The Tragic Farce At Doha

from the Solidarity Ecosocialist Commission

December 11, 2012

As the Doha COP18 climate talks draw to a close, they have unfortunately confirmed The Economist‘s description of the event as a “theater of the absurd.” Even as the World Bank has released a report describing a rise in average global temperatures by a catastrophic 4 degrees Celsius over the course of this century, no greater sense of urgency emerged at the talks, largely due to the obvious futility of trying to formulate global policy without a serious commitment by Washington to reduce its own gargantuan carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change have accelerated with the ferocious global warming-fueled superstorm Sandy and the enormous Typhoon Bopha that has ravaged the southern Philippines, to mention only the most recent and dramatic that have ravaged communities as a result.

The irony of the current round of UN climate talks taking place in Doha, Qatar, the world’s highest per capita emitter and a principal member of the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance of fossil-fuel based states was not lost on anyone, save some of the delegates. It was a foregone conclusion that the talks had reached an impasse over critical issues. As the Kyoto treaty was set to expire, no industrialized country met the target for reducing emissions. Both the United States and the European Union repeatedly cited “tough economic times” as their excuse. For them, capitalist profitability triumphs effective action to save the ecosystems. The intransigence of Washington as the “most obdurate bully in the room” murdered the hope of expanding the Kyoto treaty to incorporate the world’s principal culprits–clearly the United States and China–and detailing how a climate funding program to assist the world’s “developing nations” would be set up as long ago as Copenhagen.

What did come out of this session from 36 straight hours of negotiations was an agreement by the Kyoto signatories–who collectively represent just 15% of the world’s emissions–to extend the Kyoto framework to 2020. While this may sound like a “modest but essential” step in the right direction as described by Connie Hedegaard, the European climate commissioner, it is so full of loopholes that it will have negligible impact on carbon emissions. Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo lamented, “The talks in Doha were always going to be a modest affair, but they even failed to live up to even the historically low expectations.”

Although the countries of the global south are already bearing the brunt of the damage caused by the industrialized countries, neither US or EU delegates came up with concrete plans on how to raise the climate fund goal of $100 billion a year by 2020. This crisis of political will is particularly damning given how much has already been allocated to bailing out criminal financial institutions and subsidizing fossil fuels, not to mention Washington’s enormously bloated defense expenditures.

Once again, the only spark of hope came from the speeches of those who held no power at the level of policy-making, but are the voices of the growing global environmentalist movements.

In a passionate speech to the delegates, Syrian-American student Munira Sibai declared that none of the official representatives of the world’s governments were worth addressing and so she addressed the climate justice movement directly, “Your governments are failing you,” in a moment of clarity and truth unsurpassed throughout the entire event. Further, her two-minute address pointed out that this entire process suffered not only from “a complete absence of vision” but from “an active effort by some to move backwards.” Further, she noted that those who have caused this crisis—the wealthiest countries on Earth—already agreed to take responsibility two decades ago with the Kyoto Protocol, but have utterly failed to live up to their own commitments. She ended with the prediction, “You are well on your way to leaving a legacy of global devastation.”


Munira Sibai: “Your governments are failing you…”

Another powerful voice was that of the Filipino negotiator, Nadarev Sano, whose nation was ravaged during the talks by the most southerly typhoon ever reported, Typhoon Bopha. Sano’s emotional address queried the assembly: “I ask all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

The real answer to the question of “if not us here, then who?” is quite clear from the past 18 years of inaction on climate change by the world’s most powerful countries. Patrick Bond, director of the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, pointed out, “The elites continue to discredit themselves at every opportunity. The only solution is to turn away from these destructive conferences and avoid giving the elites any legitimacy, and instead, to analyze and build the world climate justice movement and its alternatives.

Promising signs that the movement for climate justice is coalescing into a serious global force continue to emerge. Two international events to note are the massive day of global protest staged by Bill McKibben’s 350.org project in 2009 and the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia. The crisis is too urgent to be left to the policy tinkering of foot-dragging governments that bear the greatest responsibility for the crisis. Now that high-level elites from the World Bank to Bloomberg Business Weekly (with its “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” headline after Hurricane Sandy) have awoken to the seriousness of the crisis, the space for demanding action to save the planet has widened–but whatever modest steps “green capitalism” has taken, they are unable to confront the logic of profitability.

As ecosocialists, we call for a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel production and consumption in industrialized countries, and reparations to the former colonial countries so they can develop in a sustainable manner. This involves restructuring every aspect of how we live and work through a revolutionary process of social change, moving from an economy dominated by profit to one based on ecology and human needs. To accomplish this will require honestly confronting the severity of the crisis and democratically discussing and deciding how to move forward against the intransigence of the global elite. The voices of this growing climate justice movement will be central to this process.

The Ecosocialist Commission is a group of Solidarity members whose goal is to show why the struggles for socialism and for ecological justice are inseparable. It is is a place for education, discussion, and coordinating activism around the intersections between the socialist and ecological movements. For more information, contact ndvnprt (at) gmail (dot) com.

Of Qu'rans, Occupations and Uprisings

As uprisings, revolutions and protests continue to radiate from the Tunisian and Egyptian epicenters, we ought to pause to take a look at the peculiar situation of Afghanistan. “Peculiar” in what sense, however? Peculiar in the character of the protests? Peculiar due to the military occupation and warlord-ization of the country under the occupation authority? Or peculiar due to its religious justifications?

Of Qu’rans and Military Occupations of Muslim Countries

Toward the end of last month, Terry Jones—the pastor who had threatened a “Qu’ran Bonfire” during the height of last summer’s wave of Islamophobia in the States—burned a Qu’ran in a somewhat anti-climatic ceremony that gained only YouTube notoriety. The conspicuous absence of the mainstream media for the whole event contrasted with the hyper-obsessive coverage of every action of Pastor Jones just mere months ago, but Jones did get the attention of far right Islamists in different parts of the world. For whatever reason, Jones’ burning of the Qu’ran did not seem to incite major protests or responses around the Arab and Muslim worlds—perhaps indicative that the uprisings are changing the fundamental coordinates of the political situation, at least temporarily stunting the appeal of religious slogans and programs in much of the Middle East and North Africa.

Then we get the images the mainstream media has fed us from Afghanistan over the past week: images of angry Afghans taking to the street, especially in the previously stable city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the most important major city lacking any serious Taliban influence (there is a reason it was the first town conquered by the warlord’s bonanza called “the Northern Alliance” during the 2001 US invasion, it is split into many ethnic minorities, the Taliban are almost exclusively Pashtun). Not all of the information is in or can be verified (can something like that ever be done with a country under military occupation?), but we know that UN security guards fired on the crowd, the crowd moved to disarm the guards and some element of the crowd (probably organized pre-protest) murdered the guards and some staff at the UN compound.

Protests then spread to Kandahar and across Afghanistan, even to its east—a place that has not seen any mass risings against the occupation to date. There is now a nationwide protest movement against the NATO occupation, the first of its kind in the decade of occupation that has plagued the country. There is no doubt that the Taliban has taken advantage of the situation and is largely responsible for directing many of these protests—there was fear of riots just a week ago, the fact that mostly peaceful demonstrations have occurred instead is a testament to the fact that Afghans have a fighting chance for the first time to challenge this occupation through the politics of civil disobedience rather than armed guerilla struggle. Forces on the left and liberal end of the spectrum of NATO countries ought to support this effort, but have remained largely silent due to the success of the ideological campaign waged against the Afghan people by the Karzai government, the NATO and the mainstream media.

The crux of the whole affair is the last minute attachment of statements of outrage against Terry Jones’ Qu’ran burning to lists of demands in the protests. Most of the demands refer to an end to NATO violence and challenge the legitimacy of the Karzai kleptocracy and various warlord factions. Further, the biggest impetus for the rallies was the outrage ordinary Afghans have expressed over recent stories in Der Spiegel and Rolling Stone that detail the atrocities of a “renegade” group of American soldiers who massacred innocent Afghans and took body parts, etc. as souvenirs, even posing with their “game” in pictures now available for all to see online. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told the Washington Times that the “kill team” photos were “much worse” than Abu Ghraib as actual people had died, been photographed and now those photographs of mutilated bodies were being widely distributed.

An article in the UK’s Guardian paper on the 21st of March claimed that “Commanders in Afghanistan are bracing themselves for possible riots and public fury triggered by the publication of ‘trophy’ photographs of US soldiers posing with the dead bodies of defenceless Afghan civilians they killed”. Obviously preparations for the mass demonstrations in response to this and other grievances against the occupation authority were underway prior to the Qu’ran burning controversy. In a savvy PR move, the Qu’ran burning issue was inserted as a major (but not the principal or especially the singular issue at stake) component of the protests, and we can question whether or not this was a good idea, but let us examine some reasons why this particular affront might bother Afghans.

The Transformation of Afghan Society: 1970’s to 2011

The fact is that Afghanistan was once the most modern, secular state in all of Central Asia. Thriving feminist, civil society and other groups challenged the power of landlords who sought to de-centralize the state in order to maintain their control over rentier relations with their quasi-peasant social underlings. As this conflict escalated and the state experienced extreme instability in the face of a unified resistance of landords and other reactionary elements in Afghan society, the USSR invaded the country. The effect of the USSR’s occupation was a transformation of the internal struggle into a struggle of national liberation—led by these same reactionary factions—given extraordinary boosts from US, Saudi and Pakistani intervention.

Whatever we can say of the US and Saudi promotion of international militant networks of Islamists—mostly of the fringe Salafist orientation—the greater tragedy unfolded over the course of this 1980’s war across the border, in the Pakistani-sponsored madrassas where the Taliban (or “students”) emerged as a coherent social and political force. The Pakistani military regime of Zia ul-Haq made promotion of militant Islamist currents in Afghanistan its major project toward that country, something that dovetailed with its own efforts to transform the Kashmiri movements for national liberation into armed Islamist struggles directed from Pakistani territory rather than Kashmir (something that had a terrible effect on Kashmiri independence struggles).

The only national identity Afghans had radiated forth from Kabul. It was an identity that was at once secular, dedicated to building a nation of Afghans from an incongruous medley of different communities and oriented towards Moscow in world affairs (as were most popular governments in the world at the time). Haq carried out a strategy to forge a new national identity in Afghanistan that could serve as the ideological crux of a new social and political force able to exercise hegemony over the patchwork of feudal development that constituted the state of Afghanistan. This could be accomplished by promoting this fringe Wahhabi-esque version of Islam as an alternative to secularism and socialism, thereby giving Pashtun reactionaries a raison d’etre beyond mere opposition to progressive, anti-feudal reforms.

After the chaos of the warlord civil war in the 1990s (following the USSR’s withdrawal), the population welcomed the hegemony imposed by the Pashtun (who make up the largest part of the population), though many regretted it afterward for obvious reasons, particularly in the north and west (large non-Pashtun populations, including minority Shi’ia in the west who were subject to such discrimination that Iran was threatening to intervene just before 9/11 occurred, which was followed by the US’s removal of Tehran’s Taliban rival, making such intervention a moot point). Though a terrible an unjust order, order it was: a sharp contrast with occupation and civil war.

Afghanistan has since become one of the most religious societies on earth, rivaling the two most religious nations on the planet (according to all indicators): Iran and the United States. In fact, the brutal order imposed on women by the Taliban government has its imitators amongst US-backed warlords across the country. It is no surprise then that the Qu’ran burning would add fuel to the fire of an already aggrieved populace: this is the origin of the controversy.

NATO’s Occupation in Crisis: Islamophobia to the Rescue

Haq had his own reasons to promote political Islam as an alternative to secular currents of politics in the region, but he did not undertake this effort in a vacuum. A bold new foreign policy effort presented earlier in the 1970s was underway, roughly referred to as “the Bernard Lewis Plan” in reference to a famous self-proclaimed Orientalist scholar. Lewis specializes in short, rhetorical pieces that draw conclusions of sweeping generalizations about “Islamic” or “Muslim civilization” in order to provide ideological cover for US foreign policy (he has regularly been cited by former Bush Administration officials including Rice and Cheney, he has a long association with neo-conservatives and his close associate Fareed Zakaria now runs in liberal circles after pulling from neo-conservative orbit in the middle of the second Bush Administration).

Lewis and foreign policy giant Zbigniew Brzezinksi formulated a policy in which “the United States should cultivate Muslim fundamentalists throughout Central Asia to foment anti-Soviet sentiment” thus building up a “southern ‘arc of Islam’” that would prove to be “an ‘arc of crisis’ for the Soviets” (this from Stephen Sheehi’s Islamophobia in the second chapter, “Journalists, Rogue Academics and Native Informants”). According to Steven Sheehi, the “Brzezinski-Lewis plan…actively supported traditional feudal lords and Islamist ‘mujahiddin’ in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion in 1979 and had the strategy to undermine, with Pakistani assistance, the secular, anti-feudal revolutionary government in Kabul.”

The long and short of this is that the US government has no qualms about promoting radical Islamist political agendas in particular circumstances: there is no monolithic entity “militant Islam” which is struggling against US and European imperial designs on the world, rather there are a vast diversity of Islamic religious groups, some involved in politics, some of those involved in terroristic Salafist politics, etc. Nevertheless, the US has used official promotion of Islamophobia—especially through the use of sweeping generalizations—to justify its brutal wars and occupations in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan for decades now, and the effect on the US populace has been quite predictable. Though the more assertive forms of Islamophobia are not quite mainstream, forms of liberal Islamophobia are ubiquitous in US society as a result of the conjunction of American isolation from the Muslim world and the never-ending barrage of Islamophobic propaganda produced by elite policy makers, the mainstream media and perpetuated by institutions such as the military and Christian churches.

Faced now with the first mass demonstrations in the 10 year occupation, Karzai was the first to jump on the bandwagon of framing the demonstrations as overwhelmingly about the Qu’ran desecration. After the UN compound was destroyed the entirety of the protests were recast as violent riots rather than overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations with violent fringes. Any person who has ever been involved in mass demonstrations against brutal injustices will tell you that once a critical mass of people has been achieved there will undoubtedly be violent outliers who target persons, property or both with force in order to escalate the situation—particularly in diffuse, largely spontaneous mass actions across multiple regions and urban centers.

The fact of the Taliban’s influence over the southern part of the country is testament to their obvious role in the demonstrations, but the mass demonstrations in Mazar-i-Sharif are testament also to the fact that this is a national effort—the first expression of its kind—to challenge the legitimacy of the NATO occupation (and its clients amongst the warlords and Karzai’s regime). The Taliban’s lack of influence in Mazar-i-Sharif and its mass actions are indicative that the occupation regime has now lost legitimacy to much of the non-Pashtun populace (those who have the most to loose from a NATO withdrawal and Taliban takeover).

Faced with the threat of continuing mass demonstrations (as of this writing they are in their 5th consecutive day), the Qu’ran burning issue has become the savior of the regime in the eyes of elite American policy makers. If the mass media in the States covered these demonstrations for what they were and coupled them with scientific studies of Afghan public opinion, opposition to the war amongst Americans would grow even more than it already has (there is majority opposition to the war). A recent study found that most Afghans in the south were not even aware of the events of 9/11, a fact indicative of Afghanistan’s overwhelming rural and illiterate populace.

The Taliban, Islam, “al-Qaeda” and a post-NATO Afghanistan

The right wing of American elite policy circles justifies the state’s policy towards Afghanistan (and Pakistan for that matter where well over 10,000 have been murdered in US drone strikes in an undeclared war) with rhetoric and logic that is openly bigoted and subservient to opportunistic interests, but the liberal justification is more subtle and thus forms the crux of the effort. In fact, the liberal Islamophobic justifications are what make this a NATO and not a unilateral occupation and so bear particular importance.

During the run up to the war and the subsequent occupation, extreme rightist forces in the Bush Administration suddenly discovered their zeal for feminist politics (never mind their ruthless assaults on women’s rights and health via draconian legislation and policy changes) in order to provide a liberal bulwark of support for war on a Muslim population. The “liberation” of Afghan women has not been a part of the actual agenda (most warlords are as bad or worse than the Taliban) of the occupation, but it has served as one of the central planks of the occupation’s apologia.

The supportive role of a right-wing militaristic “feminism” (supported in its embryonic stages by such notables as NOW and Medea Benjamin, who has since come to her senses) was just that, supportive. The main justification referenced the mythology of the “al-Qaeda organization.” The name “al-Qaeda” was assigned by US policy professionals to refer to the merger of a network of Saudi veterans of the Afghan struggle and a Salafi offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This network had been involved in bombings of US embassies in Africa and the USS Cole when it docked at the Yemeni port of Aden. Since carrying out the 9/11 attacks, the network has not carried out a single successful action, though its example has gone viral, most notably with the now defunct Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the still-operative Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (responsible for the massive Madrid bombings of 2004) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (responsible for the amateurish and foiled “Christmas” plot).

After 9/11, these loosely affiliated networks were presented as a singular entity called “al-Qaeda” which was described by mainstream media talking heads (with Bush Administration officials routinely appearing in the media mis-representing the nature of the individuals in question) as a kind of organization with a coherent leadership, footsoldiers, finances, propaganda arms and chapters (or mythical “sleeper cells” of Tom Clancy fame). Diabolical lairs of underground cave complexes with supercomputers, weapons caches, offices, electricity and more were described by government officials in the media, straight out of James Bond films. The fact that not one of these cave facilities has ever been found is not something that gets a lot of traction by the likes of CNN or FOX.

The network that carried out 9/11 was largely killed on 9/11. It is not confirmed but is likely that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (representing the faction of Egyptians) were aware that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was preparing in Germany to enter the States via Canada in order to carry out the attacks. Mohammed had a rough relationship with bin Laden and Zawahiri stemming from his perceived lack of religiosity. There are unconfirmed reports that Mohammed does not even hold to the religious ideals of Islam but rather considers them a useful force for organizing resistance to US imperialism. The truth of the matter is that Mohammed—and only Mohammed—had the wherewithal to carry out these attacks amongst the aforementioned parties. Bin Laden in particular lacks any serious practical skills in such arenas, he is more a religious mystic than the leader of a diabolical political organization with centralized political leadership.

The fact is that this network existed as a coherent entity only via a few training camps in Afghanistan, part of a difficult relationship between the Taliban government in Kabul and international (mostly Arab) forces that were involved in the effort against the USSR. The Taliban saw these individuals as useful allies given their access to Saudi, Pakistani and American funding (and access to their respective intelligence agencies) and so they provided them safe haven. The relationship was anything but comfortable, especially after the launching of cruise missile attacks by the Clinton Administration after the Kenya and Tanzania bombings of US embassies. The relationship almost ended at this point, but assurances were reportedly given by Saudi officials that the US would not pursue policies that would challenge Taliban rule in Afghanistan as they favored Taliban stability over civil war). Whether or not these assurances were actually given, the actual practice of Washington confirmed this state of affairs.

After 9/11, the United States set its sights on Kabul as the first sacrificial victim of its Orwellian “War on Terror” (more accurately described as a “worldwide justification for the employment of terror against dissenters from Washington to Moscow to Beijing and beyond”). No serious negotiations were undertaken with Kabul despite the fact that the spiritual leader of the Taliban—Mullah Mohammed Omar—offered to hand over individuals who were involved in the attacks once Washington provided evidence. Washington provided no evidence (to this day it is not forthcoming) of any involvement of any people residing within Afghan territory (it would appear 9/11 was completely financed and run from Germany, Canada and the States, though neither Berlin nor Ottawa have been subject to regime change) and then proceeded to destroy what was left of Afghanistan’s infrastructure. During the lead up to the attacks, a Pentagon official stated to the media that there were “no good targets” in a society like Afghanistan that was overwhelmingly rural and ruined from previous war. In spite of this, the US military’s stock of “smart” bombs was entirely depleted in two months of strikes.

Quixotic promises of hunting down foreign fighters in the hills of Tora Bora were stoked by forces of the “Northern Alliance” looking to make money off the war. Numerous people who simply resided in the mountainous south of Afghanistan were rounded up by opposition forces, accused of being al-Qaeda and then handed over to US military personnel. This has been extensively documented over the past few years, especially since some of these innocents ended up at the notorious US prison of Guantanamo and were later released by the Pentagon.

In the end, after air strikes, special forces, marines and UK special forces combed the area, not a single al-Qaeda militant was ever killed, captured or even sited (were they even there?). The perception of a unified criminal organization with an armed guerrilla contingent was created after this event, the “Battle of Tora Bora.” All armed Taliban resistance to the invasion was recast as the work of al-Qaeda. Policymakers and the media routinely blurred the lines between the indigenous Taliban—who had no history of involvement in international terrorist acts—and the foreign fighters. Most of the training camps were simply places for militants to learn military skills, receive religious instruction and then return to their respective home struggles. Whatever we can say about the ideology of most of these militants, many of them opposed regimes in a way that is legal under the United Nations Charter. Under the UN Charter, armed struggle is an acceptable response to colonial occupation. The struggles of Chechens, Kashmiris and the like should not be equated with 9/11 in spite of some overlap between these groups.

This medley of foreign fighters was presented to the US populace as a kind of Islamic International complete with marching orders and diabolical plots to kill civilians. Actual political goals of specific players—in particular bin Laden himself—were blacked out of discussions in the media. Any discussion of political goals or strategy on the part of these forces was regarded with suspicion in the US media, which then resulted in a chilling effect akin to McCarthyism across the United States. What is worse, the effect of the endless barrage of media-driven Islamophobia over the next decade would result in many Americans adopting this “Islamic International” caricature as a caricature of Islam itself, thereby viewing all Muslims everywhere as potential “sleepers” ready to rise up at a given signal in order to mindlessly kill civilians and impose an equally mythic “Sharia Law” (as if that were just one thing rather than a complex component of a vast, diverse and infinitely complex global religion).

Lessons We Must Learn

The fact is, liberal Islamophobia can easily overlap with leftist Islamophilia. Many leftists have made statements in support of groups like Hamas, Hizb’allah and Iranian President Ahmadenijad in their struggles against US and Israeli aggression in the region. While national independence is necessary, some on the left have gone further by casting right wing Islamists as progressive social forces. In this effort, the origin of the rise of political Islam as a counter-weight to the secular left in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia (the case of Indonesia is the most vast and tragic of them all) is glossed over, as are indigenous struggles today for a secular and democratic opposition throughout these regions.

The uprisings of 2011—or intifadas in Arab parlance—have set in motion a series of events that challenge this entire order. Political Islam has played a muted, late and sometimes counter-revolutionary role throughout all of these events, whereas the main slogans have been secular, with some religious window-dressing (something common in US political discourse as well one might add). The left—especially the European left—must make common cause with mass struggle and its secular, democratic components without fanning the flames of Islamophobia. The struggle of the French left over its own internal Islamophobia (something that has affected even the leftist NPA) is emblematic of the way in which Islamophobia has become a mainstream phenomenon in “Western” culture (though with the forces of globalization, forms of its are now pretty much everywhere around the world).

We must learn to be skeptical of monolithic portrayals of massive groups of people spread across different regions. Islam as a religion has over a billion adherents, making generalizations about a billion people’s social and political views is beyond futile, it is simply illogical. For every generalization a person in the United States feels accurately describes Islam, a similar one ought to be proposed about Christians. The fact that Christianity is largely divided into three main groups that are almost separate religions in their history and structure (not to mention the many thousands of Protestant sects) ought to give one pause about statements that purport to describe this or that state of affairs of this entire populace. Further investigation will find Christian Arabs who stand strong against Israeli and American imperialism in the Middle East, a fact that the Christian Right has problems squaring with its portrayals of these regional struggles as religious struggles rather than political ones with religious components.

The foundation of the modern state system is the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which brought an end to the disastrous 30 Years’ War, a kind of roving catastrophe that destroyed a good portion of the European population (captured in the wonderful play by Bertrolt Brecht, Mother Courage). After thirty years of “religious” war it was decided that the wars had not been incredibly religious in their purposes, only in their justifications. The war of Catholics and Protestants turned into—by wars’ end—a war between two competing Catholic monarchs who employed mercenaries to tear what would later become Germany apart with unspeakable atrocities. The principle of raison d’etat or “reasons of state” would henceforth dominate policy-making in European governmental affairs.

It would be a serious progressive gain for the world today if the conclusions arrived at Westphalia—that religious wars are in fact not religious and that religions are hopelessly divided entities incapable of mustering monolithic responses to events in the modern world—could be generalized across the world today. Let us work towards this future. In the meantime, it is of vital importance to understand events like what is occurring in Afghanistan right now as part of a series of political struggles against oppression and exploitation in the “neo-liberal era” rather than a clash of monolithic (indeed, mythic) civilizations.

The Sleeping Giant Stirs: The Renaissance of American Labor

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, what is emerging across the United States is the most significant upsurge of the labor movement in a very long time. What has begun in Wisconsin is rapidly spreading to other states—even some southern states, traditionally vacuums of labor activity.

To understand what is happening, several things have to be made clear about the United States’ uniqueness among the other great industrial powers in terms of the balance of forces between its labor movement and business interests. First of all, union density is incredibly low in the States in general. At 12.4% now, union density has declined—with few exceptions—every year for many decades, particularly from its peak in the 1940’s and 50’s. During the peak years, roughly 30% of private sector employees belonged to a union compared to roughly 10% of public sector workers. Now, the trend has shifted: of that 12.4% of unionized workers in the States, a significant portion is made up of public sector workers with 36.8% of public sector workers belonging to unions as compared with 7.6% in the private sector.

With those numbers in mind, the strategy of the likes of Governor Walker in Wisconsin and Governor Kasich in Ohio becomes clear: to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees is to deliver a “kill shot” to what remains of the labor movement as a whole; with public sector unions out of the way, the privatization of public services will lose its principal roadblock and whatever is left of private sector unionism will find itself hopelessly outmatched.

The attack on the public sector is not confined to Republicans, but the severity of the attacks in places like Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee (where the only significant union in the public sector is the teachers’ union, which is now facing legislation that will effectively destroy it) also has a partisan angle: the GOP realizes that it is unlikely to hold the reigns of power in state governments on this scale again for a very long time so the time for action is now in order to secure future gains by destroying an important leg of campaign financing for the Democratic Party. Furthermore, it is the labor unions that can be counted on by the Democrats to knock on doors and make phone calls—without the unions, the Democrats become more isolated and elitist in their orientation and public perception. To be clear though, as events in California, Illinois and New York demonstrate in stark relief, this is largely a bi-partisan war on what remains of the labor movement in the United States.

There are several significant elements to keep in mind when trying to understand the nature of the class struggle in the United States. The first to keep in mind is the historic divorce of labor unions and radical politics. A condition of the political and business elite’s acceptance of labor unions was that they purge their membership of people with radical political persuasions—and over time, those without radical politics but who still took militant stances towards questions of struggle. Consequently, the American left has been incredibly weak compared to the left in its nearest point of comparison in Western Europe.

With this divorce from the left has come a subservience to the agenda and interests of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is not nor has it ever been a labor party, though it has become the de facto party of people of color, organized labor, women’s interests, LGBTQ folks, etc. due more to the hard right shift of the Republicans than the Democrats’ own defense of these interests. Whatever was left of the Democratic Party’s support for organized labor has deteriorated significantly since the 1970’s, especially under the Clinton and Obama Administrations. The Obama Administration’s much publicized takeover of General Motors gave it a great opportunity to defend the traditional backbone of the labor union forces in the States (the UAW), but it used that leverage to extract brutal concessions from the UAW instead—now, new hires at UAW shops receive ½ of the wages previous new hires received. The basic thrust of most labor unions is to remain virtually silent until elections come around, then they become de facto campaign headquarters for the Party around the country. In some cases—for instance, the teachers union in Tennessee—unions perform virtually no other activities absent raising funds and gathering votes for Democrats.

Further, despite many heroic efforts by reform currents like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) or the Transport Workers Local 100 in New York City, unions are almost exclusively dominated by their bureaucratic leadership (this we must recognize is not endemic merely in the States but also a characteristic of unions in Western Europe). Many of these leaders receive enormous salaries compared with the people they are representing. The leadership of these forces often borders on the criminal—Hoffa in the Teamsters, Stern in the SEIU—but even without these excesses, the trend of the bureaucracy has been for the past thirty years to assist political and business elites in extracting concessions from working people. This does, however, appear to be changing with the current fight. The attack on collective bargaining rights’ themselves challenges not only the interests of the union membership, it attacks the power and privileges of the union bureaucracy themselves. Consequently, in spite of this enormous upsurge that has the power to defeat any attack on benefits, wages, etc. the union leadership continues to put forward proposals that will allow savage cuts to benefits and wages (not to mention attacks on the undocumented) in exchange for a preservation of collective bargaining rights.

The final point to keep in mind is the uneven geographic development here in the States. The southern states have experienced a rapid transformation over the past 20 years. Characteristics of this transformation include a shift from rural to urban (and suburban) production as the south has become the go-to place for industrial production, as well as a major shift in demographics with a massive influx of people from the rest of the country (looking for jobs and places to go with no state income taxes), as well as a significant migration of Hispanic workers especially over the past decade. The racial bi-polarity of the south has been significantly transformed over the last 10 years, with a three way white-black-brown division further complicated by a large number of other immigrant populations in places like Atlanta and Nashville (Nashville is home to one of the largest Kurdish populations outside of the Middle East).

This has made the south’s traditional role as the bastion of reaction against the labor movement a very volatile role indeed. The southern states are mostly “right to work” states, or states with laws that forbid closed-shops, thus effectively barring private sector union efforts. One of the more radical attacks on the labor movement in recent weeks was a bill introduced in Indiana which would turn that state into a “right to work” state, a stunning development in the mid-west. Without traditional union bureaucracies to operate as a kind of release valve for discontent among southern workers the prospect for an explosion of labor activity from below continues to rise. A case in point of this potential can be found in the upsurges that created public sector unions in the south in the first place. In the 1970’s, heroic battles across the south were waged by militant workers in the public sector, culminating in the winning of rights to collective bargaining for many public sector workers in a place that had traditionally been a union-free zone. Now, even those gains are under threat.

It is with this context that we must understand the importance of what has emerged from Wisconsin and is now spreading across the United States itself with stunning speed for many of us on the ground. Tens of thousands of people continue to take to the streets of Madison alongside 10,000 who took to the streets of Columbus, Ohio the other day, a state ravaged by outsourcing (to other countries and to the US south).

As an activist based in Tennessee, I have to say that I have never witnessed such strange sights as 300 supporters of organized labor packing a tiny hallway in Legislative Plaza for a press conference (which incidentally became a mini-rally), hundreds of teachers rallying in such unlikely places as Franklin and Johnson City (Franklin is a bastion of reaction that operates as one giant gated community as it is one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country) and finally the arrival of 600 labor supporters for a rally the other day in front of the capitol that was essentially called on Facebook and MoveOn.org’s website but which had virtually no other organization (many of us activists who attended expected 30 or so to show up).

The character of this movement is not purely economic, which is to say it is not isolated to the workplace and battles over wages, benefits, working conditions, etc. It is rather a political movement at the onset, targeted defensively at challenges to the very existence of legal unions. While its scale hearkens back to the early days of the 1970’s labor upsurge, its stakes are more akin to those of the 1930’s: whether or not unions will exist in a legal form at all.

Most of the activity has been driven by the rank and file and by supporters of unions, particularly among college-aged youth. The first days of the demonstrations in Wisconsin saw precious few of the mass-produced signs coming out of union-printing presses and instead saw an astonishing variety of creative messages, a significant amount of them referring to Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising. The mass attention that was brought to the struggle was a result of the de facto two day teachers’ strike (the teachers called in sick en masse, with doctors in solidarity providing medical excuses) which demonstrated the power of workers for a mass audience in the States in a way that has not occurred in a very, very long time. Thousands of high school students walked out of their classes and marched to Madison alongside thousands of college students, creating an inter-generational population that flew in the face of popular conceptions about unions and divides between younger and older political activists.

The attempt to divide the labor forces by exempting the police and firefighters’ unions from the bill (something the legislature in Ohio lacked the strategic sense to do, to their own detriment) has only backfired by showing people the power of solidarity: the mass of firefighters that have supported their fellow workers has displayed the meaning of solidarity in a very public way and now the police have joined protesters in Madison, disobeying orders to disperse the crowds. This police participation is quite unprecedented.

Recently, a liberal blogger carried out a prank call on Governor Walker’s office that proved to be very eye-opening. Pretending to be one of the billionaire Koch brothers (the 3 and 4th richest men in America whose money has been behind the construction of most libertarian organizations over the past three decades as well as various forces associated with the Tea Party), the blogger called Walker, who was fooled by the ruse. Among the revelations that were then broadcast out to a large audience in the United States (including on National Public Radio, which has more listeners than many right wing cable news providers) was that Walker understood that this had nothing to do with balancing the budget and everything to do with an attempt to “change the course of history” by delivering a deadly blow to organized labor. Walker also revealed that he had considered planting “troublemakers”–agent provocateurs—in the crowds in Madison in order to discredit the movement. The fallout from this event has yet to register, but there is talk of opening criminal proceedings against Walker, especially after representatives of the police forces learned of the agent provocateur issue.

It is these kinds of diffuse, creative actions, coupled with mass demonstrations and strike actions (however few and weak) that characterize this revitalization of the workers’ movement in the States. For the first time in many, many years thousands of everyday working people are rallying, chanting slogans like “the people, united, will never be defeated!” and associating with political radicals, reading their literature and inquiring about their meeting times. Though very little has been done in an official capacity, de facto alliances between radicals of various persuasions (Maoist, Trotskist, etc.) has become commonplace, especially among the younger members of these organizations.

The effect has been felt by the more mainstream left-liberal movement-oriented forces, culminating in Saturday’s mass actions across the US called by former Obama Administration member Van Jones (who was pushed out of office by Republicans via a well-coordinated red-baiting campaign) and MoveOn.org, a kind of opportunist movement-oriented organization that swoops in when masses of people start to take action in order to channel those efforts into votes. Over 100,000 rallied in Wisconsin (a shocking number for a state capitol mind you) alongside over 50,000 around the nation, including some surprises like the 600 in Nashville.

This effort has helped galvanize a sleeping public who, in spite of their general lack of political activity, continue to rate job creation far above reducing the deficit as the principal national priority. A recent NY Times/CBS poll shows that just 14% of Americans rank the deficit as their highest priority, as opposed to 43% who cite job creation as the national priority. A lot of wind has been taken out of the Tea Party sails—who are already suffering from a decline in popularity due to their recent Islamophobic and anti-immigrant excesses—with this movement. In Madison, over 70,000 rallied one day for workers’ rights while a counter-protest by the Tea Party numbered barely 2,000. In Nashville at the MoveOn/Van Jones rally, the Tea Party counter protest that had been widely announced never materialized.

In fact, a significant amount of Tea Party grassroots participants continue to shout “hands off my Medicare” and “hands off my Social Security” much to the horror of their political leaders, who understand that part of their focus is to destroy these popular government entitlement programs. In fact, a large amount of participants in these programs—in a testament to the lack of political education in this country—are not even aware that they are participating in government programs, a fact hitherto exploited by the right wing media but which is now beginning to turn around as these items come under threat at the federal level.

In short, the mass labor activity now spreading from Wisconsin to Ohio to Tennessee to Georgia and beyond threatens the status quo for the business elite, for the labor bureaucracy, the Democratic Party, the Tea Party and the vast majority of the population itself. Defeats in Wisconsin and Ohio in the near future could smother this infant movement in its womb, but many activists are preparing for either eventuality: how to capitalize on this upsurge if there is a win in Wisconsin or if there is a loss seems to be an emerging trend in conversation amongst labor and radical activists across the country. The fact that workers’ are making their presence felt in some southern states has enormous consequences for the prospects of rebuilding a national labor movement and for transforming a hasty defense of public sector unions into a battle to unionize the private sector itself (this is, admittedly, not on the immediate agenda). Coupled with these efforts is an upsurge in activity “from below” which is resulting in more participation by new (and many younger) union members in the day to day proceedings of their unions, which bodes well for democratic reform currents within the major unions themselves.

Attempts to co-opt this movement have so far failed, but not without lack of effort. Democratic Party, AFL-CIO and SEIU staffers are flooding into Wisconsin, trying to gain some grasp over the democratic upsurge so that their privileges are not the next victim of this awakened giant of American labor. Let us hope that their efforts prove unsuccessful in the face of a united front of democratic unionists.

If a serious new labor movement grows across the United States, the repercussions for politics here—and indeed in the whole world—will be tremendous. This is a very exciting time for all of us; may we not squander this unprecedented opportunity to build a new face of democracy in our country.

Egypt: the Clash of Two Spirits

The Mubarak regime—sans the former President himself—has entered into its “Greatest Hits” phase, offering up figures who have been a dominant fixture in elite politics since Hosni Mubarak’s ascendancy to the Presidency three decades ago, albeit repackaged and remastered with minor concessions to the revolutionary movement that is rocking not only Egypt, but the entire region with its new style of Arab nationalism.

This spirit of 2011 represents an Arab nationalism from below, built on the backs of popular struggle via neighborhood defense committees, independent labor organization and mass coordination via social networking sites and word of mouth. It stands to repudiate the models of the opposition parties, whether the Wafd, Nasserists, or the Muslim Brotherhood.

It stands in sharp contrast to the elite model of Arab nationalism, what I will call the spirit of 1952, for lack of a better phrase. The spirit of 1952 is a product of the social upheavals that brought the military into power and established it as the defining institution of Egyptian society—the defining institution of the largest Arab state, the Arab state with the largest base of industrial production (and hence working-class). It is not for nothing that in many parts of the region—though this has gone out of style in the Mubarak years—Egypt is known as umm al-Arab: mother of the Arabs.

The Spirit of 1952

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is counting on the spirit of 1952 in order to establish itself in the chaotic turmoil of Egypt’s present political and social crisis. In 1952, the Free Officers group took advantage of the unfolding social crisis sweeping the nation following the cataclysmic failures of the 1948 conflict with Israel after the Nakhba (the “catastrophe” of mass European Jewish cleansing of the Arab population from most of historic Palestine). The contending forces of the Egyptian opposition parties (dominated by the Wafd, a coalition of nationalists opposed to Britain’s de facto domination of the country as well as the Muslim Brotherhood), the British (especially via their military presence and economic domination) and King Farouk could not stand before the wave of Arab nationalism unleashed in short order by the Free Officers.

In a matter of merely 4 years, the new regime—dedicated to an elite policy of a society managed from above—would break the back of the pro-British aristocracy by nationalizing large swaths of their land, beginning a stunning policy of industrialization symbolized by the construction of the monumental Aswan High Dam, challenge Western imperial rule over the region by refusing to join the Baghdad Pact (one of the many clones of NATO that dotted the landscape of the 1950s) and taking arms from the USSR, retaking the Suez Canal (constructed by Egypt in 1869 but taken by Western capitalists via crude debt machinations shortly thereafter) and finally providing a charismatic leadership—in the form of Nasser—for the aspirations of Arab nationalism across the Middle East.

The spirit of 1952 can be described as a broad Arab nationalism whose repudiation of Western colonialism emanated from the heart of Egypt, facilitated by Egypt’s long string of independent development struggles which emerged from the regime of Mohammed Ali and his opposition to British, French and Turkish domination of the region. It hearkened back to the nationalist uprisings of 1881 and 1919 against British domination. Further, it took a complicated approach to the traditional opposition forces of the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, at times utilizing them to crush secular internationalist forces and at other times playing them against each other in a cynical game that was meant to maintain authority solely in the hands of the military regime, whatever its civilian dressings. It was an Arab nationalism from above, dominated by state enterprises run by a well-positioned bureaucracy who positioned themselves as the guardians of Arab independence against Western neo-colonialism.

1952s Contradictions Come to a Head

This system could not last forever. The bureaucracy, reeling after multiple defeats at the hands of the well-armed and funded Israeli Defense Forces and stinging from economic stagnation brought on by the inefficiencies of elite management of enterprises from above—which stifled all forms of self-management that emanated from the powerful Egyptian working-class—would undertake a severe revision of its role in the society and the Arab world, especially after the crushing of the 1977 uprising (in which the avowedly secular regime would unleash the rightist forces of the Muslim Brotherhood against leftists, youth and workers who agitated from economic reform and political independence).

Following the Camp David Accords and the assassination of Anwar Sadat (by a radical violent fringe of the Brotherhood, who to this day remain bitter enemies of the reformist and moderate Brotherhood), the regime went through a complete makeover. State enterprises would be sold off to Western companies, resulting in the growth of an ostentatiously wealthy elite (the former bureaucracy). At the heart of this would be the National Democratic Party of President Mubarak and the military elite, who formed a solid wall whose rhetoric of secular Arab nationalism fell hollow in face of the reality of appeasement of Israeli aggression, capitalist reform (something abhorrent to Nasser who felt that capitalism had only brought division, poverty and ruin at the hands of imperialism to his people) and police state repression.

Egypt would become the developing world’s largest recipient of foreign aid via the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the next thirty years, but not to the benefit of its people. Most of the aide went into the hands of foreign investors, the Egyptian elite or towards the construction of new and more inventive ways of repressing the masses of people. Especially after the 1990’s austerity programs, poverty would become the norm for most Egyptians with 40% living on less than $2 dollars a day. A culture of torture dominated the police forces (with assistance from the United States’ FBI educators) and secret police (the Mukhabarat).

This explosive combination of severe repression and brutal economic exploitation has been building for the better part of three decades—but even beyond that. It is a consequence of trusting the management of the country to an elite whose institutions serve largely to self-perpetuate over time and consequently have developed interests that have diverged from the spirit of 1952, but only through their consistent application. By entrusting the development of the society in the hands of an elite group, whatever their ideological pretensions, it would only be a matter of time before that group’s interests in self-perpetuation would become forms of self-aggrandizement at the expense of the masses of people. The Mubarak regime was not a sharp break, but a continuation of the policies of the Sadat regime. The same military regime remains in power today that oversaw the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

The Spirit of 2011

Enter today.

After several years of a serious strike wave, the brief specter of broad mobilization brought on by the 2003 antiwar demonstrations and the catalyst of Tunisia’s remarkable uprising against their own dictatorial government, a new movement has been born.

We can call this the spirit of 2011, the spirit of Arab nationalism—from below. The characteristics of this new spirit are unfolding, but their main features have been write large in the stunning uprising of the past three weeks or so. This spirit involves the self-determination of the people of Egypt via a repudiation of the elite strategies of the major opposition parties (whether the Wafd, the Brotherhood, or the reformist Nasserists or any other) who were the last to join the street mobilizations and the first to declare themselves “on the same page” with the new military authorities following the release of their political prisoners.

This movement is based on self-management and a dynamic leadership on the street level and at the workplace, though it lacks the coherency of a political organization that can organize these broad masses with the strategy necessary to win their goals. Independent labor forces, from strike committees to the emerging independent union, have played the crucial role of breaking the back of the regime. Two weeks of demonstrations were not enough to lead to Mubarak’s departure; two days of strikes by the petrochemical, transport, steel and numerous other industries brought the military into provisional authority in short order. Beyond this, neighborhood defense committees and more-or-less organic protest mobilizations provide a popular committee model of the exertion of political power that challenges not only the prevailing order of the regime, but also the order of the opposition parties themselves. It is, in an embryonic form, a challenge to liberal democracy itself with its model of electoral politics and elite parties who contend every few years to (mis)represent the people and secure the interests of the elite sectors of their respective societies.

Against the calls to end the occupation of Tahrir Square and to demobilize and return to work stands a dedicated core of workers, youth and middle-class revolutionaries whose clear demands bring them into sharp confrontation with the regime. These demands include the immediate release of all political prisoners, the dismantling of the interior ministry’s security services, the abolition of secretive military courts, the prosecution of those responsible for the murders that have taken place at the hands of the police following the January 25th uprising, the dissolution of the illegitimate parliament, the suspension of the constitution, the transfer of power from a military authority to a provisional council representing the various revolutionary organizations, the abolition of the emergency law that has been in effect since 1981, among other demands.

The Military Regime’s Strategy

The strategy of the regime is to count on the dividends of the past to buy their way out of the present crisis. In short, they are counting on people to forget the events of the last two weeks, to assume them to be an exceptional moment whose existence was justified by Mubarak’s refusal to leave, but whose time of departure has come hand in hand with Mubarak’s own departure. The prevailing narrative they are disseminating via their media arms and their official communiques is that of a return to normalcy.

Accordingly, they are moving rapidly to return things to normal. They have banned strikes and labor union organizations. The regime has moved swiftly to make deals with the Brotherhood (which has declared that it is “on the same page” with the new regime) and the other opposition parties. Accordingly, it has suspended the constitution and dissolved the hated parliament, yet mysteriously refused to strike down the emergency law. The intent of this is transparent: to maintain repression of the street movement and the labor movement while co-opting the official opposition, riding on their support of the regime’s “peaceful transfer to democracy.”

The aim is to demobilize the people, crush the labor movement, maintain the regime and its support of US and Israeli foreign policy and provide a spectacle of democracy via managed elections in which nothing much will really change.

Challenges for the Movement of 2011

The movement has to overcome its leaderless structure on the national level if it is to survive the coming months—even weeks. A coherent leadership and organization must arise to give direction to the self-managed forces of the street and workplace in order to further the struggle and challenge the elite via more industrial actions (which can cripple them in days) and outreach to the masses of people—in particular, the rank and file of the armed forces.

If the masses of soldiers—whose interests lie with the people and who are bound to have at least one close acquaintance who has been in the streets or on strike if demographics mean anything at all—can be one over to a revolutionary program, then all bets are off for the spirit of 1952.

Flashpoints are emerging. The standoff in Tahrir Square could result in its clearing in hours or days. The prospect of attempts to break through the Rafah crossing into Gaza in order to break the siege could bring the military into a difficult position: will it sacrifice what remains of the trust that emerged from the spirit of 1952, dashing 2011 on the rock a hated pro-Israeli policy whose only purpose seems to be to crush the lives and spirit of Egypt’s Arab brothers and sisters? Further, the prospect of military occupations of various workplaces—especially to break the factory occupations, transport and oil strikes—could give the regime an ugly face very fast.

The spirit of 2011 is rocking the entire Arab world and inspiring revolutionaries everywhere. Its most potent image is that of Christians and Muslims holding dual prayer services in Tahrir, chanting “We are one!” Its most powerful weapon has been its self-management via popular committees, social networking sites, independent labor organization and repudiation of opposition party leadership. The fate of this movement will determine the future of the region.

Whatever happens, the region—and, indeed, the world, will never be the same. The democracy genie is out of the bottle for all to see.

Mubarak Resigns, the Struggle Continues

One thing is clear from the events of the last 18 days: the power of the people is now back on the world stage in a dramatic fashion.

What has transpired in Egypt is nothing less than the largest popular revolution in the last 30 years. Two weeks of demonstrations and mass actions put the authority of Hosni Mubarak on its last legs, and 2 days of strikes finished the job. Masses of working class people have participated in the protests, swelling the ranks in the streets, but once the working-class exercised its social power over the economy in an organized fashion, the regime could not sustain itself. As the Revolutionary Socialists, an Egyptian organization, said: “The regime can afford to wait out the sit-ins and demonstrations for days and weeks, but it cannot last beyond a few hours if workers use strikes as a weapon.”

The ruling classes of the world are now on notice: the people are back, in a big way.

While it is good and necessary to celebrate this victory, we must also understand that this political revolution is not yet a social revolution–and the extent of the political revolution, a transfer of power to the armed forces, is still minor. Cultural change is sweeping Egypt in a way that it has not in a very long time, caused by the movement for democracy from below. The explosion of popular organization in the form of independent unions, neighborhood defense committees and new political organizations will forever change the face of Egypt, the Arab world, the entire Middle East and the world itself. However, the regime created by Mubarak remains in place.

Where did the Mubarak Regime come from?

The regime of Hosni Mubarak is a creation of local Egyptian elites who worked in tandem with US, Israeli and European interests to repudiate the Arab Nationalist regime of former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s government came into existence in 1952 following a revolt by military officers against the British-installed monarch King Farouk. Nasser himself did not take power until 1954, but he was the major architect of the 1952 overthrow.

Nasser’s regime opposed forms of popular self-organization but gained an enormous amount of respect from the people of Egypt and the entire world with his robust opposition to Israeli imperialism and indeed following the 1956 Suez Crisis, world imperialism itself. The regime operated via nationalizing major industries in order to develop the country’s economy.

The Arab Nationalism of Egypt was supported by ruling elites to counter revolutionary internationalism, and its limitations (especially via the nation-state) were made clear during the 1970’s. Below Nasser in the hierarchy of the regime was Anwar Sadat, who began the process of creating the regime that is in power today in Egypt. Sadat made peace with Israeli apartheid, giving de facto support for continued imperialist bludgeoning of the Arab world. Without fear from the Egyptian government–the only effective counterweight to Israeli aggression–the Israeli government was able to spend the following thirty years demolishing the region in the name of “security.” Invasions and occupations of Lebanon coupled with airstrikes on Iraq and multiple vicious campaigns against the “internal” threat of occupied Palestine became the rule of the day.

A splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Sadat, a kind of “chickens coming home to roost” moment for the Egyptian ruling class. To counter working-class self-organization and revolutionary internationalism (not to mention more consistent and independent secular Arab nationalism) the government in Cairo did what many other governments across the Muslim world did during the 1970’s: bolster–both directly and indirectly–religious political groups to provide the only effective opposition (the most cynical version of this policy in the region was the Israeli intelligence services’ support for Hamas in Gaza during the First Intifada in order to counter the Arab nationalism of the Palestine Liberation Organization).

Mubarak and Israel

Following this, the next person in line in Sadat’s regime–the former head of the Air Force–was none other than Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak’s government–as part of the US-brokered Camp David Accord with Israel–would receive $1.3 billion dollars in military assistance a year over the course of the next three decades. As Egypt no longer had an external foe, the intention of this assistance was clear: to maintain the repression of the people of Egypt.

Why the need for repression? Peace with Israeli and U.S. designs on the region was of course not popular in the largest Arab country in the world, but beyond this, the large-scale privatization of Egypt’s industries did not go over well with the people. Massive drops in living standards followed as members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) made millions of dollars. In the 1990’s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed structural adjustment policies on Egypt with the support of the regime, resulting in economic devastation.

Resistance was, during this period, either violently repressed or co-opted. A place was found for the Muslim Brotherhood–though officially banned–in the pseudo-parliament. The bogeyman of the Brotherhood (alongside more violent Islamist elements whose activity peaked in the 1990’s) provided Mubarak with sufficient justification to crack down on the population in excess.

Emergence of Resistance

Resistance to the regime did continue, however. In 2003, a massive protest in opposition to the Iraq War turned on the Mubarak regime itself. In 2005, the Kefaya (Arabic for “Enough”; akin to the Latin American “Basta Ya!” slogan) movement formed around multiple liberal civil society organizations. But the most significant mobilizations were those of the Egyptian working-class and various youth movements (the April 6th Movement was formed around youth trying to support a failed general strike in 2007).

From 2007 to 2009, many workers–centered around the industrial city of Malhalla–participated in a strike wave that challenged the authority of the government-sponsored trade union confederation (whose existence served to take the wind out of working-class self-orgnanization). Some of these struggles developed into full-on street battles with the police.

These struggles laid the foundation for the uprising on January 25th–all it took was the catalyst of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” to touch off the movement. Many middle-class activists–socialist, liberal, and Muslim Brotherhood–linked up via social networking sites and plotted to mobilize mass street protests. A fairly sophisticated strategy of giving the security services false leads (for instance, announcing that the demonstrations would begin in a wealthy neighborhood of Cairo) linked up with a fairly crude strategy of literally walking down the street in working-class neighborhoods and calling for people to join led to massive marches on the 25th. From that moment, everything changed.

Masses of working-class individuals joined the protests, swelling the ranks of the demonstrations to millions of people. The government was unable to use the military to crack down on the demonstrations after the protesters literally fought the police off the streets. Instead of a Tiananmen-style crackdown, the government devised a rather clever strategy of appealing to the popularity of the armed forces (a major part of Egyptian culture following the 1952 uprising against the King and due to the army’s role in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel). The military’s true role was put on display on that fateful Wednesday when paid NDP thugs (and plainclothes police officers) were allowed by the military to attack to the protesters with vicious and crude tactics (including the infamous camel and horse charges).

More and more demonstrators joined following last Monday after many Egyptians went to work for the first time since the 25th and had conversations about what was actually going on (Egyptian state TV did not present the demonstrations as either large, important, or led by the masses of the Egyptian people). Then, just a few days ago, all hell broke loose for the regime.

Workers in the steel, petrochemical, transport, military production, docking, chemical industries went on strike. Masses of doctors, nurses and lawyers took the streets. Journalists for the state media resigned and a major newspaper actually took the unprecedented step of actually siding with the marchers. Mass demonstrations in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria were joined with a much more widespread uprising across the entire country, even penetrating Upper Egypt (the southern part of the country) for the first time since the entire movement began.

Once workers went on strike, the regime shifted into panic mode. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (which had previous only convened during the 1967 and 1973 wars) has effectively taken control of the country–whether with Mubarak’s blessing or not, it is unclear.

Mubarak’s speech last night was a ridiculous ploy on the part of a regime that clearly has lost its bearings. Multiple leaks and the Army’s infamous Communique Number One raised expectations across Egypt, expectations which were dashed by Mubarak’s words on state television. The very real threat of an insurrection then likely compelled the regime to speed up Mubarak’s resignation, which came a mere hour ago.

The Mubarak Regime Minus Mubarak

We must now hope that the people of Egypt do not stop their important movement from below. What is at risk is all of the gains of the past 18 days: the regime is still in power, though minus Mubarak. The same elites continue to hoard the wealth of the country, the same security services persist in their repression of dissidence, the same military continues to rule–now openly. If the people simply return to their homes and cease their activity, the Mukhabarat (secret police) will begin to disappear, torture and murder once more. Workers’ will be forced to make concessions; popular committees will be dissolved; the police will return to the streets en masse.

Against this possibility, there is another: youth, worker and political organizations that have made this revolution can push onward, against the machinations of the opposition parties and the Brotherhood. They can form political organizations provide leadership to lead this popular movement. They can continue and spread strikes and demonstrations across the country, in order to bring the regime itself down. For this to be possible, a lot depends on if the movement wins the support of the military rank and file. The fact that a Tiananmen Square type massacre did not occur during the past 18 days hints at this prospect. These kinds of steps then the people can push forward this political revolution–and lay the groundwork for a social revolution (one in which the basic relations of society are transformed).

Of course, Egypt’s future will be determined by Egyptians, and in solidarity with them, those outside the country must keep up its pressure. Military rule is no solution to the crisis, the people’s demands are for democracy, not generals. May this flowering of the Arab Spring only be the first chapter in this epic saga!

Tunisia Breaks Free


The events unfolding in Tunisia before our very eyes constitute a sharp break in world events, albeit a break that has emerged from years of grinding contradictions that have now come to a head. These events represent a break from US-backed “color revolutions,” feigned revolutionary upsurges by reactionary Islamists masquerading as harbingers of progress, and forms of reformist and guerilla-style revolutionary elitism. Popular self-organization from below has scored a victory that—although limited in nature—has had profound effects in transforming the consciousness of people around the Arab world and indeed globally.

The revolt in the streets of Tunis had their origins in the rural southern regions of the country, specifically in the town of Sidi Bouzidi. There, mostly rural workers took to the streets in December “with a rock in one hand and a cell-phone in the other” (according to Rochdi Horchani, a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi—the 26 year old street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the current round of resistance) to challenge the regime of Ben-Ali.

The challenge came after three decades of ruthless repression at the hands of Ben-Ali’s Mukhabarat (secret police). The US and French support for the regime went very far as Tunisia was upheld as an exemplar of behavior considered acceptable to the interests of the American and French ruling classes. Tunisia was to be a place of robber-baron dictatorship (Wikileaks cables reveal that something like 50% of the economy was in one way or another under the control of Ben-Ali’s family and 6 other clans). All of the repression occurred with the blessing of Washington and Paris, for as long as the people were docile and timid before their oppressors, no complaints about human rights abuses seemed to matter.

Unlike similar demonstrations against the regime that had broken out in the spring, the people of Sidi Bouzidi made a huge effort to get the news of their demonstrations out to a broader public. They succeeded dramatically. Images from the south were seen via the internet and pirated satellite television.

Then came more eruptions across the country—and the entry of thousands of urban working-class citizens into the battle. The explosion was more than the police could handle and so Ben-Ali called on the military to enter the mix with guns drawn: and the orders were refused.

We do not know exactly what transpired in the halls of power, but the ruling RCD party maneuvered for its own survival following the military refusal by pressing Ben-Ali to flee—and flee he did. First he tried to touch down in Paris, but the shrewd Sarkozy government refused him asylum, recognizing that inflaming anti-imperialist tensions was probably an unwise decision at this given juncture. Ben-Ali has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia now—though the new (second) interim government is trying to have him brought into custody.

Unlike recent “color” revolutions in Eastern Europe or Central Asia, millions of dollars of George Soros’ “democracy promotion” aid did not contribute to the effort and no liberal opposition parties were significant participants. The dissension from the regime by the largest trade union confederation (which had previously been the handmaiden of the regime) turned the struggle from one isolated among youth and rural workers to a general uprising against the regime.

Popular forms of democratic organization—including neighborhood councils, elected committees at some work-places (especially journalistic enterprises), and street-level organizing—have played the leading role in events in Tunisia, not the Islamist Ennahada party or the Progressive Democratic Party (which has become the new ruling party in the interim government with the blessing of the army and has acted in concert with the former ruling RCD party and the army to try and diffuse the street protests). In fact, the only party of significance to have an active role in the revolution has been the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party. The party’s leader Hamma Hammami has gained in popularity after being arrested shortly after the demonstrations began and after he spoke out publicly against any Islamist opportunism in the revolutionary process by the moderate Ennahada party.

The significance of Tunisia, like Kant said of the French Revolution, is in a sense not in its local character, but in the reverberations it has around the world. It is what the revolution in Tunisia means to the rest of the Arab world and indeed the entire world itself.

What does it mean?

It means that even in the most unlikely of places, in the quietest places, in the places that one would never expect—revolution can erupt. Revolutions erupt because of deep seated contradictions in society, contradictions that come to a head due to many idiosyncratic events (in the case of Tunisia, the self-immolation of the street vendor) but whose roots are deep, grinding and persistent.

Furthermore, the revolutionary process in Tunisia means that the world is not doomed to the pseudo-resistance of Islamist and other rightist factions masquerading as progressives via their “anti-imperialist” credentials. The Islamists have played next to no role in the revolutionary process of Tunisia; the unions, youth, and even the left have played a much more instrumental role in pushing things forward.

The emergence of the 14th of January Front is a promising development, but not as promising as the emergence of popular forms of democracy in the workplaces and neighborhoods. Multiple circumstances have been reported of journalistic staff removing their editors and creating popular committees to replace them; anecdotal evidence suggests this is more widespread than was first thought. These forms of popular democratic resistance stand in stark contrast to the elite-guerilla model of resistance (a vehicle of the left in the history of Latin America, for instance but quite rightist in the cases of Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) which has dominated the region for quite some time, exemplified on a regional level by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

The possibility of working-class revolution has now been put back on the horizon, minus all the trappings of the Cold War system of containment (from the USSR and the US). This is happening in Tunisia, but it has already touched off serious convulsions in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and non-Arab Albania. With an acceleration of this kind of struggle and the emergence of a regrouped, refounded and reconceptualized international left, the hope of worldwide social change can become a reality.

Let us be clear about what has happened: popular forces of Tunisia have led a political revolution, one that is still ongoing and could be pushed in a much more radical direction. This is not just any political revolution, however, it is a political revolution with a social revolutionary current that is extraordinarily strong—albeit with weak organizational forms in terms of revolutionary organization. The voices in the streets, especially from the youth and workers, are calling for vast changes to the social system and the government. Substantive equality (rather than formal) and popular democracy are on the agenda of the masses of people.

The army, popular with the people after its dissension from Ben-Ali and now seemingly from the interim government, remains the major arbiter between the popular organization of the masses and the elite opposition parties (as well as the RCD, the former ruling party). Further challenges to the political regime could lead to the dissension of middle-class elements from the ranks of protesters, not to mention the fact that these could trigger a reaction by the leaders of the armed forces. If the masses persisted, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the rank and file of the national guard would massacre the very people they were hugging and kissing before, but that remains to be seen.

The program of the 14th of January Front, printed below, is meant to address this impasse and to push things in a direction that will solve the root of this social crisis. We must be clear about limitations however: if radical workers’ revolutions do not spread, they can be choked off and subject to reaction not only from without (France, the US), but also from within. This is not yet such a radical workers’ revolution, but it has put the question back on the horizon in a way that has not been done for quite some time.

Founding Statement of the 14th of January Front (Tunisia)

As an affirmation to our involvement in the revolution of our people who are struggling for their right to dignity and freedom, whom their sacrifices resulted in dozens of martyrs and thousands of injured and detainees, and in order to complete the victory against the internal and external enemies, and in response to the ongoing attempts for plundering the people’s sacrifices, 14th January Front is formed as a political frame working on advancing our people’s revolution towards achieving its goals and to confront the anti-revolution forces. It includes the founding forces of political parties and progressive and democratic organizations.

The Front’s urgent tasks are:

Bringing down Ghannouchi current government or any government that includes symbols of the former regime.

Dissolving the RCD, the confiscation of its headquarters and property and Bank accounts as they belong to the people, and dismissing its members.

Formation of temporary force that enjoys the confidence of the people and the progressive forces of the civil society political, associations, unions and youth organizations.

The dissolving of the House of Representatives and the advisers council and all current false bodies, and the Higher Council of the Judiciary, and the dismantling of the political structure of the former regime, and to prepare for elections of a constituent assembly within a period that does not exceed one year, for the formulation of a new democratic constitution and a new legal system that will govern public life ensuring political and economic and cultural rights of people .

Dissolution of the political security and enact new security policy based at respect for human rights and the law.

Trial of all those who has been proven to loot the people’s money and/or commit crimes such as repression, imprisonment, torture and killings, whether by decision making, ordering or/and execution. Trial also of all of those proven to have taken bribes and misconduct of public property.

Confiscating the property of the former ruling family and those close to them and their associates and all officials who took advantage of their position to gain wealth at the expense of the people.

Providing jobs to the unemployed and taking urgent measures for their benefit such as issuing unemployment benefit system and social and medical security and improving the purchasing power of the daily-wage workers.

Building a national economy which services the people by putting the vital and strategic sectors under state control and nationalising the companies that were privatised and drafting an economic and social policy that breaks-up with liberal capitalist approach.

Guaranteeing public and individual liberties and primarily the freedom of demonstration and organisation, the freedom of expression and the press and the freedom of belief and the release of all those under arrest and declaring a general amnesty.

The Front salutes the support of the masses and the progressive forces in the Arab world and the world for the revolution in Tunisia and calls upon them to continue their support with whatever means possible.

Opposing normalisation with the Zionist state and criminalising it and supporting all the national liberation movements in the Arab world and worldwide.

The Front calls upon the masses and the progressive and democratic forces to continue their mobilisation and their struggle using all legitimate forms especially street protest until their objectives are achieved.

The Front salutes all the committees, the organisations and the forms of self-organisation of the masses and calls for the broadening of their actions in public life and the running of all aspects of the daily life.

Glory to all the martyrs of the uprising and victory the masses in revolt.

Tunisia 20 January 2011

The League of Left Workers

The Uniting Nacerists Movement

The National Democratic Movement

The National Democrats

The Baath Movement

The Independent Leftists

The Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT)

The National Democratic Labour Party

[Translated by Raida Hatoum and Nadim Mahjoub]

EPA Revokes Spruce Mine Permit, Mountain Justice Scores Victory

Working in the Mountain Justice movement as a socialist has had its trying moments. The movement was established in 2005 by a coalition of local Appalachians effected by the worst excesses of the coal industry and a much younger layer of environmentalist activists from outside the region itself. On one wing of the movement, there is a hard core dedicated to tactics of direct action and non-violent civil disobedience while, on the other, is a NGO-ized section of more bureaucratic organizations dedicated to incremental legal challenges to the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining–a particularly ruthless form of strip-mining. In between these are the actual working people of Appalachia whose hearts are frankly more with with direct action-oriented activists, and with good reason. Incremental legal challenges to the coal industry have mostly failed, especially in the context of the catastrophe that is befalling Appalachia.

Mountain Justice activists

It is in this context that the recent success of the Mountain Justice social movement in pressuring the EPA to veto the permit it had previously granted to the industry at the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia has inspired a great deal of hope in activists and residents of the beleaguered region. This comes on the heels of numerous mobilizations since 2005 by Mountain Justice activists and Appalachia residents which culminated this fall in a mobilization in Washington called “Appalachia Rising.”

I attended the Appalachia Rising mobilization with several other Solidarity members and allies from local environmentalist groups here in middle Tennessee. The development of the internal culture of this movement is stunning–the workshops, music, artistic expression and social gatherings all helped build the cohesion and commitment of the activists in a way that I had not experienced before. Following a day of political education, debate, art and cultural activities, there was a several thousand strong march through the streets of Washington. The most important event in this march, in my analysis, was the rally in front of the EPA building.

Mountain Justice activists had previously been informed that different elements within the EPA bureaucracy supported their efforts, but were constrained by the trappings of Washington officialdom. In this context, the pressure put on the bureaucracy directly has had an enormous impact on pushing it to act in the interests of the people of Appalachia–and in accordance with Federal law.

image of mountaintop removal strip mine

Enter the EPA’s very recent veto of the Spruce No. 1 mine permit. This has been a great victory for the movement, but only a single victory in a sea of devastation. Appalachia has suffered in ways that are unimaginable to many over the past 20 years (not to mention the previous years). Lean production methods led to a massive slashing of the coal mining workforce, leading to massive migration and economic deprivation. As the workers’ disappeared, productivity and profits skyrocketed under the new strip-mining regime. A large number of deep-mining workers were replaced by a small number of much better-paid explosive-experts, etc. whose loyalty to their industry is zealous to say the least.

The last attempt to reform the United Mine Workers–as dramatically captured in the film Harlan County, USA–resulted in violent intimidation and the murder of rank and file reform activists. Since then, the collusion between the United Mine Workers’ bureaucracy and the coal industry bosses has continued without serious interruption. Consequently, in this struggle for the Appalachian people the historic agent of social change has been taken out of the equation. The result has been a movement with bodies and will but no teeth in the form of strikes and other industrial actions.

The Mountain Justice movement emerged in 2005 after yet another accident from mountain-top removal coal mining led to the death of a young boy (he was sleeping in his bed with a bolder crashed through his house, not an uncommon occurence in the region). The movement consists of three camps a year (Spring, Summer, Fall) which involve internal development and usually end in some kind of coordinated action, as well as numerous organizations and grassroots coalitions dotting the region and its surrounding areas.

The movement has chased the financing of mountain-top removal coal mining from Bank of America to Chase Bank to PNC Bank and finally to a much more difficult foe: the Swiss giant UBS. UBS, as an investment bank, is not susceptible to the same kind of pressure as the other banks. The movement has also successful challenged local and state governments. In the case of Tennessee, the former Governor Bredesen took an astonishingly anti-MTR (mountain-top removal) stance in order to stave off the kind of problems government officials have had with activists in West Virginia and Kentucky (it remains to be seen whether the new Republican Governor Haslam will follow suit).

Once again, between the two wings of bureaucratic liberal NGOs and grassroots environmental activists stands the working-people of Appalachia–divided against their fellow workers’ in the coal industry itself. The blood, sweat and tears of organizing that resulted in the EPA veto may be just the beginning of more mobilizations and success. There is also a good chance that the united efforts of the coal industry and Tea Party-oriented politicians in the local, state and federal governments will succeed in either reversing the EPA’s decision or in preventing this from becoming a general trend of EPA enforcement of federal law.

Meanwhile, the migration out of this devastated region continues as jobs disappear and the environment turns toxic. Some residents can actually light their water on fire. Orange toxic streams dot the landscape. The headwaters of the drinking water of much of the Southern USA are being progressively poisoned with the valley fills. It is imperative that socialists join this fight and begin to advocate for putting the coal industry workers back in the fight.

Some Reflections on the Unfolding Revolutionary Process in Tunisia

Without going into too much detail about Tunisia’s situation, let us make clear one thing:

The regime has not fallen, it is still in power–though it is in a precarious position.

Ben-Ali has fled (as has his hated, Marie Antoinette-esque wife), but the ruling clique that operated underneath his executive direction has remained in power. The military is in the streets, cracking down on any gatherings of 3 or more people (a state of emergency has been declared). There is widespread looting and gangs of armed men have wrecked havoc in certain areas–consequently, many of the neighbourhoods are self-organizing in much the same way that local democratic structures arose during the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 (there are other examples but I think the classic one is important for those of us who do not have much knowledge about revolutionary politics in history).

An unnamed military source has told the media that the gangs of armed men are in fact Ben-Ali’s Mukhabarat–internal security services–carrying out violence in order to justify a more brutal military crackdown. In this vein, we must remember one of the major reasons for the success of the movement against the regime: Ben-Ali’s military commander, with pressure from the ranks of soldiers, disobeyed his order to use violence to disperse the protests and instead had the military pull back to defend government buildings. Scenes of soldiers and demonstrators embracing and kissing show us that the military is very seriously divided. Every major revolution–from the 1917 socialist Russian Revolution to the misdirected 1979 Iranian Revolution–has involved deep dissension within the ranks of the military (in fact, the shift in Cuba from a mass-based urban general strike-oriented movement to a special body of armed guerrillas occurred once the military, in lockstep, crushed a general strike–thereby winning over the masses of people to Castro’s view that only guerrilla war led by elite commanders could defeat the Batista regime).

So what we have is an incomplete political revolution, though there are still demonstrators in the streets. The demonstrations began in the rural south–now, in the same area, there are people taking to the streets demanding the resignation of the interim government–along with more radical demands. The urban middle class is involved heavily (50% of graduates are unemployed)…but even with all of these forces, there is simply not enough critical mass or leverage to make a serious difference. It is the working-class that has swelled the ranks of the demonstrations and replaced confused and somewhat spontaneous resistance with mass coordinated actions and general strikes.

People in the street have only symbolic power. In the end, if an army wants to, it can massacre those people–look at Tiananmen Square. When workers’ refuse to work, however, they cut the jugular of a society’s ruling elite. That is what has happened. It was not for nothing that the security apparatus snatched up the leader of the Communist workers’ movement once things began to escalate.

The protests have been going on for over a month. They have centered on demands for the government to address the 14% unemployment rate (the US unemployment rate is 17.5%), to tackle skyrocketing inflation (food, fuel, etc. going up while wages are declining–just like the US), and to put an end to government censorship and police state repression. The catalyst for their escalation came in the form of a young unemployed youth who set himself on fire in front of a government building following the state’s seizure of his unauthorized fruit stand–his only livelihood.

The same 7 clans that rule the government and command the greatest share of the economy remain in power, the Mukhabarat continues its repression and there are tanks in the streets. Without revolutionary organization, the street protests will end at the barrel of a gun, the state apparatus will remain firmly in power, an interim period before elections–which undoubtedly will be between elites, with middle-class elements dissenting from working-class ranks, dividing the previous national unity–will be overseen by the likes of French President Nicholas Sarkozy (not to mention the US role). The hopes of Tunisia will be extinguished by calls for moderation and the threat of the Jasmine Revolution spreading across the greater Arab world will dwindle as the security services of Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, etc. will take the moment to up the ante of repression.

This situation can escalate in the other direction, however. The self-organization of the neighborhoods is a promising start–it all depends on where the leadership of the working-class takes the movement: will they yield to elite promises of reform or to middle-class leadership, or will they push forward with a truly revolutionary purpose and look at completing the political revolution and perhaps even a social revolution that will undermine the very social relations that lie at the base of the economic and political crisis unfolding across their society?

These are the questions we ought to be asking. I implore everyone to learn from this experience, to enjoy the victories but to remain sober to the situation, and to understand that revolutions are very complex processes–not just lots of people in the streets. Let us stand in solidarity with our comrades suffering under the yoke of tyranny in the Arab world: neither bin Laden nor the US-backed regimes, but real people’s democracy.

Middle Tennessee confronts Islamophobia

(Article authored by lifetime Tennessee resident and local MT Solidarity branch member Jase Short)

For the past month, xenophobic and anti-Muslim forces have stirred up controversy around a proposed mosque outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Considering the Bible Belt location and context of two major wars against majority-Muslim countries, opponents have drawn from some of the most right wing and backwards elements of the region’s culture. But local activists have drawn on other traditions: the democratic freedoms in the Bill of Rights and the Civil Rights movement.

demonstrators confront anti-Muslim protestors

On Thursday, Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom (MTRF) delivered a blow to these Islamophobic right wingers and managed to pull out more people into the streets of Murfreesboro than the well-funded opposition. Roughly 450-500 showed up to defend the rights of Muslims against the 300 or so on the other side — stunning organizers and the entire state of Tennessee. We made it on national and international news. The chances that the County Commission will reverse its decision — especially now since the mayor has switched his position on granting the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro the right to construct its new facility — have been seriously diminished.

Solidarity organizers worked very hard to make the event community-wide, while not shying away from informing others of our political affiliation. Roughly 15-20 organizers (with 4 or 5 Solidarity members) created the Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom grassroots network and spent a week handing out flyers, making phone calls, going door to door, and contacting allied organizations.

The MTRF rally began gathering around 2:30. When the organizers arrived, there were already 150 or so present. After an hour or so, mosque opponents marched down Main Street, escorted by police as well as some questionable looking bikers. They then curled around the square to come to the opposite side of the court house, opposite from where we were gathering. The MTRF group moved across from the opposition march, keeping completely silent as they hurled insults at us. We remained silent until one Solidarity and MTRF member tried to present the opposition’s leader with a flower–which he rejected.

Following that rejection we began the chant: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew – First Amendment applies to you!

They responded with “Amazing Grace,” to which we responded with the Star Spangled Banner. An hour or so of tense standoff ensued, with MTRF organizers holding a line between the opposing sides in order to prevent violence (the opposition worked really hard to provoke us, to no avail).

After the event, folks from the Islamic Center and the community in general thanked us for our efforts, one local business even provided organizers a free meal. At least in this case, the forces of bigotry and hate in the American South have been met with a strong, vibrant force of democratic power. Although started by socialists, MTRF became a broad alliance of progressive folks. We do not know what comes next, as the opposition has been silent since their resounding failure, but undoubtedly they have not given up… and neither have we.

Fighting Islamophobia in Middle Tennessee

Our city in central Tennessee has become the latest battleground in the struggle against Islamophobia.

A short time ago, an area that had been zoned for a church right outside the city limits of Murfreesboro (home to Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee’s largest undergraduate university) was acquired by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in order to construct a larger community center complete with a space for worship as well as athletic facilities. If constructed, the enlarged Islamic Center—including a very small mosque—would be the first large facility to serve the Muslim population in the surrounding area (the current Islamic Center is incredibly small and located in the industrial sector of the city near the interstate). Following all the legal procedures, the Regional Planning Commission approved the construction—just as it would any of the roughly 180 churches in this area.

That was when elements of the far right, organized by the extremely well-funded mega-church World Outreach swung into action, stacking a Rutherford County Commission meeting with vocal footsoldiers. After that, the local newspaper announced that a march against the mosque had been planned for July 14th. That was when the local Solidarity branch began its work.

The Middle Tennessee branch of Solidarity began gathering like-minded folks in the community together to form an ad-hoc grassroots group to organized a counter-protest. It was decided to name the group Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom and a meeting was held last Wednesday. It was attended by over 20 individuals who were committed to helping organizing the event (with 3 or 4 Solidarity members present rather than the whole branch), including a documentary film maker from out of town (another 10 or so are involved in organizing in one form or another but could not attend). It was agreed at the meeting to have the entire counter-rally themed around protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans rather than positioning the event as a defense of Islam per se (this was also the desire of the Islamic Center representatives). That said, we all have prepared ourselves to respond to the lies about Islam that are being spread in this struggle.

Since then our struggle has appeared on national news coverage, including Jon Stewart’s Daily Show—though our grassroots network was only a day old at the time. We have been phone-banking, going door to door, canvassing neighborhoods and local businesses and much more.

Islamophobia conflates ethnic, religious, cultural, and national identities into one figure which stands in a place not unlike “the Jew” in traditional European antisemitism. The power of this image of the subversive Muslim is drawn from the effect of ceaseless imperial propaganda displayed in the corporate media. It has the power to mobilize the oppressed and exploited populations of the great capitalist powers via the projection of irrational fantasies of imminent Islamic revolution onto an incredibly small minority population. Without a strong anti-war movement working deeply with the Muslim community, the mainstream population has been subjected to endless scapegoat ideology without any serious counter-force.

Cynical Republic Party politicians, such as the local Tea Party favorite for our Congressional seat, Lou Ann Zelenik (also an active member of World Outreach Church), have been making atrocious public statements such as, “Is it a church, or a training center?” in order to foment hate and churn out voters for their faction of the Party. (Zelenik is opposed to Jim Tracy, a more mainstream business-oriented Republican.)

On July 14th, with nothing but grassroots organization, we will confront a march organized by the shadowy forces of the local Republican Party apparatus and the corporate-funded World Outreach Church. We ask for your solidarity and support. At this time, the County has made its decision, and we are simply supporting it. If this counter-rally goes badly and they reverse their decision, we will reassess the situation and the struggle will continue.