The Left in Britain used to be in favour of secularism and against the politicisation of religion. The lives of Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and many others attest to this proud history. They campaigned against and opposed the domination of any one religious group – and they did so even when it was dangerous, both to their careers and even their lives. (The burning down of Joseph Priestley’s laboratory was not an entirely isolated event; and the sentiments expressed were not those of a minority. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his “Religious Musings”, ‘priests idolatrous / By dark lies maddening the blind multitude / Drove with vain hate’.)
But recently, the tide has began to turn, and many Left-wingers now find themselves allied with deeply reactionary elements within religious groups — and they do so while claiming to endorse the same values as their noble predecessors.
Jeremy Corbyn, who has now – astonishingly – been elected leader of the Labour Party with an almost unthinkably large majority, is the most prominent example of this insidious trend; but it is widespread, and truly worthy of criticism. People like him and George Galloway, for example, as well as Ken Livingstone and others, have found themselves in support of deeply unpleasant individuals, many of whom hold or endorse decidedly reactionary and theocratic views.
Under the guise of advocating on behalf of the oppressed of Palestine, for example, too many liberals have thrown their lot in with Hamas, an organisation which cites the Qur’an in its Covenant when justifying the eradication of Israel and the extirpation its citizens. (And let it not be forgotten that anti-Semitism is surprisingly and depressingly widespread in some Left-wing circles.)
Far too many, such as Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, have referred to the terrorists and nihilists of Al-Qaeda, for example, as ‘legitimate resistance’ against what they perceive to be American imperialism. He has said so in columns; he has said so in speeches. There is no secret that he prefers those who, in fighting the United States and other coalition members in Iraq, caused the vast majority of all civilian casualties and sought to stir up sectarian tensions on a regional scale. The logical extension of Milne’s thinking is offering his support to the organisations that grew out of this phoney resistance movement; but he might have some trouble in doing that, as the most visible successor to the insurgency is ISIS. And ISIS has been conscripted to fit an entirely different narrative: a suggestion that its rise is the fault of none other than the United States of America.
(As it happens, the spiritual forefather of ISIS was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was a prominent member of the ‘resistance’ and who was rightfully killed in a drone strike in 2006. Let no one say that ISIS came out of nowhere, or that the West had a hand in its formation; if anything, the United States of America – along with affiliated Sunni tribes – fought ISIS first.)
You can’t win with these people; they are pathologically opposed to the West – and America in particular – and they will bend every fact to fit the rhetorical formula. As we have already seen, this can lead to some downright odd bedfellows; but to the liberals of Milne’s bent, consistency is unimportant in pursuit of a grander goal. That’s why he also buddies up with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, despite the latter’s being a hard-Right nationalist with tendencies towards autocracy. (It must not be forgotten, and it is not churlish to mention, that an essential element of latter-day Russian nationalism centres on the promotion of extreme elements within the Orthodox Church. Russia is not yet a theocracy, but the recent rash of homophobic laws in the country has significant support among hard-line religious figures.)
Some have launched into enthusiastic apologia for Iran, despite its longstanding and deeply shameful record on human rights, and despite its covert sponsorship of a horrific proxy war in Iraq and Syria, one which can rival in barbarism anything committed by ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn has made frequent appearances on Iran’s propaganda channel, Press TV; it was there, for example, where he declared the killing of Osama bin Laden to have been a ‘tragedy’ (and not just that: a tragedy to be spoken of in similar terms to the 9/11 attacks). Appearing on a network whose sole task is to promote the political perspective of a theocracy takes some chutzpah; but to do so in order to bemoan the killing of a religious terrorist – someone against whom most of the world was at war – adds to the initial crime something approaching compound interest.
In Corbyn’s case this compound interest could soon amount to a very significant total; he will have little or no honeymoon period after his election, and rightly so. Many in the media have already got the measure of him – and there is a great deal of unpleasant evidence on display. Many others on the Left, themselves driven by notions of ‘punching up’, engage in similarly dangerous ideological pursuits. Some brought themselves deserved notoriety when they denigrated the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo, and made excuses and justifications for their murder.
(And this apologia does not extend only to murdered Westerners, terrible as that would be. It also includes millions who suffer under tyranny in the third world. As John Rees, a functionary in the Stop the War Coalition – a body which has become a veritable rogues’ gallery of apologists for theocracy and terror – wrote in 2006: ‘Socialists should unconditionally stand with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if the people who run the oppressed country are undemocratic and persecute minorities, like Saddam Hussein.’)
Some of what has led to this depressing trend could be viewed charitably. But in sum it is deeply damaging, not just to the Left, but to those who are truly oppressed by the theocrats and reactionaries many leftists find themselves fighting alongside; and it is those who are oppressed who truly need and deserve our support. Leftists in the mould of Milne and Corbyn, who appear to value ideological purity and dogmatic hesperophobia over genuine and internationalist activism, will never live up to this lofty and noble standard.