian Trade Union of workers in Graphic Arts (Syndicat des métiers des arts plastiquestunisien) have issued statements in support of Charlie Hebdo, saying they have faced and still face similar threats and attacks from fundamentalists.

In fact five of the cartoonists who died were people whose work appeared also in many weeklies, dailies and monthlies of Left persuasion all over France. The French trade unions, the women’s groups, the anti-nuclear movement carried their cartoons. They were household names.

Georges Wolinski was very famous in France. One of the longest standing members of CharlieHebdo, he was very close to the Communist Party of France besides being the President of the France-Cuba Friendship Association.

Jean Cabut (pen name Cabu) was a class apart and extremely popular for his past with hilarious Le Canard enchainé—the French precursor of WikiLeaks. His cartoon character Mon Beauf, a caricature of the racism and sexism of an ordinary Frenchman, became so popular that the word ‘beauf’ (short for “beau-frère”, that is, brother-in-law) has entered the French slang dictionaries. His work appeared in numerous newspapers, but many volumes of cartoons were sold on their own as best selling books. One of which was the Big blond with a black shirt, a lancet’s knife lampooning of Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme Right National Front.

Tignous had his cartoons appear every week not only in Charlie but also on the pages of the daily l’Humanité (newspaper of the Communist Party) and in the CGT trade union paper La Vie Ouvrière, in Telerama and L’Echo des Savanes. Tignous was a member of the Cartoonists for Peace.

Stéphane Charbonier (known as Charb), the murdered editor of Charlie, was a member of the French Communist Party and a supporter of the Front de Gauche (the Left Front—a joint forum of Left groups), had opposed the 2005 proposed neoliberal European Constitution. The 2009 book, Marx: Mode d’emploi (Marx: A User’s Guide), by the late far Left intellectual Daniel Bensaid was attractively illustrated with funny drawings by Charb. Charb was also well known for his four volume Chienet Chat Anticapitalistes (Anti- capitalist Cats and Dogs Cartoon Books).

Bernard Maris (or Uncle Bernard to Charlie Hebdo readers) was part of the editorial group. He was a reputed Left economist on the advisory board of ATTAC (http://www.attac.org/), the social movement body opposed to corporate globali-zation.

The Charlie Hebdo magazine has been a well-known and fervent opponent of Zionism and Israel’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended the Roma/ gypsy people against police crackdowns and deportation. Charlie Hebdo has been a part of the cultural intellectual infrastructure (where with- all) of the Left in France. Killing them has been like a body blow to the Left sensibilities and to the cultural sphere in France.

The murder of these Left cartoonists and its obscene celebration by the progressives elsewhere is akin to the following hypothetical nightmare; that our international celebrity Marxist Tariq Ali, the radical broadcaster Amy Goodman, and our big time professor from Columbia all get assassinated by some Islamist nuts for being British or American and the progressive chatterati grotesquely take off talking about the horrors of British and American imperialism and that this is a blowback. Sad to imagine such a scenario.

The Islamist echo effect on the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris is still on. There are now big violent street demos in North Africa (A report in El Watan of January 17, 2015 says ‘the slogan heard in the demonstration in Algeria after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was “Ahlyhanahya, ahlyhanamout, waalayhanalqa Allah” (pour- l’Etatislamique - nous vivons, pour lui nous allonsmourir et rencontrer Dieu) [English translation: For an Islamic State - we are living, for which we will die and encounter God]’) and the Middle East, also nearer home in Pakistan. I am now with sadness waiting for the ones that may happen in Delhi, in Bombay, in Calcutta and for the real prospect of our Lefties joining them in solidarity with the hurt religious sentiment-walas.

The Left today is very shy of confronting Muslim fundamentalism, lest it be seen as anti-Islam. It has become a taboo they better get rid of. The other malady afflicting the Left-leaning is xenophobic nationalism anti-west-ism, becoming a reactionary instinct deployed to explain everything from road accidents to bad weather. Please wake up comrades: inter-nationalism is the need of the day against the rising tide of fascist movements that may spell the end of all democratic space.

The killers of Charlie Hebdo grew up in areas where once there was a Red belt of Communist-run towns around Paris. Today the Left has pretty much ceded ground in these working class suburban towns. These are recruiting grounds for multiple forms of fascist and reactionary groups, armed with propaganda, satellite TV, hate-filled gospel and dress codes and moral conduct all blessed by ‘authentic’ religion and culture. Christian evangelical cults, Islamist preachers and the far Right xenophobes all promoting identity politics. Now it is time to mass mobilise against fascist formations in France as in India.

In India we have hate speech, violently communal speech, anti-religious speech all co- existing with virtually no real hand of the state successfully stopping it. We have unity and diversity of fatwas and farmans from Khaps, self- appointed religious or ‘community’ leaders increasingly defining the landscape for speech, writing, film, dress and accepted behaviour. The blasphemy and hurt-sentiment industry is flourishing. A slow poison is spreading.

It is time we promoted freedom of speech as a Left-wing issue, differentiating it from hate speech; the space to speak is shrinking every-where and most of all for people who represent the subversive ideas of equality and secular democracy.

The author is a Left-leaning activist who spent several decades in France and runs the South Asia Citizens Web.