A female advisor to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad speaks to Sophie Shevardnadze on RT today. The program also airedyesterday, but I had muted my TV as I wrote. Today I listened to it from start to finish, and the final words were an emphatic statement that the crux of the entire Middle East situation was the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the specific importance of Syria being its alliance with Hezbollah. Sorry I didn’t note the woman’s name: she made a lot of sense.
With the election of the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as President of Egypt, the broader meaning of the Arab Spring can now be perceived. It makes Islam a crucial player in the worldwide jockeying for power between religion, liberalism and social democracy. Consider these facts:
Tunisia, the country that launched the uprisings that are shaking the Arab world, elected a President who ran on a human rights platform, and rules under a coalition with a left-leaning Islamist party and a social democratic party;
After Muammar Ghaddafi, a maverick who evolved his own version of socialism, was ousted, a National Transition Council was supposed to lead the country to a Western type democracy. It is opposed by both youth and religious groups, the former demanding greater transparency the latter vying for a greater role for religion. The latest news is that it will institute sharia law;
In Yemen, popular pressure forced the American-backed ruler to resign after months of demonstrations, but he is succeeded by his former vice-president. Not coincidentally, the U.S. has an air base in Yemen from which it launches raids against Al-Qaeda groups operating in the region;
In Kuwait, divisions between an increasingly Islamist parliament and the Western-allied ruling family have worsened in recent years. In February’s parliamentary elections two-thirds of the seats were filled by opposition leaders vowing to expose high level corruption. After two ministers resigned in the face of scrutiny, the constitutional court dissolved parliament.
What this rundown shows is that in all the Arab countries undergoing revolutions or regime change, the public is no longer a relatively illiterate mass of religious followers. Muslim populations are increasingly educated, they watch TV and the young go on-line and use cell-phones. In the twentieth century when the United State and the Soviet Union were vying for influence, the Arab countries largely chose non-alignment, but they also had a socially oriented Arab unity movement, which faced off against fundamentalist tendencies such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the reasons why the so-called war on terrorism is misleading is that all religions have their fundamentalists. In fact, fundamentalists from different religions have more in common with one another than they do with their respective mainstreams: both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists share an acceptance of violence in defense of their respective faiths, and a tendency to see women as objects under male rule. Where the two faiths differ is in their attitudes toward wealth: American fundamentalists generally espouse the pursuit of material goods, even though this is difficult to divorce from the commercialization of sex. Islamists’ greatest objection to the West is the commercialization of sex and the consumer, or me society, which is the antithesis of spirituality and in conflict with charity, one of the five pillars of Islam which must be practiced daily.
Another historical fact that gets short shrift by the media is the antagonism between the two main groups of Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’as. It is usually referred to in terms of their respective rituals, but their social distinctions are more relevant. Shi’ism emphasizes Islam’s commitment to solidarity and hence is usually found among the lower classes, whereas the Sunnis tend to belong to the exploiting class. Although there have been Sunni leaders such as Nasser, who espoused some form of socialism, the Shi’a ethos, inspired by the Prophets chosen successor, Ali, who was murdered, is epitomized by the Iranian Revolution and Ahmedinejad’s continuing support among the working class, whereas Sunni rulers tend to be allied with the United States.
In the recent Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to want to be all things to all people, promising Sharia law, bikinis, democracy and human rights. This is simply a reflection of the phenomenon I announced at the start of this article: the current jockeying between religion, socialism and liberalism and various combinations thereof.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Islam is undergoing a crisis similar to that which began for Christianity in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther publicly rejected Catholicism, and Protestantism was born in an effort to ‘reform’ it. The subsequent European wars of religion lasted for over a hundred years, but had few repercussions on the outside world. Today, the failure of the Western media to provide information about Islamic history results in a severely limited view of an upheaval that affects the entire globe.
Currently the Syrian crisis is in the forefront, yet the historical antagonism between a small Shi’a sect, the Alawites, and a largely Sunni population is absent from the media, as is the long history of Turkish/Syrian conflict. The Turkish coastal province of Hatay, home to members of the small Shi’a sect known as the Alawites, to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, has been claimed by both countries since 1939, and partly accounts for the seemingly contradictory positions Turkey has taken in the Syrian crisis.
Last but not least, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups which led to rise of a Muslim Socialist Party, the Ba’ath. In 1963, a group of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, helped the Ba’ath Party seize power. Under the Alawites, Syria has been under secular socialist rule, a fact never mentioned in the mainstream media. That is why it is supported both by Russia and Iran.
In a region that has been almost monolithically religious for fourteen hundred years, secular, socialist and liberal ideologies have paved the way for a reformation – or modernization of Islam, as emphasized in an RT interview of Tunisia’s foreign Minister on June 30 rt.com/programs/interview/tunisia-political-change-abdessalem/. The West needs to recognize this trend instead of fixating on the terrorist behaviors – comparable to the European Religious Wars – that accompany it.
After reading Syriana a slim volume in French by a Turk of Syrian origin living in Belgium and published by INVESTIG’ACTION, (www.michelcollon.info/La-CIA-la-grande-muette-du-Proche.html?lang=f) that details the ethnic and sectarian strife going back hundreds of years in the Middle East, I wondered why Bahar Kimyongur repeatedly affirmed that the United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Now, in a blog the same author accuses the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of using the Muslim Brotherhood to deliver arms to Syrian rebels. That may seem peculiar considering that these same countries’ fear the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt following presidential elections there.
Here is the explanation: much as in the nineties we opposed the Russian-backed Communist government of Afghanistan, funding various Sunni-inspired rebel fighters who since have turned against us, today we fear the growth of Shi’a Islam because this current has always represented the underdog. Officially, we are opposed to Iran because it threatens Israel. But in reality we are determined to see regime change in Teheran because since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that brought Shia clerics to power, we have feared their egalitarian – and hence anti-Western – ethos.
The countries that have significant Shia populations are known as ‘The Shia Crescent’. They include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Syria, while having a minority Shi’a population, has been ruled by the Shi’a minority Alawite sect since Bashar Al Assad’s father, Hafez Al Assad came to dominate the Ba’ath Socialist Party in 1970. The current Syrian crisis cannot be understood without awareness of the Ba’ath Party which, from its inception after the Second World War, was a key player in the decades-long struggle for unity known as Pan-Arabism.
The Ba’ath party’s motto “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” was inspired by French revolutionary ideology. Unity refers to Arab unity, or Pan-Arabism, and liberty refers to self-determination, or freedom from foreign control. Arab Socialism grew out of that dual quest, its founders believing that only a socialist system of property and development could overcome the social and economic legacy of imperialism and colonialism. During the Cold War, these convictions were at the heart of Arab socialism’s strong internationalist tendency epitomized by its policy of non-alignment,.
But what is most relevant today is that Arab socialism has always been less ideological than cultural and spiritual, and this explains the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to cooperate with both right and left-leaning parties, as evidenced in the Egyptian elections and also in non-Arab but Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. (In non-Arab Muslim countries such as Ahfghanisan and Pakistan, Sunni factions such as the Taliban are closer to the right-wing Salafists. And in Egypt, we would rather see a holdover from the Mubarak era than a Muslim Brotherhood President, because the latter can go with either ideology.)
At the end of the day, there is really only one political battle, that of equity. But there is also a fundamental conflict over God going on in the world. And because religion has always been the handmaiden of power, the two have often been inseparable. Following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, from 1524 to 1648, Europe was wracked by a series of religious wars. By the nineteenth century, these inter-Christian wars seemed a thing of the past. After the Terror and Napoleon’s Empire, the French revolutionary notion of equity was resuscitated, with the birth of the Socialist International. The 20th century was consumed from beginning to end with ever violent conflicts over the question of equity: Communism, which sought to definitively place power in the hands of the many, against fascism, in which the state led the few.
But September 11th, 2001 brought religion into the conflict over equity. It is not for geo-political reasons that Iran is Syria’s staunchest ally, but for ideological/religious reasons. In 1960, the Shia Crescent of the downtrodden recognized the Alawite Sect, which had acquired a political manifestation in the Baath (Socialist) Party of Syria and Iraq. Shia/Alawite opposition to Israel is not religious, but a consequence of their egalitarian and nationalist ideology which dictates support for the Palestinian Arabs’ struggle for independence from the Jewish state.
Commentators often note that opposition to Iran eventually becoming a nuclear power is inconsistent with tolerance of other countries’ nuclear status, whether it be Israel, Pakistan or India. This is to bypass the world ideological struggle between the few and the many, in which religion, as always, is a handmaiden. Israel, India and less reliably Pakistan, all with different religions, are American allies in that struggle, of which the Arab Spring is the most significant manifestation.
As of today, that struggle is reported to be spreading to Sudan, where protesters are rioting against austerity measures. Although African ethnic and tribal rivalries give protests yet another dimension, we should not lose sight of the fact that they are manifestations of a growing world cleavage based on efforts by the many to move religion into its camp.
In physics there is something called the arrow of time. It means that time cannot be reversed and is something we need to ponder when conflict begins. In cases like Syria, the international community purports to do all it can to stop a revolt in its tracks. But because of the arrow of time, such efforts are futile, only enabling the parties to better prepare for war.
I suspect politicians sense this instinctively, but knowing that it is an immutable scientific phenomenon should help the rest of us realize that a process, once engaged, moves inexorably forward, no matter what anyone does.
But there is something else about the Syrian conflict that is never mentioned on any of the media that I watch, and that is that Israel is directly affected by who rules Syria. Among those concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, Syria has long been known as ‘the front-line state’ because it shares a border with the country that is occupying Palestinian land.
Perhaps neither Israel nor the United States has fomented the unrest that has been wracking Syria for the past year, but I find it difficult to believe that once it began, neither Israel nor the United States did anything to encourage it. Washington’s hesitation waltz when it comes to providing arms and money to the rebels is due to the fact that it doesn’t know who it is dealing with – or more precisely which ideology has the best chance of coming out on top if Assad is toppled. He could be replaced by even more militant anti-Israelis.
The French website Voltaire.Net www.voltairenet.org/L-opposition-syrienne-prend-ses reports that the U.S. is training Syrian and Cuban dissidents in Florida, complete with pictures of a seminar under the auspices of governor Rick Scott and a joint declaration of the participants. Perhaps this is a way for Washington to try to pick the winners. However, it illustrates the fact that the arrow of time applies not only to war, but also to indirect efforts to effectuate regime change: the one in Cuba is still in place after more than fifty years.
Coming on the heels of the Wisconsin governor’s fight to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of government workers, the barely avoided federal government shutdown over the Tea Party’s determination to eliminate as much social spending as possible should cause Americans to revisit the rise of Hitler.
Praising the President’s cool during the week-long battle, democratic strategist Peter Fenn on MSNBC assured us that “The president is no wild-eyed socialist”, but a savvy con-sensus-builder. Commentators need to stop prolonging the opprobrium attached to the world ‘socialist’ and even ‘social democrat’ since the McCarthy era. The latest book by Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghagan titled “Were you Born on the Wrong Continent” details the much more agreeable – and democratic – life of Europeans lucky enough to live under governments inspired by socialist ideals, in particular Germany, which he has come to know well. I plan to devote a blog to Geoghagan’s book, but every day that passes makes it more urgent to bring up the Germany we fought for four years, when Hitler hijacked the term ‘socialist’ to make a nationalist project palatable.
Our leaders wonder aloud ‘who’ the Libyan rebels are, publicly fearing they could turn out to be Taliban or Al Qaeda types, but privately aware that many of them are more interested in real social democracy than in the global capitalist agenda. We watch Bashar Al Assad shoot Syrian demonstrators but are not aware that his supporters prefer the Muslim brand of socialism represented by the long-ruling Ba’ath Party (the party of Saddam Hussein) to American-baked capitalism. As Laurent Gbagbo clings to power in Ivory Coast, an interviewer suggests he might want to seek asylum in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – ‘or Venezuela…?’ Gbagbo’s government is described as ‘socialist-inspired’, while Alassane Outtara, the ‘internationally recognized winner’ of the disputed 2010 presidential election, is a former economist at the International Monetary Fund.
As with the stand-off in Libya, the populations that have taken to the streets in so many Middle Eastern and African countries, are a mixed bag; but all yearn for more participation in decision-making. Some want Western-style personal free-dom, while others, along with many Christians and Jews, believe that freedom does not imply not license.
These conflicting ideals and concepts do not make it easy for Americans to see the implications of what is going on in their own country. The Tea Party would be a passing phenomenon were it not the child of a thirty-year long incubation by right-wing libertarians determined to limit democracy in the most powerful country. The budget crisis that has just come to an end, heralded by the attack on labor in Wisconsin and other states, utilized the same methods by which Hitler turned the Weimar Republic into a totalitarian state.
Voters are beginning to realize that elections have become something of a sham since the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that corporations can spend as much money as the want on election campaigns, and lobbying has become ‘ethical’. But we have no practice in dealing with parliamentary slicing and dicing. The budget fight has been waged over the 14 percent slice that Congress approves each year for domestic spending. Although the government narrowly avoided a shutdown, how many voters know what they were made to sacrifice?
The measure cuts nearly $2 billion in spending from transportation and housing programs, including $1.5 billion from a high-speed rail program and $280 million from capital investment grants. Were it not for the number of Americans out of work and/or who have been foreclosed on their mortgages, cuts in housing subsidies would not appear dire. Thankfully, Democrats were able to exempt the Big Three entitlement programs: Social Security, the Medicare health plan for retirees, and the Medicaid plan for the poor, from the cuts. (The size of these programs is determined by how many people qualify for them, not by how much money Congress sets aside for them.) But students will be deprived of $550 million from the SMART Grant student-aid program at a time when official policy is to support education at all levels.
With wars having cost a trillion dollars since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the House and Senate are now considering an additional request for $33 billion in supplemental funding for the remainder of FY2010, and the Administration has also requested $159 billion to cover costs of overseas operations in FY2011. A cut of $3 billion from defense programs will have no effect on our on-going war policy.
The bill subjects the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to yearly audits by both the private sector and the congressional Government Accountability Office. We shall have to see what hay will be made under this measure.
Taken individually, each cut may seem justified by our dire financial situation and basic good housekeeping. But seen side by side with the policies the President has consistently bid the country adopt, they are ominous; and more will come. The longer-term agreement will cut spending in the current 2011 fiscal year by about $38 billion, including $17.8 billion from benefit programs, known as ‘entitlements’. The Tea Party doesn’t think citizens are ‘entitled’ to anything but security protection from the government.
Thankfully, measures to ban funding for Planned Parenthood health clinics and greenhouse-gas regulation survived the cuts. But as part of the compromise, the Senate agreed to hold a vote on blocking implementation of Obama’s healthcare reform law. It is commonly expected to fail, but another round of strident de-monstrations could rattle the delicate constitutions of many Democrats.
Hitler called his methods ‘piecemeal’ but they acquired the more imaginative name of ‘salami tactics’ after the war, when the Hungarian Communist Mátyás Rákosi destroyed his country’s non-Communist parties by ‘cutting them off like slices of salami’. By portraying his opponents as fascists, or fascist sympathizers, Rakosi was able to get rid of the Parliament’s right wing, then its centrists, until only those collaborating with the Communists remained.
In America we have the mirror image: centrists and right-wingers use the accusation of ‘socialist‘ to intimidate democratic politicians who believe in the responsibility of government to protect and educate its citizens.
As we witness the slicing away from the Republican party of its moderate members in favor of its Tea Partiers, we should keep in mind Hitler’s conquest of absolute power in a country that, like our own, was known for its religiosity and cultural achievements.
The Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, was akin, in its consequences, to our 9/11. Without evidence, it was attributed to a lone Dutch communist, and was followed by a decree that suspended many civil liberties and outlawed the Communist Party and the Social Democrats. Some 10,000 people were arrested in two weeks, and on March 24, 1933, the Enabling Act gave Hitler plenary power, allowing him to bypass the Reichstag.
Hitler and the Nazis established totalitarian control bit by bit, eliminating potential opponents such as trade unions and rival political parties. They also established mandatory youth organizations and regimented the labor organizations organized during the Weimar Republic. The Enabling Act was renewed in 1937 and 1941. Finally, on April 26, 1942, the Reichstag passed a law making Hitler the supreme judge of the land, giving him power of life and death over every citizen until he was defeated in war.
The Tea party’s financiers and ideologues have studied both Hitler and Lenin, and have taken ‘from each according to their utility’. According to a New Yorker July 2005 profile of Grover Norquist by Brendan Nyhan: “He talked about how to build a broad coalition. ‘If you want the votes of people who are good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters,” he said. “But if you say, ‘Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that’s a much bigger section of the population.’ To illustrate what he meant, Norquist drew three intersecting circles on a piece of paper. In the first one he wrote “guns,” in the second he wrote “taxes,” in the third he wrote “faith.” Where the circles intersected: “With that group, you can take over the country, starting with the airports and the radio stations,” he said. “But with all of the three circles that’s sixty percent of the population, and you can win politically.”
Nyhan’s 2005 article refers to a 1983 Cato Institute article that lays out a ‘Leninist strategy’ of ‘guerilla warfare’ for privatizing Social Security. commenting that “liberals could never get away with this stuff.” Six years later, a President whose heart is on the left, had to rescue the ‘third rail’. Criticizing government ‘inefficiency’, its right-wing opponents warn that we are turning into a ‘Banana Republic’. In reality, we must fear becoming a Salami Republic.