A left too lazy to look the 'Other' way

December 7, 2001

When faced with the intricacies of Islam, the British left lacks the theoretical framework for meaningful discourse, argues Stephen Chan.

The recent "exchange" of views in the London Review of Books , where liberal US academics attacked their British counterparts over their approach to Afghanistan, was revealing. It suggested a British left on a conscientious autopilot, unchanged from the days of a bipolar world, instinctively suspicious of the United States to the point of sympathy for any of its opponents. This is a hard trick to turn in the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and it is harder still in the case of the Taliban. The left also argued that the US had it coming, that it had established its own brand of global terrorism and that, somehow, this is part and parcel of a US-led globalisation - from which the left, in its technological access, also benefits.

After the fall of Kabul, critics rounded on the left - to some extent unfairly. But they were right to point out that it did not have an alternative; that thousands more civilians died in New York on September 11 than under allied assault in Afghanistan; and that the Taliban was no particular friend of the poor. There is no single, straight line of blame that ends at the door of US foreign policy - Israel, once a leftist cause, being a case in point. The founders of critical theory said that the concentration camps should never be forgotten: Israel trades off this point.

But it is the left's view of Islam that interests me: that the US somehow went to war against the "Other", this Other being in Islamic guise. The Taliban, it should be noted, was itself against several Others. Its blowing up of giant Buddhist statues was some indication of its closed and self-regarding world view. For the Taliban, the Other was everything that it banned.

Moreover, the Northern Alliance and other motley bands of resistance to the Taliban were all Islamic. The Northern Alliance is seeking to call its new state the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The unveiled 16-year-old-girl, reintroducing television to Kabul, began with a reading from the Koran. What the left has failed to penetrate, relying on the valuable generalities of Edward Said's Covering Islam , and little else, is that there are many Islams.

The left, despite its cultural studies concerns, despite its "gaze" and "gestures" on behalf of the "Other", has conflated too much under that label. It has adopted an attractive and generalised vocabulary in place of a theory, and it has no place for Islamic theories, philosophies and theologies.

That is what both US liberals and the British left have missed in the issue of Afghanistan. This is not just a war between the US and a generalised Islamic Other. This is also, and perhaps more so, a war within Islam itself.

In Britain, this lack of knowledge is ironic, since the contemporary madrassas - private theological schools of northern Pakistan - had their origin in resistance to British rule. An Islamic movement called Deobandism arose in opposition to the British, in thought and in deed. After independence, this movement, located and narrowly taught in the madrassas , became opposed to Pakistani corruption. As the state became more imposing, what was taught became narrower, deeper and concerned with an "authentic" purity under Islam - something not corrupt.

Raised in luxury in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden grew to detest the corruption of the Saudi royal family and became a devotee of the minority sect of Wahabism, which also taught an uncorrupt purity. The confluence of the two movements was what, in ideological and theological terms, drew bin Laden to Afghanistan, along with "international brigades" from many countries.

This much is easy to understand. But the other side of the equation is also of interest. It is not just a tribal divide in Afghanistan - Pashtuns against the rest - but a confessional divide as well. The theology of the Northern Alliance is far less Suni, far less bound to one view of the Sharia, the islamic religious law, and much more implicated in the individualism of the worshipper before God. There are quasi Shi'ite, somewhat Ismaeli, almost Sufi elements to the worship of those in the northwestern city of Herat - for hundreds of years a city of great learning, spiritual heritage, poetry and gardens. Those gardens grow opium now and grew it for the Taliban. But its legends had queens who were rulers and philosophers and, of course, near today's Iranian border the citizens of Herat speak Farsi and, confessionally, have affiliations to the looser form of pre-revolutionary Iranian worship. Similarly, those Taliban who until recently occupied Kunduz meted out barbarities to its citizens not just because they feared military betrayal, but also because these citizens had already "betrayed" them in their manner of religion.

Any "great game" that may be played out in the north of Afghanistan has less to do with oil pipelines than with Islamic actors. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan all have their ambitions - but these are minor by comparison to others, as are Chinese concerns for the future of the Islamic corner of their country. The great game will involve the northern states of similar confessional background, and similar Turkic languages. For years, silently, not always successfully, Turkey has built links in the Turkic states of Trans-Caucasia. If Europe rebuffs Turkey, there may be not so much an Ottoman rerun heading eastwards, as some attempt at a sphere of cultural and eventual economic influence. For Pakistan, retaining Pashtun alliances is vital to its view of the game. And, of course, the Iranians have a role.

When the Iranian revolution took place, Michel Foucault exclaimed that for international politics and thought this was something "new". That revolution lost its way and took a narrowly clerical route, but before then, Paris-trained Iranian philosophers had sought to blend western existential and Marxist thought with Islamic thought. No one in the white, equally-gendered British left has made his or her "gaze" and "gesture" less empty by attempting to do the same.

What it has done instead is to offer its own version of Samuel Huntington's appalling treatise on clashing civilisations. By invading Afghanistan, the US is participating in a clash of civilisations. The Islamic civilisation is the underdog and, dictators notwithstanding, attracts the left's sympathy. But that sympathy understands not at all the world currents of Islam. It might locally seek to understand diasporic Islam, but that is not the same thing at all.

But this is not to applaud the full-scale demonisation of the Taliban by the right, or, before the war, by the feminist left. While bin Laden has hogged the headlines, the mysterious, one-eyed Mullah Omar has had scant press. Omar was a village cleric, self-proclaimed as a mullah - there is no ordination in Islam - who was greatly affronted by the depredations of the Mujahideen governors and generals deployed in the Kandahar region. When the military commander of the region abducted two schoolgirls for his personal use, Omar assaulted the barracks with 17 followers, rescued the girls, and hung the commander. Like Robin Hood, he attracted instant pleas for help from across the region and, as the rescues and hangings grew, so the Taliban took shape. The turning point was when, at a disputatious and bickering Taliban congress, Omar went to the shrine of Kandahar's holiest relic, the mantle of the Prophet himself, and wrapped the mantle about him, declaring himself Defender of the Faith. This took amazing daring. It was either blasphemy or heroism. The television images of Omar have him wrapping that cloak about him. But this is something the western semioticians - left and right - could not grasp. There was something "new" happening in Afghanistan too. But Foucault was dead and the left basked in its intercultural vocabulary of concern with no idea about the stakes being raised in a world far away.

Although I stand on the left, I lament the fact that it has been too lazy to realise the complex pluralities of the post-cold-war world and prefers to think only in terms of dyads and simple aggregated oppositions. It is not like that anymore. Something new is happening, but the text that everyone will one day lazily follow is either not yet written, or it is not yet read because it was written in a non-western language about a non-western philosophy that has debated and striven with other non-western and even western philosophies. The "new" is, perhaps, only within the Other, and we are not globalising now, merely being marginalised.

Stephen Chan is professor of international relations and dean of humanities at Nottingham Trent University.

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