Israel’s invasion of Lebanon last summer will have a lasting impact not only on the Middle East but also on the world. Hezbollah is not only becoming the main power in Lebanon, but the war has also made the Iranian government into a major power in the region.
Today Pan-Arabism has been transformed into Pan-Islamism. What were once Soviet-backed Arab interests versus U.S.-backed Israel has been replaced by a regional power play between the U.S and Iran, superimposed upon the Arab-Israeli conflict
NATIONALISM OR ISLAMISM
Alex Callinicos, a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and professor of European Studies of King’s College London, stated recently in an interview with Ardeshir Mehrdad of IRAN BULLETIN (9/18/06):
“What we have seen across the whole region is a process in which the leadership of resistance to U.S imperialism and Israel has passed from secular nationalisms and the Left to the Islamists. This process began with the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, but we have seen some very important developments in the past few months, notably with Hamas’s defeat of Fatah in the elections to the Palestine Authority and the enormous acclaim that Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah have received through the region for their resistance to the Israel Defense Forces… It is a historic shift that is a consequence of the political failure of secular nationalists and the Left.”
Callinicos views Hezbollah and the Iranian regime as bourgeois nationalists. He claims, “it is of the essence of bourgeois nationalists that, when imperialism prevents them from building their own independent capitalist state, they may lead struggles against it, but they are striving to carve out a place for themselves within the existing system, not to overthrow it.”
This means that sooner or later the Islamists will come to terms with imperialism, just like Nasser, Gandhi and Mandela. According to Callinicos, anti-imperialist nationalism is the ideology of an actual or aspirant capitalist class that finds the way to its own independent state blocked by imperialism and therefore mobilizes the masses to break down this obstacle. However, the situation today is very different from how Callinicos describes it.
The ultra-nationalism of Ayatollah Khomeini was very different from the bourgeois nationalism of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, whose government was overthrown by the CIA in 1953. Constitutionally, the leadership of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader (vali-e faghih) is defined as the head of the Islamic revolution, and the Revolutionary Guards are described as the army of this revolution. But there are different views among Islamic thinkers and even among Islamic fundamentalisms over these matters.
Islamic movements (religious and/or ethnic ultra-conservative) do play an important role in the regional political arena. They have more weight than secularists and leftists in resistance struggles against the U.S imperialist assault, which is a result of the political defeats suffered by secular nationalist, socialist and communist movements. Yet today’s Islamic movements have serious internal defects. Iran’s fundamentalists cannot and will not mobilize revolutionary social forces in a movement against imperialism. If there are illusions in parts of the Middle East about the role of a future Islamic government, there are no such illusions among the Iranian people.
In Iran we are seeing a new wave of protests and struggles by workers, students, women and the oppressed nations, ethnic groups and religious minorities. These protests against the ruling power are for freedom, democracy and equality. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian political prisoner who a few months ago was released from prison and recently came to the U.S., stated in a speech at Northwestern University that if there were democratic elections in all countries of the Middle East, Islamic factions would win almost all of them except in Iran. I fully agree.
After Israel’s war in Lebanon, we need a broad international consensus for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which has been blocked by the U.S. Israel, and many Arab regimes as well as the Iranian government for the last 30 years.
ABSENCE OF SECULARISTS, LEFT
One thing is certain: In the battle between Islamic fundamentalists and U.S and Israeli imperialism, progressive movements will pay the price if the Left and those who are for freedom do not recognize the dangers of these counter-revolutionary forces. The Islamic regime of Iran tries to mobilize movements on the basis of an anti-Western ideology opposed to U.S. and Israeli imperialism. The Islamic regime tries to mobilize these movements for their own benefit.
We need to establish a third alternative against war between these two forces of imperialism and fundamentalism. We need to oppose the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, the Islamic rulers, the reactionary Israeli regime, and U.S. intervention in the Middle East. We are for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. We need to welcome dialogue among Muslims and Jews who oppose fundamentalism.
At the same time, we need to know what kinds of movements are in the Middle East. Four groups stand out: 1) nationalist movements of the oppressed nations and ethnic groups (Arabs, Baluchi and Azari in Iran, Turkman in Iraq and Iran, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran); 2) secular anti-dictatorial and democratic movements for freedom and equality (with growing roots among women, students, intellectuals, religious minorities; 3) anti-capitalist movements fighting against neo-liberal policies, with an expanding social base among urban and rural working people; 4) Islamic fundamentalist movements.
Not all Islamic fundamentalists are the same. Hezbollah is reactionary, but it is not the same as the Iranian regime, and Sh’ia fundamentalists are not the same as the Sunni Al Qaeda. It is vital for us to pay attention to these differences in formulating principles.
The regime in Iran would like nothing more than to own the Palestinian issue, because with it they think they can unite all Moslems. Palestinian secular organizations like the PLO are losing influence among the Palestinian masses and have been replaced by Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah. These two groups are reactionary, but they are also different than Al Qaeda.
Hamas and Hezbollah have mass support rooted in the everyday activity of local communities of poor Arabs. Al Qaeda does not have such a base. Hamas and Hezbollah are not defined by being strictly anti-U.S, as is Al Qaeda. Hassan Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, condemned the September 11 attacks as un-Islamic, refusing to call the hijackers “martyrs.” He maintained that they committed suicide while murdering innocents (both are forbidden by Islam).
Yet the U.S. added Hezbollah to its terrorist list in 2004. Why? Because in that year Iran sent Hezbollah 12,000 rockets. The conflict between the U.S and Iran is mainly for power. Under Bush, U.S. policy on terrorism is similar to Al Qaeda’s jihad. Both sides believe that they are fighting a global war. This is different than Hezbollah and Hamas, whose missions are specific and localized.
Some Islamic thinkers, like Reza Aslan, author of NO GOD BUT GOD, claims that the experience of colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries forced the entire Muslim community to reconsider the role of faith in modern society. Some Muslims pushed for the creation of an indigenous Islamic enlightenment and sought to develop Islamic alternatives to the Western secular notion of democracy. Others advocated a separation from Western cultural ideas and voted for complete “Islamization” of society.
Today there is a battle between Islam and democracy, between fundamentalism and Islamic reformation. There is a clash between those Muslims who try to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world and those who reject the modern world. In Iraq, attacks between Moslems have caused more casualties than attacks against the occupying U.S Army.
The radical Islamists have tried to create a language, a religious language, to describe the objective world. The human being becomes a slave of God and the religious imam. Ayatollah Khomeini conveyed the notion that to unite the objective world with the subjective human world, we need the mediation of the state, an Islamic state. These radical Islamists are part of the capitalist era and they seek money and power. They are also corrupt. There is no question that they are capitalist.
The Left in the Middle East today is starting to lose its identity. In the past progressive forces were crippled by left Stalinist ideology. Now in the absence of an alternative, the Left is shrinking. Most former Iranian socialist activists today are for the free market economy and have become social democrats while rejecting Marxism. It is no wonder that they are uncritically supporting Akbar Ganji.
Even though we cannot deny Ganji’s courage in struggling against the Iranian Islamic regime, we need also to oppose Ganji’s idea that a free market economy and open democracy are inseparable. Yet those who are for socialism need to do better than just only reject Mr. Ganji. In order to oppose religious fundamentalism and imperialism and struggle for new human society, we need to have a humanist alternative, starting with an alternative to capitalism.
Originally appeared in News & Letters, December 2006-January 2007