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Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Why do antiwar activists use inaccurate and exaggerated information to justify an already valid stand?

By Ibrahim Moiz (copyright and all that)

The decision in both the United States and Britain to abstain from military intervention in Syria should be welcomed. Even those who, like this writer, wish to see the always-unpleasant Baath regime gone and a rebel victory, there is no doubt that a Western intervention could only have, in the short term at the very least, escalated the conflict and heightened the humanitarian crisis; in the long term it is unlikely that a genuinely popular government, almost certain to be of a Sunni Islamist variety, would not last long before it was deposed by a Western-friendly dictator. The brutal coup in Egypt this summer, and the reaction by the West and its regional partners to them, show that in Western eyes the only thing worse than an unfriendly Arab dictator is an Islamist, no matter how legitimately elected.

The double standards of Western governments and press releases in their early denunciations of Bashar Assad were always transparent against an even mildly informed overview. That the rather disarmingly mild-mannered Syrian dictator was painted as a death-glorying sadist and the rebels, who include very nasty elements including the increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as noble freedom fighters, is simply ridiculous when considering the vast scale of the conflict–with over ninety thousand dead and at least two million refugees, it is not a conflict where either side has had a monopoly on atrocity. And that is why it is even more alarming to see the traditionally considered, nuanced view of the largely left-leaning antiwar movement take an equally blinkered, one-eyed view of the conflict, only pro rather than anti-government, that is startlingly reminiscent of the often bigoted, inaccurate far-right.

Recently no less a number of left-wing luminaries including George Galloway, Jon Steele and Seuman Milne lined up to applaud the pro-Baath Syrian nun, Agnes de la Croix, when she claimed quite improbably that the entirety of the Syrian opposition were without exception “terrorists” (1). Leaving aside the fact that terrorism is a much abused term bandied around to any armed opposition, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela in the United States until 2008, calling the entire opposition, some 130 hundred thousand strong at a conservative estimate, is as ludicrous as applying the same label to the government’s supporters. Such an appalling humanitarian crisis can not have happened without significant atrocites committed by both sides. If her credibility weren’t already shaky enough, the good nun then went on to cite an example of Bashar Assad’s “merciful”  nature in a vignette where the Syrian president deigned not to execute quite all of the Sunni prisoners captured in an operation–only, apparently, most of them.

While Agnes de la Croix is perfectly entitled to hold her views, however blinkered they may be, it was surprising to see her co-panelists not only unquestioningly accept but reinforce her ludicrous claims. Leftists in the West, particularly those aligned like Galloway, Steele and Milne with the antiwar movement, have usually been able to see beyond the overly simplified narratives espoused by conflicting sides in wartime. Yet here both Milne and Steele applauded and endorsed de la Croix’s ridiculous assertions, while the ever-ebullient Galloway remains a booming supporter of her cause and of the Syrian regime, more for its apparent opposition to Israel and the West than for its actual record.

Those leftists who decided not to join the nun out of reticence at her overly simplified laudation of Assad were derided by many in the antiwar camp as being apologists for Western interventionism. Laughable as this accusation is, it reinforced a misleadingly bipolar view of the Syrian war, of which both views–supporting the Baath government or supporting Western interventionism–appear to delegate the responsibility of the slaughter to only one side, for political rather than humanitarian purposes.

Even Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigate journalist whose critiques are usually extremely instructive, made the rather improbable claim that the August chemical attack in Ghouta was staged by Syrian rebels (and used, apparently, on their own number) to force Western intervention (2). Never mind that the more influential Islamist factions of the Syrian rebels, both extremist and otherwise, are as opposed to Western intervention as the Assad regime and would hardly have resorted to such a measure even if the relatively weak Free Syrian Army had wanted to use it as a tool to force in Western intervention. Hersh’s accusation also sounded alarmingly reminiscent of the Pentagon spokesman Vincent Brooks in 2003, when he claimed that an American airstrike that had killed Iraqi civilians was “an Iraqi missile that went straight up and came back down”.

It is one thing for the antiwar movement to, quite rightly in this writer’s view, critique the extremely hypocritical Western stance in the Middle East. It is quite another to take that same hypocrisy and fashion an opposing narrative that is as one-sided. In the process, left-leaning antiwar activists have found an unlikely partnership with an extremely Islamophobic American far-right–whose never-shy spokesman Sarah Palin blared, “Let Allah sort it out!”, and whose prize media nincompoop Brian Kilmeade took the common Muslim celebratory cry of “Allahu Akbar!” by the Syrian opposition as a sign of radicalism–that sees any sign of Islamic movements as an assertion of the global Creeping Shurriah. And in doing so adopted some of the same far-right mantras they once opposed. The blanket label of the entire opposition as “terrorists” is simply one example.

If this antiwar response to Western interventionism is meant to oppose the possibility of Western imperial interests in the region, it is also fatally self-defeating. As caustic as America and its generally anti-Syrian allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, were at the start of the conflict, their own inclination seems to be reverting back to Bashar Assad’s government rather than the potentially unpredictable Islamists in opposition. As noted critic of Zionism Max Blumenthal noted, it appears that the Zionist wing of Israel–for all their early hostility towards Assad as a partner of their chief opponent Iran–is gravitating itself towards letting the Baathist dictator stay in power; unlike the Islamists, he is a known quantity and has never in any case been particularly aggressive anywhere outside his borders save Lebanon. It is also something of a compromise as Israel’s chief patron, the United States, gravitates closer towards Assad’s chief patrons in Iran. Those antiwar spokespeople, such as the redoubtable Galloway, who see Assad’s Syria as a buffer to Zionist expansionism in the region should probably think again.

The other danger is a rather subtler one. It also involves the blanket label of the entire Syrian opposition as a homogenous breed of radical Islamic jihadists–Salafists is the popular term nowadays, last decade it was Wahhabists–who want to establish the always-dreaded global caliphate. There is certainly a spillover of disturbingly fanatical jihadists, most notably from Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, into Syria; their conquest last winter of the eastern stronghold of Raqqa is an alarming development. that signifies their growing influence. Yet to assume that all factions in the opposition are as irredentist, fanatical and extreme as ISIL is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation at best, and to turn it into a self-fulfilment at worst. To paint the entire opposition, on political rather than realistic grounds, as radical fundamentalists is to marginalize the more inclusive, open and reconcilible elements among them. The same scenario has taken place time and again over the past twenty years–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Chechnya and Somalia.

Among the more surprising hosts of this viewpoint was the usually-excellent Boiling Frogs blog run by repeatedly-gagged former intelligence agent Sibel Edmonds: in an alarmingly broad-stroked screed last year, contributing writer William Engdahl submitted a wildly swinging attack on, among others, the Syrian opposition, branding them all as hardline Sunnis called “Salafists” and “Wahhabites” whose raison d’etre is to wipe out “moderate Muslim” movements, such as mystical Sufism, in favour of a rigid revivalist hard line. Among his examples of “Salafi terror” was, along with the (Deobandi, not Salafi) Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, Egypt’s only legitimately elected president in history, Mohamed Morsi, who through that same twisted, broad-stroked logic was deposed in Egypt this summer during a bloody coup whose leaders termed any opposition as “terrorists” who deserved to be bloodily eradicated (a line repeated by, among others, the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia–so much for that theory) (3). Another website, Global Research, which has long critiqued Western narratives in war zones, published an article by Michael Chossudosky that blamed the rise of death squads in Syria solely on opposition Sunni jihadists, never mind that both Sunni radicals and the same Iran-affiliated Shia extremists who had dominated post-Baathist Iraq have used such tactics. I privately contacted Chossudosky to pursue this rather unlikely claim further but have received no response. (4)

It is the same line toed by, among others, American neoconservatives such as David Frum and Richard Perle, their Muslim apologists like Stephen Schwartz and Zuhdi Nasser, and the brutal dictatorships of Central Asia, who have resorted to branding any dissent as Wahhabism to justify a savage crackdown for the past twenty years. While criticism of Wahhabis and Salafis is certainly not unwarranted–and there are certainly some voluble Wahhabis and Salafis, including Al-Qaeda, who uphold an extremely rigid and exclusive interpretation of Islam and authorize violent persecution of Shia and other minorities–the Muslim Matters website points out (5) that it is a usually politically motivated label, used by foreigners since colonial Britain to brand any native Muslim opposition to imperialism without much regard to accuracy. Hardly a black-and-white measure, in short, of judging radicalism. The killer of the Pakistani governor of Punjab, for instance, was a member of the generally more liberal Sufi persuasion, while the West’s closest Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of what is broady termed Wahhabism. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Salafist party leader Saleh Bouazizi has condemned violence and refused to cooperate with violent Salafis; a self-described “true Salafist” Marwa, offered her interpretation of a Salafi as any emulator of Prophet Muhammad’s followers, which would put most observant Muslims in the category (6).

The practical dangers of such an approach–as if the detainment of random suspected Wahhabists and co in Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities is not enough–is the marginalization of the more inclusive Islamists and the empowerment of radicals like Al-Qaeda. While critics of intervention, such as the Irish parliamentarian Clare Daly (in an otherwise superb and rousing speech that railed at the Irish media and government’s slobbering reception of the Obamas last spring), have branded the Islamist rebels radicals and defended the Assad regime on the grounds of it being “secular” (7), the secularism of Baathist Syria (and indeed, of most Arab and Muslim regimes, from Central Asia to Egypt) is of a very different sort from the non-partisan, above-sectarianism brand seen in the West. In the Muslim world, where religion tends to be a far more public and encompassing affair than in the West, secular rulers–from the Young Turks to Islam Karimov to the Assads to Saddam Hussein–have sought to impose their usually nationalism-inclined rule not by rising above sectarian differences but by exploiting them.

In Syria, expert Aron Lund points out, where premodern Muslim rule tended broadly to respect its Christian, Druze, Alawite and Shia minorities, the shrewd if decidedly non-religious Hafez Assad rose to power by exploiting sectarian differences to give his Alawite community a vastly disproportionate share of power, occasionally inviting those members of other sects–such as the Sunni Talas family–who did not object to have a share of the pie. In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov sponsors puppet state clerics that tow its line and persecutes any dissidence on the grounds of their being “terrorists”. (For the record, too, the Syrian rebel who chewed out an opponent’s heart was not, as Vladimir Putin claimed at the G8 meeting this summer, an Islamist terrorist but a nationalist.) Given this experience, where secular regimes do not oppose but in fact thrive on sectarianism, it is not surprising to find, as Eugene Rogan noted, that Islamists of various stripes, who hail to a somewhat idealized but definitely preferable past, are overwhelmingly popular in the Muslim world. In a fair and free election, Rogan states, “the Islamists would win hands down”. It happened most recently in Egypt, and–because not only Arab nationalist but also Western, Israeli and Gulf Arab states were alarmed–was swiftly crushed.

And it is because of that popularity that Islamists have come to dominate the Syrian opposition; in a free and fair election in Sunni-dominated Syria, it is almost certain that the Islamists would prevail–particularly given the resentment felt against both the Baath government and the extremists. As perceptive observers like David Hearst have noted, “criminalizing Islam”, an indigenous heritage in the region, only alienates potential allies who may not favour an Al-Qaeda-style caliphate, but who favour a nonconfrontational, holistic Islamist trend and almost certainly represents the vast majority of opinion in the Muslim world.

While, in the absence of any conclusive evidence, it is wrong to assume that Islamists have been no more or less involved in atrocities as secular rebels or pro-government forces, to criticize them alone and whitewash the crimes of their competitors before bringing out the ever-convenient and usually meaningless “terrorist” label–as unfortunately too many generally more open-minded leftists have done–is not only hypocritical but also sidelines and discredits the inclusive, more populist Islamists, thereby empowering hardliners like ISIL. Such Islamists include, for instance, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, a reportedly “Salafist” commander of the non-sectarian Sunni Islamist Tawhid Brigade, which cooperated with not only non-Islamists but also  non-Muslim supporters, who was slain last month at Aleppo while ISIL and Jabhat-al-Nusrah factions gained ground on the battlefield. They also include Kurdish and Turkmen brigades who, in rare coordination with the Turkish government, have taken up arms against the Syrian regime. In a recent, wild but hardly atypical example pof hype surrounding allegedly jihadist rebels, the relatively moderate Islamic Front, allied with the much weaker Free Syrian Army and a rival of the more extreme Al-Qaeda affiliates, was wrongly accused  by no less than US State Secretary John Kerry of having annexed an FSA compound last week–when, in fact, it had merely come to help protect its ally against an attack (8). To paint such factions, who at times have fought the extremist Al-Qaeda affiliates as fiercely as they have fought the regime, with the same brush is not only conducive to an extremist takeover of the opposition, but also worryingly symptomatic of the far-right bigotry that the same antiwar left once opposed, and who now–hardline Zionists, neocons and all–are also lining up to rail in favour of violence against the “terrorist” opposition.

The crux of the problem with such lines is that Syria is not a two-sided issue. One does not have to side with the Baath governnment, and its excessive crackdown to what were initially peaceable demonstrations, in order to oppose Western intervention–or, for that matter, to back the Baath’s much-vilified allies, Hezbollah and Iran, who have been so disproportionately attacked in the Western media before that it now appears to be a natural reaction for members of the antiwar left to defend them. Nor does one have to be on the payroll of shady Gulf millionaires, or in cahoots with American neocons and Israeli Zionists, or a sympathizer with Al-Qaeda to oppose the Syrian government. In this conflict, the other side–which, I believe, represents the mainstream of Syrian opinion–that constitute the more mainstream Islamists and the Syrian army defectors, the only factions in the conflict who appear to have been able to look past their ideological disagreements in some form of solidarity, has been utterly drowned out, not only by Baath thugs and fanatical jihadis but by the unlikely accusations of antiwar Western leftists who, in an understandable rush to prevent Western military intervention, have resorted to painting them with the same “Al-Qaeda” “terrorist” stripe as the most extreme rebel factions. It is the sort of mistake that is far too prone to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is beneath the usually excellent work of such left-leaning luminaries as George Galloway, Jonathan Cook and Seymour Hersh.

As Jadaliyyah writer Khalid Saghieh asks in an article aptly titled, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, “What makes a sincere leftist discourse slip into becoming a retouched version of the Islamophobic right?” (9) It appears to be an overreaction to the unpleasant possibility of Western intervention in Syria–an admittedly dangerous possibility that, if reports about quiet autumn meetings between the White House and Tehran are true, was vastly exaggerated from the start–and, perhaps in the case of such politicians as Galloway, an understandable but not always warranted reflexive tendency to side with allies of the always disproportionately vilified Iranian regime, who are nominally, if not always factually, anti-Zionist. But spewing far-right generalizations is not likely to help an antiwar movement in the long run; there are enough antiwar justifications without it. Opposing an inevitably clumsy Western military intervention in Syria, where humanitarian assistance is needed far more than an escalation in violence, is justifiable enough on its own merit. There is no need for antiwar activists to transform into far right alarmists to make their case.

Note, 2 December 2014: Not having seen the full extent of BFP and global researchs partisanship and shameless duplicity at the time I wrote this (in Dec 2013), I inaccurately described both as “usually excellent”, which is of course utterly ridiculous and which I have removed. Also, it should be noted that for arguments sake I presented assumption that the regime and rebels may bear equal responsibility, which in actual fact is not true even if one includes IS in the second camp.

Notes

1)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/18/a-tale-of-two-conferences/

2)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/09/semour-hersh-and-richard-sales-senior-moments/

3)

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2012/09/13/dagestan-syria-comes-to-russia/

4)

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-salvador-option-for-syria-us-nato-sponsored-death-squads-integrate-opposition-forces/31096

5)

http://muslimmatters.org/2007/04/01/the-wahhabi-myth-debunking-the-bogeyman/

6)

http://fr.fondema.nl/media/articles/15-06-12/

7)

http://www.thejournal.ie/clare-daly-obamas-dail-957439-Jun2013/

8)

http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-spotlight-real-story-behind-us-cut-non-lethal-aid-insurgents/

9)

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14157/sleeping-with-the-enemy_the-global-left-and-the-no

Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Why do antiwar activists use inaccurate and exaggerated information to justify an already valid stand?

By Ibrahim Moiz (copyright and all that)

The decision in both the United States and Britain to abstain from military intervention in Syria should be welcomed. Even those who, like this writer, wish to see the always-unpleasant Baath regime gone and a rebel victory, there is no doubt that a Western intervention could only have, in the short term at the very least, escalated the conflict and heightened the humanitarian crisis; in the long term it is unlikely that a genuinely popular government, almost certain to be of a Sunni Islamist variety, would not last long before it was deposed by a Western-friendly dictator. The brutal coup in Egypt this summer, and the reaction by the West and its regional partners to them, show that in Western eyes the only thing worse than an unfriendly Arab dictator is an Islamist, no matter how legitimately elected.

The double standards of Western governments and press releases in their early denunciations of Bashar Assad were always transparent against an even mildly informed overview. That the rather disarmingly mild-mannered Syrian dictator was painted as a death-glorying sadist and the rebels, who include very nasty elements including the increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as noble freedom fighters, is simply ridiculous when considering the vast scale of the conflict–with over ninety thousand dead and at least two million refugees, it is not a conflict where either side has had a monopoly on atrocity. And that is why it is even more alarming to see the traditionally considered, nuanced view of the largely left-leaning antiwar movement take an equally blinkered, one-eyed view of the conflict, only pro rather than anti-government, that is startlingly reminiscent of the often bigoted, inaccurate far-right.

Recently no less a number of left-wing luminaries including George Galloway, Jon Steele and Seuman Milne lined up to applaud the pro-Baath Syrian nun, Agnes de la Croix, when she claimed quite improbably that the entirety of the Syrian opposition were without exception “terrorists” (1). Leaving aside the fact that terrorism is a much abused term bandied around to any armed opposition, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela in the United States until 2008, calling the entire opposition, some 130 hundred thousand strong at a conservative estimate, is as ludicrous as applying the same label to the government’s supporters. Such an appalling humanitarian crisis can not have happened without significant atrocites committed by both sides. If her credibility weren’t already shaky enough, the good nun then went on to cite an example of Bashar Assad’s “merciful”  nature in a vignette where the Syrian president deigned not to execute quite all of the Sunni prisoners captured in an operation–only, apparently, most of them.

While Agnes de la Croix is perfectly entitled to hold her views, however blinkered they may be, it was surprising to see her co-panelists not only unquestioningly accept but reinforce her ludicrous claims. Leftists in the West, particularly those aligned like Galloway, Steele and Milne with the antiwar movement, have usually been able to see beyond the overly simplified narratives espoused by conflicting sides in wartime. Yet here both Milne and Steele applauded and endorsed de la Croix’s ridiculous assertions, while the ever-ebullient Galloway remains a booming supporter of her cause and of the Syrian regime, more for its apparent opposition to Israel and the West than for its actual record.

Those leftists who decided not to join the nun out of reticence at her overly simplified laudation of Assad–such as Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones, both with admirable records in opposing Western military adventures–were derided by many in the antiwar camp as being apologists for Western interventionism. Laughable as this accusation is, it reinforced a misleadingly bipolar view of the Syrian war, of which both views–supporting the Baath government or supporting Western interventionism–appear to delegate the responsibility of the slaughter to only one side, for political rather than humanitarian purposes.

Even Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigate journalist whose critiques are usually extremely instructive, made the rather improbable claim that the August chemical attack in Ghouta was staged by Syrian rebels (and used, apparently, on their own number) to force Western intervention (2). Never mind that the more influential Islamist factions of the Syrian rebels, both extremist and otherwise, are as opposed to Western intervention as the Assad regime and would hardly have resorted to such a measure even if the relatively weak Free Syrian Army had wanted to use it as a tool to force in Western intervention. Hersh’s accusation also sounded alarmingly reminiscent of the Pentagon spokesman Vincent Brooks in 2003, when he claimed that an American airstrike that had killed Iraqi civilians was “an Iraqi missile that went straight up and came back down”.

It is one thing for the antiwar movement to, quite rightly in this writer’s view, critique the extremely hypocritical Western stance in the Middle East. It is quite another to take that same hypocrisy and fashion an opposing narrative that is as one-sided. In the process, left-leaning antiwar activists have found an unlikely partnership with an extremely Islamophobic American far-right–whose never-shy spokesman Sarah Palin blared, “Let Allah sort it out!”, and whose prize media nincompoop Brian Kilmeade took the common Muslim celebratory cry of “Allahu Akbar!” by the Syrian opposition as a sign of radicalism–that sees any sign of Islamic movements as an assertion of the global Creeping Shurriah. And in doing so adopted some of the same far-right mantras they once opposed. The blanket label of the entire opposition as “terrorists” is simply one example.

If this antiwar response to Western interventionism is meant to oppose the possibility of Western imperial interests in the region, it is also fatally self-defeating. As caustic as America and its generally anti-Syrian allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, were at the start of the conflict, their own inclination seems to be reverting back to Bashar Assad’s government rather than the potentially unpredictable Islamists in opposition. As noted critic of Zionism Max Blumenthal noted, it appears that the Zionist wing of Israel–for all their early hostility towards Assad as a partner of their chief opponent Iran–is gravitating itself towards letting the Baathist dictator stay in power; unlike the Islamists, he is a known quantity and has never in any case been particularly aggressive anywhere outside his borders save Lebanon. It is also something of a compromise as Israel’s chief patron, the United States, gravitates closer towards Assad’s chief patrons in Iran. Those antiwar spokespeople, such as the redoubtable Galloway, who see Assad’s Syria as a buffer to Zionist expansionism in the region should probably think again.

The other danger is a rather subtler one. It also involves the blanket label of the entire Syrian opposition as a homogenous breed of radical Islamic jihadists–Salafists is the popular term nowadays, last decade it was Wahhabists–who want to establish the always-dreaded global caliphate. There is certainly a spillover of disturbingly fanatical jihadists, most notably from Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, into Syria; their conquest last winter of the eastern stronghold of Raqqa is an alarming development. that signifies their growing influence. Yet to assume that all factions in the opposition are as irredentist, fanatical and extreme as ISIL is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation at best, and to turn it into a self-fulfilment at worst. To paint the entire opposition, on political rather than realistic grounds, as radical fundamentalists is to marginalize the more inclusive, open and reconcilible elements among them. The same scenario has taken place time and again over the past twenty years–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Chechnya and Somalia.

Among the more surprising hosts of this viewpoint was the usually-excellent Boiling Frogs blog run by repeatedly-gagged former intelligence agent Sibel Edmonds: in an alarmingly broad-stroked screed last year, contributing writer William Engdahl submitted a wildly swinging attack on, among others, the Syrian opposition, branding them all as hardline Sunnis called “Salafists” and “Wahhabites” whose raison d’etre is to wipe out “moderate Muslim” movements, such as mystical Sufism, in favour of a rigid revivalist hard line. Among his examples of “Salafi terror” was, along with the (Deobandi, not Salafi) Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, Egypt’s only legitimately elected president in history, Mohamed Morsi, who through that same twisted, broad-stroked logic was deposed in Egypt this summer during a bloody coup whose leaders termed any opposition as “terrorists” who deserved to be bloodily eradicated (a line repeated by, among others, the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia–so much for that theory) (3). Another website, Global Research, which has long critiqued Western narratives in war zones, published an article by Michael Chossudosky that blamed the rise of death squads in Syria solely on opposition Sunni jihadists, never mind that both Sunni radicals and the same Iran-affiliated Shia extremists who had dominated post-Baathist Iraq have used such tactics. I privately contacted Chossudosky to pursue this rather unlikely claim further but have received no response. (4)

It is the same line toed by, among others, American neoconservatives such as David Frum and Richard Perle, their Muslim apologists like Stephen Schwartz and Zuhdi Nasser, and the brutal dictatorships of Central Asia, who have resorted to branding any dissent as Wahhabism to justify a savage crackdown for the past twenty years. While criticism of Wahhabis and Salafis is certainly not unwarranted–and there are certainly some voluble Wahhabis and Salafis, including Al-Qaeda, who uphold an extremely rigid and exclusive interpretation of Islam and authorize violent persecution of Shia and other minorities–the Muslim Matters website points out (5) that it is a usually politically motivated label, used by foreigners since colonial Britain to brand any native Muslim opposition to imperialism without much regard to accuracy. Hardly a black-and-white measure, in short, of judging radicalism. The killer of the Pakistani governor of Punjab, for instance, was a member of the generally more liberal Sufi persuasion, while the West’s closest Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of what is broady termed Wahhabism. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Salafist party leader Saleh Bouazizi has condemned violence and refused to cooperate with violent Salafis; a self-described “true Salafist” Marwa, offered her interpretation of a Salafi as any emulator of Prophet Muhammad’s followers, which would put most observant Muslims in the category (6).

The practical dangers of such an approach–as if the detainment of random suspected Wahhabists and co in Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities is not enough–is the marginalization of the more inclusive Islamists and the empowerment of radicals like Al-Qaeda. While critics of intervention, such as the Irish parliamentarian Clare Daly (in an otherwise superb and rousing speech that railed at the Irish media and government’s slobbering reception of the Obamas last spring), have branded the Islamist rebels radicals and defended the Assad regime on the grounds of it being “secular” (7), the secularism of Baathist Syria (and indeed, of most Arab and Muslim regimes, from Central Asia to Egypt) is of a very different sort from the non-partisan, above-sectarianism brand seen in the West. In the Muslim world, where religion tends to be a far more public and encompassing affair than in the West, secular rulers–from the Young Turks to Islam Karimov to the Assads to Saddam Hussein–have sought to impose their usually nationalism-inclined rule not by rising above sectarian differences but by exploiting them.

In Syria, expert Aron Lund points out, where premodern Muslim rule tended broadly to respect its Christian, Druze, Alawite and Shia minorities, the shrewd if decidedly non-religious Hafez Assad rose to power by exploiting sectarian differences to give his Alawite community a vastly disproportionate share of power, occasionally inviting those members of other sects–such as the Sunni Talas family–who did not object to have a share of the pie. In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov sponsors puppet state clerics that tow its line and persecutes any dissidence on the grounds of their being “terrorists”. (For the record, too, the Syrian rebel who chewed out an opponent’s heart was not, as Vladimir Putin claimed at the G8 meeting this summer, an Islamist terrorist but a secular nationalist.) Given this experience, where secular regimes do not oppose but in fact thrive on sectarianism, it is not surprising to find, as Eugene Rogan noted, that Islamists of various stripes, who hail to a somewhat idealized but definitely preferable past, are overwhelmingly popular in the Muslim world. In a fair and free election, Rogan states, “the Islamists would win hands down”. It happened most recently in Egypt, and–because not only Arab nationalist but also Western, Israeli and Gulf Arab states were alarmed–was swiftly crushed.

And it is because of that popularity that Islamists have come to dominate the Syrian opposition; in a free and fair election in Sunni-dominated Syria, it is almost certain that the Islamists would prevail–particularly given the resentment felt against both the Baath government and the rebel hardliners. As the typically perceptive Scahill noted, “criminalizing Islam”, an indigenous heritage in the region, only alienates potential allies who may not favour an Al-Qaeda-style caliphate, but who favour an Islamist trend that is “interested in being left alone” and almost certainly represents the vast majority of opinion in the Muslim world.

While, in absence of any conclusive evidence, it is wrong to automatically assume that Islamists have been no more or less involved in atrocities as secular rebels or pro-government forces, to criticize them alone and whitewash the crimes of their competitors before bringing out the ever-convenient and usually meaningless “terrorist” label–as unfortunately too many generally more open-minded leftists have done–is not only hypocritical but also sidelines and discredits the inclusive, more populist Islamists, thereby empowering hardliners like ISIL. Such Islamists include, for instance, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, a reportedly “Salafist” commander of the non-sectarian Sunni Islamist Tawhid Brigade, which cooperated with not only non-Islamists but also  non-Muslim supporters, who was slain last month at Aleppo while ISIL and Jabhat-al-Nusrah factions gained ground on the battlefield. They also include Kurdish and Turkmen brigades who, in rare coordination with the Turkish government, have taken up arms against the Syrian regime. In a recent, wild but hardly atypical example pof hype surrounding allegedly jihadist rebels, the relatively moderate Islamic Front, allied with the much weaker Free Syrian Army and a rival of the more extreme Al-Qaeda affiliates, was wrongly accused  by no less than US State Secretary John Kerry of having annexed an FSA compound last week–when, in fact, it had merely come to help protect its ally against an attack (8). To paint such factions, who at times have fought the jihadist Al-Qaeda affiliates as fiercely as they have fought the regime, with the same brush is not only conducive to an extremist takeover of the opposition, but also worryingly symptomatic of the far-right bigotry that the same antiwar left once opposed, and who now–hardline Zionists, neocons and all–are also lining up to rail in favour of violence against the “terrorist” opposition.

The crux of the problem with such lines is that Syria is not a two-sided issue. One does not have to side with the Baath governnment, and its excessive crackdown to what were initially peaceable demonstrations, in order to oppose Western intervention–or, for that matter, to back the Baath’s much-vilified allies, Hezbollah and Iran, who have been so disproportionately attacked in the Western media before that it now appears to be a natural reaction for members of the antiwar left to defend them. Nor does one have to be on the patroll of shady Gulf millionaires, or in cahoots with American neocons and Israeli Zionists, or a sympathizer with Al-Qaeda to oppose the Syrian government. In this conflict, the other side–which, I believe, represents the mainstream of Syrian opinion–that constitute the more progressive Islamists and the secular Syrian army defectors, the only factions in the conflict who appear to have been able to look past their ideological disagreements in some form of solidarity, has been utterly drowned out, not only by Baath thugs and fanatical jihadis but by the unlikely accusations of antiwar Western leftists who, in an understandable rush to prevent Western military intervention, have resorted to painting them with the same “Al-Qaeda” “terrorist” stripe as the most extreme rebel factions. It is the sort of mistake that is far too prone to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is beneath the usually excellent work of such left-leaning luminaries as George Galloway, Jonathan Cook and Seymour Hersh.

As Jadaliyyah writer Khalid Saghieh asks in an article aptly titled, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, “What makes a sincere leftist discourse slip into becoming a retouched version of the Islamophobic right?” (9) It appears to be an overreaction to the unpleasant possibility of Western intervention in Syria–an admittedly dangerous possibility that, if reports about quiet autumn meetings between the White House and Tehran are true, was vastly exaggerated from the start–and, perhaps in the case of such politicians as Galloway, an understandable but not always warranted reflexive tendency to side with allies of the always disproportionately vilified Iranian regime, who are nominally, if not always factually, anti-Zionist. But spewing far-right generalizations is not likely to help an antiwar movement in the long run; there are enough antiwar justifications without it. Opposing an inevitably clumsy Western military intervention in Syria, where humanitarian assistance is needed far more than an escalation in violence, is justifiable enough on its own merit. There is no need for antiwar activists to transform into far right alarmists to make their case.

Note, 2 December 2014: Not having seen the full extent of BFP and global researchs partisanship and shameless duplicity at the time I wrote this (in Dec 2013), I inaccurately described both as “usually excellent”, which is of course utterly ridiculous and which I have removed. Also, it should be noted that for arguments sake I presented assumption that the regime and rebels may bear equal responsibility, which in actual fact is not true even if one includes IS in the second camp, as was mistakenly done at the time. Note also that evidence, including from the recently exposed anti-rebel Syrian Observatory for human rights, mischaracterized in 2011 as a supporter of the rebels, that I had not been aware of at the time indicates fully that the better-armed regime and particularly its barrel-bombing airforce have been responsible for far, far more massacres and atrocities than the rebels, whose own abuses have been sporadic and minimal by comparison, with the solitary exception of the 2013 coastal assault where minority civilians were harassed and in some cases murdered. Vile as that was, it was an exception and not the rule to the rebels overall conduct, in contrast to the systemic massacre, airstrikes, rape and especially torture prevalent in the regime side.

Notes

1)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/18/a-tale-of-two-conferences/

2)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/09/semour-hersh-and-richard-sales-senior-moments/

3)

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2012/09/13/dagestan-syria-comes-to-russia/

4)

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-salvador-option-for-syria-us-nato-sponsored-death-squads-integrate-opposition-forces/31096

5)

http://muslimmatters.org/2007/04/01/the-wahhabi-myth-debunking-the-bogeyman/

6)

http://fr.fondema.nl/media/articles/15-06-12/

7)

http://www.thejournal.ie/clare-daly-obamas-dail-957439-Jun2013/

8)

http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-spotlight-real-story-behind-us-cut-non-lethal-aid-insurgents/

9)

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14157/sleeping-with-the-enemy_the-global-left-and-the-no

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2 responses to “Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

  1. Pingback: Jew-baiting okay at Moon of Alabama, but not me | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

  2. Pingback: KOBANE, THE KURDS AND THE POLITICS OF PERPETUAL VICTIMHOOD | layyin1137

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