After a 2015 filled with near constant polemics on the subject, I had hoped to retire from discussing Charlie Hebdo, at least in English. But on Sunday the French magazine posted on its website an evidently non-satirical editorial, in English, seeming to make explicit the Islamophobic convictions that had motivated the cartoons that provoked the murder of its principal contributors on January 7, 2015. The anti-Charlie forces in Anglophone social media immediately crowed that they had told us so, that this was just the latest proof of what we should have seen all along.
The editorial is feeble. It runs together three stock figures of the Muslim minority in France, and treats them all as symptoms of one and the same social problem. These are, to wit, the nominally Muslim teenagers who are radicalised and coaxed into blowing themselves up; the pious Muslim man who seeks to integrate into French society economically while remaining, in his soul and on his knees, oriented toward Mecca; and, finally, the subjugated Muslim woman forced by her patriarchal community to wear a veil.
Each of these figures, obviously, deserves independent consideration, and it is only the crudest straw-man fantasy about some monolithic Islam that would run them together.
The teenagers, for one thing, probably could have been drawn into a different sort of death cult that told them a different sort of fairy tale, if they had been born in a different time and place. The anxiety about losing the freedom to select pork products at the local sandwicherie, in turn, is an expression of a distinctly French parochialism, and one that in many of its expressions is positively adored by the Anglo-American left. All our effusion over the French perfection of the good life through slow and artisanal food, through rejection of GMOs, fails to grasp that the value placed on these things in French culture is the expression of a world-view that is always a hair’s breadth away from chauvinism. It says: our way of life is the best in the world, it grows right up out of the soil; don’t tread on us. It is only when this traditionalism bumps up against the traditionalism of halal dietary customs that it makes us uncomfortable.
I have no patience for either of these. The ethnic cuisine of my people comes pre-packaged and microwave-ready, and I find this freedom from concerns about terroir and authenticity in my eating habits well-suited to my cosmopolitan politics. I do think ham should be outlawed in France and everywhere else, but out of respect for the creature it comes from, not fear of it. The fact that the never-ending hecatomb of meat production can come up as a tangential issue in the course of discussing another, supposedly more serious issue might serve as a reminder of how much of our political life is really just a matter of picking and choosing.
But I don’t really want to discuss the argument of the editorial itself. I want to try to make sense, one more time, of the cultural role of Charlie Hebdo, and of what the Anglo commentariat might be missing about it. A first point, one that should be obvious, is that most of the luminaries among the magazine’s contributors are dead now, so we can't really talk about a continuity of identity between the operation to which the assassinations were a response, and what Charlie Hebdo is coming up with now. This editorial seems to reflect most of all the spirit of Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), rather than the other victims of January 7. Charb was in his forties, and was not one of the senior cohort, such as Cabu and Wolinski, whose outlook was forged in the 1960s and whose principal preoccupation seems to have been the corruption of the French power elite, the cravenness of the Catholic church, the horrible spectre of the rise of the National Front.
Charb was significantly less committed to satire as a mode of engagement with the world than the others, and wanted to offer straightforward arguments, often about what he saw as the threats arising from mass Muslim migration to Europe. Quite apart from any consideration of his politics, Charb’s approach was never what Charlie Hebdo did best. As a cartoon by Luz of September 2015 didactically explains, satire is not only a way of making critical points about society or politics, as one might do in an Op-Ed piece; it is its own discursive mode, in which different rules and different standards of evaluation apply. I think Charlie Hebdo is at its best when it remains in this mode.
A second point has to do with the role of laïcité in French society. I was struck recently watching the Soviet silent-film director Dziga Vertov's 1934 Three Songs for Lenin for what it reveals about the longer history of 'the question of the veil'. The first 'song' features, just a few minutes in, the bold intertitle, 'My face was in a dark prison', followed by a sequence of images meant to show that the arrival of Marxist-Leninism would free the people of Muslim Central Asia from their backward and superstitious ways. Now you might suppose that this is just a strong-armed Stalin-era perversion of the nominal ideology of the Soviet Union, but in fact we find substantially the same view in Marx himself, as in an 1851 newspaper article in which he argues that the introduction of industrial weaving by the British in Bengal is the best thing that ever happened there, as it broke up the traditional village economies that were also the foundation of patriarchal despotism.
This presumption remains a real factor in much of the thinking of the Arab and European left on questions of culture and the limits of toleration. Something close to it is what guides Hafid Melhay, the owner of Libre Ère, the finest bookstore in Ménilmontant. Hafid is originally from Tunisia, and his shop specializes in Palestinian poetry, histories of the 20th-century non-aligned movement, scripts for plays like Kwame N'goran's Rosa Luxemburg. His humble shop, dare I say, has rather more useful resources for making sense of the present situation than the Librairie Essalam a few doors down from it on the Boulevard de Belleville, an Islamic bookstore featuring in its window French translations of the infamous Harun Yahya's screed against the theory of evolution, and some self-help manuals with tips on how to become happier through a deepening of piety. Back at Libre Ère, Hafid volunteers his services as a scribe and translator for recent immigrants from the Arabic-speaking world, and keeps posted in the store's entryway, inserted among so many classic works of socialist theory, of Arab and African nationalism, of postcolonial criticism, a classic Charlie Hebdo cover. If you're a North African socialist in Ménilmontant this combination of cultural products makes quite a bit more sense than if you are an American social-media activist desperate, above all, to be seen as taking the right side on the issue of the day, which means above all refusing to acknowledge that some questions have complicated histories and there might be no right side to take.
One of the things organised religions excel at is the control and subordination of women. This is, as American academics like to say, 'problematic', and in a way that we are all perfectly prepared to acknowledge when it comes, for example, to the restriction of abortion rights in the United States by the Christian right. Addressing this problem, when it is manifested in minority communities such as the Muslim population of France, can exacerbate their persecution and strengthen the hand of reactionary forces like the party of Marine Le Pen. But the distastefulness of this consequence does not make religious patriarchalism go away. As far as I can tell, the claim of most of the contributors to Charlie Hebdo, to be defenders of secularism who do not have a particular hostility to Islam, is, by their own lights, sincere. This sincerity may involve a failure to recognise the ways in which they are abetting the far right in France, but it may also be rooted in a sharper attunement to the concerns and challenges of people such as those who frequent Libre Ère. They are keeping alive a real, significant strand of the genetic legacy of the left, one which can only be cut out with significant reconceptualisation of what the left's core desiderata are.
Social-media activists of the Anglophone soi-disant left have discarded the element of their political legacy that equated progress and liberation with the throwing off of the shackles of tradition, and have adopted as an article of faith the view that each community has its own internal standards by which alone it can be judged. Many of my acquaintances on the Anglophone left like to pretend to be neo-Bolsheviks, and often display that striking propaganda poster from the golden age of Soviet graphic design that says "A woman is also a person." But they are picking and choosing too. The refusal to acknowledge as oppressive anything that is done in the name of Islam is in real contradiction with certain other commitments they have, such as economic parity and full legal equality between men and women. Acknowledging this contradiction is not in itself a failure, and it need in no way be an incitement to persecution of marginalised minority groups. The only real failure is pretending things are simpler than they are. To do so is certainly much more likely to abet those politicians, such as Le Pen or Trump, whose success relies on simplistic formulae. And it is also to betray those countless millions of people from the Muslim world who are themselves wary of the claims of tradition, and of the forms of oppression that are so often excused in its name.
I do not believe the state has any business banning articles of clothing. This flows from a more general commitment to the principle that the state has no business intervening in cultural matters at all, whether culture is conceptualised in terms of 'religion' or not. For one thing, to allow the state to do this sort of thing sets government officials up as ethnographers, art critics, and other sub-species of hermeneuticist. I can't help but notice when in the Balkans that there are many Christian women with their heads covered as well. This is supposed to be an expression of 'culture', and not religion, but in the end, if pressed for explanation, somewhere down the line God is going to come up as the ground and rationale of the prohibition on exposed hair. Yet no Bulgarian grandmother would be told by any conceivable future French state that she must remove her head scarf in order to visit this secular country. I don't know what counts as religion, in other words, and I am a relatively subtle interpreter of culture, so I don't really see how a state bureaucracy could know.
Patriarchy can be perpetuated through women's headgear, in the Christian Balkans as in Muslim Anatolia or the Maghreb, even if not all women's religious attire is experienced by its wearers as oppressive. There is a real danger, if the state sets itself up to fight patriarchy by intervening in matters of attire, that this will only in fact create a further pressure, a new possibility for oppression, of the most marginalised and least powerful members of society. So we are left with a true dilemma.
I prefer to take the horn of it, as of many dilemmas in politics, that minimises state encroachment on individual freedom, as well as on the self-determination of sub-state communities. But in this I see myself as decisively breaking with anything that deserves to be called 'the left', in favour of something much closer to anarchism. Yet I am inclined to see the position of Charlie Hebdo, with which I disagree, as representing, again, a sincere and legitimate stance on a real social problem. This is the stance of the traditional left, and it cannot be reduced to simple Islamophobia, any more than Marx's argument for the assimilation of Jews into German society, and thus willy-nilly the eradication of Judaism, can be conflated with Hitlerism. Of course these are different stances. The new, social-media-based Anglophone left, to the extent that it dismisses French secularism as xenophobia tout court, is simply neglecting a significant part of its own legacy, and is misunderstanding much of what is at stake in the current French debate.