Women’s freedom, the religion of the oppressors, and the religion of the oppressed: Sharia law, the Catholic hierarchy, and the Religious Right

Guest post from Terry Moon.  This is a presentation she gave to a meeting in Chicago:

The Necessity to End State Power for Bishops and Mullahs

Terry Moon, September 26, 2011, Chicago

I. The religion of the oppressor and the religion of the oppressed

We’re meeting tonight to talk about the danger of religious hierarchies when they have, or aspire to, state power.  It is a tricky subject, first of all because religion means something different to those who are oppressed and those in power; and second, because many who are now attacking Muslim religious law, Sharia, are doing so from a racist reactionary position, one that has nothing in common with an opposition grounded in a struggle for women’s equality and freedom.

Karl Marx saw clearly that religion had different meanings for the oppressor and the oppressed.  He said, famously, in his 1843 Introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,”

“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.”

We don’t have to go to Muslim countries to see how religion can be a solace when living in oppressive times.  It is why, to this day, the Christian church has such meaning for many African Americans.  It not only promised release from oppression, even if that meant waiting until death; but it also served as a meeting place where at least the brotherhood and sisterhood of shared suffering could be expressed with others who completely understood–that in itself was a help–and, more importantly, the Church for Black Americans could be a place of organization, of meeting together with like-minded people who understood what each was going through because they were all going through it together.  As Marx said, “the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

However, this experience of shared suffering, of having your religion be a touchstone to one’s humanity in times when society denies that to you, has little in common with the use that those in power–or those who want to be in power–make of religion.

In the hands of the oppressor, religion is a tool for power–their power.  A look back at the struggle in Bosnia, especially in Sarajevo where Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslims and Jews lived together as one, is instructive because Bosnia is a touchstone for much of the genocides that followed as it had to be orchestrated from without.  Milosevic in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia turned to narrow nationalism to consolidate their hold on power.

The problem Milosevic had was that the Bosnian Muslims do not appear as Other.  “They are European, blond, blue-eyed, secular…. Precisely because the Bosnian Muslims are so much like Bosnian Serbs, they undermine the distinction between self and Other which is necessary for a campaign to create an ethnically pure state.”(1)  So leaders like Milosevic started a Hitlerite campaign of pure hate, demonizing Muslims, which eventually led to genocide as well as to an historic struggle in Sarajevo for a multi-ethnic, racial and religious society, a complete rejection of hate, a rejection of religious affiliation as the basis for society.  The language we have, like multi-ethnic, really does not describe Sarajevo because it wasn’t as if these groups lived side-by-side, happy in their differences.  It was that they saw no difference, even in themselves.  They did not think of themselves as this or that ethnicity or religion, but simply as citizens of Bosnia. Far from any so-called “age-old ethnic rivalries,” the genocide in Bosnia was the product of a deliberate strategy by members of the entrenched ruling classes to hold onto and build their power.

The Catholic Church is a master at using their power in this way with their history of the Crusades and anti-Semitism that exists unto today.  Almost all its policies, from opposition to abortion and birth control, to celibate priests and nuns, to the decades-long cover-up and protection of abusive and rapist priests, are implemented and defended because they have helped the Church maintain and grow its power and control.

That any religion out for power is oppressive, especially to women, is also seen in the rise of the Religious Right in the U.S., mostly Protestant born-again evangelicals like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention our spate of Republican presidential want-to-be’s including Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.  As Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, said in 1980:

“What is new–and it is by no means limited to Zionism–is the new politicized form of religion. Nor is it a question of whether you listen to the money-wise electronic ‘evangelists,’ or you follow the Old or New Testament–or the Koran, and quote Mohammed, who is supposed to have said: ‘Whoever goes on a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem sanctuary shall be forgiven all his sins.’

“The point, rather, is why this rush to power. One need not go abroad to see it is so. All one has to do is look right here at the New Right, the Christian Religious Right….”

George Bush in his eight years in office made sure that millions of dollars went to the Religious Right and their organizations to fight against women’s right to an abortion, to make sure that sex education would be filled with lies about women’s and men’s roles and that it would be abstinence-only with no real information about birth control or where a women’s real power may be.  He funded so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” places that often have no licensed health professionals working there and who lie to women telling them that abortion causes cancer or depression, offering “help” that consists of nothing more than welfare programs long ago gutted of any real aid.  Did he do this because he believed in it?  Maybe, but for sure he did it because it helped him build a power base that has blossomed into the racist and sexist Tea Partiers we see today whose Christian “humanity” is on display at the Republican presidential debates, where they applaud for hundreds murdered by the state of Texas, shout out that a person without insurance who gets ill should be left to die and boo a soldier serving in Iraq who is gay.  This is the base that those who stir up racism and hatred are counting on to put them in power and keep them there.

Iran is the face of the totalitarian Islamic state whose hold on power, recently revealed anew by the events surrounding the contested 2009 election of Ahmadinejad, is secured by draconian laws and deadly attacks on citizens who dare to protest in any way.  The logic of beating women who show an inch of ankle or a strand of hair, of jailing youth for their music or men for their liquor–all justified on the basis of Islamic Sharia law–is to convince a population that any protest of any kind for any reason is futile.  While hiding behind so-called religious law, Sharia–in fact a law that is open to interpretation by any Imam so that it has no logical consistency a population can count on–the Iranian Revolutionary Guard practice every vice from prostitution to pornography, as they amass huge wealth and power based in capitalistic enterprises and the most brutal repression.

It is no secret that women bear the brunt of the oppression meted out by religious hierarchies of all stripes.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because, if you want to divide and conquer, what better place to start than at the smallest unit of organization.  If you sow discord between those who should be the closest, who should love and protect each other, if you are able to dehumanize one half of humanity, you’re already on your way to winning power and keeping it.  These religious practices that demonize and dehumanize women, are very successful in keeping an entire people down.  It is now known that when women and girls thrive and are educated, the entire society benefits.  Making women less than human means that men end up fighting oppression on their own because they don’t consider women fit partners in the struggle.  In Congo, part of the answer to why the rape of women has been so unspeakably brutal, and to why rape is not a consequence of war but a policy of war, is that it is a deliberate tactic to destroy a population, to make it incapable of fighting back.  Religious hierarchies attempt to do something similar with their misogynist policies and practices.

II. Anti-Muslimism hiding as anti-Shariaism

To be clear, there is no question that Sharia law is discriminatory and terrible for women.  Sharia law is why there is a national day against stoning.  It is why there have been so many campaigns to stop the stoning sentences against women who were raped, and then prosecuted for adultery while their rapist remained free.  It is an effective way to terrorize an entire population.  Women have been fighting it for decades and if you go to the News and Letters Committees website and look up “Sharia” you will see our documentation of the harm Sharia laws have imposed on women and how they have been fighting back.

Groups we have followed and supported in their fight against Sharia include Women Living Under Muslim Laws, which has been in existence for over 20 years.  We used to have an exchange with them back when they published a newsletter instead of only being online as they are today.  We’ve also supported and followed the One Law for All Campaign since its beginnings in 2008.  One Law For All Campaign’s founder, Maryam Namazie, has been fighting the implementation of Sharia Laws in Britain.  They call on the British government to recognize that Sharia law is arbitrary and discriminatory and for an end to Sharia courts and all religious tribunals because they work against equality and human rights, especially for women.

I want to quote something from their “Declaration” that I really liked because it also speaks to what is so wrong about the so-called “conscience clauses” that the Christian Right in the U.S. along with their anti-abortion friends are trying to push through legislatures and courts so that pharmacists, for example, won’t have to dispense contraception or fill prescriptions for the morning after pill, or some nurses can refuse to assist women in hospitals who need abortions for health reasons or who want help with IUD’s or other birth control methods. They write:

“Rights, justice, inclusion, equality and respect are for people, not beliefs. In a civil society, people must have full citizenship rights and equality under the law. Clearly, Sharia law contravenes fundamental human rights. In order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all those living in Britain, there must be one secular law for all and no Sharia.”(2)

If you follow the right wing in the U.S., you know that they have started an anti-Sharia movement here.  Over 25 states have considered anti-Sharia measures, or ways to restrict judges from consulting Sharia laws, and three states have actually enacted such laws, including Oklahoma and Tennessee.  Now what is funny is, unlike the United Kingdom, there is no viable movement to enact Sharia law in the U.S. but that didn’t stop opportunists like Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann from signing a pledge to reject Islamic law.(3)  This campaign in the U.S. is not based on any real fear of Sharia taking hold in the U.S., but on anti-Muslim racism as was the whole manufactured outcry over the Mosque, or rather community center, that was to be built in New York near–but not so near–where the World Trade Center once stood.

The One Law For All Campaign was so disturbed by the right-wing use of an important struggle, one that they waged based on women’s freedom which the right wing opposes, that they put out a pamphlet, Enemies Not Allies: The Far-Right.  There they expose the racist nature of that struggle and distinguish it from their own.  There they show how right-wing British and U.S. anti-Sharia groups “betray an unwillingness to distinguish between Muslims and Islamists and reveal a desire to target Muslims en masse.”(4)

They expose a racist U.S. group, led by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer: “In 2010 Spencer defended his and Geller’s colleague Joseph John Jay, who had recommended the ‘wholesale slaughter’ of Muslim civilians, including children. Spencer has also written that there is ‘no distinction’ between American Muslims and Jihadists….Geller and Spencer have also defended Serbian war criminals….Islamism and the far-Right are two sides of the same coin using similar methods, ideologies and tactics in order to promote their bleak and inhuman worldview.”

Clearly it is not fear of religious law trumping secular laws that animates such creatures, as they have not one word to say against another actual religious doctrine seeking global hegemony.  It is not Sharia law or Islam that has, so far, harmed women and others in the U.S.  Rather one of of the main religious hierarchies we have to deal with is the Catholic hierarchy, which continues to do terrible harm to women.

III. Catholic Hierarchy, a danger for women and children

How much Catholic religious laws have penetrated the U.S. culture is seen in how Catholic medical institutions here now treat one in every six hospital patients.  Pick your hospital carefully, as Catholic insitutions refuse to do abortions or direct sterilizations, honor patients’ end of life wishes, give rape victims the morning after pill, or dispense any birth control. They are particularly dangerous to women experiencing miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies–which are always life-threatening– because they delay or outright refuse treatment if there is even a hint of a fetal heartbeat, even when the woman’s life is endangered and the fetus is bound to die regardless.

Imagine the outcry if Muslim fundamentalists established a hospital that would allow a woman to die because there were no women doctors available at the time to treat her and they forbade the male doctors to help. Yet we know about the young woman in 2009, only 11 weeks pregnant and suffering such severe pulmonary hypertension that she would die without an immediate abortion. St. Joseph’s Hospital broke Catholic policy and the woman received the life-saving abortion. But the Phoenix diocese bishop was so incensed that he declared the hospital no longer Catholic, and excommunicated the only nun on the ethics committee. He was sending a message: even if both the fetus and woman will die without an abortion, Catholic law must be obeyed.

No imam or Muslim religious order has permanent observer status at the UN, but the Holy See–the government of the Roman Catholic Church ruled by the Pope–does. In most UN conferences they are granted UN member status, including voice and vote. This has been most problematic at conferences on population, where they partnered with Sudan, Libya, Morocco and others to oppose emergency contraception for refugees, the promotion of condoms as protection against HIV/AIDS, sex education, and making sure that legal abortion is safe and accessible.

Under Bush, the U.S. went right along with them as it allied with countries like Libya, Algeria, Sudan and even Iran and Iraq, before the U.S. invasion, to replace the wording on UN Protocols from the right to “reproductive health services” to the phrase “basic health services.” The president of the International Women’s Health Coalition at the time, Adrienne Germain, put it this way: “When [Bush] is doing a war on terrorism, they’re the ‘axis of evil.’ When he’s waging a war on women, they’re his allies.”

The Catholic hierarchy’s power, rivaling state/national/international governments, is also manifest in their decades-long cover-up of pedophile rapist priests. The recently published Cloyne Report revealed a 1997 confidential letter from the Vatican’s ambassador in Ireland to Irish bishops. It warned them that new Irish child protection policies violated canon law, which states that, instead of turning abusive priests over to civil authorities, they should appeal their cases to the Vatican. In other words, the Catholic hierarchy was so arrogant, so confident in their own power, that they ordered their Bishops to ignore the law of the land for what they considered the real law–theirs.  Furthermore, their letter dismissed the Irish guidelines as “a study document.”

It is far from an isolated incident. As Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, put it, the report of “the Cloyne diocese in Ireland is eerily similar to the grand jury report released earlier this year by the district attorney of Philadelphia. Like Philadelphia archdiocesan officials, Catholic church leaders in the Cloyne diocese continue to show a brazen disregard for both civil law and the church’s own internal policies.”(5)

It is telling that the racist Muslim-haters never come out for the separation of church and state because they have no problem with their interpretation of Christianity being the law of the land. What the whole rotten debate reveals–be it the bogus threat of Sharia taking hold in the U.S. or the real problem of a Catholic hierarchy determined to keep the power they have and take more–is the need for a total uprooting of such disgusting racism and sexism and the creation of a society based on new actual human relationships.

IV. What is the opposite of the religion of the oppressor out for power and control?

Raya Dunayevskaya made the point that, “…the New Religious Right, as in Begin’s Israel or in Khomeini’s Iran, or the Christian Right here, even when they get masses to follow them, by no means signifies that what the masses want, and what the leaders are striving for–power–has the same motivation. Which is why Karl Marx made so sharp a distinction between the religion of the oppressed and that of the oppressor. The whole theory of alienation started there…..”

It is not only that religion means something different for the oppressed than the oppressor, as Dunayevskaya points out the power that the masses want has no relationship to the kind of power lusted for by the leaders.  We are fortunate to live in such an exciting time when the masses of the Middle East in the Arab Spring have spoken so eloquently about what they are for.  Not only did they articulate it in words, they lived it in the streets of Tunisia, in the Square in Egypt, and in the tents in Yemen.

They are not calling to be ruled by any religion, much less by a politicalized Islam, and remember how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt held back from supporting the masses until the revolution there became unstoppable.  Rather, they were calling for democracy, and not the pale so-called democracy we have here in the U.S. that is confined to voting in elections where those in power more and more try to restrict who can vote and when and for who.

What we wrote on March 5, 2011, in News & Letters at the height of the struggle in Egypt reveals the kind of power that the masses are after:

“Women, who are evident everywhere in the struggle in Tunisia and Egypt, and men as well are determined to stop religious fundamentalists from hijacking their revolution as was done in Iran 1979. Crowds in Tahrir Square chanted, “No to the [Muslim] Brotherhood, no to the parties. Revolution of the youth.”

“Indeed, something new was being created in Tahrir Square. It was a form of direct democracy, that reached beyond merely formal freedom to genuinely new human relationships. Working class demands run through the whole time from Jan. 25, when those who called the first march on Tahrir Square recruited protesters in poor neighborhoods by focusing on issues like the minimum wage; through Jan. 30, when the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions was created by several independent unions (a recent development themselves) and other workers’ organizations, and called for a general strike; to Feb. 8-11, when a nationwide strike wave helped force the army into acceding to the demand for Mubarak’s removal.

“Women, too, were present in a new way–as active and equal, as thinkers, fighters and debaters. As Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old filmmaker, said, ‘I was one of many women, young and old, there. We were as active as the men. Some acted as nurses and looked after the wounded during the battles; others were simply helping with distributing water. But there were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs. Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line, that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now….’

“As one commentator described it, ‘The Caireans…have implicitly brought into focus the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a collective project of social transformation… They organized a continuous occupation of a city’s central square by tens, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people, defending it, feeding it, nurturing it, articulating it, developing it, as their daily work.

“As a young occupier declared, ‘You feel this is the society you want to live in.’ Or as a 62-year-old engineer, said: ‘I will never vacate this square until the demands of the people are executed by the military leaders. We cannot have a half-revolution, we need a complete revolution.’”(6)

The Arab Spring is the most serious challenge to religion in power because it is such a serious rejection of it.  Serious because those youth, women and workers who make up the Arab Spring have clearly shown what they are for, and that to them, democracy means new human relationships that they have already began working out in life.  This kind of challenge will not be easy for them to sustain and develop, so we must support them, not only for their sake, but for ours.

What is at stake today is nothing less than the dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution, the alternatives of freedom and disaster. It is manifested in the rush to power of religion, whether of the Muslim Brotherhood trying to take over and halt the Egyptian revolution, or the drive of candidates like Perry and Bachmann to enthrone themselves as “regents of God” to lord over the masses.  The absolute opposite to that is humanity’s drive for power as self-activity and self-liberation of the masses from below, expressed in revolutions like those in the Arab world and in ideas of freedom, not least the vision of full freedom for each that is needed to make freedom real for all.


1.  Bosnia-Herzegovina: Achilles Heel of Western ‘Civilization’ (Published by News and Letters Committees), “The Philosophic meaning of Bosnia’s struggle,” Jan. 1996 News &Letters, by Sheila Fuller, p. 87.

2.  Declaration  http://www.onelawforall.org.uk/about/

3.  “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement” by Andrea Elliott, The New York Times, July 30, 2011

4.  Enemies Not Allies: The Far-Right, published by One Law for All, August 2011, pp. 5-8

5.  “Reactions to the Cloyne Report,” http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2011/07_08/2011_07_14_Coday_ReactionsTo.htm

6. “Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya shake world order,” by Gerry Emmett, News & Letters, March-April 2011

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4 Responses to Women’s freedom, the religion of the oppressors, and the religion of the oppressed: Sharia law, the Catholic hierarchy, and the Religious Right

  1. El Pelón says:

    Good essay, and appropriately nuanced. I think it was Lenin who said that Marxists should never lead with atheism, as this is an inappropriate thing to do, and will only alienate the people. In that sense, I have always considered Richard Dawkins and similar “New Atheists” as petit-bourgeois and regressive in ideology, since they can only offer the masses stoicisim in the face of a brutal and alienated existence. There is a version of atheism that is nothing but a middle class justification for the current social order.

    Having extensive knowledge of the Catholic church, it has always been amazing to me that the only non-negotiable issues boils down to sex: slot A must always go into tab B, and make a baby. Only people who get or do abortions are excommunicated, couples about to be married are forcibly indoctrinated in many forms of Catholic-approved Natural Family Planning methods, and so on. But when it comes to usury, which is very much condemned in the Bible and is basically how Wall Street makes its money, not a peep, aside from some P.R. platitudes from the Vatican about greed and “excesses” of capitalism. Analyzing the class structure and dynamics around fundamentalisms of all confessions is an interesting exercise, in that you learn that such religious obsessions are neither very ancient or very popular. For example, the vast majority of the Muslim world is far less religious than we are commonly led to believe, and it is a well-known fact that most Catholics ignore totally their hierarchy’s ideas about sex.

    And ultimately, the point of the essay is entirely correct: the only solution to the false religious consciouness is power to the masses. Only when the masses are in motion will religion either entirely disappear or become a purely personal and innocuous affectation, which is what it ought to be.

  2. Pingback: On religion, women, and revolution | The rose in the cross

  3. I updated this post to restore the formatting and footnotes that evidently were dropped when I pasted it into wordpress.

  4. Leah says:

    This is an interesting article. However, I think that the line between the religion of the oppressed and the religion of the oppressors is often blurred. It is not unusual for oppressed people to oppress each other, rather than attack the source of their mutual oppression. A pastor of a small Independent Fundamental Baptist church has more influence over the day to day habits of his parishioners than the Catholic Church ever did when it exercised temporal power (look up figures like Bill Gothard and Jack Hyles to see the level of micromanaging I refer to). Because women tend to be more active in church than men, it is often women who are key in sustaining abusive religious structures. For example, in the American Quiverfull subculture, it is not unusual for the woman, rather than the man, to bring the family into the patriarchal lifestyle. Other women, like the Botkin sisters, have become “famous” (relatively speaking) by trumpeting concepts like “Stay At Home Daughters,” courtship, male headship, and anti-feminism, thus giving them power in an ostensibly male-dominated subculture. Religious oppression in the West will more likely come from people voluntarily entering coercive but decentralized religious movements rather than organized churches wielding political power.

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