Saturday, October 20, 2007

A rational approach to Political Islam.

Decentism demands denununciations. All the time. Will you condemn this latest atrocity in which three children have been dispersed across an Iraqi street by salafists? Will you denounce the rocket attacks aimed at schools? What about acid being thrown in the face of women by Talibs? Who doesn't know how to say "that's disgusting"? Aside from the fact that it defies every sound principle of politics to take one's cue from the decents, the problem is that: a) it's hypocritical, because the decents are energetically supportive of mass atrocities by warmongers, and even where they oppose a certain style of atrocity by imperialism, they are rarely as energetic in denunciation of those; b) it usually shades into denunciations of much more defensible actions or at least applying them to more ambiguous situations (which can only be disambiguated with simple-minded moralism), such as the call to denounce Hezbollah for using indiscriminate weapons during Israel's attack on Lebanon; c) the instances requiring denunciation almost always refer to actions carried out by currents of Political Islam, which reflects the Islamophobic bent of decentism; d) most importantly of all, it is not merely ineffectual but mirror's the theological conception of politics propounded by the 'fundamentalists'. I don't want to be misunderstood on the last point: it is almost as if the worst insult one could make of a self-professed secular liberal intellectual that they sound like their 'fundamentalist' opposites. However, my insult is directed at the 'fundamentalists'. I am denouncing them, if you will, by comparing them to those whose output is far more pernicious and far more complicit in massive violent crime. The decents are the theologians and obscurants of disaster capitalism, for whom all its worst manifestations are either accidental or providential, or the works of the devil. The revealed answer to human problems already exists in the form of liberal democracy.

As a rule, the liberal agitators for civilizational warfare know nothing about Political Islam except so much of the record of Sayid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood as might allow them to characterise it as "clerical fascism". So, instead of rehearsing the arguments about variations in Political Islam and the multitude of its possible relations to gender, democracy, socialism and so on, I simply want to suggest a rational approach. The rationalist approach, in fact, the one that so annoys the Bermans and Cohens of this world. It is this: the world does not consist of a confrontation between good and evil, but of social forces with interests and ideologies, and strategies for meeting both kinds of ends. The character of these social forces is not a matter of moral superiority or inferiority, it is a matter of their being harmful or beneficial (or, as is often the case, some mixture of the two). The reason why the decents insist on making this a central question is quite simply that they want to insist on the moral supremacy of 'Western', 'Anglosphere' or 'European' culture, which in itself reflects a deep unease and insecurity about the viability of the societies in which we live. The logical result of a rationalist approach to politics is realpolitik. The usual criticism of realpolitik is that it is amoral and so on, but this is not the issue: it is deployed by mediocre intellects such as Kissinger and Brzezinski on behalf of American ruling class interests, and so is necessarily savage. Socialism is therefore realpolitik for the poor, the working class and oppressed. That involves an attempt to understand, and to detect potential temporary allies and obstacles. If it rules out certain alliances, it isn't on a priori moralistic grounds (they're eeeevvvillll, they're violent, they're ruthless, they're communalist, they're against democracy!).

Proceeding from a political economy of Political Islam demands a much more complicated set of responses than that. It would suggest, I think, that it is right for the Left in Lebanon to work with Hezbollah for a limited series of objectives, while retaining critical independence; similarly, it is right for the Left in Pakistan to utterly reject the Jamaat e-Islami, even while defending their right not to be murdered by the Pakistani state. It is certainly right for Palestinian socialists to cooperate with Hamas, and it was a sectarian mistake for some socialist groups to refuse to work with them given the gravity of the challenges faced. The scissions in each circumstances are different, but where unity is called for, it is usually best to understand the Islamists as reformists without a class analysis. They may lean to the left or to the right depending on the circumstances. They may have David Blunkett's views on homosexuality, Peter Tatchell's views on Leninists, and Christopher Hitchens' views on women. Or they may not. They may support populist economic measures, or they may lean to neoliberalism. And wherever revolutionaries find it useful to work with them, the main issues demanding resolution and conciliation are rarely those issues that Islamophobic liberals associate with Islam - misogyny, for example. Hamas is seen as right-wing and misogynistic, but the truth is that Hamas did a better job of including women in its electoral slates in 2006 than, for example, the Tories have ever done - and Christian Marxist women at that. The proportion of women in its 2006 slates (about a sixth) is inadequate, but better than the representation of women in the UK parliament. The main issues that the Lebanese left and Hezbollah will disagree over, for example, are the same ones that reformists and revolutionaries usually disagree over: electoralism versus class politics, bureaucratic solutions versus grassroots ones, the extent of accomodation to the existing elite etc etc.

Socialists have to deal with groups to the right of them all the time, and Islamists are no exception. The irrational demonisation of Political Islam is not a result of class analysis, or revolutionary realpolitik, but of liberal blackmail. It reflects the theological conception of politics rather than the rationalist one.