- oD 50.50
This week's editors
Through the bars
No to TTIP
Meteoric rise of Islamic State
Charlie Hebdo attack
Yemen - easy to get wrong
On 9/11 the West woke up to its ignorance of Islam and the state of Muslim public opinion - in the Middle East and the diaspora. This debate was our response. Initiated by Londons Goethe Institute, European cultural institutes, in conjunction with openDemocracy, have collaborated in a series of live debates featuring leading scholars of Islam from Europe and beyond on the relationship -historical, theological, social and political.
The general election in Germany on 27 September 2009 has seen the Christian Democratic Party again emerge as the largest party, giving Angela Merkel the opportunity to extend her term as chancellor and head a new governing coalition with the Free Democratic Party led by Guido Westerwelle. The election campaign was unusual in that foreign affairs, and especially Germany's military role in Afghanistan, played a prominent role - and in a way that has serious domestic-security consequences.
Mina Al-Lami is a visiting fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
Ben O'Loughlin is reader in international relations, and co-director of the New Political Communication Unit, at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the co-author (with Andrew Hoskins) of Television and Terror: Conflicting Times and the Crisis of News Discourse (Palgrave, 2009)
The debate over Afghanistan began to feature strongly in the campaign after an incident on 4 September when Bundeswehr commanders requested an air-strike in Kunduz province against two fuel-trucks that had been hijacked by the Taliban, which led to the death of dozens of Afghan civilians. It intensified on 18 September with the broadcast of a new "video-letter" by Bekkay Harrach, a 32-year-old German citizen of Moroccan origin and purported al-Qaida "soldier". The message of "Abu Talha al-Almani [the German]" (as Harrach is also known) echoes that in his earlier such videos, released in October 2008 and January 2009: he urges the German people to take responsibility for electing a government that will withdraw from Afghanistan, and says that their failure to do so would legitimise violent (and economically destructive) al-Qaida attacks against them.
The re-emergence of a jihadi threat increased security concerns in Germany in the last stages of the campaign. These are likely to continue long after the election. On the eve of the vote, an audio-announcement from Osama bin Laden himself was posted on jihadist websites; this "message to the European people" called on European states to pull their forces from Afghanistan or bear the consequences, but of immediate significance is that German as well as English subtitles are provided. In the wake of the election, on 28 September, German security agencies detained two men in Munich said to have links with Harrach amid warnings of a possible threat to the famous Oktoberfest in the city.
It has been a regular part of the jihadist armoury during the 2000s to "intervene" around the time of elections in western states. The Madrid railway bombings of 11 March 2004 came three days before the election in Spain, which resulted in the arrival in power of a new centre-left government committed to withdrawing its troops from Iraq; Osama bin Laden's video-message to the American people on 29 October 2004 was released four days before the presidential poll that led to George W Bush's re-election; the London bombings of 7 July 2005 took place a month after Britain's general election, and were followed by the broadcast of a video by the leader of the jihadi cell that perpetrated them, Mohammed Siddique Kahn.
In the context of this pattern of events - and especially of the "style" of the jihadist videos that have been posted over these years - there is something new and significant about Bekkay Harrach's "product" of 18 September 2009. Jihadist leaders and sympathisers have always devoted careful attention to the appearance of the messenger as well as the content of their message - and have adopted varying poses, from the gun-wielding desert-commander look to the headscarved, finger-pointing militant. The sensation of Harrach's latest broadcast is that he was dressed in a suit and tie, and was clean-shaven - the very model of a "clerical terrorist", even down to his long wavy hair.
Bekkay Harrach's broadcast
The image and the message
Bekkay Harrach's unconventional new look bears no resemblance to the tough-looking, weapon-brandishing, Afghan-styled jihadist of earlier videos. In October 2008, he sat in a mountainous area holding a bazooka with ammunition strapped to his chest, his head and face covered in black cloth with only his eyes visible. "Abu Talha" took aim at imaginary targets and fired some rounds. He was then shown sitting beside a rifle against a black background, issuing his warnings while raising an index finger in the approved fashion for emphasis. The aesthetics and tone of his January 2009 video-message were similar.
These precedents made the look and feel of the pre-election video all the more remarkable. Here, Harrach looks like any other modern-looking young man on the street and sounds like a soft-spoken and even shy adolescent, talking in a flat monotone without hand movements. The bright-red silk-curtain background is also a far cry from the rocky outcrops and weaponry of previous settings. In addition, the video announces itself as being presented by al-Qaida itself and not the as-Sahab media wing previously credited for Harrach's work.
The switch to a more "gentle" appearance and tone, and to a relatively more "conciliatory" title ("Security is a Mutual Interest"), is to some extent mirrored in the content. Harrach repeatedly thanks the German government for extricating him from difficult situations in the middle east, acknowledges the German security forces for not harming his family despite knowing of his activities, and commends some of Germany's international policies; at one point he says: "we must bear in mind that Germany doesn't have blood on its hands like colonial states, the majority of its people want their troops out of Afghanistan, and most of all Germany's strong refusal to take part in the Iraq war."
Nevertheless, "wrong must be resisted and the wrongdoer faced". Harrach also warns of al-Qaida strikes on German soil if Germans fail to bring their troops home; advises Muslims in Germany to avoid visiting "unnecessary places" in the two weeks following the election; and asks young Muslim men, inside or outside Germany, to "leave al-Qaida to do its job if jihad starts in Germany", promising to inform them should they be needed in its second phase.
This "threat message" received extensive media coverage in the closing ten days of the election campaign. But although some stories mentioned Harrach's appearance, there was little or no discussion of the reasons for or possible implications of the transformation. Two possible explanations can be dismissed. First, it is not that Harrach decided to reveal his identity after his cover was blown, because in his first video he had already confidently and defiantly revealed his real name while describing a rendezvous with German security-services.
Second, it is unlikely that the man characterised as "Al-Qaeda's German terrorist" and "the Bonn bomber" suddenly decided that modern business attire looks cool or hip. Jihadists may be adept at using such western inventions as mobile-phones and the internet, but the combination of a suit and tie and clean-shaven face is far from their view of the appropriate dress of an observant Muslim. Rather, growing a beard is (with reference to the sunnah, the ways of the Prophet Mohammed) regarded as part of the obligations of dutiful Muslim men. This too makes Harrach's reversal particularly intriguing.
The threat and the effect
The true explanation for this radical departure from jihadist norms is more likely to be found in one or more of three other directions. First, there is a calculation that it will spread fear. German audiences are being presented with visual evidence that a jihadist can "look like them". Harrach is demonstrating that jihadi reality has outgrown the stereotype of the dark, bearded, angry-looking Muslim man - a point that might have particular resonance in Germany, where some of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were based and went unnoticed.
Second, the new style represents a challenge to western governments and security agencies. These have been emphasising the internal as well as external terrorist threat that requires stricter security measures, and have switched from ethnic or racial profiling to "behavioural" scrutiny - on the grounds that "anyone" could be a jihadist. The nightmare scenario for security agencies is the case of Christian or secular white citizens converting to Islam and carrying out violence in a matter of weeks or even days.
This shift is echoed in discussion on Islamist web-forums about Bekkay Harrach's transformation, alongside chatter about a possible imminent al-Qaida strike in the west. In debating the legitimacy of Harrach's "western" appearance, many participants conclude that the faithful soldier would only have worn this dress for a good reason: going undercover.
Third, there may be a tactical consideration: that Harrach's western apparel could give him a better chance of being heard by German audiences. Jihadists are well aware of western broadcasting regulations, which have limited their ability to spread their message. Could it even be, as one member of a jihadist forum suggested, that Harrach's respectable style and moderate tone might enable his video to be shown on German television?
Bekkay Harrach, by mirroring the face and style of the "wrongdoer", is in this perspective trying to advance his jihadi agenda by creating a more diffuse and less directly intimidating presence in German society. The result of the election, insofar as it offers little prospect of accelerating any German withdrawal from Afghanistan, represents no semblance of progress here. The Berlin government, and others which continue to deem al-Qaida a continuing threat, will use Harrach's example to justify their national-security agendas. And so the "war on terror" will quietly go on - until the next explosion.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on jihadism in the post-9/11 world:
Malise Ruthven: "'Born-again' Muslims: cultural schizophrenia" (27 September 2001)
Murat Belge, "Inside the fundamentalist mind" (4 October 2001)
Omar al-Qattan, "Disneyland Islam" (18 October 2002)
Paul Rogers, "The al-Qaida perspective" (9 January 2004)
James Howarth, "Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam" (20 January 2006)
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy" (18 December 2006)
Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's standing" (22 March 2007)
Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's fresh horizon" (5 April 2007)
Johnny Ryan, "The militant Islamist call and its echo" (1 August 2007)
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "Towards the real al-Qaida" (10 September 2007)
Audrey Kurth Cronin, "Al-Qaida: end of the beginning" (11 September 2007)
Pablo Policzer & Ram Manikkalingam, "Al-Qaida: from centre to periphery" (9 October 2007)
Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history" (9 November 2007)
Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's afterlife" (30 May 2008)
Fawaz Gerges, "Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads" (14 May 2009)
Tariq Ramadan's audiences are famously diverse. Those who hang on the Swiss Islamic reformer's every word include college-going Muslim men and women; policymakers and think-tankers in cities such as London and Washington, even the very authoritarian governments in the middle east from where Ramadan is mostly banned.Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and teaches international science policy at Imperial College London on BBC Radio 4 based on the book. For details, click here
His most recent book is Science and Islam: A History ( Icon, 2009). He presented a three-part series
He is the editor of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press, 2006) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press, 2006). He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council / Association of Muslim Social Scientists, (2007)
Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:
"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (11 August 2005)
"British Muslims must stop the war" (30 August 2005)
"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (29 November 2005)
"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (13 December 2005)
"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (5 July 2006)
"Africans and climate change" (7 February 2007)
"Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada" (7 March 2007)
"A German vision: greening globalisation" (28 March 2007)
"Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
"The wages of punditry" (30 April 2007)
Each of these constituencies will be delving into Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation,a long awaited volume and Ramadan's first scholarly-focused book since his move to St Antony's College, Oxford University. It is ambitious and broad in what it wants to achieve. At times it is highly accessible and at other times technical.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part takes the reader through the history of reform in Islam's first few centuries. Reform is often seen as a post-colonial project. But the early chapters in his book demonstrate that calls for change within Islam have a much older history. In the later chapters Ramadan sets out his own thinking on how an Islamic ethics could apply to modern innovation.
He recognises that the majority of Islamic scholars have little or no training in science or in areas such as bioethics or environmental affairs. He wants them to brush up on advances in modern biology. And he wants them to knock on the doors of ethics committees and make their voices heard alongside other faiths in public debates on science and the environment. He is particularly angry that the states and citizens of Islamic countries have done so little on climate change. Until relatively recently, for example, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were solidly behind the United States in questioning a human fingerprint in global warming.
More surprisingly, however, Ramadan comes down hard on the global Islamic finance industry. This is unexpected because Islamic finance is widely regarded as a rare successful example of the application of Islamic innovation to modern life. Ramadan, however, thinks the industry is not radical enough: he challenges its architects to be bolder and think about whether Islamic ethics in finance has a role, not just to provide interest-free home loans, but in shaping the world's financial architecture.
A space for influence
Tariq Ramadan often tells his many audiences not to lose sight of context when interpreting religious texts. But more context is the one thing that this book could have benefited from - especially in the later chapters.
Cutting-edge innovation in Islamic societies may not be on the scale found in developed societies, and it may not always be inspired by the practice of Islam. It is often an organic, demand-led, bottom-up process. And once in a while, it is world-class. But reading Radical Reform, you get no sense of this. Nor do you get a sense of the multidimensional nature of the practice and study of ethics in Islamic societies today.
It is correct to say that bioethics is a relatively weak field of study and practice in the Islamic world, when compared with more developed countries. But in many countries, universities, government ministries, councils of Islamic scholars and teaching hospitals are alive with debate and discussion. This will increase as spending on science goes up and as governance and regulatory systems become more sophisticated.
At the same time Ramadan ought to have given some credit to the immense activity in the Islamic world - including scholarly literature and policy-thinking - on how to alleviate poverty. The scale of activity on the ground makes sense because countries with large Muslim populations are also among the world's poorest. And a few ideas have truly been world-changing. Microfinance schemes, such as the Grameen Bank, as well as the Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, were developed by individuals (Muhammad Yunus and Mahbub ul Haq respectively) with roots in the Islamic world.
That said, Radical Reform is all set to become an influential text - even if the ideas it contains do not contain any huge leaps of the imagination, nor great shifting paradigms. It is a book of instruction intended at audiences who are looking for a scholarly steer in their lives.
Early Islamic history has no shortage of truly radical reformers. The problem is that their work is largely forgotten. By contrast, reformers who adopted a more incrementalist approach have had a longer shelf-life and more of an impact on mainstream communities. That is the space Tariq Ramadan wants to occupy.
It is generally accepted that we unconsciously airbrush and tweak our memories, for consistency and for comfort. A recent researcher went further, and suggested that we do this in order to manage the future. "We remember bits and pieces of our experiences and then reconstruct them to create plausible, but not necessarily accurate, accounts of what happened. Such structures make sense ... if one of the main functions of memory is to shuffle scraps of the past in novel ways to project
Martin Rose is director of the British Council in Canada. He established the council's Pontignano Conference and its in-house think-tank on cultural relations, Counterpoint
Martin Rose is director of the British Council's Our Shared Europe project, which sets out to demonstrate that Muslims are an integral part of Europe's past, present and future Also by Martin Rose in openDemocracy:
"Translating difference: a debate about multiculturalism" (1 July 2004) - with Caspar Melville
possible futures" (Jessica Marshall, "Future Recall", New Scientist, 24-30 March 2007). Our collective memory seems to operate in the same sort of way - shuffling scraps of the past in novel ways, to project possible futures. It is not necessarily dishonest at all, but if we are clear about the future we want, we may very well shuffle the past, albeit subconsciously, to map a path to that future.
Both the traditional western account of western civilisation, and the traditional Muslim account of Islamic civilisation are teleological, subtly retro-fitted histories that aspire to explain us all in their own terms, whether of "modernity" or of God's final dispensation. Whether these two histories will fertilise, or continue to antagonise, one another is one of the great questions of our time.
The answer, like the answer to many difficult questions, is probably both. The very short recorded history of modern mankind (12,000 years since the dawn of the Holocene, a little less since the Neolithic "revolution", and perhaps 5,000 since the invention of writing) is for the most part a shared, relatively undifferentiated Eurasian history. The histories of Islam and of Christendom are tail-pieces - 2,000 years and 1,400 years respectively - to a long, common past that stretches back far beyond
that. Yet it is upon this relatively recent divergence that we focus, despite the fact that even then the cultural and the religious differentiations are those between near neighbours - cousins - of the same family. This is what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences", the directing of negative feelings towards those most like us, and the minute attention to the small areas of differentiation. Back, in other words, to defining ourselves against others - by what we are not - in the all too familiar binary pattern of black and white, green and orange, blue and green, red and white, blue and red, black and green ... and all the other pairings of parties, football teams, sects, chariot-factions and armies that litter history.
So the history of Europe has for the most part been written to demonstrate how we got where we are today, and represents a systematic reworking of the past to justify and explain the present. This doesn't make it some kind of all-enveloping malign conspiracy (though historiography has its share of those), just a product of the human mind. Humans need to explain themselves to themselves, and on the whole they find it difficult to imagine a history that didn't end up with them where they are now. From there it is a short leap to inevitability. There is a compelling tendency to make a coherent narrative that takes us from "the beginning" to "now" in a plausible progression: a narrative that takes us out of the realm of chance.
For modern Europe that narrative is so familiar that we often forget that it is a matter of craft and choice. It goes something like this: the origins of "us" are in ancient Greece, in the moment of genius in 5th-century Athens that provided the wellspring of European thought. The trail leads on through Rome and its emperors, grafting onto this stock the new faith of Christianity, and its adoption as the state religion of the empire; the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome.
At this point culture goes underground, a small flame nursed by the church in remote monasteries, only to re-surface as the first coherent polities emerge from the "dark ages". We reach an apogee in the high middle ages, in a galaxy of cathedrals, sacred art and confidence. In the 12th century we see an early intellectual Renaissance, harbinger of a the real thing a couple of centuries later, and then European thought explodes once again in an effervescence of creativity fertilised by rediscovered Greek learning, leading on inexorably to the desacralised individualism of the Enlightenment and what we call "modernity". Then Europe takes modernity to the world in the age of imperial expansion, building by diligent commerce the vast bedrock of capital that still sustains it and delivering its values and its ways of thinking to the unenlightened world - which then, in fits and starts, becomes "modern" too.
Along the way there is a small by-pass built into the story (there are others, of course, too, but this one concerns us). In order for the story to work, the wisdom of Athens, and of the Hellenistic culture that expanded upon it, needed a safe berth during the European dark ages when the Europeans were clearly making a pretty poor fist of keeping the flame alive. The new, vigorous and open-minded civilisation of Islam provided that haven, absorbing translations and translators of large quantities of Greek philosophy and science into its own mainstream, where it formed an important element in the high culture of Abbasid Baghdad and of the kingdoms of al-Andalus, to name only the two most obvious.
The great reluctance
Or did it? What is interesting is the great reluctance in modern Europe, at a popular level at least, to imagine that these cultured Arabs, Persians and Berbers read and internalised the Greek literature that they had translated. It is almost as though their role was simply to pass it on, unexamined, like the courier who sews a secret dispatch into the hem of his cloak and later hands it over, unopened, to its recipient. That the wisdom of the Greeks could have been just as fertilising to classical Arab and Islamic culture as it was to be to European culture, is apparently hard to accept: by the time Europe began to have large-scale encounters with Muslim states and Islamic institutions, it had already settled into the stance of unassailable superiority which has continued ever since.
And so it should probably not surprise us to see the editorial pages of French and even American newspapers discussing whether Aristotle was first translated in Muslim Toledo or, as the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim has recently maintained, at Christian Mont St-Michel (see Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristote au mont Saint-Michel [Seuil, 2008]). Would that this were a sign of a growing popular interest in mediæval intellectual history, but I'm afraid it isn't: it is (or has become, in the hands of the bloggers and polemicists) an attempt to minimise the Arab contribution to the Renaissance of the 12th century, and so to the European intellectual story and to "modernity". Gouguenheim's book is now being translated into English, and will undoubtedly fuel another round of "told-you-so" devaluation of Muslim histories and Islamic cultures. It is instructive to look at the websites on which the book is enthusiastically discussed: for the most part they are not sites specialising in scholarly intellectual history.
Similar ding-dong battles about "Islamic science" seem all too often to resolve into attempts to show that the original contribution of Islamic scientists has been wildly exaggerated - that the Greeks did the real thinking and their genius then passed undigested through the gut of the mediæval Islamic world to emerge ready for use by Renaissance thinkers, unsullied by any further originality. Indeed, it sometimes seems that a lot of what is written about Islamic civilisation, particularly by non-specialists, is devoted simply to demoting it from its position of having provided the high culture of the mediæval Mediterranean, almost as though refusing to admit its achievements a thousand years ago will somehow invalidate the claims to economic and social parity of Turkish, Moroccan, Pakistani and Somali Europeans today.
Beyond the Eurocentric past
So we should probably read much of this historical argument as proxy politics. It's an odd sort of politics, but it tries to strip today's Muslims in Europe of their place - however collateral it may be - in the creation of Europe and the modern European mind. It is true that this claim would be hard to maintain if it was made simply in the name of farmers from Mirpur settled in Bradford, or from Sylhet settled in Brick Lane. But it isn't: it is made by Muslims, speaking as Muslims, as small shareholders in the great civilisational and religious enterprise of Islam. As Muslims, Mirpuris and Sylhetis, Moroccans and Anatolians can all hold their heads higher. They are, after all, distant heirs of what Claudio Lange described like this: "in the 11th century, Islamic civilisation, together with the Byzantine, Chinese and Indian civilisations, established the First World of the time, while Western Europe embodied the Third."
There has been much written about the need to rethink the writing of world history. Jack Goody describes the aim of his book The Theft of History as "to show how Europe has not simply neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted its own history, but also how it has imposed historical concepts and periods that have aggravated our understanding of Asia in a way that is significant for the future as well as for the past." He is one of several scholars who have addressed the need to escape from the selective and inadequate narratives of the Eurocentric past, and to understand much more clearly the intimate linkages that have always existed between European and Asian cultures and histories.
Others (like Margaret Meserve) have re-examined the late mediæval and Renaissance construction of western historical thinking about the Turks;5 or (like Ian Almond) the intricate networks of alliances throughout European history that have belied the old chestnut of wholly hostile civilisations, by placing Muslim and Christian on the same side; yet others (like George Saliba) have patiently unravelled the history and meaning of the transmission of scientific ideas from east to west, and the part played in that transmission by Muslim scientists. Others have written sympathetic revisionist histories of Islam in Europe, like David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible. Nabil Matar has chronicled the engagement of Muslim Arabs with Christians across the cultural frontier. And Richard Bulliet has made a persuasive case for rethinking the history of the Mediterranean basin up to about 1550 as that of an "Islamo-Christian" civilisation. There are many more.
The intimate tides
It is interesting to note how much of this work post-dates 2001. Scholars had been toiling in this vineyard before that year, of course, but 9/11 and the intellectual fallout from it have given huge impetus to attempts to stop the two civilisations (or if we follow Richard Bulliet, the two halves of one civilisation) being forced into escalating antagonism by what I called a moment ago the "evil twins" - the two malign narratives that coil round each other like a double helix. It is no doubt sometimes exaggerated - that's the way with revisionism - but when we get past the competitive and often fruitless claims about which culture discovered, recognised, invented, translated what first, we can discern a powerful attempt to demonstrate what every rational instinct tells us must be the case: that two great civilisations living in proximity for a millennium and a half, trading, fighting, abusing and studying each other, forming glittering syncretic micro-cultures like those of Muslim Spain and Norman Sicily, and occupying opposite shores of the same body of water - cannot be hermetically separated from each other. Indeed, the opposite seems very likely to be true: that constant commerce and intellectual intercourse across the cultural frontier meant that significant elements of what formed the modern European mind came from, or through, the Muslim east.
This is an extract from the third Zaki Badawi Memorial Lecture, delivered on 5 June 2009. The lecture is established and sponsored by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS). It is being jointly published by the AMSS and the British Council. The announcement of the date of publication and how to obtain a copy will be made on the AMSS website and the British Council's Our Shared Europe website
President Obama's European tour went remarkably smoothly. Many expected the G20 summit to end in fights over stronger regulations of the global financial system, but despite president Sarkozy's hard-line position the outcome was surprisingly consensual. The US and most West European governments were even able to agree on a common candidate for NATO's new Secretary General, an issue that has led to rather longer arguments in the past.
Massive demonstrations in European capitals and major cities in support of the people of Gaza highlighted once again the core problem: the vast majority of the left agrees in supporting the people of Gaza against Israeli aggression, but refuses to support its political expressions such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The left not only refuses to support them, but also denounces them and fights against them.Support for the people of Gaza exists only at a humanitarian level, but not at the political level.
Nadine Rosa-Rosso is
a Brussels-based independent Marxist.
She has edited two books: "Rassembler les résistances" of the French-language journal 'Contradictions' and "Du bon usage de la laïcité", that argues for an open and democratic form of secularism.
She can be contacted at email@example.com
The left may register the support Hamas and Hezbollah have amongst the Arab masses, but it pays no heed to Israel's clear and aggressive intention to destroy these resistance movements. From a political point of view we can say without exaggeration that the Left's wish (more or less openly stated) echoes that of the Israeli government: to expunge popular support for Hamas and Hezbollah. This is an issue not only in the Middle East, but also in European capitals today, where the bulk of those engaged in protest are people of North African origin, or South Asian Muslims in the case of London.
I will cite a few but there are dozens of examples of this. The headline of the French website ‘Res Publica' following the mass demonstration in Paris on January 3 read: "We refuse to be trapped by the Islamists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah!" The article continued: "Some activists of the left and far left (who turned out only in small numbers) were literally drowned in a crowd whose views are at odds with the spirit of the French Republican movement and of the twenty-first century Left. Over 90% of the demonstrators championed a fundamentalist and communitarian worldview based on the clash of civilizations, which is anti-secular and anti-Republican. They advocated a cultural relativism whose harmful tendencies are well known, particularly in England."
Res Publica is
neither Marxist nor communist, but one would be hardpressed to find
even the most remotely positive words about Hamas on Marxist websites. One does find formulations such as, "Whatever we think about Hamas, one thing is indisputable: the Palestinian people democratically elected Hamas to lead Gaza in elections held under international supervision." Looking further at "what can we make of Hamas?" one finds on the websites of both the French Communist Party and the Worker's Party of Belgium an article entitled, "How Israel put Hamas in the saddle." The article itself supplies us with little more than the assertion that Hamas has been supported by Israel, the United States and the European Union. It was published on January 2, after a week of intensive Israeli bombardment and on the day before the ground offensive whose declared aim was the destruction of Hamas.
The Res Publica quotation sums up rather well the general attitude of the European left not only to Palestinian resistance, but also to the Arab and Muslim presence in Europe. The most interesting comment is in parentheses: ‘the Left and far Left (who only turned out in small numbers)'. One might expect following such a confession some self-critical analysis regarding the lack of mobilisation in the midst of the slaughter of the Palestinian people. But no, instead their ire is turned on the demonstrators (90% of the whole protest) who are accused of conducting a "clash of civilizations."
At the demonstrations I went on in Brussels, I asked some of my co-demonstrators
translate the slogans chanted in Arabic: they were always happy to oblige. I heard a lot of support for the Palestinian resistance and denunciation of Arab governments (in particular of the Egyptian President Mubarak), Israel's crimes, and the deafening silence of the international community as well as the complicity of the European Union. In my opinion, these were all political slogans quite appropriate to the situation. Some people seemingly only have to hear Allah-u-akbar, before they start jumping to completely unfounded conclusions. The very fact that slogans are shouted in Arabic is enough to irritate them. One organizing committee was, for example, highly concerned about which languages would be used. But could we not have simply distributed the translations of these slogans? This might be the first step towards mutual understanding. When we demonstrated in 1973 against the pro-American military takeover by Pinochet in Chile, no one would have dared to tell the Latin American demonstrators, "Please, chant in French!" In order to lead this fight, we all learnt slogans in Spanish. No one was offended.
It must be asked, are the left and far left able to mobilize on these issues at all? The problem was already surfacing when Israel invaded Lebanon in the summer of 2006. I would like to quote here an anti-Zionist Israeli who took refuge in London, jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, who already said, six months before the invasion: "For quite a long time, it has been very clear that the ideology of the Left is desperately struggling to find its way in the midst of the emerging battle between the West and the Middle East. The parameters of the so-called "clash of civilizations" are so clearly established that any "rational" and "atheist" leftist activist is clearly condemned to stand closer to Donald Rumsfeld than to a Muslim." It's a stark claim.
There are two issues that need to be addressed in any attempt to get to grips with this paralysis of the left in its support for Palestinian, Lebanese, and more generally the Arab and Muslim resistance: they are religion and terrorism.
The Left and religion
Perplexed by the religious feelings of people with an immigrant background, the left, Marxist or not, continuously quotes the famous statement of Marx on religion: "religion is the opium of the people". With this they think everything that needs to be said has been said. But what if we cite the fuller quote of Marx and give it more context. I do this not to hide behind an authority, but in the hope of provoking some thought amongst those who hold this over-simplified view:
"Religion is the general theory of this world, (...), its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. (...) The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."(Translated by Prof. W. Banning, Life, Learning and Meaning, 1960, The Spectrum (p.62-63)
I have always been and remain an atheist, but the rise of religious feelings is hardly surprising. In today's world most politicians, including those on the left, do little more then display their weakness against the military power of the US, they do nothing or almost nothing against financial speculation and the logic of profit that plunges billions of people into poverty, hunger and death. All this, we are told, is due to "the invisible hand" or "divine intervention". Where is the difference between this and religion? The only difference is that the theory of the "invisible hand" denies people the right to struggle for social and economic justice against the "divine intervention" that maintains the status quo. Like it or not, if we want to ally ourselves with them, we cannot look down on billions of people who may harbour religious feelings.
The left does exactly what it accuses the Islamists of doing: it takes religion literally. Rather than regard such religious expressions as a "protest against misery", imperialism, colonialism, or neo-colonialism, leftists cut themselves off from a huge swathe of the masses. Gilad Atzmon expressed it well when he said: "Rather than imposing our beliefs upon others, we had better learn to understand what others believe in". If we continue to refuse to learn, we will continue to lament the religious feelings of the masses instead of struggling with them for peace, independence and social and economic justice.
But there is more. The fate of Islam is very different from that of Christianity. I have never known the left to hesitate in showing solidarity with Latin American bishops, followers of liberation theology and the struggle against Yankee Imperialism in the 70s, or the Irish Catholic resistance to British Imperialism. Nor have I known the left to criticize Martin Luther King for his references to the Gospel, which was a powerful lever for the mobilisation of Black Americans that did not have political, economic or social rights in the US in the sixties.
This discriminatory treatment by the Left, this systematic mistrust of Muslims who without exception are suspected of wanting to impose sharia law on us, can only be explained by a colonialism that has profoundly marked our consciousness. We should remember that the Communist Party of Belgium (KPB), praised the benefits of colonization that were enthusiastically propagated by Christian missionaries. For example, in the 1948 program of the KPB, when the party had just emerged from a period of heroic resistance against the Nazi occupation, it foresaw the following developments in the Belgian Congo: "a) Establishment of a single economic unit Belgium-Congo; b) Development of trade with the colony and realization of its national resources; c) Nationalization of resources and trusts in Congo; d) Development of a white colonists class and black farmers and artisan class; e) Gradual granting of democratic rights and freedoms to the black population."
It was this kind of political education which meant that there was hardly any protest from Belgian workers influenced by the KPB when Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele and many other African anti-imperialist leaders were assassinated. After all "our" Christian civilization is civilized, is it not? And democratic rights and freedoms can only "gradually" be assigned to the masses in the Third World, since they are too barbaric to make good use of them.
Along exactly the same line of political colonialist reasoning, the left rather regrets having supported democratic elections in Palestine. Perhaps they should have adopted a more gradualist approach towards the Palestinians since the majority of Palestinians have now voted for Hamas. Worse, the left bemoans the fact that "the PLO was forced to organize parliamentary elections in 2006 at a time when everything showed that Hamas would win the elections". You will find this response on the sites of the PCF and Belgian PVDA.
If we agreed to stop staring with blind prejudice at the religious beliefs of people, we would perhaps "learn to understand" why the Arab and Muslim masses who today demonstrate for Palestine are screaming ‘Down with Mubarak', an Arab and Muslim leader, and why they jubilantly shout the name of Hugo Chavez, a Christian-Latin American leader. Isn't it obvious that the frame of reference used here is not primarily religious but a judgement of their leaders' relationship to US imperialism and aggressive Israeli Zionist expansionism? And if the left formulated what is at issue in these terms, might they not partly regain the support of the people that formerly gave them their strength?
The Left and terrorism
Another cause of paralysis in the anti-imperialist struggle is the fear of being associated with terrorism. On January 11, 2009, the Speaker of the Berlin House of Representatives, Walter Momper (SPD), the head of the parliamentarian group of ‘Die Grüne' (the German Greens), Franziska Eichstädt-Bohlig, and a leader of ‘Die Linke', Klaus Lederer, and others held a demonstration in Berlin with 3000 participants to support Israel under the slogan ‘stop the terror of Hamas'. One must bear in mind that Die Linke are considered by many leftists in Europe as the new and credible alternative Left - an example to follow.
The entire history of colonisation and decolonisation is the history of land that has been stolen by military force and reclaimed by force. From Algeria to Vietnam, from Cuba to South Africa, from Congo to Palestine: no colonial power ever renounced its domination by means of negotiation or political dialogue alone. For Gilad Atzmon it is this context that constitutes the significance of the barrage of rockets by Hamas and other Palestinian resistance organizations throughout the conflict:
"It occurred to me that the barrages of Qassams that have been landing sporadically on Sderot and Ashkelon were actually nothing but a message from the imprisoned Palestinians. First it was a message regarding stolen land, homes, fields and orchards: ‘Our beloved soil, we didn't forget, we are still here fighting for you, sooner rather than later, we will come back, we will start again where we had stopped'. But it was also a clear message to the Israelis. ‘You out there, in Sderot, Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Haifa, whether you realise it or not, you are actually living on our stolen land. You better start to pack because your time is running out, you have exhausted our patience. We, the Palestinian people, have nothing to lose anymore". (Gilad Atzmon - Living on Borrowed Time in a Stolen Land)
A message an Israeli receives loud and clear, the European left completely fails to grasp; rather they find 'indefensible' the necessity to take by force what has been stolen by force. Since 9/11, the use of force in the anti-colonial and the anti-imperialist struggle has been classified under the category of ‘terrorism': one cannot even discuss it any more. It is worth remembering that Hamas was placed on the proscribed list of ‘foreign terrorist organizations' by the United States in 1995, seven years before 9/11. In January 1995, the United States elaborated the ‘Specially Designated Terrorist List (STD)' and put Hamas and all the other radical Palestinian liberation organisations on it.
Capitulation on this question by a great part of the Western left, however, only really got going after 9/11, after the launching of the aggressive response by the Bush administration. The fear of being classified ‘terrorists' or apologists of terrorism has spread. This attitude of the left is not confined to theory: it has practical consequences. The European ‘Council Framework Decision' of 13 June 2002 on ‘combating terrorism' incorporated a copy-and-paste version of the American terror list into European legislation, allowing the courts to prosecute those who are suspected of supporting terrorism. During an anti-war rally in London, some activists selling a publication which carried a Marxist analysis of Hamas were stopped by the police and their magazines were confiscated. In other words, the simple attempt to inform people of the political programme and actions of Hamas and Hezbollah has become an illegal enterprise. Such a political atmosphere intimidates people into distancing themselves from these resistance movements. It is not long before they are denouncing them without reservation.
I have a concrete suggestion to make: let the left launch an appeal to remove Hamas from the terror lists. At the same time we must ensure that Hezbollah are not added to the terror list. It is the least we can do if we want to support the Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab resistance. It is the minimal democratic condition for supporting the resistance and it is the essential political precondition for the left to have a chance to be heard out by the millions of people involved.
I am fully aware of the fact that my political opinions put me in a small minority of European leftists. This worries me profoundly, not because of my own fate - I am only one activist among many - but for the fate of an ideal, of an end to exploitation of man by man, a struggle which can only happen through the abolition of the imperialist, colonial and neo-colonial system.
- 1 of 5