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Middle East, Asia: protests against racist cartoons need anti-imperialist focus

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The publication of racist cartoons, depicting the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, sparked a series of protests across the Middle East and into central and south-east Asia.

One cartoon depicts Muhammad wearing a turban, which contains a bomb; another shows Muhammad welcoming a queue of suicide bombers to heaven, but telling them that there are no virgins left. Others depict Muslims as stereotypical terrorists. Accompanying the Danish cartoons was an article by Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, claiming, “Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims."

Many of these images are racist, an everyday occurrence in the popular media in many western countries. As usual, the publishers’ first response to the furore was an old one: “Why can’t they take a joke?” Muslims quite naturally reply that anti-semitic jokes are not printed in the western media.

Since the 11th September bombings on the World Trade Centre in New York, in 2001, followed by other terrorist attacks in Bali, Madrid and London, an islamophobic backlash has spread across the western world. Often it bases itself on Samuel Huntingdon’s nasty little potboiler, “The Clash of Civilisations".

Though officially rejected by western governments (because they need conservative allies in the Muslim world), the media still churns it out. It emphasises that Islam is “radically” different to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is therefore to be differentially feared as a backward, primitive, uncivilised, irrational, and mindlessly violent religion.

Taking advantage of the fear spread by terrorist attacks, it foments hostility to the Muslim community. In its more “liberal” form, it aims to force Muslim communities to adopt western values and denounce extremists and fundamentalists.

Thus, racist cartoons, depicting Muslims and Arabs as a backward people with hate filled expressions on faces, hooked noses and as suicide bombers, are common in the western media. Interestingly, these stereotypes are remarkably similar to pre-1945 anti-semitic cartoons, put out not only by the Nazis, but by nearly all right wing parties.

The editor of Jyllands-Posten justifies the publication of the cartoon by claiming to be re-asserting the right of free speech. The paper has a history of giving an airing to right wing racist views on the same pretext. But, in the recent past, the paper has campaigned to censor an artist who produced an erotic image of Jesus, and had refused to print a cartoon, because the editors said it would provoke an outcry among Christians. So its protest that it only intended to defend democratic rights is totally spurious.

Clearly, what it intended was to provoke was a “Muslim backlash” - angry demonstrations - which would, in turn, confirm their nasty stereotyping. It seems that fundamentalist clerics in Denmark rose to the bait, and set off to the Middle East with copies of the cartoons, even adding a few of their own, in the hope of stimulating a mass revival of fundamantalism.

On 20th October, less than month after publication of the cartoons, ambassadors from 10 Muslim countries complained to the Danish prime minister about the cartoons. On 10th January, a Norwegian newspaper reprinted the cartoons, and by the end of the month, as protest began to spread across the Middle East, newspapers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain also reprinted the cartoons.

So far 12 people have been killed in protests in Afghanistan, and three in Pakistan.

The Danish and Norwegian embassies were torched in Lebanon and Syria. Several hundred Iranians attacked the Danish embassy in Tehran, as Iran announced it was cutting all trade ties with Denmark. Hackers are attacking hundreds of Danish websites, posting messages condemning publication of the images and consumer boycotts of Danish products are taking place right across the Middle East.

What price free speech?

The millionaire media’s claim to be defending the right to free speech is bogus. They themselves are very careful to “self-censor” images that might undermine support for the war in Iraq or their troops’ morale. We have seen no images of the effects of phosphorus bombs on the civilian population, during the US storming of Fallujah.

When al-Jazeera shows pictures of the bodies of US, British and Danish soldiers, killed in Iraq, the western media itself creates a furore. George Bush even considered “taking out” al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar. The US government is so sensitive that it will not even allow the publication of pictures of US soldiers’ coffins of being brought back to the States.

In Britain a voluntary code, known as a D-notices, is used to produce the same effect. Such notices censored British newspapers from publishing the name of an MI6 official accused of organising the torture of Pakistani immigrants in Greece last year.

The Terrorism Bill 2006 proposes to outlaw the “glorification” of terrorism, which is so broadly defined that it could make articles, images and placards, supporting violent resistance to any government in the world, a criminal offence. Of course, British foreign policy at any given time will have a decisive say in what is terrorism and what is freedom fighting.

So the picture of a free and fearless western press “telling it like it is” is a total myth.

The media is in the hands of a few vast corporations. In the USA, five - AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation/Fox empire, Bertelsmann, and Viacom (formerly CBS) - now control most of it. Multibillionaires like Rupert Murdoch dictate the news the American masses receive. In Britain, too, a small number of press and TV barons have a tight grip.

Even the BBC, which did report the majority antiwar sentiment in 2003, was brought to heel over the accusation that Blair and his spin-doctors had “sexed up” the dossier on Iraq, thus paving the way to war. Piers Morgan, the editor of the antiwar Daily Mirror, too, was suckered into printing some fake photographs of British atrocities in Iraq, and dismissed. Now the entire popular media is in hands safely pro-war hands.

Trade unionists, youth, ethnic minorities and immigrants, who resist pro-war or neoliberal policies, are denied access for their views to be published and actively slandered in the “free” capitalist press.

Religion, the state and civil society

The war on terror, conducted mainly against the Arab masses in the Middle East, has encouraged a climate of racism and Islamophobia in which the western press is complicit. This islamophobia is not a matter of criticism of the reactionary and anti-democratic practices of the imams and mullahs, nor for that matter a criticism of Islamic doctrines.

Various reasons are cited as evidence of this: Islam’s supposed refusal to recognise a distinction between the religious community (umma) and the state and civil society; Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran’s oppression of women; cruel “Islamic punishments” of gays; the reproduction of foul anti-semitic material in many Arab states.

Marxists certainly have no reason to cover up the slightest oppression and cruelty imposed in the name of religion. We defend the equal rights of women, gays, non-Muslims and non-believers. We condemn all forms of anti-semitism as the “anti-imperialism” of fools, playing into the hands of the enemies of the Palestinians.

In every country we oppose religious laws and religious propaganda in state schools. Religion should be a matter strictly for believers, i.e. for adult, voluntary members of the mosques, churches, synagogues or temples. If they, as individuals, wish to submit themselves to the shariah, the torah or canon law, that is their own concern. But ancient religious codes originating long before the democratic and social rights, won over the last three centuries, can only have a reactionary effect when applied to modern society.

Freedom to criticise religion in the press, in the media, on the streets should be protected. No laws should be passed banning abuse of religion or giving offence to believers. Those, who are criticised, cannot set themselves up as the judges of what is permitted. Of course they too have the right to protest - i.e. they too must have freedom of expression.

Thus, whilst the Danish cartoons were certainly Islamophobic and racist, we cannot and should not call on any state to ban them. The capitalist class will use this power first and foremost to ban the expression of views hostile to their system. We are, instead, in favour of direct action by the exploited and oppressed to stop incitement to race hatred and attacks.

Thus, Tony Blair’s repeated attempts to get a law passed, which makes “incitement to religious hatred” a crime, must be resisted. In Britain, Respect’s support for this call is a scandal, another wretched attempt to win Muslim votes by trading principles.

We are, of course, opposed to deliberately offending the beliefs of religious people, because we know that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” (Marx). But the most effective way to fight against religion’s reactionary effects in society is to fight against the exploitation and oppression that make religion “necessary” - and that means defending our democratic rights against religious institutions attempting to limit or abolish them.

Workers’ control

If there had been revolutionary printers at Jyllands-Posten or the other European papers reproducing the cartoons, they would have argued for the workers to stop the publication of such racist, inflammatory material. If the damage was already done they would have demanded that the paper give equal and prominent space to Muslims to explain their outrage and their experience as victims if islamophobia, and for antiracists, too, to record their views.

There is a tradition of such action in the workers’ movement. In the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984, the Sun was forced to publish an edition of its paper with a blank front page, because workers refused to print a slanderous front-page editorial attacking the miners.

This sort of action could have been possible even on a right wing rag like, Jyllands-Posten, where the editorial staff have since claimed that they felt uneasy about the publication of the cartoons.

But what is confounding many in the West is the size and scale of the reaction across the Middle East. How can a few cartoons provoke such reactions? A campaign is underway to lay the blame at the door of Islamic fundamentalists, for stoking up the outrage.

While it is true that reactionary fundamentalist clerics are undoubtedly making the most of the situation, it is imperialism and its Zionist ally in the region that are the real cause of the anger. The targets of the demonstrations are misplaced. The crimes and outrages really worthy of protest are those committed against real living Iraqis and Palestinians. It is the outrages in Gaza, Guantanamo Bay and Fallujah that should provoke demonstrations.