This essay was originally published on January 10 2015, following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a political satire magazine based in Paris.

The time I saw Charb in Paris was January 24, 2010, the day of the crowded commemoration of the French philosopher and activist Daniel Bensaïd at La Mutualité. During the speeches, Charb kept drawing and projecting vignettes about his comrade Daniel, whose book, Marx: Mode d’Emploi, he had illustrated a year earlier. In the deep sadness that filled the big room his vignettes constantly reminded us of Bensaïd’s subtle humor, of his little malicious smile with which he used to charm us all, slowly helping us to heal the loss. Director of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Charb was one of the ten cartoonists and journalists killed, together with two policemen, in the ferocious attack of January 7, 2015.

Since then messages of solidarity stating “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie — have been flooding the web and other media, a massive manhunt to capture the killers is taking place, shotguns have been fired against two mosques, a kebab shop has been bombed, and all French political leaders have appealed to national unity in defense of the République. Sadly enough, this means that the attack might have been a successful one. Of all the targets the attackers could choose, they deliberately chose a magazine that, in spite of the controversies about the quite Islamophobic vignettes it published, still had credibility among the French Left. A magazine, moreover, that embodied a distinctively French tradition of secularist irreverence, the distinctively French pride of being free to satirize both God and the King, enjoying dwelling in the trivial obscenities of the genre. The target was politically and carefully chosen. The narrative about the direct correspondence between the publication of irreverent vignettes of Muhammad and the attack, as in some sort of mechanical cause-and-effect connection, is over-simplistic. Nor is the narrative about attacks on freedom of speech and of press sufficient to understand what is really happening. The strategy behind the attack aims at a polarization of French society, at an escalation of the conflict, and above all at the resuscitation of the mantra of “the clash of civilizations.” It further isolates the Muslim population in France (around five million people) and exposes it to a further escalation of the already worrying and rampant Islamophobia. It is pushing the white population to gather behind the banners of the national republican unity and identity perceived as under attack from the new French, that is, the Muslim French. And, in order not to leave any option of resistance other than radical Islamism to the Muslim population, it is hitting the French Left, the only barrier against an uncontrolled proliferation of Islamophobia in the country, where it hurts the most: in its troubles in dealing with France’s colonial past and legacy and in reformulating universalism in such a way as to give full inclusion to Arab and Muslim people.

Charlie Hebdo is an extreme symptom of the troubles of the French Left. Its covers alternate denouncing and criticizing French policies against immigrants and Houellebecq’s Islamophobic paranoia with an endless series of vignettes targeting “les islamistes.” Following the killing of a thousand Muslim Brothers in the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Egypt, CH published a cover with a vignette saying: “Le Coran, c’est de la merde, ça n’arrête pas les balles” (The Quran is a piece of shit: it doesn’t stop bullets). Its defenders, in the wake of the criticisms and accusations of Islamophobia Charlie Hebdo started to receive, kept pointing out that its satire was addressed to all religions indiscriminately. Whether this is true or not (and I think it is not entirely true), this answer shows a fundamental misunderstanding about context — that same misunderstanding that led part of the French left to capitulate in favor of an abstract republican secularism on the occasion of the discussions regarding the scarf law. Muslims are not only a largely oppressed and exploited minority in France, they are increasingly becoming the scapegoat of the economic crisis, the mirror upon which white Europeans project their deepest nightmares and fears. Every single week in Germany several thousands of people gather in various cities under the organizational denomination of PEGIDA for demonstrations against the “Islamization des Abendlandes” (PEGIDA stands for “Patrotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”). An Italian rightwing newspaper published the photo of the attack on Charlie Hebdo under the title “This is Islam,” and a large part of the Italian population would be perfectly happy to let Muslim immigrants sink without help in the Mediterranean. In this worrying, and honestly scary, context, the repeated publication of vignettes caricaturizing Islamists by adopting religious symbols and stereotypical representations that by the same token identify five million oppressed people living in France was not an act of courage.

In spite of my very dear memory of Charb’s sweet, humorous, and moving vignettes about Daniel Bensaïd, I cannot bring myself to participate in the choir and say that “I am Charlie.” But here is the problem. This attack and these murders push people like me into a corner, as they make it extremely difficult for us to say that we find this act of violence disgusting and unacceptable, that we deeply loathe the politics, strategy, and means of radical Islamists, that we are in pain for the people who have been murdered, but that yet we cannot identify ourselves with Charlie Hebdo. And we cannot deploy the expected slogan of “We are all French” in this moment in which a specific version of French national identity was mobilized to oppress those French citizens who cannot possibly identify with it.

This tiny space, the space for a solidarity capable of challenging identities, rather than reinforcing or restating them, for a solidarity that does not need the affirmation of a common identity to express itself, is the space that the attack against Charlie Hebdo risks closing, forcing all of us to participate, willingly or unwillingly, directly or indirectly, in the renewed farce of the clash of civilizations.

Cinzia Aruzza is associate professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research, and is most recently co-author, with Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso Books, 2019).

12 thoughts on “Is Solidarity Without Identity Possible?

  1. The question asked by the title goes unanswered in this article. So I will go ahead and answer it for the author, who is brave enough to ask it but not brave enough to volley an answer: No, it is not possible.

    There’s not even really a question over whether it is, except in the mind of the academic Left, floating away into their imaginations, disconnected from the real world of real people and real events. When the author here describes “being pushed into a corner” – it’s really just the realities of the situation sinking in: that France is the homeland of the French people (which isn’t going to change); that a large population of foreign peoples who are representatives of a very different cultural mindset now share the living space; that there’s no integration without the Muslims “losing” their own cultural baggage, specifically this medieval, extremist version of fundamentalist Islam.

    In reality it IS a clash of civilizations. No amount of handwringing can hide or obscure that fact.

    The Left’s undying, religious-like commitment to “multiculturalism” – the belief that if everyone puts on blinders, holds their tongues and doesn’t say what they feel and think, and perpetually internally obsesses over whether what they are saying and thinking is “racist” at all times, that even the most radically different cultures can live right on top of one another in perfect harmony – blinds them from seeing the writing on the wall: that just because human beings are CAPABLE of tolerance doesn’t mean that tolerance can be expected as a rule when groups of differing people come into contact. (As a rule the opposite is functionally correct – that when groups come into contact, it’s realistic to expect friction, potentially to the level of violence).

    The Left sees things like identity, nationality, and ethnicity as abstract “constructs” that are in need of being “challenged,” not what they are in reality: truly different variations on human corporeal existence. BREEDS. To the academic’s dismay, the vast majority of human beings in the world do not see their own identities as inconvenient roadblocks to multicultural integration, but rather take great pride in their identity, tribe, country, language, customs, place of origin, etc.

    That is why, at the end, I find this type of analysis to be simply spineless. They way you hide behind this wall of words only to lament how hard it is for you to condemn fanatical, murderous assassins. This passage I find distinctly cowardly:

    “This attack and these murders push people like me into a corner, as they make it extremely difficult for us to say that we find this act of violence disgusting and unacceptable, that we deeply loathe the politics, strategy, and means of radical Islamists, that we are in pain for the people who have been murdered, but that yet we cannot identify ourselves with Charlie Hebdo.”

    “Extremely difficult”? Just to SAY it? Interesting. Are you hiding in a closet somewhere? Do you know why it’s so difficult for you to say it? Because admitting that there’s a large scale social problem forces you to recognize the outer limits of what is possible with this multicultural belief system, and forces you to recognize the (sad) truth there is no end state of racial harmony coming. But you would rather not say what is obvious, you would rather straddle the fence and cringe this way and that to avoid the naked truth and continue on with your delusions. Instead of acknowledging the obvious – that the French people have an innate right to ensure that their country remains “French” – your solution is to “challenge identities” in your endless quest to annihilate what makes us individuals so that we can all “get along” in your self-serving fantasy-land that aint never gonna happen on this bloody Earth.

    No thanks.

    1. You’re aggressiveness goes far, far beyond the legitimacy of your claims and logic:

      1. The vast, vast majority of muslims in France do not hold a “medieval, extremist version of fundamentalist Islam,” and so don’t need to “lose” that specific “baggage”. You adopt the clash-of-civilizations framework and pretend the sociological evidence supports it when, in fact, it does not. As problematic as the French goals of “integration” are, and as unevenly successful as it has been, particularly regarding education and joblessness, these failures are nearly universally handled non-violently.

      2. You’re confused in what you mean by “civilizations”. Is this is a “breed” determined as “corporeal existence”, a commitment to a religion, or a stable nation or people with cultural commitments beyond religion? The first is scientifically just bullshit. The second is reductive in the extreme. The third assumes a homogeneity entirely discredited by even a shred of historical knowledge, particularly in the French context.

      3. You can’t see beyond your far-right critique of liberal-multiculturalism to read what the author is actually saying. She isn’t concerned with challenging identities or policing racist thoughts. She’s showing that the attacks make it increasingly difficult to occupy and develop the space of solidarity between different social and economically situated groups, and that this space is needed to avoid scape-goating minority populations for real economic and social problems.

      4. For that reason, the author really transparently answers her own question: solidarity without identity IS possible, but the attacks make it more difficult. We, and those in France, can find ways to support oppressed communities without denying freedom of speech, and while criticizing some speech as horribly counter-productive and racist. It’s simply not inevitable that the French swing towards the FN because the vast majority of people are capable of recognizing that terrorist actions of a few are not representative of the vast majority.

      5. Reread the “extremely difficult” passage. The author isn’t talking about her powers of locution, she’s clearly talking about the social power of a line of thought, of social analysis. And really, why the personal attack? What do you hope to accomplish by expressing your textually unsound, sociologically unjustified, far-right, anti-intellectual, and racism-clouded version of analysis?

      6. I’ll try to help you for a second. You’re approaching the issue with a radical and false divide: either clash of civilizations or the self-serving-fantasy-land where all get along. Neither is accurate. In fact, there are tensions (some violent) between classes, those claiming religious justification, and lots of other forms of identity, but we also live in a world where its possible (if we find productive strategies for solidarity that don’t obscure historically and socially produced oppressions), to work together to resist exploitation and needless violence. To think otherwise and work with the dichotomy you can’t seem to move beyond is just a lazy unreflected acceptance of a pretty thoroughly discredited ideology.

    2. I appreciate Cinzia’s effort to articulate some of the
      painfully difficult moral complexity of the situation, and I find this type of heated, polemical response to her piece to be destructive- at a time when it is essential to find a way up keeping a space open for careful reflection and deliberation,
      your comment does the opposite.

      I have no difficulty condemning the violent and brutal acts
      of the Islamist terrorists in Paris, and I agree with Cinzia that to impose the narrative of the “clash of civilizations” on these events is problematic. Yes, the perpetrators of these acts need to be captured, tried and punished accordingly, and yes, we can and should express solidarity with the French during these difficult times. But if, as Cinzia suggest, adopting the slogan “We are all French” means expressing solidarity with a “specific version of French national identity which is being mobilized
      to oppress those French citizens who cannot possibly identify with it.” This is indeed problematic.

      I also agree with Cinzia that one of the sad things is that
      the Islamic terrorists’ actions in Paris appear to have been successful in achieving their goals of intensifying the conflict and further polarizing French society, just as Hamas’ recent actions in Gaza were largely successful in accomplishing their objectives (Netanyahu is currently delighted that the
      recent events in Paris may take some of the heat of Israel).

      I would, however, appreciate it if Cinzia would clarify what
      she means by the following statement (which seems to me somewhat ambiguous): “This tiny space, the space for a solidarity capable of challenging identities, rather than reinforcing or restating them, for a solidarity that does not need the affirmation of a common identity to express itself”

      Is she saying what we should aspire to is a space within
      which we can establish a sense of solidarity that relinquishes distinct national or ethnic identities? Is she saying we should aspire to form of solidarity that recognizes the inevitability
      of a diversity of distinct identities (and the inevitability of resulting tensions and conflicts), and yet at the same
      time, somehow transcends these differences?

      This would seem to me to be a crucial point to clarify.

      1. Thank you, Jeremy, for your comment. Let’s say that my position is in the middle, between the two you have so clearly expressed. On the one hand, I think we should be wary of fetishitic conceptions of ‘identity’, which tend to crystallize them (as in the nasty comment above, which conflates biology, religion, and culture in a rather puzzling – and offensive – way). Unfortunately the attack against Charlie Hebdo reinforces this pattern, in that it helps to create a narrative in which there is a clear and homogenous European identity (which, unhistorically to say the least, excludes Islam), on the one hand, and a clear and homogenous Muslim identity, on the other. Nothing of this is true and we should challenge this oversemplification. This answers also the comment by Dora667: after the Arab revolutions can be really still credibly say that the right to disobey is a distinctively European or American or French legacy? Why should we conflate the defense of the right to disobey, which is crucial, with a specific national identity, in this case the French one? Was France defending the right to disobey when it colonized, oppressed millions of people and killed hundreds of thousand of them in Algeria or Indochine? No. So for me to say ‘we are all French’ does not equate to say ‘we defend the right to disobey’.
        On the other hand, specific historical and social processes do create identities: which are historically situated and transformable. So, what I have in mind is a solidarity that 1. does not crystallize identities and does not support fetishistic unhistorical visions of them and of their conflict; 2. does, however, recognize that some identities, as historical situated, flexible, and transformable exist and that there is a history to them; 3. does not presuppose that we need to have a common identity as a starting point, but is capable of aknowledging differences, which should not prevent us from being in solidarity; and 4. finally hopefully open a path for a mutual transformation. An antiracist and anti-islamophobic movement in Europe at this moment would be an example of such a path. Unfortunately Europe has been playing the card of the European identity in xenophobic terms for the last 20 or so years, even rewriting history in the same process. I’m an ancient philosophy scholar: we would not have had Aristotle in the Latin Middle Ages without the Arabs. It’s a very tiny example, but it is an example of something Europeans like to forget.

        1. Dear Cinzia, I realize I am very late at engaging with your response. I apologize for that. I understand that a lot has happened since our original comments were posted and that the words we uttered months ago may sound incompatible with our present selves. Yet, in reading your comment from six months ago I feel like pointing out: 1- I never said or implied that “the right to disobey is a distinctively European or American or French legacy.” I only meant to convey the “right” many of us were defending while supporting Charlie Hebdo, that is, the right to mock, confront, expose, and ridicule *ideas* one does not agree with. But this does not imply that we assume or expect the right to disobey to be a prerogative of France or the West. I honestly don’t understand why you made that connection based on my comment. The right to disobey, which, as you pointed out above is definitely a crucial type of right, is a universal right that is indeed exercised everywhere in the world. My point was simply that, in France, Charlie was a great example of such exercise. 2- I completely agree with you when you question the tendency to treat identity as a fixed, “clear and homogeneous” human trait. And I can provide links to a few articles I read from Charlie Hebdo where the columnists themselves subscribed to this understanding. This is why, in enforcing “disobedience” they did not attack Muslims but the religious dogmas that so many (Muslims and non-Muslims) assume to be the essential and defining discourse informing what it means *to be a Muslim* in France today. In my view, assuming that doing this is inherently offensive also implies a certain condoning of the assumption that *all* Muslims endorse a dogmatic approach to identity. 3- Regarding your point: “Why should we conflate the defense of the right to disobey, which is crucial, with a specific national identity, in this case the French one?” – I have already pointed out that I do not think such a conflation is desirable, but I also want to add that neither did Charlie Hebdo. For anyone familiar with their work it was quite clear that they mocked and despised the mainstream understanding of “french identity,” as they sharply and consistently criticized the connotation of the concept as used in French society. Many of the dead cartoonists publicly opposed and criticized the dreadful actions the *state* of France carried out in Indochine and Algeria, which takes me to point 4- “Was France defending the right to disobey when it colonized, oppressed millions of people and killed hundreds of thousand of them in Algeria or Indochine?” – Certainly, the state did not defend said right, but that does not mean that citizens did not. The dead staff from Charlie Hebdo were among said citizens, and this is why they do not deserve to be fused to the state and the colonialist spirit they so vehemently and systematically worked to challenge. I hope this exposition helps to place my original comment in perspective.

    3. The idea of homogenous societies is a modern one, connected with the creation of nation states. History books do not agree with your kind of point of view, which naturalizes a given social trait, ignoring the huge variations that have occurred through history.
      you are an essentialist, evidence is not important to you.

      1. Excellent! Not only is social homogeneity a modern idea, but it is also a hopelessly and dangerously utopian idea.

  2. In all this “I defend freedom of speech” circus, my 20 cents is that “hate speech” is the name given to blasphemy in the West – you are punished and go to prison just the same for your speech, even if the state can’t kill you (overtly).When people tell you that what you do is “blasphemy” OR “hate speech”, they engage in a serious act of oppression towards you – the suppression of your most fundamental right to speak. Charlie Hebdo supporters and the French dislike freedom of speech as much as the next imam or idiot.

    On Tuesday, a French cartoonist is to go on trial for his speech in France. Contrary to many people, and despite their ridiculous chest beating, I don’t see the Charlie cartoonists or the French or the West as any great defenders of freedom of speech. And given that it is one of the most
    fundamental issues in any society, it is a pity that our mass media don’t have more intelligent debates on the matter.

    Maybe one silver lining in this tragedy is that there may be a bit of debate as a result, as I have had the opportunity to read now several very thoughtful articles and opinion pieces taking on multiple aspects involved in the Charlie Hebdo incident – like the fact that Charlie will now be funded by the govt. The little mouthpiece certainly got its reward for its dirty work to stoke the flames of racist hatred and will continue to do so.

    But first things first, scrap away with these “hate speech” censorship laws and then come tell me how
    much people support freedom of speech in the West. And you can scrap away with the laws about speech that deems to violate privacy of public figures while you’re at it. Freedom of speech is freedom of speech.

    1. Good point. These moral-political values are so often invoked as righteous absolutes where really they may just be dressings for other things, things which lend themselves much less readily to valorization…

  3. Excellent essay. I too feel very much “pushed into a corner”. I live in France now and have been doing a lot of thinking and feeling over the last few days. I’ll report more in due course, but for the time being I wanted to congratulate you on encapsulating some of the most central things going on.

Leave a Reply