Salon publishes strawman-filled smear of Max Blumenthal

I respond to Jeffrey Taylor’s libelous article about Max Blumenthal’s Charlie Hebdo documentary.

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Max Blumenthal

EDIT: February 2017

It has come to my attention that Max Blumenthal has become an Assadist/Putinist shill. I can’t believe I ever wrote an article defending him.

For a quick tl;dr on his change of opinion on Syria, see this: https://medium.com/@_alhamra/max-blumenthal-before-and-after-kremlin-cash-f3f198f6f4c6#.im01j57c6

In the meantime, you can see this post as more of a response to the points that Jeffrey Tayler is making, rather than a defense specifically of Max Blumenthal.


بسم الله الرحمٰن الرحيم، وصلوات الله وسلامه على أشرف المرسلين

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

I recently came across an article called “We must talk about Islam: A faith that affects everyone should be susceptible to critique by all.” I saw it after it was shared on Twitter by Graeme Wood, the Sam Harris fanboy who wrote the infamous “Why ISIS is ‘Islamic'” article in the Atlantic. The “We must talk about Islam” article was published by Jeffrey Tayler in Salon on August 2nd. I’ll go through the piece, paragraph-by-paragraph, and point out the lies, misinformation and slander that it’s full of.

Starting with the title: “We must talk about Islam.” Really? What do you think we’ve been doing for the past 15 years? For God’s sake, no one can shut up about Islam. Next:

Eight months after it suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in French history, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo continues to provoke wrongheaded, confused and even cowardly analysis that disregards the facts and betrays a failure to understand – or a refusal to recognize — the stakes we in the West all have in what the publication stands for: freedom of expression.

The opening sentence depends on how we define “terrorism.” If we define it as “a bad thing done by a Muslim,” then fair enough. As for the predictable statement about “freedom of expression,” I have two things to say.

First, no one who says “Je ne suis pas Charlie” has argued that the attack was justified or good, or even that Charlie Hebdo should be shut down or not allowed to publish. Charlie Hebdo propagates xenophobia in France. It should NOT be celebrated or be given the kind of solidarity it’s getting. As for it’s “freedom” to publish, we respect that.

Second, the concept of “freedom of expression,” at least in France, is a lie. Here’s a list of examples of restrictions on “freedom of expression” in France:

                • Muslim women are banned from wearing a face-veil in public.
                • Muslim school-girls are banned from wearing a headscarf in school.
                • Charlie Hebdo itself has participated in restrictions on freedom of speech:
  • The French comedian Dieudonne has faced prosecution for alleged antisemitism. His shows are now banned in France.
  • Holocaust denial laws exist throughout Europe. Anyone who questions some of the numbers surrounding the Holocaust faces years in prison.
  • A 16-year-old boy was arrested in France for sharing a cartoon that mocked Charlie Hebdo.
  • A 15-year-old girl in France was sent home for wearing a skirt that was deemed “to long.”

Some might say they believe the above restrictions are wrong too. Well, why don’t you prove it to us then?

To all those who say free speech is absolute and nothing is sacred: I challenge you to publish cartoons mocking the Holocaust. Personally, I would consider any cartoon mocking the Holocaust to be barbaric and inhumane. But I’m not the one who says “nothing is sacred.”

One counter-argument to this point would be that free speech does not protect from consequences, and publishing a cartoon mocking the Holocaust would have consequences such as being socially outcast. But isn’t that an argument based on fear and intimidation? Why shouldn’t cartoonists stand up courageously & do something even if it has bad consequences?

Some people say: if Islam is true, it should “stand” mockery/ridicule. According to this logic: if the Holocaust is true and did happen, it should “stand” the test of being mocked and ridiculed. Right?

I’m not saying mockery of the Holocaust is morally equivalent to mockery of the Prophet of Islam. I’m just telling people to be consistent. Again, you’re the ones saying “freedom of expression” is absolute.

On a related note, Mehdi Hasan wrote a great article on the hypocrisy of free-speech “fundamentalists” here. The Salon article continues:

… inspired by their religion, the Kouachi brothers murdered cartoonists for drawing cartoons.  They murdered for Islam.

The evidence suggests there was a lot more that “inspired” the murderers than the drawing of cartoons. As for the whole “murdered for Islam” comment:

Next:

Now for the latest broadside against reason (and the magazine’s few, grief-stricken survivors) — a documentary produced by journalist Max Blumenthal and a British videographer, James Kleinfeld, called “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”

The allegation of being a “broadside against reason” is just a low blow so I won’t respond to that. But by characterizing the survivors as “grief-stricken,” Tayler seems to be suggesting that we shouldn’t criticize Charlie Hebdo out of sympathy for the victims of the attack. That would be nice, if only Charlie Hebdo themselves had stuck to this principle. On August 14th, 2013, the Egyptian military massacred over 1,000 peaceful protesters who were mainly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Charlie Hebdo chose to satirize the victims of the massacre, making fun of the fact the “Qur’an couldn’t stop bullets.”

It’s only fair that Charlie Hebdo be given the same treatment it gave others.

“Je ne suis pas Charlie” purportedly aims to explain why not all French citizens – and in particular, many in the country’s Muslim minority – approve of the slogan.  But the documentary does something else: it delivers a strongly biased narrative of events in France after the crime that exculpates Islam, de facto inculpates the victims in their own deaths, and will surely comfort and encourage future potential assassins contemplating the execution of similar atrocities.  As Blumenthal and Kleinfeld have it, the Kouachi brothers’ crime also occurred as the inevitable, if regrettable, outcome of France’s colonial history and the marginalized status of the country’s Muslim community.

The documentary wasn’t meant to give an “unbiased” account, it was meant to show the perspectives of French Muslims and others who objected to the “Je suis Charlie.” Nowhere were the attacks justified or the victims blamed for their own deaths. That’s an outright lie.

The next paragraph is a nit-picking of alleged factual errors in Max Blumenthal’s documentary, most of which are minor and have no bearing on its main points. So I’ll skip that one. The article continues:

The film turns on the semantically fraudulent bunk concept of “Islamophobia” – that is, that criticizing Islam amounts to a form of racism.  Proclaiming a message for the entirety of mankind, Islam, obviously, is not a race, but a religion, and one with followers of all skin colors on every continent.

This is where it becomes clear that Jeffrey Tayler has been drinking the New Atheist kool-aid. Their favorite phrase, which many of them repeat every day, is “Islam is not a race,” and they use this to justify bigotry against Muslims.

First of all, yes Islam is not a race, but there is no such thing as a “race.” The concept of race is entirely a social construct. What we see in reality is “racializing,” where a group of people is portrayed as an evil, dangerous monolith. This was covered well in Jacobin’s piece on New Atheism here.

Second, racism based on skin color isn’t the only type of discrimination. In France, Muslims are often discriminated against, including having their right to practice their religion taken away. Just because it isn’t based on “skin color,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t a form of racism. Calling Islamophobia a “fraudulent bunk concept” is really low, considering the very real hate that does exist.

Next:

It is vital to understand one thing: freedom of speech means nothing if we are not at liberty to express ourselves about the most contentious issue of all, religion, be it Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. “Islamophobia” and “Islamophobic” are bludgeoning terms of political jargon wielded to suppress free speech and render Islam off-limits for anything but accolades, or, at least, neutral acceptance.  Those who denounce “Islamophobia” are pursuing an agenda, seeking to carve out a critique-free haven for their ideology, or else serving, at times unwittingly, as the “useful idiots” of such people and some pretty unsavory regimes.

See above on Islamophobia and “freedom of speech.” I’m not saying everyone has to like Islam. You can criticize Islam all you like. Obviously, everyone who’s not Muslim doesn’t believe Islam is a true religion (including the people who made the “Je ne suis pas Charlie” documentary). In any case, here are some guidelines on how to not be Islamophobic:

        1. Respect Muslims’ civil liberties and their right to practice their religion.
        2. Stop claiming that the West is at war with Islam, or that Muslims represent a “threat” to “Western” values.
        3. Respect Muslims’ right to articulate the teachings of their faith. Since so many Muslim scholars, preachers, activists, leaders and academics have denounced violent extremism, stop insisting that ISIS and other violent extremists are “very Islamic.” (I wrote more on this here, in response to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Scroll up to read from the beginning).

Some of the most blatant Islamophobes (such as New Atheists) fail all 3 of these. Just read anything Sam Harris or Ayaan Hirsi Ali have written. They’ve explicitly called for discrimination on many occasions, such as when Hirsi Ali says Islamic schools should be banned in the West.

The article continues:

Blumenthal (the film’s narrator) and some of the French, including French Muslims, he interviews use the terms “Islamophobic” and “racist” copiously and interchangeably.  One woman in a Muslim headscarf tells him that the more Islamic one’s clothes look, “the more people are racist toward you.”  Another confusedly, and in utter seriousness, declares that Muslim women in traditional Islamic dress “wear the stigma of their race as their clothing.”  A graduate student at the university Sciences Po declares that a “teacher who wants to exclude teenage girls” – in high school, presumably – “because they’re wearing the veil, it’s not because they fear or are scared, it’s just because they are Islamophobic,” right after having declared them “racist.”

The (manifestly nonsensical) conclusion these speakers leave us with: “race” can be put on or taken off, just like a hat.  Or a headscarf.

See above on racism and Islamophobia.

Blumenthal never mentions the 2004 French law prohibiting all conspicuous religious symbols (the wearing of Christian crosses as well as Islamic headscarves) in public schools.  Teachers “excluding” students in Islamic dress are following the law, whether they approve of it or not.  The legislation, passed after much controversy, is meant to prevent confessional divisions and discord from arising in public schools, where students should view one another as equal citizens of the French republic, not as Muslims, Catholics, or whatever.  Be as religious as you want to be, but don’t introduce your faith into a public environment where it can incite strife.  It also protects those unwilling to wear the headscarf by providing them a space in which they may not legally do so.

The film does not explain how French laïcité differs from American-style “secularism,” without an understanding of which the issues surrounding Islam in France are incomprehensible.  The French Revolution of the late eighteenth century was, of course, atheistic, but laïcité as it is now understood came into being with the 1905 law separating church and state that eliminated Catholicism’s influence in public schools and forbade the government from funding religions.

What Tayler is saying here is that it’s not discrimination if it’s “legal.” Which is total BS, because the law is not the yardstick to measure right and wrong with.

Saying “but it’s not discrimination cause it’s legal!” is a really juvenile, “gotcha”-type argument.

Laïcité is key to the French concept of citizenship: regardless of their faith (or the lack of it), all French citizens, legally speaking, stand equal before the law, a once-revolutionary idea in a Europe that had suffered catastrophic sectarian warfare.  Laïcité also, and more broadly, discourages communautarisme — the formation of ethnic or religious communities that could harm the comity among citizens the constitution seeks to ensure.  Laïcité benefits French Muslims most of all.  As a religious minority, they are the ones with, theoretically, something to fear from the Christian majority.  The presence of laïcité in the constitution, though, means French Catholics or Protestants cannot pass laws favoring Christianity over Islam – or any laws at all regarding religion.

The statement that laïcite benefits the Muslims most of all is simply not true. If anything, it benefits atheists the most and hurts Muslims. An American-style secularism – where laws are not passed based on religion but people aren’t prevented from practicing their religion in public spaces – might be beneficial, but certainly not laïcite which takes away the rights of Muslims, as I mentioned previously.

“Two months after the rallies, France is a changed nation,” declares Blumenthal. “Celebrations of free speech have been replaced by police crackdowns on those accused of defending terrorism,” and “mainstream politicians” are using laïcité to “justify sweeping restrictions on Muslims in public spaces.”

The Charlie Hebdo massacre did not “change” France, but somewhat boosted support (which was already growing) for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, the National Front.  The National Front performed worse, though, not better, than expected in regional elections in March, winning not a single département.  The soldiers the film shows on patrol in Parisian streets have been a feature of life in the capital for years.  The French “Patriot Act” the National Assembly passed in May continues to spark debate about possible abuse, but has not resulted in mass incarcerations.  And all the public conversation about Islam has actually led to higher, not lower, approval ratings for Muslims in France.  There is no new, post-Charlie-Hebdo anti-Muslim climate of oppression, even if after the massacre there was an increase in attacks on mosques.

To be fair, Blumenthal never implied that a “climate of oppression” popped up after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but rather that an already-existing climate got worse. And The National Front not doing well is partially because mainstream parties have become influenced by some of its ideas, reducing incentive to vote for the Le Pen. (This is a well-established phenomenon.)

“Police crackdowns?”  If Blumenthal indeed understands thedifferences between free-speech laws in France and the United States, he does not tell us anything about them or the controversial prosecutions to which they have led for many years.  Indeed, he never mentions (if he even knew) that Charlie Hebdo has itself confronted judicial persecution deriving from these same restrictive laws and, for instance, had prevailed in court when sued for “insulting Muslims” by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organizations.

What of the “sweeping restrictions on Muslims in public places?”  Strangely, such “sweeping restrictions” have escaped the notice of the media, both French and foreign.  And for good reason: there have been none.  Late in the film, an interviewee speaks of fearing “deportations” (of Muslims) – a baseless statement.  It should be pointed out that the Kouachi brothers and Coulibay were French citizens, not foreign intruders liable to expulsion.  The same goes for most Muslims in France.

Lack of media coverage is not evidence that something doesn’t happen. And I already mentioned some of the restrictions, such as Haroon Moghul’s tweet above, which were in fact covered by the media.

Blumenthal portrays a Muslim community under siege, not just from the police, but from “racist invective from mainstream pundits in prime-time media.”  The pundits instanced are something other than “mainstream,” to put it mildly, and the video clips, cherry-picked from among some of the most extreme (and emotional) declarations made in the aftermath of the attacks.  In an interview about his film, Blumenthal contends that “half the French government” is “preaching racism or bigotry,” and that the French authorities are using laïcité as a “weapon” against Muslims.  Declarations of this sort reflect either ignorance of what has been going on in France since January, or an agenda — specifically, the agenda of those crying Islamophobia! to silence critical discussion of the faith.

Tayler keeps repeating the conspiracy theory that there some kind of “agenda” behind people who speak out against Islamophobia. There is no evidence of such an agenda, though there is evidence of an entire industry, at least in the United States, dedicated to demonizing Islam and Muslims. I guess Jeffrey Tayler thinks if he repeats something often enough, people will believe it’s true.

The distortions owe much to his biased selection of interviewees, none of whose strong political affiliations (all well-known in France) does he identify for American viewers.  One of Blumenthal’s interviewees, for instance, is Alain Gresh, an editor at the far-left publication Le Monde diplomatique and a longtime purveyor of “Islamophobia” alerts; predictably, he labels Charlie Hebdo Islamophobic.  Another is Houria Bouteldja, the divisive founder of a party denounced for promoting communautarisme and even racism against French whites.  She embarrasses herself by declaring that Muslims are living as “hostages” in France, warns us that the government “has its sights set on the Muslims,” and, trampling over history, geography, and demographics too obvious to point out here, accuses the French republic of “choosing” as its “legitimate social group” the “figure of the Christian, white, European person.”  The few folks Blumenthal shows expressing support for Charlie Hebdo speak early in the film and are quickly forgotten.

Now Tayler begins to engage in character assassination of the film’s interviewees. The ad hominem attacks just damage Tayler’s credibility, not to mention the factual errors (e.g. labeling La Monde as “far-left”). As for the claim that “the few folks Blumenthal shows expressing support for Charlie Hebdo speak early in the film and are quickly forgotten”: no one ever expressed support for or justified the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Max emphasizes this point in the interview about the film Tayler mentioned earlier, too.

The inescapable conclusion unsuspecting viewers draw from this tour de force of “analysis”: France is heading for fascism, even civil war; and Charlie Hebdo is playing its part in an unjust assault by the morally corrupt French majority against a hapless Muslim minority.  The real issues at hand – how Muslims in Europe are to adjust to the profoundly secular societies in which they now live, how Europeans are to react to large, relatively new populations in their midst professing values that clash with their own – are never addressed.  The film never asks, in fact, whether conflict and widespread fear are inevitable when some people prove by their actions their willingness to kill for dogmas found in ancient texts.

Yet the most telling moment comes when Blumenthal asks, while the camera pans selections of the magazine’s cartoons (without any explication or the context provided by captions he neither shows clearly nor translates), “Is it possible for a Muslim to identify with a publication that demonized the Prophet Muhammad, in almost pornographic fashion?”

There you have it: for Blumenthal, Charlie Hebdo deserved it.  The implicit message: Cartoonists (and the rest of us) had better respect Islam, or else . . . or else, well, all bets are off.  Whatever violence ensues is inevitable, the result of almost “natural” forces beyond our control.

This is starting to get ridiculous. Tayler is essentially pulling words out of his ass, and shoving them down Blumenthal’s mouth. Max asks if Muslims should be expected to identify with Charlie Hebdo. Not whether it’s OK to support the attacks. Those are two separate things, as I’ve been trying to emphasize this whole time. But where, for God’s sake, does Tayler get the idea that Max implies that “Charlie Hebdo deserved it”?

The article continues:

Progressive and liberal to the core, the artists of Charlie Hebdo were certainly not asking anyone to “identify” with their work.  Those who disliked it were free not to look.  Blumenthal never even interviews Charlie Hebdo’s survivors to get their perspective, never delves into the raunchy French tradition of irreligious satire (of which Charlie Hebdo is the heir) that extends all the way back to the French Revolution and even before, and certainly, based on what we see in the film, never bothered to try to understand the satire Charlie was publishing.  If he had, he would have learned that the magazine drew the Prophet Muhammad only as news events dictated (and far less frequently than it did, say, the Pope or various politicians), and satirized the Islamist fundamentalists exploiting their faith for political reasons.  It never attacked France’s Muslim community.  Charlie Hebdo has always “punched up” not “punched down.”

Always.

“Progressive” and “liberal” are ill-defined labels that are used by a wide variety of people. And the argument “those who dislike it are free not to look” could be applied to many issues, including some that I mentioned previously (e.g. Holocaust cartoons) but they aren’t, showing the existence of a double standard.

Let’s step away from Blumenthal’s awful artifact of journalistic malpractice and return to the facts.  Islamist terrorists assassinated cartoonists in Paris for drawing cartoons they deemed blasphemous.  Western societies are now dealing with a conflict between free speech and faith-based intolerance that will intensify as immigration and the Internet break down our borders.  We cannot, must not, cravenly shy away from this conflict, proposing convoluted counter-narratives that effectively exculpate assassins and promote or condone the self-imposition of the faith-mandated restrictions such assassins (and their useful idiots) would impose on us all in the name of “respect” for religion.

We need to muster up the courage to face the facts — and speak frankly about them.

We either defend free speech or we lose it.

More sophistry regarding “free speech” which I already responded to.

Salaam,

~ Yousuf

4 August 2015

PS – I wrote this rather quickly, so there may be errors and it probably isn’t complete. I’ll come back later and make edits if needed.

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