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'Je suis pas Charlie'

by alana-lentin





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“Je suis pas Charlie”: Race, Islamophobia & Digital communications Alana Lentin, University of Western Sydney Thanks: Mehdi Borzorgmehr, John Torpey (CUNY Dept. of Sociology), the European Union Studies Centre, the Ralph Bunch Institute for International Studies, the Committee for the Study of Religion, Political Science and Sociology and Just Publics (Jessie Daniels). This paper is a joint effort with Gavan Titley and will also form the basis for a second paper dealing in more depth with the concept of black and white analytics in relation to white left activism on race in relation to the post-Charlie Hebdo context. Race and digital communications. Screen shot of ‘race + digital’ (random selection) Part of a larger ongoing project with Gavan Titley to examine how race changes conceptually in and through digital communications, focusing on mediation and translatability in rapidly changing spaces which, while formally virtually, increasingly impact on and overlap with daily lived realities. We are particularly interested in how race and racism are challenged through digitised spaces and using digital technologies, taking for granted that the challenge to racism involves the ever-deepening understanding of what race is made to mean. Gavan’s section of the paper deals in greater depth with the nature of the race/digital nexus in the post-CH context; I wish to focus today on the theoretical implications of the discussion of context in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo. ‘Context’ in this instance is better understood as a synonym for ‘objectivity’, or as code for a race–neutral stance, as though such a thing existed, that implies rationality in the face of over-reaction. The appeal for context can be interpreted as an appeal to a white analytics that clashes with a black analytics, which Hesse (2014) suggests in the context of US sociology, struggles to define race in the face of structural white denial of its centrality. The call for 'context' Image of a quote taken from Tumblr speaks to the theoretical problematic I wish to introduce. After CH - very quickly there was a call for the French context to be explained to Anglo-American leftists who were, it was claimed, too quick to call CH racist and Islamophobic for their cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed among others. I argue that this need to explain the French exception can be understood in the context of post racialism which, more than anything, is about racism’s deniability (Hesse). The distancing from racism deflects the charge of racism: I cannot be racist if I claim to be appalled by racism. What I have called, the ‘antiracist badge’ serves as a shield against racism, which is experienced, in narrower and narrower terms, as an accusation against the individual. The interpretation of racism as an accusation leads to it becoming analytically useless; because individuals are wounded by being called out for racism, it becomes impossible to point to where racism is present in a given situation. The argument for context implied that to read the CH situation in terms of racism and Islamophobia is simplistic. Because racism is flattened to a matter of individual (bad) attitudes, it is seen as non-serious analytically. In contrast, I argue that to read French context in terms of the structuring histories of race is to add depth and shade while much of what passed for 'context’ was reductive. Categories such as Frenchness, Islam, or laïcité were reified in most of these accounts. ‘Meme-ing Charlie Hebdo' …the response to Charlie Hebdo in digital spaces coalesced around what were presented as easily translatable, ‘meme-able’… and trasnationally applicable problematics – freedom, morality, universalism.' Although the impulse of the call to foreground French context was to get beyond the brevity of the hashtags and memes, the thrust of most analyses of this ‘context' was to insist that we must all 'be Charlie' before we could speak. The reason for this, to use Hesse’s formulation, is that the readings of context applied a ‘white analytics’ to France which erased the parallel ‘black analytics’ which the interpreters of this context (white French or Francophile bloggers and journalists) were either unaware of or unwilling to engage with. Most of the ‘context’ provided focused a narrow vision of French political culture and ‘tradition’ that elided or was actively ignorant of the ‘black analytics’ which are crucial (a) for a complete understanding both of French historical and contemporary conflicts around race and religion and (b) for how these particularisms connect with the same questions as they are explored in other locations and across them in transnational digital spaces. What is required, in contrast, is a foregrounding of black analytics. This is both generally relevant for discussion of race, but also in digital communications where there is an effective segregation between de facto white and black spaces that tend only to collide when black/POC discussions are looked on sceptically or all out attacked for 'reverse racism’ (see Kyra Gaunt’s research and others presented at TTW for more on this - online at TTW tumblr page). Leigh Phillips in Ricochet Olivier Tonneau in Mediapart/the Guardian The paper is interested in the context explicitly provided by the Left for the Left; in other words by French leftists and other readers of France for their ‘progressive’ interlocutors among the Anglo-American left. I focus on three main sources - - Leigh Phillips’ article in Ricochet, - Olivier Tonneau’s article in Mediapart (abridged version reprinted in The Guardian), - Understanding Charlie Hebdo website. –Leigh Phillips “the last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s “obvious racism,” only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.” This Leigh Phillips sums up the view shared by these 3 sources. Phillips relies heavily on Tonneau as a source of authentic authority despite the fact that his only credentials appear to be being a ‘‘Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK.’ The unifying theme of the three sources is denial of the racism and Islamophobia of Charlie Hebdo and a relativisation of French racism more generally as only interpretable through the proposed particularism of France’s relationship to the vexed question of religion which is presented as wholly separable from race and racism. I am interested in what is presented in these websites because it highlights the shape given to localised discussions of questions of race in transnational, digitally constituted spaces. The attempt by these interventions to cordon off France from the rest of the world - particularly an imagined and essentialised Anglo-American world - is notable considering the impossibility of such a separation given the messy realities of both historical global interdependence and the contemporary entanglements that we can observe in digital communications. What was included and what was left out? More 'context' from : ‘What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and Racism’ Three themes jump out of the pages of these 3 sources: the selective interpretation of the history and ideology of laïcité, the downgrading of concerns over the universality of freedom of speech, and the alleged antiracism of Charlie Hebdo. I wish to look at all 3 in brief with a special focus on the third. Having extensively studied antiracism in France, what was striking was the fact that none of the commentators could present anything more than generalisations about what the French struggle against racism looks like. The intense conflicts surrounding questions of race and coloniality were completely elided in these accounts. This further supports my argument that the context provided foregrounded a white analytics. 1. Laïcité and neutrality 'for ‘Anglo-Saxon leftists’, ‘laïcité is a barbaric custom of the Gallic tribe, against which it is necessary to defend the wearing of the veil as a form of anti-imperialist resistance, and to excuse the fascist killers who they see as being poor, working class, oppressed youth.’ Olivier Tonneau Laicite and neutrality: Explain the image. In France commonly, laicite (secularism) is explained interms of neutrality. However, the commonsense understanding of neutrality is that this applies to citizens - i.e. no citizen should express her religious beliefs in the public sphere. But, as Christine Delphy or Pierre Tevanien explain, licit actual demands that the state be neutral in its dealings with the members of the various religions. Hence, the ban on the wearing of the hijab or burk is not consistent with the tenets of laicite. However, mainstream interpretations of laicite condemn those who openly display their religious belonging and, as with the hijba/burqa bans, in practice this only applies to Muslims. Case of Ilham Moussaid: a pro-choice feminist candidate for the far left wing party NPA who in 2010 was forced to step down from here electoral campaign in local elections due to the outrage about the fact that she wore a headscarf. Her very wearing of the scarf called into question her feminist credentials where ‘feminism' becomes part of the arsenal of a certain brand of Islamophobic republicanism. However, none of the discussions of French context I looked at examined the inconsistencies of the misunderstanding of the meaning of neutrality with respect to laicite. Freedom of Speech Islamophobia '‘if you opposed the headscarf and burqa bans, then today you must rally to the defence of freedom of expression with respect to Charlie Hebdo… freedom of speech is not a pick-and-choose buffet dinner’ Leigh Phillips Freedom of Speech: A lot was written following Charlie Hebdo pf the hypocrisy of condemning the attacks while being oblivious to the crack down on the freedom of speech of those who did not want to participate in ‘being Charlie’. For example, an 8 year old boy was taken to court in France accused of ‘apology for terrorism’ following his claim during a class debate that he is ‘not Charlie. I am with the terrorists.’ However, the denial of the freedom of speech of CH is perceived as worse by those such as Phillips who equate it with ‘censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness’. What this leaves out is the context of deep inequality in which debates over what are presented as neutral philosophical principles such as freedom of speech play out. Despite admitting that France has problems with Islamophobia, Phillips nonetheless presents all speech as having equal power, no matter the source. Australian example: Uthman Badar, the President of the Muslim group Hizb-ut Tahrir was asked to address the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, an event with the tagline, ‘a series of talks that bring contentious ideas to the fore and challenge mainstream thought and opinion. But his talk was cancelled due to outrage at the topic despite it having been chosen by the organisers. As Randa Abdel-Fattah notes, as a Muslim, Badar was not allowed to have a ‘dangerous idea’, because to do so would imply ‘that he is a Muslim of Australia, not a Muslim in Australia.’ (overtones of Mayanthi Ferando’s ‘Muslim French’). Whose antiracism? the defence of the 'not-Charlies [is] ‘an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess.’ Leigh Phillips Whose antiracism? The investment in convincing an international online public that CH is not racist is based on the acceptance that there are no connections between blasphemy and racism. But the discussions of Phillips, Tonneau etc do not discuss where the limits of blasphemy lie. By reducing the objections to CH as ‘taking offence’, they deny the significance of systemic Islamophobic exclusion. e.g of women forced to choose between having an education or the only jobs they can get - babysitting/cleaning (Chouder et al.) Phillips' and Tonneau's criticism of ‘identitatarianism' implies that foregrounding racism and islamophobia blinds one to the more serious cusiness of class (as though these were mutually exclusive). e.g. Tonneau speaks of with pity of those 'who think they speak in the name of the oppressed of the world while they have internalized a condescending hegemonic viewpoint using the alibi of cultural studies.’ Echoes of Bourdieu and Wacquant’s 'Cunning of imperialist reason’ (disucssed by me in 2008 'After Antiracism' paper and with great detail by Shohat and Stam). The distaste for race critical scholarship/activism reduced to ‘identity politics’ should be seen in wider context in which a focus on race is seen as diminishing the focus on class in an age of austerity (cf. Mark Fisher - Exiting the Vampire’s Castle). Interesting to note Tonneau’s definition of the racism faced by North African migrants in France - ‘the story that goes back to the Middle Ages of workers who fear the threat of outsiders,’ a view that reconfirms the ‘class-over-race’ blindspot of the anti-multiculturalist left (Shohat and Stam ibid). Racism is reduced to its most overt forms and is presented as universal and perennial - dehistoricised. This is obvious in the defence of CH as attackers of the far right ‘describing Charlie as a “racist publication” makes readers think that the paper is akin to the house journal of the National Front.' Leigh Phillips ‘SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics.’ Leigh Phillips This can be seen in the defence of CH editor Charb as an antiracist and CH as an attacker or the Front national. See Phillips quote on slide. However, scratching beneath the surface, the presentation of CH as uncomplicatedly antiracist ignores the the conflicts over how to define antiracism in France (as elsewhere). The poster is designed by Charb for MRAP (antiracist organisation). But MRAP was heavily criticised by organisations such as the Indigenes de la republic, les Indivisibles and numerous academics and others for defending the idea of 'anti-white racism’ in a recent public statement. The idea that SOS racisme is representative of antiracism in France also displays an astonishing lack of awareness of the French context. SOS racisme is eel-known to have begun in the 1980s, sponsored by then Socialist president Francois Mitterand in his bid for the youth vote. The top-down republican organisation has been credited for rupturing the autonomous organisation of radicalised youth from the ‘banlieues' who began mobilising against racism and police violence. Many individuals and organisations in France explicitly reject the term ‘antiracist’ because of its hegemonic identification with SOS racism and similar republican organisations! Charb: ’Yes, but I’m left-wing’ ‘those that think of themselves as not-racist, even anti-racist, are still fully capable of racism. What CH’s contributors think is of no consequence - it is both guilty of propagating racism and supporting Palestine and other progressive causes.’ Comment on Tonneau TW - image and apologies. CH’s ‘good’ positions on a variety of progressive causes are portrayed as cancelling out CH’s increased reliance on racist imagery and words in the aim of satire and provocation. But the unrepentant reproduction of racist imagery should be read in the context of the attachment to the iconography of colonialism. Coloniality and France’s ongoing problematic relationship to ‘its Algeria’ is almost completely missing from analyses of French context. To consider therefore the negative portrayal of Islam as racially neutral or even as consistent with an antiracist positioning not only reveals a lack of empathy with the Muslim other and hypocrisy but also a blinkered historical account that denies the French state’s own amalgamation of race and religion in the management of its colonized populations, a legacy which has carried over into the post-immigration Metropole. ‘the white person who whistles the Marseillaise will be tolerated more easily that the Arab who whistles it… The Arab will be an “anti-French racist’”, the white guy just a “leftist”. The Arab doesn’t have the right to be a leftist!’ Pierre Tévanien 2010 (interview with Saidou) Temoting to think that explainers of French context have no knowledge of debates around defining race, racism and antiracism in France, but more likely is that the significance of explaining race as imbricated in coloniliality is actively denied. This can been in entrenched campaigns against decolonial entities such as the PIR and cases against Bouteldja, Saidou and Said Bouamama and the Ilham Moussaid affair (to name but a few). The problem seems to be that white leftists who wish to be seen as defenders of radicalised minorities are struck by the fact that they fail to recognise themselves in their interlocutors. How can these progressives reconcile their desire to defeat racism with their suspicion that the very objects of their commitment – the ‘victims’ of racism – are standing in the way of a universalist idea of freedom and equality? What happens when the knowledge that systemic discrimination denies the equality of fellow human beings conflicts with the feeling that the struggles of these ‘brothers and sisters’ are misguided? In other words, how can the White Left fight against racism if its leadership is questioned? It appears that these, by no means new, questions about the very nature of antiracist solidarity are at the core of the quest to explain Charlie Hebdo. ‘When White leftists ask us ‘How do you connect races and classes?’ we should not answer… because if they ask us this question, it is not simply for curiosity’s sake. At its core their question is whether our struggle is a legitimate one, that is to say, from their point of view, does our struggle reinforce their own or does it, on the contrary, weaken it? They want to know whether it corresponds to the idea that they have of the struggle for emancipation - generous, general and universalist. If they consider it not to be completely the case then, for them, it is worthless, it can even appear to them to be damaging.’ Sadri Khiari, 2011
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