As the European colonial empires fell, the strategy of the West was to block the creation of the more just world-system advocated by the revolutionary Third World project of national and social liberation, whose leaders possessed moral and political authority among their peoples, as a result of their leadership of anti-colonial popular movements that had attained the political independence of their nations. As a dimension of this strategy, the West supported the Third World sector that was tied to Western interests and advocated an accommodationist nationalism, subordinate to the interests of the West. In the Arab world, this took the form of support for a limited project of development directed by the Arab elite, as an alternative to the liberation project of Nasser.
The limited project of “development” directed by the Arab elite promoted a form of religious fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, named for the eighteenth century Arabian cleric Abdul Wahhab. In the aftermath of the European domination of the Islamic world, Wahhab called upon Muslims to eliminate Western influences and to return to the pure, original form of Islam. As it developed, Wahhabism preached that Muslims ought to follow literally and exactly the Islamic laws on prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It taught that jihad, the struggle to defeat the enemies of Islam, is a religious obligation; and it defined enemies to include Muslims who loosely followed Islamic laws, who were hypocritical in their Islamic professions, or who introduced innovations into Islamic theology and practice. Wahhabism attained enormous influence throughout the Islamic world by the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly among the rural poor (Ansary 2009:249-57, 306-7). During the course of the twentieth century, it increasingly would be promoted by the elite of the Islamic world, offering it to the poor as an alternative to the emerging project of Third World national and social liberation.
Among those schooled in Wahhabism was Crown Prince Faysal of Saudi Arabia, who created the World Muslim League in 1962. The League was organized to “disrupt the growth of Third World nationalism and its secular sense of community, and to recall in its place the sublime bonds of religion.” It established an international Islamic news agency and Islamic cultural centers, and it held regular conferences for the purpose of consolidating the struggle against Third World nationalism and communism. In creating the World Muslim League, Faysal acted in accord with the wishes of leaders in the Islamic world who “rejected Third World nationalism, its secularism and its socialism as well as its type of modernity,” because “Third World nationalism was ideologically predisposed to the dismissal of hierarchy, and the domination of certain classes and clans.” Whereas “Nasserism and Communism promised equality, the Saudis proffered a celestial equality” that “accepted the hierarchy of the world” (Prashad 2007:260-62; Schulze 2000:173).
Throughout the Islamic world, the established upper social classes promoted literal interpretations of Islam such a Wahhabism, seeking to derail the progressive and socialist readings of the Islamic tradition that were integral to the Nasserist Third World agenda. This ideological strategy was supported by the United States, which also gave full political, economic and military support to monarchies and dictatorships in the region, as alternatives to Nasserism (Ansary 2009:340; Prashad 2007:267-68; Schulze 2000:128-29, 138, 151-52).
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the World Muslim League was still limited in influence. Its role was to provide comfort and support for “scholars and activists who felt beleaguered in their societies for their anachronistic ideas about modernity and statecraft” (Prashad 2007:268). However, it soon would grow rapidly.
Following the defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967, Saudi Arabia emerged as the regional leader, taking the place of Egypt. With oil wealth and U.S. political and military backing, Saudi Arabia funded Wahhabis Islamic organizations throughout the world. One organization that benefitted from the resurgent Islamic literalism was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher in 1928. Envisioning a transnational Islamic unity, it opposed the division of the Islamic World into separate nation-states. It stood against nationalist leaders in the Islamic world, whether they be accommodationist nationalists dependent on Western elites, or autonomous nationalists allied with the Third World project of national and social liberation. With a strong following among the urban working class poor, the Muslim Brotherhood expanded as urbanization and industrialization caused the growth of this demographic sector. The Brotherhood evolved into “a pandemic low-level insurgency—seething against secularism and Western influence, seething against its own modernist elite, against its own government, against all nationalist governments in Muslim countries, even against the apparatus of democracy to the extent that this reflected Western values” (Ansary 2009:310). Since the 1930s, the Brotherhood had been a thorn in the side of autonomous nationalist leaders, who found themselves simultaneously battling imperialism from above and Islamic insurgency from below. As the Muslim Brotherhood spread throughout the Arab World after 1967, it began to sprout increasingly radical offshoots that gave emphasis to the concept of jihad as a duty for true Muslims (Ansary 2009:308-10, 326-27, 331-32).
Islamic literalism spread at a rapid pace for various reasons: the limited gains of the revolutionary Third World project of national and social liberation, blocked by the West; the limited capacity of the Nasserist project to deliver on its promise of autonomous national economic and social development, inasmuch as it was hampered by Western opposition and sanctions; the decline in prestige of the Nasserist project that resulted from the Six Day War; the growing class inequalities generated by accommodationist governments; the subordination of accommodationist nationalism to the West; and the increasing obviousness of the hypocrisy of accommodationist politicians with respect to nationalist aspirations and Islam. Islamic literalism was a turn to the past, driven by a loss of faith in the future that Nasser had envisioned; and by a rejection of accommodationism, for its lack of dignity. In the 1970s, developmentalism and modernism remained the dominant motif as national liberation states attempted to reform from below the neocolonial world-system, but Islamic literalism has become influential among the excluded (Ansary 2009:342).
In the 1980s in Afghanistan, the United States turned to direct support of the Islamic insurgency, not only indirectly through support of Saudi Arabia. The Islamist guerrilla resistance was backed with money and arms by the Saudi-financed World Muslim League, which generally supported Islamic literalists; and by the CIA, which hoped to involve the Soviet Union in an unwinnable war. The eight-year anti-Soviet guerrilla war “totally empowered the country’s Islamist ideologues” and “attracted Islamist zealots from around the Muslim world, including jihadists from the Arab world” and Pakistan (Ansary 2009:344), who repackaged themselves as freedom fighters. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Afghan communists, the United States disengaged from Afghanistan, making no effort the rebuild the war-torn country. The jihadists made Afghanistan, now reduced to a rubble, as their base of operations for a war against the West. They helped to develop the Taliban (Ansary 2009:344-7; Prashad 2007:271-72; Schulze 2000:229-33).
Long-term global trends also favored the decline of the Third World project of national and social liberation and the rise of Islamic insurgency. As the global powers turned to the neoliberal project and as the International Monetary Fund pushed states toward the abandonment of social services in health, education and relief, the Islamic organizations affiliated with the World Muslim League filled the void, thus expanding exponentially. With the imposition of neoliberal globalization on the world, the sovereignty of states was undermined, and the idea of nationalism and patriotism was severed from a context defined by the “secular-socialist nationalism of the Third World agenda” and placed in a worldview formed by a cultural nationalism imbued with traditional religious concepts (Prashad 2007:274). By the 1980s, it had become clear that Islamic leaders of the Left could not make their dreams real, and Islamic literalism thrived among the excluded people of the lower classes (Ansary 2009:343-44; Prashad 2007:271, 273-74; Schulze 2000:248-49).
Taking into account the recent history of the Arab and Islamic worlds, let us ask: What has caused the emergence of this new form of terrorism characterized by the indiscriminate and deliberate killing of civilians? The answer is logical, even if scarcely acknowledged in the discourses of the North: the blocking by the global powers of all reasonable political efforts by the peoples and movements of the Third World to protect their national sovereignty and to establish economic and cultural autonomy; and the adoption of strategies by the United States that gave space to those ideological sectors in the Islamic world most inclined to adopt extremist measures. In using any and all means to block reform from below of the neocolonial world-system, the global powers gave credibility and legitimacy to extremist violence.
However, when the United States confronted the new form of terrorism, it did not react with a reassessment of its persistent effort to preserve the structures of the neocolonial world-system. It did not turn to a recognition of the political, economic and ecological unsustainability of the world-system and of the need for humanity to develop a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system. It made no effort to understand the phenomenon in global and historical context, and it proclaimed a “war on terrorism.”
The war on terrorism is a permanent war. It has included: military invasions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; military attacks in Yemen and Pakistan; military support for “opposition groups” in Syria; prisons that violate due process rights, including the use of torture; and increased vigilance on U.S. citizens.
The Trump Executive Order places itself in the “war on terrorism” that the United States has waged since 2001. It declares its intention “to protect the United States and its citizens from foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States” by placing a temporary halt on immigration from seven countries that the Obama administration previously had defined as characterized by high levels of terrorism. With the goal of developing a permanent policy, the Order directs the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence to determine what information is needed from any country to judge if a person seeking admission to the United States is a security or public-safety threat. It gives them 30 days to report, including a list of countries that do not provide the necessary information.
In the U.S. political discourse, the “war against terrorism” is understood in the context of the American grand narrative that sees the nation as a model of democracy. The proclaimed war casts terrorism as a threat to democracy, and it has justified military action as necessary to fight terrorism and to defend democracy. The “war against terrorism” has created a climate of fear with respect to terrorist acts, thus generating greater popular support for military expenditures and interventions. And it has fostered an association of Islam with terrorism, thus converting Muslims into convenient scapegoating targets. Such an ideological war that defines external and internal enemies has been convenient for the global powers, in that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of communists, the global powers were in need of a threatening menace that was everywhere present, but invisible.
When the new form of terrorism emerged as a social phenomenon in the 1990s, the “war on terrorism” was one possible response for the societies of the North. But another response was possible, one based on recognition of the fact that the inequalities and injustices of the neocolonial world-system have consequences even for the societies of the North, and thus these injustices have to be addressed. Here is where the Left in the North should have been prepared, explaining the political, economic, financial and ecological unsustainability of the neocolonial world-system, and proposing North-South cooperation for the construction of a just, democratic and sustainable world-system. The Left should have been proposing cooperation with the Third World project of national and social liberation as the best way to eliminate terrorism.
The new form of terrorism will be overcome though international cooperation and solidarity and support for the Third World project of national and social liberation. It will be overcome through the creation a world-system that respects the sovereignty and equality of all nations, allows economic and cultural autonomy, supports international programs for the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens of all nations, and promotes laws and programs that are designed to protect nature. It won’t help much to block the entrance to the United States of people from certain nations, to build a wall along the southern frontier, or to deport illegal immigrants. And when such efforts are undertaken with an attitude that ignores rights of due process, they are not only wrong-headed but also egregious.
I will reflect further on a possible alternative narrative of the Left in subsequent posts in this series of post on Trump.
Ansary, Tamim. 2009. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.
Prashad, Vijay. 2007. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New York: The New Press.
Schulze, Reinhard. 2000. A Modern History of the Islamic World. New York: New York University Press.