Rejecting false parallels: Why Kosovo is not South Ossetia (or Abkhazia or Transnistria or northern Cyprus…)
We are all familiar with a certain dishonest rhetorical tactic: the use of an argument that is objectively ridiculous and that the person making it knows is ridiculous, but that nevertheless can sound impressive to the ears of someone who does not pause to think twice about it. A good example is the claim that we should not recognise Kosovo’s independence lest it set off a chain reaction across the world, with secessionist territories rushing to follow Kosovo’s example by declaring independence. Former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Draskovic suggested these would include northern Cyprus, the Basque country, Corsica, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Ossetia, Chechnya and Taiwan. A superficially more sophisticated older brother of this argument is the one made by Russian President Putin and his supporters: that if Kosovo is allowed unilaterally to secede from Serbia, the same right should be accorded to the Russian-backed breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (formally parts of Georgia) and Transnistria (formally part of Moldova). Both of these arguments are sophisms, and it is worth pausing for a moment to understand all the reasons why.
We can start by rejecting the obvious falsehood that recognising Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent would be an irresponsible act of radicalism equivalent to Prometheus’s revealing the secret of fire to mankind or Pandora’s opening of the box. Unilateral declarations of independence – and unilateral recognition of the independence of secessionist territories by outside powers – are part and parcel of the modern world. It is enough to mention France’s recognition of the independence of the United States in 1778, Britain’s recognition of the independence of Bangladesh in 1972 and Germany’s recognition of the independence of Croatia in 1991 – all of them without the consent of the country against which the wars of American, Bangladeshi and Croatian independence had been fought. None of these actions led to global chaos. Recognising Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent is hardly an action without precedent in international relations.
Nor is it true that the world is covered by dozens or hundreds of potentially separatist territories, all eagerly watching to see what happens with Kosovo before deciding whether themselves to follow its example. We know this is not true, because several of the territories that are usually cited – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and northern Cyprus, in particular - have already unilaterally seceded from their parent countries. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus formally declared independence in 1983, years before Kosovo attempted to secede from Serbia. Anyone with any knowledge of the chronology of historical events in greater south-eastern Europe knows perfectly well that the acts of secession in question were not in any way inspired by events in Kosovo. In the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, the obvious precedent, in the eyes of the secessionist leaderships, was the secession of the constituent republics of the USSR, to which was coupled their own reluctance to be left in an independent Georgia or Moldova.
Secessionist leaderships, in other words, choose the precedents that suit them. Those South Ossetians, Abkhazians and Transnistrians seeking precedents can cite the recognised secession of Lithuania, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Montenegro, etc. If Kosovo is recognised, they will be able to cite Kosovo as well. But nobody should confuse rhetoric and propaganda with genuine motivation. And it is particularly comical to hear the Russian leadership voice its ‘fears’ of Kosovo setting a precedent, when it was the Russians whose military intervention enabled South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria to break away from Georgia and Moldova in the first place. That the Russians continued to support the secessionists in question while crushing Chechnya’s bid for independence should be enough for us to dispense with the illusion that their arguments over Kosovo have anything to do with principles over consistency and precedent-setting. They could, if they wish, respond to our recognition of Kosovo’s independence by recognising formally the independence of their Transnistrian and South Caucasian clients – as Turkey has recognised northern Cyprus - but nothing forces them to do this, certainly not their infinitely malleable ‘principles’.
This brings us to the question of whether Kosovo really is fundamentally different from those secessionist countries that we have already recognised – Slovenia, Croatia, Latvia, Georgia, Montenegro, etc. - and fundamentally similar to those we have not – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, etc. The answer on both counts is, simply, no. Kosovo is different from the latter territories in terms of its status in the former federation to which it belonged: it was – like Croatia, Slovenia and the other former Yugoslav republics – a constituent member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right. By contrast, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh were not constituent members of the former Soviet Union. Transnistria was not even an autonomous entity at all. If one applies consistently the principle that all the members of the former federations of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia should have the right to self-determination, then this right belongs to Kosovo.
Furthermore, when Kosovo joined Serbia in 1945, it did so formally of its own free will, by a vote of its provincial assembly. Kosovo was, before Slobodan Milosevic’s abrogation of its autonomy in the late 1980s, already effectively independent of Serbia, which was a composite republic consisting of the two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina and so-called ‘Serbia proper’ – each of which was a member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right, independently of the other two. There is absolutely no reason why the international community should, given the collapse of this federation, automatically assign Kosovo to the possession of an independent Serbia. Since Kosovo joined Serbia in 1945 on the understanding that it was simultaneously part of Yugoslavia, the only reasonable course of action would be to permit Kosovo’s assembly to decide what its status should be in the new circumstances. These new circumstances were, let us not forget, created by the leadership of Serbia’s deliberate and successful campaign to break up Yugoslavia and deprive all Yugoslavs – including the Kosovars – of their common homeland.
Not only is Kosovo not equivalent to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria in legal and constitutional terms, but it is not equivalent to them in other respects either. With roughly two million people, Kosovo has a resident population roughly four times the size of Transnistria’s, ten times the size of Abkhazia’s and thirty times the size of South Ossetia’s. It has a larger population than several independent European states, including Estonia, Cyprus, Malta and Iceland (about five times the population of Malta and seven times the population of Iceland, in fact). Furthermore, Kosovo’s population is overwhelmingly Albanian and supportive of independence, and was so even before the exodus of non-Albanians following the Kosovo war in 1999.
By contrast, Abkhazia’s largest nationality was, until the ethnic cleansing operations of the early 1990s, the ethnic Georgians, who outnumbered ethnic Abkhaz by two and a half times, who comprised nearly half the population of Abkhazia and who oppose independence. In South Ossetia, ethnic Ossetians outnumbered ethnic Georgians by two-to-one; still, an independent South Ossetia would be considerably smaller in terms of population and territory than any independent European state except for mini-states like Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino. Were their independence recognised, Abkhazia and South Ossetia would in practice become parts of Russia; a vast state would thereby have expanded its borders at the expense of a much smaller state (Georgia). As for Transnistria, its population is somewhat larger than Abkhazia’s or South Ossetia’s, but Moldovans who oppose independence comprise the largest nationality, albeit outnumbered by non-Moldovans two-to-one. And as we noted above, Transnistria’s claim to independence on constitutional grounds is even weaker than Abkhazia’s or South Ossetia’s. One could make a case for the independence of any of these territories, but in terms of constitutional status, population size, national homogeneity and viability, Kosovo’s is by far the strongest.
Modern European history has witnessed the continual emergence of newly independent states that successfully secede from larger entities: roughly in chronological order, these have been Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxemburg, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Norway, Bulgaria, Albania, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Iceland, Cyprus, Malta, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Montenegro (for the second time). There are, of course, many countries or nations that have failed to secede, or whose secession has not been recognised internationally. The merits of any particular claim to self-determination have to be judged on their own basis.
In supporting Kosovo’s independence, both justice and as many precedents as we care to pick will be on our side. And we can safely ignore the sophisms put forward by hostile governments against us.
This article was published yesterday on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
I supported the US-led military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime in Iraq and, like most people who did, I have had plenty of second thoughts about it. But I can say, hand on heart, that I never felt the question of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was in any way relevant to whether the war was justified or not. The Baathist regime may not have possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction according to some technical criteria, but it certainly possessed what I would call ‘weapons of mass destruction’, meaning weapons capable of destroying masses of human beings. In the Rwandan Genocide, between 800,000 and a million people were killed mostly using technologically simple weapons, above all the machete. This is several times more than were killed by the atomic bombs that hit Japan in 1945. Judging by the twentieth-century historical record, the machete is a more dangerous weapon of mass destruction than the nuclear bomb. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly carried out genocide and mass murder against the Iraqi population. With the weaponry still available to him in 2003, he was entirely able to do so again. That he did not possess what are technically classified as ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ may make a difference to how one evaluates the justification for the war, if what concerns one is British or American national security or even Middle Eastern regional security. But for those of us who thought about the intervention in Iraq primarily in humanitarian terms, what mattered most was his ability to harm his own people. The failure to discover ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq following the invasion made no difference in this regard.
In considering whether invading Iraq to overthrow the Baathist regime was the correct course of action, the number one question is whether it made life better for the Iraqi population. On this basis, it is very difficult not to have, at the very least, profound misgivings about the whole enterprise. The failure of the intervention to create a stable Iraq and improve the quality of life of the Iraqi people has been due to the prolongued, murderous insurgency by ultra-right-wing Islamist and former Baathist elements; if we have failed, it is essentially because the enemy has been too good at killing Iraqi civilians and because we have not been good enough at stopping it from doing so. The US and its allies of course made many mistakes that have helped to fuel the insurgency, and it is impossible to know what the situation would be like today had these mistakes not been made. Nevertheless, the principle of democratic accountability requires that the occupying powers bear responsibility for the poor record, particularly given that the population directly concerned – the Iraqis – had no say in the matter. So far as the wider region is concerned, it is a moot point whether the Islamist insurgents now ensconced in Iraq represent a greater danger than the former expansionist, genocidal dictatorship. But perception arguably matters as much as reality, and the perceived failure of the action in Iraq has greatly set back the noble cause of humanitarian intervention. The successful international interventions in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 have undoubtedly been vindicated from the perspectives of both humanitarianism and justice and the balance sheet in Afghanistan remains positive. It is a great tragedy that the perceived failure in Iraq has made the case for a similar military intervention to liberate Darfur that much more difficult to argue. A tragedy, that is, for the people of Darfur.
Neverthless, if the intervention in Iraq is to be condemned, it should be condemned because it hasn’t worked very well, not because it was wrong in principle. Helping to overthrow dictators is something our elected leaders should be doing more of, not less. The representatives of the Kurdish victims of Baathist genocide supported the invasion, as did many other of the best representatives of democratic Iraq, such as Kanan Makiya who, despite all the horrors his country has experienced since the overthrow of Saddam, still believes that it was the right thing to do. I do not for one minute regret standing behind these people, and behind Tony Blair – Britain’s greatest prime minister since Clement Attlee – against the Baathists, Islamists and phoney ‘anti-war movement’ spearheaded by apologists for Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic and other fascists. Let’s be clear about this: most of the people who marched in Britain against the war in Iraq may have done so for the best of motives; it was not they, but the leadership of the movement that was rotten. This leadership included Tony Benn, who praised Mao Zedong as ‘the greatest man of the twentieth century’, though Mao’s policies make the Iraq war seem positively bloodless and successful; the Socialist Workers Party, which continues to revere the Bolshevik Revolution, which was an unequivocally greater and bloodier failure than the Iraq war, and whose supporters continue to deny the Srebrenica genocide and support Hezbollah; George Galloway, who praised Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose leading lights in the 1990s joined with Alfred Sherman, a political friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen and political advisor to the genocidal murderer Radovan Karadzic, to form the ‘Committee for Peace in the Balkans’; Harold Pinter, a supporter of the ‘International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic’; John Pilger, a denier of Milosevic’s atrocities; and so on. Any movement spearheaded by such people should automatically be opposed, regardless of what it claims to be campaigning on. This does not mean the war was necessarily right, but it is a factor in the balance sheet.
Ultimately, the real division was not between those who supported and those who opposed the Iraq war – there were many honourable members on both sides of the debate – but between those who supported the Iraqi people and those who supported their oppressors. All those who supported the Iraqi people were, once the invasion had occurred, on the same side in support of the struggling Iraqi democracy, regardless of whether or not they had favoured the invasion. This essential division will repeat itself in future conflicts across the globe. In future crises, solidarity with freedom fighters struggling against a dictatorship, fascism or genocide may mean supporting military intervention, if that is what the freedom fighters feel is best for their country. Support for military intervention is a tactical question; solidarity with the oppressed against the oppressors – defending them against weapons of mass destruction, whether the machete or poison gas – is a matter of principle.
Local political and religious figures in Afghanistan are apparently concerned that the TV screening of a Shakira concert could inspire suicide bombers. It would be superfluous to comment on what this tells us about the terrorists’ motives. But we can safely discount a sense of injustice at the crimes of Western imperialism.
Among political ‘dissidents’ of one kind or another, it is frequently taken for granted that almost everything about international affairs you read in the daily papers or see on the news is simply imperialist propaganda, which the ruling classes disseminate in order to hoodwink the brainless common people into supporting their policies. Perhaps more than any other part of the world, the former Yugoslavia is portrayed as the place against which imperialist propaganda most frequently sins. All those who for one reason or another were sympathetic to the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic or hostile to the Bosnian Muslims, felt compelled to justify themselves with the claim that Serbian atrocities in the 1990s were massively exaggerated by the imperialist media and/or that Alija Izetbegovic’s Bosnian regime was itself responsible for the bloodshed. This line then gelled with the same folks’ discourse on the Iraq war, whether for or against; it being either claimed that the US had no business preaching about a war against Islamist terror when it had itself supported Izetbegovic’s ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ against the innocent Serbs, or that the war on terror retrospectively proves that the US backed the wrong side in the Yugoslav war. To maintain either of these positions requires conflating the moderate Bosnian Muslims led by Izetbegovic with the genuine Islamofascists of al-Qa’ida – a difficult trick to pull off. In this article we shall show just how difficult it is, by analysing a popular myth of the anti-Muslim lobby: that Bosnia’s Izetbegovic was an Islamofascist who revived the politics of the SS in the Balkans. And there is no better place to start than with our old friend Neil Clark, whose statements on the topic are unfortunately entirely representative of a wider circle of Milosevic supporters and Islamophobes. Indeed, compared to some, Neil ‘Milosevic - prisoner of conscience’ Clark is veritably moderate.
Clark is something of a celebrity as he has recently won this year’s ‘Best UK Blog’ award. Out of a total number of UK bloggers that Clark himself estimates at 4 million, his blog came first with the impressive tally of 1,116 votes, although some of his more zealous supporters in this contest, such as his frequent sparring-partner Oliver Kamm, admit to having voted for Clark many times over (in Oliver’s case, perhaps for ironic reasons). Be that as it may, Clark is justly proud of having captured what he describes as ‘the most prestigious prize in blogging’, which he attributes to the fact that ‘the positions I espouse are (unlike the self-appointed uber elite of bloggers) in tune with the views of the majority of ordinary people.’ I should like to take this opportunity to offer Neil my congratulations.
Clark is perhaps best known for his admiration of the late Slobodan Milosevic, of whom he famously said that ‘his worst crime was to carry on being a socialist.’ He has, consequently, acquired something of a reputation as a Balkan expert among the ranks of both left-wing and right-wing Milosevic supporters. So it is reasonable that he should have a go at fellow Balkan expert Michael Palin of Monty Python for not being sufficiently well informed on recent Balkan history. Apparently, Palin’s sin was to remark that Milosevic had ‘died of a heart attack at The Hague after his conviction for war crimes.’ Clark points out that Milosevic died without being convicted.
And now for something completely serious. Although comical in the eyes of any normal person, Clark is simply one of a number of Milosevic supporters who have been promoting the line that the late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was a supporter of the SS in Bosnia during World War II. In fact, in this group, Clark’s views have been far from the most outlandish. Others have gone so far as to claim that Izetbegovic was a supporter of the SS during the recent war in Bosnia as well. Yet these more radical elements have arrived at their interpretation through strict adherence to the Neil Clark methodology in historical research. What they all have in common is a desire to rehabilitate Milosevic while demonising the Muslim inhabitants of the Balkans, thereby countering the perceived brainwashing of the human race by imperialist propaganda.
Readers may remember that early last year, in a debate at Harry’s Place, Clark was unable to provide any evidence to back up his assertion that Izetbegovic had recruited for the SS during World War II. This is an old story that has been extensively discussed by Oliver Kamm, among others, and there is no need to go into it again in detail here. The long and the short of it is that, as far as I can tell, the rumour that Izetbegovic recruited for the SS began with a letter allegedly sent by Milan Bulajic (a Srebrenica-denying Serbian historian), to David Binder (an American journalist known for his admiration of Serb Nazi-collaborator Momcilo Djujic and indicted Serb war-criminal Ratko Mladic), claiming that he (Bulajic) had learned of Izetbegovic’s pro-SS activities through studying the transcript of his post-war trial by the Communist authorities in Bosnia (it should be noted here that Izetbegovic was not tried as a war-criminal or as a collaborator, but because of his political opposition to the Communist regime). The claim that the teenage Izetbegovic recruited for the SS during World War II thus remains entirely unproven, and will remain so unless Bulajic or anyone else can produce evidence to support it. Nevertheless, the rumour of Izetbegovic’s ‘SS past’ circulated among pro-Milosevic conspiracy theorists until it was picked up by Clark, via an obscure US-based outfit called the ‘International Strategic Studies Association’ (ISSA), as Kamm has explained here. The article on which Clark based his claim against Izetbegovic was this one, written by a certain Vojin Joksimovich.
Although Clark has become an object of ridicule for many of us (for reasons that Stephen Pollard summarises here), his treatment of Balkan affairs is entirely representative of his wider circle. For example, among the many factual errors that Joksimovich makes is his claim that Izetbegovic’s close political collaborator Hasan Cengic was a ‘veteran of the 13th Waffen SS Division’. Cengic was, it should be pointed out, born in 1957, and therefore might have found it difficult to serve in the SS. Nevertheless, this accusation against Cengic was repeated by other members of this circle, including Yossef Bodansky, ‘Director of Research’ at the ISSA and a pioneer in demonising the Izetbegovic regime. Another such conspiracy theorist, a certain Peter Robert North, turned up on Clark’s blog to push the line that Cengic had indeed served in the SS twelve years or so before he was even born.
North has written elsewhere that ‘Alija Izetbegovic RESURRECTED this NAZI SS DIVISION back in the early 90′s at the beginning of the war [in Bosnia] ’ [emphasis in original]. This same claim was made by members of a US-based circle of Milosevic supporters and Srebrenica deniers, including Francisco Gil-White, who claimed that ‘Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia proudly recreated the Nazi SS Handzar Division’. Gil-White’s collaborator, the ex-Maoist Jared Israel of the Milosevic-supporting, Srebrenica-denying website Emperor’s Clothes, also makes much of a supposedly recreated Handzar division in Izetbegovic’s Bosnia.
Jared Israel and Francisco Gil-White, as true disciples of the Neil Clark school of documentary evidence, base their claim that a reborn Bosnian SS Division, up to 6,000 strong, existed under Izetbegovic, on a single newspaper article written by Robert Fox and published in the Daily Telegraph on 29 December 1993, and reproduced in full on the Emperor’s Clothes website. Like all good Chomskyites, they view themselves as Wise Men with a unique gift for deciding which newspaper articles represent The Truth and which are simply Imperialist Propaganda. I do not share their genius in this field, so I can only guess how they do it, but it seems that any newspaper article that supports their line represents The Truth, while all those that do not support their line can be dismissed as Imperialist Propaganda – indeed as evidence of just how much Imperialist Propaganda there is, and how determined the Ruling Classes are to propagate it. The Emperor’s Clothes website is, in fact, largely devoted to claiming that the vast number of media reports of atrocities by Milosevic and his forces were all simply fabrications. Yet it has no trouble whatsoever in condemning Izetbegovic as having recreated an SS division in 1990s Bosnia, solely on the basis of a single article from this same, ‘imperialist’ media. Gil-White describes Fox’s article as ‘one of a sprinkling of reports telling the truth about the Sarajevo regime that managed to make it through the censorship screen.’ By which he means, he agrees with this article but doesn’t agree with most articles about Bosnia that were published during the war.
The Bosnian SS Division ‘Handzar’ (or ‘Handschar’) was a unit that existed during World War II, and it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the ‘Handzar Division’ after this historic unit. It is indicative, however, that no other journalist or anyone else seems to have noticed the existence of a unit of ‘up to 6,000 strong’ that named itself after the SS and that was, according to Fox, officered by Albanians and trained by mujahedin veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fox himself appears to have obtained his information about this alleged ‘Handzar Division’ at second hand, from individual UN officials on the ground.
Be this as it may, Fox does not implicate Izetbegovic or Cengic as being in any way connected with this alleged Handzar Division. He writes as follows: ‘Hardline elements of the Bosnian army, like the Handzar, appear to have the backing of an increasingly extreme leadership in Sarajevo, represented by Mr Ejup Ganic, Foreign Minister, Mr Haris Silajdzic, Prime Minister, and Mr Enver Hadzihasanovic, the new army chief.’
Thus, the alleged link between this supposed ‘Handzar Division’ and the Bosnian leadership boils down to the claim that ‘hardline elements of the Bosnian army’ of which the ‘Handzar’ are merely an example, ‘appear to have the backing’ of ‘an increasingly extreme leadership in Sarajevo’. Fox identifies Ejup Ganic as the first among these, but erroneously describes him as ‘Foreign Minister’ when he was in reality a member of the Bosnian Presidency. He also lists Haris Silajdzic as representative of this ‘extreme’ leadership, even though Silajdzic was actually one of the more moderate elements in the Bosnian government, one who himself came under attack from the Muslim hardliners in 1995.
So what we’re left with is a single newspaper article from the ‘imperialist’ media, which describes at second hand a recreated SS ‘Handzar Division’ that nobody else ever noticed, that is merely an example of hardline Bosnian Army elements that in turn merely ‘appear to have the backing’ of an extreme faction in the Bosnian leadership about whose composition the author of the article is himself pretty hazy.
Damning evidence indeed. John R. Schindler, in his book ‘Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad’ (Zenith Press, 2007), pp. 167-168, was sufficiently convinced by Fox’s article to assume its accuracy and repeat the key points, merely tweaking the facts slightly, so that the new ‘Handzar Division’ was no longer simply officered by Albanians, but now had a ‘fair share’ of them in its ranks as well. Yet the worthy gentlemen at Emperor’s Clothes were not satisfied with their scoop, and felt the need to sex up the evidence a bit. So Jared Israel penned an article entitled ‘The Handzar Division lives on in Bosnia’, which turns out to be a report on a series of historical articles about the Handzar Division from World War II that appeared in a Bosnian magazine in 1997: ‘The photos were taken during World War II, but they provide a glimpse of the truth about what really happened during the recent Bosnia war, and what is happening today.’ Indeed, members of this circle often seem genuinely unable to distinguish between the recent war and World War II; thus the extreme conservative Julia Gorin from the US accuses ‘Alijah [sic] Izetbegovic’ of having been ‘part of the Nazi SS Handzar division during World War II’, and helpfully provides her reader with a link to Fox’s article (which says nothing about Izetbegovic’s supposed membership of the World War II Handzar division, and mentions the unit itself only in passing).
Gil-White accused Izetbegovic of having ‘proudly recreated the Nazi SS Handzar Division’, based entirely on Fox’s article, even though Fox did not claim that Izetbegovic had anything to do with either the original World War II division or its alleged 1990s reincarnation. Yet Gil-White is far from the only one to make this factual leap. The amateur historian Carl Savich likewise claims ‘The Bosnian Muslim Army and the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and Ejup Ganic sought to re-establish the World War II Nazi Waffen SS Divisions formed out of Bosnian Muslims’ – again basing this entirely on Fox’s article, which claims no such thing. Yossef Bodansky, the pioneer of Muslim-related Balkan conspiracy theories, writes that ‘ in mid-1993, Sarajevo revived the Handzar Division with all its fascist culture and preoccupation with the division’s role as the worthy successor to its SS predecessors. The Bosnia-Herzegovina Handzar Division provides the praetorian guards for Izetbegovic and other senior leaders of Sarajevo, clearly reflecting their pride in and support for the revival of the old traditions.’ Bodansky provides no sources to support these claims. Another of Bodansky’s unsourced descriptions of the resurrected Handzar division was picked up and repeated by the white-supremacist website Stormfront, which repeated his description of a force that had by now grown to between 8,500 and 10,500, and was now no longer merely officered by Albanians, but composed of them almost entirely. Stormfront describes this as ‘sizable Islamist forces involved in subversive and terrorist operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.’ Bodansky’s claims were also repeated by Shaul Shay in his book ‘Islamic Terror and the Balkans’ (Transaction Publishers, 2007), p. 68 – again no sources.
There are strange bedfellows in this bizarre campaign of manufacturing a contemporary SS and demonising the Bosnian Muslims. Ted Belman of the extremist pro-Israel Israpundit website repeats Gil-White’s fabrications about Izetbegovic’s supposed reconstitution of the Handzar Division. Belman seems to equate the Bosnian Muslims with the perceived Muslim and Arab enemy: ‘The comparisons of the destruction of Yugoslavia with the destruction of Israel are chilling and instructive’ (apparently, Israel is not the Jewish state we all thought it to be, but is in fact a multinational federation similar to Yugoslavia). Belman’s fellow Israpundit contributor Felix Quigley draws upon Neil Clark’s ‘excellent historical “lesson”‘ and ‘very hard work’ in compiling a ‘wonderful history’ of the ‘Bosnian Islamofascists’, that naturally includes a reference to Izetbegovic, now promoted to ‘head organizer of a recruiting drive for the infamous, all Muslim, Waffen SS 20,000-strong Handzar or Hanjar Division’ (Quigley appears ignorant of the fact that the original Handzar Division was not ‘all Muslim’, but contained Croats and Germans as well).
Needless to say, none of these principled individuals mentions the fact that the Yugoslav People’s Army, which under Milosevic’s control carried out the attack on Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslims, included under its command the paramilitary force known as the ‘Chetniks’ of Vojislav Seselj, named after the Nazi-collaborationist Chetnik movement of World War II. Seselj was a political friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen. He had been personally decorated by the veteran Chetnik warlord Momcilo Djujic, who had fought alongside the Nazis in World War II. The neo-Nazi Seselj was deputy prime-minister under Milosevic in 1999, while the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians was being carried out.
When one takes all this into consideration, Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information than Neil Clark and his comrades.
Update: Santa Claus came early for me this year, and deposited through my letter-box a copy of the latest scaremongering book about the Muslim peoples of the Balkans, ‘The coming Balkan caliphate: The threat of radical Islam to Europe and the West’ (Praeger Security International, 2007), by Christopher Deliso of Balkanalysis.com. Deliso writes of ‘Hasan Cengic, a veteran of the World War II SS Handzar Division who reincarnated the unit while serving as Bosnia’s deputy defense minister in the early 1990s.’ (p. 8). As we noted above, Cengic was born in 1957 and Deliso’s accusation that he served in the SS must therefore have been based on some quite spectacularly superficial research; nor does Deliso provide any evidence for his accusation that Cengic ‘reincarnated the unit’ in the 1990s. Elsewhere, Deliso accuses Izetbegovic of having been ‘a recruiter for the Bosnian Muslim Handzar (“Dagger”) Division’ (p. 5), his only source being Vojin Joksimovich’s error-ridden article for the ISSA, mentioned above, though Deliso also cites Robert Fox’s article to ‘prove’ that the Handzar division had been ‘resurrected in the 1990s, during the Presidency of Izetbegovic.’
Based on research of this calibre, it is perhaps not surprising that Deliso should conclude that we are faced with a ‘coming Balkan caliphate’…
On Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Richard Perle at the Finchley Synagogue, on the topic of whether peace is possible in the Middle East. Perle has been one of a number of US officials who have promoted a progressive vision of US foreign policy. In an earlier era, a US overthrow of a hostile dictator would probably have been followed simply by his replacement with a pro-American dictator, yet it was thanks to the vision of Perle and other neoconservatives that the overthrow of Saddam was followed by the establishment of a democracy in Iraq. An Iraqi democrat who attended last night’s meeting gave his thanks to Perle and his colleagues, describing them as architects who had drawn up a beautiful plan, only to see it spoiled by mistakes during the construction. Perle gave his blessing also to the plea from an Iranian dissident, who was also present, that the US should support the democratic movement in Iran. He has been a principled champion of the defence of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo from Milosevic’s aggression and tyranny and critic of Putin’s brutal repression in Chechnya.
In his speech last night, Perle highlighted not only the obstacle to Middle Eastern peace represented by traditional US foes like the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but also the threat posed by the regime in Saudi Arabia which, as he pointed out, spreads the poison of Islamic extremism across the globe. He criticised the British government for providing the red carpet treatment to Saudi King Abdullah during his recent visit. It is deeply ironic that neoconservatives like Perle have been so vilified by fashionable left-liberal opinion, when it is precisely they who have broken with the prevailing orthodoxy among Western policy-makers, that realpolitik requires the support of brutal dictators who happen to be friendly to the West. Neoconservaties like Perle are doing precisely what traditional leftists should be doing but in most cases are not: agitating against the dictators.
It was in his discussion of the Israel-Palestine question that I found myself disagreeing with Richard; not because I disagreed with his principles, but because I disagree with how he interprets them. Responding to a question from an American graduate student, who asked him whether the US really derived any benefit from the alliance with Israel, he responded that the day the US abandoned a friend to ingratiate itself with the enemies of that friend will be the day that the US loses all moral authority as a superpower, and that it will be perceived globally as having done so. Israel is the US’s friend, it is a democracy and a loyal ally, and the US should support its friend. If I understood correctly, Perle interprets this to mean supporting Israel in all its outstanding areas of dispute with the Palestinians.
I entirely agree that the US should support Israel. The question is: what does ‘supporting Israel’ mean ? What does it mean to be a friend ?
A true friend does not just support everything one does, even when one is not in the right. A true friend should be prepared to tell one when one is in the wrong and to dissuade one from a course of action that will lead one to harm. A true friend of Turkey would advise it to withdraw from Cyprus; a true friend of Serbia would advise it to give up Kosovo; a true friend of Iran would advise it to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. If the US is to be a true friend of Israel, it is not enough just to support Israel against its enemies; it must also guide it away from a self-destructive policy.
Israel’s waging of a territorial conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank is a self-destructive policy. Because while Israel is in the right in its determination to defend itself from neighbouring regimes or movements that seek its destruction, such as Ahmadinejad’s regime in Tehran or Hezbollah in Lebanon; while it is in the right to face down enemies that deny its right to exist; while it is right to defend its population from suicide bombers; in its policy in the West Bank, Israel is in the wrong. No amount of pointing to the crimes of the other side – great though they are – can hide this fact.
It is often, and rightly, pointed out by Israel’s defenders that critics of Israel, from the ranks of the Islamic world, the left-liberal intelligentsia in the West, and elsewhere, will single out Israeli crimes and misdemeanours for condemnation while ignoring the equal or greater crimes and misdemeanours of neighbouring Muslim states: Syria’s Hama massacre and promotion of the Lebanese civil war; Iran’s persecution of the Ahwazi Arabs; the genocide in Darfur; the brutal oppression of women and absence of democracy in Egypt and Saudia Arabia; and so forth. But it does no good to point out this hypocrisy and condemn all these crimes, and then to turn a blind eye to the utterly unjustifiable Israeli policy of colonisation and settlement building in the West Bank; the denial of human rights to the West Bank Palestinians; the attempt to squeeze them into an ever-smaller slice of their homeland.
The reason it does no good – leaving aside the question of morality – is that it is extremely damaging to us in our life-and-death struggle against Islamist terrorism and the dictatorships that promote it. In this struggle, the propaganda war is all important. A large part of our difficulties in Iraq stem from the fact that – unlike in Kuwait in 1991, Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 – we did not win the propaganda war prior to our military intervention. It might once have been thought that the US was powerful enough simply to forge ahead with its preferred policy regardless of what the world thought, but that does not appear so feasible today. We are waging a struggle with the Islamists for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims across the world, and we cannot afford to be the bad guys anywhere at all. Because our enemies will always highlight our errors – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and so forth.
It is, arguably, hypocritical when Muslims complain about the mistreatment of other Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere while ignoring the persecution of Muslim populations by Muslim regimes, in Darfur, Khuzestan, eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But the problem is not that they are highlighting the plight of Palestians, Kashmiris and Chechens, but that they are failing to highlight the persecution of Muslims by other Muslims. Both Muslims and non-Muslims should be highlighting alike the plight of Palestinians and Ahwazi Arabs, Kashmiris and Sudanese, Chechens and Saudi Shias.
For better or for worse, the Palestinian question has come to assume tremendous symbolic importance in the eyes of many Muslims – and indeed of many non-Muslims. Objectively speaking, the oppression of Palestinians by Israel in the West Bank forms only a small part of the total oppression that is occurring in the Middle East. But symbolically, the Palestinian question has come to assume an importance out of all proportion to its objective importance in Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Our credibility in the eyes of world opinion, and particularly world Muslim opinion, rests disproportionately on our ability to deliver a just settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Not a pro-Palestinian settlement, but a settlement that is just for both sides.
The Israelis and Palestinians are two great nations; equally worthy of freedom, independence and security. This has nothing to do with the awfulness of the leaderships of one or both of them. The fascistic, anti-Semitic nature of the Hamas movement, the suicide bombings, or the corrupt brutality of Yasser Arafat do not detract from the Palestinian right to national independence, any more than the massive war-crimes of Ariel Sharon, the anti-Arab racism of parts of the Israeli right or the pro-Nazi and terrorist past of Yitzhak Shamir detract from the right of Israel to security and self-defence.
I have yet to hear, let alone be convinced by, any Israeli justification for the existence of the West Bank settlements, or for exclusive Israeli possession of Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank may have made military sense when Israel was threatened with the conventional armies of neighbouring Arab states, but today the threat is different: suicide bombers, rocket attacks and potentially a nuclear strike. The occupation of the West Bank does not help Israel to defend itself from these threats, but it does massively alienate world opinion. Furthermore, Israel’s security rests on the sanctity of legally established borders; by questioning the sanctity of these borders in the goal of annexing West Bank territory, Israel is undermining the very institution that underpins its own territorial integrity. The occupation of the West Bank and the abuse of Palestinian human rights that this involves drives ordinary Palestinians into the arms of the extremists. The longer this goes on, the more danger there is of Israel eventually coming to grief at the hands of its enemies. And all for a few small slices of territory that, objectively, it needs less than the Palestinians do.
As an outsider with no personal emotional ties with either Israel or Palestine, any settlement that would award the Palestinians less than 22% of the territory of historic Palestine, or that would award all Jerusalem to just one of the two nations, would strike me as deeply unjust. No matter how awful the Palestinian leadership is, the Palestinian people deserve better than that. It is only through a just settlement – an Israel secure in its pre-’67 borders, an independent Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a Palestinian abandonment of the right to return to pre-’67 Israel in exchange for fair compensation – that a stable peace can be born. A peace that would undercut the appeal of Hamas and other extremists and remove this symbolic injustice in the eyes of world opinion while safeguarding Israel’s security.
If Hamas were to continue to attack Israel from the West Bank following an Israeli withdrawal, Israel would be in an incomparably stronger position strategically than it is today. Because Israel would be unquestionably and totally the good guy; it would lose its negative image in the eyes of all but the extremists; it would enjoy the sympathy of the whole world.
That’s something anyone would want for a friend.
Everyone knows that the United States of America is totally to blame for absolutely everything that is wrong with the world today. Any crisis or conflict in any part of the world is, one way or another, the fault of the US and its imperialistic policies. American intervention in a given region should always be opposed and condemned unreservedly, since everything that is wrong in that region was caused by an earlier act of American intervention – if you go back far enough, you’ll always find one. The US is always intervening for a bad reason, whether it is to grab oil supplies or patronisingly to impose its Western ‘democratic’ values on foreign peoples whose own, different values it doesn’t respect. Yet neither should the US be let off the hook when it doesn’t intervene; we should never stop pointing out that if the US cared so much about freedom and democracy, it wouldn’t turn a blind eye to their absence in Saudia Arabia or Pakistan. We must cut the US no slack: it should be condemned when it invades or bombs other countries; when it starves countries to death with sanctions; when it demonises them with its media; when it hypocritically points out their human-rights abuses instead of minding its own business; and when it enjoys peaceful and friendly relations with them – trading with them and selling them weapons despite their poor human-rights records. The US will sometimes wage illegal wars without the consent of the UN Security Council, yet on other occasions it will work through the UN, proving that the UN is an American tool. Whatever policy the US adopts is being done for reasons of self-interest, so all its policies must be opposed, no matter what they are. In sum, there is no higher nor more noble cause than the cause of being against the US.
This, at least, is what every fashionable, right-on, politically correct person worth his or her salt feels in his or her heart to be true.
Well, the peoples of the former Yugoslavia need no lessons from anyone about how to have a go at Uncle Sam - they have produced more than their fair share of notable and colourful anti-Americans. In fact, they may have a thing or two to teach the rest of the world on this score. Many former Yugoslavs were upset by the US’s insistence that they cooperate with the UN war-crimes tribunal in the Hague. Some muttered that the US had no right to lecture them on war crimes, given the US’s own extermination of its native Amercian population. Highlights in the history of former-Yugoslav anti-Americanism include Croatian President Franjo Tudjman signing a declaration of friendship and cooperation with Russia’s Boris Yeltsin as a response to US pressure over the Hague tribunal; Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan’s challenge, ‘I will go to a war-crimes tribunal when Americans are tried for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia and Panama’; and Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj’s response to the 9-11 attacks, ‘I have never forgotten the thousands of Serb civilians who died under NATO’s bombs – the United States has reaped what it has sowed around the world.’
But who was the most anti-American of them all ? See if you can guess in this one-question Former-Yugoslav Anti-Americanism Quiz.
Question One: Who was the only ruler from the former Yugoslavia actually to declare war on the US, citing the ‘blatant endeavours of the United States of America’ to ‘establish for itself a hegemonic position, on the basis of which it would in ever greater measure impose its plutocratic domination on all other nations’ ?
1) The Communist ruler Josip Broz Tito, President of the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia
2) The Ustasha ruler Ante Pavelic, Poglavnik (Fuehrer) of the ‘Independent State of Croatia’
3) The Socialist ruler Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Republic of Serbia
To find the answer, click here.
Alex Callinicos, chief intellectual guru of the Socialist Workers Party, and Tariq Ali, the flamboyant Pakistani writer, producer and veteran left-wing activist, have stood shoulder to shoulder since the 1990s in their opposition to the US. Callinicos contributed an article to Ali’s Masters of the Universe, a collection of essays fiercely condemning NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 (which, readers might be surprised to learn, was not quite so fierce in its condemnation of Milosevic’s mass terror against the Kosovo Albanian population); Ali signed Callinicos’s petition in support of Hezbollah last year; and the two, of course, joined forces in opposition to the Iraq war.
But it was not always this way. Before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the two were effectively on opposite sides of the barricades. Ali came from a Trotskyist background that viewed the East European regimes as ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerate’ workers’ states, and he himself was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and particularly to Gorbachev, writing a book about glasnost entitled Revolution from Above [with no question mark], published by Hutchinson in 1988 but today no longer in print. Callinicos and the SWP, by contrast, viewed the Soviet Union as an imperialist and ‘state capitalist’ power. They consequently supported what SWP blogger Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb has described as the ‘hideous logic of nationalist secessionism’ – i.e. they backed the secession of Lithuania and other republics from the Soviet federation. Ali was bitterly hostile to this secessionism and, in his play about Gorbachev, Moscow Gold, he portrayed the Lithuanians Callinicos supported as renascent Nazis. There was no love lost between the two. When Ali wrote his first novel, Redemption (Chatto and Windus, 1990), a satirical portrayal of the Trotskyist movement, he portrayed Callinicos as ‘Alex Mango’. You can read a flattering review of Redemption by former Trotskyist Louis Proyect, that discusses Ali’s portrayal of Callinicos, here (NB Proyect misspells Callinicos’s name as ‘Alec Callenicos’).
Ali wrote of his character Alex Mango: ‘His appetite was legendary. It was said that Alex used to disguise himself as a milkman and service most of North London in a day; but this was probably a vile slander spread by someone less well endowed with bottle. Someone like Nutty [Ali's fictional portrayal of the SWP's Chris Harman] who needed Alex but also loathed him. A sophisticated and cultured public speaker, Mango was responsible for winning over many young people to the Rocker [SWP] ranks. Few stayed long, but that was hardly Mango’s fault. Like a smartly dressed doorman outside the facade of an imposing-looking mansion, Mango bowed slightly and opened the door with a smile. It was only after the unwitting new recruit had passed through the revolving door that he or she realized that inside it there was no roof, no walls, no building, nothing but a cellarful of second-hand furniture, and beneath it the abyss.’ (Redemption, p. 189).
Callinicos didn’t find the book very funny. And he made this clear in his review of it, published in the SWP’s Socialist Worker Review, issue 136, November 1990. The review is unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not on the ‘net.
‘Redemption is supposed to be a comic novel, but it’s as unfunny as its basic idea. Ali has always been a rather poor writer, wooden and pompous, and his style isn’t improved by this essay in fiction’, writes Callinicos. However, he goes on, ‘[t]he problem isn’t that it’s a bad novel (it would have been much more surprising if Ali had written a good one) but the horrifying revelation of its author’s personal and political degeneration that if offers.’
Callinicos takes particular exception to Ali’s portrayal of Trotskyist sexual morality: ‘Ali heaps on his characters – most of them former comrades of his from his time as a leading member of the British section of the Fourth International or fellow collaborators in New Left Review – with the most malicious slanders and innuendo. There isn’t a male character, with the exception of the only plausible and complex figure in the book, Einstein (Ernest Mandel), who doesn’t have the most vile, usually sexual, motives ascribed to him. It is hard to convey the sheer nastiness and pettiness of Ali’s malice.’ Callinicos accuses Ali of seeking ‘to offer a political justification for his scurrilous gossip by presenting it as a feminist critique of the far left. The book is dotted with various pasteboard women, all paragons of virtue and, I think, mainly invented (though one is based on a male original), to offer denunciations of the sexism of the Trotskyist movement. That done, Ali can get back to his rather nasty descriptions of bonking with a clear conscience.’
Redemption is, Callinicos concludes, a ‘grubby little novel’ that presents itself as a satire on the Trotskyist movement, but really says more about its author than its subject matter: ‘The entire book is a self-portrait, and the picture it paints is not a pretty one.’
I – Marko Attila Hoare of Greater Surbiton – have sometimes been accused of being too harsh in my polemics against members of the left, but I don’t think I’ve every been quite so rude about any of them as Callinicos was about Ali back in 1990.
In a well known Bosnian joke, the Bosnian Muslim Suljo is walking in the hills around Sarajevo, when he comes upon his neighbour Mujo and his wife Fata. He is puzzled to note that Fata is walking several paces in front of Mujo.
‘My dear neighbour Mujo, why is your wife walking in front of you ?’, Suljo asks, ’Surely, the Holy Koran commands that a wife walk behind her husband, not in front ?’
‘My dear neighbour Suljo’, replies Mujo, ‘When the Holy Koran was written, there weren’t any landmines.’
This is a joke thought up by Muslims, about Muslims. It humorously illustrates the essential truth about Islam and other religions: that they are interpreted by different individuals and generations to suit their own particular needs. The fictional Mujo could be described either as an Islamic conservative or as a progressive, upholding the Koran’s message about the subordination of women to men, but accepting that the precise rules needed to be modified to suit modern purposes. Mujo’s interpretation of Islam is no more or less valid than anyone else’s; with the Prophet dead, nobody can say for sure exactly how the Koran should be interpreted, or what God really wanted. Yet there are plenty of individuals, on opposite sides of the contemporary debate about Islam, who assume the mantle of the Prophet, and try to tell the rest of us that their own version of Islam is the only valid one. The irony is that apparently bitter political enemies – Islamophobes and Islamofascists – have an identical interpretation of ‘true’ Islam. Islamophobia and Islamofascism feed off each other – they are two sides of the same coin.
In her brilliant autobiography, Infidel, the Somali intellectual and Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that Osama bin Laden, in his murderous injunctions about slaughtering Jews and other infidels, is simply interpreting the Koran correctly. She writes that ‘the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant’, while in reality: ’True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behaviour.’ (Infidel, p. 272). She strongly implies that Islam is inherently more problematic than other religions such as Christianity or Judaism. Hirsi Ali has got into a lot of trouble because of these and other observations. She has been denounced as an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ and become a bee in the bonnet of various representatives of wishy-washy left-liberalism. And she has been portrayed as an Islamophobe.
Hirsi Ali is not an Islamophobe. A ‘phobia’ is defined by the New Oxford Dictionary of English as ‘an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something’. There is no evidence to suggest that Hirsi Ali is afraid of Islam; indeed, all the evidence suggests that she is much less afraid of it than the vast majority of Western intellectuals. Nor is her opposition to Islam an ‘aversion’ or ‘irrational’; we are not talking here about an instinct or emotion that wells up from her subconscious, nor of a blind and ignorant prejudice, but of an entirely calm and rational position born of extensive scholarly research and reflection. There is nothing ’extreme’ about Hirsi Ali’s position; she does not argue that Islam should be banned, nor that its followers be persecuted. She simply sees it as a problem, and wants to free Muslim women from the abuse inflicted upon them in the name of Islam. So Hirsi Ali does not qualify as an Islamophobe on any count.
Contrary to myth, Hirsi Ali is very well aware that there is nothing in the Koran that sanctions genital mutilation; she simply points out that the name of Islam, as interpreted by traditional societies, is upheld to justify such abuses. And the Koran really does appear to sanction other abuses such as wife-beating: ‘Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them’ (The Koran, 4:34). In pointing this out, Hirsi Ali is simply indicating a very real problem: that the abuse of women in Islamic societies is underpinned by religion. Hirsi Ali is a principled and courageous individual who deserves full solidarity in her campaign against the abuse of women and against those who would silence her. Nevertheless, she goes slightly too far.
Of all the countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, the single best record in the rescuing of Jews from the Nazis was achieved by Muslim-majority Albania (with the possible – and I stress the word ‘possible’ – exception of Denmark). In the words of Mordechai Paldiel, Director of the Department for the Righteous at Israel’s Yad Vashem:
‘The story of the Albanian rescuers is unique in several ways. Firstly, in that the persons saved were mostly not Albanian citizens, but Jews who had fled to that country when it was ruled by the Italians, and now found themselves in danger of deportation to concentration camps when the Germans took over, in September 1943. Secondly, the rescuers who were overwhelmingly of the Islamic faith felt a religious obligation to assist and save those who had sought refuge in their country and were unjustly persecuted; in other words, it was a behaviour motivated by the Islamic religion, as wisely interpreted by the rescuers.’
In Bosnia-Hercegovina during World War II, when the Croat fascists, or Ustashas, began a genocidal persecution of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and gypsies, they were opposed by Islamic religious figures across the country. One Muslim proclamation, whose list of signatories was headed by five imams, opposed the crimes of the Ustashas on the grounds that ‘For hundreds of years the Bosnian Muslims have lived in unity and love with all Bosnians regardless of religion, just as exalted Islam commands’. The proclamation appealed to the Bosnian people: ‘Let religion not divide us, let it rather unite us by acting beneficially upon all of us to be, above all, people who do not permit that they be ruled by the awaked animal instincts of killing and plundering, which a cultured person should restrain.’ This and other similar appeals inspired by Islamic and other sentiments were made, it should be remembered, under a genocidal dictatorship that was entirely ready to – and did – murder Muslims for acts of disobedience.
Nobody should suggest that these Albanian and Bosnian Muslim heroes were not proper Muslims, and that the ‘real’ Islam is represented by Osama bin Laden. To do so would be wrong both in principle and in practice. In principle, because everyone is free to interpret what Islam ‘really’ means, and nobody has any God-given authority to insist that theirs is the one ‘true’ version. And in practice, because opponents of Islamism would thereby be making propaganda on al-Qaeda’s behalf. If one tells young Muslims that the Koran, correctly interpreted, does indeed command them to slaughter Jews and other infidels, it is unlikely to persuade them to become atheists. It is at least as likely to persuade them to become jihadis.
Muslim Albanians have been staunch allies to Britain and the US in the War on Terror. Bosnia’s Muslims have been victims of genocide at the hands of genuinely Islamophobic Christians, but have nevertheless entirely resisted joining the international Islamist-terrorist movement. The moderate-Islamic Justice and Development Party in Turkey has promoted democracy while fighting fundamentalism and pursuing EU membership. So it is simply untrue that belief in Islam makes people automatically fundamentalists or fascists. Anyone who has spent any time in cities like London, Sarajevo or Istanbul, where large numbers of secularised Muslims live, knows very well that this is nonsense. It would be extremely stupid to alienate decent, moderate Muslims by demonising them and equating them with the fundamentalist minority – do we really want more Muslim enemies ?
It has been argued that Islam is uniquely aggressive and expansionist. We could perhaps draw up a score sheet comparing the crimes of Muslim and Christian conquerors: the great massacres of Timur; the expansionism of the Ottoman Empire and its violence against its subject peoples, culminating in the religiously catalysed Armenian Genocide; set against the Christian enslavement and extermination of the native Americans; the massacres of Muslims and Jews by the crusaders; and so on. The Christians would undoubtedly come out as the quantitatively worse offenders, simply because they occupied a larger portion of the globe. But only a truly self-hating guilty liberal genuinely believes that ‘Islam = good – Christianity = bad’; the point is that these religions are fundamentally similar. So too is Judaism – when the Jews finally got their own modern nation-state, they behaved exactly the same as most Christian and Muslim nations do – which is to say, not very well. As Benjamin Lieberman shows in his book Terrible Fate: Ethnic cleansing and the making of modern Europe, in their propensity to carry out atrocities, Christians, Muslims and Jews resemble nothing so much as each other.
Christopher Hitchens correctly points out that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used to stifle criticism of Islam. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the indiscriminate use of the term by paranoid, self-pitying Muslims and guilt-ridden, self-hating Western liberals. But he is wrong to describe the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself as a ‘stupid neologism’. Islamophobes exist – they are people who have an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to Islam. They view with suspicion, fear and revulsion even ordinary expressions of piety on the part of practising, non-fundamentalist Muslims. They see even such moderate Muslims as dangerous and unwelcome. This form of bigotry is arguably not quite the same as bigotry directed against someone because of their ethnicity or skin colour. Yet if it results in violence against innocent individuals, it is in the last resort just as bad. Anyone who doubts where this can lead should visit the city of Banja Luka, in Bosnia’s Serb Republic, and try to find the beautiful Ferhadija mosque that once dominated the city centre. The destruction of mosques across Bosnia, by both Serb and Croat Christian fascists, was directed against a Muslim community that, as indicated above, had provided many brave, religiously inspired opponents of genocide and fascism in World War II.
As an atheist, I sympathise with the view of the Marquis de Sade (on this question, at least), who wrote that ‘One must first have lost one’s mind to be able to acknowledge a God, and to have gone completely mad to worship such a thing.’ I consider the idea of a God an affront to my intelligence, and the idea that one should worship a God simply beyond comprehension. The point is, while religion is ultimately ridiculous from an intellectual standpoint, it is not necessarily evil. In a pluralistic society, we are all free to hold ridiculous beliefs. Muslims and Christians are equally free to consider atheism ridiculous if they so wish, which they presumably do; we are free to ridicule their beliefs, and they ours. The division is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between those who respect diversity of belief and freedom of expression and those who do not. Islamophobes do not respect Muslim freedom of conscience; Islamofascists do not respect the freedoms of non-Muslims, or indeed of anybody; less extreme Muslim bigots are not fascists, but nevertheless feel their religion should be above criticism. But moderate Muslims are the natural allies of moderate Christians, Jews, Hindus and others in the struggle against the fundamentalists of all creeds.
The Right Reverend Host: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones !’
The Curate: ‘Oh no, My Lord, I assure you ! Parts of it are excellent !’
My last post has deeply offended some comrades. They feel that, in my negative characterisation of the ‘radical’ left, I am being extremely sectarian and McCarthyite. For how can one characterise the entire traditional radical ‘left’ as reactionary, purely on account of a few unrepresentative bad apples who support genocidal dictators or fascists or who apologise for mass murder ? Not every left-wing radical is a George Galloway or a Neil Clark, after all. This is a reasonable argument that deserves a response.
The response is that it is the good apples – the small number of honourable socialists, Trotskyists, anarchists, pacifists and others – who are in the minority in a barrel whose contents are mostly rotten. However well meaning the good apples may be, they are part of a movement that is corrupt overall. This is so, because ‘the left’ is largely made up of supporters or followers of Milosevic, Saddam, Hezbollah, “the Iraqi resistance”, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others. Alongside such elements, no self-respecting Croat, Bosnian Muslim, Albanian, Serb anti-fascist, Kurd, Iraqi democrat, Jew or homosexual would be willing to march. The good apples may feel that it is preferable to shed a few Jews and gays and the odd Croat as the price for remaining in the rotting barrel with the bad apples. This is their choice, and while I do not agree with it, I do not think it necessarily makes them into monsters. But they have then rather forfeited the right to lecture those of us who point out to them that this is a dishonourable place to be.
Is there any point in speaking today about ‘the left’ ? This question formed the main bone of contention, in a discussion that took place last year between, on the one hand, Norman Geras and Nick Cohen, two left-wing friends whom I consider politically kindred spirits, and on the other, the editors of Frontpagemag.com, the American hard-line conservative magazine. Frontpagemag’s David Horowitz posed the following dilemma, which I summarise here in my own words: if one views ‘the left’ as a radical body of opinion that encompasses totalitarians such as Stalinists and apologists for Islamism, then is it not surely an entirely negative phenomenon ? But on the other hand, if one sees the positive section of the left as represented by Blairism and other essentially centrist tendencies, then is one not identifying with the section of the left that is actually least left-wing ? Is what is bad about the left precisely its left-wing part ? Can one throw out the totalitarian, anti-democratic bathwater while keeping the progressive baby ? Horowitz’s answer may be guessed.
It is a good question. But I think Horowitz got it wrong.
It is entirely true, that totalitarian socialism as represented by Stalinists, Maoists and most Marxist-Leninists represents an incomparably greater evil than just about anything the world of conservatism has ever produced. Whatever one may think of Margaret Thatcher, the worst she has ever been accused of is sinking the Belgrano, crushing the miners’ strike and creating mass unemployment. By any sane standard, this simply cannot be compared with the crimes of Marxism-Leninism: the crushing of Kronstadt; the murder of tens of millions of people in artificial famines; genocide; mass terror; the abolition of all vestiges of democracy; the Nazi-Soviet pact; the Great Leap Forward; etc. Thatcherism simply has a better record than Marxism-Leninism in treating the working class.
To put the contrast still more strongly: in the civil war in the former Russian Empire that began in 1917, the Reds were victorious in Russia and the Whites were victorious in Finland. The Finnish Whites under the aristocratic Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim crushed the Reds and the revolutionary workers, thanks to which the Finnish working class today is among the most prosperous in the world. In Russia, however, the Bolshevik party of the proletariat triumphed, as a result of which the old Russian proletariat was wiped out and subsequent generations subjected to all the horrors of Stalinism, while today the living standard of Russia’s working class lags far behind that of Finland’s.
So it is simply ludicrous to maintain the fiction that, automatically, ’left-wing = good’. Nor will it do to counter by pointing to all the crimes in which conservative British and American statesmen have been complicit (e.g. slavery, the genocide of the native Americans, the crimes of colonialism, free-market-induced mass-famine in Ireland and India, the fire-bombing and ethnic cleansing of German civilians during and after World War II, etc.). Exposing the right does not vindicate the left. The crimes of the left and of the right are anyway inexorably intertwined: Churchill and Roosevelt allied with Stalin; the US armed and financed Soviet imperialism during World War II. Communism triumphed in Yugoslavia with the direct and massive military assistance of Britain and the US; Tito set up his HQ in 1944 on an island under British military protection. Lenin’s Russia was a satellite of Wilhelmine Germany; Nixon and Kissinger befriended Mao; Reagan and Thatcher supported Pol Pot; John Major’s Tories colluded with Milosevic. And Fascism and Nazism arose from syntheses of left-wing and right-wing political ideas.
To cut a long story short: the crimes of the right are matched by those of the left, and often the left and the right killed together. Whether one defines oneself as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ – or as ‘centrist’ – one cannot avoid identifying with a tradition that has innumerable crimes to its name. So why choose the left ?
As a renegade Trotskyist who has spent ten years moving closer to the political centre-ground, I shall readily admit that, so far as policies are concerned, I feel much closer to Blair, and even to David Cameron’s Conservatives, than I do to ’radical’ leftists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore or George Galloway. I vote Labour, but I would vote Tory if it were the only way to keep out Respect. Yet where I feel an affinity with left-wing radicalism, and a lack of affinity with the politics of the mainstream left represented by Labour or the European Social Democrats, is in the fundamental interest the former puts on ideals, issues and causes, in contrast to the necessary but ‘humdrum’ business of building a parliamentary party and winning elections, with all the compromising of principles and de-emphasising of ideas that this involves. It is not that I do not respect and appreciate the work of the mainstream parliamentary left; it is simply a different world from my own.
This, then, is the resolution to Horowitz’s riddle: the progressive left is left-wing, because while it rejects all the horrors of totalitarianism and extremism, and is politically much closer to the mainstream, parliamentary left, it retains an emphasis on ideas and activism. Its starting point is its desire to make the world a better place and to fight for the liberation of the oppressed, the exploited and the marginalised. In this respect, it agrees in principle with its enemies from the ranks of the anti-capitalist, anti-Western left. Where it disagrees with these enemies – absolutely, uncompromisingly – is in its vision of what this liberation would look like, and in its strategy of how to bring this about.
Even twenty years ago, it may have seemed that the progressive, democratic leftists were the ‘moderates’ while the ’anti-imperialist’ radicals were the ‘revolutionaries’. But today, it should be clear as daylight that this is not the case.
Here in the liberal capitalist West, we have achieved the best the world has to offer. We have parliamentary democracy, free speech, the rule of law, the welfare state, free trade unions, universal education, emancipated women, female prime ministers, gay civil unions, laws against racial discrimination, diversity, tolerance, personal freedom, recycling, laws against animal cruelty… Of course, the precise combination varies from country to country, and there is everywhere plenty of room for improvement – Britain needs better child-care provision for single mothers, for example. But improvement would simply make a good system better by degrees. It is true that the US, with its absence of free healthcare, powerful anti-abortion lobby, terrifyingly hard-line conservative right, prohibitively expensive higher education and other defects presents a less rosy picture. But what the US needs is to catch up with Western Europe, not some sort of socialist revolution. And we need to defend our system from religious fundamentalism, not attack it with a left-wing fundamentalism of our own.
The real struggle for progressive change is taking place around the world, in countries whose populations do not enjoy all the rights and privileges that we do here in the West. There is the struggle to end the genocide in Sudan; the struggle for democracy in Burma, Zimbabwe and Belarus; the struggle for the emancipation of women and homosexuals across Africa and the Middle East; the struggle to save Iraq and Afghanistan from the Islamists; the struggle for the national liberation of Kosovo and Chechnya. And on all these issues, it is the ‘moderate’, democratic left that is on the side of progress, while the ‘radical’, anti-Western left is on the side of reaction. You cannot oppose the genocide in Sudan, or the Islamists in Iraq, if you oppose ‘Western intervention’; you cannot support women’s rights in the Middle East if you ally with Muslim fundamentalists on an ’anti-imperialist’ basis; you cannot support democracy in Belarus if you celebrate President Lukashenka’s resistance to the West.
We are for the revolution; they are for the counter-revolution. And it is our task to influence public opinion, to lobby our politicians and to pressurise our presidents and prime ministers to support progressive change worldwide. There is a global liberal-democratic revolution worth fighting for. We in the West, with our existing system, are much closer to any conceivable socialist utopia, than the genitally mutilated women of Somalia or the Saudi homosexuals living in terror are to our degree of liberation. More important than giving ourselves more than we have, is helping these people to try to get to where we are.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left