Vicious Circles: Fanon, Islamism and Decolonization

CounterPunch ran two interesting articles last week, the first in the Weekend Edition, (March 13-15) by Hamza Hamouchene on Frantz Fanon’s continuing relevance as a political theorist and Dan Glazebrook’s critique (March 16) of Hamid Dabashi’s most recent text, Can Non-Europeans Think? Hamouchene was concerned with the pronounced failure of many African/Arab revolutionary nations’ leadership to break with neoliberalism and the “national security state” legacy of colonialism, while Glazebrook attacked Dabashi’s alleged rhetorical complicity in the overthrow of Qadhafi’s regime in Libya by Western powers, bent on destabilization and “creative” destruction, so as to continue their imperialist control of the global and regional economies. Both articles merit a close reading, as do Fanon and Dabashi themselves. I hope to affirm and contest some of what all of them wrote, while contributing something useful to what Hamouchene sees as a new Fanonian Moment.

Hamouchene praised Fanon for his dire warnings about the dangers of a narrowly focused nationalist opposition to European colonialism, in Africa, and especially in Algeria where Fanon joined in the revolutionary struggle of the FLN, against the French. Fanon was of African (and some mixed) descent, born into the black bourgeoisie in Martinique, the Caribbean island dominated as a French colony by the usual white elite. He volunteered at 17, for the Free French military in WW II, and was educated in Lyon, where he experienced excruciating racism from those he had fought to defend (see Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; 1952). After medical school, he trained in an unusual style of Lacanian/communal ethno-psychiatry in Saint Alban, near Mende, in France with the Spanish/Catalan Trotskyist Francesc Tosquelles and became a clinical director of the largest psychiatric hospital in Algeria (in Blida) in 1953. While there and in Tunis, Mali, and Ghana, he became one of the most influential and celebrated Third World revolutionary theorists, but only after his early death of leukemia in December of 1961 (Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan, Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression, 1985; David Macey, Frantz Fanon; A Biography; 2012)

Although Hamouchene doesn’t emphasize Fanon’s brilliant, impassioned, psychoanalytic, and political account of racism as “lived experience” and instead invokes the Left’s routinized bromide against “identity politics,” Fanon’s work on race and racial identity (both imposed and transformed) was and is a cornerstone of Third World revolutionary discourse and contemporary Post Colonial and Critical Race Theory. Hamouchene focuses instead on the equally profound crises of contemporary nationalist elites’ reproduction of neoliberalism through the rentier state (accumulating “rents”/revenues on oil extraction, while failing to develop a diversified economic base capable of sustaining the population over the long term), as well as the highly militarized security systems that crush dissent, so as to protect the new elites from resistance from below. Hamouchene also leads an Algerian solidarity organization, a worthy political project, from his base in London.

Algeria was among the most important sites of Third World revolution in the 1950s and 60s, due to the long colonial occupation by the French, beginning in 1830, until they were driven out by revolutionary violence and mass protest in 1962. The French established a large settler population (nearly 1 million) and attempted to integrate Algeria fully into France economically and politically. Several French governments and regimes (both imperial and republican) attempted to erase the Islamic culture of Algerians, as well as rule a subject population with horrific racism and devastating economic exploitation and domination. When the FLN rose up against this long French occupation beginning in November of 1954, the armed struggle became a bloody exchange of guerilla warfare, urban sabotage, assassination, and bombings, and mass protest, until the French military and their officials were exhausted, and evacuated in 1962, and the FLN was finally able to establish Algerian independence.

Equally as significant, considering the dynamics of revolution and revolt taking place today, was the fact that the early resistance to the French was initiated by the Muslim leader of the Qadiriyya Sufis, ‘Abd al Qadir al Juzayri, who fought them from 1832 until 1847, when he was finally captured and defeated. ‘Abd al Qadir established a functioning, mobile Islamic State during those years that served to unify the Algerian people to a greater degree than had ever existed prior to his efforts. Several subsequent Muslim radical and reformist movements also challenged French rule across North and West Africa, but it was ultimately a far less Islamic and far more secular nationalist regime that seized and maintained power in Algiers. That regime has been through several transitions from 1962 until today, and represents something quite different and far more compromised, than the socialist state the FLN originally envisioned.

Frantz Fanon was quite secular himself, being influenced by his teacher and comrade, Aime Cesaire, his French medical education, the existentialism of Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, Freudian, Lacanian and other innovative work in psychiatry, and Marxist and African nationalist opposition to European/Western capitalism and colonialism. He was somewhat sympathetic to Algerians’ Islamic heritage, even writing a now lost account of an Algerian Sufi marabout (saint), but envisioned a transformative “humanism” that would transcend what he regarded as “romantic” (sic) notions of the African, or indigenous civilizations. Similarly, Fanon was ultimately quite critical of the Negritude ideology and aesthetics of Cesaire and Senghor and other contemporaries in West Africa and the Caribbean. Fanon’s literary contributions were immensely significant and can be found in three masterworks: A Dying Colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skin, White Masks, (as well as other writing), essential reading for a world still awash in racism. His direct involvement in the revolutionary project of the FLN outside of Algeria after 1957 was also of great importance. My own debt to Fanon’s works and life is profound, yet none of us can be satisfied with it today, because of what has happened in Algeria and much of the world since his death.

Fanon anticipated many of the obstacles twentieth century revolutions would face, but did not realize how significant Islam, and the rejection of it, would become in the Arab and North African cultures and consciousness, nor the resurgence of religious cultures globally. He could not have understood aggressive state secularism, the politics of gender, or the power of indigeneity, and ethnicity in Algeria. He struggled with the limitations of Western notions of humanism, universalism, socialism, revolution, and “liberation” during his lifetime, but far more deconstruction of these concepts followed in the closing years of the century both by non-European and Western thinkers, many of whom were deeply influenced by Fanon’s careful attention to the social conditions and sensibility of the ordinary Algerian people he met and with whom he worked (see Subaltern Studies, Talal Asad, Achille Mbembe, Gyatri Spivak, Michel Foucault, Salman Sayyid, Andre Gunder Frank, Audre Lorde, Jill Alexander, Ward Churchill, Critical Race Theory, etc).

The critiques of the Enlightenment and the resurgence of Islam (and other religious traditions) cannot be reduced to merely reactionary epiphenomena, manipulated by western powers to erase progressive socialism, as so many leftists and secularists imagine. Indigenous and ethnic movements, class formation, as well as the complexity of gender and sexuality throughout the global south all present conundrums that are yet to be understood and worked through by radical activists, intellectuals, indigenous and colonized and formerly colonized peoples. Radical, revolutionary, and post-colonial theory, as well as activism and oppositional action of all kinds remain fertile and treacherous terrain and no one perspective can possibly suffice. Revolutionary regimes throughout the world have floundered on many of these unresolved problems and much of what Fanon warned us about, and more, has transpired. The ruling inheritors of the revolutionary hope of the 1960s, have squandered much of that since and many of us are still living in the fog of the wars and confusing disappointments that have swirled around us since those days.

Fanon is especially important as a touchstone because he understood how primal is the division of the planet and almost every community and individual by race (metastasized by hundreds of years of colonialism), at least since modern conceptions of racism were formulated during the Reconquista, in Spain in the 1400s and further solidified and institutionalized during the slave trade and the early colonial era. Racism is so endemic in so many facets of contemporary life and is so difficult to unearth, so firmly entrenched in deep psychic spaces and public realms, that it is literally a crucial strata in the bedrock of much of the world and its cultures. Despite the Left’s stubborn campaign against so-called identity politics, in favor of some sort of economic determinism or class analysis, or some variation on the theme of capitalism as the root of all human problems, that Fanon’s diagnosis of global, structural, and psychic racism permeating modern consciousness is very “unsettling.” Social class has become as fluid and mercurial as race and gender, despite the presumed permanence of the 1%, and the capitalist system while clearly foundational, is certainly not the only source of our miseries. Fanon’s work has clearly demonstrated one of the key flaws in the analysis of the Euro-American Left. Our coherence as a movement (if it still exists), and solidarity with peoples and movements around the world has been largely a facade, because most of us are simply unable or refuse to understand the significance of race, gender, culture, region, and history, and our own position in the West. Economic and ecological concerns are less problematic for us to grasp intellectually, because they seem not to require the self-critical analysis of whiteness, a crucial lynchpin of coloniality (but of course, that assumption is also mistaken). But, the analysis of gender and race are profoundly complex, because, as many of us realize, these categories refer to biologically rooted conceptions of difference, while being culturally and politically determined, fixed, and unfixed, re-conceptualized and rearranged over time and space.

The categories of racial groups, indigenous, or ethnic identities, “women” and “men,” all of the gendered variations, and religious sects are extremely fluid and hybridized. The political and ethical culpability of white men like myself has been amply demonstrated. Meanwhile, powerful white women can dominate men of color and immigrants throughout social institutions (if not on the streets), precisely on account of their suspect masculinity. White women (straight and lesbian) routinely make the lives of many women of color miserable. Heterosexual men and women routinely devalue LGBT people, and white and wealthy LGBT folk, in turn, are often blind to their racism and class privilege. All of the above live on the stolen land of the indigenous among us. Similarly Algerian men (and obviously many others) can establish revolutionary regimes that structurally dispossess Algerian women, Imazighen, and the poor, and impoverished men can oppress impoverished women, while wealthy women of any nation can oppress impoverished men and women, ad infinitum. Identity politics (whatever that is) doesn’t make it so.

Kabyle Imazhigen (Berber, Amizigh, s.) Algerians, some of whom Fanon met in the course of his work (and elsewhere in North Africa) have built powerful and diverse socio-cultural movements, based on their indigenous culture and exclusion from the Arab hegemony there, yet at the same time, may be over-represented among the Algerian urban economic and political elites, and not represent the position of Imazhigen and Tuaregs from southern Algeria, the Sahara, and the Sahel. As in Egypt, and elsewhere in Africa and West Asia, the educated elites can deeply fear and resent the far more religious underclass of the urban slums and rural areas, so that ethnic, class, religious, and gender difference becomes a form of socio-political dynamite that precludes national or regional unity. To imagine that this bewildering array of difference and distrust is merely a plot by imperialists or post-modern academics is to seriously misunderstand the world; on the other hand, ignorance of how “difference” and identities can be manipulated by local and international actors, is also tragically shortsighted.

All of this has been expressed far more eloquently and exhaustively than I am able or desire to here, but the point remains that questions of identity are not peripheral to revolutionary activity, nor do they prevent a concerted effort to overcome imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, regressive nationalism, racism, or militarism, etc. The identity of the “human,” as so radically separate from the rest of the living and elemental worlds, is so integral to Eurocentric modernism and humanism that our myriad ecological disasters are yet one more critical component of our fraught situation. Its not the politics of identity that paralyzes our revolutionary potential; it’s the failure to understand and address the multiplicity of identity crises that have enveloped the world and every community and ecosystem within it, that prevents the solidarity of those who seek multiple forms of social and environmental justice. We cannot evoke Fanon as a theorist and revolutionary without understanding how profoundly he understood identity as a critical vector in revolutionary social change, while the matrix of identities has become ever more complex since his death. For Black and Brown youth and Muslims in the US, Israel and Europe, the indigenous and indigenous women and most women, or Sunni and Shi’i in various locales in West Asia, identity, regardless of its ephemerality, is a life and death issue. Unity forged on the pretense of uniformity is impossible.

Frantz Fanon was African, a descendant of slaves, living in a middle class family on the ruins of the indigenous people and island ecology of the Caribbean, involved in a French colonial army and educational system. He was a psychiatrist involved in an institutional practice that had notoriously “othered” the mad (from the sane) in a colonial context in which being dark-skinned, a Muslim, or a violent dissident could be life-threatening symptoms of insanity, or criminality. He was detained by the CIA upon his arrival in the US for medical treatment of his leukemia and untreated for ten days, caught pneumonia and died soon after in Bethesda, Maryland (Bulhan 5). Fanon was implicated in a web of relations from which revolution was the only “line of flight” that made any sense to him or millions of others. Yet he surely suspected that the “absolute violence” that he predicted and defended so magnificently, would probably not “liberate” the Algerian people. According to biographer David Macey, Fanon has been tragically forgotten in Martinique, Algeria, and France, due to the memory of racial oppression and revolutionary violence he wrote about so stirringly, and is often appropriated for distorted purposes as a new post-colonial academic celebrity (7-28). He may not have understood how Algerian militarism and oil would eventually be the regime’s path to stability and simultaneously a threat to the biosphere. He probably knew the problems were too deep, too complex, and too comprehensive to be rooted out by a mere revolution, but he gave his life and work for it nevertheless. Revolutions have just too often meant going around in vicious circles; yet, we need the profoundly transformative change Fanon fought and thought for, more than ever.

The violence of the colonial racial order was overwhelming and on one level it was defeated, despite the intuition that new forms of colonial oppression would remain and arise again. In Algeria, some of the nine historic founders of the FLN were more Muslim, liberal, or opportunist than they were Socialist, especially Abassi Madani, also one of the founders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which emerged in the late 1980s. After the quasi-socialist project of FLN military and political leader Houari Boumoudiene disintegrated, following his death in 1978, a neoliberal project was initiated by Chadli Benjedid (r. 1980-92), which cynically allowed for multiparty elections and the electoral triumph of the FIS Islamists. They were committed to an Islamic identity for the Algerian nation and based much of that appeal on the miserable economic conditions afflicting the Algerian masses, who voted in vast numbers for Islamists, probably hoping that Muslims might bring more justice to them than Francophone, secular elites, who cared more for their own power, their own economic interests, and their own privileged Eurocentric culture than the simple needs of the masses huddling together in the Algiers slums and rural hinterlands. When Chadli’s regime and its rump FLN pseudo-party were on the verge of defeat, the next round of voting was cancelled. That led to a bitter Secularist-Islamist civil war (after Syria’s with the Muslim Brothers, et al, from 1980-82), with all of the brutality and violence we now see repeated in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and Syria once again (see Hugh Roberts’ The Battlefield Algeria 1988-2002; and Francois Burgat’s Face to Face With Political Islam and Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qa’ida).

Algeria, once the utopia for Third World revolution and revolutionary culture, became a graveyard in the 1990s, with the Army, the Islamists and military units posing as GIA Islamists, slaughtering tens of thousands of people, as their notions of national identities clashed, while they may have been fighting more for the right to use the state to empower or enrich themselves than anything else. Many of Fanon’s more elaborate dreams went up in smoke and the war lasted longer than the war against the French (1992-2000, Roberts 269). President Bouteflika finally achieved a political settlement after 2000, granting immunity to the generals and amnesty for the Islamist militants, in exchange for an end to the conflict. There has been little change in Algeria since the eruption of the war, and there is still an increasingly privatized economy, endemic poverty and only minor political representation for the committed Muslims or anyone outside ruling circles (Roberts 263-366).

The French military were not innocent in all of this, not merely disinterested bystanders. They were deeply involved, encouraging the neoliberalism of successive Algerian regimes after Boumoudiene, and arming and aiding the “Hizb Franca” (French Party) military officers, who had defected so late from the colonial army to the FLN side, and who had so resolutely assumed control of the Army, the Security apparatuses, and the State and its economic policies after 1992. But the failure of the FLN leadership to understand the marginalization of the poor, their attachment to Islamic culture, the importance of the indigenous, yet diverse Imazighen and Tuareg (Berbers) and their various identities, Islamic, secular, “tribal”, regional, etc. became a subversion of revolutionary hope and lay the groundwork for imperialist exploitation of these differences. There is no justice in blaming only the imperialists for these problems, but of course they could exploit them, as they had for generations. Since the Algerian “Civil War,” the French have intervened in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and maintain forces in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Djibouti, and of course, have made life for these peoples so much more pleasant and secure, as a result.

Algeria’s nightmare of the 1990s has now become the nightmare of the Global South. Imperialism, class, ethnic, and gender oppression, as well as climate change proceed while the revolutionary process and its hopes have stalled. Identities and armies clash across the planet and formerly revolutionary regimes make their deals with capital, so as to become the new national bourgeois classes that Hamouchene and Fanon before him so rightly fear and loathe. But a return to the poisoned legacy of Eurocentric humanism, “progress”, and state socialism is not the way out of this trap. In fact, it was a highway into the trap in the first place. Fanon was unfortunately misled by it too, despite his determination to do otherwise. His advice to think beyond Europe and its outworn categories is a key to the wisdom we need more than ever, but not merely to exchange them for outworn delusions about Third World socialism. Can Hamouchene’s hope for a Fanonian moment be imagined without the racial conflict in Ferguson or the diverse forms of rebellion of North Africans in Europe? Does he imagine that it might conceivably suggest a way out of the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Kashmir, or Ukraine?

Thinking Beyond Europe

Dan Glazebrook wrote in CounterPunch on March 16, about the critical debate on the Al Jazeera website and beyond from December, 2012 and into 2013, between Santiago Zabala, Hamid Dabashi, Walter Mignolo, Slavoj Zizeck, Aditya Nigam, and others about contemporary philosophy by Europeans and the thought of people from outside European traditions. Dabashi’s challenge to Zabala concerned his list of influential philosophers who were exclusively from Europe or the US, and his inclusion of three nations, but no individuals by name. Zabala’s Eurocentrism incensed Dabashi, who then expanded his exploration of non-European writers that culminated in his new book, Can Non-Europeans Think? (Zed, 2015). Glazebrook is also the author of a critical volume on Western neo-imperial policies, Divide and Ruin; The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis; Liberation Media, 2013.

Glazebrook briefly takes the racism and arrogance of Western philosophers to task and links it to ongoing efforts by Western military and corporate elites’ to intervene continuously in the Arab world, North Africa, and elsewhere to maintain their power. He admits that Dabashi, “at his best” does write and appear on television for the cause of social justice and has admirably attempted to break down the over-determined binary of Islam and secularism. However, he ignores Dabashi’s long-standing commitment to anti-imperialist politics, his critique of and attempts to reformulate Islamist politics, his impressive corpus of work on Iranian history, Shi’i theology and its relation to protest and revolution, Persian/Iranian literature and culture, Iranian and Palestinian cinema, Islamic Liberation theology, or his academic role at Columbia University. I do not mean by this to embrace all of Dabashi’s views, but merely to remind the reader of his quite formidable body of excellent writing, teaching and political activity.

Despite some initial praise of Dabashi’s effort, much of Glazebrook’s piece focuses on criticism of Dabashi’s supposed excesses, distortions, and complicity in the Western intervention in Libya and Syria. Dabashi may be rightly taken to task for claiming two years later that Qadhafi’s air force carpet-bombed some areas in Libya and that Qadhafi was “beastly” and a “bastard son” of imperialism. These comments may be slightly overstated, but one can still discern the convincing rationale in Dabashi’s remarks. The “possibility” of atrocities against the restive population of Benghazi might have provided the pretext for Western intervention and the eventual overthrow of the regime, but it was not unlikely, once the scale of the uprising had been grasped, and considering what has transpired in Egypt and Syria. Dabashi is also grilled for conflating the Green reformists and the rebellions of the Arab Spring with a Palestinian-style intifada.

Glazebrook accuses Dabashi of pleasing the corporate masters of CNN and the Qatari sponsors of al Jazeera, who supposedly use his work to defend US, Western, and Gulf state intervention across the Arab world and thus reinforce the neoliberal global capitalist agenda. How surprised Dabashi must be to realize his unwitting (?) role in corporate hegemony and furthering Qatari foreign policy and sympathy for Libyan Islamists! Glazebrook surmises that he is far too cozy with these oligarchs’ toxic sponsorship of his views. Dabashi has published at least 25 books, is widely regarded as a principled anti-imperialist academic at one of the premier US universities, and he is unlikely to seek largesse from Time Warner or Amir Tamim al Thani. Dabashi may appear to be attacking Western imperialism, colonialism, racism and European intellectuals for their exclusion of thinkers from the Global South, but for Glazebrook, he has done the “unforgivable,” and became a tool of imperialism. With enemies like this, Glazebrook informs us, the imperialist system doesn’t need friends. His comments about Chomsky regarding Libya and Qadhafi’s overthrow had a similar ring to it. These luminaries are just not radical enough for Glazebrook and their failure to defend Qadhafi and As’ad portends some suspicious compromise (—dan-glazebrook/).

It is unfortunate that Dan Glazebrook did not read Dabashi’s work more seriously or analyze the important debate over Western and non-Western writers and thinkers. At one point, he implies that Dabashi thinks that the West is now irrelevant and reminds us that Western imperialism still stalks the globe, hunting down resources, destabilizing threatening political formations and plotting further intrigues. I am very confident that Dabashi is fully aware of this and, in responding to it, he has attempted to introduce some remarkable alternative perspectives on political, cultural, and intellectual matters to those of us in the West (or anywhere else his book or tv appearances might reach). One would have to be a moron not to consider the West important, but to continue lionizing its intellectuals at the expense of the those great thinkers across the globe is myopic, offensive and racist. To be clear, I am not accusing Glazebrook of that. In fact, I agree with much of his analysis. My rejoinder is in the spirit of further exploration, discussion and collaboration. I am sure Dabashi would have offered the same, if he could be “forgiven” and not dismissed as a tacit accomplice in the destruction of Libya.

Glazebrook has regularly defended Qadhafi as an independent revolutionary leader in the Arab world, comparable only to the two As’ad regimes in Syria, and Hizb’ullah in Lebanon. Glazebrook surely does not idolize them, but their resistance to Israel and the Western powers give them a unique standing. I have also admired the defiance that Qadhafi and Hafez al As’ad once demonstrated to Western imperialism and the Israelis, and their solidarity with various other confrontational states and movements. This required courage, ingenuity and determination, but that cannot blind us to their serious political flaws and mistaken policies. Both regimes crushed, imprisoned and tortured their opponents (and others) and were in the throes of massive privatization of their economies. The latter may be understandable as the socialist world collapsed after 1989, and there were few alternatives, given the sanctions both faced from the West. Expecting perfection from states and radical writers is clearly to court disappointment, and the debate concerns limits and principles we cannot forego.

Despite Glazebrook and other leftists’ support, it is impossible to justify these two regimes’ decidedly authoritarian domestic policies that obviously engendered substantial opposition in both societies. Qadhafi’s meager popular base in Libya appears to have evaporated since his overthrow in what must be regarded as a widely popular uprising, despite foreign intervention and the violent conflicts and chaos, and racist attacks on Black Africans and Black Libyans since, as Glazebrook rightly condemns. Libyans’ may fight it out for an extended period, as revolutions and civil wars take time in order for the protagonists to settle their disputes. Revolutionary leftist icons such as Mandela, Castro, and Chavez praised Qadhafi before and after his death, (although they also deserve thoughtful criticism) as well as several leaders in African countries, although to what degree this was mere loyalty toward his politics of an earlier period, or appreciation for his financial assistance, is difficult to ascertain.

For me what is unforgiveable is not Dabashi’s minor slips of the pen, but the slaughter of over 1200 prisoners at Abu Salim in 1996, in Libya, or the massive shelling of Misrata, and Qadhafi’s expression of support for Ben Ali in Tunisia before his overthrow, as well as the annihilation of tens of thousands and several major cities in Syria by Bashar al As’ad and the Allawi generals, not to mention the eagerness both demonstrated to participate in Bush’s War on Terror. This is not meant to excuse the excesses of their opponents, and for some of whom, but certainly not all, I have little sympathy. But the differences between the Fajr Libya (Dawn) and the Tobruk/Haftar faction, are considerable and consequential. The As’ad/ Allawi regime has forfeited all legitimacy by destroying much of the country rather than negotiate with the reformist opposition early on. They are now engaged in the hackneyed US strategy Peter Arnett reported from Ben Tre during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Even Syria’s most principled defenders, like the recently deceased Patrick Seale mourned the debacle.

Glazebrook, like most other leftist commentators would have us believe that Islamist movements and the rebellions across the Arab world are mostly unfortunate regressive corollaries of imperialist plots to destroy socialism, secularism and the last remaining stalwart opposition to Western and Israeli colonial power in the Middle East. According to him, Dabashi’s enthusiasm for mass upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, and the Green movement in Iran are misguided and serve the imperialists’ goal of upending every regime that challenged the West and Israel. So according to this logic, the protests and armed struggle against Qadhafi and Bashar al As’ad are being manipulated, if not instigated, by the “West” to protect imperialism and defend Israel. For me, this overstates the significance of Western powers in a region where their influence had dramatically diminished over the past decade, and that is for the better, despite the ongoing violence.

Glazebrook has also made the dubious assertion that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some of whom backed Qadhafi, while others fought to overthrow him, was essentially a creature of MI6 in the UK (see various news reports on David Shayler, et al). Many if not all Islamist, leftist, communist, and anarchist organizations are infiltrated and partially manipulated, but this fact surely does not determine the ultimate destination or impact of their politics. Islamists, according to Glazebrook are not interested in fighting imperialism, Israel and Western culture, or genuinely attempting to forge political movements and states independent of Western domination. They are merely reactionary tools for the US, the UK, and France and their corporate/militarist agendas for liberalizing Arab economies while simultaneously protecting Israel.

The US’ partial sponsorship of the Afghan mujahidin against the USSR’s occupation is thus the only template from which to understand Islamic politics, not as efforts at self-determination, despite 500 years of Muslim resistance to imperialism from Andalusia and Morocco (Granada, the Moriscos and the Sa’adi Sufis) across the globe to the Philippines (Muhammad Kudarat…the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. et al), and every Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and South Asian Muslim culture in between. For Glazebrook, the US backed the Muslim Brothers and Morsi in Egypt because Mubarak was too independent of US policy directives! While according to him, al-Sisi will be an obstacle to US imperialism. The Muslim Brothers, having suffered decades of massacres and imprisonment, and who were elected into power in Egypt’s first and only free elections, have now been reduced to a Rorschach test for every imaginable conspiracy. Such comments are absurd, but still forgivable. If those Islamists who stand for elections are massacred, what you get instead is the grisly GIA in Algeria, or the Islamic State (video of Glazebrook:; video of Salman Sayyid on his text on the Islamic caliphate and his views on ISIS;

Dabashi has expressed his contempt for the authoritarian regime Qadhafi installed in Libya and certainly still hopes for a more progressive society to emerge from his defeat. I am sure at some point in Dabashi’s life, he also had hopes that Qadhafi’s professed anti-imperialism and defiance of the West, his nationalization of Libya’s oil, and his support for various Palestinian militants would result in social transformation across the region. Many of us hoped for such transformation when the Arab rebellions began in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Most radicals have realized that the Qadhafi and As’ad regimes had long since compromised far too much to hold out any such hopes. Algeria, no longer a socialist state or a model for the Global South, must be seen in much the same way. The various Arab rebellions and revolutionary wars have not concluded by any means and their ultimate significance may not be determined for many years. Zhou Enlai may not have intended that clever remark on his hesitation to judge the effects of the French Revolution two centuries after the fact, but the long view is still good advice, especially since the advent of the ‘Nietzschean left” in continental philosophy.

Enthusiasm for ‘Abd al Nasser in Egypt waned after the 1967 War, but should have much earlier, once he concentrated power, crushed the Muslim Brothers who had backed his Free Officers coup, and intervened in Yemen with such bloody and destructive results. Similar disillusionment set in regarding Iran after thousands of leftists were murdered and far more were tortured in Khomeini’s prisons, after the Islamic Republic was established. Most radical anti-imperialists interested in the region still respect HAMAS and Hizb’ullah, but gasp!, both are Islamist, backed by Iran and Syria. In a contest between the West, Israel, the Gulf States, and Iran, I will back Iran any day, but not without serious trepidation. Lets hope the current negotiations between the US and Iran on nuclear weapons and sanctions can result in a comprehensive peace that cools off the region for a while. Many lives could be saved and the Likud would be dealt a serious blow.

Finally, Dan Glazebrook has acknowledged that the United States and NATO were profoundly weakened by the militant insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and 2003 respectively. This reality is a cornerstone of his embrace of Seymour Hersh’s thesis that new strategies of imperialism became necessary as a result of the US’ strategic defeats in those two countries and their “broken” military forces (in Colin Powell’s words) that have been forced to withdraw (to some degree, at least) from both theatres. That new strategy provides the title of Glazebrook’s book, “Divide and Ruin”, so that without the capacity to effectively occupy Arab, North African and Central Asian countries, the US must now orchestrate or facilitate their violent decomposition, utilizing “locally recruited, sectarian militias” or “death squads” to render them failed states and presumably install friendlier regimes that will cooperate with the economic and political projects of the US, Israeli, and European elites. Much of this analysis rings true, but it also contains contradictions that should be analyzed a bit more carefully.

Without an analysis of the very diverse origins, trajectories, and transformations of various regimes and Islamist movements across the Arab/Muslim world, these events merge together in an analytic morass, where clarity is a casualty. I know the task is not simple, even for politicized and well-informed activists, intellectuals, and academics living in the region and far more acquainted with the complex and changing political and discursive web than westerners such as Glazebrook and myself. Yet I want to respectfully point out some of the problems with the perspective he and much of the Euro-American and Arab secular left often present. The US and NATO would not have suffered the demise of their ambitious projects in Iraq and Afghanistan without Islamist militants attacking their forces, blowing up their vehicles and materiel, destroying or seriously damaging the legitimacy and effectiveness of their political henchmen, and ultimately denying them control of Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of his presumed distaste for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qa’ida in Iraq/ISI, and Islamists like Jaysh al Islami, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Shi’i Mahdi Army, etc. and their successors, they were extremely effective in disrupting the US occupation of Iraq (with paradoxically ample assistance from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, As’ad’s timely release and protection of Islamist prisoners, and some funds from those notorious Gulf donors). Despite misgivings about Afghan Taliban mujahidin, these men fought and killed US and NATO forces, denied the Karzai regime any stability and will probably continue to contest foreign control of their society for many years. That is not to say that what remains afterwards is a utopia, but at least the imperialists haven’t entirely imposed their will (see ISIS; Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, Regan Arts, 2015, 48-112).

Al Qa’ida, despite whatever aid they may have siphoned from the CIA in Peshawar, and the degree to which that is the case is highly debatable, they did attack the United States, the WTC, and the Pentagon. They have continued to fight the US in Afghanistan and in northwestern Pakistan, as well as many western targets in other locales. Their affiliated Jabhat al Nusra militants are now deeply involved in the war in Syria in Idlib province, around Aleppo, and in western Syria, trying to carve out an emirate to expand their presence there, but this can hardly be regarded as an attempt to further US or Israeli interests, since the US has repeatedly bombed them. The Muslim Brothers were among the most effective fighters against British forces near the Suez in 1951-52, and against Israeli expansion in Palestine in the1948 war, according to many Egyptian military leaders and historians, and their HAMAS allies in Gaza have arguably fought the Israelis more effectively during recent assaults on Gaza, than any Palestinian armed group since the earliest battles with Zionist settlers. President Morsi, who Glazebrook claims was the US favorite in Egypt, suggested that his government hoped to renegotiate the Camp David Accords with Israel, a nearly heretical idea to the generals who ran SCAF and the current al Sisi regime. Its clear that Israel greatly preferred Mubarak and al Sisi to the Muslim Brothers, which is clearly a result of their problems containing HAMAS and their far more cordial relations and security cooperation with President Abbas and the Egyptian generals.

Of course, al Qa’ida and the Islamic State are both a threat to Syria, to the Gulf monarchies, and far less so to Iran, due to their ambitions to overthrow all of these regimes, however rhetorical their pronouncements may be. It’s also clear that both organizations have received much support from these same regimes, although they derive far more resources from their own smuggling networks and “taxes.” It is clear that the Gulf States do not like the As’ad regime, but that may be primarily because Syria is aligned with Iran, not because both As’ads contributed so consistently to the military containment of Israel, since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the elder was a member of the Ba’th military leadership in the 1967 War. This is not the time or space for a full exploration of the Islamists’ diverse agendas, rivalries, and alliances across the world, but to regard them merely as militias for pay, serving Western interests against socialist states or the progressive Left is a serious misunderstanding. Contemporary Islamist organizations may be destroyed or pass away, but others will surely follow, as their ideas and dreams are extremely appealing to millions of Muslims who have found little comfort from capitalism, communism, or nationalist revolutions. If one bothers to read their voluminous writings, for many, but surely not all, their battle is on behalf of the wretched (i.e. Muslims) of the earth against a dying colonialism. Ultimately, the Islamists, like liberals, leftists and nationalists, will be judged on the basis of whether they fulfill that promise, or merely spin violently or pointlessly around more vicious circles. The same goes for the rest of us (see Salmon Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear, 2004 and Recalling the Caliphate, 2014).

Richard Wood is a North American activist-sociologist currently completing a book on Muslim Resistance to Western Imperialism. He has traveled through several Arab and Muslim regions since the Intifada in Palestine in 1988.