Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A question of solidarity

The anti-war left should be supporting, rather than abusing, its Iraqi comrades, suggests Gary Kent

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Three years ago, millions marched against the invasion of Iraq. Most founders of Labour Friends of Iraq opposed military action, but we soon swallowed our differences to focus on solidarity with the once-powerful Iraqi labour movement, pulverised by Saddam but now being rebuilt. We hoped that the huge energies devoted to stopping intervention could now support Iraqi democrats. Key anti-war unions have developed important solidarity work, but many leaders of the Stop the War Coalition are inactive or hostile to Iraqi reformism, unlike anti-war groups in other countries.

The first major sign of hostility emerged at the 2004 Labour party conference when delegates trounced the call for a rapid withdrawal of troops, understanding that this could be disastrous. One Iraqi put it pithily: ‘We didn’t invite the troops in but we’d like a say on when they go.’

The Iraqi unions were immediately pilloried for daring to suggest ways to secure the future of their country. George Galloway shamefully accused an Iraqi trade unionist of being a ‘quisling’. STWC chair Andrew Murray said he was a stooge. Typical hard-left smears against the truly courageous and indefatigable. STWC leaders backed ‘the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary’ – a blank cheque to the ‘resistance’.

Unison condemned this ‘vilification’ and hard-left union leader Mick Rix retorted: ‘I don’t think you also realise the danger that your actions and those of the Respect colleagues in the STWC have placed [Iraqi trade unionists] against attacks from extremists.’ Rix’s prescience was borne out with the brutal murder by Ba’athists of the Iraqi unions’ international representative, Hadi Saleh, who was tortured, strangled and shot while union records were stolen from his home. His murder was condemned around the world but barely protested by anti-war leaders, while a SWP theoretician dismissed the ‘hullabaloo’ over Hadi’s murder.

It is one thing to oppose the invasion or argue for withdrawing troops – notwithstanding the UN mandate and Iraqi government support. It’s another to be blasé about the fate of our Iraqi comrades. For example, Robert Taylor argued in Tribune for a troops-out timetable, while admitting a dodgy precedent: ‘The exit from India and that country’s partition in 1947 cost the lives of millions but it was a cruel necessity. The same can be said for Iraq.’

The STWC comprises the hard left (Trotskyist and Stalinoid) plus CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some support the insurgency, and their general political stance is infantile. Dr Assam Tamimi of the Muslim Association of Britain argued: ‘I am not responsible for July 7. I condemn it. I did not make those boys angry. I did not send the troops to Iraq. We shouldn’t feel guilty. Who is the guilty one? Tony Blair!’ STWC convenor Lindsay German said: ‘The only way to end the bombings is to withdraw from Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. When we have justice around the world we will have peace as well.’

Galloway’s Respect party airbrushed lesbian and gay rights from their manifesto. Outrage says: ‘Respect has betrayed progressive Muslims, in favour of an alliance with Islamist conservatives and fundamentalists.’

CND invited the Iranian ambassador to address its annual conference. He represents a murderous regime that fiddles elections, represses unions and stones gays to death, and whose president would wipe Israel off the map. Iranian ‘Walter Wolfgangs’ were ejected for heckling. The rot on this part of the left is very deep. Yet the Guardian bolsters it with a torrent of anti-war articles but a mere trickle from a post-war solidarity position. This can only be strengthened when the STWC’s crude mixture of politics is dissected and disposed of.

The common mantra in understanding terrorism is ‘root causism’. It’s natural to search for rationality, even with irrational and pathological movements. Many did this with Hitler before it became too late. Settling the Palestine/Israel issue, however, is right in itself, and could isolate Islamist hardliners, but ignores the autonomous, non-secular basis of Islamist totalitarianism which is battling mainstream Islam to secure a mass base. Al-Qaida is not just another version of the ultimately biddable IRA, but a nihilist movement which opposes equality, pluralism and democracy in principle, and exploits real and imagined grievances wherever possible.

Tackling root causes requires concerted action by the international community, a euphemism often involving American soft and hard power; opposition to which is another key theme of the STWC. There’s no need to abandon an anti-imperialist impulse or the need to overcome vast inequalities of power and wealth. But American and British crimes and mistakes don’t provide a war guilt that disqualifies them from a progressive role.

The west long treated the Middle East as a petrol pump and propped up its tyrannies. Now, in rhetoric at least, the emphasis is on democratisation. It is not a theme that should be left to the neo-cons but a natural value for social democrats who should assist democrats in the region. Professor Brian Brivati says: ‘There has been no greater abdication of leadership by the left since 1945 than its failure in the past decade to articulate how we should transform tyranny into freedom.’ He rightly says that ‘it is time for the left to take off the anti-American blinkers and see what voters across the Middle East want our help to build: freedom and democracy. If we don’t engage, these new states will have no idea that social democracy was even an option.’

The US’s ‘realist’ mantra, ‘your enemy’s enemy is your friend,’ is arguably going down the pan. But parts of the anti-war left have adopted it. Iraqi Kurds were once backed by the left, but fell into disfavour when protected by US/UK no-fly zones under which they built a pluralist society.

The bitterness over the invasion of Iraq won’t disappear anytime soon. If, and it is a big if, Iraq does develop a stable and federal democratic system, we could all rejoice while maintaining the integrity of our positions on the war. Success for Iraqi democrats does not mean justification for the war. Solidarity is not a Trojan horse. Sadly, anti-war leaders are on the wrong side of the divide between those who wish to reinstate minority rule or even a medieval theocracy, and those who back social democracy. Success in Iraq could also transform the Middle East by tackling its economic and social backwardness – the main root cause of jihadist death cults.

Three years on, the STWC is a pale shadow of its former self, with less influence on debates on how humanitarian intervention should be conducted in the future. Galloway has become a big pussy-cat, but the poisonous rhetoric of armchair revolutionaries, who ignore or insult Iraqi labour voices facing great dangers from Islamists and Ba’athists, pollutes progressive politics. There is still not enough concerted emphasis on practical ways of helping our Iraqi comrades. It’s a basic question of solidarity. Are we up for it?

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Gary Kent

is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @GaryKent

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