The left needs to avoid using the term ‘Islamophobia’

June 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm (From the archives, Galloway, Human rights, islamism, Jim D, John Rees, Middle East, misogyny, palestine, relativism, religion, religious right, Respect, secularism, stalinism, Stop The War, SWP)

From the archive: Rumy Hasan’s 2003 article arguing against electoral pacts with ‘Muslim groups’ (he plainly means ‘Islamist groups’) and the left’s use of the word “Islamophobia.’ At the time he wrote it, Rumy was a member of the SWP and active in the Socialist Alliance. We don’t agree with every last detail of the piece (eg Rumy’s enthusiasm for the Scottish Socialist Party), but its main thrust, in my opinion, remains sound: the prospect of the left making further electoral pacts with Islamist groups has receded since the demise of ‘Respect’, but Rumy’s central point about the the left’s approach to Islamist groups, and use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ still needs to be repeated and argued for amongst the left and anti-racist campaigners.

‘Islamophobia’ and Electoral Pacts with Muslim Groups

Above: Rees, Murray and Galloway: prime movers in promoting Islamism on the “left”

By Rumy Hasan

SINCE 11 SEPTEMBER 2001, the epithet “Islamophobia” has increasingly become in vogue in Britain – not only from Muslims but also, surprisingly, from wide layers of the left, yet the term is seldom elaborated upon or placed in a proper context. Invariably, it is used unwisely and irresponsibly and my argument is that the left should refrain from using it. 

Shockingly, some on the left have, on occasion, even resorted to using it as a term of rebuke against left, secular, critics of reactionary aspects of Muslim involvement in the anti-war movement. So what does the term mean? Literally, “fear of Islam” but, more accurately, a dislike or hatred of Muslims, analogous to “anti-Semitism”. Since September 11, there has undoubtedly been an increasing resentment and hostility by some sections of the media towards Muslims in Britain and more generally in the West that, in turn, has also given rise to some popular hostility. But this is rarely made explicitly – rather it is coded as an attack on asylum seekers, refugees, and potential “terrorists”, above all, on Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East. This has been most intense in America, where there has been systematic harassment of Arabs for almost two years. 

Surprisingly, however, all sections of the media, including the gutter press, have largely refrained from open attacks on British Muslims. In terms of physical attacks, including fatalities, to my knowledge these have been relatively few. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was a Sikh man who was murdered in the US because he wore a turban in the manner of Bin Laden. But there were certainly attacks – both on individuals and on mosques – in Britain, especially in Northern towns, probably by BNP thugs; and other notorious acts such as leaving a pig’s head outside a mosque. But these largely abated soon after, though such incidents still periodically occur. Hence there is certainly no room for complacency. But does all this amount to Islamophobia? Clearly not: we are not dealing with a situation comparable to the Jews under the Nazis in the 1930s, nor even of Muslims in Gujarat, India, that is currently run by a de facto Hindu fascist regime. Arguably, the situation in the 1970s, when the National Front was becoming a real menace in Britain, was more dangerous for Muslims and non-Muslim ethnic minorities alike. 

Moreover, perhaps as a counter-balance, the more responsible TV and press media have, in fact, been portraying a number of, if anything, over-positive images of Islam and Muslims (examples include the BBC’s series on Islam – which was a whitewash; a highly sympathetic week-long account of Birmingham Central Mosque; and a 2-week long daily slot on the Hajj by Channel 4 that downplayed the appalling death toll which occurs there every year). An establishment paper such as the Financial Times has had front-page photos of the Hajj and of anti-war placards of the Muslim Association of Britain. Soon after September 11, both political leaders and the media – out of concern for the backlash this was likely to generate, dropped the term “Islamic fundamentalist” from usage. In the same vein, Bush invited an imam to the special religious service held soon after S11 in Washington; and Blair met Muslim leaders in Britain. This was a symbolism that went down well with Muslim leaders in these countries. 

Nonetheless, many Muslims still believe that the US-led “war on terror” is in fact a war against Islam and therefore is the clearest expression of Islamophobia. But such reasoning overlooks some uncomfortable realities. The country at the forefront of this “war” is of course the US. Let us, therefore, summarise briefly its relations with the “Islamic” world: 

i. The US has long propped up the Saudi regime, a crucial ally in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has the most sacred sites of Islam. But there has never been a squeak of protest by the US government against the brutality and oppressiveness of this barbaric society – rather, the US has gone out of its way not to criticise it out of “respect for Islamic values and culture”. This, of course, is humbug, but the fact remains; 

ii. The second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel) is Egypt – a Muslim country; 

iii. In 1991, the US-led coalition “liberated” Kuwait, a Muslim country – with the help of practically all the Muslim Gulf states; 

iv. In 1999, the US and its NATO allies “liberated” Kosovo – a predominantly Muslim province, from “Christian” Serbia. The ex-Serb President Milosevic is undergoing a show-trial in The Hague for “crimes against humanity” (specifically, against Kosovar Muslims); 

v. The US armed, trained, and funded the Islamic fundamentalists of the Afghan Mujahideen in the fight against the Russians. This included nurturing one Osama Bin Laden. 

vi. The US had no problems of the takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 by the Taliban – the creation largely of Pakistan, a strong ally of the US and an avowedly “Islamic Republic”. 

vii. The US has been strongly pushing for Turkey’s membership of the EU – though Turkey is a secular state, most Turks are, nominally at least, Muslims. 

The list could go on. One might, therefore, wonder where is the “war on Islam” or “Islamophobia” of US foreign policy? It is not for nothing that leaders of Muslim countries rarely talk about “Islamophobia”. Moreover, it is a rarely stated fact that Muslims say from the Indian sub-continent or East Asia are likely to experience much harsher treatment and discrimination at the hands of “fellow Muslims” in Arab (especially Gulf) countries than they are in the West. So, woe betide those who parrot the Islamophobic argument against the Western right – for those foolish enough to do so will surely be in for a serious hammering. Moreover, by so doing, they will let the imperialists off the hook. In reality, US imperialism does not give a damn about the religion of a country as long as its economic and strategic interests are served. It has long supported the most reactionary, dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world – as long as they do its bidding. If they fall out of line, as with Iraq, then they are subjected to the full imperial onslaught. At most, we could say that there has been a degree of Anti-Arab hostility that has spilled over into anti-Muslim sentiment as one of the justifications for this. But this does not alter that fact that, both domestically and internationally, there is simply no material basis to “Islamophobia”. 

The term Islamophobia seemed to first appear in Britain during the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. This was an attempt by fundamentalist Muslims to silence critics such as Rushdie and his supporters for free speech by arguing that only the wider Islamophobia of British society and state allowed this to pass unpunished. The implication was clear: criticism of Islam is tantamount to “Islamophobia” and is therefore out of bounds. This is a situation that progressives cannot and should not accept. For those on the left who are not convinced by this analysis, some crucial questions need to be posed. What is your position on, for example, the stance of thousands of women in Pakistan who courageously demonstrated against the Islamic hudood ordinance in the mid-1980s that the dictator General Zia (a key Islamic fundamentalist US ally at the time) was imposing – whose aim was to reduce women, in law, to second-class status? These women were clearly acting in an Islamophobic manner – any mullah would have told you that. Similarly, what is your position on those protesting against the Sharia law in Northern Nigeria that recently saw the imposition of a death-by-stoning sentence on a Nigerian woman for adultery? These demonstrators are clearly acting in an Islamophobic manner, as any mullah must tell you. Or, your position in regard to the ex-Muslim Dutch MEP who has been witch-hunted by Muslims for asserting that Muslim men oppress women? 

What is clear is that such questions and implications have been blatantly ignored. Much of the left has simply been unwilling to critically engage with the reactionary belief-system of its new-found allies. Not only that, but there has also been an extraordinary indulgence – as, for example, in the toleration of Muslim Association of Britain’s (MAB) members and spokespersons at anti-war demonstrations in London and elsewhere to incessantly chant the “takbeer” (“Allah-o-akbar”). Absolutely no such indulgence was allowed for members of other faiths (so, for instance, no chance of the Lord’s Prayer or Buddhist chants) or of no faith (no singing of the Internationale or Red Flag). Instead, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there is talk by some of an electoral pact between the Socialist Alliance and Muslim groups and mosque leaders along the lines of a “Peace and Justice Coalition”. It appears that those who have decried against “Islamophobia” have gone further and are now engaging in a kind of “Islamophilia”. Matters are at an early stage but this really seems to be about converting the Stop the War Coalition into an electoral body. Were this, by hook or crook, to materialise, it would be a strange creature indeed: an electoral grouping of atheistic progressives and religious zealots who, on many core issues, are profoundly reactionary. Before any such fiasco begins to take shape, some more sobering facts need to be pointed out. One presumes that there would be attempts to deepen links with the MAB – the key Muslim organisation in the anti-war movement. Now the MAB is clear and proud of where it stands: it takes inspiration from the ideas of Maulana Maududi, the founder member of the Jamaat-I-Islami in Pakistan (Tariq Ali exposes his ideas in Clash of Fundamentalisms). Let us remind ourselves that the Jamaat and fellow Islamist reactionaries have won a large number of seats in Pakistan’s elections and are already making life hell not just for women and progressives but for anyone with even the remotest semblance of modernist thinking in the North West Frontier Province which they now control. 

But what appears also to be driving this move for some is the election of the first and only Socialist Alliance councillor in Preston (North England). This was achieved, in part, by the local SA gaining the support of Muslims and the imam of a mosque with whom they had worked closely with in the anti-war movement. There is the belief that this provides a good recipe for success in at least those constituencies with large Muslim populations. The argument is that Muslims radicalised by the war will be willing to vote for left candidates. But the reasoning has grave flaws. First, true there has been a radicalising of Muslims – but it is clear that the vast majority have been radicalised by Islam (and not by socialist, Marxist, or even, anti-imperialist arguments). Hence, for Muslims, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine are, above all, about Islam (be it the “industrial strength” or “softer” version) – hence also why they are so keen to espouse the “Islamophobic argument”. Though we may be thankful that only a small number of Muslims have been won over to fundamentalist organisations, it is still sadly the case that even a fewer number have been won over to left, secular, politics. In the same vein, one should never forget that most Muslims supported the US and NATO attack on Serbia in 1999. We can therefore be assured that if the US decides to attack say North Korea or a Latin American country, Muslims are likely to be conspicuous by their absence at demos against these. Second, uniting with imams in an electoral organisation is something socialists should not give even a single thought to. Indubitably, mosques are bastions of sexism and gender segregation. As such, they are an affront to any meaningful notion of democracy. Indeed for some Muslims (with good reason), the very idea of democracy is un-Islamic (as laws made by humans are an insult to already-existing God’s Law). Crucially, however, imams are required by their faith to espouse the Sharia law. Though it is impossible for them to enforce this in the outside world in the West, nonetheless, it is possible to make the attempt within the confines of mosques, and many undoubtedly do precisely this. 

If this were not enough, there are two further powerful arguments against the formation of such a coalition, which concern the wider Asian community. First, religious elements will inevitably be strengthened within “Muslim” communities at the direct expense of secular, progressive forces. Consequently, overtly reactionary ideas and practices (for example, over the question of women’s and gay rights) will continue to go unchallenged (a prospective coalition will require the left to keep silent over these). Second, there will inevitably be a massive alienating effect on non-Muslim Asians. Indeed, the indulgence of Muslim organisations and trumpeting of “Islamophobia” has already had an alienating effect on them for it has been amply evident that in the anti-war movement, their presence has been minimal. Any electoral pact with imams and Muslim groups is bound to accentuate such alienation and reinforce the resistance to their involvement.  

In conclusion, therefore, the left needs to avoid using the term “Islamophobia” (and absolutely not use it as a stick against secular critics) and should reject forming electoral pacts with Muslim groups. The reasoning to justify these is false, highly divisive, and an intolerable sop to reactionary forces. Instead, the left needs to stick to what it excels at: exposing and fighting racism – be this directed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and ceaselessly struggling against imperialism. Finally, rather than Preston, it is the success of the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland that provides a far more powerful and appropriate example of what can be achieved by socialists in England and Wales and elsewhere.  

July 2003

16 Comments

  1. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Rather than trawling history in the search of nitpicking and irrelevancies it will be far better if chunks of the remaining Left acknowledged the problem of racism towards ethnic minorities in Britain, and in particular Muslims.

    It doesn’t matter what its called.

    It doesn’t matter who uses it.

    Racism exists towards Muslims.

    Racism exists towards Jews and for the very same reason, we shouldn’t dismiss either.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Mod: the fact of racism towards ethnic minorities including Asian Muslims in Britain is not in question here, and no-one reading Rumy Hasan’s article can seriously suggest that it *is* being questioned or “dismissed.”

    What Rumy’s article raises is the way in which cynical people (mainly white political operators) have used the charge of “islamophobia” to silence and vilify secular, feminist, socialist and gay critics of political Islam – and the victims have been mainly Asian people from Muslim backgrounds.

    I don’t consider that discussing this is “nitpicking” or an “irrelevance”. I happen to think it’s rather important to bring what’s happened out into the open and to the shame of much of the so-called “left” that they’ve connived in this capitulation to religious reaction.

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    Indeed, I remember Romy’s article well which I thought was good.

    Islamophobia has been used, and is used, in the way he says,

    This is of interest on the latest about unfolding Ipswich case, http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/jimas-the-edl-now-outrage-from-local-muslims-some-comments/

  4. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Jim/Andrew,

    Are you both devoid of any self awareness?

    Are you both unable to see the parallels?

    The same accusation that you make of Islamophobia, is aimed at anyone remarking on antisemitism.

    That:

    1) it is used in a cynical way
    2) it is used to close down discussion
    3) etc

    I don’t particularly like the word, its clumsy and imprecise, but the phenomena: violence against Asians and Muslims is a material reality.

    I’m hoping that as both Marxist, you will concentrate on the material issue of physical violence against Asians and Muslims, and leave the rest of the nonsense to the political cynics and “anti-imperialists”

    Again, racism towards Jews and Muslims exists, it doesn’t need a name.

    It is an observable occurrence and antiracists should take it seriously, leaving the mindless questions of motivation and cynicism to others

    If, for some reason, my argument isn’t understood please to say so, I can reword it!

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Mod, you say:

    “The same accusation that you make of Islamophobia, is aimed at anyone remarking on antisemitism.

    “That:

    “1) it is used in a cynical way
    2) it is used to close down discussion
    3) etc ”

    I reply: … and sometimes it (the charge of antisemitism) *is* used in those ways – but not nearly as frequently as most “anti-Zionists” would have us believe.

    “Islamophobia” is almost always used in those ways…and when it isn’t, what’s wrong with calling it racism?

    PS: it occurs to me that the true parallel would be “Zionophobia.”

  6. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Jim,

    “I reply: … and sometimes it (the charge of antisemitism) *is* used in those ways – but not nearly as frequently as most “anti-Zionists” would have us believe.”

    Your remark is a subjective assertion with does not deal with the point.

    I will leave, I get very bored explaining the basic of antiracism, when you should know all of this.

    I find your cynicism (by posting this article) towards anti-Muslim racism disappointing, but not unexpected.

    In many way, you replicate and mirror almost exactly the attitudes found amongst “anti-imperialists”:

    1) an anti-intellectualism when it comes to racism;
    2) an inability to see the most basic arguments;
    3) using these topics as political capital rather than connecting them to humans, etc

    It is extremely distasteful, particularly when there is been a physical attack on a community centre in London, to drag up this paltry, dated article.

    It is the type of attitude I would expect to find amongst the SWP or their offshoots, using anti-racism for political purposes, without a moment’s insight.

    Doubt that you will understand the importance of that point but that’s where I constantly come in

  7. Jim Denham said,

    “to drag up this paltry, dated article”…

    It may be “paltry” and “dated” to you, Mod.

    Somehow, I don’t think it is to secularists, women and gays from Muslim backgrounds, who have the right to expect support from the “left”, but all too often are not getting it.

    • Modernity's Ghost said,

      Jim,

      The purpose of this article is to downplay racism towards Muslims, in much the same way that “anti-imperialists” are dismissive of antisemitism.

      You should know better.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    “The purpose of this article is to downplay racism towards Muslims”…

    So, Mod: is it possible to denounce, or even criticise, Islamism *at all*, without “downplay (ing) racism towards Muslims”?

  9. Jim Denham said,

    Try answering the question, Mod.

  10. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Jim,

    I will rephrase your question and see if it enlightens you:

    “Is it possible to denounce, or even criticise, Zionism *at all*, without “downplay (ing) racism towards Jews”? “

    I suspect you won’t understand the similarity with the argumentation advance by “anti-imperialists”.

  11. Jim Denham said,

    Answer to your question (re Zionism): “yes”.

    Now try answering the question, Mod.

  12. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Jim,

    It is hard work getting even the simplest idea through here

    The smarter answer is, it depends.

    It was not very clever to put out such a dated post soon after the burning down of Al-Rahma Islamic Centre in London.

  13. Modernity's Ghost said,

    And this is a problem with such exchanges, the bitter taste they leave.

    They give the impression that the activists (be they “anti-imperialists” or AWLers) are more concerned with settling political scores.

    There is no engagement with the questions, that such an article could be seen as:

    1) ill timed
    2) insensitive
    3) inappropriate in light of recent attacks on Muslims.
    etc

    Even the Met Police acknowledge the seriousness of racism towards Muslims and its recent increase.

    More is a pity that antiracists can’t do the same. Or at the very least admit the inappropriate timing of this article.

    http://www.itv.com/news/update/2013-06-10/police-sharp-rise-in-islamophobic-attacks-in-london/

  14. Sarah AB said,

    I don’t mind if other people don’t use the term ‘Islamophobia’ but personally I use it, though I also use anti-Muslim bigotry etc. I think the main thing is to reject any use of the term to shut people up, silence secularists etc. It doesn’t, I think, matter hugely that the word is used to describe both legitimate anxieties and manufactured ones. It’s also useful to consider whether someone else may have a slightly lower threshold than oneself without having dishonest motives.

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