Paul Flewers

Ten Years On: The Historical Significance of Al Qaeda

Author: Paul Flewers
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

Addressing the Chilcot Enquiry into the Iraq War in January 2010, Tony Blair said that al Qaeda’s devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 had changed everything in respect of his attitude towards Saddam Hussein and the threat that he, according to Blair, posed to Britain and the world in general. This was a truly staggering non sequitur — Ba’athist Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with al Qaeda — yet Blair was merely restating, if in a rather bizarre, very dishonest and clearly self-serving manner, what has become a truism in much of Western thinking: that the actions of al Qaeda on that day signalled a fundamental change in global politics.

And yet did it really do so? The assassination in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden by US troops in May left me with a rather odd sensation. At a time when the often ill-mannered debate about the place of Islam in the Western world crashes on without any sign of abatement, when virulent anti-Muslim sentiments are the central mobilising axis of Britain’s latest fascist group and Europe’s far-right parties and constitute the weltanschauung of hordes of right-wing commentators and Norway’s murderous ‘Justiciar Knight’ Anders Behring Breivik, with Islamist violence continuing in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and with Islamist currents lurking in the background behind the mass unrest of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, at the time of his death bin Laden nonetheless seemed an almost passé figure, an incongruous face from the past.

What is al Qaeda?

Although al Qaeda burst into public consciousness through its demolition of the World Trade Center 10 years ago, it had been around for a while before that. Precise details are vague and often contradictory, but it appears that bin Laden, thoroughly committed to an extremely austere brand of Sunni Islam elaborated by the Egyptian Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb and dedicated to struggling for its propagation through violent means, and having travelled to Pakistan in 1979 to join the Islamist guerrilla war against the radical regime in Kabul, formed the group in the late 1980s. Although it seems that the rumours that the CIA funded bin Laden are unfounded (as is the tale that he supported Arsenal Football Club), he certainly took advantage of Western policies in Afghanistan, where the exigencies of the Cold War led to Western powers sponsoring violent Islamist groups. Irrespective of the matter of its receiving actual CIA or other state backing, al Qaeda was a beneficiary and indeed a by-product, if unintended, of Western foreign policy.

Returning to his homeland of Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden’s preoccupation with the presence of US troops that were stationed there from 1990 led to his becoming a public embarrassment to the Saudi regime (although he continued to receive support from within the Saudi élite), and he settled in Sudan in 1992, moving on to Afghanistan in 1996, which was also the year in which he declared war against the USA. Al Qaeda’s actions at this time were largely small-scale operations within Muslim countries, and the organisation offered assistance and advice to various Islamist forces in the Middle East and North Africa. Al Qaeda was also involved in the Balkans during the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, and bin Laden was even provided with a Bosnian passport. Its first large-scale attack upon US interests was the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya in August 1998, which caused considerable damage and loss of life.

The events of 11 September 2001 were followed by bombings in Bali in October 2002, resulting in 202 people being killed; Istanbul in November 2003, 57 killed; a ferry in the Philippines in February 2004, 116 killed; London in July 2005, 56 killed; Amman in November 2005, 60 killed; and a whole series of bombings and other attacks in Iraq since August 2003 causing many thousands of deaths. Al Qaeda was not directly involved in the train bombing in Madrid in March 2004 which killed 191 people, but those responsible were inspired by the organisation. Many other plots have been unearthed by the authorities before coming to fruition, although some of them were the ravings of fantasists, and others were highly unlikely to have worked, such as the plot discovered in Britain to blow up simultaneously several airliners with home-made chemical concoctions. Altogether, al Qaeda has been able to mount destructive operations in many countries around the world, and has been able to attract active support from and obtain the participation of albeit small numbers of Islamists in the heart of the imperialist countries themselves.

Al Qaeda’s programme has both minimum and maximum aspects. The former includes the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia (which has been achieved) and other Muslim countries, the overthrow of the puppet Arab regimes (which are seen as traitors to Islam), and a solution to the problem of Palestine (which, noting bin Laden’s imprecations against ‘the Jews’, will not be a democratic one). Its intention has long been to inveigle the USA into a costly war of attrition in the Islamic world which would thereby weaken the US economy, and one might venture that it has had some degree of success in respect of this. The maximum aspect of its programme is basically the establishment of a global caliphate, a world based upon Islamic — or, rather, its specific brand of Islamic — values. Its statements on social issues are incorrigibly conservative, although it is only fair to add that fundamentalist Christians and Jews would happily concur with quite a few of them. And, showing some sensitivity to Western fashions, it also raises some environmental issues in its statements. Al Qaeda has always lacked any sort of transitional method to go from its minimum to its maximum demands, and, as we shall see, it lacks any capacity to become a mass organisation in most parts of the world.

Al Qaeda is an unusual organisation in that it is simultaneously heavily ideologically centralised and operationally decentralised. This has been one of its strengths. On the one hand, it revolves around its necessarily secretive leadership, and it is probably the ultimate leadership-cult organisation, with, as far as one can tell, no structure that can allow ideological challenges to the leadership from below, or even any basis for ideological debate. At the same time, the very lack of ideological debate within the group as a result of the skimpiness of its programme and its ultra-centralised nature means that it can operate in a remarkably decentralised manner. With a strict conformity more or less guaranteed around a simplistic core ideology, al Qaeda’s leadership effectively endorses and then funds or rejects acts of violence proposed by adherents around the world.

Al Qaeda’s strictly terroristic approach — both on a tactical and a strategical level — prevents it from being anything other than a very narrow cadre organisation working in the strictest clandestinity, the only exceptions being in places where it can forge some sort of alliance with national Islamist groups — as it has done in Yemen and Somalia — or fundamentalist Sunni regime — as in Afghanistan — or in countries where Sunni Islam has a substantial presence and where there is massive societal collapse, as in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. However, its alliances with Islamist groups and regimes are often fragile and short-lived, as its partners tend to be parochially-minded and less interested in global jihad than fighting for local concerns on their own patch. The members of al Qaeda’s ‘International Brigade’ are often seen by local Islamists, let alone by ordinary Sunni Muslims, as bothersome foreigners. Having no solid national base — that is, being unable to establish more than fleeting alignments with any nation-state — puts al Qaeda at a distinct disadvantage. Even at the height of its success, the possibilities of its obtaining more than a tiny degree of support amongst Muslims outwith devastated and benighted Sunni areas were extremely slim. The vast majority of Muslims not only in such metropolitan countries as Britain but also in countries that are officially defined as Muslim, such as Pakistan, were and remain strongly opposed to al Qaeda and its philosophy and activities.

The future of any organisation that revolves around a charismatic leader is inevitably put into question should that leader die or, as with bin Laden, is assassinated. It remains to be seen whether Ayman al-Zawahiri is able to step fully into bin Laden’s shoes. As it is, although al Qaeda could well continue to engage in its terrorist activities, bin Laden’s death and the matter of the succession, the inability of the organisation to cause any long-lasting impact within the metropolitan centres, its inability to build any sort of base beyond a few devastated countries, and the continued attrition at the hands of the authorities mean that it is highly unlikely to match what it achieved in and immediately after 2001.

Al Qaeda and US Foreign Policy

Although the US authorities had become deeply concerned about al Qaeda prior to 11 September 2001, its spectacular attack upon the USA on that day led to a major shift in the form — if not the actual content — of US foreign policy. On the next day US President George Bush announced a ‘War on Terror’ against terrorists and those who harboured them. Rejecting the offer by the Afghan government to hand over bin Laden if the US authorities could provide evidence of his involvement in the 11 September attacks (he denied at that point that he was involved, although he subsequently did), US and UK forces attacked Afghanistan on 7 October, starting a war and occupation and ensuing violent resistance that continue to this day. More importantly, this occupation has greatly exacerbated instability in neighbouring Pakistan, a situation that is itself largely a product of problems in Afghanistan predating the US invasion, in which violence on the part of often officially-supported Islamist groups links in with a longstanding quarrel with India in respect of Kashmir. This unintended by-product of intervening in Afghanistan has serious implications that cannot be easily solved in this grossly unstable and nuclear-armed country.

Al Qaeda’s attack also gave Bush and his sinister foreign policy team the excuse to put into action their broad plans for reasserting US power across the Middle East and the Eurasian landmass as a whole. Within the context of the growing international power vacuum accompanying the decline and demise of the Soviet Union, the USA had long seen Iraq as central factor in its quest for influence in the Middle East, as its gaining control of Iraq would result in its obtaining a commanding position across the region. That is why the replacement of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s fiercely independent dictator, with a more pliable ruler was an obsession with successive US Presidents.

With a mendacity that was equal to any of Hitler’s rantings about the threat posed to Germany by Poland and Czechoslovakia, Bush and his British amanuensis Tony Blair campaigned vigorously for war against Iraq, shamelessly linking Saddam’s regime with al Qaeda, despite the fact that Ba’athism was a deadly enemy of Islamism and dealt with it in a robust manner, and making out that Iraq, weakened by a decade or more of Western sanctions, posed a deadly military threat not merely to its neighbours, but to faraway Britain.

The US–UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003 led to an immediate governmental and societal collapse, mass internecine sectarian slaughter and expulsions, gangster parties and cliques gaining local and regional power, and, through the election of Shia parties, providing Iran, another of the USA’s bogeymen, with a not inconsiderable foothold in the country. It also gave — and how about this for an irony of history? — a grand opportunity for al Qaeda to set up a local franchise in the Sunni areas, which then instituted its own reign of terror against both non-Sunnis and Sunnis not disposed towards their austere brand of Islam. Eight years down the line, Iraq is still lacking any national coherence and indeed any coherent national government, and the local branch of al Qaeda is still in operation.

On the home front, the events of 11 September 2001 led to drastic attacks upon civil liberties, and led to Muslims as a whole being suspected by the authorities and amongst the general public of being at the least sympathetic to Islamism and at the worst surreptitious supporters of al Qaeda. The increased state surveillance of Muslims and the establishment of the Guantánamo prison camp where hurriedly-arrested and dubiously-selected Muslims from especially Afghanistan were imprisoned in inhuman conditions not only was a travesty of legal processes, but played into the hands of Islamism by alienating wide numbers of Muslims, in the same way as internment in Northern Ireland reinforced rather than undermined Republican sympathies. Suspicion of Muslims continues: only recently, a Muslim student at Nottingham University researching Islamist movements was arrested after the college authorities informed the police that he had downloaded an al Qaeda document from an official US website.

Yes, in a certain way, the events of 11 September 2001 did change everything. The US–UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a response to al Qaeda’s attack on the USA. But they were policy options, and other policies were available to the USA’s political leadership. It did not have to order the invasions, and the results have been two massive own-goals for US imperialism. These policies have seriously set back the interests of US imperialism in the Middle East and the world as a whole, and instead of usefully exploiting the window of opportunity afforded by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it lost much goodwill in the Middle East, gave China a very useful breathing space in which to start challenging the USA on a world scale, and finally wasted a vast amount of US money: according to the Cost of War website, the two wars have so far cost over 1.2 trillion dollars, increasing by over $300 000 every minute of the day.

Al Qaeda declared that it wished to pull the USA into a ruinously expensive quagmire by having it invade a Muslim country. Washington was not obliged to fall headlong into this trap, it took a conscious decision to do so. Nor was London obliged to follow; this was the decision of the New Labour government.

Foreign policy decisions can also have serious domestic consequences. It was Blair’s decision to support Bush that encouraged four British al Qaeda adherents to kill themselves and 52 underground and bus passengers in London on 7 July 2005. One cannot say whether al Qaeda would not have staged an atrocity in Britain had its government not blindly followed the USA. But one can be sure that Blair’s decision to back Bush made such an appalling act a certainty.

Domestic Consequences

An old trick favoured by hard-line religious campaigners is to invite a certain level of hostility towards their particular denomination in the hope that this will help to bring back to the fold those drifting away from a fervent adherence towards an accommodation to the surrounding more liberal social norms. A state of siege, however unpleasant the ensuing consequences, gives the hard-liners a better chance to assert their hold over their flock than they would in a genuinely liberal society in which, especially, the younger members of the denomination might be tempted to experiment with new-fangled ideas and practices, and start to challenge the tenets and fetishes of the religion and the authority of the clergy. One of the consequences of Islamist terror in both Islamic and secular metropolitan countries, and one of which bin Laden must have been well aware, although this is (not entirely unsurprisingly) absent from the al Qaeda statements that I have perused, has been to alienate Muslims from other people, and to create a climate of suspicion of and hostility towards Muslims, in order to draw them in anger or despair towards supporting the more obscurantist and austere interpretations of their religion.

Bin Laden was pushing at an opening door. By the end of the last century, hostility to Muslims was already well established in Western countries. What is popularly if not entirely accurately known as Islamophobia is a development of and variation upon the racist sentiments long prevalent in the metropolitan centres. Rather than broadly targeting black and Asian people as ‘alien’, it directs popular hostility towards Muslims, and it is essentially a calculated reactionary response to the rise of a Muslim identity — or, more accurately, Muslim identities — and of militant forms of Muslim politics in the world at large and in Western countries in particular. Although of a different brand of Islam to that which bin Laden claims to represent, the establishment of the Shi’a Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 showed the potential posed by an obscurantist Islamic movement. From the early 1970s, Sunni Islamist movements had been making steady progress in Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries in response to the political bankruptcy and general failings of secular movements and regimes. In the light of the repeated warnings of the dangers posed by Islamism, it is of course ironic that Islamist currents — for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — often received covert support from Western powers. But they were seen as a useful counterweight to radical movements and regimes. The Saudi Arabian government (another good friend of Western imperialism) devoted considerable amounts of its oil revenues to the funding of mosques and Islamic centres in Western countries that promoted ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam. The degree to which such ideas had crossed into and taken hold in Western countries became evident whilst bin Laden was still an obscure jihadist in Afghanistan with the furore that erupted during the late 1980s in respect of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. That the appearance of a largely incomprehensible — and, one suspects, largely unread — book led to an outburst of virulent hatred against its author shows that an inflammable political mix had been brewing amongst Western Muslims for some time.

One of the key factors in assisting this development in many Western countries, including Britain, was the official ideology of multiculturalism. Although concocted as an attempt to deal positively with racial and religious divisions in society, it has done exactly the opposite. Through its attempts to ‘box’ everyone within a series of ethnic, national and religious — but not class — criteria, it places people in a multitude of religiously, nationally and ethnically-defined identities, drives wedges between different ‘communities’, and tends to encourage the more conservative elements within each ‘community’ as the cultural and/or religious ideas and practices which mark off one ‘community’ from another are emphasised in the name of ‘diversity’.

The atmosphere that has seen a growing level of hostility towards Muslims and an often angry discourse about the position of Islam within Western countries was solidly rooted long before September 2001. The chief result of al Qaeda’s activities has been the intensification and deepening of anti-Islamic sentiments in Western countries.

However, the phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiments does not merely represent the classic targeting and scapegoating by reactionaries of one or another group in society in order to divert people’s attention from factors — unemployment, worsening conditions of employment, housing shortages, cuts in public services, etc — that might elicit a militant class-based response. In many ways, anti-Islamic sentiments have replaced the anti-communism of the Cold War as a key defining ideological feature in the Western world. The ‘defence of freedom’ is now predicated upon holding back the forces of Islamic obscurantism as opposed to the now-redundant resistance to ‘totalitarian communism’. Western social norms are defined against the more austere versions of Islam — or, for the fervid right-wing ideologues and rabble-rousers, against Islam as a whole — in what has often been termed a ‘clash of civilisations’. And like the anti-communism of the Cold War, anti-Islamic sentiments are not confined to the political right. Indeed, one might venture that there is a division of labour between liberals and conservatives on this issue: the former mobilise anti-Islamic sentiments under the banner of defending modern, secular norms, in particular women’s and gay rights and the right freely to criticise and satirise religious dogmas, whilst the latter tend towards a more traditional anti-alien approach, albeit larding this with a liberal coating whenever it is seen as handy. The appeal to modern norms also makes anti-Muslim ideas attractive to liberals in a way that anti-Semitism, with its pejorative portrayal of Jews as the carriers of modernity, and traditional white racism, with its assertions or implications of racial supremacy, could not do. The deliberately provocative obscurantism of not merely Islamist ideologues but also certain supposedly more ‘moderate’ Islamic spokesmen, although not necessarily more objectionable than statements by conservative representatives of other religions, have long been helping to stoke up hostility to Islam as a whole. Once again, this predated al Qaeda’s debut on the world scene, and ruminations on this topic were appearing from the early 1990s. What bin Laden has done has been to exacerbate the growing divisions between Islam and the rest of the world.

One new aspect in British politics has been the appearance of the English Defence League, an extreme right-wing group that claims to be merely opposed to extreme forms of Islam — that is, Islamism — but has demonstrated on various occasions to be hostile to Muslims as a whole, and, when sufficiently inebriated, to non-Muslim Asians as well. Although its open courting of football hooligans and delight in rough-house tactics mark it off somewhat from the rather more genteel and more successful — and therefore ultimately more dangerous — anti-Islamic movements on the Continent, such as Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in Holland, the emergence of the EDL in Britain and anti-Muslim organisations elsewhere shows that the far right understands the potency of anti-Muslim sentiments as a key mobilising device. Although anti-Muslim sentiments were building up in Britain prior to September 2001, the emergence of the EDL in 2008 can to a fair degree be predicated upon the deadly activities of al Qaeda in New York in 2001 and, more so, in Britain four years later. Like al Qaeda and Islamists in general, the EDL wishes to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims; the two rival currents feed off each other, and both are ready to use provocations and violence to do so.

Whilst it is a little unfair to hold al Qaeda directly responsible for two negative and rival developments within the British left during the last decade, it cannot be denied that there was a connection between the formation of the Respect unity coalition and the launch of the Euston Manifesto and the US response to 11 September 2001, and in particular the invasion of Iraq 18 months afterwards. Each in its own way shows the inability on the part of left-wingers to deal with the rise of both Islamic politics and anti-Islamic sentiments.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the US-UK invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq could be found amongst rightward-moving radicals who, in the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attacks, saw something positive in Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and felt that the Western occupation of these countries would assist their populations by bringing to them the benefits of liberal democracy via the violent removal of the Taliban and Ba’athist regimes and their replacement by governments that would respect human rights and generally behave in a manner in line with Western sensibilities. Whether or not this current took the moniker of the ‘Decent Left’ as a rather immodest self-description or adopted something which was originally aimed at it as a subtle insult, it justifies its openly pro-imperialist standpoint — most graphically outlined in the Euston Manifesto, but also via websites such as Harry’s Place — with an ill-mannered torrent of attacks upon left-wingers deemed soft on Islam or indeed who consider that imperialism is not part of the solution to the problems of the Middle East and beyond, but is very much central to the problem.

On the other hand, some elements on the left, noting the strong opposition to the war on Iraq on the part of Muslims in Britain, felt that some sort of alliance between their groups and Muslim organisations might pay off, not least after the monster anti-war march in February 2003, the biggest-ever demonstration in British history. In its wake, the Socialist Workers Party, fresh from evicting itself from the Socialist Alliance, launched the Respect unity campaign, a totally unprincipled lash-up between itself and a few left-wing small fry on the one hand, and sundry Muslim groups and individuals on the other. This necessitated a downplaying of certain longstanding left-wing positions concerning women’s and gay rights which would not go down too well with the more conservative of the Muslim groups which Respect was trying to court.

Respect did manage to get a Member of Parliament, the colourful opportunist George Galloway, and several local councillors elected, but the SWP gained next to nothing — people recruited to the far left from a Muslim background have customarily wanted to keep well away from their religious roots, not to pander to them — and, somewhat alarmingly, lost quite a few senior cadres to its unprincipled offspring when the party finally disowned it. Furthermore, as the SWP lurched back towards a more class-based standpoint, the party leaders most responsible for the Respect fiasco sloped off with a few dozen members to create a Respect Mark II in Counterfire.

Once again, the events and the aftermath of September 2001 did not produce these manifestations ex nihilis. There had been a steady slide to the right on the part of quite a few radicals, and this was noticeable during the first war against Iraq in 1991 and especially during the civil wars that engulfed the collapsing Yugoslav federation shortly afterwards, when they started to call enthusiastically for Western military intervention on the grounds that it would have a civilising effect upon the Middle East and the Balkans. The newly-found positive assessment of the capabilities of imperialism and belief in Western liberal tenets are inextricably linked with their seeing such obscurantist trends as Islamism as a universal threat to humanity. [1] On the other hand, sections of the far left have long been prone to adaptation to all manner of quasi-radical forces and regimes so long as they appeared to be aiming their blows against imperialism. Some Trotskyists had managed to discern progressive aspects to the mullahs’ regime in Iran, so an adaptation to Muslim political groups in Britain could hardly be ruled out. The only surprise in the Respect fiasco was that it was initiated by the SWP. This was a group that had under the judicious leadership of Tony Cliff customarily avoided such antics, only to fall ingloriously into the trap soon after his death in 2000.

Al Qaeda as a Catalyst

When one considers the terrifying televisual images of 11 September 2001, the suicide bombers on buses and trains and in holiday bars, the mayhem in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond, and all the other aspects of al Qaeda’s campaign of terror, it is all too easy to view bin Laden and his group as having ‘changed everything’ in world politics. Yet, when viewed in the longer term, its historical legacy could well be seen in a somewhat different light.

Although some Palestinian youth in Gaza cheered when the World Trade Center collapsed, the unrest that saw Hamas come into prominence kicked off in late 1987, predating the rise of al Qaeda. Although al Qaeda cadres were to be found with the Islamist forces in the civil war that wracked Algeria, these forces first went into overt opposition to the Algerian regime in 1982, and the violence erupted in 1992. In much of the Muslim world, Islamist movements were already in active existence well before bin Laden’s group appeared on the scene. The rise of both overt Muslim identities and anti-Muslim sentiments in the metropolitan centres also long predated the appearance of al Qaeda.

What bin Laden and al Qaeda have managed to do is to intensify and accelerate existing trends in society, in particular the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in Western countries. Al Qaeda therefore has acted as a catalyst, driving on and ratcheting up processes that were already in existence. Bin Laden did not create either Islamist sentiments or broader Islamic self-definitions, but he keyed into existing phenomena. He did not spark off anti-Islamic prejudice, but he certainly speeded it up and intensified it, which is precisely what he intended to do. He, like any other religious zealot, knew that there is nothing quite like a bit of religious persecution to get the faithful rallying to the church or, in this case, the mosque. Al Qaeda’s blowing up an office block, a bus or train, or shooting up an hotel cannot destabilise any even halfway secure nation-state, but it can help to widen divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims, making the latter suspicious of the former, and making the former feel insecure in the presence of the latter. Al Qaeda’s operations in the metropolitan centres also helped give the impression that there was a world-wide organisation of Islamist activists. Those Muslims attracted towards this austere brand of Islam now had a focus that enabled them to feel part of a global movement.

It has been ventured that al Qaeda managed to revive the fortunes of Islamism, which were considered to be on the wane a decade ago. There is some truth in this, although not a little of this revival has been the result of rash Western policies, most notably the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and these were the conscious decisions of the politicians concerned, who did exactly what bin Laden wanted them to do. It has also been ventured that Islamism has played little part in the unrest that has recently confronted various regimes in the Middle East. That is largely true, but Islamist currents remain lurking in the background, and they have previously flourished when more progressive political forces have failed. [2]

A Socialist Response

In the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, I set forward the following points that I felt that socialists should adopt.

1: Oppose imperialist interventions in Asia and the Middle East.

2: Expose the anti-democratic manoeuvres and the sponsorship of terrorism on the part of imperialist regimes.

3: Make no concessions to any declared ‘civilising mission’ on the part of the imperialist powers; the masses of the region will not be liberated from backwardness through the armed might of the USA and its allies.

4: Make no concessions to religious fundamentalism, there is nothing progressive whatever about its opposition to the West.

5: Oppose all attempts to whip up racism or anti-Islamic sentiments.

6: Oppose any attempt to restrict civil liberties.

7: Oppose any attempt by the ruling class to use the crisis to attack workers’ jobs and living standards — class relations remain unchanged.

I see no reason to amend any of these basic points, they are as valid today as they were then. However, the posing of these points raises the particular question of how to ‘oppose all attempts to whip up… anti-Islamic sentiments’.

The most difficult question facing the left is that of dealing with religious and cultural freedom. Socialists have often been in the forefront of campaigns for women’s and gay rights, so how do we defend a religious group that is under attack when some of its prominent spokesmen openly and provocatively defend social practices and tenets that contravene modern thinking, and when the attack on this religion is often focused through a purported defence of modernity? On the one hand, socialists must reject the tendency of some liberal and even left-wing opponents of the anti-Islamic drive towards making concessions to or excuses for manifestations of religious obscurantism on the part of Muslim spokesmen that would be firmly rejected if they came from, say, Roman Catholic or Orthodox Jewish clergy; on the other, how does one pose a secular, socialist opposition to such manifestations without adding fuel to the fire of anti-Islamic prejudice? It is a difficult problem that defies ready answers; it does seem that opposing anti-Semitism and the subsequent anti-black, anti-Asian racism was considerably easier than dealing with the anti-Islamic sentiments of today.

This question urgently requires an answer, particularly in the light of the relentless right-wing attacks upon ‘multiculturalism’. Those engaged in this quest vary considerably, from David Cameron’s desire for a British national culture that would include ‘moderate’ Muslims through to the fervid right-wing columnists and broadcasters for whom Islam as a whole represents an existential threat to Western society, and whose theories (despite their frantic denials) inspire the extreme right, including Breivik in his murderous rampage against those whom he deemed responsible for a ‘Muslim–Marxist’ assault upon Western culture. Whilst there is nothing progressive about these right-wing rejections of ‘multiculturalism’, that does not mean that the left should defend the official ‘multiculturalist’ ideas and policies that have accentuated conservative cultural norms and widened divisions amongst peoples defined to be of different ‘cultures’. Both trends are predicated upon a reactionary theoretical basis that sees human ‘cultures’ as immutable, discrete phenomena. A universalist approach is necessary to cut across both right-wing monoculturalism and official multiculturalism, one that draws upon democratic and progressive ideas and experiences from around the world, and the left needs urgently to work out precisely what this entails.

Islamism has been a major factor in world affairs during the last few decades. Arising primarily in response to the failure of modernising trends, parties and regimes in Muslim countries, often sponsored and aided by imperialism as a counterweight to radical political currents or for reasons of realpolitik, it continues to have a considerable presence in the Islamic world, and has established more than just a foothold within the Muslim populations of the metropolitan countries. Al Qaeda was a late-comer on the scene, but through its high-profile terror attacks it has played an important catalytic role in the spreading of Islamism, the intensification of anti-Muslim sentiments and the isolating of Muslims as a whole in many parts of the world. True, it has merely exacerbated already existing trends, but these trends have increasingly insidious and dangerous consequences.

As for the left, prior to 11 September 2001 it was experiencing considerable difficulties in dealing with these trends. The catalytic role played by al Qaeda has made its mark here as well, if indirectly, and has made all the more pressing the vital task of elaborating a positive strategy that can on a theoretical and practical level challenge anti-Islamic sentiments and oppose the scapegoating of Muslims within an overall framework that can defend enlightened social concepts and practices and emphasise the primacy of class politics when dealing with the political and social problems of the day.


1. We will not comment here upon the paradox that the fervent hatred of Islamism that is a central tenet of ‘Decency’ did not prevent our pro-interventionists from carefully overlooking the presence with Western approval of al Qaeda cadres in the civil wars in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, as the Serbs were their bête noir there. Neither does the presence of violent Islamists in the opposition movement in Libya seem to worry liberal and left-wing supporters of Nato’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.

2. And of course, despite all the fulminations in the West against extreme manifestations of Islam, Islamism remains as a potential asset for imperialism should the big powers detect a threat to their interests in the actions of progressive forces in the region. Realpolitik leads to all manner of incongruous alliances. I would not be at all surprised that if in Egypt a de facto alliance between the military and the Islamists emerges in opposition to the pro-democracy movement, then the big powers will turn a blind eye to any attempts on the part of such an alliance to suppress the latter should protests calling for democracy come to be viewed as a threat to the regime.



Last updated on 11 January 2018