Interview with Right to Nonviolence
Will you first comment generally on the ME revolutions underway? Any particular impressions or associations with other historical transitions/moments?
Of course one immediately thinks of all those other “springs”, starting with the Spring-time of the Nations in 1848. But that also reminds us that success is never to be taken for granted, and that human progress, even if it is an overall trend (which after the Holocaust, in an age of nuclear weapons and possibly catastrophic climate change, it is perhaps indecent to suggest) is certainly not linear. Even when there is positive change, the price can be horrifically high, and disappointments and setbacks are inevitable.
In addition to your expertise as a writer on the Middle East and in particular political Islam in Faith and Power, a book that has become a classic in the field, you have played an active role in the region most notably as a founding member of the International Committee for a Free Iraq. How do theory and practise marry in your work on the ME?
I think I am better at observing, analyzing and describing than at doing, but I like to feel that I am a participant in history as well as an observer. Neutrality is almost never an option for me. There is no Archimedean standpoint from which to observe the world. All of us are privileged or condemned (or both) to live our lives in a particular social context. We must describe honestly what we see, and above all preserve our intellectual independence, but without the illusion that we can ever be fully objective. Much of my journalism has taken the form of argument and advocacy. Occasionally this has got me into trouble but mainly I was lucky enough to work for enlightened editors who respected my freedom of expression. I earned my bread and butter for many years writing editorials, first in The Times, then in the Financial Times. Even then, I couldn’t resist the invitation to go and work in the UN. When people asked me why, I used to quote the Communist Manifesto: “Philosophers have tried to understand the world. Our problem is to change it.”
You have also commented widely on Israel Palestine. Nearly 30 years ago you made a fascinating reference to the Israelis’ mental map inclusive of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza concluding that “Every year that passes makes it less likely that any part of Palestine will eventually be separated from Israel”. What is your current reading of the situation?
Actually that was nearly 40 years ago! And the situation has got much worse since I wrote that, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The two-state solution seems further and further out of reach, but an equitable one-state solution, with genuine equality for all citizens/inhabitants irrespective of race or religion, is even harder to imagine, and probably also to achieve.
In the same article, you noted that while settlements were not considered by Israelis as an extension of sovereignty, “it would not be easy to imagine a future Israeli government either forcing these settlers to withdraw or abandoning them to Arab rule.” This sounds prophetic. Do you think anything could have been done to prevent it?
Yes, there were many Israelis who foresaw it and wanted to prevent it. I remember on that same first visit to Israel talking to Yitzhak Ben Aharon, then the leader of the Histadrut, who said Israel should not allow the Arabs to draw its borders for it but should, if they persisted with the three Noes, withdraw unilaterally. Of course this is what Barak eventually did from Lebanon in 2000, and Sharon from Gaza in 2005. It is not a solution, but surely the results would have been far better if it had been done before the Yom Kippur war – and before the rise of Hizbollah and Hamas. Begin did force settlers to withdraw from Sinai, and Sharon from Gaza. And of course successive American leaders could and should have done much more to persuade, even compel, Israel to accept a compromise peace, following the example of Eisenhower in 1956 when, at the very climax of his re-election campaign, he insisted on Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Sinai and the interposition of the first UN peacekeeping force.
RN founder Chibli Mallat amongst others has argued for absolute nonviolent opposition and a federal Israel-Palestine that constitutionally guarantees the rights of all citizens. What do you see as the preferred strategy for Palestinians?
I am not a pacifist, but I’m sure a non-violent strategy would have served the Palestinians better. My friend Peter Ackerman, who founded the International Council for Nonviolent Conflict, likens their attitude to that of a fit, all-round athlete who has to compete with a muscle-bound sumo wrestler, is given the choice of contest, and opts for sumo wrestling. Force and violence are the terrain on which Israel has the most decisive advantage, but Israelis would not allow one of their leaders to behave like Hafez or Bashar al-Assad towards a Gandhian non-violent resistance movement.
The nonviolent revolutions are widely analyzed as predominantly driven by democratic and economic aspirations rather than by religious arguments or ideals although there is a strong narrative based on fear of radicalization as an argument for the status quo. How do you see the evolving role of political Islam in the uprisings?
I am not close enough to give a firm answer on this, and I suspect anyway the answer must differ from place to place. What I do know is that Islam is a very strong political culture, and Muslims will generally respond better to those who know how to frame their argument in Islamic terms. I also know – as a historian of communism – that organized political movements with strong discipline and ability to mobilize their followers have an advantage over sheer numbers or libertarian enthusiasm in the long haul. Victory often goes to those able to provide social services where the state is failing, and to those who are prepared to stay at meetings until after everyone else has got tired and gone home.
Since you left the UN three years ago, you have been working intensively with the Salzburg Global Centre. Can you tell us more about this ‘think-tank’ experiment and its impact on the world?
Actually it’s now nearly five years since I left the UN and moved to the Salzburg Seminar, which that year (2007) celebrated its 60th anniversary by adding the world Global to its name. It is not a think tank but an institution which convenes people – especially young or emerging leaders – from different walks of life and different parts of the world, and helps them to discuss global problems in a stimulating and constructive way. We go for a minimum of formal lectures or presentations and a maximum of free, interactive discussion and work in small groups. The impact is hard to judge, but I’m astonished at the number of people who describe the experience as transformative, because it enabled them to see the issues they work on from different points of view, and to get to know people whose social or national or cultural context is different from their own.
You have closely worked with the UN Secretary General over eight years ? Where do you view the UN in the shaping of the world with its two most pressing challenges: the Middle East, and the economic crisis?
The UN is an association of sovereign states – I often say it would have been called the United States, if that name had not been already taken. It was founded in 1945, arguably the apogee of state power in human history. Therefore it only works when those in charge of states believe they have a common interest and are willing to make some sacrifice of particular interests in order to achieve it. There was a brief moment at the end of the cold war when it seemed we might be going to live in that kind of world, but it did not last. Those who control states are very jealous of their own power, and they prefer to keep the UN weak. Its biggest weakness is that it doesn’t represent the non-state forces that are increasingly important in today’s world – big companies, voluntary movements, new media. What made Kofi Annan an exceptional Secretary-General, in my view, was that he understood this. He often said that the UN would not be relevant in the 21st century unless it reached beyond the governments which are its legal masters and convinced ordinary people that it could do something to improve their lives. That’s why he spent so much time addressing civil society, and trying to draw corporate leaders into playing a constructive role, notably through the Global Compact but also, for instance, in persuading the heads of big pharmaceutical companies to agree on providing anti-retroviral drugs to people in poor countries at affordable prices. He saw that the end of the cold war and some aspects of globalization – notably instant global communications – made it possible for something like world public opinion to form, at least on some issues, and that he, as the only person with a mandate to speak for the world rather than for a single nation or group of nations, could address that global audience and perhaps even inspire it. It was a great ambition, perhaps an excessive one, yet exhilarating for those of us who took part in it. When all is said and done, I think it was the most worthwhile and rewarding part of my life, and I am deeply grateful that I had that opportunity.
RN’s board is formidably diverse, strongly represented by prominent individuals from the Middle East but also with members from Asia, North and South America, and Europe. How does an organization best leverage such international expertise?
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Groups like avaaz.org are showing that public opinion can now be mobilized, through the internet, all around the world, and this can give courage and confidence to people in particular countries or regions that have obdurate governments., or are up against greedy and short-sighted corporations. But this is only a fraction of what could be achieved. Prominent individuals working together can make issues more visible, and publicise possible solutions. But no one “owns” an audience. We need to listen all the time, and find ways of addressing people, especially young people, in language they understand and find meaningful. That does NOT mean “talking down” to them. We have to find a way to expose them to the world’s complexities and ask them to favour us with THEIR expertise and ingenuity, rather than us favouring them with professorial instruction to which they will not listen.
Is there a discernable intellectual debt of the nonviolent nature of the current revolutions to thinkers, writers, or others and if so who would you acknowledge?
Gandhi, of course. Martin Luther King. Mandela – even though he was also involved in violent struggle, and probably benefited from it. But I’m sure there are other sources, and no doubt especially Islamic ones, about which I am less well informed.
There is heightened concern –fueled by recent events notably in Iraq and now Egypt – for the rights of vulnerable populations such as women, children, religious minorities, etc. Are specific constitutional/legislative protections most promising for ‘minorities’ in emerging democracies or should these groups focus on broad civil rights and judicial remedies?
Individuals are primary, in my view, but a fully-rounded individual has many group identities which, taken together, are what make up her/his individuality. Therefore you are not really respecting individual rights if you deny group rights. Vulnerable people need more specific protection – the dice are loaded against them, or the playing-field is tilted, choose your own metaphor – and the balance needs to be redressed. That seems to me common sense. I’m really not sure why so much breath is wasted on arguing about it.
You have also worked extensively on the Sri Lankan issue in recent months. Is that part of universalism? Why Sri Lanka in particular?
In the spring of 2009 my friend Raj Thamotheram got in touch with me. He is a British doctor who worked for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s, for a safer world in the 1990s (by founding and running an NGO of that name, Saferworld), and more recently to persuade large investors that they need to agree and act on certain principles, in the long-term interest of all of them, rather than only competing against each other and looking only at short-term financial results. I knew he was a Tamil, born in Sri Lanka, but he left there as a small child and we had never discussed it. He told me that genocide, or something like it, was happening or about to happen in Sri Lanka, and asked for my help. I had spent much of the previous 15 years apologizing for and trying to explain, on behalf of myself and others, our collective failure to prevent or halt genocide in Rwanda and in the Balkans, and arguing for stronger theory and practice to ensure that in future such atrocities would not be ignored. That was another big part of Kofi Annan’s mission at the UN. I did not want ever again to be in the position of saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t know enough at the time or I would have got involved sooner”. I felt that this time I had to try and do something before it was too late. Of course it’s part of universalism. The present leaders of Sri Lanka are touting their success against the Tamil Tigers as a model for other governments facing separatist insurgencies or “terrorism” to follow. Of course, the Tigers themselves were also criminal, but that cannot justify the abominable methods used by government forces, particularly against civilians. A panel appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said that there are credible allegations which must be investigated internationally. Channel 4 in Britain has produced a chilling documentary showing in detail the atrocities that were committed. None of us can afford to allow these methods to be held up as a model. We have to uphold our principles, not only against our own pet villains – be they Israel or Islamic Jihad – but wherever and whenever they are challenged.
Who are the writers you recognize as shaping your vision of the ME region?
Maxime Rodinson. Walid Khalidi. Mohamed Sid Ahmed. Fred Halliday. Ernest Gellner. Kanaan Makiya. Edward Said – even though, of course, they disagreed strongly with each other. Perhaps above all Israel Shahak, whom you may not think of as a writer, but he wrote indefatigably – thousands of pages translating bits of the Hebrew press which he knew the government press office would never translate; long handwritten personal letters; and one or two important small books, especially “Jewish History, Jewish Religion”. A strong and brave man, not always right perhaps, but one of those who makes it just about tolerable to be a member of the human race…
Mortimer, “Israelis favour evolution of Palestine”, The Times, 12 July 1973.
Mallat, A federal Israel-Palestine: Nonviolence and law to end the100-year civil war, The Daily Star, 23 September, 2010, http://www.righttononviolence.org/images/PDF/20100923_israel