Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 August 2007

Afghanistan: A Liberal and Just Cause?

Am I alone in feeling disappointed at the statement of support for the war in Afghanistan provided in an interview on Sunday by Menzies Campbell, the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems)? This came in the context of his call for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some of the forces could then be re-deployed in Afghanistan, where they were needed and could be utilised more effectively, according to Mr Campbell.

I suppose I already knew that the Lib Dems (the only major UK party to oppose sending British troops into Iraq) supported our participation in the fighting in Afghanistan. But for me, Campbell’s endorsement provided confirmation of what I’ve been saying in different posts throughout this blog: that there’s been a concerted campaign recently to build support from liberals for the war in Afghanistan.

How is it that Afghanistan is a liberal cause while Iraq is not? The obvious answer is that the Taliban-Al Qaeda (often conflated as the one Enemy in Afghanistan) represents an anti-liberal, anti-democratic, tyrannical ideology. But so did Saddam Hussein. OK: the Taliban-Al Qaeda had proved through 9/11 that they were a serious threat to the West and that therefore they had to be eliminated. The war against them qualified as a Just War, whereas the WMD threat in Iraq was non-existent and we were hoodwinked into believing in it by Tony Blair.

Well, to qualify as a Just War, there needs to be 1) a strong chance that the just aims of the war can actually be achieved through the conflict; and 2) a rational basis for believing that the benefit that is sought outweighs the evil of the destruction and loss of life that the war brings about. If the first of these conditions is not met, it follows that the second condition also does not obtain. As I’ve argued in my previous two posts on Afghanistan, there is very little likelihood that the US and Britain (and whatever other NATO allies get involved) will be able to defeat the Taliban by military means. Nor is there much convincing evidence that the struggle against Al Qaeda or Islamically inspired terrorism in general has been advanced by the war in Afghanistan.

But even if one sincerely believed that the Taliban-Al Qaeda could be defeated militarily in Afghanistan, there would still be the question of whether the goal of removing them from power justifies all the loss and damage of innocent lives that has been the inevitable consequence of the war. Maybe if Al Qaeda was eliminated for good, you could think that this might constitute a moral benefit that was so great that lives had unfortunately to be sacrificed in pursuit of it. But who really believes that a putative military victory in Afghanistan would result in the demise of Al Qaeda? In some ways, it might strengthen support for them. And as for the Taliban, one is reminded of the old Cold War saying, ‘better red than dead’! In this case, ask the Afghans who’ve lost dear relatives and friends whether they’d prefer them alive if it meant the Taliban were back in power. Admittedly, some might say the sacrifice was worthwhile; but I bet more would say it wasn’t.

And yet, we’ve decided on their behalf that all those deaths are worthwhile – in the name of democracy. But what chance have we got of (re)-establishing democracy in Afghanistan: a country riven by regional and tribal differences, and in the hands of the warlords and drug barons? The US drive to democratise the Middle East is widely viewed in Muslim countries as a synonym for attempting to impose Western control and secularise Islamic states. So do we think we’ll win much support – inside and outside the country – for our efforts to defend democracy through military conflict with (nominally) Islamic forces in Afghanistan?

But maybe that’s what our presence in Afghanistan is really about – that ‘liberation of the Afghan people’ business being just so much PR fluff: we want the country to be under Western control and we want to replace an Islamic system of government with a secular democracy. Those are the objectives, aren’t they? So the (extremist) Muslim critics of our actions have got it right in this case. But we think we’re in the right.

We characterise the first of these objectives as ‘self-defence’: we have to be in control in Afghanistan, because if we’re not, the Taliban-Al Qaeda will be, and then we’ll be even more vulnerable to terrorism. Whether this consequence would actually flow from the Taliban getting back into power in Afghanistan is debatable: there are other and better ways of fighting terrorism than slugging it out with the Taliban-Al Qaeda in a South Asian backwater. But then, as I’ve argued in my previous posts on Afghanistan, it’s about more than just winning an isolated battle against the terrorists: at stake are the goals of maintaining Western control of the Middle East as a whole, isolating Iran, and preventing Al Qaeda from getting their hands on the potential nuclear arsenal of that country or the actual nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. It’s a region-wide strategic conflict, according to whose logic Afghanistan just can’t be allowed to fall to the Taliban.

Especially as the Taliban represent everything that we find odious, primitive and barbaric about Islam. The Taliban gives us a form of Islam that is a worthy object of our dislike and fear of that faith (our Islamophobia). Because the Taliban are so authoritarian, oppressive, sexist, and narrowly literalistic and dogmatic in their interpretation of Islam, this allows us to feel justified in ejecting them from power and attempting to set up a secular democracy in their place. It’s not ‘regime change’ as in Iraq, we say to ourselves, but a fight that has been elevated to truly symbolic proportions: one between our real Enemy – ‘Islamism’, ‘extreme Islam’ – and what we think we represent: freedom, equality, progress. On top of the whole strategic game, that’s the other reason why we think we can’t and mustn’t lose in Afghanistan: it could be used by the Islamists to show to the Muslim world that history is not necessarily on the side of the West; that the ‘end of history’ may not have to be the triumph of secular-liberal democracy everywhere – first against Communism, and then against Islam. And maybe defeat would shake our own conviction a little that the future belongs to us and our values.

But this is a long way from a simple war objective – ridding Afghanistan of a tyranny – that might provide a Just War-based vindication of all the carnage there, if we thought we could actually achieve it. It’s not ultimately about defending the Afghan people; seriously, how many people in the West really care about the Afghan people the way, for instance, they claim to care about the poor in Africa or other parts of Asia? On one level, we probably think they’re actually to blame for the misery of indigence and violent conflict that has been their lot for at least the past 30 years. They’re primitive, ill-educated people – we say to ourselves – that have allowed themselves to be easy prey to warlords and extremists; and not only that, but they produce opium crops on an industrial scale for export to the West. It’s not surprising that a people like that was so ignorant and docile as to accept the Taliban yoke.

In short, they’re the sort of Muslim for whom one can feel little sympathy. No wonder we think their lives are so expendable in defence of our Western interests and values. The liberal cause must be upheld after all – at any price.

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

11 July 2007

Salman Rushdie Affair: Al-Qaeda’s Vain Threats, Britain’s Lame Excuse

Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.

Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.

In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).

Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.

But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?

25 June 2007

Islamophobia: Driver Of the War On Terror

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.

On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.

Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.

In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’

Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.

British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.

In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.

Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?

But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:

  • Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood

  • Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it

  • Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.

  • Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.

 

In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.

So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.

But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)

The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.

The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.

Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.

19 June 2007

Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Salman Rushdie had been awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. How incredibly stupid! If anything was calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with Muslims in this country, that was it.

And sure enough, Iran’s knee-jerk reaction followed the day after as an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the award revealed Islamophobia among senior British officials. The Pakistani parliament followed suit yesterday, and the Religious Affairs minister went so far as to suggest that such insults could even justify suicide bombings.

Nice work by the Downing Street team! Perhaps they should have listened a bit more to the boys and girls at the FO. Or perhaps they did: maybe calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with British Muslims is exactly what it was.

To understand decisions like this that at first sight seem incomprehensible, it’s useful to focus on a) the message that it might be conveying, and b) its political effect: as the consequences of the decision unfold, think what political advantages there are to be had from some of them.

For a start, it’s clear that Rushdie’s elevation is in part intended to send Iran the message that Britain will not be intimidated, following the recent episodes of the seizure of British seamen on patrol and the protests outside the British Embassy in Tehran last week. It just so happens that two reports about the capture of the British naval personnel come out today, and this incident has been described as a ‘national humiliation’ (was it, though, really?). So Salman Rushdie’s award was indeed a timely demonstration of Britain’s resolve in relation to Iran!

Incidentally, it was curious how reports on last week’s demonstrations in Tehran mentioned that some of the protests were directed against ‘England’ rather than Britain. I’ve tried to find out why the demonstrators felt compelled to single out England in this way but haven’t as yet been successful. Is it simply that ‘England’ is used interchangeably with ‘Britain’ in Farsi, or was this, too, calculated to be especially insulting – the Iranians realising that insulting ‘England’ is more offensive to most British people than directing contempt merely towards Britain?

Quite whether conferring an honour on one of the most hated personalities in the Islamic world is the smartest way to communicate this message of defiance is another matter. I haven’t been able to shake out of my mind an image this suggests: one of a leering, Union Jack-sporting, 1970s-style punk sticking two fingers up the nose of an Arab sheikh. Or perhaps that’s just the kind of cartoonish, caricatural way it might be presented in Islamic media.

In fact, the knighting of Sir Salman puts one in mind of that other incident involving cartoons: those Danish images of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked such a furore of outrage in many parts of the Muslim world towards the end of last year. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and those cartoons are comparably insensitive in the way they play fast and loose with sacrosanct tenets of Islam. Conferring a knighthood on Rushdie, supposedly in recognition of his services to literature, is indeed tantamount to saying that insults to Islam are perfectly acceptable in British culture: not just in the popular culture, which creates hateful images of Muslims out of prejudice and fear of terrorism, but in high culture and art. In this respect, at least, the Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs is on the mark in his criticisms.

But why would such a clear insult to Muslims be apparently sanctioned at the highest level? Look at the effect and infer the intentions. One effect is the one described above: Pakistani ministers appearing to legitimise suicide bombings to defend the honour of the Prophet. As if to back this up, the BBC Breakfast programme this morning slipped in a short, unobtrusive item (almost subliminal and appearing to be one that was waiting in their video library) showing a Taliban leader exhorting a group of Pakistani terrorist trainees to go and carry out suicide bombings in Britain and other Western countries.

In other words, part of the government’s intention appears to have been to engineer a perception of a heightened terrorist threat to this country. Too conspiracy-theory? Well, the government must have realised this would be the reaction on the part of the religious hardliners in Iran and Pakistan; so why do it unless it was something that procured some benefit? What’s the benefit? Well, Mr Brown’s got a new Terror Bill to steer through parliament, hasn’t he? The rebel Labour MPs are going to be just a little more reluctant to stick one over on their new leader if the public is getting more worried about the terror threat again. So not stupid, at all; very clever, as far as it goes. In GB (as I’ll henceforth call Gordon Brown in honour of his Britological credentials), we are after all dealing with the secret spin-meister par excellence! Does it matter that / whether the actual threat level is raised or not? Well, politics, among other things, is the art of short-term risk taking for the sake of long-term objectives. If, six months from now, another horrendous terrorist outrage hits London, how many people will make the link with Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? But we may then be having to live with 90-days’ detention of terror suspects without charge, which will seem a small sacrifice of our liberties against such atrocities.

And what about the other ‘benefit’ that could accrue from Sir Rushdie’s honour: the antagonism of Muslim communities in this country? Every time the government wishes to talk up the terror threat, it seems they also feel it opportune to do something to make the Muslim faithful appear to justify suspicions of their terrorist sympathies. After all, this government’s done this before, last autumn, when it stirred up a largely unnecessary ‘debate’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab, or full veil. The effect of this, as opposed to the avowed intention, was merely to exacerbate people’s understandable sense of unease when encountering women thus attired, and to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that Muslims who choose to demonstrate their adherence to Islam in such a striking visual way are more likely to be extremists or even potential terrorists in disguise.

In a similar way, Muslim organisations and individuals in this country who protest too vehemently about Rushdie’s honour can now be dismissed as extremists – ignoring the fact that this award is probably offensive (and understandably so) even to more liberal-minded Muslims. The government’s tactic, in this as in the whole veil episode, appears to be to drive a wedge between the so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. On the one hand, the moderates are intimidated by the enhanced general atmosphere of Islamophobia (in the sense of ‘fear of Islam’) into doing what the government has urged them to do: to try to take control of their communities and impose their more moderate views. On the other hand, it’s a way to more easily isolate the extremists, who’ll be provoked into taking more radical public positions, which will then make them easier to police and which is likely to land a fair few of them with 90-day terms of detention without charge.

As part of this campaign to stigmatise and discredit the so-called extremists, the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech. They must have consulted with Rushdie himself about the whys and wherefores of accepting the honour. They would have explained the risks to the man: that there’d doubtless be a wave of revulsion across the Muslim world, even that the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini previously placed upon him could be revived. But if he was willing to take this on, he could accomplish something really worthwhile by setting an example of a Muslim who had fully integrated with British values and culture, even to the extent of obtaining the highest possible accolade that Britain can bestow. If things went belly up, and both Britain and Rushdie received death threats in the form of incitements to acts of terrorism and a renewed fatwa, then this integration theme could be underplayed, and Rushdie could be celebrated and pitied as a victim of Islamist extremism: perhaps even literally as a ‘martyr’ for British liberalism. (But maybe they didn’t discuss that bit of the deal in too much detail.)

Did they really think Rushdie would have any credibility at all as a symbol of the integration of Muslims with British values and society? He can’t even be seen as a liberal Muslim, as he’s renounced Islam – which it is of course his right to do; but more sensible (and dare I say ‘English’) to do so in less deliberately offensive a manner. He’s more precisely a paragon of what you might call the ‘religious liberalism’ that is a characteristic of the Britologists’ British values: liberalism blended with a certain number of inherited Christian concepts (even though it’s ultimately secular in its core assumptions), and espoused and advocated with a certain quasi-religious, even arrogantly absolutist zeal by Blairites and Brownites alike. [It’s what I like to call ‘evangeliberalism’ – but then the love of neologisms is truly one of my biggest sins!]

Yes, indeed, Salman Rushdie is truly a worthy cultural ambassador of this form of liberalism. Look at the Satanic Verses: a liberal, novelistic conceit (and therefore not to be read in a literal manner like those naïve Muslims who read their own Holy Book in such a way) that re-plays an ancient Christian calumny about Islam – that it was Satan who whispered it into the ears of Mohammed, not the Angel Gabriel speaking the words of God. Added to this, a suggestive thematic around the lack of modesty and virtue of the Prophet’s wives, adding grist to the mill that it is threatened, autocratic Muslim patriarchs who impose the veil on their wives, merely because they can’t tolerate the modern secular idea that women are entitled to full sexual and personal freedom.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many Muslims are up in arms? The Satanic Verses is a poisonous cocktail, appealing at once to Christian-derived prejudices and myths about Islam, and liberal contempt towards its literalism, and its ‘uncritical’ veneration of Mohammed and God himself. Indeed, it embodies precisely the sort of pernicious mix that informs so many of the actions and statements towards Muslims of those who have declared themselves the champions of British values.

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