The weekly Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) meeting held last Thursday tackled the potential for rising Islamophobia in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The event was well attended, with at least 40 people there to watch and discuss.
It began with a talk from James O’Toole, the national secretary of the Socialist Worker’s party, on what a socialist approach to this issue entails. He encouraged attendees to put the events in context, though he made it very clear that “providing context is not justification” and asked the crowd to consider why young Muslim men in France might turn towards terrorism. Is it only to do with religion, or are there economic and political factors as well? O’Toole said that a socialist perspective links the issue back to imperialism.
O’Toole explained that from a socialist perspective, the link between the interests of big businesses and states led to increased foreign wars for oil and other resources. He spoke about the bitterness wars create for the people affected. He urged the crowd to consider that young people often move to western countries as a result of wars started by the west in their own countries. They are then subjected to racism and blamed by the media for economic problems. He pointed out that many of the poorest people living in social housing in France come from its former colonies, and that it is convenient for France to label them as illiberal to justify its wars: “These countries always have to justify their wars, and they use humanitarian language to do it. Bush went into Afghanistan to save women and King Leopold went into the Congo to stop slavery.”
Moving to Charlie Hebdo itself, O’Toole said that though a defence of free speech seems understandable, the value of satire is in questioning people in power. Critique of religion is valuable but if you stop there, you will miss the political subtleties of these conflicts. He said that in order to talk about why these attacks happen we need to talk about imperialism, which means we need to talk about capitalism.
When the discussion was opened to the floor, most people at the event agreed that the attacks should be condemned but did not support the publishing of the cartoons. But two students from France argued against the characterisation of Charlie Hebdo cartoons as racist. They pointed out the right-wing slogans placed in the cartoons and said that they were satire of attitudes towards immigration. One mentioned France’s “long history of satire.” Another student shot back that this was “hipster racism,” meaning that racist imagery used by white people for the purpose of satire is still racist, because those people are still in a position of power using that imagery without the consent of the disadvantaged group. The student said it seems as if many of the activists campaigning for Charlie Hebdo aren’t normally activists and choose to champion a cause of the privileged elite in France rather than a disadvantaged group, whilst another student suggested that satire should make you uncomfortable about your position in society.