Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sad sack secularists.

I was at the Historical Materialism conference today, which I absolutely had to attend for various reasons, and it was brilliant. The best meeting by far was the one on Marxism, the Middle East and Political Islam, although I admittedly missed the one on Lebanon in order to catch Lars T Lih and Paul Le Blanc talk about Lih's new book on Lenin (which I won't be reviewing until I don't have to pay 93 euros for it). The former meeting, with Gilbert Achcar, Chris Harman and Haldun Gulalp, crystallised a very important division on the left with respect to anti-imperialist strategy - I mean the real left, not the apologists for war. Haldun Gulalp in fact had some very important points to make about the facile progressivism of many marxists and their befuddlement at the religious commitments of the actually existing working class in the Middle East. He was particularly strong on the point that when it comes to the classical marxist conflict between the relations of production and the forces of production (the former imposing limits on the latter), the oppressed class might actually find it advantageous not to develop the productive forces, especially if doing so involves altering social relations in such a way that re-skilling, dislocation and environmental destruction is involved. So, we should not be surprised as marxists if, given certain circumstances, we do not find the working class acting according to that progressivist script: sometimes they will seek to conserve what little they have if nothing positive is available.

But the big bust-up was between Harman and Achcar, one a very good writer on Political Islam, the other a world-class writer on the Middle East. The issue was the attitude to working with Islamists of various kinds, and to the priority given to secularism.

I was not bewildered or surprised by Achcar's claim that Political Islam should be understood as "Islamic fundamentalism", but I was amazed that he actually raised the use of the term as an anti-Orientalist point. You know, the idea being that Islamism is something invented by French orientalists to claim that Political Islam merely expresses something essential to Islam. One doesn't have to use 'Islamism' in this way, but whatever the case, is "Islamic fundamentalism" any better? For Achcar, it denotes a political movement that is necessarily anti-democratic, and literalist in its interpretation of the Quran and the Prophetic Tradition. Neither claim is true - there are leftist, democratic currents within Political Islam; not all Islamist movements adhere to literalist interpretations of the text. Fundamentalism is a term borrowed from American Protestantism, and it is strictly not relevant to Political Islam as such.

Achcar repeated the well-understood point that Islamist movements have been allies of imperialism in the past, even in Palestine. Yes, but this is not the whole story. For instance, in Palestine at the moment, Fatah are toppling into the imperialist camp, declaring itself to be at the service of the EU, the US and Israel in blaming Hamas for an economic crisis brought about strictly by the policies of the imperialists. This has consequences that those who fetishise secularism in politics are poorly placed to deal with. For instance, the Jewish Socialist Group has a formal position of supporting the elected government of Palestine, but it specifically declares that it will focus its support on the secular forces in Palestine - how this will be managed when the main secular force is effectively becoming an auxiliary of the imperialists is beyond me. But the JSG merely formalise what is the informal position of a number of pro-Palestinian groups.

And the relationship of Political Islam to imperialism is not as complicit and reactionary as Achcar would rhetorically allow. Indeed, even if Political Islam had not itself been a contributory factor in the Nasserite overthrow of the pro-British monarchy in Egypt, and even if the Muslim Brothers had not resisted the Zionists in Palestine, surely the Iranian Revolution and all that followed has indicated that Political Islam expresses the distress and anger of the oppressed as well as the concerns of the bazaari class.

Harman was much better, inasmuch as he asserted the rather important reality that the forces of resistance in the Middle East todat take the form of Political Islam. The left is in a bad position, often because it has supported state repression in the past (Harman cited Egypt, but an Iraqi speaker from the floor pointed out the complicity of the Iraqi communists with Ba'ath during the 1970s, which allowed the state to slowly kill it off). Harman argued that we of course should not trust petit-bourgeois organisations like the Muslim Brothers or any other Islamist formation, even though they now make overtures to the left. However, we should be prepared to a) oppose state repression against them, even when it is some nasty fuckers like Jamaat i-Islami and b) work with them in certain concrete situations (with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but not with the Jamaat in Pakistan). Harman pointed out that the left has had to work with some not only nasty forces, but absolutely murderous ones in the past, citing the Nationalists in China. The logic of insisting that we can never work with the Islamists is straightforwardly Islamophobic; it falls into the trap of contemporary imperialist ideology, elaborated since the British conquered Bengal in 1757, in believing that there is something unique about Islam (specifically any political expression it might have) that means we have to ignore it or oppose it.

Harman also argued the case in terms of Marx's understanding of 'romantic anticapitalism' - that is, those who are not automatically reactionary, but a) do look back to a romanticised precapitalist era and b) are susceptible to reactionary arguments. As far as the rise of Political Islam is concerned, it begins with the dissolution, particularly in the 19th Century, of what could broadly be understood as an "Islamic Civilisation", however problematic that term, one that stretched from North Africa to the south and east of Asia. That this dissolution occurred under the impact of imperialist societies usually wielding bibles as well as guns meant that one obvious reaction to it was to see it as a religious and cultural challenge as well as a political one. So, as the imperialists penetrated each society not only with military might but also with capital flows, the indigenous societies resisted not only by pursuing forms of nationalism that mimicked the West, but also in some cases by insisting that something had been corrupted in the community itself (in the Umma), and that Islam was in need of some kind of restoration. The latter is romantic anticapitalism, and its popular base today is among rural workers arriving in urban centres. Romantic anticapitalism can be pulled to the left or to the right, depending on the concrete circumstances.

Achcar's response was curious - he said that Harman was engaging in apologetics because he seemed to be saying that a) Islam was the same as "Islamic fundamentalism" and b) that the Islamists weren't as bad as the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. Neither of these things had Harman actually said, but I am so used to this that I can only see it as symptomatic of a temporary communication barrier that distorts the words on their way from mouth to ear, and thence (with any luck) to brain.

Achcar was even worse on the question of the Iraqi resistance, despite all that he has written (perhaps offering an unnecessary hostage to fortune in the exchange). He claimed that the resistance was "Islamic fundamentalist" (including, wierdly, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has never to my knowledge advocated the vilayet i-faqih), and had taken more lives in sectarian attacks than the occupiers had: this is an outright falsehood, and one whose genesis lies in imperialist propaganda to boot. Never mind raking over the Lancet study figures, and leave aside the role of the Special Police Commandos and the Badr Brigade and the rest of it - even if you leave all of that out, the occupiers' own figures show that most resistance attacks are against the occupying troops, and not directred against Iraqis. This was true long after even the attack on the al-Askari shrine. But it's a curious position Achcar finds himself in: he insists that socialists should not make alliances with Islamists, yet (in his writings) he supports the right of Iraqis to resist the occupation, and supported Hezbollah's role in resisting the Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Further, Achcar kept pressing at an open door as if it was locked: he said marxists, especially in the Middle East, should fight for secularism, womens' rights and gay rights, and Harman said in reply that, yes, marxists should fight for secularism, womens' rights and gay rights. He said that it was a problem that the forces of Political Islam had overtaken the secular left, and Harman had already said that he would rather the main forces of resistance in the Middle East were revolutionary socialists and not the forces of Political Islam. Again and again, Achcar insisted on positions that were consensually accepted because he assumed that consequences followed from them that in fact did not, not really even on his own terms.

The point about secularism in the Middle East as regards imperialism is this: since the Western powers have noticed that their most potent foe of late, the one that mobilises the people, is Political Islam, they have adopted a 'secularist' line: Hamas are "fundamentalist", hence we starve them and shoot at their supporters; Hezbollah, we bomb; same with the Iraqi resistance; also for this reason, we send 'advisors' to fight the Moro insurgents etc etc. The imperialists also rely on a left-flank of media apologists to advise socialists and liberals that imperialism is really all about protecting them and their ideals from the dread "fundamentalism", which threatens to enslave our women and obliterate our cosmopolitan freedoms etc. Of course marxists should fight for women's liberation and gay rights and secularism in the Middle East and elsewhere: those are crucial demands for any marxist organisation. But the idea that, in fighting against particular problems (imperialist intervention, neoliberalism etc) we should not work with the Islamists because they aren't secular is absurd and self-defeating.