Saturday, 26 February 2011

Sunni and Shia

Almost every media report on uprisings in Arab countries includes an obligatory discussion of whether Islamic extremists will take over. This is prompted by memories of what happened in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and under the Taliban in Afghanistan - neither of them Arab countries. However, Iran is overwhelmingly Shia, and what happened in Afghanistan was conquest, not popular revolution, helped by the West's earlier aid to the mujahidin (including bin Laden).

There is good reason to suppose that Egypt will not be taken over by anything resembling the regimes in Iran or Afghanistan. The great majority of Egyptians - like the majority of Muslims in the world, follow Sunni Islam, which arose out of events in the 7th century C.E. A civil war had sprung up between the Party (the Shia) of Ali, who believed that only he and his descendants had the right to head the Muslim State, and the majority, who said it was better for Muslims to tolerate a bad ruler than to fight each other. Sunni Islam developed into a broad and tolerant civilization, with competition between various schools of thought and practice. The Shia split into rival movements following different descendants of Ali, fighting against each other as often as against Sunnis.

The tolerant Sunni tradition continued until the 20th century, when an extremist faction, the Wahhabis, began to make inroads. This was a utopian revivalist movement that had been confined to the Arabian desert. Their fortunes changed when the collapse of Ottoman power and the destruction of the Hejaz Railway by Lawrence allowed them to take control of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina with consequent rise in prestige. At the same time, their Saudi Kingdom came into possession of fabulous oil wealth, enabling them to open Wahhabi schools in many countries and to flood the Muslim world with literature and now DVDs advocating a militant and intolerant view. The evidence is that, although they have excited a fanatical minority, the majority of Sunni Muslims are loyal to their open-minded and tolerant traditions. I do not believe that a democratically chosen government in any Sunni country would be dominated by Wahhabis.

Monday, 14 February 2011

What a contrast between Tienanmen Square 1989 and Tahrir Square 2011! It was the army that made the difference. Deng Xiaoping had loyal units that were willing to roll tanks over demonstrators, Mubarak and his Vice President had only their police and a few horses and camels.

What a pity that history is no longer properly taught in the West! Nobody seems to recall Colonel Urabi's Revolution of 1881-82, which was ended by a British invasion to re-establish colonial rule. Nor do people speak of Saad Zaghloul's Revolution of 1919, which led to the British abandoning its protectorate and allowing free elections, which were won by the Wafd Party. There followed nearly twenty years of parliamentary democracy, but the monarchy that Britain had put in place led to a regime of nepotism and corruption, ended by Colonel Nasser's popular coup in 1952. Nasser was at heart a Westernizer, and his inspiration was the British Welfare State. But his pan-Arab nationalism was unacceptable to Israel, and he never recovered from defeat in the 1967 war.

So Egyptians have been periodically in revolt for 130 years against Western attempts to control their country. The big question is whether this time they will succeed. Already America has demanded that the peace treaty with Israel be respected, although Israel has long since ignored its terms. Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadate was assassinated in 1981, essentially because he had betrayed the Palestinians by leaving their interests out of account. Will Egypt now lift the Siege of Gaza? Will it now continue 'normal' relations with Israel despite the continuing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Those are important things to watch.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Wrong Undone

Yesterday, 7th February, Khartoum confirmed that Southern Sudan has voted 98% for independence from the North. If it holds, this will be spectacular - the first time sinc Czechoslovakia that a country has been peacefully divided by majority vote, and the very first time in one of Europe's old colonies. What is most significant of all is that the Muslim rulers of the North appear to be accepting the result of the vote - an example to all other governments in the Arab world.

The usual pattern has been that an autocratic regime has allowed a vote, has not liked the result and has cracked down mercilessly. This is what the Shah did in Iran in 1953, overthrowing the elected government of Mossadegh with the backing of the West, to undo the nationalization of tghe oil companies. It is what the army did in Algeria in 1992, with the backing of the West, cancelling the elections half way through because Muslim parties were winning. It is what Israel did in 2006, with the backing of the West, when Hamas won the majority of the seats in an election under UN auspices. And of course the Arab World is not alone; for example there was Chile 1n 1974.

In 1953 the motive of the West was pure greed - to get back the Western oil companies. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, American policy has been dominated by paranoid fear of Islam (which did not prevent them from funding the fundamantalist attack on the Soviets in Afghanistan; Bin Laden was a CIA agent!!!). Now they are desperately hoping that Mubarek can rig the elections in Egypt in the next few months. So why should the West not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood? That will need another blog.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Historic Week?

No, I don't mean Egypt. Something else has just happened - in Britain: in the space of four days two different television channels have broadcast programmes about Palestine. On Thursday 3rd February on BBC2 Louis Theroux interviewed 'Ultra Zionists' on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and on Sunday 6th Channel Four started a four-part drama, 'The Promise'.

The 'Ultra Zionists' were almost all very mainstream settlers carrying out Israeli Government policy. Theroux cleverly got them to talk while subtly suggesting that their actions might be illegal and inhumane. Only one man lost his temper, when asked whether the olive trees some settlers had set fire to belonged to Palestinians.

'The Promise' is about the experience of a British student, Erin, visiting the family of her friend who has dual Anglo-Israeli nationality and who is starting her two years military service. The friend's family are very British, living in a lovely villa by the sea. The father is a retired general and a well known liberal - but not liberal enough for the friend's brother, who is a peace-activist. He takes Erin to the West Bank to meet some Palestinians and hear their grievances.

The story is given depth by the diary of Erin's grandfather, which she has brought with her to read. He was s sergeant, present at the liberation of Belsen in 1945, and he then served in Palestine in the last years of British rule. His squadren is at war with Zionist activists, and he is recruited to spy for them by the daughter of one of the leaders.

'The Promise' sets out to present a balanced picture, though so far we haven't met any present-day Zionists. Some of the detail struck me as inaccurate; the Israeli check-point was between Israel and the West Bank, so it did not give any idea of the horrors of the check-points inside the Occupied Territories. And there is a suicide bombing - something that is now extremely rare. Anyway, I shall follow the remaining three episodes with great interest.