Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Egyptian Islamists Join Call for General Strike

"Egyptian Islamists Join Call for General Strike" (Reuters, 29 April 2008). With the Muslim Brotherhood actively participating, this strike is likely to be larger than the 6 April 2008 strike that tried to generalize the Mahalla textile workers' strike. The general strike is to take place on 4 May, the 80th birthday of Hosni Mubarak. 4 May also happens to be my birthday as well. If Muslim Brothers, socialists, liberals, and others can unite and make the strike really big, it will be a great international birthday gift for me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Slavoj Žižek: "Let's Not Dwell in Safe Illusions"

This interview ought to be translated into Persian:
AMY GOODMAN: This is a radio and a television and an internet show, broadcasting all at the same time. We showed, during Charlie Haden's music break, coverage of Prague in '68. This had an enormous influence on you. For an audience who would not even know what those two connections are -- Prague '68 -- explain what happened. And where were you?

SLAVOJ ZIZEK: It's like, by chance, I was very young at that point. I was in Prague. But OK, so that we don’t lose time -- there is something really tragic about Prague '68, namely -- let's be very frank, and it's something very hard to swallow for a leftist. What if the Soviet intervention was a blessing in disguise? It saved the myth that if the Soviets were not to intervene, there would have been some flowering authentic democratic socialism and so on. I'm a little bit more of a pessimist there. I think that the Soviets -- it's a very sad lesson -- by their intervention, saved the myth. Imagine no Soviet intervention. In that ideological constellation, it would have been either, sooner or later, just joining the West or, nonetheless, at a certain point, the government is still in power, would have to put the brakes. It's always the same story. It's the same in -- now you see my conservative, skeptical leftist side.

It’s the same in China, Tiananmen. I will tell you something horrible. Imagine the Communists in power giving way to the demonstrators. I claim -- it's very sad things to say, but if Tiananmen demonstrations were to succeed, like the Communist Party allowing for true democratic reforms and so on, it would have been probably a chaos in China. No, I'm not saying now that we should opt for dictatorship or some kind of a strong arm as the only solution; just let's not dwell in safe illusions.

I think all too often today's left falls into this play, which is why they like to lose. And I think this is the original sin of the left, from the very beginning. I -- and I still consider myself, I'm sorry to tell you, a Marxist and a Communist, but I couldn’t help noticing how all the best Marxist analyses are always analyses of a failure. They have this incredible -- like, why did Paris Commune go wrong? Trotskyites. Why did the October Revolution go wrong? And so on. You know, this deep satisfaction -- OK, we screwed it up, but we can give the best theory why it had to happen. I mean, this is what my title, the title of tonight's talk, implicitly refers to, this comfortable position of resistance. Don't mess with power. This is today's slogan of the left. Don't play with power. Power corrupts you. Resist, resist, withdraw and resist from a safe moralistic position. I found this very sad. ("'Everybody in the World Except US Citizens Should Be Allowed to Vote and Elect the American Government' -- Leading Intellectual Slavoj Žižek," Democracy Now!, 11 March 2008)

"Free Tibet" Flags Made in China

Capitalism has a way of making a mockery of nationalism, Chinese or Tibetan: "'Free Tibet' Flags Made in China" (BBC, 28 April 2008).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

May Day in Turkey

Keep an eye on Turkey on May Day: "Government, Unions Split over May 1 Celebrations" (Turkish Daily News, 23 April 2008); "Massive Preparation for the 1st of May amidst Threats of the Prime Minister" (Atılım, 23 April 2008); and "Turk Unions Firm on May 1 Celebration in Taksim" (Hurriyet, 25 April 2008).

This is a potentially big turning point for labor in Turkey. The turnout is likely to be very large. What might be the outcome?

1. The AKP, threatened with a closure case, may feel it is not in its interest to employ harsh measures of repression; the "deep state" may think that this May Day, for once, will be useful for it may help check the AKP. If that's the case, workers can exploit this opportunity and de facto regain the right to assemble in Taksim Sqaure. A significant victory for labor.

2. The "deep state" may think that a big May Day rally presents it with a perfect opportunity to create chaos and check both labor and the AKP.

A Model Occupation

In the last couple of decades,1 advocates for war, sanctions, boycotts, and other measures on the human rights and humanitarian grounds have become a politically significant presence on the broadly defined Left in the USA and Western Europe (inflated during the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the final push for independence of East Timor, a little deflated since the Iraq War, but re-flated through Darfur, Tibet, etc.).

This current of thought is not non-existent in Japan. However, it has been a much smaller and much less politically significant current in Japan than in the USA and Western Europe.

There are various reasons for this difference.

1. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: being on the receiving side of atomic bombs has a way of encouraging pacifism and discouraging militarism, at least among leftists.

2. Japanese leftists, unlike American and European leftists, do not have a memory of being on the "right side" of a "Good War" in their "people's history." So, there is no ready-made narrative structure in which would-be pro-war leftists in Japan could easily marry militarism with humanitarianism and human rights advocacy. Besides, Japan is economically of the West but not culturally of the mythical West (whose narrative goes "from the birth of democracy in Athens to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment to liberal democracy of universal human rights," the narrative that is attractive not just to the Right but also to the Left, which may position itself as the better defender of the Enlightenment than the Right), so leftists in Japan cannot easily see themselves as protagonists in this dominant narrative of humanitarian imperialism.

3. Till very recently, the Liberal Democratic Party had had a de facto one party state in Japan. The Left in Japan being a minor force that has not had a chance of becoming a governing party or a member of a governing coalition, there has also been much less temptation to opportunism for them than those parties and intellectuals in Europe and the USA who could become, and sometimes did become, part of the establishment by joining center-left parties. (This may change sometime in the near future, with the ascendancy of the Democratic Party in Japan.)

4. The Communist Party, albeit no longer Marxist, has remained a mass party in Japan, more or less hegemonic over left-wing political culture in the country, not only directly but also through its numerous affiliate institutions and publications, in a way that Communists in the USA and Western Europe have not been especially since the long Sixties.

5. After WW2, both the Left and the Right of Japan renounced any ambition to develop their own foreign policies: the Left by embracing the "Peace Constitution"; the Right by always deferring to Washington. They embraced the defeat, as John W. Dower says.

This last fact has both positive and negative aspects for leftists in Japan. There is no big constituency for assertive liberal imperialism in Japan, which is good for the Left. However, by accepting what the occupier imposed on the Japanese, the Left in Japan has failed to develop a political culture of republicanism and democracy, which is not only bad for itself but also bad for the rest of the country.

That failure also has had unforeseen consequences for people in the global South. The Japanese Left's acceptance of the occupation -- seeking "to turn the conqueror's democratic revolution peaceably into a socialist one" under the leadership of a "lovable Communist Party" in the early post-war years (John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, pp. 255-256) -- has encouraged those on the broadly defined Left in the USA to look back nostalgically upon the occupation of Japan as a model occupation, good for the conscience of the occupier and good for the welfare of the occupied, a model which makes them think, "If we had done it the way it was done in Japan, we could have succeeded in Iraq" (blaming the Bush White House for its "tactical errors"), or "If Iraq had been like Japan, the occupation could have worked" (blaming the Iraqis for their "underdevelopment"). Therefore, no matter how disastrous the occupation of Iraq becomes, it doesn't curb the enthusiasm for other interventions, for the myth of the model occupation tells them seductively: select the right target and employ the right tactics, and you will be a liberator again.

Here's a dialectical irony: humanitarian imperialism has failed to grow on the Left in Japan; but its growth on the Left in the USA and Europe may very well have been copiously fertilized by the post-war choices made by the Japanese Left.

1 To be sure, there had always existed both imperialist and anti-imperialist political currents on the broadly defined Left. Liberalism, social democracy, and socialism all had politico-economic theories that could lend themselves to either current. For imperialist liberals and social democrats, imperialism brings capitalist development, which in turn, especially if it is tempered by reforms, fosters social and cultural development; for imperialist socialists, imperialism, by dissolving feudal barriers and dispossessing peasants, can hasten the day when the gravediggers of capitalism, the proletariat, are born on the world scale. A relatively broad anti-imperialist consensus at the height of anti-colonial struggles in the twentieth century may have been a historical anomaly.

Friday, April 25, 2008

25 April 1974: The Carnation Revolution in Portugal

Listen to José Alfonso's song "Grândola, Vila Morena," the song that announced Portugal's Revolução dos Cravos (Carnation Revolution) thirty-four years ago today.

Carlos Saura's Fados features scenes of the Carnation Revolution accompanied by this song near the end of the film, suggesting that working-class experiences of dispossession and displacement expressed in fados, a musical genre which, like blues and tango, originated in the process of industrialization and working-class migration in the nineteenth century, could, and sometimes did, culminate in revolution.

Back to Coal

Has the oil supply crunch motivated the ruling classes to undertake major efforts at conservation? Far from it:
Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades. (Elizabeth Rosenthal, "Europe Turns Back to Coal, Raising Climate Fears," New York Times, 23 April 2008)
That's Europe, the bastion of environmentalism. I'm afraid that climate change is an issue over which working classes, especially those in the South, have already lost even before getting involved in the fight.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Republicanism, Irish and Iranian

Listen to "The Foggy Dew," sung by The Wolfe Tones, in commemoration of the Easter Rising (24 April 1916). The song's lyrics contrasts Irishmen who served on the British side in the Battle of Gallipoli with Irish republicans who fought against the British Empire:
Right proudly high over Dublin Town
          they flung out the flag of war
'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky
          than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar . . .
'Twas England bade our wild geese go,
          that "small nations might be free";
But their lonely graves are by Suvla's waves
          or the fringe of the great North Sea.
Oh, had they died by Pearse's side
          or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their graves we'd keep where the Fenians sleep,
          'neath the shroud of the foggy dew.

An Irish friend of mine in Belfast, James Daly, told me: "By the way, the Iranians sent a plaque to the family of my friend Patsy O'Hara commemorating his hunger strike to the death."

Intrigued, I looked up more signs of Iranian identification with Irish republicanism. Here's the most eloquent: Iranian revolutionaries renamed "Churchill Street" -- the street behind the British Embassy -- "Bobby Sands Street" (Pedram Moallemian, "Naming Bobby Sands Street," The Blanket, 24 February 2004). Despite the British government's pressures on the Iranians to change the name again, the street remains dedicated to the memory of the Irish revolutionary.

Neither in Iran nor in Ireland have the highest revolutionary goals been achieved yet. But the flames of republicanism are still alive in the finest of their men and women. Tiocfaidh ár lá. Our day will come.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nasser Zarafshan, "The Third Side Also Exists: Regarding the Likely American Attack on Iran"

The Third Side Also Exists:
Regarding the Likely American Attack on Iran

by Nasser Zarafshan

In the current conflict over Iran, the most important question is what America's real goal in Iran and the Middle East is.  Why?  Because, as long as we don't have a certain and reliable answer to this question, as long as we don't know what the opponent's hidden real purpose in this crisis is, we are incapable of figuring out what is to be done, in other words, incapable of collectively taking the correct position on this situation. 

The American foreign policy leaders' claim in this situation is very simple.  They say that the objective of the American interference in this region is to spread democracy and human rights.  Based on this claim, the social order that is currently dominant in the world, whose hegemon is America, pretends that there is no ulterior motive or interest and that there is nothing behind its interference.  Pro-Americans in Iran and the region, too, naively repeat the same claim.  However, does everyone in Iran and the region share the same naive interpretation of the matter?  Below -- to the extent that space in this short article allows -- I will try to answer this question.  But there is another question, too: when rights and freedoms of a nation are negated and trampled upon and its progress and development are blocked due to the domination of reactionaries, is it the duty of a destructive foreign power to restore this nation's rights and freedoms and open the gate of progress and development?  Where in history is there an instance of a foreign power, instead of the nation in question itself, doing any such thing?

Those who encourage foreign interference do not understand its implications and have no idea about the impacts of war on people's lives.  They propagandize a vulgar formula that insinuates that anyone who opposes war and foreign interference is in support of the Islamic Republic.  There is no evidence for such a claim.  Those who insist on it do so in order to "terrorize" the opponents of war and foreign interference and hide their own worship of foreign powers behind it.

My position on the Islamic Republic is clear.  However, I wish to remind those who mistakenly believe the aforementioned formula that the conflict in the current situation cannot be reduced to only two sides, i.e., the American government and the Islamic Republic.  In this conflict there exists a third side: those who apparently are supposed to remain voiceless and helpless victims, even though they are the ones who will pay the price and suffer injury.  This third side are the people of Iran, and I will attempt to look at the situation from their point of view.

Society has its own existence distinct from diverse political systems that govern it.  Political systems come and go in a short period of time -- what remains is society.  No one should let society be destroyed because of its government.  We must deal with the problem from the point of view of the people and their historical destiny.  The war in which both sides -- the American government and the Islamic Republic -- are interested will bring the people nothing but death, slaughter, ruin, distress, destruction of economic infrastructure and national wealth, famine, poverty, indigence, disease, and aggravation of existing hardships.  No matter which side starts the war, only the Iranian people will pay the price.  That is why I want to hold up a mirror to those who naively and foolishly desire foreign interference, so that they can understand what they are shamelessly propagandizing.

However, in addition to them, I also want to speak to the masses of common people who are made desperate by oppression.  Among them, too, an idea is gaining influence, the idea that foreign interference could be an opportunity.  Evidently, the idea is that they should wait for a better day that will come at the expense of others and that they can enjoy freedom without themselves paying any price for it.  That is dead wrong.  Those who naively seek to gain a better future at others' expense are doomed to suffer greatly.  How can anyone believe that a nation halfway around the world will come to the Middle East and sacrifice its own people and national treasure so that another nation can enjoy democracy and human rights?  Once we reject such a naive belief, we must then look for the real goals and motives of this foreign interference.

There is a subtle but very important point that few notice (which is a source of great confusion): the fact that the will of the Iranian people is to establish a democratic system in this country, to maintain their rights and freedoms, and to open the path to development has nothing to do with the American strategy that sees the Middle East as a crucial part of its game.  In other words, America doesn't come to the Middle East to restore the rights of the Iranian people but to control oil and change the political geography of the region by military force in accordance with its neoliberal strategy.

However, a society that is always waiting to see what others decide for it is an immature society that doesn't believe in itself, a society that doesn't believe that it can make its own decision and it has its destiny in its own hands.  Many of those who are sitting in comfortable places criticize the struggle waged, and political choices made, by the past generation under the Shah's regime.  They do not realize that the generation they criticize had a serious faith that they could change their own society, or else they wouldn't have taken to the streets even at the cost of ultimate sacrifices.  If that generation were defeated in trying to achieve their ideals, at least they fought and were defeated.  Today's generation have lost the courage to fight and are waiting for miracles made by others.  In every battle there is a possibility of victory and defeat.  The previous generation had the maturity and ability to fight, believed in their own power to change life, and embarked upon their struggle.  Today's generation are looking to others for help, not having attained the maturity to recognize themselves as makers of history who must take sides in a battle.  When they think of changing a social system, the horizon of change seems to them so far away that they think it might as well be on another planet.  Is the art of making students mere passive consumers of neoliberal nonsense who are enamored of America, forgetting the previous generation's struggle, the only art of some of the religious intellectuals who, given voice and privilege by this government, have dominated the currents of ideas and student movements over the last couple of decades?

For anyone who has a passing familiarity with imperialism, its past and its interests, it is not hard to discover the real motives of the current interference.  However, the naive opinion of those sectors who are waiting for America to determine their destiny is spoon-fed by the imperialist media (radio, satellite television, journals), and imperialists are in turn using this environment to create a pretext for their interference and to spread their influence.  If knowledge and opinions of common people and even our activists are so politically shallow and propagandistic, if they understand the recent US invasion in the Middle East based only on its legal and political excuses (i.e., problems of democracy and human rights), the reason is that, in the neoliberal environment during the last two decades, society has not received enough information about the politics and interests of the imperialist system.

However, the capitalist system is first of all an economic system, which is a mode of production, trade, capital export, and profit making, not a legal and political system.  The "Washington Consensus" is the name for the new strategy of international financial capital that is dominant in the current system of capitalism.  This economic system is driven by big capitalists' interests and managed through such apparatuses as the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.  For this strategy to work, it requires a neoliberal world.  However, there is a contradiction in the system -- contradiction between international capital's needs to keep profit rates high and sovereign nations that have different kinds of markets, resources, and workforces.  Because international capital wants to go anywhere in the world, pursue its activity freely, and have access to other nations' markets, resources, and workforces, national borders are becoming its obstacles.

Economic pressures that such institutions as the IMF, the WB, and the WTO put on various countries to make them conform to their neoliberal strategy (e.g., Structural Adjustment Programs) and political and military pressures exercised by capitalist powers exist for the purpose of opening up their markets and changing political systems for more profits of international capital.

Removing the trade obstacles, contrary to what neoliberals say, does not increase national incomes, and, even in the best of times, it creates more poverty and inequality than ever before.  Research by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank shows that, by 1998, the income of the richest one percent had become equal to that of the poorest 57 percent of the world population.  At the same time, the GINI index climbed to 0.66 (The Guardian, 18 January 2002).  There is a great deal of research and statistics that prove that the neoliberal propaganda, which says neoliberal policies help development, is a myth.  In addition, financial markets' domination and hidden maneuvers therein create unexpected economic instability on the world scale.  Nations and regions that had adopted the neoliberal strategy more thoroughly than others incurred heavier damage than them.  Mexico of 1994-95, East Asia of 1997-98, Russia of 1998, and Argentina of 2001 are so far the most prominent victims of financial collapses of "emerging markets," the type of collapse that is now considered one of the fundamental characteristics inherent in this kind of market.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR)1 compared the concrete results of the period of globalization (i.e., from 1980 to 2000) and those of the preceding two decades characterized by Keynesian demand management (from 1960 to 1980), based on numerous indicators such as per capita GDP, average life expectancy, neonatal, infant, and adult mortality rates, and literacy rates of total and student populations.  Alex Callinicos described and analyzed CEPR research findings in detail in his book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto.2  The conclusions of this research, from the point of view of economic growth and in terms of almost all other indicators, demonstrate that the period of globalization represented a clear decline compared to the preceding two decades.

John Weeks in his article "Globalize, Globa-lize, Global Lies: Myths of the World Economy in the 1990s,"3 also based on the findings of such research, states his own conclusion as follows:
the country groups that introduced the globalization policies to the greatest degree fared least well in the 1990s relative to previous decades (the OECD, the Latin American and the sub-Saharan countries); the best performing group since 1960, East and South-East Asia, entered into a severe recession in the 1990s; and the group whose growth improved in the 1990s without recession, South Asia, was that which least adopted policies of deregulation, trade liberalization and decontrol of the capital account.  The hypothesis that those policies foster growth is unconfirmed; that is, it is a myth of globalization.
The new strategy of neoliberalism is especially damaging for weaker economies: opening these poorer countries to financial capitals makes them suffer severe losses.  That is because these financial capitals, without playing any role of consequence in production, strangle their economies by speculative methods.

With new "financial instruments" using innovative methods, revenues of financial capital in general, as well as in "emerging markets," have soared in the last two decades, particularly in the most fraudulent and parasitical fashion that has ever been witnessed in economic history.  This economic order works through the channel of capital flows in stock markets and market activities of international credit (the channel in which sovereign debts of nations are bought and sold and in which debtor nations come under pressure and are every day exposed to damage).  Activities of financial capital are different from production and trade.  Rather, they constitute an open space for dishonest, speculative financial maneuvers whose practical instruments are securities and "financial derivatives," i.e., pieces of paper that frequently are not backed by clear assets in real economy and that are merely means of obtaining unearned incomes through gambling.  When we set aside verbal contortions and similar theoretical justifications that are forged for this kind of gamble, financial capital, in its simple truth, is a swindle, which, using its tricks of the trade, attracts and appropriates a great share of economic wealth produced by others in the sphere of production in which it plays no direct role.

Financial capital, which in itself is not productive but is voracious for greater profits than productive capital, endeavors to turn any chance -- even bets on future environmental vicissitudes -- into financial properties and securities, which can be bought and sold and serve as objects of speculation.  The terminus of operation of these "value-producing securities" for the last two decades is Enron Energy -- one of the financial monsters of the neoliberal era -- among other financial apparatuses, which even made an innovation of future weather and turned it into a means of profit making.  The fate of this company, one of the Wall Street darlings of the golden age of neoliberalism, is an exemplary specimen of the totality of activities of financial capital today.
The valuation of the shares of this company [Enron] at stock markets went from 70 billion dollars to virtually zero within a year.  This company, by wasting its own workers' savings and risking the destruction of the retirement savings of millions of other workers which had made Enron's capital flow enormous, is representative of a shadowy and intricate spider web of swindlers, spreading from the headquarters of big corporations, via the banking, accounting, and insurance industries, all the way to Washington.  It was discovered that at least 212 of 248 members of Congress who served on the committees that officially audited and investigated this financial scandal had taken money from Enron or the disgraced accounting firm tied to it, i.e. Arthur Andersen.
That, in sum, is a perfect picture of the system of neoliberalism, which, whether by economic pressures or political and military pressures, is spreading and imposing itself throughout the world.

Aggression to eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of spreading the neoliberal order and to remake the world according to it is employed in the name of democracy and human rights.  However, freedom and democracy, essentially, can only result from the historical development of a social and economic order and the development of people that accompanies it.  Freedom and democracy are not commodities that can be detached from a given social order and imported, let alone brought by force, from abroad.  Those who are looking for a freedom "imported" by force have not understood anything about its essential meaning.

Pondering upon the corrupt and parasitic essence of financial capital and its means of profit making that in the era of globalization have come to hold such a sway over the whole capitalist world order, one is reminded of Lenin, whose emphasis was on the essence of financial capital.  I have comrades who once played a child's game with Lenin and Leninism two or three decades ago and who, having had second thoughts about their own former Leninist positions after a decade or two of political exile abroad, now preach the path of capitalist development.  If they, in their youth of Lenin and Leninism, had understood the meaning of Lenin's thought, which said that "capitalism in the era of imperialism, because of the emergence of financial oligopoly and financial capital's predominance, is parasitic and tends toward corruption," today, when the functions of this financial capital are more obviously in accordance with Lenin's thought than ever before, they would not have so easily strayed from their former positions.  They neither grasped what Lenin really meant in those days, nor do they understand today what the path of capitalist development means and where unregulated capitalism will end up.

It's common enough to think that neoliberalism is seeking to impose its reign over half the world, but, in the case of the Middle East in particular, the problem of oil and its importance for future transformations of world economy eclipse all other concerns.  In this respect, the Middle East is among the most sensitive strategic areas for the United States as the global power.

War for control of energy resources is not a simple matter.  The USA dominates the Middle East not only because this region is very important for itself, but also because it wants to subordinate China -- an emergent, growing power -- and Europe and Japan to a US-controlled oil regime in the Middle East, the most vital region for meeting their increasing energy needs.  Since the USA consumes more than 25% of the world oil production but, even combined with Canada, has only little more than 3% of the world's known oil reserves, this policy is understandable.  Donald Kagan, a right-wing political pundit and Yale University professor, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, offered an opinion that clearly and succinctly explained the point: "When we have economic problems, it's been caused by disruptions in our oil supply.  If we have a force in Iraq, there will be no disruption in oil supplies."4

Pay attention to the reality that, even combined with Canada, the USA, for all its weight and importance in the transformation of the world, has only 3% of the world's known oil reserves; that Western Europe, for all its function and importance in world economy, has only 2% of the world's known oil reserves; that Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which for 50 years didn't need to import a single drop of oil, together have only 7% of the world's known oil reserves; but that the Middle East is the place that by itself has 65% of the aforementioned reserves.  Then, the importance of this region and the essence of political crises therein are better revealed (according to the chart in the appendix inserted in a 1 January 2001 estimate of "World Proved Reserves of Oil and Natural Gas" and the editorial of the December 2002 issue of Monthly Review,5 this region seems even more significant).  Further, pay attention to the reality that, based on the forecast of the US Department of Energy in 2002, the world oil demand, in the next 20 years, will rise from 77 million barrels per day (as of the time of the forecast) to 120 million barrels per day, whose consumption increase will be mainly driven by the USA and China, and all angles of the issue will become clear.  Of course, in any stage of the history of the capitalist order, diverse economic, political, and military interests and considerations exercise reciprocal influences over one another, for they have and will act as a totality.  However, the problem of oil in the Middle East is not just an economic question.  In addition to the prospect of making profits, which is among the great concerns of big capitalist corporations, political and strategic considerations concerning this region, too, exist behind each influence of the oil question.

Given the above, naive and simplistic ideas about the current issues or facile and careless thoughts about social liberation have heavy consequences.  My fear is that, by the time their repercussions and consequences are fully understood, it will be already too late to prevent war.  Therefore, now is the time for all humanists who love Iran to set aside chimerical notions and, with one voice, oppose war and all who are clamoring for military adventurism, for, under the current conditions, there can be nothing except aggravation of oppression and repression and anti-democratic retrogression for the Iranian people.


1  Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker, Egor Kraev, and Judy Chen, "The Scorecard on Globalization 1980-2000; 20 Years of Diminished Progress," July 2001.

2  Alex Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

3  John Weeks, "Globalize, Globa-lize, Global Lies: Myths of the World Economy in the 1990s," Phases of Capitalist Development: Booms, Crises and Globalizations, Eds, Robert Albritton, Makoto Itoh, Richard Westra, and Alan Zuege, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

4  Qtd. in Jay Bookman, "The President's Real Goal in Iraq," Atlanta-Journal Constitution, 29 September 2002.

5  "U.S. Imperial Ambitions and Iraq," Monthly Review 54.7, 2002.

Dr. Nasser Zarafshan is a member of the Iranian Writers' Association Kanoon and a distinguished member of the Iranian Bar Association.  He was arrested in 2000 for his speech indicting the intelligence services for murdering five intellectuals in 1998.  He was sentenced in 2002 to five years of imprisonment.  He was released on 16 March 2007.  The original essay in Persian was published in Aftab on 11 November 2007 and Roshangari on 25 November 2007.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What Do Iranians Think of Sharia and Women's Rights?

Recently, I ran in MRZine an excerpt from the latest World Public Opinion poll ("Public Opinion in Iran: With Comparisons to American Public Opinion," 7 April 2008) about Iranians' perceptions of their government: "What Do Iranians Think of Their Own Government?" (12 April 2008).

The poll results, which showed a high level of popular support for the government as well as Iranians' desire to make it more democratic, are very much contested by a number of Iranians on the far Left, for whom Iran is a republic of fear whose citizens cannot possibly reveal their true opinions frankly to any pollster. Iranian far leftists would rather believe: "A silent majority exists in Iran and beneath that silence lies a deep hatred for this regime" (Mohammad Alireza, "Are You Prepared for Some Truth?", 15 March 2008).

Now, capitalism, based on ineradicable contradiction between capital and labor, cannot but breed latent discontent with exploitation and other oppressions that it creates or aggravates, not just in Iran but in all countries, including ones run by socialists. That, however, doesn't mean that such latent discontent is everywhere always close to the surface, about to erupt into an articulate mass opposition to the regime in power but for political repression.

Under all but revolutionary circumstances,1 discontent doesn't easily crystalize into a feeling as clear, simple, and powerful as "hatred." Rather, popular consciousness is very much complex. If Iranian leftists take a close look at the complexity of popular consciousness, rather than thinking without evidence that most Iranians, albeit silently, already stand where they stand, they can find in it much they can work with.

One of the notable findings of the aforementioned World Public Opinion poll, contradictory as it may seem from a typical leftist point of view, is that Iranians are largely in favor of both sharia (Islamic law) and gender equality (see pp. 24 and 26, excerpted below). The findings suggest that a majority of Iranians interpret Islamic law in a way that is promising for a Left that is not Islamophobic: as a populist ideological weapon against capitalist excesses rather than as a means to rigidly curtail personal freedom -- except in such areas as drinking, gambling, and prostitution, the latter two of which most socialists generally do not favor -- and severely punish social transgressions. Far from a basis to discriminate against women, Islamic law as it is interpreted by most Iranians, men as well as women, may very well be a standard of judgment according to which the government is not doing enough to promote gender equality.

The word sharia brings to the minds of typical Westerners only gender discrimination that exists in the dominant interpretations of it in the area of family law. Hence sensational sharia controversies in such nations as Britain and Canada, on the grounds that sharia is incompatible with liberalism. As a matter of fact, though, historically, liberalism has accommodated sharia, for instance in the name of inter-communal equality, by allowing religious minorities to put sharia into practice in the aspects of social existence such as family law where sharia presents no threat to its material and cultural underpinnings, for example in India, which is nowadays promoted by the empire as a model of Third-World liberal democracy.

If modern religions in many nations often seem more obsessed with sex than social and economic justice (to the chagrin of religious leftists and to the schadenfreude of many secular liberals and leftists), even though many of the texts regarded as sacred by them have much more to say about the latter than the former, that is because capitalist modernity allows religion to flourish only as a guardian of personal morality, abdicating its claim to be a principle that governs a whole way of life, just as it tends to reduce Marxism from a social movement aiming at communist society to a research method in academia.

Sharia ideologically challenges liberalism and materially limits capitalism only if it becomes a principle of Islamic republican liberty and virtue, as it did in justifying sweeping nationalization of private means of production in the early days of Iran's Islamic Revolution (the nationalization that went much further than Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has gone and is likely to go -- we live in different times2).

Since then the Islamic Republic has become less and less Islamic, both for better and worse: it has gradually moved away from Islamic republican liberty and virtue, slowly liberalizing culture and society and re-privatizing the means of production, especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian leftists, in Iran as well as in the diaspora, have yet to figure out a coherent response to this Janus-faced tendency of the neoliberal stage of capitalism, which brings social and cultural liberalization in part as a byproduct of economic liberalization, not just as a response to pressures, inside and outside the state, from below. Listening carefully to what ordinary Iranians have to say about Islam, I submit, is the first step in creating an alternative that is conscious of the limits of both populism and liberalism and potentially capable of overcoming them.

1 The intertwined energy and food crises that are rapidly developing on the global scale have the potential to create uprisings that can topple all manner of governments in the Third World, across the ideological spectrum, especially of countries that neither produce oil nor have sought to develop agriculture. See, for instance, Sateh Noureddine, "Food Crises" (As-Safir, 8 April 2008). Inflation in Iran today is a relatively mild symptom of this global malaise. Iran's Islamo-Leninists learned a lesson from what the neglect of agriculture did to the Shah's regime: Iran, once a food exporter, became a food importer under the Shah, and higher world food prices in the 1970s, due to higher energy prices and poor Soviet harvests, aggravated people's discontent (cf. Robert K. Schaeffer, Understanding Globalization: The Social Consequences of Political, Economic, and Environmental Change, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, p. 258); and they have taken care to develop it as much as they can in an oil state: "Follow-up of the Implementation of the World Food Summit Plan of Action, National Report: Islamic Republic of Iran" (7 May 2006). Iran has achieved self-sufficiency in wheat -- just in time for the world food crisis -- and can now even export surplus, for instance to Egypt: Will Hadfield, "Grain Exports in Iran Set to Double with State Support" (14 March 2008). Whether that, combined with high oil prices, suffices for regime stability remains to be seen.

2 Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval write in "The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years": "As can be seen in Table 1, the private sector has grown faster than the public sector over the last 8 years, and therefore the private sector is a bigger share of the economy in 2007 than it was before President Chávez took office" (July 2007, p. 6). In contrast, one neoliberal critic of Iran put it disapprovingly: "Semi-official estimates put the private-sector share of the national economy at between 15 to 20 percent. This made the Islamic state a mixed capitalist-socialist economy predominantly under clerical control" (Akbar Karbassian, "Islamic Revolution and the Management of the Iranian Economy," Social Research, Summer 2000). That is the aspect of Iran's Islamic Revolution that not only the empire but also Iran's own ruling class, committed to re-privatization of nationalized means of production, has been seeking to undo.

What Do Iranians Think of Sharia and Women's Rights?

Large majorities of Iranians endorse the principle that women should have equal rights with men and that over the course of their own lifetimes, women have gained greater rights. A large majority says that the government should act to prevent discrimination against women. A modest majority also supports the United Nations working to further women’s rights.

Three out of four Iranians say it is important for "women to have full equality of rights compared to men," with 44 percent saying this is very important. Very few (8%) said this was "not very important" or "not important at all."

Importance of Equal Rights for Women

Most perceive that women have gained greater rights. Respondents were asked to think back over the course of their own lifetimes and say whether, "compared to the rights men have in this society," women now have more equality or not. Seventy-five percent said they thought women had more equality today (39% "much more," 36% "a little more").

Most Iranians believe that the government has a responsibility to counteract discrimination against women. Asked, "Do you think the government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women, or that the government should not be involved in this kind of thing?" 70 percent said government should make such an effort, and only 18 percent said government should not be involved.

Those who said that government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women were then asked, "Do you think the government is doing enough to prevent discrimination…or do you think it should do more?" The larger number (36% of the full sample) said the government should be doing more than it is, while a quarter (of the full sample) thought the government is doing enough.

A modest majority supports the United Nations working to further women's rights -- even when given a counterargument implying that this could be intrusive for Iran. Asked whether "the UN should make efforts to further the rights of women, or do you think this is improper interference in a country’s internal affairs?" Fifty-two percent supported the UN taking such a role, while 36 percent saw it as a form of interference.

Interestingly, differences between men and women on these questions were quite modest. The number of men and women saying that that women should have full equality were statistically the same, though the percentage saying this is very important was higher among women (51%) than men (38%). While men and women are largely the same in perceiving that women have gained greater equality, 46 percent of men as compared to 33 percent of women thought women have gained much greater equality. Thirty-nine percent of women and 33 percent of men thought the government should make greater efforts against discrimination. There was no meaningful difference between men and women in their support for the United Nations playing a role to further women’s rights.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Only a small minority wants to reduce the role of Shari'a in the way Iran is governed, but only one in three favor increasing its role. Only one in three favor punishing an Iranian who converts from Islam to another religion. The highest priorities in the application of Shari’a are preventing usury and providing welfare to the poor. Applying severe physical punishments is a low priority, but still endorsed by half.

When asked whether "Shari'a should play a larger role, a smaller role, or about the same role as it plays today" in the way Iran is governed, only 14 percent wanted Shari’a to play a smaller role. However, only a third wanted it to play a larger role (34%). Nearly half preferred to hold the status quo on Shari’a (45%).

Only one in three Iranians favor punishing an Iranian Muslim who converts to another religion. Asked, "Do you think that the government should or should not punish an Iranian citizen who converts from Islam to a non-Muslim religion?" 32 percent said the government should, while 50 percent said it should not.

Respondents who said, in the question discussed above, that Shari'a should play either the same or a larger role in Iranian governance -- 79 percent of the whole sample -- were presented six aspects of the application of Shari'a' and asked for each, “how important is [this] for the government to do?"

The highest priorities in the application of Shari’a are preventing usury and providing welfare to the poor. A 51 percent majority (of the full sample) called "preventing usury" very important, and another 16 percent said it was somewhat important. Nearly as many (48%) said "providing welfare to the poor" was very important, and another 20 percent said it was somewhat important. Forty-six percent also said "making education and healthcare available to all" was very important in applying Shari'a (somewhat: 22%).

Anti-vice aspects of Shari’a also received high ratings. Highest was "punishing those who consume alcoholic beverages in public" (45% very important, 22% somewhat), followed by "policing moral behavior such as gambling and prostitution" (43% very important, 22% somewhat).

The lowest priority was assigned to "applying severe physical punishments to people convicted of certain crimes." Only 22 percent called this very important (28% somewhat important). Overall, though, severe physical punishments were still endorsed by half.
This article is an excerpt (pp. 24 and 26) from "Public Opinion in Iran: With Comparisons to American Public Opinion," a Poll conducted in partnership with Search for Common Ground and Knowledge Networks, 7 April 2008.  "The poll of Iranians was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 710 Iranian adults, from rural as well as urban areas, January 13-February 9, 2008.  The margin of error is +/-3.8 percent.  Interviews were conducted in every province of Iran.  Professional Iranian interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews in Iranian homes.  Within each community, randomly selected for sampling, households were chosen according to international survey methods that are standard for face-to-face interviewing.  In some cases, a respondent did not want to be interviewed because the interviewer was of the opposite sex. Interviewers then offered to either reschedule the interview for a time when the male head of household would be present, or to have an interviewer of the same sex visit.  The poll questionnaire was developed in consultation with experts on Iran as well as the Iranian polling firm.  In addition to the poll, focus groups were conducted in Tehran with representative samples of Iranians" ("Public Opinion in Iran," pp. 3-4). The questionnaire and methodology is available at <>.  See, also, "Iranians Oppose Producing Nuclear Weapons, Saying It Is Contrary to Islam: But Most Insist on Iran Producing Nuclear Fuel,", 7 April 2008; "Iranians Favor Direct Talks with US on Shared Issues, Mutual Access for Journalists, More Trade,", 7 April 2008; Jim Lobe, "Iranian Public Sees Reduced U.S. Threat," Inter Press Service, 7 April 2008.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Debtors' Prisons in Dubai

Check this out: "data from the Dubai Police Department suggests that more than 42 per cent of inmates at Dubai Central Jail last year were there for failing to repay loans" (Babu Das Augustine, "Educating on Debt Beats Nannying," Gulf News, 12 April 2008). See, also, Mike Davis, "Fear and Money in Dubai," New Left Review 41, September-October 2006.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

What Do Iranians Think of Their Own Government?

Contrary to what much of the Western media, leftist as well as capitalist, would have us believe, the Iranian government apparently enjoys a high level of popular support, according to the latest World Public Opinion poll, which also clarifies the class base of support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Would-be regime changers ought to take a hint and stop the economic sanctions, covert actions, "democracy assistance," media propaganda, and other measures against Iran, all of which only undermine the Iranian people's attempts to further democratize their government and make it truly reflect the will of the people. The Iranian government, in turn, should take a deep breath and lighten up: the best defense against imperialism is the deepening of democracy, including industrial democracy, and improvement of the economic lot of working people, not the My Uncle Napoleon syndrome.

What Do Iranians Think of Their Own Government?

Iranians largely express satisfaction with their government.  Two out of three say that Iran is generally going in the right direction, though a plurality is dissatisfied with the Iranian economy.  Half say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time, while another quarter say they trust it at least some of the time.  Two-thirds express satisfaction with Iran's relations with the world as a whole.  Large majorities approve of how President Ahmadinejad is handling his job at home and his dealings with other countries, though this support is considerably lower among more educated and higher-income Iranians.

About two thirds of Iranians make positive assessments of Iran's government and general direction.  Asked, "Generally speaking, do you think things in Iran today are going in the right direction or . . . the wrong direction?" 65 percent say things are moving in the right direction, while 24 percent disagree.

However, Iranians make an exception about the economy.  A 49 percent plurality said they were "mostly dissatisfied with Iran's economy," while 36 percent said they were mostly satisfied.

Three in four Iranians say that they trust the government to do what is right at least some of the time.  Respondents were asked how much of the time they "trust the national government in Tehran to do what is right."  Forty-eight percent said the government could be trusted most of the time, and another 26 percent said it could be trusted some of the time.  Just 14 percent answered "rarely" (11%) or "never" (2%).

Trust in Iranian Government

In foreign relations, two-thirds (64%) said they are mostly satisfied with Iran's relations with the world as a whole; 28 percent said they were mostly dissatisfied.

Two thirds also approve of how President Ahmadinejad is handling his job at home and his dealings with other countries.  Sixty-six percent approved "of the way President Ahmadinejad is handling his job as president," while 22 percent disapproved.  To probe deeper into these sentiments of support, the study asked questions about "the way President Ahmadinejad has been traveling abroad and speaking about Iran's foreign policy."  Sixty-three percent said the president's activities have made "the overall security of Iran" "mostly better"; only 14 percent said this has made Iran's security mostly worse.  Similarly, 64 percent said Ahmadinejad's activities had made "other countries' views of Iran" mostly better; 16 percent said his work had made these countries' views worse.

Support for Ahmadinejad is stronger among those with low income and low education, and considerably weaker at the upper end of each scale.  Among low-income respondents, 75 percent approved of Ahmadinejad's performance; among high-income respondents, it was 41 percent, with 38 percent disapproving.  Among those with less than a high school education, 80 percent approved of Ahmadinejad; among those with some college or more, it was 49 percent, with 35 percent disapproving.  These differences suggest that the remarks of many observers, to the effect that Ahmadinejad operates as the Iranian version of a "populist," are not far off the mark.

Ahmadinejad's Job Approval

In the focus groups some noted that there are those in the West who believe that Iranians do not support their government.  This was viewed with some annoyance and rejected.  As one man said:
There is a widespread propaganda in the media that the Iranians don't like their own government.  But I would like to tell them that it is not like that at all.  We love our government and officials.  We have chosen them ourselves and we do not need others to tell us how to make decisions.  In the last presidential elections, a little less than 70% of the eligible voters took part. . .  This level of participation does not even happen in the US.  Don't you think that this signals our trust and love for our political system?  Don't you think that when we take part in the elections we are signaling our support of the government?
The notion that the Guardian Council should screen candidates was also largely endorsed.  For example a woman said:
Candidates must meet some qualification. . . We even have illiterate peasants coming to Tehran to run for the presidency with the silly goal of maintaining the price of potatoes.  We've got beggars and unemployed signing up to become candidates to better their own lot, and this is simply not acceptable.
Another woman emphasized that the Guardian Council's "members are indirectly chosen by the people."  She said that she had confidence in them "because they too have been chosen by the people.  It is the people who ultimately make the decision in Iranian elections."

Another expressed some reservations along with a general acceptance:
Of course it happens in every country that an individual who is not well liked ends up in high office. But at the end of the day, since we have voted in favor of our constitution, even if sometimes the constitutional system fails in the screening process, we should not denounce the whole system.  We have chosen this constitutional system and it is also under the supervision of our leader, in whom we confidence.
Views were mixed about Ahmadinejad.  One person said, "He works really hard for the people. . . he is courageous."  Another said, "I do not deny his shortcomings but as far as his foreign policy goes, I think he has been able to make things better."

On the other hand there were complaints about how hard he has pushed the nuclear issue:
As compared to now, I think at the time of President Khatami, Iran was much more stable.  The policies of Ahmadinejad have been too radical.  During the times of president Khatami much research was done on nuclear energy, but Ahmadinejad. . .  I think he should have proceeded with more caution and less speed.  He just went full speed ahead.  His radical stances have placed lots of strains on Iran.
Another agreed, saying: "I think he made it worse.  Because unlike Khatami he stood so firm that others placed sanctions on us."  But then another countered:
I totally disagree. President Khatami was not even successful internally. . .  And as far foreign policy and Iran's nuclear program was concerned, President Khatami continuously bowed to the pressures and only conceded, without getting absolutely anything in return.

This article is an excerpt (pp. 18-20) from "Public Opinion in Iran: With Comparisons to American Public Opinion," a Poll conducted in partnership with Search for Common Ground and Knowledge Networks, 7 April 2008.  "The poll of Iranians was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 710 Iranian adults, from rural as well as urban areas, January 13-February 9, 2008.  The margin of error is +/-3.8 percent.  Interviews were conducted in every province of Iran.  Professional Iranian interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews in Iranian homes.  Within each community, randomly selected for sampling, households were chosen according to international survey methods that are standard for face-to-face interviewing.  In some cases, a respondent did not want to be interviewed because the interviewer was of the opposite sex. Interviewers then offered to either reschedule the interview for a time when the male head of household would be present, or to have an interviewer of the same sex visit.  The poll questionnaire was developed in consultation with experts on Iran as well as the Iranian polling firm.  In addition to the poll, focus groups were conducted in Tehran with representative samples of Iranians" ("Public Opinion in Iran," pp. 3-4). The questionnaire and methodology is available at <>.  See, also, "Iranians Oppose Producing Nuclear Weapons, Saying It Is Contrary to Islam: But Most Insist on Iran Producing Nuclear Fuel,", 7 April 2008; "Iranians Favor Direct Talks with US on Shared Issues, Mutual Access for Journalists, More Trade,", 7 April 2008; Jim Lobe, "Iranian Public Sees Reduced U.S. Threat," Inter Press Service, 7 April 2008.


I posted the same excerpt from the same poll in MRZine, which received a number of comments there as well. The excerpt and comments caught the attention of Clay Ramsay (Research Director, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland), who was responsible for the poll. He wrote the zine and offered to answer readers' questions: If you have questions for him, please click on the link above and ask the questions there.

Separatism of the Day

I just searched Google News for "Tibet" and "Darfur": 90,444 results for Tibet and 17,442 for Darfur. Tibet is apparently now the most powerful red herring of the PMC "human rights" set. Before them it was Kosovo. Kosovo's Google News results are 13,616 today, though, gaining on Darfur. That unfinished business may come back into fashion if Russia acts up. The West loves separatism (except separatists of their own nations or their client states): "Small Is Beautiful" as far as it is concerned.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chicken Littles and Other Problems criticizes anti-war Chicken Littles:
In my absence, one, two, three, many Chicken Littles have emerged in full force to warn of imminent "nuclear war with Iran!!!" See the nuclear fire descend from the skies, transforming humankind into a tribe of Radioactive Zombies!!! From some of these blogs, one would almost think they wish it…

Crackpot newspapers like the UK Independent are gleefully writing about the pospects of war which has been an ongoing theme for the last five years. But there is little more to these stories than there was two years ago. While seriously contingency plans do exist (see Hersh, New Yorker 2006) the 'drumbeat' seems to be mostly coming from our side these days. There is a point where the people who need convincing are going to turn down all this static, so that when the real balloon goes up, nobody will listen. ("War?? Chicken Little Says, Get a Grip," 11 April 2008)
I agree that war against Iran is unlikely in the short term, and most of the war drums against Iran in the Western media are in the nature of psychological warfare against Iranian government officials and non-governmental opinion makers (the reformist camp, advocating appeasement of the West, is the weak link in the country), to which anti-war activists and other well-meaning people can unwittingly contribute.

What we need to be fighting against is, instead, the sanctions, "democracy assistance," covert actions, media propaganda, etc. against Iran, but it's next to impossible to get even activists to do so, let alone the general public. Even the shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don't get people off their asses. Anti-war sentiments in the USA are broadly held but very shallow.

Here's an example. Commenting on the antiwar "work stoppage" on May Day that San Francisco's ILWU Local 10 proposed, for which the rank and file of the rest of the ILWU voted, ILWU spokesman Craig Merilees said:
It's been agreed that on the first of May, the union will exercise its right to hold a meeting on that day. On the day shift, local unions will have the opportunity, if they wish, to take some of that time to speak out against the war if they feel so inclined (emphasis added, qtd. in Matt Smith, "ILWU to Shut Down West Coast Ports on Socialist Holiday,", SF Weekly, 12 March 2008)
If they wish. If they feel so inclined. And that's from the spokesman of one of the most progressive unions here. Feel the temperature of the anti-war opinion in the USA today.

Against the Term "Moderate Muslims"

Against the Term "Moderate Muslims"
by Abdennur Prado

Several months ago, an English sociologist told us that she was commissioned by her government to conduct a survey of "moderate Muslims."  The survey was about what a score of Muslim leaders in Great Britain thought about the fight against terrorism, the place of Islam in Europe, religious fundamentalism, etc.  According to the sociologist, not a single one of them accepted being pigeonholed as "a moderate Muslim."  And that despite the English government considering them as such.

Equally interesting is the fact that there are other Muslims who, yes, willingly accept the said label and even use it as a sobriquet.  A notable example is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to whom his acolytes always refer with the formula "the moderate scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi."  But Qaradawi doesn't exactly fit into the English government's notion of a "moderate Muslim," and in fact he is denied entry into the United States on account of being thought of as "extremist."  Therefore, we are confronted with the following paradox: those who are designated by outsiders as "moderates" reject the label, while those who are regarded as "extremists" claim it.

In reality, the term "moderate Islam" is strange, since Islam is in essence a moderate religion.  That being the case, why did all the Muslims categorized by the English government as "moderates" reject the label?  According to the aforementioned sociologist, their main argument is that the use of this label is misleading, since it makes "moderate" positions seem like minority ones in a sea of fanaticism.  At the same time, it creates an artificial division within a community characterized always by its diversity.  The Muslim respondents refused to participate in a game of definitions initiated from positions of power with neo-colonial political aims.

A proof of the political significance of the term "moderate Muslims" is found in Daniel Pipes.  In a series of typically inquisitorial articles, Pipes has devoted himself to a "search for moderate Muslims in the United States," introduced as the only valid interlocutors for institutions.  Pipes analyzes the writings of outstanding Muslims in the United States and rails especially against all who are remotely critical of any part of US policy, be it domestic (the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, detentions without due process, legalization of torture) or foreign (invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, tortures at Abu Ghraib, the CIA's secret prisons, bombings of civilians, crimes committed by the US military, etc.).

Thus, groups like the Progressive Muslim Union of North America are represented by Pipes as "radicals" in spite of their defense of causes such as Islamic feminism and gay rights.  The reason is simple: Pipes is ultraconservative and the Progresive Muslim Union of North America is, in contrast, of the Left.  For Pipes, "progressive Muslims" are almost worse than terrorists.  In his attacks on Khaled Abou el Fadl (one of the most brilliant Muslim intellectuals today), Pipes reproaches him for, among other things, making the case that jihad is purely a term for defense.  This seems to bother Pipes greatly, to the point that he considers it as an unequivocal sign of fanaticism. . . .

According to Pipes, a moderate Muslim is one who agrees that Islam is violent but considers that it can be reformed; who supports the Patriot Act's abridgements of liberties as a valid means to protect national security; and who applauds the invasion of Iraq as a means to bring democracy to the Islamic world.  Needless to say, he can't find many Muslims who fit in his schema.  Consequently, Pipes concludes that the Americans have a problem, since most of the Muslim leaders who live in their country are extremists.

All this may seem funny, but it isn't if we think about the fact that in the United States there exists a movement to harass Muslim leaders and intellectuals, that several professors of Arab-Muslim origin have been dismissed from American universities for defending the Palestinian cause or protesting against American democracy's drift towards totalitarianism, and that all their writings and conferences are scrutinized by such organs as Campus Watch, dedicated exclusively to spotting and denouncing pro-Islamic speeches at American universities.  Campus Watch has a strong presence in the universities that have Islamic or Middle East Studies departments.  Its method is not just to keep an eye on professors' writings, but to ask "patriotic" students to denounce any suspicious phrase that a professor (Muslim or non-Muslim) may utter in one of his or her classes.

In Spain, we encounter a similar situation which affects us, especially those of us associated wtih WebIslam and Junta Islámica.  Thus, while we are categorized by many as "moderates," the radical Right considers us "radical Islamists."  The reason for that has nothing to do with where we actually stand within Islam but everything to do with our criticism of Islamophobia characteristic of the new reactionary thought.

For example, Gustavo de Aristegui's change of attitude illustrates this point.  In his book Jihad in Spain, he wrote: "Not all converts to Islam are Islamists, because, upon seeing the drift of Islamists, many converts decided to follow a moderate line native to Spain.  That is the case with Junta Islámica, communities presided over by Mansur Escudero, who by the way was the only Muslim religious leader in Spain bold enough to issue nothing less than a fatwa condemning Al Qaeda terrorism and censuring Bin Laden, which certainly requires a great deal of courage" (p.186).  Nevertheless, a year later Aristegui radically changed his opinion, as a result of Junta Islámica spokesman Yusuf Fernández calling him out on his Islamophobia.  From that moment on, in the imagination of the radical Right, Junta Islámica has become a member of a sinister (and rather phantasmatic) legion of radical Islamist groups trying to re-conquer Al-Andalus and impose Sharia on all Spaniards. . . .

Under these circumstances, the search for "moderate Muslims" is no easy task.  Those who from a doctrinal point of view are "progressives" in their way of Islam will necessarily reject Western policies toward the Islamic world as totalitarian and denounce the racist ideology that animates the neo-colonial policies of the West.  In fact, many of them will see in the current condition of democracy in the West a caricature of democracy, dominated by the mass media and financial lobbies, without which nobody can get to govern.

Given the situation, what the English and American governments are looking for doesn't exist.  That doesn't mean that they cannot fabricate it, and in fact they are already seriously working on it, constructing artificial leaderships to serve them.  That is a good reason to reject the label "moderate Muslims" that some try to impose on us, doing their part to broadcast an image of Islam in which "moderates" are an exception in a sea of fanaticism, when the reality is exactly the opposite.

With this article, we wish to counsel Muslims against accepting a terminology imposed from outside.  As we wrote on another occasion: the surrender to God (Islam) cannot but be a radical act by which a human being commits himself or herself to abandoning all idolatry, to beginning to divest himself or herself of all dogmatism, of all the projections that human beings make on the world to veil their connection to the unconditioned.  There is no moderate Islam, because there isn't any immoderate Islam, for the same rule of three: if someone is fanatical, it means that he has made his religion a barrier, an idol against other religions, therefore he has not accepted diversity as a mandate, and he has not submitted himself to a Creator who gives us diversity as one of His most marvelous signs.  But neither does there exist an un-integrist Islam, if we take the word "integrist" in its exact sense: to preserve integrity, a conception of life as an indivisible whole.  In other words: Islam is a radical opening toward unity of diversity, and that very radicalism excludes all sectarianism.

Abdennur Prado, born in Barcelona on 12 December 1967, is a poet and thinker, the author of two books El islam en democracia and El islam anterior al Islam and numerous articles.  Dedicated to inter-religious dialogue, he is a co-founder and the president of the Junta Islámica Catalana and a co-director of the Congreso Internacional de Feminismo Islámico.  He is also the editor of WebIslam.  The original essay in Spanish first appeared in WebIslam on 19 February 2007.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Russia's Role in the Middle East

Moscow is said to be planning to sponsor a Middle East peace conference of its own. Will this Russian-sponsored conference take off? If so, when? And who will be invited? The New York Sun claims that Russia may invite Hamas: Benny Avni, "Hamas Could Be Included in Moscow Parley" (10 April 2008). If that happens, the conference will be an important event; if not, it won't be very different from Annapolis in terms of lack of progress one way or another, though it will certainly be free from Washington's anti-Iran campaign which was the unstated aim of the US-sponsored conference last year, a fact that is significant in itself. (It will be even more momentous if Russia can bring Iran and Israel to the same table, along with Hamas and Hizballah, though that can't happen now.)

Hamas delegates, on Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation, visited Moscow in March 2006, and in March this year Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Syria, so the inclusion of Hamas is not out of question. But if Hamas were going to be invited, Washington would be vigorously opposed to the idea, whereas Igor Neverov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's North America Department, claims it isn't according to a 10 April 2008 Kommersant article "Russia's Role in Middle East Discussed" (though he may have said what he said because he was speaking in Jerusalem).

Nepal on the Brink of Modernity

Citing opinion surveys,1 a Le Monde article claims that the question of monarchy in Nepal is far from settled, with nearly one in two Nepalis professing loyalty to the royalty, and that the conservative Congress Party, if it gets a dominant position in the elections for a Constitutional Assembly, will temporize on the matter (Frédéric Bobin, "Les Népalais aux urnes pour abolir la monarchie," 10 April 2008). While its assessment of the Congress Party is probably not far from the truth and is therefore useful, the tone of the article isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of republicanism. Coming from a good paper in France, the origin of modern republicanism, it's a little disappointing. Isn't it about time for the rest of the world to welcome the Nepalese into modernity, which has been long denied them thanks in large part to the influences of the United States and India?

1 Opinion surveys can be tricky even in rich countries, and those in very poor countries, such as Nepal where modern transportation and communication are out of reach of the majority, can be hardly reliable, as they marginalize voices of the poor and magnify those of the rich. In any case, if similar surveys had been taken in France on the eve of the French Revolution and the French had followed the survey results, France itself might have become a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic. It's a good thing that polling didn't exist back then.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Oil and Islam

The empire enjoyed a brief success in Somalia by backing the Ethiopian intervention in the country, which routed the Islamic Courts Union in December 2006. But the US-Ethiopian-backed "transitional government" in Somalia may be already approaching its end: Islamists in Somalia have been taking back town after town, village after village, and they may recapture Mogadishu soon: Jeffrey Gettleman, "Somalia: More Gains for Islamist Forces," New York Times, 27 March 2008; Jeffrey Gettleman, "Somalia's Government Teeters on Collapse," New York Times, 29 March 2008; Jeffrey Gettleman, "At Least 10 Killed as Somali Troops Shell a Market Used as an Insurgent Base," New York Times, 30 March 2008; Jeffrey Gettleman, "Somali Town Falls to Insurgent Raid," New York Times, 1 April 2008; and AFP, "Islamists Seize Somali Town after Fighting: Witnesses," 6 April 2008.

Somalia is strategically located close to Bab al Mandab, one of the world oil transit chokepoints, and Eritrea, half of whose population are Muslims and whose government is backing the Somali Islamists, is right on the Gate. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the opposite end of the MENA region, faces the Strait of Hormuz, the most important oil transit chokepoints in the world.

The rest of the chokepoints are close to Turkey (the Turkish Straits), Malaysia and Indonesia (the Strait of Malacca), Egypt (the Suez Canal), and Panama (the Panama Canal). Not only do Muslims sit on the world's largest known oil reserves; but also nearly all oil transit chokepoints are located in the predominantly Islamic region.

Say, the Islamic Republic of Iran withstands the US-led sanctions; the Islamists regain power in Somalia; and the Muslim Brotherhood, in coalition with liberals and socialists, put an end to the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt, the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel. Now, that alone will already begin to redraw the political geography of oil considerably.

Three Groups of Forces in the Middle East

Samir Amin recently observed:
Today, political conflicts in the region find three groups of forces opposed to one another: those that proclaim their nationalist past (but are, in reality, nothing more than the degenerate and corrupt inheritors of the bureaucracies of the national-populist era); those that proclaim political Islam; and those that are attempting to organize around 'democratic' demands that are compatible with economic liberalism. ("Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism," Monthly Review 59.7, December 2007)
That's a broad-brush portrait, typical of Amin, and yet this picture is indeed recognizable in many, if not all, countries in the Middle East, though it probably fits Egypt, where Amin was born, the best.

Amin thinks that "The consolidation of power by any of these forces is not acceptable to a left that is attentive to the interests of the popular classes."

What is to be done instead, in his opinion, then?

Amin's recommendation is this:
For the left to attempt to become involved in these conflicts solely through alliances with one or another of the tendencies* (preferring the regimes in place to avoid the worst, i.e., political Islam, or else seeking to be allied with the latter in order to get rid of the regimes) is doomed to fail. The left must assert itself by undertaking struggles in areas where it finds its natural place: defense of the economic and social interests of the popular classes, democracy, and assertion of national sovereignty, all conceptualized together as inseparable.
If there is an organized left in the Middle East which is, or can in short order become, strong enough to undertake the strategy -- refusing to side either with formerly nationalist regimes or their Islamic challengers or liberal intellectuals -- that Amin recommends, by all means it should. But I don't see such a left in the Middle East.

WB Expects Social Unrest in 33 Countries due to Higher Food and Energy Prices

"The World Bank Group estimates that 33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices. For these countries, where food comprises from half to three quarters of consumption, there is no margin for survival." -- Robert B. Zoellick, President of The World Bank Group, "A Challenge of Economic Statecraft," Center for Global Development, Washington D.C., 2 April 2008.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Patrick Cockburn on Sadrists and Iran

Patrick Cockburn says:
A lot of what the U.S. has done over the last five years is find a way in which Saddam is gone, but they don't have the alternative of a powerful religious Shia government backed by Iranian power. Moktada represents their worst nightmare. He is the guy who seems to be calling the shots in Iraq, is wearing a black turban, and looks and sounds a bit like the Ayatollah Khomeini. And whatever reason they overthrew Saddam for, it wasn't for that.
That's the bottom line: the US power elite don't want to withdraw US troops from Iraq until they succeed in eliminating or neutralizing Sadrists or Iran or both. If they eventually end up having to order the troops to retreat into the predominantly Kurdish area of Iraq, they will still leave behind the already 90,000-strong Sunni militias, so-called "Awakening Councils," who think that their main enemy is the Shia due to Shi'i militias' acitons during the Sunni-Shi'i civil war that began under the US occupation.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Turkey: Will the AKP Be Closed and Top AKP Leaders Banned?

Turkey's dogmatic secularists, a mirror image of Iran's Guardian Council, act up again, determined to make it impossible for Turks to set aside religion and discuss more pressing issues such as economy, regional integration (with the East or the West or both?), and the Kurdish question: "Turkey's Constitutional Court Decides to Hear AKP Case," Hurriyet, 1 April 2008; and Nico Sandfuchs, "Panik am Bosporus: Türkische Regierungspartei sucht drohendem Verbot zu entgehen," junge Welt, 2 April 2008.

Turks, whether they are for or against the AKP, should take this occasion and turn it into a chance to expand democratic rights if it comes to a referendum. A "constitutional amendment making it more difficult to ban political parties," which the AKP is said to be now pushing for, would be in the interest of leftists in Turkey as things stand now.