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Left discuss cartoons issue

Below we carry reports of two meetings in Belfast dealing with the Islamic cartoons controversy.  The meetings reflect widespread interest in what seems to be a sharp contradiction, one familiar in the North of Ireland – the idea of free speech opposed on the grounds of sectarian provocation.  It is an issue that does not provide an immediate and complete answer from Marxism and this is reflected in the different approaches taken in the two meetings.  Further information on the Marxist response can be obtained from:

Account of Socialist Forum meeting 

23 March 2006 

Dave Jackson

Is the west at war with Islam ?

The meeting of 20 people at the Peter Froggat Centre, Queens University Belfast, was introduced by a talk from Jonathan Morrison which addressed the recent events of the worldwide protests against cartoons perceived as blasphemously mocking the prophet Muhammed. The protests seemed to prove to many people that the values of the west cannot be reconciled with those of the predominantly Islamic countries. The liberal press have seen the key issue as that of free speech and rather like the earlier case of the publication of The Satanic Verses, and republication of the cartoons has widened the dispute.

Jonathan pointed out that the protests are the result of massive underprivilege and disparity of wealth between the rich West and the poor of these countries and as a consequence of the willingness of political and religious leaders to mobilise them on issues that do not threaten their own rule. The protests have led to revivals of the call to curb immigration because of the protests which have taken place amongst Muslim populations that have settled throughout Europe, bringing what is presented as an alien and dogmatic culture right to the door of the West. 

A class argument against that of opposing ideologies was put forward. These ideologies are only opposed to each other if we recognise only their distinctive cultural differences  or rhetoric rather than the actual similarities of exploitation in both the west and the Islamic world.

Firstly the origin of the cartoons was explained. Published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten the cartoons were seen as provocative because as well as depicting the prophet they inferred that all Muslims were  possible terrorists. This was clearly not satire the speaker said, but was obviously racist both in “style and substance.” 

However, Jonathan pointed out that this was not another manifestation of Islamophobia, a term used increasingly since 9/11 to denote prejudice against the religion of Muslim people but should be seen as anti-muslim racism. The cartoons are a part of an attack of scapegoating and turning hatred towards immigrant Muslims, of blaming them for the problems of society. Jyllands-Posten is a right wing publication which has a line against liberal immigration policies. These attacks are not simply about free speech but form just a part of a political attempt by the right to divide the working class and to justify Denmark’s support of the Iraq war. The decision to publish the cartoons was deliberately inflammatory and was actually actively inviting an international response. Jonathan made an excellent point that contrary to the impression given by our own media of hordes of fundamentalists striking at Western civilisation the countries where the protests originated from are deeply divided and undemocratic capitalist societies. Oppression in these countries is in turn a product of imperialism. 

Political leaders in Muslim countries when they rail against such blasphemies appeal to the most underprivileged sections of their societies. These leaders see an opportunity in this to divert attention from the class basis of the inequalities of their own societies.

Jonathan went on to take issue with the term Islamophobia. In Britain for example attacks on Muslims have actually decreased over the last number of years partly as a result of government policy to encourage an acceptance of the Muslim faith in education and other institutions. This is a double edged sword unfortunately because it bolsters the power of religious rather than secular leaders in these communities. 

When the introductory talk was over the meeting was opened up to questions and other points that people wanted to speak on. A couple of speakers thought it should be emphasised to a greater extent that the Muslim countries had religion built into their form of government and that this meant they had deep institutional and ideological problems which leads them to oppose Western largely secular based forms of government. One speaker went as far to say that because these countries had not had reformations, such as Britain had it makes them ideologically and problematically opposed to the west. Another speaker felt that Jonathan’s talk had not sufficiently addressed the contradictory nature of the resistance taking place in the Middle-East. What should our opinion be about Hamas taking power of the Palestinian authority ?  A mature student from Spain said that immigration was creating real problems in his country in that it led to bitterness of  the native underprivileged. Many people he said were frightened by the terrorist attack two years ago which killed hundreds. 

The discussion was interesting because it highlighted the difficulty people have in coming to this debate. These questions are difficult because they are relatively new to Marxism. They involve complex questions about perceptions of culture, identity and rights that urgently need to be debated on the left.

Jonathan tried to answer these questions when he came back to sum up. He felt it was important to emphasise that the Islamic culture, even if it was strongly based on religion, has historically contributed a great deal to civilisation in thought, science and mathematics and that it would be to the detriment of any analysis on the our own society’s origins to ignore this. But he reiterated that if the primacy of the class struggle was to be adhered to there could be no place for conciliation of religious ideas,  although people that hold religious ideas should be welcomed to the struggle and should be free to personally practice whatever religion they wanted to hold to. 

Anti-Racism Network cartoons meeting

26th March 2006

Jonathan Morrison

On 23 March the Anti-Racism Network (ARN) held a meeting at Queen’s University Belfast on the subject of “Prophet cartoons – racism or satire”.  This took the form of a panel of speakers addressing this subject and then contributions and questions from the audience.  There were four panellists - Dr Eilish Rooney of the University of Ulster, Eamonn McCann of the SWP, Jamal Iwedia of the Belfast Islamic Centre and Prof. Phil Scratton of the School of Law at QUB.  The inclusion of McCann reflected the fact that the ARN to large degree is a creation of the SWP.  Though it has a wider support base than the SWP, the party constitutes its organisational backbone and most of its spokespersons are party members or supporters. It, along with the anti-war movement, has become the main vehicle for SWP activities in the north as it increasingly buries itself within broader campaigns and dilutes its socialist politics.  The fact that McCann was billed as an anti-war activist, rather than a member of the SWP, is an indication of this.  However, despite the background to the ARN, the meting did draw a sizeable crowd of sixty people.   While these were mostly students, there was also a small number of Muslims in the audience.

The first speaker to address the meeting was Dr Eilish Rooney.  She prefaced her contribution by making a remark about knowing that she was there to play a certain role.  While she did not expand on this oblique swipe at the organisers, from what she went on to say it would seem that her role was that of the token feminist.  She claimed that women’s rights was a central issue to the discussion over racism and war because it has been used to attack Muslims, and justify the war in Afghanistan.  While she said that such concerns were bogus, it was an issue that Muslims and Muslim states had to address.  On the specific issue of the cartoons, she said that while she supported the general concept of free speech it had to be put in context and exercised with responsibility.  She believed that their publication breached theses conditions.

The next speaker was Eamonn McCann, who prefaced his remarks by stating that he  was coming at this issue as an atheist, Marxist and anti-imperialist.  He claimed that many of his friends were surprised that he was opposed to the publication of the cartoons given his record as a campaigning journalist; some had even accused him of being aligned with religious fundamentalism.  He denied that his opposition to the cartoons was a concession to religious sentiment.  McCann then set about a couple of straw men in the form of Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers who had claimed that religious Muslims were threatening Irelands secular traditions, and also the Manifesto of Intellectuals that had urged the world to conform “Islamic totalitarianism” as it had fascism.  It was supposedly in response to this manifesto that the Belfast based Blanket website had decided to public the cartoons. 

In terms on an analysis, McCann put these cartoons in the contest of the “war of terror”.  He made reference to Blair’s latest speech that claimed that Britain and the US were waging a “war for civilisation”.  The corollary of this claim was that a war had to be waged against the uncivilised, and as the war was being waged against largely Muslim countries Muslims had to be portrayed as uncivilised.  The cartoons could therefore be defined as “war propaganda” and a justification of colonialism.  Comparisons were drawn with the anti-Irish cartoons of the 19th century.  McCann also refuted the claim that the cartoons had anything to do with free speech, pointing out that they had been published widely.  He denied that that there was an absolute right to free speech, saying that racist views should not be given a platform.  The case of the David Irving, who had been recently jailed in Austria for holocaust denial, was cited as an example where free speech should not be supported.

McCann then went on to claim that Muslims were now the most oppressed group in society, backing up this claim with some dubious statistics over the class position of Muslims, the number of physical attacks upon them and their places of worship.  This part of his analysis was very much underpinned by the concept of Islamophobia, that Muslims are oppressed, not because of their race, but because of their religious beliefs.  He also whitewashed political Islam.  There was no mention of the oppression within Muslim countries and within Muslim communities.  He described the leaders of Iran as “democratically elected”.  He also downplayed the reactionary nature of the response to the cartoons, and elements of the resistance that has emerged to challenge imperialism in Iraq.  This is implicitly endorsed by the casual dismissal of its “religious hue”.

Despite McCann’s claim that he was not aligning himself with religious fundamentalism, he was immediately followed by Jamal Iwedia of the Islamic Centre.  His presence should not come as a surprise, as no event organised by SWP to discuss war or racism is complete without a religious Muslim on the platform.  This again reflects the SWP’s adoption of the concept of Islamophobia and the practise that follows from it of appealing to Muslims as a religious community.  Iwedia declared that while the cartoons were racist, they primarily offended Muslims because they depicted the Prophet Muhammad and were therefore blasphemous.  He believed that the concept of free speech was being abused to insult Muslims.  The emphasis in his speech was on the concept of multiculturalism and the need to respect other peoples culture.  He said the cartoons controversy was part of an effort by the west to impose its values upon Muslims.  In his analysis the fanning of anti-Muslim sentiment was a product of the end of the Cold War and the necessity of creating an enemy, in this case Islam, to justify continued oppression. He claimed that Islam was about respecting other cultures and religions.  However, this was followed up by the claim Islam was unique because it was a “religion of resistance”, and this is why imperialism was waging war against Islam and Muslims. 

The final platform speaker was Phil Scratton of QUB.  His contribution was academic in tone, and involved the construction of a human rights case for not publishing the cartoons.  He highlighted the rile of the media in whipping up hysteria, and cited the case of the murder of the toddler Jamie Bolger in Liverpool in the early nineties.  When the boys that perpetrated that murder came up for parole, the press demanded the right to publish their identities.  However, this was rejected on the basis that doing so would endanger their lives.  Scratton believes that this set a precedent, which was supported by the European Convention of Human Rights, that the right to life took precedence.  As the cartoons could cause civil unrest and possibility death, there was a sound human rights argument for opposing their publication. 

The discussion that followed the panellist was rather flat with only a few people dissenting from the views that came from the platform.  One woman claimed that free speech was the fundamental political freedom and had to be defended in all cases.  McCann was asked if he was saying that people had no right to satirise religion.  He replied that they did, and pointed to the fact that he himself had published a collection of articles attacking the role of religion in Irish life, though he admitted there were no references to Islam in it.  Another woman argued that compared to the war being waged in Iraq the controversy over the cartons was trivial and that the energies of activists were being wasted on this issue.  The other speakers from the floor were mostly SWP members.  They reiterated that there was no absolute right to free speech, and that the cartoons made to seen in the context of the war.

At the end the platform speakers came back.  Eilish Rooney had another swipe at the SWP, complaining that the left had not mobilised in the same way to oppose Section 31 in the south during the 1980’s as they were doing now over the anti-Muslim cartoons.  McCann’s summary reiterated his earlier points his earlier,  but he also made some comments about the left. These centred on his disappointment with the Blanket and the decision its editor Anthony McIntyre to publish the cartoons.  McCann claimed that it was an example of how viewing concepts, such as the freedom of speech, in abstract terms can put some people on the left on the wrong side of the argument.  However, anyone who has read the Blanket could not say it is part of the left.  Despite its claim to represent dissent and debate it is essentially a libertarian site where pseudo intellectuals indulge their egos.  McIntyre himself has produced some vile articles attacking socialists and socialist ideas.  That McCann should place him on the left is a serious misjudgement. 

Overall, the meeting was disappointing.  It was provoked by a falling-out between the SWP and the blanket website over their decision to print the cartoons.  It was billed as a debate, yet the Blanket was not invited. It dealt with the issues of racism and war at a very superficial level.  There was no debate as any differences, such as the obvious one between socialist and Islamist positions, were glossed over.  Crucial issues such a neo-liberalism and immigration were ignored completely.   The attendance at the meeting does show that there is an interest in the issues raised.  However, to mobilise such people into a broader working class analysis will require more convincing political arguments than those put forward by the ARN. 


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