Reply to Yassamine Mather

Submitted by AWL on 18 November, 2013 - 4:04

Our 2006 introduction to Workers' Liberty 3/1, about Marxism and religion, has been much reviled on Facebook, but little criticised. Of the three attempts at a critique - by Simon Hardy of the ACI, Marcus Halaby of Workers' Power, and Yassamine Mather for Weekly Worker - Yassamine Mather's was first.

Her objection is that our introduction depicts political Islam as a reactionary anti-imperialist force with its own roots, its own dynamic, and its own autonomy, not just something "installed" or "deployed" or "facilitated" or "opted for" or "promoted" or used as a "tool" by the USA.

We have to clear some flak out of the way before addressing that main issue.

When the 2006 article was recycled to prominence on our website - as part of a routine circulation of content which we do in order to make less ephemeral articles from our large archives more available - some excited Facebookers claimed to see a "racism" in it which no reader, however hostile, had seen in 2006.

Like Simon Hardy's article, Yassamine Mather's does not even try to justify the charge of "racism".

Marcus Halaby, by the time he came to write, was under some obligation to try to justify that claim. His organisation had already officially made the charge of "racism". He discharged his obligation to "put the line" only in a token way.

"The argument that the 'existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force... in the great cities of Europe' by itself is a racist slur, not least because it is simply not true. 'Political Islam', the project of establishing a state based on Islamic Sharia law, is quite visibly only a tiny minority trend in Europe's immigrant and immigrant-descended Muslim minorities..."

Racism? Suppose our introduction overestimated the strength of political Islam in Europe. Overestimation is not racism.

And did it overestimate? It is true that since January 2006 (when the article was written) the Muslim Association of Britain and the British Muslim Initiative have lost profile, and Hizb ut-Tahrir too. But the article said only that political Islam had become "a force". Not a majority force, not a dominant force, not an inexorably rising force, just... a force.

As Sacha Ismail wrote in reply to Simon Hardy: "Simon seems to have forgotten that at his former university, Westminster, the Islamist group... Hizb ut-Tahrir are... strong enough to win student union elections. He writes as if blissfully unaware that the East London Mosque's core leaders are Islamists..."

So we can lay to rest the talk of "racism".

Yassamine Mather has other harsh words for the introduction: "chauvinistic", "ignorant", "illiterate", "neo-conservative", "garbage", "philistine", "offensive". She is writing for a group, the Weekly Worker, which in September 2013 moved for AWL to be banned from a meeting of the Socialist Platform of Left Unity on charges of which the liveliest was that we support the US bombing Syria. The issue of our paper on sale at that very meeting headlined its article on Syria: "Against US bombs".

Back in 2008 the same group devoted the front cover of its newspaper (and much newsprint thereafter) to the charge that we "excused" an Israeli nuclear-bomb strike on Iran. As Sean Matgamna commented at the time: "Never mind that I stated my opposition to an attack [any Israeli bombing of Iran, let alone a nuclear strike], in terms of both principle... and of the immediate likely consequences in the Middle East".

Yassamine Mather did not dissociate from either of those far-fetched libels. The reader can deduce that she is unhappy about them. If she really believed them, and wanted to prove us "chauvinistic", then our alleged support for the US bombing Syria or Israel bombing Iran would be Exhibit A.

The drift of her article is less strident than the summary epithets. It is that our introduction underestimated the extent to which political Islam is a tool of the US and its allies and a product of their action, and overestimated the extent to which it has its own dynamic and vitality.

Her most dramatic charge against the introduction targets the sentence ripped from context and reviled by Facebookers: "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".

She comments: "Matgamna’s comparison of 'desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives' with contemporary political Islam is not simply chauvinistically offensive: 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...

"Applying a category of 'primitive Muslim simplicity' either to the Islamic societies of the past or to the thoroughly modern phenomenon of political Islam implies some sort of genetic deficiency amongst Muslims - almost an organic inability to understand or accept 'democracy'."

But the political Islamists themselves (the flow of the introduction shows that "much of the Islamic world" denotes the Islamists) see Muhammad and his companions and followers - the 7th century desert tribes who embodied original (or primitive) Muslim virtue and made the first great Muslim conquests - as a model!

Yassamine Mather thinks that the comparison to mythologised early Islam made in our introduction (and in their own way by Islamists) might come from "a mid-19th century history text book, possibly taught in a (second-rate) public school". How such teaching might have filtered through to the actual alma mater of our introduction's writer, St Peter's Catholic Elementary School in Salford, is a puzzle, but one we do not need to solve. The writer's source is identifiable. It is Frederick Engels.

"In the Mohammedan world... 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..." (On the History of Early Christianity).

The term "Mohammedan" was then usual. (See Irfan Habib on this). Far from Engels being "Islamophobic" here, it looks as if he adapted his idea from the 14th century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun (summarised, for example, in the Prologue to Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples).

Sayyid Qutb, in a classic text of modern political Islam, confirms that the pattern outlined by Engels remains a model for modern Islamists:

"As soon as a command is given, the heads are bowed, and nothing more is required for its implementation except to hear it. In this manner [in the days of the prophet Muhammad], drinking was forbidden, usury was prohibited, and gambling was proscribed, and all the habits of the Days of Ignorance were abolished - abolished by a few verses of the Qur'an or by a few words from the lips of the Prophet...

"Compare this with the efforts of secular governments. At every stage they have to rely on legislation, administrative institutions, police and military power, propaganda and the press, and yet they can at most control what is done publicly, and society remains full of illegal and forbidden things".

Qutb considered "private property" an essential means of "the freedom to express individuality"; but he censured the "individual freedom" which he observed on the visit to the USA which converted him to Islamist militancy as "devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under the force of law".

He condemned individual freedom especially in sexual matters. "In... modern jahili [un-Islamic] societies... illegitimate sexual relationships, even homosexuality, are not considered immoral... Writers, journalists, and editors advise both married and unmarried people that free sexual relationships are not immoral... Such societies are not civilised..."

Of course modern political Islam is modern. Yassamine Mather claims to be making a point against our introduction in asserting that, but it can only be because of factional zeal fogging her eyes as she reads.

Our introduction stressed the novelty of the rise of global political Islam. It is a modern movement - but one which responds to modern problems by invoking bygone times as a model. That political Islamists hark back to the caliphate (Islamic empire) and to what they see as original Muslim virtue is not a "chauvinistically offensive" slur on them, but what they pride themselves on.

And that our introduction "implies some sort of genetic deficiency amongst Muslims - almost an organic inability to understand or accept 'democracy'" - where does Yassamine Mather get that from? The introduction's denunciation of political Islam "implies" that no more than its denunciation of militant Christianity in the US and Europe "implies" that people in the US and Europe are "genetically" Christian and "genetically" unable to understand democracy...

Yassamine Mather's next sentence after her claim that we "imply some genetic deficiency among Muslims" takes us directly to real differences rather than concocted arguments about what words "imply".

"The reality is that the lack of democratic experience of the masses is a direct consequence of decades of imperialist intervention - direct and indirect - and the continuing subordination of these countries to the interests of the US and its allies".

So, she says, Muslims are in fact unable to "understand or accept democracy". Only, this is not for genetic reasons. It is because of their "lack of democratic experience", which in turn is due to "imperialist intervention".

So long as "imperialist intervention" continues, better than Islamism can scarcely be expected in poorer countries. There is no effective way to oppose Islamism other than just to oppose "imperialist intervention".

She goes on to criticise us over Iraq in 2003-8. Our slogan was "solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement against both the US/UK occupation and the sectarian militias". Yassamine Mather interprets that as "effective support for the occupation". That's her affair. Substantively, she rejects the argument that triumph for the various anti-US sectarian militias should be opposed because it would mean full-scale sectarian civil war between those militias; the annihilation of chances for the self-determination of the people of Iraq; and the extermination of the labour movement.

No: "the Baghdad regime installed by the US itself ended up as an Islamist clerical-reactionary regime... the US-installed Shia occupation government... took on [the] task [of]... massacring the workers' movement".

The Maliki government in Iraq is soft-Islamist. It is a threat to the workers' movement. But it is hemmed round by conditions and institutions. Thus the workers' movement in Iraq is still alive. The labour movement is weak and harassed. It does not follow that the harder-Islamist sectarian militias (currently increasing their sectarian slaughter of Shias in Iraq) were, or are, no problem!

Yassamine Mather ideologically reinterprets reality so as to construct a sort of political two-for-one offer: buy calls for US troop withdrawal, get opposition to the Islamists free. The Islamists are what the US installs, and what the US does is install Islamists.

In fact the USA invaded Iraq not in order to install the current pro-Iranian regime, led by soft Islamists, but rather to get someone like the relatively-secular former CIA agent Iyad Allawi in charge. It failed. Opposing the US and opposing the sectarian Islamist militias were distinct tasks, and both necessary.

Yassamine Mather opposes Islamism, but, in this polemic, fades out, or minimises, every dimension to it other than two: it being "installed" or "deployed" or "facilitated" or "opted for" or "promoted" or used as a "tool" by the US and its allies; and masses of people being pushed towards it by "destitution", "ruin", etc.

"Overwhelmingly", Yassamine Mather claims, "the emphasis [in our introduction]... has the effect of excusing the West" (over the "war on terror").

But she notes that the introduction describes the "war on terror" as "in practice very much a war on the civil liberties of ordinary citizens". And that not in an "aside", as she describes it, but in its very first reference to the "war on terror"!

Yassamine Mather's argument here is rather like that of the socialists who used to condemn as "cold warriors" those Trotskyists who argued that Stalinism, besides the deals it did with and the concessions it made to the global bourgeoisie, also had its own reactionary dynamic.

Before the USSR collapsed, there were many on the left who sincerely disliked Stalinism, but preferred to criticise the Stalinists only for their compromises and accommodations with the US and their allies, and not for what remained reactionary about the Stalinists even when militant against the USA. (See Robert Fine's article on this in Workers' Liberty 14).

Yassamine Mather's argument on political Islam is similar to that old argument on Stalinism.

Western capitalist policy, she writes, has been not only "the financing of this or that Islamic group" but also "conscious deployment [of political Islam] from the early years of the 20th century as a tool to intervene, conquer, and frustrate".

"The US and its allies did not crudely conjure the Iranian Islamic movement out of thin air, but they did facilitate its rise and... opted for a transfer of power to [it]".

"The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has clear, direct connections, both financial and political, with Saudi Arabia and other... allies of the US. If the US had not switched post-Iraq to a foreign policy of encouraging Sunni Islam as a means of weakening the growing Shia influence of Iran, I doubt if the Muslim Brotherhood would have achieved its spectacular electoral successes..."

She describes the Maliki government in Iraq as "the Baghdad regime installed by the US".

"The US, UK and imperialism in general may not have invented political Islam... but they have promoted it from its inception... financially supported it... help[ed] deploy it..."

The other side of it, as she describes it, is that "Islamism... is... at its core a response... to mass unemployment, destitution and hopelessness brought about by the modern state under global capital... Those thrown on the rubbish heap of history claw at the nearest available ideology". "The support for political Islamic movements is, essentially, derived from the uprooted... to whom the new structures [of global capital] have brought nothing but ruin".

She contends that Islamism gripped the majority in Iran even before 1978, describing her "realisation when I was 14 that the overwhelming majority of [Iranians] despised every aspect of our [better-off Iranians'] secular, relatively privileged, 'western' private lives".

I do not suppose she means that poorer Iranians despised better food or housing, or relative leisure. But her previous sentence tells us that she does mean that "the overwhelming majority" of Iranians despised more secular Iranians' disregard for Shia religious rituals of whipping and cutting oneself to show solidarity with Husayn, the third Shia imam, killed in battle in the year 680.

Yassamine Mather has in the past written of strong "traditions of secularism in urban society in Iran" ( I'd incline to her old opinion rather than the new; but if the new opinion is right, then the circle is closed.

In her polemic Yassamine Mather attacks our introduction for allegedly seeing the events of Iran 1978-9 as only an "Islamic" revolution, and fading out the other, defeated, possibilities. But her account, here though not in her previous writings, fades out other possibilities. Iranian Trotskyists say that a factor in Khomeiny's rapid assertion of control (and an avoidable one) was that most of the Iranian left gave credence to his "anti-imperialism". Yassamine Mather (here) says that only marginal elements of the left did that, and yet Khomeiny quickly won out.

If the majority in Muslim countries, even before open Islamist agitation develops, "despise every aspect" of secularism - and if they moulder in "mass destitution", "ruin", and "hopelessness" - then they can scarcely avoid becoming prey to the Islamists "consciously deployed", "installed", etc., by the US and its allies.

Oddly, this picture of political Islam is like... what Patrick Smith in his "emergency motion" to AWL conference on 26-27 October claimed our introduction said! Given Patrick Smith's quick shift to the Weekly Worker after the conference, we must assume his "emergency motion" was written in cooperation with or by WW people.

So the WW group, with one voice, denounces the introduction for allegedly seeing political Islam as a product of mass destitution, as contrasted with "secular, relatively privileged, 'western' lives"; with another voice, it denounces the introduction for not seeing it as that product...

The cadres of political Islam, once formed, win recruits among the pauperised in cities like Cairo, through the health centres, welfare projects, etc. which their wealthier supporters can finance. But Yassamine Mather's scheme fades out those central cadres, who are mostly middle-class.

Iran in the later years of the Shah's regime was not a place left in "nothing but ruin" after a "downward trend in the price of... oil".

Oil prices went from less than $2 a barrel in 1971 to $15 in 1978, and then higher. They decreased in the early 1980s, but remained higher than pre-1973, stabilised and then rose again, from 1999, to over $90 currently.

Oil prices, US$ per barrel (log scale)

In "Iran: dictatorship and development" (second edition 1978), Fred Halliday reported that "in the decade 1965-75 industry grew at an average rate of 15% per annum...". By the late 1970s, two-thirds of the population were in cities, where only 25% had lived in 1946. "The living standards of a section of the working class [had] certainly improved in recent years...", but inequality had risen.

The rise of the Islamists came not out of flat stagnation, but out of the tumult of unequal capitalist development.

In Iran, according to most accounts, the cadres of political Islam were the Shia clergy and the bazaaris - relatively well-off sections, but ones being elbowed out in the race for the tantalising fruits of capitalist development.

Elsewhere the Islamist cadres are often young men who have been hoisted to within close view of modern capitalist prosperity by the rise of oil revenues and such limited but real achievements of Arab nationalism as expansion of higher education, and then seen the prizes reserved for others. Even Egypt, relatively poor in capitalist economic success, saw GNI per capita rise from US$480 in 1980 to $2760 in 2011.

The cadres of Islamism have their own autonomous social roots and political aims. They are not only, or mainly, tools of the USA. They do not represent the only materially possible response to the inequality and poverty in their countries. They represent a reactionary anti-imperialist response. They stand in opposition to other responses, including democratic and socialist responses. Whether the Islamist response becomes hegemonic or not depends on political struggles.

Our aim and our task is to contribute to those political struggles - in the first place to redirect the international left towards supporting working-class socialists against the Islamists, in the mainly-Muslim countries and within Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries.


Submitted by martin on Wed, 11/20/2013 - 08:31

The article from WL 3-1 argued that political Islam, in addition to its straightforwardly backward-looking, reactionary dimension, also has a "reactionary anti-imperialist" dimension. It gains strength by being able to articulate, in a warped form, the anger against global inequalities of people in mostly-Muslim countries, which are generally among the world's poorer countries, often historically victims of colonial or semi-colonial oppression by European powers. That makes political Islam different from politicised Christianity (e.g. in the USA) which has no such addled anti-imperialist content.

Pat S's text, however, claims that the article "paints a picture of the world divided up into simple, backward societies such as the 'Islamic world', replete with poverty and deprivation, and modern, technologically advanced societies, such as the West", and that "wholly positive and negative attributes are designated" to those two blocks, presumably meaning that the article describes European and US societies as "wholly positive" and poorer countries as "wholly negative".

It would be very odd if we published an article depicting British capitalist society as "wholly positive"! (And with no-one noticing, for eight years, that it had done that!) In fact the article reserves its most vehement language for denunciation of social and cultural conditions in the richer countries of Europe and the USA.

Far from the article promoting a Fabian-type support for whatever is more economically advanced against whatever is more economically backward, it describes the war of "primitive" rural Afghanistan (i.e. more primitive than the "relatively advanced" though also-Muslim cities of Afghanistan) against the "advanced" Russian invaders as "a just war".

A simplistic division of the world into "North" and "South" is commonplace on the left. It would be unfair even to very confused kitsch-leftists to say they depict the poorer South as "wholly positive" and the richer North as "wholly negative", but they do describe the "South", more or less en bloc, favourably as "anti-imperialist", and the "North", more or less en bloc, as "imperialist".

Pat S's text suggests that the WL 3-1 article proposes an inverted version of that scheme (North good, South bad, rather than North bad, South good). This is not even quarter-plausible.

We have written many articles against the idea of a world of "blocs", to show the existence of combined and uneven development in the "South", and to highlight class divisions and class struggle across both "South" and "North". The article in WL 3-1 concludes by advocating, as the way to undercut the revival of religion and politicised religion, socialist class struggle - not a conquest of the "wholly negative" South by the "wholly positive" North, or a course of waiting for the South, through gradual economic development, to become as "wholly positive" as the North!

It makes no sense to imagine that Sean would write, and the rest of us would without comment typeset, lay out, read, promote, and circulate for eight years, an article saying the very opposite of what we generally say.

If there is a need for further discussion here, it should start with a discussion of our arguments and writings about imperialism...

Here is the "emergency motion"

Conference Notes:

1. In January 2006 Sean Matgamna wrote an article for the introduction to a pamphlet entitled “Marxism and Religion.”

2. On the 4th of October 2013 this article was republished under the title “Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today” and put on the front page of the website.

3. The article has been shared on Facebook nearly 500 times, in almost all cases criticised or denounced as racist.

4. The ensuing debate on the internal list raised a number of differences within the group with regards to racism, orientalism, and the existence of Islamophobia.

5. Since comrades raised criticism of the article it has been moved up the front page and several more problematic articles pertaining to Islam and Islamism have joined it.

6. The Executive Committee has taken the decision to produce a response and organise a meeting on the subject.

7. One member has already resigned over the incident.

Conference Believes:

1. The article, in attempting to account for the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, paints a picture of the world divided up into simple, backward societies such as the "Islamic world", replete with poverty and deprivation, and modern, technologically advanced societies, such as the West.

2. The article goes on to claim that the proliferation of communications technology has led to the Islamic world learning of and subsequently envying the West's prosperity and riches. This, it is claimed, is the material basis for Islamic fundamentalist ideology which fulfils the desire to escape poverty and deprivation by relegating it to some later date in the afterlife.

3. In attempting to articulate the previous points the article uses Islamophobic language and imagery, with sentences such as “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives”, “a peculiarly fleshly paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves”, and “the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe.”

Conference Further Believes:

1. The “Islamic world” or the “Islamic countries” – taken here to mean North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South Asia and South East Asia – are not one homogenous mass.

2. The “politics of envy” is explicitly predicated on the belief that the world is bifurcated into backward and modern societies, a position made clear by referring to the “Islamic countries” as being on the “fringe of a prosperous capitalist world” and drawing a direct comparison between “tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity” and today’s “Islamic World.”

3. That the division of the world into large, homogenous blocks – such as the Islamic world and the west – to which wholly positive and negative attributes are designated is chauvinist.

4. That if it is racist to claim that Islamism is a straight-forward reaction to or product of Imperialism, then it is surely racist to claim that it is the product of jealousy, covetousness, or self-righteousness.

5. Language does not exist in a vacuum. Words and phrases carry with them a history of oppressive use and take on different meanings depending on the context in which they’re used.

6. Islamophobia is a real phenomenon which describes bigotry towards a perceived or real Muslim identity.

7. Islamophobia has tropes and language associated with it; such as an Islamic conspiracy to take over the West or the portrayal of Muslims as suicide bombers or terrorists.

8. That the article is predicated on a chauvinist world view.

9. That the language used is Islamophobic.

Conference Resolves:

1. To apologise for the Islamophobia and chauvinism in the article as part of any response.

2. To remove the article from the website.