Islamism has in many respects replaced Soviet Communism as the evil Other that the United States defines itself against. The US’s ‘Free World’ mission was always defined in relation to the USSR’s ‘Proletarian Internationalism’- Microwaves and televisions not 5 year plans and planned economies! Yet both sides of the Cold War relied on each other to supply the dimensions of their social existence that could not be realised through their own inherent logic- and it is this very mutual dialectical reliance that we see today in the struggle between US hegemony and Islamism. This all changed after 9/11- the US had its new enemy, albeit, debatably, an invisible one, but this was enough for the US to define its necessary role as the imperial power in the world- defending “Western” freedoms against encroaching Islamist fundamentalism.
This is not to imply that Islamism is a new phenomenon- since the death of Mohammed and the flocking of Islamic armies to North Africa, Islam has taken on a distinct political role in the world. The score of Capitalist-fatalism we saw in the post-Cold War era (Huntingdon, Fukuyama)spouted much rhetoric about the importance of Western values- liberty, equality, freedom of trade, rule of law etc, but these have long been central tenets of Islam. In fact the first appearance of the word ‘jihad’ comes from a book called Gift of the Jihad Warriors in Matters Regarding the Portuguese in 1574, written by an Arab jurist who justified war against the Portuguese as it was they who destroyed the pluralistic society of the Muslim trading communities of the Indian Ocean. These values that Huntingdon outlines, are by no means the sole property of one cultural or moral tradition- i.e. the Western tradition. Moreover as David Graeber notes, Islam in the Middle Ages, in fact resembled what is called the Western tradition today- the fusing of Judeo-Christian thought with Greek philosophy, expansionist mercantilist capitalism and scientific rationalism. We can easily thus see that Islamicisation has in many ways been integral to the theory of Westernisation- and both are seemingly two sides of the same coin. This has manifested itself in the interesting dialectical situation we are in today, in the struggle between US dominancy and Islamic Fundamentalism.
160 million of the estimated 2.2 billion Muslims in the world now live in Africa, and had lived so in relative peace so it could be said that the rise of Islamism in the region is not an invention of new religious sentiments but instead a rediscovery of the past. . However the aborted Algerian elections in 1992 marked the first interference of the US in African-Islamic issues. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 48% of the seats in the 1992 election, meaning that an FIS government seemed inevitable, but the Western-aligned army cancelled the elections before a FIS victory could be consolidated. The US conveniently chose on this occasion to forget its support for despotic regimes across the world because of the threat of “one man, one vote, one time” (it is this scaremongering that the US used against Communism and now is using against Islamism, i.e. they are inherently anti-democratic systems that are against democratic Western values) that an FIS government potentially brought.
The 2007 elections in Nigeria were widely regarded as “the worst they (European electoral experts) had ever seen anywhere in the world“, with “rampant vote rigging, violence, theft of ballot boxes and intimidation.” The Bush administration’s response to the 2007 elections was remarkably quiet. The election was marred in rumours of corruption and outbursts of violence, yet the US had little to say on the matter. Obasanjo’s macroeconomic reforms, Nigeria’s vast reserves of Petroleum and Nigeria’s position in the continent in relation to counter-terrorism, all provided a convenient gag in the mouth for the Bush administration. The Nigerian Peoples Democratic Party, who has enjoyed office in Nigeria since the first free elections in 1999, had toed the free-market reform line. Whilst the party finds most of its support in the Christian South it has not repealed the controversial Islamic law passed in the North (which enforced Sharia as the main body of civil and criminal law in nine Muslim-majority states).
The presence of Sharia law would be expected to strike fear into the hearts of god-fearing Americans, yet Nigeria is significant to US interests due to its location in the oil-rich, “terrorist” hotspot Niger Delta. There has been a much less pragmatic US response to Islamism on the other side of the continent. Somalia – located in a much more crucial geopolitical area of the world for the US, sitting close to the wider Arab world, represents an important outpost to the Middle East in Africa. The US involvement in Somalia has often been described as a “miserable failure”, and the UN-US coalition’s attempts to keep Islamist group al-Shabab from power has resulted in creating greater chaos and uncertainty.
At the start of 2010 Al-Shabab was credited with allowing Somali grain production to flourish, with Al Jazeera reporting that over 500,000 Somalis who had once been on UN food handouts now had enough food to support themselves. Al-Shabab’s policy was to reduce oversized cheap food imports so as to shift income from the urban areas to rural areas, which was initially very successful until drought stunted production and led to the famine conditions we saw this year (see my previous article on the famine in Ethiopia). Al-Shabab had banned the implementation of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other Western agencies in 2009, meaning that famine-hit areas were left secluded. The banning of Western agencies was part of the Al-Shabab teleology of keeping Western imperialism at bay. It’s here that we see how the dialectical tug-of-war of the two poles impedes on the needs of humanity. A tragic self-fulfilling prophecy- Al-Shabab banned Western aid agencies and the US was unwilling to negotiate with much more explicit Somali Islamic Fundamentalists than the Islamists in Nigeria.
The vulnerable position of the US as the global superpower is intrinsically dependent on the construction of an enemy and its conquest of the world would not be possible without this construction. It justifies its conquests across the world in the name of its moralistic ‘Western’ values, which we have seen are in fact not Western at all. On the other side of the ideological barricade is Al-Qaeda led Islamic Fundamentalism, which claims to be the rediscovery of the ancient Islamic order, shaking off the imposition of decadent Western influences. The cases of Nigeria and Somalia show how geopolitical considerations are more important to the US than actual ideological or moral notions, and yet both require each other for the definition of their own existence.
It is interesting as Capital supremacy shifts to the Communist Party of China and the US loses its grip on the world, and the Islamic Fundamentalist movement stalls in its quest to win over the hearts and souls of the global Muslim population; we see the emergence of a bona fide ‘species-being’ movement across the world. The Occupy movement has emerged from the dialectical nightmare we seemed to be stuck in only a few years ago with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and represents the crosscutting necessity of a movement based on collectivity and not division. It can never be a choice between US supremacy and Islamic Fundamentalism as they are two sides of the same coin and we must instead look to movements based on universality for the route out of the blood-stained twentieth century.