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Charlie Hebdo: Religious Authority and Political Power. Chahla Chafiq.

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Nassreddin: The Laughter of the Good will bring Low the Power of Divine Authority. 

Religious Authority and Political Power. Chahla Chafiq (1) 

Charlie Hebdo. 25th February 2015 (Translated and adapted).

“One of the tales of Nasreddin Hodja, the hero and 13th century author of many works - extremely popular in the Persian, Turkish, Armenian and Arab worlds – touches on the relationship between earthly power and religious authorities.

“Nasreddin, whilst still young, had just been dignified with the title of Mullah. He was thus able to be a teacher at the Madrassa. One morning he wanted to take down a volume, high up in the bookcase. He climbed on a pile of Qur’ans. One of his colleagues was outraged. “By Allah, Nasreddin! You are impudent! Aren’t you frightened of dirtying the Sacred Scriptures?” “I used to be afraid of that.” Nasreddin replied, “But now I’m a Mollah, the Qur’an should be afraid of me.”

The message of  Nasreddin is that, in the name of the divine, humanity can take such a degree of authority that it would scare even all-powerful God.

Behind the ironical smile in the story a great fear is hidden. We have directly experienced this dread, during the murders of the 7th of January, the result of a plan to exterminate the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Half a century before, on the 14th of February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The ruling unleashed a Holy War against disobedient writers. The actions of this religious leader, a head of state, and the Jihadist enterprise of the Kouachis and Coulibaly, have both the same basis: the Islamist will to institute the Sacred Order on Earth.

In this project terror is an indispensable tool. The Inquisition, the persecution of heretics, the Wars of Religion, have taught us that no religion is immune from such a turn. It happens the moment religion become the source of law that dictates the rules of life, of governance, and political authority.

Today’s Islamists have not ceased making plain to the world the dire results of the fusion between religion and politics. Their transformation of the concepts of the Umma (the Community of all Believers), of Harem, Halal and Jihad into ideological codes, have allowed to them to treat any refusal to bow to their Diktat as hatred of God, and to consider this a Satanic deed to be fought.

From Fatwa to Massacre.

A few months after the Fatwa against Rushdie several thousand political prisoners in Iran were “liquidated” following the same kind of ruling. These crimes, which remain unregistered internationally, were justified inside Iran as a means to cleanse the body of the Umma of impure elements. The same logic is used to maintain the Islamist order: assigning women and homosexuals to inferiority, anti-Semitism, privileging one religion or doctrine over another, and forbidding freedoms. This world-view gives the agents of Islamism an unlimited and unconstrained power. Injustice and immortality have become “duties” in the name of “divine justice” and the “moral order”.

In this fashion Islamism has joined the same outlook of “identity” movements of Christianity, Judaism and those from other religions. All of them recycle old conservative ideas – bringing them close to the far right. The domination of the market, which erodes the sense of belonging, an economic crisis that has created a social, cultural and political vacuum, at a time when humanist ideas are in retreat, have created a context within which these movements offer an appealing sense of “meaning”. Rivals, these competing identity movements have nevertheless been allies in order to stem advances in human rights. This has happened in France, over gay marriage and equality education in schools. It can be seen internationally every time there are moves to promote gender equality, sexual rights, and freedom of belief, of expression and creation.

The present development of these identity movements is a political phenomenon that cannot be grasped without taking account the context and the actors involved. Looking into the processes that have led to the rise and expansion of Islamism one can see straight away the impact of dictatorships that call themselves Muslim, including those who accept modernisation, but refuse democratic values in the name of protecting their cultural and confessional (culturel – see note 2) identity.

In the same picture we can see that these dictatorships have received the backing, past and present, of the most powerful states in the world, acting out of their own interests. Only yesterday the Western powers helped the growth of Islamism with their strategy of encircling the Soviet Union with a “green” cordon. Today, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the manipulation of religious figures, Islamist and Jewish fundamentalist, has benefited pro-War supporters on every side.

Yet, we cannot reduce society to these elements. Where are the other people on the scene? What role do those who do not share these ideologies and interests play? What, in their own fields, are they doing with their resources to reflect, to act and to create?

Democracy and Secularism.

We have to admit that faced with the offensive of political-religious identity movements, many of these actors are paralysed by a series of confusions: between the cultural and the confessional (culturel), between Islamism and Islam, between democracy and imperialism. These confusions, whatever the intentions of those they originate with, have strengthened the vision of the Neoconservative supporters of a “war of civilisations”.

To escape from this there is only one-way out: to demolish the fantasy of a “Muslim World” and the “West” and to return to the reality of social, cultural and political struggles. From there we can raise the problem of “religion and politics” in relation to democratic ideals.

Founded on the recognition of the autonomy of individuals, free and equal, creators and subjects of laws, democracy, far from being just an affair of the ballot box, is a political project whose deepening means freedom from all intangible sacred power. Now, more than ever, secularism (laïcité) is a vital stake in advancing human rights and liberty.”

(1) Chahla Chafiq-Beski is an Iranian left-wing exile, writer and novelist who lives in France. Her latest book is Islam, politique, sexe et genre. PUF.  2011. “L’écriture est devenue mon lieu d’existence, hors frontières, pour vivre la liberté.” Writing has become my home, beyond frontiers, to be able to  live in freedom.”

Portrait de Chahla Chafiq

(2) Culturel – from Cult, same word as English, but primarily retaining the original sense of religious practice, confession.

Joseph Anton. A Memoir. Salman Rushdie. A Secularist Review.

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Joseph Anton. A Memoir. Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Cape. 2012.

In early September demonstrations against the video The Innocence of Muslims, took place across the world. Wednesday the 19th of the month saw the French leftist satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo published, to more protests, caricatures of Mohammed.

Two days later, Tahar Ben Jelloun argued, in Le Monde (21.9.12) against any concessions to Islamist inspired rage. He began by asking why Islam seemed so fragile that fiction, cartoons, or a bad film, His answer was the some Moslem countries encouraged this reaction to stave off creating states based on individual rights. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was the template for this strategy. It been used by the Iranian regime to quash any criticism of Islam, and to cement an “appartence absolue à la communité” (absolute adhesion to the community). Jelloun had no time for the provocations of Charlie. Yet he recommended ignoring them, and turning to the transcendental spirit of Islam.

Tareq Oubrou, the Rector of the Bordeaux Mosque, wrote on the same Le Monde Débats page, even more clearly against those who wished to suppress ‘blasphemy’. “La liberté de conscience et d’expression est un aquis occidental incontesté et incontenstable. Une avancée et un progrès philosophical-moral réels de notre humanité.” – Freedom of speech and conscience are established, unchallenged, and indisputable facts in the West. This is a step forward and real moral and philosophical progress for humanity”. Oubrou did not just repeat the standard argument (even sued by some Islamists, in the absence of a state ruled by the Sharia) that Muslims should submit to French law. All criticism of writing and art should be within their own terms, “La critique d’art se fait par l’art, la philosophie par la philosophie, and les idées par les idées.”

On the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, at the end that Month Le Monde put the author on the front page followed by a long, respectful, article/interview. It dealt with Rushdie’s criticisms of “Actually Existing Islam” as well as the Satanic Verses and the Khomeini Fatwa that has marked his life.

The present work does not neglect this political-religious theme, “During the worst excesses of Soviet Communism…Western Marxists had tried to distance ‘actually existing Socialism’ from the True Faith, Karl Marx’s vision of equality and justice.” Now, with Communism’s faults there for all to see, “it was no longer possible to believe in a True Faith untainted by the crimes of the real world.” Yet, “as Islamic states forged new tyrannies, and justified many horrors in the name of God, a similar separation was being made by Muslims; so there was the ‘actually existing Islam’ of the bloody theocracies and there was the True Faith of peace and love.” (Page 356) The crisis is profound, and cannot be wished away by this appeal, Rushdie says, “something was eating away at the faith of his grandfather, corroding or corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutions, turning dogma with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fitted was Islam.”(Pages 356-7) Read the rest of this entry »