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How the Left Should Work with Muslims

Rumy Hasan

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11 and the rise of the anti-war movement, a new phenomenon has occurred in the West in general and in Britain in particular – a significant and active involvement of Muslims. This contrasts sharply with, for example, the 1991 Gulf War and the attack on Iraq, where Muslims were largely absent; and certainly contrasts with the war in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 which Muslims largely supported. The question of how the Left should deal with this new constituency therefore naturally arises and, in my view, the Left has hitherto largely failed in this regard. I shall elaborate upon why I think this to be so and argue instead for a more principled modus operandi.

It needs firmly to be stressed that most Muslims do not register on the radar screen of Left politics because, on fundamental issues such as women’s and gay rights, individual freedoms, reason instead of revelation, and the struggle for human emancipation in general, Muslims are deeply reactionary. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to argue that they are, on social issues, to the right of most Tories. This is not just a matter of their personal prejudices but flows directly from their belief system. In other words, their religion requires them to be reactionaries. So, from the outset, the Left should be aware of this stark fact and not attempt to excuse it away – not even by the usual mantra of arguing that the same applies to all religions including Christianity. The latter argument is bogus because it ignores the importance of history: "Islamic" countries and societies have not gone through the Reformation, Renaissance and, above all, the Enlightenment – which largely broke the back of religious mumbo jumbo in the West. Therefore, Islamic beliefs and thinking (be it in "Muslim" countries or in the West) largely remain pre-Enlightenment. Moreover, there is no Islamic equivalent of "Christian socialism" or "liberation theology" – on the contrary, the more fervent the adherence to the faith there is, the more reactionary and anti-liberation is the outlook and tradition. As a generalisation, when you see a bearded Muslim, dressed in the "traditional" garb, make no mistake: he is bad news and stands in vehement contradiction to practically everything the Left stands for (this is a fact that the American Right understood well when it recruited and trained Islamic fundamentalists in the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s). There is unfortunately now an awful lot of such bad news in many of Britain’s towns and cities acting as a serious obstacle to progressive thinking and practice.

It has become painfully clear that the Left in Britain is simply unaware of all this – and knows practically nothing about the religion. It seems that there has also been a powerful element of "liberal guilt" – in the manner in which many find it difficult to criticise Israel for fear of being labelled "anti-semitic". Similarly, fear of charges of racism, and of "Islamophobia", has paralysed the Left from criticising the reactionary aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices: indeed there has not been the slightest criticism made. And it has been this wilful ignorance of the religion, in combination with a great reluctance or refusal to critically engage with Muslims, that has led to the strengthening of reactionary forces in "Muslim" communities. So the first task for those on the Left should be to find out about the basic tenets of Islam – just as they would of the belief system of anyone else they work with. Of course, the Left should never engage politically with the minutiae of religious tracts but nonetheless it is important to at least know the origins of religious ideas – which, in the case of Islam, means taking a look at the Koran (but also the hadith). And without too much searching one soon finds out that much of it is reactionary and incompatible with practically the whole socialist programme and practice. And one should never forget that for Muslims the Koran is the word of God: it is the absolute truth for all times and places and to which Muslims must fully submit (indeed the meaning of "Islam" is submission or obedience). Though, as with all religious tracts, there is much debate regarding precise interpretation, in several core issues the Koran is quite explicit – above all regarding the status of women. Chapter (Sura) IV, para 34 deals with women and makes it abundantly clear that women are second class citizens and men are the superior beings:

"Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then, if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely Allah is all-knowing and wise."

Now ask yourself: would a woman freely deciding upon a religion, and knowing this verse, really choose to become a Muslim? Now further ask: who is the most likely to be "Islamophobic" in its literal meaning of "fear of Islam"? Surely women would come high on the list? As in other religions, but especially in Islam, it is accident of birth, tradition, and fear, including the fear of breaking away that determines why a person is a "Muslim". In regard to men having the right to beat women, this is a stricture which helps to explain the occurrence of "honour killings" by Muslims, and why religious leaders do not criticise this where they think it has been justified. Many will have heard of the sharia law – that is Koranic law which Muslim states must implement and individuals must follow, and which takes precedence over any "man-made" laws, be they democratic or not. These have some utterly barbaric sanctions such as amputations for theft: "And the thief, male or female, cut off the hands of both: as a recompense of what they have earned" (V.43); or death by stoning for sex outside marriage (zina – an edict that gained notoriety in the recent case of the Nigerian woman Amina Laval). And the warning to those who oppose Islam could not be clearer:

"This is the recompense for those who fight against God and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off, or they shall be banished from the land" (V.36).

There are several more such passages in the Koran with equally barbaric injunctions. So now we know where the fundamentalists’ tirades against "infidels" come from. Indeed, there are several works which systematically take to task the doctrines of Islam – in the same vein as the Enlightenment thinkers did in regard to Christianity over 200 years ago. These should be on the reading lists of Left publications.

Thus, with this knowledge in mind, the starting point for the Left in regard to Muslims should be political honesty. Tell the truth about your politics and about why you reject religion – and why Islamic beliefs in particular, deeply collide with the Left’s struggles for liberation and against oppression. Within the anti-war movement, there should be vigorous and open debate, dialogue, and discussion. For the secular left, it is absolutely incumbent to clearly state that religious beliefs offer no solution to ending wars, or to solving the problems of the world, including those of "Muslim" countries. Moreover, to further argue that political Islam has been a catastrophic disaster in those countries in which it has had an influence (Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Gulf states to name a few). Furthermore, the argument should be clearly and patiently made that secular, socialist ideas provide the best way forward.

Having set the political stall clearly and honestly, in regard to joint work against the war, the Left should argue in a principled manner that the anti-war movement is about uniting all those opposed to war. Therefore, absolutely no privilege should be given to any religious views. Certainly on the platforms, all religious prayers or chants should be disallowed – for if you allow one, then you must do the same for others – and the movement can degenerate into religious obscurantism and even rivalry. Such a principled stance is not new – often in the past there have been religious speakers on platforms (as, for example, around CND and the Anti-apartheid movement) but they were careful in avoiding prayers or religious chants – understanding well that this would be deeply insulting and offensive to non-believers or those of other faiths. But Muslim speakers – especially from the Muslim Association of Britain – in the past two years have blatantly ignored this, and been allowed to get away with their religious chants from the platform of anti-war demonstrations, rallies, and meetings; in effect they have been given a privileged position over all others. Of course, on marches, people should be allowed to chant their own slogans – and here Muslims invariably resort to their staple of "Allah-o-akbar" (Allah is great) – revealing the bankruptcy of their politics. When this occurs, the secular Left should reply with political anti-imperialist slogans and songs to especially pull away the young from reactionary religious mumbo jumbo (for example, in Birmingham, the secular South Asian Alliance, marching to the beat of drums, has done precisely this with great effect and rhythm; thereby providing a fitting example to others).

The Left should, of course, support the right of religious expression but also subject it to the sharpest of criticism. Many socialist organisations, including the largest in England, the SWP, proclaim themselves to be Marxist and followers of Lenin. But it seems they have forgotten Marx and Lenin’s analyses of religion. Everyone knows Marx’s brilliant concluding remark of religion being the "opium of the people". Less well known is Lenin’s remedy to counter this "opium". In Socialism and Religion he was astonishingly clear:

"Our Party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance, or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs. We demand complete disestablishment of the church so as to be able to combat the religious fog with purely ideological and solely ideological weapons, by means of our press and by word of mouth. But we founded our association, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, precisely for such a struggle against every religious bamboozling of the workers. And to us the ideological struggle is not a private affair, but the affair of the whole party, of the whole proletariat."

If Lenin was clear, what is also clear is that hardly a word of his advice has been adopted by his supposed followers when dealing with the "religious fog and bamboozling" of Muslims. Rather than exposing and struggling against this, there has instead been a complete capitulation – and, perversely, an attack on those who have sought to expose the religious fog. The example of events in Birmingham graphically illustrates this.

The disgraceful case of Birmingham Stop the War Coalition (BSTWC) (or how the Left should NOT work with Muslims)

Birmingham has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in Britain and throughout the past two years, many Muslims have been active against the war. The BSTWC was set up soon after September 11 and recruited to its Chair one Salma Yaqoob, a hijab-wearing devout Muslim. There was an element of symbolism and opportunism here: at the time, it looked good having an avowedly Muslim woman front the new organisation, but no one at first seemed to mind much as long as the structures were democratic and transparent, and good work was being done. Initially, BSTWC worked reasonably well and pulled in broad layers of people from across the city (though hardly any non-Muslim Asians). But tensions quickly arose, especially concerning the behaviour of Muslims. Certain practices by Muslims quickly caused disquiet: attempts to have segregated seating for men and women at meetings, lengthy quotes from the Koran by an imam at a public meeting, separate coaches for women organised by the mosques to demonstrations in London, the prevalence of fully or partially veiled women, and the attempt to silence criticisms of reactionary aspects of Islam by secular critics – including those from an Islamic background. These are the types of practices that do not register on the radar of Left politics and indeed should be an anathema – but many socialists (above all in the SWP and Socialist Action) not only went along with all this, but denounced the critics as "Islamophobic". Funnily enough, I never heard any of them denounce critics of reactionary aspects of Catholicism such as opposition to abortion or contraception as "Cathlophobic".

In retrospect, therefore, it was not surprising to find that Islamic apologists also turned against some very basic traditions of the Left and working class organisations such as holding meetings and having socials in pubs. The fact that Muslims reject pubs, working men’s associations, or trade union clubs for reactionary religious reasons is their problem and something which the Left should not compromise over. Sensitivity may be shown by perhaps having meetings in community centres or council buildings (where possible) but in the case of having drinks in a bar after a meeting or socials in a pub, then these must remain an important avenue for the Left’s recreational activities. But we were entering a political world of unbridled opportunism and the abandonment of principles.

One fundamental principle that was abandoned was democracy in the BSTWC – whose democratic constitution was overturned in a disgraceful "bureaucratic coup" on 5 February 2002 by the leading activists of the SWP, Socialist Action, and Salma Yaqoob. Thereafter, BSTWC became an undemocratic rump. It is clear that the motive for this was to remove or silence all critics of Muslims – in effect BSTWC and Birmingham SWP became what can only be described as the "Salma Yaqoob Defence Front" and apologists for Islamic forces. Here is a stark fact of this: practically EVERY public event of the BSTWC over the past two years (at least 10 by now) has had her on the platform – and at meetings, usually with John Rees of the SWP. I wonder if this is some kind of record? Outside the cabal running BSTWC, people were cursing – albeit in rather more defamatory ways: "they are taking the Michael". And all the evidence shows that Salma Yaqoob does not possess an ounce of democracy. Rather than being pushed towards secularism and socialism she has, of late, felt confident enough to come out even stronger in defending her Islamic beliefs (for example, following a wishy-washy piece in Socialist Review, the current issue (No.100) of International Socialism (SWP’s theoretical journal) carries an article by her which not only re-writes the history of what has happened in Birmingham, but in which she defends her politics by several quotes from the Koran (this is indeed not only "goodbye to Marx and Lenin" but also "adieu to the Enlightenment"). There has been the suggestion of lining her up to be the local MEP candidate on a "Peace and Justice Coalition" ticket comprising of an electoral pact between the mosques and socialists. Thankfully, a number of genuine socialists and progressives have already vehemently opposed any plans for this to be pushed through; but they and others must continue to do so to nip in the bud the creation of this unprincipled and opportunistic entity.

All the lessons of the struggles against women’s oppression should have told the Left that you do not hype up someone who is devout in the adherence to a religion that reduces women to second class status, and then revels in her oppression by covering herself by a hijab. I have argued elsewhere why the Left should reject the argument that the veiling (full or partial) by Muslim women is in any way progressive. On the contrary, the Left should patiently and persistently be arguing with Muslim women who are in favour of women’s equality, that they should throw away their veils, and stop internalising their oppression. A further disgrace is that the BSTWC has steadfastly refused to put a secular woman (including socialists) from an Islamic background on its platforms. Moreover, recent history graphically tells us that electoral pacts with mosques are not only a flagrant abuse of basic principles, but are also potentially highly dangerous. Recall what happened in Bradford in the aftermath of the riots of summer 2001. There, the imams asked the police to display photos of young rioters inside the mosques so that Muslim worshippers could identify them. Several were arrested and are now serving outrageously lengthy sentences. To my knowledge, such blatant snitching was (has) never been conducted by say the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland; an institution with which the Left has (rightly) never dreamed of having an electoral pact.

The harsh reality is that most Muslims in the world are being oppressed and suffocated by their religion and culture. They have arrived at a dead end that is deadening their brains (why bother to think when all the answers are provided in your holy book?). In the West, the ghettoised tight-knit Muslim communities maintain the power and influence of religious leaders and their mosques and who, thereby, accentuate the oppression. The task of the Left is to break some of the young away from this reactionary edifice. The past two years provided a marvellous opportunity to do precisely this – but because of misguided, opportunistic politics, this has pretty much been squandered. The aim of those who are in contact with Muslims, and willing to argue with them in a principled manner, should be to try and engage in a dialogue on the lines mentioned above and attempt to pull them in ones or twos towards a secular, socialist, direction. Just as in the 1930s in London’s East End ghetto, the Left systematically attempted to break young Jews away from the grip of rabbis and the synagogue, the same should now be done to pull young Muslims away from imams, the mosques, and "community leaders" (incidentally, one should never forget that mosques are often battlegrounds among the big-wigs given that those who control them gain the very worldly assets of prestige, power, and holding of the purse-strings).

All this will not be easy, but it must be done if real progress is to be made. To help in this, Left organisations need to seek out those from an Islamic background who are already progressive and secular, and undertake all kinds of united front work with them. The aim is to generate some ripple effects within the "Muslim communities" so that the influence of religious ideas and organisations can be challenged and slowly broken down, and a space opened up for secular, progressive, and socialist ideas. This, in turn, will help the struggle against the external shackle of racial oppression as well as removing the internal oppression of reactionary religious and cultural practices and beliefs.

October 2003

Note: Some of the ideas here are further developed in my article, ‘Critical remarks on cultural aspects of Asian ghettos in modern Britain’, in Capital and Class, vol.81, Autumn 2003, pp.103-134.