Assimilating Left Symbols

Mistaking Maududi for Mao

Dilip Simeon

In July 2007, during their visit to Iran, iconic Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara's son and daughter were invited to Tehran University by an Iranian Islamic organisation. The organisation described itself as an Islamic revolutionary internationalist outfit and it was its 'academic wing' that had invited Guevara's off-springs.

The founder of the organisation began quoting from a Persian book on Che's life, saying that the 'martyr Che' was also an internationalist and would have been their comrade in arms had he been alive today. Then, the founder actually went on to suggest that Che was in fact 'a Godly man' who finally met God. But, alas, when the chair invited Che's daughter to come up to the podium and speak, she immediately put aside the speech she had prepared for the occasion and decided to speak extempore.

With a tense frown cutting across her forehead, Che's daughter angrily insisted: 'I don't know what book you are quoting from but my father was a Communist who did not believe in God and as far as I know, never met God in the end either!' Contrary to what the founder of the organisation had expected, the audience at the university, mainly made up of students, began to cheer and applaud and a minor scuffle broke out between the students and members of the Islamic organisation. Che's daughter was surrounded by the Iranian secret service and hastily escorted (along with her brother) to the Tehran airport.

This episode is symptomatic of the way numerous rightist forces have begun to adopt revolutionary leftist postures and rhetoric, especially in Muslim countries. Many of these elements are doing this in a rather cynical manner, but curiously and as was exemplified by the Iranian organisation, such men and women actually believe that their Islamist ideals are close to those that were upheld by Marxist ideologues of yore.

It is true that the 20th century saw the emergence of certain leftist and progressive thinkers and politicians in Muslim countries who did attempt to fuse 'political Islam' with socialist and secular ideals ('Islamic Socialism' 'Arab Socialism,' 'Ba'ath Socialism', etc.). However, not only did their experiments in this regard meet with gradual political and economic failures, these thinkers and politicians were (rather ironically) opposed by exactly the forces who began adopting leftist rhetoric after the Cold War.

Take for example what happened soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. It is a fact that much of the groundwork for that revolution was done by various leftist and communist organisations in the 1960s and early 1970s. The radical clergy only directly plunged into the movement after 1976, and that too after initially basing their revolutionary message on the thoughts of Ali Shariati—an Islamic revolutionary thinker who had heavily punctuated his thoughts on'political Islam' with Marxist concepts and symbolism. After the revolution in which the clergy managed to eventually overshadow other forces involved in the revolution against the autocratic Shah, the Islamists were able to enact an 'Islamic regime'.

But the regime soon went into overdrive against the leftists, many of whom had actually fought in the streets alongside the Islamists during the uprising. Between 1981 and 1988, Amnesty International claimed that over 10,000 leftist opponents of the regime were executed in Iran. 1988 was the worst year when in a matter of five months, the Islamic regime executed 4,482 political prisoners, most of them belonging to leftist outfits; such as the Mujahideen-i-Khalq and the communist Tudeh Party. Of course, the Islamic organisation at the Tehran University conveniently failed to mention this when it over-enthusiastically equated Che's ways with those of the Islamists.

Almost all of the Islamist outfits across the Muslim world that have been adopting leftist revolutionary rhetoric ever since the 1990s, played a major role in assisting the United States in curbing leftist forces in their respective countries during the Cold War (1949-1989). The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist outfit across the Arab world, was strategically aligned to the political interests of the United States (mainly through the Saudi regime) during much of the Cold War. Between the 1950s and 1970s it actively resisted secular, quasi-socialist and pro-Soviet regimes in Arab countries and also dismissed the whole concept of Arab nationalism in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria and even in the otherwise pro-West (but secular) Tunisia.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood has moulded itself into a democratic expression of 'political Islam' in Egypt and Tunisia, whereas its main benefactor and patrons, the Saudi Arabia, continues to be under the thumb of a decadent reactionary monarchy. But the Muslim Brotherhood does not disown the role it played in the past against socialism and secular Arab nationalism on the behest of a jittery Saudi monarchy. It explains it as being a 'tactful' (as opposed to being an ideological) partnership with the United States to eliminate 'atheistic communism' from society.

However, more interesting is the rhetoric of the overtly militant factions that emerged from the Brotherhood, especially after Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, officially recognised the state of Israel in 1977. Many of these organisations took part in the US and Saudi funded 'Afghan jihad' against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (in the 1980s). Though angry with the way Egypt had recognised Israel, the revolutionary Islamists' main target remained to be leftists. It was only after the end of the 'Afghan jihad' and the Cold War that many such organisations came together under the umbrella of Osama Bin Laden's al 'Qaeda and began fusing puritanical and radical Islamist rhetoric and action with symbolism and imagery once associated with far-left Marxist and anarchist groups of the late 19th and early 20th century.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the Islamists who found themselves suddenly orphaned by their Western allies, filled the vacuum created by the receding forces of the left.

Three Prominent evelopments
1.    Whereas between the 1950s and 1970s many progressive Muslim thinkers and regimes had tried to reconcile secularism and socialism with 'political Islam,' after the Cold War, right-wing Islamists (both militant and mainstream) who had opposed such manoeuvres began colouring their puritanical and ultra-conservative line of thinking and action with populist leftist rhetoric. And/or the same rhetoric that was once used by radical leftists against the US and Arab monarchs but rejected by the Islamists as being 'atheistic'.
2.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Cold War leftists shifted their ideological focus from aspiring to revolutionising societies and states on Marxist/Maoist models. They now moved to work towards achieving social democracy and respect for the post-modernist ideals of ethnic, sectarian, religious and social diversity and pluralism. They suggested that Muslim societies that had generated right-wing radicalism from within were threatened more by this tendency rather than by 'western imperialism'. However, there were (and are) Cold War leftists who were only willing to reconcile with the idea of Communism's collapse by actually romanticising Islamists as being a new expression of anti-US'liberation.'TariqAli and George Galloway are stark examples in this context.
3.   After the Cold War and then 9/11, though the US and Saudi patronage for their old protegees in the shape of anti-left Islamists began to dramatically recede, this did not mean that the patronage shifted towards the more progressive forces. For example, the US continued to engage with those who had helped it distribute funds to the Islamists during the Cold War (such as the Pakistani security forces); whereas, in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia began to lessen the funds it was providing to militant Salafi outfits during the Cold War, it has still to completely withdraw from the proxy war it is fighting (through puritanical Sunni outfits) against the Shia Muslims. Also, mindful of the fact that its anti-Soviet Cold War policies in Muslim countries actually gave birth to radical Islamic outfits, the US is still looking past progressive forces and instead now trying to aid the so-called 'moderate' Islamists.

One of the most interesting (and at times downright silly) battles being fought between rightists mouthing leftist rhetoric and the liberals is taking place in the mainstream political arena of Pakistan. Take the example of how a simple thing like a red coloured muffler has become a symbol of revolutionary commitment in Pakistan, especially after cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan began wrapping his neck with one.

When journalist, publisher and TV personality par excellence, Najam Sethi, was asked last year whether he had begun to wear a red muffler after being inspired by Khan, Najam laughed off the question, suggesting he'd been wearing one ever since his student days in the 1960s. Sethi, who today is considered to be one of leading liberal voices in Pakistan’s media has a history of being a Marxist as a college and university student. And it is doubtful, that a man of his intelligence would actually wear a red muffler to prove his leftist credentials. But yes, there are grown-up men in Pakistan who are using the red muffler (and in one case, a red cap), to actually advertise their revolutionary disposition.

The funny thing is all of them can quite easily be categorised as being entirely right-wing.

Though, one can convincingly argue that red caps in Pakistan (and then mufflers) were first adorned (as leftist revolutionary statements) by Bacha Khan's Pushtun nationalists, it was one of the first popular Pakistani politician who turned the idea of wearing something red to reflect leftist orientation into a popular fad. He was late Z.A. Bhutto. Chairing a progressive populist democratic party (and then regime), Bhutto was a staunch admirer of Chinese Marxist ideologue and leader, Mao tse Tung. When he emerged as the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967, Bhutto began to adorn a red 'Mao cap.'

As a reaction, Islamic parties began adorning the 'Islamic green' to counter Bhutto's 'leftist red.' Red caps and mufflers remained a constant with progressive Pushtun nationalist groups, members of the PPP's student-wing (PSF) and some small Communist parties across the 1980s. Beanzir Bhutto too, wore a red Maoist cap when she returned from exile in 1986 and held huge anti-Zia rallies.

After the end of the Cold War when the US withdrew its patronage and funds from Islamist groups, who were used by the US to restrict the influence of the leftists in Pakistan, Mian Nawaz Sharif and leader of the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was perhaps the first mainstream politician in Pakistan to begin adorning a red muffler. Though a protegee of military dictator Ziaul Haq and right-wing in his views, he (and his party) became more populist in orientation after being downed by a military coup in 1999. PML-N became one of the first right-wing outfits in Pakistan to begin using leftist symbolism.

The trend was soon followed by the fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami (JI). Though no JI leader could be seen wearing a red cap or muffler, many of them did begin to mimic the radical anti-US and populist lingo of (ironically) the same leftists whom the party had vehemently opposed during the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, Pakistan's Jamat-e-Islami began to mimic the radical anti-US and populist lingo and symbolism.

Same is the case with men like former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, a staunch anti-Soviet and pro-US crusader in the 1980s. These days, Gul too, can be found with a red muffler around his neck with jargon that mixes militaristic Islamist rhetoric with cliched leftist sloganeering - even though ISI under him was busy torturing anti-US leftists in the 1980s.

What about Imran Khan then? He's a classic example of those men who had found Z. A. Bhutto repulsive in the 1970s and 1980s, but have now suddenly found a liking of sorts for Bhutto. It won't be surprising to find a member of the JI or Imran Khan's party today, who now believes that the man that they agitated against was actually closest to what they have been promising the masses these days: To make Pakistan an 'Islamic welfare state.'

Of course, an Islamic welfare state is almost entirely a meaningless term. In theory, it simply means a welfare state in a Muslim majority country. But since all these new red muffler fans just cannot disengage from their faith-heavy interpretation of politics and the society, the 'Islamic' suffix is used. But the fact remains, no amount of red mufflers and lefty rhetoric can change the reality that many of these men fought a concentrated war on the behest of the US with leftists throughout the Cold War and those who didn't are simply mixing up their Maududi with Mao.

Vol. 47, No. 1, Jul 13 - 19, 2014