Workers Hammer No. 223
The Socialist Workers Party and the Islamists
Turkeys voting for Christmas
On 5 May, as Islamists rampaged through Dhaka demanding the hanging of atheists, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) turned out to a protest in London “in solidarity with Bangladesh” — not, however, in solidarity with the targets of reactionary violence. The London protest, built around the call to stand united against “Offensive insults upon Religious Beliefs of the masses”, was in solidarity with the Islamist terror campaign. Photos and a video do not reveal a single woman present. The group organising the protest — Feb28 “Justice for Bangladesh” — takes its inspiration from riots demanding stricter Koranic law that broke out in Bangladesh on 28 February, when fundamentalist Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death for war crimes. Yet the coverage of the London protest in the SWP’s Socialist Worker (11 May) presented this crowd as if they were leftists calling for peace, justice and an end to police repression!
Someone new to Socialist Worker might conclude that the SWP are simply clueless liberals. While there's truth in the description, these are no babes in the woods. It’s clear that the SWP understood the purpose of the protests in Bangladesh — it ran an 11 May article on them, too. As that article relates, in Dhaka, “tens of thousands of Islamists had gathered to call for stronger Islamic policies” including “the introduction of blasphemy laws and the repeal of laws on women’s rights”. The SWP itself would be a natural target for such “protesters”, but that did not deter it. In the ranks of the Islamists, who “came largely from the madrassahs, where poorer people send their children for schooling”, the SWP sought to appeal to “those who rage against putting profit before people”.
The SWP to the contrary, the ability of religious reactionaries to mobilise the oppressed does not make the communalist violence they carry out, or the terror against women and leftists, a variety of “putting people before profit”. It’s true that the Islamists, with their charity programmes and promises for the hereafter, have built a base among the downtrodden in the slums and rural backwaters of the Muslim world. They have also drawn a following in imperialist centres including Britain as a result of the relentless racism, poverty and hardship suffered by Muslim immigrants and their descendents. This oppression is real, but political Islam offers a reactionary answer: the overturn of historical progress through a return to the world of the Prophet Mohammed.
Most opportunists on the left would think a movement centred on the cry “God is great — hang the atheist bloggers!” is a poor place to look for recruits, but the SWP has actually developed a theoretical justification for it. In 1994, the SWP’s journal International Socialism published an extensive article “The prophet and the proletariat” by Chris Harman, which has subsequently been reprinted as a pamphlet. Purporting to present a class analysis of modern Islam, “its relationship to capital, to the state and imperialism”, the article seeks common ground with people who want to establish a state based on the Koran — something that according to the SWP “can be seen as meaning the revolutionary overthrow of existing society”!
This must have been what SWP National Secretary Charlie Kimber had in mind when he addressed the London protest: “The tide of revolution has swept through Tunisia and Egypt. Now the tide of revolution must sweep through Gaza, Syria and Bangladesh” (Socialist Worker, 7 May). Kimber had reason to expect this would appeal to his audience — the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia toppled dictatorships only to bring the Islamists to power. Some small credit for the outcome goes to the SWP’s cohorts, the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, who shamelessly promoted the Islamists, including calling to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in last year’s presidential elections. Fundamentally, however, there was no victory for workers or the oppressed in Egypt or Tunisia because these uprisings never challenged the framework of capitalist class rule.
As the SWP cadres know well, the programme of supporting the Islamists has been tried before, with disastrous results. In 1978, opposition to the autocratic rule of the Shah swept Iran, setting off a major strike wave which included the strategically powerful oil workers. Initially these strikes did not support the call for an Islamic Republic. But, in the name of “unity” against the Shah and the imperialists, the Iranian left succeeded in tying the striking workers to the Islamic opposition. The Ayatollah Khomeini swept into power in February 1979 and the bulk of the left around the world hailed it as a revolution. The British Socialist Worker’s headline exulted: “Iran: The glory” (17 February 1979). Khomeini imposed Islamic law and required women to wear the hijab in public, with violators subject to 74 lashes or a year’s imprisonment. The Baha’i religious minority, Kurds and other minorities were slaughtered. Trade unionists were thrown into prison, their organisations smashed. The “reward” for Khomeini’s erstwhile supporters on the left was imprisonment, torture and execution by the Islamists’ “Revolutionary Guards”.
Today the SWP prefers not to discuss where it stood in 1978-79. It is not so shy about its support to the CIA’s most lavishly funded cause, the Afghan mujahedin’s holy war against the Soviet Army. In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power and began to implement a programme of modernisation that included education for women, freeing them from the burqa and lowering the bride price. This sparked an Islamist insurgency that would become central to the Cold War, drawing in billions of dollars in international aid money, the Pakistani, Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services and a network of 70,000 Islamists from more than 50 countries. After repeated requests from the besieged PDPA government, the Soviet Union grew concerned that the jihad threatened its southern border and sent troops into Afghanistan in December 1979. The presence of the Soviet military posed the possibility of extending to Afghanistan the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which had not been overturned despite the country’s political degeneration under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotskyists hailed the Red Army in Afghanistan.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet forces in 1988-89 in an attempt to appease the imperialists. Two years later, capitalist counterrevolution would destroy the Soviet Union itself. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan left women at the mercy of religious reactionaries who threw acid in the faces of those who went out without veils and murdered school teachers. Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union brought poverty, disease and early death to the population and encouraged the depredations of the imperialists. In the wake of these devastating defeats, Muslim fundamentalist movements expanded the world over.
The Socialist Workers Party’s roots reach back to the early 1950s when the British Labour government sent troops to fight in the Korean War. In the accompanying Cold War hysteria, its founder Tony Cliff was unwilling to oppose the war drive and reneged on the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam, where capitalism had been overthrown. Not only did his organisation hail the Afghan mujahedin as “freedom fighters”, when the Soviet Union was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, the SWP crowed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991). As notable for its anti-Communism as for its fascination with Islamic fundamentalism, the SWP expected to profit from the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union.
They certainly tried, orienting in particular to the religious organisations that dominate the oppressed Muslim minority in Britain. In an effort to capitalise on the mammoth anti-war protests in 2003, which were heavily supported by Muslim organisations, the SWP bragged about having organised an anti-war meeting in Birmingham with a segregated seating area for women. With the Respect coalition, which it founded jointly with George Galloway in 2004, the SWP sought to feed off the widespread hatred for Tony Blair’s Labour government and its “war on terror”. Respect made no pretence to be even nominally a working-class formation — in fact, SWP leaders saw to it that Respect’s founding programme did not even formally stand for “socialism”, and SWPers voted down a call for the elimination of the monarchy at Respect’s founding conference. Within Respect, the SWP tailored its demands to the mosques and as good as buried the fight for women’s liberation and homosexual rights, and would not choke out a word of criticism of Galloway’s reactionary opposition to abortion. In autumn 2007, Galloway launched a broadside against the SWP, blaming it for the “steep decline” in Respect membership and for the fact that Respect is not “punching its weight in British politics”. By late October, the Galloway wing, which consisted of virtually all of the Respect coalition outside of the SWP, had changed the locks on the doors to Respect headquarters.
We can only wish the SWP similar success in all its endeavours. Workers and the oppressed do not need such friends as these.