Discussion: Michael Cooke on the left and fundamentalists

By Michael Cooke

For the record then, I have no patience with the position that "we" should only or mainly be concerned with what is "ours’" any more than I can condone reactions to such a view that require Arabs to read Arab books, use Arab methods and the like. As C.L.R James used to say, Beethoven belongs as much to the West as he does to Germans, since his music is now part of the human heritage.

Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinary, differentiated, and unmonolithic. This I believe, is as true of the contemporary Untied States [or Australia] as it is of the modern Arab world … Edward Said[1]

June 12, 2015 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On April 11, 2015, a right-wing coalition calling itself Reclaim Australia organised rallies across Australia. In Melbourne it was confronted forcefully by a broad coalition of the left. The "Reclaimers" seemed to be racist fantasists, if their Facebook page is any indication: they describe themselves as patriotic Australians who want to stop halal, sharia law and Islamisation.[2]

Mustafa Sidaoul wittily and aptly pointed out in the letter columns of the Age, that the demand to ban sharia is not based on fact, given that sharia does not apply in Australia. Halal certification is a matter of supply and demand (i.e. an economic imperative), and concerns Australia’s need to expand our export market rather than a religious injunction.[3] For without halal certification Muslims will not buy Australian meat.

It is essential that the pernicious and erroneous views, as expounded by the likes of Reclaim Australia, are not only ridiculed but also confronted, which the left has done. The left has also pointed out that Islamophobia is fuelled by Western governments to justify their interventions in the Middle East. It is vital to point out that these imperialist policies provide almost perfect political, cultural and religious tinder to light fundamentalist fervour. While supporting the left’s stand on imperialism, this essay argues that there is a gap in the discourse. The left needs to contest Islamic fundamentalists like Islamic State (IS), given that they are inimical to what the left stands for.

You will not find in the agenda of Islamic fundamentalists the principles embraced by the left: separation of church and state, the right to religious freedom, a rejection of unbridled capitalism, the anti-colonialist struggle, the rights of minorities and the unifying of people of different cultures and religions into a broad coalition to oppose our country’s economic and imperial aims.

This contribution strongly rejects binary perspectives, such as the West versus Islam or religious fundamentalism versus secularism, as being spurious and unhelpful. It argues that the almost global reach of a neoliberal economic agenda, combined with Western military adventures in the Levant and the corresponding rise of religious fundamentalism, are fuelling the current tragedy. In doing so the essay argues that the left is best placed to deal with the issue. In fleshing out these issues, I have taken the Charlie Hebdo affair as a springboard to the discussion.

Lastly, as the paper continually refers to “the left”, I must define what I mean by that term. The left for me is a broad church of parties, tendencies and individuals who want to change the current political and economic system to a more inclusive one which has social justice and equity at its core. The left includes dissidents from the Australian Labor Party, the Greens, radical social democrats and the various parties, tendencies, alternatives and alliances in the socialist firmament.

The left has taken a principled stand on the Charlie Hebdo affair. First, leftists unequivocally condemn:

…. the massacre of journalists, cartoonists and others at and around the offices of the Paris based publication Charlie Hebdo. However offensive anyone may have found some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, this act of brutal violence is not justified.[4]

Political commentators like Sungur Savran go on to condemn the double standards of allies of the US empire like Turkey, with their tragic meddling in Syria, and comments critically on those leaders who attended the march in support of democracy and Charlie Hebdo.[5] Noam Chomsky goes on to add that the chant for freedom of speech should also include "condemnation of violence and terror' not only for the killers of Charlie Hebdo but also condemnation of the immense terror the United States military imposed on the citizens of Fallujah in Iraq and the violence the Zionist state has unleashed on the Palestinians.[6]

Corey Oakley responded to the hypocrisy of the right-wing media, in particular the cartoon by Mark Knight in The Herald-Sun, which shows the West defending freedom with pens against armed masked jihadists. Oakley points out that the Western democracies may not be as altruistic as Knight and his ilk suppose. Yes, pens played their part.

The pens that signed the endless Patriot Acts, anti-terror laws and other bills that entrenched police harassment and curtailed human rights. The pens of the newspaper editorialists who whip up round after round of hysteria, entrenching anti-Muslim prejudice and making people foreigners in their own country.[7]

Underlying this is the argument that to understand these events one must critically analyse imperialism’s role in the Middle East, in particular the pivotal role played by the United States of America and its satellites in the Levant. If the meddling of the West were curtailed then much of the violence and fanaticism would be reduced.[8] We also need to recognise that fanatical groups like IS need to be fought and that the Kurds must be supported in their struggle against these religious fanatics.[9] What is missing from most left commentary on the Charlie Hebdo affair is a strong position of contestation regarding religious fundamentalism and its manifestation in Islam.

Unlike right-wing Christians and New Atheist bigots, people on the left would argue that it is stupid to blame all Muslims for the killings in Paris, just as it would be stupid to hold us all Australians responsible for the Australian government’s past and present support of the US imperial agenda, not only in the Levant but across the world. Nor does the left hold that people of the Jewish faith or a citizen of any country should killed or intimidated for what their political and military elite does in their name.

Islam, moreover, has over a billion adherents around the globe, and as with all major religions there are many variants. The theological and ritual divisions between Shia, Sunni and Sufi are complex and sometimes esoteric, making a monolithic view of Islam highly problematic. As in other religions, however, there is a persistent strand of Islam that is anti-modern and intolerant of those who do not share their fundamentalist outlook. We cannot simply blame Western imperial adventures. Our elites created the conditions for Islamic fundamentalists to thrive and mutate, but the likes of IS are now independent players who not only pose a threat to the principles of the left but are hijacking the anti-colonial struggle in the name of their medieval political and cultural agenda. Let me elaborate.

John Safran interviewed Musa Cerantonio, a "radical preacher", who related the following story. On Orientation Day at Victoria University in Melbourne, Cerantonio had set up a stall to disseminate his version of Islam. Next to him was a stall set up by a woman from a left-wing organisation. She attempted to leave some pro-Palestinian leaflets on his table. He objected. She retorted, confused, stating it was for Palestine. Cerantonio responded angrily:

Look you’re not a Muslim, you don’t agree with Islam. As for us, that’s what we want for Palestine. We want Sharia, we want Islamic law. You don’t want that, so let’s admit we don’t want the same thing. She started to get a little offended. She’s like, "Oh, but, you know, we have to work together.’" And I’m like, No, we don’t have to work together.[10]

The left should not ignore the essentialist nonsense peddled by people like Cerantonio. What the latter conveniently leaves unspoken is the history of the anti-colonial struggle and the role of the left and some liberals in the continuing anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggle.

I speak from personal experience. I come from India, part of the so-called "fabled East". My apprenticeship in the anti-colonialist struggle and class politics did not come from whites or Christian missionaries or for that matter from imams, Brahmin priests or Buddhist monks. It came from indigenous activists (for want of a better term) who belonged to the various socialist and communist currents that were blooming in the 1960s in India and around the "mystical" Third World.

While these activists critiqued the West they were not blind to the shortcomings of their home-grown industrialists and the reactionary attitude of the dominant religion in the region on issues like caste privilege. I do not know the religious tendencies of many of the activists, and did not ask as it seemed irrelevant.

What I do know is they did not hesitate to be critical of religion when the situation demanded it, as with the persistent tragic and bloody clashes between Hindu and Muslims. Even the prime minister at the time, Nehru, was a persistent critic of religion and an ardent social reformer with regard to Hindu marriage practices. I do not wish to idealise the 1960s, as there was much to criticise and satirise. The schisms in the left, which were numerous and tedious, were not over the colour of one’s skin or religious affiliations; time and energy was expended instead on the appropriate line to be taken on issues like "actually existing socialism" -- the "socialist/deformed utopia/imperialist/state capitalist" USSR.[11]

Capitalists are not averse in exploiting social, cultural and religious fault lines to improve the bottom line and religion has very little to do with impeding their activities. Marx on capitalism:

It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves.[12]

One could doubt if the Muslim capitalists in Qatar were overly concerned about their fellow Sunnis from Bangladesh and fellow non-Westerners from Nepal and India who came to build the venues for the 2022 soccer World Cup. They were housed in crowded dormitories, were poorly paid and forced to work in atrocious conditions. It is estimated 964 workers lost their lives during the 2012 and 2013 construction boom.[13]

Remember also the Muslim entrepreneur in Bangladesh, a country afflicted with endemic poverty and a lax regulatory regime, who criminally ignored the health and safety of his workers, mostly women, with 144 being incinerated as a result.[14] He was a willing comprador to the dictates of the large retail stores and our desire to buy cheap clothing. Even IS, for all its medieval barbarity, does not question the world economic order but rather trades its ill-gotten assets with nearly as much gusto as it shows in beheading and burning its enemies.[15]

Maxime Rodinson, in his scholarly historical study of Islam and capitalism, offer this insight:

Islam offers no originality in this regard. Like every body of moral and religious doctrines it can do no more than, at best, limit, among a certain number of the rich and powerful, the tendency to abuse the power and wealth they possess. It may be that one can establish degrees in the capacity of different ideologies to bridle such behaviour. Familiarity with Islamic history suggests only that Islam’s capacity is of the same order of magnitude as that of its rival ideologies, in other words a very weak one.[16]

Musa Cerantonio needs to be reminded that neoliberal capitalism is the dominant economic system, as attested by the fact that there is only one market at the moment and it is the capitalist "free market". This market makes no religious, ethical, colour or racial distinctions between IS, Apple and a Mexican drug cartel, the only question being whether the rate of return justifies the risk.[17] Even our planet’s viability plays second fiddle to these "lofty and universal' concerns.

In the idealised Caliphate of IS there will not be the checks and balances that "democratic" societies, no matter how flawed, offer their citizens. Are they going to allow trade unions, human rights activists, other faiths and atheists like me a place in their medieval utopia? I think not, for that means they would have to tolerate dissent and acknowledge plurality in a society where Islam is the majority religion.

Utopia can be a dangerous and fractious illusion, as attested by the debilitating arguments of the left about Stalin, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. It becomes supremely ridiculous when a golden age that supposedly existed over a thousand years ago becomes the exemplar against which secularism (i.e. the West) is measured. This is arrant nonsense. As Marx pointed out 160 years ago, the difference between a feudal state based on privilege and a capitalist liberal democracy based on legal rights is that the latter grants freedom of religion:

Incompatibility between religion and the rights of man is to such a degree absent from the concept of the rights of man that, on the contrary, a man’s right to be religious, in any way he chooses to practice his own particular religion, is expressly included among the rights of man. The privilege of faith is the universal right of man.[18]

Freedom of religion is an important principle and an advance from feudal societies. It requires the separation of religion from the state (always a struggle, as the French Revolution eloquently and violently attests). There are limits to this type of liberal democracy. If rights are not embedded in the life of a community, they can become fragile, especially in an era of unfettered capitalism, ill thought-out imperial adventures, scarce resources, income inequality and rising racism. In Australia, Islam is demonised and refugees (not all of them Muslims and some of them fleeing theocratic states like Iran) are appallingly treated.

But they are not the only ones. Those on welfare like single parents and the unemployed, people with disabilities, students, climate change activists, the indigenous population and workers are also being attacked. The question then is not an abstract one of something called the West versus something else called Islam. The issue has always been that of the creation of a different political and economic system which is more socially just. This does not involve the blurring of the right to religious freedom or the boundary between church and state.

In Pakistan, where there is a law against blasphemy, its application is brutal and capricious, often being used to curtail the rights of Muslims who are not Sunni and to discriminate against the small Christian community. In Saudi Arabia the law infantilises women (they have virtually no rights) and punishments for the most trivial offences are harsh. Judgements and the collection of evidence can be opaque and unpredictable.

Where is the justice in giving one religious group primacy in a pluralist society? In religions like Islam and Christianity, crimes are not based on the harm one does to another but on the Biblical concept of sin or in the case of the Qur’an on what is prohibited and allowed. This makes criminalisation problematic. Prohibitions on being gay, definitions on what constitutes modesty and question of prohibited food reflect the tyranny of the majority.[19]

The caliphate of the so-called golden period, despite its relatively enlightened treatment of minorities and its accomplishments in science, philosophy and the arts, was not a democracy. Everything depended on the whim of the caliph; government spending on welfare, health, education and the poor was miniscule. To build the palaces and mosques we now admire required vast amounts of money, supplied by the most numerous group of subjects, the peasantry. Islamic empires were no different to other empires: the religious edicts of the imams had to be in accordance with the dictates of the ruler.

It can come as no surprise that an analysis of the speeches and pronouncements of fundamentalist Islamic groups reveals an intense reliance on religious symbolism and a vocabulary rich in words like crusade, jihad, martyrdom, with an emphasis on the desecration of sacred sites. They also actively engage in murdering and expelling those (including Muslims) who do not share their theological take on Islam. The West is seen as Shaitan (the devil), the home of the godless (i.e. secularists) whose aim is to destroy Islam. There is no historical awareness; only theology and violence are offered as solutions. This emboldens our elites, who in turn demonise Islam, curtail social freedoms and appeal to fear when it comes to refugees.

Anti-colonialist movements in the so-called Third World do not act in this way and neither does the left in the First World.

Leninists would consider the economic and social circumstances of the situation and the class implications, calling on all progressive elements in society (including Muslims) to join the struggle. They would link up the struggles with others around the world. …[They] would have joined the anti-war coalitions around the world including in the belly of the empire, would fight for the rights and give succour to the victims of the struggle and welcome refugees escaping the mayhem not only in Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan but also refugees from Lanka and West Papua. Lenin’s insights into the nature of imperialism, capitalism, democratic centralism and the rights of nations for self-determination are absent in the makeup of al-Qaeda.[20]

Most anti-colonialist movements and left-wing parties in the past, whatever their flaws, tried to unify people based on their exploitation by the imperial power. In doing so they never discounted the goodwill and solidarity of people in the colonising country. The Vietnamese struggle against US and French imperialism, which lasted for decades, resulted in destruction on an apocalyptic scale and a death toll of well over a million. It won not only by opposing the imperial power militarily but by reliance on support from the burgeoning anti-war movements in the West, East, North and South. Religion and skin colour were irrelevant: what mattered was an individual’s or group’s commitment to the cause. In the end public opinion in the West swung in their favour and did play a role in the defeat of the US military and its Vietnamese allies. That is part of the tradition of the left and should be kept in mind for two reasons: as an example of how to conduct an anti-imperialist struggle and in order to show how much we are at odds with IS and their fundamentalist aims.

We need to criticise the reactionary beliefs and practices of groups like IS. But we will only gain a wide hearing for such criticisms if we are working with Muslims in a common struggle regarding such issues as solidarity with Palestine and the Australian government’s neoliberal policies.

The left is perfectly positioned in terms of history and political praxis to contest these dominant tropes, even if in the current political landscape this might seem a near impossible ask. The pillars of the left, such as the Australian trade union movement, are weak, and our contact with the Muslim community is limited. But the left has taken a principled position in the struggle against racism and support for refugees. It now needs to broaden that position to campaign and develop strategies to contest Islamic fundamentalism.

I hope this paper is a catalyst for such a strategy and campaign. If not, the accumulation of resentment amongst Muslim youth will continue to be directed against the wrong targets, the consequences of which are too terrible to contemplate. To paraphrase Lassana Bathily, who bravely ushered many to safety in the Jewish Supermarket in Paris, we live in an integrated global world, in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and others should be defined not merely by their beliefs but also by their solidarity as human beings. There is, to refresh a cliché, ‘a world to win,’ not simply one to be destroyed by mutual incomprehension and hate.

It is the responsibility of the left to offer an alternative political strategy and philosophy, as it eloquently does on issues of climate change, racism, refugees and a fair economic system. Nothing of value on this issue is coming from the mouths of the right or the centre of politics, enthralled as they are by their neo-liberal free-market and imperialist dreams. The discussion flowing from this polemic might propel and give shape to a strategy. Here’s hoping …

Such is life.

[Michael Cooke is author of Christianity, Islam and Atheism: Reflection on Religion, Society and Politics, Sydney: Resistance Books, 2014.]


[1] Said, W. Edward (1993). Culture and Imperialism. Chatto and Windus, pp. xxviii, xxix.

[2] Elder, John. “So this is Easter: Melbourne faces off at anti-Islam rally as police on horseback hold factions apart.” The Age, April 5, 2015.

[3] Sidaoul, Mustafa. "Fuelling fire of hatred just like Islamic State." The Age, April 6, 2015, p.12.

[4] Op. cit.: "Socialists condemn ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre, warn of Islamophobia in its wake." January 13, 2015.

[5] Savran, Sungur, "Nous Sommes Tous Charlie …. De Gaulle!", in The Bullet – Socialist Project. E-Bulletin No.1068. Retrieved: http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1068.

[6] Chomsky, Noam. "We are all – Fill in the blank", in NDON’T STOP, January 10, 2015. Retrieved: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/We-Are-All-Fill-in-Blank-20150110-0021.html.

[7] Oakley, Corey. "Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils", Red Flag in BSNEWS. January 13, 2015. Retrieved: http://bsnews.info/charlie-hebdo-hypocrisy-pencils/.

[8] See Kumar, Deepa (2012). Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket Books.

[9] Holmes, Dave. "Kurds search for unity amid relentless fight to defeat ‘Islamic State’ thugs," Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 2, 2014. Retrieved: http://links.org.au/node/4033.

[10] Saffran, John. "Musa Cerantonio: Muslim convert and radical supporter of Islamic State", Sydney Morning Herald, January 17, 2015. Retrieved: http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/musa-cerantonio-muslim-convert-and-radical-supporter-of-islamic-state.

[11] Hiro, Dilip (1976). Inside India Today. Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 123-180, for a record of the left in India in the 1960s.

[12] Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1848/1970). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Foreign Language Press, p. 36.

[13] Gibson, Owen and Pattisson. ‘Death toll among Qatar’s 2022 World cup workers revealed,’ The Guardian, December 24, 2014. Retrieved: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/23/Qatar-nepal-workers-world-cup-2022-death-toll-doha.

[14] Burke, Jason. ‘Bangladesh factory fires: fashion industry’s latest crisis,’ The Guardian, 9 December 2013.

[15] Burke, Jason. ‘The Isis leader’s vision of the state is a profoundly contemporary one,’ The Guardian, August 24, 2014. Retrieved: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/24/isis-abu-bakr-al-baghadi-jason-burke.

[16] Rodinson, Maxime (1974). Islam and Capitalism. Pelican Books, p. 72.

[17] An example is the money laundering and tax evasion practised by the world’s second largest bank, HSBC. See Leigh, David; Ball, James; Garside, Julie and Pegg, David: "HSBC files: Swiss bank hid money for suspected criminals", The Guardian, February 13, 2015. Retrieved: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/12/hsbc-files-swiss-bank-hid-money-for-suspected-criminals.

[18] Marx, Karl (1844). On the Jewish Question. Published originally in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Retrieved: www.marxist.org/archiv/marx/works/1844/jewish-questions.