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La Fabrique du Musulman. Nedjib Sidi Moussa: ‘Manufacturing Muslims’.

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La Fabrique du Musulman. Nedjib Sidi Moussa. Libertalia. 2017.

In the wake of the Tower Hamlets foster care furore Kenan Malik has written of the “inadequacy of all sides to find an adequate language through which to speak about questions concerning Muslims and Islam.” (Observer. 3.9.17) This inability to talk seriously about these issues as shown in the prejudiced press coverage, risks, Kenan argues, shutting down criticism of outing people in “cultural or faith boxes” and “blurring the distinction between bigotry against Muslims and criticisms of Islam”.

La Fabrique du Musulman (Manufacturing Muslims) is an essay on very similar dilemmas about “La Question des Musulmans” in French political debate. Moussa tackles both the “box” theory of faith and culture, and efforts by those taken by the “anti-imperialism of fools” to align with the “petite bourgeoisie islamique” and form alliances with Islamist organisations starting with the issue of ‘Zionism’. In 147 pages the author does not just outline the left’s political bewilderment faced with the decomposition of the classical working class movement. He pinpoints the “confusionnisme” which has gone with its attempts to grapple with the problems of discrimination against minorities in the Hexagone – its relations with forces with ideologies far from Marxism or any form of democratic socialism.

Indigènes, Race War and the US left. 

Moussa is the binational son of revolutionaries who supported Messali Hadj in the Algerian War of National Liberation. As the offspring of those who backed the losing side in a war that took place before independence, between the Messalists and the victorious FLN, who will not be accepted as French, he announces this to underline that he does not fit into a neat ‘anti-colonial’ pigeonhole (Page 11). He  examines the roots and the difficulties created by the replacement of the figure of the ‘Arab’ by that of the ‘Muslim’. Furthermore, while he accepts some aspects of ‘intersectionality”, that is that there many forms of domination to fight, he laces the central importance of economic exploitation tightly to any “emancipatory perspective” rather than the heritage of French, or other European imperialism. (Page 141).

La Fabrique is an essay on the way the “social question” has become dominated by religious and racial issues (Essai sur la confessionnalisation et la racialisation de la question sociale). The argument of the book is that the transition from the identity of Arab and other minorities in France from sub-Saharan Africa to that of ‘Muslim’ has been helped by political complicity of sections of the French left of the left in asserting this ‘heritage’. In respects we can see here something like an ‘anti-imperialist’ appropriation of Auguste-Maurice Barrès’ concept of “la terre et les morts”, that people are defined by their parents’ origins, and fixed into the culture, whether earthly or not. This, with another conservative view, on the eternity of race struggle, trumping class conflict, has melded with various types of ‘post-colonial’ thought. This is far from the original “social question” in which people talked about their exploitation and  positions in the social structure that drew different identities together as members of a class and sought to change the material conditions in which they lived.

In demonstrating his case La Fabrique is a critique of those opponents of the New World Order but who who take their cultural cue from American enemies of the “Grand Satan” and descend into ‘racialism’.  (Page 18 – 19) In this vein it can be compared with the recent article, “American Thought” by Juraj Katalenac on the export of US left concepts of “whiteness” as a structure of oppression reflecting the legacy of slavery (Intellectual imperialism: On the export of peculiarly American notions of race, culture, and class.) No better examples of this could be found than Moussa’s targets –  former Nation of Islam supporter Kémi Séba, “panfricanist” and founder of Tribu Ka, condemned for anti-Semitism, and a close associate of the far right, recently back in the news for burning African francs, and the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR).

The PIR’s spokesperson Houria Bouteldja, offers a picture of the world in imitation of US Black Power lacing, in his best known text, diatribes against Whiteness (Blanchité) and laments for the decline in Arab virility, more inspired by Malcolm X and James Baldwin than by the nuances of Frantz Fanon. In the struggle for the voice of the indigenous she affirms a belief that commemorating the memory of the Shoah is, for whites, the “the bunker of abstract humanism”, while anti-Zionism is the “space for an historic conformation between us and the whites”. Bouteldja is fêted in Berkley and other ‘post-colonial’ academic quarters, and given space in the journal of what passes for the cutting edge of the US left, Jacobin. (1)

La Fabrique outlines the sorry history of the PIR, highlighting rants against integration, up the point that Bouteldja asserts that the wearing the veil means “I do not sleep with whites” (Page 51). The discourse on promoting ‘race’ is, Moussa, is not slow to indicate, in parallel to the extreme right picture of ‘racial war’. He cites the concept of “social races” offered by Tunisian exile and former Trotskyist, Sadri Khiari on a worldwide struggle between White Power and Indigenous Political Power (“Pouvoir Blanc et la Puissance politique indigène”) (Pages 60 – 61). Moussa notes, is the kind of ideology behind various university-based appeals to “non-mixité”, places where in which races do not mix. One can only rejoice that Khiari has not fused with Dieudonné and Soral, and – we may be proved wrong – no voice on the left France yet talks of a “transnational Jewish bourgeoisie” to complement the picture, and demand that Jews have their own special reservations in the non-mixed world.

Many of the themes tackled in La Fabrique are specifically French. Britain, for example, has nothing resembling the concept of laïcité, either the recognition of open universalism, or of the more arid arch-republicanism that has come to the fore in recent years. The attempts at co-operation, or more formal alliances with Islamists, and the sections on various moves, between opportunism and distance of those in and around the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (MPA),  intellectuals of the ‘left of the left’,  and the ambiguities of Alternative Libertaire on the issues, though important in a domestic context, are not of prime interest to an international audience. (2) Other aspects have a wider message. The convergence between ‘Complotiste’, conspiracy theories, laced with anti-Semitism, circulating on the extreme-right and amongst reactionary Muslims, finding a wider audience (the name Alain Soral and the Site, Egalité et Reconciliation crops up frequently), including some circles on the left, merits an English language investigation. There are equally parallels with the many examples of ‘conservative’ (reactionary) Muslims who, from the campaign against Gay Marriage and equality education (“la Manif pour tous”), have become politically involved in more traditional right-wing politics, and the beurgeois, the prosperous Islamic market for Halal food and drinks. 

Islamogauchistes.

In one area there is little doubt that we in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries (a term in the book that jars), that is the English speaking world, will find the account of alliances between sections of the left and Islamists familiar, So familiar indeed that the names of the Socialist Workers Party, Respect and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) are placed at the centre of the debate about these agreements, from the 2002, 2007 Cairo Conferences Against US and Zionist Occupation (Page 74), attended also by Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to the definition of Islamophobia offered by the Runnymede Trust (Page 87).

If one can criticise Moussa in this area it is not because he does not discuss the details of the failure of the SWP and the forces in Respect and the StWC have failed to carry out Chris Harman’s strategy of being “with the Islamists” against the State. The tactic of being their footstools collapsed for many reasons, including, the SWP’s Rape Crisis, the farce of Respect under George Galloway, and was doomed in the Arab Winter not just after the experience of MB power in Egypt, Ghannouchi and Ennahda in Tunisia and, let us not forget but when the Syrian uprising pitted the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad, Daesh was born, and the British left friends of ‘reformist’ Islamism lapsed into confusion. If the Arab ‘patrimonial states’ remain the major problem, there is a growing consensus (outside of groupuscules like Counterfire) on the British left that actually existing Islamist parties and movements are “deeply reactionary”. (3)

To return to our introduction: how can we talk about Islam and Muslims? We can, Moussa suggests, do without the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ to shout down criticism of the ‘sacred’. The tendency of all religious believers to consider that their ideas make them better than everybody else and in need of special recognition cannot be left unchallenged. They need, “libre examen…contre les vérités révélés, pour l’émancipation et contre l’autorité”, free investigation against revealed truths, for emancipation against authority (Page 143). There should never be a question of aligning with Islamists. But systemic discrimination, and economic exploitation remain core issues. It is not by race war or by symbolic academic struggles over identity that these are going to be resolved. La Fabrique, written with a clarity and warmth that gives heart to the reader. Whether all will follow La Fabrique and turn to the writings of Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Internationale situationniste to find the tools for our emancipation remains to be seen. But we can be sure that in that “voie” we will find Moussa by our side.

*****

(1) Pages 66 – 67, Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous. Houria Bouteldja. La Fabrique. 2016. In discussing Fanon few who read him can ignore his sensitive complexity. For example, did not just discuss the ‘fear’ of Black sexuality amongst whites, but the dislike of North Africans for “les hommes de couleur”, as well as efforts by the French to divide Jews, Arab and Blacks. Page 83. Peau noire masques blancs. Frantz Fanon. Editions du Seuil. 1995.

(2  La Fabrique du musulman » : un défaut de conception. Alternative Libertarire. Droit de réponse : « La Fabrique du musulman », une publicité gratuite mais mensongère. Alternative Libertaire.

(3) See on the history of the period, Morbid Symptoms. Relapse in the Arab Uprisings. Gilbert Achcar. Saqi Books. 2016.

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