Category Archives: Religious fundamentalism
This post is an edited version of Dexter Filkins’ 12-9-19 article in The New Yorker magazine, titled and subtitled “Blood and Soil in India: A Hindu-nationalist government has cast 200 million Muslims as internal enemies.” (Bear in mind while reading that this is just one example, along with the United States, of a country currently taken over by such forces.)
“On August 11th, two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent soldiers to pacify the Indian state of Kashmir, a reporter appeared on the Republic TV news channel, riding a motor scooter through the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital and largest city. She assured viewers that everything was getting back to normal, but conducted no interviews – there was no one on the streets to talk to. Other coverage on the same channel showed people dancing ecstatically, along with the words, ‘Jubilant Indians celebrate Modi’s Kashmir masterstroke.’ A week earlier, Modi’s government had announced that it was suspending Article 370 of the constitution, which grants autonomy to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. The provision, written to help preserve the state’s religious and ethnic identity, largely prohibits members of India’s Hindu majority from settling there. As part of Modi’s ‘New India,’ he’d flooded the state with troops and detained hundreds of prominent Muslims likely to ‘create trouble,’ as Republic TV described it.”
Filkins visited Srinagar with Muslim Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, and saw “soldiers on every street corner, machine-gun nests guarding intersections, and shuttered shops. Friday prayers were banned, schools closed, and cell-phone and internet service cut off.” Ayyub and Indian photographer Avani Rai were arrested in the city hospital where they’d gone to see young men blinded by police small-gauge shotguns.
Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population, with most Muslims having moved to the new country of Pakistan in 1947, if they didn’t already live there. Two million Indians died in the violence accompanying this transition, known as Partition, and afterward both sides harbored enduring grievances over the killings and the loss of ancestral land. Kashmir, on the border, became the site of a long-running proxy war.
“In 1925, K.B. Hedgewar, a physician from central India, founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization dedicated to the idea that India was a Hindu nation, and that Hindus were entitled to rule over minorities. Members of the RSS believed that many Muslims were descended from Hindus who’d been converted by force. The same thinking was applied to Christians, 2% of India’s population. Other major religions, including Buddhism and Sikhism, were considered more authentically Indian. Hedgewar was convinced that Hindu men had been emasculated by colonial rule, and he prescribed paramilitary training as an antidote. An admirer of European fascists, he borrowed their predilection for khaki uniforms, as well as their conviction that a group of highly disciplined men could transform a nation. He thought Gandhi and Nehru, who made efforts to protect the Muslim majority, were dangerous appeasers; the RSS largely sat out the freedom struggle.”
According to Wikipedia, “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Organisation” or “National Patriotic Organisation”) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that’s widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata (“Indian People’s”) Party. The RSS is the progenitor and leader of a large body of organizations called the Sangh Parivar (the “family of the RSS”), which has a presence in all facets of the Indian society. The RSS is the world’s largest voluntary organization and the largest NGO in the world, while the BJP is the largest political party in the world. Its initial impetus was to provide character training through Hindu discipline and to unite the Hindu community to form a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). The organization promotes the ideals of upholding Indian culture and values and spreads the ideology of Hindutva, the idea that India is an inherently Hindu nation. It’s established numerous schools, charities, and clubs to spread its ideological beliefs. The RSS was banned once during British rule, and three times by the post-independence Indian government, first in 1948 when an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, then during a declared emergency (1975–77), and for a third time after the demolition of Babri Masjid [explained below] in 1992.”
Filkins tells us that Modi was recruited into the organization at the age of eight, and as an adult rose quickly in the ranks. “In 1987, he moved to the RSS’s political branch, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which at that time had only two seats in parliament. It needed an issue to attract new members, and found one in an obscure religious dispute over the Babri Masjid mosque built in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1528 by the Mughal emperor Babur. After independence, locals placed Hindu idols inside the mosque, convinced that it had been built on the site of a former Hindu tenple. A legend even grew that the god Ram, an avatar of Vishnu, had been born there. In September 1990, a senior BJP member named L.K. Advani began calling for the mosque to be destroyed so that a Hindu temple could take its place. On December 6, 1992, a crowd led by RSS members tore the mosque down, using axes and hammers.
The destruction of the mosque incited Hindu-Muslim riots across the country, with the biggest and bloodiest of them in Mumbai. The Ayyubs, a middle-class family, had to move to an all-Muslim slum, and when Rana enrolled in a predominantly Hindu school, she was called racist names. RSS membership soared, and by 1996 the BJP was the largest party in parliament. A psychologist who interviewed Modi at this time found him to be a puritanically rigid fascist who believed India was the target of a global conspiracy in which every Muslim in the country was complicit.
On February 27, 2002, a passenger train stopped in Godhra, a city in Gujarat. It was coming from Ayodhya, where many of the passengers had gone to visit the site where Babri Masjid had been destroyed ten years earlier, and to advocate for building a temple there. Most of them belonged to the religious wing of the RSS, the VHP. While the train sat in the station, the Hindu travelers and Muslims on the platform heckled one another. The conflict escalated when the train stalled as it tried to pull away, and someone, possibly a Muslim vendor with a stove, threw something on fire into one of the cars. 58 people suffocated or burned to death in the resulting conflagration. The state government allowed members of the VHP to parade the burned corpses through the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, and enraged Hindus began attacking Muslims across the state. According to eyewitnesses, rioters cut open the bellies of pregnant women and killed their babies; others gang-raped women and girls. In at least one instance, a Muslim boy was forced to drink kerosene and swallow a lighted match. The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the RSS. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.
The chief minister of the Gujarati government, Narendra Modi, summoned the Indian army, but held the soldiers in barracks as the violence spun out of control. In many areas, the police not only stood by, but, according to numerous human-rights groups, took part in the killing. The riots dragged on for nearly three months, and when they were over, 2,000 people were dead, and nearly 150,000 had been driven from their homes. The ethnic geography of Gujarat was transformed, with most of its Muslins crowded into slums, one of them, still home to 1,000 people, inside the Ahmedabad dump.
After the riots, Modi’s government did almost nothing to provide for the tens of thousands of Muslims forced from their homes; aid was supplied almost entirely by volunteers. Although some Hindu rioters were arrested, only a few dozen were ultimately convicted. In the following months, evidence surfaced that the leaders of the Hindu mobs had received explicit instructions from the government, and that Modi had ordered that the rioting be allowed to take place.
Modi’s accusers have been punished in various ways, including imprisonment and assassination. He became hugely popular in Gujarat, though elsewhere in India the BJP was losing ground. As a result, Modi’s hardline faction was able to seize the Party leadership. Modi also began to build a national reputation as a pro-business leader presiding over rapid economic development [this was actually faked], and big business began to support him. Many other Indians believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and support Modi for that reason.
After graduating from Sophia College in Mumbai with a degree in English literature, Ayyub started writing for a small English-langiuage magazine called Tehelka that had a reputation for tough investigations. In 2010, in a series of cover stories for Tehelka, she tied Modi’s closest adviser, Amit Shah, to illicit business, murder, and extortion. He and, eventually 38 others, including Gujarat’s top police official, were arrested. Even though evidence began to accumulate that Modi was the power behind all of it, he was increasingly mentioned as a candidate for national office.
In an effort to find out more, Ayyub went undercover, posing as an Indian-American student at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, visiting India to make a documentary about Gujarati’s prosperity under Modi. Using hidden cameras and microphones, she got a lot of damning evidence, but her magazine ultimately decided not to publish the story, and she was unable to get a publisher for her book on the subject. Modi seemed likely to run for and win the office of prime minister, and “no one wanted to alienate him.” He was helped by an overwhelming public perception that the Congress Party, in power for most of the past half century, had grown arrogant and corrupt. By contrast, Modi and his team were disciplined, focused, and responsive, and the BJP won a plurality of the popular vote.
Not long after Modi took office, the case in which his friend Amit Shah was implicated ground to a halt, and soon Shah was getting away with not showing up for hearings. When the judge ordered him to appear, the case was taken away from him. The new judge, Brijgopal Loya, told family and friends he was under ‘great pressure’ to dismiss the case, and that the chief justice of the Bombay High Court had offered him $16 million to scuttle it. He died not long after in mysterious circumstances, and an official investigation into his death, requested by his family, hasn’t taken place. A third judge, M.B. Gosavi, dismissed Shah’s case. By this time, Modi had made Shah president of the BJP and chairman of the governing coalition – the country’s second most powerful man.
Ayyub finally published her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, herself in English. In it, she reveals that Modi is the official who made it possible for the RSS to parade the burned bodies of Hindu train passengers in Ahmedabad. Her source for this, Ashok Narayan, Gujarat’s Home Secretary during the riots, also said that the VHP had made preparations for large-scale attacks on the Muslim community, and had just been waiting for a pretext. He believed Modi was in on the plan from the beginning. Initially, the reaction to Ayyub’s book was muted. There was a reception in New Delhi, attended by most of India’s major political writers and editors, but no word about it in the papers the next day. Newspapers were also slow to review the book, but it took off on its own on Amazon, and the release of a Hindi edition in 2017 opened up a huge potential audience. To date, Ayyub says, Gujarat Files has sold 600,000 copies and been translated into 13 languages. Ayyub has also been invited to speak at the UN and at journalism conferences around the world. At the same time, the online/social media campaign against her has been horrific, including pronographic videos and death threats.
India’s female journalists are often subjected to an especially ugly form of abuse. The threats that Ayyub received were nearly identical to those sent to Gauri Lankesh, a journalist from the southern state of Karnataka. Like Ayyub, Lankesh had reported aggressively on Hindu nationalism and on violence against women and lower-caste people. ‘We were like sisters,’ Ayyub said. In September 2017, after Lankesh endured a prolonged campaign of online attacks, two men shot and killed her outside her home, fleeing on a motorbike.
This kind of abuse is supported by many BJP members and Modi supporters, who also post fake videos that increase Hindu hatred of Muslims and others. As Modi consolidated his hold on government, he used its power to silence mainstream media outlets as well. In 2016 his administration began moving to crush the television news network NDTV, one of India’s most credible news channels, by removing almost all government advertising, one of the network’s primary sources of revenue, and pressuring private companies to stop buying ads. Similarly, Karan Thapar, a TV journalist who’d asked Modi and BJP party members critical questions on air, was let go by his network following government pressure. The same thing happened to Bobby Ghosh, former editor of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s most respected newspapers, after he ran a series tracking violence against Muslims; and to Krishna Prasad, longtime editor of Outlook, after it revealed that the RSS was educating disadvantaged children in the state of Assam, then sending them to be indoctrinated in Hindu nationalist camps on the other side of the country. ‘So, many of the really good reporters in India are freelance,’ Ayyub said. Even news that ought to cause scandal has little effect. In June, the Business Standard reported that Modi’s government had been inflating GDP-growth figures by a factor of nearly two. The report prompted a public outcry, but Modi didn’t apologize, and no official was forced to resign.
Modi’s supporters get their news from Republic TV, which allows Modi and other Hindu nationalists to control the narrative, and features shouting matches and scathing insults of all but the most slavish Modi partisans.” Filkins says it makes Fox News look like the BBC, and gives examples of fake news stories it’s promoted.
“According to FactChecker, an organization that tracks communal violence by surveying media reports, there have been almost 300 hate crimes motivated by religion in India in the past decade, almost all of them since 2014 when Modi became prime minister. Hindu mobs have killed dozens of Muslim men, whose murders are rightly called ‘lynchings,’ evoking the terror that swept the American South after Reconstruction. When Muslims are lynched, Modi typically says nothing, and, since he rarely holds press conferences, he’s almost never asked about them. But his supporters often salute the killers. In June 2017, a Muslim man named Alimuddin Ansari, accused of selling cows for meat [cows are sacred to Hindus], was beaten to death in the village of Ramgarh. Eleven men, including a local leader of the BJP, were convicted of the murder, but last July they were freed, pending appeal. On their release, eight of them were draped in marigold garlands by Jayant Sinha, the BJP Minister for Civil Aviation.
In northern India, Hindu nationalists have whipped up panic around the idea that Muslim men, oversexed and fortified by beef, are engaging in a secret campaign to seduce Hindu women into marriage and prostitution. In many areas, any Muslim man seen with a Hindu woman risks being attacked.
As part of its Hindutva project, BJP leaders have been rewriting school textbooks across the country, erasing much of its Islamic history, including that of the Mughals, Muslim emperors who ruled the country for 200 years (1526 to 1720). They’ve also changed Mughal place names to ones that are Hindu-influenced.”
Ayyub and her photographer were released after an hour by Indian police in Kashmir. Though told to leave, they remained for several days interviewing locals who’d been jailed and tortured (many had also been killed or “disappeared”). “Indian antiterrorism law allows security forces to detain any Kashmiri for any reason, or no reason, for up to two years, and during the three decades that the province has been in open rebellion, tens of thousands of men have been disappeared, many never returning home.
I suggested that maybe it was time for Ayyub to leave India – that Muslims didn’t have a future there. ‘I’m not leaving,’ she said. ‘I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened.’”
I’ve always felt that there’s a deep connection between spirituality and politics in a wide sense. It’s all just life. The other day I listened to a podcast expressing this. “Insights at the Edge” podcaster Tami Simon of Sounds True was speaking with spiritual teacher and author Mirabai Starr about her latest book: Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. What Starr had to say inspired and impressed me, and I wanted to share the highlights of it with you, based on a transcript of the podcast (released 4-1-19).
Because Starr believes that “ultimately, truth, reality is the boundless, non-dualistic field of love,” she’s shied away from comparing the wisdom of masculine and feminine mystics. Not long ago, however, she “began to realize that the feminine is rising everywhere, and that the spiritual community needs to be involved in that discourse.” Feminine wisdom, she added, often “requires excavation, because these feminine wisdom jewels are hidden in the patriarchal overlay, since all of the world’s spiritual traditions were designed and built by men, for men.”
When Simon asked which of these jewels Starr wanted to highlight, she answered, “One is the inter-relationality of the feminine; the value of cooperation and relationship, but also the core-level, cell-level, physical way I think women and some men get that everything’s interconnected. It’s not a philosophical treatise about dependent co-arising. It’s a felt experience of inter-being that I think women have in general, and that’s emphasized in the feminine wisdom teachings. Another is care for the earth. Not that men don’t also adore our mother, the earth, and want to tend her, but there’s a way in which the feminine responds to the pain of the world that’s spontaneous and generous and non-intellectual, rooted in the body.”
TS: Yes. I thought one of the things you emphasized in Wild Mercy that I really appreciated was that our actual spiritual life is connected to the fate of the earth.
MS: That’s right.
TS: I wonder if you can talk about that, because I think sometimes people think, “Well, whatever happens politically, whatever happens with climate change, that’s not really part of my spiritual agenda. My spiritual agenda is to align with the moment and be at peace, regardless of what’s happening.”
Starr had “a couple of responses. One is that the way that we treat women is directly related to the way we tend the planet. I don’t think there’s any accident that this masculine-driven model of spirituality and society and politics has left the earth in the dust and done great damage. The male-driven model of doing things has caused great detriment not only to women, humans, but to the earth herself. The feminine emphasizes relationship, that we have a real living relationship with the earth. It’s not just an idea about climate change based on science, though I think it’s important to track the science. The feminine has a relationship with Earth as mother, lover, and sister. Feminine wisdom cultivates relationship and intimacy in all spheres, which leads me to the third kind of strong value of these teachings: inclusivity. There’s a way in which, when women come together, we include each other. I’m not saying all women are inclusive and cooperative and relational. Many women have divorced themselves from those kind of values. And many men, including the men that we all know and love, are deeply relational. But there’s a way that the feminine is now emphasizing inclusive, horizontal leadership.
The spiritual traditions that many of us were trained in, even when they’ve ordained women, are still patriarchal, still hierarchical. Even if the woman is the roshi or the rabbi, she’s still the boss, standing or sitting there dispensing goodies to the hungry people. There’s something that I really tapped into with this book that the more I said it, the more true it became, for me – that this is the time for leadership to be a communal experience. Almost everyone I know carries this seed of wisdom, and all you have to do is water it with your loving attention, and it germinates and flowers. I’m seeing that in all the groups and all the communities where I’m invited to speak or teach, the minute I make it about all of us, an incredible flourishing of wisdom happens. To me, this is deeply feminine – very much about relationship and loving kindness, and developing community by acknowledging that everyone has something to bring to the table.”
TS: This brings me to the question about the future of the patriarchal religious forms we’re currently seeing crumble. We’re in this interesting transitional phase. And when I read a book like Wild Mercy and permission is given to the individual to find their way among all of these different spiritual texts; to express their spirituality in activism, caring for their families, and loving whomever they love. It’s beautiful. But what are our future forms?
MS: The crumbling you refer to is really happening. The world’s institutionalized religious structures are dissolving and disintegrating before our eyes. And there’s a fundamentalist response to prop these carcasses up. But if you tap into the deep wellspring of feminine wisdom, the women are the ones who’ve always been the midwives and the death doulas. We’re comfortable with the messy margins of things, okay with ambiguity and not knowing. So we’re present for these death throes that are happening in society and religion and the emerging of a new kind of wild, unpredictable, radically authentic…I don’t even want to call it a paradigm, but reality. It’s an exciting time if you’re not looking for easy answers and fill-in-the-blanks.
Starr and Simon then agreed that patriarchal religious leaders want their followers to be loyal to a particular spiritual path; they criticize “spiritual dilettantism.” But, Starr said, she realized that “maybe we have a faculty of discernment implanted in our being that enables us to know what the life-giving truth is and what divisive, dualistic, separating teachings are, and that we can, in fact, make honey from gathering the nectar from various traditions. We can have a deep and profound and transformational encounter within multiple sacred spaces. From these transformational encounters we can find a way that’s deep and profound and has social relevance, as well as a path to personal awakening and personal development. That’s another thing about the feminine – the whole idea of individual awakening feels kind of irrelevant, because it’s truly about all of us. The bodhisattva vow of sticking around on the wheel of samsara, of births and deaths and rebirths, until all beings are free. Individual liberation is a meaningless concept to the feminine, as are practices like purification and perfection. Those words are alien, I think, to the feminine experience, which is much more organic and sensual.”
TS: So, at some point you decided to trust your own powers of discernment. “I can discern. I can be a bee and I can pick the flowers. I don’t have to sign on with one patriarchal proposition.” I think a lot of people don’t have that level of confidence. What would you say to someone who’s like, “I’m a beginner. How do I know?”
MS: It’s interesting, because I don’t just trust my own faculty of discernment, I trust yours. I trust everyone’s, as well as everyone’s ability to take what they find, that cup of water, with them out into the world.
Simon then asked Starr about the word “mercy” in the title of her book.
MS: It’s interesting. A white man, a well-known spiritual teacher said, “I don’t think you should call it ‘Wild Mercy,’ Mirabai.” He thought the term “mercy” was sappy, that it implied meekness. But this is how Mother Mary is being rescued and resuscitated, I feel, in the current inter-spiritual landscape. The term “mercy” no longer means meek. It carries this powerful energy that’s different from compassion. Compassion, to me, carries a quality of equanimity, that the feminine not only doesn’t necessarily have, but isn’t particularly interested in cultivating. The feminine is about the outpouring of the heart. And mercy, to me, carries that quality of aliveness. It’s compassion that’s been lit on fire and that melts. There’s a melting quality to mercy. There’s a warmth. I think that feminine quality of out-flowing of the heart partnered with the wildness of the feminine that’s willing to not know what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next, but is showing up for it are the core message of the book.
TS: One of my favorite sentences is “What breaks our heart is also what connects us.” I know that you’ve had that experience, and I want to hear what you have to say about the relationship between knowing the depth of loss in our lives and our capacity for mercy, our capacity to feel a loving, alive connection with others who suffer.
MS: I know a lot of people who’ve experienced great and transformational losses, and each of them has become a more open, boundless container of love and compassion. Their losses have broken them open. I’m not worried that people are going to calcify and constrict around their losses. Maybe for a time, but 100% of the people I encounter who’ve experienced loss have become more loving, more compassionate eventually. And sometimes right away, and sometimes in moments. We open and close like an accordion, in the power, the bellows of loss. Again, I believe in us. I believe in the capacity of the human heart to enlarge in the presence of unbearable experiences. And through that enlargement of the heart, serve the world in a spontaneous way.
TS: What makes a loss a transformational loss?
MS: Entering into the experience as fully as possible, even if it feels like it’s going to kill you — a feminine yielding, like yielding to the contractions of childbirth. There’s nowhere to go but to open and surrender to the experience, though you may protest along the way. When we show up for the experience of shattering loss, it becomes transformational. It’s not about transcendence; it’s about full presence. And you know, one of the things about grief and loss that I’ve found, and I think this is a truly feminine perspective, is that when we experience a really profound, transformational loss, it’s not only about us. It doesn’t make us special. I lost a child. And there were moments, in the beginning, especially, where I felt like an alien creature. No one could understand me. And then it was like, “Wait a minute, women have been losing children backwards in time and across the planet forever. So not only am I not special, but guess what? Those women, on a soul level, are my family. They’re my sisters, we’re in this together, and they’re holding me now, as I navigate this mysterious, brutal landscape of loss.” So, rather than becoming some kind of rarefied, special creature because I’d lost a child, I took my place in the human family for the first time, in a way, when my daughter died. And it was the family of women, especially, that I felt were holding me, and that I’m holding now. That’s my job going forward.
Simon then asked Starr to introduce and read the beginning of a chapter called “Laying Down Our Burden.”
MS: This is a chapter on cultivating a sabbath practice. “Here. Come here. Take a moment to set aside that list you’ve been writing in fluorescent ink, the list that converts ordinary tasks into emergencies, where ‘Feed the orchids,’ becomes ‘If I don’t accomplish this by 11:00 tomorrow morning, the rainforests are going to dry up, and it will all be my fault.’ Gather your burdens in a basket in your heart and set them at the feet of the Mother. Say, ‘Take this, Great Mama, because I can’t carry this shit another minute.’ Then crawl into her broad lap, nestle against her ample bosom, and take a nap. When you wake, the basket will still be there, but half its contents will be gone, and the other half will have resumed their proper shapes and sizes, no longer masquerading as catastrophic, epic, and toxic. The Mother will clear things out and tidy up. She’ll take your compulsions and transmute them, if you offer them to her.’ A sabbath is a revolutionary, subversive act in our consumerist achievement-driven world.
When Simon asked Starr about imagining God as the Mother, she said, “This kind of comes back to the question we opened with, where you asked about the feminine, and I felt it as a dualistic distinction I wouldn’t normally make. Philosophically, I’m more of a Buddhist or non-theist than a theist. It takes an effort for me to picture God as anything. As even God. But I feel that at this moment emphasizing the feminine in all spheres of human activity, maybe especially religion, is going to create a needed paradigm shift reflecting the feminine values of wildness and mercy, compassion and connection to the earth, relationship and horizontal leadership that can’t help but heal and mend the torn fabric of the world.
TS: One of the things you say in the book that I thought was important is that devotion isn’t an immature inclination. Because in the kind of more militaristic spiritual traditions in which I was brought up and trained, devotion was for sissies. Kind of like, “You don’t need to prostrate yourself or make offerings. That’s superstitious mumbo jumbo.” But in Wild Mercy you reclaim the power of devotion. Tell me why that’s important to you.
MS: I’m glad you used the word reclaim, because as you were speaking, that’s what was rising in my mind: To reclaim devotion, reclaim passion, reclaim the feminine landscape of the heart. I, too, was trained in these vertical traditions, where we still our minds and leave our bodies behind. All of our bodies are feminine, incarnational, part of the earth. And if we don’t respond to the impulses of the heart residing in our bodies, we’re going to be cutting ourselves off from an entire range of spiritual experience. Devotion, for me, is the impulse of the heart that cries out to the beloved who we may not believe in in our rational minds. We may call that magical thinking, envisioning Krishna or Kuan Yin as the object of our heart’s impulse to love, but it can a placeholder for the real, holy part of ourselves that calls out for love and allows us to dissolve into those non-dual spaces.
I’m devoted to Neem Karoli Baba, the great 20thcentury saint Ram Dass wrote about in Be Here Now and all his books. Maharaj-ji’s been my guru since I was 14 years old, so philosophically it doesn’t matter what I think – I have this devotional relationship with him. When I experience Maharaj-ji, there’s something in my heart that melts. It’s like he’s a warmth, a fire, a flame. And when I come into proximity, my heart softens and the boundaries dissolve. I enter this non-dual state that other people cultivate through more cool practices that aren’t necessarily heart-centered. They’re more about mindfulness.
When I chant (I also love sacred music in all languages; in Hebrew and Arabic, especially in Sanskrit, especially kirtan), my heart softens and opens and yields, and there’s a devotional quality that’s quite ecstatic. It also has an element of pain; the pain of longing. But ultimately what happens when I allow myself to fully enter that devotional space is that I almost always taste non-dual states of undifferentiated awareness that are empty in the most delicious sense of that word. I like how Roshi Joan Halifax translates sunyata, the Buddhist term for emptiness, which is the true quality of all that is, not as emptiness, but as boundlessness. Devotional practices bring me to those non-dual states. And there’s a reciprocity when I return to individuated consciousness from those fleeting moments of resting in suchness. I have an urge to praise. Praise what? Praise who? I don’t know, but it bubbles up from my heart and my body. I experienced this terrifying sweetness of being nobody for a minute.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up the deep pain or ache of longing, because that was also one of the sections of Wild Mercy that I appreciated. At one point, someone asked me, “Do you have longing?” And I was like, “Yes, I have all kinds of longing,” but I also felt like I’d given the person the wrong answer, that I’d failed my spirituality exam. Yet in Wild Mercy you make owning our longing part of the landscape of the heart, part of our spiritual path.
MS: And in fact, the portal. Longing is a portal.
TS: At the end of one chapter, you wrote, “What do you want from the holy one? Write a letter to your beloved stating your demands and your longings.” I thought that was a great exercise, even though it doesn’t fit with people’s conventional view of what a spiritual path should be like. I’m writing my demands to the holy one. What? My demands don’t count. Do they?
MS: You’re right – we’re not supposed to want stuff. Desire is supposed to be the problem. A more sophisticated version of that teaching is to just become aware of our desires, but either way there’s a kind of cool detachment that’s expected of us in most spiritual traditions, in which we understand that it’s okay to have desires, but it’s going to cause trouble, and ultimately you’ll be a lot happier if you can detach from them. I’m advocating that we actually connect with our desires on all levels, without making a distinction between physical and spiritual. And that we stand up for ourselves in the presence of the holy and say, “This is what I want.” Teresa of Avila, the great 16thcentury renegade nun who I’ve had the good fortune of translating, was famous for shaking her fist at God and saying, “What a minute, dude. This is not OK with me.” Or, “Why do you become present with me, enter me, inflame my heart, hold me close, and then leave me? This is not OK.” Many of the great scriptures, from the Song of Songs to the Gita Govinda to Layla and Majnun in the Sufi literature are based on lover and beloved coming together in ecstatic union, then separating. He leaves her behind, and she cries out with love longing, and her cry becomes the impetus for reunification. That reunion, I believe, is the reunification of the masculine and feminine in each of us. The love longing that our hearts cry out with is a longing for the balancing of the masculine and feminine, the godhead reforming and restoring wholeness. And our beings become a microcosm for the restoration of balance of masculine and feminine in the world.
TS: I imagine that some listeners were surprised when you said that Neem Karoli Baba, this Indian male figure, has been a guru, a teacher for you, living in your heart, and then here you are, writing about the women mystics. But at the very beginning of the book, there’s this great section where you invite men into the dialogue. And I’m wondering if you can read that for us.
MS: Sure. “You don’t have to be female yourself to walk through these gates. Men are welcome here. You just don’t get to boss us around or grab our breasts or solve our problems. You may sample our cooking and wash it down with our champagne. You may ask us to dance, and you may not pout if we decline. You may study our texts, ponder our most provocative questions. You may fall in our laps and weep if you feel the urge. We will soothe you, as we always have. And then, we’ll send you back to the city with your pockets full of seeds to plant.
The secret is out. The celebration is overflowing its banks. The joy is becoming too great to contain. The pain has grown too urgent to ignore. The earth is cracking open, and the women are rising from our hiding places and spilling onto the streets, lifting the suffering into our arms, demanding justice from the tyrants, pushing on the patriarchy and activating a paradigm shift such as the world has never seen.”
There’s a call now to step up in service of our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the earth herself, and anyone listening is going to hear it. And the feminine wisdom teachings, past and present, give us radically new ways to show up at a time when everything’s on fire. The only way we can meaningfully address the conflagration is together. Feminine teachings have always been singing that song: that we cannot, should not, and must not try to be lone saviors in the crazy reality in which find ourselves. It’s only by looking around and paying attention, and listening to each other and holding each other, and pulling each other in and lifting each other up, that we can possibly hope to mend the torn fabric.
The wisdom of the feminine lies hidden in all kinds of places and spaces, and we have to be paying attention to find it. That’s why I want to call out the younger women and the transgendered people, and people who fall all over the spectrum of the feminine experience, and are drawing on these deep values of heart, of relationship, of feeling, of tending, of nurturance, of wild, radical, fierce truth telling that’s required of us right now. Is a kind of ferocity that hasn’t always been associated with the feminine.
TS: Let’s end with you reading the piece that opens the chapter on connecting and community.
MS: “You feel special. Sometimes this feels like a curse, like no one will ever understand you, like you’ll always be an alien pretending to blend in with regular humans. You’ve learned to live with this gulf, but you crave community. You long to belong to the human family, to Mother Earth. Participating in the human condition can be hard. It can seem so much simpler to ride solo, slaying your own dragons and singing the ballads you wrote about yourself. Collaboration can be tedious, and the prevailing masculine value system may have conditioned you to feel like you’re giving away your power when you share it with others. Give it away anyway. The time of the singular sage bestowing his unique wisdom is over. That was a method devised by the men in charge who sought to regulate wisdom. They taught us to suffer alone in the desert for 40 years, collecting our insights in a secret box labeled ‘esoteric knowledge,’ then dispensing them stingily to those who’ve proven themselves worthy. This world is filled with special beings, grappling our way through the anxiety of solitary conundrums and tasting the occasional reprieve of connection. When you realize this, your body lets out its breath and relaxes. You come in from the cold. You hold out your cup, and some other special being fills it with sweet, milky tea, spiced with fragrant herbs. You drink.
Our way, the way of the feminine, is to find out what everyone is good at, praise them for it, and get them to teach it to others. Maybe you know something about the hidden meanings of the Hebrew letters, or how to build a sustainable home from recycled tires and rammed soil, or loving kindness meditation. You, the one who knows the Islamic call to prayer, climb that minaret and call us. You, the one who knows how to sit quietly at the bedside of the dying, show us the way to bear witness. You, the one who knows how to get us to wake up to the shadow of privilege, wake us the fuck up. It will be chaotic, all this community building, but your cooperation will save the world. Besides, it will be fun.”
In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.
The situation in Syria has seemed so complicated and depressing that I’ve all but ignored it for the past couple of months. Now, however, I’m trying anew to understand what’s going on. I hope you’ll join me by reading this condensed version of an article just published on the Socialist Worker website, socialist worker.org:
How was Syria turned into hell on earth? by Ashley Smith, Socialist Worker, 3-1-16
The U.S. and Russia celebrated the success of last weekend’s “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, purportedly organized so the United Nations (UN) could deliver humanitarian relief to besieged cities like Aleppo. The agreement didn’t include the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which continued to exchange attacks with government troops and Russian forces. In the end, the brief respite in Russian air strikes actually allowed dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army, along with Iranian militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to consolidate control over sections of Syria they’d re-conquered.
Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have justified their savage war by claiming that they’re striking back against ISIS forces that control large parts of the east of the country. In reality, Assad and Putin have been waging a counterrevolutionary war against a resistance to the regime that first arose as part of the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy rebellions. In the process, Syria has been plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe. In a country of 22 million, some 470,000 people have been killed in the war so far, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, with the government and its foreign backers responsible for 95% of civilian deaths. More than 11 million people – half the population – have been driven from their homes. Seven million have fled to other parts of the country, another 4 million have crossed the borders to surrounding countries, and more than a million Syrians have journeyed across the Mediterranean hoping to find refuge in Europe.
Russia’s military intervention last fall has destabilized European politics because of the effects of the refugee crisis and enflamed conflicts between regional rivals in the Middle East, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Amid the spiraling crisis, the U.S. has been forced to shift its policy in Syria. It had been committed to an orderly transition that would get rid of Assad and incorporate handpicked figures from the rebel side into the existing state, which could then be bolstered in the war on ISIS. Now, however, the U.S. seems ready to capitulate to Russia’s demand that Assad remain in power as the joint war on ISIS continues. It’s failed to challenge the Russian intervention, plainly directed toward helping the Syrian regime regain the initiative against rebel forces, not ISIS. Unless something changes, this will be a geopolitical victory for Russian imperialism and Assad’s counterrevolution against what remains of the Syrian Spring.
There are two central causes to this immense international crisis.
The first is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which set in motion the imperialist and regional conflicts that have come to a head in Syria. The Bush administration’s war on Iraq was designed to secure America’s status as the world’s only superpower. The Bush team wanted to conduct rolling regime changes across the Middle East; install puppet rulers in Iraq, Syria and Iran; and – with the region securely under America’s thumb – manipulate energy supplies to control potential imperial rivals like China. The plan failed because both Sunni and Shia Arabs rose up against U.S. forces.
To salvage the failing occupation, the U.S. turned to the classic trick of all empires: divide and rule. It pitted Kurds against Arabs, and Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims. That triggered a devastating sectarian civil war, in which the U.S. backed the Shia-dominated Iraqi state – despite Shia ties to Washington’s enemies in in the Iranian government – against the Sunni resistance. In this context, ISIS’s progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged as a force among embattled Sunnis, launching unrelenting attacks on the Shia population and its religious sites.
Iraq, once one of the most economically advanced countries of the region, was already devastated by a decade of bombing and economic sanctions, and the civil war further unraveled the social fabric. The invasion and the sectarian war caused the deaths of well over a million people.
Iran, the real victor of the Iraq War, could now count the new Shia state in Iraq in its list of allies that included the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – the so-called “Shia Crescent” sweeping from Tehran in the East, through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. To contain Iran, the U.S. turned to its historic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which both see Iran as their principal rival in the region. Saudi Arabia used sectarianism to unite Sunni states in the region against the “Shia Crescent,” prompting Iran and its axis to turn increasingly to Russia and China as superpower backers.
Obama adopted a new strategy of balancing between the Middle East’s main powers in the hopes of defusing conflicts and stabilizing the region. The goal was to maintain America’s alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, while developing a live-and-let-live arrangement with Iran. When the U.S. made a deal with Iran in regard to its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia and Israel recoiled in anger. The U.S. responded by inking enormous weapons deals with both countries, antagonizing Iran, which doubled down on its relationships with Russia and China.
All of these geopolitical antagonisms have erupted in Syria. Russia, China, and Iran have lined up with Assad, while the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have tried to use the resistance as a tool to get rid of the dictator, while preserving his state.
But these geopolitical conflicts wouldn’t have emerged in Syria in the same form without the second cause of the crisis in the Middle East: the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring.
In 2011, students, workers and peasants rose up across North Africa and the Middle East against dictatorship and repression, as well as neoliberalism and class inequality. The rebellions, first in Tunisia, then Egypt, then spreading around the region, were fought for freedom, democracy and equality. The wave of struggle swept away entrenched dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, but the rulers of other countries in the region, though shaken, managed to cling to power, and the Arab Spring lacked the political development to go further.
Three agents of counterrevolution intervened to preserve the existing order against the tide of revolt.
First, the imperialist powers turned against the uprisings. The U.S. opposed the Arab Spring revolts from the start, turning a blind eye when troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened to brutally put down Bahrain’s revolt. Only under duress did Washington abandon its opposition and call for “orderly transitions” in Tunisia and Egypt. It tried to use a grassroots rebellion to get rid of “frenemy” Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but that turned into a disaster, with the country devolving into civil war. This led the U.S. to renounce regime change in favor of stabilizing the existing order.
The U.S. wasn’t the only imperialist power to back counterrevolution. Russia and China also have imperialist stakes in the region. Russia has a naval base in Syria, alliances with Iran and the Assad regime, and investments in both countries. China does, too – it’s eager to invest in the region’s oil economy and curry alliances with oil-producing states to ensure independent access to energy supplies. China and Russia have therefore backed Assad with money and armaments to suppress the Syrian revolution.
The second force of counterrevolution has been the region’s ruling classes and their state machines, which have used brute force to crush revolts and stoked sectarian conflict to divide them. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed various Islamist militias fighting against Assad in Syria, and Iran has supported the Houthi revolt against the Saudi-backed state in Yemen (Saudi Arabia’s responded with a bombing campaign that’s laying waste to the country).
The final counterrevolutionary force is ISIS, which brought together personnel from Saddam Hussein’s former regime with remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq to oppose the Shia-dominated state’s suppression of mainly nonviolent demonstrations in Sunni areas in 2012. In 2014, ISIS carried out a stunning offensive across Sunni areas in western and northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and other cities to proclaim its new caliphate. While not supporting ISIS’s reactionary politics and heavy-handed repression, most Iraqi Sunnis view it as a lesser evil compared to the brutal sectarian rule of the Shia state.
In Syria, ISIS was an embattled, unpopular and mainly foreign force. But once it seized Mosul in Iraq – and, with it, enormous amounts of money and arms – it was strong enough to carve out territory in Syria as well. It hasn’t sought to engage in direct war with the Assad government. It has a de facto non-aggression pact with the regime, going so far as to trade oil with it. ISIS’s military moves in Syria have mainly targeted anti-Assad rebels in areas liberated from the regime’s control, with the aim of expanding the caliphate.
Assad’s regime, like the others in the region, is an utterly corrupt capitalist dictatorship. In recent years, Bashar al-Assad has specialized in imposing neoliberal measures, privatizing sections of state capitalist industry for the benefit of cronies linked to his family. He commercialized agriculture, impoverishing peasants in the countryside, and dismantled the social safety net, pauperizing urban workers. As a result, as Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami report in their brilliant book Burning Country, “inequality grew, until 50% of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 5% of the population.”
While nominally secular, Assad’s regime is controlled by the country’s Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Like other tyrants in the region, he’s been adept at manipulating Syria’s sectarian divisions, repeatedly posturing as the defender of the Alawite and Christian minorities against Sunni Islamists, who he portrays as a terrorist threat. The regime has also manipulated the country’s principal national division between Arabs and Kurds. It allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), rebelling against the government in rival Turkey, to base itself in Syria until 1998. At the same time, it denied citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds living in Syria, banning their language and crushing an uprising in 2004. The government did allow the formation of the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, at times cutting deals with it and at others repressing it.
Many grievances, including the government’s inadequate response to agricultural drought caused by global warming, drove Syrians to revolt against Assad in 2011. Tens of thousands marched peacefully in cities throughout the country, especially in the Sunni provinces, chanting slogans against sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism, like “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” and for nonviolence: “Selmiyyeh, selmiyyeh” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
Assad attempted to crush the revolt, deploying his police and paramilitary thugs, the shabiha, to attack, beat, jail, and torture thousands of activists. To justify this brute display of repression, and with the hopes of maintaining some base of support, the government claimed that the demonstrators were agents of foreign powers and Islamist sectarians who would attack the Alawite and Christian minorities. To make this threat more credible, Assad released 1,500 Sunni Salafists from his jails. They organized as many as 12 sectarian groups that targeted religious minorities and their places of worship.
Attempting to keep the Kurds from joining the revolt, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 of them and withdrew his forces from the Kurdish north, effectively ceding control of the area to the PYD and its militia, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Because of the history of Arab prejudice against Kurds and its own peculiar form of nationalist politics, the PYD kept its distance from the predominantly Sunni Arab revolutionaries and attempted to carve out a Kurdish autonomous zone, Rojava, in Syria’s north.
Threatened by the state’s savage counterrevolution, Syrian revolutionaries had no choice but to take up arms in self-defense. They formed an estimated 1,000 militias, won over the Sunni rank and file within the Syrian military, and forged the Free Syrian Army, numbering over 150,000 fighters, which progressively liberated cities and territory from the crumbling regime.
Assad retreated to predominantly Alawite strongholds among Syria’s coastal cities. In the liberated areas, revolutionaries built a network of local councils called Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) that organized the struggle and attempted to replace services previously provided by the government.
With his regime collapsing, Assad turned to rule-or-ruin tactics. His air force bombed cities and dropped chemical weapons on civilians, laying waste to whole sections of the country.
Amid this catastrophic situation, various Islamist forces emerged within the revolution. Some were accepted as part of it; some competed with the LCCs and the FSA from outside, but still fought the regime; and others, like the al Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front, sometimes came into conflict with the FSA while also clashing with the regime.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar funded the FSA. But they never supported the revolution. The U.S., for example, never provided the heavy weaponry FSA fighters needed to defend their cities against Assad’s air force. When Assad dropped chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus in 2013, pressure built on the U.S. to intervene against Assad. But Obama balked, instead agreeing to a Russian deal to save the regime, on the condition that it destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.
The U.S. and its allies hoped to co-opt the revolution’s representatives organized, first, in the Syrian National Council, and later, in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The U.S. wanted to use these bodies to put pressure on Assad to step down, then broker a deal that incorporated sections of the rebel leadership it could rely on into the existing state.
Regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided limited support to some Islamist forces, prompting many militias to rebrand themselves Islamist in order to procure desperately needed funds and arms. At the same time, the desperation conditions in Syria drove many to find succor in religion to alleviate their suffering. Thus, sections of the revolution increasingly gravitated to Islamist forces. ISIS, the most extreme and counterrevolutionary expression of this dynamic, continued to concentrate its fire on anti-Assad opposition groups rather than government forces.
After ISIS established itself as a power in Syria following its victories in Iraq, Assad claimed to be waging a “war on terror” against it. But other rebel forces were the overwhelming targets of the slaughter carried out by government forces – later even more effectively with support from Russian warplanes.
Since the rise of ISIS – especially after the terrorist attacks it orchestrated last year in Paris and elsewhere – all the imperial and regional powers have intensified their intervention in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has built an international coalition forged around NATO, but encompassing 66 countries in total, with the stated aim of degrading and eventually destroying ISIS. But Obama’s new war has only deepened the crisis in Syria and the region. It’s blown up more of the country, exacerbated the refugee crisis, and increased recruitment to ISIS, and will undoubtedly trigger more blowback, as ISIS resorts to terrorist tactics in the region and internationally.
The U.S. wants to avoid a protracted ground war against ISIS. Instead, Washington aims to provide air support for proxy forces on the ground overseen by military advisers and Special Forces. In Iraq, the Pentagon hopes to bolster the existing Iraqi government by getting it to incorporate the Sunni elite, integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi Army, and turn its united forces against ISIS. In Syria, the U.S. has escalated its air strikes against ISIS targets, but has found it difficult to secure proxy forces on the ground. A U.S. training program designed to field a fighting force against ISIS failed, largely because Syrians who might have taken part wanted to fight to overthrow the regime rather than being U.S. proxies against ISIS. The program, which recruited and graduated a total of 60 people, was wrapped up last year.
The U.S. has also struck a de facto cooperation pact with Assad in order to fight ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration established backchannel contacts with Assad to ensure that it could use Syrian airspace for its bombing runs. It also forged an alliance with the PYD and YPG. When the U.S. finally did expand its air strikes into Syria, its warplanes struck not only ISIS, but also the al-Nusra Front, which many Syrian Sunnis tolerate because it defends them from the regime. Syrian Sunnis perceive this de facto alliance between the U.S. and the regime as a betrayal of the revolution, and, out of despair, some are joining ISIS for the same reason that Iraqi Sunnis see it as a “lesser evil” – however brutal and reactionary, it’s an alternative to violence and death at the hands of the state.
Late last year, Russia took advantage of America’s weakened position to intervene directly in Syria in support of the regime. The Russian air force backs up ground operations by government troops, Iranian militias, and Hezbollah, to retake the country’s liberated areas. Proclaiming that it was targeting ISIS, Russia’s directed 80% of its strikes against rebel forces.
Russia hopes to force the U.S. to accept Assad’s regime as an ally in the grand coalition against ISIS. Just like the U.S., Russia’s air force has supported the PYD, YPG and its broader umbrella fighting force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nominally to fight ISIS. But the Kurdish forces have also attacked rebel fighters and imposed their rule on Arab areas in an effort to enlarge the Kurdish autonomous zone. Tragically, this has broken the potential unity between the Kurdish struggle and the Syrian revolution. The PYD’s calculation is that it can win liberation for Syrian Kurds with this strategy. More likely, the imperial powers will merely use and betray the PYD, as they’ve done in other countries, like Iraq.
Russia’s atrocities could eventually rival those that the U.S. committed in Iraq. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 679 civilians killed in January alone – 94 of them children and 73 women – as a result of Russian air strikes.
The UN Commission of Inquiry has accused the regime of the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure” and using starvation as a weapon of war. Doctors Without Borders reports that Russia and the regime have attacked its 67 hospitals with 94 air strikes, completely destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 of its staff.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has enflamed America’s allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, which launched a campaign of state terror against Kurds and the PKK within its borders, has objected to Russia’s intervention, as well as American support for the PYD. It classifies the PYD in Syria as a terrorist group and views the formation of a Kurdish autonomous zone along its border with Syria as a national security threat. Earlier this year, Turkey shot down a Russian jet in contested territory along its border with Syria. It’s also carrying out cross-border artillery and air strikes on PYD and YPG positions. Turkey’s President Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. choose between supporting Turkey and supporting the PYD.
Saudi Arabia is also protesting Russia’s intervention and Washington’s retreat from its insistence that Assad must go, which it views as another American concession to Iran. That’s what is behind threats to send Saudi weaponry to Turkey and launch a ground invasion of Syria with Saudi forces. Justified as a war against ISIS, it’s really a threat to stop the advance of Assad and his allies.
Russia’s air war has driven untold numbers out of besieged cities like Aleppo, with many desperate to escape to Europe.
Outfoxed by Russian imperialism, worried about the growing consequences of the flood of refugees to Europe, and scrambling to maintain some leverage in the region, the U.S. government seems to be shifting its Syrian strategy in the run-up to the so-called peace negotiations set for Geneva, Switzerland, on March 7th. It’s accepted Assad’s participation in the process in order to continue with its priority of fighting ISIS, and is apparently willing to postpone a transition to a post-Assad regime until an uncertain date in the future. Secretary of State John Kerry, who long ago abandoned Assad’s removal as a precondition for any political settlement, now states that the U.S. and Russian views on Syria “are fundamentally very similar,” and that the replacement of Assad would come at the end of a long “transition government.” Such a deal will never be accepted by the majority of Syrian Sunnis, who rightly look upon Assad as a mass murderer. To frighten the various sides into accepting what’s on the table, however, Kerry’s floated a plan to partition the country into Kurdish, Sunni, and Alawite states. This would not only trigger mass ethnic cleansing in Syria, but would destabilize the entire region. Turkey, for instance, would certainly oppose any plan that set up a new Kurdish state led by the PYD, since that would encourage Turkish Kurds to secede and join it.
The imperialist and regional powers offer no solution to the mess that their interventions and counterrevolution have caused. They’re all committed to preserving the rotten system that the people of the Middle East and North Africa revolted against in 2011.
The only lasting solution is to get all of the foreign powers out of Syria and Iraq, especially the U.S., but also Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The borders of all the countries of the region, of Europe and beyond should be opened to the fleeing victims of the slaughter. Finally, the struggle from below for democracy and freedom, the national self-determination of oppressed people like the Palestinian and Kurds, and the self-emancipation of the region’s laboring masses should be allowed to recover. That will require a radical left alternative, rooted in working-class organization, which stands for unity against national, sectarian, and ethnic prejudices and divisions.