The perils of partial pacifism: the sad story of the Stop the War Coalition



The aftermath of a bomb attack in Allepo 



What does it mean to stop a war that started years ago? That is the dilemma currently facing the Stop the War coalition.

I first came across the organisation way back in 2003. I was a tree amongst the forest of anti-Iraq war protestors in Hyde Park. In that context, ‘stop the war’ had a very clear and direct meaning. The ‘war’ was the one that would shortly commence in Iraq. Conscious decisions were being taken in Western capitals to start it, and if they were reversed then it would have been stopped. However, the further removed from that moment we become, the less evident the coalition’s purpose becomes. As this guest post by my friend Robert Knapp demonstrates, nowhere are anti-war slogans less adequate than Syria. And the resulting strain is revealing troubling things about Stop the War’s underlying ideology:

The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced with the impact spreading into the neighbouring states of Iraq (with the rise of IS), Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tragically at the time of writing, the war shows no sign of abating. It has been exacerbated by many foreign actors.  At present, A US led coalition is conducting a wide ranging air campaign against the so called Islamic State; while the government of Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower, is continuing its attempts to crush the remaining rebel groups in the besieged city of Aleppo. Regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf states are also deeply involved and implicated. With peace talks progressing nowhere and the horrors of war only seeming to increase, the need for a peaceful solution and the accompanying calls for an end to the conflict only seem more critical. In this context, we should welcome those who oppose the war; support refugee resettlement programs; contribute to aid projects and search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Despite this I find the behaviour of the Stop the War Coalition (SWC) regarding the Syrian Civil War unconscionably partial and inadequate.  They are almost entirely concerned with decrying Western influence, and particularly the collateral damage inflicted by Western airstrikes against the so called Islamic State. They have remained largely silent on the devastating casualties caused by Russian and Syria air strikes. This has been particularly clear in recent weeks following the devastating bombardment of the besieged city of Aleppo.

This inconsistency has been noted by many, including the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who called on the group to protest outside the Russian Embassy. In response, the SWC’s chairman, Andrew Murray wrote that: ‘We stretch out our hands to all those in Russia, the USA, Turkey, Iran and France opposing their own governments military interference in Syria, none of which have brought anything other than more suffering and loss of life for the Syrian people.’ However, he explained that the SWC would not be organising any protests themselves other than those against the actions of the British government.*

While a British organisation focusing on the British government might seem like a reasonable stance, it not actually one the SWC adheres to. Their constitution states that the SWC’s chief aim is: ‘to stop the war(s) currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism’. It also regularly targets Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and other Western countries. This a perfectly reasonable thing for an anti-war organisation to do but it doesn’t not fit with the SWC’s claim that their scope is limited to their own country and that consequently they must leave the protesting of Russia’s military actions to Russian peace organisation.

This is part of a broader pattern whereby anti-war movements in the West focus on Western actions to the exclusion of wars more generally. Whenever the UK, US and their allies have entered into armed conflicts since September 11th 2001, that has always led to mass protests, rallies and media campaigns organised by groups like the SWC. Russian invasions of Georgia and the Crimea during produced no such reaction. Nor has its connivance with the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to crush the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime. At best these acts of aggression were greeted with silence and at worst they have been excused.

Syria’s Civil War has emerged as the prime example of this hypocrisy. Since November last year Russia has been contributing substantial artillery, Special Forces and, above all, air power elements to support the Syrian government in their attempts to crush the main non-IS rebel movements in the country despite claiming that they are geared towards the fight against Islamic State. In recent months this highly successful intervention has returned to the top of the news bulletins because of the scale of air strikes targeting Aleppo. This has particularly focused upon the number of hospitals targeted and the devastating air strike on an aid convoy which evidence points towards being carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft. At the same time a separate air campaign has been being conducted by a US led coalition against the forces of Islamic State in eastern Syria and Iraq.

The SWC has been insistently protesting this latter campaign, largely on the grounds that it has inflicted large civilian casualties. They have mostly remained silent on Russian actions except when to compare them to the horrors Western air strikes. Due to this one might assume that Russian bombs were not killing Syrian civilians or at least leading to fewer civilian casualties than American ones. In fact, the opposite is true.  The Guardian has reported on the tracking of casualties by the organisation Airwars which shows that:

‘Over 3,600 civilian deaths [have been] caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods (Chris Woods, the director of Airwars) described as an “absolute minimum”.

In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups. “That means the Russians’ death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one,” Woods said. 

He added that the toll from Russian airstrikes may rise because the group’s analysts, who comb through each reported case of a civilian death to verify the attacks, were struggling to keep up with the pace of attacks.

“We are running a huge backlog of cases because the Russians are alleged to have killed so many civilians.” 

As these figures clearly show Western air strikes have been substantially less brutal and harmful to civilians than those conducted by the Russian armed forces. While every civilian death is always a tragedy, a distinction needs to be made between the horrific accidents the United States, Britain and their allies make and the Russian air force’s: deliberate targeting of hospitals; destruction of aid convoys; obfuscation and denials of any civilian casualties being inflicted at all and follow up strikes targeting rescue teams trying to help the wounded of previous strikes. To be concerned only with Western air strikes and not Russian ones is perverse and an indicator of a worldview that not only assumes the West is always the villain but does not allow anyone anti-western to be villainous.

As Jonathan Freedland has written:

‘Pity the luckless children of Aleppo. If only the bombs raining down on them, killing their parents, maiming their friends, destroying their hospitals – if only those bombs were British or, better still, American. Then the streets of London would be jammed with protestors demanding an end to their agony. Trafalgar Square would ring loud with speeches from Tariq Ali, Ken Loach and Monsignor Bruce Kent. Whitehall would be a sea of placards, insisting that war crimes were being committed and that these crimes were Not in Our Name. Grosvenor Square would be packed with noisy protestors outside the US embassy, urging that Barack Obama be put on trial in The Hague. The protestors would wear Theresa May masks and paint their hands red. And they would be doing it all because, they’d say, they could not bear to see another child killed in Aleppo.

But that is not the good fortune of the luckless children of that benighted city. Their fate is to be terrorised by the wrong kind of bombs, the ones dropped by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. As such, they do not qualify for the activist sympathy of the movement that calls itself the Stop the War Coalition. Indeed, it’s deputy chair, Chris Nineham, told the Today programme that his organisation would not be organising or joining any protests outside the Russian embassy because that would merely fuel the “hysteria and the jingoism” currently being whipped up against Moscow. Stop the War would instead, explained Nineham in a moment of refreshing candour, be devoting its energies to its prime goal – “opposing the west”.’

Pacifism has a long and honourable tradition stretching back to the Buddha and Christ, that takes in the Conscientious Objectors to World War One and the protestors against the Vietnam War. To campaign for the end of war and conflict is commendable but that is not what the SWC does. It seems to be much more concerned with opposing the West than with the horror of conflict itself, even if many of its members do hold that highly laudable aim. It revels in castigating Western military operations while ignoring or making apologies for the actions of non-Western powers carrying out much worse actions. It is very rare for Boris Johnson and Jonathan Freedland to be in agreement but they are right to call out the Stop the War coalition for its rank hypocrisy on this issue. The world needs a just and principled peace movement but it is clear the Stop the War coalition cannot be part of it.


*Editors note: Andrew Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who has previously defended Stalin and expressed solidarity with North Korea.

The best things I’ve read recently (01/05/2015)

A Spell Deferred (the New Republic) by David Hajdu

“[Nina Simone’s] voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.”

Two men dancing in their underwear – Boris and Ken (the Guardian) by Mariana Hyde

“One of the greatest acts of comic sabotage in the entire Tony Blair premiership came during prime minister’s questions, when a Labour backbencher, Tony McWalter, stood up and inquired solicitously: “My right honourable friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the house with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?”

Despite four days’ notice of the question, Blair was more than momentarily silenced. Yet compared to Boris, Tone was John Locke. You’d have more luck finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction than you would a sincerely held view not predicated on Boris’s personal ambition. I shrieked when he attempted to map himself on to the space occupied by Winston Churchill by publishing a book about the man who frequently polls as Britain’s greatest ever leader. It called to mind a great line in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.””

Why I’m too selfish to have children (Vox) by Sung J. Woo

“As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat €— which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax.  She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I’m certain she’d like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist’s dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.”

Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’ (the Atlantic) by James Jeffrey

“Defeating ISIS-as-state is not dependent upon solving Syria as a social, historical, cultural, religious, and governance project, let alone doing the same with Iraq. ISIS feeds on the conflicts in both countries and makes the situation in both worse. But it is possible to defeat ISIS as a “state” and as a military-economic “power”—that is, deal with the truly threatening part— without having to solve the Syrian and Iraqi crises or eliminate ISIS as a set of terrorist cells or source of ideological inspiration. Of course, even if ISIS is destroyed as a state, we would still have the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi disunity, but we have all that now, along with ISIS, which presents its own challenges to the region and the West.”

Iraq is not the only war

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a poor metaphor for the campaign against ISIS. Our thinking needs to be informed by a wider range of historical precedents.


It’s not clear exactly who said “he doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it” nor in fact whether that’s exactly what they said. But the sentiment is clear enough and indeed sensible enough. For example, there’s a good case that it was an advantage that when the 2008 financial crash threatened to tip over into a depression, the man running the most powerful central bank was a historian of the Great Depression.

However, ignorance of history is not the only danger. A short or selective memory can be as dangerous as no memory at all. To see why consider the case of General William Westmoreland. In January 1968, he was commander of American forces in Vietnam. And he had a good idea of what the next phase of the War was going to be.

A decade and a half earlier the Vietnamese Communists had been fighting not the Americans but the French. The climactic battle of that conflict came at a remote base called Dien Bien Phu. The French allowed the base to be surrounded – it was fortified and they could resupply it by air. And they hoped that it would provide the opportunity to draw the guerrillas out into the open. However, the French were to fall into their own trap. The communists had managed to drag artillery guns up the steep slopes of the surrounding hills. The resulting defeat convinced both the French public and government that they had to get out of Vietnam.

General Westmoreland assumed the Communists were attempting to re-enact the same script only this time with the Americans playing the part of the French. So he interpreted a Vietcong offensive against Khe Sanh, an American base near the Laotian border, as the first stage of a ‘Dien Bien Phu II’. And he began sending his troops to reinforce Khe Sanh and other outlying bases.

But the attack on Keh Sanh was not the main event but a distraction. There had been recasting on the Vietnamese side too. The Communist leadership from the time of Dien Bien Phu had been replaced by more dogmatic communists. They sought not a simple military victory but to start a mass uprising. Therefore, they were planning to target not outlying bases but the cities of South Vietnam – the very cities from which Westmoreland was transferring troops to prevent another Dien Bien Phu. So when the Viet Cong launched a offensive across South Vietnam during the Tet holiday, the Americans were poorly prepared. The spectacle of Communist guerrillas managing to breach the gates of the US embassy in Saigon helped to convince a large chunk of the American public war was unwinnable. In its way the misguided parallel with Dien Bien Phu would eventually have the same result as Dien Bien Phu, a western power retreating from Vietnam as the communists spread their influence.

Psychologists have an expression for what afflicted General Westmoreland. It’s called ‘availability bias’ and involves:

“The giving of preference by decision makers to information and events that are more recent, that were observed personally, and were more memorable. This is because memorable events tend to be more magnified and are likely to cause an emotional reaction.”

That creates a tendency to focus on historical precedents that are recent and emotive even if they are not necessarily relevant or informative. I fear it is beginning to afflict many of those debating military action against ISIS.

In recent days it has been common to hear it said that ‘bombing Syria shows we have not learned the lessons of invading Iraq’. But the lessons of the Second Gulf War are probably not the right ones to be applying to the present situation.

That’s not to say the 2003 invasion is not important for understanding what is happening now. The chaos that resulted created the conditions for the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the group that has now mutated into ISIS. But that’s context – it doesn’t follow that the invasion then is a good analogy for the aerial campaign now underway.

For starters, Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2015 are not the same place. There are of course important similarities: they are/were Arab nations in the same region ruled by vicious Ba’athist governments drawn from a religious minority. But there are also pretty important differences. For example, the majority of Iraqis are Shia, whilst most Syrians are Sunni. And crucially, for all the horrors of Sadham Hussein’s Iraq there was a modicum of peace and stability, and jihadis were largely unable to operate. That evidently is not true of Syria today. We cannot push the country into civil war because it’s already embroiled in one.

The two operations are also substantially different. The current campaign is not about taking over Syria and trying to reshape it into a liberal democracy. Its objective is more modest and essentially negative: degrade and ideally destroy ISIS and its capacity to kill people. Therefore, there is no plan – a handful of special forces aside – to send in ground troops. We will not therefore find ourselves once again acting as the quasi-imperial rulers of a chunk of the most volatile region in the world.

There’s also a defensive element to our actions in Syria that was absent from the Iraq War. We face not the theoretical possibility that we might be attacked with phantom WMDs but a terrorist organisation that is actually trying to carry out attacks in the UK. More importantly, ISIS is attempting to conquer territory in Iraq and Kurdistan. In that regard what we are seeing is less like the Second Gulf War and more like the First – which was fought in defence of Kuwait.

So what historical precedents would be more apt?

In a recent interview with Vox, Stathis Kalyvas a Yale professor specialising in insurgencies suggests a number of parallels for ISIS. He points to among others the Tamil Tigers, Shining Path and the Algerian FLN.

Looking more broadly, we could locate a number of parallels for the Syrian civil war. The conflicts that ripped apart the Congo and the Former Yugoslavia involved sharp sectarian divides, horrendous abuses and meddling regional powers. The Balkan example is the more encouraging in this context: wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were quite quickly brought to an end once Western air power was applied. By contrast, despite the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, it took years for the violence in the Congo to abate – indeed it has never fully done so. There’s no consensus about how many people have died as a result but it appears to be millions. The difference may be down to Congo suffering from a variant of  ‘the resource curse’ – its mineral wealth allowed gave rebel groups both the means and the incentive to continue fighting. Extractive industries are a less important part of Syria’s economy than Congo’s but any solution will need to work out what to do about its oil. And as Iraq has larger oil reserves it might actually be the harder country to stabilise.

Another worrying precedent is the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is perhaps the best illustration of the difficulty of eliminating a terrorist group from the air. Rather than destroying Hizbullah it wound up broadening its base of support within Lebanon. People rallied to the group as they appeared to be the ones defending the nation from the hated aggressors.

One piece of recent history that is surprisingly absent from the debate about Syria is the last time ISIS was defeated. Back in 2006, chunks of Iraq was under the control of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the group was routinely killing coalition soldiers. Then the US shifted strategy. They focused on winning the confidence of the Sunni tribes. They were eventually persuaded to turn on an AQI and the group faded to the margins. That was until the Syrian Civil War gave the group – now renamed Islamic State – the chance to return.

None of these examples is a perfect analogy for the present situation – no precedent ever is. One could well suggest others or query the conclusions I have drawn from them. But that is the point. If one is doing that then you are thinking about the dilemmas we face more deeply than somebody whose only reference point is the Iraq War.

Qatar being runners up in the Handball World Cup is as corrupt as you’d expect

The contest to host the 2022 World Cup has been to say the least controversial with most people assuming that Qatar only won as a result of corruption. In this context, the performance of its team in the Handball World Tournament which it was also hosting is of more than usual interest. Stephen Fatsis argues in Slate that:

The recent handball tournament could be a case study for things to come. While other countries balk at spending billions to host major sports events, Qatar has no apparent budgetary constraints. For the handball championship, it built three new arenas with a total of nearly 30,000 seats, part of a massive sports infrastructure construction effort that has triggered an international outcry over the treatment of migrant workers. (This week, Qatari World Cup officials appealed for more time to address human rights complaints.) Tournament organizers flew in Pharrell Williams,Gwen Stefani, Jason Derulo, and other pop stars to entertain.

But building stadiums and booking acts is easy. Winning games is hard. Qatar didn’t want to embarrass itself in the handball worlds with a 20-something finish on home soil. A team of native handballers would have been overmatched against the Europeans, and Qatar didn’t have time to try to develop its own world-class players. So it took advantage of a convenient international handball rule that allows a player who hasn’t competed for his national team in three years to join another one. Offering big contracts to play in the domestic league, become citizens, and play for the national side, Qatar built a roster that included about a dozen foreigners, or more than half the team.

Athletes switching nationalities happens in plenty of sports. But the landscape of Qatar’s imports—from Spain to Cuba to Tunisia—was pretty audacious. Left back Bertrand Roiné earned 20 international caps for France. Star goalkeeper Danijel Šarić played for Serbia and Montenegro and for Bosnia and Herzegovina before joining Qatar. (Šarić was the only member of the team who stayed with his European club, FC Barcelona, rather than move to Qatar.) The team’s top scorer, Žarko Marković, represented his native Montenegro 30 times, tallying 95 goals, before moving to Qatar last year. “I have come in a country where there were a lot of investments in the last couple of years and where this sport is at high price,” he said upon signing with El Jaish SC, home to several of the foreign-born national team players.

The Qatar Handball Association no doubt also paid a high price for its coach: Valero Rivera López, who guided his native Spain to the gold medal at the last world championship in 2013. Rivera brought with him a Spanish assistant coach, a Spanish statistician, and a Spanish team doctor. The deal was sweet enough for him to leave behind his son, Valero Rivera Folch, whom he coached on Spain’s national team.

Try as might to see this as solely deplorable, I must be honest I can’t help being impressed by the sheer shamelessness of it.

The jihadis who read “Islam for dummies”

In an article for the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan relates the following tragi-comic fact:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? A copy of Milestones by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb? No. How about Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden? Guess again. Wait, The Anarchist Cookbook, right? Wrong.

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.

It is far from being the only study to reach this conclusion:

According to the Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia, which accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006, it is politics, not religious fanaticism, that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up. The study shows that:

“…though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.”

The findings of the Flinders University study are supported by the research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, which was partly funded by the Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency. The authors, Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to present. Their research reveals that more than 90 percent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorists carried out in the past 30 years, more than half of the attackers were secular. Let that rock your worldview.

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks have a strategic goal in common—to compel an occupying force to withdraw from territory the terrorists prize. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.

The upshot of both pieces of research seems to be that the motivations of jihadis are sectarian rather than religious. They strongly identify as Muslims but that identification doesn’t arise from faith or theology.

This doesn’t only apply at the level of individuals but also whole movements. The earliest incidents of contemporary terrorism like Dawson’s Airfield and the Munich Olympic massacre were perpetrated by Palestinian groups like the PLO and the PFLP. There ideologies were respectively nationalist and Marxist. They have of course now been largely supplanted by groups with Islamist ideologies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But as I suspect that despite this divergence the reasons that people joined the PFLP then and Hamas now are fundamentally the same: opposition to the Israeli occupation.

Very often religion does not create values but provides a justification for those the believer already has. And religious terrorism seems to work the same way.

Did Tahrir Square mark the final end of Ancient Egypt?

As astonishing as it is to believe Ancient Egyptian is not a dead language. While it is nobody still uses it as their main language, millions still hear it weekly as the language of the liturgy of the Coptic Church. The Coptic language is written in Ancient Greek script but takes its grammar and vocabulary from the Egyptian language spoken in the time of the pharaohs.

The Coptic Church is perhaps the oldest church still in existence; it traces its roots back to congregations that worshipped in Alexandria during the time of the Apostle Paul. It thus emerged in a time in which Egypt was ruled by the Romans but still retained its own unique culture, and the Church absorbed much of that culture including its language.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century, they introduced their language and their Islamic faith to the country. This left the Copts alienated from the majority of their countrymen: they were Christians in an Islamic nation, who continued speaking Coptic centuries after most Egyptians began using Arabic. Therefore, neither Pan-Arabism or Islamism – the two most powerful ideologies in modern Egypt – had much appeal to Copts. Instead they emphasised their Egyptianus and made their link to the nation’s ancient history a central part of their identity: they were the real Egyptians and the Islamic majority were imposters.

This was to have explosive political consequences following the revolution which deposed Hosni Mubarak. As this 2011 article in the New Republic explains:

In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”


The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.


In 2008, anti-Copt sentiments spiked following the Bishop’s presentation because his main point—that the Copts are true Egyptians—had hit a nerve….The Bishop stated that the Coptic identity centers on Egypt, its land, language and culture, while Egyptians who converted to Islam shifted their cultural identity toward Arabia…For many in contemporary Egypt, the bishop’s assertion was heresy. Islamists—and those wanting their political support—view the Copts not as real Egyptians, but, because they are religious holdouts, as second-class citizens or even a fifth column within the state. They are treated accordingly. Copts are officially discriminated against by an Ottoman-era law that restricts their ability to build or even repair their ancient and crumbling churches and monasteries. When they suffer violent assaults by Muslims, they are typically denied justice, with trial judges instead presiding over “reconciliation” sessions, with the victimized Copt being forced to shake hands with his Muslim aggressor. As a rule, Copts have been excluded from government appointments and, in this spring’s recent referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood backed a successful constitutional amendment making it official that Copts (and women) are ineligible for the presidency.

Given all the human suffering in Egypt to worry about something as ephemeral links to the past is probably unforgivably sentimental. Yet were the Copts to be driven from Egypt and their traditions to disappear, this would not only cause great pain and wreck a community with a rich history of its own, but would also sever a living tie to the most venerable civilisation on earth.

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy – review

Contrary to what is often claimed, nations do not have psyches they have populaces. An individual mind contains contradictions, in a nation these contradictions are multiplied exponentially. Take Germany: the land of both Beethoven and Hitler, the Stasi and Gestapo but also some of the toughest privacy laws in Europe today, and has been home to both militarism and a peace movement.
Iran has about the same population as Germany and arguably an equal degree of complexity. Not that we in the West normally get a great deal of nuance in our portrayal of Iran. Khomeini’s description of the US as the ‘Great Satan’ is simply reversed. In the popular imagination it becomes a totalitarian state populated by zealots. Serious consideration is actually given to the notion that it is uniquely dangerous for Iran to get nuclear weapons but a collective pursuit of martyrdom means that it would not be deterred by the threat of retaliation.
Axworthy – a former head of the FCO’s Iran section – tries to introduce readers’ to a more realistic view of Iran. This is a rather daunting enterprise – simpler messages typically make for more compelling writing. Axworthy gets around this in two ways. Firstly, he produces an impressive piece of narrative history. When I was asked about the book, I’d respond by saying what was happening ‘in the story.’ This clear narrative thread makes the book easier to follow.
Secondly, because views of Iran are so simplistic much of what Axworthy says surprises and shocks. For example, Iran may be extremely socially conservative in general but it also carries out more sex change operations than any other country except Thailand. His big revelation is the liberal democratic tradition not only within Iran but within the revolution. He shows that the coalition that overthrew the Shah contained both Islamists and liberals, and that the constitution that resulted attempted to balance the power of clerics and democratic politicians. While power has progressively moved to the more theocratic elements of the constitution, the balance has never been lost altogether. Hence the outrage over the stolen 2009 election that created the Green Movement: the Supreme Leader foisting his choice of president on the nation was not part of the deal. Axworthy also highlights the political divisions within Shia clergy many of whom still hold to the denominations opposition to theocracy.
This is an enlightening book that deserves a wide readership.

The 4th largest city in Jordan is a refugee camp


Here’s a reminder for ‘stop the war’ types that there is a war in fact already a war in Syria.

Of the two million refugees to leave Syria, more than a hundred thousand have made there way to the UN run Zaatari refugee camp. It’s in Jordan and lies just to the south of its border with Syria. It’s about a square mile across,so must be amongst the most crowded cities in the world.

Hat tip: Lyse Doucet‘s report in From Our Own Correspondent

Sources: Population of Zaatari and the population of Jordanian cities

The Eichmann cover-up, or why I am almost a Zionist


Having published just about the most light hearted post about genocide one can realistically manage, I wanted to share some rather darker facts that I came across while researching it.

FACT: For years before Eichmann’s capture, the CIA and the BND – the West German intelligence agency – were aware that he was in Argentina and what his alias was. They did not act on this information for fear that Eichmann could expose the complicity in Nazi crimes of senior figures in the West German government.

FACT: The West German government made repeated covert interventions in Eichmann’s trial to try and prevent any mention being made of former Nazis who had gone on to take up posts in Chancellor Adenauer’s government. They went as far as to offer to fund Eichmann’s defence, so it could be steered away from potentially embarrassing issues.

FACT: The CIA lent on Life magazine to remove any reference to Hans Globke, Adenauer’s national security advisor, from their publication of Eichmann’s memoirs.

This article from the New York Times covers in more detail not only the CIA’s inaction over Eichmann. It also looks at the broader issue of how entangled both American and Soviet intelligence agencies became with former Nazis. This series of articles in Der Spiegel relates the – if anything less edifying – West German side of the story.

While Globke was undoubtedly a lesser magnitude of evil than Eichmann he was still a deeply unsympathetic figure. He was one of the authors of the emergency legislation that conferred dictatorial powers on Hitler as well as a host of Anti-Semitic rules such “as an ordinance that required Jews with non-Jewish names to take on the additional first names of Israel or Sara, an “improvement” of public records that later facilitated to a great extent the rounding up and deportation of the Jews during the Holocaust.” During the war he was legal advisor to Eichmann’s Office of Jewish Affairs. It is shocking that the supposed guardians of western democracy were protecting either man.

This is sadly not that surprising. As the historian Tony Judt explains:

Far from reflecting upon the problem of evil in the years that followed the end of World War II, most Europeans turned their heads resolutely away from it. Today we find this difficult to understand, but the fact is that the Shoah—the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe—was for many years by no means the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe (or the United States). Indeed, most people—intellectuals and others—ignored it as much as they could.

For virtually everyone it was an inconvenient truth. The Eastern bloc narrative of the war framed it in class terms that would be disrupted by focussing on the racist core of the Nazis. For Western Europeans, confronting the Holocaust would mean confronting the complicity of their fellow citizens.  And for Americans it was a distraction from the imperative of combating communism.

Thanks in no small part to the Eichmann trial this collective amnesia did eventually pass. However, I found that this unsavoury series of facts made it easier for me to empathise with a political movement I don’t sympathise much with.

Zionism has always seemed to me an objectionable and misconceived project. It has made Arabs atone for European sins, and rather than providing Jews with security has dropped them into the centre of the cauldron of violence that is the Middle East. However, when one sees how little the rest of the world cared about justice for the victims of the Holocaust, one can easily understand the desire for a state to champion the interests of the Jewish people.