The Left and Anti-Semitism

Does the Left have a problem with Jews? This question arose in the wake of Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Hitler and Zionism. For all the fury of the ensuring media storm, the issue seemed to leave the public cold. For my two pennies’ worth, I don’t think the Labour Party per se has a massive problem with anti-semitism. From 2010 to 2015, it had a Jewish leader, which does not suggest a party with an inveterate anti-Semitic bias.

But this is not about the Labour Party and to what extent it has an issue with Jews. The ballyhoo Livingstone’s remarks generated missed a broader issue. The Left does have a problem with Jews – Israelis ones, namely. But the source of this problem is not anti-semitism but a certain type of modish ideology.

Before we come to that, let me make myself plain. It is not anti-Semitic – by definition – to criticise Israel.  Just like it is not Islamophobic – by definition- to criticise Islam.  Therefore, those who tar all of Israel’s critics with the brush of anti-semitism are wrong. Likewise, those who tar all critics of Islam with the brush of Islamophobia are wrong.

So, to get back on topic: what do I mean when I say the ‘Left’? I mean, the ‘hard’ Labour Left, movements associated with it, like Momentum, fringe movements like the Socialist Workers’ Party and its front organisations like the Stop the War Coalition. I am speaking of the Anglo-American Left and not the Left globally though I suspect much of what I say below will apply to the Left worldwide. It’s true that criticism of Israel is not just confined to this Left, so defined, but they are the most vocal and prominent critics.

I think the basis of their criticism is, pace the Tory Party and the Daily Telegraph, rooted mostly in perceptions Israel’s behaviour.  But that is not the end of the argument. It’s not so much what they say as what they don’t say. The Left – good at pointing everyone else’s shortcomings and double-standards – has a quite a few blind spots of its own.

When it comes to the comparable crimes committed by Israel’s opponents, it maintains a circumspect silence. Nowhere has this been more striking than in the case of Syria since the outbreak of that country’s civil war 2011.  Israel’s Gaza incursions in 2008/09 and 2012 attracted copious commentary and criticism but Bashar Al-Assad armed forces’ two-year blockade and bombardment of a Palestinian refugee camp in his own capital city attracted little excitement, either in the ‘Arab Street’ or among Israel’s usual critics on the Left. Indeed, everything Israel has done to Gaza over the last 10 years, Assad has done to his own people since 2011 (although Israel, unlike Syria, has not bombed its own cities, one aspect in which comparison between the two is not apt).

This blind-spot is nothing new. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, bombarded Beirut and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians. In that same year, while the world’s attention was fixed on Beirut, Bashar’s father and uncle were flattening one of their own cities, Hama. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of civilians perished. The brainchild behind Israel’s 1982 was Ariel Sharon, Israel’s then defence minister. Sharon was a hate figure on the left. Given his record, this is hardly a surprise. But his record was no worse than the Assads – only Sharon was a Jew. It’s the lopsided nature of the Left’s condemnation that arouses the suspicion among Israel’s defenders of darker motivations of Israel’s critics.

Of course, it is far easier to report from the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts than in places like Syria. That was true in 1982 and remains true today. Israel is (within its 1967 borders) an open society, with a rule of law, free press and a civil society that tolerates criticism from within. There is no equivalent to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem anywhere in any of Israel’s neighbours, including ‘moderate’ states like Jordan – let alone Syria.

For these reasons, Syrian crimes are not documented to the same detail as Israeli ones. But this is not the explanation for the Left’s silence on Syria. Unlike Hama in 1982, we know a lot more about what is happening in Syria because of developments in communication technology, even if we still know less about Syria than we do about Israel-Palestine. One thing is for sure, the evidence for Assad’s crimes is in the public realm and Israel’s critics on the Left – many drawn from the educated classes – can scarcely fail to be aware of it, or not know where to look.

Assad claims that Syria is fighting terrorists, sponsored and raised from overseas. His claim mirrors Bush’s claim about Iraqi insurgents in the early years of the US occupation of that country. Of course, some ‘Iraqi’ insurgents were foreigners and some ‘Syrian’ rebels are foreigners. But the bulk of Iraqi insurgents were born in Iraq and the bulk of Syrian rebels were born in Syria. Iraqi insurgents and Syrian rebels have committed numerous crimes. The designation ‘terrorist’ is not without truth, in both cases. But in Iraq’s, the Left described Iraqi insurgents as the resistance, but in Syria, they are terrorists. We know what Assad and Bush are doing when they deny the indigenous origins of the people they are fighting. It is a self-serving rationale, designed to obscure their responsibility for the mayhem they helped to create. Whether the Left accepts this rationale in any given case depends less on what the actual facts of the situation are than on the person making it.

The selectivity is not on account of anti-semitism. It’s a world view that considers that the only sources of evil are from the West. Evil, injustice and oppression are only things that white westerners do. Israel ticks the right boxes. Zionism, a ‘project’ conceived and implemented by westernised Jewish intellectuals, is an outpost of the West. This ideology explains the paroxysm of rage Stop the War worked itself up over Britain’s decision to bomb IS in November 2015, while saying nothing about Russia’s contemporaneous decision to do the same. Putin of course used the same sort of justification as Assad has used and Israel has used and indeed Cameron has used – fighting terrorists. It’s an acceptable explanation in Assad’s case but not Israel’s.

Sure, Assad is killing his own people but that is actually our fault – the original sin lies with the West, such as the Sykes-Picot agreement or its support of Israel, the invasion of Iraq, to name just a few examples. The assumption is that we are the catalysts – everyone else is just the reaction. Only white people have agency in the sense of being the oppressor. Everyone else is the victim. When it comes to Israel, then it is on the wrong side of the oppressor/victim ledger. That is the Left’s problem with Israel.

Having said all that, the taint of anti-semitism cannot be ruled out. It cannot be proved or disproved. On the other hand, anti-semitism cannot explain the partiality the Left shows in holding countries like the US and the UK to higher standards than their opponents – like Iraqi suicide bombers. For that reason, I think that other possible motivations have to be considered. For that reason, I think it is more to do with a worldview based on political ideology rather than straightforward anti-semitism.

What’s wrong with cultural imperialism?

At a human rights activists’ conference I overheard someone fretting about whether objecting to the practice of forced marriage and infibulation of 12 year old girls (on human rights grounds!) was imperialist. This is a common apprehension. The assumption here is that human rights are ‘our’ culture and to impose them on someone elses’ culture is imperialist. The critique of cultural imperialism is premised on cultural relativism. All cultures are supposed to have equal worth. Therefore, it’s bad for one culture to impose itself on another. But why?

Let’s take the United States. Left and Right unite to condemn the ‘Americanisation’ of the world. American culture, crass and commercialised, blots out ‘authentic’ indigenous cultures. Why is American culture like that? Well, it’s an imperialist culture. Expansionism is built into US culture; it’s the country’s original sin, from the first white settlement of the continent to the invasion of Iraq. The Americans – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ones, at any rate – are cultural imperialists par excellence.

But if all cultures are equal then American culture is as good as any other culture, including those it supplants. Therefore, what harm has been done?  We have fewer cultures. Diversity is reduced. But what is so good about diversity? To assume diversity is superior than homogeneity is a value judgement, which the relativist cannot make. It is to assume one state of affairs is better than the other.

More to the point, the relativist argument fails to offer any intellectual basis to oppose cultural imperialism If your culture is superior, then why should anyone object to having its ‘benefits’ thrust upon them? Cultural imperialists – not just American ones – can justify their imperialism on relativist grounds: ours is as good as anyone else’s so why not be imperialists? The relativist can offer no defence to imperialism,  of any stripe.

 Sometimes, the criticism of Western imperialism looks like a relativist argument but is nothing of the sort. iSaudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority nations exempt themselves from human rights treaty obligations (especially in relation to the rights of women) on Islamic grounds. They challenge western universalism with a supposed superior Islamic alternative, which has universalistic pretensions. If a universalistic claim is imperialist, then, by definition, this must apply to non-Western universalist ideologies like Islam.

 In practice, the West’s critics do defend some cultures as superior to another, just not ‘white man’s’ culture. This is usually made on empirical grounds. Non-Western cultures  have spiritual depth – think of the Beatles taking up with some Hindu guru. They live in harmony with the environment. They are less violent. They are more consensual and communal. They love children and animals more than we do. This is a kind of reverse racism, justified on supposedly empirical grounds. Western culture is not as good as anyone else’s – it’s worse.  

This style of thinking is only as sound as the empirical grounds on which it rests. If contrary evidence emerges, the defence is weakened. Take Tibetan Buddhism, whose best-known spokesman is the Dali Lama. The attraction of the Tibetan cause doesn’t just rest on the injustice of China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet. It is boosted by the sanctified status of Buddhism itself. It is not enough that Tibetans’ human rights are violated daily – it is worse because this is happening to good people.

But not all strands of Buddhist thought or practice are peaceful and not all Buddhists are tolerant. The independent Tibetan kingdoms could be warlike. In today’s Burma, gangs of Buddhists commit pogroms against Burmese Muslims, egged on a Buddhist priest. If not all Buddhists are good, or have always been good, does this mean they forfeit their rights? This is the thinking the Chinese express in rationalising  their invasion. The Chinese point to the backward, reactionary social practices of pre-invasion Tibet. Therefore, Tibet was not conquered, it was liberated. China’s self-serving rationale does not make the continuing occupation of the country any less just. It does however undermine those in the West who consider the Tibetan cause worthier on account of the supposed people’s purity. This is a mistake. China violates Tibetans’ human rights. The Tibetans have a legitimate grievance against the Chinese invasion and occupation of their country. They do not have to wait until they prove they live up to some impossible standard of purity before they can make this complaint.

We assume that the critique of imperialism is linked o respect for cultures. But there is no such logical relationship. It is possible to critique imperialism from the opposite perspective that it is too tolerant and respectful of cultures that deserve to be swept aside.

A case in point is British imperialism in India. Critics of British imperialism claim it retarded the country’s development. There is much truth in this. India’s textiles industry was deliberately destroyed in order to protect British producers. The assumption here is that the British did the wrong thing. They should have developed Indian industries, not retarded them.

Of course, if the British had sponsored an industrial revolution in the subcontinent, then this would have promoted massive social and cultural change. Modernisation of India could not have been achieved without the overthrow of traditions like the caste system. This probably would not have happened without a great deal of social upheaval and violence. It would have been akin to what the Bolsheviks did in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, when they modernised  the country by hammering traditional social forms in the countryside, such as the Russian villagers or Kazakh nomads, inspired by notions of modernity and progress that originated in the West – in other words, cultural imperialism. At the end of this process, the country had built an industrial system that withstood Hitler’s invasion in 1941.

Many commentators, especially on the left, who consider themselves anti-imperialists, celebrate this achievement, without pausing for a moment to consider what they celebrate was a form of cultural imperialism. The same people are unlikely to be great fans of British imperialism in India but what they condemn in India is not imperialism per se but the wrong sort of imperialism. It destroyed incipient industries and hence the seed of modernity and progress but left other backward institutions – like the caste system – intact.

The broader point is that is no need to link the critique of imperialism on relativist grounds. It is possible to criticise it on universalist grounds. Conversely, imperialism can be defended on relativist grounds. The term cultural imperialism is less about explaining what is wrong with the world and more about signalling what sort of person you think you are. If you are against cultural imperialism, then you mark you are for diversity and tolerance, and against bigotry and racism. Closer examination reveals that the phrase and the assumptions it expresses are just muddled thinking.

Article 18 and Apostasy



For years, the US right has been talking about Muslims taking over the Europe and the steady transformation of the continent into ‘Eurabia’. A book by Doug Sanders, the ‘The Myth of the Muslim Tide’, carefully dismantles the US right’s use of tendentious demographic projections to support the scaremongering. My review of this book on Amazon UK admired his performance.

I wrote that review nearly three years ago. I haven’t changed my opinion on the right’s use of dodgy demographics. I am, however, less sanguine at the downplaying of real differences between mainstream Islam and mainstream Western liberal principles, which is a weakness of Sanders’ book. These differences do exist and it is incumbent on anyone who professes liberal principles to understand what the differences are. We do not pander to the racist right when we consider this question. If we are to welcome outsiders in our midst, even those deserving our protection, then we need to identify where conflict might arise.

A key, glaring, difference is that between the Islamic conception of apostasy and the western idea of freedom of conscience. If we want to define what freedom of conscience is, then a good place to start is Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

Article 18 enshrines the right to choose one’s religion. That means one can choose to profess a different religion or none at all. This is the basis for freedom of conscience. It is sometimes claimed that the Universal Declaration expresses Christian values, just without god. I am not convinced by this. The Declaration does not presuppose any creator is required for its principles to be promoted. If it does needs a deity to uphold it, then it is not one that prescribes what the one and true religion is, which is an idea anathema to most religious believers, of all faiths. Article 18 is liberal, individualist, secular and agnostic. It does not recognise any such thing as one true religion. It accepts value pluralism and the right of an individual to choose their values.

The Islamic concept of apostasy stands in opposition to this. According to the website, Islam Q and A, apostasy, what Muslim scholars call Al-Ridda, is when a Muslim becomes an unbeliever, by his beliefs, his words, his actions or his omissions. If a Muslim adult does these things in his right mind, and of his own free will, then his blood can be shed. The moral justification for the death penalty should be spelled out in full:

“You may need some time for you to be convinced about this matter, and for you to think about it. Perhaps you think that if a person follows the truth and enters into it and embraces the one true religion which Allaah has enjoined, then we allow him to leave it quite easily whenever he wants and to utter the words of kufr (disbelief) that put him outside of Islam, so he can reject Allaah, His Messenger, His Books and His religion, and there is no punishment as deterrent, how will that affect him and others who enter the religion?

Do you not see that this would make the one true religion, that everyone should follow, like a shop or store which a person can enter when he wants and leave when he wants, and it may encourage others to forsake the truth?

Moreover, this is not someone who has never known the truth and practiced it and worshipped in accordance with it; rather this is a person who has known the truth, and practiced the religion and done the rituals of worship, so the punishment is no greater than he deserves. Moreover, such strong rulings as this are only applied to such a person whose life is no longer considered to be useful, because he knew the truth and followed the religion, then he left it and forsook it. What soul can be more evil than the soul of such a person?

In conclusion, the answer is that Allaah is the One Who revealed this religion and enjoined it. He is the One Who ruled that the one who enters it and then leaves it is to be executed. This ruling does not come from the Muslims’ ideas or suggestions. As this is the case, then we must follow the ruling of Allaah so long as we are content to accept Him as our Lord and God.”

The writer of those words would consider Article 18 as a ‘shop store’ approach to religion. You can buy a set of values but if you change your mind, then you can ask for a refund, buy a new set or just dump the original purchase. That’s how he would see Article 18. I don’t see it like that. But that is not the point. Article 18 and the idea of apostasy express different world views and values.

This is a thorny question and some liberals would prefer the issue is ducked. One way to do it is to distract ourselves with the question of whether Islam demands death for apostates or not. According to one commentator, writing on Al Jazeera :

‘The death penalty for apostasy relies at the core of it on an authentically verified Hadith from Prophet Muhammad who said, “Whoever changes his religion kill him.”  This statement, however, would seem to contradict numerous verses in the Quran that guarantee freedom of belief, few of which include “There is no compulsion in religion” [2:256], and “Whoever so wills may believe and whoever so wills may deny” [18:29].’

The commentator rationalises the Hadith about the death penalty as not being about ‘apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se.’

So there seems to be room for debate whether apostates deserve death. It would seem, alas, that plenty of Muslims think that death is deserved, if a 2013 study of Muslim opinion is representative of what the world’s Muslims think. But we are missing the point: the question is, should apostasy be treated as a crime at all? The concept of apostasy as a crime, even if it doesn’t deserve the death penalty, is intrinsically at loggerheads to western ideas of freedom of conscience, as expressed in Article 18. You can’t simultaneously profess freedom of conscience and the idea of apostasy.

So what practical implications does this have for the real world? One salient issue is whether a state based on Sharia can respect universal human rights. Despite the starkness of the contrast I have outlined above, in practice, could the two concepts be reconciled? In principle, this is possible. Politics can hold the ring between contending viewpoints, without people having to agree on the ultimate questions like the basis for morality.

But if a Muslim-majority state really accepts that there is no compulsion in religion, then we should expect it to accept its corollary, that to leave one’s religion is not a crime. That means we can expect the three things from such a state. First, the state imposes no penalty whatsoever on those that leave. That means not just the death penalty but any form of sanction whatsoever, like denying welfare rights, education etc. Second, the state protects those who leave from reprisal from the believers and punishes believers who retaliate against those who leave. Third, the state refuses to recognise apostasy at all and enshrines freedom of conscience in its laws. That means that it gives those who leave the right to persuade others to follow them. This also allows for the believers to persuade others to stay – or to come back in. Freedom of conscience cuts both ways.

In my view, I don’t think there is a single state, with a Muslim-majority population, to which the above description of political practice applies. Perhaps Turkey, Tunisia and Bangladesh are partial exceptions. These are all secular states but secularism is under a great deal of pressure in all three, pressure which is coming from below. Whether secularism holds out in these countries remains to be seen.

Islam is not being singled out here. It is not alone in having a concept of apostasy. Christianity has such a concept, too. But, in the West, secularism has tamed it. That includes the United States. The US constitution fulfils the conditions I have described above. There is indeed no compulsion in religion in the United States. This doesn’t mean the concept of apostasy has been banished from the thoughts of the believers in that country. It means that they do not have any recourse to use violence to punish those who think differently, and can expect no indulgence or mercy from the state. Nor can they censor those who criticise them.

Taming the gods does not mean untrammelled democracy. It means taming the majority’s desire to impose their view on the minority. That includes the majority’s religion. This does not mean the majority have to abandon their religion. It means they have to accept others can think differently and they can live with that, even if their religion tells in theory that they should not live with it. In most Muslim countries, we are a long way from seeing that.



How to stop the Islamic State brainwashing your children!

Do you have children and do you worry what the internet does to their tender minds? Well, fret not. The internet has been an established feature of social life for nearly 20 years now. That’s long enough for an entire generation of children to reach adulthood. But if the internet has been turning young people into a bunch of promiscuous, violent yobs then there is not much evidence for it. In much of the Western world, young people, confounding the low expectations of moralists, have been behaving better. In the UK, both teenage pregnancies and youth crime rates continue to fall. That is not to say that there are not problems. It’s tough being young, in many respects. Just think about how hard it is to get on the housing ladder – but that has nothing to do with the internet.

Still, there is no better target for adult moralists than the internet. Nicky Morgan, the UK Education Secretary   has demanded that schools in England must set online filters and monitor pupils’ internet use under plans to protect them from radicalisation.  Ministers are worried that extremists could target school children via computers. According to Mrs Morgan, some pupils had been able to access information about Islamic State at school.

Well, if they have, then so what? Pupils can access information about Islamic State for all manner of places. They hear about them on the evening news or maybe even on Newsround, the BBC’s long-standing news service for children. They might even be able to access this information from a computer at school. Does it matter if they do it at school or through Newsround? What do we fear will happen if they access it? That they’ll become suicide bombers? Why is it assumed that the Islamic State has such a lure for children?

Earlier in 2015 three East London schoolgirls of Bengali descent decided to run off to Syria, to join the Islamic State. It appears that Morgan’s proposals – a classic government knee-jerk reaction – are inspired by this example. We don’t know why the girls – on the verge of being young adults – decided to do what they did. It may well be they were inspired by an online recruiter but the girls’ former school’s principal has stated that the girls could not access social media from their school’s computers.

But we are missing the point. We are making all the wrong assumptions and asking all the wrong questions. We are assuming that the girls were ‘infected’ by an idea, that the internet was the vector of that idea and that, when so infected, they were no longer responsible for what they were doing. If only they were kept away from the source of the infection, all would have been well.

The assumption is that children are empty vessels, free of their own motivations. All extremists have to do is to come along and fill it. That assumption is false. Those girls were not automatons – they assented to an idea. We are asking the wrong question when we obsess about where they encountered the idea.  The question is what made them susceptible to that idea in the first place. What was the power of that idea? What appeal did it have to cause them to abandon their families for the hell-hole of a Syrian warzone?

Prevention is no doubt far better than cure. Mrs Morgan’s idea of prevention, to keep ‘our children safe’, is to insulate them from radical ideas. This is not going to work. There are only two ways it could work. One is to shut down the internet and ban all electronics.  The second is to develop an intensive system of prophylactic surveillance which in all likelihood would be directed against ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslims, carrying the implicit stigma that they cannot be trusted. The resulting resentment this will generate will create more problems than it solves.

Whether at school, at home, or on the street, children are going to encounter bad ideas. Or bad ideas are going to encounter them. The price of preventing this through yet more surveillance – as there is not enough surveillance already – is going to be too high to be worth pursuing.

What we should be doing is teaching critical thinking skills, to resist the lure of bad ideas. Teach children how to think. Give them examples of diseased thought systems against which to sharpen their wits. That means, teach them about the existence of extremist ideas in order to combat them. Don’t pretend movements like IS do not exist. Understand and critique the ideas. The same goes for other pernicious ideas that we want to keep children away from. Teach the holocaust in schools but teach holocaust denial, too, in order to learn the difference between genuine and pseudo-history.

This idea of prevention doesn’t pretend that no one will slip through the net. Despite our best efforts, some will be radicalised and there is nothing we can do about that. The better way – not the perfect way – is to combat bad ideas with better ideas. Children don’t need to be protected from adult realities. They need to be taught how to prepare for them.

Reza Pankhurst and the Dream of the Caliphate


This post discusses some of the issues raised in my review on Amazon of Reza Pankhurst’s book, the Inevitable Caliphate.

The book has many merits, not least in providing me, as a secular atheist, an insight into what political Islamists are thinking about when they call for the restoration of a caliphate. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been lots of questions asked about whether Islam and liberal democracy are compatible. In this book, Pankhurst doesn’t answer this question. For him, it’s not even worth asking. Islam provides an alternative ‘paradigm’, both to understand the world and how to act in it. When Islamists denounce tyrants they are not calling for a liberal democratic replacement. They want an Islamic alternative because they think it is superior to liberal democracy. When they say Islam is the solution, they mean it.

Pankhurst, at least not in this book, is not as blunt as this. His book is lathered with academic terms like ‘discourse’, ‘paradigms’ ‘hegemony’ which makes him sound evasive. Nonetheless, my guess is that, were he to be pressed for an answer, ‘Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy or not?’ then he would reply: ‘’No, it is not but it does not matter. To even ask the question is to assume that Islam has to ‘justify’ itself against a liberal democratic yardstick. In fact, why don’t we turn the question around? Is liberal democracy compatible with the requirements of Islam, of Sharia law, which we think God has commanded all humanity to live by?”

I could be putting words in his mouth. One has to try to infer what he thinks from his discussion of the thought of an organisation with which he has been linked, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which openly calls for the restoration of the caliphate. Pankhurst spent time in an Egyptian jail, where he was  tortured, on account of his alleged affiliation with it. Whether or not he was a member, his sympathies with the organisation’s aims are overt throughout the book. However, the focus here is not on unmasking Pankhurst. Hizb is legal in United Kingdom. Pankhurst has never advocated violence to achieve its aims. Amnesty International UK did nothing amiss in adopting him as a Prisoner of Conscience.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious issues to be had with Hizb’s value system, values which Pankhurst shares. On the face of it, as Pankhurst describes on page 99 of his book, the proposed scheme for the caliphate’s accomplishment seems reasonable enough. Liberation of Muslims means first of all an ‘intellectual liberation’ from colonialism. For this to be achieved, a ‘public consensus’ needs to be forged, agreeing that Islam becomes the ‘reference point’ for all societal relationships. At this point, society would ‘demand’ that the State applies Sharia to regulate social relationships in accordance with Islam, through the caliphate government.

There need be no coercion or violence in this. The caliphate is not imposed. It arises from consensus. Pankhurst thinks that there is empirical evidence to suggest that this consensus is half-way to being achieved, citing poll evidence to suggest that Muslims do indeed want to live united, under the auspices of an Islamic State.

It’s a neat scheme but it overlooks many messy realities. For one thing, the consensus which is supposed to pave the way for the peaceful imposition of the caliphate, is to be attained among Sunni Muslims only. What about Israel? What about Shias? What about non-Muslim minorities like Arab Christians, who lived in ‘Muslim’ lands long before the Muslims arrived? These people would not want to live under Sharia. They would either have to be forced to live under it or forced to leave.

More to the point, how is consensus to be obtained among the Sunni majority? The Sunni-Shia divide is not the only fault line in the Middle East. Sunnis themselves are divided. Islam is but one allegiance, albeit a crucial one but it stands in competition with other allegiances, to class, region, tribe, nation, family, to name just a few. One notes that the so-called ‘artificial’ borders of contemporary Islamic countries show remarkable resilience. Iraqi insurgents killed each other as well as Americans but not to abolish Iraq. Aside from the Islamic State, Assad’s Syrian opponents are fighting for a Syria without Assad. Some fight for a Syria ruled by Sharia but not to do away with Syria and have it merged with a Pan-Islamic entity. Turkish Sunnis are not going to surrender their Turkish identity, an identity which the borders of modern Turkey do much to define. Egypt’s stature in the Muslim world is, in part, because of its pre-Islamic inheritance of an ancient civilisation predating Islam by millennia. It’s by no means clear that a caliphate can overcome these competing demands of loyalty.

The problems with Pankhurst scheme are not just located in the real world but in the scheme itself. Pankhurst sounds reasonable enough when he talks of the need to achieve consensus to lay the foundations for such a state. However, there is plenty of room here for coercion of the recalcitrant. Remember Hizb aims to establish a ‘new opinion’ to demand that living under an Islamic order is not just permissible but mandatory:

‘Therefore if people in an area are “bonded” by a public opinion in which Islamic thoughts and emotions were dominant, believing that Islam should be the sole regulator [of society] … and awarding sole legitimacy towards the Shari’a even though individuals in that society may remain irreligious in their personal conduct, the natural next step would be to establish a system which would enforce and protect that regulation and consequently reform individuals in that society. It is at this point that Hizb would then seek to engineer through either mobilising popular support or by calling on the military establishment to enforce a change in power, in line with public opinion.’ (pp. 113-14)

What this sounds like is an Islamic version of the tyranny of the majority. Not all people have to be persuaded just so long as sufficient number are so convinced as to overawe any doubters. There is no room for freedom of conscience or dissent in this scheme. Pankhurst goes on to write that, for Taqiudeen Al-Nabahani, the founder of the movement, it is not the individual that reforms society but society that reforms the individual.

But when one reflects on this, one realises that what we have is here is not a tyranny of the majority in the sense that the majority of the persuaded impose their will on the unpersuaded. Individuals do not change first and then consent to have the new order imposed. They consent to have the new order imposed on them and forced to change. Even if they are irreligious in their conduct, they agree to be ‘bonded’ by Shari’a and reformed according to its strictures. This sounds more like the tyranny of the minority over the majority, who somehow are meant to submit to whatever it is the minority thinks is good for them. Who is to decide what Shari’a is – and then compel others to ‘reform’ in order to live by it? How is reform to be achieved? With what means? For all this talk of ‘liberating’ Muslims from intellectual colonialism, does this mean liberation from modern forms of political organisation that originated in the West, like the state, and organised militaries armed with weapons invented in the west, which Hizb might call upon to enforce the new Islamic order (Shari’a under the shadow of an F-16 jet?)?

I cannot tell whether Pankhurst’ equivocation on the question of coercion in his scheme is down to disingenuousness or because he has not thought things through. I don’t find it plausible that a thinker who is assiduous and fastidious in his style of argument can have failed to notice what the implications of his scheme are. Either way, the conceptual and practical obstacles to realising Hizb’s dream are formidable.

Apart from this, his thinking – though he may well deny this – has parallels in Western thought, such as the Platonic idea of the philosopher king. If this is true, then other Western thinkers should have something to say to him about the limitations of such thought. The sum of the West, he seems to insinuate, is Guantanamo Bay.

This is a man for whom Amnesty International pleaded, on the basis of universal secular values like human rights, ideas that originated in the West. Though he thanks Amnesty International in the acknowledgements section there is no discussion of what this organisation and the values it expresses mean for his analysis. In his strict, stark partition between ‘paradigms’ (where does this word originate from, by the way?), there appears to be no need for Muslim thinkers to learn from what Western theorists have to say about ‘checks and balances’, ‘separation of powers’, the ‘rule of law’ and what these terms mean for the practical exercise of power.

Instead, it seems a restoration of cardinal Islamic virtues expressed in Sharia will simply obviate the need to consider these matters. One wonders if there is room, in this ideal political order, for an organisation like Amnesty International. One suspects not.

What we have instead is an Islamic version of the ‘Garden of Eden’ myth. The problems are down to departing from the true path of classical virtue. But, pernicious as Western foreign policy, corrupt regimes etc. have been, it is not possible to overlook that one of the root causes of the maladies afflicting the Islamic world is the persistence of faith, or at least an ossified version of it, especially its effect on education, such as the wholesale rejection of Darwinism, the prevalence of anti-Semitism, conspiratorial thinking and the like. Even if the reign of the four rightly-guided ones was everything it was cracked up to be, it doesn’t follow that such a model is worthy of emulation now, in a world that bears no resemblance to its original incarnation in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Even if Pankhurst and Hizb were to see their dream fulfilled, it doesn’t follow that that they will have found the solution. In the meantime, pursuing such a dream will continue to cause more problems than it solves.


Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part III

We saw in Parts I and II what Pilger thinks the root causes of terrorism are. Now for his supposed solution, and what we can do about it.

His proposed solution is two-fold. First, call a truce:

‘Across the world, from Northern Ireland to Nepal, those regarding each other as terrorists and heretics have faced each other across a table … A truce – however difficult to negotiate and achieve – is the only way out of this maze; otherwise, the atrocities in Paris and Beirut will be repeated. Together with a truce, the leading perpetrators and overseers of violence in the Middle East — the Americans and Europeans – must themselves “de-radicalise” and demonstrate a good faith to alienated Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home.’

Second, end arms sales to Israel and recognise Palestine:

‘There should be an immediate cessation of all shipments of war materials to Israel and recognition of the State of Palestine. The issue of Palestine is the region’s most festering open wound, and the oft-stated justification for the rise of Islamic extremism. Osama bin Laden made that clear. Palestine also offers hope. Give justice to the Palestinians and you begin to change the world around them.’

The first proposal is wishful thinking par excellence. There is not a chance in hell of any true being called. None of the combatants are interested in a truce. His call appeared on the day that Russian officials conceded the IS downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, leaving Putin swearing vengeance. Hezbollah is unlikely to take the bombing of their supporters in Beirut lying down (but perhaps the bombing in Beirut and the destruction of the Russian airliner are ‘payback’ for supporting Assad?). Assad has showed no sign of any interest in any truce, even when it looked like his back was to the wall a couple of years ago; he is even less interested now, with the Russians covering his back. ISIS itself is not interested in a truce. Pilger’s call is vain, in both senses of the word.

If a truce is not feasible, then what about addressing the broader context like Palestine? Pilger’s proposal to end arms flows to Israel defies logic. Arms flows to Israel are not the root cause of ISIL’s rise, still less the Paris atrocities. Why would cutting off arms flows to Israel do anything to bring the mayhem in Syria to an end? Recognising Palestine? ISIL is not fighting for Palestinian recognition. It is fighting to restore the Caliphate, not for a two-state solution for Palestine. There is no place in this project for Israel, even an Israel back inside its pre-1967 borders. Perhaps we can quote Al-Baghdadi (quoted in Jason Burke’s Article in Prospect Magazine, 30 Aug 2015):

“The Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate,” al-Baghdadi wrote. “Then their state ceased to exist, so the unbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as civilisation, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, Baathism, nationalism and patriotism, among other falsehoods.”

That’s a long list of grievances. I doubt that ending arms flows to Israel or recognising Palestine is going to assuage those. Nonetheless, how about his suggestion to deal with Muslim ‘alienation’ by ‘demonstrate[ing] a good faith to … Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home …’ There is, after all, a link between the war in Iraq and terrorism. But where is the comparison between Iraq and Syria here? Pilger talks much about Muslim anger against the West for what it has done in the Middle East. In Iraq, we reaped the Jihadi whirlwind when we overthrew Saddam. That made a lot of Muslims angry. But what is making many Muslims angry about Syria? The answer should be obvious but it’s not the one he offers. It’s not because we overthrew a dictator and killed lots of Muslims. The dictator is still there and he is killing lots of Muslims, with a lot of help from his friends.

I am astonished that he does not acknowledge this. According to King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 11,000 fighters from 74 nations had gone to Syria, mostly to join ISIS. This is biggest trans-national Jihadi mobilisation since the Afghan war on the 1980s, bigger than Bosnia and much bigger than Iraq (presumably because many of the anti-American insurgents were Shia). If that is so, if we want to show good faith to (Sunni) Muslims then we could do it by bombing Assad. If we want to show bad faith – then bomb his most effective opponents: ISIS.

As it happens, I do not think we should bomb Assad and I have serious reservations about whether bombing will work against ISIS but this is not the point I am making here. Whatever we do will be wrong. In Afghanistan, we backed Islamic insurgents against the Soviet Union. That was wrong. In Bosnia, we stood by (did not bomb) while Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats slaughtered Bosnia Muslims. That was wrong.

We are condemned for backing dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam and then condemned for overthrowing them. With Assad, what to do? Overthrow him and risk another Iraq and Libya, and have radical Islamists step into the vacuum? Back him, then, like we are backing the Egyptian Junta or as we once backed Saddam and a whole plethora of tyrants and risk making the problem worse, causing states to collapse and Jihadists to get in anyway? As the Al-Baghdadi quote shows, the list of grievances is wide, the threshold for taking offence low.

Pilger overlooks the significance of the Shia-Sunni divide across the Islamic World generally. This split is absolutely crucial if one is to understand the rise of ISIS, which is replete with blood curdling denunciations of the Shia. For starters, the deaths of 200 million Shia are an essential prerequisite to the establishment of paradise. If you leave the Sunni-Shia split out, then you cannot even begin to understand what this conflict is about.

Pilger simply ignores this. Again, he might want to read Patrick Cockburn, whose analysis of the IS, in his ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ if flawed and partial, at least identifies one of the roots of their rise: the oppression of Iraqi Sunnis under a post-Saddam Iraqi Shia-dominated state, a state made possible by the US-UK invasion – in other words, a sectarian state. That this state has been underwritten by Iran, the foremost Shia power, has also contributed to the rise of the ISIS (incidentally, one example of foreign interference that is glossed over in Cockburn’s account).

It is not that the West does not bear a significant proportion of the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East but this is not what Pilger is saying: he is saying that we bear all of it. He denies, without good reason, Assad’s violent repression of protests in 2011 contributed to the mess his country is in, that Hezbollah and Iranian intervention, a Shia guerrilla movement and a Shia power, has exacerbated Sunni resentment in the Middle East generally.

He uses the word ‘sociopathic’ to describe people like Francois Hollande but not the killers that ran amok in Paris on Friday 13 November – who are barely mentioned at all. His invective reaches the sort of heights we saw in ISIS’ claim of responsibility for those attacks (Hollande as the ‘imbecile’ of France). One thing can be said of Hollande: he is unlikely to take such offence to want to saw off Pilger’s head and film it.

It won’t come as any surprise to learn that the solutions he proposes are weak because his analysis that precedes them is weak. What are my solutions? I don’t have any. I did not write this post to get us out of the maze but only to identify where some of the dead ends are. All I can say is that I am not without hope. There are two things that we might draw comfort from. The first is the fall in birth rates in the Muslim world and the second is the slow rise of secularism and unbelief in the same. But more on those matters some other time. For now, with a sigh of relief, I take leave of John Pilger.




Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part II

Part I of this post discussed Iraq. He fingers the invasion of that country as the root cause of ISIL and hence the atrocities in Paris:

‘ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity. Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture. Their culpability is unmentionable in “our” societies, making accomplices of those who suppress this critical truth.’

The invasion created these forces and thus ISIS. He downplays that sectarianism was a force in Iraq before the invasion. The sectarian fanaticism that drives the movement is a novel phenomenon, of recent provenance. But we found no plausible reason for accepting his claims. ISIS’s anti-Shia fanaticism cannot be explained if we make no reference to sectarianism in Iraq as a fact of life in the country before 2003. Indeed, Pilger’s refusal to accept the power of sectarianism in Iraq mirrors that of the US invaders, who likewise ignored this reality, to their cost. The invasion unleashed these forces rather than created them but that is not an argument Pilger wants to accept as it leads to the inevitable conclusion that only dictator can keep these forces in check. But since Pilger condemned the US and UK for backing Saddam in the 1980s, he cannot bring himself to accept that.

Iraq and Syria are linked. In the first, we overthrew a dictator and many Muslims died. In the second, we have not overthrown a dictator. But many Muslims are dying. But we are responsible for that, too, citing a ‘leaked’ UK-US intelligence file, the chaos is down to our making:

“In order to facilitate the action of liberative [sic] forces… a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals [and] to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria. CIA is prepared, and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount minor sabotage and coup de main [sic] incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals… a necessary degree of fear… frontier and [staged] border clashes [will] provide a pretext for intervention… the CIA and SIS should use… capabilities in both psychological and action fields to augment tension.”

Never mind the alleged document was written in 1957 (!), according to Pilger, ‘it could have been written yesterday. In the imperial world, nothing essentially changes. In 2013, the former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas revealed that “two years before the Arab spring”, he was told in London that a war on Syria was planned. “I am going to tell you something,” he said in an interview with the French TV channel LPC, “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria… Britain was organising an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer Minister for Foreign Affairs, if I would like to participate… This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned.”’

This is a strange claim. Why would senior British officials have asked Dumas ‘to participate’ in an organised rebel invasion of the country? Him personally? He’s no spring chicken (he’s 93). Pilger gives the impression that Dumas had power and authority. That is what one is lead to believe if he was asked ‘to participate.’ But, in 2009, he was a political nobody. He had nothing to offer. He had neither men nor money to hand to support such a scheme. He was last Foreign Minister in 1993 and left the French government in 1999. What resources did he have which the British would have wanted him to contribute in 2009? Apart from that, Dumas doesn’t name the senior officials concerned and gives no explanation for why it took him four years to go public (and two years after the civil war in Syria broke out). Pilger, a veteran investigative reporter, seems remarkably credulous when repeating Dumas’ claims.

The claim that the Syrian civil war is nothing of the kind but an invasion of terrorists has met widespread acceptance on the left. Assad brands all his opponents as terrorists and Pilger agrees.

‘The only effective opponents of ISIS are accredited demons of the west – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia. The obstacle is Turkey, an “ally” and a member of Nato, which has conspired with the CIA, MI6 and the Gulf medievalists to channel support to the Syrian “rebels”, including those now calling themselves ISIS.’

Why would they do that? Because: ‘Supporting Turkey in its long-held ambition for regional dominance by overthrowing the Assad government beckons a major conventional war and the horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’

There has indeed been western interference in Syria’s civil war. The Americans admitted they had spent $500 million dollars training ‘moderate’ Assad rebels only to have them melt away in their first fire fight with ISIS, leaving their expensive American kit behind for good measure. How many rebels are we talking about? Fifty – not exactly the sort of numbers to raise hell. Against that, ISIS has some 30,000 fighters. There is no doubt foreign interference has added fuel to the fire but it did not necessarily light the fire in the first place. Pilger doesn’t agree all foreign interference is bad. We are told that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are the only ‘effective’ opponents of ISIL. So, presumably, some foreign interference is a good thing. Pilger is not only inconsistent here but just plain wrong in downplaying the role of these powers play in making the war worse. But we will deal with this in our final post.

But Pilger misses the point. There is massive evidence that what started as a peaceful uprising in Syria in 2011 swiftly degenerated into a civil war. It may be that some of these protests were violent but Assad meted out violent relation against peaceful and violent dissidents alike. Assad is not besieged by foreign terrorists but many of his own people. Outside powers have interfered. Foreign fighters/terrorists have flocked to the anti-Assad cause. But they have taken advantage of a situation Assad created – namely, his merciless attempt to crush all opposition, peaceful or otherwise.

Before 2011, Syria’s repressive reputation and its intolerance of any form of dissident was notorious. It’s not difficult to imagine that the slide in to civil war was a lot down to the regime’s failure to contain internal dissent, despite its fearsome security apparatus. Pilger would have us believe that sectarianism in Iraq was irrelevant or marginal before the 2003 invasion. In Syria, he would have us believe that the regime presided over a placid, contented population before 2011. If that is so, then that means that outsiders can whip up Iraqis and Syrians into a murderous rage against their fellows, in the absence of any real grievance or divisions to exploit.

Any theory, including Pilger’s own, needs to explain what’s going on. If there is some master plan to overthrow Assad, then how come the American military effort in Syria has mostly been directed against ISIS, one of the rebels which it allegedly has been ‘conspired’ to ‘channel’ support? Thousands of sorties have been flown and not one Syrian government or military target has been hit. This leaves a hole in Pilger’s theory. Not he seems to notice. It’s not the only one.

As for the conspiracy to aid and abet Turkey in its alleged drive for regional dominance? Then how come the greatest US effort in Syria made so far was in defending the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, an effort Erdogan refused to support, clearly preferring the town to fall to ISIL rather than the Syrian Kurds, refusing even to allow US planes to use Turkish airbases.

Pilger and Assad claim that NATO backs ‘terrorists’, the catch-all term for Assad’s opponents. But NATO is not a homogenous entity. In Kobane, the US and Turkey, nominally part of the same alliance, were at loggerheads with one another. The US bombed ISIS (Assad’s opponents) to support the Kurds (also Assad’s opponents). ‘NATO’ here was simultaneously backing and opposing the Kurds, the Americans by bombing ISIL and the Turks by refusing to throw a lifeline. ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are both enemies of Assad but in Kobane were the deadliest of foes.

The complexities don’t end there. Pilger overlooks that Turkey’s relationship with Assad was cordial and it was Assad’s violent crackdown which estranged Erdogan from the Assad regime. To speak of Turkey seeking regional dominance overlooks its tendency to pursue good relationships with western rivals like Iran and its refusal to participate in the American invasion of Iraq.

None of these nuances receive the proper attention they deserve. The simple, binary ‘Assad v terrorists’ narrative simply does not capture the myriad complexities of an intractable conflict. In any conflict, especially in the midst of a civil war, especially this civil war, it is impossible to draw a neat partition between the good guys and the bad guys. Many Syrians are prepared to fight and die for Assad, after all. But Pilger seems to make no effort to think the issues through and instead constructs a narrative where the black hats, like a good old fashioned western film, are worn by the West and its allies and the white ones perched unconvincingly on the heads of Assad and Putin.

Pilger’s blind spot is his failure to acknowledge that actors like Turkey and ISIS are local actors with local motives. He doubtless accepts that description of Assad (as I do) not but not of his opponents. This depends on the fallacy that allies of the West are puppets of the West. We saw in the second post how Turkey has not toed the Americans’ line. The same goes for puppets like Israel and Saudi Arabia.  For years the left postulated the inevitability of a US led war against Iran. This had some plausibility under the Bush administration but precious little under Obama, who has made strenuous efforts to broker a settlement regarding that country’s nuclear programme. This was in the teeth of opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the extent that Israeli premier Netanyahu lobbied the US Congress and Senate to undermine the agreement Obama brokered.

How does Pilger account for this? He doesn’t. He ignores it, presumably in the interests of creating a Manichean analysis. Instead, he posits the existence of a cabal of imperial plotters working in ruthless, coordinated unison, ignoring contrary evidence of real and serious divisions among the West and its allies which are not just tactical but principled.

Nonetheless, it is true that we nearly did bomb Assad in 2013. But that doesn’t actually do much for Pilger’s case. When we consider the matter, using the logic Pilger uses, then we will see that perhaps by failing to bomb Assad, we made a massive mistake. We’ll discuss that in the final post.