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Editorial: The anti-Islam cartoons controversy – not about “freedom of speech”

6 February 2006. A World to Win News Service.

Last September the editor of a rightwing Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, commissioned cartoonists to draw pictures of Muhammad, and published a dozen of them. As he has explained in interviews, he deliberately set out to affront observant Muslims, many of whom believe that it is wrong to depict the face of those they consider prophets. But more than that, some of these drawings are very deliberately insulting to Islam as a religion and to those who believe in it, depicting it as the faith of mad bombers and bloodthirsty barbarians. Taken as a whole, they are meant to humiliate and demean a large part of the earth’s population.

In January, a self-styled Christian magazine in Norway rekindled the controversy by reprinting the cartoons. Since then, newspapers in France and Germany, among other countries, have done the same, all in the name of “freedom of the press”.

 But “freedom of the press” or “freedom of expression” is the last thing this controversy is about. This case does not involve “speaking truth to power”, but power itself speaking: ruling class elements in imperialist countries trying to incite the native-born population against immigrants and the peoples of the third world countries they dominate and exploit. Their crusade is not against religion, but other people’s religions.

It is probably no coincidence that the centre of the storm is Denmark, a country with one of Europe’s most openly anti-immigrant governments (despite the fact that Denmark has one of Western Europe’s lowest percentages of immigrants) and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is even less likely to be mere accident that the cartoons were reprinted in France. Their publication by a so-called left newspaper following their appearance in the pages of a more rightist tabloid simply illustrates the degree to which racism has become accepted by the official political mainstream. This situation has become even worse after the revolt of immigrant working-class youth that shook the country late last year. France’s Prime Minister Sarkozy has adopted the kind of anti-immigrant discourse formerly reserved for neo-Nazis. These cartoons fit in very well in a society where Parliament passed – twice – a law requiring schools to teach the “benefits” of French colonialism, which presumably includes the slavery that accompanied it.

 The cartoons were also eagerly taken up in Germany, where traditional anti-immigrant policies have taken a leap. Now Muslim applications for citizenship in Bavaria can be rejected on the basis of test questions about the applicant’s tolerance, for instance, of other ethnic groups and gay people, that would leave much of Germany seriously underpopulated if the same standards were applied to the native-born.

 Some people argue that the publications of these cartoons should be met with “tolerance”. But this whole affair is a demonstration of officially-backed intolerance against “the other”, the ones who are not like “us” – people who were forced to leave their homelands by the conditions imposed by imperialist countries like France, Germany, Denmark and the US in the first place, and whose labour is a large part of what has made these countries rich.

 The deliberate offence was directed not so much at Muhammad as against people who might have a child called Muhammad. As long as they bear an “Islamic” name or certain complexions, they are never going to be treated like white children named Christian, no matter what their beliefs may be.

We are told that the publication of these cartoons must be supported in the name of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet the rise of reason and science during that period was accompanied by the naked plunder and enslavement of much of the world’s people in the name of those values. Isn’t this hypocrisy still what’s going on in the world today – even as the West, with the United States of George W. Bush at its head, is increasingly waging its own religious holy war?

 All the pious talk about today’s European secular values is equally hypocritical. The Danish constitution makes Lutheranism the official religion and states that the government must protect, financially support and administer the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In that sense, there’s no freedom from this religion in Denmark. The UK Guardian revealed that three years ago the Danish newspaper that started this controversy refused to print cartoons lampooning Jesus Christ because “they could be offensive to readers and were not funny”. Apparently, more tolerant church-goers did laugh when shown them, so what someone finds “funny” depends on their outlook.  In real, if not legal terms, Christianity is just as much the official religion in France and Germany – not to mention the USA, where many of George W. Bush’s leading supporters (and the president himself) believe he was chosen to be US president by god.

 How can anyone accept the expressions of solidarity with these newspapers (and the governments that support them) in the name of “freedom of speech” from the Bush government, which last week had the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq arrested, handcuffed and dragged off for wearing an anti-war T-shirt at a speech by the president?

It has been harder than it should have been for many Europeans to understand what’s going on here. If similar cartoons depicting Jewish figures had appeared instead, many more people would have recognized the stench of concentration camps. Ask immigrants from Muslim backgrounds in the UK or any other country in Europe if such a thing seems impossible today.

It is also true that the response against these cartoons has been manipulated for reactionary ends. Egypt’s government, a wholly-owned American subsidiary, deliberately took to the forefront against the cartoons in an effort to pull the rug out from under the feet of the Islamic opposition. The attacks on embassies in Lebanon and Syria are very much intertwined with the jockeying for power of various reactionary forces in those countries. In Syria, the opposition to the government the US seeks to kick out is more likely to have been behind these attacks than the secular regime. It seems particularly ridiculous that the anti-cartoon banner has been most waved in Iraq by Muqtada Sadr, who seems very happy to call for attacking Danish troops instead of those of the US, with whom he has tried to avoid conflict and may want to come to an agreement.

 As can be seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fundamentalist Islamic regimes have been brought to power by American guns, and in a less obvious but no less real way in all of the countries of the Middle East, the US and other imperialists have played a double game with religion. They raise the banner of Christian holy war for their own people when convenient and no less conveniently encourage the rise of Islamic religious fundamentalism in the countries they dominate as a way to confine the resistance of the people to narrow religious channels and often to impose compliant regimes.

Maoists are against these cartoons not for religious reasons but because they are an expression both of the domination of much of the earth’s people by the rulers of a handful of imperialist powers and of the oppression their system is based on. By exposing and opposing these Nazi-like incitements to religious hatred from a revolutionary viewpoint, we can strengthen the unity of the world’s people against these rulers and build understanding freed from the shackles of any religion.