Last Sunday, the New York Times (NYT) devoted its entire Sunday Magazine to a five-part article by Scott Anderson. It was called "Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart." The epic piece traced the lives of six Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan as each struggled to live through and make sense of the disintegration of the Arab World since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In so doing, Anderson attempted to put compelling faces on a longer historical narrative that begs for clarification, order and humanization.
The author succeeds admirably in the human interest portion of his project. More importantly, he supplies invaluable detail about a 100 year-long history of political decisions and processes responsible for the crumbling of the Arab world.
But perhaps his most stunning insight is that "Arabia" has been fractured not principally by internecine religious radicalism, but by a long-standing anti-socialist policy on the part of the United States and its allies. Ever since the conclusion of World War II, that policy has blocked economic reform not only in the Arab world and the Middle East, but also in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia -- in other words in the former colonies. In the Middle East, the resulting conflict has only recently taken on heavy religious overtones.
Specifically, in that troubled region, the result of U.S. policy has been warfare and economic sanctions imposed on socialist movements involving both Arab and non-Arab countries -- on peoples most of whom happen to be Muslims. As a result, those Muslims have experienced extreme poverty, joblessness, and loss of hope. Consequently, many have gravitated towards a brutal gang of reactive terrorists (ISIS) offering employment, a sense of identity, pride, short-lived hope -- and the power that comes from a uniform and a gun. The grunts in this gang know very little about Islam.
In an August 12thinterview with Scott Anderson on "Democracy Now," Juan Gonzalez led the Times correspondent to make that very point. He asked Anderson what he had learned from his 18 months of research that included interviews with 20 ISIS fighters all of whom are now imprisoned in Iraq or in Kurdistan. Anderson responded:
"There was an amazing pattern. . . (T)hey were all young men, kind of with very bleak futures, either unemployed or underemployed, from working-class families, and not religious at all. . . (T)hey were not from religious families. They did not know the Qur'an very well. In a couple of cases, I knew the Qur'an better than they did. . . And I think it was this kind of decision that young men make, that better to live large for a couple of years, and, you know, the power and the so-called glamour. . . that comes of carrying a gun . . . they had more akin to why somebody might join like an inner-city gang or why in Mexico they might join a narco gang. It's this kind of despair at seeing any sort of future. But it's not political, it's not religious. It's just this impulse to--you know, to have some sort of--I mean, it's awful to say, in terms of ISIS, but adventure."
Juan Gonzales then observes, "But that's a quite different perspective from what we get here . . . that these are religious zealots who are willing to die for Islam."
"Yes," Anderson agrees.
With that astounding exchange in mind, it's informative to reread the NYT article and the long-term history it reviews to detect the pattern underlying what Anderson uncovers as an economic rebellion with a recent and thick religious overlay that obscures what's really behind ISIS and the fracturing of the Arab world. For as Anderson implies, the rebellion there is not about religion, but about economy. It is about the conflict between capitalism and socialism that has been raging at least since the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. Far from ending with the fall of the USSR in 1990, the conflict has only intensified, when the West took the Soviet demise as a signal that it could subsequently increase pressure and even overthrow socialist governments everywhere -- from Cuba and Venezuela to Yugoslavia and Iraq -- without fear of reprisal.
To understand, we need to examine the underlying historical pattern responsible not only for the fracturing of the Arab world, but for relations between the developed world (principally the United States) and impoverished nations generally.
- Any Western colony that attempts to "break for freedom" (from capitalism and colonial control)
- By instituting a "socialist" economy prioritizing the needs of its own people, especially its majority poor
- Will have its leaders accused of being undemocratic dictators -- communist, totalitarian, or terrorist.
- Those countries will find themselves undermined (with Western support) by local dissidents -- usually drawn from those privileged under the old colonial order or from those marginalized by the new socialist order.
- This will cause the governments in question to institute severe national security measures that Western enemies will vilify as dictatorial, thus justifying further measures to overthrow the "repressive" regime.
- If such methods do not result in the desired regime change, the country in question will ultimately be subjected to direct invasion or other military action on the parts of its former colonial masters.
- Interventionist military action will be met with resistance and retaliation on the part of imperialism's victims. (This explains the origins of ISIS.)
To reiterate, this pattern lays the blame for Middle East conflict at the feet of colonialism. It suggests that since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, capitalism's real enemy in Arab countries and throughout the Middle East has been anti-imperialist socialism not primarily Islam. More precisely, the conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan have been spawned not by religion, but by anti-colonialism and by economic policies resistant to free market capitalism.
To grasp that point, let's think first of all about imperialism or colonialism. Then connect resistance to such foreign adventurism with socialism and the birth of ISIS.
In essence, colonialism is a system of robbery. It has foreign armies invading, conquering militarily weak, resource-rich countries, and then controlling them either through occupying armies or through local militaries armed by the invaders and headed by indigenous collaborators working hand in glove with the colonists. The chief goal of such invasion is resource extraction -- wealth transfers for purposes of enriching the colonizers.
Western colonization of Arabia began in earnest after World War I. Up until then (and from the end of the 13th century), what Westerners called the "Middle East" was the center of the Ottoman (i.e. the Turkish) Empire controlled by Muslim sultans.