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Religion and Politics

The Sigh of the Oppressed

by RON JACOBS

As mostly secular people, it is often hard to get around the religious nature of the resistance groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere in the so-called Muslim world. But, religion is a very real aspect of human existence, so we have to appreciate that and respect it. And deal with it. Marx said it was the opiate, but that wasn’t all he said: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

In other words, religion is a source of hope for those who have no hope. It is this aspect of religious belief that does a lot to explain why religion is not only a factor in today’s world, but an incredibly popular phenomenon. Precisely because there is so little hope in terms of politics, the most oppressed have turned to religion in all its forms.

Looking at the Middle East for starters, the failure of the secular governments in the region to resolve their populations poverty and other struggles to live a decent life goes a long way towards explaining the current domination of the so-called Islamist resistance movements in the region. Those governments failure to genuinely defend the Palestinians, their failure to stand up to Israel, and their failure to end corruption and theft within their own governments can also be blamed. In Palestine, if we add to that mix the determination of Israel and the US to destroy earlier Marxist-inspired Palestinian liberation groups like the PFLP and secular organizations like early Fatah, it’s quite apparent to see how an opening for religious radicals to move in was created. Of course, there are variations of religious radicals and that’s where it gets confusing to the Westerner. Besides the Sunni and Shia, there are fundamentalist sects like the Wahabbis that, by most accounts, consider almost everyone that doesn’t believe in their interpretation of the Koran to be infidels and worthy of death. Other Sunni organizations express varying degrees of nationalism versus degrees of Islamism. In addition, various Sunnis express varying degrees of tolerance for the Shia (and vice versa).

The Shia, whose very interpretation of Islam is an interpretation based on a desire for justice, have learned to to hide their beliefs out of fear in a traditionally Sunni-dominated region. Hamas and Hezbollah are Shia, as are a large number of people in Iraq and Iran. However, they fall on all sides of the political spectrum. Many are socially conservative and economically radical. Others are of the belief that religion and politics should not mix, while others are convinced they must. In Iraq, some of the Shia (SCIRI) have apparently thrown their lot in with the US created government, although they oppose the US presence while taking its money and military support. Other Shia, most notably al-Sadr’s organization, makes withdrawal of the US presence one of their primary demands. Indeed, it is this fact that makes the so-called civil war in Iraq look a little different. If one views it outside of whatever sectarianism exists, the current fighting is actually between pro-government forces (certain Shia groups) and anti-government forces (certain Sunni groups along with a number of secualr and other Shia forces).

I recently reviewed journalist Guliana Sgrena’s book Friendly Fire, where she tells the story of her kidnapping by resistance forces in Iraq and her subsequent release and near death from US bullets on her way to the airport. In the book she makes the comment that there are two general trends in the resistance–one, made up of Iraqis of all political and religious stripes, that wants the occupiers out and another, primarily composed of Wahabbist fundamentalists, that want the occupiers to stay so they can fight them. While this is a generalization, it makes sense in that the jihadists also consider Shia and leftists to be infidels along with the occupiers. It is their work that has sparked much of the sectarian violence. The similarities between the jihadists and the pro-war forces in the US is that both see Iraq as the place to fight their crusade. I mean, how different is the jihadists desire to keep the occupiers in country to fight them from Bush and others stating that if we don’t fight the "terrorists" in Iraq, we’ll be fighting them in the US?

Religion is very much a part of the US, too. It reinforces the militarism of the Pentagon and the White House on the one hand and it provides folks opposed to that militarism with inspiration to take a stand against that militarism. It holds the military’s hand as they go into countries that US capital is interested in. Once there, it begins its missionary work. Sometimes that means handing out bibles to Muslims and sometimes it means providing food and clothing to the poor–charity that comes with a message designed to make those people Christians. Sometimes it wears the cloak of foreign aid–in Nicaragua some missions shipped construction materials on a charity’s airplane that also carried small arms for the counterrevolutionary forces. And, of course, there are those on the extreme end of what we call rightwing Christianity that want to get rid of the US constitution and replace it with a government founded on these folks’ extreme and twisted interpretation of the Bible. Even the members of those churches consider religion their best hope to make the world a better place. Like Palestine and Iraq, the failure of the political system and the political opposition to that movement to change it has created a dynamic where fundamentalist religion provides the best hope for justice.

If we are to look for similarities between the fundamentalist strains of the three Abrahamaic religions (in order of their appearance on earth-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), it would be in terms of their patriarchal interpretation of personal morality. Women are essentially appendages of their fathers or husbands in these strains of their respective religion. Their roles are to be subservient to the male side of their society. Of course, there are personal variations the strictness of each woman’s adherence to the strictures of their fundamentalist strain, just as their are variations in the males’ insistence on the females’ adherence. Generally speaking, however, it is safe to say that the birth of woman from Adam’s rib remains essential to these groups’ understanding of the role of women.

When one shifts to the public sphere, they will see attempts by the fundamentalists to impose their ways of personal morality on the greater society. The success of these attempts of course varies. For example, in the west most of these attempts fail, although the battles over women’s choice (whether it’s abortion or the morning after pill) is a battleground where these struggles are constantly played out, especially in the United States and some Latin American countries. Meanwhile, there are public buses in Israel where the men and women are separated, with the women having to ride in the back. Some of this segregation is de jure and some is enforced by the Orthodox Jewish version of the post-revolution Iranian morality squads. In Muslim countries, there seems to be a constant struggle between those forces who would push women back under the burqa and those who hope for their eventual equality of opportunity. On a side note, the fact that a woman wears the hijab is not a symbol of her allegiance to any particular patriarchal repression. It is a symbol of her faith. Indeed, the history of rleigious head coverings for women goes back to the Jewish tradition. When I was a child attending Catholic services girls and women were required to wear a scarf or hat while in the church. Catholic nuns continue to cover their heads even in this day of nuns not wearing habits. Be that all as it may, there are those Muslim women who see the veil as a symbol of resistance to western cultural imperialism, even if they disagree with the implication that a woman’s body must be covered. Frantz Fanon touched on this train of thought in his essay "Algeria Unveiled" and I heard similar opinions expressed by some Iranian women that I did political work with against the Shah in the 1970s. One can assume that there are those women and girls in various European countries where the hajib had come under attack that wear the veil as an act of defiance and not of servility.

Which brings us to the politics of fundamentalism. Currently, fundamentalist Christians in the US represent some of the most reactionary aspects of US foreign and domestic policy. The most radical among them wish to defeat Islam, help the Jews reestablish the Temple Mount and bring on the second coming of their Messiah, and create a Christian theocracy in the United States. I suppose many of them are secretly praying for the hanging of Saddam Hussein, but not George Bush or Dick Cheney, who by now must be responsible for the deaths of more Iraqis than Saddam. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalists play an important role in fighting US imperialism around the world. Despite George Bush’s claim to the contrary, the majority of them do not wish to reestablish the Caliphate, but merely want western business and influence out of their lands. The Saudis meanwhile, use their form of Islam to justify the second-class status of women in their society. In Israel, there are those fundamentalists who wish to destroy all vestiges of Palestine and expand the state of Israel. There are others Jewish sects, however, that consider the Zionist project to be wrong and a misinterpretation of Yahweh’s words. During the US battle over slavery, there were what we would call fundamentalists on both sides of the struggle. John Brown and other abolitionists used the words of the Bible to rally their forces and justify Brown’s deeds while Southern slavers used the same book to defend the kidnapping and trade of Africans and their progeny and their use of them as chattel.

In short, we make god in our own image, no matter what form he or she may take and irrelevant as to whether or not one (or more) even exists. Yet, as implied at the beginning of this piece, skeptics would be foolish to ignore the power this concept holds over humanity and, even more importantly, the power that believers wield on the human stage.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net