It all began with Elaheh Farahani’s interview request, (January 11), for Fars News Agency in Iran, of which she is a cooperating journalist. Farahani submitted eight questions regarding the attack, French security before and after, and the effect of the attack on the life of Muslims in Europe—will they be under more pressure? My response of January 12 follows (published by Farahani in Farsi in Iran).
The Assault of the West, and especially the US, on Muslim Nations
I am honored to be asked about my views, but I must decline because I am aware of my own ignorance–I have not followed French newspapers, for example, or the larger questions involving Muslim integration into Europe. Your questions are excellent, only some of which I could answer. Instead, allow me to make a general statement, which may or may not be of use to you.
First, yesterday’s march of unity in Paris was deeply moving, not only numbers, placards, political leaders in attendance, but the sense–if only this is true–that the underlying spirit is the quest for peace and religious tolerance. My own concern is very different: that the march symbolized an erupting fear and hatred that would punish the country’s Muslim population and therefore destroy the hope of reconciliation and understanding. I was not there. I do not know, but the patriotic tone, the idea of a “war,” the implicit concept that this moment marks the instant where a clash of civilizations is starting, all are signs that widespread persecution–and terrorist acts in response–is possible.
I wrote recently that freedom of speech (broadly defined to include writing, and specifically here, political satire) is not absolute. Charlie Hebdo pushed up against the limits that becomes incitement and provocation to violence. The little I’ve seen of its satire is at the very least in bad taste, self-admittedly, designed to flaunt “freedom” by causing anger and humiliation among its targets, an unnecessary desire to hurt. Perhaps that is permissible and falls under the scope of free speech, but I think not. It invites violence, retaliation, and finally, a cycle of confrontation. One can blame the terrorist, but what benefit TO SOCIETY is there in goading him on?
Where I also differ from mainstream opinion is in saying: yes, emphatically condemn the murders and their perpetrators–never acceptable acts in a civilized society. But don’t stop there. The West, and especially the US, have been in assault mode on Muslim nations for at least three decades, and before that, much longer through the “normal” workings of colonialism. I speculate, and it is no more than that because unprovable by this point, what if the Western-US pattern of imperialism/colonialism not been followed? Would terrorism ever have been actuated? We see results, seldom causes. This does not excuse murder, barbarism, hatred. Yet at the same time, account must be taken of what has been going on at the foundations of the historical process. The huge popular rallies in Paris yesterday were a magnificent tribute to freedom of speech and thought, but where at the same time is the internal criticism of France itself, and by extension, the EU and US, for war, intervention, torture, fully implicating France and its contribution to NATO, and its earlier actions in Vietnam and Algeria? France, despite the fervent display on behalf of “freedom,” does not have clean hands. This does not justify the murderers and their crimes, but it does force us to question the context from which their radicalization has been born. The alternative is to say, as many now are, that intrinsic to the Muslim faith is violence, rapine, an intensity of hostility to all things different.
This was followed by my article in CounterPunch, “Obama and Paris: Discredited Leadership,” (January 16-18), which speculated on the reasons for and significance of Obama’s failure to appear at the March of Unity—or send other representatives. Finally, Farahani renewed the interview request, adding one to the original eight questions, of which I felt I could briefly answer three (see below), and instead I wrote extensively on my principal developing concern: the persecution of the Muslim people in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, a political-ideological process in any case already under way in Europe as a manifestation of rising proto-fascism. America’s campaign of counterterrorism feeds, complements, and ultimately strengthens this proclivity. After stating, “In response to your questions, Elaheh, I have pared them down from nine to three, the others, dealing with specific information in Paris, I do not feel qualified to answer,” I wrote the following.
The Muslim Today Is the Jew of 1939
First, though, a general statement: I am Jewish. My background and experience teaches me that when any group, social class, religion is singled out for persecution, discrimination, hostile treatment of any kind, this sets a precedent for doing the same to other groups, classes, religions—a precedent that creates a dynamic of hate not easily contained or stopped. With persecution of one group, the whole society suffers, its moral character compromised and diminished. Either there is respect for everyone, or a social cancer eats away at the people as a whole, sowing mistrust and cruelty.
The Jews faced this situation in the 1930s, culminating in the 1939-45 period in the Nazi ovens and gas chambers—the Holocaust. My fear is that the Muslim people of the present-day are at the stage of the Jews in the 1930s. The potential is ripe for a massive assault on their lives, their dignity, their teachings, their religion. Perhaps we will not see death camps, but the Muslim people have already suffered through Western wars and interventions. The world must stop the slaughter before it begins. The world must say No to the West in its misguided fears, anger, hostility; for it’s only recapitulating the historical experience of Naziism, now with another designated group to be cowed into submission.
This view, that the Muslim today is the Jew of 1939, is my own, is never mentioned, and, hopefully, is an exaggeration. But I see so much pent-up hostility in the West—anything can happen. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay, “Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” said that the anti-Semite is afraid of everything but the Jew, and instead is afraid of whatever is human, of social change, of love. Just so, now. The West, in what is becoming a crusade against Muslims, is afraid, not of Muslims, but of its own “enemies” within, those who want a democratic society instead of power, who want equality instead of poverty, who want love, as respect for fellow human beings, not jealousy, domination, contempt for others—the possible melting of the framework and foundations of advanced capitalism, predicated on war, force, suspicion of differences. Strike out, accordingly, at a target because of one’s own failures as a society: Muslims as the 21st century scapegoats.
Yes, there have been, for several decades, acts of terrorism and movements dedicated to that end. But I believe this would never have occurred had not the West, through a history of colonialism which then merged with and developed into full-scale penetration, commercial, political, ideological, of capitalism, occurred, directed against predominantly Muslim countries, but also as part of a general paradigm of imperialism taking in far more than the Muslim world, as for example, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
I cannot and would not condone violence, as we see in jihadist suicide attacks, nor would I use the prior history of exploitation to rationalize their need. But I would demand that a total view of the situation, notably, the West’s causative behavior and activities, be considered, so that—before it is too late—both provocation and response cease, be undone, a world founded on mutual respect be restored, or, if never achieved before, now constructed. Imperialism, in its broadest sense (beyond mere economics), and terrorism are connected, joined at the hip, mutually sustaining. Both must be broken, the connection severed, if the world is to know peace and well-being.
I wish to thank Elaheh Farabani for encouraging me to make these extended statements. My answers to his questions follow.
I shall keep my answers brief:
1. How do you assess the recent act done by Charlie Hebdo to publish another caricature of Islam Holy Prophet? Deliberately provocative, knowingly precipitating further tension; irresponsible, in denial about the hurt created to Muslims; slight admixture of opportunism, not the money, but the fame, from five million circulation.
2. What were your first thoughts hearing about the Charlie Hebdo attacks? Initially, I sprang for the “free speech” argument and horrified at the deed; still horrified, this was unjustified murder; but I also began to question the “free speech” aspect, and began arguing that free speech is not absolute, that boundaries not of good taste, but of the rights of the community, and of a people not to be vilified, must take over.
3. In your perspective, what were the real reasons of such deadly attacks in Paris? The murderers were demented, their act should never have occurred, and cannot be excused, but in their own minds, specifically, French repression in Algeria had to have weighed on them, that and anger over the desecration/caricature of Muhammad together tipped the balance.
The Torah Injunction to Welcome the Stranger—Violated
Then, to come up-to date, we find Bernard Avishai’s New York Times op-ed contribution, “Netanyahu Sells French Jews Short,” (January 16), which places in perspective an important strand of anti-Muslim political opportunism fueling the present societal tensions. Writing from Jerusalem, Avishai presents a view no doubt not popular in Israel or, for that matter, among American Jewry. If the enemy has changed since the beginning of the 20th century, that of Herzl’s “political Zionism” with democratic-socialist possibilities confronting a repressive Europe, today, with Netanyahu, “apparently, not much else has.” Europe is again the enemy; in Avishai’s words, “The Jewish response [by that light] must be to self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground.”
The message is clear: The French, and the whole EU, according to Netanyahu, must “’wake up’ and fight to protect ‘our common civilization.’” The theme implied here of the clash of civilizations is clearly alive and well, which, true to the psychodynamics of authoritarianism (ethnocentrism, in this case) results in categorizing all Muslim people as the same. Obviously, when combined with the exhortation to combat, of which he and most Israelis are not shy in stating and acting on, becomes a form of ethnic cleansing. And Avishai queries, would not French Jews “who justly feel themselves a part of French civil society and approach Jewish religious culture with emancipationist skepticism” feel themselves “lost—upon arrival and for years—in Israel’s secular Hebrew culture and under its Orthodox religious hierarchy?” This last shows Israel’s own contradiction—to which I would add a further one (or political strategy): the way the secular hides behind the religious when Israel proclaims itself The Jewish State—more ethnic cleansing.
Few Israeli leaders and commentators do other than condescend when asked the foregoing question. Avishai’s example is telling (the lack of an authentic Left in Israel and widespread consensus on official policy): “Even Yair Lapid, the self-described ‘centrist’ former finance minister who leads the youthful, hip Yesh Atid party, told an audience in Beersheba on the eve of Paris’s unity rally that the need to fight terrorism ‘is now reaching the Europeans,’ and that European Jewry ‘must understand that there is just one place for Jews.’” Israel. Yet Avishai, again on contradictions, states: “When it comes to Europe, Mr. Netanyahu is a lion for Jewish rights, insisting on the strictures of a republican social contract. But at home, he is cavalier about them. If French Jews did migrate en masse, what would they find in Israel?”
The questions are like sledgehammer blows, reminding us that discriminations practiced help to account for Muslim weariness at the occupation and the larger context of repression (which extends well beyond Israel). What would French Jews find? He writes: “Strict civil equality that reduces the threat of political violence? Hardly. A separation of religion and state that mitigates zealotry?…A Muslim Arab population that the government has assimilated with social investment and laws promoting tolerance? No and no.… An end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories? Mr. Netanyahu dismisses the idea as implausible.” What Israel has done, in contrast to the richness of a rival concept of Zionism, is to turn “anti-Semitism into an excuse for Jewish exceptionalism.”
My New York Times Comment on the Avishai op-ed., same date, follows:
In my youth, Judaism was distinguished by two traits, its cosmopolitanism and sympathy for social justice, often as radicalism. That did not preclude degrees of observance, from secular to ultra-orthodox, a religion of variegated beliefs and experiences, different social classes, etc. To be Jewish was to recognize the sacredness of the human soul under God, whether as racial equality or respect for the dignity of the poor.
That has changed over the last six decades; even the alternative strands of Zionism have become one, with little opposition. Israel is now the Warrior State demanding the allegiance to and support of world Jewry. No thanks; my Jewish pride is reserved for the past. It does not identify with militarism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, all of which are embodied in present-day Israel and the basis for Netanyahu’s urging of French Jews to emigrate to Israel.
If that happens, it means further reinforcement for more Gaza slaughters, more occupation, more totalitarianism that my generation of Jews fought against, suffered under, and triumphed over.
Israel becomes the magnet for the transmogrification of Judaism into the opposite of its cosmopolitan and radical roots–narrowly parochial and reactionary. Until and only if Israel changes, learns compassion, reconciles its policies with the Torah injunction to welcome the stranger and regard justice as holy, does it have a right to begin speaking for Jewry, and even then, respecting different paths to life.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at email@example.com.