On Moral Equivalence

Those who believed that the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation put Bush in the same camp as Saddam have questions to answer. They refuse to rise to the challenge because they know their position is untenable – both morally, and factually. Spoiled children of democracies will always run into the hands of local criminals if it leads to the derision of those who brought them up.

Some more uncomfortable details for them:

The US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 40, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar on 11 March 2012.

He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.

He apologised during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling the attack an “act of cowardice”.

Sgt Bales had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could have been released in 20 years.

The reason Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s revelations caused such discomfort for humanitarians was because of the American government’s silence on the crimes in which they are now to be indicted; it might not have happened here, thankfully, but unspoken awareness is simply a step away from tacit approval. (No law exists allowing an official in the US government to overthrow other elected presidents, yet Henry Kissinger is still a free man.) It seems like a betrayal, it saddens me to say, in the same league as Pope Benedict’s to his followers, his refusal to cooperate with secular judiciaries on allegations of pedophilia leading to its institutionalisation and the blackened reputation of every humane priest. Justice, it seems, can lose its eternal authority at the whim of politicians courting the approval of their audience.

But, please – perspective.

To demand political transparency is as much a right as an imperative; but compare, for simply a moment, whatever supposed crimes of which the democracy and the dictatorship are charged. Assad’s recent chemical attack outside Damascus is a momentary echo of Saddam’s message to Halabja in 1988. The news of Sgt Bales’ imprisonment, meanwhile, is like valley to desert.

Failures in Iraq say nothing of our urgency to act in Syria.

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Murderer Fears Cyber-bullying

We’ve seen children crying with joy before the presence of Kim Jong-Un; we’ve seen “ex-gay converts” profess, with equal joy, to have abolished their sinful desires; we’ve seen children playing in the wreckage of a tsunami. Sometimes we are inspired, and in other times we have no choice but to face-palm until it hurts.

But I don’t think we’ve evolved an emotion for President Assad joining instagram:

Picture3

In fairness to the poor bloke, young rapscallions do keep tearing down his posters. As of yet commentators are unsure why he has become the target of so much harassment.

Sanity is for the mad.


Moses vs the Pharaoh? I don’t think so.

Two equally flippant extremes on the recent violence in Cairo and Alexandria:

Unsurprisingly, neither standpoint is unfounded. On the one hand, we have evidence of unarmed civilians shot by passing Egyptian security forces. Then again, we have pro-Morsi supporters pouring petrol over the entrance to Cairo International airport. Both sides are large, and come both peacefully and with their violent edges. General Sisi’s call for populist rallies to legitimise his coup would, a few days later, stoke further rallies in support of the deposed president.

In any deeply divided society, populism is its greasiest but most dangerous political lubricant. Why, after all, should you bother acting democratically – or even constitutionally – if you can deafen the streets with those chanting your name? The revolution continues; though, it might be said, in two ominously different directions, under two undemocratic banners – each trying desperately to show the least care for the other side.

When in power, the Muslim Brotherhood banned any future president from being either Coptic or female (that’s 60% of the population right there). In a recent interview with Mada Masr, Freedom and Justice advisor and MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad expressed no regret for this: to the contrary, Morsi’s biggest failing was not to go far enough:

The big mistake that the president made was not to carry the revolutionary spirit into governmental reforms…We literally allowed this coup to happen because he wasn’t as forceful as he should have been…The president made a decision early on to [rule] by the book. Many objected to his decisions, even inside the Brotherhood. He decided to respect the corrupt heritage that was left for him, and that includes a corrupt constitutional court, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt set of regulations and laws that are literally designed to trap anyone in office.

For “corrupt”, replace with “secular”. It leads to the same conclusion: that the dreamy air of Muslim Brotherhood HQ would have raced for a Turkish-style army coup in order to prevent them from doing the same. The free election of 2012 had already been subverted beyond recall by 3rd July when Sisi took the reigns. But that does not justify legally questionable methods to remove Morsi’s supporters from the streets, nor his unofficial, unknown detention (nor the raids – none of it).

Last year’s narrow election would realise the undemocratic realities of a majority-ruled democracy for a polarised electorate; it might be hoped that the coming election will not result from the very same failures. Without a solid constitution – guaranteeing the place of the military, basic human rights and a secular framework in which a civil bureaucracy might operate – the realities of those Egyptians who demand a peaceful and economically stable nation will never be met.

Unfortunately, whether this will emerge from a bloody dialectic between Mubarak ghouls and the vainglory of would-be theocrats only time can tell.


The War for Tahrir Square

A year ago, I suspect the blogosphere was in fits over Egypt. The army had allayed the fears of those suspecting an army takeover and two candidates were in the run for the presidency: Morsi, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik as the spectre of the Mubarak government.

Religion has a habit of screwing over the political spectrum. For many secular Egyptians, a vote for progress paradoxically became a vote for radical Islam; meanwhile Shafik bled nostalgia for the very system that the elections were intended to reject. What a caricature – a revolutionary is meant to be spoiled for choice!

There was a quiet wonder, though, which seemed to skip over foreign commentary like a pebble on the sea – waiting to drop. Morsi proved to be the first real triumph for Islamism, even by the eyes of the West; Sharia nestled into the ballot station, and it did so unarmed. It won a free election. But today the paradox proved to be unraveling.

The thousands marching in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace tells us that last year’s polar election was not as theatrical as we might be led to believe: it was not interpreted as a choice between theocracy and militarised oligarchy, but on principles which seem both secular and moderate. The army deflected Morsi’s Islamic dreams from the law and revealed his poverty of solutions to the economic crisis.

When people found poverty they did not turn to extremist Islam, but judged it by what it delivered and found it wanting. Islamism fought the election, and won; but then it realised it had chosen to answer questions on which it had little to say. Unsurprisingly, Morsi’s popularity has plummeted from 79% last autumn to a mere 32% today.

A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.

So where does the revolution lie? In the pockets of benevolent army officials, the footsteps of Cairo, or the grim calm of the ballot office?

Everyone thinks they have power but only time will tell who is able to assert it.


What is a Teapot?

One of the scare stories told to students applying for a place at Oxford and Cambridge is that they their fate will inevitably be determined by something arbitrary and unexpected. With a mendacious grin the professor will recline as he asks, “What is a teapot?”

Via The Atlantic, here is tea time in Syria:

Iraqi refugees find themselves on the boundaries of another war: a teapot lives with the community abroad.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army warm their drink on the embers of one of the regime’s posters: a teapot brings life and energy out of destruction.

Behind the flimsy curtain defending against snipers, an iron teapot is the unperturbed stoicism of routine.

The good teapot can be picked out of the rubble; it civilises war. Is that a good thing? Or does it just normalise it?


Heart-ly Worth the Time

… but that won’t stop me.

If George Galloway is correct about the recent footage of cannibalism – or “bestiality” as he fascinatingly terms it – as being symptomatic of all of Syria’s “western-funded” rebel forces, then he is probably fortunate that he lacks a heart.

Here he is on the Iranian state propaganda channel Press TV:

If, unlike me, you happen to have an especially strong constitution then I would recommend you read this article on 10 things worse than eating a dead man’s heart. For perspective. (You might find it easier than listening to Galloway, on reflection.)


Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.