• Are you opposed to racism and in particular islamophobia?
I am equally opposed to all racism. I organised the founding meeting of LARAF. I lead a trade union branch running a high profile campaign against institutional racism. Please see the article I wrote for Labour List about this and specifically the rise of islamophobia labourlist.org/2018/10/labour-must-stop-outsourcing-the-fight-against-racism-and-take-the-lead
You can learn about Lambeth Unison branch’s campaign on institutional racism here: theclarionmag.org/2018/12/18/confronting-racism-at-lambeth-council
• If you are opposed to racism and in particular islamophobia, do you think your refusal to distance yourself from the article is compatible with opposition to racism and islamophobia?
The "Weekly Worker” article was written on the basis of some writer of theirs – trying to stir – coming up to me and asking me if I thought my comrades are racist. I said no, in the strongest terms. It is laughable to imagine I could have answered in any other way – you don’t throw comrades under the bus whenever someone with an axe to grind asks you to. I would be much less suitable as a candidate if I was in the habit of denouncing all my comrades as racists for political convenience.
I wouldn’t have phrased the article the way it was phrased. Not because the argument or intention of the piece is racist, but because it obviously has been offensive to some, and the political argument of the article gets lost as a result. Many Islamic fundamentalist groupings see the 7th century companions of Mohammed who embodied original (or “primitive”) Muslim virtue and made the first great Muslim conquests as a political model. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other extreme-right groups are very explicit about this. This is an issue defending close to my heart as in 2007 I was the only representative of the UK trade union movement to attend a trade union congress in Iraqi Kurdistan at which workers were discussing their armed struggle against these far-right organisations and American mercenaries.
Sean’s issue is not racism, its favouring style over clarity and ripping off the out-of-date language of Frederick Engels without referencing him. He is paraphrasing the passage from Engels: "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).
That’s Engels who in turn was ripping off the 14th century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun (summarised, for example, in the Prologue to Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples).
I was in politics at the time the article was written and remember the context the piece was written in. The largest left group at the time, the SWP, lashed up with George Galloway and rightwing religious figures, relegating explicit socialist and working-class politics to vague “aspirations” in order to create an electoral base out of the alliance built around the anti-war movement.
To make it work they softened their line on many things, in particular religion. Lindsay German explained she was “in favour of gay rights… [but] not prepared to have it as a shibboleth” They sought alliances with right-wing organisations such as the MAB and the backing of right-wing religious figures at the expense of the independent class interests of Muslim workers. The MAB was as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its anti-imperialism is a variety of that practised by various radical bourgeois and petty bourgeois formations in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere throughout the world - a more equitable relationship with the imperialist bourgeoisie that allows them a share of valuable natural resources and in the exploitation of the working class. Many socialists in the period reverse-engineered their politics in order to accommodate to this. Islamism is a threat to the working class, in the first instance the Muslim working class. Independent class organisation and struggle by Muslim workers, in alliance and solidarity with other workers, is the key to defeating the Islamists, just as workers' unity is the answer to all bourgeois reaction. Our task is solidarity with workers’ movements and socialists in the Muslim world, and any political concession to Islamism is a barrier to that. To stand against this concession is not Islamophobic, it is an act of solidarity with our Muslim comrades.
Much of this politics of accommodation and communalism still exists on the left – see Starmer and Modi. Or Gardner and Modi. Or courting Catholic Priests in the North West.
I don’t expect you to agree with my analysis of imperialism, many in my own platform don’t but my record very clearly shows my commitment to anti-racism.