Over the past weeks, there has been an online outcry against an article AWL published in 2006 which has been attacked as “Islamophobic”. Over our next editions, Solidarity will feature debate and discussion on the article and the issues. Here, we reprint (abridged) a statement from the AWL Executive Committee in response to the outcry, and carry a letter from an AWL comrade. Future editions will carry further debate.
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.
Some have claimed that the article is “racist” and “Islamophobic”, i.e. bigoted against Muslims. Of course the left should unequivocally side with Muslims against racism and bigotry. That is absolutely not what is in dispute here.
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 views which we do not hold, and which record over the eight years since the article confirms we do not hold.
The issue is not, fundamentally, whether the article is brilliantly worded or expressed. It is whether it is reasonable, in the context of the article as a whole and in the context of our wider literature and activity, to assume that the article is making a “racist” argument.
Of course we have no objection to being criticised, as such, and we want to debate these issues. 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.
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 which carried through the first great Muslim conquests. Its use of the word “primitive” to describe these tribes is taken as evidence that AWL believes all Muslims are “primitive”.
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), from 1979 — which also argued that 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... as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world”. 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. (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).
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. This ignores not only our long history of attacking and fighting organised political Christianity, but the fact that this article is an attack on the increasing influence of Christianity in European and US 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).
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.
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. 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 (and certainly “Islamophobic”) drive in the 1990s for a “Greater Serbia”, and in 1999 effectively backed Milosevic against the Kosovars.
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.
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.
Much of the left thinks 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 wrong 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.
To note that religious-reactionaries 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.
The SWP’s adventure with Respect was 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.
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.
Not just misreading
Notwithstanding the fact that the article has been resurrected 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 a pretty accurate description of how Islamists see the West. The problem is that it equates them with “much of the Islamic world”. If Sean is talking about how the Islamist movements see the West, it is not “ totally clear” from the words themselves that that is what he means.
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 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 either 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 some countries.