War, Islamic fundamentalism grip Middle East, South Asia

by Kevin A. Barry

A new phase of the post-Sept. 11 conflict began when the U.S. bombs began to fall on Afghanistan Oct. 7. Dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed already. The U.S. also launched commando raids.

As the bombs fell, not a single leader of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda or Afghanistan's ruling Taliban was hit, but the food supply of the already famine-ridden Afghan people was seriously disrupted. The respected human rights organization Doctors Without Borders was quick to note both the incongruity of U.S. air drops of food along with bombs and the fact that such measures could only deliver a fraction of the food that U.N. trucks had been taking in beforehand. It is a virtual certainty that thousands of civilians will starve this winter.

At home, the U.S. was hit with biological terrorism in the form of anthrax-laden letters addressed to prominent people in the government and the media. These inhuman attacks-whose source is still unknown-have so far killed only working people. The class nature of capitalist society was plain for all to see as two of those murdered were postal workers, whom the government unconscionably failed to protect. They had ordered anthrax tests for everyone at the White House and Congress, but failed to take the same measures for the workers whose hands had delivered the anthrax-ridden letters to them.

Fear of terrorism has given a big opening to the Right. George Bush, installed by the Supreme Court even though he lost the popular vote, has been immeasurably strengthened. At the same time, we are facing "national security" laws, as well as a government-fanned backlash against critics, of a type not seen since McCarthyism.

Consider also the FBI's bizarre "definition" of terrorism, which includes the following outrageous statement found on their website: "The second category of domestic terrorists, left-wing groups, generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine." One wonders how many resources America's political police expended on surveillance of the anti-globalization, anti-capitalist movement, during the very months when, seemingly unknown to them, Mohammad Atta and others were finalizing their plans.


Since Sept. 11, we all live in a changed world. First and most obvious is the new stage reached by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. It announced itself in a series of coordinated actions: the horrific Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. themselves; the assassination two days earlier, also in a suicide attack, of their chief military rival inside Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud; and the Oct. 7 release, within hours of Bush's announcement that the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan, of a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden gloating over Sept. 11 and threatening future attacks. With these events the Al Qaeda network signaled that it had both the suicidal fanatics and the organization to hit at its opponents anywhere in the world. Its global reach was proved in the coming days, as pro-bin Laden rallies took place in many countries.

Second, the U.S., the sole remaining superpower, caught off-guard by Sept. 11, was quick to respond with the declaration of a "global war on terrorism." The Bush administration initiated a level of military-security buildup not seen since the Vietnam War. With Taliban-ruled Afghanistan the only country openly supporting Al Qaeda, it was unclear how the blunt instrument of war would help very much in what should be essentially a global criminal investigation of an underground network. However, the U.S. war drive received immediate support from Western Europe and Japan.

Third, in a major global realignment, the U.S. also received unexpectedly strong backing from Russia's Vladimir Putin, who evidently had his own reasons to join a global alliance against Islamic fundamentalism. Putin helped to provide something totally unprecedented, bases for U.S. troops in Uzbekistan, a part of the former Soviet Union bordering Afghanistan and still under strong Russian influence. This insertion of U.S. power into Central Asia is a major event, and not just because of oil. This strategic region is within striking distance not only of Russia and the Middle East, but also of China and India. Putin later hinted that he might also go along with Bush's anti-missile scheme. In return, he got Western silence about his genocidal repression in mainly Muslim Chechnya. Another realignment was seen in the Middle East, where the U.S. was forced to distance itself from Israel.

Considerably more reluctant support for the U.S. came from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose ruling classes have long supported many forms of Islamic fundamentalism and whose populations are extremely angry at the U.S. over its nearly unconditional support of Israel. However, China was surprisingly uncritical of the U.S. war drive, apparently because it too feared the insurgency among the mainly Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang in western China.


In opposing the reactionary moves of the Bush administration, the Left has too often ignored or minimized the threat of Islamic fundamentalism itself. It needs to be remembered that this is a political force that opposes the global dominant classes, gaining some mass support for that reason, yet seeks to install a regime that would wipe away decades of gains for workers, women, youth, lesbians and gays, and ethnic minorities. Just as much of the Left failed in earlier generations to grasp the dangers of fascism or of Stalinist state-capitalism, so today many on the Left are failing to see the danger of Islamic fundamentalism.

Iran has been ruled by Islamic fundamentalists since they hijacked the mass 1979 revolution, crushing the small feminist movement and then devouring their former allies on the Left. The result has been a theocratic police state that systematically oppresses women and youth, severely represses religious and ethnic minorities, and bans both trade unions and secular political organizations. In recent years, the regime has been strongly challenged from within. It is therefore not surprising that the Iranian masses were among the first in the Muslim world to publicly mourn the victims of Sept. 11. This included small street demonstrations, as well as a moment of silence at a major soccer match.

Another nation that has experienced Islamic fundamentalist rule is of course Afghanistan, where conditions are even worse. The courageous Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has conducted an underground struggle against the Taliban. They have run clandestine schools for women and girls and have also smuggled out video footage of the public execution of a woman for "adultery," which to the Taliban could mean simply talking with someone of the opposite sex. As RAWA stated on July 14, 2001, Bastille Day: "No country is heedful of our people's struggle in the hell of fundamentalism. Let us link arms, and, relying on the power of our bereaved people, overturn the government of blood and treason of the fundamentalists" (www.rawa.org).

The U.S. never seriously opposed the Taliban until Sept. 11, even after Al Qaeda moved its bases there in 1996, despite the fact that Al Qaeda was known to be linked to the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993. Even today, as the U.S. says it is fostering a "broadly representative" government to replace the Taliban, none have suggested that this include any women's groups, let alone RAWA. Instead, the latest talk by the U.S. is of incorporating "moderate" Taliban leaders.


Afghanistan and Iran are not the only countries to have come under the gun of Islamic fundamentalism. Egypt, historically one of the most important centers of Islamic culture, began to experience fundamentalist terrorism in the early 1980s. In the 1970s, as he moved away from the left-wing and pro-Russia policies of Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat courted the U.S. abroad and thefundamentalists at home, the latter as a counterweight to leftist groups that threatened his rule. However, his 1978 separate peace with Israel outraged the fundamentalists, who assassinated him in 1981.

For the next two decades, a brutal war was fought between an increasingly repressive Egyptian state under Hosni Mubarak and fundamentalist terrorists. These fundamentalists had a real social base for a while, taking over not only professional associations among lawyers, doctors, and others, but also setting up social aid programs in the slums. At the same time, their armed fanatics attacked secular, Marxist or feminist students and intellectuals, driving them from the campuses. They nearly assassinated Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

After the fundamentalists were defeated militarily, the Egyptian state kept the repressive laws on the books, recently using them to attack Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a secular human rights activist. At the same time, the government has placated fundamentalist sentiment by allowing all kinds of demagogues to preach on the airwaves and in officially sponsored mosques and newspapers. Some former leftists have become fundamentalists, such as the extremely popular preacher Mustafa Mahmoud. He has published the notoriously anti-Semitic PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION and also stated that Jews carried out the Sept. 11 attacks to discredit Muslims. The fundamentalists have also harassed feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi by filing lawsuits under the country's blasphemy laws.

Given this history, it is not surprising that many of Al Qaeda's members are from Egypt, including the second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some also originate in Algeria, a country that also experienced fundamentalist terror on a large scale during the 1990s. After fundamentalist parties won the 1991 elections, the military government of Algeria refused to cede power, touching off a civil war during which tens of thousands were killed. The fundamentalists, who had soft-pedaled their fanaticism to win the election, gave it full expression during the civil war, when they butchered untold numbers of Marxists, socialists, feminists, union leaders, and ordinary citizens.

One effect of such a war is to close off other forms of opposition to military or capitalist rule, since the population, faced with a choice between fundamentalist barbarism and "ordinary" dictatorship, usually chooses the latter. In Algeria, it has been only with the defeat of the fundamentalists that we have seen the re-emergence of the mass movement of the Berber minority for democracy and cultural autonomy, a movement that has brought up to one million onto the streets on several occasions.


The danger we face today is that of a false choice between Bush's militarism and Islamic fundamentalism, something that could not only derail the modest beginnings we have seen from the new anti-globalization demonstrations since Seattle, but also launch a new era of reaction worldwide.

It is for this reason that the Left needs to fight hard to maintain its independence from all state powers and from all who offer retrogressive solutions. Too often, post-Marx Marxists have dismissed or forgotten Marx's statement in the 1844 ESSAYS on "the relationship of man to woman," where he wrote that "on the basis of this relationship, we can judge the whole stage of development of the human being."

By this standard, religious fundamentalism, whether Muslim or Jewish, Christian or Hindu, is a retrogressive force that needs always to be combated, even when it seems to oppose global imperialism. We need to take seriously voices like that of Khalid Salimi of Islamabad: "At the roots of most conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the rights of women. Men simply don't see women as human beings" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 10/17/01).

It is crucially important for us to support critically those forces on the ground in the Middle East and South Asia that are fighting against capitalism, fundamentalism, sexism, and military rule. These include groups like RAWA in Afghanistan, the Berber movement in Algeria, the Egyptian feminists, and the Labor Party of Pakistan, whose antiwar rally in October included speakers from the Women's Action Forum and condemnations of fundamentalism.

While opposing Bush's militarism and authoritarianism, we need also to support the arrest and trial before an international court of reactionaries like bin Laden and the dismantling of Al Qaeda, just as we have in the past called for the arrest and trial of other war criminals like Ariel Sharon, Slobodan Milosevic, the Rwandan genocidaires, and Henry Kissinger.

October 25, 2001

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