Workers Vanguard No. 864
17 February 2006
Racist Anti-Muslim Cartoons Spark Fundamentalist Frenzy
The publishing of a series of anti-Muslim cartoons by the right-leaning Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten—several of which depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a bomb-wielding or Satanic terrorist—was a racist and conscious political provocation of a particularly bourgeois-nationalist and imperialist nature. Throughout Europe, right-wing political parties (such as the Danish Peoples Party) have centered their appeals on anti-immigrant chauvinism, primarily directed against Muslims. Already, a law on the books in Denmark prevents Danes from marrying foreigners until the age of 24. Notably, the cartoons appeared on the eve of a meeting of the European Union (EU) imperialist alliance to discuss the entry of Turkey, with its predominantly Muslim population, into the EU, which Denmark and France, among others, are resisting on a chauvinist basis. The cartoons sought to weld the war on terror—initiated by U.S. imperialism and designed to justify whatever attacks seem necessary to effect increased imperialist domination—to anti-immigrant nationalist demagoguery.
Initially, when the cartoons were published on September 30, they elicited protests only from a few Muslim clerics in Denmark who were exercised over the blasphemous pictorial representations of the founder of Islam, a practice proscribed in any form or with any content by many followers of that religion. Then in late December, the clerics publicized more widely the fact that the cartoons were printed, sparking mass protests throughout the Muslim world led and organized by Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries. These coincided with an effective boycott of Danish goods.
Since the outbreak of protests, the editor of Jyllands-Posten (now on leave supposedly because of excessive stress) has postured as a champion of free speech. Lionized throughout Europe for his supposedly brave stand in defense of freedom of the press, he was soon joined in his struggle when other papers in Europe (e.g., France and Italy) published the cartoons. But his record is anything but heroic and certainly not anti-clerical. In 2003, he rejected a cartoon series on Jesus because of concerns that it would provoke an outcry.
One does not have to be a Marxist to view with contempt and revulsion the hundreds of millions of lives forfeited in the names of the various prophets and their fictional deities—whether they be of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other faith—in wars and communal bloodbaths. Those who pursue religious violence are often driven by the hope for such ecstasies in the afterlife as are typically promised to holy warriors, martyrs and saints. Nor does one need to be a Marxist to appreciate the miserable existence, the forfeiture of human potential of the many, particularly women, bound by religious superstitious constraints. Satire is more than challenged by the depravity of these continuing atrocities. However, one does have to be a revolutionary Marxist to realize that religious superstition and belief will only fade away as human want is conquered through socialist revolution and the creation of a communist society worldwide.
The international proletariat must fight against all anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim chauvinism and provocations. It must demand an end to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and defend those who resist the American military juggernaut while calling for full citizenship rights for immigrants throughout Europe and the U.S. A February 7 letter by Hans Jensen, the President of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions rightly condemns any statement or illustration, which serves to demonise individuals or groups because of their religion or ethnicity, while calling for an end to the boycott of Danish goods.
However, throughout Europe, including in Denmark, the tops of the social democracies and the trade unions—advocates of capitalist reform and opponents of socialist revolution—have more than curtsied to anti-immigrant sentiment, supposedly in the defense of their workers against foreign workers. In reality, this acquiescence to bourgeois reaction vitiates the working class ability to struggle against its capitalist rulers—by dividing the proletariat into its native and immigrant components—while calling into question the historic mission of the working class as the liberator of all humanity.
By contributing to the ghetto-like segregation and isolation of immigrants in European societies, the reformists reinforce the sway of the reactionary Muslim clerics who now lead the protests sweeping Europe and the Near East under banners that proclaim, Kill Those Who Insult Islam, Behead Those Who Insult Islam, and Europe You Will Pay. Your 9/11 Is On Its Way! But for all these bloodcurdling cries, it is the imperialists who dominate militarily and who are daily shooting down the protesters in Afghanistan.
Buoyed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, by the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in recent Egyptian elections, and by the just resistance of the clerical Iranian regime to imperialist efforts to deprive it of the capacity for nuclear weapons, the fundamentalists seek to extend their political power. Notwithstanding the anti-Semitic cartoons that are a regular feature in many Arab newspapers and the campaign by the press in Iran to elicit Holocaust cartoons, it is the Israeli semi-theocratic state that daily murders Palestinians and the imperialists who threaten and are able to starve the Palestinians unless Hamas accepts Israels terms.
At bottom, for all their rhetoric, the fundamentalists direct their demands to the greater and lesser Satans. In the communiqué issued by the December meeting of 57 Muslim nations in Mecca that launched the current wave of protests, the imperialists are beseeched to cease using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions (New York Times, 9 February).
This not very veiled call for anti-blasphemy constraints must be opposed by the international proletariat. Religious impieties should be of no concern to the working class. In Britain, existing anti-blasphemy laws apply only to the Christian faith. Now pending is a bill with some popular support, particularly among Muslims in Britain, to outlaw expressions of religious hatred. Such laws are a danger, and would be used by the state primarily to indict and suppress the opponents of religious reaction.
The politically correct logic that gives support to anti-blasphemy laws was articulated by those liberals who apologized for the 2004 murder of right-wing Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic because he made a film on the wretched condition of women in Islamic countries. The film was made in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee trying to free herself from the constraints of Islamic fundamentalism, who has received numerous death threats. The flip side has been that immigrant leftists and women appalled by the rise of Islamic reaction, and seeing no alternative perspective, have turned more and more to the democratic imperialists and their states for answers—a case in point being Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself, a Dutch parliamentarian who favors Western intervention against Islamic reaction.
Hypocrisy is never too far behind the Wests claims to democracy and civilization. When Martin Scorseses Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988, it was met by howls from the Christian right, and Blockbuster Video refused to circulate the film. When the film came to France, religious fanatics went on a rampage, firebombing one theater where it was showing. And when the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 showed an exhibit by black artist Chris Ofili, a Catholic of Nigerian background, that included a collage titled The Holy Virgin Mary incorporating the use of dry elephant dung (as employed in some kinds of traditional African art), then-NYC-mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to cut millions of dollars in funding and evict the museum.
More recently, the born-again George W. Bush had no qualms about closing down Islamic charities in the U.S. with the impeccably racist and imperialist logic that those victimized in Iraq and Palestine were opponents of America the holy. Nor did he have any qualms about authorizing such indignities and tortures as were (and doubtless still are) perpetrated at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo (where U.S. guards urinated on the Koran). The right-wing American political forces that have been howling about freedom of the press over the cartoon row are the very same forces that want to curtail civil liberties in the U.S. in pursuit of the war on terror and promote the teaching of the religious notion of intelligent design over evolution in public schools.
Though lacking in the same kind of military, political and economic might as the imperialists, the Islamic fundamentalists are no less disposed to bigotry and violence. One can look at the case of Salman Rushdie who was targeted for assassination by a fatwa backed by the Iranian clericalist regime for writing the mildly impious, and quite funny, The Satanic Verses in 1988. The current reactionary mobilizations in the Near East have frequently targeted local Christian populations and places of worship. And in Iraq it is communal violence, primarily between Sunni and Shiite Muslim forces—not the illusory democracy enforced by the imperialist occupation—that will determine which sect will rule. In Algeria, Iran, Jordan and Yemen, several editors and journalists defied the status quo and printed the cartoons, a crime for which they now face prosecution for defaming Islam. An independent political stand by the Near Eastern proletariat would be to demand their immediate freedom.
As Marxists, we are militant atheists. At the same time, we defend the right of all to worship as they please. But we do not defend such practices that enjoin the lives, safety and freedoms that should be accessible to all. We champion the complete separation of church and state.
Although Islamic fundamentalism is achieving ascendance throughout the Muslim world, these are diverse, class-divided and heterogeneous societies where the just reaction to imperialist domination is not always subsumed to religious reaction. In a recent article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly (2 February) Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian American journalist, poignantly describes the dilemma of those not totally enamored of the current demonstrations. If Arabs can be so efficient in organising such popular (and effective) campaigns that utilise economic, political and diplomatic leverage to extract concessions, then why the utter failure to carry out such campaigns protesting against the US war on Iraq, its unconditional support of Israel and its condescending foreign policy and grand democracy charades it wishes to impose on everyone?
Fair question. The fundamentalist mobilizations over the cartoons doubtless articulate pent-up anger at the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the pounding of the Palestinians, the imperialists unholy crusade against Muslims expressed through the war on terror. At the same time, these mobilizations, based on religious fanaticism, are a deflection from what is necessary to fight these very real atrocities.
What about the meaningful problems, magnified tenfold by imperialist subjugation, that face the numerous peoples and societies that constitute the Muslim world? The proximal answer is that the 1991-92 overturn of the bureaucratically degenerated Soviet workers state removed the sole support for a more independent bourgeois-nationalist stance in the Near East. Today, those who rule the regimes of the region are in servile relationship to the imperialist powers, a factor that further fuels reactionary Islamic fundamentalism.
As is pointed out in Trotskys theory of permanent revolution, the ties that bind the national bourgeoisies in the backward countries to the imperialist order are a thousand times stronger than those that tie them to the cause of national liberation. The Stalinized Communist parties of the Near East betrayed their mass base among workers, women and minorities and made a mockery of the struggle for socialist revolution by tailing after the progressive nationalists of the region, such as during the 1958 Iraqi Revolution. For this, they share responsibility for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
It is to be remembered that when the heads of the primarily Germanic tribes that overturned the decaying Roman Empire in the fifth century were in the process of acquiring skills in literacy, if not in hygiene, the early dynamic mercantilism of the Muslim empires, which began their rise in the late seventh century, was the transmission belt for culture and knowledge in the region. In many parts of their empires, most notably Andalusian Spain, the Muslims were known for a certain tolerance for other religions hardly found in barbaric Europe. But it was primarily Europe that spawned the forces that led to the formation of the class basis of modern society, the various nationally based bourgeoisies and the international proletariat.
The early liberating promises of the European bourgeois-democratic revolutions were soon subsumed to the drive for world dominance in pursuit of profits by those nations where capitalism dominated. The imperialist rulers of today do not represent the Enlightenment, rationalism or secularism. To cement their domination, the imperialists have historically backed the forces of religious fundamentalism against godless communism and, at times, even secular nationalism. Beginning in the late 1970s, U.S. imperialism armed and financed Islamic fundamentalist cutthroats fighting against the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan, an intervention that opened the possibility of extending the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples. Soviet leader Gorbachevs criminal withdrawal of troops in 1989 opened the door to the triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR itself, while greatly contributing to the growth of Islamic reaction.
Proletarian power remains the only way forward in the Near East. It is necessary to forge Marxist workers parties in the region to mobilize the working class in struggle to overturn the rule of the imperialists and their lackeys and to begin the liberation of that area from imperialist rule and fundamentalist reaction, a liberation that will be completed only by the world socialist revolution.