Right on time for the wave of protests over the anti-Islam film, Gregory Harms has written a book called It’s Not About Religion that argues that the Islamicization of the Middle East is a result of imperialist western interference. The Military Industrial Complex is alive and well and exploiting the Middle East for oil and arms sales. It seeks neither war nor peace but managed instability. The US has two goals: maintaining access to oil and “maintaining a kind of order in the region, one that is basically stable but features low-level tension… enough to conduce to US interests but tense enough to account for its involvement and intervention.”
Harms doesn’t seek to deny “the increase in religious and social conservatism” in Muslim societies. But this is “a phenomenon that has more to do with nonreligious factors including the economy, sustained Western and US intervention, and interstate rivalries…Largely external factors have elicited [the religious] response.
And it’s not as if religion isn’t important for people. For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, religion is “a way of maintaining order, identity and dignity.”
“As the failures of secularism worsened and other Western cultural influences continued to encroach and remind Arabs of those failures, being Muslim—socially, culturally—offered a sense of security and a peace of mind. It helped order a disordered life.”
Having spent some time in Palestine, I agree; the conflict has driven people toward traditional beliefs. The problem with the book is that while it recognizes and even honors that religious impulse in Muslims, it is incurious about a similar impulse among Jews. Jewish nationalism is absent here, except for the idea that Zionism is a servant of empire and an echo of US exceptionalism, and Israel is a colonial client state, from Cold War to the war on terror.
What about the Jewish political soul? Jewish oppression in Europe is mentioned once. The Israel lobby is never mentioned; nor are neoconservatives, the ultraZionists who came chiefly from the Jewish community.
Myself I think that Zionism plays a part in the Islamicization of the Middle East; and that religious yearnings in human beings can be as important as the desire for material resources. There actually is a clash of religious cultures; and the role of enlightened moderns is to help people emerge from these traditional understandings.
Herewith, a counter theory about Islamicization, from my Zio-centric standpoint.
Harms is critical of those who speak for the American interest, but it must be pointed out that these types have long opposed the relationship with Israel as counter productive. In 1948 the American interest types in the State Department sought to prevent the establishment and recognition of Israel because it would cause unending conflict in the region and alienate the oil producers; and Secretary of State George Marshall famously said he would not vote for Harry Truman in ‘48 if he recognized Israel. In 1991 American interest types like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker pushed the Gulf War for the principle that Harms identifies—stability, and American access to oil. But this group was against the 2003 war on Iraq; it would gain us nothing in terms of oil or strategic advantage. And they were plainly right; it was hugely costly to the U.S. in ways I don’t need to enumerate. Today Russia and China have oil concessions in Iraq, and Iraq is working against the U.S. on Iran. Harms cites four people who support the special relationship with Israel: Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Bernard Lewis and Michael Oren. Is religion really irrelevant to these men’s affinities? No; three are Jewish and Zionist to a greater or lesser degree. Friedman was doing chalk talks about Israel’s victory in ’67 back in high school. Ardent Zionists fought for Truman to recognize Israel in 1948. Neoconservative Zionists pushed for the Iraq war because in the words of Bill Kristol, Israel’s war against terror is our war. American interest types have fought this identification, seeking to separate US and Israeli interests. The 911 Commission said that the special relationship with Israel figured prominently in Khalid Sheikh Muhammed’s thinking. And in recent years, Mike Mullen, Pat Lang, David Petraeus, Anne Marie Slaughter, George Mitchell, Steve Walt, Leon Panetta, and even Joe Biden have said that the occupation doesn’t serve America’s interest. Both George H.W. Bush and Obama called for an end to settlements, and both failed; there’s still an occupation.
As Harms himself observes, Palestine is exceptional: Palestinians are alone in not having a state among the prospective Arab states that were drawn up by France and England in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. The English empire found the losses outweighed the gains in Palestine; and the American empire has fared no better. But why is Palestine so special? Because of religion. Because of the fervent desire of Jews to return to their “homeland” and create a national home that will be a secure state for Jews.
“The young in Israel, whether Marxist, democrat or chauvinist, are spiritually nourished from the same source of faith… and speak in a stronger voice than materialist dialectics,” Zionist Arthur Koestler explained the impulse in 1949.
Today the “faith” in Israel is stronger than ever, and there are more chauvinists than ever. Jewish chauvinism seems to be the most active component of the Netanyahu coalition, which contains many religious zealots.
Now it may well be that if Harms reduces history to materialist causes, I reduce it to religious ones, but let me offer more of that “faith”-based reading of history. England needed Jewish support in World War I and issued the Balfour Declaration, granting Jews “a national home” in Palestine, because as Koestler and Jonathan Schneer both state, England wanted world Jewry on its side in World War I. “In this critical situation it was believed that Jewish sympathy or the reverse [Jewish sympathy to Germany] would make a substantial difference one way or the other to the Allied Cause,” former prime minister Lloyd George testified. “In particular Jewish sympathy would confirm the support of the American Jewry, and would make it more difficult for Germany to reduce her military commitments and improve her economic position on the Eastern front.” Truman also needed Jewish sympathy in the 1948 campaign, which was one reason that he recognized Israel; just as Obama needs Jewish sympathy today and in that belief has reversed himself on settlements and leaped into platform discussions, embarrassingly, on Jerusalem. While Obama has defied Israel on an Iran war, the effort has required a huge expenditure of time and capital.
Why does a client state have such pull? Because American Jews feel a deep affinity with Israel. Zionism is not a materialist attachment. It was an ardent, self-interested, idealistic ideology, of saving the Jews. That it has worked out to be a racist, confiscatory ideology is not the point; the people who believed it did so out of some deep faith in a theory of social progress that involved segregating Jews in their own land and giving them sovereignty. And the cry Never again, was not cynical; it was a vehement response to one of the greatest atrocities of human history. These are all human passions that have nothing to do with greed.
And what has been the result of this passionate ideology? The unrest the American nationalists said Zionism would produce. The Arab riots, the very first intifadah, in 1936-1939. Zionism played a role in the rise of Arab nationalism and the transformation of Lebanon into a weak and fragmented state, and Jordan into an authoritarian state. Zionism helped preserve the dictatorship in Egypt for 35 years of U.S. subsidy, and the Israel interest still seems to outweigh any other American considerations of Egypt’s leadership, for instance, whether it represents its people. Harms’s response is that the military industrial complex has no interest in self determination, but self determination has benefited capitalism in Vietnam and South America and Central America, former scenes of Cold War interference; and neoliberalism has had no quarrel with democratic forces in South Africa and Kosovo and Egypt and Libya. Why not Palestine? Because of religion.
Of course capitalism is a global force, and Zionism is local, but Zionism has had global consequences, for instance encouraging the war on terror, as Netanyahu did on Meet the Press today. They hate you because of what you stand for, he lectured the U.S., and “we are you… and you are us.” I see an agenda here. After the Cold War, Zionism’s adherents could no longer argue that Israel served the US as a client state or aircraft carrier in the Middle East; indeed, the one condition of Arab support for the US Gulf War in 1991 was that Israel would take no part in the coalition. Then the war on terror gave Israel a crucial spot. As Trita Parsi writes in his book, Treacherous Alliance:
“There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance,” Efraim Inbar [of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told Parsi]. “and the new glue… was radical Islam. And Iran was radical Islam.”
Ten years later Osama bin Laden attacked the US– in part because of Palestine- and the neocons declared that Israel’s war was our war.
Undoing this belief, that we are joined at the hip in a war on terror, is one of the most important jobs this website is involved in. And tackling that job means taking on religious belief, beliefs that gives a lot of people meaning, a sense of civilizational values and core ideas. Islamophobia is part of it, Christianism is part of it. But Zionism is inherent in the conflict too, and it has a religious root. Just look at Americans for Peace Now, the most leftwing organization in the official Jewish community, made up of “secular” Jews who favor two states– and they are talking about God giving the land to the Jews. Could there be a clearer example of religion invading foreign policy?
As Harms knows, religion is one of the great organizing principles of human society. It causes millions of Muslims to forswear liquor, it causes millions of Catholics to oppose abortion. Were individuals free to make up their own minds, there would surely be fewer Catholics and Muslims who subscribe to these beliefs. Just as absent religious pressure, far fewer Jews would believe that it was worth anyone’s life to preserve a Jewish state in Palestine.
I know that I diminish material impulses in life because I’m not much of a materialist myself (I believe in Maslow’s hierarchy; once I have food and shelter, I hanker for meaning). Undoubtedly many members of the Israel lobby have profited hugely from their work. AIPAC supports a lot of people. But the people who go to AIPAC do so out of deep concern for people they don’t know, people of their own tribe, and thereby honor a religious affiliation. Muslims are capable of the same identification. The great challenge of this era is to show that the human family transcends particular traditional religious identifications, and that we are too crowded together, sharing too many of the same resources, and information sources, to allow such identifications to govern our conduct.