Monday, May 21, 2007

Blaming Syria .. Fisk and Others

Up to seventy people have been killed so far in Lebanon’s most violent internal battle since the end of the civil war. On one side are the Wahhabi militants of Fateh al-Islam, Palestinians, Lebanese, Saudis and others, based in Tripoli’s Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared. On the other is the Lebanese army, with the support of most Lebanese and Palestinians.

Very sadly, very ominously, Wahhabi nihilists are expanding their reach. In recent weeks there have been al-Qa’ida linked bomb attacks in Morocco and Algeria, and hundreds of arrests in Saudi Arabia when a plot to attack infrastructure was allegedly uncovered. In Iraq, Wahhabi car bombings and beheadings continue, with Sunnis now as likely to be the victims as Shia. In Afghanistan and Pakistan al-Qa’ida increases its power. The nihilists are sometimes confused with genuine resistance against occupation (in Afghanistan and Iraq) or against dictatorship (in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia), but in fact their presence confuses and weakens resistance.

There are many reasons for the growing al-Qa’ida phenomenon, some of which I have discussed previously. They include past and present American, Saudi and Pakistani promotion of Wahhabi groups to trouble the Soviet Union, revolutionary Iran and Arab nationalism, and the collapse of traditional patterns of social belonging and religious observance in large parts of the Muslim world, and the poverty of education in many Muslim countries, and the brutalisation caused by both dictatorship and occupation. Then ample funding from private donors in the Gulf as well as Wahhabism’s long term supporters (see above) married to nihilistic ruthlessness can make a small group of fighters extremely effective. In Nahr el-Bared there are an estimated couple of hundred fighters, but it will be almost impossible for the Lebanese army to arrest or kill them without a politically impossible and bloody invasion of the camp.

What is not in doubt is that the nihilist phenomenon is widespread, complex and dangerous. As usual, however, some people are resorting to simplistic, propagandist explanations. In the case of the Nahr el-Bared battle, Lebanese government officials and large sections of the media are blaming the Syrian regime, without providing any proof. It’s true that Fatah al-Islam’s parent organisation was Syrian sponsored, a creation of the divisions among the Lebanese-based Palestinians following the expulsion of PLO forces by Israel in 1982, but Fateh al-Islam broke away from the parent organisation a long time ago. There is far more evidence that Fateh al-Islam is being helped by Syria’s enemies. Seymour Hersh’s recent investigation, published in the New Yorker, suggested that Saad al-Hariri, among others in the wealthy Lebanese Sunni establishment, is helping to channel American funds to Wahhabi groups to counter the influence of Shia Hizbullah.

Robert Fisk in the Independent writes “it is difficult not to feel Syria’s hand these days.” His evidence for Syrian involvement in Nahr el-Bared? The Syrian border is “scarcely ten miles away.” Which brings me to my problems with Fisk. There is no question that he has been the best-connected, best-informed and bravest of British Middle East correspondents, and that he has often been fearless in calling a spade a spade when it comes to Israeli crimes. Most Western journalists in the region can’t even speak Arabic, so we should be grateful for Fisk. He’s been better than the rest, but latterly, still not good enough. During last summer’s onslaught on Lebanon he kept reminding his readers that Hizbullah’s border incursion and hostage-taking had ‘provoked’ the Israeli attack, without mentioning the more than 10, 000 border violations by Israel in the previous six years, or the Lebanese hostages. He didn’t change his tune even when Olmert announced that Israel had prepared the attack months in advance, months before the supposed provocation.

Fisk once wrote very convincingly of how Western journalists may become biased in the Middle East, before politics and money come into play, for simple cultural reasons. Anglo-Saxons, he said, will naturally feel more at home with Israeli friends who eat the same kind of food, watch the same kind of TV shows, and so on, than with Palestinians in their mosques and camps. French journalists will naturally sympathise with Lebanese Maronites, who speak French, listen to French music, and worship in Catholic churches. And now it seems that something similar has happened to Fisk, who was so personally moved when his friend Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated. (There is a good case to be made for Syrian guilt in the Hariri assassination, but there are other arguments too, and Fisk has not aired them.) Fisk has become uncritically supportive of the Lebanese Sunni and Druze establishment and its perspectives. In the stand-off between the government and opposition, it is clear where he stands. Stooping low, he tells us again and again how “intelligent” war-criminal Waleed Junblatt is, and, worse, how “glorious” Junblatt’s wife.

I put it down to exhaustion, and perhaps to fame. The poor man has seen more than his share of blood, from the Iran-Iraq war to Sabra and Shatila. He’s been shot at on numerous occasions and beaten up by Afghan refugees from Anglo-American bombing. He’s written at least one excellent book (“Pity the Nation” on the Lebanese war – I haven’t read his latest) and it is time for him to have a dignified rest. But not to rest on his laurels. Too much of his newspaper journalism now looks like a blog: his moral and emotional responses to events are as important as the events themselves. He uses the phrase “of course” in nearly every paragraph. He goes on about his old dad and his mother Peggy. He consistently refers to Blair as “Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara” – which is vaguely funny, but suited to satire rather than reportage. I have become tired of reading articles which I know will give me Fisk’s opinion rather than fresh information, which will degenerate into ‘why, o why?’ and ‘if they’d only asked me.’

Back to Syria. There are plenty of good reasons to condemn the Syrian dictatorship, such as its staggering capacity for corruption and its abuses of human rights. The recent imprisonment of intellectuals like Anwar Bunni and Michel Kilo simply for expressing their opinions will have horrified all true friends of the country. For all I know (because I’m no expert on intelligence matters) Syrian officials may be playing a stupid and dirty game in Nahr el-Bared. But there is no evidence for it, not yet, and there are better explanations. People who illogically blame Syria for absolutely everything that goes wrong in the region, providing no proof whatsoever, lose their credibility. In Iraq’s al-Anbar, the Sunni resistance has now realised that its first enemy is al-Qa’ida style Wahhabism. It would be nice if the so-called Sunni leadership in Lebanon could do the same, in this case at least, and stop playing anti-Syrian politics.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Segolene Royal has been much criticised for warning that the French ‘banlieu’ will riot if Sarkozy, the interior minister who called banlieu inhabitants ‘racaille’ (‘scum’), is elected president. The banlieu is prone to riot anyway. Why?

Well, here are a few personal anecdotes. The stories are 15 years old, so are not directly relevant to Sarkozy, but explain something of the racist background to France’s social problems.

One: I was walking one evening in Paris with an upper-middle class English friend, whose mother is Malaysian. I’m an English Arab, but white-skinned and blue-eyed. Out of nowhere arrived two policemen. With no warning they grabbed my friend, threw him against a wall, pushed a truncheon against his throat until he was choking and weeping. They took me round the corner and asked why I was walking with him.

Two: I had a French girlfriend of Algerian origin, also white and not noticeably Arab, who was being harassed by an insane neighbour. She was scared, so we went to the police station to inform them of the situation. The police were polite and concerned. They wrote everything down. But when they asked my girlfriend’s name, their tone changed radically. They scrumpled up the report sheet, told us no offence had been committed, and advised us to get out immediately.

That girlfriend remembered her old maths teacher ordering her to the back of the classroom with the rest of the Arabs and Africans because, as the teacher explained, “I’m employed by the French state to teach French children.”

Her father had escaped from the extreme poverty of his (French-occupied) Algerian childhood to France, where he spent a lifetime as a migrant labourer, suffering casual and brutal violence from foremen and police – and then inflicting some himself, in his impotence, on his own family. When they finally settled in an industrial town, he found work in a factory where he would train white teenagers to do his dangerous, lowest-of-the-low job, and then watch them promoted after a couple of months to brighter and better things.

In Paris I had an African friend who for a time lived in a slum building with other African families. One day a skinhead threw a teargas canister into the corridor where children were playing. The police weren’t interested. They clearly had more important things to do with their time. The same friend was stopped almost every day by police on his way to work, insulted, and ordered to show his papers.

These scorned and abused French citizens, the blacks and beurs who work in the worst jobs for the lowest pay, who live in the ‘rabbit cages’ of the urban wasteland, who have the least representation, whose voices are not heard, are supposedly the omnipotent Islamic fiends who threaten to destroy French secularism, the whole French way of life, and whose clothing choices must therefore, for the sake of freedom, be sanctioned by the state. (To his credit, Sarkozy did not support the ban on hijab in schools.)

The fact that the French were still using torture and prison camps for civilians in Algeria in the 60s in an attempt to hold on to their empire, and that an ex-Vichy police chief (Maurice Papon) at the same time dealt with demonstrating pro-independence Algerians in Paris by tieing their feet and throwing them into the Seine, suggests that France has got savage racial prejudice to blame, primarily, for its social problems. The bodies-in-the-Seine incident happened in October 1961. At least 200 civilians were murdered, a crime in which the French media collaborated by its silence and concealment.

It’s certainly the case that many young French Arabs and Africans are somewhat raggamuffin, but extreme alienation and marginalisation tends to have that result. Besides, if white men in France have a couple of years off the rails they are not in danger of being shot by the police. When I was there, beurs and blacks were shot in the back every couple of months. This was considered normal. It certainly didn’t result in soul-searching by the white population.

It is the complex of racism and class oppression which has made the French innercities unbearable. The real 'racaille' are those who blame the victims.

See this link for information on the 1961 massacre: