Friday, March 30, 2007

A Marxist Muslim Alliance? A response to the Different Euphemisms For Power

Sahar's article the Different Euphemisms For Power, passionately rails against Western, "Orientalist" misrepresentations of Muslims as a homogenous group, either as demonic bloodthirsty terrorists or as victims to be pitied. However, she makes sweeping statements about the support socialists have given the anti imperialist struggles in the Lebanon, Palestine , Iraq and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, criticisms that Socialist Worker, as the only named group, would like to respond to.

1) All the left require is the token Muslim who will be mere background for their protest down Queen Street and the like - just in case their argument needs further reinforcement and legitimacy. Importantly, 'Muslim' is treated as homogenous.

First off, we do not see our Muslim brothers and sisters as homogenous tokens. The Muslim world, like the Western world, is divided into rich and poor, and the working classes of Cairo , Jakarta and Baghdad are some of the biggest in the world. These countries all have indigenous socialist and trade union movements, such as the Peoples Democratic Party of Indonesia, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Revolutionary Socialist Organisation of Egypt, who are involved in fights for human rights and huge strike movements in their predominantly Muslim societies.

(2) Furthermore, Western ideas like Marxism, Enlightenment principles and so on are portrayed as 'universal' and dictate the narrative. In the end, we have both perceptions depicting the struggles of Muslims in so called 'universal' concepts and norms which are inherently Eurocentric.

If it is a Universalistic concept to believe that the world is divided into poor workers and the tiny rich elite minority who benefit from their exploitation (whether that society is Muslim or Western), and that we need to organise to fight these elites for workers and human rights, then yes, socialists plead guilty!
The argument about how economy and society should be controlled democratically is one that rages within Muslim society itself. Salma Yaqoob, an eloquent young woman widely tipped to be the next MP in Birmingham for the radical socialist RESPECT coalition, spoke poignantly about this issue-
"The presentation of Muslims as one reactionary bloc has to be challenged. The Muslim community is a mosaic of different communities, experiences and viewpoints. When I stood as a RESPECT candidate in Birmingham, the bulk of my political opponents were Muslims. A Liberal Democrat Muslim candidate, an independent Muslim candidate and a Conservative Muslim candidate all stood against me. I was also the one most attacked by Muslim extremists going around with leaflets at the mosque and in vans with loudspeakers saying I was no longer a Muslim because I work with atheists and this is haram."
"So I find myself in the curious position of having more in common with atheist, socialist activists than my own Muslim brothers and sisters. But for me it's an expression of what I understand to be Islamic notions of justice. If you want to call it socialist internationalism and I call it Islamic notions of brotherhood and sisterhood, I don't care- as long as it means that we work in solidarity with those who are oppressed around the world. That's why I'm proud to be one of the founders of RESPECT. We stand for an alternative to the politics of imperialism and neo-liberalism."

(3) Additionally, the socialist left denigrate the struggles of the Muslim world to nothing but a class struggle. It sees the disenfranchised and impoverished as means to its own end. Therefore, the interdependency of history, political complexity, cultural dynamics and ongoing human struggle for liberation is reduced by being solely represented through a socialist ideological framework, simplified and made superficial - stripped of any narrative but a workers' struggle against capitalism. The different cultural context is removed, and so is the essence of identity for many of the region.

Socialists are not the crude reductionists that Sahar paints in her article. Socialists unconditionally support genuine anti imperialist movements throughout the world, be it Hizbollah's resistance to Israel's invasion of Lebanon last August, the Intifada in Palestine, the peoples of East Timor, Aceh and West Papua struggling against the Indonesian state, or the 800 year old struggle of the Irish people for self determination from England. None of these are class struggles- these are cases of small nations being oppressed by another imperial power, and socialists are opposed to all forms of oppression, not just in the workplace. We also believe that the defeat of our rulers armies abroad helps weaken their power at home- the Left launched massive social struggles for Civil Rights, Womens Rights and Trade Union rights on the back of the mass movement they built in solidarity with the Vietnamese people in the 1960s.

(4) Granted, the left-socialist agenda is not sinister like its counterpart.

Socialists would like to reclaim the word sinister, which comes from the Latin, Sinistra, meaning Left! But then again, just like the words Black, Muslim and Arab, dominant ruling class culture makes anything "left field" sinister! (LOL). However, it must be noted that not all socialists are homogenous either- Tony Blair and Stalin both laid claim to the name, but there are rivers of blood between the Stalinist dictatorships of Russia or the war loving Social Liberals of New Labour, and those of a genuine revolutionary socialist tradition. Even amongst revolutionary socialists, there is an argument, with Socialist Worker proudly on the side of Muslim people fighting Islamophobia in countries like Aotearoa and Britain, whilst other groups such as the LCR in France supporting the governments ban on the Hijab in schools and Universities. This meant that there was a gigantic anti war movement in the UK (with over two million people marching in London) that united Muslim and non Muslim in a new left movement, whilst immigrant youth in France saw the rise of Islamophobic far Right parties such as Le Pen's Front National, and fought on the streets whilst the radical left looked on impotently.

(5) However, both draw upon an Orientalist precedent that is seeping in racist and imperialist notions that disfigure representations of 'Muslim' in order to possess them. To own them. To direct them. To contain and therefore control them. Thereby both perceptions arrogantly assume they can speak for Muslims.

Sahar here draws on the work of world renowned writer Edward Said and his caricature of Marxism in his masterwork Orientalism. Among sections of the anti-imperialist movement there is still a degree of suspicion of Marxism, fed by the postmodernist, post-colonial academic currents of the 1980s and 1990s. The noted Indian historian Irfan Habib critiques this misrepresentation of Marx.-

On a preliminary page of his Orientalism, Edward Said puts two short quotations, the first of which is from Marx: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." An innocent reader will surely assume that Marx is here implying that Oriental peoples are incapable of representing themselves, and so Europeans (better still, European Orientalists) must speak for them. And, indeed, on p21, quoting Marx's words in original German, Said explicitly furnishes this precise context for his words.

There is a double sense in which this use of the quotation is unethical and irresponsible. The quoted words are taken from a passage in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he speaks not of the position of Eastern peoples, but of the poverty-stricken smallholding peasants of France at a particular juncture in the mid-19th century. "Since these peasants could not unite, they were incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master" (K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1950, vol I, p303).
Not only does Said thus coolly substitute eastern peoples for French peasants; by a sleight of hand he also converts Marx's word "representation", meaning political representation, into "depiction" (The Oriental people cannot depict themselves, and so the Orientalists representation does the job p21).

(6) So in the left case, Muslims are represented as silent, oppressed and victimised. They do not speak for themselves, because they are represented as such; they therefore need to be spoken for.

We also do not see Muslims as victims who need us to represent them. The comrades of Hizbollah and the Lebanese Communist Party fought arm in arm together against the Israeli invasion without our help. They defeated the fifth strongest army in the world. Socialists, however, see it as our international duty to organise protests and solidarity whenever people are under attack. Throughout the Western world, from London to Washington to Auckland , we have been at the centre of building broad, inclusive anti war movements that have helped undermine the support for war. Socialist Worker comrades argued hardest throughout the world for the Muslim community to be centrally involved in these anti war coalitions, against many pure secularists who wanted to marginalise them. These movements claimed the scalp of Aznar in Spain , Berlusconi in Italy, and have seriously damaged both Bush and Blair. Comrades in the Middle East can point to the fact that millions of Westerners marched against war and invasion, thus defeating the myth that this war was a Clash of Civilisations.

And it's not just the socialists of a 'Eurocentric' ilk who extended this practical solidarity. The socialist President of revolutionary Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was the only head of state to expel the Israeli ambassador from his country at that time- no Arab or Muslim head of state did anything similar. His image hung beside Hizbollah's Nisrallah from thousands of lamp posts in Beirut and Southern Lebanon as the cluster bombs fell and the resistance raged. The emergence of the Bolivarian Revolution and the Latin American radical left demolishes the myth that socialism is the preserve of old, European white men. The Socialism of the 21st Century is currently led by a brown, indigenous Latin American from the Global South.

Here in Auckland, socialists such as Kane Forbes helped to form the Students for Justice in Palestine Chapter in Auckland Uni with Zaem Bakesh in the early days of the Intifada in 2000. Our members in the Residents Action Movement (RAM) are currently working with the Muslim community to respond against the despicable Islamphobia of Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine. We have marched together for Palestine , Lebanon and Iraq, and will be united on the streets if there are any attacks on Iran. We do not look on our Muslim comrades as victims, tokens, demons or others, but our brothers and sisters in the fight for peace and global justice.

Further reading:

The Prophet and the Proletariat by Chris Harman

Israel the Hijack State
by John Rose

Critical Notes on Edward Said
by Irfan Habib

La Haine Est Dans La Rue- Personal Thoughts on the French Autumn Intifada by Joe Carolan