My very first column was a response to an awkward dinner party in the summer of 1987. It was a mouthful of frustration, spew discharged on to a page, like many of today's squally blogs. Guests – educated and middle class – had expressed their loathing for that depraved Idi Amin who sent us Ugandan Asians into exile. Then, inevitably, came a discussion about post-colonial African leaders who promised so much and turned out to be "so disappointing". Sigh. They meant to be sympathetic; to me they sounded patronising and unbelievably ignorant. I smiled politely and said little.
Did they really know nothing about the crucial role Britain, the US and Israel had played in Amin's rise to power? They backed him because the previous chap, President Obote, was getting too cosy with the Soviets, then took no responsibility for the carnage that followed. Did international news not get as far as Camden Town? I knew the Soviet Union did not let its population anywhere near the truth of anything. But in the West too, apparently, people were fed processed history, comfort food they didn't even need to chew on to keep them full and happy with their lot and land.
One side-effect of international migration is that incomers bring with them non-official political narratives, unknown realities, suppressed facts, untold experiences to share with indigenous citizens. When Margaret Thatcher supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and tyrannical autocrats like Chile's Augusto Pinochet, refugees in the UK from those countries reminded us of truths, of the horrors. Few Britons know of our actual past overseas policy and its connection to the present. US citizens are even more wilfully blinkered and easily led to believe distorted accounts that facilitate government military, foreign and commercial ambitions. The special relationship between the two nations depends on shared secrets and a commitment to doctored or withheld information.
I chaired a Q&A session at the Tricycle theatre this month, about a film made by American directors, producers and good friends of Benazir Bhutto, on her life and death. It was a moving and affecting piece of work about a commanding dynasty that has gone through Shakespearean tragedies. Benazir's murder, still unsolved, left you feeling grief and anger, even though she believed in inherited power and was careful never to be too critical of the US.
The CIA and other US agencies are major actors in the shaky state of Pakistan; US funding of hardline Islamic groups in Afghanistan has led to the Talibanisation of that region and beyond. The film gave us a gripping myth, a personal tale of an exceptional Muslim woman, who beat misogyny to lead her country, but not the murky aspects of her legacy, nor the questionable American and British interventions.
The biggest import from Pakistan today is jihadism. That ideology was, for decades, given succour by our government. Democratic, progressive Muslims fearfully witness the consequences of that engagement. We are told to be more vocally pro-British. That would be easier if our political masters were not guilty of duplicitous transactions that undercut the Britishness we admire and look up to.
Support for Islamicist terrorism is growing partly because more and more Muslims can see how the West plays its games – no rules, no accountability – and partly because it happily does business with Muslim despots and villains. Successive British governments have backed regressive Muslim movements and nations from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Saudi Arabia, arguably the world's most dangerous Islamic realm. The rulers of that kingdom are today our old best friends despite evidence showing the Saudis are funding Salafism across the globe. That Islamicist ideology is causing untold damage to the spirit of Islam, and spreads – but unlike the BP oil, our politicians do not believe they need to disable the source.
Domestic relations between Muslims and the state are built on the same dodgy model. Some key departmental British Muslim advisers follow Abul ala Maududi, a Pakistani revivalist, founder of the fanatical Jamat-i-Islam which fantasises about worldwide domination. Nobody checked how that determined the advice given. The Muslim Council of Britain, still excessively influential, has among its affiliates groups which promote Saudi religious ideologies. The result is all around us: enlightened Islam is pushed out, and in march the bearded and veiled ones with the blessings of the state.
In an interview in New Left Project, the investigative journalist and author Mark Curtis discussed his new book, Secret Affairs: Britain's Collusion with Radical Islam. As in his earlier, remarkable books he uses previously classified documents to build up a deplorable picture: "7/7 and the present broader terrorist threat to Britain is to some degree a product of British foreign policy ... Throughout the post-war period Britain has covertly supported radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, Indonesia and Egypt ... I also think the policy of allowing London to act as a base for jihadist terrorists organising around the world has been intimately related to securing British foreign policy goals". And what might those be then? Ad hoc opportunism, Curtis calls it, a tradition that the ruling classes believe (misguidedly) has served them rather well.
Self-interest is how the whole world works and all nations can act ignobly to gain advantage over others. Just look at the latest, obnoxious global battles over oil and precious minerals. But for a sustainable future politicians need to take a long view, learn from past mistakes and consider unintended consequences. Britain doesn't do that. Believing itself to be frightfully clever and adroit, it beds down with disreputable characters and governments for short-term gain, undermining its own security and prospects.
Don't expect the new government to break from this habit. In this old land, the baton smoothly passes from one lot to the next. Meanwhile Islamicists get bolder, spread the explosive word and their exploding bodies. Curtis calls it collusion. But why? Is it senselessness or a way of keeping people afraid and easy to control? A conspiracy theory? You bet, unless you can give me a better explanation.Reuse content