Many people watching Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on Marr last Sunday will have been shocked by his remarks about the need to begin a ‘dialogue’ with the leadership of the Islamic State. ‘I think there has to be some understanding of where their strong points are,’ he said.
Afterwards, when these comments were widely reported, Corbyn’s supporters said they’d been taken out of context — the standard defence whenever he is criticised for saying something positive about Islamist terrorists, such as describing Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’ or the death of bin Laden as a ‘tragedy’. But there are only so many times this excuse can be used to explain these apparently supportive remarks. It’s beginning to look as though the Labour leader really does sympathise with terrorists.
It’s particularly difficult to make allowances for Corbyn when you take the broader context into account — the historical links between the hard left and Islamism. I’m currently reading The Flight of the Intellectuals by Paul Berman, which, in large part, is about the failure of the European left to see Islamism for what it is: namely, a Middle Eastern form of fascism. Berman documents in painstaking detail how Islamism was transformed into a mass movement by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s to foment anti-British insurrection in the Middle East and as an instrument for carrying out the extermination of the Jews.
The evidence linking Hassan al-Banna, the intellectual architect of Islamism and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Nazism is substantial. For one thing, he singled out Hitler as a political role model in one of his political tracts. For another, he was a close ally of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who helped set up a Muslim division of the Waffen SS in the Balkans. The Nazis gave the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies a good deal of resources, including a network of radio stations that the Grand Mufti used to disseminate pro-German propaganda. In 1942, one of these stations broadcast a speech telling all Arabs: ‘You must kill the Jews before they open fire on you. Kill the Jews who appropriated your wealth and who are plotting against your security. Arabs of Syria, Iraq and Palestine, what are you waiting for?’
Initially, the hard left had no difficulty in condemning Islamism. Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a pamphlet in 1946 drawing attention to the fascist nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. But various Trotskyist sects began to warm up to Islamism in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in a full-blown coalition in the run up to the Iraq war. In mass protests organised by the Socialist Workers Party and its European counterparts in 2003, Islamists carrying the banners of Hamas and Hezbollah marched with veterans of the European internationalist left, including Jeremy Corbyn. For the most part they got on well, although there were occasional flare-ups. For instance, during an anti-war demo in Paris a gang of Islamists broke off to beat up a group of yarmulke–wearing Jews, even though the Jews had turned up to support the cause.
One reason for the hard left’s change of heart about Islamism was straightforward political expediency. Here was an anti-western political movement boasting huge support among disadvantaged groups of young Muslims in Europe’s major cities. If Trotskyist front groups like the Stop the War Coalition could harness these disaffected youths to their cause, it might lead to a much-needed injection of energy and resources. And to a limited extent, that tactic succeeded, with new hybrid political groups springing up, such as Respect.
But as Paul Berman points out, it was also an expression of a wilful political blindness. The hard left had so much in common with the Islamists — a history of fighting colonialism, a hatred of Britain and America, a contempt for liberal democracy, a romantic attachment to revolution and a willingness to countenance violence as a tool of political change — that they were prepared to overlook some of their less savoury beliefs, such as virulent anti-Semitism. They were also prepared to make excuses for the activities of their more radical elements, such as the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
Back in the 1940s, few would have predicted that this bastard child of Nazism would find an ally in the leader of the Labour party. But it looks increasingly as though that has happened and I doubt if Labour will ever recover.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.