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Capital Strikes Back

by Hani Shukrallah

Berlusconi apologised; Bush forswore a Crusade (even in “the broad sense of the word”); the war in defence of “Western civilisation” was toned down to a war in defence of freedom for everybody; and Infinite Justice became Enduring Freedom. Sensible Muslim leaders applauded expressions of Western sensitivity to Muslim sensitivities, and such were the prerequisites of political expedience that Western political leaders began to sound like Azharite sheikhs, preaching to all and sundry the true meaning of Islam.

It’s not working. Bombs, after all, will be bombs. They kill and devastate; people die; families are shattered; homes are destroyed; lives and livelihoods, just as sure as limbs and bodies, are broken beyond repair — all of which is brutally, heartlessly concrete (“the proof of the pudding”).

And let’s not fool each other or ourselves. Nobody really believes the sudden sensitisation, in New York and London or in Islamabad and Cairo. Muslim rage is all the rage in the Western media. Meanwhile, every two-bit academic who has, with career- minded farsightedness and, often (overt and/ or covert) governmental connections, plagiarised other two-bit career-minded, etc. academics to write a PhD thesis, monograph or book on Islam, has become an “expert” in high demand.

It is a clear case of “white man speak with forked tongue,” sad to say. The leaders speak in easily decipherable code, at once swearing themselves blue in the face that the West is not at war with Islam — “Islam is a religion of peace”, etc. — while continuing to use the “trigger words” that incite the very feelings of cultural, religious and racial superiority, bigotry and hatred they claim to refute.

Huntington, all but consigned to well- deserved oblivion during the past few years, has been revived with a vengeance. Commentators vie to expound their particular take on the essential attributes of Islamic civilisation, culture, and contemporary world, and the “Clash of Civilizations” is back in fashion. Royalties are rolling in. Even Francis Fukuyama, a rival and equally prosaic prophet of post-Cold War capitalist triumphalism (and US policy-making circles), has jumped on the bandwagon of anti- Islamic rhetoric. His “end of history” thesis (all world societies have no option but to adopt Western democracy and market-based economy, proven to be the summit of human progress) has not been proven wrong, he asserted in an article in the Wall Street Journal. He goes on to concede, however, that “there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least the fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been dominant in recent years, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity.”

For a fairly short piece, Fukuyama’s is a veritable mine of precious gems. “Of all contemporary cultural systems, the Islamic world has the fewest democracies,” he informs his readers. In fact, he goes on to clarify, only one Islamic country qualifies (as a democracy): Turkey. This latter assertion (apparently so self- evident it is made in parenthesis) is so fantastic as to lead one to the conclusion that Mr Fukuyama must base his writing on one of two assumptions: either his readers are utter ignoramuses or they are fully complicit in an entirely cynical and arbitrary definition of democracy. A democracy is simply what we say is a democracy — and let the Devil take care of the rest (including thousands of killed, tortured and imprisoned Kurds, banned political movements and parties, gagged journalists and writers and a state and society made hostage to the generals’ goodwill).

Fukuyama’s fundamental dilemma, however, lies elsewhere. Other non-Western people may be having problems in their progression towards the Western ideal (and, hence, history’s peak), but “there are no insuperable cultural barriers to prevent them from getting there.” It does seem, however, that such barriers may exist in the case of Muslims, suggests a troubled Fukuyama. After all, “Islam… is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel.”

The well-connected Washington ideologue approves the Western leaders’ change of tone. Their assertions “that those sympathetic with the terrorists are a ‘tiny minority’ of Muslims [are] important… to prevent all Muslims from becoming targets of hatred” — and, we might add, to draw friendly Islamic states into the war- against-terrorism alliance, while maintaining as far as possible their fragile political stability. He readily admits, however, that such assertions are merely expedient. The real issue, Fukuyama tells us, is that “if the [Muslim] rejectionists are more than a lunatic fringe, then Huntington is right that we are in for a protracted conflict made dangerous by virtue of their technological empowerment.”

But what if it is? This, after all, is not a struggle between “equal cultures fighting amongst one another like the great powers of 19th- century Europe.” The West, and in particular, America, Fukuyama is confident, will ultimately prevail.

Fukuyama meets Huntington courtesy of Bin Laden — a synthesis of nonsense has been achieved.

There is tremendous irony in all of this. The expedient and transparent hypocrisy visible in the Western leaders’ change of tone provides inadequate tactical cover for the bigger (strategic) lie of the confrontation between the West and Islam, but in lying twice they actually point to the truth.

The secret buried beneath all the rubbish, both tactical and strategic, can be found in the shifting fortunes of Huntington and Fukuyama themselves. Their initial renown was a product of the “winds of change” that swept across Eastern Europe a little over a decade ago. Against the drumbeats of Western capitalist triumphalism, the US-led Gulf War slipped into the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over.

That did not last. In less than 10 years, the tunes of global capital’s victory march had dimmed to a distant murmur. Democracy was no longer a malleable propaganda instrument to be manipulated cynically by the US and its Western allies. Rather, it had become the battle cry of a growing resistance movement against capitalist globalisation. World Bank and IMF officials were scavenging for capitalism’s human face; spin had all but replaced politics; the WTO was in the process of replacing parliaments; America had an elected president who had lost the election and the global economy was slowly but surely sinking into recession. Fukuyama and Huntington were silent.

Now they’re back.

At its heart, the war of civilisations (or merely the West versus Islam) is no more than the fantastically fetishised expression of global capital’s battle against genuine (rather than Turkish-style) democracy — everywhere. Things, as everybody knows, are rarely ever what they seem.

Hani Shukrallah writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram newspaper.

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