The West’s imperial intolerance of modernising and popular Arab nationalism in the ’50s and ’60s has led it to support backward forces that are now biting the very hand that fed them, writes JOHN ELLISON
YESTERDAY’S article questioned the honesty of the government’s Prevent strategy as a means of turning away possible recruitment at home to movements of the al-Qaida and Islamic State (Isis) variety, because these horrific movements are rooted in the West’s own criminality in Muslim countries and because the 2011 strategy document is silent about this.
I highlighted Western imperial encroachments from the late 19th century until the 1930s. This article takes the story further towards present times. It draws heavily on A Brutal Friendship by Said Aburish (1997) and also on Secret Affairs by Mark Curtis (2010).
As the 1930s advanced the relative stability of British rule in both Palestine and Iraq was threatened.
In Palestine, between 1936-9, the Arab population rose up in a protest against Jewish colonisation.
This rebellion was eventually suppressed, in the words of Tariq Ali: “By 25,000 British troops and zionist auxiliaries helped by bomber squadrons of the Royal Air Force,” (The Clash of Fundamentalisms, 2002).
Ali quotes Winston Churchill, who justified both the war against the Arab insurgency, and the Jewish settlements themselves, referring to the two sides in racist language: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race… has come in and taken their place.”
In 1933, in Iraq a young anti-British king Ghazi succeeded to the throne on his father’s death. He was to oppose British policy in Palestine — later in the decade his radio broadcasts and his stance caused great unease in the British Foreign Office and among the pro-British elite in Iraq.
Ghazi was murdered in 1939. The feeble cover-up explanation was that he died in a car accident — Whitehall was not displeased and it is possible that the British were directly complicit. A dispatch from the British embassy in Baghdad to the Foreign Office on the day of his death entitled Political Situation in Iraq is missing from the files.
The West’s relationship with Middle Eastern governments during earlier decades of its developing imperial role in the region was to change after WWII with the US coming to the fore.
Secular Arab nationalism was stimulated in 1948 when Israel declared itself a state and brought about “al-Nakba” (the catastrophe) for Palestinians which resulted in the annexation of much of Palestine and making refugees of 750,000 Arabs.
Israel also defeated “colonial” Arab forces in the first Arab-Israeli war. Subsequently secular Arab nationalism, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, supported by the Soviet Union, became a real force reaching a peak during the 1950s and 1960s.
Nasser spoke on behalf of Arab countries. Though Egypt itself had no oil, he proclaimed “oil for the Arabs.”
In response, the frightened West backed a more activist Islam through the Muslim Brotherhood, which both espoused harsh Islamic law and antagonism to Nasser’s secular regime. The Brotherhood was taken up by the CIA and the West and the Saudi monarchy funded it.
The West, in this phase, was openly benign towards its Islamist allies.
The Nasser-led government was strengthened by the failure of the British — in concert with France and Israel — to destroy it after it had snatched control of the Suez Canal from the British in 1956.
Arab secular nationalism made further advances in 1958 in Iraq, when army officers led by Abdel Karim Kassem seized power with popular support.
The West had begun its fightback against nationalism early in the decade when US and British agents engineered the ousting from power of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in non-Arab Iran by replacing him with the autocratic Shah.
Then in the mid-60s in Indonesia the military with Islamist mobs, with US and British complicity, “orchestrated events to defeat the left,” writes Ali, massacring hundreds of thousands of communists and many non-communist supporters of the ousted nationalist president Sukarno.
In June 1967 came a huge setback for Arab nationalism. That month US-backed Israel attacked Egypt and conquered the remainder of Palestine, taking Jerusalem and the West Bank, occupying the Golan Heights in southern Syria and reaching the Suez Canal in Sinai.
As Ali wrote: “The 1967 war destroyed Nasserism as a popular anti-imperialist force in the Middle East.” As a consequence Islamic movements advanced in its place.
Nasser remained Egypt’s leader — until his death in 1970 with its army and air force re-equipped by the Soviet Union — and its “comeback” attack against Israeli forces in 1973 forced its retreat and achieved a stalemate.
However, secular nationalism in Egypt and elsewhere was in decline. Four years later Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat signed a treaty with Israel under which still-occupied territory was restored to Egypt. More fundamentally, the treaty signified that Egypt had renounced Nasserism and was now to be militarily and economically dependent on the West as it has been ever since. In Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remained under occupation.
In this new environment, Sadat courted the Muslim Brotherhood to gain more popular support, but, ironically, it was the growth of the Islamic movement that led to his murder in 1981.
The following year in a secular nationalist Syria — ruled by the Alawite Shi’ite sect — an all-out Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the city of Hama was suppressed with many thousands killed.
Such events did not, as Said Aburish explains: “interrupt Western and Arab client regimes’ support for the Islamic movement,” or their opposition to the Syrian state.
Meanwhile, on the Asian continent the mainly Sunni Muslim Pakistan had become a pro-West bulwark against the Soviet Union and secular nationalism.
In 1970, on behalf of Jordan’s King Hussein, Pakistan’s army chief Zia-ul-Haq led Jordanian troops in crushing a major Palestinian rising in the country. Zia went on to seize power in Pakistan in 1977 and his dictatorship over the next decade was crucial to US aims.
To shore up the stability of his unpopular regime, Zia introduced sharia courts and savage punishments, while the Saudi monarchy funded Pakistan’s religious schools.
Western support for Islamic movements escalated in Afghanistan, where a secular left-wing government enjoyed — for a time — the Soviet Union’s political support. In July 1979 the US, in liaison with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, began to send covert aid to Islamist opponents of the regime, and many volunteers followed.
Five months later Soviet forces — unwisely and catastrophically in the end — were sent into the country in support of the new left-wing government. In the years to follow Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation increased massively ultimately forcing a Soviet army withdrawal. The occupation had contributed to the collapse of what was, however many its shortcomings, a socialist and anti-imperialist state.
Early in that war Saudi Arabia had sent Sheikh Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan to advance the struggle against Soviet and Afghan government forces.
Pakistan’s Zia sponsored the powerful Jamaat-i-Islami organisation, which provided the main channel of Arab financial aid to the mojahidin in Afghanistan, while the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence set up extreme jihadist groups.
At least 25,000 non-Afghan volunteers took part in the fighting — Behind Pakistan stood the US and Britain.
Britain’s role was to provide covert military training and arms supplies, acting as an agent of the US government. SAS commanders moved supplies into Afghanistan.
Bin Laden’s al-Qaida was constructed from the networks operating between the Afghans and the foreign fighters. Curtis identifies two factions formed with Pakistan’s blessing which were to thrive through decades ahead and were to have connections with London’s 7/7 atrocity bombers of 2005.
The West was to reap from what it had sown — blowback was coming.
Today, as yesterday, the British government’s Prevent strategy is applied at home against the backcloth of a “Provoke, Enable and Empower” strategy abroad.
• This article is the second of a three-part series. The final part will appear in tomorrow’s paper.