The reactionary right-wing politics of the Gaza demonstrations

Submitted by martin on 15 January, 2009 - 12:49 Author: Sean Matgamna

[For those who have been directed to this article in reference to why the AWL opposes boycotts of Israel, see 'Why left-wing students should not support boycotting Israel'.]

The demonstrations all over Britain since the Israeli offensive on Gaza began on 27 December [2008] have been heavily fuelled by justified raw outrage at the human cost to the Palestinians of what Israel is doing.

Israel's offensive in Gaza is in the tradition of the US-British slaughter of Iraqi conscript soldiers retreating from their occupation of Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf war in 1991. An American soldier described that as "like shooting fish in a barrel". So too in Gaza now.

Israel has immense technical superiority over Hamas. And the Hamas "fish" swim in the "waters" of a densely-packed civilian population. At least a third of the casualties, maybe far more, have, inevitably, been "civilians".

The disproportion between the damage being inflicted on Israel's people and what Israel is doing to the Palestinians of Gaza makes it seem beside the point that this is a two-sided war, that Hamas is waging war on Israel too. The slaughter in Gaza cancels out awareness of everything else.

The coverage in the press has focused heavily on the slaughter, on the horror, and on the number of civilians being killed in Gaza. So have the nightly images on the TV screens.

Thus the Guardian and other media have done most of the work in conjuring up the feelings and the outrage that fuel the demonstrations; and the "left", especially the SWP, have done much of the organising for the demonstrations.

But the politics of the demonstrations have been provided by the Islamic chauvinists. In terms of its dominant politics - support Hamas, support Arab and Islamic war on Israel, conquer and destroy Israel - the big demonstration on 10 January in London was politically an Arab or Islamic chauvinist, or even, to an extent, a clerical-fascist, demonstration. Their slogans, their politics, their programme, echoed, endorsed, and insisted upon by the kitsch left, have provided the politics of the demonstrations, more or less drowning out everything else.

The clerical fascists have been allowed to politically hegemonise the demonstrations to an astonishing degree, and despite the intentions of most of the demonstrations' participants. These have not been peace demonstration, but pro-war, war-mongering, demonstrations - for Hamas's war, and for a general Arab and Islamic war on Israel. On Saturday 10 January [2009] in London many placards portrayed Arab heads of state, depicting them as traitors for not going to the aid of the Palestinians.

In their political slogans and chants, the dominant forces on the demonstrations have been not only against what Israel is doing in Gaza now, but against Israel as such, against any Israel, against Israel's right to exist. Opposition to the Gaza war, and outrage at it, only provide the immediate justification for flaunting and propagating the settled politics of seeking the root-and-branch extirpation of Israel and "Zionism".

Such politics have long been a central theme of "anti-war" demonstrations, but my strong impression is that they are bolder, cruder, more uninhibited, and more explicit now than they have ever been.

On 10 January SWPers on loudhailers chanted: "Destroy Israel". The chant "From the river to the sea/ Palestine will be free" - demanding an Arab Palestine that includes pre-1967 Israel - was pervasive. Placards called for "Freedom for Palestine", which, for Arab and Islamic chauvinists and addled left alike, means Arab or Muslim rule over all pre-1948 Palestine. It implies the elimination of the Jewish state, and since that could be done only by first warring against and conquering Israel, the killing of a large part of the people of Israel.

Placards equated Israel with Nazism, and what Israel is doing in Gaza with the factory-organised systematic killing of Jews in Hitler-ruled Europe. Placards about 60 years since the Nakba [the Arab term for their defeat in 1948] - though not many of those - complemented the chants about "Palestine... from the river to the sea" and pointed up their meaning.

The dominant theme, "stop the slaughter in Gaza", understandable in the circumstances, could not - in the complete absence of any demands that Hamas too stop its war - but be for Hamas and Hamas's rocket-war on Israel. In so far as the placards and chants gave the demonstration its political identity, it was a demonstration for more war. Even the talk of "the massacre", though all too accurate, subsumed Hamas into the general population, and was one variant of implicit solidarising with Hamas, its rocket war, and, inescapably, its repressive clerical-fascist rule over the people of Gaza. The SWP in 2007 had welcomed Hamas's takeover in Gaza.

Talk of "genocide" in Gaza implied an absolute equation of the people of Gaza with Hamas, and absolute solidarity with Hamas.

Even the identifiable Jews on the Saturday 10th demonstration - Neturei Karta, a Jewish equivalent of Hamas, who for religious reasons want to put an end to Israel - fitted into the general clerical-fascist politics.

On the January 3rd demonstration, a group of political Islamists near me, some with faces covered by scarves or balaclavas with only eye and mouth holes, pointedly raised their fists and started to chant Allahu Akhbar (God is great) as we passed the House of Commons.

Platform speakers on Saturday 10th nonsensically but with demagogic effectiveness equated Israel - pre-1967 Israel too - with apartheid, and told us that Israel could be eliminated as white rule was in apartheid South Africa.

The "left" and the ex-left were heavily represented on the platform on Saturday 10th. Andrew Murray of the Communist Party of Britain (chairing), Tariq Ali (the rich "fun revolutionary" of long ago, all suffused in a grey-white tinge as if he had been dug out of the freezer, the ghost of anti-war demonstrations past!), Tony Benn, George Galloway, and Jeremy Corbyn spoke. Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop The War Coalition, wore a vivid red coat, but that was the only thing red about either her or the platform.

No criticism of the Arab or Islamic chauvinism or Islamic clerical-fascism of so much of the demonstration, nor even any distancing from it. No definition of Arab and Palestine Liberation Organisation demands for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Only one-sided anti-war war-mongering - pro-Hamas; demanding, in different degrees of boldness and clarity, war to put end to Israel. Craig Murray, a former British diplomat, made the most clear-cut demand for the rolling-back of 60 years of history and the elimination of Israel.

There was no criticism of the Arab and Islamic regimes other than for their "treason" to the Palestinians in not making war on Israel. A genuine peace march would at least have had some degree of criticism of the refusal of most of the Arab governments to make peace with Israel. And no reference whatsoever to the Israeli working class or to the idea that (even if in the not-near future) the Arab and Israeli workers should unite.

Thus, the "left" on the demonstration, its main organisers, were entirely hegemonised and hypnotised by the politics, slogans, and programme of Arab and Islamic chauvinism and, explicitly, of the clerical fascists of political Islam.

The feelings expressed in the current demonstrations have had a six to seven year build-up, during which that "left" has promoted the politics of Islamic clerical-fascism, and even its organisations, the British Muslim Initiative and the Muslim-Brotherhood front, Muslim Association of Britain. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The "left", from outside the mainly-Muslim communities in Britain - it is still very much outside: the evidence of the demonstration is that the SWP has gained very few recruits of Muslim background from its half-decade of accommodating to Islam and posing as the best "fighters for Muslims" - has done all it can to push the youth of the Muslim communities behind Islamist political and religious reaction. It has courted and promoted the forces of political, social, and religious reaction within those communities.

Instead of advocating and building working-class unity on ideas and slogans such as "black and white - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, atheist - unite and fight", kitsch-leftists have made themselves into communalists, the best "fighters for Muslims". On the political basis of Muslim communalism, no working-class unity could conceivably be built.

Instead of helping secularising, rebellious youth in the Muslim communities to differentiate from their background, instead of using the anti-war demonstrations to give them a focus broader than their starting point, the kitsch-left has "related" to the communities as such, and to the conservative and reactionary elements within them - including clerical-fascists - and that has helped those right-wingers to control, and the political-Islamist organisations to recruit, the youth, including women.

Instead of organising anti-war movements on the basis of secular, democratic, working-class, socialist politics, it has organised an "anti-war" movement that advocates a general Arab-Islamic war on Israel.

Two seemingly contradictory things dominated the demonstration. The politics of Islamic chauvinism and clerical fascism gave it its political character - an Islamic chauvinist demonstration in which the forces of the addled left sunk their identity, rather as the crazily ultra-left Stalinist German Communist Party in the two or three years before Hitler came to power sunk its own identity into fascist-led concerns with "liberating" Germany from the Treaty of Versailles.

And... it was a heavily a-political demonstration. A large part of the demonstrators, the majority I guess, have not sifted through the politics of the Israeli-Arab conflict, considered the options, studied the implications of slogans, and made deliberate choices, but react "raw" to the horrors of the Israeli offensive in Gaza and take the slogans, ideas, and programmes stamped on the demonstrations by the Islamists and their "left" allies as things given.

For instance, "Freedom for Palestine", for many of the marchers, does not mean that they have thought about and understood what the slogan means to those who raise it: Arab and Islamic rule over all pre-1948 Palestine, slightly encoded. "Free Palestine", to such people, probably means freedom for the Palestinian-majority areas - Gaza and the West Bank.

That the clerical-fascists can politically dominate on the demonstrations is in part a result of this political underdevelopment. The precondition for it - for making people who react "raw" into demonstration-fodder for Arab reaction clerical-fascism - is the politics of the addled left vis-a-vis political Islam.

The demonstrations have also been undisguisedly anti-semitic, more so than ever. Placards equating Zionism and Nazism and about Israel's "Holocaust" all have implications way beyond Israeli politics and Israel itself. Calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, understandable enough on the face of it, were pretty much central. The main argument against such a boycott is that it is an indiscriminate weapon against all Israelis, and that it would quickly become a targeting of Jews everywhere, in Britain too. A small event on 10 January illustrated the point: a Starbucks café was attacked by some of the demonstrators seemingly because some people thought that it is owned by Jews.

The 10 January demonstration shows that political Islam now has a serious political presence in Britain. Nor can socialists and secularists draw comfort from the experience in the first half of the 20th century when superstition-riddled Jewish communities quickly assimilated and generated large-scale left-wing commitment by secularising Jews. The Islamist politicisation of the Muslim communities is not something specific to Britain, nor is it simply a movement of oppressed people.

Those politicised sections of the Muslim communities are part of a world-wide movement which includes powerful states and some of the richest people on earth (in Saudi Arabia, for instance.) This world-wide movement is, in political terms, very reactionary. It is not likely that any sizeable part of it will soon shed its present reactionary character.

The serious left has to find ways of supporting the Muslim communities here against racism, discrimination, and social exclusion, without accommodating politically or socially to their reactionary traits, and without falling into the politically-suicidal idiocy of pandering to Islamic clerical-fascism by way of adopting its slogans and goals. Involvement of Muslim workers and youth in the labour movement, combined with militant labour-movement commitment to defending the communities against racism and discrimination, is our chief method here.

Our keynote politics have to be of the type of "black and white, unite and fight", not the adaptive Islamic communalism that has reigned on the left for the last decade. Within that general approach we must fight Islamic clerical-fascism and help its opponents in the Muslim communities.

The kitsch-left has a lot to answer for over the last decade. There is no way of measuring exactly what could have been done to wean sections of Muslim youth away from political Islam, but if the "left" - in the first place the SWP - had maintained a principled working-class socialist, internationalist, secularist stand, and combined that with defending Muslims against racism and discrimination, for sure more people of Muslim background could have been won to socialism. The clerical fascists would not have had the virtually unchallenged political ride they have had on the back of an accommodating addled left, and still have.

It has to be said here that the flood-tide of world-wide political Islam has worked and is working against separating large forces of youth from Islamic reaction. The predominant form of "rebelliousness" there seems to be against assimilating, "moderate" forces, and for political-Islamist militancy.

Even so, much could have been done. Instead the addled left has committed political hara-kiri, coloured itself Islamic green - and done its best to help reinforce the domination of conservative, reactionary, Islamic-chauvinist politics in the Muslim communities.

It has done everything it can to boost Islamic clerical fascism, promote it, and render it politically respectable in the labour movement. We are probably far from seeing the full consequences of the politicisation of sections of the Muslim communities under clerical-fascist hegemony that has taken place and continues now.


Submitted by davidosler on Sun, 18/01/2009 - 14:13

(1) The article consistently characterises the main Muslim organisations in Britain as 'clerical-fascist', a term that Marxists shouldn't use lightly. It seems to me that there is no 'one size fits all' classification for political Islam; it varies in coloration, from certain 'left Islamist' currents seen in the Iranian revolution, through the Turkish government, which is functionally equivalent to a rightist christian democratic administration in Europe, right through to those movements who undoubtedly would slaughter the left and trade unionists if they ever came to power, and thus properly merit the tag.

I am aware that Cliff described the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, as 'clerical fascist'. I am also aware that the current SWP maintains that it has changed in nature, and that the Egyptian MB mothership collaborates with the secular left. I don't know enough to judge. But can I just ask you to point me to where the AWL has theorised its stance? Please expand the point; why *concretely* do you feel the MAB are 'fascists'? And if they really are fascists, shouldn't you be arguing for physical confrontation with them?

(2)I still don't get why any socialist group opposes the demand for a democratic secular state. I have just been re-reading Nathan Weinstock's 'Zionism: False Messiah', in which he - correctly, I think - characterises Zionism as a 'colonisatory project'. What then makes the Israeli state fundamentally different to Algerie Francaise or Afrikaanerdom? When the 1980s left demanded democracy in South Africa, this was not tantamount to a call for the massacre of whites of Dutch descent. Aren't you being a bit hyperbolic in equating an insistance on democracy with the physical elimnation of Jews?

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 18/01/2009 - 17:32

Dave - for myself:

1. I largely agree. There are different tendencies within Islamism, some of which are more aptly called 'clerical fascist' (or 'fascistic') than others - though I think some of the tendencies you refer to in 1970s Iran are radically different to what we're usually talking about these days. A general characterisation of most of these tendencies (today) as pretty reactionary seems right, though. Don't you think?

I'm not sure about the MB. It's true that some of the secular left collaborate with *them* (and there might be times when that's right - or right to relate to their base). But on a visit to Egypt last year I was told by leftish Egyptians that the MB are 'worse than fascists'.

2. If you think of the Israeli Jews in the wider context, they're - it seems to me - obviously a national minority, with their own language, etc, in the broader Arab world. As such, they're entitled to their national rights.

And there certainly are, and have been, historically, forces other than just the oppressed (still less just oppressed Palestinians) who aim to destroy Israel, or would like to see it destroyed (ie the Arab regimes, various strands of Islamist including Wahabism, etc). - meaning, destruction through external military force, not popular, democratic revolution.

What's the South African analogy for them?

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 18/01/2009 - 23:14

I went to my first ever left wing demonstration in, I think, 1977. In over 30 years I have never heard of people being chased off demonstrations, having their placards ripped up, or being told they could not march on the same demonstration as the rest of the people there. Never. And this is despite people having many weird and wonderful, and frequently, to me, objectionable slogans on their placards or being chanted through their loudhailers. It has always been accepted as just part of *having* a demonstration that there will be people saying things you don't like.

(An exception would be if there were fascists of the BNP-type marching. I don't remember ever being on a demo where this was a real issue).

That the left now apparently thinks nothing of ripping up placards just because they disapprove of the slogans, or 'chasing people off demonstrations' is deeply, deeply disturbing, and if you are 'considering joining in', it's you who should be asking yourself very, very searching questions.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 19/01/2009 - 00:13

"Matgamnas essential argument here is that the thousands of radicalised Arab youth taking a stand against terrible injustice have fascist ideas."

My impression is that most of the youth involved are Asian, but that's neither here nor there, really.

Our comrades have been on these demonstrations from the start, taking part in the mass actions alongside Muslim youth *and* politically arguing with a lot of them, after most of the rest of the left has pissed off home. In one case, an AWL member has been arrested and clashed with the cops a number of times.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Mon, 19/01/2009 - 00:30

Let's put aside for a moment the fact that the people Sean was referring to weren't just ordinary demonstrators who happened to be Muslim but rather organised Islamist activists (a point that 'Johnb' seems to have missed). It seems pretty elementary to me that making "God is great" your lead chant on a demo isn't ideal from a socialist point-of-view, and that socialists would attempt to engage with people who chant this and persuade them not to. But for 'Johnb', we just get "well, duh - it's because they're Muslims."

If a political movement was dominated by, or included a significant minority of, say, Jewish elements whose world view was firmly, ideologically, politico-religious I imagine 'Johnb' would argue with them, criticise them, whatever, even while attending demonstrations alongside them. But when the people in question are Muslims, there apparently can be no criticism. They are politico-religious "because they're Muslims", and that's that.

Let's unpick the logic here; as far as I can see, 'Johnb' is implying that the British Asians of a Muslim background who're chanting "God is great" on the demonstrations can't really be expected to develop anything beyond this politico-religious consciousness (such as working-class, socialist consciousness, for example) "because they're Muslims." And we're the racists? Get a grip, mate.

If, 'Johnb', you actually believe that we "should be aiming [...] to win them away from religion and to socialism", how do you propose that we go about this if any criticism of their existing, reactionary ideas is immediately shouted down as "racist"? If we don't have a critique of their current ideas, why should any of them bother breaking from them and becoming socialists?

As we've pointed out many times, many (probably most) of the young British Asians on the Gaza demonstrations have gone out of sheer shock, indignation, revulsion, opposition, whatever to the colonial slaughter Israel is dealing out to the Palestinians. That's the right instinct, it's one we share, and it's precisely because they are motivated by that instinct (and not necessarily by clerical-fascist ideas) that it's so important for secularist, working-class revolutionaries to intervene in the movement to offer an alternative political basis for solidarity with the Palestinians than the Islamist one offered by organisations such as BMI or MAB.

As you'll see if you read articles like this, AWL members are making serious attempts to engage with the people radicalised and drawn into political activity by this war. We'll keep doing that, and you can... well, do whatever you like really. Keep smearing us as "racist" from behind your keyboard when in reality it's your perspective that relies on patronising the very people whose religion you're so keen to protect from criticsm.

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 19/01/2009 - 11:05

"the thousands of radicalised Arab youth taking a stand"

Or does johnb think all Muslims are Arabs?

"of course there were Muslims shouting Allahu Akhbar on the demonstrations, that because they are Muslim"

Oh, I see. What else would you expect a Muslim to shout? And there's no H in 'Akbar'.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Tue, 20/01/2009 - 19:49

Stuart, if I tried to explain away increasing hostility to Muslim people around the world by pointing to the actions of, say, the Iranian government (the "Islamic Republic", after all) you would undoubtedly and pretty legitimately attack me for giving cover for racism.

And yet here you are explaining that the increase in anti-Jewish racism around the world is in fact the fault of Israel. A friend of mine was once mugged at knife-point by a man who happened to be black; it may surprise you to know that my friend did not react by saying "it's not wonder racism on the rise when black people are going round doing that sort of thing."

Neturei Karta, the "ultra-Orthodox Jews" referred to in the article, are without a doubt clerical-fascist as far as I'm concerned - not just because of their politics on the Middle East but because of their Medievalist hostility to women, LGBT people and modern bourgeois society as a whole (which personally I prefer to the forms of social organisation common in the 17th century Poland. Don't know about you). Their "anti-Zionism" is not motivated by solidarity with the Palestinians but by hostility to the role the Zionist movement played in the Jewish community - i.e. providing a rival, predominantly secular, pole to that of their own religious obscurantism.

Would you defend these people too, Stuart, as you defend Hamas?

It is utterly, utterly baffling to me that people like Stuart with years of experience in the Trotskyist movement cannot seem to get their heads around the idea that you might attend a demonstration even if you don't agree with the politics that hegemonise it. You might even attend a demo because you don't agree with the politics that hegemonise it, and because you think the struggle around which it is organised cannot be fought on the basis of those politics, and to provide alternatives.

Apparently PR members only go to demos to chime in with whatever happens to already be in the heads of most of the other demonstrators. Good luck with that, but as far as I'm concerned swimming with the stream has never been something Trotskyists have made a habit of.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Wed, 21/01/2009 - 22:45

Shachtman did indeed write some excellent articles.

Such as this one, for example, in which he attacks early Stalinist "anti-Zionism" and left anti-Semitism.

Funny how Trotskyists in 1929 got it right on those issues and most "Trotskyists" 80 years later just can't manage it...

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