Friday, August 28, 2009

The Land of Mordor

I was sitting in town today, waiting for my wife to return from shopping in Marks & Spencer. To keep things balanced, I now do a second round in Waitrose, so we get the best of both worlds. I was sitting on a bench opposite a window of John Lewis, where they were displaying large-screen televisions, and the televisions were playing clips from films. The first one was that bit during the siege of Helm's Deep, where the Riders of Rohan, led by Gandalf (returned from his fight with the Balrog), charge down upon the massed orcs of the Uruk Hai. Stirring stuff. I first read Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen, forty-seven years ago. It was my first real book, and it gripped me night after night for week after week. It's not great literature, but that's not what JRR Tolkien set out to write. He was a specialist in Old and Middle English. I also specialized in Middle English as part of my first degree. There are great books from that period, but they don't all set out to be literary masterpieces. Many of them, from Gawain and the Green Knight to the Arthurian legends, are about myth, and that's what The Lord of the Rings is about too.

Tolkien's masterpiece tells a myth of great power. In the simp;lest terms, it describes a battle between good and evil, between the Dark Lord Sauron and the forces of good (exemplified by the future king Aragorn, the Elves of Rivendell, and the Hobbits of the Shire). Good wins in the end, as it does in all great myths. The Land of Mordor is ruined and the Shire cleansed. There are echoes here of the Bible, of Arthur, of the Mabinogion.

From the beginning, we know how things stand. There is no mistaking the goodness and strength of Gandalf, the evil of the Ringwraiths. Sauron is evil through and through, as are his orcs, as are the nine Nazgul. The Hobbits epitomize goodness and simplicity, and Aragorn (despite a rocky start) reveals himself as a dedicated enemy of the Dark.

Real life is not as easy, of course. What appears good often turns out to be evil, what seems ill often turns out well. We spend our lives tussling with moral dilemmas, learning who to trust, who to be cautious with. more often than not, people get it wrong. The Germans fell in love with Nazism, learned to hate the Jews, came to put their trust in brute strength and murder. Throughout Europe, communists extolled the People's Paradise of the Soviet Union even as Stalin sent millions to their deaths. Misplaced faith hurts and kills, leads whole nations to commit crimes they will later regret.

I don't have to explain the relevance of this to Israel. Today, millions across the globe self-righteously wish the worst possible harm to befall this small nation. It is not mild criticism, it is a global effort to portray Israel as Mordor, a land whose soldiers, dressed as orcs, march from the Iron Gate to slaughter innocent Palestinians (and harvest their organs). Of course, the myth has been created in reverse. Just as it isn't hard to know who, in The Lord of the Rings, is a good guy or a bad guy, so it should be clear to anyone with a working moral compass who is on the good side or the bad side of the Middle East conflict.

I'm not talking about perfect evil set against perfect good. The real world isn't like that. I'm just looking at the broad picture and our ability as human beings to recognize good and evil within it. When one side uses suicide bombers and bombs set in caf├ęs, buses, and restaurants, rants about how much they want to kill their foe, rejects all forms of peace-making, trains its children in hate, and turns its guns on its own people; and when the other side treats its enemies in its own hospitals, willingly departs from territory, builds a security fence that keeps the bombers out, and supplies its enemy with goods, fuel, and equipment, why is it so hard to tell which side of the border Sauron is on and which Aragorn? When one side has struggled through war and terror to destroy the other, and the other has offered its enemy a state of its own again and again, does it take the brain of a genius to see which way the horses of Rohan are riding?

Tragically, many of the world's finest brains keep failing this moral test. Intellectuals in America, Europe and elsewhere have come and continue to come to the startling conclusion that Israel is the one truly evil state in the world. This astonishing notion marches alongside many other failures of the moral compass. Intellectuals, the media and government are more and more often apologists for radical Islam. Feminists defend female genital mutilation and round on other feminists (like Phyllis Chesler) who condemn it. I recently took part in a TV debate in which one person after another spoke up loudly for a woman's right to wear a full face veil, despite the very obvious disadvantages this has for the woman and the society round her. Just looking at a woman in a burqa or a niqab, it's clear she is being treated as an inferior being, yet plenty in the audience applauded her 'choice'. Intellectuals (rightly) condemn the Transatlantic slave trade, but no voice is ever raised to condemn the larger and longer-lasting Arab and Ottoman slave trade. It has become commonplace to denounce Western empires and colonialism, but when did anyone last speak out about the many Islamic empires and their often devastating impact on countries like India.

Political correctness and multiculturalism have wrought and continue to wreak havoc in our universities and in government. Anti-racists parade their credentials everywhere, but not one of them will ever be seen to condemn Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism. Movements for the establishment or re-establishment of nationalities, from Sri Lanka to Ireland tell us that every people, however small, has right to its own homeland; but the Jews are denied that same right.

During World War II, there was never any doubt where one's loyalties lay. Apart from a few self-serving individuals, like Oswald Mosley and Lord Haw Haw, everyone knew who the enemy was. When bombs were falling every night on British cities, it was hard for anyone's moral compass to swing far off north. The more we knew about the Reich, the more obvious it was that we could not afford to lose the war, because Hitler was a Dark Lord who would enslave or kill us.

And that's the puzzling thing. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't going on in someone's backyard. It's out there for everyone to see. Hamas rockets fell on Sderot, and any visiting journalist (if any had cared to visit) could have been there when they landed. But when Israel moved in to stop the barrages after many years, the world seemed not to know of any provocation and portrayed Operation Cast Lead as an unprovoked attack. All the photographs and film of destruction in Gaza made the front pages and TV screens; but there were no shots of the Gaza that had not been harmed. We all know about this, about this dishonest reporting that is more interested in keeping wounds open than in telling the truth.

But aren't these the same reporters who have been in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in the aftermath of a terrorist attack? Don't they look at the walls in Gaza and the West Bank and see the posters making heroes of young people suborned into killing Jews? Don't they ask themselves, who hero-worships a murderer? What mother sends her children to die in this way, and hands out sweets afterwards? Desperation? Devotion to Palestine? Or simply evil? Not the mother, perhaps. But the men (and women) who send children out with bombs round their waists and who put remote controls in the package so they can detonate the vest should the child have second thoughts. Why should anyone experience a moment's hesitation in calling such people evil?

Frodo carried the ring of power to the Crack of Doom, and Gollum's greed finally carried it into the depths of the mountain, where it was destroyed and Sauron's power lost for ever. If only we had a ring like that and a Crack of Doom to throw it into. What we have instead is Israel itself. Whatever its flaws, it's a healthy country. It stands for values like democracy, freedom, human rights, and a balance between secularism and religion. Set beside its neighbours, it stands out. Good amidst evil may be overstating it. But it needs to be recognized for what it is: a land that promotes good and stands against evil.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The One-way Street

In his next speech, at Bar Ilan University, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to make little or no reference to establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, something the new American administration is pressurizing him to accept. His preference is to return to the earlier 'Road Map', in which demands are made on both sides before they even think of a two-state 'solution'. To many or most observers, it will seem yet another confirmation of Israeli intransigence if the Knesset and the Israeli public continue to deny Palestinians their right to a state of their own. In principle, of course, the Israelis have not and have never had qualms about an Arab state on its borders: they are, after all, already swimmers in a sea of Arab states. So why not just a shrug of the shoulders, a murmured 'davka', and a passport to freedom for those poor dispossessed Palestinians?

If it were only that easy. The problem, of course, is one that anyone with his eyes fully open can see: the Palestinians are intent on the destruction of Israel and the elimination of any Jewish presence in the Middle East (or anywhere else, if they could). Asking for a second state, however desirable, is, at this stage in the game (and perhaps for ever) about as sensible as asking a man whose house is surrounded by gangs of thieves to open all his doors and windows on the grounds that thieves have human rights like anybody else. Thieves do, indeed, have their rights, but not the right to steal other people's possessions. Murderers have alienable rights, but not the right to kill their fellow citizens. But surely, Obama and others may fairly ask, once the Palestinians have their own state, they will settle down and become good neighbours, allowing two countries to live side by side as part of a Mediterranean economic union that will bring prosperity and goodwill to all. And surely Syria and Hezbollah and the good people of Egypt and all those other moderate Muslim of North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and the re-elected Mr Ahmadeinejad and that cuddly Ayatollah Khamene'i, and those peace-loving Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia will all put down their arms and put an end to their hate speeches and anti-Semitic sermons, they will turn their missiles away from Tel Aviv and Haifa and all the cities of Israel, they will beat their proverbial swords into ploughshare and harness the shares to oxen and plough the fields to bring food and affluence and tolerance to all.

It is, of course, all hooey. Gobbleygook. Balderdash. Bosh. Tosh. Piffle. Bilge. Flapdoodle. Flimflam. Poppycock. Bunkum. Boloney. To expect anything like it, to imagine that the die-hard members of Hamas or the Iranian-controlled fighters of Hezbollah or the committed warriors of al-Qa'ida would mutter some platitudes about 'There is a Palestinian state at last, We can all go back to our lives as teachers and philosophers' would confront the stark reality of human nature with a naivete that would be funny if it were not so very dangerous. Perhaps nothing characterizes the attitude of most Western states towards the Islamic world, its governments, its institutions, its religious groupings, its religious leaders, and its entirely ineffective political parties more than an inability to think beyond the limitations of their Western equivalents. For most Westerners, and particularly Western politicians, Islamic ways of thought are counter-intuitive, and yet we cling to to fairytale that they are, at heart, just like us inside. They are, so statesmen and churchmen and journalists proclaim, as amenable to rational thought and the usefulness of secularism as their Western brothers and sisters. And that would seem plausible because there are many Muslims why have adopted Western ways of thinking, who place reason before the dictates of the Qur'an, who stand in orderly queues at the cinema, who work as doctors, lecturers, and restaurateurs, who vote for our favourite political parties, who treat women as equals. But such Muslims are, as often as not, partly or entirely secularized. I'm thinking of the majority of Muslims, for whom such accommodations with Western mores are either unthinkable or forbidden.

An Iranian friend of mine was paying a visit home some years ago. She had official documents to be stamped and had to visit a government ministry. She dressed herself in the obligatory hijab, took off all make-up, made sure her hair was tucked well inside her veil, and made to go through the checkpoint. The guard stopped her and said she had to remove her Western shoes. She pointed to the ground, showing that her shoes were covered entirely by her chador, which reached the ground. He answered that he could hear them. That is what Israel is up against. We have a Palestinian state. We have a peace treaty. The sun is smiling sweetly on us all. God is in Heaven. But there are Jews across the border, there are synagogues, the Temple Mount belongs to us, the Kotel belongs to us, Jerusalem belongs to us because it is an ancient Palestinian capital, a city that the Jews have no connection with at all, and weren't we ethnically cleansed, hasn't our vice-president Ilan Pappe explained all that?

One of the reasons it is a mistake to observe the Islamic world through European or American lenses is that it remains so much closer to the Middle Ages than any of our cultures. I don't mean chronologically, and I'm not even sure that the term 'Middle Ages' fits most Arab, Iranian, or other Islamic societies. But it expresses a mood, a mood that explains why even a technologically advanced and wealthy country like Saudi Arabia resembles nothing more than, let's say, Portugal or Spain under the Inquisition. The need for change, for political, social, and religious reform that grew in European in stages has never taken hold of people's hearts in Islam. Many of the great religious 'reformers' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men like Muhammad 'Abduh in Egypt, sought nothing but to return Islam to its pristine form, removing all traces of later accretions. The Wahhabis, the Salafis, the Taleban, the Mawdudists and their like are all committed to preserving the ancient order at any cost. And that cost can be very high indeed. Take the Wahhabis, whose clergy are the co-rulers of Saudi Arabia. Their king is popularly described as the Guardian of the Twin Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina), much as our dear Queen is the Defender of the Faith. In order to protect the two holiest Muslim cities, the Saudi authorities have demolished 80% to 90% of them. The oldest buildings, the sacred graveyards with the graves of the Prophet's family and companions, houses Muhammad lived in. Their have been talks about destroying the grave of the Prophet himself. In its perverted and blinkered way, this makes perfect sense to the Wahhabi mind. More than anything, strict ~Muslims fear idolatry, the worship of anything but God. In the early days of Wahhabi/Saudi rule, they made a fetish out of destroying Sufi and Shi'i shrines at which pilgrims worshipped. But it later occurred to them that people who came to Mecca or Medina while on the hajj pilgrimage were going to these graves (some of which had domes built over them) and praying. So the domes and the other buildings had to come down. When Cromwell's men defaced the statuary in British churches and cathedrals, they were doing much the same, but at least they left the buildings standing.

In a very real sense, the Islamic world remained in all respects closely comparable to Europe in the Middle Ages through to, say the 16th century. Apart from sections of the Ottoman empire (Hungary, Romania, the Balkans, Greece), this world was almost entirely isolated from Europe, and Muslims remained unaware of social, political, scientific, and religious changes taking place elsewhere. It was only from the late 18th century that this changed, with the French invasion of Egypt or the growing British dominion over India. During the 19th century, European powers (Britain, France, and the Netherlands) created colonies that imposed Western rule on Islamic lands. Out of this emerged movements for change, pleas for constitutional government through parliaments, for religious freedom, for Western-style education and much else. By the 20th century change had taken place. In Turkey and Iran, the clergy's power had been greatly diminished. Women started to throw off the veil. And then, around the 1970s, all this progress was slammed into reverse. Islam has rushed backwards, like no society in history.

Part of the problem is that Islamic law postulates that any form of innovation is heresy and will lead to hell. The most minor things have been seized on as indicators of innovation, condemned, and used as the basis for rulings for legal cases out of which a man or woman may be flogged or even executed. In Tudor times, a butcher might be hanged for selling meat in Lent. Among the Taleban it can be as little as wearing one's trousers below the ankle.

But there's something else more relevant to Obama's grasp of what a two-state 'solution' would really mean for Israel. It is this. A distinguishing feature of Islam from the beginning has been a commitment to Muslim supremacy. And that keen sense of superiority (to Jews, to Christians, to pagans, to atheists, to secularists) creates a one-way street. Thus, Muslims demand the implementation of shari'a law in Western countries, and some (like the UK) allow them to act on rulings from shari'a tribunals, in matters like marriage and divorce or childcare. But if a Westerner were to demand a reciprocal arrangement in, say, Saudi Arabia, they would soon find themselves on a one-way flight home or doing time in the local chokey. In the West, Muslim women demand the right to wear veils, even all-enveloping ones, everywhere they go, and, naturally, we grant them that freedom. But should a Western woman turn up on the streets of Tehran dressed as she might at home, it will only be a matter of minutes before one of the Blood of God patrols turns up in a white Toyota, grabs her, and pushed her into the minibus that will come behind them. No reciprocity.

From all sides come cries for Israel to do this or that. Demolish the 'apartheid wall', grant every Palestinian on earth the right of 'return', pack up and go home. But when Israel pulled out of Gaza, things only got worse. When Israelis hand back hundreds of terrorist prisoners, they will be lucky to get a couple of corpses in return. When Israel says it will recognize a peaceful Palestinian state, Mahmoud Abbas gets uppity and says he will never recognize a Jewish state. So everybody gets uppity, not with Abbas, but with Israel. Obama hasn't even mentioned that particularly dirty little trick.

So what's a girl to do? Her tormentors openly declare their intention of raping and murdering her, and all the police can do is say 'Open your legs, dear, and let them get on with it, you know it won't hurt, or grit your lovely white teeth if you need to, just don't let them see you smiling'.

The consensus is that Muslims can always have it their way. If they don't want to make peace, what right have we to force them to? If they say black is white, that the Holocaust never happened, that the Jews are the worst human beings on the face of the planet, that no Jews set foot in the Holy Land of antiquity, that Abraham and Moses were Muslims, that if only they could have a little land, they'd behave better, that murderers are martyrs, that Yasser Arafat was a man of peace, that Islam is a religion of peace, that submission to Islam is the highest form of peace -- if they say all these things and more, all we should do is bow, as Obama bowed to the obnoxious Saudi king, and say 'what else can I do for you, honoured sir?' and then shut up in case we inadvertently offend them again.