The Left and the Jihad: a “liberal” riposte

Fred Halliday
12 January 2007

I am grateful to Fouzi Slisli & Jacqueline Kaye for their thoughtful reply to my article on the left and radical Islam ("A liberal logic", 8 December 2006). It has led me to clarify some of my argument in the original version, but also to see more clearly a larger issue which divides us.

The points of disagreement may be approached by way of an assessment of the political character and potential of religions. I entirely agree with the co-authors in regard to the possibility of a reading (and a subsequent politics) based on Islam which is compatible with human emancipation, democracy and (if it is so wished) socialism. The examples they cite - of nationalist struggle, arguments for social justice from the Soviet past, and the work of Maxime Rodinson (of which I am an intellectual disciple) - bear this out.

This is not, however, because Islam, any more than any other religion, is "essentially" or necessarily the embodiment of one politics or another, but rather that it is - like Christianity, or Judaism - contingent. Religions are not a fixed menu, more an á la carte; they permit of different choices. With all the variety of themes and messages that they contain, they allow of plural contemporary readings compatible with diverse political positions.

Fred Halliday's originating article on openDemocracy is "The Left and the Jihad"
(8 September 2006)

Fouzi Slisli & Jacqueline Kaye's response is "A liberal logic: reply to Fred Halliday"
(8 December 2006)

I am at the moment engaged in a long-term project on ways of realising the principles of cosmopolitanism in the 21st century. This involves examining how these monotheistic religions have or can (in text and tradition) be used for cosmopolitan or internationalist purposes, even as they have also been used for ends that are nationalistic, chauvinist, exclusive, not to say murderous.

The key question is one of control over interpretation, ultimately of power: who decides which reading to promote. My own argument in this context is that, for much of recent decades, the predominant reading within the Muslim world - by states and opposition movements alike - has been one that sees the socialist, left, forces inside their countries as the enemy. This is not the product of some dogmatic or essentialist necessity: it is a result of politics, particularly the politics of the cold war and of the ways in which Muslim states, and their supporters in the United States, have used Islamic politics to counter the left, in a whole range of countries.

A shared perspective

Slisli & Kaye balk at some of my examples. In particular, they challenge me on Algeria. But a look at what happened in that country in 1988-89 reveals a situation where one faction of the regime that emerged from the military-security apparatus - led by his prime minister (Kasdi Merbah, assassinated in 1993) and interior minister, and with the temporary support of President Chadli Benjedid - sought to appease the Islamist opposition in order to counter their rivals within the ruling FLN; the result was a decision to legalise the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the main Islamist party, after the demonstrations of June 1988.

The co-authors also query my account of Egypt and the role of former leftwing intellectuals. But the role of Adil Husayn and Tariq al-Bishri, ex-Nasserists turned Islamists (to name only those), is a matter of public record.

I cannot help pointing out, however, that Slisli & Kaye do not address much bloodier, cold-war-era cases when Islamist forces were used against the left: namely Indonesia, Afghanistan, and in the promotion by Saudi Arabia of anti-communist propaganda and institutes across the Muslim world.

Slisli & Kaye criticise me for treating under one heading groups of a very different character, such as al-Qaida, Hizbollah and Hamas. They are right to point to the differences, and I should have made that clearer; but on the matter of hostility to the left, and an occasional murderous response to critics, they have much in common.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.

His last column article:

"A 2007 warning: the world's twelve worst ideas" (8 January 2007)

Much now appears to be forgotten in Lebanon, where large parts of the secular left (though not all) has sided with Hizbollah; but in the 1980s, when the movement - then, as now, a highly centralised organisation that does not tolerate dissent or debate among its followers - was fighting to establish itself as the dominant force within the Shi'a regions, it killed several leading leftwing leaders and intellectuals who were opposed to their policies.

More important still, for all their difference of military strategy, these Islamist groups all share a common, socially retrograde, policy, on social matters across a wide arc of behaviour: from freedom of expression and political organisation, attitudes to women, gays, social interaction in general, to rights over cultural freedom, dress codes, and alcohol consumption. Furthermore, these groups espouse odious views on a theme that was historically a defining feature of the left: namely racism of all kinds, including anti-Jewish racism.

True, not all elements of the left support such groups, but more than a few do; the undifferentiated backing given by the "anti-war" movement for the "Iraqi resistance" is indicative. Moreover, routine articles in leftist journals addressing and dissecting the reactionary social programme the Islamists espouse are notable by their scarcity.

Words and things

These points of disagreement are, however, tributary of a much larger one that Slisli & Kaye raise with distinct clarity: namely their hostility to "liberalism", of which I am taken to be a representative.

It is news to me that I am a "liberal". At the same time, there are quite a number of labels which I do not apply to myself but which, if pinned on me I will not instantaneously disown, if only out of respect for the best in the tradition so denounced: orientalist, Trotskyist, utopian and, yes, liberal among them.

But I wonder on what basis it is - in the early 21st century, in light of the evident moral and political bankruptcy of so many who denounced liberalism in the last century - that my critics are so relaxed in their use of the term "liberal" as a term of abuse.

I would have thought that the opposite might apply, and that those who are from different, socialist and left, traditions might - even as they criticise liberalism for the vacillation and evasion that so concern Slisli & Kaye - reflect a bit more on what they could learn from liberalism.

Perhaps I am affected by the fact that in Tehran in 1979 a few months after the Islamic revolution, I witnessed mass demonstrations by "Hizbollahis" supporters of the Islamic Republic, mobilised to crush the left, parading under the slogan "Death to Liberalism!" Within weeks, they went on to imprison, torture and kill my friends and comrades. If opposing such violations in the name of universalist principle makes me a liberal, so be it.

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