In January 2015, the former King of Saudi Arabia, 90-year-old Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, passed away. He had been king since 2005, and was replaced by his half-brother, Prince Salman, a youthful 79 year-old. Upon Abdullah’s passing, tributes for the dead king poured out from the capitals of London, Paris, Washington and other imperialist states. There is nothing particularly unusual about this – various heads of state cancelled their plans and rushed to Riyadh in a fawning display to ensure the continued cooperation of the Saudi hereditary monarchy. Smooth continuity in the political process is something strongly desired by the imperialist powers.
It is interesting to note that Salman, the new Saudi King, is reportedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s – visitors to Riyadh have noted that Salman demonstrates incoherence after a short period of conversation. Given the singular importance of the reigning monarch in theSaudi political structure, one wonders what happens when the king becomes incapacitated.
Hypocrisy of political leaders
What is the relevance of all this for Australia? When the former King Abdullah passed on, Australian government buildings and offices were instructed to lower their flags to half-mast, as a mark for respect for the recently departed Saudi King. The Sydney Morning Herald explained that:
A directive issued by the Commonwealth Flag Officer on Friday afternoon noted Abdullah’s death.
“As a mark of mourning and respect and in accordance with protocol, the Australian National Flag should be flown at half-mast all day on Saturday 24 January 2015 Australia-wide from all buildings and establishments occupied by Australian Government departments and affiliated agencies,” the statement said.
In Sydney, flags atop the Harbour Bridge were flying at half-mast. A spokesman for Premier Mike Baird said this was because the NSW Government follows Commonwealth protocol.
Both Federal and State governments in Australia payed their respects to the repressive hereditary monarchy of Saudi Arabia. And Australia was not alone in this sentiment. US President Barack Obama, US Vice President Joe Biden, French President François Hollande, Britain’s Prince Charles, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, British Prime Minister David Cameron – the list of world leaders expressing effusive praise for the departed Saudi monarch is long and extensive. The list of dignitaries lining up to offer their condolences does not stop there – current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, surprised many by stating her opinion of the late Abdullah:
He was a great leader. He implemented lots of reforms, at home, and in a very discreet way, he was a great advocate for women. It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country, but I discussed that issue with him several times and he was a strong believer.
Lagarde’s comments fly in the face of reality. As the Workers World documented in an article about the Saudi issue, the Riyadh regime is an absolutist tyranny maintained by a brutal police state, where no political opposition is tolerated, where the enormous oil wealth of the country is monopolised by the ruling Saud royal family, and the majority of people live in poverty:
Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include adultery, homosexuality and political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.
The Workers World article “Saudi oil and U.S. hypocrisy”, goes on to examine the plight of women in that country, and the deep, important connections that the Saudi regime maintains with US military and corporate interests. Military manufacturers like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Boeing obtain billions of dollars in contracts. In 2013, Saudi Arabia had the fourth largest military budget in the world, according to Al Jazeera. In fact, in 2014, the regime became the world’s top importer of weapons, increasing its defence trade to 64.4 billion dollars.
Saudi Aramco, the national petroleum and gas company responsible for the exploration, drilling and export of Saudi oil, structured all of the country’s oil assets into one nationalised conglomerate monopolised by the Saud royal family. US oil multinationals sustain a mutually profitable relation with Aramco, where the activities of Aramco are designed to maximise profits for American oil giants – an American dream in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s main export is the Wahhabi ideology
Saudi Arabia exports not only oil and armaments, lucrative as those industries are. Another export for which the Riyadh regime is less well known, but which is no less important, is its ideology, Wahhabism. A revivalist movement within Sunni Islam, Wahhabism is named after its founder, the eighteenth century preacher from Arabia Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The enormous wealth generated by the oil industry enabled the Saudi regime to promote its soft-power ideological export, spreading Wahhabism firstly throughout the other Muslim-majority countries, and secondly disseminating Wahhabi doctrines in the non-Muslim states. Wahhabism intends to influence the character of mainstream Islam, implanting itself educationally and culturally in the Muslim-majority states.
Understanding the role of Saudi Arabia as a military and ideological conduit is necessary to get to grips with another major issue of our times, the rise and influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The latter group has obtained media attention, at times achieving saturation coverage of its battles, ideology and activities. Reams of material, documentaries, news reports, and analyses have been produced examining the origins, rise and influence of ISIL.
However, there is one important aspect that is constantly omitted – as Alastair Crooke, writer and historian stated in the Huffington Post, “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” That is the title of his article which thoroughly examines the role of Wahhabist doctrine in the formation of the Saudi state and its continuing influence. Comprehending the Saudi state’s doctrinal and political foundations are crucial in understanding the emergence of fundamentalist groups like ISIL today.
Crooke’s Huffington Post article, standing on its own merits, should be read in conjunction with an excellent essay by Karen Armstrong for the New Statesman magazine called “Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism”. The ISIL group, while claiming to be Islamic, actually has its ideological roots in Wahhabism, the official doctrine of the Saudi state. While Armstrong’s essay has some serious flaws, her work, along with Crooke’s essay, form a necessary rudder to assist in navigating our way through the origins and permutations of the Saudi kingdom.
Alastair Crooke and Karen Armstrong both note that inside Saudi Arabia, the ruling elite is simultaneously applauding the actions of ISIL, but also express anxieties about its growing strength and resolve. ISIL, basing itself on the Sunni fundamentalist vision of Wahhabism, is celebrated for its fiery dedication to the Sunni cause, and pushing Shia influences onto the defensive. Saudi Arabia is the staunch enemy of Shia Iran, and countering its influence in the Arab world is one of the main objectives of the Saudi elite. Sections of the Saudi royal family have extended generous funding and military support to ISIL, particularly in the early stages of the latter’s emergence.
However, there are Saudi voices expressing deep anxieties about the spread of radical Salafi doctrine, and no less than the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia himself, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, strongly condemned ISIL and its violent activities as the number one enemy of Islam. Memories of the violent uprising by Wahhabi-inspired militants of the 1920s, convinced that the Saud royal family was too close to the West, still remain fresh in the minds of the Saudi monarchy. For its part, ISIL loudly denounces the rulers of Saudi Arabia as weaklings and apostates who deserve annihilation.
What is Wahhabism, and how has the Saudi state contributed to its spread around the Islamic world? Why is the Saudi elite divided over the issue of ISIL? How has the petro-dollar been used to finance the cultural export of Salafism?
These questions form the subject of the next article.
In early February 2015, at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a middle-aged American man, Craig Stephen Hicks, murdered three young persons of Muslim background – Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Yusor’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Barakat was of Syrian descent, while the two women were Palestinian.
The three victims were shot, execution-style, in a car park near the Chapel Hill campus of North Carolina University. The Chapel Hill police were quick to announce that the killing was motivated by a dispute over a parking space – Hicks had a history of belligerent, aggressive behaviour, was quick to lose his temper, and had confronted many of his neighbours over similarly trivial reasons. The police, and Ripley Rand, U.S. district attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, were at pains to point out that this killing could not be construed as a hate crime, directed at a group of people because of their ethnic and religious background.
It is important to investigate every possible motive for a crime, in order to ascertain the identity of the perpetrator, and to take steps to ensure that such a crime does not happen again. With the Chapel Hill killings, it is difficult to take the official explanation seriously. As Ramzy Baroud stated in his article, “Parking Space Terrorism”, published in Counterpunch, the murder of three Muslims by Hicks is not just a random act of violence perpetrated by a lone individual, however mentally disturbed the killer may be. This killing is the latest in a long-simmering seam of hatred, Islamophobia, promoted and nurtured by the American corporate-military elite since the 2001 ‘war on terror’. The tide of Islamophobia, targeting the Muslim community as the eternal outsiders, potential terrorists and a fifth column eating away inside our tolerant society, has fuelled explosions of toxic hate such as Chapel Hill. The latter killings are not an exceptional occurrence.
After the Chapel Hill killings, the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston, Texas, was set on fire in an arson attack. In Dearborn, Michigan, an Arab-American family was attacked, leaving the father of the family needing hospitalisation. These attacks occurred in a wider social and political context of a cultural-political narrative that singles out Muslim communities as incapable of reasoning, predisposed to violence, and unable to adapt to the cultural norms and values of the society in which they live. If the Islamic community is targeted as being more prone to violence and intolerance than others, it makes more socially acceptable to ostracise and attack them.
Hicks himself attempted to rationalise his actions on the basis of being an anti-theist, a particular brand that has become popular due to so-called ‘New Atheism’. There is nothing particularly new about ‘New Atheism’, and its most identifiable spokespeople, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, have gained a wider platform for restating atheist and non-religious views. What is different about this narrative is that atheism has been distorted and blighted by the ‘war on terror’, providing a secular banner for the project of building a new American empire. As Luke Savage argued in Jacobin magazine:
At face value, and by its own understanding, New Atheism is a reinvigorated incarnation of the Enlightenment scientism found in the work of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes: a critical discourse that subjects religious texts and traditions to rational scrutiny by way of empirical inquiry and defends universal reason against the forces of provincialism.
In practice, it is a crude, reductive, and highly selective critique that owes its popular and commercial success almost entirely to the “war on terror” and its utility as an intellectual instrument of imperialist geopolitics.
Hicks has been able to position his hate crime within the context of ‘new atheism’ that posits Islam as a uniquely violent, messianic challenge to ‘our Western’ democratic and secular values. The assertion that Islamic people are somehow inherently non-rational and immune to reason can be easily dispensed with; the scientific and mathematical achievements of the Arab and Islamic worlds, hundreds of years prior to the European Renaissance, occurred during the golden age of the Islamic empire. What is not easily discarded is the toxic environment created by a climate of fear and hostility engendered by the relentless barrage of propaganda from the industrial-financial ruling class. Anti-Muslim bigotry also plays a useful functional role in manufacturing consent for US imperial wars in the Arab and Islamic countries.
The Centre for American Progress, a nonprofit progressive think tank and public policy research institute, published a scathing report entitled “Fear Inc. 2.0 – The Islamophobia Network’s Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America”. This report exposes the nationwide network of conservative and Religious Right groups, and the millions of dollars at their disposal, to disseminate anti-Islamic prejudice in communities across the United States. Their influence and connections reach into the political corridors of powers, into police and law enforcement departments, and media broadcasting networks. Every Muslim community is viewed as a potential terror threat, and every mosque the incubator of extremist suspects. Viewing the Islamic community through the prism of security, serves to dehumanise and demonise an entire people.
There was justifiable and understandable outrage at the attack on the offices of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015. Twelve people were killed, and the French state, media and political establishment provided virtually 24-hour round-the-clock coverage of the details of this heinous crime. A campaign of solidarity went viral on social media networks, with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie being picked up and circulated in the millions. Numerous heads of state gathered in Paris soon after the shootings to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims, and promote the ostensibly prized values of free speech and a free press. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was portrayed as yet another demonstration of the utterly irreconcilable differences that separate the Muslim ‘them’ from the democratic ‘us’.
Leaving aside this orgy of hypocrisy, given that the politicians who marched in Paris are responsible for the suppression of free speech and lethal attacks on journalists, the outpouring of solidarity and compassion raises questions about the current social climate. Where is the equivalent hashtag campaign, the similar outrage and viral social media outpouring regarding the killings at Chapel Hill? The political leaders of the imperial states are responsible for unleashing wars of aggression in the Middle East, where the majority of the world’s Muslim population lives. These wars, on Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, the drone warfare on Yemen, have not only radicalised the populations in these countries, but constitute an imperialist onslaught against the Islamic countries. In 2003, in the opening stages of the American war on Iraq, the Baghdad offices of al Jazeera were bombed, leaving three journalists dead. Israeli forces have murdered numerous journalists during its successive wars on the Palestinians in Gaza – eliciting no such campaigns for free speech.
There is a deeper dishonesty in the reporting about the Charlie Hebdo murders, a dishonesty that is directly relevant for our purposes. This is the representation of the slain journalists at the newspaper as martyrs for free speech. French republicanism has a long tradition of satire, and much of that fire is directed at organised religion. Subjecting the official powers, including religious authority, to ridicule and scorn is a mainstay of French republican free-thinking. Caricatures and satirical portrayals are an inevitable and welcome development in a democracy. Charlie Hebdo has long since abandoned this tradition when it decided to recycle outdated, crude and frankly racist caricatures of an ethnic minority. As Hana Shafi explains in her column for the Huffington Post, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were racist, not satirical:
Yes, there is such a thing as respect. We can have respect for the family and friends affected by this horrible attack. But, we can also call out the elephant in the room: Charlie Hebdo was a notoriously racist publication, one that made its fame and capital through Islamophobia, among forms of bigotry.
We tote free speech and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without questioning the limitations of free speech. Is racism a part of free speech? Can hate speech be excused? People scream in unison “it’s just satire!” But to me, and others, satire is something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, not racist caricatures of minorities with elongated noises and frightening eyes reminiscent of early Nazi propaganda with anti-Semitic illustrations of Jewish people.
Satire directed at the powers-that-be, mocking the powerful and privileged, serves as an outlet for the disenfranchised and marginalised to express their dissent at an unfair system. Satire directed at ethnic minorities, already suffering from widespread discrimination, only serves to further alienate already-ostracised communities. The Islamophobic cartoons in Charlie Hebdo belong in the same category as the similarly stereotypical (and satirical) cartoons of Japanese that were ubiquitous in the United States during World War Two. The crude and sinister caricatures of the Muslim deployed in Charlie Hebdo are highly reminiscent of the Orientalist tropes in the propaganda used by the American authorities during the 1930s and 1940s to incite a climate of hostility and fear against the Japanese people.
It is not entirely correct to state that there has been no outpouring of grief and community solidarity over the latest killings at Chapel Hill, and the associated escalation of violence against Muslims. Vigils, rallies, and demonstrations organised by various activist and human rights group have been held under the banner Muslim Lives Matter. Similar to the BlackLivesMatter campaign, the purpose of this endeavour is to regain our common humanity, to find meaning and purpose in the face of seemingly senseless violence, and to remember that human lives matter, regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Multiracial and multiethnic unity is necessary to construct a society that is free from hate crimes.
In January 2015, armed rebel groups associated with the Shia Houthi movement in Yemen, seized government buildings, dissolved the parliament, and forced the previous President, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to resign. This takeover was the completion of a long drawn-out process that began in September 2014, when the Houthi militia, the strongest and most organised opposition movement in Yemen, effectively took control of the country’s capital, Sanaa.
Yemen is located at the southwestern end of the Arabian peninsula, overlooking the outlet from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Pacific Ocean. While it has huge oil reserves of its own, Yemen is also strategically important for its location as a maritime gateway for shipping and commercial traffic through the Red Sea. Yemen has been an important link for US imperialism, serving as a base of operations for the US military, the latter working closely with the Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his successor Hadi. But Yemen also became known around the world as a target of consistent and lethal drone strikes by the United States, and the casualties from these drone warfare only resulted in creating vehement opposition to the United States. This situation enabled opposition groups, like the Houthi insurgents, to recruit and organise.
Impact of drone strikes
The Yemeni regime received billions of dollars in aid, both military and financial, in order to wage its own campaign against the domestic opposition. The regime of Saleh, allowing the drone warfare to proceed, became an object of hatred and anti-American resentment. The Yemeni solution was upheld by US President Obama as a successful model of counterinsurgency, driven by specific intelligence-gathering and precise targeting of militants, so the administration said. In 2011, when a popular uprising forced the resignation of Saleh, the cosmetic political changes orchestrated in Sanaa were hailed by Obama as a successful example of a managed and orderly transition. The top figurehead of the regime was removed, but the political and military apparatus of the state remained in place.
The implosion of Yemeni society, impoverished as it is, is a complete defeat for US imperialism in the region. The most successful opposition grouping, the Houthis, are politically aligned with Iran. They exploited the widespread hostility to US drone strikes in order to win popular support for their Shia-based insurgency.
Ibrahim Mothana, a young Yemeni writer, wrote a powerful article explaining the counterproductive and horrifying impact of US drone strikes. The article, relayed by Glenn Greenwald and published in the online magazine Common Dreams back in 2013. Mothana examines how the drone strikes are anything but the surgically precise attacks as they are portrayed in the corporate media. Mothana provided testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights that the drone strikes are not only unethical, but are only adding to the misery of the ordinary people in Yemen. He stated that:
We are the poorest country in the Middle East with over 50 percent of our people living on less than 2 dollars a day. We are running out of water and out of oil, our major source of foreign revenue. Our nation has been troubled by decades of conflicts and an irresponsible, corrupt governments. A lot of my childhood friends are unemployed and live a daily struggle to maintain their basic human needs. In 2011, millions of Yemenis who lived decades under one autocratic ruler rose up in a largely peaceful revolution calling for democracy, accountability and justice, the very values cherished in American democracy.
Many young people like me grew up looking to America and its people for inspiration. Among many other things my teenage years were enriched by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches, Mark Twain’s sarcasm and American TV shows. The promise of equality and freedom seemed fulfilled when America elected its first black president. With an upsurge of happiness, many Yemenis celebrated the inauguration day and, at that point, President Obama was more popular among my friends than any other Yemeni figure. I was inspired by President Obama’s promise of “a new era of leadership that will bring back America’s credibility on human rights Issues and reject prioritizing safety to ideals.”
But happiness and inspiration gave way to misery. My admiration for the American dream and Obama’s promises has become overshadowed by the reality of the American drones strike nightmare in Yemen.
This long quote is necessary to provide insight into the mindset of Mothana, and for millions of Yemenis who were hoping for a better future, but have become bogged down in a nightmarish scenario.
Mothana went on to describe the horrifying violence rained down from the skies by the American drone warfare, and the collusion of the Saleh administration with that kind of incendiary warfare:
We Yemenis got our first experience with targeted killings under the Obama administration on December 17, 2009, with a cruise missile strike in al-Majala, a hamlet in a remote area of southern Yemen. This attack killed 44 people including 21 women and 14 children, according to Yemeni and international rights groups including Amnesty International. The lethal impact of that strike on innocents lasted long after it took place. On August 9, 2010, two locals were killed and 15 were injured from an explosion of one remaining cluster bomb from that strike.
After that tragic event in 2009, both Yemeni and US officials continued a policy of denial that ultimately damaged the credibility and legitimacy of the Yemeni government. According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, in a meeting on January 2, 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi joked about how he had just “lied” by telling the Yemeni parliament the bombs in the al-Majala attack were dropped by the Yemenis, and then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a promise to General Petreaus, then the then head of US central command, saying: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Such collusion added insult to injury to Yemenis.
Out of this imploding and desperate society, the Houthi insurgency mobilised domestic support for its takeover in Sanaa. However, a bit of background is in order.
The North-South split
In 1962, the new King of North Yemen, was deposed in a coup d’etat by revolutionary-minded, Arab-nationalist military officers inspired by the Pan-Arab ideology of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Yemeni army split, and the leader of the coup d’etat, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, declared the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and dug in for a prolonged civil war. The latter had the support of Nasser’s Egypt, and the nationalist officers received arms, training and eventually several thousand Egyptian soldiers, in support of the anti-monarchist revolt. The royalist side, headed by the absolutist monarch King Muhammad al-Badr, was bankrolled at various times by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, France, Israel – each with their own interest in weakening Nasser’s Egypt. A civil war by proxy, Egypt committed thousands of troops and air support, but neither side could achieve a decisive victory. The Egyptian political and military leadership later described Yemen as their own Vietnam.
South Yemen, having been a British protectorate until 1967, remained de facto a separate country. Basically Yemen was split into two, and with the withdrawal of Egyptian troops in 1967, the war in North Yemen spluttered to a final conclusion with the royalist faction gaining control of the capital Sanaa. South Yemen, formally known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, (PDRY) was ruled by the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and politically organised along socialistic lines. Its official ideology was scientific socialism, and it drew its ideological and political inspiration from the Soviet Union. Established in 1970, the South Yemeni regime implemented a huge urbanisation campaign, modernising the cities, opening up education to girls and women, offered equal employment opportunities, and ensured equality before the law. The YAR remained influenced by more conservative, religious-based and patriarchal ideology.
Despite ongoing tensions, the YAR and PDRY maintained cordial relations, interspersed with periodic conflicts. In the late 1980s, oil exploration by both countries sparked a renewed interest in merging the two nations, both of which could benefit economically. Both sides established joint exploration ventures in the border areas, and formed a joint oil company involving experts from both nations. The presidents of the two nations agreed to a draft constitution for a unified nation. After a prolonged period of negotiations and political compromises, the North and South Yemen formally merged in 1990. Saleh became the president of the reunited nation, while Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former president of the PDRY, became vice-president and head of the government.
Saleh is President for life, and the rise of the Houthis
Soon after the unification process in 1990, a mini-civil war broke out between the former supporters and members of the Yemeni Socialist Party and the General People’s Congress, (GPC) headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Yemeni Socialist Party had been weakened by the dissolution of its main ideological and political influence, the Soviet Union. The more conservative elements in the newly unified Yemeni state, mainly the GPC took advantage of the situation to settle scores and push out their political rivals. All those political and military officials who were members or supporters of the Yemeni socialist party were pushed out, and the Saleh regime consolidated its grip on the country. Yemen was to be ruled with an iron fist, oriented politically and economically to the capitalist West, and maintain friendly relations with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. The latter has always viewed Yemen as belonging to its sphere of influence, with Saudi leaders regarding Yemen’s security situation as inseparable from that of their own.
The ousting of the Yemeni Socialist Party members from positions of power did not mean the end of dissent against Saleh’s rule. Since the early 1990s, the Houthis have been organising as a distinct religious grouping, initially aiming for the revival of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam to which they adhere. Named after the founder of their group, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, they desired a religious awakening for their people, the Zaidis, who make up about one-third of the population in Yemen. Abstaining from politics at first, they concentrated their efforts on religious conversion and activity, and did not seek any political position in the newly unified Yemeni society. However, no grouping can remain indifferent to politics for very long in Yemeni society.
The Houthis, being Shia, were economically and politically marginalised in the new Yemeni polity. This is not surprising, because the economic situation in Yemen has been parlous for its people. Since 1990, Saleh did nothing to alleviate the desperate poverty of the Yemeni population. Yemen remained the poorest country in the Arabic-speaking world, with the majority of the population living on less than two dollars a day. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been seriously addressed by the authorities. Back in 2013, Al-Monitor published an article detailing that the vast majority of Yemenis lack access to basic services, a lack of health care, clean drinking water, and lack of access to jobs.
It is these terrible economic conditions, lack of opportunities and social immiseration, coupled with the incessant and lethal drone strikes, that drove many desperate Yemenis into the arms of opposition groups like the Houthis. The latter, having suffered grievously under Saleh’s dictatorial rule, rose up in rebellion in 2004. They fought the tanks, bombs and superior weapons of the Yemeni regime to a standstill. They gained de facto control of several provinces, mostly populated by fellow Shia, and provided a measure of stable government and security in the provinces they controlled. Let us also not forget that the Houthis are staunchly opposed to al-Qaeda, and have fought pitched battles with Sunni fundamentalist outfits, included the widely despised Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This last point partly explains why the United States is willing to contemplate negotiating with the Houthi insurgency, something it would never normally countenance with a group that has an Islamist ideology.
In 2011, a mass uprising by the Yemeni population resulted in the ousting of the detested figure of Saleh. The United States, having strongly supported the Saleh regime, now sought to defuse the popular unrest by conceding some cosmetic changes. The regime was the beneficiary of billions of dollars in finances and military equipment, so the American policymakers realised that some superficial change was inevitable to avoid letting the entire Yemeni police-security apparatus go under.
Saleh resigned, and was replaced by Hadi. A politically orderly transition was made. A transition that shifted some leaders at the top, while the lower-level military-police structures remained in place. Commitments were made by the Yemeni authorities to make political and economic changes, and the mass protests dissipated. However, no substantive economic change was implemented, and the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The Yemeni solution became a template hailed by the United States as a successful example of managed regime change. That template collapsed in a heap in January 2015 with the defeat of the Yemeni regime.
From being a marginal movement, the Houthis have emerged as a serious political force on the Yemeni scene. While the Houthis are a militant Shia group drawing their inspiration from Iran, it would be simplistic and misleading to characterise them as proxies of Tehran – anymore than the Yemeni Socialist Party are proxies of Moscow or the Soviet Union. Labelling them as a foreign importation of Iranian origin distracts us from the real economic and social grievances, the local Yemeni conditions, that gave rise to a movement like the Houthi. They are a distinct product of Yemeni politics, the desperate economic environment, and the collapse of basic security.
Much has been made of the Iranian connection with the Houthi, and indeed Iranian arms supplies have been provided by Tehran to the Shia militant group. However, the Iranian connection is also vastly overstated, with the former Saleh regime (and Saudi Arabia) exaggerating the group’s ties to Iran in order to justify their ongoing war on the Yemeni people as a ‘war on terror’. Tehran has been making statements of late, comparing the Houthi militia with the Lebanese Shia guerrillas of Hezbollah. This comparison, while appealing, is also simplistic. The Houthis are a product of the Yemeni conditions, with their own centuries-long history of the Zaidi Imamate in Yemen, and their own customs and traditions. Prior to 1962 and the founding of the Yemen Arab Republic, Yemen was ruled by an Imamate system to which today’s Houthis look for inspiration.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, (GCC) consisting of all the petro-monarchies in the Gulf including Saudi Arabia, have demanded military intervention in the Yemeni situation by the United Nations in light of the Houthi seizure of power. The GCC meeting in Riyadh also raised the possibility of unilateral military action should the United Nations remain passive. The Saudi Arabian government did back the ousted regime of former president Mansour Hadi with billions of dollars. Saudi Arabia has its own restive Shia minority, occupying territories that border the Houthi in Yemen, and is worried about the encroaching Shia influence in its traditional sphere. In 2009, the Saudi monarchy waged a brief war against the Houthis – the war proceeded disastrously and achieved nothing.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, the Houthis fought off attacks by Al Qaeda, as well as the Yemeni government forces. By September 2014, the Yemeni regime’s authority had all but collapsed, and the Houthi militia, Ansar Allah, (Supporters of God) were able to move into the capital Sanaa. The Houthi takeover of the government in early 2015, was the culmination of a prolonged process of attrition, with the Sanaa government gradually losing ground to the advancing Houthis. The GCC denounced the seizure of power as a coup, a misleading term in this instance that implies the Shia militia has no popular legitimacy. The Houthis did gain popular support as a party untainted by the corruption and subservience to American interests that characterised the Saleh administration.
The Yemeni Socialist Party has been experiencing a revival since the mid-2000s, and the re-emergence of the Left has made it an important political force in Yemeni society. The other Yemeni parties, the Yemeni Congregation of Reform (Muslim Brotherhood), Nasserist Unionist People’s Organisation, the Yemeni Arab Socialist Ba’ath party – are participants in a 2005 initiative, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). This is a coalition of parties united by their opposition to former President Saleh. Each has varying degrees of influence.
The next steps for Yemen must not involve more drone strikes, warfare and militia rule. The economy of the country needs to be rebuilt if its people are to have any hope for the future. Aerial warfare has achieved nothing but resentment and opposition among the Yemeni population. An unjust and unequal economic system has only resulted in the implosion of the society. The rule of law must apply to all parties, and torture must be banned whomever commits it. Military intervention by outside powers will only prolong the country’s suffering. The hopes and aspirations of the brave Yemenis who rose up in 2011 must not be forgotten. Yemen’s plight only underlines the fact that US imperial power is no friend of working people, and will actively prop up dictatorships to suit its own economic and military interests.
Naim Suleymanoglu, born in Bulgaria of Turkish descent, is a world champion weightlifter. Born Naim Suleimanov in 1967, his talent for weightlifting was recognised at an early age. Sent to a special school for budding weightlifters, his coach called him a child prodigy, and the wonder kid was set for a remarkable career. He did not disappoint, going on to become one of the most distinguished weightlifters in Olympic history.
Of small stature, standing 1.47 metres (4-feet 11-inches), and weighing 60 kilos, he has lifted three times his own bodyweight above his head, broken numerous world and Olympic records, and won three gold medals for the featherweight class in weightlifting. Earning the nickname the ‘Pocket Hercules’, watch an example of Suleymanoglu in action at the 1996 Olympic games. He lifted three times his own body weight, making him pound-for-pound one of the strongest weightlifters to ever compete.
There is no doubt that Suleymanoglu deserves his fame and success. He is a remarkably talented individual athlete and a fierce competitor. He earned renown for himself, and distinction for Turkey, the country he represented. In 1996, he dueled with the Greek weightlifter Valerios Leonidas, each competitor outdoing the other in terms of lifting, until only one (Suleymanoglu) emerged victorious. He owes his fame to his outstanding ability as a weightlifter. However, that is not the only reason he became a world-famous sporting figure.
Suleymanoglu was born in Bulgaria, in the days of the Communist system. He competed initially for Bulgaria in various world championships, and Bulgaria was known, along with the Russians and East Germans, to produce top-class weightlifters. In the mid-1980s, when Suleimanov (his birth name) was 16, the Bulgarian government joined the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Suleimanov missed a chance to win gold.
From 1984 onwards, the Bulgarian government decided that the Turkic minority within its borders, numbering around 900,000, would have to assimilate. The Bulgarian Turks, allowed to practice their religion and maintain their traditional culture in the early days of Communist rule in the 1940s and 1950s, were now forced to Bulgarianise their names, abandon their religion of Islam, and those who refused were allowed to migrate to Turkey. The Bulgarian government in the mid-1980s, under the strongman Todor Zhivkov, was attempting a last-ditch measure at populistic nationalism to shore up support for a stagnating regime. The Turkish minority resisted, attacking the authorities, and in May 1989, mass demonstrations erupted.
The Zhivkov leadership decided that those Bulgarian Turks who did not wish to remain in Bulgaria would be allowed to proceed to Turkey. The latter has always portrayed itself as the logical homeland, the big brother of the pan-Turkic family. The opportunity to move out of the Eastern bloc and proceed to the ‘free’ western country of Turkey was too big to miss. Thousands of Bulgarian Turks packed up and fled to what they believed was the relative safety and freedom of Turkey.
Suleimanov had already left his native Bulgaria – he defected to Turkey in 1986 while he was a competitor for the Bulgarian weightlifting team in Melbourne, Australia. Turkey had long desired that Suleimanov, now going by his Turkish name of Suleymanoglu, compete for their weightlifting team, thus earning them long-sought glory as opposed to the usually dominant Bulgarians. The motives of the Turkish side were not completely altruistic – and later it emerged that Turkey paid the Bulgarian government seven million dollars (US) for Suleymanoglu. Big money for a star athlete. The Bulgarian Turks were outcasts, unwanted in their native land. They sought refugee in their ethnic home country. But how were the thousands of other Bulgarian Turk refugees treated by the Turkish authorities?
There is a small pamphlet, printed by the Bulgarian government in 1989 during the last months of Communist Party rule. It is called “The twilight of a delusion: stories of Bulgarian citizens who returned from Turkey”. Authored by Georgi Naidenov, it documents the callous mistreatment, abuses and neglect suffered by the Bulgarian Turks who chose to move to Turkey. It is a collection of testimonies from the refugees themselves, seeking what they thought would be a new life in the West, only to be shunted aside, maltreated and demonised by the Turkish authorities. 300 000 people made the ‘Big Excursion’ from Bulgaria to Turkey – about half then returned. Pushed into makeshift refugee camps, beaten, abused and malnourished, the stories of the refugees makes for heart-rending reading. The delusion of finding freedom and prosperity in a capitalist country had been rudely shattered. They picked up and returned to their native Bulgaria.
Indeed, by August 1989, a few months after the initial wave of refugees arrived at Turkey’s borders, the Turkish authorities announced that they would be re-closing their borders. The Ankara government expressed its policy reversal after concerns about the ability of the Turkish economy to absorb the recent migrants. The promised utopia was now closing its gates.
By the end of 1989 the Zhivkov government had changed – the Communist party was ousted, and a new pro-capitalist formation took its place. The borders between Bulgaria and Turkey were opened, and the Eastern bloc was now open to a mass influx of big capital and business from the imperialist West. Suleymanoglu had long since left Bulgaria, and had long since forgotten his Bulgarian Turkic origins, going on to break world and Olympic records in weightlifting.
In 2009, the Sofia Echo, the Bulgarian news agency, published a retrospective account of the exodus of the Bulgarian Turks on the twentieth anniversary of that event. The article provides an overview of the period, the measures by the Bulgarian government of the time, and the experiences of the refugees. One refugee in particular, Serkan, is quoted at length. He was fourteen at the time, but for him, the wounds of the past have not healed. His comments shed light on the particular experiences of the Bulgarian Turks who were reviled, ignored and marginalised by their supposed brethren in Turkey. Detailing his journey, the article quotes Serkan’s revealing account:
“The capitalist economy (in Turkey) was a big shock to us,” says Serkan. “We went through a difficult period adjusting to a system which was alien to us. In addition, we had to co-adjust to a religion that until then hadn’t played a big role in our lives.”
Serkan tells how when his family returned to Bulgaria in 1991 (by that time in the post-Communist area) they waged a legal battle to recover their Turkish names. They also had to buy back their original home at three times the price they had sold it for.
Note that readjusting to a capitalist economy was an enormous cultural and economic shock for the refugees. They had been forgotten, abandoned to their fate once the dust had settled, and no-one was concerned about their status as a marginalised minority anymore. They had been used as pawns in political propaganda. The wonder kid Suleymanoglu was now firmly ensconced in the Turkish weightlifting community; the rest of the Bulgarian Turks had to face circumstances as best they could.
It is not strictly accurate to suggest that Suleymanoglu completely forgot his origins, because he did actually remember his home community. In 2007, Suleymanoglu stood as a political candidate in Turkey for the ultra-nationalist and racist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Informally known as the Grey Wolves, this party advocates an ethnically pure Turkish state, calls for the expulsion of ethnic minorities, and agitates for the re-emergence of a pan-Turkic empire encompassing the Turkish-speaking republics in Central Asia. The Bulgarian Turks are viewed, not as a ethnic minority struggling for equal rights, but as a foothold in an ever-increasing Turkish empire that seeks territorial and economic expansion. The Grey Wolves are one current in an ongoing rise of neo-fascistic and ultra-rightist parties throughout Europe.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the African American basketball athlete, competed fiercely in his chosen sport, built his career, and succeeded in establishing himself as a remarkably talented professional. Long since retired, he has never forgotten his African American origins, giving back to the community that nurtured him. A regular author and cultural critic, Abdul-Jabbar has spoken out on issues of racism and injustice in the United States. He penned a thoughtful, intelligent essay about the impact of an unequal class system on the black community in the US today. In fact, he wrote an article recently for Jacobin magazine explaining how college athletes, which he was, are still a vulnerable segment of society, subjected to an unscrupulous system that exploits their talents. He reached the heights of sporting greatness, but has never forgotten the humble origins.
As for the Bulgarian Turks, they are still an outcast minority in an economy that has considerably worsened since the reintroduction of capitalism. The Zhivkov-era certainly had its problems, of that there is no doubt. However, a state-subsidised health care system meant that the elderly and disabled were taken care of; children had enough to eat and were properly schooled; today, only a minority are better off, as the majority are stuck in poverty. Even the New York Slimes had to admit that while on the surface everything looked fine – free speech, free press and so on – beneath the surface was economic suffering, with Bulgaria still one of the poorest countries in Europe. As the British Express newspaper stated (hardly know for its socialistic sympathies), Bulgaria remains a melting pot of poverty and corruption.
We must never begrudge anyone their success, and Suleymanoglu is thoroughly deserving of all the accolades he has earned over his illustrious career. But we must also never forget our origins, and dispense with the delusion that capitalism provides a level-playing field. The commercialisation of sport is a poison, where individual talent is financially rewarded but subjected to the ultra-competitive imperatives of profit-driven corporatisation. An athlete becomes a brand name, valuable only insofar as they generate profits for their sponsors. Suleymanoglu did not understand, or perhaps could not understand, the economic forces that drive inequality in life are also dominant in driving commercial inequality in sport.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in the news yet again, this time in the form of video footage showing the execution of a captured Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasabeh. The latter was doused in gasoline while held in a cage, set alight and burned alive. This barbaric punishment generated understandable and justifiable revulsion among audiences around the world. This act of savagery only underscores the brutality of the perpetrators.
The denunciations of ISIS by the politicians and media commentators in the West however, have a hollow ring to them. The constant and repetitive orgy of condemnations, rather than stemming from concern for the victim, only serve as a means of almost-tribal self-affirmation. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his latest article, the ritualistic outpouring of criticism of ISIS obscures the crimes that the imperialist powers have committed over the decades in their predatory wars. Surely we, the West, are not as bad as them? If ISIS is savage and repellent, it is only using tactics that have been mechanised and refined by the Western states in their wars against the non-white peoples of the world.
The grotesque nature of this crime – incinerating people – is not in dispute. Greenwald is asking why there is no comparable outrage when the United States and Britain (and for that matter, the state of Israel), have committed similarly egregious atrocities, crimes that have been hidden from public view. The United States, in contrast to ISIS, deliberately suppresses, excuses and provides flimsy rationales for the savagery it commits with its superior military technology. As Greenwald points out, the US military had implemented and perfected its preferred method of incinerating people alive in its war in Vietnam – by using napalm. As the Boston Globe wrote in 2013:
SINCE ITS INTRODUCTION in World War II, where it was used to firebomb Japanese cities, napalm—highly incendiary and nearly impossible to extinguish—has made its way into American consciousness as a symbol of war gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the most striking photograph to emerge from the Vietnam War was of a little girl, Kim Phuc, burnt by napalm, running and screaming.
Actually, rather than symbolise war gone wrong, napalm has the intended effect of not only burning its victims, but also intimidating civilian populations into submission.
White phosphorus, an inflammatory chemical that can burn extensively and ignite clothing, fuel and other materials, was used by the Israeli military in its assault on the Palestinians of Gaza in 2008-09. Densely populated areas were deliberately targeted by the Israeli forces during their military campaign. White phosphorus, on contact with people, produces intense burns, emitting heat and absorbing liquid. Human Rights Watch compiled an extensive report on the war crimes of the Israeli forces, including their use of incendiary chemical weapons.
Greenwald cites the report by a human rights group Living Under Drones. This organisation questions the usual narrative about US drone strikes being clean, clinical and precisely targeted strikes that avoid civilian casualties. Living Under Drones documents the stories of those who live in constant fear of a drone attack, along with those survivors that have been traumatised by the grief and loss of such strikes. Not only do drone strikes kill and incinerate everyone in the direct impact zone, they also leave the survivors with disfiguring burns, shrapnel wounds, amputations, and severe deleterious impacts on mental health.
However, Greenwald omits to mention the experts on burning people alive; the United States air force. In March 1945, the US air force, under the direction of air force General Curtis LeMay, dropped 2000 tonnes of incendiary bombs on the city of Tokyo over a 48-hour period. It was the worst firestorm in recorded history. Knowing that most of Tokyo city’s buildings were made of wood, the US air force command set to work on incinerating the city and its people. As a French reporter described the bombing at the time, “They set to work at once sowing the sky with fire.”
The M-69s [the incendiary cylinder bombs dropped on Tokyo], which released 100-foot streams of fire upon detonating, sent flames rampaging through densely packed wooden homes. Superheated air created a wind that sucked victims into the flames and fed the twisting infernos. Asphalt boiled in the 1,800-degree heat. With much of the fighting-age male population at the war front, women, children and the elderly struggled in vain to battle the flames or flee.
As Common Dreams notes, the bombing of Tokyo left a lasting legacy of terror and pain for the victims. This aerial bombardment still remains a component of unfinished business for US-Japan relations, more so in some ways than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the Tokyo bombing sent shock waves throughout Japan, the morale of the Japanese military remained undented;
But if the American objective was to shorten the war by demoralizing the Japanese population and breaking its will to resist, it didn’t work. What had proven true in Germany proved equally true here: Morale was shaken by bombing, but once the shock passed, the war work went on.
The infliction of pain and suffering on a person, or group, by means of incineration and burning is a sadistic crime, of that there is no doubt. ISIS used the primitive method of pouring gasoline; the mechanised war machines of the imperialist states use more sophisticated, but no less lethal, methods in applying their brand of warfare on a larger scale.
The hypocritical denunciations of ISIS barbarity serve to incite a tribalistic mentality, further instigating public opinion for another war in the Middle East. We must ask serious questions about the motives of the US imperial state in its drive to secure energy-rich and strategic resources in the Arab and Islamic countries. While we recognise that ISIS is barbaric, it is the barbaric drive to war emanating from our own political and economic elites that must be subjected to searing and critical examination before even more lives are sacrificed for corporate profits. Hyperbole about the unique evil of ISIS only serves to obfuscate the brutality of our imperialist system.
The title of this contribution comes directly from a powerful and incisive article by Cosme Caal, a scholar and human rights activist originally from Guatemala. His article was published in Counterpunch in August 2014. His essay was prompted by the sudden influx of children, refugees from Guatemala, attempting to enter the United States without documentation. The BBC carried an article examining the multiple factors that have pushed thousands of these children out of their home country – continuing poverty, police violence and torture, drug-related extortion rackets, lack of schooling services – to seek a new life in the United States.
While elaborating on the wider political and economic policies that have led Guatemala into a state of civil war and immiseration – governed by a military regime propped up by the United States – Caal makes an important observation. As the neoliberal economic policies adopted by successive US-installed client regimes in Latin America resulted in the impoverishment of huge sections of the population, the police forces in those countries became a paramilitary enforcer for the privileged classes. The police were used to round up dissidents, suppress any dissent, and became a law unto themselves. Indeed, the police forces became entangled with criminal enterprises, engaging in massive corruption and extortionate cronyism that added to the woes of the people.
In the 1980s, the military dictatorships of Latin America – such as Guatemala – became notorious for police forces that killed and tortured with impunity. The police acted as a protector of the wealthy elite, pushing the impoverished into ghettos, out of sight and out of mind. Wealthy connections meant that a person accused of breaking the law could buy their way out of trouble, avoiding being held accountable for their actions. Meanwhile the petty crime of the poor – stealing in order to live – was punished ruthlessly. Organised protests and political opposition to an unjust economic and social order was criminalised.
Let us not forget that this culture of lawlessness has continued until today. Only in 2014, in Mexico, 43 student teachers on their way to protest a local governor were arrested by the Mexican police – and handed over to a known drug cartel that promptly executed them. The mass graves of these murdered students were found and uncovered – and the incestuous linkages between the local governing authorities, police and criminal syndicates were exposed. Mexicans across the country have been protesting against this egregious example of police-state criminality since then.
The police forces of the United States are currently undergoing Latin Americanization – becoming the unaccountable paramilitary-style enforcers of an unequal status quo. As the capitalist economic crisis undergoes its terminal stasis, the ruling class has decided on greater repression to crush all social discontent and threats to its super-profits. Political dissent is being criminalised, and the civil liberties of the people are gradually being eroded by the intelligence and surveillance apparatus.
The New York Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, announced the creation of a specific police unit that will specialise in counter-terrorism, responding to any social disorder or protests. Bratton explicitly equated terrorism, such as the Boston marathon attacks or the Charlie Hebdo killings, with domestic political demonstrations and campaigns. In the eyes of the New York police, the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, pushing for the accountability of racist police officers who murder African Americans, is a domestic threat to be violently suppressed. The criminality of the police force, which has murdered African Americans with impunity, is to be continued, not investigated.
Let us also note that the surveillance and targeting of people is expanding – the New York police department has conducted a warrantless surveillance programme specifically gathering information about the Islamic community over the last decade. Information about this spying activity came out in Philadelphia in early January 2015. The court case was brought by Muslim activists and constitutional civil rights groups against the New York Police Department. The NYPD infiltrated the mosques and religious places of Islamic groups and communities, spying on Muslim organisations and community groups. Over the last ten years, this surveillance has not resulted in the apprehension of a single terrorism suspect.
The Atlantic magazine, in May 2014, noted that the police in America increasingly resemble soldiers, becoming heavily militarised and responding with brute force in all situations, regardless of the circumstances in each case. The police are being used as a battering ram to intimidate any opposition to the capitalist system, and the militarisation of the police was evident at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The United States police force has a long history of racially-motivated violence, an unbroken line of racist suppression that extends from Ferguson all the way back to the days of slavery, in the words of veteran black activist Angela Davis.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed the unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, will not face any charges for his actions. Eric Garner, a middle-aged African American man, died in 2014 from asphyxiation after being held down in a chokehold by a New York police officer. His crime? Selling cigarettes on the street, which he did to support his family. He had no history of violence, and actually informed the police about his reasons for trading. An asthmatic, his last words, which he repeated eleven times were, ‘I can’t breathe’. No police officer has been held accountable for Garner’s death.
Developing increasingly dictatorial methods of rule, combined with greater electronic surveillance and domestic spying, are the hallmarks of a capitalist system that has no solution to its own terminal decline except greater repression. That was happening in Latin American countries in the 1980s. It is now happening in the United States. The methods of the war on terror, adopted as a matter of course when dealing with the non-white population of the world, are now being applied inside the United States itself.
Cosme Caal, in his article, stated that:
Impunity is now normalized in most police departments across the United States and in the minds of many Americans. I did not know I would live to see this phenomenon, yet, the more I peruse online news feeds, the more evident it is to me that Americans, especially minorities, are in great danger of militarized suppression as a matter of state policy.
January 15 is the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday. Every year, there are commemorative activities to celebrate the life and courageous stand of King, learn the lessons of the civil rights movement, and figure out directions for the future. Dr King’s political life, his dedication to the cause of civil rights for all and racial equality deserve to be remembered, and new generations should heed the lessons of his life. His message, that direct social action can effect meaningful change in an unjust system, resonates throughout the years since his assassination. The Obama administration will no doubt encourage people, particularly the young, to examine the civil rights movement, take inspiration from Dr King, and hopefully become enthused by the values that motivated King’s life.
In celebrating King’s life and work, there is one aspect of his philosophy that will not be publicised by the Obama regime – the critique of the economic and military power of the American empire, advocated by Dr King, in the course of calling for a complete revolution in values. King, like his contemporary the great novelist and civil rights advocate James Baldwin, understood the predatory criminality of the US empire, its drive for world domination, and that the racism of the capitalist state was systemic and vital to its continuation. King elaborated that the same white power structure spending millions on a war of conquest in Vietnam, disguised as it was in a humanitarian cloak, was the same oligarchic power structure condemning black Americans to a life of poverty, unemployment, squalor and desperation. King denounced the glaring inequalities of wealth he witnessed in his own country, the belly of the beast.
How did Dr King propose to tackle the growing problem of inequality? He suggested four measures that are considered radical by today’s neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Knowing that economic and political inequality are intertwined, he suggested the following four steps:
(1) Ratify an economic bill of rights – this involved guaranteeing that all citizens would have employment, adequate education, housing and so on. This would be the first step, Dr King reasoned, in an economic and social bill of rights.
(2) Guarantee every person a minimum income – this proposal, reinforced the idea of a minimum wage. Even then Republican President Richard Nixon suggested a guaranteed minimum income, but it was defeated by opposition from within his own party.
(3) Strengthen the workers-labour movement – Dr King realised that without a powerful labour movement, the workers, regardless of their racial background, would be at the mercy of an exploitative economic system.
In fact, on the day that Dr King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee, he was about to speak at a rally in support of a strike by low-paid sanitation workers in that city. The sanitation workers, all of whom were black, were striking because of repeated refusals by management to listen to their case for a minimum wage. Two of their comrades had been killed on the job – crushed to death by unsafe garbage compactors. This in a time when sanitation workers had to collect refuse and garbage by themselves, removing dangerous and hazardous waste – dead animals, refuse, food scraps – in unhygienic conditions.
Dr King criticised the existing leadership of the labour movement at the time for failing to endorse the civil rights movement and the push for racial equality. He recognised that the two goals of economic and racial justice were two parts of the one goal for a humane society.
(4) Employment for any person who can work – every employable citizen had the right to a job, not just to get by, but for the purpose of achieving a livable income.
Barry Sheppard, long-term American socialist and labour activist, wrote for the Australian newspaper Red Flag that Dr King envisioned a broader struggle against the systemic inequality of the capitalism:
He began to see the struggle for racial equality as an economic struggle, and the capitalist system as the problem. In 1967, in a speech titled “The Other America”, he talked about “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist”.
He described the Black population as living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity”, and living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty and human misery”.
The year Dr King spoke those words above (1967) was also the year in which he strongly denounced America’s imperial adventure in Vietnam, noting that spending millions of dollars on wars overseas while there was terrible poverty at home indicated a system in terminal decay, enriching a wealthy minority while abandoning the majority to a life of destitution.
Bill Moyers, a veteran American journalist and commentator, noted that Dr King desired a complete revolution of values to eradicate unemployment and poverty. Dr King launched a Poor People’s Campaign in the last years of his life, dedicated to combining people of all colours in one bloc to redress the vast economic inequalities of the American capitalist system. The Vietnam war, America’s crimes in that war, and the riots by black disenfranchised Americans in the 1960s radicalised King’s political outlook. He remained a Christian throughout his life, rejecting humanist atheism, but he blended together a radical critique of the capitalist system drawing from socialistic and democratic perspectives.
This is the Martin Luther King that we must remember today; not just as a icon of a long-finished struggle for civil rights, but as a passionate spokesperson for economic justice. He recognised that the fight for racial equality was bound up with the fight for economic and social equality. Strongly anti-war, he broke with the Johnson administration and criticised the latter for the Vietnam war. A year before his death, King stated that:
… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”… The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
Dr King was prepared to go to jail for his actions and beliefs – and indeed he did. This is the legacy that we should remember today; not the anodyne, Obama-ised and harmless symbol of cosmetic change, but a radical who paid the ultimate price for challenging an unjust racial and economic system. It is the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is the true inheritor of Dr King’s political legacy.
Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the boxing heavyweight championship, not only confronted racism in the sport, but rebelled against the pervasive white supremacy of his time. His battle, and the attitudes of white superiority he fought against, have contemporary lessons. His life is eloquently told in the fascinating documentary by Ken Burns, called ‘Unforgivable Blackness: The rise and fall of Jack Johnson.’
The documentary itself is an absorbing and detailed examination of the life and times of Arthur John ‘Jack’ Johnson (1878-1946), the first ever black American man to win the boxing heavyweight title. There were several African American contenders for boxing championships at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; several had won the crowning titles in their respective weight divisions, lightweight, cruiserweight, bantamweight and so on. However, the biggest prize in boxing, the heavyweight title, remained the preserve of the white man. The colour line was firmly drawn and established; only white contenders could win the heavyweight category, to maintain the pervasive white supremacist perspective that infected all facets of capitalist America, including sports.
This was an era of legalised segregation; where black and white were strictly separated in health care, education, employment, and in sport. This was a time when a black man could be lynched for even looking romantically at a white woman, where black people were only the subject of news reports in the media when they were perpetrators of a crime. The first African American man to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate, the great sociologist W E B Du Bois, wrote in 1903 that the main problem of the twentieth century is the colour line. The presence of the African American was portrayed as a threat, a menace to the racial purity of white civilisation, and miscegenation – race mixing – was considered a traumatic evil to be avoided at all costs.
Boxing in the late nineteenth century
It was into this world, that Jack Johnson was born and raised. Coming from Galveston, Texas, Johnson learned how to box in his teens, and developed the pugilistic skills that were to serve him so well in later years. The Galveston Giant, as Johnson became known, fought his way to the top to become the boxing heavyweight champion – in the coloured division. Boxing between Negro fighters was commonplace – as entertainment for white audiences. The boxers received prize money – the change that was thrown into the ring as appreciative reward by the predominantly white crowds.
The late 1800s were a time of great changes in boxing; gloves were introduced, rounds were timed and limited, rest periods in between rounds were made compulsory, and prize-fighting became more ‘respectable’. The first dominant American boxing heavyweight champion, John L Sullivan, was title-holder from 1882 to 1892. Known as the Boston Strong Boy, he was intimidating, physically strong, knocked out all contenders, and was the last of the major bare-knuckle-era champions. He also was a white supremacist, who refused to fight a black man.
Johnson’s undeniable skills as a boxer, his talent for hitting and avoiding getting hit, were his contribution in the development of defensive boxing. His reflexes were superb, and in an era when heavyweight boxers were supposed to take the punches of the opponent, Johnson used not just his muscles but his mind to outwit his competitor. Johnson was not the first exponent of defensive boxing – former heavyweight champion James ‘Jim’ Corbett used precisely that defensive technique to defeat the previously unbeatable John L Sullivan. Corbett earned the nickname ‘Gentleman Jim’, and he became a respected champion and boxing trainer. However, when Johnson adopted and developed the same technique in his career, he was denounced as a coward, a shifty, deceitful coon for dodging the punches of his opponents. Johnson was not the only serious black contender for the heavyweight championship. He fought other black fighters – and defeated all of them too.
Ken Burns’ documentary is fascinating for so many reasons, and one of them is the rare archival footage he has included of Johnson’s fights. He recreates the mood and music of the times Johnson was a rising black athlete, and includes the commentary of Johnson biographers and boxing commentators. But there are specific episodes in Johnson’s life that are emblematic of the simmering racial tension of the era. White supremacy was a virtually unchallenged philosophy in the media culture of the early 20th century, where blacks were infantilised, portrayed as grown-up children, unable to control their lustful appetites, and sometimes caricatured as half-human, half-ape. But what if a black athlete won the boxing heavyweight championship? What would happen to the ostensible superiority of the white race, and the entire historical viewpoint predicated on that belief, if a black man were to prove himself the equal, indeed individually superior, to a white man?
Johnson versus Tommy Burns
Johnson wanted a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. Tommy Burns, the then-reigning champion, refused to fight a black man. He had to be coaxed, cajoled and bribed in order to be convinced to step into the ring with Johnson. The media began to whip up racial hatred, with commentators demanding that Burns, the white man, put a stop to this annoying, uppity coon. The Australian entrepreneur Hugh D Mackintosh, sensed an enormous financial opportunity from promoting a ‘race war’. Burns had come to Sydney in 1907 to fight other boxers – Johnson turned up as well, and challenged the white champion.
In the early 1900s, Johnson literally chased Tommy Burns around the world for a chance to fight – for two years, Johnson attended every fight in which Burns participated, taunting him, challenging Burns for a fight. Burns came up with all sorts of excuses, and demanded a hefty 30 000 dollars pay cheque to fight Johnson. Finally, Burns relented, and it was agreed that he would be paid 30 000 dollars – Johnson received 5000. The fight was set, white versus black – for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia.
It is difficult to comprehend the level of hostility against Johnson, and the revulsion that greeted him wherever he went. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States was emerging as an imperialist power in its own right. While the usual imperialist states – Britain, France, Germany and so on – were pursuing empire-building in Africa, the United States was conquering territories from the non-white peoples of the world.
European imperialism had a long history of racism towards the subjugated peoples, and now the United States, the latest white power to embark upon carving out a colonial empire, began its record of abuse and violence towards the coloured people. Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii – all these people were conquered, or at least claimed, by the United States. Combine that with internal laws restricting non-white immigration to the United States, barring Eastern Europeans, Jews, Slavs and other non-Anglo-Saxon people from reaching the US, and this demonstrates the depth of white racism in the United States. While black Americans were subjected to a system of racial segregation, the United States was also importing the perverted doctrines of ‘social Darwinism’, falsely categorising people into biologically distinct and entrenched ‘races’, where it was held that the coloured people, the ‘lesser breeds’, were doomed to extinction by a superior white race. Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, used his sheer talent, energy and persistence to fight his way to the top of a sports profession long associated with gangsterism, exploitation and corruption.
Burns, the heavyweight champion, faced off with Johnson at the old Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. The fight can be viewed in the documentary. They fought in front of 20 000 people. The crowd yelled racist abuse at Johnson as he entered the ring. Johnson bowed to the crowd in all directions – and smiled.
The opening bell sounded, and the fighters walked out of their respective corners. “Here I am Tommy” Johnson yelled out to his opponent, “who told you I was yellow?” Johnson was the bigger man, stronger, with a longer reach and faster reflexes. He knocked Burns down in the opening round – twice. To his credit, Burns got up – but the fight was dominated by Johnson. As Burns wobbled, his legs buckling, Johnson would pull him back up – and continue pummeling Burns some more. Burns’ corner-men kept up a stream of racist abuse. Johnson kept boxing, chatting with fans sitting at the ringside, dominating the match – and smiling. Round after round, Burns was battered into a bruised, bloody mess. Johnson was quite simply the better boxer, stronger and more agile.
Round 14 – Johnson moves in to finish off the white man once and for all. The local police, acting on orders, move in and stop the fight. As Burns is about to be knocked out, the filming stops – the grainy black-and-white footage simply ends, and there is no existing film of the end of that bout. The police stopped the film, because white audiences could not stand the sight of a black man successfully beating a white man. Burns was comprehensively defeated – in 1908, Johnson became the heavyweight champion:
Great white hope
In the aftermath of the fight, the American media began clamouring for a white man to emerge and win back the heavyweight championship for the white race. The Detroit Free Press wrote at the time:
Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?
Henry Lawson, the great Australian poet, wrote a poem that succinctly summarised the anxieties of the empire-builders:
It was not Burns that was beaten-for a nigger has smacked your face.
Take heed-I am tired of writing-but O my people take heed.
For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to Breed.
Note that the main fear of the white community was not so much concern that Burns had been outmatched and outgunned by Johnson, but by the encroaching possibility of race-mixing. As the New York Times commented on the fight:
If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.
Jack London, the famed American correspondent and novelist, coined the phrase ‘Great White Hope’; a man of the white race who would emerge, take on Johnson, and restore the heavyweight championship to its rightful owners. London was a committed socialist and dedicated to unionisation. He was also a white supremacist. He desired that workers of the world should unite – but only if those workers were white.
London wrote that it was indisputable that Johnson totally dominated the fight, in fact, calling it a fight was a travesty. It was a case of a grown man toying with a smaller opponent. The ‘Ethiopian’, as London referred to Johnson, was never in any doubt. Burns was a helpless and hapless victim of the stronger, faster Johnson. London now called for the heavyweight champion prior to Burns – Jim Jeffries – to come out of retirement and wipe that smile off Johnson’s face. London wrote for the New York Herald:
The fight? There was no fight. No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place today. The fight, if fight it could be called, was like that between a pygmy and a colossus….But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you! The White Man must be rescued.
One by one, contenders for the great white hope emerged; boxers, cattle ranchers, manual labourers, somebody, anybody who could take on the champion. They all filed into the ring – one by one, Johnson battered them all into submission. Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion and a white man, was convinced to step into the ring with Johnson in 1909. Ketchel was knocked unconscious with one right-hand punch from Johnson; another great white hope was extinguished. Johnson was still fighting, winning…….and smiling.
As Ken Burns explains in his documentary; “To most whites and even to some African-Americans, Johnson was a perpetual threat, profligate, arrogant, amoral – a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things.” The white supremacist view had to be restored. Jim Jeffries, the former champion, retired undefeated. He was coaxed out of retirement for one reason – to fight Johnson. A white saviour had to be found, and Jeffries fit the bill.
Jeffries trained for the fight, lost weight and built up his muscular bulk. Updates about his training progress became almost daily news fare, and white America rallied behind him. The media, the boxing promoters, the gamblers and speculators, all were banking on a Jeffries win, because the alternative was too horrid to contemplate.
The latest installment of the ‘fight of the century’ took place in July 1910, in Reno Nevada. John L Sullivan, the former heavyweight champion now ringside boxing commentator, described the Jeffries-Johnson confrontation in this way:
“It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than fifteen-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely ever has there been a championship contest that was so one-sided.
All of Jeffries’s much-vaunted condition and the prodigious preparations that he went through availed him nothing. he wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to last, and as he fell bleeding, bruised weakened in the twenty-seventh second of the third minute of the fifteenth round no sorrier sight has ever gone to make pugilistic history.
Johnson solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship. The great racial contest was a bust – Johnson emphatically battered his opponent. While Jeffries himself was philosophical in defeat, rioting crowds of enraged whites took to the streets in American cities, assaulting and killing black Americans. White mobs hunted down African American persons, and the country was shaken by nation-wide race riots. Even film of the Jeffries-Johnson fight had to be stopped from being shown, for fear it would incite more rioting.
Inside and outside the boxing ring
White America eventually got their revenge on Johnson – both in and out of the boxing ring. In 1915, Johnson fought Jess Willard, a 6-foot 6-inch contender who took to boxing in his late twenties. By this time, Johnson had slackened off on his training; Willard was prepared, a new great white hope. The fight took placed in Havana Cuba over twenty-six grueling rounds. Willard, the younger man, wore down the ageing Johnson. Finally, in round 26, Johnson was knocked down. The black man had been defeated, the heavyweight championship returned to the white man. Race riots broke out, with gloating crowds exacting violent revenge against black communities in cities across America. Johnson was vanquished; the white man could rest easy again. Willard remained champion for another four years, before being defeated by Jack Dempsey. The latter employed the tactics of defensive boxing – a technique developed and refined by Johnson.
While Johnson was defeated inside the boxing ring, outside of it he was pursued by the authorities for that most outrageous of Johnson’s transgressions against white society – consorting with white women. Johnson married white women, had a string of romantic entanglements and extramarital affairs with women who were white. This was scandalous in white eyes – never matter that other boxers, such as Stanley Ketchel whom Johnson boxed, behaved in the same way. A black public figure had no business even being photographed with white women. In the early 1900s, America adopted more strict legislative social reforms, such as enacting prohibition against alcohol. Prostitution, in the white society, was associated with race-mixing; lurid images of Asian opium dens, immigrant opportunists and other non-white extortionists luring innocent white women into a life of prostitution dominated the media at the time. Of course, rich white men were not guilty of luring women, regardless of ethnic background, into providing sexual favours….never.
Johnson was tried and convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act of transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes – and received the maximum sentence of a year and a day in prison. The case against Johnson was racially motivated, for the woman he drove was in fact his girlfriend, who had at one time in her past worked as a prostitute. The conviction of Johnson was part of a long campaign by the US government at the time to push him out of his chosen profession.
Public concerns of morality did not seem to matter too much if the transgressor was white. Johnson escaped from the United States as a fugitive, and did not return to his native soil until 1920. By that time, he had lost the heavyweight championship to Willard. Surrendering to federal agents, he was incarcerated in Leavenworth prison, and served out his sentence. The white establishment had its revenge on Johnson. He retired from boxing, and continued to marry white women. But this time, nobody cared. He was no longer a threat. Johnson maintained himself throughout his life; he was an avid reader, an articulate, intelligent man who lived as a defiant black man in white society determined to shackle him.
In 1954, eight years after his death, Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2012, Johnson’s home city of Galveston named a park after him, and erected a statue in his honour.
Confronting racism today
Throughout 2014, a groundswell of demonstrations and civil actions protesting the racist police violence of the American justice system has refocused the spotlight on race relations in the United States. While the election of Obama was hailed as a great step forward in overcoming the legacy of racism, it drew a false finish line under an ongoing problem. The campaign of #BlackLivesMatter has shaken US society, and drawn attention to the racism in the North. For while the South epitomised racial injustice, it is the capitalist and industrialised North that must now recognise its own deep-seated racial prejudice, a necessary ingredient of a class-based societal structure. Racism and the colour line are not just confined to another era or geographic region; they are problems on a national scale, part and parcel of the capitalist system that underlies the colour divide. The overt racism of the South is gone, but it has been replaced by a more subtle and insidious version that is, in its own way, erecting walls around the black community. It is impossible to separate the aggressive policing of segregated black communities, from the wider unemployment and poverty that afflicts those communities. National problems require the commitment of the entire nation, black and white, to resolve.