We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).
This is the extended version of a piece published in today’s Sunday Herald.
A strange calm prevails on the Middle Eastern surface. Occasionally a wave breaks through from beneath – the killing of an Iranian scientist, a bomb targetting Hamas’s representative to Lebanon (which instead kills three Hizbullah men), a failed attack on Israeli diplomats travelling through Jordan – and psychological warfare rages, as usual, between Israel and Hizbullah, but the high drama seems to have shifted for now to the east, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arab world (with the obvious exception of Yemen) appears to be holding its breath, waiting for what comes next.
Iraq’s civil war is over. The Shia majority, after grievous provocation from takfiri terrorists, and after its own leaderhip made grievous mistakes, decisively defeated the Sunni minority. Baghdad is no longer a mixed city but one with a large Shia majority and with no-go zones for all sects. In their defeat, a large section of the Sunni resistance started working for their American enemy. They did so for reasons of self-preservation and in order to remove Wahhabi-nihilists from the fortresses which Sunni mistakes had allowed them to build.
The collapse of the national resistance into sectarian civil war was a tragedy for the region, the Arabs and the entire Muslim world. The fact that it was partly engineered by the occupier does not excuse the Arabs. Imperialists will exploit any weaknesses they find. This is in the natural way of things. It is the task of the imperialised to rectify these weaknesses in order to be victorious.
Robert Fisk reminds us of President Obama’s pre-election pledge to recognise the Armenian Genocide as thus. Since his inauguration and during his recent visit to Turkey Obama backtracked and downgraded his description to “great atrocities” like his predecessors George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
It was clever, crafty – artful, even – but it was not the truth. For in the end, Barack Obama dishonoured his promise to his American-Armenian voters to call the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide. How grateful today’s Turkish generals must be.
Genocide is what it was, of course. Mr Obama agreed in January 2008 that “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation… but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide… I intend to be that President.” But he was not that President on the anniversary of the start of the genocide at the weekend. Like Presidents Clinton and George Bush, he called the mass killings “great atrocities” and even tried to hedge his bets by using the Armenian phrase “Meds Yeghern” which means the same thing – it’s a phrase that elderly Armenians once used about the Nazi-like slaughter – but the Armenian for genocide is “chart”. And even that was missing.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan quotes Avi Shlaim, reminds Shimon Peres of the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not kill), tells him ‘You are killing people’, and tells Davos he’s never coming again before storming off the stage.
So first it was Venezuela, then Bolivia, and now Turkey. Have the Arab states no shame?
Norman Finkelstein doesn’t think so. Here is what he told an audience in Bahrain: ‘The reaction from the Arab world was a total disgrace, a disgrace to the whole region and its people…What you showed in the last massacre in Gaza is that you have no shame at all…The most powerful reactions in the world came from Bolivia, Venezuela, Mauritania, Turkey and Qatar…There was more solidarity in South America than here’.
The Turkish prime minister has stormed out of a heated debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos over Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out of the televised debate on Thursday, after the moderator refused to allow him to rebut the Israeli president’s justification about the war that left about 1,300 Gazans dead.
Before storming out, Erdogan told Shimon Peres, the Israeli president: “You are killing people.”