- The shootings in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, followed by the killing of four shoppers at a kosher supermarket in Vincennes two days later, have attracted almost universal condemnation. And of course it is right to condemn them. But the typical manner of this condemnation—as barbarous and irrational acts that violate traditional Western liberties—both refuses to confront the historical context in which the killings took place and serves to underwrite a policy of imperialist war and domestic repression.
- Ever since 9/11, we have seen the same cycle in which imperialist war in the Muslim world provokes jihadi terrorist atrocities that are in turn used to justify more wars that in turn provoke more atrocities … The Paris shootings are the latest turn in this cycle. The reaction to them has been stronger because they occurred against the background of the rise of ISIS in the Arab East—a development that is the product of the shattering of Iraqi society by the US and British invasion of 2003 and the counter-revolutionary war waged by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
- The Paris killings—and the Madrid and London bombings before them—are a predictable consequence of the Iraq war and its aftermath. To say this is not to justify the killings but to draw a basic causal connection pointed out by many critics and establishment commentators even before the war was launched. To this must be added the way in which the “war on terrorism” has been used to isolate and stigmatize the Muslim population of Europe, already an economically marginalized and culturally isolated minority. Increasingly Islamophobia has become the dominant form of racism in Europe. This has been particularly pronounced in France, where laws have been passed banning the headscarf in schools and the veil in public, and schools legally required to present the bloody history of the French colonial empire in a positive light. In such a climate, it is hardly surprising that a small minority of young European Muslims should be attracted to the armed jihadis of al Qaeda and ISIS.
- Therefore to present the attack on Charlie Hebdo primarily as an assault on freedom of speech is thoroughly deceptive. Charlie Hebdo is a magazine whose origins lie in the post-1968 left but that in recent years has devoted much energy to provoking and insulting Muslims. Comparisons with the 18th century Enlightenment’s assault on the Catholic Church are absurd. To this day, the Vatican continues to enjoy enormous institutional power and behind the scenes influence. Islam is the religion of a poor and marginalized minority in Europe. Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet of Islam angered and humiliated vast numbers of European Muslims who nevertheless have no time for terrorism. The government of François Hollande in any case rapidly undercut its loudly proclaimed support for free speech by arresting growing numbers of people for what they have written online. But the slogan “Je suis Charlie” helped Hollande and the other leaders of the European ruling classes to mobilise unprecedented numbers of ordinary people behind them in Paris on 11 January.
- We stand in the revolutionary Marxist tradition that, from the time of Marx and Engels and the Fenians, and Lenin and Trotsky and the Narodniks, has rejected terrorism as a political strategy. Our target is the capitalist and imperialist system. This can only be overthrown by mass working-class action. The jihadi groups pursue, by contrast, a classical terrorist strategy, fundamentally dividing an elite of fighters from the masses, who remain passive. Indeed, undoubtedly one aim of the killings in Paris is to provoke a repressive and Islamophobic reaction that will drive more Muslims to support the terrorist organizations. There is therefore a complicity between these tactics and the methods of divide-and-rule practised by the ruling class.
- We, by contrast, stand for the unity of the oppressed and exploited against capitalism and imperialism. Already before the shootings, racism and Islamophobia were on the rise in Europe. The effects of the economic crisis and the austerity policies of European governments, combined with the corruption and arrogance of the neoliberal political elite, have created an opening for the parties of the racist and fascist populist right—the Front National in France, Pegida in Germany, UKIP in Britain, and the like. The mainstream parties have pandered to the far right with attacks on migrants, Muslims, and other minorities, helping to make open racism more legitimate. The atmosphere of outrage and fear created by the Paris killings is likely to make the prevailing climate of racism and Islamophobia even worse. Meanwhile Hollande and David Cameron in Britain are demanding yet more powers for their bloated security apparatuses.
- The most urgent task of revolutionary socialists in this situation is to build the broadest possible movement against racism and Islamophobia. What this will involve in different countries will vary according to circumstances. Where racists and fascists take to the streets they must be met with mass counter-mobilizations. Racist demagogues must also be challenged by mass protests. But the International Anti-Racist Day of Action on 21 March offers an opportunity for all those who want to stand up against racism and Islamophobia to come onto the streets. It is will be particularly important to involve Muslims in these mobilisations. But it is essential to understand that many of those participating in official demonstrations such as the “republican marches” in France on 11 January wanted to reject the terrorist atrocities but also to express their opposition to racism and the scapegoating of Muslims. It will be important to involve as many as possible of them as well.
- At the same time, we must continue to campaign against the imperialist military interventions in the global South. As the bulk of the Western occupation forces has been slinking beaten out of Afghanistan, the military campaign against ISIS continues to build up in Iraq and Syria. Despite Barack Obama’s promises, the number of US “boots on the ground” in Iraq is growing. French imperialism has a long history of military intervention in its former African colonies, most recently in Mali. We must oppose these military adventures, and all attempts to expand the imperialist machinery of surveillance and repression in the name of fighting terrorism.
- The Paris killings and their aftermath represent a major challenge for the radical and revolutionary left. Too many tendencies place the state and the Islamists on the same level, as equally dangerous enemies. But the Western imperialist states buttress the global capitalist system of exploitation, exercising vast power to oppress and to destroy. All too often treating the state and the Islamists as the same can slide into standing with the state against the Islamists—as much of the left in Egypt has done, for example, backing the counter-revolutionary regime of Field Marshal el-Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood. In Europe, the support that substantial sections of the radical left have given to Charlie Hebdo amounts to the abandonment of the Muslim minority. But revolutionary socialists are tribunes of the oppressed. All our activities must be subordinated to the aim of promoting a working class united across gender, religion, colour, and nation, fighting to rid the world of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
The Coordination of the International Socialist Tendency
21 January 2015