I can’t stop thinking about how I used to take that metro line in Brussels to work every morning and evening on my way to the European Commission press room, as did so many of my friends. That exact same, crappy orange and grey metro.
We often got out at Maelbeek station and walked 300 metres to the building, as the police regularly shut down the much closer Schuman station whenever European prime ministers and presidents were in town. It always struck me as eccentric in a deeply Belgian way that Maelbeek had a windowless, pole-dancing dive bar named Manhattan inside the station.
When I read that a metro carriage near Maelbeek station was one of the two places that had been hit at just after 9 in the morning, my legs wobbled. I thought it impossible that out of so many injured, none my friends would be among them.
Yet so far that seems to be the case, though a few occasional users of Facebook haven’t “checked in” yet (what a simultaneously sickening and truly brilliant feature). I had a dark, gallows chuckle at one friend who so hates Lord Zuckerberg and all his works that he refused to officially mark himself safe, commenting underneath a status that he was fine and doesn’t like the app.
I moved back to Canada a couple years ago. After the attacks, my brother messaged me to say he was glad that I didn’t live in Brussels any more. What went unsaid was the presumption that Canada is safe. Amid my horror, I thought how strange it was, as if I had returned from Kabul or Baghdad. And then I felt a flash of guilt that I should expect to feel safe and my friends in Brussels to feel safe, while expecting Them to live amid unsafety.
The truth is everyone deserves safety, including those in Brussels and Paris, London and Madrid, every bit as much as those in Kabul and Baghdad, and Istanbul and Ankara, and Ouagadougou and Bamako. Yet none of us are safe. This abiding fear that such violence can happen anywhere, at any time, was acknowledged by the stark front page of the Flemish newspaper De Tijd this morning. Nooit meer veilig — Never safe. After almost 15 years of drones and tanks and torture and black sites and rendition and the rise of the surveillance state and “boots on the ground” and “something must be done,” we have to say that even in its own terms, the War on Terror is a risible, grisly failure.
Alternatives needed to failed War on Terror
Progressives need to talk about this failure and propose something better, because there has only been a steady increase in terrorist atrocity. We need to say how it is we think that ISIS and similar radical groups can be defeated, and not only protest our governments when, as Michael Moore describes it, they decide who to invade next. It is not enough to repeat the line that the decades-long history of Western colonialism and Cold War repression in the Middle East is responsible for the rise of ISIS and similar radical Salafi-jihadist groups.
It’s not so much that this is wrong; to be sure, there is a utility in the presentation of context. I have made so many arguments along these lines over the years. But this should be the beginning of our analysis, not the endpoint. It may be that Western imperialism is a necessary condition for the emergence of jihadist terror, but it is not a sufficient condition.
There have been myriad other subjects of Western imperial oppression who have not gone on to target civilians, have not engaged in such violence. As one writer asked in Pakistan’s English-language daily, The Nation, after the attacks in Paris last November, “If Islamist terror is due to Western imperialism, why isn’t South America and sub-Saharan Africa pumping terrorists into the world?” ISIS and company are no anti-imperialists. Indeed, they wish to establish a new caliphate. So putting our pen down at this point is to cast everyone in the Middle East as reactionary automatons and deprive them of any agency. This is its own species of orientalism.
Still worse are articles that declared the concert goers and café customers of Paris to be “reaping the whirlwind” of Western intervention, and essays after the attacks on New York now so long ago that clucked that the “chickens had come home to roost,” and the tragedy-hipsters sneering at the grief of what one person in my feed after the Paris attacks described as the “normies” who flew the French tricoleur in solidarity or superimposed their profile images with the same. George Galloway, British anti-war campaigner and London mayoral candidate for the far-left Respect Party, has placed the blame for the Brussels attacks on the West: “Seeds of this death cult sown by us in Afghanistan in 80s. They fructified mightily with the invasion of Iraq. They now grow wild in Syria.” Meanwhile Wikileaks tweeted, “Today's terror attacks in Belgium are the terrible, but entirely predictable, consequences of mindless adventurism in Libya, Syria & Iraq.”
As must have happened with the defenders of Stalin years ago who could see only the injustice of the capitalist powers while willfully blind to the gulag and the purges, it seems that the very love of our fellow human beings and rage at the sight of suffering that drives us to become progressives in the first place have thoroughly deserted these one-sided cynics. We should be capable of opposing ISIS and similar formations, from al Qaeda through Boko Haram to Mali’s Mourabitounes, as the things themselves, and not merely say, “Well, of course they’re bad, but the real enemy is at home.”
Just as while it is formally correct that EU austerity and railroading of democracy in Greece provides the context of the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, the first words out of our mouth — every time Golden Dawn thugs enter an Athens bus and drag out an immigrant or kill a left-wing rapper — are not to say “Well, of course that’s bad, but the real enemy is EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Central Bank.” We recognize Golden Dawn as a fully realized enemy as well, connected to but independent of the European mandarins of austerity.
We must have an analysis of ISIS as a fully realized enemy as well, connected to but independent of Western militarism, and a strategy for how that enemy can be defeated. We need a set of concrete, achievable demands that is neither capitulationist in the face of Salafi-jihadist terror nor siding with the liberal hawks who cheerlead further Western surgical bombing of wedding party after wedding party.
For if we do not propose a better way, those frustrated with the manifest failure of the War on Terror may begin to look to those such as Donald Trump, Alternative für Deutschland and Golden Dawn, who have a series of fresh barbarisms on offer that would make all the Donald Rumsfelds, Dick Cheneys and Henry Kissingers of the world seem like peacemakers.
Time for a new campaign
As it happens, we already have something of a template for what could be done: the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. We now need a BDS campaign for Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well.
There is a clear moral imperative to end the alliances with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and other Gulf powers. While ISIS has vowed to topple what it believes to be the decadence and sinfulness of the Arabian kingdom, Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, has spent billions promoting extremist political Islam, while ISIS and its forerunners were funded for years by wealthy donors from these countries, flowing through Kuwait as a result of its lax financial oversight (the New York Times has described the Gulf state as a “virtual Western Union” for Syrian rebels), with a nudge and a wink from the regimes, even as Riyadh officially monitors its financial sector to halt such donations. These states have dual interests: the longtime U.S. alliance of course, but also an abiding enmity toward Shiite Iran and the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, and will have cheered ISIS victories over Iraq’s Iranian-allied administration.
In the 1960s, in an effort to acquire oil contracts, Belgium’s King Baudouin made an offer to Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal that Belgium would establish a mosque in the capital and hire clerics from the Gulf. In 1978, the Great Mosque of Brussels opened, implanted with radical Salafist teachers from Saudi.
Yet Western governments turn a blind eye to all this due to our continued need not just for Saudi oil, but even more crucially for allies in a region whose natural resources are so essential. In many respects, this hypocrisy is little different from the militant groups fighting ISIS while having no choice but to purchase oil from ISIS, lest the lights go out. To cut ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would run up against this imperative. As a Brookings Institute report on Gulf state financing of Syrian extremists notes, fundraisers operate out in the open but Washington at best wags a finger: “The US Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug.”
Meanwhile illicit oil sales fuel the ISIS war machine. The group maintains a vast operation that the Financial Times describes as on the scale of a state oil company. The same paper estimates that fossil fuels earn the militants about $1.5 million per day on average. Likewise, days after the Paris attacks, G20 leaders were in Antalaya supping with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regularly bombards the People’s Protection Units of the Democratic Union Party (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, the secular, progressive and most militarily successful soldiers fighting the Islamic State, while offering de facto military protection to the ISIS-controlled town of Jarablus on the Turkish border. And days ago, the European Union signed a $3-billion deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, sweetened with a promise to open the next chapter of EU accession talks.
We can start here in Canada with the Liberal government’s continued support for a $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Let’s place opposition to that at the top of any progressive argument, at the heart of any campaign work, so that in a year’s time, public opposition is such that Prime Minister Trudeau has no choice but to withdraw his support for the beheaders of Riyadh.
One added benefit to such a campaign would be that it would also inoculate against the accusation of anti-semitism that BDS campaigners suffer for allegedly targeting only Israeli violence and not that of other states in the Middle East (and it would also help if we didn’t limit our discussion to legitimate fears over anti-Muslim backlash while mystifyingly doing effectively nothing to mobilize against rising violence against Jews that is no less real.)
It is no abandonment of the left’s ideals or values to declare that ISIS must be annihilated. The first step is breaking the alliance between our leaders and the bankers of terror and murderers of the Kurds — the sole democratic, progressive and victorious force taking on these butchers who, let us remember, are opposed to everything we fight for.
We can begin to promise safety once again, for everyone. The War on Terror and apologetics for terror cannot.