Tuesday 30 November 2010

What the Dickens

As part of my campaign to re-engage with classic fiction, I've been re-reading David Copperfield, and finding myself astonished once again at the genius of Dickens. However, I was shocked to discover that this puts me in pretty appalling company. Apparently Anwar al-Awlaki, chief theoretician of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, became an avid admirer of Dickens during his incarceration in Yemen, having been forbidden to read Islamic texts:
I read Hard Times thrice. So, I ordered more Charles Dickens and read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and his masterpiece: David Copperfield. I read this one twice.
How anyone could immerse themselves in these rich, humane narratives and still plan the mass murder of innocents is an unfathomable mystery. Or it would be, if we didn't already have the image imprinted in our minds of SS officers listening to Mozart and Beethoven after a day's work at the concentration camp.

The extract from al-Awlaki's defunct blog occurs in Shiraz Maher's revealing analysis of the latest issue of AQAP's propaganda rag, Inspire, which I came across via Christopher Hitchens' article on airport security in Slate. Both are required and sobering reading.


Weary of the anti-American anti-Israel reactionary chic of The Guardian, I've been experimenting with other daily papers. Recently, I've been giving The Independent a whirl (well, it does have John Rentoul, Steve Richards and Julie Burchill).

But the Indy's coverage of the Wikileaks saga has given me a distinct sense of déja vu. Yesterday's front page headline: 'Deceits, plots, insults: America laid bare'. And today's: 'Now we know. America really doesn't care about injustice in the Middle East'. A fair and balanced account of American foreign policy? I don't think so. Messrs. Milne and Steele couldn't have done better (Ah, I see: today's cover story is by Robert Fisk. That explains it.)

I shall seriously consider taking my custom elsewhere. But where...?

Monday 15 November 2010

It's all our fault - again

When more than fifty innocent people were massacred in a Baghdad church two weeks ago, most analysts concluded that the perpetrators were al Qaeda operatives, probably from outside Iraq. But William Dalrymple thinks he knows who’s really responsible for this outrage, and for the recent bomb attacks on Christian suburbs of the city.

I’ll give you a clue: it’s a four-letter word beginning with ‘B’. And for Dalrymple, any Bush will do. Dubya, obviously, since it was he who, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, ‘created a highly radicalised pro-Iranian sectarian killing field, where most of the Iraqi Christian minority has been forced to flee abroad’. Did Bush manage this all by himself, I hear you ask? What about the sectarian killers themselves, or their Iranian backers: don’t they share some responsibility for the violence? Apparently not, since they don’t merit a mention in Dalrymple’s unipolar blame game.

But Dubya’s dad doesn’t escape responsibility either. ‘Before Bush senior took on Saddam for the first time in 1991, there were more than a million Christians in Iraq.’ Notice that, for Dalrymple, this 'taking on' of Saddam comes entirely out of the blue, as if the US president were the sole originator of the first Gulf War. You’d never know that the US intervention, at the head of an international coalition backed by the UN, was in response to Saddam’s unprovoked invasion of a neighbouring country. It’s difficult to see the connection, either, between this action and the declining numbers of Christians in Iraq. Dalrymple’s method here is the familiar nudge-nudge guilt-by-association of the root-causer.

But inevitably, it’s Bush 2 who is made to carry most of the burden for the fate of Iraq’s Christian community: ‘Of the 800,000 Christians still in Iraq when Dubya unleashed the US army on Saddam for the second time, two thirds have fled the country.’ Again, note the implication of direct cause and effect, and the careful elimination of any other causal factors or responsible agents.

Dalrymple, in passages that recall the fair-minded historian he used to be, does have some interesting things to say about the gradual depletion of the Christian population in Iraq over the centuries, but his main focus is on recent events:

This haemorrhage accelerated after the ill-judged post-9/11 Anglo-American adventures in the Islamic world, and particularly after Bush used the word crusade, which in the eyes of many Muslims implicated the Arab Christians in a wider crusader assault on the Muslim world.

‘Unleashed’ ‘ill-judged’ ‘assault’: Dalrymple's hostility to western policy since 9/11 couldn't be plainer. ‘Adventures’ conjures up, as it is meant to, Victorian imperialist forays into the Middle East and Asia, a theme of much of Dalrymple’s recent historical writing. As with the reference to Kuwait, the intention is to construe these interventions as strategies to advance western interests, rather than as legitimate responses to murderous attacks by others, whether Saddam or al Qaeda.

To cap it all, we’re led to believe that it was the use of a single word – ‘crusade’ – by Bush junior which somehow sealed the fate of Arab Christians. This smacks of the justification offered by those who attacked the Baghdad church. They held innocent Iraqi Christians 'responsible' for the almost-burning of the Koran by an obscure Christian pastor in Florida. It's the logic of the playground bully: your friend called me a rude word, so now I'm going to beat you up. Does Dalrymple agree that Islamic extremists are crazy and irrational when they justify their actions in this way? If he does, I think he should say so, rather than lending credibility to their warped logic.

Of course, even many who suported the invasion of Iraq would agree that the aftermath was poorly prepared for and badly managed, and that Bush and his administration must bear some responsibility for the chaos and destruction that followed in its wake. But even if the planning and management of Iraq's reconstruction had been superb, it can be argued that the ethnic and religious tensions held in check by decades of repression would inevitably have risen to the surface once Saddam had gone. Even if Saddam had been removed by an orderly UN-sanctioned intervention, some kind of communal violence was bound to follow, as those who had been disenfranchised by the dictatorship took revenge on those who had oppressed them - and that's without allowing for the malign interference of Iraq's neighbours, waiting in the wings with their own territorial and ideological agendas. Only another military dictatorship could possibly have suppressed those unleashed forces, and I don't think Dalrymple is arguing that would have been preferable. Or maybe he thinks it would have been better if Saddam had been left in place, and the Christians had continued to enjoy their apparent privileges under his rule?

What's really striking about Dalrymple's argument is the utter failure to attach any blame for the attacks against Christians, or the wider post-invasion violence, to the actual perpetrators, or their international sponsors. So keen is he to hold Bush (and Blair, of course) uniquely responsible for all the evils in the region, and to see the west as the source of all its problems, that he works overtime to remove all sense of agency from Iraqi insurgent groups, al Qaeda and their proxies, and the Iranian regime.

Occasionally Dalrymple's own sources work against him, as when he quotes Lebanese professor Kamil Salibi as saying that there's 'a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. It's a feeling that 14 centuries of having all the time to be smart, to be ahead of the others, is long enough'. Strangely, for a historian, Dalrymple himself fails to locate the current problems of Iraqi Christians in this wider historical context of the slow departure of Christians from a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Palestine.

Yes, of course, the turmoil created by recent wars has accelerated the process. But surely the elephant in the room in Dalrymple's argument is the rise of militant Islam, with its fierce intolerance not only of Christianity, but of any other religion besides its own fundamentalist creed. Some have suggested that the current experience of Christians in majority-Muslim countries parallels that of the Jews, including the once-substantial Jewish population of Iraq, who were forced out of Arab countries after the Second World War by rising Islamic intolerance and antisemitism.

As always, it seems odd for a writer like Dalrymple, who bangs on endlessly about the legacy of colonialism, to adopt a rhetorical strategy which, with a kind of lofty intellectual imperialism, denies agency or rational responsibility to non-western actors, and sees them as capable only of reacting mindlessly to the actions of the west.

Sunday 14 November 2010

In memoriam

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki has died, aged 76. His most popular work, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, was inspired by the graffiti carved on the wall of a Gestapo prison by an 18 year old girl: 'Mamma do not cry. Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always'.

This video, which superimposes images of those murdered by the Nazis, seems appropriate on this day of Remembrance. I'm posting it in honour of all victims of fascism, and of all those who fought and died to defeat it.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Progress, primitivism and the politics of 'Avatar'

There was a fascinating exchange on yesterday's Today programme, about a planned scientific expedition to Paraguay. Fascinating, because it exemplified some key trends in current debates about 'culture' and 'progress'.

On one side of the argument was Professor Richard Lane, director of science at the Natural History Museum, which is sponsoring the expedition. Lane was measured, thoughtful, weighing up the benefits and risks of the venture, very much the voice of academic, scientific reason. On the other side was Benno Glauser, director of an indigenous people’s protection group, who argued that the expedition should be called off, because of the threat it poses to communities who have never had any contact with the outside world.

Glauser suggested, somewhat melodramatically, that any contact between the expedition and these indigenous groups would be tantamount to 'genocide'. This was primarily due to the risk of exposure to western diseases, a risk that was disputed by Professor Lane. But there was another, deeper layer to Glauser's concern. He was also worried that any meeting between these hitherto isolated communities and the representatives of western modernity would lead to the breakdown of what he called their 'life model'. He proceeded to elaborate on this in glowing terms, claiming that these indigenous people 'live in complete interdependence with nature', that 'they have a principle of life which is a principle of minimal intervention' in which 'the world protects them as long as they protect the world'.

In other words, Glauser painted a picture of life among isolated indigenous communities in Paraguay as some kind of ecological Eden. By implication, he cast the civilisation represented by the expedition - scientific, modern, western - in entirely negative terms, as a threat or pollutant to this paradisal scene. The echoes of James Cameron's Avatar seemed almost deliberate. (Mischievously, I also wondered how Glauser could speak with such certainty about the way of life of these groups, if they have never had any contact with the outside world.)

Listening to the exchange, it struck me that two hundred years ago, the terms of the debate would have been completely reversed. At the height of colonial expansion and missionary zeal, it was the world of the indigenous tribes that would have been viewed negatively - as backward, godless, darkened by ignorance - and western civilisation as advanced, enlightened, in possession of truth. In the last century, secularised versions of this discourse - both capitalist and communist - held sway, with the prevailing wisdom on all sides being that exposure to modern medicine, scientific knowledge, mechanical methods and so forth, would bring enormous benefits to the lives of 'primitive' peoples.

Even half a century ago - in the Sixties - the dominant paradigm for representing the needs of Third World people was 'development', the notion that lives could be infinitely improved by providing access to modern farming methods, industrial production, safer childbirth, etc.

Since then, as Benno Glauser’s argument (and the popularity of films like Avatar) demonstrates, there has been a massive loss of confidence in ‘progress’ and in 'western' ideas and values (the very labelling of them as 'western', rather than as universal and an aspiration for everyone, is symptomatic). Running alongside this has been the rise of a culturalism that reifies the values and way of life of communities (particularly if those communities are non-western and 'other') as static and almost sacred, together with a relativism that tends to see all cultures as equally valid and therefore beyond rational criticism.

Both trends are evident in the fulminations of cultural commentators such as the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, with her hand-wringing about the shortcomings of modern civilisation - the individualism, the consumerism, the shallowness - and wondering whether, perhaps, the religious fundamentalists might not have a point - and after all, who are we to judge?

Of course, this kind of thing is not new. Alongside a rhetoric of reason and scientific advance, liberal progressivism has always included a romanticising strain, a tendency to idealise the primitive and the 'other'. Indeed - to get pretentious for a moment - maybe what we are seeing in the rise of the new eco-primitivism (not to mention the new pro-faithism) is the revenge of Romanticism on the Enlightenment. But I digress...

Returning to Benno Glauser's glorification of indigenous 'culture': I notice there was no mention of any less desirable features in the lives of these isolated hunter-gatherers. I wonder what their life expectancy is, or what proportion of their offspring survive infancy? How many of them die from unexplained diseases, and how many of their women are worn down by a constant round of childbirth, or their men by a life devoted to the exhausting daily search for sustenance?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Natural History Museum's expedition goes ahead and that, despite its best efforts, it makes 'accidental' contact with one of these indigenous groups, which leads in turn to an opening-up of that community to the outside world. Now, imagine that in about fifty years' time the grand-daughter of one of those tribesmen, who has had the opportunity to leave her native village to go to school and then university, has become (say) a pioneering medical researcher, or an acclaimed novelist, or a globetrotting politician. Would the likes of Benno Glauser still argue that her life would have been better if the expedition had not happened, if contact had not been made, and she had been compelled to lead the same kind of life as her mother and her grandmother?

To be sure, if contact is made, there will be losses as well as gains. And those responsible need not to repeat the mistakes of previous incursions, ensuring that rapacious developers and mad-eyed missionaries are kept at bay, and that the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples are respected. But how strange it would have seemed to progressives of earlier times to argue that indigenous people should be forbidden access to the benefits of modernity - and that every effort should be made to deny them the right to choose for themselves the kind of lives they wish to lead.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Sanctified sounds

There's enough of the residual Catholic in me to note that today is the feast of St. Martin de Porres, one of the cooler saints in the calendar. The illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and an ex-slave, Juan Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, and spent his life in the service of the poor. He was the first black saint from the Americas and is the patron of people of 'mixed race'. (Celebrating him seems particularly pertinent under this disappointingly Eurocentric papacy, which has seen Benedict XVI appoint a disproportionate number of European cardinals to oversee a church 40% of whose members live in Latin America and 25% in Africa and Asia.)

As I've remarked before, were I ever to resolve my arguments with Christianity, St. Martin de Porres would be a prime candidate for my patron saint, though he'd have to battle it out with St. Martin of Tours, whom I admire for his early advocacy of the separation of church and state (after the execution of a group of heretics, he protested that the church was wrong to use the power of the secular state to enforce matters of belief).

An additional coolnesss factor attaching to St. Martin de Porres is the fact that, to my knowledge, he's the only saint to have had an album dedicated to him by a jazz legend: Black Christ of the Andes by the great Mary Lou Williams. Here's the opening track:

Tuesday 2 November 2010

'We will go to paradise if we kill you'

In a small town in America an obscure, unrepresentative Christian clergyman talks about burning a book. Six weeks later, thousands of miles away, Islamic militants exact their revenge: the cold-blooded murder of more than fifty innocent churchgoers. That’s what seems to have happened in the appalling al-Qaida-linked massacre of Catholic worshippers in Baghdad on Sunday.

Rarely has the full, murderous madness of jihadist ideology been so blatantly exposed as in the words of the terrorists who carried out this atrocity, hence my extended quotation from Martin Chulov's Guardian report below.

Note, if you will, that the attackers make no reference to avenging the occupation of Iraq, or ‘western foreign policy’. Rather, the massacre of dozens of utterly blameless people is seen as the price to be exacted for the destruction – no, not even that, but the threatened destruction – of some printed pages. Note also how, in this contorted logic, the choice of target is justified because the victims are ‘infidels’ – people who have the audacity to believe something different from their Islamist attackers – and are therefore already bound for hell, whereas the attackers themselves, who claim that their massacre of the innocents is ‘halal’ – permissible under religious law – appear to trust in a god who rewards with 'paradise' those who shoot and bomb whole families to death.

Some liberals have baulked at using the term 'clerical fascism' to describe the ideology of Islamism. But surely the closest analogy between what happened this weekend at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad is with Nazi revenge massacres of village populations, or Ustase 'cleansing' of ethnic and religious minorities. Somehow, though, the invocation of divine approval for this latest outrage makes it seem, if anything, even more terrible:

At sunset yesterday, Raghada al-Wafi walked excitedly to mass with news for the priest who married her a month ago. Tonight, exactly 24 hours later, she returned to the Our Lady of Salvation church – this time carried by her family in a coffin that also contained her unborn child.

Today the priest who blessed her marriage and pregnancy minutes before he was killed will also be buried, as will several dozen other members of his congregation – all of them slain by terrorists in an attack that has drawn condemnation from around the world and left the fate of Iraq's beleaguered Christian community evermore uncertain .

Fifty-eight people, most of them worshippers from the Chaldean Catholic community, are confirmed to have been killed in the massacre, which was carried out by al-Qaida-aligned gunmen, some of whom claimed to be avenging a foiled move by a small-town US pastor to burn the Qur'an.

Survivors spoke of religious taunts, random killings and then a gunman slaughtering hostages en masse as the Iraqi army stormed the church to end the four-hour siege.

Ghassan Salah, 17, had just arrived for the Sunday night service with his mother, Nadine, and brother, Ghaswan, when the gunmen burst through the cathedral's huge wooden doors. "All of you are infidels," they screamed at the congregation. "We are here to avenge the burning of the Qur'ans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt."

Then the killing began. Ghassan and seven other survivors described to the Guardian a series of events that have broken new ground in a country that has become partly conditioned to violence throughout eight years of war. Thar Abdallah, the priest who married al-Wafi was first to be killed – shot dead where he stood. Gunmen then sprayed the church with bullets as another priest ushered up to 60 people to a small room in the back.

Mona Abdullah Hadad, 62, was in church with her family when the gunmen started shooting. "They said, 'We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell'," she said. "We stood beside the wall and they started shooting at the young people. I asked them to kill me and let my grandson live, but they shot him dead and they shot me in the back."


"They said it was 'halal' to kill us," said Hannah, whose 10-year-old son was shot in the back. "They hated us and said we were all going to die."

Witnesses interviewed consistently said that some of the gunmen spoke Arabic in a non-Iraqi dialect, supporting a government claim that the operation was foreign-backed. It was carried out in the name of an umbrella group for global jihad causes, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which has previously targeted Christians and churches, but on a much smaller scale.