Revolution #167, June 7, 2009
Obama in Cairo:
A Speech of Lies To Enforce a SYSTEM of Oppression
The following is an excerpt from a longer article. Other sections from that article will be serialized in coming issues of Revolution.
As you read this, the U.S. is either waging, bankrolling, or threatening war all across the Middle East and South Asia. Hundreds of millions of people in the Arab countries and South Asia bitterly oppose these wars. They connect these American-led wars to a whole matrix of political, economic and cultural domination by the imperialists. And they are right to do so.
On June 5 Barack Obama, the chief representative of the imperialist system in the U.S. and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces waging those wars, gave a speech in Egypt, at Cairo University. Obama’s mission was NOT, as we shall see, to change these basic relations. He did not even announce the end of any of these wars.
Instead, Obama aimed to recast people’s understanding of the terms of all this, to use his background and ability to “package” it to provide a “different narrative.” It was an attempt—a major attempt—to change how people understand history, how they view the world today and how they see the possibilities and avenues for change.
It is important to understand the actual policies set forth in this speech, and we will address some of those. But it is at least equally important to dig deeply into the historical and analytical framework in which Obama cast those policies, and that will be our principal focus.
“The Muslim World”
Obama introduced his speech as an attempt to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect...” He continually quoted the Q’uran, as well as the Bible, and referred to various myths—for instance, a purported meeting between Moses, Jesus and Mohammed—as if they were true. Unlike the Bush regime, many of whose key operatives used imagery openly evocative of the Christian Crusades against the Arab world, Obama demonstrated his command of Islamic imagery and made a show of respect for Islamic religion.
Many of the sharpest conflicts today do find expression in the form of conflicts between forces espousing Islamic fundamentalism, which have a base in both the impoverished and dislocated masses of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as elsewhere, and the United States in particular. By “showing respect for Islam,” Obama hopes to cut a section of the potential base of those movements out from under them.
But the notion of a “Muslim world” serves actually to conceal a fundamental and important truth: there are deeper, material factors and contradictions than religion driving the development of societies. What’s going on in the Middle East is not at base a religious conflict or a “clash of civilizations.” It is a matter of billions of people—entire nations, peoples and regions of the world—subordinated to and forced to live under the yoke of an imperialist system, with the fundamental character of that system obscured by all manner of fanciful notions and myths. The U.S. does not subjugate these countries because of their religion—it dominates them in order to ensure the workings of U.S. capitalism and, in close relation to that, the U.S. geopolitical domination of the world. It ensnares these countries in a whole network of economic relations in which their subordinate economic position is constantly reproduced. Conversely, liberation cannot be achieved through an “Islamic revolution”; such a revolution, among other things, will not and cannot rupture out of this oppressed and subordinate position to the imperialist order, nor will it alter the fundamental relations of exploitation within these societies.
The societies in the Middle East and South Asia, like societies everywhere on the planet, are divided into classes. Within these particular societies, there are ruling cliques of “comprador capitalists” which fundamentally represent the interests of the U.S., or other imperialist powers, and carry out or defend brutal super-exploitation of the masses in the service of those interests. This super-exploitation and plunder has caused extreme misery and tremendous social dislocation. In many cases, these cliques use Islam as a way to legitimize their rule. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, to take one notable but hardly unique example, serve as one of the main conduits of American economic and political domination of the region. Their ideology that frames the legal system and form of rule, and that legitimates that rule, is an extreme brand of repressive Islam. But that has never been a problem for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has throughout history built up and reinforced these sorts of forces against revolutionary communists and (more or less) secular nationalists.
In other cases, these ruling forces take on a more “modern” guise (even as they still utilize Islam). At the same time, there are other exploiting classes—landlords who exploit peasants, capitalists who exploit proletarians—who, for one reason or another, have not been “dealt into” the system of imperialist plunder to their satisfaction. These class forces these days also often take on the ideology of Islam, and portray the oppression of the masses, and of the plunder and domination of these nations as a whole, as a case of religious oppression; they accuse the puppets who run the country of betraying Islam and capitulating to the infidels. There are also forces in these countries which take up more modern forms of thought associated with the “Enlightenment”—forces which want a certain break with traditional social relations and would like to see “more room” for science, non-religious literature, etc. and greater freedom for women. Absent a strong revolutionary communist pole, these forces on the one hand generally do not fundamentally break with or challenge Islam and on the other cast their opposition within the constraints of bourgeois democracy—that is, democracy “in the image of” (and designed to reinforce the domination of) the capitalist class.
Meanwhile, at the base of society there are hundreds of millions of peasants and proletarians in these nations, subjected to bitter and grinding exploitation, and living lives foreshortened by hunger, war, disease, ignorance and oppression and who also provide the great wealth sucked from these countries by imperialism and the local exploiters. It is a major problem in the world today that, despite the valiant and even heroic efforts of communists in some of these countries, the masses in this part of the world are almost entirely under the political and ideological sway of one of these two poles, and many of the most exploited—along with some of the disaffected middle strata who have no place in society, no way to contribute or flourish—have gravitated toward Islamic fundamentalism. This is poisonous. Islamic fundamentalism masks the basic character of the problem, which is a) the domination of these societies by imperialism, b) the continued pervasiveness of feudal and semi-feudal oppression within these societies, and c) the mutual entwinement and reinforcement of these two oppressive forces. And it leads away from the solution—a truly emancipating revolution to liberate these societies from imperialism and to move toward socialism, and ultimately communism. Instead, Islamic fundamentalism, where it has come to power, has produced societies no less repressive and exploitative than what they replace.
From the point of view of the real interests of the masses, the casting of this fundamental antagonism in religious terms leads to disastrous results. It reflects an aspect of the surface reality, but it actually obscures, distorts and leads away from understanding the essential underlying forces and dynamics which have led to this horrendous situation. Revolutionaries have no choice but to devote major efforts to rupturing the masses from this outlook; this can’t be finessed, and nobody should want to finesse it. And the importance of doing it is, perversely enough, underlined by the fact that Obama’s entire speech—literally from beginning to end—is framed in, draws on, and reinforces these very terms and this very framework of understanding.
Crude Stereotype or Dead-On Characterization?
After paying homage to “Islamic civilization” for a while, Obama moves to a central point of his speech: “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words—within our borders, and around the world.”
This may not be a very original lie, but it is still an astoundingly bald-faced one and one all too little remarked upon by those commenting on this speech.
To begin with, Obama did not mention exactly which blood that America has shed in its many many wars has NOT been in the service of a “self-interested” empire.
Was it the blood shed by the Native peoples of this country, who were pitilessly killed by America in wars that decimated, uprooted and often obliterated all traces of one people after another? These genocidal wars often paved the way to “hero” status and even the White House for those who prosecuted them—even today a laudatory biography of one of the most brutal and blood-thirsty genocidal general/presidents, Andrew Jackson, is on the best-seller charts.
Was it the blood shed by Mexicans, when the U.S. waged war against Mexico and stole much of its land—a war carried out for the principal purpose of expanding slavery?
Was it the blood shed in the war conducted to colonize the people of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century—a war in which America slaughtered somewhere between 200,000 and 1.4 million (!) Filipino people, out of a population at the time of 7 million?
Was it the blood that soaked the fields of Vietnam, when the U.S. murdered between two and three million people? Or the blood flowing in the deserts and cities of Iraq, where American military power over the past two decades has caused the death of over a million people and the maiming, torture, immiseration and suffering of millions more? How about the scores of U.S. invasions and military actions in Central and South America, stretching over decades, with its death toll in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands—all designed to prop up a pitiless and brutal U.S. domination of those nations?
Or perhaps it is Afghanistan, where the U.S. first bankrolled and armed Islamic fundamentalists who fought the rival of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and where today its 40,000 troops specialize in the mass murder of civilians from the sky?1
Even the much-vaunted “good war,” World War 2—which, note well, Obama immediately went on from Cairo to celebrate and call attention to through his cynical, photo-op visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp and his participation in the “D-Day ceremonies”—was nothing but a strategic move by the United States to expand its domination of the entire globe, defeating the challenge from its German and Japanese rivals (after first letting Germany bleed the then-socialist Soviet Union) and absorbing what had been the empires of its allies France and England into a new, U.S.-dominated neo-colonial order. Where, in all the rivers of blood that have been shed by U.S. arms over the past two centuries and more, is the blood that was NOT in the service of empire?
Is calling America a “self-interested empire” a “crude stereotype”? No. As the above list makes clear (and that list is far from exhaustive), it is merely a basic and undeniable truth essential to understanding the world we live in, what needs to be transformed in that world, and how to do it. America IS an empire—or, more scientifically, an imperialist system that requires the super-exploitation and domination of whole parts of the world for its existence. Unfortunately, even many who see or know about these crimes—or at least some of them—do not see, or refuse to see, the mechanism at the heart of the machine, the driving dynamic that reproduces these crimes generation after generation. And this weakness in people’s understanding is something that Obama—with his fresh packaging and his new face—attempts to play on.
Obama put out his profound lie about America at a pivotal part of his speech—right before he goes into the key “specific issues that...we must finally confront together.” But depending on how you understand what America in its essence is all about—what it has been about in all its wars and throughout its history, and what drives it forward—you will look at these “specific issues” very differently, and you will “confront” them in a very different way.
1. Spokespeople for U.S. imperialism routinely denounce Islamic fundamentalism—what they all leave out in their denunciations is the central role played by the U.S. in originally financing and backing these movements in order to crush communist and secular nationalist movements in those countries. This is also involved, quiet as it’s kept, in the rise of Khomeini in Iran (See “30 Years After the Iranian Revolution” from A World To Win News Service, February 23, 2009.) In addition, during the 1980s, these forces were used as pawns by the U.S. to contend with the no-longer-socialist Soviet Union. [back]
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