I write this essay to participate in a discussion within the antiglobalization movement on the events of September 11. I am anguished about the lives lost in the bombings of that day and also because of the scenario that is in front of us:
*Plans for massive bombings against Afghanistan and protracted warfare against a list of countries (perhaps sixty, according to President Bush) presumably supporting terrorism.
*The escalation of xenophobia especially against Arabs, but targeting all immigrants, and this not just in the US. In Italy the Northern League (part of the coalition of parties that now govern the country) has already proposed that all undocumented workers should be treated as potential terrorists.
*The demonization of the anti-globalization movement, accused of being an enemy of "western civilization."
*New, wide-spread restrictions on civil liberties.
What can we do in this situation?
Our first task is obviously to stop the escalation of violence, and mobilize against a US-led war on Afghanistan or any other country the Bush administration picks to be a target for its "war on terrorism." We also need to build solidarity with the Arab and immigrant communities in the US now under attack physically and ideologically. But we must gain a better understanding of what has happened, since any confusion on this point can have the most serious consequences for the antiglobalization movement.
This essay is inevitably going to be tentative and hypothetical, given our present lack of precise knowledge concerning the details of the crimes--even now, two weeks after the event, there is public confusion as to the identities of some of the immediate perpetrators. Also, my aim is classification and explanation, but not vilification. The legal and moral facts are enough. The killings of September 11 constituted one of the worst one-day massacres in the last decade, probably only those in the first days of the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis can rival it in terms of numbers. The thousands of murders are a major crime against humanity and, though the immediate perpetrators are dead, their accomplices, if they had any, should be captured and prosecuted in the appropriate courts without the US government committing similar crimes against the humanity of other countries. That this last proposition is a matter of controversy in the US at this moment shows how perilous are the times we are in!
Oil, Globalization, and Islamic Fundamentalism
On a broad level, the events of September 11, 2001 can be traced back to the economic, social, and cultural crisis that has developed in North Africa, the Middle East, and West Asia in the aftermath of the Gulf War and, prior to it, the accelerating process of globalization, starting in the late 1970s.(1) The first aspect of this crisis has been the impoverishment of the proletariat in this area, due to the policies of Structural Adjustment and import liberalization, dating back to Egypt’s "open door" policy that cost the life of Anwar Sadat and saw the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a new political force.(2)
From the Cairo’s "bread riots" of 1976, to the uprisings in Morocco and Algeria of 1988, both crushed in blood baths, to the more recent anti-IMF riots in Jordan (and the list is much longer) the difficulties of merely staying alive for workers has become more and more dramatic, causing a major split within the Middle Eastern, North African and West Asian capitalist classes as to how to deal with this rebellion from below. A further element of crisis has been the situation in Palestine. This too was made more intense by the Gulf War and Israel’s response to Palestinian demands with more settlements, the attempted usurpation of Jerusalem, and escalating repression. Regardless of its actual disposition towards the Palestinians, this situation has become a cause of great embarrassment for the ruling classes from Morocco to Pakistan, revealing, as it does, their duplicity and the shallowness of their commitment to Islamic solidarity.
But the most important factor of crisis has been the hegemonic role of the US in the region, as exemplified by the devastation of Iraq, the US government’s proprietary relationship to the management of oil resources in the Middle East, and the building of US bases right in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s most sacred land. On all these counts, deep divisions have developed within these ruling classes pitting pro-American governments—often consisting of royal dynasties in the Arabian Peninsula—against a new generation of dissidents within their own ranks who, in the name of the Koran, have accused them of being corrupt, of squandering the region’s resources, of selling out to the US, of having betrayed Islam, all the while offering an alternative "social contract" to the working classes of North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia and using their wealth to create a multinational network of groups stretching through every continent and often taking on a life of their own.
As a social program, Islamic fundamentalism has distinguished itself, in addition to its unmitigated bolstering of patriarchal rule, for its attempt to win over the urban populations through the provision of some basic necessities such as schooling, healthcare, and a minimum of social assistance. Thus, today, in many countries of Middle East and the "territories," it is the Islamic fundamentalist networks that organize health care, almost functioning as an alternative government at the grassroots level.(3)
But over the last decade as the crisis in the Middle East and internationally has intensified, so has the antagonism of the Islamic fundamentalist networks against the US and its domestic supporters in the different Islamic countries.
This internal contradiction has created a tangled net of consequences which are now embarrassing and endangering many in the US government and in the governments of the Middle East. For they have financed and trained the very generation of dissidents who are now so violently turning against them. On the one side, a portion of the Middle Eastern oil revenues has been used to finance assaults on symbols of the New World Order, because of the divided nature of the Middle Eastern ruling classes; on the other, the US government has financed and trained many members of this dissident branch of the Middle Eastern ruling classes in its effort to destablize the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That is why the Bush administration is so hesitant to do what would be natural after such a massive intelligence and security failure attested to by the September 11 crimes: get rid of the incompetents. But that would be difficult, for many of those who have been brought back in power in George W. Bush's administration were the ones who were responsible, during his father's presidency, for the training and financing of the very organizations they now hunt under the banner of "terrorism." Therefore, the executive dynasties in both the US and Saudi Arabia must both be worried about "family members" who have been compromised by their past connections to the networks they now claim to be responsible for the events of September 11.
Why now and why so desperate?
These generalized facts concerning the hidden civil war within the oil producing countries from Algeria to Iran serve to describe the context of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For I am assuming that the immediate perpetrators of the attacks were committed to some branch of Islamic fundamentalism. But these facts do not help us understand why the attacks took place in September 2001 and why the resistance to the US took such a desperate form. For these attacks are symptoms of desperation not of power, as they will likely lead to a devastating US military response with predictable results: the destruction of thousands of Islamic fundamentalist militants along with a tremendous collateral damage on the people of Afghanistan and many other countries in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. Who on the ground can survive in such a maelstrom? Indeed, the actual perpetrators and their accomplices, whoever they are, must have been very desperate to take such a risk with their own network and the lives of millions of people of the region. It is also probable that many (perhaps most) people even in the most militant Islamic fundamentalist circles object to the bombings in New York and Washington DC, if not for moral, then simply for strategic reasons, knowing full well that their hard-fought for achievements might all go up in smoke as a result these actions.
Clearly something very important was in process of occurring that the perpetrators of September 11 needed desperate and inherently uncertain measures to thwart. What was it? If my hypothesis is right, the source of this desperation are events at the geographical center of Islam, Saudi Arabia, which echoed throughout the Islamic world.
My view is that the political factors motivating the mass murder and suicides of September 11 involved the oil industry and globalization in the Arabian Peninsula. Here is the story.
Beginning in 1998 (after the collapse of oil prices due to the Asian Financial Crisis), the Saudi monarchy decided, for "strategic reasons," to globalize its economy and society beginning with the oil sector. The oil industry had been nationalized since 1975, which means that foreign investors were allowed to participate only in "downstream" operations like refining. But in September 1998 Crown Prince Abdullah met in Washington DC with senior executives from several oil companies. According to Gawdat Bahget, "The Crown Prince asked the oil companies' executives to submit directly to him recommendations and suggestions about the role their companies could play in the exploration and development of both existing and new oil and gas fields" (Bahget 2001: 5). These "recommendations and suggestions" were then submitted to a Supreme Council for Petroleum and Mineral Affairs in early 2000 (after being vetted by the Crown Prince), and, by mid 2000, the Saudi government began to cautiously respond to them, by ratifying a new foreign investment law. Under the new law, "tax holidays are abolished in favor of sweeping reductions in tax on profits payable by foreign entities, bringing them nearer to levels that apply to local companies. Wholly owned foreign businesses WILL HAVE THE RIGHT TO OWN LAND, sponsor their own employees and benefit from concessionary loans previously available only to Saudi companies" (Bahgat 2001: 6) [Note: it is obvious why "the right to own land" would be a red flag for anyone committed to the sacred character of the Arabian Peninsula.] The Middle Eastern experts were literally falling over themselves in their effort to highlight the new Investment Regulation. One described it in the following words, "Keep your fingers crossed, but it looks as if Saudi Arabia is abandoning almost seventy years of restrictive, even unfriendly policy toward foreign investment" (MacKinnon 2000). This law constituted, in effect, a NAFTA-like agreement between the Saudi monarch and the US and European oil companies.
At the same time as this law was being discussed, a ministerial committee announced that up to $500 billion of new investments would be deployed over the next decade to change the form of the national economy. $100 billion of this investment was already promised by foreign oil companies.
In May of 2001 the first concrete step in this stepped up globalization process was concluded when Exxon/Mobil and Royal Dutch/Shell Group led eight other foreign companies (including Conoco and Enron from the US) took on a $25 billion natural gas development project in Saudi Arabia. The financial press noted that the deal would not be very lucrative in itself, but that "It's part of a long-term ploy of the oil companies, [which] want ultimately to get access again to Saudi crude" (LA Times 5/19/2001).
Thus, by the Summer of 2001, the Saudi monarchy cast the die and then legally, socially and economically entered the Rubicon of globalization (but with its "fingers crossed," undoubtedly). I suggest that it "globalized" not because the Saudi Arabian debt was unmanageable (as was the case with most other countries which bent to the globalizing dictates of the IMF) but because, faced with a intensifying opposition, the King and his circle realized that only with the full backing of the US and European Union could they hope to preserve their rule in the coming years. In other words, confronted with significant social problems and an insurrectional element within its own class that could not be defeated by open confrontation, since it took on the garb of Islam too, the Saudi Arabian government seems to have decided that a rehaul of its economy would defeat its dangerous opposition through attrition and would further solidify its alliance with US and European capital. The strategy was aimed at reducing the large and growing unemployment rate among its young citizens, its dependence on oil exports, and its huge foreign labor force (in 1993 there were 4.6 million foreign workers out of a total population of 14.6 million; today they are approximately 6 million in a population of about 23 million) by "getting the economy moving again."(4) This required a radical departure from the clientelistic methods of social control the Saudi monarchy had used in the past to keep social peace, which was made possible until recently by its immense oil wealth. But this wealth is not infinite and indeed was declining on a per capita basis--for example, GNP per capital fell from approximately $13,000 to $8,000 from 1983 to 1993 and has since continued to fall (Cordesman 1997: 64). Inevitably, this initiative would impact the economic policies of the other oil producing governments in the region, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council states--Oman, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
If it works, this strategy would deal a decisive blow to the Islamicist opposition, undermining its ability to recruit converts who would be employed in the upper echelons of a "globalized economy and society" instead of being driven to despair by political powerlessness and long periods of unemployment. But the introduction of foreign ownership of land and natural resources, backed up by large investments, and the hiring of more expatriates from Europe and the US, would force a major social change.(5) The cat-and-mouse game that the Saudi monarchy had played with the fundamentalist dissidents (by which the King and his dynasty claimed to be even more fundamentalist than them) would end. Whatever hopes the Islamic opposition in the ruling classes of the Arabian Peninsula had ever harbored of getting their governments to send the American troops packing and turning their oil revenues into the economic engine of a resurgent Islam were facing a historic crisis in the summer of 2001. Without a major reversal, the Islamic fundamentalist opposition would have to face the prospect of a total civil war in their own countries or face extinction. Certain elements--whether they were individuals or groups, I cannot know now--of this opposition decided that only a spectacular action like the September 11 hijackings and destruction of thousands of people could turn back the tide. Perhaps they hoped that if enough turmoil and uncertainty can be generated by the attacks in the US, they will generate a strategic US retreat from the Arabian Peninsula just as the bombing in Lebanon in 1983 lead to the US pull out there.
We could speculate to what extent the election of the George W. Bush administration accelerated the timing of the attack considering that in the eyes of the world it represents a government not ready to make any sort of concession, a government even more likely that the one preceding it, to claim possession of minerals in the Middle East subsoil, a government ready to break all treaties, to allow Israel to have its way in Palestine and so forth.
On the basis of this analysis, then, the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC were the "collateral damage" of a struggle over the fate of oil politics in its heartland: the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, in order to test this hypothesis in the coming weeks we should investigate the developments in the Peninsula, which will undoubtedly be hidden from sight, more than the sound and fury that will be directed towards Afghanistan.
Looking Back Carefully
The events of September 11 and their consequences have been a tremendous blow against the antiglobalization movement, since it has given the governments all over the planet to close public spaces and to repress dissent from whatever source. In order to regain the initiative we must understand our situation: the antiglobalization movement is in a struggle against both the supranational agencies of globalization, which are now draping themselves in US flags, and the dissident rulers-in-the-wings of the Middle East, who drape themselves in Islamic flags and want a better world-class deal for themselves and their "followers." To begin to move again we must free ourselves to resee our own past in order to understand our future in this context.
But the horror of the September 11 events have frozen many minds, as it was meant to do. A first step in liberating ourselves mentally is to ask questions and to imagine an alternative reality. Could it have been different? Was there another historical possibility that did not lead to the murder of more than six thousand people in New York and Washington? We are often told that thinking counterfactually is a vain exercise and, like Orpheus in Hades, we should not look back, otherwise we will lose the future. But if Orpheus did look back at Eurydice, carefully, he might have saved both her and later himself.
Let us remember our own story. From Seattle in November 1999 to Genoa in July 2001, the antiglobalization movement expressed in the First World the recognition that the supranational agencies (IMF, World Bank, WTO, G8) which claimed to deal with the economic and political problems of humanity are illegitimate on two counts: (a) they have failed to solve these problems (e.g., the Third World debt has increased dramatically since the Debt Crisis of the early 1980s) and (b) they have no democratic responsibility to humanity (e.g., the IMF and World Bank are largely controlled by their largest shareholders: the US, Japan and the EU countries). The antiglobalization movement which had started in the mid-1980s with the resistance against structural adjustment in the countries of the Third World had finally surfaced in the streets of the First.(6)
The antiglobalization movement challenged these supranational agencies in a nonviolent manner to change their course and to democratize themselves before it was too late. It asked them to look carefully into the face of the world and make a dramatic gesture, e.g., canceling the whole Third World debt. The Seattle demonstrations in November 1999 and those that followed were so important as we look back because they brought the demands of the Third World into the streets of the First. They showed that the interests of the poor and dispossessed of Asia, Africa and the Americas were taken seriously enough in Europe and North America that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to risk arrest, beatings and torture to project these interests as well as their own into the precincts of the powerful. At the very least, these demonstrations were able to stop the supranational agencies from causing further damage by passing new rules and regulations.
But that was the problem: though the antiglobalization movement was able to block or disrupt their meetings, the supranational agencies stonewalled the movement's positive demands. Neither massive debt cancellation, nor fairer trade provisions nor a "Marshall Plan for the World" nor the abolition of the World Bank and IMF were launched in response to the movement's efforts (whatever the debates within the movement about the effectiveness of these demands). On the contrary, the economic and political crises caused by globalization have intensified in the last two years. Moreover, the official response to the movement has become increasingly violent and repressive. This violence reached a climax in Genoa in July with the police's shooting of Carlo Guiliani, their maiming and torture of hundreds of protesters, and their beating of thousands of others.
At this moment, we must ask the question: What would have happened if, instead of this repression, there was a decision to cancel all Third World debt in Genova, in July 2001?
There were, however, not only two forces in confrontation in 2001--the circle of globalizing capitalists and the antiglobalization movement consisting of thousands of peasant, worker, feminist, environmental and human rights groups across the planet--there was a third: the military Islamic fundamentalist, representing with arms the political demands of the dissident Islamic bourgeoisie. This group was and is committed to mortal violence, patriarchy and reassertion of the Islamic bourgeoisie's control of the energy resources of their region from Algeria to Indonesia against the claims of the transnational oil companies. It stepped into the vacuum of despair the stalemate between the antiglobalization and the supranational agencies of globalization inevitably generated, driven by its own crisis as outline above.
On the basis of looking back carefully, then, I conclude that we in the antiglobalization movement must not be caught between the huge bombs of Bush and the smaller bombs of Islamic fundamentalists or be the grass trampled by the lopsided struggle between the giant and the smaller elephants. For at the moment, at least, our movement is the only one capable of leading an escape from the hellish dialectic of homicide and suicide that the forces of global capital and the perpetrators of the September 11 massacres have launched into oblivion.
According to my hypothesis, then, not only have thousands of people in NYC and Washington DC been killed as pawns in a power struggle in the ongoing "oil wars" of the Middle East, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has brought us back to the political structure that prevailed during the Cold War; that is, a structure where we in the antiglobalization movement have to confront both sides, since neither side represents the interests of working class people in any part of the world. The Islamic Fundamentalists' misogynous treatment of women—culminating with the politics of open enslavement embraced by the Talibans—the autocratic way in which Sharia Law has been imposed on many unwilling citizens; the atrocity of the punishments inflicted on those who break it, and the chauvinistic brand of Islam imposed at all social levels by self-proclaimed Islamic fundamentalist governments like Sudan's and Afganistan's-–all speak unequivocally on this point.
In this context, the priority of the antiglobalization movement is to offer an anti-war, anti-patriarchal alternative to the deadly politics of the fundamentalists and their globalizing adversaries by showing that we can address the issues that have lead to this situation:
-Control of natural resources. Why should the US and Europe claim possession of the resources if the world as it they were their birth-right? How can the population of North America and Europe continue to be blind to the social cost of the oil they put in their cars, and the economic and social inequities built upon it?
-The construction of a Palestinian homeland. For how long will generations of Palestinians have to grow up in refugee camps with nothing to hope for and the burning, unquenchable anger of the terrible injustice done to them—an injustice reaffirmed with every new Israeli settlement in what was once their land?
-The politics of WB/IMF. Can we afford a glolbalization program that reduced the people of vast regions to refugees, paupers, and immigrants? Can we allow a world where the majority are displaced from their lands, their basic means of survival, and are forced to migrate across the world in a new diaspora resembling the slave trade?
Further, it is crucial that the anti-globalization movement begin to build a connection with the Middle East--by addressing its more urgent demands. For it is plausible that had this process been more advanced it would been far more difficult for the perpetrators of the September 11 massacre to portray all the people in the US as enemies of Islam, and by the same token it would be more difficult now for the US government to contemplate indiscriminate bomb attacks on nations in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. This making of connections will present many difficulties, logistic and otherwise; but a starting point is to make a connection with the immigrant Middle Eastern and West Asian communities in our own countries. The crucial point is to avoid the situation that prevailed during the Cold War, when for half a century the Russian proletariat and the proletariat of North America and Europe had nearly no contact, except sporadically, through the mediation of communist parties with the result that by the 1990s, even the seemingly most militant among the Soviet Union’s workers—the miners--could be fooled by "experts" from the AFL-CIO into accepting privatization, as happened in the last days of the Soviet Union.
The power of the antiglobalization movement is in its potential to build a real, not simply ideological, political struggle of the world's working people against the plans of globalizing capitalism. Farmers from India, trade unionists from Canada, students from Europe marched, talked and organized together in the great antiglobalization events of the last two years. This increasing unification of people across barriers of all kinds--geographical, religious, gender, political--has challenged the agendas of both the Islamic fundamentalists and the capitalist globalizers. The suicidal attack on Washington and New York and the Bush administration's response, therefore, also are attacks on the antiglobalization movement because they both are calculated to bring increasing divisiveness and despair within a planetary working class that was beginning to see, articulated in both words and images, an alternative non-violent, non-chauvinist, non-racist, and non-sexist reality taking shape. It is crucial that we do not let the war drums and increasing restrictions on civil liberties and the freedom to move across borders succeed in erasing the movement's organizing achievements.
(1) There have been many problems in describing the unbroken succession of nations states which, according to naive political geography, begins with Morocco in the west and ends with Pakistan in the east. It is not Arab, but is it Islamic? Doesn't such a description succumb to orientalism? After all, we do not describe the arc of nations from Chile to Russia through Ireland and Iceland as "Christendom," even though the dominant religious affiliation of their populations (if they have any) is some brand of Christianity. But if not Arab and not Islamic, then what? I have chosen as nominalist a path as possible in this essay, with the full recognition of its problems.
(2) Again, a definitional problem rears its head: what is Islamic fundamentalism? Given that there are many groups and movements claiming to be Islamic fundamentalist or being described as Islamic fundamentalist, the definitional effort is difficult. For the purposes of ideological categorization, the Islamic fundamentalists seek to establish an Islamic state which is to be modeled on the way of life of the early Muslim community. Of course, we must remember Marx's old consumer advice: be wary of the words of the tailor who is trying to sell you a coat.
(3) For the role of Hamas, the major Islamic Fundamentalist organization in Palestine, in the social reproduction see (Nusse 1998).
(4) For a trenchant description of the crisis the long-term social, demographic and economic trends forebode for the Saudi monarchy, published on the eve of the decision to go forward on the path of globalization, see (Cordesman 1997: 47-76).
(5) A little noticed development in Saudi Arabia might indicate the surprising tangents produced by the new legislation. In November of 2000, two car bombings in Riyadh left one British man dead and five other foreigners injured. Was it a the result of Islamic dissident action? Perhaps that was the first reaction, but in February of 2001 Bill Sampson, a Canadian, confessed to the crime along with Alexander Mitchell, a Briton, and Raf Schyvens, a Belgian. The Saudi government claimed that the three murdered and maimed their victims as part of a turf war over the country's illegal alcohol trade. Whatever the truth of this accusation, the alcohol business in Saudi Arabia is a very lucrative business--"a litre bottle of locally brewed wine or beer costs $60, a case of Budweiser $259, and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch goes for $225"(Fennell and Snider 2001: 18)--and will get more lucrative now that the new Investment Regulation has given the foreign companies a green light to bring in their own employees.
(6) For a discussion of the slow growth of the antiglobalization movement from the Third World to the First, see the "Introduction" of (Midnight Notes 2001).
Bahgat, Gawdat 2001. Managing Dependence: American-Saudi Oil Relations. Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp. 1-14.
Cordesman, Anthony H. 1997. Saudi Arabia: Guarding the Desert Kingdom. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Fennell, Tom and Snider, Michael 2001. Prisoner of Riyadh. Maclean's, 6/25/2001, Vol. 114, Issue 26.
MacKinnon, Colin 2000. Saudi Arabia: Major Change in Investment Climate. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 19, Issue 6, p. 72-73.
Midnight Notes 2001. Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War. New York: Autonomedia.
Nusse, Andrea 1998. Muslim Palestine: The Ideology of Hamas. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.