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