Saturday, September 8, 2007

"The colonial mistake"

Mixing religion and politics was a colonial scheme that is now haunting the West, writes Ayman El-Amir*

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Since the the attacks of 11 September, terrorism has come to be identified with Islam. Whenever there is a plane crash, a train accident, a gas pipeline explosion or a university campus shooting, investigators first ask if it is an act of terrorism and secondly whether it is the work of Muslim fundamentalists. The definition is all- inclusive and it makes no distinction between attacks on school children in Moscow, hotels in Amman, a suicidal attack on a coalition force patrol in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb blast against US occupation forces in Baghdad, or a shootout with Israeli troops in occupied Palestine.

It even goes to the extreme of ostracising a majority government in occupied Palestine that has been elected according to the best tradition of Western liberal democracy. Differences have been completely blurred since the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon tutored US President George W Bush that Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation was an integral part of the global attack on democracy and deserved to be included in Bush's global war on terrorism. Islamic extremists were painted as being behind it all.

The US and Israel adamantly fought against a definition of terrorism that excluded national resistance against foreign military occupation because it was contrary to Israeli designs for Palestinian land. The Bush administration distorted the standards of international law that were developed to legitimise armed resistance against Nazi Germany's military invasion and occupation of European territories. When, for ulterior colonialist motives, all national resistance is dubbed terrorism then all acts of terrorism assume the mantle of national resistance. International standards were converted to convenient national and even individual standards and both terrorism and the national liberation struggle were judged in the eye of the beholder. Thus the indiscriminate global war on terrorism, devoid of any collective international standards, is doomed and can only spawn a global war of terrorism. That is the prophecy of Russian President Vladimir Putin that he called "the curse of the 21st century."

Religious fundamentalism and the violence associated with it are no more exclusively Islamic than Jewish or Christian, as CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour demonstrated in her recent investigative series "God's Warriors". However, the historical background to modern fundamentalist terrorism should be traced back to medieval European inter-Christian, Catholic- Protestant wars, to the 200-year- long Crusades against Muslims of the Levant and to European colonialist expansion, of which Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine is the last vestige. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the secular national liberation struggle that was often sustained by Marxist-Leninist ideology was replaced by the more powerful ideology of jihad against the Soviet infidels in Muslim Afghanistan. That strategy was developed jointly by Saudi Arabia and the US to defeat and expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. It also marked the blending of religion and politics into a lethal force. It is this force, in motley forms, that is now battling the US in Iraq, NATO in Afghanistan, the Israelis in occupied Palestine, foreign/ Western meddling in Lebanon, and the Russians in Chechnya.

The manipulation of religion to further political ends has been mastered by European kings, emperors and archbishops, and used as a justification for colonial expansion. The Crusades, which were incited and fuelled by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095, were the beginning of a long and troubled relationship that persisted for almost 1,000 years between West and East. In mobilising an army of paid mercenaries to launch the first Crusade, the Pope granted absolution from all sins to those who may die in the battle for the Holy Land, or even while on the way to it -- a mediaeval concept of martyrdom. Religion was the rallying call of feudal European monarchies for colonial expansion. Today, it is the driving force for Muslims in their anti-colonial struggle to ward off foreign hegemony.

Of all colonial masterminds, no one perfected the use of religion to achieve large-scale colonial schemes like political Zionism. All colonial powers, with few exceptions, recognised at some point in history that they were part of a global scheme of military conquest and exploitation of foreign peoples and territories that was bound to come to an end. They never had any illusion about cultural affinity or shared values with the peoples they colonised or the lands they occupied. The Zionist movement in the mid-to-late 19th century, and in the 20th century, fused Judaism with political Zionism to create the large-scale colonial project for the settlement of Jews in the land of Palestine. Since, in the early 20th century, British-occupied East Africa was also considered as one of the options for a national homeland for the Jews, the project was more colonial than religious in nature. But the manipulation of religion for colonial purposes underlies the creation of a national home for Jews in the biblical land of Palestine as much as it justified the Crusaders conquest 900 years earlier. That is why fundamentalist Israeli Jews often cite the "biblical prophecy" and God's promise to His "chosen people" to assert that it was God who "gave us this land". Most Israeli leaders who later came to political prominence started off as members of terrorist Jewish organisations during the British mandate of Palestine. They murdered and terrorised both British and Palestinians in what they called a war of liberation. Nowadays, level-headed Jewish settlers admit that it is all about economic opportunity.

As much as there is fanatical religious fervour in Jewish claims to the Holy Land, and particularly Jerusalem, Zionism, in essence, has been a secular political and socialist movement. International conferences, initiatives and resolutions that sought to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the peace treaties signed with Israel by Egypt and Jordan, were all of a political, not religious nature. Israeli negotiators at conferences talk about security concerns while their Arab counterparts put everything in the context of how international law treats occupied territories. When the former US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had his historical meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdul- Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the SS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal in 1945, one of his requests to cement US-Saudi partnership was for the king to use his influence to facilitate the settlement of Jews in Palestine. The king's answer was, "Give the Jews and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them." He refused to cooperate.

Jihad was part of the doctrine of early Islam but Muslims were enjoined by the Quran to use it only to repel aggression or a threat of it, never to convert non-Muslims or colonise other countries. The doctrine went through various phases and interpretations over the centuries and one of them, which was called "the greater jihad", focussed on how to use it to rein in base human instincts. Maverick fundamentalist concepts are rife among many Muslim groups today and they entail many acts of unjustified, un-Islamic violence. But many would agree that it originated in Afghanistan through the manipulation of Muslim religious instincts as a potent weapon for political purposes -- to drive the Soviet Union out of that illegally occupied country in the interests of the US. It is now well documented that Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and its followers evolved in Afghanistan. While different pseudo-religious groups continued to fight each other for control of the country after the departure of the Soviet army, with the Taliban ultimately gaining the upper hand, it is reasonable to believe that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 turned Islamic jihad (the concept, not the organisation) into a full-fledged anti-colonial movement, when entrenched Arab regimes failed to oppose or stop the invasion. Zealous jihadist Islam has now come back to haunt its instigators.

Similarly, the struggle against Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine will be a long drawn-out historical process. It has been intractable for decades because the protagonists of political Zionism had assimilated the lessons of four centuries of European colonial experience and the Palestinian Arabs were latecomers to the national liberation movement that blossomed in the 1940s and 1950s and reached its pinnacle in 1960. What political Zionism and the colonial West have yet to grasp is that the nationalist struggle has gained indomitable momentum when it was injected with fundamentalist religious fervour. Whether it is battled as religious fundamentalism or terrorism, the end is certainly not in sight yet.

* The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington DC. He also served as director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.


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