Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Many-Headed Hydra of the Middle East

Some years ago, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, longtime historians of popular radicalism and of the oppressed, jointly authored a wonderful book called The Many-Headed Hydra.  The book's thesis was that throughout the early years of mercantilism and proto-capitalism, forged in Europe and the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pockets of resistance, often mobile, globalised long before the term came into use, appeared at various points of the Atlantic littoral.  Over against the emerging trading companies - the British East India Company, the Dutch East Indies Company, the Virginia Company - there rose up a shifting and fluid set of groups of artisans, sailors, farmers, smallholders, 'pirates', runaway slaves, revolutionists all.  Proto-anarchist or socialist ideas were promulgated and disseminated around the fringes of the great ocean, and eventually this 'Atlantic proletariat' contributed to and were to a degree contained by the American Revolution.

This fissile, plastic, amorphous and mobile constellation of ideas and activists was called by its enemies 'the many-headed Hydra'.  The Hydra was a mythical beast, fought by Hercules, which boasted multiple heads - even as the Greek demigod slashed one head off, several more would grow in its place.  Revolutionary activism - nomadic, peripatetic, evanescent and elusive - could be crushed in one place, only to reappear shortly afterwards in another.

This is the condition (though hardly the ideology), in many ways, of the protean forces of Sunni ultra-conservative radicalism in the Middle East, now notably exemplified by 'ISIS' or 'ISIL'.  ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qa'eda in Iraq.  Al Qa'eda was itself in part a product of the 'jihad' organised in the late 1970s by the Carter presidency, the Sadat government in Egypt, and the Zia dictatorship in Pakistan.  As the late John Cooley explained in formidable detail in his book Unholy Wars, a cynical alliance was constructed between American grand strategy, money and equipment, Saudi money and Wahhabi or Salafi ideology, Egyptian personnel, and the Pakistan secret services to channel Sunni activists and militants from all over the Muslim world to fight godless communism in Afghanistan.  America and some of its nastier allies tried to ride the tiger of jihad, and initially attained considerable success: the Soviets found their own 'Vietnam' in the barren deserts and icy ramparts of the Hindu Kush.  But when the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, the result, after years of instability, was the accession of the Taliban to government in the 1990s, and its uneasy relationship with Osama bin Laden and his  vanguard.  Bin Laden had already been expelled from Saudi Arabia, and had also been forced to leave the Sudan.  In the shambolic state of Afghanistan, Al Qa'eda could run its training camps, and offer its expertise in guerilla warfare to conservative Muslim malcontents anywhere.  When the United States plunged into Iraq in 2003, Al Qa'eda appeared there too, initially under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.   In the mid-2000s, the Americans finally pacified the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq - the heartlands in that country of ISIS now - by buying the local leaderships off from their relationship with Al Qa'eda.    Sectarian misgovernment by the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Baghdad eventually alienated the Sunni population once again, and the conservative militants regained their grip in that community, aided further by the brutal war being waged over the western border in Syria, where the 'moderate' opposition to Bashar al-Assad has long disappeared, leaving principally ISIS or its affiliates. 

ISIS is different from Al Qa'eda in that the latter's commitment to re-establishing a 'caliphate' seemed mostly rhetorical - Al Qa'eda never made any effort to hold down a specific territory or to create a defined polity, and never of itself had the manpower to do so.  ISIS, however, does, and this makes it in some ways a more powerful enemy than its predecessor.  It has territory, very large amounts of money - some of it stolen from an arm of the Iraqi central bank in Mosul, some of it donated by conservatives from the Gulf kingdoms - and a large amount of weaponry.  It appears to have control of some oilfields.  Its supporters in the Gulf - private benefactors from the Saudi Kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain - both wish to see it destabilize Shia power in Iraq and Bathi Arab nationalism in Syria, and are terrified of the Frankenstein monster they have created, lest it turn its ruthless and austere focus back on their corrupt petty-feudal kleptocracies.  'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', Goya told us, and each new 'monster' that Sunni conservatism produces is more alarming than the last.

This is the point of comparison with the mobile, shape-shifting radicals of the revolutionary Atlantic in the eighteenth century - each movement, no matter how many times it is broken in open battle, reinvents itself, reappears in new guise, somewhere else, to continue the struggle.  The Obama Administration's campaign of airstrikes seems unlikely to be very effective against such an enemy, and has every possibility of terrorising the populations of Sunni Iraq and Syria into deeper support for that enemy. Here is Patrick Cockburn, who is shortly to publish a new book on the 'return of the Jihadis', in conversation with Tariq Ali -

The Rise of ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War

Another metaphor or historical framework through which to think of ISIS (and Al Qa'eda before it) is that of the Spanish Civil War.  That is, young restless men, on both the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, were pushed by an anomie-ridden existence in their home countries at the latter end of the Great Depression to rally to what felt like the defining political dispute of the day in Spain.  Something analogous is happening with the young men that migrate to join the ranks of ISIS - an Islamist/Arab movement that appears to have the purity, direction and coherence that the old dictatorial, Arab-nationalist, or monarchical-feudal Arab polities lack.  The mainstream media tells us endlessly that ISIS's levies are 'radicalised', but this foolish term is just plainly ideological - young men joining ISIS may not be any more 'radicalised' than other idealistic young people who flock to causes of all kinds.

Here's a London Review of Books blogpiece that uses the Spanish analogy:

The New International Brigades



No comments:

Post a Comment