The January 2015 terror attack on the Paris satirical weekly and its gross misinterpretation by people of Left liberal sensibilities in India and much of the world

(Harsh Kapoor is founder and editor, He has lived in France for 30 years.)

We recently witnessed a devastating terror assault by fanatics who gunned down close to 200 children in a school in Peshawar. Was this a desperate cry of the dispossessed in Pakistan? I am glad that the various tiny fractions of the left in Pakistan stood up and condemned it openly, some in India also stood up for the first time. It provoked widespread shock and disdain.

But the terrorist assassination of 12 cartoonists, journalists and workers at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015 has provoked very different reactions.

I am utterly astounded and shocked at the manner in which many in the left-leaning and liberal circles in India have reacted to the devastating terror attack in Paris. Has a section of left gone mad? Why do they have to deflect a straight- forward issue and start providing rationalisation for terror attacks from the Muslim fundamentalists? We are being given an endless spiel on French colonization, the war for decolonization in Algeria, the exclusion of the so-called “Muslim community” in France, the blowback for France’s foolish involvement in the recent wars in Libya and Syria, and so on. The role of poor and dispossessed is being invoked.

Commentators from the Anglo-Saxon world and even our desi left intelligentsia who are waxing eloquent on the Charlie Hebdo massacre are making the most absurd amalgam between the French establishment and a truly radical far-left wing magazine which shared absolutely nothing in common.

Charlie Hebdo is presented as the center of all evil that ever existed and that it had it coming, that their cartoons were racist and hurt sentiments. All this reminds me of 1989 and the Rushdie affair when this hurt sentiment industry made it big and has since become globalized. India’s Picasso, M.F. Hussain, was forced to leave his country by the wrath of the Hindu Far Right, all in the name of hurt sentiments. Many of the same radicals who stood by MF Hussain are now shamelessly standing up with free rationalisation for the Charlie Hebdo killers. Why such different treatment for different religio-fundamentalist strands? Were the poor and dispossessed involved in going after M.F. Hussain?

Charlie Hebdo was born in rebellious times of May1968 in France. It had been preceded by other radical magazines like Hara Kiri and Enragé and many others. But they are in many ways part of a lineage of a very long historical tradition dating back to the French revolution and Jacobins of radical caricature making and mocking the powers that be – religious or other – in every sphere of life. The French revolution was the time of incredibly powerful irreverence and it gave birth to a very incisive form of satire and lampooning. Many magazines with satirical drawing accompanying text emerged during this time and have continued since. Later, a much softer version of this developed in Britain and elsewhere.

Charlie Hebdo’s anti-religious politics takes apart the clergy, most of all the nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis, all who represent the high and mighty and, more recently the Dalai Lama, the new cults, and also in the recent times imams, mullahs as gate-keepers of religion.

Charile Hebdo has a bawdy, burlesque style of black humour. Not for the weak-hearted. In 1970 Charlie Hebdo made fun of Charles de Gaulle, president and leader of the Resistance, on the day of his death, provoking demands from the Right for its ban. The publication ceased in 1981 and was revived in 1991. Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists have faced hundreds of court cases since its creation.

But it has continued to strike against powerful capitalists, bureaucratic and religious elites. The many targets of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and journalism have been the far-right extremists, police repression, war mongering, the big corporate media, anti-immigrant policies, capitalist and employer wrongdoing, the big banks and the stock markets, cuts in public spending and the military industrial complex, the nuclear industry, homophobia, conservative social values, denial of climate change, the food industry, the big pharma etc etc.

In the English speaking world, there is practically no tradition of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo or say a newspaper like Le Canard Enchainé (A Duck in chains – Canard/Duck is French slang for newspaper) that deploy sardonic cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion pieces as standard fare. The kind of fiercely brutal cartoons that appear in Charlie Hebdo and the like in France have no chance of appearing in Britain, in the United States, Canada, Australia and most of the world. This would pass as obscene bad taste; it is a matter of culture as to what is obscene or distasteful. In a country like India, Charlie-style cartoons would be unacceptable to both the left and right.

Thanks to the French revolution, there are no blasphemy laws in France (except for Alsace and Moselle regions which joined France after the revolution). But however, France has strict laws on hate speech, on anti-Semitism and on holocaust denial, so hateful activity is under the scanner.

Blasphemy or “religious insult” and racism are two different things. But with the rise of identity politics all over the world, there has been a successful push by many to collapse these into a single block that turns religious identity into ethnic or racial fault-lines. In keeping with this, all of French of North African descent get sweepingly described in the media as Muslims (less than 5% go to mosques, 20% are atheists) or Arabs (vast majority are from Berber origins) and all of the ‘white’ French get labeled as Christian, a huge mistake this – a misnomer for the French. But in this age of easy clichéd (black and white) representation who cares for complexity?

The politics of Charlie Hebdo has been progressive as it gets and informed by the new left around the world. They have been anti fascist, pro-abortion, pro-contraception in solidarity with the feminists, they stood up with the anti nuclear movement unlike their own friends on the left. The main anti-racist platform in France, SOS Racisme, teamed up with Charlie for campaigns against anti-immigrant policies. They denounced the Right Wing opposition to legalise gay live-in relations. During the 1990s war in Algeria, when there were violent attacks from the fundamentalists on the local media and the artists, writers and cartoonists, many were forced into exile. Charlie Hebdo opened its doors to numerous Algerian journalists and cartoonists in exile.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo has been condemned in France by the trade unions, by the anti-nuclear movement, by women’s groups, by organisations of homeless, by the immigrants organisations – all have offered help and solidarity. Thousands of people attended the solidarity demonstrations in Paris and other cities across France to express their outrage. Tens of thousands of Franco-Algerian, Franco-Moroccan and Franco-Tunisians were present in the demonstrations, carrying flags from the countries of the Maghreb. Journalists in Algeria and the Tunisian Trade Union of workers in Graphic Arts (Syndicat des metiers des arts plastiques tunisien) have issued statements in support of Charlie Hebdo, saying they have faced and still face similar threats and attacks from fundamentalists.

Charlie Hebdo magazine has been a well-known and fervent opponent of Zionism and Israel’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma / gypsy people against police crackdowns and deportation. Charlie Hebdo has been part of the cultural intellectual infrastructure (where with all) of the left in France. Killing them has been like a body blow to the left sensibilities and to the cultural sphere in France.

The murder of these left cartoonists and its obscene celebration by the progressives elsewhere is akin to the following hypothetical nightmare. That our international celebrity Marxist Tariq Ali or the radical broadcaster Amy Goodman get assassinated by some Islamist nuts for being British or American and the progressive chatterati grotesquely take off talking about the horrors of British and American imperialism and that this is blowback. Sad to imagine such a scenario.

The left today is very shy of confronting Muslim Fundamentalism, lest it be seen as anti-Islam. It has become a taboo they better get rid of.

The other malady afflicting the left-leaning is xenophobic nationalism anti-West-ism, becoming a reactionary instinct deployed to explain everything from road accidents to bad weather. Please wake up comrades: internationalism is the need of the day against rising tide of fascist movements that may spell the end of all democratic space.

In India we have hate speech, violently communal speech, anti-religious speech – all co-exist with virtually no real hand of the state successfully stopping it. We have unity and diversity of Fatwas and Farmans from Khaps, self -appointed religious or ‘community’ leaders increasingly defining the landscape for speech, writing, film, dress and accepted behaviour. Blasphemy and hurt sentiment industry is flourishing. A slow poison is spreading.

It is time we promoted Freedom of Speech as a left-wing issue, and differentiate it from hate speech; the space to speak is shrinking everywhere and most of all for people who represent subversive ideas of equality and secular democracy.