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Published on February 12th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Painted Tapes/Flickr 2011


What’s Left? The Islamists and Liberal Orientalism

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” as George Orwell tells us in Animal Farm. The book was an attempt to show the inherently- violent and contradictory nature of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Despite this, many Communists, Socialists, Marxists and anti-Imperialists in the West allied themselves with his brutal regime. Some saw the Soviet Union as a buffer against Capitalist imperialism and others went as far to support Soviet Imperialistic interventions around the world under the guise of ‘liberating the worker’. The main idea that unites all Socialists is not anti-imperialism or anti-racism, but anti-capitalism and the idea of Capitalistic imperialism. They oppose Fascism and nationalism as ideological competitors but not all oppose everyday racism.  

The ongoing Arab spring has exposed inherent contradictions in various socialist movement approaches towards the Arab spring. What provoked this article was a ‘Stop the War Coalition’ meeting, I attended a few weeks ago at SOAS university. The stop the war coalition was unequivocal in the support for the Kurdish cause, however they chose to demonstrate this support by allying themselves with the PYD (The PKK), a group which while fighting the Turkish government is allied to President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria and is actively involved in crushing the Syrian revolution. The Stop the War Coalition refused to discuss this contradiction between supporting the attainment of rights for one group, while the same group is actively trying to trample on the rights of the Syrian people. Instead they chose to engage in an endless tirade about the ‘hypocrisy’ of western intervention in Mali (The meeting was about Syria not Mali) and what little they did say about Syria was “oh, what is happening in Syria is too complicated. Assad might be bad, but we have to be careful of the Western and Israeli agenda to intervene in Syria”.

They also said “Al-Assad is not liked (by the west) because he stood up against Western imperialism and he has always supported Palestinian rights”.  By adopting this false discourse and entering into an alliance with the PYD, the Stop the War Coalition has entered into a de-facto alliance with President Assad’s regime.  Any good work they may have done in the past with regards to protesting against the Iraq and Afghanistan war has now been undone. Political Islamism is arguably an anti-Western, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist force and yet despite these similarities between the two, the meeting revealed a deep anxiety and antagonism against it. For some on the left Islamism has become a ‘dialectical’ opponent comparable to capitalistic, fascists and nationalistic forces. Once while talking to a socialist friend about the Arab spring, he had shown strong support for the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but when Syria came up his mood changed. He was ‘concerned’ about the ‘Islamist’ nature of the uprising and he suggested that Islamism was a natural ally for America and Western Imperialism, as the two had a ‘special’ bond from ‘their’ days in Afghanistan.

Whilst this attitude can be seen as an ‘attempt’ to delegitimize the competition, many icons of the left use their own ‘fears’ about Islamism to subsidise their own ‘Orientalist’ views about the Muslim and non-western world. In 2011 Slavoj Zizek declared that the Arab Spring was over and that the hopes for democracy, secularism and women’s rights had become ‘lost’ to the Islamists. Indeed, Islamism seems to represent ‘barbarism, brutality, pre-modernity and hatred’ the image of Islamism is often mixed between Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Christian religious fundamentalism, Islamism by virtue is bad in the ‘Western’ mind set. The problem here is that Socialist movements and individuals are meant to be opposed to the predominate ‘Western’ mind set and fears spread by the ‘capitalist’ media. And indeed many were in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war and many still are, however there is a large group that while they complain about western-media stereotyping about Muslims, they themselves, hold many of the same stereotypes and prejudices that they claim to abhor.

Central to the notion above is that secularism is the ultimate good. Anything that is non-secular or anti-secular is bad, irrespective of the context in which this may occur. The non-secular nature of Islamist politics not only makes it bad but it also makes it worse than any secular group that is fighting. We see this dichotomy being played out over Syria, and the so-called ‘Islamization’ of the opposition is making many on the left like Zizek reluctant to support the Syrian opposition. Some have gone as far as to openly support Al-Assad, because he is secular and by virtue ‘better’ than the ‘Islamist’ Syrian opposition despite the deaths of 60,000 people under his watch. This whole dichotomy is wrong, as is the caricature of Islamist politics, which is now leading to clear double standards for many leftist movements. If they do not accept that ‘secular forces’, are not always the better forces the West and the left could lose the Arab Spring for good.


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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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