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by Finbar Geaney
In the battle against backward ideologies and reactionary political movements it is not correct for Marxists to create a special category for religion. Like other political ideas, belief in a supreme being - of whatever vintage – can only be properly understood in the context of the concrete social and political circumstances of the time. In the endeavour to persuade workers and other oppressed layers of society of the necessity for socialism we must firstly be honest. Belief in any God or any coterie of prophets is nonsensical. While it is always necessary to be clear about this question - on the occasions that it comes up - those who don’t agree with that position can still work closely with Marxists and socialists towards the achievement of reforms or revolution.
The prophet Mahomed is an absurd invention, as are Jesus Christ, the biblical Moses and the angel Mormon. The primary task in any political discussion is to be honest. To concede that any veracity attaches to the inventions of religion is to patronise. To pretend that Jesus Christ, or Mahomed, or Joseph Smith were some kind of forerunners for modern socialism is totally ridiculous, but worse, it is dishonest. All people, however oppressed, are capable of understanding truth. None of these religions are peace-loving fraternities. Excepting perhaps the coven of witches and warlocks that is to be found in South West England!
Unfortunately religious ideas have been gaining some traction in recent years. This is primarily because of the failure of the organisations of the labour movement to robustly oppose capitalist society and to convincingly present a socialist alternative. Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) was enthusiastically received last week in the Philippines; six million people are reputed to have turned out to observe his ministrations. The Hindu gods have gained a new lease of life since the coming to power in India of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Islam has increasingly been mobilising supporters, principally in the Middle East and Asia but also in the poorer suburbs of some European cities. This religious revival is traceable to increasing poverty and alienation in the poorer nations of the world. Without exception this development in religious fervour constitutes a reactionary movement and creates barriers to the growth of socialist ideas.
Different groups and individuals will inevitably confront the influence of religious ideas in different ways. The courage of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists is beyond doubt, as is the barbarity of their murders. There is no single template that Marxists can realistically expect to be universally applied in the ongoing struggle against backwardness. Satire and ridicule are but two means by which the falsehood of a political position can be exposed. Lengthy written analysis or short pithy summaries are other vehicles that are used in the continuing battle against reaction and obscurantism. There is room for all forms of serious criticism.
There is nothing obnoxious or distasteful about caricature in the everyday battle against cant and medievalism. In fact sometimes caricature may be the best tool to employ. There are occasions when a good cartoon can be more effective in raising consciousness about a particular circumstance than a lengthy polemical article. One needs only to look at some of the great cartoons of Gerald Scarfe or Ralph Steadman during the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the 1963 cover of the Private Eye Annual had a Scarfe cartoon showing Harold Macmillan as a naked Christine Keeler. That issue of the paper was banned in many English shops at the time. The eighteenth century cartoonist William Hogarth exposed the hypocrisy of church and political leaders in his series of cartoons A Harlot’s Progress, which depict a young female character Moll Hackabout being ruthlessly exploited. Alan Hardiman’s cartoons, which appeared regularly in the British Militant, are amongst the most brilliant of their genre.
Those people who object to the overtly sexual content of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons can argue about the aesthetics or the politics of the representation but, from the point of view of the devout Muslim, the Prophet should not be depicted at all in any form whatsoever; so that if Charlie Hebdo’s artists had depicted Mahomed in his best dress and having supper with his family it would equally offend. It is probably true that few would choose to caricature Mahomed in the manner chosen by Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists but comrades should not be too precious about this. Good taste is not always a feature of the cartoonist’s art. Comrades will recall the outcry about the sexually-explicit Rupert Bear cartoons published in OZ magazine in 1970 and the obscenity trial that followed.
There have been times when some Christian sects too forbad the representation of their iconic figures. In this regard Savonarola and his iconoclasts had great fun in fifteenth century Florence going around destroying images. But if this prohibition had continued unchecked what would have happened to Renaissance art! Or to the pre-Raphaelite painting by Holman Hunt, The Light of the World!
The fact that supporters of particular religions have sensitivities about how their icons are treated in the media is not surprising. However we do not worry unduly about for example the proclivities of Devil worshippers. A group of deluded wikkas in Western Cornwall could not expect to escape being caricatured in the media. And what about Rastafarians wandering around Brixton offering homage in their own way to Ras Tafari Makonnen!
All the major world religions have had a barbaric history, peppered with slaughter and sacrifice. Aztec priests in Mexico sacrificed members of their own religion in an endeavour to appease the god Huitzilopochtli? Wahhabi autocrats in Saudi Arabia today carry out beheadings and other barbaric punishments under the guise of Sharia Law in an effort to protect their regime; last May a Saudi man was sentenced to one thousand lashes for the crime of insulting Islam, a sentence that is currently being carried out. (Note the silence from the US.) Apart from assisting slaughter on the battlefield the god of Judaism and Christianity supposedly demanded that one of his most fervent admirers, Abraham, murder his own son. The expansion of Islam was achieved through military conquest. But there is nothing new in Islam; it is just that their current jihadist injunctions come hundreds of years after another of the favoured religions ‘of the Book’ discarded the useful and self-serving notion that death on the battlefield in the cause of the Supreme Being brings immediate and tangible rewards in Paradise.
It is not racist to combat Islam or to caricature Mahomed. Neither is it racist to lampoon the leaders of Catholicism, or of Judaism, or of Mormonism. The fact that the Front National in France or UKIP in Britain or Pegida in Germany is currently targeting members of the Muslim religion does not mean that we, or anybody else, have to remain silent on the backwardness of these religions. Nor should it mean that our criticism should be muted merely because it might cause offence. There are concrete reasons why a particular news outlet might decide not to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, among them being a real fear of the most extreme violence being used against anybody who defies the zealots on this question. Employers too have a duty of care to their workers. But such decisions are practical; they are not about trying to avoid causing offence.
No set of ideas is above criticism. No individual, real or invented, should be protected from satire and caricature. The origins of today’s Islam are traceable to the imperial needs of the expansionary Arab empires of the seventh and eight centuries. The bloody civil wars within Islam on a world scale today have their origin in wars between competing Arab empires more than a thousand years ago. It is the leaders of these empires and their equivalent today who are being taken to task in our critique of Islam. It is they who generated the inventions and myths that surround the person of Mahomed and that were used then to secure the allegiance of the peoples of these empires and that are being employed now to hold back support for socialist and revolutionary ideas. For example the Muslim Brotherhood wish to see restoration of the rule of the Arab landlord class and the destruction of socialist ideas throughout the Middle East.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire during the fourth century when the emperor Constantine allied himself with the Christian hierarchy in pursuit of his imperial ambitions. The story of Christ was welded to the material needs of this soldierly emperor. Young Muslims were not born with a belief in Mohamed. The belief system of Islam, as of Christianity, is inculcated through family, schools and socialisation. It is necessary that believers reach an understanding that they are being exploited and that the ban on the representation of Mahomed is but an attempt to elevate the reactionary ideas of Islam beyond the reach of criticism. There is no easy route to this goal. But to try and reach this objective without directly confronting religious backwardness would lead only to a strengthening of illusions and further divisions between peoples.