Heal and Renew

by Badri Raina
first published in the Mainstream Weekly, September 3, 2008

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark;
O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right.
(Hamlet)

In an act of conspicuous courage (some might say ‘audacity’) the young, bright, and fiercely upright Omar Abdullah has breached the pall of silence in which the Valley has remained suffocated since the coerced exodus of the Pandits in 1990.

In a statement recorded on his blog, Omar has made the following candid aversions that interrogate Kashmiri Muslims as a whole:

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The Continuing Relevance of the Left in India

An amended version of a talk given to the Secular Collective in Kozhikode, Kerala, India. August 2, 2008 in honour of TK Ramachandran.

by Justin Podur

First of all, thank you for allowing me to be a part of the honouring of TK Ramachandran. I did not know him, but I have done a little bit of research now, enough to know that he was not someone who shrunk from a debate or a discussion. I hope we can live up to that spirit here today.

Continue reading “The Continuing Relevance of the Left in India”

On drug wars and opium fueled insurgencies

ISLAMABAD JULY 13/08 – Over the past few days the Americans have hit the Pakistanis at the border and are increasing threats of hot pursuit. Some of the peace deals between frontier forces and militant groups are holding. In other areas, the Taliban have besieged Pakistani troops, kidnapped soldiers and others, and killed them in ambushes. In Pakistan’s newspapers the debate is about how much Pakistan can support the American war on terror. An article by Mohammad Ali Siddique suggests that Pakistan can’t afford not to support the Americans and must not engage in separate peace deals with Taliban and al Qaeda groups operating on the border. The Americans and NATO will tire of the war and decide on a negotiated peace, and at that point Pakistan can make peace. But not before, because that would cause America to tilt further towards India and isolate Pakistan from the West.

And being isolated from the West carries heavy penalties. Sudan is feeling that right now: the International Criminal Court has decided to pursue charges against Omar Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, for war crimes in Darfur. Alex de Waal’s books and blog are the best guides to that complex conflict, and on that blog the ICC’s decision was referred to as “a Disaster in the Making”. Putting aside the political nature of such a prosecution, given that no one is considering prosecuting Bush for what the US is doing in Iraq or Israel for what it’s doing to the Palestinians, there is also the effect of such a move on the possibilities for peace in Sudan. In that context, it is a very irresponsible move, a pre-emptive strike against a negotiated settlement. But it does have another effect: to show third world leaders what might be in store if they are too defiant. Or, in Pakistan’s case, if insufficiently committed to the war on terror.

Of course, the war on terror is not the only war going on in this region. In the background, ready to be re-emphasized at any minute, is the war on drugs. Like the war on terror, it is ill-defined, open-ended, both unwinnable and unlose-able (drugs will never declare victory), and therefore a perpetually useful pretext: until it is widely seen for what it is. Below I will discuss supply, demand, and possible solutions.

Before delving the war on drugs, I would like to dispense with one little phrase. The idea of an “opium fueled insurgency” can be deceptive. It is true that the covert networks designed for smuggling arms and money to counterinsurgent forces – such as the CIA and ISI networks designed to supply the Afghan mujahadin when they fought against the USSR – are also easily converted to drug smuggling networks. It is also true that illicit drugs were understood and tolerated as a way for these forces to support themselves financially during the war against the USSR (on the connection between drugs and covert operations, the indispensable book is Alfred McCoy’s ‘Politics of Heroin’). But the current situation in Afghanistan is slightly different. Today, the Afghan economy is dependent on poppy, which, according to UN sociologist David Macdonald’s book “Drugs in Afghanistan” (Pluto Press 2007), supplies 60% of Afghanistan’s GDP and employs 10% of its people (pg.96). Everyone in the economy, from farmers to local warlords, from foreign intelligence agents to government officials, from the Taliban to probably NATO soldiers as well, are taking a piece. So it’s not just the insurgency that’s opium-fueled, it’s the entire economy.

What is the drugs situation? As with any commodity, we can look at supply and demand. Part of the supply side is the covert networks just discussed. Most opium moves from Afghanistan by the ‘Balkan route’: through Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf States, through to Turkey and Europe (Macdonald pg. 105), taking about 9 months to arrive from the Afghan farm to the European street. There are creative ways of smuggling employed, since high profits in the industry make it feasible to do things like stuff almond shells with heroin and smuggle them randomly interspersed with real almonds. But above all, the trade depends on the suborning of public officials. In Afghanistan, reports range from estimates that dozens to 60% of elected parliamentarians are linked to warlords and drug trafficking in some way (pg. 95). Similar percentages probably apply for police and of course the warlords who still control local areas. Then there are the officials in the countries along the route.

Another important piece in the supply puzzle has to do with the push-the-water-balloon nature of drug cultivation. Both Iran and Pakistan were major opium producers until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan both outlawed production in their countries – production which simply shifted to Afghanistan. If production in Afghanistan could somehow be eliminated, it would no doubt shift somewhere else.

The final supply side consideration is the farmer. No Afghan farmer grows rich from growing poppy. On the contrary, sociologist David Mansfield (davidmansfield.org) conducts field studies for the UK government and other NGOs on why Afghans do or do not grow poppy. He found four differences between farmers who grow poppy and those who are able to make a living growing vegetables, fruit, wheat, and other cash crops. First, poppy growers have less land (or no land, working as sharecroppers). Second, poppy growers have more debt. Third, poppy growers live in areas where access to market is difficult, while successful non-poppy growing farmers live near provincial centers. Fourth, poppy growers generally live in regions where the writ of the state is weak or not fully extended.

In this context, eradication programs lead to financial ruin for already heavily indebted farmers.

In a May 2007 report to the UK government, Mansfield warns that “talk of spraying elicits the threat of violence and/or a declaration of intent to support Anti Government Elements. The perception that corruption is endemic amongst those conducting eradication (including their involvement in the drug trade) and reports of bribery and partiality during implementation further weakens the legitimacy of counter narcotics efforts.” He also notes reports that “in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar as well as Farah, there were increasing reports of Taliban and government officials finding ways to co-exist. Respondents suggested that in many areas both sides had made agreements not to engage in hostile action. These agreements left government officials undisturbed in the district centres whilst the Taliban were free to operate in the surrounding rural areas.” Evidently Pakistan is not the only place where separate peace agreements and local arrangements are being made.

Now we turn to the demand side. In the imaging of Afghanistan as a source of drugs that corrupt the streets and youth of the West, the many victims of addiction in the region are made invisible, as Macdonald shows. Addiction is complex, but it does go along with displacement and war. Many Afghan refugees became addicted to opium in Pakistan or Iran (both of which have major addiction problems of their own) and brought their addictions back when they returned. Without prospects for peace or opportunity, religious and legal restrictions are insufficient to stop people from turning to opium and heroin to dull their pain. A study by the RAND corporation years ago suggested that the cheapest way to fight a drug war was to spend dollars on treatment for addiction, which was far cheaper than trying to interdict shipments of drugs or eradicate crops.

Finally, to solutions. The most likely possibility is that the drug war will be allowed to continue, providing its many benefits to many people and meting out suffering to many others. Perhaps a truce will be called for a time? The governor of Helmand province suggested in 2006 that those in the drug business should be encouraged to invest their profits in Afghanistan (construction companies and industries) rather than taking the money out to tax havens (Macdonald pg. 97). Among those seeking victory in the war on drugs, some look to the Taliban’s ban on opium in 2000 as a total success. Macdonald points out several problems with this: first, it was accomplished through terror. Second, it was only a year-long, a year in which, some suggest, the Taliban used the ban to drive the price up so they could sell off existing stocks at high profit margins, after which they would have probably allowed cultivation to resume (had they not been deposed).

One suggestion by the Senlis Council (a European think tank) in 2005, is to license Afghanistan to produce opium legally. Today, licit opium is produced by Turkey, India, France, Australia, Hungary, Spain, and a few other countries (pg. 34). The idea was rejected by the Afghan government. The counter argument by the Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, that they could not guarantee that opium wouldn’t be smuggled out for the illicit trade, seems to me to be unconvincing. How could a situation where some licit and some illicit opium was coming out of Afghanistan be worse than the current situation? Of course, this kind of licensing would have problems too: it would drastically lower the price available to the farmer, who would probably then require some form of price support (which could also be applied to other crops). Without such support, and so long as an illegal market existed and set a higher price, smuggling would continue.

David Mansfield and David Macdonald implicitly suggest some mix of alternative development for farmers, interdiction, and fighting the addiction. Within the current framework of prohibition, that may be the best that can be done. But accepting the current framework means accepting some absurdities. Macdonald reports that “Australian and German bio-engineers have also recently created another alternative to traditional opium poppy plants, mutated poppy plants that produce… thebaine and oripavine used in analgesic pharmaceutical drugs… but without producing morphine that can be processed into heroin.” (pg. 71)

Surely we ought to be able to change the rules to fit the plants than to change the plants to fit the rules.

In the 1970s, under the imperially-controlled regime of the Shah, Iran managed to distribute opium legally to registered addicts. In Macdonald’s words, this “suggested a humane drug regime that permitted older people who had used opium for many years the comfort afforded by regulated doses of opium for the aches and pains of old age and to avoid suffering withdrawals.” Those under 60 had to seek treatment – treatment based on a maintenance dose (for more arguments on ending prohibition, see Mike Gray’s 2000 book “Drug Crazy”). Most societies seem to combine both irrationality and hypocrisy in their drug policies. These serve those who profit from the drug war, the monies, the weapons, and the pretexts that it provides. They do not serve addicts, users, or farmers. An end to prohibition and an end to the drug war would take a powerful weapon away from the war on terror.

Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad. He can be reached at justin@killingtrain.com.

The writ of the state: Is Pakistan’s insurgency fueled by too little state, too much, or the wrong kind?

ISLAMABAD JULY 8/08 – Another couple of days of bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, each with its own message and each by a different group. A couple of days ago the Americans hit a wedding party and killed over 20 people in Afghanistan. In Kabul yesterday the Indian embassy was struck by a suicide bomber killing over 40 people. The next day a series of bombings in Karachi – six blasts in an hour, wounding dozens. These bombs were low intensity, and not suicide blasts. After the bombing of the Indian embassy, an Afghan official said something like: “we believe an intelligence agency from the region was involved” – a clear allusion to Pakistan’s ISI. A friend speculated that the bombings in Karachi were India’s response – a warning in this world where governments send messages to each other by bombing people. The American bombing of Pakistani troops weeks ago is widely thought of as sending a message to the Pakistani army.

It raises a question of who the sides are in this war. The Pakistani army has engaged in some bloody fighting against the Taliban on the border in the past, although the current method involves negotiation and conceding control of areas to the Taliban. When the government fights the insurgents, they are seen as doing the bidding of the US. On the other hand, according to Ahmed Rashid’s analysis, the government uses and manipulates the insurgents and historically has used them to try to have their way in Afghanistan. This is why the responses to the insurgency are so contradictory. The US mission is expensive and its interests there are unclear – the US supposedly wants to find and destroy al Qaeda, but there are also ways that a constant terrorist threat is useful to governments that try to use fear to control the population. The US also probably wants troops and bases in the region to watch South and Central Asia.

In his new book “Descent into Chaos”, the incomparable Ahmed Rashid offers an analysis that is at its core a statement to the US: if you really want to get rid of al Qaeda, you have to do something about the Taliban; if you want to stop the Taliban, you have to rebuild Afghanistan and allow Pakistan to democratize (ie., stop supporting the military exclusively). For the US, though, the questions are – there are costs and benefits to al Qaeda’s existence as a low-level insurgency capable of doing occasional terror attacks on US civilians, there are benefits to having US troops in the region, but the costs of what it would take to really stop them really worth it? Would paying those costs bring the US increased control over the region or the world?

Probably not. The Taliban would wither away if Afghanistan and Pakistan had the type of sovereignty where the direction of government and economy were determined by their people (and if there were sensible global agricultural policies and no drug prohibition – but more on that in a future column), the dream of third world nationalism. Under such conditions the Taliban would have no legitimate claim to be fighting foreign occupation and all they would have to offer was social conservatism and violence. Other political and social forces would emerge they would not be able to compete with.

Unfortunately, a dream of a world of sovereign countries is a nightmare for the US. In that sense, I disagree with Rashid: I don’t think the US will act in ways that would bring its citizens safety from terrorism, because the rewards of domination of the region, for those in charge, outweigh the risks of terrorism against US citizens. On the other hand, not everything is under US control. The Taliban (and probably part of Pakistan’s establishment) figures NATO will get tired of the costs and go, and that they can be waited out. If the US choice is between building a sovereign Afghanistan and allowing a sovereign and democratic Pakistan on the one hand and cutting some kind of deal and leaving on the other, they are more likely to just leave.

If it is too much to suggest the US can suddenly act benevolent, what about Pakistan? The Taliban, some argue, have flourished not just because of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan but also because of the absence of the state in the border areas. A story by Anwarullah Khan in yesterday’s Dawn reports the Taliban setting up Sharia courts in Bajuar agency, “and a large number of people are using them to get disputes resolved, instead of waiting for action by the tribal administration.” The Taliban said this was because people were tired of the current system. That’s one response to a vacuum created by the state’s absence from an area. Another is lynching, as happened in Karachi in May. Four men had robbed a house, were caught by a mob and three of them killed. Police were stopped from helping the victims. Another attempted lynching happened a few days later in Lahore but police were able to save the robbers. Anees Jillani in the June edition of the (excellent) monthly magazine “Newsline” argues that the police are underresourced and untrustworthy, the judges corrupt or afraid.

But it might be too simplistic to talk of the “absence of the state”. The June edition of “Herald”, another fine magazine, had a special feature on “The Great Land Robbery”: in which elites, entrepreneurs, the military and bureaucrats took a great deal of land for the Gwadar port in Balochistan (a resource-rich province with poor people) and distributed it for personal enrichment, with callous disregard for local people’s rights. There are stories of local fishing and picnic spots being seized to make way for tourist hotels, of people being roughed up for trying to get their rights to their own land recognized, and worse. The cover story concludes: “Though the focus so far has remained on the violent conflict taking place elsewhere in the province, Gwadar too is seething quietly.” Here the state isn’t absent so much as present in ways that are negative, which generates rebellion as a consequence. That the state then deals with the rebellion by force doesn’t help address the deeper problem of the nature of the state and its relationship to the people.

Without addressing that though, it is hard to see how the current problems could be solved. A hard-nosed analyst might say “yes, but we live in the world we live in, and neither NATO nor Pakistan’s government are perfect but they are the only tools to deal with the Taliban.” That would be true if they were tools that were capable of fixing, rather than further breaking, the situation. It might actually be less realistic to expect the US or Pakistan’s establishment to solve these problems.

Ahmed Rashid argues in his book that the Taliban were not of Afghanistan or Pakistan but a kind of transnational phenomenon. The flip side of that is that they don’t have, and I don’t think will get, deep roots in Punjab or Sindh or even Balochistan, where there are other class structures and huge concentrations of economic, political, and military power and a 150-or-so-million other people. The maximal scenario, it seems to me, is that when NATO leaves, if NATO leaves irresponsibly as they are likely to, the Taliban could take over Afghanistan and Pakistan’s NWFP. That would be a terrible outcome, but I believe the counterinsurgency underway makes that outcome more likely as time goes on. A similar suggestion has been made more than once in the media here in recent days: that Pakistan just withdraw to the borders of NWFP and allow the Americans to occupy the region. It is offered tongue-in-cheek, of course, because that would just precipitate the Taliban takeover and also discredit Pakistan’s government massively domestically and internationally – governments don’t, and can’t, willingly hand over parts of their country for foreign occupation.

Where does that leave the writ of the state? The writ of the US should not be over Afghanistan or Pakistan, and it is creating more problems than it is solving. Withdrawal is necessary, and the sooner the better. One can recognize that there are more and less responsible ways to withdraw without supporting an imperial power’s claim that it needs to be there to prevent things from getting worse. As for the writ of Pakistan’s state and its transformation, that’s a project for the people, but one that would also be made easier without destructive US interference.

Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad. He can be reached at justin@killingtrain.com.

On a quest for secular piety: Reviewing Tarek Fatah’s “Chasing a Mirage”

Tarek personally asked me to review his book, Chasing a Mirage: the tragic illusion of an Islamic State (CM). With a book being favorably reviewed in the Canadian (and US and UK) media, including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Huffington Post, the UK Guardian, and the Asper-family owned newspapers (Ottawa Citizen and National Post, which also published long excerpts of CM and frequently runs op-eds by Tarek), CM hardly needed a review from me to get attention. I therefore took the request as a signal of a serious desire to engage with people who might disagree about the ideas of the book.

CM’s basic thesis is that religion and politics should be separated in Islam. Although it has major flaws, it also has many attributes of interest and will be thought-provoking on the relationship between religion and politics, and between Islam and the West.

A flawed book with some thought-provoking ideas

The experience of reading the book is a jarring one. Tarek frequently overreaches, making claims beyond what the evidence provides. “the pain we suffer is caused mostly by self-inflicted wounds, and is not entirely the result of some Zionist conspiracy hatched by the West.” (pg. xi) How IMF restructuring or repeated US bombings, invasions, and occupations are “self-inflicted” is unexplained. Sentences like that also put all Muslims together, though the politics and problems in different Muslim societies are different. CM includes preposterous statements about “nations such as India and China, with few natural resources other than their burgeoning populations” (pg. 325). India and China in fact have tremendous natural resources (especially agricultural resources) that are exploited to the fullest because of their large populations.

Tarek also says “being Canadian has had the most profound effect on (his) thinking”, and lists his Canadian heroes, which include both men and women, French and Anglo-Canadians. But his list does not have Louis Riel or Joseph Brant or any other indigenous person. Tarek’s references to “ordinary Canadians” don’t include the country’s indigenous people or the crimes that were done to them. It is striking though, given his emphasis on Canadian-ness and his expressed desire to hold a mirror up to the Muslim community, that he shows a blind spot for Canada’s disgraceful colonialism.

The book is also jarring because of bombast and cliche. Phrases like “the Palestinian movement cannot be allowed to degenerate into a fad for out-of-luck leftists in search of a cause… When these rich armchair anti-imperialists spout on Palestine, they seem to do it out of an addiction, not a commitment” (pg. 74) occur throughout, and make the whole book very demoralizing to read. The use of phrases like “the new found love affair between the left and the Islamists” (pg. 318) make a case by insinuation, a problem found throughout the book, especially when describing Muslim organizations in the West and money they receive from Saudi Arabia and other places. His newspaper columns are no different, and are part of what makes it an easier choice to simply discard what he has to say.

On the other hand, CM also offers interesting information, especially about Islamic history and recent debates in the West. His attacks on rigid doctrine, internalized racism, and illiberal politics are valid and important. He has more than once presented me with obvious things I hadn’t thought about. When Maher Arar was being tortured in Syria, for example, he wondered why people didn’t demonstrate at the Syrian consulate, but only the US and Canadian consulates. To be sure, to send someone somewhere to be tortured was horrific, but shouldn’t some anger be directed at the torturer? When a Palestinian refugee was threatened with deportation for having been a member of the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian formation that Canada has deemed “terrorist”), Tarek wrote an open letter to the Canadian Prime Minister saying he, too, had been a member of the PFLP and so if al-Yamani was going to be deported, so too should he be. For reasons like these, Tarek deserves better than casual dismissal. If the flaws can be filtered out, what remain are important questions on very serious matters worthy of debate.

Tarek divides his target audience in five parts. First, Muslims, who he hopes to persuade of his central thesis: that being a good, pious Muslim, to follow the Qur’an and the five pillars, does not require a particular form of state, and that trying to create an Islamic state can only lead to calamity. Second, “ordinary, well-meaning, but naive non-Muslims of Europe and North America”, who he hopes to persuade that Islamists are not authentic anti-imperialists. (pg. xiv) Third, “conservative Republicans in the United States and their neo-conservative allies in the West” who he hopes to persuade that “dropping bombs helps the foe, not the friend.” Fourth, Arabs, “who have suffered at the hands of colonialism”, whose “cause is just”, but who “need to recognize that… the plight of the Palestinians has been abused and misused by their leadership for ulterior motives. They also need to fight internalized racism that places darker-coloured fellow Muslims from Africa and Asia on a lower rung of society.” (pg. xvi) Last, “Pakistanis who deny their ancient Indian heritage”, and who, as a consequence, “have become easy pickings for Islamist extremist radicals who fill their empty ethnic vessels with false identities that deny them their own ethnic heritage.” (pg. xvii) Because I suspect I have only limited access to only the second part of Tarek’s target audience, this review will focus on what is of interest to the “liberal and left-leaning”.

The premises of Chasing a Mirage

CM’s explicit thesis, that religion and politics ought to be separated in Islam, rests on several implicit theses. The most important of these is that Islam, or political Islam, is the major reason for what is wrong in places like Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Palestine, and immigrant Muslim communities in the West. Tarek sometimes acknowledges colonialism and occupation (though he is more dismissive of the idea that there might be racism against Muslims in the West), but also blames Islamist doctrine and ideology as a cause (as opposed to primarily an effect, to which we will return).

From this flows the second implicit thesis, that there is something unique about Islam in this respect. When Europe went through Renaissance and Enlightenment, Christianity and Judaism advanced, and Islam remained behind. “While most of humanity has come to recognize the futility of racial and religious states, the Islamists of today present (the) sordid past as their manifesto of the future.” (pg. 19) Failure to separate religion from politics in culture and theory left the way open for Islamists (Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maudoodi) to create doctrines based on the politicized use of religion.

The third implicit thesis is that in politics, Western-style democracy is the best form. Tarek is a Canadian by choice, he reminds the reader, and cherishes the freedom that he finds in the West, where “the only Arabs who today vote without fear of reprisal” live (pg. xvii). Islamism is bad for the West and for Muslims in part because it causes Muslims to “refuse to integrate or assimilate as part of Western society, yet wishes to stay in (its) midst” (pg. xiv). Also, there is nothing wrong with Islam itself, nor any other religion. Only the combination of religion and politics is undesirable, and CM remains constantly respectful of the basic tenets of Muslim religion.

From these premises, Tarek in Part 1 goes through a series of case studies. Pakistan’s politics have been distorted by Islamism and were distorted from the start. The Saudi regime, with the US guaranteeing its safety in power and its unimaginable oil wealth, reaches out and sponsors Islamism all over the world. Iran’s Islamists destroyed the leftist revolutionaries who they came to power with, and then imposed their will on a reluctant society in brutal and totalitarian ways. And Palestine has been hijacked by Islamists within and without. Next, in Part 2, Tarek reads medieval Islamic history from the death of the prophet Muhammad through to the Damascus, Baghdad, and al-Andalus caliphates. The point of this reading is to show that this past provides no useful guidance for political conduct in large, complex, industrial societies. In Part 3 he moves on to contemporary case studies: He concludes that the recent attempt to apply Sharia law in Ontario for personal disputes between Muslims was a very bad idea. Democratic laws have to apply to everyone and everyone must receive equal protection. He concludes that the doctrine of jihad in Islamism, which, he says, is not about inner struggle but about war, should be discarded. And while he supports the right to wear the hijab, he argues that it is an arbitrary convention without a solid basis in the Qur’an or core Muslim religion. Finally, he concludes that Islamists and Islamism should be strongly confronted in the West, by democrats of all kinds, Muslim and non-Muslim. Since they hold illiberal views, Islamists should not be allowed to use liberalism to undermine its foundation.

Before assessing CM’s conclusions, it may be useful to state my own rather different premises, for understanding the problems experienced by the societies CM discusses (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Palestine, and the Muslim diaspora) as well as some of those he does not.

An alternative set of premises

I agree that religion and politics ought to be separated. But I believe that political Islam is primarily an effect of what is wrong in Muslim societies, not a cause. Explaining the causes of the problems of the third world is beyond the scope of a book review. But a “left-leaning” explanation would look for causes related to economic and political inequalities within and between societies. While these may have pre-existed colonial encounters (Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” is devoted to explaining why the geography of Europe gave it certain advantages for conquering the rest of the world) they were intensified by them. Millions of indigenous people of the Americas died building wealth for Europe and the American states (see Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America”). Millions of Africans died in slavery and colonialism (see Basil Davidson, “The African Slave Trade”). Throughout Asia, lands and resources were taken over through military conquest, or sometimes through finance, without firing a shot. These encounters distorted the colonizers: they lost their ethical sense, they developed doctrines of racism and exclusive notions of religion, and locked the world into constant warfare.

But by far the greatest trauma was suffered by the colonized These societies were not perfect before colonialism destroyed them: they too were full of caste (see BR Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste”) and class hierarchy, patriarchal traditions and religion, and militarism and violence of their own. But colonialism intensified all of these and used them to its own ends. The former colonies tried to make sense of what had happened to them and how to free themselves from it (one one very important aspect of this attempt, see Vijay Prashad’s “Darker Nations”). Their responses included nationalism and communism, both of which were brutally attacked by the Western powers (on these attacks, see William Blum’s “Killing Hope”). Religiously based nationalism in these parts of the world was often seen as less threatening by the West.

This is where political islam enters the picture in Muslim societies. Tarek is right that it does not provide the freedom and equality so badly needed to address the other urgent problems of our societies. But without a comparative perspective (which is adopted for example by Eqbal Ahmad, one of Tarek’s heroes and one of my own) one is left thinking there is something especially bad about Islam or Muslim societies. This is a convenient belief for Western readers who want to believe the current “war on terror” might be justified. But an equally strong case could be made, and has been, about the caste, irrational belief, and hierarchy in East Asian cultures, or African cultures, or Indian culture, or East Europe, or Latin America, or Europe or America itself – and if the West were at war with these societies such cases would receive greater attention here.

I do not believe that Islam has a monopoly over the failure to separate religion and politics. I believe that all religions are systems of authority, based on irrational belief, that mostly cannot meet the burden of proof for the demands they make of their believers. A distorted, politicized Christianity is a clear and present danger in the United States (see Chris Hedges’ “American Fascists”, Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas? and watch “Jesus Camp”). Similar problems exist with Israel and Zionism (see Michael Warchawski’s “Towards an Open Tomb”, or Uri Davis’s “Apartheid Israel”). As a result I disagree with Tarek’s statement that ” most of humanity has come to recognize the futility of racial and religious states”. If only it were so.

I believe that the rest of the world, including the Muslim world but especially indigenous peoples and Africans, have paid a blood price so that those in the West could live in comfort and freedom. Democracy in the West is worth defending to the degree that it can look in the mirror of these atrocities, condemn them, and redress them. Self-congratulation about Western achievements, freedoms, or superiority in rewarding itself with what it stole from others is harmful to this necessary self-examination. Massive inequalities in Western societies and between the West and the rest of the world distort democracy, ethics, and the possibilities for decent survival on the planet. Dealing with these distortions is the most urgent political task at hand.

We all grow up and live in a world of traumas, hierarchies, and inequalities, and we all rebel against these in different ways (see Bruce Levine’s “Commonsense Rebellion” for a diagnosis of everything alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, sex addiction, and workoholism as problematic ways of rebelling against meaninglessness and lack of control in daily life). Constructive, collective, political rebellion is what many of us strive to do and hope to see. But there are more problematic ways of rebelling, some of which can sometimes have perverse effects, and these are sometimes better rewarded by the institutions that produce the ills we’re rebelling against.

Because it is usually the oppressed who have to free themselves (and their oppressors), and because many of those powerless and under attack and fighting back (sometimes in ways that are themselves distorted) are Muslims, an examination of the current role of Islam, and religion in general, in politics is important. So, too, is thinking about what that role could or should be. CM’s value is in contributing to that debate.

Assessing the conclusions of “Chasing a Mirage”

Starting from these somewhat different premises, how do the conclusions of CM appear? Take the Sharia law debate in Ontario. Some Muslim organizations argued that Islamic law be used in binding arbitration to settle disputes between parties. Their principal argument, which CM does not mention, was that those principles were already being used in Jewish and Christian communities: if religious arbitration was okay for some religions, why not all? In the event, the Ontario government’s decision was the best one possible: rather than allowing it for all religions, Ontario struck religious arbitration down for all.

Should jihad be discarded, and hijab recognized as an arbitrary cultural convention and not a religious requirement? Yes, in the same way that all doctrines should be subjected to tests of ethics and reason and discarded if they fail those tests. The same is true for using the distant past, described in Part 2 of CM, as a political guide for the future. If some political idea, from history or elsewhere, will have good effects from a perspective of universal human values, then it should be used. If not, it should be rejected. These conclusions are similar to Tarek’s, though they come from different premises.

And what of the importance of challenging the illiberalism of the Islamists in the West? Here we have a more serious disagreement, not on the question of whether illiberalism should be challenged, but on where the illiberalism comes from and what should be done about it. Tarek, like Ed Husain in the UK (author of “The Islamist”) attributes the strength of Islamists in the West to the tolerance of “bleeding heart liberals” and “the left”. In doing so, he attributes more power to this social force than it actually has. Liberals are on the defensive everywhere in the West, and leftists are so marginal that one can only read about us as rhetorical foils in books on political topics. Decency and internationalism have plenty of followers in the West, to be sure. But it is not tolerance, but intolerance and the exploitation of legitimate grievances that others have failed to answer, that has strengthened religious politics.

How can we assess CM’s analysis of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Palestine? Pakistan was indeed founded on a religious basis, and the partition and confrontation between India and Pakistan did incredible damage to both societies over many decades. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a monarchy held up by the US military, that in exchange controls the population and uses its wealth to divert politics in religious directions. CM presents Iran from the perspective of some of its defeated leftists, who helped overthrow the Shah only to be destroyed politically (and, ultimately, physically, in mass murders of political prisoners in the 1980s).

CM’s chapter on Palestine, by contrast, is wholly without merit. Tarek offers the chapter as if it is strategic advice to the Palestinians, but like reading much of the North American media, one can come away thinking Israel’s occupation is a minor issue and that the central conflict is between lslamists and others. This is one of the confusions of Tarek’s politics in general. At times he adopts the tone of a self-critical leftist, who leftists ought to take seriously, at other times the self-congratulation of Western pundits, who leftists would normally dismiss because of lack of time. From both postures, he blasts leftists and anti-imperialists with, at times, ugly rhetoric. What’s more, since the cause of Palestine should be based on universal human rights and self-determination and Islamists (indeed Muslims, or Jews) have no special right to comment on it, Tarek’s dissident Muslim position adds nothing of interest to the debate.

Those concerned about the Palestinian cause could, no doubt, benefit from serious examination of how Hamas came to power and the Palestinian left became so marginal. It is important to think about how best to resist the agendas of Israel and the US (and Canada) for the Palestinians – an agenda of starvation and murder, it bears repeating – and how to relate to the significant social force that Hamas now represents in Palestine, for better or worse. But for that examination, one will have to look elsewhere – perhaps to Azzam Tamimi’s “Hamas: A history from within”, to some of Amira Hass’s reporting since the 2006 election, or Adel Samara’s critiques of “NGO-ization”.

Leftists I’ve spoken to were dismissive. They disliked Tarek’s frequent and sweeping attacks on what he calls “the left” (I prefer to use the term “leftists”, since “the left” does not really exist in any organized form in North America in any case). Another anti-Muslim book, they guessed, part of a cottage industry designed to demonize the selected victims of Western foreign policy. Iraq is occupied, a million people killed. Palestine is occupied, starved, choked to death. Afghanistan is occupied. Iran is threatened. Deportations of Muslims are rampant in Western countries. Secret trials are occurring. The Egyptian regime receives billions in weaponry and subsidies in exchange for support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and suppression of the population. Other dictatorships in Muslim countries receive similar largesse. Of course, to do all this to a group of people requires an industry to produce convenient stories about them. Anyone who can produce such stories will be rewarded handsomely, with sympathetic reviews, prominent placement in bookstores, and high sales for telling convenient things to people about what they are doing. Irshad Manji’s “Trouble With Islam” was part of this industry, and many might assume CM is as well. While Tarek refused Manji’s acknowledgement of him in her book, he called her “courageous” and expressed sympathy that she was being called opportunist and her message ignored in his own, a fate his book will share, in some quarters.

A better comparison than Irshad Manji might be to black conservatives in the US, such as Shelby Steele or John McWhorter, who draw on a worthy tradition of black self-help but emphasize it out of context to the degree that the central problem of institutional racism is lost.

In any case Tarek and CM should not be quickly dismissed. For all the book’s flaws, it does at times deal with serious issues seriously. It raises important questions about politics in immigrant communities and in poor countries. And although Tarek sometimes lacks compassion, makes cases by insinuation, ignores or blows off key parts of the story, misses crucial context, and makes claims well beyond his evidence, he also presents interesting arguments about history, discusses some neglected crimes whose main victims, after all, are Muslims, and is worth reading on contemporary debates even when you disagree. Unfortunately, to disagree with Tarek is to invite bombastic and overblown replies, but he also at times seriously attempts to engage in a way that might actually advance the debate on how best to advance decent values in both Western and Muslim societies. To advance that debate, it is worth assuming Tarek’s good faith and giving “Chasing a Mirage” a careful reading to separate the parts that are without merit from the parts that have some.

Justin Podur is a toronto-based writer. He can be reached at justin@killingtrain.com

From the UK Colombia Solidarity Campaign – on tomorrow’s march against FARC

I’ve had some community radio and other media response to my article on Colombia’s civil war and Venezuela’s foreign policy. Uribe has seized on this moment to try to capitalize on the unpopularity of FARC and its kidnapping, leaving the minor matters of paramilitarism, state terror, massacres, murders of activists, displacement, and the handover of the economy to multinationals off the table. The UK Colombia Solidarity Campaign sent this bulletin around about the march, worth sharing here.

A Humanitarian Agreement is Urgently Needed to Respect Life and Dignity

Continue reading “From the UK Colombia Solidarity Campaign – on tomorrow’s march against FARC”

Colombia’s war and Venezuela’s foreign policy: The context of the recent release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez

[Published on ZNet: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16296. Updated Jan 29/08.)

Continue reading “Colombia’s war and Venezuela’s foreign policy: The context of the recent release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez”

Defend the Border: Why CBC’s new show can only help “the bad guys”

Published on ZNet Jan 5/08

The phrase “defend the border” wasn’t always a metaphor. And it isn’t just a metaphor in many parts of the world, even today: some states do have to worry about overland military invasions.

Canada is not such a state. To the degree that it is, the only conceivable invader is, of course, the United States. Those in Canada who talk about “defending the border” are distinctly unconcerned about such a possibility. They are, instead, making an analogy for a set of power institutions designed to keep “them” out and “us” safe.

Some argue that the threat of terrorism to Canada is so great that it outweighs any mushy, politically correct concerns. The historian J.L. Granatstein, in his book, “Whose War Is It?” makes such claims (1). So, with its new show, does the CBC, a point to which I’ll return below. Stripped down to basics, his argument is that Canada, to be safe, needs to subordinate its foreign policy to the US and join its War on Terror wholeheartedly, instead of half-heartedly. The most incredible aspect of his book, however, is that Granatstein relies on fiction – literally, entirely fictional scenarios about Muslim terrorists releasing poison gas in a Toronto subway at the same time as a natural disaster on the West Coast – to demonstrate how Canada needs to have better military preparedness. Granatstein can’t find real threats to justify his policy suggestions, so he makes them up. The detention of over a dozen young Muslim men in Toronto for over a year, accused of some sort of convoluted terrorist plot and possibly entrapped by the authorities, suggests that perhaps Canada’s police and intelligence agencies are also in the business of making up threats (2).

Besides making up threats, the policy suggestions of this school of thought are designed to bring such threats into existence. If certain kinds of terrorism are correlated with foreign occupation, as for example Robert Pape argued in his systematic study of suicide terrorism (“Dying to Win”), Canada’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan, supported by these hawks, is increasing the threat to Canadians. So, too, is Canada’s support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its bombing of Lebanon, and the US occupation of Iraq.

This two-pronged approach, trying to create public fear and racism by contriving fictional threats on the one hand, and participating in occupations and human rights violations on the other, results in a toxic public conversation and a deadly foreign policy. All the same, it is embraced by historians like Granatstein, right-wing newspapers like the National Post, and, most recently, by the CBC.

The CBC’s new show, “The Border”, provides an expensive fictional apology for this two-pronged approach. Its heroes wrestle with moral dilemmas. According to the show’s publicity, “every week, a crack team of Canadian immigration and customs agents deal not only with the latest border-security crisis, but also with the consequences of their actions. Are they rushing to judgment? Are the bad guys really bad guys, or just victims of racial profiling?”

Wrestling with moral dilemmas of immigration and customs would of course be welcome, and Canadians can certainly use more such wrestling. But if the questions are those of an impoverished moral universe (“are the bad guys really bad guys?”) then the answers aren’t going to yield any riches. If we begin from the premise that there are these “bad guys” who threaten us because they are “bad guys”, and the job of customs agents is to use high-tech surveillance and psychological interrogation methods to ferret the “bad guys” out from the ordinary victims of racial profiling, we have already forfeited our moral and political sense. War and terrorism are political phenomena. They are done by political actors (including the US and Canada, if we are consistent in our definitions of war and of terrorism, as well as groups like al-Qaeda) pursuing political agendas with the means they have available. To stop war or terrorism requires first understanding these agendas and actors and seeking political solutions to the problems. This does not exclude the use of force or intelligence, but there is no way that fear, faked threats, celebrating the shredding of civil liberties, ignorance, or propaganda can help. The propaganda of “bad guys” and “evildoers” is itself a tool of war, and the CBC’s new show is such a tool.

I perused “The Border” website (cbc.ca/theborder), viewed the character profiles, and played the online game. The show does, indeed, look well-produced, well-acted, and well-written, which of course makes it worse. The main character, Mike Kessler, is a former JTF2 “counter-terrorism” officer who helped cover-up a massacre in Bosnia, and is tormented by his past. His goal, according to the website, is “to stop people like Mannering (a CSIS agent) from using fear to subvert democracy and take over the country.” This, too, sounds noble, as does his “struggle to hold a line of decency and integrity in a world gone mad.” But the very premise, Kessler’s fundamental moral dilemma – how do you keep your decency while fighting “evil” – is flawed, and from it one can never reach an understanding of what is really happening in these wars. The real question for such agents in the war on terror is simpler: how do you keep your decency while doing evil. And the answer is clear. You can’t.

Other characters with moral dilemmas include Layla Hourani, the “South Asian woman in a white man’s job, a Muslim agent who locks up Muslim bad guys” and finds herself drawn to her charming, roguish partner Gray Jackson, a “womanizer, gambler, and all-round cowboy, with an athlete’s body and an easy, amiable smile.”

Gray and Layla are the agents you face when you play the Border’s interactive game. They intimidate you and present you with fabricated evidence that you committed a border violation, threatening you with a 48-hour detention, using various psychological techniques like asking you why you are so nervous and telling you they already know you did something. When you pass the interrogation, Kessler comes in and says he admires your ability to keep your cool and would like to recruit you to work for ICS. When you accept, you are on to the next level and the next assignment, trying to locate an “evildoer” named Tariq Haddad. Tariq Haddad is an Afghan national whose languages are Arabic and English. This is itself interesting, since Arabic isn’t one of Afghanistan’s national languages and Haddad is an Arab surname – but perhaps the evildoer is a naturalized Afghan. In any case, your assignment is to locate Haddad using spy technology to find his cellphone, and then crack the code allowing you to read his hard drive. There, you find that Tariq Haddad is probably planning to blow up Toronto’s airport. The trailer for the show has Tariq Haddad in a hostage situation at the airport, with his gun at a woman’s head. Kessler coolly tells him this is nothing but suicide. And it’s hard to imagine how any of it can end well.

Casting immigration agents as action heroes fighting fictional threats covers up what they really do. They aren’t sexy action heroes keeping the country safe. They are bureaucrats who deport people who overstay their visas, pull children out of school to deport them and their parents, hand Canadian citizens off to other countries be tortured for ten months, and raid churches to deport people trying to claim sanctuary. They terrorize a whole class of people who live and work in the West without status, exploited and abused by employers, invisible and unable to participate because if they were to live openly they would be deported. The “good guys” profit from the labor of these people who are unable to claim their rights because they live in fear of immigration agents. The whole thing is all the more sordid because Canada’s international behavior, like other wealthy countries, helps create conditions in which people have to flee their homes and be exploited and live in fear. Once they are on this side of The Border, these people are illegal (or, if they are on some limited special work visa, partially legal), without rights, subject to arbitrary power. A documentary like Min Sook Lee’s “El Contrato” can show something of this reality, as can a feature film like Ken Loach’s “Bread and Roses” or Stephen Frears’s “Dirty Pretty Things” (3). But in such stories, immigration agents aren’t heroes. They are the first line of defense of a rotten system.

For all its seeming moral complexity, “The Border” thinks it knows who the bad guys are and thinks it knows that they aren’t us. But there is no way out of this war that doesn’t reject these very premises. “Bad guys” are those who kill and torture and bomb and starve to achieve their ends, regardless of what passports they carry or where they were born. The more powerful they are, the badder they can be. And on the other hand, the thousands of American victims of 9/11, the million Iraqi victims of the US war on Iraq and the uncounted tens of thousands of Afghan victims of the US/Canada/NATO war on Afghanistan all deserve to be counted, with dignity and proportion. Everything that works against that sense of proportion, the CBC’s new show included, is going to keep us fighting this senseless and yes, evil, war, longer.

1) See Jim Miles’s review of this book for ZNet: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13013
2) Thomas Walkom’s reporting on this case has been the best, though he makes the important point that he and other reporters have been denied access to information needed to make a proper report.
3) For El Contrato, see the description and order it here: http://www.nfb.ca/collection/films/fiche/?id=51087. For “Bread and Roses”, here: http://www.britfilms.com/britishfilms/catalogue/browse/?id=D5FD9B420eeaf2E8F3pWjPCEEA71. For “Dirty Pretty Things”, here. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0301199/.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He can be reached at justin@killingtrain.com