Iran and Islamophobia

Is there something suspect about the opposition of Hands Off the People of Iran to the Iranian theocracy? Yassamine Mather answers some of the allegations

One of the arguments put forward against Hands Off the People of Iran is that our slogan, ‘No to the theocracy’ (which usually follows ‘No to imperialism’), is pandering to Islamophobia, especially at a time when there is a threat of war against Iran. In dismissing such accusations we have to point out one more time that it is not Islamophobic to support the call for separation of state and religion in a country where three decades of Shia governance has left religion’s reputation in tatters. There is a difference between being anti-Islamic and being against the rule of the clergy: the left cannot compromise on the basic democratic demand for separation of church and state.

In addition there are major differences between the propaganda used in the current escalation of imperialist threats against Iran and the anti-Islam arguments used in justifying ‘the war on terror’ and the subsequent Islamophobia. In the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, as the United States went on a mission to spread ‘liberal democracy’ through conflict, it was necessary to identify an enemy, albeit a largely invisible one, and to a certain extent a very specific form of anti-Islamic propaganda was used: Islam (of a certain type) was ‘the other’, whose terror had to be defeated. However, even then, the ‘war on terror’ was not presented as a war against Islam as such, but against a specific enemy.

At its height we did not see the demonisation of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states who preach and finance Islamic fundamentalism. Although most of the perpetrators of 9/11 suicide attacks were from Saudi Arabia, the air raids and military invasion were directed against Afghanistan. The western ‘allies’ did not want to mention that the origins of the group claiming responsibility for 9/11, Al Qa’eda , could be traced to the deliberate politicisation of Islamic groups during the cold war by the United States and its allies. Recent history was brushed under the carpet, with media analysts and military experts failing to mention that since the 1950s western governments had encouraged, financed and even initiated Islamic groups in the Arab world and beyond in order to undermine and confront secular, nationalist and socialist forces. From Hamas in Palestine to the Taliban in Afghanistan, they were indeed creations of imperialism, with the deliberate aim of weakening revolutionary forces in the region.

So in many ways the ‘Islamic’ in this ‘war on Islamic terrorism’ was at best ambiguous and at worst misleading. Of course, in France, where the Arabs are the poor of the banlieues, the war was an excuse to attack the underclass, and to a certain extent in the rest of continental Europe, as well as the United Kingdom, a side benefit of the ‘war on terror’ was to isolate further a section of the immigrant population. In other words, its anti-Islamic character was only stressed when it suited the warmongers. At no time was their anti-Islam aimed at rich Saudis, Kuwaitis or Qataris - even though, for example, the Saudi royals continued to apply its constant state of internal terror in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. According to Alain Badiou, the predicate ‘Islamic’ in ‘Islamic terrorism’ has no function except to give content to the word ‘terrorism’.[1]

One could argue that, far from being a war against Islam, the ‘war on Islamic terrorism’ was used to incriminate, victimise and therefore control a certain section of dark-skinned migrants. Here I am not advocating indifference to the plight of Muslim migrants who bore the brunt of the attacks in response to 9/11. However, this fictitious war on Islam was not a war against a Muslim nation (such a thing does not exist) and in forming alliances to oppose it the left should have been honest about the reactionary nature of Al Qa’eda and the Taliban, and less eager to excuse Islamic fundamentalism.

Having said that, as far as the threat of war against Iran is concerned, the issue of ‘war against Islamic terrorism’ is not relevant. No-one in authority in the US or Europe has used the term for the last few years and military action against Iran is proposed not on the basis of the regime’s Islamic fundamentalism as such, but because of its alleged intention to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact vilification of the country’s civilian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is far more prevalent than that of senior clerics. The occasional attempts by US military officials to link the Iranian regime with Al Qa’eda and the Taliban backfired. It is now known that in fact Iran arrested bin Laden’s relatives in the early 2000s.[2]

Tehran regime

However, the Islamic nature of the Iranian theocratic regime cannot be ignored. It has specific characteristics that differentiate it from other capitalist regimes in the developing world and these pose specific dangers for ordinary Iranians at a time of war and sanctions.

1. If it ever came to a real military confrontation with the United States and its allies, the main weakness of the Iranian state is the fact that it currently does not enjoy the support of the majority of its own population. The dire economic conditions, polarisation between the rich and the poor, and political repression are characteristics of any ‘third world’ dictatorship. However, what distinguishes the Islamic regime is the fact that the state’s interference in the private lives of its citizens has made it deeply unpopular amongst the majority of the population, notably the youth as well as women. This makes the regime more vulnerable to the combined policy of severe sanctions and regime change from above.

2. The reliance of the state on the mobilisation of the lumpenproletariat and reactionary petty bourgeoisie against the working class as part of a Nazi-style ‘rent a crowd’; the way it tolerates multi-billion-dollar corruption from within its own ranks, while punishing petty crime using severe measures, ranging from long-term imprisonment to amputation: these are specific features of a semi-fascistic state and cannot be brushed aside just because they are justified in religious terms.

Another argument put forward by mainly Iranian opponents of Hopi’s critique of the religious characteristics of the Islamic state is that there is widespread (anti-Arab) racism among Iranians and in effect anti-Islamic propaganda panders to this Iranian form of ultra-nationalism.

First of all, it should be pointed out that this particular form of racism/anti-Arab nationalism is predominant as much amongst Shia clerics as it is amongst secular Iranians. Many Iranians equate national pride with opposition to the Arab invasion of Iran and the collapse of the Sassanid empire in the 7th century. Although the conquerors, especially the Umayyad, were keen to stress the primacy of Arabs among Muslims, the Iranians gradually managed to impart their influence: the Sassanid coinage system and many Sassanid administrative practices, including the administration of taxes, finance, political office and Iranian court ceremonial practices, were adopted in the new Islamic territories. However, this did not diminish the resentment over the loss of the empire. That is why Iranians played an important part in founding a particular version of Islam - Shi’ism - during a dispute over the caliphate.

In fact many Shia practices, ceremonies and Hadith (a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Mohammed)[3], such as Ashoura processions (a major festival commemorating the martyrdom at Karbala of Mohammed