The Left should be firmly and unapologetically secularist. The Left, rightly in my view, has historically stood for classical Enlightenment values of rationalism. We should support people thinking for themselves, rather than believing in irrational and empirically dubious dogmas. We should support people challenging undeserving authorities, rather than offering them deference or outright obedience.
During the Iranian revolution, French philosopher Michel Foucault solemnly explained:
one thing must be clear. By ‘Islamic government’, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.
Middle East expert Maxime Rodinson sought to correct this misimpression. Similarly, I write this piece in the spirit of a warning to the Left.
Political Islam can take many different forms. Leila Ahmed has argued for the viability of feminist interpretations of Islam, and Ali Shariati for a socialist one.2 But any holy book can be cited to suit the devil. I want to review a few instances where political Islam has been used by reactionary governments to legitimise reactionary social programs, oppression, misogyny and support for the US.
In the 1950s, the wildly popular Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser electrified the Arab world with his relatively secular independent nationalism. As As’ad AbuKhalil puts it, Nasser made a career of mocking and ridiculing ‘the royal family … the oil-rich Gulf rulers in general’ and their ‘camp of right wing governments and movements’ as well as ‘their reactionary form of Islam’.3
The Eisenhower administration in the US responded with a plan to build up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser.4 The nature of the Saudi government was well known. The British ambassador in 1963 recognised that Saudi Arabia was ‘dominated by a sect of Islam of a farouche and intolerant Puritanism’. He described the ‘extravagance and dissipation’ of the royal family, and noted that Saudi Arabia ‘has no modern code of laws and its criminal justice is of medieval barbarity. There is not even a pretence of democratic institutions and though slavery has been abolished, slaves are still to be found’.5
Today Saudi Arabia remains, in the words of AbuKhalil, ‘one of the world’s most oppressive and misogynistic countries’.6 The US continues to sell it billions of dollars in arms, while President Bush assured the House of Saud of their ‘eternal friendship’.7 Saudi commitment to political reaction was recently demonstrated in its advice that Washington should back Mubarak in shooting Egyptian protesters.8 Saudi Arabia even promised to bankroll Mubarak if the US cut its aid program.9
The House of Saud is legitimised by its ultra-reactionary clerical establishment, which urges that ‘rulers, even if unjust, should be obeyed’. The archetypal example is Ibn Baz, who supported Saudi hosting of US troops in 1990 for the Gulf War, and who later became the Grand Mufti. AbuKhalil wrote that Ibn Baz made Wahhabism ‘even more intolerant, extremist and hostile to women’ and even rejected the theory that the earth rotates.10
In Egypt, Nasser took control of the world’s leading centre for the study of Sunni theology, Al-Azhar University, to promote ideologically favourable Islamic clerics. After Nasser died in 1970, he was succeeded by Sadat, who was pro-Nazi and flagrantly anti-Semitic.11 Sadat turned Egypt from a leading anti-imperialist country to, in the words of feminist Nawal El Saadawi, an ‘American colony’.12 He Islamised the country, building mosques, increasing religious programming, and amending the constitution to declare Islam the religion of the state and sharia the main source of legislation.13 The late head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Tantawi, supported Egypt’s construction of an underground barrier on the Gaza border to help Israel’s blockade.14 On another occasion, he declared a feature film critical of Sadat as the worst kind of un-Islamic behaviour imaginable.15 During the recent revolution, Al-Azhar did what it could to support the regime.16
During the Egyptian revolution, Tad Tietze wrote that ‘fear of the Muslim Brotherhood right now should be Mubarak’s (and Obama’s) but not the Left’s.’17 But let us consider the Muslim Brotherhood’s history. Financially supported by the Saudis from its early days (and Britain from 1942), in 1954 the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) staged an assassination attempt on Nasser, whose policies (such as land reform) it strongly opposed.18 After Nasser died, Sadat, as Juan Cole notes, sought ‘an ally on the Right’ and so legalised MB and ‘unleashed’ it (and other Islamists) ‘to offset the power of the leftists on campus’ and ‘the socialists in the government’ from whom Sadat faced ‘enormous opposition’.19 The MB stopped confronting dictators after Nasser: Wikileaks revealed that the use of torture against the MB declined partly because it was generally not considered a threat to the regime.20 The MB leadership’s political courage was demonstrated in 2010 when its Supreme Guide publicly prayed for Mubarak’s health.21
The MB played no role in organising the 25 January protests, and was one of the few groups opportunistic enough to negotiate with Omar Suleiman while protesters in Tahrir Square were insisting that Suleiman and Mubarak had to go immediately.22 After Mubarak fled, thirty-one human rights organisations in Egypt complained that the constitutional amendment committee appointed by the army had neither independence nor women, and gave ‘the appearance of a coalition between members of the former regime and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’.23 The MB also opposed the nomination of Copts or women for the presidency.24
Eqbal Ahmad memorably described Reagan’s infamous 1985 meeting with certain Islamists in which the US president pointed at ‘very ferocious-looking bearded men with turbans who looked as though they came from another century’ and said, ‘These are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.’25
Reagan was talking about the mujaheddin, who were fighting the USSR in Afghanistan. The Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq played a key role in organising their jihad. Zia executed Bhutto in 1979, and introduced Islamisation measures to legitimise his rule:
These included an examination of all existing laws to verify their conformity with sharia, the introduction of an Islamic penal code including corporal punishment or hudud (severing thieves’ limbs, stoning adulterous women, whipping drinkers of alcohol and so on), and the Islamisation of education and of every aspect of the economy.26
From 1982, Zia was receiving about $1.2 billion annually from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and the US to arm, train and organise the jihadis, while the madrasah he set up across Pakistan have helped create a legacy of extremist fanaticism that has devastated the country.27
In an article on Islamism, Tietze described the Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar as ‘ever reliable’.28 Escobar wrote favourably about a ‘Taliban counter-surge’ in Pakistan, which he said involved peasants organised to ‘fight for their rights and “economic redistribution” against the usual wealthy, greedy, feudal landlords’.29
In response, Pervez Hoodbhoy remarked that Escobar didn’t mention that the redistribution of war booty also included ‘captured women’:
[T]he declared Taliban agenda has no mention of social justice and economic development, creating jobs for the unemployed, building homes, providing education, or doing away with feudalism and tribalism. The Taliban seek to build a religious fascist state in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Escobar probably couldn’t care less because he won’t have to live there.
The Pakistani Taliban have, he continued:
proudly claimed credit … for suicide bombings of many funerals, rival mosques, hospitals, and public gatherings. After blowing up 350 girls schools they say they will blow up still more.
But this hasn’t prevented some leftists from fantasising that ‘these religious fanatics [are] social revolutionaries’.30
In an important 2007 report about Iraq, international women’s human rights organisation MADRE noted that, since the 2003 invasion:
Iraqi women have endured a wave of -gender-based violence, including widespread abductions, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, ‘honor killings’, domestic abuse, torture in detention, beheadings, shootings, and public hangings … [T]he most widespread violence has been committed by the Shiite militias affiliated with the US-backed government.
MADRE argued that the US ‘decisively traded women’s rights for cooperation from the Islamists whom it boosted to power’ – and this trade-off extended to the Sunni community when the Americans later supported the extremely misogynistic splinters from al-Qaeda in the Sunni Awakening.32
The Left, by contrast, should reject all oppression, whether perpetrated by the US or by Islamic extremists who have no principled objections to supporting the project of Western imperialism. As AbuKhalil wrote, ‘the people of Saudi Arabia deserve – as do all people – to have their story told without deference to their oppressors’.33