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The Left and Islam

Eddie Truman

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11 2001, Islamophobia fear and hatred of Muslims has been on the rampage across the Western world. In the UK, racist tabloid newspapers daily churn out frenzied reports of Muslim clerics declaring jihad against the West. The scaremongering of newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express has succeeded in inciting widescale violence and abuse directed against the entire Muslim population.

Although the socialist left has stood against this tidal wave of intolerance, there are nonetheless differences of opinion on how to approach the question of religion in general and Islam in particular. Especially in France and England, controversy has raged within the socialist and anti-racist movement as the left grapples with new problems.

In France, the state ban on female school students wearing the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, has provoked bitter disagreement on the left. In England, the attitude of Respect, the coalition founded by expelled Labour MP George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party, has generated heated debate, with a section of the left accusing Respect of constructing an unprincipled alliance with the Muslim hierarchy.

Many of these "socialist fundamentalists" condemn George Galloway for highlighting his own personal beliefs and especially for publicising his personal opposition to a woman's right to choose on abortion.

There is no doubt, however, that Respect has won a significant degree of support among Muslims in England. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the organisation polled over 20 per cent and in Newham over 21 per cent. But in other parts of London where the left has traditionally done well Brixton for example Respect failed to make headway.

It is certainly the case that Respect gained the endorsement of organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) but then so did the SSP and the SNP in Scotland. Was the price of this support the toning down of socialist policies? There is clearly a debate to be had in England over the future direction of Respect. But one important fact stands out: Respect has succeeded in engaging with the Muslim population in a way that has been beyond the English left in recent decades.

Underlying some of the more virulent attacks on Respect is a deeply conservative strand of authoritarian chauvinism towards religion generally, but particularly Islam. The unspoken assumption is that there are millions of backward barbarians who have never attained the intellectual heights of the white European left. They should be coerced into abandoning their traditions and religious beliefs.

Yet the reality is that religion as a political force, especially Islam, is growing rather than diminishing despite the advance of science and technology.

The reason is not difficult to work out. Capitalism and imperialism are on the rampage, devouring the resources of the planet and enslaving the peoples of the Third World in the name of the Dollar. The weakness of socialism on a global scale means that radical opposition to the rich and powerful takes different forms, including religious idealism. It is natural that Arab and Asian Muslims look with revulsion at the greed-crazed value systems of the West and draw the conclusion that the world is ruled by "infidels".

Events of the past two and a half years have only served to confirm beyond all doubt in the eyes of Muslims that the idea of the civilised, enlightened West is a sick joke. Mass bombing raids, the brutal occupation of two countries, the depraved treatment of prisoners of war are all guaranteed to deliver a new generation of young Muslims into the ranks of political Islamist movements.

They are aware, too, that while Europe was wading through its own excrement and dying of the plague in the Dark Ages, Arabia was witnessing a flowering of civilisation; architecture, sculpture and literature. Plato and Aristotle were translated and mathematical theories kept alive while the West descended into barbarism and backwardness. Many socialist opponents of political Islam make the point that modern Islamic fundamentalism was a monster created by the CIA as a tool of US foreign policy in Afghanistan. But this is an over-simplification.

Above all else, it has been the Israeli wars of expansion, in particular the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war and the resultant land grab, that destroyed the secular Arabian left and paved the way for the rise of organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Whatever our differences with militant Islam, we have to face the fact that the Islamic organisations are mass parties representing militant resistance to US and Israeli oppression. Hamas in Palestine is a mass force defending the Palestinians from a murderous onslaught by an Israeli state determined to wipe them off the face of the earth. Hezbollah in Lebanon liberated the country from a near 20-year occupation by the Israeli Defence Force. Both these organisations have a social and political programme that involves health and community work to a far greater extent than their military activities.

At various stages throughout history, oppressed peoples have used religious ideas and institutions as weapons of struggle. The Covenanters of south west Scotland in the 17th century combined anti-feudalism and republicanism with their own brand of fanatical and sectarian Presbyterianism. The Catholic Church in Ireland combined anti-imperial resistance against English oppression with ultra-conservative social attitudes.

Today, in whole areas of the Middle East and Asia, Islam is more than a religion. It is a way of life that is increasingly seen as morally superior and more civilised than Western capitalism.

Islam has also become increasingly politicised. For most young people in Arabia and across much of Asia, Islam means anti-imperialism and opposition to the obscene inequalities that scar our planet. They see the Christian West as a vision of hell, where political leaders like Bush and Blair offer up pious prayers in churches while massacring children on the other side of the world. They see a system which treats women, children, the sick and the poor with hatred, violence and contempt while glorifying the rich. In the UK today, the Muslim community is probably the most politicised section of society as a result of events over the past few years.

Rather than ridiculing or denigrating these beliefs, socialists should seek to engage seriously with probably the most politicised section of UK society today, precisely because of recent history. That doesn't mean hiding our differences. But it does mean building alliances around the many points of agreement between the socialist left and the Muslim community.


Published in Scottish Socialist Voice Issue 184, 16 July 2004