The liberal Establishment, including the liberal newspapers, have responded to the still-burning political explosion ignited by the Danish cartoons showing Muhammad in a downright disgraceful way. They have turned tail on the traditions of freedom of religion and freedom to have no religion, of free speech and a free press, which in less demanding times they claim as their own and are ever ready to denounce Marxists for allegedly not accepting or defending.
Very little of the political explosion triggered by the Danish cartoons seems to have been spontaneous, raw religious outrage. It has been fomented, organised, directed by organised political movements and leaders of political Islam, including the Saudi government, and, in Syria and Lebanon, by the quasi-secularised Syrian Ba’thist government.
From Karachi to London, to Baghdad, to Ramallah, the cartoons have been deliberately seized upon and used to organise a gigantic world-wide roll-call of the forces of Islamic reaction. The response has been impressive. And, as it was meant to be, intimidating. It has certainly intimidated the liberals.
The cartoons have been the focus for every grievance, resentment, imaginary insult or real injury which any part of the Muslim world feels against the non-Islamic world - against the modern world of globalised capitalism in general, and against American imperialism in particular.
Despite the presence of many grievances in the general mobilisation, the focus on the cartoons has made it a single movement with one upfront demand - that the non-Muslim world should obey the prohibition of (the majority of) Muslims against portraying (or against insulting) Muhammad.
That people everywhere should obey a rule of a religion they all reject, and some may abhor. That those who refuse to obey the Islamic edit should be punished and penalised by non-Islamic governments.
Western governments who do not want to have their embassies burned down, or their trade with Islamic countries boycotted and ruined, or the lives of their nationals in Muslim countries placed in jeopardy, had better make themselves enforcers for the rules of a religion which their citizens do not accept. That is the demand.
They must curb free speech and free expression. Curb the freedom to criticism and mock and outspokenly denounce religion - the freedom from which over centuries most of our freedoms have been spun and consolidated.
And how have the bourgeois-democratic governments and liberal newspapers and TV systems responded? In the face of an outcry which - whatever energies other than religious feelings have fuelled it - has been a vast outpouring of religious zealotry and bigotry, they have apologised!
They have scurried and run.
They have accepted the diktat of Muslim priests and of religious politicians whose goal and ideal is to establish everywhere authoritarian-theocratic states whose nearest equivalents in 20th century European history were the mid-century fascist states (including Nazi Germany before World War Two).
Newspapers possessing the wealth and weight to stand up to the outcry and the very real threats have chosen not to republish the cartoons. Most of them have tended to place recriminating blame on those who exercised, on Islam, the elementary right to criticise and mock religion.
Observer columnist Nick Cohen has pointed out that there is now in the Western democracies a double standard. Where other religions, such as Christianity, can be freely criticised, more or less, Islam has won for itself exemption. Not as an expression of real respect for Islam, but of fear - the fear of outcry and of physical reprisal against those who criticise or mock Islam, or treat it with hostility or contempt.
The Western governments and press have assumed, towards raucous political Islam, the role of the toady to the hysterical bully - the one who tells those inclined to defy and confront the bully not to “provoke” him or “anger” him, but to humour him lest he “do something desperate”.
Some of them remind themselves of the unfortunate fellow’s many wrongs to explain why he is touching and quarrelsome, and insist that the issue is really “racism” — as if animosity to aggressive bigotry from people of the poorer countries is automatically “racism”.
For the invertebrate liberals, the fault lies not with the bigots. The issue is not an attempt by political Islamists to enforce on the media-shrunk global village in which we live the standards and methods of the least enlightened, and to suppress the civic rights and intellectual liberties it has taken us centuries to win. The danger is not that the standards of medieval-minded religion will become the international norm, that the bigots will gain the de facto right to regular what others are allowed to say and do.
No, the great fault lies with those who provoked and outraged the bigots by exercising the right — in Denmark, in far-away northern Europe — to mock and caricature Islam. The issue is that they have been provoked. The danger is that they will be provoked again. Self-censorship is thereby set firmly at the control panel.
Everything about this craven appeasement of rampant reaction stinks to high heaven. But what stinks most of all is the fact that what the bigots now try to do internationally is what they have done, and do, and intend to continue doing, to secularists, dissenters, heretics, non-compliers, liberals, and socialists in the countries where they are strong or dominant.
The AWL has an Iranian member whose family was wiped out when disapproving Islamists set fire to a cinema in Iran in the 1970s, before they took power in the “Islamic Revolution”. Large numbers of people in Islamic countries, or coming from them, have similar stories to tell.
In the countries where they are strong or dominant, the political Islamists are the enemies of virtually everything socialists and liberals believe in. They have rooted out liberalism, secularism, and socialism, and persecuted and murdered those who could not be intimidated and cowed.
The craven surrender of the liberals and the liberal left therefore betrays not only themselves, and what people like them used to stand for. It betrays those fighting the bigots in their heartlands - the enemies and too often the victims of the religio-fascists in the Islamic world.
The issue is free speech, but it is not just that. It is not just a matter of finding and adhering to general and universal principles. The right to criticise and mock and denounce religion is not just one right among many similar rights. The freedom to criticise religion is, in history, the root out of which all other such freedoms have developed.
It was a long, slow development from the assertion by heretics and protestants - by Albigenses, Hussites, Wycliffites, Lutherans, Calvinists - of their right to disagree with the Catholic church and with each other, to our erstwhile right to freely express atheistic contempt and condemnation of religion — all religion.
It was not a matter of reaching an amicable agreement with the religious in the time of their strength and predominance. It was a matter of drawing a line between them and us and standing on it, of fighting them tenaciously to win the right to dissent and mock and criticise their entrenched bigotry.
Marx wrote truly in 1844, of a German society where religion had only recently been dominant and all-pervasive:
“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism”. In history that is what it was.
It took us centuries of battles between dissenters and established religion, and the stages with which it was symbiotically entwined, to win the rights that the short-memoried invertebrate liberals now cravenly surrender!
The secular and social rights we have, the freedom from power-inflated superstitions armed to the teeth with the coercive power of a state, the right to think for ourselves and express our thoughts — all these we owe to the heretics who risked and often lost their lives in the struggle to let non-clerics read what they thought was the word of God, the Bible, and construe it for themselves in their own way.
The translator of the Bible whose work was the main basis of the King James version, William Tyndale, was in the early 16th century part of a free-thinking religious underground: he was kidnapped by Papal agents and burned at the stake. In 1880s Britain Charles Bradlaugh had to win four elections in succession before he gained the right for elected atheists to sit in the House of Commons as MPs without first hypocritically taking a religious oath. There were many many battles in between Tundale and Bradlaugh — and afterwards too. All that is being betrayed and prostituted by those who meekly accept the diktats of medievalist-minded political Islam. So are all those who now fight an equivalent battle for the same rights in Muslim countries.
The search for a common formula of “free speech” and “free criticism” acceptable to both the devoutly religious and the devoutly anti-religious, conciliating radically hostile world outlooks, is a nonsense, and a snare and a trap for one of the “sides”.
The idea of “tolerance” and “free speech” held to by serious liberals and democratic socialists is incompatible with any fervently (that is, seriously) felt fundamentalist religion. According to such religion, God made the world and rules over it.
The founders of the faith were his instruments, guided by him, realising his will. The texts and tenets of the faith are the Word of God, conveyed through prophets and messengers, who merely spoke or transcribed his words. The rules, customs, and rites have been established under the direct guidance of God.
There is only one God. There is, there can be, only one truth — the truth of the religion, that is, God’s truth, which the true believers personify.
Those who do not accept that truth are in error. They are the enemies of the truth, of God’s truth, of God himself. They are in a state of abominable sin. They resist and fight against God himself, as revealed to us by God’s messengers and prophets. Their lives are no more than a period of waiting outside the gates of Hell. They are instruments of Hell in life. They are instruments of the Devil, the vile anti-God, God’s enemy and ours.
They do not have the right to speak - or even an inalienable right to live. And so on.
A consistent and serious religious outlook on the world is in its most profound nature an absolutist, a totalitarian outlook. Such the “great world religions” of Christianity and Islam were in the periods of their vigour, rise, and conquests by word and deed. Such, much of Islam still is, and large and reviving partsof Christianity.
Between coherent, seriously-held religion and the principles of liberty and tolerance, there is no possible modus vivendi. The non-religious have to fight for and win their rights against convinced bigots. That is how, in the history of Europe, our rights were won. That is how the struggle is now in the Muslim countries.
The idea of accepting that you may be wrong, that the opposite viewpoint to yours and your fellow sectarians’ may be right, or that both they and you may be partly wrong — and therefore that your faith is only partly right — in short, of tolerance and respect for other views — that, where it pervades the religious, as for example it pervades most Christians in Britain now, is a product of the decay of religion, of its retreat before science, reason, and secular society. It points to its demise.
Our freedoms of criticism, inquiry, and expression were not won by reason, sweet or bitter. They were won in conflict, in war, by tests of strength of the conflicting forces.
They were won against the bigots of Christianity. They will be won in the Muslim world in conflict with the bigots of Islam. It is those locked in the now very unequal conflict with the religious bigots of Islam that the invertebrate liberal appeasers of aggressive bigotry betray, as well as betraying the proud tradition which it is the duty of Marxists to sustain and maintain.