Islamophobia, secularism and the left

by Mick Armstrong • Published 12 March 2011

Over the last two decades Islamophobia has emerged as a key ideological excuse for imperialist war in the Middle East. In the nineteenth century imperialist plunder was justified as “the white man’s burden” to bring enlightenment and Christianity to the “savages” of Africa and Asia. Today the “noble” cause justifying the US and its allies’ murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the continuing Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people is the “horrors” of Islamic fundamentalism.

Shamefully many Western liberals and some on the left have fallen into line, openly supporting or giving credence to Western intervention in the Middle East on the spurious basis of encouraging secular democracy or opposition to the Taliban’s treatment of women – as though the likes of George Bush (or for that matter the Obama administration) have spent trillions of dollars on the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to liberate Muslim women. The US imperialists show no such concern for the treatment of women by their loyal Saudi ally. No, what is at stake is control over the most important raw material in the world today – oil. Others on the left have sat on the fence, refusing to support resistance to imperialism by groups like Hamas or Hezbollah because of their Islamist roots.

The “war on terror” has spilled over into draconian anti-terror laws directed against the Muslim populations of Australia and other Western countries, into opposition to the construction of mosques or Muslim schools, bans on women wearing the hijab and a relentless barrage of anti-Muslim propaganda. In 1999 Turkey banned headscarves in schools, universities and public offices. In 2004 the French government banned headscarves in schools and more recently outlawed the wearing of the burqa in public. The Belgian parliament also voted unanimously for a law against the burqa and the Canadian province of Quebec introduced a ban on facial covering in public service employment in April 2010. In Australia far right Christian Democrat NSW state MP Fred Nile proposed a bill to “ban face coverings”, Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi called for limiting Muslim immigration and banning the burqa and various university administrations, such as Melbourne’s RMIT, have attempted to close down Muslim prayer rooms.[1]

All this has led to considerable debate on the left as to how to respond. Deplorably, in France many small-l liberals and leftists have either lined up with the French state in its persecution of oppressed Muslim women or failed to give them wholehearted support. But it is not just in France that large sections of the left have failed to stand up to Islamophobia. Marwa Al-Radwany, a supporter of the network Marx21 in Germany’s Left Party, reported that:

Unfortunately, the German left wing is divided concerning Islam… Many German Marxists consider religion and religious people to be intrinsically anti-emancipatory and counter-revolutionary. They just do not understand why they should defend a religion or even work together with religious people…

This hesitancy and political lack of clarity does not just affect the Left Party, but also the wider movement. After the first statements from Thilo Sarrazin [a Social Democrat who published a best selling book attacking Muslim immigrants], the extreme left formed a new coalition against racism. They were doing a really good job until they were approached by a member of the Turkish religious organization Mili Görus. The anti-racist group refused to work with them, saying that they wanted nothing to do with “backward” fundamentalists. This ignores the fact that Mili Görus is one of the largest Muslim groups in Germany, with many different tendencies. Unfortunately, many Marxists with a Turkish background fail to differentiate between Muslims from the Turkish ruling class and those who are a part of a religious minority within an imperialist state.

Australia is far from exempt from such attitudes, which is reflected in the lack of active support from much of the left for the long-running campaign at RMIT University to defend the Muslim prayer room.[3] Some on the socialist left even deny that there is such a thing as Islamophobia. The British supporters of Lutte Ouvrière, one of the largest Trotskyist groups in France, argued that “to claim that the Muslim religion is under attack by the government and the right wing is simply preposterous. Asian people are being attacked but not their religion.”[4] While the Irish group Socialist Democracy stated:

The reason why much of the racist discourse in Europe has taken on an anti-Muslim tone is because Muslims…constitute the largest proportion of non-white immigrants… Muslims are not being targeted because of their religion, but due to their position as members of non-white immigrant communities. They are the object of what should be described as anti-Muslim racism. It is important to distinguish this from the concept of Islamophobia, which is underpinned by a quite different analysis of the discrimination faced by Muslims…

There is no basis for claiming that Muslims in Britain are facing discrimination because of their religious beliefs.

This is to ignore the whole impact of the “war on terror”. Anti-immigrant racism has of course been rife for well over a century in Europe, North America and Australia and there undoubtedly is an intersection between anti-Arab, anti-Turkish and anti-Pakistani racism and Islamophobia. However the law banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland, the widespread opposition to the construction of mosques and Muslim schools in country after country (including Australia) and the hostility to the wearing of Muslim religious symbols are clearly attacks on Muslims as Muslims. Islam is constantly denigrated as more backward and irrational than other religions; more hostile to women and gays; more violent; more authoritarian; incompatible with democracy and modern society and so on. There are repeated absurd scares about the threat of the introduction of Sharia law in countries like Britain where Muslims account for a mere 2.7 per cent of the population. Moreover it is not just Muslims from an Arab or Asian background who have come under attack. NSW Labor MP Ed Husic, who has a Bosnian (i.e. European) Muslim family background, was subjected to a nasty Muslim-bashing scare campaign in the 2010 federal election.

Before outlining what I believe should be the left’s response to Islamophobia I need to first deal with the general question of the Marxist approach to religion.

Marxism and religion[6]

“Religion is the opium of the people” is probably Karl Marx’s best known single quote. But Marx did not simply dismiss religion as a narcotic which stupefies the masses, as the rest of the quote clearly reveals:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions… Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

Marx is arguing that there is a real material basis for religious belief – the terrible conditions in which the mass of oppressed humanity are forced to live. Only with the elimination of those oppressive material conditions will religion fade away. Moreover religion is not simply a drug that helps people cope with a “heartless world”. It can also be a form of protest against exploitation and oppression which is reflected in the fact that throughout history many radical or revolutionary movements have taken on a religious colouration. It flows from this that Marxists are completely opposed to any attempt to ban religion (before or after the revolution) or to persecute religious believers (as in Stalin’s Russia). On the contrary, Marxists defend the principle of freedom of religious belief and worship for all.

Consistent Marxists are thoroughgoing materialists and consequently atheists. We have no need for theology to understand the dynamics of human society. As Marx put it in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.[8]

However, unlike the anarchist followers of Bakunin and other ultra-sounding radicals who prioritise the fight against religion, there is a long-standing tradition in Marxism which opposes atheism being inscribed as part of the political program of the revolutionary movement. Frederick Engels sharply criticised the program of the Blanquist fugitives from the Paris Commune who argued that “there is no room in the Commune for priests; every religious demonstration, every religious organisation, must be forbidden.” Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish God by decree, declaring that “persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions” and that “the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced.”[9] Nor will any amount of atheistic propaganda abolish religious belief. The task of socialists is not to ram atheism down people’s throats but to build a mass political movement that can revolutionise the world. As Historical Materialism editorial board member Alberto Toscano put it, Marx’s

early conviction whereby the struggle against religion is the “embryo” of true revolutionary transformation, gives way, through Marx’s deepening study of the system of exploitation and his own political engagement, to a belief that such an anti-religious struggle might even serve as a detour or a cloak for real political struggle, that is to the idea that the aims of atheism and Enlightenment cannot be accomplished through a bald affirmation of Godlessness and Reason as matters of consciousness or mere pedagogy.[10]

Only genuine human emancipation (i.e. socialist revolution) rather than secularism or atheistic preaching alone can lead to the withering away of religion. And because socialist revolution is the act of the mass of workers themselves, it is inevitable and necessary that the revolution will be made by, and the revolutionary movement will include, workers with religious beliefs. But while Marxists are for recruiting militant workers with religious ideas into a mass revolutionary party, the party itself must not become a religious party. Marxists regard religion as a private matter in relation to the state but not in relation to the revolutionary party.

There can be no simplistic identification of religious belief with conservatism or criticism of the church with radicalism. In Australia throughout most of the twentieth century the Labor vote was disproportionately high amongst Catholics and more recently amongst Buddhists and Muslims. This reflected their predominantly working class backgrounds and the fact that they suffered racism and discrimination. On the other hand evangelical Protestants have tended to vote conservative, as do many older and better off people who describe themselves as atheists or as having no religion.

The British Marxist John Molyneux correctly warns against the mistake of assuming “that when people do something in the name of religion it really is religion that is determining their behaviour”.[11] For example the US religious right is a political movement motivated not primarily by theology but by class and social interests. It was not its peculiar interpretation of the Bible that led the religious right to back George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. No, the religious right backed the war on Iraq because control over Middle Eastern oil advanced the interests of US imperialism and consequently the economic and social interests of the upper middle class and ruling class leaders of the religious right. Similarly the resistance forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are not motivated by their specific interpretation of the Koran but by nationalist opposition to foreign occupation.

Unfortunately much of the discussion around Marxism and religion loses sight of the all-important criterion in such cases, namely the need to place them in the context of the class struggle. Strategy and tactics go by the board, while the relationship between socialism and religion gets turned into a principle. As Molyneux puts it:

Our attitude to political movements with a religious colouration or religious leaders, such as the (Catholic) Hugo Chavez, or (Buddhist) Tibetan nationalism or Falun Gong in China or Islamic resistance in Iraq and Palestine, is based not on the movement’s religious beliefs but on the material social forces it represents and the justice of its political cause.[12]

Lenin summed up many of these themes in his 1909 article “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”:

Why does religion retain its hold…? Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist… And so: “Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!” The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view… It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way… The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism…

No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way.

Does this mean that educational books against religion are harmful or unnecessary? No, nothing of the kind. It means that Social-Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task – the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.

The proletariat in a particular region…is divided, let us assume, into an advanced section of fairly class-conscious Social-Democrats, who are…atheists, and rather backward workers…who…go to church, or are even under the direct influence of the local priest… Let us assume furthermore that the economic struggle in this locality has resulted in a strike. It is the duty of a Marxist to place the success of the strike movement above everything else… Atheist propaganda in such circumstances may be…harmful – not from the philistine fear of scaring away the backward sections, of losing a seat in the elections, and so on, but out of consideration for the real progress of the class struggle… To preach atheism…in such circumstances would only be playing into the hands of…priests… An anarchist who preached war against God at all costs would in effect be helping the priests and the bourgeoisie…

We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.

The politics of the headscarf/veil

The right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf or veil has been a key debate on the left in relation to Islamophobia. The centre of the controversy has been in France, where the issue of students wearing headscarves in state schools first erupted in 1989 and then again in 1994 and 2003. In 2004 the French parliament voted by a large majority (494 for, 36 against, 31 abstentions) to ban the headscarf in schools and then in 2010 the Sarkozy government banned the wearing of the burqa in public. Many on the French left are repeatedly thrown into confusion by the “veil” issue – regarding it as undermining the secular constitution or as “a symbol of women’s oppression”. This is to ignore the long history of French imperialism, which repeatedly utilised Islamophobia to justify its colonial rule in North Africa. During the Algerian war of independence French soldiers forcibly “unveiled” Algerian women and raped and tortured them as deliberate policy. As the Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar writes:

The colonial spirit is not confined to the right in France; it has long been rooted in the French left, constantly torn in its history between a colonialism blended with an essentially racist condescension expressed as paternalism, and a tradition of militant anti-colonialism.

Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers’ movement between social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists…particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim, confronted French troops in 1925.

The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the Communist International retains certain relevance:

“The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies… It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism.”

The duty of Marxists in France is to fight unfailingly racist and religious oppression conducted by the imperial bourgeoisie and its state, before fighting religious prejudice in the midst of the immigrant populations.

What lies behind the bans is a concerted campaign to whip up extreme nationalism and racism to deflect attention from the real issues confronting the mass of people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Islamophobia is tremendously useful to the right wing Sarkozy government, pointing the finger at Muslims as a threat to “our culture” in order to divert attention from the real enemy – the capitalist class – which in France and the rest of Europe is engaged in a concerted neoliberal offensive against working class living standards. As Joan Wallach Scott put it in her book The Politics of the Veil, the laws against the veil “offer a defence of the European nation-states at a moment of crisis”.[15]

The Islamophobic campaign against the veil has been couched in quite hysterical terms.[16] As early as 1989, the bicentenary of the French revolution, in an article published in the left-leaning magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, five philosophers ominously warned of the profound threat the veil represented to the “republican school” declaring that “only the future will tell if the year of the bicentennial will also have been the Munich of the republican school”. “The foundation of the Republic is the school,” they insisted, “that is why the destruction of the school will lead to the fall of the Republic.”[17] In 1993 then French President Jacques Chirac asserted that “wearing a veil…is a sort of aggression.”[18]

French nationalism is more hostile to multiculturalism than Australian or American nationalism. Immigrants to France can’t be French-Algerian (as in Vietnamese-Australian or Italian-American) they have to totally identify with a mythical French identity – French republicanism/the French language/culture, secularism and so on. Thus the French census makes no record of the religion, ethnicity or national origins of its population. Any assertion of ethnic/cultural difference is seen as a threat to the bourgeois French state. Secularism is a core part of French republican nationalism and has become a mask for ethnocentrism and racism (see more on secularism below).

There is also a clear class element to the attacks on French Muslims. As Gilbert Achcar points out,

A third aspect gets in the way of the consideration of Islam on a footing of equality: it is that Islam as a transplanted religion is also a religion of the poor. Unlike the Judeo-Christian religions whose followers in France are spread across the whole social chessboard, and in particular unlike Catholicism, historically integrated into the dominant class, Muslims…are situated for the moment in their great majority at the bottom of the social ladder.[19]

The bottom line is that in France – and across Europe – the right is targeting Muslims. Today Muslims are the Jews of the 1930s. Imagine if then the left had responded to anti-Semitism with calls for Jews to abandon their religious dress, or refused to defend their right to wear it in the schools, the universities, the courts, etc. Socialists should defend the right of Muslim women, when they wish to do so, to wear the headscarf or the burqa anywhere in public life. The idea that a law denying some of the most oppressed women in France the right to dress as they wish in public is an advance for women’s liberation is simply to turn reality on its head. The 2010 law banning the burqa is not defending the rights of women but restricting them. It will not defend women’s dignity but increase racist aggression against Muslim women wearing veils, as happened after the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools.

The end result of the ban on headscarves in state schools is that an increasing number of Islamic schools have been established; a growing number of Muslim female students have chosen to study at home; some have shaven their hair and others migrated from France with their families.[20]

Why would any progressive campaign for women’s rights target something worn to school by a few thousand women from an oppressed migrant community rather than something in the mainstream community? There has been no equivalent campaign, let alone state sanctions, against wearing make-up, high-heeled shoes, dresses with plunging necklines and so on as symbols of women’s oppression. Nor in modern times has there been a comparable campaign waged against nuns wearing religious habits or Christian women wearing a veil in church. The other reactionary aspect of the idea that denying Muslim women the right to wear the headscarf is part of the struggle for women’s liberation is its elitism. It flows from the conception that a supposedly “enlightened” minority can impose its idea of freedom on the mass of the oppressed independently of any process whereby consciousness is raised through the experience of struggle and the clash of ideas. This approach will only reinforce the impression among Muslim youth in France that Islamism is the only viable alternative to the racist status quo. To quote Gilbert Achcar again: “An elementary truth but still so often ignored: any ‘blessings’ imposed by force equal oppression, and could not be perceived otherwise by those who are subjected to them.”[21]

Lutte Ouvrière (LO), one of the largest Trotskyist groups in France, argues that the veil is a “visible sign of women’s submission to their husbands and brothers”.[22] LO claims that “to ban the veil at school is to allow young women who do not want to wear it to resist family pressures, pressures from fundamentalists and chauvinists and aid their struggle”.[23] But in reality, students denied a public education because their families compel them to wear a hijab will only be able to continue their studies through “home schooling” or in an Islamic institution. Hardly a step forward.

Revolutionary socialists should oppose all discrimination. There is no contradiction between supporting Muslim women protesting the ban on headscarves in France and championing Afghan women in their fight against the mandatory wearing of the burqa. Both are fighting against state-imposed oppression – and for the right to self-determination. While Marxists are atheists, we uphold the right of people to practise the religion of their choice, just as we support the right of gays and lesbians to exchange wedding vows without endorsing the institution of bourgeois marriage. Catherine Samary, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) who was at the forefront of struggles to oppose the 2004 law, explained:

I was in the minority position of the LCR [Revolutionary Communist League] which was more radically against the law. We put more emphasis on the post-colonial context, against a population subjected to discriminations and post-colonial racism. The French state was having [a] similar position as the French colonial army in Algeria pretending to “emancipate” women (taking off the veil same time when French women had even not the right to vote)…we thought that the “neither, nor” majority position inside the LCR was preventing it from a mobilisation against the law. The main reason was a refusal from the majority of the LCR to involve our members in actions with the victims of that law: women wearing the scarf. The argument was that this kind of front would have been anti-feminist (even for good anti-racist goals), a form of “support” of the scarf. They claimed we would be mobilising on “religious grounds” and not social or political ones. According to our opponents within the LCR and within the feminist movement, our support to the young Muslim girls wearing the scarf was a “lack of solidarity” with the other women resisting against the veil imposed in Muslim countries…

We were clearly fighting on “democratic” socio-political grounds. Defending the right for young girls to wear a scarf in the public school does not mean that you are “for” it. But we opposed any legitimacy of the post-colonial French state to “emancipate” women.

The associations…we built were for the women’s right to choose as the fundamental issue for emancipation and a specific emphasis was put on the idea that going to a public school was certainly the best concrete help for women’s emancipation. On the contrary, forbidding them to enter the public school was pushing them back home, or to private religious schools, or to build a frustration through a forced suppression of the veil that will certainly not help fighting against the forced veil…

The headscarf is not the source of women’s oppression and inferior social status. Simply banning women from wearing symbolic clothing will not change their status or the underlying pressures upon them. For real equality women need economic independence and the ability to make a full range of choices about the way they live their lives. As NPA activist John Mullen put it:

Muslim and Arab men are…presented as the major source of women’s oppression and contrasted with the progressive white values of Republican France. So opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism… Muslim women in France suffer oppression, get mostly low-paid jobs and bad housing, this is not usually because of their husbands and big brothers. It is because capitalism wants cheap labour, and treating ethnic minorities badly is good for profits.[25]

Overall the left in France has taken an appalling position on the Islamophobic attacks on the oppressed Muslim minority. A Communist Party member of parliament headed the committee formed to legislate to ban the burqa and the Socialist Party and the Greens supported the ban. The French Anarchist Federation also took a reactionary position. In 2004 only a few hundred activists in the whole of France mobilised against the law expelling students who wore the veil from state schools. All the left parties either supported the law or were completely divided and paralysed on the issue.

At the time of the 1994 controversy Lutte Ouvrière ran a huge banner headline on the front page of their paper declaring, “On the side of those who fight Islamic fundamentalism”.[26] LO supported the 2004 ban and scandalously some of its teacher members were centrally involved in campaigning to expel the Lévy sisters, two converts to Islam who insisted on their right to wear the headscarf, from their school.[27] The September 2003 headline in Lutte Ouvrière over the expulsion of the Lévy sisters was “Schools Under Attack From the Veil”, implying that huge numbers of women were wearing headscarves to school when in fact no more than a few thousand were doing so.[28] Rouge, the paper of the other major French Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), carried a cover page calling for “Neither the discriminatory law nor the oppressive veil” – essentially a cop-out position. But even worse, an LCR member who taught at the school the two Lévy sisters attended explained that, while it would be preferable to find a way to avoid expelling them,

We also don’t want to exclude sanctions if a dialogue isn’t possible. The problem is that these two students are going much further than the dozen other cases we have at this establishment. They’re pursuing a militant course of action.[29]

To their credit, members of the LCR’s youth group, the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (JCR) helped organise a rally in support of the Lévys at their school. One JCR member, Xavier Chiarelli, commented:

We think that it’s necessary to fight alongside veiled girls. We don’t approve of the oppression of which they are the victims, but we think the main enemy is the dominant class. In the long run, we hope to convince them that the headscarf is not a means of emancipation.[30]

So rather than a simple and straightforward defence of two school students being victimised by the capitalist state because of their religious belief, even some of their few left wing defenders felt compelled to make it clear that they did not approve of them wearing headscarves and that they wanted to convince them out of their religious beliefs. This reflects the general Islamophobic atmosphere in France, but it also comes from an old confusion on the left in France (and elsewhere) that to be left wing means being very anti-religious and even hating believers. As NPA activist John Mullen explained in early 2010:

At the founding conference of the NPA, the word “Islamophobia” did not even appear in any of the conference documents, it is such a divisive issue. And yet Islamophobia is rampant in France…and of course the right wing government, delighted at the paralysis of the left, is now proposing a law which would ban the “full veil” (niqab)… The NPA is opposed to this law, but its spokespeople often use arguments like “there are other ways to fight against the niqab”… One article in the NPA’s own weekly paper, written by a feminist old-timer in the party (and to my great shame) referred to women wearing the niqab as “birds of death”.

There is a small minority of NPA members who are “Islamophobic and proud of it”, who passionately detest all religion and religious symbols, and never think to apply a materialist analysis to religion. There is a bigger group who think that all this is secondary and we should not make too much noise about it because it is divisive. And there is a small minority (including myself) who think that fighting Islamophobia needs to be a priority.[31]

NPA Muslim candidate

A further controversy erupted in early 2010 when the local Vaucluse area of the NPA chose as one of its candidates for the regional elections Ilham Moussaïd, a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. The NPA was attacked not only by the xenophobic right but by secular feminists and much of the rest of the left. One Socialist Party deputy, Aurélie Filippetti, declared that the NPA leader Olivier Besancenot should “re-read Marx: ‘religion is the opium of the people’”.[32] Yet 20 of the 22 regions of France run by the Socialist Party finance private Catholic schools. The Communist Party joined in the attacks, arguing that Besancenot was being deliberately provocative, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leader of the Left Party, a left breakaway from the Socialist Party, declared that Moussaïd’s candidacy “is frankly not a good idea” and “all that is regressive”.[33] One of the arguments used to condemn Moussaïd is that the headscarf is an affront to women and incompatible with feminism, but as Ilham Moussaïd herself put it:

These feminists say that it’s a symbol of oppression, of submission. For my part, I’m not submissive: it’s a personal choice… I fight for women’s rights… I fight for the right to abortion, the right to contraception. It’s true they see it as a symbol of oppression, but unfortunately they forget that there are women who wear it out of choice. A certain number of women are obliged to wear it… I don’t deny that, and I’ll fight for these women.[34]

According to John Mullen, Olivier Besancenot, the best known public spokesperson for the NPA,

defended Ilham’s candidacy well and has spoken of his disgust at the Islamophobic attitude of much of the media. This is a good step forward… However, the NPA leadership have otherwise been very defensive on the issue – refusing to accept invitations to TV shows to defend Ilham… This is because they know that their own party is deeply divided.[35]

Indeed the official statement issued by the NPA National Executive in defence of Ilham Moussaïd was, to put it politely, mealy-mouthed. The NPA executive declared that: “The decision taken by the Vaucluse comrades cannot be taken to be the position of the NPA as a whole, since it had not been discussed in advance at any level of the party.” They emphasised that “the headscarf is not only a visible religious symbol, but also an instrument of subjection of women” and that the NPA “has always been in solidarity with women who resist those who want to force them to wear the veil”. [36] By emphasising their support for secularism (which Moussaïd is on record as supporting) rather than the defence of oppressed minorities, the NPA leadership’s statement ignored the actual dynamics of oppression against Muslims in France.

Tragically in December 2010 Moussaïd and a group of her supporters resigned from the NPA in the lead-up to the NPA conference.[37] According to John Mullen,

a vocal minority inside the NPA is hostile to having members with a hijab. For the upcoming conference, this minority has put forward a motion that hijab wearers can’t be candidates for the party. A counter-motion defends equal rights for all members to apply to be a candidate, and a third motion suggests a dreadful compromise (that hijab wearers can be candidates if approved by special commissions).

The group of comrades of which Ilham is part, near Avignon, have been running dynamic local campaigns on local issues, including the question of Islamophobia. A campaign against them inside the party has worn them out and rather than fight at the conference, they have chosen to continue their activism outside the party – it’s very sad. The very real and slowly growing support they have had from a minority of comrades around the country has not been enough to keep them in our party.

Islamophobia is a gigantic blind spot of the French left. The NPA is better than the other organisations of the radical left (which is not hard). The upcoming “Conference against the Islamic domination”…will see sections of the NPA mobilising against it. And at the party conference we have a good chance of winning the demand for equal rights for Muslim party members. But the conference will debate almost exclusively about the rights of Muslim members of the NPA. Only a few isolated voices are calling for an active NPA campaign against Islamophobia. This is a tragedy. In the mass strike campaign to defend pensions…NPA activists everywhere played an excellent role, in the forefront of building the strikes and building unity between different sections of the working class…

It is a party with tremendous positive potential. But old French traditions of left wingers mocking or hating those who believe in God, and more recent trends towards demonising Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be blinding comrades and they are falling for old divide and rule tactics… We have to actively fight Islamophobia both because of how hard it makes life for many of our Muslim sisters and brothers, but also because working class rebellion is made harder every time workers believe that “Muslim threats to our culture” are what we need to be fighting, not the capitalists.

The NPA conference in February 2011 saw a major debate on the issue of whether women who wore the veil would be allowed to stand as NPA parliamentary candidates. A motion to totally ban headscarf-wearing candidates was defeated by a mere two votes. But given the deep divisions in the party on the issue it was decided to hold a special delegates’ conference on the issue.[39] Seen in the context of the deeply entrenched Islamophobic attitudes on the French left, this narrow defeat of an outright ban on candidates wearing the veil represented a significant step forward. Hopefully it will give confidence to the principled minority on the left, who understand that fighting Islamophobia is a major responsibility of socialists, to campaign to thoroughly transform the approach of the NPA.

The left and secularism

One of the most common arguments invoked by those on the left calling for bans on the veil or opposing any collaboration with Muslim activists is the defence of secularism. Much of the left has a totally uncritical attitude to secularism or indeed sees a militant version of secularism as a core principle of Marxism. Secularism is usually treated in a totally unproblematic fashion, without any attempt to rigorously define the concept. That in my view is a mistaken, classless approach that can easily lead to political error. It was not the approach of the mature Marx. As Alberto Toscano writes,

Marx’s early writings can be understood in terms of the progressive, if very rapid, realisation that the attack on religion – while a vital spur to undermining the religious legitimation of state power – is always insufficient, or even a downright diversion, when it comes to attain its avowed ends. Repeatedly, atheistic criticism overestimates the centrality of Christianity to the state and treats the state’s secularisation as an end in itself.[40]

The guiding principle for Marxists has to be what advances the class struggle; what helps unite the working class in its struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish a classless society. The tactics and strategies that socialists employ must flow from that starting point. All the demands that socialists raise, including secular demands, have to be judged in that light.[41]

Secularism is a pretty woolly concept that has evolved in many divergent directions over the last few hundred years. It is commonly defined as the separation of church and state or as religion being a private matter in respect to the state. But the separation of church and state has had quite different meanings historically. In the US in the aftermath of the revolution of 1776, separation of church and state meant opposition to a state religion and protection of religious freedom, i.e. preventing state persecution of religious minorities. Thus the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”, while Article VI of the US Constitution specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Prior to the 1776 revolution the Church of England (or in a few colonies the Congregational Church) had been the state religion in many of the American colonies, and other Protestant sects and Catholics suffered discrimination or persecution.

While socialists should support these basic democratic measures enshrined in the US Constitution, the US model of secularism remained quite limited. Indeed far from seeing it as a threat, most Protestant churches originally supported the separation of church and state as providing a better terrain for their religious proselytising. In any case Christianity in its Protestant form maintained a privileged position in the US state and politics, which is reflected in the official US national motto “In God We Trust”, in the saying of Christian prayers in various parliaments, paid chaplains in the US military and so on.[42] Clearly there is not formal equality between believers and non-believers in the US.

A more militant secularism and anti-clericalism arose with the French and Mexican revolutions. In the French revolution the rising bourgeoisie wanted to break the power of the Catholic Church which was one of the central pillars of feudal society – both economically (it was the largest landowner in feudal Europe) and ideologically. The French bourgeoisie undermined the church’s economic power by confiscating and then selling off huge swathes of church land. It sought to weaken its ideological hold over the masses by ending church control over education and by banning many religious orders. These measures were progressive in their day. They helped usher in a modern capitalist society which laid the basis for the rise of the working class movement which had the potential to eventually challenge class rule altogether.

But once the bourgeoisie had consolidated its rule in France (and other parts of Western Europe) secularism and anti-clericalism lost much of their progressive impact. Indeed demagogic priest-baiting was used by middle class politicians in France (and Mexico) to undermine the development of an independent and class-conscious working class movement.[43] The Radical party, the main bourgeois party in pre-World War II France, appealed to Republicanism and anti-clerical sentiment to bind sections of the working class to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie and to French imperialism. Various secular and Masonic groups, like the influential League for the Rights of Man, were used to incorporate middle class leaders of the Socialist Party and the early Communist Party into respectable bourgeois society. So serious was the problem that the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 passed a special resolution banning French Communists from membership of the Freemasons.[44]

On the other hand, as capitalism became more established, the mainstream Christian churches adapted themselves quite successfully to the money-dominated secular society. Religion itself became increasingly secularised. As Marx commented in the preface to the first edition of Capital,

The Established Church, for instance, will more readily pardon an attack on thirty-eight of its thirty-nine articles than on one thirty-ninth of its income. Nowadays atheism itself is a culpa levis [venial sin], as compared to the criticism of existing property relations.[45]

And where previously bourgeois radicals inspired by Enlightenment ideals had sought to combat religion, in country after country the bourgeoisie began to see a secularised, pro-capitalist Christianity as a useful ideological counterweight to the rising socialist movement. So while secular Republicanism remained the dominant ideology of the French state, in practice the Catholic Church was granted a series of privileges – crucifixes in state schools, obligatory religious lessons in Alsace and Moselle and eventually funding for Catholic schools.

A somewhat different variant of secularism was imposed in a number of former colonial countries, such as India, after they achieved independence. Secularism provided the ideological basis for the territorial “unity and integrity” of a new bourgeois Indian nation made up of a number of different religious and ethnic groups. But the imposition of secularism in India did nothing to end communalism between Hindus and Muslims. The adoption of secularism as the official, constitutional principle of the state, without transforming the social order whose underlying form was communal, meant that secularism became a stand-in for communalism. Indeed Nehru and the other leaders of the new Indian state saw the ideology of secularism as a means of forestalling a genuine social revolution that could have ended communalism. Thus, as the Indian writer Saroj Giri put it, Marxists in India “cannot just call for combining ‘hard’ secularism with progressive social reforms, but must pose the question of a revolutionary socio-political transformation”.[46]

The militant anti-clericalism that arose in the aftermath of the French and Mexican revolutions led to such measures as bans on all public religious processions or any display of religious symbols or the ringing of church bells, the outlawing of religious orders (such as the Jesuits), the closing down of convents, priests being deprived of the right to make political statements and the right to vote and so on.[47] Should socialists really support such severe anti-clerical measures today?[48]

Clearly we should oppose the Lord’s Prayer (the Protestant version naturally) being recited at the start of every sitting of the Australian parliament;[49] the fact that the Australian head of state is also the head of the Church of England; the fact that 26 senior clergy of the established Church of England are automatically granted seats in the upper house of the British parliament; the special privileges granted to the Catholic Church in countries like Italy and Ireland and the enforced Islamic character of the Saudi Arabian and Iranian states. But should we oppose all interventions of the churches into politics as anti-democratic breaches of secularism? It is one thing to oppose the Catholic Church’s attempts to impose its reactionary sexual morality in the form of laws against abortion, contraception or same-sex marriage. But what about when church leaders speak out against wars or poverty or in defence of trade union rights? Should socialists oppose church leaders speaking at anti-war rallies as a breach of secularism? Such a thoroughgoing commitment to secularism would be utterly counter-productive and in practice is not the approach followed by the left as a rule. And then there is the question of religious conscientious objectors being given the right to not serve in the military. Surely that is also a breach of secularism? Socialists do not advocate conscientious objection as a political strategy, but there is no denying the heroic stand of the Jehovah’s Witnesses during World War II who were banned, imprisoned and tortured in country after country, including Australia, for their anti-nationalist and anti-militarist beliefs.

Even many clearly supportable secular demands, like getting rid of prayers in parliament, are hardly a priority for socialists today. The church is not a decisive economic force in any advanced capitalist country. The capitalist class rules, not the church. The mainstream churches promote a secularised religion that is thoroughly pro-capitalist and generally play a reactionary role politically but they are a not a key prop for Western capitalism today. Even at the ideological level, the role of the media, the education system, the family, the political parties, the legal system, parliament and the other arms of the state are much more important in binding workers to the system in the advanced capitalist countries than is the church. So breaking the power of the church is not a key task for the socialist movement in the West. The fact that England still has an established church – the Church of England – headed by the Queen is not a decisive block to revolutionary advance in Britain. Rupert Murdoch and the City of London have a lot more power and influence than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

If we turn to the education system, where many of the battles around secularism have been fought, is the key problem for workers and socialists that some religious people go to school wearing veils or crucifixes, or that kids have to put up with tedious religious lessons, or even that just over 20 per cent of students in Australia go to Catholic schools? Surely a much bigger problem is the overwhelming pro-capitalist message that schools of all descriptions impart to their students. The proponents of secular education uphold state schools as supposedly neutral, unbiased spaces where children can learn away from political or religious pressures, controversies and quarrels of the adult world. Because of this neutrality requirement, not only is religious proselytising by students frowned upon or prohibited but so is political activism in the classroom. But secular education is anything but unbiased. The bourgeoisie’s desire to open up education had its progressive side but simultaneously the bourgeoisie gave secularity an elitist aspect. “Merit” rather than birth was now the way that social inequalities could be justified. An oppressive competitive examination system was imposed on children that reflected the brutal competitive environment of the capitalist market place.

In France Republican secularism and in particular secular education were seen as key elements of national cohesion, as a way of guaranteeing that social (i.e. class) differences would not fracture the unity of the nation. As Jules Ferry, generally considered the founder of secular education in France, declared:

In religious schools the young receive an education which is entirely directed against modern institutions. The ancien régime is praised, as are the former social structures. If this state of things goes on, we fear that other schools, open to the sons of workers and peasants, will be founded, with diametrically opposed principles of teaching. It may be that these principles will be inspired by socialist or communist ideals of recent date, for example the violent and ominous period between 18 March and 24 May 1871 [the Paris Commune].[50]

In the Australian case there is little concrete evidence to show that the increasingly secularised Catholic school system is any more reactionary than the state school system. Indeed the Catholic Church in Australia and the US has been singularly unsuccessful in selling its reactionary sexual morality to the products of its schools. Numerous surveys have shown that on questions of birth control, abortion and homosexuality Australian Catholics have broadly similar attitudes to the rest of the population.[51] On other political issues Catholics, reflecting their generally more working class backgrounds, have tended to have more left wing attitudes than the rest of the population. Throughout the twentieth century you were more likely to vote conservative if you went to an Australian state school than if you went to a Catholic school, and Catholic schools produced a disproportionate share of working class militants and socialists. The Catholic hierarchy generally played a socially conservative role – notoriously in Victoria and Queensland backing the right wing Democratic Labor Party split from the ALP during the 1950s. But this was not universally the case. At times in response to the radicalisation of their working class flock sections of the Catholic hierarchy could move sharply to the left – most famously during World War I when Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix played a leading role in the struggle against conscription. In the militant mining centre of Broken Hill, Bishop Hayden backed the revolutionary socialist MP Percy Brookfield.[52] The teachers in Catholic schools these days are no longer nuns or brothers and are just as likely to join a union and go on strike as their fellow teachers in the state system. So for socialists to focus on opposition to state aid to Catholic or other religious schools is simply a diversion from the key issues we need to fight around.

Another important element to take into account is that the demand for secularism in the European bourgeois revolutions was about breaking the power of the established churches – Catholicism in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the Orthodox Church in Russia and Greece, Protestantism in Germany and Scandinavia. But in Poland, Ireland, Australia and Germany Catholicism was not the official state religion, nor were the various Protestant sects in Russia, nor was Judaism anywhere in Europe. The followers of these religions in those countries were discriminated against and often persecuted. Indeed in some cases the supposed defence of secularism was used as the excuse to attack religious minorities.

In countries like Ireland and Poland Catholicism was the religion of an oppressed nation and the revolutionary struggle against national oppression inevitably took on a religious colouration. A similar process was at work amongst the racially oppressed Black population of the United States. In Ireland the British imposed secular education system, introduced in 1831, was used to undermine resistance to imperial rule by weakening the Irish language and culture. As one study of Irish education put it:

While there had been fears that the hedge schools had been academies of sedition, no such criticism was made of the national schools, where inculcation of loyalty to the established order and respect for authority were taught. Irish cultural identity was not on the agenda of the national schools. Irish language, history, heritage, and games did not find a place in the curriculum. The culture of the schools was more British than Irish.[53]

In the light of this experience in Ireland, it was understandable that the oppressed Irish minority in Britain’s Australian colonies did not enthusiastically embrace secular education. Their fears were heightened by the fact that the most strident supporters of secular education in Victoria in the 1860s were the same people who were campaigning against Irish immigration and proclaiming that Victoria must remain a Protestant colony under British domination. As the historian Michael Hogan put it, anti-Catholic sentiment was based on “a British fear of Irish rebellion, a Protestant fear of papal domination, and an establishment fear of working class lack of refinement”.[54] There were anti-Irish riots in Melbourne in 1867 and in Hobart in 1879. 1868 saw an incredible “Irish Fenian terrorism” scare after the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in Sydney. By the late 1870s the ultra sectarian Loyal Orange Lodge enrolled 15 per cent of the adult male Protestant population of NSW.[55]

In a strikingly similar fashion to Europe today, where many small-l liberals have been in the vanguard of fomenting Islamophobia, the radical wing of colonial liberalism in Victoria, epitomised by the Melbourne Age, played a decisive role in whipping up anti-Catholic Irish hysteria. The Age spearheaded the 1862 “No Popery” campaign, condemning the “Papish Irish” who hated England’s “free…noble and just, glorious and dignified institutions”.[56] The parallels with the mantra that Muslims hate the West because of our democracy and our values are glaringly obvious.

Secular education triumphed in Victoria in 1872 (and subsequently in other colonies) on the back of a vicious anti-Catholic Irish campaign by colonial liberals and the most bigoted section of the Protestant churches. So it was virtually inevitable that state schools would be seen by working class Catholics as Protestant schools and props of the Anglo establishment – an image that was reinforced by state school students being forced to swear loyalty to the British monarch (i.e. the head of the Church of England). Indeed the mainstream Protestant churches backed the secular education system and the separation of church and state as means to regularise religion and cement Protestantism as part of the dominant culture. And it is not as though state schools were open to all. In many NSW rural areas Aboriginal students were excluded from state schools and as a consequence often ended up attending Catholic schools.

The Catholic hierarchy exploited this situation to reinforce its hold over a largely working class flock that was nowhere near as devotedly religious as is often made out. In 1867 55.4 per cent of Catholic children in Victoria went to Catholic schools. According to Michael Hogan, “by the end of the century, when Catholic schools had been without government money for twenty years, a greater percentage of Catholic children were attending Catholic schools than forty years before when the denominational system was still supreme”. By 1950 the proportion of Catholics attending Catholic schools had risen to nearly three-quarters.[57] So much for the idea that the religious attachments of an oppressed minority could be broken by state imposed secularism. The persecution of Muslims today is likely to have a similar impact, binding them closer to their religious leaders.

How should socialists have responded to this reality? The key problem was not that religion was taught in Catholic schools (it is also taught in state schools) but that the competing state and Catholic school systems further entrenched the deep sectarian divisions within the working class. The Catholic school system did not cause these divisions. They were the product of the long history of oppression of the Irish and the divide and rule policies of employers and the state, first in Ireland and subsequently in Australia. Nonetheless the existence of two school systems did nothing to break down divisions between Protestant and Catholic workers. If there had been a mass socialist party at the time the state school system was established in the Australian colonies, it should have argued for an integrated, genuinely non-sectarian school system. But no such party existed and once the two school systems had been entrenched socialists needed to adjust their tactics. Those socialists who in support of the principle of secular education continued to oppose state aid to Catholic schools only served to reinforce sectarian divisions, not undermine them. The fact that the left wing-controlled Victorian ALP branch stridently opposed state aid right up until the 1970s only helped maintain working class Catholic support for the Democratic Labor Party – the largely Catholic split from the ALP. Support for secularism became the cover used by the Masons and other bigoted Protestant groups in their anti-Catholic campaign. Indeed many of the “socialists” who dominated the Victorian ALP state executive in the 1950s and 1960s were themselves members of the Masons.

Marxists needed to combine class politics with sensible tactics to help undermine the sectarian divisions. They could not do that if they turned “secular” education into an overarching principle. The Catholic hierarchy was campaigning for state aid to all private schools – poor Catholic, rich Catholic and rich Protestant. Socialists should have supported state aid for working class Catholic schools – the great majority – but strongly opposed any handouts to rich schools. In other words they should have attempted to split Catholics along class lines. And indeed as Michael Hogan documents, there was considerable support amongst working class Catholics for the allocation of state aid on a needs basis.[58] In return for state funding it would have been possible to argue for opening up Catholic schools to non-Catholic students and teachers and their effective incorporation into the state system.

What about Muslim schools today? It is in no sense a good thing that increasing numbers of Muslim students are leaving the state school system to attend separate Muslim schools. Banning female Muslim students from wearing headscarves to state schools will only increase this trend. This development has been encouraged by the growing oppression Muslims have faced in Australia over the last decade. Socialists can understand why, in the face of the abuse and discrimination Muslims face on a day to day basis, many of them see Muslim schools as some sort of oasis for their children. Nonetheless socialists from a Muslim background should argue against this trend. Muslims separating their children off from the rest of the working class will not overcome Islamophobia. It has to be fought, not run away from. It was bad enough for Irish Catholics, who were a quarter of the population at the time, to do it 150 years ago; but for an oppressed group that is less than 2 per cent of the population to do it can only compound their isolation.

But having said that, it remains an obligation on socialists, especially socialists from a non-Muslim background, to vigorously defend the right of Muslims, and all other religious groups for that matter, to have their own schools if they so choose. To do otherwise would be to be complicit in perpetuating Islamophobic attitudes. And given that all other religious schools receive state funding, Muslim schools need to have equal rights on that score as well. Similarly socialists should support the right of Muslim students to have Muslim prayer rooms on university campuses.

Working with Islamic groups

The other controversial question is how the left should work with Muslim-influenced groups, or whether to work with them at all. To dismiss any form of political collaboration with a religious organisation as some on the left do is simply to cut off your nose to spite your face. It would have meant, for example, refusing to be involved in the Victorian Peace Network (VPN) which organised the mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in Melbourne against the Iraq war in 2003. The VPN’s affiliates included, alongside various unions, left and socialist groups, the Victorian Council of Churches, the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, the Buddhist Council and the Islamic Council. Such an abstentionist approach would not have advanced the struggle against the war and has nothing in common with the genuine Marxist tradition. As Leon Trotsky wrote in The Third International After Lenin,

…purely practical agreements, such as do not bind us in the least and do not oblige us to anything politically, can be concluded with the devil himself, if that is advantageous at a given moment. But it would be absurd in such a case to demand that the devil should generally become converted to Christianity, and that he use his horns not against workers and peasants but exclusively for pious deeds.[59]

In the case of the VPN it was not as though the Islamic Council played a more conservative role than the other religious groups or the Humanist Society (a secularist organisation) or indeed the union officials. Some on the left would, however, argue that it is one thing to work with a Muslim religious group and totally another thing to work with Islamist political groups, which they argue are ultra-reactionary or clerical fascist.[60] There is not the space in this article to provide a thoroughgoing analysis of Islamism. That has been covered elsewhere.[61] Suffice it to say that to lump the incredible variety of Islamist organisations from al-Qaeda to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Hezbollah in the same “clerical fascist” bag adds nothing to our political understanding. The logic of such an analysis would have meant that the left should have treated supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas as fascists and attempted to physically drive them out of the mass demonstrations that occurred across Australia against Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 war on Gaza. Instead I would agree with Gilbert Achcar that

Islamic fundamentalism is…heterogeneous and different tactics should be adopted according to concrete situations. When this type of social programme is administered by an oppressive power and by its allies in order to legitimate the existing oppression, as in the case of numerous despotisms with an Islamic face…the only appropriate stance is that of an implacable hostility to the fundamentalists.

It is different when Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive… This is the case in situations where Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation…or an ethnic or racial oppression… It is also the case of Islamic fundamentalism in the West, where its rise is generally the expression of a rebellion against the fate reserved for immigrant populations.

…it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to the circumstances of the struggle against…the common enemy. While never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic fundamentalists in common battles – from simple street demonstrations to armed resistance, depending on the case.

Achcar then goes on to elaborate the Marxist tactical approach laid down at the beginning of the twentieth century:

In his preface of January 1905 to Trotsky’s pamphlet Before the Ninth of January, Parvus summarised them thus:

“To simplify, in the case of a common struggle with casual allies, the following points can be applied:

1) Do not merge organisations. March separately but strike together.

2) Do not abandon our own political demands.

3) Do not conceal divergences of interest.

4) Pay attention to our ally as we would pay attention to an enemy.

5) Concern ourselves more with using the situation created by the struggle than with keeping an ally.”

One difference of emphasis I would have with Achcar is that he implies that Islamic fundamentalists are necessarily more reactionary than other non-proletarian forces with which Marxists may have to form episodic alliances:[64]

Islamic fundamentalists can be objective and contingent allies in a fight waged by Marxists. However it is an unnatural alliance, forced by circumstances. The rules that apply to much more natural alliances such as those practised in the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, are here to be respected a fortiori, and even more strictly.[65]

Hamas and Hezbollah may not be as progressive as say the peasant movement in pre-revolutionary Russia, but they are hardly more reactionary than a series of secular forces such as the Tamil Tigers, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Stalinist Khmer Rouge, the nationalist Iraqi Ba’ath or the Shining Path in Peru.

As Achcar points out, there are undoubtedly dangers involved in any collaboration with Islamist groups, as there are in any practical intervention.[66] It can lead socialists to minimise “the importance of the elements of their political identity likely to embarrass their fundamentalist allies of the day”. Another danger is to treat “these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming [as] ‘anti-imperialists’ those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the clash of civilisations than to the class struggle”. The other serious error is to move from a practical alliance around specific objectives, in say the anti-war movement, to forming an electoral bloc with the Islamists. For as Achcar puts it,

…it is utterly unacceptable for Marxists to conclude an electoral alliance – a type of alliance which presupposes a common conception of political and social change – with these sorts of partners.

In the nature of things, participating in the same electoral slate is to give the mistaken impression that he has been converted to social progressiveness and to the cause of workers’ emancipation… The very logic of this type of alliance pushes those who are engaged in it, in the face of the inevitable criticism of their political competitors, to defend their allies of the day and to minimise, even to hide, the deep differences that divide them.[67]

Nonetheless, while these dangers of accommodation to Islamism are real enough, the left internationally has much more commonly fallen into errors of the opposite type – of a scornful dismissal of people from a religious background; a sectarian refusal to work in common struggles with Muslims; or a failure to wholeheartedly defend the rights of Muslims under attack for wearing the veil because of an uncritical adherence to bourgeois secularism. This has been compounded by a tendency on the left to overstate how reactionary Islam is on the question of women and gays and lesbians compared to other religions, when in reality the attitudes on these questions in the Muslim world are very similar to those that were dominant in Western countries until quite recent times and are still present in the teachings of most Christian churches.[68] These errors all represent accommodations to the Islamo-phobia that has for the last two decades been so prevalent in Western capitalism. In this context the key issue for socialists should be how do we defend the rights of religious minorities who are being scapegoated, not joining in the scapegoating in the name of secularism. As Gilbert Achcar put it,

Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests of the populations concerned against “real misery”.

Indeed as with religion in general, Islamic fundamentalism can be “at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery”, with the difference that in this case the protest is active.

The genuine Marxist tradition, unlike bourgeois atheism and agnosticism, does not see religion as the root of all evil, but rather the social system in which religion flourishes. To overcome that social system we have to unite the mass of the working class across racial and religious lines and combat all attempts by the powers that be to divide us. That can only be achieved by a vigorous defence of the rights of racial, sexual, national and religious minorities.

[1] Liam Ward and Katie Wood, “‘Right the wrong’: the RMIT University Muslim Prayer Room Campaign 2008-2009”, Marxist Interventions No. 2, 2010,

[3] Liam Ward and Katie Wood, “RMIT Muslim Prayer Room”.

[4] Class Struggle (Britain), No. 53 November/December 2003.

[5] J.M. Thorn, “Provocation, reaction and Islamophobia: the politics behind the Prophet cartoons”, 4 March 2006, Ireland/News&AnalysisIreThe PoliticsBehindTheProphetCartoons.html.

[6] My argument in this section relies heavily on John Molyneux, “More than opium: Marxism and religion”, International Socialism Journal 119, London, July 2008 and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Religion, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975.

[7] Karl Marx, “Introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”, Collected Works, Volume 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1975, pp.175-176.

[8] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp.20-21.

[9] Frederick Engels, “The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune”,

[10] Alberto Toscano, “Rethinking Marx and Religion”, option=com_content&view=article&id=5:rethinking-marx-and-religion&catid=65: sur-la-religion-et-la-laicite&Itemid=88.

[11] Molyneux, “More than opium”, p.62.

[13] V.I. Lenin, “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”, Collected Works, Volume 15, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, pp.402-413.

[14] Gilbert Achcar, “Marxists and Religion – yesterday and today”,

[15] Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007, p.6.

[16] The hysteria whipped up around the issue is reflected in the fact that the word “veil” is constantly used to refer to the headscarf, implying that the face is covered, which is not true.

[17] Quoted in Scott, The Politics of the Veil, p.24.

[18] “Chirac’s Hijab Remark Antagonizes French Muslims,” IslamOnline, 7 December 2004,

[19] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[20] Amara Bamba, “French Anti-Hijab Law: Four Years On”, servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1203758927834&pagename=Zone-English-Euro_Muslims%2FEMELayout.

[21]Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[22] Lutte Ouvrière, 25 April 2003.

[23] Lutte Ouvrière, 6 February 2004.

[24] Catharine Samary, “The Burqa ban is liberticide”,

[25] John Mullen, “The New Anticapitalist Party and Islamophobia”,

[26] Lutte Ouvrière, 7 October 1994.

[27] Antoine Boulange, “The hijab, racism and the state”, International Socialism Journal 102, London, April 2004, p.5.

[28] Boulange, “The hijab”, p9.

[29] Le Monde, 9 October 2003.

[30] Le Monde, 9 October 2003.

[31] John Mullen, “Anticapitalism, elections and the ‘Muslim headscarf’”,

[32] “Ilham Moussaïd: A proud tribune of the oppressed”, uk/ article.php?articlenumber=11187.

[33] Quoted at;sl=fr&u=http:// www. result&resnum=1&ved=0CBwQ7gEwAA&prev=/search%3Fq%3DMelenchon%2BIlham%2BMoussaïd%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG%26prmd%3Divo.

[34] “Ilham Moussaïd: A proud tribune of the oppressed”.

[35] Mullen, “Muslim headscarf”.

[36] The NPA statement is available at article1823.

[37] “Headscarf Wearing Candidate Walks Out on France’s Anti-Capitalist Party”,

[38] Mullen, “New Anticapitalist party and Islamophobia”.

[39] John Mullen, “NPA divided over the veil”, 2011/02/15/ npa-divided-over-the-veil/.

[40] Toscano, “Rethinking Marx and Religion”.

[41] I focus in this article on the approach that socialists should take in the largely secularised Western capitalist countries. In countries with strong Islamist movements socialists face different challenges and will have to employ at times very different tactics. But the guiding principle for Marxist strategy and tactics remains the same – how can we best unite the working class and advance the class struggle?

[42] “Religious discrimination built into the Constitutions of seven US states”,

[43] See for example Tony Judt, Socialism in Provence 1871-1914, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979.

[44] Jane Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-1943 Documents, Vol. 1, 1919-1922, Frank Cass, London, 1971, pp.402-405.

[45] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1976, p.92.

[46] Saroj Giri, “Hegemonic Secularism, Dominant Communalism: Imagining Social Transformation in India”, Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 22, No 1, January 2010,

[47] Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, Vol. 2, Counter-revolution and Reconstruction, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1986. John M. Merriman, The Red City. Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

[48] Significantly in the late nineteenth century the German Social-Democrats (then a Marxist party), following the lead of Engels, demanded freedom for the Jesuits and the cessation of the German Chancellor Bismarck’s persecution of Catholicism. See Paul Siegel, The Meek and the Militant, Zed Press, London, 1986, p.195.

[49] “Prayers and parliament”, 20AND%20PARLIAMENT2Nov08.pdf.

[50] Quoted in Boulange, “The hijab, p.17.

[51] Seventy-two per cent of Australian Catholics say decisions about abortion should be left to individual women and their doctors. In the US Catholic women are as likely as women in the general population to have an abortion, and 29 per cent more likely than Protestant women. christianethics/abortion_1.shtml.

[52] Paul Robert Adams, The Best Hated Man in Australia. The Life and Death of Percy Brookfield 1875-1921, Puncher and Wattmann, Glebe, 2010, p.285.

[53] Primary public education – national schools from 1831,

[54] Michael Hogan, The Sectarian Strand, Penguin, Ringwood, 1987, p.103.

[55] Hogan, Sectarian Strand, p.121.

[56] Margaret Pawsey, The Popish Plot, Studies in the Christian Movement, Sydney, 1983, p.108.

[57] Hogan, Sectarian Strand, p.92, p.95, pp.115-116.

[58] Michael Charles Hogan, The Catholic Campaign For State Aid, Catholic Theological Faculty, Sydney, 1978, pp.206-209.

[59] Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder, New York, 1982, p.169.

[60] For example the semi-Zionist Alliance for Workers Liberty; see Martin Thomas, Political Islam as clerical fascism, political-islam-clerical-fascism.

[61] See Chris Harman, “The prophet and the proletariat”, Selected Writings, Bookmarks, London, 2010.

[62] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[63] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[64] I would also disagree with his unqualified endorsement of “Republican secularism”: “Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other hand a necessary and irreducible objective, which was already part of the programme of radical bourgeois democracy.” Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[65] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

[66] For a positive example of how socialists can campaign in defence of the rights of Muslims, see Liam Ward and Katie Wood, “RMIT Muslim Prayer Room”.

[67] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”. Achcar accuses the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of making precisely these errors in the Stop the War campaign and the electoral coalition Respect. Tariq Ali has made similar criticisms; see Tariq Ali, “The Anti-Imperialist Left Confronted with Islam”, www.internationalviewpoint. org/ spip.php?article1012. For the SWP’s response see Chris Harman “The crisis in Respect”, International Socialism Journal 117, London, January 2008 and Dave Crouch, “The Bolsheviks and Islam, International Socialism Journal 110, London, April 2006. For Socialist Alternative’s views on Respect see “The Respect fiasco in Britain”, From this distance it is difficult to make a concrete assessment of the specifics of Achcar’s criticisms of the SWP’s approach, but nevertheless the general criteria he outlines for engagement with Islamists stand.

[68] For example Anita Bryant of the US Christian right notoriously declared that the 1978 California drought was a punishment for the rampant homosexuality in San Francisco. Quoted in Siegel, The Meek & Militant, p.9.

[69] Achcar, “Marxists and Religion”.

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