Islamism, Israel and imperialism

Why is the Middle East in turmoil? Daniel Harvey reports on the day school organised by Hands Off the People of Iran

The May 30 day school opened with a review of the general situation in the Middle East - taking in Islamic State, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, as well as the negotiations with Iran - introduced by Hopi chair Yassamine Mather. She was followed immediately by Mike Macnair of the CPGB, who looked at the inconsistencies of US strategy in the region. The afternoon session was led by Moshé Machover, who spoke in particular about the role of Israel in light of the proposed deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Comrade Mather described the chaos of the Middle East. In Syria Islamic State and al Nusra together control over half of the country, causing minorities like Assyrian Christians to flee in large numbers, whilst at the same time the Assad government has been bombing heavily the civilian population inflicting high casualties.

Iran has, of course, been strongly supporting Assad and has also been involved in the conflict in Yemen, where it is sending money and weapons to the Houthis. The Houthis are nominally Shia Muslims, but have religious differences that would mean they would almost certainly be persecuted if they lived in Iran. For the most part, said comrade Mather, the perspective from the point of view of the clerical regime looks quite good - it certainly has an ally in the shape of the Iraqi government.

Comrade Mather argued that the effects of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the region between Britain and France after World War I, are still being seen in the conflicts today - France still seems to consider itself to have a right to a say over Syria in some senses. But now the artificial divisions, which took no account of the religious and cultural make-up of the region, are unravelling. She said it was no surprise that Islamic ideology was filling the political vacuum - the left had been largely suppressed, having pursued a disastrous strategy in the 1960s and 70s, with both the Iraqi and Syrian Communist Parties adopting pro-Ba’athist positions in line with Moscow’s foreign policy.

At the same time, it is true that Islamism was directly favoured by western imperialism as a lesser evil during the cold war. She said that Hillary Clinton’s remarks to Congress, to the effect that al Qa’eda was largely created by the United States to counter Soviet forces in Afghanistan, were less revealing than they were surprising, in the sense that this is now so readily and openly admitted to be the case.

In this light, she questioned how much it can be assumed that the US is really interested in fighting Islamic State. It seems more than a little puzzling that the Obama administration has done nothing to stop the flow of money going to them from the Gulf monarchies, when it was so meticulous in the sanctions it imposed on Iran, which have devastated the country’s economy. IS, but more so Al-Nusra, are not directly opposing imperialist interests at the moment, in that they are not singling out western targets or Israel at present - their main struggle is to depose Assad and fight other Muslims who follow different versions of Islam.

Mike Macnair followed this with a wide-ranging discussion of US strategy in the Middle East - the whole of his speech is republished on pp10-11, so I will not dwell on the details here. But he stressed that the overriding aim of US foreign policy is about global control rather than any interest in stability and it is this that has produced the chaos that is the Middle East.


In the third session Moshé Machover presented a number of important dates relating to Israel’s shift in policy in the last year. The first was December 2014, when prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu deliberately engineered a crisis in his own cabinet in order to ditch his allies, who were not in favour of ditching the bipartisanship in regard to the big two US parties. The second was the elections in March 2015, with an even more rightwing coalition being formed. The third was the warmongering speech he gave to the US Congress, also in March, in which he deliberately snubbed the Obama administration and Democrats who tried to approach him in an attempt to wreck the nuclear deal with Iran.

The primary interest for Israel in comrade Machover’s opinion is maintaining itself as the primary ally of the US in the region. In fact he thought this status was in no way under threat - Israel makes a perfect ally because it cannot itself become a regional rival to the US not least due to its size (unlike Iran, Egypt or Turkey). There is, however, a two-way relationship between the US and Israel. He went on to cite a report from the Washington Research Institute in which their military-economic partnership has been laid out in detail. The report states that Israel, as a democracy, is one of the only countries in the region where the government is not going to be swept away in a popular revolution. The Hebrew population in Israel is also overwhelmingly in favour of close ties with Washington, which is not the case anywhere else in the region.

He chided Ian Donovan, a former-member-turned-opponent of the CPGB, who was present, for seeing US policy as being driven by the ‘Jewish-Zionist lobby’. But the lobby is a symptom of the real material basis for the alliance, not its cause.

In the discussion, Ian Donovan made a series of points. He opened by saying that Comrade Machover was now at least willing to admit that there was an overrepresentation of Jews among American billionaires, whereas previously he had been told it was beyond the pale to point this out. He said the fact that Obama had to come out explicitly in favour of a united Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli state showed the power of the ‘Jewish-Zionist lobby’. He stated that this lobby was in the vanguard of the ruling class in general - the Christian-Zionist lobby was less significant because it could not exist without Jews actually willing to colonise Palestine. Overall, he thought the left was trapped by post-holocaust guilt and that this had been the case since World War II. This made the left incapable of identifying the potency of Jewish influence driving imperialist policy

Mike Macnair challenged Donovan over these views. He said it was just not true that the holocaust made any difference to the attitude towards Jews in the US - this was not something which emerged until the 1960s. After 1948, Israel had primarily been an adjunct of French policy in the Middle East to oppose the British. It was not until 1966 that the US took over this relationship decisively.

Jack Conrad challenged Donovan’s view about the overrepresentation of Jews in the US ruling class, by saying that it may true, but it was also true of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The point is whether this overrepresentation had any relevance in determining what was in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, which of course it could not. Ian Donovan then accused comrade Conrad of using Stalinist methods to smear him as an anti-Semite. He said it was clear that there were different tendencies in the ruling class, but the relationship with Israel was nevertheless unique. It may be true that Israel is described as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, but the same is true of the UK, but no other ally, even the UK, would be able to have their leader turn up and undermine a sitting president without some kind of nationalist reaction. This had to be explained he said.

Lucy Parker of Platypus said she did not agree with Ian Donovan’s line of reasoning, which seemed to place the blame for imperialist reaction on a particular people/religion. But Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight defended Ian Donovan, saying there were serious questions to be answered around the Zionist lobby and that it would not do to dismiss attempts to analyse it as anti-Semitic. He also defended the idea of an anti-imperialist united front, stating that because Russia and China are not really imperialist powers like the west the left still had a responsibility to defend them.

In his summing up, comrade Machover took Donovan to task over what he called “factual inexactitudes” relating to what Moshé has said in the past. He had never denied Jewish overrepresentation in the US ruling class, but he disagreed with Donovan’s stereotypical conclusions. He said it was not true that the left was overcome with “guilt about the holocaust” - except, that is, for one particular organisation in Britain perhaps: the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. He reiterated that “unwarranted influence” on US policy, to use the formulation of Eisenhower, came not from Jewish capitalists, but from the military-industrial complex. He added that the simplistic approach of Gerry Downing in relation to imperialism needed to be seriously reassessed.

Overall, despite the disappointing attendance, with many Hopi supporters unable to attend, the day school saw a series of fascinating debates, which helped deepen the understanding of those present of the complexities of the Middle East.