Source: Black Agenda Report
By Bruce A. Dixon
When you want to understand how the big wide world works you don’t look back at yourself and try to make it rhyme with what you already think you know.
That means you don’t ask smug, Eurocentric, self-congratulatory Bill Maher questions like “Why are they so touchy? How come those backward Muslims can’t separate their religion from politics?” If you actually want to understand why some fraction of Muslims saw gratuitous insult instead of satire when the French magazine Charlie Hebdo depicted the prophet Muhammad doing things you wouldn’t want your own small children to see, or pregnant Muslims as “Boko Haram sex slaves” howling for welfare checks, all you’ve got to do is look at is two bits of history. Philospher Karen Armstrong, in her latest book Religion and the History of Political Violence, goes a long way to break it down.
The first bit of history Armstrong explains, is that the notion of religion as a set of practices and beliefs about the diety you can perform on Sundays separate from how you put together political and economic life is an exclusively Western concept that nobody on earth before 17th and 18th century Europeans would recognize at all. The Sanskrit, Jewish, Arabic and other old terms for “religion” all mean something that recognizes no separation between politics, economics and morality and moral life.
It took more than a century of warfare in the 1600s and 1700s at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives to establish a kind of religion in Europe which could be separated from politics and economics. That way Europeans could have slavery and capitalism. European ruling elites could exterminate tens of millions in history’s greatest genocide colonizing the New World and still call themselves Christians. Non-European Muslims are being allowed only a generation or two and fortunately a lot less bloodshed to make this transition to “modernity,” which brings us to Armstrong’s second bit of relevant history.
She reminds us that the 20th century’s so-called modernizers in the Muslim world mostly didn’t do it with friendly and democratic persuasion. Under the approving eyes of the West, they did it forcibly, with secret police, torture, discriminatory laws and kangaroo courts. In Iran where the modernizers were sponsored by Britain and the US they did it by frequently firing into crowds of nonviolent protestors. In addition to needed reforms like curtailing shariah law, Turkey’s Mufasta Kemal Atatürk, the Pahlevis in Iran and Egypt’s Gamel Adbul Nasser locked up thousands of religious opponents apiece, and purged them from the civil service and political life.
This ain’t exactly how you train people to engage in a friendly, respectful and civil discussion of religious and political differences. It IS how you make lasting enemies, ever suspicious and vengeful, alert for the next slight or insult. But this is the real and relevant history we in the West have trained ourselves not to know or care about.
Add to this the wave of armed US and European interventions in Muslim lands, our vicious puppet governments, our brutal occupations, torture campaigns and drone strikes, and factor in that even while drone missile liberals like Bill Maher and US presidents say WE just don’t DO religious war, US military personnel “at the tip of the spear” today call their enemies “hajis” and police departments in the US and Europe surveil Muslim communities wholesale and incarcerate Muslims disproportionately.
In this context, unlike jokes exposing the foibles of the powerful, which are real satire, Charlie Hebdo, which is now subsidized by the French government is engaged in something much like war propaganda. And Bill Maher, the pencil wavers and the rest of the “Je suis Charlie” crowd are smug self congratulating chauvinist bullies.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web each week at http://www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. Contact him via this site’s contact page or via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.