The wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world represents a sharp break from almost a decade of defensive struggle against triumphant neoliberalism and neo–conservatism. Philosopher Peter Hallward calls it an opportunity to break the pattern of TINA (the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ to the relentless assault by ruling elites on their peoples), while Slavoj Žižek celebrates the revolution’s appeal to the ‘eternal idea of freedom, justice and dignity’.34
Yet some are anxious that the revolts will be hijacked by Islamist political currents bent on imposing sharia law, oppressing women and homosexuals, and crushing hopes for freedom under theocratic rule. The spectre of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been raised not only by Western leaders but by some sympathetic to the uprisings.
I was recently taken to task for suggesting the Egyptian Left should enter into tactical alliances with the MB to take the revolution forward.35 My interlocutor in the present debate, Michael Brull, argued via Twitter that such a suggestion is ‘right wing’. ‘There’s nothing progressive about them in any sense,’ he said. ‘They’re not even anti-imperialist.’
A passionate supporter of Palestinian rights and the struggle for democracy, Brull calls himself a ‘principled secularist’ and has written approvingly of the ‘new atheism’ spearheaded by Richard Dawkins. 36
In my view, building united fronts with Islamist currents around specific issues is an inescapable part of any potentially successful Left politics in the Middle East. Refusing to do so, out of principled objection to the sometimes reactionary, religious-based policies of such organisations, cuts the Left off from serious participation in the struggle against local regimes and imperialism. Not working alongside Islamists represents a lack of understanding of their contradictory nature, and a naïve adherence to secularism as a progressive force in the modern world.
Islamism (aka political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism) is highly influential in most Muslim countries. In general, it promotes a ‘return to the Koran’ as the foundation for social change, utilising religious precepts to drive economic, political and cultural renovation. It is a modern movement, emerging in the late nineteenth century in response to capitalist development’s disruption of traditional societies and the livelihoods of people within them. While Islamism may argue for the revival of specific, religiously derived practices (some of them backward-looking) as part of creating an ideal society, no serious Islamist currently seeks the destruction of modernity to restore the medieval society of Islam’s birth.
Furthermore, Islamism is no more a monolithic entity than the religion which it draws inspiration from. The Islamism of the very modern (and very brutal) pro-Western Saudi royalty is different to that of the clerics who rule Iran with an iron fist while demonising the United States.37 And both are very different to the reformist, populist Islamism of the economically dislocated, educated, urban lower-middle classes who form the core membership of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Much of the Egyptian Left has refused to work with the MB, seeing it as uncomplicatedly reactionary, even a type of fascism. It is easy enough to point to its terrible positions on a range of issues. Yet its history is not an unbroken chain of reactionary policies. Instead, the organisation has made multiple twists and turns, and contains sharp internal divisions – especially between its conservative, gradualist elders and younger activists seeking direct confrontation with the regime. As an Egyptian socialist argued in 2007:
It shifts from trying to appease the regime to entering into confrontation with it. It takes strong anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist positions, spearheading the solidarity movements with the resistance, but does so inconsistently […] It rhetorically defends social justice and a fair distribution of wealth, but fails to take any concrete position against neoliberalism and privatisation (although there are signs of pressure to change its position). It defends full legal equality between all citizens yet clings to reactionary views on women, religious minorities and other oppressed groups.38
The regime saw the MB as a threat, repressing and jailing not only its more radical activists but also leaders who espoused incremental work towards becoming an official opposition. It is no wonder that many working-class militants came to see it as a serious vehicle for change. Despite its lack of engagement with workers’ issues, the MB won majorities in working-class districts in the limited elections of 2005.
When the revolution erupted on 25 January, the MB was by far the largest and best-organised opposition party, with more than a million members and control over an extensive network of social welfare organisations. Its leaders were slow to enter the fray, fearful that backing protests could lead to further repression. Nevertheless, its organised activists have been cited as vital to mounting a disciplined defence against Mubarak’s thugs in Tahrir Square on 2 February.39 The constituent parts of the MB may now be pulling in a variety of directions,40 but the widespread hold of Islam in Egyptian society – a key underpinning of Islamist politics – remains a central fact for the revolutionary movement.
Marx and Engels famously argued that, while the fight to prove the irrationality of religious ideas had been won through cultural advances underpinned by capitalism, it was the suffering caused by a system of exploitation, oppression and alienation that explained the continuing hold of those ideas, despite the existence of anti-religious proofs. Attempts to undermine religion simply through rational argument or state repression were doomed to failure. Rather, the Left’s task was to fight to transform the social conditions in which those ideas were rooted. Most predominantly, Muslim nations are racked by poverty, and this poverty remains an important reason for the weakness of purely secular ideologies within such countries.
Political Islam has also been strengthened by the historic failure of secular nationalist and communist currents to resolve the Middle East’s deep social contradictions, let alone defeat Western imperialism and its Israeli watchdog. In this vacuum, Islamism has been able to pose as a viable alternative, acting, as Marx wrote of religion, as both ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’.41 It is in that contradiction that its reformist character emerges.
To envisage a progressive struggle for democracy and social change in Muslim countries that is free of religious colouration is thus a category error, in which the defeat of backward ideas is imagined as preceding the struggle for social transformation. An analogy would be if the Australian Left, when organising protests against the Iraq War in 2003, refused to work with ALP politicians, members and supporters until such people first renounced their party’s general support for the War on Terror.
The Left can only win the mass of people to its cause, and away from more conservative oppositional forces, by showing in the course of united struggle that it offers better strategies and policies in practice.
This strategy has been pursued by some leftists in Egypt over the past fifteen years, creating important new relationships between the Left and activists drawn to the MB, and opening opportunities to attract the latter to a distinctly different type of politics. This story, detailed in an excellent 2007 article in Middle East Report, sounds strikingly similar to the relationships developed between parts of the radical Left and sections of social democracy in Western countries.42
Secularism also has severe limitations as a left-wing political strategy today. Many on the Left now seem unable to judge the progressive content of movements and parties on the basis of the social interests they represent and the contexts in which they operate, instead looking to their stated ideas as the main measure. The ‘new atheism’, for instance, encourages a view of the secular ideology of Western imperialism as more progressive than the religiously based ideology of resistance of those it oppresses. Such logic can lead Richard Dawkins (who, to his credit, opposed the US war on Iraq) to recently state that ‘it is well arguable that Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today’.43 The dominant Islamophobic discourse which deliberately blurs distinctions between Muslims, reformist Islamists and suicide terrorists has contributed to this the idea that Islam is uniquely oppressive.
None of this is to suggest that the Left should withhold its critique of the reactionary aspects of Islamism, any more than it should refuse to criticise parties like the ALP and Greens when they act in an objectively right-wing way. But in the Middle East – as well as Western nations with Muslim populations – the struggle against imperialism, state repression and racism will inevitably bring the Left into direct contact with Islamist currents. We could do worse than to adopt the shorthand developed by the British Marxist Chris Harman: ‘With the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.’44 To rule out alliances in advance can only strengthen our common enemies, as well as abandoning the field to reactionary elements within Islamism itself.