The barbarism of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has repulsed workers everywhere, especially in the Middle East. For every “jihadist” recruit, more fighters are taking up arms against it. Among the bravest are Kurdish women from Iraq and Syria.
Washington screams “evil” at ISIS’ ruthless beheadings, but remains silent at the dozens carried out by its oil ally Saudi Arabia. This selective “horror” exposes the true motive of the U.S. — to whip up pro-war hysteria.
Why more war? Because the Bush-Obama strategy of propping up Iraqi dictator Nouri al-Maliki did not succeed in securing imperialist control over Iraq. ISIS battlefield victories have reaped for it rich oil fields, sizeable territories, and large caches of arms.
It wasn’t only imperialism that fell short of its goals. So have the Arab Spring uprisings, founded in deep anti-sectarian and anti-fundamentalist consciousness, especially among workers and women. The Egyptian military reasserted its rule with U.S. support after insurrection removed Mubarak; the Syrian revolution remains outgunned by forces of both Assad and ISIS.
ISIS is a deformed, contradictory by-product of these dual defeats. It can recruit because of immense popular grievances, yet its program is fully undemocratic.
Imperialism’s historic tactic. The current stage was set by decades of imperialist divide-and-conquer. The British and French victors in World War I helped themselves to the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement (see map) arbitrarily gave to the British and French empires Arab, Turkish and Kurdish territories, with no regard to local linguistic and cultural realities. Artificial borders were again drawn after World War II, including the imperialist construction of the new Zionist state of Israel, which counter-posed a Eurocentric nation to the peoples of the region. The emergence of the U.S. as the preeminent imperialist power made it top cop.
Alongside artificial geographic divisions, imperialism stoked Islam’s historic religious divisions, pitting one sect against another when that seemed advantageous. Until the most recent invasions, Sunnis and Shiites lived relatively peaceably in mixed communities, intermarriage was common, and fanatic “holy war” ideology was largely rejected by the masses. Contrary to racist propaganda about Islam’s inherent violence, the 9th through 12th century Golden Age of Islam was the most advanced culture on the planet, far surpassing Christian Europe in scientific, literary, philosophical, and humanistic accomplishments.
For imperialism, artificial divisions are a means of control. And since maintaining control is the only law it follows, allies become enemies and enemies become allies. The U.S. supported Osama bin Laden’s mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and is now conferring with the Taliban on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. This is a formula for endless war.
The emergence of ISIS. What causes the ever-changing lineup of forces is the constant defiance to imperialist abuse from the broad masses of oppressed people. Western empires are forced constantly to find ways to stop the revolutionary tide. Yet it is precisely the continued capacity of imperialism to stifle the democratic aspirations of Middle Eastern masses that has propelled outfits like ISIS into existence. It recruits on the basis of grievances that linger from overpowered popular struggles.
In 1979, a popular revolution overthrew the CIA-backed Shah of Iran. Lacking a revolutionary leadership, power was assumed by the best organized institution at the time — the Shiite clerics. From 1980-88, the U.S. assisted the Sunni-based Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein to fight Iran. An unreliable dictator, Hussein was eventually replaced in 2006 with Maliki’s Shiite-based government, which proceeded to arrest, torture, and murder Iraqi Sunnis.
But Maliki found an ally in Teheran, so the U.S. launched sanctions against Iranians, using the pretext of alarm over nuclear weapons. At the same time Saudi Arabia funded all sorts of Sunni fundamentalists to counter both Iran and Syria. In this spiraling conflict between rival capitalist powers, cloaked in sectarian ideology, and encouraged by imperialists, ISIS was born, a split from Al Qaeda of Iraq.
The broad “caliphate” ISIS advertises may appeal to a historic sense of pan-Arab solidarity and to Islam’s Golden Age. But at bottom its aim is to carve out a capitalist state for itself, enriched by local oil revenues, to rule over the populace with a fanatical anti-worker, anti-woman sectarian ideology. There is nothing progressive in ISIS’ politics.
The road forward. Given this history, supporting U.S. military action against ISIS can only exacerbate sectarian divisions and shed more blood. Workers, women, and other forces fighting for revolutionary democratic change are steadfastly opposed to ISIS’ fundamentalist ideology. But the U.S. has spared no effort to suppress the popular rebellions. It successfully blocked anti-aircraft weaponry from reaching Syrian forces against Assad. It led the bombings on Libya after Qaddafi was toppled. It looked the other way when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in 2012 to quell a democratic uprising. The U.S. fears the democratic uprisings more than anything, because of their potential for anti-capitalist revolution.
Thus, while imperialism’s plunder has provoked resistance from the masses, it has also suppressed their just struggles for democratic reforms, giving increasingly fanatical fundamentalists the banner of leadership. Imperialism, not Islam, set the stage for this.
The recent Middle East insurrections have tried mightily to confront entrenched dictators and U.S. invasions. The Arab Spring, which swept away the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and Libya, presses on, and its heart continues to beat in Syria, Palestine, Bahrain, and elsewhere, despite severe repression.
Military intervention into Iraq and Syria is not the answer to ISIS. Absent a strong anti-war movement, it is vital for leftists and all activists for peace and justice to lambast the policies of the U.S. government. And to support, in every way possible, non-sectarian organizing for democratic social change in the Middle East, unionists against repression, Palestinian and Kurdish liberation movements, and all the women of the region.
These are the only forces capable of overcoming fundamentalist politics and forging a united struggle against further imperialist travesty in the Middle East.
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