Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

April 7, 2015

About Elly; Salvation Army

Filed under: Film,Gay,Iran,Islam — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Although I am generally put off by prizes and “best of” lists, I would be remiss if I did not cite Asghar Farhadi as one of the best filmmakers in the world today, who is to Iran what Nuri Bilge Ceylan is to Turkey: a supremely gifted dramatist that weaves the stories of individual men and women into the social and political fabric of his nation.

Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, “About Elly” is the third Farhadi film I have seen. Even though its release follows “A Separation” and “The Past”, it was made first—back in 2009. Made in 2011, “A Separation”—as the title implies—deals with the break-up of a husband and wife in Tehran whose marital problems are exacerbated by Iran’s charged political climate, especially for such well-educated and secular middle-class people. Made a year later and set in Paris, “The Past” examines some of the same family issues of “A Separation”. An Iranian husband has traveled to Paris to sign the divorce papers for his French wife. Although the primary tension in the film is about the pending break-up, a parallel drama revolves around the fate of foreigners in an increasingly nativist France.

This social milieu and its particular problems are once again the subject of “About Elly”, a film that works both as a story of responsibility and guilt after the fashion of Ian McEwan’s earlier (and better) novels, as well as the problems facing single women in Iran today.

“About Elly” opens with a small caravan of cars barreling through a tunnel in Iran as one of the women passengers is yelling out the window for no good reason except to be heard. She and the others are in high spirits since they are driving to a beachside resort on the Caspian Sea, the Iranian counterpart to a weekend in the Hamptons.

One of the male passengers is a handsome and bearded (but probably not for religious reasons) man in his thirties named Ahmad, who like the protagonist in “The Past”, has just separated from a European wife—in this instance a German. He is visiting Tehran where he hopes that Sepideh, a female member of the entourage, can fix him up with a nice Iranian woman.

Sepideh invites Elly, her daughter’s teacher, along for just that reason. Despite the Western-sounding name, it is just an informal version of Elizeh or Elika, etc. The fact that Sepideh has no idea of Elly’s full name might indicate that the ties between her and the rest of the group are tenuous at best. In essence, what is taking place in this well educated and secular milieu of law school faculty members is not that much different than traditional courtship rituals that have taken place for a millennium and one that usually empowers man at the woman’s expense.

As the group drives along toward the resort and even after they have unpacked, they tease the two who have just met about the upcoming marriage—to Elly’s mounting irritation. Perhaps the fact that all the women wear scarves—even indoors where it is not mandatory—indicates that their modernity is incomplete.

In the only moments when Ahmad and Elly are alone together, she asks why he and his German wife had divorced. His answered that she told him “a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.” He obviously agreed.

About twenty minutes into the film, there is an abrupt shift toward the tragic. Sepideh has asked Elly to keep an eye on her young son who is wading in the sea just behind their villa. As the film cuts to the group playing volleyball in their villa’s back yard, we see one of the younger children come crying. Sepideh’s son has been carried out to sea. The men rush into the turbulent waters and rescue the boy from drowning but Elly is nowhere to be seen. They fear that she has drowned trying to rescue the boy but hold out hope that she might have only left unannounced back to Tehran out of annoyance with their teasing.

The remainder of the film consists of mounting tension between Sepideh and her husband over her role in procuring a date with Ahmad, especially in light of the fact that Elly has been engaged for the past three years. If Elly had mixed feelings about the arranged tryst with Ahmad, she is simply miserable about being engaged to a man who will not allow her to break it off. All of this takes place against a backdrop of a desperate search for her body in the foreboding waters of the Caspian.

It is worth mentioning what David Bordwell, arguably the most respected Marxist film critic in the world today, wrote about the film in 2009:

The best, and my favorite film I’ve seen so far this year, was About Elly. It is directed by Asghar Fahradi, and it won the Silver Bear at Berlin. I can’t say much about it without giving a lot away; like many Iranian films, it relies heavily on suspense. That suspense is at once situational (what has happened to this character?) and psychological (what are characters withholding from each other?). Starting somewhat in the key of Eric Rohmer, it moves toward something more anguished, even a little sinister in a Patricia Highsmith vein.

Gripping as sheer storytelling, the plot smoothly raises some unusual moral questions. It touches on masculine honor, on the way a thoughtless laugh can wound someone’s feelings, on the extent to which we try to take charge of others’ fates. I can’t recall another film that so deeply examines the risks of telling lies to spare someone grief. But no more talk: The less you know in advance, the better. About Elly deserves worldwide distribution pronto.

While not quite “pronto”, we can be grateful for the opportunity to see a film that according to Wikipedia was rated the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time by a national society of Iranian critics. Considering the artistic merit of Iranian films in general, this is high praise indeed.

Arriving as VOD (identified at the distributor’s website), “Salvation Army” is a major breakthrough since it is the very first film with a gay protagonist to come out of the Middle East and North Africa.

Abdellah Taïa, the first openly gay author in the Arab world, has now adapted one of his novels as a film, one that showed at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York last year. Set in Casablanca, this is a bildungsroman in Taïa’s own words. The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdellah who is a closeted gay who has desultory trysts with older men in his neighborhood but whose most amorous feelings are directed toward his older heterosexual brother. His mother, sensing that there is something “wrong” with him, abjures him from spending too much time going through his brother’s clothes, especially his underwear.

It is obvious that family life has gotten the better of him. With a father who beats his mother and a mother who treats him like a servant, and sisters who laugh at his softness without actually openly engaging in gay bashing, there is not much joy to be found in Casablanca. In many ways, this is a tale that subverts the stereotypes many people have developed from reading Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and the like.

Deliverance arrives in the form of a gay Swiss professor who kept Abdellah as his courtesan in exchange for help in a visa and entrance into the college where he works. The second part of “Salvation Army” depicts and older and wiser Abdellah fending off the professor and trying to eke out a living in Switzerland just before his first semester begins. This includes crashing at the local Salvation Army, the title of the film.

The film does not have a conventional plot but moves along as a series of vignettes that reflect different aspects of gay life in Morocco. It is not surprising given its provenance that it has a novelistic quality, with most of the drama having a subdued if not repressed quality. In the most evocative scene, Abdellah has gone to a beachside resort with his older and younger brothers. Just before they leave, the mother gives him an amulet to put under his older brother’s bed as a spell to ward him away from prostitutes. When he hooks up with a surly but willing waitress, Abdellah phones his mother to advise her that a stronger spell was needed.

I strongly recommend the Wikipedia entry on Abdellah Taïa that reveals him to be a multifaceted figure with a willingness to take up many other issues besides gay rights, including repression in Putin’s Russia and the terrorism that afflicts the Muslim world.

There is also a N.Y. Times article that is very much worth reading that I include below, just so that you do not run into the usual paywall issues:

HE was born inside the public library of Rabat in Morocco where his dad worked as a janitor and where his family lived until he was 2. For most of his childhood, he hid his sexuality as best he could, but his effeminate demeanor brought mockery and abuse, even as it would later become a source of artistic inspiration.

About eight years ago, the author Abdellah Taïa, now 40, came out to the Moroccan public in his books and in the news media, appearing on the cover of a magazine under the headline “Homosexual Against All Odds.”

It was an act that made him one of the few to publicly declare his sexual orientation in Morocco, where homosexuality is a crime. The hardest part, he recalls, was facing his family. They probably always knew, he said, they just never talked about it. Still, it took years to overcome the rifts.

“They cried and screamed,” said Mr. Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “I cried when they called me. But I won’t apologize. Never.”

In February, Mr. Taïa screened his film “Salvation Army” at the National Film Festival in Tangier, an adaptation of his book of the same title, and a promising directorial debut that gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist. The film, which has already been shown at festivals in Toronto and Venice and won the Grand Prix at the Angers Film Festival in France, was shown at the New Directors Festival in New York last month.

“Salvation Army” is based on the author’s life growing up in Morocco, his sexual awakening, his fascination with a brother 20 years older, his encounters with older men in dark alleys and his complex relationship with his mother and six sisters who mocked him for being too girly or too attached to them.

SHOOTING the film in two countries, he made clear artistic choices: no voice-overs, no music, no explicit love scenes. The film details a trip with his brother on which the two men bonded and also, a few years later, an affair with a Swiss man. After he moves to Switzerland in his 20s, he connects again with his mother.

But the film also shows the anger and frustration of the young Abdellah, as he fends off the advances of older men in a society that publicly rejects homosexuals.

“A lot of men in Morocco have sexual relations with men, but I looked feminine so I was the only homosexual,” he said. “In Morocco, sexual tension is everywhere and I wanted to show that in my film without having crude sex scenes; to stay true to these secretive behaviors.”

One night when he was 13 and with his family, drunken men outside called out his name and asked him to come down to entertain them, a traumatic scene he recalled in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” After that he decided to change his persona, to eliminate his effeminate mannerisms to stop men asking him for sexual favors.

He worked hard to learn French so he could move to Europe to escape the oppression, moving to Switzerland in 1998 and then to France the following year.

“I can’t live in Morocco,” Mr. Taïa said in an interview in a Parisian brasserie. “The entire neighborhood wanted to rape me. A lot of people in Morocco are abused by a cousin or a neighbor but society doesn’t protect them. There, rape is insignificant. There is nothing you can do.”

Mr. Taïa spent his childhood watching Egyptian movies, detailing them in a scrapbook where he collected pictures of movie stars he admired, like Faten Hamama and Souad Hosni. The freedom in Egyptian cinema, where women appeared without veils and alcohol was consumed openly, pervaded his living room and gave him hope. In a scene in “Salvation Army,” the family is seen watching “Days and Nights” (1955) by Henri Barakat, and a scene where Abdel Halim Hafez sings, “Ana Lak ala Tool” (“I Am Yours Forever).

“Egyptian movies saved me,” he said. “There was already the idea of transgression through television happening in my house with my sisters. In my head, I connected that to homosexuality.”

THE author says he considers himself Muslim because he is very spiritual, and he believes that freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as “1001 Nights.”

“I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam,” he said. “It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”

His books have stirred some negative reviews and reaction. His writing, in particular, has been criticized as undisciplined, as if it were dictated. Others say that it is the rawness of the writing that makes his work authentic and touching.

Mr. Taïa says he always wanted to become a filmmaker. He became a writer by accident after writing all his thoughts and experiences down in a journal to learn French. While he draws on his experiences growing up, he says he has never looked to art to exorcise the pain and abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.

“Books, like the film, do not solve anything,” he said. “My neuroses are, at some level, what we might call my creativity. But what I produce artistically does not help me in any way in my real life. Nothing is resolved. Everything is complex, complicated. I sincerely believe that there is only love to heal and soothe troubled souls.”

He says he has no preference between writing and filmmaking. “To me, both have the same source: the wonderful Egyptian films that I discovered with my family on Moroccan television during my childhood. Everything comes from images. For years, my brain has been structured from images of films I thought and rethought, in a manner at once naïve and serious. I will continue to write books inspired by images — and by my neuroses, of course.”

Today, he has patched up relations with most family members, though there are still awkward moments. His older brother, always cold and distant, remains estranged, a point of particular pain for Mr. Taïa. The brother was worshiped by the entire family not only for his charisma but because he saved them from poverty when he took several government jobs before marrying at the age of 35.

His mother died shortly after Mr. Taïa came out, and he now has a cordial relationship with his sisters. He has over 40 nieces and nephews who symbolize a new more open-minded generation of Moroccans — they often post messages of encouragement on his official Facebook page.

Still, Mr. Taïa finds it very difficult to go home.

“I can’t talk to them,” he said. “I am just a human being. They were ashamed of me. I always felt they were. I don’t want them to be proud of me. And anyway, they’re not.”

HE was one of the few Moroccan authors to denounce the oppressive policies of the kingdom and to strongly back the Feb. 20 movement that led protests in Morocco in 2011 demanding democratic reforms. His thoughts on this experience are detailed in chapters of the book “Arabs Are No Longer Afraid,” which was released at the biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York in March.

Mr. Taïa is working on his next book: a tale about old Moroccan prostitutes who at the end of their careers touring the world have landed in Paris. He lives in a small studio apartment near the central Place de la République, and worked as a baby sitter for over 10 years to finance his work. He still hasn’t found love but is convinced it is what will heal his wounds.

February 5, 2015

Thistle and the Drone

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous,Islam,Islamophobia,war — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.

Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:

The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.

Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.

“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.

My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.

Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.

The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.

Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.

Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.

The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.

The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.

Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.

“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.

However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.

September 16, 2014

They beat Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the punch

Filed under: dance,Islam,music — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

January 19, 2014

Critical Muslim

Filed under: Islam — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 2.41.44 PM

I just received the January-March 2014 Critical Muslim,  a special issue on the Maghreb. Robin Yassin-Kassab, who co-edits this essential quarterly journal with Ziauddin Sardar, discusses the term in an article titled “Dusklands”:

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

Who can possibly resist a journal that simultaneously calls itself Muslim—albeit critical—and that refers to William Burroughs in the same breath? I would not and neither should you.

I contributed an article titled “Jews of the Maghreb” that expanded on themes I first broached in film reviews about Arab Jews, a term I find more useful than Mizrahim, the Hebrew designation for the Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa. In the course of researching the CM article, I wrote something for Counterpunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that despite the title concurs with Iraqi Jew Ella Shohat that the term should be Arab Jew:

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the ’50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently–the European Jews–were actually European Christians.

My article was based on scrupulously conducted research that concluded that the Jews of the Maghreb enjoyed a much higher status and a degree of freedom that amounted to a kind of Golden Age. Zionist historians who basically adopt the same essentialist “the goyim have always been against us” methodology of Daniel Goldenhagen have challenged this interpretation. I cited Richard Hull’s Jews and Judaism in African History that emphasized the network of trade that allowed the Fatimids to function as a vast entrepôt linking the far western reaches of the Maghreb with India and China. Key to its success were the Jewish traders of North Africa who became so instrumental that Ali Kilis—a Jew despite his name—became the first vizier of the Fatimid Empire. Hull writes:

Jewish life flourished under the Fatimids, and as we’ve already discovered, by the eleven century the city of Kairwan in modern Tunisia had become a major center of Jewish learning and economic activity. Jewish scholars traveling between Europe and the Middle East rested, studied, and taught in Kairwan. Robert Seltzer tells us that “academies were established by important talmudists and prosperous Jewish merchant families supported Jewish scientists and philosophers” (Seltzer 1980: 345). Egyptian and Maghrebian Jewry flourished, and Jews from the old Abbasid territories began to migrate to Africa.5

My article appears in CM 9 alongside some fascinating other pieces that really epitomize the journal’s ability to weave together culture, society and politics.

I especially appreciated Julia Melcher’s “Invisible Interzone” that examines Tangier, the Moroccan city prized by American expatriates, especially bohemian authors such as the aforementioned William S. Burroughs and Paul and Jane Bowles, whose work I had a keen interest in as an undergraduate in the early 60s. Melcher reveals that Burroughs had very little interest in Arab culture and even told a visiting Kerouac that he just should push the natives aside “like little pricks”. Paul Bowles was far better in terms of becoming engaged with Maghreb culture, but finally confessed to an interviewer that we are “not likely to get to know the Moslems very well.” The next to last paragraph of Melcher’s very fine article contains this very shrewd observation on the strained relationship between the locals and the bohemian self-exiles:

But how did those natives, the Tanjawis, perceive the invaders of their city? What are their accounts of the whole story? Do their voices remain unheard and their faces invisible in the discourse and representation of their colonisers, or do they finally claim their own ground in the narrow streets and shadows of the dreamlike city? Cunningham Graham once summed it up in a rather trenchant observation: ‘They were objects of wonder to the Moroccans, who looked on them with awe, mixed with amusement, and regarded them as amiable madmen who, for some purpose of his own that he had not disclosed, Allah had endowed with the command of fleets and armies, and with mighty engines of destruction, so that it behoved the faithful to walk warily in their dealings with them.’ Whether this is true or not, Graham convincingly shifts the perspective. It’s not the colonised Arabs who were the objects of wonder or madmen of odd cultural background in this whole narrative of Moroccan colonialism. On the contrary, the Westerners who lived there themselves often exposed a good deal of their own sometimes dysfunctional culture and way of living, bringing their various neuroses and addictions, longing to escape the morals, norms and state control of their home countries.

In terms of Bowles’s rueful admission about not being able to know the Muslims very well, I cannot help be struck by the mounting Islamophobia on the left, mostly prompted by a bastardized “anti-imperialist” tendency to put a minus where the USA puts a plus—taking its most extreme form with respect to Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s homeland. A decade ago the left embraced the Sunni guerrillas in Fallujah as much as it did the Vietnamese fighters just over a decade earlier. As long as their weapons were aimed at an American ally, they were “good guys”. Now, erroneously viewed as CIA tools no different than UNITA or the Nicaraguan contras, the Muslim combatant is a symbol of religious fanaticism and medieval resistance to progress. Just as was the case with Burroughs and the Bowles, the Arab figures more as a symbol than a living, breathing human being.

The best and easiest way to develop an understanding of Muslim culture and politics is to subscribe to Critical Muslim, a journal that I recommend without qualifications. Subscription information and ordering back issues from the British publisher is here. Back issues can also be purchased on Amazon.com using the dollar rather than the British pound.

Finally, I would like to direct your attention to the website of the Muslim Institute (http://www.musliminstitute.org/home), the publisher of Critical Muslim, that describes itself as “a Fellowship society of intellectuals, thinkers, academics, artists, and professionals. It aims to promote and support the growth of thought, knowledge, research, creativity and open debate within the Muslim community and the society at large”. This, like the journal, is essential reading for those trying to understand “Islam without tears”.

I would refer you to the article “Father Sarrouj’s bookshop and the Death of Ideas in Tripoli” by Mazen El Makkouk that appears on the home page, a sad reminder of the mortal danger posed by Salafist type politics in Libya as well as Syria. Father Sarrouj’s bookstore was torched on January 3rd, in all likelihood by an extremist. El Makkouk writes:

The Salafists, who last week set fire to Father Sarrouj’s bookshop, also inhabit the fallen universe. But, perhaps tired of being fallen, they find exhilarating the claim that they can and should turn the tables, and rule the universe. In a traditional Muslim society like Tripoli, this fact might not seem obvious, since it is easily mistaken for deep religiosity, whose ordinary forms, such as prayer, are shared. Salafism can even come across as a school of jurisprudence, promoting particular “correct” forms of worship. But turning the tables is a declaration of war, and at the core of Salafist ethics is the belief that normal rules don’t apply: the destruction of property and lives, not usually halal, are now made halal for them.

Tripoli is living up to its Greek name: it is, more than ever, three cities. But the Salafists did not spring out of nowhere, suddenly brainwashed by foreign ideas. Within living memory, the universes have been separate. It has only gotten worse. In homage to Father Sarrouj (who, thankfully, was not physically hurt), I would like to give a bookish answer to the problem. On several occasions, Father Sarrouj complained to me that no one reads. Yes, that is a classic bookseller complaint. But I think that Father Sarrouj was aware of the public dimension of reading: of the exchange of ideas on public issues.

The problem with the bourgeois universe is that it is afraid of public issues. It can’t believe that it has made it out of poverty, and now wants to put as much of a distance between it and poverty as it can. One thing that it tells itself is that it is now better, it is more educated, no longer backward. Ironically, education, the source of social progress, is antithetical to a public spirit. The only purpose is to get ahead, and stay ahead, and books (arranged on bookcases in tasteful homes), only serve as a badge of prosperity and enlightenment.

Salafism thrives in Tripoli because bourgeois Islam is private: it has no public spirit, no way of inviting you to be a citizen discussing public issues with other citizens. This is because bourgeois Islam accepts the division of the universe into enlightened and fallen realms—“model Muslim” maps almost perfectly onto “solid bourgeois citizen.” What is there to discuss? Outside the respectable realm lies a dark area of taboo. The Salafists exist, but we know very little about them.

At the end of the article Mazen El Makkouk is identified as a PhD student in Literature at the University of Notre Dame whose dissertation is about the way concepts of literariness can inform readings of the Qur’an. If his analysis strikes you as powerful—and surely it should—I can only conclude by urging you to subscribe to CM or to buy single issues. It is the best way you can stay abreast of some of the most advanced thinking in the Middle East and North Africa.

December 31, 2013

The “anti-imperialist” backhanded support for the war against “Al Qaeda”

Filed under: Iraq,Islam,Libya,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

Today a Debkafiles item titled “US and Iran’s First Joint Military Venture: Fighting al Qaeda in Iraq” turned up on Facebook. As you might know, Debkafiles is an Israeli intelligence website committed to the “war on terror” so you can assume that they are pleased with Obama’s turn against a common enemy. They report:

With the Geneva Nuclear Accord still far from implementation a month after it was signed in Geneva, the United States and Iran are moving into stage two of their rapprochement: They are now fighting together to crush Al Qaeda terror in Iraq, debkafile’s exclusive military sources report.

Iraq is two weeks into a major offensive for cutting al Qaeda down – the first major military challenge the jihadists have faced in the past six years. Three armies are fighting alongside Iraq: the United States, Iran’s Al Qods Brigades officers and Syria.

Their mission is to foil Al Qaeda’s drive to spread its first independent state in the Middle East across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. Its Iraqi and Syrian branches – ISIS and the Nusra Front – have declared a holy war to this end under their commanders Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

The Anbar province of Western Iraq is the scene of he fiercest combat close to Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan.

“Al Qaeda”, as the scare quotes around it in the title of this article would indicate, is—to borrow a word from semiotics—a floating signifier for any Sunni tribal-based guerrilla now the target of American drones around the world: Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Iraq, Somalia and probably Syria before long as this March 15, 2013 Los Angeles Times article indicates:

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

There’s nothing in the Debkafiles article that gives you the faintest idea of the background to the escalating violence in this mostly Sunni province. For that, you need to take a look at the article that appeared in the December 29th N.Y. Times. It turns out that the sectarian Shiite government is largely responsible:

A raid by Iraqi security forces on the home of a prominent Sunni member of Parliament on Saturday morning in Anbar Province set off a two-hour gun battle that left the lawmaker’s brother and five guards dead, along with a soldier, Iraqi security and medical officials said.

Hours later, angry protests erupted over what Sunnis viewed as another crackdown by the Shiite-led government that alienates them from the political process by equating all expressions of Sunni grievance as terrorism.

The lawmaker, Ahmed al-Alwani, was taken into custody on terrorism charges after the raid at his home in Ramadi, in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which has been the scene of antigovernment protests for more than a year. Mr. Alwani has been an important supporter of the demonstrators.

The gunfight erupted when Mr. Alwani; his brother, Ali al-Alwani; and the guards opened fire on soldiers as they entered the home, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Defense. In addition to those killed, about 10 others in the house were injured in the return fire, including the lawmaker’s wife and a 12-year-old boy.

The raid inflamed Sunni anger toward the government and is likely to increase sectarian tensions further in a country that is teetering on the edge of a new civil war.

At a gathering of demonstrators in Falluja in Anbar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tamimi, one of the protest leaders, said: “The war has begun. I call on young people to carry their weapons and prepare. We will no longer allow any army presence in Falluja.” Armed demonstrators later carried Ali al-Alwani’s coffin through the streets of Ramadi.

Just a reminder. The Anbar province was key to the American counter-insurgency effort in Iraq. General Petraeus calculated that tribal Sunni leaders could be convinced (and bribed) to resist anti-regime jihadists in the “surge”, also called “The Awakening”. Gabriel Ledeen, the Marine captain whose father is the notorious imperialist plotter Michael Ledeen, explained how the surge worked to Huffington Post readers:

The Anbar Awakening was not a spontaneous uprising against the horrible brutality of the insurgents. Rather, it occurred and succeeded due to the conditions created by U.S. forces who steadily built the foundation for Anbar’s stability. Through dynamic security operations, complex relationships with tribal leaders, and consistent moral authority, we successfully separated the population from the insurgency, demonstrated our potential for victory, and earned the support of Iraqis yearning for peace. It was only after we established these conditions that the Sunni sheiks could urge their tribes to awaken and stand together with U.S. forces against the AQI terrorists.

Ironically, it is the same scorched earth policy directed against Sunnis—a minority in Iraq and a majority in Syria—by these respective regimes that have in fact fostered the growth of jihadism. Maliki in Iraq and al-Assad in Syria will not be satisfied until every sign of Sunni resistance is crushed.

The jihadists, who were often foreign fighters, were once viewed more favorably about 10 years ago when their guns were aimed at American allies rather than foes (of course, Bashar al-Assad was never really a candidate for “regime change”). This 11/9/2004 Washington Post article describes some typical Fallujah fighters, who are basically the same sorts of people aligned with the al-Nusra Front, a group demonized by the “anti-imperialist” left:

Dressed alike, the men were as different as their accents, a new generation of the jihad diaspora, arriving in Fallujah from all over the Arab world: five Saudis, three Tunisians, a Yemeni. Only three were Iraqis.

“I had a vision yesterday that tomorrow I would finally be granted the martyrdom,” said the latest arrival, a thin man in his early twenties. He had come from his home in Saudi Arabia just a week ago.

“This is not fair,” replied the Yemeni, making a joke. “I have been here for months now.”

“Don’t worry, Abu Hafsa,” said one of the Tunisians, heavyset and talkative. “It is either victory or martyrdom, and both are great honors.”

Today these are the sorts of people who Robert Fisk, Pepe Escobar, and Patrick Cockburn regard as a threat to civilized Western values–those “foreign fighters”, jihadists, Salafists, Wahhabists, etc. who thank god Obama and Putin have finally decided to make common cause against.

The tendency to label all such fighters as “al Qaeda” can be found in the case of Benghazi as well. Three days ago the N.Y. Times published an exhaustive investigative reporting piece that reveals that the killing of an American diplomat was explained by local grievances and not by al-Qaeda plotting. In other words, the same discontent that is wracking Iraq and Syria is also at work in Libya, a nation that supposedly is the crowning glory of U.S. foreign policy. The Times reports:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

Naturally the Republican Party denounced this article as Democratic Party propaganda designed to further Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign bid. What’s surprising is the eagerness of Moon of Alabama, a fountainhead of Baathist propaganda, to embrace the Republican Party talking points:

A big story at the NYT whitewashes the Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador. It is missing a whole lot of points: the diplomatic outpost was the cover for a CIA operation

    the CIA bought weapons there to ship them to Turkey and to their proxies in Syria

    the ambassador was involved in the weapon transfer

    “AlQaeda” groups had an interest to acquire those weapons for their own groups in Syria

    some AQ-affiliates (the brother of AQ leader al-Zawahiri in Egypt) started an international protest over some anti-Muslim video as an operational diversion and cover for taking over the CIA arms depots in Libya

Without some deeper digging into the above points, missing in the NYT, the whole Benghazi story is just a fairy tale.

Well, who knows where Moon of Alabama learned about “an operational diversion and cover for taking over the CIA arms depots in Libya”. Mint Press? Ray McGovern? Seymour Hersh? Until those “anti-imperialists” begin backing up their claims with citations, I’ll stick with the newspaper of record that actually sent its reporters to Benghazi to interview the principals, including the man who likely orchestrated the attack.

The willingness of the “anti-imperialist” left to back a war on “al Qaeda” has been one of the more startling developments in recent years. Their websites and print publications were primed to support Putin’s crackdown in Chechnya and the Syrian Baathists carrying out essentially the same strategy because they saw the world broken down into two spheres: the imperialist and the anti-imperialist. If your unit of analysis is the nation-state rather than the social class, this is logically the way to proceed. For moldy old Marxist figs like me, I prefer to analyze social classes.

Not long ago I wrote a review of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone” for Critical Muslim, a magazine co-edited by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Ziauddin Sardar, the author of 34 books on Islam, imperialism, and related topics. I read his “Postmodernism and the Other: New Imperialism of Western Culture” about 10 years ago and recommend it strongly. I don’t think that they would mind me concluding this article with an excerpt from my review since it gets to the heart of categorizing every form of armed resistance mounted by oppressed Sunnis as a jihadist dagger aimed at the heart of civilization:

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

 The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.

The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.

While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

December 28, 2013

Ahmet Tonak on the AKP-Gulenist confrontation

Filed under: Islam,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:10 am

Last night I interviewed Ahmet Tonak, a Marxist economist and long-time activist, about the current political crisis in Turkey that pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the Gulenist movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who lives in the United States.

The interview was structured in part as a commentary on points made by Berkeley sociologist Cihan Tugal in an article titled “Towards the End of a Dream? The Erdogan-Gulen Fallout and Islamic Liberalism’s Descent” that appeared in Jadaliyya on December 22nd. Ahmet agreed with some points in the article and disagreed with others.

In addition, Ahmet touched upon the status of the Kurdish struggle that is now facing challenges in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. He concluded with an assessment of the opportunities facing the left in a period when both Islamism and Kemalism in Turkey are on the defensive.

On a technical note, apologies for the poor lighting. Next month I am buying proper lamps for the next time I shoot indoors after dark.

December 22, 2013

The Past; Wadjda

Filed under: Film,Iran,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

In many ways, the biggest impacts made by Iran and Saudi Arabia this year were not on the battlefield or at the diplomatic roundtable but in film. “The Past”, made by Asghar Farhadi, was Iran’s official selection for the 86th Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. I always have had problems with the designation “foreign” when it comes to film since it smacks of Hollywood corporate narcissism, more so in this instance since I nominated “The Past” for the N.Y. Film Critics Online best picture of 2013. Period. “Wadjda” was the first film ever directed by Haifaa al Mansour, who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Bahrain. The film depicts the struggle of an 11-year-old Saudi girl to own a bicycle in violation of patriarchal religious norms. It is a tale reminiscent of “Offside”, the 2006 Iranian film about young women trying to sneak into a football stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match. Ironically, despite all the bitter rivalries over whether Sunni or Shias represent Muslim orthodoxy, the two authoritarian states have much in common when it comes to women’s rights or the lack thereof.

Let me make a bold statement. On the basis of only two films, the 2011 “A Separation”, and “The Past” that opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, I would regard Asghar Farhadi as the finest film director today. “A Separation” won an Oscar for the best foreign film of the year in 2011, and like “The Past” was the best film period. Unlike another brilliant Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who directed “Offside” and was arrested for opposing the government in 2009, Farhadi’s films are much more personal and less likely to give offense to the authorities. That being said, he is still very much a political filmmaker even if his message is more subtle. “A Separation” dramatized the class and cultural differences between a middle-class, secular-minded family and the pious housekeeper they hire.

Set entirely in Paris, “The Past” is even less about Iranian society. While focused on domestic conflicts like “A Separation”, it is still a politically engaged film. This is one instance where I would not dream of giving away a surprise ending but suffice it to say that the film is very much about the experience of the “foreigner” in a racist society.

In the opening scene, Marie (Berenice Bejo) is picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, where he has just arrived from Tehran. Separated from her for some time, he has come to Paris to sign some papers for their divorce and to appear in court with her to finalize matters.

Despite the obvious tension that still exists, she convinces him to stay at her house instead of a hotel. Upon arriving there, he is puzzled by the hostility of Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the 8-year-old son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), the man she plans to marry. Marie’s daughter Lea, who is the same age as Fouad, is happy to see her dad. Another daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a product of another marriage prior to the one with Ahmad, is in her late teens and just as troubled as Fouad in her own way. Marie alludes to the problems she is having with Lucie that become clearer as the film unfolds.

Within a half hour of Ahmad’s arrival, Fouad throws a violent temper tantrum and locks himself in his room. He cries out that he wants to go back to his dad’s apartment. (Samir has only partially moved in with Marie.) As is the case with “A Separation”, this is a family setting all sorts of records for dysfunctionality and a reminder of Tolstoy’s epigraph to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Eventually we learn of the source of the disquiet. Samir’s wife lies in a coma, the victim of a failed suicide attempt after discovering that he has been having an affair with Marie. Like a late 19th century Gothic tale updated for the current epoch, “The Past” is a drama about the most evil spirits imaginable—those summoned up by our own psyche.

While this is a film that is remarkable on all accounts, it was a stroke of genius for Asghar Farhadi to make a highly melodramatic story about the lives of ordinary people. Marie is a pharmacist and Samir is a dry cleaner, just the sort of people you meet everyday when you are out shopping. As any smart writer understands ever since the beginning of the 20th century, the best tragedy comes out of the lives of ordinary people, not kings and queens. When Ali Mosaffa was asked in a press notes interview whether the film was a French or an Iranian story, his answer was very much on point: “I think the strength of the script is that it’s neither French nor Iranian. It’s a human story.”

Like “The Past”, “Wajda” is about ordinary people. Wajda is a 10-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs of Riyadh with her mother, who is trying to convince her husband not to take a second wife.

Wadjda is the quintessential “tomboy”, the sort of girl I went to elementary school with and found much more interesting than those preoccupied with Barbie dolls. Wadjda wears high-top sneakers that look like Converses and enjoys listening to pop music cassettes. All in all, she will remind you very much of Marjane Satrapi, the spunky Iranian girl who turned her battles with the clerics into the comic book “Persepolis”.

Wadjda wants more than anything to ride a bike. I know what it feels like for a 10-year-old to be determined to own a bike. When I was exactly that age, I threw such a tantrum that my parents drove through a hurricane to go to a Sears 25 miles from our home to pick me up a Huffy two-wheeler. In Wadjda’s case, the adversary is not a storm but the backward authorities that consider bikes for boys only. In essence, Wadjda’s lonely and stubborn battle is the same as women two and three times her age fighting for the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia.

It is also, unsurprisingly, the same sort of challenge that the director faced as a woman making a movie in Saudi Arabia, where there is not a single movie theater because of Wahhabist backwardness.

Every step was difficult and it was quite an adventure. I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas where people would have disapproved of a woman director mixing professionally with all the men on set. Sometimes I tried to direct via walkie-talkie from the van, but I always got frustrated and came out to do it in person. We had a few instances of people voicing their displeasure with what we were doing, but nothing too disruptive. We had all of the proper permits and permissions so overall it went relatively smoothly.

“Wadjda” played at various theaters in the middle of 2013. Look for it soon on Netflix or Amazon streaming.

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:

THE 1948  ELECTION

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

December 13, 2011

Hurrah! Jairus Banaji wins 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize

Filed under: Education,Islam,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Jairus Banaji

In mid-October word leaked out that Charlie Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” was on the short list for this year’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, competing with Jairus Banaji’s “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. Perhaps it is a sign that the ideological hegemony of the Brenner thesis is finally breaking down that Banaji was declared the winner. Maybe the jury had a chance to read Henry Heller’s recently published “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book that offers the most devastating critique of Brenner’s Eurocentrism since Jim Blaut’s.

“Theory as History” is a collection of essays written by Banaji over thirty years dealing with the “transition” problem although none of them mention Brenner by name. Unlike Heller or Blaut, who consciously sought to knock him off his pedestal (I am sure that Henry would object to this characterization but my old friend and comrade Jim Blaut, may he rest in peace, would have accepted it gladly), Banaji’s chief goal is to interrogate some of the “stagist” preconceptions of a dogmatic Marxism that have allowed scholars to succumb to Eurocentric tendencies.  I strongly urge people to purchase the paperback edition from Haymarket books.  (I would be remiss if I did not mention that the book can also be read at Scribd.com for free.)

Among the collection is Banaji’s best-known article, the 44 page “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History” that was published in the autumn 1977 Capital and Class and can also be read at www.anti-politics.net/discussion/Jairus_Banaji.pdf. That was the same year that Robert Brenner published “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in the New Left Review. Ironically, despite Brenner’s connections at that time with a state capitalist variety of Trotskyism, his scholarship owed much more to the British Historian’s group whose leading lights—Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill—were committed to a “stagist” conception of history very much influenced by the Stalintern’s cruder version of Engels’s historical materialism. For the British CP historians, history is marked by discrete phases based on distinct modes of production such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Once one phase is finished, another starts sort of like what happens in natural history. First you have the apes, then the Neanderthal, then homo sapiens, etc.

Banaji rejects this model entirely, describing it as Vulgar Marxism:

The tradition of Vulgar Marxism which drew its earliest sources of energy from the Marxism of the Second International, crystallised only under the domination of Stalin. Stalinism uprooted not only the proletarian orientations of Marxism, but its scientific foundations as well. For the dialectic as the principle of rigorous scientific investigation of historical processes – it was, after all, this rational dialectic that was “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Afterword to Second German Edition) – Stalinism substituted the “dialectic” as a cosmological principle prior to, and independent of, science. For the materialist conception of history it substituted a theory of history “in general”, “converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories” (Trotsky, 1932, Appendix I). Finally, this rubber-stamp conception of history it represented as a history deja constituee, open therefore only to the procedures of verification. This lifeless bureaucratic conception, steeped in the methods of formalism, produced a history emptied of any specifically historical content, reduced by the forced march of simple formal abstractions to the meagre ration of a few volatile categories. Within five decades of Marx’s death, the history written by the Stalinists became as opaque and dreamlike, and hardly as exciting, as the fantasies of surrealism.

As should be clear from the reference to Leon Trotsky above, Banaji’s conception of history is much closer to the combined and uneven development model found in Trotsky’s writings on the Russian revolution. For Trotsky, Russia was a clear example that feudalism and capitalism can co-exist in a given society. Moreover, one of the earliest implicit challenges to the “stagist” conceptions of the CP historians was Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a book making the case for the interrelationship between Caribbean slavery and British capitalism that was strongly influenced by CLR James’s “Black Jacobins”.

While Brenner is not specifically targeted in Banaji’s article, it does have plenty to say about Maurice Dobb who clearly paved the way for Brenner. In his debate with Paul Sweezy, Dobb was probably closer to the spirit of Karl Marx’s writings than Sweezy but unfortunately bent the stick too far in the direction of defining “free wage labor” as a sine qua non for the capitalist mode of production—thus leading to many of the dogmatic errors of the Brenner school of historiography. Banaji writes:

Again, in Capital Volume 3, Marx referred to the evolution of merchant capital in the ancient world transforming “a patriarchal slave system devoted to the production of immediate means of subsistence into one devoted to the production of surplus value”. According to an edict of 1721, Peter the Great had allowed the Russian factory-owners to utilise serf-labour. “But if the factory-owner could now carry on his business with the labour of serfs”, wrote Pokrovsky, “who prevented the serf-holder from establishing a factory?” To Pokrovsky the edict was one of the forerunners of “bondage or landlord capitalism”. Analysing the land question in Peru, Mariategui wrote about the technically advanced capitalist latifundia on the coast, owned by US and British business, in which “exploitation still rests on feudal practices and principles”. In its theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress, the colonial commission of the Comintern spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies “on feudal foundations” and developing “in distorted and incomplete transitional forms which give commercial capital predominance. Finally, outside the Marxist tradition, Hobson could refer to industrial profits which “represented the surplus-value of slave or forced labour” and Barrington Moore to “labour-repressive forms of capitalist agriculture”. In all these varied instances – the subordination of the potters of Moscow province to merchant capital, the production of cotton in the slave South, the expansion of landlord capitalism in Rumanian agriculture or Petrine industry, the sugar latifundia of coastal Peru – there was no question of identifying the “mode of production” according to the character of the given forms or relations of exploitation. Nor did any of these instances involve a “coexistence” of modes of production.

Another essay worth singling out is “Islam, the Mediterranean, and the Rise of Capitalism” that appeared originally in the 2007 Historical Materialism. The article makes the case for understanding commercial or merchant capitalism as a much more powerful link in the chain of the system’s history than ever recognized in Marx’s writings. For Banaji, the Dutch and English East India Companies are not simply involved in exchange external to production, a point made as well by Henry Heller. And even before the Dutch and English were involved in capitalist trade, the Portuguese and the Venetians were in the thick of things. Banaji states that by the fourteenth century, Venice was an economy dominated by capital, with the same families controlling trade, transport, finance, and industry.

Of even greater interest is Banaji’s discussion of the Arab trade empire. He states that concepts of profit, capital, and the accumulation of capital are all found in the Arabic sources of the ninth to fourteenth centuries.

Even more startlingly, he uncovers what amounts to a labor theory of value in the writings of Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian scholar who wrote a history of the world that posited the notion that all great civilizations have a kind of life cycle with an inevitable death. Khaldun wrote that “labor is the cause of profit” and that it is “necessary for every profit and capital accumulation”. Gold and silver are the only socially acceptable measures of value “for all capital accumulations” while profit is defined as the “extent by which capital increases” and commerce as the “striving for profit by means of the accumulation of capital”.

The Arab world is not some backwater for Banaji. He asserts that by the seventh century it was a cosmopolitan civilization whose economic resources were unrivaled except by China. The Muslims created a vigorous monetary economy based on the dinar and drew regional areas into their commercial nexus. In Banaji’s words, that economy “was not just some loose ensemble of feudal regimes”. A late 10th century Persian geographer described Cairo as “the wealthiest city in the world, extremely prosperous.” By the second half of the 10th century, Alexandria was exporting well over 5000 to 6000 tons of flax to European countries.

He concludes:

Thus Islam made a powerful contribution to the growth of capitalism in the Mediterranean, in part because it preserved and expanded the monetary economy of late antiquity and innovated business techniques that became the staple of Mediterranean commerce (in particular, partnerships and commenda agreements), and also because the seaports of the Muslim world became a rich source of the plundered money-capital which largely financed the growth of maritime capitalism in Europe. Indeed, [Ernest] Mandel stated this with unabashed bluntness when he wrote: ‘The accumulation of money capital by the Italian merchants who dominated European economic life from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries originated directly from the Crusades, an enormous plundering enterprise if ever there was one’

All of this is a useful corrective not only to the Brenner school but to another brand of Eurocentrism that is far more insidious in that it has received big play in the bourgeois media over the last year or so. Published by the prestigious Princeton University Press, Turkish economist Timur Kuran’s “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle  East” won the admiration of pundits everywhere anxious to blame the people of the Middle East for their own problems, as if British and American ships and warplanes had less impact than verses in the Koran.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in the May 29, 2011 NY Times, Kuran offered his explanation of why Arab states were so backward and repressive:

But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.

Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.

One wonders how much Kuran knows about Arab history if he can make such a claim in the face of Banaji’s research. This is not to speak of Kuran’s obvious inability to appreciate the dynamism of the Anatolian “tigers” who currently rule his native country and who certainly not only have the “concept of the corporation” but a willingness to dump the European Union, the true “sick men”, in favor of trade alliances with a revitalized East.

Jim Blaut died before he had to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrist history. The third volume was to present an alternative way of seeing China, India, the Arab world et al. While this certainly leaves a gap in a crucial area of Marxist scholarship, we can be grateful to Jairus Banaji in his ongoing effort to effectively fulfill Jim’s dream.

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