Gilbert Achcar on the Middle East

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The first decade of the millennium has seen an intense focus on the politics of the Middle East. Not that the region was considered insignificant at any time since the Second World War. But a series of events that include the 9/11 attacks, the second intifada, America’s war in Iraq and the bloody confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah have made the Arab world into the central theatre of world affairs.

In western societies, the Left has dedicated much of its recent foreign-policy activism to opposing the Middle East strategy of the Bush administration and attempting to build solidarity for the victims of Israeli aggression in Lebanon and Palestine. At the same time, left activists have struggled to grasp the complexities of Middle Eastern political life and work out a nuanced position.

They have had to perform this task while defending themselves against what purports to be ‘friendly fire’. A coterie of academics and journalists from progressive backgrounds of one kind or another have thrown their rhetorical weight behind the wars of George Bush and Tony Blair, furiously denouncing all those who remain hostile to the deployment of western military power. If you read the liberal press in the English-speaking world, you will have found it hard to miss the ‘Cruise Missile Left’ – although there is little evidence that their arguments enjoy much popular resonance, or that they have any real influence over the power-holders who decide whether or not to use military force.

The plausibility of this current has been shattered by their determination to whitewash the occupation of Iraq. Their prolific writings have avoided any serious engagement with the grim consequences of that war, and you will search in vain for any mention of the well-documented atrocities and war crimes committed by the occupation forces. The authors of the much-hyped ‘Euston Manifesto’ claimed to be upholding the best traditions of the Left against its latter-day adherents[i].

But when we see Christopher Hitchens defending the explicit racism of his friend Martin Amis, or Nick Cohen joining the Evening Standard‘s campaign to have a right-wing Tory elected as mayor of London, such pretentions can only inspire hollow laughter. The partisans of the Cruise Missile Left have rapidly made their way into the ranks of the old-fashioned Cruise Missile Right: nostalgic attachment to certain reference points now seems to be the only difference between Hitchens and a neo-conservative ideologue like Charles Krauthammer[ii].

That diversion aside, there’s no question that the present state of the Middle East poses real dilemmas for the anti-war, anti-imperialist Left. In most of the front-line states of the region, resistance to foreign occupation has been spear-headed by groups that adhere to a deeply conservative form of political Islam, adopting positions on social and economic issues that are completely at odds with the core beliefs of the Left. How can we show solidarity to those resisting especially brutal forms of imperialist aggression, without abandoning vital struggles for secularisation, gender equality, workers’ rights and gay liberation in Muslim societies?

For those seeking answers to that question (and many others), the work of Gilbert Achcar has been immensely valuable. Since the twin towers fell, the Lebanese scholar-activist has maintained a steady output of books, articles and interviews, setting out to explain the social forces and political currents shaping the destiny of the Middle East for a progressive audience. In many ways, Achcar’s trajectory resembles that of another Arab intellectual, the late Edward Said: he is an erudite, poly-lingual scholar, from a nation that has endured the aggression of successive Israeli governments, who has used his position in the western academy as a platform from which to mount a fierce critique of the new imperialism and its impact on Arab societies.

Unlike Said, with his post-modern scruples about grand narratives, Achcar is an avowed Marxist. In his own words, his political writings bear the imprint of “a persistent attachment to a method inspired by that which Marx used to tell the history of his own time in his articles and works.” He has cited the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson, whose studies of the Muslim world include an outstanding biography of Muhammed, as a key influence. Achcar’s own work offers eloquent proof that a critical, undogmatic variant of Marxism can do much to explain the social dynamics of the modern Middle East.

This article will give a condensed summary of Gilbert Achcar’s thinking on three vital topics: Islam and fundamentalism, the Iraq war, and Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian people[iii].

Islam and fundamentalism

In a valuable essay published in 2004, Achcar begins his discussion of the approach socialists should take towards religious belief and believers by recalling what the founders of the Marxist tradition had to say on the matter. Karl Marx’s comment that “religion is the opium of the people” is one of his best-remembered and least-understood sayings. As Achcar reminds us, Marx had a far more sophisticated view than many of his self-styled followers, which becomes immediately apparent when that famous quotation is placed in its proper context:

“Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The great atheist Marx showed more understanding of religious faith than you will find in most of the God-bashing block-busters published almost two centuries later. He criticised religion for making humans believe that their fate was in the hands of super-natural deities over whom they had no control, and for subordinating them to codes that stunted their personal development. But Marx never argued for the prohibition of religious practice in a socialist society, insisting that “everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in.”

His intellectual partner Friedrich Engels expressed similar views, warning presciently that “persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions … the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced.”

Although Marx and Engels provide a useful starting-point, Achcar goes on to argue that their thoughts on the subject are inadequate for present needs. They only considered the traditional religions of Europe, and did not reckon with the challenges posed by colonialism and its poisonous legacy: “In a context dominated by racism, a natural corollary of the colonial heritage, persecutions of the religions of the oppressed, the ex-colonised, should not be rejected only because they are the ‘best means of promoting disliked convictions’. They should be rejected also and above all, because they are a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, as intolerable as political, legal, and economic persecutions and discriminations.”

For Achcar, the prohibition of the Islamic scarf or hijab in French state schools is an example of such oppression. In Muslim-majority states, the question of the hijab may assume a very different meaning: “The fight for women’s liberation remains the very criterion of any emancipatory identity, the touchstone of any progressive claim … the struggle against the requirement to wear the scarf or other veils is inseparable from the struggle against other aspects of female servitude.” But when a society that subjects the Muslim faith to “glaring discrimination” bars women from wearing the hijab, it can only be seen as cultural oppression disguising itself behind a secularist facade.

He denounces the French media for presenting “an image of an Islamic religion intrinsically unfit for modernity, as well as the amalgam of Islam and terrorism, facilitated by the inappropriate use of the term “Islamism” as a synonym for Islamic fundamentalism.” That criticism is by no means relevant only to France, and the comment of the Ligue de l’Enseignement which Achcar quotes in support of his argument could also be applied to discussion of Islam in the English-speaking world:

“If many French people, sometimes even among the best educated who occupy prominent positions, allow themselves to make pejorative appraisals of Islam, whose ignorance vies with their stupidity, it is because they subscribe, most often unconsciously while denying it, to this tradition of colonial contempt.”

Having made the crucial distinction between Islam as such and its fundamentalist incarnations, it remains necessary to analyse the character of Islamic fundamentalism. There are certainly Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalists, some of whom have significant influence over state power in their societies. But the strength of fundamentalism in the Muslim world is exceptional, whether embodied in the theocratic power structures of the Iranian state or the militant opposition movements elsewhere in the region.

Achcar sees little merit in approaches that seek the roots of this exceptionalism in the Muslim faith itself: “The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism is not the culturally inevitable form of radicalisation in Muslim countries: until recently most people in Muslim countries spurned the ideology. It won out only by default, after its competition was eliminated.”

That competition came in the form of secular nationalist and left-wing movements, whose rise in the 1950s and 1960s alarmed Washington so much that it worked closely with the Saudi monarchy to promote religious fundamentalism as a less threatening alternative (the US role in the Afghan war of the 1980s is well-known, but support for fundamentalist groups began at a much earlier date). Achcar has cited the Egyptian leader Nasser as an example of the political approach that could have blocked the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world. He combined a proud, defiant foreign policy with domestic reforms that “ushered in a period of great social progress in Egypt … by basing his rule solidly on a foundation of national, democratic and social aspirations, Nasser pulled the rug out from under his fundamentalist adversaries.”

The defeat of Nasser’s armies in the 6-Day War marked the beginning of the end for this experiment: his successor Anwar Sadat brought Egypt into Washington’s camp and left the Muslim Brotherhood with plenty of room for growth. Elsewhere in the region, the secular nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran was smashed by western intervention, giving the Shia clergy the opportunity to place themselves at the head of popular struggles against the Shah’s tyranny.

The Lebanese writer assigns the US government a double responsibility: “Not only did it contribute directly to propagating Islamic fundamentalism, but by helping to defeat and crush the Left and progressive nationalism throughout the Islamic world, it freed up the space for political Islam as the only ideological and organisational expression of popular resentment.”

He insists that however other-worldly the rhetoric of these currents may appear, they always remain “essentially political movements. They are thus the expression of specific socio-political interests that are very much of this world.” Achcar summarises these “socio-political interests” as follows:

“Radical, anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism is a distorted, reactionary expression of the middle classes’ and plebian layers’ resentment against distorted capitalist development and Western domination, often exacerbated by a despotic local state. This expression has prevailed following the failure or elimination of modernist expressions of this same resentment, whether nationalist, anti-imperialist and populist; anti-capitalist and socialist; or a combination of these dimensions.”

For the Left, fundamentalism should be considered a rival and a potentially deadly enemy (the experience of socialists in Iran at the hands of Khomenei’s regime is worth recalling[iv]). But Achcar also believes that there are situations where “Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive, a deforming channel, certainly, but filling the void left by the failure or absence of movements of the Left.”

In such cases, “it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to the circumstances of the struggle against the oppressor, the common enemy. While never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic fundamentalists in common battles – from simple street demonstrations to armed resistance, depending on the case.”

Occupation and resistance in Iraq

Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Achcar penned a widely-translated “Letter to a slightly depressed anti-war activist”, counselling his intended audience not to be disheartened by the scenes of celebration in Baghdad that had been widely broadcast in the western media: “How could anyone be surprised at the Iraqi people’s relief and joy when they learned of the dictatorship’s fall? I felt genuine relief myself, even though I had never experienced what the Iraqis did.” But the euphoria surging through the power elites of Washington and London would prove hopelessly short-sighted:

“As it extends its presence in the Arab world further and further, the United States is stretching its troops too thin. The hatred that it evokes in all Middle Eastern countries and throughout the Islamic world has already blown up in its face several times: September 11, 2001 was only the most spectacular, deadliest manifestation so far of this hatred. The occupation of Iraq will push the general resentment to extremes; it will speed up the decomposition of the regional order backed by Washington. There will be no Pax Americana.”

By the summer of 2006, Achcar felt able to affirm that “the Bush administration will definitely go down in history as the clumsiest crew that ever stood at the helm of the American Empire.”

As the occupation of Iraq has proved ever more disastrous, both for the US state and the Iraqi people, Achcar has sought to explain the unfolding sequence of events. He dismisses the argument that foreign troops are needed to assure “stability”, insisting that “the longer the occupation lingers, the more the situation in Iraq deteriorates. The occupation breeds chaos more effectively than any other factor or force, be it foreign or local. The reason for that is quite simple: the occupation is deeply hated by the great majority of Arab Iraqis, a hatred that is aggravated day after day by the clumsiness and brutality of the occupiers.”

The call for the immediate withdrawal of troops is not predicated on naïve optimism about the short-term future: “No-one is saying that if the troops withdraw or a timetable is fixed, a miracle will occur and everything will become fine in Iraq.” But as long as the occupation continues, things will get worse not better.

Achcar derides the claim that the occupiers have brought “democracy” to the people of Iraq. In the build-up to the elections held in 2005, he compared the triumphant US leaders to “a boss boasting about having raised the wages of the workers in his factory as an illustration of his eagerness to improve their living standard, when, in reality, the raise was imposed on him by the workers going on strike.” The US proconsul Paul Bremer had planned to impose appointed bodies on the people of Iraq, but found his plans frustrated by the Ayatollah Sistani: “The confrontation between the two men escalated until the Ayatollah called for demonstrations to impose democratic elections on the occupiers … Bremer had to backtrack, for fear of facing a massive anti-US pro-democracy insurgency that would have ruined the last pretext for Washington’s occupation of Iraq.”

The outcome of the election saw Washington’s protege Iyad Allwai heavily defeated. Achcar considered it to be a vote against occupation: “Almost all Arab Iraqi slates included the withdrawal of foreign troops as a central item of their programme. Even Allawi’s list did so!” But the new challenge posed by the election result might prompt a cynical response from the occupiers: “In order to retain control of the land, Washington could well resort to the well-tried imperial recipe of divide and rule, taking the risk of setting Iraq on the devastating fire of a civil war.”

By early 2006, this possibility had become a certainty, according to Achcar:

“[US] Ambassador Khalilzad … has been throwing oil on the fire continuously, trying to play one community against another, trying to get alliances and counter-alliances, trying to break other factions. He is interfering very, very heavily in the political situation, and not as some kind of honest broker, but as someone applying a very classical recipe of divide and rule.”

The US government was able to take advantage of the prevarication within the victorious Shia fundamentalist coalition, as its major components SCIRI and Da’wa hesitated to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops. As Achcar observed at the beginning of 2005, it was also assisted by the ambiguous character of the militant anti-occupation forces, concentrated in Sunni areas:

“The so-called Iraqi resistance is a heterogeneous conglomerate of forces, many of them purely local. For a major part, these are people revolted by the heavy-handed occupation of their country, fighting against the occupiers and their armed Iraqi auxiliaries. But another segment of the forces engaged in violent actions in Iraq is composed of utterly reactionary fanatics, mainly of the Islamic fundamentalist kind, who make no distinction between civilians, Iraqis included, and armed personnel.”

It followed from this analysis that “any unqualified support for the “Iraqi resistance” as a whole in Western countries, where the anti-war movement is badly needed, is utterly counter-productive as much as it is deeply wrong (when paved with good political intentions). There should be a clear-cut distinction between anti-occupation acts that are legitimate and acts by so-called “resistance” groups that are to be denounced.”

The distinction between terrorism and legitimate resistance was also drawn by “the staunchest anti-occupation political forces”, the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and the Shia followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. At the time of the first elections, Achcar saw the informal alliance between these two currents, with their call for an immediate end to the occupation, as “the political mediation between the pressure of the legitimate armed resistance to the occupation and the anti-occupation political pressure expressed by the population and the representatives of its majority. The combination of these pressures is crucial for the liberation of Iraq.”

Moqtada al-Sadr has become one of the key political figures in Iraq, and the main target of the occupation forces. Achcar has many useful observations about the Shia cleric to offer. There should be no illusions about the political character of the Sadrist movement, despite its anti-occupation stance, as it is “a fiercely fundamentalist tendency, deeply reactionary on many social, cultural and gender issues.” Nevertheless, “Sadr is a formidable enemy of the occupation because he is very popular. He is the only force with a radical anti-occupation stance to enjoy massive popular support and have the ability to organise this support.” The social base of his movement is also crucial:

“The distinctive feature of Moqtada al-Sadr’s current is the fact that it is a populist brand of Islamic fundamentalism. His populism translates, on the one hand, into a hard-line opposition to the occupation reflecting the aspirations of broad sections of the masses, especially in Baghdad where the occupation is faced most directly, and in some areas of the south. On the other hand, Sadr’s populism is expressed in the fact that his movement tries to speak for the masses in their protest against their very poor living conditions … it is through championing such demands as well as through its radical anti-occupation stance that the Sadrist current was able to build, in a matter of a couple of years, an impressive force.”

The massive escalation of sectarian violence after the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006 saw followers of the Sadrist movement heavily implicated in murders of Sunni civilians. Moqtada al-Sadr’s political project has been damaged as a result: “This has greatly affected the credibility that Sadr enjoyed in 2004 and 2005 as a non-sectarian, Iraqi Arab nationalist force opposed to the occupation. His image is now reduced to that of a sectarian Shi’ite force, an armed wing of the Shi’ite community.”

Achcar contrasts the structure of Sadr’s Mahdi army with the Badr brigade of SCIRI (itself responsible for appalling sectarian killings), which is “an organisation with a strong command structure, military-like centralisation and functioning, whereas the Mahdi Army is a rag-tag army that has developed under the occupation, almost from scratch … Moqtada al-Sadr does not have any appropriate structure for exerting real control over such an important force and, as a consequence, there are whole sections of the Mahdi Army that are actually beyond his control.”

In January 2007, Achcar identified the crushing of the Sadrists as the primary goal of the occupation regime: “One of the main goals of the Bush administration’s so-called ‘new strategy’ for Iraq is to try to foster a division within the Shi’ite coalition and create a coalition of forces that would include the Kurds, some Arab Sunni forces and those Arab Shi’ite forces willing to collaborate with the occupation. They wish to isolate Sadr so as to open the way to a crackdown on his militias.”

As the year drew to a close, he dismissed the hype surrounding the “surge”: “Whatever relative decline there is in the level of violence in Iraq, there is no political breakthrough for the United States in the sense that it is not really able to control the country.” The failure of the Maliki government’s recent move against the Sadrist militias would appear to have confirmed this view[v].

Despite the abject failure of the occupation to bring anything resembling peace or stability to Iraq, it would be foolish to under-estimate the determination of the US state to keep its troops in the country:

“A full political defeat in Iraq – i.e. losing control over the country and being compelled to leave it – will have worse consequences than Vietnam with regard to US imperial credibility, its ability to intervene militarily, as well as US economic and political world hegemony. Due to the oil factor, the strategic importance of Iraq and the Arab-Persian Gulf area is far higher than whatever was at stake in Vietnam and the whole of Indochina.”

Israel and the Palestinians

The view one takes of the current situation in Israel/Palestine depends very much on your interpretation of the “peace process” which began in the early 1990s. Achcar strongly opposed the peace treaty with Israel signed by Yasir Arafat and the PLO in 1993. He did not believe that it could deliver a fully independent Palestinian state on the territory of the West Bank and Gaza – the ostensible goal of the PLO leadership. The summary of the likely outcome he offered in 1994, based on the text of the peace accords and the balance of forces between the two sides, proved to be almost entirely correct:

“Israeli withdrawal from the populated Arab areas, except for East Jerusalem, and redeployment to the rest of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, with the maintenance of the settlements; the constitution of the evacuated enclaves as an autonomous Palestinian entity without full state powers, and without military means other than those necessary for internal repression; Israeli control of access to these enclaves, in particular the crossing points to Egypt and Jordan.”

While this critical view falls well outside the mainstream of the western media, it has reached a fairly broad audience thanks to prominent defenders of the Palestinian cause such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Robert Fisk. Achcar’s writings on Palestine add valuable texture to the argument, describing the evolution of Israeli strategy and the characteristics of the PLO that drove its leaders to accept such a lousy deal.

The 6-Day War, which left Israeli in control of the full territory of historic Palestine, presented its ruling class with a new dilemma. After the conflict of 1947-48, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had left the territory of the new Israeli state – without this mass expulsion, Jews would have been a minority of the population. But there was no similar exodus in 1967. The fate of the previous generation of refugees, still languishing in camps two decades later, encouraged those who were minded to stay.

Mass expulsion of the Arab population by massacre and persecution would have been a very dangerous strategy, given the dependence of Israel on support from western states. But ‘in these conditions, pure and simple annexation of the whole of the newly occupied Palestinian territories became impracticable; by granting Israeli citizenship to their inhabitants, it would imperil the Jewish character of the Zionist state; in refusing this citizenship, it would put in question its democratic character.” The latter option would require Israel to establish a formal, explicit system of racial apartheid, which might prove equally damaging to its international reputation.

The Labour politician Yigal Allon worked out the basis of a solution to this dilemma within months of the 1967 war. He argued that Israel should withdraw from the main population centres of the occupied territories, while retaining control over large parts of the West Bank. The ‘liberated’ zones should be demilitarised and handed over to a suitable Arab authority that could do a better job of repressing Palestinian resistance than the Israeli state itself. At the time the favoured candidate for this job was the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan, but Allon later affirmed that a suitably emasculated PLO could also play the part: “If the tiger transformed itself into a horse, we could mount it. At that moment, we would get front-page headlines in our favour.”

The urgency of mounting the PLO horse became apparent to Israeli elites after the eruption of the first intifada in 1987. The vibrant popular uprising in the occupied territories, spearheaded by People’s Committees that co-ordinated resistance, put the Israeli army under enormous pressure and greatly embarrassed its US sponsor. Once it had been returned to power, the Israeli Labour Party thus decided to initiate contacts with the exiled PLO chieftain: “The Rabin-Peres government quickly understood that it would obtain much more from the Arafat PLO leadership, installed in Tunis and confronted with the problem of how to maintain its enormous bureaucratic apparatus, than it would ever get from the representatives from the interior, subject as they are to the daily pressure of a mass movement in struggle.”

Achcar was saddened but not altogether surprised by the willingness of the Arafat leadership to accept a repackaged version of the Allon plan. He had long taken a scathing view of the PLO, describing it from 1974 onwards as a “state apparatus without a state looking for a state at the least cost”. In 1989, he briefly described the assets accumulated by the PLO in exile, unprecedented for any national liberation movement:

“The PLO’s bureaucratic apparatus is swollen: thousands of functionaries, whose highest layer lives in a luxurious style that is an insult to the living conditions of the vast majority of Palestinians. This apparatus has some branches, like the “political” or diplomatic department (with eighty-five offices around the world), that would make many Third World states green with envy. In addition the PLO subsidises, either regularly or occasionally, tens of thousands of people who constitute a major social clientele. As for finances, the PLO’s treasury is, of course, considerable: it has an immense capital in liquid assets and real estate, and a regular budget mainly sustained by Arab oil producers that can be counted in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

The PLO had initially been founded by the Arab dictatorships, who “took great care to create it in their image, that is, as a bureaucratic institution essentially based on appointment and co-option, and not on the basis of direct representation of the masses via elected delegates”. After the 6-Day War and the growing radicalisation of the Middle East which followed, the Arab regimes sponsored the take-over of the PLO by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which they considered the least threatening Palestinian faction.

Arafat pledged not to interfere in the “internal affairs” of other Arab states, although their rulers never hesitated to interfere in Palestinian politics. Soon after the Oslo agreement was signed, Achcar called for a radical break with the policy of “non-interference”, noting that the Jordanian regime had killed as many Palestinians as the Zionist state: “The immediate interests of the great majority of Palestinian people who live on the two banks of the Jordan – and who are the majority in Jordan itself – are to break the chain that is choking them at its weakest point: the Jordanian monarchy.”

When the process initiated by the Oslo accords finally collapsed in 2000, Achcar took a predictably scathing view of the claim that Ehud Barak had made Arafat a “generous” offer:

“It became clear that the Palestinian population would not accept what increasingly appeared as a fool’s bargain after the first illusions of 1993-94. It became clear as well that Arafat would not take the risk of confronting his people for the sake of what increasingly looked to him as monkey business and a deadly trap.”

Achcar himself is a partisan of the “one-state” solution, calling for the establishment of a democratic, secular state on the full territory of historic Palestine, with guarantees for the national rights of Jews and Arabs. He has always rejected the idea that an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders can be considered a just resolution to the conflict, as that would leave barely 20% of historic Palestine under Palestinian sovereignty.

This does not mean that he condemns any outcome which falls short of this maximum goal as a betrayal. Writing in 1989, he approved the demand put forward by the internal leadership of the struggle in the occupied territories for a withdrawal of the Israeli army from the main population centres of the West Bank: “Trying to obtain this objective through the struggle, in the knowledge that the evacuated zones will inevitably remain under close Israeli military surveillance, is not surrender but revolutionary realism – realism, because this objective can be achieved through the intifada.” After Arafat’s deal with the Israeli government, Achcar elaborated on this perspective:

“It was clearly not possible [under present conditions] to obtain a complete and unconditional withdrawal of the Zionist army from the territories occupied in 1967 … the only realistic immediate objective was that of unconditional withdrawal by the Israeli army from the Palestinian population centres: the demand formulated by the leadership of the intifada during its first months. The pressure of the Palestinian struggle in its different forms could have reasonably culminated in this result, on the condition that the struggle was not sabotaged by sowing illusions about winning Palestinian objectives through diplomacy, thanks to Washington.”

The crucial difference between this objective, and the agreement signed by Arafat, is that it would not have committed the Palestinian leadership to end the struggle and repress all those who attempted to carry on. The seven years between 1993 and 2000 were wasted while the Israeli state continued to establish “facts on the ground”, doubling the number of settlers. Achcar describes the “Second Intifada” which began after the failure of the Camp David talks as “an uprising that because of its militarisation lacked the most positive features of the popular dynamics of the first intifada. A Palestinian Authority that, by its very nature, could definitely not rely on mass self-organisation and chose the only way of struggle it was familiar with, fostered this militarisation.”

The rise of Hamas came as little surprise to Achcar: as early as 1989, he had noted the growth of the fundamentalist movement and quoted George Habash’s warning that “the religious current could take over the leadership if the PLO stopped the armed struggle and went down the road of deviation and surrender.” Although he has always opposed the religious obscurantism and misogny of Hamas, Achcar understood why they received the support of a majority of Palestinians in the 2006 elections: “The electoral victory of Hamas is a resounding slap in the face of the Bush administration … Hamas does not have a social incentive for collaboration with the Israeli occupation, at least not in any way resembling that of the PLO-originated PA apparatuses.”


[i] US socialist Mike Marqusee wrote a fine response at the time it was published: “The manifesto authors are guilty of one of the oldest and most discredited types of double-think: disregarding or minimising the crimes committed by one’s own government and society while boldly denouncing crimes committed by foreign regimes or movements … the manifesto’s refusal even to address the question of US and western power is as gross an error as anything committed by European Stalinists in their whitewash of the USSR.”

[ii] The article by Hitchens defending Martin Amis gives a good sense of his moral and intellectual decline; you need only compare it with Ronan Bennett’s article condemning the racist outbursts of the novelist to see how far Hitchens has sunk since he made his peace with the US empire. Also worth reading is the interview with Nick Cohen conducted by Tawfiq Chahboune of the Socialist Unity Network, which shows how much trouble the Observer columnist has dealing with intelligent anti-war arguments.

[iii] Many of the citations in this article come from the articles and interviews compiled by the on-line magazine International Viewpoint here. All other quotations are taken from his books Eastern Cauldron and The Clash of Barbarisms.

[iv] See my review of Dilip Hiro’s Iran Today for details of this repression.

[v] Patrick Cockburn’s report from Baghdad on the confrontation between Maliki and the Sadrists describes this failure.


One Response

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