April 2006   
Behind the Cartoons: Anti-Immigrant Crusade and Imperialist War

Racist Anti-Muslim Provocations
Trigger Storm of Islamic Reaction

In one of the stranger international incidents of recent times, a collection of crude anti-Muslim cartoons in a Danish provincial newspaper set off a whirlwind of Islamic outrage in the Near East and demonization of Islam in the West. The 12 cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten last September were intended as an attack on Muslim immigrants in the context of the imperialist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a deliberate attempt by right-wing xenophobic (anti-foreigner) racists to provoke a reaction. Islamic clerics then seized on this provocation to mount a diversion, channeling widespread resentment against Western domination into a fundamentalist religious furor.

Danish troops in Iraq (right) have been accused of torture. Drive Danish jackal imperialists out of Iraq and Afghanistan!
Photo: Middle East Online

Notably, the protests did not focus on the imperialist war, the tightening noose around the Palestinian people, or the mounting attacks on immigrants in Europe but instead on shadow boxing about religious symbolism. The Danish imams kept mum about the several hundred Danish troops in Iraq, who have been accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners, and Denmark’s logistical support to the U.S. war machine. Marxists in the West direct our polemical fire in the first instance against the capitalist rulers who used this incident to whip up an anti-immigrant war frenzy. At the same time, we point out that the initial event has become a pretext for a “clash of civilizations” dear to reactionaries on both sides.

The thrust of the cartoons in question, although many were obscure, was to portray Islam as a terrorist religion and identify Muslims with bloodthirsty suicide-bombers. This was the clear implication of the drawing of Muhammad with a bomb with a lit fuse protruding from his turban. It was also the clear intent of the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten who criticized the media for bowing to “intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” The newspaper is closely linked to the Danish People’s Party (DF – Dansk Folkeparti), a racist right wing party that is part of the government majority. And the government itself is stepping up anti-immigrant repression.

It was hardly accidental that Denmark (like the Netherlands, another hot-spot in these “culture wars”) is one of the few European countries actively participating in the colonial occupation of Iraq (as well as Afghanistan and Kosovo). But what catapulted this into headlines around the world was when a group of Danish Muslim imams sought to line up various Arab states behind a boycott of Denmark. Reactionary governments and Islamic fundamentalists sponsored fiery protests, sometimes in competition with bourgeois nationalists. The purpose was to pressure the Danish government into punishing the newspaper and banning publication of the cartoons. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League called on the European Union to issue blasphemy laws.

With riots and demonstrations breaking out in an arc from Nigeria to Pakistan, with Danish butter and cookies piling up in warehouses, the stage was set for Act II. Acting in unison, the major European papers republished the cartoons amid a welter of propaganda in the imperialist countries depicting Islam as a uniquely totalitarian religion. Apologists for the U.S. military and its torturers prated about the “Enlightenment” and “democracy” – pretty rich considering that the hard core of the (shrinking) political base for the gang in the White House is composed of those yearning for a Protestant theocracy. Apologists for the Israeli theocratic state piled in to stoke up hatred of any and all Arabs and Muslims in the hopes of shoring up support for Zionism.

On the other hand, various “reasonable” and “moderate” voices opined that offending any form of organized superstition was to be avoided. This was the consensus in the bourgeois media in the U.S., where the vast majority of the population claims to believe in the existence of angels and the government blithely spent two-and-a-half million dollars to test the medical impact of prayer (observed results: negative). To make sure none of the major media got out of line, the State Department let it be known that publishing the cartoons would hurt the war effort, by making it appear that the U.S. was engaged in a crusade against Muslims, as Bush had let slip earlier on. 

Various bourgeois liberals recalled the case of Salman Rushdie in 1989, whose anti-Islamic satire, The Satanic Verses, was targeted by Muslim reactionaries. But there is an important distinction. Rushdie, who was marked for assassination by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, was not baiting Muslims in the service of anti-immigrant repression and imperialist mass murder. Marxists defended Rushdie and oppose press censorship, while today emphatically denouncing the cartoons and the reactionary purpose they served.

No sooner had the carnival of reaction died down than the case of Abdul Rahman arose. An Afghan convert to Christianity, Rahman was threatened in March with execution by the courts in “democratic” Afghanistan. This underlined the reality that the imperialists had removed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan only to bring in more subservient cliques of Islamic reactionaries. Karzai’s puppet regime in Kabul got rid of the problem by quickly whisking Rahman off to Italy.

As Karl Marx put it in his Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875:

“Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion.”

In this imperialist epoch the bourgeoisies in every corner of the planet have mobilized the most retrograde superstitions and most murderous fanaticism to shore up their irrational system. The striking fact is that today it is only the revolutionary Marxists, militant opponents of all brands of religion and of the bourgeois order, who consistently defend the fundamental democratic principle of separation of church and state.

The League for the Fourth International condemns the anti-Muslim cartoons as a racist provocation against immigrants and an attempt to whip up war frenzy, while at the same time we oppose any censorship by the bourgeois state. We oppose blasphemy laws and laws outlawing “hate speech.” Laws regulating publications, under which warmongering ideologue Oriana Fallaci is prosecuted for “defaming” Islam and fascist “historian” David Irving is jailed for denying the Holocaust, will inevitably be used against the left, banning appeals to “class hatred” or the like. Fascist Holocaust deniers and Nazi apologists or anti-Muslim racist acts should be dealt with by the power of the workers movement, not by appealing to the racist bourgeois state.

In Europe as in the U.S., the capitalist governments are introducing police-state measures against immigrants as part of a so-called “war on terror.” This is the opening wedge to regiment the entire population, and calls on them to regulate speech can only intensify the repression. The main danger in the imperialist countries comes not from clots of Islamic fundamentalists but from “Judeo-Christian” religious fanatics who are armed to the teeth with “weapons of mass destruction” – in reality, not in cartoon drawings or doctored intelligence reports. And the imperialist and Zionist warmongers fully intend to use their arsenals in “preemptive” strikes.

Anatomy of a Provocation

The Danish cartoons came in a particular context. The European bourgeoisies have been ratcheting up repression against immigrants: the Sarkozy law on immigration in France, sharply limiting family regroupment; restrictive naturalization procedures in Germany; in Denmark, new laws effectively barring foreigners married to Danes from entering the country. 2006 was to be a year of anti-immigrant fear-mongering. Although the mobilization of French youth and workers against a new jobs law threw a hitch into this scenario, the assault on immigrants continues.

Troops beat Afghans protesting anti-Muslim cartoons as they march on NATO base in Kabul, February 6. Drive U.S. and its imperialist allies out of Afghanistan! (Photo: Assafir)

The editors of Jylllands-Posten wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech. Yet it turns out that in 2003 the same paper refused to run drawings satirizing Jesus Christ. The editor said that there was no comparison, that those cartoons, unlike the anti-Islamic caricatures, had been unsolicited (Guardian [London], 6 February 2006). That’s the point: these cartoons were solicited for a reason. These aren’t freethinkers crusading against organized religion (in a country where Lutheranism is the official religion, at least partly supported by state funds, and there is still a law against “blasphemy” on the books). They are Muslim-bashing bigots.

One of the cartoons, which has received less attention although it is revealing, showed a seventh-grader who had written on a blackboard, “Jyllands-Posten’s journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” The point was that an immigrant child was writing this message in Arabic letters, in Persian, in what was presumed to be a typical school in Copenhagen, sending the message that Denmark is supposedly being overrun by Islamic immigrants. This is a banal example of the sort of racist garbage which is now running rampant in Western European countries.

Protesters torch Danish embassy in Tehran over anti-Muslim cartoons. Marxists defend Iran against imperialist threats. (Photo: Assafir)

Thus two parliamentary representatives of the DF, the ultra-right party to which Jyllands-Posten is tied, both of them Lutheran pastors, have stated that Muslims are “a cancer on Danish society” (quoted by Jytte Klausen, “Cartoon Jihad” at Salon.com, 8 February). For them, satirizing Muhammad is a useful stick to beat immigrant workers and refugees. Yet despite the assumption of racists and Muslim clerics alike, there is little indication that the majority of these immigrants are in fact practicing Muslims. For that matter, the large-scale racist attacks on immigrant workers in Denmark in the 1970s went after Yugoslavs as well as Turks. What’s going on here is the targeting of an exploited and segregated section of the working class.

Curiously, other cases of Muslim-bashing – for example, a cartoon of Mohammed in hell which appeared in an Italian magazine in April – have created much less of a furor. (The magazine in question was linked to Opus Dei. This ultra-reactionary Catholic semi-secret society, now known to millions through the comic-book treatment in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, genuinely exists and really is bad news.)

But who the hell is this Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten “culture” editor who set up this whole affair, anyway? He is a Ukrainian-born, right-wing hack journalist of Jewish descent who translated the autobiography of Russian counterrevolutionary Boris Yeltsin into Danish. After a stint as a reporter for the Jyllands-Posten in Moscow, Rose traveled to the United States in 2004 to sit at the feet of Daniel Pipes, a pathological Arab-baiting Zionist ideologue (continuing in the footsteps of his father Richard Pipes, a pathological anti-communist Cold Warrior).

While Daniel Pipes has dismissed allegations that he masterminded the Jyllands-Posten affair, the fact of the matter is that Rose returned from Washington to produce a hero-worshipping interview with Pipes about the “Islamic threat” which was published in Jyllands-Posten. This in turn provoked James Petras and Robin Eastman-Abaya to produce an article titled “The Caricatures in Middle East Politics” (February 2006), which has appeared on a number of websites. The article claims in essence that the cartoon affair is simply an Israeli plot.

Petras and Eastman-Abaya quote the former Mossad agent Victor J. Ostrovsky claiming that Danish intelligence is manipulated by the Israelis, and produce a list of list of alleged sayanim (volunteer helpers of the Mossad) ranging from British media mogul Robert Maxwell to the U.S. naval researcher Jonathan Pollard. Although Petras may still claim to be an anti-imperialist and even a Marxist, the article he co-authored blames the Iraq war on a cabal of “civilian militarists in the Pentagon and U.S. Zionists in and out of high places in the Pentagon and civil society, in coordination with the Israeli state, which wanted Iraq to be destroyed as a viable nation,” while arguing that “there is no evidence that the major U.S. oil corporations pressured Congress or promoted the war in Iraq or the current confrontation with Iran.”

Why are they laughing? Danish war minister Svend Aage Jensby meets with U.S. war minister Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.
(NATO Photos)

This is “the tail wagging the dog,” the idea that tiny Israel has hoodwinked the U.S. imperialist superpower into carrying out its agenda. Rather, Israel assumes such a prominent place in Washington’s Near East policy because in the American ruling class there is an all-sided bipartisan consensus, which has lasted half a century now, that the Zionist garrison state can serve as a gendarme for Western interests in the region (just as the Zionist leader Chaim Weizman offered in getting British foreign secretary Lord Balfour to sponsor a Jewish colonial-settler “homeland” in Palestine at the end of World War I).

The effect (and purpose) of such conspiracy mongering about the Iraq war as a Zionist plot – and the alternate, that this was just a “war for oil” – is to take the focus off the imperialist system. It alibis the U.S. imperialists and trivializes their drive for world domination, which went into high gear with the demise of the Soviet Union and is directed not only against Bush’s “axis of evil” but ultimately against the U.S.’ imperialist rivals. It is an appeal to “rational” American warmongers, like the retired generals now calling for the ouster of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, or the Democrats, or the first president Bush.

Sure, Zionists, “neo-conservative” war hawks, oil interests and military contractors all played a role in the genesis of the war on Iraq, in league with lunatic Christian fanatics who believe that it will usher in an apocalypse in which the true believers will be saved and non-believers (including the vast majority of Jews) will be packed off to hell. But at bottom the U.S.’ “war on terror” is a war to terrorize the world into submission to the diktat of U.S. imperialism..

Racist Oppression in Denmark No Fairytale

While Rose, perhaps inspired by Pipes, was the agent, the cartoon ploy was part and parcel of an anti-immigrant drive being carried out by the Danish bourgeoisie and its parties. Rose put it bluntly: “People are willing to pay for a welfare state, but not for Ali who comes from 5,000 miles away,” (International Herald Tribune, 13 February). As a matter of fact, the anti-Muslim campaign got the green light from a very high source indeed: Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II. Last year, in an authorized biography, she was quoted as saying that Islam “is a challenge, which we need to take seriously. We have admittedly ignored it for too long. Because we are tolerant – and a little lazy” (Copenhagen Post, 14 April 2005).

The current campaign was preceded by smears from the previous prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. The Social-Democratic leader linked immigrants to violent crime and talked of tiny  Denmark being “inundated with foreigners” as the “left” stewards of Danish capitalism attacked workers’ gains and slashed social services. In November 2001 they were replaced by a Liberal-Conservative coalition headed by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, even more fanatically dedicated to the “free market,” i.e. capitalist austerity. This Rasmussen called for putting refugees in solitary confinement until they produced valid ID, and once in power he cut successful applications for asylum in Denmark in half. He governs with the parliamentary support of the Danish People’s Party, which includes members who had formerly been in a fascistic grouping whose magazine hailed arson attacks on refugee centers as “patriotic acts.”

This racist consensus has always had genuine fascist auxiliaries of a particularly murderous variety. In March 1992 a parcel bomb killed a member of the Danish Internationaler Socialister group. If there was any doubt about who had committed this atrocity, Danish skinheads were arrested in January 1997 for mailing parcel bombs to a leftist and to a white TV celebrity married to a black man in Great Britain. In fact, Denmark was so “tolerant” that it served as an offshore safe haven for German fascists until they and their propaganda apparatus were driven out of the towns of Kvaers and Kollund by the local population in 1994.

While Denmark has been traditionally pro-American (the Social Democrats supported Clinton’s Balkan wars), there is massive opposition to the Iraq war in the Danish population. But Washington made it a good business deal for Danish capitalists, giving the container shipping company Møller-Maersk a juicy Pentagon contract to supply occupation forces as well a contract to manage the Iraqi port of Khor Al-Zubayr. While it may lose some Near East sales of cookies, butter and cheese, the Danish ruling class is being well-compensated for its participation in the U.S. imperialist crusade.

The “fairytale” Danish kingdom – popularly known for Hans Christian Andersen’s dreary moralizing stories, the Tivoli Gardens and the Little Mermaid sculpture in Copenhagen harbor – is a jackal imperialist power with its own skinheads and pro-Bush shipping tycoons. Just ask its former colonial subjects in Iceland, currently being squeezed by Danish banks. Or Greenlanders, whose desire for home rule came up against Denmark’s NATO commitments (notably the Thule Air Force Base leased to the U.S.) And Denmark has its counterparts elsewhere on the continent. There is the Netherlands, known for wooden shoes and tulips, which has been cracking down hard on North African immigrants. Or Austria, famous for its Viennese coffee houses and the “Sound of Music” myth of aristocratic anti-Nazi Catholics, where former SS officer Kurt Waldheim became president and the fascist party of Hitler admirer Jörg Haider was brought into the government in 2000.

When “Integration” Means Segregation

The smaller European countries often serve as forerunners and test cases for reactionary social measures and ruling-class offensives in their larger neighbors. The inclusion of Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria’s ruling coalition expressed in concentrated form the role of fascists and racist populists in whipping up popular support for police-state anti-immigrant measures by more “mainstream” bourgeois governments, whether of the “left” or the “right” (see “Sinister Fascist Haider Behind Rightist Government in Austria,” The Internationalist No. 8, June 2000). And now anti-Islamic hysteria is being whipped up in Denmark and the Netherlands to attack “multiculturalism.” When most of the bourgeois media across Europe reproduced the Danish cartoons, this signaled a continent-wide crackdown on Muslim immigrants. Already in Berlusconi’s Italy, attacks on mosques have been spearheaded by supporters of Umberto Bossi’s racist populist Northern League.

Throughout Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century, large numbers of workers from North Africa and the Near East were brought as cheap labor and segregated at the bottom of society.  There was little talk of “integration” then, and the ruling class preferred to see “Muslim” proletarians at prayer rather than on strike. In France in the 1980s, the government encouraged setting up mini-mosques in the auto plants. Although in France (unlike Germany) the children of these immigrants received purely formal citizenship rights – both because of the heritage of the French bourgeois democratic revolution, and because they originated in former French colonies – they were condemned to an almost-hereditary ghettoization.

After the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the destruction of the bureaucratically degenerated and deformed workers states there, the “welfare state” – concessions granted to “contain” the perceived communist threat and in part obtained through working-class struggle – was slated for destruction. With the labor reserves of Eastern Europe to draw on and the living standards of “native” workers under assault, North African and Near Eastern immigrant communities became less essential to the capitalist exploiters and therefore perceived as more “alien.” So they are now informed that only those immigrants who are prepared to assimilate to the “national culture” (whatever that is supposed to be!) will be tolerated. The drive is on to restrict and even expel the “Muslims.” First to be targeted are youth of immigrant origin, almost all born in Europe, many of whom are far more familiar with black American rap lyrics than Koran verses.

The revolts by the French ghetto youth last fall, provoked by daily police repression, were a fully indigenous expression of despair. An Islamic component could not be found even under a magnifying glass. And the most that French capitalism could offer them were a few slave labor jobs of limited duration. This social reality is behind the examples of the disintegration of the public school system in urban, largely immigrant areas. Contrary to bourgeois myths, education is not the motor force of social advancement, but rather accompanies it. Capitalist governments in Europe have steadily reduced expenditures on education while even “socialist” education ministers looking to this sector as a potential “profit platform” for partial privatization. They are hardly interested in spending valuable euros on a population they want to be rid of.

So immigrants, confronted with the slashing of social services and increased joblessness, are ordered to “assimilate” and “integrate” themselves. How? The arbitrary nature of this is perhaps best illustrated by the grotesque naturalization requirements for “Muslims” (and for them only) in the southern German state of Baden-Wûrttemberg (requirements which the Social Democratic/Christian Democratic ruling coalition in Berlin wants to introduce in some form at the national level). Applicants are required to state their opinion, among other things, about gay marriages. With the Vatican under its new German pope on the rampage against gay marriage and homosexuals in general, quite a few people in largely Catholic Baden-Wûrttemberg and neighboring Bavaria (where crucifixes hang on classroom walls) might well “flunk” this test. Would they be stripped of their citizenship rights? Hardly. But then the literacy requirements for voting in the segregationist U.S. South up to the 1960s were for blacks only.

Draped in the “secular” tricolor flag, anti-Muslim measures in France are little different. In March 2004 the French parliament voted a law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves by girls in schools. The ban was supposedly covered the wearing of all religious symbols in schools and was the culmination of more than a decade of controversy. But as everyone knew, the focus was on banning Muslim symbols, not Christian crosses or Jewish yarmulkas. As Marxists we are against all religion, whether fundamentalist or “enlightened.” We are utterly opposed to the veil and the religious obscurantism and subjugation of women it represents. We defend young women who courageously refuse to wear headscarves in their neighborhoods. But throwing girls out of school in the name of secularism for wearing the scarf is a hypocritical, racist, anti-democratic and anti-immigrant provocation. Its real character is symbolized by the detail that Muslim women, but not nuns, are stripped of their head-covering for official photo IDs in France.

American Gothic

The U.S. bourgeois media chose, by and large, not to publish the cartoons. (The one exception, the Philadelphia Inquirer, picked the most inflammatory one depicting the head of Mohammed as a bomb with a fuse.) Following the State Department line, they editorialized about being “responsible” and in effect censored themselves. This is for two interrelated reasons: first, U.S. imperialism still likes to claim that it is combating “terrorists” rather than Muslims and secondly, critiques of any organized religion are more or less taboo in the mainstream media and academia. A department chairman at the City University of New York was driven from his position last year for stating the undeniable fact that “religion without fanatacism is a logical impossibility” (see “Witchhunters Target ‘The Unpatriotic University’,” in Revolution No. 3, November 2005), the newspaper of the Internationalist Clubs at CUNY. What would they have done to the French 18th-century encyclopaedist Denis Diderot who wrote that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”? In the 1930s, British philosopher Bertrand Russell was not allowed to teach at City College because of his views on religion.

Protest this! U.S. tortures Iraqi prisoners, Abu Ghraib prison, 2004. Islamic reactionaries use provocation of anti-Muslim cartoons as diversion from fight against imperialist torture, murder, war and occupation.
(Photo: The New Yorker)

In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, none other than Karl Rove gave Hollywood executives a list of simple-Simon commandments including the injunction, “The war is against terrorism, not Islam.” But this posture is wearing a little thin, as imperialist occupation troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have blasted away at one mosque after another. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that desecration of the Koran is standard operating procedure in U.S. imperialism’s torture cells. Newsweek was put under heavy pressure to retract a report that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet as part of this “psychological warfare” and partially did so in May 2005. Yet less than two weeks later, the Pentagon was obliged to admit that a Koran had been urinated on, “accidentally” of course.

During the Cold War, U.S. imperialism enlisted every variety of non-Christian religious reactionary from the Dalai Lama to Saudi Wahhabis like Osama bin Laden in its anti-Soviet crusade. Besides bankrolling Solidarnoœæ in Poland, which was an imperialist-backed nationalist “union” under the thumb of the Catholic Church, and the massive support to the Islamic reactionaries in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Army and the Soviet-backed petty-bourgeois nationalist regime in Kabul, Reagan even tried to line up the Iranian Shiite mullahs. Today the U.S. is sponsoring an Islamic regime in Afghanistan and attempting to cut a deal with at least a section of the Shiite clergy to bolster the occupation of Iraq (which despite current anti-Iranian saber-rattling would necessarily involve some kind of arrangement with the theocratic rulers in Tehran). It even had a Jewish professor write a draft Iraqi constitution enshrining Islamic law.

U.S. imperialism has no quarrel with Islamic reaction as such. The “neocons” might want “regime change” in Saudi Arabia, and the Democrats might posture as more anti-Arab than Bush over Dubai port concessions, but basically, Washington is fully prepared to accept Islamic reactionaries as conduits for its rule around the world. Yet imperialist war has its own logic. Slaughtering the civilian population of Iraq or Afghanistan from the air and on the ground, torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, necessarily breeds racist ideology considering the U.S.’ victims to be inferior beings. And imperialist war abroad has its domestic component – the massive arrests and detention of immigrants from the Middle East in police-state fashion.

Furthermore, the bedrock of social reaction in the United States is to be found in Protestant Christianity, flanked by the Catholic Church. The Zionists allying with Protestant fundamentalists are living in a fools’ paradise if they believe that they will ever be anything other than invited guests in this reactionary line-up. The most recent gross provocation on a religious basis in the U.S. was Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic splatter movie, The Passion of the Christ. When the Anti-Defamation League (which prefers to hound leftist and other critics of Zionism) issued a few mild critical remarks, it was firmly put in its place. Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals said, “For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted” (CBS News, 26 August 2003). Haggard was also involved in the affair of religious bullying at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs last year, in which at least one Jewish student was called a “Christ-killer.” Note also how this Protestant preacher sprang to the defense of Gibson, who is situated on the lunatic fringe of Catholicism.

Naturally, in this climate of reaction, there is no way that any serious critique of Christianity is going to be tolerated in the mainstream media. Even Franco Zefferelli’s mildly humanizing version of the life of Christ which he made for television in the 1970s ran into trouble and sponsor G.M. withdrew its backing. Shrieks of fury and even arson attacks greeted Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. So the population is deluged with Christian religious obscurantism, in particular creationism (with Orthodox rabbis climbing on the “intelligent design” bandwagon). While TV pundits pontificate about Islam as a “terrorist religion,” Pat Robertson gets to issue his very own “fatwa” (assassination call) against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. For decades fascistic Christian groups have waged a deadly war against abortion clinics and their doctors, and the drive against women’s rights by clerical reaction continues unabated, as recently demonstrated by the abortion ban in South Dakota (see “Defeat the Crusade Against Abortion,” on page 38 of this issue)..

The Left and the Cartoons

On the left, many of those claiming to be Marxist simply lined up politically in knee-jerk fashion with one or the other of the bourgeois camps, the “defenders of Western civilization” or the “defenders of Islam” against “blasphemy.” Among the former, Sean Matgamna’s very British Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) is particularly gangrenous. In an introduction to a series of articles on “Marxism and Religion” (29 January), Matgamna declares, “…the existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world: the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe.” This is mind-boggling: proletarians and youth from North Africa and the Middle East, even second- and third-generation immigrants, are equated with the Ottoman Turkish rulers who attacked Austria centuries ago! This imagery of “the Turk” being stopped at the gates of Vienna has been used by fascist elements in German-speaking countries for decades. And by using it Matgamna has ceded political domination of these immigrant sectors to the mullahs and imams.

Deeply immersed in the Labour Party milieu, the AWL is susceptible to pressure to support Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s participation in the imperialist occupation of Iraq. Matgamna’s way of doing this is to support a “labor movement” being built under the bayonets (and with the tactic toleration) of the occupation forces. These trade-unionists have wisely focused their activity on British-occupied Basra, rather than the less hospitable environment under U.S. forces hostile to any unions. And needless to say, this “labor movement” is in no way fighting against the occupation. Indeed, in some cases they have called on occupation troops (concretely, the Italians in Nasariya) to clean out insurgents holed up in factories.

This is back-handed support to the imperialists. It is the direct continuation of Matgamna’s “Third Camp” posture to justify its refusal to defend the degenerated and deformed workers states (despite their Stalinist bureaucracies) against capitalist counterrevolution. In recent years the AWL leader has become a latter-day discipline of Max Shachtman, the renegade who broke from Trotskyism refusing to defend the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II. Indeed, Matgamna goes out of his way to downplay the role of U.S. imperialism in creating the bin Ladens as a political force and instead mainly blames “Russian invaders,” although the Stalinists were fighting, although half-heartedly and temporarily, against these Islamic reactionaries. Genuine Marxists and Trotskyists hailed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1980, and denounced Gorbachev’s 1989 withdrawal, which set the stage for the break-up of the USSR.

In contrast to the born-again Shachtmanite Matgamna, the seemingly opposite pole is represented by the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), a neo-Shachtmanite group based in the U.S. In a March 23 declaration, the LRP informs us:

“Most of the international far left, with a few exceptions, has taken the position of denouncing the cartoons as a racist and chauvinist attack on Muslims, while opposing legal bans. This is a correct appraisal. But the left generally dodges the point that the mass of Muslim protestors also object to the cartoons on religious grounds.

“For many Muslims, any depiction of Mohammed is blasphemous. As followers of Karl Marx we do not wish to insult the millions of people who consider Islam their only hope. It is especially horrendous to do so in a world where Western Christianity has come to symbolize imperialist domination and persecution.”

While most of the left has not only condemned the cartoons but also ended up giving some kind of political support to Islamic reaction as expressing “anti-imperialism”, the LRP stands out from the crowd by its unadulterated support to religious superstition! As for the millions who “consider Islam their only hope,” the LRP is content to leave them with their illusions by expressly ceding to their religious prejudices. Yet not only is depiction of Muhammad considered blasphemous by “many Muslims,” so is any hint of Marxism. Perhaps the LRP will hide that under its chador next. But at least it is being consistent: the “State Department socialists” of the LRP vehemently opposed Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain and their international allies are slightly less forthright, but don’t have any problem in deliberately confusing opposition to the racist provocation with political support to the Islamic campaign. After all, they hailed Ayatollah Kohmeini’s 1979 seizure of power in Iran and supported the reactionary mudjahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. This came naturally to the current founded by the late Tony Cliff, another “third camper” who broke with Trotskyism with the onset of the anti-Soviet Cold War by refusing to defend North Korea in the Korean War. The main Cliffite theoretician, Chris Harman, wrote a lengthy article (“The Prophet and the Proletariat,” International Socialism No. 64, August 1994) portraying Islamic fundamentalism as a kind of deformed anti-imperialism. 

Lately the Cliffites have moved on to hailing Hamas in Palestine. The SWP and other reformist left groups even have their very own popular front in Britain (“Respect”) with bourgeois Muslim forces who have the most retrograde positions on women’s rights. Respect is represented in Parliament by George Galloway, who voted for Blair’s “Incitement to Religious and Racial Hatred Bill,” which supposedly protects Muslims from “Islamophobia.” The SWP even voted down, in the Respect conference, a motion by Alan Thornett, leader of the British International Socialist Group (affiliated with the United Secretariat of the late Ernest Mandel) calling for opposing the bill. A lead article in the SWP’s Socialist Worker (11 February) argues that “this is not about ‘freedom of speech’.” SWP leader Alex Callinicos argues in the same issue that free speech does not include “Freedom to spread hate,” strongly implying support for censorship and using courts against those who “insult Islam.”

The same position is taken by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the United States, formerly a part of the Cliffite international current. For its part, the International Action Center (IAC) led by the Workers World Party (WWP) cosponsored a rally with Muslim clerics outside the Danish consulate in New York on February 17. The IAC declared its “complete solidarity with the Muslims around the world” protesting the anti-Muslim cartoons. Does this “complete solidarity” include solidarity with the Egyptian government, the royal house of Saudi Arabia, the Syrian regime or those who called for “death to those who insult the prophet”? But this is par for the course for the WWP/IAC, which always tends to adopt the politics of whatever group it is defending at the moment. In the case of the 1999 war on Yugoslavia, it slid over from correct opposition to the imperialist bombing to providing a platform for Serbian nationalists, who spewed diatribes against the Kosovo Muslims from IAC platforms. But that was then, and opportunists always count on people having short memories.

In all of these cases, their current political line on the Danish cartoons is a reflection of a political betrayal in 1979. When Khomeini and the mullahs came to power in Iran, overthrowing the pro-Western monarchy of the Shah, the vast majority of the left in the imperialist countries hailed the “Iranian Revolution” as an anti-imperialist uprising. The late Nahuel Moreno of the Latin America-based Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (LIT – International Workers League) wrote an entire book grotesquely hailing the shuras (committees) in Khomeini’s Iran as the equivalent of soviets (workers councils) under the Bolsheviks. Yet within days of taking power, the Khomeinites were attacking women who didn’t wear the head-to-toe chador, stoning homosexuals to death and hanging and executing thousands of communists and tens of thousands of Kurds. And soon the shuras were enforcing Islamic fundamentalist orthodoxy in the factories. In contrast to the opportunists, Trotskyists called for “down with the shah, no to Khomeini” and warned against giving any political support to the Islamic reactionary forces.

Liberating humanity from “all the old crap,” as Marx put it, remains the task of socialist revolutionaries in this epoch. The imperialist bourgeoisie, and the parasitic bourgeoisies in the semi-colonial and colonial countries actively promote religious obscurantism. Religion was born in humanity’s seeming helplessness in the face of the nature, but is now fed by seeming impotence before the irrationalities and oppression of world capitalism. It is no accident that organized religion is increasingly dominated by aggressive explicitly political movements that have revived or invented absurd superstitions which fly in the face of scientific knowledge and every aspect of daily life in the 21st century. Their very frenzy is the proof that they are historically condemned.

Religious reaction must be combated and destroyed in the real, material world. The imperialists and the Islamic reactionaries want a world dominated by the “clash of civilizations” pitting Jew against Christian against Muslim, etc. Revolutionary class struggle can cut through all this. The mobilization of the power of the working class for the defeat of the imperialists in Iraq, even in the form of exemplary actions, would quickly reduce the whole cartoon controversy to its historically irrelevant proportions. So, too, would a vigorous defense in deeds, not just empty words, of the embattled immigrant communities besieged by reactionary governments, and often facing attack by fascist gangs. The way in which this racist provocation ballooned into crisis of global proportions while strengthening reactionaries on all sides underlines the stark necessity to forge a Trotskyist world party of socialist revolution, the Fourth International. n

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com