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ISLAM AND THE STRUCTUR
facilitated by Paul Eckstein
HE FOLLOWING is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion that aired on November 25, 2007, on the WBAI-NY radio program Equal Time for Freethought. Produced by Barry F. Seidman, coeditor of the anthology. Toward a New Political Humanism, this portion was facilitated by Paul Eckstein, professor of philosophy at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. Participants included Gilbert Achcar, professor at the London School
of Oriental and African Studies and author of The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder; Larry Pintak, author of Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas and Deepa Kumar, professor of media studies at Rutgers University and author of several articles on Islamophobia, the media, and the "war on terror." This condensed excerpt has been specially adapted for the Humanist.
THE HUMANIST I March - April 2008
Look at Vietnam. but the Arabs and the broader Muslim world were all dependent on West- ern media for their news coverage. whereas today you don't get those kinds of pictures in the American media about the enormoas destruction that's taken place in Iraq. crucially. "Just a few more troops. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon. there is a tendency to look at the Democratic Party as a peace party and that isn't true. The Vietnam War was in our living rooms every night and we could see what was going on. It was Woodrow Wilson who took the United States into the First World War.S. Because. of course. Then Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. war machine—they saw the kind of coverage the Americans were turning out. The militants first started targeting Western journalists because they saw them as an extension of the U. and I think it's from there that we can actually build the momentum needed to stop the plans that both Democrats and Republicans have for the Middle East. who were refusing to fight in that unjust war. what becomes clear is that while there are differences of style and rhetoric.Paul Eckstein: We're talking about how the Democratic Party doesn't really seem to be in any kind of position to make a significant change in the policies that have been followed by the current administration. In 1968 the Tet Offensive showed quite clearly that the administration's argument. sections of the military—soldiers who were turning their guns against their officers. Larry Pintak: Certainly in the lead-up to the Iraq war— during the first year or two—Americans received completely antiseptic coverage and had no real sense of what was going on. siege of Fallujah. Democrats and Republicans are both very much agreed that the United States has a legitimate right to pursue this so-called war on terror.April 2008 I THE HUMANIST 17 . the birth of Hezbollah—all of that took place in a way that Arabs were watching. running on a platform that he would not take us to war. a few more troops and we will win.thehumanlst. they see everything through an Arab or Muslim lens. And more recently. the two parties are war parties because they both get their funding from the same sources. The Second World War. despite its power and strength. a Democrat. we have Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What is it that ultimately led to the United States pulling out? It was a couple of things. They were horrified. with respect to what's actually happening on the ground." was a lie. First it was resistance within the country that was being occupied. The Iraq Veterans Against the War group is calling the lie to what's going on in Iraq. It was the National Liberation Front in Vietnam that showed that the United States could not go in.S. So whether it was the US. of course. should the Democrats win the next presidential election. That is step one towards legitimizing war on Iran. But what is an even bigger factor is that the communications landscape outside the United States has changed dramatically. but it was framed in a Western way and not through an Arab reporting it. Eckstein: One of the differences I see between what happened during the Vietnam era and what happens now is the enormous difference in the kind of television coverage that takes place in the United States. What happened in that context is you had a strong antiwar movement composed of students on various campuses but also. it's inordinately dangerous for Western or Arab correspondents to cover that conflict. if you look at the twentieth century. And that's a fundamental shift in the way the war is covered. In all of these cases. both parties voted to make the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. where the American media were reporting it embedded with the www. Now. fundamentally. What you get instead. and that is (of Americans not having) a long historical memory. Marine involvement in Lebanon. It really has a resonance today when you're talking about the surge and so on. Now the militants target everyone because they have their own media operations and they want their version of truth to be the only version of truth. and then Jimmy Carter comes along with a policy that continues the legacy of previous administrations. So the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982—they saw that through a Western lens. Deepa Kumar: I want to connect this to a point made earlier. I think you're seeing that today as well. and simply steamroU people.otg Morch . are embedded correspondents. the U. So I really think the hope is in the people's movement and antiwar movement. I really wonder whether we could expect much in the way of moderating influences. he gets elected and takes us to war. Now.
While we're on this subject. Despite all their mistakes and problems and so on. first of all it's important to add an element to what you said about the fact that the United States was instrumental in repressing. And what is now going on is that the United States is reaping the fruits of what it had been promoting for all this time. but I think that will create the conditions under which Left traditions— which are strong in the Middle East—can begin to start taking hold again. The progressive forces tend to be rather small. defeating whatever kind of Left progressive movement you had in this part of the world. and these are the people who have fostered Islamic fundamentalism against the Egyptian Nationalist Movement led by Nasser. One of the things we all know is that part of the reason the progressive forces tend to be small throughout the Muslim world is because they were systematically eliminated during the Cold War era by the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for hegemony. regarding the situation of women—which is a very important criterion to gauge democracy—Iran.S. It strikes me as a period that is really fraught with crisis and danger. what's happening is that lots of people who were frustrated over Pervez Musharraf's regime and its ties to the reactionary policies of the United States felt that there were no viable alternatives except for Islamist kinds of organizations. Now we're in a very difficult situation. the Arab reporters were in Fallujah with the defenders. but the reality is that the landscape in the world has changed to such an extent. as well as repressive and corrupt local governments. shutting down all its bases. So what we wound up doing in effect was destroying most of the progressive forces that might have been able to play it genuinely. the United States is exacerbating sectarian differences. anti-women state in the world.amerlcanhumanlst. Now out of this. And you can have a sense of the major setback from a progressive point of view when you compare the kind of forces that were waging the struggle against Western imperialism or aggressive Israeli policy in the area in the 1960s. with the civilians. You have this vast labyrinth of communications tools that link people around the world instantaneously and that's changed everything. 1 think it's very important to add that there is much more than that actually and it's the fact that the United States used Islamic fundamentalism in order to defeat this movement. all kinds of nationalist and left-wing progressive movements and the communist movement in Muslim countries. unlike the situation in Vietnam. Eckstein: But you don't actually expect that to happen. to channel all the mass resentment against Western domination. you can measure the extent of hypocrisy behind all these speeches and discourses about Iran. If anything. most reactionary. Kumar: I think the first step in actually ensuring peace in the Middle East or anywhere else is for the United States to get out of there. is www. ally. But the Saudi Kingdom is the key ally of the United States. So the first step is the United States bringing back all its troops. well. And this is where the idea that an American peace movement is going to change the world is very simplistic. they've done some good work in leading strikes and struggles in the working class as well as student movements. In the final analysis. which is by far the most fundamentalist. magically. that were simply going to get out of the Middle East and shut down all our bases? The fact is everybody knows that the reason we're there. to a very small movement. The people in the West do not realize that enough because when you realize that. For the time being. The United States had been promoting for decades Islamic fundamentalism through its key alliance with the Saudi Kingdom. because it has never played a progressive role in that region and it is not doing so now. comparatively speaking.toil Marines. and what you've got today. and this is a key U. there is not going to appear a Left. Is there is a viable Left left in any of these countries? Gilbert Achcar: Well. Eckstein: So where does this leave us? The policy debates seem to be split between factions that want to reestablish control by being super aggressive. is far better than the Saudi Kingdom. In many respects. Islamic fundamentalists have been able to absorb or to attract. the progressives have been reduced to marginality.org . Because it may have an impact on getting the United States out of Iraq or preventing the United States from bombing Iran. threatening to bring about a region-wide conflict between Shi'a and Sunni. obscurantist. one of the things we were talking about was the balance of forces in Pakistan. and a faction which wants to try to reestablish control by somehow manipulating situations through third parties. the Arab nationalist movement.
you shouldn't mix up everything and everyone who is Protestant under this label. because this is a much better term for the education of Western audiences than whatever other label. the Muslim Brotherhood and all those organizations and people who call for Sharia to be implemented as the key solution to everything. "Alright. Schools are deteriorating. but we also have to look at what is good in the West and emulate that. Islamist groups span the gamut from the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party in Turkey. we're going to go back to the fundamentals of Islam. and so on. Organizations like those I mentioned. if not all religionsincluding Christianity and ludaism. And then there are those like Rashid Rida. It cannot explain the particular historical conditions that have given rise to a variety of groups and parties. others are not. wait for the next messiah to come along. who takes part of what both al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh said but offer a conservative worldview. flagellation. to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Wait. That is the tradition of Rida. I do not like the term "fundamentalism" because it's so broad. actually there is a genuine position to stand up against the Shah. right? When the Taliban takes power. you had people like [Jamal al-Din] al-Afghani. Well. Each of these groups were born of different circumstances and have different politics. if you w i l l happens in a modern context. Rida then lays the basis for the Salafi movement. so it's the same with Islamic fundamentalism. the Persian Empire and said. Nobody in Washington is going to say. Some are fundamentalist. It avoids giving the impression that this is a peculiarity of Islam (like in the term Tslamism') and points to the fact that we are dealing with a phenomenon common to most. Kumar: I would disagree with that and prefer instead to use the term "political Islam" to describe a modern phenomenon where Islam is reinterpreted to serve a political goal. bridges constitution and so forth. RuhoUa Khomeini. what you see is that people like Ali Shariati." So they have taken Islam and they have interpreted it in a way that suits their political objectives. There are so many problems that could be addressed right here. In the nineteenth century. the Jihadi Salafis in Pakistan. a very strict sectarian interpretation of the Quran. if at all. and so on. Iraq and levies are crumbling due to disrepair. These are fantastically antimodern forces. and Hamas and Hezbollah. whatever the differences between them. the Iraq war has cost over $1 trillion.because there's a genuine resource at stake that has a profound impact on the world economy. well. He was an Islamic modernist who looked at the incursions that Western colonialism made in the Ottoman Empire. "No. and 1 think that demand of getting the United States out of the Middle East has to come from a people's movement. I think the real fundamentalists are the Taliban. They refer to people that you can label as fundamentalist.thehumanist." Kumar: As was said earlier. they do not refer to al-Afghani. And when you put both those in the same camp. Traditionally. Achcar: When people use the term Islamic fundamentalism. are all fundamentalist organizations because they adhere to a fundamentalist type of program with their ambition of imposing the religious remodeling of society as a solution to everything. "Oh. if it is going to succeed. So you have figures like him who have been referred to as Islamic modernists. The return to Islam—Islamic revivalism. we're just going to have to pull out of the region. But 1 want to go back to what was said earlier about fundamentalism. But of course. turned that around and said that. the Wahhabis. and so on. Yet we do not have health insurance in this country for 47 million people. under the Shi'a sect there has been a tendency towards political passivity and quietism. and strategies. they shred any sort of March • April 2008 I THE HUMANIST 19 An M1A1 Abramstank in Baghdad. and so on. Look for instance at Khomeini's particular interpretation of Shi'a Islam. it explains nothing as much as it explains everything. That is where it is going to come from. even when you speak of Protestant fundamentalism. That is why 1 stick to this term (fundamentalism).org . suffer. Why? Look at what they actually did." And so he called for a www. tactics. or like Hezbollah or Hamas. the Jihadi Salafists in Pakistan.
Iran is far better than the Saudi Kingdom. So when Israel invaded Lebanon 20 THE HUMANIST I March . which has all the trappings of a modern nation. democratic resistance movement to come about. so why support them there? Achcar: Relabeling movements is not the way to educate people on the Left. As long as we look for simplistic solutions. is a modern phenomenon and it recruited highly educated people like engineers and doctors who turned to Islam to find a solution to the crises that their societies were in.5 million Iraqi deaths since 1991. secular.S. They get rid of everything modern. you've got to support Hezbollah against the Israeli invasion. The result then is that you have a much weakened Left in the region. and some basic commerce. and was really an attempt to translate and understand the Bible literally. And I think for those of us in the antiwar movement in the United States. and they enact a fundamentalist program in a very literal sense.amerlcanhumanlst. last year. the United States saw progressive nationalists and others on the Left as a threat and did all in their power to marginalize these forces. so I'll muddle things by throwing in Buddhism as well. they force women to wear the veil. there is no more modern nationstate. There's no choice in the middle because those people are in jail. Of course. GI www. There is a Buddhist prayer that says. government has no business Regarding the Situation of women. and we reduce our foreign policy to black and white. who is the greater force of destruction? Is it the United States that is responsible for over 2. For progressives in the United States the question was. "May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. the term fundamentalism confuses people in the Left in the United States. So. And that's why we need to reserve the term fundamentalism for those who are really fundamentalist.arg . On the other hand. Pintak: The world is a messy place. which side do we take? I think with a lot of criticism. because we would never support fundamentalists here. Pintak: It is a reflection of the way in which we reduce things to categories.3 F mmi WI constitution that existed. That is not true of what the Taliban did in Afghanistan. whatever kind of movement you have there. it is the opposition that is representative of other voices. Similarly in Iraq. we have to make a choice and decide who is the greater threat. including supporting and funding Islamists. or the Islamists? And T think in that context. During the Cold War. religion. We're having a conversation about Islam and Christianity. You compare that to Iran. All they're interested in is in warfare. This is how we end up with foreign policies where people are being driven into the arms of Islamist movements. whatever it may be. and 80 percent of women are educated. pro-gay. it was a complicated situation. because I cannot think of any instance in the United States where we (the Left) would be on the side of the fundamentahsts regarding any political actions they engage in. to actually do that is fundamentally reactionary. people becoming radicalized where these governments very successfully eviscerate the secular opposition. promotes a capitalist economy. it is only going to get worse. I have no problem being antiwar if I'm faced with a fundamentalist movement fighting a foreign imperialistic invasion because I cannot see any justification for the United States to occupy any country in the world. the situation of the Middle East is much more complicated. look at the forces that are fighting in the resistance movement. As Arundhati Roy put it." I'll just warrant that if we thought a little bit more about how things actually look to other people out there and what they felt about things. You want to call that a leftist opposition or a mainstream opposition. they are in exile. I stood against the U. These recruits had a modern outlook and orientation and are not fundamentalist in the strict sense of the term. It's involved in international politics. Standing against imperialist war and occupation should not be conflated with supporting the forces fighting it on the spot.April 2008 in occupying other countries. Political Islam. in the context of the advanced West. in the same way that respecting a people's right to self-determination does not mean that you support whatever choices they make. You have to educate people about this very simple idea that the U. They prevent people from watching films. even if these countries are 100 percent fundamentalist. they have disappeared. as it emerges in the 1970s in various countries around the world. But if you have to sit down and wait for an anti-sexist. you have to look at the connotations that a word like that has when it has come from Christian fundamentalism.S. you'll have to wait a while. these are not forces that would welcome progressives. And by the United States buying into this black-and-white mentality—and we have historically in the Middle East— we end up with good guys and bad guys. maybe our country and our world would be a happier place. for us in the West. invasion of Afghanistan though I hadn't the slightest sympathy for the Taliban. And so they set up dichotomies of us or them. Kumar: The word fundamentalism itself comes from the Protestant movement in the early twentieth century.
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