Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Very Guarded Optimism

The level of violence in Iraq is still remarkably high, and still nothing works. Compared with the situation a year ago, however, when there were hundreds of killings daily, Iraq today seems like a brave new world. In this very relative oasis of peace it has become possible to glimpse the kind of democracy which could conceivably work in Iraq. A successful democratic system would involve cooperation between local communities (not between sects), with the government a council of councils rather than a powerful centralised state apparatus holding the country together by force

Whenever they have had a chance, local communities have proved their mettle. Remember the role of the early Mahdi Army in stopping the looting triggered by the 2003 invasion, and in establishing basic services for the people. It was mosque committees, Sunni and Shia, which collected money in their neighbourhoods and paid teachers to return to the classrooms, and which organised work teams to repair local infrastructure. This was reminiscent of Hizbullah at its best: people in extremis relying on themselves, and doing what no external authority was willing or capable of doing.

But as we know, it all went horribly wrong. Society fragmented and the logic of violence took over. Local communities were silenced and then splintered by sectarian militias. In my post I wrote about how the American destruction of the state was the major factor catalysing the civil war. Specific American actions led directly to the disaster: the initial unwillingness to countenance Iraqi rule followed by a sectarian approach to ‘representation’, the use of central-American style death squads to fight the Sunni resistance (the expert John Negroponte was imported for this), the dissolution of the army and the police so that criminal and sectarian gangs filled the void.

There was also of course an internal Iraqi dynamic motivating the conflict. Sunni-Shia tensions have bubbled for centuries, which is not to say that they are as essential and timeless as some orientalists would have us believe. The ostentatious Shia revival that followed the invasion, bursting forth like steam from a pressure cooker when the lid is suddenly removed, came as a result of the years of Ba’athist persecution. A frightened and dispossessed Sunni community made the fatal mistake of allowing al-Qa’ida and other Wahhabi nihilists to penetrate the resistance. If Shias preferred to wait to see what the new dispensation would bring them in terms of political power, most of them sympathised with the anti-American resistance. Al-Qa’ida’s bomb attacks, however, targetted first the new police, and then Shia civilians, in mosques and marketplaces, in their tens of thousands. After the April 2006 destruction of the dome of the Askari shrine in Samarra’, sacred to Shias as the burial place of the 11th Imam and as the place where the Imam al-Mahdi went into occultation, Shia militias responded with brute force. A mutual orgy of ethnic cleansing wrecked the country’s ancient fabric. Iraq became a kind of Lebanon, not only in the ferocity of its communal hatreds but also in its transformation into a battleground for regional rivals: Saudi Arabia versus Iran, and America in the paradoxical position of fearing Shia power more than the Sunnis, who were attached by their Saudi ties to the illusory ‘arc of moderation’ even if they housed al-Qa’ida.

In the summer of 2007 things started to improve. It would be unfair not to recognise that new American tactics have had a measure of success in calming Iraq. By putting thousands more American soldiers on the streets, the ‘surge’ concedes the idiocy of Donald Rumsfield’s military theories. But much more important than the surge has been the Sahwa or the ‘Awakening’ movement of Sunni tribes and resistance fighters reclaiming their towns from nihilist thugs. Just as the American invasion was the greatest gift to al-Qa’ida, the clear demonstration of al-Qaida’s brutality and sectarianism in areas where it took control demolished the illusion of its revolutionary purity in the eyes of Iraqis and the wider Muslim world. Sunni communities turned on those they’d previously sheltered and, with al-Qa’ida on the defensive, it became possible for the Shia to reach out to the Sunnis. Simultaneously, popular revulsion with the Mahdi Army’s excesses led Moqtada Sadr to declare a six-month suspension of activities, and to purge his organisation of the more criminal, more Sunni-murdering elements. There are signs too, especially since the farcical Annapolis ‘peace’ summit, of the Arab client states realising that America won’t rescue them from their crises of domestic credibility and regional destabilisation. Only a good working relationship with Iran can do that. Regional peacemaking may be reflected in internal Iraqi peacemaking.

It’s still far too early to be optimistic. Many of the Sunni ‘sahwa’ militias may have calculated that a period of peace, and of getting into the Americans’ good books, will provide them with training opportunities and weapons so that they succeed in round two of the civil war. Hating the excesses of al-Qa’ida does not mean loving the new Shia power structure. The government, consisting mainly of politicians sponsored by Shia and Kurdish militias, has so far agreed to employ only 6% of Sunni volunteers in the state security forces. So it may be that the worst is still to come. Beyond the Sunni-Shia conflict, the battle between Muqtada Sadr’s Iraqi-nativist Mahdi Army and the currently pro-American, traditionally Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council seems to be on temporary hold. And militia forces are only conducive to peace and order to the extent that they represent local people, not the politics of a local strong man.

But I’ve been reading reports not only of cooperation between Sunni and Shia militias in neighbouring areas, but of mixed militias, and even of mixed militias negotiating the reversal of ethnic cleansing. In some areas of Baghdad, families are actually returning to their homes in areas where the other sect dominates.

This is something to thank God for. If against the odds the trend towards peace continues, a large number of the educated professionals that Iraq has lost may return home. Iraqis will then face two huge challenges: to expel the American occupation, which is digging in for the coming decades, and to either remove the corrupt and failed political elite which arrived with the American tanks or to impress upon it the necessity of non-sectarian national politics and real economic and political sovereignty. These challenges can only be met by a unified Iraqi people. A democracy based on community action could lead to unity. Is good news possible in Iraq?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Imperialism Resurgent

Gordon Brown says, “The days of Britain having to apologise for the British Empire are over. We should celebrate!” Sarkozy urges France to be “proud of its history,” meaning its imperial history.

European empires did sometimes construct railways and drainage systems in the conquered lands. They did build law courts and disseminate a certain kind of cuture. But these questionable achievements must be understood against the larger ugly backdrop. Economies under imperial rule stagnated at best. Huge swathes of Africa were transformed from subsistence agricultural land to cashcrop plantations. When the value of the crop plummetted, or when the crop was grown more cheaply elsewhere, local people were left hungry and unskilled on exhausted soil. Africa has still not recovered from this deliberate underdevelopment. During British misrule, preventable famines killed tens of millions of Indians. Elsewhere in the empire, hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, and torture was institutionalised. There were the genocides of indigenous Australians and Americans, by massacre and land theft as well as by disease. There was the little matter of the transatlantic slave trade.

The ethnic-sectarian tensions and political backwardness of much of the third world have roots in imperial power games. For instance, when the 1857 Indian uprising against the British was put down, the British developed a policy of excluding Muslims from education and economic power. A divide and rule strategy to exacerbate pre-existent Hindu-Muslim tensions was implemented precisely because the revolution had shown a remarkable degree of Indian national unity. And, as usual, traitors were rewarded. The twelve families that rule what is now Pakistan (staffing the military high command and both major political parties) are the landowning families that ‘acquired’ their land in return for loyalty to the occupiers in 1857.

Whenever there was a sign of a lesser people organising itself along ‘modern’ European lines, the British crushed the potential challenge. An example is Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, with its state education system, rational miltary organisation, and secularising legal code. A more recent instance is the Anglo-American 1953 coup against Mossadeq’s democratic nationalist government in Iran.

I mention all this not because I want to suggest that Westerners are particularly evil, that they are the only ones to have committed crimes of empire and enslavement, or that indigenous peoples would have managed themselves perfectly if left alone. I mention it because Western imperialism continues and, as competition for resources intensifies, is escalating. Our awareness of the crimes of empire is important because the whitewashing of imperial history proceeds in concert with a ramping-up of imperial intervention.

I’ve been refreshing myself on British and French imperial history in the Levant by reading the excellent 1972 book “Syria: Nation of the Modern World” by Tabitha Petran.

Remember that during the 1917 British-instigated Arab Revolt, the prospect of a unified Arab state was dangled before the Arabs, so long as they were required to make trouble for the collapsing Ottomans. But the British and the French had already signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carved up the eastern Arabs into British and French zones of influence, and the Balfour Declaration, by which Englishmen awarded Arab Palestine, as if it were a medal or a school cap, to Zionism.

The British also famously created landlocked, resourceless Transjordan in an afternoon, the straight lines of its borders giving new resonance to the double meaning of the English word ‘ruler’. They kept control of Iraq (which they had cut off from Kuwait, but that’s another story) by applying the glories of modern warfare. “I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas,” said British hero Winston Churchill. “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, later famous for the Dresden firestorm, enthused: “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” This, I suppose, is what we should be celebrating with Gordon Brown. The British tried to install kings from the friendly Hashemite family in both places. In Iraq it took the army, and then Ba’athist army officers, to bring down the client regime. In Jordan the royal line stuck, and has been useful to the West ever since.

The French took the ex-Ottoman region of Greater Syria. Tabitha Petran’s book describes how the Maronite statelet on Mount Lebanon was expanded into a larger Lebanese state of reluctant Orthodox Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Druze, setting the scene for the later civil wars. As described, Palestine-Israel and Jordan had already been peeled away. Now the Syrian cities of Urfa, Aintab and Antioch, and the country’s largest port at Alexandretta, were ceded to the Western-oriented Turkish Republic. Cities lost their hinterlands, their markets and water supplies.

There were further unsuccessful efforts to dismember Syria. The French envisaged an Alawi state in the mountains around Lattakia and a Druze state around Jebel al-Arab in the south. They encouraged separatism in the Jezira and established ‘autonomous’ puppet governments in Aleppo and Damascus.

First the cutting, then the stunting. The Open Door economic policy flooded the country with cheap imports, while Syrian exports were heavily taxed. The consequences included a diminishment of gold reserves by 70%, a depreciation of the currency, mushrooming unemployment and a collapse in traditional skilled manufacturing. Throughout the French occupation, three percent of the state budget was spent on health care and five percent on education. French collective punishments against the unruly natives led to further trouble. For example, the gold fine imposed after an Alawi rebellion in 1921 made the mountain peasants for the first time hire their daughters out as domestic servants to the urban rich, which led to mutual resentments, which in turn intensified sectarianism when an Alawi-dominated army later took over the country’s political life.

Today the debate at the daring fringes of western political discourse is whether or not an empire would be a good idea, oblivious to the fact that there already is one. The United States underpins its control of markets with a military presence in more than 100 countries. In the larger middle east area, hundreds of thousands have died in American wars in the last half decade. These days, it’s called ‘the war against terror’. This is how far the dominant nations have come in their struggle to move beyond imperialism: they have learnt not to call it imperialism. But they used nice words in the past, too. When the French mangled and traumatised Syria's society and economy, they did so in the name of a League of Nations mandate. Their supposed role was to develop Syria, to prepare its benighted people for independence.

One set of people forcing themselves on another set of people in order to ‘run’ their economy and reorganise their social life is a crime. It leads only to conflict and failure. This is an obvious truth that must not be forgotten.

George Monbiot on imperialist denial:,,1674478,00.html

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I’ve now read three September 11th novels, by which I mean novelistic responses to the issues raised by the attacks. The first was ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan. I usually feel somewhat cheated by McEwan’s novels, and this was no exception. He goes to such trouble to develop characters, setting and plot, raising your expectations to such a pitch that you feel you’re about to learn something unforgettable about life and human beings, and then it all fizzles out. ‘Saturday’ covers a day in the life of a London doctor called Henry Perowne. The day begins with Perowne worrying over a mysterious plane in the sky, wondering if it’s going to fly into a London landmark. Later he avoids the huge demonstration against the approaching invasion of Iraq. Perowne wonders how he feels about it all, comes to no conclusion, goes to play squash. He has an altercation with a thuggish person who scratches the paint from his car, and in the evening the same thug breaks into his house like a symbol of the intrusive messy world. I’ve forgotten how it ends. McEwan has been attacked for being a neo-conservative, or a liberal interventionist, or just as hopelessly complacent and bourgeois as his protagonist, but he has defended himself by pointing out that McEwan is not Perowne – an obvious truth. If we start blaming authors for what their characters say we end up like the fools in Egypt who demonstrated against Haider Haider’s novel ‘A Banquet of Seaweed’ (waleema li-‘ashaab al-bahr) because one of Haider’s characters – who later commits suicide – expresses atheistic beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that McEwan’s treatment of the post-September 11th world focusses only on Western self-absorption. What the events require is a new engagement with the darknesses and resentments of the world beyond our narrow conception of it, a new sense of the interconnections of the West and elsewhere, for better and for worse.

Then I read John Updike’s ‘Terrorist’, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog ( ). My great respect for Updike as a writer perhaps made me too charitable in that evaluation. If anybody hasn’t read his series of ‘Rabbit’ novels, I strongly recommend them, for their wonderful style, their tragi-comedy, and for their vast scale which encompasses key moments in American history as well as in Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life. In these books Updike is clearly writing about what he knows and understands. In “Terrorist”, he clearly isn’t. His main protagonist, despite being mixed-race and mixed-up, is a stereotype, and so are all the Arabs and Muslims in the book – either dirty and threatening, or ‘good niggers’ who ardently support the attack on Iraq and report to the CIA. Nothing new is said about the motivations of anti-American terrorism or about the effect of the American empire on the world. Updike’s analysis goes no further than Martin Amis’s. He sees the causes of conflict to be sexual, not political, and believes that America is targetted as a result of its supposed moral degeneracy. But Muslims haven’t attacked the bikini beaches of Brazil, and such ‘analysis’ is as self-congratulatory as Henry Perowne’s bourgeois complacency.

Last night I finished ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid. This is a simpler novel than the two described above, and is stylistically unremarkable. It is, however, a genuine consideration of real issues raised by September 11th. In its organisation and the cumulative metaphorical power of its subplots it is much more than competent. It is a confessional narrative, told by a Pakistani to an American in a restaurant in Lahore. The anguished first-person self-revelation is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’, but Hamid’s Changez is a fundamentally balanced character. It’s the times, and the empire, that are out of joint, and Changez’s story is of righting himself by retreating from America. Educated at Princeton and working for a company which values businesses due to be sold off and stripped, Changez finds himself smiling when he sees TV reportage of the twin towers falling. This prompts a deepening examination of his identity, his allegiances, and his relationship with America. Parallels are implied between Muslim countries and the doomed employees of the companies Changez evaluates. The key here is not religion, but corporate capitalism and traumatic economic change. Changez’s boss Jim says, “We came from places that were wasting away.” He means, on the one hand, Pakistan, and on the other, old industrial America. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a catchy but not very apt title. There is very little theology in the book. By the end of the story Changez is not at all an Islamist, but discovers he has to oppose the corporate American empire in order to remain mentally and morally healthy.

There’s plenty of on-target comment about American reaction to September 11th. Like this: “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolour but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know – but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether – if it could indeed be animated – it contained a part written for someone like me.”

The attack on the empire makes Changez aware of America as an empire. The final straw for him is when he hears someone describing the Janissaries, the Christian slaves taken as boys from their parents by the Ottoman empire and turned into an elite warrior class to defend the sultan. Is Changez a latter-day reversed Janissary?

In an effective subplot, Changez has an almost-girlfriend who is obsessed by the memory of her dead boyfriend. In her depression, “She glowed with something not unlike the fervour of the devout.” Themes of nostalgia and commingled, confused identities seep into other parts of the novel, where they are relevant to Changez, Pakistan, and America. These are the correspondences and suggested patterns that novel writing is all about. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ deals profoundly with politics without needing to limit itself to political discourse, and so succeeds as a novel. The novel is the most holistic form there is, in that it treats spirituality, identity, sex, politics, and so on, without drawing ideological lines between them. In that respect, the novel is a specimen of life.

Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani who studied and worked in America and now lives in London. He has the cross-cultural experience to write a novel like this. But is it ridiculous to expect a more monocultural Anglo-Saxon writer to approach similar themes – of empire and resistance, of defensive nostalgia and confident self-reinvention – without resorting to stereotype and media cliché? Is a broader perspective really so difficult?

Monday, November 26, 2007


Response to Creative Syria’s discussion of Syrian regional alliances (see previous post) was dominated by arguments about democracy between an Israeli poster and others. The Israeli accused anybody who supported any aspect of Syrian government policy of being an apologist for dictatorship, and there, unfortunately, the debate stuck. If you agree with an undemocratic regime, he implied, you are not worth listening to. Here I will write a little against the propagandist uses and religious idealisation of the word ‘democracy,’ a word considered as little and used as injudiciously as the word ‘terrorism.’

First there is the irony of a Zionist lecturing us about democracy. We often hear the preposterous claim that Israel should be defended because it is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ when in fact it is an ethno-democracy or an apartheid democracy. Israeli state apparatus rules over a population equally split between Jews and Arabs. The ‘Arab Israelis’ are at best second class citizens, disadvantaged and under threat of transfer. (There are 20 laws which discriminate against the Arab Israeli minority. For more information visit The oppressed Arabs of the occupied West Bank and Gaza only have voting rights in a non-existent state. And this vaunted state of human freedom is possible because most of the indigenous inhabitants of Israel-Palestine have been driven into exile. Establishing a state for the Jews in an Arab country and then calling it a democracy has been one of the blackest jokes of modern history.

Beyond that there are the pervasive Western assumptions that the current system of government in the United States is the model and endpoint of human freedom, that it must be universally applied, and that it is the only form of human organisation of any value. Democracy is good and civilised; anything else is evil and barbaric. These are some of the assumptions responsible for the tragedy in Iraq, and they underly a great deal of nonsense in the global (still West-dominated) media.

The notion that only democracies can offer people the freedom to excel is simply absurd. Elizabethan England, Islamic Spain, the Roman Empire, and the Sumerian city states were not democracies. The Old Testament prophets, the Buddha, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were not produced by democracies.

The original democracy of Athens was not particularly democratic because slaves and women played no role in decision-making. However, given that ‘people’ was defined as ‘free men’, there was ‘rule by the people’ in that decisions were made collectively following a debate contributed to by everybody. Athens and similar Greek cities were small enough that every free male, or at least every head of household, could meet in the theatre to argue and make suggestions.

Tribal shura (consultation) in premodern Beduin societies approached this pure democracy, as did some workers’ councils, for a month or two, in revolutionary Russia, Italy and elsewhere. But such direct popular contribution to decision-making is obviously an impossibility in complex modern states made up of millions of diverse individuals. ‘Democracy’ is reduced to ‘representation’, and this in practice means putting a mark on a piece of paper every four, five or seven years. It is a testament to the power of ruling ideology that some people leave the voting booth feeling that their pencil mark has altered their nation’s destiny.

Now let us briefly examine what is called democracy by the nation that wants to export it as the final, finished product of human history. In the United States the most important positions except for the presidency are held by unelected officials. National security advisers, military strategists, financial planners and supreme court judges are all appointees. Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger never had to stand for election.

Those who do stand are selected more for their physical characteristics and acting skills than for their ideas and experience. Fundraising is more important than winning debates. Hysterical rallies, with rock music soundtracks and plenty of balloons, and the ability of a campaign team to associate their candidate with a fairytale grand narrative like ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘defeating evil’ count for more than detailed discussion of the real world. Elections are a spectacle to dazzle the people, those gullible enough to take them seriously. Such democracy, like anything else in this form of late capitalism, is a product to be consumed. Thomas Jefferson said, “No people can be both ignorant and free,” and the mass of the American population is kept ignorant by the combined efforts of the media and the public education system. Famously, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussain was responsible for the September 11th attacks. The fact that American heads are crammed with celebrity gossip, TV plots and brand names ensures a system in which the scum rises to the top.

The corporations own the two political parties, the presidential candidates, and the big TV stations and newspapers that cover them. This is not surprising. It would be naïve to expect the corporations to leave the world’s largest economy and military complex in the hands of the people. As in other ‘first world’ countries the range of debate is severely limited. A propagandistic consensus has been manufactured (to paraphrase Chomsky) on the economy (a ‘free market’ which is actually corporate controlled) and ‘security.’ Anyone who points beyond the limits of acceptable discourse is mocked or, more effectively, ignored. The result, as my grandfather used to say, is that whoever you vote for, the government always wins.

As soon as there is the possibility of any real change, or any real threat, ‘democracy’ shows its teeth. When the Black Panthers started to take their constitutional right to bear arms seriously, and to make links between the position of Blacks in America and that of other oppressed groups throughout the world, the state resorted to violent repression. I don’t accept the Syrian regime’s excuse for emergency rule – that the country is under attack – but the excuse does stand up better in Syria, with the Golan occupied and America and Israel threatening further war, with war on the eastern and south-western borders and chronic instability to the west, than it does in the United States. There it took one day of explosions for detention without trial and torture to be normalised, and for the Patriot Act to be ‘democratically’ passed by Congress. This awards the American government the freedom to read its citizens’ emails and keep files on which library books they consult.

More than 7 million Americans are in prison, on probation or on parole, a greater proportion of people than in any other country, and a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are poor and black. Blacks made up 45% of the prison population in 2002. More young black men experience prison than experience college. The American democracy seems to function as well for Black Americans as the Israeli democracy functions for Arab Israelis. If China or Saudi Arabia imprisoned similar numbers of an ethnic minority the Western media would rightly call it persecution.

Surely we need to step back from the word ‘democracy’ and examine the more meaningful concepts of law and rights. If a nation votes to invade another country, or to eradicate the Gypsies, must we regard its democratic choice as lawful?

We need to subscribe to the idea that people, and families, and communities, and nations, have the right not to be interfered with. The mirage of democracy obscures this bedrock of lawfulness.

We need also to establish as a principle of international relations that systems of government are not universally applicable, and that nations must be free to develop their own governments according to their own circumstances. In countries where loyalty to the official bureaucratic state identity is weak (which may not be a bad thing) people will feel loyalty primarily to their tribe, sect or ethnicity. In such countries, democracy in the Western sense may not be a wise idea. Sri Lanka, for instance, has always been populated by Tamil and Sinhala communities. When the modern state inherited ‘majority rule’ from the British, the more numerous Sinhalese defined the country as a Sinhalese homeland. Alienated Tamils became secessionist, and years of bloody war ensued. It would have been better to allow both communities to build institutions, to have a large degree of autonomy, and to coexist in a borderless island.

What we call ‘democracy’ exists most comfortably in nation states which have popular legitimacy and internal consistency, in which issues of tribe and sect have been settled. In most cases this has been achieved at the end of a long process of civil war and ethnic cleansing. America passed through the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants, revolutionary war, slavery, civil war, and the civil rights movement to reach its present imperfect state.

Democracy functioned – with severe hiccups – in Syria until the United Arab Republic, but this unwise and unequal union with Nasser’s dictatorship was at first wildly popular in Syria, precisely because ‘Syria’ in its reduced and mangled post-colonial form lacked legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.

This is not to say that democracy is not an admirable aim. I wish America really supported Middle Eastern democracy as it claims. If it did, it would have to talk to Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, shut down its military bases in the region, switch its favour from the Saud monarchs to the Iranian parliament, and so on. Greater informed control of the people over the political process, the economy and the environment is desirable in every country of the world, and most crucially in what is still for a while the world’s most powerful country, America.

On Blacks incarcerated in the US:

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Syria's Regional Alliances

CreativeSyria (see the link on the left) organises a 'Creative Forum' where bloggers consider an aspect of Syrian politics. This time the topic is Syria's regional alliances. My contribution, which I copy below, is on CreativeSyria along with several more opinions. I think Wassim's is excellent, far more comprehensive than mine. But here's mine:

For a time the pattern of alliances in the Middle East was organised into monarchical-conservative and republican-nationalist camps. Following the 1991 Kuwait war, there was a realignment which pitted a Saudi-Syrian-Egyptian alliance against a disgraced and battered Baathist Iraq and its perceived allies such as the Jordanian monarchy. Because the Damascus Declaration countries were the three key Arab mashreq states, some pretence at the centrality of Arab alliances in the region was still possible. But since the 2003 invasion and subsequent dismantling of Iraq a new set up seems firmly established. On one side stands Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas; on the other Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14th Lebanese, Mahmoud Abbas, and (implicitly) Israel.

The current regional division is often misleadingly cast in sectarian terms, despite the Syrian regime’s secularism and Hamas being a Sunni organisation. It is much more useful to understand these opposing alliances in terms of those who welcome US-Zionist hegemony underpinned by American military bases, control of resources and the unfettered penetration of regional economies by Western capital, and those who refuse to submit. It is my opinion that Syria is on the right side in this. In any case, she couldn’t be on the other side even if she wanted, unless she surrendered her right to the Golan and her principled opposition to the occupations in Palestine and Iraq.

The exception to this pro- or anti-US pattern is Syria’s deepening alliance with Turkey, a NATO member which hosts an important American military base at Ceyhan and cooperates militarily and economically with Israel. Although Turkey has been moving inevitably away from the West and towards the Arabs since the invasion of Iraq, the strength of the Syrian-Turkish relationship is Bashaar al-Asad’s achievement. Bashaar has calmed tensions over Wilayat Iskenderoon (Hatay) and retreated from his father’s support for Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK. As individuals, the Syrian president and especially his wife are said to be popular with the Turkish public.

Jalal Talabani’s recent criticism of Bashaar for supporting a potential Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of PKK fighters rings hollow, as Talabani encouraged the American invasion of Iraq on the pretext (amongst others) of chasing terrorist groups resident there. Syria’s Iraqi alliances are complex and usually intelligent, seeking to gain influence with all camps in the fractured country but tending to back more nationalist as opposed to separatist currents.

Despite its Arabism, Syria has always been prepared to go against the grain of Arab alliances in what it perceives as the true interests of Arab causes. Syria had the honour of being the only Arab state to support revolutionary Iran against Saddam Hussain’s barbarous Western-backed attack. Despite some conflicts of interest in Iraq, and despite the very different nature of the two regimes, Syria and Iran have preserved and developed their alliance. This is certainly a good thing. Whatever the future of the current clerical regime, Iran will continue to be a regional heavyweight, with a large population of well-educated people, with a crucial geo-strategic position and a wealth of resources. I know from my visit to the country that the alliance with Syria is popular even with opponents of the mullahs.

Syria’s regional allies are well-organised forces which will remain key players in the region indefinitely. Iran is one example of this, and Turkey, with its huge and growing economic power and connections to Europe and central Asia, is another. Hizbullah is by far the best-organised, deeply rooted and efficient political force in Lebanon, and perhaps the second most effective military force in the area after Israel. Indeed, despite Israel’s continuing technological superiority (which translates into a superior ability to kill civilians and destroy infrastructure), and despite the political-sectarian traps limiting its capacities domestically, the fact that Hizbullah frustrated all of Israel’s war aims in the summer of 2006 remains a matter of pivotal importance in the region and the world.

It is interesting that Syria’s regional allies are much more likely than her enemies to be democracies or semi-democracies. Iran is by no means a perfect democracy, but it is more democratic than any Arab state, with elections in which real issues are discussed. Arab visitors to the country will be impressed by the vociferous and often fearless political and religious debates happening in every tea house. Now that Turkey seems to be reconciling some of its worst contradictions – with the emergence of a moderate, modernising Islamist government which is as popular amongst Kurds as it is with ethnic Turks – it is the most democratic state in the region. (Unlike many Western propagandists, I do not consider Israel’s ethno-democracy, in which half the people ruled over by Israel are disenfranchised, to be ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’) Hizbullah has a clear democratic mandate, as does Hamas.

Syria itself, while usually tolerant in sectarian and ethnic terms, continues to suppress pluralist politics and democratic debate. This does not mean, however, that public opinion counts for nothing in Syria. In fact, unlike the US-backed Arab states, Syria is beholden to public opinion for its legitimacy and long term survival. It is therefore no accident that its regional allies tend to be democratic forces.

In terms of Syria’s relationships with ‘great powers,’ not much can be done while America continues to pursue its unrelenting pro-Israel bias, and while most of Europe trails behind America. There are, however, steadily expanding trade and military ties with Russia and China, and these ties are sustainable because both of these states seek to erode American dominance in the medium to long term. America remains by far the greatest world power, but it is also in constant decline.

Syria has a great deal of work to do domestically on human rights, corruption, and the economy. If some branch or other of the regime was responsible for the Hariri assassination, they made a colossal and unforgivable blunder (I can’t believe Syria is responsible for the string of assassinations since then). But in the field of its regional alliances, Syria is on the right track.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tony Blair

I’ve often thought that Abu Hamza al-Masri, the ex-imam of Finsbury Park mosque, must have been designed in a CIA laboratory. Not only did he – before his imprisonment – fulminate in a shower of spittle against various brands of kuffar, he also had an eye patch and a hook for a hand. You can’t imagine a more photogenic Islamist villain.

If my supposition is correct, then Tony Blair may well have been invented by the Iranian secret service, for of all the neo-cons he’s the one who most looks the part. I refer to the physiognomic combination of weakness and fury, the slight chin wobbling beneath that eye with its wild glint of certainty – the staring left eye, fixed on something the rest of us can’t see, something that makes reality irrelevant – and the teeth both fierce and mouselike, and the shininess of both forehead and suit. Most politicians wear suits, but few suits declare ‘hollow salesman’ so much as Blair’s. The voice too – the hurried speech and breathy tones of a public schoolboy approaching orgasm – that repulsive aural mix of complacency, stubbornness and privilege.

I remember with embarrassment my euphoria when he became prime minister in 1997. I watched the election results roll in with a group of Britons in Damascus. A bottle of champagne was opened, not so much to annoint Blair as to celebrate the passing of the Tories. In any case, I soon regretted as naivety my assumption that British politics had improved. I admit that I didn’t live in Britain for any of the Blair years and so may have missed the benefits of his rule. It is true that he presided over a period of British history in which the wild consumerism of the 80s was tempered by more responsible social policies, and in which the economy grew steadily. How much of this was down to Blair and his crew and how much to wider economic trends is debatable. It is true that whenever I visited London I found it increasingly prosperous and increasingly culturally buoyant (and also increasingly expensive). It is also true that Blair oversaw a successful peace process in Northern Ireland, although the process was started by John Major and succeeded because of the commitment of Mo Mowlam and the compromises of Northern Irish players.

Where Blair went astronomically, criminally wrong was in his foreign policy, and this poisoned domestic policy too. The Iraq invasion led directly to a new terrorism crisis to replace the IRA threat (there are other causes – inner city identity politics gone wrong, the racial and economic alienation of some Muslim communities, Wahhabi penetration of some mosques – but the unwarranted attack on Iraq is the major cause). The terrorism crisis led to a dramatic rise in Islamophobia, a trend which was encouraged by Blair and his friends (like Jack Straw) to deflect attention away from their crimes in Muslim countries. The resulting tension is a shame, to say the least. It had seemed, before 2003, that Britain was solving its racial problems to a large extent. London was markedly less racist and ghettoised than, for instance, Paris. Blair’s people, the media and the war have finished that. And in the new climate Blair’s people revealed themselves more often as neo-con thugs. Ex-Trotskyist John Reid, for instance, called for the Geneva Conventions to be rewritten so that Western militaries would not be hindered in their noble work in the third world. The Conventions were written in the aftermath of the Second World War, after all, when the world was a quainter place, when our enemies were benign Nazis who were only occasionally naughty with their death camps and slave labour programmes, with their scorched earth operations wiping out tens of millions of Slavs. These days we face Islamofascism, an altogether less moral enemy.

Such idiocy arises from the alliance with the empire. Of course, the alliance with America predates Blair. I was once, in the Major years, invited to a party at the British embassy in Damascus. I went along prepared for a fight, and verbally attacked the first diplomat I could find. After a few minutes of ranting I stopped, bewildered because the diplomat was nodding in assent. “You’re meant to be disagreeing,” I told him. “You represent British policy in the Middle East.” He replied that he personally agreed with almost everything I was saying, and that most of his colleagues would too, but that they had been told in London before they started their mission that Britain has no policy in the Middle East except to do what America asks it to do. I don’t think the average Briton would be pleased to hear this.

Britain and America are linked by language, culture and history, especially by imperial history. There is a sense in some quarters that the British Empire never really disappeared, just that its capital moved from London to Washington. And there are more practical reasons for British loyalty. After the Second World War Britain was bankrupt and dependent on American loans, which were not paid off until 2006. As well as the financial debt there may be others, with regard to Britain’s unnecessary nuclear weapons, or Northern Ireland (Britain suffered surprisingly little pressure from America on this issue, especially when you consider how many well-placed Irish-American supporters of Irish republicanism there were). Margaret Thatcher made the flawed but comprehensible argument that Europe had brought two world wars to Britain while America had twice rescued the country. America kept quiet when Thatcher pursued her squalid war in the Falklands, and she allowed American planes from British bases to bomb Libya. But Blair took the special relationship further than ever before, and it was Blair who crystallised and personified Britain’s poodle image: lightweight, tongue out, salivating. Before Blair Britain was not much liked in the Middle East, but it was respected. Over the last decade I’ve seen all Middle Eastern respect for Britain dissolve.

I spent the first two months of the Iraq invasion in Britain, having been evacuated from my teaching job at the British Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This was fortuitous because it allowed me to see my English grandfather at the end of his life. The night the invasion began he stopped sleeping, and didn’t sleep again until he died. He had always slept well, and I asked him why not tonight. His answer was: “I could hear the angels weeping for the British people.” I asked why, and he replied, “It’s the first time in my life we’ve attacked a country for absolutely no reason at all.” I didn’t argue, but I thought at first he was wrong. His life had lasted for 94 years after all, in which time there had been Suez, and the Falklands, and the 91 Gulf War. But I later saw what he meant. In all those conflicts, however wrong the decision to go to war, there was some potential reward for some small section of British society, or some aspect of legality to be upheld, or some question of credibility or reputation. The invasion of Iraq, however, potentially benefitted only American corporations and the state of Israel. Apart perhaps from a few companies of mercenaries, Britain and the British could only lose.

Blair’s case for war was based on lies. When the lies were exposed he shifted his discourse to one of human rights and democracy, and kept it there even as the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and Iraq descended into civil war and gang rule. At no point did Blair apologise or express regret. With a peculiarly American-imperial arrogance, he let us know that God would be his judge, and that God would judge kindly. This tendency towards religiously-sanctioned violence is one way in which he brought British politics closer than ever before to the American model. Another was his appointment of an unelected Zionist lobbyist as envoy to the Middle East – businessman Lord Levy.

Blair revealed himself as an unredeemable hypocrite during his visit to Gaza in November 2001. A planned demonstration outside to mourn the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration was banned. Rather than apologise for Balfour, Blair lectured his occupied Palestinian audience on the immorality of political violence. No cause, however just you think it is, justifies killing. That’s what he told the untermenschen, and at the very same moment British planes were dropping bombs on Afghan peasants. Blair betrayed no sense of irony whatsoever.

When he resigned as prime minister Blair became the Quartet’s ‘special envoy to the peace process.’ The Quartet, lest we forget, is the joke pretending to be ‘the international community,’ and includes the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia. Anyway, it was only the US that wanted the poodle to play this role. And the ‘peace process,’ lest we forget, is the process by which the Palestinians are encouraged to peacefully accept the loss of what remains of their land and their rights. Blair now claims to be ‘shocked’ by conditions on the West Bank. In order to improve them he has expressed further understanding of Israeli security concerns. In order to help the Palestinians build democratic institutions so that one day they may deserve a little more bread, he has refused to meet the democratically-elected representatives of the Palestinians.

A couple of weeks ago Blair gave a speech in New York on the “deadly ideology” of Islamism. He said: “This ideology now has a state, Iran, that is prepared to back and finance terror in the pursuit of destabilising countries whose people wish to live in peace.” So even out of office, Blair plays the role of backing Bush’s war plans. And the hypocrisy continues to balloon. Which countries does Iran seek to destabilise? Perhaps Iraq, destabilised by the brutal Anglo-American invasion, and by pro-Western Saudi Arabia’s support for Wahhabi groups. Perhaps Palestine, totally destroyed by Zionism. Perhaps Lebanon, where Iran’s ally Hizbullah is the most deeply-rooted political organisation. Britain’s political and military support for the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006 was blatant, as Blair worked with the US to scupper ceasefires – until Israel began to beg for one. Indeed, people in all of these countries wish to live in peace, which is why many of them would like more Iranian involvement and less from Blair.

Now there is talk of appointing Blair to the newly-invented post of president of the EU. Do Europeans want to be represented by someone who has failed so much, someone who is so very ugly, with so much blood on his hands?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden squeezed his face back onto our screens at the start of Ramadan. This time, probably advised by his American follower Adam Gadahn, he tailored his discourse to a Western audience, and tainted by association the good names of Noam Chomsky and the anti-globalisation movement. Before Ramadan ends, let me talk briefly about bin Laden and those associated with him.

Still when bin Laden’s name is mentioned in many parts of the Arab world, although less so than a couple of years ago, a cheer goes up. Let’s hope that Martin Amis never reads this; he would see it as proof of his thesis that all Muslims are Wahhabi-nihilists. But cheering for bin Laden is like waving a flag or, more accurately, waving two fingers. It doesn’t mean that the cheering people would like to be ruled by bin Laden or that they subscribe to his programme, as they admit when questioned. Many of these ‘supporters’ would be killed if bin Laden could get his hands on them, either for being ‘heretics’ – like my Ibadhi Muslim students here in Oman – or for being ‘apostates’ – like the men in a bar in Aleppo in the following anecdote. These drinkers were well into their third or fourth bottle of araq when bin Laden came on the TV screen. “I swear by almighty God,” said Osama, his finger wagging, “that the Americans will not sleep soundly in their beds until the children of Palestine sleep soundly in theirs!” Immediately the men surged to their feet and held their glasses towards the TV image. “Kassak!” they roared – which means “Your glass!” or “Cheers!”

This story says it all. Beyond the tiny hard core of Wahhabi-nihilists, bin Laden won sympathy in the Arab world because the Arabs will support anyone who talks tough against America and Israel. This is a symptom of the frustration and impotence felt by the Arabs, and the utter failure of their leaders to stand against Zionist and imperialist oppression in the region. Cheering for bin Laden is the equivalent of the protest vote. And inasmuch as al-Qa’ida targets America, the victim does not behave in a way designed to win sympathy. Before they had time to consider the implications of the September 11th attacks, many Arabs were impressed that this superpower which routinely trashed Muslim cities could be so dramatically humiliated. Central New York looked like Baghdad or Gaza, and to many that was an understandable cause for celebration. People in China and Latin America also celebrated September 11th. I’ve even heard – from a friend who was living in California at the time – that some Black and Hispanic Americans were gleeful about the attacks.

Then the mainstream American reaction to the attacks in the following weeks and months redoubled hatred of the United States. Americans should have asked themselves the following questions: What has provoked this attack? Why have we supported dictators and toppled popular governments in the Muslim world and elsewhere? Why do we encourage Israel in its aggression and oppression? Why do we have military bases all over the Arab world against the wishes of the people there? How could Madeleine Albright have said that the sanctions-related deaths of more than a million Iraqi children was “worth it”? Why did we cover Mesopotamia with Depleted Uranium in 1991, the effects of which include galloping cancer rates and record-breaking levels of birth deformities? At the very least, why have we been funding people like bin Laden and the Taliban? But instead of engaging in a process of self-questioning, America swallowed the line ‘they hate our freedom’. Instead of using its suffering to better understand the suffering of others, America demanded that the world recognise September 11th as uniquely terrible, as if American victims matter more than those from other countries. Instead of dedicating resources to police work to arrest bin Laden and his associates, America bombed and bribed its way to forming another, slightly different, client government in Afghanistan, and then laid plans for the disastrous invasion and dismantling of Iraq.

So I don’t find Arab cheering for bin Laden difficult to understand. But it is misguided and stupid, for the following reasons:

First, bin Laden’s analysis of the problems faced by the Muslims is simplistic and wrong. The governments and corporations which attack Muslim countries may use anti-Muslim or pro-Christian propaganda to sway public opinion in their own countries, but the conflict is not about religion. Iraq is about oil, and restructuring a controlled economy for penetration by Western capital, and securing Israeli-colonial hegemony in the region. Afghanistan is about gas pipelines. It isn’t about Crusaders and Jews versus Muslims. Arab and Muslim rulers are usually on George Bush’s side, whatever they say in public. Many Christians – in the Arab world and in the West – have struggled against American and Israeli policies. Some of the most articulate and bravest anti-Zionists – people like Ilan Pappe and Norman Finkelstein – are Jews. If Muslims substitute aggressive identity politics for clear-sighted analysis they will remain in their current disastrous situation indefinitely.

Second, whether knowingly or not, Osama bin Laden helps the imperialist agenda. The so-called ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan was in fact an American war fought by Muslim proxies against the Soviet Union. Osama was the CIA’s man in Peshawar, receiving American money and weapons and distributing them to Arab ‘mujahideen’ as they arrived to fight. We don’t need to get bogged down in conspiracy theories to see that the September 11th attacks were a gift to that section of the American ruling class which wanted to rearrange the Middle East and Central Asia for the benefit of American capital. The neo-con Project for the New American Century report ‘Rebuilding America's Defenses,’ published in 2000, said that the American people would oppose these plans unless there were “some catastrophic and catalysing event – like a new Pearl Harbour.” September 11th gave them what they needed.

Serving power is a fixed pattern for bin Laden. By scaring the Arab public with their atrocities, al-Qa’ida have discredited opposition movements. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, the Saudi regime had become tremendously unpopular amongst both liberal and Islamist Saudis. The middle classes were starting to organise on the internet and even in small public demonstrations, while rumours spread of assassinations of officials and minor royals in the provinces. Then a series of senseless al-Qa’ida attacks on residential compounds – in one case the brave mujahideen slaughtered a group of Lebanese children whose parents were out shopping for ’Eid presents – decided the Saudi people in favour of sticking with the devil they know, and so shored up the regime.

Iraq is of course the most obvious case of a national opposition movement being undermined by Wahhabi-nihilist violence. There are many reasons why Sunnis and Shias have failed to unite against the occupation, but the most important was Zarqawi’s (Osama’s man) campaign of car and suicide bombs against civilian Shia targets. Look at the different responses of Shia Iraqis to the first and second American assaults on Fallujah. During the first attack, Shia clerics led protests against America and sent supplies of weapons, food and medicine to the besieged city. During the second attack, Shia clerics were either silent or said the Fallujans were getting what they deserved. The change was a result of al-Qa’ida violence against the Iraqis they described as Saffavids or apostates.

Which brings us to the third reason why Muslims should reject bin Laden: his promotion of sectarianism, this curse which keeps the Muslims divided and weak, and which distracts their attention from the real causes of their suffering. In Lebanon and Iraq, even in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Muslims would be in a position to win battles against tyranny and imperialism if they were not crippled by sectarian ‘fitna.’ There is no religious justification for it. Al-Ghazali – surely a better authority than a Saudi playboy millionaire – showed that ‘takfir’ or declaring Muslims to be non-Muslims was unjustifiable. Many contemporary fatwas have made the same point. See the Amman Statement: The Prophet Muhammad said “Difference of opinion is a blessing,” and counselled polite and calm debate when interpretations differ.

Fourthly, the Taliban regime which bin Laden funded and advised is an example of the kind of government he believes in and wants to see spread. The Taliban’s most lasting achievement was to demonstrate the supposed barbarism of the Muslims to the West. The Taliban murdered tens of thousands of civilians for being Shia, or for being Hazara and not Pushtoon. They made it illegal for women to leave the house even to visit the doctor. They banned kite-flying, music and games of chess, as well as ‘un-Islamic haircuts.’ In an astounding act of cultural vandalism, they blew up the statues of the Buddha at Bamyan. This is not Islam but savagery, and an insult to the long record of Islamic civilisation in central Asia.

Fifth, as well as serving the enemies of the Muslim peoples, the brand of jihad practised by those inspired by bin Laden is immoral and un-Islamic. The laws of jihad-as-war agreed upon by the classical scholars state that jihad must be defensive, that non-combatants must not be harmed, that the officials of all religions must be protected, that the environment and property must not be destroyed. If Muslims wish to follow the rule of barbaric reciprocity in war, the rule of ‘you kill civilians in our countries, we’ll kill civilians in yours,’ they should not describe their actions as jihad. They should call what they do ‘politics’ or ‘war’, and not besmirch Islam.

I think this goes even for those acts of violence against civilian targets carried out by non-Wahhabi-nihilist groups such as Hamas. I remember Abdul‘Aziz ar-Rantisi, before his assassination, admitting that “many red lines have been crossed in this conflict.” It would have been better for him to go a step further and declare that the suicide bombings that Hamas were then carrying out were not sanctioned by Islam, but were acts of war against a merciless enemy that killed Palestinian civilians on a grand scale. If he’d separated the conflict from appeals to Islam and concentrated on pointing out the hypocrisy of the terrorist label, he’d have received a more sympathetic hearing around the world.

When suicide bombing became a tactic in south Lebanon (where Christians did it as well as Muslims, against the Israeli occupation) and Palestine, it was understood in the Arab world that this was a weapon of last resort for people who had tried everything else, from passive resistance to calling on the ‘international community’, and for people who were totally outgunned. Al-Qa’ida, on the other hand, has made suicide bombing a weapon of first resort, and built a psychotic ideology around it. Perhaps the September 11th attacks, though un-Islamic and immoral, can to some extent be politically justified in that they hit targets symbolic of American capital and militarism, but attacks on trains and buses in Madrid and London defy all logic as well as morality and religion. How can attacks on working people using public transport serve any agenda at all? And using Muslim citizens or residents of Western countries to do the killing helps Islamophobes to put into question the future of Muslim communities in those countries.

So there’s my opinion. Forgive me if I’ve made Arab support for bin Ladenism seem greater than it is. The people who do cheer are young, poorly educated and, as I’ve said, don’t usually mean much by it. And the tragedy of civil war in Iraq has made even these hotheads think hard about the attractiveness of the longbeard loon.

This blog has become more heavily Islamic over Ramadan. But Eid is on its way, and I’ll get back to other topics. I hope my fasting readers have had a fruitful month. For me the great thing this year is that I haven’t had a cluster of migraines, and so have been able to get into the spirit of the thing. I’ve lost weight, thought more carefully about what I eat, learnt more about being a body, understood that I can read well but not write on an empty stomach, profited from many excellent iftar conversations with friends, strengthened my self-discipline ... I haven't done much praying or visiting the mosque, and I haven’t managed to be wonderfully well-behaved at all times.

kul aam wa antum bi alf khair … Eid Mubarak

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Ramadan Reflection

Verse 18 of Sura 39 of the Qur’an says:

“Those who listen to the Word (the Qur’an) and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided and those are the ones endowed with understanding.”

Or, in Muhammad Asad’s translation:

Those “who listen closely to all that is said, and follow the best of it: it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are truly endowed with insight!”

Muhammad Asad’s translation is wonderful both for the language and for the erudite and open minded notes which take on board classical Islamic scholarship as well as modern intellectual currents. (Asad, born Leopold Weiss, was a fascinating figure. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a posting to him one day). Here is his note on this verse:

“According to Razi, this describes people who examine every religious proposition (in the widest sense of this term) in the light of their own reason, accepting that which their mind finds to be valid or possible, and rejecting all that does not measure up to the test of reason. In Razi’s words, the above verse expresses “a praise and commendation of following the evidence supplied by one’s reason (hujjat al-‘aql), and of reaching one’s conclusions in accordance with the results of critical examination (nazar) and logical inference (istidlal).” A somewhat similar view is advanced, albeit in simpler terms, by Tabari.”

This Qur’anic verse is one of many which point to the need for complex and flexible interpretations of scripture. For most of Islamic history Muslims have answered the call of this book – “for people who think” – to the best of their ability. In the contemporary period too there are many Muslims who endeavour to interpret the text in the best way according to reason and conscience and current conditions in the world, far more Muslims than either the western or eastern media notice. But it is clear that Islam, especially in its traditional heartlands, is in crisis. The reasons for this are material – socio-economic and political. But the religious ramifications are dramatic. Traditional scholarship has got stuck in the late medieval period, and has often failed to make itself relevant to the transformed conditions we live in now. Sufiism has frequently degenerated into superstition presided over by corrupt hereditary ‘holy men.’ ‘Knowledge’ and ‘science’ have become ever more narrowly defined.

There has been a deserved backlash against traditional scholarship and Sufiism, and the backlash has led to both liberal and, more often, literalist re-readings of the Qur’an. By ignoring Islam’s rich interpretive tradition, and because of the traumatic nature of Muslim modernity, the backlash has often produced unhinged and destructive ideology.

In the hope of encouraging more Muslims to think more deeply about these necessary issues I take the liberty of publishing two important articles here. First, Abdal-Hakim Murad condemns the Wahhabi rejection of traditional scholarship. Then Ziauddin Sardar is more radical, showing the failures of a traditional scholarship which has given up ijtihad (reasoned production of new legislation according to Islamic principles) and become stagnant. My own position is perhaps closer to Sardar’s, on this point at least. I think traditional scholarship is important, but it needs to be revivified. The gates of ijtihad need to be reopened. We all need to be better educated. We need to reclaim our right to interpret, and to flexibly apply Islamic principles, to take this right back from the state-sponsored muftis and ulama ignorant of the contemporary world.

Bin Laden’s violence is a heresy against Islam
By Abdal-Hakim Murad.

In what sense were the World Trade Centre bombers members of Islam? This question has been sidelined by many Western analysts impatient with the niceties of theology; but it may be the key to understanding the recent attacks, and assessing the long-term prospects for peace in the Muslim world.

Certainly, neither bin Laden nor his principal associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are graduates of Islamic universities or seminaries. And so their proclamations ignore 14 centuries of Muslim scholarship, and instead take the form of lists of anti-American grievances and of Koranic quotations referring to early Muslim wars against Arab idolators. These are followed by the conclusion that all Americans, civilian and military, are to be wiped off the face of the Earth.

All this amounts to an odd and extreme violation of the normal methods of Islamic scholarship. Had the authors of such fatwas [non-binding legal opinions] followed the norms of their religion, they would have had to acknowledge that no school of traditional Islam allows the targeting of civilians. An insurrectionist who kills non-combatants is guilty of ‘baghy’, ‘armed transgression’, a capital offence in Islamic law. A jihad can be proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; anything else is pure vigilantism.

Defining orthodoxy in the mainstream Sunni version of Islam is difficult because the tradition has an egalitarian streak which makes it reluctant to produce hierarchies. Theologians and muftis emerge through the careful approval of their teachers, not because a formal teaching licence has been given them by a church-like institution.
Despite this apparent informality, there is such a thing as normal Sunni Muslim doctrine. It has been expressed fairly consistently down the centuries as a belief system derived from the Muslim scriptures by generations of learned comment. Until a few decades ago, a Koranic commentary containing the author’s personal views would have been dismissed as outrageous.

The strangeness as well as the extremity of the New York attacks has been reflected in the strenuous denunciations we have heard from Muslim leaders around the world. For them, this has been a rare moment of unity. Mohammed Tantawi, rector of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the highest institution of learning in the Sunni world, has bitterly condemned the outrages. In Shi’ite Iran, Ayatollah Kashani called the attacks “catastrophic”, and demanded a global mobilisation against the culprits. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, normally well known for its indecision, unanimously condemned “these savage and criminal acts”.

Why should apparently devout Muslims have defied the unanimous verdict of Islamic law? The reasons - and the blame - are to be found on both sides of the divide which, according to bin Laden, utterly separates the West from Islam. On the Western side, a reluctance to challenge the Israeli occupation of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem has unquestionably contributed to the sidelining of mainstream Muslim voices in the Middle East. Those voices, speaking cautiously from ancient religious universities and venerable mosques, have been reluctant to exploit, rather than calm, the hatred of the masses for Israeli policy, and thus for the United States. This perceived failure to make a difference has allowed wilder, more intransigent voices to gain credibility in a way that would have been unimaginable before the capture of Arab Jerusalem in 1967.
It is unfair and simplistic, however, to claim that it is Western policy that lit the fuse for last month’s events. Without a theological position justifying the rejection of the mainstream position, the frustration with orthodoxy would have led to a frustration with religion - and then to a search for secular responses.

That alternative theology does, however, exist. While Saudi Arabia itself has been consistent in its opposition to terrorism, it has also on occasion unwittingly nurtured revolutionary religious views. Before the explosion of oil wealth in the 1960s, its Wahhabi creed was largely unnoticed by the wider Islamic world. Those erudite Muslims who did know about Wahhabism typically dismissed it as simple-minded Bedouin puritanism with nothing to add to their central activity - exploring Muslim strategies of accommodation with the modern world.

When I myself studied theology at Al-Azhar, we were told that Wahhabism was heretical - not only because of issues such as its insistence that the Koranic talk of God’s likeness to humanity was to be taken literally, but also because it implied a radical rejection of all Muslim scholarship. Grey-bearded sheikhs departed from their usual imperturbability to denounce the tragic consequences for Islam of the claim that every believer should interpret the scriptures according to his own lights. This sort of radical move leads to liberal re-readings of the Koran, as in the case of the South African theologian Farid Esack, who has horrified traditionalists by advocating homosexual rights among Muslims. Much more commonly, however, it allows young men whose anger has been aroused by American policy in the Middle East to ignore the scholarly consensus about the meaning of the Koran, and read their own frustrations into the text.

Another result of this rejection of traditional Islam has been the notion that political power should be in the hands of men of religion. When he came to power in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini remarked that he had achieved something utterly without precedent in Islamic history. The Taliban, by ruling directly rather than advising hereditary rulers, have similarly combined the ‘sword’ and the ‘pen.’ Far from being a traditionalist move, this is a new departure for Islam, and mainstream scholarship regards it with deep suspicion.

Islamic civilisation has in the past proved capable of, for the times, extraordinary feats of toleration. Under the Muslims, medieval Spain became a haven for diverse religions and sects. Following the Christian reconquest, the Inquisition eliminated all dissent. The notion that Islamic civilisation is inherently less capable of tolerance and compassion than any other is hard to square with the facts. Muslims nonetheless have to face the challenge posed by the new heresies. The Muslim world can ill afford to lapse into bigotry at a point in history when dialogue and conviviality have never been more important.

It is a relief that the mainstream theologians have come out so unanimously against the terrorists. What we must now ask them is to campaign more strongly against the aberrant doctrines that underpin them.

Both ‘sides’, therefore, have a responsibility to act. The West must drain the swamp of rage by securing a fair resolution of the Palestinian tragedy. But it is the responsibility of the Islamic world to defeat the terrorist aberration theologically.

Rethinking Islam
By Professor Ziauddin Sardar

Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious attempt at Ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam. At the beginning of the last century, Jamaluddin Afghani and Mohammad Abduh led the call for a new Ijtihad; and along the way many notable intellectuals, academics and sages have added to this plea - not least Mohammad Iqbal, Malik bin Nabbi and Abdul Qadir Audah. Yet, ijtihad is one thing Muslim societies have singularly failed to undertake. Why?

The why has now acquired an added urgency. Just look around the Muslim world and see how far we have travelled away from the ideals and spirit of Islam. Far from being a liberating force, a kinetic social, cultural and intellectual dynamics for equality, justice and humane values, Islam seems to have acquired a pathological strain. Indeed, it seems to me that we have internalised all those historic and contemporary western representations of Islam and Muslims that have been demonising us for centuries. We now actually wear the garb, I have to confess, of the very demons that the West has been projecting on our collective personality.

But to blame the West, or a notion of instrumental modernity that is all but alien to us, would be a lazy option. True, the West, and particularly America, has a great deal to answer for. And Muslims are quick to point a finger at the injustices committed by American and European foreign policies and hegemonic tendencies. However, that is only a part, and in my opinion not an insurmountable part, of the malaise. Hegemony is not always imposed; sometimes, it is invited. The internal situation within Islam is an open invitation.

We have failed to respond to the summons to Ijtihad for some very profound reasons. Prime amongst these is the fact that the context of our sacred texts – the Qur’an and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, our absolute frame of reference – has been frozen in history. One can only have an interpretative relationship with a text – even more so if the text is perceived to be eternal. But if the interpretative context of the text is never our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly have any real meaning or significance for us as we are now. Historic interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and ossified context of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticised contexts that have not even existed in history. This is why while Muslims have a strong emotional attachment to Islam, Islam per se, as a worldview and system of ethics, has little or no direct relevance to their daily lives apart from the obvious concerns of rituals and worship. Ijtihad and fresh thinking have not been possible because there is no context within which they can actually take place.

The freezing of interpretation, the closure of ‘the gates of ijtihad’, has had a devastating effect on Muslim thought and action. In particular, it has produced what I can only describe as three metaphysical catastrophes: the elevation of the Shari`ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State. Let me elaborate.

Most Muslims consider the Shari`ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’, to be divine. Yet, there is nothing divine about the Shari`ah. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shari`ah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context. This is why the bulk of the Shari`ah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when fiqh assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim society of the Abbasid period. At that juncture, Muslim history was in its expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the Qur'an but from this logic. Moreover, the world was simple and could easily be divided into black and white: hence, the division of the world into Daral Islam and Daral Harb. Furthermore, as the framers of law were not by this stage managers of society, the law became merely theory which could not be modified - the framers of the law were unable to see where the faults lay and what aspect of the law needed fresh thinking and reformulation. Thus fiqh, as we know it today, evolved on the basis of a division between those who were governing and set themselves apart from society and those who were framing the law; the epistemological assumptions of a ‘golden’ phase of Muslim history also came into play. When we describe the Shari`ah as divine, we actually provide divine sanctions for the rulings of by-gone fiqh.
What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the Shari`ah – the demands of Muslims from Indonesia to Nigeria - the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of fiqh come to the fore. That is why wherever the Shari`ah is imposed – that is, fiqhi legislation is applied, out of context from the time when it was formulated and out of step with ours - Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We can see that in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and the Taliban of Afghanistan. When narrow adherence to fiqh, to the dictates of this or that school of thought, whether it has any relevance to real world or not, becomes the norm, ossification sets in. The Shari`ah will solve all our problems becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group with vested interest in this notion of the Shari`ah to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the Shari`ah, and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine nature.

The elevation of the Shari`ah to the divine level also means the believers themselves have no agency: since The Law is a priori given people themselves have nothing to do expect to follow it. Believers thus become passive receivers rather than active seekers of truth. In reality, the Shari`ah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values, that provide Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not a static given but are dynamically derived within changing contexts. As such, the Shari`ah is a problem-solving methodology rather than law. It requires the believers to exert themselves and constantly reinterpret the Qur’an and look at the life of the Prophet Muhammad with ever changing fresh eyes. Indeed, the Qur’an has to be reinterpreted from epoch to epoch – which means the Shari`ah, and by extension Islam itself, has to be reformulated with changing contexts. The only thing that remains constant in Islam is the text of the Qur’an itself – its concepts providing the anchor for ever changing interpretations.

Islam is not so much a religion but an integrative worldview: that is to say, it integrates all aspects of reality by providing a moral perspective on every aspect of human endeavour. Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all human problems; it provides a moral and just perspective within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers to all human problems. But if everything is a priori given, in the shape of a divine Shari`ah, then Islam is reduced to a totalistic ideology. Indeed, this is exactly what the Islamic movements – in particularly Jamaat-e-Islami (both Pakistani and Indian varieties) and the Muslim Brotherhood – have reduced Islam to. Which brings me to the third metaphysical catastrophe. Place this ideology within a nation state, with divinely attributed Shari`ah at its centre, and you have an ‘Islamic state’. All contemporary ‘Islamic states’, from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan to aspiring Pakistan, are based on this ridiculous assumption. But once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of a vested group, it looses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where morality, reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the alter of emotions. Moreover, the step from a totalistic ideology to a totalitarian order where every human-situation is open to state-arbitration is a small one. The transformation of Islam into a state-based political ideology not only deprives it of its all moral and ethical content, it also debunks most of Muslim history as un-Islamic. Invariably, when Islamists rediscover a ‘golden’ past, they do so only in order to disdain the present and mock the future. All we are left with is messianic chaos, as we saw so vividly in the Taliban regime, where all politics as the domain of action is paralysed and meaningless pieties become the foundational truth of the state.

The totalitarian vision of Islam as a State thus transforms Muslim politics into a metaphysics: in such an enterprise, every action can be justified as ‘Islamic’ by the dictates of political expediency as we witnessed in revolutionary Iran.
The three metaphysical catastrophes are accentuated by an overall process of reduction that has become the norm in Muslim societies. The reductive process itself is also not new; but now it has reached such an absurd state that the very ideas that are supposed to take Muslims societies towards humane values now actually take them in the opposite direction. From the subtle beauty of a perennial challenge to construct justice through mercy and compassion, we get mechanistic formulae fixated with the extremes repeated by people convinced they have no duty to think for themselves because all questions have been answered for them by the classical `ulamas, far better men long dead. And because everything carries the brand name of Islam, to question it, or argue against it, is tantamount to voting for sin.

The process of reduction started with the very notion of `alim (scholar) itself. Just who is an `alim; what makes him an authority? In early Islam, an `alim was anyone who acquired `ilm, or knowledge, which was itself described in a broad sense. We can see that in the early classifications of knowledge by such scholars as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Ibn Khuldun. Indeed, both the definition of knowledge and its classification was a major intellectual activity in classical Islam. So all learned men, scientists as well as philosophers, scholars as well as theologians, constituted the `ulama. But after the ‘gates of ijtihad’ were closed during the Abbasid era, ilm was increasingly reduced to religious knowledge and the `ulama came to constitute only religious scholars.
Similarly, the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad himself as leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim community – then, admittedly not very large – to the mosque. A discussion would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over time the clerics and religious scholars have removed the people from the equation – and reduced ijma to ‘the consensus of the religious scholars’. Not surprisingly, authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world. The political domain finds its model in what has become the accepted practice and metier of the authoritatively ‘religious’ adepts, those who claim the monopoly of exposition of Islam. Obscurantist Mullahs, in the guise of the `ulama, dominate Muslim societies and circumscribe them with fanaticism and absurdly reductive logic.

Numerous other concepts have gone through similar process of reduction. The concept of Ummah, the global spiritual community of Muslims, has been reduced to the ideals of a nation state: ‘my country right or wrong’ has been transpose to read ‘my Ummah right or wrong’. So even despots like Saddam Hussein are now defended on the basis of ‘Ummah consciousness’ and ‘unity of the Ummah’. Jihad has now been reduced to the single meaning of ‘Holy War’. This translation is perverse not only because the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components have been stripped away, but it has been reduced to war by any means, including terrorism. So anyone can now declare jihad on anyone, without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason. Nothing could be more perverted, or pathologically more distant from the initial meaning of jihad. It’s other connotations, including personal struggle, intellectual endeavour, and social construction have all but evaporated. Istislah, normally rendered as ‘public interest’ and a major source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness. And Ijtihad, as I have suggested, has now been reduced to little more than a pious desire.
But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad are brandied about. What the late Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman called the ‘atomistic’ treatment of the Qur’an is now the norm: almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verses out of context. After the September 11 event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an. In this particular verse, the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It was revealed during the battle of Uhud, when the small and ill equipped army of the Prophet, faced a much larger and well-equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified with the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what was happening at that time. Similarly hadiths are quoted to justify the most extremes of behaviour. And the Prophet’s own appearance, his beard and cloths, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform to dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols – the spirit of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The accumulative effect of the metaphysical catastrophes and endless reduction has transformed the cherished tenants of Islam into instruments of militant expediency and moral bankruptcy. For over two decades, in books like The Future of Muslim Civilisation (1979) and Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come (1985), I have been arguing that Muslim civilisation is now so fragmented and shattered that we have to rebuild it, ‘brick by brick’. It is now obvious that Islam itself has to be rethought, idea by idea. We need to begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth, on what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor the intellectual and moral reflexes that promote these necessities. Like the rest of humanity, we have to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred notions and concepts as tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary reality.

The way to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires confronting the metaphysical catastrophes and moving away from reduction to synthesis. Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and communities, to reclaim agency: to insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable people, to interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam: to question what now goes under the general rubric of Shari`ah, to declare that much of fiqh is now dangerously obsolete, to stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state. We cannot, if we really value our faith, leave its exposition in the hands of under educated elites, religious scholars whose lack of comprehension of the contemporary world is usually matched only by their disdain and contempt for all its ideas and cultural products. Islam has been permitted to languish as the professional domain of people more familiar with the world of the eleventh century than the twenty-first century we now inhabit. And we cannot allow this class to bury the noble idea of Ijtihad into frozen and distant history.

Ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions and considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs of Islam must reclaim the basic concepts of Islam and reframe them in a broader context. Ijma must mean consensus of all citizens leading to participatory and accountable governance. Jihad must be understood in its complete spiritual meaning as the struggle for peace and justice as a lived reality for all people everywhere. And the notion of the Ummah must be refined so it becomes something more than a mere reductive abstraction. As Anwar Ibrahim has argued, the Ummah is not ‘merely the community of all those who profess to be Muslims’; rather, it is a ‘moral conception of how Muslims should become a community in relation to each other, other communities and the natural world’. Which means Ummah incorporates not just the Muslims, but justice seeking and oppressed people everywhere. In a sense, the movement towards synthesis is an advance towards the primary meaning and message of Islam – as a moral and ethical way of looking and shaping the world, as a domain of peaceful civic culture, a participatory endeavour, and a holistic mode of knowing, being and doing.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Statement of Belief

I’m a Muslim in that I feel allegiance to the Muslims as a people. It’s not a blind patriotism. I don’t feel allegiance to any particular sect, doctrine or government. As a member of this cultural group (or groups), somebody who lives with and sympathises with and loves many believing Muslims and their overwhelmingly warm and humane culture, I recognise that the Qur’an is the source text that is crucial to us. We do with it what we can. The range of what we’ve done throughout history is astounding.

There is the Islam of the Sultan and the Islam of the Sufi. The Sultan’s rulebook religion, the god-idol that fits into the human mind. And the Sufi’s tradition of peaceful wandering, of poverty, of shrines and poetry, of Qawwali songs and intoxication. It is the latter that attracts me, the Sufi’s but not the Sultan’s Islam. The Islam of Hallaj, not of the authorities who mutilated and murdered him.

If you ask which Islam is inspired by the Qur’an, I must reply that both are.

I am Marxist enough to believe that religions are for the most part products of the material conditions from which they arise. Islam arose from a culture of Beduin raiding and enforced tribal consensus, and yet managed to move beyond this to something new, still pointing further to possibilities for future development. I believe it is possible, but by no means inevitable, for Muslims of the present and future to make an Islamic society better than the society made by the Prophet’s companions.

I love the implications of ‘la illaha illa allah’ – there is no god but God – an-noor, al-haqq, the Light, the Real. Nothing worthy of worship except the Real – not money nor nation, not race nor Sultan, not idol nor ideology.

I love the centrality to Islam of tawheed – the unity from which multiplicity arises – and I see evolution and Big Bang theory as expressions of the same principle.

I love ‘alhumdulillah’ – the praise of the Real and gratefulness to it for this mystery and our experience of it.

Sometimes I sense God and the divine patterning emanating from Him. And sometimes I don’t.

I hope without certainty for the afterlife.

The certainty of the static believer and the certainty of the atheist are equally distant from me.

My fundamental position is one of radical agnosis, not a wishy-washy refusal to make my mind up but a recognition that my mind matters little. This state of unknowing is the basis of mysticism and humility and is paradoxically described by some as knowledge. Dhu’ n-Noon said, “To ponder the essence of God is ignorance, and to point to Him is shirk (idolatrous association), and real gnosis is bewilderment.”

What I believe today is not necessarily what I’ll believe tomorrow. If I am unknowable to myself, how can I know God?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Amis Again

Amis is at it again. In an essay in the London Times he’s had another rabid go at Islamism. ( Previously he has told us that the battle of ideas in the Muslim world is over, and that extremism and literalism have won, everywhere. He’s also told us that a doorkeeper at the Aqsa mosque wanted to kill his mother. His evidence? He just knew it to be so.

We should be thankful, perhaps, that there has been a slight development in his position. This time Amis is able to distinguish, just, between Islamists with a comprehensible agenda like Nasrallah and Ismail Hanniyeh on the one hand and nihilists like Bin Laden on the other. He even begins to recognise that, in Wahhabi-nihilist violence, “what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.” Perhaps there’s hope for him. He may be a rancid Islamophobe and a fiction writer crippled by the contempt in which he holds his characters, but to his credit he has opposed the idiocy of the Iraq war, and he is clearly a clever man. It may be that continually spewing venom about Muslims onto paper will lead eventually to a nuanced perspective on the Muslim world.

But it’s more likely that his commitment to Zionism will stop this happening. His latest essay mocks the third world Arabs for being defeated by little Israel. (But last summer’s war with Hizbullah suggests that the age of defeat is coming to an end.) Amis scorns the Arab world for calling the 1948 catastrophe a catastrophe (nakba), and implies that the ethnic cleansing and occupation of Palestine doesn’t matter, because little Israel covers only 0.6% of Arab land. I’m not sure what he means by Israel here, if the 0.6% of Arab land refers to the borders determined by an imperial United Nations in 1947, or the land captured in 1948, or all of the land now controlled by Israel. The point is that 100% of Palestine has gone. If Amis wants to ignore Palestine and see this in terms of the Arab world, we could ask what percentage of the Anglo-Saxon world is covered by Greater London. The Anglo-Saxon world covers the deserts of Australia and the prairies of Canada, and I’m sure that Greater London makes up less than 0.6% of it. So I presume that if invaders drove out the population of London and made it their exclusive ethnic property, supposedly for all eternity, Amis would not consider this to be a catastrophe. He would sneer at Londoners and their sympathisers for calling it a catastrophe. Of course, London is important not for the amount of space it takes up but for its cultural and economic power. Palestine is holy land for Muslims and Christians too, and is central to Arab history. It is one of the few fertile areas in the Arab world, and it bridges Syria and Egypt.

Amis can’t distinguish between Arab and Muslim, and says the key psychological problem posed to Arabs by the establishment of the Jewish state is that Muslims have been promised victory by God, and through Israel God has humiliated them. This is shoddy thinking, not only because Christian Arabs have been engaged in the struggle against Zionism. It is only in the last ten years that the struggle has been cast, unfortunately, in religious terms. Before that the language employed by most Arabs to describe their problems with Israel was nationalist and anti-imperialist.

Amis describes Islamism as a fanatical death cult. Already he has forgotten his recognition that there are different types of Islamism, but if he means Wahhabi nihilism, I agree with him. The problem is that he wants us to magnify the cult to a status equal to Nazism and Bolshevism. He wants us to ignore the Palestinian tragedy – the refugees, the tens of thousands dead in the West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon, the brutal occupation – and simultaneously to exaggerate al-Qa’ida violence against Westerners to earth-shaking proportions.

We don’t need to call it 9/11, he says, September 11th will do. In fact, just September. The murderousness of it is big enough to be iconic, to wipe everything else out of consciousness. But on another September 11th the democratic government of Chile was toppled by a US-backed military coup, and thousands were tortured and killed. In another September the puppet king of Jordan attacked the Palestinian camps in his country, killing thousands.

For Amis, some killing isn’t worth remembering. Only the killing which afflicts Western cities deserves the force of his literary pyrotechnics.

I previously had a go at Amis here:

Terry Eagleton on Amis: