Essentialist impasse


“I am fed up of Islamophobia”

Since the tragic events in Paris in January, medias and politics have focused constantly their discussions around the Islamic religion to try to explain the crimes and violence by the assassins of Paris, by Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS). The debate has therefore been on what interpretation or tradition, progressive or reactionary, of the Quran someone has to try to explain the violence committed in the name of religion.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they are focusing the explanation of all violence in the name of Islam (including Boko Haram and IS) in the Islamic religion and specifically the Quran. It should be noted that in these numerous debates called “democratic”, Islamophobic personalities such as Onfray, Zemmour, Finkielkraut and others remain at the forefront of television shows and newspapers. Islamophobia is indeed not new and has intensified since the events of January 7.

The French newspaper “la Liberté” has published an interview with the lawyer of Palestinian origin Sami Al-Deeb, notoriously known for his Islamophobia and is often republished in racist far-right websites in France, in which he explains the need to ban the Quran in France in its current publication content and submit Muslims at a citizenship test like the Jewish people were submitted to at the time of Napoleon before obtaining French nationality.

Explanations that want to find in the Quran and in Islam the reasons for the phenomena of violence of the attacks in Paris, of the IS, of Boko Haram, etc … are wrong, but above all reinforce racist and Islamophobic amalgams while wanting to characterize an intrinsic violent nature to Islam and Muslims more generally.

These events must be analyzed in their social and economic polical contexts and do not find their reason in the Quran. Take for example the IS: it is the result mainly of Western imperialism, the interventions of the different authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region in Iraq (Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc …), and of the current authoritarian and sectarian regime of Iraq inherited from the 2003 invasion, not to mention in the past Saddam Hussein’s regime.[1]

Similarly, some try to explain the current religious tensions between Shi’a and Sunni in the Middle East in the framework of the Quran or as a result of the conflict that appeared following the prophet’s death 1400 years ago. This negates the current political and social context inherited from the American and British invasion in 2003 and their role in the destruction of the Iraqi social fabric, while favoring the rise to power of sectarian and reactionary political forces.

Although the IS, Boko Haram and the murderers of Charlie Hebdo claim to act in the name of Islam, the religion does not explain their behavior and actions. These groups and individuals take their source in the present time and not 1400 years ago, just as their actions.

Do we analyze the US invasion of Iraq by the religious beliefs of Bush (who had reported hearing God in a dream telling him that he had a mission and had to invade Iraq) or according to imperialist motives (political and economic reasons)? Will we find the reasons for the US invasion in the Bible? Will we analyze the US invasion based on the behavior of Christian 2000 years ago? Similarly, during the massacre perpetrated in Norway on July 22, 2011 by Anders Breivik, who claimed to act to preserve Christianity against multiculturalism, have we sought the reasons for his act in Christianity or the Bible?

The Arab writer Aziz Al-Azmeh, stated that “the understanding of Islamic political phenomena requires the normal equipment of the social and human sciences, not their denial” Not acting in this ways, will lead us to an essentialisation of “the Other”, in much of the current cases today of the “Muslim”.

Each religion does not exist indeed autonomously of people, in the same way that God does not exist outside of the field of intellectual action of man. On the contrary religion, as the supernatural power of God, is a mystic popular expression of the contradictions and material realities in which people live.

That is why we must try to find the reasons for these crimes, without excusing or justifying, perpetrated by these groups or individuals and understand the motivations that drove them or push them to act accordingly. These reasons are not found by reading the Quran or the Bible, but first in the political and socio-economic context in which live those groups and individuals, and secondly also in the international dynamics of politics.

The crimes and the life course of the jihadists are indeed in many ways a reflection of the contradictions of the internal and external policies of the French state. How can we not speak of the always increasing state and police violence, especially against population of foreign and Muslim origins. The contemporary French state is a colonial and structurally racist state that still deals with populations from former colonies very often in the same way and with the same techniques of the past. In the French prisons, which are often overcrowded and in which no real strategy for rehabilitation of prisoners exists, almost 70% of prisoners are from populations of former colonies while at the national level they represent less than 10% of the population.

At the social level, successive governments have continued to reduce the social services of the state and implemented neo liberal economic policies. This has further strengthened the ghettoization of neighborhoods where the working classes live by impoverishing them even more. This analysis was even made by the very right-wing Prime Minister Manuel Valls who said that some regions had been abandoned by the state and constituted social, ethnic and territorial apartheid.

Finally we must not forget the imperialist policies of France and the many foreign military interventions, especially in the Arab world and the so called “France-Afrique” region, not to mention support for dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria..

Beyond claiming to be Muslim, the murderers of Charlie Hebdo have indeed in their interviews and videos spoke of the suffering of the Syrian and Iraqi people, of the French intervention in Mali, of the aggressions against Muslim populations in France and worldwide, etc …

It is necessary for us on the left, to understand such events and / or groups and analyze in a materialist way the dynamics that underline them, to address the real problems of societies in general. Lenin in the text “The attitude of the Workers Party towards religion” in May 1909 wrote that we as Marxists “have to explain the source of faith and religion of the masses in a materialist way.” He continued by saying that if we do not harnessed to this task, we would not have a different view of the bourgeois classes, who accuse the masses of ignorance to explain the phenomenon of religious belief. Religious fundamentalism is in fact the expression of this frustration, not its source.

And that is why we must understand religious fundamentalisms, from all religions, as modern elements and rooted in modern reasons, which are rooted in current events, not in the past, even if their propaganda refers to a mystified past.

The barbarism of the assassins of Paris and groups like Boko Haram and the IS feeds themselves primarily from the contradictions and different forms of oppression of their own societies, but also of the barbarism of capitalist and imperialist Western states that have caused much more victims than Islamic jihadism. Moreover, no equality on the absolute level can match the barbarism of Western states in the number of victims they have caused throughout the world. It is the Western states that have conducted destructive military interventions in recent decades such as in Iraq in 2003, a military intervention that followed the murderous embargo implemented against the Iraqi people for over 10 years. It is the Western states that provided continued support for bloody dictatorships in the Middle East, not to mention the full support to the colonial and Apartheid state of Israel that has been oppressing for more than 60 years the Palestinian people. What about the neoliberal policies imposed by the Western states and international monetary institutions that have caused impoverishment of entire societies, displacement of populations, famine, etc …

We must conduct a complete opposition to imperialist policies of Western states that kill and impoverish people of many parts of the world. We also need to oppose all forms of international and regional imperialism, which all aim at crushing other populations for the political interests of their own bourgeoisie.

At the same time, there should be no illusions on the reactionary Islamic movements and jihadist movements, which in the past (in the 50’s and late 1970) received the support of Western states and Middle Eastern dictatorships to weaken progressive and nationalist movements in the region. The reactionary Islamic movements and jihadist movements have been able following the repression and failures of progressive and nationalist movements in the Middle East to capture the frustrations of certain parts of the popular classes, but they are by no means a progressive or anti imperialist alternative, quite the opposite. These are ultra-reactionary, anti-democratic and anti social organizations, some such as the IS are undoubtedly totalitarian and murderous movements. Their behavior and attacks on democratic and progressive forces during the revolutionary processes in the Middle East and North Africa reflect this reality. They are completely in the framework of the clash of civilization and of authoritarian imposition of their cultural and religious hegemony against another and not in the perspective of the emancipation and liberation of the working classes.

In conclusion, in addition to oppose the imperialist policies of Western states, the task of the left, wherever that would be, is to rebuild a large progressive and democratic movement, which enables the unity and independence of the working and popular classes without ethnic, sectarian and other discrimination. This is indeed the only way to liberation and emancipation of the working and popular classes. This does not mean we should just have an “economist” approach, workers’ struggles will not be sufficient to unite the working classes. Of course the radical left must be at the forefront of the struggle against austerity and neoliberal policies, but the radical left must be the champion of the defense of democratic rights in general whether in the freedom of expression or the fight against racism. Islamophobia, like other forms of racism, is an instrument of the ruling class to divide the working class and turn them away from their real enemy: the bourgeoisie.

To build a progressive movement, we must understand how, beyond capitalist dynamics, gender issues, discrimination based on religion and / or ‘race’ influences both the structure and dynamics of our societies and of our workplaces and the development processes of consciousness. It is not whether the classes go before gender / race / religion or vice versa, but how these elements come together in the production and in the capitalist power relations, which result in a complex reality.

Discrimination based on race, gender, economic, cultural and ideological oppression should not be underestimated, at the risk of losing sight of the complexity of the task, when building a progressive movement including workers of all backgrounds. The lack of consideration of these intersections will act negatively in the will of uniting the working class and of the political project for a radical transformation of society.

It is our duty to tackle the sources of problems (capitalism, imperialism and racism, etc …) and therefore the policies of Western and other capitalists states to actually prevent the development of ultra reactionary forces and make them disappear.

Joseph Daher

3 February 2014

[1] for more information see:

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