The Solidarity Federation on political Islam and the Nation of Islam group in working class communities in the UK in 1999.
The Nation of Islam has made itself relevant to everyday life in institutionally racist Britain. It charms the underbelly of a disaffected black working class generation. Politics is limited to replacing a white Christian autocracy with a black Muslim one, but plenty of people feel the appeal.
Since the 1970s, the historical "left-right" division of political theory and practice has been rendered more complex by the upsurge of movements committed to a political reading of Islam, and to the Islamisation of modern societies. Political Islam is, obviously, a phenomenon of Muslim communities; but it is as real a force in Bethnal Green or Harlesden, within the Islamic Diaspora and the UK Afro-Caribbean communities, as within the Middle East. Groups adhering to Qur’anic texts and hadiths as the ideological basis for their practice can be both socially conservative and militantly anti-imperialist.
In his book Re-Enchanting Humanity, the American anarchist writer Murray Bookchin refers to "a loss of self-certainty" in political life, which has given rise to "an inwardly oriented - often misanthropic - spiritualism and a privatistic withdrawal from public life into mystical or quasi-mystical belief systems." This generalised retreat from "reason" is also an explanation for the phenomenon of political Islam, but only partly - not least because it allows us to let ourselves off the hook. Political Islam has grown, both here and in the Middle East and Africa, at a time when the political ideologies most associated with the values of the Enlightenment, Marxism, anarchism, and reformist socialism, have faced both fundamental crises (for the first and last of these) and numerical decline.
If political ideologies are tools by which we try to comprehend and actively change our world, then it is clear that for substantial numbers of Muslim peoples, the ideas of political Islam appear to provide a more coherent account of the world than the analyses we proffer. The US right wing political theorist Samuel Huntington, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, refers to a "Clash of Civilisations" and the "threat to Western interests" posed by "non-western societies."
The popular press has picked up Huntington’s portrayal of the "threat" from the East, and it has been used to justify the ongoing slaughter of the Iraqi people, and the bombings of Afghanistan and the Sudan.
Equally, the West has happily turned a blind eye to the slaughter of the Chechnyan Muslims because it suited the interests of US capital to keep Boris Yeltsin’s league of thieves in power, whatever the cost in Muslim lives. In "Political Islam", Joel Beinin and Joe Stork comment:
"The conventional narrative of the origins of modern Islamic thought easily lends itself to the erroneous thesis that political Islam is the result of the failure of modern Muslims to assimilate European liberal ideas, such as the separation of church and state, the rule of positive law, citizenship, and secular nationalism."
It is less the failure of modern Muslims to embrace the legacy of European liberalism that has led to the growth of militant Islam than the failure of the West to extend the privileges of liberal democracy to the non-western world. The political freedom which Western secular academics love to posit as the humanist alternative to reactionary fundamentalism was denied by force to the Algerians by France, and the Egyptians by the British, while the West backed the reactionary Pahlavi regime regardless of the horrors it inflicted on the Iranian people. Moreover, Western support for the state of Israel as the best guarantor of Western interests in the Middle East was predicated not on commitment to democracy but on its bloody suppression.
The 1975 alliance between the rightist Maronite Phalange and Israel (as US proxy) against the PLO-backed leftist Muslims in Lebanon buried the ideals of liberal democracy beneath mounds of corpses. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 made clear that self-determination might be a nice idea for Enlightenment scholars to toy with, but it had no place in the realpolitik of the Middle East. In 1992, the Algerian military intervened to suppress elections that would have brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power. Former US Secretary of State James Baker has acknowledged that "when I was at the state department, we pursued a policy of excluding the radical fundamentalists in Algeria, even though we recognised that this was somewhat at odds with our support for democracy." If, as the conservative academic Bernard Lewis contends, political Islam is a "politics of rage", we can only concede that the legacy of Western interventions in the Muslim world would provide ample justification for such rage, regardless of the vehicle chosen to express it. Lewis would have it that political Islam represents an irrational hatred of the "secular present".
That Islam as a monolithic theocracy does not exist appears to escape him. For most people, the promises of the "secular present" have been broken a thousand times over. Edward Said has noted that
"in many - too many - Islamic societies, repression, the abrogation of personal freedoms, unrepresentative and often minority regimes, are either falsely legitimated or casuistically explained with reference to Islam (in a way that) also happens to correspond in many instances with the inordinate power and authority of the central state".
Usually, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the West has no problem with such regimes. Political Islam is demonised only when its opposition to the "secular present" manifests itself in direct opposition to Western interests - the Chechnyans, Hizbollah, etc.
If you’re a Bengali growing up on the Isle of Dogs, told that you’re blagging housing from the whites even though you live in an overcrowded shithole, seeing your kid brother get beaten up at school for being a Paki, watching Jack Straw on the TV ranting about "bogus asylum seekers", the "secular present" will seem a nightmare.
If the political choices available to you were only:
a) a social democratic white left which wants to lobby the very politicians who determine the frontiers, the border controls of your world or
b) political organisations within your own community who reject entirely the "enlightened" world which has told you that you have no place, except as part of a reserve army of the poor, used to enable the enrichment of those who own the bricks and mortar all around you
- which would you choose?
Equally, the Nation of Islam tells black youth that the white man, "the number one hater, murderer, killer, liar, drunkard, homemonger hog-eater" is a "weak-blooded, weak-boned, weak-minded, pale-faced" devil, and that the black man is God. Which would you sooner be - "nigger" or "God"?
rules and realities
According to Anthony Giddens, fundamentalism is a "call for a return to basic scriptures or texts, supposed to be read in a literal manner, (proposing) that the doctrines derived from such a reading be applied to social, economic or political life." Fundamentalism is a "refusal of dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it."
This is the same world where the US bombs Afghanistan after issuing a warning that all "non-Muslims" should leave the targeted area, and where Russia can bomb street markets in Grozny and fire on Chechen refugees heading for the Ingushetian border without rousing that ever-fickle "humanitarian concern" of the NATO powers. The question which remains is, simply, if there is this claimed refusal of dialogue - whose is the refusal, whose are the actions which constitute the threat to "peace and continuity"?
Political Islam is a retreat from the future, but a retreat by people who no longer feel they can influence that future. The "globalisation" we are urged to celebrate as we chatter on the Net, looks from any vantage point other than the West, like the Americanisation of the world. Coca-Cola and MTV devour local cultures, and the share of the poorest fifth of the world’s population in global income has dropped from 2.3 % to 1.4% between 1989 and 1998, while the income of the richest has risen. Political Islam is resistance through retreat. In an interview with Middle East Report (No. 153) the Muslim academic Shaikh Hamidal-Nayfar, editor of the journal 15/21 ("Fifteen stands for the 15th Century of the hijra, the beginning of the Islamic community; twenty-one signifies the fact that we are now living on the edge of the 21st Century"), describes the growth of political Islam in Tunisia following the fall of the Ben Salah government in Tunisia in 1970:
"Young people saw that the government could strike a leftist pose and then switch to right-wing economic policies. Many were completely disorientated. We realised that this was proof that there was no fundamental policy orientation. (We) were uprooted. There was no longer any ideology (we) could connect with. A search for identity became characteristic of this period".
The Iranian revolution in 1979 gave focus to Al-Nayfar’s search for definition, as it did to so many other Islamic intellectuals and groups, because of "the magnitude of the revolution, the participation of the entire Iranian population" and because it was seen as a revolt of the poor, a blow against imperialism. If, for us, the Iranian revolution was put to death by the consolidation of Islamic power, we have to remember that, for many, it remains a beacon of hope because it has held out for 20 years against the "great Satan."
The Nation of Islam is one of the fastest growing Islamic groups in the UK, particularly among disenfranchised black youth. Louis Farrakhan’s group doesn’t adhere to Qu’uranic authority in the way Islamic groups traditionally do - Farrakhanite Islam is a fusion of Garveytite black nationalism and Sufism. Farrakhan has, in the recent past, allowed the NoI to be linked with the National Front (in its Third Positionist phase), the Holocaust revisionist Arthur Butz, and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance. The NoI paper, The Final Call, has carried articles by Gary Gallo, head of the US Third Positionist National Democratic Front, calling for the division of the US "into completely independent nations based on race." It is a fair bet that when people sign up for the NoI in Harlesden or Moss Side, they don’t do so with the NoI’s dubious past in mind.
The NoI in the UK is self-created - established by UK black Muslims drawn to its militant image, rather than by US outreach. Through its influence within hip-hop culture, Islamic black nationalism has become popular with urban black youth. The NoI stands out because it has refused an urban culture that incorporates drug addiction and black on black violence. Farrakhan’s explicit stance for self-respect and community pride has considerable resonance for activists who see their communities awash with crack, their friends brutalised by the police, and their fate in general of no concern to a predominantly white middle class left.
When Farrakhan says
"You’re dealing with death today, brothers and sisters, and you don’t have time to play and party. You better put down your little drugs, the silly little reefer. You don’t need to be high. You need to be more sober than the judge to get out of this condition. You need to wake up and see that your life is threatened"
, it makes sense in a way that the "Vote Labour", "General Strike" bullshit of the left never could. The NoI carries out street patrols to discourage drug dealers, monitor police activity and cut down street crime.
Much of their support and success comes from their advocacy of "do for self"- a belief that black communities should not be dependent on the state, which manifests itself in NoI restaurants, fishmarkets, farm land and the POWER (People Organised and Working for Economic Rebirth) programme, which is aimed at supporting black businesses. As one Chicago resident noted of the NoI inaction, "Police treat you like garbage... The Muslims treat you with respect, and the way they come to us is the way we come back to them."
So where does all this leave the prospect for building an anarchist movement committed to working class independence, and committed to the ending of inequality and prejudice? Political Islam is in thrall to the past as a means of deferring the future. We have to show that our ideas are better tools for understanding and changing the world than the ideas put forward by Qu’uranic scholars. We have to be willing to challenge ideas that are obstacles to human emancipation wherever we encounter them. Whether it is white racism, black anti-semitism, Islamic oppression of women, we have to oppose it with a grasp of why such ideas take hold amongst groups of people with the least to gain from them. We’re battling against the legacy of vanguardism on the left that used minority communities but offered nothing beyond lip service to the real struggles against workplace racism, deportations, and race violence.
We have to recognise moreover that the idea of "do for self" is not automatically a call for black capitalism. Communities struggling to control their lives, tackle anti-social crime and drug abuse will seek out allies wherever they can find them, and part of what is being done in the name of Islam is no more than the reforging of working class traditions of mutual aid, with a Farrakhanite gloss. Community schools, breakfast programmes and street patrols owe as much to the Panthers as the NoI, but the NoI has provided a focus at a time when the left is in disarray.
That aspect of "do for self" which is based around "mutual aid" is one we should seek to support and deepen. Simply put, we shouldn’t wait for the NoI to take the initiative and then bemoan the fact, we should be setting up breakfast clubs, advice centres, street patrols, etc. ourselves. Anarchist involvement in day to day struggles should aim to show the extent to which we can determine the future by showing how we can wrest control of our lives today.
Political Islam in all its forms is a manifestation of a loss of belief in the possibility of social transformation other than that pursued in the favour of, and interests of, the rich. As we can’t make the future, political Islam contends, we will control the past. There is no shortcut to winning people away from the false security of the past other than through demonstrating in practice how much power over our own fates we can wield, when we act collectively.
We also have to filter out and understand the progressive aspects of those ideologies which flee to the sanctuary of "tradition". We have to be better anti-imperialists than the advocates of Islam, and we have to be able to show that, through them, "do for self" will mean no more than a few black owned businesses in poor communities. Through us it will mean reclaiming every aspect of our lives from the State.