Double Bind

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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?

When US

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

the state?

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 group Cageprisoners.  Sahgal argued that 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. 

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?

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