In the wake of the inspiring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a loose coalition of activists in Melbourne came together to form the Middle East Solidarity group with the intention of supporting the righteous demands of the people of the Middle East for an end to the brutal dictatorships that rule the region. Iran Solidarity Melbourne, which wholeheartedly supports the democratic aspirations of the people of the Middle East, greeted the formation of such a coalition with enthusiasm and saw it as an opportunity to establish a cooperative and ongoing relationship with activists from the broader Middle Eastern community in Melbourne. Iran Solidarity Melbourne illustrated their support by enthusiastically participating in the meetings and public rallies that this coalition organised, our supporters and activists made up a significant proportion of the meetings and even spoke at one of the rallies amidst hostility from some demonstrators who continued to chant over our speaker in what appeared to be an attempt to drown him out in protest.
* The hostility with which we were greeted at the protest – while admittedly only shown by a small minority of the protesters - coupled with encounters we had with supporters of the Islamic Republic at these rallies as well as past physical clashes of other Iranian political activists with members and supporters of Hezbollah in other Australian cities were sufficient for us to worry about the political nature of the Middle East Solidarity coalition and the politics of the people who would be drawn to its public events and who could potentially use these events as platforms for propagating their ideas.
* Fears that the Middle East Solidarity coalition could become a platform for supporters of the Islamic Republic and/or proponents of theocracy and Sharia law in general mixed with concerns over the recent reactionary actions of Islamist currents in Egypt, which include attacks on the Woman's Day rally in Cairo, prompted Iran Solidarity Melbourne activists to propose that the Middle East Solidarity coalition take a stance on the issue of secularism and theocracy in order to clarify its position on the issue of Political Islam. During the discussions that ensued Iran Solidarity Melbourne suggested that it was necessary for a group that had already claimed to oppose other threats to democracy in the Middle East such as dictatorship and foreign military intervention, to also voice its opposition to the threat of the reaction of Islamists who sought to undermine the newly found freedoms of Arab citizens and that such a stance would be a necessary addition to the groups demands for the defence of democracy and freedom of expression. Thus Iran Solidarity Melbourne moved that the Middle East
Solidarity group support a separation of religion and state and to recognise
religion as a private matter.
* However, much to our surprise, it became clear in the discussions that followed that the majority of the activists in the group were hostile to the idea of taking a principled position for the separation of religion and state and the motion was lost by two votes. Most surprising was that the majority of the "socialists" present at the meeting which put the motion to the vote (on the 16th of March 2011) not only voted against the motion but were some of the most vocal opponents of the motion and apart from a couple of exceptions were virtually the only people who actually spoke against it. A great deal of arguments were made against the inclusion of the proposed demand by the socialists present which were opportunistic, politically short sighted, patronising, at times nonsensical and even racist with the main strategy of those who intervened being the obfuscation of the Iran Solidarity Melbourne proposal with the intention of making our motion appear as "anti-religion" to the few religious participants in the meeting in order
to secure their votes. Unfortunately a refusal by the meeting to allow for enough time to discuss the issues raised by the socialists meant that we were not allowed to respond to some of the arguments which were made against us making it impossible to have a meaningful debate about the motion which unfortunately appears to have been the wish of those who were running the meeting.
* After the votes were counted and it was revealed that the coalition would rather work with the proponents of religious government and Sharia law than take a principled stance against theocracy it became evident that to continue working with them would be in direct contradiction of Iran Solidarity Melbourne's principles which revolve around the promotion of human rights and opposition to the Islamic government of Iran and to those groups who either directly support the Islamic Republic or are sympathetic to it, especially if those groups end up bolstering the Iranian regime's position of power by installing similar theocracies in neighbouring countries which could provide the Islamic Republic with sources of political support and legitimacy. And it is for this reason that Iran Solidarity Melbourne will refuse to work inside Middle East Solidarity and will endeavour to expose the hypocritical nature of a group that on the one hands declares itself a proponent of human rights in the Middle East and a supporter of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and on the other refuses to take a stance against one of the major threats to both human rights and the revolutions there.
* Who are the Middle East Solidarity coalition
The Middle East Solidarity coalition is a loose coalition of various Australian left wing groups as well as groups and individuals from the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities who are from an array of different political backgrounds. These groups include Socialist Alternative, the Democratic Socialist Party, Solidarity, Federation of Australian Muslim Students and Youth (FAMSY), Australia Asia Workers Link, Egypt Solidarity as well as individuals from the Yemeni, Kuwaiti and Libyan communities.
While the unaffiliated individuals from the Arab and Muslim communities were split on the motion proposed by Iran Solidarity Melbourne, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, FAMSY, the Democratic Socialist Party and Egypt Solidarity were almost unanimously against it with only one person from the Democratic Socialist Party voting for the motion calling for the separation of state and religion. Out of these the most vocal opponents of our motion were Robin Laycock and Mick Armstrong of Socialist Alternative, Judy McVey of Solidarity, Ahmad Huwait of FAMSY as well as Sue Bolton of the Democratic Socialist Party. Given the overwhelming opposition by the Australian left groups it can be safely assumed that the opposition of those present at the meeting was more than just the personal opinions of those present and that it reflected the political line of the respective organisations which those individuals represented and more generally is a reflection of the indefensible alliance of the Australian left and the forces of political Islam.
* The arguments
Some of the reasons for trying to push the Middle East Solidarity coalition to clarify its position vis-a-vis political Islam and the issue of secularism have already been touched upon. But the most important reason can perhaps be best understood with reference to what Mick Armstrong of Socialist Alternative said in one of the meetings in response to questions about why the group needed to clarify any of its positions at all. In his explanation regarding the need to clearly state that the group was against dictatorships, Mick Armstrong reasoned that it was necessary to dissuade "supporters of Mubarak" to come to Middle East Solidarity's public events. However unlikely that scenario, it is nonetheless one of the basic rules of political activity that groups need to define themselves against their enemies to clearly demarcate the border between their ideas and those of their political rivals.
* Middle East Solidarity claims to be a group which supports uprisings in all Middle Eastern countries which are plagued by dictatorial ruling political systems. This includes the uprising in Iran. It was expected that Iran Solidarity Melbourne would mobilise members of the Iranian community for Middle East Solidarity events and protests. However considering that the struggle of the Iranians is defined by their opposition to the theocratic Islamic regime, it is only natural that Iran Solidarity Melbourne would want to discourage people who are sympathetic to the Iranian regime from attending such events in order to create an environment which is going to encourage the participation of our supporters. It is totally unacceptable to have an ambiguous position on such a fundamental question so that both pro and anti theocracy/Islamic Republic groups can find a platform inside this coalition while taking the necessary measures to ensure that for example pro Mubarak people and groups cannot. Such a position belittles the revolt of the Iranian people and for us to endorse a group with such political orientation would be a kick in the face of those friends and relatives of our who languish in Islamic Republican prisons.
* Despite us clearly stating the intent behind our insistence on the motion none of our concerns, which were presumably deemed unimportant, were addressed. Instead of directly addressing our concerns most of the arguments against our motion were made up of unconvincing justifications for the need to support groups like Hezbollah, blatant attempts to misrepresent what Iran Solidarity Melbourne was actually proposing and a mindboggling attempt by Mick Armstrong to play down the negative implications of a theocratic government for human rights and democracy by arguing that Australia too was a "Christian country". Of course the fact that the Australian government, despite all its shortcomings, does not have an unelected body of theologians who scrutinise the compatibility of legislation passed by Parliament with reference to the bible to decide whether or not it should become law, seemed to have gone unnoticed by most people in the room.
* The main argument for choosing to not take a stance against Political Islam was that the group needed to maintain its broad appeal with Judy McVey stating that she did not want to exclude people who supported political Islam from participating in rallies. Of course our response to these arguments, had we been given enough time to properly address them, would have been that by remaining ambiguous the group wasn't actually appealing to a "broader" layer of active people. If the politics of one group with a set of political ideas (Such as Hezbollah) became more pronounced in the coalition it would naturally discourage the participation of other groups (such as Iran Solidarity Melbourne). This is not a "broad" coalition, in fact a broad coalition on such terms is impossible to create considering the divisive nature of Political Islam. It is likely that other people both of Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern backgrounds who may identify with progressive, secular or left wing ideas may have become attracted to the group if it supported secularism. We are already aware of a body of active Iranian people who refuse to take part in Middle East Solidarity events, not because they don't support the uprisings in the region but because they are suspicious of the political motifs and fear the presence of some of the participants of the demonstrations.
* Revolutionary activists in Europe and other parts of the western world have a tradition of standing up to counter-revolutionary political forces and fascism, it is common to take measures to discourage the participation of fascists from attending protests or otherwise organising on the streets. No one in their right mind would consider a "broad coalition" with fascists for the sake of increasing the public appeal of a campaign group. Such a move would surely drive away many who do not wish to be identified with fascism. Yet it is expected that progressive members of Middle Eastern communities form "broad coalitions" with the one of the pillars of counter revolution in their region, i.e. Political Islam. While such a strategy may have little implication for Australian activists it is unimaginable to those whose friends and families are fighting in their countries against the same forces whose supporters we are expected to form "broad coalitions" with in the West. So then it must be said that we are very much for excluding the supporters of and sympathisers with the Islamic Republic from participating in protests here in Melbourne and do not wish to enter into any coalition with any of them.
* Judy McVey also made arguments about the need to be able to appeal to "Muslims" and not alienate them by making them think that we were "against Islam". The racist undertones of such an argument must surely be obvious to all, but just to be safe I will spell them out. In Judy McVey's imaginary orientalist world not only do Muslims all want to see a marriage between politics and religion in their countries but even if they don't they are too stupid to not understand the difference between secularism, that is the separation of religion form state, and being against religion as a whole. Fortunately back in the real world many of the Muslims in the meeting showed that they understood the difference perfectly well despite Judy McVey's attempts to sow confusion about what we were really demanding.
Iran Solidarity Melbourne hopes that secular and progressive activists can form a new Middle East Solidarity coalition that is uncompromisingly for the defence of human rights and democracy and operates free from the influence of people who want to sell the brand of Political Islam as a cure to the political ailments of the Middle East.
On behalf of
Iran Solidarity Melbourne