North Americans in the Middle East

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Tariq Ali's work adds to the understanding of the North American Empire the issue of religious fundamentalism as a complementary factor to militarism, cultural domination and racism

By Ricardo Musse*

Bush in Babylon

On March 21, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq. It was the outcome of an announced war and the controversy surrounding its necessity – whose privileged forum was the UN, but also the streets, the scene of a worldwide protest, on February 15, which mobilized around eight million people.

The US Army's intention, effectively put into practice, to remain in Iraq after the end of the war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein caused general perplexity. Are the Western powers returning to the “Age of Empires” and neocolonial methods of territorial occupation? Didn't the 1945th century consolidate the policy of “decolonization” all over the world? Didn't the United States obtain its undisputed hegemony, in part due to its speech and action in favor of autonomy and national independence? Were the occasional wars after XNUMX just skirmishes on the borders of a world divided by the Cold War and which, with the end of the Cold War, were destined to disappear?

From the initial perplexity sprouted a torrent of explanations. The justifications of George W. Bush and Tony Blair quickly moved from the “threat of weapons of mass destruction”, supposedly in the hands of Saddam Hussein, to the need to implant “democracy” in the Middle East, in an inversion that sought to transform the “occupation ” in a war of “liberation”. Liberals who disagreed with the timing and manner in which the conflict was conducted attributed this relapse into past methods to the “neoconservatism” of a circle with considerable influence over George W. Bush. Some Marxists – among which David Harvey stands out – sought to reactivate the theory of “imperialism”, developed at the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

Tariq Ali's book written at the time, Bush in Babylon (Record, 20030 provides a surprising answer to these questions, capable of standing on its own as the “egg of Columbus”. Born in Pakistan, educated in Oxford, editor of the prestigious magazine New Left Review, Tariq Ali narrates Iraq's history from an insider's point of view. This simple shift in perspective brings to the fore the mishaps of the anti-colonial struggle in the Middle East and the difficulties of implementing the political form of the nation-state.

It's a story little known in the West, even after all the public attention that Iraq has been given. Tariq Ali reconstitutes, never in a linear way, the main moments of this itinerary, from the subjugation, by the Ottoman Empire, of the Arabs who occupied the region of ancient Babylon, in the XNUMXth century, to the current North American occupation. The main merit of the report lies in the careful follow-up of the threads that intertwine the Iraqi trajectory, the history of the Arab world and the vicissitudes of world politics. All of this permeated by a non-deterministic conception of history, evident in his concern to highlight both occupation and resistance.

Iraq itself was born with the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In 1917, the British, with the help of colonial troops from then-occupied India, took over a vast swath of the Middle East. They delimited the borders of the new state through a political arrangement that brought together the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, leaving aside the territory further south, next to the Persian Gulf, which became Kuwait.

Much stricter than the Ottoman, British control, devoid of the religious and cultural identities of the previous domain, did not take long to awaken local nationalism. A situation intensified by the imposition of a monarchy brought from outside, the house of the Hashemites. The first successful insurrection, in 1941, deposed the monarch, establishing a popular government favorable to pan-Arabism. Britain immediately reoccupied Iraq.

In 1956, the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, retaken the Suez Canal, until then under the control of a Franco-British consortium. The nationalist wave aroused by this act in the Arab world also reached Iraq. On July 14, 1958, a group of army officers overthrew the monarchy and proclaimed the Republic. The first measures of the new government were the nationalization of basic industry, including the oil sector, a radical agrarian reform and the universalization of public education.

Tariq Ali shows all his skills as a historian, political analyst and novelist (some of his novels were published in Brazil) in the account of the next ten years, an intricate epic that developed following the chain of a tragedy. There are three main characters: the defenders of the pan-Arabism proposed by Nasser, the Iraqi Communist Party – the strongest in the Arab world –, and the Baath –, a nationalist and secular party founded by Syrian intellectuals in exile, but which soon became became a militarized grouping, supported by the local power of family clans.

Commander of the 1958 revolution, General Quasim remained in power thanks to the decisive support of the Iraqi CP which, following orders from Moscow, avoided strengthening Nasser, one of the leaders of the third-world movement of the group of countries known then as “ non-aligned”.

A succession of disagreements and conflicts between nationalist forces – even between members of the same party, as in the case of the split in the Baath – facilitated the demobilization of the popular masses, generating a climate of disenchantment. This facilitated the military coup that brought the Ba'ath to power in 1968, already under the command of Hassan al-Bakr and his nephew, Saddam Hussein.

The rest of the story is pretty well known. The Iraqi CP supported the Ba'athist government when it attempted economic and military cooperation with the Soviet Union, despite the fact that in the same period its political cadres were being decimated by the Iraqi secret police. In 1979, Saddam Hussein appointed himself general and president of the Republic.

On September 22, 1980, Iraq declares war on Iran – supposedly militarily weakened by the Islamic Revolution –, now at the instigation of the United States. After eight years and thousands of dead on both sides, the war ends with no winners. Then, Saddam occupies Kuwait and is forced to retreat (First Gulf War, August 1990 – February 1991), but manages to remain in power even with the economic embargo and the set of sanctions imposed by the Security Council of UN.

The account of the “Saddam era” is not without interest. In addition to faithfully recalling the main events, Tariq Ali highlights relevant information that tends to be in the background, and sketches, here and there, bold interpretations about the meaning of recent history. He maintains, for example, that the purpose of "the American Empire is to use its immense military arsenal to teach the South a lesson about the power of the North to intimidate and control."

One flaw that can be done to the book lies in its characterization of resistance. Militant and supporter of a secular lineage, Tariq Ali emphasizes the potential of forces alien to rationalization, such as children and poetry, but ignores the religious tradition, today the main bulwark of resistance at a time when, warns Ali himself, opposition secularism increasingly submits to co-option.

clash of fundamentalisms

Tariq Ali's previous book, clash of fundamentalisms (Record, 2002) – written in the heat of the attack on the Twin Towers, which took place on September 11, 2001 – is part of a series of publications that aimed to supply Western public opinion with information about Islamic civilization. Intensified interest in US wars of revenge, in particular the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This belated effort to understand a region of the world hitherto virtually ignored generated, as expected, the most diverse and antagonistic interpretations, from the neoconservative thesis of civilizational conflict defended by Samuel P. Huntington in the book The clash of civilizations and the recomposition of the world order (Objetiva, 1997), to the updating of the Marxist theory of imperialism, proposed by David Harvey in the new imperialism (Loyola, 2003).

Tariq Ali stood out in that debate. His books were translated into more than a dozen languages ​​and his theses acquired worldwide repercussions, transforming him almost instantly into a superstar of the intellectual world. One of the reasons for this success is undoubtedly due to his multicultural background. Tariq Ali was born (and lived into his teens) in Pakistan, educated in England (at Oxford), where he later became editor of New Left Review, one of the icons of the global left.

In addition to socializing with and inserting himself in different cultures, he built a profile that is unsubmissive to the intellectual division of labor: an independent journalist (that is, without ties to communication companies) and a political activist, Tariq Ali is also equally recognized as a historian, novelist and playwright.

empire and resistance

In 2005, Tariq Ali resumes and unfolds his contributions to the understanding of the mutual relations and interactions between Islam, the Arab world and the West in the book Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali – edited in Brazil under the title The new face of empire (Ediouro, 2006). It is a collection of a series of interviews given to David Barsamian between November 2001 and April 2004.

The deep knowledge of Tariq's work demonstrated by the interviewer; the characteristic freedom of the genre, allowing the modulation and confluence of registers, from the personal to the political; the systematic purpose of the undertaking that adopts the developments of the world situation as a guiding principle; all this makes the book a kind of summary of Tariq Ali's opinions and works.

The book focuses on aspects that have not been highlighted in the political history of Islamic countries. Addresses the causes of division and antagonism between India and Pakistan; the role of the Pakistani army in creating the Taliban; the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism at the instigation of the United States during the Cold War; the action of the English empire in the genesis of the State of Israel and the colonial expansion of its borders; the vicissitudes of Arab nationalism, etc.

The originality of Tariq Ali's contribution can be more precisely apprehended in his analysis of the United States, a decisive point, incidentally, for evaluating any interpretation of the contemporary world. He examines the matrix of Empire from the point of view of the citizen of the Islamic world or the inhabitant of the Third World. By adopting the perspective of the victim of US violence and oppression, not only does he unmask the rationalizations of the official discourse (such as the thesis that his action in the Middle East would be a “humanitarian intervention” aimed at freeing the people from tyranny), but also it also detects unsuspected aspects of American society.

Islamism, in particular its fundamentalist branch, has replaced, in the American imagination, the place formerly occupied during the Cold War by the extinct Soviet Union as an opposition force and permanent threat – formerly the “Evil Empire”, now the “Axis of Evil”. But, as psychoanalysis teaches, in general, in the delimitation of the “other” it is customary to project, as in an inverted mirror, traces of one's own identity.

Herbert Marcuse had already drawn attention to the totalitarian, one-dimensional character of American society. Tariq Ali complements this description, highlighting another aspect: his “fundamentalism”. He recalls that the United States is the most religious nation in the world and “one of the most impressive examples that the spread of technology and modern science need not be accompanied by the spread of secularism. In a country where 60% of the population believe in Satan and 89% in deities, Bush's electoral triumph accentuated the main differences between Western Europe and the United States – not in terms of economics and politics, but of war and religion”.

But if religious fundamentalism – a hallmark of George W. Bush's administration – determines “the new face of the empire”, this does not fail to be based on the same corpus as always: in militarism, the main weapon of those who intend to “govern” the world; in cultural domination, through the creation of a network of collaborators among the elite intellectuals of the dominated countries, many of whom graduated from North American universities; in the propaganda of “white, western superiority”, denigrating the other in the often racist key of “orientalism”.

In short, despite its new face, the North American empire follows in the same footsteps as the old English empire. It derives its raison d'être from the need for capital to expand and find new markets. It chooses its enemies (and does not hesitate to go to war against them) according to its economic, political and strategic interests. In this sense, Islam became the main target due to an accident of history and geography – having occupied the region that concentrates the largest oil reserves in the world.

This diagnosis provides the premises for the modalities of struggle against the Empire that Tariq Ali defends. Resistance against territorial occupation, in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. it cannot do without the support of the internal opposition in Western countries, mainly in the United States. Tariq Ali suggests a revival of the Anti-Imperialist League, organized at the end of the XNUMXth century by Mark Twain.

The evocation of a writer's militancy is not accidental. Tariq proposes as the fulcrum of resistance an interaction between politics and culture, whose germ would be in the audience and repercussion of poets and novelists in the Arab world (similar to popular music in Brazil during the military dictatorship). It is about proposing secular sources of resistance, alternatives to the fundamentalisms – religious, but also of the markets – that, here and there, dominate the world.

*Ricardo Musse Professor at the Department of Sociology at USP

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