Mumtaz Iqbal responds to Tarek Fatah’s Between Fundamentalism and Imperialism
One would have appreciated Tarek Fatah's stimulatingly provocative article on a lively contemporary topic, Between Fundamentalism and Imperialism (Forum February 2009), more if it had been less tautological, defined terms more precisely, used fewer selective examples, and avoided some red herrings.
The notable example of tautology is the question that underpins the entire piece: Can secular Muslims work together? Using "Muslims" after "secular" is odd and superfluous
If one is secular, then this belief represents a worldview that is accessible to all persons pursuing "a rational scientific understanding of the natural and social world" (British Muslim writer Kenan Malik, quoted by Fatah) irrespective of their religion or ethnicity.
If Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim citizens of Bangladesh voted for either the secular AL or BNP in the last election, this does not make them secular Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, or Muslims. They are Bangladeshis committed to a secular philosophy that includes, inter alia, separation of church and state and rejects the slogan of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and our own Jamaat that "Islam is the answer" and "Quran is our Constitution."
In talking about secular Muslims, isn't Fatah foreclosing interaction and co-operation with secularists of different ethnicity and confessions? After all, if there is no such thing as a "scientific" Muslim or an "Islamic" bomb -- science and nuclear physics being universal disciplines overriding and outside theology. Then, using the term "secular Muslim" is at worst mutually exclusive and at best illogical.
Fatah's foray into defining imperialism inexplicably starts off by referring to "Turkish imperialism" and "Arab imperialism" -- merely red herrings. Versailles 1919 ended the Ottoman Empire, the sick man of Europe, while the Arab states have been victims of predatory 19th century European imperialism. So how are these terms relevant to Fatah's topic?
Fatah takes refuge in the ghost of Lenin to expound on imperialism. He writes: "In essence, what Lenin and the early Bolsheviks and the Comintern said was that a fight against imperialism was not possible without challenging capitalism itself."
But the collapse of the USSR discredited Leninism. USSR's largest successor state Russia has abandoned central planning, embraced crony capitalism, and is trying to resurrect the heydays of Stalinism when the Soviet Union was feared if not loved. Fatah's relevance in raking up Lenin in defining imperalism -- even with the Washington model of freewheeling capitalism currently in disarray -- is debatable.
His assertion that anti-Americanism does not equal anti-imperialism by invoking German and Japanese actions in WWII is absurd. Both Axis Powers were aggressors whose imperial ambitions the Allies thwarted.
Equally questionable is his argument that the anti-Americanism of the "Taliban ... Hezbollah ... Iran ... does not [translate] into anti-imperialism." If it doesn't, then what does? Oddly enough, Fatah omits any mention of al-Qaeda.
Having unburdened himself that anti-Americanism does not equate to anti-imperialism, Fatah then undertakes the delicious task of defining anti-imperialism. And here he disappoints.
For example, he can do no better than quote Mark Twain lambasting President McKinley annexing the Philippines. Fair enough. But McKinley's action was quintessential imperialism -- his defender and apologist Maine Senator Beveridge called it America's "fight for humanity."
Twain's criticism is not a defiinition of but a stand against imperialism and reflects his courage in condemning territorial grabs disguised and justified as Christian benevolence.
Fatah then enquires whether there have been instances in the Arab world of people dissenting openly similar to "many Israelis … that stand up to their own government."
Good for these Israelis, but their observations have had absolutely no impact on Israeli predatoriness -- the Gaza conflict is the latest example.
Why? Because Tel Aviv has Washington's unstinted backing that is not likely to change much in the short run. God is usually on the side of the big battalions.
The tragic reality is that Israeli left is moribund, its peace camp is in shambles, the Labour Party has abandoned its roots (lifelong Laborite Israeli President Perez had the gall to say in Davos that elections do not mean democracy which is a civilisational thing!) and the Jabotinsky Likudniks, as epitomised by the racist Avigdor Lieberman, now control Israeli politics. Their hold is unlikely to loosen much till the US either accommodates or sorts out Iran.
Fatah's reference to Pakistan's 60 year-old "occupation of Baluchistan" is piquant but his silence on the Dhaka/Islamabad imperial-cum-colonial relationship is curious. This example suggests that colonialism and/or imperialism is not exclusively European, Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, or Slav, but, given the opportunity, other races and nations do it too, even those who were former victims.
Fatah does not mention any country he currently considers as imperialist. This omission is curious. He comes close to suggesting that the US is, but never does so explicitly. Is he, then, an apologist for the US hegemonistic policies?
After all, the only real imperial power now is the US, with the EU playing Tonto to the American Lone Ranger. As US power declines relatively as the 21st century progresses, the prospect of seeing the emergence of a triad of US/Russian/ Chinese imperial powers, with India and possibly Brazil not far behind, is not fanciful. These countries have the economic and military strength, size and population to be regional and possibly global hegemons.
Fatah's comments on the relationship of Muslims with Islamists through citing the comments of Pervez Hoodbhoy and Tariq Ali on the Taliban are interesting, but the conclusions he draws are based on selectively narrow examples.
Thus, Fatah claims that Muslims living inside their country, including his own Pakistan, have no illusions about Islamists and want to have nothing to do with them. Fair enough, considering Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh elections where the re the theocrats did badly.
But does it hold true of Egypt and Jordan where the electoral rules are rigged to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from power? Or in Algeria, where a vicious civil war backed by France and US to keep the Islamists out have caused over a million casualties, with negligible coverage by Western or conservative Arab media (they know which side their bread is buttered!).
Fatah is silent on the questionable democratic practices in these countries (also KSA and UAE). Is he suggesting that repression is justified against religious parties and by inference branding them as jihadist per se?
In that case, should Turkey's AK Party be ousted, which some Ankara generals would like to do? Is banning consistent with being secular, a view that includes espousing democracy and respecting the popular verdict? Surely Fatah doesn't mean to echo Perez's racist view that democracy is suitable for white Judeo-Christians only? Apparently not, but that's how Fattah comes across.
Fatah extensively quotes Hoodbhoy and Ali to show the discord amongst secularists towards the Taliban. But it's possible that each is right in his own way.
Based in Islamabad, Hoodbhoy has a ringside view of the extensive damage the Taliban's infantile and medieval outlook has caused and rightly fears for Pakistan's future, should the Taliban or their ilk get power.
But Ali's assertion that the Talibans fight because the Pashtuns have lost power and see Nato as an occupation force is not without merit. From his London perch, he uses his Trotskyist lens to view the Taliban as anti-imperialist.
Fatah takes a cheap shot at his former countrymen when he alleges: "Bizarre as it may sound, but many of Pakistan's bourgeoisie are too infatuated by the Islamists, romanticising them in the same way as a yuppie drives a BMW while wearing a Che T-shirt."
Isn't Fattah contradicting himself here? He can't say Pakistanis have no illusions about Islamists but simultaneously claim that they are infatuated by them. True, Fatah asserts that this duality applies to Pakistan's Western bourgeoisie, but this is a vague and meaningless term from ancient Marxist terminology that he fails to define. Isn't Fatah himself a member of this class that he decries?
Fatah really goes overboard when he suggests that "the forces of Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism are a threat to civilisation itself because their agenda is against progress … march of time … secularism and democracy."
This sweeping generalisation may apply to the Taliban whose medieval values and thought processes, traceable to the antediluvian and exceptional Afghan environment, make them primitive practitioners of Islam. But they have little following or support outside FATA and a swathe of southern Afghanistan, and even that is likely to erode over time once outside forces leave and things settle down in that strife-torn country.
Fatah's above suggestion paints Islamists as monolithic: that is about as valid as it was about Cold War communism, and is a questionable vision reflecting the late Samuel Huntington's debatable apocalyptic hypothesis about a clash of civilizations.
US neo-cons used Huntington among others to justify launching their so-called "global war on terror" that really was a mask for imposing lasting global US hegemony. Mercifully this didn't materialise. All anti-imperialists and secularists are beholden to the resistance by Iraqis of all confessions.
Fatah suggestion to exclude religious parties from power means they are getting a pass since, being denied the chance of power, they can stay outside the tent and piss in. Is a possible answer, then, to let them come to power if they win through transparent elections? Having to govern and deliver can induce satisfactory and satisfying levels of sobriety in a religious political party, can't it? The rule of Turkey's AK, Iran's theocrats, and India's BJP suggest this possibility.
In 2008 Fatah published his scholarly Chasing a Mirage: The Illusion of an Islamic State to much acclaim. It's a pity his article doesn't quite match the book's standard.
Momtaz Iqbal is an eminent columnist.