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Popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East: the Coward Left and the Muslim Right.

Thursday 28 November 2013, by Marieme Helie Lucas, siawi3

Source: siawi, 28.11.2013

Presentation at the Historical Materialism Conference:
« New Cultures of the Left »,
New Delhi, 3-5 April 2013.

Marieme Helie Lucas

On the occasion of the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the Left and Far Left internationally (1) are confronted once more to what has been a bone of contention between them and the Left-within -Muslim countries: its cowardly attitude vis à vis Muslim fundamentalism (2). Will recent political developments in Tunisia and in Egypt be an occasion to revise previous analysis and to truly develop a ‘new culture’ vis a vis a legally appointed and democratically elected Muslim Right?

The political nature of the uprisings

Let us for a moment focus on the common features of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and point at how the present situation could easily have been anticipated:

-  Both are popular outbursts, partly due to growing poverty, but also to lack of liberties. If Roman emperors knew that they should give the people ‘ bread and games’ in order to keep order, it is clear that Tunisian and Egyptian people lacked both under the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. The youth especially felt they had ‘no future’: as we know, Mohamed Bouzidi himself, whose immolation sparked the Tunisian uprising, was a jobless graduate, forced to sell vegetables on a cart in the streets in order to survive (3).
-  In both countries, there was no political content in the slogans people initially shouted, except for making clear they had had ‘enough’ and wanted their then governments ‘out’ (‘ dégage!» in local French slang). Beyond this refusal to cope any longer with their present situation, there was no indication of what should replace these regimes.
-  No political party or organisation initiated or were behind the uprisings at the beginning.
-  Both were authoritarian regimes (4) managing the country to their financial benefit and that of their extended families and allies, with too few positive economic benefit for people.
-  In both countries, the Left was persecuted for decades, and sometimes nearly eradicated. In Egypt, for instance, communist hunting started under Nasser, when communists were tortured and put into concentration camps (5)
-  In both countries workers’ unions survived and still remain strong in specific sectors such as mining in Tunisia in the region of Gafsa, or textile in Egypt in Mahala. (6)
-  Despite the banning of their political parties, both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its Tunisian branch En Nahda, never stopped their clandestine organizing which was tolerated by the regimes (7), as well as their visible social work; it allowed both these organisations to build a huge network that can instantly mobilize through mosques, and to spread their views via their own media (8).
-  Both Muslim Brotherhood and Nahda appeared late on the political scene of the uprisings, after Ben Ali and Mubarak quit - although they were already at work without claiming their political affiliation (7); both claimed publicly in the initial stage, that they did not want political power.

These similarities evoque previous popular uprisings against undemocratic authoritarian regimes in the region, such as the Iranian’s in the seventies against the Shah, or the Algerian’s in 1988 against Chadli, in the context of a weakened Left (sometimes near extinct) and a well organised, well funded, partly underground populist religious Extreme-Right.

In all these situations, under social pressure, the uprisings led to a temporary liberalisation of the political mores, a blossoming of new political parties, with elections soon in the pipeline with the official goal of establishing democracy. On the Left’s side, it lead to an explosion of new political formations, ready to run for elections and brand new to the democratic game (9); while on the Muslim Right’s side, there was much more cohesion, and far less scattering of forces - beyond the division between so-called ‘moderates’ and so-called ‘extremists’ which barely conceal, in my view, a pretty classic division of labour between ‘bad cop’ and ‘good cop’, with the common goal of establishing a theocracy.

There are common features too in the way these old (Iran, Algeria) or new (Tunisia, Egypt) popular uprisings were seen by Left forces internationally.
A large consensus regrouping Left and liberal democrats the world over condemned the ousted undemocratic regimes, supported popular uprisings, demanded elections to be held rapidly, although - considering the balance of forces and the uneven stages of respective organizing - there was no chance at all that elections would turn to the benefit of truly democratic forces.

However, clear warnings regarding the danger of rushing into elections were issued from the Tunisian liberal Left (10), months before the elections were held: while Mohamed Bouzidi set himself on fire in December 2010, in May and June 2011 already, i.e. less than six months after the fall of Ben Ali, a member of the Republican (11) Alliance stated that ‘having early elections is a favour to En Nahda. It is suicide. With Nahda in power, it will be Iran’; and a member of Radio Mosaique, a progressive radio station that was very active during the uprising, declared that ‘a democratic Tunisia depends on the banning of Nahda’.
Needless to say that, outside Tunisia, they were both stigmatized as anti-democracy.

Why would they land themselves in trouble by issuing such unpopular warnings, which were likely to raise hell with the Left internationally? They must have had burning reasons for doing so…
It is worth looking at what was happening in Tunisia between Mohamed Bouzidi’s death (December 18, 2010) and the eve of the elections (October 2011).
Starting on January 29 and ending on October 22, i.e. two days before the elections, I documented attacks by the Muslim Far Right against liberal democrats (understand: those against theocracy), the Left and secular activists (10). Here are the dominant characteristics:

-  Attacks on democracy: on January 29, there was a March for Equality, Citizenship and Secularism in which men and women demonstrated together. Nahda supporters physically attacked it; beat up the demonstrators with sticks and the wooden part of their flags and sexually assaulted women. This scenario was to be repeated over the following months, whenever women and/or secularists demonstrated.
Similarly, political meetings of Left opponents to Nahda were prevented, including a pre-electoral legally sanctioned communist party meeting to be held on July 3 in a popular suburb of Tunis; the meeting could not take place, death threats were voiced, communist organizers were called ‘miscreants’, beaten up, and fundamentalists chanted ‘secularism is kofr’ (unbelievers).

-  Attacks on free expression: a cinema hall showing ‘Persepolis’, a delightful award-winning animated film on what is was to be growing up under the fundamentalist regime of Iran, as seen through the eyes of a little girl (an autobiographical account by author Marjan Satrapi) and Nessma TV, a TV station planning to show a documentary film on the history of secularism in Tunisia (authored by Nadia El Fani, the daughter of one of the leaders of the Tunisian communist party) were attacked and set on fire, - regardless of guests being inside. (12). Other artists and intellectuals were attacked, to the point that a collective event had to be organized on June 28: ‘Hands off creative people’, in order to support targeted artists.
-  `
-  Targeted attacks on secular individuals: Known secular lawyers, journalists, and prominent figures as well as ordinary demonstrators calling for secularism were publicly denounced in poor suburbs of Tunis by Nahda activists, who called for a ‘war’ between believers and ‘impious’ people. This kind of call for murder was to later find its logical conclusion with the assassination of Chokri Belaïd (February 2013). (13)

- Attacks on women: I already mentioned sexual attacks (14) during demonstrations immediately after the fall of Ben Ali. But there were also raids on beaches by militia armed with Kalashnikovs i.e. war weapons, which chased women back home, forbidding them to wear swimming suits, to go swimming and sunbathing, as generations of their foremothers had done before them. There were also the first attacks on unveiled women (which later intensified to the point that female Profs in University La Manoubia were prevented by fundamentalist students to deliver their teaching in class) and a fiery promotion of Saudi style black full face covering form of veiling – unknown to Tunisians and alien to their culture. Nahda supporters also organized collective weddings, - picking up all the costs -; and offered financial support to women willing to leave their jobs and stay at home.

-  Attacks on alcohol consumers: self-appointed morality militia raided bars and severely beat up men who were drinking there. Militia also broke into and forcibly entered people’s homes, armed with sticks and swords (15), in order to check whether there was wine on the table, especially at the time when families were celebrating their children’s success in the final exam at the end secondary school in the Tunisian education system, and opens the doors to universities.

In view of such activities, one was forced to ask, even before the elections that brought En Nahda legally to power, whether Tunisia was actually heading towards democracy.
Under such circumstances, one is also forced to ask: why rush to elections? And why should progressive people, liberals as well as Left activists in the world push for it, without even allowing time to reconstruct local Left forces and parties, without listening to our warnings?

As expected, things did not improve with Nahda in power: attacks intensified on members of left parties, unions, and media, as well as attacks on women: their legal rights and liberties were targeted, and their sexual behaviour, dress codes, etc. were under permanent scrutiny. Universities were occupied by fundamentalist students groups .The Doyen of La Manouba University is presently defending himself in court, facing a complaint by fundamentalist students (16). Profs were prevented to teach, and classes turned into prayer rooms; journalists covering the events were physically attacked, while police watched without any attempt to stop brutalities (an editorial strike was journalists’ collective response). On August 29, 2012, a Cultural Festival was attacked by men armed with swords (a very symbolic weapon (15) under the pretext that this Festival could not take place during Ramadan. This is just an example of one of the many brand new ‘religious’ rules that fundamentalists invent permanently and force populations to abide by, pretending this is Islam. Death threats are routinely received by artists and intellectuals as well as left political leaders and known secularists; after the assassination of Chokri Belaïd, it is clear that those are to be taken seriously.

If one looks at the common features between Tunisia and Egypt, one can record similar attempts by the far Right at attacking hard won legal rights. Recent proposed laws include:
-  dismantling equal rights between men and women:
with Tunisia attempting to reformulate its Constitution, from ‘equality’ into ‘complementarity’, women thus becoming ‘complementary’ to men, not equal; or with Egypt attempting to lower the age of marriage for girls (one proposition was 9 years old); or with Tunisia attempting to introduce FGM as Islamic (an ante-Islamic Pharaonic cultural practice, unknown in North Africa), while Egypt’s head of state declares it a private choice in which the state should not interfere despite the fact that there exists a law against performing FGM in Egypt.
- coming back on internationally sanctioned standards for women’s human rights, as demonstrated by the Statement on CEDAW sent by the Muslim Brotherhood to the UN during the March 2013 session of CSW, in which it declares CEDAW against Islam and destroying the family values of Islamic countries.
-  curtailing workers rights, especially by criminalizing the right to strike.
-  curtailing freedom of the press, among other things by further criminalizing ‘blasphemy’ - with death penalty attached.

Although those laws are, for the moment, just proposed, not yet passed, they offer a clear indicator of which direction these legally elected fundamentalist regimes are taking. And since this direction was visible even before they were elected, one needs to understand why the Left at large, world wide, actively supported the coming to power, through democratic elections, of these evidently authoritarian and anti-people regimes. And still support them today.
For doing this, we need to revisit some concepts that are dear to the Left at large, such as: the people, democracy, the state, imperialism…

The people

Indeed these uprisings were genuinely popular revolts and undoubtedly ‘the people’ was in the streets. Indeed their anger against those in power was legitimate. But where were their actual political demands that needed to be supported? ‘Enough’ and ‘Out’ are not a political program.
It follow suits that a careful observation of the forces in presence was needed, in order to locate those which were promoting genuinely progressive programs, rather than extend a blanket support to any political force that was opposing the authoritarian state, within the popular uprising. However it is always surprising that the Left did not learn Marx’s lessons and, in the present circumstances, was happy to consider demonstrators as ‘an atomized mass of interchangeable individuals’, without looking into what were the political forces at work within it.

It was also very instructive to watch in Algeria the general uneasiness regarding the events that were taking place in neighbouring Tunisia, and even the fear soon spreading among many on the Left in Algeria and among the Algerian refugees in Europe who had fled armed fundamentalism to save their lives. They knew, all of us knew, that Algerian intellectuals that went into exile in Tunis in the nineties received death threats there, from fundamentalists groups, just as they were threatened by FIS in Algeria: they would find little coffins or shrouds in their mail box at work and at home, and many of them, traumatized, went into another country as soon as they could do so. For months prior to the elections, Algerian independent media closely monitored the violence and violations committed by Religious Right forces in Tunisia, as chilling indicators of the political trend that was to take over.

Obviously projecting on the Tunisian situation, but also well aware of the real similarities between the two countries (weak or virtually absent Left vs. well trained, well funded, organized fundamentalist groups, with a powerful mosque network to relay orders), Algerians watched with a growing anxiety the unfolding of Nahda’s struggle to power. They relived in a span of a few months, in an accelerated way, the decades that prepared and preceded the explosion of the Muslim Far Right in the nineties in Algeria: in particular, the first sabotage and military actions by armed fundamentalist groups in the late sixties; the attacks on women (more especially women factory workers; divorced, repudiated or abandoned women living alone with their children - i.e. without a wali, a male matrimonial tutor-; and female students) since the late sixties, that intensified throughout the seventies and eighties ; the attacks on universities ; the imposition of a culturally alien dress code for women ; as well as assassinations by the sword since the seventies, etc.. ; up to the uprising of the unemployed ‘no-future’-youth in the late eighties, that led to a political liberalisation that did not deliver its promises of peace and democracy but only sparked the most violent attacks on a whole population deemed Kofr by armed fundamentalists.
It seemed the ingredients were similar enough to fear identical consequences (17).

There are now accounts of how organized fundamentalist groups were and how ready to jump in the bandwagon of the uprising (7); how, during the first weeks, they merged with the spontaneous uprising while concealing their political affiliation, but only one month after the uprising, they were able to manoeuvre the masses including by hijacking union’s meetings; when and with what effect they decided to unveil they political identity. And it is also clear that armed fundamentalist groups existed in Tunisia that had military encounters with the police and army.

It was thus crucial to identify the political forces within ’the people’ rather than blindly back reactionary forces that, although formally voted for, were not to bring about any ‘democracy’ to the insurgents.


For ‘democracy’ is a concept that is currently used to cover both the aim of social justice and the means to achieve it.
Etymologically it claims the rule of the people (demos), as a more just rule than that of one ruler alone (monarchy), or of several (oligarchy) rulers, hence of an elite, etc., - or of god (theocracy); but it has also increasingly came to be equated to parliamentary elections, as the best possible way to assess and represent the voices of ‘the people’. `
I will not get here into the old Left debate on the limits of parliamentary democracy.
I will not either contest that ‘one person, one vote’ (18) is likely to be a step forward from having a non elected king as a ruler. But if the aim of democracy is social justice, it should not be just conflated with the preferential means by which social justice is supposed to be obtained, i.e. elections. Why are elections the only focus and the only criteria retained to evaluate democracy today – including in the Left internationally?
What I want to underline is that the present liberal and human rights – largely supported by the Left - sanctification of elections, as the above all means to evaluate democracy as social justice is increasingly leading to absurd conclusions.
History gave us ample examples of dictators legally coming to power through a due democratic process: Hitler is a quite pertinent and recent enough example. Are we going to cheer Hitler because he was elected/ came legally and ‘democratically’ to power? Is the Left going to support Hitler all out as the champion of democracy? Is the Left going to claim that he brought democracy to Germany? It seems to many of us, opponents to the fundamentalist Far Right in Muslim countries, that this is precisely what the European and North American Left is doing, when it comes to electing fundamentalist regimes.
One can presume that communists, Jews, gays, gypsies or mentally affected people would have cheered if Hitler had been ousted, whether through democratic or undemocratic means, provided it put an end to his genocidal rule. One can also presume that many, who presently die under theocratic regimes which pretend to be inspired by Islam, would also prefer, any time, any power that would bring down these murderous theocracies – including, sometimes, welcoming foreign military intervention – with all its terrible consequences.
One of the characteristics of dictators is that whether or not they legally and ‘democratically’ came to power, when they are there, they stay. They are for elections just as long as it brings them to power, but not any further. They do not believe in democracy, nor do they respect its principles. They just use it when convenient.
The most straightforward comment on how the Muslim Far Right envisages the limits of parliamentary democracy was made by Ali Belhadj, the second in command in the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria; at the time when his party was debating on whether or not it should run for elections, promising its followers that they will come to power, ‘by the sword or by the vote’, Belhadj declared in an international press conference in 1991 (prior to the legislative elections): ‘If we have the law of god, why do we need the law of the people ? One should kill all these unbelievers’.

New forms of fascism today: the Muslim Religious Far Right

One needs to acknowledge the failure by the Left in Europe and North America, - but not just them, also the Left in Asia and Africa – to identify the Muslim Brotherhood and Nahda as Far Right political forces working under the cover of religion, and to take a stand against them. It is no surprise as the Left also failed to identify as theocratic dictatorships the Khomeini-led Iranian religious Right, or the FIS and its avatars: GIA, AIS, FIDA, etc.
We will come back later to why it supported them, but for now let’s look into what could (and should) have been an eye opener on the political nature of these parties and movements. The common ideological premises they share with Nazism and Fascism is telling.

Like Nazis and fascists, Muslim fundamentalists believe in their superiority: it does not source its legitimacy in the superior race (Aryan) but in the superior creed (Islam). Like Nazis and fascists, Muslim fundamentalists claim a mythical past that justifies this superiority: it is not the glorious past of Rome, but the Golden Age of Islam. In the name of their superiority, they see themselves as having a right – and a duty – to physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ of the day, who are not just gays or Jews, but also all the Kofr, i.e. all the ‘Muslims’ (believers or presumed so, by virtue of being born in a ‘Muslim’ country, community or family) that do not abide by their interpretation of religion and do not bend to their newly invented religious rules. Like Nazis and fascists they are pro-capitalists, and that is probably the reason why they are tolerated, entertained or courted by so many governments. And, last and always least, they put women in their place: the church (read: mosque), the kitchen and the cradle.

Like fascism and Nazism, the Muslim fundamentalist Far Right cuts across classes, recruiting in the middle class, among government employees, in the police and the army too, as well as among workers and the unemployed, and it is financed by national capital in Muslim oil rich countries. It is a mass movement (19) that spreads its ideology at all levels of society - both through persuasion, via the various movements of preachers and the mosques’ network, or via the relief and social work they undertake with the poor sections of the populations; and through coercion, intimidation and violence that slowly silence those who are to become their victims.

Having witnessed the rise of fundamentalism in Algeria over three decades since independence, and hearing now similar stories from Tunisians, I fully understand how unorganized individuals gradually become afraid of being denounced by their neighbours for ‘un-Islamic’ behaviour if they eat or smoke during fast, if they do not pray or do not go to the mosque; and then individuals become afraid of their friends, finally of even their family members.
This permanent fear of being denounced for ideological crime, the knowledge of the price that is to be paid for dissent, the enrolment of children and young people in such denunciations (and later in crimes), including that of their own parents and friends, slowly create a society of terror, which made me understand better than history books how the German people did not stand up in time to the Nazis: when one realizes the gravity and irreversibility of what is happening, the danger for oneself as individual is already too high.
It was years before, when the first anti Nazis Germans exposed the nature of Hitler’s nascent and fast growing political movement, that they should have been supported - massively –, rather than blamed for not choosing individual martyrdom later.
It was throughout the seventies and eighties, long before the nineties, that anti fundamentalist Algerians who dared expose the growing far Right religious movement should have been heard.
It is now that the Left should listen to the warning signs that antifundamentalist citizens in the Middle East and North Africa are pointing at. Unfortunately, the Left still talks about engaging with ‘moderate Islamists’- a contradiction in terms! (21)

Unlike the Left and Far Left internationally, women’s movements did not fail to identify fundamentalists politically.
More than a decade ago, in a statement presented at the Porto Alegre World Social Forum entitled ‘Appeal against fundamentalisms’ (22), the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) – which links women in Muslim countries and communities over Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the diaspora - made its analysis clear:
‘The rise of fundamentalisms is part and parcel of the rise of extreme right movements and of the expansion of liberal pro-capitalist politics in the world today. This includes Muslim fundamentalism, which is the specific context of our lived reality. For more than two decades, women have identified fundamentalisms as political forces from the Right and the Extreme Right, working under the guise of religion and culture…/… ‘Derailed by neo-colonial invasions and wars, progressive forces are prepared to support any opposition to the super powers. We have already witnessed prominent Left intellectuals and activists publicly share the view that they could not care less if fundamentalist theocratic regimes come to power in Palestine or Iraq, provided that the USA and Israel get booted out. We have witnessed representatives of fundamentalist organizations and their ideologists be invited and cheered in Social Fora. We have witnessed prominent feminists defend ‘ the right to veil’ – and this sadly reminds us of the defence of the ‘cultural right’ to female genital mutilation, some decades ago…/…
‘We dare dissent.../…
‘We will not support an Extreme Right response to situations of oppression. We will not support the coming to power of fundamentalist theocracies. It will only replace a terrible situation of injustice by an even worse one.
‘We will not support those as legitimate answers to oppression, exclusion, racism, exploitation and invasions.
‘We will, with all our might, support progressive responses and gender equitable responses to situations of oppression, exclusion, invasions, exploitation.
‘Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism…/… Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project, and to their project of controlling all the aspects of society in the name of religion…/… When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do…/…
‘The clash in the world today is between fascists and anti-fascists. And that definitely cuts across national, ethnic and religious boundaries.’

A decade later, despite evidence on all continents, be it in Iraq, Mali or Aceh, this call has still to be heard and taken seriously by the Left internationally.

Abandonment of progressive, Left and secular forces

The situation in North Africa and the Middle East today illustrates the point. When workers, unionists, journalists, media, women, artists are under attack by elected Far Right fundamentalist governments and parties, this appears to be, so far, sufficiently ‘democratic’ and insufficiently grave for the Left internationally to decide to side with the progressive opponents to the elected governments.
Is it just the mystic of elections that motivates this abandonment?

I will briefly mention two other major factors.

The Left has lost its edge and instead of being ‘partisan’, it largely adopts the pervasive liberal human rights discourse and concepts.
For instance, secularism, as a long-standing value of the Left, has been replaced in its discourse by ‘respect for all beliefs and religions’. It goes hand in hand with ‘respect for all cultures’. It follow suits that the Left internationally, just like liberals and human rights organizations, is endorsing unelected so-called religious leaders as true legitimate representatives of ‘the people’, and promotes ‘dialogue’ between them and parties and governments. A particularly blatant lack of ‘democracy’, isn’t it?
Not only is there no questioning about who defines culture or religion – generally self appointed old conservative male clerics -, not only is there no critical examination of the political content of what is being promoted as essentialized culture and religion, but there is deafening silence when gross violations of human rights and of women’s rights are being promoted under such labels.
In this context, secularism is more than often seen as problematic and secularists consequently seen as alien, promoting an ‘imported’ ideology, ‘western’, and -to make it short- not really indigenous enough, in fact traitors to their (presumed) religion and culture.
Secularism – understood as separation between state and organized religions - is wrongly equated with atheism (and even probably an intolerant form of atheism).
This conceptual trend is particularly visible as one hardly hears any more the Left internationally questioning the democratic validity of religious laws: the fact that laws should be voted by ‘the people’, rather than decreed by clerics in the name of God seems a major abandonment. When the Provisional government of Libya after the assassination of Kaddafi, on the very morning it took over officially, declared that all laws were now annulled and that ‘sharia law’ (25) will replace all existing laws, one failed to hear an outcry from the progressive forces in the world.

Just like human rights organisations, the Left now constructs fundamentalists exclusively as victims of the state or of imperialism, failing to acknowledge their role as perpetrators of violence and war crimes against populations. And as victims, they are unconditionally – and blindly – supported, their crimes justified.
Meanwhile, their progressive, secular, Left opponents are abandoned as illegitimate. In Tunisia, in Egypt today, secularists on the ground, in the streets, continue to confront the Far Right.

The State

The Left at large is traditionally anti-State and it generally tends to support the resistance against the state. However, there is a growing variety of non-state actors which role is increasingly recognized as as important as the state and its institutions. The Church has been one in the past centuries in Europe, and transnational capital is another one .
Muslim fundamentalists are a new, very important category of non-state players in this time and age; the fact that they confront authoritarian regimes, including with armed groups, is certainly appealing to the Left at large.
But confronting the state is not in and by itself an aim, and fundamentalists’ political programme should be enough to disqualify them: the Left internationally should not support and defend fundamentalists parties, movements or groups, which openly discriminate against non-Muslims, and against women; moreover, fundamentalists also discriminate against ‘Muslims’ who they brand kofr when they do not follow not only their interpretation of Islam, but also their a-historical re-invention of new rules and rituals. It should not support parties or groups that proclaim that it is right to kill unbelievers, apostates or atheists – or Kofr, i.e. all the believing Muslims who do not share their understanding of a violently repressive Islam. As such, they are perpetrators of much greater violence and violations than the state itself.
Because Far Right fundamentalist parties have, at points, been persecuted by states, they are constructed exclusively as victims. Human Rights organisations, the Left and the Far Left all failed to acknowledge that they are perpetrators too, in fact among the worst perpetrators of violence and violations.
One cannot help but note that neither the Left victims of the state, nor the victims of fundamentalist non-state actors have benefitted from the same support as fundamentalist victims have: Algerian fundamentalists for instance were granted political asylum in many countries in Europe, despite the fact that many had blood on their hands, - on the ground that they would be persecuted by the state if they were returned to Algeria.
But the fundamentalists’ victims who were trying to flee fundamentalists’ violence in their country could not benefit from asylum in Europe, as they were not persecuted and slaughtered by the state – but, if one may say, ‘only’ by non state actors.
The lawlessness and brutality of fundamentalist groups, their deeply anti-democratic behaviour, can be seen clearly both in Tunisia and in Egypt, not just against the undemocratic states they contributed to eliminate politically, but against ordinary people.

Anti imperialism

For ultimately, the major reason for the abandonment of the anti fundamentalist forces and for supporting fundamentalist movements in anti imperialism – not just any anti imperialism, but specifically anti American imperialism.
The analysis is that Far Right fundamentalist organisations stand against corrupt sold out states which themselves are allies to imperialism.
The logic that prevails is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that there are priorities in the struggle, with main and secondary enemies.
As women in North Africa and the Middle East, we have been very well placed to enjoy the collateral damages of the theory of priorities: women’s rights have been forever postponed to after the revolution (be it struggle for independence or against corrupt ‘dictators’), to after the reconstruction of the country, etc.. Moreover, women demanding rights have been accused of dividing the movement, hence ‘objectively’ siding with the enemy (be it is colonial or class).
This is no different from the permanent bashing by the Left internationally and by human rights organisations of those of us from North Africa and the Middle East who speak up against fundamentalists in our countries: we too are branded enemies of ‘the people’, and allies of imperialism – and even against human rights.
On the one hand, this old position of the Left ignores the new forms of imperialism by old rich countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and their imperialist wars in Syria or Mali, which are right now reconfiguring the Middle East and Africa.
And on the other hand, the alliance with the religious Far Right against American imperialism is short sighted a strategy: today’s sacrifice of our progressive forces is a useless one, for the Muslim Far Right will denounce this alliance as soon as it will cease to be politically useful.
The Muslim Far Right has built what is likely to be the only Internationale in existence today. Despite internal struggles for power, it manages to stick together on important issues - far better than the Left either nationally or internationally -; it has secured at the UN the support of what used to be an inspiration for my generation: the Non Aligned, and of part of the former Soviet block; thanks to their support, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference is now in a position to impose at UN level its policy of ‘respect for religion and culture’, endorsement of ‘blasphemy laws’, etc… Countries that kill the unbelievers head UN outfits such as the Human Rights Council.

Just like in Nazi Germany, when the Left will fully realize the situation, it will be far too late to redress it. We are the anti Nazis of the day, and like our predecessors, we are not heard, we are belittled, denounced, stigmatized by those who should be our natural allies in the Left internationally – and already, at the same time, we are accused by ordinary liberal democrats of not speaking up, of being the silent accomplices of the crimes of the Muslim Far Right.
The only political forces that would welcome our analysis of the situation are the traditional xenophobic Far Right- whether in Europe, in the USA or in India. Indeed a double bind situation for us.

One of the very few voices on the Far Left to be clear about the political nature of fundamentalist movements, and to point at the fallacy of allying with the Far Right against American imperialism was Daniel Bensaïd, a Far Left French thinker and political leader of North African descent, recently deceased. He wrote (24):

‘The control of capital over bodies, its strong will to reveal their market value, does not at all reduce their control by religious law and the theological will to make them disappear. The ways of oppression are as numerous and inexhaustible as those of god are mysterious. The poor dialectic of main and secondary contradictions, forever revolving, already played too many bad tricks. And the ‘secondary enemy’, too often underestimated, because the fight against the main enemy was claimed to be a priority, sometimes has been deadly’.
And Daniel Bensaid concludes by quoting a poem by Erich Fried (25):
‘I was shot by my secondary enemy’.

Totally caught into my struggle against the main enemy
I was shot by my secondary enemy
Not from the back, treacherously, as his main enemies claimed
But directly, from the position it has long been occupying
And in keeping with his declared intentions that I did not
bother about, thinking they were insignificant.


1. I am not here essentializing the Left, nor do I want to present a homogeneous image of it; however, it is to be noted that, on the specific question of dealing with Muslim fundamentalist movements, there is an overwhelming consensus of the different parties and organisations that constitute the Left at large: anywhere in the world, the Left does take a stand against religious Rights and takes on the Vatican, US evangelists, the Hindu Right or Jewish fundamentalists – but NOT the Muslim Right (including its armed Far Right) which generally enjoys the privilege of being ideologically supported by various components of the Left and human rights organisations. It is the purpose of this article to try and unveil the reasons for it.
I will focus here on this common political stand that cuts across other differences within the Left at large.
Clarification of terminology: ‘The Left’ will refer to our Left inside Muslim countries, while ‘The Left internationally’ or ‘the Left at large’ refers to outside Muslim countries.

2. Similarly, I do not deny differences within the Muslim Right, but, for the purpose of demonstration, I will point here at the similarities and common features shared by different parties and organisations of the Muslim fundamentalist movement. While all of them promote state religion and impose supposedly divine laws, while for the quasi totality of them, the ultimate goal is to establish theocracies, the Left in Europe and in North America focus on differences between factions, in order to support what they think are the less violent forms of fundamentalism.

3. This situation prevails in the whole of the Maghreb. In Algeria for instance, for more than two decades, there has been young female graduates who manage to make ends meet by cleaning at richer peoples’ houses. And I am seeing Moroccan graduate students from university going into exile and selling vegetables in France, just like Bouzidi did in Tunisia.

4. ‘Authoritarian’ regime seems a more appropriate term than ‘dictatorship’, which has been routinely used by journalists and unfortunately also by the Left. ‘Dictatorship’ does not allow us to differentiate between, on the one hand, the relatively mild oppression of human rights defenders, or the lack of freedom of expression for opponents, and on the other hand, Pinochet turning sports stadiums into concentration camps followed by massive assassination of political opponents, or with Pol Pot’s decimation of the Cambodian people. It is not innocent to qualify Mubarak or Ben Ali as ‘dictators’ and we saw in the recent history of the region as this prepared public opinion to ‘humanitarian inference’ i.e. foreign invasions in the name of human rights. It thus seems reasonable to make a conceptual difference between various forms of authoritarianism and dictatorships, from the mildest to the most murderous and genocidal.

5. Some of them were later ‘expelled’ from Egypt as ‘Jews’, despite the fact that they were atheists and Egyptian citizens, while others were fortunately freed from camps after being detained for more than a decade, when they were ‘borrowed’ by the first Algerian President Ben Bella from his friend Nasser to help in his ‘arabisation campaign of education’, after Algeria’s independence.

6. For instance, in 2008, there were massive strike and protests in Southern Tunisia: the government mobilized 3000 policemen which kept 25000 inhabitants under siege for 6 months – a huge effort on such a small country.

7. Interview of a Tunisian jihadi:

8. Nahda’s weekly El Fajr (Dawn) sells 70 000 copies per week, again a huge number considering the size of the population

9. In Tunisia for instance, 10000 candidates run for elections on 1600 lists and with 105 parties – mostly non-Islamist ones.

10. Marieme Helie Lucas: In the Name of Democracy- - What secularists and women have to lose in the Tunisian elections, October 22, 2011.
It is interesting to put on record that a well known Left Journal in India refused to publish this modest contribution which just listed, as a warning, Far Right fundamentalists’ attacks on democrats: its Editor in chief emailed me: ‘ if you are a pro-Ben Ali, just say so!’
This is precisely a problem we need to raise: it seems there is no place in the international Left’s analysis for dissenting from both our authoritarian governments and their Far Right opponents; the Left internationally refuses any denunciation of the Muslim Right and Far Right – it even denies their existence - as a covertly siding with authoritarian states; and it abandons our local Left and secularists, not to mention women, at the hands of the Religious Right in our countries.

11. As the terminology may be a bit confusing for North Americans, let’s clarify here that in the Maghreb we use indifferently either ‘democrat’ or ‘republican’ (i.e. those who stand for democracy and for a republic), - as opposed to the Muslim Right, which stands for a theocracy.

12. Nahda supporters took the director of Nessma TV and Nadia El Fani to court. The director of Nessma TV was made to publicly apologize and Nadia El Fani went into exile.

13. It is worth reminding readers that neighbouring Algeria’s ‘dark decade’ was inaugurated with numerous targeted assassinations of intellectuals and artists; but the first targeted assassination by fundamentalists was that of an Algerian gay poet in the seventies.

14. I will not go further here than mentioning rape as a weapon of war, used both in Egypt and in Tunisia, - not on the same scale -, Egypt being far ahead in using rape to prevent women to participate in public political life in the demonstrations. Algerian GIA also used rape as a weapon of war, in order to terrorize entire populations, during the nineties.

15. Sword: a very symbolic weapon for the ‘Islamic’ Far Right: in the mid-seventies, inside the premises of Algiers University, a communist student was decapitated by the sword by Fundamentalist students after a mock trial in which he was condemned to death for being ‘kofr.’ And in the late eighties in Algeria, the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front seared to come to power ‘ by the vote or by the sword’.

16. The Doyen of La Manouba University taken to court :
Background information on the case:

17. Despite serious historical work on the rise of the fundamentalist Far Right in Algeria, it is commonly accepted by the Left internationally that the cancellation of the legislative elections in Algeria in 1991 was THE reason for Muslim fundamentalists to turn to violence. In fact armed violence, led by Bouyali, started by the mid sixties with armed groups attacking quarries to procure explosives and attacking military barracks to procure arms; in Algeria, young men are drafted at age 18 and spend two years either in the police force or in the army; thus just-drafted young men were killed, in several instances, which sparked an outcry by aggrieved families and society. Bouyali led many actions of sabotage before being caught and brought to trial and jailed.
It is precisely because Algerians experienced growing fundamentalist violence and violations of rights in the name of religion over three decades, that they massively took to the street to demand the cancellation of the elections: unions, women’s organisations, left parties, intellectuals and artists – all of whom had already been targeted by the Islamic Salvation Front - demonstrated and called on the government to stop the electoral process. Fundamentalists threw bombs on these demonstrations, wounding several. There exist video archives of these demos with interviews of the Left demonstrators explaining why they make such a demand.
This is not the place to debate whether the Algerian Left was right or not, nor to discuss why the government, by agreeing to these demands, made use of the demos in pursuit of its own vested interests. But the fact is that all what counts as left and progressives in Algeria was scared enough of what they had already experienced at the hands of armed fundamentalists to make this demand. However, the Left internationally always hides this historical fact: why?
Another common point worth to be noted is that people in Algeria as well as in Tunisia generally did not go to vote: in both countries, it seems democrats were not sufficiently aware of the risk that fundamentalist parties could be elected – or angry enough to let it happen. (Just like happened in France in 2002, when socialist Jospin was ousted by Far Right National Front Le Pen). If one considers the number of registered voters, most of them did not bother to vote: abstention was massive in both cases and only around 25% voted for the fundamentalist Far Right FIS or Nahda.

18. Although in several Muslim countries, it will be more adequate to stick to the old wording of ‘one man, one vote’, as women are either still banned, or restricted or discouraged from voting. I would like to offer here a personal testimony of the fact that men in Algeria voted for all the women in their families and that, albeit illegal, it was routinely accepted by the officers in charge of voting booths; I remember, in the late seventies, being in the line behind a man who carried 11 ID cards on top of his own, and voted for them all; as I was challenging the legality of the process, the officer in charge dismissed my protest and accused me publicly of being ‘against the right for women to vote’, giving me a long discourse about the fact that women were granted the right to vote at independence, and, since they were not allowed out of their house, this man here in front of me, who was their wali i.e. their tutor, was voting for them, and how could i object to democracy and women’s rights ! Understand: the very man who did not allow the female in his family to come to the booth was hijacking their vote. This anecdote sadly reminds me of the first incidents of veiling female students in Algiers university in the 70s when progressive anti-veil women were accused of being ‘against women’s education’ – the logic was: if women students were not veiled the father would not allow them to come to university, hence objecting to their veiling was to condemn girls to be deprived of higher education -; it also echoes the accusations of being ‘against girl’s education’ when, in 2004 and 2005, women of migrant North African Muslim descent in France were fighting against the fundamentalist demand to veil girls in primary and secondary secular state schools, i.e. female children under age 16 ; and finally it also echoes the condemnation for being anti-Islam (or ‘Islamophobic’) which usually follows in Left circles in Europe any form of exposure of the Muslim fundamentalist political agenda. The sophist process is really interesting and each time identical, on the philosophical model of ‘what is rare is dear’: it is a re-appropriation of the revolutionary discourse by reactionary elements, which allows them to accuse libertarians of being the reactionary ones.

19. Jairus Banaji: Fascism as a mass movement, in : ‘Fascism: Essays on Europe and India’, Edited by Jairus Banaji, poublished by Three Essays, Delhi March 2013

20. Some graphic examples: In Algiers in the early eighties, a young man, who was not a believing Muslim but hid the fact from his family for fear of being denounced, and who was secretly smoking even during Ramadan, was looking for tricks to hide the cigarette smell from his own mother; and in the nineties, a woman primary school teacher was showing a cork in class, asking the children whether they had already seen this object, to detect in which families was wine served at home. In the early eighties already, only two of us (I was one of the two), academics, still publicly dared declare ourselves atheists, in Algiers university’s Arts, History, Geography, Languages, Philosophy, Psychology and Social Sciences departments – the other numerous atheists or agnostics chose to hide it, including by pretending to fast or pray. I do not blame them.
Having lived to see how fear grew in my own country, in the context of the disintegration of progressive organisations that could have supported daring enough individuals, made me humble and little judgemental about how the German people just tried to protect themselves individually by ignoring Nazis’ atrocities: it was scary and lonely to stand up.
This is a point on which I differ from Jairus Banaji’s analysis in his article: Fascism as a mass movement (19), when he stigmatizes the silence of the whole German population in wake of Nazis’ crimes. I think he underestimates both the isolation of individuals when progressive organisations have already been destroyed ahead of time, and the disparity of forces when people finally realize – far too late – that they would have to face a minute net of potential denunciators all around them, if they try anything.

21. Dangerous conceptual slips.
‘Moderate Islamists’: There are definitely many politically moderate believers in Islam, i.e. ‘moderate Muslims’ - just as there are moderate Christians, moderate Jews or moderate Hindus -, there are also very progressive and Left and secular Muslim believers.
But there cannot be ‘moderate Islamists’- it is a contradiction in terms -, for the very same reason that there cannot be ‘moderate fascists’. The mere fact of using this concept is a clear indication that so-called ‘Islamism’’ is not yet identified in political terms as a Far Right movement.
It is useful to make a conceptual distinction between ‘Muslims’ as believers in Islam and fundamentalists as members of a political movement that ranges from conservative to Far Right. Calling ‘Muslim’ everyone born or raised into a Muslim society or family – as is currently and increasingly done in ‘the West’ - but also in India for instance – transforms a personal faith into ‘a race’, as happened to ‘the Jews’ under Nazism. Additionally, it shows no respect for the faith of the believers, nor to the freedom of thought of non believers, apostates, atheists and agnostics who are just as numerous in our countries as they are the world over – except that they have to hide it if they don’t want to be sentenced to death.
Fundamentalists call themselves ‘Islamists’: I do not, as I deny them the right to represent Islam. They are not a religious movement; they are a political one of an Extreme Right nature.
For similar reason, I do not use the term ‘Islamophobia’, which comforts the Muslim Right in its stance that they represent Islam and if one disagrees with them, one is in fact attacking Islam itself.
There is undeniably discrimination, racism, violence against those deemed ‘Muslims’ in Europe and North America; but a man from the Middle East would be attacked as Arab and alien, without asking him whether he is a Christian or a Muslim for instance; and let us remember that the only man killed after the London bombing was a Brazilian, just dark skinned enough to be mistaken for ‘a Muslim’.
These concepts have been devised by the Muslim Right, for its own benefit, and its helps manipulating public opinion. The least that the Left internationally could and should do is to critically reflect on the concepts it uses, and to devise new ones that adequately reflect the situation. When people are attacked, it is not Islam – an ideology, a philosophy, a religion - that dies, it is real flesh and blood men, women, children who die, and those are the ones we need to defend with social and political weapons, not with religious ones.

22. Marieme Helie Lucas: ‘Appeal against fundamentalisms - There is no such thing as the ’clash of civilizations’: the clash in the world today is between fascists and antifascists’ (4 January 2005).
This analysis was endorsed by the organization and presented as Wluml’s position to the 2005 Social Forum.
Read the full statement presented in Porto Alegre, January 21, 2005: WLUML statement to the World Social Forum - Appeal Against Fundamentalisms

23. WLUML Statement on Libya, October 25, 2011
Sharia law is another term that one should avoid using, as – despite fundamentalists’ claims - there is no such divine law in existence anywhere in Muslim countries. If one looks at the vast variety of contradictory laws in Muslim countries - which are all considered to be in conformity with Islam -, one cannot but be convinced that laws are man made. Here there is monogamy, there it is polygyny; here women and men have equal rights and duties in marriage, there women have to obey their husbands; here girls are married off at puberty, there they have to be of legal adult age; here divorced women can have custody of the children upon divorce, there children are the property of the father; here women can be unilaterally orally repudiated, there divorce has to take place in a court of law; etc..
Fundamentalists use the term sharia law as if it were an actual body of law; this is not the case. The mere fact that fundamentalists in Egypt and Tunisia today attempt to include into their so-called sharia law a pre-Islamic Pharaonic practice, FGM, and to make it pass as an Islamic injunction is a good exemple of what they are up to and how they construct their new divine law.
For details about the variety of Muslim laws, see:
Knowing Our Rights: Women, family, laws and customs in the Muslim world, 2003
This volume is the international synthesis of the ‘Women & Law in the Muslim world Programme’ and is based on some 10 years of field experience, research and analysis by multi-disciplinary teams of networkers in over 20 countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. National and regional reports of this research also exist.

24. Daniel Bensaïd, ‘La République Imaginaire’, Chapter 2 in: Fragments Mécréants: Mythes Identitaires et République Imaginaire (my translation from the original French)
(The Imaginary Republic, chapter 2, in: Miscreant fragments, identity myths and imaginary republic)
Paris: Editions Lignes et manifestes, 2005.

25. Poem by Erich Fried quoted by Daniel Bensaïd in the above. (My translation from the original French)
Erich Fried, Cent poèmes sans frontières (A hundred poems without borders). Paris Christian Bourgeois, 1978