At the same time, some far left-wing politicians in Europe have sought, on issues of "anti-imperialism" and of social exclusion within the West, to find common cause with representatives of Islamist parties. An example of this is the welcome given by the British left, including the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to the Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. More important, of course, and separate from support for Islamist guerrilla groups, has been alignment at the state level: Iran, for example, has received increasing support from Venezuela. Hugo Chבvez has been to Tehran no less than five times. This partnership has been made all the easier by the shift noticeable over the past two decades whereby solidarity based, at least formally, on class or socialist grounds has been replaced by identity politics as the basis for political activism. Inchoately perhaps, a new international united front is being created.
This relationship of the radical left to political Islam has a long history, one that should give pause to those who now seek to form an alliance, however "tactical," with Islamist movements and states. The early Bolsheviks tried to establish just such an alliance: faced with the blocking of the proletarian revolution in Europe after 1917, they turned to the anti-imperialist and sometimes Islamic forces then active in Asia. The first state in the world to recognize the Bolshevik Revolution was the monarchy of Afghanistan, then locked in a conflict with the British. As a result, Lenin gave instructions that Soviet Russia must always pay "particular attention" to the needs of the Afghan people, a piece of advice that was to have ironic, but momentous, consequences in 1979, when the Soviet leadership, against the better judgment of many of its experts and leading members, sent a military force to protect the embattled Afghan regime of the People's Democratic Party.
Even in the years after 1945, Soviet strategists sought to find a "national democratic" content in Islam, interpreting its stress on equality, charity, sharing of property and, not least, struggle, that is, jihad, as early forms of communism. While some Soviet orientalists portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as the agent of commercial capitalism, other Marxist writers, notably the French specialist Maxime Rodinson, drew a more positive portrait, even if he later admitted that his admiration for Muhammad derived, in part, from the similarities he saw between the prophet and Stalin. Soviet foreign policy presented the Soviet Muslim republics of Central Asia as a model for third world development, including in this the promotion of women's education and participation in public life and the teaching in schools of a socialist interpretation of Islam. These practices were held up as a model when third world Muslim countries, particularly Afghanistan and South Yemen (the erstwhile People's Democratic Republic of Yemen), were under Soviet influence.
This sympathy and search for tactical alliances were, however, long overshadowed by another trend, that of confrontation and struggle between communism and socialism, on the one side, and Islamism and organized Islam, on the other. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bolsheviks found themselves facing widespread religious and tribal opposition in Central Asia and sought to destroy the social bases of organized religion, above all by emancipating women, whom they saw, in this social context, as a revolutionary alternative to the largely absent working class (see the marvelous book by Gregory Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat). The term used to denounce the Islamist rebels in the 1920s, basmachi, was later recycled to refer to the mujahidin in the Afghan War of the 1980s. From the other side, the nationalist/fascist insurgents in Spain recruited tens of thousands of Arab soldiers, claiming that Catholicism and Islam were equally threatened by the "godless" forces of the Republic.
In the early 1960s, faced with the rise of "Arab socialism" in Egypt, and with the publication in May 1962 of an Arab "National Charter," the Saudis (supported by the United States) replied with their own "Islamic Charter," in which they denounced "false nationalism based on atheistic doctrine" and, with the offer of Saudi money, called on Arabs and Muslims to reject the message emanating from Cairo. In 1965, Saudi Arabia established its own antisocialist international organization, the World Islamic League, through which it financed and guided groups across the world. The League is still active, not least among Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, and, symptomatically perhaps, maintains a large building in the center of Brussels.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood came into increasing confrontation with the Nasserist regime, and its leader, Sayyid Qutb, later to be the intellectual inspiration of Osama bin Laden, was executed in 1966. In all of this, one of the oldest tropes of European anti-Semitism, that socialism and Bolshevism were really the work of the Jews, was vigorously replayed, as evident in a statement in January 1964, by King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, linking the struggle against the Jews in Palestine to that against communism: "It is our duty, our brothers, to move today . . . to save our holy places and to drive out our enemies, and to [stand] against all the doctrines founded by the Zionists—the corrupt doctrines, the atheistic communist doctrines, which seek to deny the existence of God and to deviate from . . . our religion of Islam."
The increasing opposition of secular left and Islamist forces was exploited by a number of Middle Eastern states within the context of the cold war. Thus in Turkey the military promoted Islamist groups against the far left in the 1970s. In Syria, opponents of the Baathist regime encouraged a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982. In Algeria, the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, in the 1980s, was encouraged by a faction of the ruling National Liberation Front, the FLN—hence the observation that the FIS was the son, in French, le fils, of the FLN. Even in Israel, the occupation authorities in the 1970s, seeking to undermine the secular institutions of al-Fatah, allowed Islamist groups, including those that later founded Hamas, to open educational centers and universities, and permitted funds to be transferred from the World Islamic League.
Elsewhere, Islamists took matters into their own hands, as in Morocco, where, in December 1975, radical Islamists killed the leader of the socialist party, the USFP. Those associated with the killing are now working within the Party of Justice and Development, the legal Islamist organization that is expected to score a major advance in the elections scheduled for this spring. Even more relevant to the situation today is the early record of Hezbollah, which, in its bid to establish itself as the dominant force within the Lebanese Shiite community, not only engaged in a fierce attack on a rival, more moderate group, Amal, but also assassinated a number of left-wing Lebanese politicians and writers who stood in its way.
The campaign against the left was accompanied by one against writers of a liberal, secular, or simply independent-minded stamp. In Egypt, Islamists launched a wave of terror against intellectuals accused of betraying Islam: the secularist academic Faraj Fuda was killed in 1992; the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfuz, accused of having criticized Islam in a novel written years before, was badly beaten up in 1994; and the historian and literary critic Nasir Abu Zeid was forced to leave the country in 1995 and seek refuge in Holland, where he still lives. Most famously of all, of course, was the death sentence and the general incitement to murder pronounced in February 1989 by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini against the writer Salman Rushdie, a move that certainly encouraged the murderers of Egypt, but was also replicated in a campaign in Bangladesh against the writer Taslim Nasrin, after which she was forced to leave the country. We can only guess at how many others were forced into silence and into exile, internal or external, by this climate of fear.
The mobilization of Islamism against the left was, however, most evident in four other countries. In Sudan, the advent of the National Islamic Front, a remote branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to power in 1989 led to widespread use of imprisonment, torture, and execution against secular and left opponents. The NIF indeed modeled itself on a Leninist party and sought, while crushing the communists in Sudan, to follow the revolutionary policy of exporting revolution, to Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Eritrea, among other places. In this it was assisted, from 1990 to 1996, by its distinguished internationalist guest, Osama bin Laden. In Indonesia, an even greater repression took place when, in 1965, the army turned against the Communist Party, then the largest in the noncommunist world. In massacres across Java and other islands, Islamist groups, notably Nahdat ul-Ulema, which has recently come into prominence again, joined forces with the army and with people settling local quarrels to kill up to a million people.
In the Iranian revolution, too, a strong anti-American rhetoric was combined with increasing hostility to the left, culminating in 1981–1983 in the wholesale suppression of communist and left-wing groups. A spate of executions, rigged trials, and theatrical show trials followed, leading up to the slaughter of thousands of opponents in jail in 1988, in the aftermath of the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when the regime feared a popular backlash against its conduct of that conflict. Graphically illustrated in the work of Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, this purge was orchestrated by the Revolutionary Guards, the organization from which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his close associates have recently emerged. As an associate if not perpetrator of state-backed mass murder, albeit on a smaller scale, it is little wonder that Ahmadinejad feels comfortable denying the even larger administrative massacres committed by the Nazis.
The most spectacular and consequential alliance between the West and Islamism was, of course, in Afghanistan. Here, in the largest covert operation ever run by the CIA, the United States, with help from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, mobilized Islamist forces throughout the 1980s against the government of the People's Democratic Party and the Soviet forces that came to rescue it in December 1979. It was in Afghanistan that bin Laden organized his army of militant jihadis from around the world and developed the ideology of international struggle that later came to fruition on September 11, 2001. Those who backed the Afghan Islamists in the 1980s seem to have been totally insouciant as to the later consequences of their actions. Yet the Afghan War was to the world of the twenty-first century what the Spanish Civil War was to the Second World War—the devil's kitchen in which all the brews that later poisoned the globe were first prepared.
To this history of jihad against the left, over many decades, must be added one further fact, namely the deep differences that should separate any conceivable program of the radical left from that of Islamist parties. Whether on the rights of women, on secularism, or on free speech, the two political currents are radically opposed; they espouse what should be incompatible positions. So too are they opposed on another issue: the complete absence from the Islamist program of any inclusive internationalism. Instead, while appealing to the community or umma of Muslims, the Islamists, be they al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, appeal only to particular communities and pour out the venom of an unrelenting chauvinism toward nonbelievers, Jews, and even toward Muslims of a different sect than their own. Their rhetoric against Jews far exceeds anything of which the earlier generation of secular Palestinian nationalists was capable. Few today seem to recall the remark of the German socialist leader August Bebel, that anti-Semitism "is the socialism of fools." Presumably those on the left today who ally with Islamists do so by reference to some concept of false consciousness. It is open to question, however, whose consciousness is the most mistaken.
Fred Halliday teaches international relations at the London School of Economics and at IBEI, Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals. His book 100 Myths About the Middle East was published by University of California Press in 2005. An earlier version of this article appeared on openDemocracy.com in September 2006.
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