Anarchism, ethnicity, and culture: revolution and reaction in the Middle East

Following on from Black anarchism, the second in a series of articles discussing the anarchist movement as it relates to non-European peoples and cultures.

The Middle East is, perhaps, a hub for the most oppressive injustices in the world today. Contained within this one region, you can find powerful examples of almost every evil that anarchist communists oppose. Imperialist aggression, military occupation, the theft of natural resources from indigenous peoples, religious militancy, theocracy, and brutal patriarchy all vie to do their worst to the people there.

As such, the history of the region has been one of resistance in the face of brutality and struggles for domination. In that history, anarchism has had vital meaning, as Jason Adams points out in Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context;

Before the creation of the Israeli state, in the first quarter of the 20th century, an anarchist movement had already begun amongst both Palestinians and Jews which resisted the creation of the Jewish state and worked instead for a stateless, directly democratic, pluralistic society of both Jews and Arabs. Anarchist sections of the “communitarian” movement, inspired by the collaboration of notable Jewish anarchists such as Gustav Landauer and Rudolf Rocker, formed the basis for the early Kibbutzim movement in Palestine, and according to Noam Chomsky, was the original meaning of the term “Zionist.” The original communitarian Zionists opposed the creation of the state because it would “necessitate carving up the territory and marginalizing, on the basis of religion, a significant portion of its poor and oppressed population, rather than uniting them on the basis of socialist principles” (Barsky, 1997, p. 48). Of the anarchist-communitarians at the time, Joseph Trumpeldor was one of the most important, drawing members of the first kvutzot over to the anarchist-communist thought of Petr Kropotkin. By 1923, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid had become one of the first books ever to be translated into Hebrew and distributed throughout Palestine ; this early anarchist groundwork by activists like Trumpeldor became a major influence in the thought of Yitzhak Tabenkin, a leader in the seminal Kibbutz Hameuhad movement. The anarchist-communitarian newspaper, Problemen was the only international anarchist periodical to be published in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and was one of very few voices calling for the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs in the communitarian manner that existed before the creation of the Israeli state. This movement began to die out after 1925, with the creation of the movement for an Israeli state and the solidification of the party (Oved, 2000, p. 45).

Does this mean, then, that anarchism is now dead in Palestine, or indeed the Middle East as a whole? It would seem so. The picture on offer at present is that, as the Israeli occupation of Palestine drags on, and climate change makes the war for control of natural resources ever more brutal, the form of resistance becomes increasingly reactionary.

Hence, with the death of Arab nationalism several decades ago, the main opposition to the United States and its Israeli client comes from the Islamist militants of Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Part of the reason for this is that the seeds of militant Islam were deliberately sown by the United States itself, but also relevant is the failure of more “moderate,” reformist groups.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of the 1980s and 1990s quickly became a vehicle for the position and influence of Yasser Arafat, who was more than happy to act in accordance with US-Israeli wishes. Likewise, today, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas appears more interested in cementing his own position and offering concessions to Israel than in working to improve the condition of the Palestinians.

Thus did Hamas step into the breach. Not only were they willing to continue militant action against Israel, whilst the PLO offered ceasefires in return for nothing at all, but their ground-level charity work was greatly needed by a suffering people. Whatever the realities, the perception is that they are a contrast to corrupt and ineffective secular groups which do not listen to the people.

To a degree, this assesment is true. In response to the overwhelming Palestinian (and international) consensus, Hamas’s 2006 election manifesto omitted any call for the destruction of Israel. In its stead, was a call for “the establishment of an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem.” The group stuck to its word when it offered Israel a 10-year truce “in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories: the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem,and recognition of Palestinian rights including the “right of return.”

All of these factors make Hamas the most popular and effective movement in the Palestinian territories at this moment. Despite, or perhaps exacerbated by, Israeli refusal to deal with them and continued negotiation with a Fatah president whose democratic mandate expired almost a year ago.

Nonetheless, the prominence of Hamas raises troubling questions. Despite the complexities mentioned above, the fact is that the organisation supports the imposition of an Islamic state on the Palestinian people. Human Rights Watch has condemned them for the use of suicide bombing, rocket attacks against civilians, political violence, and other war crimes.

Moreover, for historical precedent regarding Hamas’ vision of an Islamic state, we need only look at the brutal regimes of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban. Or, for that matter, the horrors endured throughout history by the inhabitants of every state in thrall to religious authoritarianism.

But is there a viable, radical-left alternative in the Middle East?

The answer is “not really.” There is an anarchist organisation in Lebanon called Al Badil al Taharouri, but little information is available on its roots or activities. Elsewhere, socialist and workers’ revolution movements such as the Worker-Communist Party of Iran are not overtly libertarian.

In Jordan, there are the beginnings of an anarchist movement;

Finally after more than 50 years of communist activism in Jordan the anarchists started to gather? Most Jordanian anarchists are artists who work in music, film-making, and graphic design, one of our comrades is finishing his master’s in gender studies? some comrades are Jordanian and others are Palestinian refugees living in Jordan.

Most of us come from a Marxist background so theory has great importance for us?Two comrades finally found an Arabic book that talks about anarchism? actually we found three more books but with different Arabic words for ?anarchism?

  1. Fawdawiya, which literally means kenotic
  2. La soltawiya, which literally means anti-authoritarianism
  3. Taharoriya, which literally means libertarianism
  4. Anarkeya, which literally means anarchism.

We also found Egyptian and Lebanese anarchist websites which were extremely helpful.Until now we are about 20 comrades. I believe that there more anarchists in the country but it is hard to find them!

Lately, we became part of a bigger movement called the social left, which consists of Marxists, feminists and others. Despite the fact that the movement has more than 1,000 members, we anarchists have, relatively, a very strong influence and effect in/on the group. We meet in an Anti-globalization office in Jordan.

When we started reading, we looked for any form of anarchy in our own history and local culture. After reading a book called ?Sufi tropics? written by an Iraqi writer (Hadi al Alawi), we found that Sufism is ALL ABOUT anarchism. Actually we found a website on the internet that talks about Sufi-anarchism? now most of us label themselves as Sufi anarchists. We even found Sufi anarchist movements and groups from the 8-16th centuries. So, after reading what we were able to find from Bakunin?s, Proudhon?s and Kropotkin?s books, and after studying the history of anarchy in Spain, Ukraine, Paris, Mexico? and after studying Sufism, we started to have our own understanding of anarchism.

others r messed up comrade of us even worked on his own understanding of sufi-anarchism in a way compatible with his own understanding of post-modernism and the fall of ideology or what he called nihilist Sufi anarchism (plz don?t ask me to explain!!!)

We heard about other groups in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine, but never met any of them.

Last week, a very important columnist wrote about us ? anarchists ? in the most popular newspaper in the country, after he saw our flag for the first time in a protest.

All political movements and parties in Jordan have a problem with numbers. Recruiting more people can be very difficult because most people are too afraid to participate.

In Jordan we still suffer expulsion from universities because of any political activities. Laws that are extremely hard to understand and interpret and which are used against political activists, like:

  • disturbing civil harmony!
  • bashing higher status!
  • long tongue!!!
  • copying without permission!
  • Unauthorized gatherings!
  • Human Rights Watch talks about torture, kidnappings?there is also 3 years in prison because of founding unauthorized groups.

So, anarchism in Jordan still has a long way to go but it is expected to grow in the coming years?From ur brothers/sisters ? comrades

Anarchists of Jordan

However, only in Israel do we see a truly anarchist current emerge. Anarchists Against the Wall is “a direct action group that was established in 2003 in response to the construction of the wall Israel is building on Palestinian land in the Occupied West Bank” and “works in cooperation with Palestinians in a joint popular struggle against the occupation.” They have gained considerable prominence within Israel, and their stated mission evokes precisely the anarchist spirit needed in the Middle East.

It is the duty of Israeli citizens to resist immoral policies and actions carried out in our name. We believe that it is possible to do more than demonstrate inside Israel or participate in humanitarian relief actions. Israeli apartheid and occupation isn’t going to end by itself – it will end when it becomes ungovernable and unmanageable. It is time to physically oppose the bulldozers, the army and the occupation.

Beyond this one group, however, it truly does appear as if anarchism in the Middle East is a vanishing echo of the past. The people resist oppression and injustice, but they do so not in the name of liberty, equality, community, and solidarity, but for a rival oppressive faction. Reaction, not revolution, dominates the minds of those who rebel.

This can change. In Seeing an Iraqi Resistance, Peter Gelderloos suggests that although “anarchism never spread in any lasting strength to the Middle East,” there is potential to alter that fact;

We can change this by building relationships of solidarity with Middle Eastern immigrant communities in the US, travelling to the Middle East, learning Arabic and translating information about non-anarchist struggles and histories from that part of the world, and translating anarchist literature into Arabic. Anarchists certainly are not immune to the missionary approach of charities or the co-optive approach of socialists, so we need to emphasize building respectful relationships, supporting rebels who do not call themselves anarchists, learning from what they have to teach us, and accepting that if an anarchist movement does arise in the Middle East, it will not look like Western anarchism.Beyond this, what might solidarity with Iraqis in particular look like? The group Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall provide a possible analogy. Israelis are much like Americans — Westerners protected by a formidable wall of extreme violence living on the backs of an indigenous population, migrant workers, and people of color. But Israelis have the opportunity to travel just a few kilometers to join Palestinians in a demonstration. Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall have joined Palestinians at several villages to protest the construction of the Apartheid Wall the Israeli state is building through the West Bank. Starting small and exhibiting a necessary dose of patience, Israeli Anarchists Against the Wall worked with Palestinian activists and residents in Bil’in and a few other small towns to organize weekly demonstrations against the nearby construction of part of Israel’s “security barrier.” After 117 weeks of protesting (as of 4 May 2007), the Israeli anarchists, working with the Palestine Solidarity Project, another non-hierarchical group, have engaged in direct action by physically removing some of the Israeli government roadblocks that help make life for the Palestinians impossible. International solidarity from anarchists makes the Palestinian struggle more effective, discourages nationalism or fundamentalism in the Palestinian resistance by providing examples of Israelis and Westerners who are their allies, and makes anarchism relevant to the Palestinian situation. This is the type of solidarity action that needs to happen more often. However I should add that we must avoid the racist imposition of nonviolence made by at least some members of Israeli Anarchists (including denunciations of Palestinians throwing rocks, in their own villages mind you, to which the anarchists are outsiders).

US citizens going to Iraq face much more danger, some people who go will no doubt end up getting killed, and this is more than most people in our ostensibly revolutionary movement are currently willing to accept. I don’t advocate going into a situation where death is likely just for the sake of facing down danger, but with a little imagination we should be able to think up scenarios where our presence would be helpful, as independent journalists, human shields, even humanitarian volunteers. In a situation as bleak as Iraq’s, providing humanitarian assistance really can count as direct action (by helping people meet immediate needs in spite of all the obstacles and privations created by the occupation). And it’s a good starting point, to take advantage of existing programs or donors willing to sponsor humanitarian volunteers, and to build up the experience and knowledge necessary to take on higher risks and form relationships with Iraqi protest and resistance groups. The presence of helpful Americans in Iraq will undermine the fundamentalism and nationalism that are likely responses to the occupation, and the presence of anarchists acting in solidarity will lend anarchist theory the substance it requires for Iraqis to actually notice it as a possibility, and consider whether it can be adapted to meet their needs.

It is up to the Iraqis to wage their armed struggle, but there are certainly useful roles for people whom the occupation would be more hesitant to kill (e.g. white people and Westerners). And human shields who support the struggle and lack any stupid insistence on nonviolence would certainly be better able to engage in a two-way communication of radical ideas concerning the liberation of Iraqis, and everyone else.

We should also recognize two further things: regardless of their political affiliations the Iraqis do not deserve to live under foreign or military occupation and they are right to fight against it, and even if their victory creates another oppressive system it is better that they make their own mistakes than surrender to outside experts or imported ideologies. Second is the fact that a US defeat in Iraq will weaken the current global empire and make revolution more possible.

In other words, the US government needs to lose in Iraq, and if the Iraqis are to survive this victory, and what is more, make something of it, they will have to become the protagonists of the struggle. If US anarchists are to play any role in this, we will have to become better acquainted with the Iraqi resistance. But if it is true that the resistance is not anarchistic, what exactly is it? Unfortunately the US anarchist movement suffers from an embarrassing lack of information about the specific resistance groups. It’s even more embarrassing that most of the few English-language sources from which we can find this information are pro-occupation imperialist think tanks like GlobalSecurity.org. Even such organizations are clear that the majority of resistance groups in Iraq have spoken out against killing noncombatants, and many of them even oppose killing anyone but foreign occupation troops. The only groups that do not oppose blowing up civilians or worshippers at a mosque are Al Qaida-linked groups whose influence within the resistance is acknowledged to be minimal, and who are also infiltrated and perhaps even run by the Pentagon and CIA.

With a little bit of research, we can also find Iraqi groups that are interesting possibilities for support. One group that has received some attention in Western alternative media for its opposition to the occupation while also maintaining a stand against fundamentalism and sectarianism is the Iraq Freedom Congress (http://www.ifcongress.com/English/index.htm), which was formed by several communist, women’s rights, labor, and unemployed organizations (the main communist group involved, incidentally, has been described as anti-Leninist and even libertarian). A number of communists and socialists in the US have recently set up a US chapter of the Iraq Freedom Congress. I don’t care to speculate whether this is a sincere and productive solidarity effort or another attempt to exploit or control other people’s liberation struggles (some US websites that have mentioned the IFC favorably have taken to calling this group that practices armed self-defense “nonviolent,” no doubt to pander to North American comfort levels rather than challenging the hypocrisy of those comfort levels and learning something from a legitimate armed resistance movement). What is more remarkable to me is that I see no comparable efforts of solidarity by anarchists. There’s a ton of energy put into protests in the US, some great organizing against military recruitment, outreach to military veterans, education targeting the public and challenging some of the lies of the war, and even the occasional act of sabotage, but something is missing from all of this… the Iraqis!

Insufficient recognition has been given to the fact that only the Iraqis can liberate themselves, that they have to be the protagonists of the anti-war movement. In part, this is a success of the Pentagon’s psychological operations; the Iraqi resistance as a whole has fallen under the shadow of its smallest but most publicized elements, the fundamentalist terrorists. Subsequently, the antiwar movement as a whole, including its anarchist underbelly, have not built sympathy and support for armed Iraqis.

If anarchists get over their purism and form relationships of solidarity with Iraqi groups, even those that are not anarchist, they could at the very least win an opportunity to learn a lot and in a small way help the US lose a significant war. More optimistically, such solidarity could noticeably hamper US psyops, increase the militancy of the US anarchist movement, educate us about liberation struggles, and facilitate the spread of anarchist ideas in the Middle East.

Over 650,000 Iraqis have been killed by the occupation. Hundreds of thousands of others are fighting an armed resistance or supporting the fighters, millions are protesting and surviving. Even US troops are getting pissed off, thousands are avoiding or openly refusing deployment, and veterans making counter-recruitment tours have expressed something other antiwar activists have not: admiration for the resistance. Anarchists in the US need to step up the information war and reveal the people of the Iraqi resistance as freedom fighters and not terrorists. We need to continue our counterrecruiting efforts with the added goal of turning the soldiers against the officers, to make it possible to support both the troops and the resistance (e.g. “liberate Iraq, frag your CO!”) We need to lay the sorely needed groundwork for two-way communication between US anarchists and activists, dissidents, humanitarian and resistance groups in Iraq. US anarchists have a lot to gain from an effective domestic antiwar movement. The war, when freed from the government-manufactured illusions, can demonstrate the anarchist contention that capitalism and the state are constant warfare against people and the planet, and must be defeated forcefully. It can also build greater domestic support for militant direct action, given that the majority of Americans agree with the anarchists (“full withdrawal now”) rather than with the government (“blah blah blah”) and continued tolerance of government policy means Americans and their loved ones face injury and death. But the fundamental fact of this war is that only the Iraqis can win it. Anarchists can either remain as irrelevant as the peace protestors, or we can learn how to support the resistance.

Obviously, Gelderloos analysis is one that applies specifically to Iraq, but it is one that I believe can be applied on a broad basis. There are no genuinely anarchist groups in most of the Middle East, but there are socialist and revolutionary communist groups. This fact offers an opportunity.

Most people involved in communist organising at a grassroots level hold to principles of liberty, equality, and workers’ control that are near-indistinguishable from those espoused by anarchists. It is once you enter the hierarchical bureaucracies of these organisations that you encounter Leninists, Trotskyites, and Vanguardists. Such is evident from the presence of such groups in Britain and elsewhere in the west.

What we need to be doing, then, is building upon our own experience as organisers and activists when extending the hand of solidarity to groups in the Middle East. If we can organise Arabs and Muslims against political Islam in Europe, as I have advocated on several occasions, then we can pass on the lessons learnt from our successes and failures to our comrades abroad.

Operating from the principle that those who are oppressed must organise for their own liberation, however, what we must offer is support and solidarity rather than leadership. We want to aid the people of the Middle East in bringing about a radical, non-hierarchical reorganisation of society, not to dominate and override their struggle with our own.

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