Monday, 19 January 2015

Religion and Liberal Cowardice

The attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, by Islamists, has once again raised the issue of the defence of basic bourgeois freedoms, such as free speech. But, as with the similar attacks, several years ago, after the publication of the Danish cartoons, or the fatwa, issued against Salman Rushdie, before that, and several other incidents of religious violence, it shows that the bourgeoisie itself cannot be relied upon to defend those basic values and freedoms in whose name their own revolution was conducted.

Not only has the liberal bourgeoisie failed to carry through its own revolution consistently, not only does it undermine those basic values and freedoms, in order to defend its own monopoly and privilege, against the working-class, but it fails even to defend those rights and freedoms, even in its own interests, against the forces of conservatism and reaction. It falls once more to the working-class, and socialists, not just to wage the struggle to go beyond those limited rights and freedoms, but even to defend the existing rights and freedoms, given the cowardice of the liberal bourgeoisie, and its failure to do so.

It should not be a question of individuals, such as Rushdie, or small magazines, such as Charlie Hebdo, to act alone, and for the journalists and writers, individually, to be placed in jeopardy. The large media organisations, be they the broadcasters or the large newspaper organisations, have the means to take on that task, and to protect themselves and their staff in the way that individuals and small organisations do not. Yet when the Danish cartoons were published, several years ago, the major newspapers refused to reproduce them, even as part of telling the story about the violent reaction that had been whipped up against them. The TV stations, in telling that story, themselves did not show the cartoons, or, to the extent they did, they were blurred out.

Similarly, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, for all the liberal hand-wringing, and hash-tagging about “Nous Sommes Charlie”, it is clear that those same organisations have still not grown any balls since that time, and have still not shown the basic solidarity, and defence of free speech, required of them in reproducing the cartoons. They quite clearly have shown themselves not to be Charlie, in that most important sense. Rather they have chosen to dress up their cowardice in a series of hypocritical arguments. The worst of those, put forward by apologists for Islamism, end up, as such forces usually do, attempting themselves to close down debate, by characterising the victims as in some way asking for what happened to them, including in its most vile manifestation, characterising Charlie Hebdo as racist.

The liberals continually dress up their cowardice, by such a blurring of distinctions between ethnicity and religion, so that any criticism of religion is presented as an attack on the ethnicity of the majority of followers of that religion, and the concomitant of this cowardice, to deal with religion, for fear of being accused of racism, is then that any criticism of those who act violently, in defence of such religion, must be couched in terms that are apologist, and which seek to present the perpetrators themselves as somehow being at odds with their faith, and forced, by other factors, into such deviation. Over the last week or so, just as has happened in every other such atrocity, we are told that the religion, in whose name it has been perpetrated, is a peaceful one. In reality, this is like taking the fact that, in circuses, for a long time, lions and tigers had been tamed and made to perform tricks, without attacking the lion tamer, and so claiming that lions and tigers are peaceful by nature.

One of the most pernicious arguments I have heard, during the last week or so, was to take the fundamentally correct idea that there are no absolute rights, other than those that man in society is prepared to defend, and to turn this into an argument for self-censorship. The argument that was put, as an extension of this, is that satire is only satire if its funny, and if it attacks only those with power. The Islamists, its then claimed, do not have such power, in a way that, presumably, western governments do. Not only is this crude apologism for Islamism, but it is quite clearly and obviously false. What greater demonstration of power, of those Islamists, could there be than that journalists, working for some of the largest, most powerful organisations, in the most powerful supposedly liberal regimes in the world, dare not exercise their right of free speech, for fear of being murdered? 

But, those disgusting arguments are possible, because liberals themselves have failed to defend their own ideology against conservatism and reaction. The idea that the terrorists are, in some way, aberrant, and acting against the teachings of naturally peaceful religions, does not come from the misguided apologists of Islamism, it comes from the mainstream liberal press, and politicians. Yet, it is quite clear that the basis of that argument is false. Not only are all religions necessarily intolerant, and authoritarian, but where they have the ability to do so, they have always used violence as the basis of enforcing their dogma.

A look at the Old Testament, a book shared by both Christians and Jews is a litany of bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism and violence all in the name of a jealous, merciless and vengeful God, who repeatedly requires his followers to prove themselves, by acts of violence, including against their own children, let alone against those who follow other gods. Jesus Christ was a Jew, who naturally adopted those same principles, if we are to believe the writing in the New Testament. That is manifest in his own attitude to non-Jews, such as his reference to the Canaanite woman, who sought his help, as a gentile dog! 

But, this inherently intolerant, authoritarian and violent nature, of religion, is not something that only existed in its own genesis, and out of which it could mature and evolve into its current supposedly peaceful manifestation.  The Spanish Inquisition was created by Pope Lucius III, with the specific function of violently suppressing dissent, and enforcing conformity. Throughout the Middle Ages, not only were there repeated religious wars, but every religion enforced its own orthodoxy by such violent means, for example, in the role of witch finders and witch trials, and the burning of heretics, as one of the less grotesque forms of violence, inflicted on those that had the timidity to disagree, or think freely.

The example of Galileo is a demonstration of the difficulties even those more privileged within such societies had, even as Enlightenment ideas began to develop alongside the growth of the bourgeoisie. In Britain, the birth of such Enlightenment ideas, and a concomitant development of religious tolerance, went along with a civil war fought in the name of religion, and a long period of religious conflict that spread into Scotland and Ireland. A refusal to accept the growing religious tolerance caused the Protestant bigots themselves to choose to establish their own Christian fundamentalist colonies in America. That historical fact is again glossed over by the liberals who refer to them only as the Pilgrim Fathers.

And having established themselves in America, this religious intolerance and violence again became fundamental, with Catholics being specifically persecuted, let alone the repeated violence and massacres committed by the Christian settlers against the natives

As the Smithsonian Institute itself puts it,

“From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

Yet, even here, the cowardice of liberalism shines through, because, having described the fact that Christianity from the start, in America, was based upon this intolerance and violence, it cannot bring itself to admit that this is inherent in its nature and, still wants to present these acts, not by a few individuals, but by the religious organisations themselves, as in some way aberrant from the religion! Once the idea is accepted that Christianity, like every other religion, is itself inherently intolerant, authoritarian and violent, in pursuit of its survival and extension, then the notion that these acts are in some way “an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation”" disappears. What is more, the idea that the United States, as Britain and other Christian nations before it, can fight wars and kill millions of people, whilst still claiming to be acting in the name of Christianity, also no longer constitutes any contradiction.

So, the claim, made by the apologists, that satire is only justified against those with power, and that the religious fundamentalists do not have such power, is not just wrong, in the sense already discussed, but it is fundamentally wrong, because, throughout history, it is not just individual zealots that have acted violently as a manifestation of their intolerance, but organised religion itself, often in combination with the state with which it has been inextricably linked. That is true today. The claim that the Islamists are merely individuals without such power is cringeing apologism on the part of those who make it.

Those who attacked Charlie Hebdo have themselves proclaimed that they were soldiers of the so called Islamic State, that has itself slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria, including many who were themselves Muslims. The Islamic State, which seeks to establish a Caliphate on a wider basis, itself has huge amounts of money, taken from banks in the area, and oil revenues, as well as the financing that has been provided by the Islamist regimes in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Monarchies. In what sense do the apologists for Islamism claim that this does not constitute power?

Moreover, these regimes also give the lie to the idea that religions are naturally peaceful, even in relation to their own followers, or those that live within the remit of these regimes. In just the same way that heretics were burned at the stake by the Christian Church in England and the United States, in the not too distant past, so heretics today face the same fate, in many regimes across the globe today, not at the hands of individual zealots, but at the hands of the state and the religious authorities themselves, as the current example of Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in jail, and 1,000 lashes under Sharia law in Saudi Arabia demonstrates.  His crime was not to profane the prophet, but merely to offer up mild criticism of Saudi clerics.

Then we have the public beheading, by these same religious/state authorities, in Saudi Arabia, of a Burmese woman, which is only the latest of a series of such public executions in recent times.

Yet, the cowardice and hypocrisy of western liberals, illustrated not just by their own playing fast and loose with the ideas of freedom, in their own country - for example, Cameron's attempts to effectively remove the right to strike for public sector workers - but their willingness to invite their friends from these vile regimes on to a march proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie"!!!!

Its only 40 years ago, that Dave Allen was banned, by the Irish State, for having satirised the Catholic Church, in a similar manner to the satire now undertaken by Charlie Hebdo. And, although the Catholic Church, in Ireland, is not the force it once was, it is still powerful enough to influence the laws of the land, and to inflict violence on women in need of abortions, to which they are denied, leading to their death. If the Christian fundamentalists had their way that would also be the case across Britain.

The same Christian forces, operating with large amounts of finance and political influence, have been able to introduce legislation in Uganda to outlaw homosexuality, and which would result in homosexuals being executed. The liberal media often carry stories about homophobia, by Putin's Russia, but far less coverage is given to the fact that, across the globe, these violent and intolerant policies are being promoted, and financed by wealthy and powerful organised Christian groups in the United States. Once again, this is not the action of individual zealots, but of organised religion.

But, in the theocracies of the Middle East, it is not just homosexuals that risk death at the hands of the state and church. Women accused of adultery, including those that have been raped, face death by stoning, for example

Once again, these are not aberrant acts by individuals, acting against some true pacific nature of the religion, but acts undertaken by the religious authorities themselves. It is these acts, undertaken by religious authorities, where they are not constrained by more powerful social forces, that reflect the true nature of religion.

The only reason that the established Christian Church, in Europe, does not act in this way, is precisely because it is no longer powerful enough to do so, not because it is in some way alien to its nature, as its own recent past demonstrates, and as the Christian Church itself demonstrates, today, in other parts of the world, where its power has not been constrained by society. In fact, as fairly recent history has demonstrated, after the furore over the Danish cartoons, the cowardice of liberals to stand up to the intolerance, in that case, led to Christians seizing the opportunity to try to turn the clock back, as witnessed by their opposition to the showing of Jerry Springer the Opera.

The lesson of history should be clear that simply trying to compromise with religion will only lead to it attempting to re-establish itself, and the intolerance, authoritarianism and violence, which are its true nature. Religion cannot, and should not be combated by resort to the same intolerance, authoritarianism and violence which are its own characteristics, which is what Stalinism, and other forms of authoritarianism did. Such methods, reduce us to the same low level as religion itself, and only succeed in driving it underground, making it even more poisonous.  In fact, socialists should be at the forefront in defending individual believers' own right to believe, free from attempts to deny them that right by force or diktat, whether that comes from the state or reactionary groups.  That is the best way of dealing with the attempt to blur the distinction between religion and ethnicity.

But, the defence of the individual's right to believe, is not the same as a right to impose that belief on others.  Nor is it the same as a right to live outside the laws of the society.  On the one hand, I believe that the French state ban, on wearing religious garb, is an unjustified restriction on freedom.  If someone wants to wear a nun's outfit as part of sexual role play, for example, they should be free to do so.  At the same time, if there are reasons to place restrictions on clothing, for example for health and safety reasons, or for security, say when entering a bank, religious sensibilities should not be a basis for not adhering to those laws.  The excusing of Sikhs from wearing crash helmets when riding motor bikes, come into this category, and the failure of liberals to defend that principle, in that instance, is once again an example of their hypocrisy and cowardice.  

We must combat religion with those values that represent our going beyond the obscurantism and mysticism that is its basis.  We should combat it with those values that reflect our ability to think critically, and freely, to challenge established truths, and to discuss our thoughts freely and without fear. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and our own inadequacies is what gives us the right to laugh at others on the same basis, not vindictively, or hatefully, but as part of the very rich process of social life and discourse. The defence of those basic rights and freedoms requires that we stand up resolutely to all those that would deny them to us. There are no absolute rights, that is true; there are only those rights that man creates and defends in society himself. But, our task is, therefore, not to abandon those rights we ought to have, but which we do not in reality have, it is rather to redouble our struggle to enforce those rights and extend them.

1 comment:

Louis Allaways said...

Boffy, I don't disagree about a lot of the shit in religion, but this is a really one-sided view. It seems like religion is a thing above humanity, an idea that unfolds in history, that has its own essence that determine how people act from it, but that's more hegelian than marxist right?

It's like a tea-partier arguing Marxism is inherently totalitarian because look at the USSR, or anti-semitic cos of a couple of dodgy quotes from Marx, or lumping together lenin, stalin, pol pot, castro, obama as all the same because they're socialists - Or like a leftie rejecting Labour because it's just red tories, or because if you support the party, you support Blair and you're in favour of dead iraqi babies - If you only look at the most prominent people (and then bad examples from their worst angles), you obviously view it badly - and the same response is valid "I can see why you'd think that, but there's a lot more to it than that!"

You could make a one sided list of all the great stuff religion does too, but neither side actually helps make sense of it, or how to relate to it - partly because the vast majority of religious activity is not so spectacularly good or bad, but just people living their lives, like we all are, affected in different ways by it, for better or worse.

Religion is an incredibly complex phenomenon, one I don't think Marxism really gets (for various reasons), and it has been going through some very tricky times in the last decades, globally, and in the West and the UK, same as the working class movement has been. Political radicalism used to be more prominent to justify blowing people up, but now religious radicalism is. In either case if you're not involved and you try to get your head around it, you're gonna be superificial, react to the ugly side on show, view it as an irrational other to defend against, to be tolerated at best but ultimately done away with. That's understandable, but if we're gonna deal with it as good historical materialists, we gotta do more! To see religion as material activity, as it actually functions in peoples lives individually, culturally and as part of society, as it has developed in different contexts and over time (not just in some peoples lives at some times and in some places for good or bad). And there's always a lot more to it than just the Borgias and al-Baghdadi