Michael Brull & Dr Tad Tietze speak

Healthy debate is a wonderful thing and Michael Brull has gone head-to-head with Dr Tad Tietze to debate the idea: Political Islam is not a friend of the Left, published in Overland‘s edition 203.

Mike is on Twitter, has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices and is involved in Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS). Dr Tad is a public hospital psychiatrist who works in Sydney. He co-runs the blog Left Flank and is very active on Twitter. Here, we dig a little deeper into their points of view and learn more about their individual journeys to writing and the Left.

It’s been a few months since the debate – do you have anything to add or amend regarding your argument?

Michael Brull speaks …

I would love to have written more but simply didn’t have room – I could go on at length. Some of Tad’s final points annoyed me. I think I pre-empted his point that the Muslim Brotherhood played a courageous role against Mubarak (in my opinion, it quite obviously didn’t), and the mujahideen’s ability to gain support doesn’t make its appalling tendencies and ideology any more admirable – and I’d add, there’s evidence the US supported them before the Soviet invasion anyway. I agree there are lots of secular policies that are horrible and deserve condemnation. My argument was that religious ones are often pretty dreadful too.

And in my view, religious authorities are inherently undeserving because religions are untrue. In practice, religious doctrines are usually a sideshow, just used to justify class, race and gender privilege. There are clear demonstrations of this in Saudi Arabia and Egypt which I cited, but I don’t think you’ll need to strain hard to think of Christian equivalents. Also, in my view, the Enlightenment’s proper descendant should be anarchism (libertarian socialism), not capitalism. I don’t see how the Enlightenment justifies having power imbalances, or invading Iraq. It seems to me there are pretty good rational arguments against them. Marxist attacks on the Enlightenment often underwhelm me.

One point I kicked myself for not making was this: Refugees in Australia often come from Islamist religious despotisms in the Middle East. I think it’s absurd to express solidarity with refugees here, but not with their struggle against the religious oppressors from whom they have fled. I mean, someone who comes here fleeing the Taliban may be surprised to learn that people on the Left dismiss a ‘a naive adherence to secularism as a progressive force in the modern world’.

Dr Tad Tietze speaks …

The Arab Revolutions showed that Osama Bin Laden’s elitist brand of Islamism has been totally overshadowed by mass movements from below. But these movements contain contradictory elements. They are not straightforwardly secular in composition or outlook.

I think the really interesting thing in Egypt has been how the Muslim Brothers have had serious internal ructions over the way forward. The organisation’s conservative leadership was instrumental in ensuring a ‘yes’ vote for the new Constitution, which includes provisions limiting the ability of the Left and the workers’ movement to organise.

But the MB’s overall behaviour is best described as ‘permanent vacillation between opposition and compromise, between escalation and calm‘. When protesters re-occupied Tahrir Square on 8 April calling for speeding up of prosecutions of members of the old regime, the Brothers initially backed the protests but then suddenly backed off and threw their weight behind the military command as the protector of the revolution.

In every phase of the revolution so far, many MB members have broken with the leadership to participate in more radical actions. This has led to tensions and splits – for example the editor of the organisation’s website quit over the leadership’s opposition to the Second Day of Rage on 27 May. Significant sections of the MB’s youth wing flaunted their leaders’ demands and participated on the day anyway. It is vital for the revolutionary Left to work with these activists and against all those who want to limit or destroy the revolution.

Among the latter are some very secular liberal forces that had supported Mubarak’s overthrow but are now campaigning for the workers’ movement to demobilise for the sake of the economy. While it is vital for the Left in places like Egypt to maintain a secular outlook and demand separation of state and religion, struggles for social transformation will not line up along simple Islamist/Secularist lines. I think Michael’s very black-and-white commitment to secularism blinds him to these important developments and leads him to inadvertently give ground to some reactionary forces.

What was your pathway into Left politics?

Dr Tad speaks …

Ironically enough I was attracted to Marxism because of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. My family is Polish and Solidarność was an inspiration for us, but I couldn’t grasp why our heroes would join a coalition with the Communists to smooth the transition to democracy. I became attracted to a Marxist politics that centred on the power of ordinary people to make history – the millions on the streets rather than the backroom dealmakers who shifted Eastern Europe from state capitalism to neoliberal capitalism.

Living in Queensland I had also watched as the corrupt and repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime fell apart, giving me a sense that even ruling elites who seemed impregnable were vulnerable to having their power collapse. Those were heady days!

Mike speaks …

I went to a private Jewish school – very right wing atmosphere (kids and teachers), very Zionist, and also rather anti-Arab racist. I was always just a bit of a sceptic. I didn’t accept what I was told, which was considered rather bizarre. Kids assumed I was disagreeing on political issues for the sake of it, or that I loved arguing. (The latter was probably true.) How else to make sense of this one kid disagreeing about John Howard or whatever? And when it came to Palestine, I mean, hysteria is an understatement. It was okay to be an agnostic/atheist, but dissenting from admiration of the Israeli government or Zionism was something along the lines of what I imagine it would have been to advocate sympathy for Bin Laden in New York in October 2001.

At uni, I remained progressive and aimless, but in first year I had lecturer Peter Slezak (banned from Limmud Oz) for the course Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. Peter introduced me to the world of rationalism and to philosophers like his hero (and mine), Bertrand Russell. Peter would wander off-topic and assign readings like Chomsky’s Responsibility of Intellectuals. I was rather impressed by Chomsky’s carefully logical analysis, even if I couldn’t follow all of it and at the time was too busy to read it word for word. At the end of semester, I visited Peter to hand something in and he talked about Israel, and told me to read Chomsky, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein, etc. He also commended Znet.

Chomsky really was my gateway to the radical Left, which I was already leaning to – I had wanted to write my 4unit English on why schools were bad, based on rejecting the power relations. I was instinctively anarchist since about 15 when I learned about the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment, etc. Reading a lot of Chomsky and being shocked (like being unplugged from the Matrix), I then put him to the test, reading exhaustively on Israel/Palestine. In my opinion, his scholarship is overwhelmingly vindicated, and his conclusions seem rather judicious. I drifted into other issues, but Chomsky really was my greatest influence.

As a writer, what inspires you?

Mike speaks …

Chomsky’s scholarship, Bertrand Russell – I love his prose, his intellectual honesty, his political courage, his sharp political insights, his philosophical outlook. Howard Zinn‘s memoir, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, is the most inspiring book I ever read. One of my favourite inspirations is Akeel Bilgrami’s key point: that it is the duty of the intellectual to be unpopular.

I deeply admire that. You know, I take stands sometimes that are easy for someone on the Left – like criticising Andrew Bolt. Criticising the case against him in Tracker took courage, for me, as lame as it sounds to praise myself, because I was criticising people I admire, in defence of someone I despise, to an audience that doesn’t really have any power to change the system and that I really would hate to alienate. It usually seems like most things I write just make people angry, but I passionately support freedom of speech, which is a rather lonely position in Australia.

Anyway, I am inspired by the idea that writers should be unpopular. The great intellectuals I admire really do alienate a lot of people, but gain the respect of a handful of comrades (think Eqbal Ahmad, Chomsky, Israel Shahak, Edward Said, Howard Zinn – they’re all friends). I don’t flatter myself that I’m comparable to them other than being similarly left-wing, but they are role models: the lonely, isolated intellectual struggling to give voice for the oppressed.

I suppose as far as writing goes, I really admire As’ad AbuKhalil’s fierce independence. You know, he gets banned by Middle Eastern governments all the time, he fiercely opposes all of them, he’s harshly secular, and he’s not afraid to criticise friends (even Edward Said when he agreed with him, in his excellent book of essays on Oslo). I really admire Israel Shahak – who was just a really bold liberal, who very bravely drew on his experiences in Bergen-Belsen and would not compromise in the slightest on human rights.

I also really love Russell’s sense of humour. Sadly my articles never seem to turn out funny at all.

Dr Tad speaks …

It’s really been those same things [pathways to the Left] in different forms – trying to delineate the vulnerabilities in the elite project and looking for the possibilities of self-emancipation from below, with all its contradictions and ambiguities. When Tahrir Square was happening I was staying up until all hours trying to understand events and synthesise them for Left Flank. I think the great thing about blogging is that you get responses that force you to defend your ideas – and sometimes clarify them when they’re not properly worked out. It’s also gratifying that your intervention in an important debate might really connect with others. Our most widely read post so far was on alternatives to NATO intervention in Libya.

I’m also inspired by music – I have a second blog called Disco Dissertation and I write reviews of electronic music gigs from time to time. I’m an occasional DJ too, but with work and political writing it’s hard to find much time to pursue that properly.

For Overland readers I’d like to say that great works of literature also inspire me, but I read almost exclusively non-fiction and to my partner, Liz’s, chagrin I’ve never really understood poetry!

Where are you now with your writing practice?

Mike speaks …

I don’t really consider myself a writer – I’m a student who sometimes writes things, and sometimes is inspired. I just write when I find time, which is difficult. My goal is to be an honest writer, not one who wins arguments through rhetorical devices. If I wanted to write well, I’d read Bertrand Russell all day. Instead, I study law and feel my prose suffers because judges write impenetrably long, convoluted, multiply qualified sentences. ABC Drum has been quite supportive of me, which is nice, but I anticipate that drying up eventually from pressure from the Right.

Dr Tad speaks …

I was a journalist for and later editor of a small socialist newspaper during 1995-2001. I think the organisation actually held back my writing because it was more committed to activism than developing its own ideas – even if the tabloid style forced me to put things very clearly. In the last few years my music reviews and political writing have allowed me to rediscover my voice, to try to put some of my personality in with the ideas. I’m a very sardonic type IRL, but hopefully in a good-natured way.

My biggest weakness is that I’m a very disorganised researcher, depending too much on memory rather than systematically collecting information before writing. My project for the rest of 2011, then, is to learn how to take notes properly. Dare to dream, and all that!

Well, Overlanders, you’ve met the writers and read the debate, now it’s time to weigh into the argument: Michael Brull arguing in the affirmative and Tad Tietze in the negative, followed by Michael Brull’s reply and Tad Tietze’s response. (See the full list of references.)

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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  1. It was interesting to hear about the backgrounds of the debate’s participants.

    As far as the debate itself goes, I think MB is far too dismissive of religion. Religion and leftism ought not to be construed as opposites, and there a plenty of examples of the too going hand in hand. (In particular, I’m thinking of the many courageous members of the clergy in Latin America who risked their lives to fight against right-wing juntas).

    I think part of MB’s mistake may be his take on the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment does not merely bear the banner of ‘progress’, but also produces a kind of rationalisation for conquest and oppression. In brief, the Marquis de Sade is every bit an Enlightenment figure as Kant, just as Mill’s ‘enlightened’ liberalism is perfectly compatible with his advocacy (and practice) of the subjugation of Indians.

    This isn’t to say that one ought to throw out the baby with the Enlightenment bathwater. The legacy of the Enlightenment is a mixed one, and the left ought not to either reject or accept it in toto. Chomsky, for all his great qualities, makes this mistake IMHO, but rejecting ‘theory’, and arguing that political matters are largely self-evident.

    On the other side of the debate, I think that the left must be extremely judicious when it comes to forming coalitions with any group, including those of the Islamist persuasion. I don’t think that one can establish general principles on this sort of thing – different situations call for different analyses and responses. It may be entirely possible and desirable to form a united front wit religious groupings on certain issues, just as it may be necessary to utterly reject others, even if they share common enemies with us.

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