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Muslims, Christians, Marxists, free speech: the Muhammad cartoons dispute. An attempt at a dialogue. [2006]

Submitted by AWL on 7 July, 2003 - 6:35 Author:

By Sean Matgamna
In the Muhammad cartoons dispute, the issue was free speech.

Q. What for socialists is the issue in the uproar over the cartoons depicting Muhammad?

A. Whether or not the devotees of a religion should be allowed to enforce the precepts, rules, and customs of a set of religious believers on people who do not voluntarily accept that religion and its rules. (Or - and this is important, too, for many of Islamic background - on people who, accepting much of the religion, disagree with some of its rules and customs).

The idea that because (most) Muslims do not picture Muhammad, nobody else should either, is the demand for compliance with Muslim rules by non-Muslims.

The fight against the rule of the religious and the imposition of what they believe on non-believers - such things as the imposition on Protestants, Jews, and others in Ireland in 1925 of the Catholic ban on divorce - has been, and still is, one of the core struggles in establishing bourgeois-democratic civilisation against old tyrannies.

Q. Isn't it that the uproar comes from people feeling that their religion has been insulted, and so they themselves have been insulted too?

A. Talk of "insult" here is specious ideologising. The "insult" consists in non-Muslims defying the custom of (most) Muslims that "The Prophet" is not drawn or painted. Why should non-Muslims comply with that rule? Why should they let a religious group decide to outlaw something which to non-Muslims is trivial? Why - and that is the issue now - should they be compelled to by violence and the threat of violence? Why should self-respecting socialists and secularists let themselves be compelled?

Because Muhammad is exclusively the property of Muslims? The depiction of Muhammad is a question on which non-Muslims should defer to Muslims? But that is just another form of the demand that non-Muslims comply with the customs of a religion which they reject.

In a world where Islam is only one mindset, why should we comply?

The demand that non-Muslims should defer is inescapably a demand that Islam should be privileged above other world-views. It should be above criticism, or at least above harsh and "abusive" criticism. The religious should dictate the terms on which their enemies criticise them, and what in their doctrine is to be held above expression of contempt and derision, above criticism, or even the "criticism" implied in disobedience by non-believers to the rules and customs of the religious, such as the one against depicting Muhammad graphically.

Rules and customs of Islam should be enforced on non-believers under threat of outcry, murder, and general mayhem, or - and this is now being demanded by "moderate" Muslim leaders in Britain - enforced by the British and other states.

In fact, the demand that is growing up around us - it is implied for example in the statement of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor on the issue - is that all major religions should have that privilege. The Muslim outcry encourages others of the religious to demand for themselves what the Muslim bigots enforce by threats and violence.

The Muslim demand for suppression of the cartoons, backed up by raucous demonstrations, blood-curdling threats, the burning of embassies, trade boycotts, etc., is the thin end of the wedge of a demand for Muslim or general religious privilege.

Why should that stop at the enforcement on non-believers of the Muslim prohibition on picturing Muhammad? Why should it stop at the prohibition of such mild and trivial (to non-Muslims) "criticism" of Islam, and not go on, feeding on the success of intimidation, to object to all critical or hostile comments on Islam, or on all major religions?

The pressure of Islam has already led to Blairite attempts to legislate against the freedom of hostile criticism of religion.

Q. But surely the cartoons, and even more their reproduction in European papers (and two Jordanian papers, and one Malaysian), were a "provocation"? It would have been better in the current situation not to publish them.

A. Perhaps. Or even, yes, it would have been better not to have let the cartoon business become the issue it has.

Would we, socialists, have published those cartoons to start with? No, surely, we would not. The one about Paradise "running out of virgins" strikes me as funny, apt, and to an important point about Islamism. Even so, caricature on that level, and in a society where there is racism against people who are easily identifiable as Muslims, is too much of a blunderbuss weapon. It can ricochet too widely.

The cartoons have, however, been published. Free speech is now the issue. Free speech includes the right to say things others may feel "provoked" by. "Freedom is for the one who disagrees". The issue of freedom only arises when someone says things you disagree with so strongly that you might want to stop him or her saying them.

The issue now is posed by the situation created by the Danish newspaper's decision to publish, and the reaction to it. It is not now a discussion on the wisdom or otherwise of the Danish editor's decision, but of confronting the attempt to revenge the publication and forcibly inhibit and forbid such things in future.

Given the actual choices, we cannot but defend free speech - and, immediately, that is also to defend the most vulnerable, those in mainly-Muslim countries who do not agree with the politico-religious bigots. This is a major mobilisation of political Islam - and in Syria and Lebanon of other reactionary Arab political forces, such as the Ba'thists, for their own political purposes.

It is impossible to separate what spontaneous element there may be the Muslim outcry now from the politically-motivated mobilisation which led up to it, over four months. We cannot defer to the spontaneous indignation without also deferring to the political Islamists who engineered it. But we should not defer to reactionary bigotry even if it were entirely a raw and spontaneous Islamic popular movement.

When the Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut are burned in the name of religion, and when demonstrators in London (who have been justly denounced by British Muslim leaders as "fascists") call for death to those who offend Islamic sensibilities, then opponents of religion and of Islam face a new challenge. I repeat: not the least important part of that is the duty that falls to us to support those in Muslim countries for whom the raucous bigots are an immediate danger and for whom the current demonstrations cannot but be a force of intimidation and repression.

Q. But it is not just religion. Religion is the vehicle in the Muslim countries - and even in Europe - for social feelings, for resentment at being excluded and discriminated against, or living in a world dominated by the commercial-capitalist big powers.

A. Undoubtedly.

Q. So we can't just respond to it in terms of religion, or of the implications for traditional Western liberties of the uproar and the attempt to intimidate the enemies of Islam.

A. Very successful intimidation! We oppose exclusion, discrimination, etc. as such. We defend the oppressed and excluded Muslims as people, not as Muslims (except to defend their right to freely practise their religion, as a religion). We defend the singers; we are mortally hostile to the song, and to all similar songs.

We can not - with the excuse that we think that "really" it is something else - support, or quietly tolerate, Islamic or other religious bigotry, still less the fascists of political Islam.

Whatever else in society and politics and international relations provides Islamic reaction with space and nourishment to breed, political Islam is first and foremost itself - a virulent politico-religious movement which, in alliance with Christian reaction and encouraged by it, threatens the liberties of bourgeois-democratic society. It poses a mortal threat to the liberties in the winning and shaping of which - including the right of dissenters, heretics, and atheists not to be dictated to by religion - the labour movement and the left have played an irreplaceable part; liberties without which labour movements could not exist, and, in a broader sense, the quality of general bourgeois-democratic civilisation would be enormously diminished.

Q. But we have to take account of the social, and in the Middle East anti-imperialist, dimensions in the Islamist movement.

A. Yes - by trying to give them rational, progressive, democratic, achievable expression, and by helping those in Muslim countries and communities who do that.

It is not only Islamic reaction that has a distorted social content. So too, in a country like Britain, do working-class racism and working-class BNP votes.

Working-class racism is often rooted in real grievances against injustice and exploitation, expressed in ignorant scapegoating against immigrants, refugees, etc., rather than in politically lucid animosity towards those who are actually responsible for social exclusion, poverty, and general oppression. Socialists do not - and, on pain of committing suicide as socialists and democrats - defer to such prejudices.

Q. But in fact it was right-wing papers who published the offending cartoons - the original Danish paper and the first papers to follow in France, Germany, etc. Why should we back them?

A. Because we are in favour of free speech for such papers. We qualify that when "free speech" is direct racial, religio-racial, or anti-gay, etc. incitement. Nothing like that is involved here.

Q. But surely the generally right-wing character of those papers played some part in determining their stand.

A. Perhaps. Probably. Certainly their version of "free speech" has a big element of bourgeois hypocrisy in it. Free speech for the owners of newspapers! Even so, there is in established bourgeois democracies a general commitment to free speech. In some countries, there is a strong historically-rooted hostility to clerical dictation. If some of the bourgeois-democratic right-wing press aggressively assert and exercise the right to disagree with and caricature Islam, that is no bad thing.

Q. But the decent liberal papers haven't reproduced the cartoons - the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, etc.

A. The Irish Times, traditionally a paper of the Protestant religious minority in Catholic Ireland, printed an old dissenting Muslim portrait of Muhammad. Libération in France printed three of the cartoons. The point about the Guardian, Independent, etc. is that they are "invertebrate liberals" - without principles or guts or historical perspective. In this affair they have once more confirmed that.

They are generally less assertive on issues like free speech and criticism of Islam than some of the less liberal bourgeois-democratic press. What Trotsky wrote about the Norwegian Social Democrats of the 1930s, constrasting them favourably with the the old Norwegian bourgeois-democratic functionaries, is sometimes still true.

“I soon had occasion to become convinced, by experience, that the old bourgeois functionaries sometimes have a broader viewpoint and a more profound sense of dignity than Messrs. ‘Socialist’ Ministers”.

Additionally, the British press is likely to have experienced pressure from the Government not to "make things worse" for British troops in Iraq.

Q. But surely there was a racist element in some of the cartoons - stereotyping Muslims, branding them all and their religion as "terrorist"?

A. The liberal press, in self-excuse, has promoted that interpretation, at least of the cartoon showing Muhammad with his turban turning into a bomb.

But there is nothing overtly racist in the cartoons. A cartoon is not a finely-balanced paragraph or thesis.

By expressing criticism of the politics of some Muslims in terms of archetypal Islam (the figure of Muhammad) the cartoons may open the way for people to identify all Muslims with some (the terrorist) Muslims. I doubt that anyone not already rabid with hostility to Muslims as people would interpret the cartoon as other than a comment on some (terrorist) Muslims.

Cartoons by their nature caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with stereotype images. To demand otherwise of cartoons, as a condition of publication, would be to outlaw political and "social content" cartoons as a genre!

In this case it would be to set up the targets as judge of what can be published about themselves - the sort of Muslims (and there are other sorts too, of course) who demonstrate against the cartoons, and the sort who provided the "story" which prompted the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to commission the cartoons (by mounting the threats of physical violence so that the Danish children's author who found illustrators he asked too scared to do drawings of Muhammad for his book).

Q. Excuses! The cartoon of the turban/ bomb is obviously racist!

A. If that was what the cartoonist intended, of course we reject it, and say we reject it. But, to repeat, there is nothing overtly racist in the cartoon.

Read what a thoughtful Muslim writes (Guardian letter, 6 February).

"I am a Muslim. I believe in and recite the Kalima. I am in a rage over the cartoons. I have managed to see them, since there are many sites now where they are available, and my rage is that they are an accurate representation. Political cartoons are wonderful. They are a mirror which cuts away the superficial and shows by exaggeration what the cartoonist sees as the heart of the issue...

"If a Danish newspaper commissions cartoonists to find an image of the Prophet Muhammad, where are they going to find the imagery to capture in their cartoons? They are going to see it in the face that the Muslim world presents. And it isn't pretty.

"It is the face of the bomb ticking away above the brain, destroying reason. It is the face of the sword guarding repressed, hidden and frightened women. About a vision of paradise as a male voluptuous fantasy inspiring people to kill innocents and themselves. They could have shown other ugly scenes from state executions to anti-semitism and intolerance of other religions and viewpoints. The scariest image I saw was of the placards outside the Regent's Park mosque saying: 'To Hell with free speech' and 'Behead those who insult the prophet'. The Qur'an and the Al-hadith are venerated and recited, but not read, studied and acted upon".

The writer, Rafiq Mahmood, sees the cartoon not as an attack on him, but as a cruelly accurate caricature of rising forces in the Muslim world - of people like bin Laden and the Iranian ayatollahs.

Q. But the cartoons are perceived by most Muslims as racist.

A. Are they? The outcry has been fomented by the political Islamists, rather than welling up spontaneously from below. Isn't the cry that the cartoons are "racist" just a translation into the language and concerns of bourgeois-democratic society of a religio-political resentment and intolerance of criticism and mockery? Doesn't it represent the cynical construction of an additional, "good" reason for resentment to rationalise the religious backlash? And this while the political Islamists - indeed, much of the Arab press - routinely publish viciously racist, Nazi-level cartoons about Israelis and Jews in general.

Q. But Islam is felt by Muslims to be not just a religion, but the prime element in the identity of Muslim communities.

A. Maybe. Yes. But it does not follow that if we criticise Islam, or outrage its bigots by refusing to be bound by Islamic rules, then we become "racist", or should meekly let ourselves be intimidated by the charge that we are "racist". The social and political cost of us acquiescing in Islamic bigotry would be enormous - especially for the unbigoted, the reformists of Islam and the unbelievers, in Muslim communities and countries. The cost of the acquiescence of so much of the liberal and kitsch-socialist press is and will be enormous.

Q. Even if you have to allow for cartoons to be a bit off-colour, or "unfair", surely there are some which are simply unacceptable - the Nazi-style anti-Jewish cartoons, for example?

A. Of course. None of the cartoons which triggered the uproar came within many political miles of that. Of course we have standards of what is and is not acceptable. They are not the standards of the religious fundamentalists! Or of the self-exculpating invertebrate "liberal" press who pretend that, instead of being cowardly and treacherous to the cause of secularist free speech, they are sensitive liberal anti-racists.

Q. But - you admit it - some of the cartoons do stereotype. They do indict Islam as terrorist. Not all terrorists are Islamic!

A. Indeed! There are Jewish religious terrorists, like the crazed man who shot the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. There are Christian terrorists, like those who bomb abortion clinics in the USA. There are elements of religious fanaticism among Lebanese Christians, among Serbs, and on both sides in Northern Ireland. The non-Muslim Tamil Tigers use suicide bombings.

But nonetheless the overwhelming weight of religious-linked terrorism in the world today is Islamist terrorism. For no other religious figure than Muhammad would a children's author in Denmark find illustrators too scared to draw that figure.

Compare and contrast Irish Catholic Republicanism with political Islam here. There is in Irish Catholic Republicanism a distinct strain of hunger for martyrdom. But not self-killing in acts of mass murder. Where an Islamic terrorist can think suicide and mass murder is a sure route to a Technicolour personal harem in Paradise, a Catholic, however strong the yearning for martyrdom, is told by his church that deliberate suicide, not to speak of suicide as a weapon of mass murder, would precipitate him straight to the fires of hell, "for all eternity".

The point here is not that the Catholic Church is "not so bad". History knows Catholic cults of death other than the modern Irish Republican strain. The medieval crusaders were encouraged to go and "reclaim the Holy Land" from Islam by Popes promising them that if they died they would go straight to heaven. Among Spanish Civil War Catholic fascists, you found a cult of death similar to that of the crusades. The point is the awfulness of political Islam now.

Political Islam, in power in Iran from 1979, and out of power, has an inbuilt propensity to terrorism in its doctrines, its traditions, and its idea of a holy war against the modern infidel world. In its doctrine of martyrdom, it has a continuously active incitement to believers to gain entry to Paradise by acts of war on non-believers, including suicide combined with mass murder.

Of course it is social and political conditions which activate this propensity and mobilise people to give it bloody meaning. But activated it is. It is a force in politics and in society. Long a force in some Muslim countries, political Islam is now a force in international politics

Without political-Islamic violence, and the threat of it, there might be more bourgeois liberals willing to insist on the elementary democratic right of the citizen not to be bound by the rules of a religion which he or she does not voluntarily accept.

Q. But socialists should downplay this, or else anti-Islamist feeling will hit ordinary Muslims.

A. We can't help defend Muslims against racist persecution by pretence or by lying. Nor in that way can we help reformists and secularists within the Muslim communities against the bigots. We must tell the truth. And for the left to restore itself to anything like political sanity, it must start by telling itself the truth. It must start by refusing to go with the invertebrate liberals and the Sharia-socialists in rationalising submission to Islamist reaction as good, progressive, egalitarian, anti-racist politics.

Q. But the cartoons go beyond telling the truth. They caricature.

A. Irepeat; in general, the idea of freedom for cartooning and caricature, if it is real and not sham, has to include licence to exaggerate and be "unfair". As cartoons, I can't see anything in them that is not more or less fair comment on a real situation, or anything that can be ascribed to a special racist, or even religious, animus.

The cartoon showing Muhammad on a cloud telling ragged suicide bombers, just arrived to claim their rewards, that they are "out of virgins" - in what respect is that not a perfectly legitimate mockery of the Islamists' obscene religious incitement to devotees to gain a paradise of harems and Hollywood "Arabian Nights" luxury for themselves by murdering citizens in London, New York, or Israel? It is offensive? Good! The point is that it is true! The same point has been made by way of contemptuous words a dozen times in Solidarity and Workers' Liberty.

Q. Even so, we should be restrained and sensitive.

A. We should be restrained tenderly sensitive about comment on that political-Islamist obscenity? Don't be ridiculous! For sure we should not be "sensitive" under compulsion to the feelings of people who do not denounce the suicide-bombing aspect of Islam today - who in fact encourage it, cheer it on, and provide suicide-bombers for it.

Q. But there are double standards. Similar caricatures aimed at Christianity would provoke outrage.

A. Would they? In fact it's the other way round. If the Islamists are allowed to prevail in the affair of the cartoons, that will set a new benchmark for Christian bigots to demand deference as they have not been able to for some years now.

Only through a long, slow, and faltering process have we won the freedom to mock Christianity which we now have in Britain. As recently as 1977, the editor of Gay News was given a suspended prison sentence and a heavy fine (with another fine for the newspaper itself) for publishing "a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion". Appeals right through to the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights failed to reverse the conviction.

At the beginning of the row, Gay News had declared, in an editorial: "In case Gay News readers are in any doubt, there is no such crime as 'hurting people's feelings'." They found out that there was, for Christian bigots' feelings!

If the Islamists can establish that "hurting the feelings" of Muslims - or hurting the feelings which they ascribe to, and sometimes hellp evoke in, Muslims - is to be forbidden, then the Christians will be quick to demand that once again their "feelings" should enjoy the same deference too.

Q. But there is racism against those who are Muslim in Britain and in Europe! Racists will join in hostility to Islamism while citing "good reasons" - ostensibly to defend "free speech", etc.

A. Undoubtedly. We face a complex reality. Among people and communities who are victims of racism, the vociferous elements tend to be (though not all of them are, of course) also aggressive, self-righteous opponents of many of the freedoms in bourgeois society which it has taken us decades and even centuries to win - in this case, the freedom of non-believers from forced compliance to rules and limits imposed by their religion on its believers.

Under their typical leaders (even many of the "moderate" ones), the Muslim communities in Britain and in Western Europe generally are, as well as being the target of racists and other sorts of bigots, including Christian religious bigots, also a powerful force for social reaction and regression. The once-cowed forces of Christian bigotry are ranging themselves around the Muslim leaders, translating Muslim demands for protection and privilege into demands for protection and privilege for religion in general. "Us too!"

We have seen quite a lot of that recently. It is one of the most alarming things in British society. We are seeing what may be the start of some variant in Britain of the organised militant Christian opposition to abortion which is so strong in the USA and which has sometimes taken the form of terrorism against the buildings and personnel of abortion clinics.

If we do not stand up now to defend free criticism of religion from the forces of religio-social reaction, Muslims, Christians, and others, we may soon have to confront those forces, augmented and encouraged by success, and some of them perhaps, as in the USA, using small-scale terrorism against abortion clinics and medical staff or other things which "insult" and "outrage" the ultra-religious.

In addition, the Muslim communities (under their typical leaders) are a virulent source of anti-semitism dressed up as "anti-Zionism", whose impact now, on "liberal" society and on the pseudo-left, is powerfully poisonous, and whose implications for the future are ominous.

Q. Well, then! We are against racism. That is our first and foremost concern. We must defend the Muslim communities, and oppose caricatures and stereotyping that are racist, or can shade into racism.

A. We are against racism, indeed! We are for the defence against racism and scapegoating of all Muslim people as of all victims or potential victims of bigotry.

But we are for the defence of all the freedoms which we and our predecessors - consistent democratics, secularists, labour movement people, socialists - have won for the citizen in liberal bourgeois society. It is in that framework that we fight racism and bigotry. In no other framework is it possible to fight racism in a progressive, integration-promoting, humanly-liberating way.

We are consistent democrats! We are consistent secularists. And we are either consistent democrats, or we are not democrats at all. If we are not consistent secularists, demanding an end to privileges for all religions and opposing religious schools, then we are not serious democrats at all, and still less are we serious socialists.

Freedom and democracy and secularism here are indivisible. The ideas that our "anti-racism" obliterates our other concerns is the idea that political self-immolation is a duty. This, in practice, is the governing idea of the "moderation-in-all-things" "invertebrate liberals". Expressed in other terms - of pseudo-militant "anti-racism" and "anti-imperialism" - it is the governing idea of the pseudo-socialists who know only what they are against (imperialism, capitalism, racism, etc.), and have excised from their outlook and their politics what socialists are for, positively.

Socialists must combine defence of the legitimate rights of people who are or may be victims of racial bigotry with militant opposition to the same people when they, on their own or in alliance with Britain's traditional reactionaries, assault our hard-won liberties.

The history of the SWP is one of accommodating to a succession of "hyphen-economisms". In 1969 we justly accused them of "Catholic-economism" in Northern Ireland. Their present course might be named "Islamic-economism". The common thread is accommodation to different "constituencies" or desired constituencies on their own political terms.

All such "hyphen-economisms" have the fault, as regards Catholics, Muslims, or whatever, which Lenin identified in the relations of the prototype Russian "economists" to the "trade-union"-level workers. They leave the "constituency" as it is. Instead of playing the proper role of Marxists, that of educators and raisers-up of consciousness, they play the political chameleon to their chosen "constituency".

Our job in relation to the Muslim communities - or their youth, and their "heretics", and their dissatisfied oppressed women - is to educate their best elements towards working-class unity, away from Islamic politics, and eventually away from Islam. We cannot do that if we sacrifice our own political identity by hysterically merging it - in the name of "anti-racism", and in international politics of "anti-imperialism" - with that of the reactionary bigots and militant obscurantists of the Muslim communities.

We are concerned not only with "defending" those communities against racists. We are interested in dividing the forward-looking elements from the others, the progressive young from the elders sunk in superstition, the working class from the petty bourgeoisie, the younger women from the mindsets that condemn them to acquiesce in age-old inequality and oppression of women within their communities and families.

If mimicking the dominant Islamic mindset might, now, give us a better "hearing" from some Muslim workers, it would be at the cost of shedding an irreplaceable part of what we, as working-class consistent democrats and socialists, need to say to them. It would be a futile exercise in political self-elimination.

In the 1950s socialists called some supporters of McCarthyite repression "police-state liberals" (driven by their hostility to Stalinism). Now, for example in the astonishing SWP welcome for the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, we have "Sharia socialists", people who, driven by "anti-imperialist" opposition to advanced capitalism, accommodate to authoritarian, medieval-minded, religio-fascist Islamism.

We are concerned to integrate workers from the Muslim communities into the labour movement; to unite them with the rest of the working class; to win them to socialism, secularism, contempt for the presently dominant Islamic bigots and the bigots' mindset, and comprehensive rejection of it. Otherwise our anti-racism is just flaccid liberalism.

I repeat: to do what we have to do presupposes that we preserve and aggressively assert our own identity - including the militant secularist element in it.

Q. But we are not vulgar secularist preachers! It is only in struggle that the youth of Islam will begin to emancipate themselves and slough off their religious ideas.

A. Indeed! But the generally true definition of how people will be emancipated en masse cannot be an excuse for shedding our responsibility to educate the small numbers who can and must be reached before we reach the mass - and without the preparation of whom now there will be no, or a much slower, general enlightenment in future. It cannot be an excuse for a reactionary chameleon adaptation to Muslim identity, or to aggressive political Islam. Or for a cowardly refusal to counterpose our own identity now to the dominant religio-communalist identity.

Q. Aren't you substituting secularism and hostility to religion - specifically to Islam - for anti-racism and anti-imperialism? Aren't you relapsing into anti-religious concerns that for most of West European society are already anachronistic? Religion is dying anyway. Britain is irreversibly secular.

A. Are you sure that you are not being anachronistic? Religion is on the offensive. In Britain, the different religious bodies engage in what Americans call political "log-rolling", backing each others' demands for repression of critics and those who offend.

It would be foolish to believe in the "inevitability of progress" here. Regression is possible. Over the last decades, the Middle Eastern countries have regressed from a secularising nationalism to Islamic chauvinism.

How long it may be before the Muslim communities in Western Europe dissolve and integrate, we don't know. It may take generations. The long-term trends in Britain and Europe may be for the decline of old religion. Even within such a trend there can be - and is - limited, sectional, revival.

In any case we should not, by smug fatalism about the future, immobilise ourselves as an active force working to shape the future. Here and now, we have to assert our own secular, anti-religious identity.

Q. As I say - vulgar secularism!

A. The Marxist movement has defended freedom of religion. For example, the German Social Democrats defended the German Catholic Church from persecution during Chancellor Bismarck's Kulturkampf. But the Marxists combined defending freedom of religion with the demand for "freedom of atheistic propaganda".

Who, even 16 years ago, when the demonstrations against Salman Rushdie erupted, would have said that early in the 21st century we would have to defend freedom for atheistic propaganda against the recent attacks by the Blair government?

We are secularists and we are militant atheists. We speak out on these things in all conditions in which they are given immediacy by the society around us.

Who can seriously argue that they do not now possess an immediacy in Britain which they have not had for many decades?

One of the inbuilt weaknesses of the left in Britain - in the broadest historical sense, including the liberals - is that we have not for centuries had a historical experience of struggle against repressive religion comparable to that far more recently in Catholic countries like France, in which secularism is deeply lodged in the foundations of the left.

It is true that it was as late as 1855 that special civil disabilities were lifted from Jews, and a mere 26 years earlier that they were lifted from Catholics. But there were very few Jews in Britain, and, before mass Irish immigration, not all that many Catholics (except, of course, in Britain's internal colony, Ireland itself, where the national and religious oppression of the "helot nation" were fused).

Though the Established Church was a powerful force in British society well into the 20th century, the "compromise" of science and religion worked out in the late 17th century allowed for an immense freedom of thought. (God is the "first cause", but all the "secondary causes" which he set in motion have to be explored and explained empirically and scientifically).

We have had it comparatively very easy, certainly in the last decades. The suicidal antics of the pseudo-left with Islamist groups are the measure of how much we need to take stock and reorient.

Q. But it is not just religion. You admitted it, at least in part: religion is the mask for political and social resentment.

A. Yes, but we do not don that mask. Still less do we, like so much of the pseudo-left now, engraft that mask onto what was our face! Nor can we be meek and gentle and accommodating with those who do.

The question of working-class unity is centrally involved here. Apart from all other considerations, for the left - beyond the need to defend communities against the physical attacks of racists and non-Islamic fascists - to assume the religious identity of one community, is necessarily to exclude ourselves from the possibility of playing the role we must with the working class in general, that of advocates, promoters, and organisers of working-class unity.

The idea that we go beyond physical "defence" of Muslim people to "defend" the ideas, doctrines, rules, and customs of Islam is a recipe for political, intellectual, and moral suicide by the left.

Working-class unity cannot be built around accommodation to Islamic communalism and sectionalism, any more than it can by accommodating to Protestant or Catholic communalism in Northern Ireland. That would be to exclude all the other sections of the working class - not only non-Islamic working-class bigots and racists, but also decent labour movement people, and secularising Muslims too. The labour movement can not but, in its majority, be hostile to the regressive tendencies of the militant Islamists.

Q. There are very big difficulties in convincing other than a minority of Muslims - and initially, perhaps, not a big minority - of that.

A. Yes. But the difficulties are not so big as those in the way of convincing the British labour movement, or any other labour movement built on secularist and non-sectarian lines, to defer to political Islam and communalist Islam!

Our role can not but be that of advocates of working-class unity on the basis of treating religion - all religion, of course - as a private matter vis-a-vis society, the state, and the labour movement.

Within that framework, and as part of it, we defend the Muslim communities against bigotry and racism. And within that framework, and as part of it, we advocate that the broad labour movement should do the same.

The consequence of the alternative - identification with the Muslim communities in the manner of the benighted "Islamist-economists", Respect and the SWP - would, all proportions guarded, over time generate something resembling the communalism in Northern Ireland that has crippled the labour movement there for generations, and still cripples it.

The British state, with its crypto-Catholic prime minister and its astonishingly short-sighted and irresponsible promotion of "faith schools", is already doing its best, by segregating children, to promote and fix such communalism. So too, in its political foolishness and habitual irresponsibility, is the kitsch-left.

Our responsibilities in this situation have already been set out.

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