From the campaigns in support of Oscar Grant, killed in Oakland in 2009 and Trayvon Martin, murdered in Florida in February 2012, to the events in Ferguson and New York in 2014, a new vibrant movement has emerged among Black and Brown youth and thousands of their supporters to confront the routine killing of young men of color (and women) across the US. These deaths and protests have revealed the contemporary face of institutionalized racism in the US and have reinforced the knowledge that white supremacy is protected by the judicial system, law enforcement, the media, and Obama’s Dept. of Justice.These institutions facilitate continuing abuses by refusing or neglecting to reverse grave injustice in local communities, in contrast with what Democratic administrations did (if rarely and reluctantly) in the 1960s. Mass protests have provoked predictable reactions from oblivious local authorities, who emphasized the criminality of young Black men, the prospect of looting, undocumented immigrants, and the threat of radical Muslims, from whom the they have supposedly been hired to protect the public. Mass protests, walkouts, and blockades have continued in this new year, as have jihadi and drone attacks as the MLK holiday was marked on January 19.
Prior to the Black Lives Matter protests, First Nations peoples across Canada and their allies across the border challenged Canada’s violation of First Nations’ sovereignty in their legislative assault on protection of lands, streams, and rivers, in the service of extractive industries. Protests have also demanded an end to the Harper Government’s silence over the murders and disappearances of indigenous women from rural British Columbia to Ottawa, in the Idle No More movement of 2012-14. As part of this struggle for indigenous political power and the reclamation of their lands, protests, hunger strikes, and blockades have challenged the plethora of reactionary legislation, Athabasca Tar Sands shale oil extraction, near Fort McMurray, Alberta and plans for new systems of fracking, pipelines and terminals across the continent. An unprecedented coalition of environmentalist/climate change activists and indigenous peoples is still coalescing. Similarly, Latina/o movements have contested the mass deportations and detention camps for the undocumented across the US for years, including the rape of female inmates, during Obama’ s unprecedented attacks on migrant communities, while he cynically counts on their support for Democratic Party electoral campaigns. In all of these movements, activists are forcing concessions and gaining mass popular support.
The earlier Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 were a delayed reaction to the economic crisis of 2008 and despite the lack of strategy and specific demands articulated by the major organizers, the challenge to Wall Street and neoliberal capitalism itself was unmistakable. Police repression of the various urban encampments from Zacotti Park to Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of City Hall, was intensely violent. The public shrugged as protestors were demonized and brutal attacks by the police were justified and normalized by city officials and the media. Obama’s Government was silent yet again as the cherished “rights” of dissident speech and stubborn assembly of Occupy activists were erased by force of arms. People of color were at the forefront of organizing in Oakland due to the prior campaign for justice for Oscar Grant, and In New York, OWS contributed to the ongoing confrontation with racist stop and frisk policies of the NYPD, and joined the call for comprehensive immigration reform. The national focus on inequality and Wall Street hegemony has still not faded and socialism has become far more attractive among the young in the West than it has been for decades. Socialist and Occupy leader Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle’s City Council and she led the 15 Now Campaign to a modestly successful minimum wage hike last year, which has now spread to other cities. Across the Atlantic, the Syriza Party’ s dramatic victory in Greece, and the likelihood of the same for Podemos in Spain, both born of Occupy-style mass uprisings. They have signaled dramatic leftward shifts in Europe, and by intensifying opposition to austerity policies, both have real opportunities to test the possibilities of electoral strategies for radical structural economic change. Whether they can effectively contest German-led, EU neoliberalism (remember the once insuperable World Bank, IMF, and WTO?) and find lines of flight out of the abyss of the 2008 Wall Street-induced meltdown remains to be seen.
The significance of these more-than-spontaneous expressions of outrage and the determination to seek intersecting forms of justice are obvious, but the focus on immediate reforms, however necessary, won’t alter the institutional role of the police, the courts, and the banks, to protect the property of the economic elites and ensure that no social movement to overthrow their system can survive. Similarly, the role of the police to reinforce white supremacy in society and the economy more generally will not change when executives and state militias are more diverse. These new movements, if they are to survive, cannot be a replay of previous Civil Rights Movements either, because the “rights” secured in one era have the nasty habit of eroding and vanishing in the next. In Greece and Spain, as dramatic a break as possible will be necessary to survive the neoliberal stranglehold imposed by Germany, as leader of the EU, and the their banks. In the U.S., people of color will become the majority in the US in a few short decades, and these converging movements might prepare for a decisive dismantling of white supremacy and a thorough remaking of the West’s economy and other institutions. A reorientation of US and European relations to the rest of the world is also of utmost importance, especially with the Muslim world, but just as significantly with Africa, Asia, and Latin America, not to mention the rapist/predatory relationship to indigenous peoples, women, and the biosphere.
As this is being written, Ferguson activists have just gone to Palestine on a delegation to observe repression in the Israeli context, just as Palestinians visited Ferguson as the protests developed there last Fall. Stanford University students in the Bay Area blocked the San Mateo Bridge across the Bay on MLK Day, while Palestinian flags were unfurled. In the recent past, similar linkages have been drawn between the indigenous peoples of the Americas (from Chiapas to Bolivia) with Muslims in Palestine, Egypt, and Libya. Walls at the Mexican-US border and across the West Bank look increasingly identical, as do the checkpoints. In Olympia, Washington, hundreds of Muslims lobby state legislators for additional low income housing funding every year on MLK Day. These remarkable relationships revive the type of bonds created with Vietnamese, South Africans, and Central Americans in radical movements in decades past. These are very fruitful and necessary alliances, as the militarization of local police forces since the War on Terror so clearly exemplifies.
As the new year unfolds, the Western and Muslim worlds are now subject to the renewed hysteria over Salafist Islamists who have assassinated the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in their offices, and others have been killed, arrested and accused of impending operations in Belgium and Cueta (a Spanish colony on the Mediterranean coast, in Morocco). The wars in Syria and Iraq are said to have spread to new front lines in Europe (according to Jim Sciutto, of CNN), xenophobes rally in Dresden and Leipzig, and counter-terrorism ideologues claim new urgency and relevance. The public is being warned of the increasing need for vigilance, border control, and law and order across the West, as the freedom of speech and public safety is declared to be yet again under threat by heavily armed and professionally trained “religious fanatics”and “extremists”of radical Islam. As the Arab Rebellions continue to unravel a century of Western designs on the region, dangerous women, hidden by their notorious veils (hijab, niqab, chador, burqa, et al) are thought to mysteriously slip through dragnets and across borders to plot and finance further attacks! Gaza has been wrecked and Iraq remains a smoldering ruin, but the adolescent proclivity to insult the religious and engineer hyper-security for shopping must be our abiding preoccupations!
The “fighting words” of the European cartoons and Islam-hating crowds more broadly, may be examples of free speech, whatever that mythic Western fetish might imply at any given time, but they are also belligerent pathologies that inevitably provoke retaliation, as even Pope Francis has so adroitly observed. Fighting words, and other forms of incitement, libel and unnecessary endangerment of the public are not (or should not be) protected by the First Amendment or its European equivalents. These forms of language involve risks and cannot be reliably defended by or disguised behind the law. Radicals should certainly not expect legal or constitutional protection for their speech, for it will rarely be in the offing. Strange how the “free” speech of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and John Kiriakou has proven to be so costly, but the right to repeatedly publish Islam-hating images and texts, while censoring anti-Semitism, elicits a rally of millions in Paris. The notion of free speech under white supremacy and western hegemony, among other Western values, famously tempted Frantz Fanon to reach for his machete. They are fighting words.
Of course, fighting and killing in and of themselves, especially of non-combatants, are clearly far from noble, as the religious and pacifists among us so often point out. The Islamic tradition denounces mere fighting as “fitna” and many Muslims regard a whole range of Islamist fighters, but obviously not all, as engaged in just that kind of self-serving, opportunistic, or even deranged conflict, even if desperate conditions and rancid regimes sometimes make such destructive paroxysm comprehensible. Of course, violence can never be the only form of meaningful political engagement, even under colonial occupation, as Mahmood Mamdani as wisely cautioned ( in his book, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”). Likewise, those that use radical protests in the US as an arena for self-aggrandizement or access to costly consumer goods are often anathema to the pursuit of social justice. But historically, it has often been extremely difficult to clearly separate the wheat from the chaff in revolutionary or crisis situations. Most of us are extremely complex persons, with mixed motives, and we work for change, while also motivated by other aims not consciously recognized or admitted. Revolutions have been notorious for involving criminal elements as foot soldiers or even leaders, whom may occasionally be morally reformed in the process (Conversely, revolutionary or insurgent violence may also be a source of moral corruption).
Those who advocate violence are often provocateurs who seek to discredit popular movements. To make things even more convoluted, some victims of police violence may themselves be guilty of criminal and antisocial acts against people in their own communities before they are arrested, beaten or killed. Street violence can also paradoxically, contribute substantially to progressive change, as for example when the threat of looting and property destruction force elites to enact reforms to prevent further chaos. As so many commentators conveniently condemn radical Muslims for their excesses, we must not ignore the continuous military operations against Muslims by Western forces that so clearly provoke sometimes misguided reactions by the alienated migrants in Europe and in the proliferating battlegrounds of the wretched of the earth.
Historical change meanders across moral boundaries and it is not always clear who are the heroes and who are the villains, unlike what most political ideologies or epic films might suggest. Those of us on the Left would like to forget or selectively recall the ambiguous moral legacy of Soviet Communism, certain forms of ethnic chauvinism or nationalism in the guise of socialism, “explosive” forms of anarchism, and even the French Revolution. The latter was an extended spasm of often extremist conflict (and repression) commemorated as the legendary birthpangs of the “exceptional” Western values (revolutionary republicanism, representative assemblies, constitutions, egalitarianism, anti-clerical secularism, individualism, free speech, political and religious satire, human rights) to which we moderns give so much lip service. Although South Africa and Venezuela arguably remain beacons, despite their respective concessions to neo-liberal capital and fossil fuel extraction, the Bolshevik and Chinese Cultural Revolutions have ceased to inspire, and many bemoan the dreaded realization that neither the West generally, nor the Left more specifically any longer know for what they should still strive, beyond vast wealth and exuberant forms of entertainment. Today, Arab and Muslim peoples are grappling with equally profound questions as one regime after another faces unimaginable challenges, and normal life is everywhere eclipsed by crisis.
Those who regard the liberation of the Global South/Third World from Euro-American colonialism as the epitome of moral rectitude also tend to forget the mass famine induced by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the mass executions and repression by Egypt’s Gamal ‘Abdul Nasser and Syria’s Hafiz al As’ad, the massive murder and rape by South Asians enraged with each other during the Partition of India, or Kenyatta’s defense of genital cutting in the revolt against British colonialism in East Africa. Indigenous peoples repeatedly deployed violence against each other in the midst of their struggles against white settlers, as have Palestinians. Radical opposition to colonialism and imperialism has most often been waged by people and movements not restrained by ordinary norms of human behavior. In fact, indigenous people and most radical and revolutionary leaders and movements have consequently been labeled savages, terrorists, totalitarians, bloodthirsty irredentists, and opponents of progress or “civilization.” Post-colonial regimes have often given rise to voracious new elites who deny women, ethnic rivals, indigenous peoples and the poor long deferred hopes for inclusion.
Islamists fighting the US and it’s allies in the Middle East have been guilty of abuses and that they have been labeled terrorists and fascists is hardly surprising if one is even minimally aware of modern human history. Leftists have faced identical accusations and have often exhibited repugnant moral excesses in the pursuit of their objectives, as have Nationalists, Populists, Conservatives, Liberals and Zionists. Sympathy still remains for those facing cruel oppression, but there is a growing awareness of the dangers of yesterday’s victims becoming tomorrow’s human rights violators (e.g. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Khameini and Ahmedinejad’s Iran, European Zionists in Palestine, Milosevic’s Serbia, Soeharto’s Indonesia, and Syria’s al Asad and the ‘Alawi military regime). We clearly have a long way to go, but we cannot let despair cause us to retreat from political commitments. There is too much at stake and the sacred web of life on this beautiful planet is just too precious. Our endangered communities, cultures, young people, and ecosystems must be preserved and revitalized and quickly!
In the present moment, abuses by Islamists will always get the headlines, so as to divert American, European, and Arab publics from the horrific legacy of endless and continuing Western invasions, massacres, and expropriations, as well as that by Israel and America’s client regimes, like the myopic oligarchs in Egypt and the Gulf States. The abuses by militants will always be stripped of their historical context and will be predictably condemned by national security experts, dogmatic secularists, apologists for power and even other Muslims, who decry them in order to exalt western values. Democratic and liberal Islamists who have renounced violence have been shot down in the streets and otherwise marginalized, denied a role in their societies, in order to demonize those no longer cowed by western ideology and hypocritical propaganda. Perplexing isn’t it, that the two World Wars, the only nuclear attacks in human history and the Holocaust were perpetrated (almost exclusively) by elite secular Westerners, cultivated in the warm sun of their precious Enlightenment? The horrors they unleashed to conquer the global south came home to Europe with a vengeance! Yet, the puffed up Western suits, swaggering soldiers, corporate contractors, and police are still lionized as they snipe or crush the depraved and abject Others that refuse to submit. Praise for their heavy- handed and increasingly deadly role in protecting the (white, middle class) public from the troublemakers from the wrong side of the tracks (or borders) will continue to be a monotonous refrain.
At the same time, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2003 and by mid-January, 2015, at least 500 US drone strikes have killed between 2800 and 4600 people, with 482-1042 of them civilians, and between 1300 and 2100 more people have been injured, the vast majority of those under Obama. Between 24 and 92 other covert actions have killed between at least 208 and perhaps as many as 545 other people. According to BBC, Israel killed over 2100 Palestinians, over 1400 of them civilians, and 495 of them children in less than two months last summer. Je suis la victime de drones, anyone? Meanwhile, US and European pilots are once again firing their depleted uranium into the Mesopotamian deserts, while one ominous boomerang has finally reached the White House lawn. In the years to come, people of color will face the same police, First Nations will face the same RCMP, and Muslims the same troops and robotic electronics, if just a bit chastened by the ubiquitous smart phone cameras, and the automatic weapons and drones available to the principled and unhinged alike.
States of emergency (or exception) have routinely sidelined movements for racial justice in North America and served to hide the racist-imperialist dynamic which drives US, Canadian, and European profiteering, militarism and police violence. At the origins of our so-called republic was the American colonial effort to salvage the slave economy from British abolitionist court decisions, amid looming slave revolts and Indian resistance in the colonies (see Gerald Horne’s brilliant new book, “The Counter-Revolution of 1776,” recently reviewed in Counterpunch). During the subsequent abolitionist movement in the US, in the mid 19th century, the threat which trumped racial (and economic) justice was the Confederacy, the Civil War, and the dissolution of the Union. As certain strains of Reconstruction encouraged Blacks to run for office, claim their rights as “citizens,” and attempt to live normal lives, racist whites quickly reversed these transformations by terrorist attacks on the courageous people most willing to challenge the old racial order. A century later the Cold War propaganda and repression of the 1950s and ’60s led to ominous warnings about Communist infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement, a replay of the same strategy applied to the labor movement in the 1920s and 30s, as they faced the Great Depression. Surveillance and arrests of activists was often justified by reference to communist subversion, until the Nation of Islam, SNCC, the Black Panthers, la Raza, and the American Indian Movement could be invoked as credible threats on their own. In the Labor Movement, the AFL-CIO purged its left wing under the reactionary leadership of George Meany after the emergency of WW II. Sometimes, of course, communists were involved (oh my!), but more often than not they were mere excuses for violent repression, so that the super rich could retain their fortunes, and middle class whites could sleep undisturbed by their racial or class nightmares.
Whether we like it or not, we and the Parisians are consuming the strange fruit of Western war making and realpolitik in the oil rich regions of the Arab and larger Islamic world since the 1930s. The alliance of US oil companies with the Saudi royal family and the US military alliance with Israel and dictatorships in the region (Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudia, Morocco, Tunisia, et al) provoked a wide range of resistance movements and states, each undermined in their turn by US and Israeli covert action and blatant violations of sovereignty. The US and Europeans effectively eliminated or undermined Arab nationalists, communist parties, reformist Islamists, and even liberal democrats in order to secure access to oil and shore up regimes that would guarantee that access, against those who fought imperialists to ensure local control of those vast resources.
The US fostered Saudi -style Salafist Islamist militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and those efforts soon blew back in the face of US hegemony, with the poignant 9/11 attacks on the bastions of global trade and the Pentagon. The ongoing destruction and dismemberment of Palestine and the invasion and annihilation of Afghanistan and Iraq fulfilled every justified and paranoid fantasy of Islamists, nationalists, and leftists about American intentions in the Middle East. The unimaginable destruction of war, the refugees and displaced, the torture of those imprisoned in the aftermath and the routine drone attacks (cheaper and less visible to kill them, than transport and house them at Guantanamo) across the Islamic world have now engendered a wide array of militant Islamist emirates, parties, and militias, and ensured several generations of furious armed attacks against US, Israeli, and European societies. Weekly missile strikes from the skies and compulsive night raids have produced a continuous series of Charlie Hebdo and Boston Marathon-like events in the Muslim world for years, after the cataclysmic invasions of 2001 and 2003, but that blood just doesn’t count. Those people’s lives and deaths just don’t warrant a change of policy, since the steady flow of Gulf crude, economic growth in emerging markets and Pentagon budgets are not negotiable.
Liberals and leftists also understandably fret over Islamist violence, dogmatic Salafist and Takfiri doctrines, and the retrograde values espoused by some Iraqis and Nigerians, such as the gratuitous display of power and mass killing, the embrace of slavery, beheading, rape and apparent misogyny. Bucca Camp has clearly twisted Khalifa al Bagdadi and some of the shabab, as have Bashar’s dungeons. Would we fare any better? Some also bemoan the crass criminality of looters and other fellow travelers who seek their fortunes or nihilistic kicks in the midst of a righteous social justice movement, but walk a mile in those shoes! However, movements of resistance will never be ethically convenient, especially for those beautiful souls who would prefer moral perfection in their comfortable nests to the anguished participation in the often bitter and tangled struggle for justice for those trampled underfoot and left for dead. How often do such outraged or grief-stricken moralists publicly object to targeted assassinations, missing indigenous women, or the conditions at Guantanamo Bay, their local prison, welfare office, or migrant detention center?
Despite the numerous problems that beset African American, Indigenous, and Latina/o communities in the US, as well as North African, Arab and other Islamic communities in Europe and the Middle East, the ubiquitous presence of European, Israeli, and US corporate, government, military and intelligence agents in these areas have enormous responsibility for the adverse conditions. If not for the endemic racism, poverty, joblessness, lack of education, and police repression, would criminality in black communities, barrios, reserves, and Arab immigrant communities in French suburbs, and in the slums and refugee camps of the Middle East resemble what it does today? Without US invasion and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, would there be the storm of violence erupting in every direction across Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Nigeria? If not for the capitalist exploitation of oil in the Gulf, Libya, or in West Africa (including the Lake Chad basin, as Eric Draitser pointed out in Counterpunch this week) and the veritable police states (such as Bahrain, the UAE, Saudia, and Kuwait) which foster it for the benefit of local elites and the US warmakers, would jihadi groups have proliferated across the planet?
Jihad (fi sabili ‘llahi) has been a cry of resistance of Muslims and especially Arab Muslims to European imperialism for over 500 years. It has been invoked to defend Muslim communities from European invasion and occupation, since before the Reconquista in al Andalus. The Amazigh Sa’adi Sufis of southern Morocco drove out Portuguese and Spanish invaders in the 1500s (and others later confronted the French), and ‘Abd al Krim continued that battle against the Spanish and French in the Rif Mountains in the 1920s. North African corsairs such as Khayr al Din, contested European shipping across the Mediterranean, often in league with the Osmanli (Ottoman) Khaliphate. Qadiriyya Sufi leader, ‘Abd al Qadir fought the French invaders of Algeria for fifteen years in the 1830s and ’40s. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) have renewed that struggle for the poor in Algeria since the 1990s, against a bitterly secular, formerly ” leftist ” state, backed by the French and the US.
The Libyans were defended from the Italian invasion of 1911, by Sanusi Sufis, including the guerilla leader,’Umar Mukhtar, who fought until his capture and execution in 1931. In 2015,the Islamists of Libya Dawn resist their secular opponents, with aid from al Sisi, the UAE, and CIA trained General Hiftir. Al Hajj ‘Umar Tal and Samori Toure, fought the centuries-long French “mission civilisatrice” in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, as did the remnants of the Sokoto Khalifate in northern Nigeria, against the British. The Mamluks’ forces and the Muslims at Acre, drove Napoleon back to France, after his invasion of Egypt in 1798-1800, and the modernist agitator and the intellectual, Jamal al Din al Afghani (al Asadabadi) popularized jihad as a specifically anti-colonial strategy while in Egypt in the 1870s. His inspiration led to Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi’s revolt against the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, continued by Mustafa Kamil and the secular/Islamic insurrection of 1919. Hasan al Banna and the Muslim Brothers, the tortured author and Islamist genius, Sayid Qutb, and al Gama’a al Islamiyya persisted vs the British, and their local successors, ‘Abdul Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and al Sisi, all sponsored at key moments by the US, and the Ansar Bayt al Maqdis militants in the Sinai remain unbowed.
‘Abd ‘Allah al Hasan was derided as the “Mad Mullah” for his indefatigable struggle in Somalia (vs Italy and the British), an enduring tradition that continued with the Islamic Courts Union and al Shabab over the past decade. In Palestine, Shaykh ‘Izz al Din al Qassam, Hajj Amin al Husayni and ‘Abd al Rahman al Husyani instigated the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39, and HAMAS courageously embodies that same spirit today (vs Britain, the Zionists, and the US). The Omanis fought the Portuguese and British in the Persian Gulf for centuries, as did Persians, Yemenis, and Eritreans off the shores of the Arabian Peninsula. Omani jihadi pirates wreaked havoc in the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and in northeastern Indian colonies of the East India Co., and even the first two Sa’udi states and their al Muwahhidun Ikhwan (Wahhabi, monotheistic Brothers) fought the British on the Gulf coasts in the 1800s, (until ‘Abd al Aziz Ibn Sa’ud colluded with them in this century, to regain power from their rivals, in Jabal Shammar, in the Arabian interior).
Beyond the Sunni and/or Arab world, Shi ‘i militants in Iraq and Iran, such as Shaykh Mahdi al Khalisi, the Sadr family and Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers waged jihad (vs. Britain, the Shah, and the US), as did Arab migrants and east Africans in Mombasa and other Swahili coast cities (vs Portuguese colonists and then the British Empire). In the Caucusus, Naqshbandi Sufi Imam Shamyl of Dagestan fought the Russians there and in Chechnya, and those battles have not yet subsided, while the Basmachis in Turkestan/Central Asia fought the Soviets (and the League of Militant Atheists/Society of the Godless) who lusted for their lands. The Uighur Muslims continued to resist Chinese colonization in Xinjiang (as did militant Tibetan Buddhists) under intense repression from 1949 through 2014. The Ottomans fought off Portuguese, Russian, and European incursions, while their allies, the Crimean Tatar Muslims attacked Russia and burned Moscow to the ground in 1571. That was their response to the conquest of the Islamic City of Kazan, ransacked and occupied by Ivan IV, (the Terrible), before the Crimeans’ defeat and annexation in the late 1700s. (Ottoman) Sultan Abdulmacid desperately declared jihad, with CUP approval as WW I erupted, in an attempt to stave off Balkan and Arab nationalism and the impending collapse of the Empire. Turkey’s AKP and Erdogan are currently reviving nostalgia for the Ottoman era to supplant Western secular encroachment, the Zionist assault on Gaza, and Bashar’s war against Islamists in Syria.
Muslims and Hindus fought together under the banner of the Mughal Emperors in 1757 in Bengal and in the 1857 Rebellion in India (vs. the British East India Co.). The Malabari Muslims fought Vasco de Gama, Afonso de Abuquerque and the Portuguese, and those that followed from the Netherlands, France, and Britain, as did the Bijapur Sultans around Goa, on India’s west coast. Their Mappila descendants waged jihad against the British Raj and Hindu landowners, while Gandhi and the Congress tried to persuade them otherwise. Tipu Sultan forged a powerful Islamic state in Mysore, in southern India, partly inspired by the French Revolution, until British armies subdued him. The Afghans famously drove the Brits out of Kabul in 1839, leaving only one survivor from their colonial party. Afghans fought the British again in 1879 and the stubborn mujahiddin and Taliban have fought the Russians and Americans now, for over thirty-five years to regain their sovereignty. Kashmiris continue their nationalist Islamic struggle in their valleys below the Himilayas, against Hindutva today.
Muslim Prince Diponegra followed the same path at his capital, Yogyakarta, in Java, in the 1825-’30 War against the Dutch, as did the Moluccan Sultans of the famous spice islands (against the Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch). The great Sulawesi/Makassar Sultan Hassanuddin fought off Dutch navies for decades in the late 17th century, as did the Muslims of Aceh in northern Sumatra, who waged jihad against the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Indonesian regimes led by Sukarno, and Soeharto. Only the 2004 tsunami forced them to relent, but their fierce defense of their militant Islamic tradition persists today, even among the young. Sultan Muhammad Kudarat and centuries of his successors among the Muslim Moros of Maguindanao (today, Mindinao) fought the Spanish and the US, in the southern Philippines and in the nearby Sulu Sultanate. Forty three Filipino police commandos were just killed in a firefight with Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters there on Sunday, despite a recent peace agreement, after years of official collaboration with the US military.
Aside from the Arab descendants of migrations to North Africa and the Swahili Coast centuries ago, most of the rest were and are largely modern indigenous peoples who adopted Islam from enterprising traders and charismatic Sufi mystics who traveled to their shores, rarely by marauding armies, although they certainly played a role in the early conquest of Iran and Central and South Asia. European, Russian, and American colonies and bases were all bitterly contested for centuries by indigenous Muslim jihadi radicals, outraged by the usual Western arrogance, brutality, and greed. Most of these Islamic resistance movements sought some form of Shari’a, as a means by which to enact their own conceptions of sovereignty and social justice impossible under colonial rule. They were far more egalitarian than the racist European invaders, if not necessarily in the contemporary Western sense. Some pursued local sovereignty, while others hoped to reinstate revered Islamic Sultans or Ottoman rule. Many were affiliated with mystical Sufi orders and others, from the nineteenth century on, inspired by Muhammad al Wahhab, were far more scripturalist or modernist, akin to contemporary Salafist ideology. The enduring, global Muslim resistance to colonialism has been overlooked or misunderstood by most Marxist and Western liberal theorists of colonialism because of their Eurocentric and secular biases, although anthropological and historical studies over the past thirty years have meticulously deconstructed many of these misconceptions. Almost none of this historical knowledge or perspective exists outside the Muslim world or insular academic circles.
Of course, many Muslims did not support anti-colonial and revolutionary violence (Malcolm and even Martin King were opposed by a majority of North American Black people at the time of their deaths). Some in every community choose accommodation, or are transfixed by authority, or conformity, or prefer to prosper even under the most odious domination. But depicting jihad as a merely religious obsession by extremist fanatics or reducing it to medieval wars of conquest for fanatic interpretations of Islam is to erase five centuries of courageous political resistance to European, Russian and American colonialism. It has been embraced in Muslim communities across the planet, either to assert local control or fight plunder and cruel oppression under the auspices of Christian or secular values or a confounding combination of both, while the perpetrators keenly focused on territory, resources, and profits. Capitalism was born in the expropriation of indigenous, Muslim, and Asian wealth, from pre-existing and lucrative trade circuits across Asia and the Americas, as well as African slave labor, coercively enforced by European guns, police and armies. The architects of colonial conquest expertly manipulated ethnic, regional and sectarian rivalries to shatter solidarity among the colonized (just as Joe Biden has long advocated a division of Iraq into Kurdish, Shi’i and Sunni enclaves) and enlisted collaborators, or the naive and desperate into native militias that tragically served the process in other distant lands. Millions of Africans, Muslims, and other people of color have thus died fighting each other or for European and US armies abroad, always on the front lines. Many thousands were radicalized while fighting against other people of color in the innumerable European and American colonial battlefields.
As the movements for racial, indigenous, and economic justice in the US proceed in 2015, we will be cautioned by the authorities that further protests against the police will endanger public safety as our government and law enforcement stand guard against criminals, “illegal aliens,” and “radical Islamic extremists.” This latter threat has served to unify Americans against foreigners, especially Muslims, because Americans do not possess the historical knowledge to comprehend the motivations of the 9/11 attacks on the US, or the revolutionary events unfolding in the Middle East. The appeals by those in power to fear and disproportionate retaliation, from 2001 until today, serve to shore up solidarity with rural, small town, and working class troops stationed abroad and underpaid police, increasingly beleaguered by ungrateful protests at home. But we cannot be seduced by this absurd narrative, conjured by those who hope to return as soon as possible to the injustice of the status quo.
The war propaganda also poisons the legacy of radicalism, suggesting that any rebel who lives and works for systemic transformation of the socio-political order is essentially criminal. Obama’s Forever War and the criminaliztion of resistance inherent in it, is the perfect ruse to keep our neighbors and too many of us suspicious of strangers, immigrants, and dissidents from different neighborhoods and cultures, or distant lands whose history has been so violently deformed by our long history of aggression. The militants who have historically resisted these wars and US homegrown terror have often been radical Muslims, or their unknowing descendants, the perfect description of many rebellious slaves, and their contemporary successors, like Malcolm X, that prescient critic of US racism and warfare at home and abroad. He was demonized for his unflinching resistance, his refusal to deny himself and his community the power of self defense, his ridicule of whiteness (that old pale thing), his Islamic faith, and his internationalism. How paradoxical that the Christian son of a Kenyan Muslim, Barack Hussein Obama would accelerate this planetary war against radical Muslims, an effort he promised to and won election to rein in.
Martin Luther King, Jr., another intensely religious rebel, famously analyzed the three evils of racism, poverty, and militarism in the US and his apprehension of the profound links between Selma and Vietnam brought about his untimely death. Aboriginal women in Canada, US, and across the Americas, many of them committed to ancient spiritual traditions perhaps hundreds of years old (see the recent book, “The Falling Sky,” by Yanomami /Brazilian shaman Davi Kopenawa) combine their demands for sovereignty with the protection of women from a plague of white male violence, as well as their precious forests and rivers from ruination, as indigenous people do throughout the world. Linking struggles across continents will inevitably bring about an experience of people’s religious practices flowing directly into the preservation of culture, land, and the people themselves from western and other secular invasions and occupations, almost always masquerading as progress and the path to prosperity.
We can clearly see the isomorphic patterns that connect racism, poverty, hopelessness, and police violence at home, with resource extraction, privation, war making, torture, and radical resistance by Muslims and other indigenous peoples abroad. The economic policies that led to mass unemployment, inaccessible education, and the accumulation of capital by Wall Street and Washington have led to war, impoverishment, dictatorship, and resistance to the US and Israel. US domestic and foreign policy is and always has been profoundly racist and imperialist, with a few notable exceptions, because from its inception, it was a colonial, slaving project. The police and the military are the front lines for maintaining those priorities, and since 1898, on a global scale.
Regardless of whether Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Bush, Obama, or a Clinton is President, racism, capital accumulation and violence in American life have the same origins, the same trajectory, and the same purpose. We must not let the Forever War of Terror mislead and distract us from fomenting our rebellion at home, and in fact, the wars and resistance to them abroad could be instructive as to how to proceed and what to avoid. If any level of success is achieved, resistance will surely be criminalized; activists will often be subject to surveillance, police repression, and jailed on ridiculous, trumped up charges. They will be associated, as often as possible with the elite’s frightful Muslim enemies, as communism was demonized and used in previous generations. Social justice, racism, sovereignty, and resistance will always be fighting words to those in power. Dissenting, incisive and “free” speech will remain as costly, ambiguous and illusory as ever; but, very soon, people of color in these United States will at long last become the majority. This realizations could permanently alter our political theory and practice from minoritarian resignation towards a more ambitious path, but it won’t be simple. Obama’s smooth resumption of the neo-con agenda is proof of that.
Our political movements in 2015 must prepare the ground for transforming reality, creating social formations and collective consciousness beyond the racist, secular, colonial legacy we have inherited. White supremacy, predatory capitalism and imperialism abroad, and patriarchal ecocide, all can be traced to the unacknowledged, shadow side of our vaunted Western civilization. With an historically astute analysis, political courage, determination, and trusting bonds forged together on the land, in the streets and highways, in the jails, and even in churches, temples, and mosques, we may yet find our way to a new horizon. In these momentous times, change comes more suddenly than any of us expect. Insh’Allah!
Richard Wood is an activist-sociologist, originally from Appalachia, residing on the Left Coast for thirty years, is currently finishing a book on Muslim Resistance to Western Imperialism.