September 11th and Islamic fundamentalism

Frontline has received the following response to Murray Smith's article 'From New York to Kabul' in Frontline number 4. The author, John G. Rodwan, Jr., is a New York socialist. We print his response below, followed by a reply from Murray Smith.

On 11 September 2001: A Response to Murray Smith

Murray Smith's deeply flawed article 'From New York to Kabul' in the October 2001 issue of Frontline exemplifies some of the most unfortunate aspects of the Left's response to the 11 September attacks. It is no surprise that, in the US at least, organisations that express the sorts of views contained in Smith's piece remain on the margins, with little support.

Smith begins his cliché-ridden article by making the obvious point that the 'bombing' (there were bombs?) of the World Trade Center was 'barbaric' and 'incompatible with human emancipation'. However, he rapidly moves to lay blame for the acts, not at the feet of those who actually committed them, but with US 'imperialism': 'What happened in New York' (no mention of the planes crashed in Pennsylvania and into the Pentagon, which, after all, only killed a few hundred people) 'was a product, a horrible, gruesome product, but a logical product of American policy.... '

Indeed, there is, according to Smith, 'a direct responsibility of the United States for the spread of armed Islamic militancy.'

And what about those militants? Well, it turns out, they're not really engaged in Islamic militancy at all: 'these attacks, although carried out by religious people, are not really religious in character'. (When did it become the task of socialists to define and defend pure religion?) So what are they all about? 'They are an expression, a grotesquely deformed expression, of hatred for US imperialism and for they way it dominates the world.' In particular, Smith elucidates for us, those US-financed militants 'who came to fight a holy war against the [Soviet] infidels' in Afghanistan subsequently came to see the US as the 'main enemy' for its support for Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people.

So, let's recap: Militant Islamic fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it's about fighting the US and the terrible things it does. Indeed, the 'bombers' are really anti-imperialists who advocate liberation of the Palestinians - just like the ISM, the SSP and leftists around the world! Perhaps if Osama bin Laden had been born in Seattle and not Saudi Arabia he'd be breaking windows at Starbuck's instead of financing suicidal hijackers! While Smith does qualify his accounts of terrorism with adjectives like 'horrible' and quotes Daniel Bensaïd's description of the attacks as 'the anti-imperialism of imbeciles' in denouncing bin Laden and the Taliban, he nonetheless repeats the chickens-coming-home-to-roost explanation of the events of 11 September. And the implication of this lazy analysis is that the chickens are justified (if misguided in their selection of tactics and rhetoric).

And this, frankly, is sick. Moreover, suggesting that fundamentalists are somehow fighting the same fight as leftists is politically foolish. Their aims, not just their methods, are completely different.

Yes, of course, the US does truly horrible things, as does Israel. And certainly resistance is warranted, which makes analysis and understanding crucial. Without question, the US does play a prominent role in determining the often-miserable conditions in which people around the world live. But nothing can justify the 11 September attacks. Nothing. Saying this does not make one anti-Arab or pro-war, by the way.

If explanations of 'why they hate us' - to use that cringe-making piece of journalistic shorthand - read like defense of such acts, as Smith's sometimes does, then not many readers are going to regard these interpretations as emanating from the side of justice.

Because they're not.

I'll end on a personal note. I work in Manhattan and live in Brooklyn. (Earlier this year, I was part of a group of New York SSP supporters that arranged to have Frances Curran speak at the Socialist Scholars Conference here.) On 11 September all train and most automobile traffic in and out of Manhattan was temporarily halted, which meant I had to make my way out of the city on foot. If, as I walked across the bridge out of Manhattan that Tuesday, I had pointed to the massive cloud of black smoke rising from downtown and said to any of the thousands of people walking along with me 'those who did this oppose US imperialism, and they have a legitimate gripe,' I would not have made many friends. I'm sure that most people would have thought me to be contemptible, at best. And they would have been right.

Murray Smith replies

The picture that John Rodwan paints of my attitude towards Islamic militancy in general and the events of September 11 in particular bears little resemblance to what I actually wrote or think. He seems to interpret the fact that the article seeks to explain events and movements as somehow justifying or at least excusing the September 11 attacks.

Comrade Rodwan says that I 'lay the blame for the acts, not at the feet of those who actually committed them, but with US 'imperialism''. But I never sought to absolve those who committed the terrorist attacks of responsibility for their acts or to justify these acts. In fact I quite clearly condemned them. But condemnation is not enough. If socialists fail to understand and explain why such things happen, they simply leave the road open to politicians and the media to justify the 'crusade against terrorism' with their own crude and often racist explanations. And understanding why the September 11th attacks happened and why very many people in the world had, to say the least, mixed feelings about it means understanding the role played by US imperialism in the world today.

'Suggesting that fundamentalists are somehow fighting the same fight as leftists is politically foolish. Their aims, not just their methods, are completely different', writes comrade Rodwan. Now I never remotely suggested we were 'fighting the same fight' as bin Laden or the Talibans. We have nothing in common with them, neither aims nor methods. For socialists to give them any support would be wrong in the West, disastrous in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They are attacking, with their own aims and their own methods, the US imperialist superpower which is also the enemy of socialists and of the working class and the peoples of the world. But in politics as in life in general, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' is a dangerous rule to follow.

A word of caution, however: things aren't always quite so simple. There have been and will be cases where movements that we do support use methods that we don't support. For example socialists should support the Palestinian liberation movement in its fight against the oppression of the Israeli state. But that doesn't stop us criticising the methods used by some sectors of that movement, in particular attacks on Israeli civilians. Many other such examples could be cited, now and in the past.

Comrade Rodwan doesn't clarify anything by trying to make me say that Islamic militants are 'not really engaged in Islamic militancy at all'. The rise of Islamic militancy is a political phenomenon which expresses itself through a religious ideology. There is nothing particularly new about that, there are many examples in history, from peasant revolts against feudalism to the English bourgeois revolution in the 16th century, to the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China. In present-day Lebanon the significance of the Hezbollah ('Party of God') is not its religious ideology but that fact that it was the political and military focus of resistance to the 18-year long Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. And the Iranian revolution of 1979 may have been fuelled by religious ideas and led by ayatollahs; it was nevertheless one of the main political events of the late 20th century.

Finally, 'why they hate us' may or may not be 'a cringe-making piece of of journalistic shorthand'. But however you put it, socialists in the USA do have a particularly important responsibility to explain to their fellow-Americans why their country is so widely hated. Because those who committed the September 11 atrocities may not have had 'a legitimate gripe' against American imperialism; but hundreds of millions of people in the world do. The vast majority of people in the Muslim world don't support the ideas of bin Laden or the Talibans. But there was a widespread feeling that on September 11th America had reaped what it had sown. That may be an unpalatable fact, but it is a fact. And it goes far beyond the Muslim world. In particular the workers and peasants of Latin America have solid reasons for their hatred of American imperialism. September 11th was the 28th anniversary of the CIA-backed coup in Chile, which also killed thousands of innocent people.

In my article I referred to the failure of the secular movements of national liberation and socialism in the Arab and Muslim world in the 50s and 60s, which paved the way for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Today the only progressive alternative to the impasse of fundamentalism lies in the building of the forces of democratic socialism. The Pakistani and Afghan socialists interviewed in this issue of Frontline show that it is possible to build this alternative, even in the most difficult circumstances.