Posts Tagged ‘islam and the middle east’

Fear of failure

Posted 06 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

One thing that really strikes me about the whole question of whether US forces were right to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is the thought of how the combatants must have felt. Specifically in relation to fear – not fear in terms of their own lives (although of course, even for highly trained personnel, that must have been huge) but fear of failure. An inability to know what was in the next room, and when the mission was beyond the point of failure. That’s where I half-sympathise with the decision to pull the trigger. Imagine if, having arrested bin Laden, the soldiers had found themselves up against unexpected circumstances which saw him freed. In ten years this was by the far the closest US intelligence had ever got to bin Laden, and this was their chance. To have let that chance go would have been a tragedy. They must have known that, and must have known that more important than their own safety was the fact that Osama bin Laden must not have been allowed the opportunity to escape. Sadly – and while I can’t rejoice at his death – I can understand why dispatching him must have seemed vital in that moment.

Curtis off the boil

Posted 05 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Well, it’s impossible to let the week go by without a mention of Osama bin Laden. And I find, to my surprise, that I’m not feeling too liberal-wet on this one. Of course a summary execution, in almost any other circumstances, would be appalling, but in this case – when you spent ten years looking for someone, and don’t yet know what’s around the corner, you do what you have to do. The thought of the world’s media nourishing itself on the extended trial and eventual execution of Osama is too awful to imagine. Anyway – predictably enough, lots of stuff has been written on Osama, Obama and the West’s involvement in the Middle and Near East – much of it very good and lots of it pretty useless. Honourable mentions in this latter category to Andrew Murray and – sadly – Adam Curtis.

The former has always been pretty idiotic, but the latter is someone I very much admire. His take on Osama, however, is out-dated, non-specific and lacking insight. He is adept at identifying narratives in contemporary history – a great skill – but his own rhetoric leads him into daft conclusions. In this instance he ends up implying Al-Qaeda was a relatively passive enemy, hoodwinked into enhanced status by devious politicians. Well; they killed tens of thousands. Curtis is occasionally as daft a consipiracy theorist as, say, Glenn Beck. That’s not to say he isn’t right about many important things. But this hasty bit of journalism, cobbled together out of a desire to make a single event illustrative of a grand thesis, sinks.

He has a new documentary in the works. Hope it’s better.

Caroline Lucas and Libya

Posted 14 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

The Guardian notes that “Thirteen MPs have signed a Commons early day motion opposing military intervention in Libya”; I’m disappointed to say that Caroline Lucas, my MP, is amongst them. That’s not to say that I am in reflexively in favour of intervention (long term readers of this blog will know I’m not) but I do think there is a case for it, and we must be adaptable and energetic should that case be proven.

The motion says:

That this House does not believe that Western intervention in Libya or elsewhere will bring about the peace, justice and democracy that is being sought by millions of people in North Africa and the Middle East; and calls for a rethinking of British and European foreign policy and a more concerted effort to apply international law and its human rights clauses in any negotiations or actions relating to the historical process that is now taking place.

Jeremy Corbyn – who authored the motion – has tweeted that events in the region are a “peoples movement, not a call for occupation.” Of course he is absolutely right, but his early day motion – which Lucas signed – uses the same old methods which proponents and opponents of liberal intervention routinely employ; namely he conflates two issues. Intervention does not automatically equal occupation. And nor is it as simple as ‘Western intervention’. What we must look for here, if we decide intervention is warranted, is a global response, supported by neighbouring Arab states. Only two days ago the Greens issued a statement which said “we are not ruling out support for a no-fly zone, but it would need to be very carefully handled and would need the support of countries in the region.” So why sign this early-day motion?

How we work out whether intervention is warranted, of course, is a complex issue. In a recent column in The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash wrote:

“A decade ago an independent international commission that elaborated on the idea of “responsibility to protect” spelled out six criteria for deciding whether military action is justified. Essentially a modernised version of centuries-old Catholic standards for “just war”, these criteria are: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. Bitter experience, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, has taught us that “reasonable prospects” (ie of success) may be the most difficult to judge and achieve.”

That’s definitely true – but there’s nothing in Corbyn’s motion which leads me to believe that all these issues have yet been weighed up satisfactorily. Garton Ash, instinctively, felt he wouldn’t support a no fly zone – yet – but he acknowledged that matters could change.

I’d like to hear Lucas’ rationale.

Cameron the arms-dealer

Posted 23 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

It seems quite extraordinary to me that David Cameron thinks that it is, in the current climate in the Middle East and Arab world, appropriate for the British PM to spend time hawking the British Defence industry in Kuwait. That’s right – he and eight senior representatives of the UK’s arms manufacturers are conducting an arms-sales trip to the Gulf at the exact same time that the regimes of Bahrain and Libya are firing on their own protesters using weapons (from tear-gas canisters to sniper rifles) which we have sold them. And Cameron sees no problem: any sales, he tells, us are “covered by assurances that they would not be used in human rights repression” – when the evidence from the Arab world flatly contradicts this fact. Let’s face it, if this arms-fair had taken place in early January, we would have been selling weapons to Mubarak – and do we think he would have refrained from using them when his (richly-deserved) troubles began?

Some think it’s fine for the British defence industry to sell weapons to states which may use them against whomsoever they choose. Cameron certainly does. He says

“There is an argument to be had about whether it is right to be involved in the defence trade. My view is that you cannot expect every country in the world to provide for its own defence and so it is perfectly logical and sensible that there should be a trade in defence. Kuwait is a good example of a country that has been moving in an open and participatory direction.”

Just for a moment let’s accept his argument as valid – Britain has been selling arms abroad for decades and it’s unlikely it will ever stop. In these straightened times it is the role of the PM to encourage trade which benefits the UK economy, and we’ll accept his implication (for now) that so long as there is movement away from repression and violence in the countries we sell to, we should not be troubled by ethical concerns.

So, accepting all that – that it’s essentially OK for the British to arm the regimes of the Arab world – are we still entirely happy with his decision to choose now of all times to launch this sales-push?

Now, OK, the Kuwaiti arms-fair is a long-standing calendarised event for which the likes of BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce have been preparing for months – and presumably Gerald Howarth, our Defence Minister, needs to be in attendance. Perhaps under ordinary circumstances it would be reasonable for the PM to go along too (presumably Prince William and Beckham – who normally handle this sort of crap – were busy). But when North Africa and the Gulf States are being torn asunder by despotic regimes punishing their citizens for daring to demand their rights, and when hundreds and possibly thousands are dying at the hands of the people we have been busy selling weapons to for years, surely it makes sense for Cameron to take a back seat on this one.

To use this time to profit is morally repugnant. There is little question that more arms trading will happen than ever at the Kuwait weapons-fair this year, and that is purely because Gulf states who regarded their internal situations as secure this time last year are now scenting, fearfully, the prospect of chaos in the air. And here Cameron is, stuffing their money into his trouser pockets.

And let’s row back on our argument. I said a moment ago I’d been willing to accept his premise that arming states which are ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’ was ethically justified. Well – it’s not. Put simply, we should not be selling ANY weapons to ANY undemocratic, despotic or dangerous countries, allies or not. Bahrain is moving ‘in an open and participatory direction’. In the years since Libya came in from the cold, it’s been ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’. But this slow, uncertain, unreliable movement is not enough. In both of those countries British weapons are being employed to gun down the very people who are protesting for an end to corruption and the opening up of democratic processes. These weapons are being used to shut down, not encourage, a trajectory towards peaceful democratic statehood.

And for that reason, Cameron (who isn’t to blame for all those arms deals under previous governments, of course), is taking the absolutely wrong approach in driving more deals with more uncertain states forward. If those guns, tanks, tear-gas grenades and riot shields are used against peaceful protesters again, he will have to take some very small (but not insignificant) part of the blame, and he will have dragged the international reputation of Britain – which is already a long way from perfect – through the gutter once again. We have to decide, is this the kind of country we want to be? One that arms the nation’s bullies, or one that opposes them? I really don’t see how we can be both.

Bahrain next?

Posted 15 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

If a government sends the army in to fire on a crowd, and kills somebody in the process, and then the next day, at the person’s funeral, sends the army in to fire on the crowd, and kills somebody, are they just putting into a place a cycle which will play out every day until only the army and the government is left?

This is Bahrain. It’s a testament to the crazyness of 2011 so far that it could easily be pretty much any one of the country’s Arab neighbours. Who will be next?

the tragedy of unpreparedness

Posted 16 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Islam and the Middle East, Politics

“Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere”, EM Forster wrote in Howard’s End, warning against “the tragedy of preparedness”. But some things must be prepared for, and it is a tragedy if they are not – they become Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. Here’s a bitter example.

From Armando Iannucci, a sorry anecdote heard in Whitehall about post-war planning.

“Donald Rumsfeld weeded out from those going to help the reconstruction of Iraq anyone who could speak Arabic, on the grounds they would be pro-Arab. As a result, it took the Americans 18 months to realise that when marines held up the flat of their hand to oncoming cars to signal them to stop, they were actually using the Iraqi hand-signal for “come forward”. That’s why so many families in cars were shot”.

Almost too appalling to contemplate – perhaps not a war crime, but a crime of negligence.

(via Chicken Yoghurt)

review: waltz with bashir

Posted 05 Dec 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Reviews

Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s excellent animated film, is a cool, deliberate and moving evocation of memory, conscience and war which moves from muted tones of yellow and black through luminous multicolour and back again as the director recounts the nightmarish reality of 1982s Israeli-Lebanon War, and his own efforts to reconstruct his recollection of it. Like thousands of men his age, his formative years were defined by his involvement in war, though both his own country and much of the Middle East which surround it – particularly Lebanon – have found themselves the staging ground for much of the world’s conflict since. At 19, be that as it may, he was sent to fight, and to kill. Yet he remembers little. What took place all those years ago?

Part autobiography, part fantasy, and part documentary, Waltz With Bashir is constructed from a series of flashbacks, hallucinations and interviews, all lovingly illustrated. Unable to piece together the details himself, Folman begins a long, painful search for the truth, finding people he served with, drawing out his own suppressed memories and interweaving them with those of his peers. The results are always beautifully drawn, but invariably upsetting; an officer forced to swim out to sea to escape capture by Palestinian forces; a troop trying in desperation to cross a junction while being fired on from all angles; the memory of six men having to gun down a child armed with a rocket launcher.

Worst is the darkest memory of all; Folman’s involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, where Phalangist Christians led Israeli forces into refugee camps and enacted a devastating genocide on the Palestinians within – murdering young and old, entire families lined up and shot under the yellow sky. As the film’s most devastating line attests, Folman, whose own parents survived Auschwitz, is made unwittingly to play the role of Nazi, firing flares into the sky so that the light persisted enough for the massacre to continue. At the apex of this savage injustice, the film switches not just from monochrome to full colour, but from animation to live video. The final, dreadful moments of the movie consist solely of archive footage of the terrible aftermath – wailing survivors surveying the destruction, the bodies of children poking horrifically from the rubble.

Despite the painful reality of these closing shots, the movie conjures up several arresting images of its own – an early sequence, which describes a memory experiment at a funfair, is echoed, in a moment of playfulness, through a window; a pack of dogs charge vengefully through the streets; a terrified soldier, cowering on a military boat, is provided with a moment’s respite by an erotic hallucination. The most powerful image is that of the auteur’s face, frozen in the streets of Beirut as he witnesses the carnage around him. It’s repeated several times; a slow pan around a youthful face, and gains in intensity with every viewing, until at last you learn something, something, of the atrocity of war. Waltz With Bashir is both chillingly upsetting and notably beautiful – a superb, troubling, and yet strangely cleansing film. Go see it.


Posted 05 Aug 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

An interesting interview on Radio 4 this morning, where Geert Wilders made a very unconvincing case against Islam. I suspect that Michael Buerk was equally unimpressed, if the phrasing of the following question is to be taken as evidence:

“When you first began airing your opinions on immigration, surely it provoked a reaction; firstly, that you were exaggerating, but also second that you were not just an idiot, but also racist?”

That’s not a direct quote, couldn’t scrabble for a piece of paper fast enough to be sure it was exact, but it’s pretty close. The section in italics is definitely right, and revealing.

the other iraq

Posted 12 Jul 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Development, Islam and the Middle East

Iraqi Kurdistan is that rarest of things; a (relatively) safe state in one of the world’s most unsettled nations. As such, it’s of great interest to anyone who follows events in the Middle East, and to its cautious onlooking neighbours, such as Turkey. I’ve written a short article about the semi-autonomous region for Hii Dunia, which may be of interest – click here to read it.

alarming news

Posted 08 Jan 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

As any GCSE media student would be able to tell you, the Daily Express newspaper falls neatly into the category of British right-of-centre tabloid. I’d never read it, but I too knew that’s where it political instincts lay. Along with The Daily Mail the Express acts as a news source to an ageing section of white middle class, mostly suburban middle-England. It virtually says so on the tin. The Express has also been much ridiculed for its formulaic approach of giving its readers the news. We’ve all seen the countless ‘Princess Di’ front-pages and more recently the obsession with the disappearance of Madeline McCann, stories of whom are now presented in red capitals.

Despite being armed with all this knowledge, I was shocked whilst flicking through a copy of yesterdays paper bought by a housemate and left on the coffee table in my lounge. Under the headline ‘FURY AT ‘NO-GO’ AREAS RULED BY THE FANATICS’ the Express yesterday (Monday) lead with a story that the Christian convert, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, had voiced personally-held concerns that Islamic characteristics are being imposed without consent in parts of the country. The Bishop’s concerns apparently stem from his worry that communities are separating and that religion may be the cause. The sub header of this front page article written by the paper’s Political editor, Macer Hall, read ‘Non-Muslims afraid to visit parts of Britain’.

Is this to lead the reader into thinking this is what Bishop Nazir-Ali said? Or is this a statement of fact based on some undisclosed survey? In either case it is not qualified. Neither is the claim of where this ‘Fury’ comes from. Is this just the Express’s editorial privilege at work, and what tabloids do all the time?

Aside from a guarded welcome from the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis to parts of what the Bishop reportedly said, Macer Hall could find little to support this story and it fizzles out on page seven with rebuttals from other leading Tories and an eloquent dismissal from the Muslim Council of Britain. This is not before, however, the reader is shown a picture of veiled Muslim women in Blackburn, the caption of which simply reads, ‘Warning’.

Readers are also encouraged to phone or text the Express and answer the question, ‘Are you fed up with fanatics changing Britain’. I wonder if they count the fanatics in their midst at Express HQ?

One of these is surely Express columnist Leo McKinstry, who begins his column “At last a blast has been sounded against the creeping Islamification of Britain”. Now the Express can really let rip with what’s pent up inside it. McKinstry hits all the right notes for the readership of this paper who, according to him, are a powerless entity in multi cultural Britain run by an elite in denial. His language is provocative and at times racist as he uses the perceived protest by Bishop Nazir-Ali to lambaste the “politically correct brigade” and idealise his father’s generation who fought to “protect our nation from foreign occupation”. He despairs at state funded Muslim schools and housing projects and as an aside picks up on an earlier Express story about hospital beds being turned towards Mecca so that their occupants are able to observe their religion. Elderly people, we are told, are dying of neglect as apparently nurses are spending all their time turning every Muslim’s bed to face Mecca five times a day. Another claim made, of course, without any apparent investigation or I suspect real conviction, but it is what we are lead to think Mr McKinstry truly believes.

Alas perhaps years of reading this nonsense has taken its toll on the Daily Express readership. Like all modern papers the Express has an online presence and whilst not as developed as many papers, still acts as a repository for its readers comments. This, I was to find, was the most worrying aspect of this journey into the world of the Express. In the paper’s ‘Have your say’ section, under yesterday’s question ‘Are you fed up with fanatics changing Britain?’ the responses were more shocking than I had thought possible for the publication of a supposedly mainstream British paper.

They have, I assume, been cleared by a moderator. StuartM619, for example, starts with “it’s about time someone spoke out about the ways Muslims are being able to undermine our whole society and get away with it…” and ends with an eerie “God save the Queen”. There is much support for the BNP amongst the 23 (at time of writing) comments on the forum, including this from a well-rounded chap calling himself Dylan: “The BNP is doing everything it can for the indigenous people of this country. It’s time for the people to do their part and support them in every way they can”. Dylan, however, is mild in comparison to RobbyEnglishman, who wants “my country back from multi-culti do gooders”.

He’s convinced that the BNP are the people for the job and, as a former state school teacher, RobbyEnglishman – who now is in the private sector – has “only English kids to teach, no African, no muslisms (sic), no eastern europeans, in fact, just real English kids”. What a great man of learning Robby must be. He’s using this knowledge, accumulated over a life of bitterness and resentment to recommend bringing the army back as, in his words, “we’re gonna need them…”

There were, in truth, some considered comments on the forum, but none challenged what had been written by the likes of Dylan and RobbyEnglishman directly. The Express would, I suspect, point out that free speech is an important virtue of any free society and indeed they would be right. However, I suspect that the editor would be uneasy with the content of some of the Forums on the Express website. That these comments come as collateral from the writing of columnist Leo McKinstry should also concern the paper. Would Mr McKinstry be happy to be associated with the BNP or some of the more hate filled irrational comments found on the Express website associated with him? What role and responsibility does the Political editor or indeed the Editor himself play?

Today’s edition of the Daily Express is back on ‘safe’ familiar ground, with a lead story again on a perceived development in the Madeline McCann disappearance running alongside a picture of Princess Diana. I sometimes wonder if the Express’s photo library is close to running out of pictures of the Princess to put on its front page. The paper calls itself the ‘Greatest in the World’. It isn’t anywhere near, and with declining numbers of readers, consistent displays of editorial bankruptcy (in the week beginning August 27th 2006 the paper had a picture of Princess Diana on the cover for every single day) and no need for its non-news as a viable internet news source, its days lets hope are numbered.

[Blogging by Dan]

developments in qatar

Posted 02 Jan 2008 — by Jonathan
Category Development, Islam and the Middle East

Before Christmas I contributed a post to the excellent Hii Dunia blog, which is one a few blogs I read which has a global rather than Western-oriented focus. My article covered the intriguing Gulf state of Qatar, and attempted to give recognition to a nation which, while being far from perfect, is making strides forward and offers hope to a part of the world currently mired in trauma. One of the leaders giving hope to the country is Sheikha Mozah, an open minded, intellectual woman at the forefront of this fast-developing society. From education to women’s rights her influence is real. Yet she says:

“The physical landscape has changed but the real difference is in people’s minds, in their style of thinking. Pride and confidence allow them to be open to the rest of the world without hesitation. Now they feel they are part of this process [of change], and they feel responsibility. If you want to achieve a prosperous society, you need that. And I like to think we have achieved that.”

I hope her influence continues, and that the country’s progress does not go unnoticed by the West. Click here to read the complete article. Any thoughts or comments most welcome.

younis mahmoud

Posted 18 Dec 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

There’s an excellent article by James Montague over on the Guardian website today. It begins:

“Last night, when Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite – better known as Kaka – strode up to the podium in Zurich to collect Fifa’s world player of the year award, there were few dissenting voices. After all, Kaka had lead Milan to the European Cup and Club World Cup. But how would Kaka have performed with the constant threat of assassination and kidnap, with the spectre of sectarian violence against his family hanging over him, with his country in flames and with the pressure of knowing that his position as captain of the national team constituted the only glue that held his homeland together? For overcoming these barriers, and thriving on an international platform, there was an even better candidate for world footballer of the year: Younis Mahmoud, the captain of the Iraqi national team”.

A really fascinating article follows; Mahmoud is, for the moment, playing in Qatar – immigration rules have so far prevented him playing in Europe. I hope he does, and continues to be an important figure in Iraqi football, when he does. He has much to recommend him.

“It doesn’t matter what I am,” he says when I ask which of Iraq’s triumvirate clans he comes from. Depending on who you read, he is either Shia, Sunni, or Kurdish. “Above all else, I am Iraqi.”

unger on the house of bush

Posted 13 Nov 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

There’s a really fascinating conversation recorded on Wikipedia today between Vanity Fair journalist David Shankbone and author Craig Unger, whose new book, ‘The Fall of the House of Bush’, looks like essential reading. They touch on loads of thought-provoking subjects and Unger – who is already pretty unpopular in neoconservative circles – is relentlessly interesting. His insights into the politics of the Bush administration are fascinating, if terrifying.

Here’s the full interview. I’ve pulled out a few choice quotes, below.

On the education of George W. Bush:
“First, George W. Bush was not the favorite son by a long-shot. Jeb was, and even Neil was ahead of them. But in 1994 you had George W. and Jeb running for governor of Texas and Florida, respectively, and exactly the reverse happened of what people expected: that George would lose and Jeb would win. The opposite happened. In 1998, George wins reelection and suddenly he’s a two-term governor of a very visible state who has positioned himself for the Presidency. He knows nothing about foreign policy. He had only left the country one time, which was to visit his daughter in Italy. He had no curiosity about the world. Bush Sr. decides they have to educate him about it, so they bring in Prince Bandar and Condi Rice and begin a series of seminars. They are thinking the old guard—by that I mean Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice, James Baker,Colin Powell—will take charge; that is not what happens at all. In late 1998 the neocons quickly move in, and you have Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams making semi-secret trips down to Texas.”

On Bush Sr’s reluctance to speak out against his son:
“I’m wary of psychoanalyzing [Bush Sr], but I believe they don’t discuss [the war]. He’s come forth several times and said, “Look, why don’t you talk to Scowcroft or James Baker” and he kind of leaves it at that. The Iraq Study Group report did have some earmarks of anger venting . Scowcroft actually goes to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to get their support of the Iraq Study Group plan. He also goes to Condi Rice, who is the last person from that world who seems to have real access to Bush, and talks to her about it. She seems to sign on and at one point she says something like, “Well, when do you think we should do this?” and Scowcroft says, “Not we, you.” She never really does anything; she never stands up. She has become an enabler for the neocons such as Wolfowitz, who have convinced Bush to believe that we have to democratize the entire Middle East, topple Saddam, and only then can we deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Of course, that’s absolutely disastrous”.

On why the Neocons are willing to pursue such dangerous and high-risk policies:
“I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, but I can say they are REAL ideologues. It’s worth going back to their history and a lot of this stuff is toxic, third-rail stuff. David Brooks attacked me as a conspiracy nut. The point isn’t that the neocons had this weird Communist conspiracy or anything like that, but that they were trained ideologues and trained in ideological battles and sectarian disputes. They purge people who disagree with them and work in an echo-chamber environment where they don’t admit any facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. You see them operate as this ideological cadre. They purged people in the State Department who were part of the Realist crowd, and I go into that. They’ve had the same ideas for thirty years.”

Chilling stuff. But what a great article.

on oona and i

Posted 18 Oct 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Last night I watched, and greatly enjoyed, Nora Meyer’s excellent documentary on Oona King, which aired on the BBC this week. Meyer, a friend of King, delivers an accomplished, very personal film about the former Labour MP’s electoral battle with the fearsome and unscruplous George Galloway. Clearly sympathetic to King’s dreadful treatment at the hands of the Respect man, the film-maker documents the daily barrage of abuse and pressure she is subjected to as a result of her decision to back the toppling of Saddam. King’s position in British politics is unique; a headstrong, outspoken MP, and one of only two black women in parliament at the time, King had been made scapegoat for her local community’s fury at Blair’s disasterous foreign policy. Harangued on a daily basis by a mostly Muslim population, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for a woman being made to pay a huge prize for a well meant, if bad, decision.

Meyer, despite her friendship with Ms King, makes clear – as does almost everyone in the film – her bafflement as to how King could have supported the invasion, but allows the MP the chance to justify herself. It makes for the most moving section of the film, where King expresses her absolute disbelief that it is not a subject the friends had discussed earlier. For King, it was a conversation which she had several times on a daily basis for month upon month. As she attempts to reason through her decision, her exhaustion is palpable. Her argument, too, is weary and unconvincing. She even goes so far as to describe George Bush as ‘mentally retarded’, making it all the more unlikely that she could have supported his actions. In the end her reasoning is half-hearted; if Bush owes Iraq to Blair, then he might feel beholden to him and compelled to sort out the Israel Palestine issue. As we all know, it didn’t work out like that.

Since the documentary, King has recanted, admitting that in retrospect she was wrong to support the war. The tragedy is that she made the admission too late, and Bethnal Green and Bow ended up with a drastically inferior MP, the demagogue Galloway, who Oona King recently dismissed, refreshingly, as a ‘cunt’ in a Guardian interview. Yet Nora Meyer’s film, which never takes the easy route, also shows a King far too happy to play the game in order to work her way up the greasy pole of politics, and for all her good work in her constituency, it remains hard to see beyond Iraq. I could never have voted for Galloway, but I would have had great difficulty voting for King either. Happily the presence of a Labour MP who voted against the war in my constituency meant it wasn’t a problem I had to face.

Either way, I feel for King and wish her all the best. With luck, too, the people of Bethnal Green will be shot of their odious MP before long.

comics and journalism

Posted 20 Aug 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

The point where comic art and journalism cross over is well established thanks to the extraordinary – and initially unprecedented – work of the Maltese artist Joe Sacco, who, since the early nineties, has published impressively researched, exquisitely rendered comics detailing daily life in Palestine, Sarajevo, Gorazde and other war zones in days of both tidy normality and great crisis.

Since his groundbreaking form of reportage was first published, similar works, blending memoir, history and politics, have helped solidify comic reportage as a substantial and cutting-edge genre. Since Sacco’s ‘Palestine’, Guy Delisle has published two superb books of travel journalism from restricted states (his ‘Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea’, and ‘Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China’), Jean-Philippe Stassen’s ‘Deogratias, a Tale of Rwanda’ is a deeply moving study of life in the East Central African nation at the time of the Tutsi genocide, and David Axe’s ‘War Fix’ (extract below) is a devastating look at the aftermath of the Iraq War. Greg Cook is pursuing similar themes and Ted Rall’s ‘To Afghanistan & Back’ does the same for the first country attacked in the “war on terror’.

Craig Thompson is another writer currently writing the kind of book which demands not just creative power but serious research. His forthcoming graphic novel, Habbibi, is not yet published, but his comic book travelogue, ‘Carnet De Voyage’, which documents his research, taking in Barcelona, the Alps, France, and Morocco is serious travel journalism.

Now, adding to this body of work, the legendary comic book writer Harvey Pekar, more well-known for his closely obseved autobiographical style, has turned his hand to a new project – working with the peace campaigner Heather Roberson and the artist Ed Piskor, Pekar has written ‘Macedonia’, a book which depicts not another state of War in Eastern Europe, but rather the state of peace which has somehow, set against troubling ethnic rivalry, prevailed since the break-up of Yugoslavia. It looks like a great read.

Despite all this, my favourite travel illustrator is someone not so often mentioned in comic-book circles, but someone whose meticulous line drawings combine with delicate narrative to produce really powerful pieces of graphic art. Yet there are still no collections of Olivier Kugler’s work!?! Amazing – I hope someone remedies this soon. One of his drawings appears below – marvellous.

There are plenty more of Kugler’s drawings here. Go see.

reciprocal golden wood

Posted 02 May 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

“Is there a place for us on this planet?”, Neda asks over at her excellent A Glinting Glimpse from Above The Wall blog, “we who most of us were born after the revolution that destroyed our country, and didn’t have anything to do with it?we who are neither islamists, nor terrorists and just want to live our lives? and do anything we can and think would get us a little freedom, but nothing works for us… we vote for the reformists, it doesn’t work, we boycott the election, doesn’t work, protest, doesn’t work, leave our country…”

She reproduces an entry from another Iranian blog, which I think I’m going to reproduce too.

1- Tehran, airport: They remind her again to fix her hejab, and cover all the hair inside the head scarf. The agant who’s suppused to stamp her passport for exit says: why do you travel so much to and from Iran? you’re a spy! and calls another officer to arrest and take her to custody to question her. It’s two hours before the flight.They search her bags and laptop and tell her repeatedly to “tell the truth”. She calls every one she knows and asks for help. at last, half an hour before the flight she enters the plane with eyes red and swollen and tears on cheeks.

2- Torento, airport: Everybody is asked from which country they’ve come. Iranians all mention Amsterdam, the city in which they changed their flight, but “iran” is the words that jumps out of her mouth. The police gives her a different look and takes her towards the red line. They search all her bags, even her books.Then the agent helps her to pack her bags again and says in a comparetively kind voice: Next time we ask, don’t say Iran.

from the blog; “dream land” (persian).


Today, the US government intimated that it wants to impose travel restrictions on British citizens of Pakistani origin because of terrorism fears:

Among the options that have been put on the table, according to British officials, was the most onerous option to Britain, that of canceling the entire visa waiver program that allows all Britons entry to the United States without a visa. Another option, politically fraught as it is, would be to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States.


Posted 18 Apr 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

Jesus, at least 157 people have been killed in bomb blasts in Baghdad today. 157.

John Bolton, the neo-conservative who was formally the US’s ambassador to the UN, was asked in an interview on Monday, “what right” did America have to impose its value system by force on foreign states.

He replied, “Try to stop us”.

They are trying to stop you. Meanwhile, innocent people are dying, you fucking animal.

cultural cringe

Posted 12 Apr 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Observations

I’ve noticed that the term Insh’allah is used more and more by Western speakers, and I don’t just mean by the likes of George Galloway, who uses it – I suspect – rather cynically to ingratiate himself with Muslim audiences. Hugh Sykes recently used the phrase on Radio 4 in a despatch from Iraq, saying “…and the Deputy Prime Minister will, insh’allah, be in hospital by now”. Rather predictably, one of Melanie Phillips’ correspondents complained to the BBC about it, as you can see in this entry from Melanie’s nasty blog, but didn’t manage to draw blood from a nonchalant editor at Broadcasting House. Elsewhere, I noted a young man use the term conversationally with a shopkeeper the other day – they may have both been muslims, but I got the feeling it was used as a gesture of friendship and empathy, although I may have been wrong.

Either way, I like the way it’s used, although I think I’d be too self-conscious to use it myself – but it’s probably predictable that I’d like it, seeing as I have a bit of a weak spot for Islamic culture and a wet liberal-lefty instinct to be as multicultural as is feasibly possible. When I was a kid, I was very proud that my father could converse with the kids he taught in patois. It’s lucky that I spent my teenage years pretending to be a mod, or else I’d probably be a bloody hippy by now, my floors and walls covered in ethnic rugs.

change in libya?

Posted 31 Mar 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Development, Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Libya is a nation of extremes.

“I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay still and brilliant beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of eveything”.

The narrator above, exiled from Libya in Hisham Matar’s 2006 novel ‘In The Country Of Men‘, surmises the twin reality of Libya, on one hand a bright, luminous, prosperous North African country, and on the other a place of shade, of darkness, where 30 years of Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya regime have forced dissidents abroad, or vanished them, rarely granting any mercy to their opponents.

Libya is the fourth largest country in Africa and, possessing an abundancy of oil, the richest of the Northern region. It has the potential, according to Anthony Giddens, a former director of the LSE, to become the Norway of North Africa, prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking. That such a statement could be made by a respected academic and not treated with derision demonstrates that much has changed in Libya in recent years, and indeed it has.

The country has accepted (partial) responsibility for Lockerbie, it has renounced its rusting nuclear weapons programme, and Gaddafi, that most virulent of anti-Westerners, has even travelled as far as Brussels to preach from his ‘little green book’. Accordingly, the world has reacted with cautious – and not so cautious – optimism. The US, Libya’s most violent detractor, has reopened diplomatic ties and removed Libya from its list of states which sponsor terrorism. Gaddafi has intimated that it is time to open up economic freedoms in a state where private property was once all but outlawed. Libya is slowly re-entering the international community. According to Wikipedia,

“Since 2003 the country has made efforts to normalize its ties with the European Union and the United States and has even coined the catchphrase, ‘The Libya Model’, an example intended to show the world what can be achieved through negotiation rather than force when there is goodwill on both sides”.

Tripoli, a gorgeous jewel on the Meditteranean, and even the Saharan desterts of the South, are now, once more, a viable tourist destination, and anyone who makes the trip will find stunning architecture, dazzling sun and a population keen to stress that they are ‘not bad people’. Joanna O’Connor, writing for the Observer, notes that:

“Something very odd is happening. This is the fourth shop in Tripoli’s old town my friend Andie and I have walked into, clutching our hot little wad of money, and so far we’ve failed to spend a single penny. It started in the market, when the man on the fruit stall wouldn’t let us pay for a bag of dates. Then, in the patissierie, the boy with the eyelashes as long as a camel’s shyly insisted that we take two pieces of baklava. And now Walid is fastening the beads around my neck and inviting us to have a cappuccino with him in his tiny Aladdin’s cave of a shop in the copper souk.

This wouldn’t happen in Marrakesh, I think to myself. But this is not Morocco, this is Libya, where tourists are still rare enough to be seen as a source of mild curiosity rather than wallets on legs. Against the deafening clang of hammers on metal from the surrounding workshops, Walid says something I am to hear several times during my stay here: ‘Your gift to us is that you visit us and you go home and tell people that Libya is not a bad place. We are not bad people’”.

But Gaddafi has always been characterised – in the West – as just that; bad. And although he retains broad support from a people who describe him simply as ‘The Leader’, he shows no sign of allowing political reform to accompany his new-found enthusiasm for globalisation. Nor has his contempt for democracy softened: “In Libya there is no dictatorship, no injustice; there is no conflict over power,” he insisted on Al-Jazeera recently:

“People feel they have power in their hands. In the west, power is money, not democracy. Is it democracy, when half the people don’t want you to remain president?”

Giddens was present on that occasion, and gave Gaddafi’s argument short-shrift:

“I have no time for that argument and said so. It is just not true that multiparty democracy doesn’t have a popular mandate in Western countries. More than 95% of people in such societies agree that they want to live in such a democracy. In Libya, what is a nice idea in principle — self-rule through a plethora of peoples’ committees — works out quite differently in practice. Gaddafi steps into the vacuum left by the absence of effective mechanisms of government, and the result is a de facto dictatorship.”

Indeed it is, and yet Gaddafi’s enthusiasm for his unique ‘state of the masses’, Jamahiriya, is undimmed – presumably because it affords him absolute power. In the meantime his wider philosophy, beyond his concept of a ‘direct democracy’ of local councils (and no political parties) is impossible to pin down. The Little Green Book has influenced no other state, and Gaddafi himelf has veered from one popular philosophy to another, at one time or other being an advocate of Socialism, Arab-nationalism, Pan-Africanism, Islamism and now Globalisation. He offers no coherent narrative, in other words.

And yet he finds himself suddenly in demand. In fairness, Gaddafi’s reputation in Africa has never quite tallied with his demagogue status in the west. He is increasingly seen as an elder Statesman of African politics, winning praise from the likes of Nelson Mandela (indeed, one of Mandela’s grandchildren was baptized “Gaddafi”), and lauded for his continent-wide aid contribution and willingness to absorb Sub-Saharan Africans into the Libyan job market.

He remains an enigma – a talisman of sorts in Africa, a tyrant in his own country, a bogeyman to the west, suddenly a friend and ally, a simple man who lives an austere life, and now, perhaps, a man ready to lead a country which boasts the highest recorded temperature in history, out of the darkness and into the light. Some people are optimistic, and some believe he will never change.

This post was originally published on Hii Dunia on the 22nd March 2007. In my next post on Libya, I’ll look at the prospects for reform and consider how genuine they are. And question just what the implications of cuddling up to Africa’s most eccentric father-figure really are.

fuck sarkozy

Posted 29 Mar 2007 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

It’s pleasing to note that, over in France, Segolene Royal is beginning to catch up with Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls. This is partly because, where Royal seemed flappable and Sarkozy assured in the early stages, he’s been slipping up a little recently too. Most damningly, he made a complete fool of himself on French TV by exposing his ignorance of the Middle East and Islam in much the same way that Silverstre Reyes did in the States.

Sarkozy was asked a straightforward and unambiguous question and got the answer entirely wrong, just as Royal did in similar circumstances when asked about France’s nuclear submarines. But Sarkozy’s mistake is less forgivable given the importance of the Middle East in global politcs – especially for a man who recently sent a letter of support to the French paper accused of insulting Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Asked whether Al-Quaida was Sunni or Shia, Sarkozy nervously expounded that “We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!”, protesting that one mustn’t restrict membership of a terrorist organisation to that of “an ethnicity”. Quite apart from the fact that there is no ethnic divide between Sunnis and Shias, it’s almost impossible to believe that a major politician could be unaware of the fact that Al-Quaida is Sunni. Scrabbling to justify his ignorance, Sarkosy used the fact that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Pradication et le Combat recently joined Al-Qaida to back up his erroneous belief that both Sunnis and Shias were part of the terrorrist group. Yet both, as Sean over at the Human Province points out, are “virulently Sunni”.

Back on more familiar ground for Sarko, it’s very little surprise to find that, with trouble once more brewing on the streets of Northern Paris, he has waded back in to confirm his hardline credentials. With mixed reports circulating over the origins of a riot near the Gard Du Nord, he’s denounced the rioters as being on the side of “fraudsters, cheats and dishonest people”. It’s hard to resist speculating that while the fighting may have begun because a 32 year old man punched a ticket agent who asked to see his metro pass, or may have started because police assaulted the man and broke his hand, it almost certainly got out of hand because the young blacks and Arabs of the suburbs are sick of racist police and arsehole politicians calling them “racaille”.

It would be foolish to say that Royal or Bayrou (who is running by far the best campaign of the three, and yet who is looking increasingly like a Nader candidate) represent the suburbs much better, yet Royal, unlike Sarkozy, visits Clichy sous Bois and her fellow socialists denounced the riots as a legacy of Sarkozy’s “provocative habits and language”. Bayrou, for his part, has indicated that the blame should be shared, and insisted that “it is very important to end this climate of perpetual confrontation between police and some citizens.”.

One good thing that rose from the ashes left behind in last year’s riots is the fact that many involved, previously disenchanted with the political system, have this time registered to vote and their message will mirror the grafitti plastered over their decaying estates: “Fuck Sarkozy”.