If we really want to get beyond the ‘War on Terror’, argues Arzu Merali, we need to stop thinking and acting within its narratives.
The history books need to be rewritten. In the meantime, a combination of the internet, knowledge production outside of Westernised settings, social movement networks and memory (false and true) may help us understand our recent history and place it within longer and broader contexts. A future reader may make some observations that in truth should have been made by us now. It’s just a thought. As the world discussed the 20th anniversary of 9-11 last year and activists tried to reframe the debate into one about 20 years of the ‘war on terror’, maybe we are in the process of missing an opportunity to cast off the narratives of the last two decades. We – the marginalised peoples of the world – have no military might. Our need to respond to the structural and physical violence meted out over two decades understandably left us with little time to think of or promote the existing ideas for a different world so many of us aspire to. But it is time to think, read, speak. By doing so we can start to cast off the hold that violent narratives have on us, a grasp that is sometimes so tight we even become the perpetrators of the very thing we decry.
Once up a time there was a war. Waged by the US which invaded countries in the name of eradicating the menace it set itself against. Alongside, the powers that be created a mass incarceration scheme and set a tranche of laws designed to target, disadvantage and criminalise a specific segment of the population. It was called the War on Drugs and took place from the 1970s onwards. Sounds familiar? It wasn’t even the first such war, where ‘war’ was declared on an abstract concept with very real-world consequences: the (further) aggrandisement of bankrupt political elites; the enrichment of big business; the entrenchment of the US military industrial complex. Set against this, mass death, destruction, imprisonment and misery were inflicted on millions worldwide. Glossed over or justified as the only moral response to the menace of drugs / terror, the endless violence is now just a footnote in history.
The US is now the self-styled representative of the West.
The War on Terror is / was not new. This is now the US Playbook. It’s time to read it.
Crushing dissent from the inside
It is one of the most insidious parts of the COINTELPRO program that was set to crush the Black Panther Movement in the 1970s, that alongside provocateurs and infiltrators, the authorities flooded poor black communities with drugs. It is the British in Hong Kong reworked for a domestic audience. Unlike the British in China the US policies and practices are not just now well documented, they are well known and not particularly taboo as a fact of history in the US.
What is the Muslim COINTELPRO writ large? For infiltrators and provocateurs, in the domestic US context, Hatem Bazian points to the FBI entrapment cases, of which there are hundreds. In the context of the ‘Arab Spring’ we see instead both overt support for ‘some’ fighters, and covert support for others. Both are instrumentalized in the service of (in)advertently defending Israel by undermining the resistance axis. There isn’t any way around this.
But what about the ‘drugs’? Is there an equivalent? Well aside from the CIA / 1990s onwards Taliban / Northern Alliance / post-occupation drug collusion, maybe not. But there is something insidious that has been also been a type of infiltration – the controlling of and manipulating of ideologies, including those that consider themselves variously ‘Islamic’.
When the US Army / Pentagon Think Tank RAND wrote about supporting some of the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular groups in both Muslim majority countries and in minoritized situations, as part of the US’ foreign policy strategic aims (including to bolster Israel and bring down ‘Islamist’ governments in Iran and Sudan, pro-Palestinian governments in the region, including and especially Syria and movements in Lebanon and Palestine), more attention needed to be paid.
At the level of minoritised civil society – whether it is undercover cops in Animal Liberation Movements or not-so-covert, turncoats, or the divide and rule and gatekeeping of NGOs and movements, US strategic aims tend to trickle down into fomenting different petty and or violent sectarianisms in different national and international contexts.
It has been written about extensively, not least on these pages, the need to shake off the terms of engagement: ‘terrorists’, ‘Islamists’, ‘radicals’ and so on, and with them the false need to have laws and policies that simply demonise. There is plenty to read too on the revolving door between the media, think tanks and governments in the last fifty years in Westernised settings as the place to locate the world’s current woes. The writings of think tanks like RAND are literally the US Playbook. Reading Randa Abdel-Fattah’s ‘Coming of Age in the War on Terror’ we should be reminded that this is beyond an urgent task. Yet, we haven’t even begun reading, let alone writing a different script.
We have the physical infiltrators, one moment shouting at demonstrations and decrying all things in the most unsavoury terms as un-Islamic, before becoming the mirror image of themselves, this time on a crusade against Muslims. But we also have the infiltrated ideas, and some of those ideas is as Baqir Al-Sadr in Iqtisaduna (Our Economics) puts it:
“The first is political subordination which found visual expression in the economically advanced European nations exercising of direct rule over the backward nations.
“The second is economic subordination which went hand in hand with the rise of politically independent governments in the backward countries. This subordination found expression in the European economy being given full scope to play on the scene of these countries in different ways: to exploit their chief resources, to fill their vacuum with foreign capitalism and to monopolize a number of economic conveniences on the pretext of training the natives of the various countries to shoulder the burden of the economic development of their countries.
“The third is subordination in method which was practiced by the people of the Islamic world in numerous experiments. Through these experiments, they tried to gain political independence and get rid of the domination of the European economy. They began to think of reliance on their own power to develop their economy and overcome their backwardness. However, they were only able to understand the nature of the problem shown by their economic backwardness within the framework of the European understanding of it.
“Therefore, they were forced to choose the same method the Europeans had adopted in building up their modern economy.”
Ustasha or Chetnik anyone?
At the time of writing Russia has invaded Ukraine. Trying to ignore the hypocrisy of politicians and media in the West is difficult, but can in many cases be avoided. Don’t turn on the TV, curate your social media. But listening to Muslims living in the actual or virtual West is a different level of excruciating. Often using the maxim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, and occasionally invoking Islamic thinking about the oppressed, Muslim voices are in the main, supporting the Ukrainians. Just as the BBC declared jihad in Syria ten years ago, Muslims go with the flow of the media narrative, even those who will otherwise berate the mainstream western media as Islamophobic. Muslim shows on different social media platforms see talking heads explaining earnestly how appalling Russia is and how bad they have been to Muslims. We – the global ummah – must support the Ukrainians, the voices demand. In one, a more educated host raised the issue of Crimean Tartars and Chechens fighting with the Russians. Well, came the response, I am talking about Muslims elsewhere. Muslims there need to make the choices they feel necessary.
At some point the Ukrainian National Guard put out a video of a soldier putting pig lard onto bullets, claiming they were being made ready to kill those “Kadyrov orcs”.
It’s like a Bosnian explained to me some years ago, when we were discussing the Ukrainian situation in the mid 2010s and the dilemma faced by Tartars in the Crimea. “We have faced this many times. Ustasha or Chetnik?” The former a term used for the ultra-nationalist, fascist Croatian Nazi collaborators. The latter, a term used for Serbian ultra-nationalist militias across various 20th century conflicts including the Bosnia war of 1992 – 1995.
It’s not a choice is it? Just survival, maybe with a small hope that in the long run something good can come of it. Sometimes in those situations you end up with Stockholm Syndrome. Sometimes you just need to make the best of it. The latter, as disillusioning as it may be, if done honestly, needs to be understood by activists who hold the minoritized and marginalised (including governments and political players) in the world system, to a higher standard than the powers that minoritize and marginalise them.
Meanwhile the fight to transform the world leaves aside current and historical examples of radical breaks from the European method – Haiti, Cuba, Iran, the Zapatistas, the different manifestations of the Bolivarian revolution. They are pigeon-holed while the West-centric infiltrates hearts and minds in some way or another.
Rebooting the war
Whilst there are many historic reasons for the Stockholm Syndrome of civil society and global movements, notably the destruction of knowledge and history by colonising powers over five centuries of near Western hegemony, none of us can afford another generation of using this as an excuse for (in)action. Literally. With the climate crisis threatening the very existence of life as we know it, as Ramon Grosfoguel highlights, Western civilization is a civilization of death. We need to plan for life.
As this is being written, a link is being circulated among friends. It is of the report ‘Overextending and Unbalancing Russia’ by the RAND Corporation from 2019. In its summary of its report that ‘ comprehensively examines… options that the United States and its allies could pursue across economic, political, and military areas to stress—overextend and unbalance—Russia’s economy and armed forces and the regime’s political standing…’ it states:
“Providing lethal aid to Ukraine would exploit Russia’s greatest point of external vulnerability. But any increase in U.S. military arms and advice to Ukraine would need to be carefully calibrated to increase the costs to Russia of sustaining its existing commitment without provoking a much wider conflict in which Russia, by reason of proximity, would have significant advantages.”
RAND hasn’t forgotten about Muslims (even if we may have forgotten about ourselves). In the next paragraph they now suggest that the US scale back its support for Syrian rebels, going against RAND’s previous (heeded) call for support for the rebels /opposition: ‘Increasing [further] support to the Syrian rebels could jeopardize other U.S. policy priorities…’ The US Playbook notes in every edition that your inclusion is contingent, liminal and you are at risk of expulsion at any time. Ukraine take note.
The South Caucasus, as a site of possible US economic ties, is also namechecked on the same page (though not deemed of high benefit). The South Caucasus (and again Ukraine) take note.
Meanwhile, the pig lard events multiply as a ‘displaced’ latter-day fascistic rhetoric is thrown at Muslims, instead of and occasionally with Jews as the targets.
Ukrainian leaders give interviews with pictures of war criminals in the background, supporters of open borders for Ukrainian refugees in Europe range from the most powerfully right-wing in the UK government, to senators in Spain. And parliamentarians in Poland. Israel has taken in upwards of two thousand Ukrainian Jews. Few ‘Western’ states hide the fact that they do not want any Muslim refugees when challenged on the hypocrisy of their stance.
Meanwhile the Syrian National Coalition is amongst the many Muslim voices, whose uncritical stand in solidarity makes them bedfellows once more with the very powers who even in a myopic 20-year history of the world, have been the greatest oppressors.
We can and should of course support the oppressed whoever and wherever they are. But we need to be weary of fellow travellers en route. Scratch that. Better still, go a different way. If we are concerned about the Ukrainians in the West of the country since Russian soldiers invaded on 24 February 2022, we should genuinely be concerned about those in the East under fire from Ukrainian government and right wing militia forces for the last eight years. We should have been concerned for all the Syrians. But there we are. We have learned nothing.
A note on Chechnya
Doubtless a combination of brute force and massive hearts and minds operations has worked on many Chechens to push them to support Russia. Here, there is little space to unpack what happened in the 1990s and the choices made subsequently by an embattled and besieged people. It is worth noting the US Playbook has some bearing here too, as Putin in his early days was also accused of creating Chechen rebel puppets, manipulating, infiltrating and even creating some of the insurgencies – brutal fighters, often former GRU operatives, who would discredit those fighting for more autonomy. The theories proliferated in the 1990s in Russia, are still the talk of Eastern European observers, and even liberal post-revisionist historian Robert Service claims that the relationship exists until today, with Chechen rebels being given free and unfettered passage to Syria during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics by Russian authorities in order to keep the games peaceful. We saw the same use of GIA in Algeria at the hands of the Algerian secret service and a dose of the French either in actual support or historical inspiration. The CIA’s dirty wars in South America should need no further elaboration on relevance here. The descent into idiot usefulness of many erstwhile liberation movements needs to be a salutary lesson, not an exercise in never-ending excuses.
Another Civilisation is Possible – Decolonising our expectations, creating our own narratives
In response to current events in Ukraine, Sandew Hira overviews how anti-imperialist movements have internalised mainstream Western narratives. In the current moment he states the narrative runs: “If you are not with me, you are with Putin. And as Putin is evil so you are also evil. And evil person should be dealt with.” It is of course reminiscent of George W. Bush’s statement at the outset of the ‘war on terror’: “If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists.” Go back somewhat further, and the US playbook reveals many such narratives and images, Benjamin Franklin’s woodcut, ‘Join or Die’ being one of the earlier examples of managing ‘Indian relations’ in order to further entrench British and subsequently American colonialism on Native land.
Sometimes, as activists we are also victims, and our struggles and politics are subsumed in the need to survive. In so doing, the aspirations for a different and better world, based on something other than the tried and failed methods of the Enlightenment are pushed off our agendas as we are forced to regurgitate the current language of progressive (read conformist) narratives to prevent the further escalation of our woes. Other times we just end up believing it. Worse still, we end up promoting it. Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institute tweeted:
“If there was any doubt before, we now know the answer. A world without American power is not a better world.”
before launching into a critique of anyone departing from the narrative as “tankies” (as in apologists for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, usually a label for left activists). There are apologias aplenty. Like Hamid’s. Especially for neo-Nazi political and military players in Ukraine.
Hamid’s comments should appear insidious enough, even without the context of what the Brookings Institute – where Hamid is a senior fellow – is, and in particular its programs on West Asia, and the Muslim community worldwide. Yet, a brow-beaten, anti-war movement, a wavering left yet unable to call out the fascism in Ukraine whilst readily calling out Russian violence, cannot bring itself to oppose such views.
In her book, Political Islamophobia at American Policy Institutes: Battling the Power of Islamic Resistance, Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria highlights the social engineering projects of the think tanks Brookings, WINEP and the RAND Corporation. Seeking to mould Muslim societies in majoritised and minoritized situations, these think tanks provide the updated instructions for a playbook that seeks the same ends: enrichment, aggrandisement and entrenchment of military, political, social and structures that disadvantage the many.
One of those key aims is the normalisation of Israel – a process that is well underway vis a vis Arab states, and increasingly amongst Muslim civil society. This normalisation exists in less obvious loci too. When Syrian ‘rebels’ aligned themselves against a government that for all its ills was one of the few providing assistance to Palestine, and the only Arab state that gave Palestinian refugees legal status, something was and continues to be very wrong. As Ukraine post the Orange / Maidan moments stalwartly supports Israel, and is supported in turn by the Syrian National Coalition, things feel worse and worse.
The same voices citing Russia’s previous atrocities against Muslims – whether Soviet, Putinesque or Romanov – as justification for support any of the Great Bear’s foes, seem unable to see where the enemy of my enemy argument is leading them. For clarification, it leads them to Tel Aviv.
The end is nigh?
What can we do then to start the process of self-reflection enough to start the process of thinking? What about the new narratives. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Take economics. Part of the bind, the failure to see a new world is the failure to integrate any idea of deoclonised economic model(s). Liberal Democracy didn’t work not because it allows capitalism to run unchecked but because it is the product of capitalism. But, rose tinted glasses notwithstanding, socialism didn’t work either. Muslim socialism lite or strong is not a solution either because both are based on uninterrogated theories of want and need.
Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr’s ‘Iqtisaduna’ should be required reading in this regard, yet it exists simply as a PDF here and there, whilst Islamic activists seek political systems that seem to equate to neo-liberalism plus hijab, or Muslim socialism with a beard. You don’t have to agree with him, but if you want to decolonise you need to know what has already been said and done in the matter. Integration into an economic world system has done little favours for the post-colonial world. Why limit this to the Muslim world? What have indigenous groups seeking liberation postulated as a means of economic development and disentanglement? Where they have borrowed from Marxist teachings, how have their forms differed from Westernised Marxist movements? And why?
The process of questioning the utility of Muhammad Abduh’s fatwa allowing interest in business transactions on the basis of dire need, needs to move out of the realm of mudslinging and into the realm of possible futures. We can argue endlessly that the fatwa saw nothing except the greater impoverishment of the Muslim world after its adoption this last century. If we are to have another century at our disposal let’s get some more and better fataawa. Yes fataawa. And Ahkaam. They are important words, like Jihad which need to be brought back into the control of the people for whom they have meaning beyond the caricatures assigned to them by the ‘war on terror.’ A future reader can also then look back with some pride that in the end – before it was nigh – we, of whatever confession and ilk, did at least try and manage maybe even, to rewrite history.
Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK. She is one of the editors of The Long View and was a founder of Islamic Human Rights Commission. Follow her on Twitter @arzumerali.