Monday, August 27, 2007

The End of the Arabs? Part One

Peter W. Galbraith’s book ‘The End of Iraq’ argues the initially persuasive thesis that Iraqis have already divided themselves into three separate countries roughly corresponding to the Ottoman provinces of Basra (the Shii Arab south), Baghdad (the Sunni Arab centre) and Mosul (the Kurdish north), and that American attempts to keep the country unified are bound to fail. I agree wholeheartedly with Galbraith’s call for America to withdraw from Iraq – America is incapable of stopping the civil war, and is in fact exacerbating it. The rest of his argument is much more debatable.

For a start, he minimises the extent to which the US occupation has contributed to the disintegration of Iraq. I do not wish to deny the sectarian and ethnic fractures which exist in Iraq and other Arab countries, but it is reasonable to expect that any country, having suffered dictatorship, war, sanctions, and then the overnight collapse of all its institutions, would enter a period of chaos and division. Galbraith accurately records Western support for Saddam Hussain throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when he was gassing Kurds, and the American refusal to intervene when Republican Guards were slaughtering southern Shia in 1991 (the massacres happened under the eyes of American forces occupying the south at the end of the Kuwait war). He describes the criminal failure in 2003 of the occupying forces to stop the looting and burning of every ministry except the oil ministry, of military arsenals and even yellowcake uranium stocks the Americans claimed to be so concerned about in the run-up to the invasion, and of the national museum and national library. (He doesn’t examine claims made at the time by Robert Fisk and others that masked men with Kuwaiti accents were bussed in to certain ministries to set fires professionally.) The attack on Iraq’s – and the world’s – heritage is of course a cultural crime far greater than the despicable Taliban destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues. Bombing and looting ravaged what was left of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. The Iraqi state was destroyed within the first week of occupation, long before the sectarian killing began.

Galbraith charitably calls incompetence what may more realistically be seen as deliberate divide and rule policies. Certainly arrogance, stupidity and corruption have played a large role – the arrogance and stupidity which allowed Americans to park their tanks on the ruins of Sumerian cities; the corruption which allowed Halliburton to profit by the billion from reconstruction which never happened, and which put Americans in their early twenties, and with no knowledge or experience of Iraq, in charge of entire sectors of the Iraqi economy simply because they were members of the right ‘think tank’ or prayer group. At a certain point, however, it seems na├»ve to put all the mistakes down to incompetence. From the very beginning it was obvious to me and the people I talk to that a violent assault on an Iraq already crippled by war and sanctions would not result in a prosperous, unified democracy. It was obvious that every ‘mistake’ made would further damage national unity. I and my friends are not geniuses, and unlike the neo-conservative and Zionist architects of the invasion, we aren’t paid to study the Middle East.

The immediate and sweeping dissolution of the Ba’ath Party, the army and security forces made it inevitable that people would look to the nearest militia or criminal gang to provide security and material supplies. Before long each area had its dominant gang, and the country was a free competition zone for Shia, Sunni, takfiri, and Kurdish militias, American and British troops, South African and Latin American mercenaries, imported Wahabi nihilists, kidnappers and drug traffickers, and so on. John Negroponte, who had made a career setting up fascist death squads to destabilise leftist democracies in Latin America, was brought in to organise Kurdish and Shia militia into ‘police’ to pacify militantly Sunni towns. Meanwhile, Bremer at one stroke abolished Iraqi economic independence, opening every sector of Iraq to privatisation and foreign control.

These supposed 'mistakes' give us a much clearer picture of the real purposes of the invasion than all the journalistic psychoanalysis of a traumatised post-September 11th America or of its ignorant president. The war was designed as corporate rape of a resource-rich country. Having the Iraqis split into tiny units, each fighting the other and looking for an external sponsor, guarantees that there will be no unified Iraqi force to pose a serious threat to the corporations or their imperial and Zionist facilitators.

Despite the hatreds unleashed by the sectarian war, the number of Arab Iraqis I’ve met who want the disintegration of their country to be formalised is precisely zero. The neat picture ‘The End of Iraq’ presents of three clearcut post-Iraq zones is not realistic. Iraq has splintered into smaller pieces than the three zones Galbraith describes. In the south, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army battle for supremacy. In al-Anbar, the battle is between the tribes, the Ba’ath, and al-Qa’ida. Baghdad, supposedly part of the Sunni zone, has a Shii majority. Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city with a largely Kurdish hinterland. For these cities and other mixed areas such as Diyala and Babil a formalised partition would lead to greatly intensified ethnic cleansing. The horrific bomb attacks which recently killed 500 Yezidi Kurds happened within the context of a forthcoming referendum on which northern areas will join the Kurdish zone.

And if Iraq is allowed to formally splinter, where does the break-up stop? The Arabs of the Jezira in eastern Syria have more in common ethnically, culturally and tribally with the Arabs of al-Anbar than they do with the urban Levantine Arabs of western Syria. There are almost two million Iraqi refugees in Syria, most in Damascus, very many of them Sunnis who have nowhere to return to if Iraq is not put back together. An ethnic-sectarian Sunni state would also pull at the fabric of Jordan, as artificial a state as they come with its three populations of urban Iraqi Sunnis, Jordanian Beduin, and Palestinian refugees. And in Syria, if the Sunnis were to give their allegiance to a sectarian identity, what would stop the Alawis demanding a state in the north west, or the Druze in the Hauran? Which would bring us back to an early French imperial plan for Syria. I could go on, ad infinitum, to prospects for the division of Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and further afield.

Division is a disaster for all but imperialists. If the map must be changed, we should aim for fewer state units, not more. Yet Arabism as manifested so far has clearly failed. I’ll examine why in part two.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"You Muslims!"

This summer my son and I spent a few days in the house of a friend of mine from university days, a friend from a very different background, but a very good friend, very intelligent and very funny, who has always treated me with respect and a great deal of generosity. It was wonderful to see him. The problem was his girlfriend. (Now ex-girlfriend, so I dare write this without jeopardising the friendship).

The first thing she said to my eight-year-old son, after “hello,” was, “Do you feel uncomfortable because I’m not all covered up?” Some minutes later at the dinner table she squeezed her eyes at him and then me, and asked, “What nationality are you?” I should stress here that I’m a native speaker of English, and that my son, although he’s never lived in Britain, has inherited my proper British accent. By now it was apparent that there was an obsessional block in this woman’s head.

A little later my friend (as he does) said something silly about gay people. The girlfriend cast worried glances at me, then my son, and said in the childish tone some people adopt when instructing children, “I think gay people are great!” These educative comments continued, quite irrelevantly. The most absurd, aimed meaningfully at my little boy, was “I really enjoy getting drunk sometimes!” Normally I would argue back, but I was in the very uncomfortable position of being a guest in my friend’s house. Anyway, my son was grown-up enough to understand that this strange woman had a strange agenda.

By the end of the meal she told me, “I think you should bring your daughter next time. It would be fairer.” I had actually offered to bring my daughter to London, but she preferred to go straight to our destination in Scotland with her mother. And she’s only five, so long walks around London would not have been practical.

Later still the girlfriend asked, out of the blue, “Do you have to pray eight times a day?”

This is a woman who achieved a first class degree at Oxford.

Next morning at breakfast the talk was of the alleged car bombs discovered in central London (apparently containing explosives and nails but no detonators). I said the way terrorism works is by causing disproportionate fear, so I was more scared that my son would be hurt by a bomb as we walked through London that day than by a car, although logically I knew he was more likely to be hit by a car. “What?” she exploded (her detonator was well attached). “How can you possibly say it’s disproportionate?” A few moments later she was shouting at me. At this point I felt I had to defend myself, so I said my Arab-Islamic background appeared to be provoking her to false assumptions. “Well,” she said. “You haven’t cleared away your dishes. It’s obvious your wife does all the work.”

And there we have it. From her comments we can piece together quite easily what was going through her mind: this Arab Muslim, or more specifically his still malleable son, needs to be educated on the following points: covered women, homosexuality, alcohol, favouritism of sons over daughters, terrorism, the domestic drudgery enforced on women. At no point did she bother asking me what I thought about any of these issues, or what the people thought in the various Muslim countries I’ve lived in. She believed she already knew.

I don’t have a problem with someone initiating a discussion on any contentious Arab or Muslim issue, so long as they genuinely want to listen to what I say. Curiosity is a good thing. I often stop people in the street, especially in London, and ask them what language they’re speaking, where they’re from. I’ve never offended anyone because it’s clear that I’m really interested, and because if I discover differences of perspective or tradition I consider these differences to be enriching (a very traditional Muslim position this, not trendy multiculturalism. The Prophet said, “al-ikhtilaf rahmeh,” meaning “Difference of opinion is a blessing.”)

Problems arise when your interlocutor is motivated not by curiosity but by the certainty of prejudice. My friend’s ex-girlfriend didn’t need to ask my position on women’s rights because she already knows what people like me think of women’s rights. Whatever I said about bombs in London was irrelevant; she knew what murderousness was in my mind.

And when people immediately jump to, and return to, the same Daily Mail – Fox News – Ayaan Hirsi Ali Islamophobic buttons, you begin to wonder what the point is in having a conversation. On the last day of our meditation retreat (see previous posting), when we were allowed to talk, a man opened a conversation with my wife with the words: “The Qur’an says Muslim men are allowed to hit their wives.” I don’t think the man meant to hurt, but there we are, there’s the climate. Muslims in contact with Westerners now face this all the time, whatever their level of education or commitment to their religion. I don’t think that people of Hindu background are immediately asked to justify widow-burning or the caste system. Most Westerners aren’t even aware of a connection between Hinduism and the caste system, and if they’re educated enough to know about it, they also know that religious Hindus like Ghandi campaigned against it. If someone is wearing a cross you don’t immediately express outrage at Saint Paul’s order to burn witches, or the Biblical prohibition of men lying with men.

I recognise this Islamophobic racism because I’ve met it so often. Recently an Australian resident in Oman had a rant at me. “What you Muslims have to realise,” he screamed, “is that killing Muslims who convert to other religions just isn’t on!” I tried to explain that I have no desire to kill anyone for converting to anything, but he literally couldn’t hear me. He knew, much better than I did, that I hated ex-Muslims, women, gays, Jews, Christians, the West. “But I’m from the West!” I spluttered. To no avail. He didn’t listen, and he felt he didn’t need to.

A few days ago a white man arrived at Regent’s Park Mosque, the most important mosque in Britain, and asked to speak to an imam. An attendant took him to the imam and hurried off to bring tea and biscuits, at which point the white man started beating the imam about the head, and then stuck his fingers deep into the imam’s eyes. The imam is now in a critical state in hospital.

When a Muslim writer condemned the attack on the Guardian’s ‘comment is free’ site, tens of readers posted words to the effect of ‘what do you expect, terrorist? If you’d contributed anything but bombs to the world you wouldn’t be attacked!’

Bombs detonated by Wahabi nihilists have killed far more people in Muslim countries than in the West – in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere. When their bombs explode in London or Madrid Muslims are double victims, because they are killed and maimed by the bombs like any other passer-by, and because the hatred of the natives towards them intensifies and becomes more widespread with each attack or alleged plot.

Two of the four bombs which exploded in London on the 7th July 2005 were placed in heavily Muslim areas of the city – Edgware Road, the centre of the Arab community, and Aldgate, the centre of the Bengali community.

This summer’s bomb scares in London and Glasgow led to an immediate upsurge in violence against British Muslims, including firebombings of mosques and a car-ramming of a Muslim-owned shop in Glasgow.

Immediately after September 11th a taboo was imposed in the United States on asking why the attacks happened. At school in Britain I was encouraged to ask why Naziism took over Germany. No-one accused the history teacher of being a Nazi. But in the US after 9/11, linking the attacks to American foreign policy was tantamount to justifying terrorism. For a while there was more space for debate in Britain, but the climate is changing. For many, the question is no longer ‘why are we violently involved in the Muslim world?’, but ‘what is wrong with Islam?’

There is a connection between the Islamophobia of my friend’s ex-girlfriend and violent attacks on British Muslims, in that both arise from essentialising assumptions of Muslims being ‘all the same,’ and of all Muslim violence arising outside of any context, simply because Muslims are violent. Politicians (like Jack Straw, see my posting Hijab/Niqab/Blab at ) and the media bear a lot of responsibility for this. The media talks about ‘Islamic terror,’ but doesn’t describe Zionist attacks motivated by belief in the apartheid Jewish state as ‘Jewish terror.’ It doesn’t talk about the ‘Christian Crusade in Iraq,’ although many supporters of the invasion in America think of it in these terms. More fundamentally, in the absence of coherent oppositional politics (in both the West and the Muslim world) it has been easy for our rulers to shift the debate in essentialist directions. Forget about power and money, bombs are exploding in Baghdad, Jenin, and London because the Muslims are evil, or the Shia, or the Crusaders, or the Jews. So we all hurtle, blaming each other, to the abyss. The rulers hunker down in their gated communities while the proles fight outside.

In a later posting I will ignore taboos and ask why a tiny minority of British Muslims are attracted to al-Qa’ida ideology, and why they might even seek to kill their fellow citizens.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Step Forward

Last summer I spent seven days on a ten-day meditation retreat in England. With the background of the attack on Lebanon, it formed the matter of my first posting on this blog, called ‘Taking a Step Back from Taking a Step Back.’ (see Although I found the meditation itself fascinating and beneficial, the atmosphere at the retreat was poor, and the ‘teaching’ of the guru, Indian industrialist Goenka, was dogmatic, undemocratic and unintelligent. Even slightly cultlike: silence was demanded, but still we heard Goenka chanting on cassette as we tried to meditate; linguistic thought was bad, we weren’t allowed to make notes, read, or ask questions considered impractical, yet listening to Goenka talk for an hour and a half on video every evening was compulsory. Goenkaism makes a big deal of not being a religion, of Buddhism not being a religion, but in actuality it has the full set of taboos and set explanations demanding belief, from reincarnation to the leader figure, to qualify it as a religion in the worst possible sense. I wasn’t looking for a new religion, but for an opportunity to learn more about meditation in a supportive environment. So I left on the seventh day, and I’m very happy I did. I’m also glad I spent the seven days there, but Goenkaism left a bad taste in my mouth.

This summer my wife and I spent a week on a meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon. It has left me questioning all tastes. I mean it was good.

In her opening talk, Martine Batchelor advised retreatants to “be your own teacher.” That sentence alone is heresy for Goenkaism. It set the tone for the week.

Stephen Batchelor, author of “Buddhism Without Beliefs” and former Tibetan and Korean monk, presented a totally demystified and secularised approach to Buddhism. He described reincarnation and karma as part of the Buddha’s historical context in ancient Indian culture rather than as ideas intrinsic to the Buddha’s thought, and enlightenment as an attainable – or to use a metaphor he’d prefer, arrivable-at – goal, a way of experiencing that it is entirely possible to glimpse or inhabit, however temporarily. Batchelor’s Buddhism isn’t a series of propositions to be believed, but a practice, underwritten by a profound agnosticism which is both non-theistic and non-atheistic. Unlike Goenka, Batchelor doesn’t ‘explain’ for you what you’re supposed to be experiencing. Rather, he encourages you to heighten and intensify your state of questioning. Any open-minded Muslim, Christian or atheist could feel at home in this environment. I was fully engaged, intellectually and viscerally. Furthermore, the retreat offered a real ‘mystical’ experience – that of defamiliarisation, or just noticing. That of reversing, however briefly, your domestication.

Gaia House used to be a convent. Beside it is a preserved 16th century church, and a churchyard with graveslabs from the 1800s – providing relevant commentary on the conditioned, contingent, death-bound nature of the present moment. Footpaths run through Devon’s deciduous jungleland and fields. I missed the early afternoon meditation session each day and went for long walks which were themselves meditations. I saw rabbits and squirrels, kestrels and voles. Once I startled a large red deer, only a few metres away from me in a field. Being my own boss like this, making my own timetable, would not be allowed in Goenka’s scheme.

Inside, in the official meditation hall, I sat down to meditate in 45 minute bursts, and was quickly reacquainted with the fictional make-up of much of my thought. All the time my mind pictured people and voices I’d never heard, and which I usually never notice. One of the strangest was a blue eyed face turning suddenly and looking into mine. All the songs, all the staged discussions, all the banal fantasies which my consciousness consists of, or which obscure my consciousness. The songs in particular followed me around as I walked outside, or brushed my teeth, or swept the floor (there was a work hour each day).

Perhaps the songs were resistance to the listening meditation (introduced after breathing and body-awareness meditations), resistance to hearing what is actually here. I found listening meditation particularly effective. I heard the wind swelling and declining in the trees, and rain, birdsong, animals, cars, a plane, the coughs and groans of my and neighbouring bodies, the rhythmic thrum of blood in my ears. It all formed one polyphony, constantly and subtly shifting. At times I became aware of my calculations of distance as an effect that I was staging – every sound was sound waves breaking on my inner ear, however near or far, and although I could feel my ears the sound wasn’t physically present there – the sound was passing unobstructed from without to within, and there was no within, just emptiness. The part of me which categorised sounds as near or far also named sounds as sheep or tractor, and as good or bad – this commentator fishing objects from the stream. And as I practised, as I became a little bored of the commentator, his commentary became quieter and quieter until I was able, for moments at least, to forget about it.

After a listening meditation, although it had been very mundane sitting listening to normal sounds, I would stand up and notice that the veil of familiarity with which the world is usually cloaked, my domesticated perception, had lapsed. In nature there was transfiguration, or more correctly, in me. I wasn’t high; I was on the earth. I wasn’t absorbed in another world; I was properly aware of this one. The detail of trees. A veritably breathing bush. Cold air in contact with my skin. Me, the animal, shivering awareness of my own presence. This is vipassanna, seeing intensely. The meditation practice is the cultivation of vipassanna. Simply experiencing things in themselves rather than through the mediation of my commentary – those voices explaining, contextualising, reducing the real – allowed me a glimpse of wonder.

And Goenka, and so much organised religion, is about ‘explaining’ and therefore reducing and distancing. About commentary instead of reality.

After the listening meditation came a taste of Zen discipline. Stephen Batchelor told the story of a Chinese monk who walked to the monastery of a famous teacher. The teacher asked where the monk had come from, and the monk replied from Mount Song. Then the teacher asked, “But what is this? Where has it come from?” And the monk remained in that monastery for eight years meditating on the question.

It’s a funny-serious story. The meditation technique is simply to ask, once your attention is still, what is this? The aim is not to try to construct answers, but to experience and heighten the sensation of asking. It encourages awe and wonder, what a Muslim might call taqwa or God-consciousness. It’s what I do anyway in my most intensely alive moments, but I found this wonderful questioning resounding more loudly within in the days following the retreat.

Silence was imposed at most times, but free and wide-ranging discussion was permitted in group meetings and in private meetings with the teachers. In any case, the silence was a smiling silence. By the end of the week I felt I’d got to know the other retreatants, without language, without knowing where they came from or what they believed. And I enjoyed talking to them on the last day. There was a refreshing lack of new age people or ideas on this retreat.

My wife said that at the start she categorised these silent people into the ones she liked and the ones she didn’t, but by the end she felt she loved everybody. And another word on my wife’s experience there. She spent a lot of time lying in bed, and she broke the rules to read books – but the place was flexible enough to leave her alone. She’s a more conventional Muslim than I am, but felt very comfortable in the environment, and benefitted from it greatly, so much so that she wishes to return every year.

So I recommend Buddhist meditation to the extent that it isn’t a religion, but a signpost to living more fully in the world, to asking our questions fully. If Islamists can add a dose of Marxist organisation to their Islam without becoming Marxists in a religious sense, I’ll add some Buddha, and Marx (in a different way), some Shakespeare too, and so on, to mine. “Much silence and a good disposition,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “there are no two works better than those.”