Challenging fundamentalism: Workers' Liberty in further conversation with Marieme Helie-Lucas

Submitted by AWL on 25 April, 2015 - 9:48 Author: Marieme Helie-Lucas

In March 2015, Algerian sociologist and revolutionary socialist-feminist Marieme Helie Lucas spoke to Solidarity, the newspaper of Workers' Liberty, about the Muslim far-right, and the struggle for secularism, women's rights, and socialism (click here). Here, we continue the conversation.

Workers' Liberty: You argued that the "religious"/"Islamic" character of Islamism is dubious. You pointed out that often, Islamists twist religious doctrines to suit political ends, and that Islamism should be understood politically as a far-right, populist phenomenon, similar to fascism. This all makes sense to me, but isn't the specifically religious character of the movement significant too, on the level of ideology?

For example, I don't doubt that the 9/11 bombers genuinely believed all the nonsense about martyrdom, the rewards they'd receive in heaven, etc. I don't doubt that Da'esh militants really believe in the primitive-Islamic eschatology they espouse. I don't think they're merely compelled by socio-economic forces, and are just using religion to "disguise" or package a social project. How, on the level of ideology, can we take on the religious aspect of Islamism? How can we make effective propaganda for materialism, rationality, science, modernity, etc.?

Marieme Helie-Lucas: 30 years ago, women first tried to confront fundamentalists’ views by inviting progressive scholars of Islam onto common platforms; fundamentalists were not interested in debating. They are not really interested in Islam.

Although I am an atheist, I often know more about Islam and Christianity than many who claim to speak on behalf of Islam itself. At least I have read some of the works by progressive religious scholars. Fundamentalists have not. For them there is no history, no theology: they are Islam.

Fundamentalists pick and chose among traditions (not necessarily just religious traditions, but also cultural ones) to suit their goals of the moment: for instance, they tried, and still try (and sometimes succeed) to introduce FGM in many places where it was previously unheard of (Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Serbia, etc.), although it is a pre-Islamic custom rooted in a very limited geographical area (i.e., the sphere of influence of ancient Egypt in the Middle East and Africa).

They pretend it is “Islamic”, and they don’t care about historical truth. They are not interested in checking facts, or even, really, going back to the “fundamentals” of their religion, as they claim they are doing.

Similarly, they export bad practices from one sect of Islam to the other. the wali (a matrimonial tutor of women) is exported from North African Mālikī countries to South Asia, or muta’a marriage (marriage of pleasure/ temporary marriage) is exported from Shi'a Islam to Sunni Islam.

The only coherence in their choices is gathering the most brutal and regressive practices, whatever their origin. There is absolutely no religious coherence.

There are examples of good practice in countries governed by supposedly religious laws in Muslim contexts, although they are under threat from the influence of fundamentalist groups. For example, marriage under the age of 15 is not permitted in the Central Asian republics, Gambia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey, and Yemen, and submitted to strict restrictions in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and Senegal. Equal rights and responsibilities for spouses exist in law in Turkey, Indonesia, the Central Asian republics, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The law does not denote the husbands as the head of the household in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India. Polygyny is banned in Tunisia, India, Gambia, Nigeria, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, while it is conditional upon formal permission granted on specific grounds (failure to follow procedure is penalised) in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, the Philippines (for Muslim marriages), and strictly limited in many other countries.

Don't these examples shatter common beliefs, and prejudices, about “Muslim countries”, “Muslim laws”, and so-called “Sharia law”? Don't they challenge the very concept of a “singular” “Sharia law” , that so many in Europe are eager to defend in the name of respecting people's religion and culture?

The least the left can do is ask itself: which one of the numerous and contradictory bodies of law that exist across the “Muslim world” is the “Sharia law”? And who on earth am I to answer this theological question? (1)

The truth is, there is no “Sharia law” in the sense of a body of laws recognised by a singular “Islam”, as the civil codes and the penal codes are recognised in Europe.

The meaning of “Sharia” in Arabic is: the way, the path towards God, an essentially personal journey. At no point was it understood as a body of existing laws that should hold authority among Muslims the word over... until fundamentalists stated it was. Why should the ignorant left and other do-gooders accept, without checking facts, the definition of the term introduced by Muslim fundamentalists only a few decades ago? Why should the left accept the underlying assumption that all “Muslim” societies are backwards, the world over? That their laws are not, like anywhere else, a contested political terrain? On that terrain we are presently losing the battle, and the fundamentalist far-right is winning it, with the active assistance of all those in Europe who take their political narrative for granted.

All the countries mentioned above pretend that their good laws are perfectly compatible with Islam, or even inspired by Islam – just like, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Muslim fundamentalists pretend that Islam requires polygyny, that wives must submit to their husbands, etc. They support many other forms of subordination of women that ultimately contradict the usual initial statement of equality between all citizens that is generally included in most countries' Constitutions. Are all our Constitutions un-Islamic? Fundamentalists will definitely say they are! Why back them? Why not rather support the statement of equality?

These “divine” laws are man-made. They demonstrate that it is as irrelevant to state that Islam is intrinsically bad as it is to claim that Islam is intrinsically good. Both the Bible and the Qur’an contain verses that celebrate the god of mercy, and others that glorify the god of punishment, hell, and war.

The well-known quote, “let they without sin cast the first stone” (or its equivalent) is used by those who want to promote the idea of a merciful god to claim that the holy book prohibits stoning to death for, for example, sex outside marriage. Fundamentalists ignore it, and use other verses to justify the practice. Religions are ideologies, and always interpreted by humans. As Aristotle said, “the concept of Dog does not bark.”

We should be saying, as atheists and leftists, that all organised religions are most generally represented and interpreted by very conservative people and should be combated for the very reason that they propagate conservative ideologies and practices.

Muslim fundamentalists never try to generalise better practices, only the worst, most oppressive ones. One cannot even debate the differences between sects and schools of thought. They are simply not interested.

Isn’t it easy to construct a very oppressive society, then to declare that this is what an “Islamic” society should look like, and to kill the “unbelievers”?

There are and always have been progressive scholars of Islam, equivalents of liberation theologians in Catholicism, but they were and still are persecuted and often killed, their works burnt, etc. Have you ever heard of a theological debate between them and Muslim fundamentalists?

Just as governments will use any legal measure that suits their political aims at a specific moment, and justify it in the name of Islam, so too will the religious far-right. Independent governments, for instance in Algeria and Pakistan, went as far as using colonial laws, which they pretended were Islamic, to deprive women of any right to inheritance or to deny them access to reproductive rights. Confronted with their lie, they simply went on with their politics, and dropped the invocation of religion.

Fundamentalists are totally ignorant in religious matters, and they do not intend to become knowledgeable. They are not interested in theological debate. They are totally opportunists politically; today, hiding behind religion is a good trick to get recognition from European democracies and human rights organisations (and, alas, also from the left).

I am not even convinced that their foot soldiers believe in paradise; I know there is a massive use of drugs among them. What I am sure of is that their foot soldiers are taught to hate “The Other” - whoever that is at a specific moment in history in a specific geographical location.

What needs to be done if one wants to promote rationalism, science, secularism, etc., should start with challenging the “truths” that fundamentalists propagate, precisely by confronting them through a scientific process such as looking into the history of concepts, into who says what, and to what aim, and so on. My usual mantra is: sweep your own doorstep first – i.e., challenge, within the left, the irrational and unfounded beliefs on Islam, Muslims, and Muslim fundamentalism; confront their views with those of secularists from Muslim contexts (believers and non-believers), and engage in a serious political analysis - a class analysis, not a “human rights” one - of existing situations.

Workers' Liberty: What about the issue of racism? The dominant narrative on the UK far-left runs something along the following lines: "Islamism might be bad, but it's not a threat here. Anti-Muslim racism is a threat. Fighting that is our priority, and talking about Islamism undermines that fight." It's a compelling argument, because organised-racist, semi-fascist groups like the English Defence League can put hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people on the streets here, whereas organised Islamism seems superficially weaker.

Partially this is because the left in Britain is itself extremely white, and has no real base in (predominantly South Asian) Muslim communities, so it doesn't experience Islamism or Islamist ideas as a social force in daily life. But it's a real issue to consider - how, as a predominantly white left, to critique and organise against a reactionary ideology rooted in a minority community which is subject to racism, without feeding into that racism? And, conversely, how to construct anti-racist alliances and movements that avoid endorsing, apologising for, or allying with, reactionary elements within the affected communities?

Marieme Helie-Lucas: Your question raises other questions: since when is religion a solution to social and political problems ? Since when is this an opinion of the left? And to whom is Islamism “not a threat”? Maybe not to short sighted whites, to use your terminology, but the affected minority community may have other views: in particular, women in minority communities may have a different perception of what is a threat to them.

The European left is self-centred. They may see something as not being a threat to themselves; that does not mean it is not a threat to others.

It seems the left does not even acknowledge the existence and the role played by those who are deeply rooted in minority communities and who fight for women’s rights, workers rights, migrant rights, and for progressive solutions to communal conflicts – against the Muslim far-right. Why not learn from Southall Black Sisters, or from Women Against Fundamentalisms (sadly now defunct), for instance? They have all the competence, credentials, and decades-long on-the-ground experience of the threat that “Islamism” represents in Britain.

There are also numerous intellectuals of Muslim heritage who have spoken up and written about the threat that our religious far-right represents for the values and principles of European republics and democracies, and also, of course, for the minorities on European soil.

By not interfering, the left leaves us with the choice to submit or to die: in Algeria in the 90s, a short poem attributed to Tahar Djaout (2), the first journalist to be assassinated by the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé, Armed Islamic Group) in Algiers, goes like this: “If you speak up you die; if you keep silent, you die; so speak up and die”. He did.

It seems to me that we are still left high and dry in this very same situation. The left is silently watching us die.

If the left admits to having no base in minority communities, it should be humble enough to let those who do have a base guide their analysis and alliances. At the moment, it is the reverse: our voices are disqualified in the name of the left's imagined exclusive expertise on oppressed classes, racism, and minorities’ issues.

Let me note in passing that minorities are not a class, they comprise of several classes. We are still waiting for a proper class analysis of minority communities. It is usually assumed that those who plant bombs in Europe or use Kalashnikovs against the kafir are from the lower classes, despite repeated evidence that they mostly belong to educated middle-class families. Again, when facts challenge ideology, facts are disappeared.

What upsets me most is the implication that oppressed people can only turn out as fascists, never revolutionaries. Is this really what the left in Europe now believes?

Hundreds of so-called “Sharia courts” and other religious arbitration bodies, now operate in the UK, alongside the UK legal system and sometimes receiving endorsement from the legal establishment. Is that not a threat to the very principle of democracy? A parallel legal system being established for minorities, depriving them of rights enjoyed by the rest of the population, who are supposed to be their fellow citizens: can the left tolerate this? Can the left accept that white British women, under “British” law, enjoy more rights than minority women under religious laws? Can the left accept that citizens can be assigned a “minority” identity against their will, on the basis of their name, or their geographical origin, or that of their families? Can the left accepts that this communal identity supersedes their civil rights?

This was done to the Jews under Nazism. Will the left accept that it be done to Muslims, and those presumed to be Muslims, regardless of their personal religious beliefs?

If the left is serious about supporting oppressed minorities, it should realise that those who speak in the name of the community do not necessarily have the legitimacy to do so. By supporting fundamentalists, they simply chose one camp in a political struggle, without acknowledging it. The left will have to acknowledge the political nature of the movements they support. The left will have to chose who they ally with. Informed choices need to be made.

The English Defense League, or the French National Front, can put hundreds or even thousands on the streets? So can Muslim fundamentalists. Many big anti-war demos in Europe, and many pro-Palestinian demos, have large fundamentalist contingents. I can testify to the fact that in Paris, many progressive Algerians in exile, who used to support all these demos, now refuse to participate, as they do not want to march under the black fundamentalist flag, or hear anti-Jewish slogans and chants.

The paradox of allowing the xenophobic, “classic” far-right a monopoly over the discourse on the Muslim fundamentalist far-right, is that it reinforces and strengthens the classic far-right. People are not stupid; they see the increasing influence of Muslim fundamentalists and their attempts to change laws, school curricula, etc. Denial by the left leaves people with no alternative analysis to rely on than that produced by the xenophobic far-right. The left's failure to critique and oppose Muslim fundamentalists, because it believes that, by staying silent, it is not “feeding into the racist far-right”, has the opposite of its intended effect. It does feed into, by omission, a racist discourse on minorities. And, of course, it serves the Muslim fundamentalist far-right as well.

Workers' Liberty: You talked about the Non-Aligned Movement, and the UN, as potential focuses for demands. I am not convinced about whether the infrastructure of bourgeois international relations are meaningful terrains of struggle from a working-class point of view. I do not think we can instrumentalise bourgeois international institutions for our own ends. We might place demands on a given institution, but that's different from seeing it as a terrain of struggle for us, or even seeing it in itself as a potential agent for change on its own terms. My concern is that such a perspective compromises working-class independence.

Marieme Helie-Lucas: I will certainly not argue that the UN should be a terrain of struggle. However, I do think that we should not allow Muslim fundamentalists to be the only visible interlocutors at the UN, just as we should not allow them to be the only legitimate voice of minority communities in Europe . Their views are propagated at the highest global political level without being ever challenged; this is a political mistake. We should at least make a big effort to convey our analysis to UN bodies.

The UN regularly hears references to the “Islamic Charter of Human Rights”. Have a look at what this “Charter” says: you will be horrified. Should all this pass unnoticed, or should we at least sometimes denounce the process?

Some women's groups, internationally, did make a big effort since the beginning of the 1990s (in fact, since the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna); it allowed them to have some progressive measures for women in the Beijing Platform for Action, or in the International Criminal Court. Personally, I would not invest my energy into this orientation, but I supported, in very practical ways, those who did. And I cannot deny that their actions were useful.

Of course, you can say that legal measures that women managed to incorporate into the ICC are rarely applied; yes: this is another battle. It is hard to have good laws applied and enforced, but it is much worse when the law is against you.

You could also say that bourgeois democracy in general cannot be instrumentalised, and that it is not where you want to invest your energy, but in practice, if you don’t fight “Sharia” courts now, you may sooner or later no longer live under bourgeois democracy, but under theocracy. You may think this is far-fetched, but listen to fundamentalists’ discourse: their ambition is not just to have minority communities subjected to theocratic laws, but everyone. What stupefies me is that they announce in advance what they want to do, but no-one believes them until it is too late.

Saying this may immediately see me classified as a racist in disguise. But my experience of this leftist denial is very particular and cruel. During the 1990s, Algerian fundamentalists announced in advance which categories of citizens they were going to kill: journalists, artists, intellectuals, foreigners, women, etc. - all those they branded kafir; then they would attack and kill individuals in the targeted category; then they would claim the attack and the murder (usually in their own publications, printed in Britain). In other words, they warned, they killed, and they claimed the action. Yet, the broad left, and human rights organisations, immediately claimed that the perpetrators were not FIS, GIA, or other armed fundamentalist groups, but that it must have been someone else. Generally they accused the Algerian state, but they also called us “eradicators” – quite an irony while we ourselves were, quite literally, being eradicated by armed fundamentalists (there were around 200,000 victims in less than 10 years.).

Right now, fundamentalists of Da'esh, of different branches of Al-Qaeda, of Boko Haram, of al-Shabaab, and others, announce that they want to force religious laws on everyone.. No-one listens seriously to these statements, except the racist far-right. They are seen as irrelevant.

One can only hope that armed fundamentalists will not have the military power to advance this agenda; but who would have thought, a few decades ago, when Algeria was the laboratory of their world strategy, that they would, in 2015, terrorise such vast territories on several continents?

It is better that we defend bourgeois democracy, despite its evident limitations. Between Hitler and Thatcher, I choose Thatcher without any hesitation. I will never see this as not being my battle. Don't think that if the far-right comes to power, it will be easy to get rid of it. The dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, to use European examples, took over 50 years to overthrow.

(1) More examples of contradictory laws, all supposed to be “Muslim”, can be found in: “Knowing Our Rights: women, family, laws, and customs in the Muslim world”, published by Women Living Under Muslim Laws in 2003. Based on an original research, this handbook challenges the myth of a homogeneous “Muslim world”.

(2) It seems that Tahar Djaout actually did not write this poem, as one cannot find it in his published volumes. However, it is still generally attributed to him.


Submitted by John D on Sun, 04/26/2015 - 17:11

At last, an interview with a clear-minded thinker who looks at reality as it is. Such a refreshing change from re-prints of analysis from the past. I learned from this interviewee, and deeply appreciate that it is AWL that found Marieme Helie-Lucas and (to use an ugly unaesthetic phrase that ought to be thrown in the rubbish bin of history) provided "a platform"!
This interview immediately brought to mind a comment by Orwell in his review of Koestler's work:
"The grown-upness, the lack of surprise or denunciation, the pity and irony with which the story is told, show the advantage, when one is handling a theme of this kind, of being a European."

I learn - there IS someone to talk to.

Thank you, AWL