How Not to Understand Muslim fundamentalism

Aniket Alam, Left-write

Mahmood Mamdani recently gave a talk at the University of Johannesburg, touching on the topics of free speech and bigotry in our contemporary world. He took the example of Mohammed cartoons to make this point. It is a well argued and seemingly persuasive thesis which you can read here at Kafila.

I found that I had some fundamental differences with it and decided to write them out here. Please do read him before you read my response.

A well argued and persuasively written statement; unfortunately, I find myself un-persuaded.

The first disagreement. The blasphemy/bigotry distinction can be a useful academic device to understand particular situations, but is a dangerous and reactionary position in its political implications, specially when applied on the “world historical stage”. If I am outside a certain religious tradition, am I not allowed to debunk, attack, vilify and lampoon that tradition? I consider the entire human heritage as mine and for me every criticism, and more, on any human tradition is, to use that fashionable term, an “internal” attack. I have as much a right to denigrate Manu’s misogyny as I have the right to lampoon Mohammed.

The second disagreement. It is necessary to keep highlighting, as Mamdani has done, the existence of the “fuel” (aka 500 years of colonialism) which ignites at the “spark”,  specially in a context where imperialist mythologies are working overtime to normalise all the sins of the past. But the “fuel” does not explain the present anger expressed by Muslim fundamentalism with pictorial depictions of Mohammed. It is important to underline the fact that there are numerous traditions of depicting Mohammed within different Muslim societies and the present embargo on pictoral depictions of Mohammed is entirely, entirely a recent creation of Muslim fundamentalism.

While Mamdani recounts the fact that Jyllands Postan did not accept cartoons of Christ for publication while publishing the Mohammed ones, he forgets to mention another, equally important story connected to this entire incident. The school board of Denmark wanted to introduce a course to teach children in primary school about different world religions. They wanted an illustrated book with short stories about different prophets and traditions. While they got illustrations for all religious traditions, no one was willing to draw Mohammed, given the recent killing of Theo van Gogh in neighbouring Holland. It was this terror at drawing Mohammed even for ostensibly progressive, at the least ecumenical, purposes which opened the political space for right wing papers like Jylland Postan to move in with an open contest asking whether there are any Danes left who would have the “guts” to draw Mohammed. A clear case as ever of the politics of reaction feeding off each others excesses.

Here I would like to assert that the “Muslim” protest against the Denmark Mohammed cartoons were only nominally against the West. To accept the claims of Muslim fundamentalism as true is to delude oneself. When the angry young men stomp and burn the Danish and American flags in Delhi, Lahore or Cairo they are actually sending a more direct message to individuals within their own community that dissent and protest will not be allowed against the writ of the fundamentalists. There is no doubt that anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism contribute support to the contemporary politics of Muslim fundamentalism. But it will be wrong to forget that the primary focus of Muslim fundamentalism is not the West or any thing/body external. Like all fundamentalisms, the primary aim of Muslim fundamentalism is to discipline the ‘Muslim’ and in a particular manner. Neither the cause nor the sustenance of “Muslim” anger at the West/Christianity/America can be found in the “fuel”. How can one forget that just a decade and half ago, Muslim fundamentalism, or as most people say “Muslims”, were the strongest ally of imperialism?

To use Mamdani’s unfortunate distinction, the ostensible protest against “bigotry” is much more a warning to “blasphemers”. The angry Muslim is much more likely to attack the heretic and heterodox near him than some distant Nordic cartoonist. Which is why Mamdani’s argument cannot explain the seamlessness of the attack on Taslima Nasreen and Jyllands Postan. Same time, same people, same anger, same politics…. what use is the distinction between bigotry and blasphemy here? There is much to be said about the political and social uses / implications of fundamentalisms, but all I would like to stress here is that we should be careful in (a) accepting, at face value, their claims of representing the community, and (b) remembering that fundamentalism has a clear, historically inviolable position with relation to the barricades of class struggle.

The third disagreement. There are two points about defending freedom of speech. It has to be remembered that this right is absolute, while the necessary qualifications are historically contingent. Further, this right accrues to an individual and not to a collective (Millat/Party/Nation). As Rosa Luxemburg put it, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” This right is there to protect the individual from the collective. Mamdani seems to ignore this.

The other point about freedom of speech, like with most other rights, is that it has been won by the people from the State in struggles against the ruling class – the bourgeois order. Today, some lazy Marxists can get away by terming these and other rights, “bourgeois”, but these are bourgeois only in so far as they are incorporated in the rights schedule of the bourgeois state. They are popular rights won by the masses against the ruling classes. The ruling classes have always countered the demands for such individual based rights to the “sensitivities”, “feelings” and “rights” of collectives, specially primordial collectives, precisely because they have understood, perhaps in a pre-theoretic manner, the radical edge to the rights demands of the people. The specific right to freedom of speech is a life-line for those who are fighting against heirarchy, privilege and oppression. It is a crucial weapon against reaction and it is a convenient tool for proximate ruling classes / elites to set up a clash between this and cultural sensitivities/feelings/ emotions.

The failure to appreciate the radical origins of much of the rights, specially freedom of speech, makes Mamdani commit another error by putting a hard won political right (freedom of speech) on the same plane as a political programme (civil peace). For much of history, these two have been on opposing sides of the political divide and, usually, remain so today. The demand to curtail a right in the interests of civil peace is almost always a demand of the privileged and powerful against the upsurge of the oppressed and exploited.

The fourth point of disagreement with Mamdani is regarding his examples of how curbs on freedom of speech are often appropriate. The first one about Allen Lane burning books which hurt Christian sentiments leaves me a bit perplexed. What that man did is totally unacceptable. We might as well go and burn all of M.F. Husain’s paintings to achieve “civil peace”. I just hope that I have not been able to comprehend the correct import of his example and will leave it at that, since if what I have understood Mamdani as trying to say is correct, then its a shockingly retrogressive position. One which we should reject unambiguously.

The second example is also irrelevant with regard to the Mohammed cartoons. Mamdani refers to a talk show in the US where two white men mimicked blacks and made fun of them. That was not an attack on ideas and beliefs, it was an attack on, humiliation of, actual people. This just cannot be the same. Attacking living human beings, deepening prejudice against them which weakens their political and social positions  is not the same as attacking an idea or belief, however similar they may appear to us. There is a basic difference which needs to be remembered, specially in times when the waters are so muddied. To put it in somewhat simplified, if stark, terms: the human being need to be defended against attacks, not his belief-system nor his prophet.

It is instructive that Mamdani ends his talk with a call to “Muslim peoples” to learn the right lessons. Who, or what, is that? The 1.1 billion strong global ummah which is the wet-dream of the Mullahs?

The reason I have spent so much time to write out this response is because in Mamdani’s talk I have found an eloquent, persuasive expression of a purportedly anti-imperialist position which will, in my estimation, lead to the further entrenchment of fundamentalists within different Muslim societies.