West forgets awkward legacy in Arab world

Publié le : 7 décembre 2009

MINARETS PORTRAYED as missiles helped convince Swiss voters to ban them. Our world cannot afford such ignorance. Unless we address some of our horrors, current and historic, that provocative image could become a prophetic one, writes TONY KINSELLA

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Ireland can boast millions of experts in the universal human practice of blaming others for our woes. Whatever has gone wrong, it has to be the fault of the Brits and/or the Catholic Church. It is a practice that requires more than a kernel of truth to achieve any popular traction, but one which can create enduring vicious circles, paralysing all involved.

Historical “victims” are disempowered, immobilised, and relieved of responsibility. Historical “perpetrators” become exasperated at endless repetitions of litanies about ancient wrongs and refuse to engage. Such patterns often feed cycles of ignorance where facts become irrelevant and mutual incomprehension, fear, hostility and confrontation breed.

During the Great Famine a million people died because of British political choices. Nationalists argued this was genocide. John Russell’s Whig 1846 government, in an argument chillingly echoed today, believed market forces would resolve poverty and hunger. This doctrinaire laissez-faire approach ignored the fact that millions of Irish peasants were so poor that they survived outside the market economy. Their deaths would later destroy the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since the kingdom treated its subjects differently in function of where they were born it clearly wasn’t a United Kingdom in anything more than name.

Blame and denial bred the myopic intransigence in London that doomed Irish Home Rule and would eventually lead to Ireland’s bloody War of Independence. That immobilised political poison only began to be drawn when both islands confronted the hard choices implicit in the recent Northern Ireland peace process. Tony Blair’s 1997 famine apology that “those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy” was an essential element of that political catharsis.

All of this could be seen as being of little more than specialist historical interest were it not for the alarming reality that our world is actively engaged in an almost identical, though immensely more significant, vicious perpetrator-victim circle in terms of Islam in general and its Arab believers in particular.

Last Sunday week, as 53 per cent of Swiss voters turned out to vote in their national referendum on minarets, Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times despaired of The Narrative, the perspective widespread in the Muslim world that the West is forever putting it down, which he described as a “cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America” which “posits America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand ‘American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy’ to keep Muslims down”.

In Switzerland 57 per cent of those voting chose to insert a ban on the construction of minarets into their federal constitution. The tamest label you can apply to that decision is that it is blatantly discriminatory. Catholic, protestant and orthodox church spires are fine, but Muslim minarets (and there are only four in Switzerland) are outlawed.

The fact that The Narrative achieves considerable political traction in the Arab world is at least partially rooted in the ignorant and/or arrogant mess external powers have made of their interventions there for at least a century. Our languages lack a collective noun to describe France, Italy, the Soviet Union, the UK, the US and other participants. The Narrative has, of course, got just such a term – Crusader.

“Victims”, as any Irish person can tell you, have longer and more focused memories than “perpetrators”. Who in London or Paris remembers first World War pledges of a great Arab nation in return for an uprising against the Ottoman empire? Pledges transformed into an Anglo-French carve-up of Arab lands and a League of Nations British Mandate in Palestine. Yet that is woven into popular political memory from Beirut to Basra.

Britain detached Kuwait from the state of Iraq it had helped create, while France facilitated the emergence of Lebanon from its Syrian mandate. The Saud family owes much for its perch to London, and since 1944 to Washington. Its political rule is underpinned by an alliance with the ultra-hardline Wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam.

Palestinian Arabs refer to the creation of Israel in 1948 by a “Crusader”-dominated UN as the nakba or catastrophe. Why, they ask, should they have to pick up the tab for Crusader guilt over the Holocaust?

Contributors to The Narrative pose awkward questions about the international community’s alarm over Iran’s nuclear developments and its silence about Israel’s 200 or so nuclear warheads. They can be similarly embarrassing about the almost complete global silence while between 50,000 and 150,000 were killed in Moscow’s wars against Chechen independence.

Underdevelopment, high unemployment and limited human rights characterise many of the world’s autocratic and totalitarian Arab regimes. The mosque has become, for many of their citizens, the only place where debate and reflection is at least partially tolerated.

Islam, with some 1.6 billion followers, is one of the largest world religions. While its roots are Arabic, Arabs now account for only around 20 per cent of the faithful. Security on our planet depends on us breaking the vicious political cycle that drives The Narrative. “Crusaders” need to take the initiative and confront their awkward legacies. Banning minarets takes us in the opposite direction – and makes missiles more likely.

Published in the Irish Times

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