The new normal
As Denmark becomes the latest staging ground for Islamist atrocities, Paul Demarty asks how the left can confront the growth of religious reaction
There are many stories that can be told about last weekend’s shootings in Copenhagen, of which the most plainly obvious is that it was a copycat attack, inspired by killing sprees in Paris last month.
Though the motives of the suspect, Omar El-Hussein, are still the subject of fevered speculation, it would be a quite remarkable coincidence if he had dreamed up the scheme entirely independently of Amedy Coulibaly and Said and Chérif Kouachi. Like the admittedly much more efficient Paris gunmen, El-Hussein selected as his targets blasphemous artists and Jews, carried out his assaults with automatic weapons, and chose a martyr’s death by forcing a shootout with police.
El-Hussein began his rampage at a café hosting a symposium on free speech and blasphemy, to mark 25 years since the Iranian clerisy’s death sentence against Salman Rushdie. The event saw many militantly irreligious types discussing, in part, the atmosphere in the wake of the Kouachi brothers’ massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. A Femen activist was speaking when the gunfire began. Film director Finn Nørgaard had stepped outside, and was killed immediately.
The most attractive target was probably Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who attracted controversy some years ago for his portraits of Mohammed as a human head on a dog’s body. He has been the object of bungled assassination plots originating as far afield as Ireland and the United States, and lives under the protection of the Danish security services, promoting his and others’ freedom to blaspheme. (A foundation in his name awarded Stéphane Charbonnier, the late Charlie Hebdo editor, a ‘freedom prize’ last year.) Al Qa’eda offered a bounty of $100,000 for his murder; Islamic State recently upped the bidding to $150,000. Apparently the noble cause alone is not reward enough.
El-Hussein fled, and travelled by stolen car and taxi to his home neighbourhood (two men were later arrested for abetting his attempts to dispose of weapons and evidence), before showing up at an east Copenhagen synagogue after midnight, still open for a young woman’s bat mitzvah. Another shootout ensued, with several injuries and the death of a volunteer security guard. Eventually, cornered in his flat the next day, he opened fire on police and was shot dead.
If the inspiration for El-Hussein’s rampage is pretty plain, the broader consonances between his case and that of the French gunmen are more significant. While he was a young man, with no apparent history of Islamist activism - as opposed to the hardened jihadis who conducted the Paris attacks with military precision - he appears like them to have become radicalised in prison, and the wider social background is similar.
El-Hussein lived on a deprived estate in the north-west of the city, described by one anonymous resident as a place where “foreign-origin families have all been lumped together … by politicians” (The Guardian February 16). His biography - failure to complete school, apparent activity with hash-dealing gangs, and prison sentences - sounds like that of many dislocated migrant youth across Europe.
Tensions over immigration are running high in Denmark, and anti-Islamic sentiment along with it. The third largest parliamentary fraction belongs to the far-right People’s Party. With such tension, unsurprisingly, comes the attraction of radical Islam. At least 100 Danes have made their way to the Middle East to fight for Islamist insurgent groups, one of the highest per capita figures in Europe. Denmark is also, naturally, in the sights of Islamist militants for the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in the rightwing daily Jyllands Posten in 2006.
The rising tide of reaction against put-upon migrant communities, and the counter-reaction of disaffected youth, is one ingredient in the Islamist mix, of course. The more important one by far is the calamity wrought in the Middle East by US imperialism in the first instance. Groups such as al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (which had the allegiance of the Paris gunmen) and, more infamously in recent times, IS, have thrived in the chaos that followed first the Iraq war, then the west’s support of anti-Assad guerrillas (overwhelmingly Islamist) in Syria, the failure of the Libyan state after the overthrow of Gaddafi, and so on.
Unlike your run-of-the-mill radical imam in Paris, London or Copenhagen, the likes of IS can ‘prove it all night’: they have the glamour of bloody intransigence and improbable military success about them. They have proven themselves able to exploit the nihilism that grows on the imperialist home front - with the financial aid, bizarrely, of imperialist allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Qatar, primarily).
The violent convulsions of declining American power, coupled with the global collapse of the left after 1991, have produced a very modern form of ultra-reaction, which may not be able to defeat the marine corps in a straight fight, but can inspire atrocities in European capitals: IS even has a ‘social media strategy’, which is the envy of advertising agencies from New York to Berlin.
After the smoke cleared, the vulgar opportunists lined up to make political capital out of the attacks. For the People’s Party, naturally, the answer is a clampdown on ‘hate speech’. In this regard, however, the prize goes to Binyamin Netanyahu, who again seemed almost indecently keen to spin this into a reason for Jews to move to Israel. When it comes to brazen exploitation of anti-Semitic violence, you cannot beat an Israeli prime minister.
No doubt we will hear a further chorus from our own cops, Tories and spooks, demanding more powers, more clampdowns and more impunity, as if somehow the House of Commons can pass a law that gives MI5 the power to read everyone’s mind at once. What else can prevent a recently radicalised and determined individual from springing an assault of this nature on a lightly guarded public location?
War is hell
On the opposite end of the stupidity spectrum, we find the usual suspects. Thus, inevitably, we turn to the Socialist Workers Party, of whose coverage of the Charlie Hebdo massacre the best that can be said is that it stopped short of saying that the victims had it coming. For a moment, perusing the contents of the latest issue of Socialist Worker, I wondered if - this time around - they had decided that discretion was the better part of ‘anti-racist’ valour, and simply decided not to mention it at all, instead stuffing the running order with plugs for the (wait for it) “really important” anti-racist demonstration on March 21 (diaries out, comrades!).
Eventually, a careful search dredged up, firstly, one parenthetical reference in an article on the Chapel Hill shootings in North Carolina, where Craig Hicks - according to some media reports, apparently some kind of deranged Dawkinsite - has murdered several Muslims. The refusal to treat Hicks immediately as a terrorist proves the hypocrisy of the west, goes the logic - “If the killer had been Muslim and the victims white it would have quickly been deemed a terrorist attack.” Of the Copenhagen shooting, it is noted that “one victim was killed outside a synagogue and another in a cultural centre which was holding a ‘debate’ on Islam and free speech” - I quote this only to highlight the scare-quotes (and the coyness about El-Hussein’s anti-Semitic motives).
Socialist Worker’s ironically named ‘What we think’ leader column looks initially more promising: “Politicians and the media want to use last week’s killings in Copenhagen to ramp up Islamophobia, extend repressive powers and justify imperialist war,” it begins. “We must not allow this.” Indeed, we must not!
Unfortunately, none of the rest of the article sees fit to mention the Copenhagen attacks. Instead, we get a Middle Eastern tour of bloody chaos, another reminder that imperialist war is bad, and … er … that’s it. Socialist Worker’s sum total contribution to our knowledge of this event is to point out that western leaders are hypocrites and war is hell (February 17). In other news, the pope shits in the Vatican.
The blind spot is painfully obvious: having chased mindlessly after spontaneity for decades on end, the notion that the ‘spontaneous’ reaction of sections of the oppressed to their deleterious condition could be profoundly reactionary causes a painful cognitive dissonance - the only way out is to try, in vain, to scream over everyone else, about how racism and war are bad things. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge that merely turning people out on enough anti-racist demonstrations in itself has no transformative effect on their consciousness.
None of this means that the sort of persistent ridicule levelled at religious believers by the likes of Charlie Hebdo is any more successful. Indeed, it plainly is not - and the proof of this is not so much the bloody assault of the Kouachi brothers, but that the Front National is on the march, the French left is more or less in disarray, and the condition of those in the banlieues is deteriorating.
When the left is strong, people’s standard of life materially and culturally tends to improve: this or that attack from a boss or landlord is more likely to be repelled, leaving a more stable existence more amenable to political organisation and consciousness. When we are weak, the opposite happens; and, as people fall off the lower rungs, they become atomised. The spiritual community of religion is thereby an attractive palliative: the “opium of the people”. In a very few cases, this process produces terrorist fanatics.
The right to mock religious practices is indispensible: it is, after all, the same right that we enjoy when we castigate a Netanyahu or David Cameron. On top of that, communists have a duty to combat irrationality, superstition and mumbo-jumbo in all its forms. We cannot do so, obviously, if we shrink from criticising a religious ideology at all in the name of anti-racism, as Socialist Worker does. We are also quite unlikely to be successful, however, if we lean too heavily on mockery.
Free speech has to be for something: for us, it is a weapon we employ, among other things, to turn the attention of the religious from the life eternal in Paradise to the transformation of life on earth. This task is most urgent in the case of the exploited and oppressed masses; the appeal of radical Islam is one aspect of this problem, but we could equally mention the multiplication of evangelical churches - some very dodgy operations indeed - among poor black communities in London. Neither patronising such people with anti-racist platitudes nor lampooning them with cartoons is likely to be sufficient to break the power of the pastors and imams over them.