Mythical past, open future

How should Marxists classify the Muslim Association of Britain? Is it of the 'far right', a sinister clerical-fascist organisation, or is the truth more mundane? Ian Donovan gives some answers

The Muslim Association of Britain has become the object of major controversy on the British left.

Ever since the early days of the anti-war movement, the relationship with muslim organisations has been a disputed question. Beginning with the September 28 2002 march against the drive to war against Iraq, this gained real concrete form, as the march, initiated by the Stop the War Coalition around the slogan 'Don't attack Iraq', had three main sponsors: the coalition itself, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and MAB.

This came about because earlier that year, the Al-Aqsa intifada had begun in the Palestinian occupied territories, and Ariel Sharon, having gained the Israeli premiership, launched his repeated, vicious 'incursions' into West Bank cities and Gaza. Despite the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, this led to a rate of death among Palestinians that was over three times that of Israelis and indeed has remained so since.

MAB called a demonstration in April 2002 against this situation, a demonstration which mobilised a significant, militant layer of British muslim and Arab youth, who would have been probably unreachable by the left and anti-war movement. When MAB called another demonstration around more or less the same issues for the following September, on the same day as the planned anti-war march, the two events were sensibly merged. The 250,000-strong demonstration was really the starting point for the mass anti-war movement that has shaken Tony Blair and his government to its foundations.

So what is MAB? Critics paint it as a sinister presence, an extremist, islamic fundamentalist organisation that the left ought to have nothing whatsoever to do with. On its website it expresses admiration for historical and contemporary figures such as Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Sayyid Qutb, a man from the same tradition, who some say was the ideological mentor of the Taliban; and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the assassinated leaders of Hamas.

MAB makes no attempt to hide the fact that its own particular brand of islamic belief owes much to the tradition of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an influential organisation founded in the late 1920s by al-Banna. The MB sought to reverse the decline of islam - seen as a result of colonialism and oppression, which left most of the Middle East under British imperial domination - and return to the fusion of state and religion that had existed under the rule of the medieval caliphs.

Thus the Muslim Brotherhood was in essence a backward-looking form of nationalist reaction to imperialist domination. It does not take great imagination to see why: in the centuries prior to the emergence of European capitalism, the various islamic empires represented a civilisation that far outshone feudal Europe in terms of culture. This was in great contrast to the subsequent subjugation of much of the muslim world by the west. Such politicised nostalgia has been a recurring theme, particularly in the Middle East, ever since. The MB in Egypt was something of a prototype for other formations that grew up elsewhere in the region and especially in the mainly sunni Arab world.

In its early years, it existed in competition with more modernist, secular nationalism and the various Middle Eastern communist movements. At times it has engaged in uneasy alliances with leftist and secular nationalist forces, at other times it has been in violent confrontation with them. Both al-Banna and Qutb were killed, through assassination and execution respectively, by the Nasserites in Egypt, under suspicion of planning coups and assassinations themselves - and elements loyal to the MB were indeed responsible for the assassination of the unlamented Anwar Sadat in 1981.

These days in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is almost respectable and seeks power by basically 'moderate', legal means. Some of its splinter groups have become more notorious, particularly in the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation, where Hamas is competing with the mainstream PLO/Fatah forces for national leadership. In Sudan, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in Africa, elements originating in the Sudanese offshoot of the brotherhood have shared power with the military at times over the past couple of decades and run strictly islamic regimes that have repressed the christian minority in the south of the country, many of whom want a separate state. This regime is also engaged in a war against insurgents in the non Arabic-speaking west Sudanese province of Darfur, from which large numbers of civilians have fled and there have been reports of atrocities. Not that it is remotely possible to equate MAB and the Sudanese regime, but you could say that these forces have some common antecedents.

MAB has certainly gone to considerable lengths to make clear it has no truck for the most notorious actions of islamic fundamentalists - eg, those of al Qa'eda. It is one of the ironies of our time that, while some on the left, notably the Socialist Workers Party, romanticise forms of political islam to the point of refusing to condemn outright atrocities like 9/11, Bali or the recent bombs in Madrid, organisations like MAB, which have elements of formal ideology and religious belief in common with the bombers themselves, have no hesitation in condemning these atrocities. The only action of al Qa'eda that MAB has refused to condemn was the 2003 terrorist bombing of Israeli holidaymakers in Mombasa - an attitude that was, however, shared by many secular Palestinians, embittered by the wanton Israeli slaughter of Palestinians and by the limitless 'toleration' of Israel's imperialist allies.

In analysing what it is that MAB actually stands for, it is probably useful to look at its objective situation in society. This is not a ruling class organisation of any type, but an organisation of migrants from the Arab world to an advanced capitalist country.

Like most migrant groups in a society that is massively different in political, social and economic terms, the Arab community seeks to find ways to exert political pressure to ensure it is treated with a degree of fairness. Such organisations of minority ethnic communities thus tend to campaign against racism, against various perceived or real injustices done to those communities by the dominant society and culture, and to struggle for the improvement of their communities' lot within the 'host' society.

The actual activity of MAB fits this template. In fact, one creditable aspect is that it does not appear to be inclined towards separatism - the opposite in fact. Often migrant communities facing discrimination and oppression retreat from engagement with wider society into an inward-looking mentality that can find expression in forms of separatist nationalism. MAB seems set against this (partly no doubt because it also seeks to work alongside the much larger British-south Asian muslim community).

It is worth looking at its statement of 'aims and objectives' to see where MAB is coming from. The statements of religious objectives - such as "To spread the teachings and culture of islam, instil the islamic principles in the hearts of the muslim community and enhance the good morals within the British society"; or "To assist the muslim community in maintaining its integrity and foster in them good islamic conduct like worship of allah, education and social relations, especially ties of kinship" - reveal the tensions that come from both yearning for acceptance and wanting to preserve distinctiveness. Ditto other formulations: "To assist in the endeavours being exerted towards protecting human rights in general and muslims in particular … To improve the relationship between the muslim community and the British institutions on the one hand, and the muslim world on the other, so that their social, economic and political relationships shall be revived on a sound basis."

On the face of it then, MAB is not some kind of sinister clerical-fascist organisation, aiming to create a worldwide caliphate or rolling back the gains of the enlightenment, as some on the left have argued. Rather, what we have here is something much more mundane - a pressure group, basically wanting to preserve its own religious community, and secure religious tolerance and the place of islam within a liberal, multicultural society. That is all MAB is, and all it can really ever be. The project of building a Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, which can seriously contend for power, as in Egypt, is simply a non-starter.

The references to such figures as Qutb and al-Banna in the historical and educational materials produced by MAB should be taken about as seriously as the sale of works by Mao Zedung and Kim Il Sung by Stalinites in the Indian Workers Association. In both cases, the social and economic conditions do not exist in this country for the political programmes that these figures stood for to win through and become a social reality. They have no practical significance. Perhaps this or that individual may read Qutb and as a result decide to join a militant islamist group abroad (just as it is possible that individuals influenced the by IWA Stalinists may go to India or Nepal and become Maoist guerrillas), but such people would have to make a fundamental break from the pressure group-type of politics that these kinds of migrant organisations play.

The problem for MAB is that the 'war against terrorism' - which has often targeted muslims indiscriminately, not just the fringe that supports al Qa'eda - has created a road block along the 'normal' path of lobbying councils, quangoes and government departments. Instead, we see the rise of islamophobia, the demonisation of muslims by the bourgeois press and government. So in these circumstances MAB has sought allies and found them on the left in the building a of a mass movement against the war and anti-muslim reaction.

This brings us to the actual role that MAB is playing in the anti-war movement along with the involvement of MAB members in Respect. For some, such as the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the prominence of MAB in the anti-war movement is a threat: by so participating, they say, MAB will increase its influence, will win more muslims to its own political-religious beliefs, and will therefore strengthen reaction within migrant Arab communities (and it may even gain adherents within the south Asian migrant community as well). It is notable, however, that religious figures from that community - such as Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament - are themselves joining Respect as a result of the anti-war movement.

There are those who say that MAB members constitute an alien class presence which disqualifies Respect from being considered a working class initiative. Thus for our Red Platform comrades it matters not that individuals who are members of MAB are standing for election on a manifesto that hardly differs from the Socialist Alliance's old priority pledges, including a commitment to sexual equality and gay rights; simply by being on the West Midlands slate former MAB president Anas Altikriti renders Respect 'popular frontist', if not a popular front outright.

Actually, MAB has not as a whole endorsed Respect - it is calling for a vote for Respect in some places, for Greens in other places, and even for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election. And, of course, MAB called for a vote for the Liberal Democrats in the Brent East by-election last year, something it has refrained from doing for June 10 this year. Prior to the anti-war movement, it seems MAB routinely advised muslims to vote Labour.

This is certainly an unusual development. However, in my view, it was inevitable, given the 'war against terrorism', and the left should take advantage of it. Let us look back to the past for some lessons, in particular at the history of the Jewish population, which provides both parallels and some significant differences.

The Jewish migrant community in Britain largely came here fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe, particularly tsarist Russia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Quite a few more came escaping persecution at the hands of the Nazis in the 1930s - although anti-semitism and rank inhumanity by our own rulers resulted in many desperate Jewish refugees being barred from entry. The Jewish community was demonised - those who were visibly non-emancipated and non-assimilated, who wore traditional Jewish dress, were a particular target for racist attackers, a target for hatred every bit as vulnerable as many visibly devout muslims are today.

In addition, the large number of secular Jews were scapegoated. The fact that many, through hard experience, had embraced revolutionary ideas, had become close to the working class movement, added to bourgeois panic and loathing. Jews were variously portrayed as bomb-throwing anarchists and sinister communist conspirators. In a climate of morbid irrationality, the prominence of emancipated Jews in 19th century bourgeois revolutions, was turned into a weapon against them - the ultimate expression of this being the wide currency of theories of 'international Jewish conspiracy', that world reaction greedily fed upon, leading ultimately to the genocidal horrors of the Nazi regime.

It is sadly ironic that, as a result of oppression at the hands of the Israeli state, and profound ignorance of the real causes of that oppression, that sections of Arab islamists, notably Hamas, these days echo these bizarre notions of Jewish conspiracy to explain the plight of the Palestinians. For as a result of changed historical circumstances, the demonisation of islam and muslims that is current today has sad echoes of past treatment of the Jews.

The difference is, however, that among the muslim migrant communities of the west, who bear the brunt of antipathy, there has not generally been a comparably strong secular-revolutionary tradition. Which is, of course, not to say that no secular or communist tradition existed: merely that is does not match that of early 20th century Jewry. The most that has existed in Britain at least is a tepid loyalty to the Labour Party, born of its claim to be the champion of racial equality and non-discrimination. But that position has now been severely compromised, as the crisis of reformism has led to New Labour antagonising and threatening this section of its base as part of the so-called 'war on terror'.

It is indeed the case that - particularly in the Middle East, but also in Asian countries such as Pakistan and to some extent even as far as Indonesia - imperialism has gone to great lengths to undermine left and secular forces, and to ensure the victory of more conservative, religious forces over them. The result has been to seriously undermine the secular forces in these countries, and a strengthening of the traditionalists. The deliberate strengthening of the most bloodthirsty, extremist forms of islamism in the cold war - not least in Afghanistan - created the Frankenstein's monster of al Qa'eda, which now of course plays the role of useful enemy to imperialism.

In the heyday of anti-semitism, the left had relatively little trouble in allying with, and indeed assimilating, many Jewish militants whose initial secular impulses were simply reinforced by joining in struggles of the workers' movement against war, anti-semitism and the like. The differentiation was at that point relatively clear; though with the rise of Zionism there was also the beginning of a reactionary development among secular Jews, the beginnings of a division. Nevertheless, there was still a fairly clear line between the militant secular element and the rabbis, the Jewish clerical element, which abhorred collaboration with the internationalist left.

The situation of muslim migrants, who today face a similar serious threat, is more complex. Because of the qualitatively weaker nature of the revolutionary-secular forces among muslim communities in current historical conditions, it is entirely feasible that we could see, as a transitional phase, something more complex. Instead of a straightforward and easily discerned division and growing enmity between overtly clerical-reactionary and overtly secular-revolutionary elements, there could be a division among initially more conservative, religious elements, portending some future, more profound political differentiation.

A division between those who are prepared to work with the left, the revolutionary opponents of capitalism, in a struggle against imperialism, and those genuinely reactionary-extremist elements who avoid such cooperation like the plague. There is in my view reason to believe that this is the historical significance of the division between MAB, on the one hand, and the separatist islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, on the other. It is notable that during the massive 2003 anti-war movement the latter group put out material bitterly denouncing MAB (though not by name) for engaging in haram (forbidden) activities by joining forces with the British left to organise mass anti-war marches (see 'Fundamentalists fear communists' Weekly Worker March 13 2003).

Of course, this parting of the ways may well not come to pass. It is conceivable that MAB, or sections of it, could retreat into the bankrupt politics of jihadism - though there is no sign of this happening. It could also, of course, simply remain as a multiculturalist pressure group. But I also believe it possible - and indeed as a revolutionary optimist I consider it quite likely - that either as a whole or in part, it will at some point, under the impact of historical events that demonstrate the need for a revolutionary, not utopian-religious, alternative to capitalism, move much further in a leftward direction.

This analysis of the real forces acting on MAB, and where things could lead, underlies the massive flaws that afflict the British left today. On the one hand, you have the overt islamophobia of some, most notably the AWL, who reject any interaction with MAB at all. The AWL is not the only culprit, of course, but apart from the openly admitted Zionism of its guru, it also served as something of a rallying point for others to give vent to their own prejudices, and simply boycott interaction with such people in the name of 'class politics' and 'secularism'.

On the other hand, you have the terribly flawed approach of the SWP. Faced with a force that really ought to be encouraged to move into the big political space to its left, the SWP instead looks to accommodate it by itself moving to the right - considering the possibility of downplaying demands for women's and gay rights last summer, fudging the question of abortion in the Respect declaration, etc.

Such abandonment of principle is exactly the opposite of what is required when engaging with radicalised religious elements from the immigrant petty bourgeoisie and proletariat who could potentially be drawn politically to the left. In reality, in such conditions, where you find large numbers of previously quite conservative people come to agree with socialists on one key question - imperialism and its role in the world - blurring over other key questions and minimising differences is the way to undercut any potential for leftward movement on those other questions, and thus the acquiring of a new world view. It is probably thanks to the agitation of our comrades, and other critics of the SWP, that Respect has a clear commitment to gay rights and a formal commitment to women's rights, even if the question of abortion is fudged.

There is no reason why such people cannot be won to support abortion rights, and many other things, including the achievement of a socialist society, given a correct communist approach. There was no reason either why such people could not have been won to either the Socialist Alliance itself or, failing that, some clearly defined public agreement to wage an anti-war election campaign in which the SA would have been a prominent public component with full right of criticism. That would have presupposed, of course, that the SA was itself allowed to develop a party ethos, to develop real roots of its own in the working class. Unfortunately, it was killed off, mainly, though not exclusively, by the SWP.

Undoubtedly the creation of such a formation would require much more time and patience than the cobbling-together approach that has brought about Respect. But that which is solid generally takes longer to construct than that which is built on sand.