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The left and al-Qaida: two cheers for Sasha Abramsky

About the author
Eli Lake is a reporter and columnist for the New York Sun.

Kudos to Sasha Abramsky for proving that western empire has not caused Islamic empire seekers to murder us at random. We are not owed the terror of 9/11 in New York and Washington, 3/11 in Madrid, or 7/7 in London because chickens are coming home to roost.

Progressives, however, should go further than being saddened “by how utterly incapable were those same arguments of generating responses to the fanaticism of our time.” It’s worse than that. Robert Fisk, John Pilger, Tariq Ali, George Galloway, and their co-thinkers are the vanguard of an illiberal left, a faction among progressives whose sympathies lie with nostalgic fascists.

In Iraq these men cheer on the jihadists who seek to restore the caliphate and compare men who seek the return of Saddamist occupation to Algerian nationalists during the 1954-62 war against French colonialism. John Pilger, for example, said on Pacifica Radio on 31 December 2003: “I think the resistance in Iraq is incredibly important for all of us. I think that we depend on the resistance to win so that other countries might not be attacked, so that our world in a sense becomes more secure.”

George Galloway joined the car bombers when he told an audience at al-Assad Library in Damascus in July 2005, “It can be said, truly said, that the Iraqi resistance is not just defending Iraq. They are defending all the Arabs, and they are defending all the people of the world from American hegemony.”

Eli Lake is a reporter and columnist for the New York Sun. He is responding to Sasha Abramsky’s openDemocracy article, “Whose al-Qaida problem?” (October 2005)

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Is it a coincidence that this is exactly the same rationalisation these murderers used to defend their death threats against Arabs who dare cast ballots in January’s parliamentary elections? Tariq Ali in 2002 called the Iraqi writer and human-rights activist Kanan Makiya a “quisling, fraudster and mountebank,” but has nothing but praise for the former death squads seeking to return the torture state Makiya exposed in his book Republic of Fear.

It’s true that these expressions of fidelity for the saboteurs of Iraq’s elected government contain an occasional caveat. Pilger in his Pacifica interview said he regrets the “civilian atrocities” produced by the terrorists. But he then shrugs it off because “that is true of all of the resistances.”

Arundhati Roy, speaking at the European Social Forum in London in October 2004, offered this rationalisation for solidarity with the killers of aid workers and aspiring Iraqi policemen:

“Like most resistance movements, it combines a motley range of assorted factions. Former Ba’athists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.”

Does Arundhati Roy not know that Iraq’s communists welcomed the toppling of Saddam? And who exactly are these liberals fighting alongside those who assassinate parliamentarians and call elections un-Islamic? There is no use trying to understand this hateful blather.

Provincialism vs universalism

But the left should not be satisfied in only marginalising the sympathisers in their midst. Yes, it’s important, but Abramsky is also right that progressives need their own prescriptions for winning our war.

Unfortunately his alternatives are inadequate. It’s not enough to pretend that readiness drills and chemical-plant security alone will counter al-Qaida’s threat to the world’s open societies or their efforts to destroy Iraq. Taken alone this approach is the worst sort of provincialism because it won’t make us safe, and it does not address the deficit of political rights and economic opportunities in the middle east. The nihilist phenomenon of Islamic terror is complex, but one of its chief causes is the appalling lack of quality political and economic choices for educated young Muslims.

For progressives to rejoin the serious discussion about this big war, they must return to their paleo-liberal roots. There was a time when the left chose to defend democrats abroad out of the conviction that the freedoms they enjoyed applied universally. Today the prevailing wisdom is that these fights are worth fighting only if approved by the United Nations Security Council. It’s time to abandon this multilateral fetish and return to the robust vision of the international volunteers who defended the Spanish Republic against General Franco. Imagine what George Orwell would say if someone questioned his Homage to Catalonia because the League of Nations in 1937 issued a ban on volunteer partisans.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate over the open society in the United States:

Gara La Marche, “The crisis of democracy in America” (June 2005)

Roger Scruton, “The United States and the open society: a response to Gara La Marche” (July 2005)

Gara La Marche, “America’s closing society: a reply to Roger Scruton” (July 2005)

Progressives today must acknowledge the limits of sovereign equality and how its pernicious application has legitimised a constellation of family-owned authoritarian states in the middle east. This is not a call for more invasions, but rather an acknowledgement that these regimes are as much a root cause of Islamofascism as they are a threat in and of themselves to the open society. So why are so many liberals so keen on seeking the opinion of these sovereign families to forge international solutions to the problems of the region? Seeking regime change in Riyadh is not an imperial wish, unless one conflates primogeniture with self-determination. No one on the left would be so orientalist as to believe that? Or would they?

Fortunately, progressives today have a great opportunity to make good on the promises of their intellectual tradition. Not only are there many dissidents fighting for Karl Popper’s values inside closed societies today, but they are begging for international solidarity. Who is in a better position to lend unconditional support for political prisoners like Akbar Ganji in Iran, or Fathi al-Jahmi in Libya? If the left is looking for someone to support in Iraq, what about Mithal al-Alusi, a former Ba’athist who was fired from his post on the de-Ba’athification commission because he was taking his job too seriously? He formed his own party to carve out a political space that aligned with neither Shi’a fundamentalists nor Sunni fundamentalists. Sadly he couldn’t win a seat in the parliamentary elections, but he plans to run again in the elections scheduled for December 2005.

But support for non-violent dissidents is not enough either. Progressives cannot remain neutral in the war for Iraq. While it is true that the coalition and its allied militias have committed atrocities, it is also true that the caliphate-ists and the fascists seek perpetual atrocity. One side is fighting for elections, a constitution (however flawed) and federalism. The other side is fighting for the obliteration of those things. The choice is between (Jalal) Talabani and the Taliban – and Talabani is losing. This makes it all the more urgent for paleo-progressives to seek the unconditional surrender of this vile insurgency on whose behalf Robert Fisk, John Pilger, Tariq Ali, George Galloway have spent the war agitating.

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