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Capitalism, populism & crisis of liberalism-Akeel Bilgrami

Posted by admin On June - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on Capitalism, populism & crisis of liberalism-Akeel Bilgrami

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by Jipson John and Jitheesh P. M.

Originally published: Frontline (June 21, 2019)   |
Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and scholarship. He graduated from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, in 1970 and went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Thereafter, he moved to the United States and earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1983. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. Bilgrami was the chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1994 to 1998. He was the director of the Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia from 2004 to 2011 and was the director of Columbia’s South Asian Institute from 2013 to 2016.

Bilgrami’s main intellectual interests are in the philosophy of mind and language, and in political philosophy and moral psychology. His PhD thesis, titled “Meaning as invariance”, was on the subject of the indeterminacy of translation and issues concerning realism. Among his books on the philosophy of language and mind are Belief and Meaning (1992) and Self-Knowledge and Resentment (2006).

His writings in the other central area of his intellectual interests, political philosophy and moral psychology, have significantly influenced and continue to influence the public discourse on politics, ideology, religion, modernity, culture, history, and so on. It is Bilgrami who has exposed and provided high-ranging criticism of liberalism and its limitations as a political ideology in contemporary times. According to Bilgrami, liberalism and liberal politics have got their own limitations and could not save us from the savagery of capital. In this way, he intellectually provokes us to go beyond liberalism and reimagine an alternative political vocabulary. Here his philosophy rejects the ideology of capitalism and envisions an alternative as the way forward for humanity. This alternative is, of course, left centric and socialistic in perspective, and he sympathises with Left politics in his home country and others.

His writings and philosophical ideas on the themes of secularism, modernity, Marxism and Gandhi have produced new perspectives on these subjects and significantly contributed to intellectual debates (see Frontline issues dated March 30 and April 13, 2018). His highly influential essay “Gandhi the philosopher” provides a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi, and Bilgrami unearths the integrity in his ideas contrary to the popular notion of their inconsistency and fragmentation. As a philosopher, Bilgrami, despite being an atheist, does not completely reject the scope of religion in playing a critically instructive role in our times. He says: “Religion is not primarily a matter of belief and doctrine but about the sense of community and shared values that it can sometimes provide in contexts where other forms of solidarity—such as a strong labour movement—are missing, and it sometimes provides a moral perspective for a humane politic as it did in the liberation theology movement in Central America.”

Bilgrami’s attempt to provide a fresh look at modernity is also noteworthy. Pinpointing the basic weaknesses and Eurocentric nature of modernity and its domination by liberal politics, Bilgrami seeks to find a theoretical framework by which one can go past the constriction of possibilities that liberalism and the merely regulatory constraints of social democracy have forced on modern societies.

Bilgrami is influenced by thinkers such as Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Donald Davidson and Noam Chomsky. His important works in this area include a vast number of essays and the books Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (2014), Marx, Gandhi and Modernity (2014) and Democratic Culture (2011).

In this long interview with Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M., Akeel Bilgrami speaks at length on the concepts of populism, liberalism, fascism, postmodernism and post-truth.

The term “populism” has attained much significance in the contemporary political landscape all over the world. Populist movements and politics are mushrooming on a large scale. There is the Donald Trump phenomenon, Brexit, the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the emergence of Left movements such as Podemos in Spain, the politics of Narendra Modi, and so on. These are widely considered to be populist movements. Even the welfare measures of various governments are labelled as populist measures in a negative connotation. How do you engage with the term populism, its emergence and its philosophical and political connotations?

There is so much punditry on this subject that it is tempting to say that one should just put a moratorium on the term populism. But that would be an evasion. One can’t ignore the important issues underlying the obsessive interest in the subject. Yet, it’s not obvious what the best way to characterise those issues is. By “best way” I mean one that does not either trivialise them or distort them.

Dictionaries characterise populism as “the political effort of ordinary people to resist elites”. This is also our intuitive understanding of the term. If that is so, a question arises. Populism in its widespread usage today has become a pejorative term (and I don’t just mean that the elites use the term pejoratively, which they are bound to; many others do so as well). But how can it be a bad thing for ordinary people to resist domination by elites? Another closely related question is: in effect, democracy too amounts to the resistance by ordinary people of the elites, so then what is the difference between populism and democracy? These are both good questions. I’ll come back to them at the end.

The first and most obvious thing we notice is how variously the term populism is used. And worse, as your own question points out, it is used to describe or denote quite contradictory things: Trump, [Bernie] Sanders, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, Modi, Brexiteers, [Jeremy] Corbyn, [Marine] Le Pen,… not to mention, Peronism in Argentina, the Narodniks in Russia, the agrarian movements of the late 19th century in the United States. If all these get counted as populist, then can there be said to be any common property or properties possessed by this disparate array of movements and ideologies that can be identified and analysed and explained? Well, if by common properties we mean common contents in their political commitments, the answer will simply have to be “No”.

Thus, for instance, if one had one’s gaze on the metropole, you’ll find that Trump and Brexiteers are, in some sense, against globalisation. But shift your gaze further south to the periphery, and you’ll find Modi and Erdogan are quite the opposite; they are for globalisation. Or again, Corbyn and Sanders are called left-wing populists, Le Pen and Trump right-wing populists. Or yet again, Narodniks and American populists (both existed in roughly the same period) valorised the peasantry, but Peronist populism valorised the urban working class. And so on.

Now, when you find such contradictory contents in their political commitments, you have two choices. a) Simply acknowledge that there is no uniform and consistent content to all the populisms and study them piecemeal, for instance, study left-wing populism as a phenomenon different from right-wing populism, study pro-globalisation populisms as a phenomenon different from anti-globalisation populisms. Or b), the other choice, frequently indulged in by commentators on populism, is to say: “If one is to find common properties in these diverse populisms, one will have to abstract away from the content of their political commitments, and find contentless common properties. I must say I don’t really find myself very attracted by this second option. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but in my view, that is to trivialise the subject of populism.

Thus, you constantly hear the talk of how populists, despite their contradictory commitments, all develop a psychological investment in a charismatic leader, etc., and that there is something in our culture and psychology that responds to charisma, etc. First of all, such cultural and psychological factors are in fact not uniformly present in all cases of populism. They may be true for Modi or Erdogan; they certainly are not true of Sanders or Corbyn. But, apart from this, I think there is a more fundamental reason to recoil from this way of proceeding. It may be a sort of theoretical prejudice of mine, but I am unimpressed by this general tendency among scholars to rush to cultural and psychological factors setting the agenda for discussion of concepts like populism. It changes the intellectual agenda in the wrong way, I feel, when these factors, important though they certainly are, are divorced from the context of politics and political economy. And that divorce is precisely what occurs when one focusses on those factors after declaring populism to be a contentless notion simply because different populisms have contradictory contents.

So then would you say that there is no uniform phenomenon that the term describes?

Perhaps there isn’t, but that should not be said as a conversation-stopper; it should be a conversation-starter. It’s really up to us to shape the conversation about populism in a way that is fruitful, not to reduce it to a trivial cultural or psychological phenomenon.

Should one then choose the first option and just say that there are different populisms and analyse them differently?

One could do that. That would be worthwhile. At least, it is not trivialising the concept by ignoring its content. But I think another somewhat more ambitious thing to do, theoretically speaking, than either a) or b) is something like this. Unlike a) continue to look for something in common between the different populisms, and unlike b), instead of seeking trivial common properties that leave out all mention of their content (because the contents are contradictory), one might rather keep the contradictory contents in view and seek a common cause or causal condition that prompts people to adopt one or other of those contradictory contents. Identifying this common cause of differential and contradictory contents of populism would identify something rather deep in a social or political phenomenon, whereas going on in one’s analysis of populism about how all populisms psychologically invest in a charismatic leader or how our popular culture erects him into a notoriously iconic status, etc. does not identify anything deep, and as I said, these properties are in any case not shared by all populisms.

So, to repeat, what I am proposing is that one should not declare it to be contentless but keep sight of the contents (even if contradictory) and step back and look to how the deeper and underlying causes of these contentful populisms are a broadly similar or common condition. And once one identifies that causal condition or conditions that are shared by all populisms, then one can give further differential analyses of why the populisms they cause go in divergent, even contradictory, directions.

Can you say what you mean by a common underlying cause of different populisms today?

Yes, sure. Let me state the punchline or conclusion right away and present my reasons for it by looking at some of the particular cases of populism that you mention in your opening question. I think any serious analysis of the deepest, most underlying, causal condition for the rise of different, even sometimes contradictory, populisms in recent years is a combination of two things: the chronic hardships imposed on ordinary people by capitalism in the last three decades and the complete inability of the spectrum of political positions that are allowed to surface in the arena of politics to address or even to properly develop a discourse with which to understand and criticise it. This last point I am emphasising is of the utmost importance. Many people who make the first point about contemporary capitalism as an underlying cause don’t see this last vital point. And, moreover, I don’t think we can really understand this last very important point if we don’t also see that the prevalent liberal anti-populist responses are fraudulent.

Bedfellow of neoliberalism
What do you mean by that?

Liberalism, despite its shrill opposition to populism, is in fact complicit with the worst aspects of populism that have made it a pejorative term. If populism is irrational today, almost all those who write against it are implicitly irrational as well, even if their irrationality does not take the same surface form. There is a superficiality, even dishonesty, about people who keep stressing the irrationality of populism and who don’t in the very same breath point out that that irrationality owes substantially to the (more hidden) irrationality of the whole liberal orthodoxy that despises it.

Until one sees through liberalism and its thicket of shallow criticism of populism to this crucial point, one will not see the extent to which liberalism as a political doctrine and position has been the constant bedfellow in these last few decades of neoliberal political economies, and how it, therefore, is an essential part of the underlying causes that give rise to the contemporary populism today that we are trying to analyse.

In fact, in my view it is the deepest part, it is the deepest enemy of the Left, in the sense that it is the most submerged, submerged under its own self-proclaimed moral high ground and, therefore, the hardest to unearth.

Many people might see that the (globalised finance) capitalism of our times is the underlying causal condition that gives rise to the populisms of our times, but they don’t see that the essential element that makes some of these populisms “irrational” is the role played by liberalism in circumscribing and limiting what surfaces in the political arena as a response to globalisation.

Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Let’s start with a typical example. If you open Financial Times on virtually any day, you’ll find an anti-populist screed by Edward Luce. He is only one example; liberal commentators like him are everywhere in the mainstream press. Luce, reporting on Trump’s inaugural, said: “Obama’s inaugural in 2008 radiated hope, Trump’s inaugural channelled rage.” But not once in the article did he point out that the rage might be due to the hopes invested in [Barack] Obama being unfulfilled.

The contrast with Obama was intended by Luce entirely as a way of elevating the latter to heroic status and lamenting the impending death of liberalism in the face of Trump’s right-wing nationalism, a nationalism that is said to be killing off liberalism in European nations as well. But there is no question of liberalism dying. It’s everywhere waiting in the wings to return to power should Trump fail in the next elections. It (represented by the Democratic party’s national committee, the DNC, as it is called) is everywhere poised to once again undermine the chances of any success in the political field of the social democratic positions taken by Bernie Sanders during his primaries campaign. It’s not just people like Luce who think and write this way. Paul Krugman, who claims status as a progressive economist, supported Hillary Clinton against Sanders in the primaries. Indeed, even RollingStone magazine, which is supposed to represent youthful aspirations, endorsed Clinton over Sanders. American youth itself, suffering under crippling higher education debt, rallied around Sanders; it’s just the supposedly progressive liberal punditry of RollingStone, supposedly speaking for their interests, which refused to support him.

In saying all this, I am not denying that Hillary Clinton would have been better than Trump. As I said somewhere before, it goes without saying that she would have been better than Trump. But if it goes without saying, then don’t say it because to constantly say it might give the impression that the liberal orthodoxy of the Democratic party has some intrinsic merit. It does not.

Through the eight years of Obama’s government, it is responsible for the stagnation of the wages of working people, for failing to improve the conditions of African Americans (in fact if you remember it was under Bill Clinton that the assault on their welfare provisions began) or to improve the hideous racialism of the incarceration regime they continue to suffer from, for letting the bankers who created the financial crisis (by policies pursued earlier during the years of Democratic rule under Bill Clinton) off the hook while ignoring the poor whose homes were foreclosed and suffered the most in the crisis, for ignoring the problem of rising student debt.… Indeed, even on the subject of immigration on which Trump’s stand is rightly said by liberals to be deplorable, we shouldn’t forget that in the 2008 election campaign it was Obama who took a far worse stance on immigration than his Republican rival [John] McCain.

I’m not suggesting that Sanders would have been some kind of ultimate saviour. Even if one supported him, it would be foolish to think his mildly social-democratic commitments would have succeeded in completely or seriously undermining the sway of contemporary capitalism.

But it is a sign of what liberalism has come to mean that people speaking in its name on the entire spectrum from Edward Luce to Paul Krugman view Sanders as anathema. So, what I am stressing is that liberal orthodoxy is not dying at all. It is everywhere flourishing, and its chief work while in opposition is to make sure that there are no conceptual and critical resources that surface in the political zeitgeist by which to oppose the right-wing populists except those offered by the liberal orthodoxy itself. It thus disdains people like Sanders or Corbyn as “populists” as well and declares them to be unelectable.

But let me just step back a bit and come back to this critique of liberalism a little later. The prior and plain fact that we all know well is that ever since the 1980s, there was a rolling back all over the West (what is now called “the North”) of policies that were intended to benefit labour, and it is this that has produced the conditions that makes working people so highly mobilisable today in populist upsurges that give rise to Trump and Brexit and…

Yes, will you say something about Brexit too?

A great deal has been said about Brexit along the lines I just mentioned about how it was prompted primarily by the dissatisfaction of working people in England (let me just talk about England and not the rest of Britain so as to not complicate the question with devolutionary issues), especially outside the city of London. London boomed grotesquely at the expense of the deindustrialised regions of the Midlands and the North through the Blairite period and subsequent [David] Cameron years, years in which there was essentially a continuation of Thatcherite domestic policies with a far more insistent globalised and “Europeanised” set of economic commitments. In fact, [Margaret] Thatcher openly said that her greatest achievement was the creation of New Labour, which is to say the arrangement of a divorce between Labour and labour. (Similarly, in the same period, [Ronald] Reagan’s greatest achievement was the creation of a Clintonite Democratic party consolidated by Obama, completely in thrall to the pursuit of a globalised neoliberal agenda, also divorcing the party from its traditional base.)

But let me just add two or three things to these familiar points about regional working-class dissatisfaction prompting Brexit.

First, it is worth noting that in all the sleekly contemptuous liberal punditry against the nationalistic trend exhibited by Brexit, there is unanimity in thinking that it was a big mistake on Cameron’s part to call a referendum. In fact, umpteen essays have been written on how democracy should be restricted to the routines of the quadrennial or quintennial clock at the electoral ballot to deliver representation on a package of issues and policy matters without intrusively appealing to the people with the dangerous ultra-democratic weapon of referendums on single issues. But the fact is that the consensus between Blairite Labour and post-Thatcher Conservatives is so hegemonic, and this consensus pursued the neoliberal form of globalisation with such zest and with such deleterious effects on the working population that the latter’s participation in the routine clock of elections was conspicuously dwindling. They simply felt they could not make a difference, so why bother to vote. And the referendum by contrast in fact gave them a visible opportunity to feel that they could make a difference, so they came out and voted.

A second point worth noting is that the vote for Brexit may have been much larger than it was. I suspect many on the Left of British politics were inhibited in voting for Brexit because the Leave campaign was so infused with the xenophobia of UKIP [UK Independence Party] and other groups.

Finally, third, there is a point of contrast between England’s regional resentment against London’s boom and similar anti-metropolitan resentments in the heartlands of the new world (the U.S. particularly) and perhaps in settler colonial lands quite generally. I think this divide between attitudes of the regions versus those of the major metropoles is somewhat different in these places from what they are in England and the old world. In the U.S., there is, as you know, a general antagonism in the heartland against the coastal metropoles. And this has a long and interesting history and intellectual history that is woven in with the history. It really goes back to John Locke’s remarks in his chapter on property in Second Treatise of Government about America as the paradigm of the privatisation of land for (what we would now call) “development” and also to a whole line of thought in America represented by Frederick Turner’s “frontier” thesis. These texts make clear the extent to which America was conceived as a place where wealth was quintessentially the result of honest labour brought to the soil by proprietors of land, thereby improving the lives of all, which was basically Locke’s justification of the very idea of privatisation as a form of Pareto-improvement.

In England, privatisation of the commons happened by brute force with the enclosures, and then Locke came along and presented this argument in that Second Treatise to claim that what was happening by brute force was in fact a rational political and moral achievement. Since England existed for centuries before all this, Locke had to devise a theoretical fiction, a thought experiment of a “social contract” that made for this scenario of Pareto-improvement out of a theoretically imagined “state of nature”. However, he declared America to be that vast expanse of the state of nature, for which there was no artifice of a theoretical device needed to philosophically consolidate an ongoing practice of enclosures. The very idea of America both for Locke and Turner (summarising a whole outlook) was founded on the ideal of privatised land as the source of genuine wealth. Thus, as commentators have noticed, American populisms today may even be atavistically tapping a quite traditional suspicion of other more arriviste forms of wealth that were generated in the emerging metropoles on the coasts, such as “New Amsterdam” (now New York), by bankers, lawyers, etc., disdained as shysters. This suspicion and hostility has surfaced again and again, both in the religious Right and in the smaller town working people, who now support Trump. And this feeling for the land as the source of genuine wealth and distrust of the big metropolitan centres as late-coming, fly-by-night generators of wealth are generally true of settler colonialisms. And that is why you find the capitals of these countries were set up not in the large cities but in smaller towns: Ottawa not Toronto, Pretoria not Johannesburg, Canberra not Melbourne, etc. (even in the regional states, Albany, not New York, Springfield, not Chicago, etc.). But I don’t think it would be plausible to say anything like this long-standing history of hostility is being tapped in England or the old world generally.

Origins of the supra-nation
All right, so let’s, then, look at England and the populist support of Brexit. Let me not repeat the familiar analyses of the Brexit vote as one owing to the working class in the neglected, deindustrialised regions of England wanting their nation to pull out of a supra-nation that favoured only the development of the financialised city of London. What has been less explored is why any working person should ever have supported his nation’s joining a supra-nation, in the first place. Ever since the end of the Second World War, every good thing that was available to a working person was made available by policies regarding health, housing, education, pensions for old age, job-seeking allowances, etc., that were devised and implemented at the site of the nation. Nobody knows or has clearly elaborated on what mechanisms for dispensing such policies would even so much as look like at the site of the supra-nation.

This is a point of greater generality than the issues underlying the working-class vote for Brexit. Britain, of course, has its own currency, but you can ask a similar question about the eurozone as well. The Right and Left populisms in Europe prompted by working-class dissatisfaction should also prompt a prior question: Why was a relatively well-functioning Common Market transformed into the eurozone? What were the economic motivations for it? I keep asking economists about this but never get a clear answer. One keeps reading of the lofty cultural and political motivations: to create a more cosmopolitan and less parochial Europe, to create peace after two highly destructive and internecine world wars. But, given how things turned out for the utterly helpless working people of Greece, Spain, Portugal, even Italy, has anyone ever fully analysed what economic motivations there were behind it, what role the banking and corporate elites in Europe played in setting up an arrangement without any governance mechanisms to ensure the usual safety nets for working people? In fact, since it is hard to even imagine with what mechanisms such safety nets could be provided at the supranational site, given the patchwork form of governance that is allowed by financial globalisation, one can’t help thinking conspiratorially that the whole supranational ideal of “Europe” is a plot of bankers and corporate elites to slowly undermine the humane policies that were set up on national sites immediately after the Second World War. I’m not suggesting that I have any evidence of such a plot. But I am saying that the origins of the supra-nation of Europe are shrouded in obscurity regarding the economic motivations for it, and it is very hard to get a clear story about what these motivations were from historians and economists. And given how things turned out, it is tempting to fall into these conjectures which are worth inquiring into in order to understand the origins of an idea that was prematurely put forth and erected without any institutions of governance to make sure things turn out differently.

Recently, Prabhat Patnaik said that the European Left and the Left in the West in general are not willing to attack globalisation because they think the only alternative to it is right-wing nationalism.

Yes, that is very plausible. It is the echo in the contemporary European Left of what I was saying earlier was the standard story that was given in the first place to motivate a European Union. That narrative says: “Two extended destructive wars were fought by nations against each other in Europe on the basis of nationalistic feeling, minorities were slaughtered in the millions within nations in Europe on the basis of nationalistic feeling, only a union will overcome these parochial sentiments.” As I said, all very lofty and right but also burying the economic motivations that need to be exposed and about which there is no clarity or explicitness. And now, as Patnaik says, the European Left is similarly inhibited from criticising the very idea of the union for fear of a return to that ugly nationalism and parochialism.

So, are you saying that what is needed is to separate out the economic from the political/cultural aspects of globalisation?

Yes, quite so, that is the crucial point and that is a very complex business and one has to be careful about the issues at stake. However, I’m not sure “separation” is the right word for what is needed, and that is part of the complexity. But before making a stab (and only a very preliminary stab) at addressing those complex issues, I should add that there is something a little hypocritical about the European Left’s lofty cosmopolitan attitudes on this score, given how some of them have responded to the issues around refugees and migration that have recently arisen in Europe.

So, take, for example, [Slavoj] Zizek in an essay during the refugee crisis spawned by the massive dislocation of populations as a result of the civil wars and Western invasions of different regions in the Middle East [West Asia]. I think the essay is called “The Non-Existence of Norway” and it was in London Review of Books about three years ago. He starts off impeccably by blaming Western military misadventures for a lot of this dislocation, and he, therefore, supports a generous policy of hospitality that should be shown by European nations to the desperate plight of refugees seeking some permanent station in their flight. And then he says something like this. “But if they come they must live by our rules which privilege the Western European way of life. That is the price to be paid for European hospitality. These rules should be clearly stated and enforced, by repressive measures—against foreign fundamentalists as well as our own racists—wherever and whenever necessary.”

Now, it shows no hostility on my part to “the Western European way of life” to observe that far from providing a solution to the refugee problem this proposal and the attitude it expresses will only continue the hostilities and the terrorist backlashes that created the refugee problem in the first place. In fact, I would think, the proposal debases such merit as there is in “the Western European way of life”. In short, I think that pronouncements like this reflect a closet parochialism on Zizek’s part not all that different from the parochialism that he and the European Left are claiming to shun when they (quite rightly) eschew right-wing nationalism. The plain fact is that though secularism and liberal rights and all that are certainly very admirable things, they can become a tribal weapon, a parochial weapon, in pronouncements of this kind against migrant communities. On this score, Zizek, as a leading European leftist, is indistinguishable from people whom he strongly disagrees with such as European liberals like Bernard Henry-Levy.

But since you agree that there are some very bad aspects to the working-class populism that supports Trump and Brexit such as its xenophobia, how would you relate this to your sympathy for the working people who join these populist movements?

Right, this is not unrelated to the question you raised about separating globalisation’s cultural aspects from its economic aspects. So, let’s begin to address some of these complex issues. As I said, one can probably only skim the surface in a short interview, but still there are some obvious things to say and they are worth saying.

The first thing to say is that we should be very sceptical of and, in fact, we should really counter the tendency among liberal commentators to keep attributing Trump’s victory to the xenophobia or racism or misogyny in his largest constituency of support, the white working class. The evidence is simply against this view, and liberals don’t like to admit this. Many among those who voted for Trump dislike his racism and misogyny. They also openly acknowledge his mendacity. And some of the honest reporting by analysts after his victory, after a careful set of surveys, pointed out that he won despite people who voted for him saying that he was not a “decent” sort. And, since he won the presidential election by a narrow margin, if these among his supporters had voted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, he would not have won. In fact, this suggests that had the contest been between Trump and Sanders, Trump might well have lost. So, the real thing to be analysed is why, despite this fact of acknowledging him to be less than ideal in all the respects I mentioned, many voted for him anyway, rather than Hillary Clinton. If you put what needs to be explained that way, it becomes much clearer where to look for the right explanation. But, of course, the liberal commentators don’t think of either the explanandum or the explanans along these lines.

And what I’m saying here does not really even mean that there exists no xenophobia in that segment of the electorate that voted for him. No doubt it exists. But it is not what primarily prompted them to vote for him. That is all I am insisting on, and I do so on the basis of a fairly extensive reading of the surveys and reports of the election.

Blaming the electorate
Ok, so having said all that, the next thing to say about the xenophobia among the people, where it does exist, is that it is not at all obvious that it is the people who should be blamed for it. This may sound perverse, but just think about it. Where do working people primarily get their attitudes and ideas and information from? From the mainstream media (tabloids, talk radio from local radio stations and television channels) and from the political class during electioneering. (No doubt, they sometimes get it from their homes and upbringing too but that just pushes the question further back about an earlier generation.) Just look at the tabloid media in Britain and the U.S. and how frequently they print and broadcast brazenly xenophobic attitudes.

As for the political class, I don’t just mean Trump himself or Nigel Farage. I also mean the political class of the orthodox consensus in these two countries. Take a look at the speeches for the Remain campaign that were made by Cameron; he was doing his best to compete with the right-wing Brexiteers on the subject of immigration. And I’ve already pointed to Obama’s speeches on immigration when he was campaigning in 2008 and how they were far worse than McCain’s. Now, you can say, as many do: “People deserve the leaders (or the media) they get!” But I don’t think the Left can say that. This is one of the things that distinguishes the liberals from the genuine Left. The Left by and large looks to the institutions that are generating a harm of this kind and does not find the source in the people themselves. Is this to romanticise, to sentimentally erect a mythically good category of “the people”? I think it is much more a case of just simply believing in democracy.

What do you mean by that?

I mean you can’t believe in democracy and hate the electorate or dismiss them as unredeemably heinous or cretinous, which I have heard many high-minded liberals often do. It makes them feel comfortable; they then don’t have to criticise the institutions and leaders they often support; in other words, they don’t have to criticise themselves.

[Winston] Churchill was one such, and it was his reason for making his celebrated remark about how “Democracy is a terrible form of government but all other forms of government are more terrible”. Well, Churchill’s thinking on all matters except military ones was feeble; why on earth would I believe in democracy if I thought the electorate was heinous and cretinous and I thought you were a person of great wisdom and judgement. I would much rather believe in monarchy and want to make you the king. So, you cannot believe in democracy without putting trust in the judgement of ordinary people. But the success of democracy turns on ordinary people, the electorate, having a cognitive background of information and knowledge and political analysis; in other words it turns on what the electorate knows, and so the underlying question in a functioning democratic polity is what ought people to know? What they do, how they vote, how they live, are what we scrutinise most, but those are all questions that are subsequent to that prior more background question about what they know.

Now, here, one might think, “Well, we live in a time when all the information is available on the Web if you look hard enough for it and learn to discriminate the spin from the genuine information”; and though this is certainly becoming true, the plain fact is that ordinary working people who work eight hours a day to support a family have hardly any time for anything but a glance at a local tabloid or the television evening news or the radio while driving long distances to work. Not everybody is as privileged as we academics are with hours to seek out all sorts of sources of information on the Web.

In fact, I would much more strongly criticise my colleague (of course, an impeccable liberal) at Columbia University who said to me, justifying the invasion of Afghanistan, “The United States had to do something after 9/11” than I would criticise the working-class white male who voted for Trump’s xenophobic policies on immigration. My colleague who spends only three or four hours per week in a classroom and has almost five months of vacation each year has all the time and the privilege to hunt down information about all the decades of wrongdoing of the U.S. government in Muslim-populated nations and to predict the disastrous consequences of a bombing spree (including cluster bombs) that killed thousands of people and reduced Kabul to rubble in a few days.

Where is the Trump supporter, working long hours each day, earning $40,000 a year without any benefits, with a spouse and three children to support on it, going to find the time to seek out the information and acquire the cognitive wherewithal to come to an analysis whereby he can see that immigration can in fact be a source of strength for the political economy rather than a threat to him and his job and his future? I would think she had much more of an obligation to know what “ought to be known” and, therefore, was much the more culpable for not knowing it than the Trump supporter’s failures to know.

So, would you say that this underlying point about knowledge mitigates the bad elements and the xenophobic element in populism?

I don’t think it is a matter of mitigating it. The point is in fact deeper than that. I think when we focus on their xenophobia (and it is perfectly all right to do so and to find it deplorable), we have to identify another flaw in their xenophobic assertions over and above the wrongness of the xenophobia, a much more subtle flaw a contemporary populism I started with: the effects of neoliberal capitalism on the lives of working people and the constriction by liberalism of the possibilities of response to such effects on their lives. Let me spell it out patiently.

Failures of inference
In an op-ed that I wrote recently, which you may have read, I wrote very briefly about how certain “failures of inference” today are highly revealing of the extraordinarily deep reach of the harms that flow from the kind of capitalism that frameworks our lives in the current period. What do I mean by “failures of inference”? Let’s stick with discussion of Brexit. (It is not hard to extend to other cases with slight revisions of context.) The way to understand the working-class support of Brexit is to notice first of all, as I said, that it is based on a very well-grounded, even if instinctive, scepticism about the effects of economic globalisation generally and this ideal of supranational economic affiliation in particular. It is a shrewd and well-grounded scepticism in the sense that the supra-nation seems to working people to be the wrong affiliation to have, when all the good things they have known for well over half a century were formulated and implemented on the national site. But from this sound scepticism, they draw the wrong inference, a xenophobic one about how immigration is undermining their chances in life (to say nothing of their centuries-old national culture). So, they have sound instincts from which they infer unsound anxieties. A failure of inference.

What does it reveal?

Before I answer that let’s look at another deplorable aspect of contemporary populism, shifting now more to supporters of Trump where it is most explicit. This is the brazen denial of climate change in the face of all the scientific evidence for it. (Here too, this may partly be attributed to the millions spent by corporations to propagandise in the media against the scientific claims, but I am not now stressing what you called the “mitigating” factor of what knowledge is made available to the public, I’m making a different point.) Let us just put it on record that this denial is completely irrational given the evidence. And, of course, there is widespread liberal contempt for this irrational denial of climate change, just as there is for the xenophobia.

But now, let’s consider the fact that every serious and honest analysis of climate change makes clear that the problem is never going to be seriously addressed unless we put such enormous constraints on the very fundamentals of a capitalist political economy that it may well amount to a terminus of capitalism as we know it. All else is ineffectual tinkering, nothing short of this will bring about what is needed to avert the environmental disaster we face. But no liberal who is appalled by the populist denial of climate change is prepared to draw this inference about the need to make an absolutely fundamental critique of capital in order to address climate change effectively. And liberal climate change pundits usually deflect this blindness on the liberal’s part by saying that even the Soviet Union massively contributed to climate change, and though that is certainly true, it completely misses the point, which is that harmful environmental effects are endemic to capitalism but not to socialism.

Anyway, returning to the point I am making, what I want to emphasise here is that once again there is a failure of inference, but this time not on the part of the populist but on the part of the liberal responding to populism. The evidence for the fact of an environmental crisis of the proportions one faces and the evidence of the role of capital in generating it should suggest to the liberal that he can’t just stop at insisting against the populist that the fact of the crisis, given the evidence, is undeniable but must equally infer, again from the plain evidence, that we need to fundamentally seek to transcend the long-standing tendencies of capital if we are going to satisfactorily address the crisis. (You will recall that [Evo] Morales had the Latin American contingent walk out of the Copenhagen climate meet, saying that nobody around the conference tables was prepared to speak openly about the absolutely central role of capitalism in causing climate change.)

So, I ask you, Why, then, is the liberal position on climate change any more rational than the populist’s? If “p entails q” (where what substitutes for p is “there is an environmental crisis” and what substitutes for q is “the only sufficient response to it may well be to usher out capitalism as we know it”), why is it any more irrational to deny “p” as the populist does than it is to deny “p entails q” as the liberal does?

So you are suggesting, then, that the liberal is also irrational, not in denying climate change as the Trump populist position but in failing to draw the right inference from climate change.

Yes, there is this constant talk one keeps hearing of the “irrationality” and “unreason” of right-wing nationalism. But why is this not equally irrational? It is equally a refusal to look at evidence. And unless one keeps exposing this, one will not get to the eventual and hardest enemy or target that the radical Left faces. One will speak only of the immediate and the easier target: the Trumps, the Farages.… And that suits the liberals because that is exactly how they wish to exhaust the options, the liberal consensus versus the irrational populists. So, the liberal complicity in the irrationality is never exposed.

Let me explore this a little more and make more explicit what both these failures of inference that I have outlined reveal. The point is not just to catch the liberal out in a failure of inference to match the failure of inference on the part of the populist. The point is to show that it reveals something very significant about what causes the populisms that fill us with so much concern today.

Let me put down the two failures of inference schematically.

Sound scepticism about the European Union→ xenophobia

Climate change is a serious problem→no acknowledgement that capital must be undermined.

In the one case, the populist draws a bad xenophobic conclusion from a good premise of a sensible scepticism about the inadequacies of what can be delivered by supranational banking and financial elites. In the other, the liberal fails to draw the right conclusion from his own perfectly correct disdain for the populist’s denial of climate change.

The revealing thing is that regarding the first of these, the liberal never focusses on the bad inference but only on the populist’s bad conclusion (xenophobia). And regarding the second of these, the liberal never focusses on his own failure to draw the right inference but instead only on the populists’ denial of the true premise (i.e., the denial of the problem of climate change). No doubt, the populist is wrong to be xenophobic and to deny climate change. But we need to diagnose even so why the liberal only focusses on that wrong and nowhere notices that in the first case the populist has something right in the premise (the sound scepticism of the European Union) nor, in the second case, does he notice that he himself has something wrong in failing to draw the right conclusion. Why does he fail to notice both of these things? The answer is perfectly clear. He does not notice either because each of them would involve a fundamental and radical questioning of contemporary capitalism.

Complicit in populist crisis
The lesson to be drawn from this exercise I have indulged in is quite straightforward. Liberalism is indirectly complicit in generating the crisis of contemporary populism even though it fraudulently affects a disdain and disgust of the populism it generates.

What do you mean exactly by “indirectly complicit”?

Yes, that is just the right thing to ask and get clear about. It is the heart of the problem today about the causes of contemporary populism.

I think it has become the function of liberalism in both the U.S. and Britain to ensure that there is a drumbeat of sufficiently superficial hysteria against Trump and the right-wing nationalist Brexiteer so that a return to the orthodoxies of the Obama-Clinton party or Blairite Labour seem to be the only realistically serious, electable, options on the Left. Nothing else must be allowed to surface in the political zeitgeist without being dismissed as disdainable populisms, even the mild New Deal ideals of Sanders and social-democratic ideals of Corbyn, for example. To this day, younger progressive candidates in the electoral field in the midterm elections who had cut their teeth under Sanders in his campaign during the primaries were constantly being undermined by the party’s powerful orthodoxy. If they win an election or two here and there, it is not because of the wholehearted support of their party high command but because of the overwhelming dissatisfaction among working people and the youth with their current conditions and the failure of orthodox consensual politics, “politics as usual”, to address it. But it is an uphill task for them because they have to fight not only the more conservative party, the Republicans, but their own party’s pervasively liberal orthodoxy.

By the way, this is only a contemporary surfacing of a long-standing feature of liberal politics. It goes back to a long tradition of a spook that liberalism feels about mass politics, ever since the Jacobin aftermath of the French Revolution. In fact, it goes back even earlier to the anxieties felt by liberals in the last few decades of the 17th century in England, when they were spooked by memories of the remarkable revolutionary activism of the Puritan radicals of the mid century. And these radicals were far more democratic and humane than the Jacobins, so what I am emphasising is that liberals at the deepest level don’t just have an anxiety about the tyrannical element but the mass element in such politics. In post-Restoration England (in fact even in the Cromwell interregnum), there was concerted early liberal wilfulness to keep all such mass politics out of the arena. The outcome in 1688, of which British liberal thought is so proud, is a result of that anxiety and will. So, there is nothing new about this aspect of contemporary liberalism. It is, from the earliest of days, the essence of the doctrine and the political outlook. But we have to dig deeper than just observing the liberal anxiety about mass politics. The anxiety is about something more basic than that. So, what I am trying to say is that today, this anxiety and wilfulness are not just about the populism we are witnessing but about how to deflect a proper understanding of what gives rise to it and what would be needed to understand it and address it.

It is because liberalism is wilfully, conscientiously, assertively, blind (you might wonder can one be wilfully blind?; yes you can, that is what the “ostrich” metaphor has always meant to convey) to the fundamental transformations that are needed in contemporary society, its explicit and self-conscious function has become (perhaps always was) to fail to allow into the political arena of democracies the conceptual wherewithal to even so much as raise fundamental questions about how to seriously constrain (to the point of perhaps even undermining) capital. As a result, ordinary working people have no recourse to anything available in the political zeitgeist to address their deeply felt dissatisfactions. It is small wonder that they turn haplessly to what is available to them, grotesque forms of nationalistic, fascistic demagoguery which promise a fabulously different zeitgeist. When they feel the whole game is rigged, they want to upturn the whole board on which the game is being played, even if that means voting for extremist forms of nationalism bordering on fascism.

So, through this elaborate exercise of working through these failures of inferences, the conclusion I want to derive is this: One has to understand that populism comes not just from a material desperation of a decades-long working-class wage-stagnation, if not chronic unemployment. That such material causes are in play is obvious and has been widely noted. What is much less recorded is that populism also comes from an unavailability (to ordinary people affected in these material ways) in the political culture of any conceptual sources to fully understand and criticise and thereby politically oppose the sway of capitalism in the current neoliberal financially globalised phase.

Frederic Jameson once said, in a different context, something like “We can more easily conceive the end of the world than we can conceive the end of capitalism”. A combination of that fact, a fact for which I think the predominance of liberalism bears the brunt of the responsibility, and the chronic suffering that is caused in working people under capitalism, is the causal backdrop that gives rise to populisms we are witnessing and which fill us with alarm.

Would you say that this effectiveness of liberalism in keeping out of the political culture any fundamental critique of capitalism is the success of what Marx called “ideology”?

Yes, that’s right it is a very specific manifestation of ideology in our present time, and it can’t be left out of the causal explanation of the populisms today. What is striking today, perhaps more than in previous times, is that in these liberal manifestations of “ideology”, there is an explicitly shrill criticism of the very phenomenon (populism) that the ideological role of liberalism gives rise to. That is the sleight of hand that I’m trying to analyse in the remarks that I’ve just made at some length.

As I think we discussed in an earlier interview, not just Marx but also Gandhi saw through liberalism’s ideological role. That is why, looking back now, after studying Gandhi, I don’t quite understand the hostility to Gandhi in so much of the Left. I have to confess to having myself taken such anti-Gandhi stances in my youth. But, at least in India, that has been changing in Left thinking.

Incidentally, I should add that I think another interesting philosopher, much disapproved of by the Left, who was very perceptive in seeing through liberalism’s ideological effects, is [Michel] Foucault. Like Gandhi, Foucault, of course, was not a socialist. In fact, I have no idea what Foucault’s politics actually were.

When you turn from his quite penetrating analyses of the liberal Enlightenment’s disciplinary effects (that term, “disciplinary” is a technical word in Foucault to describe the grip that capitalist modernity has over our mentalities, something that was the main theme of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj as well), to what political position or views he himself favoured, it is very hard to figure it out. There are occasional remarks about [the Marquis] De Sade or the Iranian revolution, none of which are coherently made. Apart from having no politics (at least none that I can discern), some of Foucault’s devotees have not served him well by elevating the analysis of discourse to an obsessively central role, ushering out material explanations. And all this is partly I think why the Left finds him so alien.

But there is no denying that Foucault was insightful in stressing the discursive field and the liberal Enlightenment’s role in it. An importance that I am saying is evident in explaining the phenomenon of populism that we are discussing, whereby conceptual resources for a fundamental critique of capitalism are kept out of the political culture. Why this should be thought to be incompatible with material explanations, or thought to be a way of eschewing material explanations, is something I don’t understand.

That is why I was saying earlier that it is not a matter of separating out economic issues from cultural ones but rather one of noticing that in a capitalist economic formation the economic determinants, in the end, often rely on the conceptual and cultural aspects of human society in the determinations they effect.

Marx would be the first to have said so.

About Jipson John
Jipson John is an independent journalist associated with the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and contributes to various national and international publications, including The Wire, The Indian Express and Monthly Review. The writers can be reached at jipsonjohn10 [at] gmail.com and jitheeshpm91 [at] gmail.com
About Jitheesh P. M.
Jitheesh P.M. is an independent journalist associated with the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and contributes to various national and international publications, including The Wire, The Indian Express and Monthly Review. The writers can be reached at jitheeshpm91 [at] gmail.com.
https://mronline.org/2019/06/12/capitalism-populism-crisis-of-liberalism/

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Seymour Hersh. Reporter: A Memoir. Knopf

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on Seymour Hersh. Reporter: A Memoir. Knopf

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He Got the Story-Michael Hirsch
Writing in 1940, George Orwell opined in a review of a Bertrand Russell book that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Much the same can be said about the more than fifty-year career of journalist Seymour Hersh, whose pioneering exposés of the lies of the Great Powers report and affirm facts that follow Orwell’s dictum.

His memoir Reporter showcases Hersh as nothing less than journalism’s energizer bunny, unstoppable in exposing not only the My Lai massacre in Vietnam — for which his accumulated freelance pieces won him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970 — but for essential information breaking the Watergate scandal cover-up and the Nixon administration’s development of offensive chemical and bacteriological weapons.

Reporter works its way through a conga line of miscreant US presidents, from Kennedy to Bush (though Obama and Trump get scant attention) and the venality of Henry Kissinger, of whom Hersh says, “the man lied the way most people breathed.” We’re told about the excesses and connections of a major West Coast mob fixer, the domestic spying efforts of the CIA in direct violation of its governing charter, the sexual abuse by soldiers of male Iraqi inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the incapacity of the bulk of a credulous US press corps to do more than cozy up to administration sources and miss the big stories.

This laggard media practice isn’t new, of course. Nation editor Carey McWilliams despaired in the early 1950s over how “large majorities can be manipulated by carefully timed headlines, revelations, and a thoroughly unscrupulous exploitation of the silence and secrecy surrounding many phases of government.” For some five decades, Hersh has strived to do better.

Hersh’s story then, as he tells it, is among the world’s lengthiest curriculum vitae. It’s all about the work, and not much about the man. We’re told he was born in 1937, one of two sets of twins born to post-World War I Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In his late teens, he ran his father’s micro dry cleaning plant on Chicago’s South Side while going to college at the same time. We’re told he’s married and with two grown children, but the rest of the memoir is all about his work — at Chicago’s legendary City News, then the Chicago Tribune, United Press International in South Dakota, and the Associated Press.

Hustling as a media flack for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid, his revelations about McCarthy are a tell-all that should disabuse any former “Be Clean for Gene” warrior that McCarthy was in any way an improvement over the run of mainstream Democrats on anything beyond slamming the Vietnam War. His work at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and freelancing is all there, too.

A stint writing screen plays in Hollywood taught him that “it’s all about character,” though his own character abstracted from his work ethic can’t be easily inferred from the memoir. Beyond a drive to be first with a scoop, there’s no person presented here beyond the quarrelsome, even splenetic, proverbial Peck’s Bad Boy in every reporting job he held. His wrangles with top editors including the New York Times’ Abe Rosenthal were legendary, all the while being whipsawed by a mélange of bosses who were either dismissive or supportive of him — sometimes both, as with Rosenthal and the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee. His narrative is at its best a testament to how stories should be investigated and told. Without his having to say so, the recent New York Timesexposé of the seamy origins of the Trump family fortune aptly follows in that tradition.

The largest single section of the book details his ferreting out the real story of the My Lai massacre. His descriptions of GIs wantonly skewering small Vietnamese children with bayonets bring the horror back viscerally, and his fevered hunt for Lieutenant William Calley is a wonder. Calley was later dubbed the chief perpetrator of the war crimes despite ample evidence that he was the fall guy for more senior officers derelict in self-servingly viewing the slaughter as a firefight.

Not only did he expose the massacre, but he located Calley, then hidden away by the military in senior officer bachelors’ quarters at the military’s sprawling Fort Benning, Georgia, base. “I was stunned,” Hersh writes about the result of his tortuous hunt, “a suspected mass murderer hidden away in quarters for the army’s most elite.”

Such masterly investigative and sleuthing justified his conclusion that Calley was a scapegoat for a hypocritical military rule abjuring torture as policy while permitting it factually and blaming such massacres on lower-ranking “bad apples.” The suspicion that the policy was in fact to tolerate such horrors is inescapable, though Hersh never says as much.

In this bizarro-world war, he noted how “many navy pilots, convinced that their targets in Vietnam were not worth the risks involved, were eager to get out of the service as quickly as possible. It was a story that no one at the top wanted to hear.” The reality, as numerous flyers told him, was that just 10 percent of bombs dropped actually hit their intended targets, a figure that made bombing itself not only a hell for noncombatant Vietnamese but — given flack from the North’s anti-aircraft batteries — organized suicide for pilots.

If Hersh learned one golden operating rule, it’s this: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” After a series of his was, as is still the custom, scrupulously fact-checked by the New Yorker, resulting in damaging but exacting exposes that mooted any libel threats, “I’ve been an avid supporter of fact-checking ever since.” He likewise adopted the savvy credo, “Read before you write.”

Culling sources also became a key piece of his modus operandi. “I learned early in my career,” he writes, “that the way to get someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask questions that showed it. Humor and persistence often would work, … but being threatening or aggressive never would.”

One of his trade secrets was tracking retired senior generals and admirals, a class of people beyond the military’s’ reach to punish for telling tales. Insider sources “quickly became more than sources; they were friends and stayed friends after they left government.” Often criticized for his voluminous use of unnamed sources, he made it a practice of revealing source names to every editor he’s worked with, with the consent of the sources.

One such source had been a Middle East CIA station chief. Asked why other CIA operatives had such apparent contempt for the FBI that sharing information was a non-practice, even after 9/11, “[h]is answer stunned me,” Hersh writes. “”Don’t you get it, Sy?” he’s told. “The FBI catches bank robbers. We rob banks.”

In writing 1983’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, his tell-all book on the rest of the press’s sanctified warlord Henry Kissinger, he added “Find people who know the truth, or a truth, and let the facts tell the story.” While the book was shunned by the mainstream press whether or not it was read at all, it got accolades from Noam Chomsky, who called it “really fabulous, apart from the feeling that one is crawling through a sewer. “ That and reporting on Kissinger for the Times, Hersh claims, kept Kissinger out of any Reagan White House appointment in 1984.

Even after 9/11, when arch-neocon Vice President Dick Cheney was orchestrating the undermining of constitutionally required congressional oversight of foreign affairs, Hersh had sources willing to talk about “operations, planned and ongoing — and only those operations — that were contrary to American values, or what was left of them.” Still, Hersh had to be selective about what he used, lest he risk Cheney’s unearthing critics. Much as today with a leaking Trump administration, sources used Hersh “as a conduit to have their say without any risk” to their careers.

In his work there’s no thick description beyond what he is told or dug up, the kind of color and texture so richly done by Orwell or Clancy Segal, whose in-depth depictions of working-class life are classics. Hersh’s strengths are elsewhere: they lay in what he’s heard, read, gotten sources to tell him and confirmed. While much of the information had to be on background so as not to expose sources, it was so well-grounded that it made its own mark, particularly in a field in which mainstream reporting consisted in large measure of aping administration spokespersons and retouching press releases.

In these ventures Hersh was a pre-eminent outlier. Among his influences was the independent journalist I.F. Stone, saying he “was wowed by Stone’s ability to take on, and debunk, the official accounts of events annunciated by the Johnson administration. There was no mystery to how Stone did it. He overworked every journalist in Washington.” (It was Stone who said, “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.’’) Hersh describes the Pentagon press room as “stunningly sedate,” with “the earmarks of a high-end social club” and a press claque too ready to repeat whatever pap the administration handed out that day. Its line was always the Pentagon’s.

Keynoting a conference of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hersh told the crowd, “There is a corporate mentality out there, but there is also a tremendous amount of self-censorship among the press. It’s like a disease.”

His research is indefatigable. Even in My Lai, where he is justly revered for relentlessly hunting facts, working sources and breaking the story, he also makes clear that he built his case on earlier work, especially that of Times reporter Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from North Vietnam. While widely assumed by the growing anti-war movement that US war policy was not only unjust and unnecessary but murderous, he turned that subtext into text — even before the release of the Pentagon Papers that blew the lid off of every government war lie.

Piggybacking on Elinor Langer’s research in Science magazine on the Pentagon’s chemical and bacterial warfare (CBW) program, Hersh was also instrumental in targeting the Defense Department’s CBW programs, which were aimed not as defensive measures as claimed, but for offensive forays. He also broke the story that Arkansas’s Pine Bluff Arsenal in the late 1960s was storing bombs filled with anthrax and other poisons as well as anti-crop agents “especially tailored for crops grown in Cuba.”

As his reputation for exposing government perfidies grew, so did his battery of sources. While his bosses at the Times and Washington Post were queasy about his against-the-grain reporting, “more and more officials on the inside were talking to me and knew I would deal honestly with the information they shared and protect their identity.”

It’s never clear whether this self-described “fast-talking, hot-headed operator” thinks that bad policy leads to monstrous results, or that the policies have intrinsic value and can be separated from the odious outcomes by a more righteous adhesion to stated rules of war. Were the massacres of peasants in Vietnam the logical outcome of imperialist penetration, or could closer government oversight of troop actions have made for a less barbarous outcome? Marxists would say the latter is nonsense, and that the slaughter of populations is implicit in how a counter-guerilla offensive by imperial forces is waged. But humane rules of war seem to be Hersh’s lodestar.

Similarly, his coverage of Israel’s developing nuclear weapons made him a host of enemies, but his own defense is problematic, as when he writes, “My point was not that Israel should not have the bomb but that the sub-rosa American support for it was known throughout the Middle East and made a mockery of American efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and other nations with undeclared nuclear ambitions.”

Would imperialism in Hersh’s view be defensible if the neocons surrounding George W. Bush or the neoliberals in the Obama brain trust were amenable to giving the wise men in the CIA more say in policy? Or if a more inquisitive, less subservient press corps dominated news cycles? We don’t know his thinking, though his comment that he was “only interested in CIA operations or any intelligence activities that were stupid or criminal” leaves the door open for great power abuses that are neither. By that yardstick, Russian support for Assad or US backing of the Saudis can be justified as rational and excusable, no matter the body count.

Hersh admits he was whipsawed between reporting the truth as he knew it and protecting the careers of his sources — a problem plaguing him throughout his career, forcing him like Bob Woodward to rely on unnamed sources. On the administration’s venality, Hersh admits to being

more than a little frightened. I had no idea of the extent to which the men running the war would lie to protect a losing hand. I was dealing with a dilemma that reporters who care and work hard constantly face; America needed to know the truth about the Vietnam War, but I had made a commitment to an officer [his source, then a Navy captain] of integrity.

Hersh stayed in touch with that source for decades, who retired as a three-star admiral, and only revealed his name after the man’s death. Adding to the difficulty was a Defense Department edict requiring officers to inform the department of all requests for information by reporters, a sure way to freeze out dissenting views, such as there were, from the public.

Hersh also prides himself on staying best buds with his informers for decades, something his mentor Stone refused to do, short- or long-term. As Stone put it about a New York Times Washington bureau chief who played medicine ball with Herbert Hoover regularly at the White House, “That’s enough to kill off a good reporter. … You can’t get intimate with officials and maintain your independence.” Even good guys, Stone believed, “will use you.”

Does Hersh get everything right? Who does? Even as astute a chronicler as Stone could get it wrong, as in his early insistence that it was South Korean provocations that sparked the Korean peninsular war and not dirty dealings from all sides — including, as he would later suggest, dueling intrigues from Truman and Stalin. Despite Hersh’s remorseless heresy hunting of every administration since Kennedy’s, there’s no hint that the needs of US-based businesses shape and often determine domestic and foreign policy.

Despite his interest in Gulf and Western’s perfidies as performed by then-head Charles Bluhdorn, “the dirtiest mogul in town,” Hersh has more to say about a culture of greed and malpractice than about the logic of capital. With his eyes on Washington’s misdeeds and on occasion — when editors permit — Wall Street’s avarice but not its systemic prerogatives, he’s more of a humorless court jester than a rebel. In whose interest does the governing elite serve? Hersh won’t tell us. Where is his curiosity about diagnosing and exposing a system that requires victims? He doesn’t do that.

His division of labor makes him look — penetratingly but partially — elsewhere. His exposures of Bluhdorn’s sharp practices are characterological, not systemic. Gulf and Western had bad, self-serving leadership: end of discussion. Taking in Hersh’s work practice is like watching a Punch and Judy show; you catch a miscreant performance but never see the puppeteer.

Even on the stage on which he performs so well, Hersh can stumble. He holds that Syria’s minority Alewite government did not use nerve gas against rebels — this despite claims from the United Nations and other credible sources to the contrary that chemical bombs were used. In a late June 2018 interview with the BBC on the destruction by chemical explosion of the town of Kan Sheikhoun, Hersh insisted that stored chlorine, and not a sarin or chlorine bomb, was responsible for the devastation.

All I can tell you,” he says in the interview, “is that the American intelligence community report — I wish I could flash it here — but the American intelligence community has been very clear that there’s no evidence that the Russians, that the Syrians, the regime used a chlorine weapon because there is no such thing. Chlorine exists. You bomb. Chlorine gets out there.

Stephen Shalom’s in-depth reconstruction of the controversy over the use or non-use of Sarin gas as an offensive weapon effectively demolishes Hersh’s claims.

Hersh also praises dictator Bashar al-Assad as someone with “integrity” because he never lied to Sy. As yet, Hersh has written nothing on Kurdish independence efforts, popular civilian and secular democratic resistance to both jihadist terrorists in the north and the Assadist regime now in control of most of Syria, and intent on seizing the land of many of the more than one million Syrians displaced by the fighting. The operative word “all” in I.F. Stone’s dictum that “all governments lie” means the US can’t be disparaged as the world’s lone malefactor.

Still, we internationalists who count Assad among the more despicable tyrants of the present age shouldn’t be too hard on Hersh. He can get it wrong, too. Yet throughout his career he’s shouldered a broad and brave consistency, adopting in effect what Orwell said so well in Homage to Catalonia: “Every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.” Hersh’s career is nothing if not a life lived working to take the media out of that grim equation.

Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor and political writer and a New Politics editorial board member.

Originally posted at Jacobin.
http://newpol.org/content/he-got-story
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The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony-Perry Anderson

Posted by admin On April - 13 - 2018 Comments Off on The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony-Perry Anderson

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Verso, New York, 2017. 190pp., $26.95 hb
ISBN 9781786633682

Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman

This slim volume by Perry Anderson is a companion to The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (also published in 2017). Gramsci, the Italian thinker and political activist who died in a fascist prison in 1937, is best known for his theorizing on hegemony, which was the term he used for the systematizing cultural tools social classes employ to achieve and maintain political and social domination. Gramsci’s posthumous influence on Marxist and socialist thought was enormous, and gave birth to a veritable cottage industry of Gramsciana. With his essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (which originally appeared in 1976), Anderson, a well-known British historian of ideas and former editor of New Left Review, now in the twilight of his career, became a key voice within this crowded field. The debates provoked by Anderson’s analysis became crucial reference points for Gramsci scholars. The new volume reprints the original essay accompanied by extensive commentary by Anderson on its importance as well as characteristically acerbic responses to his critics.

The H-Word will, I suspect, appeal to a much smaller audience. Rather than focusing primarily on the Gramscian understanding of hegemony, Anderson sets out to trace the different ways in which the term has been employed by political thinkers beginning with Homer and Herodotus all the way to the 21st century. The word itself is the focus, not any particular theoretical underpinning. Since hegemony has been ascribed many different meanings by as many writers, the book does not tell a coherent story but instead moves to and fro in time and space as best suits the author’s framework and interests.

The result is in some ways impressive. Anderson deploys his formidable erudition to craft short chapters on the conflicting understandings of hegemony among Ancient Greek and Roman historians, Russian revolutionaries, Prussian military theorists, Italian communists (where Gramsci shows up), Anglo-American international relations scholars, Chinese statesmen from Confucius to Mao, post-structuralist Marxists (where Gramsci reappears), and the architects of the European Union. This is accomplished with admirably clear and jargon-free prose, and the book is a pleasure to read. There is no payoff at the end, however; no meaningful conclusions can be gleaned from the peripatetic travels of a malleable, and therefore infuriatingly vague, term. The H-Word comes in as a minor work late in the career of a major scholar. It is occasionally self-indulgent and, on one unfortunate occasion, unnecessarily mean spirited.

The principal difficulty in developing a coherent sense of the evolution of hegemony as a concept is the parallel existence of “two streams of thinking”: the first interested in relations of power between states, the second in relations of power between classes within a state (107). The former can be traced back to the Greece of Homer and Herodotus – ‘of course, the origins of the term hegemony are Greek’ (1) – as well as, Anderson claims, relying on somewhat facile cultural translation, to the China of Confucius and Mencius, but it only received a “full-blown” theoretical treatment in the 1930s by the capable hands of the German jurist Heinrich Triepel. The latter was developed by socialist and anarchist thinkers in pre-revolutionary Russia, but their contributions were minimal compared to the seminal treatment of hegemony by Gramsci. Anderson chooses to tell these two stories simultaneously in a sequence of chapters that is more or less chronological, and as a result, it is often the case that the end of one has little to do with the beginning of the next.

In fits and starts, the reader is shown a series of times and places in which writers interested in inter-state politics happened to adopt the word. Anderson takes advantage of the brisk pace to sometimes advance unsupported assertions about why and how the term gained or lost popularity. For example, while it is found in Classical Greek sources it is almost absent from their Roman analogues. This, Anderson claims, is because the expanding Roman Republic ‘did not require’ the term (6). Likewise, after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles ‘hegemony faded from official discourse’ (35) because, Anderson contends, Britain and the United States “disavowed” that they were hegemonic or intended to become so (which does not explain why politicians or scholars from other countries followed suit and stopped using the word).

The whirlwind literature review outlines how scholars since Triepel have disagreed about the very meaning of the word, let alone how to employ it as an analytical tool. Thus, while for Triepel ‘hegemony was a type of power that lay between “domination” and “influence” – hegemony was stronger than influence but weaker than domination’ (31), for later thinkers the term had other significations. Ludwig Dehio believed that hegemony is ‘a power greater than any other, and so a threat to every other’ (42); Rudolf Stadelmann stated that it was ‘a guided balance’ through which ‘a power which was cautious and respected’ watched over the international system (45); and John Mearsheimer wrote that a hegemon is ‘a state so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system’ (177). Anderson explains each view clearly and generously, with one salient exception. For some reason, he cannot hide his contempt for the Anglo-American tradition in international relations known as “realism”.

While Anderson is never shy about expressing his opinions about the quality and merits of others’ works, his animosity towards realist scholars seems personal. Unlike any other theoretical approach in the book, Anderson rejects realism on moral grounds: ‘As an outlook it not only lacked emotional appeal, but more importantly a sense of the utopian passion for justice inherent in human nature, incapable of reconciliation with the idea that might makes right’ (37). More jarringly, his discussion of the German-American thinker Hans Morgenthau quickly turn from harsh criticisms of the work into venomous ad hominem attacks. Anderson mocks Morgenthau’s “bombast” (52) and “incoherencies” (53), and portrays him as unscrupulous, status seeking, insecure, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest. Morgenthau was, in Anderson’s telling,  ‘temperamentally disinclined to acknowledge any debt, perhaps because he so often borrowed from others’ (53). There’s no escaping the sense that Anderson is settling some sort of old score with Morgenthau in public. This adds nothing to The H-Word and is frankly unbecoming of any serious work of scholarship, let alone one by so accomplished a scholar as Anderson.

On the second stream of thinking about hegemony, focusing on relations between classes, Anderson has much more to say. Given his deep knowledge of Gramsci, the brief summary of the Italian’s theorizing of hegemony is unsurprisingly masterful. While for Russian revolutionaries, most notably Lenin, hegemony addressed ‘the role of a working class in a bourgeois revolution against absolutism’, Gramsci approached it ‘in a heuristic form with an intellectual range that transformed it into a far more central concept’. His ‘key move was to generalize it beyond a working-class strategy, to characterize stable forms of rule by any social class’ (19). For Gramsci, hegemony ‘acquired two enlargements of meaning in tension with each other. It now included both the extraction by rulers of consent from the ruled and the deployment of coercion to enforce that rule. […] Gramsci’s intention was to conjugate the two’. Unfortunately, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks ‘were fragmentary and exploratory, not finished or cohesive, allowing for oscillations or inconsistencies in expression’ (21).

In a handful of pages, Anderson amply demonstrates Gramsci’s significance and the reasons why he remains a touchstone for socialist thinkers the world over: ‘What had to be explained were the ways in which […] an exploitative order was capable of securing the moral consent of the dominated to their own domination. Such ideological dominion, Gramsci argued, must propose a set of descriptions of the world, and the values that preside over it, that become in large measure internalized by those under its sway’ (21). But, Gramsci recognized, below the stability achieved by this worldview, there always existed the threat of domination by force. ‘Hegemony was polyvalent: unthinkable without assent, impracticable without force’ (23). Gramsci’s thought aimed to produce ‘a unitary synthesis of history and strategy, covering at once the legacy of the pre-capitalist past, the pattern of the capitalist present and the objective of a socialist future’ (78). He transformed the idea of hegemony ‘from a merely political to a moral and intellectual form of leadership, an understanding that the subject of a hegemony could not be any socio-economically pre-constituted class – but had to be a politically constructed collective will’ (94).

Anderson is just as good when discussing Gramsci’s heirs. Chapter 8 should hold particular interest for political theorists interested in the development of Gramscian insights by later scholars, including Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Ranajit Guha, whose Dominance without Hegemony Anderson declares ‘the single most striking work ever inspired by Gramsci’ (102), and Giovanni Arrighi, who attempted to synthesize the inter- and intra-state notions of hegemony. The fact that Podemos, the left-leaning Spaniard political movement born out of the most recent financial crisis, uses Gramscian terms in its political discourse earns it a mention or two (e.g., 95). Less fortunate are non-European movements that do the same, such as the Zapatista Liberation Army in Mexico, who are completely ignored.

While the sections on Gramsci and his intellectual successors are superb, the discussion of China is perfunctory and unsatisfying. Indeed, it may not even belong in the book. Anderson takes it for granted that the Chinese term ba is analogous to hegemony because that’s how Western historians often translated it (117-118), even though on other occasions ba was rendered as ‘domination’ instead (139, n. 28). Certainly China’s Warring States Period (574-221BC), during which Confucius and his followers spoke of baquang and other such terms, was in many ways similar to Ancient Greece before the Alexandrian conquest. But that does not mean that the word hegemony is important for understanding the period. There are plenty of historical examples around the world that could be analyzed through the prism of hegemonic politics. The fact that China’s current government is Communist does not help explain how its case fits in with the rest of the volume.

Equally unnecessary is Anderson’s running commentary in the last few chapters on the current role of the United States as now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t global hegemon. Anderson gives pride of place to current analyses that agree with his own view, such as Charles Doran (62-63) and Susan Strange (73-74), but his notions on the subject seem stuck in the George W. Bush years or, worse still, in the Vietnam era.

20 March 2018

URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/15643_the-h-word-the-peripeteia-of-hegemony-reviewed-by-eduardo-frajman/
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Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia -Tasneem Khalil

Posted by admin On October - 19 - 2017 Comments Off on Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia -Tasneem Khalil

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Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia
Pluto Press, London, 2016. 166 pp., £11.50

Dr Guy Lancaster is the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture and author of Racial Cleansing in Arkansas, 1883–1924: Politics, Land, Labor, and Criminality (Lexington Books, 2014).
Most studies of state terror, especially the use of “death squads” for the torture and murder of dissidents, center their analysis within an explicitly genocidal context. They view armed squadrons as a tool for eliminationist campaigns against racial or ethnic others, or they examine these death squads as part of the system of governance for dictatorships, serving at the pleasure, and for the preservation, of a small clique of elites, by cracking down upon “agitators” and their ilk. Either way, the presence of death squads allegedly constitutes an exception to the traditional liberal order; this type of organization would surely be anathema in a functioning democracy, or even a government in transition. Moreover, governments that employ such death squads are popularly viewed as having turned their backs upon the modern, international order in favor of a more limited and barbaric worldview.

That is, indeed, the popular conception, but as Tasneem Khalil documents in Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia, this view proves incorrect. Khalil, a journalist who survived kidnapping and torture at the hands of Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, surveys the apparatus of state terror in South Asia and arrives at the following conclusions: 1) death squads are a continuation of models of oppression instituted by the old colonial powers of Europe, 2) death squads function within the capitalist order even within nations like India, which has dubbed itself the world’s largest democracy, and 3) these death squads are part of an international system of terror supported by the likes of the United States, China, and Israel. The title of his book, Jallad, comes from a word common to Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, meaning “hangman” or “executioner”.

Khalil opens his book by hearkening back to the Rowlatt Act of 1919, described as a “black law” by Mohandas Ghandi, which allowed the Raj to impose a permanent state of emergency in British-occupied India, complete with preventative detention without trial, warrantless search and seizure, and juryless trials. Such laws, imposed during the colonial era, serve as a template for modern “black laws,” such as India’s National Security Act of 1980/1984, or the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act of 1983. These laws allow special police forces to use lethal force against civilians while protected by blanket immunity. These laws target not just armed insurgents, but also the poor and downtrodden, who reside in the impoverished “disturbed areas” at the periphery. ‘Marred by socio-economic injustices, these can be entire regions in a country or areas within the metropolis, like Punjab in 1919 or the present-day slums of Mumbai. These are the new colonies of the post-colonial mother country’ (10). Post-colonial states, asserts Khalil, have adapted colonial forms of repression, becoming modern national security states.

Khalil devotes individual chapters to five separate South Asian states, explicating the emergence of the national security state apparatus in each, beginning with his native Bangladesh. There, Pakistan inaugurated a wave of genocidal oppression as what was then East Pakistan sought its separation, but the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, former leader of the independence movement, unleashed his own reign of terror, creating the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini, a paramilitary death squad, in 1972. Similar units, such as the Bangladesh Rifles and the Rapid Action Batallion, have been employed against various groups—the former against the indigenous jummas of the nation’s hill country, the latter against “common criminal and petty thugs who come from the slum,” so-called “economic terrorists” who eventually “outlive their usefulness or become burdensome for their political sponsors” (22). Khalil next moves to India, where the government has made use of black laws from the colonial era, and even paramilitary units originally founded by the British themselves, such as the Assam Rifles, in order to repress a population. As he writes, ‘The history of India’s independence is the history of coercive recolonisation campaigns and brutal repression in the new colonies…. It is also a history of pervasive structural violence and massive economic exploitation endured by the people of the peripheries—the adivasis of the Red Corridor and internal migrants living in the slums of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other metropolises’ (44–45).

Nepal provides one exception in this book, given that it was never part of the British Raj, but its conflict with Maoist rebels led to the formation of paramilitary units and to the nation coming under the influence of the international “War on Terror” coalition, as well as regional powers like India. ‘For many Indian national security experts, Nepal’s war against the Maoists was an extension of India’s own war against revolutionary Naxal groups’ (58). Next, Khalil moves to Pakistan, where death squads have been employed against a number of groups, most notably those advocating for the independence of the mineral-rich Balochistan. That nation’s own international partnerships for the sponsorship of its regime of state terror transcend ideology; not only has it partnered with both capitalist and communist powers against each other and against India, but ‘Pakistan, the Islamic Republic, was a major US ally in its war against Islamic terrorism’, and has been one of the states ‘in the periphery of the world capitalist system’, where ‘Western national security states outsourced their torture needs’ (71, 70). Finally, Khalil wraps up in Sri Lanka, a state that has used a number of black laws, including the 1947 Public Security Ordinance enacted by British colonial rulers, to suppress dissent. However, this oppression did not end with the 2009 defeat of the Literation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for, funded by the United States, Pakistan, China, and Israel, Sri Lanka’s national security state continues to target journalists, human rights activists, and others who vie against elite priorities.

Jallad would serve as a good companion to Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2015), which draws connections between the implementation of black laws in India and a legacy of capitalist exploitation that has left some eighty percent of the population living in poverty. After all, India has laws outlawing even thinking antigovernment thoughts, namely the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, backed up by military and paramilitary groups that can murder those even suspected of insurrectionary activities. But this goes further than a critique of regional subjectivities. Not only does the international system of state terror, exemplified in the five nations under examination in Jallad, operate in support of capitalist exploitation, but it actually, according to Khalil, follows the capitalist model, exhibiting all the traits of a franchising operation. ‘That is to say, at the global level, the business of state terror is always dependent on the relationship between the sponsor (franchiser) states and the affiliate (franchisee) states. In our world, without exception, terror is perpetrated by states that are either affiliated with global or regional hegemons or that are hegemons themselves’ (118).

Also, Khalil’s exposé calls into question the very weakness of our concept of “democracy” itself. After all, if we can see the death squad as part and parcel of a formal democracy like India, then we may well describe other phenomena in history by the same term. For example, the typical American lynch mob could be viewed in the light of the death squad model, especially what W. Fitzhugh Brundage has dubbed the “private mob”, the small group of armed men, often masked, who conducted kidnapping, torture, and murder under the cover of darkness. Lynching, after all, was regularly employed against dissidents, especially African Americans who “forgot their place”, and challenged white authority in some fashion. The fact that such acts of violence were rarely prosecuted made them essentially a component of state terror, given that the motives of lynch mobs and the state aligned in the preservation of white supremacy and the capitalist order. The United States had its own death squads, but, in true American fashion, they were democratic and existed on an ad hoc basis. So if a formal democracy can exist alongside black laws and death squads, then, perhaps, we need to redefine the term to represent not just ostensible political equality but also true economic equality, that is, if we want “democracy” to be a true term of aspiration, to represent a concept that excludes state terror.

Jallad suffers from some repetition, and its journalistic style means that some content is arranged more for fostering a captivating narrative than for providing a logical progression of development. However, Tasneem Khalil has packed a lot of information into this slim volume, drawing linkages that are often overlooked and demanding justice as only one who has suffered the opposite can do (a closing chapter relays his own experience of kidnapping and torture). Jallad not only demands a deeper study of state terror in both South Asia and the world at large, but it also demands justice for all the victims thereof—past, present, and, unfortunately, future.

10 July 2017
http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2017/2747
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Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Explains the Evolution of the Human Mind-Kevin N Laland

Posted by admin On October - 19 - 2017 Comments Off on Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Explains the Evolution of the Human Mind-Kevin N Laland

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Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Explains the Evolution of the Human Mind
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2017. 464pp., £27.95 hb
ISBN 9780691151182
Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

 

Patrick Ainley was Professor of Training and Education in the School of Education and Training (as was) at the University of Greenwich where he is now associated with the Business School.

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Review
Not so long ago – certainly on an evolutionary timescale – it was received wisdom among many Marxists that Marx and Engels had completed Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. Whether or not Darwin turned down Marx’s offer to dedicate Capital to him (on the reasonable grounds that he had not read the volume Marx sent him), Marx definitely considered The Origin of Species as ‘the basis of natural history for our views’, even though he also thought Darwin’s theory influenced by contemporary capitalist economics. So much so that Engels elaborated The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, where he declared ‘labour begins with the making of tools’. Tool use was long considered a distinguishing feature of humans compared with other animals by those as late as Jacob Bronowski in 1973 presenting The Ascent of Man, if not via all the stages from lower savagery to upper barbarism through which Engels followed Morgan in tracing The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

As Laland shows in the many examples of animals using tools across the panorama of evolutionary emergence marshalled in his book, this previously accepted distinguishing feature of humanity has long lost its uniqueness. Nevertheless, demonstrating ‘a major gulf between the intellectual capabilities of humans and other animals’ (231), ‘is a necessary platform for this book’ (16). Not because ‘the primate brain expanded to cope with the demands of a rich social life’, which is ‘The currently dominant view’ (144), but because of the significance of evolutionary feedback, i.e. learning from experience, which many animals – from fish to frogs, crabs to crows – pass down their generations in the form of cultures.

This is different from what is called epigenetics, which also explains the inheritance of stable traits without change to DNA, especially through the extraneous activation and suppression of gene expression, but it has similar effects in speeding up evolution. Laland is thus not alone in meeting the objections of those for whom the succession of inherited accidents recounted by neo-Darwinism cannot account for all the intricacies of evolution. This idea of acquired animal cultures augmenting inherited behaviour is not new and is widely observable in the regional variations of birdsong, or the use of tools by monkeys and many other animals, including innovations which are then adopted and adapted by successive generations. However, for Laland this acceleration became exponential amongst a restricted family of primates, the hominidae, which developed language to enable the transmission of culture by teaching.

Symbolic language, as distinct from the often elaborate signalling systems of other creatures, is another crucial marker that, like tool use, is often claimed to distinguish the species homo from other primates. As another tool, language is seen as co-evolving with the use of tools by what Darwin called ‘the law of correlation of growth’ through which, as Engels described it in the Transition, ‘Changes in certain forms involve changes in the form of other parts of the body, although we cannot explain the connection.’ Laland can as he mathematically models the selective advantage conferred by hand, eye, voice and brain co-evolution to assert, ‘Language originally evolved to teach, and specifically to teach close relatives.’ (191) Laland therefore sees teaching as unique to humans – with the possible exception of cats. It imparts the hierarchical syntax that structures the forms languages take, giving all languages the underlying generative grammar that Chomsky derives from a supposed universal Language Acquisition Device innate to humans. Instead, ‘Human language is unique (among extant species) because our species uniquely constructed a sufficiently diverse, generative, and changeable cultural world that had to be talked about.’ (192 in the Chapter ‘Why We Alone Have Language’) ‘We’ thus ‘constructed our niche’ through ‘our species capacity to control, regulate and transform the environment … chiefly due to our extraordinary capacity for culture’ (230) and for cultural transmission through teaching, which Laland defines as ‘behaviour that functions to enhance the fidelity of information between tutor and pupil’ (his Italics p.158).

Although he occasionally writes of ‘coaching’ and ‘training’, this pedagogic conception of cultural learning and language ‘as an adjunct to teaching’ (318) is an impoverished one because Laland neglects what has been called The Tacit Dimension of building a culture through apprenticeship to it. He therefore misconceives learning and teaching by reducing them to their basis in copying for the competence imparted by training. The imaginative leap to understand new knowledge or achieve skilful performance is thus lost, whether acquired for the first time by novices or introduced as a new discovery or improvisation. Because such acquired characteristics are not heritable, this whole expanding corpus of human culture has to be relearnt by each new generation. Indeed, Resnik and other US psychologists who translated Vygotsky’s Marxism into ‘activity theory’, present children as little apprentices picking up the cultures and subcultures into which they are born by learning on the job as it were. Beyond a Chinese whispers effect, this entails losses and gains since cultures are not transmitted unchanged but are themselves altered in practice. This is an essential part of the dialectical conception of praxis – simply the Greek word for human action. The transmission of culture is therefore more than mere copying, otherwise no change would be possible and as Marx wrote in Capital,

A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of its cells; but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is namely this. The architect will construct in his imagination that which he will ultimately erect in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get that which existed in the consciousness of the labourer at its commencement.

Laland’s pedagogic notion of cultural transmission not only unpoetically lacks imagination – ‘the Human Being itself’, as Blake called it – but also misses the philosophical depth of Engels’ emphasis upon tools – including language – that is more than technological determinism but which serve to distance consciousness from the reality it is focussed upon, thus giving us ‘an interpreted world’ in which even ‘the knowing animals are aware / that we are not really at home…’ (Rilke).

Laland is repeatedly in ‘awe if not wonder’ at the vast accumulation of commodities he sees all around him, evidence to the coordination of the capitalist enterprises involved in effecting the voluntary cooperation to assemble and move these goods around the world. He argues ‘The large-scale cooperation observed solely in human societies arises because of our uniquely potent capacities for social learning, imitation and teaching, combined with the co-evolutionary feedbacks that these capabilities have generated on the human mind.’ (281) However, far from seeing genetic propensities shaping behaviour as sociobiology does, Laland recognises that ‘the gene-culture leash tugs both ways’ (229). Our potent culture and the genetic feedback it generated resulted in the human development that his book explains by the teaching theory of cultural transmission. Laland can then account for the apparent stasis of Oldowan technology, when for some 700,000 years stone tools did not alter very much amongst humans and their close relatives, by the catching up necessary for proto-languages to evolve into more effective communication. Once that happened, the momentum was unstoppable and exponential. Only it wasn’t, as Engels shows clearly if schematically.

Engels’ explanation is also an example of his Dialectics of Nature which have long been almost universally derided (including by many Marxists) as mechanical and outmoded, but which have resurfaced recently in complexity theory and elsewhere to show how emergence involves progression from a lower to a higher level of determination with the new forms of existence taking control of the system by a process of maturation to a new whole that is more than the sum of its previous parts. In the case of what Engels called the primitive communism of classless tribal societies, age and gender were the principle divisions of knowledge and labour, but once the council of wise old men had been usurped by their sons and new king-priests installed by the warrior class violently imposing their new state through their monopoly of weapons, a new dynamic controlled the direction of social development. Previous taboos on the inheritance of wealth by sharing it amongst the whole tribe were broken and reversion to earlier forms – of matriarchal rule, for example – were ruled out. The new more or less violent struggles that arose between classes now determine social development and are often acutely manifest in culture where ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas of society’, as Marx said. Nevertheless, they do not go uncontested by the sub-, counter- and not only class-cultures that contend with them in multiplely divided societies. Consequently, today what is produced and how is usually decided by owners or shareholders seeking profit who generally have the last word over how to deploy new technologies to maximise output. There is not therefore a simple exponential development ever onward and upward but a series of crises of overproduction and speculation leading from boom to bust. So the logic of cultural evolution is not identical to that of biological evolution with ‘memes’ supplanting genes. ‘Biology provides no substitute for a comprehensive historical analysis,’ Laland concedes in conclusion (314) but then asserts ‘Human culture is indeed amenable to evolutionary analysis’ (320). This is not the usual evo-devo but is just as reductive in its own way.

Despite all the exemplary reference to inter- and cross-disciplinary archaeological studies, mathematical modelling and artistic collaborations that Laland details, his frame remains one of science narrowly conceived and not extended to even the possibility of a social science. In what calls itself a University (St. Andrews) this is bizarre; especially in an epoch – which Laland labels the ‘anthropocene’ (more precisely the ‘capitalocene’) – requiring sustainable development to preserve what is left of the ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’, whose origin Darwin had delineated but which humanity, as the one species self-consciously aware of its own existence, is in danger of destroying along with itself. The violent origin of civilisation emphasised by Engels but neglected by Laland explains the self-inflicted intra-species mass violence, again often claimed to uniquely mark humanity. In the ‘more or less subdued civil war’ within class societies – not the unity Laland supposes – this unconscious legacy is augmented by the symbolic violence of culture. This reinforces whilst simultaneously occluding through its religious and other ideological forms the root violence of class and gender oppressions. Violence is also amplified by technology, especially when inflicted by one people upon another in imperial conquest. However, from the natural scientific perspective which Laland maintains, ‘The Evolution of Intelligence’ celebrated in Chapter Six as ‘the ability of an animal to solve problems, comprehend complex ideas, and learn quickly’ (125), appears less of an achievement and more of a possibly lethal mutation.

7 September 2017
http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2017/2804
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
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Politics behind the scenes-A.G. NOORANI

Posted by admin On March - 17 - 2017 Comments Off on Politics behind the scenes-A.G. NOORANI

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Author: Edited by Lionel Carter
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Pages: 1,000
Price: Rs.3,500
A two-volume compilation of British despatches to London from India and Pakistan in the year after the twin dominions won independence shows the former colonial bosses knew what was going on in both nations. By A.G. NOORANI
LIONEL Carter was a member of the team that produced the 12 volumes of Documents on the Transfer of Power in India, which the British government published. He brought to bear the same exacting standards of selection and annotation in the 14 volumes on Mountbatten’s Report on the Last Viceroyalty, Reports by Governors of United Provinces and Punjab, Partition Observed (August-December 1947) and the two earlier volumes, companion to these, comprising Weakened States Seeking Renewal. All were published by Manohar with exquisite care. These volumes are sold in a box, as were the ones on Weakened States. One wishes Carter would do a similar work on Kashmir in the British archives for the period between 1946 and 1950—on papers of the British Resident in Srinagar, the High Commissioners in New Delhi and Karachi, and at the headquarters in London. He would render a service hard to estimate, for the discourse is saturated with partisanship all round. His objectivity and integrity are beyond question.

The volumes under review provide a fascinating portrayal of the times. Occasionally, they prod one to ask whether anything has changed fundamentally. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Congress, communists, secularists, India’s Muslims, Islam in Pakistan and Kashmir form the subjects of the despatches. India’s Governor General Lord Mountbatten was in close touch with the British High Commissioner Sir Terence Shone, and his Deputy, Alexander Symon. So were they with the High Commissioner in Pakistan, Sir Lawrence Grafftey Smith. Through Mountbatten, India’s former rulers knew what was afoot.

Maurice Zinkin, ICS, held that Jawaharlal Nehru was a bad Foreign Minister for India but would have been a good one for the West. He was wrong. Nehru’s ideas were woolly. Shone took a visiting Foreign Office official to Nehru on May 2, 1948.

“On the Japanese peace settlement Pandit Nehru was non-committal and full of doubt. He seemed concerned lest a conference to consider a Japanese treaty should lead to further estrangement between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. On the other hand he had no suggestions to offer as to what should be done if there was no peace conference.” Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev told him that the Soviet Union was wrong in not signing that treaty.
On the CPI

There is a detailed report by Shone to London, dated June 18, 1948, on the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) second party congress in Calcutta. “Immediately preceding it in Calcutta was the South East Asia Youth Conference (about which separate reports have already been sent) which was almost entirely Communist in character and was attended by a number of foreign Communist delegates. These later naturally formed the closest contacts with the leaders of the Communist Party of India and played their full share in the complete reversal of former party policy which was the dominating characteristic of the party congress itself. The party’s enthusiastic support for ‘Nehru’s National Government’ gave place overnight to an extremist programme aimed at their immediate overthrow as representing a ‘Government of national surrender and collaboration’ which was supporting the Anglo-American bloc. This volte-face in policy necessitated some scapegoat and it took the form of change in the party’s secretary. P.C. Joshi, a moderate Communist (if such a relative term can be applied to any Communist at all) who had held this office since the period of cooperation with the government during the latter part of the war, was replaced by a complete extremist in B.T. Ranadive. The estrangement between Russia and the Western democracies certainly seems to have been one of the causes of this major change in Communist tactics as was to be seen from the lengthy resolution explaining it.”

Ranadive harmed a powerful CPI, which the brilliant P.C. Joshi had built. “During the CPI’s legal existence for the last five and a half years, it has infiltrated into different organisations, secured numerous sympathisers and supporters, strengthened its position financially and politically and above all has perfected its propaganda ‘apparatus’. Its literature and party organs are printed in almost all the Indian languages and reach the masses in the remotest corners through the party units. In short, it is a mass party having firm bases among the workers, peasants and students and is trying hard, with some measure of success, particularly government servants, to get a hold on the middle classes. The Com. [communists] have succeeded in maintaining a high pitch of discontent and disaffection among the workers. They have been helped to do this by the general conditions prevailing in India. The high cost of living, the great need for reforms, the preoccupation of the Central government with constitutional, foreign and other affairs, inter-dominion relations, provincial jealousy, local maladministration—in fact the birth struggles of a new nation plus difficulties that all countries are experiencing after the war. The CPI’s underground machinery was ready in case of firm action by the government, and they have claimed that all the provincial and district centres had in existence ‘technical apparatus to guard against the government offensive and feed the party’s frontal activities’. As a preliminary measure, they have removed all important and confidential papers of the party to ‘secret dens’.”
The ban on the RSS weakened it only for a while. It had wide support in the country, outside its own ranks.

Radicalism in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the mullahs asserted themselves even when Mohammad Ali Jinnah was alive. Grafftey-Smith reported from Karachi as early as on May 5, 1948: “There have recently been signs, particularly in the West Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, of increasing influence on the part of the Maulvis, and a vocal section of opinion in Lahore and Peshawar has been pressing for the introduction of a fully Islamic regime with the Shariat legal system. I enclose copies of letters received from Stephenson in Lahore and Duke in Peshawar in answer to an enquiry about the real impetus behind this movement and the possibility of it being encouraged by the Pakistan authorities as an offset to increasing discontent among labour and the poorer peasant classes.”

From Rawalpindi a British diplomat reported as early as on June 20, 1948: “If Pakistan is so anxious for British or American assistance it must prove itself capable of benefiting from it. At present the only reasonably effective organisation seems to be the Army, and that is really British-controlled. The civil administration here is corrupt and nepotic and I do not imagine it is much better anywhere else.”

Indian Muslims suffered twice—in 1947 over the partition and in 1948 on Hyderabad. The Muslim League leaders were inept. Comments by Shaffee Mohamed to a British diplomat, on May 8, 1948, revealed a lot: “Although he had been in the forefront of the Congress movement in South India for many years and did not regard himself as suspect by the Congress leaders here, nevertheless he, like a good many other South Indian Moslems, felt some nervousness about his and his co-religionists’ future in India. Moslem influence in politics had gone, and it was much less in business than it had been. Here I should say that whereas Moslems amount to only about 7 per cent of the population in this area their influence in business has hitherto been very much greater. In the hide and skin trade, for instance (which is important in South India) they once had, for obvious reasons, a virtual monopoly. Now however Hindus are creeping in and take about 15-20 per cent of it. Mr Mohammed also said that even Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai had expressed to him a similar feeling of nervousness about their future, notwithstanding their position as Cabinet Ministers.”
A report from New Delhi on July 27, 1948, said: “Madras is not the only province in which arrests of Muslims for allegedly pro-Pakistan or pro-Hyderabad activities are going on: these have taken place on a considerable scale also in other provinces, notably the United Provinces and Central Provinces and Berar. While we have no evidence that any centrally inspired policy exists for the harassment of Muslims in India (indeed public pronouncements by Pandit Nehru, for example, have been all the other way), there can be little doubt that if the present tension over the Kashmir and Hyderabad issues continues or deteriorates it will furnish an excellent opportunity for the harassment of Muslims by communally minded subordinates, with or without the connivance of Provincial Ministers. Congress governments have in the past acquired a reputation for anti-Muslim activities: in the Central Provinces, for example, the Premier, Pandit Ravishanker Shukla, is known as a bigoted anti-Muslim and even prior to 15 August 1947, the position of Muslim government servants in that province was difficult.”

Punjab and Kashmir

Even in 1948 Sikhs had begun to demand a Sikh State, as Shone informed London on May 19, 1948: “From time to time during the last two months Sikh leaders have been stressing the need for the delimitation of the boundaries of the East Punjab, in order to make it a Punjabi-speaking (and thus a preponderantly Sikh) Province.”

Predictably, Kashmir occupies a large part of the reportage. All were agreed that in a plebiscite Kashmiris would opt for Pakistan—British residents in Srinagar (page 178); Indians who spoke in confidence; a visiting British diplomat (ibid); two officials of the High Commission, after a visit (page 242); British and missionaries (page 303). Indira Gandhi was of the same view. Kashmir was never India’s emotionally; both distrusted each other.

In 1948 Nehru decided to renege on the plebiscite. A despatch records what Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs, told Canada’s High Commissioner on June 28, 1948: “No Indian government could now afford to relinquish Kashmir in the face of public opinion and Bajpai appeared to think that the offer of a plebiscite might be withdrawn at least for the whole State. Mr Kearney gathered that the Indian government intended to hold firmly to the areas in which they were established, particularly valley of Srinagar and Jammu. If there were a plebiscite at all it could only be held by areas which would presumably result in some going to India and others to Pakistan. Bajpai had also apparently mentioned the independence of the State as a possible alternative.”
As for Sheikh Abdullah’s colleagues, Richard Symonds reported: “Almost all the members of the government both individually and in the groups had told the members of the U.N. [United Nations] party that they were in favour of an independent Kashmir. They were very apprehensive, however, lest their views might become known to the Indian government. On their return from Karachi the main U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan had been considering this possible solution, but almost all of them were very scared about it. The members of the Kashmir government had also told U.N. party that Sheikh Abdullah on behalf of the National Conference would be prepared to meet and talk with Ghulam Abbas on behalf of the Muslim Conference. Sheikh Abdullah himself and Afzul Beg (the Revenue Minister and a comparative moderate) were the prime movers in favour of this.”

Thus even in 1948 no Kashmiri supported accession to India. That included Sheikh Abdullah.
http://www.frontline.in/books/politics-behind-the-scenes/article9583183.ece?homepage=true

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
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After the Arab Spring-TALMIZ AHMAD

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on After the Arab Spring-TALMIZ AHMAD

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Author: Edited by Sujata Ashwarya and Mujib Alam
Publisher: KW Publishers, New Delhi, 2017
Pages: 322
Price: Rs.980

A well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the West Asia and North Africa region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction. By TALMIZ AHMAD
SIX years after the Arab Spring first heralded the agitated demands for wide-ranging political reforms, the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region is convulsed in conflicts that have destroyed state order, strengthened vicious authoritarian regimes, unleashed the forces of sectarianism and jehad, placed major regional entities at the edge of war, and pulled in major powers which are shaping a new Cold War. These six years have seen the deaths of a few hundred thousand people, the displacement of millions, the destruction of historic cities, and extremist elements indulging in vile and violent acts not seen in a thousand years.

Contemporary West Asia is a well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction. The book has a useful overview, essays on the themes that are defining contemporary West Asian politics—Islamism, sectarianism and big power politics—and papers examining the situation in different countries, so that no WANA nation struggling with domestic and regional challenges is excluded from the discussion.

The Arab Spring was the most significant development in West Asia in a hundred years. In fact, during those heady days the Arab people attempted to overturn the legacy of the last century, which had institutionalised authoritarian rule under Western tutelage, mired the Arab people in military defeat and economic failure, and placed their polities on the wrong side of every issue that defines contemporary human achievement—participatory political systems, freedom, human rights, gender sensitivity and accommodation of minorities. The agitations for change demanded the removal of autocrats and the reform of the monarchies so that the Arabs would no longer be “exceptional” in the global firmament of human dignity.

While the uprisings touched almost every Arab country and led to the fall of at least four tyrants, the dissent was quickly and effectively quelled: Tunisia, where it all started, is the only country where the tyrant has been replaced by a transparent, accountable and accommodative order; everywhere else, authoritarian rule has been reinforced with even greater force as terrified regimes seek to strengthen themselves with occasionally cooptive but usually coercive policies to extinguish from the minds of their oppressed citizens all aspirations for change.
There are regional ramifications as well, since the fallout of the Arab Spring has given fresh resonance to old fault lines, so that mobilisations of support to redress strategic vulnerabilities are being done in ways that revive the sectarian divide and make it central to the shaping of contemporary competitions, which is further reinforced by the depredations of the jehadi militants that target the Shias with greater venom than they do regional state authorities. In fact, in several instances, the latter have made jehad their partner in their confrontations against regional enemies.

Challenges of modernism

In their introduction, the two erudite editors see the ongoing developments in West Asia as contentions between the pulls of tradition and modernity, which in the Arab context, also takes the shape of a conflict between group loyalties and individual aspirations. To complicate the scenario, West Asia has also experienced the failure of the “secular” framework in the domestic order, accompanied by repeated economic failures.

As in other traditional societies that experienced imperial subjugation, “modernity” in West Asia was generally viewed as the product of defeat at the hands of Western powers, and hence, its appeal was largely superficial and restricted to a small elite. In response to the crisis engendered by colonial domination, most Arabs fell back into their traditional moorings that, emerging from their own heritage, were believed to be more “authentic”. Several valiant reformers, such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Reda, did make efforts to reconcile the Islamic precepts of their people with the political precepts of a modern political order. But their projects failed in the face of the reality of colonial occupation and the submissive regimes the colonial masters put in place across WANA, and the West-dominated authoritarian regimes that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Arab tyrants camouflaged their rule with “secular” appeals to nationalism and pan-Arabism, but they made little impression on the Arab masses, who saw these as concepts embedded in foreign influence that were promoted by tyrants to win favour with their Western clients. Not surprisingly, the Arab people found far greater comfort in their traditional identities that prioritised their tribal and clan identities. The editors Sujata Ashwarya and Mujib Alam explain it thus: “Lack of democratic governance thwarted the development of civic culture: since the state and government were ‘not theirs’, the people invested precious little in incorporating ideas handed over to them by state authorities.”

They also accurately describe the resistance of Arabs to their regimes’ “modernisation” projects thus: “The model of progress offered by secular modernisers failed to ameliorate the poverty of the masses…. Beset with external and internal conflicts, secular regimes remained fastidiously authoritarian and refused to risk policy measures that could affect real developmental transformation.”
It is from this quagmire that political Islam emerged: it was the only opposition force against the Arab tyrants; it was also the only movement that worked among the poor and the disadvantaged, those excluded from the crony capitalism of their rulers. It is the “authentic” origin of this movement and its grass-roots organisation and record of service that propelled Islamist parties to power in the first flush of the Arab Spring and not just the religiosity of Arabs, as the editors contend. They have, however, succinctly set out the imperatives of the Arab reform agenda: freedom and constitutionalism in the political sphere, dismantling of crony capitalism in the economic area, and widespread social reform, particularly expansion of women’s participation in public spaces.

Sectarianism ascendant

The rest of the book looks at the sources of conflict in WANA and the situation in specific countries. The narrative is not reassuring. Sectarianism, which had never been a major divisive force in modern Arab politics, is now a central influence. In his essay, Fouad Kadhem, a researcher based in London, has provided an excellent historical and doctrinal account of this deep fissure in Islam, pointing out that in a Muslim kingdom, oppression of one sect or the other took place only when rulers with a narrow view of their faith were in power: this was true when the Shiite Safavids ruled Iran as also the policies the Ottomans followed in their empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, he correctly emphasises that the Safavids stressed their Shia identity primarily to set the Persians apart from the Turks as part of their ongoing political competitions with the Ottomans. In fact, in the face of the depredations of the Wahhabi fanatics from Najd in the 18th and 19th centuries, Shia and Sunni ulema jointly urged the Ottoman ruler to confront this predatory force.

In the 20th century, sectarian identity was frequently superseded by a “secular” identity when Arab intellectuals and political activists joined nationalist or ideological groupings, such as the Baath or communist parties, even as Palestine brought all Arabs together in support of a shared national cause.

Much of this has now been swept away by the deliberate introduction by the United States of sectarian identity as the defining feature of the Iraqi political order after its 2003 invasion. Viewing Shia empowerment in Iraq as beneficial to Iran, Saudi Arabia has embarked on policies that directly confront Iranian “hegemony” in West Asia, shaping what Kadhem calls the “globalising of sectarianism”. In this context, the shared space between the two sects is disappearing, while the political divide between them is getting dominated by extremists on both sides who are competing “to dominate the political landscape in the war of images, words and actions”.
Contradicting this trend, the Shia movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has evolved from a hard doctrinaire and political protest movement to a political party seeking to play a prominent role in Lebanon’s contentious confessional politics. Starting with accepting full Iranian dominance, doctrinal and political, Hezbollah, as the Lebanese academic Joseph Alagha puts it, now “seems to shift within the parameters of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism, while maintaining its Lebanese identity at the centre”. But the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict from May 2013 has changed the regional scenario: Hezbollah is now an integral part of the sectarian conflict being waged in Syria. More seriously, this has also brought the sectarian divide into Lebanon itself, with various jehadi groups in Syria carrying out terrorist acts in that fragile nation.

Iraq and Syria disintegrate

Sujata Ashwarya, in her essay, discusses the sectarian narrative in Iraq. She examines the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in response to the sectarian politics deliberately shaped by the U.S. during its occupation, but holds the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as being primarily responsible for the rise of the “Islamic State”, or ISIS. She sees the present Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, as a “conciliatory figure” who is seeking to shape a united and pluralistic Iraq that would accommodate both Sunnis and Kurds in the Shia-led political order. She correctly sees bridging the sectarian divide as a daunting challenge: government actions after Mosul has been “liberated” will tell us what the territorial and political shape of Iraq will be.

Syria figures prominently in the book: Shweta Desai looks at the origins and expansion of the insurgency in that country, while Sukalpa Chakrabarti examines the role of the big powers in the conflict. Shweta Desai notes how the interventions of regional powers in Syria transformed a domestic movement for reform into a conflictual situation that has jehadi forces at its centre, the Salafi militia backed by Saudi Arabia, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra and the ISIS. The conflict has wreaked havoc across Syria, with the number of dead creeping towards the half-million figure, with no sign of compromise from any side.

Sukalpa Chakrabarti explains the circumstances that have brought the U.S. and Russia as key players in the Syrian cauldron. She sees the U.S.’ role as a continuation of the Carter Doctrine of 1980 in terms of which the U.S. committed itself to using military force to ensure its control over the region’s oil resources and their free movement. Russia, on the other hand, rejects externally sponsored regime change through violent means and is therefore committed to safeguarding the Bashar al-Assad regime.
She also notes that while the Gulf Arab regimes and their Western allies continue to prioritise regime change in Damascus, it is Russia that is robustly fighting the ISIS. She refers to the U.S.-Russian diplomatic cooperation to end the conflict as “superficial”, but recognises that this is the only initiative that will ultimately bring peace to Syria. She calls for a “grand strategy” to pull all the contending parties together based on “partnerships” rather than “Cold War constructs”, but it is doubtful that anyone is listening.

Turkey in West Asia

Two Turkish scholars have provided good essays on their country’s role in West Asian affairs. The one by Alper Dede traces the history of the Islamist movement in Turkey, while the other, by Ismail Yaylaci, discusses “democracy” as a factor in Turkey’s engagement with Arab countries before and after the Arab Spring. Dede notes that Islamist parties faced serious difficulties in expanding their role and space in Turkey’s political order that was constitutionally secular, a commitment that through much of the 20th century was rigorously enforced by the armed forces, which would intervene forcefully whenever they thought that the secular order was being threatened by Islamist influences.

Still, Islamists overcame all odds to emerge triumphant in 2002, and then initiated their policy of “zero-problems neighbourhood policy” when they set up a series of positive engagements with the Arab countries of West Asia. It would have been interesting if Dede had explained the factors that led to the steady emasculation of the armed forces in Turkey, so that by 2002 they just could not prevent or dilute the democratic accession to power of the Freedom and Justice Party (AKP, in its Turkish acronym), with its Islamist vision and agenda.

The Arab Spring led to suggestions from some quarters, Turkish and Arab, that Turkey could be a “role model” for Arab dissidents pursuing reform, but they withered away as the Arab Spring was destroyed by Arab regimes. Later, the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan intervened in Arab affairs on a more doctrinaire basis, first, by backing the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and then distancing Turkey from the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government after the coup. Second, more seriously, Erdogan backed the Islamist forces promoted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow Assad. Thus, he allowed thousands of young people to enter Syria from Turkey, most of whom joined jehadi groups, including the ISIS.
Yaylaci’s paper begins with an apparent contradiction: he asserts that the AKP, in its dealings with West Asian countries, “always adopted a discourse of change in regional politics”, but in the next sentence says: “AKP’s discourse of transformation was gradual and evolutionary, which was in favour of leaving the existing autocratic regimes intact.” Yaylaci is at pains to clarify that, unlike the Western countries whose democracy projects were both instrumental and selective, that is, they were advocated selectively to subserve Western interests, Turkey supported “home-grown” democracy in West Asia: hence, it was such a strong supporter of the Arab Spring agitations, which its then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu viewed as “standing on the right side of history”.

This vision collapsed quickly: Turkey under Erdogan has not only appeared increasingly authoritarian domestically in its dealings with dissident groups and the Kurds, and is now totally alienated from its earlier ideological partner, the Gulen movement. It is also embroiled militarily in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to stem the tide of the revanchist Kurds who are seeking their moment in history. Turkey has never been so far removed from the idealism of the AKP’s first days in power or more recently, the first weeks of the Arab Spring.

The prospect of reform

The three papers on the Gulf Arab countries, the Saudi political scenario and Yemen suffer from the curse of Indian academic publishing—the considerable time lag between the writing of the paper and its publication. Though no fault of the writers, developments in the last year and a half have rendered the papers out of date.

Priyamvada Sawant’s short essay on the implications of the Arab Spring for the Gulf Arab countries notes the agitations in Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and, more mutedly, in Saudi Arabia, but just does not do justice to this complex subject that now sees Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies engaged in conflict in Syria and Yemen and in confrontation with Iran, while coping with complex domestic political and economic challenges. Her conclusion is particularly weak: she regrets the influence of religion on government and society and advocates promotion of civil society organisations to promote democracy, but does not indicate how this is to be achieved in these traditional societies.
It is a matter of regret that compared with the substantial studies contained in this book, Gulshan Dietl’s six-page piece on Saudi Arabia is so unsatisfactory. First, it has some factual errors: the size of the Saudi royal family is at least 15,000, not 5,000-6,000; the children and grandchildren of King Abdulaziz number about 1,500, not 500. Again, her frequent references to the “Sudairies”, the seven sons of Princess Hessa bint Ahmad Al Sudairy, as a bloc, is outdated: Prince Ahmad was abruptly removed from his post as Defence Minister; Prince Abdul Rehman has been marginalised for a long time; from the next generation, Prince Khalid bin Sultan was removed as Deputy Defence Minister; while Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed as National Security Adviser. More seriously, with so many important developments taking place in the kingdom and the significant role it is playing in the region, it is regrettable that the country has been given such casual treatment.

The essay on Yemen by Prasanta Pradhan, while also overtaken by rapidly moving events in that country, is good on the domestic and regional factors that have led to the bloody conflict that has overwhelmed that unfortunate nation. However, his presentation would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the Iranian role in Yemen, particularly the charge of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Iran has actively backed the Houthi insurrection, largely based on their sectarian affiliation. And, while he has correctly noted the strong Saudi-Egypt agreement on the Yemen question, it would have completed the story more accurately if he had also noted that Egypt finally did not participate militarily in the Yemen conflict, but only provided some ships to maintain the naval blockade.

Amidst the sense of gloom and pessimism that pervades West Asia, Priya Singh believes that the “victory” of Egypt’s entrenched bureaucracy over the forces of political change is perhaps “temporary” and the compulsions of urgently needed economic reforms will strengthen the push for “comprehensive reforms in the state bureaucracy”. She points out that the Arab Spring in Egypt enabled large sections of the population to experience “however fleetingly, exceptional flashes of emancipation, of unrestrained episodes of self-awareness, self-determination and mutual ‘effervescence’”. This, she argues, has laid the basis for an “active citizenry” in Egypt, which will in time “challenge the capacity of the dictatorial state to govern”, though she warns that this might take a few decades.

This book is a valuable and timely reference source to understand the turbulence that characterises West Asia, where major states are engaged in proxy wars in which millions of people have been killed or displaced, a whole generation of Arabs in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has been reduced to penury, and forces of extremism and sectarianism hold sway across large swathes of the Arab landscape, often with state support.
At the root of this turmoil is the resistance of authoritarian rulers to demands for popular participation in state decision-making, for popular scrutiny of state accounts, and for the ability to hold rulers responsible for their actions and to replace them periodically on the basis of national consensus. This resistance to reform has made the Arab world the last bastion in the world of entrenched tyranny. The editors have done full justice to this complex, even convoluted, narrative.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.
http://www.frontline.in/books/after-the-arab-spring/article9407432.ece

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
–Editor

Egypt: In the heart of the struggle-Philip Marfleet

Posted by admin On October - 17 - 2016 Comments Off on Egypt: In the heart of the struggle-Philip Marfleet

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A review of Maha Abdelrahman, Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protest Movements and Uprisings (Routledge, 2015), £34.99

This book was written as the Egyptian Revolution unfolded. Its author experienced the hopes and anxieties of tens of millions of people, sharing “moments of soaring elation, periods of uncertainty and self-doubt, instances of retreat and dark days of potential defeat” (pvii). Her analysis of rising opposition to the Hosni Mubarak regime, of the mass uprising that began in 2011 and of the military coup of 2013 is especially important for activists seeking to understand these tumultuous events. Her conclusion is notable: quoting Lenin, she observes that despite all difficulties, those prepared to “preserve their strength and flexibility”, learning from experience and pursuing their aims with vigour, can anticipate new opportunities to effect change (p142).

When the uprising against Mubarak began in January 2011 most journalists and many academics expressed surprise, even astonishment. It seemed to them that an Egyptian population they viewed as docile and compliant had overnight discovered an appetite for change—for what millions were already calling a “revolution”. The uprising promptly deposed Egypt’s dictator but when the dictatorship proved more resilient these pundits were quick to assert that the movement had failed. There were soon many obituaries for the revolution, reflecting on its abrupt rise and fall. Maha Abdelrahman takes a different approach, seeing Egypt’s revolution as a process—part of a struggle for change that began long before the uprising in Tahrir Square and one that continues as the regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi grapples with economic crisis and popular hostility to its own intense repression.

Abdelrahman is precise, asserting that: the revolution “did not start in Tahrir” (p29). She rightly identifies the solidarity demonstrations launched in September 2000 by supporters of the Palestinian intifada as a key development. These protests created space for public action soon occupied by ­anti-globalisation and anti-war activists, then by the Egyptian Movement for Change (the democracy movement known by its slogan Kifaya!—Enough!), and in 2006 by workers’ struggles on a scale not seen for 60 years. Abdelrahman describes the cumulative impact of “a tidal wave of protests” (p55) that set the scene for the uprising of 2011.

These struggles were invisible to most academic experts. Concentrating on institutional matters and above all on the apparent resilience of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, they ignored politics from below. This approach reproduced the policies of colonial and post-colonial regimes that for decades practised a politics of denial. British rulers of Egypt maintained that Egyptians were passive and incapable of organising for change. Gamal Abdel Nasser, first president of an independent Egypt, saw slothfulness and lassitude among the masses who, he said, required to be led. His successors Anwar Sadat and Mubarak were contemptuous of the people, viewing them as bystanders to their projects of personal enrichment and monopolisation of power.

Abdelrahman is focused on the mass of people and their creative energies. She addresses the innovative methods of the pro-democracy movement and the “organisational ingenuity and professionalism” of workers in struggle (p61). Tracing in detail the interlocking struggles of 2000 to 2010, she identifies a “normalisation of protest”, as struggles in workplaces, campuses, schools and neighbourhoods embraced millions of people, so that subversive action became “part of everyday lived reality” (p69).

Unlike almost every other academic analyst Abdelrahman is interested in relationships between activist groups and political organisations including nationalists, Islamists, Communists of the old left, and a new generation of revolutionary socialists. She notes that most activists rejected the established parties of the left: rigid and highly centralised, these inhibited mobilisation against the regime. The most effective campaigns against Mubarak “aimed to be everything these formal groups were not” (p49), operating with fluid structures, participatory decision-making and forms of public protest that proved effective in the face of the regime’s clumsy methods of repression.

Abdelrahman examines the problems faced by activist networks under Mubarak and the innovative means used to maintain the momentum of the movement. She highlights the role of the Cairo Conference, an event held annually between 2002 and 2008, at which Egyptian activists coordinated with anti-war movements in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and which served as what she calls “a network of networks” for dissident Egyptians (p35). The conference was indeed significant, not least because it provided a rare opportunity for members of the Muslim Brotherhood to engage systematically in debate with the secular left. Some readers of International Socialism who attended these events will recall unprecedented discussions in which young women and men of the Brotherhood engaged with revolutionary Marxists on subjects including the meaning of democracy, the labour theory of value, women’s rights and the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Abdelrahman is not wide-eyed about the activists of 2011. Unlike some recent assessments influenced by autonomist and libertarian traditions, she addresses the limitations of their networks, especially after the fall of Mubarak. The key issue at stake, she suggests, was that of finding a means to facilitate self-expression and, at the same time, to ensure “sustainability” (p83)—to provide coherence and leadership. The ingenuity of activists who challenged Mubarak was not enough, she suggests, to provide a focal point for a revolutionary movement that, after February 2011, confronted the core of the state apparatus in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In order to resist the generals’ repression and to advance the movement’s aim of achieving social justice, activists urgently required new forms of coordination; their failure to collaborate, she maintains, undermined the whole revolutionary project.

The revolution did indeed require coordinated leadership—but why was this not forthcoming? Abdelrahman does not address this question directly. She highlights issues of party loyalty and practical problems of coordination but does not get to the heart of the matter—the tortured history of the established left in Egypt and its willingness to accommodate to the state and to capitalist agendas.

Egypt’s Communists had played a significant role in struggles against the colonial power, Britain. However, inhibited by Stalinist obsessions with the search for “progressive” bourgeois allies, they failed to accept opportunities to challenge the colonial state and the pro-British monarchy. When the army under Nasser seized power in 1952 most Communists celebrated a “revolutionary” initiative. Although they experienced severe repression under Nasser, they later joined his state capitalist regime. In 1965 the Egyptian Communist Party dissolved itself on the basis that Nasser had met its aspirations for change. Deserting the workers’ and students’ movements, it handed the initiative to Islamist currents, soon established as a key pole of attraction for activists.

Presidents Sadat and Mubarak adopted neoliberal policies, supervising the transfer of public assets to private hands, greatly increasing inequality and making the apparatus of the state—al-nizam (“the order” or “the system”)—an object of hatred for most Egyptians. The established left remained a tame reformist lobby, joining the regime in its assaults on the Islamists, whom Communists dubbed a “fascist” menace. When it became clear that the uprising of 2011 might challenge the state itself, the left—including Communists and radical nationalists of the Nasserist current—joined the generals in an outright assault on the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequently upon the revolutionary movement.

The failure of the popular movement to coordinate an effective leadership was less an organisational matter than an outcome of an orientation by ostensibly radical currents upon the state itself. In 2013 Communists and radical nationalists joined with liberals, social democrats, bourgeois parties and feloul (“leftovers” or remnants” of the Mubarak regime) in an alliance with the generals. Some, used and abused by the el-Sisi regime, have since come to regret their naivety as they too are swept up by the current repression.

These largely secular parties were not alone in their embrace of the generals, however. In 2011 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood entered what Abdelrahman calls an “uneasy marriage of convenience” with SCAF (p79)—one that led not merely to divorce but to a murderous assault on the Brotherhood’s members. Abdelrahman might have analysed these developments more closely. The Brotherhood was not the iron-clad organisation described by many analysts of Egyptian affairs, in which the blind obedience of members guaranteed support for the leadership. Nor was it ideologically homogenous and unaffected by changes in wider society. As with her treatment of the left, Abdelrahman might have used historical materials to contextualise the agendas of the organisation’s leaders. Why were they so firmly oriented on the state? What were their political aspirations? How did they envisage their relationship with the mass of people?

The Muslim Brotherhood, says Abdelrahman, had long been largely stable—a closely knit group held together by complex economic and social ties. It was in fact deeply affected by the uprising of 2011, experiencing a series of splits and losing a number of high profile figures and some of its most determined young activists. Its relationship with the armed forces and crude attempts to control the movement resulted in a huge loss of support among those who earlier backed the organisation against Mubarak—the latest chapter in the Brotherhood’s history of complex shifts and changes in fortune.

Notwithstanding these reservations Egypt’s Long Revolution is an important assessment of the revolutionary process by an acute and supportive observer of struggles for change. It draws extensively on the testimony of activists and provides key insights into their motivations, dilemmas and successes. It concludes persuasively that millions of people eager for social justice will continue to ­challenge the prevailing order.

Philip Marfleet is a professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of East London and the author of Egypt: Contested Revoluion (Pluto, 2016).
http://isj.org.uk/egypt-in-the-heart-of-the-struggle/

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
–editor

Salafi-jehadism and its cohorts-TALMIZ AHMAD

Posted by admin On October - 17 - 2016 Comments Off on Salafi-jehadism and its cohorts-TALMIZ AHMAD

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Two books attempt to explain the apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice in the context of the wanton destruction and violence being perpetrated in its name. By TALMIZ AHMAD
ALMOST every day, there are reports of a jehadi organisation perpetrating some atrocity or the other in which several innocent victims are killed or badly injured. Images of widespread carnage at airports, shopping malls, concert auditoria, hotels, restaurants and busy streets fill our television screens while solemn reporters inform us that security agencies suspect this to be an attack by the Islamic State (or I.S., also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) or its local affiliate or even an individual, a “lone wolf”, who was indoctrinated to carry out a suicide attack by I.S. propaganda on social media. Over the past five years, these attacks have led to a beefing up of security organisations and an increase in intrusive security checks at public places and have generated a climate of fear and uncertainty among ordinary people across the world.

This jehadi violence has also inculcated a deep suspicion and distrust of Muslims, who are increasingly being seen as possible terrorists, so much so that they can be offloaded from domestic and international flights if even one of their co-passengers is uncomfortable about their presence. The problem of “Islam” has now become central to the contentious politics of Europe and the United States, with politicians seeking electoral office competing with each other in xenophobic anti-Muslim posturing and proclamations. Most people are just bewildered about how so much wanton destruction can be perpetrated in the name of a world religion, most of whose adherents claim is a faith that preaches moderation, peace and mutual understanding and accommodation. The two books reviewed here attempt to explain this apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice.

Salafism

Shiraz Maher’s work on Salafi-jehadism is a timely and substantial effort to explain the roots of the ideology of jehad. He traces its principal ideas to their origins in Islam’s first texts, the Quran and the Hadith (the “traditions” of the Prophet Muhammad, referring to his words and actions), and the commentaries of the early scholars, and then explains how jehadi ideologues have reinterpreted these ideas to analyse Muslims’ present-day predicament and provide justification for contemporary confrontations between Islam and its enemies. For, he points out at the outset, the ideology of jehad and its modern-day protagonist, the I.S., “sits within the mainstream tradition of Salafi-Jehadi thought”, but whose roots have been shaped “by the experiences of Sunni Islam over the last century and beyond”.
“Salafism” refers to the thought and conduct of the first three generations of Muslims, a period that roughly covers the first 200 years of Islam. On the basis of a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, these first Muslims are said to reflect the characteristics of the best Muslims and hence are worthy of emulation by later generations in order to realise the perfect Islamic life. Thus, as Maher notes, Salafism provides “an idealised version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity”. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, as Muslims experienced defeat and despair, it is to these “righteous ancestors” that their intellectuals turned, seeking to derive from their words and deeds the ability to cope with the present-day dilemmas of their community through a fresh interpretation of their early conduct and precepts.

Their understanding was of course largely influenced by the political context in which the academics or activists were placed. Thus, their first tracts were impacted on by the experience of colonial domination, while in the 20th century the intellectuals responded to Western control over their political order and, later, the installation of authoritarian rule in most Arab polities, with their rulers suborned by Western powers. The understanding that these intellectuals derived was extraordinarily varied, stretching from the extremely conservative and revivalist to very modern and liberal and accommodative of most of the ideas of Western Enlightenment, but it was rooted in the same concern: how to reconcile the beliefs and precepts of Islam to the needs of modern times.

In terms of their political orientation, these Salafi intellectuals have traditionally been divided into three groups: quietists, those who decry political activism by the citizenry and leave decision-making to the ruler, who is then expected to rule according to Islamic precepts; activists, those who advocate an active role for citizens in shaping their political order on Islamic lines; and jehadis, those who are willing to use violence to realise a society that is based on God’s law. The latter approach is clearly explained in a statement by Al Qaeda, the world’s first transnational jehadi movement: “We believe that the ruler who does not rule in accordance with God’s revelation, as well as his supporters are infidel apostates. Armed and violent rebellion against them is an individual duty on every Muslim.” This category of Salafism is referred to as “Salafi-jehadism”, which is the subject of Maher’s investigation in the book under review.

Salafi-jehadism has had numerous ideologues over the past 70 years who have described its various characteristics on the basis of their interpretation of Islam’s texts and the later commentaries on these texts. In so doing, they frequently stretch the limits of old texts and imbue them with meanings that support their present-day interests, even as they compete vigorously with each other to uphold the value of their own offering.

Five attributes
From this copious body of competitive literature, Maher has derived five attributes that define Salafi-jehadism: jehad; takfir, excommunication of those guilty of apostasy; al-wala al-bara, the concept of “avowal and rejection” for Allah; tawhid, the idea of oneness or unity of God; and hakimiyya, the establishment of Allah’s sovereignty in a political order. Each of these concepts is rooted in Islam and has been discussed by scholars for centuries; what makes them relevant in the context of Salafi-jehadism is the unique meaning that jehadi ideologues have imparted to them. Such meanings have usually been derived in periods of conflict and reflect the sense of being at war with dangerous enemies.

Jehad has been a central part of Islamic faith; rooted in the Arabic term that means labour or struggle or effort, it has traditionally meant the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and sin. But, it has also referred to a struggle against the enemies of Islam to defend the faith from external threat. It is the latter meaning that has motivated jehadis, so much so that their ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) and Abdullah Azzam in the 20th century have placed it as the foremost obligation for a Muslim after belief in Islam. Jehad, Azzam says, should be seen as an “ordinary act of worship” on a par with prayer and fasting. The current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said that jehad “takes precedence over feeding the hungry, even if the hungry would starve as a result”.

Contemporary thinking on jehad by its ideologues was fine-tuned on the battlefields of Afghanistan during the “global jehad” of the 1980s. It was here that Osama bin Laden and his companions imbued jehad with its fierce anti-Western value, seeing the U.S. in particular as the evil power behind the thrones of the Arab autocrats, a view that was consolidated when the Gulf countries sought Western help to overturn Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Later, as the jehadi assaults on their near and far enemies became more vicious and widespread, the ideologues readily found in Islamic texts justification for the killing of security personnel, government officials, women and children and fellow Muslims. In this war, there were no “innocents”.

Thus, the Quranic injunctions of qisas, the law of equal retaliation, and qital, killing of the protected ones among unbelievers, for which stern rules are provided in traditional texts, have now been expanded to embrace all the victims of jehadi violence on the basis that the West and Arab regimes are the enemies of Islam; hence the killing of all their supporters is divinely sanctioned, so much so that in democratic countries the very act of voting makes the citizens of that nation collectively culpable and hence worthy of annihilation. As Maher has noted: “… it appeared as if Al Qaeda was prepared to develop its own understanding of the rules relating to jehad in such a way that they could license almost anything at all.”

Takfir and tawhid
Similarly, the concept of takfir, declaring a Muslim an apostate, is being used to sanction violence against other Muslims in the name of protecting Islam from unbelievers. Ibn Taymiyya used this idea to vilify the Mongols who had destroyed the Abbasid caliphate and threatened his own home, while 20th century ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and Shukri Mustafa used it to describe their entire society as un-Islamic and thus make jehad a legitimate weapon against the rulers.

Later, takfir became a potent instrument in jehadi hands after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the country’s jehadis, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, used it to target the Shia community, describing it pejoratively as rafida (rejectionist), those who have left the fold of Islam and are now collaborating with the U.S. occupiers of their country. This was thus a powerful weapon against attempts by U.S. occupation forces to overturn the historical political order in Iraq and empower Shias.

On the same lines, Salafi-jehadis have used the concepts of al-wala al-bara and tawhid as instruments of war, taking them far beyond their original meanings. The former, which referred to “loyalty and disavowal” for the sake of Allah, had traditionally referred to the personal conduct of Muslims. Over the past two centuries, its meaning has expanded steadily to separate the believing and practising Muslim from “the Other”, the non-believer. More recently, ideologues have imparted to it a “muscular and aggressive” character, positing, in the words of Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, that “[t]he Muslim has not openly declared his religion until he opposes every assembly in whatever disbelief it is famous for, while declaring his enmity towards it”.

Similarly, tawhid, which initially merely referred to the oneness or unity of God, has acquired a strong political connotation in that ideologues now insist that it requires not just belief in God’s oneness but that this belief should constantly be manifested in action. This means the rejection of all those actions that constitute association with God or seeking intercession (e.g., of a saint or an amulet or an incantation) to reach God. What the jehadis have done is take this idea to an extreme by insisting that Islam as a “living ideal” demands that acceptance of tawhid inform and be apparent in every action of the Muslim.

For instance, if Western powers are accepted as tyrants, it is the duty of the Muslim to be always in conflict with them; if Arab states are hostile to “godless” communism, they cannot support the interests of communist parties in south Yemen; even Saudi attempts to bring Fatah and Hamas together were not acceptable to Al Qaeda since they were supported by the U.S., thus tainting them as a “secular” U.S. project. Tawhid, thus, has become in jehadi thought “a rigid doctrine of political absolutism” that cannot countenance any compromise or accommodation.

Hakimiyya
This brings Maher to the last attribute of Salafi-jehadism, hakimiyya, the realisation of God’s sovereignty in an Islamic political order. Maher makes the interesting point that this is one idea that is not Salafi in that it is not derived from Islam’s first texts. Also, the idea was not developed in West Asia, like other Salafi-jehadism concepts, but in South Asia. Here, Maher gives due credit to the pioneering contributions of the philosopher-poet Mohammed Iqbal, the ideologue-activist Abul Ala Maududi and the quietist-intellectual Abul Hassan Ali Hasani Nadwi.

The author points out that Nadwi used to translate Maududi’s writings into Arabic, which were then read by Sayyid Qutb. But, Nadwi made his own contribution to Qutb’s thinking by introducing him to the idea of the contemporary Muslim world being in a state of jahilliyya, an age of ignorance, reminiscent of the era that the Prophet Muhammad had corrected with the message of Islam.

Briefly, the concept of hakimiyya posits an Islamic political entity that has God as the sovereign authority, thus providing no space for a constitution, a democratic order or popular sovereignty, all of which suggest a secular system of governance. This approach is thus founded on a sharp separation between an Islamic and a Western political order; indeed, it places the two in confrontation with each other. Maher explains Qutb’s view thus: “Islam would have to survive within its own silo: isolated, distinct, and diametrically estranged from anything other than Islam itself.”

While Salafi-jehadism has thus placed itself in a straitjacket by denying itself any flexibility in shaping its political order, a number of non-jehadi Islamist writers have put forward a wide variety of options to achieve their Islamic state. This is in fact one of the most exciting areas of contemporary Islamist discourse after the debacle of the Arab Spring, when Salafi intellectuals and activists are coming up with ideas to replace the decadent and sterile authoritarian systems in West Asia with alternatives based on new social contracts between rulers and their people, which would provide for participatory forms of government.
Given this background, it is surprising that Maher should assert that “[t]he suspicion of modern politics is perhaps one of the most pervasive and enduring features of Islamic political thought today”, and then go on to say that Arab thinkers, while rejecting their colonial experiences, “were casting aside everything associated with Western political structures”. Maher would have done well to recall that, even as long ago as 1983, Albert Hourani had devoted his book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 to a study of several Arab scholars “who saw the growth of European power and the spread of new ideas as a challenge to which they had to respond by changing their own societies… through acceptance of some of the ideas and institutions of modern Europe”. Later works by Anthony Black, Hamid Enayat, Larbi Sadiki and Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer Nafi discuss Islamic political thought nearer our time. Nowhere do we have the impression that Islamist intellectuals have been reluctant to marry Islamist principles with Western political norms. In fact, even Arab activists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia more recently have agitated for a constitution, political parties, elections, responsible government, human rights, gender sensitivity, etc. Salman Awda and Abdallah Nasir al-Subayh, both quoted in the book, have advocated a fresh social contract that would accommodate “God as hakim (ruler) and safeguard an individual’s human rights, justice and security”.

To summarise, in response to contemporary political challenges facing the Arab and Muslim people, Salafi-jehadi ideologues, in the well-established Salafi tradition of the past 200 years, have attempted to reconcile their faith with the demands of contemporary times. In their view, their faith, as defined by the first three generations of Islam, is under threat from the allure of a secular order that removes religious belief from the public space, replacing it with materialism and immorality. Linked with this, they see an even more dangerous challenge: that the Islamic realm is in danger of being overwhelmed by Western powers, led by the U.S., that seek to subjugate Muslim lands, plunder their wealth and subvert their political, economic, cultural and spiritual order.

Thus, in their view, Muslims have no choice but to defend themselves from this onslaught, which is being organised by the West with the full connivance of their own tyrannous rulers. The Salafi-jehadi ideologues see a permanent state of confrontation and conflict with these enemies of Islam. They have therefore gone back to the fundamental tenets of their faith and have drawn from them a new belief system that defines the Muslim identity in the narrowest possible terms and sharply separates this Muslim from the apostate and unbelieving “Other”, and by an extraordinary and unprecedented effort of interpretation they have obtained divine sanction for a war that, they believe, permits the use of all instruments of violence against the rest of mankind. The I.S. is the latest movement espousing this belief system.

I.S. literature
Unfortunately, while discussing hakimiyya, Maher does not do justice to the “caliphate” of the I.S., the first instance of a “state” set up by a jehadi group. (The state the Taliban set up in Afghanistan was an “emirate”, and though Mullah Omar referred to himself as “amir ul-momineen”, he did not call himself caliph.) Maher refers to the critics of the I.S. among the jehadi ideologues and, at the beginning of the book, even quotes the I.S. spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani as saying that a meeting of senior scholars had been convened to approve the setting up of the caliphate, but does not provide any insights into this significant development in Salafi-jehadi politics.

For a study of the I.S., we now have a new book by the distinguished West Asia scholar Fawaz Gerges, titled ISIS: A History. This book joins a number of recent works on the I.S. by well-known writers: Abdel Bari Atwan’s Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and David Kilcullen’s Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror. Each of these works provides a distinctive perspective on the I.S.: while Atwan has focussed on the I.S.’ use of social media to lure members, Jessica Stern and Berger have anchored the I.S.’ violence in messianism. Burke has placed the I.S. in the broad tradition of Islamist militancy and ruminated on the various ramifications of the I.S. phenomenon, particularly its outreach to Africa and how it is a source of inspiration for “lone-wolf” jehadis. Finally, while Weiss and Hassan provide a detailed background to the rise of the I.S., Kilcullen is critical of Western efforts to confront this scourge.

So, what new perspectives does Gerges add to the I.S. discourse? At first sight, the book does not make for an easy read: the text is densely packed and the paragraphs are long, sometimes going over two or even three pages. Also, the book could have been better edited; the same ideas, at times the same words, are repeated at different places, suggesting that separate essays have hurriedly been put together. Again, not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between this book and earlier works, particularly with regard to the origins of the I.S., since very little material is available and all writers have to depend on the same sources, many of them of doubtful authenticity.

Still, it is worth putting up with these shortcomings for Gerges has relied mainly on Arabic sources and has personally interviewed a number of people associated with the principal developments and personalities in the narrative. He is particularly good on the complex situation in Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s last years and the U.S. invasion, which spawned the I.S.’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the movement he came to head; the role players in the Iraqi Sahwa movement of 2007-10 that defeated the then Islamic State of Iraq and why its members went over to the I.S. a year later; the I.S.’ ties with Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s era; and, finally, the outlook for this lethal organisation that is reshaping the political order in West Asia.

I.S. and identity politics
The I.S. is of course anchored in mainstream Salafi-jehadism, so much so that its ideologues have satisfied themselves with short pamphlets and have not bothered to produce detailed tracts to explain their thinking as earlier ideologues have done. But, it has also been shaped by specific developments in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, particularly the deliberate U.S. policy of defining Iraqi politics in sectarian terms, which was specifically aimed at promoting divide-and-rule policies rather than building a multicultural and united nation. Hence, as Gerges says, besides the Salafi-jehadi tradition, the I.S. is also influenced by “a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology”.

Gerges points out that the I.S. has sought to distinguish itself from other jehadi groups “by attempting to revive traditions, rituals and practices that have been dormant for over a thousand years in Muslim history”. For instance, it has revived slavery. One of its booklets cites the Prophet’s sayings relating to the treatment of slaves and recommends that female slaves should not be separated from their children, but they can be used for sex and subjected to rape; this has been the plight of several Yazidi women captured by I.S. forces in Iraq. (In fact, Gerges has dedicated his book to the Yazidi women, applauding their courage “in the midst of the sea of savagery”.)

However, while the I.S. may seek sanction for its excesses from ancient sources, Gerges points out that its unrestrained violence has more recent roots, such as the harsh Baathist order of which it is a legatee and the wanton cruelty of its ideological and organisational ancestor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as also generally the deep sense of exclusion, victimhood and sectarian prejudices of its rural cadres.

Like other jehadi groups in the region, the I.S. too has taken advantage of the prevailing political scenario: the U.S.’ divisive politics in Iraq and the robust sectarian approach of the country’s Shia leaders gave rise to a Sunni backlash that spawned the I.S.’ ideological and organisational ancestor, the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), headed by the Afghan veteran and zealot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In spite of this, it is noteworthy that in 2007-10 the Sunni community rose up against the excesses of the Islamic State of Iraq —which had been set up in October 2006 to replace the AQI with a coalition of tribal and insurgent militia, signalling the rupture with Al Qaeda and the aspiration for an Iraqi “state” —and nearly annihilated the jehadi group in the country. However, the robustly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis, tribal chiefs, Saddam Hussein loyalists and resistance militia back to jehad and gave the Islamic State of Iraq a new lease of life.

The ‘caliphate’

In 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq at a time of grave crisis for the movement. Gerges applauds him for his “strategic foresight to transform a fragile organisation on the brink of collapse into a mini-professional army, an army capable of waging urban and guerrilla warfare as well as conventional warfare”.
The I.S. clearly benefited from the breakdown in state order in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, from 2011 onwards, it quietly built up support among the disgruntled Sunnis of Anbar province, from where, in June 2014, it launched its dramatic attack on Mosul, which had about 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, who fled from this city of a million leaving behind their uniforms, the treasury and a frightened population. From the pulpit in Mosul’s main mosque, al-Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate on July 4, 2014.

In Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq began as a small group that tentatively probed the ground situation in late 2011 and within a year emerged as a formidable militia, the Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), by working closely with local communities and providing them with much-needed aid, services, employment and security. In early 2013, al-Baghdadi reclaimed his leadership of this militia from its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, by proclaiming the merger of the two entities. This led to the emergence of the renamed I.S. as a powerful player on the regional stage, and the separate Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that remains focussed on the Syrian theatre, frequently aligning with other Islamic militia in the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. (In the last few weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has announced its formal delinking from Al Qaeda under the new name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [Syrian Victory Front]; this is generally seen as a tactical move to avoid U.S.-led attacks as it is a designated a “terrorist” grouping.)

Led by the charismatic al-Baghdadi, the I.S. by end-2014 had captured huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, the size of the United Kingdom and a population of around eight million. This caliphate had the attributes of a proto-state, with an army of 30,000 men; a top decision-making leadership; a financial organisation that, until last year, had assets estimated at $2 trillion and generated revenues of about $2.9 billion a year; and security, judicial and bureaucratic systems capable of providing law and order, justice, education and municipal services.

Gerges points out that in Iraq and Syria, the I.S. —following its predecessors, the AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq—has built itself up on the support base of a largely rural and small-town constituency. Outside Iraq and Syria, its appeal has emerged from its dramatic military successes and the imaginative declaration of the caliphate. Its main appeal is to Muslim youth in Arab and Western countries. Gerges points out that “the lure of the caliphate …imbues [them] with a greater purpose in life: to be part of a historical mission to restore Islamic unity and help bring about redemption and salvation”. The I.S.’ appeal has had particularly lethal consequences when it has inspired individuals to extraordinary acts of violence merely on the basis of powerful messages sent through the Internet.

The outlook
Today, the I.S. is clearly at a crossroads: while, on the one hand, it has expanded territorially and in influence and a number of major jehadi groups (or their splinter groups) have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, on the other, its successes on the ground and its barbarity have helped unite the U.S., Russia and all the regional states to put together a coalition to crush it militarily. As a result, it has lost about 40 per cent of its territory in Iraq and about 20 per cent in Syria, including some major towns at the Turkish border, to Kurdish forces, which has severely limited the flow of new recruits. However, as the I.S. has lost ground in its home territories, its adherents have fanned out across West Asia, North Africa and Europe to establish new bases and carry out lethal acts of violence against local peoples to terrorise them and demoralise and discredit their governments.

What then is the outlook for the I.S. and, indeed, for Salafi-jehadism in general? Both Maher and Gerges are not particularly reassuring in their responses. Gerges points out that the I.S. “does not offer a positive programme of action, only a bleak future”; its weakest link, he says, is “its poverty of ideas” and opines that over the long term its anti-Shia genocidal ideology “cannot serve as a basis for legitimation”. But, he adds, the I.S. is hardly likely to disappear as a result of military action; it will “mutate and go underground”.

This is because the I.S. and Salafi-jehadism in general have emerged from the “organic crisis” in the Arab political order that is made up of an authoritarianism that is often paternalistic but turns severely tyrannical when challenged, that consists of subjects with no rights of citizenry, that does not foster national unity in an accommodative multicultural way but encourages divisions on ethnic or sectarian basis, that operates in near-total opacity and provides for no accountability regarding state resources or national decision-making, and that provides no opportunity for popular participation in national assemblies or in legislation. It is this political order that imparts resilience to Salafi-jehadism as an alternative idea, a force for dissent and opposition in the sterile cesspool of authoritarian Arab politics and has the advantage of being rooted in the people’s authentic and revered tradition. The I.S., Gerges says, is “a symptom of the broken politics of the Middle East [West Asia]”, particularly after the coalition of autocrats stifled the Arab Spring at birth.

‘Social movement’

Gerges points out that Salafi-jehadism has now “evolved into a powerful social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, worldwide support, theorists, preachers, and networks of recruiters and enablers”. He concludes that regardless of the fortunes of the I.S., this ideology “is here to stay and will likely gain more followers in politically and socially polarised Arab and Muslim societies”. Maher notes that Salafi-jehadism is “extremely resilient” and has survived “three decades of forceful repression”, even when several of its leaders are killed, for it inspires its adherents with the I.S.’ strident slogan: “We remain and we expand.”
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat and the author of Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring.
http://www.frontline.in/books/salafijehadism-and-its-cohorts/article9140379.ece
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
–editor

Salafi-jehadism and its cohorts-TALMIZ AHMAD

Posted by admin On September - 28 - 2016 Comments Off on Salafi-jehadism and its cohorts-TALMIZ AHMAD

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Two books attempt to explain the apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice in the context of the wanton destruction and violence being perpetrated in its name. By TALMIZ AHMAD
ALMOST every day, there are reports of a jehadi organisation perpetrating some atrocity or the other in which several innocent victims are killed or badly injured. Images of widespread carnage at airports, shopping malls, concert auditoria, hotels, restaurants and busy streets fill our television screens while solemn reporters inform us that security agencies suspect this to be an attack by the Islamic State (or I.S., also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) or its local affiliate or even an individual, a “lone wolf”, who was indoctrinated to carry out a suicide attack by I.S. propaganda on social media. Over the past five years, these attacks have led to a beefing up of security organisations and an increase in intrusive security checks at public places and have generated a climate of fear and uncertainty among ordinary people across the world.

This jehadi violence has also inculcated a deep suspicion and distrust of Muslims, who are increasingly being seen as possible terrorists, so much so that they can be offloaded from domestic and international flights if even one of their co-passengers is uncomfortable about their presence. The problem of “Islam” has now become central to the contentious politics of Europe and the United States, with politicians seeking electoral office competing with each other in xenophobic anti-Muslim posturing and proclamations. Most people are just bewildered about how so much wanton destruction can be perpetrated in the name of a world religion, most of whose adherents claim is a faith that preaches moderation, peace and mutual understanding and accommodation. The two books reviewed here attempt to explain this apparent contradiction between Islam’s precept and its practice.

Salafism

Shiraz Maher’s work on Salafi-jehadism is a timely and substantial effort to explain the roots of the ideology of jehad. He traces its principal ideas to their origins in Islam’s first texts, the Quran and the Hadith (the “traditions” of the Prophet Muhammad, referring to his words and actions), and the commentaries of the early scholars, and then explains how jehadi ideologues have reinterpreted these ideas to analyse Muslims’ present-day predicament and provide justification for contemporary confrontations between Islam and its enemies. For, he points out at the outset, the ideology of jehad and its modern-day protagonist, the I.S., “sits within the mainstream tradition of Salafi-Jehadi thought”, but whose roots have been shaped “by the experiences of Sunni Islam over the last century and beyond”.
“Salafism” refers to the thought and conduct of the first three generations of Muslims, a period that roughly covers the first 200 years of Islam. On the basis of a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, these first Muslims are said to reflect the characteristics of the best Muslims and hence are worthy of emulation by later generations in order to realise the perfect Islamic life. Thus, as Maher notes, Salafism provides “an idealised version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity”. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, as Muslims experienced defeat and despair, it is to these “righteous ancestors” that their intellectuals turned, seeking to derive from their words and deeds the ability to cope with the present-day dilemmas of their community through a fresh interpretation of their early conduct and precepts.

Their understanding was of course largely influenced by the political context in which the academics or activists were placed. Thus, their first tracts were impacted on by the experience of colonial domination, while in the 20th century the intellectuals responded to Western control over their political order and, later, the installation of authoritarian rule in most Arab polities, with their rulers suborned by Western powers. The understanding that these intellectuals derived was extraordinarily varied, stretching from the extremely conservative and revivalist to very modern and liberal and accommodative of most of the ideas of Western Enlightenment, but it was rooted in the same concern: how to reconcile the beliefs and precepts of Islam to the needs of modern times.

In terms of their political orientation, these Salafi intellectuals have traditionally been divided into three groups: quietists, those who decry political activism by the citizenry and leave decision-making to the ruler, who is then expected to rule according to Islamic precepts; activists, those who advocate an active role for citizens in shaping their political order on Islamic lines; and jehadis, those who are willing to use violence to realise a society that is based on God’s law. The latter approach is clearly explained in a statement by Al Qaeda, the world’s first transnational jehadi movement: “We believe that the ruler who does not rule in accordance with God’s revelation, as well as his supporters are infidel apostates. Armed and violent rebellion against them is an individual duty on every Muslim.” This category of Salafism is referred to as “Salafi-jehadism”, which is the subject of Maher’s investigation in the book under review.

Salafi-jehadism has had numerous ideologues over the past 70 years who have described its various characteristics on the basis of their interpretation of Islam’s texts and the later commentaries on these texts. In so doing, they frequently stretch the limits of old texts and imbue them with meanings that support their present-day interests, even as they compete vigorously with each other to uphold the value of their own offering.
Five attributes

From this copious body of competitive literature, Maher has derived five attributes that define Salafi-jehadism: jehad; takfir, excommunication of those guilty of apostasy; al-wala al-bara, the concept of “avowal and rejection” for Allah; tawhid, the idea of oneness or unity of God; and hakimiyya, the establishment of Allah’s sovereignty in a political order. Each of these concepts is rooted in Islam and has been discussed by scholars for centuries; what makes them relevant in the context of Salafi-jehadism is the unique meaning that jehadi ideologues have imparted to them. Such meanings have usually been derived in periods of conflict and reflect the sense of being at war with dangerous enemies.

Jehad has been a central part of Islamic faith; rooted in the Arabic term that means labour or struggle or effort, it has traditionally meant the individual’s personal struggle against temptation and sin. But, it has also referred to a struggle against the enemies of Islam to defend the faith from external threat. It is the latter meaning that has motivated jehadis, so much so that their ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) and Abdullah Azzam in the 20th century have placed it as the foremost obligation for a Muslim after belief in Islam. Jehad, Azzam says, should be seen as an “ordinary act of worship” on a par with prayer and fasting. The current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has said that jehad “takes precedence over feeding the hungry, even if the hungry would starve as a result”.

Contemporary thinking on jehad by its ideologues was fine-tuned on the battlefields of Afghanistan during the “global jehad” of the 1980s. It was here that Osama bin Laden and his companions imbued jehad with its fierce anti-Western value, seeing the U.S. in particular as the evil power behind the thrones of the Arab autocrats, a view that was consolidated when the Gulf countries sought Western help to overturn Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Later, as the jehadi assaults on their near and far enemies became more vicious and widespread, the ideologues readily found in Islamic texts justification for the killing of security personnel, government officials, women and children and fellow Muslims. In this war, there were no “innocents”.

Thus, the Quranic injunctions of qisas, the law of equal retaliation, and qital, killing of the protected ones among unbelievers, for which stern rules are provided in traditional texts, have now been expanded to embrace all the victims of jehadi violence on the basis that the West and Arab regimes are the enemies of Islam; hence the killing of all their supporters is divinely sanctioned, so much so that in democratic countries the very act of voting makes the citizens of that nation collectively culpable and hence worthy of annihilation. As Maher has noted: “… it appeared as if Al Qaeda was prepared to develop its own understanding of the rules relating to jehad in such a way that they could license almost anything at all.”

Takfir and tawhid
Similarly, the concept of takfir, declaring a Muslim an apostate, is being used to sanction violence against other Muslims in the name of protecting Islam from unbelievers. Ibn Taymiyya used this idea to vilify the Mongols who had destroyed the Abbasid caliphate and threatened his own home, while 20th century ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb and Shukri Mustafa used it to describe their entire society as un-Islamic and thus make jehad a legitimate weapon against the rulers.

Later, takfir became a potent instrument in jehadi hands after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the country’s jehadis, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, used it to target the Shia community, describing it pejoratively as rafida (rejectionist), those who have left the fold of Islam and are now collaborating with the U.S. occupiers of their country. This was thus a powerful weapon against attempts by U.S. occupation forces to overturn the historical political order in Iraq and empower Shias.

On the same lines, Salafi-jehadis have used the concepts of al-wala al-bara and tawhid as instruments of war, taking them far beyond their original meanings. The former, which referred to “loyalty and disavowal” for the sake of Allah, had traditionally referred to the personal conduct of Muslims. Over the past two centuries, its meaning has expanded steadily to separate the believing and practising Muslim from “the Other”, the non-believer. More recently, ideologues have imparted to it a “muscular and aggressive” character, positing, in the words of Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, that “[t]he Muslim has not openly declared his religion until he opposes every assembly in whatever disbelief it is famous for, while declaring his enmity towards it”.

Similarly, tawhid, which initially merely referred to the oneness or unity of God, has acquired a strong political connotation in that ideologues now insist that it requires not just belief in God’s oneness but that this belief should constantly be manifested in action. This means the rejection of all those actions that constitute association with God or seeking intercession (e.g., of a saint or an amulet or an incantation) to reach God. What the jehadis have done is take this idea to an extreme by insisting that Islam as a “living ideal” demands that acceptance of tawhid inform and be apparent in every action of the Muslim.

For instance, if Western powers are accepted as tyrants, it is the duty of the Muslim to be always in conflict with them; if Arab states are hostile to “godless” communism, they cannot support the interests of communist parties in south Yemen; even Saudi attempts to bring Fatah and Hamas together were not acceptable to Al Qaeda since they were supported by the U.S., thus tainting them as a “secular” U.S. project. Tawhid, thus, has become in jehadi thought “a rigid doctrine of political absolutism” that cannot countenance any compromise or accommodation.

Hakimiyya
This brings Maher to the last attribute of Salafi-jehadism, hakimiyya, the realisation of God’s sovereignty in an Islamic political order. Maher makes the interesting point that this is one idea that is not Salafi in that it is not derived from Islam’s first texts. Also, the idea was not developed in West Asia, like other Salafi-jehadism concepts, but in South Asia. Here, Maher gives due credit to the pioneering contributions of the philosopher-poet Mohammed Iqbal, the ideologue-activist Abul Ala Maududi and the quietist-intellectual Abul Hassan Ali Hasani Nadwi.

The author points out that Nadwi used to translate Maududi’s writings into Arabic, which were then read by Sayyid Qutb. But, Nadwi made his own contribution to Qutb’s thinking by introducing him to the idea of the contemporary Muslim world being in a state of jahilliyya, an age of ignorance, reminiscent of the era that the Prophet Muhammad had corrected with the message of Islam.

Briefly, the concept of hakimiyya posits an Islamic political entity that has God as the sovereign authority, thus providing no space for a constitution, a democratic order or popular sovereignty, all of which suggest a secular system of governance. This approach is thus founded on a sharp separation between an Islamic and a Western political order; indeed, it places the two in confrontation with each other. Maher explains Qutb’s view thus: “Islam would have to survive within its own silo: isolated, distinct, and diametrically estranged from anything other than Islam itself.”

While Salafi-jehadism has thus placed itself in a straitjacket by denying itself any flexibility in shaping its political order, a number of non-jehadi Islamist writers have put forward a wide variety of options to achieve their Islamic state. This is in fact one of the most exciting areas of contemporary Islamist discourse after the debacle of the Arab Spring, when Salafi intellectuals and activists are coming up with ideas to replace the decadent and sterile authoritarian systems in West Asia with alternatives based on new social contracts between rulers and their people, which would provide for participatory forms of government.
Given this background, it is surprising that Maher should assert that “[t]he suspicion of modern politics is perhaps one of the most pervasive and enduring features of Islamic political thought today”, and then go on to say that Arab thinkers, while rejecting their colonial experiences, “were casting aside everything associated with Western political structures”. Maher would have done well to recall that, even as long ago as 1983, Albert Hourani had devoted his book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 to a study of several Arab scholars “who saw the growth of European power and the spread of new ideas as a challenge to which they had to respond by changing their own societies… through acceptance of some of the ideas and institutions of modern Europe”. Later works by Anthony Black, Hamid Enayat, Larbi Sadiki and Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer Nafi discuss Islamic political thought nearer our time. Nowhere do we have the impression that Islamist intellectuals have been reluctant to marry Islamist principles with Western political norms. In fact, even Arab activists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia more recently have agitated for a constitution, political parties, elections, responsible government, human rights, gender sensitivity, etc. Salman Awda and Abdallah Nasir al-Subayh, both quoted in the book, have advocated a fresh social contract that would accommodate “God as hakim (ruler) and safeguard an individual’s human rights, justice and security”.

To summarise, in response to contemporary political challenges facing the Arab and Muslim people, Salafi-jehadi ideologues, in the well-established Salafi tradition of the past 200 years, have attempted to reconcile their faith with the demands of contemporary times. In their view, their faith, as defined by the first three generations of Islam, is under threat from the allure of a secular order that removes religious belief from the public space, replacing it with materialism and immorality. Linked with this, they see an even more dangerous challenge: that the Islamic realm is in danger of being overwhelmed by Western powers, led by the U.S., that seek to subjugate Muslim lands, plunder their wealth and subvert their political, economic, cultural and spiritual order.

Thus, in their view, Muslims have no choice but to defend themselves from this onslaught, which is being organised by the West with the full connivance of their own tyrannous rulers. The Salafi-jehadi ideologues see a permanent state of confrontation and conflict with these enemies of Islam. They have therefore gone back to the fundamental tenets of their faith and have drawn from them a new belief system that defines the Muslim identity in the narrowest possible terms and sharply separates this Muslim from the apostate and unbelieving “Other”, and by an extraordinary and unprecedented effort of interpretation they have obtained divine sanction for a war that, they believe, permits the use of all instruments of violence against the rest of mankind. The I.S. is the latest movement espousing this belief system.

I.S. literature
Unfortunately, while discussing hakimiyya, Maher does not do justice to the “caliphate” of the I.S., the first instance of a “state” set up by a jehadi group. (The state the Taliban set up in Afghanistan was an “emirate”, and though Mullah Omar referred to himself as “amir ul-momineen”, he did not call himself caliph.) Maher refers to the critics of the I.S. among the jehadi ideologues and, at the beginning of the book, even quotes the I.S. spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani as saying that a meeting of senior scholars had been convened to approve the setting up of the caliphate, but does not provide any insights into this significant development in Salafi-jehadi politics.

For a study of the I.S., we now have a new book by the distinguished West Asia scholar Fawaz Gerges, titled ISIS: A History. This book joins a number of recent works on the I.S. by well-known writers: Abdel Bari Atwan’s Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and David Kilcullen’s Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror. Each of these works provides a distinctive perspective on the I.S.: while Atwan has focussed on the I.S.’ use of social media to lure members, Jessica Stern and Berger have anchored the I.S.’ violence in messianism. Burke has placed the I.S. in the broad tradition of Islamist militancy and ruminated on the various ramifications of the I.S. phenomenon, particularly its outreach to Africa and how it is a source of inspiration for “lone-wolf” jehadis. Finally, while Weiss and Hassan provide a detailed background to the rise of the I.S., Kilcullen is critical of Western efforts to confront this scourge.

So, what new perspectives does Gerges add to the I.S. discourse? At first sight, the book does not make for an easy read: the text is densely packed and the paragraphs are long, sometimes going over two or even three pages. Also, the book could have been better edited; the same ideas, at times the same words, are repeated at different places, suggesting that separate essays have hurriedly been put together. Again, not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap between this book and earlier works, particularly with regard to the origins of the I.S., since very little material is available and all writers have to depend on the same sources, many of them of doubtful authenticity.

Still, it is worth putting up with these shortcomings for Gerges has relied mainly on Arabic sources and has personally interviewed a number of people associated with the principal developments and personalities in the narrative. He is particularly good on the complex situation in Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s last years and the U.S. invasion, which spawned the I.S.’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the movement he came to head; the role players in the Iraqi Sahwa movement of 2007-10 that defeated the then Islamic State of Iraq and why its members went over to the I.S. a year later; the I.S.’ ties with Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s era; and, finally, the outlook for this lethal organisation that is reshaping the political order in West Asia.

I.S. and identity politics
The I.S. is of course anchored in mainstream Salafi-jehadism, so much so that its ideologues have satisfied themselves with short pamphlets and have not bothered to produce detailed tracts to explain their thinking as earlier ideologues have done. But, it has also been shaped by specific developments in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, particularly the deliberate U.S. policy of defining Iraqi politics in sectarian terms, which was specifically aimed at promoting divide-and-rule policies rather than building a multicultural and united nation. Hence, as Gerges says, besides the Salafi-jehadi tradition, the I.S. is also influenced by “a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology”.

Gerges points out that the I.S. has sought to distinguish itself from other jehadi groups “by attempting to revive traditions, rituals and practices that have been dormant for over a thousand years in Muslim history”. For instance, it has revived slavery. One of its booklets cites the Prophet’s sayings relating to the treatment of slaves and recommends that female slaves should not be separated from their children, but they can be used for sex and subjected to rape; this has been the plight of several Yazidi women captured by I.S. forces in Iraq. (In fact, Gerges has dedicated his book to the Yazidi women, applauding their courage “in the midst of the sea of savagery”.)

However, while the I.S. may seek sanction for its excesses from ancient sources, Gerges points out that its unrestrained violence has more recent roots, such as the harsh Baathist order of which it is a legatee and the wanton cruelty of its ideological and organisational ancestor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as also generally the deep sense of exclusion, victimhood and sectarian prejudices of its rural cadres.

Like other jehadi groups in the region, the I.S. too has taken advantage of the prevailing political scenario: the U.S.’ divisive politics in Iraq and the robust sectarian approach of the country’s Shia leaders gave rise to a Sunni backlash that spawned the I.S.’ ideological and organisational ancestor, the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), headed by the Afghan veteran and zealot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In spite of this, it is noteworthy that in 2007-10 the Sunni community rose up against the excesses of the Islamic State of Iraq —which had been set up in October 2006 to replace the AQI with a coalition of tribal and insurgent militia, signalling the rupture with Al Qaeda and the aspiration for an Iraqi “state” —and nearly annihilated the jehadi group in the country. However, the robustly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pushed the Sunnis, tribal chiefs, Saddam Hussein loyalists and resistance militia back to jehad and gave the Islamic State of Iraq a new lease of life.

The ‘caliphate’

In 2011, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq at a time of grave crisis for the movement. Gerges applauds him for his “strategic foresight to transform a fragile organisation on the brink of collapse into a mini-professional army, an army capable of waging urban and guerrilla warfare as well as conventional warfare”.
The I.S. clearly benefited from the breakdown in state order in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, from 2011 onwards, it quietly built up support among the disgruntled Sunnis of Anbar province, from where, in June 2014, it launched its dramatic attack on Mosul, which had about 20,000 Iraqi soldiers, who fled from this city of a million leaving behind their uniforms, the treasury and a frightened population. From the pulpit in Mosul’s main mosque, al-Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate on July 4, 2014.

In Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq began as a small group that tentatively probed the ground situation in late 2011 and within a year emerged as a formidable militia, the Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), by working closely with local communities and providing them with much-needed aid, services, employment and security. In early 2013, al-Baghdadi reclaimed his leadership of this militia from its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, by proclaiming the merger of the two entities. This led to the emergence of the renamed I.S. as a powerful player on the regional stage, and the separate Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that remains focussed on the Syrian theatre, frequently aligning with other Islamic militia in the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. (In the last few weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has announced its formal delinking from Al Qaeda under the new name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [Syrian Victory Front]; this is generally seen as a tactical move to avoid U.S.-led attacks as it is a designated a “terrorist” grouping.)

Led by the charismatic al-Baghdadi, the I.S. by end-2014 had captured huge swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, the size of the United Kingdom and a population of around eight million. This caliphate had the attributes of a proto-state, with an army of 30,000 men; a top decision-making leadership; a financial organisation that, until last year, had assets estimated at $2 trillion and generated revenues of about $2.9 billion a year; and security, judicial and bureaucratic systems capable of providing law and order, justice, education and municipal services.

Gerges points out that in Iraq and Syria, the I.S. —following its predecessors, the AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq—has built itself up on the support base of a largely rural and small-town constituency. Outside Iraq and Syria, its appeal has emerged from its dramatic military successes and the imaginative declaration of the caliphate. Its main appeal is to Muslim youth in Arab and Western countries. Gerges points out that “the lure of the caliphate …imbues [them] with a greater purpose in life: to be part of a historical mission to restore Islamic unity and help bring about redemption and salvation”. The I.S.’ appeal has had particularly lethal consequences when it has inspired individuals to extraordinary acts of violence merely on the basis of powerful messages sent through the Internet.

The outlook
Today, the I.S. is clearly at a crossroads: while, on the one hand, it has expanded territorially and in influence and a number of major jehadi groups (or their splinter groups) have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, on the other, its successes on the ground and its barbarity have helped unite the U.S., Russia and all the regional states to put together a coalition to crush it militarily. As a result, it has lost about 40 per cent of its territory in Iraq and about 20 per cent in Syria, including some major towns at the Turkish border, to Kurdish forces, which has severely limited the flow of new recruits. However, as the I.S. has lost ground in its home territories, its adherents have fanned out across West Asia, North Africa and Europe to establish new bases and carry out lethal acts of violence against local peoples to terrorise them and demoralise and discredit their governments.

What then is the outlook for the I.S. and, indeed, for Salafi-jehadism in general? Both Maher and Gerges are not particularly reassuring in their responses. Gerges points out that the I.S. “does not offer a positive programme of action, only a bleak future”; its weakest link, he says, is “its poverty of ideas” and opines that over the long term its anti-Shia genocidal ideology “cannot serve as a basis for legitimation”. But, he adds, the I.S. is hardly likely to disappear as a result of military action; it will “mutate and go underground”.

This is because the I.S. and Salafi-jehadism in general have emerged from the “organic crisis” in the Arab political order that is made up of an authoritarianism that is often paternalistic but turns severely tyrannical when challenged, that consists of subjects with no rights of citizenry, that does not foster national unity in an accommodative multicultural way but encourages divisions on ethnic or sectarian basis, that operates in near-total opacity and provides for no accountability regarding state resources or national decision-making, and that provides no opportunity for popular participation in national assemblies or in legislation. It is this political order that imparts resilience to Salafi-jehadism as an alternative idea, a force for dissent and opposition in the sterile cesspool of authoritarian Arab politics and has the advantage of being rooted in the people’s authentic and revered tradition. The I.S., Gerges says, is “a symptom of the broken politics of the Middle East [West Asia]”, particularly after the coalition of autocrats stifled the Arab Spring at birth.
‘Social movement’

Gerges points out that Salafi-jehadism has now “evolved into a powerful social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, worldwide support, theorists, preachers, and networks of recruiters and enablers”. He concludes that regardless of the fortunes of the I.S., this ideology “is here to stay and will likely gain more followers in politically and socially polarised Arab and Muslim societies”. Maher notes that Salafi-jehadism is “extremely resilient” and has survived “three decades of forceful repression”, even when several of its leaders are killed, for it inspires its adherents with the I.S.’ strident slogan: “We remain and we expand.”

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat and the author of Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring.
http://www.frontline.in/books/salafijehadism-and-its-cohorts/article9140379.ece?homepage=true

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.
–editor

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