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Yesterday evening, I went to see the great Fred Halliday talking at Goldsmiths College in New Cross, South London. What a treat to hear an academic talking in accessible, vivid language! I have to say the paper was not that well-ordered, but more an enjoyable romp through a number of important issues, so I’ll present here a few of the things he said. Square brackets indicate that I’m extrapolating a bit; otherwise it’s more or less paraphrased, with accurate direct quotes in quotation marks.
1. On the growing “spirit of resistance to Islamism” in Sudan.
There is a story of the Islamist governor of Khartoum stopping at one of the roadside stalls where older women sell the traditional local alcoholic beverage, as “tea”. “But this is un-Islamic!” he says. She ignores him and he asks her if she knows who he is. “I’m the governor of Khartoum!” “One more of these, dear,” she says, “and you’ll tell me you’re the president!”
2. On the Clash of Civilizations thesis.
Samuel Huntington is a clever chap and has written good books, but this isn’t one of them. The book is immensely popular not just in Washington but amongst Sunni militants like Bin Laden, Hindu nationalists, and Chinese post-Communists. His analysis is also directly mirrored by the [left-wing “Power of Nightmares”] position that, once the Cold War ended, America/the West needed a new enemy and found one in Islam.
These simplistic views are easily unsettled by a little scholarly probing. First, if European powers have had an “Other” against which they are defined, it is their European neighbours: Britain has defined itself against French and German “Others”, France against Britain and Germany, and Germany against Britain, France and Russia. These places have been more concerned with their empires than with Islam. Islamic Turkey has moved in and out of alliances with European countries over the centuries, much as America has since the Cold War moved in and out of alliances with Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.
More importantly, why do we imagine countries need “Others” to be defined against? It is not culture or collective psychology but realpolitik – profit and statecraft – that have been the prime determinants of how states act in relation to other states. As Voltaire said on visiting the stock exchange in London in the 1720s, in the marketplace, Muslims, Christians and Jews get on and the only infidel is the bankrupt man.
Evidence against the clash of civilizations thesis and for the fact that “interests of state” trump religious solidarity would be Iran’s foreign policy: supporting Hindu India against Muslim Pakistan on Kashmir, supporting Russia against Chechnya, Peking against the Muslims of Xinjiang, and Christian Armenia against Shi’ite Azerbaijan.
3. On Islam being alien to Europe.
Islam has been part of Europe longer than most European nations have existed. Spanish has hundreds of Arab words; Russia has always had a Muslim population; half the Balkans has been Islamic. And Europe is as much Greek and Roman – and secular – as it is Christian. Essentially European words like “democracy” and “rights” are not in the Christian Bible any more than they are in Koran.
4. The formation of a West Asian region.
Satellite TV and the Muslim Brotherhood have created a new region, with a common [public sphere], for which not only Palestine but also Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnaya and Iran – all formerly off the Arab radar – although geographically peripheral are now [discursively] central.
This is an enlarged region, linked by a [common visual economy of media images]. Thus the summer ’06 Israeli war was not “just” another Arab-Israeli conflict, because Iran was substantively, directly involved. (Hence Hezbollah’s unprecedented ability to reach deep into the heart of Israel with its weaponry.)
But it is also a reduced region, no longer interested in some of the African struggles that once gripped the Arab street in [the Cold War/Third Worldist era], such as Western Sahara and Eritrea.
5. On the Middle East as “backward”.
The region is viewed by many in the West as backward and conservative. In fact, it is deeply modern. In fact, precisely because of the modernity and novelty of the region’s nation-states (products of modern economies and modern ideologies), their rulers are obsessively concerned with legitimising their rule through claims to antiquity. Thus Saudi Arabia – modern enough to have been (like Israel) first recognised by the Soviet Union – gave its kings new titles in the late 1980s to make them seem like an ancient lineage.
This is not least true of Israel and Palestine, which both claim [autochthonous] status and ancient presence. There was no “Palestinian nation” until the last 50-60 years ago; there was no entity called Palestine until the First World War; its people thought of themselves as Syrian or South Syrian until Israel came along. And the “Israeli nation” was constituted anew through Zionism.
6. On the Lawrence of Arabia myth.
TE Lawrence couldn’t speak Arabic, knew nothing about the Middle East, and had no military significance in the First World War (certainly compared to the – mainly Indian – regular army that made up the British presence in Arabia). He only became important in any way when he became a music hall turn in the 1920s.
7. On the secularization thesis.
The contemporary Middle East obviously disproves the thesis that our world is a secularising one. But to say this is not enough. The rise of religious movements in the region is tied to the failure to deliver on the part of the secular states (nationalist, socialist or monarchist), rather than an expression of deep spiritual currents.
And if you look closely at the religious movements, they turn out to be thoroughly modern populist/nationalist ideologies in Koranic garb. Khomeini’s discourse is full of thoroughly modern, un-Koranic concepts: an Islamic republic, the Iranian nation, the oppressed, revolution, Mayday as the day of the Islamic worker. Bin Laden’s discourse (despite the constant references to the glint of the scimitar and the swift feet of warrior’s horse) is also essentially a modern, un-Koranic one: repelling foreign invaders and overthrowing corrupt regimes.
8. On the need for “tough-minded universalism”
Halliday ended his talk with a call for a commitment to universal values as the only solution to the problems of the region. He focused on three:
a. The Right to nationhood
This is a western invention, but now universally distributed, the most basic of rights. No one denies the right to self-determination; denial of self-determination proceeds these days only by denial of nationhood – as in the idea that Palestinians are still really Syrians or Israelis are still really Poles. In other words, we need to take this right more seriously and more evenly apply it.*
b. The norms of war
Again, these need to be more consistently applied, in the way that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty do: they must be applied to irregular armies like Hamas and Hezbollah (who are war criminals) as well as to states like Israel and America [who are also war criminals].
c. Freedom of expression
One of the worst problems of the Middle East is the growth of censorship in state after state, as the Muslim Brotherhood takes over committees that control universities and bookfairs. Freedom of expression is real litmus test.
Hence, all intellectual boycotts are wrong. You need to engage with tyranny and injustice, not assuage your moral qualms by withdrawing. It is under tyranny and injustice that scholarship and free expression. “I even lectured once at the Saddam Hussein Institute of Law, whatever that means, and at a Libyan university where they’d been hanging students in the lecture theatres a couple of years before.”
[*This was the one thing Halliday said that I don’t really go along with. Wouldn’t it work equally well to say that we need to abandon the idea of national self-determination precisely because it gets in the way of universal principles, such as individual rights and global justice? Isn’t national self-determination in practice a cover for dictators and torturers to get a free pass? What we need to take more seriously and apply more evenly is the cosmopolitan spirit of justice that animates the right to intervene, which morally justified regime change in Iraq.]