Tuesday evening, Malalai Joya gave a talk at UTS. She’s a small woman, and her English is a bit unsteady. Her manner was generally not as fiery as her language. What she said, however, radiated the defiance that makes her such an inspiring person. Whether denouncing the ‘mafia puppet government’ of Karzai, or the fundamentalist warlords, Joya was uncompromising in her rejection of Islamist fundamentalists, and of Western imperialism.
During question time, a passionate Iranian woman took the chance to give a long speech-question, before speaking even longer in Persian. When Joya responded to her question, Joya took the opportunity to denounce in her characteristically passionate way the ‘fascist’ government of Iran, which she said was ‘worse than Hitler’. This was surprising to me, as by my judgment the Taliban and warlords in Afghanistan are significantly worse than the reign of Ayatollahs in Iran. Interestingly, what I liked was Joya specifically warning against illusions about the reformists in Iran, insisting the whole system needed to be overthrown.
Joya is consistently secular and independent, dismissing the fundamentalist puppets of Iran in Afghanistan, complaining about the rule of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in helping the rise of the Taliban. In response to one question, Joya started individually naming warlords in Afghanistan’s parliament and their atrocities.
The worst thing about the night came earlier. There were a couple of introductory talks before Joya spoke, one by Tanya Plibersek. I boiled with fury. Why invite a member of a party that had supported the war from day one? Why invite a member of the party that wants to continue the war for years to come?
Some people clapped when Plibersek approached to speak. I waited to see what she’d say. She quoted from Joya’s book in favour of secularism and women’s rights in Afghanistan, saying these were things Joya had called for. Amazingly, she’d managed to find something that implied all of Afghanistan’s problems were internal.
Two of us in the audience – not sitting near each other – yelled out something to the effect: ‘she also calls for an end to the war’. Plibersek was startled. Her mumbled response was something like, ‘you’ll get to hear Joya soon for an hour and twnety minutes’. Plibersek wisely wrapped up. And then strolled out quietly during Joya’s talk. I suspect she knew she wasn’t welcome, though I have no idea why she came in the first place. Joya’s purpose in coming to the West was to tell us to take our troops home. Apparently everyone there except Plibersek knew that.
Plibersek in my view is just another Labor apparatchik, devoid of principles she might have once held. She once called Ariel Sharon a war criminal, then apologised, typical of the integrity of Labor MPs. Interestingly, when Rudd defended her as not anti-Semitic for stating the obvious, he claimed that Plibersek had been denouncing the Taliban since 1999. It’s a shame Plibersek didn’t stay and hear Joya condemn the puppet government we’re propping up in Afghanistan as no better than the Taliban.
When Plibersek spoke, she talked favourably of student activism. Yet the category of students who actually support Labor – or who are activists for it – is vanishingly small. Anyone idealistic enough to care enough to become an activist doesn’t have any reason to get involved in Labor, which doesn’t stand for anything, and ignores, avoids and rejects all progressive social movements. This poses a problem for Labor, which is becoming increasingly stagnant. In the meantime, the ALP is going to learn at left-wing events that it is not welcome, and will not be welcome until it adopts decent stances on issues from climate change to the NT Intervention, and refugees, gay marriage, the war on Afghanistan, and so on, and so on.
Finally, I wanted to add that the last time Joya came to Sydney, it was wonderful to see the publicity she was given. But there are more voices of the secular left in the Muslim world worth listening to. Tariq Ali and Gilbert Achcar are well known among the left. Still, there are many other secular leftists from the Muslim world, marginalised because their secularism isn’t restricted to criticism of Islam, but also Western imperialism. Assaf Kfoury, Fawwaz Traboulsi, As’ad AbuKhalil, all from Lebanon. Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi from Iran. Eqbal Ahmad (!) from Pakistan. And of course, the Palestinians. Back in 2007, I attended a talk by a rather passionate Palestinian woman, Hanan Aruri. I thought she was fantastic – after her speech, we stood around ridiculing religion and belief in god. She was a passionate secularist, and resisted those who sought to impose their religious values on her – without ever compromising her struggle against Israeli occupation and oppression.
But of course, her primary message was against the Israeli occupation she lived under. Predictably, this wasn’t considered an interesting or worthwhile message. So far as I know, the ALP never bothered to introduce any of her talks.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!