Michael Brull makes two key claims that lead him to confusing issues of principle and strategy for a Left forced to deal with political Islam’s influence.
First, he argues that while ‘[p]olitical Islam can take many different forms’, it is not anti-imperialism, it is not feminism, and it is not socialism – and he backs this with examples of reactionary policies and betrayals by various Islamist formations.
If the argument were about whether the Left should import Islamism into its politics, there would be nothing to debate. We should not: we must remain fiercely critical and independent of any reactionary policies and actions. But today the organised Left is almost everywhere a marginal force, and organisations well to the Right of us play a major role in resisting imperialism, dictatorship and neoliberalism, however inconsistently. Islamism is not just the ideology of certain ruling elites in the Middle East and Asia: Islamists also play key roles in opposition from below. How, then, can the Left turn this reality in its favour?
For the Left to strategically outmanoeuvre the Islamists, it will have to enter into tactical alliance with them in the course of real movements for national liberation, democracy and social justice. It will have to prove to people in practice – not just rhetorically – that it has a better way forward for these struggles than they do. To oppose such alliances is also to pre-emptively reject the widest possible subaltern unity in the fight for those goals.
It is not enough to simply list Islamists’ crimes. The Left needs to have an analysis of the contradictory role Islamists play. Islamists can shift between seeking accommodation with the state and imperialism, and being pressed into more open confrontation. They can campaign for genuine political freedoms, alongside arguing for repressive moral sanctions against women, gays and non-Muslims.
Oppositional Islamist currents are largely based in the impoverished, educated, urban new middle classes of the Muslim world, and so respond to the depredations of capitalism and imperialism with a mixture of protest against the system and hopes of finding a place within it. We should judge them by their objective role in actual social conditions and struggles, not just by their ideas.
In his accounts of Egypt’s MB and the Afghan mujaheddin, Brull sees only one side of this reality, and so cannot explain their ability to build a base among the oppressed. The MB played an often courageous role against Mubarak, suffering severe repression for its efforts. This was despite its leaders’ desire to make peace with the regime, and despite the reactionary elements of its politics. This – and not some magical pull of irrational ideas – explains the respect the MB has built among the Egyptian masses. Similarly, the mujaheddin were able to organise guerilla resistance to the brutal Russian invasion, thereby building a support base for the Taliban’s subsequent takeover.59
To say that the Left should embrace feminists and secularists from the Muslim world simply dodges the inconsistencies of those currents, in much the same fashion as Brull has skipped over Islamists’ contradictions. Should we have embraced the secular Leftists of Egypt’s Communist Party when they supported state repression of the MB?60 Should we embrace elite feminists from the Muslim world like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who wants the West to ‘crush’ Islam?61
I suspect Brull’s refusal to acknowledge the complexities of Islamism is tied to his assertion that ‘the Left should be firmly and unapologetically secularist’, supporting ‘Enlightenment values of rationalism … [and] people thinking for themselves, rather than believing in irrational and empirically dubious dogmas’.
Here Brull invokes what Dan Hind calls a ‘folk enlightenment’ view, a simple tale of reason versus irrationality, that obscures the Enlightenment’s ambiguities.62 The Enlighten-ment also gave us capitalism, a system of horrific poverty alongside unimaginable wealth, and brutal repression alongside formal political freedoms. Capitalism overturned the unquestioned religious authority of the feudal era but in its place we are expected to bow down to a narrow empiricist rationalism that basks in the virtues of free markets, private property rights and a science that serves elite rule. The clearest example is a US establishment that props up dictators and invades Muslim countries not because of religion but because of perfectly secular and rational geopolitical objectives related to capitalism’s thirst for oil.
Much of the mainstream debate has exaggerated the threat posed by irrationalities like religion, New Age mysticism and postmodern relativism while doing little to address the ‘dubious dogmas’ of secular ruling classes in the West which subordinate science to commercial and military imperatives and promote liberal ideologies that justify actual power relations.
Brull is right to argue that ‘we should support people challenging undeserving authorities’, but today those power relations do not neatly cleave along a line dividing secular/rational from religious/irrational. To understand which side we must fight on (and who we fight alongside) requires looking beyond people’s ideas to the part their social practices play in helping or hindering us in transforming the world for the better.