Notes: Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows: the Long-term U.S. Alliance With Islamic Fundamentalism: A Talk Delivered to `Friends of Sabeel’ Lecture Series. September 9, 2012. Montview Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado.
Friends of Sabeel
Thank you for this invitation. I am delighted to kick off your monthly speaker series and hope that I can do the series justice with this introductory lecture.
I had hoped that my friend and companero, Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, would join me at the podium today but he came down with a migraine headache which has immobilized him and so I’ll have to proceed on my own. We have given this talk together several times and enjoy each other’s company and respect each other’s viewpoints - although frankly – or world views are quite different. And we have been called many unkind things by detracters, Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince – he, the quirky Imam and myself, the self-hating Jew.
But there is nothing quirky about Ibrahim Kazerooni – he is one of the great and humane minds among us and is, as you know, a veritable expert on the Middle East, its history, its culture, its current complex political developments.
As for myself, I have never been `a self hater’, not of myself or of Judaism as I understand it. It is such a bizarre term if you think about it. Actually, to the contrary, I am quite comfortable being Rob Prince and have always been respectful, even if I am not a religious person, of Judaism, and most especially its commitment to social justice, which is an integral part of the religion, indeed its heart and soul. Such labels as `self-hating’ are used to try to intimidate those of us Jews, who have been openly critical of Israel’s cruel, inexcusable treatment of the Palestinians, who have – in part, precisely because of our Jewish heritage – opposed the Occupation..it is not that I am a `self-hating’ Jew – it is that those who use such language are apologists for that occupation, little more. Indeed, they often cannot even utter `the `O’ word.
As I look around here I am reminded that it is precisely here, at the Montview Presbyterian Church, seven years ago, that the Friends of Sabeel chapter in Colorado was founded. I helped with that founding conference;. Although I knew even then that I would not be an activist with Sabeel, I want to underline my respect – and affection for the organization, and note the importance of its presence here in Colorado. You too have been unfairly smeared, called anti-semites and worse.
We all know that this is nonsense and that the Anti-Defamation League that tried to sabotage that founding conference and undermine the work of Friends of Sabeel would do far better to watchdog groups like Christians United For Israel and like anti-semitic groups, rather than targeting groups like Friends of Sabeel that has, from its beginnings until today, done everything to oppose discrimination, be it among Moslems, Christians and Jews. Your support for Palestinian human rights, for the creation of a viable Palestinian state as proposed by U.N Security Council and General Assembly resolutions is, in fact, the opposite of racism, something that I know – from experience and from my heart, that you oppose as much as I do.
I also want to start off by saluting you for the work you have done and for your efforts, which I know have been frustrating, to strengthen your relations with the mainstream Jewish community. And I hope that you continue in that effort because it is important. We can talk about this more in the question and answer period. (ps. note – and indeed we did)
September 11 in two days
In two days, September 11. As you all know it has become a national day of tragedy. Its possible lessons have been hijacked. Instead of a sober day of reflection, a day to think about what is wrong, immoral but changeable, it has provided a pretext for U.S. foreign policy shifts, stuff was already underway, if you think about it, before 9-11 but has been intensified since.
- A boom to military industries, some of the most important ones located here in Colorado
- A surrealistically high and ever growing military budget at the expense of human needs – education, healthcare, infra-structural development,
- A further militarization of U.S. foreign policy, more aggressive forms of interventionalism…
Justifying intensive forms of torture, assassination as a matter of foreign policy with a president who approves murder by remote control – supposedly on Sundays!…whose name is President Obama is approving for targeting today as we talk; is he fluctuating between watching football games and signing off on targeted killings?
- The killings of former heads of state or political opponents – Saddam, Khadaffi, Osama Bin Laiden
Not just that they were killed but how…all quit brutally, all in the presence of U.S. military people (including Khadaffi) – all brutalized, summarily assassinated, killed like dogs…their deaths – and the killings – for the most part cheered on by the American people – so much so that a presidential hopeful makes a campaign issue out of one of these murders…. There is something obscene about all this…and suggests a new level of barbarism – for the most part publicly supported in US foreign policy. International law, the Geneva Accords be damned!
Of course the pretext for this intensification is the war on terrorism, which despite government denials to the contrary is based largely on `the Islamic fundamentalist’ threat, a card played in a most cynical fashion pretty much everywhere
- let us remember that one of the excuses for the U.S. military invasion of Iraq was supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden – although none existed
- much of current opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state is expressed through `the fear of a Hamas government’ coming to power.
- the war in Afghanistan was based on the pretext of eliminating al Qaeda – although once that was done, the war continued.
For all that there is a certain dichotomy – that often goes unnoticed – with how the United States treats Islamic fundamentalism – specifically, it is portrayed – as everyone in this room knows as the enemy at home. Mosques are spied on, Moslems are picked up off the street and integrated – mostly in an effort to turn them into FBI moles. Acts of violence against Moslems, and a pervasive atmosphere of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab racism is everywhere. Americans have been conditioned to fear Arabs and Moslems; this predates 9-11 but was greatly intensified since.
And yet, the enemy at home is more often than not – the ally abroad, especially in the Middle East.
- It is a curious – but well documented – trend that in many places, and for decades, the United States has funded, given arms to and generally politically supported, either overtly or covertly, radical Islamic fundamentalism
- Further, that this relationship has been critical, in many ways, to U.S. regional goals – control of oil and natural gas, counting democratic movements , including the Arab Spring, protecting strategic choke points.
First let us be clear about a number of points…
1. All the major religions have politicized tendencies – they all have their `fundamentalists’
- Christianity has its John Hagee – the Christian Zionists who would like to promote Middle East war to speed up the second coming. Hagee and his movement – Christians United For Israel – is nothing short of the emerging face of fascism in America. Liberal Zionists should be ashamed to be in alliance with such right-wing zealotry and political trash – but they defend it
- Judaism has its fundamentalists – the zealot settlers who claim the West Bank – and actually all the land between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates as given to the Jews by God. Let us here and now – state unequivocally – that this notion is completely bankrupt; it is racist to the core and should be openly opposed by everyone – not only including Jews, but especially Jews.
- and then there is Islam …a religion of more than a billion people throughout the world. Islamic fundamentalism is actually a small element in the larger picture – but it does exist and is growing due to certain specific causes…
While it takes a number of forms, Islamic fundamentalism today in the Middle East has two main trends: Wahhabism and Salafism.
Like Christian fundamentalism, Salafism is an attempt to `return to the sources’ of the religion, to the origins through the study of `the word’ – in this case the Koran. Like other forms of fundamentalism, Salafism assumes that its interpretation of Islam is the only one…all others are blasphemy. Through this kind of logic it de-legitimizes the entire body of Shi’a religions thinking, many trends of Sunni thinking are also rejected. It is another case of `my way or the highway’ – with no room for any kind of flexibility.
Wabbahism is a little different although it has many of the same aspects – it is the form of Islam preached by Mohammed Ibn Abd al Wahhab, an 18th century Sunni theologian whose fate and ideas have been integrated into the Saudi monarchy. It is fiercely intolerant, again, most especially with other Islamic trends and its history in the late 19th and early 20th century is one that is nothing short of genocide – especially for its Islamic opponents.
Salafism has an older history – it has been around as a conservative trend much longer than Wahhabism, and has its roots, some argue as early as the 9th century, but it is only in the 19th century that the movement began to become politicized – and one might add – manipulated by foreign elements.
Salafism and Wahhabism are brothers in arms and have been for a long time, together they represent – and I do not say this lightly – the most retrograde and reactionary forms of Islam…
Culturally speaking they are retrograde – nothing less.
Let me sight one example – their ideas on the inferior status of women. It is interesting that there is NOTHING in the Koran that suggests that women should have to wear a veil – nothing whatsoever – or not be equal partners with their husbands. In fact, if one looks carefully at the Koran, its views on women are pretty decent for the times in which they were written.
It is not modern Islam that has twisted the role of women, but the Salafist-Wahhabist tendency …
Although I want to concentrate on the U.S. relationship with Salafism and Wahhabism, I would simply note that before the United States entered the picture, the British had made a number of key alliances with radical Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.
Without British arms and money, it is very likely that the House of Saud would have collapsed before World War I..The British understood that conservative Islam could serve their interests.
For the United States, the key alliance – which has proved to be the most enduring and one of the most politically success ones in modern history – is the U.S-Saudi relationship.
Although the U.S. discovered oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, the strategic relationship between the two countries was not really cemented until 1945 when Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud on a U.S. destroy, off the southern rim of the Suez Canal in Egypt.
As Michael T. Klare describes the meeting
“on the one side, the acknowledged leader of the Allied powers and a passionate defender of democratic ideals; on other side, an absolute monarch who had never traveled farther from home than neighboring Kuwait and adhered to an extremely strict form of Islam. Among Ibn Saud’s entourage of 45 retainers were Bedouin bodyguards, household slaves and the royal astrologer”
As’ad Abukhalil in his The Battle for Saudi Arabia adds texture to Klare’s comments
“It was the first time that Ibn Saud, 69 at the time, had met a non-Muslim head of state. There were unlimited accounts of the 69 sheep that Ibn Saud insisted on accompanying him on the U.S. ship that took him to meet the American president. As Ibn Saud finished watching a U.S. propaganda documentary (while his sons were watching non-documentaries without their father’s knowledge, he commented about the movies, “I doubt whether my people should have moving pictures like this…it would give them an appetite for entertainment that would distract them from their religious duties. All of Ibn Saud’s successors have agreed with him, and movies have yet to be permitted in Saudi Arabia”
What does this strategic alliance have to do with Salafism?
Actually quite alot…
The parameters of the agreement were this essentially.
- That the United States would support the Saudi family in power in exchange for the free flow of oil at conditions favorable to the U.S. and western oil companies
- That U.S. oil companies would dominate the relationship with Saudi Arabia
- That Saudi Arabia would support, in a general way, U.S. strategic interests in the region which corresponded to the Saudi regime’s survival
- That in exchange for guaranteeing the free flow of oil, the U.S. would not interfere with or concern itself with matters internal to the Saudi regime, translation: the Saudi regime could continue its repressive political and religious policies without U.S. interference.
Why talk about this? Because Saudi Arabia is the engine of radical Islamic militarism in the Middle East and beyond…
V.. let us look at how the relationship has been used…in the past and in the present
The United States has allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism whenever its strategic position in the Middle East has been threatened. I will sight a number of examples, but first to explain the dynamic
What was – and what remains – the main threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East – It is not now nor has it ever really been Communism.
Instead it was/and is independent forms of Arab and Iranian Nationalism – which different U.S. administration have confused with communism, although they are quite different.
The main driving force for change in the Arab world for the past 100 years has been nationalism. Earlier on it was an attempt to free the region from different forms of colonialism (direct and indirect); in the post independence period it has been the struggle against neo-colonialism – also referred to as globalization, or in the language of the now mostly dead secular left – imperialism.
In any case, the Arab nationalist movements were `mixed movements ‘ – secular elements mixed with Islamic movements, peasants and merchants found themselves in alliance with one another, factory owners and workers the same. To call them `secular’ movements is an overstatement although the secular elements were often strong.
The United States was uncertain about how Arab nationalists would respond to nationalizing energy resources, to engaging in pro-American security alliances and whenever and wherever these movements grew, the U.S. tried to undermine and destroy them – it is still doing that.
For generations what did this mean?
It mean funding, arming, training Islamic fundamentalist movements in these countries.
The Egyptian Case
The classic case was the U.S. and British support for the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt. During the Nasser years, there was close, covert cooperation, today well documented – between the U.S. and the Brotherhoods, with the Saudi’s playing a pivotal role as well.
= The Brotherhoods engaged in thug tactics – as the Salafists are today in Tunisia, Libya – against the secular opposition.
= They worked through mosques that were in many cases Saudi funded and staffed with Salafist and Wahhabist trained clerics
= Nasser first tried to co-opt these movements; when that failed, he tried to crush them and went a long way in achieving that goal; but many of them escaped to Saudi where they found refuge, to be sent back into Egypt again after Nasser’s death
In the case of Nasser who nationalized the Suez Canal and engaged in radical land reform, the U.S. – Islamic fundamentalist alliance was a classic case of divide and conquer – splitting the opposition movement and weakening it until it was eliminated.
The Arab Spring
The same dynamics are working today throughout the Middle East –
Keep in mind that the uprising known as the Arab Spring was triggered by economic hardship and unemployment, massive corruption and repression. The Islamic movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere were generally not involved.
These were not uprisings to institute shari’a but for the creation of more democratic, more open, economically fairer societies –and were in large measure a response to U.S. and European economic penetration of the region coupled with World Bank and IMF crippling structural adjustment policies.
The rise of Islamic movements in the Arab countries has a number of historic roots – failure of secular models to address fundamental problems, but also this movement comes with a great deal of outside financial and political support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar (another center of Salafism). Raising cultural (religious questions) is a way of splitting the coalition that could have come to power, weakening it and ultimately channeling the changes in such a way so that they will maintain the status quo in two fundamental ways
- That the new governments will continue to have the same strategic relationship with the United States (more or less) as they had in the past
- That the new governments will follow economic policies no different from in the past – linking their economies to the global economy along WB-IMF structural adjustment lines (as mentioned above), thus greatly frustrating the ability for domestic economic developments.
With these two conditions met, the United States really doesn’t seem to care how it is that the new governments – especially now in Tunisia and Egypt – treat their people; and if it is along more Salafist lines so be it.
Interestingly for all their cultural backwardness – and by this I mean in Islamic and not necessarily Western terms – the new Islamic governments follow neo-liberal economic policies and to some degree even more than the regimes that they have replaced.
Makes one wonder if the Arab Spring has led to a more far reaching transition or if it is, when all is said and done, little more than all the change necessary to maintain the status quo.