Murdochisation of the media

Reams of commentary has been written about the scandal engulfing the world’s largest media mogul, Rupert Murdoch and his business empire. Everyday there are continuous updates about the latest revelations, twists and turns by his chief executives and lieutenants, and the ongoing questions about just how far this scandal reaches into the highest levels of political power.

The exposure of the constant phone-hacking by the News of the World media corporation has lifted the lid on the underlying criminality of the financial and political elites in Britain. Even the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that the Murdoch clan run a “criminal-media” nexus. He glaringly omitted to mention that the political highflyers and the top law enforcement officials are also implicated in this ever-growing scandal of corruption and nepotism. The Metropolitan police chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, had to resign because of the failure of the police to follow up investigations of misconduct by News of the World journalists and the bribery of police officials.

However, I think a number of points get lost in the maelstrom of media coverage about this issue. This scandal exposes the decay and rottenness of the British liberal democratic system, whereby a major media corporation has gotten away with criminal behaviour for years while the politicians embraced the Murdoch empire singing its praises, and the law enforcement officials were bribed to look the other way. Even current UK Prime Minister David Cameron had to acknowledge that a high degree of collusion between the political establishment and the media empire. The parasitic nature of the Murdoch empire is not in question, it has been exposed for all the world to see.

The larger point to make, I think, was made by the always perceptive and indefatigable John Pilger, who stated that the Murdoch effect has not only corrupted the political and legal systems, but has corrupted the journalistic process as well. Murdoch has presided over a steady poisoning of the journalistic system, “waging a war on journalism, truth and humanity and succeeded because he knew how to exploit a system that welcomed his rapacious devotion to the ‘free market’.” Murdoch was the most effective and public of the practitioners of waging a stealthy and sleazy war on journalism, and was able to get away with it because all of his colleagues and competitors in the media business were operating on the same principles, if only on a smaller scale.

Where were all the critics when Murdoch’s papers were hounding striking workers and their families, the unemployed, refugees, welfare recipients, and cheering US wars for imperial conquest? The British Labour Party, having feted Murdoch and his executives for decades, are now suddenly finding their teeth and biting chunks out of the Murdoch empire. While the Murdoch press loudly applauded the Tory party in Britain for their assault on the working conditions of ordinary people, and their privatisations of government assets, the Murdoch media juggernaut switched sides abruptly in the mid-1990s and backed Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ to the hilt. It was revealed that Murdoch even had a hotline to then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq. It is highly hypocritical of the British Labour Party to assume the mantle of principled opposition to the Murdoch empire when they have been carefully cultivating a close relationship for years.

Where are the changes to the laws that made such a massive media oligopoly possible? After all, Murdoch did not come from nowhere, but is a scion of the Australo-British elite and plotted his way to amassing a gigantic media empire. He pioneered the journalism of ‘infotainment’, packaging news into sound-bytes between commercials, and loudly cheering on the oligarchy whether it be attacks on workers, migrants, refugees or wars in search of commercial opportunities abroad. The Murdochisation of the media is to turn the media into a partisan cheerleader of the oligarchic power structures. The Murdoch tabloids are an appendage of the most jingoistic, racist, rabid sections of the US-British ruling class, contaminating the political debate of a country with appalling paeans to the ‘free market’, xenophobic commentary about immigrants and refugees, the sleazy celebration of US militarist adventures abroad, and the effusion of sex scandals and celebrity-worship, as if their shenanigans are newsworthy. The British Labour Party accommodated itself to the Murdoch effect, and changed its politics to follow the course of the ultra-conservative in domestic and foreign policies. Funny how the Murdoch tabloids vehemently denounce ‘big government’ yet owe their rise and success to cultivating cozy relations with big government politicians and were protected by law enforcement officials?

What is necessary now is not just a full public enquiry into the media, though that would be a positive first step. From this putrid morass, there should be a full overhaul of the political-legal-media nexus; breaking the bonds of this incestuous relationship, breaking the media monopolies that have dominated public discourse for so long. While it is great to see heads rolling, with the sackings (excuse me, resignations) of Coulson and Brooks, there needs to be a public campaign pressuring the politicians for complete media reform. Let’s maintain the rage, and not simply acquiesce at the first sign of some half-hearted moves and fake apologies by the Murdoch clan and its minions. Clean up this decayed cesspit, implement laws to stop one person or corporation from owning so much media, break apart the monopolies to ensure diversity of opinion. We are one world, but we have many voices.

As Nicole Colson points out in her article, “the Murdoch press stands apart as morally bankrupt”. The British ruling class intends to contain the crisis, so that it does not develop into a generalised crisis of capitalist authority. Years ago, during the late 1980s, one of the alleged failings of the socialist system in the Soviet Union was the close relationship between the highest levels of political authority and the organs of the mass press. Journalism was viewed as just a mouthpiece for the political authorities, and this was presented as evidence of the weakness of the Soviet socialist system. Well, now I am going to ask, does not this scandal expose the predatory criminality of the capitalist elite, and its utter inability to govern for the people? Does not this scandal, revealing the corporate media to be a direct mouthpiece of the financial oligarchy, indict the capitalist system as a systemically failed entity? We should look beyond the personalities and trivial distractions of this scandal and ask serious questions about how to limit the destructive capacity of the media monopolies. The media moguls like Murdoch will only be halted when the mass of people (and the main victims of this phone-hacking) rise up and force those in power to listen.

The Quiet Achievers – the Yemeni Uprising

The always informative Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, has written an inspiring article in Counterpunch about the Yemeni uprising. The Yemeni revolt has not gotten much press here in Australia, so any information about it is always welcome. While most of the mainstream media’s attention is focused on Libya, the implications of a victory for the Yemeni people would be significant for the Arab world, as well as directly impacting the position of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian peninsula.

Yemen is a strategically important country for the US military, as Baroud observes. Located at the southern portion of the Arabian plateau, it has a coastline on the Red Sea, a major waterway, and is close to Somalia, another flashpoint. There is an ongoing civil war in the country, and the demonstrators have proven resilient in the face of violent repression by the Yemeni military forces. While the long-term president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, remains in power for now, his grip is tenuous, with army units defecting from the government side.

Interestingly, Baroud documents that in terms of all the current US wars around the globe, Yemen is the fourth-most costly in terms of finance and human life, behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no calls by the major capitalist powers for a no-fly zone over Yemen in support of the rebels, as far as I am aware. The Obama administration has been quietly bombing Yemen for the past several years, with repeated unmanned drone strikes against alleged al-Qaeda hideouts. These drone strikes have killed scores of civilians and further radicalised the Yemeni people against US imperialist power.

The least that the Obama administration can do is stop supporting the brutal dictatorship of Saleh by stopping the sale of arms to that regime. After all, the Yemeni military is using military hardware sold to it by the United States to prop up its power. But the United States is still talking about maintaining military-to-military relations, according to Baroud.

Yet the Yemeni people fight on, with such unparalleled courage and determination. Mass anti-regime demonstrations occur with regularity in this impoverished country. They more than deserve our support.

From Fatwa to Jihad – The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy

In the lead-up to the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the pop-group the Dixie Chicks played a concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London. One of the group’s members, Natalie Maines, a native of Texas, made a critical comment about a fellow Texan, George W Bush who was then president of the United States. She said that “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” A seemingly innocuous comment, you would think?

The comment was picked up by American media outlets. After that, the Dixie Chicks faced death threats, hate messages, their music was dropped from commercial country/western music radio stations, their CDs were publicly crushed by bulldozers in anti-Dixie Chicks protests, they faced accusations of being traitors, “Saddam’s Angels”, “Dixie Sluts”, and so forth. A Colorado radio station suspended two disc jockeys for playing Dixie Chicks songs. The group was not officially censored, but the full weight of commercial pressures was brought to bear on a group of artists for making a statement that was politically offensive to some people. If a musician, novelist, or artist produces a work that is offensive to some people, should their work be censored and its broadcast or publication stopped?

Violence in the service of censorship is nothing new, sadly. The Dixie Chicks controversy, and the reaction to it, contains the faint echoes of an older episode, the 1989 Rushdie affair and the censorious violence directed against the author for the novel The Satanic Verses. Kenan Malik, an Indian-British journalist and researcher, attempts to answer disturbing questions about freedom of speech, the ability of authors to express political and religious viewpoints through their works, and how in Britain, a society with a long history of anti-racist struggles, a minority group came to be so alienated and despised that it ended up burning books. The book is titled From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its legacy.

The book is engagingly written, and should be read by every person wanting a deeper understanding of the cultural and political issues that affect our societies. The book covers diverse topics such as immigration in Britain from the 1950s, especially Muslim migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Migrants had been settling in Britain, working, raising families, and while they were Muslim, it was never a central part of their identity as Malik explains. Malik was one of many Asian migrants (Asian in Britain meant from the subcontinent) who participated in anti-racist struggles, from street-fighting against the white supremacist thugs attacking Asian families, speaking out against police brutality and the inaction of the police to protect newly-arrived migrants from racist gangs; Malik was a member of the East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a group established by the socialist Revolutionary Communist Party to take direct action against the racist gangs where the police and politicians had remained indifferent to the suffering of migrants. Official police attitudes blamed the victims for racist violence; they ‘had it coming’ because they moved into a white neighbourhood. So socialist and anti-racist groups took the lead in protecting migrant workers as part of their campaign of solidarity against a racist capitalist system.

Political struggles such as these helped to unite disparate ethnic minorities for a common platform of economic justice, political equality and human rights. Malik documents the fascinating example of the Asian Youth Movement (AYM). This group brought together two distinct and mutually supportive political models – traditional working-class politics, with ‘bread-and-butter’ demands for better conditions, and also the black power movements, the anti-racist demands for a just, egalitarian society that recognised ethnic minorities as equals. Trade unions took up the struggles of many of these migrant workers, and while the AYM was never necessarily an atheist or secular organisation, religion was never an important or significant marker of identity according to Malik. Race and class issues seemed to march in tandem. Then in 1989 came the Rushdie affair.

In February 1989, Malik was in Bradford, England, to witness about 1000 Muslim demonstrators set alight a copy of  Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, for its allegedly blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and its purported attack on Islam. For Malik, the book-burning was more than just a odd demonstration, it was a symbol of Islamic defiance and rage. How had British Muslims, who had lived and worked in that country for years, whose Islamic identity had been merely a background, suddenly explode into anger like that? How had Muslim youths – born and bred in Britain, who had participated in anti-racist struggles, just like Malik – end up joining a book-burning for its alleged offence against Islam? Malik provides some insightful answers to these difficult questions. If I may use an analogy with sport – while Malik lands some strong punches and body-blows, in other places he swings wildly and misses.

In September 1988, Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British author and ex-Muslim, published The Satanic Verses. There were protests in some Muslim countries, and Pakistan and Bangladesh banned the sale of the book, but the controversy was largely simmering beneath the surface. Malik says that the book was freely available in the vast majority of Muslim countries, even after the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded a ban. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling or decree) that not only banned the Satanic Verses, but pronounced a death sentence on its author, and decreed that anyone who published or distributed the book should be killed. As Malik explains in his book, this was a cultural controversy that was quite different from anything else Britain had experienced. But rather than being a product of religion or Islamic theology, the fatwa was more so a product of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.

Khomeini’s regime in Iran was on the defensive in 1989. Having failed to export their particular brand of Islamic revolution to Iraq, and having lost all the ground they had gained by the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran’s Islamic revolution was losing legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims around the world. Iran’s main nemesis in the region, Saudi Arabia, appeared on the ascendant. Its brand of extreme Wahhabist fundamentalism was being exported to other countries, mainly thanks to the petro-dollars of the oil industry. Saudi-supported Muslim institutions were gaining ground not only in the Middle East, but among the unemployed, disenfranchised Muslim youth of Europe. It is in this political context that the issuance of the fatwa must be understood, Malik explains. Iran seized upon the Rushdie book as a way of regaining its influence with Muslims around the world, portraying itself as a defender of Islamic values and integrity against attacks by secular governments and writers. The controversy over the novel seemed to divide Muslim ethnic minorities from the ‘white’ westerners, and this ‘clash of civilisations’ was reinforced by the weakening of the traditional socialist, anti-racist ideals of secular humanism, workers rights and group solidarity.

Tariq Ali, writing in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, says that most of the Muslim community in Britain did not react violently against the publication of The Satanic Verses. They wanted their scholars and activists to write a withering critique of the novel. Other British Muslims, like the scholar Anwar Shaikh, have written stridently critical evaluations of the Quran and Islamic philosophy, and have also faced intimidation and threats. It was the community leaders, the mullahs, who agitated for a violent response to Rushdie’s novel. But Malik examines the issue more deeply, and finds that the real blame for this tribal response resides with the policies of multiculturalism.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as Malik explains, Britain was gripped by race riots, and an ever-growing proportion of migrants and their children found political expression with socialist, anti-racist and militant groups. They were winning the battle of the streets and ideas. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher launched a new policy of state multiculturalism, which was intended to divide the ethnic minorities on the basis of race. While couched in terms of respecting ethnic diversity, and multiculturalism was a vast improvement on the previous ‘white Australia’ policy in Australia, official state multiculturalism, according to Malik, segmented the black, Asian and Muslim communities into hierarchical structures. Creating a black middle class was the intent of state multiculturalism. The British government elevated an identity-politics policy, emphasizing a single component of identity, into the main mechanism for handing out funding and official recognition. Self-appointed community leaders and official bodies arose which corralled the myriad ethnic groups into rigid tribal identities. Where once there was a unified response to economic inequalities and racial discrimination, there is now a segmented, arbitrarily-grouped set of communities that challenged the very notion of a common human identity.

Malik scores some direct hits with his criticism of multiculturalism. While in Australia, multiculturalism has been an enormous step over the racist ‘white Australia’ policy, it has made society less openly racist, but only in the cultural arena. There are now multilingual radio and television stations, ethnic-based sports clubs, restaurants and literature. All these gains of multiculturalism should be defended against the attacks by racist politicians and media commentators. But to stop at the cultural sphere, without extending anti-racism into the political and economic arenas, is a major failing. In the 1980s, the Australian Labour Party became the main repository of migrant political expression – ethnic minorities voted en masse for the ALP, and in return, monies and funding is handed out to migrant bodies that are the official representatives of ethnic communities. Multiculturalism has scored gains against overt racism, I think it has had a consequence of encouraging ethnic minorities to view one another as the enemy, rather than the common enemy of a corporate-industrial elite.

Here I think Malik misses the mark, downplaying the extent of tribalism and racism prevalent even before the advent of multiculturalism. Australia was already a tribal society prior to the introduction of multiculturalism. The various ethnic groups that had come here to work and study, retreated into their own cultural areas. This is understandable on the one hand, because migrating to a completely new country is a cultural shock, so people congregate around their own language group and culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, trade unions had taken up the struggle of migrant workers, not just as migrants, but also as working class people, advocating equal treatment in the context of workers rights. As Malik points out, political and economic struggle unites people of different cultures. Malik also correctly mentions that in 1989, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the political Left was weakened around the world. The vision of a common, united struggle of workers achieving their political and economic emancipation had taken a battering. The one area that a migrant could rely on for support was their tribe, their ethnic grouping. Here, state multiculturalism encouraged the co-opting of migrants into the official, government-approved ethnic channels rather than into militant, anti-capitalist alternatives. The Australian Labour Party, particularly since the 1980s, has retreated from a traditional, labour-union class struggle approach, to a conciliatory, business-accommodation approach. As the labour organisations retreat, and with them their vision of a multiracial, egalitarian society, the vacuum created is taken up by religion.

The trade unions, which had been the one organisation that had raised migrant’s issues, were also co-opted, retreating from a class-struggle based politics, into a class-conciliation political stand. The labour unions gradually abandoned the traditional demands of anti-racist social justice for which they had long stood. The remaining avenue for a migrant worker is to compromise their political demands and devote themselves to the cultural arena. While Malik does correctly identify the tendency of state multiculturalism to fragment ethnic groups along cultural lines, I think Malik has retreated from a socialist perspective into a left-liberal critique of multiculturalism. While he would not agree with today’s rightwing critics of multiculturalism, Malik has given some ground to those critics, like the current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who blames immigrants for not doing enough to integrate into the wider society. While state multiculturalism is conducive to a sense of tribalism, to single it out as the original cause of a tribal politics is to widely miss the mark. The broader social and economic inequalities, and the retreat of the labour unions and their accommodation with big-business policies, is the wider context in which the growth of tribalism must be understood.

With the retreat of a labour union, political struggle alternative, many migrants and their children face the prospect of either devoting themselves to their own ethnic tribe – the Armenians go to Armenian clubs and events, the Greeks, Croats, Serbs and so on retreat into their bastions – or devote their energies to religion. In the case of the Christian communities, this was never a problem for the Australian ruling class. The Armenians have their church, the Greeks have the Orthodox denomination and so on. While attendance at the traditional churches has declined, the 1980s witnessed the growth of the rightwing evangelical fundamentalist Christian churches. Their agenda, to turn Australia (and Britain and the other countries in which they reside) into a basic theocracy. They are opposed to, among other things, secular education, homosexuality and contraception. They have gained ground, especially among the youth, with a clever tactic of social inclusion. The kind of society they advocate contains many similarities to the kind of society proposed by advocates of sharia law, but of course with different religious underpinnings. As fundamentalist Christianity advanced among the mainstream Anglo-Australian society, fundamentalist Islamism gained ground among the disaffected Muslim youth of Britain and Europe, especially when the society in which they live does not provide an adequate, anti-racist political alternative.

Malik explains that in November 1997, the Muslim Council of Britain was born, and its Secretary General was Iqbal Sacranie. In 2006 he gave an interview to the BBC Radio where he stated, among other things, that homosexuality was immoral, spreads disease, and that same-sex couples do not make a solid foundation for the raising of children or stable families. These type of sentiments have been promoted by religious, faith-based groups for many years. Sacranie was investigated by Scotland Yard’s community safety unit to determine whether he had breached the 1986 Public Order Act which prohibits threatening, insulting or abusive words or behaviour. In response, Muslim leaders in Britain, and twenty-two imams, demanded that freedom of speech be observed, and thay anyone, no matter how repugnant their views, should be allowed to express them free of intimidation and harassment. Here, Malik does raise an interesting point – those who wanted to ban The Satanic Verses because of its alleged blasphemy were now calling for freedom of speech in defence of one of their colleagues. Malik explains the change of heart by Inayat Bunglawala, the media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. When you ban one book, where does it end? After supporting the fatwa on Rushdie, Bunglawala changed his mind when he saw that the rightwing neo-fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has incited hatred against Muslims, calling for a ban on the Quran. Bunglawala, chariperson of Muslims4UK, has not only courageously changed his mind about the book-banning fatwa, but also called upon his fellow Muslims to seriously engage with science, especially the theory of evolution and cease denying its veracity.

While Malik is correct to criticise the conservatism of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the UK, he downplays and dismisses the Islamophobia of the mainstream British society, especially when he makes statements like this, “If Muslims are singled out in Britain, it is often for privileged treatment.” Well that would be news to the victims of the December 2005 Cronulla beach race riots, where anyone of ‘Middle Eastern apperance’ was assaulted by riotous Anglo-Australian mobs, instigated by racist radio shock jocks like Alan Jones, who encouraged ‘Aussies’ to go and bash ‘Middle Eastern grubs’. A strong element of the ideological encouragement given to the people who rioted was anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice. Racism against Arabic-speaking people, and by extension Muslims, has long been part of the Australian political landscape. If the Islamic communities have developed a ‘culture of grievance’, as Malik asserts, they do have legitimate grounds for strong complaint. While official multiculturalism may have to shoulder some of the blame, to single out that policy while ignoring the widening economic gap is short-sighted. I would have to agree with Priyamvada Gopal, who states that targeting multiculturalism on its own ignores the deflects attention from the increasing economic inequalities. Poor white Britons do suffer discrimination she states; not racial, but economic.

In 2005, while the Cronulla race riots occurred in Australia, seemingly highlighted a cultural fault-line between ‘us’ in the west and ‘them’ in the Islamic East, another equally shocking event occurred in Britain. In July 2005, terrorist bombings rocked London, killing 56 people (including the bombers) and wounding seven hundred. Malik makes the chilling observation that “more people died on 7/7 than in any single IRA attack in Britain or Ireland.” Even more disturbing, as Malik recounts, is that this bombing was perpetrated by British citizens. Three out of the four were born and bred in England; the fourth was Jamaican-born but had lived in Britain since the age of five. What drove these apparently well-established, educated, middle-class youths – the products of the English education system – to turn so violently against the country that nurtured them?

Malik tries to steer a middle course – he states that neither ‘blame it all on Islam’ is satisfactory, and neither is the ‘blame it all on the West’ explanation. As Malik rightly observes, Muslims have been living in Britain for half a century, the jihadist mindset is only a recent phenomenon. Blaming passages in the Quran flies in the face of recent history. Islam comprises not just a text, but a body of clerics, a history and culture, with many different interpretations. Malik also observes that Western governments have been attacking Muslim countries long before the anti-American jihad of Osama Bin Laden and the 2003 American attack on Iraq and Afghanistan. As one example, Churchill ordered the use of mustard gas, a chemical weapon, to suppress a 1920 nationalist uprising by Iraqi insurgents in their struggle for independence. What is the explanation? Malik does not make any explicit statements, but he does allude to a possible accounting.

Prior to the 1990s, the political Left was quite strong in many western countries. Many young Muslims were members of, or sympathetic to, leftwing and socialist groups. With the weakening of the Left in the early 1990s, many such Muslims were left adrift, looking for a new political home. Fundamentalist political Islam, which seemed to be on the rise at that time, provided an alternative ideological umbrella. Islamist parties made sweeping electoral gains in Turkey; in Algeria an openly Islamist party won democratic elections, only to be subverted by the Algerian military and its members put down in a vicious civil war. Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon – the star of political Islam appeared to be rising. Couple this with the outrageously hypocritical US and British foreign policies in the Middle East – the unstinting support for Israel against the Palestinians, the 1991 US attack on Iraq and subsequent continuation of that war through sanctions for much of the 1990s – and one can get a sense of the alienation from the wider Western society that a Muslim must feel.

Terrorism is the response of the weak. Individual acts of savagery are never acceptable, and are a dead-end ethically and politically. The Blair government’s foreign policy was singled out for criticism by Home Office advisers seeking an explanation for the terrible July 7 atrocity. They warned that Blair’s close alignment with the United States objectives in the Middle East, fueled the extremism that resulted in the terrorist bombings in London. Long-time war correspondent Robert Fisk wrote a perceptive column in 2005 stating that Britain was unfortunately a target since the Tony Blair government lined up with the ‘war on terror’ and George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, I think that From Fatwa to Jihad is a riveting, outstanding book and should be indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand the origins of the cultural fault-lines that confront us today. Malik forces us to ask serious questions about ourselves, our attitudes to freedom of speech, our policies towards the Islamic communities, and the successes and shortcomings of multiculturalism. If we are to move forward in constructing a more humane, equitable, socialist society, we need to understand the grievances and resentments that fuel so many of today’s conflicts.

The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam

Since the September 11 2001 twin tower attacks, there has been renewed interest in the questions of Islam, political Islamism and jihadism. Books have been published by the truckload, seminars bringing together various political scientists and experts have been held, reams of papers analysing the origins and trajectory of political Islam have been published, and the airwaves resonate with talkback from pundits about the impact of Islam and Islamism in the world. How can one make sense of all this? Where does one begin?

A great place to begin understanding this engaging topic is the slim, well-written, evocative and powerful volume by Roger Hardy called The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam. Hardy is a veteran correspondent with the BBC World Service, and has published articles in many major newspapers such as the Economist, International Affairs and the New Statesman. Hardy traveled around the Middle East and various Islamic countries to gain an insight into their culture, political grievances, and responses to the West’s incursions.

The Muslim Revolt by Roger Hardy

Hardy’s volume avoids all the prejudicial stereotypes, the fear-mongering portrayals of bomb-throwing head-bobbing mullahs on the verge of overrunning ‘our’ Western civilisation. Instead, he approaches his subject with humanity and understanding, seriously addressing the grievances and issues that have fuelled a Muslim revolt in our times.

Hardy begins his study by tackling the difficult yet necessary task of defining what Islam is, its basic features, and distinguishing it from the modern incarnation of political Islamism. What are the defining features? Hardy suggests that Islam is above all a religion of justice, commanding the faithful to do right and forbid wrong. How do you interpret rightful behaviour? That is where the interpretations of Islam begin to differ. While the Quran does state that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’, many mullahs have interpreted the Quranic texts in a more authoritarian spirit, as Hardy goes on to document.

The debate between Islam and the West did not remain purely ideological for long, because the domains of Islam expanded enormously since the passing of Muhammad, the founding philosopher-leader. The European Christendom had to confront an alternative civilisation rapidly becoming a superpower in its own right across the Mediterranean. Europe’s first, fiery encounter with Islam, the Crusades, left a bitter legacy and poisoned relations between the two great civilisations for hundreds of years. The First Crusade in 1095 AD in particular, set the foundation for enduring animosity. We can hear the echoes of this conflict right down to today; when George W Bush was president, contemporary jihadists referred to him and his administration as ‘crusaders’, intent on a clash of civilisations. Interestingly, today’s evangelical Christians interpret the Muslim world through a similar ‘clash of civilisations’ prism, although arriving at different conclusions.

As the Islamic Arabs spread out from the Arabian peninsula with their new doctrines, transformed from warring tribes into a reasonably united confederation, Islam became a superpower. But as Hardy points out, “contrary to popular belief, the Arabs did not as a rule impose Islam at the point of a sword.” The Arabic language and religion spread, particularly between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, as a practical response to the pressing needs of administering an expanding empire. Having conquered the Byzantine and Persian empires, the religion of Islam was one surefire way of uniting all the disparate ethnic groups under the Arab authority.

While Islam remained largely confined to the Middle East, European powers felt they could contain its spread. However, with European colonisation, direct encroachments in Muslim territories and countries provoked the first political Islamist response. Direct European attacks on Muslim lands – starting with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition in 1798 – compelled the Muslims of Egypt to produce a concerted response. What was that response? At first, as Hardy says, it was a mixture of puzzlement, fear and resistance. Napoleon brought with him not only soldiers and engineers, but also scientists intent on studying this new, fascinating civilisation. They analysed Egypt’s extraordinary history, documenting its wildlife, making maps and introduced electricity.

The big question of the day for Egypt’s Muslims was how to respond? After going through the reactions of fear and puzzlement, one suggested response was synthesis. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) was an Egyptian reformer who stated that while the religion of Islam must be followed closely, Islamic teaching is not incompatible with the modernisation introduced by the Europeans, and indeed science must walk hand-in-hand with religion. Here we can see the beginnings of a political response to European colonisation and the germination of political Islamism. While Abduh admired European education, he strongly opposed European colonisation.

Abduh, while studying at Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent Islamic university, advocating reforming Islam and modernising Egypt. One can observe the combination of religious piety and nationalist political sympathies in Abduh, which are the defining characteristics of political Islamism. While he desired Egypt to remain true to the Muslim precepts, he proposed that Muslims must revive and expand the practice of ijtihad, independent reasoning. Abduh had a great influence on subsequent reformers, but did not make much headway in making an organised effort to confront European colonisation. Other nationalist parties took the lead in confronting French and British colonialism in Egypt.

The first organised political Islamist group was the Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation, founded by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) in 1928, was the first overtly Islamist group. Banna viewed Islam not just as a religion and a way of life, but also a political and social philosophy. Out of the Muslim Brotherhood grew various other Islamist groups, and Muslim thinkers from other countries traveled to Egypt to study the example and doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood. While advocating Islamic rule in Egypt, it opposed the secular nationalism of the political Left and the regime of Gamel Abdel Nasser. The Brotherhood has been used by the Egyptian authorities at various times as a weapon against the organised Left, but the Brotherhood has always maintained its ideological and organisational independence. Banna succeeded in creating a modern, coherent social movement in competition for influence with the socialist and nationalist parties.

Hardy dedicates different chapters of the book to various Islamic countries that he has traveled through; chapter five is called ‘The Pious Ancestors’ and examines the history and politics of Saudi Arabia. Hardy analyses the doctrine of Wahhabism, the official state ideology of that state and its role in incubating and exporting jihadist extremism. Saudi Arabia, being the cradle of Islam and the site of its most revered places, is based upon an alliance of convenience between the House of Saud, the ruling royal family, and the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab. Wahhabism has gained a deserved reputation for intolerance and authoritarianism, and one of its most important thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) intended to purge Islam of what he believed were heretical ideas. What is interesting is that since the foundation of the modern Saudi state in 1932, the principal ally and benefactor of Saudi Arabia has been the United States. The main reason for this alliance of convenience is to be found in the mutually beneficial commercial exploitation of the massive oil reserves beneath Saudi Arabia’s feet.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, many people wondered about the role of the Saudi state, its personnel and ideology, in creating a sinister climate where radical jihadism could flourish. After all, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis, so naturally interested observers began to ask how such a jihadist mindset could have taken hold, and what role if any Saudi Arabia played in propagating a fanatical world-view. After much investigation, the 9/11 Commission appointed by the US government issued a balanced verdict – while finding no direct evidence of Saudi state involvement, the extreme religious viewpoints expounded in Saudi Arabia contributed to a fertile ground for the recruitment of jihadist extremists. As Hardy states “Even if they (the Saudis) were not directly responsible for the rise of Al-Qaeda, they cultivated the soil from which it sprang.”

Back in 1979, a young Saudi prince by the name of Osama Bin Laden was studying at Jeddah university. Saudi Arabia offered its services to help organise an anticommunist jihad in Afghanistan, in response to a socialist revolution in that country. The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan galvanised the Islamic countries in the Middle East to increase their organised assistance to the anticommunist Afghan mujahideen, assistance which had begun six months prior to the Soviet invasion. In chapter three, ‘Culture of Jihad’, Hardy examines the role of Pakistan and the United States in creating the largest anticommunist, religious insurgency of the twentieth century. Pakistan, created specifically as a homeland for Indian Muslims, has always had a troubled relationship between its religion and politics. While Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan was a secular liberal viewing Islam as part of the cultural heritage of the new nation, the subsequent military rulers of Pakistan embarked on a strong program of Islamisation.

General Zia ul-Haq, whose eleven years in power saw the application of Islamisation to all aspects of Pakistani life, also made Pakistan (along with Saudi Arabia) a front-line state in the jihad against atheistic communism in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was just of thousands of participants in the anticommunist Afghan jihad. While the role of Pakistan in nurturing and exporting jihadist fanaticism is well-known, Hardy examines the internal impact of Zia’s Islamisation programme. Zia introduced punishment by amputation for theft, and public flogging for adultery. Instilling Islamic values into the education system, he enmeshed the educational institutions with the religious schools, the madrassahs. Zia was drawing his inspiration from the one of the foremost Islamist ideologists of the twentieth century, Abul-Ala Maududi (1903-79). Maududi was born prior to the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and envisioned an independent India under an Islamic system. He created an alternative political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, (the Islamic Party) to promote a political system based on Sharia law, opposed to what he saw as the false idols of nationalism, secularism and socialism. The Jammat-e-Islami is one of the strongest political parties in Pakistan until today.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 had far-reaching consequences for that country, the region and the world. Afghanistan was left to the tender mercies of the mujahideen groups, who proceeded to turn on each other in a vicious civil war from 1992 in which Kabul itself was decimated. The city had been untouched during all the years of Soviet occupation. They imposed their version of Sharia law in Afghanistan, which among other things, forced women out of the workforce and compelled them to veil themselves. The protagonists in the Afghan mujahideen sought to Islamise Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then export their doctrine to the rest of the world. While Hardy explores the background of this jihad, he is careful to avoid the simplistic stereotypes that have become the popular image of Islam and Muslims in the mainstream, corporate-controlled media.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Islamic country to have aligned itself strongly to the western orbit. Turkey has been a longstanding ally of the United States, one of the oldest countries of the NATO alliance, and is (in theory at least) a secular republic. Its constitution expressly forbids any interlinking between the state and Islam. Turkey has no official state religion, and wearing the burqa is banned. No political party is allowed to represent any form of religious belief. However, Islamist parties have formed and gained representation in the Turkish parliament. Hardy examines the trajectory of the Turkish example, beginning with the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the westernisation programme implemented by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He reformed the country’s judicial system, abolished the caliphate, and revised the alphabet to take on western characters. However, the most important and ongoing battle in Turkey between the Muslims and secularists is in the classroom.

Hardy relates an interview, among many in his book, which demonstrates the underlying cultural tensions between secularism and Muslim identity. Hardy describes his visit to a state-run school, which is well furnished, adorned by a bust of Kemal Ataturk, and the slogan ‘Science is the true guide in life’. Hardy asked the biology teacher how she deals with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, who peremptorily responds that it is in the state-approved curriculum, and so she teaches it. Many in the Muslim world (like many Christians) refuse to accept the theory of evolution, and there is strong cultural resistance to it. Hardy then visits another school, known as an imam-hatip school. This type of school was originally intended to produce imams and hatips, religious preachers. Upon asking the head teacher in the second school how it differs from the original state school, Hardy obtains the response that the curriculum is exactly the same, except they add religious instruction,

Hardy persists with his questioning, and asks how they handle the theory of evolution in the school. The head teacher says he disagrees with evolution, but teaches it anyway according to the curriculum. The students in the school then learn about Islamic philosophy, and how God created the world according to religious precepts. This underlying kulturkampf – culture-struggle is the word Hardy uses – is occurring throughout the Muslims world, and has familiar undertones in the West. We are undergoing our own kulturkampf, with the creationist/intelligent design lobby to push for strict biblical inerrancy to be taught in schools. The struggle is far from over. The creation-evolution controversy is hardly confined to the Muslim countries, and is being played out in Turkey paralleling the similar debates in Christian-influenced Europe, Australia and the United States.

While there are many interesting chapters in the book, the most engaging and riveting for me was chapter eight entitled ‘The Bomb in the Turban.’ This chapter examines the polarising and often acrimonious debate around the so-called ‘cartoon affair.’ This refers to the 2005-06 publication by a conservative, rightwing Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, to publish a number of cartoons lampooning Islam and the prophet Muhammad in particular. The publication of the satirical cartoons provoked a backlash among Europe’s Muslims, many protests and demonstrations resulting in violence. Hardy re-examines the ‘cartoon affair’, which was in many ways a re-run of the 1989 Rushdie affair. Both involved cultural materials deemed blasphemous to Muslims, both involved issues of free speech. Should a cartoonist or author be free to publish materials that are openly mocking of any religion? Are the members of the offended religious group entitled to respond to the way they see fit, including sanctioning those who republish and re-broadcast such materials?

Hardy goes into some depth regarding these issues. Muslims have been living in, and emigrating to Europe since the 1950s and 1960s. Many commentators saw the cartoon affair and the resultant Muslim response as evidence that Islam is inherently incompatible with Western values, and that Muslims in Europe form a kind of Trojan horse for the infiltration of Muslim ideas and eventual implementation of Sharia law in the countries in which they live. Hardy does not go into such ‘sharia hysteria’, but offers a more nuanced view. The Rushdie affair not only highlighted the Muslims presence in Britain and Europe, but also ignited the idea that Muslims were a potential recruiting ground for radical jihadist groups.

Any author or publisher has the right to freedom of speech, and I think that religion is a legitimate target of satire. With the cartoon affair, I think that the newspaper editors of Jyllands-Posten deliberately orchestrated a campaign to further whip up xenophobia. The cultural editor of the newspaper, admitted seeking to deliberately provoke Muslim sensibilities, thus poisoning relations between the Islamic and non-Muslim communities. When the initial publication of the cartoons in September 2005 failed to produce the anticipated response, the editors of the newspaper continued their inflammatory campaign, inciting the more fundamentalist sheikhs and groups in Denmark to protest.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister until 2009 and head of the conservative Liberal party, is also responsible for failing to resolve the issue, and instead escalating tensions. As head of a rightwing coalition government with the anti-immigrant populist Danish People’s Party, he needed the votes of openly racist and anti-immigrant voters to stay in power. Rasmussen turned down appeals by the ambassadors of Arab countries to discuss and resolve the issue. Even after Danish politicians urged him to reconsider, he still refused. His failure to reduce tensions, even after explicit overtures made to his government, is a monumental failure on his part. Under Fogh Rasmussen’s leadership, Danish politics has stampeded to the right, with Danish troops participating in the US war on Iraq, and further restrictions placed on the country’s immigration.

As a result of issues like the cartoon affair, the anti-Rushdie demonstrations and the terrible terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, relations between Europe’s Muslim and non-Muslim populations are dominated by fearful, prejudicial stereotypes, media headlines of ‘honour killings’, headscarves and seeming irreconcilability of Islamic values with the broader European societies. Hardy’s book goes a long way to critically examining the political and social grievances that alienate many of today’s Muslims – unemployment, discrimination and xenophobic attacks by anti-immigrant populist European parties. And the editors of Jyllands-Posten got what they wanted; mobs of angry Muslims, goaded by fundamentalist mullahs, attacking Danish embassies in Europe holding signs with slogans such as ‘behead those who insult Islam’.

Hardy ends the chapter on an optimistic note; integration is a daily reality he says; perhaps uneven and incomplete, but a reality nevertheless. Hardy invokes his readers not to succumb to the ‘politics of fear’, and recognise that the vast majority of Muslims successfully integrate into their respective host countries. I think it is imperative to address the same ‘bread-and-butter’ grievances of the Muslims populations, issues that concern all people of the working class; unemployment, working conditions, education, health care and so on. I think by uniting with immigrants and Muslims on the basis of our common working-class issues will go a long way towards breaking the bigotry and stereotypes that so often distort our thinking. In the defence of democratic rights, including the right to worship freely, the Muslim communities will realise that a common humanity unites all of us who wish to live in a more just, equitable, humanitarian and socialist society.

There is so much more in Hardy’s rich and absorbing volume; the Sunni-Shia schism, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Muslims archipelago of Malaysia and Indonesia. Including all these subjects here would only make this review unwieldy and cumbersome. Suffice it to say that Hardy’s main message from the book is that while Muslims around the world feel aggrieved, there is no one universal Muslim uprising from Palestine, to Iraq, to Kashmir, to Afghanistan, to Europe. At the basis of each case are local grievances, unresolved political and economic issues, and social exclusion. While the uncritical support of the United States for the Zionist state of Israel and its denial of Palestinian human rights is a ‘hot-button’ issue, each national case has its own peculiarities and solutions.

Hardy quotes Douglas Hurd, the former British foreign secretary, stating that “we feed terrorism….by killing a lot of people, whether in Gaza or in Fallujah or in Chechnya.” Foreign occupation and killings perpetuates and inflames a sense of injustice, thus providing oxygen for fundamentalist mullahs and their jihadist platform to breathe and gain recruits. Hardy’s book is an indispensable volume for anyone wishing to understand the fraught relations with the Islamic world, and move beyond the simplistic bigotry and prejudice of so much hysterical media commentary.

The Fall of the West – The Death of the Roman Superpower

That is the title of an intensely fascinating book by British historian Adrian Goldsworthy. The collapse of the Roman empire in 476AD has exercised the minds of historians, sociologists and archaeologists for years. Goldsworthy’s book is admirable for the depth of scholarly coverage and its easy accessibility for the interested reader. While posing the big question in the early chapter – the introduction is called literally “The Big Question”, Goldsworthy provides a sweeping overview of the prolonged internal decline and repeated external pressures that eventually culminated in the fall of the Roman superpower.

Fall of the West

In 476AD, the last emperor of the Western Roman empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by an invading Germanic general. The various German tribes, organised into a confederacy, had been exerting tremendous pressures on the already-tottering Western Roman empire. The deposition of Romulus merely consolidated an extended process of ‘slow death’ as Goldsworthy puts it. The significance of the 476AD terminus has been questioned by many historians, and Goldsworthy answers the persistent question of why the Roman empire collapsed, but continued, albeit in truncated form, in the east with the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines never referred to themselves in that way, always insisting that they were the true inheritors of the Roman empire.

Goldsworthy proceeds to unfold the narrative of the economic and political decline of the Roman empire from 180AD, with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor. He examines the crisis of the third century, when from the end of the Severan dynasty to the advent of Diocletian in the mid-280sAD no less than sixty people claimed the title of emperor. While Goldsworthy does not overstate the extent of the crisis, he does state that the Roman empire underwent significant stresses, not least of which are the foreign invasions. The Sassanid Persian empire in the east attacked Roman territory, and the western provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania broke away to form their own Gallic confederation. The Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt rebelled and formed their own Palmyrene kingdom under the Queen Zenobia. This is the first Semitic kingdom, and Goldsworthy goes into some detail about the importance of Palmyra for the Romans as a trading post and its importance as a magnificent city. Zenobia and the Palmyrene empire mounted a serious challenge to Roman rule in the mid-third century.

Queen Zenobia was an interesting political player in her own right, and she is one of several women rulers that Goldsworthy examines in his book. He has a whole chapter on “Imperial Women” where he elaborates the intrigues and political power of several important women during the crisis of the third century. There were several energetic and politically forceful women who controlled many of the changing emperors during the third-century crisis.

Repeated invasions by the so-called ‘barbarian’ tribes – the Goths – exacerbated the crisis of the Roman empire. However, the Roman still had enough resources and political will to overcome each foreign threat, restore Roman rule to rebellious provinces and restore the legitimacy of imperial rule by the end of the third century. The crisis had been severe, and it indicated to the Roman elite that it could no longer rule in the old way; the way that Rome was ruled in Marcus Aurelius’ time.

Diocletian rose to power by the end of the third century, and he initiated a series of reforms that would have far-reaching implications for the future of the Roman empire. Goldsworthy details the creation of the tetrarchy – a system of multiple rulers for the empire – and the administrative division of the geographically vast empire into units of territory to make them more easily governable. Diocletian expanded the Roman government and created new provinces, and with them new governors. His reforms, while successful in the short-term, did not lead to lasting success. Diocletian resigned from office, and all the old conflicts returned, especially the internal divisions with different commanders, summoning military support from their own provinces, launching bids for supreme imperial power.

Goldsworthy delves into the transformation of the late Roman empire from paganism to Christianity under the innovative emperor Constantine. The conversion to Christianity has attracted a great deal of attention from historians of the Roman period, and Goldsworthy documents the trials and tribulations of the Christians from the Diocletianic persecutions to the eventual Edict of Toleration by Constantine I. The pressures of successive and increasingly organised Gothic tribes took their eventual toll on the Roman empire. Constantine famously constructed the alternative capital of Rome at Constantinople, and this move along with the formal administrative division of the Roman empire into the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East demonstrated the decline of Rome’s importance as an imperial capital.

An interesting sub-story to the decline and fall of Rome is the later’s retreat from the province of Britainnia. While the island was still part of the Roman empire, and leading Britons still felt an attachment to Roman rule, the province did not have an actual governor for about the last 25 years of imperial rule on the island. Goldsworthy elaborates that many British aristocrats sided with Roman rule and did very well for themselves. The Romans left their unmistakable cultural imprint on the province, and after Rome withdrew from the island in 410AD, the remaining British elites did their best to maintain Roman cultural customs and practices. Britannia was on the margins of the empire, and the majority of the population eventually acquiesced to Roman rule, even though there were serious uprisings throughout the Roman occupation. Britain fragmented into separate communities after the Roman exit in 410-411, so Goldsworthy is careful not to retrospectively impose a British nationalist consciousness on the Britons of the Roman period. While there was a distinct Britannia province, there was not necessarily a unifying sense of British nationalism.

Goldsworthy details the debates among historians regarding the collapse of the Roman empire, while never detracting from the historical narrative. Some historians have challenged the ‘decline and fall’ thesis, preferring to speak of a gradual transformation rather than a collapse. Goldsworthy concludes by literally providing “A Simple Answer”. The Western Roman empire collapsed in the fifth century, and those historians who talk of a ‘transformation’ rather than a collapse admit this fact. While the Eastern half of the Roman empire survived for another thousand years as Byzantium, it never approached anything like the superpower status of the Romans. It was merely one strong power among several competing powers, and lost territory to successive conquests by Islamic Arabs, and eventually was overrun by the all-conquering Ottoman Turks.

I think the book could have examined one facet of Roman society that was so ubiquitous and important it needs further elaboration; slavery. Goldsworthy does mention slavery in Roman society, but summarily dismisses its importance. While he states that ‘Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman Empire, and indeed every other ancient society’, he goes on to say that ‘Slaves seem to have been rare as the main labour force outside the large estates of Italy’. I think Goldsworthy misses the mark here.

The use of slaves, while initially tempting and productive, had outlived its utility by the late Roman empire. The Roman polity, while unified against outsiders, was divided within itself into the slaves, and the slave-owning landlord class. Slavery does not provide any incentive to innovate and develop new means of production; the slave only works through the menace and use of violence. The plebeians, poor freemen, had their own quarrels with the upper classes, and fought to assert their political rights. However, any society based exclusively on slavery is bound to eventually fail economically. Slave-owning could not keep up with trade and free labour as an economically viable method of production and exchange.

The cost of keeping an empire swollen by conquests and slaves was so great, that the army became the one force capable of keeping the slaves in line, and the plebeian freemen fighting for conquests. The emperor, also the military commander-in-chief, was the source of patronage. Nepotism and corruption flourished in an environment where anyone could seek favours by connecting with people in power. Increasing numbers of emperors in the late Roman empire originated in the military. Military commanders in the provinces demanded loyalty from their subjects, and used that loyalty to launch challenges to the emperor’s central rule.

Periodic rebellions by slaves meant that productivity was interrupted, and with the decline in production, so also trade declined. Slaves, worked to death within a few years, had to be periodically replaced by new military conquests. Those conquests were carried out by plebeians in the army, the very people who would lose out to slave-owning production. The empire was economically rotting from within, making it more vulnerable to attacks from outside. The huge estates of the landlords began to resemble large, semi-autonomous villas or manors, which is the hallmark of a feudal society. The slave-owning Roman society could not sustain itself.

The decline and fall of the Roman empire is the source of many historical lessons, and naturally comparisons are made to understand the fall of other empires. The British were fond of comparing their nineteenth-century empire to the Roman, and currently many commentators draw comparisons with the United States and its financial empire. There certainly are lessons to be learned, particularly about imperial hubris when an empire’s policy-makers believe they can conquer any territory and underestimate the degree of resistance by subject peoples. Witness the hubris of the United States in its blundering into Iraq and Afghanistan, wars which were based upon wildly optimistic expectations of quick victories but have become terrible quagmires.

There are lessons to be learned about overextending finances into costly unwinnable wars, that drain a society of sorely needed money for internal repair and social services. But Goldsworthy warns against drawing historical analogies too closely. There are broad similarities between the US and Roman empires, but there are enormous differences. While Rome was based on slave-owning and slaveholding landed estates were the norm of production, the US is a major capitalist economy with huge multinational corporations extending into most areas of the globe. Whether the US follows exactly the same course as the Roman empire remains to be seen, but the past does contain valuable lessons if we are to avoid repeating it. Empires inevitably endure a prolonged period of decline, challenged by major competitors. The emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a counterweight to the US ambitions signals the end of a unipolar world. The late Roman empire had several economic and military challengers, such as the Persians, the Hunnic empire and the Germanic confederations.

Goldsworthy’s book is a remarkable and welcome addition to the ongoing debate about why the Roman empire collapsed. As he makes clear, it was a prolonged process, punctuated by military crises and foreign military defeats. He analyses the internal decline as well, stating that ‘each civil war cost the empire’. With each internal conflict, the Roman empire’s authority was weakened, making its conquest ever-more tempting to its external enemies. While the Goths and ‘barbarian’ invaders struck fatal blows, they struck an empire already enfeebled by decay. Goldsworthy’s book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to explore the reasons for the corrosion and ultimate collapse of the Roman empire.

The Ugly Tribalism of American Politics

Early in May 2011, Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire criminal and religious fanatic, was murdered by US Navy SEAL troops in Pakistan. Bin Laden was a reactionary political figure, who promoted obscurantist, fundamentalist prejudices in the service of criminal wars and terrorism. He was a long-term ally and asset of the United States, whose repugnant views and activities were cultivated throughout the 1980s during Washington’s Cold War campaign against the secular, socialist government of Afghanistan.

His killing has been greeted with applause and tribalistic flag-waving in the United States. Australian politicians across the political spectrum parroted the position of the Obama regime – the killing of Bin Laden was a cause of celebration, an expression of righteous chest-thumping. I think that this tribalistic gloating is nauseating, and while I am not sorry that another fundamentalist is dead, the display of gushing applause for the US empire is sickening. This is not patriotism, but an ugly, malicious tribalism where we are invited to cheer over the corpses created by American military forces. Antony Loewenstein calls it a “violence-obsessed culture”.

Robert Fisk, the perceptive veteran war correspondent, wrote that Bin Laden was a nonentity rendered obsolete by recent history. His role as a useful mercenary reached its end a long time ago, and he was shunted aside by his former paymasters. The former paymasters being the United States, that welcomed his brand of antisocialist backward fundamentalism in the 1980s. Celebrated by former President Reagan as ‘freedom fighters’, Bin Laden was one of thousands of anticommunist Islamist guerrillas who responded to US efforts to fight the atheistic communist regime of Afghanistan, drawing in Soviet troops. The Afghan government had committed such serious atrocities, like providing women with health care and education, you see. Such actions could not go unpunished during the Cold War, so the US and its regional allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia organised the largest pan-Islamic anticommunist uprising of the twentieth century. Bin Laden was one of ‘our guys’.

Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, documented the rise of the Afghan crusade in his fascinating book “Jihad: The trail of political Islam”. The US and Saudi promoters of the Afghan jihad against the atheistic communist regime assembled a heterogeneous group of Islamist mujahideen united by their rejection of secularism and humanism. One of the holy warriors trained and financed during this time was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who expressed his disagreement with atheism by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.

But in the early 1990s, the Afghan crusade ended, the Islamist guerrillas took power and promptly began a fratricidal civil war. Bin Laden, along with the thousands of ex-mujahideen, were abandoned by the United States. Bin Laden, a monster of our own creation as Robert Scheer suggests, became a useful demon, a bogeyman to scare the population into supporting US wars abroad.

The gloating over Bin Laden’s killing is calculated to increase support for a swaggering US war machine. As the US Socialist Worker points out, the world is a more dangerous place since Bin Laden’s death by adding domestic support for reckless and aggressive US military operations around the world. Which leads me to a disturbing question – why was it necessary to kill Bin Laden; why not capture him and put him on trial?

After World War Two, the top Nazis who were captured were put on trial for their crimes against humanity. The case against them was solid, the evidence of their guilt overwhelming. In 1942, while the war was raging in Europe and the Pacific, the Allied powers made a joint declaration stating their intention to prosecute the top officials of the Axis states for their mass atrocities. The US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, stated that “We must establish incredible events with credible evidence”. The Nuremberg trials have an enormously important legacy – that heads of state and their officials can be held to account for their criminal actions, that human rights transcend national boundaries, and providing a major impetus for setting up an international criminal court.

You would think that for the professional US soldiers, capturing Bin Laden and his associates would have been relatively easy – and putting him on trial for his numerous crimes would have demonstrated to the world the US regime’s commitment to human rights and justice, as established by the Nuremberg precedent and the Tokyo war crimes trials for Japanese war criminals. The Al Qaeda operatives were responsible for the September 11 atrocities, so putting the commander-in-chief of that terrorist group on trial and exposing their crimes in open court would have boosted the credibility and standing of the US government around the world – wouldn’t you think?

Killing Bin Laden means that he has taken his secrets to his grave. The embarrassing details of his criminal service with US intelligence agencies, his relations with Pakistani and Saudi Arabian officials, and the incestuous relationship that the US has with Pakistani and Saudi financial-military elites is now buried with Bin Laden’s corpse.

Torture was one of the many crimes for which the Nazi and Japanese war criminals were tried and prosecuted after World War Two. Waterboarding is a form of torture for which perpetrators have been hanged. So why did the New York Times and other American newspapers feature the ludicrous claims that torturing suspects in Guantanamo bay led to the killing of Bin Laden? Surely any person undergoing torture would say anything to make the mistreatment stop? John Brennan, the counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama, tried to distance himself from assertions that torturing detainees led to the Bin Laden killing, even though he never actually used the word ‘torture’.

If the torture of people detained in Guantanamo bay revealed the location of Bin Laden, then we could also state that the information extracted from detainees under duress led the US to invade Iraq, a terrible debacle for US foreign policy and the destruction and sectarian fragmentation of that society.

Obama has stated on numerous occasions that justice has been done with the murder of Bin Laden. But there was no trial, no judge and jury – just the state-sponsored execution team and the subsequent lies and distortions to justify a cold-blooded murder. The details of this episode are lost amid the fog of jingoistic, flag-waving tribalism, a fabricated euphoria designed to distract us from the underlying motivations of US imperial power.

Killing one irrelevant fanatic will make no difference to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conditions that created thousands of Bin Ladens remain – the open-ended ‘war on terror’, the continuing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US regime’s uncritical support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. These political problems provide an impetus for reactionary religious figures to exploit legitimate grievances, building up support for their obscurantist agendas. As Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan wrote; “religious fanatics and the imperialist powers provide each other with justification for escalating violence. This is a never-ending cycle”. While the weakening of socialist parties in the region has provided an opening for religious fundamentalism to grow, it should never be forgotten that, as Tariq states “The rise of religious fundamentalism is a direct result of government policies of a ruling elite and its dependence on US and other imperialist forces”.

As the May 3 editorial of the American publication Socialist Worker stated, the war on terror is being renovated. Bin Laden is dead, and Bin Ladenism is a thoroughly repugnant, vicious ideology that hindered the cause of working people. Bin Ladenism is the deadly spawn of the US-organised anticommunist Islamist rebellion in Afghanistan, a brutal warlord among many mujahideen fighting against a secular, progressive government that turned Afghanistan into a cold war battlefield.

This killing is being used by the mouthpieces of the US empire to cheer on unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to continue its programme of ‘rendition’ which involves throwing suspects into torture chambers with no recourse or appeal, and distracting us from the crumbling US economy, plagued with problems even though we are told that the 2008 global financial crisis is over. While Obama proclaims that the good times are back, the living standards and conditions of working people are still falling, and anger is simmering beneath the surface. We must stand up against the macabre celebrations and flag-waving over corpses – chanting “USA!” repeatedly will not help us while the economy is disintegrating.

The best response to the Al Qaeda types has been provided by the Arab masses. The Arab spring, consisting of mass insurrections by the dispossessed and poverty-stricken people of the Arab world against dictatorial regimes, not only rendered Al Qaeda and Bin Laden obsolete, they gave new hope and inspiration to millions around the world and made the US policy-makers tremble.

When skateboards do not matter

Louis Proyect is an interesting and engaging writer, whose blog the Unrepentant Marxist I read every second or third day. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes disagree, but his contributions are always thought-provoking and informative. I came across a particular entry some time ago called “Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free” where Proyect reviews the memoirs of a certain Said Sayrafiezadeh, a forty-something writer who grew up with parents who were ardent members of a socialist party in the US, the Socialist Workers Party. I do not know much about that party, except from the writings of its members, and the entries of Proyect, so I cannot comment directly on the activities and political culture of the American SWP. What I do want to comment on is the memoir of Sayrafiezadeh.

Normally when I review a book, I read it carefully from cover to cover, making a concerted effort to understand its contents, the author’s background and motivations, the importance and value of reading the book, and why others should take an interest in it. Proyect has reviewed the book here. But I am going to make an exception in this case – based on what Proyect has said about this memoir, it is disgraceful trash that should not even have made it to the printing press. Sayrafiezadeh devotes his book to angrily denouncing his parents and the party to which they belonged. It is basically an antisocialist rant by a child still harbouring resentments against his communist activist parents. Disagree with your parents – fine. Have the political arguments out with them; but to hold them and their beliefs responsible for your purportedly ‘deprived’ childhood is just a detestable, vile, hurtful, malicious thing to do. Speaking in such a venomous way about one’s own parents reveals something sleazy and vicious about Sayrafiezadeh’s character.

The title of the memoir is derived from a story where the young Said is denied a skateboard, being an expensive toy. The parents rationalise their decision by stating that after the revolution, all skateboards will be free. Get it? The evil commie parents, being ideologically too rigid and brainwashed by the socialist party, refuse to buy a toy, readily available to other kids, that would bring joy to the young Said’s life. The child misses out because of the rigidity of his parents’ convictions. So you see, the story is emblematic of how the poor Said misses out on a normal happy childhood surrounded by the finer mod-cons provided by a capitalist system.

In a New Yorker magazine interview, linked to by Proyect on his blog, our hero, having denounced his traitorous parents and remaining loyal to the consumerist dream, has this to say:

“Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.”

You see, isn’t capitalism wonderful? We can enjoy 32-inch TV sets – as long as we do not pay too much attention to minor details such as wars overseas, millions of Iraqis and Afghanis dead, increasing erosion of civil liberties, torturing people in secret detention camps after they have been ‘rendered’ (don’t you love that euphemism?), the decline of the health care and public transport systems, the established media spewing racist diatribes against migrants, refugees and anyone it deems the ‘other’, the increasingly tenuous and casualised nature of employment, the rise of religious fundamentalism – but hey, the purpose of life is to accumulate possessions, such as TV sets, isn’t it?

From the New York Times review of his book, Sayrafiezadeh had this to say;

“We were poor, my mother and I,” the author writes, “living in a world of doom and gloom, pessimism and bitterness, where storms raged and wolves scratched at the door.”

How depressing it must be growing up in a socialist household! Gee, what terrible suffering, where the parents naively sacrificed everything for the revolution. If Sayrafiezadeh is nostalgic about his childhood, as the NYTimes reviewer suggests, then why does he spend so much time rubbishing his parents and portraying them in the most loathsome terms? Not only is Sayrafiezadeh deprived of a skateboard, but is not allowed to watch television by his mother when she is away at party meetings.

A Humanitarian Socialist and Loving Father

I am proud to have grown up in a socialist household. My father was a life-long socialist and committed activist. My mother has always been a supporter of social justice and committed to righting the injustices inflicted by an inhumane system. Being of Armenian background, we have had numerous Armenian friends who would visit but were of the opposite political point-of-view, just like Sayrafiezadeh. Now those Armenians in Sydney who fled from the Soviet homeland, were appalled by the experience of a bureaucratised, degenerated workers’ state. However, that experience does not fully account for the xenophobic hatred they express for everything on the Left of the political spectrum.

Most of my father’s Armenian friends were sociable, but always had a nasty underside. Many came to our place, making pointed, malicious jibes at my father, the underlying ridicule and contempt always simmering beneath the surface. “What are you, a Bolshevik? Why don’t you go and live in Soviet Armenia?”, they would sneer at my father. Surely the point was to fight the injustices of the capitalist system, and think about your fellow human beings, not just pack up and leave at the first sign of trouble.

In 1990, as US forces began their buildup in preparation for war against Iraq, my father, an Egyptian-born Armenian, joined with his fellow Arabs and campaigned against the war, outraged at the death and destruction of a society that would surely result from such an imperial war. “The whole world is against the Arabs, aren’t they?” was a typical sneering comment directed at my father by some of the anti-immigrant, reactionary Armenians. “If you mean the white-skinned world, the US, Britain and Australia, then yes they are. But around the rest of the world, India, China, South America, Malaysia etc the American war drive is opposed.”

The same xenophobic crowed and sneered as the USSR dissolved in the early 1990s. “You see, capitalism has won!” they stated, echoing the feeble ‘end-of-history’ thesis propounded by the literary lightweight Francis Fukuyama. “Well, all these years you told me that if the communists win, they will take your house, car, private property, everything you own – right? Well, since the restoration of capitalism in Armenia, people have lost their health care, education system, guaranteed housing, employment, cultural achievements – so what system has created more poverty?” But these logical arguments of my father’s were to no avail against the ingrained ignorance of the tribalist Armenians. The purpose of such people was not dialogue or debate, but contemptuous sneering and rhetorical one-upmanship.

They are representative of what I call cruise missile cowards, cheering the death and destruction rained down by American cruise missiles while acting as cheerleaders for US imperial wars. Do they analyse politics like my father did? No. They are victims of their own Islamophobic hatred, detesting everything Arab while cravenly submitting to the power of US imperial interests. They are seduced by the seeming might of the US empire, impressed by its superficial lustre, and have become blinded to the violence purveyed by US imperialism.

The title of my contribution derives from my point of view – skateboards and material possessions do not matter. My father never gave me a skateboard – actually he did, and while that was great when I was a kid, it became irrelevant to me as I grew up. The skateboard gathered dust. What he gave me was much more significant, something that I use until today – an education in the way the world works, how to analyse global politics, and to always stand up against the mighty and powerful when they abuse their power. He was a loving father, a compassionate, humanitarian socialist. He taught me well – may he rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that I will never stoop so low and become a scumbag like Sayrafiezadeh.

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