Islamophobia, the left and the Arab Spring

John Molyneux - Irish Anti-War Movement committee member

[N.B - this article is the view of the author and does not necessarily represent those of movement as a whole]

One of the strengths of the Irish Anti-War Movement (and, it should be said, of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain) is the clear stand it has taken against Islamophobia, as both a condition and a consequence of its alliance with anti- war elements in the muslim mobilising against the Iraq War and the ‘War on Terror’.

This is important because Islamophobia has become the main, or one of the main, forms of racism (along with Anti-Gipsy racism in Eastern Europe) in contemporary Europe.

Historically racism has passed through several phases each building on but also modifying the previous phase: 1) anti-black racism that arose out of and justified the slave trade in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; 2) the racism of imperialism (including anti- Irish racism, at its height in the late 19th and early 20th century; 3) anti – immigrant racism, especially in the second half of the 20th century. The first emphasised the sub-human and savage nature of black people so as to exclude them from the ‘rights of man’ being fought for by the European bourgeoisie at this time. The second shifted the emphasis to “childlike” and “immature” character of non- European peoples to justify their being taken under the wing of their colonial masters. The third focussed less on biological inferiority and more on cultural difference, making the economically required presence of immigrants in Europe into a “problem”.

Numerous historic struggles, ranging from the slave revolts, the American civil war , the great Asian And African anti-colonial struggles, the civil rights and black power movement in the sixties, the anti-apartheid struggle and many others, combined with the horrific counter example of the Holocaust, to undermine and delegitimize these forms of racism. Islamophobia was developed to fill this gap and meet the needs of imperialism, especially US imperialism after the collapse of “communism”. Some analyses of Islamophobia see it as a rising, as an accompaniment to the “war on terror” but, while that undoubtedly intensified it, its origin came earlier, particularly in response to the Iranian revolution of 1979, and indeed prepared the ground for the “war on terror”.

An obvious objection to this line of argument is that hostilities between “the West” and Islam, date back at to the crusades and that Islamophobia is not about race but religion.

In fact it’s a standard ideological device to present current conflicts as “age-old” if not eternal. In the event of a serious dispute between Britain and France David Cameron and the Murdoch press would doubtless invoke the spirit of Henry V at Agincourt and probably Nelson and Wellington as well. This would not change the fact that the real nature of the dispute would be clash of current national, i.e. ruling class, interests over EU policy or such like. The nature of history is such that historical precedents are available for virtually any contemporary conflict (with America, the War of Independence; with Norway the Vikings; with China, the Mongol Hordes or the opium wars, and so on). As for Islamophobia being about religion the ideological character of racism is determined not by its target but by its social and political function – the Irish are not a “race” but a nation, Jews are neither a race nor a nation, nor for that matter are “blacks” or “negroes”. Indeed races in general do not exist other than as historical constructs. A “they” to whom all sorts of characteristics can be easily attributed – religious fanaticism, backwardness towards women, homophobia and above all a propensity to terrorism.

In relation to the last matter, it is worth noting that since the emergence of the concept of “terrorism” in the 19th century, anti-state terrorism has been practised by, amongst many others, Russian Narodniks, French anarchists, the American Weathermen,
the Basque ETA, the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the British Angry Brigade, the South African ANC, Israeli Zionists and, of course, the Irish Republican Army. In every case the cause was political, not religious.

In view of all this it was to be hoped that what became known as the Arab Spring – the series of revolutions and revolts that began with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in early 2011 would work to undermine Islamophobia by changing the frame of reference within which Arab and Muslim people were perceived. And to a considerable extent this has indeed proved to be the case; witness the way in which Tahrir Square became an international symbol of revolt from Barcelona and Madrid to Wisconsin and Wall Street. However it is also clear that as well as being shaken by the Arab Spring, Islamophobia has also proved strong enough not only to survive it but also significantly to shape its perception and reception.

Even during the 18 days of mass struggle that brought down Mubarak it was quite common to hear in the media, and indeed on the left, that “nothing much would come of it” with the subtext “because these people are all Arabs and Muslims”, and/or that it was all destined to end in Islamic fundamentalism, with the subtext that maybe it was better to stick with a “secular” dictator, a sentiment which gained ground when the “secular” dictator in question (Gaddaffi, Assad) could lay claim to some minimal ant-imperialist credentials.
There is indeed strong historical support for the view that revolutions are likely to fail – the 1848 revolutions failed, the Paris Commune failed, the Russian Revolution ended in Stalinism, the Italian revolution of the “two red years” ended with Mussolini, the German revolution of 1919 -1923 ultimately ushered in Hitler, Spain 1936 was crushed by Franco, May 68 ended in the victory of de Gaulle, Chile 1970-1973 in Pinochets coup, the Portugese revolution of 1974-75 produced no more than run-of-the-mill bourgeois democracy, and so on and so on.

But what the very length of this list shows is that winning a revolution – actually overthrowing capitalism – is a very difficult business indeed and the fact that the road to revolutionary victory in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria etc. has proved a very rocky one is by no means primarily attributable to these being Muslim countries.

Yet my experience has been that, often, in debating the prospects of the Egyptian revolution, people have said “remember what happened in Iran”. Why Iran? Why not Germany in 1923 (there are actually some close parallels), or May 68 or Portugal 74. The answer, of course, is that Iran is another very high-profile Muslim country. In reality the parallels between Egypt and Iran are not that close: president Mursi is very different from Ayatollah Khomeini, Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood is very different from Khomeini’s movement, Egypt is an Arabic country, Iran is not; Egypt is mainly Sunni, Iran mainly Shia; the working class is stronger in Egypt etc.
Does one ever hear people on the left saying “I don’t think much will come of this Venezuelan revolution – they are all Catholic, and remember how the Irish revolution ended up with De Valera? “ or “What a scandal - socialists vote for pope-loving Chavez!”

[See ‘Chavez welcomes Pope to Cuba’] And of course I am not saying that Chavez is ‘the same’ as the Muslim Brotherhood, merely that religion is made much more of an issue, when the religion concerned is Islam.

My main point is simply this: that in virtually every mass revolutionary struggle in history the majority of the people involved, especially at the start of the process, were religious in some way or other. Moreover this likely to be the case in the future everywhere except in the most secularised western European countries; revolutions have to be made with and by people as they are, not as we would like them to be. The idea of a ‘stages theory’ in which first everyone becomes a secular atheist and then they make the revolution is a nonsense; revolutions and history do not work like that. And the only reason for understanding this in relation to countries where most people are Christian eg Brazil or the UK (or Russia in 1917) and not countries where most people are Muslim is the idea that Islam is this peculiarly backward, reactionary, terrorist or fascist inclined religion ie Islamophobia.