Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2015

Voltaire versus Mohammad

Filed under: Charlie Hebdo,Islamophobia — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

One of the things heard frequently in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack was Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, a precept that seems consistent with the Enlightenment even if the words were written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 “Friends of Voltaire”.

Not long after Voltaire’s name began to be bandied about, some people began to point out that this exemplar of Western Civilization might not be as enlightened as he was cracked up to be, especially when it came to the Jews. Blogger Scott Long was one of them:

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’Infâme! But what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

In doing some further research on Voltaire, starting with the indispensible Wikipedia, I learned that he more than anticipates much that is being said about Muslims today. Nearly three centuries ago he said the same sort of thing that you can hear on Fox News on the right and Bill Maher on the “left”.

In 1736 Voltaire wrote a play titled “Mahomet” that oozes Islamophobia. After reading it online, I feel as if I have been locked in a room for three hours and forced to listen to Bill O’Reilly out of my right ear and Richard Dawkins out of my left.

It is a strange play with Oedipal overtones. The four main characters are Mohammad (spelled Mahomet), his mortal enemy Zopir, the sheikh of Mecca, and a young man and woman named Seid and Palmira, who are Mohammad’s slaves. Unbeknownst to each other, Seid and Palmira are brother and sister and the long lost children of Zopir. Since they have the hots for each other, the shadow of incest hangs over them.

Mohammad covets Mecca, a city-state that he plans to conquer. He also covets Palmira, who he wants to conquer in bed. To kill two birds with one stone, he riles up Seid with a bunch of radical Islamic rhetoric in order to motivate him to go on a suicide mission to kill Zopir. With Zopir out of the way, Mecca like Palmira will below-hanging fruit ripe for the taking. Of course, none of this happened in history but why let that stand in the way?

You only get one act of the play reproduced on Google Books but it does contain the letters Voltaire wrote to Frederick the Great and Pope Benedict XIV, two shining lights of the Enlightenment. Frederick the Great was totally into the whole Enlightenment thing even though he made an exception for the Poles as Wikipedia reports: He passionately hated everything associated with Poland, while justifying his hatred with ideas of Enlightenment. He described Poles as “slovenly Polish trash”. As far as I know, he did not employ a court artist to put his ideas about the Poles into a pictorial form.

Pope Benedict XIV appeared to be a pretty enlightened soul as well, devoted to science and the arts. To his credit, he issued a Papal bull against the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas but somehow left Africans out of the equation. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Voltaire advised Frederick the Great: “Why may we not go back to the histories of those ancient ruffians, the illustrious founders of superstition and fanaticism, who first carried the sword to the altar to sacrifice all those who refused to embrace their doctrines?”

In his letter to the Pope Voltaire seems to have forgotten what Diderot, his Enlightenment co-thinker, once said or at least was attributed to have said: “The world will never truly be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Nothing about entrails in this 1747 letter to his Holiness:

Most blessed Father—

Your holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect. To whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet, than to the vicar and representative of a God of truth and mercy? Your holiness will therefore give me leave to lay at your feet both the piece and the author of it, and humbly to request your protection of the one, and your benediction upon the other; in hopes of which, with the profoundest reverence, I kiss your sacred feet.

Despite this business about feet kissing, some scholars view “Mahomet” as really targeting the Church. In other words, he like Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender even if you sort of had to squint to see the message.

Probably inspired by the 2005 publication of the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad cartoons, some freethinking souls decided to mount a production of “Mahomet” in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, France. The socialist mayor resisted local Muslim objections and allowed the show to go on as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:

The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. “This play … constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community,” said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.

Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was “the most excitement we’ve ever had down here,” says the socialist mayor.

Yes, just what the French need, some excitement to accompany the excitement going on in Iraq at the time.

I imagine that local residents of the sort that would be demanding French Muslims to disavow the terrorist attack and to get with the program might have stood on their feet and given the play a standing ovation. Where else could you find a character like Mahomet who was just as violent and totalitarian on stage as he was in the Danish cartoon that showed him with a bomb in his turban? Voltaire put these words in his mouth in Act V with a clear intention to turn him into demon:

Beneath a nobler yoke I mean to bend
The prostrate world, and change their feeble laws,
Abolish their false worship, pull down
Their powerless go., and on my purer faith
Found universal empire: say not Zopir,
That whom betrays his country, no:
I mean but to destroy its weak supports,
And banishing idolatry, unite it
Beneath one king, one prophet, and one God:
! shall subdue it but to make it glorious.

At least one Frenchman saw through this Islamophobic bullshit. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and this is what he thought, according to a biographer:

Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. “Voltaire,” said the Emperor, “in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melodrama.”

Too bad we don’t have any bourgeois politicians today with Napoleon’s guts.


  1. Try a historical view instead of applying modern standards of humanism to someone of the 1700s. And try evaluation of historical figures by their best not only their worst. Voltaire helped move us forward. His best will survive long after your cheap jibe exists nowhere but on some NSA hard drive.

    Comment by Solomon — January 17, 2015 @ 1:22 am

  2. Mucho kudos to the author for such excellent insights into the historical context of this latest Red Herring incident that (speaking of goats) perfectly Scapegoats Muslims in what’ll sure to become the newest sophisticated modus operandi of 21st century institutional “war on terror” racism — the operative phrases being Red Herring, originally a pungent culinary concoction used to thwart hounds from the scent of foxes, and scape goats being defined,(again by the indispensable Wiki) as” “an event person or object that is used to lay the blame on for all that goes wrong, regardless of the contributions of others.”

    Considering how reactionary the 1996 Telecommunications Act that allowed 80% of all information to be funneled into the hands of a mega corporations and distilled into ruling class palatibility, blogs like this prove what Orwellian doom the progressive prospects of human civilization have managed to thwart — albeit meager food for all the souls forgot & murdered by capitalism.

    People, especially those inclined to vote for Democrats, forget how devastating that Act was to working people, never mind all the other Acts rammed through naturally with bi-partisan glee under Clinton, like NAFTA, and worse, the Domestic Anti-Terrorism Act (after Timothy McVeigh) that basically eliminated provisions established under the Magna Carta of 1215 insofar as one could be locked up indefinitely without counsel so long as they were “deemed ” a “terrorist” — that is to say that the writ of Habeas Corpus was practically abolished.

    Ironically Dubya Bush got blamed for the abolition of Habeas Corpus with the Patriot Act and worse, the Military Comissions Act, but in fact the groundwork was all laid by Clinton insofaras the Bush Acts only added a paragraph or two to what was already rammed through by Clinton, the same guy who abolished the Glass-Steagal Act that was largely responsible for the 2nd Great Depression that’s far from over.

    The point is that over the last 100 years probably 90% of US Government actions that have truly devastated working people have been initiated and prosecuted by the Democrats, such as WWI, (they effectively murdered Augusto Sandino of Nicaragua in 1934), they prosecuted WWII then they dropped A-bombs on Japan 2 weeks after their unconditional surrender; the Taft-Hartley Act wouldn’t have been possible without Democrats; the Korean War; the Vietnam War; (The Panama Invasion & the 1st Gulf War don’t count as Wars since only one side was shooting) — then the devastation of Clinton, ending “welfare as we know it” plus all the other Acts mentioned above — and now we’re into Obama, with his initial helping Republicans to facilitate 3/4 of a Trillion in bank bailouts, essentially grand theft then his Wars, the droning, the continuing of Gitmo shame, the viscous prosecution of whistleblowers, the protection of torturers and the facilitation of NSA spying, etc, etc.

    As far as the staggeringly unprecedented bank bailouts urged so vociferously by the defenders of the “free market”? Just know this fact. Today there are hundreds (if not a thousand) of multi-millionaires who wake up and literally pinch themselves to make sure they are not dreaming that they got away with such a massive historic theft of the treasury, truly the crime of this century.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 17, 2015 @ 2:00 am

  3. And try evaluation of historical figures by their best not only their worst.

    Ordinarily I would not be writing a critique of Voltaire but when pig’s heads are being thrown into mosques, it is necessary to expose this side of him.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 17, 2015 @ 2:12 am

  4. So what does the Crime of this Century have to do with the Crimes of the Last Century vis-a-vis the Enlightenment of Voltaire versus Mohammad? Simple. It’s precisely those reactionary petite-bourgeois aspects of Liberalism illustrated by Voltaire above that facilitate and imbue a racist interpratation of the class struggle today which reduces Muslims, largely brown people, to subhuman maniacs whose motives are not understandable to the rationale of Enligtenment.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 17, 2015 @ 2:26 am

  5. Hey Soloman. That was hardly an a-historical view taken in the article. On the contrary. One could also say that Lenin “helped move us forward. His best will survive long after…cheap jibe[s} exist…..on some NSA hard drive.” That’s not to say his mistakes will withstand scrutiny by all of us going forward.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 17, 2015 @ 2:40 am

  6. Proyect has reverted to type.

    Comment by David Ellis — January 17, 2015 @ 10:29 am

  7. It is always pretty much an accident which side you find yourself on. Never a question of principle. You’ve descended into the neo-Stalinist swamp to justify the barbarous murder of cartoonists by sectarian fascists who have killed more Muslims than could possibly be counted.

    Comment by davidellis987 — January 17, 2015 @ 10:31 am

  8. Ellis, just out of curiosity, have you ever *done* anything politically or are you just a professional windbag?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 17, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

  9. Fuck off Proyect and continue your love in with the Seymours, Milnes, John Rees’s, Galloways, Andy Newmans and SWP and other neo Stalinist scum of this world. As for being a professional windbag the only thing you have done politically is be a member of a cult, a supporter of ethinc cleansing in Bosnia and now an AQ apologist.

    Comment by davidellis987 — January 17, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

  10. Thank you for admitting you have gone through life without ever having done anything except denounce other people on the left. A kibitzer, so to speak. My suspicions are now confirmed.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 17, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

  11. This is an excellent post. It provides historical context to the imposition of an Enlightenment standard of speech and culture in Europe, a dark Enlightenment one where only European speech and culture is valued, so much so that it is allowed to denigrate any other cultures and peoples. This is the message of the Paris march in support of Charlie Hebdo, with Zionism, the war on terror and the police state as political expressions of it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 17, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

  12. A classic example of the imperial attitude behind this Enlightenment embrace of “freedom of speech”. Hollande’s response to riots in Niger over the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoon:

    “As protesters in the streets of Niamey burnt the French flag and the embassy there urged French citizens to stay at home, President François Hollande confirmed his country’s commitment to “freedom of expression”.

    “I’m thinking of countries where sometimes they don’t understand what freedom of expression is, because they have been deprived of it. But also we have supported these countries in their fight against terrorism,” said Hollande as he toured a market in his heartland of Tulle, central France.”


    Niger is, of course, a former French colony.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 17, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

  13. I guess you find yourself on the side of the current Pope on this issue.

    Comment by jay — January 17, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

  14. “I guess you find yourself on the side of the current Pope on this issue.”

    Proyect can speak for himself, but I think he would agree with me that there should not be any laws against “blasphemy” or “hate speech,” that Charlie Hebdo had the right to print what they did, and the murder of the journalists was an outrage.

    Which has nothing to do with whether one agrees with the content of the cartoons at all. I don’t see how printing a cartoon of Muhammad buggering a goat advances the struggle against Islamic radicalism, the struggle against racism, or serves any positive purpose at all, but they had a right to publish it. So what’s your point?

    Comment by John B. — January 18, 2015 @ 1:23 am

  15. As indicated by the Hollande comment about the former French colony of Niger, “freedom of speech” directed against the culture of the colonized by the colonizers, as done by Charlie Hebdo in this instance, is an essential feature of imperialism.

    So, the recognition of the right to freedom of speech should not silence us in regard to people who use it for this purpose.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 18, 2015 @ 3:26 am

  16. There is an interesting article about Germany’s reaction to Paris in der Spiegal, “Germany Seeks Calm” http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-plans-no-new-terror-laws-in-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-attack-a-1012188.html where the govt is taking a completely different line to other “western” leaders call for higher security in the “war on Islam”. From the real concern of containing right wing extremism against Muslim communities living in Germany. No one who advocates “enlightenment” values, seems to be talking about the consequences of this “freedom of speech” except there…

    Comment by seaspan — January 18, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

  17. Very interesting. Loved the sarcastic tone.

    Comment by ahdmshaker — January 28, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

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