Having watched, pondered and re-watched Paxman’s interview with comedian Russell Brand on last night’s Newsnight, I’m still not sure what to make of it. My initial response was that Brand is a pretentious, incoherent idiot, spouting a lot of pseudo-revolutionary hot air and half-digested anarchistic platitudes. But several people I’ve spoken to today told me they were impressed by him. So I’ve watched it again and have to admit that, after a facetious start, he becomes more sympathetic as he gets angrier. But I still think he’s a prat – and a banal prat at that – and wonder what the hell the New Statesman is playing at, hiring him as a guest editor this week.
Judge for yourself…
…and feel free to let us know what you think.
This Daily Mail on Milliband business has certainly brought people together. From Tariq Ali to David Cameron they all agree that the Daily Mail was obnoxious, hateful, wrong, and every other derogatory adjective in its attack on Ed Milliband’s father.
Mehdi Hasan’s diatribe against the Daily Mail on Question Time has gone viral.
I’m no great fan of Mehdi Hasan and have wondered why such an ultra-religious bloke got the Senior Editor (Politics) gig at the New Statesman, but I was applauding this:-
Let’s have the debate about who hates Britain more, it isn’t a dead Jewish refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy, it’s the immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting Daily Mail.
Good for him.
The Daily Mail has fought back very dirty. It has now leaked a letter from Mehdi Hasan to the editor of the Daily Mail requesting a column, and presenting himself as being in tune with the Mail’s ethos:-
- that the “Mail had a vitally important part to play in national debate” [I suppose all forms of bigotry should appear in national debate - it's only fair]:
- that he admires Paul Dacre’s relentless focus on the need for morality and integrity in public life;
- that he was more in tune with the Mail than the left on “social and moral issues”;
- that he will make the left wing case against abortions;
- that he admires the Mail’s social conservatism on marriage, the family, abortion and teenage pregnancy;
It’s no surprise that a religious fellow like Hasan should be socially conservative. It’s easy enough to imagine a socially conservative Catholic with leftish views on economics and foreign policy. Hasan didn’t say that he’d write about cellulite, women getting fat and dodgy foreigners, and if hired, might have given the Mail’s readership a more positive spin on immigration. But what the hell was he doing at the New Statesman?
(Yuk, this link is to the repulsive Guy Fawkes, but Mehdi praises Dacre’s “outspoken defence of faith, and Christian culture, in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists.”
Militant – for atheists like Richard Dawkins – means outspoken and rude.
Militant – for theocrats – means mowing down children in a shopping centre.
Above: Charles Lindbergh puts the Stop The War case for non-intervention in WW2
BBC Radio 4′s ‘Any Questions’ is a pretty reliable barometer of middle-England, middle class opinion. These days, anyone on the panel who denounces intervention of any kind in overseas conflicts, can be guaranteed a big round of applause, regardless of whether the speaker is from the isolationist right or the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.
This week’s programme, inevitably, included a question about Syria, and the panel was unanimous in opposing the idea of arming the opposition, to the obvious approval of the audience. Right wing Tory isolationist Daniel Hannan put the non-intervention case most succinctly when he said “It’s not our business… in Syria we have no connections …we have no particular interest.”
Smug, shallow leftist commentator Mehdi Hasan (New Statesman and Huffington Post) chimed in with his familiar, sanctimonious riff along the lines of one sides’s as bad as the other … both sides have been accused of using chemical weapons … sending the rebels weapons or imposing a no-fly zone will just make matters worse…etc. etc…
Hannon, who made it clear that he agreed with Hasan’s isolationist conclusions, was honest enough to chip in with the following:
“A one-sided arms embargo is a form of intervention, as it was in Bosnia, as it was in the Spanish Civil War. If you’re allowing one side free access to global weaponry and denying the other [weapons] then you are in practice intervening.”
An important point, that the isolationist movement of both left and right rarely acknowledge. The assumption, all too often, is that only military intervention costs lives, while staying out of it saves lives. Patent nonsense, once you think about it, but that’s the presumption upon which people like the so-called Stop The War Coalition and their media stooges, expect us to accept their case.
Hopi Sen puts the contrary view very well in a recent piece on the cost of non-intervention in Syria:
The last decade has been a steady retreat from intervention.
We know why. We saw the terrible costs of intervention first hand, while the deaths of the Marsh Arabs, the repression of the Kurds, the brutality of Saddam’s regime (and yes, our real-politik driven complicity in that regime) were somehow forgotten. We even managed to forget that the cost of containment was a society trapped by sanctions, a price worth paying for the containment of a regime we did not wish to overthrow.
Yet now, in Syria, we also see the price of inaction.
I make the following comparison not to compare the loss, or the war, or the justice of either, but to compare our reaction to each.
The rate of violent death in Syria is already more than double that in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. Around 170,000 have died in Iraq in the decade since the war. More than half that are dead in Syria already, and the violent deaths are increasing rapidly. Where is the outrage of the humanitarian left? Where are the marches and the vigils? The petitions and the disbelief? Where are the Anti-War Marches?
Further, doing nothing has increased regional instability. Already Hizbollah are killing Syrian rebels, with who knows what consequences for Lebanon. Israel is both nervous of Islamism and of an unstable Syrian government. Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan are having to cope with some one and a half million refugees.
These are the results of the policy we chose.
Would things have been better if we had intervened directly? Would the slaughter have been less with a No Fly zone, or airstrikes on Syrian forces mounting aggression, or if we had supported secular, moderate rebels early? Would things have been better if we had even made it clear to Russia that there was some action that we would not tolerate?
That I can’t know, just as I cannot know what would have happened in Iraq this past decade if Saddam had been left to imprison and murder his people under a sanctions regime that killed innocent civilians in order to constrain their torturers.
No-one can really know “what if“.
The awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs, and those who decide between them cannot ever truly know what will result. Some forgot that in the last decade, choosing to believe that only intervention could have a terrible price. I don’t forget the reverse now.
Just because the policy we have pursued has become a catastrophe does not mean the policy was undoubtedly and obviously wrong.
But by God, I wish we felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria.
(Read the full article here)
Those fearless, insightful people who dare break with the establishment consensus and put forward the only real explanation for terrorism – ‘blowback’ – are rarely heard, such is the conspiracy of silence and denial they’re up against. Very occasionally, the wall of silence is breached and their profound thoughts on the subject get published . Here, here, here here and here for instance.
But even at the New Statesman, which published Mehdi Hasan’s courageous and groundbreaking article ‘Extremists point to western foreign policy to explain their acts, Why do we ignore them? the carping voices of denial are to be heard. On the letters page this week, one Simon Jarrett of Harrow, writes:
If Mehdi Hasan were to follow his own logic, he would now be poring through the 180,000-word rant against multiculturalism written by Anders Behring Breivik, trying to find points of compromise on immigration and cultural mixing that would reduce the future possibility of such acts as the killing of 77 Norwegians. Breivik, like the two murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, was a fascist “performing” terrorist murder as “political communication by other means.”
Meanwhile at the New Statesman blog, even someone who agrees with Mehdi about foreign policy, thinks there might just be a little bit more to it all…
Matt Hill, writing at the New Statesman website, makes some very interesting comments on the Hawking “boycott” and the BDS movement in general. It’s well worth reading the entire article, but this section is especially telling:
The problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear – and, as a result, it risks being counterproductive. In his letter to the conference’s organisers, Hawking wrote about his concerns about “prospects for a peace settlement”, saying that “the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster”. But Israel’s supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state’s right to exist.
It’s true that Israel’s supporters throw the word ‘delegitimisation‘ around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn’t have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel’s existence. Don’t take my word for it. Norman Finkelstein, the heroic pro-Palestinian author and activist, recently launched a blistering attack on the BDS movement, telling an interviewer: “[The Israelis] say ‘They’re not talking about rights. They want to destroy Israel.’ And in fact, I think they’re right. . . . There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.”
And just in case any readers haven’t yet seen the clip of Finkelstein (someone this blog would not describe as “heroic”) accusing the BDS movement of fundamental dishonesty about Israel, here it is:
Like many readers of this blog, I was there on 15 February 2003, and I’ve never had cause to regret it. But I don’t share the self-righteous preening of tyrant-lovers like Andrew Murray, nor the slightly more forgivable solipsism of Laurie Penny (who at least has -or had- the excuse of youth). Even at the time, I was sickened by the refusal of the SWP, Galloway, Murray, etc to address the human rights issues and their systematic, deliberate, whitewashing of Saddam (Galloway, of course, being the most grovelling and egregious Saddam fan). A little later, their support for the fascistic gangs who were murdering Iraqi trade unionists alienated me once and for all. The subsequent degeneration of the Stop The War Coalition into a shrivelled Westphalian excuse-machine for vicious dictators and tyrants everywhere has only served to confirm my worst expectations.
Ian Taylor, an unrepentant marcher and anti-war campaigner, puts his finger (in the present issue of the New Statesman – no link presently available) on the central weakness of the ‘line’ of the SWP/Galloway leadership at the time, though he naively puts it down to a lack of political imagination rather than a lack of political will:
“In my opinion, what we needed more than anything else was an answer to the dilemma of what should have been done about Saddam Hussein and the appalling human rights abuses that were undoubtably that were undoubtably going on inside Iraq. Questions about this came up a great deal at public meetings, when leafletting the high street and in letters to local and national newspapers from supporters of the war. When asked about Iraq now, Blair always plays this card because he knows that opponents of the war don’t have an answer to it. If being on the left means anything, it ought to mean standing up for the oppressed. It shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of those speaking for the movement to have woven an answer to the problems of human rights abuses by non-western regimes into the fabric of their anti-imperialist principles. My view is that, just as we had weapons inspectors in Iraq, we should also have had human rights inspectors there. That would have done a lot to wrong-foot Blair et al.”
I can remember stumbling across the following searingly honest ’Letter to an unknown Iraqi’ that pretty much summed up my own feelings at the time. I circulated it on the local Stop The War email list, where it didn’t go down terribly well as I recall:
The Urge to Help; The Obligation Not To
By Ariel Dorfman (February 28, 2003)
I do not know your name, and that is already significant. Are you one of the thousands upon thousands who survived Saddam Hussein’s chambers of torture, did you see the genitals of one of your sons crushed to punish you, to make you cooperate? Are you a member of a family that has to live with the father who returned, silent and broken, from that inferno, the mother who must remember each morning the daughter taken one night by security forces, and who may or may not still be alive? Are you one of the Kurds gassed in the north of Iraq, an Arab from the south displaced from his home, a Shiite clergyman ruthlessly persecuted by the Baath Party, a communist who has been fighting the dictatorship for long decades?
Whoever you are, faceless and suffering, you have been waiting many years for the reign of terror to end. And now, at last, you can see fast approaching the moment you have been praying for, even if you oppose and fear the American invasion that will inevitably kill so many Iraqis and devastate your land: the moment when the dictator who has built himself lavish palaces, the man who praises Hitler and Stalin and promises to emulate them, may well be forced out of power.
What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Can those countless human rights activists who, a few years ago, celebrated the trial in London of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet as a victory for all the victims on this Earth, now deny the world the joy of seeing the strongman of Iraq indicted and tried for crimes against humanity?
It is not fortuitous that I have brought the redoubtable Pinochet into the picture.
As a Chilean who fought against the general’s pervasive terror for 17 years, I can understand the needs, the anguish, the urgency, of those Iraqis inside and outside their homeland who cannot wait, cannot accept any further delay, silently howl for deliverance. I have seen how Chile still suffers from Pinochet’s legacy, 13 years after he left power, and can therefore comprehend how every week that passes with the despot in power poisons your collective fate.
Such sympathy for your cause does not exempt me, however, from asking a crucial question: Is that suffering sufficient to justify intervention from an outside power, a suffering that has been cited as a secondary but compelling reason for an invasion?
Despite having spent most of my life as a firm anti-interventionist, protesting American aggression in Latin America and Asia, and Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, during the 1990s I gradually came to believe that there might be occasions when incursions by a foreign power could indeed be warranted. I reluctantly agreed with the 1994 American expedition to Haiti to return to power the legally elected president of that republic; I was appalled at the lack of response from the international community to the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda; I applauded the Australian intervention to stop the massacres in East Timor; and, regarding Kosovo, though I would have preferred the military action to have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations, I eventually came to the agonizing conclusion that ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale could not be tolerated.
I am afraid that none of these cases applies to Iraq. For starters, there is no guarantee that this military adventure will, in fact, lead to a “regime change,” or peace and stability for your region.
Unfortunately, also, the present affliction of your men and women and children must be horribly, perversely, weighed against the impending casualties and enormous losses that the American campaign will surely cause. In the balance are not only the dead and mutilated of Iraq (and who knows how many from the invading force), but the very real possibility that such an act of preemptive, world-destabilizing aggression could spin out of control and lead to other despots preemptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon. Not to mention how such an action seems destined to recruit even more fanatics for the terrorist groups who are salivating at the prospect of an American invasion. And if we add to this that I am unconvinced that your dictator has sufficient weapons of mass destruction to truly pose a threat to other countries (or ties to criminal groups who could use them for terror), I have to say no to war.
It is not easy for me to write these words.
I write, after all, from the comfort and safety of my own life. I write to you in the knowledge that I never did very much for the Iraqi resistance, hardly registered you and your needs, sent a couple of free books to libraries and academics in Baghdad who asked for them, answered one, maybe two, letters from Iraqi women who had been tortured and had found some solace in my plays. I write to you harboring the suspicion that if I had cared more, if we all had, there might not be a tyrant today in Iraq. I write to you knowing that there is no chance that the American government might redirect to a flood of people like you the $200 billion, $300 billion this war would initially cost, no real interest from those who would supposedly liberate you to instead spend that enormous amount of money helping to build a democratic alternative inside your country.
But I also write to you knowing this: If I had been approached, say in the year 1975, when Pinochet was at the height of his murderous spree in Chile, by an emissary of the American government proposing that the United States, the very country which had put our strongman in power, use military force to overthrow the dictatorship, I believe that my answer would have been, I hope it would have been: No, thank you. We must deal with this monster by ourselves.
I was never given that chance, of course: The Americans would never have wanted to rid themselves, in the midst of the Cold War, of such an obsequious client, just as they did not try to eject Saddam Hussein 20 years ago, when he was even more repressive. Rather, they supported him as a bulwark against militant Iran.
But this exercise in political science fiction (invade Chile to depose Pinochet?) at least allows me to share in the agony created by my own opposition to this war, forces me to recognize the pain that is being endured at this very moment in some house in Basra, some basement in Baghdad, some school in Tarmiyah. Even if I can do nothing to stop those government thugs in Iraq coming to arrest you again today, coming for you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, knocking once more at your door.
Heaven help me, I am saying that if I had been given a chance years ago to spare the lives of so many of my dearest friends, given the chance to end my exile and alleviate the grief of millions of my fellow citizens, I would have rejected it if the price we would have had to pay was clusters of bombs killing the innocent, if the price was years of foreign occupation, if the price was the loss of control over our own destiny.
Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children.
We have deliberately refrained from commenting on this most serious matter until now, mainly because of lack of first-hand information and a reluctance (unlike, for instance, Socialist Unity) to engage in tittle-tattle. However, journalist Laurie Penny, on the New Statesman website, has now placed the matter very much in the public domain. By republishing her article we do not mean to endorse everything she (or ‘celebrity member’ China Mieville) say/write: here’s what she’s written:
What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?
When it comes to sexual violence, why should progressive organisations be held to different standards?
How do we deal with sexual violence on the left? Here’s a case study.
The Socialist Workers’ Party, for those who aren’t familiar with it already, is a political organisation of several thousand members which has been a prominent force on the British left for more than 30 years. They are at the forefront of the fight against street fascism in Britain, were a large organising presence in the student and trade union movement over the past several years, and are affiliated with large, active parties in other countries, like Germany’s Die Linke. Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members.
Like many others on the left in Britain, I’ve had my disagreements with the SWP, but I’ve also spoken at their conferences, drunk their tea, and have a lot of respect for the work they do. They are not a fringe group: they matter. And it matters that right now, the party is exploding in messy shards because of a debate about sexism, sexual violence and wider issues of accountability.
This week, it came to light that when allegations of rape and sexual assault were made against a senior party member, the matter was not reported to the police, but dealt with ‘internally’ before being dismissed. According to a transcript from the party’s annual conference earlier this month, not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.
Tom Walker – a party member who walked out this week in disgust – explained that feminism “is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters…. it is deployed against anyone who seems ‘too concerned’ about issues of gender.”
In a brave and principled resignation statement published yesterday, Walker said that:
“. . . there is clearly a question mark over the sexual politics of many men in powerful positions on the left. I believe the root of this is that, whether through reputation, lack of internal democracy or both, these are often positions that are effectively unchallengeable. Not for nothing have recent sex abuse allegations in the wider world focused on the idea of a ‘culture of impunity’. Socialist Worker has pointed to the way that institutions close up to protect powerful people within them. What is not acknowledged is that the SWP is itself an institution in this sense, with its instinct for self-protection to survive. As previously mentioned, its belief in its own world-historic importance gives a motive for an attempted cover-up, making abusers feel protected.”
Members are now leaving the organisation, or being expelled, in large numbers after the case came to light at the party’s conference and transcripts of the discussions were leaked online.
The writer China Mieville, a longstanding member of the SWP, told me that, like many members, he is “aghast”:
“The way such allegations were dealt with – complete with questions about accusers’ past relationships and drinking habits that we would instantly, rightly denounce as sexist in any other context – was appalling. It’s a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism.”
Mieville explained that in his party, as in so many other organisations, the power hierarchies which have facilitated problems such as this have been controversial for a long time.
“Many of us have for years been openly fighting for a change in the culture and structures of the organisation to address exactly this kind of democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of the Central Committee and their loyalists, their heavy-handed policing of so-called ‘dissent’, and their refusal to admit mistakes ,” he told me. “Like the current situation, a disaster catastrophically mishandled by the leadership. All of us in the party should have the humility to admit such issues. It’s up to members of the SWP to fight for the best of our tradition, not put up with the worst, and to make our organisation what it could be, and unfortunately is not yet.”
The British Socialist Worker’s Party is hardly atypical among political parties, among left-wing groups, among organisations of committed people or, indeed, among groups of friends and colleagues in having structures in place that might allow sexual abuse and misogyny by men in positions of power to continue unchecked. One could point, in the past 12 months alone, to the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile case, or to those Wikileaks supporters who believe that Julian Assange should not be compelled to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden.
I could point, personally, to at least two instances involving respected men that have sundered painfully and forever friendship groups which lacked the courage to acknowledge the incidents. The only difference is that the SWP actually talk openly about the unspoken rules by which this sort of intimidation usually goes on. Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.
To say that the left has a problem with handling sexual violence is not to imply that everyone else doesn’t. There is, however, a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly. It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.
That unwillingness to analyse our own behaviour can quickly become dogma. The image is one of petty, nitpicking women attempting to derail the good work of decent men on the left by insisting in their whiny little women’s way that progressive spaces should also be spaces where we don’t expect to get raped and assaulted and slut-shamed and victimised for speaking out, and the emotions are rage and resentment: why should our pure and perfect struggle for class war, for transparency, for freedom from censorship be polluted by – it’s pronounced with a curl of the upper lip over the teeth, as if the very word is distasteful – ‘identity politics’? Why should we be held more accountable than common-or-garden bigots? Why should we be held to higher standards?
Because if we’re not, then we have no business calling ourselves progressive. Because if we don’t acknowledge issues of assault, abuse and gender hierarchy within our own institutions we have no business speaking of justice, much less fighting for it.
“The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate, but inextricably linked,” writes Walker. “Lack of the first creates space for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root it out when it does.” He’s talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.
Equality isn’t an optional add-on, a side-issue to be dealt with after the revolution’s over. There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women’s rights. The sooner the left accepts that and starts working the enormous stick of priggishness and prejudice out of its collective backside, the sooner we can get on with the job at hand.
“Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in word-view to to be itself the cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human ot is an act of faith. Illustrationg Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious observers” - John Gray in the New Statesman, 30/11/12)
Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify him as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical. In the New Statesman article from which the quote at the top of this piece is taken, for instance, it is difficult to discern even what he understands by the word “toleration” (as opposed, for instance, to “indifference”) and why he seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.
Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. I’m not sure whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.
Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) was well expressed in an earlier piece he wrote for the New Statesman:
“The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that ‘humanity’ can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But ‘humanity’ cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.” - John Gray, ‘Humanity doesn’t exist’, New Statesman (10/02/11)
I’m not arguing, by the way that Gray’s views shouldn”t be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as lead book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”
By the way, Nietzsche’s thinking contains an essential contradiction (explained by Antony Flew, thus): “Of course, Nietzsche goes on to use his views about the essentially ‘falsifying’ nature of language, and therefore of rational thought, to give theoretical backing to his favourite belief in the superior veracity of action and ‘will’. But here the central paradox in Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges: he cannot himself, in all consistency, take that theory too seriously.”
Or as a letter to the New Statesman in response to Gray’s article, put it: “It is amusing to read yet again a rational man, John Gray on this occasion (‘Giant Leaps for mankind’, 30 November), arguing rationally for how very irrational we all are.”
Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here
Assad-apologist and professional conspiracy-theorist John Pilger, in a typically incoherent ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ rant (New Statesman, 20 June 2012), suggested that the anti-Assad rebels, in an attempt to discredit the regime, were responsible for the Houla massacre:
“The threats against Syria, co-ordinated in Washington and London, scale new peaks of hypocrisy. Contrary to the raw propaganda presented as news, the investigative journalism of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung identifies those responsible for the massacre in Houla as the “rebels” backed by Obama and Cameron. The paper’s sources include the rebels themselves. This has not been completely ignored in Britain. Writing in his personal blog, ever so quietly, Jon Williams, the BBC World News editor, in effect dishes his own ‘coverage’, citing a western official who described the “psy-ops” operation against Syria as ‘brilliant’. As brilliant as the destruction of Libya, and Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
Now Der Spiegel has fully investigated all the claims, and interviewed witnesses. Spiegal‘s concusion is clear: the regime’s army, probably working with the shabiha militia, carried out the massacre. Then some very poor residents of Houla were brought to Damascus and paid to back up the regime’s version of events (see Witness VI, below):
A Syrian Bloodbath Revisited: Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre
By Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun
It was a fatal miscalculation, as Colonel Sayyid was forced to realize during the last few minutes of his life. According to statements by his surviving wife and daughter, he was in his room on the second floor when he overheard the murderers in front of the house as they agreed bring out the women first and then kill everyone. He told his wife and children to run. “I’ll try to stall them,” he said. He succeeded, but paid for it with his life.
The Houla massacre at the end of May, which claimed the lives of 108 village residents, according to the United Nations, including 49 children and 34 women, most of them murdered with hatchets, knives and guns, shocked the world. UN observers were able to gain access to the site of the carnage, where they could see the bodies and independently confirm what had happened there. The Syrian ambassadors to the UN and 12 countries, including Germany, were expelled. On June 1, the UN Human Rights Council condemned the Syrian regime and its shabiha militias for the massacre, with Russia and China voting against the resolution. The government in Damascus, however, blamed the incident on “terrorists” and denounced what it called a “tsunami of lies” over the massacre.
But then views began to shift. As time passed, the UN began to question its original findings. On June 27, the Human Rights Council discussed a report prepared by its Syria commission, which concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine who had committed the massacre.
On June 8 and 14, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German daily, published two reports based on the statements of anonymous eyewitnesses, who claimed that members of the armed opposition had committed the massacre and then blamed it on the regime. According to the reports, 700 members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had come to Houla from various towns to kill families that had converted to the Alawite or Shiite faiths and had not joined the rebellion. At the beginning of June, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a member of German parliament for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pursued the matter and sharply criticized the rebels for what he called “massacre marketing.”
Since May 26, when Alex Thompson with Britain’s Channel 4 television station joined UN observers in Houla for a few hours, no foreign journalist had been in the town to examine the site and speak directly with surviving members of the massacred families and eyewitnesses of the attack.
Now, though, a SPIEGEL team has managed to visit the place where the massacre occurred: Taldou, the largest of four widely scattered villages that form the Houla municipality. Getting there was complicated; the Syrian regime doesn’t want any foreign journalists in the country, especially not in Houla.
The region is also surrounded by a ring of Alawite villages, where the Syrian army has established bases from which it continues to fire at Houla with tanks and artillery. The regime provides arms to the villages, which in turn supply the pro-regime shabiha militias, which have set up checkpoints on area roads and are participating in attacks.
Taldou itself, home to more than 15,000 people before the revolution, is under the control of its own residents. They have formed a unit of the FSA, which protects them from smaller attacks, but not from bombardment. Parts of the village, including one of the areas where the massacre took place, remain inaccessible, because they are within the range of army snipers positioned on a ridge outside the town.
The SPIEGEL team spent two days in Taldou, where it was able to move about freely, interview surviving members of the Sayyid and Abdul Rassak families and speak with witnesses. Some of the witnesses spoke on camera, while others wanted to remain anonymous, because they still have relatives in prison or in cities controlled by the regime. To prevent collective memories from interfering with their own experiences, the witnesses were interviewed individually and asked what they had seen and heard.
After Friday prayers on May 25, the residents of Taldou formed their usual protest marches against the regime. But then, in the early afternoon, army forces began heavily bombarding the village from several surrounding bases. FSA units launched counter-attacks on a number of army checkpoints. Witnesses, though, say that there were hardly any FSA fighters in Taldou on that afternoon, which is why the advancing death squads faced no resistance. It was still broad daylight when the first wave arrived.
On the afternoon of May 25, Mohammed Faur Abdul Rassak was on his way to his house on Sadd Street, which intersects with the side street where the massacre victims lived. He had called his house after hearing rumors that shabiha groups from several surrounding localities, including the exclusively Alawite village of Fullah, were on their way to Taldou. “They are forming groups,” his father had told him, saying that there was a lot of shooting and that people were afraid to leave their houses. “Shortly after five, I was near our house, where you can see the road to Fullah on the hill. About 10 cars and at least 400 men were approaching on that road. Some were wearing military uniforms, while others were dressed in civilian clothing. Some had long beards and shaved heads. Some of the men were wearing red armbands.
A second group, consisting of about 30 men in uniform, came from the waterworks where the military is based. I approached my house slowly and hid on Sadd Street. From there, I watched as the men quickly dispersed and first posted a man with a machine gun in the intersection, so that they could monitor the area. The two groups probably met there. I saw four or five men, dressed in civilian clothing and uniforms, go into each house. They were carrying Kalashnikovs, and whenever they went into a house I would hear a few shots a short time later. Some soldiers saw me, so I ran away, about 400 meters (1,312 feet) from the site. I heard other shots at about 7 p.m., but it sounded more like they were celebrating. When it seemed to be over, someone gave me a ride on his motorcycle, and we found 12 bodies from the Samir Abdul Rassak family in the first house we entered.”
From his house on Sadd Street, Jihad Raslan, an officer who had been on home leave for the previous four days, saw armed men in civilian clothes and uniforms approaching an olive grove between the Alawite village of Fullah and Taldou at about 6:30 p.m. “I saw more than 100 men, but it was hard to tell. The shelling had subsided. I carefully left my house to see what was happening. A woman, who was walking toward me from the west and recognized me, called out: ‘They’re killing people!’ Around six, I saw another woman with gunshot wounds lying on the street, and she said: ‘They’re going into the houses and killing!’
I waited and continued to see people running away until 7 p.m. Half an hour later I went out with a flashlight, because the electricity had been shut off. Then I went into three houses in a row. In the first house, the house of Samir Abdul Rassak, one woman was dead and there were several women and children with gunshot wounds in another room. I saw Mustafa Abdul Rassak lying in a huge pool of blood, still breathing, in front of the second house; the dead family was inside. And there were more than 20 bodies in the third house, which belonged to Abu Shaalan Abdul Rassak. I helped put the bodies in cars and take them to the mosque, and then I took my own family to safety.”
Lieutenant Malik Baqur, an acquaintance of Jihad Raslan, was in his cousin’s house on Sadd Street when he heard that armed men were coming down from Fullah to Taldou. “Until six o’clock, there was so much shelling that I was afraid to go outside. At about 5:30 p.m., I saw 40 men in uniforms and civilian clothing going up to Fullah. Most of them were walking, but they were behind a silver pickup with a machine gun mounted on the bed. I had seen it a few days earlier at the checkpoint that had been set up in Fullah sometime earlier. I was standing a little higher up and could see the men until they were about 100 meters from the village.
Then I ran into Raslan, and we went into the houses together and saw the bodies. Some had had their skulls split open as if they’d been hit with a butcher’s hatchet, while others had been shot in the head, execution style, with a small hole in the front and bigger hole in the back. I counted 17 bodies all over the place in Mustafa Abdul al-Rassak’s house.”
Other survivors saw the group coming from Fullah, and they too remember similar details, like the red armbands that an old woman who wanted to remain anonymous saw: “The soldier in a green uniform who came down was wearing it. All the doors were open, because we still thought it was going to be a raid, like the ones that had already happened several times before. My daughter-in-law told him that there were only women and children here, and that our men were working in Lebanon. I was standing behind the door when he came in and started shooting right away.”
It was the mistaken belief that the murderers were merely there for a raid that cost so many people their lives — and also saved the lives of others, like Mustafa Abdul Rassak. He had hidden in an abandoned chicken farm 50 meters behind the house, because he was afraid of being arrested as a rebel.
After the first wave of the massacre in the late afternoon, there was another wave in another part of Taldou between about 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Because it was dark by then, none of the survivors saw where the killers had come from. But given that the houses were between two army checkpoints, it would have been almost impossible for rebels to move easily from house to house and shoot the residents without clashing with soldiers.
It was late in the evening, and 11-year-old Ali Adil Sayyid had been kept awake for hours by the sound of nearby shelling. “I heard voices outside at about 11 p.m. ‘Turn off the light! Open the door!’ they said. But the electricity was off, anyway. I heard them hitting the bottom of the door, but then they left.
I woke up again just before 4 a.m., when men came into the house. My brother and I were lying in the living room. When my sister Rasha tried to run away, one of the men shot her. My brother Adil was still sleeping when a man shot at him. A piece of Adil’s head was missing after that. The man also shot at me, but he didn’t hit me. I rolled over on my side and played dead. Then the men took two TV sets, our washing machine and the computer. I heard the sound of a BMB outside” — a type of armored personnel carrier used by the Syrian army.
According to Ali, his severely wounded brother Nadir “was still making noises, as if he had the hiccups. Then he died.”
Ali Adil Sayyid, the only surviving member of his family, is a distant relative of Abdulmuti Mashlab, a member of the Syrian parliament. This circumstance prompted UN observers to make the assumption that people were killed because of their family ties to a regime official. But Mashlab, says Ali, was merely the uncle of his uncle’s wife. Ali says that he and his father had gone to many demonstrations until last fall, “and we always bought kebabs and cola first!” But his father was arrested in November, “and he was afraid to go after that.”
The family of Muawiya Sayyid, the retired police officer, lived a few houses down the street. His daughter Maryam Sayyid was standing at the window inside the house, “when a group of soldiers approached from the waterworks for the first time, at about 4:30 p.m. They were shooting into the air and they banged against our door, but when no one responded they kept going. We felt safe. My father had been in the police for 30 years, most recently as a colonel. Nothing had ever happened to us in previous raids.
My brother was also in the house. He was a soldier and he had a broken leg, so he couldn’t move. They didn’t give him any time off for four months, because he was from Houla, which made him suspicious.
He had only been allowed to return home because of his broken leg. But we weren’t afraid of the army. And if they were terrorists, how could they get here through the two checkpoints? What we were afraid of were the shells that had been raining down nearby for hours. It was still light outside, and our house is the last one on the street, so we were afraid to run away.
At about 6 p.m., we heard a tank on the street and men on a car who were chanting: ‘Shabiha forever! With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Bashar!’ We had never heard that before.
We were in the house, with my father in the room facing the street and everyone else in the room facing the back. At about 11 p.m., we could hear voices through loudspeakers, saying: ‘All lights out! Including candles!’ I went to my father in the other room. He had just heard the men standing downstairs in front of the door, and saying that they would take the women first and then kill everyone. I asked him what we should do. He said: ‘Go! I’ll go outside and try to stall them.’
There were 15 of us. We couldn’t take Ahmed with us, because he was too sick. But we were so afraid and in such a hurry that we forgot Sarah, my 8-year-old sister. She was sleeping. When I realized that, I went back to the house with my sister-in-law. We heard the men saying: ‘We want the women!’ My sister-in-law said: ‘There’s nothing we can do. They’re going to die.’ She pulled me back, and we fled.”
Maryam Sayyid’s mother, Hana Harmut, had remained in the house a moment longer and, in the darkness, didn’t see where the others had gone: “I returned to the back of the house, where I head the voices of the men inside. I heard Ahmed shouting, and then I heard Sarah as she woke up, started crying and loudly shouted ‘Mama.’ I heard my husband shouting: ‘Not Ahmed! Not Ahmed!’ Then there were a few shots. I don’t know how many. Then it was quiet for a little while. And then I heard noises that sounded like they were tearing apart the kitchen. Maybe they were looking for knives.
All I could think was that I had to get away from there, so I hid in a nearby barn where they normally keep the animals. I could hear the men until two or three in the morning, and then it became quiet again.”
The Sayyid family was neither overly prominent in the opposition, nor did it support the regime. The survivors believe that the father’s first name, Muawiya, was one of the reasons the Sayyids were targeted. Muawiya was also the name of a caliph who, more than 1,300 years ago, fought against the imams whom the Shiites consider to be their saints, and whose deaths are still ritually mourned today. The name is very offensive to radical Shiites and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to Alawites, who are part of the same religious group. And it certainly wouldn’t be the name of a man who had converted to Shiite Islam.
According to survivors, all of them residents of Taldou and other parts of Houla, there are no Shiite or Alawite families in Houla, nor were there any there before — just as there are no Sunni families in the surrounding Alawite villages. Although there were occasional marriages between Alawite and Sunni families in the past, the wife, say local residents, always moved to the husband’s village and converted to his faith.
But what about the anonymous eyewitnesses who had been quoted as saying that the victims of the Houla massacre were not Sunnis and members of the opposition at all, but were supporters of the regime?
Colonel Mohammed Tayyib Baqur, who served in the Syrian army for two-thirds of his life and deserted a few weeks ago, worked most recently in the political division of the Defense Ministry. He now reports that, on May 28, he received a call from Jamil Hassan, the head of Syrian Air Forces intelligence and one of the leading members of the regime: “He told me to come in on June 2. He pointed out that I was from Houla, and that an international conspiracy against Syria was underway. For that reason, he wanted me to find a few people, as poor as possible, from Houla or the surrounding area. I was to bring them to Damascus so that they could circulate the regime’s version of the massacre. He said that the people from Houla would be paid, and so would I. Then he called his office manager and told him to give me 25,000 Syrian pounds.” This is the equivalent of slightly more than €300 or roughly $385.
After 35 years in the army, says Baqur, he realized that the time had come to change sides. “I didn’t want to be part of it anymore, so I brought my family to safety and fled.”
If the rebels had truly committed the massacre, why has the army continued to fire at and shell Taldou for months, including the days when the SPIEGEL reporters were there? And if the FSA was behind the massacre, why did a large number of army officers from Houla defect to the FSA afterwards?
After the massacre, Taldou residents buried the dead in a square in the center of the village. They say that there were more bodies than the 108 counted by the UN observers. Although this can no longer be verified, it makes sense, because many of the bodies could only be recovered days after the troops had withdrawn.
It is now mid-July, and a few courageous workers are still shoveling new soil onto the graves, now that the ground has subsided. They want to replace the bricks that had been scattered around the site with a border of stones. At least it should look dignified, says one of the men. But it isn’t a good idea to stand around for too long, he warns. “Sometimes the soldiers fire rockets at this spot from the waterworks.”
A few streets away, on Taldou’s ruined main square, where the army had maintained a checkpoint that it only abandoned six days after the massacre, there is some graffiti on a wall that local residents say was written by the soldiers: “Don’t be too upset! Sometimes the dogs dance on the lion, but they don’t even know that he is the lion.”
The name Assad means lion in Arabic.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Will Pilger now admit his mistake, apologise to his readers for misleading them, and to the Syrian rebels for libelling them? Don’t hold your breath -JD