- Keith Thomas laments the state of the modern university, in Universities under Attack.
- Charles Simic on Serenity.
- Alan Hollinghurst and Jeffrey Eugenides on the art of fiction.
- The Changi POW artwork of Des Bettany is finally online – a beautiful project. Speaking of war art, check out Macy Halford’s piece on An Artist’s War.
- Chad Marshall reviews Mark S. Gignilliat’s Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah.
- Michiko Kakutani reviews Robert Hughes’s Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.
- Jarrod M. Longbons’s interview with Tracey Rowland on Pope Benedict XVI.
- The gospel according to Stephen Fry; and Fry on London.
- The Centre for Theology and Ministry (Uniting Church in Australia) is seeking a new Professor of Systematic Theology.
- Robert Fisk on bankers as the dictators of the West.
- Ben Myers looks through an icon of theophany.
- Rick Floyd reminds me of that old Bing Crosby cassette I probably still have laying around in a box somewhere.
- A Rowan Williams lecture on The Future of Interfaith Dialogue.
- Crispin Blunt’s lecture on Restorative Justice.
- Steve Holmes reviews Scot McKnight’s Junia Is Not Alone.
- Finally, I’m still relishing John Updike’s Higher Gossip.
- Davey Henreckson on Charles Taylor and on Calvinists and disenchantment.
- Beth Doherty on Haiti and the best and worst of Christianity.
- Bruce Simpson asks (hopefully) whether the whole Google and China thing might be the thin end of the wedge.
- Thomas Bartlett on why ‘Google needs to realise that China is simply being China’.
- American VI: Aint No Grave by Johnny Cash – it’s a coming soon!!!
- Michael Wood reviews Avatar.
- Jessa Crispin, the editor and founder of Bookslut, on ‘the predictable American response to translated literature’.
- Mike Bird on ‘What is happening to Intervarsity?’
- Andrew Errington posts 10 reasons on ‘why I believe in infant baptism’.
- Robert Fisk on the never-ending exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
- C. Baxter Kruger on why Paul Young (author of The Shack) and Athanasius are singing from the same song sheet.
- The Karen Human Rights Group has produced a 98-page photo album containing 125 images of life in rural Karen State. The book is called Patterns of Abuse: Photographs of rural life in a militarized Karen State. It’s a fundraiser for a very worthwhile group, so please join me in buying a copy – or more – if you can.
His Middle East policy is collapsing. The Israelis have taunted him by ignoring his demand for an end to settlement-building and by continuing to build their colonies on Arab land. His special envoy is bluntly told by the Israelis that an Arab-Israel peace will take “many years”. Now he wants the Palestinians to talk peace to Israel without conditions. He put pressure on the Palestinian leader to throw away the opportunity of international scrutiny of UN Judge Goldstone’s damning indictment of Israeli war crimes in Gaza while his Assistant Secretary of State said that the Goldstone report was “seriously flawed”. After breaking his pre-election promise to call the 1915 Armenian massacres by Ottoman Turkey a genocide, he has urged the Armenians to sign a treaty with Turkey, again “without pre-conditions”. His army is still facing an insurgency in Iraq. He cannot decide how to win “his” war in Afghanistan. I shall not mention Iran.
And now President Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. After only eight months in office. Not bad. No wonder he said he was “humbled” when told the news. He should have felt humiliated. But perhaps weakness becomes a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Shimon Peres won it, too, and he never won an Israeli election. Yasser Arafat won it. And look what happened to him. For the first time in history, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to a man who has achieved nothing – in the faint hope that he will do something good in the future. That’s how bad things are. That’s how explosive the Middle East has become.
Isn’t there anyone in the White House to remind Mr Obama that the Israelis have never obliged a US president who asked for an end to the building of colonies for Jews – and Jews only – on Arab land? Bill Clinton demanded this – it was written into the Oslo accords – and the Israelis ignored him. George W Bush demanded an end to the fighting in Jenin nine years ago. The Israelis ignored him. Mr Obama demands a total end to all settlement construction. “They just don’t get it, do they?” an Israeli minister – apparently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was reported to have said when the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, reiterated her president’s words. That’s what Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s crackpot foreign minister – he’s not as much a crackpot as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he’s getting close – said again on Thursday. “Whoever says it’s possible to reach in the coming years a comprehensive agreement,” he announced before meeting Mr Obama’s benighted and elderly envoy George Mitchell, “… simply doesn’t understand the reality.”
Across Arabia, needless to say, the Arab potentates continue to shake with fear in their golden minarets. That great Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir – murdered in 2005, quite possibly by Mr Obama’s new-found Syrian chums – put it well in one of his last essays. “Undeterred by Egypt since Sadat’s peace,” he wrote, “convinced of America’s unfailing support, guaranteed moral impunity by Europe’s bad conscience, and backed by a nuclear arsenal that was acquired with the help of Western powers, and that keeps growing without exciting any comment from the international community, Israel can literally do anything it wants, or is prompted to do by its leaders’ fantasies of domination.”
So Israel is getting away with it as usual, abusing the distinguished (and Jewish) head of the UN inquiry into Gaza war crimes – which also blamed Hamas – while joining the Americans in further disgracing the craven Palestinian Authority “President” Mahmoud Abbas, who is more interested in maintaining his relations with Washington than with his own Palestinian people. He’s even gone back on his word to refuse peace talks until Israel’s colonial expansion comes to an end. In a single devastating sentence, that usually mild Jordanian commentator Rami Khouri noted last week that Mr Abbas is “a tragic shell of a man, hollow, politically impotent, backed and respected by nobody”. I put “President” Abbas into quotation marks since he now has Mr Ahmadinejad’s status in the eyes of his people. Hamas is delighted. Thanks to President Obama.
Oddly, Mr Obama is also humiliating the Armenian president, Serg Sarkisian, by insisting that he talks to his Turkish adversaries without conditions. In the West Bank, you have to forget the Jewish colonies. In Armenia, you have to forget the Turkish murder of one and a half million Armenians in 1915. Mr Obama refused to honour his pre-election promise to recognise the 20th century’s first holocaust as a genocide. But if he can’t handle the First World War, how can he handle World War Three?
Mr Obama advertised the Afghanistan conflict as the war America had to fight – not that anarchic land of Mesopotamia which Mr Bush rashly invaded. He’d forgotten that Afghanistan was another Bush war; and he even announced that Pakistan was now America’s war, too. The White House produced its “Afpak” soundbite. And the drones came in droves over the old Durand Line, to kill the Taliban and a host of innocent civilians. Should Mr Obama concentrate on al-Qa’ida? Or yield to General Stanley McChrystal’s Vietnam-style demand for 40,000 more troops? The White House shows the two of them sitting opposite each other, Mr Obama in the smoothie suite, McChrystal in his battledress. The rabbit and the hare.
No way are they going to win. The neocons say that “the graveyard of empire” is a cliché. It is. But it’s also true. The Afghan government is totally corrupted; its paid warlords – paid by Karzai and the Americans – ramp up the drugs trade and the fear of Afghan civilians. But it’s much bigger than this.
The Indian embassy was bombed again last week. Has Mr Obama any idea why? Does he realise that Washington’s decision to support India against Pakistan over Kashmir – symbolised by his appointment of Richard Holbrooke as envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan but with no remit to discuss divided Kashmir – enraged Pakistan. He may want India to balance the power of China (some hope!) but Pakistan’s military intelligence realises that the only way of persuading Mr Obama to act fairly over Kashmir – recognising Pakistan’s claims as well as India’s – is to increase their support for the Taliban. No justice in Kashmir, no security for US troops – or the Indian embassy – in Afghanistan.
Then, after stroking the Iranian pussycat at the Geneva nuclear talks, the US president discovered that the feline was showing its claws again at the end of last week. A Revolutionary Guard commander, an adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, warned that Iran would “blow up the heart” of Israel if Israel or the US attacked the Islamic Republic. I doubt it. Blow up Israel and you blow up “Palestine”. Iranians – who understand the West much better than we understand them – have another policy in the case of the apocalypse. If the Israelis attack, they may leave Israel alone. They have a plan, I’m told, to target instead only US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their bases in the Gulf and their warships cruising through Hormuz. They would leave Israel alone. Americans would then learn the price of kneeling before their Israeli masters.
For the Iranians know that the US has no stomach for a third war in the Middle East. Which is why Mr Obama has been sending his generals thick and fast to the defence ministry in Tel Aviv to tell the Israelis not to strike at Iran. And why Israel’s leaders – including Mr Netanyahu – were blowing the peace pipe all week about the need for international negotiations with Iran. But it raises an interesting question. Is Mr Obama more frightened of Iran’s retaliation? Or of its nuclear capabilities? Or more terrified of Israel’s possible aggression against Iran?
But, please, no attacks on 10 December. That’s when Barack Obama turns up in Oslo to pocket his peace prize – for achievements he has not yet achieved and for dreams that will turn into nightmares.
[Source: The Independent]
Here’s Robert Fisk, deservedly one of the most reputable journalists in the world, on why the ground beneath Arab feet may have become ‘too saturated to build on’. It’s a thought-provoking piece of commentary:
‘Why is the Arab world – let us speak with terrible sharpness – so backward? Why so many dictators, so few human rights, so much state security and torture, so terrible a literacy rate?
Why does this wretched place, so rich in oil, have to produce, even in the age of the computer, a population so poorly educated, so undernourished, so corrupt? Yes, I know the history of Western colonialism, the dark conspiracies of the West, the Arab argument that you cannot upset the sheikhs and the kings and the autocrats, the imams and the emirs when the “enemy is at the gates”. There is some truth to that. But not enough truth.
Once more the United Nations Development Programme has popped up with yet one more, its fifth, report that catalogues – via Arab analysts and academics, mark you – the retarded state of much of the Middle East. It talks of “the fragility of the region’s political, social, economic and environmental structures… its vulnerability to outside intervention”. But does this account for desertification, for illiteracy – especially among women – and the Arab state which, as the report admits, is often turned “into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support”?
As Arab journalist Rami Khouri stated bleakly last week: “How we tackle the underlying causes of our mediocrity and bring about real change anchored in solid citizenship, productive economies and stable statehood, remains the riddle that has defied three generations of Arabs.” Real GDP per capita in the region – one of the statistics which truly shocked Khouri – grew by only 6.4 per cent between 1980 and 2004. That’s just 0.5 per cent annually, a rate which 198 of 217 countries analysed by the CIA World Factbook bettered in 2008. Yet the Arab population – which stood at 150 million in 1980 – will reach 400 million in 2015.
I notice much of this myself. When I first came to the Middle East in 1976, it was crowded enough. Cairo’s steaming, fetid streets were already jam-packed, night and day, with up to a million homeless living in the great Ottoman cemeteries. Arab homes are spotlessly clean but their streets are often repulsive, dirt and ordure spilling on to the pavements. Even in beautiful Lebanon, where a kind of democracy does exist and whose people are among the most educated and cultured in the Middle East, you find a similar phenomenon. In the rough hill villages of the south, the same cleanliness exists in every home. But why are the streets and the hills so dirty?
I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Arabs; they do not feel that they own their countries. Constantly coaxed into effusions of enthusiasm for Arab or national “unity”, I think they do not feel that sense of belonging which Westerners feel. Unable, for the most part, to elect real representatives – even in Lebanon, outside the tribal or sectarian context – they feel “ruled over”. The street, the country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course, the moment a movement comes along and – even worse – becomes popular, emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or “terrorist”. Thus it is always someone else’s responsibility to look after the gardens and the hills and the streets.
And those who work within the state system – who work directly for the state and its corrupt autarchies – also feel that their existence depends on the same corruption upon which the state itself thrives. The people become part of the corruption. I shall always remember an Arab landlord, many years ago, bemoaning an anti-corruption drive by his government. “In the old days, I paid bribes and we got the phone mended and the water pipes mended and the electricity restored,” he complained. “But what can I do now, Mr, Robert? I can’t bribe anyone – so nothing gets done!”
Even the first UNDP report, back in 2002, was deeply depressing. It identified three cardinal obstacles to human development in the Arab world: the widening “deficit” in freedom, women’s rights and knowledge. George W Bush – he of enduring freedom, democracy, etc etc amid the slaughter of Iraq – drew attention to this. Understandably miffed at being lectured to by the man who gave “terror” a new name, even Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (he of the constantly more than 90 per cent electoral success rate), told Tony Blair in 2004 that modernisation had to stem from “the traditions and culture of the region”.
Will a solution to the Arab-Israeli war resolve all this? Some of it, perhaps. Without the constant challenge of crisis, it would be much more difficult to constantly renew emergency laws, to avoid constitutionality, to distract populations who might otherwise demand overwhelming political change. Yet I sometimes fear that the problems have sunk too deep, that like a persistently leaking sewer, the ground beneath Arab feet has become too saturated to build on.
I was delighted some months ago, while speaking at Cairo University – yes, the same academy which Barack Obama used to play softball with the Muslim world – to find how bright its students were, how many female students crowded the classes and how, compared to previous visits, well-educated they were. Yet far too many wanted to move to the West. The Koran may be an invaluable document – but so is a Green Card. And who can blame them when Cairo is awash with PhD engineering graduates who have to drive taxis?
And on balance, yes, a serious peace between Palestinians and Israelis would help redress the appalling imbalances that plague Arab society. If you can no longer bellyache about the outrageous injustice that this war represents, then perhaps there are other injustices to be addressed. One of them is domestic violence, which – despite the evident love of family which all Arabs demonstrate – is far more prevalent in the Arab world than Westerners might realise (or Arabs want to admit).
But I also think that, militarily, we have got to abandon the Middle East. By all means, send the Arabs our teachers, our economists, our agronomists. But bring our soldiers home. They do not defend us. They spread the same chaos that breeds the injustice upon which the al-Qa’idas of this world feed. No, the Arabs – or, outside the Arab world, the Iranians or the Afghans – will not produce the eco-loving, gender-equal, happy-clappy democracies that we would like to see. But freed from “our” tutelage, they might develop their societies to the advantage of the people who live in them. Maybe the Arabs would even come to believe that they owned their own countries’.
[Source: The Independent, 28 July 2009]
During the second Palestinian “intifada”, I was sitting in the offices of Hizbollah’s Al-Manar television station in Beirut, watching news footage of a militiaman’s funeral in Gaza. The television showed hordes of Hamas and PLO gunmen firing thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air to honour their latest “martyr”; and I noticed, just next to me, a Lebanese Hizbollah member – who had taken part in many attacks against the Israelis in what had been Israel’s occupation zone in southern Lebanon – shaking his head.
What was he thinking, I asked? “Hamas try to stand up to the Israelis,” he replied. “But…” And here he cast his eyes to the ceiling. “They waste bullets. They fire all these bullets into the sky. They should use them to shoot at Israelis.”
His point, of course, was that Hamas lacked discipline, the kind of iron, ruthless discipline and security that Hizbollah forged in Lebanon and which the Israeli army was at last forced to acknowledge in southern Lebanon in 2006. Guns are weapons, not playthings for funerals. And Gaza is not southern Lebanon. It would be as well for both sides in this latest bloodbath in Gaza to remember this. Hamas is not Hizbollah. Jerusalem is not Beirut. And Israeli soldiers cannot take revenge for their 2006 defeat in Lebanon by attacking Hamas in Gaza – not even to help Ms Livni in the Israeli elections.
Not that Hizbollah won the “divine victory” it claimed two years ago. Driving the roads of southern Lebanon as the Israelis smashed the country’s infrastructure, killed more than a thousand Lebanese – almost all of them civilians – and razed dozens of villages, it didn’t feel like a Hizbollah “victory” to me, theological or otherwise. But the Israelis didn’t win and the Hizbollah were able to deploy thousands of long-range rockets as well as a missile which set an Israeli warship on fire and almost sank it. Hamas have nothing to match that kind of armoury.
Nor do they have the self-discipline to fight like an army. Hizbollah in Lebanon has managed to purge its region of informers. Hamas – like all the other Palestinian outfits – is infected with spies, some working for the Palestinian Authority, others for the Israelis. Israel has successively murdered one Hamas leader after another – “targeted killing”, of course, is their polite phrase – and they couldn’t do that without, as the police would say, “inside help”. Hizbollah’s previous secretary general, Sayed Abbas Moussawi, was assassinated near Jibchit by a missile-firing Israeli helicopter more than a decade ago but the movement hasn’t suffered a leader’s murder in Lebanon since then. In the 34-day war of 2006, Hizbollah lost about 200 of its men. Hamas lost almost that many in the first day of Israel’s air attacks in Gaza – which doesn’t say much for Hamas’ military precautions.
Israel, however – always swift to announce its imminent destruction of “terrorism” – has never won a war in a built-up city, be it Beirut or Gaza, since its capture of Jerusalem in 1967. And it’s important to remember that the Israeli army, famous in song and legend for its supposed “purity of arms” and “elite” units, has proved itself to be a pretty third-rate army over recent years. Not since the 1973 Middle East conflict – 35 years ago – has it won a war. Its 1978 invasion of Lebanon was a failure, its 1982 invasion ended in disaster, propelling Arafat from Beirut but allowing its vicious Phalangist allies into the Sabra and Chatila camps where they committed mass murder. In neither the 1993 bombardment of Lebanon nor the 1996 bombardment of Lebanon – which fizzled out after the massacre of refugees at Qana – nor the 2006 war was its performance anything more than amateur. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact Arab armies are even more of a rabble than the Israelis, the Israeli state would be genuinely under threat from its neighbours.
One common feature of Middle East wars is the ability of all the antagonists to suffer from massive self-delusion. Israel’s promise to “root out terror” – be it of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iranian or any other kind – has always turned out to be false. “War to the bitter end,” the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, has promised in Gaza. Nonsense. Just like the PLO’s boast – and Hamas’ boast and Hizbollah’s boast – to “liberate” Jerusalem. Eyewash. But the Israelis have usually shown a dangerous propensity to believe their own propaganda. Calling up more than 6,000 reservists and sitting them round the Gaza fence is one thing; sending them into the hovels of Gaza will be quite another. In 2006, Israel claimed it was sending 30,000 troops into Lebanon. In reality, it sent about 3,000 – and the moment they crossed the border, they were faced down by the Hizbollah. In some cases, Israeli soldiers actually ran back to their own frontier.
These are realities. The chances of war, however, may be less easier to calculate. If Israel indefinitely continues its billion dollar blitz on Gaza – and we all know who is paying for that – there will, at some stage, be an individual massacre; a school will be hit, a hospital or a pre-natal clinic or just an apartment packed with civilians. In other words, another Qana. At which point, a familiar story will be told; that Hamas destroyed the school/hospital/pre-natal clinic, that the journalists who report on the slaughter are anti-Semitic, that Israel is under threat, etc. We may even get the same disingenuous parallel with a disastrous RAF raid in the Second World War which both Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanayahu have used over the past quarter century to justify the killing of civilians.
And Hamas – which never had the courage to admit it killed two Palestinian girls with one of its own rockets last week – will cynically make profit from the grief with announcements of war crimes and “genocide”.
At which point, the deeply despised and lame old UN donkey will be clip-clopped onto the scene to rescue the Israeli army and Hamas from this disgusting little war. Of course, saner minds may call all this off before the inevitable disaster. But I doubt it.
Source: The Independent, Wednesday, 31 December 2008