Thursday, November 02, 2006


Does the title of this blog strike you as an oxymoron, a contradiction, not just in terms, but in categories, assumptions, method and intent? If so, I’m not surprised. Once upon a time, no self-respecting individual on the political left-to-centre would have hesitated to stand up to defend Israel and the Jews from an assorted gang of fascists, anti-Semites, and distinctly anti-democratic Arab regimes. Today, hatred of Israel has become the sine qua non of left-wing and centrist allegiance, the cause, like anti-apartheid activism many years ago, that somehow defines and galvanizes those with a liberal conscience.
What has changed? Has Israel really become the oppressive, neo-colonial, apartheid state it is now regularly portrayed as in the media and in political speeches round the world? Or have left-wingers and liberals changed their core beliefs? Or can it be that none of this has taken place, yet our perception of Israel and its enemies has been tainted by a mixture of misreporting and propaganda?
I have always been a liberal. For the same reason, I’ve never belonged to any one political party because, like many other liberals, I find it hard to fit my conscience inside the narrow boxes of party politics. If I see a left-wing idea that seems to me liberal in its aims, I’m happy to embrace it; likewise a policy of the Lib Dems or the Tory party, provided there’s a likelihood of it proving a real benefit to the public.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that my definition of liberal may not correspond to yours. I’d be worried if it did. If you’re the sort of person who believes in toeing a particular party line, who never questions official policy, then you’re not likely to see eye-to-eye with anyone but your fellow-party members anyway, and this blog will probably leave you apoplectic.
But if you understand the importance of flexibility in political matters, if you have an open mind and know how to put it to good use, if you accept that people with broadly similar views may rub along quite nicely together, then I’d ask you to consider my liberal credentials and then, if you find them reasonable, to ask whether such a person as myself, in defending Israel, might have good grounds for doing so.
Here are some of the things I believe in.
1. Democracy. Not the George Bush variety, which can be imposed by force, but real, grass-roots democracy that emerges from free political institutions and is buttressed by all the elements of an open society, from freedom of speech to the rule of law. I believe all people deserve to rule themselves through democratic institutions, but that few in the world are free from tyranny. Democracy does not come easily, however, and it may take a long time for it to emerge in many parts of the globe: military force will not establish it where there is no historical experience of political freedom, little education, or religious and other traditional barriers to independence of thought and judgement. Cases like Spain and Portugal, where vibrant democracies emerged after the collapse of the absolutist regimes of Franco and Salazar, are exceptional. Countries like Afghanistan or Iraq will not move to genuine democracy just because we or the US have suppressed this faction or another. For all its faults, however, democracy is to be preferred to other systems of government, inasmuch as it has shown itself a much better matrix for the creation of human freedoms than any other. The distinction between closed and open societies made by Sir Karl Popper is quite crucial to any understanding of why this is so. It may be worth saying that Popper is the thinker who has formed my ideas more profoundly than any other.
2. Freedom of speech. Most of us don’t know how vulnerable this vital freedom can be. I have been on the front line of more than one debate about the right to free speech, and have seen at first hand the sacrifices that have to be made to achieve it. Many years ago, I was the first person to call in question the use of censorship by the institutions of an authoritarian religious group, and I have since defended Salman Rushdie and other writers and thinkers challenged by Islamic fundamentalists. It is only through complete freedom of the press and other media that a healthy democracy can breathe. But such a freedom, like others, is open to abuse, and it is as important to be able to make the media accountable as it is to let them say what they like.
3. Secularism and freedom of religion. As an atheist who emerged from stifling religious conformity, I value secularism as one of the most precious principles of a free modern society. The advantages of secularism are not limited to atheists and agnostics, however. On the contrary, when set in a democratic context, it provides an unparalleled defence for religious people against those forces that threaten them in particular. I make a point of contrasting European secularism with Islamic theocracy/semi-theocracy. In Islamic countries, there is only full religious freedom for Muslims (and even then, only within approved limits). Imagine my native Northern Ireland if one side or the other dominated (as used to happen). In secular states, believers are able to meet freely for worship, to seek converts, to publish books and pamphlets, to build houses of worship, and everything else they may wish to within the law. Secular states are liberal, religious or religiously-dominated states are not. Secularism promotes tolerance, allows even bizarre forms of belief room in which to breathe, discourages fanaticism, and provides laws that are equally applicable to members of all faiths and none without discrimination.
4. An end to racism. I was brought up in a society in which religious intolerance excluded all other forms of communitarian hatred. I have never understood racism, and believe everything that can be done should be done to eliminate it. To that end, I favour integration over multiculturalism. I know that seems to contradict the leftist/liberal consensus, but my preference is dictated by the fact that multiculturalism often serves as a code for disguised racism. Some far-right parties like the BNP have embraced multiculturalism wholeheartedly, for they see it as a clever way of keeping whites and non-whites separate, effectively in ghettoes. My take on this is broader than it may seem. I love the richness of mankind’s different cultures. Without it, my own life would be considerably impoverished. I know two Islamic languages, I love Persian poetry, Qawwali music, Moorish architecture, and much else; I also love France and Italy, read Portuguese, and could not bear life without fado, the extraordinary music of Lisbon. But I believe all of this would be nothing more than haphazard tourism if I didn’t feel fully integrated into the society to which I belong. In the background lie my affection for my native Irish culture and the love of English literature I developed, first as a student, then as a writer. Proud as I am to be Irish, I am equally proud of the British heritage that has been made so generously my own. I want my fellow citizens to belong to this society and this culture as much as I do, I want us all to speak the same language with different accents, I want us all to be proud of our cultural backgrounds; but I do not want us to be cut off from one another by our languages, our religions, or our cultures. When I lived in Iran, I spoke only Persian, ate only Iranian food, and wore Iranian clothes: I gained from that, above all in the friendships I was able to make. But I never gave up being British and Irish and never pretended to be what I was not. That’s what integration is about, and that’s why I support it.
5. Gay rights. Watching so many Christians and Muslims wriggling about on the hook they have made for themselves in this area, a hook forged by an atavistic inability to feel love or compassion for their fellow men and women, I believe the rights of homosexuals have become a crucial test of our commitment to genuine liberal and modern values. It is precisely because I do not know what it is to be gay that alerts me to the danger of prejudice, in the same way that I do not know exactly what it is to be black or Jewish or Indian or Muslim. Just looking at photographs of young Iranians being hanged for being gay, or reading accounts of the beatings and killings meted out to gay men and women in the Arab world make me intensely aware of how tolerance of human differences is hard to find and nurture.
6. Women’s rights. My chief concern here is for the rights of women in Islam, who now remain the world’s least emancipated female community. I try to remain abreast of developments in this area, including matters such as honour killings, female genital mutilation, mut’a and misyar marriages, and the treatment of maids in the Arabian peninsula, the Gulf states, Jordan, and elsewhere. The treatment of women is a matter for liberal concern, yet it receives relatively little attention from our home-grown liberals, perhaps because it is seen as politically incorrect to say anything negative about Islam. This reaches its apogee in the attitude of some radical feminists who argue that we have no right to demand an end to practices like veiling and genital mutilation because they are part of someone else’s culture. The rights of women, like all other rights, are universal in intent and must be made so in practice. To sanctify oppression, pain, and exclusion on the grounds of culture seems to me one of the least attractive positions of a large part of the liberal left. I’ll have more to say about this later.
7. Capital punishment. I’ve never attended an execution, but I’ve seen enough photographs of before, during, and after to last me a lifetime and to instil in me an unwavering antipathy towards all such punishments. As a European, I’ve been brought up in an environment that recoils against the idea of state-sanctioned murder, despite the howls of our tabloid press to bring hanging back. While I remain uncomprehending about the United States and the US fascination with capital punishment, most of my concerns in this area are with public executions in the Islamic world, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia. Here again, there is very little public protest from European and American liberals.

This is probably as much as I need say at the moment. More of my political and philosophical views will be made clear as this blog continues. But let me emphasize again: I hold my opinions independently, not as a paid-up member of a political party, church, religion, or other grouping. My views are open to challenge and reconsideration, but only on the basis of hard evidence and intelligent argument. If you find yourself in broad agreement with most of the things I’ve said, then — however much you may currently find yourself opposed to Israel and Zionism — I ask you only to read further, to take on trust the possibility that, if we see eye to eye on so many other things, perhaps some of what I say about Israel and the Arabs may turn out to be reliable.
I’m not writing this blog to win accolades from my fellow liberals. I expect quite the opposite. But I believe passionately that Israel has been given a hugely unfair press, that what passes for debate in this area is little more than spin and propaganda, and that genuine liberals, if they can only break away from the stereotypes they’ve been presented with so far, may find much in Israel to admire. Far from being the monster it is painted as, intent on the killing of Palestinians, on the theft of Palestinian land, perhaps even on the final expulsion of all Palestinians, Israel may show itself as the remarkable country I believe it to be, a country more sinned against than sinning, a place of tolerance, enlightenment, and progress.
If my arguments are correct, and if they are given a fair hearing, Israel will emerge from this blog as a country to admire: a lively democracy with checks and balances like those of any Western country; a people as mixed racially, religiously, and culturally as those of any western European state or the US; a highly educated, technologically advanced, scientifically questing nation; a land rich in religious and national meaning for a people who had been without a home for two thousand years; a nation ruled, not by tribe or clan or terrorist faction, but by the rule of law; a country, like ours, with problems, from discrimination to poverty to religious extremism; and a country, unlike ours, whose people have known, from the first moment of their existence as a nation, the constant battering of armies, the relentless onslaught of terrorist gangs, and the unending baying of blind and biased international opinion. For a liberal, there much to like about Israel. It just sometimes needs a bit of work to find it amidst all the prejudice, double standards, and rank hypocrisy.


RufusG said...

By all the criteria that you list, Israel rates highly positive.

It is the Arab countries that display racism. Whereas a Christian or a Muslim may live in Israel, provided they agree to live in peace, a Jew may not live in a Muslim land.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Hi Denis,

Being an Israeli and trying to see all sides of our society, I will be happy to serve as your devil's advocate (from time to time as my free time allows).

I like the manifesto and am linking your blog.

One humble request: is it possible that you will consider changing the palette? White on black makes reading a terrible strain on the eyes.