Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Fisk Folly: Ten years later, and the left has learnt nothing

For many years, the stock expression used to describe a naive but generally well-meaning person who has been duped into supporting those who despise him and ultimately seek his elimination is that of the “useful idiot”. Personally I find myself far more inclined toward (and encourage all readers to consider) Kingsley Amis' alternative, the distinctly more euphonious (and, I now see, alliterative) designation of the “fucking fool”. For while it may look rather like an insult, and sound rather like an insult, and no doubt feel a great deal like an insult when caught on the receiving end, it is actually an earnest compliment: it describes, as Kingsley’s son Martin explains in Experience, someone who is too intelligent not to know better. And this precisely captures the bitter disappointment one feels when re-visiting the reams of fatuous babble put forth by the left’s preeminent ‘public intellectuals’ in the wake of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, each one scrambling to outdo the last in a sinister combination of thinly-veiled delight and callous indifference to the murder of almost 3,000 innocents. From Noam Chomsky to Susan Sontag to Edward Said, it was a spectacle of celebrity self-humiliation more befitting the gossip columns of a Murdoch tabloid than the hallowed pages of august publications. And now, almost ten years later to the day, along has come Robert Fisk to assure us – just in case we were getting any funny ideas – that none of the events of the intervening decade has caused him to update his assessment.

My disappointment is perhaps bitterest in Fisk’s case. He is a man abundantly possessed of the virtues that make a remarkable foreign correspondent. In searching for a single word that best encompasses these, I find I cannot improve on ‘courage’. I mean it in two distinct senses: first in the contemporary one synonymous with ‘bravery’ (Fisk was the only Western journalist never to leave the bloodbath of Beirut in the 1980s – barring those, of course, who were murdered, kidnapped or otherwise ‘disappeared’); and second in the sadly-obsolete but etymologically correct sense of what we might now call having ‘a big heart’ (‘courage’: from Old French ‘corage’; from Latin cor. The modern French cœur has the same root). On any subject, Fisk’s writing glows and smokes with sincere anger but also sincere sorrow, and sincere compassion, with the result that, in the words of  Said, “Fisk’s reportage has a power which one expects but so often does not get from journalists”. 

This same corage, however, is also the source of Fisk’s weakness as a writer, which is that he occasionally allows the heat of his blood to overpower the coolness of his head. When he was nearly killed by a frenzied crowd of refugees smashing rocks into his skull in Afghanistan in 2001, instead of condemning this simultaneous attempted murder of an entirely innocent noncombatant and assault on the fundamental concept of press immunity in warfare, Fisk not only excused but positively commended their behaviour:

They started by shaking hands. We said "Salaam aleikum" – peace be upon you – then the first pebbles flew past my face. A small boy tried to grab my bag. Then another. Then someone punched me in the back. Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones into my face and head. I couldn't see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood. I couldn't blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.

This frankly disgusting sanctioning of lynch-mobbing is not only an insult to the millions of refugees from conflicts all over the world who have endured miseries no less horrendous than those of Afghanistan, yet do not resort to wanton violence against civilians – it is also a casual trashing of all the essential principles of human rights to which Fisk (rightly) holds Western powers, and Israel, accountable.

Regrettably, as I have said, a similar corruption of reason by the narcotic of emotion is to be found in his Independent column this week, in which he chooses to mark the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by admonishing the world for so stubbornly failing to admit, after all this time, that the primary motivation of the perpetrators was solidarity with the Palestinian cause:

I'm drawn to Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan whose The Eleventh Day confronts what the West refused to face in the years that followed 9/11. "All the evidence ... indicates that Palestine was the factor that united the conspirators – at every level," they write. One of the organisers of the attack believed it would make Americans concentrate on "the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel". Palestine, the authors state, "was certainly the principal political grievance ... driving the young Arabs (who had lived) in Hamburg".

This is more or less the same thing Fisk was saying the day after the attacks back in 2001, when he wrote that:

[T]his is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia ­ paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps [...] America has bankrolled Israel's wars for so many years that it believed this would be cost-free. No longer so.

If this was a silly thing to say then, it is a remark of amazing ignorance today. There are several ways to demonstrate why this is so, none of which is very complicated. One, long, way is to take each of the major antagonists in turn – Osama bin Laden; Ayman al-Zawahiri; Mohammad Atta; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; etc. – and trawl through their backgrounds and show by gradual degrees that whatever may have been their enthusiasm for Palestinian nationalism, it was entirely subsidiary to their enthusiasm for the tenets of Islamism and jihad espoused by ideologues such as Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al-Banna and Abu al-‘Alah Mawdudi.

A much quicker – and thus, to this writer, much preferable - way is to notice how pitifully feeble is the explanatory power of the Fisk hypothesis. After all, to argue that al-Qaeda and its affiliates decide to murder civilians because their souls weep for Gaza does not explain why they blew up the public transportation system in London in 2005 – a city governed at the time by the outspoken Hamas supporter, Ken Livingstone, in a country that is not a particularly significant ally of Israel. It does not explain why they blew up a nightclub in Bali in 2002, an island belonging to the most populous Muslim country on earth, killing 202 people including 38 (presumably Muslim) Indonesians. It does not explain why they blew up a synagogue in Tunisia in the same year, killing 21 (mostly Germans), as they were to do to two more in Istanbul in 2003, killing 27 (only 6 of whom – if it matters – were Jews). It does not explain why they blew up two hotels and a bazaar in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005, killing 88. It does not explain why they blew up a UN building in Algiers in 2007, killing 17 staff members along with 24 other civilians. It does not explain why they blew up the Danish embassy in Islamabad in 2008, killing at least 6. It does not explain why they have been relentlessly blowing up Shia mosques and shrines in Iraq almost every month since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, in attacks that regularly kill several hundreds at a time. Nor does it explain why they have repeatedly attacked non-Sunni religious minorities in almost every country from the Mediterranean to the Pacific; from Coptic Christians in Egypt to Sufis in Pakistan to Hindus in Bombay to Buddhists in Thailand. 

This list, the reader may be assured, is very far from exhaustive, but it ought to suffice to undermine any idea of Bin Ladenism as a ‘desperate’ response to the Zionist-American imperialist enterprise. Instead, it is quite obviously itself a rival form of imperialism, and of an infinitely more totalitarian, reactionary and theocratic kind at that. The final spike in the casket for the Fiskian position – that is, for those who could still hear in the cry of jihad a call for help from the Occupied Territories – came in my opinion on April 15th of this year, with the already-forgotten murder of the Italian activist and journalist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza. It is probably no exaggeration to say that no other Westerner was taking greater risks, and demonstrating more courage (and corage), in standing with the Palestinians against their Israeli occupiers than Arrigoni was over the past three years. Born in Italy, Arrigoni moved to the Gaza Strip in 2008, where he worked with the International Solidarity Movement, an “unarmed outfit calling for civil resistance to the Israeli occupation co-founded by both Palestinians and Israelis with a spotless record of nonviolence”, as I described them in a previous post. With the ISM, Arrigoni got up to things like “acting as a human shield for Palestinian fishermen harassed by the Israeli navy”, reporting directly from the ground during Israel’s crippling Operation Cast Lead (an experience which he was later to document in a book, Gaza: Stay Human, which I reviewed here), and riding on the Free Gaza boat that broke the Israeli blockade of Gaza in August 2008. In spite of this extraordinary devotion to the most dispossessed and disadvantaged of Palestinians, Arrigoni was seen as a fit candidate for murder by a Gazan Salafist group called At-Tawhid wal-Jihad fi Filasteen (‘Monotheism and Jihad in Palestine’) – a name perhaps inspired by the Iraqi Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (‘Group of Monotheism and Jihad’), now known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. What, you may ask, was the stated motive of the murder? A disagreement, perhaps, on a point of political principle? Did they feel he was betraying the cause? Might he have been suspected of spying for Mossad? Alas, nothing so convoluted: it was enough, in their words, that he came from an “infidel state”. Such is the mindset that Fisk goes through such casuistic contortions to rationalise.

Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that the nineteen hijackers weren’t also outraged by Israel. No doubt Mohammad Atta was appalled by, say, the Israeli massacre at Qana in ‘96, as Fisk was, and as every Arab and many non-Arabs that I know were, and as I am when I read about it today. The difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, however, is not the degree of outrage felt – indeed, by this measure, Fisk would surely have vaporised himself in a Tel Aviv kindergarten decades ago. No, what distinguishes the zeal of the suicide murderer; what hardens his hatred to the point of delirium is plainly his religious beliefs. 

Every educated person has, by now, read passages in the Qur’an advocating violence against non-believers and polytheists and so on, just as they will have come across passages of violence in the Christian and (especially) Jewish bibles. Those who aren’t already convinced of the wickedness and stupidity of faith, in other words, won’t be convinced by my laboriously regurgitating scripture here. What fewer are likely to have read, however, is a book by Sayyed Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist described by Ayman al-Zawahiri - now the official global head of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s demise - as “the most prominent theoretician of the fundamentalist movements”. Written in 1964 whilst Qutb was in jail for attempting to overthrow the secular Nasser regime, Ma’alim fil Tariq, or ‘Milestones in the Road’, is a tedious, juvenile, frightening call for the establishment of a worldwide Islamic state, governed by the sharia; and for the murder of all who oppose this. It is as right-wing a book as any in history: disgusted by homosexuality; contemptuous of democracy; thirsting for global warfare; and (of course) monomaniacally obsessed with the usurious machinations of “world Jewry”. But the defining sentence, for me, is this:

The struggle between Believers and their enemies is in essence a struggle of belief, and not in any way of anything else.

One wonders how many more innocent bodies will have to be painted across walls, or film-makers and journalists and translators butchered in broad daylight, or cartoonists and novelists and politicians forced to disappear into hiding, before the simple truth of these words begins to take root.

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