Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dawkins or McIntosh

I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.

The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.

I have many problems with the Dawkins-Dennet-Hitchens crew, and the first is their rudeness. The ‘new atheists’ pretend to be ‘scientific’, and then engage in sweeping generalisations, sensationalist hysteria and a cultural arrogance which sees all religion, and all religious people, as backward and childish. Of course, the rich West is far less religious than the rest of the world, at least according to conventional definitions of religion, and it is unsurprising that Hitchens supports wars of terror against the non-West.

Despite Hitchens’ love of current conflict, the new atheists claim that war is always caused by religion, not by secular struggles for power and resources. I’ll be as patronising here as the new atheists generally are: that’s precisely what I believed when I was a teenager. I grew out of it as I learned more about the world. I saw, for instance, how parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland used a religious vocabulary, and how the British media explained the conflict with such labels. But a slightly closer examination revealed that the fight had nothing to do with the transubstantiation of the body of Christ or the theological meaning of the Papacy; it was about power, empire, land and civil rights. Of course religion always plays a role in conflict because religion is ultimately entangled with social identity; and since people are inherently religious creatures they will always use religious language to express their strongest emotions. But no war in history, not the Crusades nor the Taliban’s fight against NATO occupation, has religion in the abstract as its cause. Certainly not the belief in God. And the biggest wars and genocides in recent times have been started by self-avowed secular (but just as religious as self-avowed religious) regimes: the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the United States, and so on. The claim that religion is responsible for all war is as absurd as the claim that religion is responsible for all charity.

The new atheists argue that science disproves religion. It is true that a literal belief in, for instance, the creation of the universe in six twenty-four hour periods, is no longer feasible, but most religious people throughout history have understood that such details are metaphors. It’s only one form of fundamentalism (more common in Christianity than in other religions) that insists on the literal truth of such stories. And the question of whether or not there is a governing intelligence in creation is not a matter of empirical evidence but of interpretation of evidence. Several top-level scientists, especially physicists, are religious.

No doubt some of them have had personal experiences, as many of us have, of the telepathic, or of time getting jumbled, or of meeting strange presences. These experiences are real, whatever causes them. They don’t prove or disprove anything, but they are real. An empirical fundamentalist would deny them, but this denial would be a religious choice. He would say: because I know this thing that I see and hear to be untrue, I will ignore it. A bit like a Bible-belt fundamentalist ignoring the fossil record.

Science and religion are different discourses. Neither can disprove the other. Only fundamentalists, atheist as well as religious, confuse the two. Dawkins believes that someone who believes in the virgin birth of Christ should be disqualified from being a scientist. But the believers in miracles know that a miracle is miraculous precisely because it’s an exception, an anomaly. In any case, a lot of the ‘hard science’ marshalled to prove the non-existence of the soul, or the location of a ‘God-spot’ in the brain which produces visions when tickled, is not in fact very hard. “The Spiritual Brain” by neuro-scientist Mario Beauregard shows how some of the more high profile and more absurdly reductive ‘discoveries’ of recent years are based on experiments that can not replicate their results when conditions are changed to eliminate suggestibility in the subjects.

The new atheists believe science is inherently superior to religion because it doesn’t require suspension of disbelief. Scientists who preserve their sense of wonder in the face of reality, however, whether theists like Max Planck or atheists like Einstein, are not ashamed to admit the seeming illogicality and contradictoriness of their discoveries. Perhaps it was Max Planck who said, “If you understand quantum physics, you haven’t understood it.” In order to work with the theory (and it does work in the real world), you need to in fact suspend disbelief, to ignore the illogicalities. What about a particle being a wave at the same time? According to the basics of logic, this is an impossibility. Anyway, religion doesn’t necessarily require suspension of disbelief; it demands engagement.

It strikes me that the most intelligent response to this strange experience of being here, and to the mysteries of time, matter and life, is awe and humility, which translates to a profound agnosticism, a confession that we don’t and can’t understand. The best of religious people have this realisation underlying their leap of faith. Their belief is not an arrogant assertion of personal certainty but a movement of trust. The worst, or most anguished, of religious people, like the extremist atheist crew, are distinguished by their complacent, egotistical and excessively unawed tone.

Western atheists are often blind to the belief systems current in their own milieu. I’ve already mentioned some political religions. The philosopher John Gray in “Black Mass” has shown how Dawkins etc have a very Christian faith in linear history and progress, even if the hero in the story has become a scientist instead of God. The general urge to belief, and beyond belief to ritual and sacred story, is evident all around us. Narcotic plants, drums and dancing are at the root of Shamanic practice, and we find them in combination in night clubs and dancehalls in every Western town. These are churches. Another of the current religions is Celebritism, and I’m not making a cheap point here. The screen is to us what a stained glass window was to Englishmen in previous centuries: it’s a portal to a higher, more authentic realm. Brad Pitt is a psychic superhero. His screen roles and the rumours of his private life merge, and we wish this man we’ve never met well, we worry about his health, we fantasise about him. Brad Pitt inhabits our dreams. What else? In the West we have faith in the trustworthiness of our leaders, even after they’ve been proved to be liars. (This is a religion which doesn’t exist in the Arab world.) Even if we get sick of one president’s lies, we don’t question the background that has thrown him up. We believe in ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘British fairplay’. We become disillusioned with the spokesmen of these articles of faith, but the faith itself continues. Individual magicians are revealed as charlatans and tricksters, but our faith in their magical theory remains untouched.

The greatest religion, the one which generates our whole way of life and – increasingly – death, is consumerism, the system by which we invest meaning and purpose in our purchases, center our dreams around them, measure our success by them. Interestingly, the capitalist acquisitiveness that we think of as materialistic has exploited our spiritual natures very effectively, albeit in a perverse way, and exploting our capacity for addiction at the same time. Marxism, on the other hand, has been as materialist as it possibly could (I mean theoretical Marxism, not the state religions which grew out of it), and thus has arrived at irrational conclusions about the world. The belief in the historical inevitability of socialism is the Christian belief in divine plan revamped. The rigid explanatory doctrine of economic base and ideological superstructure is simplistic and insensitive to reality. People are motivated by symbol, myth and story, and by local belonging, as much as by immediate economic interest. Marxism’s spiritual vacancy has been a key factor in its failure to mobilise popular energy.

At least the various Islamisms represent an attempt (if failed) to understand and accept the ideological background that contemporary Muslim society has come out of. Dawkins doesn’t seem to be aware that he functions in and is a product of an ideological background. He seems to think that he is magically free of ideological conditioning, that Science has raised him on its silver wings out of the realm of assumption and into a realm of pure sight. In this respect, most Islamism is more progressive than Dawkins.

I’m not suggesting the solution to our trouble is to believe again in our traditional religions because, sadly, this is impossible. To believe in a traditional religion is to live a traditional religion. And it is not possible for us to do that if we have left the village of our fathers for a city, if education and media has made our thinking ‘modern’, if we travel and consume and participate at all in the globalised economy. It is the impossibility of traditional life that led to all the fundamentalisms in the first place. A writer telling a ‘modern’ person to believe in traditional religion is like a doctor telling a patient to stop having cancer.

But we need something. We need something better than what we’re managing presently. Capitalism, certainly in its corporate-consumerist phase, is unsustainable both psychologically and environmentally. I believe this is obvious, and that only deep belief structures stop us all from agreeing on it. Resistance to capitalist-imperialist expansion usually expresses itself religiously, or at least spiritually (whether the icon is Che or the Imam Hussain). Politically and personally, we need spirituality if we are to survive the changes coming. Alastair McIntosh has written an excellent book called “Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition” which suggests some ways in which we might begin. I recommend it not only for its message, information and style, but because McIntosh is a fine example of a scientist still capable of flexible thought and feeling.

Monday, August 18, 2008


I read at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 12th. It was a double event, shared between me and Mohammed Hanif, author of the Booker-longlisted novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” Mohammed’s book is a tragi-comic detective story which references Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; and the murderee is General Zia ul-Haqq. (General Musharraf quivers between impeachment and exile as I type). It was great to meet Mohammed, not least because he knows several of the journalists I used to work with in Pakistan. One evening he cooked me a chilli-rich meal. I hope we meet again.

The death that has hung heaviest over the last week is not Zia’s but Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s. It was even a death foretold: the Palestine National Theatre was at Edinburgh performing a play based on the Darwish poem “Jiddariyya”, which concerns mortality and the extinction of identity, and which he wrote after heart surgery. It was a new bout of heart surgery which killed him. Such are the Edinburgh crowds that I failed to see the play. I did see Sabry Hafez give a talk on Darwish, and how the extinction of identity is for Palestinians an immediately concrete threat beyond the universal problem of physical death: Darwish was from a family of ‘mutaselaleen’, Palestinians who crept back across the border into ethnically-cleansed Israel in the months following their expulsion in 1948, and as a result his name could not appear on school registers. I wish I’d seen the play. Also sold out was a film on three screens by Iranian director Abbas Kiastorami. It showed, apparently, a Shia passion play, a taaziyeh for the martyrdom of Hussain, performed in an Iranian village.

On these rainy islands, meanwhile, one of the many vibrant religions is minor-celebritism, in whose honour I will now namecheck those I saw scurrying between the damp tents of the Book Festival. Steven Berkoff (seen, from a distance, struggling into the authors’ toilet) was there. Stimulated by my numinous brush with his presence, I later bought a ticket to see his most famous play, “Greek”, performed by EMER Productions. The play retells the Oedipus myth in London’s East End, and examines, in addition to the obvious sexual-psychological issues, the self-hatred of the working class and its twisted British patriotism. It’s very funny, very stirring, and was very well produced by EMER.

Celebrities. TV presenter Gavin Esler brooded imperially in the author’s yurt. I shook the writer-on-Islam Ziauddin Sardar’s hand. At one point my friend Idrees (of and I were discussing the corruption of the left when it was symbolically enacted before us: Tony Benn was approached by and then warmly shook hands with shaggy-haired patrician-nosed simplistic philosopher AC Grayling.

One minor celebrity that I saw isn’t a celebrity at all (doubtless to her infinite loss). I went to hear Agnes Owens read only because she was introduced by James Kelman, of whom more in a moment. I’d never heard of Agnes Owens in my life. But the three short stories she read were excellent: simply and elgantly told, well observed, funny, each creating from a single bare incident a breathing family or whole society in the hearer’s mind. Kelman’s introduction suggested that the reason I’d never heard of Owens may be related again to the silencing or denial of identity; her characters are Scottish and working class, and her subject matter is prosaic (meaning real). Kelman spoke of the invisible censorship and self-censorship imposed by institutional assumptions of what literature is, in which language it can be expressed, and what it is permitted to talk about. He felt that the problem for Scottish working class writers is most acute in Scotland itself.

And afterwards I shook James Kelman’s hand. I suppose he qualifies for the cult of celebritism because he won the Booker prize in 1994 but, not paying much attention to British arts pages, I hadn’t heard of him until three months ago. I read a review of “Kieron Smith, Boy”, and then read the novel, and was impressed by the consistency of the narrator’s voice. The narrator is a Glaswegian Protestant working class boy between eight and thirteen years old, sympathetic even as he internalises contradictory Scottish-British nationalism, racism, and sectarianism. He also questions what he learns, but not in an abstract way. He worries, because of his Fienian-sounding first name, that he might in fact be a Catholic, and then that God may be angry because he doesn’t cross himself. He worries about being Catholic in the way middle class English boys may worry about being homosexual. The politics in the novel is obvious but not once stated; it’s just life.

Then I read “How Late it Was, How Late”, the novel that won the Booker. It deserved to. The narrator here (although this isn’t simple, because there’s a strange and wonderful shifting between first and third person going on) wakes up blind and amnesiac after a beating by the police. He’s done plenty of time, is paranoid of all authority – very logically, hurts greatly in the most extreme of situations but is never sentimental. Not because Kelman isn’t sentimental but because the character has not an ounce of sentiment. It’s a bit like Kafka and quite a lot like some of Beckett, but for my money still more moving and much funnier. In the next few months I expect to read everything else he’s written. That happens every couple of years: you find a writer who you then must read all of. Tolstoy or Bellow or Kelman.

On my last night I went to a big theatre full of dressed-up people for music by Steve Reich and dancing choreographed by Anne De Keersmaeker. By the end I felt like running and jumping. It’s not often you get such a direct hit from art. Reich is one of the big minimalist composers. In the terms of traditional western classical music his is very repetitive indeed, but if you can learn how to listen you find all kinds of constantly changing rhythms and ideas. It’s like Moroccan drumming, and other African and Asian forms, and like the most intelligent drum and bass. I got lost in it. It had a very powerful but dual effect on the audience. Most were engrossed like me, and gave rapturous applause at the end. But many walked out angrily early on. Walk-outs are unusual in British high culture, are they not? And these walkers seemed the kind of people who, if you laugh in the right place during a Shakespeare play, shush you angrily, with tormented hyperculture expressions on their pale and drawn faces. The tickets were expensive. Did they not find out what they were going to see before they paid? Perhaps not. They clearly had very strong assumptions as to what kind of experience they could expect in the theatre. Which takes us back to Kelman’s point, and even to the attempted erasure of Darwish. Some experiences fit into ideological place; others don’t.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Complex Origins

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

As Genesis has Adam created in the image of God, so in the Epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu is created from clay “in the image of Anu,” who is the supreme god, the lord of the sky. The word ‘Eden’ is a Sumerian word, meaning ‘open country’. The strange detail in Genesis of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is perhaps prefigured in a Sumerian myth which sees a hero dismembered and then put back together by a group of deities, one deity for each part of the body, including “the lady of the rib.”

Although no archeological evidence has been found of a flood which destroyed all of settled Mesopotamia, smaller floods of the Tigris and Euphrates which inundated key cities were common, and it is from Mesopotamia that the flood story originates. The Noah figure is Ut-Napishtim, who is told by the water goddess Ea to take “the seed of all living creatures” into a ship built according to her specifications. After days and nights of floating, the ark lands on a mountain top, but all around is water. Ut-Napishtim sends out a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven, which finds land. Ut-Napishtim is awarded not prophethood but immortality, the only human to win this prize.

As in the Genesis account, the gods send devastating floods because they are tired of humanity. But while it is human immorality that upsets the Abrahamic God, what annoys the Sumerian pantheon is simply human noise:

… the people multiplied
The earth was bellowing like a bull
The gods were distressed with their uproar
(from “Atrahasis”)

The Sumerian flood seems like a cure for population explosion, and when the gods relent they condition their mercy with a series of contraceptive measures:

Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women
Let there be among the people a Pashittu-demon
Let it seize the baby from the mother’s lap

This myth strikes me as particularly resonant for today, when human beings number six and a half billion and environmentalists predict catastrophic flooding as a result of human-provoked global warming.

And here are the mythical origins of King Sargon of Akkad. His mother “set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me in the river which rose not over me.” The baby was found by a royal gardener, who brought him up until “the goddess Ishtar fell in love with me. Thereafter I exercised royal power.” We are of course reminded of Moses, who was also found by a royal household after his mother abandoned him to the river, and who, like Sargon, was destined to lead a nation and commune with the divine. And also, as stories ripple into each other, of the Egyptian underworld god Osiris. Set locks Osiris in a box and floats him down the river to the sea. The box is caught in the branches of a tree, allowing Osiris to be found and rescued by his wife Isis. (In the next episode Set cuts Osiris into 14 pieces and buries each piece separately. Isis gathers the pieces and puts Osiris back together. Does this echo the ‘lady of the rib’ mentioned above?)

Some of the Code of Hammurabi looks a lot like Judaic law, and some looks like Sharia.

There are endless linguistic similarities with contemporary Arabic. The Assyrian sun god was called Shamash (and ‘sun’ in Arabic is ‘shams’). Levantine months like Tishreen and Temmuz are inherited from ancient Mesopotamia. Temmuz is Dumuzi or Adonis – the shepherd god who dies in autumn and is resurrected in the spring, a source for the risen Christ figure (the mud-red flow of the Syrian Orontes – al-‘Asi – was once thought to be Dumuzi’s redemptive blood, anticipating the Christblood-wine of the Catholic mass). In Akkadian, ‘bait-il’ means house of the gods, and ‘bab-il’ (Babil – Babylon) means gate of the gods. Arabic speakers won’t need my translation.

Even the architecture of the excavated section of Ur resembles an Arab Old City, with alleyways and enclosed courtyards, woodwork and brickwork.

And between the ancient and the contemporary there are intriguing reversals – which are not entirely reversals, if you think about them.

The Akkadian 'Saturday' - 'sabbatu' - was not what we think of as a sabbath, but a day of ill omen. (Like the Muslims, the Akkadians had a lunar calendar, and their day began in the evening).

The temple prostitute brought to tame the Gilgamesh epic's Enkidu is called 'harimtu'. In pre-prophetic times 'haram' meant devoted to the gods and so taboo for secular use.

Enkidu’s taming by woman, his eating of human food, has parallels with the expulsion from Eden. Once he’s made love to a woman, he loses his wildness and connection to nature.

But the gazelles saw him and ran,
The wild beasts saw him and ran

In “Gilgamesh”, this loss is offset by a greater gain: the transition from nature to culture, to agriculture and cities and writing – all the basics of civilisation which were first achieved in southern Iraq. But by the time the book of Genesis is written, the wild, hunter-gathering past looks like Eden, the open land, and its loss is entirely negative. It has become the fall.

These parallels and echoes serve to expand my sense of awe and wonder when I face our key texts. They certainly don’t invalidate religious texts, but they should scare anyone away from simplistic or literalist readings.

Arab London

This appeared in Gulf Life (Gulf Air's inflight magazine):

It’s August and, as well as the Notting Hill Carnival, west London is seeing its yearly influx of Arab tourists. While the visitors are here they’ll rub shoulders with a varied and well-established Arab community.

Unlike some cities, London is too mixed to be ethnically zoned. When I lived a few years ago on the Harrow Road in west London, my neighbours were Poles, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, Lebanese .. I could go on. In London there are no monocultural ghettoes, but there are cultural concentrations, and my Harrow Road bedsit was in the middle of the Arab one.

At lunchtime I would cross the canal to buy steaming bowls of harira from the Moroccan stallholders on the Golborne Road. North towards Willesden I would meet newly-arrived Iraqi refugees, each with a story. If I walked west to Shepherd’s Bush I found Syrian grocers selling olive oil from the old country, and balls of salty shellal cheese. On the Uxbridge Road I could even eat fetteh, the essential Levantine working man’s food, and I prayed with men of all sects in a basement mosque.

Further south, towards Notting Hill and Kensington, it becomes more glamorous, princes and oil millionaires mingling with the internationally privileged. On the way, commercial activity buzzes on Queensway and the Edgware Road, where there are more shisha bars than pubs, and shops where you can buy za’taar, or Adel Imam comedies, or Libyan or Egyptian newspapers. For a brief term following the destruction of Beirut and before Qatar and the Emirates upped their profiles, London became the capital of the Arab media. It’s still important, still housing such ventures as the independent pan-Arab paper al-Quds al-Arabi.

On Queensway, past Whiteleys shopping centre, popular to bursting with young Gulf tourists in the summer, turn into Westbourne Grove for al-Waha restaurant, one of London’s best, and the famous as-Saqi bookshop and publishers – as influential in its own way as the Madbouli bookshop in Cairo.

All of these Arabs, but against a decidedly non-Arab background, involving a lot of darkness and rain, sometimes even in August. In the winter, I remember the ice freezing on the inside of my bedsit windows (although I’ve been colder in a Syrian January). Yet these days, London is the Arab world too, which is a way of saying the Arabs have become Londoners. In my novel of Arab London, a character remembers visiting the Regent’s Park mosque: “the peculiar Englishness of it .. coats and scarves hung up on hooks, the smell of damp wool, wooden panelling on the walls. Snow through the windows against a red and yellow sky.” If Syria is the Arabs on the Mediterranean and Oman the Arabs on the Indian Ocean, London is the city of the Arabs in the cold north west. Especially in August.

Monday, August 04, 2008


Somebody at Channel 4 has been making an effort. A few weeks ago a documentary called “Dispatches: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim” criticised the rising tide of Islamophobia in the British tabloid media and the corresponding rise in physical attacks on Muslims. The presenter brought up a series of stories which I half remembered hearing before, and half remembered feeling vaguely embarrassed about. Like how the NatWest bank got rid of its piggy bank posters to avoid offending over-sensitive Muslims. Like how British hospitals have to rearrange their wards so the beds all face Mecca. Like how a Muslim hate mob vandalised a house in which British soldiers returned from Afghanistan were to be billeted. All of these stories were completely false. The Sun was not charged with incitement to hatred.

The documentary didn’t take on Islamophobia in the so-called ‘quality press’, legal system or government, and beyond references to the July 7th bombs in London it did not give a wider political context for the surge in Muslim hatred. It did, however, point to how serious the problem is becoming. According to opinion polls, which are slippery by nature, 51% of British people believe Islam in general is to blame for the 7/7 attacks. 26% think the presence of any Muslims in the country is a security threat.

A couple of days later there was a great British screen moment. The screen read: After The Qur’an, Big Brother – which blasphemously reminded me of the Islamic “After your mother, your father.” But “The Qur’an” meant a two hour documentary on various ways of reading the text in various social contexts.

Despite the inevitable simplifications (Iranian women are “uniformly dressed in chadors”) the documentary did an admirable job of showing the range and flexibility of Qur’anic interpretation. Space was given to mullahs and Sufis, liberals and conservatives, the hijabbed and the non-hijabbed, to stake their very different claims on Qur’anic meaning. One interviewee said, “The Qur’an is like a supermarket; you can take what you want.” Although the Tesco’s imagery grates, this is of course correct; like the Bible, the Upanishads and Shakespeare, the Qur’an is vast enough to provide succour to almost any world view.

As a corrective to the unreconstructed ‘essentialist’ orientalist discourses we still hear so much from, the documentary shone a healthy light on the changing nature of Muslim societies. The society chosen for exemplification is Egypt, where almost no urban women wore the hijab thirty years ago but where almost all now do. The reason for the change was, I think, correctly diagnosed as “military defeat and economic failure” leading to a new search for identity.

“The Qur’an” spent a great deal of time examining (or at least quoting) verses which seem to encourage, on the one hand, fighting, and on the other, peaceful co-existence, and decided that the text promotes “tolerance and intolerance in equal measure.”

This made me think of the sometimes contradictory names of God: the Merciful and the Tyrant as well as the First and the Last. It made me think of all the strange binaries in the Qur’an. The words for ‘life’ and ‘death’ are each mentioned 145 times. ‘Spending’ and ‘satisfaction’ occur 73 times each. ‘This life’ and ‘the life after’ 115 times each. ‘The misled’ and ‘the dead’ 17 times each. And so on.

The Qur’an aims for totality, to broaden our horizons. It offers us a language to speak, a vocabulary - for instance - for both war and peace. And it describes itself as a ‘furqan’, a test.

The documentary reached a fine and logical conclusion: that in the Qur’an, “one consistent message comes through: think and think.”

But then it made much too big a deal about the Qur’an being originally written without tanqeet (punctuation distinguishing letters) or harekat (vowel markings), as if this was new information. One German professor’s interpretation of the Qur’an with the help of an Aramaic dictionary was interesting but vastly overblown. The dark-eyed maidens awaiting the faithful in paradise are translated by the professor as ‘bunches of grapes’. The documentary played this as if it would shake the foundations of Islam, but the general idea has always been uncontroversial. A clear majority of Muslims have always known that the descriptions of heaven and hell are symbolic images of the ineffable. The Qur’an (2:26) itself stresses this. At this point in the programme it seemed a bit like the writer had run out of things to say. He could have taken two more minutes on Palestine.

On that subject, the documentary stated: “In the last eight years, over 700 Israelis and over 2000 Palestinians have been killed.” While the real numbers are 1057 Israelis and 4862 Palestinians. The documentary also failed to mention the first and basic fact of the conflict: that most of Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and the remnant occupied and settled from 1967.

This lack of explanation makes the conflict seem like an ideological struggle between two equal parties, both with equal mythic allegiances to the land. This is misleading for two reasons. First, Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower while the Palestinians are stateless and very nearly defenceless. Second, although both sides do have strong mythical-religious claims on the land, and although both speak this resonant language when they are suffering or when they seek to mobilise their friends and allies, the conflict is no more about religion than the Northern Irish conflict was about Catholic-Protestant theology. It’s about territory and power and oppression.

If documentaries fail to give this context, who will? Certainly not the evening news.

While celebrating the 60th anniversary of apartheid Israel the Guardian stated that 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. I emailed to complain, and had to wait for more than a week until I received a reply saying that I wasn’t the only one to have questioned the figure, and that the Guardian was researching it. It took another few days for the hardworking research staff to learn that, since the work of Israeli new historians like Ilan Pappe in the 80s and 90s it has been accepted as historical fact that somewhere between 700 and 800 thousand Palestinian refugees were created in 1948. I wonder why it took so long to uncover this uncontroversial fact? I wonder which ‘research sources’ the Guardian relies on? I wonder how long it would have taken the Guardian to apologise if its front page had underestimated the number of Holocaust victims by two thirds? (No, I’m not suggesting that the two tragedies are analogous, but there is a link, made by the Guardian piece itself when it cast Zionism as the solution to the Holocaust).

No-one is more to blame for poor representations of Muslims and Arabs than Muslims and Arabs themselves. This is part of the general sickness. When I was researching Arab novels in English translation I discovered that none of the Arab culture ministries do anything organised to promote Arab writing and art abroad. Israel had a receptive Western audience for its 60th anniversary celebrations, but it was the efforts of its ministries, ambassadors and friends that allowed it to paint itself as a success story. Meanwhile in Egypt, this year’s Nakba commemorations were banned. (How many people in the West understand the word ‘nakba’? And whose fault is that?) I can understand the clients wanting to keep as quiet as possible, but not a country like Syria. Syria has a just foreign policy and a laudable history of ethnic, sectarian and religious co-existence. It is one of the world’s most generous providers of refuge – to Armenians, Palestinians and Iraqis. Despite being a nation of born storytellers, it has totally failed to tell this story internationally.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Great Day in the Axis of Evil

Since Hizbullah rearranged Lebanon in May, the following has happened:

Syria and Israel have engaged in peace negotiations, under Turkish rather than American auspices, and on terms which are not humiliating to the Syrians and Arabs – so far at least. Bashaar al-Assad has also been well received in Paris, signalling a definite end to the period of European ostracism.

Hamas has negotiated a ceasefire with Israel and – so far – the Israelis are respecting it more than they ever respected ceasefires with the Palestinian Authority.

On July 16th, Israel did what it vowed in July 2006 it would not do: it received its prisoners (or their remains) as part of a prisoner-swap deal with Hizbullah. The Lebanese resistance has now succeeded in having all Lebanese prisoners returned home. Contrast the unanswered pleadings of Mahmoud Abbas, whose US-backed administration has failed to have any of the 11,500 Palestinian prisoners released. More prisoners, in fact, are being taken on the West Bank every night. Contrast the supine regimes in Jordan and Egypt, which have made peace with apartheid Israel while Jordanian and Egyptian prisoners in Israeli prisons are still unaccounted for. The lesson is clear: resistance pays. Obedience to US-Israeli hegemony only results in more weakness.

Israel’s war aims in 2006 were to defang the resistance and remove its deterrent power. In the event, the deterrent power that was removed was Israel’s. Far from surging in hours, 1982-style, through the south and the Bekaa, Israel bled for five weeks in the border villages. By all accounts Hizbullah is better armed now than in 2006, and its deterrent power increased.

After the war, Israel and its Western allies aimed to isolate Hizbullah politically in Lebanon, or at least to push it back from the border. There are UNIFIL troops in the south, but Hizbullah is still there on the ground, keeping a low profile, and actually protecting UNIFIL from al-Qa’ida-type attack. As for isolating the resistance on the Lebanese scene, Hizbullah has foiled the attempt to defang it by proxy, and masterfully, with its usual disciplne, clearing out the militias backed by the US and its clients and then immediately handing positions over to the national army. If it had been stupid, Hizbullah could have taken the government. It didn’t, but it did ensure the capabilities of the resistance. Syria and Qatar worked to encourage the compromise, marginalising the Saudi role. Sinyura and Jumblatt are doing a lot of public word-eating. The resistance has outmanouvered the empire politically as well as militarily.

And now a great, if questionable, surprise: the US is reported to be planning to open an interests section in Tehran, which would be the first official diplomatic contact since the revolution that removed the Shah. It looks like a great day in the axis of evil.

I think it’s still too early to say the direct extension of the war to Iran is impossible. The recent friendliness may be a PR exercise aimed to portray America as the flexible partner. America may intend to take control of European-managed talks with Iran merely so as to obstruct compromise. Mujahideen-e-Khalq and an array of ethno-separatist and sectarian opposition militias are still conducting covert operations against Tehran with American funding and direction, often out of bases in American-occupied Iraq.

But it does look as if the tide has turned against war. America and Israel have been at war with themselves for years over Iran. The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate in November 2007, which concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons research in 2003, is significant. The agencies went public because they wanted to reign in the neoconservatives who have done so much to hasten the financial, military and moral demise of the American empire. Most of the military hierarchy agree. Observers not blinded by arrogance or ideology can see that Iran is strong, and that its response to attack will be considerable.

Iran isn’t as strong as the propaganda suggests – it’s not a rising nuclear-fascist giant, but a deeply troubled country, globally still weak and unsure of itself. But it’s far better organised and better educated, more stable and more free than any other Middle Eastern state, with the possible exception of Turkey, from Pakistan to Algeria. Including, in at least some ways, Israel.