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Last years at Abbottabad: A review of Christopher Hitchens’ ‘The Enemy’

Nearing the tenth year since the world was changed by 9/11, the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, is traced to a fortress-like villa in Abbottabad and killed. As the media storm blew over, and initial questions about the legality were put to rest (though some still insist on raising them), there was still the opinions of one person for whom many were waiting – and indeed he has not disappointed.

Though there is nothing in Christopher Hitchens’ extended essay – The Enemy (available as a Kindle download only) – that is particularly new; one or two unorthodox opinions concerning bin Laden needed clarifying, and there is no better than the Hitch to do so.

Notably, the polemic is peppered with understanding this personification of ‘evil’ (a word which Hitchens is happy to qualify) through political terminology. Hitchens is happy to call bin Laden a fascist, for example, explaining his unease with the vulgarised word ‘Islamofascist’ (preferring, instead, the more informed “fascism with an Islamic face”), while later insisting we remember the true conservative core of the former al-Qaeda front man.

There is an urge, so opines Hitch, to refer to bin Laden and his men, as radicals – a juxtaposition which sticks in the throat, particularly on consideration of the medieval tyranny which the wealthy ideologue wanted to wreak upon the world. Unlike any radical, in so far as the word is typically used, bin Laden fought on behalf of a totalitarian world view with an absolutist code of primitive laws. His fantasy world order necessitated the ceasing of personal autonomy, the deification of human control, the fetishisation of a single book, the glorification of violence and the celebration of death. Further still, a sanctioning of the death of whole groups of people, the repression of the sexual instinct and a paranoid anti-Semitism akin to that found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

There is no doubt that what bin Laden did on that terrible New York day in September, was a tragedy like only few others. Quite clearly bin Laden was waging war*. But it mustn’t be forgotten just how much his late life had been marred by errors and grave failure.

Bin Laden was laying down his plans for war at a time when  many “Arab Jihadists” – such as al-Qaeda, Gamaat al-Jihad, Gamaat Islamiyya, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) – were restructuring their position in Afghanistan, after the defeats they endured in the nineties throughout the Middle East. After preparing attacks on America in 2000, al-Qaeda knew America would have capabilities to destroy the Taliban’s governmental institutions – which were acting as host to Bin Laden’s motley crew. In advance, Mohammed Atef, the third highest ranking member of al-Qaeda, had sought after weapons of mass destruction to protect Afghanistan.

It was bin Laden’s pipe dream that acquiring WMDs would have deterred the US from retaliating, securing the start to a victory for the Saudi and his group. However the acquisition didn’t go to plan. Accepting defeat at this first hurdle, al-Qaeda tried to send a message, through a reporter in Afghanistan trying to make his “media break”, to the US saying they were in possession of WMDs. This, too, proved unsuccessful, the likelihood being that US intelligence simply didn’t believe bin Laden. Instead the American representatives in Afghanistan asked the Taliban to hand over bin Laden for trial, a favour they did not succumb to citing the illegality of handing over a Muslim to non-Muslims under Islamic law.

After experiencing setback after setback – the death of a leader in the Gamaat Islamiyya, Mohammed Khalil al-Hakaima, who fronted the “al-Qaeda in the land of Egypt” project; the collapse of the jihad against the Americans in Iraq – the former leader of the militant Jihadists Libyan Islamic Fighting Group Noman Benotman (now Senior Analyst of Strategic Communications at Quilliam) said that al-Qaeda did not want to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan, and was merely acting as a defense against the occupation – a clear back step on their more global plans.

Though bin Ladenism, as Hitchens puts it, is destined to fail, this doesn’t mean it is not dangerous, particularly in its teachings of young, mainly uneducated men. Its overall goal is to engage in a global war, which it hopes to do with coordination from a central command, possibly in Warziristan (NW Pakistan), branches at a regional level and with help from sympathisers around the world. And though they’ve experienced a major setback with the death of bin Laden, the aim of their project doesn’t look set to cease any time soon.

Hitchens’ sobering conclusion, quite in distinction to the reaction displayed on TV screens after news emerged of bin Laden’s death (which, however, Hitch admits to having “welcomed without reserve”), is that “[t]he war against superstition and the totalitarian mentality is an endless war” [and that] Temporary victories can be registered against this, but not permanent ones”.

Osama bin Laden died a failure, reduced to watching re-runs of himself delivering propaganda speeches exploiting young, angry men into thinking that fighting the jihad was the solution to all life’s ills. But it is a fool who thinks the efforts of a crafty (albeit damaged), multicellular entity as al-Qaeda have been suppressed yet.

* Much of the information from here on has been sought from this amazing collection of essays by Camille Tawil called The Other Face of Al-Qaeda (pdf file).

The opportunistic Islamist supporters of the Libyan rebels

Tuesday 29 March, at a London conference on Libya held at Lancaster House, Admiral James Stavridis (Nato’s supreme commander for Europe and the US’ European commander) warned of the “”flickers” of al-Qaida or Hizbullah” support which is present in the Libyan rebel movement, adding to the “[u]ncertainty about the future of Libya“.

Though the rebel movement is composed by a broad range of interests, the presence of some notable Islamists should prompt vital questions for the Libyan National Transition Council. The controversial figures include:

Support for the Arab Spring in general has come from some very interesting places. Anwar Al-Awlaki – spiritual leader to Al-Qaeda – has noted that unrest in such places as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya will open up the space for jihad.

In an article for English-language magazine Inspire Al-Awlaki warned that the new situation in Libya would harm the US and draw focus away from their “war on terror” (though with The Pentagon’s decision today, this may not be an issue after all).

Most surprisingly, the Muslim Association of Britain, “the British franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood”, on 21 March decided to pledge their agreement with the No-Fly Zone over Libya and salute “the British armed forces for their role in helping the Libyan people” (see here also).

These examples expose the opportunistic nature of a bunch of unpopular guys, not singing to the same hymnsheet as the majority of people taking part in Middle Eastern and North African uprisings.

But it also highlights some of the problems facing rebel movements.

Fortunately the National Transition Council in Libya – now officially recognised in Qatar – know where they stand on this, opposing “violence, terrorism, intolerance and cultural isolation” while stating they will “respect the sanctity of religious doctrine and condemn intolerance, extremism and violence”.

The freedom of speech – lessons from DH Lawrence to al-Qaeda

November 8, 2010 2 comments

When thinking on the topic of obscenity and censorship the first thing that enters my mind is a scene from The Simpsons where a school trip goes awry, the bus on which the children are travelling falls into a thunderous sea, dragging Otto the bus driver to his wet end, and landing the young to an isolated island off the coast of nowhere. Bart, ensuring his dominance among peers, puts everybody’s mind to rest: “We’re gonna live like kings! Damn, hell, ass kings!”

Authority and rules often make the compulsion to break them all the more delicious, in the absence of adults on the island, so Bart feels the urge to shout the forbidden. By no means should we rid ourselves of rules, even if this were possible, but in being realistic about the nature of rules, and the nature of people, rules are very often there to be broken.

This point is made all the more relevant on consideration of two things: November 2 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial, and November 3 2010 was the day YouTube began taking down al-Qaeda videos after the British Government contacted the White House complaining about the material.

So worried I am about repercussions I've concealed my face

There are of course great differences between the two; the former is a piece of great literature. From the beginning of the trial in 1960 the book was made to be considered through the eyes of a hypothetical 14-year-old girl, the moral puzzle put to the jury was whether they would want young girls to read such filth, since it was pornographic, and more to the point, made a mockery of courtship.

Whether any girl of 14 desired to read it was beyond the point, this was the set standard of person for whom impression ought to be guarded. The clincher towards the end of the trial had been where the defendant called on the jury to ask themselves whether they would allow their children to read the book, remembering for a moment that they would consider their young to be of good education and stock, and thus not impressionable in the same way other young were – of other families, perhaps of a lower order. Was this what it had boiled down to? Was the anxiety of the book an issue of class?

The novel itself is a commentary on language, class and sex. Lawrence himself, in the preface to the book Apropos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, reminds his audience of the real point: “I want men and women to be able to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly.”

As Geoffrey Robertson QC pointed out in his article on the book and its trial: “Judges in 1960 regarded themselves, rather more than they do today, as the custodians of moral virtue. In performing this egregious function, they came to blur the distinction between literature and life.” Those judges who felt the novel explored sex in a manner rather dirty, with what had been described as “purple passages”, simply felt they could set the terms of what sex ought to be, to put a monopoly on what acceptable sex is for adults, in the confines of their bedrooms or indeed their minds.

Suspicion that the Judges were consumed by a snobbish view of sexual expression would not be unfair. A scene in the twelfth chapter of Lawrence’s book describes sex and language in a way obviously unfamiliar to many conducting the trial:

‘What is cunt?’ she said.

‘An’ doesn’t ter know. Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee, and what tha gets when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.”

All on’t,’” she teased. “Cunt! It’s like fuck then.”

Nay nay! Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? – even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!”

The jury’s verdict of not guilty on November 2 1960 was unanimous, and Penguin had even managed to get copies on sale by the late afternoon in Leicester Square. It was considered a pivotal stage in the free written word, but the debate on freedom of speech and print was something to emerge time and again, notably in the eighties and nineties with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and what has been called the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005.

The decision by YouTube to remove videos by al-Qaeda will be set in the context of the debate on freedom of speech versus protection of the impressionable. Though one often wonders whether the latter is a misinformed position to take, similar in its way to the use of the hypothetical 14-year-old girl in the Penguin Books trial, only this time we have the hypothetical Muslim internet user. By banning those videos we will only make them more sordid and sought after; indeed pirated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold for up to fifty dollars in the late twenties and early thirties after it had been banned in the United States, and sales of it sky-rocketed after the trial had ended.

This does not mean we tolerate things we find morally displeasing, but we need to learn the lessons of old; there is no rule book explaining what appeals to impressionable people any more than there is to explain why people like Abba, and in any case, banning something hardly ever nips its impression in the bud, and can often have the adverse effect.

A small socialist irony

August 24, 2010 1 comment

In May through to June of 1994 a civil war broke out in Yemen between the Yemeni government in Sana’a and Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) supporters. As Ghaith Abdul-Ahad noted in the first of his Guardian articles yesterday about time spent in Yemen, fighting that war with the government of the time were Islamists who ended up bagging much political achievement in southern provinces of Yemen during the nineties.

When the socialists of the YSP, whose neighbourhoods and market places they created can still be seen, were defeated in the civil war the Islamists were handed authority of Jaar – a town in the province of Abyan, South Yemen.

Abdul-Ahad’s report shows that radical Islamist presence in the town grew from there, enjoying sums of money from Saudi Arabia and now being a hotbed for al-Qaeda.

The report interviews one man who remembers the time well; “Faisal”, a former Socialist party member and head of the Young Artist Association in the Abyan. He remembers that the:

socialists were defeated on 7 July 1994 [and] on July 8 a group of Islamists came and picked me up, blindfolded me and took me to the HQ of political security. I was handcuffed and beaten there. They wanted to know if I was a communist and their commander declared I was one. Then they tied my arms to a tree and hung me there and started beating me up with a stick.

Al-Qaeda has grown significant influence in the area and has claimed responsibility for attacks such as the attempt to assassinate the British ambassador to the capital of Yemen, Sana’a – the site of socialist defeat in the nineties.

It has been told that the Yemeni Socialist Party was key to establishing multi-party democracy when the Soviet Union collapsed and the country had been marred by previous civil conflicts and the tail end of British imperialism.

One of the mentors of this surge in extremism lingering in today’s Yemen is a man called Anwar al-Awlaki. As the Guardian report notes: “In Yemen, recruits can study ideology and take guidance from militant leaders, including the Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been described as “terrorist number one” by the Democrat chairman of the House homeland security sub-committee, Jane Harman.”

Indeed al-Awlaki is infamous among those who follow terror politics. His reported links include the US Army Major Nidal Hassan (“gunman suspected of carrying out the 5 November 2009 attack on Fort Hood, Texas”) who attended the same mosque in Virginia Falls that al-Awlaki formerly preached in; two of the three 9/11 hijackers and Omar Abdul Rehman, “who was convicted for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.”

Awlaki has praised US designated Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, was the inspiration for the so-called Toronto 18 cell, who were planning civilian attacks, supports armed jihad, where he is explicit that the “hatred of kuffar [non-Muslims] is a central element of our military creed” (see page 12), and talks of “driving the Jews of Palestine to the sea”.

It is a fair assumption to say this man is not the bastion of progressive thinking.

In 2006 the campaign group against Guantanamo Bay and registered charity the Cageprisoners requested that their supporters write to the Yemeni ambassador of the UK to seek the release of al-Awlaki. Here the relationship between the Cageprisoners and al-Awlaki grew strong, and he was invited to broadcast a live message to an event held by the Cageprisoners in 2008.

On October 2 2009, Cageprisoners republished on their website a defence of Awlaki by Cageprisoner member Fahad Ansari that first appeared in Crescent magazine. The report continues:

In the piece, Ansari was highly critical of the council’s decision and referred to Awlaki as “the inspirational Imam”

[...]

Mr. Ansari is also a researcher and spokesperson for the Islamic Human Right Commission (IHRC) which also supported the CP campaign for Awlaki’s release.

The IHRC is registered as a charity and limited company which Cageprisoners have demonstrable connections with through Fahad Ansari.

There have been a number of instances where Cageprisoners have claimed to be unaware of Awlaki’s extremist background. This assertion may be questionable if you consider that the group republished an article by Andrea Elliott of the New York Times which says “Mr. Hassan and another university student searched the Internet for jihadist videos and chat rooms, the friend said. They listened to “Constants on the Path to Jihad,” lectures by the Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is suspected of inciting Muslims in the West to violence.”

To bring this back to the point, the director of the Cageprisoners, Moazzam Begg, has given plenty of uncritical time to al-Awlaki rendering it extremely dubious to think he has no idea of the kind of character he is. If you heap as much praise as Begg does to al-Awlaki on the interview below, you would check your sources – and a glimpse at some of the sources show al-Awlaki to be an ardent jihadist and supporter of al-Qaeda.

It doesn’t bade well for anyone promoting Moazzam Begg, a former detainee in Guantanamo Bay, as a pillar of human rights and an example of human rights gone awry, when he gives uncritical, and even praiseworthy platforms to somebody like al-Awlaki. But indeed recently that is what Amnesty International did, causing the resignation of Gita Sahgal, a feminist, who used to work for AI, when the human rights group made Begg their poster boy.

Furthermore, from the 1-5 July central London was host to the Marxism festival of 2010, held by the Socialist Workers Party. On the Saturday they held a panel discussion which included Moazzam Begg, Gareth Pierce and Gerry Conlon.

Conlon was one of the Guildford Four, wrongfully accused back in the seventies for the Guildford and Woolwich bombings, and Pierce, a human rights solicitor, was instrumental in the case of Moazzam Begg.

You can tell from the set up of the debate what the producers of this discussion had in mind; Conlon being a victim of a miscarriage of justice, Pierce acting, as far as possible, to counter, with human rights, miscarriages of justice. But with Moazzam Begg – surely his feature on issues of human rights should have been put into jeopardy by the connections and suspected connections with some of the worst terrorist, pro al-Qaeda, pro-Taliban and pro-extremist characters this country and others have to offer.

Yemeni Islamists destroyed Yemen and reduced socialism in that country to nothing, where once it was strong and created a sense of stability where that had been absent since the destructive history of the Soviet Union. Islamism continues to be a presence in the country in the form of al-Qaeda. One of the chief ideologues of this presence, al-Awlaki, is held as an “inspirational imam” by a group fronted by a man who receives uncritical praise from the audiences of Socialist Workers Party organised events – now there’s something to think about.

Perhaps that is the reason the SWP won’t mind publishing articles that say this:

Yemen is indeed a country ravaged by war and instability – but this is the result of decades of imperialist interference in the region. And the ratcheting up of Western intervention will only make things worse.

Without even mentioning a single word about the destruction brought about by domestic terrorism, extremism and fascism.

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