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Volume 4 Issue 2 | February 2009



Original Forum Editorial

Between Fundamentalism and Imperialism--Tarek Fatah
Digital Bangladesh: Going Beyond the Rhetoric-Mridul Chowdhury
Food Prices and Food Security-- Jyoti Rahman
Our Politics of Dispossession--Naeem Mohaiemen
Photo Feature: Special the world comes to Dhaka
The Future of Foreign Aid-- Fahmida Khatun
1/11: An Obituary-- Rumi Ahmed
Promises to Keep-- Syed Akhtar Mahmood
The Lost Decade-- Zakaria S. Khondker
Made in Bangladesh-- Mamun Rashid
Month in Frame


Forum Home


Between Fundamentalism and Imperialism

Tarek Fatah

In October last year, a vigourous debate broke out on the internet between conflicting viewpoints on the Taliban as espoused by two prominent Pakistanis, both claiming roots in the Left. One of them was Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan's leading peace activist who taught at MIT and currently teaches nuclear physics at Islamabad University who unequivocally slammed the Taliban as a menace, which he said "would transport us into the darkest of dark ages."

The other point of view was that of Tariq Ali who told an audience in Toronto and later CBC television that the Taliban were not a terrorist organisation, but rather an "indigenous Pushtoon national movement," thus blessing the fanatic jihadis with a respectable label that drew the anger and ire of many Pushtoon nationalists in Canada.

It was in this context that Dr. Khalid Sohail raised an important question: Was there a possibility of liberal and secular Muslims with leftist leanings, who hold such opposing views, to work together.

Since both Pervez Hoodbhoy and Tariq Ali claim their political thought in the ideology of Left, secularism, small L liberalism and anti-imperialism, it is worth analysing why they hold such differing views on Islamist jihadi groups as Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah

The question being asked is: Can secular Muslims belonging to these two camps work together, and, how should we, who call ourselves free from the grip of Islamic fundamentalism, or the doctrine of Islamism, face the twin challenges of Fundamentalism and Imperialism.

Allow me to make a very interesting observation. Most leftist or secular Muslims who live inside Muslim majority countries have no problem making this choice.

Whether they live in Iran, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Turkey, or Egypt, they want to have nothing to do with the Islamists. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the communist parties have spoken vocally against al-Qaeda and are part of the post-invasion parliaments.

In Pakistan, the centre-left trashed the Islamists across the country, while the secular Pushtoon nationalists, the ANP defeated the Islamists in what we were told was their heartland -- the province of Pukhtoonkhwa that until recently was known as the NWFP.

Elsewhere, just recently in Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami managed to win just two seats in a parliament of 300 members. Among the stalwarts of the secular Left who triumphed over the right-wing Islamist coalition were two socialists of the 1960s, Rashid Khan Menon and Motia Chowdhury.

Inside Iran, the Left has not yet and will never forget the massacres by the Mullahs that killed tens of thousands of secular, liberal and leftist Muslims. Not one secular or liberal Iranian Muslim has anything but contempt for the theocracy, no matter how much Ahmedinejad postures as a revolutionary anti-imperialist.

However, Muslims who migrated to the West, and those who claim the label of the Left, are more like to toe the Islamist line, participate in rallies organised by Muslim Brotherhood and they dare not say a word critical of either Bin Laden or any of the dozens of Islamist jihadi groups working to undermine the very Western societies they live in.

This chasm is epitomised by the Pervez Hoodbhoy-Tariq Ali divide. While Hoodbhoy lives in Pakistan and slams the Taliban as medieval murderers, Tariq Ali who has taken up British citizenship extols the virtues of the Iranian regime and accords the respectable label of "Pushtoon nationalism" on the Taliban.

To better understand Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy's position, allow me to quote him. As the Taliban were threatening to attack Pakistani cities and had taken over the district of Swat, he wrote:

"A Taliban victory would transport us into the darkest of dark ages. These fanatics dream of transforming the country into a religious state where they will be the law. They stone women to death, cut off limbs, kill doctors for administering polio shots, force girl-children into burqa, threaten beard-shaving barbers with death, blow up girls schools at a current average of two per week, forbid music, punish musicians, destroy 2000-year statues. Even flying kites is a life-threatening sin."

Then addressing those who have been misled to believe that the Taliban are some sort of latter day Sandanistas or the Viet Cong, he wrote:

"The Taliban agenda has no place for social justice and economic development. There is silence from Taliban leaders about poverty, and the need to create jobs for the unemployed, building homes, providing education, land reform, or doing away with feudalism and tribalism … If the militants of Pakistan ever win it is clear what our future will be like. Education, bad as it is today, would at best be replaced by the mind-numbing indoctrination of the madrassas whose gift to society would be an army of suicide bombers. In a society policed by vice-and-virtue squads, music, art, drama, and cultural expressions would disappear. Pakistan would re-tribalise and resemble a cross between FATA (Pakistan's Taliban dominated tribal areas) and Saudi Arabia (minus the oil)."

Hoodbhoy is not alone. Dr. Amjad Ayub of the Labour Party of Pakistan, many years ago interviewed Mohammad Issa, president of the leftwing Afghan Watan Party for the weekly, Jedojehud. This what the Afghan leftist politician Mohammed Issa told Dr. Ayub:

"In the name of Islam, the Taliban practice brutality. There is no future for Afghanistan under the Taliban. For 20 years Afghanistan has been the centre of revolution and counter-revolution. Now the political consciousness among the people has been raised and they have begun to resist the terrorist methods of the fanatic ... The Taliban are the merchants of death."

Bizarre as it may sound, but many of Pakistan's Westernised bourgeoisie, are today infatuated by the Islamists, romanticising them in the same way a yuppie drives a BMW while wearing a Che T-shirt. These cappuccino communists claim the Taliban are fighting imperialism and that despite their own soft corner for whisky and fine wine, they are now Muslim nationalists willing to fight the West, even as they queue up at the US embassy for a visa to take their proletariat children for a summer vacation visit to Disneyland.

But what exactly is imperialism? Is imperialism only restricted to the adventures of Europe and the US or could we dare use the term, "Arab Imperialism" or "Turkish imperialism"? And if not, then why was the great Indian Muslim philosopher and poet, Allama Iqbal, not taken to task when he coined the term Arab Imperialism?

Before I go further, let me dwell on the term "imperialism" which first came into common usage in England in the 1890s. The term evolved to describe the contest between rival European states to secure colonies and spheres of influence in Africa and Asia, a contest that dominated international politics from the mid-1880s to 1914, and caused this period to be named the "age of imperialism" by my favourite author, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn.

But for those of us who spent our youth sitting sat the feet of aging Marxists, the one text that defined our understand of imperialism was the book by Vladimir Lenin, titled, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

This was a classic Marxist theoretical treatise on the relationship between capitalism and imperialism in which Lenin identifies the merging of banks and industrial cartels as giving rise to finance capital. According to Lenin, in the last stage of capitalism, in order to generate greater profits than the home market can offer, capital is exported.

Lenin did not claim that there was no imperialism before the late 19th century. As he explicitly noted: "Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practised imperialism."

In a similar vein, the era we Muslims glowingly describe as the "Fatoohaat-e-Islami" needs to be seen as Arab Imperialism while the 600 year old rule of the Ottoman Turks was too a colonial empire that rivalled that of the British and the French, but again has escaped the label of imperialism.

In calling imperialism a stage of capitalism, Lenin was saying it was fundamentally an economic phenomenon. He said: "If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism."

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.

Thus, when Japan attacked the US, its anti-American stance could not be and was never understood to driven by an anti-imperialist doctrine. Similarly, when Hitler's Panzer divisions fought advancing American and British troops in Western Europe, only a fool would have placed Nazi Germany into the camp of anti-imperialism.

Today, just because the Taliban or Hezbollah or Iran attack Americans or blow up their embassies and fly planes into the New York Towers, does not mean their anti-Americanism translates into anti-imperialism.

While my friend Tariq Ali tries to position today's Iranian regime as anti-imperialist, it is a country that practices unbridled capitalism, where even the country's sea ports have been privatised and where trade unionists continue to be imprisoned for the mere fault of organising labour.

So then we have to answer the question: What exactly is anti-imperialism? What better a place to turn for answer to this question than to look at it from the perspective of the great American, the writer Mark Twain.

In 1898, when the United States annexed the Philippines as part of its war with Spain, a number of American liberals, upset at their govt, set up the American Anti-Imperialist League which continued to function until it was dissolved in 1921. A leader and founding member of the League was Mark Twain, who defended its views in the following manner:

"I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

The reason I bring up the name of Mark Twain is for a reason. Here was an icon of America willing to stand up to his own government, demanding justice for the other. This is significantly different from those who demand justice for themselves and look the other way when their own countries of origin of communities indulge in an imperialism that occupies the other. Britain, France, Portugal and The Netherlands occupied vast regions of Africa and Asia at the time, but Mark Twain set his focus on his own US long before he targeted the UK or the other European powers.

Let me give you an example. Let me ask you to reflect on the tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While there are many Israeli Mark Twains that stand up to their own government, there is barely any voice among the Arab world that has spoken out against the occupation by Arab countries of Kurdistan, Western Sahara, and, dare I say, Darfur.

And while we Pakistanis rile endlessly about what we say is Indian occupation of Kashmir, our own occupation of Baluchistan in 1948 and the 60-year military operation of the region barely creates a ripple.

I suggest to you my friends that many Islamists who spew anti-Americanism, hatred of all things Western and have nothing to do with the struggle against imperialism. The hatred that the Muslim Brotherhood cadres have against West must never be mistaken as a call for social justice or equality.

I suggest to you that the forces of Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism are a threat to civilisation itself, because their agenda is against progress itself; against the march of time; against the very ideas that brought us the concept of secularism and democracy, the end of slavery, end of gender apartheid and the notion of countries based on race or religion.

Let me introduce you to one of the Western world's great freedom fighters, a Marxist who stood up to British colonialism and US big capital. The name of this person is Cyril Lionel Robert James better know as C.L.R. James and who died in 1989. He was an Afro-Trinidadian journalist, socialist theorist, and writer. He was influential in the United Kingdom and the United States in socialist parties and Marxist thought, as well as leading ideas about the end of colonialism.

In his book The Making of the Caribbean People, C.L.R. James wrote: "I denounce European colonialism, but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation."

British Muslim writer Kenan Malik reflecting on the Islamist attacks of 9/11 wrote a profound piece in which he invoked the memory of C.L.R. and compared it to the nihilism and fatalism of the Islamists. He wrote that despite the fact that C.L.R. James was one of the great radicals of the twentieth century, an anti-imperialist, a superb historian of black struggles, a Marxist who remained one even when it was no longer fashionable to be so, today, James' defence of "Western civilisation" would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.

Malik wrote: "To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is 'Western' -- by which most mean modernism and the ideas of the Enlightenment -- in the name of 'diversity' and 'difference.' The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world -- a project that James unashamedly championed -- is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive."

C.L.R. James, like most anti-imperialists in the past, recognised that all progressive politics were rooted in the "Western tradition," and in particular in the ideas of reason, progress, humanism, and universalism that emerged out of the Enlightenment. The scientific method, democratic politics, the concept of universal values -- these are palpably better concepts than those that existed previously, or those that exist now in other political and cultural traditions.

Intel Center

Kenan Malik wrote: "Not because Europeans are a superior people, but because out of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution flowed superior ideas ... The Western tradition is not Western in any essential sense, but only through an accident of geography and history. Indeed, Islamic learning provided an important resource for both the Renaissance and the development of science. The ideas we call 'Western' are in fact universal, laying the basis for greater human flourishing."

Let me quote from Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, who said: "All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission that fell to them."

For thinkers like Fanon and C.L.R. James, the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Western ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity. In conclusion, let me answer the question posed by our hosts. Is it possible for secular Muslims to work together.

The answer is a qualified yes.
The Muslim Canadian Congress will work with any secular Muslim and non-Muslim who is willing to commit to the separation of religion and state, not just in Canada, but across the Muslim world too.

Yes, we are willing to work with all those who reject the notion that the Supreme Leader of Iran must be of Arab ancestry alone and that he is accountable to only to God, and not the citizenry.

Yes, we are willing to work with all secular organizations that reject the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamat-e-Islami that "Islam is the Answer" and "Quran is our constitution."

Yes, we are willing to work with any secular or liberal Muslim body that have the courage and steadfastness to oppose Sharia law in Canada, not support it in the name of community solidarity.

How any secular Muslim would follow these jihadis is beyond me. Let me conclude by quoting two people with impeccable credentials in their struggle for social justice. One from the present and the other from a man who in the words of the American author John Reed was the cause for Ten Days That Shook the World.

First, here is Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy.
"Tragically for Pakistan, American hypocrisy has played into the hands of Islamic militants. They have been vigourously promoting the notion that this is a bipolar conflict of Islam, which they claim to represent, versus imperialism. Many Pakistanis, who desperately want someone to stand up to the Americans, buy into this. This is a fatal mistake ... Their goal is to establish their writ over that of the Pakistani state.

"For this, they have been attacking and killing people in Pakistan through the 1990s, well before 9/11. Remember also that the 4000-plus victims of jihad in Pakistan over the last year have been Muslims with no connection at all to America. In fact, the Taliban are waging an armed struggle to remake society. They will keep fighting this war even if America were to miraculously evaporate into space."


And allow me to close by quoting Lenin as he addressed a conference attended by communists from the Muslim world and central Asia. Lenin warned the delegates to be wary of Islamists who pose as anti-imperialists. He emphasised "the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends," which he said and I quote: "strove to combine the liberation movements against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of Khans, landowners, mullahs, etc."

Tarek Fatah is secular muslim political activist and writer based in Canada.

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