Redrawing the battle lines

Where once they had stood for opposite conceptions of human nature and radically different visions of society, today the terms “left” and “right” are words in search of meaning. With the demise of the socialist camp and the declining role of ideology in the political arena, such distinctions have lost much of their historic relevance, their content diluted, their parameters blurred. With the ideological erosion of the old political parties, politics has turned into the art of manipulating public opinion in a Machiavellian world that divorces politics from ethics and rejects substance for form, great goals for image and sound bite.

As a result, the political mainstream has become populated by colourless lookalikes with a pathological fear of expressing a commitment to a political ideal in public, from our Thatcherite Labour prime minister to Cameron, the Blairite Tory leader. Is it then any wonder that disenchantment with politics has soared in the last decade as the low levels of voter- turnout in election after election make plain?

The great political narratives are, however, far from dead. In parallel with this apolitical instrumentalist brand of politics, and partly in response to it, a new political phenomenon has recently risen to the surface to reclaim the ideals long abandoned by the old political parties. Its architects are drawn from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum, socialists, trade unionists, human rights activists, as well as numerous religious and ethnic groups. Unique in its diversity and breadth, this coalition revolves around a set of core domestic and foreign issues, which range from the preservation of civil and individual liberties, to the defence of the sovereignty of nations and the demand for a more equitable, more balanced world order.

It is ironic that instead of generating greater acceptance of American world hegemony as its neo-conservative authors had intended, unilateralism and the notion of pre-emptive strikes have acted as the midwife for the birth of this cross cultural, cross political global civil society. The strikes on Afghanistan, crackdown on civil and individual liberties, occupation of Iraq and attacks on Lebanon have indeed only given greater momentum to the movement of resistance to American world dominance.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this phenomenon in Britain is the active participation of Muslims, who until recently had stood largely outside the political stream, with localised concerns and predominantly conservative political outlooks. The harsh reality of the post-September 11th world forced them to break out of their political isolation and embark on the search for means of safeguarding their collective interests.

At home, in the name of the war on terror, the Muslim minority has been the subject of a string of draconian legislations, endlessly required to prove its allegiance to the nation-state. Beyond diplomatic handshakes and smiles, Islam and Muslims appear to have turned in the eyes of European and American strategists to a fifth column and a threat to national security. Abroad, as majorities in the Muslim world, they have been dragged back to the gunpowder age of Victorian and Napoleonic conquests, once more caught up in the ruthless geopolitical games of the great powers thirsting for mastery over territories and resources.

On the other side, the liberal and socialist left has found itself at the heart of Arab and Islamic causes, as the axis of its conflict with a will to hegemony imposed on the world in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Syria. For these opponents of occupation, the Palestinian Kufiyye became the symbol of their movement for a just world order. The rapprochement with Muslims is in this sense more pragmatic than ideological and more objective than doctrinal. It has, however, brought significant changes to the discourses of both parties.

Engagement with the anti-war movement prompted Muslims to rethink their concerns within a wider international context, shifting in theory as in practice from the local to the global and from the particular to the universal. For the left, on the other hand, the experience generated greater understanding of and deeper empathy for Muslims and their causes. In the long run, this interaction may lead many on the left to question some of their ready-made postulates regarding religion and its role in socio-political change. Religion may be an ally of fatalism and stultified conservatism just as it may act as a catalyst for dynamism and change. Insane violent al Qaida anarchists aside, this is precisely the role Islam is playing across the Muslim world today from Tangier down to Jakarta.

Some from the left have deserted their old positions and have turned into cheerleaders for wars of aggression and the trampling of the principle of national sovereignty and norms of international law. While speaking the language of liberalism and tolerance, these have recycled rightwing racist clichés about Islam to dismiss the rapprochement with Muslims as an “unholy alliance”.

Their weariness is, in fact, shared by many on the Muslim side who, lacking in historical consciousness, subscribe to an isolationist conservative agenda committed to the further ghettoisation of Muslims from their political environment and wider global context. The questions these need to ask are: If their allies are not the defenders of multiculturalism and open society at home, and the champions of a multi-polar and just world order abroad, then who? Those who endorse a closed and homogenous notion of national identity and wish to turn the clock backwards to the age of colonialism and grand civilising missions in the name of democracy and progress?

To the eyes of many across the Muslim world, the anti-war movement has unveiled another west, different from Bush’s and Blair’s west of carpet bombs, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. To these, New York, London, Madrid, and Rome are no longer the command centres of armies and war fleets only, but great capitals of protest and popular mobilisation against aggression and expansionism.

The battle lines have been redrawn within, not between, cultures and civilisations. This is not a civilisational clash. Above all, it is a conflict over the shape of the world order, the structures of international relations and the right of nations to sovereignty and self-determination.