Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "Charlie Hebdo" magazine and its political role in Muslim immigrant integration

I've been saying on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that people need to be able to walk and talk on this issue at the same time.

Paul Pillar makes a useful contribution to doing so in Five Things Wrong with the Reaction to the Paris Attacks The National Interest 01/13/2015.

The first of his list of five is "Scale of the attacks vs. scale of the reaction." I'm not so worried about the fact that the Charlie Hebdo killings provoked a response that may seem to be proportionately different than that after similar incidents. There are no perfect cases, and no perfectly identical ones.

But I've become particularly interested in the "perfect case" problem recently. Protests over racial injustices in the US have often centered around dramatic incidents that, for whatever reason, resonated among a larger population than those immediately affected. George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin, for instance, which the Florida justice system found legal. Darryl Wilson's murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, in which the Democratic prosecutor with the connivance of the Democratic Governor acted as the killer cop's defense attorney, effectively spiking the possibility of Wilson being prosecuted. New York cops choking for Eric Garner to death on video for the minor crime of selling individual black market cigarettes, which the New York justice system also found to be legal.

Criminal cases like those are never "perfect cases," in the sense that the accused can usually plead some mitigating circumstance of some kind, unlikely as some of them may be.

I would say, though, that anyone who sees the Eric Garner murder as a murky case not worthy anyone protesting over, in my jaded view there is probably no murder of a black man by a white police officer that they would ever question or criticize.

Pillar makes an observation in the Charlie Hebdo case that adds some important perspective on all the other imperfect cases over which public protest is aroused:

But much of what we have been seeing over the past week is an example of how public and political attention to something, regardless of what that something is, tends to feed on itself. Once a certain level of salience is reached and enough people are talking and writing about a subject or an event, then for that very reason other people start talking and writing about it too. As the attention snowballs, political leaders feel obligated to weigh in and to appear responsive, regardless of their private assessment of whatever started the crescendo of public attention. Thus in the current instance even the White House feels obligated to answer for the president or vice president of the United States not having flown off to join a crowd in Paris. [my emphasis]
In the case of the thoroughly odious George Zimmerman, I couldn't assert with complete confidence that his killing of Trayvon was illegal, given the kind of NRA-approved Stand Your Ground/Kill At Will statue in effect in Florida.

But I also find myself in the Zimmerman case thinking that Charlie Pearson turned out to be wrong in judging, "Nothing good has come of this whole situation. Nothing." (What Zimmerman Can Do Now Esquire Politics Blog 07/14/2013) The protests over the seeming inaction of the police in that case were legitimate. That is not changed by the fact that protesters in some case got some detail of their accounts wrong. That's what trials are for, which is what the protesters were demanding. The basic facts were hard for any honest person to dispute. The armed Zimmerman was stalking the unarmed Trayvon Martin for no good reason. Trayvon, alarmed for very good reason, confronted the armed white guy. The unarmed black kid wound up dead. His white killer got away with it and is free to continue in his highly dubious ways. (See Kelli Kennedy, George Zimmerman Arrested On Aggravated Assault Charge AP/Huffington Post 01/10/2015)

But it did raise the consciousness (if I can borrow that New Agey phrase - awareness, if you prefer) of many Americans, particularly white Americans, about the kind racial discrimination that is pervasive in the American justice system. And Pillar there gives a good, brief description of how this works.

As a technical description of a social and media process, it reminds us that it can be used to hype a false and misleading narrative just as it can a legitimate one. But on the hopeful side, it's a reminder that we don't need a "perfect case" to use as a way of calling attention to a real, widespread problem like police brutality. Only enough legitimate cases to make it a live issue on a broader scale.

Pillar also raises the nature and quality of the satire that Charlie Hebdo has been practicing for years:

The exerciser of free speech in question in Paris was a satirical magazine that seems to specialize in cartoons that are bound to offend a lot of people. It is fair to say that in the centuries of struggles for civil liberties, this is probably not one of the nobler vehicles for the cause. We are not talking Thomas Paine here. What is that “je suis Charlie” stuff supposed to mean? That we are all dedicated to putting down religious prophets? With most rights also go responsibilities, and prudence in the exercise of those rights, with an honest effort to bear in mind the consequences of what one does or says. Responsible, prudent exercise of a right does nothing to diminish or compromise that right. [my emphasis]
I didn't plaster any of my own “je suis Charlie” placards on Facebook or Twitter. But I understood it to mean primarily a statement of solidarity with the victims of violence against the free press.

But I also didn't rush to plaster “je suis Charlie” labels on myself online because I was unfamiliar with the actual content of the piece. I'm also in solidarity with the right of nasty, xenophobic protesters in the far-right "Pegida" movement in Germany. But I ain't posting any "Ich bin Pegida" signs for myself. Because I'm very much not in solidarity with their message of hate. And I wouldn't want anyone assuming that I was.

Pillar also points out that a new wave of often ill-informed criticism of Islam in general has been a result of the attack on the "je suis Charlie" campaign:

The Paris events have rekindled an old debate about whether the seeds of violent Islamist extremism can be found in the content of Islam itself. That debate had a surge a couple of decades ago when Samuel Huntington was writing about a clash of civilizations and about how Islam has “bloody borders.” The debate gets a renewed surge whenever, say, Congressman Peter King says something on the subject or events such as those in Paris transpire. The debate will never be resolved.

The debate as commonly framed is not very useful because even if those who argue that the content of Islam explains the motivations of those who commit violent acts in its name were right—and they are more wrong than right—that would not take us very far toward any implied policy recommendations. [my emphasis]
Max Blumenthal and Chris Hayes both linked on Twitter to this 2013 critique by a former Charlie Hebdo staffer of the thematic content of the magazine's satire: Olivier Cyran, “Charlie Hebdo”, not racist? If you say so ... 12/05/2013; translated by Daphne Lawless; original from Article11:

Doubtless I would not have had the patience or the stoutness of heart to follow, week after week, the distressing transformation which took over your team after the events of September 11, 2001. I was no longer part of Charlie Hebdo when the suicide planes made their impact on your editorial line, but the Islamophobic neurosis which bit by bit took over your pages from that day on affected me personally, as it ruined the memory of the good moments I spent on the magazine during the 1990s. The devastating laughter of “Charlie” which I had loved to hear now sounded in my ears like the laugh of a happy idiot getting his cock out at the checkout counter, or of a pig rolling in its own shit. And yet, I never called your magazine racist. But since today you are proclaiming, high and loud, your stainless and irreproachable anti-racism, maybe it’s now the right moment to seriously consider the question. ...

Scarcely had I walked out, wearied by the dictatorial behaviour and corrupt promotion practices of the employer, than the Twin Towers fell and Caroline Fourest arrived in your editorial team. This double catastrophe set off a process of ideological reformatting which would drive off your former readers and attract new ones - a cleaner readership, more interested in a light-hearted version of the “war on terror” than the soft anarchy of [cartoonist] Gébé. Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production. “Investigations” began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact, like the so-called infiltration of the League of Human Rights (LDH) or European Social Forum (FSE) by a horde of bloodthirsty Salafists. The new impulse underway required the magazine to renounce the unruly attitude which had been its backbone up to then, and to form alliances with the most corrupt figures of the intellectual jet-set, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy or Antoine Sfeir, cosignatories in Charlie Hebdo of a grotesque “Manifesto of the Twelve against the New Islamic Totalitarianism”[3]. Whoever could not see themselves in a worldview which opposed the civilized (Europeans) to obscurantists (Muslims) saw themselves quickly slapped with the label of “useful idiots” or “Islamo-leftists”. (my emphasis in bold; italics in English text quoted)
Okay, the fact that professional twit and self-righteous warmonger Bernard-Henri Lévy like the content of the paper is a bad sign in itself. As Cyran also explains, the magazine very publicly welcomed Lévy's support. Two strikes.

As the late great Molly Ivins noted nearly 20 years ago in a takedown of Rush Limbaugh (Lyin' Bully Mother Jones May/June 1995):

I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless — none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it's profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple. [my emphasis]
And while France has been at war recently in Islamic countries and Muslims are certainly powerful in countries from Indonesia to Morocco.

But French Muslims themselves are not a powerful group in French society. As Cyran notes:

The obsessive pounding on Muslims to which your weekly has devoted itself for more than a decade has had very real effects. It has powerfully contributed to popularising, among “left-wing” opinion, the idea that Islam is a major “problem” in French society. That belittling Muslims is no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but a “right to offend” which is sanctified by secularism, the Republic, by “co-existence”. And even - let’s not be stingy with the alibis! - by the rights of women. It’s widely believed today that the exclusion of a veiled girl is a sign, not of stupid discrimination, but of solid, respectable feminism, which consists of pestering those whom one claims to be liberating. Draped in these noble intentions that flatter their ignorance and exempt them from any scruples, we see people with whom we were close, and whom we believed mentally healthy, abruptly start to cut loose with a stream of racist idiocies. ... But it’s rare that Charlie Hebdo is not cited to support the golden rule authorising us to spew all over Muslims. And, since your disciples have learned their lessons well, they never fail to exclaim when they’re caught red-handed: “But it is our right to mock religions! Don’t confuse legitimate criticism of Islam with anti-Arab racism!”
Juan Cole writes (Yes, they’re Condemning the Paris Attacks: The Muslims’ War on Terror Informed Comment 01/09/2015):

I have no knowledge of the background of the suspect brothers [in the Charlie Hebdo killings], their parents may even have been `Frence collaborators’ in Algeria (50,000 of whom were butchered by the victorious FLN after the war), they cannot have direct knowedge  [sic]of that war. But they come from a subculture of French society that has been spat upon and marginalized by a large minority of main-stream France ever since. [my emphasis in bold]
Stéphanie Giry in a 2006 article described the state of Muslim immigrant integration in France and Its Muslims Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct 2006).

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