Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range. It is too soon to have a complete, coherent political narrative of these killings. All one can have at this point are the correct but platitudinous points about there being no justification for this, that all attacks on journalists are abhorrent, that freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood, and so on. If you really need that sermon, you’re in the wrong place.
However, there is a wider narrative that is emerging in the rush to judgment, as news media attempt to stitch together details — at first entirely circumstantial — into an explanatory story. The assumption is that the killers are members of some sort of Islamist group, possibly linked to Islamic State, and are exacting political retribution for the publication’s regular satirical attacks on Islam by executing its journalists. And about that, I do have something beyond the obvious to say, just as a starting point.
The first point is that French President Francois Hollande declared this a “terrorist” attack very early on. Now, we don’t need to know any concrete details to understand the purpose of this. “Terrorism” is not a scientific term; it is inherently normative.
The uses of “terrorism” in such contexts are by now well understood. I suggested apropos the Woolwich killing that it functions as a narrative device, setting up a less-than-handful of people as a civilizational threat evoking stoic defense (of “British values,” “la république,” “the West,” etc). It justifies repressive and securitarian responses that tend to target Muslims as such, responses which in the United Kingdom chiefly come under the rubric of the government’s Prevent strategy.
The second is that there is already an enormous pressure, in this context, to defend Charlie Hebdo as a forceful exponent of “Western values,” or in some cases even as a brilliantly radical bastion of left-wing anti-clericalism.
Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.
I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.
A detour. During the “Troubles,” one of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s most infamous acts was to send the Special Air Service to shoot three unarmed Irish Republican Army members in Gibraltar.
Amnesty International considered this an outrageous case of extrajudicial killing and announced that it was launching a probe. The howls of scandal from the Tory benches were ably channeled by Mrs Thatcher, who sneeringly and cynically suggested from the dispatch box: “I hope Amnesty has some concern for the more than two thousand people murdered by the IRA since 1969.”
We have been reminded of the perils of such “you’re with us or against us” campism throughout the “war on terror.” Now, unfortunately, I suspect we’re going to see more of this, and many who know better capitulating to the political blackmail.
The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo. But given the scale of the ongoing anti-Muslim backlash in France, the big and frightening anti-Muslim movements in Germany, and the constant anti-Muslim scares in the UK, and given the ideological purposes to which this atrocity will be put, it is essential to get this right.
No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.