All debate on this topic is listed here.
Simon Hardy’s article criticising “The AWL on Islamism” avoids the wilder claims made against us, but it looks as if he has not read Sean Matgamna’s 2006 piece very thoroughly, or thought about it very hard. Thus he describes its attack on Christian fundamentalism as “almost an afterthought”, when it takes up 800 words out of 2,700, as against 1,000 in the section on Islamism. (This was four years after the Islamist attack in New York, during a powerful growth of Islamism due to the US 'war on terror' – about which more below.) Simon claims that Sean did not attack Christian fundamentalists in the same “colourful” language he used for Islamists. Erm:
“There is also militant primitive Christianity, most importantly in the USA. The savage joke is that the USA, the main international bulwark against political Islam, is itself riddled with its own ignorant fundamentalism. Christians in the half-demented grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith in the Bible as the literal word of God, and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science, are an assertive and increasingly active political force in the USA. A “Fundamentalist” Christianity, as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world, is a growing force in what is, technologically, the most advanced society on Earth! The President of the USA [George Bush] is one of them.”
Such language is typical of the “colourful” way Sean, more than any other AWL writer, has denounced not just Christian fundamentalism but organised Christianity over many years. (See also, for instance, this 2005 article on the Catholic Church, entitled "Bogged down in its own excrement".)
Simon’s shoddiness reflects in diluted form the tone of the majority of the ‘debate’ around Sean’s article in the last two weeks. At the same time, he presents the article as if it was a stand-alone product and the entire sum of Workers’ Liberty’s writings on Islamism. Conscious or not, this allows him to caricature our views and to blur over the contradictions in his own understanding of Islamism – and that of the political tendency which educated him, Workers Power, and the group which published him, the ex-SWP International Socialist Network.
Sean Matgamna's article, the AWL's record and our literature on Islamism
Sean’s article was not, and was not intended to be, a detailed analysis of Islamist ideas and movements. It was a relatively short introduction to a collection of classical Marxist stuff on religion (Nikolai Bukharin on “Church and school in the Soviet Republic”, Max Shachtman debating Catholic priest Charles Owen Rice), published to help recreate a socialist literature on these questions. It aimed to contextualise those writings by arguing that “today [in 2006]…religion, or concerns and interests expressed in religion, are at the centre of international politics to a degree without parallel for hundreds of years.” Its political thrust is that “in both East and West the growth and increasing centrality of religion is in very large measure a consequence of the decline and failure of socialism as a mass force which organises working people to free themselves from exploitation, economic uncertainty, helpless dread of the future, superstition, and mere animal-like existence within or on the envious fringes of commercial capitalist society.”
The article’s analysis of Islamism is necessarily quite compressed, and uses a bit of elliptical and rather florid language. I am not saying it could not have been better written, or denying that a few phrases are open to misinterpretation. My point is that in the recent row, almost eight years after the article was first published, those phrases have been fantastically misinterpreted in a way possible only if the interpreter ignores everything else the AWL (including Sean) has written and done about Islam, Islamism, Islamophobia, etc over many years, including 2006-13.
Sean's intro was not something he published personally without the group noticing. It was the introduction to the first of our Workers’ Liberty pull-outs, and to the main items we have had in permanent circulation since then on Marxism and religion. It was part of the basic reading for AWL dayschools in 2008.
No one then, or over the years between then and 2013, read the article as saying what it is now alleged to say. And since then there have been numerous opportunities for the anti-Muslim views which Sean or perhaps all of us are supposed to hold to come out in practice – from the rise of the EDL and the racist upsurge after the Woolwich killing, to the European ruling classes' murderous policy towards Muslim migrants in the Mediterranean, to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in Egypt. On no issue in those eight years has Workers' Liberty responded in the ‘racist’ or 'Islamophobic' way which would be involved by what the article is now alleged by some to say. The article allegedly says something at odds not only with what the author says he means, but with our whole political record over those eight years (and long before)!
One telling example: during this controversy some have accused Sean or the AWL of echoing right-wing nationalist agitation about the presence of Muslims in Europe. General absurdity aside, literally a few days before the row began our paper carried the headline "Open Europe's borders!", in the context of arguments about migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. This was one of several articles on this theme in that issue.
Moreover, the AWL has published a lot about Islamism. Anyone who genuinely wants to understand our views can read, for instance, this detailed survey (12,000 words) by Clive Bradley, which we published in March 2002 as the “war on terror” began. This article provides exactly the sort of “more intricate and detailed analysis” of different Islamist movements and of “the question of social relations between” the Muslim-majority world and the imperialist centres which Simon demands. (From here on I will use the term 'Muslim world'.) It roots its analysis of Islamism in a Marxist political economy of North Africa and the Middle East. It alone, never mind everything else we have published, gives lie to the nonsensical interpretations of Sean’s meaning which have dominated this controversy.
Does Simon really believe that Sean, as a Marxist, believes in the right-wing 'clash of civilisations' thesis, or thinks that any form of modern Islamism represents the same kind of ideological current or social force as the 17th century Ottoman empire? If there is really any doubt, reading our wider material dedicated to Islamism should dispel it – if the reader is actually interested in what we think.
Clive’s piece, and other writing he has done building on it, have been the basis of numerous discussions and educationals since 2002, and not provoked any significant disagreement in our organisation. Unless you believe Sean is part of a secret neo-con faction in the AWL, dedicating to surreptitiously challenging our public positions, then...
Some on the left find it easier to slander Workers’ Liberty than to engage with the actual ideas expressed in our literature and practice, and argue about real differences rather than invented ones. This row has led to a fresh surge of such misrepresentation. Simon avoids crude slander, but ignores our literature on Islamism, stringing together a ‘critique’ from tendentious interpretations of phrases in Sean’s 2006 article.
Islamism and imperialism
One of Simon’s central themes is that Sean ignores the role of Western imperialism in the rise of Islamism. “Why is such a crucial aspect of the rise of political Islamic, reactionary movements so absent from the analysis?”, he complains.
No socialist would deny the role of the US and its allies in the growth of Islamism over four decades, both in terms of active support (to fight the USSR in Afghanistan, to provide a counterweight to secular left or nationalist movements, eg in Palestine and South Asia) and in boosting Islamism’s appeal through their brutal imperialist activity, particularly since 2001. The spread of Taliban-style fundamentalism in Pakistan as a result of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is an obvious case in point.
In fact, Sean's article does refer to both one-time Western aid to Islamists, and to the 'reactionary anti-imperialist' character of Islamism, ie its ability to channel resentment against the exploitation and disadvantage of the mostly poor countries where it is strongest.
Anyone who reads our literature, will find us making such points over and over – and not just as a matter of hindsight. Before the 'war on terror' even began, our propaganda against it – relevant to this debate on many points – predicted that the irruption of US imperialism would “spread the spores of fundamentalism” and produce “new masses of recruits for [al Qaeda] and other terrorist-fundamentalists”. We stressed then something we have stressed ever since, that “the main victims of [Islamic] fundamentalist politics are the people, mostly Muslim, of the fundamentalists’ home countries”.
Clive Bradley’s survey is a detailed analysis of how, in the post-colonial period, uneven capitalist development affected societies in the Muslim world and, by creating problems that movements like Arab nationalism and the nationalist left tail-ending it could increasingly not even pretend to solve, prepared conditions which enabled the growth of Islamism, with its elements of 'reactionary anti-capitalism'. Again, that thought, in compressed form, was a major part of Sean’s article too.
(There is a strange facet to this. Ex-AWL member Pat Smith condemns the AWL for saying that the growth of Islamism is linked to the poverty and disadvantage of much of the Muslim world. Meanwhile Simon Hardy condemns us for allegedly ignoring it!)
No, the problem is not that we deny or ignore the role of Western imperialism in the rise and, after 2001, revival of Islamism. It is that Simon reproduces the familiar but false ‘left-wing’ idea that Islamism is straightforwardly and automatically a “direct result” of imperialism.
That the actions of the big powers provoke angry responses is obviously true. It does not explain the form or content of those responses. No form of 'reactionary anti-imperialist' politicised religion is strong in Central America, which has suffered more US mistreatment than most of the countries where Islamism is strong. Islamism has to be explained by something other than just the role of imperialism.
Although many of the early Islamists did indeed develop their ideas and begin to organise under colonial rule, the era when most Muslim countries were fighting for liberation from colonialism (1920s-60s) saw more secular politics dominate. It took a long time, and many other developments, for Islamism to get a real grip. Tunisia, for instance, won independence in 1956 under a radically secularist regime; Islamists became a force in the 1980s. Where national liberation struggle continued, among the Palestinians, Islamism was even slower in gaining traction, with Hamas not a mass force until the 1990s.
In the period of and immediately after the Muslim world's liberation from colonialism, the largest Communist Parties outside the Stalinist states were in two colonialised Muslim countries, Indonesia and Iraq, where they were mass forces.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, Islamism was promoted from the 1970s by the right-wing, pro-US military regimes which overthrew the left-leaning governments established after the Pakistani upheaval of the late 60s and the Bangladeshi national liberation war of 1971. Here Western imperialisms played a very definite role: Britain promoting the carve up of India and creation of Pakistan as a 'Muslim state'; US support for the militaries and Islamists as a bulwark against the left. Indonesia showed a somewhat similar pattern following the anti-communist pogrom and right-wing coup of 1965-66. But these examples are hardly evidence of Islamism being a “direct result” of imperialism, rather than a complex interaction of 'external' and 'internal' factors some time after liberation from colonialism.
(Of course, there are strands of Islamism with peculiar origins, like the ruling ideologies of the Gulf monarchies: for an analysis of Saudi Arabia, for instance, see here.)
By presenting Islamism as a reflex response against imperialism, Simon reproduces the common error of ignoring the dynamics of class struggles and ideological struggles in the Muslim world.
Islamism as counter-revolution
The same problem is clear in Simon’s treatment of the Iranian revolution. Was Iranian Islamism’s rise to power a “response” to pre-1979 US domination in Iran? What about other “responses” – the powerful workers’ movement, women’s movement, national liberation movements and left-wing organisations which the Islamists smashed? Simon blurs over the class struggle in Iran, merging revolution and counter-revolution into simply what he oddly calls an “anti-colonial, anti-secular” movement.
For a concise Marxist explanation of how political Islam burgeoned out of the contradictions of capitalist development and the failure of the left in much of the Muslim world, Clive Bradley's article cited above is an excellent introduction.
In some countries, Islamist forces directly repressed the left. In some, they benefited from previous repression, moving into the vacated space to expand networks of religious charities, welfare services and so on. Pretty universally, they benefited from the discrediting of a left closely tied to Stalinism or nationalism. Whatever the mix of these factors, Islamism's role was fundamentally counter-revolutionary.
Perhaps Simon has written on this elsewhere (I couldn’t find anything on the Worker Power or Anti-Capitalist Initiative websites). But for sure his article’s elision of the working class-driven revolution which overthrew the Shah of Iran, and the Islamist-led confiscation and destruction of it, goes to the core of what is wrong with much of the British left’s view of Islamism.
Iranian revolutionary Marxists, among others, have analysed Islamism on the rise as not simply bourgeois or petty bourgeois, but a form of counter-revolutionary mass movement with similarities to fascism or extreme right-wing nationalism in Europe.
Of course, secular bourgeois nationalist movements can be and have been repressive towards the working class. Islamism, nonetheless, by and large represented something new and different from most such movements, something fundamentally regressive. That was true across the board, despite the large differences between 'Islamisms' (eg Iran's Islamic Republican Party is very different in various respects from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; both are very different from eg Al-Qaeda or the extreme Sunni-jihadist groups in Syria).
Like fascism, Islamism employs anti-imperialist rhetoric in the service not of limited democratic goals, but utterly reactionary ones.
Is it a fair comparison? Of course, Germany in the early 20th century was an imperialist country. Yet after World War 1 it was crushed and dominated by the victorious Allies. That famously created the conditions for the rise of ultra-right nationalist movements, including Nazism, which inspired similar movements across Europe – yet of course right-wing nationalism was not the only possible or the only actual response to the experience of capitalist crisis and imperialist domination. Islamism rising to such prominence in the Muslim world was no more automatic than right nationalism coming to dominate Europe in the 1930s.
To dismiss fascism as just “a product of the capitalist regime”, wrote Trotsky against the Stalinists in 1934, “means we have to renounce the whole struggle, for all contemporary social evils are ‘products of the capitalist system’… When the fascists kill a revolutionist, or burn down the building of a proletarian newspaper, the workers are to sigh philosophically: ‘Alas! Murders and arson are products of the capitalist system’, and go home with easy consciences. Fatalist prostration is substituted for the militant theory of Marx, to the sole advantage of the class enemy. The ruin of the petty bourgeoisie is, of course, the product of capitalism. The growth of the fascist bands is, in turn, a product of the ruin of the petty bourgeoisie. But on the other hand, the increase in the misery and the revolt of the proletariat are also products of capitalism…”
We should not make the same mistake, or anything like it, with Islamist movements and Western imperialism.
At one point, the forerunners of today’s pro-Islamist left were more sober about such realities. In 1946, in the heat of Egyptians’ struggle against the British empire, Tony Cliff denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as a “clerical-fascist organisation”. Yet in 2012, the SWP called for a vote for the Brotherhood in Egypt’s presidential election. What does the ISN think of that now?
Accommodation to Islamism in Britain
More generally, the ISN has yet to come to grips with the SWP’s poisonous legacy of accommodation to Islamism and to Islamic reaction – not only apologies for Islamist brutality in other countries, but the alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood’s British offshoot in the anti-Iraq war movement (see the comment below), the endorsement of gender-segregated meetings during that movement, the disastrous Respect adventure, the sidelining of women’s and LGBT rights, support for religious schools, the betrayal of secularists, feminists, LGBT activists, etc in Muslim communities and so on. These sorts of questions, and not whether to defend Muslims against racism, are the real disagreements.
Simon’s denial that Islamism is a force in some European cities suggests he is struggling to get to grips with these questions too. Naturally no one is suggesting that British Islamists are a power comparable to their counterparts in Indonesia, or that they can win elections. But Simon seems to have forgotten that at his former university, Westminster, the Islamist group whose Indonesian cousin he cites, Hizb ut-Tahrir, are the biggest political force on campus, strong enough to win student union elections. He writes as if blissfully unaware that the East London Mosque’s core leaders are Islamists, organised around people who in 1971 actively supported Pakistan’s genocidal war against Bangladesh. These forces organise homophobic and anti-abortion campaigns in local schools with the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. Meanwhile, cases like that of Mohammed Monzur Rahman, who was left partially blind after being attacked for smoking during Ramadan in 2010, are at the sharp end of what seems like a wider problem of intimidation of Muslim people in the area by Islamists and those influenced by them.
Whatever the ups and downs of Islamist organisations proper, what seems indisputable is that religious-inspired political and social reaction has grown in at least some British Muslim communities (this is not the same thing as religious observance, which in any case may even be declining). Of course this growth is rooted in poverty and racism, including the rise of the anti-Muslim right and far right. And of course, unlike extreme-right nationalism and Christian reaction, there is no possibility of Islamism or Islamic reaction taking power in Britain. That does not mean their spread should be a matter of denial or indifference for socialists.
Defending Muslims in Britain
Workers’ Liberty’s record of 'defending Muslims' against oppression is actually better than those of the groups criticising us.
On many of the issues involved, we have - contrary to widespread misrepresentation - no real differences with most of the left. The actual differences, over decades, have been in our favour.
There has been great anger recently about the shocking record of the SWP’s Unite Against Fascism front in actually fighting fascism. Yet such problems are not new. UAF’s predecessor, the Anti-Nazi League, began its career with a particularly shameful episode in 1978, when the SWP refused to cancel or modify a mass “anti-fascist” carnival to mobilise forces for the defence of Brick Lane against a National Front attack. While a hundred thousand rocked against racism in South London, the NF successfully marched in Tower Hamlets and gangs of racist thugs wreaked havoc. As we put it at the time: “the Bengali community is paying the price for this defeat” – a defeat that was easily avoidable.
The AWL has always said that, while maintaining sharp political lines, we will stand even with reactionary mosque leaderships and Islamists to repulse racist assaults on Muslim communities (so much for Simon’s idea that for us “opposition to political Islam always seems to prioritised over everything else”). As Sean Matgamna put it in 2002:
“Of course socialists will stand side by side with the priests and Islamic bigots to defend their neighbourhoods against racist attack. We have done that (in my direct experience, in East London). It is very different from standing side by side with those reactionaries against the more emancipated segments of their own communities.”
Or as we put it in 2003, while we were opposing the SWP's alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain in the anti-war movement: “We would ally even with the MAB in a practical action to defend mosques against racists out to firebomb or pillage them.” We have repeated this and similar points again and again. Contrast: in 1978, at a high point for the National Front, the SWP would not even jeopardise a recruitment jamboree to defend the Muslim community of Tower Hamlets under attack.
Defending Muslims: internationalism
What about the 'International Socialist tradition' of anti-imperialism?
The first British war I was politically active during was the 1999 NATO-Serbia-Kosova conflict, where the SWP concentrated solely on opposing NATO, shamefully dismissing calls to back the oppressed, mainly-Muslim Kosovars in their fight for national survival. In 1995 the SWP took a similar position over Bosnia, refusing to support the Bosnian Muslims in their battle for self-determination against the onslaught of Serbia and Serb chauvinist militias. (This seems like the place to point out that Simon’s suggestion that Sean regards the “country people” who attacked Dubrovnik, as part of and alongside the Serbian army, in 1991-2 as other than violent reactionaries is more than a little weird.) In Britain in 1999, the SWP built an 'anti-war' alliance with Serb nationalists, Islamophobes if ever Islamophobes existed. Does the ISN still believe this was right?
The record of Simon’s former group, Workers Power, is also dubious. Talk about the role of imperialism in boosting Islamism rings hollow from a tradition that supported Russian imperialism's Vietnam war in Afghanistan, which by devastating Afghan society prepared the way for the Taliban.
In 1979, when the Stalinist USSR invaded Afghanistan because its client regime was faltering, both the SWP and the forerunner of AWL denounced it and called for immediate Russian withdrawal. (The main forces fighting the Russians were, tragically, Islamist ultras – more evidence that we do not prioritise anti-Islamism above everything else.) Workers Power, on the other hand, virtually supported the Russians.
Simon condemns the AWL because, between 2004 and the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, we did not use the slogan 'Troops out now'. Our argument was not that the occupation provided a “bulwark against Islamism”, but that given the sectarian nature of the main “resistance” militias and their strength relative to the central Iraqi state, immediate US-UK withdrawal would have resulted in sectarian civil war and Iraqi society collapsing into warlordism. We supported the new Iraqi workers’ movement, the only socialist organisation in Britain to actively do so, and unsparingly denounced the occupation forces. We still maintain active links with Iraqi socialists which originated in that period.
Contrast Workers Power’s attitude to Russia in Afghanistan: it switched its analysis of the USSR from 'state capitalist' to 'workers’ state' explicitly in response to the Russian Stalinists’ colonial war, and warned against the threat of “treacherous withdrawal”. (The Socialist Party’s predecessor Militant hailed what it saw as the work of the Russian militarists in dragging Afghanistan’s “‘dark masses’, sunk in the gloom of barbarism” into the 20th century.)
If Simon no longer thinks this was right, he should say so. Workers Power has been the shrillest group denouncing us. With Simon or without, it is pretty rich to hear defenders of the Soviet Union’s napalm-armed civilising mission in Central Asia accusing Sean Matgamna of anti-Muslim bigotry because he described Islamist reaction in brutal terms.
My aim is not tit-for-tat point-scoring, and my point is not that Workers Power, the ISN or Simon are the 'real Islamophobes'. It is that their hopelessly tangled view of imperialism and anti-imperialism – and of socialists’ attitude to advanced capitalism more generally – have repeatedly led them to support 'reactionary anti-imperialisms', even when these take the form of actual imperialist powers. The roots of their support for Islamophobic imperialisms and Islamist 'anti-imperialists' are the same.
Simon Hardy's politics seem to represent a biodegraded lowest common denominator of these traditions. He deserves credit for producing an actual attempt at criticism of our ideas, but the result is perhaps inevitably pretty ropy. At the end his argument simply collapses, insisting that socialists must defend Muslims against state-sponsored racism like France’s ban on the niqab – when he knows that the AWL opposes such things.
Muslim workers and the fight for socialism
A few of the more malicious or confused responses to Sean’s article have implied that we think Muslim workers do not have the potential to engage in class struggle or fight for socialism. On one level this is simply bizarre, but it is also depressing, since it is literally the opposite of what we are saying.
As we put it in our response to the Woolwich killing, the central reality of Islamism is that “it is directed against women, LGBT people, atheists and secularists, dissidents and critical-minded people in Muslim-majority countries and in some Muslim communities in countries like Britain... Islamism is a threat to the working class, in the first instance the Muslim working class.” Conversely, 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.
Islamism as a world force will be defeated only by the liberating class struggle of workers in Morocco and Bangladesh, in Nigeria and Indonesia, in Palestine and Egypt, as well as in the cities of Europe. Our task is solidarity with workers’ movements and socialists in the Muslim world, and any political concession to Islamism is a barrier to that.