How Some Western Feminists Betrayed Women in Syria, and Beyond, Ignoring Threat of US-Backed Islamist Rebels
Feminist author and scholar Valentine Moghadam participated in the Iranian revolution of 1979. But after the downfall of the Shah, she and her leftist comrades “were crushed immediately by the Islamists,” Moghadam told me. “That’s why so many of us are in exile and so many others were executed, tortured, arrested.”
Now a professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University, where she is director of the Middle East and international affairs programs, Moghadam’s experience in Iran continues to influence her approach to the region and Islamist movements more generally. Much of her academic work, including several books, has focused on women’s movements in the Middle East and the implications of Islamism on their lives.
“It’s really on the basis of my experience in Iran that I have come to be totally suspicious of and opposed to any kind of Islamist movement,” she explained. “The lesson that I and many Iranians learned from the Iranian revolution and the Islamization that occurred almost immediately was that Islamist movements are very strong in the region and that Islamist movements are not good movements. They are not emancipatory, they are not egalitarian, they are not women friendly and they make things worse than the previous status quo,” she said.
In the 1980s, Moghadam was often a lone voice railing against U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen, or anti-Soviet rebels, a subject she has written about extensively. She was particularly alarmed about the well-being of Afghan women and stunned by the silence of Western feminists and liberals as their governments funded a right-wing insurgency that sought to strip women and girls of basic rights.
In her book Globalization and Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement, Moghadam attributed “the silence and confusion of the 1980s…to the anti-communism of liberal feminist groups, to an idealization of ‘Islamic guerrillas,’ to a misplaced cultural relativism, or to ignorance about Afghanistan.”
She expressed a similar critique of the feminist and leftist response to the conflict in Syria, where the U.S. tried to weaken the Syrian government by funding and arming a patchwork of religious fundamentalist groups that often worked side-by-side with Al Qaeda. In a strange affront to traditional leftist principles, large segments of the American left either stayed silent or expressed support for the armed insurgency, often whitewashing and denying its explicitly anti-democratic and sectarian agenda.
As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at University of California-Stanislaus, has observed that Syria coverage at the typically adversarial progressive program Democracy Now! has become indistinguishable from the one-sided State Department narrative promoted by establishment outlets. Socialist Worker, the media arm of the International Socialist Organization, has published one piece after another glorifying the extremist-dominated insurgency and painting anyone opposed to it as "pro-Assadist." One piece referred to the fighters in Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, as “decent revolutionaries.” And Jacobin, a self-styled "leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture," routinely publishes articles that whitewash the armed groups in shocking terms. A January 2017 piece in Jacobin claimed that Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, two of the most fanatical armed opposition groups in Syria, “support national democratic transition” where "people will be able to choose their own representatives.”
This characterization couldn’t be further from the truth, as both groups are explicit about their intention to impose an Islamic state that would eradicate Syria's tradition of pluralism. Until 2014, Ahrar al Sham worked arm in arm with the Islamic State, or ISIS. The groups had a falling out not over ideology, but over allegiance and tactics. Ahrar al Sham continued to work with Al Qaeda until a power struggle in the province of Idlib brought the two Islamist groups to loggerheads. Meanwhile, Jaysh al-Islam famously used caged Alawite families as human shields. Tellingly, Jacobin articles have repeatedly referred to the areas under the control of these groups as “liberated.”
Moghadam believes that these flawed analyses are rooted in the left’s enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, combined with ignorance about the Middle East, and as with Afghanistan, a romanticization of guerrilla movements.
Guerrilla groups that the American left has traditionally supported, like those that sprang up across Latin America in the post-colonial period, “had very clear and emancipatory social and economic and cultural projects which were quite explicit and they often included quite openly the emancipation and participation of women,” whereas the insurgencies in 1980s Afghanistan and today’s Syria “are Islamist and have absolutely no such emancipatory or egalitarian projects or programs.”
“A lot of hopes and aspirations, excitement and anticipation were pinned on the Arab Spring,” explained Moghadam. “I always took a more cautious approach to it because … the main opposition and the stronger alternative political movements to those authoritarian regimes were Islamists precisely because most of these authoritarian regimes … had not allowed the development and the growth and expansion of left-wing, progressive or even liberal activities.”
As a result, Moghadam cautions against “knee jerk support for any group that rebels against an authoritarian regime.” Instead, she advise that “leftists and feminists, when they are confronted with something like a rebellion in a country like Syria, should immediately ask themselves: Who are the rebels, what do they stand for? What is this regime, what does it stand for, what has it accomplished? And where would left-wing Syrians, where would Syrian women have more room for maneuver?”
I spoke to Moghadam in detail about the American left’s response to the war in Syria, the problem with Islamist movements and what a proper feminist response to right-wing rebellions against authoritarian regimes might look like. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
RANIA KHALEK: You have written extensively about the US-backed Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the silence at the time from feminists. I see a similar dynamic around Syria, where the US has funded and armed a sectarian and fundamentalist insurgency. Many feminists and leftists in the US have been supportive of this armed insurgency, despite its right-wing and fundamentalist agenda. Why do you think that is?
VALENTINE MOGHADAM: There is a certain amount of ignorance about the Middle East on the part of some of these groups and organizations. I think that ignorance might also be tied to a certain romanticization of rebellion, guerrilla groups and so on. It’s certainly the case that the rebels in Syria, just like the mujahedeen of Afghanistan in the 1980s, were nothing like the sorts of rebels and guerrilla groups that left wing organizations have traditionally supported. They’re nothing like, let’s say, the Vietcong or Fidel Castro and Che Guevara's groups, nothing like the Nicaraguans or the El Salvador groups. The movements that I just mentioned had very clear and emancipatory social and economic and cultural projects which were quite explicit and they often included quite openly the emancipation and participation of women. These other groups, the more contemporary ones, many of them are Islamist and have absolutely no such emancipatory or egalitarian projects or programs.
The mujahedeen of Afghanistan in the 1980s, they were even opposed to the left-wing government’s plan for compulsory schooling for girls, and this in a country that was about 98 percent illiterate. And the United States supported them over a modernizing left-wing government. At the time, I was one of just a handful of people who were just appalled by the way almost the entire world, with the exception of course of the socialist block, had turned against Afghanistan and were cheering on the Mujahedeen. It was incomprehensible to me.
RK: Was it because of the way the media portrayed the Mujahedeen? Was it that people just weren’t aware of what their actual agenda was?
VM: I think there were several things going on. One was that this was still a time when the Soviet Union was in place, so there was an atmosphere of anti-communism in most of the western world. This was sort of the waning days of the cold war, but the cold war was still present. And so, anti-communism and cold war sentiments and anti-Soviet sentiments certainly played into all of this.
The American media, including human rights organizations, really played this up. The shocking misinformation and disinformation about, for example, education policy on the part of the left-wing government in Afghanistan at the time was that this was no more than Sovietization of schooling and a kind of ideological brainwashing of young Afghan minds. They were stooping that low to try to put the left-wing government and their Soviet allies in the worst possible light. This is a country that was 98 percent illiterate and the government was trying to bring the country into the 20th century and yet all these westerners were crafting the crudest form, but it was an effective form, of anti-Soviet and anti-Afghan government propaganda to steer people’s potential support for what the government was doing toward support for the tribal Islamist rebellion.
RK: This doesn’t sound so different from other propaganda at the time. There was a lot of propaganda around Nicaragua, but it doesn’t seem to have been as effective as it was with Afghanistan.
VM: If we’re just now focused on why left-wing movements were asleep, it was different because they were more familiar with and more knowledgeable about Central America than was the case with Afghanistan and think this is also the case with Syria, though Syria is a bit more complicated. But I do think that there’s a bit more knowledge of and familiarity with Central America, because of Cuba and the proximity but also the democratic transitions that had occurred in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. So people were much more familiar with what was going on in Latin America than what was going on in Afghanistan. There’s just a lot of ignorance about the Muslim majority world.
RK: In news articles from the 1980s Afghanistan war, I’ve noticed a great deal of excuse-making for the mujahideen's opposition to girls going to school. A 1988 New York Times, for example, blamed the Afghan government’s 'Marxist ideology' for provoking the mujahideen's extreme misogyny. What’s that about?
VM: There was a certain cultural relativist argument that was being bandied about. It’s a certain arrogant notion that these people have their own culture and it is not correct to impose western values and policies and procedures on their cultures. This idea that schooling is western rather than a universal notion of development and modernization, that this was somehow an imposition of the Soviet Union rather than recognizing that there was a certain social stratum of Afghans who themselves had been educated in various countries.
[Founding member of the Afghan communist party People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan] President Nur Muhammad Taraki had been educated in India for heavens sakes. And these people were very eager to be able to extend the benefits of schooling and awareness and knowledge and skills to their countrymen and countrywomen, yet this was derided and denigrated, again propagandistically I think, as a form of cultural imposition and wrong-headed cultural policy. As if things were never imposed in Western countries too, I mean we’ve had compulsory education in America for what, over a century or more? That has happened in lots of countries. In lots of countries there’s compulsory conscription, even compulsory voting. These were very very weak arguments in terms of their logic and ethical content but they were effective unfortunately because the more you repeat this kind of disinformation and lies, the more effective they become.
RK: That bring us to the Syria issue. Across the political spectrum, everyone except for a few minor groups has been incredibly supportive and cheering on the rebel takeover of Syrian cities.
VM: That’s been really quite shocking to me on a number of levels, but let’s go back to why that occurred. Let’s go back to January, February, March of 2011. The Arab Spring had erupted. There was a great deal of celebration, of optimism. A lot of hopes and aspirations, excitement and anticipation were pinned on the Arab Spring.
I remember that time very well because I was more or less in the midst of it as a scholar. And I was being interviewed at the time about the possible prospects and outcomes. I always took a more cautious approach to it because, yes, the region was filled with authoritarian regimes and dictatorships but I also knew that the main opposition and the stronger alternative political movements to those authoritarian regimes were Islamists precisely because most of these authoritarian regimes--there are some exceptions, Tunisia is an exception, Morocco is an exception to a certain extent--but most of these regimes had not allowed the development and the growth and expansion of left-wing, progressive or even liberal activities. In Egypt, Mubarak had been far more oppressive than Ben Ali of Tunisia had been and really clamped down on civil society. I knew that in Egypt the main opposition force that would come to power was the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists and that’s exactly what happened. I felt the same way about some of the other countries.
So, if I had to choose between an authoritarian regime ruled by the secular Republican Baath party in Syria and some unknown Islamist groups, I would definitely prefer the secular Republic and albeit authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. And yet others didn’t understand this. I might’ve understood it because of my experience with the Iranian revolution.
At that time of the Iranian revolution we were all in favor of the revolution but we were leftists and the leftists were crushed by Islamists. The lesson that I and many Iranians learned from the Iranian revolution and the Islamization that occurred almost immediately was that Islamist movements are very strong in the region and that Islamist movements are not good movements. They are not emancipatory, they are not egalitarian, they are not women friendly and they make things worse than the previous status quo.
So I’ve been extremely opposed to regime change anywhere for two reasons. One is because in principle I’m opposed to this kind of regime change on the part of Western powers because I think that’s just a form of blatant imperialism. But secondly, it’s because of the likely outcomes, which Islamist groups coming to power or something even worse, which is the collapse of these societies and political systems into the kind of chaos we have seen in Libya.
Part of the lies is that Assad is responsible for ISIS. It’s really interesting but also quite appalling because ISIS was formed out of the mess the US created in Iraq. Al Baghdadi is an Iraqi who was also in an American prison and then he formed ISIS. It’s precisely because of destabilization of the region from external intervention and regime change and attempted regime change that you have seen ISIS expand throughout the region. So none of this is the fault of Assad or anyone else. It is really the fault of the United States, England and France that really pushed for a regime change in Libya and compelled NATO into bombing the heck out of Libya and quite a number of Libyans died.
And look at Libya today. It’s just a complete mess and no one’s taking responsibility for it and no one’s been held to account for it and yet the lies are that Assad is responsible for this.
RK: He’s responsible for plenty of stuff, but not this.
VM: Right. Early on in 2011 he did make the mistake of harshly putting down those protests. But let’s face it, a lot of countries have harshly put down protests. At the time I remember pointing out, look what the UK did to Northern Ireland, to the IRA. There was a great deal of hypocrisy going on at the time. Yes, Assad’s regime made a mistake by repressing the protests, but also yes, a lot of countries have done that, including our much-vaunted democracies. And their mistake, actually their crime was then to immediately finance and arm the armed rebellion, which by the way is against international law. You’re not supposed to arm non-state actors. But they started to do that, in particular their proxies in the region: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and so on.
So it’s true that the Syrian regime has been incredibly violent, but to a great extent it’s been forced to be because states do not simply put down their weapons and cry uncle. No state does that. If you look at the United States, even if you have just two or three armed militia groups that crop up every so often in places like Idaho or Texas, they react very, very harshly to them.
I actually blame all this terrible violence in Syria on these outside external forces. By encouraging and arming the rebellion, countries like the US and England and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and so on have simply been prolonging the misery of the Syrian people and creating chaos in that country. If they had not interfered back in 2011, 2012, 2013, there would have been some resolution that would have occurred organically between the government and the opposition. Either the government would have totally won and crushed the opposition on its own, and that happens time and again in our world, or there would have been some compromise.
RK: That would have been much better than seven years of violence and bloodshed. As much as I would love to see leftist movements and revolutions sweep across the region, that just isn’t the case.
VM: To the extent that there are left-wing groups and movements, they’re very small and weak, unfortunately. They simply cannot compete or compare with Islamist groups and movements. After all Islamist groups and movements have been getting their funding and logistical support from these big powers. If it’s not Saudi Arabia, then it’s Qatar or the Emirates or Turkey. We know that the CIA has also been supporting its so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria.
In the old days, of course, we had left-wing guerilla groups and progressive groups, but that was when the Soviet Union existed, so they could get some support from them, but we just don’t have that anymore.
RK: That’s what people with the Arab communist parties told me, that they can’t compete with the right-wing nationalist and Islamist groups because they have such a big funding stream and the leftists get nothing. The other thing I think is new in the region is this element of sectarianism that has become progressively worse. A lot of it has to do with the US, Saudi Arabia and their allies trying to counter Hezbollah and Iran by promoting anti-Shia sentiments and empowering Sunni extremist groups. In Syria, a major part of the rebel agenda has been the elimination of minorities. Was sectarianism this prevalent in Afghanistan?
VM: To some extent, but not as bad as it is today. The Taliban were more sectarian because they were almost exclusively Pashtun and almost exclusively Sunni. They carried out some horrific campaigns against Shia Hazaras and so on. But what is going on in the region today is really very troubling and disturbing and I think again the United States is largely responsible for it. It created this monster in Iraq. By invading and occupying Iraq, it opened up this Pandora’s box. Bush’s friend Maliki in particular became very sectarian and there was of course a legitimate resistance that developed in Iraq, but they turned increasingly violent and sectarian themselves, singling out Shia. This has spread across the region.
The other culprit is Saudi Arabia. For 30 years Saudi Arabia has been funding and encouraging and promoting a very draconian anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian Wahhabi Islamic ideology. Meanwhile, the US invades and occupies Iraq. One unintended consequences is the Shia government then becomes friendly with Iran. The United States is really concerned about this. Saudi Arabia is concerned about this. And then they keep pouring more fuel to fire by igniting and promoting sectarian divisions and differences.
The most extreme version of this is ISIS and the way they have systematically been targeting non-Sunnis all over the place.
I do want to say something about this sort of odd position of American left-wing media and groups, their utter silence over treatment of non-Muslims and non-Sunnis in the region. This systemic targeting of Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Shias but also of secular Muslims, and not only in the Middle East but in other countries too, like Bangladesh, Pakistan—there’s utter silence about this. Absolutely nothing is being said about this targeted killing and mass migration from the region of all the religious minorities. And meanwhile at the same time that nothing is being said about that, we hear all this talk about Islamophobia.
RK: It seems to me that people are scared to touch on this topic because they don’t want to play into Islamophobia at a time when Muslims are being targeted by the U.S. government.
VM: Yes, there is a problem of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe, too. But any critique of Islamophobia has to be accompanied by or has to be a part of a larger critique of discrimination, oppression and the marginalization of all the religious minorities. And that includes the religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. I would like to hear CAIR (Council for American Islamic Relations) and organizations like that talk about this, but they won’t. And to the extent that they will not, then for me Islamophobia becomes more marginal to some of the bigger issues and problems of the region, which is external intervention, regime change, the arms trade and the chaos that that creates.
RK: One thing I’ve noticed about the region is left-wing groups embracing Hezbollah. They oppose Islamism, but they don’t feel threatened by Hezbollah and instead view them as resistance to Israel and al Qaeda and ISIS. It’s an interesting dynamic.
VM: I was very suspicious of Hezbollah for a quite some time. But it’s interesting that more recently, they seem to be playing a more positive role especially in connection with Syria and trying to protect the integrity of the Syrian political system and the current regime there. It’s an extremely unpopular statement that I’m making and very, very controversial, but I think that just at this moment Hezbollah seems to be playing a positive role as I believe Iran is, even though people like me have suffered from the Islamization of the Iranian republic. But to be very objective about it, I think that both Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are correct to be insisting on the viability and integrity of the Syrian state. As for how the Lebanese view Hezbollah and what is the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, that’s not for me to decide.
RK: Just to wrap it up, what should the feminist leftist response be to a conflict like Syria?
VM: I think that leftists and feminists, when they are confronted with something like a rebellion in a country like Syria, should immediately ask themselves: Who are the rebels, what do they stand for? What is this regime, what does it stand for, what has it accomplished? And where would left-wing Syrians, where would Syrian women have more room for maneuver? That is the question we always have to ask ourselves when we’re faced with something like this; not just this knee-jerk support for any group that rebels against an authoritarian regime. You have to ask yourself, what is the likely outcome and what does this rebel group stand for?