A liberal logic: reply to Fred Halliday

Jacqueline Kaye Fouzi Slisli
8 December 2006

Fred Halliday, in his openDemocracy article "The Left and the Jihad" (8 September 2006) claims that the left has been fooled into believing that political Islam constitutes an anti-imperialist force in current international politics. Halliday cites a few (a very few) examples: demonstrators in Britain and Spain holding pro-Hizbollah banners to protest the most recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon; the visit of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, to Tehran; and the welcome given in London to the prominent Muslim scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi by the city's mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the Respect parliamentarian and leading anti-war activist, George Galloway "The trend is unmistakable", says Halliday. The left, he reckons, is mistakenly assuming that "some combination of al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas, and (not least) Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as exemplifying a new form of international anti-imperialism that matches - even completes - [the left's] own historic project."

But the left, continues Halliday, is deluding itself. Those with "historical awareness, sceptical political intelligence, or merely long memory" would find this trend "disturbing", he says. While it is true that political Islam is now opposed to the United States, in the past it has acted as the accomplice of the west in attacking and killing the left. The anti-imperialist and anti-colonial rhetoric of Islamist groups does not reflect an alignment of targets or ideals between Islamism and the left, Halliday insists, but instead shows that Islamists - like European fascists - have learned and borrowed from the left.

Halliday does not explain how he can justify lumping al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas and Ahmadinejad together. For someone who has spent three decades explaining the diversity and the complexity of Islamist movements, it is a bizarre stance. The divergence between (for example) al-Qaida and Hamas / Hizbollah - in terms of their platforms, methods, reach and even theology - makes it impossible to see them as a unified project available for approval or support by the left.

Fouzi Slisli is assistant professor in the department of human relations and multicultural education at St Cloud State University, Minnesota. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Jacqueline Kaye teaches at the University of Essex, England. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Fouzi Slisli & Jacqueline Kaye are responding to Fred Halliday's article:

"The Left and the Jihad" (8 September 2006)

Moreover, Hamas and Hizbollah have consistently condemned al-Qaida's techniques. Unlike al-Qaida, they have not bombed New York, Washington, Madrid or London. They oppose expanding their conflict with Israel outside their national territory. The jihadi project based on an alliance between al-Qaida, Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran which Halliday fears the left could be lured into supporting simply does not exist.

It is also difficult to conceive that any faction of the left in western countries would support any aspects of al-Qaida's campaign. If Halliday chanced upon previously unknown leftists who see in al-Qaida's project a "match" or a "completion" of "their own historic project", he is not telling us who they are. While support for the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and Palestine is not uncommon in the west, it is principally voiced by Arab, Muslim and other immigrants from the global south, secondarily by Irish or Basque nationalists, and hardly at all by western leftists or liberals.

There is a political logic here, but one very different from Halliday's imagining. Hamas and Hizbollah - like Irish and Basque nationalists (and their Vietnamese and Algerian forebears) - want or have wanted exclusively to liberate their homeland from occupation. In that sense, the demonstrators holding Hizbollah flags in Spain and Britain are merely echoing those westerners who traditionally supported nationalist struggles across the world.

A failure of perception

Fred Halliday's misjudgment of nationalism is matched by his view of anti-colonial and liberation struggles involving Muslims as essentially a western-inspired project, led by a Soviet leadership which "did indeed see militant Muslims as at least tactical allies". This selective focus on Muslims as raw material for the Soviets' modernisation project entails a triple loss of perspective.

First, it removes from consideration the many 19th century anti-colonial uprisings that were distinctly Islamic in character: Emir Abdlekader in Algeria; the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad), in Sudan; Islam's role in India's liberation struggle; various Islamic anti-colonial movements in Ghana and Nigeria.

Second, in tracing the alleged debt to leftism of various Islamic political leaders - Ayatollah Khomeini's anti-liberalism as "a straight crib from the Stalinist handbook", Osama bin Laden's messages as copies from contemporary radical politics, Hizbollah as a Shi'a version of the Vietnamese communist party - Halliday flirts with the orientalist cliché that Muslims are incapable of original thought.

Third, the ascription of an active role to the left in the relationship ignores the long history of mutual accommodation between Islam and Marxism, memorably illustrated by Maxime Rodinson in his Marxism et monde Musulman. In his recollections of school textbooks in (Soviet-backed) Afghanistan and Yemen, Halliday quotes some instrumental usages of Qur'anic verses, but says nothing about the contribution of the rich Islamic tradition of social justice.

This one-sided perception of the Muslim world's history is reinforced by Halliday's claim, grounded on Francisco Franco's recruitment of tens of thousands of Moroccan mercenaries to fight the Spanish republic, of some affinity between Islamism and western fascists. Again, there is a very partial reading of history involved here: no mention, for example, that in summer 1943, 233,000 north African Muslims and 363,000 Africans constituted the backbone of the Allied forces who liberated France and scored critical victories against Hitler and Mussolini in Tunisia, Italy and elsewhere. As Rachid Bouchareb's film Indigènes shows, these veterans were subjected to intense racism and harassment by the Allies and have yet to receive compensation and recognition for their sacrifices.

Halliday's reading of several incidents in the recent history of the Arab and Muslim world is tendentious. The claim that during Algeria's civil war of the 1990s "factions within the ruling national-liberation movement (FLN) were in league with the underground Islamist group, the (FIS)" would be hard to justify; it is more relevant to point out that many of the massacres of civilians were committed by security forces, often wearing false beards and Afghan-style dress.

The view that "formerly secular Egyptian intellectuals colluded" with "the Islamisation of society" under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak is a peculiar comment on decades which saw the prison doors in Egypt and much of the Arab open to many former socialist prisoners and close behind many new Islamist ones. (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published numerous reports on their torture.)

The dialectic of the left and Islamism looks very different in Morocco, where the socialist leader Abderrahmane Youssoufi became prime minister while Islamist leader Abdessalam Yassine remains under house arrest, and his party (al-Adl wal-Ihsan) banned; or in Algeria, where leftist secular intellectuals like Rachid Boudjedra and Khalida Messaoudi joined their former rulers and colonial masters in encouraging the military crackdown that robbed the FIS of its democratic election victory in 1991 and dragged the country into civil war.

Such failures of perception are common among western scholars and critics from the left, who have often warned the public against identifying with or supporting those who have been on the receiving end of colonial or imperialist violence, be it in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Ireland, Chile or Iran. With honourable individual exceptions, whenever such victims rise up, liberal luminaries have put forth arguments ensuring that the left - its institutions, parties and trade unions - remained neutral.

"Liberals are liberals", said the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney of the French revolutionary leaders who got cold feet when the moment came to extend Liberté, egalité, fraternité to France's colonies. When western liberalism feels compelled to recognise the struggles of black and brown people, it also employs contorted logic to assimilate them into a model that evades or seeks to defuse their radical subjectivity. In face of slave revolts, anti-racist or anti-colonial uprisings, liberalism has consistently reneged on its proclaimed ideals and principles and - by acquiescence, inaction or silence - sided with the powerful. The liberal narrative of the left's supposed embrace of Islamism is a new variant of this old story.


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