Thursday, March 02, 2006

Blasphemy and Power

A group of intellectuals, including Salman Rushdie and Bernard-Henri Levy, has published yet another condemnation of the totalitarian threat of "Islamism" in the same Danish newspaper that gained fame for its publication of blasphemous cartoons. They argue
Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man's domination of woman, the Islamists' domination of all the others.
For a response to a particular historical event, it is a peculiarly decontextualized, almost disembodied manifesto. While all of the charges are true about some Moslem communities, what is missing is any real acknowledgement of the larger context: the imperial aggression of the US in the Islamic world.

The phrase "a world of domination" is in fact a far more apt description of American ambition and power than it is of Islam. Islam is not credibly threatening to take over Europe or America, but the US has in fact taken over Iraq and has well advertised designs on Syria and Iran. And the long and bloody history of Western colonialism throughout the Islamic world can not simply be ignored. We have a lot more credibility when it comes to torture than when it comes to freedom.

And into our torture, we have integrated an attack on their culture and religion, mixing sexual humiliation and blasphemy with excruciating pain and death. In the context of a such a brutal war, it is hardly surprising that an attack on their religion is taken as an attack on their culture and identity.

Nor is it surprising that the cartoon controversy has rallied racists and Christian bigots in the US around the incongruous banner of free speech. Quite a spectacle: here and here.

Nonetheless, the truly horrible oppression and anti-intellectualism within many Islamic societies is all too real. And it should not be excused. And certainly, we should make no accommodation to their superstitions and prejudices in our laws. But no progress toward eventual secularization and enlightenment is likely as long as we have our boot on their throat.

In the meantime, we have our own house to clean. The threat of totalitarianism in the US is not coming from Islam but from politicians who mouth the words democracy and freedom while instituting its opposite. The threat to women's rights and human rights here is coming not from Islam but from the Christian right. And the threat is far from abstract.

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