Reply to Anissa Helie’s ‘The U.S.Occupation and Rising Religious Extremism The Double Threat to Women in Iraq’

Although Anissa Helie’s article ‘The U.S. Occupation and Rising Religious Extremism The Double Threat to Women in Iraq’ effectively highlights the disturbing issue of increasing violence against women in Iraq- a phenomena, which she correctly points out, is in large part due to the U.S. led invasion and occupation- the author’s condescending attitude towards the segment of the US/British left which supports elements of the Iraqi insurgency leads to several unsatisfactory and unhelpful conclusions.  In adopting this attitude, Helie ends up engaging in the same type of simplistic and dichotomous reasoning of which she accuses the ‘naïve’ left, and undermining what could have otherwise been an important consideration of the effects of occupation and war on women. 

Helie views political Islam, or what she refers to as “Muslim extremists”, as a monolith- a brutal and archaic bunch that seeks nothing more than to oppress women, minorities, gays and lesbians. According to Helie, “leftist and feminist circles” have “romanticized” views of the Iraqi insurgency, which she believes is comprised of Islamist fundamentalists “who kill, rape, kidnap women and girls and openly target civilians,” amongst other atrocities. While she goes on to discuss three specific incidents of targeted attacks (one of which is taken from Fox News, a news venue not exactly known for it fairness and accuracy in reporting), the evidence provided is far too sparse to substantiate such a broad and generalized argument as this. In addition to gross generalizations, Helie also engages in unsubstantiated prophesizing. For example, Helie is convinced that despite the “anti-imperialist claims made by the leaders of armed groups,” once the occupation ends it would be “very unlikely” that “persecution of women or religious and sexual minorities will stop – because what is really at stake is a theocratic agenda.” The actual substance of their “theocratic agenda” is never discussed, but polemics do not require rigorous analysis, this is precisely why they are so appealing and dangerous at the same time. In this case, Helie’s analysis leads her to overlook one important question: can’t a group be anti-imperialist and at the same time have a theocratic agenda?

This sort of analysis essentializes political Islam and ignores its various strains, histories and developments. Although it has been more than two decades since Edward Said’s ground breaking book ‘Orientalism’ was published, it is clear that this mode of thinking, which relies on dichotomous reasoning (see Helie’s binary sets: “progressive” vs. “reactionary”, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, “fundamentalists” vs. “secular, feminist, and pro-democracy advocates”)  to differentiate between us (the civilized) and them (the barbarians), persists, not only amongst the neocon ideologues, but amongst the left, as well, and by those genuinely interested in putting an end to the type of exploitative and unequal relationships that they often end up perpetuating through their discourse. There is no reason why one cannot take a stance opposing violence against women and minorities (religious, sexual, ethnic, etc.) while at the same time work towards developing a more nuanced understanding of political movements that effectively function outside of western, secular paradigms.

Helie argues that the left’s misguided support for the Iraq insurgency is a result of “ideological confusion”, one which presumably has resulted from the left’s lack of in-depth knowledge of the groups with which they have aligned themselves. While I share Helie’s concern about the lack of knowledge amongst some segments of the left regarding the movements they support in Iraq, a concern that I also have about the  support of many well-meaning individuals and organizations in the West for other ‘grass-roots’ movements across the world of which they have very little knowledge– think of the various landless peoples, indigenous, pro-democracy and even women’s rights movements;  but it does not logically follow that all these movements are therefore illegitimate or backwards. It just means that people in the West need to develop a more in-depth understanding of the various popular movements they support, including those that originate in the Muslim world.  On this point I think Stephen Chan correctly points out in his book ‘Out of Evil: New International Politics and Old Doctrines of War’, that those in the West who demonize and romanticize Islam are coming from largely the same perspective; one of ignorance. “There is an appalling ignorance in the UK, as well as the US, about the Third World in general and Islam in particular,” Chan writes. This ignorance leads to analyses based on dangerous and “spectacular generality.”

Helie also, I believe, wrongly lumps all of the various strains of the Iraqi ‘resistance’ into one category: “Islamic extremists”. If she were correct in this assessment, it would seem to me that there would be more criticism of ‘the resistance’ in Iraq and in the Arab world in general, unless Helie believes that the entire Muslim world is comprised of misogynist Islamists and therefore sees nothing wrong with supporting an insurgency that caries out such atrocities. From the reporting I have followed in the Arab press, it seems a significant majority of Iraqis, regardless of religious background, support some sort of armed resistance, as do most Muslims around the world.

It is unclear if Helie’s problem lies with armed resistance, in general, or specifically, with armed resistance carried out by people who hold different beliefs to her own. She is certainly right that there “are plenty of unarmed civilians, as well as groups of every political affiliation, that reject the U.S. occupation yet do not engage in violence or human rights violations,” as there were in the Algerian independence war, which she references. But as Helie may also recall, the issue of indiscriminate attacks, or ‘terrorism’, was also criticized by many on the European left during that time who, like Helie, were also weary of the ‘by any means necessary’ argument, perhaps because they didn’t understand the nature of asymmetric warfare and/or had little experience with the type of desperation that is born out of the exploitative and brutal conditions engendered by colonialism/occupation. Who could forget the scene in the ‘Battle of Algiers’ where in which the FLN official L’Aarbi Ben M’Hidi responds to the self-righteous question of a French reporter: “isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” with a question of his own: “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets”. Granted, the sectarian violence is somewhat different in nature, but still it is an issue that must be seen, like ‘terrorism’, within the context of colonialism/neo-colonialism and occupation.

However, if Helie’s issue concerns the latter, a reluctance to support the resistance of people or groups who do not share her worldview, then we are once again dealing with the issue of Orientalism. If there were specific groups Helie disagreed with for specific reasons (e.g. for having committed violent acts against women), I would find it easier to agree with her. But this is not what Helie argues. The rhetorical tools she employs here allow Helie to view the world only in terms of the binary sets: secular/religious, feminists/ misogynists, good/evil. Does this sound familiar? Helie, through this argument, has mimicked the simplistic Bush/neocon logic.  

In order to avoid the proverbial ‘clash of civilizations’ that would only benefit the neo-imperialist elite, perhaps what we need most of all today is to begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of political Islam. Rather than criticizing the European Social Forum for inviting the Muslim Council of Britain (a group largely concerned with combating Islamaphobia in the UK) and individuals with valuable knowledge of political Islam (e.g. Tariq Ramadan) as Helie does, what we on the left (in the West) need to do is engage even more. Every time we hold meetings about racism, imperialism, unequal development, violence (economic, social, political, military etc.), we must include those religious groups that share similar aims. There may be important disagreements, especially on social issues, but at least we can discuss those disagreements and maybe even learn from them.  It is only through informed dialogue, as opposed to condescending polemics, that we can begin to form cross-cultural/cross-religious/cross-nationality/ cross-ethnic platforms from which we can fight together for a more just world.


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