Charlie Hebdo and the roots of terrorism

By Frieda Park

The saturation coverage of the killings in Paris in January of 12 staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine and subsequently 5 others plus the 3 alleged killers, has not quite managed to smother the serious questions raised by these events. The mainstream media framed it simplistically as freedom of speech versus Muslim extremists - as up-holding western liberal and democratic values against, by implication, non-western, illiberal and anti-democratic values. Much was implied, through what was said and not said and the imagery used.

The pomp that surrounded the funerals of the victims in France and Israel gave a message of power and rectitude. These are not the desperate looking killers whose mug-shots appeared on TV. These are proper civilised countries, yet “civilised” countries which have been responsible for inflicting murder and human suffering on a vast scale. This hypocrisy is one of the first challenges to the good versus evil narrative of the media. Even the most inventive satirist could not have come up with the idea of a march in defence of free speech and against terrorism led by, among others, a representative of Saudi Arabia and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. What about Gaza? What about the blogger flogged in Saudi Arabia?

Furthermore what about the person arrested in France for approving of the killings or the staff member sacked from Charlie Hebdo for making an anti-Semitic remark? Free speech always has its limits, where people disagree is where those limits should be set. After the killings, the defence of Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish what it chose sometimes took the form of re-printing the specifically anti-Islamic content of the magazine. This gave implicit approval to those cartoons and added to the hostile climate being stoked up against Muslims. Whilst Charlie Hebdo had the legal right to publish what it did, that did not make it the right thing to do.

War and violence have often been perpetrated in the name of religion, but behind that ideological justification lie politics and economics. The Crusades were no more about the Christian religion than the Paris attacks were about Islam. Terrorism and conflict in the North of Ireland was framed for us here in Britain as a religious conflict, but we know that it originated not in the different branches of Christianity, but in British imperialist oppression and partition.  Despite its alleged culpability in that conflict, however, Christianity was never questioned as a faith in the way that Islam is now.

The religious form of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam obscures their social, political and economic roots. Imperialism is both directly and indirectly responsible for the growth of extremism. Directly it has created and supported terrorist organisations like Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, where he was used as a proxy in the overthrow of the government and the fight against the Soviet Union. As reported in the last issue of The Socialist Correspondent, funding for Islamic State comes from the West’s allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.[1] Western countries have encouraged Islamic militias as part of their strategy to overthrow, or attempt to overthrow, governments that they do not like. Wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria involving variously the United States, Britain, France and others have created chaos. With a lack of credible authority or government, militias have stepped in to fill these vacuums. Revulsion at the killings and devastation caused by Western powers has also helped recruit fighters to these organisations.

These are some of the global forces that create and sustain terrorist organisations. However, there are forces within western countries themselves which drive individuals, like the Kouachi brothers, into the hands of these reactionary groups. Muslims everywhere can see the hypocrisy of the West’s wars and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians which go unchecked.

At the same time they are asked to be accountable for the acts of a minority, for which they have no responsibility.  Communities Secretary Eric Pickles asked in his letter to mosques that Muslims demonstrate how Islam "can be part of British identity". These are not demands placed on other sections of the population and reinforces the perception that Islam is more alien than other religions. By contrast after the Paris attacks Mr Pickles joined Home Secretary Theresa May in holding up placards saying “Je suis Juif.” (I am Jewish) at a service in London, organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fear and division is being fomented within and between Muslim and Jewish communities across Europe. In this poisonous political and social mix the far right and religious extremists feed off each, just as abroad imperialism and terrorist militias are two sides of the same coin.

In a further ironic twist the climate of fear being whipped up has seen proposals to further curtail civil liberties.

But there is another issue which is only mentioned obliquely and that is class. People of Muslim, mainly North African, descent in France are often poor and marginalised inhabiting the notorious Banlieues, the housing estates on the outskirts of French cities. The Kouachis were products of this kind of impoverished background. One set of statistics speaks volumes about inequality in France. Muslims comprise 60% of the prison population across the country (even higher in urban areas) but only 8% of the population as a whole.[2] “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” - the values said to be under attack from terrorists are clearly in short supply in the Banlieues.

It is difficult to completely distinguish religion, culture and ethnicity in terms of how individuals and communities identify themselves. So when Charlie Hebdo makes lampooning Islam in crude and racist terms a cause, it will inevitably be alienating already oppressed Muslim communities further and giving succour to the right and religious extremists. How is that helpful? Satire does not belong in a different category to other forms of writing or art – it either plays a progressive role or a reactionary one. It cannot excuse itself as being transgressive or challenging and therefore anything goes. Transgressing what? Challenging what?

Sure Charlie Hebdo lampooned other religions in offensive terms, but that does not make their anti-Islamic cartoons any less offensive and especially not in the context of racism and oppression in France. In this situation lampooning the Pope is not the equivalent of lampooning the Prophet. The editor of Charlie Hebdo who was killed in the attack, Stéphane Charbonnier, has been described as a “militant atheist” and a Communist, who cartooned regularly for L’Humanité, the paper close to the French Communist Party. To be an atheist is fine, however, to be a militant atheist is to miss the point. Religions are complex phenomenon in which social and political battles are fought out. In oppressed communities they can provide social cohesion, identity and a focus for resistance like the black Christian churches in the USA and in South Africa during Apartheid. Indiscriminate attacks on Islam can only help reactionary political forces within Muslim communities and undermine progressive and liberal voices. We have common cause with the people of the Banlieues in opposing exploitation and racism. Working-class unity will not promoted by fomenting religious division.


[1] Stop the Support for Islamic State Terror – Alex Davidson the Socialist Correspondent Issue Number 21

[2] Briefing Terror and Islam – the Economist 17th January 2015