Platform: What is a Muslim?

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:20

In this comment, an Algerian socialist, Chedid Khairy, takes issue with the attitude to Islamic fundamentalism in the anti-war movement of the British SWP and its international co-thinkers.
The comment is translated from no.3 of Solidal, the newsletter of the French movement Solidarités Alternatives Algérie, in which a leading part is played by members resident in France of the Algerian PST [Socialist Workers' Party, no relation to the British SWP, but connected with the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France].

The journal L'Étincelle for January 2003 gave over much space to the anti-war mobilisations. This is the publication of the "International Socialist" current, called Socialisme Par En Bas [SPEB, Socialism From Below] in France.

Its choice of headline and illustration for its back page grabbed our attention. The words "We Are All Muslims" were accompanied by a photo from the big demonstration in London in autumn 2002 against the war. The twist is that the photo shows a veiled woman and a bearded man in a white djellaba and a skullcap ('araqya).

The headline refers back to an old slogan from 1968, "we are all German Jews". Then, it was about denouncing the decision of the university to expel the symbolic leader of the student movement, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and of the police to withdraw his permission to remain in France. Cohn-Bendit was in fact denounced as a Jew and a German.

The illustration has a very particular content and sense. In it, Iraq is represented by two young Islamists. This representation is false and dangerous. For a start, Iraq is not an Islamist regime. Nor is the reason why it was in Bush's sights the fact that Iraqis are mostly Muslim. To imply that is a mistake.

More, the photo suggests that being Muslim in France is reserved to religious, practising, traditionalist or fundamentalist elements. It is strange to see a journal of the far left reducing Muslim identity to a religion.

It seems to be going in the same direction as [right-wing government minister] Sarkozy when he goes about "organising" the representative structures (sic) of "Islam in France" by negotiating with the organised and religiously-practising sections. With this sort of logic, one can only be Muslim by being religiously-practising and conservative, or even only by being close to fundamentalist thinking!

On this logic, what about the people who feel themselves "Muslim" by cultural, historical or national background? They seem to be left out.

One can be Muslim without practising the religion, or while only celebrating the big religious holidays, or by practising it a little, or a middling amount... Not to speak of those who do not practise religion at all or are not religious at all. One can be from a "Muslim" country without being Muslim! In short, diversity exists!

Reducing Muslims to the image shown in the journal is false and dangerous. Prejudices remain deep-rooted in France, even among the radical left. In this case, the journalists were maybe starting with "good intentions". However, they present an image which is not only naive but genuinely stereotyping. And it leans towards a reductionist and demonising vision of "Muslims".

Such an approach signifies the abandonment, or the minimisation, of struggles for secularism and freedom of conscience in "Muslim" countries. The balance of forces is, of course, unfavourable on those questions today. To support and publicise those struggles is more crucial than ever.

The events of 11 September accentuated the demonisation of entire populations. Racist positions and attitude already have considerable roots in French society. To denounce anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism in France today is essential, but not at the cost of making such a compromise.

Is it a matter of an accidental mistake? Probably not. In fact, it looks more like the result of an un-nuanced reading of the approach of the whole international current to which L'Étincelle belongs on the question of Islamism.

The British SWP leader Chris Harman has developed in his pamphlet, The Prophet and the Proletariat, an analysis of Islamism suggesting the possibility for the radical left of an alliance with fundamentalist currents on the basis of their anti-imperialist character. His current believes that the fundamentalist currents have a role to play in the current mobilisations, and that thus it makes sense to link up with them.

This position seems to display a dangerous complaisance towards the fundamentalist currents. It warrants a real discussion with these comrades.

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