TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Obsolescence of Anti-Imperialism:

Despite the approaching mid-term elections and the criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy, the left—domestically and internationally—has had a hard time in articulating an alternative positive vision. “Not Bush” only gets you so far: sooner or later a substantive alternative is needed to give opposition credibility. Facing turmoil (to say the least) in the Arab and Islamic world, what foreign policy would be preferable? Evidence demonstrates that neither “UN” nor “EU” is a believable response. But the problem is deeper than the pragmatics of current diplomacy.

The left (and liberal) imagination would prefer to cast the confrontation with Islamic extremism or, yes, Islamic fascism, as a matter of imperialism and “anti-imperialism.” The terminology constitutes a treasured legacy of the left, not only from Lenin’s account of imperialism and capitalism (which then permitted him and his successors to mask Soviet Russian expansionism as somehow “anti-imperialist”) but also from a more honorable resistance in the US and Europe to imperial expansion of the late nineteenth century.

In the meantime, anti-imperialism is today’s last hurrah of the traditional left. Having given up nearly all of its other principles, especially in the phase of multiculturalism and post-modernism, it drapes itself in the anti-imperialist flag as a way to remember its glory days. Hence the grotesque sight of the (extreme) left celebrating the reactionary forces of Hezbollah (ask about the role of women or the status of free unions).

The problem however is that the theory of anti-imperialism—probably insufficient already a century ago—is simply irrelevant today. Exactly which natural resources are being fought for in Afghanistan, that fabled land of plenty? Which advanced capitalist company really needs to export its “surplus capital” to the Sunni triangle? And which is the national liberation movement that leads Sunni to kill Shi’a in Pakistan?

None of these conceptualizations of empire and anti-imperialism is adequate to the current situation, which is very explicitly being driven by something else: either an ideological-religious fanaticism or, on a deeper cultural level, a desire for death. Let us consider the account most recently televised by our compatriot and now Al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn, otherwise known affectionately as “Azzam the American.” Gadahn, who has been sought by the FBI for several years aired an address on tajed.net on September 2. In it he articulates aspects of the Islamic-fascist critique of the West and, as has been widely reported, called for conversion to Islam. Some excerpts:

“The civilization, in which anti-Semitism is an unforgivable sin, and grounds for dismissal from public and private office. . . . The civilization which considers flag-burning to be, at the very least, an issue for congress and the courts, and perhaps even a crime against the state. . . . The civilization which permits the filing of lawsuits against those who slander and libel celebrities, politicians, and other public figures of ill repute. . . . A civilization such as this cannot then hide behind the excuse of freedom of expression after it desecrates copies of the Koran, or defames, with unquestionably malicious intent, the chief and master of Adam’s children, and the embodiment of high morals and good character, our Prophet and Messenger Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and prayers be upon him.”

Of course, he gets it all wrong. Anti-Semitism is not “unforgivable” (see Mel Gibson); flag-burning has in fact not been made unconstitutional; and the Danish Mohammed cartoons are, largely, non-defamatory. Interestingly though this leads into a critique of idolatry and false religion:

“We disbelieve in and reject every false god, whether it be a rock, or a human being, or a government with its polytheistic constitution, courts, and laws, or an international organization like the United Nations, with its international laws, tribunals, and treaties of unbelief, and its Security Council, whose resolutions never fail to side with the Zionist Crusaders fascists.”

As cultural criticism, Gadahn seems to be suggesting that the West is polytheistic and therefore idolatrous: because of the multiplicity of laws and bodies, it wallows in falsehood. In other words an explicitly fundamentalist Islam rejects liberal, cultural relativist and post-modern western culture precisely because of its diversity and openness.

Hence the need to give up false gods, including the other Abrahamic religions, and accept the truth, the Koran that God gave to Adam and Eve—at least in Gadahn’s account:

“To America and the rest of Christendom, we say: Either repent of your misguided ways and enter into the light of truth, or keep your poison to yourself, and suffer the consequences in this world and the next. But whatever you do, don’t attempt to spread your misery and misguidance to our lands. Muslims don’t need democracy [emphasis added] to rid themselves of their home-grown despots and tyrants. What they do need is their Islamic faith, the spirit of Jihad, and the lifting of foreign troops and interference from their necks. And if Muslims don’t need democracy, then they certainly have no need for what is known as Christianity—that hollow shell of a religion, whose followers cling to an empty faith, and a false conviction of their inevitable salvation, regardless of what they do or believe, as long as they accept the core tenets and doctrines of Paulian Christianity, which also happen to be its most unbelievable, untenable, and illogical. Like the belief that the Bible that we have today, with all its contradictions, errors, deletions, and outright fabrications, is the infallible, revealed word of God. . . . Like the doctrine of the Original Sin, which states that Man is born in sin, because of the lapse and subsequent fall of his parents, even though we know from the Koran that God forgave our father Adam and mother Eve when they repented. . . . Like the incomprehensible, illogical, non-biblical doctrine of Trinity. . . . Like the belief that God sent His only begotten son, who is also God in human form, to die on a cross for the sins of mankind, which, is implied, He could otherwise not have forgiven. . . . ”

Because the Bible is contradictory it cannot be divine revelation—in contrast to the alleged coherence of the Koran (note to Salman Rushdie: pay attention!). Presumably Gadahn has his Koran studies wrong, or restricts his hermeneutic capacities in Islamic contexts. The point though is not that the Koran is coherent and the Bible is not: but rather, Islamic fascism is driven by a “logicality” (Arendt), a need to reduce the complexity of the world to a simplistic and necessarily morbid coherence.

Gadahn calls on the West, including President Bush, to accept Islam. Moreover, he addresses this generous invitation as well explicitly to the anti-imperialists of the Left:

“As for those who have expressed their respect and admiration for Islam, and acknowledged that it is the truth, and demonstrated their support and sympathy for the Muslims and their causes, like George Galloway, Robert Fisk, and countless others, I say to them: Isn’t it time you stopped sitting on the fence, and came over to the side of truth?”

Remember that Galloway “celebrated” Hezbollah and Nasrallah this past summer. Here is his opportunity to show his true solidarity.

Conversion, which of course Gadahn chose, provides coherence and identity, as an alternative to the threatening freedom of open societies.

“I have tasted both the darkness and ignorance of unbelief, and disobedience to my Creator, as well as the light and perception afforded by true faith in God and obedience to Him, and I assure you that there is no comparison, and that despite—or rather, because of—the atmosphere of battle in which we live, and the continuing conflict with the forces of the Crusaders and their hired hands, I thank God everyday for guiding me to Islam, and guiding me to join its victorious army, inshallah, for if not for His grace, I could very easily have been one of those unfortunate souls fighting the loosing battle for the other side, or blindly living the life of debt, debauchery, and doubt they call the American dream.”

(Source: Memri, Special Dispatch Series – No. 1281)

This is evidently not about empire, unless one considers the proponents of the caliphate as the ultimate imperial force. This is instead a conflict, articulated in religious terms, in which a particularly reactionary vision of Islam confronts variants of false belief: the rejection of the West is, however, ultimately less a matter of its Judeo-Christianity than of what Gadahn evaluates as its polytheism and paganism. “Anti-imperialism” as a term belongs to another century. It is an obsolete stance. What is at stake now is something very different: an amorphous movement, the network of extremists, who, hostile to freedom, redefine Islam as the vehicle with which to resist liberal democracy and its institutions.

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