Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Only Gulf Arabs can deliver a Palestinian state

President Obama’s promise to veto the Palestinian bid for United Nations membership this week was as predictable as it was despicable. Nobody pretends that Security Council recognition can bring tangible relief from the humiliation of life under occupation – still less anything like ‘a lasting peace’ – but even if its significance were to be chiefly ‘symbolic’ (the journalistic mot du jour), that doesn’t seem good reason in itself to oppose it. To recognise the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state on the territories captured from them in 1967 would be a first step in redressing the defining injustice of the post-WWII era, as well as restoring a modicum of dignity to a people who for three generations have known only betrayal and abuse. It would, in other words, have been a matter of elementary moral principle. But if Obama has shown one trait since assuming the Presidency it is an appalling lack of principle. He’s already used his veto, after all, to kill a Security Council resolution merely condemning settlement construction – this despite his saying in Cairo in 2009 that, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”. When Netanyahu refused to extend a 90-day pause in the expropriation of Palestinian land - a pause that was anyway never honoured to begin with – Obama didn’t just fail to punish him. He spinelessly arranged, along with his promiscuously unprincipled Secretary of State, for a sordid bribe of $3 billion to be slipped inside Netanyahu’s palm, only to have the spoilt brat slam the door in his face. Apparently not yet insulted enough, in his most recent speech on the Middle East in May of this year, Obama became the first American president to publicly refer to Israel as a “Jewish state”, thus simultaneously erasing what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé called the ‘forgotten Palestinians’ - the 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel itself - as well as undermining the Israeli moderate majority who understand that a “Jewish state” cannot also be a democratic one, and who have every intention of living in the latter as opposed to the former. He has, in short, presided over the most ardently Zionist American administration on either side of the aisle in recent history (who now remembers a furious George H. W. Bush withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees from the Irgun thug Yitzhak Shamir in response to renewed settlement expansion?). 

As a Westerner living in the Arab world, the question I get asked perhaps more than any other when the subject of Israel comes up is why – why does the American government continue to so unshakeably and unashamedly stand by a regime that colonises its neighbours’ lands and persecutes its ethnic minorities and has a consistent and meticulously-documented record of launching merciless assaults on civilian infrastructure both inside and outside its borders that often, if not always, implicate it in war crimes and crimes against humanity? As resolutely as one must combat all stupid and loathsome innuendo about clandestine ‘Jewish cabals’ usurping world government, for every answer I suggest to them (historic Cold War alliance; supposed shared ‘Judeo-Christian values’; common Islamist enemy; mistaken view of Israel as democracy; misplaced belief in Israeli ‘purity of arms’; etc.) it remains a simple fact that a well-financed and well-organised group of Israel’s supporters continues to command substantial influence over American policy. The Israel Lobby (it’s emphatically not the ‘Jewish lobby’, since a sizeable chunk of its constituents are in fact messianic Christians, who see in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine a portent of the Second Coming of Christ) doesn’t have quite the stranglehold on the Pentagon imagined by some of its critics – for instance, in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write that for “fifteen years, Israel and the lobby have pushed the United States to [use] military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities” (p. 282), and yet it was not to Iran but Iraq that the Bush administration turned its guns when the ‘war on terror’ was declared – but at least so far as the Holy Land is concerned, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliates are capable of making life very difficult for anyone in Washington who takes a line other than their own (see, for example, this piece by MJ Rosenberg, the foreign policy writer who has worked for both AIPAC and the US Senate). Put simply, the strategic benefits of siding with ‘the lobby’ are many, while the costs are as good as nil.

Which raises the question of why there is no equal and opposite ‘Arab lobby’ feared and revered in the same way. After all, the application of Arab ‘leverage’ on Washington is not without historical precedent. In 1973, after the Nixon administration bolstered the Israeli military during the October War, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an oil embargo on the USA and implemented production cuts that swiftly quadrupled the global crude price and ended up costing America “some $48.5 billion in 1974 alone (equal to roughly $140 billion in 2000 prices), due to higher petroleum costs and an estimated 2 percent reduction in GDP” (Mearsheimer and Walt, p. 54). 

The embargo was eventually called off (at the request of Anwar Sadat), but its effects were sufficiently punitive that, nine years later, the mere threat of its resumption was enough to prompt action. In Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, he describes how, when it became apparent that Israel’s steamrolling of Lebanon in 1982 was to be taken as far as Beirut,

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia warned that his country would withdraw all its investments from the United States at once and impose oil sanctions against the West within hours if the Israeli army was not brought under control. Reagan was at last made aware of the gravity of the crisis and Haig – who has always denied that he gave Israel a ‘green light’ – resigned. (pp. 268-29)

Sure enough, a ceasefire was obtained - even if, in the end, Reagan was unable to prevent Menachim Begin from his carpet bombing of Beirut. 

Next year, Obama will seek re-election in a contest that everybody agrees will be decided by economic credentials. If Saudi – or any of the oleaginous Gulf states, for that matter – had any interest in securing a Palestinian state at the UN, mightn’t they seek to exploit this nontrivial fact? Brent Crude prices have already breached the $100 mark again for the first time since the vertiginous days of 2008. Isn’t it possible that the prospect of a nudge in the upward direction might give Obama some pause for thought? Even if it’s true that the ‘oil weapon’ would no longer be as destructive today as it was in ’73, there are other potential arrows in the Arab quiver. How keen would Obama be, for example, on Saudi dumping its nearly $500 billion holdings of US debt two months after the country lost its AAA credit rating? To what extent would he be pleased to hear that, say, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, whose assets have been conservatively estimated at $340 billion, was exiting its American real estate and equity positions (including the 5% of Citigroup it generously bought at the height of the credit crisis) to pursue new opportunities in, I don’t know, China? 

As it happens, some influential Gulf Arabs have caught on to the simple force of such considerations, and have hinted at a resurgence of the Arab lobby of bygone days. Turki al-Faisal, a Saudi prince and former ambassador to the US, wrote in June in an op-ed in the Washington Post that 

In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.”

As he elaborated:

There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America’s reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen — and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish.

This was a theme repeated in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, in which al-Faisal warned that a veto at the UN would mean that 

Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.

How did we get to here? If it’s nauseating to be lectured on “justice” by a senior emissary of a monarchical Wahhabi police state that is itself crushing the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis this very minute (we can be sure that if the Palestinians were Shia, there would be no lofty talk from Riyadh about their “quest” for freedom), then it’s a mark of how contemptible the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate’s handling of ‘the Conflict’ has been that such an unsavoury character can appear genuinely courageous and principled next to him. For Christ’s sake, you know you’ve lost your way when you make the Saudis look good. Yet as long as Obama continues to consign the ‘peace process’ to the cemetery, it will remain the case that only Gulf Arabs have the power to deliver a Palestinian state. May they do so with all speed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why are the Republicans snubbing their one (semi-)sane candidate?

With enemies like these, Obama has very little need of friends. The ballistic rise of the reptilian governor of Texas, Rick Perry, to leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in barely a month on the campaign trail confirms a number of invaluable lessons for any other GOP hopefuls aiming to mount a last-minute dash for the White House. First and foremost, be a Christian fundamentalist, with unshakeable conviction in the absolute inerrancy of scripture; by no means excluding the biblical account of human ‘creation’. With commensurate fanaticism, oppose all tax increases of any kind, whilst at the same time making loud complaints about the fiscal deficit and, indeed, creating a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall in your own state. Be utterly contemptuous of the intellectual in general and the scientific in particular. Praise capital punishment – indeed, if you happen to be the governor of a state which murders its criminals, boast warmly about the number of deaths for which you have personally been responsible. Declare undying ideological fraternity, or filiality, with Ronald Reagan, even while in fact advocating positions on anything from taxation to illegal immigration that are leagues to the right of anything the senile statesman ever signed into law. Finally, just to distinguish yourself, find a niche subject about which to make a statement of forehead-smacking fatuity, such as referring to the social security system that sustains the welfare of 54 million retired, disabled or otherwise dependent Americans as a “Ponzi scheme”

Such has more or less been the template for all the major GOP candidates this year – from Perry to the Mormon fruitcake Mitt Romney to the fantastically ignorant Michele Bachmann (whose campaign is at least, or at last, showing signs of decline). Yet against this orthodoxy of cultism and crackpottery, there sounds a lone voice of what bears an alarming resemblance to something almost like reason. The voice belongs to the former governor of Utah and ambassador to both Singapore and China, Jon Huntsman, a polished and erudite speaker whose composed and cool-headed manner has already been compared to that of the incumbent Democrat. With his soundbite-friendly description of himself as a ‘centre-right candidate for a centre-right country’, Huntsman appears to be the only Republican candidate of the lot to realise – as surely all educated Republican voters have been growling into their Journals since Sarah Palin announced that homo sapiens cohabited the earth with dinosaurs – that the anti-intellectual demagogy of the Tea Party and its affiliates is not only a shameful spectacle of stupidity in itself but moreover the greatest contributing factor to the utter unelectability of most GOP candidates in the eyes of every ‘moderate’ voter:

When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.

One is fondly reminded of Dr Francis Collins, the eminent geneticist and evangelical Christian who wrote in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief to the effect that Christians only do themselves harm by rejecting evolution, and the sooner they grow up and repudiate the pathetic pseudo-science of ‘intelligent design’, the immediately more credible will be their standing not only in the scientific community, but in the broader community of educated persons. 

Nor is this by any means the limit of Huntsman’s appeal as a candidate. In an election that everyone seems to agree will be decided on matters economic, Huntsman brings formidable credentials. Indeed, he can claim to rival Rick Perry’s much-touted ‘economic miracle’ in terms of job creation; Utah having led the country in exactly that respect during his gubernatorial tenure (by one method of counting). A profile in Vogue further elucidates the highlights of that period:

In office, he took progressive stands on immigration and the environment, signing on to a Western-states agreement to reduce carbon emissions. His big emphasis was on economic growth and job creation. Cutting the state income tax from 7 to 5 percent helped fuel business investment that by 2007 brought Utah’s jobless rate down to 2.3 percent—the lowest in its history. The resulting bonanza in revenue allowed the state not only to avoid spending cuts but to make investments, such as raising pay to attract better teachers. The kind of intelligent long-term planning that the Pew Center for the States cited in listing Utah as one of the three most well-managed states in the country helped boost Huntsman’s approval rating above 90 percent. Reforming antediluvian liquor laws and using his state’s natural wonders as a backdrop for his motorcycle rides didn’t hurt either. In 2008, he was reelected by a wide margin.

That Huntsman could simultaneously reduce income taxes and carbon emissions, while also making it easier for a guy to get a glass of bourbon in a hotel room, illustrates well his admirably – perhaps better say refreshingly – human brand of conservatism. That he is also a polyglot who has (like the current President) lived for several years outside the United States is surely not to be overlooked lightly, either.

Of course, he is hardly without shortcomings. He’s laden with much of the standard 'pro-life', anti-homo reactionism that any self-styled proponent of the ‘family values’ contingent might be expected to carry (though it is, I suppose, to his credit that he’s unopposed to gay civil unions). On foreign policy he is especially discouraging: objecting, for instance, to American participation in the NATO intervention in Libya – which was, I need hardly remind my reader, a strictly humanitarian operation, solicited not just by the Arab League but also by brave defectors from the Libyan regime itself, for the protection of the long-suffering victims of one of the Middle East’s cruellest and most obstinate despotisms. Huntsman, apparently, thinks this a wasteful allocation of American resources, and does not believe the saving of innocent Libyan lives to be “core to [America’s] national security interest” – this despite the believable claim made in February by the former Libyan justice minister that the murder of 189 American citizens on Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 was done on Qaddafi’s direct orders. This agoraphobic isolationism naturally does not extend to the American-Israeli ‘special relationship’, Huntsman’s support of which is as staunch as it is unqualified. In 2009 he managed to visit Israel with a delegation of the America-Israel Friendship League – an outfit that last caught my attention when they excoriated President Obama for daring to request that Netanyahu stop expanding illegal Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem – and to be interviewed on camera about his experience of the country without once mentioning the occupation or, indeed, the Palestinians at all. (I ought to say that, dismal as this is, it’s infinitely preferable to the undisguised Christian Zionism of the current front-runner, who says without embarrassment that “I’m a big believer that [Israel] was given to the people of Israel a long time ago, by God, and that’s ordained”.)

Incidentally, of Huntsman’s flaws, I find that I don’t consider his religious faith a cause for especial concern. For while he is ostensibly a Mormon, his religion is plainly not that of Mitt Romney’s. As the aforementioned Vogue report explains: 

People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren’t question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. [...] [His parents] were mostly what Utahans call “Jack Mormons”—people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don’t follow all of its strictures. “We blend a couple of different cultures in this family,” he says.  

You’d never hear a phrase like that from Romney, who has raised his sons as Mormons and sent them on missions. Nor would you see Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, or Craig Romney in a hotel bar, sipping a glass of wine, as you might see one of Huntsman’s adult children. The difference in attitudes between the two Mormon candidates is encapsulated in the football rivalry between Brigham Young, where Romney went to college, and the University of Utah, where Huntsman went (before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania). BYU is an institution grounded in Mormon theocracy. The University of Utah is a state school that happens to have a lot of LDS students. 

Even if, like me, you find the ‘spirit’ of the racist, misogynistic and all-round lunatic cult of Joseph Smith to be no more attractive than the ‘letter’, you will, I hope, take real comfort from the bacchic indulgences of the junior Huntsmans, as contrasted with teetotalling ‘Tagg’ and the Romney gang (indeed, the old question of which candidate the voters would rather ‘have a beer with’ appears in this case to have only one possible answer). 

Which brings us to the greater question of why so few voters seem to want anything at all to do with Huntsman (approximately 1% of Republicans support his candidacy at the time of writing). Is it his tenure as ambassador to China under the despised Obama administration? His unequivocal acceptance of (I decline to say ‘belief in’) evolution and man-made global warming? Distrust of Mormonism amongst an intractably sectarian Protestant base? Or is it that his eloquence and equanimity fail to excite a crowd more accustomed to crass sloganeering and pulpit-thumping populism? Whatever the answer, it’s to be lamented that the GOP has snubbed the closest thing they had to a sane contender, not only because of the unthinkable implications should Obama lose next year, but for the extra work he might have been compelled to put in for his own party had Huntsman been given the chance to confront him. Instead, we non-Americans will continue to wait in vain alongside our American counterparts for our ‘change’.

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.