“Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.” –Lord Curzon, 1898, governor general and viceroy of India
“‘The power that dominates the United States’ [is] unwilling to tolerate the slightest suggestion of culpability for the crimes that it has perpetrated across the globe. At the height of the ideological society lies the conviction of a moral mission, even a divine destiny, authorizing its almost inadvertent drive towards global domination.” -Hamid Dabashi
Colonialism and imperialism, in their classical or contemporary guises, have many ways of appearing palatable, even decent. Those tropes are easy to identify, because they’ve been reliably deployed for hundreds of years without changing. First, Empire targets a group of people, usually because the population sits on top of great territory or resources, then reduces them to an undifferentiated mass (“Muslims,” for instance). They’re given essential characteristics in order to obscure the aggression against them (“Why are Muslims so angry?”), and imbecilic, power-serving bromides are proffered as an explanation for the current historical moment (“They must hate us for our freedom”). One of the central characteristics, attributed to all targeted groups, is an inherent primitiveness, a lack of civilized values if not civilization itself (“They don’t understand our noble, enlightened Free Speech.”)
It’s that last point, about how progressive values are invoked in the service of imperialism, that makes the fact that Charlie Hebdo is liberal a non-substantive point. It’s been said that the magazine antagonized France’s neo-fascists and advocated for immigrant rights, but those aren’t the ideas being mined from this week’s events. In the English-speaking media, there’s been a back-and-forth about how the more shocking images in Charlie Hebdo are meant to be received. However, even defenses of the magazine from charges of racism concede that the magazine itself (and “the French satire tradition” as a whole) has often made a target of Muslims. Sure, Charlie Hebdo mocked the Pope—if it frequently dehumanized a marginalized group in the Empire’s sights as though they’re as strong as one of the world’s most powerful men, then it’s easy to see how that’s useful to power.
While Charlie‘s cartoonists may have claimed that they targeted Islam’s “extremists,” this project fits firmly in the liberal wing of imperialism. According to Professor Deepa Kumar, a key characteristic of liberal Islamophobia is “the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged.” As opposed to Islamophobia’s “troglodyte version, which is just blatant,” Kumar explains, “there are very complex, sophisticated, and liberal forms,” which make allowances for two types of Muslims: extremist/fundamentalist/terrorist “bad” ones, and “good Muslims, which is people who actually support what the U.S. is trying to do, and nothing in the middle.” According to Vox, separating “bad” Muslims from “good” ones is exactly what Charlie‘s editors claimed to be doing: “The magazine’s own editors have said…its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam.” For the sake of progress, Charlie was circulating Arab caricatures to save Islam from itself.
Liberal ideas of progress aren’t opposed to racism and colonialism, nor are they just complementary, but essential to those projects of domination. This has been the case since at least the 18th century—empires have always presented conquest as gifting reason and pluralism to backwards people. Plenty of today’s most strident anti-Muslim bigots, like the New Atheist luminaries, identify as liberals defending the Enlightenment tradition, and they sound identical to both colonial proconsuls and Anders Breivik. Liberalism’s role in Empire is why John Kerry sounds identical to George Bush on the question of why the terrorists hate us (it’s our freedom). France offered pluralist reasons for banning both the wearing of hijab and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer during Operation Protective Edge.
Within the construct of liberal imperialism, our advanced values are presented as a decisive fault line marking “Western” societies from other, contradistinct civilizations. Spectacles surrounding “Free Speech” are crucial moments for the manufacturing the borders of Empire’s imagined community and creating the Other. These events—often centered on racist cartoons and the consumption of pork—are wrapped up with a panoply of innocuous political stances and capitalist consumer choices “that trigger a warm feeling of self-recognition and superiority among cosmopolitans,” in the words of Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. After 9/11, Salman Rushdie offered that “to prove [the fundamentalist] wrong, we must agree on what matters: bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, movies, [and] freedom of thought,” along with other basic physical and emotional needs that “the fundamentalist” doesn’t share with humanity, like water and love. This is part of constructing the “assumption of collective Muslim guilt [which] is a common staple of the American mass media,” as Hamid Dabashi recounts in Brown Skin, White Masks. “A particular paragon of twisted reasoning is the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wondered why Muslims around the globe (not just Pakistanis) did not ‘take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people?’ Why would they do so when their Prophet is caricatured in Danish newspapers, but stay home when real human beings had been murdered?”
One of the liberal mantras that’s been repeated a lot since the 2006 Jyllands-Posten event involves depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH…how’s that for edgy speech?). Liberals are wont to shake their heads and say that they just don’t understand how Muslims can be so attached to a mere image. The emphasis on a picture is another invocation of the enlightened status of the speaker and their membership in “Western civilization,” versus the inscrutability of a group so atavistic and primitive that they’re made furious by a cartoon of their Holy Prophet. Like every aspect of these spectacles, in which the mob condemns and repudiates and declares what the Bad Men did “unthinkable,” this is meant to delineate civilization against barbarism—the logic that undergirds colonialism.
It’s strange hearing liberals repudiate blind religious totemism during these spectacles, because a reliable constant is the invocation of “Free Speech” like some sort of fetish-object. Free Speech is a value about which “we” must be absolute, since it protects “our” rights like a guardian angel. Furthermore, the story is that Free Speech is something that actually exists, rather than being a socially transmitted, power-serving fiction. In reality, Free Speech spectacles are liturgies for a secular religion—what Dabashi calls “the ideological society”— one that’s driven by domination and demands as much blind obedience as any other faith. Continue reading