Pluto Press, London, 2000. pp. 177 ISBN 0 745-31? 138 (pbk) L10.99 ISBN 0 745-31712-X (hbk) L35.00
Reviewed by John Newsinger
Eqbal Ahmad died in May 1999 of heart failure, following surgery for cancer of the colon that had only been diagnosed the week before. His sudden death was a shock to friends and comrades throughout the world. This volume of edited discussions with David Barsamian appropriately titled Confronting Empire, is a fitting commemoration. It shows him at his best: an intelligent, committed, sometimes provocative, thinker, a Socialist and a democrat, a determined opponent of Imperialism and supporter of the struggles of `the Wretched of the Earth'. There is only space here to discuss three of the areas covered in the discussions: the demonisation of Islam, Pakistan and the Palestinian struggle.
The demonisation of Islam by the United States, its identification as an enemy capable of replacing the Soviet Union, is, as Ahmad shows, just so much hypocrisy:
`The us concern is not who is fundamentalist and who is progressive, who treats women nicely and who treats them badly. That's not the issue. The issue is who is more likely to ensure the safety of the oil resources that the United States or its corporations could control?' (p. 50)
He goes on to develop this argument. First, during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the perceived threat, the United States actively allied itself with, encouraged and supported militant Islam. The fundamentalists were seen as a useful antidote to the influence of the left throughout the Muslim world and later as an armed resistance to the Russians in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, as he points out, `Islamic fundamentalists of a really hardcore variety, the mujihideen', received billions of dollars worth of military assistance. The ciA encouraged the recruitment of an Islamic International Brigade to fight the Russians:
'I have seen planeloads of them arriving from Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, even from Palestine where at that time Israel was supporting Hamas against Al Fatah... These people were brought in, given an ideology, and told that armed struggle is virtuous-and the whole notion of jihad as an international, pan-Islamic terrorist movement was born. The us has spent billions in producing the bin Ladens of our time' (p.91).
He goes so far as to argue that the very notion of the jihad as a just struggle, in abeyance in the Muslim world since the tenth century, was actually revived by the United States for the struggle against atheistic Communism.
Moreover, since the Russian defeat, the United States has done its best to remain on good terms with the Taliban, `the most murderous, by far the most crazy of Islamic fundamentalist groups' (P.49). They regard them as a strategic asset, as a valuable piece in the effort to secure control of Central Asian oil. Clinton, Ahmad reminds us, made personal telephone calls to the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, urging them to sign up with USA oil companies. There are two possible ways to get the oil out, avoiding Russia: through Iran or through Afghanistan. As far as the United States is concerned Afghanistan is likely to be the more reliable client. Oil overrides all other concerns. Far from human rights being lower down the agenda, it is not even on the agenda, but rather serves as merely the latest way of disguising the agenda.
This cynicism does not just apply to Afghanistan, of course. The United States' number one client in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, whose corrupt and brutal regime, `has been by far the most fundamentalist in the history of Islam. …