From the US International Socialists:
Above: Obama and Cruz
The good cop/bad cop routine in Washington
The Republicans may not get away with defunding Barack Obama’s health care law, but they’re pushing ahead with all their favorite anti-worker, pro-business measures.
THE LATEST congressional showdown over federal spending–with another threat of another government shutdown looming over it all–is starting to look like a bad TV police drama, ending with a familiar scene of “good cop/bad cop.”
The “bad” cop: the Republicans, led by foaming-at-the-mouth Tea Partiers like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, threatening a shutdown of the federal government unless Barack Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is defunded.
The “good” cop: the Obama administration and the Democrats, loudly insisting that they’ll never give up on health care reform or let the government close because they care about working people–while quietly agreeing to many of the cuts and concessions that the Republicans want, and claiming they’re being “responsible” for doing so.
The two sides seem so far apart that they’ll never agree on anything, but we all know how “good cop/bad cop” works. The Republicans and Democrats are getting much more of what they each want than anyone lets on–and the target of their routine, which in this case is tens of millions of working-class Americans, is getting played.
The same scene has spun out over and over during the Obama presidency–the Republicans playing the part of the budget-cutting maniacs, pushing hard to shred the social safety net altogether, while the Democrats act like they’re powerless to do anything about it, and then go along with most of what the Republicans want.
The Democrats support the least-worst “realistic” option–and claim it’s the best they can do.
At the end of 2010, after almost two years in office, Obama and the Democrats finally acted on their campaign promise to rescind the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-richest of Americans. Even though a majority of people supported them, even though the Democrats were still a majority in both houses of Congress, the Democrats agreed to a two-year extension of the tax cuts for the rich, in return for a temporary extension of supplemental unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut.
In the summer of 2011, the Obama administration needed an act of Congress to raise the debt ceiling or the U.S. government would go into default–but the Republicans refused even Obama’s offer of a “grand bargain” to impose three times as much reduction in spending, including Social Security and Medicare, as increases in tax revenues. Even Corporate America warned against the Republicans’ game of chicken with the world economy. But it was the Democrats who capitulated, agreeing to even deeper spending cuts.
There were more showdowns at the start of 2013, in the wake of an election that Obama won easily. The outcome: Obama agreed to $85 billion in federal spending cuts, including furloughs of thousands of federal workers and cuts to supplement jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.
If this is “standing up” to the Republicans, you don’t want to know what caving in looks like.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
NOW, THERE’S another looming government shutdown, and the Affordable Care Act is on the chopping block. October 1 is supposed to be the start date of the new state-based “insurance exchanges,” created under the 2010 health care law, where individuals who don’t have health insurance can go to obtain “minimal essential” coverage. If they don’t, they risk paying penalties with their taxes.
The individual “mandate” will force millions and millions of new customers into the arms of private insurers–and leave billions and billions of dollars in their bank accounts. The insurance giants knew there were windfall profits to be made from a new health care law, which is why their lobbyists were in place to help shape the legislation–to make sure, for example, that there was no “public option” for mandated insurance that would compete with private companies.
That was the “inside” strategy, while the Republicans represented the “outside” strategy–continual obstructionism to make sure the Democrats continued to compromise on every question.
This “Plan B” continues today. Last week, the Republican-controlled House voted–almost exactly on party lines–to continue funding federal government operations after the cutoff date of September 30, but to defund the ACA. With a tear in his eye, House Speaker John Boehner called this a “victory for the American people and a victory for common sense.”
Then, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz took the fight to the Senate, where he staged his own filibuster on Tuesday, claiming that the Democrats were willing to risk a government shutdown rather than put the brakes on the health care law.
Most Senate Republicans distanced themselves from Cruz. But they don’t want to distance themselves from the assault on the health care law. Thus, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he disagrees with the threat to shut down the government as of September 30–but he’s just fine with gutting the ACA.
The ACA is a far cry from what’s needed to provide access to affordable health care in the U.S. But that’s not why Republicans are opposing it. From Boehner to Cruz and the others, the Republicans’ fierce opposition to “Obamacare” is another example of playing politics with people’s lives for personal gain–sometimes very personal gain.
While Cruz says his stance on health care is all about the folks back home in Texas, there’s a much bigger influence on him. In May, he was among the special guests at an exclusive party thrown by the arch-conservative oil billionaire Koch Brothers in Palm Springs, Calif.
At the “party,” the Kochs outlined a new focus for Republicans, working toward smaller government and deregulation rather than pressing losing social issues like immigration. Cruz, one of the “rising stars” at the event, is an important part of the project.
The Koch Brothers are up to their elbows in the crusade against Obama’s health care law. In the run-up to the October 1 start-up of the insurance exchanges, they’re backing a campaign to get people to not sign up. For example, a Virginia-based organization with ties to the Kochs is running a campaign of television ads–complete with gynecological exams being performed by a spooky Uncle Sam figure–aimed at scaring off college students and young people.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are more than happy to have fanatics like Cruz attacking them in Congress–it helps them look like they’re trying to get something done. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that the Democrats would reject any attempts by Cruz and others to gut the ACA–but he invited advice from “responsible” Republicans on even more compromises in a thoroughly compromised law.
The Republicans won’t get away with defunding the health care law as long as the Democrats control the Senate. But in the meanwhile, they’re loading up spending legislation with all their favorite anti-worker, pro-business measures: means-testing for Medicare, medical liability “reform,” shredding the federal employee retirement system, eliminating the Dodd-Frank financial regulations passed in 2010, weakening the Environmental Protection Agency, restricting other federal regulators, and expanding offshore energy production.
With Democrats talking tough about the ACA, but showing their willingness to compromise on other questions, who knows how many of these pet projects of the right–most of them considered fringe issues for many years–will make it into the “compromise” that ends this latest crisis.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE LACK of a real debate over health care has had an effect–opinion polls reflect the effects of the confusion being sown by the Republicans. Some 42 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the ACA, compared to only 37 percent with a positive view, according to an August poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Republican scaremongering has had a lot to do with that result–but it also shows the widespread misgivings about the real inadequacies that have been exposed about the health care law.
Amid the phony debate about Obamacare, there’s a real health care emergency taking place in America. Last year, some 48 million people–about 15 percent of the population–went without health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A quarter of people who earn less than $25,000 annually don’t have health insurance.
“Reform” as it exists in the Obama health care law–rife with loopholes, compromises and watered-down provisions–won’t come close to fixing this gap. The ACA won’t confront skyrocketing health care costs or reform the wasteful and inefficient way for-profit health care is delivered.
But the opposition to the law in Washington isn’t only about the ACA. We’re seeing the same script play out: Intransigent Republicans go on the attack–with or without a majority–and Democrats compromise. For all the flashes of anger and indignation, the good cop and the bad cop end up working together to carry through an austerity agenda that whittles away at the living standards of working people.
The Socialist Workers Party’s first pre-conference bulletin of 2013 has already been quite widely leaked, which in itself tells you a lot about the state of that organisation. I’ve been dipping into the 88-page document over the last week or so and was particularly struck by the following contribution from Andrew “ozzy” Osborne – not because it’s particularly insightful or sophisticated (it’s not) but because of its obvious sincerity and almost heartbreaking sadness. I was also particularly interested in the comrade’s account of the way the SWP Unite fraction reacted to being overruled / outvoted despite all its leading members disagreeing with the Party leadership’s wish to support Jerry Hicks in the Unite GS election. It should go without saying that I have not spoken to “ozzy” (who I don’t know anyway) about reproducing his piece here, but as it’s already effectively in the public domain I don’t believe that’s an issue. Nor have I had any contact with the ‘In Defence Of Our Party’ (IDOOP) faction of which “ozzy” is a member:
ME AND THE PARTY…..A PERSONAL JOURNEY OF 9 MONTHS AT THE END OF THE STRUGGLE.
A funny thing happened to me in January of 2013, I voted against the Central Committee on two issues (once against the entire CC once against the CC Majority group) at the party conference having never done this before; January 2013 was a bit of an eye opener for me.
One issue was a strategic/tactical issue and one was a question of principle.
I voted against the CC regarding the “should we support Jerry Hicks position” myself, Frank W, Gill G, Ian A and Julian V were the 5 members of the SWP unite fraction committee who opposed the CC at the conference.
My position (the position of the 5 members of the SWP unite fraction) was massively defeated. My vote at that conference on the acceptance of the disputes committee report was also defeated by a wafer thin margin as was my vote on the Central Committee.
At a recent meeting at Marxism Alex Callinicos asked a question of a comrade “what do you do if you lose the vote??” I think the actions of the unite fraction leadership provides a useful example of what comrades in the tradition of the International Socialists who understand democratic centralism do when you lose a vote on a question of tactics and strategy, the vote was taken by the highest democratic body of the party and we were obliged to follow it, there was no more discussion, it was not required….We campaigned our collective asses of(f) and secured Jerry Hicks 118 branch and 19 workplace nominations, 9 branch nominations were from my county of Cambridgeshire.
When the election was put to the membership of Unite Jerry received 79,819 votes an absolutely amazing result. During the campaign I coordinated the
activities of the unite fraction and from that the industrial intervention of the party nationally over this important trades union election campaign. It wasn’t just me; Gill secured her branch nomination for Jerry speaking in opposition to Frank W (Unite EC Health sector) who resigned from the party in protest at the parties support for Jerry. Ian A set up Jerry’s website for the campaign, was at most of the face to face meetings with Jerry during the campaign and secured the workplace nominations of 4 Fujitsu sites as well as his his own branch,Julian put the case for Jerrys nomination at his branch which we lost as it’s a bit of a united left (unite broad left – backed Len during the campaign) stronghold but secured his workplace nomination.
Over the period from the SWP conference of January 2013 till the close of the campaign and the result announcement on the 13th of April there were 320 emails all related to the general secretary election campaign on the swp-unite-fraction email group, there were also skype teleconferences and more phone calls than I care to remember. Maps locating major unite workplaces in most regions of the country were produced and used to direct the intervention of the party nationally. The united left and Len McCluskeys campaign actually did shit a brick once they realised the fact that the SWP was incredibly organised and taking the election campaign very seriously. I was sent an email from Steve Turner the unite Executive policy director and Len McCluskeys campaign manager during the election campaign on the 15th of March which was titled “SWP activities in your area – BE AWARE” I almost fell of(f) my chair as I laughed so hard.
During the election Jerry Hicks campaign was attacked on twitter and other social media sites disgracefully by Len and the united left as being “rape apologists” and the question was put why should unites female members vote for a candidate supported by the SWP, these attacks were disgraceful but despite my protestations the SWP did not respond seriously to these allegations. We did get an article written by Julie S from the CC in the guardian as a right of reply to an article by Laurie Penny but without meaning to offend Julie S (who I have a great deal of respect for) this article was not the defence of the party position we needed.
During the campaign (the period from January to April) I had to temporally shut down the SWP unite fraction email list twice due to comrades using it to factionalise, my actions were not one of a comrade trying to damage the party rather that of a comrade trying to build the party organisation in the country’s biggest trades union.
Then we come to the second issue on which I opposed the central committee at the January 2013 conference on the question of the disputes committee, prior to the January 2013 conference I had signed the CC statement and was not involved in any factional issue. My position changed after the January 2013 conference session on the disputes committee, let me be frank, I’m a big bloke with a thick skin but when I walked out of the venue for a fag break on evening of the 6th of January 2013 I was actually in tears and gave serious consideration to keeping on walking, I didn’t walk but resolved then and there to do all I could to fix the problem which evidently had occurred. I was a member of the In Defence Of Our Party faction (IDOOP) prior to the special conference in March and I have signed the statement of intent to form a faction at this year’s conference.
A lot of mud and rubbish is slung around at comrades who oppose the CC around the disputes committee report, some of which is that we don’t want to build the party, sell the paper or that we have moved away from democratic centralism, I would urge comrades to look a mine and the unite fraction leaderships example. We understand democratic centralism and do want to build the socialist workers party but don’t judge us by our words judge us by our actions. Words are cheap actions are solid gold. I have said all I am going to say on this subject unless the CC responds to me directly.
This pre conference period will be tough for many comrades I would urge all comrades in unite and in the wider party to listen to my words and judge me by my actions. Join me in opposing the current leadership. We have had a tough year as a party. We can get through this if we do a couple of things, firstly apologise to the two women who raised issues with a former member of the SWP, and secondly be a tribune of the oppressed.
Andrew “ozzy” Osborne (Cambridge)
The fifth and final part of Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews airs tonight [Sunday 29 Sept] at 9.00pm on BBC 2.
In my opinion this has been a superb series and one of the finest examples of so-called ‘popular history’ ever to have appeared on TV: accessible but not simplistic, personal but scholarly, and passionate whilst remaining objective.
Schama makes no secret of his Zionism – albeit a liberal, two-states Zionism that acknowledges the suffering experienced by the Palestinians. On screen he wears a yarmulke much of the time, and lets viewers know what his personal views are, up to and including a statement concluding with the rarely-heard (at least on the BBC) words ” … that’s why I’m a Zionist.”
This has enraged the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) who wrote a most revealing letter of complaint to the BBC, including the following:
“We also note the new BBC Two series The Story of the Jews, presented by Simon Schama. In an interview in the Radio Times (31 August-6 September), Schama describes himself as an ‘historian-Zionist’ and says he will be making ‘the moral case for Israel’ in the final episode of this five part series.
“We find it alarming that the BBC is giving a platform to an openly pro-Israeli commentator to make the ‘moral case’ for Israel. Schama’s views will go unopposed, unchallenged and unanalysed. This is a far cry from the balanced and impartial broadcasting that the BBC claims to champion.”
In other words, these people (who sometimes – especially when seeking trade union backing – claim to support two states) actually object to the idea of someone presenting the case for the very existence of Israel.
The final part of Schama’s series, tonight, deals with the creation of Israel and Jewish relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world, bringing the story up to the present. Watch it, judge for yourself how fair it is, and feel free to send us your thoughts.
NB: the BBC2 series is based upon Schama’s book of the same name, which we will be reviewing shortly.
March and Rally – Sunday 29 September 2013
Supporters of the National Health Service and all those who want to defend jobs, services and a decent welfare state will be marching in Manchester to deliver a clear message to Conservative Party Conference that we mean to Save Our NHS from cuts and privatisation.
A march and rally have been called by the North West TUC, backed by unions and NHS campaign groups. They’ll be assembling at Liverpool Road (M3 4FP) from 11am, and marching to a rally in Whitworth Park.
The protest will highlight the impact of huge job losses and spending cuts across the health service, as well as the rapid sell-off of the most lucrative parts of the NHS to private healthcare companies – many of whom like Circle are also Conservative Party donors.
The event will also raise concerns about the wider effect that government economic policies are having upon communities across the UK.
Coaches to Manchester are being laid on by groups around the country, with many places subsidised or free. A list of coaches can be found at http://falseeconomy.org.uk/travel/uk/all/t1.
Coach Drop Off Point: The coach drop off point will be on Water Street, Manchester B5225. Coaches should arrive at the drop off point between 09:00 and 12:00.
Advertise your coach
For those looking to advertise your coach and ensure they are full, the False Economy has a section dedicated to 29th September. Register your details through http://falseeconomy.org.uk/nhs299 or alternatively, you can email Jay McKenna at email@example.com with your coach details.
The nearest train station to the form up point is Deansgate Train Station. For those travelling to Manchester Oxford Road or Manchester Picaddilly, there will be police officers on duty on the day who will be able to point you in the direction of Liverpool Road and the march.
Buses will be running on the day, however there will be some alterations due to road closures. These will be published shortly on the Transport for Greater Manchester website www.tfgm.com.
The form up area for unions will be signposted and this information will be circulated prior to the march.
The march is expected to move off at 12:15 and the route has been confirmed with police and agency partners.
It is: Depart Liverpool Road; Turn Left onto Deansgate; Turn right onto John Dalton Street; Continue over onto Princess Street; Turn right onto Portland Street; Turn right onto Oxford Street; Left into Hall Street; Continue round to Bale Street; Turn left onto Lower Mosley Street; Continue down onto Albion Street; Turn left onto Whitworth Street; Turn right onto Oxford Street; Continue down onto Oxford Road; Finish at Whitworth Park.
Short March/Static Demonstration
For those who require a shorter march the two points for will be at:
- Barbirolli Square (outside of the Bridgwater Hall) – This allows for those who wish to join the march to pass the conference centre and continue onto the rally
- All Saints Park (off Oxford Road) – This allows for those who just wish to attend the rally to join the march to its conclusion
Both Barbirolli Square and All Saints Park will be stewarded and policed to ensure that those with mobility requirments will have safe and easy passage in the march. All marchers are asked to respect this.
The rally will start at 14:15 or when the march reaches Whitworth Park, whichever is the later. It is expected to last for approximately 2 hours with speakers and music.
Space for any stalls within Whitworth Park is limited is extremely limited. If any Union or organisation wishes to have a stall at the rally, please email Kara Stevens on firstname.lastname@example.org
Accessible Viewing Area/Sign Language
A disability viewing area will be provided near to the stage to enable clear sight lines to the stage. There will also be sign language provided on the day. This area will be signposted and stewards will direct individuals to this area if required.
At the end of the rally, coach pick up points and the direction of travel to train stations will be advertised on the large screen. Stewards and police will be on hand to assist with dispersal from the park and signposting individuals to coach parking.
- Sign up to support the march and rally
- Join the march and Rally on Facebook
- Follow on Twitter at @NHS299
NB: all the above is reproduced from the TUC website
Above: just one victim among many
Remember all those outspoken, courageous lone voices, who dared speak the unsayable truth unto power after the Drummer Rigby attack? You know, the people who wrote in the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman, explaining that there was, in effect, a conspiracy of silence, hiding the fact that terrorists have motives and agendas, usually in reaction to the many crimes of the West?
As we commented at the time:
Those fearless, insightful people who dare break with the establishment consensus and put forward the only real explanation for terrorism – ‘blowback’ – are rarely heard, such is the conspiracy of silence and denial they’re up against. Very occasionally, the wall of silence is breached and their profound thoughts on the subject get published . Here, here, here here and here for instance.
The Pilgers, Milnes, Greenwalds and Mehdi Hasans: such brave, outspoken people. Why are they so uncharacteristically silent?
Where are they, now that we need them in the aftermath of the Kenyan massacre? Surely they can’t be leaving fearless truth-telling to the likes of the SWP and Tory “libertarian” and isolationist Simon Jenkins?
Nairobi shopping mall horror is the high price of war
by Ken Olende
The shocking attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi was not just mindless terrorism. More than 60 shoppers died and nearly 200 were injured in the well-planned attack, claimed by Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab.
Kenyan troops were central to the invasion of neighbouring Somalia in October 2011. Al Shabaab or its sympathisers have carried out more than 50 reprisal attacks in Kenya, killing at least 70 people.
Previous assaults on a much smaller scale were near the Somali border, in the coastal city of Mombasa, which has a large Muslim population. Others were in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, where many Somali migrants live.
Its previous biggest attack had been in Uganda. A series of bombs killed 60 people there on the night of the World Cup final in 2010. But when the casualties were among the poor, the attacks had little international impact.
Westgate was chosen for this operation because, as Kenyan socialist Zahid Rajan put it, “It is the venue of choice for wealthy people across the racial divide”. To most better-off Kenyans the malls like Westgate were seen as a haven from the embittered, violent country. One eyewitness tweeted, “When the first gunshot was fired, we ran into the mall instead of away”.
Zahid told Socialist Worker, “There has been a fantastic humanitarian response to the scale of the tragedy. “People are volunteering to help. A special bloodbank has been set up in the city’s main park. “The attackers may have thought they would divide Muslims from other Kenyans, but this hasn’t worked.”
Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta has posed as a champion of national unity since the attack. But Kenya has pulled out of the international criminal court because he was due to appear before it, accused of organising communal violence at the time of the 2007 election.
Central authority collapsed in Somalia with the fall of US-backed dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Al Shabaab was part of the Islamic Courts movement that restored some kind of government in 2006. This was overthrown by a US-backed invasion and the group has since moved to more extreme forms of Islamism.
After the invasion by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops in 2011 it said that it supported the ideas of Al Qaida. Even Rob Wise of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank comments that it was “a relatively moderate Islamist organisation”, which was driven towards Al Qaida by invasion.
He added that since 2008 al Shabaab has “increasingly embraced transnational terrorism and attempted to portray itself as part of the Al Qaida-led global war on the West.” The horror in Kenya is a direct product of Western intervention.
“As a result of the speech, I believe that perceptions of Labour policy are in danger of being taken backwards. At the business department I tried to move on from the conventional choice in industrial policy between state control and laissez-faire. The industrial activism I developed showed that intervention in the economy – government doing some of the pump priming of important markets, sectors and technologies – was a sensible approach” – Peter Mandelson
Above: puppet of big business
It was, of course, inevitable that Ed Miliband’s modest proposal to freeze energy prices for 20 months would induce howls of outrage from the big six energy profiteers and their mouthpieces – one of whom performed exactly the same service for the banks not so long ago.
Scare stories about the lights going out, and thinly-veiled threats of an investment strike, were entirely predictable from the energy giants, the City, the right-wing media and the Tories.
But doesn’t poor Miliband have the right to expect at least a discreet silence from people who – on paper at least – are in the Labour Party? Obviously not. Loathsome Lord Mandelsnake has emerged from the woodwork to denounce the plan and accuse Miliband of going “backwards” – by which the Snake presumably means being slightly less craven towards big business than he and his boss Mr Blair were when they were in government.
Actually, Miliband’s proposals are pretty weak: what he aught to be promising (especially now in the face of the blackout and investment strike blackmail) is simply to renationalise all power generation and distribution.
And Miliband needs to understand that there is a group of unreconstructed Blairites like Mandelsnake, organised by the ‘Progress‘ outfit, who are absolutely determined to thwart even the slightest suggestion of a leftward shift in Labour policy and don’t give a damn if the Party loses the next election.
From Workers Liberty:
Iranian trade unionist Shahrokh Zamani has been imprisoned since June 2011.
His crime? Attempting to build independent trade unions to stand up for his and fellow workers’ rights.
Sharokh, a member of the Painters’ Union, was charged with “propaganda”, “endangering national security”, and “participating in an illegal organisation”.
International human rights organisations say that Shahrokh has been physically and psychologically abused, denied medication, and denied visitors.
Shahrokh is a class-war prisoner. If we allow the Iranian state to get away with crushing him, it will be a defeat for all those fighting for workers’ rights in Iran, and around the world.
Between now and January 2014, we will be seeking to collect 10,000 signatures in workplaces, universities, colleges, schools, and communities to demand Shahrokh’s release.
Please support the campaign. Email email@example.com or ring 07775 763 750 for more information. Visit the campaign website here.
1/ Whatever you do, don’t “over-react”: that’s the cause of terrorism in the first place.
2/ Don’t gather together in crowds.
3/ Don’t hold marathons.
4/ Do not build shopping malls, hotels or churches.
5/ Don’t overdo surveillance.
6/ Keep a “sense of proportion”: defending yourself only invites retaliation.
You think this is a joke? It’s not.
7/ Keep calm and carry on.
8/ Run about waving your arms and screaming.
…you can’t really blame him, can you?
From the Telegraph
Christian mourners outside the church in Peshawar protest against the Islamist attack
In the light of the Nairobi terror attack and the massacre of Christians in Pashawar, Pakistan, it’s high time the so-called “left” faced up to an elementary truth: Islamism (as distinct from the religion of Islam) is a form of fascism, and must be fought as such. It’s to the eternal shame of “left” groups like the SWP (not to mention liberal “mainstream” publications like the Guardian) that they’ve repeated the mistakes of 1930’s Stalinism (Third Period and Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) in promoting and prettifying fascists as somehow “progressive”.
The only far left group in Britain to openly describe Islamism as clerical fascist in recent years has been the AWL. Here’s their Martin Thomas in 2008, on the subject:
Political Islam as clerical fascism
Examining Gilles Kepel’s comprehensive history, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard University Press).
“Left-leaning Arab intellectuals have traditionally regarded the [Muslim] Brothers as a populist movement… [with] similarities to the workings of European fascism during… the 1930s…
“In the eyes of leftist intellectuals, both among Muslims and in the West, Islamist groups represented a religious variety of fascism…
“But gradually, as Islamist numbers increased… the left discovered that Islamism had a popular base; consequently Marxist thinkers of every stripe, casting around for the mass support so critical to their ideology, began to credit Islamist activists with socialist virtues…”
Kepel reports this shift of attitudes in a dispassionate way. But the facts assembled in his book give a verdict. The recent granting of political credit to political Islam by would-be Marxists reflects those leftists’ loss of self-confidence, in an era of bourgeois triumphalism, rather than any shift to the left by the Islamists.
Political Islam, or “Islamism”, as a political movement or congeries of movements, is distinct from Islam as a religion. Before the late 70s, in modern times, if a government called itself “Islamic” or “Muslim”, that was a vague gesture rather than a ferocious commitment. The only large exception was Saudi Arabia, a peculiarly archaic state.
Modern political movements, using modern political mechanics to convert society to an Islamic state, absolutely governed and permeated by revivalistically-rigorous Islamic doctrine, were levered into life and prominence in a sequence of three big turning points, 1967, 1973, and 1979.
The theory had been prepared before then. Hassan al-Banna and Mawlana Mawdudi, the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat e-Islami in India (later Pakistan) began activity in the late 1920s. Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologist who has become the main literary inspiration for “harder” Sunni political Islam, wrote his books in the 1960s and was hanged by Egypt’s secular government in 1966. Ruhollah Khomeiny formulated his thesis of direct political rule by senior clergy in 1970.
But the movements were weak. In Iraq, for example, the Shia-Islamist movements which now dominate politics there had originated in 1958-63, but until the 1970s were small circles of clerics and theological students, concerned mostly with pious discussion among themselves. They kept a low profile as much because they knew their ideas would seem uncongenial to the wider population as for fear of repression.
“The first Islamist onslaught”, writes Kepel, “was against nationalism. The 1967 defeat [of the Arab states by Israel, in the war of that year] seriously undermined the ideological edifice of nationalism and created a vacuum to be filled… by Qutb’s Islamist philosophy”.
The rise of political Islam was also (so it seems to me, though Kepel does not spell this out) based in part, paradoxically, on the relative successes of Arab nationalism. Over the two decades before 1967 the Arab states had won political independence, and legislated land reforms and nationalisation.
Many of the cadres of political Islam would be young men from rural backgrounds who – thanks to the “successes” of nationalism – had become the first generation from their families to go to university, to live in big cities, and, often, to travel the world as migrant workers, especially in the Gulf.
Paradoxically, the cadres of consciously backward-looking political Islam would come from among the most “modernised” or “Westernised” people in their countries. They had been roused up and tantalised by nationalism and its promises – but also dashed down by them. “Qutb spoke to the young, born after independence, who had come along too late to benefit from the vast redistribution of spoils that followed the departure of the colonial occupiers”.
Bourgeois nationalism must always create disappointments. What led to special tumult in the Arab world, rather than a “moderate” disillusion and “settling-down”, was the peculiar attachment of Arab nationalism to an unrealistic (indeed, reactionary) objective, the destruction of “Zionism” (the Israeli Jews), and the peculiarly extreme conjunction, created by the oil economies, of seething poverty with vast wealth controlled by various species of bureaucratic “crony capitalism”.
In 1973 the Arab states warred with Israel again, coming out of it a bit better, but not well enough to rehabilitate the nationalists. Oil prices and oil revenues increased hugely. The Saudi regime started pouring funds into promoting Islamic rigorism internationally.
“Prior to 1973, Islam was everywhere dominated by national or local traditions rooted in the piety of the common people”, with a “motley establishment” of clerics who “held Saudi-inspired puritanism in great suspicion”.
Now, “for the first time in 14 centuries, the same books (as well as cassettes) could be found from one end of the [Muslim world] to another… This mass distribution by the conservative Riyadh regime did not… prevent more radical elements from using the texts… to further their own objectives”.
In the 1970s, and into the 1980s, “conservative governments on the Saudi model [and often with US approval] encouraged Islamism as a counterweight to the Marxists on university campuses whom they feared”. There was “re-Islamisation” from above, even in countries where grass-roots Islamist movements were weak or repressed.
World-wide, far beyond the Arab domain, “all Muslims were offered [and many, not just political Islamists, accepted] a new identity that emphasised their religious commonality while downplaying differences of language, ethnicity, and nationality”. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (an alliance of states) was set up in 1969; the Islamic Development Bank, in 1975.
In 1979, political Islam took power in non-Arab Iran, and became the banner of a long war, with popular support, in non-Arab Afghanistan, against the USSR’s attempt to subjugate that country militarily.
The Shah’s brutal modernisation “from above” in Iran had created mass discontent. While in most Sunni countries, the religious establishment was diffuse and heavily controlled at its higher levels by the state, in Shia Iran the clerics had an organised hierarchy outside state control.
In Sunni political Islam, the main leaders had been (and would continue to be) laymen. Khomeiny created the first political-Islamist movement using clerics as cadres, and proposing not just an Islamic state, but a state ruled by clerics.
He also introduced social demagogy, otherwise a thinner seam in political Islam than in the European fascism, or even clerical-fascism, of the 1930s. “Neither Mawdudi nor Qutb gave any explicit social content to their theorising”.
The Iraqi ayatollah Baqi as-Sadr, uncle and father-in-law of the current Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr, had in 1961 published a book on “Islamic economics”; but the main distinctive upshot has been the rise of “Islamic banking”, now a reputable sideline in the City of London.
All Islamists thought that “the coming reign of the sharia… would be built upon the ashes of socialism and of a Western world completely devoid of moral standards”; but it was Khomeiny who introduced a specific appeal for an “Islam of the people” and to the “disinherited” (mustadefeen).
Still, for Khomeiny, as Kepel notes, “the disinherited” was “so vague a term that it encompassed just about everyone in Iran except the shah and the imperial court… includ[ed] the bazaar merchants opposed to the shah”. The main actual measure for the poor of Khomeiny’s Iran would be distribution of state subsidies to the families of Islamist “martyrs”.
Socially, Kepel sees political Islam as resting on two distinct groups – the “devout middle class”, both traditional-mercantile and modern-professional, who feel mistreated by corrupt secular-nationalist state bureaucracies; and the young urban poor such as the Algerian “hittistes” (from the word hit, meaning wall: young unemployed men leaning against walls).
That small-bourgeois/ lumpenproletarian alliance has also generally been the social base of fascism.
Political Islam, however, has a vast range of variants, from middle-class movements confining themselves to mild pressure-group politics (Kepel cites the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, friendly to the monarchy) to plebeian “takfiris” for whom all outside their own ranks, even pious Muslims who deviate slightly, deserve terrorist chastisement.
Kepel sees the search for a middle way and a broad alliance, necessary to any successful political-Islamist movement, as ultimately unviable. He concludes that political Islam reached its high point around 1989 – with the USSR’s retreat from Afghanistan, the temporary triumph of an Islamist regime in Sudan, the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians, and Khomeiny’s death-decree against Salman Rushdie – and has mostly declined since. He cites the defeat of the Islamist-terrorist “ultras” in Algeria and Egypt as evidence.
The trend, he argues, must be for the devout middle class to be co-opted and pulled towards parliamentary democracy, on the lines of the Turkish Islamists, and for the “ultras” to be isolated.
In 2008, eight years after Kepel published the first edition of his book, his conclusion looks implausible. Political Islam has had some defeats, but its success in Iraq shows it still has great vitality.
Kepel’s error, I would guess, is shaped by a certain disdain: he just cannot believe that many people, in the Arabic and Muslim cultures which he loves, can be lastingly seduced by such crudities and brutalities.
What is true, surely, is that those cultures contain many strands utterly alien to political Islam. The assertion, common on the left, that hostility to political Islam implies de facto hostility to most Muslims, is untrue.
On those strands, a working-class socialist movement can build, answering the social questions which political Islam so obscures, on condition that the socialists acquire the self-confidence to brand the clerical-fascists for what they really are.