By Alex Callinicos
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Paris attacks are a legacy of imperialism

This article is over 9 years, 5 months old
Issue 2436

What happened in Paris last week has happened in Europe before—in Madrid in March 2004 and in London in July 2005. The infernal cycle of imperialist intervention in the Muslim world and Islamist terrorism continues.

But it feels as if the spiral is twisting downwards. On the one hand, the racist and Islamophobic right in Europe is growing stronger, while the anti-war movement is weaker. On the other, the brutalising effects of war and counter-revolution in the Middle East have strengthened the reactionary zealots of Isis.

This situation places a particularly heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the anti-imperialist left in Europe. 

Whatever the failings of George Galloway, he deserves eternal credit for standing up in the House of Commons after the London bombings and accusing Tony Blair’s government of creating the conditions for the attacks through its role in occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. Regrettably, no such voice can be heard in France today. The closest French equivalent to the Socialist Workers Party, the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), issued a statement condemning the Charlie Hebdo massacre headlined “Barbaric and reactionary madness”.

Of course it was right to condemn the massacre, but the NPA was wrong to call the attack barbarism (and even, in another statement, its perpetrators fascists). This is exactly how ruling classes frame their wars in the Muslim world. 

After 9/11 George W Bush talked about a struggle between civilisation and barbarism. Ex-right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy echoed him on the steps of the Elysée presidential palace last week.

This discourse implicitly justifies the right of Western imperialist states to bring order and freedom to “backward” societies and combat “Islamofascists” worldwide.

The NPA statement goes on to accuse the attackers of “sowing terror, against freedom of expression, freedom of the press in the name of reactionary and obscurantist prejudices”. This effectively endorses the dominant identification with Charlie Hebdo—“Je suis Charlie”—with a magazine that has gloried in publishing horrible, bullying racist caricatures of Muslims.


It’s a funny kind of subversive, anti-establishment magazine that has now been promised €1 million by the French government. But this move to state-subsidised satire symbolises what is crystallising in France. Politicians have increasingly aggressively sought to strengthen a definition of the French state as “secular” and “republican”, uniting all citizens irrespective of class, gender, race, and religion. 

But secularism is understood in a way that effectively includes some faiths but excludes Islam. 

Headscarves were banned in French state schools in 2004 and the wearing of veils in public in 2011. Defence of Charlie Hebdo’s right to insult Muslims has been folded into this “republican” ideology.

Last Sunday’s march in Paris represents an climax in the development of this racist and exclusionary form of secularism—a “republican march” headed by president François Hollande, his predecessor Sarkozy and, among other world leaders, the arch-butcher Binyamin Netanyahu. 

In many ways it is reminiscent of the union sacrée (sacred union) in which the French ruling class sought to unite workers and bosses to support the First World War.

To its credit, the NPA has condemned this “national union” and refused to participate in the march. But its concessions to the dominant ideology mean that it is stuck at best in the position described by one of the NPA’s founders, the late Daniel Bensaïd, called “neither-norism”—in this case neither the French state nor the Islamists.

This involves making what Bensaïd described as a “false symmetry between two challenges”. The French state and its allies such as the US and Britain have incomparably more destructive power than the Islamists, nasty though the latter are. The violence they inflict, directly or indirectly, provokes blowback revenge attacks that mimic that violence.

Throughout Europe we face a tidal wave of racism and Islamophobia. It is the duty of all revolutionary socialists to stand firmly and wholeheartedly against this. We have to show that working people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds can unite against racism, war, and austerity.

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