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How Marxists criticise religion

By KD Tait

21 January 2015

The 7 January killing of journalists from French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and the racist murder of four Jewish people two days later, were acts of terror intended to escalate racial tensions between Arabs, Jews, Christians and those of no religion.

In this aim, they succeeded. There has been a spike in attacks against Arab and Muslim targets motivated by religious hatred across France. In Niger, a former French colony, the Christian minority was targeted in pogroms.

The terrorist attacks and racist reprisals which followed have been condemned by socialists across Europe. But the question of how socialists should respond in the aftermath has proved divisive.

Many point correctly to the racist backlash and the ‘Republican demonstration’ of ‘national unity’ and argue the priority for socialists is to take the initiative in opposing the racist stigmatisation of Muslims.

Others have said our focus should be on defending ‘free speech’ and the right to be offensive towards all religions. This is not a simple question of emphasis. Socialists are both the most consistent defenders of the right to a free press, as well as intransigent opponents of racist and religious intolerance.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, we must decide how to balance these two objectives.

Is all criticism equal?

It is clearly not racist to have a critique of Islam as a religion. It is absolutely right to criticise the social and political agenda of those parties and leaders like Erdogan in Turkey, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which define themselves by association with a religion, as well as the ultra-reactionaries like ISIS or al-Qaeda.

Anti-clerical satire from their political opponents in these countries is a legitimate – courageous and often very dangerous – act whose purpose is to challenge the privileges and reactionary role of a religion that benefits from state integration or promotion.

In France and Britain, the two European countries with large Muslim minorities, there is an obvious difference. Clearly socialists oppose the often reactionary politics and social norms preached in Mosques along with those preached in ultra-conservative Synagogues and fundamentalist Churches.

But we have to recognise that Muslims in Europe are a socially oppressed minority, one singled out for particular harassment and demonisation by the state and media in the context of our rulers’ imperialist interventions and occupations of Muslim-majority countries. These invasions are justified as a war against the threat of terrorism and this threat has to be constantly amplified in the face of widespread opposition to these wars.

The media and governments therefore promote a disproportionate attention to “domestic terrorism” carried out by “Islamic extremists”. Certainly many young people are “radicalised” by the British state’s occupations and the brutal actions of its soldiers. Often they are not particularly religious, but become so through identification with that force most clearly identified (in the media, if not always in reality) as leading the resistance to British, US and French imperialism.

It is undeniable that many regimes use Islam as justification for their attacks on women, LGBT people, secularists and so on. Yet states around the world deploy all religions in pursuit of these reactionary objectives. Singling out Islam from other religions as having intrinsically reactionary characteristics is not only analytically worthless, but worse, it contributes to the insidious ruling class propaganda that Muslims in general are a reactionary and dangerous alien element within Europe.

This incitement to Islamophobia, that is, hatred and fear of Muslims, is just as bad as anti-Semitic incitement. This sort of ‘criticism of Islam as a religion’, whether it is engaged in by secularists, liberals or open racists, cannot be isolated from the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are non-White.

To liken the attacks on the Christian religion of the old ruling class by figures of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment, like Voltaire, with attacks on the religion of oppressed minorities like Muslims today is nonsensical where it is not deliberately malicious. Muslims are not a privileged stratum or do they seriously threaten democracy or free speech.

To argue, as some on the left in France and internationally have done, that our main duty is defend free speech and secularism, supposedly under attack from (Muslim) religious obscurantism, willfully ignores the context of imperialist wars and occupations perpetrated by the Nato powers in order to dominate and plunder the oil reserves under the pretext of waging a war on (Muslim) terrorism.

The right to offend

Marxists – as is well known – are atheists and secularists. We demand the state should be entirely free from supporting or advocating any religion in all its functions including education. However, this applies to its institutions – its courts, its schools, its hospitals and town halls and parliaments. We do not demand that religious people attending these be obliged to ignore their religion’s dress codes, observance of regular prayers, dietary laws etc. To stop Muslim girls wearing the hijab or niqab in school is as unjust as forbidding orthodox Jews to wear a kippah or yarmulke.

Where Marxists differ from Anarchism and bourgeois republican anticlericalism is our belief that, as a struggle against religion, mocking and abusing objects or figures of religious veneration, or its doctrines and symbols is utterly useless and actually counterproductive. Moreover, as we see with anti-Semitism, such actions can become a cover for racism – one the far right has recently adopted to evade laws against racial incitement.

Charlie Hebdo was not a far right wing or generally racist magazine. It has called for banning the Front National and subjected its leaders to merciless satire. It has mocked the Pope and other religions including Judaism. But its attacks on Muslims and mockery of Islam cannot be isolated from their social context and championed as legitimate anti-clericalism.

When Charlie Hebdo went beyond caricaturing individual reactionary Muslim political figures, to portraying Muslims in general as ignorant adherents of a backwards religion, it contributed to the pervasive idea that there is something intrinsic about Islam that makes it ‘incompatible’ with ‘Western values’ and its adherents more likely to express themselves with the bullet rather than the ballot.

To defend the right to publish such material, wherever it is not a direct incitement to violence against its targets, is one thing. Revolutionaries – indeed all parts of the Labour movement – should do so because we will recognise that the capitalist state cannot be neutral or colour-blind in its censorship.

Religious authorities must not be off-limits to criticism. However, just because we defend the right to publish does not mean we defend the decision to do so or endorse the content of material whose result – if not its intention – is to reinforce the reactionary ideas prevailing in society. In this sense we are not Charlie Hebdo.

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