admin/upload/files/THE MIDDLE EAST:

admin/upload/files/THE MIDDLE EAST:

Under the reign of imperialism and fundamentalisms

By Shahrzad Mojab

In December 2004, I travelled to the Middle East as part of my research exploring Kurdish women’s struggles for democracy and justice. I was unable to go to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where I had visited four years earlier. In Turkey, however, I visited several women’s centres in Istanbul and three Kurdish cities, listening to and learning from enthusiastic and dynamic Kurdish women activists about their visions and aspirations for transforming their lives and societies.

These women were fully conscious of the many dimensions of their problems and struggles. Many are organizing against violence rooted in the ancient institution of patriarchy, both in the private sphere of the family and the public sphere of the state.

The challenges are enormous. Women and men are suffering from many forms of violence including war, militarism, poverty, national oppression, displacement, forced urbanization, army and police brutality, and environmental destruction. In all of these cases, the Turkish state and the US are seen as main actors, in spite of the fact that the media, educational system and official propaganda treat the state and its army as sacrosanct. More significantly, though, the state and its international supporters are not the only sources of trouble. State power is exercised with all its brutality in the midst of the equally brutal exercise of power by the male gender, religion, tribalism, feudalism and capitalism. Women are the main target of this combination of powers.

In dealing with the Middle East, be it Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Iraq or Turkey, some activists on the left are not willing to comprehend the significance of domestic regimes of exploitation and oppression. They see only one centre of destruction: Western imperialism. They generally ignore the domestic order, and how it is tied to imperialism.

Such a politics is politically destructive. It separates domestic exploitation and oppression from global capitalism. It minimizes or ignores domestic repression, and, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, confers on reactionary and repressive forces the status of freedom fighters (in Middle Eastern political culture as in Marxist traditions, the words “reaction” and its derivatives are borrowed from the French Revolution of 1789. As I use it here, it refers to a host of political agendas that advocate the perpetration of ethnic and nationalist supremacy, tribalism, feudalism, patriarchy and religious superstition). Paved with the good intention of forging solidarity with the targets of imperialist aggression, this politics inevitably moves away from internationalism and enters into the realm of ethnocentrism and national chauvinism, as I will explain.


This kind of politics has a long history on the left. The most recent case is the approach of some of the left to Iraq, where there is a widespread and bloody resistance to the equally bloody US occupation. It is difficult to understand exactly what is going on in the resistance front. One can claim with certainty, however, that the great majority of non-Kurds resent the occupation. In the beginning of the third year of occupation, many Iraqis (especially non-Kurds) who were brutalized by the Ba’thist regime now long for the past.

The economic fabric of Iraq, which had been disrupted during the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, was further destroyed by the 1991 US war, a decade of sanctions, and two years of war since March 2003. The forces of tribalism and feudalism, which had been reinforced by Saddam Hussein during his wars against the Kurds and Iran, have been further unleashed by the current war. Different sects of political Islam have unleashed a brutal war against women and others. If women could walk in public places more or less freely under the previous regime, now they can do so only in hejab and in the company of male relatives to protect them. Secular voices are being systematically silenced by part of this “resistance,” which exercises real power in the streets. The Shi’ite leadership, which is a major power block in the elected parliament, continues to demand a theocratic political order.

Part of this “resistance” uses methods such as blowing up civilians; their goal is to prevent the occupying power from establishing its client regime in the country, using any possible means. This is a war between two repressive orders: one is made up of political Islam and Ba’thists and the other is the US occupying power. Both sides use similar methods of warfare that qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two years is long enough to predict what kind of regime each side wants to impose on the peoples of Iraq.

The losers in this war are the majority of Iraqis, especially women, workers, peasants, secular people and the urban poor. The winners are a minority, although they are diverse and wield power, including Islamists, tribal and feudal lords, clergymen, new mafias and smuggler rings. The Ba’thists are removed from the seats of state power, but they are everywhere, and the US may eventually negotiate a settlement with them.

Much of the left is unable to see the symbiosis of local reactionaries and imperialism in Iraq, despite a long history of similar experiences. For example, the prominent US socialist James Petras argued in the Winter 2005 Iran Bulletin: Middle East Forum for unconditional support of all the Iraqi “resistance” in his article “Third World resistance and western intellectual solidarity.”


In recent wars in the Middle East, US imperialist power and Islamic fundamentalists are not on the opposite sides of a conflict. They do not form a contradiction. Historically and politically, Islamic fundamentalism and Western capitalism form a symbiosis, not a contradiction. The two sides have coexisted and benefited from this relationship, much as slavery and capitalism or democracy and racial apartheid coexisted in the West for about three centuries. Islamic fundamentalism and capitalism coexist, cohere, coincide and collude.

Equally significant is that there is no convergence of interest between the peoples of the Middle East and theocratic political Islam. There is, however, convergence between fundamentalism and capitalism in their patriarchal, militaristic, despotic, imperialistic and misogynist politics. Both rely on a culture of violence and fear.

If Western imperialist states foster mythologies such as “they do not have a democratic tradition,” much of the left inadvertently plays into this game by denying or forgetting or remaining uninformed about a century of struggles by women, workers, peasants, students, journalists and others in the Middle East. Since the late 1800s, imperial powers in the region have fought these social movements with all their might. As part of its crusade against communism after WWII, the US promoted Islam against the social movements.

Beginning in the late 19th century, democratic movements in the Middle East pursued a project for the separation of state and mosque. This struggle found its most radical _expression in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 in Iran. Throughout the twentieth century, most of the resistance against feudalism and colonialism in the Middle East was inspired and lead by secular leaders, whether leftist, liberal, or conservative. The struggle against patriarchy, too, was primarily led by women and men who were communists and secular liberal democrats.

In the wake of WWII, the US gradually replaced the old colonial powers in the Middle East, Britain and France. In order to defeat both communism and liberal democracy, the US built up despotic military regimes, conducted coups and opposed freedom of the press and academic freedom. Part of this suppression of democracy was the US advice to its client regimes to use Muslim groups and individuals against communism, which in their view included all social movements.

This was done in many cases, including pitting the Muslim clergy against the nationalist regime in Iran in the early 1950s, Saudi Arabia’s use of Islam against Arab nationalist movements in Egypt, Oman and Palestine, the mobilizing, arming and training of any Muslim willing to fight the pro-Soviet regime of Afghanistan in the1980s, Turkey’s use of an Islamic terrorist group against the secular Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Israel’s support of Islamic forces against the Palestinian secular left leadership. When the second revolution in Iran was in the making in 1978, the US and other Western powers supported Islamic fundamentalists directly and indirectly. They could hardly tolerate what they feared would be the loss of Iran to communists, which they associated with Soviet domination over this oil-rich and strategically-vital country.

The anti-communism of the US impeded the struggle for democracy. It paralyzed the fight for separating the state and religion. It helped establish new theocracies in Iran and Afghanistan. While fundamentalist Islamic forces readily compromise with imperialism, they have no intention of offering any concessions to women, workers, national and religious minorities, or feminist, communist, or secular politics. Many leftists in the West fail to understand these dynamics of class struggle. Iraq “liberated” by Ba’thist terrorists or Islamic fundamentalist terrorists will be as reactionary as the client regime which is in the process of creation by the United States. In Iran, communists paid a heavy price by treating Khomeini as a “progressive force” only to be vilified and slaughtered by him once he replaced the Shah. Unlike Iraq’s Islamists and Ba’thists, Khomeini did not yet have blood on his hands when he replaced the Shah.

Western leftists descend into ethnocentrism when they fail to treat the peoples of the Middle East as worthy of struggle for socialism, separation of state and religion, or even liberal democracy. This part of the left is not conscious about the class and gender dimensions of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Iranian theocrats, the Afghan Taliban and the Iraqi Islamists (both Shi’ite and Sunni) want to rule over the peoples and countries of the region. Once they achieve state power, Islamic political forces will conveniently share the booty with the US and its client states in the region. This is not surprising in so far as their main targets are the people and countries they rule or aspire to rule. Since Khomeini’s 1979 assumption of power, political Islam almost everywhere demands no less than state rule.


The struggle of Middle Eastern peoples against political Islam should not be confused with the politics of Islamophobia fostered by the Bush administration in the post-September 11 days. Islamophobia and anti-Arabism, like anti-Semitism, are forms of racism, which the modern Western state appeals to in order to maintain its hegemony in times of crisis. One can oppose both political Islam (by advocating the separation of state and mosque) and Islamophobia.

The struggle against Islamophobia can succeed only if it is a project of overcoming racism, and preventing the transformation of liberal democracy into fascism. Marxists, unlike most liberals, believe that liberal democracy is not simply democracy, it is capitalist democracy. They realize that capitalist democracy can transform into fascism, as it did in the 1930s in Europe. In Germany the transformation occurred through democratic elections. This can happen again, especially under conditions of crisis, or even the perception of a serious crisis. The most liberal of all liberal political philosophers, Michael Ignatieff, defended the US war in Iraq, and used the theory of lesser evil to argue that war, torture and other evils can be used in order to get rid of the great evil of terrorism. If liberal democracy transforms into fascism, citizens of Middle Eastern origins and those practising Islam in Western countries can readily become targets of genocide or end up in concentration camps (as happened to Japanese-Canadians during WW2). Concentration camps and forced population transfers can occur even in the absence of a world war.

The current world situation is developing in a direction that smacks of more setbacks for the people of the world, for the planet and surely for socialists. Capitalism has already divided the world into two types of human beings: those worthy of living and those worthy of dying. The megacities of the world warn us of coming disasters: a planet devastated by the forces of capitalism, with small fortresses in which the rich minority reproduces itself and its rule through sheer military force. During the last reign of fascism, in WW2, communists and socialists were the major force in the struggle for freedom, from the streets of Paris and Milan to the mountains of Greece and China. What role are the forces of the left, especially socialists, playing in the current crisis in which the conflict between reactionaries has overshadowed class and gender struggles?

I began this article with my observation about the situation in Turkey, which-like the worldwide peace marches of February 15, 2003-points in an optimistic direction. In both cases, we see the power of the people of the world to resist repression. However, the spontaneous, ruptured, scattered initiatives of social movements, no matter how powerful they may be, are not a match for the organized power of capitalism. The words of Rosa Luxemburg are more telling today than they were a century ago: “socialism or barbarism.”

Shahrzad Mojab is Associate Professor in the Department of Adult and Counselling Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Toronto (mailto://