virus: The Anti-Imperialism of Fools by Mick Hume

Date: Fri Aug 30 2002 - 12:46:54 MDT

New Statesman (British leftist magazine) Monday 17th June 2002
The anti-imperialism of fools By Mick Hume Western leftists find
themselves in strange company when it comes to the Middle East.
Are they really happy to line up with neo-Nazis and Islamic
fundamentalists? ======= Once upon a time, a hundred years or
so ago, it was fashionable to attack something called "Jewish
capitalism". August Bebel, a German friend of Karl Marx,
described this attempt to give anti-Semitism a progressive spin as
"the socialism of fools". Today's fashion for Israel-bashing seems
to me to represent a similar foolishness. It is not old-fashioned
anti-Semitism. But there is a growing tendency to endorse dubious
ideas under the guise of solidarity with the Palestinians. It is the
anti-imperialism of fools. Particularly since 11 September, a
strange-looking global alliance has formed against Israel,
incorporating Islamic fundamentalists, European neo-Nazis and
anti-globalists. Many, in all three groups, had previously shown
little interest in the plight of the Palestinians: the Israeli state has
become a sort of ersatz America, a symbol of all that they hate
about contemporary capitalism. For Israeli, read western; and for
the west, read modernity. What the anti-globalists share above all
with their newfound fellow-travellers among the Islamic
fundamentalists is a loss of faith in the modern age and in
Enlightenment ideas. The spirit of their protests was captured by a
banner at a recent rally in Berlin: "Civilisation is genocide". Yet,
despite all the criticisms of America, they end up calling on the
Great Satan to solve the problems of the world, and particularly of
the Middle East. The demand of the western activists who visit
the West Bank is for more international intervention. Back in the
west, the Palestinian solidarity campaigns demand sanctions
against the Israeli state and a boycott of Israeli goods. The
opponents of globalisation want to globalise the Middle East
conflict; they demand that the US and Europe turn their attention
away from disciplining Iraq and towards punishing Israel. In
effect, they end up echoing the call of Robert Cooper, Tony Blair's
foreign policy adviser, for a new kind of imperialism - the same
kind of "humanitarian" arrogance that recently prompted the
British government to say it would send troops to India, although
the Indian government did not want them. If ever there were an
area that bears the scars of too much foreign interference, it is the
Middle East. Conflicts there have been manipulated and
perpetuated by imperial powers for two centuries. Yet those who
claim to oppose imperialism now propose even more intervention
- a "foreign occupation" to stop Israel, in the words of one leading
radical journalist. Perhaps they would be happy if Palestine ended
up like Bosnia - a place where ethnic divisions have been set in
stone by international intervention, and now to be ruled over by
Paddy Ashdown in his new role as UN high representative (that is
to say, the colonial governor general). The politics of anti-
imperialism first emerged as a defence of the democratic right to
self-determination. It rejected the notion that the solutions to a
society's problems were to be found from without. Today's anti-
imperialism of fools, by contrast, not only endorses imperialist
intervention, it also appears to oppose anything progressive that
the west stands for - such as rationalism, universalism, scientific
experimentation or economic development. (Its advocates are
happy, however, to use the internet to spread the message; theirs
is a high-tech primitivism.) The very different tradition of an older
anti-imperialism was summed up by C L R James: "I denounce
European colonialism. But I respect the learning and profound
discoveries of western civilisation." The idea was to free the
colonial world so that it might reap the benefits of modernity.
Today, as Kenan Malik points out: "James's defence of 'western
civilisation' would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even
racist." Anti-globalisation protesters now find themselves in the
same bed as al-Muhajiroun, "an Islamic movement which exists to
fulfil the commands of the divine text of the Koran". Its website
argues that the Potters Bar rail crash and the crisis in the national
health service were caused by the British government ploughing
billions into its pro-globalisation and war policies, instead of
investing in domestic services. Its argument ends not with the
demand to renationalise the railways, but with an invocation that
"by the will of Allah, the economies of those countries at war with
Islam will continue to deteriorate". It is not unusual to find oneself
with strange bedfellows on particular issues. Politics is not for
purists, especially where war is concerned. Yet it is striking how
comfortably many arguments of the anti-globalisation movement
now seem to fit the arguments of Islamic fundamentalists such as
al-Muhajiroun - a group which boasts that its outlook "is not
rational", and reserves its most bitter hatred for "the Jews" who, it
claims, run much of the world. The issue that brings the anti-
capitalists and Islamists closest is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Both are quite recent converts to the Palestinian cause. As he
made efforts to win support in the Islamic world during the 1990s,
Osama Bin Laden did not mention the plight of the Palestinians at
all. The anti-globalisation movement is an even later recruit to the
Palestinian banner. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict now features at
May Day marches and international summit protests. In April in
Washington, three separate demonstrations - against the World
Bank/International Monetary Fund, against the war in Afghanistan
and against the Israeli occupation - merged into what was reported
as the biggest pro-Palestinian demonstration in US history,
involving 75,000 people, according to the police. The
International Solidarity Movement has sent delegations of western
protesters to "witness" the Middle East conflict and show
solidarity with the Palestinians - notably by breaking through an
Israel Defence Forces blockade to enter the Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem. Why should Palestine have suddenly become such a
cause celebre? Critics now talk of the Israeli state as if it were a
mini-superpower, given licence by Washington to commit
genocide against the Palestinians; some have described President
Bush as "Sharon's poodle". This cartoon version of events grossly
inflates the power and importance of Israel today. It is ridiculous
to think that the foreign policy of a global superpower could be
driven by a tiny state with a population of six million. For
America (and before that Britain), relations between Jews and
Arabs have always been negotiable in the wider scheme of things.
During the cold war, the US generally backed Israel as its
gendarme, in order to contain the threat (real and imagined) of a
Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. But we are no longer living in
1967 or 1973. Arab nationalism has been dead for at least a
decade. The west has less need of Israel to police the region so
tightly. More important, in the post-cold war era, the west has lost
its sense of imperial certainty. This underlying vulnerability is
revealed most sharply in its relations with the Islamic world. No
longer able to promote their cherished old notions of racial or
cultural superiority, the western elites have become increasingly
defensive. After 11 September, many predicted a full-scale clash
of civilisations. Yet, far from pursuing a fundamentalist crusade,
Bush and Blair have emphasised that they are not fighting a war
against Islam. There have been panics about "Islamophobia" in
America and Europe. The Italian prime minister, Silvio
Berlusconi, was denounced for advertising "the superiority of our
civilisation" over the Islamic world. And a US marines website
was closed down for making "insensitive" remarks. This must be
the first war in which it is officially considered illegitimate to hate
the enemy. The newly defensive mentality within the western
camp is far removed from America's past belief in its manifest
destiny. This uncertainty towards Islam has clear implications for
relations with the Israeli state, long seen as an outpost of the west
in a hostile Muslim world. Even a right-wing Republican such as
George Bush now demands that Israel pull out of "occupied
territories" and calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. Other
members of Washington's foreign-policy establishment have gone
further. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to
President Jimmy Carter, denounced the Israelis as being
"increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing
the Palestinians as a lower form of life". The US still helps to
bankroll the Israeli state, and there remains a powerful pro-Israeli
lobby in Congress and the media. But these people now feel
compelled to make shrill public appeals on Israel's behalf which
would have been considered unnecessary in the past. Elsewhere in
the west, a new antagonism towards Israel is more obvious. The
Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, declares that Israel's current
offensive falls outside the war against terrorism. The German
government offers to send peacekeeping troops to separate Arabs
and Jews (something considered taboo since the Holocaust). And
in Belgium, a court is attempting to prosecute the Israeli prime
minister, Ariel Sharon, for "crimes against humanity". The
immediate reaction from the UN and Europe to the Israeli attacks
on Jenin revealed a readiness to accept the wilder allegations of
massacres and mass graves. All this has more to do with western
uncertainty than with anti-Semitism; the most vehement critics of
Israel include leading Jewish spokesmen such as the Labour
backbencher Gerald Kaufman, a veteran Zionist, who has
condemned Israel as a pariah state and Sharon as a war criminal in
the House of Commons. Yet Israel is no more a "Nazi" state than
it ever was. Those who imagine that the violence in Jenin was
unique in the Israeli-Arab conflict have short memories (or none).
What is different today is the west's defensiveness about Israeli
actions. Israel now stands condemned for the kind of actions that
might once have been condoned tacitly. It is this feeling of
western vulnerability that has inspired the left and the anti-
globalisation movement. Protesters find it easier to feel morally
worthy when they are guaranteed to get an apologetic response
from the authorities. Yet these newfound friends of Palestine do
not seem to know much about the history of this conflict. Their
websites and leaflets sloganise about "NaZionists", and how this is
a war between "racism and justice" (a politically correct way of
saying "good v evil"). But there is little analysis of the causes.
Some of the clumsy attempts to incorporate the Middle East into
the concerns of the anti-globalisation movement border on the
bizarre. Jose Bove, the French farmer and green activist, sprang to
global fame when he attacked a McDonald's burger bar with a
tractor, and wrecked GM crops. Last year, he turned up in a peace
delegation on the West Bank. This year, he was back again,
visiting Yasser Arafat's besieged compound at Ramallah. Why?
Bove told the New Left Review that the Israelis are "putting in
place - with the support of the World Bank - a series of neoliberal
measures intended to integrate the Middle East into globalised
production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap Palestinian
labour". This is the kind of conspiratorial anti- capitalist-speak
that we might call globaldegook. Naomi Klein, a critic of both the
Israeli occupation and globalisation, worries that "every time I log
on to activist news sites such as . . . I'm confronted
with a string of Jewish conspiracy theories about 9/11 and
excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion". She thinks that
"the anti-globalisation movement isn't anti-Semitic, it just hasn't
fully confronted the implications of diving into the Middle East
conflict". Klein is right. What we are witnessing is not simply a
resurgence of old-fashioned anti-Semitism: that accusation is most
often a defensive reaction from Israel's supporters. But the anti-
globalisation movement is "diving into the Middle East conflict"
blindly, in pursuit of a vague and simplistic moral agenda of its
own. The delegations of self-styled "internationals" who travel to
the Middle East to show sympathy for the Palestinians are lauded
as "the real heroes of today" on solidarity websites. Yet few of
them would lie down in front of tanks if Israel really were the
Nazi state they claim. The internationals seem less keen to travel
to other conflicts, away from the eyes of the world media, where
they might risk meeting the fate of the international solidarity
activists killed during the Pinochet coup in Chile. For many
activists, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have become a
convenient outlet for the morbid emotionalism and victim-centred
culture of our age. A solidarity meeting in London begins with
people being searched and asked for "passes" (tickets), so that
they can "experience" what life is like under Israeli occupation.
Writing in the NS, one "international" announced that, having
seen a warning shot fired and been woken up by the noisy Israeli
air force, "I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to be a
Palestinian." I am beginning to think that this might be the point
of the exercise for some of these people. Far from offering an
alternative for the Middle East, these self-indulgent
demonstrations of western victim culture can only reinforce the
emotional nihilism that is already rampant in the region - what
one American commentator calls "the desperado politics of
victimhood, embraced by Jews and Palestinians alike". Writing
about the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tariq Ali attacked "the anti-
imperialism of fools" expressed by "useful idiots from the western
European left", who thought there must be something progressive
in the Ayatollah, because he overthrew America's stooge, the
Shah. Many on the western left now express sentiments that are
just as foolishly misplaced. At least those idiots in Iran had a
successful popular revolt to get carried away with; many of the
anti-Israel protesters of today seem content to revel in
powerlessness. Western society is infected by a powerful sense of
self-loathing and a rejection of its political, social and economic
achievements. It was this spirit of self-loathing that led some, of
the left and right alike, to suggest that America got what it
deserved on 11 September. Those sentiments are no more
progressive when aimed against Israel as a symbol of the west
than when they are directed in irrational campaigns against GM
crops and the literature of Dead White Males. We may feel
solidarity with the Palestinians, but that is no reason to endorse
the anti-imperialism of fools. Populist anti-Israeli rhetoric is
cheap, but it offers no solutions - especially when it ends with a
demand for even more western intervention in the affairs of the
Middle East. The long-suffering peoples of the region deserve
better than to be used by those looking for somewhere convenient
to strike sanctimonious poses.

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