Marxists and religion: the left is seriously disoriented

Submitted by AWL on 22 October, 2013 - 1:06

Much of the recent online response to a 2006 AWL article on Marxists’ attitude to religion and religious fundamentalist politics has acted as a reminder of how disoriented much of the British left is on these questions.

With little sign of comprehending what the article argues in many cases, or in some cases of having read it at all, some have claimed that the article is “racist” and “Islamophobic”, i.e. bigoted against Muslims.

Let us be clear: Muslim and Muslim-background people in Britain today face oppression and discrimination, both in terms of straightforward racism towards non-white people and migrants, and bigotry towards their religion. Of course the left should unequivocally side with Muslims against racism and bigotry. That is absolutely not what is in dispute here.

1. This is not a dispute in which groups or people with a different political position to the AWL's state their position and argue why they think ours is wrong. It is a dispute in which critics seize on phrases in an article and claim that they can be read as implying that we hold anti-Muslim views which most of them know we do not hold, and which our literature and our record over the eight years since the article confirm we do not hold.

Most of the criticism is hung on phrases and words taken out of context.

The issue is not, fundamentally, whether the article is brilliantly worded or expressed. It is the political ideas which are being expressed.

Of course we have no objection to being criticised, as such, and we want to debate these issues. If you discuss the issues seriously rather than engaging in abuse: don't be swept along in the (small) tide of unthinking denunciation; re-read the controversial article carefully; read this response; read around our literature on these questions (for instance this 2002 article on the rise of Islamism); and approach an AWL member or members to discuss.

If you disagree with any of the arguments in the original article (or this one), we are happy to discuss that. If you agree with the article's arguments but think its language was "problematic", or something like that, we are happy to discuss that too.

2. The article compared Islamist and Islamist-shaped attitudes towards advanced capitalism to the attitudes from which most Islamists themselves proudly draw inspiration, those of the 7th century Muslim tribes in the desert which carried through the first great Muslim conquests. It used the word “primitive” (to mean original or unspoiled, as an adjective describing what Islamists see as the “simplicity and purity” of those first Muslims), in the same way that people refer to “primitive Christians” in the period of Christianity's birth.

Some claim that the sentence shows we think all Muslims are “primitive”, i.e. that we are right-wing anti-Muslim bigots.

This is ludicrous. The article used the word “primitive” six times. One was a reference to the Afghan countryside in its conflict with Afghanistan’s cities (both Muslim) – as part of an argument, that despite this tragic complication, the revolt of rural Afghanistan against the Russian imperialist occupation was a “just war”.

Three other uses of “primitive” were in attacks on Christian fundamentalism in the US, which we described as “ignorant fundamentalism... in the grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith... and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science... as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world”. (Funnily enough, the article’s lengthy analysis and condemnation of political Christianity has not been quoted by our denouncers.) The last “primitive” was to describe the widespread belief in horoscopes and so on in the West.

The sentence in which the word “primitive” appears alongside the word “Muslim” (both as adjectives referring to the "simplicity and purity" of the 7th century people following Muhammad and his companions) also included, as a comparison for the attitude of political Islamists today, reference to the attitudes of rural Serbian Orthodox Christians in their siege of Dubrovnik in 1991-92.

So, of six uses of “primitive”, three were specifically about Christianity, and a fourth about Christian-majority countries. A fifth was contrasting the countryside of a Muslim-majority country, Afghanistan, with its also Muslim cities. A sixth described what Islamists see as the "simplicity and purity" of 7th century Muslims, and compared the reactionary anti-imperialist views of political Islamists today not only with the 7th century Muslim jihad which they themselves see as a model, but also with modern Christian plebeian reactionaries. (The article said “much of the Muslim world”, not “Islamists”? But the sentence before and the sentence after used “political Islam” and “Islamic fundamentalism” to denote the same large but by no means all-overwhelming part — “much” — of Muslim politics).

Equally ludicrous, some have suggested that because the article referred to the Ottomans' siege of Vienna in 1683 (a turning point at the end of a centuries-long series of wars between Christian and Islamic powers in Europe and the Middle East), we are defending “Christian civilisation” against Islam. Again, this ignores not only our long history of attacking and fighting organised political Christianity, but the glaring fact that this article is an attack on the increasing influence of Christianity – Christian fundamentalism, but not only fundamentalism – in European and US politics.

As the supplement to which the article was an introduction explained, by way of reprinting classic Marxist texts, we defend freedom of religious belief and practice, but oppose the influence of religion in politics.

The question of religious influence in politics is very much alive in Britain today – from the growing activity of Christian bigots against women’s right to access abortion, to the spread of religious schools. The SWP notoriously refused to oppose the Blair government's drive to create more “faith schools”, the great majority of them, of course, Christian. The International Socialist Network, too, has so far failed to separate itself from that long-standing SWP position.

It has also been suggested, bizarrely, that the article was agitating against Muslim immigration into Europe. In the week the controversy took place, the centre page headline in our paper, advertised on the front page, was “Open Europe’s borders!” – over an article demanding the right of overwhelmingly Muslim people from North Africa and the Middle East to come to Europe and denouncing the immigration controls that keep them out and all that follows from them.

In the eight years since the article was published, AWL has repeatedly mobilised against the English Defence League and other far-right, anti-Muslim groups, and called for the left and labour movement to “defend Muslims and mosques” against racist attacks (as in Solidarity 287, this year, in the aftermath of the Woolwich killing).

3. All the denunciations of the article have done is to confirm two fundamental problems on the British left.

The first is the culture of lying and misrepresentation. No one who has read the AWL’s literature or spoken to AWL members actually thinks we want to defend Christianity against Islam, or that we think “Muslims are primitive”, or that we say there are too many Muslim people in Europe and want to stop more coming in. Rather there is an attempt to scandal-monger by repeating a few words over and over, hoping that people will be scandalised enough not to read the article carefully, put it in the context with everything else we say and do, or speak calmly to our members about it. There is another aspect of the problem there: people not reading things through thoroughly and trying to engage with arguments, but leaping to denunciation at the earliest opportunity. Or being swept up in tides of denunciation rather than discussing the issues with those accused before deciding a considered position.

(On the question of lying and slanders on the left, see here and here.)

4. The second issue is about the left’s attitude to “political Islam”, i.e. “fundamentalist” Islamist politics.

The real differences are nothing to do with defending Muslim and Muslim-background people against oppression, discrimination and bigotry. In fact our record in this regard is better than that of our detractors.

We helped to organise the defence of mainly-Bangladeshi, mainly-Muslim Brick Lane against the National Front in 1978, when the SWP refused to cancel its Anti-Nazi League festival to join the defence.

We sided with mainly-Muslim peoples like the Afghans, the Bosniacs and the Kosovars against Russian and Serbian imperialist conquest. Workers' Power, one of the groups whose members have denounced us, supported the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and responded to the Russian invasion in 1979 by changing its description of the USSR from “state capitalist” to “workers' state”. The ISN has yet to separate itself from the political tradition of the SWP on former Yugoslavia – the SWP who refused to back the Muslim Bosniacs and Kosovars in their struggle for self-determination against Milosevic's blood-soaked drive in the 1990s for a “Greater Serbia”, and in 1999 effectively backed Milosevic against the Kosovars.

WP and the SWP did that in the name of “anti-imperialism”, within world views which identified “imperialism” with the US and denied the very possibility of reactionary anti-imperialism. They should debate that real issue, rather than arguing against straw men.

If the article, written in early 2006, had been motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry or Islamophobia, then such politics would surely have manifested themselves in the eight years since then, around events such as the rise of the EDL, the racist backlash after the Woolwich killing or the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. No such argument has or can be made, because we have taken no “Islamophobic” positions.

(For more on real and invented differences on these questions, see here and here.)

People might also note that the AWL has closer links than any other socialist organisation in Britain with socialists in Iran, Kurdistan and Iraq. We have also collaborated over the years with socialist and labour movement organisations and activists in North Africa, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia (many of their members religious Muslims). All of them, whatever their other differences with us, have had very different attitudes to Islamism from the ones dominant on the British left.

5. The central real difference here is that much of the left, including those running a "campaign" around the article, think that Islamism should be regarded as a positive political force (or at least not sharply opposed as a reactionary one) because it is supposedly anti-imperialist. A broader swathe of left and liberal opinion is also influenced by the current bourgeois celebration of “faith groups”, and tends to think that sharply attacking religious ideas is out of order in a way that sharply attacking secular political ideas is not. The whole left, even those with a more critical attitude to Islamism, has been shaped by these things.

The article’s essential political argument is that reactionary religious-political ideas, including “fundamentalist” ones – particularly Christian and Muslim, but also of course Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, etc. – are a growing force in world politics, and that this is an alarming, regressive development. It argues that such movements, while in general terms bourgeois and a product of capitalism, contain large elements of reactionary anti-capitalism, i.e. a backward-looking (politically “primitive”) hostility to large elements of the modern world.

To note that such politics hold in their grip “much of the Muslim world” is no more anti-Muslim than it is anti-semitic to point out that Jewish fundamentalists who believe the Jews are a chosen people with a God-ordained right to oppress others are at the cutting edge of the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank, or that the primitive and reactionary politics they represent are now a large and growing part of Israeli society.

The reason for all this is the defeat of class-struggle socialist ideas on a world scale. The reconstruction of an international working-class socialist movement in struggle against capitalism is the only possible answer to the contradictions which breed the reactionary politics of religious fundamentalism, and the starting point of such a renaissance is sharp Marxist analysis of and opposition to such politics. Yet the left has failed completely in this regard, in large part because it is not even trying.

We saw a low point of the accommodation of socialists to Islamism recently when the SWP advocated Egyptians vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egypt’s presidential election. (Some ISN members have dissociated from that position, but the ISN as such has not done so yet.) That was just a new, dramatic episode in a now lengthy history of political self-negation. In 2007, the SWP hailed the Islamist party Hamas' coup in Gaza, i.e. supported fascistic Islamists against the secular Muslims of Fatah, on grounds of "anti-imperialism".

All this grew from the same political source as the SWP’s adventure with Respect – a communalist political project which boosted British Islamists, wasted an opportunity to win over Muslim and Muslim-background people to socialist ideas, and weakened and demoralised the left.

6. Solidarity against racism does not require socialists to self-censor, or abandon our militant criticism of religion – and even more so, of right-wing religious politics. The idea that it does is wrong, and in this case implies a patronising attitude to Muslim and Muslim-background people, assuming they cannot be won over to class-struggle socialist ideas through common struggle, discussion and argument.

We will be holding a public discussion on these questions in London in the coming weeks. We extend an open invitation to come and debate the issues there. We urge those who genuinely want to discuss these issues and understand what we are saying to come along, or to approach us for discussions. As for political groups denouncing us, we challenge them to publicly debate these issues at a time and place of their choosing.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 10/23/2013 - 13:22

Submitted by Matthew on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 14:17

Notwithstanding the fact that the article was written nearly eight years and ago and has been resurrected now to stir up trouble on the student left, there are a couple of bits that I think are hard to defend by saying that people are misreading them, deliberately or otherwise, or taking them out of context.

"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."

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of how Islamists see the West. The problem is that it equates them with "much of the Islamic world".

Similarly with "The existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world: the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe." It's hard to argue that this doesn't mean - unless there's some special reading of these words that I'm missing - that large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe has created a basis for Islamist attacks on the West, again equating Muslims and Islamist terrorism.

I accept that the criticism of the use of the word "primitive" is a red herring and that the article is not racist but there are political problems with it.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 14:40

Hi Matthew,

But Islamism is a major force in the Islamic world - ie "much of the Islamic world" supports or is influenced by Islamism. Saying that is no more equating "Islamists" and "Muslims" than saying that Jewish fundamentalism is now a major force in Israel means equating "Jewish fundamentalists" and "Jewish people" or "Israelis". Much of Israeli society is now dominated by deeply reactionary, and racist, politics - true, no? (The article above makes this point.) And clearly Islamism is what is being referred to, since that is what the article has just been discussing before the bit you quote.

Given that the AWL champions the right of people from across the world to come to Europe - see for instance 'Open Europe's borders!' (in last week's paper, mainly about migrants from North Africa and the Middle East) - what are you saying? Do you think Sean has a different line (but not stating it forthrightly)? In fact it would have to be not just a different line on immigration but on the rights of the children of migrants, since the people in eg Britain most influenced by Islamism are not those who came here in the 60s or 70s and established significant Muslim communities (like my father) but my generation or younger.

I wouldn't have written it like that and I can see why some people might be confused, but it is totally clear that Sean didn't and doesn't mean anything of the sort.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Matthew on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 16:04

In reply to by AWL

I don't think that the article is racist or that Sean opposes Muslim immigration into Europe.

I agree that Islamism is a major force in the Middle East and South Asia, just as Christian fundamentalism is a major political force in the United States. That does not to mean though that most people in South Asia or the United States are fundamentalists. It means that the fundamentalist minority is highly organised, determined and has succeeded in capturing parts of the state machine in those countries. If by "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" Sean is talking about how the Islamist movements in those countries see the West, it is not " totally clear" from the words themselves that that is what he means. It is not a misreading or taking out of context if people take "much of the Islamic world" to refer to most Muslims.

And in Britain, I'd also dispute the idea that most Muslims, or even most young Muslims, are Islamists.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 15:37

There is absolutely no question about Workers' Liberty's attitude to immigration — we are unequivocally for open borders and against immigration controls. Many of our members have been, and continue to be, active in struggles in defence of migrants and against immigration controls.

That the online outcry against the 2006 article has attempted to use it as evidence to argue that we are hostile to Muslim (or even non-white!) immigration to Britain, given our very clearly stated position and record on this question, is one of the clearest indicators to me that the outcry is not about dealing with the political issues the article raises but inventing false claims about AWL's positions by reading sections of the article out of context.

The article claims that politico-religious ideas are gaining strength worldwide, including in mainly-Muslim countries and in mainly-Muslim communities outside those countries, fuelled by global inequality, the collapse of Arab nationalism and Stalinism in the Muslim world, and existing in a mutually-reinforcing relationship with the growth of religion, and particularly politicised religion, in other communities. Whether all of this is the case or not is a matter for legitimate debate (personally I think it's fairly obviously true), but the article does not read off from its claims that socialists should oppose Muslim migration to Britain, but rather that we should conduct a militant materialist-secularist-humanist fight against religious ideas wherever we encounter them.

A (rough) analogy: Jewish migration to Britain and America from the late 19th century onwards undoubtedly brought into the US and the UK, and into their working classes, many people who had very backwards and primitive ideas about a great many things. Socialists supported their right to migrate to Britain, opposing the 1905 Aliens Act (the first immigration control in British history I believe). Socialists defended them against racism and prejudice. And socialists also conducted a militant and at times extremely provocative and "offensive" ideological battle against their religion. Organising balls and parties on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, as some socialists and anarchists did, is about as "anti-Judaism" and "Judaism-ophobic" as it's possible to be. They were right to be anti-Judaism! They were for the Jews, for Jewish people's rights, but against Judaism. There was no contradiction.

The key difference between then and now is that there were large layers of anti-religious, secular-socialist and anarchist workers in those communities who led that fight. Any attempt to directly replicate the Yom Kippur Balls by today's mostly-white, mostly-non-Muslim left in relation to Britain's Muslim communities would be extremely foolish and heavy-handed.

But the spirit of militantly defending religious and ethnic minorities against prejudice while militantly opposing the backwards ideas many people in such communities may hold, is the right one.

-

DR

Submitted by Janine on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 15:55

... Noting, of course, that we also militantly oppose the 'backwards ideas' held by people in ethnic-majority communities, and 'backwards ideas' that are not motivated by religion.

I would like more explanation about the assertion in the quote that Matthew mentioned that 'envy' and 'covetousness' have a role in how 'much of the Islamic world' views the West.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 16:41

Whether or not Sean's words were unclear, where do you get the stuff about "majority" or "most" from?

"Much of" is not the same as "most" or "the majority of". Nowhere do I say that "most Muslims" or "most young Muslims" in Britain are Islamists (which is obviously very far from the case). Nor do I even say that "most Muslims" in, say, Egypt or Tunisia, where Islamists are a mass force and have won elections, are Islamists.

I agree with you about Islamists' tight political and physical organisation giving them an ability to impose themselves even when they are a minority.

Sacha

Submitted by Janine on Mon, 10/28/2013 - 16:58

In reply to by AWL

Hi Sacha. Who/what is this comment addressed to?

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 17:31

In reply to by Janine

Just a note on 'comment' format. If you post a comment in the box on the screen, it appears as a comment on the article in general, which is fine if that is what you intend. But if you intend to reply to a particular comment, then it is better to click the 'reply' box below that comment, so that your reply appears directly below the comment to which you are replying. If you just post it in the box on the screen, it will often (usually, in fact) not appear next to the comment you are replying to, which is confusing.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 11:02

Janine, Sacha was presumably replying to Matthew's comments: "That does not to mean though that most people in South Asia or the United States are fundamentalists" ... "It is not a misreading or taking out of context if people take "much of the Islamic world" to refer to most Muslims." ... "And in Britain, I'd also dispute the idea that most Muslims, or even most young Muslims, are Islamists."

On "envy" — I interpreted this less in terms of "it's better over there, isn't it?" and more in terms of a political resentment. Islamism is very explicitly aspirant-imperialist; its political discourses recall Islamic empires of the past and express a stated aim to re-establish them (see this article, for example, from Hizb ut-Tahrir, or read its 2011 manifesto for Pakistan). It seems to me that a resentful jealousy towards the currently-dominant imperial powers can reasonably be described as part of this worldview, just as jealous resentment of US imperial hegemony makes up part of the ideological fabric of British nationalism.

On fighting backwardness within ethnic majority communities — yes, of course! As an essentially ideological collective working mainly as a propaganda group, this is what 99% of the day-to-day work of AWL is necessarily about, given that, like the rest of the UK far left, we have very little implantation in ethnic-minority communities.

-

DR

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 17:30

In reply to by AWL

I can see how you could conceivably interpret it that way, but the big majority of people wouldn't. Your explanation would apply only to the Islamists, not to the "much of the Islamic world" that is under their influence, so I just don't see how it makes coherent sense.

Given that the alternative, more obvious, interpretations are inaccurate and potentially offensive, this was a very poor wording to use.

Submitted by Janine on Tue, 10/29/2013 - 17:26

Just a note on 'comment' format. If you post a comment in the box on the screen, it appears as a comment on the article in general, which is fine if that is what you intend. But if you intend to reply to a particular comment, then it is better to click the 'reply' box below that comment, so that your reply appears directly below the comment to which you are replying. If you just post it in the box on the screen, it will often (usually, in fact) not appear next to the comment you are replying to, which is confusing.

Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Sun, 11/03/2013 - 13:29

"No one who has read the AWL’s literature or spoken to AWL members actually thinks we want to defend Christianity against Islam."
No one who has read Richard Dawkins' literature or spoken to Richard Dawkins actually thinks he wants to defend Christianity against Islam either. Does that mean he's fine too?
And from the original article, I can't see how anyone could defend this:
"The existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world: the Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago is now a force in the great cities of Europe."
The "Islam which failed outside the walls of Vienna over 300 years ago" was a product of feudalism. It was a product of specific historical and social circumstances which no longer exist. Islamist politics as they exist today are a product of early 20th capitalism. They're not the same thing. Islamists may claim they're the same thing, but that's a part of their ideology. Anyone who claims to be a historical materialist should know better than to accept this kind of ahistorical essentialist nonsense. What exactly connects the wars of the Ottoman Empire hundreds of years ago with reactionary movements today, the spirit of Allah? Give over.
For what it's worth, I would broadly agree with the sentiment that "The reconstruction of an international working-class socialist movement in struggle against capitalism is the only possible answer to the contradictions which breed the reactionary politics of religious fundamentalism, and the starting point of such a renaissance is sharp Marxist analysis of and opposition to such politics", although there's major differences in what we'd see the form and content of any such socialist movement as being, and I'm not convinced Marxism is necessarily the most useful framework for communist analysis. But there needs to be a clear red line between communist opposition to religious reactionaries and anti-Muslim racism based on an essentialised notion of Islam. By blurring that distinction, articles like the one you republished and defend make it harder, not easier, for those of us wanting to maintain independent working-class politics against all forms of cross-class reaction.
This is a bit rushed, because I have to head out now, but I want to write more on this soon.