Heaven on Earth?

Cartoons causing controversy

On January 2nd, 2010, an attacker broke into the home of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe. Westergaard, famous for the controversial drawings of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, has lived under the shadow of death threats ever since its publication; in February 2008, Danish intelligence also foiled a plot against his life.

On March 9th, seven people were arrested on an alleged plot to assassinate another blasphemer, Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist whose “roundabout dog” gained him public disrepute.

It is important to note that these threats and attacks are not simply carried out by psychologically deranged individuals, but stem from seriously deranged politics: Ever since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, writers or artists critical of Islam run the risk of facing the wrath of reactionary theocrats. To them, blasphemy is still a cardinal crime.

Astonishingly, the Left has often failed to take a clear stand against this, often in fear of encouraging “anti-Muslim hysteria.” Responses have come reluctantly and with all kinds of reservations. This, I believe, is to do Muslims a great disservice.

Yes, it is certainly true that anti-Muslim sentiments are gaining ground in Europe, often taking the form of ugly racism and chauvinism. Right-wing luminaries like the Dutch politician Geert Wilders use every opportunity to have a go at immigrants and Islam, cynically exploiting widespread fears of “Islamization.” This is deeply problematical. Any Left worthy of the name must fight these tendencies.

However, some important distinctions are easily lost in the debate. Let us briefly recapitulate some basic principles.

First of all, it is crucial that the Left never abandons the basic premises for free debate. We must stand up for freedom of expression, unconditionally and forcefully. Even if art and comments are provocative or even distasteful, they have a necessary place in an open society. By relativizing our hard-won freedoms, we risk losing them. Actually, whether we like it or not, unrestrained criticism is a precondition for an open society: Society is moved forward by argument. Only by maintaining freedom of expression can we continuously re-evaluate the foundations of our beliefs. Ironically, the open criticism of religion (and philosophy, for that matter) is a precondition for the tolerance of beliefs.

No religion exists in a cultural vacuum, and no religion can be exempt from social criticism. Fear of charges of anti-Semitism should not permit us to be silent on the reactionary policies and worldview of the late Meir Kahane and his Kach party. Neither will ridiculing the obscure Haredi sect Neturei Karta necessarily involve anti-Judaism. By the same token, various strands of Islam should be valued for their social and political content; this is not Islamophobic. In this respect, it is completely irrelevant whether we think liberal or fundamentalist Islam is “the real Islam”: All religions are human-made and mirror social contexts.

Furthermore, we should never lose sight of what is really “offensive” and “insulting.” As Maryam Namazie insisted, it is “the offended Islamists – from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Islamic Jihad to the Saudi government” who should apologize: “Not for their backward and medieval superstitions and religious mumbo jumbo but for their imposition of these beliefs in the form of states, Islamic laws and thepolitical Islamic movement.” For Namazie, apologies for the “mass murder of countless human beings in Iran and the Middle East, and more recently in Europe, for veiling and sexual apartheid, for stoning, amputations, decapitations, Islamic terrorism,” were of far greater importance. She is, of course, right.

The traditional Left triumphed human self-consciousness and fought hard to remove clerical powers, archaic traditions, and irrationality from social affairs. By challenging all established values they were “storming heaven.”

Let us be frank here and acknowledge that criticizing Islamism is not Islamophobic, any more than criticism of Stalinism is anti-socialism. The failure to stand up for “bourgeois freedoms” – and to support Muslim dissidents – is an eerie reminder of how the Maoist and Stalinist legacy has poisoned the Left. Instead of keeping focus on human universalism and individuality, large sections of the Left have emphasized cultural difference and national independence, and subsequently lent uncritical support to all kinds of “anti-imperialist forces.” As a result the Left of today finds itself disoriented and demoralized.

As a humanist, I certainly agree with Vladimir Nabokov that “no free man needs a god.” But secularism is not about forcing people to be free from superstition; rather, it is to insist on a society where religion is removed from politics and made a matter of personal belief. In this sense, secularism is a precondition for a society where a multitude of believers and atheists can live side by side. No free society can have a god.

Editorial Comment

Published in Communalism #2 (May 2010).