Tuesday 24 July 2007

No more blogging for a week or two...

There won't be much happening on this blog for a couple of weeks, starting tomorrow. We'll be quite near here:

Ciao. Ci vediamo a presto.

Monday 23 July 2007

Music, class and authenticity

I've just discovered the music of Pink Martini, via their latest album Hey Eugene! It's an engaging and eclectic mix of Latin, European, Middle Eastern and jazz styles, with lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese, and the tone veering from the poignantly beautiful to the knowingly kitsch.

Given this degree of musical and lyrical sophistication, it should come as no surprise that the band members are variously Harvard graduates and classically-trained musicians. But it's hard (especially for those of us of a certain age) to let go of the notion that good popular music can only be produced by socially-marginalised and self-taught amateurs. Last weekend I saw a performance by the London Breakbeat Orchestra who play thrillingly edgy electro-acoustic dance music - but turn out to be a bunch of music students. Current top band Arcade Fire include a number of 'proper' musicians in their ranks - and founder members Win Butler and Regine Chassage even met at an elite boarding school.

Perhaps the image of pop, rock and jazz as only emerging from 'the streets' has always been something of a myth. Back in the Seventies I remember someone writing in the New Musical Express to the effect that punk was ruined 'now that the grammar school boys have got hold of it.' This shocked me, as I was an ex-grammar school boy, as were most of the people I knew who were into punk, as well as a fair number of those who were actually in punk bands. Punk was always a grammar-school - and middle-class - phenomenon. As Julien Temple's recent film about Joe Strummer confirms, even some of punk's big names came from rather comfortable bourgeois backgrounds.

Of course, if you're a pop star, it's OK to admit to being middle-class, as long as you can concoct a story about rebelling against your background. Getting yourself expelled from school usually does the trick. Strummer's god-daughter and current diva Lily Allen attended a number of private schools, including Hill House in Knightsbridge and the progressive public school Bedales (at the same time as Kooks frontman Luke Pritchard) but (according to Wikipedia, anyway) 'was expelled from several of them for drinking, smoking and performing fellatio'. Thus is pop's myth of romantic authenticity preserved.

Don't call me a dictator - or else!

How long are we going to allow a person - from any country in the world - to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?...It cannot be allowed - it is a question of national dignity.

That's Hugo Chavez, threatening to expel international officials who publicly criticise him. And just to make it clear he added: 'No foreigner can come here to attack us. Anyone who does must be removed from this country.'

How stupid, or deluded, does a politician have to be not to notice the inbuilt contradiction here? I wonder how apologists for the Venezuelan leader, such as Richard Gott and Tariq Ali, will explain this latest authoritarian outburst?


There's more on this from Gene over at Harry's Place and from Daniel Duquenal here. And I see Jura Watchmaker at Drink Soaked Trots has borrowed my rather neat post title (I posted at 07.51, s/he at 13.21).

Sunday 22 July 2007

Religion cannot demand 'respect'

Karen Armstrong is concerned about the west's apparent inability to 'tolerate Islam'. Although she begins her article in yesterday's Guardian with some light criticism of Muslims who fail to support freedom of expression, she only gets into her stride when she turns to the 'double standards' of western liberals, starting with those responsible for the Danish cartoons:

But equally the cartoonists and their publishers, who seemed impervious to Muslim sensibilities, failed to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others. Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice.

One wonders in what sense the cartoonists failed to live up to 'liberal values', of which free speech is surely the most important. (On the other hand those who opposed, often violently, the publication of the cartoons were certainly deficient in their understanding of those values.) The second half of Armstrong's sentence enlightens us, since she appears to understand free speech as implying 'respect' for other people's opinions. As Norm says:

No, it doesn't. Otherwise I should have to respect the opinion that suicide bombing directed against civilian bus and train passengers is sometimes justified, and the opinion that torture is an acceptable practice in a civilized country. I don't.

Armstrong is perhaps referring to the way in which free speech laws are often hedged around with prohibitions on speech that encourages hatred or violence: in which case, once again, it was the protestors against the cartoons who were guilty of this infringement. Notice too, how in Armstrong's formulation 'respect' is by implication a one-way street: society has to respect the opinions of religious groups, however outlandish, but there is no mention of a reciprocal duty on the part of religious groups to respect liberal values, such as freedom of expression.

Armstrong's next move is to declare those responsible for the cartoons guilty of 'Islamophobia', without any supporting evidence. Assuming for the moment that the term has some intellectual coherence, and can be taken to mean a general hostility to a particular religion: does a humorous portrayal of Mohammed justify this drastic labelling? Only if Ray Allen, the makers of Father Ted, and the team behind The Life of Brian are to be accused of 'Christianophobia' - rather than the satire that is part-and-parcel of an open, liberal culture.

But is hostility to a set of ideas really on a par with 'any other form of prejudice', such as racism or sexism? Of course not. Otherwise we could label Armstrong, along with Madeleine Bunting and others of their ilk, 'secularophobes', and call for their regular Guardian columns, with their talk of 'Enlightenment fundamentalists' and 'aggressive secularists', to be banned so as not to offend (say) members of the National Secular Society.

Armstrong's next step is to create the impression that 'Islamophobia' is widespread and increasing, by generalising from a single recent incident:

When 255,000 members of the so-called "Christian community" signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam.

Despite their apparent numbers, a petition by a bunch of bigoted Christians doesn't equate to a national climate of intolerance. I certainly have no time for this campaign, but isn't there at least a possibility that it wasn't hostile to Islam as such, but perhaps to the size of this particular mosque, or its proposed location, or even the sect behind the proposal (see my last post for more on this)? Does this single, local protest really send such a 'grim message', cancelling out the unrivalled freedom of belief and worship that Muslims and other religious groups enjoy in Britain (compared with, say, the daily threats to Christians in majority-Muslim countries such as Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia)?

Thus Armstrong creates a straw man of pervasive intolerance towards Islam out of a few cartoons and localised inter-religious tensions, and in so doing attempts to fuel a spurious sense of victimhood. In her final paragraph, she couples this with an implied threat:

Gallup found there was as yet no blind hatred of the west in Muslim countries; only 8% of respondents condoned the 9/11 atrocities. But this could change if the extremists persuade the young that the west is bent on the destruction of their religion. When Gallup asked what the west could do to improve relations, most Muslims replied unhesitatingly that western countries must show greater respect for Islam, placing this ahead of economic aid and non-interference in their domestic affairs. Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a major security risk.

Even Armstrong has to concede that the opinion polls undermine her argument, but it doesn't prevent her from doing her bit to fan the flames of fundamentalist rage against the west. Notice the menace in the demand that 'western countries must show greater respect for Islam'. The mention of a 'major security risk' in the last sentence makes it clear what she's talking about here.

As others have pointed out, the problem with trying to appease outraged fundamentalists is that they never run out of things to be angry about. Withdraw from Iraq, create a Palestinian homeland, introduce laws that give believers the right not to be 'offended', and they will find something else about which to feel aggrieved - our gay rights legislation, perhaps, or women's equality, or (as the recent failed bombings in London demonstrated) the way we allow people to enjoy themselves on a Friday night.

Of course religious beliefs should be tolerated (and the best guarantor of that tolerance is the secular constitutions of western liberal democracies), but demands for 'respect' from those who themselves show little tolerance for liberal values should be met not with submission but with vigorous argument.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Two instances of ignoring the obvious

Today's Guardian G2 section has a short piece by Emine Saner on plans by the Tablighi Jamaat sect to build a 'Mega-Mosque' in East London. Saner focuses on the campaign against the mosque by right-wing Christians, and ends by quoting a spokesperson for the project who claims: 'This is a group of people who have decent intentions, no record of any problems and are living and contributing to the community'.

On the face of it, an open-and-shut case of religious bigotry against a peace-loving community. What Saner's report overlooks is the widespread suspicion that Tablighi Jamaat is not quite what it seems. According to Ziauddin Sardar, the movement 'is now seen as the common link between several Muslims alleged to be involved in plans to blow up transatlantic airliners.' He adds:

Conventionally, the Tablighis are seen as an unchanging, conservative, benign, global network of simple preachers. This, I think, is a serious mistake. Organisations do not remain static. Simply because Tablighi Jamaat has followed exactly the same course for decades, no one thinks it can change. It has. Drastically...the Tablighis are not as harmless as most Muslims seem to think. The world has changed; and the Tablighi Jamaat has changed with it... We need to look at the Tablighis much more critically and see just what they are teaching our youth.

By making the prejudices of right-wing Christians the focus of the article, Saner adroitly avoids mentioning these awkward facts. There's another example of ignoring the obvious in a separate article in today's G2, in which Seumas Milne continues his deluded campaign to identify 'good' Islamists, in this wide-eyed encounter with Iraqi 'insurgents'. Milne naively parrots his informants' claims to be good democrats with only the interests of their fellow-Iraqis at heart, completely fails to mention their murderous tactics and is gullibly unquestioning about their plans for the future of the country. Does he really believe that an alliance that includes Iraqi Hamas and Ansar al-Sunna, which even he admits is 'an armed Islamist group with a ferocious reputation', is committed to anything resembling a tolerant, multi-party democracy?

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Obama and Giuliani in dance-off for presidency

You read it here first. In this post I predicted that, after the success of Obama Girl and Hot 4 Hill, we'd soon see the Republicans climbing on the unofficial promotional video bandwagon. Well, now they have: or rather Barely Political, the outfit behind Obama Girl, have anticipated the primary results with a 'debate' between Obama Girl and Giuliani Girl. Much of this political dance-off seems to have been filmed outside the glass cube of the Apple Store on 5th Avenue. When we were there recently, all we got to see was the CBS breakfast show being filmed. Anyway, enjoy:

(via Snarksmith)

Monday 16 July 2007

A call for renewed pride in liberalism

I'm always happy to give people a second chance. So I'm prepared to forgive Theo Hobson this piece last year with its crude caricature of 'secular fundamentalism' on the basis of his thoughtful article on Hizb ut-Tahrir in this week's Tablet (subscription required). Hobson describes his experience of attending some 'roundtable discussions' organised by the group, where he grew uneasy with the obsession (encouraged by some non-Muslims present) with blaming everything on British foreign policy and with seeking victim-status for the Muslim community. His experience of encountering the radical conservatism of fundamentalist Islam forces Hobson to reaffirm his belief in the values of secular liberalism, but leaves him wondering 'whether Islamic extremism was exacerbated by the wavering conviction of liberals.' Aware that in the face of Islamism's vision of 'grand organic unity', secular liberalism can seem like a weak alternative, Hobson ends with an appeal for a renewed pride in liberal principles, which he believes should be supported by religious believers like himself:

Maybe we need to renew liberalism as a positive social vision: of shared freedom forming the basis of the best possible form of society.

Liberalism is not just the least worst thing: it is the best thing. If we are religious, maybe we need to renew the idea that liberalism is a sacred good, a gift from God. For surely there is divine worth in a system that defends the young woman forced into an arranged marriage, for example, saving her from patriarchal tyranny. Ought we not to have pride in this?

After the apologies for fundamentalism by erstwhile liberal religious commentators like Madeleine Bunting, Karen Armstrong et al, this restatement of liberal Christianity is a healthy sign and ought to be welcomed by believers and unbelievers alike.

Friday 13 July 2007

Gordon knows what's good for you

If you assumed that Tony Blair's departure meant no more moralising policy announcements from Number 10, then think again. Following hot on the heels of the puritanical re-think on casinos earlier this week comes today's promise (threat?) that school pupils are to get five hours of compulsory sport a week. Followed by bracing cold showers, no doubt.

Coming on top of yesterday's unveiling of a new secondary curriculum that will include financial literacy and cookery skills, you wonder how schools will find the time for - er, education (I know I risk coming across like an old fogey, but I'm really just an old socialist who believes in the liberating power of knowledge.) I'm not sure you can make a priority of raising standards in core subjects, as the government say they wish to, and at the same time use schools as a tool for promoting personal 'wellbeing'.

This recent spate of policy announcements, which also include plans to encourage us all to take up volunteering, are often put down to Gordon Brown being a 'son of the manse'. Like Gordon , I had a Nonconformist upbringing, but I don't feel half as enthusiastic as he seems to about imposing its values on the rest of the population.

Theological update:

I've just found out that Brown's background is Church of Scotland/Presybterian, not Nonconformist: it was the word 'manse', which here in England has strong associations with Methodism, that confused me. But you could argue that the same kind of bracing work-ethic Calvinism is common to both.

Nice old lady loses temper: national institution in crisis

The fuss over the BBC and the Queen's alleged temper tantrum is completely overblown and feels like one of those synthetic scandals that the tabloid press loves to cook up from time to time. You can't turn on the radio today without hearing BBC journalists indulging in bouts of corporate self-flagellation. I suppose they think this will show that they can report on themselves in a disinterested fashion - and convince the Establishment that they are really, really sorry. They've yet to feature a single commentator saying that, actually, the whole thing has been over-hyped and is not the major national scandal that the press thinks it is.

It turns out the offending footage (purporting to show the Queen storming out of a photoshoot with Annie Liebowitz) wasn't even broadcast, but previewed in front of a gathering of journalists. Those journalists greedily latched on to the story and splashed it over yesterday's front pages, only to do a hypocritical volte-face today and condemn the BBC for dissing the monarch. If the episode confirms anything, it's not some spurious 'crisis of trust' in our national broadcaster, but the curious relationship, oscillating between hysterical deference and crude exploitation, that the British press has with royalty.

You can't help thinking that none of this would happen if we were a republic with an elected head of state, rather than a semi-sacred totem who has to remain above even the mildest criticism. Look at the way that programmes like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show regularly use manipulated news footage to lampoon George Bush. OK, so Comedy Central is not a publicily funded organisation, but even so, public figures ought to be able to take a little light satire. After all, saying that someone has a short fuse is hardly the stuff of libel, or to quote today's pompous Telegraph leader 'profoundly shocking'.

Advice to BBC: stand firm, no resignations, no grovelling. Advice to Buckingham Palace minions and flunkeys: they've apologised, now get over it.

Thursday 12 July 2007

More on Milne, Eagleton and po-mo leftism

I've just caught up with recent (and some not so recent) posts over at David Thompson's blog. Further to my post about Seumas Milne's 'blowback' article, I recommend reading David's response to the piece, and tracking back to his detailed report on Milne's surrender of the Guardian comment pages to apologists for Islamism. And following on from this post, if you want to read an analysis of where Terry Eagleton's po-mo leftism leads him, take a look at David's dialogue with Ophelia Benson here.

Equivalence of extremisms revisited

I've just heard Oliver McTiernan, speaking on 'Thought for the Day' on Radio 4's Today programme, repeat the old canard about 'extremists on both sides' in the course of a discussion of religion and secularism. Not only did he argue that secularists want to remove religion from public life (when all they do is question its currently privileged position), he actually went so far as to suggest that 'secularists want to eradicate religious belief.'

I was amazed at the ignorance this displayed about the nature of secularism, and wondered if a secular commentator would be allowed to get away, unchallenged, with an equivalent falsehood about religious believers (e.g. stating that 'religious believers want to destroy freedom of expression') on the BBC. If McTiernan knew the first thing about secularism, he would know that one of its cardinal principles is freedom of belief - and unbelief. I don't agree with every position taken by the National Secular Society, but I don't recall them issuing death threats against religiously-inclined novelists, organising aggressive demonstrations against nativity plays or producing placards that threaten to behead believers.

Once again, the 'equivalence of extremisms' argument is being used to divert attention from the real extremists and to allow religious believers to avoid confronting the fundamentalists in their own ranks.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

A cautious welcome for Brown's constitutional plans

Even if it was inspired more by party politics than by republican sentiment, Gordon Brown's decision to 'pre-announce' the contents of the Queen's Speech to Parliament today at least showed that he is serious about constitutional reform. It followed in the wake of the shopping list of constitutional changes that he delivered to Parliament a few days after becoming PM, which included plans for a bill of rights and a written constitution.

I'm cautiously optimistic about all of this, especially as it appears that Jack Straw will have a major role in implementing the plans. As I've mentioned before, Straw's ideas about 'Britishness' seem more rooted in our radical and liberal traditions, and less obsessed with monarchy and flummery, than those of some other leading politicians. However, any attempt to draw up a charter of basic rights for the UK may run up against the problem identified by Jonathan Freedland in relation to the Britishness debate: the absence of a 'republican moment' in our history that transferred power unequivocally from the monarchy to the people.

Charters of rights and written constitutions tend to emerge from these key moments of political change, and are usually inspired by a tide of enthusiasm for new and radical ideas. Since we're certainly not living through such a moment in our history, one does have a slight concern about the kind of ideas and values that might get reflected in Brown's planned bill of rights. There's a danger that it will simply reflect the concerns of the moment (my hackles rose when the PM talked about a charter of 'rights and responsibilities', for example), rather than values rooted in the long history of struggles for freedom. What counts as 'British values' is bound to be contested and there's a worry that the government might indulge in a process of consultation in which (for example) unrepresentative 'faith' and 'community' leaders have to be given a voice and seek to water down commitments to rights such as freedom of expression.

One idea that I wouldn't like to see implemented is the plan for more 'citizen's juries' to debate key issues. Although the idea sounds nice and empowering, it's actually the opposite. As with other experiments in 'direct democracy', it's not really democratic, but populist: government by focus group. Members of citizens' juries speak for no one but themselves, so politicians are able to listen earnestly and then ignore the results. As with government attempts to appeal 'over the heads' of the unions to individual members, it undermines the whole notion of representative democracy.

People who volunteer for things like citizen's juries tend to have an unusually wonkish interest in political meetings, or have an axe to grind, or have a lot of time on their hands: in other words, they tend to be unrepresentative of the majority of the population. That's why representative democracy works: it enables the busy majority to elect others to represent their collective interests. Of course, Brown's proposals are a response to a sense that people are disillusioned with representative politics. But the answer isn't to abandon it in favour of 'government by consultation' that treats people as disaggregated individuals and therefore actually entrenches the power of politicians, but to find ways to reinvigorate it: that's the challenge.

There's more on all of this at Shuggy's blog

Tuesday 10 July 2007

The chimera of 'moderate' Islamism

Since posting this about Alastair Crooke's LRB article on Hamas, I've come across other critiques of the piece, including this by Norm (who shares my scepticism towards Crooke's view that Hamas and Hezbollah represent 'moderate' versions of Islamism) and this by Oliver Kamm.

Norm points out that Crooke is a leading member of an organisation called Conflicts Forum, whose slogan is 'listening to political Islam, recognizing resistance'. Its Board of Advisors includes former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg (who may not have been directly involved in terrorism but had links with extremist groups and worked in a bookshop accused of selling race-hate material) and well-known Hamas spokesman and apologist for suicide terrorism, Azzam Tamimi. That would explain why Crooke gives Tamimi's book such an uncritical review in his LRB article.

Meanwhile Madeleine Bunting has been enthusing about the newfound desire to challenge extremism among some British Muslim organisations. She too advocates engaging with 'moderate' Islamists in order to draw young hotheads away from their more extreme brethren. David T at Harry's Place is scornful of Maddy's naivety and sceptical of this apparent change of heart by Islamist-aligned organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain.

Islamism is, of its very nature, a reactionary and totalitarian political project with a dubious record, to say the least, on issues such as gender equality and freedom of belief. Genuine liberals should think twice before lending encouragement to any variety of this anti-liberal movement, however moderate-seeming. Instead, as Paul Berman argues, they should be offering solidarity to 'authentic liberals' in the Arab and Muslim world, and to non-sectarian, non-communalist organisations at home.

On that note: I came across the website of the 'No to Political Islam' campaign, which appears to be a coalition of secular and progressive groups in majority-Muslim countries. Here's an extract from their manifesto, which should be required reading for western 'liberals' who cosy up to 'soft' versions of Islamism:

Political Islam is a movement that arose in the 1940s as a reaction to foreign domination and political corruption. Supported in the 1980s by western governments, it has grown in leaps and bounds since the Iranian revolution and the events following September 11th. But Political Islam is not the answer to either western arrogance or political corruption. It seeks to return Muslims to the dark ages, limiting educational opportunity, denying the right of women to participate fully as adults in the life of the community, denying equality to non-Muslims, and imposing its own brutal and outmoded interpretation of Sharia law on every aspect of public life.

Among the hungry and destitute, Political Islam gained support with the promise of salvation for the dispossessed. But while drawing its strength from those who would fight oppression, it seeks to enslave all Muslims. It opposes progressive movements for liberty, freedom, justice and equality, and is opposed to cultural and intellectual progress. Throughout history Muslim reformers have opened up new vistas of intellectual and cultural achievement, tolerance and diversity. Political Islam on the contrary, seeks a narrow, petty, joyless, intolerant and closed society. It rejects all modernity, science and technology - except the technology of death.

Political Islam is a reactionary movement that has no place in the modern world. Over the last two decades, millions have been, and continue to be, murdered - shot, decapitated, stoned to death, and publicly hanged – by Islamic regimes and movements in Iran, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and Central Asia, while millions more have been forced into exile. The Islamists equate even well-founded dissent with blasphemy. Thousands of Muslim opponents have been killed and millions silenced through fear. Our silence is taken as support for the Islamist agenda. But the vast majority of the world's Muslims reject Political Islam. The time has come for our voices to be heard.

The way to restore our pride is to move forward not backwards. We oppose Political Islam and its agenda of hatred and oppression, and its illegitimate pursuit of the most barbaric interpretation of Sharia law. We seek a future in which all people, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, can enjoy the benefits of equality, democracy, human rights, freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.

Join our campaign: NO to Political Islam. Say YES to Freedom, Equality and Human Rights.


I see David T's post (mentioned above) has earned him the label of 'rabid anti-Islamist bigot' from Martin Sullivan at the ludicrous Islamophobia Watch website. As Sunny at Pickled Politics says: 'The problem for Sullivan is that David T neither hates Muslims and nor does he have a particular vendetta against Islam. But he finds the politics and ideology of certain organisations such as the MCB, Muslim Brotherhood etc detestable'. He goes on:

What IW and such pseudo-intellectuals increasingly do is conflate religious entities with people from that faith or theology of the faith itself, all of which are three different things, just so they can slander people. Muslims, Islam and the Muslim Council of Britain are not the same; as neither are Jews, Judaism or the Jewish Board of Deputies. But in a desperate attempt to shut down any criticism these far-lefties keep bandying about the words ‘bigot’ or ‘racist’ without justification and making them meaningless.

It's not bigoted to be 'anti' a political ideology. And to be 'anti-Islamist' is, as I've tried to argue above, to be pro-liberty and pro-equality. An accolade, therefore, and not an insult.

Sunday 8 July 2007

Which writers are the real radicals?

Some time in the early '80s I attended a lecture in Manchester by Terry Eagleton, then Professor of Poetry at Oxford. At the end of the lecture, Eagleton was surrounded by a gaggle of far-left newspaper sellers, all eager to persuade him of the merits of their inky tabloids. We sophisticated postgrads smiled at their naivety: how could they think that their crude sloganeering had anything in common with the elegant formulations of this erudite Marxist theorist, whose books on critical theory and post-structuralism adorned the shelves of our bedsits in Withington and West Didsbury?

After reading Eagleton's column in Saturday's Guardian, bewailing the end of Britain's 'long tradition of politically engaged writers', I wonder if there might be more similarities than we imagined. Eagleton's thesis, wrapped around a whistlestop tour of the history of radical British writers, is that the current generation of left-wing authors has sold out, with the result that, in the words of his title (no laughing at the back now) 'only Pinter remains'.

Eagleton echoes Pryamvada Gopal's recent criticism of Salman Rushdie (see this post), describing the author as 'a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.' (Leave aside the rights and wrongs of deposing a murderous dictator for a moment, Terry, but 'criminal' to remove a regime that bombed girls' schools, assassinated teachers and harboured the mass-murderers who planned 9/11?). Christopher Hitchens is also taken to task for having 'thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons.' Eagleton just doesn't get it: he can't see that there might be good left-liberal reasons for opposing clerical fascism or Ba'athist tyranny, nor can he accept any definition of 'radical' that doesn't include reflexive anti-Americanism (being a 'remorseless satirist of the west' is apparently de rigeur, even when the greater danger comes from elsewhere).

Instead, Eagleton is left clutching desperately to dear old Harold Pinter 'who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all', despite Terry's admission 'that his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.' Better not mention Pinter's well-known support for that great radical icon, Slobodan Milosevic, or these sensitive, liberal sentiments in the immediate aftermath of the carnage at the World Trade Center:

People do not forget. They do not forget the death of their fellows, they do not forget torture and mutilation, they do not forget injustice, they do not forget oppression, they do not forget the terrorism of mighty powers. They not only don't forget: they also strike back.
The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world.

Sorry, Terry, if it's a choice between Hitch and Sir Salman on the one hand, and Pinter the apologist for Serbian agression and fundamentalist terror on the other - I know who I think are the true radicals.


For further comment on the Eagleton article, see Norm, and this from Fat Man on a Keyboard:

The criterion for inclusion amongst the pantheon of great radicals is to agree with Eagleton, especially on Iraq....For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.

Saturday 7 July 2007

Which one do YOU have a crush on?

First there was Obama Girl:

Now there's this lesbian paeon ('Hot 4 Hill') to his closest rival:

And the election is still a year and a half away. There's still time for the Republicans to get in on the game. 'Raunchy for Rudy' anyone? Or 'Mad about McCain'? And what if this latest American trend crosses the Atlantic in time for Gordon's anticipated snap election? Can we expect a video from 'Brown's Babe'? How about 'Crush on Cameron' or 'Hot 4 Harriet'?

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Friday 6 July 2007

Three-way split the best hope for Iraq?

I've just finished reading Peter W. Galbraith's The End of Iraq. It's an authoritative account, not only of the war and its aftermath, but also of America's relationship with Iraq since the 1980s, by someone who has been associated with the country over a long period and was one of the first to uncover Saddam's genocide against the Kurds. Although Galbraith was not against the war - he describes his gradual realisation that Saddam's murderous regime would only be removed by external force - he is an unsparing critic of the ignorance and incompetence that produced its chaotic aftermath.

When the report of the Iraq Study Group appeared, it was tempting to think that, if only Dubbya had followed the wiser counsels of James Baker and other members of his father's circle, things might have turned out differently. Galbraith's book disabuses us of such thinking, reminding its readers of the appeasement and duplicity that characterised the dealings of Bush senior's adminstration with Iraq and its people, culminating in the betrayal of the Shiite revolt against Saddam following the first Gulf War.

Galbraith's instinctive sympathies lie with the Kurds, with whom he has had the closest association, and the second half of the book is really an extended argument for an independent Kurdistan. Since this is the part of Iraq that has the best hope of developing into a secular, pluralist democracy, it's hard to disagree with him. Galbraith argues that the West should endorse the de facto splitting up of Iraq into three independent states - Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni Arab region in the middle, and a Shiite south - and suggests that this may not be as bad a prospect as many assume.

My main reservation about this argument is that it is tantamount to accepting an authoritarian theocracy in the Shiite area. This may be a 'democratic' outcome, but it means condemning secular Shiites, as well as women and sexual and other minorities, to an oppressive future. Surely true democracy must involve protecting the rights of minorities, rather than simply accepting the rule of an authoritarian majority? (though parts of Kurdistan have not been immune from fundamentalist oppression: see this post.)

Galbraith provides further evidence of how British and American actions following the liberation contributed to the rise of fundamentalist religious parties in the south. As I've noted before, by giving power and resources to these groups the allies were following a communalist policy that was reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism. A detailed critique of this betrayal of secular Iraq has still to be written, though Rory Stewart's book about his time as a 'deputy governate administrator' , which I've yet to read, may shed more light.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Tackling the blowback theory head-on

Following on from this post:

I’ve suggested on various occasions that there are what we might call ‘psycho-political’ reasons for the insistence by some on the Left on the so-called ‘blowback’ theory of Islamist terrorism. These reasons include:

- an inability to step outside an anti-imperialist/conspiratorial paradigm in which the West is ultimately to blame for most of the ills of the world

- a tendency to see any movement that claims to be anti-western, however reactionary its rhetoric, as ‘radical’ and as an ally in the global struggle

- a skewed anti-racism (actually an inverted form of racism) which claims to feel sympathy for minority groups, but prefers to cast them as oppressed victims and can’t allow that they might have ideas and motives of their own

- in the wake of the collapse of socialist idealism, a barely-suppressed fascination with and sneaking admiration for the revolutionary zeal of Islamism.

Those with a passing knowledge of the history of pre-war Europe will recognise similarities (brilliantly described by Nick Cohen) with the ways in which many liberals and leftists consistently misconstrued and underestimated the threat posed by the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

But suppose for a moment that we take what the blowback theorists say seriously. Suppose there is some truth in the arguments of Seumas Milne and others, and it’s possible to prove a causal link between the interventions by Britain and the US in Afghanistan and Iraq and the terror attacks here at home. Would establishing that link actually tell us anything useful?

Imagine a different scenario. Suppose that in the late 1940s, the British Labour government, appalled by the stories emerging of oppression and torture in Franco’s Spain, had decided to launch a war to liberate the Spanish people from this distasteful fascist regime (unlikely I know, but stick with me). Imagine that, as a result of this attack on his country, an enraged Franco launched secret underground cells of Falangists to set off bombs in British cities, causing death and mayhem. How do you think the British Left would have responded: would they have blamed the government for launching the war and making Britain a target? would they have complained about ‘Bevan’s bombs’ and demanded an end to the war? Unlikely. And why? Because they would have supported the war against Franco, would have regarded the terror attacks as tragic but the inevitable price of a just war, and because they would have believed that it was wrong to allow British foreign policy to be dictated by violent fascists.

Imagine another scenario. Suppose there’s another terrorist attack on London in a few years time, but this time it’s a number of gay pubs that are targeted (not unprecedented, unfortunately: remember the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan in 1999), causing many deaths and injuries. The bombers, from a previously unknown extreme rightwing group, release a video claiming the attack was in response to a new law giving gays and lesbians greater equality. This would be a clear case of ‘blowback’ – of simple cause and effect – in which a link could be proven between government policy and a terror attack. So would the comment pages of The Guardian be filled with talk of ‘Brown’s bombs’ and demands that the government repeal the new equality law instantly? Hardly. Why not? Because liberals and progressive would agree with the new law and would argue that government policy should not be dictated by violent fascists.

Why, then, don't today’s blowback theorists take a similar line? Because they think that government policy shouldn’t be dictated by violent fascists – unless it’s a policy they disagree with, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to give in. Then again, they don’t really believe that the terrorists are fascists, but at worst a variety of misguided freedom fighters. So all that the blowback theory really tells us is: its proponents don't like the war. Nothing more.


This post has generated the most hits of anything I've written in my three and a bit months of blogging, thanks mainly to a link from Pootergeek (cheers). Getting a lot of comments makes you wish you'd said some things differently. So, just to clarify: yes, of course I'm aware that most people on the Left were fully aware of the threat of fascism in the Thirties and that by far the most apologists were on the Right. What I was referring to was something Nick Cohen highlights: that some on the Left, too, including some pacifists, were willing to play down the evils of fascism and argue that the fascists and their own governments were equally bad - something that finds echoes in today's attempts to 'understand' the anger of fundamentalist terror gangs.

The delusions of Seumas Milne

Anyone searching for an explanation of why the comment pages of the liberal Guardian are regularly given over to apologists for illiberal opinions, particularly Islamism, need look no further than the identity of the man who edits those pages: Seumas Milne.

In today's Guardian, Milne gives himself a column - headed 'Denial of the link with Iraq is delusional and dangerous' - in which to insist that, despite growing evidence to the contrary, Islamist terror attacks in the UK are not the product of a twisted cult driven by an authoritarian religio-political ideology, but (you guessed it) simply the blowback from British foreign policy.

There's so much to quarrel with in Milne's contentious article (and I'm sure others will provide a more detailed critique), but here are a few points for starters. I find Milne's sneering at repentant former Islamists such as Ed Husain (whom he insultingly labels 'a British neocon pinup boy') and Hassan Butt deeply patronising and (like much leftist-apologist talk) ironically reminiscent of the very colonialist thinking he claims to oppose. It seems it's OK for minorities to express their views, as long as they tally with leftist orthodoxy: if they don't, it must be a case of manipulation by the white establishment. Heaven forbid that they might have opinions of their own, or that their direct experience of Islamist extremism might have some value. I hesitate to describe this approach as indirectly racist, though others might not be so cautious.

Then there's the peculiar assumption in Milne's piece that any opposition to Islamism must be driven by neoconservatism. Like many of his ilk, Milne can't accept that there might, just possibly, be a legitimate liberal-left critique of clerical fascism. Finally, Milne lends support to the latest argument from the apologist school of thought: that the best defence against terrorism is to support so-called 'moderate' - or what he terms 'mainstream' - Islamist groups against their wackier fellow-fundamentalists. Leave aside the question of whether a totalitarian ideology aiming at world domination can ever be described as 'moderate': Milne's argument (like that of Alastair Crooke with regard to Hamas) represents an appalling loss of nerve by some on the Left. It's a tacit admission that there's no hope of establishing secular, progressive democracies in the Arab and Muslim worlds, or of such values taking root among 'Muslim' populations in western countries, so there's no point continuing to promote them.

But I think this cosying up to so-called 'moderate' Islamism is also a sign of the continuing fascination that many former far-Leftists (of whom Milne is one: see this profile of him at Harry's Place) have for the glamorous 'Other' of political Islam.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Sweet freedom

Another tenuous link: in a later interview today Alan Johnston talked eloquently about what freedom meant to him, after four months in captivity, and he ended by saying: 'It's a wonderful Fourth of July'.

Which gives me an excuse belatedly (well, on this side of the ocean, anyway, where the day is almost over) to wish a happy Independence Day to all my readers in the Land of the Free.

The real engine of their violence

Yesterday I quoted ex-jihadist Hassan Butt's riposte to those who pin the blame for terror attacks on the BFP (British foreign policy):

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

Or rather: a twisted, fundamentalist interpretation of that theology. The information emerging about Bilal Talal Abdulla, one of the Glasgow would-be self-immolators, provides evidence to support Butt's argument:

At al-Mansour high school and later at Baghdad College, Bilal Talal Abdulla was known as an earnest young scholar whose fervent Islamic faith seemed at times to border on the over-zealous. His mother was apparently afraid to remove her headscarf in his presence. And one classmate recalls an incident when he tried to destroy a crucifix dropped by a Christian student in a classroom. According to the classmate, he never again spoke to those who insisted on returning it to its owner.

Although raised in Baghdad, Dr Abdulla was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where his father, also a doctor, worked. He has several relatives in Cambridge, some of them associated with the university. In Baghdad, however, he is remembered as a figure from whom classmates kept their distance. "By high school he was known as a Wahhabi," said one former classmate. "He was a Sunni extremist."

To paraphrase the great James Carville: It's the theology, stupid.

Free at last

This is fantastic news and for now the only possible response is (to appropriate Mrs T's infamous words on a very different occasion): rejoice, rejoice! Alan Johnston was characteristically gracious and generous in his first post-release interview, with Jim Naughtie on Radio 4 this morning, asking us not to forget other kidnap victims and journalists killed or held captive in the pursuit of truth.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor, speaking on the same programme, suggested that Hamas would be hoping to get a PR 'bounce' out of the affair, as they seem to have been responsible for engineering Johnston's release. I hope that doesn't happen. I can imagine that some would see these events as reinforcing their view that Hamas is a relatively 'moderate' Islamist movement that the West could (and should) do business with. But while we should certainly welcome any sign of new-found moderation on Hamas' part, another way of intepreting what's happened is as the result of one Islamist group strong-arming a rival gang (the Army of Islam) into doing its bidding. For now, though, let's celebrate the happy outcome for Alan and his family.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Blaming foreign policy a cop-out

Perhaps David T at Harry's Place is right and the tide is turning against those who blame the terror attacks on that all-purpose bogeyman, the BFP (British foreign policy). Here's Asim Siddiqui, chairman of the City Circle, a network of young British Muslim professionals, writing at Comment is Free :

The events of the last few days have been sobering for us all. The response from some UK Muslim groups (influenced by Islamist thinking) is still largely to blame foreign policy (undoubtedly an exacerbating influence but not the cause), rather than marching "not in my name" in revulsion against terrorist acts committed in Islam's name. By blaming foreign policy they try to divert pressure off themselves from the real need to tackle extremism being peddled within. Diverting attention away from the problems within Muslim communities and blaming others - especially the west - is always more popular than the difficult task of self-scrutiny. And what part of foreign policy do the Islamists want us to change to tackle terrorism? Withdrawal from Iraq?

The UK presence on the ground in Iraq is minuscule compared to the US. [...] And once we've left Iraq, will they be satisfied? Of course not. Their list of grievances is endless: Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Burma ... so long as the world is presented as one where the west is forever at war with Islam and Muslims there is nothing we can do to appease the terrorists and those who share their world view. Instead it is this extremist world view that must change.

Take for example the idea that radical Islamists are concerned about Muslim life (let's ignore human life in general for a moment). Where is their outrage at the 400,000 Muslims slaughtered in Darfur? Where are the marches and calls for action against this ongoing genocide? Where is the "Muslim anger" boiling up amongst British Islamists? It is nowhere to be seen because the Darfurians have been massacred by fellow Muslims, not by the west. Hence it does not appear on the Islamist radar screen as a "grievance". Such is the moral bankruptcy of this ideology.

No, it's not foreign policy that's the main driver in combating the terrorists; it is their mindset. The radical Islamist ideology needs to be exposed to young Muslims for what it really is. A tool for the introduction of a medieval form of governance that describes itself as an "Islamic state" that is violent, retrogressive, discriminatory, a perversion of the sacred texts and a totalitarian dictatorship.When the IRA was busy blowing up London, there would have been little point in Irish "community leaders" urging "all" citizens to cooperate with the police equally when it was obvious the problem lay specifically within Irish communities. Likewise for Muslim "community leaders" to condemn terrorism is a no-brainer. What is required is for those that claim to represent and have influence among young British Muslims to proactively counter the extremist Islamist narrative. That is the biggest challenge for British Muslim leadership over the next five to 10 years. It is because they are failing to rise to this challenge that the government feels it needs to act by further eroding our civil liberties with anti-terror legislation to get the state to do what Muslims should be doing themselves. If British Muslim groups focus on grassroots de-radicalisation then this will provide civil liberty groups the space they need to argue against any further anti-terror legislation.

Of course I would like to see changes in our foreign policy and have marched on the streets (with thousands of non-Muslims) in protest on many occasions. But blaming foreign policy in the face of suicide attacks is not only tactless but a cop-out that fails to tackle extremism, fails to promote an ethical foreign policy and fails to protect our civil liberties.

From art to terrorism in two moves

Following on from my recent post about the painting that adorns the cover of Edward Carpenter's 'Towards Democracy', I discover that it also has pride of place on a blog that was hitherto unknown to me - Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic - which I discovered today thanks to Shuggy's post on the Glasgow airport attack. Read Freens' thoughts at SCWR on the 'doctors' plot'.

Doing the terrorists' propaganda work for them

I find it astonishing that almost all the letters in today's Guardian on the latest terror attacks support the discredited 'blowback' theory: i.e. it's a reponse to the war in Iraq and therefore, directly or indirectly, our own government's fault. You have to assume that at least some of the letter-writers bought The Guardian's sister paper The Observer on Sunday and read the piece by former jihadist Hassan Butt, which included the following:

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

Friday's attempt to cause mass destruction in London with strategically placed car bombs is so reminiscent of other recent British Islamic extremist plots that it is likely to have been carried out by my former peers.

And as with previous terror attacks, people are again articulating the line that violence carried out by Muslims is all to do with foreign policy. For example, yesterday on Radio 4's Today programme, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said: 'What all our intelligence shows about the opinions of disaffected young Muslims is the main driving force is not Afghanistan, it is mainly Iraq.'

He then refused to acknowledge the role of Islamist ideology in terrorism and said that the Muslim Brotherhood and those who give a religious mandate to suicide bombings in Palestine were genuinely representative of Islam.

I left the BJN in February 2006, but if I were still fighting for their cause, I'd be laughing once again. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7 July bombings, and I were both part of the BJN - I met him on two occasions - and though many British extremists are angered by the deaths of fellow Muslim across the world, what drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world.

So what's going on here? Either The Guardian's selection of letters for publication (like its choice of writers for its comment columns) is skewed towards a certain point of view - or these letters are genuinely representative of a swathe of liberal-left opinion in Britain. If the latter, and these people are aware of the writings of Butt, Ed Husain and others, then it's another instance of the strategy of deliberately ignoring the obvious and looking the other way that has seems to have become central to the faux-liberal mindset.


When I wrote the above I hadn't read the supplements to today's Guardian. The education section has an interview with Professor John Tulloch, who survived the 7/7 bombings and famously complained about the way the media used his image in support of the government's anti-terror policies. He subsequently wrote a book about his ordeal, in which he attempted to 'understand' the motives of suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan. In the Guardian interview he rejects the way Khan has been treated by the media and claims that (in the words of the article) 'We will not understand the anger felt by many British Muslims over the Iraq war if we simply view Khan "as a crazy who's been got at by another crazy".'

Well, Hassan Butt's article quoted above should put paid to any notion that 'understanding' anger over Iraq will tell us anything useful about the causes of suicide terrorism. And though labelling Khan a 'crazy' is clearly unhelpful, it's not far off the mark to apply that label to the murderous cult in which he allowed himself to be swept up, and its warped theocratic ideology. Respect is due to Professor Tulloch for attempting a cool-headed analysis of what must have been a terribly traumatic personal experience, but it could be argued that citing 'Muslim anger' as a motive actually tarnishes those Muslims who, whatever their views of British foreign policy, didn't decide to massacre innocent Tube passengers as part of a strategy to create 'a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world'.

Monday 2 July 2007

Fair is foul

To Stratford-on-Avon on Saturday, to see Conall Morrison's production of Macbeth, part of the RSC's 'Complete Works' season. The main theatre is closed now for a couple of years for a major refurbishment, so we were in the more intimate Swan Theatre round the back, where we saw Tamsin Greig in the Cuban-set Much Ado About Nothing last year. This was a rather darker experience, the grim drama on stage complemented by the stormy weather outside.

There were some powerful performances - notably the superb Patrick O'Kane in the title role, Derbhle Crotty as Lady Macbeth and Jude Akuwudike as Banquo - but we weren't convinced by Morrison's interpretation of the play. An additional - gratuitously bloodthirsty - opening scene was added, which undermined any sense of Macbeth as an initially noble leader slowly warped by ambition. And the famous 'night porter' scene, whose humour usually defuses the murderous tension in the second act, was spoiled by substituting the witches for the porter, thus adding to the sense of unrelenting grimness. There was a more than usually Celtic feel to the production, with a mixture of Irish and Scots accents on stage, plus a leavening of black voices from an ethnically diverse cast.

The 'Complete Works' festival is coming to a close, and it's been an amazing season. We've seen a number of productions, mostly comedies - our way of gradually introducing our teenage offspring to Shakespeare - and they've been almost uniformly impressive. We even surprised ourselves by enjoying the musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor earlier this year, but then, with Judi Dench and Simon Callow starring, it couldn't really fail.

Support these organisations

Further to these posts: here are links to the websites of two organisations doing important work. First, the International Campaign Against Honour Killings (via B&W) and second the brand new website of the recently formed Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

The London Review of Hamas?

So there I was yesterday morning, eagerly removing the cellophane wrapping from the latest London Review of Books (delayed due to Friday's postal strike - but I'm all for deferred pleasure), when I caught sight of the heading above the title - 'Alastair Crooke: The Case for Hamas' - and my heart sank. Things got worse when I turned to the actual article - given the 'lead' slot in the magazine - in which Crooke argues that refusing to support the Hamas government was 'our second biggest mistake in the Middle East'.

The article reviews three new books on Israel-Palestine, including one by well-known Hamas mouthpiece Azzam Tamimi, and it echoes recent attempts by Soumaya Ghannoushi, Jonathan Steele and whoever writes the Guardian leaders, to pin the blame for the Islamist coup in Gaza on the West. But Crooke goes further than these authors, who merely avoided blaming Hamas and its Iranian and Syrian backers, in actively arguing the case for Hamas as a legitimate political party.

Several times in the article, Crooke refers to Hamas as a 'moderate' Islamist party, a label he also attaches, incredibly, to Hezbollah. His argument echoes Jonathan Steele's recent suggestion that western progressives should lend support to the apparently 'moderate' Islamist government in Turkey, rather than to their secular liberal opponents. In both instances, the thinking appears to be a case of 'hold on to nurse for fear of something worse': i.e. if we don't support these Islamists, then a far worse variety might replace them.

You'll search in vain in Crooke's article for any mention of the 'moderate' Hamas' antisemitic ideology and constitution, or its use of suicide terrorism against civilian targets. Nor will you find any reference to Azzam Tamimi's well-publicised support for these same ideas and tactics. Reviewing a book by Tamimi without even mentioning these facts about him, let alone criticising them, lends a spurious legitimacy to a spokesman for violent racist jihad and is a disgrace to a once-reputable publication.

When a recent issue of Dissent carried an article by Eugene Goodheart headed 'The London Review of Hezbollah', critiquing the magazine's one-sided coverage of last year's Lebanon war, I felt it was going too far. After the appearance of Crooke's article, I'm not so sure. As with my disaffection from The Guardian, it's not that I think a liberal paper should never carry articles that criticise western actions in the Middle East: it's that these days they rarely seem to carry any other kind, and the articles they do carry evade any attempt at balance or criticism of anyone else apart from 'the West'. As I've mentioned before, there appears to be a concerted strategy by the faux-liberal commentariat to go to any lengths to avoid attaching blame (or agency) to political Islam.

What Goodheart said about the LRB and Hezbollah applies equally to its publication of Crooke's article:

In its one-sided obsession with Israeli transgressions, the London Review of Books, offering no constructive advice for ending the conflict, contributes to its perpetuation by supporting one side of the intransigence. Its indulgence of a virulently anti-Semitic movement is simply shameful.

(See also Norm's take on this)