The West must get humble and honest - fast

'We must apply the same standards to ourselves as we apply to others, if not more stringent ones'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For people in poor countries, life has always been fragile, unpredictable, risky, scary and murderous, which is perhaps why they believe so ardently in the next world, or try, even if it kills them, to reach places of wealth and safety. Although unfair trade agreements, grinding poverty, corrupt and pitiless leaders, illness, death, violence, degradation and natural disasters devastate generation after generation, they still laugh and sing and manage to dream a little.

For people in poor countries, life has always been fragile, unpredictable, risky, scary and murderous, which is perhaps why they believe so ardently in the next world, or try, even if it kills them, to reach places of wealth and safety. Although unfair trade agreements, grinding poverty, corrupt and pitiless leaders, illness, death, violence, degradation and natural disasters devastate generation after generation, they still laugh and sing and manage to dream a little.

These people are not today locked in any new and urgent sense of terror such has gripped the Occident. That is our fate; the children of plenty who thought they could control and buy everything. In the past two years our certainties have been shredded, and although most of us carry on regardless, we have lost that innocent positivism which came out of historical privilege.

We too are now trembling before unforeseen forces. Suspicion is fraying the bonds of society - mistrust of fellow citizens, of politicians (who have manifestly been lying to populations that do not expect to be treated with such contempt), of intelligence sources, army spokespeople and media reports which are devoured, and at once believed and disbelieved.

Planes are grounded for days; alerts and warnings increase. Christmas and New year celebrations were still jolly and expensive, but anxiety took a seat at most tables. When at midnight, on 31 December at a fab Scottish party in Somerset, we kissed each other, one of the inebriated guests said: "Happy New Year - this may be our last the way things are going in the world." I wonder how many millions shared that dread at that moment.

With one exception - the Aids crisis - the West has not known such internal turbulence for more than 60 years. Cosseted while the rest of humanity was buffeted, those 11 September planes heralded a hard reality for people softened by years of peace and prosperity. They demonstrated that the wretched of the earth were remarkably resistant and that some were capable of inflicting real and psychic wounds to the most powerful nations in the world, because they had nothing to lose.

Those leading these nations do not understand the power of this hopelessness. Please don't think I am idealising these killers as folk heroes. I am as frightened as everyone else of what they do, but I grew up in the so-called Third World, and I can see how such demon warriors can emerge from the flotsam and jetsam of a humanity that has been kept down for too long.

One of the most educative books I read last year was When the Bulbul Stopped Singing: A Diary of Ramallah Under Siege, by the humane and still sane Palestinian lawyer and writer, Raja Shehadeh. He describes the hardening of the hearts of good, caring Palestinians and the reasons for and consequences of this process.

This is why Bush, Blair, Putin and co sound like fools when they say they are going to "win the war against terror". There is no way this is a "war" which can be "won". And yet this invisible insurrection, with a limitless supply of kamikaze volunteers across the globe, can and does violate much of what is best in human civilisation through indiscriminate violence and destabilisation tactics. (It is important to remember that suicide bombers were not a "Muslim" invention. Japanese pilots used themselves as weapons in the Second World War as did some of our own pilots of whom we think as brave. Tamil Tigers used young women suicide bombers, too.)

Look what the bombers have achieved so far, in spite of the successful defeat of their power base in Afghanistan. Count the money spent, the way the target countries have had to stretch their national defence and policing services, the cost to airlines, tour operators, the hidden expenses when leads are followed-up to protect nationals.

World public opinion too is volatile and the bombers have more support than Westerners care to acknowledge. The homes, the streets and the playgrounds of the well-off are tense and paranoid places. It is possible that some of the frantic security measures today are instigated by set-ups. Al-Qa'ida and its satellites could well be doing what the IRA did for years - setting false trails and issuing threats that cause large-scale disturbance and economic damage - cleverly spacing these misleading clues between real explosions.

God knows what they know - the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Russian, Pakistani, Afghan, Saudi Arabian secret services and many others beyond. Some of the warnings are likely to be manufactured for cynical political reasons; some of the material, obviously, is unreliable. But I have no doubt that there are plots to stage another spectacular and another and another, whatever we do to protect ourselves.

In the long term, there will be a petering out. There always is. But our leaders must change direction now. They must fast acquire some humility, honesty and understanding. Laudable aims have been declared by Bush, and Blair, who went hand-shaking in Iraq this weekend.

Old tyrants held in place with our support (Saudi Arabia) or without (Libya) have been put on warning: democracy and human rights will be implanted in despotic countries. This weekend Afghanistan moved in that direction with its Loya Jirga agreeing on a constitution. The best news is contained in Article 35, which states: "Formation or functioning of a party based on ethnicity, language, Islamic school of thought and region is not permissible." This should be an example for Iraq. It is worth noting that India and South Africa, which in relative terms are good, working democracies, are civic and secular.

Joined-up thinking is urgently needed. The WTO, the World Bank, the UN and others cannot carry on disproportionately benefiting the rich or playing by different rules for different nations. As Noam Chomsky writes in his new book, Hegemony or Survival, we must get "universality; we must apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones."

We want human rights in Saudi Arabia? Yes. But we do not have the moral authority to demand these while hundreds are festering in Guantanamo Bay, US and UK prisons with no justice, or while allied soldiers in Iraq maltreat Iraqis and steal their resources, or when we promote pre-emptive actions and shoot to kill, or we prohibit weapons of mass destruction for some countries but not ourselves or Israel.

That universality applies to Muslims too. We too need more honesty, democracy, open debate, equality and freedoms. For the truth is that even if the West were miraculously to comply with all the above, the rot within Muslim countries would still wreck the lives and aspirations of citizens. This is why so many of the best and brightest Muslims in the world have flown to the West. In doing this they deprive their own countries and contribute further to global imbalances. And maybe therein lies a real solution, which is being missed at present.

Western Muslims could make a difference to the dangerous impasse we are in. They have imbibed democracy and human rights values; they know the world they fled. They could be employed by their new countries as envoys between diehard foes. Instead they are all seen as the enemy within, wearing explosive shoes to blow up planes.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments