I am a leftist and I do not look back on George W. Bush with much fondness. The attacks on civil liberties, the torture, and all the other abuses sanctioned by the War on Terror are despicable. There is much to be said for opposing military action against terrorists on the grounds that it leads to more chaos and thus more terrorism. And the term War on Terror is just plain silly: it might be more appropriately referred to as a “global struggle against violent extremism,” though even that is a nebulous description, too. There are numerous other valid criticisms of the West’s part in this conflict. But, for all that, as a leftist and a liberal, it is still my view that in many ways the War of Terror has been and is a good war.
I have no doubt that such a stance will cause some to flinch. Some may even accuse me of being a Zionist or a stooge for American imperialism. My case, however, is as follows.
The War on Terror has roots going back decades, but its real beginning was September 11, 2001. The attacks by al-Qaeda on the American mainland led to the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a host of other campaigns around the world, from the Middle East to the Philippines, primarily aimed at the extirpation of Islamist militants.
This is one of the oft-forgotten facts about the War on Terror: it was not really begun by George W. Bush. Osama bin Laden and his Islamist allies declared war on secular democracy first. Those liberals and leftists who sought out a root cause of Islamist violence came up with nothing. It is no use blaming everything on the West or Israel when Bin Laden himself, and the Islamic State after him, have explicitly stated that their primary motivation is a hatred of democracy, secularism, women’s rights and liberalism, a hatred based on their Islamic theology. In short, the Islamists primarily hate the good things about the West, not its failures and abuses of power.
That is another fact too often overlooked. In their squeamish cultural relativism and fear of giving offence, a large part of the western liberal left seem to think that, despite the protestations of the suicide bombers, Islamist violence has nothing to do with Islam. This is an untenable argument. To deny the role of religion and theology in the motivations of Islamists is as absurd as denying the role of fundamentalist Christianity in the views of creationists. There is good reason to believe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed Caliph and leader of the Islamic State, holds a PhD in Islamic studies—he is not ignorant of his faith. Take what the Islamists say seriously: do not excuse them, as some on the left do, as anti-globalisation protestors who got a bit carried away. They are not revolutionary resisters of oppression; they are reactionary revolutionaries who wish to impose a fascistic theocracy on everyone they can.
Now, this is not to say that all or most Muslims are in favour of such an ideology. This is clearly untrue. But there is a religious motivation, unexplainable by appeals to western foreign policy, at the heart of the jihadist forces and to deny and excuse this is to be blind to fascism. My allegiances are with liberalism, secularism, (social) democracy, and human rights and as such I oppose the evils of fascism and bigotry—whether they come from the immigrant-bashing European far right or the theocratic Islamists.
It is even worse when the left actively supports reactionary forces, as some, like George Galloway, did after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead of criticising Bush and Blair’s militarism and the subsequent failures and abuses of the western occupation and then going on to express solidarity with the socialists and trade unionists of Iraq in their efforts to build a free society, Galloway supported the murderous Baathist and al-Qaeda forces as resistance fighters against American hegemony (the former MP had also cosied up to Saddam Hussein the previous decade, after the dictator’s very worst genocidal excesses, not the least of which was the attempted extermination of the Kurdish people and culture).
The likes of brave Hadi Saleh, a trade unionist opposed to the war but dedicated to building a better Iraq in the wake of it, were leftists who deserved the support of their western comrades but received, with some noble exceptions such as the trade unionists in the British Labour Party who kept Tony Blair in power, mostly silence and, in some cases, outright betrayal. Saleh met a bloody end: for his support of democracy and liberty he was murdered by the fanatics Galloway romanticised.
That the Baathist insurgents were genocidal murderous thugs whose main targets were fellow Muslims did not seem to worry Galloway, whose support for other dictators and fascists, from Castro to Assad, is a symptom of a morbid disease, which has infected some of the left. The reason for this malaise is, primarily, as Nick Cohen argues, the failure of the socialist project in the twentieth century, which has left much of the western liberal left with little to offer but hatred of their own bourgeois capitalist societies, a fuzzy postmodernist cultural relativism and a doctrine of upside-down anti-imperialism—which has left them with a blind spot to real fascism, which, when offered by Islamists, is seen as good just because it is anti-western. Whether it takes the form of far leftists like Galloway supporting avowed fascists or squeamishness among some liberals about criticising Islamic theocracy, this malaise is saddening to behold in a movement that once valued internationalism and solidarity.
The people most affected by Islamist violence are Muslims. Muslims under the Islamic State were forced at gunpoint to accept the strictures of that group; gay Muslim men have been hanged in Iran, which also jails women for protesting enforced hijab; Sunni and Shia death squads have murdered each other’s co-religionists in Iraq and elsewhere. To oppose Islamism is not to be anti-Muslim. If anything, it is the only option available for those who support universal human rights, especially those of Muslims who suffer under Islamism.
Why support the War on Terror? Because, however flawed the West is and however necessary it is to be critical of it, it is also necessary to oppose something far worse: Islamic theocratic fascism. There can be no peace talks with religious fanatics, no peaceful solution with religious imperialists desirous of a caliphate. The only way to defeat them is to defeat them militarily, however long and hard that path may be, and to help build freer societies when Islamist forces have been ousted. That means supporting the Kurds, the leftists, the liberals, the moderates, and all the other opposition forces who have shed their blood for decades to bring freedom to their homelands. It means being an internationalist and standing in solidarity with the oppressed. It means opposing western (particularly American) failures and abuses while supporting both domestic and foreign secular forces, whether they are military or not, fighting theocratic fascist tyranny.
Even if one is opposed to the War on Terror (on legitimate grounds such as fear of the effects of unilateralism on international institutions and the loss of life it necessitates) one ought to appreciate that the opportunities for secular democracy brought by western (particularly American) power should be taken and those who fight for them, whether Iraqi socialists or women in Iran, ought to be given wholehearted support.
We should revive Thomas Paine’s philosophy. Paine viewed the American Revolution and its ideals as universalist, a blueprint for remaking the world. The War on Terror has some odd priorities. We are not at war with Iran, although that clerical regime funds terrorists and is a prime example of the depravity of theocracy. The fanatical Saudi regime is our ally. This inconsistency is one of the worst pieces of western hypocrisy. Perhaps it is time to widen the net and make the revolution a touch more permanent.
It is not a futile struggle. Long, yes. Difficult, yes. But there have been solid achievements. For all the horrors which came after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is now a democracy. Flawed, but freer and with a future, which it did not have under Saddam. The euphemistic term insurgents, used to describe the forces which rose up in the aftermath of the war conceals the fact that they were fascists intent on reinstalling Baathism or installing a new tyranny over the Iraqi people. Afghanistan, too, is free of the Taliban for the most part (though the peace talks between the Taliban and the US are futile—the only peace to be gained by negotiating with fascists is one based on appeasement). The Islamic State has been almost completely defeated (at least territorially). Baghdadi, like Bin Laden before him, is reduced to broadcasting threats while in ignominious hiding, his imperialist vision in tatters.
That these forces and others are still active does not negate the achievements won in the war against them; it simply shows that the war must go on until they are totally defeated.
These are real achievements, if not perfect ones. And to denigrate them by arguing that attacking fascists will only cause more terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere is to ignore the fact that whether the West assaults Islamists militarily or not, their proclaimed hatred of all that is good about the West means that the suicide bombers and their cohorts will always be lurking in the background, waiting to be given the chance to kill unbelievers and go to Paradise.
A war against fascists is good, even if it is conducted largely by the flawed and often reactionary USA. As the leftist historian and philosopher Jonathan Rée put it when discussing the curious fact that the anti-fascist war in Iraq was being conducted by a simple-minded American conservative, this is “a paradox, to say the least … what leftists used to call dialectics, though fluke might be a better word.”
But it is not enough simply to destroy the forces of jihad militarily, however long that may take—it is also necessary for the theology that animates them to be rigorously critiqued and defeated. Reformist and ex-Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Maryam Namazie and many others must not be censored and maligned as native informants but seen for what they are: liberals and secularists advocating the overthrow of a viciously conservative theology, which oppresses women, gays, atheists and many others. The fight is on two fronts, then: Islamists are not going to disappear and therefore must be fought with force; and their horrific theology must be countered by appeals to progressivism, liberalism, democracy and secularism in the global Muslim community.
I am not ignorant of the failures of the War on Terror. There are many, such as Namazie, who oppose such military action while agreeing that jihadism and Islamism are forces of religiously inspired fascism and that reform in Islam is needed, not just to combat the extremists but also to challenge the deeply conservative strains of the religion, which do not sit easily with liberal norms.
For all that, I maintain that fighting Islamic fascism is a legitimate military goal and that the best hope for the future lies in the hands of the armed forces of liberty and the arguments offered for secularism and freedom by the best of the left and the reformers within and critics of Islam. What is being fought is widespread, powerful, dangerous and vile.
Disagree with me if you wish, but do not pretend that fascism is easily defeated and that the jihadists would not kill you on the spot if they could. Do not vacillate and excuse Islamists. Do not be an absurd relativist and argue that western democracies are as bad as the forces of religious totalitarianism. Offer real alternatives and show us your anti-fascist credentials. The old leftist slogan is especially appropriate here: Death to fascism, freedom to the people!