04 October 2004
Just before the party conference, the irrepressibly New Labour Peter Hain breezily dismissed Iraq as a "fringe issue". Not a clever remark when the nation was gripped by the Kenneth Bigley crisis. He was forced to reverse out of the controversy (for he does have a reverse gear) but after a couple of days in Brighton, it was obvious to me that Mr Hain had mouthed a truth, a rare thing in this spinning party.
The automatons in the hall clapped as instructed, evoking the well-ordered Soviet Union. They looked ecstatic that their leader was once more deceiving them on Iraq and the state of the world with absolute conviction, his USP. A minority dissented - in particular at the Tribune rally where both Mr Hain and I were speaking. They wanted a hearty debate on the immorality of the military action and the occupation but were easily sidelined. The other delegates, ministers and special advisors I met were most satisfied that the planet was a safer place since the war and, with the job almost complete, they were ready to wave the issue away. It was passé.
Well, I am certainly not living on that planet, and nor are millions of others who watched this pantomime with a mixture of rage and incomprehension. It was offensive smugness at a time when Mr Bigley was begging for his life, other hostages were disappearing and reappearing headless, our bombs were ripping open ordinary Iraqis, and parts of Samarra, Fallujah and Sadr City were being pulverised.
In the middle of the New Labour revels came remarks which should have forced people into sobriety. But it didn't happen. The party went on as the serious warnings came from the delegation of British Muslims in Baghdad seeking Mr Bigley's release. One of them, Dr Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the indiscriminate bombing of Iraqi civilians is "causing a lot of discontent among the people. They think they are innocent victims, like Ken Bigley."
Few politicians and commentators appear to comprehend the profound shift that is taking place in the too-long solipsistic Muslim leadership across the West, and elsewhere too. Beslan, endless kidnappings in Iraq and the barbaric decapitation of aid workers and other civilians have forced these leaders into a new activism. In France, since the kidnapping of two journalists in Iraq, Muslims of influence have pushed their people to embrace French nationhood even though there are serious conflicts between them and their state.
Here, the Muslim Association of Britain has issued straight statements condemning the inhumane hostage-taking by Muslims worldwide. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddique of the Muslim Parliament has, in my view, emerged as the most radical and informed Muslim scholar to confront the ignorance and malevolence within modern Islam. And the delegation in Iraq was yet more evidence of this striking and important development. This could mean real progress, a decisive step to lead us out of global chaos.
But only if there is reciprocity. Muslims have put their lives and reputations on the line to save Mr Bigley and others. The allies hold thousands of Muslims in illegal incarceration; they are tortured and killed too. The uncensored letter from Moazzam Begg in Guantanamo Bay tells us about the duress and inhumanity, the alleged deaths during interrogations of two inmates in that hellish concentration camp. Mr Bigley has been dressed in the costume of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. His ruthless captors know that this will play well with furious young Muslims because it reminds them of the iniquitous double-standards the West has imposed on the world since September 2001.
Where are the "official" Christian delegations to protect Muslim victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay? Why do our baying newspapers not call for these faith communities to condemn the savagery perpetrated by the allies?
How they poison possibilities, these hypocrisies. Decent citizens of the world are being asked to sign up to values which are abhorrent, absolutely unacceptable. In his debate with John Kerry, George Bush talked of "the enemy" that attacked America and that is now in Iraq. The enemy for him is an amorphous mass of any Muslims who refuse his version or vision.
To be on side with Bush and Blair, it seems we must agree that Western lives, particularly white lives, matter vastly more than others. That all those who are resisting the occupation are the children of Satan, "insurgents", "extremists", "terrorists" and "foreigners" who hate the idea of democracy. (Psst: we are foreigners too in Iraq.)
Sami Ramadani, the respected UK academic, an exile from Saddam's regime, rejects this as propaganda by the allies who pretend that the thousands of attacks on them every month come from a few sodding troublemakers who hate progressive government. There is a real, popular resistance going on by Iraqi people who simply want their country back.
That makes absolute sense. We have destroyed so much since we went in and before that too with the sanctions which killed. Fallujah has been under siege for months; countless women and children are dying there and elsewhere but the news is of little interest if they die as a result of our weapons.
Zeinab is a bright little Iraqi girl from Basra whose family was murdered by our bombs which took one of her legs too. I had her come over to play with my daughter. How she hates our soldiers. Hundreds of such children, orphaned and limbless, are seen on the streets according to her Iraqi doctor who came with her.
With all this going on, some commentators still insist that nothing our side does is worse than what Saddam Hussein did to his people. That is how low this debate has sunk. We compare ourselves favourably with the butcher dictator - that is our standard now. In truth, even that base comparison is now no longer sustainable.
Read the book Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker journalist. He describes, powerfully, the rape and torture used to break people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We in the West are protected from gazing at these facts - we have such delicate natures. But Iraqis and others know them well enough and now believe exaggerated stories because they cannot trust what they are told by official sources.
Guantanamo Bay has only made it worse. Those who went in as innocents must now be terrorists after such treatment and complete lack of due process.
These are the realities of this war against terror. And they are known worldwide. While researching his latest book on British Muslims (The Infidel Within), the historian Humayun Ansari discovered the extraordinary speed and spread of "cyber-Islam". These connected-up Muslims are questioning Islam itself as well as the ploys and games of the West. They understand the need to reform but call upon the powerful nations to reform themselves too.
That is the deal. It is the only one which can start a process of new international co-operation. Thoughtful Muslims have made their move. Your turn, Mr Blair.
The writer's collection of articles 'Some of My Best Friends Are ...' is published this month by Methuen