This is a cross-post from Jacobinism
Western critics of regressive values within minority communities tend to elicit one of two accusations.
The first is one of misrepresentation. That is to say, the critic in question has – either through ignorance or malice – traduced benign cultures as backward and barbaric. Hostility to views perceived to be, say, homophobic, misogynistic or anti-Semitic, result either from misunderstandings or, more likely, from irrational – and probably racist – scaremongering; an attempt to stigmatise the ‘other’.
This argument was, for a while, most effectively advanced by the Swiss Ikhwanist Tariq Ramadan, and it finds an intuitively sympathetic audience on the Western secular Left. Not only is its intended effect ameliorative, but it also addresses a particular anxiety – that multiculturalism is incubating illiberal practices and ideas within free societies while they sleep.
The second accusation is one of intolerance. This represents a more radical view that, while values and practices with respect to women and gays may indeed be antithetical to those of the West, they are culturally authentic and therefore to be respected. Attempts by the West to universalise human rights and protections are in fact manifestations of an arrogant and moralising cultural colonialism.
This sort of nationalist rhetoric finds a (smaller) audience among the West’s soi dissant radical Left, who are drawn to its uncompromising political zeal, its hostility to capitalism, and its anti-Imperialist sloganeering, all of which inform a pleasingly trenchant anti-Zionism.
A rather marvellous example of this marriage between radical Left and reactionary Right can be found cross-posted by Guardian and New Statesman contributor Richard Seymour at his Leninology blog. It’s the transcript of a talk given in February of this year by Houria Bouteldja, an activist of Algerian heritage and a spokesperson for France’s first “decolonial” political party, the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic [PIR].
Established in 2010, the PIR grew out of a five year-old grassroots movement of the same name, which was founded in the name of the ‘indigènes’ of France to campaign against “Eurocentrism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, and…” (naturally) “…Zionism”. 1 The group’s 2005 foundational manifesto describes the indigènes in its opening paragraph as follows:
Discriminated in hiring, housing and health, at school and even at leisure, people from the colonies, former and current, and of postcolonial immigration are the first victims of social exclusion and precariousness. Independent of their actual origins, the inhabitants of the “quartiers”/popular neighborhoods are “indigenized”, relegated to the margins of society.
Broadly speaking, the party’s ideology is a politics of religious and ethnic pride, in which class warfare is replaced by its identitarian equivalent, the privilege of wealth is subordinated to the privilege of ’structural’ racial power, and in which the prefix ‘white’ has replaced ‘bourgeois’ as the preferred term of abuse. Assimilation and compromise are signs of weakness to be avoided. Integration has failed; prepare for integrism.
Bouteldja’s talk, ponderously entitled “Dieudonné Through the Prism of the White Left, or Conceptualizing a Domestic Internationalism”, is basically a disquisition on why the PIR refused to take a position on the controversy surrounding the ‘Quenelle’ – an anti-Semitic salute pioneered by a fascist French comedian named Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Bouteldja introduces her address with a four point preamble, the first three of which can be summarised like this:
- My decolonial discourse transcends crude Western notions of Right and Left.
- My words are “rooted in the social and historical experience of a colonial subject” (ie: oppression).
- I think “in terms of political stakes, power relations, and strategy . . . not abstract morality and principle.”
We’re not told why, for instance, it might be a good idea to discard morality and principle, but it’s a forewarning: If what I say shocks you, it is because you are not ready to understand the experiences of people who look like me and think like me; a people created by your own criminal history.
Bouteldja then turns in her final point to the object of her scorn, citing the following words from the Tunisian activist, Sadri Khiari:
“Because it is the indigènes’ indispensable partner, the Left is their primary adversary.”
Houria Bouteldja, we discover, has tired of the Western Left. In the 30 years since the March for Equality and Against Racism, nothing has changed. Watching a documentary to mark the protest’s anniversary, she is horrified to hear an activist claim that the marchers would have eaten ham had it been demanded of them. Bouteldja recoils from such self-abasement, but France’s failure to respond to even such total servility was the second, and greater, humiliation.
Bouteldja’s charge is that the indigènes of France have been failed by the principles of the French Republic and by their erstwhile allies on the Left. The institutional Left has lost touch with ideology, she claims. On the one hand it thrashes about in “abstract humanism” and “moralistic anti-racism”, and on the other it fails to address police brutality and the “plagues of drugs and AIDS”, it moves against Islamic dress codes, and it pursues neoliberalism at home and neoconservatism abroad.
Meanwhile, what she calls the ‘radical Left’ has ceased to think strategically, and instead succumbed to Islamophobia, paternalism, and chauvinistic Eurocentrism. “The worn-out moral anti-racism, in the style of [French NGO] SOS-Racism,” she announces, “is at death’s door.”
It is this disaffection, she claims, which explains the indigènes‘ re-emergence on the political stage in the person of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and in the company of far-right figures like Alain Soral and Marine Le Pen.
[It] is a middle finger, a big “fuck you” to the Left. Or if you prefer, a quenelle. This pendulum swing to the right, contrary to appearances, is one of liberation.
Liberation, Bouteldja, is quick to emphasise, from the Left. The far-Right, with their history of white supremacism, are no permanent political home for France’s indigènes.
But, for the time being, she takes no small amount of satisfaction in the appalled horror with the spectacle of this alliance has been greeted by the Left, and in the overwhelming support Dieudonné received from indigène communities.
The Left’s most intolerable and self-defeating betrayal, apparently, was to turn its back on Tariq Ramadan. In Bouteldja’s telling, Ramadan was making an offer of great generosity; a kind of integration that respected cultural dignity. His rejection, she says, exposed the lie of integrationist aspirations and the hypocrisy of the French Republic once and for all. In its foundational document, her movement declared: “The Republic of Equality is a myth.”
It is time that France interrogates its Enlightenment, the egalitarian universalism, affirmed during the French Revolution, repressed nationalism buttressed against the “chauvinism of the universal” that is supposed to “civilise” wild savages.
Which is one way of looking at it, I suppose. Another is that Tariq Ramadan was found out.
Leftists, initially inclined to take Ramadan’s sermons about integration, secularism and human rights at face value, began to listen more closely and wonder if his occasionally impenetrable rhetoric didn’t hide a reactionary, integrist agenda.
Their suspicions were duly confirmed when, in 2003, six million viewers watched him refuse to denounce the stoning of women during a televised exchange with Nicolas Sarkozy. ”Mr Ramadan!” Sarkozy cried. “If it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive!” On an elementary moral question, progressives saw Ramadan outflanked on the Left by France’s right-wing Minister of the Interior and concluded they’d been had.
It’s unsurprising then that Bouteldja has had enough of SOS-Racisme. The French NGO’s former president, Malek Boutih, is said to have concluded a long conversation with Ramadan by informing him that he is “a fascist”. His successor, Dominique Sopo, accused Ramadan of promoting “radical anti-Semitism”. It was on the basis of this latter charge that Ramadan was eventually excluded from the 2003 European Social Forum.
Bouteldja bitterly remarks that the radical Left’s failure to support Ramadan in this instance was ”an unpleasant, painful and heavily consequential event”. And by “consequential” she means that, having rejected the March Against Racism’s servility, and Tariq Ramadan’s civility, the Left got Dieudonné’s effrontery instead. What, Bouteldja wants to know, did they expect?
They might, of course, have expected Bouteldja and the PIR to openly deplore Dieudonné’s racism, his Holocaust denial and his hatred of Jews. They are, after all, an anti-racist party, are they not? But Bouteldja will have none of this. And her refusal is not simply born of tribal loyalty or a perverse disinclination to do what the ‘white Left’ wants. Her reason can be found amongst the itemised sins of France’s radical Left, in which she cites the following:
[F]ocusing on fascism at the expense of structural racism and a critique of white supremacy that cuts across the radical Left itself; the centrality of the Holocaust at the expense of the history of colonialism and slavery; . . .
Bouteldja’s sympathy with Dieudonné extends to his anti-Semitism. Not only have the Left failed in their duty to embrace the dispossessed, but they have been complicit in defrauding others out of their rightful status as history’s most abject victims. The Holocaust’s horrific legacy is now an object of ghoulish envy; a coveted mantle of suffering and entitlement, unjustly denied.
Bouteldja would have us understand that Dieudonné’s Quenelle, his racism, and his fearless audacity, are a symbolic blow against this historic injustice. The “political offer” he embodies…
. . . designates an enemy: the Jew as a Jew, and the Jew as a Zionist, as an embodiment of imperialism, but also because of the Jew’s privileged position. The one who occupies the best seat in the hearts of the White, a place for which many indigènes are fighting. Because they dream of becoming the Prince’s favourites, but without questioning that Prince’s legitimacy: the legitimacy of the White Man.
Dieudonné’s error hasn’t been his resentful hated of Jews, which Bouteldja evidently shares. It has been his failure to also question white legitimacy:
[W]e are not integrationists. And integration through anti-semitism horrifies us just as much as integration though White universalism and national-chauvinism. We abhor anything that seeks to integrate us into whiteness; anti-Semitism being a pure product of Europe and the West. As a decolonial movement, it is self-evident that we cannot support Dieudonné.
What all this means is that the PIR are both proud of Dieudonné and disappointed in him. Disappointed because his association with Soral and Le Pen’s Front National has tarnished a more noble kind of racism.
This is the same logic which turned the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban into an orgy of anti-Semitism. Not, we must understand, the crude anti-Semitism of the Third Reich – a vulgar white supremacist doctrine, used by the strong to annihilate the weak – but the righteous anti-Semitism of the weak who seek emancipation from the strong. It is the bitter rage of the persecuted and the forsaken from the banlieues of France to the refugee camps of Palestine. For Bouteldja, indigène hatred of the Jew cannot be considered racism; it has the purity of resistance to injustice.
‘White anti-Zionists’, she complains, lack the radical political fibre to understand this distinction:
[Their's] is an anti-Zionism that is supportive of resistance movements that resemble the left (the PFLP for example) and that is contemptuous of those who do not resemble it (such as Hamas at the time of the attacks against Gaza).
But she understands the distinction. And Dieudonné’s supporters understand it, too. Which is why the PIR cannot condemn them. And it is why, despite her polite reservations about his “political choices”, Bouteldja and the PIR refused to denounce Dieudonné. On the contrary, we get this:
I love Dieudonné; I love him as the indigènes love him; that I understand why the indigènes love him. I love him because he has done an important action in terms of dignity, of indigène pride, of Black pride: he refused to be a domestic negro . . . When Diedonné stands up, he heals an identitarian wound. The wound that racism left, and which harms the indigènes’ personality. Those who understand “Black is beautiful” cannot miss this dimension, and I emphasize, this particular dimension in Dieudonné.
Thus, by mawkish prose, is Dieudonné’s crude racism elevated to the status of a romantic and revolutionary act. An act for which the Left is responsible, but which it lacks the political maturity to comprehend or appreciate. Then, having derided, indicted and shamed her audience, she ends with what I imagine she considers a conciliatory suggestion. The answer, she says, is the formation of new alliances that “respect mutual autonomies”:
We should be considered allies . . . For this to be possible, we must be accepted as we are: a group that is racially and socially dominated, not necessarily clear-cut on several issues: not clear-cut on capitalism, not clear-cut on class struggle, not clear-cut on women, not clear-cut on homosexuality, not clear-cut on Jews.
I suppose we should be grateful that Bouteldja was honest enough to assert her moral nihilism upfront, because this is a shakedown.
The Left’s responsibility for Dieudonné, and the indigène shift to the extreme Right that he represents, she insists, is total. It is the “product of the White political milieu and more precisely of the Left and its renouncements”; the Left’s callousness and cruelty; its Eurocentrism; its Islamophobia; its theft of the indigènes’ rightful claims to historic victimhood; its favour for the Jew and his nation.
To make amends, the Left must denounce all the above and renounce the egalitarian universalism and moralistic anti-racism she despises. If they refuse, it is implied, they can expect more unrest of the kind that produced the 2005 riots, and further mortifying scenes like the Dieudonné fiasco.
Bouteldja’s final move – the misuse of a quotation from C. L. R. James’s 1943 essay The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States to imply endorsement of a talk from which he would have recoiled - only serves to confirm her ruthless opportunism.2
I can’t see any particular reason why those who rejected Tariq Ramadan would want to embrace a more belligerent, openly racist alternative. But Richard Seymour, the Guardian columnist on whose blog it is cross-posted, introduces it with the following:
I have been given permission to publish this excellent paper from the Penser l’émancipation, closing plenary, Nanterre, on February 22, 2014. It was written and delivered by the excellent Houria Bouteldja, a member of Le Parti des indigènes de la République.
Publication of the post resulted in a bad-tempered twitter exchange with Marxist bloggers Andrew Coates and James Heartfield, during which Seymour repeatedly denied it was anti-Semitic. Bouteldja, he explained, “rejects Dieudonne’s antisemitism outright in this talk.” When this assertion was met with understandable resistance, he instructed them: “You’re confusing description with prescription. [Her talk] takes a complex, ambiguous position on Dieudonne but not at all on antisemitism.”
As I’ve argued before, Left-wing apologetics for the far-Right frequently rest on an appreciation of complexities, ambiguities and nuance the rest of us apparently lack. Either Seymour has not understood what he has posted and endorsed or he has accepted the sophistry of Bouteldja’s meaningless distinction between malevolent and virtuous anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is what it is: a hatred of Jews, and whether it appears in the pages of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, the Hamas Charter, or on Richard Seymour’s Leninology blog, it is always justified in the name of the same thing: the struggle against domination, oppression and conspiratorial power.
If Seymour believes that Bouteldja’s narrow disavowal of an anti-Semitism “that seeks to integrate us into whiteness” inoculates her against charges of racism, he has missed something even more sinister and obvious: that while she demonstrates a bottomless capacity for self-pity, her solipsistic contempt for the Holocaust and its victims demonstrates a complete absence of ‘out-group’ compassion. It is in the pitilessness of this kind of chauvinism that we find the germ of fascism.
What does Seymour imagine would become of France’s Jews were Bouteldja ever to be given the whip hand? I feel certain he doesn’t care. As a “colonial subject”, Bouteldja will never have the whip hand, ergo, he condescends to indulge the bitter hatreds with which she trashes the Enlightenment. And, as a magnanimous act of penitence for the historic crimes of the West and the contemporary betrayals of the feckless Left, he will forfeit his right to judge her values even as she condemns his.
At the level of gesture and abstraction at which Seymour appears to be operating, universal human rights – specifically the rights of Jews, but also women and gays – are mere ideas that may be casually traded away in the pursuit of radical chic. But within the communities he refuses to judge, the rhetoric Seymour endorses only emboldens those who would impose dress and honour codes, who would ostracise and persecute people for their sexuality, and those, like Mohammed Merah, who would murder French Jewish children in the name of justice for Palestine. 3
Undeterred, Seymour has accepted the challenge presented in Bouteldja’s opening four-point preamble. He has opened up his Eurocentric mind and deferred to her experience “as a colonial subject”; he has prostrated himself before the scorn she has heaped on the hypocrisies of the white, radical Western Left, of which he is a privileged representative; and he has looked her prejudices in the eye and he has not flinched. She has dared the white Left to join her on the far-Right and Richard Seymour – persuaded by her rhetoric that to do so would be an act of radical political courage – has obliged.
I’m not entirely sure what he expects to get in return. If it’s the respect of people like Houria Bouteldja, he can think again. She holds the politics of self-abasement to be beneath contempt. On this she could hardly be more clear. It is the virility of unapologetic fascists like Dieudonné M’bala M’bala that she values.
1. The specificity of this description, with which Bouteldja was introduced before her talk at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, ought to be an immediate red flag. ↩
2. I find C. L. R. James’s description of black chauvinism and nationalism as fundamentally “progressive” to be naive and unconvincing. But it doesn’t matter because James was opposed to black nationalism and chauvinism either way. Unlike Bouteldja, James was a committed Marxist, integrationist and internationalist and, as such, he explicitly rejected the kind of provincial separatist demagogy that Houria Bouteldja’s views typify. James did not endorse or celebrate the scapegoating of Jews; it was a regrettable reality he sought to (rather indulgently) explain. He plainly did not intend his words to “advise” anyone that, as Bouteldja says darkly, ”one must necessarily accept to get one’s hands dirty”. Furthermore, James was a partisan of the Enlightenment and the universalist revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity over which Bouteldja empties so much invective. As the writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik noted in his review of James’s Black Jacobins:
‘Today, when Enlightenment ideas are often seen as racist or reactionary because they are the products of European culture, and when the line between anti-imperialist and anti-Western sentiment has become all too blurred, [C. L. R. James's] insistence . . . that the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Enlightenment ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity has become all the more important.’ ↩