In Defence of the Alliance for Workers Liberty.
Protest Against Tunisia’s Islamists (September 2013).
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British Left in one of its periodical fits of morality.” (Tendance Coatesy. Collected Works Vol.3).
At present the Alliance for Workers Liberty is caught up in such a spasm of outrage.
Beside himself with rage Marcus Halaby writes of the “AWL’s anti-anti-imperialist Islamophobia” in Workers Power Yassamine Mather in the Weekly Worker (October the 31st) spends a page pinning down “angry accusations of Islamophobia, racism and pro-imperialism” against the AWL leader Sean Matgamma. Halby states, “Matgamna’s shameless Islamophobia, the latest, virulent strain of racism in the West, and the AWL’s failure to distance itself from it certainly deserves to be harshly criticised and condemned.”
One AWL member states that it is this was the final straw that pushed him to resign from the group,
Pat Smith says, “Not just the Islamophobic language, but the chauvinist – worse than chauvinist – world view that it presents; a world view that permeates and informs the entire article, a world view upon which Sean’s explanation for the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is predicated.”
The response of the AWL is here.
What is this all about?
One article, originally published in 2007, and now re-presented, Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today
Yassamine Mather summarises its arguments,
- First, that “The ‘war on terror’ was not a ‘put-up job’, an artificially concocted replacement for the old cold war with Stalinist Russia … to create an external enemy which can be used to bind atomised capitalist society together.”
- Second, that “[the west] did not for that purpose invent the upsurge of militant political Islam, or, rather, the emergence of political Islam as a force in international politics …” So “Neither covert western encouragement nor neo-con manipulation” explains the “fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.” Instead, “it has other, indigenous, roots.”
- Third, that “In the Arab countries, especially, political Islam has expanded to fill the space created by the collapse of Arab nationalism”, which imploded “in part … because it had achieved all it could achieve – the independence of Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq, which were semi-dependencies of Britain until the 1950s.”
- Finally, that today’s political Islamist movements are the contemporary equivalents of the “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik – so now much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”
For her the fault line is clear, for the “philistine Matgamna…. this phenomenon is simply as some sort of ideological ‘living fossil’, separate from the main developments that characterise the other, ‘modern’ world.”
Sean Matgamn’s “monstrosity” largely centres on this paragraph – the pivot of all the other arguments (nobody is, to be honest, interested in the comments on Christianity).
Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.
Marcus Halby says, “Thus he is accusing, let us put it plainly, Muslims of making hypocritical denunciations of the Western world when in reality they want to plunder it of its riches and enjoy its corruption.”
Yasminna comments, “It is oddly reminiscent of passages one might have read in a mid-19th century history text book, possibly taught in a (second-rate) public school.”
Halby outdoes her, “It should, of course, be shocking that the leading figure of a far left organisation should be using the sort of racist and Orientalist language more traditionally associated with professional Islamophobes like Melanie Phillips, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel and Mark Steyn: a fleshly paradise, harems of virgins, a starved beggar squatting, desert tribes, primitive simplicity and purity, decadence, envy and covetousness, the sharpening of knives, a walled city, the walls of Vienna, sexual sinfulness, infidels, luxuriantly thriving.”
Well, so much for the colourful language. And so much for Marcus Halaby whose detailed sectarian attacks on the AWL – even for Coatesy – pass beyond the will to read further than the lines we cited.
In fact the passage is more than reminiscent of the following note by Frederik Engels (surely familiar to most Marxists).
“A peculiar antithesis to this was the religious risings in the Mohammedan world, particularly in Africa. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins.
Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law.” The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures.
Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning.
That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English. It happened in the same way or similarly with the risings in Persia and other Mohammedan countries.
All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses (On the History of Early Christianity. 1894).
Marxists do not work on the basis that Marx and Engels writings are “eternal truths”.
As Marx’s first biographer Franz Mehring pointed out, Das Kapital is incomplete.
It offers a series of analyses, that unravel the core of how capitalism works. But it leaves many questions unanswered.
If that is true for Marxist economics, it is still more so for Marx and Engels political works.
In this case Engels’ note on Islam is itself more than an echo of the famous Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldūn (1332 – 1406) and his dichotomy of sedentary life versus nomadic life.
It is seriously flawed when applied to the modern world.
Yasminna writes, “The overwhelming consensus of all informed commentators who have written or spoken about political Islam in the last few decades is that it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a creation of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, even those who do talk of ‘envy’ of the west being one of its motivating factors – authors such as French sociologist Olivier Roy – propose a far more complicated analysis than the blood-curdling siege scenes Matgamna paints.”
“It is actually pretty much a consensus view that the current form Islamist movements take is linked to the global economic relations that have developed over the last three decades. The support for political Islamic movements is, essentially, derived from the uprooted – those who, for a variety of reasons, have been waylaid on the path of socio-economic development and to whom the new structures have brought nothing but ruin. At every level the new Islamism represents the rising not only of those who are alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who think they have discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries.”
We agree with Yassamine Mather’s view that, “Radical Islam is a reaction to the effects of particular forms of modernisation, not to modernisation per se.” “the rising not only of those who are alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who think they have discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries.”
Is there a general paradigm for radical Islam? If it is a ‘reaction’ then what form does this take? What kind of alienation are we talking about?
Iran is an exceptional case of a revolution that was captured by Islamists with deep roots in the country’s religion, culture and politics. Afghanistan too is exceptional, Islamists won a civil war.
In other cases political agencies Islamists have attempted to form “micro-states” where their oppressive rule is enforced on daily life. In Algeria Islamists began bullying people, and murdering leftists, feminists and intellectuals, well before the civil war of the 1990s. Today in many parts of the world Salafists (or their equivalent) act as outriders, performing the role of the Brownshirts in punishing all who disobey. Their ideology is one of class harmony, and social organic unity. They do not shrink from violence to enforce their views.
Islamists are fundamental enemies of democrats, the left and the labour movement.
If there is alienation – deprivation, detachment from the political system, poverty and unemployment – why did it take an Islamist form?
Clearly religious ideology – ideas that captured the masses – is not spontaneous.
This is not just ideas, or prayers. Like Olivier Roy we see ideology as a crucial material force in the growth of the specially political form of Islamism. Islam as a ‘solution’ to social problems is not an idea that simply gathers support on its own. Political Islamist groups, from small cells led by ‘Emirs’, to larger political parties such as the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, materialise the ideas. They offer practical help to those in difficulty, as well as presenting a heart in heartless world. Islam binds these formations together (as well as fomenting endless divisions).
Not only then is Islamism (in all its varieties) not a simple protest but it is linked to class interests: the pious national bourgeoisie seeking its own place in the globalised capitalist system
In all cases where Islamism has come to political power its class basis becomes more oblivious. After the Arab Spring Islamist-led governments adapted quickly to neoliberalism, and allied with Arab Gulf State finance capital. The resulting class bloc, of the pious bourgeoisie and sections of the masses, is directed against the working class and the non-Islamic intelligentsia. This reinforces its anti-democratic ideology, which can broke no opposition to its hallucination of social harmony.
One might suggest that Maxime Rodinson ‘s Islam and Capitalism (1973) – tracing the elements of Qu’ranic doctrine that favoured merchant capital – was a better guide to this economic outcome than Engels or Ibn Khaldūn.
It may be that these movements have reached an impasse. Gilles Kepel suggests that we have reached a stage where there is a “postIslamism” which questions the doctrine of Velayat-e faqih the absolute sovereignty of Islamic doctrine in political and social life.
In relation to the world system we agree again with Yasminna. “The US, UK and imperialism in general may not have invented political Islam – to borrow Matgamna’s weasel words – but they have promoted it from its inception, allied with it, materially and financially supported it and were happy to help deploy it in murderous assaults on the workers’ movement in the countries of the Middle East and beyond.”
Many have predicted that Political Islam would fail. It cannot provide solutions to the problems capitalism creates, still less its utopia. It can repress, oppress, and kill, but it cannot create.
This is less clear.
In Turkey where a struggle between the Islamist bourgeoisie, secularists, the labour movement, and civil society, is being played out, the Islamist government is proceeding with its project to spread religious ideology into everyday life. Opposition has not succeeded.
The Maghreb and the Mashriq – above all Syria – are the sites of still more epic battles, whose direction is very uncertain.
Roots of the Controversy.
If we do not agree with Sean Matgamna’s views we are not outraged by them.
The Alliance for Workers Liberty is a small group on the British left, with real roots in the labour movement.
Its paper, Solidarity, is widely read by activists because of its serious coverage of union disputes, welfare issues, and politics.
It has, unlike large parts of the British left, taken a stand against Islamism.
Most recently it was the first group to publish significant, well-informed, analyses on the Tunisian uprising, directly from activists on the Tunisian secular working class left.
Other articles have offered important and in-depth accounts of Moslem Brotherhood ideology and politics.
Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today is less helpful.
It is not hard to see why Yassamine, who is widely respected on the left, not least for her own courage in physically confronting Islamism in Iran, would take an exception to Matgamna’s concluding lines,
“In Britain, the USA, and many other countries, the pseudo-left has collapsed prostrate at the feet of militant political Islam. They side with religious fascists — even with Al Qaeda — against the Iraqi labour movement!”
But frankly, is this article worth all the outrage?