Dr. Julio Pino, a professor of history at Kent State University, is under investigation by the FBI for alleged ties to and recruitment for the self-styled Islamic State organization. Pino is a Cuban-American whose family left the island when he was seven years old. Unlike most Cubans in the U.S., Pino is a supporter of the Revolution and the Castro brothers' regime. In an interview today for the Kent State news page, Pino explains that he converted to Islam around the turn of the century. He has been noticed previously by the Zionist right in the U.S. for extreme statements of hostility toward Israel. He has also been accused in the past of running pro-jihad or pro-terror websites, while Pino himself claims that he has done nothing contrary to U.S. law. This page at the Kent State news site traces Pino's newsworthy history back several years.
Why does a Cuban-American, raised Christian but turned agnostic, become any sort of Muslim, leaving aside whether he's actually a jihadi sympathizer? In the interview Pino explains that he was won over by the combined appeal of Islam's code of personal ethics and its vision of social justice. I suspect the latter mattered more, and may explain more still if the charges against Pino are proven true. The professor looks like a classic specimen of the anti-imperialist left. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the anti-imperialist left has turned toxic in many cases. In the absence of the USSR there's no real embodiment of "international communism" for them to rally around. Before, in opposing imperialism they were for communism, often the Marxist-Leninist sort the Soviets practiced. Without the Soviet Bloc to champion, they can be against imperialism just as unconditionally, but what can they be for? The answer is "the poor." Much of the anti-imperialist left takes the Maoist line that the poor of the Third World are the global proletariat, the future mass army of a worldwide revolution. However, the movement seems also to have taken up some postmodern ideas, above all a skepticism about the "scientific" objectivity and progressive imperatives of Marxism and Leninism. Too much of the Marxist-Leninist tradition, I suspect, strikes today's anti-imperialist left as angry white men imposing their cultural values on other cultures. Somewhere along the way indigenous cultures and premodern values came to be valued as ends unto themselves, to be preserved, while to challenge old customs and superstitions, as the old communists did, came to be seen as oppressive if not simply bigoted. Who had a right to tell the poor what to think or what to do? Why pick on the oppressed by questioning or insulting the only things that hold their cultures together or give them solace in misery?
Pino was probably a sympathizer in solidarity with the Palestinians long before he converted to Islam. As the Palestinian resistance devolved from the secularists of the first generations to the Islamists of today, Pino probably saw no reason to temper his support for a cause that remained, to him, self-evidently just. You can see a sort of logic here: if to criticize Islamic fanaticism, or Islam itself, somehow discredits the Palestinian case against Israel, or any Muslim resistance to imperialism or western hegemony, then Islam should not be criticized. I don't mean to suggest that such thinking explains why Pino converted, since many if not most on the anti-imperialist left have most likely remained secular. But his feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with any discrimination or dislike he encountered as a Hispanic in the U.S., may well have increased the allure of a religion that boasts often of its absolute rejection of racial inequality. Of course, however sincerely Islam repudiates racism, it finds other ways to discriminate -- but to whatever extent that Pino may be a Marxist, or a Leninist, he probably isn't as bothered by discrimination based on people's beliefs as others are. Islam's provisions for the distribution of wealth, from the sharing out of plunder to the giving of alms as a pillar of religion, have obvious appeal for the anti-imperialist left. Some of them may think cynically that Islam can serve as a shortcut to a truly communist revolution, but I suspect their true sentiments are more plainly emotional. I wonder whether the anti-imperialist left is traveling in the opposite direction of that Malcolm X traveled. When Malcolm went to Mecca and saw that there were white Muslims and believers of all races, he rejected the racist pseudo-Islam of Elijah Muhammad and planned greater involvement with Third World struggles against imperialism before his murder -- at a time when many of the Middle East's leaders were quite secular in attitude. Today's anti-imperialist left are probably inspired in part by Malcolm's vision, but while they start from a position of solidarity with the Third World, they seem increasingly willing to tolerate if not embrace ancient superstitions and bigotries that would have disgusted the old Marxists and Leninists, out of simple hatred for the same sort of "white devil" that Elijah Muhammad railed against. There are a good number of lily-white members of the anti-imperialist left who feel that same hatred -- that same resentment of the team that always wins while the others wallow in the basement. These people may still call themselves progressives, but if their only idea of progress is "bottom rung on top," and if any form of superstitious custom is preferable to "imperialism," however defined, and if any level of violence is justified to fight it, then how progressive are they, really?