The question of Islam

Since 9/11, Islam – specifically militant and political Islam – has been the focus of an an extraordinary degree of attention and scrutiny, for reasons that should not need elaborating upon. Within the narrow “mainstream” of the political spectrum, there are two set positions on the issue.

The conservative or hawkish position holds that Islamic extremism – a blanket term that engulfs Islamism, Wahhabism, and militant armed resistance without regard for nuances – is a threat that must be combatted by aggressive means. Concepts such as international law, human rights, and non-combatants are considered “naive” or “quaint” and disregarded. More than this, however, the conservative position regards Islam itself, its very presence in the western world, as a threat to “our culture” and “our way of life.” Muslims themselves are not to be hated, of course, merely their beliefs, practices, and presence in “our” lands.

On the other hand, the liberal or doveish end of the mainstream contends that Muslims themselves are not a problem. No, multiculturalism is to be celebrated and society is “enriched” by such “diversity.” Not to mention the little matter that these people will do the jobs that the native working class “do not want” or are “too lazy” to do, and their lower price benefits the economy and thus us all. However, the liberals still press the belief that “terrorism” is a “threat” that must be combatted. We must be more “multilateral” in approach, engage in “dialogue” with Muslim “leaders,” and acknowledge “mistakes” that have caused “schisms,” but ultimately the wars must still be fought.

The mainstream “debate” then, is nothing more than two sides of the same coin. We must celebrate the “multiculturalism” that allows migrant workers to be exploited and wages to be undercut in the name of profit whilst damning those same migrants as “terrorists” and “threats to our culture” to keep the working class too divided to do anything about it. Meanwhile, we can get away with waging a vicious terrorist war as long as we look “sympathetic” and when war crimes come to light we can easily sidestep them with talk of “multilateralism” which will “correct” our past “mistakes.”

Beyond the mainstream and intellectual culture, however, there is a serious discussion to be had with respect to Islam and Muslims. To the right of that narrow mainstream, the tendency is towards outright bigotry, and the intense hatred of white nationalist groups is not a stance that merits serious contemplation as a credible position on Islam.

On the left, meanwhile, there is something of a dischord. How do you react when faced with movements so vehemently opposed to the same imperialism that you consider the worst scourge upon society and yet with views so at odds with the basic principles you hold dear? So far, the choice seems to be between sidestepping the issue altogether and pretending it isn’t there in the name of multiculturalism, turning utterly against Islam and siding with the very neoliberals and imperialists you once opposed in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, or to become an apologist for the worst elements of Islamism as George Galloway has done.

In trying to formulate a more nuanced approach, one that fits in with the principles of anarchism, my consideration falls mainly upon the following points;

  1. Obviously, as an authoritarian ideology, Islamism is something anarchists should oppose – but how do we do that whilst still facing up to the legitimate grievances that give rise to such sentiment and holding to the basic principle of freedom of belief?
  2. In areas such as Palestine, the Islamists are the main if not sole resistance to US imperialism and state-sponsored terror, yet are obviously not ideal candidates because of their own use of terror. How can we go about rectifying this situation?
  3. How exactly do we focus our energies so that we can oppose the oppression of Arabic and Muslim peoples without supporting the Islamists and likewise oppose the Islamists with tacitly supporting the oppressors? And how do we balance this to be effective?

I think the first thing that we have to do is to acknowledge the folly of the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality, and refuse to pick “sides” in a supposed “clash of civilisations” that isn’t really happening.

There are issues in the West at present with discrimination and bigotry towards Muslims. Both the perception and the reality of victimisation are helping to drive more Muslims towards the extreme stance of the “preachers of hate.” Likewise, there are grievances on the world stage, very serious and legitimate ones, which give rise to acts of violent resistance under an Islamist banner.

At the same time, a lot of the ideas coming forth from “radical clerics” are utterly abhorrent. Acts such as “honour killing,” and the hatred and repression of women and gays are serious breaches of basic human decency that should not be ignored or apologised for.

It needs to be recognised that there is no contradiction between simultaneously opposing imperialism, religious fundamentalism, and nationalism, despite all the forces that try to break us up into being apologists for one or the other.

The best response to this supposed contradiction is to fall back on the basic principle of universality. At the Nuremberg Tribunals, Justice Robert Jackson aptly summed up this basic truism;

If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well.

Thus, we judge ourselves by the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones. As an example of this, take Noam Chomsky’s analysis of the situation in Israel-Palestine and where guilt for terrorism and violence lies;

Well for several years Hamas has been very clear and explicit, repeatedly, that they favor a two state settlement on the international border. They said they would not recognize Israel but they would accept a two state settlement and a prolonged truce, maybe decades, maybe 50 years. Now, that’s not exactly the international consensus but it’s pretty close to it. On the other hand, the United States and Israel flatly reject it. They reject it in deeds, that’s why they are building all the construction development activities in the West Bank, not only in violation of international laws, US and Israel know that the illegal constructions are designed explicitly to convert the West Bank into what the architect of the policy, Arial Sharon, called bantustan. Israel takes over what it wants, break up Palestine into unviable fragments. That’s undermining a political settlement. So in deeds, yes of course they are undermining it, but also in words: that goes back to 1976 when the US vetoed the Security Council resolution put forward by the arab states which called for a two state settlement and it goes around until today. In December, last December, at the meetings of the UN’s General Assembly there were many resolutions passed. One of them was a resolution calling for recognition of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. It didn’t call for a state, just the right of self-determination. It passed with 173 to 5. The 5 were the US, Israel and a few small pacific islands. Of course that can’t be reported in the US. So they are rejecting it even in words, as well as -more significantly- in acts. On the other hand, Hamas comes pretty close to accepting it. Now, the demand which Obama repeated on Hamas is that they must meet three conditions: they must recognize Israel’s right to exist, they must renounce violence and they must accept past agreements, and in particular the Road Map. Well, what about the US and Israel? I mean, obviously they don’t renounce violence, they reject the Road Map – technically they accepted it but Israel immediately entered 14 reservations (which weren’t reported here) which completely eliminated its content, and the US went along. So the US and Israel completely violate those two conditions, and of course they violate the first, they don’t recognize Palestine. So sure, there’s a lot to criticize about Hamas, but on these matters they seem to be much closer to -not only international opinion- but even to a just settlement than the US and Israel are.

Universality makes ruling elites uncomfortable because it does not fit to the official story of their acting in popular interest or their favoured image as “the good guys.” In fact, the biggest perpetrators of international terrorism are the United States of America, by their own definition enshrined in the United States Code;

“act of terrorism” means an activity that — (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.

The problem is that where groups like Hizbollah and Hamas, even al-Qaeda, are concerned there is no easy line to draw between legitimate resistance and terrorism. Their views are, in many respects, despicable and I wouldn’t contend that for a second. However, is that these groups are the resistance to the imperialism and colonisation of the United States and its Israeli client state. It is US disdain for democracy and local self-determination, and its aggressive promotion of market fundamentalism on the world that has increased the hatred towards America. As Osama bin Laden himself said;

We fought with you because we are free, and we don’t put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you. Free people do not relinquish their security. This is contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden, for example.

This resistance, once founded on secular Arab nationalism – also not palatable to a libertarian socialist, but still arguably better than Wahhabism and Islamism – has been pushed to the most desperate acts by the escalating violence that has literally devestated the Middle East. This doesn’t make it right, but it does put it in context.

The context is that, yes, these groups are committing acts of terror, but they are not just terrorists. You have to take into account the fact that moderate groups, if we’re taking the Palestinian situation, like Fatah and Arafat’s PLO have been routinely sidelined and used for the ends of the colonists. This has generated anger and desperation. Then there’s the fact that Hamas, in the 2006 elections and since, and Hizbollah are both heavily involved in grassroots activism – bringing aid to the poor, helping the sick, and so on – which has won them considerable support from people who, emphatically, are not extremists. As a result, with mandates not just as militia groups but also as elected representatives, they have tempered their ultimate goals.

The vast majority of Palestinians favour the international consensus – a two-state solution along the 1967 border with “minor and mutual adjustments” – and democracy has forced Hamas to accept that and take it on board. This was later threatened by the recent brutal seige, after Israel’s rejection of the cease-fire renewal, which decimated Gaza. Harsh, even extreme, sentiment naturally springs from such acts. The situation is comparable in Lebanon, with the tug of war between Israel and Syria and the devestation that people have suffered at Israeli hands.

So, yes, it’s a ridiculous thing to say “we are all Hizbollah now” as it would have been to say “we are all the IRA.” But it has to be remembered that the solution isn’t to blast them out of existence. Hizbollah, likewise Hamas, have their political as well as militant side – they are their own Sinn Fein, if you will, and we shouldn’t sideline it. The reasons that people are turning to them is not because more and more people are converting to radical Islam, though of course such “radicalisation” will take place in such extreme situations, but because more and more people see the necessity of armed resistance against imperial brutality.

I do not for one second support Hizbollah or Hamas in their ideology, or some of their methods (specifically suicide bombing, though I’m not necessarily against armed struggle). However, if there is to be any hope for peace in the region then the complexities noted above must be taken into account and acted upon accordingly.


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