The Danish cartoons

Alan Thornett

Alan Thornett is on the national executive of Respect and a member of the International Socialist Group

The decisions of the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten - followed by various other European newspapers - to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed as, among other things, a suicide bomber, enraged millions of Muslims - already embittered by a  series of actions by Western imperialist powers at the level of world politics.

The cartoons were an attack on Muslim communities which have had to face everything from the plight of the Palestinians, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq (with 100,000 Iraqi dead), to the wider 'war on terror' and the racism and Islamaphobia engendered by it. They have had to face the spectacle of torture and humiliation in Abu-Graib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram air base, and the nightmare of special renditions to increasingly numerous parts of the world.

In Denmark Muslims already felt threatened by the harsh anti-immigration laws which have been introduced by the right-wing Government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen which depends upon the far-right and xenophobic Peoples Party in order to govern. Immigrants under the age of 24 are banned from marrying and husbands and wives of Danes who are not EU citizens are excluded from the country. The cartoons must have seemed to many Muslims as the final straw.

Faced with what they saw as a campaign of vilification against them it is no wonder so many Muslims protested. The failure of the Rasmussen Government to disassociate itself from the publication of the cartoons made the situation worse.

The publication of the cartoons has been condemned by new Labour, of course ­ who demonised the Muslim communities in the first pace ­ and who now want to get its Muslim vote back.

The duty of all who oppose the war, racism and bigotry is to defend the Muslim communities from this attack. We defend the right of Muslims to demonstrate against the publication of these cartoons, and we stand in solidarity with them. The cartoons are a racist and Islamaphobic attack on minority communities.

The character of some of the protests, however, coming after terrorist attacks on civilian targets in a number of Western countries, have been damaging and divisive. People have died in some countries and embassies and other buildings have been burned. Right-wing Islamic leaders and governments have used the cartoons to promote protests in order to strengthen their grip on society. They renewed the divisive discourse about a 'clash of civilisations' which play into the hands of the likes of Bin Laden.

In Britain sectarian religious slogans threatening things like "death to those who insult the prophet" which appeared at the demonstration outside the Danish embassy in London, and elsewhere, can only deepen racial and religious divisions. They played directly into the hands of the government and were a material factor in helping Blairıs latest attack on civil liberties - the "glorification of terror" bill - to go through parliament a few days later.

Such slogans went alongside attacks on free speech such as "Free speech go to hell" and "Freedom equals hypocrisy". The promoters of such slogans should be careful, however, since radical Muslims are  the most likely victims of any restrictions of free speech ­ that is why we opposed, and continue to oppose, the Incitement to Religious Hatred Act.

Slogans invoking death and the like were absent, however, from the demonstrations (of about 20,000 people) on February 11th organised by MAB, with an input from the StWC. Most slogans there concentrated rightly on themes such as "Unite against Islamaphobia" and "Unite against incitement".  Attacks on free speech, however, were still prominent.

The rather smaller demonstration on February 18th was more problematic. It was organised by the Muslim Action Committee, which claims to be backed by 350 mosques and Muslim organisations and which has Hizb ut-Tahrir as an affiliate. It was solely religious, opposed unity between Muslims and non-Muslims, and had an almost exclusive Muslim platform. It  was also gender segregated ­ men at the front and women at the back and strongly stewarded to that effect. Placards not authorised by the organisers were removed. Again there were placards against free speech with "Freedom to insult = freedom of speech".

By all accounts Salma Yaqoob made by far the best speech, calling strongly for unity and promoting the upcoming anti-war demonstration.

The SWP characterises the cartoons as racist and of course they are. Most Muslim protesters, however, do not stress this aspect of it. They claim that it is an attack on their religion. They claim variously that the posters were blasphemous - because they depicted the prophet who should not be depicted - or that they lampooned or insulted the prophet who should not be lampooned or insulted. Others claim, rightly, that they demonised Muslims by the association with terrorism.

The spokesperson for the Muslim Action Committee, Shaikh Faiz Saddiqi has called for a tightening of the press complains Commission code to prevent "the publication of images of the prophet" ­ whether or not he is portrayed as a terrorist. The extension of the blasphemy laws in this way should be opposed.

Jyllands-Posten defended its publication of the cartoons on the basis that it was defending freedom of speech. Indeed free speech is a basic right and must be defended. This does not mean however, that the decision to publish these cartoons in the current conditions was right or defensible. It was wrong and indefensible.  We defend their right to publish these cartoons, but condemn the decision to do so. Having the right to do something does not mean it is right to do it!

Alex Callinicos in Socialist Worker of February 11th argues that freedom of speech is not an absolute and that it should not apply to either the BNP or people who insult Islam.  He does not say whether he is therefore in favour of censorship in such cases! It is true that free speech is not an absolute, but it is a very important and hard won democratic right and it only becomes an issue when someone objects or feels insulted.

Presumably Callinicos will be celebrating the jailing of the right-wing author David Urving for his holocaust denial?

Callinicos also argues that it was the free speech issue which got the fascist Nick Griffin off of his race hate charges recently. That the jury were unable to reach a verdict because he claimed he was attacking religion and not race. Behind Callinicosıs argument ­ as with the SWPıs support for the Incitement to Religious Hatred bill ­ is the idea that we rely on the state institutions, state bans or proscriptions, to deal with the far right and defend the oppressed. Anti-free speech bans or proscriptions will the end be turned on the working class and the oppressed.

We defend free speech and oppose censorship. We are not for the banning of offensive opinions, even when we condemn them and campaign against them. And we take this stand from an anti-racist perspective that acknowledges the political context in which these cartoons were published. There has to be freedom of speech on religion as on all questions of politics, philosophical outlook and morality. Censorship and criminalisation will only strengthen the very state power responsible for stoking up the Islamophobia in the first place.

We defend the democratic right of all to express their views. This includes the right to produce anti-religious material whether it is philosophical or satirical. This is why we opposed attempts by Christian fundamentalists to ban the Jerry Springer Musical and the attempts by some in the Sikh community to ban the play Behzti in Birmingham. We oppose anti-Semetic material produced in many Arab countries in their campaign against Israel.

We are opposed to oppression of all forms - whether it is based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. We support the right of the oppressed to defend themselves. We are for the mobilisation of a mass movement in defence of the oppressed.

The way to combat such racism and bigotry is through mass organisation and united front mobilisation, learning the lessons of the anti-war movementıs defence of the Muslim community and civil liberties. This will marginalise and discredit those peddling it.



March 2006

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