Monday, July 11, 2005

Political Islam and its discontents, III.

Before I go any further, I just want to bring everyone's attention to the fact that the Prime Minister has "vowed" to "hunt down" those responsible for bombing London . Because that marks a new departure in political rhetoric, doesn't it?

I've written before about some aspects of Political Islam , and these thoughts bear enlarging on a little bit given the twaddle talked by certain hysterical left-wing bombers.

For while it is entirely necessary to give the ideology its own particular weight, Marxists and materialist left-wingers who tend toward a 'deep structure' analysis of social movements need to go a great deal further than this. Actually, everyone needs to go further than this, if only for the sake of some vague desire for survival.

K-Punk makes a number of pertinent points about this:

To talk of al Qaeda in theological (rather than in political, social or economic) terms is to adopt their mode of discourse in an inverted form. It is to return to a pre-Feuerbachian, pre-sociological perspective in which all the lessons of the nineteenth and twentieth century studies of the social psychology of religion - undertaken by figures as diverse as Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche and Freud - are forgotten. If a particular strain of religion is to be understood as, in Cohen's words, 'an autonomous psychopathic force' rather than as a social, economic and psychological phenonenon with complex causes, then all hope of reasoned analysis is a priori ruled out. Unreason is abjected onto the Enemy (even as it is evinced in one's own not even minimally coherent ravings), thus legitimating the idea that 'the only option' is military force.

He then goes on to dissent from the stupid conflation of Islamism with fascism:

The floating of the pseudo-concept of 'Islamofascism' has been central here. There are any number of reasons to consider the idea that there is such a thing as Islamofascism a nonsense. Here are two. First of all, fascism has always been associated with nationalism, but, like global capital, Islamism has no respect for nationality; the first loyalty of the Islamist is to the global Umma. Secondly, fascism is about the State - Islamism has no model of the State, as could be seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

There are other good reasons to dissent from such a view, but suffice to say that while there are overlapping features between a certain kind of reactionary Islamism and fascism, this doesn't entitle anyone who isn't an anti-Muslim racist to the term 'Islamofascism'. (Actually, I'd add something to Mark's formulation at the end of that. The only state which can properly be said to have emerged from a popular embrace of Islamism of some kind is Iran. The Taliban was basically a Pakistani foreign policy success, whose peculiar tribal quirks and schooling under the umbrella of the ISI led to them trying to construct a fragile 'Islamic' state in a destroyed country, with a loose confederation of warring groups. Of course, the founders and rulers of Saudi Arabia used Islam more as a tool of legitimation and unification. The interesting thing about the Iranian state is how Western it is. The ideology of the nation-state suffuses its laws, while the 'revolutionary courts' set up by the theocracy are essentially Jacobin in nature. Similarly, the Council of Guardians function as the executive committee for the running of the common affairs of the Iranian bourgeoisie).

However, if the examples of Tariq Ramadan, Hasan Hannafi and the increasingly odd Mujahiden e-Khalq (now being groomed by the neocons for their opposition to the Iranian theocracy) aren't enough to persuade you that not all Islamism need be reactionary, think about this. I listened to Salma Yaqoob speak at a meeting entitled 'Muslims & the Left'. As Respect candidate for Birmingham Sparbrook, she lopped a huge chunk off the Labour candidate's lead and thrust the Tories and Lib Dems into third and fourth place. In the meeting she described how a) she based her politics on a particular reading of Islam, and even went so far as to compare readings from the Quran with statements by Lenin, b) she had been utterly vilified by local Islamists who said that she was no longer a Muslim, because she worked with atheists and this was kufr. As a left-winger, she campaigned on the basis of a manifesto supporting abortion rights, and as a candidate for a party committed to full rights for gays. (Similarly, Abdul Khaliq Mian had taken time during his campaign in the East End to support the mother of a gay man who had been beaten and intimidated by a Muslim gang). Yaqoob justifies her politics in terms of her religion, and as such could be called an Islamist - yet she is a supporter of democracy, human rights and socialism.

The other thing is that one of the main sources of left-wing ideology in Britain - and also elsewhere in the world - has been Catholicism. Yes, that most conservative and reactionary of Christian doctrines. Terry Eagleton, the great Marxist critique, started out as a left Catholic. If anything, the Catholic Church is far more authoritarian and doctrinaire than Islam, which has no formal clergy or hierarchy of believers. Pope John Paul II was given to issuing edicts (on abortion, for instance) that would often be followed by a declaration that his ruling was 'infallible' - Ratzinger was the usual hand-maiden in such procedures. If a ruling is indeed 'infallible', then no Catholic is permitted to question it. Homophobia and misogyny are no less present in Catholicism than they are in other religions. Yet, because Catholicism was often the ideology of some of the most oppressed and stigmatised workers - Irish immigrants - it often formed the basis of left-wing commitment.

In a perfect socialist world, no one would be bothered with religion. This world would be sufficient, for its brief duration. In the meantime, however, any rapport that the Left can develop with Muslims is precious. For one thing, they ought to be part of the Left's natural constituency. Of all social groups in Britain, Muslims are among the most likely to be stuck with poor housing, poor access to amenities, poor healthcare and education. For another, if self-preservation was your only real concern, you couldn't begin to win young Muslims away from more reactionary interpretations of Islam unless you took their beliefs and their needs seriously, and engaged with them in a genuine conversation. And by 'genuine conversation', I mean to exclude lecturing, interrogations and all the rest. Muslims don't need to apologise for who they are, or repeatedly and ostentatiously condemn the actions of groups over whom they have no control. They don't need to be subjected to tests over their personal views about bum-sex or anything else. They need to be taken seriously, engaged with, and treated with the kind of respect that other groups take for granted.