The Revolutionary Age
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Sabah Alnasseri dissect the genesis of political revolutions in the Middle East, and discuss the role of religion and the reasons for the increased prevalence of fundamentalism.
HEDGES: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
This is part two of my discussion with Professor Sabah Alnasseri, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at York University. He’s Iraqi and recently edited the book Arab Revolutions and Beyond.
We’re coming to you from Toronto.
Thank you, Sabah, for joining us.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Thanks for having me, Chris.
HEDGES: So I think what we want to focus on in this segment is the dynamics of revolutionary change in an age of globalism and neoliberalism, how it will look like revolutions in the past, and how it will look like something else. And I know this is something you have examined.
ALNASSERI: Right. Right. I will start with the end of the Cold War and the breakdown of the Soviet Union, because this world historical context is very important in understanding any kind of politics, revolutionary or otherwise.
Since the ’90s, we observe the dominant political form [of] Europe, the United States, but also other parts of the world is populism. Before, at least until the ’70s, political parties were organized around specific classes, articulated interests of classes, the social democracy for the working class, etc. But since the ’90s, the dominant political form of the ruling classes is populism. And that’s not a coincidence with this neoliberal offensive, with half of the world open to be conquered by neoliberalism after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. There is a radical shift in the form of politics, articulation of interests, representation, etc. So what we see is that the majority of the population on a worldwide scale actually are excluded from the political system, are not represented. Their interests are not articulated.
So I believe that within this context–and that’s why the current revolutions are different than the historical one–that revolutions and revolt probably is the only political form available for the popular classes to introduce a radical change in the [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, I agree completely, and that is the thesis of my own book, Wages of Rebellion. But what about nationalism? I mean, nationalism still remains a powerful force.
ALNASSERI: Yes, yes and no, because nationalism now is embedded in an international and global context. So even nationalist movement, if they are not linked to a wider movement and solidarity and support, their prospective of success is almost zero. You can see this. Take the example of SYRIZA in Greece. SYRIZA, the first right approach was to say that you need a Europe-wide movement and solidarity in order to empower SYRIZA in Greece to deal with the European Central Bank, with the IMF, etc., and E.U. Commission, etc. So there’s a sense of embedding nationalist, or nationalist, say, movement within a wider context, a regional or international context. I think this is very important. It’s different than the old form of internationalism we knew in the 19th and 20th century, because the old form of internationalism was different in three instances. The first one, it was mostly European-centered, not international in this sense. The second point is it was mostly class-based. And third, all these revolt and revolution were organized by a political party with a strong leadership.
HEDGES: But that wasn’t true for the Communist Party. There was an internationalist element to that.
ALNASSERI: Yeah, but again, if you look at it historically, we’ll see mostly within Europe–there are some connection to other part of the world, but mostly it was within Europe, and I think that’s a big difference today. We have–you can call it the first international of the people. And it’s cross-class. It’s not nation- or nation states-centered, and it’s not articulated, organized by a specific political party.
HEDGES: But wouldn’t it be fair to say–let’s look at the Arab world. Wouldn’t it be correct to say that within Arab resistance movements there’s actually quite an antagonistic split between nationalists and–let’s call them internationalists?
HEDGES: And you see that with the split within jihadist movements. Let’s take al-Qaeda for instance. Al-Qaeda was a movement that had no loyalty to any particular nation state, which is why they condemned Hamas as apostates, because–or broke with the Algerian resistance movement, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, because they were focused on the liberation of a particular country.
ALNASSERI: Within Algeria. Yes.
HEDGES: And this has been a conflict within–now we have the creation of ISIS, which is forming a new state, a new caliphate, and not in essence attempting to play to either Syrian or Iraqi nationalism. But I wonder if that split is still powerful.
ALNASSERI: Yeah, I mean, we have the juxtaposition of two different times and temporalities here. The first one is when you talk about Hamas or the FIS, the Islamic front in Algeria, etc., these movements were formed during the Cold War, during the bipolar world order, and within a specific context, right, whereas al-Qaeda or Islamic State and so on, it is the post-Cold War world context. And again, you have, as I said, the juxtaposition of two different temporalities. Yes, still national and sometimes nationalist movement matter in the struggle, but their prospect of success, as I said, is almost zero if they are not embedded in a wider coalition, a platform of different forces regionally and internationally.
HEDGES: But there’s no common ideology. I mean, what’s the ideology?
ALNASSERI: That’s a good point. Not only there is no centralizing force, like a political party and a strong leadership–in the case of the ISIS, yes, there is a strong leadership, but if we look at the wider region, there is no strong political parties and strong leadership to strategically organize and articulate all these interests.
HEDGES: Which is what the Nasser–the Ba’athists who rose out of Nasser’s revolution did throughout the world, in Syria, in Iraq, and–.
ALNASSERI: Correct–that is, up until the ’90s. But they shifted in the ’90s. Even the Ba’athists were [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, they discredited themselves. But we don’t have–I mean, that secular–and part of the reason within the Arab world or the Muslim world that people turn to Orthodox religious movements is because of the bankruptcy of the secular nationalist liberation movements.
ALNASSERI: On the one hand, yes. So we have the lack of political form, popular form, to articulate these demands and so on, needs of the people. And you’re right. There’s the ideological moment.
The crisis of the secular, so-called secular political parties and movement and so on–and there are no other alternative, except neoliberalism, privatization, and corruption–it’s not only that people turn to religion, but we shouldn’t forget too that these religious forces were already active in the region during the Cold War. And mostly–think about it–they were supported by imperialist power. So they were already active. And then, in time of the crisis, political crisis, the ideological crisis, they were the only one that can appeal to the people and challenge whatever political system in place.
If you look at, for instance, what I have termed 20th century jihadism, it started within the First World War when Germany, for instance, were using Muslim against France and the U.K. and vice versa. So each–.
HEDGES: Let me just throw that in. That was true in Yugoslavia. The Ustae, the fascist regime, was raising Muslim battalions to fight the Serbs.
ALNASSERI: Correct. I was criticizing when I was in Germany all this Islamophobia against Muslim and they don’t belong to us. And I was saying, people, the first mosque built in Germany was during the First World War, and it was done by the German state for prisoners, mostly from North Africa, Arab Muslims who used to serve at the French army. When they were captured as prisoners, they put them in extra camps separate from other prisoners and built a mosque for them, to use Islam as an anti-French, anti-British political force. During the–after the Second World War, you can see the U.S. utilizing Islam. Muslim Brotherhood is a case, the good case here. Sayyid Qutb, who went–he was a social democrat until 1948, until he went to the U.S.
HEDGES: We should say that he’s sort of the founding father, Egyptian intellectual, of let’s call it modern jihadism–very large influence on Osama bin Laden.
ALNASSERI: Exactly. So he shifted after he came back from the U.S. because he was socialized in a very Orientalist way.
And Islam was used–a prominent figure here is Bernard Lewis [incompr.] the United States. He was arguing in the ’50s we should use Islam as an anti-communist force. So you had these forces already operating within these states. But they were not popular compared to the socialists or nationalists and so on. With the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the [incompr.] offensive, these regime were discredited. These ideology were discredited. So the only force in place were these [incompr.] forces. Right? So they filled this vacuum, [incompr.] political vacuum.
HEDGES: They also, I think, had a correct critique of the decadence and moral decay of modern society. I don’t embrace what they propose, but I think many people forget that their critique–and this is part of the attraction of ISIS–of the hollowness, the hedonism of modern consumer culture is not wrong.
ALNASSERI: Correct. But I think what is much more important for young people who join these movements is not so much the ideological appeal, because they consider themselves Muslim anyway. But what–as I said, what attracts them is the lack of vision, lack of alternative, lack of the possibilities of having a normal life. If you are in Egypt and you are a young person and you want to get married, the expectation is you should have own apartment. You will never ever be able to afford an own apartment.
HEDGES: This is true in Gaza, in Palestine, as well.
ALNASSERI: Absolutely. So the material needs, the basic material needs of people, which are not satisfied, I think that’s the core issue.
HEDGES: Well, I spent a lot of time in Gaza, and one of the–there were a couple of things I noticed about Hamas. One, if you live in a refugee camp like Jabalia or Khan Yunis, as you said, you have no job, no prospects of getting married. You can’t leave, because you’re trapped in the largest open-air prison (administered by the Israeli government) in the world. You have no way to affirm yourself other than to become a jihadist. And that was the attraction of becoming a shahid, a martyr, because on the day you became a shahid, Hamas would come into the little dirt warren where your concrete hovel was, and they would put out white plastic chairs, and they would put your picture up on the wall, and you would become somebody. And I think that–.
ALNASSERI: And support your family, too.
HEDGES: They would support their family. I spent enough time there to know that oftentimes the family were very unhappy that their son had become a shahid. But when you repress–and most of the Arab world is young–when you repress–I mean, in Gaza, 75 percent are under the age of 25, 50 percent, I think, under the age of 18. But that’s just endemic throughout the Arab world, also true in Egypt with those kinds of numbers. When you repress people and they have no other way to affirm themselves but, in essence, through death, that is the route they’re going to take.
HEDGES: And I think that the breakdown of the society, including in Western culture, has been the prime impetus behind this movement, and then also identity. So if you go to the banlieues, these kind of Stalinist housing projects where they house North African immigrants in France, whether it’s in Paris, the Cité des 4000, or in Lyon or anywhere else, they may have been born in Algeria or may have been born in Tunisia or Egypt [incompr.] but they came to Europe at a young age excluded from the society physically. Europe and especially France is a deeply racist country. They go back to Algeria, but they’re French–at least they’re seen as French. They come back to Europe, they’re not seen as European or French. And that crisis of identity I think I’ll have you comment on, but I think has also been part of the driving factor that’s pushed so many young people in Europe and in the Middle East into the arms of jihadists.
ALNASSERI: Right. I mean, this refers to wider picture, I think, and the role of the religion. And in Europe it takes the form of Islamophobia, for instance, and maybe North America too, whereas in the Middle East, as you said, it appeals mostly to the popular classes, young people to join [incompr.]
So we need to discuss–and I think this is an interesting phenomenon–why religion became so important, so popular after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and especially with this neoliberal imperialist offensive, why religion became, even governments–you know, think about the neocons and their fundamentalist worldview–why it became so important.
And I think–just a hypothesis I want to discuss on a panel in September is religion in different form, be it Islamophobia or the neocons or a regional power in the Middle East, is the form through which the crisis of hegemony can be processed, for lack of alternative, because there is no way there will be a real shift in the constellation of power and dispossession and accumulation. So ideology became–and especially in religious form–became, I think, the prominent place through which ruling classes can process the crisis of hegemony.
Most of the people in Canada and the United States, in Europe, they don’t feel represented by the political parties. They feel excluded, even if they are citizens. Even if they are [incompr.] German [incompr.], whatever, they don’t feel they are represented as citizens. So I think there is a crisis of hegemony here, of the political parties, of the political system in general. And then, on the other hand, they feel they have no say in the real issues. If you look at, for instance–again, look at Europe and how the crisis is discussed, at what levels, behind closed doors within the E.U. commission [incompr.] and impose on countries. So people feel alienated nationally and regionally. And I think religion here still plays a role [crosstalk] class.
HEDGES: Well, it plays a role because like all revolutionary–or most if not all revolutionary ideologies, it’s utopian, it’s harkening back to a time of purity, because they’re always talking about the age of the prophet and that–in many ways that jihadist movement replicates the utopian vision of communism.
ALNASSERI: Correct. But, again, as I said, it’s a contradiction, because the same religious phenomenon, on the one hand, plays, as I said, maybe form of liberation and so on, but on the other hand, it is used to sustain the status quo. Think about, let’s say, Islamophobia and so on. So the same religious phenomena take different forms depending on the context in which you find yourself. Right? In the context of the Middle East, with a lack of alternative and the bankruptcy of all these regimes, religion might become a very popular force. Think about al-Sadr. Two days ago I was reading he was appealing to his followers in Iraq–and he had 100,000 followers–to join the Monday and this Friday protest against the government and the lack of services, against corruption, and so on, and he was appealing to them to protest in a national sense, not in a sectarian sense.
HEDGES: You’re talking about the Shiite leader in Iraq.
ALNASSERI: Exactly. So you can have this form of religion, playing probably a progressive role within this specific context, whereas in Europe and North America it has a very regressive status quo-cementing form, racist, Islamophobic form. The question I think [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, let me just interrupt by saying that that Islamophobia actually fuels the movement–
HEDGES: –because it validates the ideology itself as the–. And I think in the West they kind of want it that way.
HEDGES: I don’t think it’s accidental.
ALNASSERI: Yes. I think they want to reduce human being, the complex identity of a human being, to a very simplistic one. And that’s what the United States did by the–.
HEDGES: But it’s worse than that. They want to us externalize evil embodied in these Islamic movements. And, of course, in the age of neoliberalism, industrial states speak to the rest of the world almost exclusively in the language of violence. That’s what–neocons have no ideas. They see evil embodied in jihadist movements, and they say these people have to be eradicated.
And, of course, the tragedy, as we’ve seen in Iraq, is that by speaking in that language of violence, you ratchet up the violence. So if you brutalize Iraqis or Syrians, as we have for now over a dozen years, the brutalized become brutal. And just as we bombed Cambodia and got Pol Pot, the indiscriminate violence, which most Americans who have not been in Iraq have no concept of, because they haven’t been around these weapons systems–Hellfire missiles, cruise missiles. These are incredibly powerful and destructive devices, and they’re indiscriminate in terms of the numbers that they kill. And that for me is what’s so frightening about the Western response, and in particular the American response, is that they see the rise of ISIS, and they say, we just need more violence, which is what created the problem anyway. And so where are we going? What’s happening?
ALNASSERI: Yeah. I mean, you know, Chris, the function of the–let’s say, the ideological function of the construction of the absolute evil is to justify all your evil. Once you design the Islamic State or whatever as the absolute evil, whatever you do, all the means are justified. So it fulfill a function, as I said, during this crisis. And I think that’s why religion plays a significant role in politics today, and not only, as they claim, in the Middle East, but you can see it on a worldwide scale.
And I think this is a phenomenon that challenges lefties on a worldwide scale and how to deal with it. And the mistake of the left was, for a long time, at least–I know it from the Middle Eastern left–they used to think in this modernist dichotomy of secular-religious: secular is good, religious bad. They never really paid attention and engaged seriously with religion. And it’s kind of crude way of reading Marx, because Marx, when he criticized religion, he doesn’t criticize people for being religious, but he criticized the social relation that makes religion so necessary for the people. That’s the most productive way, engaging with it without excluding people and demonizing people. And I think that’s the way we should engage with it, rather than–.
HEDGES: Well, definitely. The problem is that if we’re going to call them the revolutionary forces within Europe, within the industrialized world, they don’t have a utopian ideology that calls for that kind of self-sacrifice or that offers an alternative vision that the jihadist movements in the Muslim world do.
ALNASSERI: Yes. But, again, I mean, what give me this optimism, as Gramsci would say, optimism of the world, despite the pessimism of the intellect, is that when you look at the Arab revolution, for instance, in Tunisia and Egypt and so on and you look at the current protest in Beirut and in Iraq, you can see at a specific point people overcome all these distinctions, artificial borderlines, and act and argue in a nonreligious way. That means they are clearly aware of the limits of what these jihadists or whatever conservative group can offer, and they know that the problem cannot be solved through this form of religious fundamentalist, whatever, organization. We need alternative.
So the question is: what kind of alternative? And I think it’s kind of trial and error. People have to work their way through and out the crisis to come up with a new organization, new type of parties.
HEDGES: Well, the problem is that–the problem with that is they’ve got the guns. We saw that in Egypt. So the secularists, courtesy of Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, who’s now in prison and facing a death sentence and was overthrown by Sisi, is that they actually built an alliance with the military in an effort to placate the military, and they used physical force to crush the secularists. That’s [incompr.] what happened in Iran when Khomeini came back.
ALNASSERI: Yeah. Correct. And I think that’s why I’m saying now even nationalist or national movement cannot succeed if it’s not organically linked in a wider context. Like, for instance, it’s almost impossible for the people in the Middle East, especially the young people, to introduce any radical change without people in the United States or Canada and Europe actually engaging and pushing their governments not to intervene in their face.
HEDGES: Right. No, it’s the occupation and the intervention. But the problem is that they speak the language we taught them to speak, which is violence. And as you have correctly pointed out, the Arab Spring, the peaceful protests which lasted a year in Iraq, the mass–were all nonviolent. And what was the response of essentially proxy states for the American empire was to gun them down in the streets. And when you gun people down in the streets like that–you know, Nietzsche kind of got it–you create the monster you get. And that is for me the tragedy of what’s happened, that the centrifugal force within the Arab world was nonviolent, was secular, but the forces that we support, whether in Egypt or whether in Iraq, pulled out automatic weapons and shot these people down.
HEDGES: And that’s how we got ISIS.
ALNASSERI: But maybe two, as I said, maybe positive moments. The first one from Tunisia. When Ben Ali told his general to shoot at the people, the general responded, since when we shoot at our own people? At that moment, Ben Ali realized he doesn’t have any power. He collapsed.
The second one was yesterday. I was reading about the protests in Iraq, and it was beautiful example of how things can shift. One police officer was sent by his commander as agent provocateur to actually destroy the protests. What he did: he went to the protest and he took his cell phone, and on the public he mentioned the commander who sent him to be an agent provocateur and destroy the protest, exposed himself and his commander in front of the people. This is something new.
And I think these example give us some hope that despite the violence and terror and all these kinds of fundamentalist setbacks, I think people will overcome these limits and difficulties and come up with a different vision, different perspective for the future.
But again, you’re right. It will be accompanied by violence, a massive amount of violence. But I think there’s no other way out.
HEDGES: Well, [Arabic] As they say in Arabic, [Arabic] [incompr.] apricots, which means it will never happen.
ALNASSERI: Correct. Correct. Correct. It will never happen, depending on the timeframe we think of. In the short-term, you’re right. But I don’t know what is the impact of the Arab revolution in the mid and long run, just like we don’t know actually what is impact of the French Revolution in 1789.
HEDGES: Right. That’s right.
ALNASSERI: So that’s why I think we shouldn’t give up hope.
HEDGES: Thank you very much.
ALNASSERI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.