February 06, 2006

Another way, a way out...

'Take two opposed pressure groups - record the most violent and threatening statements of group one with regard to group two and play back to group two - Record the answer and take it back to group one - back and forth between opposed pressure groups - this process is known as 'feedback'.'

Remind you of anything? Burroughs' description of the cybernetic production of conflict in The Ticket that Exploded has never seemed more relevant than over the past five or six days.

I gained a new persective on the seemingly intractable 'cartoon controversy' yesterday when I went to an inspiring and invigorating - but, significantly, sparsely attended - meeting about women's situation in Iraq. The issues raised at the meeting had implications far beyond the local situation in Iraq. As Nadia Mahmoud of the Iraq Freedom Congress said, a victory against the US and 'political Islam' in Iraq would be a victory that would have an impact across the whole world.

The position that the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (represented at the meeting by Houzan Mahmoud) advocate - secular universalism - is significant, indeed crucial, because it constitutes the Impossible option, the one excluded by the current political 'reality'. Majority opinion in the western media (including majority opinion on the left) colludes in offering us the most unsavoury of Hobson's choices: EITHER western 'civilization' (interpreted to mean US-dominated global capitalism) OR a theocratic but notionally anti-imperialist Islamism. In terms of Iraq, this cashes out in terms of a 'choice' between the US occupation and the resistance.

Houzan Mahmoud

There is a horrible symmetry about the way that emancipatory politics has been skewered by this binary : feminism, grotesquely, has been co-opted by neo-conservatives as a legitimation for the invasion and the occupation, while anti-racism and anti-imperialism have provided the justification for the support offered by some elements of the anti-war left to the Iraqi resistance.

Needless to say, the neo-con claims about women's rights increasing after Saddam have rung hollow in the grim, lawless realities of occupied Iraq. Iraqi women have been betrayed by the occupation and brutalized by the resistance, raped and assaulted by US soldiers and Islamist militia-men alike. Women in Iraq occupy the position of what we might call the 'femmo-sacer': the excluded, the exception that stands in for the universal; the supposedly 'less than human' that stands in for generic humanity.

Leftist support for what both the Mahmouds called 'the reactionary resistance' would only makes sense if the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq did not exist. But given that there are secularist communist groups in Iraq that demand women's rights, why should the left have any truck with theocratic militias who shoot women for not wearing the veil? A possible leftist objection - that this is a racist caricature - was exploded by both Nadia Mahmoud and Houzan Mahmoud, who both confirmed that the militias have been engaged in a brutal crushing of women's most basic freedoms. Traditional garb is now de facto mandatory in many areas of Iraq (with the further consequence that many women have stopped attending universities because they do not want to be coerced into wearing the veil); the return of polygamy (outlawed in Iraq in 1958) is threatened; honour-killing is on the rise; rape and sexual abuse is a growing, if largely unacknowledged, problem; prostitution, and child-prostitution, are on the increase, fuelling a trend for the abduction of women. This latter is such a constant danger, Houzan Mahmoud said, that it is now unthinkable for a woman in most areas of Iraq to walk the streets for even ten minutes without an armed male to protect her. Iraq has traded the oppression of Saddam Hussein for a condition of lawless anomie, a sandpunk nightmare in which quasi-medievalist warlords plot the coming of the caliphate in the gleamprog shadows of the US empire.

Given all this, how could leftist apologia for the resistance not itself be propagating a racial, if not to say racist, fantasy that forgets Iraq's recent secular history and which holds that Iraqis are not yet 'developed' enough to deal with the question of equality for women?

The only other justification for continued support for the resistance would be a pragmatic-strategic take on the old, discredited idea that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. The fact that this exactly re-capitulates the logic of the Cold War US support for the mujahadeen - itself a version of imperialist instrumentalism ('we can use them for our ends') - ought to give those who advocate it at least a moment's pause. Besides, to think that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' would only be justifiable in Iraq if a theocratic Islamist state could be thought to be preferable to the US occupation - a dubious claim at best, and one which the Freedom Congress and The Organisation of Women's Freedom reject.

The point is, a choice between the imperialist US and a reactionary militia is not a choice a leftist group should accept. In any case, it is not a 'choice' at all, because the Islamists groups have only come to the fore in the wake of the invasion. Both Nadia and Houzan Mahmoud made it clear that the resistance is more of an effect of the US invasion than an alternative to it. The war on terror and Islamism are in a relation of inter-exciting feedback, not of opposition. In an Iraq that was previously politically secular, Islamism had no real foothold. But the US invasion and occupation have provided exactly the breeding ground for Islamism that many who opposed the war warned that it would. As we have seen above, the results for women have been disastrous. In addition to everything else, the puppet regime has refused to ratify women's rights, which are only accepted in the constitution at all insofar as they do not conflict with Islamic law.

Part of what was so inspiring yesterday was seeing it amply demonstrated, in the context of the most concrete of political situation, that the only rational, coherent and positive position is secular universalism. The shameful fact is, though, that neither the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq has much of a profile in Britain. This is no accident; they have been left off platforms or actively boycotted by such groups as the Stop the War coalition because of their critical stance towards Islamism. How can it be that a platform is given to Islamist mullahs but not to these women? Something has gone badly wrong, and it is going wrong again in some of the leftist reactions to the cartoon controversy. Both Nadia Mahmoud and Houzan Mahmoud were predictably dismissive of the Islamist outrage over the Danish cartoons. Is Islam so weak, Nadia Mahmoud asked, that it is to be humbled by twelve caricatures?

We should not forget that the publication of the cartoons in Denmark took place in the context of a political situation in which Islamophobic sentiments enjoy legitimacy. But to deplore the role that the cartoons have played in the local Danish situation, and to deplore the way in which they, and the ensuing controversy, will be used by racists in the UK and elsewhere, should not lead us into the invidious position of defending Islamism, a creed, which, as Houzain Mahmoud and Nadia Mahmoud will tell you if you doubt it for even a moment, is bigoted, brutal and inherently hostile to egalitarian aims. Islamophobia is noxious not because it attacks Islam but because it racialises Muslims, treating them as an amorphous subhuman scourge, whose rights and lives can be stripped away. But defending Muslims from racist attacks should not entail defending Islam as a religion, still less should it involve defending Islamism as a political position, any more than rejecting anti-semitism should mean supporting Judaism and Zionism.


In the case of the cartoons, two causes of outrage have been conflated: first, the cartoons are held to be violating a prohibition to produce images of Mohammed; second, the connection between Islam and terrorism has been deemed to be offensive.

Even if there were an interdiction against images of the prophet (and the belief that there has always been such a prohibition has been dismissed by some as a 'zombie error' - an ill-founded commonplace belief that will not die), so what? There is no right to not be offended, nor should there be. If the cartoons were an insult to Islam, so be it. The only political objection to the cartoons is that they form part of a racist attack on Muslim populations, and the opposition to the cartoons remains political only when it makes a distinction between defending Muslims and defending Islam. Yet the Indonesians who burned Danish flags in the streets were not objecting to racism, they were protesting an affront to Islam. And if the issue is offence, those who defend the Islamist right not to be offended ought, logically, also to support the Christian groups who boycotted the Jerry Springer Opera.

As for the images which connect Islam to terrorism... Some have compared these cartoons with Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, but the analogy is partial at best. I take the Zizek point that, even if the Jews were guilty of everything that the Nazis accused them of, it wouldn't stop the Nazi persecution of them being racist . But the converse must also be accepted: the fact that particular trends in Islam can be used by racists to justify their delirium does not mean that those trends are not objectionable and wrong.

A better analogy than the anti-Jewish caricatures of the 30s would be cartoons satirising the Catholic Church's tendency to produce paedophiliac priests. If cartoons depicting Christ sodomising children were to appear, and if the Catholic Church responded to their publication with outraged howls about being insulted accompanied by calls for those who denounced them to be slaughtered, I would expect to find the Church supported by few on the left. It seems reasonable to expect the Church to accept that there is some causal link between the institution and child sex abuse. (The Catholic response to the pederasty question has been inadequate and derisory, but that's another story.) In the same way, there is some case to be answered about the links between Islam and terrorism. The fact that these links are not straightforward, that not all Muslims support terrorism, that some terrorism is justified, that terrorism emerges from causes other than religion even when it is carried out in the name of religion, is all the more reason why the best response, rather than demanding the destruction of alll who debased the sanctity of your beliefs, is to call for a rational discussion that will do justice to the complexities of the issue. Not to expect that from Muslims is to infantilise them, to impute a lower level of rationality to them than 'we' supposedly possess, in other words to engage in a sentimental, paternalistic Orientalism.

The temptation, at the moment, is to take a side from those that the Spectacle lays out for us (the media's role as a witting pawn in the escalation of this affair raises a whole set of other, intriguing questions). But racists and protesting Islamists, like occupiers and militia, are not opposing sides so much as twin faces of a moebian band. The Iraq Freedom Congress and The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq show that there is another way, a way out.

Posted by mark at February 6, 2006 01:42 AM | TrackBack