Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The Left and British Foreign Policy.

with 8 comments

After the Woolwich killing there have been acres of commentary.

Perhaps we should concentrate on the reaction of the Left, and the influential voice of the Stop the War Coalition, (StWC).

It is impossible to ignore that this is riddled with contradictions.

Before we begin we should bear in mind three strains of different thoughts on the British left which co-exist uneasily.

  • Firstly, that the War on Terror is a US-led, UK backed, strategy that has brought misery to countless countries  above all in the Middle East.
  • Secondly, that the ‘Arab Spring’ has brought the possibility of democratic and social advance to the Middle East, notably Egypt,  and parts of North Africa (Tunisia above all).
  • Thirdly, that this move forward is threatened not just by the way newly elected governments have adopted economic policies ts that favour business and finance over the people, but that Islamists represent a menace for their democracies.

On the last idea it was initially only the democratic left that worried about Islamism, but now apparently even those who stood “with” the Islamists against “the State'”are having second thoughts – on one country that is.

Such people are perfectly capable of holding to the opinion that Islamists can be ‘progressive’, that is fighting the War on Terror, and reactionary, fighting the Syrian regime.

Back to Woolwich,

According to Lindsey German there are “lessons to be learnt”.

The simple truth is that there were no such cases in Britain before the start of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, which led to the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The consequences of those wars have been devastating for the people of those countries and further afield. Up to a million died in Iraq and 4 million were made refugees. Tens of thousands have died in Afghanistan. Fighting still continues and in Iraq looks like descending into civil war in some parts of the country.

This reflects argument number One in its purest from.

But the StWC always add a corollary: their claim that ‘ending’ the ‘war’ (a pretty broad claim) will mean that this kind of violence will case.

The  basis of this claim is disputable :Islamism is perfectly capable of violence against those who have not joined the ‘war’, as inter-Muslim violence proves.

There is also more than a distasteful  hint  here: we should do what the StWC says or…..

German then observes,

Any rational balance sheet of the last decade and more would demonstrate that the war on terror has been a failure in its own terms. It has not prevented terrorism but caused it to spread.

It is not demonstrable that there is something  called – other than rhetorically –  the “war on terror” in the first place: there have been a series of different interventions by Western, NATO-led, forces, in countries ranging from Iraq (clearly wrong) to Mali (much less clear).

Furthermore, to repeat a previous point: is the development of violent Islamism simply a response to the war on terror?

Violent Islamism has, to say the least, deeper and more lasting roots, as anybody familiar with the history of Egypt, the Middle East and the Maghreb  could say.

And it is not reducible to the history of Western colonialism either.

German concludes,

In the end there has to be a political solution to terrorism. But it can only start with recognition of the disastrous effect of western foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia for decades now, exacerbated by the consequences of 12 years of wars. That means acknowledging that those of us who said these wars were not the answer and would make things worse were absolutely right.

What exactly is the political solution?

We can agree that Western intervention is wholly wrong. It has stoked the fires of conflict in all the countries she cites.

But is removing it a solution to the rise of violent anti-democratic Islamism?

Perhaps we should be, as the left, giving some energy to supporting the democratic left in these lands who offer a real political alternative to Islamism, authoritarian, intolerant, or indeed jihadist.

That involves a genuine politics of human rights.

This is the way to start thinking of how a solution can come about.

The failure of much of the British left to back the Arab democratic left is part of the problem.

Update: just listening to France Culture to speakers who consider that Putin is the winner of the Syrian crisis.

What a thought!

Written by Andrew Coates

May 25, 2013 at 11:10 am

8 Responses

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  1. Anyone who thinks that the ‘Arab Spring’ will lead Arabs to the level of political consciousness of – say – the inhabitants of New Hampshire is a self-deluding ninny.

    The illusion of “democratic and social advance” is a delusion; women will lose rights and so will Christians.

    Anyone who thinks anything else is a fool or an ignoramus.

    Arthur Brown

    May 25, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    • The of people of New Hampshire do not have a left, at least in European terms.

      Many Arab nations do.

      But then I am not sure of the point of your sneer Arthur.

      Andrew Coates

      May 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm

  2. The first time I took notice of Islam as being more than “just” the religion of Arabs as I then saw it was the book burning over the Satanic Verses. The Fatwa issued by the Ayatolah from Iran was simply politcaly motivated but the fact it caught hold of a trend within Islam that we now describe as “Islamism” (not sure when this term came into use) shows that the problems we face with the Salafists and their ilk were bubbling away out of sight before any of the wars that German and her cohorts sought to make political capital out of.

    Fundamentalism has existed within Islam as far back in history as I can see from even a cursory glance. Many of these people seem to want to recreate the “Caliphate” (if any such thing really existed other in than their distorted imaginations). I’m told Pakistan was once quite a “liberal” place back in the fifties or sixties, so what changed? It seems to me (I admit to being no expert) that much of the driving force of modern fundamentalism has its’ origins in Pakistan. Perhaps someone (Andrew?) could do a piece on this for discussion.

    Those of us who believe in democracy, human rights (and in particular for Women and Gays), free speech need to do our best to support those in the Muslim world who fight for these things. Solidarity with the unions is my starting point, especially with the violent assaults against the Tunisian unions being launched by the Salafists.

    Howard Fuller

    May 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    • Totally right Howard, the unions are a way we can give practical help above all.

      Andrew Coates

      May 25, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  3. I must admit the New Hampshire reference baffled me as well but Arthur does have a point about the “Arab Spring” not looking good for women and minorities.

    Mick O

    May 25, 2013 at 7:44 pm

  4. Let’s give it another try, my original post got lost somewhere…


    I think that if one lives in Britain, then the main thing is to respond to British policies vis-à-vis the country or area in question, not least to show how British policies have consistently backed one or another undemocratic movement or regime down the decades and thereby helped suppress democratic opposition. In today’s atmosphere, it will be worth pointing out how British governments have generously supplied Islamist forces with weapons — I remember seeing British government press-packs in the mid-1980s that presented the Afghan Islamist guerrillas as if they were the Maquis — and have pursued policies that have either deliberately or inadvertently allowed Islamist forces to gain the upper hand. One can also ask why bin Laden’s group was allowed to open an office in London. Mark Curtis’ book Secret Affairs has a mass of information about all this.

    But I agree that this is insufficient. It is true that Islamism — activist political movements based upon fundamentalist interpretations of Islam — predates the ‘war on terror’, although this and other Western policies have greatly assisted their growth. The left needs to explain how and why they came to prominence: irrespective of imperialist outright and inadvertent assistance, they were not conjured into existence by imperialism, and have indigenous roots. Otherwise they would not have grown into mass currents. One factor must be the failure of modernising secular regimes (Ba’athism, for example), which have ended up corrupt and repressive. Some trends in favour of liberal social policies also support neo-liberal economic policies which lead to impoverishment for the masses, thus giving religious obscurantists the chance to conflate liberal demands (such as in respect of women’s equality) with rapacious economic policies that hit the poor the hardest.

    At home, we have to investigate the rise of Islamic identities: when I was new on the left 35 years back, one never heard of ‘Muslim communities’; Asian ones yes, but not Muslim. What caused this? And how do we deal with it? I rejected Respect’s dallying with Muslim groups not merely because many of them were pork-barrelling shysters, but because the appeal to Muslims went against any concept of class politics. On the other hand, the rejection of identity politics in, say, Rumy Hasan’s polemic against multiculturalism (a book that makes a lot of good points), even when combined with a good blast of class-based politics, does not equip us to deal effectively in defending a religious group that is under attack, when we disagree with large amounts of that creed’s philosophy and practices.

    There is also a real problem here in respect of strategy and tactics in Middle Eastern and other such countries. What can one recommend when the choice is between a repressive bureaucratic regime and an opposition that is largely religious and not particularly democratic at best and downright fundamentalist at worst? There might well be, as in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia, sufficient gaps in which genuine leftists can exist in some safety, but as for Libya, where Gaddafi was replaced by competing largely Islamist and/or gangster militias, or Syria, where any democratic currents against Assad (and even moderate Islamist forces) are being squeezed out by hard-line Islamists?

    Dr Paul

    May 26, 2013 at 9:40 pm

  5. To clear up any possible misunderstandings, I was not in my previous post considering al Qaeda-type bodies as ‘mass currents’, they have only gone beyond being small bodies either when an area has experienced near or total collapse — such as in post-Ba’athist Iraq or Somalia — or where some local Islamist group has decided to get into a relationship with al Qaeda, as in Nigeria.

    If the Ba’athist regime in Syria falls and the country descends into an Iraq-style chaos (the most likely outcome if it falls), then this could well lead to al Qaeda-type bodies flourishing. The EU Foreign Ministers’ decision yesterday to arm the opposition is, whatever the intention, likely to push things this way, as it is pretty much inevitable that weapons will gravitate to those most effective at using them — the Salafist militias.

    It has been argued that what’s popularly known as the Taliban is primarily a Pushtun national movement; it is fundamentalist to be sure, but is more concerned with its geographical patch than with global or regional jihadism.

    In many places, and especially in countries such as Britain, hard-line Islamist groups, even those which are not into violent activities, are numerically small and will almost certainly not gain the adherence of more than a small minority of Muslims.

    Dr Paul

    May 28, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    • Paul, I heard of Islamism by the 1980s, as it came to prominence in North Africa, and there was, of course, Iran and Khomeini.

      The failure of Arab regimes (to call them secular is to ignore a lot of things, to cite but one case, Islam was the state religion under the FLN in Algeria) is certainly one explanation.

      How have the various forms of Islamism grown?

      Identity politics fostered by multicultism, may be a factor in the UK, but Islamism has spread across continents in countries with very different state policies on this.

      These lefts in Moslem counties, it would seem to me, are confronted with the the same problems following the collapse of official Communism, and the rise of neo-liberal economics and politics as we are.

      But Islam appears to be a political ‘answer’ to a variety of things – anomie, economic crisis, sections of the bourgeoisie and the masses which avoids these difficulties by simply ignoring the real world.

      Islamist parties and movements, I would argue, “micro-powers” in Foucault’s sense, generating their own discipline, punishments, and rewarding their leaders with the ability to ‘create’ a legal framework, outside, and then inside, the state. This is a type of oppression linked the class exploitation – led by sections the pious bourgeoisie with sections of the conventional middle class and the uprooted masses.

      How can we fight the offensive of these alliances of reactionary ideology, micro-powers and bourgeois class itnrests?

      They are obviously not a central concern in Europe, but have an impact.

      My own efforts, since the 1980s, and such as they are, have been directed to supporting modernist democratic (and by necessity secular) lefts in the countries where Islamism (in all its forms) has taken hold.

      As for their particular difficulties the issue of democracy and human rights – the latter clearly marking off the Islamists since no Islamist will ever accept ‘human’ rights, or equality for all (non-believers included) seem to be central.

      Andrew Coates

      May 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm

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