Oct 10, 2006

Right-wing anti-imperialists are not promoting feudalism: A reply to Michael Karadjis

I promised three weeks ago that I'd reply to Michael Karadjis's "Hizbullah, Iran and 'Right-Wing Anti-Imperialism': A Reply to Critics," which was posted on Green Left Bloggers on September 20th. Here are my thoughts.

Karadjis offers one of the strongest and most thoughtful versions of the position that Lebanon's Hezbollah represents "a genuine national liberation movement." Although I disagree with his assessment, my own thinking has benefited from the information and analysis he puts forward. I also especially appreciate his efforts to keep the debate substantive and respectful. It's a welcome contrast to the mean-spirited comments and personal attacks that often pass for political critique, especially on the web.

As one of the "critics" that Karadjis responds to in detail, I'd like to address three issues covered in his September 20th post: (1) the nature of right-wing anti-imperialism, (2) the question of describing Hezbollah as right wing, and (3) antisemitism in Hezbollah and more broadly among Lebanese and Palestinians. (For background on what I think about Hezbollah, see my essays "Defending my enemy's enemy" and "Further thoughts on Hezbollah".)

1. On right-wing anti-imperialism. Karadjis rejects my claim that right-wing anti-imperialism is a significant political tendency in today's world, but he interprets the phrase to mean something quite different than what I intended. This is primarily my fault, since I didn't adequately explain my use of the term in either of my essays about Hezbollah. So let me try to correct that here.

When I refer to right-wing anti-imperialists, I'm not talking about forces that oppose imperialism because they are feudal, semi-feudal, or otherwise "reactionary" in the sense of turning back the clock to an era before capitalist modernity. I agree with Karadjis that such forces don't amount to much. I also don't mean to imply that right-wing anti-imperialists form a cohesive, unified international bloc. Rather, I'm talking about a diverse array of political currents in various parts of the world, many of which are relatively new. These currents embody related or parallel responses to the brutalities and contradictions of global capitalism on the one hand, and the failures of the revolutionary left on the other.

Right-wing anti-imperialists are anti-imperialist in the sense that they oppose -- politically or militarily -- the systems of dominance by global corporate elites or the interventionist policies of the United States or other industrialized capitalist states. They are right wing in the sense that they reject the Enlightenment principles of universalism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty while embracing hierarchy and elitism as natural features of society. Right-wing anti-imperialists encompass both secular and religious-based ideologies. They often reject bourgeois cultural values (such as materialism, individualism, consumerism) but endorse the underlying institutions of an economic system based on class exploitation. They may romanticize a mythic past but do so in ways adapted to modern conditions.

Examples of right-wing imperialism include large sections of the Islamic right, various nationalist forces in eastern Europe, and Rioss Montt's recent forays into populist politics in Guatemala. There are right-wing anti-imperialist tendencies within India's massive Hindu nationalist movement, although the movement is predominantly wedded to a strategy of alliance with the United States (and Israel) and economic development through free-trade neoliberalism. Within the United States, Pat Buchanan-style right-wing anti-interventionists represent a related development, and parallel forces exist within other industrialized countries.

Other proponents of a three-way-fight perspective have described all of these developments as fascist. Because we're talking about a range of political strategies and ideologies, I think it's useful to apply the term fascism more narrowly. Within the anti-imperialist right, I distinguish between "reformist" branches that advocate change within the established political framework and "revolutionary" rightists (i.e. fascists) who aim to overthrow established political systems and forcibly reshape all social and cultural spheres along totalitarian lines. The example of Hezbollah, which is clearly not fascist, highlights the need for such distinctions.

Whatever we call these forces, a basic premise of three-way fight politics is that their conflict with global capitalism's rulers is more than just superficial or episodic. They represent a growing trend rooted variously in local elites, middle classes, declassed strata, and even workers, who have been restricted or marginalized by global capitalist development yet are also alienated by left anti-capitalist alternatives. These rightist forces, as Don Hamerquist has argued regarding their Islamic sub-grouping, represent "a multi-sided danger to the global capitalist system. It includes a threat to withdraw women's labor, a source of massive profits, from the global labor force. It involves a rejection of consumerism, self-indulgent individualism and similar elements of the bourgeois worldview and lifestyle. It threatens to link political rebelliousness with the massive underground economies that flourish at the margins of the capitalist system."

These comments represent a rough sketch, not a fully elaborated analysis. Right-wing anti-imperialism's specific features and relationships with other social and political actors vary from place to place and change over time. Certainly, the whole topic needs more study and discussion. But by positing right-wing anti-imperialism as a distinct and important political current we are trying to raise issues and questions that most of the left has ignored.

2. Is Hezbollah a right-wing movement? Karadjis and I agree that Hezbollah's politics are complex and contradictory, and we often agree, more or less, about how to assess this or that specific feature. But we disagree about how to put the pieces together into an overall picture. Karadjis sees Hezbollah's negative side as so many scattered flaws or shrinking vestiges of its original Khomeinist influences. I see it as an expression of an underlying right-wing philosophy that has persisted since Hezbollah's founding two decades ago. I base this assessment mainly on two books. Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (Saqi, 2005) includes a fairly straightforward statement of Hezbollah's core principles and longerm goals by the party's deputy secretary-general. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion (Pluto, 2002) offers one of the most detailed and, as far as I can tell, one of the most careful analyses available of Hezbollah's religious-political ideology. Both of these books make clear, as I wrote previously, that Hezbollah as an organization considers it a religious duty to advocate an Islamic state, and that the Islamic Republic of Iran most closely approximates Hezbollah's political ideal. Nothing in Karadjis's essay substantively challenges this assessment, and I see no indication that Hezbollah's core philosophy has substantively changed in the last few years.

I pointed out previously that although Hezbollah calls for an Islamic state it also says that such a state may only be established when a large majority of the people supports it. Karadjis sees a contradiction between advocating an Islamic state and opposing the use of force to impose it, and he implies that I'm undermining my own position by presenting this supposed inconsistency. This puzzles me. Lots of people, even right-wingers, promote oppressive goals and policies without demanding that they be imposed by force against the will of the majority. That's less bad, but it's still bad.

It's quite true, as Karadjis points out, that some of Hezbollah's oppressive policies are shared by secular nationalist and even leftist organizations. That's a helpful corrective to claims that there's something uniquely dangerous about "Islamist" politics. But Hezbollah's vision of an Islamic state does set it apart from secular groups. This vision centers on the precept that human law is inherently inferior to God's law, and that society should be ruled by one religious jurist, whose supreme authority is divinely ordained. Hezbollah doctrine says that Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamanei, have held this authority over all Muslims and that their commands constitute fixed truths.

This radically anti-democratic and anti-humanist philosophy coexists in tension with Hezbollah's practical day-to-day politics. Saad-Ghorayeb writes that the vision of an Islamic state forms "a permanent feature of Hizb'ullah's intellectual structure and political thought" but is not included in its programme. If Hezbollah's pragmatic side helps the party to build alliances and function in Lebanon's pluralistic political and cultural environment, its theocratic ideals help the party to maintain internal cohesion and the loyalty of many devout members. The ability to combine these two sides testifies to the exceptional skill of Hezbollah's leadership.

3. On Lebanese and Palestinian antisemitism. Karadjis and I agree that Hezbollah leaders such as Secretary-General Hassan Nasrullah have made anti-Jewish statements, and that such statements are wrong. We agree that caution is needed in criticizing Hezbollah in this area, because Zionist propaganda routinely falsifies or exaggerates charges of antisemitism to discredit legimitate criticisms of Israel and to demonize Arab and Muslim anti-Zionists, in particular. I agree, further, with Karadjis's point that some secular Arab nationalists, such as the original PLO, have also expressed anti-Jewish prejudice, so we can't just blame such prejudice on Islamist ideology.

Within these parameters, I disagree with Karadjis on two points. First, he claims that Hezbollah's expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice are only a matter of "occasional statements" that "are at odds with more serious analysis by Hezbollah." But Nasrullah, Qassem, and other Hezbollah leaders don't generally make irresponsible, offhand comments -- on the contrary, they're known for their lack of rhetorical excess. As Saad-Ghorayeb argues in detail, the stereotyping and demonization of Jews is both widespread in Hezbollah's discourse and interwoven with its larger religio-political philosophy.

Second, Karadjis argues that Hezbollah's anti-Jewish prejudice -- or any anti-Jewish prejudice among Palestinians or Lebanese -- is entirely a response to Zionist oppression. "To Palestinians and Lebanese, that is those who have lived under the terror, under the jackboot, of Zionist oppression, and who have not been involved in the western holocaust against Jews, 'the Jews' represent the same thing to them as 'the whites' do to South African, Australian and American blacks: the oppressor." I agree that this is an important part of the story, and one that's often ignored or misunderstood by westerners. My thanks to Karadjis for raising this factor, which I failed to address previously in relation to Hezbollah. (For more on this kind of reaction to Zionism, see Esther Kaplan's thoughtful essay "Antisemitism After September 11th.")

But Karadjis overreaches when he claims that Arab antisemitism is entirely a response to Zionism. In fact, anti-Jewish bigotry has been present in Arab and Muslim communities for centuries before political Zionism brought Jewish settler-colonialism to Palestine. Maxime Rodinson, a prominent French Marxist, Mideast scholar, and staunch anti-Zionist, addressed this point in his 1981 essay, "A Few Simple Thought on Anti-Semitism":

"Contrary to what has been said and written in Arab and Muslim circles, the condition of Jews in the world of Islam was not idyllic. It is quite true that the negative aspects of the Jewish situation in Muslim countries have been much exaggerated by Zionist propaganda.... It is quite true that on the whole the situation of Jews in Muslim countries over fifteen centuries has been better than in the Christian countries.

"But this does not alter the fact that the status of
dhimmi applied to Jews and Christians was inegalitarian and that it kept them in positions of inferiority, which was in any case perfectly natural at the time. Judaism and Christianity were tolerated religions, 'protected' in a certain sense and enjoying special status. But their believers were none the less considered enemies of the true faith. Appreciations of them were disparaging, suspicious, and scornful. In the case of the Jews, these attitudes were able to find support in many passages from the Koran dating from the time when the Jewish tribes of Medina constituted Muhammad's main adversary, passages that can readily obliterate the favourable attitude toward Jews and Christians reflected in other, earlier passages.... [In Muslim countries during the Middle Ages,] the Jews... were considered enemies within, cunning and sly, seeking to damage the True Faith in a secretive fashion....

"Many instances of disparagement and suspicion of the Jews, and of slander against them, therefore exist in the Muslim tradition, especially at the popular level.... The accusation of ritual murder, for instance, may be found in the
Thousand and One Nights (a charge levelled against Christians and Mazdeans as well), and the origin of Muslim sects which the 'orthodox' majorities consider as undermining Islam from within is often ascribed to converted Jews.... In various Muslim countries, public signs of contempt are attached to the Jews, and the most difficult and repugnant jobs are reserved to them." (Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question [Al Saqi, 1983], pp. 184-6.)

This long heritage of Muslim hostility to Jews -- as much as any reaction to Zionism -- shapes Hezbollah's promotion of anti-Jewish bigotry. Saad-Ghorayeb writes (p. 174): "As odious as Zionism is to Hizb'ullah, the party insists that its strong aversion to Judaism is unrelated to its abomination of Zionism, and hence exists irrespective of the existence of Zionism. According to Hizbu'llah's interpretation of the Qur'an and the Old and New Testaments, from time immemorial the Jews have continuously demonstrated their quintessentially evil nature. Qasim [i.e., Naim Qassem] expresses this view succintly: 'The history of Jews has proven that, regardless of the Zionist proposal, they are a people who are evil in their ideas.' From the very origins of their existence, the Jews 'created mischief for people' wherever they went."

Qassem's statements aren't random -- they're expressions of a cohesive ideology. That doesn't mark Hezbollah as any sort of unique evil, but it should make all of us seriously question claims that Hezbollah represents any sort of liberation movement.


Michael Karadjis said...

Matthew, thank you for your serious and well-written response. I also appreciate keeping the tone of debate comradely. I may reply at some stage to a number of points when I get time
Michael K