Sunday, July 20, 2008

Norman Finkelstein: American Radical


"In particular he feels very passionately about the Holocaust. His parents are both survivors of extermination camps and he was deeply involved in their lives and tragedies and so on. And when he sees someone exploiting it - demeaning the memory of the victims for personal gain - he doesn't like it. I can understand that." - Noam Chomsky

American Radical, a film about the world-renowned (and in some quarters, bitterly hated) expert on the Israeli-Palestinian issue Norman Finkelstein, will be released later this year.

From the extended trailer, it looks like being very good, but I'd just say one thing about the title. Finkelstein's writing about Israel-Palestine has two major themes. First, he works to advocate a two state solution on the legal international borders, in line with the regularly expressed wishes of practically all the world's nations bar Israel and the United States. Second, he relays the fact, documented by the leading human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B'Tselem, that Israel has a brutal record of repression, torture, murder, theft and dispossession inflicted on the Palestinian people systematically and relentlessly for decades. Finkelstein is therefore no "radical". It is those who reject a settlement of the issue that conforms with international law, instead embracing one that privileges Israel, and who portray Israel as a paragon of virtue that seeks only to defend itself from extremist madmen, who are the real radicals, rejecting as they do the rule of law, the international consensus and indeed the factual record.

Finkelstein is, to my mind (and as you can read here), the model of what an intellectual should be: someone who uses the privilege of his ability,
knowledge and authority to help and defend those less fortunate than himself. He has shown extraordinary levels of bravery in continuing his work even in the face of a viciously spiteful smear campaign against him by apologists for Israel; people who are prepared even to go so far as to attack his mother to get at him. The sheer cynicism of the attempts to silence Finkelstein demonstrate the extent to which he is feared by his enemies.

If you're not familiar with Finkelstein's work, I would recommend starting with the book "Beyond Chutzpah", or with this highly perceptive article about the last stages of the Clinton-managed "peace process". His writing is meticulously researched, tightly argued, and extremely readable.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Does Israel attack journalists in occupied Palestine?

Is the bear a catholic? Does the pope defacate in woodland areas?

Writing the letter I had published in the Guardian yesterday was simple enough. Lorna Fitzsimons, CEO of the "Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre", had claimed that Reporters Sans Frontières contradicted John Pilger's damning assessment of the way Israel treats journalists in illegally occupied Palestine. I looked up what Reporters Sans Frontières had actually said on the subject (which confirmed, not contradicted, Pilger's article) and quoted it. This difficult bit of research took at least 15 minutes. Pathetic that this is the best Israel's apologists can manage.

Of course, I only went as far as to show that the apologist's representation of Reporters Sans Frontières' assessment was a false one. But a man with the courage, strength and indefatigability of Jamie SW can be relied upon to go that one stage further. With this excellent piece of research, drawing from press reports and applying some straightforward but perceptive reasoning, he demolishes the lie that Israel has some proud record on journalistic freedom, and exposes Fitzsimons sad effort for what it was: a cynical apologia for wanton brutality. Hats off then to Jamie, whose blog, by the way, is top drawer.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Islamophobia: the bigotry you can vent without shame

Yesterday evening, Channel 4 showed a wonderful documentary, "Dispatches: It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim", an example of that rare and precious thing called public service broadcasting. It is my view that every last person responsible, from the tea-boy up, should be given a knighthood. At least.

Journalist Peter Oborne investigated "the rise of violence, intolerance and hatred against British Muslims....He discover[ed] that for many in the Muslim community, Britain is becoming a very frightening place. Dispatches [met] a range of British Muslims who now live in daily fear, some because their homes are constantly vandalised, others because they or family have suffered devastatingly violent attacks."

The Language of Hate

Some important and authoritative research was commissioned by the film-makers, which will serve as valuable resources for those fighting Islamophobia in the future. There's a report by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which found that "the bulk of [press] coverage of British Muslims - around two thirds - focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general)." "Decontextualisation, misinformation and a preferred discourse of threat, fear and danger, while not uniformly present, were strong forces in the reporting of British Muslims in the UK national press."

The Cardiff School of Journalism report is a very solid bit of social science research and well worth reading in full. Like the documentary as a whole, it provides a thorough analysis of how a dangerous bigotry is constructed and maintained in public discourse. The British press is shown to constantly present Muslims as an alien presence; a threatening "other". Rarely if ever in the coverage is it accepted that if a person lives, works, votes, pays their taxes and abides by the law in this country then they are no less British if they are a Muslim than if they are CofE or anything else. Instead, Islamic traditions are presented as a threat to a nebulous concept called "our way of life", from which British people of Islamic faith are excluded by definition. It is clear that, for the press, "Britishness" means a narrow concept of white Anglo-Saxonism; and that should be a cause for concern to a great many of us besides Muslims.

The other point about the press coverage is that so much of it is simply false, to the point where it appears that many journalists are in the business of systematically lying about the subject. It becomes plain that the assumption you should work from when you see a scare-story about Muslims in the gutter press, or even the broadsheets, ("Muslims Ban Christmas", "Mosques Beat Churches", "Gay Muslim Paedophile Asylum Seekers May Cause Cancer/Fall in House Prices") is that the story is probably false.

Furthermore, "Oborne conclude[d] that in today's climate the media say things about Islam and Muslims they would never say about other groups [and this includes supposedly liberal commentators like Polly Toynbee]. When he replace[d] the word' 'Muslim' in some recent headlines with 'Jews', 'Blacks' and 'Gays' and show[ed] them to members of the public, they [found] those headlines deeply offensive".

A particularly interesting moment came when Oborne interviewed Rabbi Pete Tobias, a expert in the anti-semitism of early twentieth century Britain. Tobias showed Oborne an Evening Standard article from 1911, a time when many Jews were arriving in the UK from Europe. The language was familiar: dangerous and backward people from the east threaten our values and way of life by swamping our communities and refusing to integrate or submit to our superior culture. Chilling to consider that, even after the twentieth century, the essential components of racist discourse are still not being recognised for what they are (see the election of the lovable clown Boris Johnson, for a separate example).

Crucially, the documentary gave many British Muslims the chance to speak for themselves, which makes a change from having other people talking about them. And their responses to the prejudice that had been thrown their way were the best and most telling of all. Asked about the Sun's political editor's comment that it is correct to spotlight Muslims because of Islamist terrorism, one Muslim cleric asked, if all rapists are men, then why don't we spotlight the entire male gender for the issue of rape? A Muslim medical student said that when Muslims like her get abused or attacked by white British people then no one asks broad questions about the defects of white British culture, but when a Muslim commits a terrorist act then every member of the Islamic faith is held guilty of hate-filled extremism until proven innocent.

This gets right to the crux of it. In reality, we do not have a problem with Islam; we have a problem with terrorists. Actually, we have a problem with terrorism and with bigotry towards Muslims, which often manifests itself in Muslims being violently terrorised.

Terrorising Muslims

The documentary makers commissioned a poll, one of the most important results of which illustrated the fact that Islamophobia does a lot worse than hurt people's feelings. Fully thirty seven percent of Muslims - over one in three - says they have been subjected to hostility or abuse since 7 July 2005 because of their religion. Oborne interviewed people who had had their houses and cars vandalised, been abused in the street, beaten and stabbed, and targeted by fire-bombings.

The information pamphlet accompanying the programme (also well worth a read), describes an incident where "[o]n Wednesday 7 May 2008 in Bolton a group of young people allegedly chased a group of Muslim men shouting racial and religious abuse. A chainsaw was allegedly held to the throat of one man. A 17-year-old girl and a 22-year-old man have been charged with affray and possession of an offensive weapon, and are awaiting trial". Elsewhere "[a] Methodist chapel being converted into an Asian community centre in Quenchwell, near Carnon suffered an Islamophobic attack in early June. In the wake of a local row about the plans to create an Asian centre at this location urine was found inside a builder’s helmet. The words “Fuck off you Asian bastards” were written on a table. On the morning of Monday 2 June a pig’s head was found nailed to the door in a clear attempt to offend Muslims. The words “God says fuck off” and a cross were daubed on the door".

"On 17 April three men were jailed for three years for a campaign of racial harassment lasting nine months against a Muslim colleague, Amjid Mehmood, who was tied to railings and force-fed bacon, which he cannot eat because of his religious beliefs. His attackers filmed the whole incident on a mobile phone. In total, nine separate incidents of racial harassment occurred over the period. A rucksack with protruding wires was put on his locker and his trousers were set on fire. During the Birmingham riots he was driven to an Afro-Caribbean area and told locals were “coming to get him.”"

Its never been a secret that the language of racism is spoken with fists and knives as much as it is written in newsprint or insinuated in the statements of politicians. But many powerful people seem happy to ignore this, while the costs are paid by ordinary and entirely innocent Britons of Islamic faith. Violence is of course the logical consequence of a public discourse in which Muslims are constantly demonised and lied about. Thus, the self-styled victims of fictional Muslim aggression become the enablers of actual aggression against Muslims. The press and politicians (like the odious Jack Straw whining about how veiled women discomfort him, or any given right-wing hack complaining about "political correctness gone mad") portray themselves as the pitiful victims of extremist Islamism. But when Muslims then suffer actual physical aggression as a result of this demonisation, politicians and the press have nothing to say.

Attitudes: differences and similarities

The poll also shows, as other polls have done, that Muslims are not significantly less tolerant than non-Muslims, which sweeps away at a stroke the fantasy of an ultra-conservative Islamist invasion. So we can expect the press to ignore that completely, since it doesn't fit with the approved story.

Speaking generally, the poll results highlight the sorts of differences in perceptions of Islamophobia that you'd probably expect between Muslims and the rest of the population, which are certainly dismaying, and a serious level of prejudice obviously exists. But I hope I'm not being panglossian in saying that this prejudice is also not as widespread as it could be, given the nature of press coverage and elite political discourse. Note for example that 78 per cent of Muslims and 70 per cent of non-Muslims agree that "there is more ... religious prejudice against Muslims in Britain today since the London bombings in July 2005". Most non-Muslims felt that Muslims were bearing the brunt of unjustified criticism (51 per cent) while 31 per cent felt that the level of criticism was justified. When you subtract the decent people who have just been misled by politicians and the press (and would probably change their minds when presented with the facts) from that third of the population, then you're left with a small minority of bigots. Which is not to say that a small minority of bigots can't be very dangerous, but it does help to put a rather frightening picture of British Islamophobia in some sort of context. In a way, it shows what polls often show, that the public are largely decent and reasonable people, and that the political class (media and politicians) is broadly to the right of the general population. Islamophobia is propagated by the political class and a potentially small minority of the public; making it dangerous, but not invincible.

The political utility of hate

Finally, I'd like to make a point that wasn't made in the documentary but which I think is essential for putting all of this in context. We should bear in mind the central, enabling role that Islamophobia plays in the War on Terror, and the potential usefulness to the political class of this species of bigotry.

The documentary aired 3 years to the day after the London tube and bus bombings. As I wrote at the time, the security services had repeatedly warned the government that Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq strongly increased the chances that attacks like this would occur. The government joined the US invasion of Iraq - a country that posed no threat to us - in spite of these warnings. It is a truism that one is responsible for the predictable consequences of ones actions, so on the afternoon of 7/7/2005 the British government had a serious problem, as indeed did the media that had played a key enabling role in taking the country to into an unpopular war. It was then extremely convenient for these elites to change the subject from Western foreign policy, the known inspiration for these brutal terrorist crimes, and instead place the focus on the Muslim community. And when you observe the people who run our country first starting a war of aggression that has by now claimed probably over a million lives, and then passing the blame for one of the predicted consequences of that war onto one of the most vulnerable communities in the UK (many of whom had actually voted New Labour, incidentally), then you get the measure of the sheer moral bankruptcy of British ruling elite.

It should also not be forgotten that the demonisation of Islam plays a broader enabling role for Western foreign policy. As I noted in this article, which I wrote in response to the controversy over the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad:

"It is no coincidence that those who most enthusiastically peddle the fiction of a "clash of civilisations" also portray the opposing "other" as a force that seriously threatens to destroy "our way of life", and therefore advocate an aggressive US-led military strategy across the Islamic world. Manichean rhetoric eulogizing the liberal idealism of "our values" and the necessity of defending them against those who "hate our freedoms" has been the very essence of Western pro-war advocacy in recent years. Observing essentially imperial foreign policies being depicted as altruistic endeavours aimed at bringing enlightenment to backward, inferior (if exotic) cultures, or at least at defending us against them, hardly places us in unfamiliar territory. Indeed, subjugation almost invariably goes hand in hand with the deliberate dehumanisation of those who are being subjugated by those responsible for or whose acquiescence is essential to the act of subjugation".

As competition escalates for strategic control over the planet's dwindling oil reserves, the need for our esteemed leaders to present aggressive imperial policies in Western Asia within the conceptual framework of a "clash of civilisations" will only increase. Violence against innocent people on the streets of Britain will be but one lamentable but neccessary byproduct of this propaganda campaign, along with the massive violence meted out to the people of the region and the predictable terrorist backlash against our own country. Such are the calculations made by the statesmen who run the world on our behalf.


But while the documentary did not place British Islamophobia into this broader context, it should still be applauded for giving such serious treatment to an important subject, and for speaking out with a strong moral voice against this dangerous tide of hatred. Hopefully before too long, Islamophobia will go the way of anti-semitism and anti-black racism, becoming seen as something you at least don't say out loud, as a prelude to it and those other forms of bigotry disappearing forever. If that is to happen, then people like Peter Oborne and the Dispatches team will have played their part. If only more of their peers could say the same.

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Israeli violence against journalists

Disgusted of London (no relation to "Aggrieved of Royal Tonbridge Wells") strikes again on today's Guardian letters page. Its the last one here; slightly edited but not in any substantive way. The full version went like this:


Lorna Fitzsimons - representing something called the "Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre" (Letters, July 7) - claims that Reporters Sans Frontières contradict John Pilger's damning assessment (From triumph to torture, July 2) of the way Israel treats journalists in illegally occupied Palestine.
In fact, the NGO's latest annual report condemns "Israeli army violence against media workers in the occupied Palestinian Territories". It tells us that "[s]ixteen journalists were injured when troops fired real or rubber bullets or percussion or teargas grenades during 2007". Among them were "Al-Aqsa TV cameraman Imad Ghanem [who] was seriously wounded by Israeli soldiers ... as he filmed an army operation [in] the Gaza Strip. ...He lost the use of both legs". The report describes journalists being harassed, denied their rights and having their equipment seized by the occupying military. It also notes that the Israeli soldier who, in the judgement of St Pancras coroner's court, "murdered" British journalist James Miller in May 2003, continues to evade justice.
In what sense then does Fitzsimons believe that the assessment of Reporters Sans Frontières contradicts John Pilger's article?
David Wearing

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Chavez and the FARC: "you have been lied to"

Great article by Johann Hari in the Independent:

"Sometimes you hear a stray sentence on the news that makes you realise you have been lied to. Deliberately lied to; systematically lied to; lied to for a purpose. If you listened closely over the past few days, you could have heard one such sentence passing in the night-time of news.

As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?

Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions."

Read the whole thing here.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Israel: "not afraid of criticism"

Two weeks ago, young Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer was returning home from Europe where he had received the Martha Gellhorn prize for his outstanding work covering the situation in the occupied territories. At the border, he was detained by the Israeli security services. John Pilger reports:

"Mohammed was told to turn off his mobile and remove the battery. He asked if he could call his [Dutch] embassy escort and was told forcefully he could not. A man stood over his luggage, picking through his documents. "Where's the money?" he demanded. Mohammed produced some US dollars. "Where is the English pound you have?"

"I realised," said Mohammed, "he was after the award stipend for the Martha Gellhorn prize. I told him I didn't have it with me. 'You are lying', he said. I was now surrounded by eight Shin Bet officers, all armed. The man called Avi ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand on his gun. I began to cry: 'Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.' He said, 'This is nothing compared with what you will see now.' He took his gun out, pressing it to my head and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. He then made me do a concocted sort of dance. Another man, who was laughing, said, 'Why are you bringing perfumes?' I replied, 'They are gifts for the people I love'. He said, 'Oh, do you have love in your culture?'

"As they ridiculed me, they took delight most in mocking letters I had received from readers in England. I had now been without food and water and the toilet for 12 hours, and having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat boot on my neck, pressing into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour. The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror."

An ambulance was called and told to take Mohammed to a hospital, but only after he had signed a statement indemnifying the Israelis from his suffering in their custody. The Palestinian medic refused, courageously, and said he would contact the Dutch embassy escort. Alarmed, the Israelis let the ambulance go. The Israeli response has been the familiar line that Mohammed was "suspected" of smuggling and "lost his balance" during a "fair" interrogation..."

Pilger notes the irony that, just a couple of weeks earlier, Israel's ambassador to the UK had written that "While Israel faces many challenges, it is still the only functioning democracy in the region, and the only state in the area that offers minorities full civil equality and freedom of speech. One of my greatest sources of pride is the open discourse conducted within my country. Critical debate thrives and Israelis scrutinise every aspect of our policies. We are not afraid of criticism."

Perhaps what the ambassador meant to say was that Israel is not afraid of criticism, except for the odd occasion when its security forces torture a 24 year old journalist. Or maybe his definition of a liberal democratic state is just a little different from that recognised by the rest of us.