Challenging the Empire

Washington, DC

At the end of last month, the Third Cairo Conference was held in Egypt.
Under a banner that read, “The International Campaign Against the
Occupation of Palestine and Iraq,” the conference brought together an impressive swathe of political trends and groups, including Islamists, Arab nationalists, socialists, students, elected officials, and workers. This unity has been critical in building the local Egyptian anti-war and globalization movement, and is a lesson often lost with U.S. organizers. Because of the broad coalition building, it is increasingly difficult for Mubarak’s regime to repress the Left in Egypt. The growing strength of the Left, in turn, has given confidence to the larger population, as can be witnessed by the several-months occupation of workers in an asbestos factory, and the uprisings of peasants in the countryside over land disputes.

The Cairo Conference organizers distinguished several major events in the Middle East that had occurred since the previous conference in December 2002. These events are important for we in the U.S. anti-war movement to also note.

1. In Iraq, despite the massacres by the U.S. military in Fallujah, Najaf, Karbelaa, Mousel, and other cities, Iraqi resistance against the occupation has increased, deepened, and broadened across Iraqi society. The U.S. government itself numbers the resistance at 200,000: a number that cannot be blithely dismissed as a motley band of radical insurgents. This outstanding number is also importantly comprised of both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Thus, it is a resistance of solidarity among the Iraqi population, not a handful of fanatical Saddam Hussein loyalists, members of Al Qaida, or non-Iraqi Arab militants, no matter how the Pentagon tries to paint a portrait (and encourage the formation) of a sectarian civil war, divided by religion. It is critical to recognize that the United States is definitively not winning militarily in Iraq, in addition to worsening crises back at home with recruiting. The fact that the main artery, from the Baghdad airport to the heart of the city, is not under U.S. control, is informing.

2. In Palestine, the building of the apartheid wall continues, settlements in the West Bank are expanding, and Palestinian cities are still being attacked by the Israeli armies. Not only is this war on the Palestinian people being waged with full military and political support by the United States government, but the other Arab regimes in the region are stabilizing their relations with Israel, implicitly condoning the Zionist occupation through hosting state visits by Sharon, and returning the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Tel Aviv. Throughout this normalization of relations among the rulers, the Palestinian Intifada is vilified by Western and Arab administrations and through Western media especially. In spite of this oppression, the resistance in Palestine remains, and the people are steadfast in their right of return, their right to Jerusalem, and their refusal to relinquish any more of the West Bank. The recent local council elections overwhelmingly supporting Hamas verify these demands.

3. The United States is looming threateningly over the rest of the Middle East as well. There is an increase of pressure on the Syrian and Lebanese governments to silence popular resistance from below, as well as serious talk of military intervention in those countries. In Egypt, repression of political dissent abounds as anti-war activists are routinely arrested and tortured. Just recently, a peasant woman was murdered by police in a violent and humiliating round-up of women designed to bait the resisting male peasants to come forward.

Clearly through these examples occurring in the Middle East, there is an undeniable connection between struggles for democracy and the struggle against imperialism and Zionism. Within these struggles by the people there exists a firm refusal of the larger Middle East project being waged by the U.S. administration, which includes the imposition of neoliberalism in the region, and the submission and allegiance of the Arab regimes’ administrations to U.S. neocolonialism.
How Their Struggles Inform Our Movement: Some Theory

Strategically, the Cairo Conference demonstrated the absolute importance of the merging of the global justice movement with the anti-war movement. As in Western Europe, where we see the most massive anti-war demonstrations taking place, strength comes from the sum of the two movements merging and making the crucial and manifest links of imperialism, war and the economic system. Being the paramount victims of U.S. imperialism, activists in the Middle East are inescapably bound by that linkage. However, history’s previous modern imperial power and the remaining key “willing” coalition member, Great Britain, today faces some of the largest anti-war shows of force in its streets. What are some of the dynamics whose absence hinders the U.S. movement from taking greater strides?

There are three initial theoretical implications that arise from an analysis of these dynamics. The adoption of these implications in our organizing framework is crucial in order to push forward successfully, and to build enough momentum to continue struggling beyond the occupation of Iraq.

1. Anti-Imperialism. The first implication is to simultaneously build an anti-imperialist movement, as we build the anti-war movement. An anti-imperialist movement will situate within our present work U.S. military endeavors since World War II, and give our movement a history and theoretical foundation which is today in a weakened state. Deconstructing imperialism will also allow our movement to identify with current domestic crises, and give us the theoretical tools to identify and build broad coalitions with the masses of working people in the United States who also suffer from imperialism through such projects as the War on Drugs, union-busting, the prison-industrial-complex, and the two-corporate-party electoral system.

The anti-war movement must develop an understanding that the war in Iraq is linked inextricably to the entire neo-liberal project. As The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman has unequivocally stated, in an analysis cheerleading Madeline Albright’s State Department, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force Navy and Marine Corps.”

Debates within the movement cannot avoid questions of the state, and of empire. And this rests on the redefining of what democracy really is, and what it would look like if truly crafted by the people. The imperialists’ vision of democracy is having the choice between Pepsi and Coke, the option of the red SUV or the black, the vote for the balding pro-war candidate or the well-coiffed one. We in the anti-war movement must strongly challenge the idea that there can be a separation between economics and politics. Without a democratic economy, there can be no political democracy.

George Bush, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates They also want democracy. They also want freedom. But they want that freedom and democracy for multinational corporations and capital, not for people. Democracy is not just a question of voting in a political arena. There arises a question of representation: Who speaks for the people who do not vote, who do not have health care? Who speaks for the millions of worldwide victims of IMF and World Bank policies? A genuine democracy comes from the allowance of participatory debates and discussions of the people who can then put their ideas into practice within all societal spheres. Without the economic sphere also democratized, we will be faced with the crises and failures such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world.

Real democracy comes from peoples’ freedom and unfettered participation in the marketplace, as well as other sectors. This is why protests in the streets, social forums, and rallies are actually a higher form of democracy and must be supported and built. These higher forms of democracy give participants confidence to vote for anti-war candidates, to lodge complaints at their representatives’ offices, to unionize in their workplaces, and to complain in the pages of their local newspapers.

2. Zionism. The second implication is the need for the U.S. anti-war movement to understand the myths and roots of Zionism, how it is a highly developed form of imperialism rooted in anti-Semitism, and how Zionism presently aids and abets the United States’ project in the Middle East.

Zionism is a fold within imperialism, it is a form contextualized in cynicism and configured by racism. Through Zionism, the Jewish people, no less, are forced into a contradictory historical role by anti-Semitic imperialists. It is with Zionism and the occupation of Palestine that the Jewish people lose their history and their humanity. Zionism dictates that Jewish society begins in 1948, with the occupation of Palestine. Churchill, who found providing refuge for the persecuted Jews of Russia and Poland unsavory, embraced Zionism and encouraged the Jewish settlements in Palestine. Zionism is spawned by anti-Semitism, as it rid Europe of the Jews. After World War II, the emergent victor and military superpower, The United States, took over controlling the Zionist colony of Israel. Also not wanting to harbor the Jews, the United States government encouraged Holocaust survivors settling in Palestine. Parallel to this continued geopolitical carving up of the Middle East, the state of Israel became the watchdog of the region for Western powers, or as Reagan called it, the “warship.”

U.S. taxpayers give $10 billion a year to fuel the Israeli military. This is the largest amount of our country’s foreign aid budget, (followed, incidentally by the $2 billion that Egypt annually receives, which has amounted to $40 billion since 1978). Addressing the imperialistic nature of Zionism and halting its funding will lead to the dismantling of the genocidal project against the Palestinians. Addressing Zionism will also then lead to the anti-war movement’s preparation for the U.S. government’s hostile advances on other countries in the Middle East.

3. Fighting Islamaphobia. The third step is to directly address Islamaphobia, the invisibility of the Muslim culture in our country, and the racist attacks on Muslim communities through special registrations, the Patriot Act, Identification cards, and other heinous offshoots of “Homeland Security” and “The War on Terror.” It is through our collective ignorance of the whole of the Middle East that allowed the majority of Americans to confuse Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan with Iraq, and individual well-funded terrorists from Saudi Arabia with the thoroughly devastated people of Iraq.

Accepting responsibility for learning about the culture and people of this region, the cradle of civilization, will enable the U.S. anti-war movement to help prevent further and presently looming attacks by our government on the people of Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Breaking down the “us” vs. “them” mentality will encourage bridge-building between mosques and churches, synagogues and temples. Interfaith organizing has been a keystone for the anti-war movements in other countries. Amidst the post-9/11 hate rhetoric propagated by the Administration, we in the United States have been missing a crucial ally in the movement against war and occupation in Iraq and Palestine: the Muslim communities.

Muslim communities today domestically are attacked through a mixture of old-fashioned anti-immigrant sentiment and new myths about those who practice Islam. What fuels this refashioned racism is the need to justify the imperialist assault on the Middle East, particularly following September 11, 2001. Misunderstanding and racist rhetoric are deliberately fostered in order to carry out the project in the Middle East ­ and was used successfully to cast off serious and truthful investigation of the attacks on September 11 which would reveal the inevitable blowback response of those being crushed by the United States’ imperial drive.

Although Bush is a Christian fundamentalist, it is painfully naïve to view the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq as products of hatred of Islam by George Bush, Tony Blair, and members of their administrations. The fundamentalist right in the Republican Party backed Islamist forces-including Osama Bin Laden-in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Russian occupation. What the U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office presented was an image of moral, devout Muslims fighting the “evil, godless empire” of the Soviet Union. Five years ago Blair and U.S. president Bill Clinton said they were “protecting Muslims” in Kosovo by bombing Serbia, whose main religion is Orthodox Christianity.

The rise in Islamophobia today is a result of the wars, occupations and attempts to crush all opposition to imperialism. Islam, like any other deep religious feeling, breeds among the oppressed in society. Movements based on it have grown as people have looked for answers to explain their experience of oppression. Non-religious leaders have not proposed alternative explanations. Across the Middle East these leaders have ended up in accord with imperialism, which is the source of people’s discontent. The clearest example is in Egypt, in response to the accommodation and then collusion by Sadat (making peace with Israel) and Mubarak (supporting the Gulf War) with Western rulers. Egypt is one of many corrupt regimes in the region, where the rulers and their coterie enjoy lives of fabulous luxury while the vast majority live in poverty. Ordinary people feel betrayed, and Islamism (called Islamic fundamentalism in the West) appears to offer the alternative they are looking for. It is not coincidental that Osama Bin Laden presents anti-imperialist arguments in his appeals for public support.

In response to this rally against imperialism, the U.S. government stirs up patriotic and racist rhetoric. Racism is essential for justifying any imperialist war. The Vietnamese were called “gooks” during the Vietnam War. People of African descent were portrayed a hundred years ago, even in children’s books, as savages or as immature caricatures of white people. Today, for the United States to justify the bombing of wedding parties and torturing prisoners it must present the victims as less human than people whose tax dollars are paying for that torture and bombing. In order to justify a new world order on the people of the Middle East, claims must be made that these people are too backward to manage their own affairs, and too irrational to accept the crushing neoliberal policies enforced by the Pentagon.

So we see Iraqi deaths not officially counted and thus the dehumanization of the Iraqi people. And although the U.S. government has tried to distinguish between “bad” Muslims, who oppose the West, and “good” Muslims who can be accepted as proper citizens, the problem remains that most Muslims, while wanting nothing to do with terrorism, rightly oppose imperialism in the Middle East and the United States’ support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Therefore, Bush and Blair still portray Muslims as being on the opposite side of a “clash of civilizations” — a phrase coined by propagandist Samuel Huntington, who identified possible threats to U.S. imperial power and divided the world into “civilizations” that were either friends or enemies of that power. Presciently, he wrote of a supposed “Islamo-Confucian” civilization, which conveniently lumped together the Middle East and China as joint enemies of all that is good in the world.

With African Americans comprising 30% of the 6-7 million estimated Sunni
Muslims in the United States, and another 4.6% consisting of Sub-Saharan
Africans and people from the Caribbean, according to the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, a racist structure is already in place in this country for its Muslim majority. This existing racism facilitates the imperialists’ efforts to place the blame for domestic social and economic crises on an already oppressed and much-maligned population. Abroad, part of the growth of Islamism can be attributed to the growing resentment of ordinary people who are vehemently opposed to the visceral might of Western powers and their own rulers’ refusal to stand up against imperialism. Clearly the anti-war movements must continue vigorous outreach and bridge-building, and need to do so by taking an absolutely unwavering stand against U.S. imperialism and Empire-building.
Conclusion: Battling Imperialism, Zionism, and Islamaphobia

In summary, the United States’ imperialist Middle East Project has also necessitated a “war on terror” directed at the significant Muslim population in the West. Muslims face scapegoating as did previous generations of immigrants for the social and economic crises domestically, and at the same time are held up as a threat from abroad. In this respect Islamophobia is similar to the anti-Semitism that took root in the early decades of the last century. Jews were simultaneously accused of corrupting society from within and forming an international conspiracy from without. Similar slurs about cultural backwardness and religious fanaticism were hurled at Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who were trying to take refuge in the United States and Western Europe. Some Jews understandably reacted to this rising hostility by clinging closer to their religion. In this climate of fear, the imperialist anti-Semitic project of Zionism was able to take root. Zionism today allows for the collusion of Arab regimes with the United States Empire-building throughout the Middle East.

In the U.S. anti-war movement, we must therefore create a jihad, a “struggle” and “effort against oppression and evil.” This jihad must be against Islamaphobia. This jihad must be against Zionism. This jihad must be against imperialism. What this jihad must be for is a true democracy, created by the ordinary working people around the globe, a participating and engaged people who are empowered to carry out the decisions won through debates in a democratized public sphere.
Practically Speaking: Steps for Building the American Jihad Against U.S.

The demand of the anti-war movement is the immediate return of the troops from Iraq. What this will do is create a failure for the U.S. administration abroad in its quest for geopolitical dominance, and deepen the crisis for the U.S. administration domestically. In this light, it is important to support the right of the people in Iraq and Palestine to resist their occupations. Although there is room for strong debate of tactics and targets of the Iraqi Insurgency and the Palestinian Intifada, each day that they resist means the United States has one day less to invade Syria, Iran, or Lebanon; each day they resist means the United States is one day closer to losing their drive for militaristic hegemony; each day they resist is one more day that the culture, land, and people of the Middle East will not be co-opted and homogenized by the multinational corporations salivating to economically slash and burn the region, Argentina-style.

Two campaigns to be taken up that encompass the anti-imperialist tools necessary to sustain the movement beyond the occupation of Iraq are already in the works, initiated by United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest anti-war coalition. The first campaign, which was voted on unanimously by delegates to the recent UFPJ assembly, focuses on pressuring state governors to recall the National Guards. The second is a counter-recruitment campaign that targets recruitment centers in communities and recruiting offices on school and college campuses.

The National Guard/Governors campaign and counter-recruitment activity are intelligent strategic next steps for the anti-war movement. Critically, success of these activities would translate to an enormous cut in the supply of labor, as upwards of 50% of U.S. troops in Iraq are now reservists or National Guardists. Coupled with the military’s recruiting crisis at home, where Army and Marines’ enlistment has dropped precipitously, the shortage of labor creates a serious and practical problem for the administration, over and above the burgeoning public opinion crisis about the honesty, legitimacy, and necessity of the administration’s meddling in the Middle East, over and above the severe underestimation of the Iraqi resistance and the time and resources necessary to truly occupy the country.

Encompassed within these campaigns are the nascent critiques of the consequences of a militarized society, the understanding of which is important for the building of an anti-imperialist movement. Central to these campaigns is the education component about the local costs of war. Thus, we can help reveal the dollar amount which citizens of each city and state pays for the Iraq war and occupation (see, for example, These amounts can then be dramatically revealed, with of course the recognition of the alternative “positive” purchasing power of this money: for health care and hospitals, dignified jobs with living wages, schools and youth programs, and art, music, and recreational projects, among others.

These campaigns also help welcome and include important allies to the anti-war movement. Military families and veterans against the war have proven throughout history to be the most influential and legitimate participants in anti-war movements. With counter-recruitment efforts, we are also building ties to students and youth, particular young people of color and the working classes. Organizing alongside young people, strengthening inter-generational ties, means a rich exchange of experience and fresh energy and ideas.

Throughout these two particular campaigns, deliberate and consistent outreach must be made to the Muslim community. These two campaigns allow for tight networking on local levels, privileging grassroots building that will translate into stronger ties beyond the U.S. occupation of Iraq. These ties must be anti-racist and anti-imperialist. With the National Guard campaign targeting governors, and the counter-recruitment campaign, there are clear connections for anti-racist and anti-imperialist movement building. Teach-ins and educational events addressing Islamaphobia and Zionism should nurture the calls for action regarding the National Guard troops and counter-recruitment activity. In this nature, and with successful outcomes of these campaigns, we carve out the beginnings of a world without empire and war.

VIRGINIA RODINO is a director of Democracy Rising and on the Administrative Steering Committee of United for Peace and Justice. This essay solely reflects her opinion, and she wishes to thank John Rees, John Rose (particularly for the section on Zionism), Chris Bamberry, Michelle Robidoux, participants of the Third Cairo Conference, and The Socialist Worker in Britain for providing information included in this work. You can comment on this column by visiting her blogspot on DemocracyRising.US.