The Anti-Imperialism of Fools: Western Leftists Find Themselves in Strange Company When It Comes to the Middle East. Are They Really Happy to Lineup with Neo-Nazis and Islamic Fundamentalists? (Essay)

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Once upon a time, a hundred years or so ago, it was fashionable to attack something called "Jewish capitalism". August Bebel, a German friend of Karl Marx, described this attempt to give anti-Semitism a progressive spin as "the socialism of fools".

Today's fashion for Israel-bashing seems to me to represent a similar foolishness. It is not old-fashioned anti-Semitism. But there is a growing tendency to endorse dubious ideas under the guise of solidarity with the Palestinians. It is the anti-imperialism of fools.

Particularly since 11 September, a strange-looking global alliance has formed against Israel, incorporating Islamic fundamentalists, European neo-Nazis and anti-globalists. Many, in all three groups, had previously shown little interest in the plight of the Palestinians: the Israeli state has become a sort of ersatz America, a symbol of all that they hate about contemporary capitalism.

For Israeli, read western; and for the west, read modernity. What the anti-globalists share above all with their newfound fellow-travellers among the Islamic fundamentalists is a loss of faith in the modern age and in Enlightenment ideas. The spirit of their protests was captured by a banner at a recent rally in Berlin: "Civilisation is genocide".

Yet, despite all the criticisms of America, they end up calling on the Great Satan to solve the problems of the world, and particularly of the Middle East. The demand of the western activists who visit the West Bank is for more international intervention. Back in the west, the Palestinian solidarity campaigns demand sanctions against the Israeli state and a boycott of Israeli goods The opponents of globalisation want to globalise the Middle East conflict; they demand that the US and Europe turn their attention away from disciplining Iraq and towards punishing Israel. In effect, they end up echoing the call of Robert Cooper, Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, for a new kind of imperialism -- the same kind of "humanitarian" arrogance that recently prompted the British government to say it would send troops to India, although the Indian government did not want them.

If ever there were an area that bears the scars of too much foreign interference, it is the Middle East. Conflicts there have been manipulated and perpetuated by imperial powers for two centuries. Yet those who claim to oppose imperialism now propose even more intervention - a "foreign occupation" to stop Israel, in the words of one leading radical Journalist. Perhaps they would be happy if Palestine ended up like Bosnia - a place where ethnic divisions have been set in stone by international intervention, and now to be ruled over by Paddy Ashdown in his new role as UN high representative (that is to say, the colonial governor general).

The politics of anti-imperialism first emerged as a defence of the democratic right to self -determination. It rejected the notion that the solutions to a society's problems were to be found from without. Today's anti-imperialism of fools, by contrast, not only endorses imperialist intervention, it also appears to oppose anything progressive that the west stands for-such as rationalism, universalism, scientific experimentation or economic development. (Its advocates are happy, however, to use the internet to spread the message; theirs is a high-tech primitivism.) The very different tradition of an older anti-imperialism was summed up by C L R James: "I denounce European colonialism. But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of western civiisation." The idea was to free the colonial world so that it might reap the benefits of modernity. Today, as Kenan Malik points out: "James's defence civilisation' would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.

Anti-globalisation protesters now find themselves in the same bed as al-Muhaliroun, "an Islamic movement which exists to Fulfil the commands of the divine text of the Koran". …