The political alliances between Islamist organisations and the anti-Zionist Left rests on an underlying theoretical compatibility, argues Sapan Maini-Thompson. He examines their shared ideological schema in which Jews appear only as alien, racist, colonial interlopers in the region while Islamist and even anti-Semitic ‘resistance’ movements are coded as authentic and so progressive.
‘Hamas and Hezbollah… are bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.’ (Jeremy Corbyn, 2009)
In August 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini consecrated the last Friday of Ramadan as ‘Al-Quds Day’: ‘a universal day to support the oppressed against the oppressor’ (International Affairs Department, 2010). This was to be an annual worldwide rally ‘to proclaim the international solidarity of Muslims in support of the legitimate rights of the Muslim people of Palestine’ (Sahifa-y Nur, Vol.8: 229). His near-contemporary, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb, had argued that Islam needed to struggle alongside the Arabs of Palestine against ‘the wicked Jews’ because it was the epicentre of a civilisational clash between a debauched colonial West and a pious East (Calvert, 2009; Qutb, 1989). Concurrently a new paradigm emerged on some sections of the European Left that focussed on the oppressive iniquities of the Zionist state, its colonisation of the Arab national space and its imposition of an institutionally racist regime which benefitted the Jewish settler population at the expense of the displaced indigene (Herf, 2016). Given their shared aspiration of replacing Israel with a ‘de-Zionised’ Arab-majority Palestine, it is often assumed that the political alliance between Islamist organisations and the anti-Zionist Left is a function of purely pragmatic co-operation. Developing the analysis of the late Robert Wistrich, this essay will argue that it also rests on theoretical compatibility (Wistrich, 2012). Between revolutionary Shi’ite, Sunni Islamist and European post-colonial theories of Zionism, there is a political companionship borne of a shared ideological schema composed of three principal elements: an uncompromising rejection of the alien Zionist ‘Other’, an insistence upon the moral invalidity of the Zionist ideal, and a reification of Islamic ‘resistance’ as a mechanism of progressive struggle.
A SHARED PARADIGM (1): ZIONISM IS ALIEN, A ‘WESTERN’ COLONIALISM
Since the 1960s, leftist anti-Zionism has rested upon a post-colonial critique of Israel. For example, Gabriel Piterberg’s influential study, The Returns of Zionism, argued that the theory and praxis of Zionism possessed an inherently exclusivist settler-colonial dynamic, owing to its völkisch underpinnings and determination to create a ‘homogenous’ society on nineteenth-century European national lines (Piterbeg, 2010). Piterberg locates his micro-history of Zionism within a typology of comparative settler-colonialisms, contending that Israel continues to ‘behave’ as a settler project, in terms of both ‘frontier-colonisation’ and what the Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel terms ‘internal frontier settlement’ within the Green Line (Ibid.). In their respective historical inquiries, Colin Shindler and Paul Kelemen have examined how this perspective gained momentum in left-wing political circles following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the subsequent settlement drive on the West Bank and Yasser Arafat’s popularisation of an anti-colonial resistance narrative (Shindler 2011; Kelemen 2012). Unsurprisingly, the reception within the academy has been contentious, with Derek Penslar noting, for example, that this conceptual trend – with its concomitant historical erasures – has resulted in ‘a new form of mythology, this time adversarial rather than apologetic’ (Penslar, 2013). It is this ‘counter-myth’, presenting Zionism as a homogenous ideology of Judeo-supremacy, which sustains the anti-Zionist narrative. Insofar as Zionism is reduced to a monolithically racist enterprise, premised upon the absolute denial of Arab self-determination, ethnic cleansing and apartheid are viewed as the integral logic of its pre-ordained programme. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) co-founder Omar Barghouti exemplifies this tendency when he writes, ‘There is no moral parity or legal symmetry between the modern colonisers and the indigenous people who were subjugated to colonialism.’ (Barghouti, 2012) Israeli-Jewish self-determination, he continues, even in the framework of a binational state, ‘by definition … infringes … on the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinians to part of their homeland, particularly the right to self-determination’ (Ibid.). In his view, a successful programme of decolonisation would strip the community of interlopers of any national rights, ensuring that the political ownership of the state is the exclusive preserve of the ‘indigenous’ nation. Zionist political existence is defined in toto as an invasion of the Palestinian body-politic.
Khomeini’s political theory of Jewish nationalism was based on a similar, totalising and Othering weltanschauung. In his 1970 publication Islamic Government, Khomeini identified Zionism as nothing but a doctrine of ‘domination and supremacy’ and Zionists as ‘agents of [Western] imperialism’, bent upon destroying the ‘ideals of the Muslims’ (Khomeini, 1970:193). In contrast to the left-wing anti-Zionist paradigm of settler-colonialism, Khomeini purveyed a conspiratorial notion of metropole colonialism, suggesting that Israel’s creation at the hand of ‘the great powers’ was evidence of an imperialist project in the Middle East: ‘They are planning to make all the Arab countries share in Palestine’s fate, God forbid.’ (Sahifa-ye Nur, Vol.1:193) Islamic unity was required as a bulwark against Western ‘imperialist machinations’. Intriguingly, the obloquy was not limited to the Jewish state. Applying the Muslim Brotherhood’s critique of post-Nasserite Egypt, Khomeini stressed, ‘Today Israel and its close friend Egypt are thinking up ways of creating a united front to destroy the Muslims and their lofty ideals.’ (Sahifa-ye Nur, Vol.14: 63) Indeed, in a speech to hajj pilgrims in September 1981, Khomeini declared that Anwar Sadat’s ‘alliance with America and Israel has shamed the Arab people’, even accusing him of endangering the al-Aqsa mosque (Ibid, Vol.14: 125). For Khomeini, the Islamic revolution faced a ‘malicious Israel’ which constituted, among other things, a cultural ‘germ of corruption’ and an ‘enemy of Islam’ (Ibid, Vol.1: 201).
Whereas revanchist Arab nationalism emphasised Israel’s artificiality as a settler-colonial excrescence, the political Islamic position additionally highlighted its lack of moral authenticity. In fact, Qutb fused these perspectives when he wrote that the battle over Palestine was a ‘struggle between the resurgent East and the barbaric West, between God’s law for mankind and the law of the jungle’ (Calvert, 2009). Moreover, in claiming the US-Israeli alliance was a ‘Crusader-Zionist war against every root of the religion of Islam’, Qutb established a fundamental pillar of modern Sunni Islamist thought: the idea that America, under the proxy influence of ‘world Jewry’, was exercising cultural imperialism through its alleged determination to replace ‘Islamic values’ with secular decadence (Qutb, 1989:33). Palestine was ordained with a symbolic aura as the locus of the clash between Afro-Asian peoples and the colonising West. In both Islamist and left-wing anti-Zionist thought, therefore, Zionists are condemned as stubborn colonialists for refusing to be subsumed into either an Arabised or pan-Islamic conglomerate. The Jewish state is paradigmatically ‘othered’.
A SHARED PARADIGM (2): ZIONISM IS RACISM
A second commonality between the anti-Zionism of parts of the left and Khomeinist anti-Zionism concerns their epistemology, in particular, how both analyses rotate around the axis of racial oppression. Zionism is held to be a mechanism of Arab ethnic subjugation, qualifying it as the intellectual basis for a modern system of apartheid: by virtue of exercising sovereignty as a ‘national elect’, Zionism necessarily entails Jewish supremacism, irrespective of the internal character of the Israeli state. The Jewish claim to national self-determination is deemed inherently regressive: the practical manifestation of which is necessarily reactionary. In this schema, ‘Judaism’ progressively contrasts with ‘Zionism’ insofar as it does not seek to claim national rights. Jean-Paul Sartre captured this sentiment in his seminal essay, Anti-Semite and Jew, writing: “The anti-Semite reproaches the Jew with being Jewish; the democrat reproaches him with wilfully considering himself a Jew.” (Sartre, 1946)
Wistrich has demonstrated the centrality of Soviet Cold War propaganda in fomenting the claim that Zionism constituted a uniquely racist project (Wistrich, 2012). In 1975, for example, Politizadat publishers in Ukraine published Zionism and Apartheid by Valery Skurlatov (a former Komsomol official in the Moscow City Committee) which argued that Israel shared with South Africa a ‘racial biological doctrine’ based on the idea of a ‘chosen people’ versus an ‘inferior’ goyim, thus fusing pre-Enlightenment theological antisemitism with modernist antagonism towards racial separatism. Similarly, Khomeini emphasised the distinction between ‘the Jewish community’ and ‘the Zionists’. At a gathering of the ‘Jewish Society of Iran’ in May 1979, he argued that Moses, in defying the Pharaoh of Egypt, was attending to ‘the affairs of the weak and oppressed as opposed to the arrogant and powerful’ (Sahifeh-ye Iman, Vol.7: 270). Zionism, by contrast, was ‘against all religions’, exploiting Judaism for political goals. Moreover, he claimed that ‘the Zionists are of the opinion that the Jews are superior to all other races’ (Sahifa-ye Nur, Vol.16: 21). Zionism’s inherent racism and unrelenting thirst to expand ‘from the Euphrates to the Nile’ meant that it could never be accommodated.
The parallel between this reasoning and that of Soviet propaganda, and their shared paranoia is unmistakeable. In the writings of the iconic post-modern philosopher Gianni Vattimo, we find a fusion. In an essay in the edited collection Deconstructing Zionism he declares: ‘When I continue to recite, in the Latin breviary, certain Psalms like the 12th, (Cum reduceret Dominus captives Sion …) I increasingly feel its literal more than its allegorical sense: this is … a song of jubilation for the military victory of one people over another.’ (Vattimo & Warder, 2014: 20) Ancient suspicion of Jewish supremacism is recast in modern garb: the literary is reified, forging the ‘irredeemable sin’ that is Israel. Vattimo continues: ‘When [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad invokes the end of the State of Israel, he merely expresses a demand that should be more explicitly shared by the democratic countries that instead consider him an enemy’. (Ibid.: 19) In Vattimo, Islamic irredentism acquires a progressive universalist quality.
A SHARED PARADIGM (3): VICTORY TO THE INDIGENOUS ISLAMIC ‘RESISTANCE’
Another ideological affinity between revolutionary Islamists and the anti-Zionist Left is support for the ‘Islamic resistance’ as an authentic reaction to the imposition of European liberal capitalist modernity (Dabashi, 2008). Islamic resistance is framed by the Islamists as necessary not only to remove the intellectually colonising impurity that is Zionism, but as the guarantor of ‘justice’ and national liberation. For example, the defining feature of the Hezbollah worldview is the Khomeinist ideology of ‘resistance’ and its categorisation of the world into mustaddafan (oppressors) and mustakbaran (oppressed) (Adib-Moghaddam, 2014). While the Shi’ite paramilitary group has not advanced Islamic government in Lebanon thus far, its formation was arguably the most successful export of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The preoccupation with fighting oppression has its origins in Shi’ite narratives of Hussein bin Ali’s – the ‘prince of martyrs’ – commitment to ‘justice’. Hezbollah localised the conception of the Shi’ite as the ultimate oppressed community, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb explains, using the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and the history of social, political and economic marginalisation experienced by the region’s Shi’ite ‘community class’(Saad-Ghorayeb, 2002: 18). Hezbollah’s significant middle-class support base, however, attests to the fact that socio-economic deprivation is not considered the sole criterion of oppression. Saad-Ghorayeb further explains that ‘the incorporation of all social classes into the oppressed category is based on the Qur’anic portrayal of the oppressed as those who [are] economically, politically and culturally “weak” vis-à-vis the “arrogant” oppressor, a bifurcation which is enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran’ (Ibid.: 19). On that basis, Hezbollah is locked into battle with ‘arrogant’ Zionism.
Conceptually similar undercurrents permeate Hamas’s literature. Its 1988 Charter proudly declares that the organisation has ‘raised the banner of Jihad in the face of the oppressors in order to extricate the country and the people from the [oppressors’] desecration, filth and evil’ (Hamas, 1998). Despite the confessional divide, it is arguable that Hamas is also inflamed with the Iranian post-revolutionary zeitgeist in that it views a ‘return to Islam’ as the most effective vehicle for ending Palestinian oppression (Lewis, 1976). As with its Lebanese ally, Hamas considers violence to be a virtuous form of political purification. Drawing a parallel with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared in August 2014, ‘We… remember our brothers in Algeria, who had at least a million and [a] half martyrs… We are leading our people to death – I mean, confrontation.’ (Palestinian Media Watch, 2014) When asked by Ken Livingstone in a 2009 interview, moreover, whether Hamas was principally a political or a religious organisation, Khaled Mashal stated: ‘Hamas is a national liberation movement’ (Mashal, 2009).
The anti-Zionist Left’s valorisation of the violent ‘resistance’ of Islamist and antisemitic forces – captured in the US academic Judith Butler’s insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah be considered ‘progressive’ and ‘part of the Global Left’ – arguably stems from a couple of sources. First, the Foucauldian notion that the struggle for freedom from a structure of domination has to be all-encompassing, with discourse itself becoming a vector of resistance to the Zionist hegemon. Therefore, ‘counter-discourse’, even if it is antisemitic, contributes to the process of mentally ‘decolonising’ the Palestinian subject. Re-shaping discourses is key because as Foucault himself wrote, ‘there is no power without resistance’ (Foucault, 1978). Or, as David Hirsh quips, antisemitism is understood as the authentic ‘voice of the oppressed’ against the oppressor (Hirsh, 2007). Second, this belief in the moral quality of unrelenting struggle can trace its origins to revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon who argued that violence against the oppressor was a ‘cleansing’ mechanism which liberated the consciousness of the colonised. He further opined ‘The Manichaeism of the colonist produces the Manichaeism of the colonised.’ (Fanon, 1963) In other words, for the hierarchical foundation of the colonial world to be overturned, the colonised must commit to a binary view of its existence.
These attitudes are further demonstrated in post-colonial analyses of how the the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) became a native-élite collaborator with the Israeli ‘oppressor’ in reaching the Oslo Accords. Hamas, by contrast, in rejecting the Oslo paradigm derives legitimacy as the vanguard of authentic resistance. In his 2015 editorial for New Left Review, Perry Anderson – à la Said – presents the Palestinian Authority not as a severely compromised proto-state battling the local expression of a regional Islamist insurgency, but as a crude subcontractor of Israeli colonial violence – operating as a ‘parasitic miniature’ rentier state (Anderson, 2015). The moral authority of Hamas in left-wing anti-Zionist circles stems, therefore, not only from its ‘principled opposition to Israel’ (Ibid., 2015), but also from its ‘native’ and ‘neo-traditional’ ideological extraction (Eickelman and Piscatori, 2004). On this point of cultural and political authenticity, we see a reproduction of the post-1967 tussle between secular nationalism and political Islam. Applying the Fanonian perspective, moreover, the Islamist commitment to ‘radical rebellion’ – as Anderson terms the Second Intifada – against both Israel and its repressive Fatah ‘surrogate’ is tacitly recognised as the only reliable mechanism available, in the short to medium term, for restoring the ‘homeland’.
Following the establishment of a Palestinian Liberation Organisation embassy in Tehran in 1979, the founder of The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash, said: ‘Many have been surprised that we, as Marxists, should be on the side of a religious movement like Khomeini’s. But beyond ideology, we have in common anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli elements.’ (Wistrich, 2010: 713) It has been the contention of this essay that the convergence between the anti-Zionist Left and political Islam is not merely a coincidental syncretism born of a shared commitment to anti-imperial struggle (of which anti-Zionism is considered the forward engine). Rather it is a function of a shared paradigm, in which Jewish national identity is rejected on the grounds that it constitutes an alien, racist and uniquely aggressive exclusivism, not only incompatible with its political environment, but also intrinsically corrupt, and therefore meriting destruction by the ‘indigenous’, and so progressive, resistance to Zionism.
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Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hezbollah: Politics and Religion, (Pluto Press, 2002), p.18.
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Derek Penslar, Sherman Lectures, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvSloz7M1bI
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Gabriel Piterbeg, Settlers and Their States, New Left Review (Vol. 62 March-April, 2010).
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Ruhollah Khomeini’s message to the Muslim governments, 7 November 1973, (16 Aban 1352 AHS), Sahifa-ye Imam, vol. 3, p. 2.
Ruhollah Khomeini’s message, 11 February 1981 (22 Bahman 1359 AHS), Sahifa-ye Nur, Vol. 14, p. 63.
Ruhollah Khomeini’s message to the pilgrims to the House of God in Mecca, 6 September 1981 (15 Shahrivar 1360 AHS), Sahifa-ye Nur, Vol. 15, p. 125.
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