The metropolitan left and the Muslim world

In much of the western world, progressive political and social forces have rallied to the defence of Muslim immigrant communities that face systematic discrimination following the launching of the ‘war on terror’. In the anti-war movement in the United States and Great Britain for example, Muslim associations have worked closely with secular groups that broadly associate themselves with the political left. This intriguing alignment of forces would appear to be a logical and measured response to the jingoism of many western governments as well as the attendant suspicions and harassment that have become commonplace within larger society.

It is important to be clear that in most cases the left is allying with social and cultural groups that have been associated with the Muslim community, as opposed to overtly political entities that could be categorized as ‘Islamist’. However the effective result of this policy of alignment of progressive groups in Europe and North America is enhanced interaction and even cooperation with political forces that are currently at the forefront of resistance to imperial invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing brutal occupation of Palestine.

In the final analysis, this resistance is spearheaded by parties and movements that make no bones of their commitment to Islam as the guiding ideology of their politics. In other words, such groups not only seek to defend the rights of Muslims from foreign aggression but also assert their belief in the need for a transformative project that will culminate in a socio-political system guided by the tenets of the Shari’a, or Islamic law.

As many commentators on the Muslim world have rightfully pointed out in recent times, the ‘Islamists’ at the forefront of the resistance to empire and its lackeys in the Muslim world have a very murky past. In many cases, Islamists were clients of US imperialism during the cold war when ‘godless’ communism was a common enemy. In other cases, Islamic groups were cultivated to undermine the influence of secular left forces that were well-established in much of the Muslim world until two decades ago. In general, the forces of the religious right in the Muslim world have been direct beneficiaries of the systematic repression to which secular left forces have been subjected over a very long period of time.

That the religious right in the Muslim world has now emerged as a threat to the ‘free world’ is ironic to say the least. This turn of events is not surprising insofar as Islamists are the only organic political entities that are even in a position to mobilize against external aggression. But the fact of the right’s emergence over the past few decades has been discussed exhaustively since the beginning of the war on terror. What is less clear is how Islamism as a political ideology – albeit highly contradictory and fragmentary – is slowly becoming even more entrenched in the public imagination in the wider Muslim world.

Genuinely progressive forces now exist on the political margins in much of the Muslim world. While NGOs espousing liberalism have proliferated in large numbers in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt, there is a dearth of radical left groups that have viable programmes for transformative change in these societies. Indeed it can be argued that NGOs have added to rather than alleviated the problem because they do not undertake structural analyses nor propagate structural responses to the major problems in Muslim countries, including the huge gap between the needs and aspirations of the state and the people, and the rapid encroachment of capital into all spheres of life. Meanwhile organized political forces have been unable to reclaim the social space that they occupied in the 1960s and 1970s, largely because there are very few countries in which progressive political forces even remain organized and coherent after decades of state repression.

In comparison, Islamism as a political ideology has benefited greatly from the war on terror. At a time when incredibly reactionary regimes are in power in the United States and Great Britain, the self-proclaimed leaders of the ‘free world’, Islamists are the only force in many Muslim countries that, at least at a rhetorical level, have decried the naked aggression of western governments. Furthermore, following the decline of progressive ideologies in Muslim societies, and a period in which cynical patronage politics had become commonplace, the firebrand ideas of social and political upheaval in the name of Islam have at least some appeal.

What many people do not know about the contemporary politics of the Muslim world is the ongoing patronage of Islamists by many Muslim governments. In Pakistan for example, in spite of all pretensions to the contrary, the military junta and the parties of the religious right continue to share mutual interests. As militancy increases in Pakistan and bordering Afghanistan, the right’s influence grows, whereas the Musharraf government continues to harp on about the threat of militancy and proclaims itself the only force in the country (and for that matter region) capable of dealing with the threat.

That being said, the contradictions of the religious right are also very glaring, particularly in countries like Algeria and Pakistan where it has actually been able to acquire a share in state power. In such instances, the right’s inability to articulate the nitty gritty of a genuinely transformative project, regardless of whether it is couched in the language of religion, is exposed sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, because of the ‘permanent war’ being waged by the United States against the ‘forces of evil’, the right continues to be relevant to politics in the Muslim world, and particularly in its appeal to an increasingly frustrated and depoliticized youth that do not look at the formal political sphere as a potential solution to societal crisis in any case.

The moral of the story is that progressive forces in the western world that are making strategic alliances with religious groups need to recognize the larger responsibility they have to the regeneration of progressive politics in the Muslim world. This is not to suggest that the alignment of the left in Europe or North America with Muslim groups is a blunder, but only that the wider implications of this alignment need to be considered. Moreoever, if progressive forces are to be regenerated beyond Europe and Latin America, the considerable challenge of the religious right in the Muslim world needs to be given serious consideration.

Intriguingly, in the western world, and even in countries like India where Muslim politics is on the margins, Islamic groups would appear to have a far more progressive slant than in the Muslim world itself. It may be postulated that this is because Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority countries are often on the socio-economic margins and the political demands of Muslim groups relate to secular concerns about the social and economic deprivation of first or second generation immigrants. In comparison, the established Islamic parties and movements in much of the Muslim world remain unwilling to engage with fundamental questions about the configuration of power and the larger structures of their societies, and instead spend much more time rhetoricising about ‘heretical’ imperialism and the threat that it poses to Islam.

The stunning and decisive defeat of Israel by a Hezbollah-led resistance in Lebanon including the Lebanese Communist Party should reignite the debate over the possibility of a progressive current within political and social movements that associate themselves with Islam. Time will tell whether Hezbollah does articulate a progressive politics that does indeed challenge status quo. In any case, one cannot expect the American empire and its henchmen to stop terrorising Muslim populations in the near future, and therefore it is up to progressive forces around the world to take seriously the question of how to regenerate the left in the Muslim world amidst a wave of anti-imperialist sentiment. The astonishing resurrection of the left in Latin America is evidence enough that the third world is ready to pose another defining challenge to capitalist imperialism, and there can be no question that working people in the Muslim world have a key role to play in the coming struggles. 

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