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Yes, in my name; a cool meander through geopolitics and Islam

The cartoon furore, February 2006…Join my meander through geopolitics, my world and Islam, the way I see it.

Some of my years I spent side by side with Palestinian secular and other colleagues and Arab and Islamic experts in London, editing international news magazines, working sometimes for moneyed Emirates and Saudi bosses who at least always tolerated my pro-PLO editorials; meeting some wonderful Palestinians; talking to a few fine Israelis – and attacking and exposing the worst. A cover line we did on Menachem Begin back then was “Once a Terrorist, Always a Terrorist”.

With Arabs and Arabists, Muslims and Islamists, I was on friendly working terms – some of them are still in hailing distance over time. To name a few, I was honoured to work with Teddy Hodgkin, Malise Ruthven, Fathi Osman of Al Azhar University, Dilip Hiro, Helena Cobban, Ahmed Rashid, Ziauddin Sardar, Alastair Duncan. I still treasure meetings with Yasser Arafat, Anwar Nusseibeh, Uri Avnery…In my boyhood I knew Transvaal Indian Muslim families. As an adult, joining Congress, I fell in with the Mosies and the Maulvis and the Aminas. Through many family postings in our own exile diaspora we were woken by the call of the muezzin, in Dar es Salaam, Delhi and Dakha, in Moshi, Mombasa, and Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Harar…

“Awake! It is better to pray than to sleep…”

I have worked with more Muslims, lapsed or devout, than I can remember. My wife too: when her UN project accountant wanted to borrow the Landrover to go to Friday prayers, she would have to throw him the keys because he had already washed, and should not risk defilement by touching a woman.

“He was a sweet man, but sometimes I wanted to tease him, say boo! and reach out as if to prod him…”

Some of those Muslims I knew were as mixed as I, a lapsed Anglican atheist leftist married into a Jewish-German family. Their mosque attendance was about as ceremonial as my church attendance, for weddings and funerals. Mind you, sometimes people like Archbishop Tutu almost make me want to pick up where I left off on the wine and the wafer. Wasn’t he so lovely the other day? taking his purply-covered grey mop-haired chortling self into quite a risky crowd scene in Haiti, just so he could show the diaspora’s support for the victory of a halfway decent presidential candidate. A lively camera opportunity for BBC World – and why wasn’t SABC there?… I think the Anglicans would accept atheists. Christina Stead recalled that when she was asked her religion in her new school, she said ‘atheist’. So the schoolteacher marked her down as Anglican. Perhaps I could have fellow traveller status with the Anglicans, as I have always had with Communists.

The trouble with going back to the Islamic fold, though, as many left strugglers have done, is that there seems to be no room for fellow travellers….Talk about cultural mix-ups: never will I forget the mind-blowing encounter I witnessed at Copenhagen’s Bella Centre in 1980, during the Mid-decade UN Women’s Conference. There was New York feminist Bella Abzug, as robust and almost as celebrated as the late Betty Friedan, slugging it out from the floor, in her rich Brooklynese, with a platform panel of newly-chadored young Iranian women, graduates from US universities who had gone home to join the revolution, trying to explain to Bella in the accents of Minneapolis and Ann Arbor why they valued the veil, and felt passionate about what Khomeini had wrought. (Ah, Iran!).

As one of the international journalists on the team producing the conference daily newspaper I took feverish notes, and stood eagerly on the edges of the continuing debate in the passage as the crowd spilled out, between big Bella and the circle of black-garbed, soft spoken self-confident women.I don’t know which I remember with greater sharpness, my report on “Bella’s encounter at the Bella Centre” (the coinciding names made a good headline) or my long interview with former plane hijacker Leila Khaled, still with PFLP (never PLO, note) but now in a peaceful teaching job.But I digress.

I don’t enter the lists much these days as I chill out and contemplate nature.Lately though, it does concern me that leftists are losing the plot in a few crucial ways. So here I am, finger-wagging once more, because things are getting serious.

Awake comrades! It is better to focus than to shout the wrong odds, or the odds wrongly.Was it Chomsky, or another luminary, who coined the elegant idea, after Seattle and the wave it started, that there were now just two great powers left, US imperialism, and the worldwide popular movement? If that is to be, then please, let us not have people on the left shooting their rhetoric wide and wild, in different directions on some issues, sometimes doing a Cheney the dick, and shooting a fellow hunter, sometimes shooting themselves, and their cause, in the foot.

We can’t have the millions of the growing global movement hobbling about in slightly different directions. Know your enemy, and hold your focus, or you’ll have well-meaning plain folk, not just racists, from Arnhem to Lille to the Potteries bending their right ears in wrong directions.

It is strange, though I don’t mind, to find myself so often in recent years holding thumbs and cheering on the sidelines for the redoubtable French and German leadership, left and right of centre, keeping their heads, holding their course and they lead and steer the European project, the last surviving civilising mission, around the hazards and traps – usually Anglo-American in design.

But how many on the left have come to grips with the fact that Europe, the struggle for, is one main front line against imperialism? And how clear are we, that to hold firmly to the secular state, with its social protections, is critical?

And now those cartoons. Oye…It’s not nice when I am driven to nod at the words of the appalling Christopher Hitchens, the boy Trot of London days turned sleazy Washington reactionary, when he fights from the cartoon corner.

How does this happen? Because so many liberals, and on the left, some of the best and brightest, are writhing through convoluted arguments about ‘racist Danes’ and ‘badly drawn, unfunny’ cartoons (would the devastating wit and acid pen of a Steve Bell or a Ralph Steadman or a Zapiro have made it more justifiable?) out of misplaced tolerance for bigotry, chauvinism, and sheer male thuggery, in the name of a third world community oppressed by racialism and imperialism. And thus the fundamental decency and enlightenment of the faithful gives way to a primitive male frenzy one imagines helped the Inquisition to spark off the Catholic riots against Jews and Muslims in 15th century Spain.

To make the point just how politically outrageous it all is. Has any commentator noted that in all the Danish flags burned and Scandinavian embassies gutted and French consulates attacked for weeks, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack remained almost untouched? Yet these are the flags waved by the biggest imperialist rogues, the greatest killers and defilers of mostly-Muslim societies, the allies of Zionism and spoilers of Palestine liberation.

Is this because the British and American mainstream media didn’t print the cartoons, out of fear, purporting to be good taste? Is it because the protesters were stirred up by extremists to behave like mindless, cowardly mobs, so that justified rage and frustration at Zionist Israel, at imperialist America and Britain (O Tom Paine, how we have fallen!) were warped into misdirected viciousness against a small social democratic state?

Is this the apotheosis of imperialism, to draw leftists towards a kind of validation of the anger of those same extreme fundamentalists whom the Americans armed, trained and let loose on the indigenous, yes, indigenous, women-liberating, land-reforming left leadership of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, before the Soviets even went in*, to go on and on wreaking havoc, until the Twin Towers, Chechnya and beyond?*(the CIA having first used Hafizullah Amin to destabilise the reform) How many leftist commentators, by the way, have got those narrative historical ducks in a row, on Afghanistan, and who enabled the war?

So, comrades, get your minds and bourgeois consciences unscrambled: let’s hear it for the following two straight-talking people.

One is called Fons. He is cool, he says it a bit like a post-hippie leftist, quiet and direct. And typically of the finest of all online and hard copy magazines, the great CounterPunch, they gave him space, along with all the more nervous reactions.The other straight shooter is a most brave and important political figure, forced to seek political space on the right of centre (shame on the left!) called Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Here are their comments, first:

They're Just Cartoons Chill Out Jihadis

Many "leftists" have taken the position that the cartoons published in the Danish paper and elsewhere are primarily a representation of Western racism and should be condemned. Nonsense.

As a leftist I thought that our goal was liberation through thorough and robust debate and confronting irrational ideas and superstition in particular? This means that if someone is offended because we say that the world is round then too bad. The truth hurts. If we are constantly weary of offending, then truth, yes I believe in such a thing, will never overcome the backward state of affairs today that allows gays to be treated like second class citizens, intelligent design to be taught in schools and people in the US and Britain to believe that the war in Iraq is being prosecuted for humanitarian ends.

Much of the sentiment not to offend and to side with reactionaries at times comes from a sincere desire to defend oppressed people and expose the hypocrisy of Western imperialism that consistently speaks of democracy and tolerance and practices support for dictatorship and racist laws at home and abroad. In Europe and the United States it also comes from a desire to side with people of color who have traditionally not assimilated into our societies as well as people from other European countries. And this gets to the crux of the matter, assimilation. If a society is going to function a certain set of ideas must be widely accepted otherwise sectarian conflict will ensue. This is not to say that Vietnamese or Algerians that move to France should all have to become Christians or cook fancy entrees but they should accept that women's equality before the law or universal suffrage need to be accepted.

In the Western tradition, where today's Left traces its roots, the American and French revolutions put into practice universal values that have allowed us to create political systems that now allow universal suffrage and equal protection before the law. This is not the end of our program, nay it is just the beginning, but it is a start that puts us, those who embrace universal values, ahead of those who choose a chosen group or a sacred text as the basis for society. Anticipating the counter-argument, that the West at times uses these values to enforce intolerance and is just as exclusive as alternative systems, I would agree to a degree, but this does not negate the fact that the Rights of Man or the Bill of Rights allows ALL people to be accepted and treated as equals not just a specific ethnic group or a divinely anointed. We should then embrace liberal ideas when freedom will be advanced by such a defense. Not as Confederates did to defend slavery but as Northerners did to liberate.The Left then should defend the oppressed, but not blindly. Multi-culturalists in particular have had a hard time with this idea seemingly supporting every movement from the Nation of Islam to the Tamil Tigers. Just because people are discriminated against doesn't mean that the movement that they found to overcome this discrimination is worthy of support. If the movement that would come to power as a result of victory would be worse for the women or workers of said movement, then it is not worthy of unconditional support.Another way of looking at the issue is through the lens of immigration. Let's say there is a small Scandinavian country with a functioning social democratic system and you want to do your internationalist duty and allow millions of people to come into your country from all over the world where people are fleeing economic and political despotism. If said immigrants bring with them backward ideas, like sexism, religious superstition, belief in inequality, etc... what will be the result for your good deed? It could transform the place into a backward place not because said immigrants are inferior human beings but because their cultural traditions have been respected. Should we thus sacrifice equality and social democracy on the altar of tolerance for oppressed groups?

To the cartoons. They may have been published by racists to inflame. So what? Chill out Jihadis; fly a kite, smoke a joint and flip through the pages of Playboy if you are so uptight.Christopher Fons lives in Milwaukee and runs the Red and the Black website. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Dutch MP backs Muhammad cartoons
The Somali-born Dutch MP who describes herself as a "dissident of Islam" has backed the Danish newspaper that first printed the Prophet Muhammad cartoons.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali said it was "correct to publish the cartoons" in Jyllands Posten and "right to republish them". Her film-maker colleague Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist in a case that shocked the Netherlands.Ms Hirsi Ali, speaking in Berlin, said that "today the open society is challenged by Islamism". She added: "Within Islam exists a hardline Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them."

Ms Hirsi Ali criticised European leaders for not standing by Denmark and urged politicians to stop appeasing fundamentalists. She also said that although the Prophet Muhammad did a lot of good things, his decree that homosexuals and apostates should be killed was incompatible with democracy.

Media 'fear'Ms Hirsi Ali wrote the script for Submission, a film criticising the treatment of women in Islam that prompted a radical Islamist to kill Van Gogh in an Amsterdam street in 2004. Papers in several European nations have reprinted the satirical Danish cartoons. People have died in violent protests over the cartoons, which have also been denounced throughout the Islamic world. The drawings include an image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

Ms Hirsi Ali said the furore over the cartoons had exposed the fear among artists and journalists in Europe to "analyse or criticise intolerant aspects of Islam".

Finally, I would like to pass on a warning: We on the left, while constantly vigilant anti-imperialists, must be careful, in order to forge and focus our vigilance, how we criticise the actions of Western powers, what we castigate them for, and who we make common cause with. Four examples will show what I mean. The first three involve Africa, as it happens, and each leads so typically to generalising about an African situation, therefore to dehumanising the people involved by stereotyping them, one side only as perpetrators, the other side only as victims.

My first example was when Noam Chomsky, not long after 9/11, slipped into making an odious comparison. He said that Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (on wrong intelligence that it may be an Al Qaeda arsenal) led to the death of more people than the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. It was a rhetorical shock tactic too far.

My second is the case of Somalia, the implosion of Mogadishu into perpetual violence, disorder and warlord misrule from 1990 until today. The assumption is almost universal that the American troop landing and presence had a lot to do with it. Quite false. The US landing and presence was a feckless imperial knee-jerk, just as UN sponsored negotiations may have led to some kind of truce. But beyond that,the upheaval had nothing to do with outsiders. It started and continued with the contest for control over the capital between the leaders of two sub-clans of the same clan, at the very moment they should have been united in celebration: they had bravely and triumphantly, in house to house and street battles, ousted the president-turned-dictator and his heavily armed followers from the capital.How did they snatch chaos from triumph? Mainly at fault was the leadership of the sub-clan which had marched into the city from their base to the north, claiming they were the rightful army, though the other sub-clan had done most of the fighting. The incomers fired their RPGs at the hotel owned by the rival leader – and 25 years of hunger and war began, on which no marines or blackhawks had any effect.

Third, there was a pointed reminder in a reader’s letter from Scotland to a liberal left development magazine, under the heading “Just intervention”:“I am not a military or warlike person. I am not generally a supporter of Mr Blair. I was against the invasion of Iraq. But I have to say that you were quite wrong to include Sierra Leone in a list of interventions implied to be unnecessary and brutal. I have not yet met a Sierra Leonean who is not grateful for what the British Forces have done there in 2000 and since, or who does not believe that their actions were necessary, proportionate to the threat, and effective. The activities of the so-called rebels were utterly horrific; and we were the outside power under special obligation to help.”

My fourth case may seem almost arcane, but it is actually at the heart of the problem: left misconceptions, and tactics, which are useful to corporate imperialism. It is in the form of extracts from a post-Cancun commentary in 2003 by an activist in Canada, Yves Engler. It was headlined: How the Left swallows the anti-subsidy line.

He wrote: "Commentators, from the left and right, on the WTO ministerial meetings in Cancun seemed fixated on the harm wealthy nations' farm subsidies are doing to the world's poor. From the tone of these pundits one could be convinced that European, Japanese, Canadian or US farm subsidies were at the root of all the poor world's problems.

"The Guardian, for instance, bellowed, 'there is only one way to address the growing gulf between rich and poor countries: abolish agricultural subsidies.' We should ask what country has ever escaped poverty by depending on agricultural exports? Dependence on commodity production has, in fact, always been a recipe for underdevelopment.

"Egyptian author, Samir Amin, has a much better explanation of how agricultural subsidies should be understood: 'Let us be perfectly clear: the Americans and the Europeans, like every other country or group of countries, have the right to formulate national or collective policies. They have the right to protect their industries and their agriculture, and they have the right to institute income-redistribution measures to meet the demands of social justice. To argue for the dismantling of the edifice supporting such rights in the name of some hypotheses of abstract liberal economic theory is another matter entirely.

'Should we, for example, demand that the industrialized nations reduce their levels of education and training, or their capacities for research and development, so as to bring them into harmony with less-developed countries on the grounds that their advantages in those domains have given them a competitive edge in world trade?

'Regretfully, the strategy for which the nations of the South have opted, which is to let the North set the rules of the liberal game, to achieve “free market” principles, makes no sense.”

While some good came of Oxfam and others “on the left” railing against farm subsidies, in showing up the hypocrisy of rich countries, it is disconcerting that segments of the left seem to believe that agricultural subsidies are a significant cause of world poverty. More disturbing is that some of these groups' policy prescriptions consist of reinforcing economic liberalism.

It tells us how effective neo-liberal propaganda has been. Even many progressive people can only see the world through its lens. Perhaps it's time for a new lens."

So wrote Yves Engler. But there is a broader, and more sinister geopolitical motive in making rich country farm subsidies a main issue in the global anti-poverty campaign. It is to use this as a stick to beat the EU which, with France in the lead, strongly supports farm subsidies, exercising their right, and for the reasons, which Samir Amin outlines, as a tool to protect their economies and societies.

Never mind that the ACP tariff agreements with the EU protected the smaller African and Caribbean banana farmers, while the rival US tariff arrangements simply protected their own Central European mega-growers – with the WTO ruling for the US banana republics in the name of “free trade” – Europe can be conveniently dumped in with the US, even by the anti-poverty left, in committing the ultimate sin, by holding on to subsidies.

The EU, particularly France, is dragged through the mud all the time in the British and American liberal media on this. And the liberals fall for it every time. Crusaders like George Monbiot, and many others, use this stick constantly, perhaps ingenuously – let us hope not disingenuously – because it is an easy issue to unite third world nations against all developed nations.

In all EU, G8 and other forums, Blair has pumped the issue, to round on the French. On this, as on several other issues and events I have outlined here, it is indeed time for a new lens. A lens which can be used with more caution, but giving more clarity and a sharper focus, for firmer coordinated action.

I hope, by dredging up the exceptions, to shake up anyone who expects to be lulled into a sequence of shared assumptions, or support for the tactical dictum that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. There is no case in history where the good of humankind has been served by following that dictum.

Awareness of imperialism, outfacing it, countering its worst effects where possible, whether as Lula tries to in Brazil, like Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Chavez, Morales, Castro of course – and even as Malaysia did to stop meltdown – is a necessary condition for broad-based national socio-economic progress. But it is not sufficient, if the anti-imperialism comes with vicious oppression and economic upheaval, as for example in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. His trumpeted anti-imperialism should never delude us into an alliance with Mugabe or his like, or tacit acceptance at any level.

The same should have been said for Saddam, supported by imperialism in his original bloody ousting of the left government in Iraq 40 years ago, and in his bloody war against Iran in the late 1970s.

To get the picture, to know where we are coming from and how to go forward, we must all remind ourselves from history, where the dots are, and how to join them with the principal events going on now. Then, we will have a template, exceptions and all, from which we can effectively start to confront and defuse the imperialist weaponry, the corporate assault, where it really targets us, and to refresh and rebuild our own regional alliances and markets.

Tony Hall

This post first appeared on Donkeyshott & Xuitlacoche, please read the originial post: here

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Yes, in my name; a cool meander through geopolitics and Islam


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