[Marxism] British liberals adopt the clash of civilisations

John Enyang x03002f at math.nagoya-u.ac.jp
Sat Mar 11 03:07:25 MST 2006


Sane Britain disappears
With liberal apologists all but in line, the ground is being prepared in
Britain for the clash of civilisations US neo-cons have been dreaming of,
writes Jonathan Cook*

Until recently liberal Europeans were keen to distance themselves, at
least officially, from the ideological excesses of the current American
administration. They argued that the neo-conservative enthusiasm for the
"war on terror" -- and its underpinning ideology of "a clash of
civilisations" -- did not fit with Europe's painful recent experiences of
world wars and the dismantling of its colonial outposts around the globe.

But there is every sign that the public dissociation is coming to a very
rapid end. The language and assumptions of the "clash scaremongers" is
permeating European thought, including the reasoning of its liberal
classes, just as surely as it once did about the Cold War.

So far attention has focussed on specific frictions: the Francophone
countries' hyperventilating over the Islamic veil; the Scandinavian
obsession with immigrants; and the Germanic nations' undisguised distaste
at Muslim Turkey's possible gate-crashing of the Christian club of the
European Union.

Little notice has been paid to a similar public embrace of the clash
thesis in Britain. There, after the British public's well-publicised
opposition to Tony Blair's participation in President Bush's illegal
invasion of Iraq, Britons have all but resigned themselves to a slew of
policies -- extra powers for the police, detention without charge, ID
cards, stricter immigration policies, limits on free expression -- that
are eroding long-cherished freedoms and rights.

But two recent incidents in particular illustrate the rapid refashioning
of the British agenda, particularly among liberals. The first involves an
attempt to silence a democratically elected leader, London's mayor, Ken
Livingstone, by a government-appointed committee seeking his suspension
from office. The second concerns the media's response to the notorious
Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

What each case highlights is a double standard on freedom of expression
that gives an especially privileged status to speech that assumes or
promotes the "clash of civilisations". By contrast, those who reject the
clash model -- who believe it is just the latest incarnation, recast for
the global era, of the traditional colonial policy of divide and rule --
are being maligned or silenced.

Take Ken Livingstone. He has been a thorn in the side of the British
political establishment for a generation, first as the leader of the
Greater London Council, which former prime minister Margaret Thatcher
abolished mainly to oust him, and now as the mayor of London, a post his
own Labour Party went to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent him from
contesting and winning.

In addition, Livingstone has been waging a relentless struggle against his
demonisation in the right-wing British media. The tabloids long ago
nicknamed him "Red Ken" for his opposition to their racist campaigns
against blacks, the Irish, asylum-seekers and Muslims. In office he has
been diligent in promoting a multi-cultural and multi-faith London that
listens to all voices.

Today, of course, that policy sabotages the worldview of the clash
theorists, who want to persuade us that enlightened Europe is being
besieged by Muslim barbarians. And, like sheep, British liberals too are
joining the campaign against Livingstone.

The details of Livingstone's humiliation bear close examination. The mayor
was confronted a year ago by Oliver Finegold, a reporter with London's
Evening Standard newspaper, after a public engagement. Livingstone, who
has had a long-running battle with the Standard over its coverage of
London issues, refused to be interviewed. When pressed, he asked the
reporter: "were you a German war criminal?" Offended, Finegold replied
that he was Jewish. Livingstone then told him he was behaving "like a
concentration camp guard -- you are just doing what you are paid to do."

The reasons for Livingstone's outburst are clear. As he has pointed out on
numerous occasions he loathes Associated Newspapers -- the publishing
group of which the Standard is one flagship -- because of its repeated
personal attacks on him, its racist campaigns against minorities, and its
history of supporting anti-Semitism and Hitler earlier this century.

In insulting Finegold, Livingstone was comparing him to the despised
Jewish collaborators, "capos", who worked on behalf of the Nazis in their
concentration camps. While Finegold has every reason to feel offended by
the comparison, he and his newspaper have the opportunity and resources to
hit back at Livingstone -- as they have done many times before -- through
the paper's editorial pages.

This minor media scuffle should have ended there, but for the role of
Jewish lobby groups who saw their chance to accuse, at least implicitly,
London's mayor of being anti-Semitic, a charge that is being deployed with
increasing recklessness across Europe. The implausibility of this claim
should not be in doubt: Livingstone has a long record of supporting
minorities, including Jews, and his comments were directed against
Finegold personally, for the nature of his work, not his ethnicity.

Refusing to apologise either to Finegold or the Standard, Livingstone made
sure to reassure his Jewish constituents that the anti- Semitism slur was
groundless. He had not been downplaying the "horror and magnitude" of the
Holocaust, he said. "My view remains that the Holocaust against the Jews
is the greatest racial crime of the 20th century."

Nonetheless, Jewish groups led by the Board of Deputies of British Jews
pressed on with their campaign to have the mayor publicly punished,
leading to the panel's draconian decision to suspend him for a month -- a
sentence Livingstone has challenged in the courts.

Why were the lobbyists so determined to pursue their prey, and liberals so
ready to approve his punishment? Because Livingstone, almost uniquely in
British public life, is refusing to concede an inch to the clash
scaremongers. He continues to express his outrage at Israel's treatment of
the Palestinians in the occupied territories and this issue's role in
inflaming worldwide Muslim anger, and he continues to give a platform to
Muslim leaders who offer a different understanding of modern history, one
most British liberals would rather not hear.

Livingstone's treatment contrasts starkly with another recent episode;
that of the cartoons first printed by a right-wing and self- consciously
Christian Danish newspaper. In that case, European editors were quick to
invoke the sacred principle of freedom of expression in publishing, or
supporting the publication of, cartoons that defamed the Prophet Mohamed,
most notoriously by showing him concealing a bomb in his turban.

In Britain, where the media did not reprint the cartoons, apparently for
fear of inflaming Muslim sensitivities, they still asserted their
inviolable right to publish them should they so choose. Liberal columnists
claimed that such a right could not be sacrificed because it was one of
the cardinal values of the European Enlightenment and of "Western
civilisation". "The victory won by Voltaire defines us, as much as faith
defines Muslims," wrote Henry Porter in Britain's Observer newspaper.

This allowed the British media to take a dubious moral high ground
twice-over: first, they could claim to be acting pragmatically and
charitably in refusing to publish, and then they could contrast their own
restraint with the bullying tactics of the "Muslim mob". The cartoon
affair simply reassured the British media, and liberals, of the inherent
truth of the clash theory.

The frenzied response of some Muslims helped to overshadow a more
significant point, however. What was the intention of the cartoonists, the
newspaper and television channels across Europe that insisted on
publishing the cartoons, and those who defended their right to do so?

Although British liberals were prepared to admit that the cartoons might
hurt religious sensitivities (or, in their view, over-sensitivity), they
refused to concede that the offence might run deeper still. In fact, by
portraying the founder of Islam as a terrorist -- as the bomb in the
turban caricature surely does -- the cartoons criticised Muslims not for
what they do (a minuscule number are involved in terror) but for what they
are: members of a community of belief.

Whereas British liberals have supported the denial of Livingstone's
freedom to offend one individual, they have invoked as a sacrosanct
principle the right to incite against a religious group, one that exists
as a series of vulnerable and marginalised minorities across Europe.

The reason for this double standard seems clear enough. While Livingstone
and others like him are a threat to those shaping a future world order
that promises endless war against the "Other", the European media and
their liberal apologists are being recruited to a cause that will ensure
such a war is all but inevitable.

European liberals playing with Bush's fire are likely to get more than
their fingers burnt. They are sliding headlong into an uncivilised clash
of their very own making.

* The writer is author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish
and Democratic State , published by Pluto Books next month.

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