Last week, the growing turbulence in the Middle East came to a head as protests erupted over the publication of some cartoons picturing a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. Like an earthquake the protests soon spread out from the Middle East, where tens of thousands of angry protesters were demonstrating, to Asian countries like Afghanistan, where protests turned violent and several people were killed, and India, where the riot police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of student protesters who burned Danish flags. In Kashmir there was even a one-day general strike protesting the caricatures and also in Indonesia police had to stop protesters from entering the Danish embassy. This they were unable to do in Beirut, where protesters set fire to the embassy. Even in London, militant demonstrations took place where Islamists were shouting reactionary slogans glorifying the July 7 bombings.
It would be tempting to look for an explanation to these events in a single issue, in this case the publication of a drawing showing Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb or portraying him holding a sword, his eyes covered by a black rectangle. We should note, however, that the riots erupted five months after the actual publication in a Danish right wing newspaper which printed twelve caricatures of Mohammed back in September last year. It is only after these caricatures were reprinted last week in various European newspapers that this controversy was picked up and the snowball started rolling.
Even so it is clear for all with eyes to see that the actual publication was only the spark that lit the fuse. You cannot explain the present conflagration without looking at the underlying frustrations of the millions of Muslims all around the world. As was the case with the riots in France, where the immediate cause of the revolt was the tragic electrocution of two young people who took refuge in an electrical installation for fear of a police raid, it is necessary to look beyond the scope of immediate incidents. Only then can you explain the extraordinary resilience of this movement which can only be seen in the context of the effects of decades of unemployment, poverty and humiliation under Western imperialist domination in particular.
Even from a materialist and consequently atheist perspective it is clear that the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed, the spiritual leader of Muslims worldwide, as a terrorist, shows how low bourgeois newspapers are prepared to go these days. A lot of noise was made about the need for “freedom of speech” – and some papers even saw it as their journalistic duty to reprint the cartoons to support just that excuse – but the fact of the matter is that cartoons like these have a clearly racist character in that they equate all Muslims with terrorist fanatics. Needless to say, religions have been upheld for centuries in order to justify wars, and whether that is done by reactionary imams in a mosque in the name of Allah or by George W. Bush in his State of the Union in the name of God does not make any difference. While we as Marxists believe in no God whatsoever and strive to seek for a scientific explanation of events in material terms (i.e. the concrete circumstances of empirically verifiable facts around us), it is clear that insinuating that Islam in itself is historically a fanatical religion can only be considered a provocation by the gutter press.
On this, it is worth quoting Lal Khan's article Islam and America... Friends or Foes?:
“If we analyse Islamic history we find, on the one hand, so many military victories during the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and on the other hand we witness a colossal extension and development in the fields of science, culture, politics and many other fields. The centres of knowledge and learning like Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and many others did open up new vistas in the development of human knowledge and intellect.
“What is nowadays called Islamic 'civilization' went into decline because the conquerors had refused to learn and adapt to the conquered areas and regions. It had been the synthesis of the rich and ancient civilizations such as Syria and Iran together with Spain and others, which had rendered vastness and grandeur to this Islamic advancement in the first place. The relations between different religions were also not the same as are propagated today. In 1099, when after the siege of 40 days, the Christian militias as part of the Crusades occupied Jerusalem, the larger part of the population, including men, women and children, were killed. For two days blood flowed through the streets, but the Muslims and the Jews had fought side by side against the crusaders.”
“Similarly the right of open discussion and the right to dissent on all matters, including religion, were an important factor in the development of this civilization, which pealed and flourished during the last century of the last millennium. If we analyse the writings of the religious scholars (that were taught across the old world) of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries AD, they are far more modern, mature and on a much higher level than most of the trash coming out of the present day Islamic scholars. The irony is that if those scholars of those times were alive today, they would have been sentenced to death under the draconian Islamic laws prevalent in different countries today. ... This decline has caused not only the collapse of a whole civilization but has also strangled minds in religious shackles, narrowed thoughts, and turned societies into stagnant pools.”
Reaction feeds reaction
If the purpose of these cartoons was to open the debate on Islam or secularism versus religion in general, they certainly missed their point. Instead of debate and a rational discussion we have insults and appeals to the basest impulses that can hardly be described as satire. We can only imagine the indignation from the “civilized” West had a paper dared to make a caricature of a Jewish rabbi with a bomb on top of his cap. Not without reason that would be seen as anti-Semitism and a chorus of condemnations from respected ladies and gentlemen would have descended on the damned. Not so here, since after all isn't Islam the religion of those dark hordes coming from the East?
Without lowering ourselves to the realm of conspiracy theories, it is no coincidence either that this whole episode takes place at a time when US imperialism is trapped in the Iraqi quagmire, when Palestinians are openly reprimanded for voting Hamas into power, when Iran flexes its muscles over its nuclear policy and openly threatens to annihilate Israel, etc. Attacking an enemy that is so openly reactionary itself – let there be no doubt about it that the vast majority of the mullahs and imams play no progressive role whatsoever – comes in handy for the West as it can justify its rapacious conduct by pointing to these clerics who hold control over the minds of their people. And which sane person does not want to see the removal of these theocratic leaders?
There is only one small problem here: it was the so-called democratic West that installed the bulk of the corrupt Islamic regimes in the Middle East in the first place. Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden all used to be good friends of American imperialism, even if the dogs later bit their former master. Without a doubt many Arabs would welcome more “freedom and democracy” for their societies but they know all too well these words are mere hollow phrases in the mouths of the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who after all illegally invaded and still occupy an oil-rich country in the heart of the Middle East, and whose troops have contributed to the death of tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqi citizens.
In the Islamic world there is a great collective consciousness that has not forgotten about the dozens of foreign invasions on the part of imperialist countries on the look-out for markets and spheres of influence. British imperialism carved up the Middle East as far back as 1920 and since then its American successor has continued to play the game of divide and rule. The Islamic world has not forgotten about the American rockets destroying Palestinian houses and schools over the years, just as it has not forgotten about US sponsored Lebanese militias hacking their way through a refugee camp in Shabra and Satila in 1982, thereby raping and murdering more than 17,000 Muslims. It will never reconcile itself with Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, the expropriation of Palestinians, the constant bombings and shootings and state sponsored executions. These are only a few of the scars that have been left on the minds of millions of Muslims worldwide.
The whole of the Middle East is a pressure cooker waiting to explode – and the scenes we are seeing now are only just the beginning so long as the underlying contradictions remain unresolved. It is all the more scandalous that this “why” question is hardly ever posed in the Western world even if without the historical and political context of the region nothing sensible can be said about it.
As Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent:
“In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 per cent of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections. Now we have Hamas in charge of 'Palestine'. There's a message here, isn't there? That America's policies - 'regime change' in the Middle East - are not achieving their ends. These millions of voters were preferring Islam to the corrupt regimes which we imposed on them.” (February 4, 2006)
The tragedy of all this is that the Middle East has gotten no step further with these recent provocations. Through lack of any alternative and out of total desperation, it has become an undeniable fact that more and more Muslims turn towards Islamic sects that falsely uphold martyrdom for them as a solution to their misery.
And here we see what reactionary effects provocation and counter-provocation are having. Just as a ban on the scarf in France has had a counter-productive effect because young women were driven straight into the arms of backward religious leaders, so have these pathetic cartoons had their poisonous effect. The result is only a bigger divide between different communities. Instead of uniting communities and fighting against the common oppressor, i.e. the capitalist class that sucks its wealth out of the labour of ordinary working people and the corrupt leaders in the Middle East sitting on their oil without using it for their own people, we only have more scapegoats for common problems that are in reality rooted mainly in the economic and political sphere. Ignorant racists in the West blame Muslims for “wanting to destroy our democracy” while reactionary imams openly call for the killing of any Westerners entering their country without making any distinction between ordinary working class people in Europe and America and their respective governments.
Lack of leadership
In reality, the highly inflammable situation in the Middle East is only an expression of the immense turbulence worldwide. Everywhere – even in European countries until recently generally known for their relative stability – there is the feeling that “things cannot go on like this”. In Latin America this feeling of discontent takes on revolutionary forms with the election of left-wing leaders as a result, but in the Middle East the colossal amount of anger has, so far, not been able to be directed towards a genuine alternative that can emancipate the masses craving for a real change in their lives. Instead, conservative tendencies have taken the upper hand and the turn towards reactionary Islamism is only a tragic expression of the lack of any socialist alternative.
This, however, is no inevitability at all, and all too often the Islamic fundamentalists are credited with more power than they actually have. As we explained in other articles the victory of Hamas is not necessarily to be seen as a move to the right but rather an expression of the fact that the Palestinian masses are fed up with their corrupt Fatah leaders and consequently vote for any party that is able to fill the political vacuum by promising reforms and making rhetorical statements about fighting for social justice. Or take for example the general strike in Kashmir over these cartoons a few days ago. This was a strike mainly organised by the fundamentalists, who can indeed capitalize on the anti-imperialist leanings of the Pakistani masses. What nobody mentioned, however, was that on the very same day there was another general strike against the Pakistani government over its incapacity to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. This had nothing to do with Islam but was over clear social and political issues.
Incidentally, in Pakistan, which is also a Muslim country, the line of the fundamentalists initially was that the earthquake was the “wrath of God” and the people were to blame for their own sins. But here we see what difference proper leadership can make. As reported on this website, the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign soon organised solidarity brigades to help the victims and set up their own relief camps. While carrying out relief work they also did political work among the masses and firmly put the blame for the excessive death toll on the rotten Musharraf dictatorship, which has been unable to provide its people with decent housing. Very soon this got a big echo and the Islamic fundamentalists were forced to change their line and preach in their mosques that the government was also to blame. This was a genuine rallying cry for unity of the myriad of different ethnicities and religions and proved in practice the superiority of collective solidarity as long as this struggle for concrete material improvements is combined with the perspective of transforming the world on a socialist basis.
All the experience of the last few years shows that the masses in the Middle East are more than willing to overthrow their own rotten regimes. What is urgently needed is an internationalist programme around which to organise all the downtrodden layers in society, to channel this colossal amount of frustration into a revolutionary way out. As Trotsky said in his remarkable phrase: “Without guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
The extremely volatile situation worldwide implies all kinds of unpredictable outcomes. Let us build the forces to make that outcome one that can unite all nationalities in order to get rid of this terminally ill capitalist system spewing out vicious wars and one which can guarantee enjoyable work for all and enough free time to emancipate the human mind from medieval obscurantism. That is what international socialism is all about.
- Hamas wins Palestinian elections: the early stages of the class struggle and the hypocrisy of imperialist democrats by Alon Lessel and Yossi Schwartz in Israel (February 1, 2006)
- "The Writing was on the Wall"- Hamas in power, what next? by Nadim al-Mahjoub (February 1, 2006)
- Israel: the shift in the Labour Party reflects growing class polarization by Yossi Schwartz in Israel (January 27, 2006)
- Kashmir's Ordeal - Chapter Seven: Fundamentalism, Nationalism, and Socialism by Lal Khan (November 25, 2005)
- Islam and America... Friends or Foes? by Lal Khan (May 11, 2004)
- George W. Bush and the Crusades by Alan Woods (May 8, 2003)
- Marxism and Religion by Alan Woods (July 22, 2001)
- Indian and Islamic philosophy by Alan Woods (April 9, 2001)
- The Menace of Islamic Fundamentalism and the Hypocrisy of Imperialism by Lal Khan (October 11, 2000)
- Fundamentalist Resurgence: Causes and Prospects by Lal Khan (October 28, 1994)