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Liberalism’s Orientalist Fantasies About Islam

This is a long Facebook post one of my comrades made. It is targeted towards an Australian audience, but I think many of the lessons here translate to different contexts.

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I generally do not want to get involved in “debates” about Islam, because A) I prefer to analyze Middle Eastern affairs in terms of geopolitics and global alliances, and B) they are not usually done in terms of academic debate, but simply pure wankery in the midst of the ongoing cultural war. But after the London terrorist attacks, we see the same media cycle being repeated – Muslims having to come out and collectively condemn the actions, self appointed talking heads becoming “experts” on interpreting Islam for the Western world, and right-wing ideologues continue arguing for decreased civil liberties for Muslims, from banning hijabs to outright banning Muslim migration. Yet this nonsense has been going on for the last 15 years, with no end in sight. And sometimes, when you see arguments so stupid, you have no choice but to respond i.e. getting accused of being a anti-White racist for simply pointing out the roles European and US colonialism played in the Middle East.

We are living in an age which places personalities above actual ideas. An age where the medical views of a model can be placed above those of actual doctors. An age where a housewife’s views on Islam can be placed above those of Middle East scholars. An age where an Islamic hate preacher, despite being banned by his own community, is constantly being invited to talk shows and be presented as the “face” of Islam in the Western world. Media stereotypes are often recycled and repeated among society, building up socially constructed notions of the Orient, of the other. To many current right-wing critics of Islam in Australia, from Cory Bernardi to Pauline Hanson, Islam is more than a religion of various denominations and contradictions, but rather, a monolithic entity which remain unchanged for 1400 years. As such, the Sunni and Shia, the Caliphates and the Ottomans, the Hui Chinese and Bosnian Muslim, are all interchangeable disciples of this entity. Modern issues faced in the Islamic world, from poverty and corruption to religious extremism, are not seen as the results of capitalism and globalization, but rather as inherent problems within Islam, which somehow can be traced back to a book written millennia ago.

In his works, Edward Said noted that the Western media have tendencies to depict Muslims as “absolutist and unreasoning” and “culturally primitive”. Throughout the last century, Hollywood films have depicted Arabs and Muslims as either villains to be eliminated, or victims to be rescued, usually by the White, masculine, hero. This explains why the majority of Muslims depicted on screen are either lecherous oil sheiks or fanatical terrorists, unless the film is set in 1980s Afghanistan, where the same jihadists instead became valiant freedom fighters against communism. I remember when I was a kid, I imagine the Arab world being those of majestic towers and flying carpets, straight from Disney’s Aladdin. Come 9/11, they are back to being terrorists again on the big screen.

In this Orientalist fantasy, Muslims are not real people capable of independent thought, but rather cardboard cutouts, where religion is the end all to their daily lives. They are divided into the role of the “Good Muslim”, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who utterly rejects Islamic traditions while embrace the Western world and their Judeo-Christian cultures, allowing Western reactionaries to live our their White savior fantasies. On the opposite end, sits the “Bad Muslim”, e.g. Anjem Choudary and other religious fanatics, but also pretty everyone else, with nothing in between. As such, despite only accounting for 2.2% of the Australian population, with half non-practicing, Australian Muslims are not see as “true Australians”, but perpetual foreigners, ready at any moment to take over and impose Sharia law, class and ethnic divisions be damned.

All of the wars waged by the Muslim entities, from the early caliphates to the ongoing War on Terror, are retroactively revised as one continuous war between the “primitive” Islamic world, and the “civilized” Judeo-Christian world. The Prophet Muhammad is demonized as a bloodthirsty warlord, while Jewish warlords such as Joshua are celebrated in the Bible. This is in spite of the shifting alliances in the Muslim world, which often fought one another, and even making alliances with the Christian kingdoms – from the two century long French-Ottoman alliance, to the British alliance with the Saudis in overthrowing the Ottomans. In contrast, all of the blood spilled by the European kingdoms to gain the favor of the Pope, all of the American natives forced to choose between the book or the sword, are never blamed on Christianity alone. History is continuously being written and rewritten.

Nothing is mentioned about the Abbasid Caliphate, and its Islamic Golden Age, or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad which collected knowledge in medieval sciences and art, before the Mongols burnt it to the ground in 1258, which made the Tigris bleed with ink.

Nothing is mentioned about the Mali Empire, which traded in gold dust, and whose ruler, Mansa Musa, caused a small inflation with all the gold he brought during his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Nothing is mentioned about the Safavid Empire, which converted Persia to Shia Islam, and had an extensive legacy of art, including depictions of Muhammad in miniatures.

Nothing is mentioned about the Ottoman Empire, which had a relatively liberal culture, legalized homosexuality in 1858, and had an extensive catalogue of homosexual literature.

Nothing is mentioned about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved up the Middle East between the British and French Empires, overriding ethnic divisions, and its impact on the Middle East can still be felt a century.

Nothing is mentioned about the anti-colonial movements post-World War II, built along Arab Nationalist lines, which the Western powers countered with fundamentalist Jihadis.

Nothing is mentioned about secular Muslims states like Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, or even Afghanistan and Iran a few decades ago, where many lived Westernized lifestyles before foreign intervention.

As such, the Islamic world is never understood on its own terms, but purely through its interactions with the Western world. The backward practices of the Wahhabis, rather than seen as a product of a specific time or region, is depicted as representative of all 1.7 billion Muslims, and of Islam’s 1400 year long history. Are there solutions to the problem of terrorism? Yes, but bombing the Islamic countries back to the stone age, as advocated by right-wing ideologues, is not one of them, for real world politics do not operate on idealism, which is why the Saudis receive continued military funding despite sharing a similar ideology with ISIL, and why the very same Islamic terrorists the West fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are suddenly “freedom fighters” in Libya and Syria. But after all, for some, it is easier to rip hijabs off Muslim women, literally and figuratively, than actually doing anything significant, like stop consuming Saudi oil. Repeating “Islam is not a race” all day does not change the fact that a large majority of people attacked post 9/11 were Sikhs.

Rather than fighting terrorism by bombing people back to the stone age, then denying them rights to seek asylum, little is talked about the role of capitalism, which thrives on global inequality, or the ever expanding military industrial complex, which altogether fuel the specter of terrorism. The Western world is not always at war with Islam, for the target supposedly out to destroy the West rotated from the Yellow Peril, to the Red Scare, to the drug tycoons, and now, Islam. Among this mess, genuine Arab and Muslim voices are rarely consulted, except to be used to reinforce existing Western conceptions of the Orient, where war, terrorism, and poverty, rather than contemporary issues brought on by foreign intervention, are seen as the faults of the people themselves. A shooting in London or Paris becomes world news, yet bombings which kill hundreds in Baghdad or Damascus are simply just another “normal” day.

I do not profess to process long term solutions to terrorism, but instead of listening to self professed Western “experts” on Islam and the Middle East, how about talking to a Muslim or someone from the region for once? The Shias and Alawites who lived and died to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria, or even the Kurds, Yazidis, or Christians doing the same? After all, these are the people who have to endure the very consequences of foreign intervention, having to live with the very stories we in the West only read in newspapers.

What to Do After You’ve Punched a Nazi

I was overjoyed when I saw the video footage of the anarchist punching Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer is reputed to have coined the phrase “alt-right”, and behaves in exactly the same way as a neo-Nazi, although he disavows the label. Slate quotes an article from the New York Times that describes what Spencer did at one of his speeches:

He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”

As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.

This is just one example out of many of the toxic activities that Spencer has been engaged in.

The Rise of the Far Right

Racism, white nationalism, neo-Nazism and all other kinds of toxic bigotry are on the rise in Western countries. With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the US President, layers of the population who are sympathetic to these ideas are going to feel more confident in becoming vocal and more organised in their toxic and inhuman ideology.

For many on the far-left, the video clip of Spencer being punched was a refreshing moment of catharsis. For many, Spencer was getting exactly what he deserved, and the attack represented a powerful “Fuck You” to the Far Right. The Far Right has been on the rise in Western countries, and so far it seems like little is happening to stop it.

More than this, to the far Left, it seems like the most prominent attempts to deal with the Far Right have been wrong-headed. People like Spencer take pride in their bigotry, and aren’t open to rational discussion about their views. Far-leftists are correct when they diagnose the white supremacist mind as twisted and out of touch with reality. The system of assumptions upon which their ideology rests are grounded on irrational emotions, not solid empirical evidence. Many on the left think that this means that the only way you can fight neo-Nazism and white supremacism is by doing exactly that–physically fighting Nazis.

Propaganda and Gossip

The video clip of Spencer being punched seemed to represent more than just evidence of an act of praxis. It was a moment for celebration. This was a massive propaganda win for leftists. On the video Spencer skulks off after being attacked, clutching his head and looking back to make sure he can avoid any further violence.

But what seems like a massive propaganda win is turning into a topic for gossip among the in-crowd. I agree with some leading comrades that the ideological value of this video clip of Spencer being punched is radically dwindling. The clip is being used to make more and more abstract memes that appeal to only those “in the know” about what to do about neo-Nazis.

Some leading comrades have commented that the endless celebration of one Nazi being punched is not going to make sense to the common American, or the common American worker. I agree with this. Most workers in the US and other Western countries are not organised, and haven’t been educated about what a neo-Nazi is, and why it is a good thing for this lone anarchist to have punched one. There will of course be different levels of class consciousness among the general population, but we shouldn’t make assumptions that this video clip is immediately going to translate our message over to the average person.

Black Blocs and Direct Action

I would like to broaden this discussion by talking about the significant anarchist presence at the Trump inauguration. Many will already know that many anarchists attended the Trump inauguration in an organised “Black Bloc”. Some anarchists engaged in “insurrectionist” tactics. This means setting out to challenge authority through violent means. Many anarchists at the Trump inauguration took insurrectionism to mean being violent to neo-Nazis and damaging private property. Insurrectionist tactics are one example of what Communists call “direct action”. Direct action is when one engages in direct public protest instead of (usually clandestine) negotiation in order to achieve strategic aims.

The punching of Spencer is an example of an anarchist engaging in insurrectionist direct action. Like the action of punching Spencer, many on the far Left celebrated the violent direct action of the Black Blocs. To me at least, this rioting represented something powerfully symbolic. Against the reverence of the (small) attendees of the inauguration, and the (frustrating) platitudes of liberal commentators and protesters, the Black Bloc advertised the message of the far Left: “We won’t put up with this!”

But like the punching of Spencer, the insurrectionist direct action by the anarchists probably isn’t going to translate into sympathy for our cause among the unorganised working class. In fact I (not without a sense of shame) agree with the trot Paul D’Amato in his 2012 online article Diversity of tactics or unity in action?: by engaging in mere gossiping and in-crowd discussion about the direct action of the anarchists at the inauguration we risk being elitist and sectarian in our approach to building our movement.

The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics

Insurrectionist direct action is a very real and live device in the Communist toolkit for achieving strategic goals for our movement. But it is a mere tactic, and not a strategic goal in and of itself. If we continue to just gossip and celebrate our use of tactics, we lose sight of the bigger picture of the Communist cause. If the celebration of punching Nazis, smashing windows, and getting into fights with the police continues for much longer, we will not be doing our jobs properly.

Insurrectionist direct action is “sexy”. Everyone loves a good story about a confrontation they had with the cops. But it is not enough to build our movement. In fact the direct opposite is going to help us with the revolution. Slow, painstaking and patient organising in our workplaces and communities is going to help us grow in numbers and strength. This is real power. Brute physical strength is not enough to help us grow and win. It is a necessary component of helping us win, but it is not sufficient. Only organising is sufficient, as well as necessary.

Organising is always necessary as well as sufficient tactic for building our strategic goals because it always builds power. Insurrectionism only works sometimes, and in isolated cases. Further, insurrectionism is a corollary of organising. A large layer of people need to have been previously organised in order to make insurrectionism intelligible and understandable.

We can go even further. Insurrectionism is not a good tactic in and of itself. Its goodness as a tactic is derivative. It is good because of what it brings about. It is good because of its consequences. It is therefore not an intrinsic good. Think about the justifications Communists give for insurrectionist direct action: It helps expose systems of authority. It physically resists and dispels bigotry. It displays, in powerful symbolic form, the message and strength of the Left to others.

All of these justifications point outside the internal organisation of the working class. This demonstrates that insurrectionism is not an intrinsic good. It is, however, still a good of some kind. Which means insurrectionism could and must be practiced when it is necessary.

The question all Communists should be asking themselves is: when should I be engaging in direct action? What kind of direct action is sufficient for our overall strategy?

I personally think that Trump’s inauguration was a better time for insurrectionism, than others. But we need to be mindful that we aren’t raising mere tactics to the level of strategy.