Iconoclasm is a progressive indispensability

By Ask Foldspang Neve

The terrorist attacks on the Paris-based satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, will force European progressives of many kinds to reconsider their stance on the relationship between iconoclasm and hate speech, properly separating the two.

To be effective, satire must question that which the powerful wants to be left unquestioned, or highlight that which the powerful wants to stay shrouded in obscurity. Asking ‘who benefits?’ is often the most powerful question of all: asking it persistently of any religious system of beliefs is certainly challenging its clergy, the secular rulers allied to it, and those within the family (often the pater familias) whose unequal prosperity is legitimized by the specific set of ideals supported by the religion. Thus, satire, in general, is important because it challenges power. To use a by now slightly altmodisch term, it has emancipatory potential.

Then, why the focus on Muslims in Europe? Certainly, Europe’s Muslim minorities are not in power. There is nearly no social sphere in Europe, least of all the political, in which Muslims are well represented in the top. Conservative Muslims, whose ideals certainly invite criticism from progressives, are the least represented of all: they have no electorate in the West. As many progressive and leftist commentators have done before, including notabilities such as Noam Chomsky, it could seem obvious to denounce all Western satire of Islam as simple reactionary politics.

But the Charlie Hebdo attack, and before it, the Iranian hunt for Salman Rushdie, the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, the attacks on Danish embassies and businesses during the 2006 Cartoon Crisis and the later assassination attempts at one of the cartoonists, change that. While Muslims hold no power over anyone in Europe apart from other Muslims, sovereign societies still cannot accept that religious zealots (or East-Asian crypto-fascist monarchies, for that matter) can decide on what can be printed and what cannot. It is the paradoxical truth that such satire has created a market for itself, with the generous helping hand of the belief of some Muslims that religion can legitimize murder.


Siné clergy

Not uncontroversial, but necessary: Siné and the Abrahamic religions

These many incidents mean that there is a need for the continuous lampooning of Muslim religious dogma, just as there has been for every other world religion. The major difference, of course, is that Westerners should be clear that this time, they are not doing it to emancipate themselves: the sudden conservative impulse to stand up for the rights of brown women while fighting for ‘traditional values’ with regards to everyone else has never been credible to anyone, least of all the minorities it purportedly seeks to address.

There can be little doubt that much social progress is needed both in Muslim-majority countries and within many Muslim communities in the West, but at the same time, there is almost as little doubt that this struggle needs to be taken from within (with outside support, if and of the kind asked for). It is an obvious affront to human equality to believe female sexuality is somehow ‘dangerous’ and needs to be reined in, while male sexuality is not (oddly enough, no patriarchal society decided that men could not go unaccompanied outdoors, or could not engage in business, or hold political office).

So, this time, keeping the focus on the self-serving absurdities that make up the many strands of conservative Islam is a defense of the fragile order that makes up the open societies that are still so young even in the West. Answering violence with more irreverence, but without violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, will reinforce the open societies that many reactionaries, both Christian and Muslims, seek to dismantle.


Exposing the CIA

Is this also just following a right-wing agenda?


If progressives shy away from this task, they leave it to conservatives and reactionaries to answer. We already know what that answer will look like: every reactionary leader gains politically from incidents like what just took place in Paris. UKIP are already proposing getting rid of the “fifth column living [in Western countries]”. A nominally moderate, Danish Lutheran minister already called for “the democratic liberties” of “Muslim extremists” to be curtailed because they “are waging war”. Another columnist in the same conservative daily has long based his pro-torture argument on the writings of the Nazi court lawyer Carl Schmitt, the idea being the same, namely that ‘humans’ have no rights per se, and so the political friend/enemy distinction takes precedence. American conservatives, of course, have long supported torture, a pledge many have just renewed (with the notable and honorable exception of senator John McCain).

It is therefore regrettable that it has become so fashionable among everyone from centrist progressives and to semi-leftists to denounce the ‘new atheists’ as servants of the right because they ridicule Muslim practices as well as Christian ones. The basic argument of the criticism is understandable: many minorities, including many Muslims, are under constant attack in the West. Moreover, as argued above, there are no Muslim kings, emirs or Mullahs in power in the West, nor will there be. So why add to the pressure?

The answer was given above. By rejecting criticism of Islam, or pretending that certain beliefs and practices are more acceptable because they are held by members of religious or ethnic minorities, room is simply given to right-wing Christians and nationalists who are more than happy to fill the vacuum. Moreover, nothing is gained: the criticism is often correct, and when it is not, it only becomes more important to make it so, not by asking those who criticize to stay silent, but by publishing one’s own, less crude, and more salient treatise. Finally, the typical progressive defense of the ‘foreigner’ smacks strongly of the same kind of orientalism that it publicly denounces, only now intended as a defense instead of an attack: this kind of progressive sees Rousseauean noble savages where a John Wayne character sees Indians he wants dead. Or worse, still, he sees someone in need of upper-middle-class intercession on their behalf.

Iconoclasm has always been important for progressives. Until the 1970s, it could still be legally problematic to challenge Christianity in Western Europe. Famously, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in both Ireland and Norway, bastions of Catholicism and Lutheranism, respectively. And it certainly has only become more precarious to criticize the ever more entangled church-state relationship in Russia, where Dimitry Enteo, the leader of a group ultraconservative Orthodox activists called “God’s Will” has already called the Hebdo cartoonists “worthy of capital punishment” as he staged a rally in front of the French Embassy in Moscow on the day of the shooting. Like the Evangelical Westboro Baptist Church, Enteo obviously has a taste for sensation, and he uses the same Abrahamic metaphors of tragedy being God’s punishment for straying from the path. On his VKontakte page, he adds to his reactionary bona fides by asserting his belief in the Jewish deicide and likening the Hebdo attack to the second destruction of Jerusalem. To many of these Orthodox zealots, it was religiously meaningful that the attack to place on January 7, the date of Christmas in Orthodoxy (which still follows the Julian calendar).


Russian picket in front of the French embassy

Fundamentalists of the world, unite! (“Responsibility for the tragedy lies with the government of France. They do not protect the feelings of believers.”). Source: yopolis.ru


Many European states also still uphold anti-blasphemy laws, as well as state churches. Both are an affront to a supposedly demystified society. Moreover, whereas the state churches are often supported more vigorously by the right than the left, the opposite is true of blasphemy laws. This is because progressives have felt that blasphemy laws often make good addenda to hate-speech paragraphs and limitations on racist slur. This is a reversal from a few decades ago, when some conservative Christians would still see blasphemy paragraphs used to protect their specific version of the sacred. Such a turnaround should make progressives suspicious: why are we suddenly protecting an erstwhile conservative pet policy?

This digs deeper into a discussion internal to political liberalism between different visions of society. In one, the center of gravity is on toleration between groups, such as envisioned in Lockean terms. In the other, the center is on individual freedom, including from the community oneself is born into, including separating the political community from religion and metaphysical doxa. In the crudest of terms, Britain has become representative of one idea, and France of the other. The United States has tried to combine them, and still struggles to reconcile them. Most of the rest of Europe never fully subscribed to either, and so is struggling both with tolerance in practice and with individual protection from majority (or plurality) power.

Since European liberals have long been as inept at (or disinterested in) discussing political ideals that were not ultimately about the need for Thatcherite market-driven reform as American lefties have been at discussing how one might bring about incremental change towards working social-democracy, the discussion about liberal political ideals in Europe has for a few decades mostly been about following American struggles from afar. Unfortunately for both Americans and Europeans, much of the progressive struggle in the United States has been so devoid of reflection on its own historical embeddedness that it risks creating as many problems as it solves.

It might even entrench current inequalities: much of the current ‘progress’ is being made by essentializing ethnic and religious differences rather than showing them to be the results of ideological or material differences. Paradoxically, this has even been the effect in the gender debate, home to some of the most anti-essentialist activists and thinkers: Many contemporary feminists still insist that sexuality is something especially dangerous, or vulnerable, or otherwise qualitatively different, that sets it apart from the rest of human social life. Again, on this, they agree with conservatives, albeit also they are divided in Jean-Jacques and Dukes.

After Hebdo, European progressives should forcefully reenter the public sphere on the issue. While it is nice, as many Western leaders have done to counter right-wing extremism, to distinguish between religious zealots and ordinary Muslims, it is not enough. One should go further, and actively seek to remove the influence of mysticism of all its branches on our societies, from the absurd American public affirmations of faith to Muslim codes of honor to alternative medicine and astrology to the cult of the nation that still hold common cooperation back, while further supporting and protecting the rights of minorities to do as they please – as long as the rules of peaceful political engagement and the rights of the individual are upheld.

Just after Life of Brian was released, two prominent English mystics and patriarchs made the mistake of debating John Cleese and Michael Palin on the BBC show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Watch it below and rejoice. And let me summarize by quoting Cleese: “[the film is about] closed systems of thought, whether they are political or theological or religious or whatever: systems by which, whatever evidence is given to a person, he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology.”