The Socialist 9 February 2006 |
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Worldwide 'cartoon' backlash:
Socialists must build a united workers' movement to fight divisions
PUBLICATION of cartoons depicting Mohamed in various European newspapers
has provoked worldwide Muslim protests.
Muslim's protest. Photos by Marc Vallée
The disparaging images have added to the enormous anger amongst
Muslims against Bush's 'war on terror' and the occupation of Iraq.
However, the issue that has sparked off these protests and their
character has renewed discussion about a 'war of civilisations' or of
'cultures'. These developments are a sharp warning of the divisive
tensions that can develop in the absence of a strong workers' movement
offering a socialist alternative.
Millions of Muslims, embittered by the policies of Western
imperialism, have seen these cartoons - which suggests Muslims are
terrorists - as the latest in a long series of provocations and
aggressive acts, not least the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and
the toleration of Israel's settling of more and more Palestinian land in
the West Bank.
In a number of Arab countries the protests have taken on at least a
partial anti-imperialist character, although it appears that the Syrian
regime has, for its own interests, used the protests to give a warning
to the west and at the same time reassert its interests in the Lebanon.
In European countries, including Britain, there is also a groundswell
of resentment amongst Muslims against a perceived increase in
anti-Islamic feelings, greater police surveillance and harassment.
In Denmark, where the cartoons were first provocatively published in
a right wing paper, many Muslims feel threatened by a series of special
tough anti-immigrant laws that have been passed since 2001 by the
This government, which depends upon support from the far-right Danish
People's Party, has banned immigrants under the age of 24 from marrying
and is also excluding from Denmark the husbands or wives of Danes who
are not citizens of an EU country.
Faced with what they see as a continuous campaign of vilification in
the media and increasing harassment many Muslims have protested against
the publication of these cartoons.
The fact that it has been mainly right-wing journals which have
republished them is seen as confirmation that there is a deeper
right-wing political agenda.
However the character of some of these protests, coming after a
series of terrorist attacks on Western civilian targets, has reinforced
the tendency of deepening divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in a
number of countries.
In Britain, the extremely sectarian religious placards threatening
"death" to non-Muslims carried on the small 3 February protest
in London can deepen racial and religious divisions, as well as
providing the government with arguments to justify its authoritarian and
This is in a situation where already there are European-wide
pressures and tensions produced by the transfer of jobs and forced
migration resulting from the effects of capitalist globalisation and the
bosses' ongoing neo-liberal offensive.
From all sides opportunists, religious sectarians and racists have
jumped in to exploit the situation. In Arab countries, right wing
Islamic religious leaders are taking the opportunity to reinforce their
claim to be leading the opposition to imperialism and also strengthen
their grip on society.
The official attempts to calm down the situation may have an effect
in the days ahead but the underlying tensions will not be removed by
soothing words and appeals to reason.
What has been absent in the last few days has been a powerful
socialist voice that can independently intervene in this situation and
prevent its exploitation by religious sectarians or racists.
Unfortunately this is not surprising given today's political weakness of
the workers' movement in many countries.
But, unless the workers' movement internationally can offer a way
out, the next period of social crisis could see societies being torn by
a myriad of divisions involving religious, ethnic and national
What then should be the socialist response to the current wave of
protests and the attempt of conservative and some right-wing Christian
political leaders to claim that they are defending free speech?
Firstly, socialists stand completely opposed to the oppression based
on religion, race, nationality, gender or sexual orientation and
socialists support the right of the oppressed to defend themselves. We
work to build a united movement of working people to fight oppression,
capitalism and start to create a socialist future.
This means we oppose the production of any material that is used to
create or deepen religious, ethnic, national or sexual divisions. This
includes countering the continuous anti-immigrant racist propaganda or
sub-text that can be seen in parts of the mass media in almost every
At the same time, it has always been the workers' movement that has
been in the forefront of the struggle to win and defend democratic
rights, including free expression and the right to vote.
While opposing the production of racist or fascist material,
socialists defend the right to make criticism, even sarcastic criticism.
The same cannot be said for the main established religions that have
all, at various times, stamped upon the free expression of ideas.
The attempt to say in Europe and the USA that what is developing is a
'clash of civilisations' between Christianity and Islam, with
Christianity representing freedom, is completely false.
For the majority of their existence the tops of all the established
Christian churches were quite happy to be part of the elites running
dictatorial societies. As even the Financial Times commented: "The
'Christian' west won through to modernity in the teeth of clerical
The millions killed in warfare between different Christian
denominations, the Inquisition, slavery, the slaughter of native
Americans and the original witch-hunts are just a few of the historical
crimes of the leaders of the Christian churches.
But this is not just the case with the Christian churches, leaders of
the other main established religions have played similar roles,
whether it be Jewish religious leaders justifying the expulsion of
Palestinians from their homeland on the grounds that God gave the land
of Israel to the Jews or prominent Buddhists being in the forefront of
the attacks on Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.
While the Western media make frequent references to Islamic
fundamentalists, Islam is not by any means alone in having extreme
fundamentalists within its following.
Pat Robertson, one of Bush's favourite evangelists, said last month
that Ariel Sharon's stroke was God's punishment for withdrawing Israeli
settlers from Gaza! Last year, Robertson called for the assassination of
Venezuela's radical president Hugo Chavez.
In India, Hindu fundamentalists have repeatedly led attacks on the
Muslim minority, like the 1992 destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya or
the 2002 Gujarat clashes.
oppose all racist, religious or sexist attempts to sow divisions.
Socialists advocate workers' action against such attempts and strive to
achieve a united struggle of working people against oppression and
Socialists defend the rights of both non-believers and believers,
regarding faith as a personal issue and see no problem in believers and
non-believers struggling alongside each other in the workers' movement.
On the contrary, socialists strive to unite all working people in
common, collective struggle.
But, by the same token, seeing faith as a personal issue means that
socialists support the complete separation of church from state, the
right to polemicise against religion and oppose the attempts of any
religion to dictate to other religions or non-believers.
We defend the democratic rights of all, non-believers and believers,
to express their views. This includes the right to produce
anti-religious material, whether it is philosophical or satirical.
This is why socialists opposed the attempts of Christian
fundamentalists to ban the Jerry Springer musical and the 2004 attacks
by some Sikhs on the performance of the play Behzti in Birmingham.
Socialists resist all attempts to stigmatise Muslims but at the same
time combat the attacks of vicious Islamic reactionaries against gays
and the rights of women.
Equally, we oppose the anti-Semitic material produced under the guise
of opposing Israeli policy in many Arab countries.
Most of the Islamic states that have protested against the Danish
cartoons are dictatorial regimes with brutal histories of oppressing
their own populations.
Today, a critical task before the workers' movement is to prevent
divisions amongst working people blocking united struggles.
This means defending democratic rights and opposing repression, while
striving to build a unified movement that can challenge capitalism and
fight for a socialist future.