Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Islamophobia, More Theophobia, Please

Public Enemy number one.
The first side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has been an orgy of analysis and commentary by politicians and the press, many of whom are advancing agendas (more power to the police and secret services) or grinding axes (all Muslims are crazy mofos). After reading far too many opinion pieces and analyses over the last few days, I can no longer resist adding my two cents to the glittering mountain of coins that's already out there. So here goes.

A common theme voiced by many people is that Muslims need to be, well, less religious, or at least less fanatical. How this is to be done isn't usually defined, but one gets the sense that what people mean is that Muslims should do what most Christians do; pay nominal attention to the tenets and ceremonies of their religion but ignore all the barbaric and nonsensical stuff. Advising Muslims to dial down their religiosity is something I can get behind as long as it's part of broader theophobic movement. It seems monstrously hypocritical to ask Muslims to be chill about depictions of Mohammed when in the US creationism is being taught in schools; no US president can get elected unless they loudly proclaim that they are a practicing Christian; TV networks routinely bleep the use of "goddamn" or "Christ" when it's used as an expletive; women's reproductive rights are being eroded in the name of Christian religion; the military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism; and a wide variety of pressure groups and politicians are constantly attempting to erode or end the constitutional separation of church and state. In sum, any attempts by non-Muslims to lecture Muslims on religious tolerance ring hollow unless it's matched by equal fervour in putting all religions in their place, which, in my view, is out on the street with their brethren operating the three-card monte games.

Are the Hebdo cartoons offensive? If you're looking and hoping to be offended, yes. Charlie Hebdo has a meage circulation of 60k in a nation of more than sixty million, and I doubt many French Muslims, or any one of a conservative bent, would be on their subscription list. Like the people who used to rail against Playboy magazine, Hebdo's detractors don't read the magazine themselves, but they're mortally offended that other people do. Those who argue that the cartoon images shouldn't be disseminated further because they might upset Muslims are falling into a dangerous logical trap. If a cartoon, an act of ephemeral humour, is too daunting for the sensitivities of some people, where do we draw the line in criticism and commentary? If a newspaper columnist does a piece in favour of atheism should there be a warning on the front of the paper about it lest a religious person come across the column? And why should religious sensitivities count for anything? Why should people of faith be protected from criticism or satire or a contrary opinion? We don't expect politicians, their parties, or their ideologies to be shielded from scorn or commentary (unless you're living in a totalitarian state), but somehow in the early 21st century it's not seemly to ridicule religion and its adherents.

The Paris killings have also produced the usual spate of right-wing chaff that attempts to disassociate Islamic terrorism from recent political and military history in the Middle East. The usual line taken in these arguments is that Islam is existentially committed to overthrowing the West (just read what it says in the Koran!) and what's gone on in Iraq and Israel has little or nothing to do with attacks on Western targets. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the major Western powers, Israel, the USSR and, later, Russia, have terraformed, as it were, the Middle East, North Africa and AfPak into the hot messes that they are today. This does not make ISIL less of a horror show or excuse what happened in Paris, but to pretend that monsters won't arise from the toxic ecosystem that much of the Arab world has become seems ingenuous in the extreme. And if Islam is existentially obliged to attack unbelievers and spread the one faith by the sword, why wasn't the West facing Islamic terrorism in, say, the 1950s? Or the '20s? Why not the 1860s, for that matter? Nothing in the Koran has changed over the centuries, so it seems odd, unless you factor in politics and foreign policy, that the West hasn't been under siege from the Muslim world for the past thousand years.

And now for the big picture stuff. I'd argue that Islamic fundamentalism is merely one branch of a conservative counter-revolution that's been going on across the world since the late 1970s. Bear with me here. The post-war era (for argument's sake I'm going to say this extends to 1979) was marked by greater social welfare spending, the growth and influence of unions, a bigger role for government in social and industrial policies, and the political, economic and social emancipation of visible minorities and women. In simple terms, power and wealth was flowing from the top of society to the bottom. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that flow began to reverse itself. The conservative counter-revolution had begun. This counter-revolution wasn't just about dollars and cents. The '60s and '70s had seen the growth of counter-cultural movements, alternative lifestyles, feminism, and gay rights. As these cultural changes gained momentum, the opposite and equal reaction was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the US and right-wing racist/nationalist parties in Europe. In broad cultural terms, what the counter-revolution was, and is, trying to do is re-establish a rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal  and mono-cultural society.

Although the West was where this struggle began, the rest of the world was not immune. The combined effects of globalization, immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the Internet have unsettled traditional societies all over world. Liberalism, in the cultural sense, has backwashed into countries and cultures that were anywhere from Victorian to medieval in their social outlook. Since the 1970s developing nations have been invaded by liberal Western values. These values have been carried there by Western businesses, immigrants returning to/communicating with their home countries, and the spread of the Internet. One sure sign of this cultural counter-revolution is the increase in misogyny just about everywhere. Women are always at the bottom of the pecking order in any kind of conservative culture, and because of this we've seen the spread of sharia law; gang sexual assaults on women in India; rampant cyber-bullying of women as seen in the Gamergate scandal; a mostly successful effort by rightists to turn the word "feminist" into a pejorative; and an epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the US military and colleges. Click here for a longer piece I did on women and religious oppression called Jim Crow is a Transvestite.

So even without the impetus of Western military incursions in the Muslim world, it's quite likely Islamic fundamentalism would have been on the rise as a reaction to liberal and progressive values arriving from the the West. But take this counter-revolution, combine with real and imagined political/religious grievances and young men who are desperate, alienated, mentally unbalanced, and you get killers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Charlie Hebdo assassins.


John McFetridge said...

Good post. Yes, I think you can date the post-war era into the 70s although you could also argue that 1968-1979 was a kind of culture war. And one side lost.

Cary Watson said...

Thanks, John. Here in Canada we seem to have avoided the culture wars, although one can sense that Harper and the Conservatives are itching to start one. They just haven't found the right trigger.

John McFetridge said...

I think we have an odd situation in Canada where all of our media and two of our federal parties are based in the centre-east, basically in Montreal and Toronto, and none of them have really accepted the rise of the west.

I'm still amazed that Harper won a majority without Quebec and both the other parties reacted by electing leaders from Quebec. Sort of building a Maginot line.

Do the liberals really think that after the National Energy Program anyone in Alberta (and now BC and Saskatchewan, so involved in the energy sector) will vote for someone named Trudeau? Between that and official bilingualism - which pretty much completely denies the heritage and culture of anything west of Manitoba - gives Harper, a guy even his own party doesn't really like - a pretty free run.

Maybe it's because the liberals think they won a lot of elections and not that the Conservatives and reform split the west and lost it.

Cary Watson said...

Harper's become such a loathed figure his anti-Trudeau attack ads are actually working against him. No matter what juvenile name-calling the Conservatives indulge in against Trudeau, they're still stuck with Harper's reptilian personality.

John McFetridge said...

I hope you're right, Cary, but this country feels hopelessly divided and neither Trudeau nor Mulcair are the guys to unite it. Maybe enough people in western Canada will hate Harper enough to vote for one of those guys but I have this nightmare that the official opposition will switch from NDP to Liberal and the rest of parliament will remain the same.

I think it's kind of funny that when the provinces sought a new deal with the feds Quebec did it by electing a separatist government and Alberta did it by creating a new federal party with the slogan, "The West Wants In," and yet the Liberals and NDP still seem to ignore the west and cater to Quebec. Can it really keep going on like that much longer?

Cary Watson said...

The west, except for Alberta, isn't solidly Conservative. Lots of Libs and NDPers have been elected over the years in BC, Sask and Man. And perhaps the crash in oil prices (Suncor's already announced layoffs) will show some Albertans the advantage of federalism.