Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Horns of Satan

The Arabs and Muslims have many internal enemies. But the greatest of these, in my opinion, are the Saudi regime – America’s key Arab ally – and the Wahhabi doctrine it has at different times promoted, exploited and tolerated. Its malign influence has spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Egypt and inner-city Europe, where traditional and plural Islamic cultures are being crushed by reductive ‘rulebook’ religion and sectarian intolerance. The Saudis are currently interfering in Lebanon to prop up the Siniora government, funding and providing manpower for Sunni terror organisations in Iraq, and discussing attacks on Iran with the Israelis.

Despite being the chief sponsor of the Taliban and the homeland of most of the September 11th bombers, Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States remains strong. American miltary bases remain dotted around the country, secret police continue to cow people into suspicious silence, criminals (but not the big ones) are still beheaded in public squares on Friday afternoons.

How long will this traitorous and barbaric regime last? In ‘The Rise and Coming Fall of the House of Saud’ Saeed Aburish predicted the regime’s downfall – for the late 1990s. When I was in Saudi Arabia, from 2001 to 2003, there was a widespread sense that the regime was in its last days. Al-Saud governance – rigidly Islamist at home, supinely pro-imperialist in its foreign relations – satisfied no-one at all, from Taliban types to Western-educated shabab who wanted more personal freedoms.

The local education system, run by Wahhabi ideologues, has completely failed to produce a generation of Saudis capable of running their own economy, let alone of thinking critically. The majority of doctors, nurses, managers, educators, engineers, technicians, mechanics, cleaners, builders, computer programmers and salesmen are foreigners – a usually despised third of the population who have no reason to stay in the country once things start to break down. The capital city, Riyadh, has 4 million inhabitants and no local water supply. One well-placed bomb on the pipeline from the desalination plant on the coast, and you have 4 million thirsty people.

I once drove past a funfair in the desert. A ghost funfair. My companion told me that it is opened up, switched on, and staffed only when a prince decides he wants to visit. For all the other days in the year it sits there rusting. Not a bad metaphor for the massive corruption and incompetence that passes for economic management in Saudi Arabia. People in the West often think that the Gulf Arabs are rich, because of the newspaper stories about princes blowing millions on yachts, European palaces, binges in Harrods and so on. In fact, the income of all the Arab countries combined is less than the income of Spain. And most towns and villages in Saudi Arabia look no less third world than towns in Syria.

When the alliance of the al-Sauds and Wahhabi fanatics took control of the huge country that now bears the Saud family name (come the revolution, sisters and brothers, it shall be renamed Qunfuziyya, after me), they imposed the culture of their own region, Najd, on every province, and the anti-culture of Wahhabism on the non-Wahhabi Sunnis of the Hijaz and the Shia of the oil-rich eastern province. Their first act on taking Mecca was to destroy mosques associated with Sufi practices and shrines of any description.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, which the Saudis pretended to oppose even while giving the US access to their airfields, the kingdom resounded with whispers. “Something’s going to happen here,” people told me. “Something’s going to change. Within the next year or two.”

What happened was murderous bomb attacks on residential compounds and beheadings of foreign civilians. The regime was rescued by al-Qa’ida-linked Salafi terrorism, itself a creation of al-Saud acts and omissions. When the people saw that the alternative to the regime might be violent nihilism of this kind, they decided to stick with the regime. And now, high oil revenues allow them to pay their way out of crisis. There are signs that the Sauds have understood Wahhabism has become a threat to them too, and that they are trying to reduce its influence, at least within their borders. There are signs that they are making a proper effort to organise the economy.

Another boon to the regime has been the civil war in Iraq. Now they have a nearby location to export their salafis to. They rarely come back again.

I’ve complained on this blog about people who quote scripture out of its context, cheaply, to make political points. So it is with tongue halfway in cheek that I refer to the following hadeeth:

According to Saheeh Bukhari the Prophet said: “God bless our Sham (Syria/ the Levant); God bless our Yemen.”

Those present said: “And our Najd, O messenger of God!”

Muhammad repeated, “God bless Sham and Yemen,” twice, without mentioning Najd.

When the men continued to press the Prophet to seek God’s blessings for Najd, Muhammad said, “Earthquakes and fitnah (dissension/ tribulation) are there, and there shall arise the horns of Satan.”

Friday, November 24, 2006

Updike's Terrorist

John Updike, upon whom I would bestow grand titles such as, possibly, Greatest Living Writer in English (now that Bellow is dead), has written a topical novel called ‘Terrorist.’ The terrorist of the title is eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Molloy, the confused and bitter American son of an Irish-American mother and absent Egyptian father.

Ahmad starts the novel as a schoolboy, and then is guided by a malign imam to give up his studies to become a truck driver (ignoring the more wholesome advice of guidance counsellor Jack Levy, a worldly, unbelieving Jew). Before long Ahmad drives his truck into a terrorist plot.

Updike, in his usual present tense, observes acutely and describes intensely. His beautifully rhythmed prose balances psychological analysis and social comment, the internal and the external. His digressions are eloquent and well-placed. Updike criticises in passing the black and white solutions of fundamentalist Christianity and the Black Muslims as well as al-Qa’ida style Islam, and diagnoses as the cause of these fundamentalisms the loss of direction and hollowness of a hedonist, consumerist society. Although Updike doesn’t speak directly. We find his position in the midpoint between his ironising distance from and sympathy for the perspectives of the characters through whom the narrative is focalised. His easy shifts between these perspectives is done professionally. There is a professional’s handling of detail too. For instance, Ahmad feels his beloved Excellency truck is a part of him, and responds badly to the ugly truck he will drive on the day of the ‘operation.’ It looks, like him, dispensable.

But there are flaws. In the second, more plot-driven half of the book the characters have a tendency to collapse into mouth pieces for set opinions. An example is when Ahmad’s unreligious, unintellectual mother pontificates (forgive the pun) about Vatican 2.

Everything falls a little too easily into place. As the novel (and Ahmad’s truck) rushes towards its climax, Hollywood gets a look-in. The book is transformed from psychological and political commentary to thriller, and I’m not sure the transformation works.

For one thing, there is an accumulation of false notes. For his last breakfast the Imam of Ahmad’s mosque, Shaikh Rashid, leaves him a special bread made by Shiites for the mourning day of ashura. A militant Sunni jihadist like Shaikh Rashid would want nothing to do with Shia ‘superstition’ and ‘innovation.’ And another bin Ladenist (the technician) would never have approved of Qaddaffi, even before he changed his tune, or Arafat. These faults reveal a strange laziness in a novel which is otherwise so well researched (the Arabic and Quranic references, though limited by the fundamentalism of the characters, are generally accurate). I suppose Updike assumed that his American audience wouldn’t notice, and this is a shame (on two levels).

More disturbing is the novel’s reliance on sub-Hollywood stereotypes. Ahmad is born and bred in New Jersey, but he’s still an easy target for grooming by sinister Arabs. The exploitation of an innocent has no realist value for understanding anti-US terrorism. The September 11th hijackers were all educated men with their own opinions. In Iraq and Afghanistan gullible youngsters may be convinced by older men to sacrifice themselves, but the imams there wouldn’t be quoting Shakespeare. And I find it hard to believe that a Shakespeare-quoting imam would make such harsh interpretations of the Quran as Shaikh Rashid does.

In “Terrorist” there are a couple of token ‘good’ American Muslims - a CIA operative and a man who thinks Guantanamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq are just wonderful. There are also glimpsed ghetto Muslims, the unlucky inheritors of Islamic culture. Otherwise, it’s the cabal: dark of aspect, in dirty gellabiyas, scheming, sneering. There is no sense that in the range of Muslim (and specifically, Arab American) opinion there are intermediate positions between flag-waving pro-Americanism and explosive puritanical fury.

Ahmad’s racism (he uses the archaic Arabic term zanj to refer to blacks) is not entirely convincing. Neither is his formal eloquence. More fundamentally, his terrorist motivations are supect. A suicide bomber, however much religious vocabulary he may employ, is driven by political anger. The September 11th bombers (I mention them again because the novel is clearly written in the shadow of that day) were Saudis, Lebanese and Egyptians. Despite being comfortably well-off, they had direct experience of Middle Eastern (US-backed) tyranny, and were neighbours to war and occupation. But Ahmad rarely reads the newspaper. So terrorism is to be understood only as a symptom of a religion obsessed with cleansing the unclean and purifying the impure. It’s a pathology of the Arab Muslims, not something arising from societal failures and the horrors of imperialism. In this respect Updike does no better in helping Americans to think about where their empire has led them than does Fox news.

It’s a tribute to Updike that all this doesn’t manage to ruin the book for me. It would have been better if it had avoided the thriller genre, but even so it reminds me of the best philosophical thriller writing, of Graham Greene if not Dostoyevsky. And the final five pages go some way to redeeming the failings. Ahmad’s change of heart comes as he remembers a few of the names of God: “The Beneficent, the Merciful, the Living, the Patient, the Generous, the Perfect, the Light, the Guide. He does not want us to desecrate His creation by willing death. He wills life.”

But there isn’t a happy ending. Even without blood and thunder, the world around Ahmad, in the novel’s last paragraph, is a purposeless hell of consumption and struggle. I felt this wasn’t only Ahmad’s point of view. Something is rotten, that much is apparent, that much is the near-consensus which still doesn’t quite declare itself.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Gemayel Assassinated

Now here’s a tricky one. When Rafiq Hariri, the erstwhile ally of Syria but latterly a quiet but effective opponent, was assassinated by a huge car bombing in central Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, I was convinced that Syria was not the guilty party. I knew the regime could be brutal and stupid, but I didn’t think it could be quite that stupid. As expected, the assassination of Lebanon’s best-connected multimillionaire (and the man who, as prime minister, had rebuilt Beirut after the civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion) led to massive anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

There were also massive pro-Syrian demonstrations, called by Hizbullah, which were not covered in nearly as much loving detail by the Western media. But in any case, it was a good thing that Syria pulled out. Although the Syrian presence had been one of the factors preventing an Israeli-Phalangist takeover of Lebanon, and although Syria had contributed to ending the civil war and reconciling Lebanon's warring factions, its clumsy militarism, corruption and police state interference naturally alienated many Lebanese, probably the majority. What was so damaging to both Syria and Lebanon was not that the withdrawal happened but that it happened like this, like a particularly bad-tempered divorce.

If the assassination of Hariri was ordered by Syria, the regime had scored a historic own goal. But I was gradually persuaded that this is just what happened. The inexperience of the president, gangster-style jockeying for influence and money within the regime, sectarian tensions between regime Alawis and Sunnis, underestimation of the Lebanese Sunni response: all of these seem to have contributed to the decision to kill Hariri.

I'm still, of course, not sure. America and Israel were the big winners from the realignement following Hariri's death, and a network of Israeli-sponsored agents was recently uncovered in Lebanon. But, most probably, I was wrong when I presumed Syrian innocence.

So it's with a certain lack of confidence that I make the following claim: Syria just could not have been so stupid as to assassinate Pierre Gemayel this afternoon, not now, not again. The failure of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians to build a functioning democracy, and Israel's failed war against Lebanon this summer, had given the advantage back to Syria's Lebanese allies. An alliance of Hizbullah, Amal, and the popular Christian General Michel Aoun is about to start a peaceful protest movement to change the unpopular pro-Western government. Everything has been going Syria's way. If Lebanon shapes up as a Syrian ally, but independent of Syrian interference, and also stable and at peace with itself, this would be the best outcome for both countries. It would also complete the total failure of Israeli-American plans for Lebanon. But the Gemayel assassination, at a time when sectarian tensions are already high, threatens civil war. This was the thinly disguised aim of Israel's (and America's) war this summer. So I'm pointing the finger at them. But as I've said, I may be wrong.

Friday, November 17, 2006

To a Christian Zionist

I have recently been discussing Middle East issues with an American colleague who I would describe as a Christian Zionist. Although I like him personally I find some of his ideas (on Palestinian history, and Lebanon, and the wider Middle East) pretty offensive, and I have told him so. So as not to start an argument, I told him so in writing. He replied, saying that although he disapproves of collective punishment of the Palestinians he believes that the Bible clearly states that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews, and that the rebuilding of Israel prophesied in the Old Testament has happened since 1948. Hmm. My first response is anger. I understand Jews with memories of European anti-Semitism being attracted to Zionism, however wrong I think they are, but Americans? People who are not oppressed, who think Palestine is a Cecil B Demille set, who think real human beings (Arabs) are less important than their own narrow interpretations of scripture. It makes my blood boil. But I think responding intelligently to this kind of thing is important, because there are millions of Americans (with power) who see the Middle East through a Biblical prism. Anyway, here is my latest letter:


When I first read your letter I thought, this is Christian fundamentalism. There's nothing to be done when your opponent has a fixed idea of a religious text. What's the point? Letting it brew in my mind for a few hours, however, I find I have arrived at what may be a glimmer of light, a point on which we may be in some kind of partial agreement. (I'll get to that at the end.) And that's the benefit of communicating by letter: it allows for emotional reactions to subside into something more constructive.

I must say I take some exception to your comment about my limited Biblical knowledge. I have read the Bible and have read about the different interpretive traditions in Christianity. Of course I am aware of the scriptures which say God promised the land to the tribes (the Quran tells the same story), and I know about the prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel who foretold the doom and then re-establishment of Israel. However, to go from here to the political belief that we should support a 20th century ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a state in the 20th century definition of the term is an interpretation, and not 'the Bible.' I think it is important to recognise this, even if you believe the interpretation is the right one. It seems to me that the followers of all religions fall into trouble, even into immorality, when they can't distinguish between the word of God and their own interpretations. I know that the pro-Zionist interpretation is prevalent in the United States, but I continue to assure you that it is not nearly so prevalent in Europe. Many European interpretations of Old Testament prophecy have been symbolic, understanding the reestablishment of Israel to mean the establishment of the Kingdom of God with the coming of Christ. Of course, the Palestinian and Syrian Christians I have spoken to about this are horrified and deeply confused by American Christian support for Zionism. Still more to the point if we are discussing Biblical texts, the preaching of Christ according to the New Testament does not seem in any way to support exclusive nationalism or violence. I can't imagine the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount manning a checkpoint, firing artillery at residential areas or firing missiles from warplanes.

I feel a little dishonest discussing scripture with you because I do not believe the Bible is the literal word of God as you do, although I can accept that it may well be divinely inspired, in part at least. Modern textual analysis of Biblical texts as well as archeology have shown that not all the events in the Bible are literally true. I expect that for you faith will trump science in this case, and I respect that. I should stress here that, in my opinion, a lack of literal truth does not equate a lack of truth full stop. I believe that reading ancient religious texts (Islamic as well as Jewish) in search of literal historical truth misses the point somewhat, and says more about our contemporary preoccupations than it does about the texts themselves. The people (or God) composing the texts sought not to give a scientifically verifiable account of the world and history but to warn and to inspire, to teach lessons. Anyway, what I am saying here is that even if you are able to prove that the Old Testament calls specifically for the establishment of a Jewish ethno-state with all the 20th century machinery of state (and I don't believe you can), I still would not support Zionism. Likewise, even if a Wahhabi is able to prove that the only possible interpretation of certain Quranic verses is that all societies at all times should stone adulterers to death (and I don't believe he can), I still would not support stoning adulterers. I work on this principle: as soon as my interpretation of a text makes me do something immoral, that will unjustly and counter-productively hurt others, I know that I have gone wrong somewhere. Before God gave me religious texts to struggle with, he gave me reason, conscience and compassion. It is not possible that God could be less moral and compassionate than me.

To reemphasise (and I know I'm being much too longwinded about this): I think this is a universal problem. Muslims very often squash their own conscience in order to believe, say or do things which they have been brought up to believe are Islamic. Christians do unchristian things in the name of Christ, and Jews do unjewish things in the name of Judaism. It goes beyond religious communities. Socialists hurt society in the name of society. Democrats do undemocratic things in the name of democracy. Atheists hold unreasonable positions in the name of reason.

I also disagree with your statement that Biblical narratives of return to the Promised Land are the foundation of Israeli culture and beliefs. Of course, the Torah is one crucial element of Jewish and Israeli identity, along with the Talmud, modern nationalism, and secular European culture. The first Zionists were European secularists and, in many cases, atheists. Their motivations were nationalist and defensive, and not Biblical. Herzl was a secular Jew who was prepared to establish a state in Uganda or Argentina if Palestine was too politically difficult. Many Western European Jews before the 30s were socialists and internationalists. The European Jewish bourgeoisie produced Marx and Freud. As for Orthodox Jewry, they believed that the return to Israel would not happen until the coming of the Messiah. Some of them understood the return to be symbolic of a spiritual state, some understood it literally, but all thought it would not and should not happen until the Messiah came. They considered Zionism to be blasphemous. A minority of Orthodox Jews, including the Naturai Karta people, still hold to this position. It was the rise of Fascism which changed the minds of most Jews. Anti-semitism, not religion, made Zionism attractive to the Jews.

I'm glad that you don't approve of collective punishment or of the Sabra and Chatila camp massacres in 1982. Sharon also holds responsibility for the blood of 29,500 Lebanese and Palestinians who were killed in the summer of 1982, 40% of them children. In 1953 Sharon helped direct the massacre of 69 civilians in the Palestinian village of Qibya. In 1956 he played a role in the massacre of 270 Egyptian prisoners of war. This mentions only Sharon, and only some of his crimes. Some of these crimes could have been avoided, but it was inevitable that crimes would have to be carried out on a large scale for a state with a Jewish majority to be established in Palestine.

Now here is the point on which, possibly, we will find some slight grounds for agreement. I said in one of our discussions that I don't have a problem with diaspora Jews coming to live in Palestine per se. I have a problem when they seek to drive out and oppress the original inhabitants of the land (who have been there since Canaanite times). In fact, relations between the Palestinians and Jewish immigrants were generally good until the Palestinians realised that Zionist plans were being made to dispossess them. Interestingly, it was the more secular Jewish immigrants who often came in with racist attitudes to the Arabs, rather than the religious, who came with a spiritual love of the land which the Palestinians could understand. (Both Martin Buber and Ahad Ha-Aam have written about their more spiritual, less military and statist approaches to Zionism). Now, I understand that one reason why Christian Zionists support the establishment of the Jewish state is that they believe Jewish return is a prerequisite for the return of Christ. Christ the prophet of love and compassion. Well, about a third of the Jews have settled in Palestine (along with quite a few Russian Christians to make up numbers), but there is no sign of Christ yet, and no sign whatsoever of love and compassion guiding Israeli ideology and behaviour. If the Israelis could find a way of recognising that the birth of their state caused tremendous suffering for the Palestinians, and if they could find a 'Christian' way of living in peace with them, without (inevitably temporary) apartheid or military solutions, then the Israelis could indeed be a light unto the nations, and the rule of Christ on earth would be a lot closer.

With best wishes

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Another Massacre

News is coming in that Israeli shells have killed 19 Palestinian civilians, most of them children, as they slept this morning, Wednesday 8th November. This follows a week-long attack on the Gaza town of Beit Hanun in which 60 Palestinians were killed. Many of those were civilians too, but most were young men carrying guns. I must say that I don’t consider young men fighting to liberate their land as equal to occupation troops, who seem to me to be fair military targets. All Beit Hanun men aged between 16 and 45 have been rounded up and taken off to join the Israeli gulag. There are already nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners (or hostages – that’s what the Western media would call them if they were Israelis) in Israeli jails.

This week a 700-year-old mosque was destroyed in Beit Hanun. Destruction of Palestinian heritage, of the environment, of sewage and irrigation systems, and of residential buildings, continues unabated. None of this is new to Gaza. Most of the population are refugees from the lands stolen in 1948, from the villages of central Palestine that were ethnically cleansed and bulldozed then. The Gazan refugee camps have witnessed sporadic massacres ever since.

More have been killed in the past week than in the London tube bombings. Gaza is now worse than any pre-Nazi Jewish ghetto in Europe, and perhaps as bad as a Nazi-era ghetto. It's closed from the land and sea – when fishermen try to fish they are shot at by Israeli boats. There are continual sonic booms from the air, which smash windows and traumatise children. The power is still intermittent at best – the only power station was bombed a few months ago. Even without major incursions, the average number of Gazans murdered by Israel since the summer has been eight a day. I don't notice expressions of horror from the 'international community.' I don't notice Bush or Blair frothing about 'civilisation' and 'barbarism.' In fact the ‘international community’ – meaning the US and the EU and the client Arab regimes – is directly participating in the throttling of Gaza by imposing extreme sanctions on the already impoverished Palestinian territories because the Palestinians voted for a resistance government. Most of the weaponry used to murder in Gaza is American built and supplied. Bush describes Israeli killing sprees as 'self-defence.' After all, one Israeli soldier was killed this week, and the crap Qassam rockets have killed 8 people over the last six years.

Is anybody still surprised when Arabs and Muslims scorn official Western bleatings about law for the farce that they are? Is anybody surprised that many Muslims believe this kind of violence must be met by violence?

There is plenty that needs to be negotiated between Israelis and Arabs, such as the future of the millions of refugees who live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and how European Jews can be integrated peacefully into the region while keeping their cultural and religious rights intact. Whether there will be a Palestinian state or a unitary state, and what kind of unitary state, needs to be negotiated. But on the brute fact of the brutal occupation, there is nothing to negotiate. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is every bit as unlawful and criminal as Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. If this occupation was imposed on Western Europeans or Americans for even a day there would be an outcry. There must be (but won’t be) an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces, and an immediate end to the siege.

The slogan says, No Justice No Peace. This is not a threat but a statement of what is obvious and inevitable. Oppression breeds hatred, and reaction. Of course, the people in charge, in every country, are far more interested in in conquest and wealth than in peace and justice. There has to be change from below. Real change. Swapping Democrat for Republican imperialists won’t make any difference.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What's Wrong With Travel Writing

I’ve recently read “Cleopatra’s Wedding Present” by Robert Tewdwr Moss, a well-written account of travels through Syria in the late 1990s. Moss is an evocative and sensuous writer. His sense of place and time is highly accurate: I immediately recognised the streets he described, and wanted to tell him how things have changed. (But it’s impossible to tell Moss anything now. He was stabbed to death by a rent boy in London shortly after finishing this book).

The strength of characterisation – of Syrians and foreign tourists – in the book suggests that Moss would have made a great satirical novelist. There are also strong set pieces on some of the archeological highlights of Syria, such as Queen Zenobia’s desert city of Palmyra, Saladin’s castle in the green Lattakian mountains, and the ‘dead cities’ around Aleppo – Byzantine settlements which were suddenly and mysteriously vacated, leaving mosaics, churches and olive presses for archeologists to puzzle over.

Moss is particularly good on death and decay. Whether he is describing a crumbling old city hara or a Mesopotamian tell with its layers upon layers of ancient habitation, he captures the weight of history that can be felt as a burden in Syria. (The Prince’s long monologue on the endlessly colonised dry landscape of Sicily in di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” does it even better). And the particular series of deaths that Moss most illuminates are of those killed in the Armenian holocaust, when Turkish authorities force-marched civilians into the Syrian desert, where they starved and shot at them until there were a million corpses to stuff down wells or into caves.

He is good with atmospherics in general. There is a sustained expressionism in which, for example, an old printing press bucking and screeching like a chained animal in the room beneath his hotel bed becomes emblematic of the fettered Syrian spirit in thrall to dictatorship, the secret police, and the forces of history. The fact that Moss was gay throws stranger light onto this mood. He relates cruising anecdotes that will be as eye-opening to many Syrians as to foreign readers. Moss tends to meet misfits, not only because of his sexuality. A fellow Englishman, also gay, tells Moss that he feels he belongs in Syria because it is a land of misfits, a land of victims, a land of the weak. Moss seems to agree, but by the end of the book these are the reasons that make him want to get out of Syria and not return.

Anyone closely connected to Syria will find this difficult reading. Moss’s dark vision of the country’s political tyranny and its numberless private tragedies is accurate enough, but it shows only one aspect of Syrian life. Moss misses the genuine national pride of Syrians away from the inanities of official discourse, and Syrian intellectual vigour, and the irrepressible Syrian sense of humour. (When he is told a joke about the president on a bus into Syria, Moss notes that the joker quickly grows serious as the bus arrives in Damascus, and that this is absolutely the only president joke he has heard. In fact, there are hundreds of jokes about the president and the regime. Joking about the dire political situation is a Syrian speciality). Moss talks about the Turkish massacre of Armenians but doesn’t dwell on the Syrian hospitality which allows for the presence of a million Armenians and half a million Palestinian refugees. (A million Iraqis have arrived since Cleopatra’s Wedding Present was written). He is wrong when he suggests that the Armenians don’t have their own schools (they do) and that most Armenians converted to Islam (they didn’t). He makes the incomprehensible statement that Syrian food is boring (granted restaurant food in poor villages isn’t exciting, but city restaurants and homes provide a wonderful variety), and generally fails to recognise the Syrian love of the good life.

What else? Not all Syrian hospitals are as dirty and badly organised as he claims. For a third world dictatorship, Syria has remarkably good medical care and some top flight doctors. The private hospitals are in much better shape than the state hospitals, but that’s the case in Britain too. And…Arabs don’t swig unhygenically from shared botttles. They pour from bottle into opened mouth without touching the bottle with their lips. And…Muslim men have a taboo about wearing gold, but not about working with it. The fact that most of the gold merchants in Aleppo are Christians doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of Muslim gold workers in Syria too.

Now I’m working up a heat. Moss consistently refers to his Palestinian lover as an ex-terrorist, because he had been an anti-Israeli fighter in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. Sleeping with a ‘terrorist’ may have given Moss a frisson of subversion, and certainly feeds the stereotype that any Arab with a gun is a terrorist, but you have to twist definitions very far to describe fighting an invading army (which was beseiging refugee camps and organising massacres of civilians at the time) as terrorism. Moss also follows the neo-cons’ favourite orientalist Bernard Lewis in connecting contemporary Syrian ‘terrorism’ with the medieval terrorism of the Ismaili ‘Assassin’ group. Suddenly history – and context, motivation, politics – loses its weight and becomes very light indeed.

Finally, I can assure you that Moss is wrong when he tells us that sex amongst Arabs is always a heartless transaction. That must have been his experience, and that’s a great shame I’m sure, but I wish he wouldn’t generalise to include all sexual encounters between all 300 million of us.

Moss pretends to speak Arabic, but whenever he includes an Arabic word it is unrecognisable. This is the problem. He’s in a country which he can’t understand, surrounded by people speaking, as far as he’s concerned, gobbledygook. Sadly, most people who read his book will have read none other about Syria. They’ll have learnt what they ‘know’ about the country from CNN or some equally blind source, and so may take Moss’s assertions as the only truth. And that’s problematic for Syrians for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that Western audiences hold a degree of power over Syria. Put simply, they decide through their assumptions whether to allow their leaders to bomb or sanction Syria.

I thought of an equivalent travel book about Britain for British people to read, and realised that there isn’t an equivalent. There are books about Britain written by foreigners who speak English as a first language and who share most of Britain’s cultural assumptions. But what the travel writing market needs – and what I would most definitely commission if I were a publisher – is accounts of Britain written by people entirely wrapped up in the perspectives of their African or Asian villages, people who would find ordering a meal in English a challenge.

These comments don’t invalidate Cleopatra’s Wedding Present. It’s still a great read which gives a sharp if one-sided picture of Syria. My top two travel books for the Middle East are Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, for which Thesiger lived and travelled and starved with Beduin of the Empty Quarter, and The Marsh Arabs, about the tribes of Southern Iraq. Both books read as a lament for the days before state machineries, oil and superpower machinations wrecked the region. Thesiger spoke very good Arabic. He never ‘goes native’ and is never sentimental. At the same time, his obvious sympathy and respect for the ancient ways of life he discovers is the motor of his writing.

I’ll add to the list From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, which traces the steps of a Byzantine monk from Mount Athos through what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, focusing on contemporary Christian Communities in those countries.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

hijab/ niqab/ blab

My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.

Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.

So the hijab is primarily a cultural issue. There are always ‘decency-boundary’ differences between and within cultures (for instance, it’s acceptable for women to go topless in a Paris park on a warm summer’s day, but not in Britain), and these are differences that a tolerant society should accommodate. It’s certainly not the business of the state to worry about what a woman wears, and in this respect I think the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran (which insist on hijab for women) and the governments of France, Tunisia and Turkey (which forbid the hijab in schools or government offices) are equally wrong.

I still have my personal dislike of the hijab, however. What I dislike about it is the way it seems to symbolise the weight of honour and tradition, and this falling on the woman’s head, not the man’s. I remember seeing a couple in Pakistan, the wife in full chador stepping a few paces behind her husband, who wore baggy jeans, T-shirt, and back-to-front baseball cap. Dress differences point to double standards for the sexes in a range of situations. According to Islam, casual sex is equally wrong for both sexes, yet a blind eye is often turned to the sexual activity of promiscuous males, if they are not actively encouraged and admired, but a woman behaving in the same way will immediately be written off as a whore, a disgrace to herself and her family. And once you start focussing on pieces of cloth instead of on moral principles, where do you stop? I knew a Syrian doctor in Saudi Arabia whose wife actually wore a niqab to cover her face and a full length black abaya. She and her husband were walking one afternoon in a conservative town south of Riyadh when a mutawa (religious policeman) approached her with his stick raised, ready to strike. The husband stopped him, and asked what he thought he was doing. The mutawa explained that he wished to discipline this loose whore for wearing her abaya on her shoulders, showing her shape, rather than hanging it tentlike from her head. Which begs the question, was the niqab-clad Syrian betraying Islam while the mutawa, about to beat a strange woman in the street, was upholding the faith?

Some of the same Muslim men who expect their sisters to wear hijab think nothing of sexually harrassing women on the street. The principle behind the hijab has been jetisoned, but the piece of cloth remains. The sad fact is, despite all the Muslim talk about Western decadence, there is more harrassment of women on the streets of Arab cities than on the streets of London. (We have to admit here that Hindus and Mediterranean Christians can be as bad. Again, it’s a question of culture, not religion).

But having expressed my personal feelings, I must now dispel some non-Muslim stereotypes of the hijab, starting with the idea that all muhajiba women are oppressed, voiceless souls who are forced to wear the hijab. I’m sure there must be women who are ordered to wear the hijab, and many more who are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it - in the same way that English women wouldn’t consider going to work in only their underwear. But the usual situation in many countries is that individuals have made a (sometimes brave) personal decision to wear the hijab. My sisters, for instance, outraged my upwardly mobile father when they decided to put it on. My father had spent his life becoming bourgeois and couldn’t understand why his daughters would want to make themselves look ‘common.’ I admit to being disturbed when my wife, four years into our marriage, decided to wear hijab. And nothing infuriates me more than English people asking how I’d feel if my wife took it off, as if I’m the tyrant who told her to put it on in the first place.

The argument has been made that the revival of hijab has empowered a class of women to work who in previous generations would not have left their houses. At the same time, it has become less urgent for the bourgeoisie of an Arab world still riddled by class sentiment to show their distance from their poorer sisters.

In a world of globalised identities the return to hijab is predominantly political. It declares the wearer is Muslim and proud of it. When people have recently lost their organic connection to their village or neighbourhood, when hostile and artificial states ineptly claim their loyalty instead, and when they see Muslims being attacked whenever they switch on the TV, the declaration becomes more urgent.

As for the niqab, or face covering, it gives me the creeps. And if it gives me the creeps, it must absolutely terrify a lot of white Britons. In this respect, I agree with Jack Straw: the niqab keeps communities separated. It is both a symbol of alienation and an alienating device. It definitely alienates me. But then, I feel alienated from just about everyone for the first days of a visit to Britain, because nobody will establish eye contact. White men with military haircuts and tatoos give me the creeps. And don’t get me started on the types of people who I just don’t like the look of.

Outside the Gulf and Afghanistan, niqab-wearers are a tiny minority of Muslims. Yet some young British Muslims whose mothers wore a loose dupatta are taking to the niqab. I think this phenomenon is similar to that of Blacks who should know better following Louis Farrakhan or the five percenters, not because they really believe that the white man is the devil, but because they’ve found a sexy way to assert themselves and to reject the establishment. White youths used to stick safety pins through their noses back in the days when it was still possible to shock with body decoration.

While Jack Straw of course has the right to express his dislike of the niqab, I must say the timing looks suspicious. Britain is deeply implicated in a series of wars against Muslim countries: Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, wars fought not for freedom and democracy but for capital and imperial control. In order to justify this latest bout of Western violence it has been necessary to exploit the September 11th attacks, to convince Western people that Muslims didn’t attack America because of American bases in the Gulf, or support for Israel, but because Muslims hate ‘our values’ and ‘our freedom.’

The first wave of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia developed in concert with the European land grab in the Middle East known as the Crusades. The traditional European anti-black racisms were constructed as a necessary accompaniment to the rise of European Empires in Africa and Asia. When Hitler’s plan to colonise Europe itself was defeated, racism was given a bad name for half a century. But now, Islamophobia is day by day becoming more accepted throughout Europe. It looks legitimate because Islamophobes have convinced themselves they’re battling for liberal values. The Nazis also thought they were fighting to keep Europe’s soul pure of Gypsy and Jewish contamination.

The attacks on Muslims come every single day. From Foreign Secretary Straw who helped destroy Iraq, from ‘liberal’ novelists, from the Pope, from Italian journalists, from Danish cartoonists and Dutch populists, from French philosophers and American tele-evangelists. Some criticisms are reasoned and seek dialogue, many others demonise, generalise, simplify, reduce. Most attackers are blind to the shortcomings and crimes of Christian or secular Western society, even as it drenches the Muslims in Depleted Uranium. An increasing number of Islamophobes have the wild glint of certainty in their eyes. Suggest that the Zionist lobby has undue influence on American foreign policy and you are ostracised. Blab about the Muslim invasion of Europe and you are taken increasingly seriously. I, for one, am very scared. The creeps I get from the niqab are nothing in comparison.

A couple of good articles on the niqab furore:

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Syrian Opposition

The Arabs of the Levant and Iraq love talking politics. This is one of the more rewarding things about spending time with them. In Syria, for instance, instead of enduring conversations about cars, house prices or football, you can immerse yourself in big issues: God and death, revolution and gender, secularism and resistance.

But because normal political life in Syria – organising parties, holding meetings and rallies, writing articles critical of the government – is criminalised, most people have no defined political affiliation. And it is of course impossible to accurately research political opinion, so any pronouncements on the views of Syrians are inevitably based on anecdotal evidence.

With that reservation, here are some pronouncements on the political views of Syrians. I base them on conversations with my Syrian relatives, my wife’s family, and many friends and colleagues from three years residence in the country and several long visits.

Syrians don’t enjoy living in a police state. This is perhaps the single most unpleasant factor in daily life in Syria, and it has poisoned society. People don’t trust each other. It’s well known that taxi drivers and the keepers of the shops that open early and close late are often mukhabarat. But who else? The neighbour? The man at the next desk in the office? The fear of listening ears is the reason why Syrians often talk government propaganda when their children are in the room. Things are not as bad as they were in the 80s, when mukhabarat would go into schools to ask children what their parents thought of the president, but things are still very bad.

Syrians are sick of the economic situation. Very many Syrians work long hours six days a week for less than $200 a month. Very many Syrians juggle two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. They can’t afford to marry until they’re in their thirties, they live in cramped accommodation, and they don’t even dream of such luxuries as a foreign holiday. This situation is partly caused by population explosion and the country’s location in a war zone, but is made much worse by official corruption, bureaucracy and economic mismanagement.

Syrians are nationalists, anti-Zionists and anti-imperialists. They feel strongly about Israeli occupation of the Golan and Palestine, and about the American dismantling of Iraq. They support resistance in these places, as well as often idolising Hizbullah’s resistance in Lebanon. The Syrian regime has used nationalist stands to bolster its position with the people and to justify its endless ‘state of emergency.’ Syrian nationalist feeling, however, predates the Baath and will survive it. Syrians are seldom fooled by the regime using ‘the struggle’ as a propaganda tool. They feel that the country would be better able to realise its nationalist aims if it were more democratic, if the people had more rights.

Syrians are worried by sectarianism, despite often being sectarians themselves. This is something that helps keep the government in power, especially after the bad example of Iraq: if the regime fell and left chaos in its absence, there could be a sectarian war. Of course most Syrians wouldn’t want one (just as most Iraqis profess no hostility to members of other sects), but they fear that a minority could get one started. Sadly, just under the polite surface, many Syrian Sunnis blame the ‘backward’ Alawis for the brutality of the regime, and Alawis, Druze and Ismailis fear being branded heretics by the Sunni majority, and Christians see Muslims as uncivilised, and so on. That’s not the whole story, but sectarianism in Syria is deeply rooted, and dates back at least to the last half century of the Ottoman Empire.

That’s the people. But who is the opposition in terms of organised groups?

The most important opposition to the Baath has traditionally been the Muslim Brotherhood, based in urban Sunni communities. In the late 70s and early 80s the Brothers decided that dictatorship could only be toppled by violence, and they launched a campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations against regime targets. Sometimes they attacked Alawis who were not connected to the regime, for purely sectarian reasons. The regime responded with a reign of terror. There were mass arrests and disappearances. Then, in 1982, the Brothers took control of the city of Hama, where they executed Alawis and Baathists. There was no easy solution to the situation. Secularists and religious minorities were terrified of a countrywide Brotherhood victory. In any case, the Brothers couldn’t win a clear victory. Even if they’d been able to take the big cities, they wouldn’t have been able to take the army. Negotiations and concessions were needed. But both sides saw it as a life or death struggle, and death is what they got. The president’s brother Rifaat led planes, tanks and footsoldiers against Hama. Tens of thousands were killed, and the historical heart of the city destroyed. Chemical weapons were probably used. Details are sketchy because journalists were unable to enter the city. A real Falluja situation.

The Brotherhood was routed in Syria. Those brothers who were not killed or imprisoned left for Europe, Jordan or the Gulf. Its leadership in London has recently made common cause with ex-Vice President Khaddam after his break with the regime. This was not a popular move in Syria, and the Brotherhood now has questionable levels of support, although its right wing traditionalist ideology remains widespread.

A younger and more extreme brand of Islamism, Salafi nihilism represents a tiny minority of Syrians, but one which seems to be growing. Their belief that not only Alawis and secularists but also mainstream Sunnis are kuffar, and that democracy is a kaffir system, will make it impossible for them to participate in Syrian politics in the future. They could, however, given the right chaotic circumstances (see Iraq), cause a lot of trouble.

There are Kurdish groups, some of which campaign for greater cultural and political freedoms for Syria’s Kurds (tens of thousands of whom do not hold full citizenship), and some of which would like to achieve autonomy or even independence.

There are still some independent Marxists (as opposed to those who’ve been co-opted by the government’s Progressive National Front), and disgruntled anti-regime Baathists.

There are independent liberals like (former) parliamentarians Riyadh Saif and Mamoun Homsi who face harassment and imprisonment for combating corruption and speaking out against human rights abuses. Such figures address issues which concern all Syrians, and their discourse excludes nobody.

Then there are West-based people. Some, like Farid Ghadry, have no support in Syria and are creations of foreign lobbies. Much more credible are people like Ammar Abdul Hamid, who campaigns for a liberal democratic future and the rights of minorities. In my view, Ammar’s ‘camp’ tends at times to be idealistically pro-American and fails to recognise that a more democratic Syria will support armed resistance to America and Israel more, not less.

Whether I agree with all these people or not, I’m sure that a happier future requires that they be allowed to freely express their views in Syria. The government may have a point when it says that sectarian groups threaten social peace and the stability of the country, but if or when, and how, to silence these groups are issues that the whole of society needs to debate openly. On Syrian TV, when the word ‘church’ is mentioned in a foreign film, the subtitles translate it not as ‘church’ but ‘place of worship.’ The same patronising censorship is applied to all issues of sect and politics inside the country, and it doesn’t work. Not allowing people to talk about sect just allows the venom to build up. As for liberal democrats like the currently imprisoned Kamal Labwani and Michel Kilo, people who’ve never attacked anyone for ethnic or religious reasons, the ‘undermining social stability’ argument is a sorry excuse for suppressing legitimate peaceful dissent.

Fares at Freesyria is running a campaign on behalf of some of the prisoners.

More information about the political situation inside Syria can be found on Joshua Landis’s Syriacomment:

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why Hizbullah Won

It was inspiring to see (on television) Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah address a crowd of 800,000 in South Beirut on Friday afternoon. As usual, he delivered a stirring speech, slipping easily between standard literary Arabic and Lebanese dialect, and aiming his comments at international, Lebanese and Arab audiences.

Over the last few months I have read and heard all kinds of criticism of Hizbullah in the Western media. It is hard to reconcile this with the tremendous admiration that the Arab and Muslim ‘street’ has for the organisation.

I have read that Hizbullah is a misogynist organisation, that its activists spend their free time throwing acid in the faces of women who don’t wear the hijab. This is simply untrue. There were plenty of non-hijab-wearing women at Friday’s rally. Anyone who’s been to Hizbullah strongholds in South Lebanon, South Beirut or the Bekaa valley will tell you that women in lipstick and short skirts walk unharassed in the streets with their muhajjiba sisters. Many of the women invited to speak on al-Manar, Hizbullah’s TV station, do not wear the hijab. Hizbullah women are not prominent in politics or military affairs, but they do play important roles in social welfare and media work.

I have read that Hizbullah is a fiercely sectarian organisation. It is certainly a Shia organisation, but the alliance it leads in Lebanese elections includes Sunnis and Christians. When the resistance managed to finally remove the Israeli occupation in 2000 (after 22 long and bloody years), many people expected the south to degenerate into sectarian mayhem. After all, there were Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Druze, Sunnis, Palestinian refugees, and collaborators with the occupation from all sects, living in the area along with its Shia majority. All these groups had fought each other during the civil war. But Hizbullah kept the peace. At Christmas time, Hizbullah sends cards to Lebanese priests. Never once have we heard from Hassan Nasrallah the kind of poison that we hear from al-Qaida or Salafis about ‘apostates’ or ‘crusaders.’ In Friday’s speech, he pointed out that Lebanon was now split along ideological rather than sectarian lines, and he praised this development.

I have read again and again that Hizbullah is anti-Semitic. The accusation is backed in particular by this statement, attributed to Hassan Nasrallah: “If Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” The source of this seems to be the New York Times. I can’t say whether Nasrallah actually said this or not. I can just about imagine a rhetorical context in which he might have said it. If he did say it, I think he was wrong. I know that other Hizbullah leaders have generalised from Zionists to Jews, and have used Quranic condemnations of 6th century Arabian Jewish communities to attack Zionism. This is unfortunate and doesn’t help anyone. But I also know that my English grandfather, who nobody ever accused of being a racist, admitted to a deep distrust of Germans (not Nazis) to the end of his life as a result of what he saw and heard in the 30s and 40s. It is not so surprising that Lebanese people, who have suffered several decades of massacre, seige and persecution at the hands of the self-declared ‘Jewish state,’ may sometimes make unwise generalisations and bitter comments. I admit I find it easier to forgive Lebanese blurring of the distinctions between Jew and Zionist than I do to forgive Zionist and Anglo-American blurring of the distinctions between violent resistance to occupation and Islam. And using the Quran to make points about a contemporary conflict is no worse than American Christians using the Old Testament to justify the current ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But I'm worming around here, I know. Anti-Semitism is wrong, even in a war situation. Wrong full stop. If Hizbullah is guilty of it, it is wrong.

I have never heard or seen Nasrallah or any other Hizbullah leader make anti-Jewish comments, and I’ve watched a lot of speeches and interviews. I can however report Nasrallah’s words (more or less) at one rally: Our slogan is Death to America. We do not mean the American people, most of whom are ignorant of the situation in the Middle East. We mean the American government, the American army, the American empire. Our slogan is Death to Israel. We do not mean the Jews, with whom we’ve lived peacefully for centuries. We do not mean the Jewish religion, which is a divinely revealed religion. We mean Zionism which occupies our land and murders our children.

And of course, I’ve read that Hizbullah is a terrorist group that needs to be dealt with for the sake of global peace. I accept that firing katyusha missiles into towns terrorises their inhabitants. My problem here is that the people who call Hizbullah terrorists seem to think that Israeli activity in Lebanon is not terroristic.

Here is the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition of terrorism: “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.”

Dan Halutz, the Israeli Chief of Staff, declared on the first day of the latest war that “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that.” And the 'non-terrorist' US and British backed onslaught showed the truth of these words. The civilian infrastructure of Lebanon was destroyed. 'Legitimate military targets' included factories, power stations, bridges, roads, a Greek Orthodox church, mosques, farm workers, refugee convoys, funeral processions, and thousands of homes. There was a new Qana massacre (the first happened in 1996). Depleted Uranium, cluster bombs and phosphorus were used. The aim of the attack was clearly to terrify the Lebanese civilian population in order to bring about the particular political objective of making them turn on the resistance. Terrorism, on a grand scale.

In contrast, while the overwhelming majority of Lebanese victims of Israeli fire were civilians, the majority of Israeli victims of Hizbullah fire were soldiers. Sadly, a disproportionate number of Israeli casualties were Israeli Arabs. There is a reason for this. While Israeli Jews and even the animals at Haifa zoo are provided with state of the art bomb shelters, the Arab villagers of the Galilee are not.

For more details on Israeli terrorist outrages in this war, and on direct military and political support for these outrages from the US and Britain, you can read this excellent report:

Hizbullah emerged from the murk of civil war Lebanon to become the recognised national resistance movement deterring the occupation in the South. When it pushed the Israelis out in 2000 – the first victory in all the years of Arab-Israeli conflict – it won support from the majority of Lebanese, of all sects. Since then its activity to try to release Lebanese hostages from Israeli dungeons, and to liberate the Shebaa Farms, has been measured and intelligent. It provided a shining example to the Arab world. For the first time, Israel was faced with a fighting force that could stand against it, despite its lack of hi-tech weaponry. For the first time, local people had organised themselves to fight back effectively. For the first time, Arabs were not waiting for their state machineries or the ‘international community’ to help them, they were liberating themselves. (In this last point there is more hope for future democracy than in a thousand years of Western initiatives). What’s more, a Shia group representing the poorest, most marginalised of Arabs was wildly popular amongst the Sunni Muslims of the region. Neither Israel nor America could tolerate the challenge.

Which brings us to the next criticism. I have read that Hizbullah took Lebanon to war. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the border was a miscalculation. It aimed to secure the release of Lebanese hostages, and to take pressure off Gaza, which has been drowning in blood since Palestinians kidnapped one Israeli in the hope of securing the release of almost 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. Whether it was wise or not, the border incident was not the cause of the huge onslaught. Condoleeza Rice made this very clear when she said the war couldn’t end until a ‘new middle east’ was born. In other words, until resistance and the possibility of deterrence was killed. The US and Britain did everything they could to stop a ceasefire, to give Israel time to ‘finish the job.’ When Israel was proven unable to even start the job, if the job was to defang rather than strengthen Hizbullah, then they rushed to implement an unfair ceasefire in Israel’s defence.

In any case, the border had been violated by Israel many more times than by Hizbullah. One of the many (unreported in the West) Israeli violations of the Lebanese border since its pullout was its shooting on an unarmed demonstration of Palestinians approaching the barbed wire to greet their relatives inside and to call for return to their villages. Several Palestinians were killed.

So why did Hizbullah call its rally on Friday a Victory Festival? People from countries which start rather than suffer wars find it difficult to understand the victory in having your infrastructure destroyed. And they have a point.

But think of it like this. Israel’s neighbours have been losing wars for decades. In 67 Israel launched a pre-emptive attack which captured the West Bank, the Gaza strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the vast Sinai Peninsula, all in six days. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it took them a week to reach Beirut, which they proceeded to obliterate. The first world effortlessly walked over the third. The Arabs were defeated psychologically as well as physically. Arab nationalism was discredited along with the Arab state system. Arab optimism dissolved. The Arabs lined up to surrender. (This pyschological defeat is one of the factors leading to the rise of Islamism).

This time, yes, the infrastructure was destroyed, and 1200 Lebanese were killed. But in more than a month, Israeli forces were unable even to fully occupy the villages on the border. This is a historical turnabout, and the Arab peoples know it. None of Israel or America’s war aims were fulfilled. Lebanese of all sects rallied round the resistance. Arab puppet regimes lost more shreds of credibility. Hizbullah was strengthened.

In Friday’s speech, Hassan Nasrallah was far more forthright than usual in his comments on Lebanese politics. He accepted that Hizbullah’s arsenal would eventually have to become the property of the Lebanese army, but said that would only happen when Lebanon had a ‘government of national unity’ capable of protecting its citizens. In other words, he called for a non-sectarian electoral system in Lebanon, in which the vote of a Shia farmer is worth as much as the vote of a Maronite Christian.

Nasrallah’s approach to Arab regimes has previously been diplomatic. On Friday that changed. He said that they are not capable of making peace or war. Why would Israel want to make peace with the Arabs, he asked, if the Arabs are not willing to fight, not willing to boycott, not willing to use oil as a weapon. He said that they are more responsible than Europe and America for starving the resistance government in Palestine. He said that if the choice is between Jerusalem and their thrones, they’ll choose their thrones. The change in tone suggests that Nasrallah foresees a revolutionary future.

And then he said it is possible for the Arabs not only to win back the West Bank, but all Palestine, from the river to the sea. This is language that we haven’t heard for decades from Arab leaders (and when they said so they didn’t mean it). From Nasrallah, who means it, who believes the people can do it, it is music to the ears.

I hope that Israel will delink itself from American imperialism, come to terms with its traumatised origins, and work seriously towards a two state solution in Palestine as a stage on the way to a democratic, secular, unitary state. I honestly believe this would be in the interests of Jews as well as Arabs. I don’t think driving the Jews into the sea is either desirable or possible. But the option of fighting to end the ethno-state (as opposed to driving out the Jews) must be on the table. The Arabs have been trying to surrender for more than thirty years, and their surrender hasn’t been accepted by Israel or the US, who always want more. If a balance of terror is what we need to establish to make Israel think seriously about just peace, then let’s establish it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Misguided Responses

Here is my letter, which was published in the Guardian newspaper, on the fuss caused by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad:

“Very many Muslims find themselves cringing between the charging rhinos of militant secularism and unreflective Islamism. On the one hand, the offending cartoons insult our most sacred values. This is not a question of free speech. In associating the Prophet with terrorism they only repeat in more grotesque form an allegation that has repeatedly been made. This last attack, following an endless stream of negative imagery emanating from Hollywood or CNN, and real attacks on Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been too much for some of us. But it is clear that most Europeans do not understand why the cartoons are so hurtful. The response called for is intelligent engagement with the media, not violent threats. Some Muslim countries also need to ensure that their own treatment of religious minorities is exemplary, according to Islamic principles, before they complain. And if Muslim countries wish to take political action against their enemies they should start by expelling the military bases of powers occupying Iraq.”

Although I found the cartoons offensive, I found the response more so. Some British Muslims made life even more difficult for the rest of us by holding up signs praising the tube bombs of July 2005. Nigerian Muslims attacked churches. Muslims rioted, threatened, and burned.

At times it seemed that the ‘leaders’ of Muslim countries were playing the cartoon thing up, for their own corrupt reasons. In Syria a mob burned the Danish embassy, conveniently showing
a). Islamists that the regime was on their side, and
b). The US that if the Syrian regime falls, these embassy-burners are the kind of wild animals the world will have to deal with.
In Syria embassies do not burn unless someone in charge has given permission for this to happen. And since when has the Syrian regime been a defender of Islam? Not so long ago Syrians used to be too scared to visit the mosque, or wear a beard or a hijab.

In the Gulf country where I currently live there were articles in government-controlled newspapers encouraging a boycott of Danish goods, and supermarkets dutifully stripped these products from their shelves. This despite the fact that it was a private Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons, not the Danish government. Meanwhile, Gulf supermarket shelves continued to groan under the weight of American and British products. The military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military, financial and political support for the Israeli occupation, most definitely are the responsibility of the American and British governments.

A case of giving the people something to be angry about in the hope that they’ll keep quiet about much more serious things.

So far, the stupidest ‘leader’ in the Pope controversy has been the Pope himself. But this morning I read that churches in Palestine (not even Catholic, but Orthodox) have been firebombed, and that an Italian nun has been killed in Somalia. Please God, let the Muslims deal with this latest chapter in an intelligent and civilised way.

The Quran says, “We do not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

At Brian Anthony’s excellent blog on living in Syria a poster quotes the previous Pope.

“... we cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions...”
John Paul II. Sunday, 12 March 2000

And the excellent Karen Armstrong comments here:

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope and Jihad

The world would surely be a better place if people were able to be critical of their own side before they laid into someone else’s. So, as a Muslim, I’ll start:

Straightforward imperialism has been pursued under the banner of Islam on various occasions in history. In Sudan, the state’s desire to extend its reach into areas where tribe counts for more than government means that Islamic rhetoric has been used as a tool of subjugation. In Saudi Arabia, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shia Muslims face varying degrees of persecution for simply worshipping in the way they feel best. In Nigeria, Muslims have frequently taken out their political bad temper on their Christian neighbours (and vice versa). I could go on and on. The Muslim world is a mess.

If the Pope had condemned the treatment of Christians in Saudi Arabia he would probably still have provoked an angry reaction among the lunatic fringe of Muslims, but I for one would have supported him. It’s part of his job to defend Christians around the world, and by pointing to their oppression in some Muslim countries he would have encouraged a necessary debate among Muslims. If he’d made some kind of general statement that all religions must take care to interpret their scripture in the most positive and peaceful way, that Muslims and Christians and Jews have all at various times used religious language as they commit crimes, there would be no problem.

But what he did by quoting, but not distancing himself from, a 14th Century Byzantine emperor, was to suggest that Islam is an “evil and inhuman” religion that has no place for reason. Here we go again. It’s open season on Islam in the bloodhungry West. What is so depressing about this bout is that senior religious leaders had until now been careful to keep out of the fray.

It hardly needs to be said, I hope, that the Catholic church (as opposed to Christianity) has an exceptionally ugly record of crusading, anti-semitism, and persecution of intellectuals. It ethnically cleansed Spain and Sicily of Muslims and Jews. Muslim, Jewish and even Protestant refugees from Catholicism found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. As recently as 60 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy collaborated with the Nazis.

This is not the only side of the Catholic story. Catholics have also been persecuted, and there have been many instances of Catholics helping their persecuted Jewish neighbours in Europe. ‘Liberation theology’ priests in Latin America have been at the forefront fighting for oppressed people’s rights. Catholicism is a vast tradition full of diversity. My point is simply that Benedict could have found plenty of irrationality to talk about in Catholic history.

His statements are worse than unwise. Muslim-Christian relations are already in their worst state since the Crusades. On the one hand, Christian Zionists have been the most ardent supporters of the occupations of Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other, Wahabbi nihilists see everyone in the West (and quite a few people in the east) as Crusaders who must be destroyed. As the world seems to be lurching towards an apocalypse of environmental breakdown and total war – not following divine plan but for very human reasons – we surely need more intelligence, more self-criticism, more compassion for the blood of others.

And very quickly, a word about jihad in Islam. Jihad means struggle, not holy war. Struggling to pray or fast, to control your anger, to provide justice to the weak, are all forms of jihad. I get a laugh from my students when I tell them that marriage is jihad, but I mean it seriously. Learning to compromise, to recognise the needs and wants of another as valid as your own, is jihad.

And jihad can mean defensive, but never offensive, war. In an Islamic war, the following regulations must be observed: Non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, officials of any religion must not be harmed. There must be no mutilation of corpses, and no torture. Trees and crops must not be damaged. Property must not be damaged. As soon as the enemy forces wish to come to terms, fighting must stop.

Muslims have very often ignored the rules and the true significance of jihad, just as Christians have very often killed and conquered in the name of a prophet who taught men to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Whether or not Muslims should restrict themselves to Islamic laws of war in a contemporary world where no-one respects such restrictions – that’s another question entirely.

A last point. Although, as I said above, Muslims have built secular empires in the name of their religion, conversion by the sword was an aberration rather than a norm in Islamic history. Indian converts were attracted to Islam not by Mongol or Persian military might but slowly, by travelling Sufi mystics and musicians. In Africa Islam was spread not by the swords of Beduin raiders (who usually cared little for religion in any case) but by tradesmen and, again, Sufis. Even in what is now the Arab world the process of conversion was gradual and peaceful. All the time that Damascus was the capital of the Ummayad Empire it had a Christian majority.

Anyway, God save us all from bigotry and ignorance.

The vicar of Putney comments intelligently on the Pope’s speech. You can read that here:

Tariq Ali has words, here:

And I like Fareena Alam’s (Editor of Q-News, a British Muslim magazine) comments, quoted in the Guardian:
“The media are giving the supposed ‘anger of the Muslim nation’ too much coverage. Such insults are as old as Islam itself. The Prophet dealt with them with dignity. We must stop over-reacting ... A Muslim who truly lives according to the moral code of Islam - of justice, neighbourliness and compassion - will know that it is our greatest weapon against misrepresentation. Perhaps the Pope was ‘merely quoting’ the 14th-century emperor. Perhaps he did so because he actually shares this belief. If so, he is more ill-informed than we thought. I refuse to let such provocations shape the global faith agenda.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Islamism of Not

One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.

Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.

Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.

So Wahabism is an islamism which is Not Shia, Not Sufi, Not innovative, Not democratic, Not anything that the king doesn’t want it to be.

And then, because of the alliance between the House of Saud and the United States, Wahabi islamism became Not Communist. The supposed ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan began before the Soviet invasion with Saudi Wahabis being sent to destabilise the Soviet client Afghan regime. When the Afghan government took the bait and called on its sponsor to help, and the Russians fell for it, Cater’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinsky rubbed his hands and said, “Now we’ll give them their Vietnam!” And so they did. And a third of the Afghan population fled. And the country’s infrastructure, all the schools and hospitals and economic machinery except for the opium plant, was destroyed. Neighbouring Pakistan, whose US-backed General Zia justified his rule by ‘islamising’ the country, was flooded with heroin and kalashnikovs. Hooray for islamism! And the Sauds and the USA!

When the various ‘mujahideen’ warlords had spent long enough fighting each other and the time came for America to build gas pipelines, America backed the Taliban. This was a group of refugee teenagers indoctrinated in Saudi-built religious schools on the frontiers of Pakistan. But to continue this story we have to move to the kind of islamism that opposes power. That comes later.

In the seventies other Sunni islamisms became attractive to the powers that be because they were Not nationalist. In Egypt, Sadat encouraged the Islamist groups (that later killed him) as a counterweight to the Nasserist and Arabist left. Israel encouraged the young Hamas movement as a means of diluting Palestinian support for Arafat’s still vital PLO. Israel and Jordan funded Syria’s Muslim Brothers so as to cause trouble for the Arabist regime in Damascus. Wahabis were sent into action to continue weakening the Soviet Union in Central Asia.

In economic terms, most of these groups, because they were pitched against nominally socialist regimes, were by default ‘capitalist.’

In 78 and 79, islamism showed that it had revolutionary potential. The Iranian masses of the left and centre supported Khomeini because he was Not the shah and Neither America Nor Russia. When the dust had settled, the Iran-Iraq war had set in, and Khomeini’s rightist islamists had defeated their leftist islamist, liberal and socialist opponents, opinion was much more mixed.

Now we have crossed the bridge to the islamism that challenges power, the more contemporary form of islamism, an islam that is essentially reactive.

With the proviso that some islamists (Hizbullah/ Hamas) can be more realistic and logical than their competitors, islamism's raison d'etre is to react against complex and painful reality. Like all fundamentalism (religious, market, nationalist, secular), it expresses a desire for the world to be a simpler place. Al-islam, huwa al-hal, is the slogan. Islam is the solution.

It reacts against the urban experience. Islamism is often the attempt of newly urbanised and deracinated people to recreate the (imagined) secure social setting and certainties of their lost villages.

It reacts against occupation. Very specific this one. The Palestinians didn’t vote for Hamas because they wanted sharia law (and of course Hamas has not tried to impose it) but because of the party’s reputation for uncompromising resistance. Hizbullah has become a beacon far beyond the Shia heartlands of Lebanon for its successful resistance against zionist attack.

It reacts against cultural domination. The Muslim who feels pained when he sees his compatriots wearing Western clothes, watching Western films, listening to Western music, eating Western junk, buying Western products, and who knows that in most of these areas Muslims can’t begin to compete, feels that a retreat within may be an answer. Does anyone remember the Buy British campaign? It’s something like that, with the provocation magnified a million times.

It reacts against forced secularisation and Westernisation. In Turkey in the 20s, Iran in the 30s, Syria in the 80s, women did not unveil as a result of a popular feminist movement. They were unveiled at gunpoint. Ataturk not only built opera houses and latinised the Turkish alphabet, he actually made it illegal to listen to Oriental-style music or to read Ottoman Turkish books.

It reacts against corruption, financial and moral. In places like Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, corruption is so all-pervasive it is a key part of the national economy. From the president’s relative ‘winning’ big government contracts to the petty bureaucrat or policeman supplementing his tiny income with bribes, everybody’s doing it. Most people do it because they can’t afford not to, and they feel guilty about it. If only this were a real Islamic country, they say, this wouldn’t be necessary. And the rich abuse the poor, the light-skinned abuse the dark-skinned, everybody scrambles for himself and the weak are left bleeding on the floor. If there were real Islam, they say, this wouldn’t happen. Al-Islam, huwa al-hal.

It reacts against the perceived failure of other oppositional forces. Forty and fifty years ago the Arab masses were socialist and nationalist. Then supposed socialist and nationalist regimes came to power. They were either unwilling or unable to solve problems, so built police states instead. What’s left?

And what to do about it? If islamists are ready to accept elections, it is logical to allow them to stand for election, and to let them win. If the Algerian FIS had been allowed to rule after their election victory in 1992, the country would have been spared a civil war in which 100,000 died, in which atrocities were committed both by the police state and the islamists. If the FIS had made a mess of Algeria (it's difficult to imagine a mess bigger than the one made by the police state, except for the civil war) then the people would have learnt a lesson. Perhaps Islam isn't the solution. Perhaps it's more complicated than that. That's how nations develop. That's how history happens. After almost 30 years of islamist rule in Iran, Iranians are markedly more secular than other people in the region. The regime still stands because it has not mismanaged the state enough for people to do much more than grumble, because it has provided the safety valve of a semi-democracy, because it has eased off on its (still annoying) interference in people’s private habits, and because Western sabre-rattling makes Iranian nationalists close ranks.

But then there are the Salafis. These are Wahabis who are as Not as ever, if not more so, but have given up the idea of loyal allegiance to any state leader. In fact, (quite understandably) enraged by the presence of US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, they have declared war on the Al-Saud. Here comes bin Laden, formerly the CIA’s man on the Pakistani-Afghan border, and his ever more crazed descendants. They are not, as many non-Muslims imagine, a product of Islamic civilisation, but a reaction against the collapse of Islamic civilisation. Uprooted from their traditions but not finding any replacement, alienated from their fathers and the failed regimes, their ideology is nihilism. They want to destroy the Shia, the mystics, the intellectuals, the traditional Sunni hierarchies, the Arab states, the West, and the list goes on. They have more in common with characters from Dostoyevsky than with Ibn Arabi or Al Ghazali.

They are a tiny but noisy minority. The danger they pose is not in their strength but in the weakness of the Arab state system and the stupidity and barbarism of the West. The Arab state system seems to be slowly but surely falling. Nobody knows what will replace it. Its failure to educate or even feed the people, let alone fight America and Israel for Arab independence, means that the Salafis, insane as they are, hold centre stage. All Arabs and Muslims, in these desperate times, need to do what is almost impossible, and find alternatives. Intelligent, tolerant islamists like Hizbullah and self-sacrificing liberals like Ayman Nour each hold some possible answers. And the West must stop occupying Muslim lands, must stop supporting the terrorism of its Israeli friend, must stop interfering to prop up or bring down governments. The West has failed in the Muslim world, dismally, over more than a century. Each intervention makes things worse. The best the West can do is leave the Muslims alone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Great Contemporary Arab Women

A friend expressed the opinion that the Arabs need more women leaders. I don’t agree that having women in charge automatically makes things better. Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice all prove that women can be every bit as power-crazed, militaristic and ruthless as men. And I think that the Arabs need leaders full stop, men or women. But the general point, yes, of course I agree with. There aren’t enough women leaders in the Arab world. My friend’s comment set me thinking though, about prominent and admirable Arab women. So here’s a quick list of some contemporary Arabat who I think have made a difference.

Atwar Bahjat

The reporter first for al-Jazeera and then for al-Arabiya who became a household name for her bravery and compassion in covering the Iraqi tragedy from the frontline. No hotel journalism for her. She was a Sunni Muslim with a Shia mother, who always wore an Iraq-shaped golden necklace on air to symbolise the country’s unity and the brotherhood of its different communities. She was murdered on the 22nd February 2006 after reporting on the bombing of the Askari shrine, sacred to the Shia. Who killed her? Probably nihilistic Zarqawi-type militia, but possibly US or Iranian backed militia who had penetrated the interior ministry.

Nadia Yassine

Of the Moroccan ‘Islamist’ Justice and Charity Group, which was founded by her father Abdessalam. Nadia is on trial for saying that a republic would be preferable to a monarchy. Those who place all Islamists in the same category will be surprised by her perspectives. Some quotes: “Muslims have inflicted a terrible injustice on women in the name of Islam.” And: “Freedom of speech is a positive thing, not only for the Moroccans, but for all Muslim peoples who for fourteen centuries have been living the tragedy of silence, criminal silence.”


After Um Kulsoom, who isn’t contemporary enough to be included here, Fairuz is generally regarded as the greatest Arabic singer. She introduced the Arabs to jazz, starred in numerous ‘musicals’, and became a national icon with her patriotic songs like “Jerusalem in our Hearts.” She remained in Beirut throughout the civil war, but refused to sing until her brothers and sisters stopped killing each other.
Read more at and

Fadwa Barghouti

A lawyer, human rights activist and Palestinian national figure in her own right, she has also campaigned on behalf of her husband Marwan, the imprisoned leader of Fatah in the West Bank. Fadwa’s eldest son Qassam also languishes inside an Israeli prison. Her indefatigability symbolises all Palestinian working women, mothers and wives as they not only survive in the most appalling of conditions, but also fight.

Buthaina Shaaban

Writer, professor, translator (of Chinua Achebe amongst others), advisor at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and today, Syrian Minister of Expatriates. Whatever your views on the Syrian regime, you have to admire Buthaina for her articulate advocacy of Arab causes in the international media. If only a few kings or presidents could occasionally speak like her. And her translation work, her belief in positive cultural interchange, is something we need much more of.

Hanan Ashrawi

Poet, academic and activist. Hanan established the Department of English at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. She was one of the most able negotiators at the Madrid conference, but was sadly overruled by Arafat when he signed the doomed Oslo accords. She is an independent member of the Palestinian parliament and a tireless advocate for Palestinian rights.

Nancy Ajram

I jest not! We need more gloriously sexy Arab women like Nancy, confident in their beauty and talent. She isn’t vulgar like Haifa or others, and she can actually sing!

Who else? There’s the Arab-Israeli actress Hiam Abbas (Paradise Now, the Syrian Bride), researcher and writer Mai Yamani, the writers Ahdaf Soueif, Hanan Ash-Shaikh and Ghada Samaan, and….. Please add your suggestions.

But before I finish, let me cheat by adding a couple of Iranians. Nobel peace prize winner and human rights lawyer Shireen Ebadi, and film director (Blackboards, The Apple, Five o Clock in the Afternoon) Samira Makhmalbaf.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Save us from Amis

Martin Amis has written an ignorant, monomaniac and hysterical essay about what he calls ‘Islamism.’ You can read it here:,,1868732,00.html

He makes all kinds of ridiculous assertions. For example, “Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief.” So there you are: all you Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, non-aligned-but-aware-of-the-spiritual types, all of you non-atheists in the West – you have no excuses! So that’s tidied up. Amis has sussed you (just like I thought I has sussed all the stupid believers when I was a teenager), and that’s all there is to it. No need to explain further.

But Amis’s target is Islam. He trots out the usual insulting idiocies. Genital mutilation, honour killings and wifebeating are taken as representative of Islam and Muslims, in the same way that the most unhinged Wahabbi preachers take heroin addiction and child abuse as representative of the Crusading West. Amis concedes that all religions have their terrorists, but says: “we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.”

Two problems here. One is that religions are not the only forces to practise terrorism. Corporations and states, often covering themselves in semi-religious vocabulary like ‘civilisation versus barbarism’, also terrorise, often in a much more efficient fashion than the religious loons.

The second problem is, it depends who Amis’s ‘we’ are. If ‘we’ means bourgeois Anglo-Saxons whose range of news exposure runs from Fox News to the BBC, then, yes, we hear of terror issuing only from Muslims. If you watch Al-Jazeera, however, you become aware of the daily crimes committed by or resulting from the Western war machine, crimes which range from the slow ethnic cleansing of Palestine to the drenching of Mesopotamia in Depleted Uranium, from CIA coups to bring people like Saddam to power to the ‘shock and awe’ used to remove them again, from the deliberate dismantling of states so that only sectarian militias will hold sway to the construction of police states to guard the ‘Western interests’ under those states’ geographical control. If you watch the al-Qa’ida videos instead of al-Jazeera (and it is al-Qa’ida media rather than Jazeera that best mirrors Fox News and Amis) you will hear how all of the trouble in the world, from Kashmir to Chechnya, Lebanon to Somalia, needs no more context than this: “We are hearing from the Crusaders. We are hearing from the Jews.”

For Amis, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Taliban, the Egyptian Muslim brothers, the Saudi regime, are all the same thing. All Islamists. No matter if they are Sunni or Shia, right or left wing, conservative or revolutionary, if they keep women locked in the home or encourage them to get involved with media and social work, if their focus of opposition is foreign occupation or another Muslim sect. No need for context or discrimination. They’re all the same. Just like al-Qa’ida’s Crusaders and Jews.

Amis is suffering information deficit. In his essay he relies on the notorious racist and Islamophobe VS Naipaul, and on Bernard Lewis, the neo-cons’ own historian. Naipaul’s thesis in Among the Believers is that non-Arab peoples who adopted Islam have been culturally deformed, as Islam is an Arab religion. This argument is not only an insult to the plurality of Islamic cultures, but is as absurd as saying that Nigerian and Irish Christians have mutilated their own cultures by adopting a Palestinian-Jewish religion. And Bernard Lewis, whose son is an AIPAC leader, is hardly an impartial, or sane, observer. It was Lewis who told Cheney that US troops would be welcomed with flowers in Baghdad. Lewis who last month predicted that Ahmedinejad was planning a ‘cataclysmic event’ to match an occasion in the Islamic calendar corresponding to August 22nd.

Poor Amis suffers serious information deficit. He thinks ‘intifada’ means ‘earthquake.’ In fact it means ‘shaking off’ or ‘uprising.’ He says the second intifada “got under way….with a steady campaign of suicide mass murder,” and that an Israeli ‘crackdown’ only began when Barak succeeded Sharon as Israeli prime minister. In fact, the second intifada began as a series of stone-throwing demonstrations. Barak’s government killed dozens of unarmed Palestinians every day. After some months of this, with Amis-like members of the Western commentariat raising not a peep except against the Palestinian ‘terrorists,’ the intifada was militarised.

Amis on Palestine is about as offensive as he manages to get. The phenomenon of the suicide bomber in Palestine is, he tells us, all about an entrenched culture of murderous martyrdom. And that’s all. Why did it show itself in recent years and not before? It just did. Decades of dispossession, occupation, torture, imprisonment and murder, decades of waiting for states and international institutions to help, all to no avail, had absolutely nothing to do with it.

On second thoughts, blaming Amis’s blindness on information deficit is too charitable. When he makes it seem that Ken Livingstone’s comments on Palestinian suicide bombers were intended for the bombers of the London tube, he is doing something worse than being ignorant. He is consciously twisting truth to smear a politician who has sought genuine understanding and real solutions.

Much contemporary Islamism is indeed ugly, and especially the Wahabbi variety which America did so much to support and extend during the Cold War. Muslims, particularly Arabs, have a great deal of work to continue to do to challenge the inner demons of sectarianism, oppression of women and minorities, literalist approaches to scripture, failed education and economic systems, and so on. But the selective generalisations and prejudices of non-Muslims, in fact anti-Muslims, like Amis, neither help nor aim to help the success of this work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


At the foot of Mount Dena, in the Zagros mountains, central Iran.

How clean and cold the water tasted. There were beehives by the stream and Qashqai nomads down the valley.

May it remain clean.

May it not be polluted with the Depleted Uranium that has now been showered over Iraq and Afghanistan.