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Richard Seymour on "the coming Islamophobic backlash"


The text above the cartoon reads: “Boko Haram’s sex slaves are angry: DON’T TOUCH OUR CHILD WELFARE!” Via Richard Seymour.

At the website of Jacobin magazine, political theorist Richard Seymour offers an important intervention at a moment when it seems like we must uncritically laud the publishing record of Charlie Hebdo if we want to also express our abhorrence at the recent attacks on their offices in Paris:

There is already an enormous pressure, in this context, to defend Charlie Hebdo as a forceful exponent of “Western values,” or in some cases even as a brilliantly radical bastion of left-wing anti-clericalism.

Now, I think there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.

The cartoon above is one example of what Seymour is talking about. Seymour goes on to suggest that in the aftermath of these attacks, the real threat is not to free speech, but to European Muslims, who are already suffering an “Islamophobic backlash”:

The argument will be that for the sake of “good taste” we need “a decent interval” before we start criticizing Charlie Hebdo. But given the scale of the ongoing anti-Muslim backlash in France, the big and frightening anti-Muslim movements in Germany, and the constant anti-Muslim scares in the UK, and given the ideological purposes to which this atrocity will be put, it is essential to get this right.

No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

Read the full piece at the Jacobin website here. Is Seymour right to call Charlie Hebdo a racist publication? If so, how do we remain critical of this racism without seeming to endorse the actions of the gunmen? In other words, how do we maintain a stance of critical solidarity with the Hebdo journalists?


As the founder and former director of a free expression organization (having worked for others as well), I have given a lot of thought to the Charlie Hebdo attack last week. In an article on HyperAllergic entitled Je Suis (in Solidarity with but Uncomfortable About) Charlie I unpack the considerations/decisions myself and my colleagues at freeDimensional debated/made in the wake of the attack during its ensuing media storm.

Referring to the ‘backlash’ evoked by Seymour’s piece, I’ll share the final passage of the article here:

It seems impossible for the current state of affairs to normalize unless we are willing to have some serious conversations about the role of dominant culture in maintaining a colonial status quo and its complicity in a multi-source terrorism that has been sired by global inequity. What I most want to communicate and would ask that freeDimensional communicate (something that is not wholly up to me) is that we are outraged by what has happened, we are sad, we are distraught, and that we are thinking deeply on what to do both in the immediate aftermath and in the long run to make the world a more equitable place for living and supporting artists who reflect our world back to us in magnificent, haunting, courageous, and provocative ways. While I won’t simply remove freeDimensional’s name from the viral campaign (if that is even possible), I do suggest that we dig deeper into the messiness and attempt to have this conversation removed of political rhetoric in our most humble voices and across a range of human experiences, lest what happened at the office of Charlie Hebdo (and elsewhere) becomes a powder keg for further violence.


Some more thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, and a critical take on the Seymour piece by John Dolan writing in Pando Daily:

"There was a weird smell to the Anglo media’s stories on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a stench uncommonly like gloating. Before the 12 bodies were even cold, the New Yorker published a sermon by Teju Cole, in which he pronounced the dead Frenchies “Unmournable.” Cole’s refusal to mourn made no sense, rambling through the Inquisition, “France’s colonial history,” US drone strikes on Pakistan, and an obscure 16th-century Italian theologist before he even got around to hinting in a cowardly, incoherent way, that those dead writers and cartoonists pretty much had it coming to them.

There was a lot of that sort of incoherent Anglo gloating going around, the kind where nobody says outright that they’re glorying in some outsider’s misfortune, but everybody gets the message very clearly.

Cole’s gloating was pretty mild, compared to what you found on the Left end of the net. Jacobin, which is actually a pretty good journal sometimes, decided to publish a more aggressive chunk of incoherent gloating by Richard Seymour, which includes this remarkable paragraph explaining, or rather declining to bother explaining, Seymour’s conviction that Charlie Hebdo is “…frankly a racist publication”:

“I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.”

There, you smell that? That, folks, is the stench of grad-school bloodlust, the rectitude one finds so often among people who are afraid of caffeinated coffee, but glory in consigning anyone damned by their favorite authors to violent death. And as soon as the seminar-hunt is on, the clichés come out: “I will not waste time arguing…” “I simply take it as read…” “I suggest you do your research…”

Check out the full piece here.


An interesting detail that I think complexified and renewed this question for me is the recent release of Michel Houellebecq’s new book Soumission. Charlie Hebdo was set to run a cartoon featuring Houellebecq the day of the attack.

He has said some pretty directly Islamopobic things in the past, including calling Islam, “the stupidest religion”. He has since, it would seem changed his mind.

The narrative structure of Soumission (as it has been reported, I haven’t read it—it has yet to be translated into English) seems to amount to a complex argument for changes in French politics that treats islam as a sort of real answer to the meaninglessness of living in the post-deconstruction West.

Having read other books by Houellebecq and interviews, I can see that he would be someone to whom Islam and religion in general has a kind of romantic appeal. I think in many ways it represents a kind of unattainable utopia for him. In his book, The Map and the Territory he writes , “What can undoubtedly be said is that the model of society proposed by William Morris certainly would not be utopian in a world where all men were like William Morris.”

Islam seems to represent this same kind of utopic proposal for Houellebeq, one which requires the eradication of people like him, but is still posited as a future good (if that’s not too intense a claim, which for Houellebecq, I don’t believe it would be).

The question for me now is if this book can still be viewed as a provocation.

If it is not, in fact Islamophobic, does its circulation as a book about a Muslim-Take-Over, at a moment when immigration policy’s are becoming less and less human and racism is rampant, mean something?

It seems like in a lot of ways the only radical and possibly helpful response to the current cultural climate. It seems like a possible and paradoxical catalyst for empathy. And for me serves as a real example of what it really looks like to engage in a dialogue about something divisive.

I don’t know what kind of real effects we can expect or will see, if art can have social effects is still a fragile proposition, but I think there is something reassuring about the way this thing is getting contextualized. The media seems happy to correct mis-perceptions and try to keep the dialogue detailed and productive. More than I have come to expect.

I do think sensitivity in speech is important, but actualized sensitivity and real understanding is more essential. Sometimes politically correct language can jeopardize real change. Language changes are not the same a solutions.

David Foster Wallace in his essay Authority and American Usage: PCE is not just silly but ideologically confused and harmful to its own cause. Here is my argument for that opinion. Usage is always political, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: on the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change . What’s important is that these two functions are different and have tobe kept straight. Confusing them— in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism— enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s core fallacy— that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes 63 —and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’s delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage. 64 Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There’s a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact— in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself— of vastly more help to conservatives and the USstatus quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were. Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed using taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth, I would be delighted to watch PC progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as “low-income” or “economically disadvantaged” or “pre-prosperous” rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates. (Not to mention that strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty, and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy lead to actual political change rather than symbolic political change. In other words, PCE acts as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the status quo.) As a practical matter, I strongly doubt whether a guy who has four small kids and makes $ 12,000 a year feels more empowered or less ill-used by a society thatcarefully refers to him as “economically disadvantaged” rather than “poor.” Were I he, in fact, I’d probably find the PCE term insulting— not just because it’s patronizing (which it is) but because it’s hypocritical and self-serving in a way that oft-patronized people tend to have really good subliminal antennae for. The basic hypocrisy about usages like “economically disadvantaged” and “differently abled” is that PCE advocates believe the beneficiaries of these terms’ compassion and generosity to be poor people and people in wheelchairs, which again omits something that everyone knows but nobody except the scary vocabulary-tape ads’ announcer ever mentions —that part of any speaker’s motive for using a certain vocabulary is always the desire to communicate stuff about himself . Like many forms of Vogue Usage, 65 PCE functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker— scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the politicalimplications of language— and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more groups renamed.*†

Wallace, David Foster (2005-12-01). Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (Kindle Locations 1476-1477). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

PCE is, of course, Politically Correct English

and SNOOT is basically someone with an extreme hardline position on english grammar.

Pre-attack interview:

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