Many people remain confused about what is motivating the demonstrations against US embassies across the Muslim world. Is it an aversion to imperialism? A deeply held conservative approach to religiosity? Or something more sinister?
On one level, we simply cannot separate the relationship between Islamophobic provocations from the West and imperial subjection of Muslim countries. It is rare that a far right American would decide to make a YouTube video offending the religious sensibilities of, say, the good people of Madagascar. If they were to do so, however, one would expect some resentment and anger if that video was seen in Madagascar, but that would be about it.
However, if Madagascar had been subject to multiple invasions, military occupations, unpopular dictatorships propped up politically, economically and militarily by the US government, then such a provocation would take on a different character. In the case of Islamophobic hate in the US, such expressions of crude racism resonate strongly with the general trends of imperialism which rest upon the dehumanization of the Muslim Other.
We are now, counting from the 1991 Gulf War, living in a world in which three major wars have been launched against Muslim-majority nations by the US, alongside multiple “police actions” (Libya being the most recent example), coups, crippling economic sanctions and, of course, the “big one”: overwhelming support has been given to the Israeli apartheid government which has systematically carried out policies of ethnic cleansing, racialized bruality, military occupation, multiple invasions and terrorist strikes on multiple countries.
This is why people are sensitive when an extra layer is added: cultural provocations assaulting that which is most sacred, the elevated status of the Prophet Muhammed. In fact, for communities under siege, it is often the case that religiosity takes on on extra importance as it becomes the only remaining social bond once nations are destroyed, governments are overthrown and ways of life are altered.
The case of the mass protests against the Danish cartoons in 2005 ought to be a good reminder of how such things develop. Essentially what happened was far right ideologues in Denmark published political cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammed (representations of the Prophet are a big no no) and when ahead with publishing them despite outcries from reasonable voices in many sectors. In the name of “freedom of speech” they pushed forward a nationalistic chauvinism, a liberal racism that held “our principles” (read those of white Europeans) to be superior to Muslims (read barbarian authoritarians). Far right elements in the Muslim population of Europe helped spread the word and found an audience of heavily discriminated-against Muslim migrants across Western Europe as a willing population for protest. This then spread around the world, culminating in a series of awful events.
In fact, the case of Libya is an excellent example of the ways in which this protest against Islamophobia took on different meanings. There, in early 2006, protesters took on the Italian government since one of its parliamentary members took up the cause of the Danish cartoonists and proclaimed his undying hatred for Islamic culture (this particular parliamentarian had far right roots). Italy has long had a special relationship to Libya, so this sparked off a lot of rage, culminating in a protest against the Italian government. The forces of Muammar Gaddafi responded with machine guns, leading to a massacre. In February, 2011, on the heels of the Tunisian and Egyptian mass protests, organizers attempted to commemorate this massacre with a mass protest, leading to the arrest of a major civil society lawyer and a huge outcry, sparking off the uprising against Gaddafi that would eventually culminate in civil war, NATO intervention and a mass uprising in the western half of the country.
In this case, what we see today is an attempt to steer the “Arab” Spring to the right. Salafists represent an ultra-conservative brand of Islam shared by the Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia as well as more militant factions like the various al-qaedas that now proliferate the region. In Egypt’s case, they opposed the uprising against Mubarak, quickly rallied behind the armed forces and only entered the streets after Mubarak’s fall (at least as an organized force across the nation, there is a different story for Alexandria, for instance) to protest the sudden surge of women’s activity and that of the Coptic Christians. Eventually they would team up with the armed forces for a massacre of Coptic Christians in the most brutal incident of mass repression carried out in the transition between Mubarak’s fall and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi.
This pro-military, anti-democratic faction organized itself into a political party, Al-Nour and has selectively engaged with the Brotherhood to push out secular political forces, but has mostly enjoyed a close relationship with elements of the military itself, positioning itself electorally against the Brotherhood as the second largest party in the elections.
The details of their relationship to Libya’s Salafists is murky at best, but there is an active relationship with some factions that goes beyond ideological brotherhood (one expects a lot of ties between neighboring nations when one of them is 90 million strong and the other only 6 million). There are in fact organizational ties, no matter how slight. With serious funding coming from the Gulf State of Qatar, Salafist factions in Libya attempted to turn the struggle against Gaddafi into a jihad, with little success. They also had serious financial assistance from their Egyptian allies. A similar effort is underway in Syria, again with mixed results but with great potential for harming the struggle.
The attempt to turn the “Arab Spring” into an “Islamic Spring” by the Salafists has so far gained little ground, but with the production of this anti-Muslim film (or at least a YouTube trailer), things have taken a new turn. All we know of this film for sure is that a hard right ex-con in the US had a big hand in it, and he also happens to be an Egyptian Copt. California is a hotbed for the Islamophobic network in the US, which has tried to radicalize the imperial sentiments against Muslims into something more than a visceral racism: they want to do with Islamophobia what Hitler did with anti-semitism, turn a run of the mill quasi-religious sentiment of hate into an organized, secular political program with a genocidal goal.
The trailer has been on the internet for a while, but was only translated into Arabic in the last few days by unknown parties. Whether it was Salafists in Egypt themselves or people in the US is incidental, but once it was in the hands of the Salafists of Egypt they smelled blood in the water. They published multiple falsehoods, included among them is a claim that the film is showing on all major networks in the US as a requirement by the US government.
People on the street have been subjected to a machine of outright lies pushed by far right, proto-fascist elements which seek to overthrown the power of the Brotherhood and create a militarized Salafist dictatorship in Egypt. They have managed to make their impact expand far beyond their numbers (proportionally quite small, especially relative to their bloated performance in the elections). This faction has ties with Salafist militias in Libya and whether or not the attack that led to the assassination of the US ambassador was planned beforehand as a retaliation for US assassinations of their allies in Yemen or whether it was an opportunistic militarization of the protests is neither here nor there. What matters is the Salafists have scored a big victory.
The protests, at least in Egypt and Libya, have been fairly small, though they have had committed followers involved. A faction of the most conservative elements of the youth revolt against Mubarak and the military certainly have taken a part, but only a small one. In a country where millions have been in the street in recent months, a protest of 2,000 hardcore religious conservatives does not seem so dramatic, but when it involves violent assaults on the US embassy, things quickly are magnified.
The assassination of the US ambassador simply added fire to this entire spectacle. Obama’s response that the perpetrators “can run, but they cannot hide” implies that his intelligence forces have a pretty fair idea of who is responsible and are preparing a response, whether with the new Marine expeditionary force in Tripoli or through their allies in the Libyan government. What is certain is that “justice,” American style, will be exacted, but the success of the Salafists will not be lessened by the politics of imperial revenge.
The Salafists have finally induced a mass event, an international one at that. This entire effort has taken on a life of its own, spreading from the relatively interconnected world of Libya and Egypt across the Muslim world. I must confess that I don’t know the major forces organizing the protests elsewhere, but I’m not confident that they are remarkably different from the forces in Egypt and Libya (in the case of Libya, the vast majority seemed to be outraged by the actions of the protesters, in Egypt’s case the Brotherhood is having its own peaceful protests soon, so there they have been given some legitimization). But perhaps a good indicator is that nobody at the protest at the US embassy in Sana, Yemen, seemed concerned about US support for the military, the old regime of Ali Abdallah Saleh, nor for the US drone strikes which cripple the south of the country (even though a recent one struck a bus, murdering 13 innocent people).
Translation: it is far right elements that continue to capitalize on this. Their anti-imperialism is shallow, it is not motivated by any genuine opposition to the US or their own authoritarian governments. What they want is a new authoritarianism that particularly targets minorities, women and the rights of workers with an even more brutal regime than is currently in place. Don’t mistake them for the millions upon millions who have bravely stood up to bullets and batons to assert their rights for self-determination. Whatever overlap exists is small. Do not fail to appreciate the fact that Salafists stood with Mubarak and the military in Egypt.
Now that US warships are on the Libyan coasts, marines in Tripoli and more protests continue to spread, things have taken on a life of their own. Whatever happens, the narrative has shifted from pro-democracy uprisings to a question of religiosity, refracted through a shallow anti-imperialism. Authentic expressions of anti-imperialism are now being further painted in a bad light. This reminds us of the Qu’ran burning protests of 2011, but again, the primary beneficiaries are the far right rather than the masses of people facing authoritarian regimes and US imperialism. Let us hope that this whole spectacle is soon pushed aside by something more meaningful.
Further, let us hope that these two factions of hate, Islamophobics in the US and Salafists in the Muslim world, don’t realize just how successful their efforts at working together have been.
It has come to my attention in recent weeks that many people who I’d think would be knee-jerk anti-war in the case of a US or Israeli (or some combination thereof) attack on Iran are actually supportive of such an endeavor. Most of these folks base their views on the fact that they abhor the Iranian regime, particularly after the violent repression of the Green movement in 2009, or because they legitimately feel that the sovereign nation of Iran is an existential threat to the survival of the Israeli people.
Therefore, some preliminary facts are in order, to be followed by ten reasons why any such military conflict would be utterly disastrous.
1) The Iranian government has been cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency throughout the negotiation process, in spite of what you hear in the mainstream media: with few exceptions, the Iranian government has cooperated fully with the international agency through its unprecedentedly intrusive process. Iran has been developing nuclear energy because that would allow it to export more of its natural gas, which it must first export to be refined and then import back into the country for use, which is a great cost to the economy. The United States’ own National Intelligence Estimate report released in 2007 (under President Bush, mind you) claims that the government halted it’s quest for a weaponization of its nuclear program in 2003.
2) The US and Israel government have been waging an illegal covert war against the Iranian government that has employed assassinations, terrorist bombings by religious fanatics and ruthless computer viruses that later went on to spread across the world: both the US and Israeli governments have engaged in a ruthless and illegal campaign to harass and intimidate the Iranian government through the use of assassinations, sabotage and terrorist attacks. According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and other sources, the US has been directly training the cultish terrorist organization known as the MEK (a strange mix of Islam and Marxism with a dash of a personality cult) to carry out terror attacks on Iranian soil and either the US, or Israel or both have been training and arming other factions, including the radical Sunni fundamentalist organization Jundallah. Beyond that, direct attacks on the nuclear program through blatant assassinations of its top scientists and the use of the Stuxnet computer virus actually constitute acts of war. It is disputed on whether or not a series of rather amateurish bomb plots in Thailand, Turkey and Azerbaijan were low-level responses to these incidents, but even if they were proven to be they took place in a context of multiple assassinations, sabotage and bombings that even targeted places of worship.
3) Iran has been subjected to a series of international maneuvers that would be regarded as acts of war here in the US or by any of our “allied” governments: despite the US insistence that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program according to their own intelligence sources, Iran has been subjected to a military encirclement and an economic siege for pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program. While US allies like Pakistan and India get rewarded with aid and diplomatic cover even after they conducted nuclear weapons tests, Iran is subject to the most far-reaching sanctions regimes yet devised for a government even though there is zero evidence that they are attempting to or intend to produce nuclear weapons.
There are now US military bases on the Iranian border in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf itself, Afghanistan, Iran, the UAE, Oman and a smattering of Central Asian states. This constitutes a policy of encirclement, an act of aggression. Representatives of CENTCOM have openly talked about how this allows them, in theory, to break the Iranian military in a month of attacks. If a nation-state did this to a major US ally like Israel (or in a fantasy world, if this happened to the US itself), the result would be preemptive war waged by the US.
And now, on to the reasons why such a war would be a terrible, awful, no good, very bad thing:
It would result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people: no amount of “smart” weaponry can prevent this eventually. Even if the attack on Iran were just focused on the nuclear facilities, that would require neutralizing both the Iranian air defense network (which would take weeks, months or more and many hundreds of bombs dropped) and the Iranian government’s ability to retaliate with rockets, air strikes or via its navy. So in the least extensive attack plausible for the US, it is likely that thousands of people would die. Many of these people would be the very same dissidents that liberals in the US rave about and want so badly to “liberate” from the Iranian government.
It is highly unlikely that Iran would allow the conflict to simply stop at the destruction of its facilities. Through its Revolutionary Guards’ Qods force one can expect that Iran will strike back at US or Israeli targets and allies rather swiftly. Iran is not in a position of weakness like Iraq was after the 1991 Gulf War, it is a sovereign nation of 80 million, vast territory and important allies. It will fight to make any aggressor pay for their crimes. Consequently, one can expect that once the dogs of war are unleashed by Israel or the US, it will be either a fight to the end or a long cold war punctuated by a series of “hot” conflicts, which will result in many thousands of dead.
It would guarantee the regime would construct nuclear weapons: many commentators have made the point that, minus the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the nuclear program cannot be completely destroyed. Consequently, if Iran is subject to acts of aggression by a nuclear-armed state (Israel and of course the US are both heavily invested in nuclear weaponry) one can expect Iran to develop a crash course to weaponize it’s nuclear program. Further, if Iran is already under attack under the pretense that it is building such a program, then what does it have to lose?
It would lead to a surge in global energy prices and even a potential shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz, which would be catastrophic: even if the Iranian government does not succeed in shutting down the Strait of Hormuz and creating an economic doomsday, the sheer chaos in the Gulf would result in at least a doubling of oil prices. Some analysts have said that this is a rosy scenario and say that a tripling of prices is the baseline from which we must start any analysis. The sudden rise of oil and gas would also result in a spiking of food prices and a subsequent economic catastrophe. Commodity price fluctuations would bring many poverty-stricken people to their knees, slow down production in major capitalist firms (the cost of oil is a major indicator) and put international trade at a deadly low. An economic depression is a very likely scenario in the case of any major war of this magnitude.
It would set back the opposition movements within the country: for better or worse, the opposition to the Iranian government is embodied in the figures of Mousavi and Karoubi, who represent liberal Persian population and the national minorities, respectively. The “Green” movement of 2009 fame erupted after a widely contested election that saw President Ahmadenijad re-elected in what many millions of Iranians felt was a stolen election. Despite the propaganda from the US and it’s allies portraying Iran as a clear-cut authoritarian monster state, in reality it has democratic forms that have functioned well within their own framework for the better part of two decades. Therefore, the perception among the middle-class and the national minorities that the “deep state” had intervened to ensure it’s preferred candidate won the election was seen as a coup of sorts.
As an opposition, this movement has serious problems. Mousavi is a former regime official who envisions a neo-liberal economic program that would privatize state assets in order to disempower the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard, but also, one would expect, turn Iran into a state not unlike contemporary Egypt. His economic program is fundamentally anti-working class, anti-urban poor and assuredly not in the best interest of the rural population—hence an inability for the movement to attain critical mass aside from mass demonstrations. Further, Mousavi’s commitment to the self-determination of the national minorities (imperfectly represented by Karoubi) is also in question.
In the end, however, the attempt to restore the rule of law and defeat the proto-fascist tendencies within the clerical and Revolutionary Guard establishments is something that many millions of Iranians have gotten behind, and the result was brutal repression. Protests were finally treated as subversion and shot off the streets. Dissident institutions and organizations have been shut down and banned. Dissidents have been arrested, tortured, harassed, disappeared and publicly executed in purges that are more reminiscent of the days of the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Most of this has been carried out under the pretense that the movement is the tool of the US and Israel. Consequently, one can expect a no-holds-barred assault on what remains of these dissident networks in the event of a massive war. One would not expect any serious opposition to recover from such a level of repression.
It would be a shot against the “Arab” Spring with radical repression coming from Gulf States on war footing: a corollary to this repression in Iran would be a ruthless crackdown on dissidents among Iran’s rival states. The number one story from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia concerning protests against their regime since 2011 has been that these are mere Iranian plots to destablize their kingdoms and soften them up for some phantom Iranian aggression. In the event of a major war, these states would put themselves on war-footing and assuredly use that fog of war to conduct a thorough cleansing of their own populations.
One can expect a similar dynamic in places like Egypt, Yemen or Tunisia, though probably not at the level of the Gulf kingdoms. Either way, hope for a democratic uprising against the Gulf monarchies would likely fade as whatever restraints that have held until today would disappear.
It would drag on and on as there is no endgame in site, the regime won’t fall and the US cannot mount the effort to invade and occupy a vast country with a population of 80 million: in the end the only way to save a regime that has lost the consent of the governed is for that regime to experience foreign aggression. In fact, the entire “Green” movement was focused around a defense of the Islamic Republic itself and was quite nationalistic in its composure. Any assault by foreign powers would lead many to rally behind the government and fight, not for their government necessarily, but for their country, for their friends and family and home. So any assault will not result in the fall of the regime.
The US is therefore put in a difficult position. It could neutralize enough of Iran’s conventional retalitatory capability (the unconventional one is almost literally inexhaustible with a country of so many millions, so much land and such a long coastline) to satisfy it’s war planners, declare “mission accomplished” and call it a day. It is unlikely, however, that Iran would accept these terms and would use such an opportunity to strike back at the heart of the US through unconventional means. The result is a state of permanent warfare.
One can expect in such an environment that the case will be made that the only sure-fire solution is to invade the country, overthrow the government and implant a compliant government through a military occupation. Now, given the US track record, this does not look like a plausible scenario. The US struggles to maintain control of much-smaller Afghanistan to this day, was essentially forced to withdraw from much-smaller (and much flatter) Iraq after many years of endless failures and simply does not have the manpower to occupy the much, much larger Iran.
At least a million soldiers would be necessary in the initial stages, with around 2 million necessary once the occupation had established itself as a new authority. This would require a draft, a politically-charged minefield for either a Democratic or a Republican administration (though, let’s be honest, it’s much more doable for a Democratic one since many of the “anti-war” crowd would fall in line behind “their President”). Even then, the likelihood of success would be rather slim. In terms of scale, the comparisons of Afghanistan or Iraq to Vietnam are simply unfair. In the case of Iran…one would expect something as bad or worse than the Vietnam War, with larger material repercussions (there was no massive economic interest in Vietnam, but with Iran’s oil and natural gas as well as the oil and gas of the Persian Gulf, such a war would determine the course of the next decade at least for the US).
It would increase the case for a militarized opposition to Israeli apartheid precisely when such efforts have been discredited: whatever Israel’s actual role, even in a scenario of a US-only strike, this move would be seen throughout the region (and world) as a war for Israel by it’s major ally. Consequently, with so many dead and dying, the Palestinian movement for self-determination would likely take on a more violent character. Of course much of this would be in the hands of the Israeli government that would use the fog of war to its own ends (if too much pressure is on it from the US it might back off but the more likely scenario is that while the world is focused on the greater Persian Gulf War, Israel would carry out it’s most radical program of displacement, expulsion and repression yet on the Occupied Territories.
It has been a decade since Fatah engaged in armed struggle and almost a decade since Hamas has as well. Since the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to prominence, Hamas has re-oriented itself from it’s leadership in Syria to a Gaza-based leadership that looks not to the Assad regime for patronage but rather the Brotherhood in Egypt. They have taken an even more radical parliamentarian turn since 2011 (a turn that was first accomplished in 2002-03 as a response to the failed second intifada).
One can say what one will about the “peaceful” approach to fighting apartheid, but one thing has been made clear through the decades: Israel cannot be militarily defeated by Palestinian insurgencies, thus only the turning of international opinion against Israel in good 1980’s struggle against South African apartheid style has any hope of ending the long occupation (if not the apartheid regime within Israel proper itself). The hope for this option dwindles with each action that militarizes the conflict (though one cannot fault the Palestinian people for trying to defend themselves). A regional war that resulted in the mass murder of thousands of Muslims and a crackdown on peaceful protest movements would likely push every dissident faction of any significance in the region towards the camp of armed resistance rather than peaceful protest.
It would have an enormously negative effect on US politics, freedom of speech and it would have a chilling effect on all grassroots initiatives: can one imagine an Occupy Wall Street movement succeeding in such a climate? If such a movement existed and did not directly challenge the war, it would be at best a nationalist reform effort with few teeth. If the movement were to take the war up as it’s main target, what would the response be? The days after 9/11 perhaps are our best lesson, when the fever-pitch racism and nationalism pushed many Americans to new authoritarian lows.
But this is not September 12, 2001, this is 2012. We have had over a decade of Patriotic Acts, NSA surveillance expansion, police militarization, FBI intimidation and harassment of dissidents and Muslims, as well as popular culture conditioning on how justified a police state is in the advent of an apocalyptic war against “terrorist Muslims.” One could expect most on the left to remain silent for fear of repression (something that is already underway today), while those who spoke up would likely be a small minority subject to media ridicule and state harassment, if not outright imprisonment. This is the post Military Commissions Act and post NDAA world…it is unlikely that any major peaceful revolt against such a war would be tolerated.
It would escalate the racist and Islamophobic sentiment in the US, Europe and elsewhere at a critical time: after decades of fomenting anti-Muslim hate, the years after 9/11 have seen the emergence of a troubling and terrifying phenomena. Islamophobia constitutes a non-color coded racism (that retains color-coded racist aspects) with many parallels to the old anti-semitism. The Muslim has been constructed by the ideological system of US imperialism (and it’s shadows in Europe and Israel) as the “Other” to “decent, Western democracy.” Even as Western “democracy” has slowly turned into illiberal authoritarianism, this image of the “free world” versus the “slave world” of Shariah Law and head scarves has become hegemonic in our cultural sphere. In fact, Islamophobia in lite form, like all good structural racisms, is reflexive more most Americans, even those who would describe themselves as tolerant.
The near pogroms of 2010 directed against Muslims were motivated in part by electoral opportunism and more substantively by true believers who seek to turn knee-jerk “folk Islamophobia” into an out-and-out political program that sees all Muslims as agents of a subversive “state within a state,” and hence sees all Muslims through the lens of “the enemy.” The legal corollary of such a view is clear: all Muslims are “enemy combatants” who belong in the Guantanamo gulag.
All it will take for these proto-fascist fanatics to see their wildest fantasies become reality will be hundreds of dead American soldiers paraded before the cameras. One can expect the Federal government to round up hundreds of people as it did in the days after 9/11, and following this, extremists will begin burning down mosques, beating people up in the street and assassinating prominent Muslims. The end of this is clear from lessons in history, it is a dark scenario, but a scenario wholly unlikely except in the case of a catastrophic military conflict.
It would be a war waged against every precept of international law and put the pretense to international institutions into a death spiral, accomplishing a formal end to the old international order set up after World War II by the foundation of the United Nations: the most likely casualty of such a war would be the UN. After the NATO assault on Serbia in 1999, it seemed the UN had been put on notice by the US and its allies: the US would simply ignore the UN when it felt it necessary. After Iraq in 2003, it seemed like the whole thing was over. But the subsequent pullback of radical US aggression following it’s setbacks in Iraq and the collective will of the major international players to keep the system alive stopped the death spiral.
However, following the 2008-09 financial crash, international competition has skyrocketed among the major capitalist powers. The traditional imperialist states (the US, France, Britain, etc.) have tended to band together, but the rise of Brazil, India, Russia and especially China has thrown up a new “multi-polar” system of inter-imperialist rivalry, one that badly needs the UN to manage itself, but likely will not submit it’s insane logic to international law. A major war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths would be the end of this system, whether officially or unofficially.
In the end, the reasons against such a war are legion. It would likely be the last major war of the US at it’s peak state of military hegemony across the world. The US would likely break it’s political, economic and social back on the mountains of Iran, and the result is likely to be an ignominous defeat akin to Vietnam in real material terms.
Iran is not Iraq, or Afghanistan or Serbia, it is a massive country that is highly capable of defending itself. The repercussions of such a war are unpredictable and some have hypothesized that the only scenario that results in US victory involves the usage of nuclear weapons to compel the submission of the Iranian people. That such a war can only be won by resorting to nuclear holocaust ought to be reason enough to oppose it. It is my sincere hope that the people of the United States can mount a serious anti-war movement to challenge such an act of aggression, and I will do my part to build such an effort.
In fact there is an interesting parallel between the likes of Geert Wilders (Eric Bell’s hero) and the actual Nazis. There was a popular anti-semitism back in the day and its most vicious manifestation was the pogrom, a more or less randomized riot targeting Jewish people. It was often motivated by religious bigotry and sometimes a light racial logic. This point of view was opposed by the Nazi Party, which sought to “rationalize” and “make reasonable” anti-semitism. What was a folk prejudice became, in their hands, a concerted and scientific program of opposition based on the latest racial theories in social science.
Wilders and to a lesser extent Robert Spencer have the same relationship to the mass of “folk Islamophobia” motivated by religious prejudice and ultra-nationalism. Instead, using the latest social science paradigms (in political science, Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” serves as a baseline paradigm, it holds there are competing “civilizations” like Islamic Civ, Christian Civ, Confucian Civ, Hindu Civ and so on, an absurd proposition), Wilders and company want to push out this “irrationalist” paradigm of Islamophobia and replace it with one that has a solid political content and goal: to wage war on “Islamic Civilization.”
The Nazi paradigm moved anti-semitism from racial prejudice to complete social extermination because it identified the problem as a rational one (bad bloodlines) with a rational solution (extermination).
The Wilders & co. paradigm moves Islamophobia from a prejudice and harassment to a political program: wage war on Islamic Civilization. The end of this requires the abolition of Islam, which is what they imply their goal is (Eric calls it the most evil ideology in human history, implying that it is better for this ideology to go away). They may say their quarrel is with Islam, not Muslims (whatever that means), but the only way to abolish Islam is to abolish Muslims. Hence, they are following a genocidal logic, whether they are conscious of it or not.
The recent religiosification of the struggle for LGBTQQI rights around the “Chik-Fil-A Controversy,” the recent mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the persistent harassment of the Islamic community in Murfreesboro got me thinking about religion and my history. One day I’d like to write a very long memoir about my journey from Christian evangelical to pacifist to Marxist revolutionary, but for now this short little ramble ought to suffice. Here goes.
A source of continual confusion for me has been the persistence of hegemonic religious systems in the 21st Century.
Now I could spend some time doing some Marxist analysis to explain how this got to be the case, but suffice it to say that today’s dominant religious fundamentalisms are entirely modern instances of ideology. For all of their talk about hearkening back to “the good old days” when x, y and z was not the case, those days never existed and we know it.
No, rather, with the surge of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970’s onward, we have seen the stunning rebirth and reinvention of religious identities. On the “liberal” or “left” end of things we find such consolations to failed revolution as Hare Krishna, different forms of the occult, liberal mainstream religion built around modern scholarship and liberal notions of tolerance and so on.
On the other hand we have the various fundamentalisms, which when they aspire to political power often become some parody of fascism, or at least a proto-fascism. The best examples of such entities in power I think are the Hindutva movements in India. Whether its through political bosses, pogroms or actually capturing control of the Indian legislature, these folks seem to know how to wield power in a diverse nation with a billion people in spite of their incredibly narrow and reactionary beliefs/political programs.
There are of course other examples, including various Salafist movements within Islam, the Iranian government’s ruling clerical establishment, the Buddhist establishment in Burma, various evangelical Christian political regimes like Uganda and on and on. In the end though what makes them surprising is the utilization of religious ideology. In the 19th and 20th centuries the primary motivating ideologies of the political right were secular in form and content, albeit with some religious flourish. Whether it was various forms of nationalism or the more radical fascisms, the political right ultimately found the source of its thought in secular affairs.
Not so today. Though the leading currents remain secular, the dominant mass ideologies have all taken on a religious hue, with some notable exceptions of course (most but not all of Europe, China and Japan).
It is in this broad sociological context that I first became an adherent of one of the fundamentalisms, and then became an atheist.
Essentially as a young, confused, lonely but privileged white boy in middle school I found the community and coherence I lacked in the world via a church that friends attended. I found literature that explained life and provided answers and political perspectives. Within a few years I found the pernicious social and political ideology to be incompatible with my religious faith. Even if Christians are not to be homosexuals, how does that imply instituting coercive laws to impose this view? Everything in the Biblical text and the immediate Church Fathers says the church is like a pilgrim in an alien world, how is it not absurd to try and make the alien world like the church?
Of course I noticed that people didn’t feel as I did. Furthermore, they didn’t really think like I did. Sure I was an evangelical Christian, but folks around me seemed to be opposed to logic and reason as a condition of religious identity itself. I was always of the opinion that such faculties are divinely instituted and that through them we ought to be able to understand the divine more deeply and thus have a deeper spirituality. I did, after all. I mean, the very basis of worship is language, and language implies a certain degree of coherence and rationality, at least “in-itself” if not consciously “for-itself” (to use an outdated Hegelian notion).
No, people didn’t seem interested. And when I began to question the sources social inequality, institutional racism, ecological ruin for the sake of profit, the authoritarian nature of work under capitalism, the invasion of Iraq and the curtailing of LGBTQQI rights, then I found myself being questioned for my faith. Indeed, it’s all fine and dandy to want to cease looking at yourself as a pilgrim in an alien world in order to impose right wing legislation, but when you begin to challenge things from the other side…only then must you in fact be headed for apostasy.
So I turned to the obvious: liberal and left-wing versions of the faith. There are, in fact, a lot of these out there. From Walter Wink to Paul Tillich to Sojourners magazine and the Unitarian-Universalist Church, there is a tendency within Christianity that seeks real social justice. Further, my consistent interactions with Quakers of the American Friends Service Committee gave me an actual outlet for these convictions.
In fact, there is one strain that seemed to me at the time to harbor the most authentic expression of this impulse: liberation theology.
This is not the place for a history of this tendency but needless to say it really seemed to provide a home for somebody in my shoes. To be able to have that deep relationship with the divine and really push for compassion in the rest of society seemed to me to solve all of these problems.
But it wasn’t enough. In the end, there were more problems with maintaining my religious identity.
I do not think the struggle of secularism versus religion in itself has any meaning. Our true allies are the moderate and liberal wings of every hegemonic faith. Some form of spiritual expression is inevitable under the conditions in which we live, and is likely an inevitable aspect of existence, at least on some level (though not full-fledged religions, in my view), so it is insane and pointless to endlessly engage in debates about the intellectual coherence of religion.
In fact, a little dose of sociology can cure whatever yearning we have in that direction. It is in fact a condition of the success of major religions that they are incoherent—that is what makes them so malleable and so consistently able to transplant themselves into other cultures.
In the end, it was these little doses of sociology that killed it for me. Seeing every major religion as a historical product overdetermined by a cacophony of social factors made it difficult to maintain any kind of belief in the supernatural. Consequently I moved on to more rationalist conceptions of the divine and this lead to…well, rationalist conceptions of things and from there it becomes difficult to keep a straight face when discussing the divine.
Really and truly this was a long, drawn-out process. I was not convinced by good ideas to abandon my belief in a patriarchal father god. I was rather convinced by social struggle that the prime representatives of this belief system were wrong, terribly wrong about most everything that they felt strongly about.
Their rigid gender roles, their bigoted hatred for sexual difference (and sexuality at all), their gung-ho attitude towards every act of mass murder committed by their government, their obsessive defense of the profit system’s worst crimes against humanity and nature, all of it culminated in a big rebellious attitude that could not be satisfied by more subtle forms of religiosity.
In the end it came down to a matter of community. Had I been with some very active Quaker or Unitarian group I think things would have turned out differently. As it happened, floating by myself I only found experimentation with meditation and philosophy fit enough to satisfy these spiritual urges. Truly, I was only satisfied the day I took to the streets with thousands of others against the war on the Iraqi people. At that moment I realized the struggle for social justice is what I had been about all along.
In the end, all of my religious history had been motivated by a simple rejection of this world, this society and a yearning for a new one, a better one without all of the oppression, injustice, heartlessness and meaninglessness. I didn’t feel at home here; I felt out of joint. I felt alienated. And all of the spiritual proclamations, all of the personal devotion, religious ceremonies, public service projects, mission trips (not to convert, mind you, but to actually build houses and the such) all boiled down to one consistent element: the desire for a more just and equitable world.
Eventually I found the varieties of left-wing experience to be much more compelling fulfillments of these needs. The story of how I arrived at Marxism from that is for another day, but I am now eight years into this and, looking back, I cannot say that I made the wrong decision. I feel more like an adult, not totally in charge of my destiny of course, but in terms of my responsibility to do well with what I’ve been dealt.
Without relying on a future salvation I don’t have such a nonchalant attitude about living in this world. Without an idea that justice will be served inevitability in some distant point in the future, I’m much more apt to struggle for justice here and now. And without the sense that there is some all-seeing, all-knowing Big Other out there who is a part of my private life, I feel much more free to develop and experiment and determine my own existence. For me, this freedom as self-determination is an essential part of what it is to be human, and it requires enough spirituality that I don’t need anything more.
In the end, I cannot have any respect for the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the various demonic possessions of intellectuals by Ayn Rand’s ghost or someone like Bill Maher. Many friends and comrades of mine have strong religious convictions and I don’t fault them for it. I understand that it’s a major component of their lives and see no reason to oppose it with stupid arguments about the rationality or irrationality of this or that deity.
The primary motivating factor concerning religioisity is, in the last estimate, our social relationships. If solidarity with your siblings in struggle means identification with their religious symbols, then so be it, that’s part of who you are. If periodically some religious metaphors or ethical arguments get thrown out there as part of the struggle, so be it, I think that’s inevitable given the conditions of things.
But, in general, I cannot say I’ve got much left for those who don’t have an authentic religious identity. Those who assume that the entire society they live in believes just as they do and look at you like you are an alien when you explain that you believe in no deities whatsoever…they are truly sleep-walking through life. Most people of this character don’t seem to have the foggiest notion about how their own religion works, the varieties of expressions it actually embodies, the contents of their religious books and books of tradition and so on. For them, all I can say is: wake up.
It saddens me to see such practices among people close to me. Saddens and baffles me, frankly, because I cannot empathize with their lack of curiosity. When I was an ardent evangelical Christian I couldn’t help myself: I devoured scripture, history, writings by notable Christians, theology, information about different strands of the faith and knowledge about other religions (so as to understand my own better). That they are satisfied with periodic attendance at ceremonies, mindless platitudes like “this is a Christian nation,” hypocritical approaches to ethics (“sure I’ll give a pittance to charity but dammit if so and so cannot afford medical care them fuck ‘em, leave ‘em on the street” or “sure I’ll give to charity but actually empower the poor? Hell no!”) and so on gets to me a bit, but in the end I remind myself that they aren’t my community anymore.
My community transcends nations and borders and even history. My community is with the tradition and history of the oppressed, which includes the religious and the secular, the theist and the atheist, and together we will redeem our world by fighting for liberty, equality and solidarity.
If you talk to a revolutionary socialist like myself and say something like, “Well Stalin such and such…” then most of the time I would respond, “Well, Stalinism is actually not socialism, socialism is…”
A similar phenomena occurs in religious circles. Undoubtedly when I am discussing Christianity with someone, their own sectarian standpoints narrow the range of possibilities. “Well, you may cite Catholics/Orthodox/Protestants, but they aren’t really Christians after all…” or the argument by behavior, “Well, you may say this woman is a homosexual/transexual/bisexual and a Christian priest, but actually she cannot be both and so she isn’t really a Christian…”
And often the best liberal response in Islamic circles concerning reactionary manifestations of their faith is, “Well they aren’t true Muslims, true Muslims would not do x, y or z.” Of course I see the pragmatic value of doing this in their case as they are unfairly singled out among the world’s religious faiths for the behavior of their more reactionary currents whilst praise is heaped on the hardened reactionaries of Christianity (the Pope for instance, or the 700 Club), Judaism (a large portion of the genocidal Israeli settlers bent on wiping Palestinians off the map), Buddhism (the Dalai Lama who supports a kind of quasi-theocratic government instead of the current colonial order in Tibet) and Hinduism (the BJP government a few years back, so popular in international circles for their approach to “the free market,” were the well-spring of the Hindutva fanatics, bent on a genocidal re-ordering of Indian society).
Still, we are left with a problem of definition in these cases. The issue is intelligibility amongst a large public. Can we succumb to such specific definitions and get anywhere in communication with one another?
Think of it this way: if we let such specific definitions have free reign, then when can we ever assume that large numbers of people are talking about the same thing?
If to be a socialist is to be a certain kind of Trotskyist associated with a certain organizational history, then virtually no one can talk about socialists. If to be a Christian is to be such a specific kind of Christian, then the logic produces such absurdities as stunningly large institutions as the Catholic Church and the various Orthodox institutions no longer qualifying and thus becoming unworthy of discussion and analysis. And if only the best, most liberal, tolerant and progressive members of the Islamic faith are truly Muslims, then the religion likely can no longer claim to be growing as fast as it is, or be as large as population studies show, because whatever your religious orientation if you are a farmworker in southern Egypt or an otherwise impoverished person in the “Third World” then it is unlikely that you’ve been exposed to a lot of liberal theology.
In the end, these definitions are sectarian evasions of politics.
For emphasis let me say it again: very particular self-definitions of the kind discussed here are sectarian evasions of politics; they represent an attempt to cop-out of engaging in ideological struggle within our traditions. These are fundamental struggles over the identity of traditions and form an essential component to belonging to any tradition. All identities are contested and produced through social activity, to deny this is to deny that you are part of a living tradition.
The point is then is that rather than taking a this approach to others and assuming that they will sort themselves out (or this or that deity will sort them out on Judgement Day), the proper response in these cases is to make a case for why their version of your tradition is problematic, why it ought to be combated and why your version of the tradition ought to become hegemonic.
Such an approach ensures a few vital things. For one, it ensures that we can have intelligible conversations with those outside of our traditions who are not privy to our internal debates.
Another point is that it satisfies a simple sociological concept. Essentially, we cannot take the standpoint of the person with such and such perspective as the starting point for defining the tradition. We must, rather, accept the self-definition of various groups, just as we do with identification of race and ethnicity since they have no biological referents.
Since we cannot submit to the internal logic of each and every tradition and ideological current and must necessarily observe such things from the outside, we have to have some criteria for naming things. That criteria is thus the self-definition of those in question combined with the way in which they are regarded by the outside world (we need the viewpoint of the outside world because, one can imagine quite imbalanced individuals whose self-definition is so particular that it has no other example in the world, thus that person’s identification is an outlier and says nothing about their actual social identity). In short, a person is x if they say they are x and (most) people readily identify them as x.
A final point that this satisfies is the need to accept ideological struggle within ideological traditions. It is simply the case that all religions, philosophies, political ideologies and so forth have as a major component to their practice ideological struggle within their ranks. There is however a tendency to want to deny this, to say, “Oh well we never have crises of identity. The true followers of x are this group, and we are solid…those others on the outside however…they are a different matter entirely, they don’t really belong to us in the first place.”
This is just a denial of something that is intrinsic to all such traditions. Ideological struggle, the struggle over identity and the meaning of a tradition, all of these are essential characteristics of all such formations. No definition is set simply because definitions are forged through social practice that takes place across space and time. In short they are the products of historical products, and history is ongoing.
In conclusion we ought not to evade ideological struggle within our ranks, whether it be of religion, philosophy or political ideology. I will have to swallow the bitter pill and accept that Stalinists are in fact part of the traditions of Marxism, Protestant evangelicals will have to accept that Catholics, Orthodox and liberal, queer-identified Christians are in fact Christians. Ordinary liberal and conservative Muslims will have to accept that reactionary proto-fascists exist within their ranks and must be struggled against. Libertarians will have to accept that they can call it “corporatism” all day long, but the system we exist under is called capitalism and follows the logic of capital, something agreed upon by dissidents and court intellectuals alike.
And once we stop evading such struggle, we can begin the real challenge to ourselves and our traditions by developing our intellectuals skills in logic, rhetoric and so forth in order to make them better. This effort will help us combat the anti-intellectualism that pervades popular ideology under our system, which is a goal worth fighting for.
What is erroneously called the “Arab” Spring (after all, are the non-Arabs fighting for freedom, dignity and justice disqualified on the basis of their ethnic roots?) is a point of serious contention among many on the left today.
There are those who, against all evidence, reason and analysis continue to proclaim the virtues of Gaddafi’s (now defunct) Libya and Assad’s Syria as progressive welfare states with a strong anti-imperial character. The fact that this analysis is outdated by decades is lost on most of these people who refuse to accept the simple reality that in both cases these state apparatuses defend the interests of a tiny class of capitalist and bureaucratic elites whose policies are pursued against the well-being of the vast majority.
Furthermore, concerning anti-imperialism, one does not have to look far to see news articles from a few years ago featuring stories of the US using these two countries as places to torture suspects in their extraordinary rendition program, nor does one have to be a great historian to note that Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese conflict in the 1980’s (not to mention their participation in Operation Desert Storm) was not on the side of leftists and the Palestinians.
That both states oversaw massive attacks on welfare state-like institutions over the previous decades seems to be lost on most of these individuals. The sad truth of Libya is that Gaddafi pursued neo-liberal programs to enrich a tiny elite and stoked racial, tribal and ethnic divisions in order to divide the population, resulting in a patchwork of impoverished peoples and a very high unemployment rate as his inner circle partied with Beyonce (not a joke) with an enormous amount of oil money—oil sold to the great centers of imperialism.
Assad’s Syria has seen the slashing of subsidies and the removal of price controls for over a decade now, resulting in skyrocketing inflation that has particularly immiserated poor farmers. That workers are not free to organize and bargain collectively for their own interests does not seem to bother many of these “socialists” who continue to see the Ba’ath Party as some kind of bastion of progressive policy in the region. The fact that a capitalist class has been constructed largely via sectarian division (Alawites and Christians versus the rest of the country) seems not to matter to these folks.
For those who hold such views, I have nothing for you. If you choose to dwell in an alternate reality carefully crafted by idealistic portraits of other countries (really a form of orientalism) then so be it, I cannot stop you.
But for those who recognize these truths but still look on with apprehension at the rebellions that have unfolded in both of these nations, I have some words.
You are correct to be suspicious of the role of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in influencing factions of the rebels. You are correct to oppose NATO intervention in both cases. But you are not correct to write off these rebellions as a consequence of these two factors.
For one, what would you do in similar conditions? Would you refuse arms and training from these entities on principled grounds and instead face a well-armed state apparatus with nothing more than your courage and your body? If so, then kudos, your suicidal courage speaks a lot about your character, but it does not help with people with winning a revolution.
One can disagree with the intervention of NATO in Libya, but to suddenly act as if the rebellion is something that one cannot support…this is just madness. Did leftists in the Spanish Civil War suddenly decide they could not support the fight against fascism because the imperialist powers were arming the forces of the republic? No, rather they were the ones who called for such intervention. You who know good and well that Iran’s government does not have the best interests in mind for the people of the Occupied Territories, would you suggest they refuse Iranian arms on these grounds?
Further, why is this conflict one that is to be decided on grounds different than that of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation? Certainly if you are a leftist then you were critical of the ascent of Hamas in the second intifada, perhaps critical of the way they militarized the struggle, especially in the manner of suicide bombs (though of course you likely knew their ascent was a consequence of the bad policies, bad ideology and bad role of the PLO). But you likely did not withdraw your support for the people because of these developments, instead you courageously said, “the people have a right to defend themselves, have a right to self-determination, and it is regrettable that these forms of resistance have solidfied, but nevertheless we must be a loyal opposition within their camp rather than dismissing them or even crassly siding with Israeli colonialism.”
So there are Salafists in Libya’s rebellion and the Brotherhood is a major figure in Syria, does that somehow mean the people ought to submit to the rule of Assad’s regime? Does that mean they are the only element involved? Look at the recent Libyan election: all of the Islamist parties fared poorly, Jibril’s secular faction won the majority.
Further, concerning Libya, yes there are problems, but how is it that we have taken a utilitarian ethical logic in this case but not in others? It is undoubtedly the case that post-revolutionary conditions in many countries are initially pretty bad…the state apparatus has collapsed, the normal rhythms of the economy have been disrupted. Egypt is a good contemporary case: the rebellion there has been accompanied by an economic downturn, do we agree with the generals that this means the rebellion is the ultimate cause of this misfortune and therefore the rebellion is unjustified?
Of course not. We recognize that such is the reality of rebelling against the dominant authorities.
Further, yes there have been ruthless racist expressions among a lot of Libyans, but this is nothing new, in fact much worse pogroms occurred under Gaddafi’s watch. According to human rights organizations, yes many black Africans have been rounded up and held in unjust captivity, and this is absolutely a monstrous crime that ought to be dealt with immediately. But were things that much different under Gaddafi? They were, indeed, settled in more or less ghetto like formations and the men’s only hope for a future was to join Gaddafi’s military forces.
This does not defend their racism, far from it, but the issue here was not the perfection of the rebellion, but whether or not it was the right of the people to fight oppression and establish self-determination. If you look at the polls or keep up with a lot of actual Libyans, they are very happy with what has been achieved.
Regarding Syria, the idea that Assad is the guardian of the ethnic minorities is laughable. Ask the Kurdish people if that is the case, the same Kurdish people who are courageously storming Ba’ath HQ’s and raising the Kurdish national flag in their towns and cities.
Anti-Allawite sentiment is strong and growing among the rebels, and this is a dangerous, nightmarish and scary scenario. It is something that ought to be opposed by all Syrian revolutionaries and those who stand in solidarity with them, but it is not a justification for maintaining Assad, or remaining neutral, or even siding with Assad.
An excellent analogy: the treatment of Ukrainians by the Russian Revolutionaries was deplorable, it flew in the face of much of the rest of their policy towards the diverse nations within their borders (I’m speaking of the early days, not the outright genocide of Stalin, which is another matter). Would the response then be to abandon the Russian Revolution? Or even to side with the Whites?
How about the Chinese Revolution and the treatment of Tibet? Would your response in the 1950’s to the invasion of Tibet have been to reject the revolution wholeheartedly, or to accept this as something that must be combated, but not a condition for dismissing the great accomplishment of the Chinese people in overthrowing their oppressors?
The fact of the matter is that when the regime falls in Syria, there will likely be horrible atrocities committed against the Allawites, and there will be a struggle over national self-determination: then it will be decided whether the Kurdish flag will continue to fly, or whether it will be replaced by another.
Going for a more recent example, any analyst of the 1979 Revolution against the Shah could see that there was the likelihood of a small business person alliance with the clerical establishment, with the rural poor serving as footsoldiers, who could impose a new tyranny that would rollback the workers’, national minority and womens’ movements after a period of instability. Though possible or likely, would that be a reason to support the Shah, remain neutral or oppose rebellion? Absolutely not.
Finally, concerning the influence of imperial powers, this is something that will never stop as long as the system is in place. The US, France and Britain would rather have seen no rebellion in Syria, simply because Assad’s regime is predictable, stable and a “responsible” agent (see the controversy over his chemical weapons, in which Israeli government officials attempt to ensure that such things remain in regime hands). But, as there were rebellions, and as the US takes a big ideological hit from its policies (destroying Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting Israeli aggression and supporting the repression of rebellions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and so forth), and as the regimes in question are not loyal to them in the way that a regime like Columbia is, then why not support the rebels? Why not try to salvage some goodwill from this and attempt to reframe the uprisings in your interest?
This does not mean the uprisings are then a NATO conspiracy. I ask you who hold this view, how is it that NATO can accomplish with aid, arms and a handful of agents what it could not accomplish with 200,000 troops in Iraq or Afghanistan? This point of view sees imperialism as a metaphysical entity rather than a material one, as something with a conspiracy-theorist style amount of power, more akin to delusions of the Illuminati than a real analysis of the state of affairs.
Truthfully, one can see a lot of differences and antagonisms between France and Britain and the US in Libya, a lot of frustration and a feeling among a lot of the elite that they lucked out because of the western uprising, which achieved in weeks what NATO bombs could not achieve in months. One gets the sense that they are not united in their sense of how to get ahead of these rebellions, and one can see that they are less effective that the smaller imperial forces at play.
Russia is able to play a role disproportionate to its size because of its ability to throw a wrench in international institutions’ decision-making on intervention against the regime and by its commitment to its only warm water port, Latakia. In the end, it appears they have bet on the wrong horse. The more important players in this equation are not Russia, the US, France or Britain, but rather Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These entities are not ruled by a comprador class, rather they are ruled by strong allies of the US and its European allies, but ones that have increasingly divergent interests from them. They are not subject to US diktats the way the government of Haiti is, or to a lesser extent, the government of Columbia. They are very much partners, not subjects, and they have their own way of doing things that is often anathema to the US.
In the end, every rebellion against an oppressive government will be riddled with contradictions, setbacks, impurities, bad decisions, negative foreign influences and so on. That is not a justification for opposing the people’s right to self-determination, to self-defense and their right to dream of a better future and act to make that dream a reality. Before you dismiss the people of Libya and Syria while supporting Egypt, Palestine, Yemen and Bahrain, perhaps you ought to consult them on how they feel about each other. In their view, this is all one great struggle.
And their view, in the last estimate, is what counts.
I recently came across an issue of the local paper, the Daily News Journal, while at a family member’s home. The front page had two major articles that caught my eye: one concerning the “Teavangelicals,” a evangelical Christianization of the Tea Party movement and the other concerned the excellent turnout for a picnic put on by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
Neither article referenced the other, but the meaning is clear: the authentic expression of politics in this town hinges on the this issue, on the question of the Islamic Center’s right to exist, the struggle between the relatively mild conservative “establishment” of local government and the Tea Party/Christian Right opportunists baying for blood, and everything that this ultimately signifies about the structure of power here.
Meanwhile, the exploitation of labor continues apace, from the Verizon call center to the Pilsbury Factory to the casualized hyper-exploited who make the University thrive, the town is situated within the world market quite comfortably.
So what is a socialist to do in these conditions?
The natural assumption would be: get involved organizing labor.
My small group has already gotten involved with this in a limited fashion by supporting the creation of United Campus Workers, a union for all Tennessee higher education employees. But not being a large entity, and me not being a worker on campus, I am left with nothing here.
What then? Where is the vital point of activity here? One might suggest organizing a student movement, but I’ve tried this before, and it is simply breathtaking how difficult it is to organize a meaningful student movement on a campus such as ours (a “suitcase” campus) without a strong union or movement work elsewhere.
Naturally one would think the proper answer is, “get involved in the anti-Islamophobia work.”
I was at the forefront of this work at its inception, and am proud that we managed to score a victory of the Islamic community and galvanize a response by more mainstream sources that have now taken up the legal and public relations side of things. But what is there to do now?
It’s clear to me now that the Islamophobic targeting of the Murfreesboro’s Muslims will not end anytime soon. What I thought would die down is being kept alight by outside forces bent on picking battles with Muslim communities around this country, with a spotlight on Murfreesboro. One of the central thrusts of the proto-fascist currents emerging in U.S. politics today (and importantly in Europe in more advanced forms) is the targeting of the Muslim population.
This is a corollary of the imperialist agenda. What is produced within us by these endless interventions, assassinations, economic wars and so on is this new McCarthyism. The attack on the Muslim is really an attack on forms of liberal governance, a constant force in capitalist civilization, but one that is taking a particularly vile turn as this global economic crisis continues to surge along.
It would seem then, that the thing to do would be to join the fight. But there are several arguments against this from a radical perspective:
1) Often it requires as an instrument the promotion of “patriotic” slogans and other components of the ideology of assimilation, “look, these Muslims are just good Americans like you and me…”
2) The work is fundamentally defensive, it is not as if the promotion of Islam as an ideology would be a positive thing in itself, really all forms of religious obscurantism have pernicious effects on the organization of society for a break with capital and its destructive logic.
3) The battle is better left in the hands of mainstream forces, especially inasmuch as it becomes a legal and public relations battle. Efforts to make a central political goal a merely negative one—to defeat the power of the far right—usually end up benefiting the mainstream institutions of the “acceptable left” anyway, like the Democratic Party.
On the flip side:
1) The struggle against Islamophobia is part of the struggle against imperialism, it is in many ways a vital component of the “War At Home.”
2) Concerning the rise of proto-fascism, it is our duty to learn the lessons of the 1930’s and understand that dismissing liberals and traditional conservatives as equivalent forces to fascism is a terrible idea.
3) There is intrinsic value to defending the rights of minorities under the system of world capitalism as they are targeted for opportunistic reasons in ways that reinforces other forms of social oppression and economic exploitation.
What solution then?
I’ve raised some questions, but I don’t think there is an easy answer here. On the one hand, its an important fight and the influence of radicals is what made the difference in our previous round of struggle here. On the other hand, the endgame seems to be a retrenching of patriotic values, a belief that “the system works,” and a situation that gets us nowhere by simply defending against an attack but building nothing positive out of the effort. Would a victory not be a victory for liberal nationalism, and thus a source of ideological weakness for the people?
Ultimately it is not a question of value, but of strategy. Of course this is a battle worth fighting, that is not in question, but is it one that should be led by radicals? In what capacity can radicals lead such work anyway? Only through knowledge and enthusiasm, that is for sure, since radicals make up such a tiny fraction of what passes for a “left” here.
This isn’t meant to answer questions, but to raise them. I don’t know precisely what to do. If a strong international organization of the left existed and made strategic decisions, the right decision, in my estimation, would be to build the working class organizations here and to make a priority of theirs a campaign against the Islamophobic campaign: this is but a distraction and an attempt to divide us with petty chauvinistic hate, it conceals the real conflicts underneath a facade of “national identity,” the true conflict splits down the middle, it does not pit “the Islamic community” and “the rest of the community” against one another.
But since such an organization does not exist internationally, what is to be done in the meantime?