In the classic 1966 film Battle of Algiers, Ali, a young, illiterate, unemployed bricklayer and draft dodger is arrested in Algiers for petty street crimes (he is a card swindler). In jail, Ali meets, unbeknownst to him, a member of the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) who recruits him after his release by putting a gun in his hand to see if he will shoot a French policeman in broad daylight. Ali passes the test (though the FLN has him fire blanks) and Battle of Algiers unfolds as a biography of a movement seeking its historic anti-imperialist mission in the deposition of French rule.
We now know that at least two of the dead Muslim men who shot and killed a total of 17 French citizens last week—12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo, a French policeman, and four Jewish hostages at a kosher market—were introduced to political terrorism in French jails. According to the New York Times, Cherif Kouachi, a poor, unemployed, petty criminal, was in prison when he meet a French-Algerian jihadist, Djamel Beghal, who had plotted to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001. While in prison Cherif Kouachi also recruited a young thief named Amedy Coulibaly, who was the suspect named responsible for the violence at the Kosher market. From reports, it is now clear that Kouachi was part of a Muslim youth group in the 19th arrondisement of Paris that was a “pipeline” for fighters volunteering to go to Iraq to fight against the U.S. after the 2003 invasion.
The most striking points of resemblance between the Ali who will lead an anti-colonial struggle in the Battle of Algiers, and Cherif Kouachi, who will lead a murderous attack on the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, are as follows: they were both working class young men, recruited in jail, and they were both motivated to fight the imperial west. As Juan Cole has reported, Cherif’s political education included long study of images of the U.S. war in Iraq and pictures of U.S. political torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Cherif said, “It was everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that, which motivated me.”
The striking difference, that makes all the difference in the world, is that Ali, in the film, was recruited in prison by a leader of the FLN to fight in a mass struggle against French colonialism. While Cherif, in real life, as shown by Juan Cole, was recruited by Farid Benyettou, who “ran a recruitment ring targeting young French Muslims that sent them to fight US troops in Iraq” while training them in hard line Salafi schools.
It is as if we are watching a rerun of the Battle of Algiers, with one thing missing. In this alternate universe rerun of the film, we have in place the looming arc of French/Western imperialism, the poverty and racism contaminating working class lives in the colonies and elsewhere, a State ready to pounce upon the figure of the migrant and the marginal and incarcerate him/her. We have all that in place. Except we don’t have a mass political movement led by the FNL that rocked imperialism. Unfortunately, this rerun is not in an alternate universe. For the conditions that produced the first are woefully similar to those that produced the second. Indeed, more than 40 years after the end of ‘formal’ French colonial rule in Algiers—from which the Kouachi brothers and their families migrated—fully 60 percent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslim.
In this essay, we want to make the simple point that while the terms of imperialism have changed since the so-called “colonial era,” the historical conditions that produce anti-imperialism remain largely the same. Across the global south, especially, the historical pull of what Tariq Ali calls “foot soldiers” to the disasters of western imperial wars remains as permanent as the name Paris.
The bankrupt rhetoric of the ‘Civilized West’
In the wake of the brutal assault upon the journalists at Charlie Hebdo we should be reflecting, not as François Hollande and other world leaders advise us to, on the attack on free speech, but on two things: First, which spaces and kinds of resistance have been foreclosed to a generation of young working class men and women facing a post 9/11 world of poverty, unemployment and repeated attacks of the West upon predominantly Muslim countries; and: Second, how the attack on Charlie Hebdo by a handful of criminals is being used to serve an already existing imperial narrative of the Enlightened West vs. the ‘Barbaric’ Muslim.
The concrete consequences of this narrative are born by innocent Muslims and people of color in the working class districts of Paris, Delhi and Gaza alike.
To the first: the end of the anti-colonial era was followed immediately by the not so rosy dawn of neoliberalism. Quickly, Arab nationalism gave way to Gulf capitalism; the always bourgeois PLO gave way to the neoliberal Palestine Authority. Simultaneously, the Arab working-class suffered a set of quintessential neoliberal losses compounded by what might be called the economic shock doctrine brought on by the likes of World Bank and IMF that came with the end of colonialism and the beginning of the neoliberal era. Thus, before any fruits of decolonization could be fully enjoyed, the working class of the global south found itself living under a newly configured or neo-colonial imperialism in which one time Arab national leaderships became neoliberal partners with their former adversaries in the West. This has left the Arab and Muslim working classes of the world in a tight squeeze: caught between an ideological war on “Islam”, waged by the likes of George Bush and Tony Blair, and a brutally violent global regime of labor discipline, wealth extraction, employment contingency and proletarian precariousness. Before he took up Kalashnikovs against Charlie Hebdo, Cherif Kouachi worked as a pizza delivery man, shop assistant and fishmonger.
To point two: enter this past week’s narrative of Enlightenment renewal. Jeremy Scahill has rightly called the ‘unity march’ in Paris last Sunday a ‘circus of hypocrisy.’ It is precisely to offer ‘freedom without bread’ that neoliberal statesmen and blood-soaked tyrants like Benjamin Netanhayu linked arms in the French dusk, to chase into dark corners of history ‘unruly’ disturbances like the Occupation of Palestine, the catastrophes of global uneven economic development, the assymetrical loss of Black and Brown life across the planet (from Ferguson to Nigeria), the gutting of freedom of speech in the unified western campaign against ‘whistle blowers’ like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Glenn Greenwald, not to mention the 15 dead journalists, most of them Muslim, some deliberately targeted by Israel, as the Israeli state admits, in this summer’s Gaza massacre.
Which way Forward for the Modern ‘Ali’?
Given this set of historical circumstances, what is the present day ‘Ali’ to do if he wants to oppose empire? A first possibility is suggested by the haunting 2013 film Caché. In Michael Haneke’s film, a French-Algerian man named Magid is accused of terrorizing a bourgeois white family for whom his parents once worked. The accusation, or rather the suspicion, is that he is sending surveillance videos of their home to this white family (a brilliant, caustic inversion of colonial surveillance). In Caché, the solution to the continued legacy of colonialism and racism is, however, entirely personal, and entirely self-destructive: Magid commits suicide in the presence of his former white employer. Here, the annihilation of the self is seen as a no-exit strategy for coping with an endless neo-colonial world.
The second trajectory is the one that has now been tragically acted out by the Koauchi brothers and their accomplice. This is obviously no path that a global Left wants to endorse, even as it understands the context for the path and how it was laid. Al Qaeda and ISIS are not fighting for a world free of oppression and exploitation. They are reactionary sectarian groups, themselves the fruits of Western imperialism, who seek to replace it with other authoritarian alternatives.
It is precisely because such reactionary outfits like Al Qaeda perhaps appear as fighters against western imperialism to the likes of the Kouachi brothers that we should discuss the context of racism and imperialism that helped recruit them. The presence of Guantanamo, the realities of the endless wars in the Middle East, the brutal drone strikes—all help fertilize the ground for recruiting the dispossessed to such organizations because they are the ones who face the real devastating consequences of such policies and wars.
We understand that Charlie Hebdo had a history of mocking the powerful. We also understand that given the context we outline above, the other strain present in the magazine, that of racism and Islamophobia, did nothing to shake the powerful whom these journalists may have truly despised. Instead, such racist images had the effect of mocking the powerless and strengthening the tendencies and ideas in French society that kept the powerful in power.
The third path out of this tragedy, we would argue, is the only resolution to this question that we should endorse: the path taken by the millions who made the Arab Spring. When millions of Egyptians fought the forces of the state on the streets of Cairo, or when thousands of Palestinians fight against Israeli Occupation, they follow a path not just fundamentally different from the one taken by the Kouachi brothers or ISIS but one opposed to it. This last strategy strikes a blow at the material interests of imperialism and thereby is, arguably, far more frightening to the likes of Netanyahu and Hollande than the threat posed by the gunmen at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. This is because such a strategy can recruit the future Alis of the world not only to fighting imperialism, but also to rejecting the social relations that create the need for Empire, i.e. the imperatives of neoliberal Capital.
This is why, in the days ahead, our immediate task ought to be fighting against the realities of Islamophobia and for the long term, fighting for the realization of a new Arab Spring.
Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian History at Purdue University, author of The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2005) and a long time activist for Palestinian justice. She is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.
Bill V. Mullen is a professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author or editor of several books and is on the national advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).