Islamophobia and the Left
My first mass protest took place on 28 August 1963 and it had a lot of religious overtones. A Baptist preacher gave the most-remembered speech of the event. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, played a leading role not only in getting a quarter million people to the mall in Washington, D.C. but in the whole civil rights struggle that had such a progressive impact on this country and the world.
I was born in 1948 and raised Presbyterian, which is already Christianity-lite. By the time Dr. King was telling us his dreams and long before I became a communist, I was already an atheist and philosophically opposed to all religions. After I left Atlantic City for college, I didn’t attend any regular religious services until I started attending chapel in St. Louis County jail while I served four months for protesting the war in Vietnam.
In the county jail, I learned what oppressed people living in a totalitarian environment have learned throughout the ages: that religious institutions and the freedom allowed to indulge in them may afford the best and perhaps the only opportunity for social and political organization against oppression. With the connivance of a sympathetic chaplain, we got a lot done in those meetings — I mean “services” — in the St. Louis County jail.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1976, I was a member of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) and yet I found that much of my best political work was done in churches and with Black ministers. For example, when Eula Love was murdered by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1979, we organized the Southwest Communities United for Justice (SCUJ) out of Reverend Merriweather’s church and led protests across the city that culminated in a march of more than 5,000 on City Hall. The RAP SHEET, April 1979, published by the Citizen’s Commission on Police Repression wrote:
Black Ministers Blast LAPD
In a public hearing before the City Council’s Police, Fire and Public Safety Committee on March 29th, more than a dozen prominent black ministers offered a scathing critique of the LAPD’s activities in the black community. The ministers, including Rev. Milton M. Merriweather, Bishop H.H. Brookins and Rev. James Lawson, charged the LAPD with brutality, racism, and improper tactics in the city’s predominantly black south central area. More,,,
I know I don’t have to belabor the importance of the Black church and the Black clergy in the social justice movement with progressives in the U.S. I just wanted to remember those times because, although Rev. Merriweather was the real powerhouse behind the SCUJ and bringing in the Black ministers allowed us to mobilize widely, I was the chief organizer of the SCUJ.
Or perhaps I do need to belabor that importance, because it seems that the moment you replace shouts of “Hallelujah” with cries of “Allahu Akbar,” the Left’s tolerance for religion in the people’s struggle goes way down. Many on the Left see popular support for Islam among the revolutionary forces in Syria, in their time of struggle and need, as reason to disavow support for their fight.
The Role of Religion in the Lives of the Oppressed
When Africans were first brought to the American continents in chains, they had religions taken away and religions given. Any native, non-Christian religion, including Islam, was completely suppressed, and the masters’ favorite variety of the Christianity given in its place. Religion was crucial to slavery in two ways: it allowed the master to live with himself, and it allowed the slaves to live with themselves.
A characteristic of most religions is that they counsel the downtrodden to put up with the present using the promise of a better life later on, at a time in the future where rich men and their camels can’t come. Christianity excels at that which is why it became the chosen religion of kings, capitalists, and slave-holders alike.
The slaves were bound to accept anything that gave them a weekly respite from their toils, an opportunity to learn something new, and the chance for a social gathering. The words of the preacher sounded soothing to the slave. It is often noted that Marx called religion “the opium of the people,” but his full meaning is rarely quoted:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
— Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843
Marx understood very well the role of religion in the lives of the oppressed.
Is it any wonder that African slaves, newly planted on colonial shores, should turn so strongly to it? Or that Syrians today, in their hours of travail, should fall back on it? And yet there are those on the Left that diss them for it!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The slave-owner promoted religion among the slaves because of its opium-like qualities, it helped to sooth the slave into accepting slavery. But as Marx noted, religion is a double-edged sword. It was taken up by the slave as a form of protest.
The promotion of Christianity to the slave was also central to the slave-owner’s mythology that the savage institution had some kind of redeeming quality. The belief that the slave-owner was somehow saving souls while he was breaking bodies was just about the only thing keeping the mirrors on the walls of the big house. So Christianity prospered in the Antebellum South.
That great Marxist historian of American slavery, Eugene Genovese, died on 26 September 2012, but he wrote Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made in 1976. I think this excerpt captures something important about the relationship between religion and politics and helps to explain why the political struggles of the oppressed so often come dressed in religious garb:
In this secular, not to say cynical, age few tasks present greater difficulty than that of compelling the well educated to take religious matters seriously. Yet, for all except the most recent phase of the history of a minority of the world’s peoples, religion has been embedded in the core of human life, material as well as spiritual. Bishop Berkeley spoke a simple truth: “Whatever the world thinks, he who hath not much mediated upon God, the human mind, and the summum bonum may possibly make a thriving earthworm, but will most indubitably make a sorry patriot and a sorry statesman.”
The philosophical problem of religion, its truth and falsehood, represents a domain only partially separate from that of politics. Since religion expresses the antagonisms between the life of the individual and that of society and between the life of civil society and that of political society, it cannot escape being profoundly political. The truth of religion comes from its symbolic rendering of man’s moral experience; it proceeds intuitively and imaginatively. Its falsehood comes from its attempt to substitute itself for science and to pretend that its poetic statements are information about reality.
No student of history should be surprised that people involved in struggle should turn to their religion or that activists with the most noble of motivations, grounded in their religion, should be in the front ranks of the fight for justice.
Islam and the Black Liberation Movement
History reports that in 1819, Francis Scott Key, the composer of The Star Spangled Banner, supplied an Arabic translation of the Bible to Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar from what is now Senegal who had been enslaved in the U.S. By some estimates, as many as 10% of the African slaves were Muslim. Islam was stamped out and they were converted because, as slaves, they had little say in the matter.
After the turn of the 20th century, a kind of Islam started to make a comeback among northern urban blacks that were looking to express their nationalism through the practice of a religion that had not been forced on them by the slave-owners. The Moorish Science Temple was established in Newark, NJ in 1913 as a black nationalist Islamic community by Noble Drew Ali. After he died in 1929, part of his group joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) which was founded in Detroit in 1930 by the mysterious Wallace D. Fard. Elijah Muhammed took over after Fard’s unexplained disappearance in 1934.
Because it so completely rejected the slave-owner’s religion without rejecting religion altogether, many of the most militant blacks were drawn to it, not the least of whom was Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist.
When Cassius Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammed Ali, the media howled with outrage. When he very publicly refused to fight in Vietnam, he did so because of his Muslim convictions. Even though he expressed his motivations in terms of backwards religious beliefs, his actions gave a powerful impulse to the anti-imperialist movement against the war.
The role of Christianity in the civil rights struggle was met with a much higher level of acceptance than the role of any sort of Islam because Christianity is the dominant religion and already familiar. No one on the Left would brand the national liberation movement we know today as the civil rights movement as reactionary because of the prominent role the Christian religion and its clergy played in leading it, but Islam is somehow different because it has been so demonized in the West and therefore different standards are applied.
Back then, the U.S. government attempted to use these differences to drive a wedge into the Black liberation movement by branding the Nation of Islam as too radical or too Islamic to be accepted as a legitimate part of it just as the Obama administration is today branding Jabhat al-Nusra a “terrorist organization” and therefore unacceptable as part of the Syrian opposition.
Islamaphobia and the Syrian Revolution
I have gone into this history to provide a bit of perspective about the role of religion in political struggle in general and national liberation struggles in particular since we are hearing some people belittling the Syrian revolution because of an alleged Islamic takeover that makes the revolution reactionary.
To give one example of this, the tiny Left group the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) recently took a position withdrawing support for the Syrian Revolution because of what they perceive as the domination of Islamists in the movement. One of the principles of their new position is:
3. We oppose all manifestations of Islamism amongst the Syrian political opposition and rebel militias.
Can anyone imagine a Left group taking a parallel position about Christian activism in the civil rights movement?
Pham Binh critiques this position in a very good piece on The North Star:
Have Islamists Hijacked Syria’s Democratic Revolution?As the Syrian revolution progresses, support for it abroad among Marxists recedes.
The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) is not alone in trading its support for the revolution for “a plague on both your houses” neutrality. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) made an almost identical shift, albeit theirs seems to be based on smears and falsehoods about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rather than an all-sided assessment of the contradictions of the Syrian opposition. Although neither group is terribly influential, the essentials of the narrative both have adopted about Syria is the predominant one among progressives in the West thanks to outlets like The Nation, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, MRZine Online, Mondoweiss, Global Research, Black Agenda Report, Jacobin, among many others. More…
These are the same Left elements that were slow to show support for the Arab Spring, showed up at Occupy only after it began, have done what little they could to undermine the Libyan people’s struggle to replace the Ghadafi regime and have denigrated their successes since. They have largely abandoned the Syrian revolution and are now using the fact that right-wing religious elements have come to aid the Syrian people as the chief excuse for their refusal to do the same. How ironic.
In addition to the usual fall back on religion in times of great danger and struggle — what might be called the “no atheists in foxholes” syndrome — it must be remembered that the Syrian people have every reason to believe that they have been abandoned by the international secular Left. If the imperialist stand on the Syrian revolution has been “No MANPADS for You!“, the Left stand has been “No Lincoln Brigades for You!” The bulk of the foreigners that have come to Syria to join the fight against Assad have done so for religious reasons that were humanitarian, not opportunistic.
The Missing Left leadership
In the wake of World War Two, many people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were able to win their independence. This was no less true in North Africa and the Middle East. There was also a Cold War going on.
The imperialists correctly saw that the left-wing influences in these movements, those that counselled non-alignment, alignment with the Soviet bloc, or socialism, were most dangerous to their interests, and so they worked very hard at suppressing the Left everywhere, including in the North African and Middle Eastern regions. This had direct and indirect effects that strengthened the influence of both right-wing religious leaders and fascists.
If this wasn’t bad enough, much of the Left abandoned the people to fight on their own by tailing after Soviet interests that called for support of so-called “anti-imperialist” dictators. In Syria, the two so-called communist parties support the fascist Assad regime as do thousands of so-called communists around the globe who still tail after a non-existent Soviet Union.
As a result, the Left really has nobody to blame for the lack of Left leadership in the Arab Spring in general or the Syrian revolution in particular except itself.
Islam and the Syrian Revolution
In many Arab Spring uprisings, conservative Muslim organizations along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood have been able to use the new freedoms together with their head start their already-existing organizations, base, and political experience to grab political power quickly. They did that in Tunisia and Egypt but not in Libya. In Syria, they will definitely be a player whose precise post-revolutionary role is yet to be determined.
In the environment of the general rise in religiosity generated by the hardship and bloody struggle of the Syrian revolution, religious players including Islamists and jhadists have come to the fore politically. Many of these groups have a legitimate role to play in a future democratic Syria in spite of their reactionary views.
Nor are jihadist groups like Jabhat al -Nusra and Islamic groups like Ahrar al-Sham to be confused, although Western governments and Western leftists often do just that. “Conflating the two groups is like mixing Christian fundamentalists with the Amish,” writes Adnan Khan in the Globe and Mail.
Regardless of the reactionary and opportunistic motives of the leadership of either the Islamists or the jihadists, it must be remembered that the majority of those that join these groups do so because of humanitarian, internationalist, or patriotic reasons.
While many on the Left may use the presence of jihadists and Islamist fractions as reason to deny support for the revolution, the imperialists attempt to mobilize Islamaphobia as a wedge to divide and defeat the revolution. Here again, an example from history may prove useful.
Government and Media attacks on NOI Then
In the early 1960s, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran the following article:
Black Muslim Founder Exposed as a WhiteEd Montgomery
July 28, 1963
Black Muslims by the thousands pay homage to Wallace Farad, their “Prophet From Mecca,”in the mistaken belief that as founder of the black supremacy cult he is one of their own…Yet Wallace Fard is, admittedly, an enterprising, racketeering fake. He is not a Negro. He is a white man masquerading as a Negro.
His true name is Wallace Dodd. He was born in New Zealand, on February 26, 1891. His father was British – arriving in New Zealand via Australia on a sailing schooner. His mother was a Polynesian native.
Dodd’s police ‘rap sheet’ includes conviction for bootlegging and a San Quentin Prison term for the sale of narcotics.
This story was syndicated and became part of the media “legend” of NOI. It was a lie. It was planted as part of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO which is accurately described on the NOI website dedicated to it:
COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program) was a series of covert, and often illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic organizations deemed “subversive”.
COINTELPRO tactics included discrediting targets through psychological warfare, planting false reports in the media, smearing through forged letters, harassment, wrongful imprisonment, extralegal violence and assassination. Covert operations under COINTELPRO took place between 1956 and 1971, however the FBI has used covert operations against domestic political groups since its inception.
COINTELPRO became public when a group of anonymous activists, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, started sending a stolen collection of over 1,000 FBI files on the program to media outlets. This was almost four decades before WikiLeaks or Anonymous. The virtual world was virtually non-existent in 1971. The files they stole were from file cabinets. The folders they were in were made of paper. Computers were in short supply back then, so they had to steal the files the old-fashioned way. Crowbar in hand, they broken into the tiny two-man FBI office in Media, PA on the night of 8 March 1971 while the whole world was distracted by the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight.
COINTELPRO was used against many groups in the social justice movements at the time including the Weatherman and the Black Panthers, but the FBI waged an especially fierce campaign against the NOI that predated COINTELRO by a long shot. The FBI was raiding NOI offices as early as 1942 and most likely continues its campaign in some form to this day.
Anyone familiar with the NOI and its activists, such as Malcolm X, and certainly anyone who has ever worked with them in the movement, knows that they have a very dedicated and ethical membership and can be a very positive force for change in spite of holding certain reactionary religious views that put them at odds with both secularists and Christians in the movement. All smart activists see these differences as contradictions among the people, recognize that they are on the right side of the struggle, and deal with those differences accordingly.
The FBI plan with regards to the NOI have always been to leverage Islamophobia, even among Black activists, and to focus on some of the more extreme views of the NOI to drive a wedge between them and the rest of the Afro-American liberation movement. The goal is to weaken the movement as a whole by precipitating splits among its parts. It was no accident that COINTELPRO kicked off in 1956 with a renewed investigation into the NOI after the Chicago field office started receiving reports of an “explosion in the Nation of Islam membership.”
Government and Media Attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra Now
The U.S. government, again with the help of its media allies, has been targeting Jabhat al-Nusra with a COINTELPRO-type campaign and the reason is essentially the same as the reason the NOI was targeted when it was. Jabhat al-Nusra has seen explosive growth in the past few months and it has also been winning many military victories against Assad’s forces. This is why it is being targeted now and not because of its alleged al-Qaeda affiliations.
It is true that Jabhat al-Nusra is led by an Islamic fundamentalist and has a jihadist outlook that believes in establishing a new Caliphate and a bunch of other reactionary right-wing mythology, just as some Jews believe in the establishment of a Greater Israel that extends from the Nile to Euphrates and some Christians believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, was created in seven days, and that all non-Christians will rot in hell. History has shown that a fantastical view of the past or a reactionary outlook on the future does not, all by itself, prelude a group from serving a progressive cause in the present.
Presently, Jabhat al-Nusra is playing an important part in the united front of Syrian organizations carrying out armed resistance to the Assad regime. They were founded in Syria and claim to be an organization of mainly Syrian fighters, although they have recruited many fighters from outside the country and have reportedly received both weapons and other support from Arab forces outside of Syria. Because they are organized, experienced, disciplined, and well-supplied, they have been winning battles. Because they have been winning battles, they have been winning popular support. The young Arabs that are joining their ranks now are not joining because they are impressed by their vision of a new Caliphate, they are joining because they are impressed with their success in the fight the common enemy.
While the main forces fighting under the secular banner of the Free Syrian Army and other more moderate Islamist elements have very important differences with jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra as to what kind of Syria should be built after Assad, they know that the job at hand is to get rid of Assad.
Jabhat Al-Nusra has long maintained that it is an independent jihadist organization and not a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria, but the media will not allow these declarations to get in the way of a good story, especially since the latest reason for not doing anything to stay Assad’s bombs or provide more support for the opposition revolves around these supposed Al-Qaeda connections.
Jabhat Al-Nusra has never attacked U.S. citizens, conducted operations outside of Syria, nor targeted civilians in Syria, and still Obama put them on the terrorist blacklist in November 2011 as an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Last week they claimed they had the proof of this affiliation via a pair of statements from the leaders of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra.
On 8 April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) made a bold assertion in which ISI took credit for creating Jabhat al-Nusra and said the two groups were merging under the new name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. ISI is actually a much more important group than Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), but it lacks the branding that the U.S. audience needs, so al-Baghdadi was recast as the head of AQI for the news reports. Even before Jabhat Al-Nusra responded, the Long War Journal was saying that it confirmed Obama’s definition of the group as an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
On 10 April 2013, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a leading figure in Jabhat al-Nusra, responded by saying that Jabhat al-Nusra was an independent Syrian group and would continue to operate under its own name. While the whole point of al-Golani’s response was to say that Jabhat al-Nusra remained a local group and not part of ISI, he made a serious public relations blunder when he praised the ideas of Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri in such Arabic that a bad translation could claim he pledged “allegiance” to the Al-Qaeda chief. The media had the story they were looking for, an Al-Qaeda connection to the Syrian rebels, and they weren’t going to let the facts in in the way.
EAWorldView did a very good job of dissecting and exposing the media’s branding campaign:
Syria Special: The Media Creates the “Al Qa’eda Myth”…
The facts are that a local Syrian faction, albeit one of the most important in the insurgency, has responded to pressure from a powerful foreign group by insisting on its independence. It has made clear that its operations, and its approach to politics and society during and after the conflict, are driven by its concerns in Syria.
This is a difficult story to understand, however, given the ground-level complexities of a rapidly-changing conflct with multiple actors. So the Western media, and analysts like Fishman, choose the easier if false construction of Al Qa’eda inserting itself into part of the insurgency, exploiting the common short-hand in popular consciousness of Us v. Them.
Scott Lucas did a video that talks about this in more detail:
Scott Lucas can shout the truth from the treetops. It doesn’t matter. The myth has already been repeated enough in the English-language media that it has become the reality. Now the myth is threatening to turn into a United Nations resolution that will hand the Syrian people another setback. Reuters is reporting:
France says U.N. talks begin on Qaeda-linked Syria rebels7:48 am, April 12, 2013
PARIS – The U.N. Security Council has begun informal talks on whether to impose sanctions on Syria’s rebel al-Nusra Front after it pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri this week, France said on Friday. More…
As I have reported earlier, Obama’s CIA has already been planning for armed drone strikes against Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yes, there is a serious possibility that Obama will intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict after all, but on the side of Bashar Al-Assad. With the rising chorus of myth-making we saw last week around Jabhat Al-Nusra as Al-Qaeda, it sounds like those drones may soon be on their way.