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Home > Dissident Left Archive > Fred Halliday on The Left and the Jihad

Fred Halliday on The Left and the Jihad

8 April 2012

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Open Democracy - 6 April 2011

The Left and the Jihad

Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday’s many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

The approaching fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States highlights an issue much in evidence in the world today, but one that receives too little historically-informed and critical analysis: the relationship between militant Islamic groups and the left.

It is evident that the attacks, and others before and since on US and allied forces around the world, have won the Islamist groups responsible considerable sympathy far beyond the Muslim world, including among those vehemently opposed from a variety of ideological perspectives to the principal manifestations of its power. It is striking, however, that - beyond such often visceral reactions – there are signs of a far more developed and politically articulated accommodation in many parts of the world between Islamism as a political force and many groups of the left.

The latter show every indication of appearing to see some combination of al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbollah, Hamas, and (not least) Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as exemplifying a new form of international anti-imperialism that matches – even completes – their own historic project. This putative combined movement may be in the eyes of such leftist groups and intellectual trends hampered by “false consciousness”, but this does not compromise the impulse to “objectively” support or at least indulge them.

The trend is unmistakable. Thus the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez flies to Tehran to embrace the Iranian president. London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, and the vocal Respect party member of the British parliament George Galloway, welcome the visit to the city of the Egyptian cleric (and Muslim Brotherhood figurehead) Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Many in the sectarian leftist factions (and beyond) who marched against the impending Iraq war showed no qualms about their alignment with radical Muslim organisations, one that has since spiralled from a tactical cooperation to something far more elaborated. It is fascinating to see in the publications of leftist groups and commentators, for example, how history is being rewritten and the language of political argument adjusted to (as it were) accommodate this new accommodation.

The most recent manifestation of this trend arrived during the Lebanon war of July-August 2006. The Basque country militant I witnessed who waved a yellow Hizbollah flag at the head of a protest march is only the tip of a much broader phenomenon. The London demonstrators against the war saw the flourishing of many banners announcing “we are all Hizbollah now”, and the coverage of the movement in the leftwing press was notable for its uncritical tone.

All of this is – at least to those with historical awareness, sceptical political intelligence, or merely a long memory - disturbing. This is because its effect is to reinforce one of the most pernicious and inaccurate of all political claims, and one made not by the left but by the imperialist right. It is also one that underlies the US-declared “war on terror” and the policies that have resulted from 9/11: namely, that Islamism is a movement aimed against “the west”.

This claim is a classic example of how a half-truth can be more dangerous than an outright lie. For while it is true that Islamism in its diverse political and violent guises is indeed opposed to the US, to remain there omits a deeper, crucial point: that, long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking “imperialism”, they were attacking and killing the left - and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).