Thorstad letter to Workers Vanguard on Anti-Muslim Cartoons

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The following appeared in the Spartacist League's newspaper, Workers Vanguard.

Workers Vanguard No. 869

28 April 2006

On Anti-Muslim Cartoons and Fundamentalist Reaction


17 March 2006

Dear Workers Vanguard:

Re: your article “Racist Anti-Muslim Cartoons Spark Fundamentalist Frenzy” ([WV No. 864] February 17):

Much of your analysis and critique of religious foolishness in this piece was excellent, as was your critique of “imperialist domination” and “anti-immigrant nationalist demagoguery.” But your discussion of the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten (and subsequently by a number of papers in Arab and Muslim countries as well) raises questions you did not address.

You nowhere describe the cartoons—let alone reprint them. To my knowledge, no leftist papers in the United States, and very few bourgeois papers, have published them. One wonders if you actually saw them. Certainly, your readers who have not would have a distorted impression of them based on your article.

You say the cartoons are “racist” and that “several...depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a bomb-wielding or Satanic terrorist.” But where’s the racism? They are in fact quite anodyne, far tamer than most cartoons in any Western paper. Not one of them, so far as I could tell, depicts Muhammad as “Satanic.” A few are actually progressive. Two critique women’s oppression. One is hilarious: it shows the prophet turning away smoking suicide bombers from paradise, saying, “Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins!”

Most commentators, including you, describe the cartoons as “blasphemous.” That seems a bit of a stretch, based solely on the Muslim proscription against any visual depiction of the prophet (though huge photos of present-day quasi-fascist imams are paraded by fanatical Muslims in demonstrations). But what gives Muslims a right to think this proscription applies to non-Muslims? Furthermore, what gives any religion a right to impose a ban on blasphemy on nonbelievers? That is unrealistic and the height of arrogance.

I would argue that without blasphemy there would be no freedom of speech in the West. We would still be subject to burning at the stake and torture at the hands of the pope and his henchmen. Blasphemy may be offensive to believers in religious superstitions, but so what? Let them live with it. In this, Islam is centuries behind the West, though even in the United States fundi fanatics and some Roman Catholics would like to recriminalize blasphemy. Now Muslims are demanding that the European Union pass a law banning speech that they find offensive on religious grounds. This shows only the difficulty some religions have in coexisting with the post-Enlightenment modern world.

The Danish cartoons may have been offensive to some people, but again, so what? Those Arabic newspapers and Web sites that have published them are to be commended.

David Thorstad

WV replies:

David Thorstad thinks we may not have even bothered to look at the cartoons. We did. But, in all seriousness, we wonder if he read the WV article. That many Muslims perceive such pictorial representations as blasphemous is simply a statement of fact, not a pledge to fast during Ramadan. Our opposition to all attempts to ban blasphemy and to all and any religion in general is made crystal clear. As we state: “Anti-blasphemy constraints must be opposed by the international proletariat. Religious ‘impieties’ should be of no concern to the working class.”

It is not, as Thorstad implies, that only blasphemous non-Muslims and “unbelievers” are besieged by Islamic religious righteousness. Again, from the article:

“One does not have to be a Marxist to view with contempt and revulsion the hundreds of millions of lives forfeited in the names of the various prophets and their fictional deities—whether they be of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other faith—in wars and communal bloodbaths. Those who pursue religious violence are often driven by the hope for such ecstasies in the afterlife as are typically promised to ‘holy’ warriors, martyrs and saints. Nor does one need to be a Marxist to appreciate the miserable existence, the forfeiture of human potential of the many, particularly women, bound by religious superstitious constraints.”

Most of these victims were and are believers who not infrequently worshiped the same god as their persecutors. Their slaughter, the myriad miseries they have and continue to endure are of great concern to us. This is because it is our task to mobilize and educate the vast majority of the working class and oppressed, through the leadership of a necessarily atheist revolutionary proletarian party, to overthrow the capitalist order through socialist revolution and begin the process of destroying for all time the exploitation and oppression of man by man. In this, we look to the example of the Bolshevik Party, which convinced the masses that their bigotries should be vacated in the service of a working-class revolution in tsarist Russia. And if there is no socialist revolution, then religious persecution and religion, which derives its “right” from its role in history as a major prop for class society, will remain.

For the most part we share Thorstad’s fondness for blasphemy. For years we have appreciated his letters to WV and, more frequently than not, have concurred with many of the points he has made. His contempt for religion is superior to the utter silence on the dangers of religious reaction that is manifest in the articles on the cartoons promulgated by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Workers World Party. And Thorstad at least commends the Arab editors imprisoned in the Near East for publishing the cartoons. But in the pages of the ISO’s Socialist Worker and Workers World, these editors, whose very lives could be at risk, go unmentioned and undefended.

But the differences Thorstad raises with our article are serious matters both in the particular, i.e., his denial of the racist nature of the publication of the cartoons, and in general, i.e., his contrast of the “post-Enlightenment modern world” (the West) with the Muslim East. Thus, while he commends the Arab editors, Thorstad maintains silence on the European papers that spread the cartoons in the service of what they proclaim as a campaign for democracy. Thorstad does not assert that this campaign should not be protested, but it seems fair to assume that that is his position.

What Thorstad ignores is the racist dynamite contained in the admixing of the anti-immigrant frenzy in Europe—where the focus is almost solely on the Arab/Muslim “intruders”—and U.S. imperialism’s “war on terror,” where even American citizens with Arab/Muslim affiliations can be snatched off the streets and held without legal recourse. The cartoons were a racist provocation. To illustrate: Muhammad’s turban in one of the cartoons is a terrorist bomb. Is this really much different from, say, a cartoon of a hooknosed rabbi poised with a supposedly ritual knife over a Christian baby? And are Satan’s horns on the prophet’s head different, in intent, from the forked tail peaking out from under the rabbinical robes that was and is the stock-in-trade caricature for those animated by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? The current situation in Europe was eloquently delineated in Al-Ahram Weekly (9 February):

“The debate on the cartoons tells us less about fanatic Muslims than about how Europe is choosing to deal with its ‘Muslim question’ and its growing anxieties about Muslim demographics. The recent riots in the poorest slums of France and the violent anti-immigrant policies of right-wing political parties across Western Europe speak volumes about the sordid reality of repression, racism, and poverty that most European Muslims contend with. The hysterical tone of some free speech defenders comparing official apologies for the cartoons to a dangerous form of appeasement thus betrays a fantastic sense of delusion. Wake up, Europe! This is not Munich in 1938. The real siege is in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other sites of the U.S.-led war on terror, not in the editorial offices of European capitals. Indeed, if a comparison must be made to that era of impending fascism, then recalling the anti-Semitic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s would be more appropriate.”

On one level it is simply preposterous to assert the moral superiority of Western civilization since the rise of imperialist capitalism over a century ago. Two world wars, hundreds of millions of corpses, fascism, genocide and nuclear incineration are the most outstanding accomplishments of this social order to which is occasionally added mostly cosmetic dollops of free speech and the right to franchise—rights that can be tolerated so long as they are not “inappropriately” exercised. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attack, the Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie, who was targeted for assassination by Muslim fundamentalists for his sacrilegious and quite funny novel, Satanic Verses, was moved, in a manner not dissimilar to that expressed by Thorstad, to extol a West with its music, godlessness and sex, with its relative freedom for women, to the “vast number of ‘believing’ Muslim men” who fear “the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over—‘Westoxicated’—by the liberal Western-style of life” (see “Salman Rushdie’s Verses for Imperialism,” WV No. 772, 11 January 2002).

While religion is a contributing factor, the backwardness of the East, and in particular the Muslim East, was not and is not fundamentally a product of religious and retrograde social attitudes, but rather a product of the world imperialist economic order. The wealth, and thereby the cultural “superiority,” of the mostly Western (but including Japan) order was in no small measure provided through the mechanisms of an unrelenting exploitation of those societies that had not yet experienced bourgeois-democratic revolutions (such as the French Revolution) and by a thoroughgoing military suppression of any forces that sought a modicum of independence from imperialism. In particular in the Muslim world, in the aftermath of World War I, states were created to accommodate the appetites of the existing imperialist powers and, where necessary, these powers installed indigenous forces that could competently repress any aspirations that threatened imperialist dominance.

The fly in the ointment for the imperialists was the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ignited the strivings for national liberation and freedom from imperialist domination in the East. Even in the aftermath of the onset of the Stalinist political degeneration of the Soviet workers state in 1923-24, the existence of a world power based fundamentally on working-class property forms—the nationalization of industry, the monopoly of foreign trade, the absence of private ownership in the means of production—provided some leverage for modernizing forces in the Muslim East to mitigate the stringencies of imperialist domination.

Against the Soviet Union, the imperialists logically enough turned to the forces of religious reaction to resist godless communism. This was most notable in Afghanistan where, in response to the Soviet military intervention on the side of a modernizing Afghan regime, U.S. imperialism literally organized and financed the forces of religious reaction, one component of which was later to become the motive force for the attacks on September 11. With a similar logic, not a few of the sham socialist groups, most notably in this country the ISO, which staunchly opposed the defense of the USSR against imperialist and/or internally inspired capitalist counterrevolution, developed a parallel taste for Islamic reaction. And with the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR in 1991-92, things are much, much worse.

Thus, with the Soviet Union gone, religious reaction in the Muslim East has gained ground. The norm for the strivings of the oppressed and exploited masses of the Muslim world is no longer a deformed vision of socialism or even the secular nationalism of the type of Egypt’s Nasser that one saw in the 1950s and ’60s. Instead, there is increasingly a false struggle between a return to religion to answer imperialist subjugation and an embrace of Western imperialist “democracy” to answer the growth of stifling religious reaction. And that phenomenon is hardly limited to the Muslim East. One can see it right here in the United States, one can see it in the positions adopted by intellectuals like Salman Rushdie, and, for that matter, one can see it in Thorstad through his letter.

Probably Thorstad would agree that Bush’s war against certain selected forces of Islamic religious reaction—certainly not directed at the Saudis or the oil emirates—is not a return to the secularism that fueled the Enlightenment. The world we live in, the epoch of imperialist decay, is only temporally “post-Enlightenment.” As we said in our Rushdie article:

“It is Marxism that is the heir—the only legitimate heir—to the secular humanism of the Enlightenment that was the ideological driving force behind the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century in the West. Fearful of proletarian revolution, the imperialist bourgeoisies have since supported or embraced all manner of social obscurantism and religious fundamentalism; in the U.S., this prominently includes the bigotry of the Christian right, which is heavily represented in the current White House. The only road to the social, economic and cultural modernization of the countries of the Islamic East lies through proletarian revolution—new October Revolutions—leading to an internationally planned socialist economy extending from the oil fields of the Persian Gulf to the industrial plants of the American Midwest and German Ruhr.”

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