AWL: Matgamna’s chauvinistic tirade
Imperialism may not have invented political Islam, writes Yassamine Mather, but it has certainly used it to its advantage
A controversy currently rages over the seemingly odd decision of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty to prominently republish an adapted 2006 text by Sean Matgamna on the war on terror, the nature of Islamic fundamentalism and related themes. This must have something more behind it than some anodyne hope to spark debate on the left.
Whatever the particular motivation, however, it certainly cannot have anything to do with the quality of the text itself. Much of it is written in the characteristic ‘Matgamna mode’ of commentary which consists of negative statements about negative things, alongside a pregnant silence when it comes to what he positively favours. Where the writing is explicit in its meaning, it has sparked outraged responses on social media outlets from hundreds of people, drawing angry accusations of Islamophobia, racism and pro-imperialism and prompting a number of AWLers to quit the organisation in disgust.
Some of the milder criticism the Matgamna piece has drawn concerns its superficiality and ignorance. As one CPGB comrade commented on an email list, “it is fairly easy to demonstrate that his article is historically illiterate to a quite breathtaking degree, represents a theoretical regression from run-of-the-mill bourgeois area studies on the Muslim world, and is comparable in style, tone, intellectual substance and political conclusions to amateur-hour neo-conservative windbags of the Huntingdon type. Sean would be laughed out of SOAS in any decade of the last century for this garbage.”
Quite, but, despite that, some of his arguments are still worthwhile engaging with:
- First, that “The ‘war on terror’ was not a ‘put-up job’, an artificially concocted replacement for the old cold war with Stalinist Russia ... to create an external enemy which can be used to bind atomised capitalist society together.”1
- Second, that “[the west] did not for that purpose invent the upsurge of militant political Islam, or, rather, the emergence of political Islam as a force in international politics …” So “Neither covert western encouragement nor neo-con manipulation” explains the “fundamental root of the luxuriantly thriving Islamic fundamentalism.” Instead, “it has other, indigenous, roots.”
- Third, that “In the Arab countries, especially, political Islam has expanded to fill the space created by the collapse of Arab nationalism”, which imploded “in part … because it had achieved all it could achieve - the independence of Arab states such as Egypt and Iraq, which were semi-dependencies of Britain until the 1950s.”
- Finally, that today’s political Islamist movements are the contemporary equivalents of the “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik - so now much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”
Let us begin, then, with the ‘war against terror’ - was there no ideological benefit to capitalism from this? After all, the military logistics do not make much sense - is a “war” involving the hugely powerful imperialist countries of the west, headed by the world’s economic and military hegemon, a proportionate response to the actual threat that Islamic terror represented? If it was, why has it has been dropped since the days of George W Bush and Tony Blair? Has political Islam suddenly gone away?
It is true to say that the effect of binding “atomised capitalist society together” in a collective project of positive defence of rationalism and democracy was never going to be the outcome of such a nebulous project as a ‘war on terror’. However, it did ‘bind’ us all in another sense. It facilitated the speedy passage of legislation allowing unprecedented policing of private lives, correspondence, emails and social media interaction. These ‘war’ conditions allowed a dramatic potential constriction of the democratic right to protest, to access legal representation when arrested - this has not yet been fully deployed against the mass of the population in countries like the US or the UK, but will it not be used when the left starts to win a mass audience for its message?
Matgamna nods in the direct of this notion when he writes in an aside that this campaign has “in practice [been] very much a war on the civil liberties of ordinary citizens”, but overwhelmingly the emphasis he puts on it has the effect of excusing the west. This is underlined when he comments that he rejects the notion that imperialism ‘invented’ jihadist political Islam and projected it on an international stage to achieve that cohering effect.
Of course, ‘invention’ is too strong a term. But it is a fact that every western capitalist policy pursued in the 20th century in the Middle East, North Africa, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan has helped to strengthen and spread Islamic fundamentalism - not simply through the financing of this or that Islamic group, but through its conscious deployment from the early years of the 20th century as a tool to intervene, conquer and frustrate the democratic impulses of the peoples of the regions.
The examples of this are legion, but it worthwhile highlighting the case of Iran to illustrate the point.
We can start with the 1905 constitutional revolution. In the summer of 1906, the British got directly involved in the post-revolution constitutional debate - not with the aim of helping to establish ‘democracy’ in Iran, but as part of geopolitical competition with tsarist Russia. Some 12,000 men camped out in the gardens of the British embassy with the express purpose of being deployed as supporters of a ‘constitutional monarchy. What indigenous force was their trusted ally in this process? The Shia clergy.
Mass political Islam may have been an accidental by-product of the domination of Iran by the British, but - once ‘invented’ - it proved indispensable to imperialism during the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah. The 1953 CIA-organised coup saw the west rely on the monarchist, ayatollah Behbahani and a new convert, a former ally of the nationalists, ayatollah Kashani, play a crucial role in the days prior to the coup and immediately afterwards.2 The US and Britain used political Islam as part of preparations for an anti-democratic overthrow that resulted in the illegality of all secular opposition forces in the country and which stymied the possibility of democratic revolutions in the region for generations.
After the coup, with the help of his allies, the US and later Israel, the shah established the most effective and ruthless secret service in the region, the hated Savak. Its barbarous work differentiated amongst the opponents of the new regime - secular forces were arrested and imprisoned; religious opponents were at worst sent into exile; but the left were executed in large numbers. All this was designed to facilitate capitalist development, economic policies from land reform to the widespread introduction of casual work. This in turn strengthened Islamism’s grip on wide swathes of society.
Superficially this may seem ironic, but only if, like the philistine Matgamna - you regard this phenomenon simply as some sort of ideological ‘living fossil’, separate from the main developments that characterise the other, ‘modern’ world.
The growing, bitter class divide ensured that the secular upper layers of Iranian society were as divorced from the reality of the lives of the majority as if they were on the moon. Speaking personally, I was 12 before I realised that my fellow countrymen self-flagellated during Islamic ceremonies. More arresting was the realisation when I was 14 that the overwhelming majority of them despised every aspect of our secular, relatively privileged, ‘western’ private lives.
From the 1970s onwards, as Islamic societies of the periphery were incorporated ever deeper into the world market, the centre-periphery crisis in these societies entered a new and qualitatively different phase. The fluctuating - but mainly downward - trend in the price of raw materials (including, for most of this period, oil) on which these societies depend, speeded up the widening of inequality in social, economic and cultural development, the accumulation of foreign debt and the increasing inability of such states to control and restrain the spiralling crises they have to confront.
Under such circumstances, the rise of fundamentalism in Iran was unsurprising and a social explosion was obviously building. But, in all honesty, until I had came across Matgamna’s piece, I had never read anyone ostensibly on the left of the political spectrum characterising one of the great revolutions of the last century - when ordinary people, the working class and the poor drove a pro-western dictator from power - simply as an Islamic uprising. In fact, the Shia clergy and its allies were relative latecomers to the revolution. Their relative advantage was that they had escaped the worst aspects of the repression meted out courtesy of the CIA and Mossad advisers to Savak and were thus far better organised than the left, many of whose activists were in prison until the very last days of the shah’s rule. Workers, students, women, national minorities were an important part of the revolutionary movement and with the exception of pro-Soviet groups and a small American Trotskyist organisation, none of them celebrated the victory of the religious counterrevolution in Iran. What the left supported inside and outside Iran was the overthrow of a reactionary, pro-US, pro-Israeli dictator.
So again the US and its allies did not crudely conjure the Iranian Islamic movement out of thin air, but they did facilitate its rise and, when the revolution threatened to go far beyond the removal of the shah, opted for a transfer of power to what it viewed as the not very palatable, but preferable alternative. Even after the Iranian clergy came to power, the US administration did not enforce a strict policy of isolation. Unlike today’s Iran-US relations, which have so angered the Israelis, during the Irangate scandal Israel was very much part and parcel of the dodgy deal with the worst elements of the Shia clergy. Sanctions are and were always aimed at punishing ordinary Iranians for daring to overthrow the west’s ally.
Middle East and north Africa
As the Ottoman empire was collapsing, France and Britain divided its territory between them before the complete demise of the French mandate and British rule. How did they expand their influence in the region? A twin-track policy, both of which yielded results for the colonial powers.
First, in many Middle Eastern and north African countries, traditional rulers associated with powerful landowning families were replaced by individuals, often newcomers from religious or national minorities. So in mainly Shia countries, a Sunni ruling elite was promoted, making sure the new rulers were obedient servants of the colonial power and instituting a clear policy of divide and rule, which sowed the seeds for future internecine conflict.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood’s inception in the late 1920s can be traced back to the Wahhabis and Saudi funding, long before the historical times referenced by Matgamna. He says: “As the independence of the Arab countries became a substantial reality - in Egypt, after the failure the 1956 British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez to topple the Nasser regime; in Iraq, with the republican revolution of 1958; and so on - Arab nationalism became empty demagogy in the service of goals that were reactionary (destroying Israel) or unachievable (‘Arab unity’).”
Now Gamal Nasser is a man hated by Israel and its supporters, mainly because he remains one of the few Arab leaders with any mass following. I have no doubt that, had he stayed in power, he would have fared no better than Ba’athist or other nationalist Arab leaders. However, he is rare amongst Arab leaders as a ruler who took on the Muslim Brotherhood, debated and indeed ridiculed its policies, including their misogynist ideas, to great effect. In fact his period in power coincided with MB’s lowest popularity.
The Egyptian MB has clear, direct connections, both financial and political, with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states - all allies of the US. If the US had not switched post-Iraq to a foreign policy of encouraging Sunni Islam as means of weakening the growing Shia influence of Iran, I doubt if the Muslim Brotherhood would have achieved its spectacular electoral successes. In many areas of Egypt, MB clearly bought votes through its web of social and financial support for ‘believers’ - money was a real factor. Throughout 2011 and 2012 the US administration was perfectly happy to deal with MB in opposition and in government in Egypt. The MB’s state-controlled media were a bountiful source of propaganda for Islamic ideas worldwide - all of this is hard to lay at the door of “primitive Muslim simplicity”.
I always opposed the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops - as if ‘socialism’ could be delivered by tanks. However, blaming the Soviet Union for the rise of jihadism is a bit rich. Even before the fall of Davood Khan and the coming to power of the pro-Soviet Khalq - ie, before the Soviet invasion - the US and its allies were financing the most dubious Islamic forces via Saudi Arabia. Later on, the CIA did not just sponsor the jihadists: it facilitated the recruitment and transfer of fighters to Afghanistan, and supplied them with heavy artillery, including surface-to-air missiles.
The result was a jihadist victory, an event that has played a defining role for many Islamists, who now prosecute their holy war under the illusion that they had single-handedly defeated a superpower, the USSR. In their minds even a global caliphate is therefore possible. This illusion directly results from imperialism’s strategy of creating a ‘green’ (ie, Islamic) belt around the Soviet Union. A strategy conceived of as a bulwark against secular, leftwing and progressive forces - ‘democracy’ never came into it.
Matgamna’s comparison of “desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives” with contemporary political Islam is not simply chauvinistically offensive: it is oddly reminiscent of passages one might have read in a mid-19th century history text book, possibly taught in a (second-rate) public school.
The overwhelming consensus of all informed commentators who have written or spoken about political Islam in the last few decades is that it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a creation of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, even those who do talk of ‘envy’ of the west being one of its motivating factors - authors such as French sociologist Olivier Roy - propose a far more complicated analysis than the blood-curdling siege scenes Matgamna paints.
It is actually pretty much a consensus view that the current form Islamist movements take is linked to the global economic relations that have developed over the last three decades. The support for political Islamic movements is, essentially, derived from the uprooted - those who, for a variety of reasons, have been waylaid on the path of socio-economic development and to whom the new structures have brought nothing but ruin. At every level the new Islamism represents the rising not only of those who are alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who think they have discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries.
The growing crisis and steady weakening of national governments increased the intervention of global capital in the internal affairs of Islamic countries. This process reached the point where the economic ministries of many such countries turned into fronts for the decision-making centres of global capital, bowing to the traumatic, crisis-provoking restructuring of socio-political life and presiding over policies that caused massive unemployment and attendant despair. Chronic inflation ravaged meagre savings, acute housing shortages led to running battles between the guardians of cities and never-ending waves of migrants, and the ravaging of healthcare facilities effectively transformed hospitals into morgues.
The savage demands of the International Monetary Fund and the credit limitations imposed by the World Bank forced peripheral governments to turn on their own people. What little remained of state largesse dried up; millions were made destitute, unprotected against misery, hunger and disease. These were the people who carried Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian pan-Islamism on their shoulders. So the rise of political Islam is actually intertwined with global capital and neoliberalism. It is a child of our time and a product of the ruinous impact of advanced capitalism in the Islamic societies of the periphery.
Radical Islam is a reaction to the effects of particular forms of modernisation, not to modernisation per se. This is not a trivial difference with the likes of the chauvinist, Matgamna. For one thing, understanding this profoundly affects the strategies needed to overcome Islamism. This movement is not at its core a response to the modern state, modern culture or the separation of religion and state, but rather to mass unemployment, destitution and hopelessness brought about by the modern state under global capital. It is not so much a reaction to the essence of modernism, but to the ravages of advanced capitalism. Those thrown onto the rubbish heap of history claw at the nearest available ideology at a time when liberalism, nationalism and known forms of socialism are all discredited to one extent or another.
There is no alternative for confronting the pan-Islamist movement to the formulation of a radical revolutionary programme, the development of a coherent political platform and a thorough overhaul of the left’s own system of beliefs and ideas about organisation.
While advanced capitalism is polarising the world into extremes of affluence and poverty that now transcend geographical boundaries, one can only talk of an economic programme that challenges capitalism at every level. This means confronting the ‘structural adjustment’ policies of the IMF and the World Bank, which are bringing about destitution. It is on this ground that the left must distinguish itself from the liberals who also seek to woo the masses from radical Islam. Key sections of the economy need to be in public control (which is not necessarily the same as state control). This the most suitable form within which the labour force can be directly involved in production. The producers must control the means of production not just in legal, but in real political and practical, terms. These and other economic policies are crucial if the left is to unite with, and mobilise its main social base, the downtrodden. Only with a radical programme addressing the root cause of mass destitution can the left attract its natural class allies away from the clutches of Islamic fundamentalism.
The Islamic movement has filled a vacuum created by the ideological feebleness of the two main social classes - the indigenous bourgeoisie and the working class - and we must confront the fact that the left, as it exists in these countries today, is singularly ill-equipped to lead the implementation of the programme outlined above. The challenge is enormous, but I am certain of one thing: insulting and demonising Islam is not a solution.
Applying a category of “primitive Muslim simplicity” either to the Islamic societies of the past or to the thoroughly modern phenomenon of political Islam implies some sort of genetic deficiency amongst Muslims - almost an organic inability to understand or accept ‘democracy’. The reality is that the lack of democratic experience of the masses is a direct consequence of decades of imperialist intervention - direct and indirect - and the continuing subordination of these countries to the interests of the US and its allies.
And here lies the AWL’s main problem. In defence of Matgamna’s 2006 article, it claims: “The AWL has closer links than any other socialist organisation in Britain with socialists in Iran, Kurdistan and Iraq.” I will leave their links with the Iranian and the Kurdish left for another time. However, as far as Iraq is concerned, we all remember the AWL’s effective support for the continued occupation of this country after the 2003 invasion. It argued against the immediate withdrawal of British (and US) troops as being likely to weaken the workers’ movement - Clive Bradley suggested that campaigning for ‘Troops out now’ would involve at least temporary tactical common action in Britain with advocates of an Islamist clerical-reactionary regime in Iraq! Of course, the Baghdad regime installed by the US itself ended up as an Islamist clerical-reactionary regime.
Other AWLers argued that the immediate withdrawal of British and US troops would result in the Islamists massacring the workers’ movement. As it turned out, it was the US-installed Shia occupation government that took on this task. The US, UK and imperialism in general may not have invented political Islam - to borrow Matgamna’s weasel words - but they have promoted it from its inception, allied with it, materially and financially supported it and were happy to help deploy it in murderous assaults on the workers’ movement in the countries of the Middle East and beyond.
1. All Matgamna quotes from www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/10/04/political-islam-christian-fundamentalism-marxism-and-left-today-0.