Of Qu’rans, Occupations and Uprisings

Posted April 11, 2011

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.