Nick Cohen on Charlie Hebdo, cowardice, and the regressive left

December 17, 2015 • 1:00 pm

Since the death of Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen is the closest thing we have to a latter-day Orwell. It’s refreshing to read him amidst the flatulent apologetics of Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, and other blame-the-Westers who argue that every terrorist act, every malevolent deed of ISIS and Al Qaeda, is the fault of colonialism, and those deeds include the repression of women and the murder of gays, Yazidis, apostates, and Shia Muslims. (The latter acts can also be excused as aspects of Muslim “culture”.)

In a new and longish piece in Standpoint, “Shame on the liberals who rationalize terror” (access free), Cohen tells it like it is, heaping scorn on those Leftists who cower before Islam while refusing to cower before Catholicism or any other faith. I’m still under the weather, but that’s convenient because Cohen’s piece speaks for itself, rife with his usual eloquence and clear thinking. I’ll give just one excerpt. The piece takes off from some mealymouth remarks uttered by John Kerry after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, more or less implying that the writers and cartoonists brought it on themselves.

Instead of encouraging Muslims to break with extremism, we left liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims isolated. We adopted the language of the extremists, and censored the very arguments they needed to use against fundamentalism. Instead of damning religious totalitarianism, we invented rationales that obscured rather than enlightened.

As John Kerry showed, anyone can play the game. You can say the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were a rational response to American support for Saudi Arabia and Israel. If America wanted to be safe, it should stop supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel. The British Left claimed that the 7/7 attacks on London were a rational response to British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t true: Mohammad Sidique Khan, the terrorist cell’s leader, was training in Islamist camps long before the Iraq war. Nevertheless, the point still held: you can suppose that Western foreign policy provides a “rationale” for Muslims who become terrorists. You can say, as John Kerry implied, that if Charlie Hebdo had steered clear of Islam, it would never have been bombed. You can say that Jews would not be targets if they renounced Judaism. You can say that Islamic State would not have attacked Paris if the French had stayed out of Syria. You can say that the existence of Israel explains Hamas. You can say that IS would not treat Yazidi women as sex slaves if they had embraced its version of Sunni Islam. You can say there is a rationale for the Iranian subjugation of its Sunni minority and the Saudi subjugation of its Shia minority, for both are potentially dangerous to their respective states. You can say that Muslim countries would not persecute homosexuals if they went straight, or order the death of apostates if they remained good Muslims. There is no limit to the number of reasons you can find. Every time you rationalise, however, you miss the obvious and ignore an often openly fascistic ideology whose appeal lies in its supernatural certainties and totalitarian promise of a new heaven on earth.

Every step you take in explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.

Indeed. Read the whole piece; you’ll like it—that is, if you’re not an Aslanophile or Greenwaldian.

52 thoughts on “Nick Cohen on Charlie Hebdo, cowardice, and the regressive left

  1. How’s about a bit of blasphemy for Christmas?

    Nick Cohen wrote this as a tee-off from the publication of Caroline Fourest’s English edition of ‘Éloge du Blasphème’ – In Praise of Blasphemy, recommended by Rushdie.

    Scandalously, she could not find an English language publisher in book form. Personne n’est Charlie. So it’s here on Amazon or-itunes. (A fellow Brit tells me that they can’t get the Amazon version in Britain).

    Caroline Fourest: ex-Charlie Hebdo journalist and French ‘laïciste’, activist journalist, but in a good way.

  2. My belief has been that the liberal response to Islamic terrorism is equally if not more dangerous than that of the Donald Trump’s of the world. This essay confirms my belief.

    1. “My belief has been that the liberal response to Islamic terrorism is equally if not more dangerous than that of the Donald Trump’s of the world.”

      That group of liberals equates any response not in lockstep with theirs as no better than Donald Trumps.

  3. I found this to be shockingly irresponsible strawmanning. The idea that Kerry thinks the murders are justified is ludicrous on its face. The witness is thus impeached at the gate. Recognizing that the enemy likes symbolic attacks against critiques of their culture does not imply shared justification. It’s just the weather report.

    If I wanted to read rants by people reacting to imagined slights, and putting words in folks’ mouths, I’d be reading PZ comment sections instead.

    There was a nugget of goodness in the segment quoted here – but the outrage obscures what could have been an interesting exercise in when to call shenanigans on the propaganda. The framing of ‘just stop being who you are’ distinguishes the truth of a tribal oppressor from the ostensible freedom fighter quite nicely.

    1. Seems to me you are the one strawmanning here. All I saw in the above piece was what CLEARLY happened: Kerry was only implying that the Islamists had a rational response to their supposed predicament. Not that he said they were “justified”. Have fun over at the swamp.

      1. I’m loath to admit it, but Nick Cohen was definitely strawmanning when he began to imply that John Kerry’s comment was made in response to the attack on a Kosher shop in Paris. His entire rant about Kerry’s supposed rationalizing of murdering of Jews is a dark fantasy.

        Other than that, it’s a very good piece.

    2. Oh, I think Cohen probably gives Kerry’s statement an uncharitable reading. A more charitable interpretation might be that Kerry meant only that the November Paris attacks were even more chaotic and incomprehensible than the Charlie Hebdo shootings because they lacked a discernible motive. Even so, it was a thoughtless way for the American Sec State to speak about the earlier massacre.

      In any event, the Kerry bit was merely an anecdote launching Cohen’s lede. His argument is just as cogent and solid without it.

  4. I especially like that last paragraph about how the “extremadationists” bend over backwards to see how terrorist actions are not the fault of the terrorists.

  5. Nick Cohen nails it — and nails his thesis to the door for all to see, accusing some in the west of selling indulgences to Islamists in a futile effort to secure an illusory safety.

    1. Nice analogy, Ken. There’s a lot of nailing theses to the door going on these days, the Muslim reform Movement springs to mind.

      In answer to Michael above. Firstly, I am sure I am not the only who doesn’t understand what he is talking about and I would put a couple of bob on him not understanding it either. But he seems to be saying that there is not a problem with western analyses of Islamist terrorism.

      Yet there is. One only has to look at the range across the political spectrum from left to right. Take the crypto-Islamist Salma Yaqoob formerly of Galloway’s UK Respect Party, who described London 7/7 as ‘reprisals’: ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone who talked about the 7/7 bombers ‘giving their lives’; the ironically-named Stop the War coalition who wrote of ‘reaping the whirlwind’ after the Paris Bataclan attacks; Owen Jones who calls ISIS ‘pathetic’ as if ISIS are naughty schoolboys; Simon Jenkins ex-Head of the UK National Trust who wrote of Paris, ‘The killings did not threaten the integrity of any state.’

      What characterizes huge sections of western thought is the isolationist idea that liberal values are not worth defending or that they are not so good after all. So you have Gaddafi’s Libya and Saudi Arabia heading UN Human Rights Councils, an assumption of hypocrisy at the heart of western intentions, an inability to countenance the value of one idea over another, the disappearance from view of the millions of Muslims held hostage by political Islam and a refusal to examine particular doctrines in Islam.

      There are 2 opposite reactions going on. Firstly, not taking seriously the ideology of political Islam, ignorance of its independent emergence in the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism/Salafism and the denial of its uneasy coalition with Saddam before the 2nd Iraq war. And secondly, which is a function of the first, the widespread assumption in the west that the rise of political Islam is ‘our’ fault.

      So that terrorists are infantilized, they are ‘pathetic’, but not responsible for their actions and even when they do shoot up the playground, well we have just taught them badly. This is masochism.

      There is a further corollary. I predict the spread of this idea: that the west should have no influence on the Middle East conflagration. You can already see that notion at the periphery in the ideas of Glenn Greenwald, Abby Martin et al: the journalist/activists who always tell us what should not be done, but who neglect to inform us what should be done. You can see it in the hesitant lack of strategic overview from Obama, Hollande and Cameron about the military and political response to ISIS, to what the end-game is. And to their muted response to the support of Putin and Iran for Assad’s daily atrocities in what we could now probably describe as a genocide.

      History will not look kindly on this generation as we react with facebook posts condemning incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry in the west: while it records the re-emergence of Slave-states, Shi’ism spread from the western border of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast, Wahhabism consolidate in the Gulf and Putin expand to the south.

  6. Thank goodness we are hearing more about how supporting non liberal ideas espoused by terrorists and extremists isolate liberal Muslims!

    1. And particularly apostates who leave Islam to become agnostics and atheists. I think it is disgrace how our states and societies betray these people. If they are threatened by extremist Muslims, their safety must be highest government priority. Instead, they are pushed to ensure their safety themselves by staying quiet and submitting to Islam. And in the USA, according to some polls I’ve read, atheists are disliked as much as fundamentalist Muslims. I think this does not encourage the integration of Muslim immigrants at all, because the highway of integration is secularism.

  7. Not considering NY Times op-ed column space limitations, I wonder if the NYT would allow Cohen to express these thoughts in its august publication.

  8. The bottom line is that general anti-Muslimic sentiment is used to justify “the war on terrorism” and some of the US’ foreign policy in the Middle East. Furthermore, most Muslims could live in the US without actively plotting to kill civilians or plan some insurrection. Those Muslims should not be demonized. Islamic demonization only distracts one from assessing the potential impact of Western foreign policy through the region, and one should not forget the West supports Saudi Arabia, supports the Islamist “moderate rebels” in Syria who kill Christians, and supported the original freedom fighters, the Mujahideen.

    Who cares if most Western Muslims hold reactionary attitudes (about freedom of speech and family life) as long as they do not commit acts of terrorism? Many conservative Americans also hold similar attitudes too, but they are not regarded as a threat to national security. I said “if” because I do not know to what degree “Western values” influence the political and social values of Muslims in the West.

    I may also detest Iran’s domestic policies, but I would support interfering and undermining its political system, since I am an anti-imperialist that respects Westphalian sovereignty. Who cares about Iran (aside from being informed about its domestic politics) if its policies do not affect us?

    I am most certainly not “pro-Islam” since I am a fan of the Soviet Union, and the Western-back Islamists helped its collapse. Marxist-Leninists obviously have little sympathy towards Islamism, and I do not have any sympathy towards Islamism.

    I don’t like Orwell at all. I do not care for the concept of “totalitarianism”.

    1. Black_Rose, to take some of your points in order.

      Yep, the west supported the Mujahideen in the 1979 Afghan war: so did, Turkey, so did China and 32 other countries. Now, what are you to do about them? And yes, it’s true that western support for Saudi Arabia defiles western foreign policy and the sooner it decouples from the Gulf States the quicker the west will be able to run on its own track.

      The problem with Islamic attitudes in the west is this. Only last week I discussed with a conservative US Muslim that very question. And he concluded that sharia takes precedence over the US constitution: now that’s a problem. Here in the UK, for example we have sharia courts, cases of forced marriage and thousands of incidences of FGM. Now they are all illegal and traceable to Islamic doctrine. And in the case of sharia courts they besmirch the public discourse and space. The Law Society and the CofE at one point supported their introduction before widespread protest. So Islamic doctrine undermines the liberal value of one law for all. You would have to go to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s foundation to find out how similar attempts might be made in the US.

      On Iran’s foreign policy, you are factually wrong. It is now engaging in its own imperialism. It supports militarily and politically Bashar al-Assad, thus creating the refugee crisis. So it does affect us. As a Marxist-Leninist, you should know that Tudeh (the Communist Party of Iran) actively supported Khomeini’s rise to power: as in Nazi Germany, it sloganized ‘First Khomeini, then us’. That went well. The USSR and ex-USSR had history in supporting Islamism: remember Saddam’s ‘Faith Campaign’, his 1990s turn towards the Islamization of Iraq? Well, the USSR and ex-USSR states provided 57% of Saddam’s weapons from 1973-2002. The US? 0.46%. The UK? 0.18%.

      Neither the US nor the ex-USSR come up smelling of roses when it comes to relations with Islamism. Whether or not you ‘care for the concept of totalitarianism’ is beside the point: Islam, in the Koran, presents itself as the final word of God, the final solution, the instruction manual for all of life: a total answer. The problem for us is the extent to which how many Muslims believe that is actually true. And a disturbing number do.

      1. he concluded that sharia takes precedence over the US constitution: now that’s a problem

        Nope. Its a problem when someone takes their ideology and decides to commit violent or illegal actions to promote it. Committing legal actions to promote it, not a problem. In fact the existence of such groups and disagreements is exactly why the US set up our system of democracy the way we did: to allow people with very different ideas of how government should be run to live together peacefully.

        Communists? Not a problem. Red Brigades? Problem.

        Animal Rights groups? Not a problem. ALF? Problem.

        Environmentalists? Not a problem. ELF? Problem.

        Anti-war leftists? Not a problem. Weather Underground? Problem.

        Anti-left conservatives? Not a problem. Tim McVeigh? Problem.

        Pro-life advocates? Not a problem. Scott Roeder (George Tiller’s assassin)? Problem.

        Jews who want to form their own communities? Not a problem. East Ramapo school council unconstitutionally gutting the school budget and shifting the money to private Hasidic schools? Problem.

        The exact same logic applies in the case of Muslim citizens who desire sharia. Sharia supporters? Not a problem. Anyone who commits violence or unconstitutional rights restrictions in the name of sharia promotion? Problem.

        All of these case should make it clear that what we need to fight against is violent expressions of ideologies. If we viewed any ideology that could or has produced violent members, then practically every single ideology on the US political spectrum would be “a problem.” Because they’ve pretty much all produced such people at different times.

        1. I disagree with you that we should not care about the views prevalent in a demographic group which in now expanding fast in every Western country.
          I also disagree that the views of pro-lifers are not a problem. It is these views that have led to the creeping withdrawal of abortion services across the USA, and it is these views that produce a small but reliably existing proportion of terrorists.

          1. Agree re “pro-lifers”. The consequent reduced access to abortion services, the campaign against Planned Parenthood … definitely problems.

            Also re Sharia. Sharia is like homeopathy; it stands in the way of people getting proper legal redress (medical attention). See the “One Law for All” campaign in the UK.


          2. We should argue against those views — with all the vehemence we can muster. We should not prohibit or punish the expression of those views. That is the crucial distinction.

        2. “Nope. Its a problem when someone takes…”

          What do we mean when we say “not a problem”?

          If you mean “should not be illegal or restricted by government” than that is something I might agree with. If you mean “is not something to oppose” then that is quite another thing.

          I am opposed to the majority of the Republican platform. I will demonstrate and work to counter the ugly activities of anti-choice religious nuts. I will oppose those who undermine the economic interests of the vast bulk of the people in my country. I will oppose the stupidity of creationist ideas.

          I will make no apology for my advocacy because I have a problem with those bad ideas and activities.

        3. Eric, you were not privy to my conversation with the conservative Islamist. It started with my asking, “Sharia conditions being met and in an ideal Islamic state, would you want to introduce sharia as the constitution of the US?”

          After 2 hours of hedging my interlocutor finally could not say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a simple closed question and one could only runically infer his preference for Sharia over the US constitution. Now, that’s bad faith and one wonders what other of his ideas he preferred to keep hid.

          Now Sharia is a legal system and we know that there are illegal courts in the UK, mainly in family law, which effectively terrorize women and generally treat them as second-class citizens. We don’t need to go into details.

          In the US, according to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation via the Tahirih Justice Centre, there have been 3,000 known or suspected forced (not arranged) marriages over a 2 year period. FGM, as Heather Hastie has pointed out, is obligatory in 2 schools of Sunni Islam and recommended in the other 2. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 513,000 women and girls are at risk, a quadrupling since 1997: no doubt other ideologies apart from Islamism may be responsible, but we still have to acknowledge the link between Islam and FGM. FGM is not a crime in 26 US states.

          So yes, Eric, I take your point about the violent expression of ideologies. Yet, it’s more than that. Sharia encapsulates ideas which are not necessarily violent: the word of a woman being half that of a man, the misogynist inheritance laws, the jizya tax on non-Muslims, the fact that one of the 5 pillars, charity, applies in principle and mostly in deed, to Muslims only, the idea that charity should only be administered to Muslims. Now how much of that do you think my conservative Islamic interlocutor would agree with? And how much, given his reluctance to answer direct questions, would we think he actually practises?

          So when I described his preference for sharia over the US constitution as a problem, I don’t think I’m overstating it.

      2. I support Assad, and I do not have a negative impression of Khomeini regarding foreign policy, but, of course, he was reactionary.

        I don’t believe that statistic about Saddam’s weapons, especially since Iraq was the US’ key ally during the Iran-Iraq. And such an alliance would require some material support during a protracted and bitter war.

        And he concluded that sharia takes precedence over the US constitution

        Who cares, as long as he does not infringe upon other people’s liberties or harms them or subjects women and children in abusive relationships? He is probably as reactionary as some far-right Catholics and Protestants here, but one’s that do not commit violence.

        Female genital mutilation does pose a problem, and it does not seem to be something that one embracing liberal principles could turn a blind eye to. Maybe the answer is more stringent laws against it that would not exempt Muslims because of their religion. After all, the progressive reforms of the Afghan socialists and Taraki violated the interests of the conservative elite and encroach upon their domains. Also, I do not think that the Soviets would be too friendly concerning female genital mutilation.

        1. Umm. . .you’re supporting a man who used chemical weapons against his own people, killing innocent civilians (including many children). He did that deliberately; it was not an accident. So please tell us why you support such a monster.

          1. Assad is supported by his people. Assad is an anti-imperialist.

            The evidence linking Assad to the sarin attacks in Ghouta is tenuous. I really do not mind the use of chlorine (if Assad could be implicated in that); it is just not a militarily effective gas.

            I don’t know about the “Caesar” photos. But pessimistic metainduction (I am scientific antirealist) would make me suspicious and reminds me of other informers, such as “Curveball”. It is quite odd that the Assad government would assign a military forensic photographer to take pictures of the government’s own torture victims. I thought that governments conducting such vile actions would want to maintain plausible deniability, and instead of providing hard evidence of those atrocities in their files, they would just use euphemistic phrases to refer to torture and death.

          2. It was sarin, not chlorine. And if they wanted to blame the other side, yes, they’d pretend that the other side did it. Assad is a monster, and LOTS of “his” people don’t support him. You know that, so don’t pretend otherwise. Don’t bother to reply.

          3. The Ghouta attack involved sarin, but there were other attacks that involved chlorine.

            Chlorine is just not militarily effective.

        2. Black_Rose, the Iraq arms sales figures come from, quoting the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also mentioned in Nick Cohen’s ‘What’s Left?’ I am not in the habit of making things up.

          The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980-88. The US did not re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq until 1983 after a 16 year gap due to the fallout from the 1967 Six Day War. It is generally agreed that US foreign policy on the Iran-Iraq war was to prolong it rather than to support Saddam. The US was not Saddam’s ‘key ally’: a rapprochement certainly, but late to the game.

          I’ve answered the points about Sharia in the US elsewhere.

          On the Soviets’ antipathy to FGM, I am sorry to disabuse you, but the USSR no longer exists. As far as I know, the Holy Roman Empire didn’t go in for it much either, but I hadn’t considered the need to say it.

          I’ll eschew the delights of further discussing the benefits of Assadism and Khomeiniism with you.

          1. Of course, the US wanted a Phyrric victory for Iraq. But $200 million in materiel support seems dubiously low in order to ensure a Phyrric victory. Total victory on the part of Saddam was undesirable.

            You should also note that the US provided Iraq with some clout regarding the use of chemical weapons and provide intelligence to the Iraqis (and also to the Iranians). I may have to concede to you that “key ally” may be inept wording.


            Perhaps Juan Cole isn’t liked here.

            The Reagan Administration secretly decided to provide highly classified intelligence to Iraq in the spring of 1982 — more than two years earlier than previously disclosed — while also permitting the sale of American-made arms to Baghdad in a successful effort to help President Saddam Hussein avert imminent defeat in the war with Iran, former intelligence and State Department officials say.

            The American decision to lend crucial help to Baghdad so early in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war came after American intelligence agencies warned that Iraq was on the verge of being overrun by Iran, whose army was bolstered the year before by covert shipments of American-made weapons.

            The New York Times and others reported last year that the Reagan Administration secretly decided shortly after taking office in January 1981 to allow Israel to ship several billion dollars’ worth of American arms and spare parts to Iran. That intervention and the decision to aid Iraq directly in 1982 provide evidence that Washington played a much greater role than was previously known in affecting the course of the long and costly Iran-Iraq war. U.S. Asserted Neutrality


            Israel was not even listed on Randall Parker’s site, so it must be one of those “off-balance sheet special purpose vehicles” so the shipments would not be considered “arms purchases”.

            Several billion is more than $200 billion. Also, there was a relationship supporting Iraq before 1983.

          2. I apologize for sounding snarky with the Juan Cole remark, but it may seem he would be regarded somewhat contemptuously in the sense the Reza Aslan is. He does perceive the current Iranian regime with some sympathy as I do.

    2. A “fan” of the Soviet Union? Really? Let’s hope it’s lonely in your rooting section. A fan of the empire that produced three decades of the paranoia and purges of Joseph Stalin? That produced the NKVD, the KGB, and Lavrentiy Beria? That kept its populace under the oppressive yoke — for many, to the point of starvation — of its “five-year plans” and top-down economy? That bred its own bourgeoisie — with upscale Moscow apartments and country dachas — out of its ruling political class? That sent Solzhenitsyn to the gulag, and Sakharov, gagged, into internal exile? That wouldn’t let Pasternak publish? That denied its people free expression and perverted education to ideology?

      Also, why should anyone care if you care for the concept of totalitarianism, or if like Orwell, unless you give reasons for your preferences?

      1. Also, because this is a blog of a biology professor, I’d mention the crazy pseudoscience of Lysenko which lead to a ban on genetics, scientists being charged with “Weissmanism-Mendelism-Morganism” and sent to GULAG. The most prominent Soviet geneticist of that era, Nikolai Vavilov, died in prison.

        From a history of molecular biology: “[Jacques] Monod, who had been a communist during and after the war, broke with the Party after the Lysenko affair.”
        This increased my respect and liking of Monod.

    3. Ok, maybe it’s a little snarky but it certainly doesn’t surprise me that a self identified Marxist wouldn’t like Orwell or the term ‘totalitarian’.

      1. Any self-respecting Marxist shouldn’t be a fan of the Soviet Union, either.

        The Soviet Union was to Marx as the Pentecostal snake-handlers are to Christ.

    4. “Furthermore, most Muslims could live in the US without actively plotting to kill civilians or plan some insurrection.” That’s a low bar for potential immigrants. Welcome, as long as you’re not “actively plotting to kill civilians”.

  9. I agree with him, the main reason for Islamic Terrorism is the proselytisation endemic within Islam and supported by Jihad until the whole Planet is Muslim, all the other stuff is excuses.

  10. I suspect that much of the regressive left’s apologia is motivated by a kind of craven fear (dare I say “phobia?”), whether or not it is recognized or acknowledged, and also a kind of elitist prejudice of low expectations. I prefer Hitchens’ (RIP) frank attacks against the assault on our intellect, culture and freedoms represented by religion (Islam in particular at this juncture), and appreciate the voice that Cohen brings to the table now.

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