The article below was written in 2001 and first appeared in issue # 1 (Spring 2001) of MidEast Solidarity, the Middle East bulletin of the revolution magazine group, one of the precursors of this blog. Although 13 years old, it remains highly relevant, largely because the Western powers are engaged in an ever-expanding and seemingly never-ending war in the Middle East and Afghanistan and because of the continued fraying of Western capitalist societies themselves.


After the Cold War, the US and its allies found new people to demonise

by John Edmundson and Linda Kearns

Images of Arabs in the Western media typically portray religious zealotry, irrationality, violence and danger. Islamic fundamentalism is pictured as a widespread phenomenon and a special danger.

Yet even in countries which have been depicted as fanatically fundamentalist, the facts don’t bear this out. Take Iran, for instance. In May 1997, the electorate returned a moderate as their president in a landslide vote. The fundamentalist candidate was decisively defeated.

In fact, the concentration in the West on the ‘danger’ of Islamic fundamentalism is more revealing about the state of the Western powers themselves than it is about Islam of any sort.

New demons for old

From 1917 on, and especially after World War 2, the ‘communist threat’ had been used to unite the otherwise competing capitalist interests and present the impression of a cohesive Western world view. Western societies were cohered around ‘anti-communism’, as promoted by the ruling classes The collapse of the Soviet bloc created, therefore, an ideological vacuum for the West.

Thus Ronald Reagan observed in a 1992 speech, “Ironically the collapse of communist tyranny has robbed much of the West of its uplifting, common purpose.” The West had to cast around for new demons.

This search, which has proved to be a defining feature of the New World Order, has taken the West’s ideologues literally to the ends of the earth. And their inventions have been bizarre, to say the least. Some of the weakest and least influential countries in the world have been selected for ritualised vilification.

One section of the world, in particular, has met the criteria laid down by Reagan, criteria which required that the Western powers “enforce stricter humanitarian standards of behaviour on those who flout every measure of human decency.” That section of the world has been Islam.

Velvet glove and steel fist

In his speech, Reagan advised that “a humanitarian velvet glove backed by a steel fist of military force” be used to bring Islamic nations* into line. In fact, not much has been seen of the velvet glove – for instance, all the people of Iraq have seen in the past decade is the steel fist of military force and brutal sanctions. Up to 1.5 million Iraqis have died in the clench of this fist.

The war on Iraq is itself ironic, albeit in a barbaric way. The United States, for instance, used Saddam Hussein and Iraq to wage war on Iran in the 1980s, when the latter country shared US public enemy #1 status with Libya. The hostility against Iran and Libya was soon extended to any regime in the Arab and Islamic world that dared show any independence from the United States.

The focus of Western paranoia on Islam has shifted from one Muslim country to another over the past twenty years. Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria have all been demonised. Sudan, one of the poorest nations in the world, has also suffered along these lines. Its refusal to line up with the West in the Gulf War meant that its aid was cut off.

When Yemen, which had denounced the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, showed some consistency and also denounced Operation Desert Storm, it immediately drew the wrath of the USA. Its vote against Desert Storm in the Security Council cost it over $NZ1 billion in aid. A US diplomat informed Yemen that its anti-Desert Storm vote was “the most expensive vote you’ll ever cast”.

Ironically, unlike the United States’ chief allies in the Arabian peninsula (eg Saudi Arabia), Yemen actually has institutions which the West demands of its enemies: a free press, prisons open to international inspection and a multi-party political system.

The West promoted fundamentalism

One of the other pieces of Western hypocrisy is that the Western powers are in no small degree responsible for whatever strength fundamentalism has. For instance, the most fundamentalist state in the Islamic world has long been Saudi Arabia, one of the West’s key allies. Fundamentalism coheres society around a rich and reactionary elite in that country united with the West and promoted by the West as a counter to socialism and radical national liberation movements that threatened imperialist interests.

In Israel/Palestine, the Islamic group Hamas was originally cohered by the Israeli state asa counter to the secular radical nationalism of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation). It was only later, especially as the PLO began abandoning militant opposition to Israeli oppression, that Hamas saw the possibilities of striking out on its own and building a base amongst the Palestinian masses.

In Afghanistan, the West backed fundamentalist forces fighting the radical nationalist government backed by the Soviet Union from 1979 onwards. In Pakistan, the fundamentalist government of the generals has been preferred by the Western powers to the nationalist parties which tended to be unreliable and, from time to time, express opinions and interests of their own against those of the imperialist powers.

Minor players

The Islamic fundamentalists opposed to the Western powers are minor players in world politics. Yet the Western elites have still been fairly successful in demonising them and presenting them to Western public opinion as a major threat. For this perception to take hold, it must reflect something real. If that something real is not the actual threat posed by the fundamentalists themselves, then it must connect with some real fears and uncertainties in the West itself.

In fact, the economic and social malaise in the West in the 1990s, and the disappearance of the old Soviet enemy against which Western society was cohered, has left the advanced capitalist world especially prone to a whole series of panics – the Aids panic, moral panics about child sexual abuse and crime, and a whole series of other debilitating fears. Many people in society are now prepared to believe the worst about anything and everything.

At the same time, the spread of relativism means that strongly-held opinions of any kind are out of favour in the West. No-one is supposed to be committed to any strong beliefs and principles about society or visions of the world anymore. Anyone who does is in danger of being regarded as crazy and/or dangerous. Thus, the strongly-held views of Islamic fundamentalists scare the liberal wishy-washy mentality that is the dominant form of bourgeois ideology in the West.

However, it is precisely the Western governments, including the liberals who run many of these governments, who are the people who have bombed civilians all over the world and who possess the arsenal to kill millions any time they choose.

* We are not accepting that there actually are any such things as “Islamic nations”; we’re using a term that describes how Western ruling elites and policy-makers view them.

  1. Don Franks says:

    A lot of telling facts there about the deceit and hypocrisy of western imperialism.
    I just take issue with the formulation “Aids panic, moral panics about child sexual abuse and crime”. Aids, child sexual abuse and crime are different serious issues of concern to the working class. Despite medical advances against it, Aids remains a serious international disease. Reinforced by the menace of internet pornography,examples of child sexual abuse appear more and more frequently, often in the least expected places. Crimes of violence and property theft against working people are daily life, attracting little interest from police.

  2. Phil F says:

    I’m trying to remember back to the time when it was written and just before. . .

    The thing about moral panics is that they are always around something real; what makes them a moral panic is that they become something that creates more fear and concern that would ‘normally’ be warranted by the actual scale of whatever it is.

    Take crime. Crime, generally, has been going down in recent years. Shouldn’t we be celebrating that? But people’s perceptions – and thus their fears – tend to be that we’re under siege from crime. We’re not. That doesn’t change the perception of the threat or the fact that when you have a crime perpetrated against you it’s an unpleasant experience. (I know, I’ve been mugged by three guys, with a knife to my throat.)

    But perceiving things out of proportion isn’t helpful – fearful people don’t take on capitalism. More often, the consequences are reactionary. In a world in which most people have no power, panics around issues like crime lead to people wanting to feel they have control by demanding more policing, stiffer sentences and so on.

    There’s an interesting article by James Heartfield about how a fearful society has reacted to *apparently falling rates of domestic violence* in Britain: