Our contributor Mahmood Ketabchi offers another critique of the US left’s reponse to the “cartoon controversy.” Interestingly, he finds reflexive support for any forces ostensibly opposing the US to be a paradoxical form of nationalism, that places the United States at the center of the moral universe. He explains his term “left nationalism” in a footnote:
Left Nationalism is a reference to the populist left current. Its opposition to imperialism derives from an isolationist and protectionist position. For this left, imperialism is a foreign policy issue and devoid of class meaning. It highlights struggle against the US government and the western powers at the expense of the class struggle of workers across the globe. It calls on the working class in the “third world” to join hands with their exploiters and oppressors to fight imperialism.
The Cartoon Controversy:
US Left Nationalists on the Side of Enemies of Freedom
by Mahmood Ketabchi
As the world witnessed the Islamists’ reactionary campaign to impose their taboo on the progressive humanity, the US left nationalists, as expected, supported the Islamists. They talked of “Denmark’s racist cartoons,” praised the Islamists’ protests, and tried to sell us the Islamist campaign as a “fight against racism, xenophobia, colonialism, and imperialism.” They told the whole world that the “Muslims are right to be angry” and justified their savagery and hooliganism. They told us that the freedom of press and right to blasphemy was irrelevant and portray it as an imperialist conspiracy against Muslims. They called for protest in solidarity with the Islamist currents. They rushed and fell all over each other to raise hue and cry against “Islam-bashing,” “the attack on the Muslim world,” and “insults against Prophet Muhammad.” They ignorantly conflated attack on religion with attack on people of color and claimed that it was racist xenophobic to attack on Islam. They tried to tell us that there is a great confrontation between imperialism and the Islamic forces.
The Rise of Xenophobia and Racism in Europe
The cartoons of Muhammad by themselves only depict a political movement that lives by terror. However, the publication of cartoons by the right-wing press, to the extent that they stereotyped and demonized people in Islamist-ridden countries as terrorists and criminal Islamists, was indeed a racist act. The right-wing press, by lumping together people who live in Islamist-stricken countries as “Muslims,” draws no distinction between the political Islamic movement as a dreadful, grim, and sectarian current and the masses of people who are being brutally oppressed by them.
It is an affront to humanity to mix up and conflate the people of the Middle East with brutal Islamist regimes and bands of barbaric and sectarian religious militias. The people of the Middle East are first and foremost a direct victim of these reactionary regimes and hostage to the sectarian gangs.
Additionally, the publication of the caricatures of Muhammad was motivated by anti-immigrant and xenophobic policy. Since the downfall of Soviet Union, European governments have increasingly resorted to anti-immigrant measures. Discrimination, humiliation, and contempt against immigrants of color have increasingly become a daily practice. The rise of anti-foreigner rhetoric by European officials has inflamed xenophobia and racist violence against immigrants, particularly those from Islamist-stricken countries. Such policies have helped the rise of skinhead and Nazi gangs as well as right-wing and racist parliamentarian parties that are rather closeted fascists. Anti-immigrant policies and xenophobic sentiments have also provided more ammunition to right-wing Islamist hate groups who pose themselves as victims of western attacks on Muslims and the Islamic way of life.
Islamists Angry at Blasphemy and Freedom not Racism
The international protests mounted by the Islamist currents had nothing to do with confronting racism and xenophobia. In fact, the fascist mullahs and their followers in Denmark who jumped on the publication of cartoon to further their religious agenda play no role in the struggle for immigrant rights in Denmark. They simply found the cartoons as cause celebre, enabling them to put themselves at the center of the international arena and show their brutality and savagery. They hoped they would intimidate the world into submission and impose their superstition and religious taboos.
The Islamist campaign against the cartoons turned into religious hysteria, sectarian fervor, and became a calculated and brutal assault on freedom of expression and the right to blasphemy. In a typical fashion, they called for the killing of the cartoonists, issued fatwas to murder and behead anyone who insults Islam, attacked and in many cases burned some European embassies, assaulted European humanitarian organizations, threatened the lives of European citizens, threatened Europe with a special 9-11, and finally instigated sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Nigeria that led to death of more than 100 people.
While the Islamist have pulled out their swords to amputate freedom of expression and the right to blasphemy, the leftist apologists keep beating on an empty drum to convince people that the Islamists are fighting racism. Such a characterization of the Islamists’ campaign is only intended to create legitimacy and credibility for political Islam, a movement in which the left nationalist current in the US finds an ally against imperialism.
This is not the first time the Islamists have tried to intimidate the public in their own countries and across the world. For those of us who have dealt first hand with political Islam, the Islamist attack on freedom of press and expression does not come as surprise.
Is it a fight against racism when, with utmost cruelty and barbarism, they crush any dissenting voice? Are they fighting racism when they rule by a rein of terror wherever they dominate the political climate? How is it a fight against racism when they kill and murder any communist, socialist and freethinker they can get their hands on? Is racism vanquished when Islamist hooligans with the blessing of their mullahs and ayatollahs beat up women who dare to defy their strict Islamic code of dress and public conduct, slash their face with a razor, pour acid on them, or pin their chador or head scarf to their head? Are they fighting racism and colonialism when they attack workers’ movement, arrest, torture and kill working class leaders? Are they fighting racism when for them listening to Madonna is a crime, drinking beer carries a prison sentence and whippings, dancing becomes sinful and punishable, holding hands between boys and girls leads to arrest and beating? Is it a fight against racism when Islamists in their own countries shut every mouth, tie every hand, and break every pen that dares to criticize and question their religion, their leaders, their taboos, and superstition?
Have we forgotten that seventeen years ago in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, on the grounds of blasphemy, issued a fatwa for the murder of Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses? Don’t we remember that Islamists mounted widespread protest throughout the world, intimidating and threatening to kill anyone who had something to do with the book, a campaign that forced Rushdie to go into hiding for years and led to the killing of two people who were involved in the publication and translation of the book? Is the protest against cartoons any different than the protest against Rushdie’s book? No, neither has anything to do with fighting racism. They were simply two examples of the assault on freedom and the effort to intimidate world opinion into submission.
These are the real questions that people need to ask these false Marxists. What do they have to say about them? How many examples do we need to provide them so that they may wake up and stop jumping on the Islamist bandwagon?
Hue and Cry about “Islam Bashing”
It is quite ridiculous to see how apologists for Islamists conflate criticizing religion with racism. That attempt is only intended to silence dissenting voices against Islam. According to them, if you attack Islam you are racist. Racism and anti-religiosity are two separate things. Racism is a direct assault on human being. Islam, just like every other religion, is an ideology.
An attack on Islam is not an attack on people; it is a criticism of an ideology. Only when people are stereotyped, discriminated, targeted, and demonized based on their religion, we are dealing with racism. Portraying Middle Easterners as Islamists, terrorists, dangerous, and violent is nothing but racism. Attacking people and fighting the brutality of political Islam are two different things that must be distinguished. Otherwise, no one is allowed to criticize any religion at all, and if they do, they will be labeled as racist, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic. What the Islamists and their supporters are trying to do is very similar to what of the right-wing and reactionary Jews do when they intimidate their critics by calling them anti-Semites.
Moreover, how can we refrain from attacking Islam? As late Mansoor Hekmat, founder of the Worker-Communist movement, indicated, Islam today is the banner of a political movement. The bourgeoisie in the Islamist-stricken countries, with the help of the US and the west, have chosen to take Islam as their guiding ideology to fight communism, freedom, equality, and any trace of human decency in order to consolidate their capitalist and exploitative system. They have picked up the teachings of Islam as their ideals. They are the ones who have turned it into their political platform. They are the ones who identify their whole life with this religion. The Koran is their book and together with the traditions of Muhammad it constitutes their way of life. They devise laws based on the teachings of Muhammad. They kill communists and gays, stone to death any woman they consider “adulterous,” and rape girls as young as nine, because their prophet has prescribed it. What are we supposed to do? Ignore their crimes and the ideology that propels them to barbarity? We cannot deal with them without dealing with that ugly banner they have in their hands. They want to take Islam as their banner, and at the same time they demand that no one in the world attack it.
Well, in the world of politics it does not work that day. Once you take a theory or an ideology as your guiding principles, then you should expect people to take it apart from the left or right. They think since their ideas and practices are derived from Islam, no one can oppose them. No, religion is not above criticism, especially when it becomes a political banner to kill freedom.
It is quite bizarre and ridiculous to see these self-proclaimed Marxists and communists turn into unabashed defenders of Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Their literature is full of praise for Islam. They show so much concern about “Islam bashing.” They get so hysterical if they see anyone attack Muhammad. If one removes their name from their articles, it would seem as if some intellectual Islamists, those who hide their machetes, have authored them. It is truly a sad commentary about the state of the left in the US that it has by and large placed itself on the side of a movement whose hands are soaked in blood. Why are they so concerned about Islam and Muhammad? They claim they are communists, and so they might want to promote communism and socialism, defend women, gays’ and children’s rights. They may want to consider defending workers and communists and freethinkers and progressive people who are fighting for freedom and a better life. Why not support freethinking? Let the Islamists worry about their religion and their god. They have enough oil money, guns, knives, machetes, and other resources to fend of for themselves. Marxists have their own agenda, that is, socialism.
Racist Stereotype of Middle Easters as Muslims
Left nationalists like to call anyone who criticizes Islam racist. Yet, they are no different from the right-wingers and the bourgeois press when they lump together hundreds of millions of people as “Muslims” and call them the “Muslim world.” Referring to people from the Middle East as Muslims has become a common language used by Islamists, the US government, western powers, the bourgeois media apparatus, and many leftist/liberal groups and individuals. Every news story and analysis about the Middle East reinforces this image and stereotype of Middle Easterners. In their mind, people in Middle East are closely identified with their religious and ethnic sects and categorized as Muslim, Coptics, Assyrians, Jews, Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, Kurds, Arabs, etc. The concept of citizenry finds no place in their dictionary when they speak of Middle Easterners.
While they speak of “Muslim” or “Muslim world,” the left nationalists do not refer to Americans as “Christian.” I do not hear them speak of a “Christian world” when countries with majority Christian population are referred to. As it goes, Middle Easterners are Muslims, but the “great and superior American nation” enjoys the benefit of being politically, socially and economically diverse. Why is it that they utilize medieval standards to describe people who come from the Middle East but avoid using the same sort of language and characterization for Americans and Europeans? Such characterization is a double standard and outright racist.
People living in the Middle East do not fit in that narrow and racist characterization that blurs the line between oppressed and oppressors. They confront the same sort of enemies we face here in the US. There is a fight between capital and labor, communists and capitalists, feminists and misogynism, gays and homophobes, freedom and oppression, freethinkers and religious brutality, equality and exploitation, etc. Attempts to make Middle Easterners look inferior in their struggles for social change, positions that deny their daily suffering at the hands of their rulers and undermine their movements and endeavor for a life free from oppression, is quite disturbing and shameful.
Dividing people along religious and ethnic lines pushes back progressive political and social agendas and propels the reactionary, bloody and dreadful forces of religion and ethnocentrism. As progressive humanity is forced back from the political scene, a bunch of criminal gangs, each wearing a sectarian hat, emerge and become the “leaders” of such and such a group of people and fight for the right of such and such a group of people.
We saw the consequences of this trend in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and now in Iraq. Genocide, massacres of innocent people, and crimes against humanity are the outcomes. This is a part of the US government’s New World Order. Why are the left nationalists following such a line? Are they going to explain on what grounds they lump together hundreds of millions of people as “Muslims,” deny their struggle for a better life, and doom them to a life of utter repression and savage tyranny?
The Myth of Imperialism vs Islamism
In response to Islamists’ protests against the publication of cartoons, the US and European governments, raced against one another in condemning the cartoons as offensive and insulting to Islam. They sympathized with Islamists, expressed their sorrow, and apologized profusely. The US position regarding the cartoons of Muhammad exposes the fallacy that the US government and the Islamists are in an antagonistic relationship. Finding themselves on the same side with US over the cartoons, apologists for political Islam defensively attempted to differentiate their position from that of the US government. They criticized the US officials for condemning violent protests over cartoons while ignoring the atrocities committed against the Iraqi and Palestinian people. They pointed to the hypocrisy in how the US government and the media speak of press freedom in reference to the cartoons while engaging in other forms of censorship. This criticism is quite justified. But it is only intended to help these apologists escape from taking a clear position on the issue of press freedom and criminal threats and assaults on people.
Yes, the US government and the media are hypocrites, but it does not mean that press freedom is not worth defending and that criminal violence and threats of murder people should not be condemned.
The image that the US government and western powers are standing face-to-face against the Islamists is nothing but a lie and pure charlatanism devised by the Islamists and those who are their apologists. Anyone with a slight respect for facts should know by now that the US and European governments propped up the Islamist movement in an effort to fight communism and freedom struggles. There is a tremendous amount of documentation and writings that leave no doubt that in many countries the US brought Islam from the margin of the society into prominence to protect capitalism and exploitation across the world.
Iraq is the latest example. How many people in the world knew who criminal thugs like Chalabi, Alawi, al-Sadr, al-Hakim, al-Sistani, al-Jaafari, etc. were? How is it that they have become such known figures in the world? How have they turned into the powerful figures they are today? Is there any doubt that the US government under Clinton intensified its effort to bring together Iraqi reactionary religious sects, ethnocentric groups, and paid agents of the CIA to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime? It was the US government with the assistance of bourgeois press that molded and promoted them as “leaders” and “power brokers” in Iraqi society. They put them at the center of the Iraqi political scene so that they could tell the world that Iraqi people are with the US and thereby justify their invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yes, the US government unleashed Islam and Islamic militia and hooligans as a deadly force that has turned Iraq into a hell-hole.
The US government does not have any objection to seeing Islam and Islamists gain political power as long as they maintain a working relationship with the US government. The US government wants to tame political Islam and bring it under its control and put it to work. That is why they try to promote “moderate Islam” while attacking “fundamentalists” and “terrorist” Islamic forces which are in an open war with the west over control and exploitation of the masses of people in Islamic-dominated countries. “Moderate Islam” for the US government has nothing to do with freedom, human rights, and respect for the dignity of people’s lives; it only refers to Islamic forces and regimes that can ally themselves with the US government.
Worker-Communism and the Cartoon Controversy
We must confront racism and xenophobia. Worker Communism, and in particular the Worker-Communist Party of Iran and the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, have been a leading force and an ardent defender of immigrant rights particularly in Europe. Racist characterizations that lump together millions of people as Muslim and “the Muslim world” must be opposed because it undermines victims of Islamist brutality in the struggle for freedom, equality and a better life. Yet, the hue and cry over the cartoons by the Islamists has nothing to do with opposing racism, defending immigrant’s rights, fighting for equality, or improving the quality of life for immigrants. The protests were designed to silence and intimidate the world into submission and consolidate the Islamist political position vis-a-vis the US and the western governments. Attacking press freedom and the right to blasphemy formed the core of their campaign. The US left, by and large, has stood on the side of the Islamists and declared that freedom was an irrelevant issue.
As opposed to the left nationalist current, Worker Communism is a maximalist movement when it comes to freedom. That is how Marxism and communism were always known until late 1920s. This changed when the great Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union degenerated into a nationalist effort to build a “great industrial power” on the back of soviet workers and led to an oppressive state capitalist system. Worker communism emphasizes and fights for unconditional freedom. Any limits on freedom designed to silence dissenting voices, no matter how “offensive,” can only lead to further restrictions on people’s ability to express themselves. Only exploiters, oppressors, and reactionary forces can benefit from a type of “freedom” that comes with “ifs” and “buts.” Workers and progressive forces are always beneficiaries of freedom in its most possible expanded form.
The nationalist left gets upset about any attack on Islam and always defends it in one way or another. This same current views Islamist movement as an ally in the struggle against the US government. Worker Communism sees no responsibility to defend Islam or any other religion. It distinguishes Islam as a faith and spiritual belief from Islam as a political movement. While it defends freedom of worship and religious belief, Worker Communism emphasizes freedom from religion and the right to heresy and blasphemy. For Worker Communism, Islam as a political current is an extremely barbaric and inhumane movement that must be beaten back and driven out of political scene. The rise of Islam everywhere has led to utter brutality, misery, and massacres. It is a political movement that is extremely prone to sectarian bloodshed, genocide, the destruction of civil norms, and the disintegration of societal functions and structures.
In addition, Worker Communism calls for the complete and unconditional separation of religion from the state and education. It believes in a strictly secular state where religion and god have no place whatsoever. It advocates that religion should be pushed out of social and political life into a private, individual, and spiritual undertaking. Religion should remain in the house of prayers where it belongs.