Monday, 22 February 2010

Hypocrisy International

What the fuck has happened to Amnesty International? As a long-time admirer of the organisation's work (and someone who has on occasion contributed his own two cents to their efforts), I could perhaps just about swallow the bitter pill of the decision to include the former Guantanamo inmate and armchair jihadist Moazzam Begg on an AI platform. I say bitter, because I consider it an uncomfortable paradox for an event supposedly geared towards the global defense of human rights to give legitimacy to a stalwart supporter of a regime with among the most dismal records in that area to so recently scar the face of the earth: Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. So great was Begg's zeal for the regime of Mullah Omar that he moved against the traffic of those lucky enough to escape the hell-hole and planted himself and his family in Kabul in July, 2001.

This itself is sin enough. It is however not a significant deviation from the already murky moral waters direction AI have traversed of late. The presence of Noam Chomsky, a man who has never fully repudiated his mushy feelings for the devastating Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, at the AI Belfast conference last year is of a similar vein.

But the Begg case - or rather its ramifications - suggests something is truly rotten in this noble edifice. Something must be rotten when a secular human rights organization suspends a woman with a fine history of opposing religious fundamentalism for voicing her concerns at its association with a religious fundamentalist. Gita Saghal has recieved extraordinarily unjust treatment for her honesty.

I don't believe this exposes AI to be the 'enemy within' some paranoid right-wingers lambast it as. Au contraire, this is something to be regretted, not celebrated. As David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times, trouble at AI is welcome news to no-one, "except to tyrants". What would be welcome however, would be some evidence of AI challenging this encroaching politicization which seems to be rendering some cases more equal than others.

We need search no further than the island of Cuba for disappointment. A poster on Harry's Place compares the attention bestowed upon Begg and his Guantanamo Bay case on the AI website (59 results) with that for the Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, whose hunger strike in Castro's gaols since Dec 3 led to his death today (24th Feb), a search for whose name produces just 9 results. Such a differentiation, the differences between the cases themselves (the far greater openness of US and UK society over the Cuban, where AI cannot operate, for instance, as the HP poster acknowledges) notwithstanding, cannot be justified considering Begg has not seen the inside of a prison cell since January 2005 and, of course, has his own organisation to convey his message, the charming 'Cageprisoners' which has done some sterling campaigning for the twin causes of prisoners' rights and global jihad. Tamayo, by contrast, would never breathe free air again the day he was arrested during the 'black spring' protests in Havana in 2003.

It seems AI need a little soul-searching. I still applaud their positive work (and feel I should perhaps get back into writing those solidarity cards they encourage. Has been a while...) and am of course aware than in this strange age of ideological transvestism, they are far from the only ones in want of soul-searching.

MOAZZAM BEGG FUN FACTS: Did you know...when failed 'suicide pants bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was chair of the Islamic Society at UCL, speakers he invited to various events included Yvonne Ridley (who would be proud to have late al-Qaeda butcher Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as "her brother"), George Galloway (well...) and a Mr Moazzam Begg? If you didn't know, I hope you're not surprised...

Friday, 12 February 2010

The best thing about 2009 continues to be the best thing about 2010

Everyone has at least a top two newsworthy events of each year. A good second for my 2009 would have to be the death of the fear in Iran; the way in which, via its own cack-handed paranoia, a theocratic regime parted with its credibility for good.

But for me the event of 2009 to be lauded most profusely concerns another Muslim country, Pakistan, and it too involves the global fight of ordinary - largely Muslim - people against the reactionary ideology of Islamism. Its precedence is for two reasons: a) while the protestors in Tehran and other Iranian cities (though having exceeded all expectations in bravery and persistence) have achieved few tangible results against their enemy, the Pakistani military, the US air force and ordinary Pakistani citizens have had extraordinary success against theirs. And b) simply because, as variants of Islamism go, the Pakistanis have the far nastier to deal with.

It has been almost a year since the Swat Valley region in the country's North-West Frontier Province acted as a test tube for yet another doomed experiment of Pakistani compromise with the Tehreek-i-Taleban (Pakistani Taliban). I supported it at the time, like the spineless appeaser I was back then. I and Pakistan soon learnt that to compromise with unadulterated totalitarianism is not only (as I knew) morally questionable but as likely to succeed (as I had yet to appreciate) as a pact with cancer, or hasty negotiations with arsenic as it snakes its way down one's oesophagus. You either fight and overcome it, or die. So just as the Munich Conference of 1938 doesn't exactly ring through history as a proud example of British diplomatic fortitude (and as no-one has ever heard of the Treaty of the Transverse Colon), the Swat deal was an unmitigated failure.

But once the Taliban had conclusively broken that ceasefire (several times actually, including twice in one day on 2nd March), something interesting happened: Pakistan sort of seemed to...well... wake up. By the end of May, the Pakistani Army had taken Mingora, the capital of Swat. The region remains more or less completely within Pakistani sovereignty. Pakistan displayed admirable willingness to abate the hardships of the beleaguered population during this process. John Sweeney's (yes, the guy who flipped off at Scientology) Panorama programme certainly came to this conclusion on the military front, while the cassandraic predictions of a 'Rwanda-like' humanitarian refugee crisis quickly evaporated (according to the UN, 1.3m of 1.9m displaced were returned home by mid-August).

That victory over theocratic fanaticism was soon followed by that in South Waziristan, declared on 12th December 2009. Other significant triumphs have included the killing by US air strikes of two successive Tehreek-i-Taleban leaders, Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud, last August and last month respectively. It was good clean fun watching the Talibannies try to deny the former killing ever happened for a number of weeks, only to later admit it and descend into internal factionalism over a successor. A similar coy pattern has emerged in the wake of Hakimullah's glorious martyrdom. While it seems the Pakistanis, for necessity's sake, plan to take a 6 month break from liberating the rest of their country, there is this time no serious talk of grubby compromise deals.

Of course, serious problems remain in Pakistan. The indiscriminate nature of US tactics in the country have kept the fire of anti-Americanism blazing, where in much of the post-Bush world it has tempered somewhat. Civilian deaths are of course sadly inevitable in wars of this type; they can, however, be limited with the will and the technology. It does seem that either US-Pakistani coordination, US aerial precision or both have improved in recent months, a conclusion I draw from the sharp decline in attacks on wedding parties.

Another issue is the question of how much Pakistan - or rather, that grossly swollen military-intelligence complex responsible for the Taliban's very existence - has really changed in attitudes towards its diabolical love-child. There remain influential elements in 'the complex' which retain warm sympathies for these 'good Muslims'. Yet it appears here too there has been some progress; the notorious 'armchair jihadist' General Syed Mohammed Javed, the architect of the failed Swat deal, was removed from his post of Malakand commander last April, for instance.

The last word must concern the most inspiring aspect of this long war for sovereignty and liberty: the role of ordinary people of the NWFP in their struggle against their procrustean oppressors. Numerous tribes across the province have declared war on the Taliban. The most recent example is that covered by Declan Walsh in his Guardian article 'The village that stood up to the Taliban'. (Note that this particular village is outside of the areas so far liberated by the Army) Such actions give the lie to the lazy cultural relativist assumption that Muslim people are somehow 'happy' under Islamist systems.

That particular case is salient not only because it is the most recent one, but also because it concerns something quite unremarkable in itself: the right to play volleyball. For me, this hammers home once again how, in the face of an ideology which seeks to criminalize that which makes us human, the most unremarkable acts become acts of resistance.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Should we mourn Howard Zinn?

J.D. Salinger died four days ago. Judging from the stark polarization of receptions his magnum opus (or magnificent octopus as S. Baldrick would put it) 'Catcher in the Rye' produces, I'd venture to say the public reaction to his death ranges from the genuinely remorseful to the indifferent.

That can most certainly be said of another American writer who died on the same day. I'm talking about Howard Zinn, the civil rights activist, anti-war activist and - ostensibly - historian. The contrast is exemplified most acutely by that between the gushing encomiums that made up the second half of Friday's episode of 'Democracy Now', including contributions from Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, and the two-word entry left by a contributor to the 'liberal hawk' blog Harry's Place: "Oh well."

That in itself is not surprising. One cannot, after all, expect bloggers who still uphold the decision to invade Iraq as necessary and just to regret the loss of a man who couldn't even bring himself to fully justify the US role in WWII - a war he himself saw combat in.

But with Zinn there is something starker about the differentiation, than it will be, I predict, on the passing of, for instance, a historian like Eric Hobsbawm. For all the blemishes- truly disfiguring, in some cases - on Hobsbawm's ideological record, such as the vulgar little pamphlet devised by he and Raymond Williams in 1940 to justify the Hitler-Stalin Pact on the ludicrous basis of a British plot to invade the USSR, at least he is a decent historian. People from across the political spectrum have admitted to respecting his work, from the pro-war left like Nick Cohen and the anti-war right like Peter Hitchens.

Conversely, while Zinn has not been so useful to the enemies of democracy (Hobsbawm was useful to the Nazis during the Pact years as is demonstrated by the praise delivered to the Communist front 'the People's Convention', set up purely to divert attention from Nazi/Soviet aggression in favour of the British imperialist variety, in Nazi propaganda) it seems he has also offered little to those who appreciate balanced and honest history.

While Hobsbawm, as mentioned, attracts some, perhaps grudging, admiration from those politically opposed to him, as far as I can deduce there are no similar figures with regard to Zinn's legacy. Likewise, even some on the socialist left have distanced themselves, as this article from Dissent magazine (admittedly a publication which prides itself on its unbiased reviews of all shades of work) does: The article criticises Zinn's notoriously simplistic and ideologically-charged book A People's History of the United States for, among other things, having a similar conception of American elites as "the medieval church's image of the Devil".

Of course, Zinn remains hugely popular among those who would rather believe than think: A People's History has sold 2m copies. In some respects, it is easy to understand: we still live in a largely rotten world and people like Zinn seem to provide vindication, a scholarly stamp of approval for the moral outrage of many. Aspects of his character assist this also; Zinn displayed considerable bravery on civil rights and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, for example, particularly his condemnation - or provocation - of secret police inflitrating a demo in 1971 which resulted in his arrest. Such passion can be bewitching, especially to the young. One might even call it 'an opium'.

But one has to be wary of the downsides of intellectual drug-abuse. Just as an opium addict withers away physically, academic integrity gradually crumbles when lured by the will-o'-the-wispish anti-Americanism of Zinn and his fellow-travellers.