United in their rejection of capitalism and Western imperialism, Islamists and the political Left have – in a more recent development – begun to forge alliances. Taking a closer look at their historical enmity, however, shows that the two do not at all make a good match, says Fred Halliday
It is evident that the attacks, and others before and since on US and allied forces around the world, have won the Islamist groups responsible considerable sympathy far beyond the Muslim world, including among those vehemently opposed from a variety of ideological perspectives to the principal manifestations of its power. It is striking, however, that - beyond such often visceral reactions – there are signs of a far more developed and politically articulated accommodation in many parts of the world between Islamism as a political force and many groups of the left.
The latter show every indication of appearing to see some combination of al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas, and (not least) Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as exemplifying a new form of international anti-imperialism that matches – even completes – their own historic project. This putative combined movement may be in the eyes of such leftist groups and intellectual trends hampered by "false consciousness", but this does not compromise the impulse to "objectively" support or at least indulge them.
Alignment with radical Muslim organisations
The trend is unmistakable. Thus the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez flies to Tehran to embrace the Iranian president. London's mayor Ken Livingstone, and the vocal Respect party member of the British parliament George Galloway, welcome the visit to the city of the Egyptian cleric (and Muslim Brotherhood figurehead) Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Many in the sectarian leftist factions (and beyond) who marched against the impending Iraq war showed no qualms about their alignment with radical Muslim organisations, one that has since spiralled from a tactical cooperation to something far more elaborated.
All of this is – at least to those with historical awareness, sceptical political intelligence, or merely a long memory - disturbing. This is because its effect is to reinforce one of the most pernicious and inaccurate of all political claims, and one made not by the left but by the imperialist right. It is also one that underlies the US-declared "war on terror" and the policies that have resulted from 9/11: namely, that Islamism is a movement aimed against "the west".
This claim is a classic example of how a half-truth can be more dangerous than an outright lie. For while it is true that Islamism in its diverse political and violent guises is indeed opposed to the US, to remain there omits a deeper, crucial point: that, long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking "imperialism", they were attacking and killing the left - and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west.
A tortured history
The modern relationship of the left to militant Islamism dates to the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. At that time, the Soviet leadership was promoting an "anti-imperialist" movement in Asia against the British, French and Dutch colonial empires, and did indeed see militant Muslims as at least tactical allies. For example, at the second congress of the Comintern in 1920, the Soviets showed great interest towards the Islamist group led by Tan Malaka in Indonesia; following the meeting, many delegates decamped to the Azeri capital of Baku for a "Congress of the Peoples of the East".
This event, held in an ornate opera house, became famous for its fiery appeals to the oppressed masses of Asia and included calls by Bolshevik leaders, many of them either Armenian or Jewish, for a jihad against the British.
For decades afterwards, the Soviet position on Islam was that it was, if not inherently progressive, then at least capable of socialist interpretation. On visits in the 1980s to the then two communist Muslim states - the now equally-forgotten "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan" and the "People's Democratic Republic of Yemen" - I was able to study the way in which secondary school textbooks, taught by lay teachers not clerics, treated Islam as a form of early socialism. A similar alignment of Islamic tradition and modern state socialism operated in the six Muslim republics of the Soviet Union.
Socialism as another head of the western secular hydra
Such forms of affinity were in the latter part of the 20th century succeeded by a far clearer alignment of Islamist groups: against communism, socialism, liberalism and all that they stood for, not least with regard to the rights of women. In essence, Islamism - the organised political trend, owing its modern origin to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, that seeks to solve modern political problems by reference to Muslim texts - saw socialism in all its forms as another head of the western secular hydra; it had to be fought all the more bitterly because it had such a following in the Arab world, in Iran and in other Muslim countries.
The hostility of Islamism to leftwing movements, and the use of Islamists in the cold war to fight communism and the left, deserve careful study. A precedent was the Spanish civil war, when Francisco Franco recruited tens of thousands of Moroccan mercenaries to fight the Spanish republic, on the grounds that Catholicism and Islam had a shared enemy in communism. After 1945, this tendency became more widespread.
In Egypt, up to the revolution of 1952, the communist and Islamist movements were in often violent conflict. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia's desire to oppose Nasser's Egypt and Soviet influence in the Middle East led it to promote the World Islamic League as an anti-socialist alliance, funded by Riyadh and backed by Washington.
A canvas of conflict
There are further striking cases of this backing of Islamism against the left, but the trend culminated in the 1990s with a campaign to silence left and independent liberal voices: the writer Farag Fouda, who had called for the modernisation of Islam, was assassinated in 1992; Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel prize-winning author, was stabbed and nearly killed in 1994 (allegedly for his open and flexible attitude to religion in his Cairo novels); the writer and philosopher Nasser Abu Zeid, who had dared to apply to the Qur'an and other classical Islamic texts the techniques of historical and literary criticism practised elsewhere in the world, was sent death-threats before being driven into exile in 1995.
The historical cycle of enmity reached an even greater pitch in one other countries where the anti-communist and rightwing orientation of the Islamists became clear. The first, little noticed in the context of Islamism, was the crushing of the left in Indonesia in 1965. There the independent and "anti-imperialist" regime of President Sukarno was supported by the communist party (PKI), the largest in non-communist Asia.
After a conflict within the military itself, a rightwing coup backed by the United States seized power and proceeded to crush the left. In rural Java especially, the new power was enthusiastically supported by Islamists, led by the Nahdat ul-Ulema grouping. A convergence between the anti-communism of the military and the Islamists was one of the factors in the rampant orgy of killing which took the lives of up to a million people. The impact of this event was enormous, both for Indonesia itself and the balance of forces in southeast Asia at a time when the struggle in Vietnam was about to escalate.
The true and the false
This melancholy history must be supplemented by attention to what is actually happening in countries, or parts of countries, where Islamists are influential and gaining ground. The reactionary (the word is used advisedly) nature of much of their programme on women, free speech, the rights of gays and other minorities is evident.
The habit of categorising radical Islamist groups and their ideology as "fascist" is unnecessary as well as careless, since the many differences with that European model make the comparison redundant. It does not need slogans to understand that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left – that is, the left that has existed on the principles founded on and descended from classical socialism, the Enlightenment, the values of the revolutions of 1798 and 1848, and generations of experience. The modern embodiments of this left have no need of the "false consciousness" that drives so many so-called leftists into the arms of jihadis.
© Fred Halliday 2006
This is an edited version of a full-length article that was previously published on openDemocracy.
Fred Halliday is a scholar on Middle Eastern affairs and a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. The author of a number of books, including The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and most recently 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005).