BUSH AND Blair are trying to cloak their war in Afghanistan behind the claim that it is about opposing the threat of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. The hypocrisy stinks. The US and its allies trained, armed and funded the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. The US has also nurtured the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately some on the left have fallen for Bush and Blair’s demonisation of Islamic movements. They say ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ is an evil as great as US imperialism. But to argue this means not understanding where such movements come from and how they can have an echo among many people in the Middle East. Islam, like any other deep religious feeling, breeds amongst the oppressed in society.
Movements based on it have grown as people have looked for answers to explain their experience of oppression. There hasn’t been an alternative on offer from non-religious leaders. Across the Middle East they have ended up making their peace with imperialism, which is the source of people’s discontent. The clearest example is in Egypt.
In the 1950s its secular president, Nasser, was regarded as a symbol of resistance to British and US imperialism in the region, and to its watchdog, Israel. Nasser was a figurehead for people across the Middle East during the 1956 Suez crisis. People carried his picture on demonstrations in the same way they carry Osama Bin Laden’s today.
But Nasser’s successors increasingly accommodated to the imperialist powers in the region. Sadat made peace with Israel. Mubarak supported the Gulf War. Egypt is one of many corrupt regimes in the region, where the rulers and their coterie enjoy lives of fabulous luxury while the vast majority live in poverty. Ordinary people feel betrayed, and Islamism (called Islamic fundamentalism in the West) appears to offer the alternative they are looking for. It is no coincidence that Osama Bin Laden presents anti-imperialist arguments as he appeals for support.
He raises the continued suffering in Iraq and Palestine, and continued US support for Israel. He criticises the Middle East leaders for being in the pocket of the Western powers, and for squandering the oil wealth in the region. His solution to all this is that there needs to be a ‘pure’ Islamic state. But the conflict in the Middle East is not driven by religion.
The same anger against US imperialism has swept across Central and Latin America each time the US has tried to impose its will. Those protests have not mainly taken a religious form. Unlike the Middle East, in Latin America there is no sharp religious distinction between the imperialist powers and those in Latin America who suffer under them.
But the movements in Latin America and the Middle East come from the same root. Islamism draws support from across society, but it is centred on the middle classes. It looks in two directions. One is to stress that the solution is a state of moral purity that rejects the Western ‘evils’ of secularism and sexual freedom. So there are strict moral codes such as women being forced to wear the veil.
The other direction is to bend more towards fighting against imperialism. This mix varies at different times in history and across different countries. In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Islamism has, until now, been encouraged by regimes that work with the West rather than stirring up revolt. Yet groups like Hamas (in Palestine) and Hezbollah (in Lebanon) reflect more the anger of ordinary people against the Western powers and their own rulers’ refusal to stand up against imperialism.
Bush and Blair have every interest in crudely painting all Islamist movements as the same, and as the enemy. They will use any excuse, including a supposed concern for women’s rights, to win support for their war. A victory for them, for US imperialism, would have a devastating impact across the world.
It would mean the US, multinational corporations and robbers such as the World Bank would feel free to ransack the world. It would increase the bitterness and feeling of impotence of ordinary people in the Middle East. That combination leads some people to resort to terrorism as a way of expressing their anger and frustration. Those opposed to this war have to identify the US and Britain as the main enemy to be defeated. The power to do that lies in the hands of the workers and impoverished masses across the globe-especially in the Middle East.
Boris Johnson’s attack on the burqa has left some liberals with a problem.