Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Terrorism Spectacle

“Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” by Deepa Kumar, 2012

Kumar is an associate professor at Rutgers, who writes from a mostly leftist point of view.  She carefully traces the history of Western fears of the Islamic religion, from the Crusades to today, both outside and finally inside the U.S., and how this has been used as a political tool to justify war, oppression and occupation. 

This books tracks like you might expect.  Most of it is not news to any leftist who has followed the situation, from the over-the-top response to 9/11, the illegitimate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the various U.S. mosque controversies, the ginned-up arrests of domestic ‘terrorists’ and now the fascist killings of Sikhs.  Remember, after 9/11, 90% of the population stood behind George Bush.  That includes a whole lot of Democrats.  Democrats say they oppose Republicans, but when it counts, they support them in office at the numerous times of ‘national crisis,’ invite them into the cabinet, let them run economic policy and let them set the military agenda too.  Kumar would agree with the points made in “Democrats – a Critical Study,” (reviewed below) – the differences between Democratic ‘realists’ and Republican neo-cons is one of tactics, not strategy.  Both parties agree on the main view, which is to militarily and economically dominate the world, especially the Middle-East. 

Kumar draws a line directly from Islamophobia – anti-near or middle Eastern racism - to support for imperial actions in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to reinforcement of the security state here at home.  In this, Islamophobia, of the crude or suave kind, of obvious Republican kinds, or subtle Democratic kinds, is key.  She contends that the extreme Islamophobes are part of the think tanks, political parties, security apparatuses, corporate funders and media of the United States,and are not some fringe element.  They consistently connect with mainstream and liberal figures, just as Joe McCarthy came after FDR’s Smith Act.

The main problem in the book is that it is written mainly as a local, politically-correct ethnic criticism, and not as a class or materialist criticism.  What I mean by this is that it slides over the very real dangers that ‘political Islam” (her term) pose to leftists and workers movements in Iran, in Algeria, in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and other places.  For instance, the slaughter of the left in Afghanistan and Iran was carried out by the forces of political Islam, and killed far more people than died on 9/11.  It also slides over the economic roots of the types of fundamentalist religion in certain countries, like Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbism.  In other words, what can a nation based initially on raising dates, herding camels and trade, and then the late discovery of oil, have as a culture - or have as a domestic working class movement?  Wahabbism is actually a spear aimed at the heart of any movement to take back the oil fields from the sheiks – a movement that would have to grow out of foreign workers nowadays. 

On the issue of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and atheism – it is not Islamophobic to make jokes about or criticize the Koran, mullahs, Sharia or hijabs as religious topics.  If we can make fun of the Bible or the story of Siddhartha or Mitt’s magic underwear then it stands to reason that other religions are not immune.  This should not be equated with invading or occupying countries, seeking to put Muslims in jail, burning a mosque or planning a drone strike.

Her American localism compels Kumar to equate the ‘red’ scare with the present ‘green” scare. This is somewhat irritating.  The American red scare was against the USSR, China, the Communist Party, other leftists and especially advanced unionists in the U.S.  The green scare is not against a political ideology or a class, but a national/ethnic group of people based on religion.  While the two ‘scares’ might serve the same purpose, the content of the two is different.  Nor are people from the Middle East all ‘Muslims,’ because that plays into the identification of a religion, Islam, with an ethnic group, a tactic even Kumar decries. Nor are all Muslims even Arabs.  There should be no combination of religion and ethnicity.  It is like calling all Americans ‘Christians,” or refusing to make fun of Catholicism because Latino immigrants are ostensible Catholics. 

I am going to bullet-point some of her more interesting points. 

  1. The Catholic “Christian” Church was far more intolerant and reactionary than Muslim mosques.  Crusaders ransacked whole cities like Constantinople and Jerusalem, butchered civilian populations, killed Jews and even some Christians they didn’t like.  English hero Richard the Lionheart beheaded thousands of captive Muslim soldiers after a battle, for instance.  (See review of “Dark Side of Christian History,” below.) On the other hand, Muslim societies allowed Jewish temples and Christian churches to exist, as long as they paid taxes.  Some so-called heretics even escaped from the European Inquisition to live in Arab and majority-Muslim lands. (The latter is her term, I think a useful one.)  The City of Cordoba in Spain, under Muslim Arab occupation, became a site of higher learning that existed in spite of the dark ages brought by Catholic Christianity over the rest of Europe
  1. Kumar insists that the Muslim faith had a ‘reformation,' which did not involve wars like the Catholic/Protestant wars.  As a result, there was always a division between the bazaar and the Imams, the Caliph and the Sultan, between the armed forces and the cultural/religious forces.  Her proof for this, however, seems scant, although indeed, I don’t think an equivalent to the 100 years war can be located.  Recent fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq between Shia and Sunni reflects economic and political forces primarily – but without the religious dimension, they would not be so successful.  It is as if the Irish inter-Christian conflict of the past had been imported to the Middle East on a giant scale. If she were right, there would not be so many attempts at Muslim 'theocracy' or Shia/Sunni fights in the present world.  As the most glaring example, the new "Constitution' of Egypt proposed by Muslim Brotherhood delegates enshrines Islam and Sharia law.  Theocracy, theocracy.  Secular representatives are opposing this proposed Constitution of course.  Will Kumar?
  1. Muhammad was a merchant, and Islam was his way of uniting the tribes of the desert economically.  Merchants are supposedly held in high esteem in Islam. Curious, that, and perhaps a route of inquiry.
  1. Kumar quite rightly places the recent rise of ‘political Islam’ in the context of a rise in all political fundamentalisms – Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist.  She does not really explain why religion in general is now resorting to violence, intolerance, conservatism or political organizing, except to cite the failure of nationalist, socialist and neo-liberal projects in many nations.  There might be other causes – perhaps orthodox religions are fighting for their ideological/political/cultural lives.
  1. She highlights the excruciating failures of the Middle-Eastern Communist Parties, which supported every twist and turn of Soviet policy.  One day they supported the establishment of the State of Israel, and the next, supported war on Israel.  One day they endorsed opposition to bourgeois nationalists, and the next day, uncritical and unending support for bourgeois nationalist/state capitalist forces like the Baath Party.  The rise of Hamas among Palestinians and the fall of the PFLP and the DFLP can also be traced to the lumpenization and precarious nature of the Palestinian population over time, weakening its working-class component.
  1. Kumar tracks the 30 years of clear support that the U.S. and Britain gave to Islamists, from FDR in 1945 to Carter and Reagan in 1980s, to Clinton in Bosnia in the 1990s.  The first break in this alliance was the victory of Khomeini in Iran, which led to the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ political Islamists among the American political establishment.  Prior to this, the Muslim Brotherhood and others were seen as political counter-weights to Nasser, Mossedegh and the various Communist parties.  There is even evidence that Israel politically supported and funded the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter-weight to the PLO.  And of course, who can forget Carter and then Reagan, along with the CIA, taking Osama Bin Laden into their financial and political arms in Afghanistan, and helping create the international jihadist movement. 
  1. Israel’s Likud supporters in the U.S. are at the heart of many Islamophobic organizations.  (see review of “The Holocaust Industry,” below)
  1. Kumar ignores the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the local Communist Karmal government there.  This is part of her glossing over what ‘political Islam’ means to the world’s workers. Many members of the Afghan Communist Party were teachers, who tried to teach girls.  They are all dead now.
  1. Kumar singles out a fellow named Bernard Lewis, a prominent Princeton professor and neo-conservative, for the recent development of the ideology of ‘Orientalism’ – the ostensible ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis upon which the Islamophobes base their politics.
  1. On the issue of sexism, Kumar makes a point that every religion in the world is sexist.  True. However, fundamentalist political Islamists are seen across the world executing adulteresses, sometimes supporting female genital mutilation, beheading people having parties and dancing (something that happened this week in Afghanistan), tolerating acid thrown in the face of divorcing wives, not allowing women to drive, female social separation, honor killings, forcing women to wear hijabs, etc.  In India, political Hinduism endorses female infanticide, shunning of divorced women and honor killings too, but the list seems not quite so long.  So while imperialism uses this issue to back up imperialist intervention (and bourgeois feminists happily get on the bandwagon, as they did over the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan or Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, and Obama’s continuation of it), it is still a real issue that the working class would have to deal with severely.  Even our own Christian fundamentalists rarely go to these lengths. In other words, to put it blandly, the severity of female persecution under some forms of politicized religious fundamentalism varies.
  1.  One of her contributions to a materialist analysis of political Islam is highlighting the role of the Saudi-based “Islamic Banking” system, which allowed funds to be spread to political Islamists throughout the Middle-East.  Western banks – Citibank, Chase, Price Waterhouse, Goldman - enthusiastically cooperated with them
  1. Kumar has a nice directory of the members of the right-wing ‘hate Muslims’ clique in the upper reaches of bourgeois political society – think tanks, media, the government, the political parties, academe. 
  1. She details the times when military defense of ‘political Islamic’ forces are necessary – the invasion of a country like Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan or Gaza for instance.  But she does not believe that should extend to romantic or full political support of these movements, cheer leading best done by some left organizations in the U.S.
  1. Kumar makes the excellent point that neo-conservatives and neo-liberals want to destabilize their opponents – they do not really want to ‘nation-build.”  This is exactly the experience in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and now Syria. This fits well with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the ‘Shock Doctrine.’ (reviewed below.)  Leaving a society in a shambles is the real goal.  Claims of liberating females, protecting civilians, democracy, stability, etc. are merely window-dressing for propaganda purposes. Kumar points out that Clinton, Carter and Obama’s ‘humanitarian imperialism’ is just one tactic, along with the Bush’s strategy of unilateralist imperialism, to achieve a greater aim -  control of oil, control of waterways, control of economic inputs, social classes, resources, military superiority, etc.
  1. 50% of all Muslims in the U.S. have been affected by police investigations into members of their families.  Kumar describes security services like the FBI, CIA and DHS as being motivated by an ‘every Muslim is a potential terrorist’ approach.  This has resulted in Minneapolis Somalis being forbidden from wiring money home to their families in Somalia.  It has also led to indictments of local Somalis for recruiting young men to fight with Al-Shabbab in Somalia against the American-supported Ethiopian Army, which occupies part of Somalia
Kumar cites the successful mobilizations against the burning of the Koran in Florida, against the opposition to the Muslim center in Manhattan, the activities of some anti-war groups and coalitions, the efforts of OWS, and the protests over the NYPD’s racial profiling efforts as the answer to Islamophobia, not the Democratic Party.  She cites the disillusionment with Obama’s policies among Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and middle-easterners.  She also cites Minnesota representative Keith Ellison (first Muslim in Congress) for standing up to ‘Islamophobia.”  She would be interested to see a video of Ellison refusing to condemn the shelling and invasion of Gaza by Israel, so as to stay in tune with his fellow Democrats. On the other hand, she would have been heartened to see earlier this spring, in the streets of Minneapolis for the first time, the uniting of a Somali protest against Wells Fargo over their wire policy with a protest by Occupy Minneapolis against that same bank for foreclosures. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 29, 2012

No comments: