Oct 14, 2007

Islamic fundamentalism and the three-way fight: an exchange

How should leftists respond to Islamic fundamentalist movements? The following dialogue between two contributors to Three Way Fight explores this question, touching on issues such as secularism, Islamophobia, state repression, heterosexism, and, above all, the role of women and women's oppression in the global political struggle.

The dialogue centers on the work of Azar Majedi, who is a leader of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran and the founder of the Organization for Women's Liberation - Iran. The exchange began when Bromma sent Matthew the text of Majedi's article, "When a lesbian says: 'We are all Hezb' Allah now'" (posted to Three Way Fight yesterday).

Please note that the emails below were originally written for a private exchange, not for publication.

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September 2, 2007


Thanks for the Majedi piece. Were you wanting to submit it to Three Way Fight? I am concerned about Majedi's conflation of the Islamic Right with Islam in general. That doesn't necessarily mean we wouldn't post it, but probably with some sort of commentary.


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September 4, 2007

Hi, Matthew.

I didn't really have a definite purpose in sending the Majedi piece, except that I thought you might find it interesting, and wondered what your take would be. It bears on aspects of the 3-way fight that seem to be...underemphasized? If you print the piece with a commentary, that might cause some valuable discussion, but you know best.

The worker-communist folks (like Majedi) usually specify that one of their two antagonists--one of the "two poles of reaction" confronting them--is "political Islam" or "Islamist" movements. I don't have a problem with this. There is a political Islamist movement; it is reactionary just like Zionism, Hindu nationalism and Christian fundamentalism. It isn't all fascist by any means, but it includes a strong fascist vanguard with influence beyond its numbers.

I also don't have a problem with Majedi's militant secularism.

I do think Majedi probably causes unnecessary controversy by the way she uses the terms "Islam" and "Islamic" in the piece I sent, even though her meaning is clear enough.

After all, Majedi isn't some Western bigot. She probably has friends and family members who adhere to Islam as a religion. She does distinguish between "ordinary Moslems" and political Islam. (See, for instance, her passionate call-out of Oriana Fallaci for racism against Muslims: http://azarmajedi.com/articles/orianaFallaci.html.)

She also has direct experience with Islamist state power. She is a survivor of Iranian fundamentalism, who witnessed revolutionaries tortured and killed by the thousands. She, along with the other Iranian socialist women, was sold out by pretty much everybody, including anti-imperialist men of the Left and Right.

Which brings me to what is so important about the perspectives of women like Majedi, and the women in OWFI in Iraq and RAWA in Afghanistan. (Their perspectives are by no means monolithic, of course.) These are revolutionary women on the front lines of the 3-way fight, whose knowledge is based on lived reality. They have been working on this problem for many years, with life and death stakes. It makes me wonder why more of us aren't interested what they've learned.

I think that the struggle for control over women is the key to the 3-way fight. Imperialism is moving swiftly to reconfigure gender relations in the world; re-creating a proletariat based ever more openly on oppressed women and children.

Meanwhile, rebellious right-wing populism is powered by and fixated on misogyny; populated by men who are furious about losing "their" women.

And how about us? Where do we stand on women's freedom? In my opinion, the politics of gender are the key to distinguishing between freedom fighters and right-wing populists (including their phony "left" variants like Chavez).

There isn't going to be much progress on 3-way fight politics here unless we start paying serious attention to the pivotal role of gender in this dynamic. And unless we start giving props to the women in the 3-way battle zones who are the pioneers and natural leaders of this underdeveloped new politics.

By the way, I have definite reservations about the worker-communist perspective, but from a completely different angle--a topic for another day, maybe...


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September 10, 2007

Hi B,

Your September 4th email makes a lot of good points, about both Majedi's essay and larger issues of gender and the three-way fight. Actually I think your email could be the basis for an initial commentary accompanying the Majedi piece, although I think there are other points that should be raised as well.

Yes, there is a right-wing Islamist movement, but I question whether that label accurately describes all forms of "political Islam." Furthermore, there are important differences within the Islamic right itself -- about gender and other issues -- which western critics routinely gloss over. Majedi's writings play into this. It's not just a question of whether she herself is a western bigot, but how her voice is or will be exploited by western bigots. Majedi is a sophisticated political actor and has a responsibility to take this into account, but (despite her letter to Fallaci) I see little evidence that she does so.

For a helpful discussion of this issue specifically in relation to anti-queer violence in Iran, see "People-to-People Dialogue Key to Human Rights Progress" by Mitra Roshan and Kourosh Shemiani, and the accompanying comments on Karl Kersplebedeb's Sketchy Thoughts blog

Like you, I don't have a problem with militant secularism. I do have a problem with calls for the capitalist state to restrict religious behavior -- especially when such calls selectively target the religious behavior of groups that are already persecuted and demonized widely -- as opposed to religious groups that are socially and culturally dominant. Majedi comments elsewhere (http://www.iranian.com/Namazie/2004/November/Majedi/index.html) that we should make a clear distinction between criticizing or ridiculing Islam (good) and "insulting people by reference to their religion" (bad). Sounds like "hate the sin but love the sinner." In any case, I don't think it's a distinction that holds up very well in practice -- not in today's political climate anyway.

Majedi advocates (http://www.iranian.com/Majedi/2006/November/Veil/index.html) a ban on the burka (with face covering) from all public places and any form of religious veil (such as headscarves) for underage girls. She claims that "'a child has no religion.' It is the parents' religion that is imposed on the child." (Really? A 14-year-old has no religion?) She writes that France's law against wearing any religious symbols in state schools is a step in the right direction, but "its main shortcoming is to still allow private religious schools to operate. This leaves the girl's fate in the hands of religiously fanatic parents to send her to private religious school and ghettoize her life completely." By this logic, we should simply forbid practicing Muslims to raise children -- they should all be raised by secular families or in secular state institutions.

In that same essay Majedi does claim in passing that all (all?) religions are misogynist, but her consistent focus is on attacking Islam. In today's U.S. this plays directly into the hands of Bush-allied rightists, although clearly that's not Majedi's intention. Why single out Islamic practices? Given the west's Islamophobia (a concept which Majedi dismisses as a creation of Islamists and their apologists) any secularist attack here on Islamic heterosexism and misogyny has to be couched in terms of a more forceful attack on Christian heterosexism and misogyny. And beyond that, what about secular heterosexism and misogyny? Does it really empower a 14-year-old Muslim girl to tell her she can't wear a headscarf but it's okay to wear a baby t-shirt that says "porn star"?

None of these thoughts are new to you, I'm sure, but I find it helpful to put them into words, and you did ask what I thought.

Best wishes,

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September 12, 2007

Hi, Matthew.

I'm in favor of making proper distinctions, especially since the intersection of politics and religion is so emotionally charged.

However, I think the most important thing is this essential fact: there is a powerful misogynist fundamentalist movement that has taken the dominant leadership role within the Islamic Right (and actually within the growing world-wide rebellious Right, for which it is a role model). This is a dynamic movement which encompasses tens of millions of adherents and supporters; one which threatens hundreds of millions of women and men. It is, in my opinion, a real-world embodiment of one pole of the 3-way fight. I think this is an underlying premise of Majedi's piece.

It is Islamic fundamentalists who are engaged in the main armed struggle with global Capital, who have taken over in Iran and Afghanistan, who are insurgent and growing in dozens of countries, including Iraq of course. I am disgusted that the Western Left talks about Iraq every day, but evades this critical issue.

In terms of the 3-way fight, this is 100% dysfunctional, since what we are actually observing in these countries is one of the most important examples and symbols of "3-way fight" today; one with which thousands of revs and beleaguered women in Iraq and many other countries are desperately trying to cope.

The male-dominated Left everywhere is unable to provide leadership, because it can't/won't grasp the centrality of women in the world political struggle. Certainly trying to define 3-way politics without dealing with the wars on women is trying to fight with both hands tied behind our backs.

I'm not aware of any significant right-wing political Islamist trends that are pro-women. Maybe you could give me examples?

We should bear in mind that in both Iran and Afghanistan, fundamentalists were smart enough to play on the sympathies (and opportunism) of left-wing men--at least until they came into power. Once in power, they massacred leftists by the thousands.

Today the Iranian regime has lobbyists and agents who monitor Western "progressive" circles and appeal to their credulous, selective, male-identified multiculturalism to blunt potential criticism. This doesn't stop the Iranian state from daily carrying out the most vicious attacks on women and gay people back home.

The thing is, the fundamentalists already have a pretty good take on the 3-way fight and the pivotal role of gender within it. They calibrate their tactics toward the other two poles with considerable intelligence. They are way more sophisticated politically than we are.

Since there is tremendous anti-fundamentalist discontent among the Iranian population, especially among youth and women, the last thing the regime wants to see is the rise of global solidarity for Iranian secular revs, women and gays. Ditto for other fundamentalists. Their entire paradigm is based on male domination, and they use every means at their disposal to defend it.

We have obliged them nicely. We generally let Left groups in the metropolis cuddle up to sharia-loving "resistance" groups without comment, while observing scrupulous silence about atrocity after atrocity committed by the fundamentalists in the name of Islam because it might be "culturally insensitive" to speak up, or might give "aid and comfort" to imperialism.

Everybody on the Left understands that Capital uses "women's rights" as a hypocritical smokescreen for imperial savagery. What the Left seems unable to grasp, so far, is that the Islamic fundamentalists use "multiculturalism" as a smokescreen for male terror and gender apartheid. This has been explicitly discussed by revs in the battle zones. Many times.

Fundamentalists do find women to front for them sometimes. On the other hand, the imperialists have Condi, and all kinds of women and non-white sycophants, to front for them. This is normal today. In modern politics, both imperialism and reactionary populism have learned how to manipulate culture and multiculturalism. Needless to say, we should not be let either reactionary pole manipulate us.

The conditions of women in Iran or Afghanistan or other places where insurgent political Islam has taken power are not timeless "cultural attributes," as the fundamentalists want us to believe. Rather, they are radical reversals of previous secular trends. In other words, they represent very contemporary political defeats for us.

The fundamentalists use phony neo-feudal Islamic tropes (not unlike the way Hitler used "aryan" mythology) as ideological cover, as demagogic shorthand for a distinctly modern oppressive class agenda. I believe this is part of what Majedi means by her use of the term "political Islam." She's not just talking about Muslims who happen to be involved in politics, but about a defined political force loose in the world now. Like Zionism, or Christian nationalism or Hindu nationalism. Whatever we want to call it (I prefer "Islamic fundamentalism,") it exists.

I would argue, actually, that any quest for male religious state power is by its nature reactionary. But this abstract principle is less important than the hard practical realities of current politics.

Millions of modern, often cosmopolitan women experience the burka and the veil as a badge of apartheid, of submission. Millions live in fear of the violent misogynist crimes committed daily by Islamist rightists. Millions are under relentless, violent male pressure to accept degrading roles for themselves and their daughters--roles that they neither endorse nor were born into. Will we speak up for those women, or will we leave them to be "defended" by the tender mercies of the likes of George Bush? (Or the French state?)

I think it is good to be vigilant about "feeding into" classic Euro chauvinisms--national, racial and religious. But there is also a different kind of Euro chauvinism that treats women in colonized societies as if they were somehow less worthy of realizing their human rights than white Western women are. This chauvinist view imagines that women in so-called Islamic regions--and in the colonial world generally--don't really want freedom like women here do.

Suppose the US crashes into chaos and collapse, losing its wealth and dominance in the world. How would (will?) radical women in the US feel about a new "cultural" or "Christian" requirement to wear clothing that makes sports impossible; that shames women into hiding their face or hair? That forces girls to visually declare loyalty to Christianity at every moment, that embodies an overt and drastic double standard for boys and girls? That prohibits dancing and non-religious music and parties? (Of course I am talking here only about the very mildest of fundamentalist practices, not the deadliest ones, like stoning to death, honor killing, arranged "marriages" of very young girls, acid-throwing, etc.) Would we want Muslims or people overseas to "respect" these things as "part of our culture" or as "religious matters," and to politely refrain from helping us overthrow them?

And for that matter, why is it that radical women here and in Europe are expected to "demand" reproductive rights, but nobody says word one about reactionary stands on abortion by Chavez, Ortega and several other male bosses of Latin American populism? Sometimes it seems that only US and European white women are supposed to insist on secular and personal freedoms. Surely that can't be because our "culture" is so great--or theirs are so terrible.

It's complicated, of course. Being a new pole of the 3-way fight is going to make new enemies, including some forces who used to be progressive. (Anti-fascists learned that in the '30s.) But silence doesn't get us off the hook. We already know that every time we criticize one reactionary pole, we'll be accused of helping the other. We have to advance on this thing, not hope it will go away.

It would be good to see the whole question of gender and the 3-way fight aired in some way. The Majedi piece might be a good jumping-off point, even though there are other documents from RAWA and the worker-communists that are probably more diplomatically written. It's important to disentangle chauvinist attacks on Islam and people of color from legitimate attacks on insurgent fundamentalism, and her article seems to raise that issue. If you want to collaborate on something, let me know.

I'm probably speaking out of turn, but I think it would be a major step forward just for the web site to start featuring regular political analysis by radical women in the colonial world who are fighting both fascist fundamentalism and imperialism. Whatever their errors and weaknesses, aren't these people our pioneers? Maybe that's too big a redefinition of "3-way fight," but that's how I see it.



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September 20, 2007

Hi B,

Thanks for your detailed September 12th email. Once again I find your comments important and thought provoking. Let me start by noting some of our main areas of agreement. I agree with you that misogyny is central to Islamic fundamentalism and to the global "rebellious Right" in general, and that the male-dominated left has failed to confront this centrality of women and women's oppression in the world political struggle. I agree that many of us who are trying to develop a 3-way fight analysis need to do a much better job on this question ourselves, that the TWF blog should address this much more than it has done so far, and that "featuring regular political analysis by radical women in the colonial world who are fighting both fascist fundamentalism and imperialism" would be a valuable step forward. I agree, further, that "it's important to disentangle chauvinist attacks on Islam and people of color from legitimate attacks on insurgent fundamentalism," and that Islamic fundamentalists have promoted this confusion effectively to shield themselves from criticism (which much of the left, again, has failed to address).

I do want to clarify one general point. When I suggested that there are significant differences within the Islamic right over gender politics, I didn't mean that some Islamic rightists are "pro-women." But misogyny comes in different forms, and the differences matter, both to women's experiences with Islamic fundamentalism and to a strategic understanding of the movement. The Taliban have systematically worked to destroy all educational opportunities for women and girls, while Iran's Islamic Republic has almost doubled the female literacy rate. Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front has murdered women for appearing in public without the veil, while Lebanon's Hezbollah, as far as I have been able to determine, has not tried to enforce any such restrictions on women within the regions it controls. Such differences, I would argue, are tied in with differences in how the many branches of the Islamic right relate to global capitalism, from full-scale warfare to various degrees of accommodation and collaboration. Furthermore, while some Islamic rightist movements are essentially all male, others have recruited large numbers of women as activists and even (within certain parameters) leaders. We need to try to understand how these women have been recruited, what motivates them, and what effect they have had on the Islamic right, not just dismiss them as sell-outs or victims of internalized oppression. (I've discussed these issues in "Notes on Women and Right-Wing Movements," which was the first essay I wrote for Three Way Fight. See http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~lyonsm/WomenAndRight.html.)

Beyond that, I reiterate my specific concerns about Majedi's critique of "political Islam," which was our starting point. I think that she largely fails in her stated goal to critique Islam without insulting Muslims, because she selectively targets Islamic misogyny in a way that meshes with the dominant western discourse. I am particularly disturbed by her appeal to the capitalist state to restrict the religious behavior of a persecuted social group, a point which you did not address. These issues go far beyond the question of whether Majedi's writing is diplomatic.

That said, I welcome your invitation to collaborate on some kind of piece about gender and the three-way fight. Let's explore that further. In the meantime, I propose that our full correspondence starting with Majedi's Hezb'allah piece could be published on the Three Way Fight blog.

Best wishes,

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September 22, 2007

Hi, Matthew. Thanks for your comradely email. I appreciate your emphasis on unity, and your patience with my rants.

I've been thinking over your idea about publishing our emails so far. I like it because it's quick, informal, and would allow other people to have easy access to the discussion. So I'm for it. Even though the writing on my end is pretty raggedy. Maybe you could mention that this was originally a private exchange, not intended to be published?

Best wishes,



Francis said...

This is a great contribution to the site and to the ongoing discussions of the three way fight. I find myself generally agreeing with Matthew’s analysis, but I like a couple things about Bromma’s contributions. In particular, he astutely reminds us that “the fundamentalists already have a pretty good take on the 3-way fight and the pivotal role of gender within it. They calibrate their tactics toward the other two poles with considerable intelligence. They are way more sophisticated politically than we are.” This is important to remember. Equally important, it seems to me, is the longstanding willingness of the State and capital to play various antagonists off against each other. This is just a variation on old-school COINTELPRO strategy, utilizing the ancient wisdom of killing two birds with one stone.

But there’s a problem with Bromma’s formulation, I think. “Fundamentalists” as such aren’t necessarily a separate pole from the hegemonic structure of global capital. We can see this when we look at the prominent role played by fundamentalist Christians in the US, and the same thing seems true of the power held by fundamentalist (Orthodox) Jews in Israel or by fundamentalist Muslims in Saudi Arabia and even Iran. These forces are multifaceted, to be sure, but mostly they’re just trying to get theirs, within an overall system whose parameters they don’t really challenge. (A similar argument can be made against those who think of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” as a fundamental challenge to capitalism or even imperialism, but for the most part those of us interested in the three way fight idea come down, as Bromma does, against the cult of Chavez.)

At the root here is an unresolved disagreement among those of us committed to the three way fight approach. Is “fascism” – or whatever else we want to call the third pole we are attempting to call attention to – a hyper-reactionary version of capitalism, or is it actually (or potentially) anti-capitalist? I take the latter position, but I know some people here take the former position, possibly Bromma included. From where I sit, the three way fight involves hegemonic global capital, a challenge from the revolutionary and libertarian left, and a challenge from a revolutionary but authoritarian right. Some fundamentalists (Christian Identity types, the Taliban, among others) seem intent on a revolutionary upheaval that would replace capitalism with something fundamentally different and in many ways far far more brutal. But other fundamentalists, like the Iranian regime, are more interested in tweaking certain aspects of capitalism, but still seem to me more akin to the first “them” – global capital – than to the revolutionary aspects of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

At the same time, the three way fight is a useful device for reminding us that, as many have put it before, “my enemy’s enemy is not my friend.” I guess what I’m challenging is the idea that, on a global level at least, the Iranian regime really is the “enemy” of global capital.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I had been sort of assuming that the three-way-fight type of analysis was incompatible with thinking that the 'third pole' was 'just a hyper-reactionary version of capitalism'. What makes it a third pole rather than just part of the capitalist pole is that it's not, no? But maybe not.

Because one thing that struck me when reading that exchange: Is 'political Islam' neccesarily the same thing as 'the Islamic right'? Matthew and Bromma (who I wouldn't assume is a 'he') end up using the terms interchangeably, but, is there possibly an actually exiting political Islam that is not right-wing? I'm not sure. And this leads us into talking about what right-wing means exactly; we are used to thinking that anything 'right-wing', like anything 'capitalist' is necessarily our enemy, and I _think_ I still believe both of these things, but I'm not sure I believe that anything religious is anymore. I have lately been thinking that generally many of our traditional shortcut binary categories for determining friend from enemy may not be as reliable as we assume.

But I think Bromma makes a pretty good point that take on gender and male supremacy is a marker that continues to be centrally important (as it has in fact been for 100 years, if not much much longer).