One warm Sunday afternoon a few years back, I went with my scout group on a march against the Iraq war shortly after our weekly meeting. Dressed in our scout uniforms, we joined hundreds of protesters waving banners and flags, blowing whistles, and chanting anti-war slogans to the beat of drums. While enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere, I watched a photographer scouring the crowd with a large camera in his hand. Walking past one row of protesters after another, he suddenly stopped near us and aimed his lens. His target, mind you, was not the uniformed scouts with their sweet, colourful homemade placards, but two figures nearby, swathed in black from head to toe, with only their eyes showing, their foreheads covered with headbands which read “jihad now”.
On the eve of a visit to Russia, the repentant socialist French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, delivered a fiery statement warning Iran that war was at its doorstep.
The official word in Washington and London is that military attack on Iran is “not inevitable”. “We are not preparing to invade Iran,” Tony Snow, Bush’s press secretary, said. “I cannot understand why some people act as if they are blowing on the embers when there is no fire,” his deputy Dana Perino added.
When you hear the news of Tony Blair’s possible appointment as the Quartet’s peace envoy to the Middle East, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. His selection for the job takes American policy in the Middle East to new heights of absurdity. The proposal we all know was put forward and pushed neither by Russia, nor the EU, but by the US as a reward for years of good service. But the decision is lunacy itself. The guiding question could only have been: who is the most profoundly resented and bitterly hated man in the Middle East? Bar Bush, the honour could only have gone to Blair.
It seems that al-Qaida’s dream is on its way to turning into reality. At last it has found a foothold on the Palestinian scene. Witness the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza by the al-Qaida affiliated Jaish al-Islam 100 days ago yesterday, and the heated battles in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida sympathisers Fatah al-Islam over the past month. And with Gaza and the West Bank sliding further into anarchy, with Hamas and Fatah turning on each other after a year of crushing siege, this new presence can only grow stronger.
So, back to the classifications and alliance building game it is. Now, though, the war cry is not the Iraqi, but the Iranian threat. Four years ago, as they prepared for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Americans and their allies across the Atlantic filled the air with talk of Shia persecution by Sunni and the need for their deliverance from the wicked Sunni Ba’ath regime. As the Iranian nuclear project climbed to the top of the Bush administration’s agenda, a new set of terms and concepts had to be manufactured. Out went slogans of democratisation, reform and good governance and in came the fearful “Shia Crescent” blooming from the shores of the Mediterranean to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, only to be confronted by the benevolent forces of Sunni moderation. With it came Condoleezza Rice and her diplomatic envoys, this time gracing the Middle East with their visits to ensure good co-operation with “moderate states” and their secret services.
If I got a penny for every time I was told that religion is the cause of all trouble, I’d be a rich woman by now. If only we had John Lennon’s religionless world, there would be no war, or conflict and everyone would love their neighbour. If only the theologians, clergymen, mullahs and priests could get on, the world’s problems would be resolved at a stroke.
I have never been a pessimist. But despair is what I feel as I sit through the scenes of random killing, gratuitous bloodshed, piled-up bodies in street corners and comprehensive chaos through Iraq’s towns and villages.
What do I think of the New Generation Network manifesto published on Cif? It is intellectually flawed and politically unproductive.
I had intended to continue on the subject of the dangers of certain forms of secularism this week, particularly since it generated a stream of comments, some of which appeared to miss the point of the article entirely. But as I sit at my desk my thoughts seem occupied with a different topic altogether.