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The AWL’s anti-anti-imperialist Islamophobia

By Marcus Halaby

It’s difficult sometimes not to feel sorry for the rank and file members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), possibly one of the few groups on the British left to have much to show for its involvement in the student revolt of late 2010. Just as it seems to be getting somewhere, growing while its larger rivals are falling apart or stagnating, its leadership just can’t seem to resist coming out with something so obviously unacceptable (at least to those on the left that have not yet assimilated the AWL’s curious worldview), that in any sane world it would surely break them to pieces and send their contacts fleeing in horror.

In a republished January 2006 article by its guru Sean Matgamna, written in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, ostensibly about the link between social alienation and religious belief and analysing the growth in influence of religious ideas, the AWL offers us the following insights:

“To find a time when religion has had such a place as now in international politics, we have to go back to the wars between Catholic and Protestant Europe which ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, or the wars of Islam on Christian Europe which ebbed at about the same time, with the failure of the Turkish Muslims’ siege of Vienna in 1683.

“The “war on terror”, in practice very much a war on the civil liberties of ordinary citizens, is shaped around a US war against terrorists whose whole world outlook and motive for action is shaped by Islam and by their Islamic view of an afterlife in which a special place in a peculiarly fleshly paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves, is the pre-ordained heavenly payment for Muslim suicide bombers.”

Dismissing the straw man of a one-dimensional explanation of the Bush-Blair “War on Terror” as the product of the Western ruling classes’ post-Cold War search for an external enemy to justify enormous military budgets and intensified domestic surveillance and witch hunting, he continues:

“Even if US leaders seized on the attack on New York on 11 September 2001 to forward an agenda that existed long before then — the war on Iraq, for example — they did not for that purpose invent the upsurge of militant political Islam, or, rather, the emergence of political Islam as a force in international politics, operating lethally outside the Islamic countries to strike at the impious, infidel world of advanced capitalism.”

And in Matgamna’s most-criticised passage, following one in which he tries to explain political Islam’s rise by reference to the failure and decline of secular Arab nationalism, he extends this trope to “much of the Islamic world”, writing that:

“Political Islam too expresses the disappointments and frustrations of the mass of the people in the Islamic countries with their own deprivation and poverty — on the fringe of the prosperous capitalist world, which modern communications technology allows them to see and “experience” vicariously, like the biblical Lazarus, the starved beggar squatting by the door of the feasting rich man’s home — in the form of a righteous other-world-serving rejection of the West and the corrupt modern world.

“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.

“Neither covert Western encouragement, nor neo-con manipulation, is the fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.”

Thus he is accusing, let us put it plainly, Muslims of making hypocritical denunciations of the Western world when in reality they want to plunder it of its riches and enjoy its corruption.

Worse still, like the followers of Samuel Huntington (who extended this “clash of civilisations” to the Christian inhabitants of the Balkans, who were on the eastern side of a supposed historic fault line), Matgamna insinuates the existence of an “enemy within” in the countries of Europe:

“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 should, of course, be shocking that the leading figure of a far left organisation should be using the sort of racist and Orientalist language more traditionally associated with professional Islamophobes like Melanie Phillips, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel and Mark Steyn: a fleshly paradise, harems of virgins, a starved beggar squatting, desert tribes, primitive simplicity and purity, decadence, envy and covetousness, the sharpening of knives, a walled city, the walls of Vienna, sexual sinfulness, infidels, luxuriantly thriving.

But for those who have been on the left for long enough, Sean Matgamna has lost the capacity to shock.

And of course this “outrage the rest of the left” approach, the AWL’s “Millwall syndrome”, aimed to attract people of a contrary sectarian temper and purge one’s own ranks of doubters and weaklings, is a technique pioneered by James Robertson, the cult idol of the US Spartacists, and is a regular feature of Matgamna’s shockers .

As with the AWL website’s hosting of Matgamna’s cringe-worthy poetry (something that produces admissions of embarrassment even amongst AWL members), and as with the 2008 mini-scandal (which rather more seriously took place in the middle of a internal factional struggle) over a “discussion article” in which Matgamna asked the question “in the name of what alternative would we condemn Israel” if its air force bombed Iran over its nuclear programme, one is forced to ask why his organisation gives him free rein to publish his more erratic and racist material – and indeed republishes it.

The most obvious explanation is that Sean Matgamna sits somewhere above the AWL’s internal democracy. Alternatively, and this amounts to almost the same thing, there exists the possibility that an inner circle within the AWL’s leadership actually agrees with both the choice of language and the political sentiments expressed in this and similar pieces, and defends them against the natural recoil and revulsion of much of the membership, as a test of their loyalty.

Against the currently fashionable opposition on much of the left to the very principle of “democratic centralism”, especially when it comes to the public expression of “individual ideas”, we might argue that democratic centralism should exist precisely to restrain leading figures from abusing their prestige and authority in this way. In fact, there is a lot to be said for not allowing each and every member of an organisation to publish whatever he or she wants in its official publications, so long as its public politics are determined democratically.

Indeed, even if one ignores the choice of language, the argument that the “existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force […] in the great cities of Europe” by itself is a racist slur, not least because it is simply not true. “Political Islam”, the project of establishing a state based on Islamic Sharia law, is quite visibly only a tiny minority trend in Europe’s immigrant and immigrant-descended Muslim minorities, partly for what one would have thought is the fairly obvious reason that there is no way that these minorities within a minority could ever even hope impose such a state on the non-Muslim or otherwise disbelieving majorities in the countries that they live in.

No one beyond the English Defence League (EDL) or the deluded followers of the likes of Anjem Choudary, Omar Bakri Muhammad or Abu Hamza al-Masri can seriously believe that the mere presence of Muslims alone creates the possibility that “the black flag of Islam” will one day fly over Downing Street or the White House.

Far more common, although for the AWL this distinction is often blurred, are the growth in communal politics and in religious conservatism. And far more common than either of these are expressions of solidarity (something by no means confined to Muslims) with movements in the Muslim-majority world against foreign occupation, national oppression or domestic dictatorships (in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Egypt, Syria etc), movements in which actual Islamists often play a role, and sometimes even a leading role.

By contrast, expressions of sympathy with the sort of reactionary forces that, together with the “secular” generals, helped tear apart Algerian society for over a decade, are a rarity and very much confined to the sort of extremists that have variously either been courted by the “native” European far right, or that have been used by them as an argument against Muslim immigration.

By lumping together “Islam” as a religion, plus ethnically defined Muslim communities in the West, with “Islamism” as a political trend, Matgamna’s article echoes these arguments and seeks to conjure up some sort of Islamist threat to all our civil rights. But not only are political Islamists a small minority within their own disparate and heterogeneous “communities”, but they themselves contain a broad spectrum of movements as varied as that stretching from Christian Democracy in Europe, through the Christian Right in the US Republican Party to anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist terrorists.

The AWL can and does protest that it has taken part in mobilisations against the EDL, and that it argues that Fortress Europe should open its borders. And it might well be the case that as an organisation the AWL does not have a “line” that Europe’s Muslims constitute an “enemy within”, as per standard Islamophobic propaganda.

Matgamna’s article, however, gives these ideas credence and imitates their language. To conflate everything from reactionary movements in Arab countries financed by Saudi princes to the disaffected Muslim youth of Paris or Bradford is to legitimise the same logic that once saw people discuss Rothschilds, Bolsheviks and Jewish anarchists in the same breath to explain the “Jewish Question” in Europe.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Islamophobia is the antisemitism of the twenty-first century, and that it should be a point of principle for socialists to denounce any adaptation to it, any imitation of it, or any attempt to profit from it politically.

Indeed, the very mention of the EDL should indicate precisely why the republication of this article should cause even greater scandal today than when it was first written. The EDL’s formation in June 2009, under the key slogan of opposition to a supposed campaign to impose Sharia law in the UK, fomenting local actions against the building of mosques, and generally identifying visibly observant Muslims as extremists and terrorists, was the central asset in building a street-based fascist movement on a scale not seen since the disintegration of the National Front in the late 1970s.

To publish an article full of Islamophobic themes is therefore a provocation of the sort we are used to seeing from the AWL and its patriarch. He clothes his dubious claim of a revival of religion and the danger of global religious conflict on a historic scale with scaremongering phrases which are part of the stock in trade of Islamophobes.

And despite taking refuge under the cover of a Marxist critique of religion, Matgamna is much more hostile in his imagery and in his fixation with Islam than he is towards other religions.

Thus in a March 2007 article titled “The Prophet and the Pope”, Matgamna bizarrely thought it necessary to protest at the “effort to silence the head of the Catholic Church”, rushing to the aid of one Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, who had quoted approvingly the statement of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus that the Muslim Prophet had brought nothing new except “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”, adding that violence was “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul”.

As the head of a vast, wealthy and powerful church whose history includes the expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Spain, or their forced conversion to Christianity, a church that burned vast numbers of heretics over 500 years, and that whipped up the antisemitism that contributed much to the pogroms and to the Nazi holocaust of the twentieth century, the indignation of Muslims at the Pope describing their Prophet and their religion as having been spread by violence and inhumanity was understandable. The response of Marxists to the Pope’s difficulties should have been one of scornful laughter. Instead, Matgamna dressed him up as a victim of intolerance, claiming that:

“If the spiritual absolute monarch of a billion and a quarter Catholics can be treated like that, the cause of free speech and freedom to criticise religion, is surely in a very bad way.”

Matgamna then turned his wrath on those socialists and liberals who criticised the attempts of a range of other political and academic authorities to drum up a new Huntingdonesque threat to Western “civilisation” whether secular or “Judaeo-Christian”. Matgamna insists there is such a threat:

“It is to give to George W Bush and Tony Blair too much (negative) credence to conclude that because they talk of a clash of civilisations, there is no problem. Yes, there is! […] Political Islam exerts a relentless pressure, in part by way of its ability to intimidate and cow the invertebrate “liberals”.”

Clearly worried by the reaction to Matgamna’s republished article (including, it has since transpired, from its own members), the AWL has since posted a justification titled “Marxists and religion: the left is seriously disoriented”, in which the (unnamed) author argues that:

“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 our critics seize on phrases in an article and claim that they can be read as implying that we hold anti-Muslim views which most of them know we do not hold, and which our literature and our record over the eight years since the article confirm we do not hold.

“Everything is hung on phrases and words taken out of context.”

The author precedes this with a statement that “Muslim and Muslim-background people in Britain today face oppression and discrimination, both in terms of straightforward racism towards non-white people and migrants, and a bigoted attitude towards their religion”, and that this is not in dispute, nor that “the left should unequivocally side with Muslims against racism and bigotry”.

And the author continues that the denunciations of Matgamna’s article have merely confirmed “two fundamental problems on the British left”, the first of which is a “culture of lying and misrepresentation”, of “scandal-mongering” and of “people not reading things through thoroughly and trying to engage with arguments, but leaping to denunciation at the earliest opportunity”.

But as noted above, even if one explains away Matgamna’s choice of language as a colourful description of the Islamists’ own worldview, or “balances”  it with references to the Biblical Lazarus, Orthodox Christian Serbs, crypto-Catholic British prime ministers, fundamentalist Protestant US Presidents or reactionary Opus Dei-supporting Education Secretaries, and instead engages with the political content, there is still at least one argument in his article that is racist.

What, then, are the other arguments? Much of the later parts of Matgamna’s article, look like an “orthodox” exposition of Marx’s famous dictum that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”, or more famously “the opium of the people”, although Matgamna noticeably does not use the same lurid language to describe “the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism that draws people to primitive religion” in the United States as he does to describe the roots of “militant political Islam”.

All the same, and as one might expect, the AWL’s distinctive politics are still visible beneath the orthodox Marxist veneer.

It is certainly true, for example, that Islamism in the Arab world has emerged partly as a consequence of the failure of bourgeois and petit bourgeois Arab nationalist regimes to transform the material conditions of the societies that they ruled over, and not just as a simplistic response to something called “imperialism”. It is also true, although it is possible to belabour this point, that Arab nationalist aspirations, in their popular form, often occupied an ambiguous position between the Ottoman ideology of a multi-national pan-Islamic state and the nationalists’ own original project of building modern secular national states on the European model.

Of course the growth of Islamism has other roots than the two hundred years long history of various forms of Western exploitation and political domination of the Arab and Muslim-majority world. But even here, Matgamna cannot refrain from presenting even secular Arab nationalism as being “quasi-mystical” and as possessing “more a religious than a secular cast of mind”.

He similarly describes as being “reactionary” the struggle against the Zionist colonial settler state that militarily dominates the region, and that attacks any surrounding states that might become a basis for checking its aggressions and occupations.

And in order to make Israel’s toleration of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood prior to the 1987 Intifada fit the Procrustean bed of the AWL’s adaptation to the politics of Israel’s left-Zionist “Peace Camp”, Matgamna attributes this toleration to “the intention of dividing the Palestinians and hindering the emergence of rational two-states politics among them”.

In fact, it was down to the much more mundane and rational calculation that the Islamists, at that time, were political quietists; that where Fatah and the Popular Front (PFLP) engaged in a semi-armed struggle against the Israeli occupation, Hamas’s predecessors stuck to charity work and promoting the “Islamisation” of Palestinian society. It was the 1987 Intifada that forced the Palestinian Islamists to form an armed wing (to avoid losing support to their secular rivals in the context of an unarmed mass popular struggle), and it was the 1993 Oslo accords that helped to transform Hamas from derided semi-collaborators with Israel to militaristic “hardliners” opposed to the respectable bourgeois Fatah “moderates”.

Matgamna similarly attributes the rise of undoubtedly reactionary Islamist forces in Afghanistan to “the Russian invaders who tried to annex Afghanistan as an old-style colony”, rather than to the US, Saudi and Pakistani governments that armed and financed them in order to inflict a Vietnam of their own on US imperialism’s Soviet Stalinist superpower adversary, and argues that these forces were nonetheless “fighting a just war”, albeit “a tragically complicated one, in which primitive rural Afghanistan pitted itself also against relatively advanced urban Afghanistan”.

In fact, Brezhnev sent the Soviet armed forces into Afghanistan to overthrow the more “radical” wing of the ruling modernising and Stalinist-influenced petit-bourgeois nationalist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), in order to promote a more “moderate” faction that hoped to end an already emerging civil war by trying to placate the reactionary pro-landlordist forces ranged against it.

The Soviet invasion and occupation exacerbated and prolonged the civil war, and contributed to the PDPA’s eventual defeat, by injecting the poisonous element of national oppression into it, and by restraining the PDPA from taking the only measures that might have undermined the reactionary Mujahideen: a thorough-going land reform, the dispossession of the landlords, clerics and feudalists, the complete liberation of Afghan women, etc.

And there is an added irony here: that the trope of a “complex tragedy” of predominantly rural and predominantly Muslim masses pitted against a Russian-backed government basing itself on a “relatively advanced” urban society could just as easily be applied to present-day Syria, where the AWL has effectively decided that the presence of Islamists in the armed opposition to the Assad regime demonstrates that the Syrian revolution is dead.

Finally, Matgamna ends his article with the claim that:

“In Britain, the USA, and many other countries, the pseudo-left has collapsed prostrate at the feet of militant political Islam. They side with religious fascists — even with Al Qaeda — against the Iraqi labour movement!”

This claim is, one has to assume from the context, based on the fact that the then-largest group on the left, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as well as many others including ourselves, defended the right of the Iraqi people to engage in armed resistance to the US-led occupation, irrespective of the political leadership of that armed resistance, while refusing to support the efforts of the British, European and North American trade union bureaucracies to promote the emergence of a tame pro-occupation Iraqi trade union movement supported by the pro-occupation Iraqi Communist Party and (often enough) also by the equally pro-occupation Shia communalist parties empowered by the US-led occupation.

We can recall in particular that the AWL objected to the shouting-down at the October 2004 European Social Forum in London of Iraqi Communist Party member and Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) general secretary Subhi al Mashadani, which a March 2005 editorial in Solidarity described as neatly epitomising a “process of differentiation” between the advocates of “working-class socialist politics” on one side and “those who are for a nameless, classless, almost depoliticised and entirely negative “anti-imperialism”” on the other.

And a January 2005 article titled “Leading Iraqi trade unionist murdered” accuses some (unnamed) elements on the left of being unable to condemn the murder of Iraqi trade unionists by elements in the armed resistance, like that of IFTU International Officer Hadi Salih “under some deluded belief that it aids the Iraqi people in their struggle for democracy and to be rid of the predatory and brutal US/UK occupation”.

In fact, this brings us neatly to the crux of the matter. The AWL’s politics on Islam and Islamism are in fact shaped by its politics on anti-imperialism, and in particular by its neo-Shachtmanite rejection of the principle of critical but unconditional support for those fighting imperialism in that part of the world where not just the plebeian classes but also more episodically the ruling classes are forced into regular conflict with it. The fact that the AWL characterises the defeat of Palestinian torturer-in-chief Mohammed Dahlan’s June 2007 attempted coup against an elected government on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas’s Western sponsors as a coup by “fascistic Islamists against the secular Muslims of Fatah” is one illustration of this.

And as if to prove the point, the second “fundamental problem” that the author of the AWL’s damage limitation exercise identifies is said to be “about the left’s attitude to “political Islam”, i.e. “fundamentalist” Islamist politics”.

Referring to our defence of the social gains of the Afghan women, workers and peasants against the threat posed to them by the Western-backed Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, as well as to the SWP’s failure in the 1990s to defend the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovan Albanians against Slobodan Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” expansionism, he argues that:

“WP and the SWP did that in the name of “anti-imperialism”, within world views which identified “imperialism” with the US and denied the very possibility of reactionary anti-imperialism. They should debate that real issue, rather than arguing against straw men.”

Here we might suggest that the author actually has a point, except that the AWL’s own politics on the matter are part of the problem. And here also, we might state for the record that the AWL’s own, “official line” Islamophobia is not at all the Islamophobia of the EDL, even if the language of Matgamna’s own and only very slightly less “official” Islamophobia occasionally resembles it and appropriates its themes.

Rather, it is the Islamophobia those white secular Western liberals for whom the merest whiff of “Islam” or “Islamism” is a sign that a movement is hopelessly reactionary and unworthy of however critical support. The AWL retrospectively suspends this attitude with regard to Afghanistan in the 1980s only because the presumably even greater evil of the Soviet Empire was involved; and, one suspects, in Libya in 2011 only because Israel was not threatened.

During the period of the anti-war movements over Iraq and Afghanistan, this saw the AWL converge, at least in its views on Islamism and on armed resistance movements led by Islamists, with pro-war or only half-heartedly anti-war figures like David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland, as well as with the so-called “Decent” or “Eustonite” pro-war left around Nick Cohen and Norman Geras.

And this does occasionally put them on a collision course with exactly the sort of self-flagellating white secular Western liberals for whom the merest whiff of anything exotic actually is an excuse for a classless and one-dimensional anti-imperialism, as well as with those, like George Galloway, who make a principle or at least a habit of loudly supporting dictators who theatrically if ineffectually mouth off against “the West”.

That said, this collision course was very quickly corrected in the case of Syria – and it’s almost embarrassing how closely the AWL’s reversal of its initial and almost gleeful welcome of a popular uprising against an “anti-Zionist” regime coincided with the growing alarm of Israeli official society at the emergence of a mass popular armed opposition to it. It’s almost as if the AWL’s near-unique politics on the British far left on Israel-Palestine – by which we mean not just “two states” but its wholesale adoption of the Zionist narrative, something not shared by other “two staters” like the Socialist Party or the Weekly Worker – forces it to adopt the standpoint of Israel’s much more mainstream intellectual defenders on the Western liberal left on international issues in general.

It also means that the AWL can share their pseudo-Dawkinsesque militant secularism, in the process scoring a few direct hits on what they refer to as a “broader swathe of left and liberal opinion” that is “influenced by the current bourgeois celebration of “faith groups”, and tends to think that sharply attacking religious ideas is out of order in a way that sharply attacking secular political ideas is not”, as well as on the SWP’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 Egyptian Presidential elections, and on the same SWP’s rank opportunism during its spell in that hideous cross-class populist project that was Respect.

But rather like Richard Dawkins himself, whose “ultimately crude and one-sided atheism” we found ourselves having to write about at the time, this “secularism”, the AWL’s scornful rejection of “anti-imperialism,” and its treatment of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, must be understood in the context of an overall politics that is remarkably and willfully blind to one of the most striking divisions in the world today: between those countries that are economically exploited and politically dominated by the advanced capitalist imperialist world, and those countries that exploit, dominate and intervene militarily into their affairs with great regularity.

The fact that these powers have recently been joined by two new kids on the block, Russia and China, or that the Middle East’s own ruling classes are corrupt, oppressive and exploitative, does not for one moment alter the fact the Middle East is divided and exploited by the privileged and exploitative great powers of Europe and North America. Nor can it be denied, at least not by people who regard themselves as being Leninists, that even the exploited or subordinated classes of these imperialist heartlands benefit at least partially from the imperialist super-exploitation of these semi-colonies, and that this feeds into the ideology that they absorb from their own ruling classes, hostility to Arabs and Muslims included.

This is in fact the great taproot of the impoverishment of the region, despite its enormous oil wealth that has for a century now fuelled the imperialist powers’ own development. This, not some sort of primitive lust for plunder, is what arouses the indignation of millions across the region. So too it is Israel’s role in guarding and enforcing this, and not some atavistic antisemitism, that makes the masses of the region hate the intruder settler state with a passion.

And this entirely progressive indignation, and the resistance inspired by it, is one that revolutionaries within the imperialist metropoles should share and ally themselves with. Even with mass movements inspired by Islamism, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Marxists should in Marx’s words be able to “discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell”, that is to recognize them as movements of national liberation and freedom from imperialism, however wrongly led.

Matgamna’s shameless Islamophobia, the latest, virulent strain of racism in the West, and the AWL’s failure to distance itself from it certainly deserves to be harshly criticised and condemned. Excuses that it is only the Marxist critique of religion, a defence of secularism, or a struggle against Islamist-based fascist organisations are laughable and should be treated as such.

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