Terrorism and Imperialism

Challenges in the Wake of Recent Attacks

In Ankara, 128 people were killed in an election rally on 10 October. A Russian passenger aircraft bringing home mostly Russian holidaymakers from Egypt crashed over Sinai in Egypt on 31 October. 224 died. Nearly 43 died in suicide bombings in a market in Beirut. That was 12 November. A day later, in Baghdad, there was a terror attack on the funeral of an anti-ISIS fighter, killing 18 people. The same evening in Paris, people at the theatre, at a stadium, at cafés were shot down. 130 dead, and nearly 400 hundred injured. And now we have Mali, where over 20 people died and many were taken hostage at a luxury hotel in Bamako.

The one common thread in several of the recent spate of terror attacks is the involvement of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which claims responsibility (the exception is the Mali attack, by a group said to have al-Qaeda links). This hydra-headed growth has more names and shapes – Daesh, ISIL (IS of Iraq and the Levant) – and has declared a ‘caliphate’ (meaning leadership of the entire Muslim community), and which, it must be noted, is not accepted by the widest reaches of the Muslim community globally. But this thread has become the black ribbon tied around the parcel that has been placed on the doorstep of history, its contents waiting to explode.

What is in the package is decades of unrest, effected by the sustained political and military intervention in world affairs of the powers that emerged after WWII, namely, the US and Britain, as well as France. The corporate media there helped put out the word that all was justified in the attempt to stop the onward march of Communism. The real story, however, was that oil was an essential lubricant in the Western world’s military industrial complex. The massive and bloody oppression of Jewish peoples in Europe was channelized by these powers to maintain a foothold in the Middle East through the creation of Israel, by recognizing the State of Israel at the UN in 1947. This occupation unbalanced the equations in the Middle East because this became a flashpoint on account of growing landgrab and displacement of original inhabitants, a string of negotiations that saw repeated ministering to the demands of this ethnic state. Just two years later (1949), one of the first things that the CIA, then newly formed, did was to engineer a coup in Syria. Why? Because President Quwatli opposed the Trans-Arabian Pipeline connecting oil fields of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon via Syria, had followed a policy of neutrality in the impending ‘Cold War’, and because he took no oppressive measures against a strong Communist Party there. This is just the first among the veritable string of coups engineered in the Middle East and across the world by the CIA with the blessings of every single American President without exception since then. Just four years down the line, they trained their sights on the Iranian PM, Mohammed Mossadegh, because he had limited the powers of the Shah, carried out land reforms, instituting social security, and, worst of all, nationalising oil which was controlled by British oil companies. Incidentally, he also had the support of the Tudeh Party, the communist party in Iran. The CIA carried out a coup ousting Mossadegh on the instance of British intelligence. The first thing done was the re-privatisation of oil reserves in Iran in the following year. In 1957, when Egypt and Syria tried to merge states, the US interfered again by offering funding to King Hossain of Jordan.

These were decades of Arab nationalisms, where leaders of some Arab countries were working with anti-imperialist ideas to conceptualise a more peaceful future for the region. It is equally true that their varying position on the degree to which they would subscribe to the broader framework of a unity of Arab countries, and deeper internal regional conflicts added to the complexity of arriving at a consensus. Bitter experiences of embargoes and sanctions following attempts by some to nationalise resources like oil had made future governments wary. In this mix was the constant backing of Israel by the US through weapons supplies, resulting in growing resentment and resistance towards Israel by its neighbours. At the same time, the US also supported Kurdish rebels in Iraq. While many official versions of history from the belly of the beast will tell you that the conflict in the Middle East really is only about Shia-Sunni conflict, these divisions were exacerbated by Western powers through funding of conflict on each side, resulting in the Iran-Iraq wars that lasted nearly a decade (1980-8) with even more lasting consequences. Added to the mix was also the anti-communism discourse which was used to gain popularity at home for sustained and divisive military and intelligence interventions in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Since the late 1970s, particularly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the US began to arm Islamic fundamentalists with Saudi backing against the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, also imposing sanctions on Iran and continuing to back Iraq. At the same time, they also supplied arms to Iran, to be shipped through Israel, in order to raise money to fund the Contra rebels who were fighting to bring down the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This was a major scandal in Ronald Reagan’s time.

Since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the US has had its intelligence and guns trained against Iraq. This also led to the UN sanctions against Iraq, which hit the people of Iraq the worst: this changed the fabric of Iraqi society, with falling literacy, dwindling agriculture, increased malnutrition and disease, with a devastating effect on the survival rates of children under 5. By the late 1990s, the US had begun funding attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. All this was going on while also funding the Israeli state’s human rights violations against the people of Palestine, continuing landgrab, and denial of a state for the Palestinian people. 11 September 2001 marked a turning point in the history of the Western world’s violence against the Middle East. With support from the British forces under Tony Blair, US forces went to work, bombing the heart of Kandahar in early October. In just another two years, George Bush invoked the devil and fabricated a yarn about weapons of mass destruction being developed in Iraq. This was the baseless excuse to invade Iraq, again with the help of British forces under the approval of Tony Blair. Both Bush and Blair have since admitted that there was not even a shred of evidence of WMDs in Iraq. Blair even admitted that if it had not been for the Iraq war, the ISIS would not exist today. These thugs still roam free.

After over 8 years of war ravages perpetrated by these forces in Iraq, Obama decided to withdraw troops, leaving behind a situation of complete chaos. This is the pile of smouldering ashes and rubble that gave rise to the ISIS, which is also equally responsible for the further destruction of human lives in Syria and Iraq. ISIS cannot be seen – as it would like to project itself – as a mere retaliation to Western powers’ interventions in the Middle East. It is a confluence of the aftermath of military interventions, deeper internal divisions, as much as it is a modern militaristic formation that morphs indecipherably, even as it recognizes control of oil fields and air bases as key. Recruits to its cause are now drawn from nearly 90 countries globally, not all of them ‘Islamic’. The thousands of Syrian refugees knocking at the doors of Fortress Europe, braving cold and hunger and desolation are fleeing from precisely this predator, which seemingly holds out the promise of a unifying identity to disaffected people. As we have seen in all the accounts of people fleeing the region, not many are deceived by this promise. More importantly, intervention in Syria by arming rebels against Bashar al Assad is more of the same thing. It is simply adding to the same old story in which democratically elected governments are toppled through engineered coups and dictators are used as excuses to murder already oppressed peoples. There is no doubt that Assad has played on deep internal divisions to perpetrate extreme human rights violations against the Syrian people, but given the complexity of allegiances on the ground, simply arming different groups both against the ISIS and against Assad deepens the conflict and delays peace. It is yet another instance of trying to find peace at the end of a missile or a gun.

The activation of more recent players on the scene, namely Russia, has added consequences. After arming the Assad government apparently against the ISIS, Russia has also targeted rebel groups that have Western backing. This too has complicated the situation, with the toll of human lives on the ground mounting every day, peace in indefinite suspension, even as both Assad and Putin shake hands and announce their collective will in fighting the terrorist IS. France, on the other hand, has been quite active in Syria, as it has been in the Middle East and Africa, quite apart from being the colonial power that continues to bleed its former African colonies through taxes levied on independence, and refusing to take responsibility for racism and Islamophobia against French citizens. It has been party to sponsoring the rise of Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran on their bidding. And now France is suspending the democratic rights of its own citizens in ways reminiscent of Bush II’s actions in the US after 11 September. In fact, Nathalie Goulet, a French senator for Orne even said on national television that France needed its own Patriot Act!

There are no clear answers, and at the moment, what we are witnessing is a global narrative of stark contrasts. The recent attacks in Paris will make the cry for keeping refugees out shriller. There have been several instances of Islamophobic violence in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. And yet, when a blindfolded refugee stands in Place de la Republique with a sign that says he is not a terrorist, he is hugged by hordes of Parisians who say they trust and love him. Immediately after closing French borders to all movements, French President Francois Hollande said what had happened in Paris was ‘an act of war’, and that the French response against it would be ‘pitiless’, this while France was already participating in the US military intervention in Syria. Now, France has sent off more forces to Syria to bomb ISIS haunts. The German government dithers on what to do with borders after German citizens have coined that immortal and untranslatable word ‘Willkommenskultur’ (a culture of welcome). The market shares of weapons manufacturers have gone up, and it is no surprise that presidential candidates like the Republican Donald Trump has used the Paris Attack to justify his agenda against gun control. Moreover, he called for compulsory ‘registration’ of Muslims in a ‘national database’ – the spectre of Nazi registration of Jews conjured by this demand was not missed. Bend the Arc, a Jewish advocacy group, set up an online petition in the form of a mock registry of American Jews, reminding Trump of Nazi Germany and saying “Dear Donald Trump, when we say ‘never again’ it’s not just about Jews, it’s about everyone.”

Obama, for his part, spoke after the Paris attacks to say that Muslims across the world now need to introspect about what they are doing individually to stem the tide of extremism, and that while Muslims may not on the whole condone violence, they are ‘not as willing to challenge some of the extremist thoughts or rationales for why Muslims feel oppressed’. This statement is nothing but a case of victim blaming, especially since Obama has been silent on the role of the USA itself in condoning and propping up ‘extremism’ in the world.

What is encouraging is that many major European cities have seen anti-racist demonstrations in support of refugees. In fact, a few hours before this goes to press, there are accounts and photographs of a massive anti-war rally in Toulouse, France, where thousands marched with banners that said ‘Their wars, our death!’, and ‘For freedom and peace, against the barbarity of coalitions’, and ‘Against the state of emergency, lets intensify our fight’!

War and violence on innocent civilians never stopped in Palestine, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa – but such war tended to be rendered invisible or legitimized by the powers that shape the dominant discourse.

Even as this is becoming a world without readily available templates, we need to remember the urge for democratic institutions and peaceful life trajectories seen in the Arab Spring, recalling prominent strains of progressive politics in the Middle East itself. We need to pay attention to and applaud the public upsurge against racism and war around the world. We need to see that the call for a better world is being given by people fleeing home, people making a home for others along with themselves, people taking responsibility for their oppressive histories and saying they will transgress the borders drawn by the unrelenting psychoses of imperialism. Dark times will make us break these moulds, and while this will be backbreaking, it will have to be a labour of love and solidarity.

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