Gilles Kepel on Islamism

French political scientist Gilles Kepel is a world-leading academic expert on political Islam (or Islamism). In his 2010 lecture at the London School of Economics he explains how from the midpoint of the 1970s political Islam became a prominent actor in the world system, and the consequences of this. My blog post summarises his analysis.

Freedom_go_to_hell

An Islamist protester in London on 6th February 2006 taking part in protests against anti-Muslim cartoons (Wikimedia Commons)

First generation jihadism in 1980s Afghanistan: a “Vietnam in reverse”

Kepel states that the Islamic political system plugged into the world system in the 1970s and 1980s, with jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s the watershed event. The promotors of this Afghan jihad – the petro-monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and the United States – considered this struggle central to undermining the USSR; in other words, jihad in Afghanistan was a proxy war (of the Cold War) against the USSR. This war ended on 15th February 1989 with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Kabul. Kepel claims that while many consider the significant event of 1989 as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in actual fact the defeat in Afghanistan was decisive for the end of the Cold War, since it exposed the fragility of the USSR. What’s more, he asserts, jihad in Afghanistan was a “Vietnam in reverse” that “opened the Pandora’s box of radical Islam that led to 9/11”: the “freedom fighter’s chicken that came home to roost” (Kepel, 2010).

Changing geography of the 1970s Muslim world

Kepel traces the upsurge of political Islam to when the first generation of young people who had not experienced direct colonial rule came of age in the Muslim world. Such a generation, he observes, held the rulers of the Muslim world responsible for what was not being delivered.

During the 1970s, Kepel expands, there was massive demographic change in this part of the world: more children were surviving due to improvements in nutrition and medicine, and there was large-scale migration from the countryside to the urban peripheries (or slums) of the big cities. With this relocation, people were no longer following rural Sufi orders, i.e. spiritual Islam, since it offered no answers to people’s new immediate concerns, notably, urban developers, the police, and the mafia. Kepel points out that this young generation became the first generation to be massively literate in the language of the country, specifically, in post-colonial, national languages used by the ruling elites to assert their own power.

Kepel describes how this new literate and hopeless generation, unhappy with their situation and their rulers, used their literacy to read, understand, and put into practice the revolutionary ideas of the most radical ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sayyid Qutb. This Islamist ideology saw the world as not really Muslim anymore, even in Muslim countries (whose rulers had betrayed Islam), and positioned this generation as living amid the age of ignorance (jahiliyyah) and whose duty was to destroy this old world and create a new Islamic world.

Sayyid_Qutb

Sayyid Qutb, a key theorist of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (Wikimedia Commons)

1973 Ramadan War and Saudi Arabia

The upsurge of Islam on the political scene from the 1970s had a dual dimension, Kepel discerns: a radical side and a conservative side. The conservative side, the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, was much closer to Western and, in particular, American interests.

Kepel expounds that the October war of 1973 was a very significant event vis-à-vis political Islam. Following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-day war of 1967 with Israel, Nasser of Egypt had lost political legitimacy; the governments of Egypt and Syria launched an offensive against Israel in 1973 to ‘save face’. The October war was known in the Muslim world as the Ramadan War. But for soldiers to be able to fight (not fast) during Ramadan, jihad had to be declared. This was declared by the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Egypt (an appointee of Sadat). This was, Kepel states, a social and political jihad translated into military action. It was not a jihad of expansion but a compulsory defence jihad (since Israel was deemed to be a land occupied by infidels) to be fought by sword, money, and/or prayer. During this jihad, there was major pressure from oil-exporting countries for an embargo on all allies of Israel, which steeply drove up oil prices. Kepel makes plain the consequence of this: Saudi Arabia (the biggest oil producer and the one who had taken the initiative) became the key player in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a very strong, conservative Islamic kingdom, which was staunchly anti-Communist, used its oil weapon against the United States because it considered the United States to have gone too far in its support of Israel. Simultaneously, Kepel reveals, radical political Islam was developing in Egypt. The conservative Islamists of Saudi Arabia were worried about this, hoping that by flooding this Islamist movement with its money it would become more conservative.

1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran

Kepel observes that the big shock came not from the Sunni world but from the Shia world: the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had (and continues to have) revolutionary and third wordlist overtones, and an anti-Americanism (unlike Saudi Arabia). Islamist Iran was also anti-Saudi Arabia and considered the petro-monarchies as lapdogs of the West. Also in 1979, with huge money from the United States as an incentive, Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel. By 1980, Saddam Hussein of Iraq (with Gulf states backing ) attacked Iran with the aim of exploiting its internal political turmoil. In sum, Kepel identifies, the whole Western system of alliances looked in danger.

Back to Afghanistan and The Satanic Versus

During the Christmas of 1979 the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Kepel remarks that this was not an expansionist mission on part of the USSR, but was intended to replace the existing Communist Party officials who had come in during an earlier coup with a new set. The United States government considered this as a golden opportunity to do two things, Kepel contends: 1) to get rid of the USSR via a proxy war led by the Afghan mujahedeen or jihad fighters (who were called freedom fighters by the United States at this time) and 2) to get rid of or to minimise the influence of Iran. Thus, Kepel claims, it is very significant that on the 14th February 1989 (the day before the Red Army withdrew from Kabul) Iran’s Ayatollah issued his famous fatwa to kill British citizen Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah understood, Kepel spells out, that the Sunni radicals with their Saudi-Kuwaiti-American godfathers stood to benefit from the withdrawal of the Red Army, and so he aimed to demonstrate that Iran was the defender of Muslims worldwide.

Second generation jihadism from the 1990s

It was not well understood at the time, Kepel explains, that international brigades of jihadists came to Afghanistan to fight jihad, specifically, people who considered the call for jihad as universal. These people had a different agenda: liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet yoke was only the first step in the restoration of Islam. Within these Islamist circles an idea developed that the Afghan jihad should be duplicated in the countries from where these people came from. After the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, the United States and the petro-monarchies started to worry about the so-called freedom fighters (now called terrorists and whose funding had ceased); they assumed that without the funding and without a country, the threat would disappear. But what transpired in the 1990s were attempts by many of the veterans of the Afghan war to re-enact the Afghan jihad in their own countries: notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Bosnia (all deemed Muslim lands governed by impious rulers). Civil wars consequently ignited in these countries, but, Kepel concludes, the radical Islamists ultimately failed because they were unable to mobilise the masses.

Significantly, Kepel argues, this failure led Ayam al-Zawahiri – a supremo thinker of al-Qaeda – to conclude that it was useless to waste one’s time fighting one’s near-by enemies, rather the focus should be on the far-away enemy: to strike at America. The attack on the Twin Towers was intended as a symbolic strike that would provide courage and mobilisation of a vast movement. This didn’t happen. The radical Islamists expected Iraq to be the place that would re-enact Afghan jihad. Instead Iraq became “the cemetery of their illusions” (Kepel, 2010): an intra-Muslim battle (Sunni-Shiite) in which jihad turned into internal strife (fitna).

Third generation jihadism

In two more recent interviews on France24 (Kepel, 2015) and Al Jazeera (Kepel, 2017), Gilles Kepel defines the present era as one of third generation jihadism. After the first generation jihadism of 1980s Afghanistan and the second generation jihadism of al-Qaeda and 9/11, Kepel expounds that third generation jihadism is a system and a network not an organisation, and is bottom-up. It was born from a critique of the failure of the top-down al-Qaeda strategy to mobilise the Muslim masses, which was ultimately lost in Iraq. Kepel points out that a former aide to Bin Laden and PR man to al-Qaeda, a Syrian engineer called Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, posted an online book in 2005 called ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’. This text sees Europe as “the soft underbelly of the West” (Kepel, 2017) and advances a grassroots jihadism in which its soldiers will come from amongst the one million disenfranchised young Muslims living in Europe. Kepel recognises that the core dimension of this third generation of jihadists is both the internet, with videos posted from Iraq and Syria (whereas previously propaganda came through the mosques), and budget airlines and cheap airfares to, for instance, Istanbul. This, he says, is the new proximity of the battlefield. And these internet indoctrinated, military-trained individuals choose targets from within a wide framework: 1) secularist, ‘anti-Islamist’ intellectuals; 2) Jews, but not in synagogues; and 3) so-called apostate Muslims. The basic idea of third generation jihadism, Kepel surmises, is to find the fault lines and start a war.

Afterword: Olivier Roy and ‘Islamophobia’

In Gilles Kepel’s 2017 interview on Al Jazeera he is asked his opinion of Olivier Roy’s thesis that there hasn’t been a radicalisation of Islam but instead an Islamisation of radicalism: with angry, alienated young men, who in the past might have turned to Marxism or anarchism or joined a gang, signing up today to jihadism because it is the most fashionable radicalism going. Kepel strongly disagrees with Roy’s thesis. He insists that the radicalisation of many young French Muslims (especially in the deprived French suburbs) is related to the Islam that they follow, Salafi Islam. While Roy sees radicalism as the essence and the phenomenon changes, Kepel asserts that if you don’t study the blend of the social issues and the ideology then you miss the point.

Kepel is also questioned on his reference to ‘Islamophobia’ as a buzzword and a propaganda term used by Islamists. The problem with Islamophobia, he argues, is that it mixes criticism of a doctrine (which is permissible) with attacking someone as a person because of, for example, what she wears, her faith, et cetera (which is not permissible). The latter, Kepel states, is racism.

Cultural victory over children’s human rights? The ritual circumcision turn

My deliberation on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors on this blog (Scandinavia’s ritual circumcision debate: a socialist response and Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee) started with a comment that I’d read by Frank Furedi, in which he tosses into a wave of European anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion reactionarism: “In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys…”

A_Portugese_Jewish_circumcision_ceremony._Engraving,_1741,_a_Wellcome_V0016781

(Wikimedia Commons)

Below is a timeline of key events and forces in this debate. Conclude for yourselves on whether this story is one of a cultural victory over the far-right in Europe, who foster anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, or a cultural victory of religion over children’s human rights fought for by medical professionals, children’s rights advocates, and secularists.

  • Norway, May 2012: a two-week old baby boy dies in Oslo after complications arising from circumcision, fuelling a debate on the practice.
  • Germany, May 2012: in response to a case of ritual circumcision in which the male child had to be hospitalised, a Cologne district court ruled the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”.
  • Germany, 2012: a number of children’s rights organisations and doctors petitioned for a consideration of the law on this issue, questioning the interference of a child’s bodily integrity.
  • Germany, December 2012: a national law was passed that legitimates the parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children.
  • Norway, September 2013: a statement was released titled “Let the boys decide on circumcision” signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. An interview in 2012 with the Children’s Ombudsman of Norway, Dr Anne Lindboe, explains her position:

  • Finland, October 2013: the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” supporting a ban.
  • October 2013: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution against the non-medical circumcision of boys as “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
  • Norway, 2014: 72 per cent of a public opinion survey state that they are against the practice of the ritual circumcision of male minors.
  • Norway, February 2014: the Norwegian Nurses Organisation joined the call for a ban on non-medical circumcision of boys under the age of 15-16. Its director, Astrid Grydeland Ersvik, stressed the need for boys to be able to decide for themselves, and drew parallel to female genital mutilation.
  • Norway, June 2014: the parliament passed Act on Ritual Circumcision of Boys, by the ruling right-wing Conservative-Progress coalition, which permits non-medical circumcision of male minors in the presence of a medical supervisor although the procedure itself can be carried out by someone else.

Maxime Rodinson on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

The independent Marxist and Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson is praised by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) for his “extraordinary achievements” and his “methodological self-consciousness”. For Said, Rodinson was one of an exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines.

Rodinson wrote the following books: Mohammed (1974), Islam and Capitalism (1977), Marxism and the Muslim world (1979), Israel and the Arabs (1982), The Arabs (1985), Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1988), Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (2001), and Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (2001).

Maxime_Rodinson_(1970)

(Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Rodinson states, in the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), of Said’s Orientalism:

“Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.”

See also, my post: Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

For more on Maxime Rodinson, see: Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’Maxime Rodinson: A Marxist historian of Islam, and Some thoughts on the death of ‘anti-Marxist’ Maxime Rodinson.

Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.

 

II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.

 

III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

While:

“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)

 

IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.

 

Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles

Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee

I am grateful for Eric Lee’s response piece to my article here and in the socialist newspaper Solidarity. On his website there are a number of end comments that I recommend people read.

Here I expose what I consider to be Eric’s confused notion of politics, or rather, the lack of politics that Eric considers politics.

At the start of his rejoinder, Eric declares: “Camila Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition”. So I am guessing that Eric missed the footnote in Marx’s Grundrisse that demands: “non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure”. Okay, seriously then, let’s do away with this sense of clunky Marxist doctrine, because, for me, Marxist tradition is about autonomous, self-governing critical thought and practice, hence I ask in my original article: as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?” At no point does Eric address this question.

Eric suggests that I soften the blow of my article by reference to Scandinavia; he sarcastically notes, “Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people”. What’s he getting at here – as against Jews and Muslims? Eric incorrectly states that “Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to [Jewish and Muslim] communities”. And, “[a]lmost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever”. This is not true. It is him not I that homogenizes ‘communities’ of people on the basis of their ‘race’ / ethnicity and religion (stripping people of their differential social, economic, political, and cultural positions, ideas and practices, and individual agency), and it is he not I that panders to the status of so-called ‘community leaders’. I don’t assume, as he does, that all people who might fall under the category of ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’ are opposed to a discussion on the question of informed consent for ritual circumcision. Moreover, before I arrive at my end set of demands, I both emphasise and reference the ascent of the populist Right in Europe, and a rising tide of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, including in Scandinavia, as critical context. Marxism is about analysing given material realities, the forces and relations involved, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this. The Scandinavian debate of 2013 and 2014 on the ritual circumcision of male minors is simply that, a given material reality to engage with.

As I was aware, Eric points out that a previous debate on banning ritual circumcision for male minors occurred in Germany. However, he fails to provide and assess the details. As noted in DW, in May 2012 a ruling from the Cologne district court – on a incident of ritual circumcision in which the child was subsequently hospitalized – deemed the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”. From this, as Reuters reports:

“Some doctors and children’s rights associations submitted a petition in September [2012] calling for a two-year moratorium and a round-table of medical, religious and legal experts to study circumcision fully. “In the clear opinion of experts, the amputation of the foreskin is a grave interference in the bodily integrity of a child,” Georg Ehrmann, chairman of the child protection group Deutsche Kinderhilfe [states].”

The outcome? In December 2012, Germany went on to approve a national law to legitimate parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children. What Eric chooses to accentuate about the German case are the Jewish and Muslim leaders across the European continent who condemned the ban.

When Eric challenges my position that non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision should only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure, on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, he retorts:

“Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right? And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?”

But what is his political reasoning? What is his political method? He surely doesn’t mean what he actually says, which is “using the same reasoning”, i.e., on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, why not ban the ritual slaughter of animals and faith schools? Eric fails to politically engage with some of the key forces involved in the discussion in Scandinavia. What about the statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland? What of the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology’s “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys”?

And, of course, one cannot crassly bundle together the ritual circumcision of male minors (and therein the crucial question of consent), with the ritual slaughter of animals, with faith schools, and (I’ll add to Eric’s list) with schoolgirls wearing Islamic headscarves. Why not? Because the Marxist tradition I am applying is about arriving at an independent class position based on a theoretical analysis of the specific empirical realities, and their forces and relations, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this, and each of these cases are different.

Eric asserts that moves to ban ritual circumcision amongst male minors is “closely linked to” moves to ban the ritual slaughter of animals – all of which are “rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities”. Is it that simple? I certainly don’t deny that there might be some forces involved that are racist motivated, but there also appears to be forces involved that are not racist motivated. If Eric wants an empirical reality to build a case for his claim, I suggest he examines the Danish social and political scene, and asks: what are the nature, composition, and balance of forces? Eric concludes that “[s]ocialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion”. What he misses is this: on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors there is a distinct intersection of religious freedom for parents with the right of the child to bodily integrity, and to later sexual autonomy.

Eric Lee’s befuddlement can be explained by what he does, which is to respond to a debate on ritual circumcision among male minors by not responding to it at all and instead conflating it to a European climate of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, and thus cancelling out politics. He says, defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe”, and ignores the question in hand: again, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?”  I stand by the basic socialist demands from my original article:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics

Scandinavia’s ritual circumcision debate: a socialist response

“the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity. Critical understanding of the self takes place therefore through a struggle of political ‘hegemonies’ and opposing directions” (Antonio Gramsci)

Independent working class culture

It was on reading Frank Furedi’s article “Culture War: the narcissism of minor differences” (in Spiked Online) that I became aware of the recent debate in Scandinavia on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys. Moreover, it is the way in which Furedi frames this debate that alerted me to the need to think through a socialist response. Take his opening paragraph:

“On Sunday, a majority of Swiss voters said yes in a referendum on imposing quotas on the arrival of immigrants from EU countries. On the previous weekend, there were mass demonstrations in France, at which protesters chanted slogans in defence of the traditional family and denouncing the school system for planning to indoctrinate their children with ‘gender-equality’ sex education. On the same weekend, thousands demonstrated in Madrid against tough new anti-abortion laws drawn up by the Spanish government. In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has become the focus for international protest over its discrimination against gay people.”

Here Furedi groups together, through a common denominator, reactionary waves of anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion sentiment and action, with a public and political discussion on whether male minors should be ritually circumcised without their consent. So, what is his common denominator? A new concept apparently, ‘culture war’. He states: “Today, it is through the contestation of norms and values, and a clash over cultural authority, that conflicts of interest are most commonly expressed.” Culture war, Furedi argues, is the defining feature of our post-Cold War society, as political ideologies have been worn out and cultural issues take their place. Of course, anyone with a decent grasp of the works of Antonio Gramsci will know that struggles over culture are not new, and are intrinsically bound up with class (and political) interests. Nonetheless, Furedi concludes:

“The new cultural politics rarely recognises itself for what it is. It cannot openly acknowledge its ambition to monopolise moral authority. Although advocates of lifestyle and identity causes always claim to be tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic, in truth they cannot accept the moral legitimacy of their opponents. […] There are no progressive causes that can be advanced through the medium of culture. Those who flatter themselves as enlightened and inclusive are no less complicit than their opponents in creating a climate of intolerance.”

Ultimately, and ironically, Furedi (in his outright rejection of culture war) slides right into cultural relativism. What’s more, I ask: what about the politics of independent working class culture? In other words, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?

The Nordic debate

689px-Flags_of_Scandinavia

(Wikimedia Commons)

In a joint statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – released in Oslo on September 30th 2013, and signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, it is declared:

“Circumcision, performed without a medical indication, on a person who is incapable of giving consent, violates fundamental medical-ethical principles, not least because the procedure is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications. There are no health-related reasons for circumcising young boys in the Nordic countries. Circumstances that may make circumcision advantageous for adult men are of little relevance to young boys in the Nordic countries, and on these matters the boys will have the opportunity to decide for themselves when they reach the age and maturity required to give consent. […] We see it as fundamental that parents’ rights in this context do not prevail over children’s right to bodily integrity. The best interests of the child must always be a primary consideration, even if this can reduce the rights of adults to perform religious or traditional practices. The Nordic Ombudsmen for Children in conjunction with pediatric experts therefore wish to work towards a situation where circumcision without medical indication may only be carried out if a boy, who has reached the age and maturity required in order to understand the necessary medical information, chooses to consent to the procedure. […]”

On the 10th October 2013 the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” from Helsinki, which includes the following:

“The penile foreskin is a natural and integral part of the normal male genitalia. The foreskin has a number of important protective and sexual functions. […] recent scientific evidence leave little doubt that during sexual activity the foreskin is a functional and highly sensitive, erogenous structure, capable of providing pleasure to its owner and his potential partners. As clinical sexologists, we are concerned about the human rights aspect associated with the practice of non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys. To cut off the penile foreskin in a boy with normal, healthy genitalia deprives him of his right to grow up and make his own informed decision. Unless there are compelling medical reasons to operate before a boy reaches an age and a level of maturity at which he is capable of providing informed consent, the decision to alter the appearance, sensitivity and functionality of the penis should be left to its owner, thus upholding his fundamental rights to protection and bodily integrity. Every person’s right to bodily integrity goes hand in hand with his or her sexual autonomy.”

Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism

The response of some to the Scandinavian debate on whether to ban the ritual circumcision of boys has been to state that it is part of a wider wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism. That, implicitly, seems to be Furedi’s position, and in another article in his associated journal Spiked Online, Nancy McDermott explicitly states that the ‘culture war’ against circumcision is part of a new, cultural, anti-Semitism that is ironically expressed in the language of human rights.

Indeed, the pressure from particular political forces stressing this argument appears to have stalled any momentum in the direction of banning the practice amongst minors. The Copenhagen Post reported that in December 2013, a delegation of Israeli Knesset politicians attempted to overturn a human rights-based resolution, which was passed in October 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE):

“The PACE resolution 1952 recommends that member states start moving towards abolishing all kinds of physical assaults on children, including non-therapeutic circumcision of boys and girls. […] In the Israeli media, readers have repeatedly been told that the widely-held European stance against ritual circumcision is rooted partly in anti-Semitism, and partly in fear of an expanding Muslim population in Europe.”

Noted in Israel’s Arutz Sheva from February 2014: “Foreign Minister Børge Brende of Norway told the Center of European Rabbis and the Union of Jewish Associations in the European Union, Thursday, that his government has never considered and will never consider putting a ban on ritual circumcision (brit milah in Hebrew).” It is worth registering that in Norway, political party support for the position of the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and paediatric experts on ritual circumcision comes, in the main, from some in the Labor Party and not from the right-wing Progress Party.

My first response is to emphasise that, yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe is on the rise, and Scandinavia is no exception to this reactionary social and political trend. An article in The Economist from January 2014, assessing the rise of Europe’s right-wing, observes:

“The populist right is nowhere to be found in austerity-battered Spain and Portugal. But it thrives in well-off Norway, Finland and Austria. […] From 2001 to 2011 the Danish People’s Party under Pia Kjaersgaard swapped parliamentary support for a succession of centre-right minority coalitions for tighter legislation on immigration. […] To the consternation of liberal Scandinavians, Norway’s nationalist-right Progress Party, which secured 16% of the vote at recent parliamentary elections, has been welcomed into a minority coalition government. Its leader, Siv Jensen – a sort of Norwegian Marine Le Pen, who talks about the “rampant Islamification” of Norway – has become the finance minister.”

My second response is to untangle and reassemble the Scandinavian debate on the ritual circumcision of boys – in which not all of the forces can be crudely and crassly labelled and reduced to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism – and a climate of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism across Europe, in order to work out an independent socialist perspective.

Conclusion

On assessing the debate and the related evidence, some immediate and basic socialist demands can be concluded:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics

This leaves the question of: if the principle of the right of the child to bodily integrity is carried through into law, what would a socialist response be to the issue of ‘crime and punishment’? Evidence of the varying outcomes from the application of the law against female genital mutilation (FGM) suggests that the solution to achieving a phasing out of this practice lies in education. Whilst France does not have a specific law against FGM, since the late 1970s it has prosecuted parents and ‘cutters’ under existing legislation relating to grievous bodily harm and violence against children. There is a perception that this has led to a deluge of convictions, yet this is not the case; in the period of 34 years since, there have been 29 trials, and approximately 100 convictions. Crucially, it seems, alongside legal application has been an intense educational campaign in France, including the training of health and education professionals on this issue, and the systematic examination of girls during routine health checks as babies. As such, The Independent notes: “In the early 1980s, analysis of the examinations showed that if a mother had been “excisée” (mutilated), there was an 80 per cent chance that her daughter would also have been subjected to FGM. A survey in 2007 suggested this had been reduced to 11 per cent.”

In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty

I. These are the rules

A storm should leave in its wake stillness and clarity.

Marxism to me works as a method of thinking and application; a body of ideas and a school of experience; a theory to apply to any given reality with an analytical rigour and honesty; and, a process of testing, modifying and evolving ideas and practice in the interests of our class. There are also certain Marxist principles, as Leon Trotsky articulates:

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules.”

So, a seven-year-old article by Workers’ Liberty comrade Sean Matgamna has recently caused great indignation among sections of the British Left, with accusations of racism and Islamophobia. For anyone familiar with this Left, it is hardly news that Workers’ Liberty are (supposedly) imperialists, Zionists, racists and Islamophobes, such are the longstanding accusations. But it would be unfair to label all of the article’s critics as mischief-makers; many, for sure, have genuine unease with the piece. And it is to these critics that I address my defence with the hope to convince them otherwise.

Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today is a classic polemical piece by Matgamna. It is an essay that takes effort to read and digest; it provokes emotion and stimulates the mind; and, it pulls no punches.

II. The political context

a. Politics and Religious Revivalism

While Matgamna presents some nuanced analysis based on differential conditions and forces of existence, he draws no essential distinction between East and West in relation to the increasing appeal and influence of religion in politics. His assertion is that we have reached a somewhat unprecedented epoch in which religion – or interests expressed in the name of religion – has become central to political life worldwide.

It seems to me that there is a valid case to make based on empirical observation and evidence that since the early 1990s, there has been a fertile growth of religious fundamentalisms. Take the examples of Hindu fundamentalism in India, the rising role of Jewish fundamentalism and Islamism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or (most recently) the bizarre emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism in Burma and Sri Lanka.

Locally, Matgamna problematizes changes to British state law that have blurred the difference between racist and ethnic incitement and expression of hostility to religious ideas. He comments:

“We are in the throes of being thrown back decades, to the not so distant time when people in Britain could be prosecuted for ‘disrespectfully’ or ‘obscenely’ depicting Jesus Christ.”

The defeat of socialism by Stalinism, fascism and bourgeois democracy has preconditioned this contemporary “social and spiritual malaise”, Matgamna observes. That said, he continues, the victory of the working class in the 1917 Russian Revolution remains the beacon and proof that the working class – when “politically armed with Marxism and organised in and by a consistently democratic class-loyal revolutionary party” – can take political power. However, much of the British Left has lost its way, so rather than proudly pioneer a revival of independent, internationalist, consistency democratic socialism, which is capable of envisioning “a rational, humane, enculturing socialist society”, it has capitulated to religious revivalism, namely Islamism, through an inverted dual camp politics. For documentation of this, see my journal paper: ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement.

b. On the End of History and the Clash of Civilisations

After the Cold War, two (of varying degrees) right-wing theses emerged in academic and public intellectual circles: Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’.

Frances Fukuyama proclaimed:

“The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of military-authoritarian Right, or communist-totalitarianism Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures across the globe. […] The attractive power of this world creates a very strong disposition for all human societies to participate in it, while success in this participation requires the adoption of the principles of economic liberalism.”

Samuel Huntington depicted a new global order of civilisations: Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, orthodox, Western, and possibly African. The West, he prophesised, will be faced with the growing hegemony of Islamic, East Asian and Chinese civilisations. The West, Huntington concluded, needs a strategy to strengthen its political and cultural values while also seeking alliances with other civilisations.

Matgamna alludes to the lack of traction Fukuyama’s thesis has with empirical reality. Moreover, any reading of Matgamna’s essay as echoing Huntington’s thesis is, frankly, a misreading of Matgamna’s political method and motivation, context, analysis and conclusion. One can argue that Huntington, for right-wing political ends, racially essentialises civilisations and promotes within this a naturalised hierarchical order. If Matgamna is guilty of any kind of essentialism too, then surely the only case that could be made would be on ‘class’? He is steered by a belief that workers across the world have a collective interest in opposition to both their bourgeoisies and the growth of religious fundamentalisms. Does this then make him an economic determinist and class reductionist? No. As Friedrich Engels states:

“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, [she or] he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions […] history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.”

c. On Orientalism and Racism

Leftist Edward Said (1978), in his book Orientalism, describes how the scholars who studied what used to be called the Orient (mostly Asia) disregarded the views of those they actually studied. Instead, such scholars preferred to rely on their Western intellectual superiority – an attitude forged by European imperialism. In addition to the complicity of European governments and scholars in the colonial Empire-building of the Arab world, Said identifies Marx and Marxism as guilty of an orientalist distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. Could one make a case that Matgamna’s essay is orientalist? Actually, I think the question itself is wrong on the basis that Said’s thesis is flawed. The critique of ‘a Western’ framing of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, i.e. the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, appears to me to replace one form of essentialism with another (or one dualism with another). The French Orientalist and independent Marxist scholar, Maxime Rodinson (himself praised by Said as a scholar who proved “perfectly capable of freeing [himself] from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines) states of Orientalism: “as usual, [Said’s] militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements”, which are made further problematic by the fact that Said is “inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists”. Rodinson cautions that Orientalism is “a polemic against orientalism written in a style that was a bit Stalinist”, that is, in its dual camp delineation of allies and adversaries.

Subsequent postcolonial theory tends to remain silent on past Islamic imperialism and present-day regional imperialisms outside of the US-Euro-Israeli triangle. Is it surprising then that during a plenary of an anti-war teach-in at Berkeley in 2006, the queer theorist Judith Butler stated: “Understanding Hamas, Hezbollah, as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important, that does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements […].”

Furthermore, ‘orientalism’, whether one rejects this thesis or not, is not a concept to be conflated with the concept of ‘racism’ – the latter (when sharply defined) has far more spatial and temporal sensitivity to analyse, explain and respond to any given reality. For Robert Miles (1989), racism is a process of signification:

“racism ‘works’ by attributing meanings to certain phenotypical and/or genetic characteristics of human beings in such a way as to create a system of categorisation, and by attributing additional (negatively evaluated) characteristics to the people sorted into those categories. This process of signification is therefore the basis for the creation of a hierarchy of groups, and for establishing criteria by which to include and exclude groups of people in the process of allocating resources and services.”

I contend that post-9/11 there has been a collapse of religion into a racial category vis-à-vis British Muslims, hence it makes sense to analyse an increase in ‘anti-Muslim racism’. For me, the term Islamophobia lacks serious explanatory power.

Any accusation that Matgamna’s essay is racist only works on the premise that either one cannot criticise or one should tame down one’s critique of Islam and/or Islamism because otherwise one is categorising all Muslim people negatively and from a racially elitist vantage point. This is the muddle that much of the British Left finds itself in, and it is their muddle not Matgamna’s. Is it with any wonder then that Matgamna declares:

“the first result on the kitsch-left of the present foetid regrowth of religion has been to expose the terrible lack of ideological and political self-confidence and the all-round weakness of mind and spirit that pervades that ‘left’.”

III. The political analysis and conclusion

The following are Matgamna’s central points that compose his overall line of argument in Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today. To pull sentences out of this narrative is to subsequently evade dealing with the narrative’s politics, i.e., identifying what products of capitalism to base ourselves on (namely the working class) in opposition with what other products of capitalism.

POINT ONE

The ‘war on terror’ is not crudely a ‘put up job’ in which the external enemy has been invented (as the pseudo-Left claim). Whilst it is the case that key ‘Western’ imperialist and regional imperialist powers have fostered Islamism, for example, the Israeli state for the purpose of dividing Palestinians and jeopardising the prospect of a two nations settlement, and the US state in the financing and arming of Islamist forces during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Islamism has its own indigenous roots. The roots of Islamism lie in the space that was created from the collapse of Arab nationalism, in which a solution to the failings of Arab nationalism “is not an earthly, but a heavenly one”.

POINT TWO

The ‘war on terror’ is “a war on civil liberties of ordinary citizens” and, Matgamna states, “is shaped around a US war against terrorists whose whole world outlook and motive to action is shaped by Islam and by their Islamic view of an afterlife in which a special place in a peculiarly fleshy paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves, is the preordained heavenly payment for Muslim suicide bombers.”

In an era when ICT has dramatically compressed our sense of space and time, Islamism provides an expression to the disappointments and frustrations of a mass of people at the fringe of the prosperous, advanced capitalist world. Islamism’s response is a moral righteous (and essentialised) rejection of ‘the West’. It is in this context that Matgamna writes: “Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity [a historical reference to the 7th century that Islamism draws inspiration from] enviously eyeing a rich and decedent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”

A general religious revivalism and rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide appears to have coincided with the rapid spread of ICT and cheap air travel (the infrastructure of globalisation) and particular geographical shifts in global capital over the past twenty years or so. I don’t think one should play down the significance of this period in which satellite TV and the internet, and a rise in economic growth (and with that more plain inequality), sell the relative freedoms of life in the cities and beyond. This seems to be a major factor in bringing to a head the acute tensions of religious tradition, duty and honour. Visiting my extended family in the Punjab villages during the late 1990s and 2000s, anecdotal evidence talked of a new prevalent phenomenon of suicide among pre-marital young women (in a majority of cases, by drinking weedkiller). The wave of protests in India during late 2012 and early 2013, triggered by the 16th December Delhi gang-rape case, again demonstrated (amongst other things) a collision or confrontation between globalisation and patriarchal religious revivalism. See my piece and podcast, Historic moment for India? and Sexual violence: a global analysis.

POINT THREE

In Europe itself, there is a political battle for Muslim minds, and therein Islamism is a growing force.

See, for example, research by the world’s foremost expert on Islamism, political scientist Professor Gilles Kepel, for empirical substantiation of points one to three.

POINT FOUR

The growth of militant “primitive Christianity”, especially in the USA, is noteworthy in its new offensive against Darwinism. Matgamna asserts: “The savage joke is that the USA, the main international bulwark against political Islam, is itself riddled with its own ignorant fundamentalism. Christians in the half-demented grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith in the Bible as the literal word of God, and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science, are an assertive and increasingly active political force in the USA. A ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world, is a growing force in what is, technologically, the most advanced society on Earth!”

There has also been a simultaneous process in which, on the one hand, organised, theologically sophisticated and hierarchical Christian churches have declined in influence, and, on the other hand, mass/half beliefs in “primitive” superstitions (such as tarot cards, horoscopes and witchcraft) have increased in appeal.

POINT FIVE

In Britain there has been the emergence of faith schools and a rise in the militancy of various religions. For instance, Matgamna notes: “When Sikhs in Birmingham rioted against a play (by a woman of Sikh background) which they did not like, and succeeded in closing it down, other religions rallied to justify them.” Ironically, thereafter, they will be at conflict with one another.

I vividly remember the Sikh protesters of 2004 who succeeded in banning the play Behzti. Members of my family (of Sikh background) debated the issues frankly. We felt both heavily burdened by the media coverage of Sikh fundamentalists (who’ve been a growing repressive presence in our communities), and a sense of injustice that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play wasn’t aired.

That her play depicted a rape in a Gurdwara was a brave, pioneering move to opening up a culture (to itself and others) to critical scrutiny. Whereas Dr Jasdev Singh Rai of the Sikh Human Rights Group argued, “free speech is a relic of colonialism”. Cultural relativism won the day, and a sad day it was.

Behzti_Cancelled_Birmingham_20041228

(Wikimedia Commons)

POINT SIX

The roots of the revival of Christian fundamentalism are not exactly the same as those reviving Islamism. For the former, Matgamna observes: “It is the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism that draws people to primitive religion or keeps them mired in it – though, of course, by no means all American citizens share in that prosperity; vast numbers of people there, too, are beggars shut out from the rich people’s feastings.” But American populist-evangelical religion and Islamism have in common an aspect of “protest against capitalism, commercialism and money power”.

POINT SEVEN

In sum, Matgamna makes clear: “Socialism proposes practical and rational action to achieve the aspirations that religion perverts into mysticism, unreason, and often into self-spiting and self-hatred.”

IV. And over to Karl Marx for the final word

From A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):

“For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism. […] man [sic] is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man [sic] shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man [sic] as long as he does not revolve around himself. It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”