An Expedient Alliance? The Muslim Right and the Anglo-American Left

Iranian women at a protest in 2010

I was recently in London to launch my book Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, published by a new transnational think tank, the Centre for Secular Space. (The New York City launch is Friday, March 1.) The event took place in Tower Hamlets, once a center of Jewish immigration, now largely Muslim and a site of intense struggle between South Asian secularists and fundamentalists. According to Ansar Ahmedullah, a community organizer who spoke at the launch, his group had planned a demonstration in a park near the East London Mosque to express solidarity with the Shahbagh protest currently convulsing Bangladesh. When they arrived at the park, they found it full of Salafis who had come out of the nearby mosque to prevent the demonstration. A six-hour standoff ensued, with violent attacks on several protesters.

One of the fiercest struggles in world politics today is taking place between Muslim fundamentalists and secularists who want to separate religion and the state. In the United States, at least among academics and feminists, great efforts have been made to obscure this struggle and to delegitimize secularists as passé. I recently saw an email whose writer describes my book Double Bind—without having read it, since it has not yet been released—as the work of “a U.S. supporter of Zionism who has been pushing an Islamophobic line against the antiwar movement, using Muslims or ex-Muslims for a veneer of legitimacy.” To characterize any Muslim who dares to criticize other Muslims as a pawn of people like me is a ridiculous insult to Asian feminists. By delegitimizing the discussion, the writer embraces the framing of the Muslim Right and, in effect, sides with the Salafists in East London who tried to prevent the demonstration in the local park.

Double Bind is about this dynamic, and what happens when the Left takes up the language and framing of the Muslim Right. I define the Muslim Right as a range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics toward the goal of a theocratic state. It consists of those the media call “moderate Islamists,” who aim to reach this goal gradually by electoral and educational means; extremist Salafi parties and groups that run candidates for office but also try to enforce some version of Sharia law through street violence; and a much smaller militant wing of Salafi-Jihadis, whose propaganda endorses military means and who practice violence against civilians. The goal of all political Islamists, whatever means they may prefer, is a state founded upon some version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities.

Historically, the Left has stood for very different values—at least in principle: separation between religion and the state; social equality; an end to discrimination against women and minorities; economic justice; opposition to imperialist and racist wars. In the last ten years, however, some groups on the far Left have allied with conservative Muslim organizations that stand for religious discrimination, advocate death for those they consider apostates, oppose gay rights, subordinate women, and seek to impose their views on others through violence. This support of the Muslim Right has undermined struggles for secular democracy in the Global South and has spread from the far Left to feminists, the human rights movement, and progressive donors.

It is a natural impulse to want to defend Muslims in the current climate of increasing xenophobia, discrimination, and violent attacks in both Europe and North America. Islam is often maligned and misrepresented in the North. And Jihadis have the same rights to due process of law as anybody else and should be defended against violations like rendition and torture. But defending Muslims against discrimination should not mean giving political support to the conceptual framework of the Muslim Right, as Amnesty International did in 2010 when it endorsed “defensive jihad,” or as an antiwar coalition in London did when it allowed sex-segregated seating at its meetings.

A particularly egregious example of this trend has been left-wing support for the “Iraqi insurgency,” which includes groups allied with al-Qaeda and is made up of Sunni militants who practice sectarian violence against Shi’ia and plant bombs in marketplaces and civilian neighborhoods. Although Iraqi leftists and feminists oppose the Iraqi insurgency, both the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition in the United States and the Stop the War Coalition in the UK have endorsed it on the basis that it is fighting foreign invasion and imperialism. In fact, the insurgency has directed its violence less at the United States than at imposing an Islamic state on its own people, targeting women in particular.

Ironically, the embrace by some leftists of Islamic fundamentalism mirrors distortions about Islam put about by anti-immigrant conservatives. The far Right talks as if all Muslims were potential terrorists, while the far Left talks as if Salafi-Jihadis represented all Muslims. Both ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are like everybody else: they just want to survive and live their lives in peace. According to the Pew Research Center, very few of them support the interpretations and actions of Salafi-Jihadis, who no more represent all Muslims than the American Nazi Party or English Defence League represent all Christians.

In the name of multiculturalism, some states, including the UK, have taken organizations led by the Muslim Right to represent the population as a whole, funding identity-based groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islaami. Canada has taken a similar approach, as noted by sociologist Haideh Moghissi, a professor at Toronto’s York University:

Western governments and the media seem determined to promote the punishing, unforgiving and violent voices of Islam. Worse, taking them as the authentic and representative voices of Muslims worldwide, they are made legitimate partners at negotiation tables whenever there is a need to address the interests and grievances of Muslim populations. By making religion the guiding principle in their foreign policy and in dealing with their own ethnic minorities, these governments follow, in a sense, the agenda of conservative Muslims, rather than stressing and protecting the hard-won secular political values and practices of their societies. From my perspective, it is hard not to worry about some ill-advised government policies, such as allowing Friday prayers in publicly funded middle schools in Toronto, which includes hiring an imam to lead the prayers for thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students.

With similar political blindness, sections of the international Left have continued to support the Iranian theocracy despite its violent repression of the “Green Revolution” of 2009-2010, its attacks on student and women’s organizations, and its suppression of labor unions. In September 2010, for instance, 150 self-described “progressive activists” in the United States, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former member of the House of Representatives Cynthia McKinney, dined with Iranian President Ahmadinejad on his visit to the UN to show their support for his allegedly anti-imperialist stand. Left-wing supporters of Ahmadinejad are willing to overlook the fact that he is not only a dictator and fundamentalist but also a Holocaust denier.

Unwillingness to criticize the Iranian theocracy has led to a lack of solidarity with the people of Iran, a particular problem at a time of sanctions and talk of war. In March 2012, a United National Antiwar Coalition met in Hartford to oppose the possibility of war with Iran, condemn sanctions, and oppose U.S. wars and interference in other places. By an overwhelming majority, however, the meeting refused to support the human rights of the Iranian people, voting down a resolution that said, “We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.” As Manijeh Nasrabadi, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Raha Iranian Feminists Group, which supported the defeated resolution, said,

If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. At best we are hypocrites; at worst we show an inability to imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of Western powers. Ironically, this echoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most antiwar activists would hasten to decry.

The antiwar movement’s courtship of the Muslim Right went even further in the UK, where, in 2001, the Socialist Workers Party initiated the Stop the War Coalition, which two years later organized the largest UK antiwar demonstration ever, against the war in Iraq. They did so in partnership with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The SWP was carrying out a policy outlined by Chris Harman, one of its leaders. As early as 1994, Harman wrote that the Left must not regard Islamists as the enemy because “they are not responsible for the system of international capitalism.” Rather, their “feeling of revolt” should be “tapped for progressive purposes,” meaning that the SWP should try to manipulate the Muslim Right into supporting left-wing objectives. In pursuit of this plan, the SWP made remarkable concessions for a Marxist organization that theoretically stands for equality between men and women, going as far as allowing gender-segregated seating (reportedly for Asian women only) at antiwar meetings. When questioned on this, the secretary of the Stop the War Coalition described women’s rights and gay rights as a “shibboleth” that could not be allowed to get in the way of unity with Muslim groups. (It comes as no surprise that the SWP is now falling apart as a result of a rape scandal in its leadership.)

The alliance with the Stop the War Coalition brought new strength and visibility to the Muslim Brotherhood’s organization in the UK. According to Richard Phillips, writing in Race and Class in 2008, because of this campaign the Muslim Association of Britain grew “from a relatively obscure group to one with a national profile. It gained considerable influence, punching well above the weight suggested by its limited membership and narrow formal constituency…” While English Trotskyites were elated by the success of this alliance, an Iraqi leftist who attended a 2003 conference of the Stop the War Coalition came away in despair at the folly of the SWP in building up the Muslim Right, saying, “Ironically, political Islam is applauded and welcomed by the SWP, while both ordinary Muslims in the Middle East and in Western society, and Western people reject it.”

Left-wing alliances with fundamentalist groups—whether Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim—are betrayals of the majority of their co-religionists, who do not wish to be represented by extremists. Such alliances are also betrayals of basic socialist principle, and of the sense of self-preservation, since leftists are the first to be killed wherever fundamentalists come to power. Ask any Iranian.

Meredith Tax’s new book, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, is available online at It will be launched on March 1 with a panel at the New School’s Wollman Hall, 65 W. 11th Street, 5th floor, New York, NY. The panel will feature Ann Snitow of Gender Studies, Anissa Hélie of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Afiya Zia of the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan, and Meredith Tax. For more information and to get on the list, contact admin [at] centreforsecularspace [dot] org.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.