Afghan refugees, Vietnamese asylum seekers and the weaponisation of immigrant stories

The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has, correctly, prompted demands of the Australian government to increase the intake of Afghan refugees. Other capitalist states, such as Canada and Britain, are opening the doors to provide sanctuary for Afghans fleeing the misogynist Taliban.

Historical comparisons have been made between today’s outflow of Afghan refugees in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, and the post-1975 Vietnamese refugees, the majority of whom were loyal to the former Saigon South Vietnam regime. Such comparisons, while giving us a sense of comfort that ‘we have been through this before’, can be misleading. For while the Australian government of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) admitted Saigon loyalist Vietnamese refugees, Fraser was not the champion of human rights and compassion that he is made out to be today.

This crisis provides us with an opportunity to examine an underlying trend of refugee-intake stories in Australia and other Western nations. The political use of good-news refugee stories to bolster domestic propaganda purposes is nothing new – but it reveals the true nature of our colonial-settler mindset.

Back in 2012, Rachel Stevens, research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, wrote that:

Australia has rarely had a humane refugee policy and the idea that the Fraser government compassionately welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers is amiss.

Our ostensibly generous attitude towards selected refugee groups has always hidden ulterior motives. Since the end of World War 2, the United States applied the label of refugee to those fleeing from Eastern European nations and Soviet Union. Numerous white supremacist and Nazi collaborator groups – Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians and so on – were rebranded as refugees escaping Communist persecution. Their wartime crimes were swept under the carpet, and their skills in recruiting and fighting for the anticommunist cause were utilised by the US in the new Cold War.

Right wing communities, residing outside their country of origin, were in a practical and de facto alliance with US political elites. They became the politically acceptable refugees, and their stories were harnessed to the Cold War objectives of US foreign policy. These fascist collaborators became repurposed as ‘freedom fighters’, while their ideological similarities to Nazism and white supremacist ideology were downplayed.

Weaponising refugee and immigrant stories, the US has deployed ultrarightist and ethnonationalist communities as ideological battering rams against the USSR and officially-designated ‘enemy’ nations abroad. The Saigon loyalists, while not Eastern European, fit into this policy of the selective application of sympathy. Used as weapons to install a fanatical right wing regime – a regime that tortured dissidents and committed horrific human rights abuses – the imperialist nations then applied the label ‘refugee’ to this community of right wing exiles.

So why did Fraser provide sanctuary for the Saigon loyalist Vietnamese? Australian big capital was orienting towards business with the emerging markets in the Asia Pacific. Former Australian PM Gough Whitlam had abolished the White Australia policy, and opened direct relations with Beijing. Fraser, continuing this trend, demonstrated Australia’s willingness to abandon its racist past and accept Asian immigrants as equal citizens in a multiethnic Australia.

With the fall of Saigon, the outflow of refugees increased, and the Fraser government responded to this crisis with a combination of opportunism and cynicism. Whipping up hysteria around the ‘boat people’, it was Fraser who set the stage for increased anti-refugee paranoia. Denouncing boat arrivals as ‘queue jumpers’, the Fraser government was at pains to reassure xenophobic anxieties about Asian immigrants ‘not fitting in.’

By 1981, 53 refugee boats arrived in Australia, bringing with them a grand total of 2100 people – hardly a tsunami of unauthorised arrivals. The rhetoric used by Fraser government ministers was very similar to the tropes recycled today – that of unscrupulous operators bringing economic migrants to Australia, seeking a better life and thus not ‘real’ refugees. In fact, Fraser’s approach seems generous by today’s standards precisely because Canberra has moved even further to the far right on the question of refugees. Today’s inhumane compulsory detention of asylum seekers has its origins in the Fraser years.

Our refugee intake should be based on humanitarian concerns, and not narrow ideological interests. We must remember the time that Peter Dutton, Home Affairs minister in 2018, suggested the fast tracking of refugee visas for white South African farmers, based on reports of persecution.

Yes, there is a moral obligation to take Afghan refugees. That ethical obligation did not begin with the victory of the Taliban. Imperialist nations had the opportunity to take Afghan refugees since 2001 – ethnic minorities in Afghanistan have been persecuted for every year of the US/NATO war on that nation. Australian authorities ignored their moral obligations to refugees for the duration of that war, and only invoke sympathy for asylum seekers in the aftermath of the military defeat of the imperial project.

Afghanistan and the defeat of the US military

Afghanistan has witnessed the swift victory of the Taliban insurgency, and the complete disintegration of the US-backed Afghan government. The former President, Ashraf Ghani, and his colleagues have fled the country. While the situation remains in flux, it is possible to examine the defeat of the US and UK military forces, after nearly twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan.

The evacuation of the US embassy in Kabul – which US authorities are rebranding as reducing its functions to a ‘core presence’ – is an indication of the staggering defeat of US forces and its Afghan proxies. Highly reminiscent of the chaotic evacuation of US embassy personnel from Saigon in 1975, the fall of Kabul, and the disintegration of the Afghan security forces, occurred much faster than predicted by US intelligence.

The ease with which the American-supported Kabul regime was defeated, and the ousting of former President Ashraf Ghani, points to the failure of American state-building and the fragile nature of the US occupation.

The Kabul government, a collection of anti-Taliban fundamentalists, Tajik and Uzbek warlords, and pro-American Pashtun nationals, turned into a kleptocratic elite unable to meet the needs of the majority of Afghans. Foreign Policy magazine, back in 2014, noted that Afghanistan under the US/NATO occupation, had become the world’s most sophisticated kleptocracy.

There is no pleasure to be derived from a victory for the misogynistic Taliban insurgency – Afghan civilians are fleeing from territories under their control. Religious terrorism, while disgraceful, was not introduced into Afghanistan by the Taliban. The practitioners of fundamentalist terrorism were the Afghan Mujahideen, supported by the US-Saudi-Pakistani axis. This was the largest and most expensive anti communist fundamentalist insurgency during the Cold War.

Please do not deploy the cynical claim of defending ‘women’s rights’ to provide an ethical spin on this 20-year military occupation. There was no concern for women’s rights as the US-sponsored Afghan Mujahideen, in the 1980s, steadily undermined the Afghan socialist government which implemented and extended women’s emancipation. From schooling for girls, higher education for women, financial independence and employment opportunities, the 1979-92 Afghan socialist regime empowered women in ways not seen since its demise.

The Mujahideen forces cultivated by the US – and its Saudi and Pakistani allies – are the socially regressive, misogynistic militias which were welcomed as ‘freedom fighters’ by US ruling circles in the 1980s. Rebranded as the ‘Northern Alliance’ in the mid-1990s, it is completely hypocritical for the United States to condemn the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan, and denounce the (allegedly) culturally regressive practices of Islam – all the while supporting and promoting those very same culturally regressive fundamentalist groups.

The Afghan Mujahideen, bankrolled by the US, provided the ideological breeding ground for the subsequent emergence of the ultrarightist Taliban. In the 1980s, then President Reagan welcomed the leaders of the Mujahideen – the latter involving a young Saudi Arabian fanatic called Osama Bin Laden – as ‘freedom fighters’, comparable to the founding fathers of the 1776 American war of independence.

The Bagram air base, speedily evacuated by US forces earlier in July, was a small implantation of ‘Americana’ in Afghanistan. It had car dealerships, swimming pools, fast-food outlets, internet connection – but it was not a state. The air base was actually built by the Soviets back in the 1950s. In fact, from that time onwards, the USSR maintained friendly and cooperative relations with its noncommunist neighbour to the south, and constructed numerous infrastructure building projects.

The Soviets contributed towards building a functioning society. The twenty-year US occupation of Afghanistan built a failed narco-trafficking state. Not only did the US-installed Kabul kleptocracy take advantage of the narcotics trade, the proceeds of this trafficking business were used in the 1980s by the CIA-backed Mujahideen forces. It is a Hollywood myth that the Soviets were building an ‘empire’ in Afghanistan – such myths assist the US is recycling tropes about regime change and ‘humanitarian intervention.’ Due to rightward shifts in Moscow in the late 1980s, the Soviets withdrew their forces.

Ironically, and perhaps understandably, it is Russia along with China and Iran, who are stepping up to provide stability in the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In the late 80s and early 90s, the last Communist president of Afghanistan, the late Dr Mohammad Najibullah, proposed a national reconciliation policy, involving multiparty elections, including non-Communist politicians in any new government, and a reconciliation between the Pashtuns and various ethnic minorities. This proposal was never implemented – resigning in 1992, Najibullah was brutally murdered by the Taliban in 1996.

The American ‘war on terror’ – ostensibly begun to demolish Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – was portrayed as a just, legally-sanctioned response to the September 11 terrorist atrocity. This rationale stands exposed as utterly hypocritical. After the trillions of dollars spent on fighting in and occupying Afghanistan, it is time to dispense with deceitful claims about waging a ‘good war.’ Wars of imperial conquest always end in defeat.

US President Joe Biden has the opportunity to learn from this military defeat, and abandon ‘regime change’ policies that have led to so much death and destruction. As an initial step, it is necessary to hold the political and military leaders of the US (and their allies) accountable for the crimes they have committed in Afghanistan.

Let’s stop misusing the Nazi analogy – it’s sloppy and trivialises the Holocaust

In this age of social media, it is inevitable that we will come across a debate where one party will portray their opponents as modern-day equivalents of Nazis. The latter is evil personified – and accusing someone with that word stirs the passions.

We have all heard or read the words – Eco-Nazi, feminazi, Soup Nazi – and now a variation on a theme, Chinazi, a portmanteau deployed by Hong Kong protesters comparing the Beijing regime to Nazi Germany. Ok, I understand that Seinfeld was being comical when writing the soup Nazi episode.

However, the misuse and exaggerated recycling of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy is anything but funny. It is sloppy thinking, serves to inflame polarising rhetoric, and trivialises the serious nature of the historical nature of Nazism, but also underestimates the growing problem of white supremacist ideology today.

Anti-vaccine protesters have misused the Holocaust analogy, and in their latest protest in France, in July, they displayed their wilful distortion of contemporary history. Wearing the yellow Star of David similar to the symbol imposed upon Jewish people in Nazi-aligned Vichy France, anti-vaxxers portrayed themselves as a beleaguered minority, objecting to the proposal by French President Macron to implement a health pass only for vaccinated individuals. That vaccine passport would allow people to mingle and visit public areas, vaccinated against Covid-19.

Arthur Caplan, an expert on medical ethics, wrote that in discussions about medical practices, inevitably, a participant will invoke the Nazi analogy:

Whether the subject is stem cell research, end-of-life care, the conduct of clinical trials in poor nations, abortion, embryo research, animal experimentation, genetic testing, or human experimentation involving vulnerable populations, references to Nazi policies or practices tumble forth from critics. “If X is done, then we are on the road to Nazi Germany” has become a commonplace claim in contemporary bioethical debates.

In countering the anti-vaxxer protest in France mentioned earlier, Holocaust survivor Joseph Szwarc, now in his nineties, condemned the far right protesters. He stated that he and his fellow Jews were victims of white supremacy and antisemitism; the anti-vaccination crowd knew nothing about the horrendous suffering of Jewish people under Nazism.

The discussions today surrounding euthanasia, gun control, medical testing conducted on animals, stem cell research and so on, are grounded in a strong foundation of bioethics, respect for the dignity of each individual person, and promoting individual human autonomy and decision-making. The Nazi party, and its cothinkers around Europe, were motivated by the philosophy of eugenics and white supremacy. Classifying people into racial categories, they were determined to exterminate all those whom they regarded as sub-human.

The Nazi euthanasia programme, for instance, had nothing to do with consideration of quality of life, nor with the provision of palliative care for the terminally ill. In fact, labeling the Nazi policy of systematically murdering the differently-abled ‘euthanasia’ is a misnomer. The white supremacist ideology is that of a death cult, condemning the nonwhite nations to oblivion through industrialised killing.

Scientifically informed and medically sound responses to the pandemic, medical approaches to serious illness and public health measures have nothing to do with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. In fact, the latter is being trivialised when we invoke horrid comparisons with that crime against humanity, demeaning the suffering of those who lost their lives.

When Ben Carson, former Republican presidential candidate, misuses the Nazi analogy in a debate about gun control – comparing Obama’s proposed gun control legislation as akin to Hitler and the Nazis – he is demonstrating his appalling ignorance. The Weimar Republic, the regime prior to the Nazis ascent to power, had tougher gun control legislation that the Nazi regime.

Carson recycled the damaging myth of ‘good guys with guns’, stating that Jews could have reduced the numbers killed in the Holocaust if only they were allowed guns. This ridiculous, good cowboy-with-a-gun stereotype is demolished by the facts of World War 2 – Jewish people in the ghettos did fight back, with guns, and were overwhelmed and killed by German forces.

Mike Huckabee, Republican stalwart, denounced any kind of deal with Iran on the subject of nuclear weapons, by stating that former President Obama’s arrangement with Iran was like marching Israelis to the door of the ovens. Such inflammatory and wildly inaccurate statements fit the pattern of reductio ad Hitlerum. Accusing your opponent of ‘behaving like Nazis’ shuts down debate, and distracts from the very real and growing problem of white supremacist groups around the world.

Should the use of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy be completely terminated? No. Just make sure you know the history of WW2, Nazism and fascism before you start casually throwing around the Nazi analogy. Ensure that your comparison does not serve to simply slander your opponent, or merely turn up the heat of a debate without shedding any new light on your case.

The fanatical Iranian cult, the MEK, deserves condemnation

This month, Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President elect, will assume office. This provides an opportunity to restart the stalled dialogue between Tehran and Washington. For its part, the Biden administration should stop listening to the advice of a fanatical and delusional cult, which has steadily gained access to, and high-level supporters on, Capitol Hill.

The Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), People’s Mujahedin of Iran, began as an anti-monarchist, semi-socialist and Islamist group fighting to overthrow the US-backed Shah of Iran. Participants in the 1979-80 Iranian Revolution, they have gradually metamorphosed – deteriorated – into a dictatorial exile cult, dependent on imperialist support. Serving as a cat’s paw of the US, they have gained a devoted band of neoconservative supporters, and plush offices – and have incited the US into a belligerent and bellicose stand against Tehran.

Once regarded as a terrorist group, the MEK was delisted from that classification in 2012, by an American administration intent on cultivating exiled Iranian forces able and willing to confront the regime in Tehran. Bravely fighting the US-supported monarchy in the 1960s and 70s, they played a strong part in the overthrow of the Shah and the defeat of his US-trained secret police.

After the success of the anti-American 1979-80 revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini and associated mullahs turned again the MEK. The latter fought back with bombings, street-battles and guerrilla warfare, but their days were numbered. Most of the MEK militants were killed, or fled to neighbouring Iraq. Here, with the official support of the Ba’athist regime, they became willing footsoldiers of the Iraqi army in its long war against revolutionary Iran.

In the 1980s, setting up at Camp Ashraf, the MEK lost its support inside Iran, viewed as an accomplice to a foreign regime. Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein, was an ally of the US and the western powers. Only after the Iraqi regime became an officially demonised enemy of the US in 1991, did the MEK gain listing as a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Headed by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the MEK began its descent into a dictatorial, obsessive cult. Former members have spoken of the strongly controlled lifestyle, enforced gender segregation and celibacy, and the indoctrination of MEK members. Abandoning its origins in the struggles of pre-Revolutionary Iran, MEK militants had only one purpose in life – to sacrifice their lives to overthrow the Islamic republic.

In 2003, with the American invasion of Iraq, the MEK transferred their base of operations to Albania – a client state of the US in the Balkans. There, the MEK soldiers live in their compound, shut off from the outside world. Massoud Rajavi, disappearing in 2003, is rumoured to be dead. Maryam Rajavi has since become the public face of the totalitarian cult, and has deliberately cultivated links with the most hawkish ultrarightist politicians in Washington.

However, it would be shortsighted to focus exclusively on the US Republicans who support the MEK, such as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton, and previously mayor of New York and Trumpist advocate Rudy Giuliani. Democrat politician Howard Dean, former Congressman and civil rights activist the late John Lewis, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former CIA chief Porter Goss, and former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, have all spoken at MEK events, lent their voices to the group, and successfully lobbied to have them delisted from the proscribed terrorist groups label.

Republican and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared Rajavi to George Washington in one of his many occasions championing the cause of the MEK. Lauded as a ‘government in exile’, the latter has gained the support of strongly pro-Zionist voices, such as Alan Dershowitz, and the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, has used MEK operatives to carry out terrorist acts of sabotage inside Iran, in line with ‘regime change’ policy in Washington.

Delusional and terroristic cults, like the Rajavi MEK, are fostered by powerful American politicians to create an illusion of legitimacy. This cult, agitating for outright war with Iran, is not a credible source on which to rely for policy decisions. The US administration, already a belligerent protagonist with regard to Iran, has contributed financially and materially to what was considered by US authorities until 2012 as a terrorist organisation. Removing the MEK from the terrorism listing does not retroactively legalise the activities criminalised by the original legislation.

It has been a long way to respectability on Capitol Hill for the MEK.

Last year, when the US House of Representatives voted to condemn QAnon and its harmful conspiracist ideology, Democratic Congressman and chair of the House Rules Committee Jim McGovern, called it a sick cult. In that spirit, it is high time to condemn the MEK as an equally destructive and delusional cult, and its influence on American foreign policy towards Iran must be cancelled.