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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Jaw, jaw and war, war: a discussion

I originally submitted the following critique of an article in the Guardian to Engage, the organization set up to oppose academic boycotts of Israel in British universities (if you haven't seen their website, have a look - I don't agree with everything there by any means, but there's lots of good stuff). Because it raises issues which are crucial to the way my thinking is developing, I've appended (slightly edited) my exchange of e-mails with David Hirsh of Engage, with thanks to him for agreeing to the publication of what he says is 'not his most fluent writing ever'.

A response to 'Dialogue is the only way to end this cycle of violence' by Jonathan Glover (Guardian, 27 July 2005)

'Jonathan Glover teaches human values and contemporary global ethics at King's College London' it says at the bottom of his article. Oh dear. Ruminating on how 'human values and contemporary global ethics' might differ from plain, boring old ethics, I'm reminded of how, in the days of the Cold War, a 'Democratic Republic' was one with no democracy, a 'People's Republic' was one where the people had no say, and the 'Democratic People's Republic of Korea' was (and is) possibly the vilest tyranny on earth.

I digress. Moral equivalence is, predictably, the name of Mr Glover's game. Like this:

'Several years ago there were two episodes between Israelis and Palestinians. Pictures went round the world showing a 12-year-old Palestinian boy crouching behind his father, trying to avoid the Israeli bullets that killed him. A week or two later two young Israeli men crossed a boundary into Palestinian territory. They were killed, torn apart by an angry crowd.

'We feel the horror and the tragedy of these events. But the tragedy has an extra dimension. The Palestinian narrative will remember the first episode and the Israeli one the second. The stories reinforce the stereotypes that maintain the conflict. ("They deliberately kill our children." "They are savages.")'

Six of one, half a dozen of the other - so simple. Why do Israeli soldiers open fire in the Occupied Territories? Basically, because they are operating against organizations which try to kill Israeli Jews as a means to destroying to destroying the Israeli state. It is plainly the case that innocent people frequently get killed as a result, and that not everything which could be done is done to avoid such deaths.

Why, on the other hand, were the two Israelis 'torn apart'? In a nutshell, because they didn't look like Arabs and must therefore have been Jews. A racist lynching. End of story. But from the standpoint of contemporary global ethics there is no difference - just two 'stories'.

Or this old chestnut: 'We allowed Falluja to be destroyed like Guernica.' In our contemporary global ethics, you see, there is no difference at all between fascists bombing a defenceless city in the process of overthrowing a democratic republic, and the forces of a democratic republic bombarding a stronghold of the fascists who will stop at nothing to strangle Iraqi democracy at birth.

'Dialogue is the only way to end this cycle of violence', says the headline. Well, yes and no. Seeking a parallel to the Islamists' resentments, Mr Glover tells us that 'The anger that blazes through Mein Kampf was a backlash against the humiliations of the 1918 defeat and subsequent peace.'

Dialogue with the author in question didn't exactly get Neville Chamberlain very far, did it, Mr Glover? Or is the idea that we should have kept on talking - when Poland was invaded; when France was invaded; when Coventry was bombed; when the Soviet Union was invaded; when Auschwitz opened its gates?

Mr Glover's prescription for a thoroughly contemporary Munich goes like this:

'Tackling the deep psychology of conflict involves persuading groups to listen to each other's stories and to look for the possibility of a narrative that does justice to the truths in both...

'What is needed is not a one-sided dialogue in which "we" undermine "their" fanaticism...

'The right kind of talk opens chinks that let in doubts. And in religion and politics doubts about beliefs save lives.'

Well, I don't claim to be more than a layman in the field of human values and contemporary global ethics, but it seems to me we're tied up in knots here. For our value system (and no, the absence of ironic quotation marks around the possessive pronoun is not accidental) is already founded on the acceptance of doubt. You doubt that my religion has anything to do with God? Find yourself one that suits you. You doubt that Tony Blair is telling you the truth? Vote for Michael Howard, or George Galloway, or whoever takes your fancy. You doubt that my blog is anything more than the ravings of an obsessive nutter? Find yourself a better one.

Whereas their value system (again, no quotes) isn't. So what happens when we talk? If we come to the table convinced that doubt is the key, we are going to have to try to persuade them to think more like us - oops, cultural imperialism, can't have that. But if we come doubting our doubt and they come certain of their certainty, we may as well run up the white flag straight away and ask them exactly which variant of Sharia law they want us to introduce and how they would like us to dispose of our Jews.

And yes, we do need to talk - but not to the terrorists - not now. We need to talk warmly and supportively to Muslims who, seeing western pluralism and tolerance as virtues to be practised and not exploited, are already part of ‘us’. We need to talk sensitively and persuasively to decent, peaceful Muslims caught between two cultures, making no bones about the fact that we are not perfect and all too often betray our own values. And once we have helped mainstream western Islam to clarify its values, insulate itself from the appeal of terrorism, and embrace its status as one of the component groups of a plural society, with the rights and responsibilities that implies - then we can find a way for the radicals to save face without actually getting the things that, at the moment, they think they want.

Easy to say. Not so easy to do. The talking needs to happen at every possible level. For churchgoers like me, for instance, it means developing contacts with the local mosque, and there are good and bad ways of doing that. The wrong way is the soft option of getting together to congratulate each other on believing in God and tut-tut about how awful George Bush is. The right way involves, sooner or later, engaging honestly with each other at the level of core values – much less comfortable.

'Talk will not stop the killing tomorrow. But we need long-term thinking too.' says Mr Glover, and on this we can agree. But if we are to get there without surrendering our basic values we face blood, sweat and tears in the short to medium term, and we will need more than doubt to see us through it.

and now the e-mails...

Dear Alan

Thanks for thinking of us. I'm sorry but we're not going to use it.

One of the things that we are really trying to avoid on Engage is a world view of 'us' in the 'west' and 'them' in the 'muslim world'. I just don't think that it corresponds well to reality; I think that it misses the point. I think that there are many world-views, many political and social identities in both what you call the 'west' and in the 'muslim world'. It is the Islamists who insist on the distinction between 'our culture' and 'their culture' - and I think that we need to get inside that distinction and take it apart.

And I am in favour of dialogue and negotiation between Israel and Palestine - I am in favour of them doing a deal. Most Palestinians voted against Hamas and for Abu Mazen. And I think that Israel bears a greater responsibility for the outcome of the conflict, since it has state power, since it is the occupying power, since it has tanks and planes and guns.

Best Wishes...

Dear David...

I'm sorry you feel there is such a divergence between my position and Engage's. While I may have expressed myself rather more intemperately, I think I am saying substantially the same things about Jonathan Glover's article as Norman Geras does here.

I certainly haven't made myself clear enough if I appear to oppose talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The Guardian piece was specifically on 'dialogue' with the terrorists.

Re us and them, I don't mean non-Muslims versus Muslims, and I do believe I made that clear enough. My 'us' is a society which practises pluralism and tolerance because there is an overarching culture and value system in which these are non-negotiable. Many Muslims are already part of this, many more need to be. If your position is a multiculturalist one I think that is where we have to agree to differ. I don't believe you get pluralism and tolerance in any secure way simply as a result of horse-trading between disparate groups pursuing private agendas and acknowledging no responsibilty for the whole.

I heard a Dutchman on the radio yesterday saying that Holland's multicultural experiment died with Theo van Gogh. The assumption that Moroccan immigrants would somehow automatically absorb Dutch liberal values has broken down completely - the second generation is more hostile to the majority culture than the first. This is the challenge facing what I would unapologetically call 'the west' (although an interesting observation which I've seen lately is that the US hasn't so far produced home-grown Islamist terrorists - it's worth considering why).

Anyway, I still believe we're basically on the same side, and wish you and Engage well.


Hi Alan,

I think you're right - that there isn't a huge distance between us.

I think that Engage has to carve out its niche carefully - and its not only against antisemitism but its also trying to forge a new way to be against antisemitism. The old ways - which often responded to the demonisation of Israel with a defence of everything Israel did - were not right and neither were they effective.

The Jewish and Israeli establishment was caught on the hop by the AUT boycott campaign - and didn't know how to oppose it rigorously and effectively.

So Engage both defines itself against antisemitism on the left but also against the Jewish & Israeli nationalist right. We are in the business of arming people against antisemitism - and that is why we have to be sharp and clear against any hint of demonisation of Islam or Arabs or anybody else. The political struggle is partly about helping to arm Muslims with decent politics - and supporting those Muslims who are fighting for decent politics.

'The West' has produced Nazism, Fasicsm, colonialism, racism - etc. Its not about supporting 'The West' and 'its values' against 'others'.

The truth is that the world is not divided like that anyway. There people who fight for democracy and human rights all over the world. Its not geographical, ethnic or religious - its political.

I don't know much about Dutch Muslims, but 1) as a community they are clearly under a serious amount of racist threat - the left has to stand with them against this racist threat - but with decent politics. This is the problem with Galloway - he's good at standing with muslims against racism - but he does it on the basis of a set of stinking politics.

That was the trick that we pulled off with the AUT campaign - we stood with the Jewish community and with Israel against the racist threat - but we did so with a clear set of politics that did not compromise with Sharon & Netanyahu.

and 2) I would assume that, like Muslims anywhere else, Dutch Muslims have a whole range of hybridised and inter-linked identities, and a whole range of political world-views. I'm skeptical about the claim that 'the second generation' is this or that... I would imagine that lots of the 'second generation' are busy becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants - some of those will buy into Islamist politics, some won't.

I think for these reasons, that we need real clarity in our writing. And your piece - partly self-consciously - wasn't clear...

Best Wishes,

Hi David...

The first thing that strikes me about your response is how very constrained you feel yourself to be in what you can say as a Jewish left-wing academic, and what Engage can say as a group putting a left-wing case for Israel. And I find that terribly disturbing. It's as if the mere fact of standing up for Israel has put you and your collaborators in Engage so far beyond the pale that a word out of place about Arab culture or Islam would be (political? professional? social?) suicide. It makes me feel very relieved to be a Christian ex-socialist non-academic who can speak his mind in his blog without (I hope!) risking anything more than the occasional semi-literate comment accusing me of being a fascist.

I hope I'm not in the business of demonising anybody, but I think there are things to be said about the crisis within Arab culture today (I am well aware of its historical glories) and its ripple effects on the whole of Islam. They are things that are being said by Arab scholars, and they matter not just because suicide bombers on tube trains are part of the ripple effect, but because the outcome of the crisis will determine whether or not millions of ordinary Arabs continue to live in conditions of backwardness and oppression.

One of the key features of this crisis is the way popular frustration is channelled, with the encouragement of the political elites, into hatred of Israel. The fine article by Matthias Küntzel which you publicized last week [note to blog readers: highly recommended site] shows just how pathological that hatred is, with the second most popular TV station in the Middle East churning out anti-Semitic propaganda whose themes come straight out of the Third Reich. Thanks to this displacement activity democratic movements in the region are actually very weak, with the ironic consequence that the best chance Arabs in the Middle East get of voting in democratic elections is either to live in Israel or to be under military occupation (in the OPT or Iraq). It really won't do to blame this situation all on imperialist interference. In Latin America the CIA conspired to overthrow democratic governments; in the Middle East there haven't (since Iran 1953 - and of course we will never know how democratic Mossadegh would have turned out to be) been any for them to overthrow.

Another constraint I perceive is that there is one group for whom demonisation seems to be mandatory, namely the Israeli right. The first thing to be said here is that the term in itself lumps together religious extremists with democratic right-of-centre politicians such as one would expect to find in any mature democracy. Israel has a right and a left because that is what you generally get in a democracy. We may not care for what Sharon and Netanyahu do, but I think it's important to make the point that it's not fundamentally different from what most equivalent politicians would do faced with the same circumstances - it's pretty obvious what road those who think them uniquely wicked are headed down. And they are certainly not worse than Hamas, or Saddam Hussein, or al-Zarqawi, for all of whom you can be an apologist without running any risk of an AUT boycott. So it seems to me that if you demonise them you are conceding too much ground to the delegitimisation of Israel itself.

In talking of 'the west', I'm not putting it forward as a paragon of all virtues, but I am saying that certain values (sorry, but not 'values') such as democracy, rule of law, freedom of the media, academic freedom, unrestricted religious pluralism, support for the principle of gender equality and sexual tolerance are, for whatever complex historical reasons, a lot more typical of 'western' societies than of societies where Islam is the dominant religion. Of course you are right that the west has produced Nazism, but the democratic Germany I live in today is the product of a re-engagement with these western values, and not (as in the case of Japan) of importing new ones from somewhere else. I have never seen it suggested that drawing on Muslim, or any other non-western, political culture would have eased Germany's task of dragging itself out of the abyss of 1945. Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the legacy of National Socialism is alive and well in the Middle East.

Or take another evil commonly used by the left as a stick to beat the west with. Innumerable societies have owned slaves, but only one culture, to my knowledge, has ever spontaneously come to the conviction that doing so is a moral evil which should be outlawed.

The paradox is that the values I have listed are actually, I believe, universal ones, but they need specific cultures to embody them. Can Islam become such a culture? I don't pretend to know the answer, but I am fairly certain that politics, though clearly vital, is not the only factor needed. My wife has been reading Irshad Manji and telling me about her call for an Islamic Reformation. There is something pretty artificial about the distinction between Islam and Islamism, even if it has practical value in combatting Islamophobia. Islam is a religion with political consequences, and if you want to change the politics you have to change the theology.

I don't claim to be an expert on Muslims in Holland either, but I have had an interest in the topic since I chanced to be working in The Hague the week Theo van Gogh was killed. I think what has been unmistakeable in Holland is the sense of stunned disbelief that somebody born and bred in Amsterdam should have demonstrated such utter contempt for the culture of tolerance from which he had personally benefitted so much.

When your immediate reaction to the situation is to talk in terms of the 'racist threat' to Muslims, I fear you are getting caught in exactly the mindset which leads so many on the left to the assumption that it is progressive to be anti-Israel. Whilst of course any generalization about a social group will be unfair to individuals, I think we have to be able to say that as a group the Dutch Muslim community is generating more 'threat' than it is suffering. Plainly there are only a small minority of actively murderous Islamists, but the ideology that spurs them on is far more widely diffused. If the legendary tolerance of the Dutch is in danger of being exhausted I think we owe it to them to ask seriously why that has happened rather than jump to the conclusion that they must have been racists all along.

I must confess to a certain irritation when I read about the explosion of "faith hate" crimes in Britain since 7/7. Clearly none of this acceptable, and the serious assaults that have occurred are of great concern. But if I am expected to feel in some way accountable when a Neanderthal who happens to share my skin colour spits at a woman wearing a hijab, I think it is a fortiori mandatory for British Muslims as a community to accept responsibility for combatting the infinitely more dangerous (to them, never mind to anyone else) hate criminals who gave us 7/7 and 21/7 in the name of their faith. And for everybody's sake that needs to be a lot more than a half-hearted and defensive damage limitation exercise; it is heartening that some Muslim leaders recognize this, but more need to join them...

Best wishes,



Anonymous said...

Have to admit I haven't read the whole article but your final letter made me sit up straight and think.
It's ridiculous that Israel is demonised so much here that to defend the Israeli right makes you a fascist. That Jews are scared to speak out shows you how strong the ingrained fear of antisemitism is.

Anonymous said...

The worst thing about the Engage website is that it censures comment posted by readers for expressing opinions with which the editor disagrees. A reasonable question is why they need opinion posted at all. Perhaps they like the sound of one hand clapping.

To daniel,

I think the issue with the Engage cite is that its publisher thinks (or at least that is my impression) that comment that suggests that tradionalist Islamic notions such as the Jihad/dhimma idiology (which posits the need for universal Muslim rule under Muslim law brought, if need be, by violence) might raise an issue pertinent to understanding the dispute between the Muslim Arabs and the Israelis is a racist point of view.

Which is to say, the issue with Engage is an unwillingness to consider different opinions, not fear. Such, in my view, is the result of the orthodoxy which has swept over universities and it is the very same orthodoxy which drove people to seek a boycott against Israel.

Cyrus said...


Interesting comment. First of all I must give Engage credit for being broadminded enough to include this site in their blogroll. But I think their difficulty is that they are running a campaign in the strongly left-leaning environment of an academic trade union and they have to keep as much of the left on-side as they can. I suspect that for some of them there is no problem in staying inside the parameters of left-wing orthodoxy, but for others it means tactical self-censorship. I can't judge whether they are right about the tactics, but even if they are, it makes it all the more important that there are other voices prepared to challenge the mindset of the boycotters on a more fundamental level.

Anonymous said...


As always, you have interesting thoughts.

I have tried to post comments, not articles, on Engage - just like I am doing on your web site without incident - and, in some instances, Engage posts my comments but, in other instances, the webmaster does not. None of my comments is disrespectful or defamatory. Some have, as noted before, discussed the role of Islam in the Arab Israeli conflict. Such comments are not posted.

I cannot imagine any legitimate reason why Engage does not permit people to post comments so long as the comments are not defamatory. Such, among other things, leads me to the views I hold. Then again, I may well be mistaken.