Where The Militant Goes Wrong on Cartoon Protests
By Sandra Browne and Robert Johnson
Editors’ Note: Protests against the anti-Islamic caricatures published in Denmark have been widely supported by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, capitalist media claim that these actions endanger freedom of speech, and some socialist groups echo this view. Sandra Browne and Robert Johnson analyze the views of one such current, the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Both were prominent activists for several decades in the SWP’s Canadian sister organization. —Roger Annis and John Riddell
“People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that’s 5,000 miles away.” —Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the caricatures for the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, quoted in the Feb. 12 New York Times
“To Muslims, the caricatures vividly brought back the scenes of Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in Jenin, the invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Baghdad, terrors of Abu Ghraib and humiliations of Guantanamo Bay.
“Cultural arrogance was added to political aggressiveness. Muslims have grown used to the torrent of terrifying images that associate them and their faith with the most horrifying of practices, from violence and cruelty to fanaticism and oppression. When it comes to Islam, all boundaries and limits could be dispensed with. The unacceptable becomes perfectly acceptable, proper and respectable.
“The truth is that today racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and hatred of the other hide behind the sublime façade of free speech, the defence of ‘our’ values and protection of ‘our’ society from ‘foreign’ aggression.
“Let us not be deceived about this rhetoric of liberalism and free speech. The Danish cartoons have nothing to do with freedom of expression and everything to do with hatred of the other in a Europe grappling with its growing Muslim minorities, still unable to accept them.” —Soumaya Ghannoushi writing for Aljazeera.net
“Muslims have, in effect, been vilified twice: once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: ‘Not only are whites kicking us, they are telling us how to react to being kicked.'” —Gary Younge, “The Right to be Offended,” The Nation, February 27
In the weeks following the publication of the anti-Muslim caricatures by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, many large actions of protest have taken place around the world. The mobilizations have been particularly massive and sustained among the Arab and Muslim peoples, the direct targets of the caricatures. But other fighters against racism and chauvinism have joined the protests.
Meanwhile, the imperialist rulers and their ideological followers are doing everything they can to dampen and discredit the mobilizations. This has led to a sharp polarization of political opinion and action. It has also posed a test for socialists. Many have rallied to the defense of Muslims. But others have echoed ruling-class themes.
The February 27, 2006, issue of The Militant provides a particularly blatant example of this. The newspaper expresses the views of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, and its stand on this issue illustrates how far the SWP leadership has retreated from revolutionary Marxism on the struggle of oppressed nationalities against imperialism.
1. Turning the victims into the criminals
As Soumaya Ghannoushi explains, the publication of the caricatures and the reaction they provoked had nothing to do with the issue of free speech and everything to do with the mounting tide of war, oppression, chauvinism, and racism that has been particularly directed against peoples and nations who are Muslim.
This international context includes:
- The rise of racism in Denmark spearheaded by the Danish government and the record of xenophobia and anti-Muslim incitement of the publishers of Jyllands-Posten where the caricatures first appeared. Their publication was a deliberate provocation.
- The presence of Danish troops in the imperialist armies occupying Afghanistan and Iraq.
- Recent European Union decisions aimed at preventing or delaying Turkey’s adhesion to the EU because of its large Muslim population.
- Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied by imperialism. Iraq has been invaded and occupied by imperialism. Palestine is occupied by the Zionists. In all of these countries imperialism has brought nothing but death and destruction. The social fabric of these societies is being destroyed. The U.S. has been building and reinforcing military bases in other countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. The threat of a war against Iran grows ever closer.
- In the imperialist countries the ruling class seeks to justify its current and coming aggressions with a fierce ideological campaign, an important component of which is directed against Muslims at home and abroad. The campaign is multifaceted, but an underlying theme is that Islam is an aggressive, backward, warlike religion whose adherents must be conquered and “civilized.” Official racism is instituted through the immigration laws, operations of the secret police, secret trials, “rendition” to ensure that detainees will be tortured, the Guantanamo concentration camp, etc. Rightist and openly racist forces are emboldened in this context, take the bit between their teeth and push much further.
- This is the reality that immigrants in this country who come from the countries under attack face, as they do in the U.S. or Western Europe. The situation is much worse for those who live under imperialist occupation or threat of attack.
The protests against the caricatures occur against this backdrop. They are an expression of deep outrage at all of these aggressions and indignities heaped upon the toiling masses, many of whom are Muslims. At their most basic level they are a cry for dignity and equality, and a sign that there are many among the protesters who are willing to fight against the warmongers and merchants of hate.
The Militant’s view
The Militant presents an entirely different view of the protests.
The coverage is presented in a lengthy article by Sam Manuel, “Imperialist powers use reactionary demands on banning Danish cartoons to attack rights, boost support for war,” and an editorial “Censorship hurts working class.” (See references, below)
Nowhere in either the article or the editorial does the paper acknowledge that the published caricatures including the one depicting Muhammad as a terrorist are anti-Muslim, xenophobic and intended to deepen racist suspicion toward Arab peoples. Nowhere do the writers acknowledge the rightful anger of millions worldwide at such affronts and their legitimate demands for an end to them. Nowhere do they recognize that the victims of these attacks and working people are right to strenuously protest such treatment by the imperialist rulers.
Surely The Militant does not prefer that Muslims turn the other cheek in the face of such an outrage. Why then is it unable to utter a single word of support to the protests? Why are words such as “racist”, “anti-Muslim,” and “chauvinist” entirely absent from its coverage?
The character of the paper’s treatment of the issue is exemplified in the first paragraph of the front-page article by Manuel:
“WASHINGTON—Washington, London, and other imperialist powers are taking advantage of often violent protests against controversial cartoons, including one showing Prophet Muhammad with a lit bomb in his turban, to expand popular support for their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and threats against Iran and Syria.”
The caricatures are characterized as “controversial cartoons.” The choice of words is no accident since the editorial repeats the same expression. The concept that the drawings were a chauvinist provocation is foreign to the coverage.
Moreover, the author smears the mobilizations by calling them “often violent protests.” This again turns the victims into criminals. Nearly all of the deaths and injuries associated with the demonstrations occurred when the police and armies of pro-imperialist governments attempted to quell the protests by force. (Later in Manuel’s article he does acknowledge the lethal role of the security forces in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He then resumes his narrative portraying the protests as reactionary.) The article also makes a point of mentioning the torching of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria. Apparently the editors consider this instance of destruction of private property to be especially noteworthy, but they do not explain why.
The Militant states on its masthead that it is “published in the interests of working people.” That statement is contradicted by its refusal to express solidarity with the protests in any way. This refusal is a profound disservice to the paper’s readers.
Instead the paper attempts to portray the protests as a reactionary mass mobilization, one which aids U.S. imperialism in its war drive and which favors censorship.
This is itself a crude caricature unsupported by the facts. It turns reality on its head and amounts to what Malcolm X called “turning the victim into the criminal.”
Censorship, the working class, and the mass protests
To be sure, Marxists oppose any attempt by capitalist governments to stifle political, cultural, religious or other forms of expression. The working class can only advance toward taking power through the free exchange of ideas. History has shown that capitalist governments do not hesitate to direct their powers of censorship and “anti-hate” laws against the labor movement when it suits their purpose, particularly in times of social crisis. This why, for example, Marxists oppose the recent jailing of the right-wing author David Irving in Austria for denying the Holocaust in his1989 speeches. Such ideas must be vigorously opposed, but they cannot be defeated through repressive thought-control laws.
The most effective way to respond to rightist ideas and provocations is through debate and effective mass mobilization. Indeed, by repeatedly mobilizing in the streets in their many tens of thousands from Tangier to Jakarta, Muslims and their supporters have struck a powerful blow against the racists and xenophobes.
In the semicolonial world many pro-imperialist governments sought to suppress the protests, often violently. But others recognized the depth of anger the caricatures triggered and sought to direct the protests into channels that did not threaten their rule. Some political and religious leaders of the protests did indeed call for censorship. It is correct and necessary for socialists to oppose such demands. But this can and should be done in the context of supporting unambiguously the mass mobilizations against the caricatures.
NDP calls for protests
Even the reformist New Democratic Party has a better position than the SWP on this issue.
On February 14 Alexa McDonough issued a statement on behalf of the NDP entitled “NO TO ISLAMAPHOBIA [sic]. NO TO ANTI-SEMITISM. NO TO RACISM OF ANY KIND.” Not surprisingly the statement leaves much to be desired. It attempts to place equal emphasis on freedom of expression and religion on the one hand and opposition to hatred and intolerance on the other. It calls on all sides to avoid excesses.
Yet for all that, the NDP states unequivocally that the cartoons are “abhorrent depictions” that should be protested and says that “(i)ntentionally denigrating Islam or any other faith is offensive, destructive and understandably inflammatory.”
Given this stand, it would certainly be logical to invite the NDP to speak at future protests and to expect to be able to draw NDP supporters to participate in it. This would provide aid and comfort to the embattled Muslim community; they have been attempting to forge a broader front against racism, but they are opposed by powerful forces and their success has been limited to date.
The SWP, in contrast, opposes the protests from the sidelines.
2. Revising Marxism, abstaining from struggles
Faced with imperialism’s drive to terrorize, occupy and impose its political will on the Arab and Muslim world, workers and socialists of the oppressor nations have a special responsibility today to defend and to give all possible aid to the struggles of the oppressed for their liberation.
This is not a new question for the labor movement. Since the beginning of the imperialist era over 100 years ago, some of the sharpest debates and divisions among socialists have been over this very issue. In its early years the Third (Communist) International expressed the common interests of the workers in the imperialist nations and the masses struggling for their freedom from imperialism in the strategic slogan, “Workers and Oppressed Nations of the World, Unite.”
This strategic line formed part of the historic program of the SWP, which applied it for more than 50 years to many of the burning issues of the day including the fight against colonialism in Africa and Asia, the fight against the Vietnam War, struggles in Palestine and Ireland, and solidarity with Cuba.
To cite one such example, in 1982 the military junta of Argentina, its hands dripping with the blood of tens of thousands of Argentine workers, students, and others that it had murdered in its “dirty war,” sought to prolong its highly unpopular rule. It invaded the Malvinas, a group of islands that historically belong to Argentina but were occupied by Britain. In the ensuing war the Socialist Workers Party unconditionally supported Argentina; the Cuban government did likewise and campaigned to rally Latin America to the cause of Argentina, even while it was led by the murderous generals.
Yet today when the targets of the chauvinist caricatures rise up to proclaim their revulsion and their human dignity, The Militant harshly denounces the protests and denies their role as part of the fight against imperialism and national oppression.
The concluding paragraph of the editorial must be read in that light. It states:
“The opposite is true. Muslims, like other believers, are divided into classes. Among the swelling ranks of working people—from the Middle East to North America, from Europe to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific—there is a growing convergence among those who recognize the need to safeguard and extend democratic rights in order to defend the life and limb of the working class and its allies, and to fight for a world without class exploitation, national oppression, or sex discrimination.”
This passage fails to recognize the oppression that imperialism is today systematically directing against Arabs and Muslims on the basis of their race and religion. This oppression has not only a class but a national character. The chauvinist outcry against the Dubai Ports World deal clearly illustrates the fact that capitalists who are Muslim can also become targets of the mounting rightist propaganda of imperialist rulers. (Of course the burden of such oppression falls most heavily on the workers, farmers, and other toiling layers in the semicolonial world and among the immigrant populations in countries like the U.S. and Canada.)
The conclusion of the editorial is a shameful revision of revolutionary Marxism. It contradicts not only the historic program of the SWP but the teachings and practice of such revolutionaries as Malcolm X, Fidel and Che, Lenin and Trotsky.
A further point should be noted. The Militant’s refusal to call for protests against the racist caricatures mirrors its longstanding failure to promote protests against the war in Iraq. It condemns virtually all acts of resistance by Iraqi fighters to the occupation of their country. The paper abstains from and criticizes virtually all of the major protest actions against the occupation organized in the U.S., Canada, and other countries. It justifies this stand by citing its disagreements with the leaderships of these actions. The SWP appears to have lost the ability to join in united fronts and to support actions that objectively weaken U.S. imperialism’s stranglehold on Iraq, whatever may be the political positions of the forces leading such actions.
The Militant does not mention the considerable and growing opposition to the war among the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. This omission is all the more striking in light of the SWP’s record of leading work among GIs against the Vietnam war and orienting the antiwar movement in this direction. The paper is also silent on the large and growing opposition to the war among the U.S. population as a whole.
Similarly, The Militant has utterly failed to systematically defend Iraq’s sovereignty and expose the colonialist oppression of the Iraqi people. The war and occupation have brought dreadful living conditions, many Iraqi deaths, checkpoints, curfews, raids, jailings, torture and political interference, all imposed with imperial arrogance by the U.S. and its allies. This information is credibly documented elsewhere, but is kept out of the pages of The Militant.
In statements and editorials the party and the newspaper occasionally repeat their call for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq. But The Militant gives no indication that the SWP is carrying out any practical activity to further that goal. It does not report on any antiwar campaigning by the party whether in the factories and mines, on the campuses, outside military bases, or elsewhere. Yet the party does not hesitate to sharply criticize those who protest or resist the occupation.
This course of conduct is also in complete contradiction to revolutionary Marxism and to the outstanding record in earlier years of the SWP and The Militant.
3. Growing divergence with Cuba’s leadership
For several decades after the victory of the revolution in 1959, The Militant was the best source of information in English on events in Cuba and the views of the leaders of the revolution. Speeches by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, and other leaders appeared in the newspaper in a timely way; many of these were then published in book form by Pathfinder Press.
This is no longer the case. The SWP and The Militant are still partisans of the Cuban revolution, but their approach and coverage has become highly selective and disconnected from many of the big issues of the day. Articles on Cuba in the paper deal with almost exclusively with historical themes and with Cuba’s humanitarian and internationalist aid to other countries. Publishing projects that involve Pathfinder are also reported. While this is information is certainly of some interest, The Militant has chosen not to report on many key statements by Cuban leaders and on other developments related to Cuba that are vitally important to fighters around the world.
In fact, for Cuba 2005 has been a “wonderful, triumphant year”, as John Riddell reports in Socialist Voice #67. Important advances have been registered both domestically and internationally, and the forward motion is continuing. Fidel Castro and others have given many talks in recent months about changes and challenges inside Cuba, Cuba’s view of the world situation and what the Cubans and others are doing to advance the international struggle. Much of this material is available, in English, on the Web.
So far The Militant has been silent about these important developments. Fighting workers and youth can no longer look to the paper to learn what the revolutionary leaders and people of Cuba are doing and saying. They must find this information elsewhere.
The reason for this silence is not hard to understand.
Mesmerized by its greatly exaggerated appraisal of the strength of U.S. imperialism, bewailing the leadership challenges faced by our class, and dismissive of the masses in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere who are rising up in new waves of struggle, the SWP’s view of the world is very different from that of the Cubans. Moreover, our Cuban comrades are acting boldly on their assessment of the new objective possibilities, and are reaching out to build the most powerful anti-imperialist united front that they can. They are forging ever-stronger ties with Venezuela and have embraced the election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, offering concrete aid to the Andean country in every possible way.
In their support for struggles for justice around the world and for Latin American unity against U.S. imperialism, the communist leaders of the Cuban workers state are in fact applying the strategic line of “Workers and Oppressed Nations of the World, Unite” and adapting it to today’s conditions.
Moreover, they explain what they are doing in no uncertain terms, to all who will listen. All of this means that as the objective situation improves for our class and the possibilities for struggle grow, the chasm between what the Cuban comrades are doing and saying, and what the SWP stands for, grows larger.
The SWP’s rejection of the national liberation struggle, so clearly captured in their opposition to the international antiracist protests, is also a rejection of the communist course of the Cuban leadership.
The Militant, February 27, 2006:
Letters from Readers and reply by The Militant, March 20, 2006
Sandra Browne and Robert Johnson were members and subsequently organized supporters of the Communist League and its predecessor organizations for more than three and four decades respectively. Robert Johnson was a central leader of the organization through the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. The Communist League is the sister organization in Canada of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party.