Help

Nation Topics - World

Topic Page

Articles

News and Features

Guerrilla Radio, published by NationBooks, is the remarkable story of B92, a Belgrade radio station founded in 1989 by a group of young idealists who simply wanted to "play rock 'n'

The country is riven and ailing, with a guns-plus-butter nuttiness in
some of its governing echelons and the sort of lapsed logic implicit in
the collapse of trust in money-center capitalism, which has been an
undergirding theory of a good deal of the work that many people do. The
tallest buildings, real profit centers, fall, as "wogs" and "ragheads"
defy us, perhaps comparably to how the "gooks" in Vietnam did (from
whose example Osama bin Laden may have learned that we could be
defeated). But that was on foreign soil, and we believed that we had
pulled our punches and beaten ourselves, and so remained triumphalist
for the remainder of the twentieth century, as we had been practically
since Reconstruction.

Now we're not so sure. For the first time since the War of 1812 we have
been damaged in continental America by foreigners, having made other
people hate us, though we had never needed to pay attention to such
matters before. Proxies could fight the malcontents for us in places
like Central America, and the Japanese and Germans, would-be conquerors,
had not felt much real animus, becoming close, amicable allies after the
war. Our first World War II hero, Colin Kelly, three days after Pearl
Harbor, flew his B-17 bomber (as media myth had it) in kamikaze fashion
to hit a Japanese cruiser, before the Japanese made a practice of it. To
give your life for your country, like Nathan Hale, is an ideal that's
since evaporated.

Obese individually and as a nation, and trying to stall the aging
process, we talk instead of cars and taxes, sports and movies, cancer
and entitlements, but with a half-unmentioned inkling too of what more
ominously may be in store--a premonition that our righteous confidence
might have served us just a bit too well. We never agonized a lot about
killing off the Indians, or our slaving history either, once that was
over, or being the only nuclear power ever to incinerate multitudes of
people. We've hardly seemed to notice when free enterprise segues into
simple greed, because our religious beginnings countenanced rapacity, as
long as you tithed. Settling the seaboard in official belts of piety,
whether Puritan, Anglican, Quaker or Dutch Reformed (only the frontier
tended to be atheistic), we seized land and water with abandon, joined
by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and what have you, westward ho. Each
group encouraged its rich men to creep like a camel through the eye of
the needle, and political freedoms were gradually canted away from the
pure ballot box toward influence-buying.

We swallowed all of that because the New World dream envisioned
everybody working hard and getting fairly rich, except when undertows of
doubt pervaded our prosperity, as in the 1930s and 1960s; or now when,
feeling gridlocked, we wonder if we haven't gone too far and used the
whole place up. We seem to need some kind of condom invented just for
greed--a latex sac where spasms of that particular vice can be
ejaculated, captured and contained. Like lust, it's not going to go
away. Nor will Monopoly games do the trick, any more than pornographic
videos erase impulses that might result in harm. The old phrase patrons
of prostitutes used to use--"getting your ashes hauled"--said it pretty
well, and if we could persuade people to think of greed, as well, that
way and expel its destructiveness perhaps into a computer screen,
trapping the piggishness in cyberspace might save a bit of Earth. The
greediest guys would not be satisfied, but greed might be looked on as
slightly outré.

Some vertigo or "near death" experience of global warming may be
required to trip the necessary degree of alarm. The droughts and water
wars, a polar meltdown and pelagic crisis--too much saltwater and
insufficient fresh. In the meantime, dried-up high plains agriculture
and Sunbelt golf greens in the Republicans' heartlands will help because
African famines are never enough. We need a surge of altruism, artesian
decency. The oddity of greed nowadays is that it is so often solo--in
the service of one ego--not ducal or kingly, as the apparatus of an
unjust state. Overweening possession, such as McMansions and so on, will
be loony in the century we are entering upon--ecologically,
economically, morally, commonsensically. But how will we realize this,
short of disastrous procrastination? Hurricanes and centrifugal violence
on the home front, not to mention angry Arabs flying into the World
Trade Center? That astounded us: both the anger and the technological
savvy. These camel-herding primitives whom we had manipulated, fleeced,
romanticized and patronized for generations, while pumping out their oil
and bottling them up in monarchies and emirates that we cultivated and
maintained, while jeering at them with casual racism in the meantime,
when we thought of it, for not having democracies like ours. To discover
that satellite TV, the Internet and some subversive preaching should
suddenly provide them access to divergent opinions disconcerts if it
doesn't frighten us, as does their willingness to counterpose
rudimentary suicide missions to the helicopter gunships and F-16s we
provide the Israelis. "Don't they value life?"

They won't be the last. The Vietcong were as culturally different from
the Palestinians as we are and yet succeeded in winning a country for
themselves, at a tremendous but bearable cost, which the Palestinians
will also undoubtedly do. Self-sacrifice can be a match for weaponry,
not because the Americans or Israelis value Asian or Arab life--at key
junctures and for essentially racist reasons they have not--but because
of the value they place on their own citizenry. As many as fifty
Vietnamese lives were lost for every American's, but that was not a high
enough ratio for us, even though, unlike some Israelis, we don't ascribe
to ourselves a biblical imprimatur. So we let them have their land, and
the domino calamities that had been famously predicted did not result.

To equate our own revolution with anybody else's is quite offensive to
us. Mostly, in fact, we prefer to forget that we had a revolutionary
past and kicked thousands of wealthy Tories into Canada, seizing their
property. We were slow to condemn apartheid in South Africa, having
scarcely finished abolishing our own at the time, and have been slow in
general to support self-governance in the warmer climates or to
acknowledge suffering among people whose skins are beiger than ours. And
if our income per capita is sixty or eighty times theirs, that doesn't
strike us as strange. We are a bootstrap country, after all. They should
pay us heed. And the whole United Nations is "a cesspool," according to
a recent New York City mayor.

But primitive notions like those of Ed Koch invite a primitive response.
And box-cutters in the hands of Taliban fundamentalists are not our main
problem. We have gratuitously destroyed so much of nature that the
Taliban's smashing up of Buddhist statues, as comparative vandalism,
will someday seem quite minuscule. We have also denatured our own
nominal religions: that is, taken the bite of authenticity out of
Christianity, for instance. Our real problem, I think, is a centrifugal
disorientation and disbelief. There is a cost to cynicism (as in our
previous activities in Afghanistan), and the systematic demonizing of
communitarianism during the cold war made it harder afterward for us to
reject as perverse the double-talking profiteering implicit in phenomena
like Enron, when we had thought that anything was better than collective
regulation and planning.

But ceasing to believe in revolutionary democracy--whether of the
secular or Christian (or Emersonian) variety--has proven costly. A
decent regard for the welfare of other people, in international as well
as local life, is going to be more than just a matter of private virtue.
In a shrinking world it may be a survival tool. Fanaticism doesn't carry
as far unless catastrophic economic conditions lurk in the background,
as we learned in the case of Germany between the two world wars but
then, when non-Caucasians were involved, forgot. Our foreign aid budget,
once the cold war ended, collapsed into spectacular stinginess, and our
sole response to September 11 has been police work. This can probably
erase Al Qaeda--which became after its instant victory that one morning
quite superfluous anyway--but not the knowledge of our vulnerability to
any handful of smart and angry plotters in this technological age. We
might see an explosion of those.

Our national self-absorption (in which the focus seems more on trying to
stay young than helping the young) may give capitalism a bad name.
Simple hedonism and materialism was not the point of crossing the ocean.
Our revolution was better than that. It was to paint the world anew.

The attacks hardened the resolve of immigrant bashers and anti-Semites.

Inside an old courthouse in the dusty tropical town of Dili, an
exhibition documents the history of East Timor's resistance to
Indonesian occupation. Next to a grainy black-and-white photo of a
youthful man in a beard, a large inscription reads, "Our victory is
merely a question of time."

They were the words of Nicolau Lobato, East Timor's leader in the first
terrible years of war against the Indonesian invasion of December 7,
1975. Ill equipped and abandoned by all, including their Portuguese
colonial masters, the Timorese nevertheless held their ground, creating
large losses on both sides. That is, until May 1978, when Jakarta made a
successful plea to the Carter Administration for a squadron of attack
bombers and more parts and ammunition for its counterinsurgency
aircraft. Britain, under a Labour government, similarly authorized a
request for sixteen Hawk ground-attack aircraft. Used to bomb and napalm
the Timorese into submission, the escalation left 200,000 dead from war
and famine, including Lobato and most of his fellow leaders.

But in the end, Lobato was right. This May, East Timor became the
world's newest nation, the first country born in the twenty-first
century. Lobato could not have foreseen the twenty-four years of
despair, massacre, torture and disappearances that would follow the
Indonesian invasion. Or the betrayal of friends, the connivance of
wealthy nations and the paralysis of well-meaning institutions like the
United Nations. His faith in a righteous outcome is common among
Timorese: They believe that in the end, justice prevails. You just have
to give it time.

And time is something the Timorese now have: time to build a society in
their image, time to argue the minutiae of democracy, something they do
with delight--sixteen parties contested elections last year, and 91
percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. It's hard to walk the streets
of Dili and not be affected by this euphoria for openness, for
democracy, for freedom. It's everywhere: in the light of a newly
graduating teacher's eyes, the laughter of an expectant mother. And
while people are clearly poor (according to the World Bank, East Timor
is Asia's poorest country and the world's twentieth poorest), the
capital of this half-island territory, on the southeastern fringe of the
Indonesian archipelago, seems today alive with possibilities.

The danger is that this enthusiasm will be dashed against the rocks of
reality once the Timorese see how slowly grind the wheels of
development. This nation of 760,000 has a mortality rate for children
under 5 of 200 per 1,000, while malaria, tuberculosis and dengue are
endemic. More than half of the 2,400 villages have no wells or piped
water, and only one in four schools can fully accommodate students or
even functions at all. "We must have patience," says Paulo da Costa
Amaral, a onetime guerrilla fighter now running a Timorese charity in
the country's impoverished highlands. "Independence is the beginning....
there are many steps for us to climb."

Amaral is doing his share. With the help of the Australian aid
organization Austcare, his Halarae Foundation is training scores of
highland Timorese as teachers, offering microcredit to village
cooperatives and helping establish community gardens where crops can be
grown for both self-sufficiency and supplementary income. On a visit to
the impoverished but immaculately kept mountain village of Belola, near
the border with Indonesia, he is received with great ceremony, and a
village meeting is called in his honor. After daintily dressed children
complete a welcome dance, and after formalities are exchanged, people in
their Sunday best wait for a turn to speak. He hears old men lamenting
the village's lack of potable water and young women requesting sewing
machines so they can set up a garment cooperative.

A grizzled old man asks for help to rebuild the school--destroyed by
Indonesian-backed militias in the mayhem following the UN-supervised
independence referendum in 1999--and receives popular acclamation. The
village's 189 children are attending school in nearby Balibo, but they
have to walk for hours in the hot sun or in the pouring rain to get
there, dodging the perilously overloaded trucks that rumble up and down
the narrow mountain roads.

Amaral nods in understanding. He speaks eloquently of the promise of the
future and the difficulty of the present. Patience, he urges; we will do
what we can. Later, as we talk on the journey back in the foundation's
only vehicle, he shakes his head. Rebuilding a school is not the only
problem; the fledgling government would also need to commit funds for
teachers, books and other materials. There are many such villages in
East Timor, not all of them within walking distance of a school.

History has not been kind to the Timorese. After a bloodless coup in
Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began to decolonize and political parties met
openly in East Timor. But soon, tensions between largely well-off
Timorese and firebrand students who had returned from exile erupted into
open conflict. Now known to have been fomented by Indonesian military
intelligence, a civil war broke out and thousands died over a three-week
period. Portugal withdrew, and the victors--the leftist Fretilin
party--governed temporarily, while calling for Lisbon to reassert
control and complete decolonization. But Portugal appeared unwilling,
and into this vacuum stepped Indonesia. Sensing an invasion, Fretilin
declared independence on November 28, 1975. Two days later, leaders of
the defeated Timorese factions requested Indonesian intervention. The
Democratic Republic of East Timor existed for all of nine days before a
large-scale Indonesian invasion began, killing thousands and driving
hundreds of thousands into the mountains.

Luckily for the Timorese, the UN had never accepted Indonesia's
annexation of their country, a fact that was to prove crucial when, in
1997, the Asian financial crisis brought Jakarta to its knees. President
Suharto--who had ordered Indonesia's invasion--was toppled, and his
successor, in desperate need of economic aid, yielded to pressure for a
UN referendum on East Timor's future. And so it was that on August 30,
1999, 78.5 percent of the Timorese voted for independence, despite a
violent campaign of intimidation. So humiliated were the Indonesian
military and its proxy militias by the result that, over three weeks,
they laid waste to most of East Timor, destroying 80 percent of
buildings and butchering thousands of unarmed civilians. In the end,
this televised bloodbath prompted the world to act: An Australian-led
multinational force landed on September 20 and put an end to the
violence.

The territory was then ruled by the United Nations Transitional
Administration in East Timor, the first time in history the
international body has actually run a country. Led by Brazilian career
diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, it was both welcomed and cursed by the
Timorese. Welcomed for bringing peace and stability to a people who had
known little of it; for restoring burned-out homes and buildings,
repairing badly damaged infrastructure and reopening hundreds of
schools. For creating an impartial police force (a third of whom are
women), an independent justice system, for training 11,000 civil
servants (less than half the size of the bloated local administration
under Indonesian rule) and for establishing a modest but well-trained
defense force that has--along with a token contingent of international
troops--created a sense of security among a people who still recall the
unpredictable brutality of the Indonesian military and its militias.

But it's also been cursed for its mind-numbing bureaucracy, which sees
so many initiatives repeatedly delayed or never completed. For the
incongruence of air-conditioned Range Rovers roaring past dirt-poor
households, or senior officials on fat pay-packets bickering loudly with
Timorese waitresses about their restaurant bills. Or the sight of a
young UN worker thundering down the streets on an imported
Harley-Davidson motorbike, earning in one year more than a Timorese
family might hope to see in a lifetime. "There have been many, many lost
opportunities," admitted one senior French-speaking UN official who was
heading home. "The waste has been phenomenal, the bureaucracy is at
times unbelievable. There's so much more we could have done. But I have
to keep telling myself, there's so much we've achieved, too. You've got
to understand, the UN has never done this before."

For the Timorese, it will be a challenge to run their own affairs: Many
basic skills are lacking, and their only role models are a lackadaisical
Portuguese administration, a corrupt and bloated Indonesian bureaucracy,
followed by a process-obsessed and expensive UN technocracy. "We've
certainly seen how not to do it," joked one young Timorese official in
the new government. Luckily, many of the estimated 20,000 Timorese in
the diaspora for a quarter of a century--largely in Australia and
Portugal--have returned, bringing not only Western degrees but Western
sensibilities. This not only means a taste for cafe latte and cable
television but expectations of impartial justice, an intolerance of
corruption and an understanding of individual rights and responsible
governance.

Exiles are certainly well represented in the power structure: Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri was a high-ranking Fretilin official who escaped
to Mozambique, where Justice Minister Ana Pessoa Pinto--an exiled law
student--became a judge. Agriculture Minister Estanislau da Silva was a
research agronomist in Australia, and Foreign Minister José Ramos
Horta--a Nobel laureate and for many years East Timor's resistance
spokesman abroad--taught international relations in Sydney.

Time has also mellowed the leftist fervor of Fretilin (Revolutionary
Front of an Independent East Timor), which emerged from a UN-supervised
election last year with fifty-five of the eighty-eight seats in the new
Parliament. Despite Fretilin's dominance, Alkatiri has formed a cabinet
with members from minor parties as well as independents. And the onetime
radical is now often seen networking with potential investors or
officials of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Seventies-era talk of nationalization is gone. The US dollar is the
national currency, and revenue from the new offshore oil and gas fields
in the Timor Gap will (for the first few years) be banked rather than
spent, and the government plans to run deficit-free budgets.

But it would be a mistake to see East Timor as a client state of
neoliberal think tanks: In the first years of independence, education
and healthcare will consume 48 percent of spending. Thanks to a cleverly
negotiated aid program that is top-heavy at the start (until the big
offshore oil revenues kick in), East Timor will begin life
debt-free--something few nations can claim. It's as if the government is
determined to leverage its oil and gas windfall--estimated at $6 billion
over twenty years--to create a self-sustaining economy.

What is remarkable is how priorities were set. The government's National
Development Plan is a laudable manifesto stretching twenty years, aimed
at lifting the nation out of poverty and creating a sustainable economy
based on crops like organic coffee and services like ecotourism. It was
drafted after consultations involving 40,000 people in more than 500
towns and villages across the country. Asked to name the top priorities,
respondents listed education (70 percent), health (49 percent) and
agriculture (32 percent) as the top three, followed by the economy,
roads, poverty, water and electricity.

Launching the plan, former resistance leader Xanana
Gusmão--elected the country's first president in April--said that
no other nation "has had the wisdom or faith in its people to ask these
questions. No other nation has consulted the people so widely and so
systematically. This is something unique that we all, as Timorese,
should be proud of." Alkatiri called it "a common vision for development
and the eradication of poverty."

Not all is rosy: Political leaders worry about Fretilin's dominance in
Parliament, accusing it of bulldozing initiatives and paying lip service
to democracy. The World Bank, while supportive of the National
Development Plan, is critical of the lack of a timetable. Activists
criticize the new government's unwillingness to push for the prosecution
of Indonesian military officers guilty of atrocities in East Timor
during the mayhem of 1999. But both Gusmão and Alkatiri prefer to
focus on rebuilding bridges with Jakarta and its new president, Megawati
Sukarnoputri. They even convinced her to attend the independence
celebrations, despite the fact that wounds over the loss of East Timor
have yet to heal.

All in all, it is easy for visiting Westerners to find fault. One
foreign journalist criticized the new nation for bankrolling its $1.3
million independence celebrations with corporate donations. Others saw
it as a master stroke; instead of diverting much-needed money from
health or education, the government chose to lean on corporations and
wealthy nations keen for good relations. It seems East Timor really is a
twenty-first-century nation.

In reiterating his vision for the Middle East--two states living side by
side in peace and security--George W. Bush failed to lay out a viable
path for reaching this essential goal. Israeli commentators agreed that
Bush's long-delayed speech, in which his support for a provisional
Palestinian state was so hedged as to be nearly meaningless, could have
been written by Ariel Sharon. David Landau wrote in Ha'aretz:
"Yasser Arafat, the seemingly immortal leader of the Palestinian
national movement, was politically assassinated" by the US President.
Thus, Bush brushed aside a democratically elected leader while calling
for more democracy, simplistically made Arafat the problem and his
removal the condition for a solution, and opened a rift with US allies.

The plan--favored by the pro-Sharon hard-liners in the Administration,
led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld--is a victory for political
expediency, but it does nothing to disempower the extremists on both
sides. To have any chance of damping down terrorist violence, Washington
had to offer the Palestinian people some hope of statehood, of control
over their collective future. But Bush failed to call for an immediate
withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and gave Sharon a green
light for reoccupation, thereby endorsing the continuation of a failed
policy. For Israel's military incursions do not stop, and indeed foment,
suicide bombers' atrocities, as Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin
Ben-Eliezer pointed out. And if, as seems likely, the latest operation
also fails, it will breed more violence and drain not only the
devastated Palestinian economy but Israel's--itself nearing collapse.

While Bush was right to call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces to
pre-intifada lines and for a halt in settlement building, he left those
actions to be accomplished in some vague middle distance after violence
is ended--meaning whenever Israel decides to de-occupy. For the long
term, Bush urged an end to the cruel occupation and the creation of a
democratic Palestinian state. But the vision he offered is so
conditioned, set so far in the future and so vulnerable to American and
Israeli interpretations that it offers little incentive for moderate
Palestinians--such as the more than fifty intellectuals who recently
called for a halt to suicide bombings--to risk their lives trying to
curb the radical elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Arafat's leadership has been corrupt and autocratic; democratic reforms
in the Palestinian Authority are needed. But what hope can those
Palestinians committed to reform have when Israeli tanks are rumbling in
their streets, their institutions and infrastructure are shattered,
their compatriots under house arrest?

Bush did not even mention the international conference the Saudis and
other nations requested to spur final-status talks. He said nothing
about how the international community is to be mobilized to help the
Palestinians achieve reforms. If he had made the bold gesture history
demanded of him, he would have set a clear timeline for Palestinian
statehood and called for an end to the Israeli invasion, dismantling of
settlements, insertion of international forces and a firm US and
international financial commitment to Palestinian nation-building and
reform, including efforts to insure that the elections now set for
January are free and fair. Instead, he temporized, and so, more Israelis
and Palestinians will die.

Fighting terrorism requires new thinking but not a US imperial role.

The new defense doctrine calls for meeting any threat, anywhere, at any
time.

The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of
the past century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of
international pressure--in particular the divestment movement of the
1980s. Over the past six months a similar movement has taken shape, this
time aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation.

Divestment from apartheid South Africa was fought by ordinary people at
the grassroots. Faith-based leaders informed their followers, union
members pressured their companies' stockholders and consumers questioned
their store owners. Students played an especially important role by
compelling universities to change their portfolios. Eventually,
institutions pulled the financial plug, and the South African government
thought twice about its policies.

Similar moral and financial pressures on Israel are being mustered one
person at a time. Students on more than forty US campuses are demanding
a review of university investments in Israeli companies as well as in
firms doing major business in Israel. From Berkeley to Ann Arbor, city
councils have debated municipal divestment measures.

These tactics are not the only parallels to the struggle against
apartheid. Yesterday's South African township dwellers can tell you
about today's life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in
his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier.
More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime
earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their
squalor to work in Israel's cities, but their luck runs out when
security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The
indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.

Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we
went through. Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of the
antiapartheid struggle, recently published a letter titled "Not in My
Name." Signed by several hundred other prominent Jewish South Africans,
the letter drew an explicit analogy between apartheid and current
Israeli policies. Mark Mathabane and Nelson Mandela have also pointed
out the relevance of the South African experience.

To criticize the occupation is not to overlook Israel's unique
strengths, just as protesting the Vietnam War did not imply ignoring the
distinct freedoms and humanitarian accomplishments of the United States.
In a region where repressive governments and unjust policies are the
norm, Israel is certainly more democratic than its neighbors. This does
not make dismantling the settlements any less a priority. Divestment
from apartheid South Africa was certainly no less justified because
there was repression elsewhere on the African continent. Aggression is
no more palatable in the hands of a democratic power. Territorial
ambition is equally illegal whether it occurs in slow motion, as with
the Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, or in blitzkrieg
fashion, as with the Iraqi tanks in Kuwait. The United States has a
distinct responsibility to intervene in atrocities committed by its
client states, and since Israel is the single largest recipient of US
arms and foreign aid, an end to the occupation should be a top concern
of all Americans.

Almost instinctively, the Jewish people have always been on the side of
the voiceless. In their history, there is painful memory of massive
roundups, house demolitions and collective punishment. In their
scripture, there is acute empathy for the disfranchised. The occupation
represents a dangerous and selective amnesia of the persecution from
which these traditions were born.

Not everyone has forgotten, including some within the military. The
growing Israeli refusenik movement evokes the small anticonscription
drive that helped turn the tide in apartheid South Africa. Several
hundred decorated Israeli officers have refused to perform military
service in the occupied territories. Those not already in prison have
taken their message on the road to US synagogues and campuses, rightly
arguing that Israel needs security, but that it will never have it as an
occupying power. More than thirty-five new settlements have been
constructed in the past year. Each one is a step away from the safety
deserved by the Israelis, and two steps away from the justice owed to
the Palestinians.

If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and
international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current
divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary
move in that direction.

So far this year, US diplomats have secured the removal of Mary
Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights; José Bustani, head
of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and Robert
Watson, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They were
ousted because they weren't doing what Washington told them to do.

In the line of fire now are UNRWA, the agency that for more than fifty
years has fed and educated Palestinian refugees, and its head, Peter
Hansen; and Secretary General Kofi Annan, once lauded by US Jewish
organizations for opening doors for Israel. Both cases are egregious
examples of blaming the victim.

At the time of Israel's takeover of Jenin, Hansen condemned the refusal
of the Israel Defense Forces to allow ambulances and relief workers into
the camp. He also protested the Israeli use of UNRWA schools as military
posts and interrogation centers and the destruction of the agency's
clinics. Around the same time, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres invited
Kofi Annan to send in investigators. This suggestion was
enthusiastically moved in the Security Council by US ambassador John
Negroponte. Israel promptly announced that it would not accept Robinson,
Hansen and UN Special Representative for the peace process Terje Roed
Larsen as investigators. Then it made it clear that it would not
cooperate with anyone sent by the Secretary General.

By then, Annan himself was under fire. Within a month of becoming
president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, Mort Zuckerman was assailing him and Hansen and declaring
that "UNRWA is the godfather to all terrorist training schools, notably
in Jenin." AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, joined in with a press release
headed "Camps of Terror," alleging that "as the sole agency mandated to
manage the Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA has effectively turned a
blind eye toward terror activities within the camps.... Inside the
camps, where 99 percent of UNRWA's staff is comprised of locally
recruited Palestinian refugees, food storage facilities and warehouses
have become depots for ammunition and explosives to be used in terror
attacks against Israelis."

That led to a joint call by Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House
International Relations Committee, and Tom DeLay, the GOP whip, for
Congressional hearings on UNRWA, with a suggestion of ending US funding,
which pays for a third of UNRWA operations. Jumping on the bandwagon,
Republican Eric Cantor of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism
repeated the allegations.

Hansen has pointed out that the agency's sole responsibility is
education, health and feeding the refugees: It has never administered
the camps or maintained any police force. He added that from 1967 on,
"We have not received from the Government of Israel any complaint
related to the misuse of any of our installations in the West Bank and
Gaza Strip.... Since October 2000 to-date, and even though hundreds of
UNRWA staff have been detained and subsequently released, the Israeli
authorities have never provided any information or lodged any complaint
with UNRWA concerning the official or private activities of any UNRWA
staff member."

There is a very real fear that Lantos & Co. will soon demand
Hansen's head as the price for continued UNRWA funding. He was recently
reappointed to another term, but so was Bustani just before he got the
boot. Also in his first year of a second term is Kofi Annan, who is
about to produce a report on Jenin mandated by the General Assembly.
Even Israeli government lawyers admit that the IDF breached
international humanitarian law in Jenin, which was why Israel changed
its mind about allowing the inquiry. People close to the Secretary
General are beginning to worry that he will come under increasing attack
in the same spirit of vilifying the messenger, and that the Likud-tinged
alliance with the Christian and conservative right will revive the old
attacks on the UN.

So far, the State Department has been defending UNRWA on Capitol Hill,
and Colin Powell has a close rapport with Annan. But it remains to be
seen how long this outpost of lucidity can hold against the faith-based
foreign policy follies of the rest of the Administration and many
members of Congress.

On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times
ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
of resonance.

History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.

In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."

Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.

Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review
and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms
he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.

Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms
he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.

Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.

Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."

Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
imperialism."

Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.

To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.

Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.

Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?

Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.

Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.

Blogs

Walmart, Dickies, Disney, Sean John Apparel, Sears: Two years after the Tazreen factory fire, these companies and others have still not compensated the victims who died making their clothes.

November 26, 2014

When it comes to Ukraine, it’s time for the hawks to stand down.

November 25, 2014

Rand Paul and Barbara Lee are right: “The Constitution requires Congress to vote on the use of military force.”

November 24, 2014

The United States is rapidly shifting toward a more aggressive foreign policy with limited public debate.

November 24, 2014

Instead of encouraging Cuban doctors to defect, the United States should be working with them to stop the spread of Ebola.

November 21, 2014

With forty-three disappeared student teachers presumed dead, Mexican popular resistance is creating new alternatives to the militarized narco-state.

November 20, 2014

Transparency and civil liberties advocates are calling on outgoing Senator Mark Udall to use his privileges as a senator to release the contents of the CIA “torture report” into the Congressional Record.

November 20, 2014

Can global solidarity between fast-food workers help raise the bar for all of them?

November 19, 2014

Religious tensions, remnants of the police state and a broken-down neoliberal economic model imperil Tunisia’s otherwise impressive democratic transition.

November 17, 2014

Mass graves are being found everywhere in Mexico, but none of them contain the missing forty-three student-activists. 

November 17, 2014