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Provocation, reaction and Islamophobia: the politics behind the Prophet cartoons

JM Thorn

4 March 2006


The past number of weeks have witnessed scenes of protest and violence in many Muslim countries.  Given the level of oppression in many of these states, such events may be expected.  But the spark for these protests is not the abuses perpetrated by repressive regimes or the threat of imminent invasion, thought both are real enough, it is the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the European press.  On the face of it, such a reaction is completely disproportionate to the level of offence.  However, to understand why it has occurred we have to go beyond he superficial media coverage of these events and the misuse of concepts such as “free speech” or “religious freedom”, or the idea of a “clash of civilisations”.  This article will attempt to explain from a socialist perspective the reasons the cartoons were published, why they provoked such a reaction from Muslims, and how best the left should response to such events.

Origins of the cartoons controversy

The immediate origins of the cartoons controversy lie in the European state of Denmark, where a national daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.  These cartoons were highly provocative, not only because most currents in Islam regard depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous, but because they made a link between Muslims and terrorism.  The clear inference of some of these cartoons was that all Muslims were terrorists.  They were not witty satires but crude racist caricatures.  In style and substance they resembled anti-Jewish caricatures of the 1930’s. 

The claim that their publication of was about free speech is totally bogus.  The newspaper claimed that their publication arose from a complaint by an author about the trouble he had finding an artist to illustrate a children’s book on the life of Muhammad.  In fact, the third artist he approached agreed to do it, although he did not want to be credited.  It was supposedly in reaction to such “self censorship” that Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons.  However, the history of this newspaper shows that it is far from being a champion of free speech. In 1984 it campaigned to censor an artist who produced an erotic image of Jesus.  Also, three years ago it refused to print cartoons of Jesus because the editors said it would provoke an outcry among Christians.  Clearly, the newspaper has exercised self-censorship so as not the cause offence to people’s religious beliefs. 

So why has Jyllands-Posten decided to cause such provocation to Muslims?  The answer to this question lies not in abstractions such as “free speech” or debates over theology but in the political situation in Denmark.  Like many European countries over the last twenty years, Denmark has experienced a significant rise in its immigrant population.  This is bound up with demographic changes and the process of globalisation.  As their birth rates have fallen and their populations and workforces have faced decline, European states have been forced to bring in migrant labour.  Immigration has provided an invaluable source of labour to European capitalism.  Also, migrant workers, because of their tenuous status, are less costly to employ.  This boosts profits, and puts downward pressure on the living standards of indigenous workers.  In must European states today, there is a layer of migrant workers who have almost no legal rights, and who are subject to the most oppressive and exploitative conditions of employment. Migrants from outside the EU have an existence that resembles that of indentured servants. 

While European capitalism may benefit from such conditions, they also pose grave dangers to its stability.  Potentially they could provoke a revolt amongst the most oppressed section of the population, the bulk of which is made up of immigrants and their descendants.  We have already seen signs of this in the recent riots in France involving youths of African and Arab descent.  There could be a racist backlash from indigenous workers who blame immigrants for their deteriorating living standards.  The third scenario, and the one that is most threatening to capitalism, is a general revolt by the working class, both migrant and indigenous, white and non-white, against the whole neo-liberal agenda that is being advanced in Europe.  If we look across the continent today we see evidence of all these processes at work.  There is instability and no guarantee what the outcome will be. 

Racial discrimination and racist ideology are means by which the European capitalist class has sought to regulate society.  The objective is to keep migrant labour in a powerless position, in which it can be subjected to superexploitation, while at the same time fostering divisions between them and indigenous workers.  Rather than holding neo-liberal polices pursued by their governments responsible for deteriorating living standards, workers are encouraged to direct their anger and frustration towards immigrants. They become a scapegoat for the ills of society.  The reason why much of the racist discourse in Europe has taken on an anti-Muslim tone is because Muslims, from Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian sub-continent, constitute the largest proportion of non-white immigrants coming into Europe.   Muslims are not being targeted because of their religion, but due to their position as members of non-white immigrant communities.  They are the object of what should described as anti-Muslim racism.  It is important to distinguish this from the concept of Islamophobia, which is underpinned by a quite different analysis of the discrimination faced by Muslims and how it should be combated. However, this will be dealt with later in the article.

The important point is that the publication of the offensive cartoons cannot be separated from the political and social context in which they appeared.  This is certainly the case in Denmark where successive Governments have pursued neo-liberal polices. The consequence of this economic liberalisation has been an inflow of migrant labour, much on which has been from Muslim countries; a deterioration of living standards for the Danish working class; and a rise in racism.  This has heightened in recent years with the election of a right wing government lead by Anders Fogh Rasmussen of the Conservative People’s Party.  The government also includes the virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Danish People’s Party.  During its period in office, the focus of this government has been on cutting taxes and public spending, and introducing a raft of anti-immigrant legislation.  These polices are strongly linked as the intensification of neo-liberalism necessitates the intensification of racism.  The immigrant population must the subject of even greater exploitation, while the inevitable anger provoked by the deterioration of living standards must be directed against them. This is why the Danish government welcomed the cartoons controversy, and used it as an opportunity to incite racism and hostility towards Muslims.  Rasmussen played a key role in transforming the local dispute into an international incident when he refused to respond to a petition signed by 17,000 Danish Muslims deploring the publication of the cartoons. He followed this up by refusing to meet with the ambassadors of a dozen Muslim countries who wished to express their concern.

It is also no co-incidence that the cartoons were published by Jylland-Posten, which is a strong supporter of the right wing coalition, and has provided a platform for the promotion of racism.  The cultural editor of the paper, Flemming Rose, a supposed champion of free speech, vented his anti-Muslim venom in the following manner: 

 “People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that is 5,000 miles away.”

Racism is being used as a tool to create a class of people in society whose existence is so tenuous they can be subject to the most oppressive forms of exploitation.  What European capital would like to see is the creation of a disposable workforce that can be brought in and exploited to the full then expelled when they are no longer of any use.  It is not just about prejudice, but a thought out policy by those who rule Europe.  This is the vision for “fortress Europe”.  Racism also dovetails with another major feature of neo-liberalism, the waging of wars of aggression.  It can to be use to demonise those states that are likely to be subject to an attack.  In the case of Denmark, anti-Muslim racism is used to bolster support for its participation in the war in Iraq. 

However, Muslims are not the sole target of these attacks.  It is the working class as a whole that is under attack.  The objective of the ruling classes is to drive down living standards, and increase the level of exploitation of the working class in general.  Racism and war are the tools for dividing workers, and diverting and suppressing the opposition that may arise.

The Muslim reaction

When the Muhammad cartoons were first published in September of 2005 the response was relatively muted.  It was limited to protests by Muslim leaders within Denmark and from the ambassadors of Muslim countries.  However, the violent protests that gripped some countries in the Middle East and South Asia did not erupt until January.  A key event in escalating the controversy was a conference of Muslim countries in Mecca in December 2005.  The scheduled agenda for this conference had been the escalating level of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims.  However, the main topic became the Muhammad cartoons.  A decision had been taken by some of the states present to make these an international issue.  It was only after Syria and Iran gave coverage of the cartoons controversy in their state controlled media that violent demonstrations ensued. 

Clearly, there was a degree of orchestration coming from state level behind the demonstrations.  This is particularly the case in the Middle East, where the right to protest barely exists.  There are a number of reasons why these states would want to mobilise their populations.  The first is that they are dictatorships and lack legitimacy.   By latching onto and fanning the flames of genuine anger over the cartoons they hope to win themselves some degree of support, and create the impression that they are standing up for Muslims.  Also the cartoons controversy can be used to divert resentment at the failure of these regimes to promote national development and confront imperialism.  It is safe for the Arab regimes to rage against the publication of offensive cartoons in European newspapers.  It doesn’t challenge the status quo in the region.   The regimes can make populist noises while at the same time collaborating with imperialism in the suppression of their own populations.  In contrast, demonstrations over critical issues such as the oppression of the Palestinians or the US occupation of Iraq are brutally suppressed. 

There is also an incentive for states such as Iran and Syria to agitate, as they are under threat of invasion from the US.    They hope that stoking up religious sentiment will mobilise domestic and international support for them.  As well as regimes, Islamist political groups have used the controversy to try and mobilise support, to promote the idea that it is people’s religious identity that defines them and that there is a conflict between Islam and the West.  It is these groups that have been behind the small demonstrations that took place in some European cities. 

The responses of Mid Eastern regimes and Islamist political groups to the cartoons are completely reactionary.  An example of this was the case of state run newspaper in Iran ruling a competition to see who could draw the best cartoon lampooning the Holocaust.  However, it would be wrong to view these regimes and political groups as being equivalent to, or a mirror image of, imperialism.  They are not.  It is imperialism that is always the greatest threat to the world.  In terms of power there is no comparison between the US and Western Europe on one hand and Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda on the other.  Political Islam may be rotten, but it is a product of and reaction to imperialist aggression.

Socialists and Muslims 

So how should socialists relate to Muslims?  One approach is typified by the SWP and the Respect Coalition in Britain.  It accepts the concept of Islamophobia; that Muslims are under attack primarily because of their religious identity.  This term was first used in a 1997 report from the liberal think tank, the Runnymede Trust, which claimed to identify a growing hostility towards the customs and beliefs of Muslims.  However, its definition of what constituted Islamophobia was so broad that it lost any definite meaning.  It covered many incidents that could be defined as racist.  For example, was an attack on an Afghan taxi driver racist or Islamophobic? 

The concept gained currency in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the launch of the war on terror. Many leaders in the Muslim community claimed that Islamophobia was now rampant in Britain.  Every attack and disadvantage suffered by Muslims was put down to Islamophobia.  The concept of Islamophobia was also being promoted by the SWP. However, there was little evidence to support the contention of a rise in hostility towards Muslims in Britain.  Indeed, the number of physical assaults on Muslims had declined dramatically from the 1980s.  If anything, certainly at an official level, the status of Muslims in Britain was being enhanced.  Under New Labour, the Muslim community was given recognition and a role in the development of Government polices through the newly formed Muslim Council of Britain.  They also benefited from Tony Blair’s support for the expansion of faith-based schools.  There is no basis for claiming that Muslims in Britain are facing discrimination because of their religious beliefs. 

Where Muslims do face disadvantage it is mainly a result of racism and their position in the class structure of society.  The bulk of Britain’s Muslim population is of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent and they are represented disproportionately in the poorest sections of the population.  This is largely due to the fact that many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis came to Britain as migrant workers to fill the labour shortages in the manufacturing industry.  Due to the decline of these industries and the racial discrimination they face as non-whites, these Muslims and their descendants have remained in the poorest section of the working class.  In contrast, Muslim migrants from Indian and their descendants, who came from more professional backgrounds such as medicine, are doing much better.  This again puts the lie to the claim that Muslims are being oppressed because of their religious beliefs.  Class and the close identification between race and class in Britain is a far more convincing explanation. 

However, Islamophobia is politically useful for some groups.  It is useful to the leaders within the Muslim community, who can use to it enhance their position and act as conduits for Government patronage.  It also allows them to deflect claims about abuses in their own communities.  Islamophobia has also been taken up by some sections of the left.  This is part of an opportunist attempt to take a short cut to building an opposition to New Labour.  Its origins lie in the anti-war movement in Britain and the high level of support it gained from Muslims.  Such support was undoubtedly do to with the immediate targets of the “war on terror” being Afghanistan and Iraq, two predominantly Muslin countries.  However, this support convinced some sections of the left, most notably the SWP, to that an opposition could be built out of a fusion between the far left and a section of the Muslim community.  The culmination of this was the formation of the Respect Coalition. 

Yet, the Respect Coalition did not appeal to Muslims on the basis of socialism and working class solidarity.  Instead, it appealed to Muslims as members of a religious community. The consequence of orientation towards Muslims on a community basis is an accommodation of religious ideas.  Respect leader George Galloway made this quite clear when he claimed that Socialism and Islam were “very close”, and that his party was “synthesising the socialist idea with religious ideas”.  Clearly, the left within Respect believe that Muslims, the bulk of whom are working class, cannot be won over on a basis of a socialist appeal; that they will always be beholden to religious ideas and leaders.   This accommodation to religion is reflected in both the politics and organisation of Respect. In its accommodation of Islam and orientation towards Imams and “community leaders” the basic tenets of socialism have been abandoned. An example of the dangers of accommodating religious ideas is illustrated most clearly in Respect’s position on women, and in particular the controversial issue of Muslim women and the headscarf (hijab). Its spokespersons have glorified the wearing of the hijab as being somehow progressive. At the founding conference of Respect, an SWP leader spoke of her pride at addressing an audience where so many young women were wearing the hijab. 

A recent edition of Respect Newsletter carried an article claiming that: 

“Women are often judged by their looks or bodies. Hijab forces society to judge women for their value as human beings. A woman in a Hijab sends a message: ‘Deal with my brain, not my body!’ … For British Muslims facing the fear of losing their identity, RESPECT is THE only party.” 

Although these arguments have a progressive veneer, they are essentially a defence of the oppression faced by Muslim women. The wearing of the hijab is not a symbol of the independence of Muslim women but of their subordination to men. Taken to their logical extreme the Respect arguments could be used to justify the segregation of men and women and the wearing of the burqa. George Galloway has endeared himself to Islamic groups by playing up his own religious views, making it clear that he is a Catholic and “strongly against abortion”.  What were once seen as fundamental socialist principles, such as women’s equality, have been abandoned or completely distorted in order to accommodate religious prejudices. 

The consequences of the accommodation of religion by Respect were seen once again in its support for the Religious Hatred Bill.  This piece of legislation, which even some Labour leaders admitted was an attempt to win back Muslim support, would have severely restricted freedom of expression.   In was another element in the assault on democratic rights.  However, George Galloway was the only opposition MP to support the bill.  This was supposedly on the basis of protecting Muslims.  But when has the left ever had illusions in the state supporting people’s rights?  In all cases such laws have been used to persecute the people it is supposedly protecting.  Does the SWP now believe that that British state is the custodian of democracy?  It probably doesn’t, but being in coalition with Muslims and accommodating religious ideas, now compels it to support such laws. 

Marxism and religion 

The Marxist position on religion has long been established. We support democratic rights, which includes freedom of worship. We also defend those who are being oppressed because of their religious background. Today we should defend the right of Muslims to practice their religion, and oppose the whipping up of prejudice against them that has been associated with the “war on terror”. However, at the same time we shouldn’t accommodate to religious ideas in any way, or feed the illusion that one religious group is uniquely oppressed. 

For Marxists, the influence of religion on the working class acts as a brake on the struggle against capitalism. It is both an expression of powerlessness of workers, and an ideology used by the ruling class to justify the status quo. The idea of a religious community is an attempt to mask the class structure of society by creating an artificial bond between conflicting classes. If the working class is to successfully struggle against capitalism then it will have to reject the basic tenets of religion. This is why socialists have sought to combat religion through promoting science and a materialist viewpoint. For socialists to accommodate to religious ideas is a betrayal of the cause of the working class. 

This does not mean that socialist organisations refuse to recruit people who hold religious ideas or work with religious groups. The essential point is that this should not influence the politics of those organisations. It is quite legitimate for socialists to work with Muslims in struggles against racism or war, but we should not dilute our political programme to win their support or conceal our political differences.   Indeed, as we believe that war and racism are rooted in capitalism, it is our duty to put forward socialist alternative.  For it is only through mobilising the working class, Muslims and non-Muslims, black and white, men and women, that capitalism can be overthrown and these horrors ended. 


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