Revolution #91, June 10, 2007
U.S. Imperialism, Islamic Fundamentalism…and the Need for Another Way
As the U.S.'s crimes against humanity in the Middle East mount, it is of tremendous importance for people in the U.S. to honestly confront and rise to the profound challenges and responsibilities before us in bringing this to a halt. In this spirit, I welcomed the argument made by Hadas Thier and Aaron Hess in the Socialist Worker on April 20, 2007 entitled “Standing up to Islamophobia,” even while I find their central arguments to not only be wrong, but harmful.
I do not doubt that Thier and Hess want to oppose U.S. wars of aggression and their accompanying assault on Muslims, Arabs and South Asians living in the U. S. But they end up arguing for an approach that will neither meet the actual challenges of opposing the U.S. “crusade,” nor bring forward new, truly liberating possibilities here and around the world. They end up in this unfortunate place through the use of bad logic, flawed methodology, and a duck-from-unpleasant-realities epistemology (method for arriving at what is true).
Let's look at how this is so.
“Standing Up” quotes George Bush as arguing, “The war we fight today is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in the values of freedom and moderation, the right of all people to speak and worship and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the values of tyranny and extremism.”
Then, they write, “Unfortunately, some voices on the left--even radical sections of the antiwar movement--accept these same terms.” They go on to quote from an article of mine: “Increasingly, humanity is being confronted with two intolerable choices: Bush's crusade for empire or a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist response… The Bush regime has committed crimes on a far greater scale and is by far the greater danger to humanity… but both are complete nightmares. Both reinforce and feed off each other, and as they grow, they suck up the air to breathe for secular and progressive forces in this country and around the world… People in their hundreds of millions--in this country and around the world--must be presented with a third option, an option that refuses to choose between crusading McWorld or reactionary Jihad.”
On their face, these two positions could not be any less the “same terms”; Bush is extolling U.S. imperialist aggression while I am calling for resistance powerful enough to stop it. But it is only by ignoring this glaring difference that Thier/Hess can, first, sloppily insist that my condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism accepts the same terms as those set by the Bush regime, and second, conveniently avoid having to distinguish between two very different kinds of opposition to the actions of the U.S. in the Middle East.
In the face of an unjust war on Iraq and Afghanistan, there are both the just demands of the broad masses of people who oppose the U.S. occupation and ambitions to control the whole region, as well as the reactionary, theocratic opposition that reflects the interests of outmoded strata within those countries. The need to support the just demands of the people should not be conflated with supporting the reactionary fundamentalist forces, nor should the ideology and program of these fundamentalists be equated with the interests of the broad masses in the region.
“Outmoded”: A Scientific Term, Not a Curse-word
To call these fundamentalist forces "outmoded" is not some swear word, nor a reflection of some kind of "prejudice," as implied by the Thier/Hess article. "Outmoded" and reactionary speaks to the content of their own specific version of a very oppressive program for the masses of people in these countries. And on another level, "outmoded strata" expresses the class relations involved. These forces represent old ruling strata in these societies--not the interests of the masses of the people.
These forces--and the program they advance (whatever their individual class origins)--reflect and advocate "traditional," largely "feudal based" class relations in these oppressed countries. Some of these clerics are directly tied to big semi-feudal landholding interests. (This was true, for example, in Iran, which is discussed more below.) But, in any case, their program is explicitly an appeal to, and a program for, the reinforcement of "traditional" relations of these societies. And the complex pattern we see of cooperation and conflict between these forces and the imperialists reflects, ultimately, the complex and contradictory relation of imperialist domination of these countries to feudalism. In short, the imperialists both depend on and "prop up" these old oppressive relations while at the same time they undermine them with new "modern" forms of exploitation which transform and disrupt those old relations.1
Thier/Hess argue against clumping all of fundamentalist Islam together and there are, indeed, some differences among the various Islamic trends. However, anyone seriously interested in understanding the region and the ideological factors that are shaping events there can not ignore the unpleasant fact that there is a common thrust to these trends. This ideology (fundamentalist religion) has taken the very concrete form of a theocratic program in countries around the region, despite some local variations and even conflicts within this broad trend. In this era, taking up religious literalism of any kind as a political program is taking up a program full of outmoded and oppressive content--content that came from the ancient societies out of which the religious texts emerged. In imposing it on the modern world what you get is what we’ve seen everywhere fundamentalism gets a foothold: vicious patriarchy and bigotry, religious warfare, “honor killings,” and the promotion of unscientific, superstitious ignorance. The treatment of women is one of the most fundamental questions among the oppressed themselves and a criteria of how any struggle for liberation should be judged. The fundamentalist outlook and agenda that says the literal interpretation of religious texts should be “law” or the “highest law”--whether it be Sharia law or Judeo-Christian biblical law--goes against fundamental rights of freedom of conscience and equality between people that have been fought for and are needed for a decent society in the 21st century. These things--whether they are being imposed by Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, by the Taliban in Afghanistan, by the state in Iran, or by “oppositional” movements--must be unequivocally rejected, not ignored, prettified, or tailed with identity politics.
The breadth of support for this reactionary fundamentalist program has grown in direct proportion to screamingly unjust imperialist attacks on the people of these countries. Today, the influence of very harmful and reactionary forms of Islamic fundamentalism have the initiative in the Middle East. The brutality of the U.S. occupation and the vacuum of legitimate authority has ignited sectarian religious violence and the rapid growth of opposition to the occupation that has a fundamentalist vision for the country. The U.S., despite all its talk about coming to the aid of women oppressed by the Taliban, has continued to back and install reactionary clerics and sectarian religious forces in the countries it has occupied. All of this complicates the tasks of secular, progressive, revolutionary, and communist movements in that region and demands a different way forward for the masses of people.
Religious Fundamentalism Does NOT Represent the Interests of the Masses
The dominant varieties of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East today, while their ideological roots trace back earlier, began to develop as a political force in the aftermath of World War 2 when the imperial powers forged new forms of semi-colonial and semi-feudal state structures in these countries that diminished the position of many clerics and other traditional feudal power relations. These forces took a major leap in the last couple decades, as many were consciously built up and promoted by the U.S. in opposition to the Soviet Union’s influence in the region. And this leap was greatly accelerated, too, by the effects of a post-Mao coup in China which ended China as an inspiring force for revolutionary change in the world, along with the end of the national liberation struggle in Vietnam. Islamic fundamentalism, in effect, stepped into a kind of secular nationalist, revolutionary, and communist "leadership vacuum" on a world level.
The U.S. has had a contradictory relationship with the Islamic Fundamentalist movements--backing them when it has served their interests and attempting to crush them when these same forces have turned on U.S. interests or come into conflict with it. The decline of British colonialism and the rise of neo-colonialism in this strategic region has often come wrapped in the garb of “modernity” imposed from above--with the free market driving millions of peasants off the land, hurling them into the urban shantytowns and refugee camps. The penetration of U.S. investment and neo-colonial control also disrupted and undermined the traditional semi-feudal power centers and the position of the clerics in these societies. The ripping up of the old social fabric and the chaos, impoverishment, and wrenching apart and refashioning of dependent economies pliable to more thorough and vicious exploitation and plunder of these countries also led to the development of ideological (and not just economic) responses to the imposition of imperialism from the “West.”
All this has fed the rise of Islamic parties and movements that have challenged the forms of rule and alliances that U.S. imperialism has struck in particular countries--and most often these political religious movements have reflected the interests of this outmoded strata of clerics and feudal forces whose position has been disrupted. Their reactionary ideology and political agendas do not represent the interests of the desperate and displaced peasantry and the impoverished and rebellious urban masses they have recruited as foot-soldiers, just as a Christian fascist like Pat Robertson does not represent the interests of the people in this country who follow him--many of them responding to the uncertainty and parasitism that imperialist globalization has visited on their own lives. Just because something has a big following among sections of the oppressed does not mean that it is a good thing.
Lessons from Iran that Should Be Learned from and Not Be Repeated
The Islamic Republic of Iran emerged out of a revolutionary struggle of millions against the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979 after which Khomeini, a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah, moved in stages to consolidate power. Thousands of genuinely anti-imperialist forces--especially communists but also other secular, nationalist, and even more liberal Islamic forces--were rounded up, tortured, and butchered and tens of thousands more were jailed and forced into exile. Women who refused to wear the hijab were whipped, beaten, and arrested and the legal system was changed so that the testimony of one man was equal to that of two women. In 1988 more than 10,000 political prisoners were systematically mass murdered by the Islamic state.
As part of coming to power in 1979, these theocratic forces presented themselves, and drew mass appeal, from an "anti-imperialist" pose. While they had real conflicts with a particular U.S. regime (the Shah of Iran), Khomeini and his forces were reactionary theocrats, not leaders of an anti-imperialist struggle. The real tragedy, and lesson, of the Iranian revolution was that revolutionary forces joined in spreading the illusion that these were anti-imperialist forces to be aligned with and tailed. For this, the masses of Iran have suffered disastrous consequences.
Blindness to the class basis and political content of Islamic movements--whose agenda is imposing theocratic rule and Sharia law--will leave people unprepared for the challenges of the war the Bush regime is actively plotting against Iran. Bush will again pose people’s options as standing with your country or the “terrorists,” with Christianity (or modernity, depending on his audience) or with Islamic rule.
Those opposing the Iraq war and Bush’s "War on Terror" have to firmly direct their main efforts at their own government and at stopping what is by far the greater reactionary force--that of U.S. imperialism. But that does NOT mean having to support the rise of reactionary clerics in Iraq or the theocrats presently ruling Iran. People can and must learn to differentiate between the just demands and struggle for national liberation and the reactionary and theocratic programs of outmoded forces posturing and pimping off the sentiments of broad sections of these societies for national liberation.
In oppressed nations like Iran, the path to breaking the hold of imperialism and overcoming feudalism is new-democratic revolution which, unlike the democratic revolution of previous centuries, is led by the proletarian (working) class and its vanguard party. In the context of a new-democratic revolution, it is possible and generally correct to unite with other strata. This certainly includes the peasants in the countryside--along the vast numbers of displaced peasants who've been thrown into shantytown misery; and, further, it is generally possible to unite with sections of smaller capitalists who have real conflict with imperialism over the subordination of all national development to global imperial interests. And unity can even be built with non-theocratic religious forces. All this must be led as part of a program that radically breaks with all the structures of dependency on imperialism, and with enslaving feudalism--as the first stage of a revolutionary program for getting rid of all exploitation and oppression and the social relations this gives rise to.
This is totally different from the program of backward-looking theocratic, feudal and "traditional" forces. Among the first tasks of the new democratic revolutions that have taken place in places like China or Vietnam--before they came to an end--was to uproot forms of semi-feudalism that viciously exploited the peasantry. These genuine struggles for national liberation were fought with both goals and methods of warfare that are distinctly different than the methods of warfare being used in the Middle East today; they were people’s wars that relied on and united the people to fight imperialism. And even the way the wars were fought and the forces they relied on reflected the aims of these revolutions which included, for instance, the liberation of women.
On another level, the more that there is powerful resistance in this country--resistance that cannot be hidden from the people of the world, including in areas that are targets of U.S. aggression and justifiably hotbeds of hatred “against America”--the more that two things will happen. First, this will contribute to halting the unjust wars being waged in our names as well as creating more favorable conditions for revolution within the U.S. Second, this will be giving more "air to breathe" to the secular, progressive, and genuinely revolutionary forces who do exist in the Middle East, including in Iran.
Who’s Offended by the Truth About Tony Soprano’s House?
Thier/Hess then pick up on a statement from Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party: "living in the U.S. is a little bit like living in the house of Tony Soprano. You know, or you have a sense, that all the goodies that you've gotten have something to do with what the master of the house is doing out there in the world."
They quote a later passage from Avakian next: "But September 11 was a rude announcement that there's a price to be paid for living in Tony Soprano's house, for continuing to go along with these profoundly unequal relations in the world and the way that your government, and this system fundamentally, bludgeons people in the world into conditions of almost unspeakable suffering in order to keep this whole thing going, and in order, yes, for some 'goodies' to be handed out to sections of people in the 'house'."
Thier/Hess argue that, "Avakian's view that ordinary working Americans were sharing in the 'goodies' is false. Working-class people in the U.S. have also been forced to pay--with continuing cuts in social services, with shredded civil liberties, and with their lives, in the case of the soldiers used as cannon fodder in Iraq and Afghanistan--for U.S. wars." Thier & Hess can only make their argument by cutting out a critical part of Avakian’s argument that refutes the very point they are making--a point to which we’ll return later.
But first, let’s answer Thier/Hess's argument that working class people in this country aren't benefiting from U.S. imperialism with two words: clean water.
Look around the planet: thousands die each day due to lack of clean drinking water in the third world--clean water which is taken for granted in the U.S. But the disparities go far beyond just water. In this era of imperialism, there is a fundamental divide in the world between oppressed and oppressor nations. Both the economic advantage and the relative peace and stability enjoyed by large sections of people living in the oppressor nations depend on the wars being waged across the globe, the super-profits being sucked out of the labor of children and others, the natural resources being privatized and stolen, and the hundreds of millions of people being driven from their lands and hurled across the globe in an ever more desperate search to survive by being exploited even more ruthlessly as part of the globalized imperialist economy. All of which is propelled by capitalist accumulation and enforced by the military force of the U.S. and other imperialists.
The irony of Thier/Hess's position is that while they accuse me of accepting Bush's imperialist chauvinism, their argument both ignores this shocking divide between oppressed and oppressor nations and sells short the people of this country, including many who are objectively privileged because of this divide but who can be won to stand with the people of the world. These people can be won to a better position not by appealing merely to their economic interests (their loss of social services) or ignoring this imperialist divide in the world, but by telling people the truth about how the wealth of this country comes from its plunder of the world and challenging them to act against this world system of imperialism that is the common enemy of the vast majority of humanity whether they reside in the citadels of imperialism or in the vast areas of the world being plundered by imperialist globalization.
And it should be pointed out that the kind of "economist" reasoning argued here by Thier/Hess also goes with capitulationist political programs that downplay the danger of theocratic political movements that have gained powerful ruling class backing in the U.S. Christian fascist influence over public life is being accepted and accommodated in the name of political pragmatism ("let's ignore this and unite with people's economic interest”) and in the name of "respecting religious faith." Meanwhile abortion, science, and critical thought in education are under serious assault, and these forces are providing the ideological backing of biblical righteousness for a U.S. imperial crusade in the world. The fundamental interests of the majority of people in the U.S. do not lie in living in Tony Soprano’s house.
Many in this country already gravitate towards a kind of internationalism in their sentiment that American lives are not worth more than the lives of others. This should be built upon as well as deepened with the scientific understanding of proletarian internationalism, that is the scientific understanding that, as Avakian has put it, “The interests, objectives, and grand designs of the imperialists are not our interests--they are not the interests of the great majority of people in the U.S. nor of the overwhelmingly majority of people in the world as a whole. And the difficulties the imperialists have gotten themselves into in pursuit of these interests must be seen, and responded to, not from the point of view of the imperialists and their interests, but from the point of view of the great majority of humanity and the basic and urgent need of humanity for a different and better world, for another way.”
I encourage everyone to read the piece from which this was drawn (“Bringing Forward Another Way”) in its entirety as part of fulfilling the responsibility of people living in the United States to understand and bring to a halt the tremendous crimes being committed--and the even greater crimes being prepared--in our names.
As Bob Avakian went on to say in the passage Thier/Hess quoted from, “We need a different world than one where there are a few houses of Tony Soprano, surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of suffering and oppressed humanity, living in terrible squalor and under undisguised tyranny; where the power, wealth and privilege of the relative few depends on, and is grounded in, the exploitation and misery of the many (and where, even within ‘Tony Soprano's house’ itself, there are many who are treated little better than second-class members of the family, or as despised servants). This is a world that cannot, and should not, go on as it is.”
Sunsara Taylor writes for Revolution newspaper and sits on the Advisory Board of The World Can't Wait--Drive Out the Bush Regime
1. For example, the imperialists rely on the power of feudal forces in the countryside in many places to keep the masses there under control. (Right now in Iraq, the U.S. is "rediscovering" the great value of "traditional clans" and trying to strike deals to pry them away from the fundamentalist insurgency and help stabilize whole areas for the occupation government.) And, in most oppressed countries, the downtrodden and oppressed conditions of the masses in broad areas of the countryside, together with their close relations to agriculture, helps lower wages overall in these countries and increases the superprofits reaped there by the imperialists. At the same time, capitalist agriculture keeps penetrating into the countryside of these areas and undermines, as well as combines with, older feudal relations there. For more on the dynamics and forms of imperialist domination in the oppressed nations, see America in Decline, Raymond Lotta, pp. 98-112. [back]
Note: The article “Standing up to Islamophobia” by Hadas Thier and Aaron Hess (from the Socialist Worker, April 20, 2007) is reprinted in full in this issue Revolution so that readers can follow the debate.
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