Guest post by Ben Harris
What is beginning across the Arab (and what is being reprised in the Persian) world is incredibly humbling. Ordinary folk are displaying immense bravery in standing up for the dignity of the individual against repressive regimes, both secular and theocratic. In those countries that have experienced the dead hand of traditional Arab strongmen and plutocratic royal families rather than the particular horror of Islamic theocracy, it is unsurprising that those of an Islamist bent are a part – though no more than this – of the opposition to the repressive states under which the vast majority of Arabs have laboured under in the past decades.
This raises what we might call the “Algerian question”. In 1991 Algeria held its first multi-party elections since independence from France. The results of the first round (in which the Islamist Islamic Salvation Front won just under half the votes and 80% of the seats then declared) resulted in a military coup as it was expected that the FIS would use the overwhelming Parliamentary majority it was heading towards to declare an Islamic state and abolish the newly-democratic structure. This is the embodiment of the concern that we see expressed in the comments boxes here at Harry’s Place, particularly by the more “hard-nosed” rightwing realpolitik commenters.
There is nothing wrong in considering matters practically as long as there is a guiding principle operating in the background – we have seen where the wrong sort of revolution can lead in Iran. But against this we must set the fact that all indicators point towards the pluralistic ownership of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. On the whole, people are marching and taking risks with their lives for political and civil freedom, and not for a different form of autocracy as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists (who do not in any case have overwhelming support and would be unable to mount an Algerian-style takeover). In the current circumstances those of us who are social democrats and socialists, and proud to call ourselves such, have a duty not to allow history to pass us by. In a world where parts of the left seem so often to retreat from the tides of social forces towards an ossified and comfortably irrelevant “anti-imperialism”, it behoves us to remember the great history of our movement as a liberatory force. We should, with clear heads, side with the people and with history.
These are democratic revolutions which illustrate an incredibly powerful, dare I say it, inspirational, point – that at heart we are all the same. We all want bread and freedom. This new 1989 should be a watershed in leftist philosophy and by corollary in our treatment of reactionary political forces at home in the UK. Because, as parts of the left flunked 1989 by siding with the bankrupt communist regimes, so parts are in danger of flunking this new wave of potential democratisation.
I speak particularly of the “anti-imperialist” and Islamist fifth column within the Labour Party. This tolerated group is no better illustrated than by Ken Livingstone and his ragtag bunch of close supporters, consisting as they do of anti-Parliamentary Trotskyists in the entryist Socialist Action and Islamist supremacists with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. I have been unsurprised to discover over recent years, particularly fighting against George Galloway in 2005 and since becoming Chair of my branch in Camden (no one else would do it!) that many of those who most dislike this strand of thought are Muslim themselves. Bangladeshis who feel ignored and frozen out by Ken’s links to the far-right Jamaat-e-Islaami party that committed war crimes against the people of Bangladesh during their struggle for independence from Pakistan. Young Muslim women. People who don’t want to be spoken for by self-appointed reactionary “leaders” who define their politics exclusively through their religion.
Watching the sheer commitment and bravery and sacrifice of so many unnamed thousands for a new and more liberal politics and a better way of life across the heart of the Islamic world, how can it be that the Labour Party has allowed a man who sees politics through the prism of ethnicity and silo-like “communities” – a man who gains support from the very extremists who would subjugate afresh the peoples of the Arab world to a new tyranny – to become its standard bearer in the city of our nation which most needs a liberal, universalist politics? Looking at these men and women standing up with incredible stoicism for that which we wrongly take for granted, I have found an uncomfortable question recurring to me again and again. How can I vote for a man who until last month took a stipend from work for Press TV – the state-owned Iranian regime’s mouthpiece in the UK? Wouldn’t that be to spit in the face of all those marching and demonstrating and resisting? What about the Iranian regime’s torture chambers and religious police?
I understand that many people don’t know about Ken’s unsavoury connections or support for problematic regimes and ideologues. I also understand that others think his great work for London trumps those issues. Finally, I understand that others will support him if only out of a laudable sense of party discipline and loyalty – values which I think are incredibly important. I have always previously supported selected candidates of all stripes and opinions in the party. Of course, these are values Ken has less regard for, given his support for the non-Labour Islamist-backed Mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets and his constant attacks on the last government. In any case, the answer is that, for me, in all conscience I can’t vote for that man and retain any shred of consistency in whatever paltry support and solidarity for the new spirit of 1989 that I can give. Many people go through life without realising when a moral question has arisen in front of them. They do the expedient thing without realising it. But as a passionate social democrat I am committed to liberty and consent in the process of government. I am not able to flunk this moral test.
The party apparatchiks know where I am if they want to expel a good comrade and a committed party member and activist of 15 years standing.