2008 - Islamic Resistance, the Principal Contradiction and the ‘War on Terror’
What is the balance sheet almost seven years into Bush’s ‘war on terror’? Death, destruction, torture and all the inhumanness of imperialism, multiplied a thousand times. Yet the US and its allies are nowhere near their aims in Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world. The two wars in Iraq had been celebrated by the American ruling class as their coming out of the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, i.e. the hesitation to get into drawn out military engagements abroad out of fear of getting bogged down with all its consequences. But the current debate and dissensions within them indicate quite the opposite.
Despite pushing in additional forces into Iraq the Bush regime has failed to roll back the resistance. Losses are mounting. Within the US and its allies the pressure to pull out is building up. But this is not that easy. Pulling out troops would amount to a formal acceptance of defeat in their ‘war on terror’. The consequent repercussions wouldn’t be limited to those regions alone. Besides that, it would trigger off a leap in sectarian violence. Africa is sufficient proof that imperialism can live and profit from this. But sectarian violence in Iraq won’t remain contained to its borders. Its spreading out has strategic implications far greater than in Africa. An internally warring Iraq will pull in neighbouring countries, affect the main oil producing region of the world and cause devastating destabilisation in the whole global economy. US imperialism is caught in a jam. It can’t stay the course much longer and it can’t pull out that easily. The option of engaging Iran to utilise its influence in Iraq is again contradictory. First of all, almost all imperialist think tank studies admit that Iran’s role in the Iraqi Shia resistance is minimal. Moreover, conceding the present Iranian regime a role in guaranteeing stability in Iraq would blow a big hole in US plans for West Asia. It will even weaken its hold among other comprador regimes in the region. The ‘war on terror’ was supposed to reap for the US the full benefit of being the sole superpower. It was to ensure that neither the peoples of the world nor its imperialist rivals would ever be able to challenge its supremacy. But the way it’s being bled in Iraq and elsewhere, the way it has actually helped in exposing the military weakness of the US before the people and thus making them more confident of fighting it, this strategy is increasingly being seen as a liability. Added to this is the opportunity rendered to imperialist rivals, notably Russia, to promote their interests while the US is tied down.
Iraq and Afghanistan are not strictly comparable to Vietnam. There a revolutionary force was leading a national liberation war. Here the national war is mainly organised and led by Islamic forces. But, in terms of the situation the US finds itself today, the similarities are striking. This is rooted in their ultimate source, the working out of the contradiction between imperialism and oppressed nations and peoples, which sets the context and determines the dynamics. Unlike Vietnam, this contradiction is not manifested in West Asia and Afghanistan through a sharp differentiation brought about by a revolutionary ideology. It is further butted over by sectarian strife pitting people against people. But this precisely is the complexity, the particular form in which this contradiction is working out, that demands analysis.
To begin with we must settle with two views which complement each other even though they look quite contradictory. One of them formally acknowledges the reactionary character of the ideologies guiding Islamic forces and then goes on to an uncritical endorsement of these forces. The other formally accepts that they are part of oppressed and colonised humanity and then proceeds to declare their fight against imperialist occupiers as a clash between two reactionary forces. What is common to both of them is a peculiar logic by which their premises are no where to be seen in the conclusions. What is striking is the evasion of any grappling with the complexity mentioned above. Thereby both of them hamper any possible Maoist intervention; in the first case by tailing what’s on the field and in the second by standing aloof from this ‘messy’ reality.
The essential problem with the main resistance in Iraq or Afghanistan is not that it is Islamic, or, to put it broadly, led by a religious ideology. Religious ideologies have played a progressive role in the past. They still can become the means of expressing national and democratic content because in the semi-colonial, semi-feudal conditions of oppressed countries religion is not only a spiritual affair. It is also a way of life tightly interwoven with national culture. In the specific issue under discussion, the main problem lies in the particular elaboration of this ideology, the reactionary social programs being advanced by the more determined Islamic resistance forces—their fundamentalism. Therefore, apart from seeking out why religious ideologies, rather than secular ones, are gaining acceptance, we must also think over why this particular type is advancing, instead of something like a liberation theology. To give a tentative answer, it could be due to a combination of various factors. A weakening of faith in progressive thought and practice in general instilled by world events (including the setback of socialism), the failure of Maoists to uphold the national banner in oppressed countries coupled with a superficial identification of comprador modernisation with secularisation of society, the fierce and uncompromising rejection of the existent situation seen in fundamentalist religiosity that also gives it a more militant nature — all of these have contributed. Globalisation’s devastations and added miseries and the conscious boost given to religious movements by imperialism and reactionaries are no doubt conducive. But we must beware of reading too much into this. To attribute a one to one relation between the weakening of religion and proletarianisation and its resurgence with de-proletarianisation is the worst type of mechanical thought and a hasty generalisation. As for the role of imperialism and reaction, admitting it as an important factor also begs the question of why they are so successful and brings up, even more forcefully, the necessity of investigating the material and cultural factors intrinsic to particular societies. Similarly, to see in the growth of these fundamentalist movements a ploy by imperialism and reaction to divert the masses from the ‘real’ issues of globalisation fails to explain their perceived authenticity, precisely as a response to globalisation, among their mass following, apart from leaving out questions of faith and ideology from the list of real issues.
What is the class composition at the core of Islamic fundamentalist movements or of fundamentalist movements in general in the oppressed countries? It can very well be petty bourgeois, rural and urban, even ‘modern’ in education. Marxism, and the facts of life, shows us that the petty bourgeoisie of an oppressed country is an important national force, by no means outmoded historically though quite capable of being reactionary. Historical experience also teaches us that it can at times lead national movements. The petty bourgeois class composition of the core is one important reason why some fundamentalist movements are able to connect with the broad masses and don the mantle of legitimate resistance. But if analysis is guided by moral repugnance, the whole lot will just be seen as a bunch of outmoded reactionary strata, period—no suppositions to the contrary allowed. This may make it convenient in immediate terms to gain an audience among those put off by the reactionary views and practices of Islamic fundamentalists. But it won’t help Maoists in understanding and grappling with this phenomenon or mobilising a revolutionary mass on that basis, either in the oppressed countries or the imperialist ones. Dismissing the resistance in countries like Iraq as a clash between two reactionary strata amounts to imperialist economism, precisely because the aspect of national resistance contained in it is denied. The distinction seemingly drawn by qualifying these strata as colonised and imperialist will be meaningless so long as its implication of the national contradiction is denied. (For that matter, those criticised of imperialist economism by Lenin too had never denied the distinction between imperialism and the colonies. The problem was that their denial of the right to self-determination including secession eliminated this distinction from their politics.) In the present situation, one outcome of this is the reversal of priority targets in the occupied countries as seen in the argument, “To truly stand with the people of Afghanistan now means opposing all of their major enemies: the Taliban, the ‘Islamic republic of Afghanistan’ and of course, the foreign occupiers, Canada included, who keep the Afghan Government in power.” This tacking on of imperialist occupiers in the list of major enemies, instead of focusing on it and the puppet state, is an inevitable expression of the imperialist economism underlying the analysis.
Assuming the petty bourgeois core of a fundamentalist movement, where does its virulent and reactionary character, so contradictory to its objective class position, emerge from? To get into this we must distinguish fundamentalism from revivalism. There can be no Chinese wall separating them. The transformation that takes place after gaining political power is evident. But they do exhibit an important difference, right in their religiosity. Revivalist religiosity, like the Hindutva of the Sangh Parivar in India, is quite superficial. Even though there is a big heralding of rituals and symbolisms, even those abandoned long ago by ‘true believers’, it has no problem in accompanying this with vulgar comprador self-indulgence. All religion inevitably contains unconscious hypocrisy. But here it is conscious, though not admitted. Vulgar materialistic pursuits and the aping of imperialist culture–otherwise targeted as forces weakening the ‘national spirit’–are willingly accommodated and internalised. They are very much part of the revivalist ‘way of life’.
For the fundamentalists (the Khalistanis were a good example and so too the Taliban) the return to an ‘uncontaminated’ practice of religion is uncompromising. This spiritualism must necessarily collide sharply with the present and the powers that enforce it. In fact, going back is seen as the only way to resist and overcome the degeneration of the present. Returning to the past need not always deliver reaction. There is the example of the Lutherian reform in Europe. Its spiritualism was closely intertwined with disgust over the Catholic Church’s monetization of redemption and other such ‘unChristian’ acts and it called for going back to an idyllic past. But objectively Luther’s reform promoted the growth of capitalism, a society where the cash nexus rules supreme; quite opposite to what he set out to achieve. Regardless of the redeemer’s desires, the social forces of capitalist transition marshalled him into their service. When we look at fundamentalism in the oppressed countries today the hopelessness of its project becomes all too evident. These are societies where each advance of bureaucrat capitalism also resurrects some feudalism too, where the dynamic of social transition is repressed, disarticulated, by national oppression. Thus the objective context pulls and shapes the fundamentalists’ endeavour to surpass the present by returning to the past into a reactionary buttressing of existing social relations, even while they clash with it.
It is the impossibility of fundamentalism that gives it its rigid, fanatic character, its fierce spirituality, the source of its capacity to call forth militant self-sacrifice, as well as the root of its fascism. At its heart lies an intense reaction to national, cultural, alienation continuously aggravated by imperialist domination and its imposed transformation. This is the crucible. To reduce fundamentalism to the dissatisfaction of some feudal or clan elements or a mere resurgence of their ideologies would miss a very important detail– it is rather modern, a product of our times. Exposing the reactionary content of fundamentalism is no doubt necessary. The heightened awareness of women, dalits and similar sections of the oppressed masses, chained by religious traditions, provide powerful sources of energy to do this. But unless the spiritual space occupied by fundamentalism is retaken with the enlightening vision of an all round liberation, a vibrant national, secular culture and a new society free of exploitation, unless the physical space now occupied by fundamentalist resistance is regained under the revolutionary banners of a peoples’ war, the Maoists are not going to succeed.
For these reasons, in the specific context of resistance against imperialist occupation, the relation between fundamentalist forces and Maoists can neither be simply antagonistic nor collaborative. It may contain both of them. The reactionary social programme of a fundamentalist force in an oppressed country does not automatically exclude it from the national resistance. Its actions against the national oppressor are just. The question of whether this reflects the contradiction of the oppressed people with imperialism or whether it reflects the contradiction of a section of the local ruling classes with a particular imperialist power has to be answered by concrete analysis of the class composition at the core of that particular force. Sweeping generalisations, either way, are of no use. There is another aspect to this. In a context of occupation the contradiction between the nation and the occupiers becomes principal. All the contradictions, including those among the ruling classes or between some sections of them with the occupying imperialist powers, are determined, conditioned, by this principal contradiction. Therefore, even when the class core is ruling class (comprador or feudal), its resistance against an occupying force is, objectively, a part of the national resistance. That does not eliminate the reactionary interests guiding its resistance just as much as these interests, by themselves, don’t exclude it from the resistance. In terms of policy, just because some force is resisting imperialist occupation that doesn’t mean that Maoists should endorse it as a national liberation force or unite with it, even while they acknowledge its resistance and the objective role it plays. On the contrary, the resistance put up by a force which is fighting against imperialist occupation cannot be denied its objective role by citing the reactionary social programme it may be upholding.
Now, to approach the issue from this angle demands a proper appreciation of the advance made by Mao Tsetung in charting out the road of revolution in oppressed countries and his approach in analysing the complex tangle of contradictions met with in the world. Today it is commonly accepted among Maoist forces that the principal contradiction in the world is the one between imperialism and oppressed nations and peoples. But, quite often, this doesn’t inform analysis of phenomena like the resurgence of various forms of religious movements in oppressed countries. Even worse is the case where the imperialists are taken at their word and the ‘war on terror’ is mainly seen, at least in its present phase, as something guided by US ruling class interests in rolling back Islamic fundamentalism. That is the declared purpose. But a closer look shows something else. Towards the end of the last century, not just US imperialism but the whole NATO bloc was engaged with the question of planning for overcoming decades of upheaval. A recent UK Defence Ministry think tank study puts this quite explicitly. It isn’t difficult to understand this concern when situated within the globalisation drive of imperialism and the resistance it was bringing up. The advocacy of the particular policy put forward by the US neo-cons, later formulated as the ‘war on terror’, was within the ambit of this broad imperialist strategy, very much directly related to the working out of the principal contradiction. Today armed struggle is branded as ‘terrorism’, regardless of its political nature. The ‘war on terror’, where Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is ostensibly posed as the enemy, has its antecedents in the counter-insurgency campaign in South America carried out under the banner of a ‘war on drugs’. It is accompanied by a broad project of restructuring the crisis ridden agrarian sector in the 3rd world, which is identified as a potential source of ‘destabilisation’, in other words revolution. The ‘war on terror’ is a war on the peoples of the world. It is aimed at rolling back the emerging new wave of revolution. This is the dynamic that must be grasped in order to break out from the terms sought to be set by imperialism.Policies will naturally differ in the oppressed countries and in imperialist ones. Yet there are some similarities also. The terrorism of Islamic and other resistance groups is conveniently used by ruling classes in both these countries to legitimise their suppression and curtailment of democratic rights. Where the victims are the masses, terrorist acts divide them and pushes a large section towards the banners of the rulers. We must certainly draw a sharp line of demarcation between terrorism and revolutionary violence. But we must also draw a sharper line of demarcation between this Maoist position and the ‘anti-terrorism’ propaganda of imperialism and reaction. This cannot be done in the determined way it must be done with arguments over who poses the greater threat to humanity or who the principal culprit is, even though all of that is true. What is needed is the firm and unconditional defence of the right of an oppressed people or section of society to resist with arms. Opposition to the ideology or social programme they follow cannot be allowed to dilute this. And the only way to ensure that is to fully grasp the dynamics of revolution, of the people against the system, particularly of the principal contradiction in the present world situation. When the ongoing turmoil in the world is viewed overall from the prism of inter-ruling class or reactionary conflicts, when major turns are mainly analysed and explained in these terms and revolution is only something that is added to this rather than accepted as the principal factor it really is, the defence of the right of an oppressed to resist can only become conditional and weak.
- From the WPRM-Winnipeg’s ‘Notes on Afghanistan’
- ”Disparities in wealth and advantage will therefore become more obvious, with their associated grievances and resentments, even among the growing numbers of people who are likely to be materially more prosperous than their parents and grandparents. Absolute poverty and comparative disadvantage will fuel perceptions of injustice among those whose expectations are not met, increasing tension and instability, both within and between societies and resulting in expressions of violence such as disorder, criminality, terrorism and insurgency. They may also lead to the resurgence of not only anti-capitalist ideologies, possibly linked to religious, anarchist or nihilist movements, but also to populism and the revival of Marxism.”, The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme, 2007-2006. DCDC is a Directorate General within the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Strategic Trends is a source document for the development of UK Defence Policy.