Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Extremists are poisoning my trade union

As someone who believes that trade unions have a vital role to play in a democratic and pluralistic society, and as an academic, I am a member of the University and College Union (UCU), and was previously a member of its predecessor, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which merged with another union in 2006 to form the UCU. The UCU/AUT has been responsible for raising the salaries of academic staff such as myself, and I feel that I and other academics should support it. Yet I am becoming increasingly worried that my union is being hijacked by political extremists who are less concerned with defending the salaries and working conditions of its members, and more concerned with promoting an extremist political cause that most of its members do not support. As a non-activist member, I periodically learn from outside sources about steps being taken by union activists to promote this cause, over and above the heads of ordinary members such as myself.

So it was, back in 2005 when I was working at the University of Cambridge, I and other non-activist members learned after the fact that, via its secretary, the Cambridge branch of AUT had voted in favour of an academic boycott of Israeli academics, when the AUT’s national council had voted to implement such a boycott. The secretary in question was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a viciously anti-Zionist group that supports the destruction of the State of Israel and that has, in recent years, pursued a strategy of alliance with Islamists on a common ‘anti-war’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ platform, involving vocal support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for the Iraqi ‘insurgents’. The decision of our branch secretary to support the boycott led to a ‘backwoods rebellion’ by non-activist members, who bombarded the branch leadership with complaints, prompting even the SWP-supporting secretary to admit he had been wrong to support the boycott in the absence of a mandate from the membership. At the special branch meeting called to discuss the matter, I and others voted overwhelmingly to overturn the branch’s decision to support the boycott.

The nature of the ‘boycott Israel’ movement requires some explaining. As someone who spent years campaigning against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and in defence of the national rights of Kosovars, Bosnians and Croatians, it never occurred to me to support an ‘academic boycott’ of Serbian academics – indeed, I collaborated with mainstream Serbian academics while Milosevic was still in power. Likewise, as someone who has written and demonstrated in support of Palestinian national and human rights, I opposed the boycott of Israeli academics. The movement to boycott Israeli academics was the work of extremist left-wing elements, such as the SWP, which view not just Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but Israel and Israelis themselves as illegitimate. Whereas such elements may or may not be prepared to condemn other oppressive regimes in other parts of the world, it is Israel alone that they single out for condemnation not merely for its oppressive actions, but for its very existence and national identity. This racist hostility to Israel forms part of a generalised ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse; the campaign against Israel, ostensibly in support of Palestinian rights, is in reality part of a wider campaign against ‘imperialism’ and ‘globalisation’. UCU activists from the ranks of the SWP and other extremist currents would like to turn our union, from an organisation set up to defend members salaries and working conditions, into a forum for their anti-imperialist and ‘anti-Zionist’ crusade. To learn more about the nature of the boycott movement, see Engage.

Such left-wing extremist elements inevitably find common ground with anti-Semites from the ranks of the Islamists and white supremacists, who share their hatred of Western civilisation and the liberal-democratic world order. So it comes as no surprise to learn that a certain UCU activist, apparently in an attempt to justify support for the boycott of Israeli academics, recently posted a link on the UCU’s mailing list to the website of the US white-supremacist David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Harry’s Place, a blog for which I write periodically, broke the story that the UCU’s mailing list was being used to circulate material from a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic source. In response, the popular, world-famous blog appears to have been shut down after the company with which its domain name is registered was apparently threatened with a libel suit.

I should like to express my complete solidarity with my comrades at Harry’s Place in the face of this attack on their freedom of speech, and to thank them for bringing to my attention these extremely nasty goings on in a union to which I belong. While I completely sympathise with former UCU members such as Eve Garrard, who feel they can no longer belong to a union that behaves in this manner, I fear the consequences of abandoning this and other unions completely into the hands of the extremists; unions are a vital part of our democracy. Yet there is undoubtedly a structural problem, which is that extremists are likely to be those who will devote the energy to infiltrating and hijacking unions, giving them a voice within the union movement out of all proportion to their actual popularity among the members. Ordinary union-members should take note: a union run by extremists will not be a proper defender of their interests. Union activists should take note: a union promoting unpopular extremist causes will lose members and cease to be effective or credible as a union. It is time to put a stop to this violation of our union.

For more on the attack on Harry’s Place, see Modernity, Engage, Bob from Brockley, Max Dunbar, Cafe Turco, Flesh is Grass and Ignoblus. See also Harry’s Place’s response.


Wednesday, 27 August 2008 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Israel, Jews, Middle East, Palestine, Political correctness, Racism, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left | 4 Comments

Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or anti-Semitism ? The view from the Balkans

There is some resistance among liberal intellectuals to the term ‘Islamophobia’, because it is assumed that Islam is a religion, therefore an ideology, and it is questioned if one can be prejudiced against an ideology. Yet such a distinction is not satisfactory from the standpoint of a scholar of the Balkans; or indeed, from the historical standpoint generally. To treat chauvinism against a religious community as being fundamentally different from chauvinism against an ethnic or racial group is to superimpose a modern understanding of religion onto the past. We may believe in the ideals of the separation of church and state; and of religion as a private, personal matter of conscience; but it is anachronistic to impose this liberal ideal onto past human history.

We are all aware of the distinction between religious and racial anti-Semitism, but also of the connections between the two – of the fact that even the Nazis used religious background to determine who was Jewish. In the Balkans, at least, the model for chauvinism that anti-Semitism provides – in which prejudice against a religious community evolves into an ethnic or racial prejudice – is the rule rather than the exception. Religious and ethnic prejudice are not distinct categories, and it makes no historical sense to see them as such.

The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Balkans from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, and it was the Ottoman system that laid the basis for modern ethnicity and nationality in the Balkans. The Ottoman empire was organised on the basis of different legal statuses for Muslims and non-Muslims, in which Muslims were the dominant and privileged group but Christians and Jews nevertheless enjoyed a degree of communal autonomy. This laid the basis for the different religious communities to evolve into separate nationalities.

When the Orthodox nationalities of the Balkans rose up against the Ottoman overlords during the nineteenth century with the goal of establishing their independence from the empire, the process involved the expulsion or extermination of much of the non-Christian population, which was identified as an alien, non-national element. This process of ethnic or religious cleansing was directed primarily against the Muslim population that was concentrated in the towns. But it targeted also the Jews, who were also concentrated in the towns and who were, in the eyes of the predominantly peasant and Christian rebels, equally alien and part of the Ottoman presence. This was something that occurred in the violence that accompanied the uprisings themselves, with rebels spontaneously massacring non-Christians. But it also took place more quietly in the decades that followed the establishment of autonomy or independence, as the new governments encouraged ethnic homogenisation.

Thus, for example, in Serbia during the nineteenth century, the number of mosques in the main cities rapidly declined. The Serbian capital of Belgrade was largely Muslim before the nineteenth century. But following the establishment of an autonomous Serbian principality in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Muslim population was mostly expelled and most of the mosques were destroyed or dismantled. Similarly, the Jewish communities suffered restrictions they had not suffered in the Ottoman period, and were expelled or relocated from the towns outside Belgrade. This, of course, is a generalisation: the extent to which Muslims or Jews were massacred, expelled or persecuted varied according to country and period. This was not a matter of Nazi-style total extermination. Persecution and expulsion alternated and overlapped with efforts at cooption, assimilation and toleration. But the model of nationhood remained very much one that was based on Orthodox Christianity, in which non-Orthodox were, at best, viewed as less national than the Orthodox.

This model of religiously determined nationhood was not adopted only by Orthodox Christians, but also by the Muslim Turks. The establishment of a Turkish nation-state in the 1910s and 1920s involved the extermination or expulsion of literally millions of Christians. Formally, they were Greeks or Armenians. But this included Turkish-speaking Christians who were excluded from the Turkish nation solely because of their religion. Turkish nationhood, therefore, was based on the Muslim religion: it was inclusive of Kurds and other non-Turkish-speaking Muslims who inhabited Anatolia. But it was exclusive of Turkish-speaking Christians.

After establishing their nation-state, the Turks had a rather better record of treating the Jews than did the Balkan Christians. This was a legacy of the fact that the Muslims, as the elite group in the Ottoman Empire, had not viewed the Jews as outsiders in the same way that the Christians had done. But there was still some anti-Jewish activity on the part of the Turkish state which, with Nazi encouragement, reached its peak during World War II. Furthermore, in the great anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955, Jews were also targeted.

Another example serves to illustrate the connection between religion and ethnicity in the Balkans. Both Serbia and Croatia entered the modern age with relatively small Jewish communities that could readily assimilate into the dominant Serbian and Croatian nations respectively. By contrast, in Bosnia there was no dominant nationality. So members of the Sephardic Jewish community in Bosnia developed a distinct sense of nationality of their own. They saw themselves as distinct from the Ashkenazim, who were culturally different. And as they were not oppressed by a dominant nationality that treated them as outsiders, they were less receptive to Zionism than were the Jews of most Central European countries. So the Bosnian Sephardim followed the general Bosnian pattern, whereby the different religious communities evolved into different nationalities.

There were some exceptions to the general rule of religiously based nationhood in the Balkans. The Albanians are the only major example of a Balkan nation for which religion is not the determining factor. The most likely explanation is that Albanian nationalism originated with the Catholic population among the Albanian-speakers. And the Catholics were not legally and economically subordinate to Muslim landlords in the way that Orthodox peasants throughout the Balkans were subordinate to Muslim landlords. So there was not the same degree of class oppression tied into the religious divide between Catholics and Muslims among the Albanian-speakers, as there was between Orthodox and Muslims among the Slavic-, Greek- and Turkish-speaking peoples. Interestingly, the Albanians’ record with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust was about the best in all of Nazi-occupied Europe; Albanians sheltered Jews more solidly than almost any other occupied people.

Another interesting case, for the purposes of comparison, is that of the Croats. Croatia was not part of the Ottoman Empire, so its social structure was not determined by the Ottoman system. Croatia had a relatively small Jewish community, so its anti-Semitism was fairly typical by the standards of Christian Europe. However, Croat nationalists were almost unique in Europe in the extent to which they were ready to embrace Muslims. Ante Starcevic, the father of integral Croat-nationalism, viewed the Bosnian Muslims as the purest of all Croats. According to the tradition he established, the Bosnian Muslims were the ‘flower of the Croat nation’. This was possible for Croat nationalists because, unlike the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, Croatia had not been ruled and oppressed by the Ottomans. The Islamophile character of Croat nationalism was, of course, a way for it to lay claim to Bosnia, where the Catholics were only a small minority.

The different ways in which Serb and Croat nationalist ideology perceived the Muslims became apparent during World War II. Serb extreme nationalists – the Chetniks – carried out systematic massacres of Muslims and Catholics, and also murdered Jews or handed them over to the Nazis. Croat extreme nationalists – the Ustashas – carried out systematic massacres of the Orthodox Serbs and Jews. But not of Muslims, as the policy of the Ustashas was to treat Bosnian Muslims as Islamic Croats. In contrast to the nationalism of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, it was only in the 1990s that the Croat-nationalist mainstream became overtly anti-Islamic; this was due to the policy of the Croatian despot Franjo Tudjman, who aimed to join with the Serbs in partitioning Bosnia. What made the difference for Croat nationalists by the 1990s, compared to the 1940s, was that by then the Muslims had been formally recognised within the Yugoslav constitutional system as a nation in their own right, distinct from the Serbs and Croats. When Muslims could no longer be viewed as Islamic Croats and potentially assimilated, they became open to persecution by expansionist Croat nationalism.

By this period – the 1990s – both Serb and Croat nationalists were more likely to identify with Israel on an anti-Muslim basis than they were to indulge in anti-Semitism. Although the more extreme elements among Serb and Croat nationalists in the 1990s did sometimes express anti-Semitic views, they were generally astute enough to know the propaganda value of not being seen to be anti-Semitic, and they did try to appeal to Jewish opinion – though not very successfully. Albania and Croatia, therefore, are the exceptions that prove the rule: firstly, that anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudice in the Balkans are essentially similar, in that both are prejudices directed against ethnic groups that have their origins in religious differences; and secondly, that Muslims are targeted and persecuted as an alien ethnic group – like the Jews – not simply as a religious community.

To go back to the case of the Serb Chetniks in World War II: they were an extreme-nationalist movement that systematically persecuted and killed the non-Orthodox population in Bosnia: Muslims, Croats and Jews. The Chetniks were engaged in a vicious war against the Yugoslav Partisans, who were a multinational resistance movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The Chetniks identified the Communists with the Jews, but also with the Muslims and Croats. One Chetnik leader even accused the Communists of destroying Orthodox Churches, and building mosques, synagogues and Catholic churches. In World War II, however, it was still possible for the Chetniks to waver between massacring Muslims, and attempting to co-opt them, on the grounds that Bosnian Muslims were ‘really’ Serbs. So as late as World War II, both Serb- and Croat-nationalists could still make some pretence at treating the Muslims as a religious group within their respective nations. One can compare this to the confusion among modern anti-Semites, until quite late in the day, as to whether the Jews were a religious or a racial group.

By the 1990s, however, despite lip service to the traditional nationalist view, that Bosnian Muslims were really just Islamic Serbs or Croats, in practice, this kind of assimilationism was no longer possible or relevant. Muslims were treated in practice as a hated, alien ethnic minority. There was no policy of forced conversion. Serb nationalists, and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, ethnically cleansed Bosnia of Muslims who spoke their language, much as the Serbian regime attempted to cleanse Kosovo of the Albanians who spoke an entirely different language. Rather like anti-Semites, extreme Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia in the 1990s simultaneously viewed Muslims as a racially alien element, while portraying them in their propaganda as part of an international, global threat to Christian Europe.

Of course, there are differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: anti-Semites traditionally portray the global Jewish conspiracy in terms of sneaky, intelligent puppet-masters working behind the scenes, whereas Balkan Islamophobes portray the global Islamic conspiracy in terms of mindless but fully visible – indeed visually striking – fanaticism. Hatred of Islam and Muslims has, for all its intensity as felt by Balkan Christian nationalists, never quite achieved the intensity of being an all-consuming end in itself, as it has for some anti-Semites. And of course, Balkan Islamophobes do not formally treat global Islam as a race, in the way that anti-Semites treat global Jewry as a race. But we are ultimately talking about ideological window-dressing used to justify the same type of persecution and violence.

It is nonsensical to argue that the systematic destruction of mosques and the Islamic heritage in Bosnia by Serbian forces, combined with a propaganda that stressed the role of mujahedin and of foreign Islamic states, was not an expression of Islamophobia, on the grounds that Islamophobia does not exist. But equally, it is nonsensical to argue that this campaign was genuinely motivated by hostility to Islam as an ideology: there was no pretence that Muslims were a danger because they might indoctrinate the Serbian population with subversive views. Serb nationalists in the 1980s and 90s made much of the growing threat of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, and of Albanian Muslims in Serbia. But the danger they presented was not that these groups would spread Islam to the Serbs, and Islamify Serbia. Rather, the danger was that these groups would increasingly outbreed the Serbs, and turn them into increasingly small minorities in their own countries.

Thus, we are not talking about a threat equivalent to the Communist threat, as it was viewed in McCarthy’s US, or to the counter-revolutionary threat, as it was viewed in Stalin’s USSR. Muslim children in Serb-occupied Bosnia were not simply deported along with their parents, as they might have been if they were viewed as the children of subversives. Still less were they subjected to ideological reprogramming. Rather, they were themselves singled out for rape, torture and murder. Muslim women were raped with the stated goal of making them give birth to Serb babies. Biljana Plasvic, the Bosnian Serb vice-president, theorised about the Muslims being a genetically defective offshoot of the Serb  nation.

In sum, Islamophobia, in the Bosnian war, was an expression of hatred directed against an ethnic group, or groups. One of the paradoxes of this is that for all the Islamophobic hatred directed against the Balkan Muslim peoples by Balkan Christian nationalists, and indeed by the anti-Muslim bigots in the West who supported them, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians are among the most secularised Muslim peoples in the world. Just as Jewish atheists will always be the Christ-killers or ritual slaughterers of Christian children in the eyes of certain anti-Semites, so Bosnian Muslim and Albanian atheists will always be jihadis in the eyes of Islamophobes.

This paper was presented at the conference ‘Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: Comparisons – contrasts – connections‘, that took place at University College London on 22-24 June.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Islam, Israel, Jews, Kosovo, Kurds, Political correctness, Serbia, Turkey | 2 Comments

Mea culpa

I have been ticked off by ‘Shuggy’, one of the Drink-Soaked Trots, for using the term ‘lumpen’. Apparently, it proves that I am a snob who despises the working class. Some might ask why Shuggy does not complain when the person I described as lumpen, his fellow DSTPFW blogger ‘Will’, uses misogynistic terms of abuse such as ‘cunt’ and ‘whore’ – might this not be deemed disrespectful to sex workers and to members of the fairer sex in general ? Some might ask why Shuggy does not complain when Will uses the term ‘retard’ as a term of abuse in the comments section of Shuggy’s very own post – might this not be deemed disrespectful to the mentally handicapped or to people with learning disabilities ? But they would be wrong, because, I am told, it’s normal for people Up North to speak like Will does:

I feel so badly for you – to be introduced to how people in places like Glasgow and Newcastle actually talk. You know, like real people, majority people, common people, unwashed, uneducated and uncouth people. The kind of people who, if you were honest with yourself, you’d admit you despise. How traumatic and ghastly this must be for you.

Of course, I could respond that, in the predominantly middle-class milieu of the left-wing intelligentsia that I come from, using terms like ‘lumpen’ to describe abusive, aggressive and intolerant Neanderthals is how we actually talk. We may not be so common and we may generally be washed, educated and couth. But we are the kind of people who, if you were honest with yourself, you’d admit you despise. How traumatic and ghastly this must be for you.

But I would have no right to make such an argument. Because where would we all be if white, male, middle-class heterosexuals like myself felt they had a right to criticise members of oppressed groups such as the working class for behaviour that’s simply part of their group culture ? Why, the next thing you know, I might feel entitled to condemn Muslim bigots who castrate young girls, keep their multiple wives imprisoned at home, blow up cafes full of Jews and organise conferences to deny the Holocaust. But that would make me an Islamophobe, of course, just like Peter Tatchell.

Thanks to Shuggy’s post, I’ve realised the error of my ways. I realise that if Geordies or Glaswegians spew vulgar abuse, mug old ladies and set fire to immigrants’ homes, they are just expressing their true, gritty, proletarian Northern culture. Far from being the object of condescension from middle-class snobs such as myself, such culture should be celebrated. In fact, there is a lot more wholesome truth and sincerity in the phrase ‘Sharon is a slag’ written on a bus-shelter and embellished with a good slash of urine by a working-class lad from Up North, than in whole libraries full of books by left-wing intellectuals who are mostly white, male and middle class.

Of course, you can’t really blame me. In the state primary school I attended, the dinner ladies used to tell me off for swearing. I didn’t realise at the time that those dinner ladies were just working-class traitors who were trying to embourgeoisify the youth with poncey middle-class good manners. Although in retrospect, I suppose, they might have been telling the middle-class kids off for swearing while secretly encouraging the working-class kids to swear more so as to preserve their working-classness, and I – oblivious in my privileged state of contentedness – was simply blind to these subtle acts of class warfare going on around me.

Perhaps that’s the solution ? We could have separate schools for the working class and for the middle class. And in the working-class schools, so as not to patronise the children, we could encourage them to swear, twock cars and make spelling mistakes. Meanwhile, middle-class children could receive a proper education, but be taught to feel extremely guilty about it, so that they’d never dare to criticise any working-class person, ever.

Well, I have to thank the horny-handed sons of toil over at the Drink-Soaked Trots for setting me straight. Some weeks ago, I argued here that the politics of class leads to moral relativism. How totally I have been proven wrong.

I was planning to go fox-hunting this weekend, but instead, I think I’ll just stay at home and contemplate the sheer enormity of my middle-class guilt. In fact, I think I’ll go back to being a Trotskyist.

Correction: I referred above to the Drink-Soaked Trots as ‘horny-handed sons of toil’. This is incorrect. It should be ‘horny-handed sons and daughters of toil’. Come to think of it, it should be ‘horny-handed daughters and sons of toil’.

Friday, 18 April 2008 Posted by | Political correctness, The Left | Leave a comment

Are we Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home ?

Two weeks ago, I argued here that the global ideological division between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps had superceded the ideological division between the Left and the Right. I am glad that some friends, such as Kirk Johnson of Americans for Bosnia, agree with me (Kirk is, like me, a Bosnia activist from a left-wing background who experienced a similar ideological shift to my own, and for very similar reasons). I am honoured that a whole entry in the marvellous Encyclopedia of Decency has been devoted to lampooning my article. But I have also received some intelligent criticism, from Peter Ryley, Bob from Brockley and New Centrist. One of the snappiest counter-arguments was Peter’s claim, that those who share my outlook are ‘Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home’, meaning that we are radical only in relation to foreign regimes, but conservative in relation to our own.

While I appreciate the quip, it is not one that I can accept. Edmund Burke was the father of modern conservatism, who developed his ideas in opposition to the French Revolution. I’ll admit to being, like Burke, someone who does not support revolution in my own country, but that’s all the common ground I share with him. He was a supporter of King and Church who upheld native tradition as an alternative to the universal Enlightenment values championed by the supporters of the French Revolution, and believed only in the most gradual, organic change to the domestic order, where absolutely necessary. By describing those of us on the centre-left as ‘Burkes’, Ryley is conflating all those outside the radical left with conservatism.

In fact, someone who is a Burke at home cannot be a Paine abroad, because Burke’s way of thinking, precisely, meant that the British traditional order could not be transplanted onto foreign countries. By contrast, I believe that the liberal democratic model of the kind we enjoy in Britain and Europe is equally valid for any part of the world, and should be promoted globally as an alternative to tyrannical or authoritarian regimes. And, unlike Burke, I believe the existing domestic order should be reformed according to the principles of reason. Our true affinity, therefore, is with Whigs like Burke’s great opponent, Charles James Fox, who supported revolution abroad and reform at home. This is partly because the revolution has already triumphed at home. I wonder whether a true Burke would ever feel comfortable supporting a National Health Service, or gender equality, or same-sex civil partnerships. I would also therefore claim a greater affinity with the more moderate Jacobins who, having carried out the Revolution in France, sought to prevent its degeneration into extremism at home while simultaneously promoting it across Europe.

I support the abolition of the monarchy, a democratically elected second chamber, the disestablishment of the Church of England, the abolition of faith-based and private education and the complete secularisation of public life. This is another area where a centre-leftist such as myself parts company with the latter-day Burkes, and even with the Blairites. These are not trivial issues; I believe that, if we are going to integrate our Muslim and immigrant population, we need a modern concept of homogenous citizenship to which all faith-based and class-based schools are anathema. I am a strong supporter of an ultra-liberal immigration policy, partly because immigration is a means to dissolve traditional society and hasten globalisation. And globalisation – anathema to Burkeans – is something I strongly support.

Ryley argues further:

So when Marco [sic] Attila Hoare recently wrote that “the principal ideological division in global politics today” is “pro-Western vs anti-WesternI think that he too was oversimplifying. For the left, it is not about being reflexively pro or anti-Western. It is about standing with the poor, the oppressed and the exploited. It is about being consistently pro-social justice.

I agree with Peter that social justice is crucial; however, liberal democracy is the fertile ground in which social justice grows. In Britain, universal suffrage came first, the welfare state second. Working class people needed to be able to vote in a free election, so that they could elect in 1945 the Labour government that established the welfare state. Earlier social reforms were carried out by the Liberal Party in the years before World War I, largely to meet the challenge posed by the rise of organised labour and the Labour Party. Conversely, the welfare states established by totalitarian regimes have tended to be less durable, which is why the working classes are better off in Western Europe today than they ever were under Communist regimes. While I strongly disagree with US Republican hawks such as George W. Bush on domestic social issues, I believe their support for democracy abroad offers the best chance for the prosperity of ordinary people globally in the long run. The West European model of welfare capitalism is preferable to the US model; but the US model is vastly, incomparably preferable even to left-wing totalitarianism, let alone to Islamist totalitarianism. And as I pointed out in my last two posts, Bush’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Eastern Europe is simply more progressive than that of most, and probably all, of the present governments of Western Europe.

Bob from Brockley questions whether the West can be upheld as a positive model, given the murderous record of Western colonialism, and Western support for murderous dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Pinochet. As I made clear in my original article, the dichotomy ‘Western vs anti-Western’ cannot be projected back in time and equated with the Cold War divide between the Western and Communist blocs, let alone with the divide between the Western colonial powers and the colonised world. The ‘Western vs anti-Western’ dichotomy is a new one; the end of colonialism and of the Cold War has enabled both Western values and the Western alliance to assume a more unambiguously positive character that they did not possess before. As a historian of the Yugoslav Revolution, I can safely say I view the Communist-led sides in the Yugoslav, Greek and Albanian civil wars of the 1940s as the positive ones. I would not have supported the Americans in Vietnam or the Contras in Nicaragua. But these are yesterday’s wars that took place in yesterday’s world. I fear that Bob’s argument dangerously resembles the moral relativist one: that the geopolitical West is wrong today because it can never shed its guilt for past crimes. The ‘Western camp’ that I support is one that, as I made clear, embraces both former Cold Warriors and former Marxists, irrespective of whether they once held correct or incorrect views on Pinochet or Mao, the Contras or the Khmer Rouge. The point is where they are now, not where they were then.

New Centrist argues (and both Peter and Bob seem to agree):

Hoare also ignores the existence of ultra-leftists, anarchists, and other self-styled revolutionaries who advocate a third perspective that is classically “anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” while also critical of Jihadist terrorism. I’m referring here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.

In fact, the radical leftists of this kind appear on my diagram in the far left, equidistant between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps. I had not previously heard of Three Way Fight, but I am familiar with World War 4 Report, as well as other blogs in this category such as the Drink-Soaked Trots. The problem with leftists of this variety is that they tend to be obsessed with their own ‘radical-left’ identity, with ideological purity and with loyalty to the anachronistic ‘revolutionary’ principles of yesteryear (In reality, to talk about ‘proletarian revolution’ or ‘world socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ today is no more ‘revolutionary’ than are the steam engine or the gramophone in today’s technological age). At best, comrades of this kind can set aside their antiquated shibboleths enough to be able to unite behind progressive causes alongside those further to the right, in which case their ‘revolutionary socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ may add a bit of diversity and harmless exoticism to the movement. And, joking aside, diversity and exoticism are good things. But at worst, leftists of this kind simply retreat into their own ideological foxholes, from which they write off %99.9999 of the rest of the world as heretical and Satanic, thereby consigning themselves to political irrelevance and sectarian oblivion.

In practice, if you want to avoid irrelevance and oblivion, you have to take sides in the struggle that really matters. And in that case, you can only be so left-wing, before you end up flipping round to the side of the far right.

Update: Francis Sedgemore (aka ‘Jura Watchmaker’) of Drink-Soaked Trots has responded to this article, arguing ‘One thing that stands out in Hoare’s post is his use of the term “homogenous citizenship”, when defending his vision of an egalitarian society. Homogenous? Hoare’s support for an “ultra-liberal immigration policy” aside, this reeks of the aculturalism that I associate with Burkean liberal-conservatism. The last thing I want to see is a homogeneous society. It would be the social equivalent of thermodynamic heat death.’

Leaving aside Sedgemore’s inability to understand the difference between ‘citizenship’ and ‘society’, to associate Burke with ‘aculturalism’ and with ‘homogenous citizenship’ is a bit like associating Karl Marx with support for the maintenance of aristocratic privilege. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote:

The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue, it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the natural securities for this transmission. With us the House of Peers is formed upon this principle. It is wholly composed of hereditary property and hereditary distinction, and made, therefore, the third of the legislature and, in the last event, the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions. The House of Commons, too, though not necessarily, yet in fact, is always so composed, in the far greater part. Let those large proprietors be what they will — and they have their chance of being amongst the best — they are, at the very worst, the ballast in the vessel of the commonwealth. For though hereditary wealth and the rank which goes with it are too much idolized by creeping sycophants and the blind, abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy. Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic.

It is said that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second; to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many and their interest must very often differ, and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice.


We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater.

In other words, both with regard to religion and with regard to class, Burke was about as far from supporting ‘homogenous citizenship’ as it was possible to be. He upheld a parliamentary system that privileged the propertied classes, and in particular the aristocracy, and that was underpinned by the established church – in opposition to the emerging French secular republic based on universal, equal citizenship.

In other words, Sedgemore is throwing around accusations of Burkeanism without having a clue about what Burkeanism is.

Thursday, 10 April 2008 Posted by | Political correctness, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left | 1 Comment

Why the ‘politics of class’ leads to moral relativism

Readers of this blog will probably already know of two excellent, recently published books that raise the question of where the Left has gone wrong, and why it has reached its current state of moral degeneracy: Nick Cohen’s What’s Left and Andrew Anthony’s The Fallout. For anyone who hasn’t already, I’d strongly recommend reading them both as an introduction to the subject. Although they have produced many replies from among the ranks of those whom they target – the Guardianista soft-left and the harder, ‘anti-imperialist’ left – these replies have tended to be along the lines of ‘whatabout Iraq’, and without exception have failed to address Cohen’s and Anthony’s central accusation: that moral relativism, obsessive anti-Westernism and a fundamental lack of interest in the struggle of foreigners against oppression at the hands of other foreigners have led leftists in the West to abandon those they should be supporting (such as democrats and trade unionists in Iraq, or Muslim women abused at the hands of their families and communities) and lining up with those who should be their mortal enemies (Baathists, Islamists, etc.). We are still waiting for an alternative explanation from the ranks of Cohen’s and Anthony’s critics as to why this happens, or why it is wrong to resist this tendency.

Cohen and Anthony field a range of arguments to explain what is going wrong, most of which I agree with. But the one argument that both of them make, and that fails to convince me, is their claim that the degeneration of the Left is related to its abandonment of the working class. For Cohen, the readiness of liberals in the US to achieve major reforms, such as the legalisation of abortion, through the courts and the judges rather than through campaigning among the working class has led to a working-class alienation from liberal values. For Anthony, guilty white-liberal idolisation of non-white and non-Christian minorities has led to a readiness to denigrate the white working-class; this is a theme to which he has recently returned, and which a new BBC 2 programme is apparently also addressing.

My own background in left-wing politics is somewhat different to Nick’s and Andrew’s, and it has led me to the opposite conclusion: that the radical left’s obsession with class and class interests, over and above ideals and principles, is at the root of its degeneration. The Militant Tendency and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), two far-left groups to which I was close in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were always whinging on about the ‘working class’. The phrase ‘only a socialist party based on the working class’ is indelibly marked in my memory, but I’m not even sure if it belonged to one of these groups, or to several of them.

The point was always to support the ‘working class’ and oppose the ‘ruling class’, not because of what they were doing, but because of what they were. Something was only worth supporting if it had the correct ‘class character’. A strike by ambulence workers was a worthy cause; the campaign for proportional representation in the British parliament led by Charter 88 was not, because there was nothing ‘working class’ about it.

I discovered that this meant that, in the war in the former Yugoslavia, comrades from the Militant and the SWP were fundamentally uninterested in such mundane questions as opposing genocide or national oppression, and wanted to see Serb, Croat and Muslim workers joining together against the bosses of all nations, before the comrades would muddy their hands in this particular conflict. Indeed, I am still holding my breath, waiting for the workers’ revolution that the SWP suggested might stop the war in Bosnia.

Of course, this obsession with class was not just about supporting the working class, but also about opposing the ruling class. This may explain one of the enduring mysteries of SWP politics, one for which only a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist might be capable of providing a full explanation. Namely, over the Balkans, the SWP would berate defenders of Bosnia such as myself, for ‘lining up with one group of nationalists against another’, when all these nationalists supposedly had the same ‘class basis’ and were equally reactionary. Meanwhile, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the SWP lines up with one group of nationalists against another, even though all these nationalists supposedly have the same class basis and are equally reactionary. The SWP opposed the Croatian struggle for national independence in the early 1990s by pointing out that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had mentioned that he was glad his wife was neither Serbian nor Jewish; it nevertheless supports the Palestinian struggle for national independence, even though Hamas and other Palestinian groups have a much worse record on anti-Semitism than Tudjman’s Croat nationalists (the SWP itself probably does as well, but that’s a whole different article). I’m not a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist, but if I understand correctly, the disparity can be explained by the fact that the SWP views the Croatian nationalists as being ‘on the side of the ruling class’ (i.e. the Western ruling-class) while the Palestinian nationalists are ‘not on the side of the ruling class’. Accusations of anti-Semitism are purely instrumental and opportunistic in the goal of opposing the ruling class.

It should be easy to see why this should lead to moral relativism. Whatever the ‘ruling class’ does is for the sake of its class interests, therefore whatever it does should be opposed. If it arms and finances Saddam, it should be opposed; if it bleeds Iraq dry with sanctions, it should be opposed; if it invades Iraq to overthrow Saddam, it should be opposed. The Iraq War is opposed not because it will increase the suffering of the Iraqi people or involve large-scale civilian casualties or because it violates international law – such arguments are purely instrumental – but because it’s ‘all about oil’; i.e. it serves ruling-class interests. Leftist arguments levelled against Western leaders are made not because the leftists necessarily believe in them, but because they want to oppose the Western leaders whatever they do. Hence, the principles put forward in such arguments are inherently insincere and liable to be abandoned as soon as they are no longer necessary: emphasise Croatian anti-Semitism, ignore Palestinian anti-Semitism; emphasise ‘working-class unity’ over national liberation in the Balkans, emphasise national liberation over working-class unity in Palestine; etc.

Conversely, one is supposed to support the working class no matter what it does; all strikes should be supported, regardless of what the workers are striking over. Anthony complains that moral relativism leads liberals to ditch the white working-class in favour of even reactionary Muslims and homophobic black rappers. But it is difficult to see how this is any different from denigrating the middle class or aristocracy and idolising the working class; it simply involves a reclassification of the same old categories of groups one likes and groups one dislikes.

Unfortunately, even the most honourable traditionalist left-wingers cling to the certainties of ‘class politics’, and this leads them either into some extremely dubious company – or into no company at all. The summer before last, my fellow Eustonite Philip Spencer and I spoke at the annual conference of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyist group which is fairly sympathetic politically but incredibly dogmatic, in order to argue the merits of the Euston Manifesto. And what a dismal experience it was – being berated by a room-full of Trots for the fact that the Euston Manifesto says nothing about the class struggle, and about how disgraceful it was to support a manifesto that even a Labour minister would have no trouble supporting.

There is a very good reason why the Euston Manifesto is not concerned with the ‘class struggle’ (in the Marxist sense of supporting the ‘working class’ against the ‘ruling class’) – it is an anti-fascist, anti-fundamentalist manifesto whose purpose is to reaffirm a commitment to liberal, democratic and progressive principles that the Left has increasingly tended to jettison. Were the ‘class struggle’ to be inserted into this manifesto, it would involve splitting the anti-fascist front for the sake of obsolete Marxist principles. It would mean jettisoning non-Communist anti-fascists in order to remain part of a ‘Left’ that includes fascists and their fellow travellers. Indeed, the AWL apparently responded to the wonderful split in the Respect coalition (the British manifestation of the Red-Brown alliance) between the SWP and the supporters of George Galloway, by coming down on the side of the SWP. The AWL’s Sean Matgamna wrote an open letter to the SWP’s Chris Harman last autumn, appealing for the SWP to return to its socialist principles by opposing Galloway: ‘Comrade Harman, the revolutionary politics which you spent most of your life working for are still worth fighting for! In the SWP they will have to be fought for against the leaders and their “theoreticians”, such as you. Comrades of the SWP, the socialist ideas which the SWP claims to represent are worth fighting for! Break with Galloway!’

So long as support for the ‘working class’ against the ‘ruling class’ trumps support for Enlightenment values as values worthy of support in their own right, even a relatively honourable group of Trotskyists such as the AWL will not be immune to the temptation to ally with one Red-Brown faction against another, and against the ‘ruling class’, leaving more politically mainstream elements to do the serious work of resisting fascism and fundamentalism. Alternatively, insistence upon class-based politics may lead to self-imposed isolation, whereby the honourable left-wing traditionalist rejects allies both among the Red-Brown alliance and among the liberal mainstream, leading him to feel ‘desperately lonely’, as Bill Weinberg of WW4report complains. But even in this loneliness, it is difficult to escape moral relativism so long as one is determined to oppose the ‘ruling class’ no matter what it does; Weinberg has consistently spoken up for the oppressed Kosova Albanians and their right to self-determination, but is less than enthusiastic about Kosova’s independence now that it has been recognised by the US.

Anthony is right to condemn moral relativists for their grovelling before Muslim fundamentalists and homophobic black rappers. But in his defence of ‘white working-class’ Jade Goody from the charge of racism, on the grounds that her critics are anti-white-working-class, he falls into the same moral relativist trap.

All social classes and ethnic groups should be judged by the same standard; none has any inherent nobility greater than the others; all should be subject to criticism but defended when necessary. So long as one places the support of groups above the support of principles, then principles will inevitably degenerate. It is principles, not groups, that should be supported: support social justice and trade-union rights, rather than the ‘working class’ as such; national self-determination, not Croats or Palestinians as such; religious tolerance, not Muslims as such; anti-racism, not Jews or black people as such.

It is humanity as a whole that should be supported; the only principles worth supporting are those that apply to the whole of humanity.

Hat tips: Daniel Davies, Chris Bertram.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008 Posted by | Political correctness, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left | Leave a comment

Left-wing unity with thugs and rapists

I recently posted about the shameful reaction of a number of Western left-wingers to events at Nandigram in West Bengal, in which villagers attempting to resist being evicted from their land to make way for a foreign-owned petrochemical plant were attacked, raped and murdered by the paramilitary thugs of the Communist government of West Bengal. The Western left-wingers, who include Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Victoria Brittain, wrote an open letter to Indian critics of the Communist regime, warning them against trying to ‘split the Left’, imploring them to restore unity with the regime in the higher interest of opposing the US, and expressing their satisfaction with the Communist regime’s supposed readiness to curb its abuses: ‘This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist.’

The anger and disgust that this open letter provoked among Indian leftists has spurred Chomsky, Ali and some of its other signatories to respond with a second open letter, attempting to justify the first one. They write:

‘We are taken aback by a widespread reaction to a statement we made with the best of intentions, imploring a restoration of unity among the left forces in India –a reaction that seems to assume that such an appeal to overcome divisions among the left could only amount to supporting a very specific section of the CPM [Communist Party of India – Marxist] in West Bengal. Our statement did not lend support to the CPM’s actions in Nandigram or its recent economic policies in West Bengal, nor was that our intention. On the contrary, we asserted, in solidarity with its Left critics both inside and outside the party, that we found them tragically wrong. Our hope was that Left critics would view their task as one of putting pressure on the CPM in West Bengal to correct and improve its policies and its habits of governance, rather than dismiss it wholesale as an unredeemable party. ‘

Chomsky, Ali, Brittain and co. are, in other words, again asking Indian left-wing critics of the Communist regime in West Bengal for a ‘restoration of unity’ with a regime that has murdered and raped villagers attempting to resist its brutal policies. They do not view the murders and rapes in question as ‘criminal’ or as ‘brutal’, but merely as ‘tragically wrong’ – the sort of term one might use in reference to something that happens in a Shakespeare play, such as Juliet’s faking of her own death or Hamlet’s failure to kill Claudius when he first had the chance. They present the task of Indian leftists not as overthrowing the government responsible for the crimes or as bringing the murderers to justice, but merely as ‘putting pressure on the CPM in West Bengal to correct and improve its policies and its habits of governance.’

They go on:

‘We realize now that it is perhaps not possible to expect the Left critics of the CPM to overcome the deep disappointment, indeed hostility, they have come to feel towards it, unless the CPM itself takes some initiative against that sense of disappointment. We hope that the CPM in West Bengal will show the largeness of mind to take such an initiative by restoring the morale as well as the welfare of the dispossessed people of Nandigram through the humane governance of their region, so that the left forces can then unite and focus on the more fundamental issues that confront the Left as a whole, in particular focus on the task of providing with just and imaginative measures an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism that has caused so much suffering to the poor and working people in India.’

The goal, therefore, is for the CPM to remain in power in West Bengal and engage in the ‘humane governance of the region’ and for its critics ‘to overcome the deep disappointment, indeed hostility, they have come to feel towards it’. The goal is not, of course, to show solidarity to the ordinary people resisting the regime and its policies and fighting to defend their livelihoods; nor is it to encourage Indian leftists in their campaign against the regime’s abuses. Indeed, this campaign is dismissed as being less important than the ‘more fundamental issues that confront the Left as a whole’.

It seems to me ‘tragically wrong’ that, nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, left-wingers of the Chomsky-Ali variety should be unable to envisage a left-wing agenda as involving anything other than keeping brutal Communist regimes in power. It also seems to me ‘tragically wrong’ that a more honourable left-winger such as Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber should feel the need to leap to Chomsky’s and Ali’s defence by claiming ‘that Chomsky, Ali et al have now, in response to reactions to their first intervention, issued a second statement which is much more clearly critical of the CPM’. The second open letter discussed above can only be described as ‘much more clearly critical of the CPM’ by someone wearing the most deeply rose-tinted of spectacles. I respect Chris, but I am disappointed he should still feel the need to flog the dead horse of a unifed, ‘progressive’ left that encompasses defenders of brutal regimes.

Hat tip: Chris Bertram, TheIrie.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007 Posted by | India, Political correctness, The Left | Leave a comment

Madeleine Bunting helps to keep the Third World poor

Madeleine Bunting is legendary as the human incarnation of liberal English middle-class guilt. Well, it appears that this time she really has something to feel guilty about. In her most recent piece of hand-wringing, she takes herself to task for her failure to be sufficiently environmentally friendly: ‘Is it enough to have halved family meat consumption, have foregone flights for several sun-starved years and arranged a life in which habits of cycling to work and walking to school are routine ? No, it’s just scratching at the surface.’ Maddy of the Sorrows has for some time now been suggesting the foregoing of foreign holidays, or at least driving instead of flying abroad, as a way of reducing carbon emissions. But what does her suggestion really mean ?

Senior environmentalist Lisa Mastny of the WorldWatch Institute in Washington wrote back in 2001: ‘For the world’s 49 so-called least developed countries, most of which are in Africa or Asia, tourism is one of the few ways to actually participate in the global economy. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reports that tourism is now the second largest source of foreign exchange after oil in these countries, accounting for 16 per cent of total non-oil receipts in 1998. Their aggregate tourism revenue more than doubled between 1992 and 1998, to $2.2 billion, with five countries – Cambodia, Maldives, Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda – attracting more than half of this 1998 total. The World Trade Organisation reports that tourism is the only economic sector where developing countries consistently run a trade surplus. And its importance in trade is growing.’

As an environmentalist, Mastny argues that the point is not to end tourism, but to make it more environmentally sustainable: ‘The most sustainable option of all would be to stay at home. But in a world where travel is an increasingly important vehicle of cultural exchange, as well as a crucial driver of the world economy, this is an impractical and unrealistic solution.’ Mastny does not appear to have taken account of Bunting’s personal crusade to deprive the world’s poorest countries of their second-largest source of foreign exchange. Bunting’s suggestion that people only travel when completely necessary, and take the car or train rather than the plane, would realistically mean that almost nobody in Britain would go on holiday much beyond France – who is going to travel overland to Tanzania or Cambodia ?

There was a time when progressively minded people were in favour of a cheap and efficient transport system and affordable foreign holidays for working-class people. This is apparently no longer the case. London’s left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone, has apparently ‘made it clear that I oppose all airport expansion in London and the South East, not just at Heathrow’. This from a mayor who spends much of his time travelling to exciting places all over the world.

There is a campaign to halt the building of a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow Airport. If it succeeds, it will prolongue the suffering of millions of people, resulting from the fact that Europe’s busiest airport is also just about Europe’s most overcrowded; in fact, flying from Heathrow in summer is an absolute nightmare. If the campaign succeeds, London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre will suffer. But this will not prevent increasing millions of British people from flying away on holiday each year, or millions of foreigners from flying to Britain. It will just make it more difficult and unpleasant for them.

There are other, more effective ways of helping the environment than avoiding flying abroad on holiday. One can, for example, avoid having children. Or one can simply kill oneself – probably the most environmentally friendly option of all. Anyone who opts to take any such step is free to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness and enjoy the sensation of moral superiority vis-a-vis lesser beings. But real angels are polite enough to keep these feelings to themselves.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007 Posted by | Environment, Heathrow, Political correctness, Transport | , , | Leave a comment

Shakira as an inspiration to suicide bombers

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.

Friday, 23 November 2007 Posted by | Islam, Middle East, Political correctness | Leave a comment

Who was Yugoslavia’s most anti-American statesman ? Take the one-question quiz

USflagburnEveryone 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.

Saturday, 17 November 2007 Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Political correctness, Red-Brown Alliance, Serbia, The Left | , , , , | Leave a comment

Between Islamophobia and Islamofascism

ayaan_400x400In 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.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007 Posted by | Islam, Political correctness | Leave a comment