Liberal imperialism and political Islam: Ben White takes on Martin Bright

Apologetically imperial: Liberals, political Islam, and a war of terror

By Ben White

Long before Nick Cohen ruminated on “What’s Left?” and Martin Amis imagined the sexual frustration of millions of Muslim men, even as the ink dried on opinion pages in the “liberal” New York Times, Guardian and Independent urging on the slaughter in Iraq, those on the left still committed to resisting imperialism were already ably despatching the accusations of “appeasing Islamofascism”. It is not my intention to repeat those thorough demolitions here.

However, an interview earlier this month in the Guardian with the New Statesman‘s political editor Martin Bright afforded excellent insight into how leading “liberal” writers have justified (to us and themselves) their support for the reactionary policies of the “war on terror”.1 Bright is a more recent addition to the imperial left club, having risen to prominence through his long-running investigation into what he called the British Foreign Office’s “love affair with radical Islam”, an interest that has fed a documentary, numerous articles, and a think tank policy paper.

The interviewer gives Bright space to vent, principally towards those on the “liberal left” who have the temerity to accuse him of Islamophobia: “There is a tendency on the British left to believe that the ‘wretched of the earth’ have some sort of moral superiority to us in the West. That same tendency also associates anyone who opposes American or British so-called imperialism with the wretched of the earth.”

Twice, Bright refers to “the wretched of the earth”, an expression made famous by seminal anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon in his book of the same name. Bright is not alone; Christopher Hitchens elaborated on this point in a book review in City Journal, claiming that “[many liberals] cannot shake their subliminal identification of the Muslim religion with the wretched of the earth.”2 Fanon is an unlikely ally, and to borrow from his theories deeply ironic (unintentionally). Fanon’s fiery prose, like other classic anti-colonial texts by Aimé Césaire, Sartre and Albert Memmi, still rings true today as a denunciation of the liberals’ approval of colonial violence and horrified moralising towards any resistance.3

More than forty years before the Time magazine specials on “Sunni jihadists” and a “Shia crescent”, Fanon sarcastically wrote that: “Colonialism will attempt to rally the African peoples by uncovering the existence of ‘spiritual’ rivalries … references are made to Arab imperialism, and the cultural imperialism of Islam is denounced.”

It is not, as Bright supposes, that anti-imperial leftists attribute intrinsic moral superiority to “the wretched of the earth”, but rather that they defend the right of the colonised to resist colonialism; the occupied, occupation; the wretched, those who seek to maintain in perpetuity their wretchedness.

Bright also elaborates on what has become a frequent cry of the imperial liberals – the left has somehow become “confused” and thrown in its lot with a bunch of reactionary conservatives (I won’t say it, it’s too obvious). But this kind of claim is only possible through a gross misrepresentation and distortion of both the variety of Islamist movements and the nature of the anti-imperial left’s relationship with these groups. That the complexities of localised politics prove too much for Bright is obvious from the interview:

“There is a big problem here, particularly within Middle-Eastern and South Asian politics. What you are talking about is a totalitarian ideology which represents itself as speaking for those people…. The idea that people on the left, who call themselves socialists, should believe that it’s proper to support Islamists as somehow the authentic voice of the Arab street or the downtrodden of Pakistan or Bangladesh is a contemptible misreading of these organisations and movements.”

Putting aside the whiff of racism – apparently it is only in the Middle East and South Asia that we find problematic “totalitarian” ideologies – the only “misreading” is that being propagated by the liberal neocons. Unsurprisingly, the likes of Bright and Cohen have little clue with regards to the dynamics of resistance in countries like Egypt, where complex relations between the revolutionary left and Islamist groups have been evolving and developing in recent years towards a position of increased (though sometimes tense) cooperation:

“From campus fistfights in the 1990s to joint demonstrations in 2005–2006, relations between the Muslim Brothers and the radical left in Egypt have come a long way. In settings where the two tendencies operate side by side, like student unions and professional syndicates, overt hostility has vanished, and there is even a small amount of coordination around tactics. Still, the cooperation remains symbolic, and leftists and Islamists have yet to join forces to undertake sustained mass actions against their common foe, the regime of President Husni Mubarak.”

Hossam El-Hamalawy’s excellent piece also cites the comments of a leftist Egyptian activist who, while in prison, found that he was sharing a cell with Islamists. They were comrades, he said, “facing the same charges and fighting the same tyrants”.

It is a similar story across the Middle East, as described by Eric Walberg in his piece for Al-Ahram Weekly in April of this year.6 Discussing the “growing cooperation” between the radical left and Islamist organisations, Walberg remarks that this should not be a surprise, “considering the traditional focus of the left on defending victims of torture”. And, “who are the biggest victims of torture in the world today?” Of course, Muslims, primarily in Iraq and Palestine, but everywhere in the West, and just about in every country that is predominantly Muslim.

Walberg quotes a Muslim Brotherhood activist from Al-Azhar University, who explains how traditional reluctance to work together was overcome by circumstances – “with both sides being repressed by dictatorship, we are able to cooperate now on the basis of human rights and the fight against the war in Iraq and globalisation”. Salma Yaqoob, vice-chair of Respect in the UK, made a similar case in the Guardian:

“Islamic political forces are growing in strength because they are increasingly seen as one of the few bulwarks against what is now naked imperialism and colonialism…. What historically distinguishes leftwing ideas is their commitment to the poor and dispossessed, and to the fight for equality, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and national self-determination. Herein, perhaps, lies the clue to the emerging unity between sections of the left and sections of the Muslim community that are bearing the brunt of imperialism abroad in terms of brutal military intervention and at home, where justifications for such actions are sought using anti-Muslim rhetoric.”7

Aside from over-simplifying the relationship between leftists and Islamists and failing to understand the anti-colonial context of left-Islamist cooperation, the liberal hawks also claim that the anti-imperial left is somehow blind to human rights abuses either perpetrated or advocated by Islamist governments and political movements. This is nonsense. There is no carte blanche afforded to political groups by default, simply because they are resisting imperial hegemony. On the contrary, the radical left has consistently critiqued those aspects of the Islamist programme they consider unacceptable – and the Islamists have reciprocated8.

The example of Iran is instructive. Liberal imperialists lay into their former “comrades” (just like the neocon right), accusing them of apologising for Ahmadinejad and turning a blind eye to the abuses of the Iranian government, simply because Iran has consistently frustrated US regional designs. Columbia University Iran specialist Hamid Dabashi’s piece in Al-Ahram, focussing on the ideological work done by “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, is relevant here:

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has an atrocious record of stifling, silencing, and outright murdering secular intellectuals, while systematically and legally creating a state of gender apartheid. But the function of the comprador intellectual is not to expose and confront such atrocities; instead, it is to take that element of truth and package it in a manner that serves the belligerent empire best: in the disguise of a legitimate critic of localised tyranny facilitating the operation of a far more insidious global domination – effectively perpetuating (indeed aggravating) the domestic terror they purport to expose.”9

Empire’s liberal apologists, when not claiming that they are the authentic, marginalised voice of the left, take pains to justify their support for reactionary policies by claiming that the “scale” of the “threat” posed by radical Islam is worth the “uncomfortable bedfellows”. Bright is sufficiently convinced, he tells us, that “the growth of this ideology is so serious”, that any allies are justified. In Bright’s case, they include extreme-right hawks such as Richard Perle and ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, both of whom wrote to him to express their appreciation. Hitchens, during his complimentary review of arch-Islamophobe Mark Steyn’s latest diatribe, described the book as “an insistence that we recognize an extraordinary threat and thus the possible need for extraordinary responses”.10

It is thus because of the “civilisational threat” posed by “terrorism” that Bright is happy to embrace rather unsavoury allies, such as the publishers of his pamphlet, the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank.11 He may call the choice of publisher “slightly provocative”, but this is somewhat of an understatement. The Director of the Board of Trustees is former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, whose previous musings have included observing the UK’s problem is that “millions whose first language is not English now live in this country. A significant minority of them cannot even speak English. Many of these people are Muslims, and some seem to hate the country they inhabit”.12 Bright’s report, moreover, cites approvingly Lorenzo Vidino, an Italian “terrorism expert” who described Oriana (“the Islamic invasion”) Fallaci’s book The Force of Reason as “movingly passionate” and a “desperate wake-up call for the West”.13

Here is not the place to unpick this apocalyptic fantasy, to throw into cold relief the reality of the threat posed by disparate cells of poorly-resourced jihadists targeted by Western security services, or to point out the vast contextual differences between a suicide bomber in London, Casablanca and Baghdad. But since the scale of this threat to “our way of life” is so exaggerated, what really is going on is threefold. Firstly, and to put it plainly, it is the justification of US hegemonic empire. That is why Bright can bemoan the influence of groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, as being “unrepresentative”, yet promote “other arguably more representative grassroots Muslim groups” – such as the Sufi Muslim Council. The latter emerged from nowhere, and is in fact, to the extent that it exists at all, closely allied to US neocons, the Blair government, and even the Uzbek dictatorship.14 What is at stake is not so much “representation”, but docility; not so much “extremism”, but compliance or non-compliance with a colonial foreign policy.

Secondly then, and as already mentioned, the liberal neocons (normally more coyly than their conservative counterparts) rely on Islamophobia and Orientalist nightmares to conjure up sufficient fear of the “other”, that the “extent” of the “Islamist threat” is even vaguely plausible. Finally, there is a deliberate misrepresentation of resistance to imperial power and neo-colonial domination. Yaqoob once more:

“Bright’s attempt to blanket all expressions of Islamic radicalism as ‘fascist’ fits well with a project that seeks to neuter all resistance within the Muslim community to those who seek to colonise Muslim lands in the Middle East. The effect is to exorcise from Islamic political discourse the right of the oppressed in the Muslim world to wage struggle by blurring the distinction between legitimate viewpoints and illegitimate support for indiscriminate violence.”

All three strands are interrelated, but the latter two are ultimately subordinate to the first, and principal, purpose: empire apologia. Imperial power is justifiable only if it is required in order to crush “Islamofascism”; such an equation is only possible if the reality of US empire is denied or fudged, and the threat from “terrorism” magnified to existential dimensions. For all their obsession with “failed multiculturalism” and “death cults”, the liberal neocons would do well to reflect on the following – brief yet pertinent – letter that appeared in the Guardian‘s pages in July:

“Clearly those who are comfortable with blowing up random strangers to further some aim have been brainwashed. But then where does that leave those Anglo-American fighter-pilots, ‘softening up’ Iraq at the start of the war, by dropping bombs over Baghdad? And let’s not forget that while a Muslim terrorist goes underground to plan his attacks, those fighter pilots will come back home heroes, and collect a wage from the state for their troubles. Who has the more poisoned culture?”15

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Palestine/Israel. His website is at and he can be contacted directly at

3. “While it is pardonable for the colonizer to have his little arsenals, the discovery of even a rusty weapon among the colonized is cause for immediate punishment”: Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Earthscan Publications, 2003, p.137
4. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 2005, p.107
8. For one such example see the following posts at Lenin’s Tomb: