Egypt, the far left, and the far right
On Wednesday, 26 January 2011, Alan Woods, one of the leading members of the International Marxist Tendency, described the situation in Egypt. He set out the major problems for those demonstrating, namely that the Mubarak family will try all they possibly can to resist any oppositional strength, and that in any case, who will replace them? Inevitably Woods broaches the main opposition in Egypt: “The Islamic parties,” he notes “led by the Muslim Brotherhood, did not play any role in the organisation of this action [on the 25th of January] and originally they even opposed it. Only at a later stage were they forced to allow their members to attend.” Woods continues: “That is a devastating comment on those sorry “Marxists” in Europe who have been tail-ending the Islamists and given uncritical support to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
It is not made clear, in the proceeding paragraphs, which European Marxists Woods is referring to here, but there is no doubt that the Socialist Workers’ Party have been tail-ending the Muslim Association of Britain – a right wing fundamentalist tendency which is associated to the Muslim Brotherhood – for the past few years, both over opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the creation of the Respect party. Chris Marsden, in his review of SWP central committee member Alex Callinicos’ book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto for the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) website, writes of this curious bedfellowship that for the SWP, the MAB – which supports the introduction of Sharia Law – “is a vehicle through which it hopes to make an opportunist appeal to the many young muslims who were opposed to the war”.
A very brief history of the British far left’s attitudes towards Islamism
Some clues as to why the SWP were quite happy to coordinate protest groups, and protest parties, with organisations that can broadly be described as Islamist, can be found in an interview which Alex Callinicos himself gave in October 2006 to Ardeshir Mehrdad – an editor of the Middle East Left Forum, formerly Iran bulletin. During the interview Callinicos identifies the main ideological element at work in Middle Eastern “popular mentalities” as “anti-imperialist nationalism” for reasons which include Western domination of the region, Israel and the “pathetic subordination of most Arab regimes to Washington”. What can be seen is through subordination of the “workers and other exploited classes to those of the bourgeois leadership” the Islamists are taking over the mantle of leadership “from the secular nationalists and the left”. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah in cultivating a popular base among the urban poor, and supposedly fronting an anti-imperialist backlash, can, in Callinicos’ opinion, no longer be described as ‘ultra-conservative’ on this issue. Presumably on this basis, it’s OK to work in step with their UK representatives, or actively support them abroad. It was, in fact, in that same year that Lindsey German, then of Respect, said: “whatever disagreements I have with Hamas and Hezbollah, I would rather be in their camp…they want democracy. Democracy in the Middle East is Hamas, is Hezbollah.” Lest it said that were the same sentiments uttered about the BNP, there would no small uproar inside the far left.
The late Chris Harman, once member of the SWP central committee and former editor of International Socialism and Socialist Worker, noted some key issues on Islamism and the far left’s attitude towards it in his 1994 book “The Prophet and the Proletariat”. He emphasised that it was frequently students, “recent Arab speaking graduates” and “unemployed ex-students” who formed the backbone of Islamist movements. It was through their influence, Harman attests, that Islamism was “able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns as a “conservative” movement (Harman, 1994, pp16-17)”. The left, he maintains can work alongside Islamism, but it cannot take a neutral stance towards it, it must take a third position:
“They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes . . . many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists— provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms alongside them (Harman, 1994, pp18).”
Two initial thoughts: firstly this opinion of the Egyptian-born Harman shows what little seriousness he takes Islamism as an idea, instead seeing it as either false class consciousness (present in his preceding thoughts) or as a transitional phase, fit for progressive purposes – an almost patronising view. Secondly, according to Chris Marsden again, the SWP:
“insisted that a refusal to raise political differences was essential in order to maintain the heterogeneous movement against war; to keep things purely at the level of general opposition to war so as not to alienate anyone.”
Though it is evidently true that the SWP/MAB ventures (Stop the War Coalition and Respect party) were not created with the intention of achieving distant, programmatic cooperation, but to integrate over a single issue – and so are consequently at odds with the cautious, yet condescending, sentiments of Chris Harman.
As David Osler pointed out on his blog on Thursday “[b]ack in 1946, Socialist Workers’ Party founder Tony Cliff famously characterised [the Muslim Brotherhood] as clerical-fascists.” This sets an interesting precedent, particularly when we consider the close coordination of the far left and far right in the anti-war movement. But what we can see from further comments by Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, existing and former members of the SWP central committee, is that justification for the far left working with Islamist movements, in the Middle East or in East London, is based upon the assumption that it is a half-baked set of conservative, anti-imperialist ideas which can be pounced upon by socialists providing they refuse to raise political differences. Judging by Alan Woods’ statement, quoted at the start of this article, and in consideration of the Egyptian situation, where the major opposition in that country is the Muslim Brotherhood – who have had a part to play in reducing secular opposition to the government – a rift could re-emerge on the question of far left and Islamist cooperation.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a brief overview
The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. It was banned as an organisation in 1954 but “is somewhat tolerated by the state”. A blind eye is turned to the Brotherhood’s significant political influence, and its forged alliances with legal political groups in the last twenty years, such as with New Wafd, Liberal, and Socialist Labor parties. Though over this time it has attempted to present itself as a reformist, moderate and non-violent grouping. This is notable in their rejection of “offensive jihad” – later symbolically swapping Sayyid Qutb’s text Signposts (or Milestones) for Hassan al-Hudaybi’s Preachers, Not Judges (the former being a despairing description of jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic ignorance, largely seen as a very radical call to arms for the recreation of Islamist tactics on Muslim lands; the latter regarded as being a relatively peaceful rebuttal of Qutb’s radical ideas, focusing on the Muslim duty not to declare individuals as Muslim apostates).
(For information on the Preachers, Not Judges controversy, which questions the attributed authorship of the book, see Patrick Poole’s 2008 article The US and the Muslim Brotherhood at American Thinker. Also, the debate spills over to the comments thread of Poole’s blog, where the grandson of Hudaybi argues that his Grandfather was the original article, against the view of, among others, Brigadier General Fu’ed Allam, the security apparatus in the fifties when many of the Brotherhood leadership were being arrested, who professes that the book was written by select Brotherhood members at al-Azhar, a university in Cairo).
On the dawn of pressure to legalise the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in 2004 the organisation embraced a “reform initiative” in which they began to sing to the tune of parliamentary, and not presidential, democracy – a “landmark” in their political evolution. During a bout of pressure on the Mubarak regime from the Bush administration in the US, the Brotherhood entered into an internal dialogue about how to respond. This divided the traditionalists (taqlidiyun) who wanted to pursue increased religious education from reformists. Not long after this happened the Brotherhood elected Mohamed Badie, once close associate to Qutb, over the more moderate Mahmed Habib – though, it ought to be pointed out, Badie made an initial point of reaffirming the Brotherhood’s “commitment to democracy, pluralism, and minority and women’s rights” (according to Shadi Hamid’s policy brieifing (pdf) on Islamist groups for the Brookings Doha Center).
Many, of course, are still dubious of the Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called moderation. The Brotherhood for example declared Nasr Abu Zaid, the Muslim academic, an apostate – in direct parallel to the supposed teachings of Hassan al-Hudaybi. His crime was to put forward the theory that the Qur’an has been interpreted differently in different historical contexts. In this respect, leaders from Yasser Arafat to Hassan Nasrallah to Osama bin Laden should all be dealt apostasies on the grounds that they have erroneously interpreted the Qur’an as having negated the historical connection of the Jewish people to the city of Jerusalem – but yet I cannot foresee this.
It’s not the first time the Brotherhood’s actions have been in conflict with Hudaybi’s; an article by the Hudson Institute notes that:
When Alexandria’s Administrative Court issued a ruling on April 4, 2006 instructing the Interior Ministry to allow a citizen’s identity card to state that the holder was a Baha’i, the Brotherhood reacted with outrage. In the May 3, 2006 parliamentary debate on the ruling, MB deputies said that the Baha’is were apostates who should be killed. Quoting a hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to support their position, they declared that they would draft a law making Baha’ism a crime and branding the Baha’is apostates.
Memories of this, and the Brotherhood’s opinions of minorities in Egypt, have left people concerned that if the fall of Mubarak occurs, and the largest of the opposition forces take office, non-Muslim group will be preyed upon.
In very recent times, Badie, who once was on the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1960s, but confessed rejection of violence in later years, called for jihad against the US, professing Allah’s support for Gazan mujahideen. On the subject, Professor Barry Rubin argues that:
When the extreme and arguably marginal British Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary says that Islam will conquer the West and raise its flag over the White House, that can be treated as wild rhetoric. His remark is getting lots of attention because he said it in English in an interview with CNN. Who cares what he says?
But when the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood says the same thing in Arabic, that’s a program for action, a call to arms for hundreds of thousands of people, and a national security threat to every Western country.
One could see this as a point of hysteria, but it is most certainly a question of influence; the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, addressing his audience in Arabic, yields more influence than most, and frankly any decent person would have no truck with him – and yet his “moderate” credentials surpass requirement to scrutinise.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not come out in support of the resistance to start with, true. And for this reason Alan Woods was right to wag his finger; but now they have, they could play a large role if the government collapses, which after hearing Hillary Clinton’s words yesterday, it would seem the US is cautiously in anticipation of. Perhaps they will back Mohammed ElBaradei – it is not known at the time of writing – but as for how the left deals with this issue, a look at the sobering words of Maha Abdelrahman, on the subject of previous attempts at leftist/Islamist cooperation, should put things into perspective:
On the one hand, the rising coalition does hold the potential to become a precursor of a vibrant, broadly-based and democratic grouping that can offer effective opposition to government repression. But on the other, efforts at cooperation between the Left and the Islamists have been slow-moving, reluctant and beset with major obstacles.
Moreover, initiatives taken for organizing collaborative action have mostly, if not exclusively, come from the Left, which is objectively the weaker partner in the coalition, rather than from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Why should the left, of all countries, sell themselves short; under the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt would be a disaster state.