The 1980s witnessed the re-emergence of Cold War warriors and a renewed focus on defeating the Soviet Union, undoing the Iranian revolution and reversing any miniscule political changes in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Ronald Reagan’s election and reelection in the US and, with the Conservative Party’s return to power, Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as Prime Minister in the UK, brought about an emphasis on privatization, economic and market deregulations coupled with massive military expenditures and buildup in an effort to win the Cold War, while at the same time increasing dominations of the global South. What was unique in this period is that the deregulations efforts were at once internal and external.
On the internal front, hardline conservatives and Cold War warriors worked diligently and maliciously to reverse the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements’ gains made by the poor, middle class and communities of color in the global North. The conservative governments were successful in achieving the rollbacks through formulating something akin to an internal structural adjustment programs directed at reducing and/or removing support for social welfare programs, education, healthcare and environmental protection while facilitating a distorted privatization and deregulations schemes for the economy and pushing for accelerated military buildup. The strategy on the external front included a continuation of IMF and World Bank adjustment programs, pushing for accelerated privatization, sponsoring bilateral and multilateral ruinous ‘free trade’ agreements and unleashing a muscular interventionist foreign policy to further disrupt the post-colonial state in the global South.
Low Intensity Warfare and Post-Colonialism
The Cold War euphemism describing the period obscures the burning fires, death and destruction visited upon the global South. Reagan and Thatcher’s elections emboldened the hardline conservatives in Washington and London, who fanned out across the world to reclaim ‘lost’ terrain and moved to support and prop up yet again discredited and despotic elites in the global South as long as they committed themselves to the Cold War efforts. ‘Low Intensity Warfare’ was the operable term used to describe the unleashed new strategy that was intended to disrupt and overturn any and all regimes that refused to come under the newly reinvigorated Reagan’s Pax-Americana.
Putting new post-colonial strategy into action involved supporting regional wars in Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Asia with massive military expenditures and recruitment of both regular and irregular forces across the global South. The names of the countries that experienced one aspect or another of the strategy include: Afghanistan, Angola, Algeria, Chad, El Salvador, Eretria, Chile, Columbia, Grenada, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, South Africa, Zaire, Sudan, Somalia, Venezuela and Yemen.
Fighting and defeating what Reagan called the “evil empire” translated to utilizing post-colonial subjects and territories to bleed the Superpower of its resources and topple leaders and governments allied with it in the global South. In this case, both the US-led NATO alliance and the USSR-led Warsaw Pact fought a protracted ‘low intensity warfare’ across the globe; consequently, in the surge of conflicts brown, black and yellow post-colonial bodies ascribed with sub-humanness were pilling-up, once again merely nameless, faceless, disposable biological substance. It was not the Cold War warriors from the global North that died in these battle fields; rather, the post-colonial subjects that once again were the pawns, easily moveable and disposable, used for settling accounts and dividing the world. . While the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was costly both in blood and treasure for the Soviet Union, it was, nevertheless, an unconventional anomaly to use troops from the global North to fight during this period.
Cold War warriors utilized existing cleavages and contradictions that were already magnified, sharpened and intensified during the colonial period to shape Eastern -Western block discourses and fight the wars in the global South. The proxy wars managed to destroy what little was built since or saved from the colonial period, which in a short time led to further economic, political and social destabilization. Each conflict in the global South caused another flood of refugees and immigrants to make their way to the North in perpetual search of peace, security and basic livelihood. As local economies in the South collapsed and more resources were syphoned off to build-up and equip militaries fighting ‘Low Intensity Warfare’ against internal or external fomented threats, the human waves of refugees escaping the carnage ended up in cities and towns in the global North.
For Washington, London, Paris and Moscow the Cold War was conducted in conferences, extended strategy sessions and war games using the ‘Low Intensity War’ euphemisms and ‘local assets’ to conceal pernicious and murderous policies. Some of the nefarious instruments implemented in the global South with devastating results during this period include the utilization of death squads, assassinations, torture, placing mines in harbors, CIA training programs, disrupting trade, tampering with currency exchanges, manipulating agricultural policies, attacking religious figures and institutions, flooding the markets with oil or wheat, threatening and firing workers. It is important to keep in mind that these strategies and policies employed in regional wars came on the heels of the debt crisis and the imposed structural adjustment programs by the IMF and World Bank.
The debt crisis, structural adjustment programs and Low Intensity Warfare brought the global South into a condition worst than that of the direct colonial period. All internal cohesion was destroyed, social structures fragmented and even the distorted sense of nationalism was not sufficient to counter this strategy. Neighbors turned against neighbors, young men and mere children with guns were unleashed on populations across the global South and controlled chaos was implemented to bring societies and states to their knees and for them to accept the new world order.
The colonized elites received assistance to move wealth and family members outside the country while continuing to manage the war efforts. This accommodation for the elites set in motion another massive wealth transfer from the global South as well as a cycle of brain drain since those with education and skills found ways to escape the turmoil and become refugees and immigrants in the North. Now cities in the global North are home to plethora of refugee and immigrant populations that escaped the wars and settled or made to settle in countries that were either directly or indirectly involved in fomenting the conflicts in the first place.
Imperial Religion: a Post-Colonial Tool
The global East-West conflict or capitalism versus communism witnessed an expanded role for religion, using it to implement imperial policies across the globe. Religion is a powerful force capable of unlocking great potential; however, in imperial hands this aspect can have devastating consequences. No stone, holy or profane, was left unturned and untouched during the Cold War as each power assembled its own set of assets and resources onto global battlefields. Marx’s statement that religion is “the opium of the masses” has relevance in this period and must be understood in its proper context since the concept fits into his over-all theory and critique of society.
The practiced religion is shaped by the text as much as the material, economic, political, racial and social conditions present in the society. One can believe in the veracity of a revealed text while recognizing the engulfing shadow cast on the text by realities and conducts of the society, which manages to extricate irresolvable and incoherent contradictions.
Confronting communism in the global South meant the mobilization of religious institutions across the world to counter the ‘ungodly’ empire. Religion was an instrument brought to bear against the ‘ungodly’ communist and in the service of the capitalist empire. ‘God’ and religion were cast as a pro-capitalist, open market economy and free enterprise, which must be guaranteed by joining the global ‘Holy Crusade’ against the evil empire. Consequently, the emergence of modern religious fundamentalism can be traced to this period and leaders within the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions were brought into the imperial court and given the stage to shape the needed counter communist responses.
The critique here is not a defense of communism under the Soviet Union, which operated a state centralized capitalist enterprise; rather, the aim is to elucidate how distorted religious traditions become a function and partner to empire with the centrality of the exploitative military industrial complex within it. Religion, used as a tool by the empire, is a powerful mobilizer if the right people are involved, appropriate resources made available and selected texts are deployed; the desired results can translate into making individuals and societies support oppression and war in the name of a god.
Any religious text is considerably malleable and open to varied interpretation depending on the methods, authority and accountability of those making the argument for its deployment in the post-colonial period. Certainly, religious figures played an important role in resisting and defeating colonialism; however, the post-colonial period witnessed the perversion and corruption of religious thought initially through the nationalist project itself that operated with a reductionist and antagonistic vision toward religion and then by its recruitment into the counter communist global war efforts. The fundamentalist religious literature emerged from and followed the existing material conditions produced by the forces acting upon it, with the result translating into a deadly alliance that left millions of nameless and faceless humans dead on battlefields. As a result, religion was implicated in the profane.
Religion in the global South was transformed initially during the colonial period to produce a negative indigenous and mirror opposite epistemic of the modern, rational, industrious and progressive colonizer. In order to achieve this desired outcome, colonial powers set out to promote a fossilized, restrictive and un-dynamic aspect of religious traditions in the global South while frustrating and prosecuting those who resisted or refused to stand aside. Colonial modernity needed a traditional backward ‘other’ to illustrate its wizardry and mastery over human and material, which could not occur if the indigenous and tested practices remained intact. Furthermore, colonial powers wanted to wrest control of the ethical and moral underpinnings of the society that existing religious traditions and leaders wielded, which hindered colonial domination and thievery. The colonizers made sure to work diligently to sever the existing social relationships governed by indigenous religious traditions and structurally worked to erode the status and authority of the anti-colonial and spiritually grounded leadership.
Empire transformed ‘prophetic’ figures into capitalist and materially grounded salespersons for a distorted and exploitative globalization. Militarism and war were sanctified by imperial religious figures that worked as handmaidens to rally laities across the global South into the battlefields while offering assurances that fighting was for a lofty spiritual purpose—a higher rate of profit for sure: fragmentation and conflict.
The role of the Catholic Church in Latin America was closer to US policy in the region than the emergence of Liberation Theologians in response to it. US intervention in Latin America against leftist or democratically elected governments was assisted by a religious establishment that was ready to strike a deal to extend its economic, political and social interests at the expense of the populations. As such, Liberation Theology and the theologians who worked to re-educate the laity about the purpose of religion in society, in the process, managed to challenge power and militarism. Liberation Theology emerged in direct response to and a push against imperial religion, which was allied with power and engaged in illegal and criminal wars.
Similarly, the role of Muslim majority states, groups and organizations in the Afghan, Yemen and Iran-Iraq wars was very critical as global recruitment and crafting a jihadi prototype got under way to retaliate against the Russians for their part in Vietnam and Shia for the Iranian revolution. In addition, fighting communism and Shias meant fashioning an extremist Sunni fundamentalist willing to sacrifice himself while fighting against Shia Iranians as well as the Russians. The trail for these operations leads to post-colonial states and the readiness to partake in shaping an imperial religion that is accommodating to power and works to integrate itself into the global economy. Confronting Islam with Islam or confronting communism with Islam had far reaching consequences of which the results are visible daily with extremist groups that—unleashed during the Cold War era—are currently sub-contracting their services or possibly acting on their own across the global South.
Likewise, the Israeli right-wingers’ invasion of Lebanon and war efforts against the PLO, Iraq, Syria and Libya should be viewed from an imperial lens considering the utilization of religion as instrument of power in the post-colonial period. Israel is a settler-colonial state that worked to integrate itself into the post-colonial political, economic and strategic structure by offering its unique set of security training and intelligence gathering capacities. Israel rendered its services in Latin America through training the Contra’s death squads, in Africa by training and equipping Zaire’s Special Forces and through weapon sales to Apartheid South Africa and, for the West, intelligence gathering efforts against the USSR. In return for these services, Israel demanded, and continues to expect, constant opposition to Palestinian aspirations. Contrary to popular opinion, Muslim post-colonial states and Israel often cooperated, shared information and assisted each other (Morocco, Jordan, Syria and Gulf States), as expected, by being partners in imperial religious discourses.
The 1980s brought about many changes and the re-emergence of a triumphant extreme right wing that unfolded its militant policies with fire and iron around the world. Gone were gains made by the civil rights and human rights movements across the globe. A period filled with secret wars, death squads and massacres captivated the news cycles and brought many a dreamer into the imperial court seeking false gods, glory and power. A renewed nuclear arms race shifted resources away from societies’ priorities and into a bottomless pit of conflict and confrontation that devoured everything in its path. Increased military expenditures resulted in cutting funding for everything else as well as going into debt to finance un-needed and expensive military equipment. More military spending meant more cuts in social programs, and thus more debt was generated in creating and sharpening of the internal colonial model.
As a way to remedy the limited availability of funding in the US, Reagan’s team began to facilitate the smuggling of drugs into the country so as to fund wars in Latin America and Afghanistan. The drug trade devastated communities of color in the US as well as causing disruption of sustainable agriculture in the global South, which once again caused dislocation and migration away from zones of conflict and drug trading. Cold War warriors operated with an ‘ends justify the means’ epistemic, which translated into death and mayhem abroad while pushing debt, cuts to social welfare program, de-regulations, drugs and destruction of lives at home. The flood of immigrants from the global South was a byproduct of these policies and not independent of it; however, no one wants to take responsibility for what transpired since defeating the USSR. Felling communism was far too important an endeavor to worry about the lives of the ‘little people’ in the global South or the people of the South living in cities and towns in the global North. The collateral damage of ordinary, nameless, faceless, often impoverished and mostly powerless lives lost was a price the Cold War armchair warriors are willing to pay.