Above: the explanation?
All too predicatably, the usual suspects have rushed to explain the Woolwich killing by means of the so-called ‘blowback‘ argument (utilised with varying degrees of obvious gloating). Comrade Clive dealt with this back in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 7/7 bombings. Obviously, the 7/7 attacks were somewhat different to what happened in Woolwich (though it seems likely that the Woolwich perpetrators intended to commit ‘suicide by police’), but I think Clive’s essential case remains incontrovertible – JD:
‘Blowback’: a banal non-explanation
Just a note on the ‘blowback’ argument, which is put a bit less crudely in today’s Guardian by Gary Younge. Whereas the SWP/Galloway version of this just ritually nods at condemnation of the bombings, Younge seems more sincere, ‘to explain is not to condone’, etc. And, of course, presented with a ‘war on terror’ which is supposed to reduce terrorist attacks against us, it is not unreasonable to point out that, so far, this has not succeeded (I think, logically, this argument only runs so far, since nobody has suggested that the ‘war on terror’ will prevent terrorism until it is actually won; but there is some rhetorical force to this point).
And of course, if you think of the Beslan massacre, for example: you simply cannot account for the background to these events without explaining about Russian action in Chechnya. Clearly, Chechen Islamists did not materialise from nowhere, and there is a context to their existence. The same is true of Islamists elsewhere. Or to put this another way: of course if there were no real grievances to which Islamists could point, they would not be able to recruit anybody. Hamas would not be able to recruit young people and tell them to tie explosives to their chests and climb aboard buses, if the Palestinians were not actually oppressed and suffering grave injustices at the hands of the Israeli state.
But if this is all that is being said, surely it is banal. I suppose there may be some right wing crazies who think Hamas has grown among Palestinians purely because Arabs are bloodthirsty masochists or somesuch nonsense. But obviously, Hamas refers to real things in the real world to build its base, or it wouldn’t have one.
And the observation that there are actual grievances to which Islamists point as a way to recruit (or even, conceivably, that it is these grievances which motivate particular individuals to carry out atrocities) tells you absolutely nothing about the political character of the movement to which they are being recruited.
Of course it’s true, up to a point, that that the London bombs are connected to the British presence in Iraq. But this in itself is not an explanation for them. So if the ambition is to ‘explain but not condone’, you need to explain why people are recruited to these organisations – ones that want to blow up ordinary people on their way to work – rather than other ones. That bombs have dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan (or Jenin, or wherever) simply is not an explanation.
It would not be an explanation even if the organisations in question were identifiably nationalist, as opposed to salafi-jihadist. There have been plenty of colonial situations in the past which have produced armed struggle but not bombings of this kind.
But in any case they are not nationalist in the old sense, but something different – something whose political programme is not concerned with this or that grievance (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) but with restoring the Caliphate, instituting sharia law, punishing apostates, and so on. Moreover – and this seems to me very important indeed – as far as the most extreme of these groups go, like the one presumably responsible for 7/7 – they are what can reasonably be called death cults. If the aim is explanation, then you need to tell us why this backward-looking death cult has prevailed over the old-style nationalists (not to mention more leftist movements – just to type the words tells you the fall of Stalinism has something to do with it), and so on.
And once you have identified the political character of these movements – what do you propose to do about it? We can withdraw from Iraq. But if you think withdrawal from Iraq will mean the jihadists will disappear from the Iraqi political landscape, I think you are deceiving yourself. There are much deeper social grievances which animate the militant Islamist movements, to do with the exclusion of the middle class from economic and political power, the decline of the old social classes, etc. Those social questions need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed by radical, democratic movements in those societies.
And, of course, Islamists – of all types – are the militant enemies of democratic movements and of democracy itself. Either you recognise the need to fight alongside democratic movements against the militant Islmists, in Iraq and elsewhere (including within Muslim communities here, of course) or…what? Even the more sophisticated blowback argument of the Gary Younge variety gives no sense of identifying the militant Islamists as our enemy – the enemy of socialists, of democrats, of feminists, of women in general, of lesbians and gay men, of trade unionists, and so on, both in the ‘Muslim world’ and on our doorstep. It criticises the method of fighting terror adopted by our governments, but as though there was simply no need to fight it at all. Read the rest of this entry »
Remind you of anything?
This, for instance:
Socialist Worker, Sat 15 Sep 2001
The full horror of the attacks in the US was breaking as Socialist Worker went to press. Very many innocent people had been killed or injured.
Nobody knew for sure on Tuesday who was responsible. If it was people from the Middle East it will be because they believe, wrongly, that it is the only way to respond to the horrors they have suffered from the US and other governments. The tragic scenes in New York and Washington are the bitter fruits of policies pursued by the US state.
US president George Bush spoke of terrorist outrages on Tuesday. Yet the state he heads has been responsible for burying men, women and children under piles of rubble. Ten years ago his father sent hundreds of US planes to bomb Iraqi civilians night after night during the Gulf War. They killed over 100,000 civilians and conscripts—’collateral damage’ in the US’s war for oil.
Two years ago the US and NATO bombed towns and cities in Serbia and Kosovo for 78 days. Children, hospital patients, old people—all these and more had as little warning that bombs were about to drop on them as did those who died in the US this week. And the US, backed by Tony Blair, imposes a murderous embargo on the people of Iraq, backed by frequent bombing raids.
In Israel the US supports Ariel Sharon, a war criminal. Israel has murdered over 600 Palestinians in the 11 months of the intifada (uprising). Faced with the might of the US, some people can become so desperate that they try to fight back against this military giant with the limited weapons they have to hand.
They do not have Cruise missiles—so they take to turning a hijacked airliner into a suicide bomb instead. It is not a method that can break US power. Some military officials would have suffered from the explosion at the Pentagon. But many more innocent civilians were killed in New York and Washington. Tuesday’s suicide raids were born of desperation at the supreme arrogance and contempt of the rulers of the most powerful capitalist state on Earth.
In 1998 the US responded to a bomb attack on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by blowing up the only medicine factory in the desperately poor country of Sudan, and by bombing Afghanistan. It will be looking for similar revenge now. That will drive more people to hate the US.
It is the responsibility of everyone who is revolted at the lethal world order the US and its allies sit at the top of to offer a way forward. It needs to be based on the mass collective power of ordinary people across the world, and targeted precisely at our rulers.
Guest post by Pink Prosecco
The acronym TL:DR might have been invented for the prolix Glenn Greenwald, but I’ve decided to try to answer Jim’s challenge at the end of his post of April 23 and see what Greenwald might be getting at here. Is it, as Jim was inclined to think, just ‘incoherent gibberish’?
To my slight annoyance, I think Greenwald may have some fraction of a point. I suspect that, rather than having a well worked out and coherent definition of terrorism which we apply impartially to every possible case, many of us may decide whether or not something is a ‘terrorist’ act for less objective reasons. And it can’t be denied that the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘terrorism’ are often associated together.
It is for this reason, Greenwald argues, that people have been quicker to use the word ‘terrorism’ about the Boston bombers than about, say, the Aurora cinema shooting. He cites Ali Abunimah’s argument that the ‘terrorist’ label may not be an accurate one:
“Abunimah wrote a superb analysis of whether the bombing fits the US government’s definition of “terrorism”, noting that “absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted ‘in furtherance of political or social objectives’” or that their alleged act was ‘intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.’”
But even Greenwald himself can’t avoid the evidence that at least one of the brothers was very likely influenced at some level by an ideology with clearly defined goals:
“All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism”
He tries to argue that just because someone is strongly Muslim that does not mean that the acts of violence he commits inevitably spring from his faith, asserting that “the mass murder spree by homosexual Andrew Cunanan was not evidence that homosexuality motivated the violence.” This is a pretty weak argument because there is no pattern of terrorist acts committed in the name of homosexuality, no series of YouTube videos encouraging such crimes.
But Greenwald perhaps misses a trick here:
“It’s certainly possible that it will turn out that, if they are guilty, their prime motive was political or religious. But it’s also certainly possible that it wasn’t: that it was some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature.”
It may not be appropriate to draw such a clear distinction between mental illness on the one hand and politics and religion on the other. Alienated and unstable people may be attracted to extreme ideas or ideologies
A pretty obvious focus for a disturbed young man who happens to be Muslim is jihadist extremism. Now if your focus is instead, say, the Knights Templar or fantasy role playing games and you go on a random killing spree, then no one is going to link your acts to videos preaching violence in the name of your pet obsession. So – to sum up – the unhinged actions of a deranged young Muslim are more likely to associate themselves with an ideology linked to several recent politically motivated and well organised acts of terror –and thus Greenwald may be correct, in a sense, in arguing that Muslims are more likely to be labelled terrorists.
“As usual, the limits of selective empathy, the rush to blame Muslims, and the exploitation of fear all instantly emerge”
The title of the present post, and the opening quote both come directly from a piece written by one Glenn Greenwald that appeared on the Guardian‘s website on Tuesday 16 April. That’s just one day after the bombings.
Now, I don’t know anything about Mr Greenwald beyond the fact that he’s billed as “a columnist for Guardian US” and seems to be a fairly typical Guardianista: invertebrate- liberal, knee-jerk anti-American, routinely anti-Israeli, generally ignorant and probably quite well-meaning at a personal level. Sort of a Gary Younge without the intelligence and/or a Seumas Milne without the rank hypocrisy.
For a start, Greenwald’s claim that there was a “rush to blame Muslims” after the bombings (in a post he wrote just hours after the attacks!) is simply incorrect. Certainly the Obama administration didn’t do that: they warned against “jumping to conclusions” and didn’t even use the word “terrorism” in their initial reactions. There were suggestions in the media, largely as a result of premature and irresponsible social media speculation, that a Saudi national was involved. This man turned out to have been an innocent victim, but speculation about his possible involvement (mainly in the New York Times) hardly amounts to what Greenwald describes as “The rush, one might say eagerness, to conclude that the attackers were Muslim [which was] palpable and unseemly, even without any real evidence.”
Greenwald is on somewhat stronger ground with his point about “selective empathy”:
“The widespread compassion for yesterday’s victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers.”
Of course it is true that the western media gives far more coverage to killings that take place ’at home’ than they do to comparable outrages elsewhere. Greenwald seems to suggest that this is the result of simple hypocrisy and possibly (though he doesn’t use the word), racism. At a certain level, it’s hard to disagree: an innocent victim (especially when it’s a child) should count the same whether he or she’s died as a result of a terrorist outrage in America or a US airstrike in Afghanistan.
But Greenwald fatally undermines his own case (insofar as he has a coherent case) by pointing out something that is undeniably and self-evidently true:
“There’s nothing wrong per se with paying more attention to tragedy and violence that happens relatively nearby and in familiar places. Whether wrong or not, it’s probably human nature, or at least human instinct, to do that, and it happens all over the world. I’m not criticising that. But one wishes that the empathy for victims and outrage over the ending of innocent life that instantly arises when the US is targeted by this sort of violence would at least translate into similar concern when the US is perpetuating it, as it so often does (far, far more often than it is targeted by such violence).”
So what point is Greenwald trying to make? If it’s simply an appeal to all those outraged by what happened in Boston to also consider the innocent victims of US military adventures abroad, then fair enough: no-one here at ‘Shiraz’ would argue with that. But I can’t help thinking that Greenwald really wants to go further than that, and what he’s really trying to say is something put much more bluntly by Lindsey German of ‘Stop The War’ and ‘Counterfire’:
“[I]t is not hard to conclude that western lives are valued much more highly than those of people in Afghanistan or the Middle East, and that bombs in the middle of major US cities are regarded as more newsworthy than those in the Afghan countryside or in Baghdad…Whatever the truth about this latest bombing, the continued refusal to acknowledge the widespread grievances against the US and its allies caused by the wars and US policies in the Middle East will lead to turmoil until solutions are found.”
Now that, I think you’ll agree, spells things out rather more plainly than Greenwald managed, or perhaps, dared: German is, essentially, saying ‘the US had it coming and deserves it.’
If you think that’s a bit unfair on Ms German, then remember: she and her partner, Mr John Rees, were effectively running the SWP at the time of the 9/11 attacks, when Socialist Worker‘s headline was “Horror in the United States: Bitter fruit of US policy”, and the de facto SWP ‘line’ (I know this from first-hand observation at Birmingham Trades Council, the Socialist Alliance and elsewhere) was to celebrate and gloat.
Look, comrades, it aught to be obvious: the lives of innocent American civilians are not worth more than anyone else’s: but neither are they worth any less.
NB: Greenwald has a new piece in today’s Graun objecting to the use of the word “terrorism” as anti-Muslim. It seems to me to be incoherent gibberish, but if anyone can explain it to me I’d be grateful. I may return to this latest piece shortly.
Prof Norm reminds us that:
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the attack on Halabja :
On March 16, 1988, 5,000 Kurds died in the city and 10,000 were injured after a seven-hour bombardment by Saddam Hussein’s jets and artillery. The population was blanketed with blood, nerve and blister agents in the worst chemical attack on a civilian population since the Second World War.
The poet Choman Hardi has written this poem, ‘Yek deqiqe bo Halabja’, to commemorate the dead. On her Facebook page she says that the poem is ‘dedicated to the memory of the victims who, because of circulating images of their mutilated bodies, seem to have disappeared from our consciousness as human beings, their value seems to be reduced to their victimhood.’
One nation, under the gun
Just after seven-thirty on the morning of February 27th, a seventeen-year-old boy named T. J. Lane walked into the cafeteria at Chardon High School, about thirty miles outside Cleveland. It was a Monday, and the cafeteria was filled with kids, some eating breakfast, some waiting for buses to drive them to programs at other schools, some packing up for gym class. Lane sat down at an empty table, reached into a bag, and pulled out a .22-calibre pistol. He stood up, raised the gun, and fired. He said not a word.
Russell King, a seventeen-year-old junior, was sitting at a table with another junior, Nate Mueller. King, shot in the head, fell face first onto the table, a pool of blood forming. A bullet grazed Mueller’s ear. “I could see the flame at the end of the gun,” Mueller said later. Daniel Parmertor, a sixteen-year-old snowboarder, was shot in the head. Someone screamed “Duck!” Demetrius Hewlin, sixteen, was also shot in the head, and slid under the table. Joy Rickers, a senior, tried to run; Lane shot her as she fled. Nickolas Walczak, shot in his neck, arm, back, and face, fell to the floor. He began crawling toward the door.
Ever since the shootings at Columbine High School, in a Denver suburb, in 1999, American schools have been preparing for gunmen. Chardon started holding drills in 2007, after the Virginia Tech massacre, when twenty-three-year-old Seung-Hui Cho, a college senior, shot fifty-seven people in Blacksburg.
At Chardon High School, kids ran through the halls screaming “Lockdown!” Some of them hid in the teachers’ lounge; they barricaded the door with a piano. Someone got on the school’s public-address system and gave instructions, but everyone knew what to do. Students ran into classrooms and dived under desks; teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Joseph Ricci, a math teacher, heard Walczak, who was still crawling, groaning in the hallway. Ricci opened the door and pulled the boy inside. No one knew if the shooter had more guns, or more rounds. Huddled under desks, students called 911 and texted their parents. One tapped out, “Prayforus.”
From the cafeteria, Frank Hall, the assistant football coach, chased Lane out of the building, and he ran off into the woods.
Moments later, four ambulances arrived. E.M.T.s raced Rickers and Walczak to Chardon’s Hillcrest Hospital. Hewlin, Parmertor, and King were flown by helicopter to a trauma center at MetroHealth Medical Center, in Cleveland. By eight-thirty, the high school had been evacuated.
At a quarter to nine, police officers with dogs captured Lane, about a mile from the school.
“I hate to say it, but we trained for exactly this type of thing, a school emergency of this type,” Dan McClelland, the county sheriff, said.
Danny Parmertor died that afternoon. That evening, St. Mary’s Church opened its doors, and the people of Chardon sank to their knees and keened. At the town square, students gathered to hold a vigil. As night fell, they lit candles. Drew Gittins, sixteen, played a Black Eyed Peas song on his guitar. “People killin’, people dyin’,” he sang. “People got me, got me questionin’, Where is the love?”
Russell King had been too badly wounded. A little after midnight, doctors said that they couldn’t save him…
… Read it all here
“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” -Second Amendment, the U.S. Constitution
Whatever the merits of such notions about personal and national security (they are, to say the least, highly questionable in this day and age), it is important to note that the only kind of militia the Second Amendment expressly regards as consistent with security is a “well-regulated” militia. One may rationally and reasonably conclude that this applies both to an organized militia and an unorganized one. Otherwise, an armed citizenry consisting of men and women using guns for presumed high purpose according to their respective dictates of personal whim and political fancy is the stuff from which anarchy could result, and in turn the tyranny against which the private possession of guns is supposed to protect Americans.
The right to keep and bear arms (a term that connotes a military purpose) stems from the English common law right of self-defense. However, the possession of guns in the mother country of the common law was never an absolute right. Various conditions were imposed. Britain today has one of the strictest gun laws in the world.
There is nothing absolute about the freedoms in our own Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech is not freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Freedom of religion is not freedom to have multiple spouses, or sacrifice a lamb in the local park, as religiously sanctioned practices. Similarly, whatever right the Second Amendment protects regarding the private possession of guns, for whatever definition of “militia,” is not an absolute right. It must serve the overall public interest, including (from the preamble of the US Constitution) the need to “insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.” Whatever right there is to possess firearms is no less important than the right of every American, gun owners included, to protection against the possession of guns by persons who by any reasonable standard lack the crucial credentials for responsible gun ownership.
- From a 1977 article by David J.Steinberg, Executive Director, National Council for a Responsible Firearms Policy: “Does The Second Amendment Mean What It Says?”
- Socialists debate gun control here: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/4681
Here is a press release [from Wednesday 24th October] from the Marikana Support Campaign on the intimidation of commission of inquiry witnesses:
The Marikana Support Campaign is deeply shocked by this evening’s violent detention, on unknown grounds, of four Marikana worker leaders, and the abuse of other members of the community, including women, and the Marikana Support Campaign local coordinator by the police.
The group, returning by taxi to Marikana from a punishing and emotional day in the Farlam Commission, was corralled by an estimated thirty to forty police in a casspir, vans and unmarked vehicles. The group we all wearing campaign T shirts, stating ‘Remember the Slain of Marikana’ was ordered out of the vehicle by police wielding pistols and rifles, forced to lie face down in the dirt, and pinned down with booted feet at their necks. The police slapped and beat members of the group, threatening to shoot them if they attempted to look up. One member of the group was warned “I will blow your head away!”
Four of the men, all former strike leaders at Lonmin and key witnesses at the commission , were hauled up off the ground, identified by police as “these are the ones that we are looking for.” No reasons were given for their detention, and a member of the group recalls how the sounds of boots striking bodies could be heard as the men were dragged away and thrown into the police vans.
This unlawful and deeply abusive behavior by the police can only test the confidence of the family members of the slain workers, the surviving workers and community members’ in the work of the Commission. The police behavior signals their continued disregard for the civil and political rights of citizens, and the work of the Commission.
People testifying before or supporting the work of the Commission must be guaranteed their safety. Instead, community members attacked by the police tonight feel that the Commission has “become a hunting ground for the police.” This is the place where the police identify people, and will come after them to punish and silence them. The work of the Commission is being deliberately thwarted by the police to escape the responsibility they carry for the massacre of 34 people.
The Marikana Solidarity Campaign calls on the Farlam Commission and President Zuma to put in place an immediate moratorium on the SAPS and its harassment and victimization of Marikana workers and community members. We also call on the Commission to demand the immediate release of all strike leaders that have been detained in the past two weeks. The Commission and the President must ensure that the necessary conditions of trust and safety for those appearing before the Commission are met, or it will fail miserably!
H/t: Martyn H
Brits, send protest messages the South African High Commission: http://southafricahouseuk.com/
This article by Seumas Milne, written shortly before the final collapse of the USSR, appeared in the Guardian of March 10 1990. It is not available anywhere else online (as far as I can tell), nor is it included in the new book, wonderfully entitled The Revenge of History, made up of the “cream” of Milne’s Guardian columns. We publish the piece as a service to the international workers’ movement and in the interests of the study of moral and political bankruptcy.
From THE GUARDIAN Saturday March 10 1990
The figure of 25 million deaths that is being attributed to the Stalin regime should be revised in the light of glasnost reports. Seumas Milne analyses new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations
Stalin’s missing millions
All over South-east of England billboards have appeared in the past week declaring: “Once upon a time there was an uncle who murdered 25 million of his children.” Next to this startling slogan is a photograph of the man who was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union for a generation, hugging an Aryan-looking Young Pioneer with pigtails.
The advertisement is a trailer for Thames Television’s block-buster documentary series on the life of Stalin, which begins on Tuesday. Forthcoming press publicity will follow a similar theme, setting out the kind of absurdities which could have led to arrest and execution at the height of the Soviet Terror in the late 1930′s.
The programmes come as glasnost has provoked a stream of new information and memoirs about the Stalin era in the Soviet Union itself, 30 years after Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing his former boss led to the first phase of revelations and rehabilitations. For the most part attention in the Soviet media has turned to more pressing problems. But the flood of new horror stories has emboldened an academic and political current which is bent on overturning the consensus view of Hitler and Nazism as the supreme evil of 20th century history.
Not only is it increasingly common for Stalin to be bracketed with Hitler as the twin monster of the modern era, even in the Soviet Union, but in West Germany and Austria a significant “revisionist” academic trend — represented by historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hilgruber, and Ernst Topitsch — goes on to argue that the Stalinist system was actually responsible for the Nazis and the second world war.
Central to these debates is the issue of the number of Stalin’s victims. Controversy about the scale of repression in the Stalin era has rumbled on in Western universities for many years, and has now been joined by Soviet experts who are equally divided. Thames Television, with its 25 million deaths, has opted for the furthest extreme.
Hitherto, the British writer Robert Conquest who in the 1950′s worked for the Foreign Office propaganda outfit IRD, led the field with his view that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths. Phillip Whitehead, one of the Stalin series producers, says he is not to blame for the advertising campaign but thinks a 25 million figure can be defended if the Soviet dead in the first three months of the Nazi invasion of 1941 are included on the grounds of Stalin’s negligence.
But even that is not enough for Thomas Methuen, publishers of of the companion book to the series, who bid up the figure to 30 million in their publicity and — in an echo of the German revisionists — describe Stalin as “the greatest mass killer of the 20th century.” The record estimate so far has been 50 million, made in the Sunday Times two years nago.
There are three basic catagories of people usually regarded as Stalin’s victims: first there are those executed for political offences, most of whom died in the Terror years of 1937-8. Then there are those who died in the labour camps or in the process of mass deportations. Finally — and almost certainly the biggest number — there are the peasants who died during the famine of the early 30s.
In the complete absence of any hard evidence from the Soviet Union, estimates for a grand total of all three have been made by extrapolating the number of “excess deaths” from census figures. This process is fraught with statistical problems, including the fact that the 1937 census was supported, and the 1939 census is thought to have been artificially inflated by terrified Soviet statisticians.. Add to that disputes about the size of peasant families and the possibilities for discrepancies multiply.
Among Soviet specialists and demographers in the West, the majority view appears to be that the kind of numbers used by Robert Conquest and his supporters are wildly exaggerated. Prof Sheila Fitzpatrick, of Chicago University comments: “the younger generation of Soviet historians tend to go for far lower numbers. There is no basis in fact for Conquest’s claims.”
Some of the most recent Western demographic analysis, by Barbera Anderson and Brian Silver in the US, estimates that the most likely figure for all the “excess” deaths — whether from purges, famine or deportations — between 1926 and 1939 lies in a range with a median of 3.5 million, and a limit of eight million.
Estimates of that order have found support across a broad range of academic work, from Frank Lorrimer’s pioneering post-war analysis to Prof Jerry Hough’s 1979 study to the 1980s research by the British academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, now at the University of Melbourne. But this growing consensus has been thrown on the defensive by Soviet specialists like Roy Medvedev, who — using the same data — have apparently backed Conquest’s position, or something like it.
When it comes to the famine deaths, an exact figure will almost certainly never be known. But suddenly, after years of working in the dark, specialists are obtainingv some hard Soviet data. Last month, the KGB published for the first time the records of the number of victims of the Stalin purges.
Between 1930 and 1953, the report states, 3,778,234 people had been sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities or anti-state crimes,of whom 786,098 were shot. From his office at the Hoover Institute in California yesterday, Conquest said it was difficult to say whether the figures were right, but he thought “they could be true.”
Even more remarkably, the records originally made by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) of those held in labour camps and penal colonies during the Stalin years are now becoming available. An article from a “restricted access” Soviet Interior Ministry journal has been passed to the Guardian, which lists the total Gulag populations during the 1930s and 1940s.
Originally collated for Khrushchev in the 1950s, the figures show how the camp numbers rose relentlessly from 179,000 in 1930 to 510,307 in 1934, to 1,296,494 in 1936, to 1,881,570 in 1938 at the height of the Terror. The population fell during the war, but reached its peak in 1950 when 2,561,351 people are recorded as detained in camps or colonies.
These figures published openly here for the first time are huge: but they are a long way from the 19 million camp population estimated by Robert Conquest. The Soviet report records that an average of 200,ooo were released every year, and puts the death-rate in the camps at 3 per cent a year per on average, rising to more than 5 per cent in 1937-8. The camps were mostly emptied of political prisoners after Stalin’s death.
Are the figures credible? In the context of the current political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and the fact that they were in a restricted publication, it seems improbable that they have been tampered with. Of course, they do not cover the famine and other disasters. But they do begin to add credence to the mainstream academic view that the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies was closer to 3.5 million than 25 million.
Why do numbers matter anyway? After all Robert Conquest may be out by a factor of five or 10, but the repressions were still enormous.
If, however, a figure of 20 million or 25 million becomes current currency, it adds credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison. Already, anyone who questions these figures — even in the academic debates — is denounced as a “neo-Stalinist.”
As the Irish writer Alexander Cockburn who started what turned into a highly emotional exchange last year in the American journal, the Nation, puts it: “Any computation that does not soar past 10 million is somehow taken as being soft on Stalin.” And by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war.
JD adds: when the Soviet archives were fully opened in 1991, they yielded new data that most reputable scholars consider to broadly confirm Robert Conquest’s position if not (quite) the figure of 20 million deaths directly resulting from Stalin’s rule and policies.
In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his pioneering work, The Great Terror (first published in 1968) Conquest stated that in the light of documents released since 1991 from the Presidential, State, Party and Police archives, and the declassification by Russia’s Federal Security Service of some 2 million secret documents:
“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million.”
According to his friend, Kingsley Amis, when his (Conquest’s) publishers asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest suggested the new version of the book be entitled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.
The Guardian – not a publication known of its criticism of Islamic fundamentalism or, indeed, any other form of religious bigotry, today publishes a powerful piece by Mohammed Hanif. If you read nothing else today, read this:
How to commit blasphemy in Pakistan
The country’s blasphemy law is overwhelmingly being used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas. As the case of 14-year-old Christian Rimsha Masih gains global attention, author Mohammed Hanif recalls a few of the tragedies that have unfolded as a result of the law, and explains why politicians have failed to act.
Fourteen years ago, around the time young Rimsha Masih, now in jail under Pakistan‘s blasphemy law, was born, a Roman Catholic bishop walked into a courthouse in Sahiwal, quite close to my hometown in Central Punjab. The Right Rev John Joseph was no ordinary clergyman; he was the first native bishop in Pakistan and the first ever Punjabi bishop anywhere in the world. He was also a brilliant and celebrated community organiser, the kind of man oppressed communities look up to as a role model. Joseph walked in alone, asking a junior priest to wait outside the courthouse. Inside the court, he took out a handgun and shot himself in the head. The bullet in his head was his protest against the court’s decision to sentence a fellow Christian, Ayub Masih, to death for committing blasphemy. Masih had been charged with arguing with a Muslim co-worker over religious matters. The exact content of the conversation cannot be repeated here because that would be blasphemous. The bishop had campaigned long and hard to get the blasphemy law repealed without any luck. He wrote prior to his death: “I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.”
Joseph had been pursuing another case, in which an 11-year-old, Salamat Masih, along with his father and uncle, was accused of scribbling something blasphemous on the wall of the mosque. We don’t really know what he wrote, because reproducing it, here or in court, would constitute blasphemy.
The boy’s uncle, Manzoor Masih, was shot dead during the trial. The Masih case went to the high court, where a judge, Arif Bhatti, applied common sense and released him. A year later the judge was murdered in his own chambers, and his killers claimed that the judge had committed blasphemy by freeing those accused in the blasphemy case.
Frustrated and in a fit of rage, the bishop meditated and reached the conclusion that he should kill himself publicly to make his point.
You could argue that Joseph should have organised candlelight vigils, gone on a hunger strike, hired better lawyers. But he had tried everything and realised that a bullet in the head in the middle of a court was his only way to draw attention to this colossal absurdity called blasphemy law.
He was wrong. The law stayed. Many more Christians were killed.
There are situations though, where confronted with the prospect of a 14-year-old being sentenced to death, as a celebrated community leader you can’t do anything but take a gun to your head.
And hope for the best.
How to commit blasphemy in Pakistan
A young girl carrying trash in a plastic bag in a slum in the capital of Pakistan is not likely to arouse much curiosity. Not unless the girl is a Christian. Not unless there is a Muslim boy who wants to inspect the contents of her bag. Then this certain young man, Hammad, takes the trash bag to the local mosque to show it to the imam, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti (also known as Maulana Jadoon), who decides that the contents of the bag are, indeed, blasphemous but wonders if they are blasphemous enough. So he inserts some pages of the Qur’an in the trash bag. What the girl was carrying was a book of alphabets, taught to children, may or may not have had a verse from the Qur’an in it. Reproducing an image of the contents of this trash bag would be blasphemous, so we are never likely to know. We discover the imam’s role in sexing up the blasphemous contents two weeks later when one of the imam’s deputies cracks up. By then Rimsha has been arrested, refused bail, sent to jail and a medical board constituted to ascertain her age and mental health. We are still not sure if she is 11 or 14, we don’t know if she has Down’s Syndrome as was originally claimed. In the initial days of the case, human-rights workers pinned their hopes on Rimsha’s mental condition. As if those who demanded her arrest, those who arrested her, those who denied her bail and put her in jail were all mentally “normal”. Her family has gone into hiding; another 300 Christian families have been forced to leave their homes and are struggling to find shelter in one of the Islamabad forests.
So what can constitute blasphemy under the blasphemy law, which has killed dozens in the past decade, made thousands homeless and millions live in permanent fear about what might be found in their trashcan. It’s up to the lawyers to argue over how to avoid: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles …” but here are some of the everyday situations that can turn you into a blasphemer:
1. Transporting ashes in a plastic bag to a rubbish dump, as has happened in Masih’s case.
2. Discussing conjugal rights according to Islam with fellow Muslims if you disagree with them. You might think you are with a fellow Muslim, around a water pump and relatively safe. That is what a schoolteacher in Chakwal thought. And got into an argument. He has been in jail for the past 10 months. His 14-year-old daughter told the daily newspaper Dawn last week that kids won’t talk to her because her father is a blasphemer.
3. Not minding your spellings. Last year a teacher checking exam papers called in the police after he found blasphemous material in an answer sheet. The police wouldn’t reveal the exact material because that, you know, would be blasphemous. Later it transpired that it was a case of bad spelling.
4. Writing a novel called Blasphemy. Last year there were calls to put an author on trial because she had been disrespectful to religious scholars and spiritual saints. Last I heard she was fine but not writing any more novels with any other name.
5. Writing a children’s poem with a lion as its central character. Pakistan’s most famous social activist, Akhtar Hameed Khan, who spent his life helping people in Asia’s largest slum, tried his hand at a poem like that and spent his last years in courts facing blasphemy charges.
6. Refusing someone a drink of water. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who among other blasphemous things (which can’t be repeated for reasons by now obvious to the readers of this article) refused her co-workers a drink of water. The local imam accused her of blasphemy. The then governor, Salman Taseer, came out in her support, talked about changing the law, and was killed by his own police bodyguard. The policeman’s picture adorns many shops and businesses in Pakistan. Taseer’s name has become synonymous with “going too far”. And nobody, really nobody, wants to mention Bibi’s name in a discussion about blasphemy law.
7. Throwing away a visiting card. A doctor in Hyderabad did that to a pestering pharmaceutical salesman and found himself in serious trouble. The salesman had Muhammad as part of his name.
Blasphemy: a children’s story
An academic subject called Islamic Studies was made compulsory for all students in the early 80s. As a student you were taught a story about the prophet Muhammad’s life. It was part of Muslim folklore, repeated over and over again in Friday sermons, and told to little kids as a bedtime story. When the prophet started preaching in Mecca, there was a lot of hostility towards him. People pelted him with stones, made fun of him and his new upstart God and his teachings. There was one woman in his Mecca neighbourhood who was particularly nasty to him. As he left his house every day, she would be waiting for him with a basket of garbage that she would empty over him. It happened day after day but he never rebuked the woman, nor changed his path. Then one day he walked the street and no garbage was thrown at him. He turned back and went looking for his tormentor and discovered that the woman was ill and bedridden. He inquired about her health and told her that since she hadn’t come out to insult him like she did every day, he was worried about her. The woman, impressed by his generosity, converted to Islam.
There is another story that kids are taught these days. This story has almost become the new folklore, repeated endlessly on social networking sites and narrated in graphic detail by the supporters of the blasphemy law. According to this story when prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca he announced a general amnesty except for those who had committed blasphemy against his person. He ordered them to be beheaded. One blasphemer was killed even when he tried to take shelter in the Khana Qaba in Mecca, the most sacred place for Muslims, where it is strictly forbidden to kill anyone.
A common Muslim might be puzzled over how both these stories could be true? But before puzzlement starts to border on blasphemy, one must seek the guidance of Pakistani Islamic scholars, who tell us that Islam is the most humane of religions, that there is nothing wrong with the blasphemy law, that it is the implementation which is problematic. Before the current law came into existence, in 60 years there were six reported cases of blasphemy. Since the current law was constituted there have been more than four thousand. But the law has such power that even pleading the statistics is considered blasphemous. When Governor Taseer challenged it, they killed him, and then many of the same Islamic scholars refused to say his funeral prayers.
The fear of Allah v the fear of mullah
Not too long ago, the role of the clergy in a neighbourhood was confined to birth and deaths, funeral and special religious occasions. You went to the mosque to offer your prayers, you prayed for better crops, for the rains to start or stop; travellers could expect to find shelter for the night. A mosque is no more just that. Equipped with a powerful public-address system and controlled by sectarian religious groups, it’s become a little battle headquarter for the neighbourhood. The continuous Shia massacres across Pakistan are not hatched in some far-off land, by enemies of Pakistan or enemies of Islam as Pakistan’s maulanas pretend; they are preached, planned and executed from local mosques.
People listen to religious scholars.
“If she is innocent, she should be released,” thundered a dozen maulanas on TV screens after Rimsha was arrested. “And if she is guilty, the law must take its course.” They completely ignored the fact that an illiterate child is not likely to even know what constitutes blasphemy. And the law they want to be implemented has led to a situation that even when the accused is found innocent, they are condemned for life.
All you need to do to condemn someone for life is to switch on a mosque loudspeaker and make the allegation. Before Chishti was caught in his own trap in the Rimsha case, no accuser had ever been arrested or tried. The laws against hate speech are weak, and almost never implemented. And how can it be considered hate speech when all they are doing is expressing their faith that might include demanding death for all Shias and Ahmedis, and an occasional Christian who may or may not have crossed the line.
There are enough sectarian organisations in Pakistan to wage perpetual war. There are enough factions within these organisations that will shoot down every argument, every appeal to rationality. You can’t reason with Allah, so you mustn’t reason with a mullah, because that too might be blasphemous.
A few days before it was found that Chishti had planted evidence against Rimsha, he was interviewed on TV. He was asked if he had been campaigning to expel Christians from his neighbourhood. He seemed puzzled for a moment, then rebuked: “This is a Muslim country, Allah has given it to us. If these Christians make noise at the time of our prayers, then they should be asked to leave.” I am certain that even when Chishti was stuffing pages from the Qur’an in the poor girl’s trash bag, he believed he was doing Allah’s work.
The Christian work
There is a well-off Christian businessman in Karachi who fusses over the trash basket in his office, handles his work file carefully, because, you never know, a stray scrap of paper can ruin you, your family, your business.
Christians make up less than 2% of Pakistanis, the majority of them very poor. Many of them are converts from low caste Hindus, who embraced Christianity in the hope of better status, but most end up sweeping the streets and cleaning clogged up gutters. Because of rampant unemployment the sanitary profession is not exclusive to Christians any more – there are thousands of Muslims, mostly migrants from rural areas, who sweep the streets and haul the trash but because of old prejudices, it’s still considered a profession beneath Muslims. The Christian businessman in Karachi was hiring a cleaning person for his office and inquired about his background. The candidate told him: my family comes from farming but because of bad times we are forced to do this Christian work.
My father, the blasphemer
My father was as devout and zealous a Muslim as I have ever seen. Never missed a prayer, built a huge mosque in his village and always preferred the stricter, literalist version of religion. He also had a mysterious stomach ailment and the only cure was a verse from the Qur’an recited by the only Christian gentleman in the neighbourhood. This accidental healer was also the neighbourhood sweeper. When I think of these two old men huddled in a room, reciting verses from the Qur’an to cure a minor ailment, I wonder if they were committing blasphemy?
For the first time since the Right Rev John Joseph shot himself, there is some public support for a blasphemy victim. Some religious scholars have come out in Rimsha’s support, an odd politician or two have talked about this case becoming a tipping point in the blasphemy debate. But let’s not have any illusions: no political party has the courage to rewrite a single word in the law let alone repeal it. The 11-year-old Salamat Masih who Joseph had fought for was sentenced to death. A higher court later overturned the decision but it was obvious the boy would never be safe in the country. A Christian charity helped him find asylum in Europe.
Rimsha (if found not guilty) has been offered sanctuary by one of the country’s largest seminaries, Jamia Banuria, in Karachi. Banuria is also a staunch supporter of the blasphemy law. Rimsha probably doesn’t know that she might end up spending the rest of her life in a Muslim seminary or be left at the mercy of a Christian charity.
In Joseph’s hometown in Faisalabad, in a Muslim seminary called Jamia Rehmania, they made a monument to his sacrifice. Jamia Rehmania also supports the blasphemy law. The memorial, called Bishop John Joseph Memorial Hall is the only monument in Pakistan dedicated to a blasphemer.