middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Islamist violence any worse?

The full range of modern Muslim intellectuals is wide. It inevitably includes Islamist thinkers, some of whom have embraced violence at some point in their lives. Today’s post-9/11 culture reduces these Islamists to caricatures of anti-Western fanaticism–to different versions of Osama Bin laden, et al. I argue in the following piece that their legacy deserves a much closer examination. 

Published by the Los Angeles Review of Books on August 4th, 2017

On the morning of September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up in front JP Morgan Bank on 23 Wall Street, right at the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Inside the wagon sat about 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron weights, all hitched to a timer-set detonator. By noon, a vicious blast ripped through the surrounding area, resulting in 40 deaths and hundreds injured. It was, as author and historian Mike Davis observes, modern society’s first introduction to “the prototype car bomb.”

This infamous attack, dubbed the “Wall Street Bombing,” was at that point the worst instance of domestic terrorism in United States history. Though the perpetrators of the explosion were never apprehended, authorities strongly suspected that violent anarchist activists had carried it out. More specifically, they suspected the Galleanists, a strain of “propaganda of the deed” anarchists who followed the works of Luigi Galleani, a leading Italian-American anarchist thinker who preached the overthrow of capitalism and government by violent means. It was the Galleanists who, along with some other anarchists, carried out a string of similar attacks across the US in 1919.

The phrase “propaganda of the deed” is now used to refer to a whole family of political actions that, by way of posing as often-violent examples to the rest of society, can theoretically act as a catalyst for wider revolution. They can, as Galleani notes in his 1925 book The End of Anarchism?, “kindle in the minds of the proletariat the flame of the idea” of a more egalitarian world and thus lead to “vigorous preparation for the armed insurrection.” The phrase itself was coined in the 19th century by the Russian writer Mikhail Bakunin, a leading anarchist thinker of his time, a rival of Karl Marx, and a now a mostly forgotten figure.

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Mikhail Bakunin

In his 1870 “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis,” Bakunin writes, “All of us must now embark on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”

Of course, “propaganda of the deed” doesn’t necessarily have to involve dynamite, bloodshed, and death, but the anarchist movement of that era was characterized most famously by instances like the 1919 Galleanist bombings or the assassination of high profile politicians like US President William McKinley (1901). Such acts shocked the Western world at a time when millions of people were experiencing the effects of systemic social and economic transformation via the industrial revolution and the rise of modern global capitalism.

Works by figures like Bakunin, Marx and numerous others were responding to seismic social changes, but it was Bakunin who never stopped preaching violent revolt as the primary agent of historical progress. He openly called for the violent overthrow of existing orders, such as the Hapsburg Monarchy, as a way to achieve true egalitarian progress.

It’s a curious but useful exercise to look back and ponder proponents of political violence like Bakunin, particularly as Western Europe reels from one terrorist attack after another and as the so called “Islamic State” (ISIS) remains in control of a sizeable piece of territory in Syria and Iraq. The 9/11 attacks ushered in the Era of National Security, an almost mandatory lens through which to look at the times. According to subsequent piles of “anti-terror” legislation, even verbal or cyber expressions in favor of violence can potentially amount to “material support” for (mostly Islamist) terrorism, a major crime.

Despite this paranoia, the world today is usually capacious and patient enough to place and assess problematic figures like Bakunin within the wider social and historical contexts of 19th century political unrest. Bukanin, a consistent and fierce preacher of violent sociopolitical change, is still read and studied, though not so widely these days, in post-secondary seminars, along with other figures whose proposals throughout the centuries echo the violent extremism that has worked its way into much of the world today—sometimes with an Islamist colouring, sometimes not.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s terrorism is subject to a whole new matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s “Islamic terrorism” is subject to a whole post-9/11 matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs. The ideas and ideologies associated with “Islamic terrorism” are then fed through this apparatus and analyzed with an immediacy that favors the ill-defined parameters and mandate of “security studies.”

Each Muslim thinker or promoter of extremism (even those who died long before 9/11) is shrunk down and associated first-and-foremost with recent acts of violence. In other words, the first reaction to such historical figures isn’t—as in the case of Bakunin and others—to view them as a lens into history, but rather to situate them within a present-day “security” context as a possible (even imminent) threat from the past. This is a direct reflection of today’s tendency to perceive and evaluate Muslims not as flesh-and-blood human beings, but as units of ideological action.

Sayyid Qutb and Islamism of the deed

Many Islamist thinkers have suggested violence as a way of bringing about utopia. They differ as much in ideology as they do in intellectual substance. But the one figure whose profile has risen most recently and infamously as the quintessential “philosopher of Islamic terror” is the late Egyptian author, theologian, and eventual agitator Sayyid Qutb, who died almost four decades before 9/11.

Analysts and observers from Paul Berman to Lawrence Wright have referred to Qutb, whose writings and activism in Egypt during the 1960s eventually led to his execution by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1966, as the godfather of Islamic terrorism. It should be noted that such terrorism varies widely in tactical form and strategic purpose, while spanning the gamut of many different groups and nationalities. Their overall modus operandi, though buttressed by a different set of ideas and used for a different set of goals, bear the same kind of “revolutionary” imprimatur of, say, the Galleanist bombings a century earlier. Generally speaking, these are actions perpetrated as a form of violent propaganda (of the deed).

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Sayyid Qutb in prison

Yet the way we understand and approach the intellectual figures behind today’s displays of Muslim political violence is much more contingent on the post-9/11 ideological and political climate than most would like to admit. Qutb, for instance, is still associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (though he eventually abandoned them for a more radical path), perhaps the most famous Islamist organization in the world. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won a popular mandate to govern Egypt after the 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak and before a military coup forced them underground two years later. Today, for a number of political reasons, the Trump administration is considering putting the Muslim Brotherhood on the US list of terrorist organizations, alongside groups like Al-Qaeda, which has been on the list since 1999.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s. This treatment of Qutb is characteristic of the post-9/11 West’s tendency to eschew a more nuanced engagement with pro-violence Islamist thinkers in favor of a more security-centric approach.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s.

This is as true of liberal observers and writers as it is of neo-conservatives. Whereas hawkish voices on the American right such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are happy to name Qutb as a “prominent MB ideologue” and a figure that Al Qaeda has cited from time to time, more liberal voices such as Paul Berman are equally happy to point Qutb out as the “intellectual hero” of all modern jihadists.

Both of these sweeping assertions lack specificity, accuracy and context, but the larger effect of their collective pronouncements is to reduce Qutb into what can bluntly be called a terrorist thinker. It is true that Qutb’s advocacy of violence had an effect on the likes of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but that’s not all he was. It is also true that Bakunin’s call for violent revolution influenced anarchist terrorists down the line, but that’s not all he preached or wrote about. Yet whereas current Western culture still has room in the classroom and elsewhere to consider and evaluate Bakunin in all his complexities (while, of course, recognizing the dangers that he represents), post-9/11 attitudes stand in the way of a similar understanding of Qutb and those like him. The demonization of the MB, an imperfect organization with deeply Islamist ideological roots, by some of its lazier critics in the West is a primary example of this intellectual double standard.

Though the MB haven’t renounced Qutb per se, it is a stretch to call him one of the animating forces behind the organization today, as the FDD does in their overview of the group. (Notice also that connection to Qutb also makes it okay to lump the MB together with Al Qaeda.) But Bakunin had a similar degree of impact on many contemporary organizations and movements, such as the anti-globalization movement or anarchist groups like the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). No serious commentators or policy writers are calling for all self-professed anarchists and anti-globalization activists to be classified as terrorists, even if they share a handful of ideologues (including Bakunin) with more violent groups.

The dog we know vs. the revolutionary we don’t know

A distinction should also be made between figures like Qutb and other, even more relevant ideologues to today’s violence who’ve devoted their entire corpus to the ideologies and tactics of violent jihad. These include outright criminal figures like Abu Musab al-Suri, whose 1600-page work on The Global Islamic Resistance Call popularized the ideas of “leaderless jihad” as a terrorist tactic, along with Abu Bakr Naji, whose Management of Savagery was written as a guide for Al-Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups to work towards an “Islamic Caliphate.”

These so called intellectuals don’t work or write outside of the narrow and myopic realm of violent Islamist activism. Their works are devoted wholly to the perpetration of crimes and how to get away with it. Their Islamic knowledge is often cursory at best and bears no resemblance to any sort of traditional learning that has constituted the backbone of the normative Islamic tradition for over a thousand years. In other words, engaging with these “scholars” would be analogous to looking through something like The Anarchists’ Cookbook to gain any kind of understanding of Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin.

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Abu Musab al-Suri

Unlike al-Suri or Naji, Qutb is indeed more akin to Bakunin, who had a lot more to say about the world’s machinations than how to kill people for ideological or social reasons. Qutb and Bakunin’s arguments for the usage of violence is situated in a larger, often sophisticated scheme or vision of how society must be changed and dealt with in relation to justice and other ideals. Qutb’s major works, like his multi-volume In the Shade of the Quran, are often regarded as highly important accomplishment in Islamic exegesis. And if it weren’t for his self-important and, quite honestly, rather monotonous screeds on the “obligatory” duties of killing the infidels (his Milestones, written in and smuggled out of prison, is a kind of personal manifesto for Islamist-based violence), Qutb would’ve secured a place in the mainstream pantheon of modern Muslim thinkers.

Karl Marx is another, perhaps even more illuminating example for analogy. In an article for the November 6th edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848, Marx famously concluded “that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”

Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Of course, Marx never wrote any practical manuals about the tactical aspects of this “revolutionary terror” ala al-Suri or Naji, but he was certainly referring to his own version of a wider “jihad” that would overtake society so as to catalyze revolutionary change in Europe and beyond. It fell on others down the line to interpret Marxist ideas into action by way of more violent tactics such as guerrilla warfare. Among such interpreters are Mao Zedong, whose On Guerrilla Warfare influenced a generation of strategists–including Che Guevara, who wrote his own book on the subject right after the Cuban Revolution. But even Mao and Che, two figures who had no problem with applying violence to realize certain political ends, enjoy a more nuanced reception today in contrast to Islamist figures who flirted with violent ideas. Che has been the subject of a two-part Hollywood biopic by Steven Soderbergh while Mao, though widely recognized today as a political monster, has been extensively studied in all his aspects.

This discrepancy exists because Marx, regardless of his rhetoric or ideas, is a known commodity of sorts, as is Bakunin (though less so). They are the known revolutionaries whose place in Western history has been studied and taken into account. Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Marx’s bloody rhetoric, along with Bakunin’s preaching of violent revolutionary necessities, is the kind of theorizing that can be found in some of Qutb’s work, albeit in light of a very different set of sociopolitical circumstances. But because of today’s post-9/11 hang-ups, it’s almost always the Islamist thinker who gets singled out as especially dangerous, a reputation that taints any person or group affiliated with him in any way.

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Karl Marx

In significant parts of Western culture today—particularly in Canada and Western Europe if not also the US—there are communist and Marxist societies/parties/groups lingering in almost every corner—from university campuses to actual electoral parties—that take the ideas of Marxist theory into the political and public sphere, all without much fear of being put on the US State Department’s list of banned terrorist entities. These groups often bear the very name of a man who, over a hundred years ago, advocated for violent means of revolutionary change.

To be sure, there are also Marxist or anarchist groups who’ve rightfully earned their spot on whatever list of banned entities long before the paranoia of the post-9/11 age, but they are in the minority and usually bear a long and prolific history of violent activities. The wider society knows not to center groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forced (FARC) of Colombia or the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of Sri Lanka when engaging with the larger ideas of Marx, who deservedly remains one of the most influential and quoted figures in Western social sciences and humanities. Yet such conflations are made regularly today, as the reasons for 9/11 and the like are traced back to Qutb.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization. Scholars like Khan have written about the wider range and implications of Qutb’s political and theological ideas, but the more nuanced picture they paint is often lost among the cacophony of post-9/11 chaos.

So for Qutb, along with other Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, or his Pakistani counterpart Syed Abul A’la Maududi, there is a different set of rules at play. They are assessed first and foremost with respect to what they’ve said or done about violence. Their wider ideas are placed aside indefinitely if any of their history bears an association to Islamist bloodshed. And any organizations or groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood for example, that are associated with them, must then bear the same stain—public renouncements of violence be damned.

It goes without saying that concerns and questions pertaining to security and safety are important. But these are questions that bear an immediacy that’s better applied to living criminal masterminds like al-Suri, whose ideas centre particularly on the application of terrorism as a way to engender social change and who has been connected to post-9/11 acts of violence like the 2004 Madrid train bombing. Such figures deserve to be assessed that way because, unlike the long-dead Qutb, they are a living and breathing security threat, which is why authorities captured al-Suri via “extraordinary rendition” in Pakistan in 2005. He’s now languishing in a Syrian prison.

Where too much credit isn’t due

The first chapter of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower contains an illuminating passage of how Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda’s second in command after Bin Laden, mused about extending the ideas of Qutb’s call for jihad into violent practise. It is a pretty damning piece of evidence with regards to the implications of Qutb’s ideas and visions for jihadism. According to the same chapter in Wright’s book, Qutb was offered a way out of prison and execution in his last years by Nasser (who even offered Qutb a spot in his cabinet), but preferred “martyrdom” at the hands of a state he was trying to destabilize.

This ideological connection between al-Zawahiri and Qutb is supposed to illustrate the firm continuation of violent jihadism from thinker to doer, much like how Luigi Galleani’s ideas were carried out by whoever placed dynamite inside of that horse carriage in front of JP Morgan. The implication of such a connection extends beyond al-Zawahiri himself and depicts Qutb as the original inspiration of every other jihadist group, from ISIS to the Nusra Front to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and so on.

Such a one-dimensional portrayal of Qutb has become commonplace in the post-9/11 age and helps to cement his reputation first and foremost as a violent Islamist.

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Fighters of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria

Along with Wright’s book, filmmaker Adam Curtis’ noted three-part documentary series The Power of Nightmares (2004) also features a portrayal of Qutb’s radicalization that follows essentially the same rubric. Curtis juxtaposes Qutb with the neoconservative political theorist Leo Strauss while depicting the two figures as historical and political parallels—each eventually pointing to the other’s ideological legacy as a bogeyman, a dialectical process that, according to Curtis, forms the basis of today’s climate of paranoia and fear.

It must be pointed out that, again, it is precisely such portrayals of figures like Qutb as mindless fanatics that take one out of history’s complexities. Regardless of how right Curtis or Wright are in their diagnoses of Qutb’s pro-violence arguments, the bigger picture remains hidden. Qutb, like Bakunin and Marx, had much more to say. He was, for example, a celebrated literary critic who helped popularize the stories of Egypt’s eventual Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Qutb also wrote novels himself and was a noted poet. His more political and radical works followed life experiences that convinced him of modernity’s corrupting influences, thus necessitating in his mind the emergence of an Islamic vanguard to lead the world, through violence, to an all-encompassing embrace of Islamic principles.

This is a rather Leninist and obviously problematic vision that comes out of a post-colonial experience with modernity. It also facilitates the transformation of Islam, a complex and wide-ranging faith with a deep history, into a shopping list of political tasks. But it’s this dislocating ideological background within which Qutb’s call for violence is situated. The only way to truly understand present day extremism in light of this aspect of the past is to engage with Qutb in his entirety. That means moving away from reductive and inaccurate frameworks that depict him as the ideological source of today’s terrorism.

How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances.

Terrorism is a tactic that’s been around since ancient times. How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances. Ideas and ideologies are important, but they’re hardly the only drivers of someone’s path to violence.

Years of studies regarding radicalization haven’t even pinned down ideas alone as the most important or pervasive driver of violent behaviour for each extremist. It’s true that ideas matter the most for some, but not for others. Yet the present post-9/11 culture focuses on these ideologies as a function of religious belief, thus pushing a “securitizing” effect onto complicated figures like Qutb, a small portion of whose works can be dangerously influential, but whose hypothetical non-existence probably wouldn’t have stemmed the tide of violent Muslim extremism as a social and political phenomenon altogether. In other words, had Qutb never been born, catastrophic events like 9/11 or something else of such a magnitude would likely still have occurred.

Attributing the beginnings of all violent Muslim extremism to the pages of Qutb’s work is akin to attributing the actions and crimes of the Tamil Tigers to Marx’s 1848 article, or anarchist bombings to the pages of Bakunin. Such a reductive tendency with regards to violent Islamism is one area where today’s neoconservative right has converged with the more liberal center. Knowingly or not, more liberal writers like Wright and Berman often overlap with their right-wing counterparts at neoconservative think tanks like the FDD when they present and depict Islamist theorists in such a one-dimensional way. Both camps refuse to take Muslim thinkers seriously as historical figures who’re substantially captive to their own times and emotions.

Moreover, their thinking extended far beyond violence itself and its application. A fair assessment of who they were and the work they did means taking into account the entire range of ideas for which they advocated.

It is today’s post-9/11, security-obsessed and racist climate that keeps the public from such an engagement with Muslim thinkers. The tendency is to always look for connections between these thinkers and terrorism, hoping that such exercises will contribute to more public safety. But violence is much more complicated. People’s interpretations of ideas and texts are a reflection of their own inner stories and realities, which are often subject to much more than just the ideas of some 19th or early 20th century writer.

Engagement over negligence

Contrary to present-day assumptions, a more open-minded and less ideological assessment of thinkers such as Qutb—rather like that offered to problematic Western thinkers—will actually yield insights that can potentially lead to the kind of understanding that engenders peace and safety. Qutb was certainly radicalized according to today’s standards. But his path to advocating violence occurred at a time in the Muslim world when many were trying with varying degrees of effectiveness to respond to what they saw as the decline of Muslim civilizations. The intellectuals among them (and not all of whom advocated violence!) have produced works and lived lives that offer up very useful windows into how different Muslim societies and countries function today in relation to the wider world.

Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish.

Reading into the works of Bakunin offers an entry into understanding a different time. Engaging with a figure like that makes clear the obvious absurdity of trying to ban every group, violent or otherwise, who take after a radical thinker’s ideas. Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their tenuous association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish. It would be like locking up the members of Greece’s Syriza party because it is a coalition that includes a contingent of Marxist-Leninists.

But people know better than to reflexively conflate Marxist politics or beliefs with illegal and criminal activities. Yet the tenor and pervasiveness of post-9/11 attitudes, rhetoric, and politics has impeded an equal approach to the crop of Muslim thinkers who condone violent change.

Marx and Bakunin believed that only revolutionary violence could eliminate the prevailing cobweb of systemic societal problems. They were certainly wrong on many counts as far as the ethics of violent implementations are concerned. Qutb was no better, but he too was responding to the political circumstances around him, about which he felt deeply disturbed. Combined with the personal effects of how this outside world interacted with his mind, a set of dangerous ideas and prescriptions came into being. Tracing the genealogy of these ideas and placing them in their proper place means engagement. Not censorship or denial. They are ideas to be assessed and grappled with, regardless of whether they come from a violent and disturbed Muslim or not.

[http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/islamist-violence-worse/]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

A Great (Political) Neutering

Published on The Islamic Monthly on November 25th, 2014

Every problem that afflicts the Muslim world calls out desperately for enlightened Muslim activism. Yet it can be convincingly argued that Western Muslim communities have become politically castrated in the post-9/11 era. Organizations are afraid to lose their charitable status as governments implement rigorous auditing procedures, while those who want nothing more than normal, decent lives are afraid of ending up on some no-fly list, unable to land that big job at that big firm.

This self-perpetuating quiescence occurs at a time when places like Canada and other “5-Eyes”nations (the other four being the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) are tabling ever more invasive security measures. Fear-mongering politicians use the “Islamic State” and “homegrown terrorism” to get what they want while civic pushback, though not insignificant, is still relatively outmatched.

But the question Muslims should be asking is, “What are all these security measures aiming at?”

Which communities are going to bear the brunt of such surveillance?

There are several candidates, but a blind person can tell that the easiest target these days are Muslims who have no interest in defending themselves politically. Obama may have rhetorically dropped the “War on Terror” title, but his administration has arguably been much more active in rolling back civil liberties than his GOP predecessor.

Canadian politics seem headed down that same road. Extra policing and surveillance will surely be applied to Muslim communities after the Harper administration gets its new anti-terror laws passed by a Tory parliamentary majority.

The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest that the Muslim response to these developments will be anything more than tepid.

To be sure, there are some groups who’re picking up the slack, but it’s hard to conclude that they have the material backing of larger community sectors. For all the talk about victimhood, Palestine, the War on Terror, etc., which have all become major themes of discussion in the Muslim world, people don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. The result is a set of deformed communal tendencies that often contradict each other.

Take this latest Tariq Ramadan beef with the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference organizers. It’s created a schism in the Muslim community Canada (and beyond), especially for those who attend the convention regularly and admire Ramadan (who thinks RIS is politically inept for inviting scholars who apparently support the Sisi regime in Egypt). It’s a fair debate with real implications, but the scope of its effects is internal (much like insider-baseball). Internal is about the only kind of political controversy that the community wants to engage with. Anything that defends against real outside threats that affect everyone on a local level is not so exciting, it seems. Why act against Stephen Harper, surveillance, over-policing, and demonization when bickering about whether some conference should/shouldn’t invite some Swiss scholar is so much more fun (and so much easier)?

Therein lies the curious, oxymoronic (a)political behavior of Western Muslims (especially in Canada): gung-ho about its own internal beefs while refusing real engagement with actual political threats from those in power. The former, however substantive, is comfortable and familiar. The latter is hard work and puts people’s reputations on the line. That’s why when it came to the emblematic issue of Omar Khadr’s repatriation, the former child soldier’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, got on every podium he could to literally yell “Where are you?” to the Muslims. It turns out Khadr’s stronger allies were progressive atheists and Christians.

There’s a lot of talk about sticking together, communalism, and justice when it comes to Western Muslims (who, arguably, are most free to practice their religion). That’s not a bad thing. Frustration and anger should lead to action, but action is the operative term here. For all this talk about who is speaking for (thanks Shaykh bin Affleck!) or against (Bill Maher, etc.) Muslims, the only thing that ever really matters is whether or not Muslims speak out for each other. In which case the Muslims have failed substantially, leading any outside observer to conclude that Islam isn’t much glue when it comes to binding people together for justice. (Though it’d be inspiring to be proven wrong!)

Someone once told me that Islam is the greatest source of human connection God has ever given humanity. I believe him, but only in spite of all the evidence available to me. In other words, I believe him in theory. In practice, failure to consider the shortcomings of human nature results in a rejection of reality. If Western Muslims continue to reject the reality around them in favor of class privilege, we’ll be bringing the temple down on our own heads.

Photo Credit: Hector de Pereda

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/a-great-political-neutering/]

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Sense and Nonsense of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST)

Published on:
http://thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=506

This past Canada Day, both Ontario and British Columbia joined Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick as the latest provinces to accept the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) system. The HST combines the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) into one, single sales tax. For Ontario and B.C., the tax comes to 13% and 12% respectively.

The reason for harmonization is threefold: (1) To increase investment in provincial businesses, thus making them more competitive, (2) to create more jobs, and (3) to eliminate hidden taxes incurred throughout operational costs. Adopting the HST will also mean that products that were exempt form the PST will now incur the 7/8% “PST” under harmonization, although some products will be exempt altogether. This process of exemption/inclusion, however, is highly arbitrary, and lacks a democratic basis.

Reactions to the HST have been mixed at best. The NDP have roundly condemned the tax, claiming that it is a tax grab that will help provinces accumulate up to 3.5 billion dollars in revenue, the purpose of which is unclear. Public opinion in both Ontario and B.C. have been vastly negative, with estimates of 90% in both provinces against the tax.

The more conservative-minded C. D. Howe Institute has long been advocating for an HST, citing the aforementioned reasons, and claiming that the HST is harmless to average households given that it is “revenue neutral”. However, the most interesting report probably comes from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think-tank that has done extensive research on the HST, and the role that it is likely to play in Canadian provinces.

The CCPA believes that the HST will hurt modest to middles class income households. Consider that “The BC government is proposing an HST credit of a maximum $230 for individuals with income up to $20,000, and $230 per family member for fami­lies with incomes up to $25,000.” This means that “an individual with $20,000 or less in income would have to spend more than $3,285 per year on the previously ex­empt goods and services listed below in order to be worse off.” These low thresholds may benefit some of the poorest citizens, but middle class families will incur much more tax with the HST.

The CCPA also believe that having increased jobs and business competitiveness as a result of the HST is greatly exaggerated. Cutting operating costs does not necessarily increase investment in businesses, especially when the tactic also includes laying off workers. Rather, investment is based on the future estimations of profits and sales.

It is most important that the revenues incurred with the HST be used for progressive purposes, much like the Scandinavian models. In the Nordic countries, the HST is a progressive tax that helps to build communal infrastructure and social welfare. What Canada intends to do with the HST is still largely opaque. Moreover, the provincial governments should increase the threshold for credit, and decrease it in a slower fashion as incomes increase.

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Barack Obama, Fear, and Islam

The day Barack Obama was elected, Nov 4th, just happens to mark the 29th anniversary of the Iran Hostage crises of 1979. It was a year when the whole world had its eyes fixed on the Middle East, as an uproar of nationalist and religious fervour took over Iran. Students poured into the American embassy in Teheran and laid seige to it until the hostages were eventually released.

Perhaps the West’s first major media obsession with Islam, it set the tone for further coverage for the past 30 years throughout 9/11, Iraq and the ongoing Is-Pal crisis. Pictures of the stern Khomeini, the masked Muslim mob, and angry gun-totting nikabs filled the television sets of the nightly new on ABC, NBC, CBS, etc…

Has the West changed its public opinion today? Hardly: the Bush administration has found it helpful to reuse the same types of sound bites and visual feeds to build upon that old fearfulness for his wars, Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act. The results have been FOX News, a breach on civil liberties(1), international tension, and a LOT of dead people–innocent people. All of this created by a tapestry of lies and fear. The world divided over artificial lines and the pundits occasionally darken them with cries of a purported “clash of civilizations”(2).

Barack Obama, throughout his campaign, talks grandly about stopping the “politics of fear”. I’ve heard all his speeches, and no one can deny the quality of his political campaign. The rest of the world watches as if this is sport, but in the back of their heads they know what the effects of the US presidency can have on the world. At least he’s a decent fellow from afar, most people say. But so was Carter, and HIS record isn’t even clean. Far from it (3). So the challenge, besides a crippled economy and a melting planet, is if Obama can live up to his promise of stopping fear. If he can, analogues to Iraq will be difficult in the future. The Patriot Act and its international army of minions (4) will will have almost no illusions to stand on. The international community with its obscenely overlooked conventions and laws will not look upon the US through the lens of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture (that is, if you overlook the rest of US history).

Being a black president, symbolically anyway, refers back to black history in a way that mirrors the characterizations of Muslims today. In fact, both Muslims and black people share much in common: both hated at one point or another in history, both feared for manufactured reasons, and both accused of resisting via violence and more hatred. Will a black president understand?

America must not forget that hatred works both ways, that is, the laws of physics do apply. Fuck up a country, and you’ll feel the resistance (911). Yeah, people are like that. The Algerians fought the French for 130 years. Barack Obama, in all his purported glory, has a chance to withdraw from two wars, end the disproportionate suppourt for Israel, and scratch the Patriot Act. He will not fully do the first (wants to increase the surge in Afghanistan), will not do the second (have you seen his AIPAC speech?) and I can’t say whether or not he’ll do the third.

It looks like Obama needs the help of ordinary people like us after all. That this God of a man is actually restricted by his professional conditions. It seems that the people’s history of resistance isn’t irrelevant and must continue to exist for Obama to live up to his own verbiage.

(1)Sami Al-Arian for example.
(2)See Samuel Huntington’s “classic” of the same name.
(3)Gave Indonesia weapons to slaughter East Timoris, propped up puppet regime in Cambodia (and saying no debt was owed to Vietnam on the part of the US), and refusing to accept Haitian refugees under Baby Doc Duvalier.
(4)Anti-terror act in Canada for example. Similiar examples found in the Philippines and elsewhere.

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The “Clash of Civilizations”

The so called ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigm coined by Princeton’s Bernard Lewis and expanded by Samuel Huntingdon of Harvard is a myth on all the grounds it claims to occupy. The roots of this family of rationally bizarre and sadly anachronistic ideologies begin quite understandably with a division of the world into Cold War-like ‘clashes’. These clashes are in turn caused by the inherent differences of homogenous and monolithic cultures, which apparently have next to nothing in common, and always stand at odds (in complete separation) over each other.

The old fairy-tale division rings physical detection at the age of 6 for perhaps an ‘average’ human being: the romanticism of east versus west, stemming from (quite obviously) underlying seeds of jingoistic traits. Expansion of such a romanticism and manicuring of its overly forested landscapes of emptiness leads to something that can be perhaps reduced into a sexy intellectual tribalism. The ideologies can all be reduced to a specific set of supposedly smart, pragmatic and hard-hitting policies that must be used for self-preservation. Identifying the enemy as “them” in turn strengthens the identity of “us”, making life much easier and foreign policy more straightforward.

Thus, in his description of how cultures work, Huntingdon desperately and in a fetishistic way clings on to a dual assumption regarding Us and Them. Us, the bearer of values worthy of preservation, and Them, those who seek to corrode such values and implement their own, which really aren’t values—in Our eyes anyway.

It is useful to explore the romanticism of such a profound clash.

It is physically impossible: the citizens of each cultural entity must all harbour hatred for difference, and in their monolithic suppourt allows their governments to unleash their armies and fight until the end of days. There is no room for dissent, no room for protest, and in fact, erases the will of the masses. History shows us that wars are started by powerful policy makers that pursue its prestige, stability, survival, and domination. What lies suppressed and repressed under its propaganda, namely the masses, remain always (in whatever proportions) in ideological difference of these policies. This makes any claim at civilizational war pure bullshit and the wet dream of residual Hitlerian ideologies. Its survival in the public domain as an ideological option is sustained only as stated: an ideology—one with no factual basis. Its existence is created by those in power that see its usage as a necessary mental prescription for its citizens in order to carry out its expansionist policies.

But here lies a devious trap: the propagation and the belief in a clash of civilizations by a certain citizenry (and the media) does not in any way provide suppourt for its factual basis, nor its attempt to exist as a feasible, realistic ideology. The public spreading of the imagery (mainly due to the media, or corporations that work closely with those in power) of the Other, is done subsequently through fear-mongering. This fear is never rational, and always fails to convince the majority of the electorate. And yet, many a time, it has garnered enough suppourters to back the beliefs necessary for policies of power-pursuit and economic expansion. The majority remains mainly asleep, a very useful thing for the powerful since there is less dissent.

The existing resistance (that never fails to exist in every single chapter of history) is mainly based on common sense, augmented by the day to day interactions, and understandings between cultures that share much of the same history. It is quite undeniable now that the world is inhabited by a human race that throughout history has shared the stories of discovery, tragedy and success. Such consistent efforts (conscious or not) of overlap can be seen on levels of intellectual activity, and the most basic of cultural exchanges. Huntingdon conveniently ignores this. Instead, Huntington prescribes international protectionism in the form of geopolitical chess games: play off the Muslim and Confucian (far east cultures) and protect ‘western’ values by allying with the countries that espouse them outside of the United States. The cultures themselves are never the authourities to which Huntington refers to.

Then there is the belief that those in power do in all honesty pursue policies that convey hate for another civilization. If this turns out to be the truth, and hatred is the pursuit of one’s government, then it has solidified the outcome of its efforts as yielding precisely zero pragmatic gain. If a government travels on pure hatred without underlying economic goals, and place the gaining of resources as a bonus, then why bother spending billions on oil pipelines, interim governments and military bases?

It is more and more incredible how even those with the highest of academic positions continuously and seriously speak on behalf of large, abstract entities such as “the West”, or “Muslim culture”. These entities are then used as game pieces in an arena of self-preservation and power. It is as if the entire ‘West’ behaves as one individual, and all one billion or so Muslims is bent on doing two or three things and nothing else.

The clash of civilizations is nothing more than another theory for the justification of international plunder. It is the remnant of the bastardized notions of social Darwinism, the extensions of what Count Gobineau and Renan did to justify their racial theories one hundred and fifty years ago.

Let us ask the following questions*:

  1. How does understanding the world as an arena of clashes lessen conflict?
  2. Doesn’t this paradigm enhance and instigate more national murderousness and pride?
  3. Is it correct and wise to create a simplified map of the world and prescribe it to generals and lawmakers to act on the world?
  4. Does this not prolong and deepen conflict?
  5. Do we want a “clash of civilizations”?

* questions taken from earlier Edward Said lecture

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Riding the Wave

In a recent interview with Noam Chomsky, I came across a very simple fact on the understanding of politics that I think we too often ignore.

Too often are we mesmerized by the leaders of yesterday. Unintentionally, our fascination with those sweeping speeches and memorable martyrdoms lead us to passively observe our present for an individual to take the torch. The masses, caught up in a fervor, become pragmatically abject. In other words, we no longer see the point on holding them accountable. We forget that it was in the face of power that we gained (however small) our victories for the rights of women, minorities, and the wage slaves.

But even when we bring up a man like Martin Luther King Jr, I would make the case here that he is not the most important member of his movement. His work would become extremely important, his leadership invaluable, and his speeches timeless, but I believe that he would be the first to tell you that he was only riding the wave of activism. A wave that all started in Alabama with a woman unwilling to give up her seat on a city bus just for being black.

The ultimately important people of a struggle are unfortunately the ones whose names will be forgotten, and those who become the victims of the collective amnesia of history. They are the people who organize the forums for speeches, the ones who petition endlessly, the ones who flyer for events like the Million Man March, the whole slew of committees and councils bent on doing all the gritty and glamourless things. They march out into the streets to be hit and humiliated in the eyes of the onlookers. They are the ones who shall forever be cursed with the labels of “idealist” and “eccentric”, a people with purposes too ambitious for own lifetimes.

Ironically, they make history. They create the situations and circumstances for a Martin Luther or Noam Chomsky to enter into the wave and provide more critical leadership. This is true of every single movement that existed. Its not difficult to fly in and join the movement for a couple of hours by giving a talk. Those who work tirelessly to make the talk happen are the ones who are in the lead.

And today we take for granted the freedoms and privileges those forgotten rebels have won for us. Regardless, the fight remains ours. To reach the top one would have served the interests of those above them, not the people who need their help. As an atheist, I like the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” If the problem is ours, then any messiah is but false hope and a charlatan claiming to be a saviour. People like MLK understand this, which is why they hate being called heroes.

In the end, if we fight our fight and win, then we would have earned our victory and we would have deserved it. If we lose, then maybe we didn’t deserve a just world after all.

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“I guess it’s all Karma”

This past month saw the displacement and death of tens of thousands of citizens in Wenchuan County, Sichuan, China due to an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale. The death toll is around 68, 000 and counting.

When asked what she felt about this, actress Sharon Stone cited the sub-par (no euphemism intended) human rights record in China, mainly pertaining to the Tibetan province, and summed it all up by saying something along the lines of…well, isn’t this all karma?

Apparently the Dalai Lama is a friend of hers and I personally can understand why she feels the way she feels and the whole karma thing was probably just an expression for the moment anyway.

Buuuuut, but but but but….As I talked to my grandmother the other day, she soberly reminded me (and she don’t know and don’t care about sharon) that the severity of the situation could be more vividly illustrated if I imagined the deaths of say 20,000 infants, even more missing family members, and generally that sinking feeling you get when you realize that your possessions have disappeared for no good reason.

Again, we see a person unabashedly linking the plight and deeds of a citizenry with the acts of its government. The last time I checked, Sichuan wasn’t exactly a hotbed for detaining and torturing Tibetan monks. And even if it was, I don’t think that all its inhabitants participated in the acts. Okay, so I hope you can tell I’m stretching things.

See, I don’t believe in karma. I know history tends to repeat itself in unexpected ways, and that there are consequences with each act, but how is it that the cosmos allows a massive amount of innocent people to be killed for crimes they didn’t commit. Sharon would say that it’s because they’re all Chinese. I guess she’s not bright enough to make the distinction.

It’s about time that people make it important to distinguish between the nationalistic fervour of their homelands and the autonomy of their personal lives, for which they are responsible for and apply to others.

Some thoughts would be nice.

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