RubinReports | By Barry Rubin
OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,
In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
— William Wordsworth, Poem on the French Revolution, 1789
A decent but very leftist British Middle East expert once described for me his experience in Iran in 1979. As a leftist, he had discounted any idea that Islamists might take over the country before the revolution, dismissing them as insignificant. But then he supported the revolution against the “reactionary, pro-Western” shah.
He had many friends among Iranian leftists. Quickly, he went to Tehran and scheduled meetings at the leftist newspaper established after the revolution. The newspaper was named with the Persian word for dawn, recalling — intentionally or not I have no idea — the words of another revolutionary romantic quoted above.
As he arrived, however, a cordon of revolutionary Islamist police held him back. The supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were busy closing down the newspaper, ransacking the office, and dragging the journalists away to prison. The enthusiastic supporters of revolution, betrayed by their allies (Wordsworth’s “auxiliars,”) were discovering that it wasn’t their revolution at all. The “meager, stale, forbidding” laws and customs were coming back with a vengeance.
The left may believe itself to be “strong in love” but the Islamists have got the guns, money, organization, and the willingness (even eagerness) to kill for power.
This was not the first time in history such things happened. And now with the “Arab Spring” it wasn’t the last either.
The leftist forces in the Arabic-speaking world as relatively weak but they can be disproportionately significant, especially in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. While Arab liberals have often been implicitly secular-oriented, it has been the leftists, Marxists to some degree, who have been militantly outspoken.
In recent years, though, the Arab left has also hitched its star to the far more powerful Islamists, reasoning that they, too, were against the regime and the West. “After Hitler, us,” over-optimistic German Communists proclaimed in 1932. In a sense, they were right since after the Third Reich’s fall the Soviets would make the survivors the puppet rulers of East Germany. But that’s not the scenario they had in mind.
Now Arab leftists are repeating that pattern. In Egypt, the left provided a youthful, pseudo-democratic cover at the revolution’s beginning that fooled the Western governments, journalists, and “experts.” Now the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t need them anymore.
Here’s a small example of that. The Egyptian leftist newspaper is al-Tahrir and its editor is Ibrahim Issa. He is now being investigated by the government prosecutor on charges of ridiculing the Quran and Sharia law as well as mocking Islam. Soon, people are going to be shot by Salafist terrorists on the basis of such accusations. For now, they just face trials and possible jail time.
What is worth noting is that just about anyone — in this case, as usual, it was an Islamist lawyer — can urge that charges be made against people who say something that offends the Islamists. This analysis also implies, of course, to any women’s rights’ groups in the West, so sensitive to the most minor details of life in their societies yet willing to overlook massive repression — even embrace it elsewhere.
I was fascinated by one of the statements that got Issa in trouble. It was a very typical leftist theme whose equivalent is used about every five minutes in the United States and every day in these times by Obama Administration officials. Issa sarcastically remarked that if someone steals a wallet Sharia mandates that their hand be cut off but for stealing millions the punishment is far less harsh.
Issa certainly has guts. He was once sentenced to death under the Mubarak regime, and then pardoned by that dictator. But now there has been a supposed democratic revolution.
If the opposition cannot make such non-theological points how can it criticize Sharia and Islamist rule at all? And while Issa may be defiant, most will be deterred from speaking out or acting by fear of punishment. A common mistake is to think that repression is aimed at silencing courageous critics. Not really. It is intended — and usually works — in getting a far larger number of bystanders to shut up.
There has been a major failure on the part of the Western left. Can’t they imagine themselves living in such places and being punished for saying or doing all the things they take for granted?
Once upon a time they would have shown solidarity with their murdered, imprisoned, and repressed counterparts. They would have been outspoken about what’s going on, for instance, in Tunisia where the level of crackdown is gradually increasing and at least one leftist party leader has been murdered by Islamists. They would be jumping up and down to protest the withdrawal of women’s rights. And the Marxists would be throwing around the phrase, “clerical-fascists” to describe what was happening. There would be protests, and a massive literature on the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, perhaps as alleged tools of capitalism and imperialism but denunciations none the less.
Sure, the Western left were for decades apologists for repression carried out by leftist regimes — the USSR, Soviet bloc, and Third World dictatorships among them — but not about repression carried out against leftists.
Now things have changed. The left has sided with the reactionaries because they hate their own countries’ systems more. This is a mistake and their compatriots will pay for it in blood.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, “Israel: An Introduction“, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include “The Israel-Arab Reader” (seventh edition), “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East” (Wiley), and “The Truth About Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.