The Creation of Frankenstein in the Middle Eastern Region
Al Kagan is African Studies Bibliographer and Professor of Library Administration Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign.
Media coverage of the destruction of antiquities in northern Iraq during March 2015 has aroused the indignation of people around the world. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has initiated this destruction and used it in a propaganda campaign to promote its interests throughout the region. This destruction is based on its crude fundamentalist version of Islam.
Libraries with unique collections, with some items going back to 5000 BC, have reportedly been ransacked in Mosul, and there are reports that many of the books were burned. Archeological sites at the ancient cities of Hatra, Nimrud, and Dur-Sharrukin have reportedly been devastated, and museum artifacts have been destroyed including the Winged Bull, which used to stand at the gates of Nineveh in the 7th century. There are also reports that ISIS is selling invaluable artifacts for profit.
It is a sad commentary that the world is so war-weary that it takes the destruction of ancient cultural artifacts to again shock the world. Let me suggest that we think of ISIS, the various branches of al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria as Frankenstein monsters created by the failed foreign policy of supposedly smart US government and corporate elites, along with the collaboration of friendly European and third world elites. The Frankenstein metaphor works because these extreme Islamist groups have been brought to life by mad scientist-like calculated policy decisions by US and allied governments that have failed miserably. Others have called this blowback.
Iran and Afghanistan
We might start with the Cold War and the 1953 US-engineered overthrow of the popularly elected, nationalist, and progressive government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddegh in Iran. That government was overthrown when it moved to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. So instead of a progressive and nationalist government, Iran ended up with a pro-Western brutal Shah (or king). Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the 1979 popular revolution, which was eventually controlled by Islamic extremists who hated the US for its role in the 1953 coup and subsequent repressive policies.
Now consider the Cold War struggle in Afghanistan. A Soviet-backed 1979 coup installed Babrak Karmal along with Soviet military occupation. The CIA immediately began to train the mujahedeen “holy warriors,” including Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviet “Evil Empire.” The US referred to the mujahedeen as “freedom fighters.” Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1999 after a peace agreement. The US-backed war killed at least 1.5 million people and injured countless more. Islamic fighters ousted President Najibullah in 1992, and civil war resulted. The Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996, and provided a home for the growth and development of Al-Qaeda. The direct US war against Afghanistan began in 2003, and US troops are still there. More than 200,000 Afghanis have died.
Iraq and The Project for the New American Century
The Project for the New American Century was established as a non-profit educational organization in 1997. These neo-conservatives thought they could overthrow all Middle Eastern states not allied with the US and end up with Western oriented and corporate-friendly governments. The Project provided the impetus for the George W. Bush administration’s war policies. Although the U.S. had generally supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq from 1979 to 1990, the situation reversed after the 1990 Gulf War. Strict US-organized UN economic and other sanctions led to the death of perhaps 500,000 Iraqi children by 1996, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “we think the price was worth it.” The Project called for the overthrow of Iraq’s President Hussein as early as January 1998, but the Project initiators did not get their wish until after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Nine-eleven provided a convenient excuse to attack Iraq based on non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” Iraq was a brutal dictatorship that tortured its opponents, but it was also a mostly stable and secular middle-income country fueled by an oil-based economy. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, opposition was not tolerated, and freedom of speech was very limited. One consequence of the authoritarian state was that radical Islamist groups had no presence in the country. The US-led invasion led to the destruction and systematic dismantling of Iraq’s government and army along with the bombing of crucial infrastructure. The chaos that followed led to the recruitment of competing ethnic militias, and massive “ethnic cleansing” of both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods and regions. Al-Qaeda was able to establish a presence in the country only after the US-led invasion. After some time, Al-Qaeda morphed into ISIS, which now controls large parts of northwestern Iraq. Perhaps one million Iraqis have died.
Syria, Libya and Israel/Palestine
Syria has had an anti-US and Arab nationalist government since at least World War II. From 1970 to 2000, Syria had a secular government under President Hafez al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad became President after his father’s death. Syria was a mostly stable repressive regime under the Assads until recently. According to a cable released by WikiLeaks, the US funded the Syrian opposition until at least 2010. As part of the Arab Spring, peaceful protests began in 2011 but were quickly quashed by the army. This fueled a violent opposition led by army defectors, and then civil war. President Obama called for Assad to step down in 2011, and the US, UK, and France are again providing military and political support for segments of the armed opposition. There are now more than 6.5 million refugees including 4 million who have fled to neighboring countries. Over 200,000 have died. As in Iraq, the civil war has opened up space for ISIS, and they now control about one-third of the territory and most of the oil and gas-producing areas.
As with Iraq and Syria, Libya was a stable secular repressive state under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Arab Spring protests led to repression of the non-violent struggle. When opposition forces took up arms, NATO led by the US overthrew the regime in 2011. There are presently two separate governments, with ISIS controlling part of eastern Libya. In addition, much of Gaddafi’s army and weapons crossed borders, fueling Islamist groups in the Sahel region including Mali, and in the Sahara including Algeria.
There is no space here to discuss Israel/Palestine, but suffice it to say that massive US military, economic, and political support for Israel has continued to inflame the region, and has directly led to the election of the radical Hamas government in Gaza.
Instead of consistently supporting human rights, the US has flooded the region with weapons and supported authoritarian regimes. The main US interest has been strategic with a steady eye on access to oil, not support for democratic movements. In a candid March 17th interview with Shane Smith of Vice News, President Obama stated that “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and that it is an “example of unintended consequences.” Whether boots on the ground or through drone attacks, the US is continuously making the situation worse. New extremists are created when the U.S. military kills or maims civilians or destroys their homes and livelihoods. US foreign policy has indeed created a Frankenstein monster. Massive anti-war protests at various times seem to have had little effect, but may have prevented a full-scale US invasion of Iran. The people of the US must look for new ways to demand peace, which is the only way to defeat the monster.