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Jan 26 2012

People’s beliefs are only respectable to themselves

The below is an interview with the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat on the ‘Fight against Religion’. And a fight it is…

This like everything else of his is a must read:

Azar Majedi: In a recent interview with Porsesh magazine you said, “secularism is a set of minimum conditions”, and that [you] “do not want just secularism, but a conscious fight against religion on the part of society.” What are the characteristics of such a fight?

Mansoor Hekmat: In talking about religion, and particularly Islam in this period [in history], we should bear in mind that we are talking about a phenomenon that can be shown to be the source of suffering, oppression, indignity and humiliation for people. So, we are confronted by a problem, by a disaster, which has to be mitigated in very much the same way that one deals with drug addiction, for example. Drug addiction is not considered a private matter alone, and there are efforts to eradicate it. [In other words,] even if people are allowed to use drugs, you will still not consider that enough of a reason for them to do so, and believe something must be done to urge them to grow out of that habit. It is the same with religion. Religion is a phenomenon involving the freedom of the individual to believe in anything, and yet believing in a set of intellectual, political, and civil beliefs called religion, [in general,] and Islam, [in particular,] has played havoc with people’s lives and, as a result, you fight against it in the same way you would fight against any other disaster. Relinquishing it to the “private affair of the individual” is not, in my view, sufficient in and of itself. What I mean is society must do something so that Islam is eradicated. Simply put, we must do something so that the people themselves eradicate it willingly and voluntarily, may not be influenced by it, held captive to it, and oppressed, made wretched, and drowned in superstition. What is the solution? Education – a free state that educates its citizens on political, social, civil, historical, biological, physical, and natural facts [of life]; civil laws that protect the people against the encroachments of religious firms, against the religion industry. In my opinion, religion is to be looked on as something like the tobacco industry. Everyone is free to smoke, yet you legislate against tobacco companies so that they are not able to take advantage of people’s addiction, not cause too much damage to their health, and not have a free hand in drawing children and youngsters into addiction, etc. In the same way, there must be similar laws with regards to religion. There must be laws so that the religion industry, quite a business in its own right, cannot ruin people’s lives. It is possible to do something during a generation’s time so that a free society would be built which will have eradicated religion just like malaria or drug addiction.

Azar Majedi: You finished your argument with exactly the point I was going to ask about. You spoke of the religion industry, and compared it to the tobacco industry. Did you mean that comparison as a joke?

Mansoor Hekmat: Not at all! I call it an “industry” because there are people who think religion is, essentially, a combination of the people’s beliefs. That is not so. Religion is an industry. It has owners; there are people who benefit from it; it begets material wealth and political power for a certain social spectrum and serves the interests of a class-political rule. Religion is a multi-billion-dollar business. This money pays for its propaganda. And this money is swindled out of the people. (As far as Iran, it is the state which takes care of that job!) Religion is an apparatus for the propagation of falsities. It delivers lies to the people, frightens them, and scares them of violence in this world and of punishment in the next. Just like the Mafia! Religion, as an institution, be it Christianity, Islam or Judaism is a huge social structure standing on its own before being a set of social beliefs. It taxes [the people]. It takes money and spends it on the survival of its rule. As a result, religion industries are great phenomena in the world. If you put together the money spent on Islam and the money spent on the Christian Church, you will see that the sum is comparable with the wealth of the largest multi-national corporations. It is comparable with the military budget of dozens of countries put together. Religion should therefore be looked on as an industry, one that consciously tries to sell its product, own its markets, and make addicts out of consumers.

A society seeking to liberate itself should confront religion exactly as that. It should not be under the illusion that religion is a set of beliefs in things like the Anti-Christ or in the weeping and wailing to commemorate Karbala[1]. Religion is a huge industry designed to produce superstitions, to intimidate people, to subordinate them and make them surrender to the power of the ruling class. If you want a liberated society you have to spend money and assign human resources in order to oppose that phenomenon, just as you oppose narcotic gangs, just as you oppose companies that steal and plunder and leave devastation behind. The religion industry is to be opposed in just the same way.

It is obvious that everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone should be allowed to believe in whatever they want. However, if political, military and cultural structures are founded on the basis of those beliefs with the aim of subjugating the people, you should oppose them on behalf of citizens and by citizens.

Azar Majedi: There are people who may see only the Islamic Republic [of Iran], which is a theocracy, or the Vatican, as a state, in the same way as you see religion. But do you see religion in, for example, some parts of Western Europe where it is separate from the state and, in any case, does not play such a big role in people’s lives, in the same light? Would you compare these to the Mafia as well?

Mansoor Hekmat: First of all, I should say that in parts of Europe where religion does not play the role I said it plays, it is because they have done what I said should be done with it during the past centuries. They have confronted it and confiscated its properties and endowments. They have legislated against religion’s interference in education. They have legislated against religion’s interference with people’s social life, and so on. Today’s Europe, therefore, does not provide a good example for us to realise what religion can be; we can go back a hundred years and see what this same religion had been doing to people. After all, the Pope [John Paul II] has already had to apologise for the collaboration of the Catholic Church with Hitler and his human-burning ovens! Another example is Northern Ireland, where Protestants lined up in front of an elementary school and threw rocks, even makeshift bombs and hand-grenades, at school girls going to elementary school, just because these are Protestant and those are Catholic! Or look at the fate of Yugoslavia and the conflicts there! Look at Chechnya and Afghanistan! So, in my opinion, the role I described is the role of religion in general. It is just that in some places the people have reined it in and put it in its place to some degree. As a result, in those places it has taken on a civilised form. However, it is always present as a reserved power. Yes, I also include the Christian church in Western Europe in the exact same category. This religion does not play the same over the top role as Islam does, killing people in Iran and Afghanistan, for example, while it has still retained its role in oppressing women, in suppressing liberating thoughts, in stifling creativity and innovation, etc. Besides, it still has its hand in the people’s pocket. Its hand is still earnestly in the people’s pocket. It takes away resources that must be expended on the people’s well-being and expends them on spreading superstitions among them. The harm that comes from [Christianity] is not as visible as what you see in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it is possible to show the role the church is playing [in Western Europe] with facts and figures.

It appears that in some places the church has turned leftwards; in Latin America, and so on, for example. However, it is not the church that has turned leftwards. It is the people who are left-leaning, and the church, therefore, in its endeavours to maintain a prosperous business, is only trying to keep pace with them. But at every single critical social turning point you see religion, you see Islam, right beside the ruling classes, giving them directions, and justifying social oppression and subjugation.

Azar Majedi: You mentioned that if the business of religion is to be shut down, money must be spent and human resources must be assigned to that task. What forms will this take, should there be a socialist republic established in Iran and the Worker-communist Party be a partner in political power? You said that the people’s beliefs are respectable[2]. But this might not show how exactly religion, the mullahs and the believing Muslims, would be addressed. Would you explain these?

Mansoor Hekmat: In my opinion, the people’s personal beliefs are respectable only for themselves. I may not have any respect for someone’s racist beliefs, which I do not, but if they want to believe in them, it is, to the point where they have not inflicted any harm on anyone, their personal opinion. Every human being is free to think about any part of this world in any way they want. No one is allowed to legislate for the internal world of the individual and say they are not allowed to think in this or that way. This does not mean, of course, that we will not try to change people’s thoughts. People must have choices between various thoughts and opinions. They must be free to choose. It is one of the roles of religion, on the other hand, to deny people access to other, liberating thoughts with prejudice and force, and to legislate against them. The Taliban have captured some people in Kabul and are going to execute them for having intended to bring another religion to the people! This response may be excessive there [in Afghanistan], but it is what all [religions] do characteristically. The master key is education so that people would not need to believe in superstitions, and be aware that the world is about something else. Education, however, is not sufficient by itself. Legislation is [also] needed in order to bring religious institutions under control. For example, their finances should be subject to scrutiny like all other firms. After all, the same law that applies to such and such biscuit making or water-heater manufacturing company, the same law that applies to tobacco companies like Winston or Camel, must equally apply to the so-called Islamic structure, that is, the mosques and Ayatollahs. Their books must be opened and reviewed in order to find out where they have got their money from and how they have spent it; whether they have paid their taxes or not; swindled the government or not; committed extortion or not; and so on.

There is a series of laws which will, even in their present form, ensure the prohibition of many religious acts. If we take the Animal Protection Act seriously, a big part of Islamic rituals will be swept away, because the way animals are treated in them are intensely violent. If we protect children with laws worthy of children’s rights, a big part of religious activities must come to a halt, because they negate children’s freedom, for children must be protected against all threats, intimidation, torture, forced labour, etc. If we guard women’s rights properly, the religious will not have the freedom to implement many of their laws. If men and women are to have equal rights in the society, all family, marriage, and inheritance laws prescribed by Islam, for instance, become impractical and have to be set aside, and if someone somewhere makes an effort to raise them, they will be in contradiction to the civil laws of the country. What I am driving at is that if we defend the people’s civil rights, a big part of religion will be swept away. And if we defend science and freedom of thought, yet another part of it will be swept away. Now if at the end of the day about two hundred and fifty people out of the sixty million population of Iran continue to believe that yes, there is a doomsday, and that one must pray five times a day, and that if you do not, this and that will happen, or that one must slaughter a sheep once in while because some day prophet Abraham the Friend of God almost slaughtered and sacrificed his son, and so on, it is their choice. There are even stranger people to be found in the world! Such beliefs will not, however, become social laws, and will not cause anyone any disturbance. And if this group of people, a superstitious bunch, supposedly treat their family, their children, in a way that it has its origins, not in their civil rights, but in their religion and prejudices, the state will confront them and stop them.

I do not believe violence should be used against Islam, or any other existing social issues, for that matter. I do believe, however, that Islam’s business can be shut down with the combination of education and legislation. The head of the Church of England, for example, has stated that Christianity is in bad shape, and that there will not remain any trace of it. Why? Because there the people have no need for it anymore, and it cannot bully them either.

Footnotes:
[1] A reference to the mourning ceremonies held to commemorate the killing of Imam Hoseyn and his family. The anniversary of their “martyrdom” in the battle in Karbala (in today’s Iraq) is held for ten days in Iran and Iraq during Moharram, the first month of the lunar-Islamic calendar. The mourning ceremonies come to a peak on the ninth and the tenth day of the month, a.k.a. Taasuaa and Aashuraa, and are accompanied by self-flagellation with chains or cutting one’s scalp, including that of children’s as young as five, with a machete for hours during the processions.
[2] The common equivalent of plain, non-glorified English, or Western, rather, expression “everyone is entitled to their opinion” in Farsi is “everyone’s opinion is respectable”! Although Mansoor Hekmat has not used the latter in his response to previous questions, but, on the contrary, has used the former expression (in the last paragraph of his answer to the second question), he resolves the misunderstanding arising from the Farsi, or Iranian, rather, expression used by the interviewer in the opening part of his response to this question.

Above is a transcript of Azar Majedi’s interview with Mansoor Hekmat about an earlier interview in Porsesh magazine entitled “The Rise and Fall of Political Islam.” The interview was conducted in Persian and broadcast on Radio International on Feb. 15, 2001. The English translation is by Jamshid Hadian. It was first published in English in WPI Briefing 208, February 28, 2009.

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  1. 1
    Rafiq Mahmood

    I have often thought that capitalism and religion are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. Both promote illusory, fantastic goals that could be the consumer’s if only they bought their product.

    I particularly like his comparison to the tobacco industry. Here in Indonesia the promotion of tobacco is rampant and almost entirely unrestrained. Both tobacco and religion capture their market early, by tempting and fooling impressionable children and teenagers. Both are hard to escape from and both are deadly.

  2. 2
    piero

    Brilliant.

    I wish the British left had read it. But they seem to be too busy defending the oppressed Islamists to care much about defending the oppressed people.

  3. 3
    HP

    As an American, I often find myself at odds with my fellow American atheists, in that I am — at minimum — ambivalent about the establishment clause, that is, the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. constitution.

    Reading Mr. Hekmat’s remarks clarifies my ambivalence. In essence, the establishment clause permanently privatizes and deregulates the religion industry. So, not only are we overrun with religiousity, but we have no legal recourse to mitigate it. In the case of Western Europe, most of those secular countries have established churches, and the established churches are subject in some measure to government control, and through the democratic process, popular control. Whereas we in the USA are limited to protesting government endorsement, but cannot do anything legally to constrain free exercise.

    What do you think of the legal concept of Laïcité in the constitution of the Fifth Republic of France? I think it’s a better solution than the American one, although the differences can be subtle.

    [BTW: I am so old that I can remember when America's biggest foreign policy concern in the Middle East was Communism. Remember that time we Americans fomented religious extremism and encouraged religious violence in order to marginalize Arab socialism? Oh, well. You live and learn. Otherwise you'd just have to pretend it never happened.]

    1. 3.1
      HP

      Adding, I know Persians aren’t Arabs, but the principle applies, and it’s not like the U.S. State Department is clear on the distinctions.

      [I once had to try to work collegially with a displaced member of the Pahlavi family, who was reduced to holding a regular job alongside commoners like me. I grant you that Islamists are existentially awful, but unreconstructed Royalists can be an awful pain in the ass nonetheless. Cue Diderot, the last king, the last priest, and entrails.]

      1. piero

        Ha! I’m old enough to remeber Arab Socialism too!

        I share your pain. Is it better to have a regulated, official State religion or to let the market determine the winner?

        We all know what happens when the market is sovereign: the winner is the cheapest, crappiest, most hyped and most useless: Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, etc.

        In my country (Chile) Catholicism is the official State religion. That makes it much harder to prosecute child abusers and the like, and Catholic bishops have a disproportionate influence in vetoing or approving government policy.

        In short: both alternatives are hideous. The only rational solution would be to treat religious denominations just like any other corporation: same level of taxation, no donations allowed, full accountability. etc. If that could be achieved, I’m willing to bet a million dollars that within a decade no religion would have survived.

        1. HP

          Cheers, Piero. I raise a glass of inexpensive, deregulated Chilean red wine to you, which was doubtless purchased at the expense of underpaid workers who created the actual value while over-represented landowners exploited legal loopholes to the detriment of Mexican-American farm workers in California, the fruit of whose grapes I did not purchase tonight.

          (Back in 1981, when I was just a recent high-school graduate in the American mid-west, due to my reading skills, I got a job reading for a blind Palestinian poet who was working as an English teacher at the local university extension. He taught me everything I know about Arab Socialism, and much of what I know about Marxism in general. Dr. Reja-e Busailah, wherever you are, I thank you.)

  4. 4
    Martyn

    I love all the writings of Mr Mansoor Hekmat. They have helped me rein in my own political thoughts.

    I just wish others on the left had more access to his works.

  1. 5
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