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Going Green fter the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts
By John R Bradley (Palgrave Macmillan 247pp £10.99)
The events that optimists dubbed the Arab Spring signify the end for the secular military elites which displaced Ottoman and European colonial rule in the wake of the two World Wars. Although these revolutions have a long way to run, just as they did in France, Russia and Iran, one thing is clear: the human rights campaigners, feminists and liberals whose winning spokespersons captured the Western media’s imagination last year have already been brushed aside by highly motivated and organised political Islamists. Unlike the liberals, the Islamists had a ready-made nexus based on mosques, clinics, charitable foundations and religious schools. Despite having no cogent policies to solve such long-term regional problems as youth unemployment, over-dependence on oil, gas and tourism, and the looming water shortage, large numbers of people apparently find their petty-minded, moralising interventions in the lives of others compelling.
It is fair to say that the journalist and writer John R Bradley is not among the optimists. Bradley speaks Egyptian Arabic, knows the region well, and writes in a robust and punchy style. He palpably appreciates the tolerant, hedonistic atmosphere of Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba and his ill-fated successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He is more critical of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, though in his analysis of the country he misses the essential point that most Egyptians (including the soldiers) finally baulked at the establishment of a dynasty in the shape of the planned succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal. The motors of the revolutions in both countries were corruption, injustice and nepotism.
Bradley’s book not only covers the Arab Spring, but also takes a lengthy detour tracing radical Islam in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand are also ‘going green’ thanks to the combination of external funding from the oil-rich Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the desire of local ‘straggly bearded crackpots’ to lord it over other men and women. Much of what is happening there reflects ‘Arabisation’, meaning the adoption of ancient Bedouin dress and mores, rather than ‘Islamisation’.
Bradley gets the essential narrative of political Islamism:
If things do not work out as they promise, they have a get-out clause: The people have not yet embraced Islam with the requisite fervor … The Islamists are ready to prey on society’s victims and disadvantaged by intimidation and promises of rewards in the afterlife. To be sure, burning brothels or vandalizing synagogues will not balance the budget, but it will continue to help release frustration. One of his comments about Saudi Arabia also has wider applicability: ‘Fundamentalism only ever deepens public hypocrisy, not public morality.’
Yet the revolutions are not just about public morality, but political power, and the shape of the Middle East in the future. The Islamists are very patient: in the case of Egypt, they have waited eighty years to get within sniffing distance of power, rejecting the bullet in favour of the ballot box in the process. They will not challenge the military junta that currently rules Egypt following the token sacrifice of Mubarak, because that government will accrue the blame for actually ruining the country while they stealthily progress their cultural tyranny from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Islamist spokesmen talk admiringly of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. The reality is otherwise. The world chuckled when Egypt’s Salafists announced they wanted to cover the pagan Pyramids; but it failed to notice that on the same day this was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood began a campaign against bikinis on beaches.
On the strategic level, Bradley notes the rival regional machinations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are openly backing f o r e i g n p a r t s the opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whom they wish to arm; Iran is supporting the Shia opposition in Bahrain. The Iranians, and their client Hassan Nasrullah of Hizbollah, back Bashar; the Saudis have loaned troops to Bahrain to smother Iran’s clients. In both countries, disaffected minorities occupy the areas that produce most of the oil: Shias in eastern Saudi Arabia and ethnic Arabs in western Iran’s Khuzestan. Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to clash over the fate of their respective client enclaves within a disintegrating Syria. The loss of Syria to these forces of chaos may embolden Hizbollah to essay a more overt compensatory takeover of Lebanon.
The final pages of this otherwise fine book degenerate into a rant against banker- and rioter-plagued Western democracies, which, Bradley correctly maintains, have no moral authority to dictate to Arabs how their societies should be organised after the disastrous intervention in Iraq. How dare a country that underwent the parliamentary expenses scandal, in which Russian oligarchs hire ten-a-penny peers, and in which drunken brawls erupt in the Strangers’ Bar, lecture the rest of the world about governmental probity?
As an admirer of Ron Paul, Bradley deplores the strange axis of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, alliances that Obama has done nothing to broaden. His government still pays out the $1.4 billion that keeps the generals happy in their plush quarters in Cairo’s Heliopolis, primarily so they will maintain the Cold Peace with Israel. Pretending that the Muslim Brotherhood are not what they are, or desperately cutting the deck in search of so-called Islamist ‘moderates’, is not a serious policy. While Saudi Wahhabis may be responsible for most of the anti-Semitic poison throughout the Islamic world, Israel is banking on Riyadh turning off its radars when Israeli fighter-bombers head for Natanz and Qom. Bradley believes that if the US simply withdrew from the entire region, its problems would largely disappear, since without the spectre of the Great Satan, the Arabs would be forced to take a hard look at their own backward selves. Who knows, they might decide that mildly autocratic monarchies, such as Jordan or Morocco, would be the best political outcome. But who seriously thinks that Jordan would survive in an increasingly green-tinted region, especially if some sort of Palestinian state finds that expansion eastwards is the only way to go? Would the dozens of other active or simmering conflicts in the Middle East simply go away too? In that regard, Bradley is not pessimistic enough. To order this book for £8.79, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9
Having something of a yen for the place after working on Sino-Soviet affairs in Cold War days, and been banned from travelling when I was at the British Mission in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, I visited Xinjiang, China’s remote northwestern province, two years ago. As a VSO teacher of English Nick Holdstock spent an entire year there, not just in the capital city, Urumqi, but in the town of Yining, close to the frontier with Kazakhstan, and saw a lot more than me. His account is highly personal, and the better for it. He first went as a Mandarin speaker in 2001, having previously taught in south China, then returned in 2010. The dates are significant.
Tension between the Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese, centuries old, worsened in the 1930s when there was a move for Uighur independence, then again when Mao Zedong communised Xinjiang after 1949. More recently there have been sporadic outbreaks of revolt, notably in Yining in 1997, when martial law was declared. After 9/11, Chinese fears of al-Qaeda contamination – Xinjiang has frontiers with Pakistan and Afghanistan – resulted in new pressures on Muslims. And Holdstock’s reason for going back in 2010 was to review the situation after the vicious and bloody clashes in Urumqi in which hundreds were g e or g e wa l de n
One Big Unhappy Family The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge
By Nick Holdstock (Luath Press 358pp £12.99)
killed in the summer of 2009.
During his first stay he saw little evidence of the ‘one big family’ the Beijing government boasts about. Though the majority in Yining are Uighur (the province as a whole is approaching 50 per cent Han), 95 per cent of his students were Chinese, the official reason being that the Uighurs, educationally backward, had no interest in learning English. Holdstock brings out the startling degree of Han– Uighur resentment. Mutual loathing would not be too strong a term.
They literally can’t stand the sight of each other (for the Uighurs, the Han are ugly folk with no noses), or the smell: to the Chinese, the Uighur stink of sheep. Self-segregation was pretty much absolute: the only time he observed any kind of real socialising between them was over the bloody sport of cock-fighting.
All this despite the fact that in Yining, unlike parts of southern Xinjiang, the
Muslims (Sunni in the main) are far from fundamentalist: few women wear the veil and the men often drink and smoke. The Chinese see them as superstitious, dirty, degenerate, lazy and thievish druggies. To the extent that any of this is true – and drugs are a problem – Holdstock suggests that much of it is linked to high unemployment and institutionalised repression. While he was there the use of the Uighur language in further education was banned, the purpose (according to the government) being to widen employment opportunities. To Uighur eyes it is just another way to smother their culture. Though eroded by the relative openmindedness of the Han (in the town, brothels masquerading as hairdressers or beauty parlours are tolerated), sexual primness persists amongst the Uighurs, and chastity is still expected amongst unmarried women: discovering no blood on the sheet after his wedding night, one a p r i l 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 7