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The Muslim Right and the Anglo-American Left: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

An excerpt from ‘Double Bind’ questions the logic of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’

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Protesters and members of the Stop the War Coalition gather at the U.S. Embassy to march to Trafalgar Square on April 1, 2009, in London. ( Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
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The Muslim Right is a range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics towards the goal of a theocratic state. It consists of those called “moderate Islamists” by the media, who propose to reach this goal gradually by electoral and educational means; extremist parties and groups called “salafis,” who run for office but also try to enforce some version of Sharia law through street violence; and a much smaller militant wing of salafi-jihadis, whose propaganda endorses military means and who practice violence against civilians. The goal of all political Islamists, however, whatever means they may prefer, is a state founded upon a version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities.

Some in the human rights movement have gone overboard in their desire to defend the victims of state counter-terrorism, and ended up embracing the Muslim Right. A section of the Anglo-American left has done the same, focusing only on wrongs done by the United States and acting on the fatal principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Historically, the left has stood for certain values—at least in principle: separation between religion and the state; social equality; an end to discrimination against women and minorities; economic justice; opposition to imperialist and racist wars. In the last ten years, however, some groups on the far left have allied with conservative Muslim organizations that stand for religious discrimination, advocate death for those they consider apostates, oppose gay rights, subordinate women, and seek to impose their views on others through violence. This support of the Muslim Right has undermined struggles for secular democracy in the Global South and has spread from the far left to feminists, the human rights movement and progressive donors.

The far left’s embrace of Islamic fundamentalism mirrors distortions about Islam put about by anti-immigrant conservatives—the far right talks as if all Muslims were potential terrorists, while the far left talks as if salafi-jihadis represented all Muslims. Both ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are like everybody else; they just want to survive and live their lives in peace. Very few of them support the interpretations and actions of salafi-jihadis, who no more represent all Muslims than the American Nazi Party or English Defence League represent all Christians.

In 2006, the late Fred Halliday, a socialist public intellectual and expert on the Middle East, listed some ways that left wing movements were giving support to the Muslim Right. He included the Tehran visit of Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, during which Chavez embraced Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the official welcome ceremony given by Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, and MP George Galloway of the Respect Party, to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a controversial Egyptian cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and the alignment of the Socialist Workers Party with Islamists in the Stop the War movement, in which London antiwar demonstrators carried signs saying, “We are all Hezbollah.” He might also have included the fact that the Third European Social Forum, meeting in London in 2004, prominently featured Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, while denying a feminist coalition space for a panel on “Unholy Alliances” between the left and the Muslim Right.

A particularly egregious example of this trend is left wing support for “the Iraqi insurgency” which includes groups allied with al-Qaeda and is made up of Sunni militants who practice sectarian violence against Shi’a and plant bombs in marketplaces and civilian neighbourhoods. Although Iraqi leftists and feminists oppose the Iraqi insurgency, both the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition in the United States and the Stop the War Coalition in the United Kingdom have endorsed it on the basis that it is fighting foreign invasion and imperialism. In fact, the insurgency has directed its violence less at the US than at imposing an Islamic state on its own people, targeting women in particular, as Anissa Hélie, a feminist scholar and former coordinator of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, pointed out in 2005:

For example, an extremist group in Iraq called Mujahideen Shura (council of fighters) warned it would kill any woman who is seen unveiled on the street. The recent case of Zeena Al Qushtaini has shown this is not an empty threat. Zeena, a women’s rights activist and businesswoman known for wearing “Western” clothing, was kidnapped and executed by Jamaat al Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, another armed Islamist group. Her body was found wrapped in the traditional abaya, which she had refused to wear when she was alive. Pinned to the abaya was the message: “She was a collaborator against Islam.” Muslim extremists have already moved on to assassinating male and female hairdressers whom they accuse of promoting “Western” fashion. They also specifically target trade union leaders as well as gays and lesbians. Religious minorities are also under attack, such as Christians in the Northern city of Mosul where women from the Christian community were singled out in a rape campaign.

Despite this record, prominent left wing intellectuals in the United Kingdom like Tariq Ali, an editor of New Left Review, continued to romanticize Iraqi sectarian attacks.

With similar political blindness, sections of the international left have continued to support the Iranian theocracy despite its violent repression of the “Green Revolution” of 2009-2010, its attacks on student and women’s organizations, and its suppression of labour unions. In September 2010, for instance, 150 self-described “progressive activists” in the United States, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former member of the House of Representatives Cynthia McKinney, dined with Iranian President Ahmadinejad on his visit to the United Nations to show their support for his allegedly anti-imperialist stand. Unwillingness to criticize the Iranian theocracy has led to a lack of solidarity with the people of Iran, a particular problem at a time of sanctions and talk of war. In March 2012, a United National Antiwar Coalition met in Hartford to oppose the possibility of war with Iran, condemn sanctions, and oppose U.S. wars and interference in other places. By an overwhelming majority, however, the meeting refused to support the human rights of the Iranian people, voting down a resolution that said, “We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.”

And yet, as a spokeswoman for the New York-based Raha Iranian Feminists Group, which supported the defeated resolution, said,

If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. At best we are hypocrites; at worst we show an inability to imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of Western powers. Ironically, this echoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most antiwar activists would hasten to decry.

***

Some on the far left support the Taliban, the Iraqi insurgency, the Iranian theocracy and even al-Qaida, in the belief that they systematically oppose U.S. imperialism. This idea does not accord with reality.

The main financial support for salafi-jihadi groups comes from various sources in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most reactionary country in the world and a staunch ally of the same U.S. imperialists that jihadis say they are fighting.

Even if the Muslim Right were a reliable foe of U.S. imperialism, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a very poor strategy for left wing survival. Wherever Islamists have gained power, they have wiped out the left—see Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Sudan, and, of course, Afghanistan. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an international network with over 25 years’ experience documenting Muslim politico-religious forces, made this point in a 2005 appeal to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre:

Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to [its] theocratic project … of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people; they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the “untermensch”—the subhuman—among them “inferior races,” gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women “in their place,” which as we know from experience ends up being a strait jacket. Like fascists, they support capitalism.

A variant of the “enemy of my enemy” theory invokes a crude version of Marxism to explain that, since U.S. imperialism is the principal enemy of the world’s people, we should defeat it before worrying about other enemies. According to Vijay Prashad, a professor at Trinity College and author of The Darker Nations: A History of the Third World:

In today’s world, the principal contradiction, the Large Contradiction, is between imperialism and humanity. … The Lesser Contradiction is between the left and the reactionaries, who are not identical to imperialism. Indian Hindutva, American evangelicalism and Zionism are reactionary, but not part of the Lesser Contradiction. Those forms of reaction are ensconced in the Larger Contradiction, since they are handmaidens of imperialism. What I refer to as the reactionaries of the Lesser Contradiction are organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and so on. … These other groups are antagonistic to imperialism, and are from this standpoint able to capture the sentiments and politics of the people who are anti-imperialist nationalists. We are divided from them, but not against them in the same way as we are against imperialism. To make these two contradictions the same is to fall into the liberal error of equivalence.

One of the problems with this approach is that while the left is battling the Large Contradiction the Lesser Contradiction is likely to sneak up on it, as WLUML demonstrates, citing an Erich Fried poem to this effect: “Totally caught into my struggle against the main enemy/ I was shot by my secondary enemy./ Not from the back, treacherously, as his main enemies claimed/ But directly, from the position he had long been occupying/ And in keeping with his declared intentions that I did not/ bother about, thinking they were insignificant.”

Salafi-jihadis speak of establishing a new Caliphate or pan-Islamic empire, in which only practicing Muslims would be full citizens and non-believers would either be wiped out or live as second-class subjects. How can any group that is trying to establish an empire of its own be called anti-imperialist?

***

Salafi-jihadi spokesmen continually compare the “defense of Muslim lands” to the national liberation struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly that of South Africa. Their mantra is, “Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s freedom fighter.” But the aims of yesterday’s national liberation movements had almost nothing in common with those of today’s jihadis. Not only were these national liberation struggles trying to establish modern, independent nation-states, free of colonial domination; many of them, at least in theory, also had explicit goals of economic and social equality for all. They were not aiming for a pan-national empire ruled by a hierarchical religious authority, offering forced conversion, unequal citizenship, or death to “infidels.”

Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi meets Mayor Ken Livingstone as he attends the ‘A woman’s right to choose’ conference on July 12, 2004 in London. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

Why then is this comparison with national liberation struggles so frequently made? Partly to attract support from the left and partly to drape “defense of Muslim lands” in the mantle of a human rights struggle, since the right to national self-determination is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it is obvious that the goal of a pan-Islamic state ruled by a version of Sharia law directly contravenes most of the articles in the Declaration including Article 7 (“All are equal before the law”), Article 18 (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”) and the provisions for women’s equality. There is no basis in theory or practice that would allow a human rights organization to endorse “defensive jihad” without betraying its own principles.

***

Since the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, if not before, the left has had a tendency to see terrorism either as a legitimate expression of popular grievances or as necessary to protect the gains of the revolution. The communist left was understanding about Stalin’s terror, and parts of the New Left were willing to excuse China’s Cultural Revolution and terror by the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, the Tamil Tigers, and the Colombian FARC. Today some on the left are equally forgiving of terror by the Muslim Right, seeing it as insignificant compared to wars and drone killings. Such left wing defenses of terrorism have three ideological roots: The belief that terror is an attack upon the power of the state, when it is usually an attack upon civilians; the belief that the end justifies the means; and the belief that only violence can defeat violence.

Most terrorist actions are not directed at the state. Even large-scale attacks on civilians like the July 7 bombing of underground trains and buses in London and the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are rare compared to terrorist operations at the community level, which are meant to control local populations and are often targeted at women, gays, religious minorities or specific ethnic groups. As Gita Sahgal said in a 2007 speech for Amnesty International:

Most acts of terrorism, in most parts of the world, are well sign-posted by the groups that commit them. They are often carried out by people who know their targets well. Their aim is not only to murder and maim but to intimidate and control. In short, for civilians who are the targets of such attacks, the enemy is not unknown but an intimate one. And the threat of terrorism affects freedom of expression, freedom of movement, the right to education and to health and work as much as it threatens the right to life itself.

The Taliban puts up night letters warning teachers not to teach and children, especially girls, not to go to school. Recently they have issued warnings to barber shops to stop shaving men’s beards. Islamist militants from Algeria to Iraq and Kashmir have threatened women who do not conform to the dress codes they impose or the curfews they enforce. Armed groups may intervene in disputes at community level, providing their own forms of summary justice. The IRA’s practice of shooting offenders in the knee is an example. But such groups usually have a puritanical agenda as well. Their purpose is not simply to attack the forces of the state or an occupying force but to impose control on the population that is supposed to be their support base.

This is the politics of armed gangs who crave not liberation but dominance, whether they are narcotraficantes, self-styled revolutionaries, religious zealots, or all of the above. History has demonstrated that any political project—left or right—that relies on terror will not end by serving goals of liberation. A movement that tries to achieve power by blowing up ordinary citizens as they go to work or to market, or attend a wedding or a religious celebration, is not on the side of the people, and the people know it.

There are those who justify the notion that only equal violence can overtake the strength and violence of the ruling class, using the argument that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But saying that the violence of one group is necessary to end the violence of another is like talking about “war to end war”—a World War I slogan. Violence breeds violence and the means shape the end. The feminist movement has stressed that the personal is political. Those who wish to transform society need to do so in ways that mobilize the positive transformational strengths of masses of people, rather than use methods of violence, dogmatism, and authoritarianism.

***

At one point in her latest book, Leila Ahmed, the Harvard scholar of women and Islam, breaks into an anguished cry:

I continue to believe … that the rights and conditions of women in Muslim-majority societies often are acutely in need of improvement, as indeed they are in many other societies. But the question now is how we address such issues while not allowing our work and concerns to aid and abet imperialist projects, including war projects that mete out death and trauma to Muslim women under the guise and to the accompaniment of a rhetoric of saving them.

It is a classic statement of the double bind, which has succeeded in making discussion of anything relating to Muslim women completely taboo in some circles and, in others, so hedged around by fearful qualifications as to be almost unintelligible.

Any feminist in the United Kingdom or North America who raises issues of gender politics in Muslim-majority countries is likely to be called an Orientalist; compared to Laura Bush, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and IrsHad Manji; and accused of using “good Muslim-bad Muslim” stereotypes. If she is white, she will be told she is colonialist; if she is a woman of color or feminist from the Global South, she will be considered to lack authenticity. She will be accused of “essentializing” political Islam and ignoring differences within it; of lacking nuance and failing to contextualize; of having internalized ideas of Western superiority; of perpetuating binaries such as progressive vs. reactionary, liberal vs. conservative, secular vs. fundamentalist; of being a traitor to her community and culture. She will be beaten over the head with Edward Said, a self-described secularist who must be turning in his grave to see the use his followers make of him. Here, for example, is a recent discussion by Rupal Oza, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Hunter College, and Amna Akbar, Senior Research Scholar and Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Human Rights Clinic of New York University Law School:

[S]ecular feminists’ concern that “Muslim fundamentalist” religious codes impose and sanction violence on women and queers relies on a myopia that understands Muslim women only as victims of Muslim men and Islam, ignoring the role of imperial violence in defining Muslim realities around the world. … The military, intelligence, and humanitarian arms of the U.S. “War on Terror” rely on the construction of Muslim men and Islam as savage threats, Muslim women as helpless victims and the United States as liberator-cum-savior. … The victim-savage-savior framework produces one-dimensional narratives that marginalize or erase imperial violence and transnational and structural inequalities. In producing human rights subjects in clear-cut codependent categories of victim, savage, and savior, these human rights discourses transform complex social contexts rife with inequalities and violence into neat moral geographies … this limited imagination of victims elides the ways in which imperial, secular violence—the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan or U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan—undermine human rights and material realities of men and women around the world.

The message is clear: stick to U.S. imperialism and shut up about the Muslim Right. While such a message is to be expected from the Muslim Right itself, this is coming from academic feminists and the message long predates Sept. 11. Academic postmodernism reached its zenith as part of the rightward political turn of the 1980s and ’90s, when globalized capital appeared triumphant and all hope of positive radical change faded; it is, in short, the politics of despair. Haideh Moghissi’s critique of this tendency, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis, was written two years before the attack on the World Trade Center. Says Moghissi:

[M]y concern here is less with postmodernism as a slippery epistemological stance and more with its effect on our political climate and mood—its well-advertised but fictitious radicalism (which rapidly dissolves into a celebration of cultural difference), its privileging of the “local” (as against “master narratives” emphasizing universal rights) and, consequently, its curious affinity with the most reactionary ideas of Islamic fundamentalism. For the two share a common ground—an unremitting hostility to the social, cultural, and political processes of change and knowledge and rationality, originating in the West, known as modernity.

The postmodernist feminist analysis has a curiously conservative view of Muslim women, with no room for the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who are secularist in the same way Christians, Hindus, and Jews are. Muslims are treated as people who must be protected from cosmopolitanism—this again echoes the view of the Muslim Right. As Sadia Abbas, assistant professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, points out, this kind of feminism ignores the actual views and organizations of women in Muslim-majority countries in order to defend the Muslim Right’s construction of a beleaguered Islam facing off against the U.S. empire:

Does Islam really need that much help? Are arguments between Muslims simply irrelevant? Can coercive practices of subordinating women that seek Islamic authority ever be critiqued when they take place in contexts where Muslims face discrimination, and where there is the backdrop of a brutal and long colonial history? Are secular or reformist Muslim feminists allowed to talk about patriarchal structures that draw upon Islam or are they always to be subjected to disciplining by the metropolitan gaze… within the post-secularist universe there can be no secular or anti-Islamist Muslims or Muslim reformers. There is, in other words, a recurrent invocation of the plurality of Islamicate cultures and yet a continuous subsumption of most Muslims to the most orthodox kinds.

Late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Caracas, January, 2012. (Photo JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

Post-colonial postmodernist feminism seldom examines the political questions of alliance and affiliation taken up in this study, or the complicated dialectic between terrorism and counter-terrorism. The analysis has no room for the fact that the supposedly “democratic” and “anti-imperialist” Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was eager to get loans from the World Bank and accept U.S. aid. Actually, the analysis has very little room for the real world at all—its focus is on image, representation and trope rather than relationships between living people. With the exception of wars of empire, real-world political battles fade away; there are no actual Islamist organizations, no political parties, no struggles over particular laws. In fact there are no social actors of any kind except for the U.S. military and its drones, just “narratives,” “categories” and “complex social constructs.” Most of all, there is no way that progressives or feminists in the North can act in solidarity with those in the Global South, for any solidarity can only be construed as imperialist “rescue”.

Yet solidarity is the only way to cut through the knots of the double bind.

Here is a radical suggestion for the Anglo-American left: Instead of allying with and protecting the Muslim Right, how about solidarity with actual popular movements of democrats and feminists struggling in the Global South? How about recognizing that we all face an emerging conservative front in which Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to be allies than adversaries, and human rights are of no concern to either?

In order to get its collective head straight, the Anglo-American left will have to overcome its imperial narcissism, in which the United States (with its U.K. ally) is assumed to be the cause of everything bad happening in the world, and the only possible response to its overwhelming power and evil is a pained ironic stance, or, at best, a position of moral witness. Yes, the United States invades other countries and sends drones to kill by night; nevertheless, like the United Kingdom before it, the United States is an imperial power in decline, stretched beyond its means, with severe domestic problems. And while it continues to prop up old-style military dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere in pursuit of oil, it is just as happy to ally with the Muslim Right in all its various forms—from political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islami, to the Pakistani and Saudi governments, the Taliban, and the dictators of Central Asia.

If solidarity with feminists and progressives in the South is essential for any hopeful political project in the North, so is defence of secular space. Since the end of the Cold War, secular spaces all over the world have come under siege by various forms of fundamentalism, and the instrumentalization of religion for political gain has become a problem in regions as varied as Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Africa, South America, Western Europe and North America. In all these places, religious identity politics has muddied discussion of class, racism and discrimination against women and sexual minorities. Democratic governance is based on the idea that the authority of the state is delegated by the people rather than coming from God, and separation of the state from religion is essential to democracy because gender, religious minority and sexual rights are issues whenever human rights are limited by religion, culture, or political expediency.

In order to cut through the double binds described above—so we can defend ourselves and others against terrorism and counter-terrorism, empower civil society, promote universal human rights and strengthen democracy—we must think about both solidarity and secularism. These are not the only social remedies needed in a world torn by conflict and poised on the brink of ecological disaster, but both are essential to our ability to move forward.

Excerpt from Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights by Meredith Tax. Copyright © 2013 by Meredith Tax. Used by permission of Centre for Secular Space. All rights reserved.

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The Muslim Right and the Anglo-American Left: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

An excerpt from ‘Double Bind’ questions the logic of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’