The Struggle Against Orientalism in Reverse

We have in the first part attempted to show how and why the struggle against Islamophobia is a major issue for the radical left (although it is unfortunately often overlooked by some comrades) in its struggle for an egalitarian and emancipated society against the capitalist system. In this second part, we want to demonstrate that the struggle against Islamophobia should under no circumstances be replaced by “Orientalism in reverse or in return” that affects certain parts of the radical left when we analyze the Middle East and North Africa.

The notion of Orientalism in reverse

Orientalism in return is a concept developed by Marxist Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm Syria in 1980 against what he sees as a revisionist line of Arab political thought that emerged as a result of the Iranian revolutionary process after 1979.This revisionnist line stemmed from Arab intellectuals,who were mainly coming from the ranks of the left: former radicals, ex-communists, unorthodox Marxists and disillusioned nationalists of one sort or another. This trend developed mainly following the Iranian revolutionary process. Sadiq Jalal al Azm describes this trend as a revisionist Arab line of political thought.

The central thesis behind ‘Orientalism in reverse’ that was  developed by these intellectuals and  and that can nowadays found in Political Islam movements can be summarized as follows, as argued by Syrian writer Al Azm: “The national salvation so eagerly sought by the Arabs since the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt is to be found neither in secular nationalism (be it radical, conservative or liberal) nor in revolutionary communism, socialism or what have you, but in a return to the authenticity of what they call “popular political Islam””[1].

Unfortunately, this trend has found followers in some currents of the Left in Europe as well, admittedly a minority, but who are nevertheless present. Political Islam becomes for this trend an agent of modernization and the Islamic religion is the essential language and culture of Muslim peoples. In their view, therefore, Islam becomes the driving force of history in the East, unlike the West, where economic interests, class struggles and socio-political forces shape history.

Political Islam and revolutionary processes

This vision tends to therefore consider political Islam as “anti-imperialist” or “progressive” actors, and comparisons with the movements of the Theology of the Liberation become numerous. We refute these adjectives in their entirety.

Liberation Theology and Islamist movements are different in nature and objectives: while the first was not so much an expression of cultural identity in the sense of self preservation vis-à-vis a dominating western “other” such as Islamic movement, it was more imbedded in the discourse of development, of emancipation of the subaltern. The Egyptian scholar assef Bayyat actually points out that while the liberation theology movement mobilized the poor, the islamist movement tend largely to target the educated middle classes, which they view as the main agents of political change. He adds also that while Islamists aim to Islamize their society, policy and economy, liberation theologians never intended to Christianize their society or states, but rather to change it from the vantage point of the deprived. The islamist movements, in comparison with theology of liberation movement in South America, have generally broader social and political objectives than simply helping the downtrodden, and secular issues such as social justice for the poor follow from the establishment of Islamic order. In addition, what most islamists share is a particular moral vision of society.

We must of course neverthless recognize the anti-imperialist elements in some movements fighting against Israel. However, resistance against Israel in these circles remain rhetoric for the most part  with the exception of Hizbullah and Hamas.   Nevertheless, fighting against Israel is not enough to characterize them as anti-imperialist and progressive actors. They do not actually encourage policies to empower society; they do not oppose neoliberal policies, quite on the opposite as they oppose most often workers unions and even participate in their repression. The example of the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Tunisia and Egypt is very striking on this very last issue.

The struggle against social inequality and poverty cannot be fought through charity, the element that characterizes these movements’ social action that maintains social injustice and does not question the capitalist system that allows this kind of ills. Movements of political Islam finally tend to promote the idea that the liberation and development of Arab countries depend primarily on the assertion of their Islamic identity, which is “permanent” and “eternal” in their opinion, and not on the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Other issues may also be discussed as the struggle for women’s rights, the fight against sectarianism, the nature and structure of the State, etc.

It is certain that we must oppose the Islamophobic discourse developed and maintained by the elites and the media of the West against the movements of political Islam and oppose repression against them when it is the case in some countries. This position of principle must nevertheless not prevent us from supporting and struggling for radical change in the societies of the region. We need to develop a material and class dynamics analysis of these parties of political Islam, which as we see in Egypt and Tunisia, for example, oppose through various means the continuation of the revolutionary process and radical change.

The examples of Egypt and Tunisia

In Egypt and Tunisia, where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is in power, these political Islam currents have sought since the beginning of their access to power to strengthen or maintain diplomatic , economic and political ties and relations with the imperialist Western powers.

The continuation of neo-liberal policies based on the model of the previous regimes, the non-resolution of social issues and especially the attack and repression on social actors such as trade unions have also sprung  new protests. The two governments are in fact in constant negotiation with the IMF and other institutions to seek and receive new loans exceeding several billions and which impose on these societies new economic austerity policies and neo-liberal measures. In both countries, social mobilizations took place against the IMF loans and austerity policies that have been choking population, as well as against free trade agreements such as the one between Tunisia and the EU that has been denounced by many parties in Tunisia, including by the Popular Front which is leading the opposition.

In Egypt, the repression against workers has indeed continued to increase with the arrival of President Morsi, MB candidate in power. Many laws and initiatives banning strikes and demonstrations of workers were implemented. The new regime is trying to break the will of the workers striking, while the Ministry of Labor is working simultaneously to weaken and to control the independent trade union movements. A 3-year sentence was pronounced against five trade unionists in September 23 2012, for example, the most severe sentence imposed in similar cases for over 30 years.

Also in Egypt, the first half of September has witnessed more than 300 protests. This was the highest number recorded since the beginning of this year. The majority of these events demanded better conditions of life and work, long-term contracts and appointments. Strikes and demonstrations have continued on a large scale since September. During the same month, two independent groups of workers and several political parties have joined forces to form the National Front for the defense of labor rights and trade union freedoms. These important steps forwards were not appreciated by the new Egyptian authorities (Muslim Brotherhood) or the old (the armed forces), which allied once again.

The alliance between the MB and the army, symbol of the old regime of Mubarak, has indeed not been questioned since the fall of Mubarak and continues as we can observe in the new Constitution of Egypt where the basics prerogatives of the military are guaranteed: a secret budget, the control of the officers on the Ministry of Defence, a strong influence in the decisions of national security and the right to trial civilians before military courts. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi also awarded the Army on December 10 the power to arrest civilians, asking them to guarantee the security of the country until the announcement of the referendum result.

Symbolically several cities have also declared their independence from the MB’s Government in December during the Constitutional vote, including  the industrial city of Mahalla, a symbol of resistance during the Mubarak years and during the revolution.

In Tunisia, the political and socio-economic struggles have not ceased, while the repression against trade unionists and other activists is constant.

Indeed in Tunisia, the militias of the En Nahda ( MB in Tunisia) movement did not hesitate to attack the headquarters of the UGTT with sticks, knives, gas bombs resulting in over a dozen of injured in Tunis. This occurred on the day of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the assassination of the leader and founder of the Tunisian trade union movement Farhat Hached, on Dec. 4, 2012. In Egypt, as a reminder, during the protests against the draft constitution in December, the MBs did not hesitate to use militias to quell the demonstrators, especially targeting women and removing the tents of the opponent near the presidential palace, and according to the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm protesters (s) arrested were sent to “torture chambers” in front of the palace.

Recently, the city of Siliana (southwest of Tunis) has seen many demonstrations and strikes degenerating late November in five days of clashes between protesters and police, resulting in some 300 injured. Mobilizations of the protesters have contributed in achieving some of their demands, including the sidelining of the governor, an expedited review by the courts of record of persons imprisoned in April 2011, assistance to the wounded and the development program whose content has not yet been clarified.

The Tunisian working class is submitted to economic and social ultra-liberal policies by the current government, in continuation of the Ben Ali’s regime. Public companies are the target of the government that wants to sell them to Gulf countries, especially Qatar. The purchasing power of workers is declining; the social and economic crisis is increasing.

Since February 2012, the struggles in Tunisia have actually grown on different levels. The current Government policies, led by Nahda, are actually in total continuation of the Ben Ali’s regime policies. In recent months, waves of strikes and protests against the policies of the Islamist party Ennahda took place. In Kasserine, for example, there were general strikes, as well as in Majel Bel Abbes in August, Thala, Sbiba, Hassi Frid and Laayoune in October. There are almost weekly demonstrations and sit-ins in Kasserine and in different local areas.

The Summer of 2012 witnessed a large number of mobilizations for the right to water, the right to electricity, and for the rights of women, in the streets, but also in companies, as in the hospital of Sfax, resulting in four trade unionists jailed in August. Other trade unionists were arrested several times because of their opposition to government policies and participation in trade unionist activities such as Abdesslem Hidouri, trade unionist and one of the coordinators of the sit-in of the Casbah 1 and 2, and a member of the Left Workers League. He was arrested in the village of El Omrane Menzel Bouzayeinne following a demonstration to demand their rights to decent work and equitable development between regions. On the night of September 27, security forces attacked the demonstrators with a brutality reminiscent of the Ben Ali era, marked by looting and the arrest of 25 people, including Abdesslem Hidouri.

In October, a large gathering of lawyers, of feminists from the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, of trade unionists and various militants from leftists organizations, journalists and artists was held before the court on the day of the case against the woman raped by policemen and then charged with molestation was being judged. Popular movements were able to put the judge under pressure to drop the charges against the victim.

Unions of journalists and the press have also mobilized to denounce the Nahda government, because of the appointment, with no consultation of editors and professional organizations, of new directors at the head of public television, radio and newspapers since the beginning of the year. The authorities have been accused of trying to control the editorial policies of the media.

Unionists play an important role in these mobilizations; a real dynamic exists between trade unionists and the rest of the social movement. The role of the UGTT is decisive for this articulation to develop.


Orientalists, neo-orientalists and Orientalism in reverse trends, which saw for different and opposed reasons religion as the driving force of history in this region can review their analysis as the watchwords of these revolutions were not “Islam is the Solution “, but” the Solution is permanent revolution” or “Bread, freedom and independence. “

The revolutionary processes in the Middle East and North Africa have opened a new page of struggle and emancipation, not just regionally but also internationally.

link to Part I:

Source: Cafe Thawra Revolution

S I M I L A R:

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