is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition.
We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth
a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."
- Henry Ford, 1916
On some days,
a glance at the leading stories in the Western media strongly
suggests that Muslims everywhere, of all stripes, have gone berserk.
It appears that Muslims have lost their minds.
In any week,
we are confronted with reports of Islamic suicide attacks against
Western targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Western countries
themselves; terrorists foiled before they could act; terrorist
attacks gone awry; terrorists indicted; terrorists convicted;
terrorists tortured; terrorist suspects kidnapped by CIA; or warnings
of new terrorist attacks against Western targets.
without cause - we are repeatedly told - Muslims everywhere, even
those living in the West, are lashing out against the civilized
West. Many in the Western world - especially in the US - are beginning
to believe that the entire Islamic world is on the warpath against
in Western media want us to believe that the Muslims have lost
their minds. They tell us that Muslims are inherently, innately,
perverse; that never before has violence been used in this way,
against innocent civilians. It is always 'innocent' civilians.
the First Opium War of
1840-42, when the British waged
war to defend their 'right' to smuggle
opium into China - Friedrich Engels
writes - "the people were quiet;
they left the Emperor's soldiers
to fight the invaders, and submitted
after defeat with Eastern fatalism
to the power of the enemy."
too have endured colonization, slavery, expulsions, extermination
at the hands of Western powers: but none have responded with violence
on this scale against the West. Certainly not with violence against
civilians. Never have Aborigines, Africans, indigenous Americans,
Hindus, Jews, or the Chinese targeted civilians. They never attacked
Westerners indiscriminately. They never targeted 'innocent Western
Is this 'insanity'
slowly raising its head across the Islamic world really unique?
Is this 'insanity' a uniquely Islamic phenomenon? Is this a uniquely
contemporary phenomenon? Is this 'insanity' unprovoked?
of course expect any history from the corporate US media on this
Islamic 'insanity.' In order to take the moral high ground, to
claim innocence, the rich and powerful - the oppressor classes
- prefer not to talk about history, or invent the history that
serves their interest.
surprising, however, is that few writers even on the left bring
much history to their analysis of unfolding events. Not being
a historian - of Islam, China or Britain - I can only thank serendipity
for the little bit of history that I will invoke to provide some
background to the 'malaise' unfolding in the Islamic world. A
little history to connect Islam today to China in the middle of
the 19th century.
the Second Opium War,
writes Friedrich Engels, "the mass
of people take an active,
nay fanatical part in the struggle
against the foreigners. They poison
the bread of the European community
at Hongkong by wholesale and,
with the coolest premeditation,
they go with hidden arms on board
trading steamers, and, when on the
journey, massacre the crew and
European passengers and
seize the boat. They kill and kidnap
every foreigner within their reach."
- perhaps for some - the history I invoke comes from Friedrich
Engels - yes, he of the Communist Manifesto, friend of Karl Marx,
revolutionary - writing in May 1857 when the British were waging
war against China, known to history as the Second Opium War.
this history comes from an article published in a leading US newspaper:
The New York Daily Tribune (available in Marx and Engels Internet
Archiv). Yes, in some remote past, a leading US newspaper routinely
published commentaries by the likes of Marx and Engels. Today,
the publishers of NYT, the Washington Post or LA Times would become
apoplectic just thinking about it.
First Opium War of 1840-42, when the British waged war to defend
their 'right' to smuggle opium into China - Friedrich Engels writes
- "the people were quiet; they left the Emperor's soldiers to
fight the invaders, and submitted after defeat with Eastern fatalism
to the power of the enemy." Yes, in those times, even enlightened
Westerners spoke habitually of Oriental fatalism, fanaticism,
sloth, backwardness, and - not to forget their favorite - despotism.
something strange had overtaken the Chinese some 15 years later.
For, during the Second Opium War, writes Friedrich Engels, "the
mass of people take an active, nay fanatical part in the struggle
against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European
community at Hongkong by wholesale and, with the coolest premeditation,
they go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when
on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and
seize the boat. They kill and kidnap every foreigner within their
Had the Chinese
decided to trade one Oriental disease for another: fatalism for
fanaticism? Ah, these Orientals! Why can't they just stick to
their fatalism? If only the Orientals could stick to their fatalism,
all our conquests would have been such cakewalks!
the borders of their country,
the Chinese were mounting
suicide attacks against Westerners.
It was no
ordinary fanaticism either. Outside the borders of their country,
the Chinese were mounting suicide attacks against Westerners.
"The very coolies," writes Friedrich Engels, "emigrating to foreign
countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every
emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than
surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames.
Even out of China, the Chinese colonists conspire and suddenly
rise in nightly insurrection."
Why do the
Chinese hate us?
the Europeans then were asking this question. And, like the democracy-mongers
in the United States today, unwilling to examine the root causes,
the history of their own atrocities, unwilling to acknowledge
how they "throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to
murder," the Europeans then too were outraged. European statesmen
and newspapers fulminated endlessly about Chinese barbarity, calling
their attacks "cowardly, barbarous, atrocious." The Europeans
too called for more wars, endless wars, till China could be subdued,
Engels was not deceived by the moralizing of the British press.
Yes, the Chinese are still 'barbarians,' but the source of this
"universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners" was
"the piratical policy of the British government." Piratical policy?
No, never! We are on a civilizing mission; la mission civilizatrice
Européenne. It was not a message that the West has
been ready to heed: then or now.
Why had the
Chinese chosen this form of warfare? What had gone wrong? Was
this rage born of envy; was it integral to the Chinese ethos;
was this rage aimed only at destroying the West? Westerners claim
"their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres" are cowardly;
but, Friedrich Engels answers, the "civilization-mongers should
not forget that according to their own showing they [the Chinese]
could not stand against European means of destruction with their
ordinary means of warfare." In other words, this was asymmetric
warfare. If the weaker party in a combat possesses cunning, it
will probe and fight the enemy's weaknesses: not its strengths.
Then as now,
this asymmetric warfare caused consternation in the West. How
can the Europeans win when the enemy neutralizes the West's enormous
advantage in technology, when the enemy refuses to offer itself
as a fixed target, when it deploys merely its human assets, its
daring, cunning, its readiness to sacrifice bodies?
if the insurgency that now
appears like a distant cloud on the
horizon - no larger than a man's fist -
is really the precursor of a
popular war?... Can the US and
Israel win this war against close to a
quarter of the world's population?
Will this be a war worth fighting:
an army to do," asks Engels, "against a people resorting to such
means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the
enemy's country, how to maintain itself there?" The West again
confronts that question in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The
West has 'penetrated into the enemy's country,' but is having
considerable trouble maintaining itself there. Increasingly, Western
statesmen are asking: Can they maintain this presence without
inviting more attacks?
Engels asked the British to give up "moralizing on the horrible
atrocities of the Chinese." Instead, he advises them to recognize
that "this is a war pro aris et focis ["for altars and
hearth"], a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality,
with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance
and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war." If
we can ignore the stench of Western prejudice in this instance,
there is a message here that the West might heed. Is it possible
that the Muslims too are waging a "popular war," a war for the
dignity, sovereignty of Islamic peoples?
the Chinese war against Westerners too was confined to Southern
China. However, "it would be a very dangerous war for the English
if the fanaticism extends to the people of the interior." The
British might destroy Canton, attack the coastal areas, but could
they carry their attacks into the interior? Even if the British
threw their entire might into the war, it "would not suffice to
conquer and hold the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwang-si.
What, then, can they do further?"
States and Israel now hold Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. How
strong, how firm is their hold? On the one hand, they appear to
be in a much stronger position than the British in China. They
have the 'rulers' - the Mubaraks, Musharrafs and Malikis - in
their back pockets. But how long can these 'rulers' stand against
What if the
insurgency that now appears like a distant cloud on the horizon
- no larger than a man's fist - is really the precursor of a popular
war? What if the "extremists," "militants," "terrorists," are
the advance guard of a popular war to restore sovereignty to Islamic
peoples? Can the US and Israel win this war against close to a
quarter of the world's population? Will this be a war worth fighting:
these great powers heed the words of Friedrich Engels? Shouldn't
they heed history itself. After nearly a century of hard struggle,
the Chinese gained their sovereignty in 1948, driving out every
imperialist power from its shores? Today, China is the world's
most powerful engine of capitalist development. It threatens no
neighbor. Its secret service is not busy destabilizing any country
in the world. At least not yet.
world today - and over the past 60 years - if the West and Japan
had succeeded in fragmenting China, splintering the unity of this
great and ancient civilization, and persisted in rubbing China's
face in the dirt? How many millions of troops would the West have
to deploy to defends its client states in what is now China -
the Chinese equivalents of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt,
Pakistan and Iraq? If Vietnam bled the United States, imagine
the consequences of a quagmire in China?
United States prefer this turbulent but splintered China - held
down at massive costs in blood and treasure, with bases, client
states, wars, and unending terrorist attacks on American interests
everywhere in the world - to the China that it has today, united,
prosperous, at peace; a competitor but also one of its largest
At what cost,
and for how long, will the United States, Europe and Israel continue
to support the splintering, occupation and exploitation of the
Islamic heartland they had imposed during World War I? At what
cost - to themselves and the peoples of the Islamic world? There
are times when it is smarter to retrench than to hold on to past
is now: and that time may be running out.
of the screw - another attack by the United States or Israel -
and this window may close irrevocably. If wars, civil conflicts
or revolutions sweep across the Islamic world - unlike the Chinese
revolution, most likely this turbulence will not be confined to
one segment of Asia. In one way or another, this violence will
draw the whole world into its vortex. One cannot even begin to
imagine all the ramifications, all the human costs of such a conflagration.
vital question before the world today is: Can the United States,
Israel or both be prevented from starting this conflagration?
here for other articles by M. Shahid Alam:
America's 'Fake Global War On Terrorism'
Has Regime Change Boomeranged?
An 'Islamic Civil War'
Pitting The West Against Islam
Not All Terrorists Are Muslim
Israel, The U.S. And The New Orientalism
The Muslims America Loves
Real Men Go To Tehran
Did Thomas Friedman Flunk History
Shahid Alam, professor of economics at a university in Boston,
is also a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org. Some of
his CounterPunch essays are now available
in the book, Is There An Islamic Problem? (Kuala Lumpur: The
Other Press, 2004). He is also the author of Challenging the
New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on America's 'War
Against Islam' (IPI Publications: forthcoming).He may be reached
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