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Fight Islamophobia – but fight religious bigotry too

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The world’s media have been filled with footage of angry Muslim demonstrators laying siege to US embassies. There are very good reasons to demonstrate outside such symbols of US imperialism and its regular, unasked-for ”humanitarian” interventions in the Arab and Muslim world.

The outburst of official and private Islamophobia in the US media following 9/11 confirmed the views of many Muslims that the US is an enemy of Islam. The invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, the drone attacks in Pakistan, have confirmed this view over and over again. The feelings of discrimination, disrespect, of being objects of contempt, suffered by Muslims are genuine and widespread.

Thus the appearance on YouTube of a 14-minute trailer for a virulently Islamophobic and quite literally provocative film - The Innocence of Muslims - in which the Prophet of Islam was denigrated in a way designed to give maximum offence to believers, produced a series of demonstrations and assaults on US targets.

Unfortunately, this was precisely the effect its producers wanted.

One effect of the social media is to give a hugely inflated picture of the importance of such events. Innocence of Muslims was utterly unknown in the West until the demonstrations started. It had, it appears, been shown only once in public to an audience of about ten people at a rented cinema in Hollywood, California early in the summer.

An Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted fraudster, made the film. Going under the pseudonym Sam Bacile, he is active on the small loony fringe of “counter- jihadists” who believe that America is in the process of being taken over by Muslims, who have penetrated the US government and media, to the highest levels.

Bacile’s intentions can be seen from his false but sinister claim that the film had been financed by $5 million from more than 100 Jewish donors. He plainly intends to stir up antisemitic sentiments in order to add to the effect. His goal was to create an outburst similar to those around the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses in 1989, the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, the threats to burn 200 Qurans by “pastor” Terry Jones in 2010, all of which led to deadly riots around the world. Jones, whose other exploits include hanging an effigy of President Obama (think what that means in the South of the USA!) has immediately taken up defence of The Innocence of Muslims.

In the West, the American film has now been followed by the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. These are plainly aimed at provoking anger amongst Muslims under the phoney pretext that their publication is a defence of freedom of expression, the press, a defence of secularism (laicité), etc. Such actions in an imperialist country, a historic coloniser and oppressor of Arabs, where Muslims are subjected to routine racist abuse by politicians, physical harassment by police, the media and fascist thugs, is actually outrageous Islamophobia. It is the duty of the left and the workers' movement to protest against such actions on the streets alongside people from the immigrant communities. Trade unionists should take direct action against the printing and sale of these provocations.

The purpose of such Islamophobic provocateurs is quite simply to incite ordinary people in the West against Muslim minorities, to foment attacks on them, and to justify further wars in the Middle East. They hope angry demonstrations by Muslims will undermine opposition to the bellicose actions of the USA and Israel. At a time when Israel is openly planning to attack Iran’s nuclear research facilities, and doubtless “degrade” military targets, this provocation comes at an opportune moment.

But it takes two to tango – not just a willing provocateur but a willing “provocatee” too. And, as in America, there is no shortage of religious bigots in the Muslim world to play this role. They, too, have their own agenda; usually to boost their own support and embarrass those presently in power. In Egypt, for example, many salafist extremists wish to “expose” Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi as a lukewarm Islamist, sucking up to the West.

Thus, in Egypt, on September 8, 2012, an excerpt of the YouTube video was broadcast on Al-Nas TV, an Egyptian television station which specialises in inflammatory attacks not only on the West but also on other religious communities. This was a cue for extremist Islamists, in both Shia majority states and Sunni ones, to launch a series of demonstrations.

These are the same people who regularly incite pogroms against both Muslim “heretics” and non-Muslim religious minorities. Such forces are unpaid and unwitting tools of the western Islamophobes, joining in a bizarre merry-go-round of crusaders and jihadis, in which it is usually innocent bystanders who get killed or injured.

After the Innocence of Muslims posting went viral, relatively small protests against the film erupted on September 11, spreading to Yemen and other Arab and Muslim nations over the following days and included attacks on U.S. consulates and embassies.

More important political figures have also tried to make capital from the incident or to prevent their rivals from doing so. The leader of the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah, called a demonstration by thousands of supporters in the southern suburbs of Beirut urging week-long protests across Lebanon. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi , under pressure from the salafists, urged the US government to prosecute the film producers and the Muslim Brotherhood called for demonstrations outside mosques.

Quite different was the military-style assault by heavily armed militia fighters on September 11, 2012 on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. This, it appears was a response to the US killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of the main leaders of al-Qaeda, in June. Thus, the protests of Hilary Clinton “‘How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” is the purest hypocrisy.

Despite the fact that their target is the US, there is nothing progressive in these demonstrations. They do not target the real imperialist policies of the US in the region but the groundless belief that the Obama Administration’s purpose is to undermine or destroy Islam. The likely effect of such demonstrations – intended or not - will be to inflame bigotry against utterly innocent religious and ethnic minorities. Moreover the bigger and more violent the demonstrations, the more they will open the large Muslim communities in Europe, the Americas, and Asia to further “retaliation “ by Islamophobic racists.

Of course the salafists do not care about this. Indeed, they positively want to isolate and separate these Muslim communities from the surrounding population. To seek to prevent voluntary integration is reactionary. Socialists positively seek the integration of Muslim workers into the labour movement and all Muslims into becoming citizens with full rights. Of course, we defend Muslim rights to practice their religion without insult or discrimination or demands from politicians or the state that they assimilate or get out.

But we do not support the demand that states should ban films or books that are considered “insulting to Islam” or that they should censor the social media. This would mean recognising the right of states to decide what people can see or read, it would mean strengthening the power of the state and so, whatever the intention, it would be a reactionary demand.

In the imperialist countries, any increase in the power of the state to control the media would inevitably be used primarily against those who oppose those states' policies at home and abroad. That would certainly include those who defend the right of the victims of imperialist aggression, including the Arab and Islamic peoples, to fight back and to demand equal rights. In the same way, calls for the state to ban fascist or racist parades have resulted in the state actually banning anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilisations. As opponents of these states, we need all the freedom we have (and much more) to expose the imperialism and racism of our rulers.

Religious institutions in the West have enormous privileges and opportunities to spread their propaganda – even in republics like France and the USA with secular provisions in their constitutions. Although revolutionary socialists should, of course, defend the right of religious groups to practice their religion and argue for it or against rival creeds, we are opposed to all state sponsorship of religious propaganda and its presence in the schools.

Likewise, we defend the right of bourgeois atheists like Richard Dawkins to speak openly and to “offend” religious believers of all sorts. We oppose and call for the repeal of all blasphemy laws. It is instructive that Dawkins’ meetings in the US have been broken up by yelling religious fundamentalists and that, in Pakistan, blasphemy still carries the death penalty and two politicians who called for its repeal have been assassinated.

If states were to introduce laws against “promoting religious hatred” or “showing disrespect to people's religious beliefs”, as has been proposed by the German Interior Minster, Hans-Peter Friedrich, we can be sure that Islamists in Europe and America would be among the first to be prosecuted. They have been able to use freedom of speech to say many things that are highly offensive to members of other religions or to secular people. In fact, secular, non-religious, and socialist forces in the west are a vital component of anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements in these countries and the best defenders of all minorities.

While we support progressive legislation that, for example, outlaws incitement to racist attacks and pogroms, we do not rely on the state to defend communities or movements who come under attack. We believe, for example, that rank and file media workers should halt the presses or pull the plugs on race hate propaganda in the press, the broadcast and the social media, including where it masquerades as religious polemics. None of this means that people should be denied the right to demonstrate or protest against views they disagree with.

In Muslim countries, the demand for a state ban on “anti-Islamic” materials would not only backfire on progressive, secularist movements and other religious groups but also present the state as the defender of the majority's rights when, in fact, it is the enforcer of their exploitation. In this respect, Islamophobic provocations from the West aid the rulers of Muslim countries and reactionary ultra-islamist forces to divert the anger of the masses not only from themselves but also from the real crimes of imperialism, military interventions, assassinations,  as well as the economic plunder of the Middle East and central-south Asia.

What is needed is for the working class movement, students and all progressive forces need to unite to combat as effectively as possible the poison of religious hatred and communalism that divides the oppressed and weakens all progressive struggles. In Iraq, in Egypt, in Pakistan and India, actions by fundamentalists of all religions have led to bombings of mosques, churches and temples and to outright massacres.

At a time of deep social crisis and worsening conditions for the poor and downtrodden, we must expect the dark forces of ignorance and reaction – whether dressed in religious, racist, or nationalist clothes, to try to divert mass anger away from the possessing classes and to mobilise the deluded masses against their fellow victims. In the imperialist countries this takes the form of racism and fascism, which has added Islamophobia to its arsenal.

In the semicolonial world, equivalent reactionary forces often base themselves on religious bigotry. Education, agitation and propaganda are certainly important in combatting this, but they will never be enough. What is desperately needed is effective leadership in struggle against the real enemies of the workers of town and country. This certainly includes the foreign imperialists but it also includes the indigenous exploiters. This requires unfurling the banners not of religious hatred but of international solidarity between all the exploited and oppressed.