A Quick Response to the Response to My Jacobin Piece on the US and AQ-IS

My recent Jacobin article has elicited a robust response, mostly positive. The negative crit from the right I’ll ignore, but some on the left have raised worthy objections.

People have objected this graf (and with good reason).

What happened to the Syrian revolution — if, indeed, that term even applies — is disputed. We should be able to agree, however, that a progressive uprising of indeterminate size gave way to a large reactionary one as the Syrian government cracked down on leftists and foreign-backed extremists rushed in.

It’s a fact that progressives were involved in the protest movement in the winter and spring of but to call it progressive in totality is inaccurate and reductive. I also shouldn’t have left doubt about whether we should call it a revolution; I don’t believe the term applies. (Nor, I suspect, do the editors at Jacobin.) And while it’s a fact that Assad cracked down on protests I’m not sure we can draw a causal link between that and the dominant role of foreign-backed jihadists.

Some things in that graf run counter to other things I’ve written/said about Syria. I wrote them in a hasty response to a perceived request from Jacobin editors — and in a misguided effort to FINISH THE DAMN PIECE — but having reviewed the process, I see they requested neither those words nor that sentiment. I regret leaving doubt on Twitter about the process. The Jacobin editors, while suggesting a fair amount of changes, didn’t soften the stance or make it less “left.” They overall sharpened it.

It pains me that having written and thought about this stuff I lot, I have words in a widely read piece that I don’t agree with, but the fault is mine.

Also Phil Greaves — whose extensive criticism I appreciate (seriously!) — and a few others have objected to my entertaining the notion that torture and other abuses committed by Arab govs against “terrorists” intensify their violence. Greaves and co see a contradiction between saying jihadism is a spawn of US imperialism on the one hand and saying actions by Arab govs exacerbate it on the other. But there’s really no contradiction because the Arab govs doing the torturing are mostly US clients, and in any case, I don’t subscribe to the notion that no factors beyond imperialism play into jihadist violence.

Last, some leftists have objected to my accepting that both the Libya and Syria uprisings were at all indigenous as opposed to CIA-produced. But I don’t think we know exactly what went down, and as I said in the piece “the two things can coexist, and often do.”

Posted in Blog
6 comments on “A Quick Response to the Response to My Jacobin Piece on the US and AQ-IS
  1. Louis Proyect says:

    You should also be aware that Nir Rosen is not exactly an impartial source on Syria.


  2. Phil Greaves says:

    First of all, thanks for addressing criticism and clarifying your points on the Syria paragraph – this is a rarity, to say the least, for the “Voice of the Left” Jacobinmag, although it is noted that this has been done away from the magazine itself, so the majority of readers will likely remain none the wiser. I apologise in advance for the length and any repitition for the following..

    Nonetheless, I still have a few issues. First of all I am aware that this Syria paragraph did not even exist in your initial draft when you submitted the piece, and that an Editor told you to include a paragraph on Syria that specifically insinuated the protests were not a result of US “intervention”. To me this is nothing but an intentionally ambiguous concession to the imperialist-extricating narrative that the “protests” were 1)widespread, or 2) formed the abstract and ever so malleable “uprising”, and all its attached “progressive” connotations, and that 3)this was all part of the same social process as the imperialist-sponsored Takfiri insurgency – this in turn plays into the “moderate progressive contras turning into Takfiri extremist contras narrative, due to Assad’s (the Syrian Government’s)”crackdown”". It should also be noted here that reducing the Syrian Government to the demonised – and often racist – despot caricature of its leader as “Assad” is also an Orientalist propaganda ploy, which in turn enables the dehumanisation of the entire government and of course the majority of Syrians that support it. Watch carefully as this process is repeated with “Putin the tyrant” and Russia.

    Even in this clarification, your assertions all still seem to lend credence to the imperial narrative and undermine those of the oppressed party, why so many in the “Left” opt for this default position i have no idea; to cite Cockburn, Milne, Teju Cole and the “blowback” theory is to cite Western Liberalism, why not seek the position of the PFLP? Pracitcally the only principled and widely active Marxist Party in the region, an active member of the resistance forces fighting the very contras you are opining on. I digress. You assert that “Assad (the Syrian Government) cracked down on protests”, but then remain ambiguous as to whether this constituted a “causal link” between the foreign backed Takfiris. It seems at odds that you can assert the “fact” of Assad’s crackdown but only remain “unsure” of what causal effect this supposed crackdown on a supposedly “progressive uprising” had. Of course it is absurd to suggest 10,000′s of Wahhabi/Takfiri ideologues from over 80 different countries have travelled to Syria on the basis of avenging a “progressive movement” being crushed by a secular government. (As a side note, calling the contras “jihadists” again plays into the Orientalist othering terminology – something I have fallen foul of myself. It insinuates an ideological link with Islam; Muslims in toto; the Arab region. Jihad is a very malleable, often deliberately misinterpreted term, and the Takfiri contras of NATO, Israel, Turkey and the GCC do not represent the dominant interpretation of it. It literally means “struggle” or “striving” and has nothing to do with wars of aggression, ethnic cleansing and mass-decapitations. When used in the context of military conflict, for eg. by socio-political Arab resistance groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, the term represents the dominant interpretation of Jihad when it is inferred in the context of a battle against oppression (the Zionist occupation regime, for eg) ie: a “just” battle of defense. Hassan Nasrallah himself, not to mention the PFLP, have very explicitly detached these contras from the Islamic belief system, as they understand it is a racist imperialist propaganda ploy. I think as suppporters of legitimate resistance in the region it is imperative that we (ie: Westerners) follow their lead on such issues).

    To put it abruptly, it is nonsense to suggest the Syrian Government’s “crackdown” on protests engendered a mass of violent reactionary paramilitaries, who appeared – already heavily armed – at the very same moment the protests kicked off, it is just as ridiculous to suggest this occurred during the Libyan “uprising” (war of aggression). In fact, it has long been proven that the main Takfiri factions of the insurgency were planning and carrying out violent acts against Syrian state security services both before, and during the onset of the protests from March 2011 onwards, not to mention that the US and its reactonary regional clients were sponsoring Takfiri militants aimed at Syria, Iran and Hezbollah since at least 2006 – which you do refer to. This is not rocket science, surely the results of the “Arab Spring” and the many colour revolutions of the very recent past, have shown the “Left” that to expose foreign subversion under guise of “rebellion” via coopting, exacerbating and hijacking legitimate dissent – which exists in all societies – does not equate to “denying the agency” of these legitimate dissenting demographics, the importance here lies in seperating the two trends and correctly identifying them. Not lending concessions to those who intentionally conflate the two: legitimate domestic dissent with imperialist sponsored reaction. As you well know Dave, Libya was only 4 years ago and we are still yet to see any concrete evidence that the “progressives” promoted as cover by media during and after the destruction held an ounce of legitimacy within the country. I dont think there is any excuse for ambiguity on this critical issue, all it achieves is to create space for opportunism and concessions to the oppressor.

    Regardless, my main concern is how this faulty position about the onset, the “militarisation” of the imperialist war on Syria plays into the orientalist narrative of “righteous rage”, thereby the “Savage Other”. The broader issue is one of portraying reactionary contras – entirely the product of the West – as an indigenous expression of oppressed Arabs in general. For example the “children of the war on Iraq”, this plays on the mythology of the “backward Other” reacting to Western violence by chopping off people’s heads and ethnically cleansing their neighbours, this term in particular *almost literally* portrays the orphans of US mass-murder as the “ISIS” contra, ie: as the mythological “Arab Savage”. This motif, which is further bolstered by the faulty cause-effect of the Nasser – Qutb relationship in an anachronistic context does not effectively expose the material owners of contemporary (or historical for that matter) reaction in the Middle East, it merely transfers the cause from “Islamism” to Arabs in general.

    You do not portray this reaction as the product of Western clients, or for example the exploitation of prisoners in Iraq, you actually portray it as the “natural Arab consequence”, using examples of Nasser’s supposed repression and “martyrdom” of “Islamist” Sayyed Qutb. This is wrong, In the process of (rightly) exposing the falsity of the “Islam = Barbarism” motif, you wrongly transfer it to Arab nationalism, Arab’s in general. There is scant mention of NATO-client Saudi Arabia’s State-enforced and externally promoted Wahhabi ideology for example, a Western product if ever there was one. For some reason, instead, you draw an abstract ideological reaction of “extremism” derived entirely through “Arab repression” in the form of Nasser, reducing the issue to a compartmentalised ahistorical mythology specific to the region, by extension its people, which effectively removes the principal political actor enforcing this reaction for at least the last century: Western imperialism (the ruling class in general), and considerably bolsters the “Clash of Civilisations” orientalist rendering of the real antagonism at hand.

    You offer in response to this that “the Arab govs doing the torturing are mostly US clients”, but again this exposes a very one-sided ideological view of the relationship, it is to imagine the White Westerner subcontracting the “dirty work” to the Brown Arab.

    In my opinon, it is revealing that you say the piece was worked around a lot, does it resemble what you first wrote? Do you feel that perhaps the Editors deceived you with the “suggestions” and “working” of the original? If so, my question is: what is the point of using such a platform to reach a wider audience if the audience is being deliberately misinformed? How many people will read this blog in comparison to the historical distortions – and their mythological reflections – in the Jacobin piece?

    Again, I appreciate you taking the time to respond and hope this will be taken in the comradely manner it is intended and not as a personal attack.

    Best, PG.

    • DaMizner says:

      I certainly didn’t intend to — and I don’t believe my piece did — depict jihadism (I’ll discuss terminology below) as “an indigenous expression of oppressed Arabs.” My piece is an explicit rebuke that point of view.

      Nor did my piece impugn Arab nationalism or say it produced violence. On the contrary, I showed that Nasser’s crackdown was a direct response to violence.

      That said, I allow for confusion when I quote Lawrence Wright — “One line of thinking proposes that America’s tragedy on September 11th was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human rights advocates argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri” — and say it contains a “measure of truth.”

      I should’ve either left out this point, which is tangential to my core argument, or been clearer.

      My point, one I stand by, is that the brutal treatment of jihadists (and their forerunners) by Arab governments has intensified their violence. And torture by US clients — like torture by the United States itself — isn’t distinct from imperialism but part of it, of course. Torture by Egyptian and Saudi Arabian governments didn’t “produce” jihadists; it intensified an already violent force, the better to be used by the United States. Stoke and deploy, brutalize and unleash, rinse and repeat.

      I admit I’m employing common sense as much as social science, but I operate under the assumption that when, for example, Egyptian security forces raped and blackmailed the child of an al-Jihad leader, the effect was malignant—and fully in line with American objectives.

      More broadly, it doesn’t serve the truth, or the cause of anti-imperialism, to deny that factors outside of direct material support of jihadism can strengthen it. Imperialism operates on various levels; it contains multitudes. To say that ISIS is the “child” of the Iraq war is not to argue that this jihadism is a “natural” Arab/Muslim reaction; it’s to make the banal observation that the US destruction of Iraq enabled foreign and foreign-backed jihadists to flow in and flourish, and this only further advanced the US-Saudi mission to destroy Iraq and create sectarianism.

      Likewise Maliki: As I say in the piece, he makes an all-too convenient scapegoat, and it was maddening to see the west turn him into a bogeyman for the purpose of concealing the imperial roots of ISIS. And contra Cockburn, it’s inaccurate, perhaps offensive, to suggest that the rise of ISIS constituted a Sunni revolt. But none of this means that the violence of the Iraqi government can’t lead Sunnis to soften their opposition to—or support—ISIS . Look: it just did. This is not a Muslim or Arab reaction; it’s a human reaction, and to acknowledge it isn’t to gainsay the foundational role of imperialism. On the contrary, it’s to recognize that the US-Saudi plan to sow sectarianism was successful.

      On Syria: You make a good point when you say it’s illogical to suggest repression by the Syrian government gave rise to ISIS-AQ in Syria. I think, further, it’s misleading to talk about early protests and the jihadist infusion as if they’re part of the same thing. The early protests included progressives—some were arrested and killed—and it’s important not to erase them, but it’s also important not to obscure the issue of foreign subversion and what it has done to Syria by referring facilely to a “revolution” or by depicting the agitation as a leftist movement.

      On terminology: I agree with you that ‘jihadist’ is problematic because it connotes a connection to Islam. In the Jacobin piece I use that awkward term “right-wing jihadist,” which is scarcely better. Elsewhere I’ve used Wahhabi jihadist. I’ll consider contra.

      Relatedly, you say, “There is scant mention of NATO-client Saudi Arabia’s State-enforced and externally promoted Wahhabi ideology for example, a Western product if ever there was one.” But I discuss the US-Saudi effort to promulgate Wahhabism in the sixties and in the context of Afghanistan. That said, I’m still pondering the connection between Wahhabism, an ideology, and jihadism (contras), which isn’t at heart an ideological phenomenon. The connection should be acknowledged but not overstated.

      I appreciate the feedback. I want to be kept honest and accountable by anti-imperialists.


  3. Andrew says:

    Kind of surprised there was a right-wing reaction at all to this article. Don’t they normally ignore Jacobin and most left-of-liberal publications?

    From my experiences, right-wingers usually don’t usually engage actual leftists because it would detract from their illusion that liberalism and leftism are one in the same.

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