Islamophobia: no! Free speech: yes!

Peter Manson analyses the furore over the Danish cartoon controversy

The Weekly Worker has not published the cartoons satirising the prophet Mohammed that first appeared in the Danish rightwing newspaper Jyllands-Posten back in September 2005.

Some of the 12 cartoons were provocative and were intended to offend muslims - although, to be frank, they were nowhere near as vile and despicable as some have made out. However, the reason we have declined to republish them is not simply because we do not wish to give offence. Though I am sure virtually every issue of the Weekly Worker gives offence to someone - something that is completely normal in the world of politics in fact.

No, the publication of the cartoons was initiated for chauvinistic, anti-migrant reasons - reasons that dovetail with the ongoing campaign aimed at demonising muslims in order to excuse the imperialist 'war on terror' - and we have no wish to be associated with such a reactionary agenda.

This whole episode started in what appeared to be a harmless way. Danish author Kà¥re Bluitgen wanted to write a children's book on the life of Mohammed, but was unable to find an artist prepared to illustrate it for him (ironically the book has since been published, complete with illustrations, although the artist insisted on anonymity). The editors of Jyllands-Posten claim they decided to test out this unwillingness to depict the prophet by asking 25 cartoonists to send then an image of Mohammed "as they saw him". Thirteen refused, but the other 12 were all published in the newspaper. There seems little doubt that the exercise was intended as a provocation.

As everybody knows, two cartoons in particular caused the most outrage. The image of Mohammed wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb is said by the Socialist Workers Party to be "racist". In the words of John Rees, it is the equivalent of portraying "Jesse Jackson as a golliwog" or "a hooked-nose Jew counting money" (Respect press release, February 6). It is noticeable, however, that most muslim opponents of the cartoons do not allege racism. They say, quite straightforwardly, that this image was not only blasphemous, but was a vicious case of stereotyping all muslims as terrorists.

The second cartoon that caused the most offence was one depicting Mohammed at the gates of heaven turning back a group of suicide bombers with the words, "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!" Others were pretty innocuous, and not actually directed against muslims - one actually targets the newspaper itself: "Jyllands-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs," reads the message from a very western-looking 'Mohammed'. Another shows the paper's editor wearing a turban, but the 'bomb' it contains is labelled "PR stunt".

The cartoons were republished across Europe and in several countries outside, and have also appeared in a few obscure titles in Britain. Of course, just about everybody with any interest in the affair has by now viewed the caricatures on any one of dozens of websites. Even the most puritanical of SWP members will have taken a quick look, I am sure.

While the US-UK 'war on terror' agenda must of necessity lead to the demonisation of muslims and the spread of islamophobia, both governments are nevertheless simultaneously attempting to pose as the most ardent proponents of muslim equality and try to appear more than accommodating to muslim sensitivities.

Thus home secretary Jack Straw said: "I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong." Similar views were expressed by Condoleezza Rice and the US state department, whose spokesperson said: "We all fully recognise and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."

New Labour has been trying its damnedest to win back the 'muslim vote', much of which went the way of the Liberal Democrats in the general election. That is why it did all it could to force through the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill unamended. According to home office minister Paul Goggins, the bill in its original form could have been used to prevent publication of the Danish cartoons in the UK.

However, much of the press - and the establishment - has been shown up in its true colours by its reaction to the first demonstrations against the cartoons over the weekend of February 3-5. These protests were organised by extreme islamists, including Hizb Ut-Tahrir and the new group founded by some former leaders of Al-Muhajiroun.

Most sections of the media were pleased to focus once more on the London demonstrators who held up placards which variously read: "behead", "butcher", "slay" or "massacre" those who "insult islam". The press had a field day calling on the police to initiate prosecutions for 'incitement to murder' and slammed the protestors for displaying slogans such as "Free speech, go to hell" and "Freedom equals hypocrisy". Blair and Straw, who had initially instructed police to take a 'softly, softly' approach, soon joined the clamour, saying that they would back any decision to initiate prosecutions.

We have consistently pointed out that, in the current climate, radical muslims are the most likely target of legal clampdowns on freedom of expression, including under the racial and religious hatred legislation. In this instance the case against them would appear to be slender in the extreme - the accused must normally intend the specific offence (beheading, massacring, etc) to be committed, rather than be engaged in some empty rhetoric. I suppose it could be argued that, although the demonstrators were not seriously expecting anybody to do as they urged, they were "reckless" as to the effect of their slogans - another ground for conviction.

What the press claimed to be particularly outraged about was the fact that one demonstrator, Omar Khayan, chose to dress as a suicide bomber - this very image was said to constitute indirect incitement to murder. While the media almost unanimously proclaimed its own right to publish (under the appropriate circumstances, of course) images that some might find offensive, here was one image that they most certainly wanted banned.

When it turned out that Khayan was on parole after serving half of a five-year jail sentence for drug-dealing, he was promptly whisked back to prison so that the parole board could 'investigate' whether taking part in an unpopular demonstration represented a breach of his terms of release. After the press campaign against him, the parole board was in no mood to take his fulsome public apology into account.

The following weekend, a section of the respectable wing of the muslim establishment, headed by the Muslim Association of Britain, organised a larger (although still small) demonstration. Although MAB has been pulled to the left in recent years in opposition to the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its dearest hope is to be accepted into the liberal mainstream of British society. MAB may be an ally of Respect, but clearly it would prefer greener pastures.

Former MAB president and Respect candidate Anas Altikriti said: "The first message we want to send to the country is that of the legitimate voice of the muslim community, as opposed to those that hijacked last week's demonstration outside the Danish embassy. We are people of peace and are trying to do our best also in bridging the gap between islam and the west."

Stewards on the February 11 demonstration insisted that only safe, pacifistic placards be displayed: "United against islamophobia" and "United against incitement" (that of the extreme islamists as well as anti-muslim cartoonists) were the most common. And if anybody was unwilling to comply with the political line of the organisers, the police were on hand to enforce uniformity. According to The Sunday Telegraph, they "ordered demonstrators to remove Socialist Worker stickers saying 'Blair must go'" (February 12). Curiously Socialist Worker itself does not report this.

If the Sunday Telegraph report is true, the SWP itself - which is all for giving the state powers to ban words and images the establishment disapproves of - had fallen foul of the kind of arbitrary abuse of power that was also witnessed the previous weekend. While the placards of muslim fundamentalists were apparently acceptable on that occasion, two people who tried to hand out leaflets carrying the Danish cartoons were arrested "on suspicion of a breach of the peace".

Political islam

Why did the protests take so long to get off the ground in any serious way? Five months after their original publication the cartoons finally sparked mass demonstrations across the globe. The answer is that in the intervening period these images were being disseminated by islamists themselves. It was, after all, in their own interest to do so - political islam has been doing its utmost to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the caricatures to whip up anger. It hopes to win support among muslims for the notion that islam and 'the west' are totally incompatible, that non-believers will inevitably persecute muslims and seek to eradicate their religion. For them Afghanistan and Iraq represent the attempt to put this into practice.

We can see then that the imperialist 'war on terror' and political islam feed off each other - both cynically using the other for their own purposes. We should, however, be absolutely clear as to who our main enemy is: it is imperialism, not political islam. That is why the response of, for example, the Worker-communist Party of Iraq to the islamists is so completely off kilter. On behalf of a number of organisations linked to the WCPI, Houzan Mahmoud writes: "The furore over these caricatures is simply an excuse to stage another worldwide campaign to attack the right of freedom of expression. They want to turn Europe into yet another battlefield for their foul ideas "¦ the aim is to impose islamic law all over the world" (leaflet, undated).

Some hope. The WCPI seems to have lost all sense of proportion. No doubt the comrades' own experience in the Middle East has led them to the conclusion that the islamists - "a generation of brainwashed fanatics with identity crises" - pose the biggest danger everywhere, but in its leaflet, 'Civilised humanity must take a stand in defence of freedom of expression, against islamists and racists', imperialism and islamophobia do not even get a mention. Comrade Mahmoud blames the islamists for provoking "further racist responses" from groups like the BNP and urges "civilised humanity" to take a stand "against the two poles of racism and islamic fascism in Europe and worldwide".


So how would the SWP characterise the WCPI? It would not be too much of an exaggeration to use the term 'islamophobia' in view of the WCPI's total lack of balance. Yet the SWP insists that islamophobia is simply a form of racism - indeed it "has become the last acceptable form of racism" (John Rees).

Presumably then, for the SWP comrade Mahmoud and the WCPI are racists, since they undoubtedly hate islam - or at least political islam. The SWP argues that, because muslims are overwhelmingly brown-skinned, and originate in Africa, Asia or the Middle East, attacks on their religion must therefore be racist. It is this reasoning which leads it to excuse - or even call for - legal restrictions to prevent verbal attacks on islam. That is why the SWP disgracefully backed New Labour's religious hatred legislation.

After all, everybody knows that racist comment ought to be banned by the state. So it follows that the 'racist' lampooning of Mohammed should be outlawed too.

Free expression

The SWP's Alex Callinicos, in his article 'Freedom to spread hate', makes it abundantly clear that free speech should apply neither to "the Nazis" nor to people who "insult" islam: freedom of speech is not an absolute, says comrade Callinicos - "everyone acknowledges that there are limits to it" (Socialist Worker February 11).

Thus it is just hypocrisy for newspapers like Jyllands-Posten and France Soir to hide behind free speech in order to publish "racist" attacks on islam. Comrade Callinicos states that the cartoons were "doubly insulting to muslims because they depicted Mohammed and associated him with terrorism".

The implication is clear: the SWP agrees with the spokesperson for the Muslim Action Committee, Shaikh Faiz Saddiqi, who called last week for a tightening of the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct to prevent "the publication of images of the prophet Mohammed" - whether or not he is portrayed as a terrorist.

However, as Anas Altikriti explains in the same issue of Socialist Worker, muslim opinion is "not unanimous" over the question of Mohammed's image: "Most muslim civilisations don't have depictions of the prophet himself, but some groups - for example, in parts of Lebanon and Iraq - do" (February 11). And Altikriti, who originates in Iraq himself, ought to know.

Again we are forced to conclude - since Callinicos implies that not only the denigration of Mohammed, but also the publication of any image of him, is racist - that Lebanese and Iraqi muslims should be legally prevented from continuing with this "insulting" behaviour.

But wouldn't a law which banned the Danish cartoons inevitably impinge on the rights of serious authors and artists to critique religion? Callinicos remembers that many muslims vehemently objected to the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic verses in 1988 - ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against him. But the comrade has an answer to that one:

"There is no comparison between The Satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. The latter are crude attempts to insult muslims, while Rushdie's novel was a complex work of art by an author of Indian muslim origins who was trying to explore the roots of the faith into which he was born. Socialist Worker defended Rushdie's right to publish The Satanic verses."

Well, you would have to say that the SWP of today is not the same as the SWP of 1988. I would seriously question whether, if Rushdie's work had been published in 2006, the comrades would take the same stance. Today the SWP all but repeats uncritically the islamist line on the cartoons - that images or words giving offence to muslims should be banned. Thousands of muslims were just as deeply offended and insulted by The Satanic verses as they have been by some drawings in an obscure Danish newspaper.

Apparently the difference lies in the subjective intention of the artist: "attempts to insult" are beyond the pale (or is it only "crude attempts"?), whereas (non-crude) works that merely insult unintentionally may be regrettable - The Satanic verses did, after all, cause "real anger and hurt" - but we will just have to put up with them. Comrade Callinicos ignores the fact that the best art is almost always provocative - in order to challenge accepted opinion it frequently aims to shock, to anger and, yes, to offend.

Despite his protestations one can only conclude that the SWP now favours special protection for the muslim religion in the form of bans and proscriptions. Socialist Worker approvingly quotes MAB spokesperson Dr Azzam Tamimi "for a fiery and uncompromising speech" at the February 11 Trafalgar Square rally, in which he declared: "They say muslims don't understand that governments can't control the media. Who are they bullshitting?" It seems the comrades believe they would have nothing to fear from the government being able to "control" SWP and other working class media.

Other muslim leaders have also demanded the curtailment of free expression - at least when it comes to religion. For example MAB president Ahmad Sheikh said: "Free speech ends when it starts hurting other people." In other words if it offends them.

As I have pointed out, the SWP specifies only islam as deserving of special protection (since attacks on it are racist). But representatives of other faiths have not hesitated to make use of the opportunity the current furore has thrown up. For instance, an official Vatican statement declared: "The right to freedom of thought and expression cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers."

Even 20 years ago images mocking christ would have caused an outrage in the UK. We have won the space to openly declare ourselves atheists, to criticise christianity, to 'take god's name in vain', despite the continued existence of the blasphemy laws. Clearly, however, elements of the established christian church would like to regain lost ground. Far from the repeal of the blasphemy laws, they would like to see them revived - and perhaps the best way of bringing that about is through their extension, to cover islam, for example. Does the SWP agree?

We know that the SWP nowadays openly demands that the state take action to ban this BNP march, to prohibit that offensive remark - calling islam a "vicious, wicked faith" or comparing asylum-seekers to cockroaches ought to have been enough to put the BNP's Nick Griffin and Mark Collett behind bars in comrade Callinicos's view.

This is dangerously naive. Of course, Griffin and Collett are utterly despicable and contemptible bastards. But the fact is, the SWP believes the bourgeois state can be entrusted to deal with them. It seems we can safely leave it to the state - its police, its prosecution service, its judges - to decide when a certain comment is deemed to have gone too far, when a certain minority has been unacceptably offended, or when a certain image may be declared "crude attempts to insult" rather than "art". Has it not occurred to comrades Callinicos, Rees and co that the state would just as soon use powers such as these against the working class, against the left and, yes, even against the SWP?

Comrade Callinicos concludes his article in this way: "Any socialist worth the name will stand by the real victims of oppression and exploitation and fight side by side with them for a better world." Absolutely. But what socialists must never do is water down their own programme in order to accommodate the obfuscatory ideology that currently influences many of those "real victims of oppression and exploitation".

Socialists stand for secularism - the only basis upon which believers and non-believers can seriously "fight side by side "¦ for a better world" because it is the only basis upon which they can fight as equals.

We demand free speech and free expression - including the right to offend - in the interests of our class. We agree with the WCPI comrades when they say: "Islam, like any other religion or belief system, must be prepared to be criticised, questioned and critically evaluated."

Neither must we forget that islam, while a minority religion in the west, is part of the ruling class establishment elsewhere. In many countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa those "real victims" are suffering directly at the hands of the clerisy, working hand in glove with the state, with capitalism and with imperialism.