On French journalists kidnapped in Iraq
Once I worked for a Sunday paper which put a moratorium on the word schadenfreude because it was appearing in print so often. Still, on occasion it can be a useful word, from German and meaning roughly the pleasure people take in the misfortunes of others. It came to mind this week as I perused the coverage of the kidnapping of two French
journalists in Iraq. Some British papers have implied that France is now reaping the rewards of refusing to join the war in Iraq out of a craven attempt to placate Islamic
Of course, this is a cynical view of French policy in the Middle East. There is little value in going over old ground, but it is a moot point whether more patience, a few more meetings and another round of inspections might not have been a more sensible approach to Iraq than invasion. The modern French preference for diplomacy also cuts both ways. On George W Bush’s previous visit to France, to celebrate D-Day, there was no official reference to the row over Iraq and the vitriolic attacks on French culture and politics that the Americans unleashed, except in Chirac’s carefully-barbed remark that historical situations do not repeat themselves, the subtext of which is to say that George W Bush
is not Winston Churchill, despite what he and his associates may claim.
It is true that the French were slow to react to the kidnap of Christian Chesnot of Radio France and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro. At first, there was a certain amount of complacency as colleagues assumed publicly the two men would be released when the
terrorists discovered who they were. Now that France is belatedly pulling out all the stops, with French Muslim leaders and other influential people in the Arab world calling on the terrorists to release them, hopefully they will be freed. But there is no certainty of
that: the list of those already killed by kidnappers is pretty random, including lorry drivers and an Italian journalist. The kidnappers’ demand – that France changes its policy on Muslim dress in schools – seems simply pulled out of the hat when the kidnappers found out they were holding nationals of a country without troops in Iraq. It also appears to have backfired with French Muslims outraged, despite their feelings about the law. But it also seems there are some who are rather glad to see that France’s recent occupation of the moral high ground over Iraq has not been able to keep it entirely out of the mire and
heartbreak of war. Schadenfreude, however, is not all on the right.
For some time now, I have been concerned that there is a large body of opinion on the British left which is rather glad to hear of chaos and confusion in Iraq, and which is rather smug privately about suicide bombers claiming the lives of Iraqi policemen and soldiers, and which is a little bit too quick to predict catastrophe. Though an opponent of the
war, I changed my stance because I was starting to feel like I was on the wrong side. I don’t want to be even inadvertently on the side of, or even a fellow-traveller with, people who cut the throats of 12 Nepalese construction workers and posted the pictures on the internet. The people in Iraq now who have my sympathy and support are those who are trying to
save life and make life better for the people; the ones who are trying to build a fragile peace, trying to create the fledgling institutions that will support democracy; trying to fix the water and the electricity and run schools and hospitals.
All those people speaking up against the war should ask themselves what they are speaking for. Are they inadvertently helping to create an illusion that the heroic position for
young Iraqis is to oppose the Allied troops? It isn’t. The heroic position is to learn to tolerate people, to work with those they don’t agree with because they are on the right side, the side of human rights and democracy for Iraqis. The British left seems to have talked itself into a cul-de-sac. In my view, it is more important to learn from the past than to go down insisting that all you have discovered is that you were completely right, as Greg Dyke and Andrew Gilligan are doing. I also suspect that there were a lot of people on the British left who were quite disappointed that the Daily Mirror’s famous pictures of British squaddies abusing Iraqi prisoners were fake. Among them appears to be the eminent travel writer, William Dalrymple, who at an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival was met with applause when he told an audience of 600 that the war on Iraq was motivated by ”Islamophobia” and that ex-Mirror editor Piers Morgan had at least shown some ”moral
stature” in printing those dubious pictures. But if useful journalism could be made up in the office, there wouldn’t have been any need for Chesnot and Malbrunot to take the dangerous road from Baghdad to Najaf 13 days ago. To them and all others threatened by terrorists, bon chance.
(These journalists were later released unharmed).
Pub Date Wed 01-Sep-2004
Time to stop banging on about Iraq
I had a dream, and in the dream I was flogging a horse, but it was dead . . . Though an opponent of the Iraq war who wrote and marched against it, I now believe the time has come to draw a line under the affair and move on. What’s done is done. Now we need to make the best of it. Blair may or may not have been reckless in committing Britain to the war; he may or may not have done so on the basis of faulty intelligence
provided by hysterical Iraqi dissidents.
But that’s all newspapers under the bridge now. And, it has to be said, the misjudgments were not all on one side. George Galloway maintains that he never supported the regime
of Saddam Hussein, despite the TV clip of him saluting Sir’s courage and his indefatigability. He argues that he and others were simply trying to ensure that there was publicity for the suffering brought on the Iraqi people by sanctions. But was he or was he not aware at that time of the true extent of the torture and murder being committed by the
regime? Did he know that dissidents were having their eyes gouged out by the secret police? Tony Benn famously asked the bearded despot in an interview: ”What is your
message for the European peace movement, Mr Hussein?” Did Benn have any idea then of the number of citizens lying rotting in mass graves about the country? If not, he has not as far as I know acknowledged his oversight.
The British state has often been criticised for its failure to act during the Second World War and before it, on reports of the massacre of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Evidence was, indeed, emerging then of horror on a hitherto unknown scale, but nothing was done. Why was it not? People must have argued then also that another country’s treatment
of its citizens was nobody else’s business, people must have said that the reports of disaffected refugees could not be trusted . . . In Iraq, the Coalition’s Mass Graves Action Group reckons, based on what people have reported to them, that as many as 300,000 Iraqis may be buried in mass graves, and they say that is a low estimate. That amounts to more than one in 100 of the Iraqi population. In comparison to that, the 45,000 Iraqi soldiers and 8000 civilians estimated to have died in the war is a small number, if one can compare these things. Families have been asked to be patient after distressed crowds pulled 3000 bodies from a mass grave near Basra, destroying valuable evidence in the process. Now there are 40 sites of graves identified throughout the country but
the people must wait for a team of forensic experts to dismantle them.
Perhaps these numbers are inflated – I don’t know. But they at least illustrate that there is little cause for smugness and complacency on the anti-war side. Britain did not go to war on the basis of human rights abuse, although MPs like Ann Clwyd were motivated to support the war because of it. The UK government clearly went to war on the basis
that Iraq presented a threat to the security of itself and its allies.
That now appears not to have been the case and the government and Tony Blair in particular will in all probability never recover from that lapse of judgment.
An ICM poll in a London paper yesterday showed that among Labour voters, Tony Blair’s personal popularity rating is in freefall, down from minus 15 to minus 21, attributed to anti-war sentiment. Much of this follows from the fact that Blair, being in the habit of ignoring the left, failed to hear the voices yelling in his left ear about the dangers of acting prematurely and alone without the support of Europe.
Nevertheless, one has the feeling that some of those now in full cry after the Prime Minister were not sincere opponents of the war but are opportunists who enjoy seeing
Teflon Tony squirm. It will be a shame if the successes of this government are obscured by this. At the risk of sounding Panglossian, Scotland is immeasurably more advanced since devolution – remember quangos, Scottish Questions and the ”Scottish” Grand Committee?
Doctors, nurses and teachers are being paid more. Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary may have been paid for by what is in effect a mortgage, but despite all the negative publicity, if people visited such a hospital in France, they would come home full of it. The new schools have amazing facilities, such as whiteboards which allow the teacher to email the
class. Under working families’ tax credit, working families can claim back 70% of nursery fees What’s the point of endlessly banging on about Iraq? There is a relatively small number of British troops there now and frontline risk is increasingly being undertaken by Iraqi policemen (and a token woman). There seems to be no shortage of young Iraqis prepared to step up to the mark, and though they may be motivated in part by 50%
unemployment, there is no arguing that they are, indeed, putting their lives on the line in defence of the hope of democracy and to defeat terrorism. After all, there are Iraqis who will fight for freedom.
(These upper estimates of the numbers of bodies buried in mass graves have
not been reached in reality)
Pub Date Wed 25-Feb-2004
Democracy? Not if you are Iraqi women
Sharia law, the Islamic code that explicitly discriminates against women, has been approved by the Governing Council of Iraq. Strangely, although hundreds of Iraqi women demonstrated against the move last week, there was little coverage. The Financial Times and the Washington Post reported the story, but that was about all. The US-led Governing
Council appears to have drafted a proposal to allow Iraqis to use tribal Sharia courts to settle family matters on a voluntary basis in December, but news of it only leaked out last week. The decree has not yet been signed by administrator Paul Bremer, but will probably take effect in June, after the handover of power is complete. Sharia includes the
penalty of stoning to death or flogging for sex outwith marriage, but even if this part is not implemented it specifically discriminates against women in family and divorce law, stating, for instance, that a daughter must inherit half as much as a son. How ”voluntary” will
adherence to it be for women living in religious areas?
Iraqi women’s groups are outraged, saying this will move women’s rights backwards in
Iraq, where there has been a secular, civil system of family law until now. The move smacks of the Bush administration’s increasingly panic-stricken, election-driven desire to get shot of Iraq. This looks like an attempt to win over powerful clerics who are opposed to the current US plan of holding indirect elections in a few months and handing over the rebuilding of the country to an interim administration. The clerics are demanding full, general elections. But moderate Iraqis have hardly begun to organise, and direct elections would undoubtedly consolidate the power of the religious right and extremists. There is
more to democracy than majority rule: the rights of minorities must be protected. Hitler was elected but he was far from a democratic leader.
Making concessions over Sharia illustrates just how desperate the coalition must be for an exit strategy. After all, what did ”we” fight the war for? The gunboat liberals increasingly assert that we sent our troops to a foreign land in order to impose democracy and a respect for human rights. However, just as it is clearly ridiculous to suppose that
one can defend freedom by incarcerating people for years without trial, as at Guantanamo Bay, or defend human rights by turning a blind eye to torture, as the allied coalition has done, democracy cannot be created by allowing a legal system which is fundamentally inequable and discriminates against people on the basis of their gender. On a recent
visit to Edinburgh, philosopher Slavoj Zizek compared Tony Blair’s shifting rhetoric over the invasion of Iraq to a joke that Freud tells about a man who has loaned a kettle to his friend but has it returned broken. The friend says: ” In the first place, I never borrowed your kettle. In the second place, if I did, when I gave it back to you it was fine, and, in the third place, that kettle I borrowed from you was broken when I got it.”
First the war had to be fought because Saddam Hussein was harbouring al-Qaeda; then, when that could not be proved, because he had weapons of mass destruction; then, when they could not be found, it did not matter a hoot, they said: the war was actually fought because of his human rights record. Zizek asked why, if the coalition is sincere in its
insistence on democracy, Israel, although a secular democracy which the coalition supports, can deny human rights to Palestinians.
Yet he also asked if the Palestinians are actually worse off than the people of many
Arab states, and concluded probably not; just as Cubans are no worse off than many people in Central and South America. This point is illustrated by New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright, who provided an inside view of Saudi Arabia, where he stayed for three months. Although the country is the biggest oil exporter in the world, the average standard of living is actually no higher than in Mexico. The ruling family cream off more than
one-third of GNP, while greed and corruption mean the town of Jeddah is in imminent danger of being flooded with stinking sewage.
Immigrants have few rights and are flung into jail without evidence; there is no right of appeal; the press is muzzled; the rulers are afraid of the religious right and have allowed them to grow increasingly oppressive, bursting into nursery schools to prevent children from singing, censoring books, attacking women and, in one terrible case, forcing parents to watch their daughters die in a school fire because they were not allowed to leave the building without covering themselves.
He quotes a study showing 7% of female students at a Saudi university have attempted suicide and that 72% have symptoms of depression. The biggest threat to the women of Iraq now is the spread of this kind of religious extremism which seeks to take away their choices and force them to obey oppressive, misogynistic rules. It will be ironic if the
involvement of Britain and America creates a situation in which the secular laws of Iraqi civil society are undermined by Sharia.
( I have since concluded that while it is relatively easy to make a case that the war on Iraq was ill-judged, what is needed in the present situation is a constructive way forward for Iraqi society and for Britian and the other countries involved)
Pub Date Wed 21-Jan-2004
A warning from protest front line
IT was the biggest peace march this country has ever seen, bigger than any other including the Vietnam marches. Last weekend, about 350,000 people turned up in London to demonstrate their opposition to war on Iraq.
Everyone was there, middle-aged punks with children in buggies and picnics in Tupperware boxes, grey-bearded hippies who turned out at Stonehenge, some very, very old communists hopefully selling the Morning Star, militant socialists, anarchists, Greenham Common women reincarnated as members of Women In Black, Church of England vicars including the Bishop of Bath and Wells, trade unionists, a lot of fashionably dressed French people, a samba band from Edinburgh, cross dressers, cyclists, pacifists .
. . And a whole new division.
For the first time ever in this country the mix included a hefty contingent of British Muslims from Arab states.
In North London from time to time there have been Arab marches, usually a
few hundred Kurds who march up and down Green Lanes shouting in Kurdish and waving banners in Arabic.
But on this occasion the Arab element was woven into the crowd of marchers, elderly Muslim men, small children in traditional dress, women wearing burkhas and chadors, all marching as part of the group, usually with dual language banners.
On the Gulf war marches, which never attracted more than a few thousands, there were no Arabs, only British lefties and anarchos. It must be an indicator of the strength of opposition to war on Iraq that so many people from such different places travelled to London that day to be counted. To register their opposition, to add their voice to the crowd.
The number who came was way more than what was expected. After struggling to be able to march, many melted away, as we did after waiting hours at the start, or on reaching Hyde Park where the PA was too small to project the speeches and there were far too few food vans and toilets.
There was the usual wrangle over exact numbers – the police said 150,000-plus, later admitting to march organisers that it might have been 250,000. The Stop the War Coalition, using the same methods as the Countryside Alliance a week before, tallying the number to cross a certain spot, made it 400,000.
Whatever the exact total, to a veteran of London demos it was clearly enormous. In the chilly pre-dawn at Edinburgh’s Waverley station, dozens of people waiting for the first train had already gathered round a woman clutching two long poles wrapped in a banner. Even at that hour, coaches, including 19 from Glasgow, four from Edinburgh, others from Dundee and further north, were on their way to the capital.
At Temple tube, along the riverside from Embankment, the long wait for the march to start went on – and on – and on. People were supposed to gather at 12 and to set off at one. At 2.30pm, stuck in a crushing mass of people on the verge of being frighteningly tightly packed, stuck between a C of E vicar, a devoutly Catholic Italian family, and a group of heavily veiled women, wondering what the delay was in setting off, we heard that the
front of the march had reached Hyde Park. A cheer went up. But progress continued to be unbelievably slow. The march corridor, confined to half the road to leave space for emergency vehicles, was so crowded it was hardly possible to walk. By 3.00pm we had arrived at Embankment tube station and, owing to lack of time, alighted out to travel to Hyde Park by tube.
Getting out at Green Park, we joined a different section of the continuous stream of marchers slowly making their way along the route. At the entrance to the park at 4.00pm we were told by organisers there were still people waiting to set off at Embankment.
In the late 60s anti-Vietnam protests were taken up enthusiastically in the UK. There were three marches, the biggest in October 1968 attracting 80,000 people – in those days a huge number. CND’s Aldermaston marches were measured in the hundreds only.
In the 80s, CND organised a series of marches – the biggest was estimated to have attracted 250,000. There was excitement at having crossed the quarter-million mark, but what did it change? People seemed to give up on marching for a while.
In the past decade there have been small anti-war marches and, most notably, Reclaim the Streets marches, noisy, colourful, and carnival-style events characterised by stunts such as suddenly digging up a flyover to plant trees on it. Marches combined with direct action.
Last weekend’s return to the march as simple, populist protest brought out so many people, with each person who made the effort to show up presumably representing many more who feel the same. It should be taken as a warning.
In a democratic system, surely the support of the masses of the people is required to wage war? If the government does not have that, how can it go marching on?
Pub Date Wed 02-Oct-2002
Devil and the deep blue sea
I thought my protesting days were over, but I’m going up to the attic tonight to dig out the dear old balaclava and blow the dust off the trusty half-a-brick. Because if anything is going to get me off my fat, middle-aged butt and out in the streets taking on the representatives of the British state, war on Iraq is it. And I don’t think I’m alone. So new
Labour better start building itself an ark because if George W is the devil – figuratively speaking, of course – then the British left is the deep blue sea.
Except for a small rump of the hard-left Revolutionary Communist Party which was irrationally pro-Serb, we were in favour of going into Kosovo, after having seen the massacres of Bosnian Muslims. So when Blair led us into that war, lefties generally hummed. On Afghanistan, it’s probably fair to say we hawed. Osama bin Laden is obviously an enemy of the people, and no democrat could call herself or himself his friend. But, nevertheless, dropping depleted uranium cluster bombs and packets of peanut
butter-and-jam on the starving poor did seem kind of sick. But the Taliban, as Tim Luckhurst predicted in this paper, were pretty much defeated by Christmas. So far so good, and Blair and Bush no doubt enjoyed their laurel wreaths.
Hawks in the US and UK administrations seem to think they can make it a hat-trick by waging a short, successful war against Saddam Hussein without much opposition. Bush is pushing the coalition towards attacking Iraq now.
But it is one thing to make war in hot blood because of an attack at home or to defend innocent lives; it is another to declare war on a country which is not at the moment being particularly aggressive. Iraq is being targeted basically because it has refused to allow in a team of weapons inspectors; understandably if you consider that the American delegation
was, as reported by the estimable New Yorker magazine, bungling CIA operatives who were clearly pursuing their own agenda.
Generally, I am no admirer of the not-especially-gorgeous MP for Baghdad Central, as George Galloway is locally known, but for once he has a point.
Why pick on Iraq? There is plenty of evil around.
Think of a country which is displaying total contempt for UN resolutions, which is in possession of considerable military power backed up by nuclear weapons. Think of a country which is oppressing, persecuting, and even massacring members of a different ethnic group within what it sees as its borders. That’s right, Israel.
The Today programme, perhaps the acme of British broadcast journalism, whose signal north of the border is sadly interfered with by Radio Scotland, yesterday carried a round-up of the press from a correspondent in Saudi Arabia which focused on a series of snapshots by an Arab photographer.
The first shot showed a Palestinian man being surrounded by Israeli soldiers. The next showed him lying face down on the ground while the soldiers stripped off his clothes. Next he was seen on the ground dead with his skull destroyed by a bullet. Last, he lay in a pool of blood in the street while a bomb disposal robot approached to pick him up. Israel
didn’t deny this happened, but said the man was a suicide bomber. Arab eye-witnesses said he was just a man in the crowd.
How come we regard Israel as our ally? How come what Iraq does to the Kurds is an affront to international law, but Israeli soldiers can, with impunity, strip and execute a Palestinian in the street and leave his broken body lying like a piece of worthless rubbish?
It’s true that Palestinians are not the only victims of the war in Israel, but Hamas is not a state force. It is like saying if the IRA go around blowing stuff up, it’s OK for the British government to do that, too.
IIsrael is occupying land which the UN has said for 30 years it has no right to. It is even diverting the rivers that nurture olive groves tended by Palestinians for centuries to feed settlers’ plantations.
Journalists who criticise Israel are sometimes called anti-Semitic, but that is often nothing more than a cheap jibe designed to try to silence criticism. Am I racist against black people because I oppose what Robert Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe?
In my opinion, the millions of musicians, poets, artists, writers, and left-wing thinkers who died in the Holocaust deserve better than for their shades to be used as protection by a right-wing militarist such as Ariel Sharon, who is plunging his country into an ill-
considered war against an oppressed ethnic minority.
They don’t have a say about what is done in their name. But I do have a say about what the British state does in my name, and I do not wish it to wage war against the Arab world. As far as I am concerned, the time has come for Britain to question its alliance with both Israel and the US.
Because in recent times the anti-war movement has amounted to nothing more than a few drug-damaged pacifists and some Christian students with guitars, the powers-that-be think protest is all over and we couldn’t stop Bob Dylan’s wheelchair on a shallow slope. Let’s hope they’re wrong. To quote an Echo and the Bunnymen song, see you at the
barricades, babe, see you when the lights are low, Joe.
(The huge protests that did occur of course failed to prevent the war in Iraq).
Pub Date Wed 13-Mar-2002