Monday, May 29, 2006

Religious fundamentalism, cartoons and stuff

OK, this is now a bit retro, but I've gotta post my thoughts on it.

You know, I always was in two minds about those Danish Cartoons. On the one hand, it seems to me irrefutably true that if you want to criticise religion, you have the right to do so, without fear of intimidation, death threats (or, indeed, of someone burning down a KFC halfway across the world, in bizarre protest at your actions).

On the other hand, there's something about Jyllands-Posten that gives me the creeps, and something about the general context of linking images of Muslims with terrorism that makes me vomit a bit, at the back of my throat. There was something that didn't sit easily with me, about seeing right-wing newspaper editors across Europe lining up to republish the things "in defence of freedom of speech". Where are they when the "oppressors" are vile regimes abroad, and not one of the most marginalised communities in Europe? Looking the other way and publishing other stories, that's where. Not to mention publishing story after story about "the rise of Islamic terrorism" amid a raft of "enemy within" stories since 9/11.

In the context of such demonisation, the whole cartoon debate takes on a different look, it seems to me.

I've had many, many arguments with people who argued that liberals and leftists should line up four-square behind the people at Jyllands-Posten, even to the point of having leftist organisations republish the cartoons. But for all the arguments, that's never seemed right to me. There's no excuse for feeding a climate of racist backlash.

Defend freedom of speech? Yes of course. Insist on that right being exercised in all circumstances? No.

There is a right to publish. But a right is not the same as an obligation.


Anonymous Indiana Jones said...

Hi Voltaires Priest,
This is an old friend of yours which probably you have long forgotten due to circumstances which should not be discussed on this post.
It seems to me that when we speak about censorship we discuss about the condition where someone on a position of power decides that this is publishable or open to public debate and the other is not. On the case of the Danish cartoons (which by the way, we did not see the harsher ones), the same newspaper which published the cartoons which identified the Mohamed with terrorism had not published other cartoons about the situation and the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine.
It seems to me that beyond that point, the fact that we speak of a world westernised to the point that when we speak about the dominance of fundamendalists in the East we speak of an East that had a past of colonisation which means that countries on the East have accepted a logic and a structure, and work within boundaries dominated by a western logic. Resistance to this logic comes to generate a counter - logic which is however only a mirror image of the oppression covered with hopes of independence and justice.
Let's not get carried away though. The wave of fundamentalism can be seen to make stable grounds on the first great revolution in Iran.
Foucault at that time was there as a reporter and his work on Iran while being put aside from his general work, besides the strong criticisms he faced due to his perspective, where he did not fail was recognising that something new compared to the way people in the west saw politics was in the process of creation, something beyond our perspectives and conditions of existence which could affect the whole area, all the islamic countries sooner or later. I have attached two interesting links, the original article of foucault and a general review of the criticisms he received for his work on the issue

Of course the revolution did not become what the majority of the people expected but this does not mean that things could not have gone the other way round. The issue is not religion but the appropriation of religion as a weapon for political domination of social movements. Homeini in the next years founded a state of oppression which many supporters of him found themselves struggling to fit in the reality that was on the making. Justice and Freedom were not achieved and instead we saw the creation of a totalitarian regime whose sole purpose was to take the position of the previous totalitarian regime. Even like that they kept as part of their dominant political speach elements of anti-imperialism, anti-americanism, anti-westernism in order to sustain their power trying to prove that they are a power of resistance in a world dominated by the west. Indeed most of their practices were built on this anti-westernism rather than a love for religion. Power is still on their hands not because of theocracy but because of practices which have selectively decided which parts of religion can be used to exercise power , which are useful and which are useless.
What i am trying to say is quite simple: first of all religion for muslims (iranians are not muslims but can be seen as having affected the whole fundamentalist movement) is in many ways identified with a demand for justice and equality, a law derived from god which provided prosperity and equality for all but most of all justice and the demand for justice is the first step towards freedom. There are AnarcoMuslims (links for texts can be easily found via the internet, some of them really interesting) nationalist muslims, libertarian muslims and so on. The common element of all this different political movements is that they are trying to use religion as a weapon for their own political programs. In societies were few can read and even fewer can participate politically if not spoken in their own language, religion can activate them towards a common purpose , right or wrong. All this sounds to me quite western and not at all eastern. We speak about rogue states where poverty is in sizes which we could never imagine, where rulers are in direct dependence from the west, where political systems are quite new in the sense that the creation of nation-states in the Arab world but also in most of the East were forced upon whole populations for their control thus remain a forced reality upon the majority of the people.
Religion is what makes these states work (the connecting link) but also the greatest danger for those dominant in these states and the interest of the west.
This takes us back to the question you raised: how can right wing newspapers publish these cartoons in defence of "freedom of speech"? The answer can derive with another question "If in nazi Germany they published offending cartoons for different ethnic groups would it be perceined as in defence of "freedom of Speech" or in defence of the regime, the ideals of the regime, the ideology of the regime? Would it be perceibed as an effort to free people from superstitions or would it be seen as an effort to create a people, a common identity for the people it wished to control in contrast to the other uncivilised, vile, dirty, dangerous communists, anarchists, jews, gypsies, russians etc etc. The answer if the question was posed like that could be quite easies.
In the same sense, right wing newspapers who published this cartoons were not really about attacking muslim but were forcenlu trying to built an opposition which could justify the distinction between civilisation and barbarians, the right to control over people who do not have the knowledge thus need to be controlled or tamed or else could become dangerous for the civilised. It is also an inner process for the right to control others is a right given from those who feel endangered by these others.
It is clear to me by now that within the neo-liberal agenda, ideals and democratic rights get so twisted that become the complete opposite from what they meant to be. This is a double victory for the rulling regimes in the west. First they act as if representing democracy and higher ideals which by the end they come to kill not only as practice but as words with meaning, words that are important, which represent higher ideals. A cleaning powder can bring a revolution but a revolution is terrorism and terrorism is everything which is against democracy. Maybe we should start asking ourselves, what is democracy...

12:56 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Hello, and many thanks for taking the time to post such a carefully considered response!

Your point is well made, but I'm not sure whether I'd quite agree with such a "conduit" idea of politics and the media. If I've understood you correctly (and please put me right, if I haven't), you seem to think that there's some direct, planned action between the interests of regimes and the media that operate within them. Now, I won't deny that this happens in some cases, but more usually it's because their interests happen to co-incide; in this case, populist rightwing newspapers' need for a scapegoat group co-inicides with governments' needs for a "threat" around which to unite an electoral coalition, and economic imperatives to keep labour costs down.

That said, it's certainly true that there's a climate of demonisation and monoculturalisation of Muslim communities in the media, and that this forms part of a climate of xenophobia that is both consequence and cause of the factors that I've mentioned above. There's also a certain inevitability about the way that self-appointed conservative "Community Leaders" have a role to play in the media, drowning out more marginal (and often progressive) voices from those communities.

Whew! Well, now there's a way to start a new blog!

11:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my point of view, neo-liberalism is fascism acted within the boundaries of a "democracy". Quite less problematic from taking control of the machineries of the state. It is systemic fascism, without the necessity of a hegemonic political party or of a leader to guide the moves of the people. It is a step beyond Gramsci let us say. Fascist ideals become meaningful not through the actions of politics but through the reality of economics. Economic fascism in the sense that by making rules which people have to follow in order to survive you can create the field where fascism from an ideology becomes a necessity as the exercise of your right to survive. The problematisation of immigrants for example in most of the western countries comes as a response to a rise in unemployemont, to a desire for greater profits from multinationals, to the passing of measures aiming directly on destroying the space of comminication and meaningful actions of resistance (for example flexibility in the workplace). Control is seen as the response to insecurity not as a harm to democratic values and control beyond the discussion of "the war on terrorism" is everywhere in everyday practices, from the way we consume and work to the ways we choose to spend our free time. While our time speaks of the necessity to take risks for maximum profit in the everyday sense people are putting effort on avoiding risk everyway they can because it can create problematic situations on their effort to survive within the boundaries of this system. We have learnt to self-control our needs. Human relations are now seen as problematic because they take time. Friendship, falling in love, participating in political movements all are seen as futile or quite problematic with no clear response, which means that there is no clear connection between taking an action and a desired result. Human relations are not products where the risk is minimal. Human relations cannot be consumed to give standard pleasure, Having learnt that everything meaningful comes through consumption, economy and time management, meaningful relations and actions are seen as a dangerous way to waste your time with no obvious results. The return of the cynical desires maximum security where everything should be seen as a product and the petit boursoisie feels the foundations of its existence shaking. Danger is seen everywhere, from the immigrant to the "strange" unconventional looking guy on the street, from the drug addict, to the neighbour who spends a lot of time listening to "weird" music. From the homeless who does not leave us in peace to consume, to the unemployed who puts in danger our position in a shitty job. This is not ideology, this is a practical way of thinking created by circumstances deriving from the re-shaping of the world in accordance to the "interests" of the rulling oligarchy. Interests which we had accepted as our own interests believing in all their shamefull lies.
Indeed, if we could speak of a world gone mad, the media is the most evident element of this everywhere present based on logic, madness. What happens to the mad? Usually they end up in assylums...

P.S. What costumes does a Voltaires Priest wears? Any image you could post?

4:33 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

LOL, you really don't wanna see me in costume ;-)

Anon, you paint a very bleak picture, it seems to me - albeit a very articulate one. I think you're right in a lot of what you say, but I also think there's always a potential for change, whether via popular force (Indiana pointed out historical events that could have "gone the other way") or else through systemic change. After all unless we buy into the idea of the end of history, then historical politco-economic change will continue. What that may bring, of course, is down to us.

Born free, but not in circumstances of our own choosing, and all that...

5:37 AM  

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