Cooperation between Islamists and the left is growing, reports Eric Walberg

5/4/7 -- What is striking about this latest anti-imperialist in Egypt conference is the growing cooperation both within the Muslim world and between the anti-global left and Muslims. This should come as no surprise, considering the traditional focus of the left on defending victims of torture. 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.

The left realises this and is finally overcoming its traditional resistance to the cultural conservatism of Islam, and likewise Muslims are reaching out to the left -- clear examples are Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood's (MB) prominent role in this conference and Lebanon, where Hizbullah was prominent at a similar anti-imperialism conference last November in Beirut. Organised by Al-Karama (Dignity), Al-Ishtirakyin Al-Sawryin (Socialist Revolutionary Party), Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-'Amal (Labour), and held at the Egyptian Press Syndicate, the conference attracted close to 600 participants and observers from around the world, including a delegation of 80 South Koreans and 20 Canadians.

But what can we make of the overwhelming prominence at the conference of the MB and their very professional brochures and CDs, well translated into English? One pamphlet quotes MB deputy Khairat El-Shater assuring the reader "No need to be afraid of us" and "We do not promote an anti- Western agenda". Certainly we can condemn the military tribunals where 40 prominent MB members are being tried under emergency laws, in violation of the constitution. Belal Diaa Farahat, a business student at the American University of Cairo told Al-Ahram Weekly how his father Diaaeddin Farahat, a prominent businessman, was arrested along with 39 others "merely because he was successful and a member of the MB." After three months in prison and acquittal in a civil court, these men were re-arrested and will face a military tribunal next week.

Ahmed Shawqi, a student activist at Al-Azhar, said that all the delegates at the conference were unanimous in condemning the tribunals. Delegates from London, Canada and Greece promised to demonstrate, and organise petitions to protest against the military tribunals and invite MB representatives on speaking tours in order to explain their position. Shawqi added, however, that an important aspect of the MB's platform is not to work against Egypt in its international relations. In a sense, the Brotherhood "stole the show" at the conference, with their very real oppression fitting the international delegates' human rights agenda. Coincidence or act of God?

The key forum at the conference: "bridge building between the left and Islam" focussed on re-evaluating the relations of the left and the Islamists, as well as on practical ways to increase cooperation.

Mohamed Ghozlan, an MB Al-Azhar student activist, described the underlying misunderstanding: "the left thought Islam was just an anachronism, while Muslims accused the left of trying to destroy their way of life. However, 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. Such Latin American leaders as Hugo Chavez have accelerated the cooperation, reaching out to the Muslim resistance." He explained the greater repression of Muslim than leftists in Egypt to be due to the fact that "the government sees us as the greater threat to it."

In an interview with the Weekly, conference organiser Nada Kassass said, "the turning point in the relations of the left and Islamists was the Intifada in 2000, when the committee to support the Intifada brought (the two parties together). The wars in Iraq and Lebanon increased the collaboration, and the struggle around the 2006 elections in Egypt showed the success of this strategy, with six nationalists and 88 MB candidates elected. Earlier, when MB members were arrested, the left did little -- the government was able to use religion to keep the left afraid of the Islamists and the Islamists afraid of the 'godless' communists. Both sides were at fault here in Egypt. Ironically it was actually easier for Islamists to work with European leftists than Egyptians, but all that has changed. The bad blood between the MB and the left dates from the 1960s and is now being overcome." Kassass related how left, liberal and Muslim students at Cairo University, Al-Azhar and Ain Shams joined forces to scuttle student council elections which were rigged by the government earlier this year, though some were expelled, arrested and beaten. "People are joining together to defend their rights."

Kassass's evaluation of the situation in Egypt was echoed in the exchanges of Sadala Mazraani of the Lebanese Communist Party, and Ali Fayyad of Hizbullah. Mazraani admitted that during the civil war in Lebanon, Islamists and socialists were fighting each other, and argued that we should learn from the successes of the anti- fascist front of WWII, the nationalist revolution of the 1950s in Egypt and the non-aligned movement of the 1960s, when imperialism was on the defensive. He pointed out how Latin America is uniting with the Middle East against the common enemy, and said it was more a matter of coordinating movements that have recognised common goals. "The Lebanese Communist Party actively works with Hizbullah against the occupation and in elections, both trying to unite Lebanese society to fight Israel and Zionism."

Ali Fayyad of Hizbullah backed up Mazraani, though he complained that, "many socialists in Europe still refuse to work with us, calling us 'terrorist'". He admitted that Islamists are conservative and often don't want to work with the left, especially extremists like Al-Qaeda, which "will not work with anyone and will fail". Then there are the liberal Muslims who don't care about the war and occupation, lack a clear position on imperialism, and as a result, actually ally with it. "The differences of Hamas and Hizbullah with the left are minor -- family and social priorities -- and at the same time, the Islamic movement must apply democracy, which is really the same as shura. Democracy is a bridge to cross to a better world. We should avoid intolerance in governance, whether it's Islamic or not, and forcing religion upon people." He referred to Gramsci's argument about creating a common front at important historical junctures to induce historical change, after which the different groups can go their separate ways.What a lovely irony to have an Islamist quoting a Western communist theorist.

"By working with Islamic groups in an open way, the left can have a positive impact on Islamic movements, and vice versa."

The international left, as represented at the conference, emphasised practical ways to reach out to the broader Muslim community, as reflected in conference forums on such projects as twinning UK and Palestinian cities, countering the boycott of the Hamas government in Palestine with a boycott of Israel and Western firms that provide military equipment to Israel, countering Islamophobia -- in a word, citizens' diplomacy.

James Clark of the Canadian Peace Alliance described how the anti-war coalitions are now supportive of Muslims who find themselves targets of racial and religious profiling and no-fly lists, and that there is active work in the peace movement to counter Islamophobia, "which the governments use to fan the flames to generate support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are committed to defend all civil liberties. "On the wall of the prayer room at Ryerson University in Toronto, someone's spray painted 'Die Muslim'. The administration refused to condemn this as hate crime, so we organised a petition and a campaign to counter Islamophobia, and as a result, the head of the Islamic students' organisation was elected president of the students' council. So you can use such incidents to educate and mobilise people." Clark vowed that the Canadian peace movement, inspired by the Arab resistance in Lebanon and Iraq, would work with Muslims to defeat imperialism.

Johannes Anderson of Denmark criticised the Danish left for not standing behind Muslims during the cartoon controversy, allowing a weak prime minister to emerge unscathed. "I've changed through the past years and grown through criticism. We should not be afraid of it. We fight for democracy in the Middle East and Europe against neo- liberalism which is taking away our rights everywhere."

Wafaa El-Masri of Al-Karama Party saw a new Islamic message emerging at the conference -- shared principles to build society, emphasising our commonalty. "The Egyptian national movement works with the Islamists to fight the constitutional amendments, to unite against the Iraq war, and to support Iran against the threat of US attack."

While the conference's criticism of the repression of the host government would hardly merit a comment if it were held in, say, Toronto or Moscow, the lack of fear by the MB and Egyptian opposition representatives was impressive -- they realise that at any moment they too could be arrested and possibly tortured, yet they did not fear speaking out. Belal Farahat's father, one of the 40 MB prisoners awaiting next week's military tribunal, had his assets seized and stores closed by the government, yet Belal continues to study at AUC: "The whole point of the Brotherhood is that we are one and must help each other."

In an interview with the Weekly, George Hajjar, a political philosophy professor at the Lebanese University and head of the National Rally in Support of the Resistance Option, though optimistic about the growing understanding between leftists and Islamists and supportive of the conference as a whole, criticised it for not having representatives from the Iraqi resistance, "because the resistance is primarily nationalist, and the MB and Shias in Iraq are members of the occupation government."


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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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