Sadness. More sadness than anger is what overcame me when I read the latest Nation magazine column by Naomi Klein. I’ll grant it has a catchy title: “From Najaf to New York.” But this column by Klein, who has earned the admiration of a new generation of dissidents with a notable intellectual keen-ness, unwittingly reveals the moral confusion that clouds the vision, even the rationality, of much of the anti-war movement.
Make sure you click the link above to read her entire piece and to make sure I do it justice in this critique. (Please also read Norman Geras’ take on this column as well). I had several friends call me in disbelief when they read Klein's manifesto. I read it three times to make sure I got it right.
And, alas, I can only conclude that the column is a forthright apology for the religio-fascist militias of Muqtada Al Sadr. Indeed, it’s damn near a call for the peace movement to join in solidarity with his Mahdi Army.
Klein begins her argument by understandably recoiling at the thought of an all-out U.S. Army assault on Najaf and its holy shrines:
It's not just that sacred burial sites are being desecrated with fresh blood; it's that Americans appear unaware of the depths of this offense, and the repercussions it will have for decades to come. The Imam Ali Shrine is not a run-of-the-mill holy site; it's the Shiite equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
True enough. But it’s Al Sadr’s forces, not U.S. troops, that have occupied the shrine for weeks, using it as a base and effectively holding it hostage. This is a mere quibble, however, compared to Klein’s central point:
And Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers are not just another group of generic terrorists out to kill Americans; their opposition to the occupation represents the overwhelmingly mainstream sentiment in Iraq. Yes, if elected Sadr would try to turn Iraq into a theocracy like Iran, but for now his demands are for direct elections and an end to foreign occupation.
I find these assertions, simply, astounding. Al Sadr’s group are, indeed, terrorists. Maybe not “generic” ones,. But certainly ultra-fundamentalist gangs. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that they represent the “mainstream sentiment” in Iraq. If so, then why has none other than Ayatollah Sistani (who now outflanks Naomi Klein on the left!) negotiated their disarmament? Most disturbing is the last line of this graph. Al Sadr’s ultimate goal, Klein concedes, is a “theocracy” but “for now” his demands are democratic because he’s for elections and he’s against the U.S. occupation. These twin assertions are so blatantly self-contradictory that it would be overkill to say anything more about them.
Klein should know better. All enemies of the U.S. occupation she opposes are not her friends. Or ours. Or those of the Iraqi people. I don’t think that Mullah Al Sadr, in any case, is much desirous of support issuing from secular Jewish feminist-socialists. And no one can provide any credible evidence that the Iraqis wish to trade the dictatorship of Saddam or the uncertainty of American Occupation for a religious dictatorship run by a black-shirt militia which has so far distinguished itself only for unbridled violence and its absolute contempt for civil society.
Klein, nevertheless, winds up demanding that the coming week’s peace marches bring “Najaf to New York.” What the hell does that mean? That peace marchers identify themselves as a domestic Mahdi Army resisting the forces of the American Empire? Should they also endorse Sharia – Islamic Law—while they’re at it?
When the Bolsheviks, if you should pardon the reference, took power in Russia in 1917, you will remember, they did so on a platform of peace. Though they had just overthrown the ancien regime which was at war with the Kaiser’s Germany, they did not, however, rush to embrace the Germans as Lenin settled into the Winter Palace. “Neither nor war—nor peace” was the watchword under which the Bolshies entered into truce talks with the Germans i.e. we oppose this war, but we'll be damned if we are going to go supine before our old enemy's enemy, the Kaiser. (Realpolitik soon intervened, of course, and a humiliating peace was signed with the Germans but the original formulation was wonderful).
Truly distressing is that there is at least an embryonic secular Left in Iraq but it continues to be ignored by Klein and just about the entirety of the Western peace movement, for that matter. Iraqi democrats and socialists make no illusions about the character of American occupation, but they have even less truck with Al Sadr’s death squads.
Take a look, for example. at this posting from a represenative of the Iraqi Workers Communist Party (a major force in the new trade union movement) who, during Al Sadr’s April “uprising” against U.S. troops, forthrightly describes his Mahdi Army as a “criminal gang” made up, in part, of former Baathists who think nothing of using human shields.
Free of Klein’s naivete, this Iraqi leftist correspondent correctly identifies the politics of Al Sadr for what they are. Not crude, desperate nationalists fighting the Yankee oppressor… but rather a cat’s paw for the neighboring Iranian Mullahs:
The hallmark of this battle was recklessness toward human lives by both sides; the primary victims of this battle were women and children…On the one hand, we see the Mahdi Army and the militiamen of other Islamic groups seizing residential areas as trenches for their “holy” fight. They turn women and children into human shelters. On the other hand, we see the US troops using Apache helicopters, F16 and F18, tanks, and other highly sophisticated weaponry to attack these residential areas….
.. A significant portion of Muqtada al-Sadr’s group was formed from remnants of the Baath party, Saddam’s Fedayeen, as well as other Baathist oppressive apparatus. By joining the al-Sadr’s group, these criminals take shelter from the revenge of the people. Many criminals released by the Baath regime just before the war have also joined this militia….
…The vast majority of the remaining portion is comprised of poor, deprived, desperate, and unemployed youth from the poorest slums of Baghdad and other central and southern cities. They have joined to secure a livelihood, since Islamists are masters at exploiting destitution and pay generously for the loyalty of desperate youth. These Islamists also exploit the superstition and reactionary thoughts that have been reinforced in society during last decade…
...The vast majority has good military training, either during Saddam’s regime or recently through training by Iranian intelligence in camps close to the border. Iran strongly supports this group as part of its conflict with the US. Iran’s main objective is to destabilize Iraq and to create enough problems in Iraq to keep the US busy there….
Despite the vociferous claims of this group, it does not have significant support among the people of Iraq. Furthermore, it is generally resented by the population - not only because it deliberately transferred its terrorist war with the US to residential areas, and thus embroiled innocent people in this fight, but also due to the deeds it committed during the last year. The vast majority of people see this group as a criminal gang rather than a political group.
In another posting from this same Iraqi leftist group, our correspondent explains why foreign leftist support for the “armed resistance” is so terribly misplaced and misguided:
There are other arguments for ignoring the reactionary nature of the "armed resistance" and consequently neglecting to provide real solidarity to the Iraqi workers' movement. The main argument is that the USA is so much greater an evil that all mobilisation must be directed against the USA and its allies.
The USA may be a greater evil in the sense that it has such vast military power and potential to intervene almost anywhere on the planet, supporting any kind of hideous dictators that will accommodate their interests. But the Islamists are a greater evil in a different sense.
For workers, socialists and any oppositionists, every moment of public life is potentially dangerous if they do not submit. For women every moment of public and private life is potentially dangerous with the added power of men in the family backed by Sharia law.
It is not only pointless, it is not moral to rate the evil that we will choose as greater or lesser amongst these two. To choose the "armed resistance" as the lesser evil, is to say that if the people of Iraq must suffer the risk of Islamist rule, then that is the price they pay for thwarting US imperialism in Iraq to the benefit of anyone else threatened by the USA.
Another argument is that to condemn the Islamists is to logically have to support the occupation. This is again the logic of "lesser evilism" and "two camps". If we recognise that the Iraqi working class and other secular forces are struggling to assert themselves in Iraq, then there is a third way, that is neither the "armed resistance" nor the US occupation.
Well, I couldn’t have said it better, though I could have said it with a bit less cant. But the main point bears repeating: Nothing – not even the U.S. Army—more threatens the future of a democratic, pluralistic and (dare we wish, secular) Iraq than the political ascendancy of Islamic fascists like Al Sadr.
Naomi Klein knows better than to pander to these sorts. “Bringing Najaf to New York” is not only a non-sensical equation, it’s a morally offensive one. If the people of Najaf and Iraq could aspire sometime in the near future to an enth of the personal and political and religious and sexual and workplace freedoms enjoyed by New Yorkers how terribly much better they would be.
Better to bring New York to Najaf.
That is not a clouded reference, by the way, to bringing democracy on the point of an American bayonet. I have opposed this war from the beginning. It’s rather a desire that Iraqis, beyond the likes of Bush and Al Sadr, find a humane future.
And none of the above critique impugns any of the affection or admiration that I retain for Naomi. She is a fine person with a fine mind. She's just dead wrong on this one.