"The British are... doing all in their power to foster the Moslem Brotherhood, a clerical-fascist organisation in Egypt... [the Moslem Brotherhood] refused to participate on 21 February, 1946, "Evacuation Day" as this was a real anti-imperialist movement and not a communal one..
"Slogans of solidarity among Moslem, Christian and Jewish workers were shouted throughout the demonstrations, and the fascist leader Ahmed Hussein, who tried to worm his way into the demonstration, was howled down and not allowed to speak."
Tony Cliff, writing in 1946
Under the headline "A badge of honour", * (See appendix below) and the strapline, “The left doesn't have to compromise any principle to defend and work with Muslims - on the contrary”, the most subtle thinker in the SWP leadership, Lindsey German, undertook in the Guardian* to reply to critics of the SWP's political bloc with Islamist clerical reaction. In fact, she evades the issues.
She deploys ideas that are common to both the SWP and to, say, Solidarity and Workers Liberty, ourselves, in order to hide what is distinctive in what the SWP is doing.
Of course international socialists are for freedom of religion, including Islam.
Of course we defend Muslim people, immigrants and those born in Britain, from discrimination, scapegoating and racist attack.
Of course we defend them physically and champion equality.
Of course we work to draw immigrants and their children into the labour movement.
Of course we explain to ignorantly self-righteous, non-Muslim people how Muslims come to have the ideas and practices they have.
Of course we have stood and will no doubt again stand side by side against racists with Muslim priests and others we define as reactionary - that is, with people against whose influence on Muslim workers we fight, and against whom within the Muslim communities we support their progressive opponents.
Of course we do not make any of these things conditional on Muslims' abandoning their religion and their sense of a distinct identity.
Of course revolutionary socialists understand that drawing Islamists or Catholics, or whoever, into action is a more important, and also a more productive way of educating them away from religion, than playing would-be anti-religious schoolmaster to them.
Of course we do not raise religious questions in a way that disrupts or makes impossible the involvement of religious people in a progressive struggle.
So far, the SWP says nothing we do not say.
And, as a matter of fact, others on the left, including Solidarity and Workers Liberty (and its predecessor Socialist Organiser), have a rather better record in defending Muslims from racist attack than the SWP has.
On an infamous occasion the SWP took its people off to an Anti-Nazi League carnival instead of defending Brick Lane in East London against an announced fascist march through the immigrant area, at the same time as the carnival. The fascist march was, they proclaimed, a "provocation". Indeed! Against the Bangladeshis in Brick Lane? The fascist march on Bengali East London was, the SWP insisted, a provocation - against the Anti-Nazi League carnival.
Notoriously, the SWP refused to side with the Muslims in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, when they were being massacred by Christian communalists; refused to help those of us who campaigned against the arms embargo that left Bosniacs defenseless against the well armed Serbs.
For the Left it must be one of two things.
Either, while fighting racism and discrimination against Muslims and Muslim communities, we will find a way to combine that defense of vulnerable people with opposition to them where they are champions of intolerance, bigotry, and petrified, age-old sanctified ignorance, in short, of political, cultural, and civic reaction, trying to spread it from the large areas in the Muslim world where it is the norm, into the bourgeois democracies of the West.
Or, we will ourselves cease, for practical purposes, to be socialists, secularists and democrats.
The strapline on German's article says: "The left doesn't have to compromise any principle to defend and work with Muslims - on the contrary."
Indeed, we don't "have to", but the SWP has and does. The SWP does and says things which no self-respecting socialist, secularist or decent liberal would be seen dead doing or saying! In German's strange Guardian article, for example.
Marxists are for "freedom of religion", but we do not champion any religion or assume the role of, so to speak, its "godparents", explaining, recommending and justifying the religion and its doctrines, or its practices.
We do not help reactionary priests reinforce their hold on the minds of those brought up in their religion.
When we ally with religious people in a common struggle, we do not disrupt that work by pushing their religion and our irreligion to the forefront. Indeed. But neither do we laud their religion, nor appeal for their votes by describing ourselves as the "best fighters" for Muslims (or Catholics, Jews or whoever), as "Respect (George Galloway)" - that is, the SWP under its strange, new hat - did and does. Socialists cannot emancipate people sunk in religious communalism inside ghettoes where imams and the rich have a very strong grip if, minimally, they do not maintain their own identity, and work to break young Muslim people from their religious background.
Even when we explain "strange" religious practices to backward white workers, we do not - unlike Socialist Worker (in October 2002) did with the Taliban restrictions on women- endorse them, or appear to endorse them, or pretend that they are not as abhorent, as some of the beliefs of, say, fundamentalist Christians.
We convey to Muslims, by our behaviour as well as by our words, respect for them as people, not respect for their ideas: we are for the singer, but not for the reactionary song. We act as honourable, self-respecting people, who take our own secular ideas and traditions seriously. We are honest and candid with our temporary allies, treating them with the respect they deserve as thinking people. As people fully our equals - not as people to be soft-soaped, condescended to and manipulated.
Serious socialists do not, like the SWP, side with the establishment in the Muslim communities, with "The Mosque". Other than during the physical defence of a Muslim area under immediate attack, socialists would never enter into political partnership with clerical-fascists, like the Muslim Brotherhood. If we point out that Muslim fundamentalists are no worse in their beliefs than, say, Christian or Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists are in theirs, or point to the absurdity of the fascist degenerates of the brute BNP denouncing Muslims for their beliefs and practices, it is not to pretend, as German does in the Guardian, that, therefore (!) Muslim fundamentalists and Islamist clerical fascists aren't so bad after all.
German's apologia is as gamey as SWP practice.
She notes the new "politicisation amongst Muslims" as a result of recent wars and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
She thinks it is a "badge of honour" that Muslims "should look to organisations like the Stop the War Coalition to help defend them" and that "the overwhelming majority of those so politicised do not turn to fundamentalist groups but to socialists, trade unionists and peace campaigners." That would be good, were it true.
Ms German "forgets" that the STWC prominently involved the oldest Islamist organisation in existence, the Muslim Brotherhood, through its British offshoot, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB)!
It would be hard to find a place to pin the "badge of honour" on Ms German's chest already covered as it is with the badges of shameful surrender to Arab and Islamist chauvinism!
But don't run away with the idea that Ms German is simply a blustering ignoramus. She knows what she knows.
She admits that "some Muslims" hold views on "some issues" that are "more(!) conservative(!) than (!) those of the socialist and liberal left". Those who would persecute and kill gays, compel women to veil themselves, and impose Islamic clerical rule on society - the Muslim Brotherhood - are indeed a little bit "more (!) conservative (!) than(!)" most socialists and labour movement people! But we must not be "sectarian".
She asks: "Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those who took part share the same view of the war on Iraq?" Indeed, it wouldn't and it shouldn't
But, Ms German, didn’t the SWP and the Muslim Brotherhood/MAB impose on the February 2003 march against the war on Iraq the Arab-Islamic-chauvinist slogan on the Israel-Palestine conflict, "Freedom for Palestine" (meaning all of pre-1948 Palestine, including Israel — the elimination of Israel)? You insisted on writing it up on banners and placards alongside the slogans against the war. (Ms German’s organisation rejected the proposal from Solidarity and Workers Liberty, that the slogan should be "Israel out of the Occupied Territories" and "Two states - a Palestinian state alongside Israel".) Wasn't that "sectarian"?
Didn't that exclude almost all anti-war Jews?
That, by the way, is palpable proof that the SWP functioned not as working class socialists with an independent voice and independent democratic programme for solving the Jewish-Palestinian problem but as vicarious Islamic-Arab chauvinists.
But German is outraged at the charge that there was anything anti-Semitic in the STWC: "Charges of anti-Semitism, support for terrorism, homophobia and sexism abound, as in the attack on Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Association of Britain in recent days." Defending itself, the SWP is committed now to defending all things Islamic - here, Qaradawi. For all things Islamic are now holy to the SWP, amen!
Qaradawi thinks Muslim states should jail and kill homosexuals, that women should know their place, that human bombs killing Israel civilians are a legitimate weapon against Israel: is he, therefore, homophobic, sexist, Hamas-supporting? Don't be ridiculous! The subtle Ms German knows what she knows! He is not a clerical-fascist reactionary - only more(!) conservative(!) than(!) Ms German and her comrades.
And "just because women wear the hijab, for example, does that mean that they are more oppressed than other women?" Of course not. Don't be ridiculous!
She cites young hijabi Muslim women speaking at meetings to prove it: these articulate, educated, young women - some of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood - you are meant to understand, gentle reader, are typical of Muslim women in Britain and elsewhere. Of course, they are nothing of the sort. And even if they were, it would not prove her point.
Militant women reactionaries played a noticeable part in the regressive and reactionary Islamic revolution in Iran 25 years ago. Political idiots - ourselves among them - could point to that as proof that the Islamists were for women's equality. But Ms German is impervious to facts, historical or contemporary.
"Those who argue that the MAB are fascists... are dangerously wide of the mark." But the Muslim Brotherhood admits that MAB is its front! What does the SWP actually think of the MB, which in some countries are reactionary terrorists, and in all Islamic states stand for an authoritarian regime imposing sharia law? (The Muslim Brotherhood also wants to restore the pre-1918 Turkish empire, the Caliphate!)
The Muslim Brotherhood is not clerical-fascist? What then should we call an organisation that advocates and fights for authoritarian Islamic regimes in the Islamic world and eventually all over the world?
How does she get around the fact that many of her readers - and thinking SWPers - know what the MAB/MB is? No problem: she insists that the BNP's views on gays are as bad as or worse than those of Qaradawi. And? And that should recommend tolerance of Qaradawi's views and those of the Muslim Brotherhood to socialists?
If the rules of logic still apply to the leaders of the SWP, that is what she seems to say. But why stop there? Surely the coupling of Qaradawi and the BNP works the other way around too?
Why not lend a sympathetic ear to the BNP itself? After all, properly understood and interpreted, the viciously reactionary ideas and practices of the BNP are only a misguided and perverted form of revolt against our capitalist society by young, mainly working class people. If we excuse the MAB/MB leaders, why not extend that tolerance to the poor misguided idiots with real grievances against capitalist society who foolishly look to racist scapegoating and the BNP for a solution? Why not? Because "the clerical fascism" of the oppressed is not as bad as the fascism of an oppressor people, like the native white English, Welsh or Scottish?
That way, beginning as Ms German does, lies political lunacy and moral and political suicide!
German reminisces that the German Nazis "scapegoated" "gays, trade unionists, gypsies, socialists and above all Jews... in the interests of a German imperialist super-state". Well, as a matter of fact, Ms German, they did not "scapegoat" socialist or communists. We — working class International Socialists —really were the mortal enemies of everything they cherished, defended and aspired to. Weren't we? (And some of us still are... )
They scapegoated Jews, etc, but against socialists and communists they fought the class struggle of the bourgeoisie to suppress the labour movement, which really was their enemy. Ms German's point?
"British Muslims... are struggling to uphold their rights and culture in an environment of pervasive racism - a racism used to uphold the policies of the new imperialism." You follow that? They are, we should understand, the victims of the new... Nazis?
They "struggle" in these conditions to "uphold their rights and culture". Note the coupling here: "rights and culture".
Of course, socialists and democrats are automatically and unconditionally for Muslims' equality as citizens.
But that does not mean we champion, endorse, defend or approve of their "culture" or say it's as good as any other culture (including our secular, socialist culture?). There are many things in their culture we, on pain of ceasing to be ourselves, despise and fight against.
For example, we are for the existing bourgeois state repressing and severely punishing those who mutilate the genitals of young girls. This practice is not confined to Muslims, but it is part of the culture of some Muslims.
We are against bigoted Muslim, as against bigoted Christian attitudes to gays, to women, etc. Aren't we? Isn't Ms German? Isn't the SWP, anymore?*
With this virtuously "anti-racist" nonsense, German lines herself and the SWP up with the worst of the woolly, guilty, middle-class, "tolerate anything", Guardian liberals.
We live in a world in which social workers who had some idea of the ill-treatment of little Victoria Climbie by her religious - Christian - aunt, who tortured and eventually killed her, did nothing to stop it because they "respected" "cultural differences". Such "tolerance" is no part of serious Marxist, or even serious Liberal, politics. On certain things we are, and must be, vigorously intolerant.
Ms German's message is that Islamic reactionaries are alright, really, when you compare them to the new imperialists who are... akin to the old Nazis?
In fact, of course, the picture she presents is grossly exaggerated. The "old" imperialists needed racism, because they believed in and practised the rule of master races... The idea that the "new imperialism" - which wants to set up native rulers in Iraq - needs "racism" of that sort is downright nonsensical.
She presents the attitudes of the bourgeois state to the Muslim community as if they come not from a typically crude and brutal and, yes, racism-infected state response to real threats from Islamist terrorism - a real threat, for example, to commit indiscriminate mass murder on the London Underground - but from an intrinsic "racism". To question that is to invite the epithet "racist".
International Socialists fight specific injustices that are inevitable products of this situation. We do not pretend that Islamist terrorism is not a real threat to ordinary working people, whose defence from terrorism we favour, even by the existing bourgeois state.
German's hysterical exaggerations serve to justify the SWP's politics. They play the same role for the SWP as the notion of capitalism always being in an insoluble crisis and on the verge of collapse, played over decades to license and justify all sorts of craziness in pseudo-Trotskyist organisations like the WRP (on which the SWP more and more seems to be modelling itself).
They pretend that "racist" assault on the Muslim community is so all-embracing, so pervasive, so much of an immediate threat, and therefore the need to fight against it so urgent, that there is no space for socialists to assert their own identity. Socialists must commit political and moral suicide, in the interests of “anti-racism” and "defending" the Muslim communities!
And not only must Marxists defend them physically, when necessary, but we must defend all their ideas and practices as well! That, I repeat: is political and moral suicide!
Ms German ends: "It would be a catastrophe for the left to bow to the witch-hunt and turn its back on the Muslim community."
But so also is it a catastrophe for the "left" to colour itself Islamic green, write, as the clever Ms German writes, reactionary political idiocies and commit political suicide.
The choice for the left is not between one or other of these catastrophes. We can and do defend the Muslim communities against real racism, real discrimination, real injustice and real physical attacks without abjuring or compromising our own identity. Without ceasing to be hostile to the religion and much of the religion-infected culture of those we defend and, where appropriate, ally with. Without abandoning, or compromising, our own political, socialist and secularist, raison d'etre.
If we can't and if we don't, then the "left" will prove to be of as little use to the young, the secularising, the women and the working class of the Muslim communities as the SWP now is to them and the broader working-class movement in Britain.
*This is not the place to pursue it, but there is an important literature by Lenin and others against those Marxists - the "Austro-Marxists" - who undertook the defence of national culture in the spirit of Ms German with Islamic culture. Lenin called them reactionaries.
* SOLIDARITY 3/55, 15 July 2004 (slightly expanded version)
A badge of honour
There is no section of the British population that has seen its world change more dramatically since 9/11 than the Muslim community. Events have propelled British Muslims into political activity, especially around the anti-war movement. The continuing plight of the Palestinians, the imprisonment of Muslims without human rights in Guantánamo Bay and Belmarsh prison and the terrorism laws have all fuelled a new politicisation.
Muslims were already the target of widespread racist attacks - the situation is now far worse. The British National Party singled out Muslims in its recent election broadcast, while the home secretary has demanded British Muslims accept the "British way" and that English should be spoken in Asian homes. There has been a dramatic rise in the stop and search of Asian men as "Muslim" has become increasingly interchangeable with "terrorist" or "fundamentalist" in some sections of society, including some in uniform.
It should be a badge of honour to those of us on the left that a group of people who face discrimination and victimisation should look to organisations like Stop the War Coalition to help defend them - and that the overwhelming majority of those so politicised do not turn to fundamentalist groups but to socialists, trade unionists and peace campaigners.
Unfortunately, however, those liberals who backed the war against Iraq seem to regard any alliance with the Muslim community as a pact with the devil. Charges of anti-semitism, support for terrorism, homophobia and sexism abound, as in the attacks on Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Association of Britain in recent days. Those of us who have long supported women's and gay liberation have now picked up some unlikely supporters. Papers like the Sun, itself no stranger to sexist and homophobic rants, have developed a belated concern for the rights of Muslim women and gays.
For any socialist, the defence of sexual equality and freedom must be unconditional. But we cannot, in the process, join in the attacks on those very Muslims who are at the sharp end of racist attacks and Islamophobia in Britain. We could start by not treating Muslims as one reactionary, superstitious mass. Just because women wear the hijab, for example, does not mean that they are more oppressed than other women. Our experience in the anti-war movement is the opposite. Young Muslim women, most of whom wear the hijab, have played a central role in organising, speaking at meetings, fundraising and debating policy. Many say they dress in this way not out of deference but because they want to show pride in their culture and religion.
Everyone should oppose homophobia and attacks on women from whichever source. But such views are far from being held by all Muslims, nor are they unique to Muslims. Fundamentalists of most religions hold such views - but where is the uproar when fundamentalist Baptist preachers from the US visit our shores?
It is also absurd to insinuate that homophobic attacks or wife-beating are exclusively Muslim problems. They are preponderantly found among the white majority in this country. Many of the attitudes being condemned were themselves part of public British culture until relatively recently. It has taken argument and organisation to challenge those views, and that political engagement needs to be continued.
For example, the Muslim Association has increasingly put forward Muslim women speakers to represent it on anti-war platforms as our campaign has developed. And, while its support for the Palestinian people's struggle is unequivocal, it clearly distinguishes between the Jewish people and the Israeli state. Those who argue that Muslim groups such as the MAB are fascist, or that al-Qaradawi's views on gays are worse than the BNP's, are dangerously wide of the mark.
The BNP's heroes in Nazi Germany scapegoated gays, trade unionists, Gypsies, socialists and, above all, Jews because they wanted to destroy democratic and working-class organisations in the interests of a German imperialist super-state. British Muslims, however much we might disagree with some of the views that some hold, are struggling to uphold their rights and culture in an environment of pervasive racism - a racism used to uphold the policies of the new imperialism. The comparison with Nazism is abhorrent.
Of course, some Muslims - and non-Muslims - hold views on some social issues that are more conservative than those of the socialist and liberal left. But that should not be a barrier to collaboration over common concerns. Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those who took part share the same view of the war in Iraq? That would be a road to the fragmentation of any progressive movement seeking to reach out beyond the traditional left.
It would be a catastrophe for the left to bow to the witch-hunt and turn its back on the Muslim community. We have always defended ethnic minorities and immigrants coming to Britain. When socialists and communists joined Jews in London's East End in the 1930s to defeat fascism, they did so because they realised that if we do not defend those under attack today, we would all be under attack tomorrow.
· Lindsey German, Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition
The Guardian, Tuesday July 13 2004