Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 23, 2012

Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia

Filed under: Islamophobia,Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Pepe Escobar’s inspiration

In his brilliant analysis of leftist hostility to the revolutions in Libya and Syria titled Blanket Thinkers, Robin Yassin-Kassab described the way that the Syrian rebels are viewed in those quarters:

They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut.


This has been on my radar screen ever since the struggle against Qaddafi got off the ground, but Yassin-Kassab’s article persuaded me to investigate a bit further. Basically what seems to be taking place is a hatred for Islamism that is reminiscent of what we heard from Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman during the heights of the war in Iraq, but deployed on behalf of an “anti-imperialist” narrative.

Perhaps the most prominent exponent of left Islamophobia is Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar. In an article on Libya titled How al-Qaeda got to rule in Tripoli,  Abdelhakim Belhaj became an object of hate:

Abdelhakim Belhaj, aka Abu Abdallah al-Sadek, is a Libyan jihadi. Born in May 1966, he honed his skills with the mujahideen in the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

He’s the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and its de facto emir – with Khaled Chrif and Sami Saadi as his deputies. After the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, the LIFG kept two training camps in Afghanistan; one of them, 30 kilometers north of Kabul – run by Abu Yahya – was strictly for al-Qaeda-linked jihadis.

After 9/11, Belhaj moved to Pakistan and also to Iraq, where he befriended none other than ultra-nasty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – all this before al-Qaeda in Iraq pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and turbo-charged its gruesome practices.

(For what it is worth, Escobar’s article contains an ad for the Central Intelligence Agency. Talk about crowning ironies.)

Escobar adds that “In Iraq, Libyans happened to be the largest foreign Sunni jihadi contingent, only losing to the Saudis.” Well, how despicable, Libyans going to Iraq to fight against the American occupation. He also considers Belhaj a rather shifty sort, “not remotely interested in relinquishing control just to please NATO’s whims.” What an ingrate.

Not long after the overthrow of Qaddafi, left Islamophobes held up a magnifying glass to detect any evidence of Jihadist influence in the new Libya. Last November word went out that the al-Qaeda flag was flying over the Benghazi courthouse. Not surprisingly, this became a cause celebre for the rightwing but the vanguard of the “anti-imperialist” left got just as worked up. Voltairenet.org, a website devoted to 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and the defense of Qaddafi and al-Assad, alerted its readers through an article that included a graphic of the flag:

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former Justice Minister of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya who became chairman of the National Transitional Council, announced the rebels’ intention to turn Libya  into an Islamic state and implement Sharia as the only law.

For some odd reason, the Libyan people were never clued in that they were about to willingly accept such a state of affairs. As it turned out, the vote for the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was a paltry 130,000 nationally, just 21.3%. Today’s Australian  explained the low total:

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighborhood at the time) and Gaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organisations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990’s harmed Islamists of all brands.

A third reason for the Islamists’ defeat had to do with their campaign rhetoric. “It is offensive to tell me that I have to vote for an Islamic party,” Jamila Marzouki, an Islamic studies graduate, told me. Marzouki voted liberal, despite believing that Islam should be the ultimate reference for Libyan laws. “In Libya, we are Muslims. They can’t take away my identity and claim that it’s only theirs.”

So much for Libya turning into a Taliban state.

Without skipping a beat, the dreadful Pepe Escobar now has Syria in his sights, using the same hackneyed analysis:

Syria, the new Libya

A Kalashnikov in Iraq, until recently, sold for US$100. Now it’s at least $1,000, and most probably $1,500 (those were the days when Sunnis joining the resistance in 2003 could buy a fake Kalashnikov made in Romenia [sic] for $20).

Destination of choice of the $1,500 Kalashnikov in 2012: Syria. Network: al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, also known as AQI. Recipients: infiltrated jihadis operating side-by-side with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Also shuttling between Syria and Iraq is car bombing and suicide bombing, as in two recent bombings in the suburbs of Damascus and the suicide bombing last Friday in Aleppo.

Who would have thought that what the House of Saud wants in Syria – an Islamist regime – is exactly what al-Qaeda wants in Syria?

Christopher Hitchens couldn’t have put it better.

For left Islamophobes, the idea of a secular, nationalistic and populist Syria serves as a kind of rallying point in the same way that “existing socialism” in the USSR once was for a gullible left, whether or not either proposition was true.

Syria Freedom Forever, an antidote to the stupidity found in Escobar’s columns, Global Research, MRZine, Voltairenet.com et al (Counterpunch fortunately never bought into this junk for the most part), had an article titled Understand the Syrian regime and the dialectics of the Syrian revolutionary process  that is most useful for separating the truth from bullshit.

It explains that al-Assad, just like Saddam Hussein, was not above catering to the needs of the Islamic clergy in the interests of wielding power Machiavelli-style:

The last important base of support for the Syrian regime is the high religious establishment of all sects, which has benefited the regime for the past twenty years and supported it since the beginning of the revolution. The Syrian regime and its security services established political and economic links with the religious establishment, especially from the Sunni community following the repression of the 1980s. The high religious establishments of all the sects have increasingly been presented by the regime as actors of the “Syrian civil society” in the past as soon as a foreign delegation would visit the country.

The State’s behavior these past years has been in total contradiction with the official picture of a secular country. A religious vocabulary appeared more often in political discourse, along with a massive increase in the building of religious sites from the eighties until now. These government measures were also accompanied by censorship of literary and artistic works, while promoting a religious literature filling more and more the shelves of libraries and Islamizing the field of higher education. This is true particularly in the humanities and expressed itself in the rather systematic referral to religious references of any scientific, social and cultural phenomenon. Around 10,000 mosques and hundreds of religious schools were built. More than 200 conferences headed by clerics were held in cultural centres of important towns during 2007.

Of course you wouldn’t know any of this if your reading material was limited to the Islamophobic left.

When you are dealing with a phobia, facts do little to change the mind of the stricken. No matter how many times you might have told Howard Hughes that washing one’s hands 2 or 3 times a day was sufficient, only 25 times would suffice. No matter how many times you tell the Islamophobic left that the purpose of the struggle in places like Libya and Syria is to get rid of an oppressive regime, it will not overcome the deep belief that the real purpose is to reestablish the Caliphate, sharia law and the cult of the suicide bomber.

Speaking for myself (and who else matters in the long run), this is what I think of when Islamic resistance to Bashar al-Assad is cited. I don’t find it threatening at all. In fact I am inspired by it:


  1. Islamophobia is a modern version of “socialism of fools”. Another variant of this tendency in otherwise Liberal circles is Homonationalism.

    Comment by chrisb — July 23, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

  2. No one has ever forwarded me an article by Pepe Escobar, to my knowledge. Islamophobia is bad, and failure to investigate the actual culture / political institutions of a country is not helpful. But this specter of “left Islamophobia” is totally made up, methinks as an excuse for your newfound coddling of imperialist intervention, as you, Pham Binh, and Clay Claiborne perform a bizarre interpretation of Hitchens for 2012.

    Comment by John B. Cannon (@johnbcannon) — July 23, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

  3. But this specter of “left Islamophobia” is totally made up

    If only that were so. Here’s the execrable Yoshie Furuhashi forwarding an Asia Times article by John Rosenthal to Patrick Bond’s listserv. Rosenthal is a Muslim-hater of long standing who is a regular on National Review Online and the Weekly Standard. My guess is that Furuhashi is too uninformed to have realized that she was circulating an ultrarightist’s trash. She must have assumed that if the article appeared on Asia Times, it passed muster. What a mistake in judgement but understandable given her most recent phobias. Only a few years ago she was hailing Hamas suicide bombers, now she is crossposting a National Review contributor. What fools these mortals be.


    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  4. Good piece. You can also look at how George Galloway tries to frighten the listeners on his radio talk show with tales of the al Qaeda threat from Syria..
    One small error: the vote for the Muslim Brotherhood lists in Libya (Justice and Construction Party) was about 130 000.

    Comment by Brian. S — July 23, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  5. Jonathan Freedland wrote a couple of weeks ago on “progressives’ prejudice” as a follow-up to an article by a Muslim columnist that provoked a “torrent of Islamophobic abuse” in the comments section of a supposedly left-liberal daily:

    Each time I come across the kind of abuse he cites I mentally replace the word “Islam” with “Judaism” and “Muslim” with “Jew”. I know how I would feel if I was bombarded with long screeds denouncing Jewish faith and customs as sinister, alien, backward or bonkers, just as I know how I would feel if I were told Jews need to change their ways if they are to be accepted into polite society.

    Comment by chrisb — July 23, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

  6. Thanks, Brian. I got the vote totals from an article that must have reflected a subset of the votes. In any case, the Islamists did poorly.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  7. Ironically, it’s probably mainly a result of the Ghaddafi era that the Islamists aren’t particularly popular in Libya.
    But they certainly don’t represent any progressive alternative to it.

    Belhaj was a former ally of Bin Laden’s during the war against the Russian forces in Afghanistan .
    By using the Pakistan ISI and the Saudis to do its dirty work, the US government cultivated the illusion that it wasn’t involved.
    But, in the course of “Operation Cyclone”, $3 billion in US aid was funnelled to the Mujahideen, helping to train and equip 100,000 insurgents.
    What a tragedy that the Afghan left weren’t able to deal with these religious reactionaries before foreign forces muscled their way in.

    After 9-11, Islamists like Belhaj were no longer trusted by the West.
    He was captured and rendered to Libya, which had a common interest in supressing the LiFG
    Eventually, he did a deal with Seif Ghaddafi to get out of jail by renouncing violence.
    But when the opportunity arose, he formed an anti-government militia, with Western assistance.
    This played an important role in the seizure of Tripoli.

    The Western powers would never trust someone like Belhaj in government.
    They see the interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril as a safer pair of hands.
    As a Planning Minister under Ghaddafi, Jibril helped to introduce privatisation.
    He’s pragmatic about foreign investment and it looks like he’ll open up the remaining state controlled sectors of the economy when the time is right.
    Growing Regional separatism in Libya could help speed up this process if local adminstrations could cut their own deals with the multinationals.
    Meanwhile, the fate of tens of thousands of migrant workers is incarceration in prison camps and deportation.

    i.e. There may have been a “revolution” in Libya, but it wasn’t led by socialists.
    If the FSA or SNC ever get control of Syria, the outcome could be even worse.
    – sectarian warfare, with various ethnic and religious groups moving to “safe” areas and the country fragmenting.
    Lebanon will be next in the firing line.

    Comment by prianikoff — July 24, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  8. Good article. They slandered the hell out of the revolutions in Libya and Syria, but when it’s the case of Bahrain they’re full of sympathy and understanding. They treat the struggles of those people as pawns on their geopolitical chessboard. They have exactly the same cold cast of mind as their ideological enemies, people like Kissinger and Cheney. I’ve heard them referred to as neo-Stalinists, which I think is right. They would prefer millions of people live in fear under tyranny, just so they can spite America, or the “NWO” or whatever nonsense they believe in.

    Comment by نصركم — July 25, 2012 @ 7:33 am

  9. I think this article is building up a straw man. Most are critical of the imperialist powers and their motives, not the bearded madmen.

    The fact that these anti imperialists conclude by saying we will not support the rebels because imperialism supports them is another question. Though I tend to think it isn’t a bad guide. The problem in the case of Syria and Libya is that the West are being opportunistic, taking the view that anything is better than Assad, one more former enemy toppled, US imperialism is on a roll etc. The problem is that the USA may end up with something they don’t like (and they know it), which is why they have put out stories about chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands. What the USA are trying to achieve is a consensus with Russia and China, where some form of goverment agreeable to all is created, a government of order and security, a nation under direct imperialist control. A nation in chains. The problem is the Russians are not playing ball because of what happened in Libya.

    But the situation is clear, imperialism will not tolerate a free Syrian nation.

    Comment by Steve — July 25, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  10. I’d be careful about associating our “binary blinker-thinkers” with Islamophobic or anti-Arab racism. It is basically the unconscious side effect of the blinkered POV that opportunistically dovetails with actual Islamophobia and anti-Arabism in this case. It is “binary analogue” of falling into the trap of (just as unconsciously) “supporting imperialism” in the same case.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — July 25, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  11. […] Louis Proyect writes about the issue of Islamophobia on the Left and does so while employing a delicious amount of irony. I post his observations here, not in the hope of provoking debate with those who will now feel under attack. I have engaged in enough of those debates myself and found them to be fruitless. No matter how varied and nuanced the input might be, ideological robots have the irksome habit of endlessly repeating the same talking points. […]

    Pingback by Libya, Syria, and Islamophobia on the Left — War in Context — August 7, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

  12. […] reliant on al-Qaeda, sourcing Ed Husain’s Council on Foreign Relations article. As I have noted on my blog, the hostility to the movements against both Qaddafi and al-Assad was and is driven by the same […]

    Pingback by Dear Dan Kovalik « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 8, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  13. […] Proyect, Louis (2012) ‘Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia’, The Unrepentant Marxist, online: https://louisproyect.org/2012/07/23/libya-syria-and-left-islamophobia/ […]

    Pingback by “Syria Solidarity UK” Supporting Al Qaeda and Denying Free Speech | Uprootedpalestinians's Blog — May 28, 2016 @ 7:27 am

  14. […] Proyect, Louis (2012) ‘Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia’, The Unrepentant Marxist, online: https://louisproyect.org/2012/07/23/libya-syria-and-left-islamophobia/ […]

    Pingback by “Syria Solidarity UK” Supporting Al Qaeda and Denying Free Speech | Syria Solidarity Movement — May 29, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

  15. […] four years and one day ago, I wrote an article titled “Libya, Syria, and left Islamophobia” that called attention to leftist support for Gaddafi and Assad that despite its […]

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