08 January 2015

To the left of Islam

One of the most-repeated ideas expressed in the aftermath of yesterday's Paris massacre is that the killing of popular cartoonists by terrorist Muslims could provoke a further rise of the "extreme right" in Europe. After a while I found myself asking, "Why the right?" or more specifically "Why only the right?" For generations, hostility toward religion was a defining characteristic of the left. Religion was either the opium of the people, in Marx's famous phrase -- something workers felt they needed for meaning or solace but wouldn't need when they actually ran things -- or it was simply a bulwark of backward ruling classes around the world. Marxist and overall leftist antipathy toward religion made it seem smart to the U.S to recruit religious conservatives around the world in the cold war against godless Communism. So things stood as late as the 1980s. Of course, it won't be surprising to see a resurgence of extreme rightism. To the extreme right of any European country, the Muslim is simply the dangerous dirty immigrant who doesn't live like other people. The attitude of the left in many places is more a reaction to the attitude of the right than a reflection on Islam.

Charlie Hebdo magazine itself has been described as a magazine of the left, and it definitely spread its mockery around at all faiths. Yet here's a leftist website that seems to deplore the impulse to take Charlie Hebdo's side against Islam. As far as the author is concerned, the magazine's Islamophobia was not cancelled out by its satire of other religions. Instead, it contributed to the marginalization and oppression of Muslims in France, immigrants and natives alike. Many on the left feel compelled to defend Muslims, if not Islam, against the bigotry of the right. The wealth of emirs and oil magnates notwithstanding, Muslims are seen as the virtual proletariat of the world, the downtrodden, the persistent victims of western imperialism. From this perspective, criticizing Islam misses the point of the perceived clash of civilizations. For good or ill, the left has mostly abandoned the idea of cultivating a "new man" by radically revolutionizing the culture of a country or the whole world. Instead, leftists are often more likely to affirm the poor migrant's right to retain his indigenous culture, on the assumption that host populations, especially in the developed world, have no moral right to make the migrant change his or her ways. To those who think this way, the sort of mockery Charlie Hebdo practiced was no joke. No one may actually say so, but the gut feeling is most likely that the migrant's right to respect, for himself and his culture, trumps the mockers' right to mock, morally if not legally. Again, people who think this way have little to say about Islam itself, either because they feel they have no right to judge or because they think the religion itself has little to do with how Muslims are treated or how Muslims react to that treatment. As the self-conscious left, they know that the right is their real enemy, so if the right rejects immigrants and mocks their beliefs, the left must defend immigrants, and implicitly their culture, depending on how committed any leftist is to the rights of sexual minorities who may feel oppressed by traditional cultures. A quick way to restate it is that to many leftists, a Muslim is not a Muslim first but rather a poor migrant or an oppressed nation whom the left is obliged to defend against the common enemy on the nativist right. As a result, there's a temptation, if not a tendency, to see any criticism of Islam as Islamophobia, an impulse to hold Muslims (i.e. poor strangers) down socially and politically.

Such an attitude apparently makes some leftists hesitant about joining the "Je suis Charlie" demonstrations that have taken place throughout Europe in solidarity with the murdered cartoonists. That's only right, as far as one right-wing American columnist is concerned. In the dumbest commentary I've yet read on the massacre, Doug MacEachern of the Arizona Republic argues that many leftists have no moral right to say, "I am Charlie." That's because leftists are as much opposed to freedom of speech as the gunmen who executed the cartoonists. In MacEachern's view, any leftist who's ever boycotted a college speech by a conservative or called on the college to rescind its invitation to a conservative is the moral equivalent of the men who have murdered at least twelve people. I get the point, even if MacEachern has no sense of proportion, even if to my knowledge very few people have ever argued against conservatives speaking publicly anywhere. But even if I grant the point that it's oppressive to suppress discourse on your own campus, MacEachern loses it entirely when he claims that to call conservatives names is morally equivalent to murdering cartoonists. Don't take my word for this:

You can't stand with Charlie Hebdo if you believe people who oppose, say, same-sex marriage are not just wrong, but blasphemous and hateful. If your first inclination is to use the word "homophobe," you can't utter the phrase, "Je suis Charlie." Not with any honesty, you can't. If your first inclination upon discovering that someone contributed to California's Proposition 8 was to chase them out of their jobs and onto the streets, you have no business in a Paris plaza today.

If you seriously think words like "denier" or "anti-science" are a proper retorts to anyone who questions environmentalism's campaign against carbon, you can't stand with the Parisians, either. All those words mean is, "Shut up. Stop your anti-science, climate-change denials. Shut up." They are incompatible with no-holds-barred free speech as practiced by Charlie Hebdo.

If caring about the integrity of U.S. borders is indistinguishable from racism, xenophobia and nativism, same deal. If "race hatred" is your default response to (in no particular order) objections to the welfare state, the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program, the deconstruction of the Black nuclear family or inner-city crime, then you need to turn in your "Je suis Charlie!" placard. Because you're not Charlie.

Ironically, MacEachern is adopting a rhetorical tool used by leftists against so called "free speech absolutists." While the "absolutist" argues that speech must be protected because it's essentially harmless, proponents of speech codes and other forms of censorship argue that words can hurt people and have a chilling effect on their participation in civil society and democracy. This is more or less the argument against Charlie Hebdo from some parts of the left, and it's the argument MacEachern is making against leftists when he translates all their criticisms of conservatives to "shut up!" Yet I doubt he'd agree that any labeling of a liberal by a conservative as a "socialist" means "shut up!" If he read French, he might even think that Charlie Hebdo had told some people or causes he agrees with to "shut up!" with their mean old cartoons. All that aside, calling antagonists names seems more in line with Charlie's m.o. than sulking about being called names by your antagonists. He might then be like the Republicans who offered no sympathy to Salman Rushdie after the 1989 fatwa because he had supported the Sandinistas against the Contras in Nicaragua. To be fair, however, MacEachern never claimed to be Charlie himself. If he did, I'd like to think someone is still available at the Hebdo office to comment on that in appropriate fashion.

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