Double Bind asks important questions of the cross sections of certain Muslim networks and women’s rights argues Jolene Tan
In a period of right wing attacks on Muslims – or people thought to
be Muslims – how does one respond to human rights violations by the Muslim
Right without feeding hate campaigns?
diplomats invoke the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we
practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and
When the US
targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry
about violations perpetrated by those same jihadis or focus on violations by
Double Bind opens with
ambitious questions. Perhaps it is
optimistic to expect a 100-page volume to answer them in full, especially when
the very act of asking confuses sections of the left-wing audience and
therefore itself needs to be explained. But
the questions invite that expectation and though writer and feminist activist Meredith Tax signposts an in-principle
way forward with clarity, Double Bind would be a more
effective book with more detail.
Both the book and its publisher, the Centre for Secular Space, have
grown out of the 2010 dispute
between Amnesty International and Gita Sahgal, the former head of its Gender
Unit, over the organisation’s work with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg
and his associates promoted an “Islamic Right” agenda of “defensive
jihad”. Sahgal charged that Amnesty’s
partnership with “Britain’s most famous
supporter of the Taliban” lent
public legitimacy to an ideology incompatible with universal human rights and
in particular with gender equality.
Among the British left (if not always elsewhere), many
reacted with scepticism. (For a sample, see
the discussion under this
article by Victoria Brittain, Begg’s biographer.) Gita Sahgal was accused of relying on and reinforcing
bigoted stereotypes and McCarthyist insinuations about Muslims and of
facilitating the appropriation of feminist concerns and language to make the
case for war. Particular hay was made
over her speaking to “the Murdoch press”. Some critics doubted
the existence of an “Islamic Right”.
Double Bind outlines a
clear intellectual path through the issues thrown up by these events. Tax defines the “Muslim Right” as “a
range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics
towards the goal of a theocratic state”.
She describes their historical roots in the Afghan mujahideen, lays out their Saudi connections, explains their
main ideological goals and highlights their role in human rights abuses,
alongside fundamentalists of other stripes:
fundamentalist campaigns are local; events like 7/7 in the UK and 9/11 in the
US are rare compared to pressure, threats and violence at the community level,
designed to impose ideological conformity and obedience to fundamentalist
rules. … One of their aims is to impose their moral values on such
communities, which usually entails targeting religious minorities, women, and LGBT populations.”
Aside from a few brief descriptions of the
Taliban, details of these local campaigns are reserved for footnotes.
I fear that a sketch at this level of
generality may not persuade those who are sceptical about the notion of a Muslim
Right movement and prone to handwaving away murderous sectarian doctrine as
somehow insignificant or unreal. It
might have worked better to include one or two more thoroughly concretised
examples – putting together a thicker illustration of how the networks and the
teachings come together to produce abuses.
Without this, the book’s ensuing argument has a slight imbalance. Much ink is spilled detailing Begg et al’s
links to transnational networks but perhaps readers coming in cold would benefit from a fleshier picture of the
problematic activities in which those networks are being supported.
Tax punches harder with her analysis of the
Anglo-American left, arguing that the Amnesty-Cageprisoners connection
exemplifies a tendency in the human rights movement to ignore the ways in which
non-state targets of state counter-terrorist excesses may themselves be
complicit in rights abuses. Binary US(-plus-UK)-versus-the-world
thinking produces failures of solidarity:
Anglo-American left will have to overcome its imperial narcissism, in which the
US (with its UK ally) is assumed to be the cause of everything bad happening in
the world, and the only possible response to its overwhelming power and evil is
a pained ironic stance, or, at best, a position of moral witness.”
Tax takes to task, for instance, “left
wing support for ‘the Iraqi insurgency'”, despite its violence toward
women, trade union leaders, religious minorities, gays and lesbians. Closer to home, she raises the example of the
Socialist Workers Party’s “courtship of the Muslim Right”, which led
to it rubbishing women’s rights and gay rights as a “shibboleth” and
holding sex-segregated anti-war meetings.
Importantly, she points out that the failure to recognise the nature of
the Muslim Right:
distortions about Islam put about by antiimmigrant conservatives – the far
right talks as if all Muslims were potential terrorists, while the far left
talks as if salafi-jihadis represented all Muslims. Both ignore the fact that
the vast majority of Muslims are like everybody else; they just want to survive
and live their lives in peace. Very few of them support the interpretations and
actions of salafi-jihadis, who no more represent all Muslims than the American
Nazi Party or English Defence League represent all Christians.”
Double Bind is at its best
with sharp exposures of lazy thinking: with, in other words, asking the right
questions. But what of its answers?
The book’s broad prescription is valuable
and incisive: “solidarity with actual popular movements of democrats and
feminists struggling in the Global South” – but perhaps too thinly characterised. While this single book should not be expected
to lay out “a complete programme for social justice”, the call to
action would have benefitted from specific examples: some instances, however
small, of effective solidarity which is worth emulating. This omission notwithstanding, Double Bind issues an important challenge; perhaps to find
out more we will need to watch this Space.
*Please note, the standfirst has been corrected from the original publication. It should read certain Muslim networks and women’s rights rather than being Muslim and women’s rights.
Jolene Tan is The F-Word’s fiction reviews editor and a member of the blogging collective