True to principle
When it comes to US imperialism, Islam and Iran, the left has been deeply divided. Yassamine Mather reports on a recent BBC debate
On April 13 a debate to which I contributed was broadcast by BBC Persian as part of a series of programmes. It was entitled: ‘The left, United States and Islamism - a complicated equation’.1
The satellite and online broadcast to Iran and worldwide had a large audience for the one-hour debate (the BBC has an estimated audience of 13 million Iranians). Many of the issues discussed affect the international left, so what follows is a summary of my comments during the debate, as well as my replies to some of the online comments made afterwards on social media.
In his introduction to the programme, presenter Daryoush Karimi quoted Nigel Farage’s criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for being silent about anti-government protests in Iran, and added that this should be heard in the context of the current debates on Brexit, where Farage is using the issue to score points against the Labour leader. During the broadcast a short clip was shown of Corbyn praising Iran’s Islamic Republic in 2015 as a multi-ethnic democracy, where the rights of religious and national minorities are respected. Although, to be fair, the clip is part of a speech where he seems to repeat (in approval?) a quote from his host, an Iranian official, nevertheless that statement was indefensible, and I said so.
However, every time the issue of political Islam in the Middle East is discussed, we have to take into account contemporary history. The obsession with the Soviet Union led to a situation where imperialism was encouraging and financing jihadi groups opposed to secular forces, throughout the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan empowered Iran’s Islamic Republic, and Salafi groups - financed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states - unleashed terror on Iraq and Syria. I stated that Corbyn is part of the Stop the War Coalition and what he says reflects the views of the STWC, not ‘the left’ as a whole.
I also pointed out that at that time John McDonnell often spoke in support of protests by Iranian workers, and, of course, since 2016 and Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the leadership has avoided making any statement about Iran, in order not to invoke criticism from the Labour right and the Parliamentary Labour Party in particular. That says more about the reformist nature of Corbynism, as opposed to what most people would consider ‘the left’ in Britain.
The rest of the debate concentrated on the question of the left’s attitude towards political Islam. Here I emphasised the diversity of what is grouped together as the ‘left’ - there is a range of positions on every issue, including political Islam. There is no such a thing as a unified left position on this question and it would be a mistake to generalise. It is true that some groups have virtually accepted the hegemony of religious forces in various alliances, while others have expressed hysterical opposition to Islam , bordering on Islamophobia. And there are those who, while sympathising with citizens of Islamic ‘third world’ countries, with victims of the war on terror, targets of imperialism and US-style regime change from above, maintain their distance from Islamic states and groups and do not hesitate to expose their hypocrisy.
Nonetheless, the attitude of the left towards political Islam has been debated at least since the uprising of February 1979 in Iran. We all remember the position taken by sections of the Iranian and the international left (including many Trotskyist groups) in support of the Islamic Republic, but this was by no means shared by everyone - inside Iran, most of the radical left opposed the new religious order from day one. Repeating the lie that the entire Iranian left supported the Shia state will not make it a fact.
Between 1979 and the mid-1980s, when the regime launched an all out attack on the Mujahedin and other opposition groups, the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party, Fedayeen Majority and sections of the Fourth International continued to support and defend the Islamic government. However, radical leftwing groups bore the brunt of the new regime’s repression. A generation of young radicals and Marxists was killed or executed by the Shia government in Tehran. As I keep reminding everyone, I am one of two survivors of a Fedayeen camp in Kurdistan, where 40 members and supporters of the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas had been based, as part of the struggle against the Islamic Republic. Everyone else met a violent death, often by execution. The other comrades I got to know in Kurdistan were members of various cells of the organisation in Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan. So it is no exaggeration to say that a generation of Iranian Marxists lost their lives in the first years of the Islamic Republic. So how can we say that ‘the Iranian left’ supported political Islam?
Contrary to the analysis proposed by some socialists abroad, the division within the Iranian left was not simply between reformists and revolutionaries. Nor was it between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists; it did not centre on the classic issue of ‘stages’ of revolution, bourgeois or socialist. Rather the division was over the role of the ‘socialist camp’ led by the Soviet Union and the extent to which the politics of ‘third world’ regimes should be judged on the basis of their anti-US rhetoric.
As I explained on the BBC programme, those of us who had no illusions about the Soviet Union were hardly likely to adopt positions stemming from standard cold war attitudes. We did not fall in the trap of believing that the enemy of the United States must be considered an ally, that somehow such a government or movement was on the side of ‘socialism’.
As far as the present period is concerned, the left in general (including the Iranian left both in exile and inside Iran) faced a completely new scenario, post-9/11. The ‘war on terror’, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, then Iraq, inevitably led to the strengthening of the anti-war movement and, of course, the left played an important part in this.
The election of Donald Trump as a supporter of rightwing causes in US and Europe has created new circumstances, where again the radical left has a responsibility to fight against naked imperialist aggression - and it has done so. However, here too we see serious mistakes. As I have stated, Corbyn’s statement regarding democracy in Iran cannot be defended, but what was more worrying was the position taken by Stop the War, the Socialist Workers Party, Counterfire, etc, in support of the Islamic Republic - based on ridiculous claims, such as the number of women firefighters in Tehran or the assertion that sex-change operations in Iran marked some kind of tolerance of LGBT people. Both were stupid claims.
So where do such mistakes come from? On the one hand, the obsession with bringing together the largest possible numbers in particular campaigns, irrespective of political principles - a kind of left populism. There is not only a fixation with what the SWP calls ‘united fronts’ (in reality either fake front or cross-class popular fronts), but also a departure from the basic principle that in making such alliances we must seek to advance the cause of the working class. Instead what we saw in the case of the anti-war movement was kowtowing to Islamic groups and an apologetic approach to the Islamic Republic on the international scene. These were policies that in the long term disarmed and weakened the anti-war movement, especially as sections of its Islamic allies became part of the artificiality fuelled Shia-Sunni infighting.
By the time we got to the civil war in Syria, such organisations were rendered completely powerless. Fearful of being accused of supporting one side or the other, they chose silence, while in Syria, as elsewhere, it was correct to oppose pro-Saudi and pro-Qatar jihadists (Islamic State, al-Qa’eda ...), just as much as it was to oppose imperialism and the Syrian regime.
Another issue raised during the debate was the alleged difference in emphasis on US or Iran between my writings in English and my TV/radio interventions on BBC Persian. In late 2018, a social media blogger who is an apologist for Iran’s Islamic republic accused me of emphasising anti-imperialism in my English writing, while focussing more on opposition to the Islamic Republic in Farsi TV and radio programmes.
A large number of Iranian activists, who follow both my writings in English and my interventions on Persian media, responded on Facebook and Twitter mocking the accusation. They quoted from my articles, where I write about corruption, neoliberal capitalism and workers’ struggles in Iran, and provided extensive quotes from what I say about US policy regarding Iran and the Middle East on TV and radio, and what I have said about the Trump administration. Indeed these comrades and friends clearly demonstrated that both in English and in Farsi I consistently oppose US imperialism and threats of war against Iran, while also opposing the Islamic Republic.
So I repeated this during the debate, accepting that on specific occasions - for example, when there is a direct threat to Iran (as a country, not just the Islamic Republic) - I might spend more time in English or in Farsi in opposing imperialism. However, even then I will attempt to clarify my opposition to the Islamic Republic’s repressive, anti-working class policies. The problem is that those with simplistic minds want you to take either a pro-imperialist position (on social media I receive abuse and threats almost daily from royalist supporters of Trump’s plans for regime change from above) or support the Islamic Republic (as is the case of some Iranian ‘left’ apologists). In that sense I actually find the abuse I receive from both pro-Trump Iranian royalists and from defenders of the Iranian regime quite reassuring!
This shows that I and other comrades from Hands Off the People of Iran have stayed true to Hopi’s founding statement of 2007.
More than 11 years ago we wrote:
The contradictions between the interests of the neo-conservatives in power in the USA and the defenders of the rule of capital in the Islamic Republic has entered a dangerous new phase.
US imperialism and its allies are intent on regime change from above and are seriously considering options to impose this - sanctions, diplomatic pressure, limited strikes or perhaps bombing the country back to the stone age. The main enemy is imperialism. The Iranian regime does not represent a progressive or consistent anti-imperialist force.2
The political situation is now worse. Trump is to the right of the neo-conservatives around then president George W Bush. Continued sanctions have impoverished Iran, making the situation far worse for ordinary Iranians, yet so many years later, despite a nuclear deal heralded as a solution to the crisis, very little has changed.
We must oppose any imperialist intervention in the Middle East, and call for the immediate and unconditional end to sanctions on Iran, while maintaining our opposition to the Islamic Republic and stepping up our support for working class and progressive struggles against poverty and repression!
For those who speak Farsi, it is available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtskZwq7EL0&feature=share.↩