The news started to come through late morning in London, grainy photos of a police car in a street on twitter. London was an hour behind Paris, but pretty soon the whole of Europe felt like a single town. Then the news came all at once, and the sheer size of the event became clear. The staff of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had been eviscerated in a terrorist raid on their offices in the boho eleventh arrondissement, a couple of police had been killed, and the killers were on the run.
Garbled reports said the three black-dressed raiders had been speaking Russian. Others said they yelled ‘we have avenged Allah’ in native French as they ran out. News programs did not pass judgement, but no-one who knew Hebdo—not many, outside Paris—believed it was anything other than an Islamist attack.
The satirical magazine was often compared to Private Eye, but that was misleading. Hebdo was more like ‘The Chaser’ at its most outrageous, combining politics with juvenility, in a strategy of outrage. In the ’70s, a lot of that had been directed at the Catholic Church and its last-ditch attempts to maintain a hold on French social and cultural mores.
By the 2000s, after a decade-long hiatus, the magazine had started to run cartoons taking the piss out of some of the more bumptious mullahs who had set themselves up among the French Muslim population, and the various accommodations being made within French culture, such as halal meat being available at schools. But it was only in 2006, with the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair, that they really swung their guns around.
When the Jyllands-Posten ran Mohammed cartoons—solely to make a point that they could depict Mohammed if they liked—it turned Charlie Hebdo on to depicting Mohammed as a stand-by. Some of the jokes were satirical—Mohammed shaking his head after a terrorist outrage, asking ‘Why do I have such idiots as followers?’—and others were simply funny but tasteless, such as an issue guest-edited by Mohammed (‘100 lashes if you don’t laugh’). All the anti-clerical fury that had been a staple of the French Left since the days of Renan and Anatole France had been turned on a faith held by 6 per cent of the population, and a marginal group at that. The jokes had got the Hebdo office firebombed in 2011, and security had been increased. But there was also a curious fatalism in some of their comments, their editor Charb saying, of the regular threats, ‘better to die on your feet than live on your knees’.
Better to get real security than either. A dozen of the cartoonists and writers were killed when the attackers, who it would later be revealed were the Kouachi brothers, Islamist from the rap/gangsta/jihadi subculture of the banlieues, heavied a woman into buzzing them through the door, got the wrong office, and then found the editorial team in the midst of their weekly planning meeting. They escaped—this was no suicide mission—in their own car, carjacked a woman north of Paris, let her go, and eventually holed up in a print shop, where they were killed shooting it out the next day. By then, France was in political hysteria, and much of the rest of Europe came down with the same affliction in sympathy.
The city had seen plenty of terror in recent decades—the right-wing OAS in the ’60s, Mossad and Palestinians, Kurds and Turks, and a bombing campaign by Carlos ‘the Jackal’ Ramirez in the ’80s—and the Republic itself was founded on the idealisation of political terror. Perhaps that was what made the raid so chilling. Crackpot suicide bombers who believe they are blowing themselves straight into paradise may disconcert us, but perhaps they do not chill us; we do not believe they have our measure. These guys had a style and a demeanour more like the Red Brigades or the IRA: in and out quickly, deliberately refraining from killing those uninvolved (another raid on a kosher supermarket, by someone once in their jihadi circle, was chaotic and randomly brutal, killing four Jewish customers), completing a mission with clear objectives. This limited and targeted raid was taken as more disconcerting than the far more lethal London 7/7 attack or the deadly Madrid bombings.
A strange event, but by comparison with what happened next, it was just another day in Paris. For this single raid prompted a reaction that began, in a mode familiar since 9/11, in a mode of contestation between assertions of Western triumph, by liberals and the Right, and Western hypocrisy, by what remains of the Left, but ended in a sort of final, chaotic implosion that seemed to merely expose the absurdity of these ragged debates. What happened to the Left is the main thrust of this article, but there was a symmetry at work, so it is worth examining what happened there.
For the Right, across the anglosphere, the Hebdo massacre ostensibly presented a political opportunity—but rapidly revealed the seriousness of its deepening crisis. For thirty-five years, since the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era, the Right has offered a combination of ‘traditional’ conservative values—often maintained by state regulation—and free-market liberalism. As the latter has transformed and ungrounded what remained of the traditional culture, the search for culture ‘wreckers’—sheeted home to the ‘new class’ and the heritage of the ’60s—has become steadily more shrill and the contradictions within the formation more severe.
The crisis of the Abbott government is a measure of this. Lying below their incidental incompetence is an inability to reconcile these two dimensions of their politics in a way that earlier governments have been able to manage. This was particularly evident in their attempts to abolish the ‘18C’ ban on offensive and insulting racial vilification. Conservatism recognises that a society has limits to speech that preserve a set of shared values and frame a harmonious public sphere: the movement to abolish 18C was a liberal/libertarian demand for a public sphere of open slather. The call for submissions on its abolition attracted 4000 overwhelmingly critical reactions, from all non-Anglo, Indigenous and Jewish community peak bodies, which based themselves on that inherently conservative notion. The Abbott government, having spruiked the liberal case, faced electoral disaster, and used the rise of DAISH (ISIS) to withdraw, saying that community cohesion was essential at a time like this. In the UK, the Cameron government had made similar gestures towards cohesion over the years. A light feint towards criticism of multiculturalism in Opposition had been soon abandoned.
The Hebdo massacre, and the call for solidarity, thus put the Right in a difficult position. The magazine’s mode de vivre was to be a creature of the margins, tolerated but scurrilous. Satire and outrageous comedy is inherently supplementary and parasitic on the main business of a culture. To work, it must be part of a living and serious culture. But after the massacre this small publication, with sales of 50,000, 90 per cent of them within a kilometre of the Sorbonne, was put at the centre not merely of French but of Western culture. This was absurd, since Hebdo had never let up on the anti-clericalism either: a cover for an issue on same-sex marriage had Jesus fucking God the father up the arse, while the Holy Spirit, in turn, erm, entered Jesus. And there was much more in that vein. Presidente Hollande, at the time of his dalliances, was in the position of celebrating as at the core of the culture a magazine that had featured him with his dick out, the member in question saying ‘Moi, presidente’. His jilted partner Valerie Turtweiler, on breaking up with him, was shown as a bare-breasted ‘liberty leading the people’. And so on.
To put such an anarchistic entity at the heart of your own culture is to create a regression effect. What does such a culture value? On what basis does it stand? The only answer that could be proffered was ‘free speech’. The idea of ‘free speech’ as a right may derive from a certain idea of the human, but it is a simple and content-free one. Free speech and other liberal rights are a metapolitical framework within which to manage debate around matters with greater political content: tradition, religion, equality, law and punishment, ways of life, the role of nature and the like. When all you can put on your banner is ‘free speech’ as indicative of your culture—a false assertion about Western tradition in any case—then you not only face immediate difficulties on your own side but reveal an obvious asymmetry.
The Hebdo killers and the world they came from had a simple but powerful idea of Godhead, which flowed into everything they did, and grounded their world. It was a reminder of the world of grounded Christian culture, lost in the progress of the secular enlightenment. To go up against the cosmic and transcendental idea of Islam and Allah with a funny magazine as at your core was to expose the very wobbly basis of your culture.
By the time this was beginning to be apparent a march for ‘Unity’ in Paris had already been announced, to be led by the Presidente. But Hollande quickly faced a problem: a call to Unity would have to involve the presence of Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National. So the march was quickly internationalised, with world leaders invited. This led to the ultimate absurdity, in which a million people marched for freedom of speech behind the Saudi ambassador to France, Putin’s foreign minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government had jailed numerous Palestinian journalists. Simultaneously, an issue of Hebdo was planned with a print run of first one million, then three, then five. It was part-funded by Google, only recently revealed as having co-operated with the NSA to spy on its own users.
The day after the march, fifty-five people were arrested in France for various speech crimes, including ‘voicing support for terrorism’ and anti-semitism. French-Arab comedian Dieudonne, whose shows were banned last year for becoming rallies of anti-semitic bilge, replete with a downward-facing fascist salute called a ‘quennelle’, was arrested for making a facebook post saying ‘jesuischarliecoulibaly’, adding the name of the kosher-supermarket killer to the hashtag phrase. The next day David Cameron, fresh from the march, announced his intention to ban all private cryptography, such as can be used to send untappable messages on the internet. The ‘Unity’ march had become farcical, a post-political staged event to legitimate the extension of the state.
But if the event had made clear the disarray of the Right, and allowed for the extension of the state by a unified political-technocratic elite, it made still clearer the absolute bankruptcy of the Left, and its inability to say anything of content. Caught between an unenviable role as a warning voice about Islamophobia, and the utter absence of any grassroots radical humanist politics, Left commentators abandoned all that they should have known about how societies work in order to try to jerry-build a new historical subject from ‘angry and alienated’ Muslims in the West, especially those in republican-secular France, of which the Hebdo attack was a distorted and mistaken expression. That there was an utter inadequacy of response from both of the traditional political camps made the Hebdo killings a clear moment in the decomposition of existing politics. At the time, it was important to point out how much in disarray the Right were. In cool repose, it seems as urgent, if not more, to understand the nature of the Left’s collapse.
In both Australia and the UK, the Hebdo killings immediately became the occasion for a set of demands by a self-appointed set of commentators who portrayed themselves as ragged defenders of liberal rights. The insistence—from writers such as Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch in the UK, Bernard Henri-Levy in France, David Brooks in the United States—was to equate any sort of reflection on the full context of the event with sympathy for the killers. This was discourse in a ‘recruiting-sergeant’ mode, public intellectuals identifying themselves and ‘free speech’ with a defence of the West.
There was a curious asymmetry to this too. Following the killings, there might have been calls for people to practise restraint in expression of race or religion, or even a call for an 18C-like law. There wasn’t, from any quarter, and so those insisting that one voice one’s commitment to free speech appeared to be demanding that one make clear one’s opposition to the violent assassination of people who said things one found offensive. It also suggested that such demonstrations would also communicate to violent Islamists that people in the West were uncowed, and that the men of violence had not won. From this followed an enormous amount of political kitsch, with hokey cartoons about pencils defeating terrorists becoming a thing. Though there was no record of what the Kouachi brothers thought they were doing, and every indication that they were rational agents with limited aims, it became important to caricature them as medievalists who had some magical belief that they would cower the entire West into not taking the Prophet’s name in vain. Partly, this was a response to the very modern, indeed very ’70s sort of terror operation that the Hebdo killings were, but it was partly also an expression of fear, a warding-off of the possibility that Islamist terror was evolving, developing an idea of those parts of Western culture that could be hit hard, for multiplied effect. The ‘free speech’ movement was an assertion asking for dialogue, with no opposition who recognised dialogue—they had simply killed people who had insulted their Prophet, and any attempt to bring the act within the sphere of dialogue was bound to look foolish.
The first response of some was to focus on the allegedly racist nature of Charlie Hebdo and its systemic summoning of anti-Muslim hatred. This was a tall order. Hebdo’s writers were old ’68s, and a lot of their focus was on corruption, and the rich and powerful. The sheer fact of representing Mohammed was a provocation, and there were a lot of them. All the Muslims in the cartoons were clearly Arabs, and drawn in a clichéd style, heavy set and with largeish noses. But there were no cartoons analagous to the anti-black ones of the old US south, or anti-Aboriginal cartoons, portraying a whole race or culture of people as stupid or childlike. Hebdo’s attention to a small group in French society had clearly become obsessive, a version of one-dimensional secularism of the Richard Dawkins type. Yet accusations of racism were overblown. Indeed in a rush to find racism in Charlie Hebdo there were some cartoons mocking right-wing attitudes that were then transmitted as literal right-wing attacks.
The alleged racism of Hebdo was part of a reasonable argument against one demand of the ‘recruiting sergeant’ squad: that, to defend free speech, one had to reproduce the most hard-core Hebdo covers, and not merely as newsy examples but in large format and as a political act. That was valid, but the perception of Hebdo as racist was also necessary to casting Muslims in Western societies as an oppressed race-class, and to warn of the possibility of a mass outbreak of Islamophobia. In the influential blog Lenin’s Tomb the author Richard Seymour, perhaps the most coherent representative of the far Left following the near-collapse of the UK Socialist Workers Party, wrote:
‘The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticising 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, Charlie Hebdo’s offices should not be raided by gun-wielding fucknuggets, whatever the reason for the murder. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishised, racialised “secularism”, or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.’
Elsewhere, on sites such as Counterpunch or Z Magazine, and in newspapers still hosting left-wing writers such as the UK Independent, two other arguments were being made: one, that the attack was political, but not in its most apparent manner, as a religious attack, but as a continued part of the fight against Western involvement in Arab lands, especially in the area of Syria and Iraq occupied by DAESH/ISIS. Second was the opposite argument: that the attack was a symptom, a displacement of the longstanding alienation of French Muslims living in the vast banlieues outside major cities. This was also taken as evidence that the Hebdo attacks would prompt a series of large-scale attacks against Muslims. The anti-immigration Pegida rallies were taking place at the same time in Dresden, gaining relatively large crowds of marchers, and it appeared that France might be in for a supercharged version of the same.
These assessments may have been based on a genuine desire to stand up for a group whose social being was being marginalised in the rush to a self-congratulatory free-speech movement. But they were also an attempt to find a social subjectivity and a political process that resembled some of the mass processes of the past. Yet this was the application of an idea of mass politics from the modern era to a period in which mass political processes had collapsed, and the ‘mass’ always being called upon—to be outraged, to be oppressed, to rise up—was now sets of peoples living in a multiply abstracted space of communities, subcultures and media.
By now, the French banlieues are more than a half-century old, home to two or three generations of immigrants and French-born Muslims. The exclusion of Muslims—of all non-white non-Europeans—in France’s allegedly inclusive secular republic continues, but there has been no uprising from there, no civil-rights movement, no political parties to represent them. When the banlieues erupted in riots and car-burnings a decade ago, Jean Baudrillard noted that there was a car-burning a day in these areas, ‘a small eternal flame to the lost possibilities of politics’. And indeed, those uprisings failed to roll towards any more comprehensive political movement.
By the time the Hebdo murders came along, such communities were even more fractured. Many French Muslims are secularists who left Algeria when it drifted towards violent fundamentalism after independence. But others had become part of Islamist subcultures or were absorbed in the hundreds of Arab-world cable channels now available. The small, violent Islamist circle from which the Kouachi brothers came was part of no huge movement; nor do there appear to have been many more such circles. Days after the Hebdo attacks a similar circle was arrested in Belgium, planning an imminent attack. But the numbers of young men and women going to and returning from Syria-Iraq as jihadis was in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The marches that had accompanied the Rushdie affair in the late ’80s was not matched. Nor was there anything like the mixed violent/non-violent movement such as the IRA based itself on during the ’70s and ’80s. There was no movement—simply a voluntarist small cell taking on extreme action.
Nor was there a huge Islamophobic backlash, though there were violent acts. By the end of the week following the Hebdo killings, there were sixty reports of attacks on mosques or Muslim cultural centres. Reading further into these, it became clear that the bulk were unpleasant but non-violent: graffiti damage, pigs’ heads thrown in and the like. Firebombings and violent attacks amounted to fewer than a handful.
That was bad, but it did not compare to the modernity-era crowd events—pogroms, anti-semitic attacks, Jim Crow attacks on black communities in the United States—which were the violent expression of a mass politics. To displace the Kouachi brothers’ attack into a generic rage against alienation and anomie was reasoning of this ilk. Quite aside from displacing the obvious meaning of their own acts to the perpetrators themselves, it didn’t explain why such acts have been so singular and rare in the past decade and now.
Neither ‘side’ of the debate over the meaning of this event appeared willing to acknowledge the radical incommensurability upon which the event was based. The real possibility was that the Kouachi brothers—possibly with active involvement of Al-Qaeda commanders they had come into contact with—had chosen Charlie Hebdo as a targeted decapitation of the most outrageously blasphemous publication in the West. This was reinforced by their scrupulousness in not harming ‘civilians’ they came into contact with, as a way of delineating the purposefulness of the act.
The meaning of the act was a radical refusal of anything that ‘free speech’ would subsequently call on as a common standard by which to judge acts: a division between speech and violence, a sense of proportion, and the idea that all representations and signifiers are not the thing themselves—thus suggesting that the sacred can be profaned without damage to the former. The Kouanis’ act came from a philosophical base that drew on an opposite idea: that the Prophet is fully present in representations of him (which for most Muslims is now solely via the Koran, the transcendent symbols in Mecca, the representation of the infinite in circular mosques). It saw the sacred—as everyone until modernity saw the sacred—as something that was not immune to being profaned by virtue of its sacred power but which must be protected from all profanations of it, as a measure of its sacred command.
Just about the most asinine thing said about the event was that it showed the weakness of a people who felt they had to protect their God from a few cartoons. This was the simple inability of those who could not understand the assumptions that underpin a liberal worldview as to a different idea of the sacred. Since any representation of the Prophet was held to be a fatal ‘corporealising’, satirical and sexualised representation was an utter traduction. A statue of a saint that becomes even slightly flecked with mud must be burnt, to honour the saint’s purity. The burning is a lesser act than the smudge of dirt. Postmodern cultures, which lack even the pseudo-religious grounds of transcendent politics and humanism that characterised modernity, have no widespread capacity at all to understand the meaning of the sacred, such as would make multiple murders the lesser act than a bad-taste cartoon. Such a conception of these killings holds even if, as is possible, they were partly designed by higher commanders with an eye to maximum strategic impact. There was also a resistance by many on the Left of an acknowledgement that such religious incommensurability continues to exist as something other than a symptom, since it raises problematic questions about implicit ideas of internationalism and unidirectional modernisation and secularisation.
Thus the mantra repeated by political leaders in the immediate aftermath—that the killings had nothing to do with Islam—was obviously untrue. The killers clearly believed that they were not merely licensed but obligated by Islam to execute its profaners. But the Right’s sketch of them as yokels with guns who didn’t understand that their act would prompt a reaction was equally ridiculous. As was the Left’s hunt for a resistant political subjectivity concealed somewhere within the event or a victimised race-class from which political subjectivity could be made. The Hebdo killings had the external character of an IRA, Red Brigade or Palestinian operation—but these events, however rejected they may have been by a general Left, sat within a wider political movement and was one manifestation of its project.
Such movements have vanished from the contemporary postmodern social-political landscape, and it is not clear under what conditions they would, or could, reappear. Even mass manifestations such as Pegida tend to rise and fall once they have exhausted a certain need to express their dissatisfaction. The social-political frame in which people live presents itself as a set of highly abstracted economic processes beyond the possibility of intervention in the manner of the old political economic movements. Now culture, too, is receding from the grasp of the political. Such worlds become one of small conspiracies, subcultural networks, incommensurable belief systems within a world of social media, global TV and neighbourhoods cut off from any wider social whole. The Hebdo killings marked a moment when the old forces of social politics attempted to impose a meaning on the events that would serve to keep their politics going a little longer. But the real meaning of the event was that, under the banner of Unity, and with the bloodied pages of a rude magazine hovering over them like the angel Gabriel, the leaders of the West and its satellites carried through an extension of state power, of surveillance, coercion and the exercise of ‘speech crimes’, with the enthusiastic support of a movement for freedom.
Guy Rundle is correspondent-at-large for Crikey and was co-founding editor of Arena Magazine.