top of page


By Dave Stratman

July 26, 2004


It used to be said during the Cold War that, "If the Communist threat did not exist, the US would have to invent it." The threat of nuclear war and the notion of a Communist (or capitalist) under every bed provided American and Soviet ruling elites excellent means to frighten and control their own citizens, justify enormous arms expenditures, and legitimize power projection abroad in the name of saving the world from Communism (or capitalism).


The same thing can be said now with a good deal more accuracy of political Islam, which the US ruling class has been courting and nurturing since it first allied in 1947 with the House of Saud. The line of strategic relationships between the US and political Islam runs through Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and now Iraq. If the US did not actually invent modern political Islam, for over half a century it has encouraged it, promoted it, funded it, trained it, armed it, and furnished it with a political rationale for its existence.


US ruling circles and reactionary forces acting in the name of Islam are in a co-dependent relationship: they need each other and work together covertly, even while they publicly attack each other in word and deed. This relationship is part of grand strategy, in which US rulers are playing for the highest of stakes: their continued control over the American people, as well as elite domination of the world. Ruling elites in Muslim nations use political Islam and the threat from the US to control their own people with an iron fist concealed in a glove of religious fervor.




Political Islam perfectly suits the needs of America's rulers for an enemy. The lands of the Middle East and Central Asia occupied by Muslims are the most strategically important regions of the world, sitting astride the world's largest reserves of oil and gas; the US could never justify attacking these nations without first convincing Americans that Muslims need either to be attacked -- because they are dangerous terrorists -- or liberated. Seeing Islam as the enemy also supports Israel's role as an outpost of Western colonialism in the Middle East; according to this script, Christians and Jews supposedly share a common Judeo-Christian heritage which is meant to exclude Muslims, and we are encouraged to support a Jewish state based on savage ethnic cleansing against Islamic fanatics.


The greatest benefits to America's rulers of political Islam as the enemy, however, are ideological: religious demagogues like Osama bin Laden and Iranian mullahs channel the poor and oppressed of the Muslim world into politically reactionary rather than revolutionary formations and legitimize the power of elites acting in the name of Islam; at the same time, they make the ugly face of contemporary capitalism look by way of contrast almost desirable to non-Muslims and many Muslims, in much the same way that Soviet Communism did. US rulers would like the world to perceive the choice before it in effect to be between an admittedly decadent capitalist civilization with unlimited freedom to do your own thing and a pre-modern theocratic state.

Political Islam derives much of its effectiveness from the failure of communism as a revolutionary ideology. That failure left widespread despair in the Middle East and around the globe and an ideological void which militant Islam, assisted by the US, has rushed to fill.





The US's favored antidote to revolutionary ideology among desperate workers and farmers in the turbulent Middle East, Central Asia, and Muslim Africa, especially since 1979, has been the idea that God's will as expressed in the Koran requires people to submit to 'holy' dictatorships. That pivotal year marked the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the most powerful US client except Israel, and also the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In both cases the US turned to Islamic fundamentalism to achieve its strategic goals.


The Iranian revolution was capable of establishing a secular, anti-capitalist revolutionary democracy and sweeping the Middle East. Instead TIME's 1979 Man of the Year, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the mullahs successfully channeled the mass popular movement into a right-wing theocracy, using nationalism and religion to crush the revolution and consolidate the class nature of Iranian society.


There has been a strong collaborative relationship between the theocratic rulers of Iran and US rulers ever since. In November, 1979 Iranians took over the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 50 Americans hostage. Focusing on the Great Satan allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to put up a show of radicalism to satisfy his followers while he liquidated tens of thousands of worker and student revolutionaries in the spring and summer of 1980. In October, 1980 emissaries of the Republican Party met secretly with the Ayatollah's regime and persuaded it not to release the hostages until the election was over, thus guaranteeing the defeat of Jimmy Carter. From 1983 through 1988 the Reagan Administration, in collaboration with Israel, sold arms to the Khomeini regime in Iran and sent the proceeds to CIA-supported Contras fighting the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, in defiance of Congress.




In 1979 the US began another remarkably ambitious collaboration with Islamic fundamentalists after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With Jimmy Carter's express approval, under CIA direction, and with massive funding from the US and Saudi Arabia, the US undertook to recruit, train, and arm over 100,000 mujahadeen -- Islamic freedom fighters, as President Reagan styled them -- from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, to make war against the Soviet invaders. The US funded madrassas -- Islamic religious schools -- in Pakistan and Afghanistan to promote political Islam and it set up camps to train the mujahadeen in guerrilla tactics and terrorism. A key CIA asset in the struggle was a man of the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam sect from Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden. The US-backed Islamic fundamentalist movement was successful. In 1989 it drove the USSR from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, a loss from which the USSR never recovered. On September 27, 1996 the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla organization backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul.




In the mid-90s, with explicit approval of the Clinton Administration and the assistance of the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and Osama bin Laden, the US channeled Iranian arms, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iranian intelligence agents, and thousands of mujahadeen from around the Islamic world to the Muslim government in Sarajevo during the fighting in Bosnia, greatly enhancing Iranian and fundamentalist influence in the region. The US, working closely with Osama bin Laden, then supplied the Kosovo Liberation Army with funding, arms, and Muslim fighters. Prof. Michel Chussodovsky of the University of Ottawa sums up the alliance between the US and Islamic militants: A major war supposedly against international terrorism has been launched, yet the evidence amply confirms that agencies of the US government have since the Cold War harbored the Islamic Militant Network as part of Washington's foreign policy agenda. (



The US has covertly championed Islamic power in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan under a succession of leaders, most recently ex-General Musharraf, who led a military coup against the elected government in 1999 and proclaimed himself president. US military forces and the CIA have maintained particularly strong ties with the Pakistani military and with ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, which played a major role in directing Islamic mujahadeen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and continues to have strong ties with the Taliban. The military and the ISI threw crucial support to the six-party Alliance of Islamic parties, the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), enabling it to triumph in the October, 2003 Pakistani elections. Ahmed Rashid writes:


[T]he Islamicists see their moment to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state. The MMA are banking on their support within the army and the intelligence services. They have gone out of their way to revile Musharraf as a stooge of the Americans, while praising the army's commitment to Islam. Emboldened by its successes, the MMA has also declared that it will demand that the government impose Sharia law throughout the country....[US policies] will only hasten Pakistan's turn towards Islamic fundamentalism as the MMA gets stronger and more strident in its demands. (


This desire to bolster militant Islam may explain why US military forces have been producing with every atrocity new guerilla fighters with which to frighten the American people and to make the war on terror and threat of terrorism more convincing. Anonymous, a CIA analyst for 22-years who has just published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, writes that the United States has "waged two failed half-wars and, in doing so, left Afghanistan and Iraq seething with anti-U.S. sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of al-Qaeda and kindred groups." He adds that "There is nothing that bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq."


Before the first Gulf war, Iraq had been a secular state, with the highest standard of living in the Middle East. Health care was free, as was education up through secondary school. Iraq had a high degree of equality between the sexes, with laws against gender discrimination; there were more female than male university students. ( After two wars and 12 years of U.N. sanctions, with its infrastructure in rubble, millions of its people malnourished, and 70% unemployed, the living standards of Iraqis have gone dramatically backwards. Iraqis have been subject to savage US attacks on civilians and widespread torture and humiliation of a sort calculated to make even those Iraqis most initially supportive of the removal of Saddam Hussein see America as an enemy.


The US has succeeded in consolidating the Iraqi resistance--the only future leadership with any legitimacy in popular eyes--increasingly under militant Islamic leadership, virtually guaranteeing an Islamic future for once secular Iraq. The US strategy of encouraging Islamic fundamentalism may explain what otherwise seem like incomprehensible blunders in the war on Iraq, not to mention the invasion itself.


For example, the US apparently deliberately provoked the Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq in April, 2004 and thrust radical Islamic leader, Moqtada Sadr, into the position of being a national hero to Iraqis. Sadr is a Shi'ite Muslim, the same sect as that of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. In April, 2004, when Israel assassinated Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, Sadr's newspaper gave the story prominent coverage and promised to act as a wing of Hamas in Iraq. The US promptly shut down Sadr's paper, arrested thirteen of his top aides, and, through an Iraqi court, issued a warrant for Sadr's arrest for murder. Though Sadr had a militia of his own, the Mahdi Army, it had never acted violently towards any Americans. Juan Cole, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, asked,

How did the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] get to the point where it has turned even Iraqi Shi'ites, who were initially grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein, against the United States? Where it risks fighting dual Sunni Arab and Shi'ite insurgencies simultaneously, at a time when US troops are rotating on a massive scale and hoping to downsize their forces in country? Someone in the CPA sat down and thought up ways to stir them up by closing their newspaper and issuing 28 arrest warrants....This is either gross incompetence or was done with dark ulterior motives that can scarcely be guessed at. (

Naomi Klein, reporting from Baghdad, reacted with wonderment at the US deliberately provoking a Shi'ite uprising. In an article titled " The U.S. Is Sabotaging Stability in Iraq," she wrote:

Mr. al-Sadr is the younger, more radical rival of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, portrayed by his adoring supporters as a kind of cross between Ayatollah Khomeini and Che Guevara. He blames the U.S. for attacks on civilians, compares U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer to Saddam Hussein, aligns himself with Hamas and Hezbollah and has called for a jihad against the controversial interim constitution. His Iraq might look a lot like Iran. (Globe and Mail, Canada, 4/5/04)


Klein calls the U.S. provoking of an uprising in Shi'ite southern Iraq mystifying, and reckons that the CPA is trying to create chaos in the south to make the handover of power impossible. More likely, however, is that the U.S. is trying to create what Professor Cole calls a Shi'ite International, as demonstrations erupted throughout the Shi'ite world, including Lebanon, Bahrain, Iran and Pakistan, against continued U.S. fighting in Karbala, a key holy city for Shi'ite Muslims. "....Bush is in the process of turning the Shi'ite world decisively against the U.S." (


After claiming that it would defeat Sadr and that it wanted him dead or alive, the US backed down and negotiated with him. One of the concessions was that Sadr would order his militia fighters to return to their homes; meanwhile Sadr announced his intentions to form a political party and run in the elections scheduled for January, 2005. ( This arrangement, one analyst put it, would signal that the United States has just christened the newest Islamic theocracy in the World. (


The pattern we see developing in Iraq is familiar. The US covertly encourages militant Islamic opposition movements throughout the Muslim world. This means that US-backed Islamic movements often find themselves in opposition to US-backed governments. When Islamic forces eventually become powerful enough to take over, then secular allies can be dispensed with. This was the pattern in Iran, and it is the developing pattern in Pakistan and Iraq, both of which will likely become theocracies on the Iran model. In Iraq, given the former power and prestige of the secular and socialist Ba'athist Party, it has taken an invasion and brutal occupation to remove the secular leader and develop Islamic forces; still the model is the same.


I should point out that the US is not alone in funding Islamic militants. Israel funded and promoted the Islamic terrorist group Hamas in the 1970s and 1980s and may still. Israel funded Hamas to undercut the popularity of the secular PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the Palestinian cause, which it has done very effectively with suicide attacks on Jewish civilians in Israel. (




US rulers need to create a frightening, ubiquitous, and apparently powerful enemy against which to wage endless war. They seem to be succeeding. We will likely soon see a Muslim world populated by Islamic theocracies in Iran, Iraq, and nuclear-armed Pakistan. These theocracies will impose harsh controls on their own people, crushing dissent in the name of religion, at the same time as they will be invoked by the US and Israel as terrorist threats to world peace. The US government has been laying the groundwork for a turbulent future of war and terrorism.


I do not mean to imply here that all has gone according to plan for the US or that the US government is all-powerful in foreign affairs. On the contrary, US actions, especially in the war on Iraq, have been at enormous political cost. Millions of people in the Middle East, perhaps billions worldwide now see the US war-maker state for what it is. Millions of Americans now understand the ruthless nature of their government more clearly than ever, and many now see the need for the overthrow of the war-makers.


At the same time, arranging for a future of endless war is not a sign of the rulers' strength but of weakness. War has always been a method of controlling restive populations, but it is the most extreme method, high in its political costs and unpredictable in its outcome. The rulers of the US and the Muslim nations -- and indeed of world capitalism -- are being forced towards a future of endless war out of their fear of revolution, as billions of the world's people lose faith in capitalism and seek an alternative. America's most powerful elites are rolling the dice and hoping that fear of militant Islam and possible terrorism will make Americans line up dutifully behind their leaders and get them to accept life in an ever more unequal, undemocratic society without complaint or struggle.


US and Islamic rulers hope to set Americans and Muslims against each other, inflame irrational hatreds, and blind people to their real enemies, the ruling elites of their own societies. Ordinary Iraqi and Pakistani and American workers have more in common with each other than they have with the ruling rich of their societies. To be effective the antiwar, anti-Empire movements in every country must have strong internationalist values and seek to build ties between workers of the US and Muslim and other countries. The answer to division is solidarity. The answer to communism and capitalism is truly democratic revolution. The answer to imperialist war is to turn the guns around and overthrow the war-makers.


The late Dave Stratman is the author of We CAN Change The World: The Real Meaning Of Everyday Life

bottom of page