The British left and the Muslim Brotherhood

Submitted by AWL on 27 January, 2003 - 11:51

We remember. We learned. We remain...

Almost all the left now hails the Muslim Association - the main British offshoot of the biggest Arab Islamic-fundamentalist party, the Muslim Brotherhood - as the authentic representative of "the Muslim community" in Britain. Some left-wing papers simply gloat about the extra numbers which the Muslim Association's ample funds and resources can bring to demonstrations they co-sponsor with the left's Stop The War campaign; others claim that a coalition is clever tactics, enabling socialists to win over Muslim youth brought to the marches by the hapless fundamentalists.

In arguing that the left should not join hands with a quasi-fascist bourgeois party, supporters of Solidarity and Workers' Liberty have been a small minority over the last week or so, at the Stop The War conference and in the National Union of Students executive.

The Muslim Association burst onto the political scene with a demonstration in April last year on the theme Zionist = Nazi, Star of David = swastika. The Brotherhood, its parent body, is the biggest Islamic fundamentalist party in the Arab world. It held effective power in Sudan from 1989 until recently. It is a mighty force in Egypt, although illegal there. It has weight in most Arab countries. The Brotherhood are canny, flexible politicians as was Khomeini in Iran. They differ from the higher-pitched Islamists like Al Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut Tahrir; but they are fundamentalists, devoted to strait-jacketing society by Islamic law. For democrats, socialists, feminists, and labour movements, they are an enemy of the same order as fascism.

No matter how much the "chattering classes" of the labour movement agree comfortably to delude themselves on this score, it is a slander on Muslims to accept the Brotherhood as good representatives of "the Muslim community"; and naive stupidity to suppose that the Brotherhood, a rich and well-equipped party with many advantages on the terrain, is not gaining ten times more from the left giving it credit than socialists get from tagging along with the Brotherhood.

Only three years ago, in April 2000, a sober study in Le Monde Diplomatique concluded that the Brotherhood's efforts to organise in Britain were much hampered by an "ossified and ageing leadership inside Egypt; and... an obsessive habit of secrecy" resulting from the Brotherhood's decades of illegality in Arab countries. It had Dr Azzam Tamimi, a Brotherhood leader in Britain, readily admitting "that the Brotherhood does not appeal to the young in the UK: 'The trend over the last decade has been to dissolve organisations started in the 1970s by immigrants, especially among student communities. Either people have settled down and been absorbed into open platforms, or they've left'." The Brotherhood was undercut because "increasing numbers of modern Islamists, particularly those who have settled in the West, would accept a permanent two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians..."

Now the left is accepting and boosting the Muslim Association's slogan "Freedom for Palestine" as an add-on for anti-war demonstrations - though the smallest attention to what the Muslim Association and the Brotherhood say will reveal that what they mean by the slogan is remote from what any democrat or socialist could see as "freedom". They mean establishing an Islamic state over the whole area between the river Jordan and the sea, in which any Jews who survived the military destruction of Israel necessary before such a state could be created would be offered the status of a tolerated religious minority of second-class citizens. Or, as the Muslim Association's chants on demonstrations put it, more succinctly: "Zionists out of Palestine".

The party, wrote Leon Trotsky, is the memory of the class. The working class in struggle is hugely creative, inventive and powerful. It can improvise strikes, workers' councils, armed militias. Also essential for victory, however, and not possible to improvise, is memory: the condensation into clear strategic ideas and rigorous theory of the lessons of past battles and debates. For that, the working-class cause needs activists organising decades in advance, through the lulls and setbacks as well as the exuberant heights of struggle. That is the irreplaceable role of a Marxist organisation.

Yet many Marxists forget. We remember. In the months to come, Solidarity and Workers' Liberty will be making a stand for memory, against the readiness of others on the left to let credulous delight at large numbers on demonstrations make them forget so much and so quickly.

We remember when we had an Algerian Trotskyist come to speak to our Workers' Liberty summer school in 1995. In those years there were more political killings of trade unionists in Algeria - mostly by fundamentalists - than in all the rest of the world put together. The Algerian comrade, Sanhaja Akrouf, told us that it was dangerous folly for socialists to ally with Islamic fundamentalists, even when we agreed with them on single issues (she gave the example of release of political prisoners in Algeria). There was no real common cause. "The role of fundamentalists in Algeria is similar to that of the fascist far right in France, England or Germany."

Sanhaja appealed for our support especially because even then, so she told us, "London is an important base for the fundamentalists. Many of the Algerian fundamentalist leaders were educated in England". At that time the exile fundamentalists were much more isolated among British Muslims than they are now.

We remember the Iranian revolution of 1979. We remember that we got that wrong. Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamist leaders in Iran were canny, like the Brotherhood is now. They talked democratic. We criticised them, but with the assumption that their worst effect would be to blur, slow down, and distract the movement. In fact they were able to radicalise the movement, in their own way, and carry through a veritable counter-revolution within the revolution. They were able to take the lead and construct a revolutionary regime of their own even more vicious than the old pro-US monarchy.

We remember. We learned. That the memory is uncomfortable will not make us forget it.
We remember how for decades the Western left was cowed by the apparent successes of Stalinism into accepting that sharp root-and-branch denunciation of the USSR's regime - as distinct from "constructive" criticism of it for being insufficiently militant against the USA - should be rejected as "anti-Soviet" or "Cold War". It was exactly the same sort of thinking as that which today rejects denunciation of the Brotherhood as "Islamophobic".

We remember that, though our group was always on the extreme anti-Stalinist wing of the Western left, we had to go through long and tortuous debate before we discarded (in 1987) the idea that the USSR was some sort of post-capitalist system or "degenerated workers' state". We remember how the Western left's long anxiety not to be "anti-Soviet" disabled and discredited it when the peoples of Eastern Europe and the USSR rose up against Stalinism in 1989-91, and left the political leadership of the anti-Stalinist revolutions in the hands of free-market ideologues.

We remember. We learned. A little unpopularity will not make us forget.

We remember a year ago, when Farooq Tariq, leader of the Labour Party of Pakistan, came to London, and explained to us why the Pakistani socialists (the majority of them religious Muslims) consider the fundamentalists in their country to be "the new fascists", and insisted on organising separately from them against the US war in Afghanistan. We remember the meeting, hushed and impressed, where almost none of those leftists now keen to link arms with the Brotherhood dared say a word against Farooq's call for independent working-class politics.

We remember a few months earlier, when Dita Sari, a socialist trade union leader from Indonesia, came to Britain to do a speaking tour for the No Sweat campaign. Dita, a Muslim herself, explained to us that the new-growing fundamentalist movements in Indonesia were the deadliest enemies of the socialists and trade unionists, and that socialists in Britain who thought that they could be "anti-imperialist" allies must simply not know, or choose to ignore, what the fundamentalists' politics mean in practice where and when they gain strength.

We remember. We learned. It will take more than excited babble about large numbers on the streets to make us forget.

In days when the Western left was cowed by Stalinism, Leon Trotsky wrote: "The greatest honour for a genuine revolutionist today is to remain a 'sectarian' of revolutionary Marxism in the eyes of philistines, whimperers and superficial thinkers". We claim that honour. We remember. We remain.

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