By LEE SUSTAR
THE CONTROVERSY over a Danish newspaper’s publication of caricatures of Muhammad is the result of an anti-Muslim campaign by the West that justifies everything from Washington’s imperialist “long war” against “terrorism” to vicious crackdowns on immigrants across Europe and the United States.
Moreover, the crisis highlights the failure of the antiwar movement in the U.S. to defend the civil rights of Arabs and Muslims—the contemporary equivalent of the “red scares” used historically in the U.S. to criminalize dissent. The unwillingness to meet this challenge threatens to undermine the movement at a time when the White House is moving to ideologically retrofit the occupation of Iraq as part of the global war on terror—which may soon include both a military strike against Iran and sanctions on the Islamist Hamas party in the Palestinian Authority.
It is in this context of Western imperialist aggression and immigrant-bashing that the publication of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad ignited protests throughout the Muslim world. It’s well known that the trigger for the protests was the decision of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to print images of Muhammad—which are considered idolatrous in Islam—including an explicitly racist image in which the prophet’s turban was depicted as a bomb with a lit fuse. What is less well known is the revelation by the London Guardian that the Jyllands-Posten editors had previously rejected drawings lampooning Jesus.
The wave of protests in Arab and Muslim countries weren’t detonated by a sketch of a bomb, but the slaughter caused by real ones—launched, of course, by the U.S. and its allies. With the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis and thousands more Afghans, the occupation of both countries and an arc of U.S. military bases across the Middle East and Central Asia, Washington aims to consolidate an informal empire that has brought back the worst memories of colonialism across the region. The latest disclosure of torture by U.S. military personnel at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo—along with the degradation of the Koran—only confirmed the belief of Muslims worldwide that the Western political establishment holds them in contempt.
Such considerations are beyond the pale of respectable political discussion in the U.S., however. Predictably, the cartoon controversy was portrayed in the media as Western “freedom of expression” versus an intolerant and backward Islam. “You wonder whether we can have a world...where the Muslim minorities can coexist in these open secular and democratic societies,” mused George Stephanopoulos, liberal host of the ABC News program This Week. Right-wing commentator George Will replied that “they”—apparently a reference to all of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims—“murdered Theo Van Gough, the Dutch filmmaker who made a film they didn’t like.” These comments seem almost measured in comparison to the slanders against Muslims by an army of right-wing pundits—often the same people who shill for the Christian religious pseudo-science of “intelligent design” and wail about the fictitious “war on Christmas.”
I recommend everyone take a look at the cartoons: remember those of a famous German newspaper in the Nazi period, Der Stürmer. It published anti-Semitic cartoons/caricatures in the same style.
One had to scour the foreign press via the Internet to piece together the real political agenda behind the cartoons: a dramatic shift to the right in Denmark since 2001, driven by the far-right Danish Peoples Party, which provides the parliamentary support that keeps the ruling center-right coalition in office. The cartoons were a calculated racist provocation that took place in the wake of the government culture ministry’s initiative to promote “Danish culture” against the supposed influence of Denmark’s Muslim population—which is just 2 percent of the total. Even Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II openly attacks Islam. “We have to show our opposition to Islam,” the queen said last year, “and we have to, at times, run the risk of having unflattering labels placed on us because there are some things for which we should display no tolerance.”
The anti-immigrant invective dovetails perfectly with the imperialist agenda in the Middle East. While the Bush administration took care to criticize the cartoons—“these cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims,” a State Department official said—the White House seized the opportunity to blame two of its prime targets in the Middle East. “You do not just go out in the streets of Iran and protest spontaneously, and in the streets of Syria and protest spontaneously,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a February 12 television interview. For neoconservative hatchet man Daniel Pipes—an acquaintance of Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose, who flew to the U.S. in October 2004 to meet Pipes—attacking Muslims in the West is the corollary of the U.S. war in the Middle East. In an article titled “Cartoons and Islamic imperialism,” Pipes wrote, “Will the West stand up for its customs and mores, including freedom of speech, or will Muslims impose their way of life on the West?” He added, “Western governments should take a crash course on Islamic law and the historically-abiding Muslim imperative to subjugate non-Muslim peoples.” For Pipes, subjugation isn’t the problem, just who is on the receiving end. A cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, he later criticized U.S. attempts to “democratize” the country. “What is possible is an Iraq that is ruled by someone with a strong arm for some years who will over time move towards democracy,” he told an interviewer in 2004.
While it may be tempting to dismiss Pipes as an over-the-top ideologue, the fact is that his views linking Islam and Western imperialism are embedded in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which spells out the U.S. strategic doctrine for the next four years. The document puts forward “radical Islam” to justify a “long war,” meant to replace “communism” to justify U.S. imperialism for generations to come.
“The enemies in this war are not traditional conventional military forces but rather dispersed, global terrorist networks that exploit Islam to advance radical political aims,” the QDR declares.
They use terror, propaganda and indiscriminate violence in an attempt to subjugate the Muslim world under a radical theocratic tyranny while seeking to perpetuate conflict with the United States and its allies and partners. This war requires the U.S. military to adopt unconventional and indirect approaches. Currently, Iraq and Afghanistan are crucial battlegrounds, but the struggle extends far beyond their borders.
To underscore the point, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Algeria, retroactively endorsing the military coup of 1992 that prevented a democratically elected Islamist government from taking office. Since then, Algeria has held elections to create a civilian façade for the military, which held power by systematically assassinating and torturing its Islamist opponents. That reflects Washington’s real standard of “democracy” in the Middle East: elections are fine as long as anti-U.S. Islamists don’t win them. Thus the U.S. and Israel are making plans to use sanctions to break the Hamas administration in the Palestinian Authority—the democratic choice of the Palestinians be damned. Rumsfeld explained the rapprochement to reporters: “It’s instructive for us to realize that the struggle we’re in is not unlike the struggle that the people of Algeria went through.”
In the U.S., Rumsfeld’s “struggle” means stepping up the repressive measures taken in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. While the media has focused on the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s vast spying campaign and the congressional debate on reauthorizing the Patriot Act, the debate has been truncated by the shared perspective of both Republicans and Democrats that the national security state must be expanded and potential “terrorists” uncovered and vigorously repressed. Loath to appear soft on terrorism, the Democrats remain mostly mute as the Bush administration rewrites the U.S. Constitution to give the president even greater powers.
The result of all this has been an even greater repression of Arabs and Muslims, particularly in the wake of last July’s bombings in London. “The neighborhood searches and deportations have increased,” Ahsanullah “Bobby” Khan, executive director of the Coney Island Avenue Project, an immigrant rights group in New York City, said in an interview. “The neighborhood searches and deportations have increased.” Since the September 11 attacks, every one of the twice-weekly flights of Pakistan International Airlines from the U.S has carried two or three deportees, he said. According to Khan, New York City agencies are routinely violating a directive by Mayor Michael Bloomberg not to inquire about the immigration status of residents. In fact, anyone who appears to be Muslim or South Asian is being forced to answer such questions from police and prosecutors—who are apparently cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, Khan said.
Proposed legislation in Congress, known as HR 4437, would require local law enforcement to adopt this policy everywhere. The bill, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and set to go to the Senate, would also make undocumented immigrants into felons; criminalize many forms of assistance to immigrants from teachers, social workers, and clergy; speed deportations; and fund the construction of a massive wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
By linking the crackdown on Muslims to immigration in general, in the name of fighting terrorism, the right wing in Congress hopes to steamroller past opposition to the law. Unfortunately, said Khan, “I don’t see a lot of attention from the antiwar movement [on Arab and Muslim immigrants], although all these issues are related to the so-called war. So much is going on. About two or three months back, a Pakistani died in prison. There was no response, not even from activist and progressive circles.”
The reason for the antiwar movement’s failure to defend the civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims is clear enough. The movement’s orientation is on electing Democrats, which means ducking the arguments over Islamophobia and lining up behind pro-military critics of the Iraq War like Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). Defending people like Sami Al-Arian—accused by the federal government of using a Palestinian charity as a cover for terrorist activities—thus hasn’t been a focus of antiwar activism, aside from the far Left and activist groups. Fortunately, the jurors in Al-Arian’s case disregarded the government’s barrage of hearsay and circumstantial evidence and acquitted him last year.
Meanwhile the Right is using the Danish cartoon controversy to fuse attacks on Islam with the broader anti-immigrant agenda. “We [the Republicans] are the party that stands up for free expression around the world,” anti-immigrant Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on February 9. “And we shouldn’t apologize for it no matter how angry that expression may make some people, some religions or some governments.”
Notorious for his openly racist rhetoric and legislative initiatives targeted mainly at Mexicans, Tancredo calls himself a devotee of Samuel Huntington (author of The Clash of Civilizations) and links attacks on immigrants with U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. In an interview with RightWingNews.com, Tancredo said, “I believe that what we are fighting here is not just a small group of people who have hijacked a religion, but it is a civilization bent on destroying ours.” A supporter of HR 4437, a viciously anti-immigrant bill that passed the House of Representatives last year, Tancredo says he’ll run for president in 2008 if leading Republican candidates don’t take a hard-line stance against immigration.
While Tancredo has little hope of capturing the Republican nomination, he’s poised to shape the national anti-immigrant agenda. By legitimizing the immigrant-hunting Minuteman Project in the halls of Congress, Tancredo has helped stampede Democratic Govs. Bill Richards of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona into declaring “states of emergency” on the border.
All this has more to do with the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons than might seem obvious. Tancredo’s strategy is in fact similar to that of the Danish People’s Party, which became Denmark’s third-biggest party in 2001, giving it the power to make or break a right-wing government. In return for the party’s support, Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen pushed through the harshest anti-immigrant laws in Europe.
The Danish far Right, in turn, has modeled itself on the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a neo-Nazi who came in second during the French presidential election of 2002. Pressured by the National Front’s calls for the mass deportation of mostly Muslim immigrants, the ruling mainstream conservative French government invoked a “state of emergency” to crack down on last fall’s rebellion of mostly Muslim immigrant youths. Similar examples could be given from several other West European countries. The pattern is clear enough: the far Right makes extreme demands; the mainstream Right adapts and implements policies that would have been seen as shocking in the past; and liberals tail along to avoid being seen as “soft” on the issue.
As Tancredo’s rise proves, those dynamics are showing themselves in U.S. politics as well. Bush’s declining popularity and a lousy economy have left racism and attacks on immigrants as the Republican Right’s last cards to play. Overt anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry, along with militarism, will figure prominently in the politics of the 2006 elections and beyond. It’s time for the antiwar and immigrant rights movements to join forces, defend Arabs and Muslims, and stand up to all the racist attacks.
Lee Sustar is the labor editor for Socialist Worker and a frequent contributor to the ISR.