I’m pleased that Tim Thomas enjoys my articles but, judging by his letter in Solidarity 289, I fear it is he who is missing the point.
My article on “blowback” (Solidarity 288) did not attempt to deny that there was any link between events like Woolwich and western foreign policy. Rather, it argued that it could in no way be the major explanation and, more importantly, that the repeated focus on this particular cause was politically suspect.
By way of illustration I would ask Tim to consider the growing presence of the far right in recent years. There surely cannot be any doubt that amongst the possible causes of this development are the perceived increases in Islamist militancy and in immigration. Yet none of us on the left tend to focus on these “causes” when explaining or otherwise writing about the activities of these organisations.
The EDL and BNP will exploit the latest atrocity to blame Muslims, multiculturalism, immigration or any other of their traditional bugbears. Their poisonous ideology existed well before the rise of domestic Islamism, however, and will most likely continue well after it is no longer an issue.
Imagine, if you will, that every time the EDL committed an attack on a mosque socialist papers centred their response on their alleged grievances. Picture the article arguing that “this wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the London bombings in 2005”? Is there any doubt that this would serve to mitigate and excuse their actions even if that wasn’t our declared intent? Better that we state clearly who they are and what their real ideological agenda is.
Likewise the Woolwich bombers and their ilk. It simply isn’t true, as Tim asserts, that events like this “would not have happened without the brutality of Iraq”. The 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre took place before either the Iraq or the Afghanistan war. Islamist fanatics existed and carried out violent actions well before these wars, and quite often justified them because a government or some individual (often Muslim, and not necessarily in the West) dared to challenge their particularly narrow and reactionary version of religious doctrine (Rushdie, Bali, etc).
What annoys me about Eagleton, Greenwald, Seumas Milne, and a host of others is that refuse to see Islamist fanatics for what they are. They treat them and their actions in a way that they would never treat other fascists for no more reason than their proclaimed opposition to “the West”.
It’s the job of socialists I think to challenge that sort of cant and double standard and to refuse religious fascists any legitimacy or credence.
That was the point of the article. Whether he agrees or not I hope Tim will continue to read and engage.
A eurocentric logic
I think Tim Thomas (“Confused on ‘blowback’”, Solidarity 288, 5 June), has missed the point of Patrick Murphy’s argument about the “blowback” theory (Solidarity 287, 29 May).
I did not read Patrick’s article as arguing that western foreign policy and its consequences play no role in fuelling the growth of the tendency of violent Islamism to which the Woolwich killers subscribe. Nor is Tim’s claim that Patrick was arguing for “standing back and watching the EDL and the jihadists go for one another while we polish our fingernails” at all fair — AWL members have been centrally involved in anti-EDL mobilisations in London, Sheffield, and elsewhere over the past weeks.
Patrick’s article critiqued the crass, stimulus-and-response reading of the situation evident in much “left” commentary. Joe Glenton’s Guardian article on the killings on 23 May might also have been cited. It was titled “of course British foreign policy had a role” — fair enough — but it ended: “if there is collective responsibility for the killings, it belongs to the hawks whose policies have caused bloodbaths.” The argument is explicit: there is a direct, and perhaps inevitable, cause-effect relationship between western imperialist foreign policy and acts of religious-fundamentalist brutality on the streets of London. Or, as Tim himself puts it, “we have created this jihadist monster”.
Who is the “we”, and who the implied “they”, in this schema? I certainly do not see myself as part of any “we” that includes the British state, nor do I see Muslim people — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, or South London—as some alien “they”.
Have British, American, and other western imperialisms helped fuel the growth of far-right Islamism, both directly by selectively supporting some elements of it against rival imperialisms (e.g., arming the proto-Taliban against the Stalinist colonisation of Afghanistan), and indirectly by creating social conditions in many mainly-Muslim countries that allow Islamists to grow? Yes, of course. No-one denies that the policies of western imperialist governments are a key part of the context for understanding political Islam.
But they are not the only part, and we cannot read Islamism only as a “blowback” for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan any more than we can read Nazism only as a “blowback” for the injustice inflicted on Germany through the Versailles Treaty in 1918.
In the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, Michael Rosen wrote three dire poems in Socialist Worker. One began: “If you go into other people’s countries/and bomb them/they will bomb you.”
But the 7/7 bombers were not from Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other country which Britain had bombed. Two were from Leeds, one from Bradford, and one was a Jamaican-born Londoner. They were not merely reactive elements, without thoughts or ideas of their own. Neither were Michael Adebelajo and Michael Adebowale.
Exponents of the “blowback” theory present themselves as whistleblowers, who tell the truth to power by shattering taboos to proclaim that it is imperialist policy (and not the Islamist ideology of the 7/7 bombers, or Michael Adebelajo, or al-Qaeda, or anyone else) that is responsible for terrorist atrocities.
But their logic betrays a Eurocentric condescension towards Muslim people. It profoundly others and dehumanises them, by reducing them to unthinking creatures who have no thoughts of their own but only react (in the most brutal way imaginable) to crimes committed against “them”.
It is a perverse mirror of the Islamophobic, “all-Muslims-are-terrorists” narrative peddled by the right-wing press.
“Blowback theory” is part of a post-Stalinist politics of post-modernism-influenced nihilism and despair.
Western imperialism is all-powerful, it contends, and everything that ever happens can only be understood as a reaction to it. Therefore politics must begin not from a positive programme of universal, revolutionary-democratic working-class ideas, but from negative “anti-imperialism”.
Workers’ Liberty rejects such despair. We have a higher opinion of, and greater faith in, humanity. We think people are capable of critically understanding the world and taking conscious ownership over complex ideas. And, unlike the Eurocentric “anti-imperialists” of the Guardianista left, we do not think that Muslim people can only be expected to react on the basis of brutal obscurantism to crimes committed against themselves, or against people with whom they share an ethnic, religious, or national affinity.
I do not believe Tim thinks the growth of Islamism is inevitable, or impossible to stop. Clearly, he would prefer a socialist “blowback” to a “jihadist” one. But an understanding of Islamism which sees it as the knee-jerk that takes place where no socialist alternative is readily available does imply that Muslim people will somehow “inevitably” react in this way.
Tim Thomas invokes Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” axiom in his letter. But to subscribe to the cause-and-effect conception of “blowback” he insists on defending is to collapse into a worldview that effectively rules out any possibility for socialism, and sees instead only a world comprised of a never-ending cycle of imperialist barbarism and counter-barbarism.