Dead Men Left

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Kamm again?

Oliver Kamm has taken a rest from his labours. He has spent the past week in apparent engagement with the “non-debate” on the “death of the left”, as sparked by Nick Cohen’s recent New Statesman article. From a great height, he surveys the doings of the Socialist Workers Party in regards to British Muslims, and pronounces judgement: the "totalitarian left" is "supporting fascism". This is an habitual rhetorical trick of Kamm’s: adopting a position of deep, ineffable knowledge on a subject of which his readers can be safely assumed to know little: endogenous growth theory; Polish dissidents. The “war on terror” has provided the opportunity to work this device to its full capacity: whilst understandably few care to take an interest in the squabbles of the British far-left, it is more unfortunately the case that a blunt ignorance of Islam – let alone “political Islam” - is pervasive. On these two posts, Kamm rests his fine conclusions: a “war on terror” worthy of the name, no less, befitting latter-day “anti-fascists” like himself.

(Before we start, may I note how strange – how truly odd - it is that in all Kamm’s many writings on fascism in Britain, the fascists of the British National Party receive barely a look-in?)

Kamm has happened upon an article by Salma Yaqoob, in the International Socialism Journal, issue 100, quarterly “theoretical journal” of the Socialist Workers’ Party. It is, we are told, “One of the most remarkable articles I can recall in an ostensibly secular Left-wing journal.” Kamm, warming up, advises his readers of its provenance:

(I should explain, for those unfamiliar with the practice of Leninist parties, that International Socialism Journal is not a magazine like,say, The New Statesman or Prospect, where writers of different points of view are represented. A party that operates on principles of democratic centralism sets a line, which its publications then adhere to.)

His “explanation” is deeply misleading. Susan George, Walden Bello and Robin Blackburn would perhaps be amused by the claim that they subscribe to the SWP “line”. Robert Service, I imagine, would be truly astonished. The point is this: Salma Yaqoob is not an SWP member. She was invited to write – as those non-members above were invited – in the International Socialism Journal(ISJ) on the grounds that a reasoned dialogue amongst the left is to be encouraged. Yaqoob’s article is informed by her experience in the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, and by her faith, rather than by an SWP “line”. That the article was entitled “a British Muslim perspective” should perhaps have alerted Kamm to this fact. Allowing for that, there ought to be little in what Yaqoob wrote that a considered, secular leftist would refuse to engage with. Kamm quotes Yaqoob:

The challenge for many non-Muslims, especially in the West, is to admit the possibility that there are values as universally valid as their own, and that it does not have a monopoly over the production of modernity. For example, the breadth and complexity of the Islamic movement and the Muslim presence, with its contribution to Western culture historically and its current role in extending modernity in the Middle East, needs to be acknowledged.

Occasioning him to provide a clear statement of his own beliefs:

Here, by contrast, is my position as a liberal, secular, European leftist. I proclaim the "universal validity" of the western Enlightenment values of liberal political rights, free expression,scientific inquiry, religious liberty, the rule of law, limited (not'minimal') government, female emancipation, and separation of civil and religious authority. Anyone who subscribes to those broad principles - whatever his view on second-order issues such as the right balance between private enterprise and the public sector in the economy - is my ally. Anyone who doesn't, isn't.

We will return to this statement shortly. For the moment, it should be noted, first, that Kamm explicitly denies any validity to a “Muslim experience”, whether historically or in its “current role”: modernity is solely and emphatically Western; and secondly, Kamm on those grounds should count Yaqoob as his “ally”. For in the same ISJ article, noting how certain individuals could “not conceive of any notion of Islam other than an extreme one”, she writes:

The irony is that the very things that many Muslims consider as fundamental to their faith -- respect for freedom of choice, importance of human rights, equality of men and women, emphasis on solidarity and fighting for justice -- are the things least associated with Islam. Instead the polar opposites --intolerance of others, abuse of women, mindless violence and terrorism -- are the more usual associations. The unremitting condescension and lack of any positive discussion of Islam is tiring, at the least, and often frustrating and dispiriting for many Muslims.

Again, we are forced to deal with Kamm’s pervasive habit of selective quotation reinforced by insinuation. (Note the “by contrast” in his statement of principle. What contrast?) In this instance, he relies on precisely the stereotype of Muslims Yaqoob criticises and whose presumed values she explicitly rejects in order to sedulously imply Yaqoob conforms to that stereotype. Kamm here deliberately uses an Islamophobic discourse to smear (we may presume) a sincere activist. Directly following this, he has engaged in a back-slapping exchange with Nick Cohen, of whom Yaqoob writes:

Sadly, despite the successful experience of Muslims and non-Muslims working alongside each other in the anti-war movement, many prejudices are still very much alive. A recent example was an article by Nick Cohen with the headline 'Why is a British socialist group forming a political alliance with repressive, Islamic fundamentalists? Because it really is exceedingly stupid', referring to Birmingham Muslims in the Stop the War Coalition. In the article we were called 'the enemies of political freedom, and the enemies of religious and sexual freedom', 'friends of tyranny', and 'supporters of dictatorship'. Repeating the slanderous claims about the 'Peace in Troubled Times' rally, he stated that 'clerics and their supporters instructed Asian women to sit separately from the men', and that 'Iranian socialists had to be shut up when they protested that they knew from bitter experience where religious bigotry led'. All these claims were completely unfounded.

In both Kamm and Cohen’s case, there is an unwillingness to deal with Muslims as anything other than a sinister, ideologically homogenous bloc, in the belief that politics can be instantly read off from religious faith. To claim otherwise is not simply to assert the freedom of individual religious belief that is (pace Cohen and Kamm) integral to and indeed constitutive of the “Western Enlightenment” – that to hold a faith is a matter of personal choice separate from individual political and social decisions, even where it may inform such decisions: to maintain Kamm and Cohen’s fallacy is to miss perhaps the fundamental dynamic of British Muslims’ engagement with the anti-war movement. Yaqoob captures it well:

Interestingly, there was one occasion at which an extreme Muslim group tried to disrupt a Stop the War coalition meeting, campaigning under the (somewhat ridiculous) slogan 'Don't Stop the War Campaign', calling on Muslims to refrain from working with non-Muslims. They were attempting to threaten the sense of unity and solidarity the coalition had built. The marginality of their views, however, was quickly made apparent whenthe Muslims present rejected them completely. The event proceeded smoothly, and they were not seen again.

Or, to put it another way: the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition was built precisely in opposition to the “fundamentalists” that Kamm apparently sees in every hijab or skull-cap. The experience in East London was similar: assorted extremist sects were left isolated by the practical, political experience of successful engagement between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslim isolationist argument was that western imperialism arrived as either the bombs launched by Bush and Blair that sought to physically annihilate Muslims; or it arrived in the “softer” form of the Stop the War Coalition and “liberalism” that sought toculturally destroy Muslims through assimilation. To undermine such arguments required the Coalition not to parrot the rhetorical demands of the “war on terror”: this “war” has little to do with “defeating terrorism” and much to do with pure imperial opportunism, combined with the domestic harassment of Muslims. (Kamm, as an aside, attempts to portray the SWP as “apologists” for al-Qaida. The SWP’s “line”, if you will, was made perfectly clear on 15 September 2001: “But whoever was responsible [for the WTC attack], socialists have a clear attitude. We abhor violence, and oppose indiscriminate bombings of civilians.” The Coalition, for its part, made its condemnation of the 9-11 attacks explicit in its founding declaration.)

The slogan “no to war, no to terror” was rejected by the Coalition shortly after 9-11, and with good reason: it is either a meaningless platitude – “Down With Nasty Things!” - or it repeats a liberal imperialist’s hypocritical handwringing: we don’t want to have a war, but… The SWP and others argued successfully within the Coalition for set of slogans that encapsulated the most pressing political issues in Britain: “no to war”, “defend civil liberties”, “no to the racist backlash”. Everything that the cynical, murderous “war on terror” has since brought to the world confirms how aptly chosen those slogans were. Everything the “war on terror” has brought has confirmed how necessary it was to announce, from its launch, the clearest possible opposition.

This opposition has included the defence of a woman’s right to dictate her own appearance. When Salma Yaqoob mentions that young Muslim women had taken to wearing the hijab in response to overt displays of Islamophobia after 9-11, as an assertion of their identity, Kamm can only recoil in horror:

The astonishing spectacle of the far-Left around the Respect coalition defending the progressive character of - among other aspects of Muslim particularism - the hijab is the 'left' variant of the same phenomenon.I stress that we are not talking here of Muslims' right to adopt the practices and observances of their faith, for religious liberty is an essential principle of the Enlightenment tradition. I mean instead the insistence that the character of those observances is itself a principle to be defended.

You will notice how Kamm – aware that he is dangerously close to breaking his own alleged belief in “religious liberty” – hurriedly suggests that his issue with the hijab is not because he opposes Muslims’ rights “to adopt the practices and observances of their faith”. No, what Kamm has a problem with is the “insistence that the characterof those observances is itself a principle to be defended.” The “character” of those “observances”, if we follow Yaqoob - who makes no claims about the hijab’s place in Islamic belief - is that young Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab do so to assert themselves as precisely that: as Muslim women, a deeply denigrated category in this society. You will notice from this that the defence of the right to wear a hijab has little to do with either a pervasive stereotype in the West about “submissive” Muslim women; or that it bears any necessary, “particularist” relation to the religious practices involved in its wearing. What is at stake is the universal right of women to dictate their own appearance: “female emancipation”, in Kamm’s words. It is because a women’s right to choose should be defended that socialists defend the right to wear the hijab in the West. Equally, the right of women not to wear a hijab should be fought for where necessary. To fall solely on one side or the other is denial of women’s autonomy; an autonomy to which Muslim women are as entitled as any other. (Kamm, who is evidently a keen reader of the ISJ, would be well advised to study Antoine Boulange on “Hijab, racism and the state” in ISJ 102, where this argument is made much clearer. It is, alas, currently unavailable online, though I doubt it is beyond his wit to order a copy.)

Kamm thus attempts to prop up his alleged belief in “religious liberty”, but then denies the right of certain women to be free to choose something as simple as their own appearance – and on no other grounds that they are Muslims. At every step, this peculiar feature: claims are made about democracy, secularism, Kamm’s virtuous defence of both, Kamm’s esteemed position on the “civilised left”; at every stage, each grand claim is perilously undermined. The fault-line, at each point, forms around Kamm’s insistence that Muslims be treated as a special case, to be denied the benefits of his “Enlightenment” values.

This is a highly dubious claim when made by a fervent supporter of type of Christian fundamentalism, and of a polity – Israel – whose own separation of state and religion is at best deeply problematical. (Perhaps Kamm thinks the advance guard of armed Zionism – the settlers - are seeking solely to bring a “western Enlightenment” to poor befuddled Arabs.) But let us leave aside Kamm’s lop-sided thinking, and address his claims here head-on.

Kamm offers a quote from what he calls Gilles Kepel’s “excellent” book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: 2002). It is spread over p.46-47:

Under Turkish secularism, which was unique in the Muslim world, the state did not remain neutral in religious matters, as it does in Western democracies, or aloof from religious activities. On the contrary, Turkey placed strict limits on those activities and exercised very careful control.... The secular character of the republic founded by Ataturk was the legacy of Comtean positivism, but it also owed a lot to the institutionalising of Islam by the Ottoman empire. One of the duties ofthe sheikh of Islam, chosen by the sultan-caliph, had been to make sure that the state's authority was not undermined by overzealous clerics.

(As Kamm finds Kepel’s book to be so “excellent”, I will quote from it extensively in what follows. It is an assessment I broadly share, by the by.) Curiously, Kamm cites “Turkish secularism” as an example emanating within “political Islam”: “there is no counterpart in political Islam to the separation of church and state, even in the obvious exceptional case”, which he follows with the quote above. If I have read this extraordinary clause rightly, Kamm views the Turkish republic as an “exceptional case” within “political Islam”. How, just how exactly the Turkish republic can be described as an example of “political Islam”, I do not know. Kamm appears to be labouring under the delusion that “political Islam” is identical to “Muslim politicians”, or even “a state with a majority of Muslims”. This is revealing; it explains much of his ill-conceived condemnations of Yaqoob, for example: a Muslim opposing the war on Iraq can only be a "political Islamist", and (by incorrect extension) a support of tyrrany, Osama bin Laden, and so on. But – as someone citing Kepel’s “excellent” book should be well aware – “political Islam” is decidedly not the same as being a “political Muslim”. The distinction emerges in the paragraph immediately following that cited by Kamm, p.47 again:

Likewise, in the socialist Arab countries, the religious legitimacy of regimes was carefully fostered, but religious issues were kept out of the public eye, which was supposed to be trained instead on the battle against imperialism and Zionism. Thus, Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi schoolbooks of the 1960s went out of their way to impress on schoolchildren that socialism was simply Islam properly understood.

These allegedly “socialist” regimes may have laid claim to some religious justification, but the character of their official public politics was resolutely secular – “religious issues were kept out of the public eye”. That a broadly secular regime should also claim a religious legitimacy is not unusual: notice which book the next US President swears his oath upon. But this is emphatically not “political Islam”, as the development of the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to Nasser’s regime in Egypt made plain. Kepel describes the drive to modernise in the “socialist Arab” countries as driven by an “authoritarian nationalism”. But he admits of other driving forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, pp.28-29:

The Islam of the Brothers raised the standard of “Islamic modernity” as an alternative to the modernity of Europe. The exact meaning of Islamic modernity has never been settled, and this ambiguity has allowed a wide variety of social groups to assemble under its umbrella…

The ambivalence inherent in the Brothers’ message has not gone unnoticed, and it has been interpreted in a variety of contradictory ways over the passing years. Left-leaning Arab intellectuals have traditionally regarded the Brothers as a populist movement whose aim was to enlist the masses and dilute their class awareness with a vague religious sentiment – a tactic that, ironically, played into the hands of the established order. This analysis pointed the similarities to the workings of European fascism during the same period, the 1930s. But in the 1980s, a new interpretation of the Brotherhood’s ideology appeared among progressives, who saw the Islamist movement of their own time as a continuation of what the Brothers had begun. By offering a way for disenfranchised groups who had not come to terms with the culture of Europeanised elites to enter modern society, the Brothers assisted the process of democratisation. Thanks to them, according to this view, the people could gain political power through, rather than in spite of, their Islamic culture. This debate over the merits of the Brothers’ Islamic ideology is still under way today. But both analyses tend to reduce Islamism to the bottom-line interest of a single social group: either the reactionaries who manipulate populist movements or the “people” whose cultural authenticity is idealised.

There are parallels in the West: Gramsci’s analysis of the populist movements in deeply Catholic southern Italy, in a similar period, points to analogous features. Kepel, like Gramsci, wishes to highlight theambiguity of such movements. His argument is subtle and hinges on the interaction between the uneven economic development of the Muslim world, during and after colonialism, with the ambiguities of Islamic thought. It can be summarised, without (I hope) too much damage, as stressing the ability of political Islam to bind together heterogenous social groups in a relatively cohesive formation; however, both these groups’ very heterogeneity, and political Islam’s pronounced inability to solve the Muslim world’s political problems, have lead it to a profound crisis.

Far from being the dominant element in contemporary political Islam, al-Qaida is a recidivist throwback: a reversion to extreme violence as a desparate (and futile, and barbaric) attempt to “solve” this crisis: “…[T]he attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.”(p.374) Carrying more weight, though still products of political Islam’s decline, are (p.368)

…those militants and former militants who now, in the name of democracy and human rights, are looking for common ground with the secular middle class. They haveput aside the radical ideology of Qutb, Mawdudi and Khomeini; they consider the jihadist-salafist doctrines developed in the camps of Afghanistan a source of horror, and they celebrate the“democratic essence” of Islam. Islamists defending the rights of the individual stand shoulder to shoulder with secular democrats in confronting repressive and authoritarian governments.

The attempted solution to political Islam’s woes is a drive towardsdemocratisation. It is placed, as the writings of Abdel Wahab al-Effendi demonstrated, in explicit opposition to the violent extremism of al-Qaida and similar. Kepel picks out a few, prominent examples (p.372): the Muslim Brothers who formed the "centrist, democratic" Al Wasat party, Islamist participation in elected assemblies, not questioning democratic principles, and the setting aside of the "sovereignty of God" deemed necessary for political participation by Qutb and Mawdudi.

This thoughtful academic, in his “excellent” book, could not draw conclusions themselves more sharply opposed to Kamm’s. In the violence with which Kamm chooses to denounce – not merely Islamists, but any politically engaged Muslim who opposes the New World Order – he echoes the rhetorical claims of bin Laden. As one Independent correspondent put it (Letters, 19 August 2004), attacking another (more successful) ideologue of the new Cold War, Ann Coulter:

Nothing can convince her that a Muslim can be a decent, law-abiding human being. In a way, she is no different from Osama Bin Laden. She does not want to have a dialogue but to impose her way of life on everyone.

Kepel notes Tariq Ramadan, an academic based in Geneva whose writings have engendered a significant debate in France. Ramadan’s most recent work in Enlish, Western Muslim and the Future of Islam, (New York 2004), in its active engagement with “western Enlightenment” values, and its concerns with dialogue, places him far from Kamm’s stereotype. Explaining his interpretation of Islam’s relation to the political, Ramadan writes, p.145:

There is a difference in nature between the Islamic principles related to religious ritual and those that concern the affairs of the world and society: the first are very detailed and precise, while the second are,with very rare exceptions, general and give guidance in a certain direction, rather than fixing a restricting framework…[T]he methodologies in these two areas are the complete opposites of each other: only the text is to be relied on for deciding what is allowed interms of ritual practice, whilst the scope for reason and creativity is very wide when it comes to social affairs, which are limited only by the prohibitions found in the scriptual sources, and these are in fact not very numerous.

This separation is not identical to what Ramadan sees as the particularly Western separation of “Church” and “State”; however, (to summarise, without, I hope, too much damage to his argument) he suggests the two distinctions allow the creation of a common zone of engagement, of broadly shared values, upon which a functioning political dialogue can be built, p.147:

So Muslims continue to find in their scriptual sources principles that inspire their social and political commitment without ever imposing a... dogma for action. On thinking about it, we realise this approach, apparently peculiar to Muslims, is in fact not so: many Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists are inspired in their social and political commitments by their religious, humanist, and ethical convictions to try and act in a coherent manner.

This is, at least, one scheme for dialogue. Ramadan has distinguished himself by engaging with the global justice movement in France, making a critical appearance at the European Social Forum in Paris last year. The search for common values that allow both an acceptance of necessary diversity, and the formation of common political programmes, has exercised the anti-capitalist or global justice movement since its rude eruption into the Northern world, the anti-WTO protests in Seattle of November 1999. That it can do both – rejecting a facile relativism, or a monolithic universalism, a la Kamm, is one of the movement’s great promises - Alex Callinicos, George Monbiot, Hilary Wainwright and Michael Albert are amongst those authors who have recently attempted to fulfil both these criteria. How successfully is left to the reader to judge; but such a debate exists, and becomes all the more pressing when too many voices announce specious “liberal” values as cover for a latter-day imperialism. That those bewailing the “death of the left” say so little about anti-capitalism is telling; their acceptance of post-1989 “New World Order”, and their resignation to the inevitable travails of social democracy blinds them to it. Above this resignation, a deeply, unpleasantly authoritarian world order is being constructed. (Blunkett enacts his own toy-town version of the same, here in Britain.)

Resignation is not unfamiliar to the left. E.P. Thompson, writing “Outside the Whale” in the very depths of the Cold War, drew attention to Orwell’s retreat into “quietism”, later followed by a host of post-war intellectuals who saw themselves as “hopeless victims of the world-process”. Criticising Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, as ressurected by the collapse of critical thought into Cold War norms – an accomodation to what Thompson called “Natopolis” – Thompson turned his scorn on these preachers of disengagement:

It was a repudiation of responsibility, a trahison des clercs, as abject as any that had gone before: not the repudiation of Stalinism, but the inert surrender to the established facts of Natopolis: not the discovery that the motives of some men were wrong, but the capitulation to Eliot’s sophistry in which human motives, in an affirmative social context, must always be wrong. (E.P. Thompson, “Outside the Whale”, reprinted in The Poverty of Theory and other essays, London 1978: p.20)

The left today is declared dead, because the demand to think through the freshly-imposed categories of a new Cold War are too overwhelming: the “Clash of Civilisations”, and 1989, and neoliberalism, are all too much. And so disengagement, a retreat "to the watchtower", as Isaac Deutshcer once argued; coupled with a blind, delirious hope that moral claims made for the Great Powers' military action translate into reality.

A critical thinker is reduced to denouncing his old comrades. And why? Because, in an extraordinary turn of phrase, they are “stupid”: stupidly ill-disposed to the strictures of the New World Order. But some small, quiet voice of resistance remains. Whilst Kamm is a loud and enthusiastic enforcer of mental straitjackets, braying for dissent’s blood, Cohen still maintains his crticial distance. His article in the Observer, 22 August 2004, suggests his attachment to the moral certainties of New Labour's post-Cold War politics is not complete:

…In 2004, when it risked seeing the Liberals take Birmingham Hodge Hill, Labour reshuffled the pack and played the race card which had been played against it so many times before.

Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate, told the voters, 'I know that people here are worried about fraudulent asylum claims and illegal immigration.Y et the Lib Dems ignore what people say. They ignore what local people really want. The Lib Dems want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They voted for this in Parliament on 1 March 2004. They want your money - and mine - to go to failed asylum seekers.' Labour didn't mention that the disputed measure was a plan to take the children of asylum seekers from their parents and put them into care, which Michael Howard had denounced as 'despicable'.

Cohen makes a direct comparison with Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, and the notorious Smethwick by-election. (The same comparison is made here.) It is apposite. The Hodge Hill campaign was filthy; the more so, coming from a party supposedly fighting for progressive politics, and I know of Labour Party members who simply refused to campaign there because of it. Commenting on Hodge Hill, Oliver Kamm, the staunch Cold Warrior, quipped parenthetically:

(I should also congratulate Labour MP Tom Watson for his robust campaigning in the Hodge Hill by-election; apparently it annoyed a lot of Liberal Democrats, which saddens me greatly.)

So there you are: racist filth is “robust” campaigning, an occasion for snide remarks on those foolish enough not to share Kamm’s lip-smacking delight in the exercise of authoritarian power. (A strong word, but there can be little other way to describe New Labour’s asylum regime.) The deliberate targetting of the most desperately vulnerable members of our society and the pandering (and promotion) of racism is solely – solely! – commented on as the moment to kick the Liberal Democrats. Labour's Hodge Hill campaign was obsence; Kamm’s response, equally so. Kamm concludes the first of his missives by quoting another's plea for “liberals” and conservatives to unite in a truly unholy alliance:

The differences between conservatives and liberals [in the American sense], when the terms are reasonably construed, are family differences among adherents of a free society, defined as one whose institutions ultimately rest on the consent of those affected by their operations. When the security of a free society is threatened by aggressive totalitarianism, these differences must be temporarily subordinated to the common interest in its survival. There is always the danger that in the ever-present and sometimes heated struggles between liberals and conservatives, each group may come to fear the other more than their common enemy. If and when that happens, the darkness of what Marx called 'Asiatic despotism', in modern dress to be sure, will descend upon the world.

The difference between democrats and authoritarians of Kamm's ilk is that the presumed belief in human freedom, or the creation of better world, is not mired by the celebration of existing power, the screeching dismissals of alternatives, the denial of legitimate dialogue and the imprecations against difference. Kamm displays an ill-concealed power-worship, and his thought runs constantly to a dead-end authoritarianism. No plausible left, no humane oreven “civilised” left, could ally itself with a reactionary of this stamp. Whatever lefts we build will be formed in direct, explicit opposition to the new authoritarianism and its apologists.