Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

‘Islamophobia’ and Electoral Pacts with Muslim Groups

Rumy Hasan

SINCE 11 SEPTEMBER 2001, the epithet "Islamophobia" has increasingly become in vogue in Britain – not only from Muslims but also, surprisingly, from wide layers of the left, yet the term is seldom elaborated upon or placed in a proper context. Invariably, it is used unwisely and irresponsibly and my argument is that the left should refrain from using it.

Shockingly, some on the left have, on occasion, even resorted to using it as a term of rebuke against left, secular, critics of reactionary aspects of Muslim involvement in the anti-war movement. So what does the term mean? Literally, "fear of Islam" but, more accurately, a dislike or hatred of Muslims, analogous to "anti-Semitism". Since September 11, there has undoubtedly been an increasing resentment and hostility by some sections of the media towards Muslims in Britain and more generally in the West that, in turn, has also given rise to some popular hostility. But this is rarely made explicitly – rather it is coded as an attack on asylum seekers, refugees, and potential "terrorists", above all, on Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East. This has been most intense in America, where there has been systematic harassment of Arabs for almost two years.

Surprisingly, however, all sections of the media, including the gutter press, have largely refrained from open attacks on British Muslims. In terms of physical attacks, including fatalities, to my knowledge these have been relatively few. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was a Sikh man who was murdered in the US because he wore a turban in the manner of Bin Laden. But there were certainly attacks – both on individuals and on mosques – in Britain, especially in Northern towns, probably by BNP thugs; and other notorious acts such as leaving a pig’s head outside a mosque. But these largely abated soon after, though such incidents still periodically occur. Hence there is certainly no room for complacency. But does all this amount to Islamophobia? Clearly not: we are not dealing with a situation comparable to the Jews under the Nazis in the 1930s, nor even of Muslims in Gujarat, India, that is currently run by a de facto Hindu fascist regime. Arguably, the situation in the 1970s, when the National Front was becoming a real menace in Britain, was more dangerous for Muslims and non-Muslim ethnic minorities alike.

Moreover, perhaps as a counter-balance, the more responsible TV and press media have, in fact, been portraying a number of, if anything, over-positive images of Islam and Muslims (examples include the BBC’s series on Islam – which was a whitewash; a highly sympathetic week-long account of Birmingham Central Mosque; and a 2-week long daily slot on the Hajj by Channel 4 that downplayed the appalling death toll which occurs there every year). An establishment paper such as the Financial Times has had front-page photos of the Hajj and of anti-war placards of the Muslim Association of Britain. Soon after September 11, both political leaders and the media – out of concern for the backlash this was likely to generate, dropped the term "Islamic fundamentalist" from usage. In the same vein, Bush invited an imam to the special religious service held soon after S11 in Washington; and Blair met Muslim leaders in Britain. This was a symbolism that went down well with Muslim leaders in these countries.

Nonetheless, many Muslims still believe that the US-led "war on terror" is in fact a war against Islam and therefore is the clearest expression of Islamophobia. But such reasoning overlooks some uncomfortable realities. The country at the forefront of this "war" is of course the US. Let us, therefore, summarise briefly its relations with the "Islamic" world:

i. The US has long propped up the Saudi regime, a crucial ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has the most sacred sites of Islam. But there has never been a squeak of protest by the US government against the brutality and oppressiveness of this barbaric society – rather, the US has gone out of its way not to criticise it out of "respect for Islamic values and culture". This, of course, is humbug, but the fact remains;

ii. The second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel) is Egypt – a Muslim country;

iii. In 1991, the US-led coalition "liberated" Kuwait, a Muslim country – with the help of practically all the Muslim Gulf states;

iv. In 1999, the US and its NATO allies "liberated" Kosovo – a predominantly Muslim province, from "Christian" Serbia. The ex-Serb President Milosevic is undergoing a show-trial in The Hague for "crimes against humanity" (specifically, against Kosovar Muslims);

v. The US armed, trained, and funded the Islamic fundamentalists of the Afghan Mujahideen in the fight against the Russians. This included nurturing one Osama Bin Laden.

vi. The US had no problems of the takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 by the Taliban – the creation largely of Pakistan, a strong ally of the US and an avowedly "Islamic Republic".

vii. The US has been strongly pushing for Turkey’s membership of the EU – though Turkey is a secular state, most Turks are, nominally at least, Muslims.

The list could go on. One might, therefore, wonder where is the "war on Islam" or "Islamophobia" of US foreign policy? It is not for nothing that leaders of Muslim countries rarely talk about "Islamophobia". Moreover, it is a rarely stated fact that Muslims say from the Indian sub-continent or East Asia are likely to experience much harsher treatment and discrimination at the hands of "fellow Muslims" in Arab (especially Gulf) countries than they are in the West. So, woe betide those who parrot the Islamophobic argument against the Western right – for those foolish enough to do so will surely be in for a serious hammering. Moreover, by so doing, they will let the imperialists off the hook. In reality, US imperialism does not give a damn about the religion of a country as long as its economic and strategic interests are served. It has long supported the most reactionary, dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world – as long as they do its bidding. If they fall out of line, as with Iraq, then they are subjected to the full imperial onslaught. At most, we could say that there has been a degree of Anti-Arab hostility that has spilled over into anti-Muslim sentiment as one of the justifications for this. But this does not alter that fact that, both domestically and internationally, there is simply no material basis to "Islamophobia".

The term Islamophobia seemed to first appear in Britain during the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. This was an attempt by fundamentalist Muslims to silence critics such as Rushdie and his supporters for free speech by arguing that only the wider Islamophobia of British society and state allowed this to pass unpunished. The implication was clear: criticism of Islam is tantamount to "Islamophobia" and is therefore out of bounds. This is a situation that progressives cannot and should not accept. For those on the left who are not convinced by this analysis, some crucial questions need to be posed. What is your position on, for example, the stance of thousands of women in Pakistan who courageously demonstrated against the Islamic hudood ordinance in the mid-1980s that the dictator General Zia (a key Islamic fundamentalist US ally at the time) was imposing – whose aim was to reduce women, in law, to second-class status? These women were clearly acting in an Islamophobic manner – any mullah would have told you that. Similarly, what is your position on those protesting against the Sharia law in Northern Nigeria that recently saw the imposition of a death-by-stoning sentence on a Nigerian woman for adultery? These demonstrators are clearly acting in an Islamophobic manner, as any mullah must tell you. Or, your position in regard to the ex-Muslim Dutch MEP who has been witch-hunted by Muslims for asserting that Muslim men oppress women?

What is clear is that such questions and implications have been blatantly ignored. Much of the left has simply been unwilling to critically engage with the reactionary belief-system of its new-found allies. Not only that, but there has also been an extraordinary indulgence – as, for example, in the toleration of Muslim Association of Britain’s (MAB) members and spokespersons at anti-war demonstrations in London and elsewhere to incessantly chant the "takbeer" ("Allah-o-akbar"). Absolutely no such indulgence was allowed for members of other faiths (so, for instance, no chance of the Lord’s Prayer or Buddhist chants) or of no faith (no singing of the Internationale or Red Flag). Instead, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there is talk by some of an electoral pact between the Socialist Alliance and Muslim groups and mosque leaders along the lines of a "Peace and Justice Coalition". It appears that those who have decried against "Islamophobia" have gone further and are now engaging in a kind of "Islamophilia". Matters are at an early stage but this really seems to be about converting the Stop the War Coalition into an electoral body. Were this, by hook or crook, to materialise, it would be a strange creature indeed: an electoral grouping of atheistic progressives and religious zealots who, on many core issues, are profoundly reactionary. Before any such fiasco begins to take shape, some more sobering facts need to be pointed out. One presumes that there would be attempts to deepen links with the MAB – the key Muslim organisation in the anti-war movement. Now the MAB is clear and proud of where it stands: it takes inspiration from the ideas of Maulana Maududi, the founder member of the Jamaat-I-Islami in Pakistan (Tariq Ali exposes his ideas in Clash of Fundamentalisms). Let us remind ourselves that the Jamaat and fellow Islamist reactionaries have won a large number of seats in Pakistan’s elections and are already making life hell not just for women and progressives but for anyone with even the remotest semblance of modernist thinking in the North West Frontier Province which they now control.

But what appears also to be driving this move for some is the election of the first and only Socialist Alliance councillor in Preston (North England). This was achieved, in part, by the local SA gaining the support of Muslims and the imam of a mosque with whom they had worked closely with in the anti-war movement. There is the belief that this provides a good recipe for success in at least those constituencies with large Muslim populations. The argument is that Muslims radicalised by the war will be willing to vote for left candidates. But the reasoning has grave flaws. First, true there has been a radicalising of Muslims – but it is clear that the vast majority have been radicalised by Islam (and not by socialist, Marxist, or even, anti-imperialist arguments). Hence, for Muslims, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine are, above all, about Islam (be it the "industrial strength" or "softer" version) – hence also why they are so keen to espouse the "Islamophobic argument". Though we may be thankful that only a small number of Muslims have been won over to fundamentalist organisations, it is still sadly the case that even a fewer number have been won over to left, secular, politics. In the same vein, one should never forget that most Muslims supported the US and NATO attack on Serbia in 1999. We can therefore be assured that if the US decides to attack say North Korea or a Latin American country, Muslims are likely to be conspicuous by their absence at demos against these. Second, uniting with imams in an electoral organisation is something socialists should not give even a single thought to. Indubitably, mosques are bastions of sexism and gender segregation. As such, they are an affront to any meaningful notion of democracy. Indeed for some Muslims (with good reason), the very idea of democracy is un-Islamic (as laws made by humans are an insult to already-existing God’s Law). Crucially, however, imams are required by their faith to espouse the Sharia law. Though it is impossible for them to enforce this in the outside world in the West, nonetheless, it is possible to make the attempt within the confines of mosques, and many undoubtedly do precisely this.

If this were not enough, there are two further powerful arguments against the formation of such a coalition, which concern the wider Asian community. First, religious elements will inevitably be strengthened within "Muslim" communities at the direct expense of secular, progressive forces. Consequently, overtly reactionary ideas and practices (for example, over the question of women’s and gay rights) will continue to go unchallenged (a prospective coalition will require the left to keep silent over these). Second, there will inevitably be a massive alienating effect on non-Muslim Asians. Indeed, the indulgence of Muslim organisations and trumpeting of "Islamophobia" has already had an alienating effect on them for it has been amply evident that in the anti-war movement, their presence has been minimal. Any electoral pact with imams and Muslim groups is bound to accentuate such alienation and reinforce the resistance to their involvement.

In conclusion, therefore, the left needs to avoid using the term "Islamophobia" (and absolutely not use it as a stick against secular critics) and should reject forming electoral pacts with Muslim groups. The reasoning to justify these is false, highly divisive, and an intolerable sop to reactionary forces. Instead, the left needs to stick to what it excels at: exposing and fighting racism – be this directed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and ceaselessly struggling against imperialism. Finally, rather than Preston, it is the success of the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland that provides a far more powerful and appropriate example of what can be achieved by socialists in England and Wales and elsewhere.

July 2003