Thursday, 8 January 2015

Liberal condemning of Charlie Hebdo killings offers little civilising solace

Very sad thoughts with the victims and families of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

Whatever might be claimed about the merit or effect of such journalistic views and images - mocking, controversial, satirical, provocative, incendiary, blasphemous, iconoclastic, defiant or otherwise - there is not the slightest moral justification for such violence or the murder of those who publish such things.

Yet, any measured observation of that violence must be seen against the much greater level of violence and murder perpetrated by the states living under such attacks.

Many, Muslims and non-Muslims, will have made the essential point that these killers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christianity.  Many across the Islamic world have condemned the Paris deaths.
Which raises the perennial question: why do Muslims, once again, feel so compelled to make such defensive appeals?

Largely out of basic humanity. But, also, because a lot of liberal empathy for socially besieged Muslims and 'moderate Islam' is still laced with false dichotomies and misplaced loyalty.

The problem with much liberal 'Je Suis Charlie' solidarity is not its condemnation of violent jihadism, or cherishing of free speech. It's that such expression still relies on flawed identifications with 'enlightened' entities like 'our' states and their 'civilising' status.

Although well motivated, Owen Jones, for example, comes close to such a blanket label in this tweet:
Sickening act of mass murder in Paris. People from all communities will be repulsed by this atrocity. Solidarity with France. 
All fair and honourable comment on the terrible act and widespread response. But why any particular solidarity with France?

Thomas Piketty has just refused the Legion of Honour, insisting that the French state has no such validity in determining who or what is honourable. Why isn't Jones similarly specific over who deserves such empathy?  

Or consider, more problematically, this reading from Channel 4's Jon Snow:
Paris: brutal clash of civilisations: Europe's belief in freedom of expression vs those for whom death is a weapon in defending their beliefs.
Is this really a 'clash of civilisations'? How did Snow arrive at this generic conceit of 'Europe's belief' in anything?

And if we are to speak of Europe as such an entity, what of its own dark record of murderous violence? 

One could more accurately characterise Europe's part in Western/Nato invasions, occupations and imperialist plundering as distinctly anti-civilising: 'those for whom death is a weapon in defending their geopolitical interests, rather than beliefs.'

Just think, past and present, of France's own militarist atrocities and self-serving interventions in Algeria, Indo-China, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Mali and other parts of Africa. Indeed, two of the Paris suspects are reported to have returned from jihadist service in Syria, the very same theatre of appalling violence the French state have been so wilfully fuelling.

While much of the liberal political class and media make lofty proclamations and pitch the Paris killings as a red line issue over free speech, they have virtually nothing equivalent, or worse, to say about such states crossing the 'civilisational' line into mass and sustained terrorism.

All of which perfectly shields the hypocritical condemnations and 'we will defend democracy' breast-beating of Hollande, Cameron and Obama. Where are all the searing media comments on their suitability to invoke the values of life and liberty?
This indulgence also provides liberal space for the right's poisonous claim that Western states are still soft on Islam. Thus on Channel 4 News was war hawk and neocon Douglas Murray allowed unopposed room to bewail the 'attack on Western freedoms' and declare that "terrorism works".

Likewise, in condemning the killers and urging liberal defence of free speech, a Guardian editorial can muster only token words on the gravity of Western crimes:  
Poverty and discrimination at home may create fertile conditions for the spread of extremism, and western misadventures abroad can certainly inflame the risks.
Those last nine words say more about the Guardian's own feeble mitigations, pandering to power and failure of brave expression than any Voltairian defence of untrammelled speech.
Appalled by the Paris killings, Jon Snow indulges in even more liberal hubris: 
Make no mistake, this is a landmark moment in the affairs of man.
Can you imagine Snow offering similar enunciations over the West's mass slaughter of Iraq, Israel's grotesque crimes in Gaza, or the sustained killing of Afghan civilians by Nato forces?

For Snow and much of the liberal media, men in jihadist garb killing journalists is barbaric, while men in suits, ordering others in uniform to mass murder and maim millions of innocents has, seemingly, no such 'landmark' significance.  
None of which ultimately detracts from the personal responsibility of those who unleashed this wicked killing in Paris. Their actions are as inhumanely futile in closing down real democratic speech as they are in furthering or illuminating Islam.  
And, as ever, such acts only provide the purveyors of 'civilising' state violence even greater powers of control, surveillance and repression of serious speech, alongside the vitally extended freedom to inflict even more militarist aggression across the planet.

The mark of a truly courageous media is not its willingness to reproduce more caustic cartoons or proclaim defiant words of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. It's that media's readiness to condemn and indict the 'civilising' politicians and states responsible for even greater acts of barbarous violence.


Unknown said...

Correction: Jon Snow has strongly attacked Israel over Gaza attacks at:

John Hilley said...

Thanks. Yes, I'm well aware of Snow's output on Gaza - see here

But the question is whether he would ever use language like a 'landmark moment in the affairs of man' to denounce Israel's, or any other Western state's, crimes.

Anonymous said...

Good post John. This incident brings to mind a phrase that went like this.. 'I've seen the enemy, and they are just like us!' Freedom of speech, a term much used by western politicians, also allows for the bombing of Serbian TV stations, doesn't it?

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Anon. A neat point about the wilful bombing of that Serbian TV station. Conveniently, 'our' killing of 'other' journalists doing their job doesn't seem to count as barbarism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks John for your thouhghtful comments.If only these very sad events could awaken the liberal journalists to the chaos the west has created in the Middle East.Some years ago I saw a film by Michael Haneke called Cache about the guilt ridden psyche of the French intelligentsia and the memory of their suppression of the Algerians.While the right to free speech must be respected,care and empathy for the subaltern and the humiliated is as important.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Anon. Precisely. So many liberal journalists are roused by this kind of event, yet dutifully docile when it comes to the staggering crimes of 'our' political leaders.

radcliffe said...

John, thanks for this thoughtful piece amongst the
blizzard of opinions from all angles. I think the points
about the actions of Israel in Gaza and NATO et al in their so called interventions are well made but will not be well received. One could argue that a message of "welcome to their world" would be crass but seen from the oppressed side of the conflict it looks different. The language being used could well have been applied to atrocities in Gaza but it seemed particularly restrained when in reality both events are atrocities. This is a complex issue that needs careful thoughts for the future and your piece starts that debate.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, radcliffe. The essential point regarding selective application of language is how journalists can so eagerly invoke Voltarian idealism and 'defence of civilisation' prose when it's an attack on 'us', but never when it's instigated by 'our' leaders against 'them'. The atrocities against Gaza were variously covered, but could you remotely imagine all these same journalists similarly pronouncing 'I am Gaza'?

Tando said...

Interesting that the three (established, official) mono-theistic religions all ignore the concept of repeated earth-lives. Could it not be that to be 'civilised' in the 21st century means to have embraced ALL religions, civilisations, ethnicities, world-views and nationalities in former incarnations?? And isn't it that what makes us human, in terms of enlightened? There is still an East-West divide, in that the notion of re-incarnation and KARMA is ingrained in the psyche of the east, whilst in the west 'we' are imprisoned in a materialism that seems to deny anything sacred or (w)holy. Isn't it time that the 'fathers' (in the main male) of these monotheistic 'religions' (Islam, Christianity, Judaism) become irrelevant in order to 'allow' for a true spiritual life to emerge?? What we experience as the pressure-cooker of present day politics is having its lid blown off in front of our eyes ... it was Joseph Beuys, a co-founder of the German Green Party, who wanted the theme of repeated earth-lives to be part of the first Green manifesto ... may-be it is time for zen-politics ... that together with the concept of UBUNTU (I-am-because-you-are) will turn our social order in terms selfish capitalism upside-down ..