Category Archives: Politics

The Middle East and Western Policy

It is too easy simply to blame the West for the problems related to Islamic fundamentalism and the war in the Middle-East. Leaders and opinion formers in the Arab World clearly have to bear their share of the responsibility, as do moderate Muslims who have allowed a potential cuckoo to grow in their nest. But, without buying into far-fetched conspiracy theories, it is clear that our actions in the Middle-East have been inconsistent, short-sighted and venal. We have courted, armed and condemned fundamentalists, we have supported, installed or toppled murderous dictators, we have paid lip-service to reform, but not given it our whole-hearted commitment, and when it comes to peace, the Americans have always failed to play their whip-hand to bring about an Arab-Israeli settlement. Our interventions, from Iran to Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya have reacted to one problem and caused many more.

Sometimes one has to make a deal with the Devil in order to fend off a mortal danger. The West needed Stalin to vanquish Hitler, and in the process Stalin was also saved and strengthened. This led to the Cold War, but what choice did ‘we’ have? Hitler made it an easy decision because he himself attacked Russia. In this sense ISIL are indeed similar to the Nazis: they like to go around making enemies, and that will probably be their downfall. In the end they will bite off more than they can chew. But the West needs a vision and a strategy. An idea can be an incredibly powerful thing if you are prepared to stand up for it. This is what makes the extremists strong. They don’t have conventional armies or huge populations or a powerful military-industrial complex. But they have the idea of an Islamic State and they are prepared to kill and be killed for it. What is our idea? Democracy? Tolerance? Security? And what are we prepared to do for it? And what is our vision for the Middle East? And how are we going to promote it?

Not getting involved is not really an option. For a start; we are involved in any case, and we are being attacked, and it is not defensible to stand back and look on while people are massacred by their leaders or throat-slitting Islamists or in some sectarian pogrom. But make no mistake, this is a dangerous game and the stakes are high. Not only are there already frictions between NATO member Turkey and Russia and Iraq, which could turn into a nasty superpower head-to-head, but we risk getting embroiled in something with no good outcome, which sets up the next problem for decades to come. But at least we should know what we stand for, and we should be prepared to be clear and consistent about it, even if it means offending old ‘friends’ like Israel and the Saudis.


Paris Attacks

I was lucky enough to spend this summer in Paris. I rented a room through Air B n B in the 11th Arrondissement, a lively area of bars and music venues, patisseries, bookshops and markets. The inhabitants are mixed, with a large Muslim contingent, as well as Jews, Africans, Asians and so on. Whether talking of religion, nationality, race or geography, and I am consciously mixing these up here, the area is a coming together and a living together. On top of the locals, there are many visitors, and temporary residents, like myself, many from the US, UK and rest of the EU.

However, there were clear indications that all was not peace and love here. The Jewish primary school up the road a hundred meters from me had an army guard detail outside during school hours, vigilant and armed to the teeth. Other detachments patrolled the streets. This clearly was not enough to deter or stop the bloody massacre of last Friday, when well over a hundred people were mown down outside cafés and at a gig, with hundreds injured. Friday the 13th, Friday the Muslim holy day. I spent my time in music places, watching and playing, sitting outside cafés, eating in restaurants. With good friends sometimes, and for a while with my son, who joined me for a week. We regularly passed by those very places which last Friday ran with the blood of random revellers, like us.

During my time there I read a controversial novel Soumission (Submission), published at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, which invents a near future where an Islamic republic is established in France. The author is Michel Houellebecq, who went into hiding for a while because of death threats. He had previously made derogatory remarks about Islam. I felt rather self-conscious reading the book in public places, although it turns out to be rather unexpectedly ambivalent in tone about the fictional Islamic take-over which is portrayed as a seductive return to traditional values.

It is difficult to know what to say about the recent attacks, other than to express one’s utter shock and disbelief. What is clear is that we are at war. The visitations of death which have been commonplace in the middle East for so long now clearly include us in their icy embrace. A large swathe of the world, from Pakistan to Nigeria, is embroiled in a complex chain of conflicts which have many causes (in both senses) including inter-ethnic conflict, liberation movements, religious sectarianism and intolerance, pro-democracy uprisings, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Western involvement, power games by various countries etc. etc. But Islamic fundamentalism is a common theme. And really this war has been going on since 2001. Since September 11th of that year, the Al Qaeda attack on New York and the retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan in that year, this has been going on. Its roots of course lie much further back. But just to take an overview like this is quite sobering: 15 years at war, a war spanning from Canada (check) and Boston to Spain, France, UK, to Mali, Egypt, Syria, to India, Bali and even Australia.

Election News:
Labour Increase Share of Vote by More than Tories!

You may have the impression that the Conservatives gained an absolute majority of the vote in last week’s election, and that Labour lost a great deal of support. Well, if you have a careful look at the official BBC results table you will notice that what actually happened is something quite different.

The Conservatives did improve their share of the vote compared to the last general election in 2010, but by less than 1%. Labour on the other hand did slightly better, they attracted 1.5% more votes than last time. However, our perverse electoral system has somehow turned these tiny changes into a difference of 50 seats between the parties: the Conservatives ended up with 24 more seats and Labour with 26 fewer.

And that’s not all. Only 37% of people who went to the polls last week voted Conservative, but with that total the party has captured 51% of the seats in parliament. ‘There’s something wrong there surely’ I hear you say. It gets better, or worse, I should say. The Scottish National Party gained just under 5% of the vote, but that got them nearly 9% of seats in the House – that’s 56 seats (of the 650 available). The Greens, however, received only one seat – with nearly 4% of the vote. So one per cent difference in voting share can give rise to 55 more seats!

Perhaps the most absurd part of the results is what happened to UKIP, and here you might think it’s a good thing. UKIP actually came third in terms of the votes cast, but they ended up equal 10th with the Greens because, like them, they got just one seat. With over 12% of the vote UKIP only managed 0.1% of the seats. Lucky it may be, but is it democratic?

Perhaps you remember that we had a referendum on electoral reform, which might have made a difference to this kind of absurd outcome, not long after the previous election, and that it was rejected. What happened was that the Liberal Democrats demanded electoral reform as the price for joining the coalition, because they had themselves been suffering the negative effects of the totally unfair ‘first past the post system’ for decades. But the Conservatives, who tend to benefit from it, managed to get a compromise system on the referendum ballot which pleased no one really. The Liberal Democrats (and the press) also totally failed to communicate the importance of reform to ordinary people, paralysed by the stupid mantra that most voters can’t be bothered with that kind of thing. As if someone who goes out to vote will not really mind that their vote will probably end up being binned.

This brings me to one aspect of last week’s results that does appear just. The Lib Dems lost 15% of the vote compared to last time, and are 49 seats down (on 8). They had a once-in-a-generation chance to change the voting system, and they messed up. I think they had it coming.