Autobiographies by politicians, diplomats and generals, by their nature, tend to be about what, why and how. What I did, what I said, how I made a difference, what I thought of other people, why I did what I did, why the world is what it is, and how I made it better. The how often tends to be circumscribed by the dictates of secrecy, so you often get the sense of much unsaid. For the latter, you have to wait for a biography, often written after the subject is dead, and after the curtain of secrecy has been lifted.
If the memoir is to sell, it needs to include stuff that is not common knowledge, stuff that provokes, inspires or amuses.
Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is one of the quirkiest example of the genre I have read for quite a while. On the surface it’s a story of hard-won success and ultimate failure. Sky, an Oxford-educated arabist who worked for the British Council – one of the pre-eminent instruments of the UK’s post-colonial soft power – in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, went to Iraq in 2003 to help build new Iraqi institutions in the wake of the defeat of Saddam Hussain. She ended up spending much of the subsequent seven years as the political advisor to General Ray Odierno, the commander of the US occupying forces.
In the book she describes from her perspective – that of a British woman working at the heart of the American command structure – the torturous progress towards creating an independent, democratic Iraq out of the post-war chaos.
She clearly kept good notes, because she tells the story in meticulous detail: the shifting alliances between the tribal, ethnic and religious factions, the Sunni insurgency, the Kurdish drive for autonomy, the Anbar Awakening, the US Surge strategy, and ultimately the slow descent into civil war.
Most of the reviews of The Unravelling focus on the fact that someone who opposed the war found herself working in the inner councils of the organisation that waged it and had to deal with the consequences: the US Army.
Emma Sky spoke to me in a different way. For a book to be memorable, it shouldn’t just be about what it said to you. It should also be about how you answer back. How does it change your perspective? What would you say to the writer if you met him or her?
I would probably say that what I found most interesting about her book was that for all the painstaking details of hardship, negotiation, hope and fears, the dominant themes were leadership, relationships and love.
What Sky understands about the Middle East, as I do through my experience in the region, is that personal relationships count for more than political positioning. That the ability to forge friendships can overcome seemingly insolvable deadlock. That friendships turn into love, not only of people but of the culture in which they live. And that love is the best guarantor of trust.
When she says on more than one occasion that the years she spent in Iraq were the time of her life, I can relate to that. The many years I spent in the region left an indelible impression on me. As I believe she would probably say, the love of a people and their culture isn’t an unconditional puppy-dog adoration. It accepts that aspects will always repel or offend, but it’s founded in admiration and respect for an accumulation of qualities that manifest themselves in personal relationships and behaviour.
Within the US military, her principal relationship was with Odierno, a big man in all respects, with whom she frequently disagreed and was not afraid to confront with her views. That, she says, was one of the reasons Odierno valued her – someone who would say what she thought, and had the confidence to tell him when he screwed up. But what did Odierno do for her? Above all, he and other senior generals with whom she worked, such as David Petraeus, made her feel valued.
You get the impression that Sky frequently pinches herself. How can it be I find myself in the company of ambassadors, generals and politicians – Bremer, Odierno, Petraeus, Blair, Biden and Obama? How is it that I managed to influence and change perceptions? And she answers those questions with stories that show how her sense of humour, her cheek and her determination made a difference.
The experience left her with a profound respect for the US military that you don’t often find outside the self-serving memoirs of the great and the good. Yet this is a person who came to Iraq with some strong and not very positive perceptions. Let’s face it, American military men don’t often get a good press, either in contemporary journalism or in the history books. For every revered soldier, a Grant, a Lee, a Sherman or a Bradley, there are bombastic egomaniacs like Patton, MacArthur and LeMay, and cautious, grey, politician-bureaucrats such as McClellan and Westmoreland. And fictional commanders in book and film perpetuate an image of gung-ho insensitivity verging on lunacy. George C Scott as Buck Turgidson in Dr Strangelove, for example, and Robert Duval’s Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.
Yet in The Unravelling you have Petraeus quoting Thucydides, mid-ranking officers showing great sensitivity and diplomacy, and the bull-like Odierno commanding respect and loyalty both by the force of his personality and by his communication skills. What’s more , she tells of ordinary soldiers who – in contrast to the popular image of the Americans in Iraq as blundering thugs who blasted their way into people’s homes and humiliated the prisoners of Abu Ghraib – took away a lasting respect and affection for their reluctant hosts:
It was not the time or place to explain the influence Iraq had had on the lives of so many American soldiers who served there. A few weeks earlier, I had been invited to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to help with the review of the counter-insurgency manual. “Should we not examine why we did not win?” I suggested. “Was it due to lack of overall strategy, or wrong tactics, or poor leadership?” But they were not ready to consider these questions. I noticed that a number of officers, after shaking my hand, crossed their hand over their heart, a mannerism they had picked up from the Iraqis. Several asked me if I had news about specific Iraqis they had grown close to. One young officer had taken me to his house to show me the family tree of the Zobai tribe, and had proceeded to talk about the different members as if they were his own relatives. Some acknowledged how much they missed the sense of purpose and mission they had felt in Iraq and guiltily confessed that nothing about life back in the US could match it. They had come to Iraq to transform it; and yet departed having themselves been permanently changed by the encounter.
I have met and worked with Americans across the spectrum from ugly to awe-inspiring. The best of them did for me what they did for Sky: inspired loyalty, made me feel valued and became long-standing friends. I prefer not to dwell upon the worst of them, except to say that every country has its lowlife. Though I have met many good people in the US who have never spent time out of their country except on holiday, those I admire the most are the ones whose experience and outlook has been tempered by prolonged exposure to other cultures, probably because that’s my story too.
The people who equally stand out in Sky’s book are the Iraqis – both exalted and lowly. I could be accused of making a sexist remark here, but The Unravelling is not a book that many men would feel comfortable writing, especially the sort of alpha males that like to churn out political autobiographies. It would be easy when writing a narrative of the events in Iraq since the invasion to focus only on the battles, the rivalries, the impasses and the negotiations.
It’s also easy to think of Iraqis as religious fanatics on both sides of the sectarian divide. As murderers, torturers and decapitators. ISIS, and the Shia militia who rival them in brutality, have caused many of us to de-humanise a whole people (just as some politicians and newspapers in the UK have dehumanised the migrants in Calais). But in every person she meets she manages to find humanity – hope, fear, joy and love as well as the hatred that dominates the headlines.
Perhaps her gender only partly explains why she was so adept in reading the emotions of the protagonists. Her position for most her time in Iraq as an influencer, an observer and a negotiator, often with a different perspective from that of the fighting men with whom she worked, must surely have helped her to pick up and respond to emotional cues that some of the task-oriented male decision makers might have missed.
This is not to say that men are incapable of emotional sensitivity, or that women are incapable of ruthless focus on objectives at the expense of empathy – think of Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, for example. And there are enough examples in her narrative of Emma Sky’s determination to suggest that she was not averse to using her inner bulldozer when required. Yet you are left with the impression that of all her skills, emotional intelligence was perhaps the most critical.
Of the author herself we learn much of her character from her stories: a subtle mind, an impish sense of humour, the courage to venture into dangerous places and situations, a belief in the rectitude of her mission, and a profound concern for the well-being of the country that consumed her energies for the best part of seven years. I get the feeling that there was much more to her personal story than she was prepared to disclose in a book, which is hardly surprising. But there’s enough to suggest that she was on a journey unlike anything she experienced before or after.
If I needed convincing about her intelligence, both emotional and intellectual, and her plain-speaking common sense, her witness testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war is the clincher. It’s well worth a read in full. Here’s a transcript of what she said when asked about the impact of the Iraq experience on potential future military interventions by the West:
I think after Iraq, after Afghanistan there’s going to be this sense of, “Gosh! Mustn’t go there again. Mustn’t do that again”. I think it’s important that people stop and reflect. It’s not about whether you should intervene or not intervene, but it’s how we go about this. It’s important that people do understand threats, risks and how to approach them.
So I think there’s going to be this sort of, “Oh, it’s all our own fault”, this sort of whipping that will go on, and ignoring of the threat, and I think we’re facing the world in which there are different threats and there is different pressures, and we need to look at how we respond.
So whether we use — I don’t think we’ll be sending big armoured brigades overseas again in the same way, but there will still be a need for smaller, cleverer, smarter, less visible interventions.
She said this in January 2011, before the Arab Spring, before Syria and before ISIS. Did we spend so much time whipping ourselves since then that we became blind to the risks that were unfolding before our eyes?
I’m pretty sure that the formidable yet patently humane Emma Sky would have an opinion on that. She is now an academic at Yale University, where she lectures on Iraq and Middle East politics. I can’t believe that she will content herself with teaching rather than doing for the remainder of her career. It will be interesting to see what she does next.
So many cities, countries and even continents still to visit. Antarctica for example. Japan, most of South America. Much of Africa. I have a list, which has nothing to do with buckets because I’m not planning to kick one any time soon.
The usual suspects are there: Rio, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Saigon, Sydney. But when you have maybe another fifteen years of active travelling ahead of you, you have to make a decision. Do you cherry-pick or do you immerse?
I have a friend whom I would describe as an obsessive-compulsive traveller. Throughout the thirty-odd years of our acquaintance, she has made it her life’s mission to travel to as many places as possible. If you look at her fridge, you will find the door covered with those little magnets you can buy in every place you’ve visited. Some years ago I sponsored her for British citizenship – she was born in California. In support of her application she was required to provide a list of all the countries she had visited. The list went to several pages.
Before she travels, she researches her destination and plans the itinerary with military precision. We once went on holiday to France with her and her husband. While my family would content ourselves with visiting perhaps a village or a chateau every couple of days, our friend would drag her husband and kids on a route march that would take in at least six attractions in a single day. 30 minutes in this cathedral, an hour in that museum; 300 kilometres of driving in between. She would stride here and there with relentless energy, leaving her exhausted family trailing in her wake.
I often wonder what she gets out of all these fleeting descents into other people’s lives, cultures and experience. How much does she remember of each visit? What effect do the places she goes to have on her outlook, her perception and her wisdom? And why does she do it? To be able to tick off yet another place on her life experience list – because it’s there? I don’t ask, because it feels as if to question her travel bug would be tantamount to questioning her very existence. And anyway, that’s her business, not mine.
Her approach certainly seems to be the embodiment of the classic “American Tourist” stereotype of old: if it’s Tuesday we must be in Paris. And as someone who’s done his fair share of city-hopping, who am I to criticise that outlook in another? On the contrary, I can only admire her awesome stamina and curiosity.
For me, as I’m sure is the case with many others, travel comes in three categories. There are business trips, beach holidays and journeys of exploration. So I go to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East on business – usually on my own. With my wife I might go to Thailand for a couple of weeks of slobbing out (which more accurately describes my method of relaxing than chilling, the cliché of the decade) in a nice hotel. And where our interests coincide we might go to somewhere like Prague or Istanbul, where we can wander through museums, palaces and side streets, or the coast of Asia Minor, where Ephesus and a hundred other archaeological sites await, untouched as yet by the predations of ISIS.
Unlike my friend, I have no desire to see as many places as time and money allow. I would rather go on journeys that expand my existing base of knowledge, rather than open up a whole new area of superficial interest. For example, if I wanted to make sense of what I might be seeing in Japan or South Korea, I would want to spend time understanding the history of those countries. That would not simply be a matter of looking at a few coffee table books, consulting Wikipedia and then visiting a temple or two. I know plenty about the recent history, but that would not be enough. I would want to read several books, and maybe try to dip my toe into the respective languages. Yes, I would love to see Tokyo and Seoul, but not at the expense of other places that can deepen an existing understanding.
Yesterday I decided that I will go to Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara. The reason? They are way points on the Silk Road, the commercial and cultural artery that linked China and Europe for much of recorded history. And yes, I would like to go to Homs, Palmyra, Bahgdad, Tehran, Mashad, Merv, Herat and other cities that owed their existence to the caravans that went back and forth between empires that never shared borders. But war and politics currently limit those opportunities.
There are other reasons. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he marched on beyond the Oxus River all the way to Northern India before finally heading back to Babylon. But not before establishing the province of Bactria, which encompassed much of modern Afghanistan, but also of Uzbekistan, within whose borders sit the three cities in my sights. For three hundred years, Bactria was the easternmost outpost of Hellenism.
Bokhara was one of the major centres of Islamic scholarship in the early years of Islam. It and other cities of the Central Asian Silk Road played a full part in the explosion of knowledge acquisition that took place in the three centuries of the Abbasid caliphate – the so-called Golden Age of Islam. Samarkand was the capital of Timur the Lame – Shakespeare’s Tamarlane – the Mongol warlord who built mountains out of the skulls of those opposed him as he went about creating an empire stretching from India to Egypt.
And in the nineteenth century the khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokand stood in the way of Russia’s ambition to extend its empire across Central Asia and ultimately to add India to its domains – a desire that underpinned the century-long competition between Russia and Britain known as The Great Game.
Why would someone whose life has been bound up first with the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and subsequently with that of the Middle East, Persia, Byzantium and China, with the history of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and with the geopolitics of the last two centuries not want to visit Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara?
But why now?
Though each successive layer of history provides its own powerful lure, it was actually the Great Game that has led me to this solemn resolution. Or more specifically, three books. The first, by the travel writer Colin Thubron, was Shadow of the Silk Road. Next was Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkirk. And most recently I read A Ride to Khiva – Travel and Adventures in Central Asia, by Frederick Gustavus Burnaby.
Hopkirk and Thubron are contemporary writers. Hopkirk, who died recently, was a distinguished journalist who wrote several books about Central Asia. In Foreign Devils he writes about the efforts of archaeologists and treasure hunters who, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, flocked to the Taklamakan Desert in what is now Xinjiang province in western China. Many of their discoveries had lain under the sand for centuries, swallowed up by the advancing desert. What they retrieved – Buddhist frescos, parchments and figurines as well as various Christian, Zorastrian and Islamic artefacts – ended up in private collections and national museums, much to the subsequent disgust of the Chinese, who to this day resent the rape of their cultural heritage.
Thubron’s book is more of a conventional travelogue, but with the past never far away. He visits various cities along the old Silk Road and describes his experiences in countries where most of us would fear to tread as solo travellers – China, Afghanistan and Kurdish Turkey for example. He uses the glories of the Silk Road as the backdrop to the shabby state of many of the cities he visits.
Fred Burnaby is a very different proposition. The son of a English country parson, he was a captain in the Royal Horse Guards with an independent streak. In the 1875 he embarked on an epic voyage through Russia to Khiva, which two years earlier had been conquered by the Russians and turned into a vassal state. To do so he had to get letters of permission from various dignitaries in St Petersburg. Though he managed to obtain the paperwork, he was watched with suspicion throughout his journey. Various officials reported on his progress on a regular basis, and close to his journey’s end did their best to stymie him.
The reason Burnaby was able to make the journey was that British officers in those days were employed only for part of the year. He therefore had the chance to make the trip across the Asian steppes in his own time and at his own expense, but at probably the worst time of the year – winter – through thick snow and in temperatures of up minus 30C. What’s more, he didn’t have the benefit of maps once he left Orenburg, the last outpost of the Russian empire in the South East.
The result of his journey was A Ride to Khiva, a best-selling book full of adventure and derring-do, just the sort of thing the imperial-minded Victorians lapped up. Burnaby became a celebrated hero through his various adventures and ultimately by the manner of his death at the hands of followers of the Mahdi in Sudan. He was a big man in all respects. Six foot four and twenty stone, his strength was legendary. It needed to be on the journey to Khiva. Much of the way from Orenburg he relied on a horse-drawn sleigh or on the back of a series of small but hardy horses. He nearly lost his arms through frostbite and several times found himself lost in the middle of ferocious blizzards.
When he finally made it to Khiva, he had no idea what kind of reception he might get from the Khan. The Russians, ever keen to deter him, warned that the monarch had a nasty habit of gouging the eyes out of foreigners to whom he took a disliking. As it turned out, the Khan was a gracious host who was keen to interrogate Burnaby about the relative strengths of the British and Russian empires. The last and only previous English visitor to Khiva had been Captain James Abbott thirty years before. Abbott was an Indian Army officer whose mission was to obtain the release of a number of Russians whom a previous Khan had enslaved, thus removing from the Russians an excuse to invade, and thereby extend the boundaries of their empire ever closer to India. Abbott succeeded, and went on to be a noted Indian colonial administrator. The town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden met his end, is named after him.
A Ride to Khiva is laced throughout with conversations with various Russians that might be interpreted as informal intelligence gathering. Not that his commanding officer was much impressed. When Burnaby got to Khiva the Duke of Cambridge ordered him to return to England forthwith.
Some of his conversations were highly prophetic. The Russian commanders at the time were nervous of Germany’s intentions. Newly unified under the leadership of Prussia, Germany had only five years before inflicted a national humiliation on France, besieging Paris and forcing the French to cede the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.
In one discussion on a train early in the journey, Burnaby talks to his fellow travellers about the various ambitions of the Great Powers:
The carriages between St Petersburg and Moscow are, if possible, more commodious than those which run from the capital to the German frontier. They are also well supplied with sleeping compartments, so the journey can be performed as comfortably as if travelling in a Cunard’s steamboat.
Upon taking my seat, two ladies, dressed in the deepest black, entered the carriage.and solicitied subscriptions from the different passengers for the wounded insurgents in Herzegovina.
“I suppose some of this money will go to the maintenance of the hale as well as the sick” observed a fellow-traveller. “Poor fellows, they want arms very badly.”
“I would give anything to drive out those Mussulmans,” remarked his companion, producing a well-filled purse, and making a large donation to the fund.
His example was followed by all the other Russians in the carriage. Not wishing to appear conspicuous by not subscribing, I added a trifle, my vis-a-vis saying: “Thank you brother. It will help keep the sore open; the sooner the Turk falls to pieces the better. What is the good of our having a fleet on the Black Sea unless we can command the Dardanelles? The longer this affair continues the more likely we are to reach Constantinople.”
“What will the English say to this?” I inquired. “Oh England, she goes for nothing now.” He replied. “She is so bent on money-making that it will take a great deal of kicking to make her fight. Why, she did not do anything when Gortschakoff repudiated the Black Sea Treaty.”
“He (Gortschakoff) chose just the right time for this,” added a fellow-traveller; “it was just after Sedan.”
“After Sedan or before Sedan”, continued the first speaker, “it would have been all the same; England is like an overfed bull, she has lost the use of her horns.”
“What of her fleet?” I inquired. “Well, what can she do with it?” was the answer. “She can block up the Baltic – but the frost does that for six months of the year, and she can prevent the corn from our Southern Provinces reaching her own markets; bread will be dearer in London, that is all. England will not land troops in the Crimea again.”
“God grant that she may,” said another, “our railway to Sevastopol is now open.”
I here remarked that England is not likely to declare war without having an ally. “But what if Germany or Austria were to join her?”
As for those pigs of Germans, we must fight them some day or other,” replied the previous speaker, and when the Tzarevitch is Emperor, please God we will beat them well, and drive every German brute out of Russia; they fatten on our land at the expense of our brothers.
“But supposing they get the best of it?”
“Well, what can they do? They cannot stop in Russia, even if they should be able to assail us. We can play the old game – keep on retiring. Russia is big, and there is plenty of country at our back”
All the rivalries that distilled into World War I in a nutshell.
Those last words were spoken sixty years after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and a similar distance in time before Hitler’s attempt. The Tzarevitch in question, who subsequently became Nicholas II, did indeed eventually fight, and lost his throne and head as the result, something those cocksure travellers wouldn’t have anticipated.
Political discussions apart – and I wonder how much of the lily Burnaby was gilding for his domestic audience – the narrative rattles along at a fine pace. As he presses on towards Khiva he describes a world in which the accumulated knowledge of travellers along the Silk Road has shrivelled into handed-down heresay. Rather like the Arabian heartland before the coming of oil that Abdurrahman Al-Munif describes in his Cities of Salt trilogy.
To make the reading easier for his audience, Burnaby provides a little summary of the main points of the narrative at the beginning of each chapter. Here’s one of them that gives a flavour of the story:
The Turkoman on his Donkey – Jana Darya – A once Fertile Country – A barren waste – The grandfather of the Khan – English Horses and Kirghiz Horses – Russian Cavalry – A Sea Like Molten Gold – Isles as of Silver – Kamastakak – A Fresh Water Pond – A Return to Vegetation – Saigak – Pheasants – The Camel Driver is taken Ill – The Moullahs – Conjuring the Evil One – A Dog of an Unbeliever – The Guide’s Fight with a Khivan – A revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker – Khivan methods of Preserving Grass throughout the Winter – Deep Chasms – Tombs – The Vision of the Khirghiz – The Khazan-Tor Mountains – Auriferous nature of the Soil.
One can imagine Burnaby holding forth back in the salons of London society in front of a rapt audience of society ladies as they tinkled their teacups in excitement at the savagery of the natives in a far-away country. When he wasn’t describing his feat in becoming the first person to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, of course.
Such was his celebrity that in my home town of Birmingham, where he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament against one of the great political luminaries of the time, Joseph Chamberlain, the corporation erected in the cathedral churchyard an obelisk in his honour. I must have passed it by a hundred times when I was young without knowing the significance of “Burnaby” and “Khiva 1875” inscribed at its base.
So Burnaby has finally convinced me. Reading books is not enough. I will go to Khiva, and if possible I will follow his path from Orenberg, though not in the winter and not on horseback – I don’t have his strength and resilience. And I will visit places he didn’t see: Samarkand and Bokhara. Burnaby will just be a waypoint into the past. Beyond him, I will be looking for Abbot, for Tamerlane, for Genghis Khan, for the Umayyad Caliphs, for Alexander the Great, for the Buddha.
Not this year, but hopefully next. And certainly not much later than that. Because later becomes less of a certainty the older you get. And who knows what will become of the mosques, the ornate tiles, the mudbrick palaces and the freedom to visit them in the age of the new caliphate?
Last weekend a friend asked me to name one Muslim hero – historical or current – who is held in the same universal esteem as the likes of Ghandi and Mandela. It was a casual question tossed out on the sidelines of a music event in a local park.
Yet it had a serious undertone. My friend is one of the few people I know with as great a love of history as my own. His field of study is different from mine, but his interest in the past is no less intense.
I came up with two names, neither of which seemed to satisfy him: Saladin and Ibn Sina. Saladin not so much because of his achievements as a warlord, but because of one heroic act: resisting the temptation to repeat the massacre in Jerusalem that accompanied the city’s capture by the Franks in the First Crusade. Not a great example perhaps, but at the time he won respect among friend and foe for his sense of honour and chivalry in a brutal age.
Ibn Sina was an easier and less controversial choice. A product of the Golden age of Islam, respected in East and West for his contribution to the advance of medical science.
I suspect that the debate my friend really wanted was over the common perception in the West – fuelled by the atrocities of ISIS – that Islam is a religion in which violence is a core component. I wasn’t prepared to have that discussion, so I said something along the lines of “it’s complicated”, and that perhaps we should talk again after he had read Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, and Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith, two books that cast more light and shade on the subject than the “Islam equals violence” narrative normally allows.
I have my views on the subject, which I’ll get into later.
But first, the question about Muslim heroes deserves further exploration. Do we mean heroes who happen to be Muslim, or those whose heroism is inextricably associated with their faith? And what do we mean by hero anyway?
Ghandi and Mandela are viewed by the world as heroic partly because of their personal qualities, which may or may not have been rooted in religious faith. In Ghandi’s case you could argue that his creed of non-violence came as much from India’s cultural DNA as from his Hindu faith. Recently I posted a review of Cultural DNA – the Psychology of Globalisation by Gurneck Bains, in which the author suggests that the abhorrence of violence is a deep-seated trait that goes back to the earliest human settlement of the Indian subcontinent.
In Mandela’s case the Christian faith may have informed his views, yet in his politics he was resolutely secular, and rarely spoke about religion except in the context of his desire to build a South Africa that was blind to faith and race.
What of the heroes who wore their faith on their sleeves? There are plenty of martyrs to celebrate, yet their heroism is usually recognised only by fellow religionists. As for religious leaders, there are not so many renowned for reaching beyond their constituencies to those of other faiths. In recent times, Desmond Tutu, perhaps, but only because he used his authority as a religious leader to press for the social and political reforms that culminated in the end of apartheid.
Which leads me to Moeen Ali. For those of you who don’t follow cricket, Moeen is a member of the England team currently battling against Australia in the ultimate sporting grudge contest – The Ashes. His was one of the most influential performances in the match that ended on Saturday with an unexpected England victory.
That Moeen is a Muslim is instantly recognisable because of his beard. It’s the length of two fists, in the Islamic tradition, a highly visible symbol of his faith. He is not the only cricketer with such a beard. Hashim Amla of South Africa is similarly adorned. But Moeen is English, and the country of his birth is currently, post-Tunisia, wracked by fear of Islamist radicals bearing machetes, guns and suicide vests. On a Muslim male, the long beard and shaved upper lip is as potent a symbol of religious devotion in the eyes of non-believers as the niqab that covers the faces of many Muslim women.
Moeen has said that one of his reasons for growing the beard is to show that not all devout Muslims are the men of violence so feared in the West. There are many top-flight Muslim cricketers – those of the Pakistan national team for example – who do not go to such lengths to advertise their faith. But the Pakistani cricketers come from a country in which the vast majority are of same faith.
You could say that Moeen is brave to bear witness to his beliefs in such an uncompromising manner, to stand out from his peers, to be so obviously different from his teammates. I doubt if he would say that. He would probably take the view that he is what he is – to use the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”.
But here’s the thing. Watch Moeen in action. Are you watching a Muslim cricketer? No. You’re watching a man who loves what he does, and has an easy relationship with his team-mates. Right now, you’re also looking at a man who is observing the Ramadan fast, and yet you would never believe that no food or drink had passed his lips since dawn on the days when he caned Australia’s bowlers and teased out their batsmen. No mean achievement, and I speak from the experience of living in Muslim countries where many people are barely functioning by the time it comes to break their fast.
And watch how the fans take to him. It’s becoming a tradition at major cricketing encounters for spectators to dress up in as bizarre costumes as they can conceive – bananas, medieval knights, you name it. Some also pay tribute to the physical characteristics of their favourite cricketers. Silly moustaches, crazy hair and so forth. And lo and behold, a bunch of fans showed up on Saturday wearing Moeen beards.
It was at that point that I thought “here’s a guy who is making a difference”. He’s loved by fans not just because of his atypical appearance, but because he’s calm and modest, a benign figure whose style and behaviour is far from that of the bull-like gladiators you will see pawing the turf on both sides. He’s different not because he’s a Muslim, but because of who he is. His religious devotion makes him different, and yet he fits in with his fellow cricketers who clearly hold him in high regard.
It seems to me that he’s succeeding in acting as a role model who shows another way to those who are tempted to take the road to Syria. A role model who loves faith, loves his country and loves his cricket. And a role model who shows non-Muslims that not all believers from Birmingham, Bradford and Luton despise their country and everything those they call kufurs stand for. I have no idea how comfortably his core beliefs would sit with those who see an extremist behind every street corner, but I don’t really care, provided those beliefs do no harm to others.
So next time I see my friend, I will put forward Moeen Ali as a Muslim hero. Perhaps not yet of the stature of a Ghandi and a Mandela, but a hero nonetheless in his words and deeds. I will also cite Malala Yousefzai, shot by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education, as a Muslim heroine. If, rather than being acclaimed for a few exceptional acts, achieving the status of hero is rather like canonisation, an accolade awarded in recognition of a lifetime’s deeds, then perhaps it’s too early for Moeen, who is 27, and Malala, who turned 18 yesterday, to be so designated. Hopefully they have plenty of time to do much more with their lives. But what they’ve achieved thus far is good enough for me.
And finally to my friend’s implication that Islam is a religion of violence. Rubbish. People are violent, not religions. People were killing each other in Syria and Iraq with equal relish long before the birth of Islam. I don’t buy the argument that the presence of hadiths permitting the violence we see in those countries today proves the case against Islam. There are ten times, maybe a hundred times, more devoted Muslims who ignore those hadiths than believers who are guided by them. Moeen Ali by all accounts is among the former, as are many others whom I call friends.
Religions don’t kill. People do. Just as guns don’t kill, but people do. I repeat, people are violent. Most of us are capable of violence under certain circumstances. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus are all capable of violence, not because of their faith but because they are people. Some will look to their scriptures to find justification for their acts. Others don’t bother to find any religious grounds for violence. Think of Buddhists who persecute the Rohingya, and the secular perpetrators of genocide in the twentieth century.
But although I have no argument with Islam, I do have a problem with Muslims and adherents of any other faith who fail to teach their children to think for themselves – to look at the world and come to their own conclusions rather than slavishly follow the dictates of others. Read this interview with Moeen Ali, and you will find that this is exactly what he did. He says that he was not particularly religious when he was growing up. He found his faith at the age of 18. And he found it on his own terms.
Perhaps what I should say next time I see my friend is that actually his question is irrelevant. The world doesn’t need heroes. It needs people of goodwill. People who demonstrate their goodwill in words and deeds. People like Moeen and Malala. And there are plenty more like them.
As this is the season of goodwill for all but a small minority in the Islamic world, I wish my cherished Muslim friends happiness and peace during the upcoming festival of Eid-al-Fitr.
As I keep tabs on the painful crawl towards an Iranian nuclear deal, I can’t help thinking back to the relative simplicity of the bipolar geopolitics of my youth compared with the Gordian complexity of allegiances, competing interests, ideologies and covert agendas currently in play, most of them centred on the Middle East.
Consider the state of the Soviet Union and China 40 years ago. The only area in which the USSR technically matched the West was in weapons. Nobody wanted to buy Ladas, leaking washing machines or ill-fitting suits. China was mainly an agrarian society. Its state-owned industries were antiquated – rusting and inefficient. Nobody wanted to buy Chinese goods. But they had nukes and the ability to deliver them. Both societies operated more or less in isolation from the West. Their GDPs were a small fraction of the world economy, which was dominated by the US, Japan and the major West European states.
Today Russia is fully integrated into the world economy. The reluctance of countries like Germany to impose sanctions as punishment for Russia’s adventure in Ukraine was a reflection of the reality that to re-impose isolation on Russia would hurt the Germans almost as much as it would hurt Russia.
China too is fully integrated. It is the world’s second largest economy – or possibly the largest, depending whose opinion you listen to. Many of the world’s iconic consumer electronics brands are reliant on China to produce components or in some cases the whole product.
Because both countries have much to lose from a return to isolation – as do we in the West – globalisation serves as much as a brake on open aggression as does the ultimate deterrent – nuclear weapons.
It’s no coincidence that the two must isolated countries in the today’s world – North Korea and Iran, are considered the most dangerous. Why? Because cornered regimes, like animals, do desperate and sometimes unpredictable things. The sanctions formula includes the calculation that if you deliberately impoverish a nation, its people will eventually rise up and get rid of the government whose policies led to the measures in the first place.
That hasn’t worked in Iran, and nor has it in North Korea. Nor did it in Iraq. Nor did it in Rhodesia. Not much has changed in that respect since 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte and his continental allies tried and failed to impose a blockade on Britain.
But sanctions can and do force regimes to the negotiating table. In the case of the current negotiations between the P5+1 (China, Russia, the US, France Britain and Germany) and Iran the main issue on the table is Iran’s capability of developing nuclear weapons. For Iran it’s the lifting of the sanctions that are crippling its economy and impoverishing its people.
The stated objective of the P5+1 – a grouping that 100 years ago would have been referred to as the Great Powers – is non-proliferation. From the point of view of the Western contingent within the P5+1, it’s bad enough that one dangerously unpredictable nation, North Korea, has the bomb, and that Pakistan, a country that has at various times over the past decade teetered on the edge of becoming a failed state, has many bombs. Iran is more predictable than both. Ayatollah Khamenei is not Kim Jong Un, and Iran has a far greater handle on its state apparatus than Pakistan.
But Iran’s activities in its back yard – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – which it sees as defensive, but which its local rivals consider part of a bid to achieve regional supremacy, are the reason why the P5+1 are anxious to do a deal. The alternative, they fear, would be countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt acquiring their own nuclear weapons capabilities.
Ultimately even that scenario might be tolerable were it not for the presence of virulent non-state actors in the region. Actors who would be only too happy to turn the nightmare scenario enacted in so many Hollywood movies into reality. One only has to look back at the chaos caused when the planes flew into New York on 9/11 and destroyed a few buildings to imagine the consequences of a nuclear detonation in the same city. Or in London, Frankfurt, Washington, Riyadh or Tel Aviv.
Those movies usually end with the plot being foiled at the last moment, or with the victim nation vowing to rebuild. If an American city was wiped out, it’s conceivable that the resulting wave of paranoia would trigger a set of measures that would make the Patriot Act seem like the work of Amnesty International. Finger-pointing at new axes of evil, enhanced surveillance beyond that seen today in China, trade barriers, the demand for self-sufficiency, immigration clampdowns, the marginalisation of minorities seen as un-American – all scenarios more likely than the redemption narrative in which weepy world leaders vow to work together to ensure that such an event never happens again.
Would ISIS, or some other organisation as yet unknown but with similar aims, be prepared to wipe out a city if the ensuing chaos weakened the globalised economy and created a power vacuum that brought its dreams of a sustainable caliphate dramatically closer? I suspect we all know the answer to that one.
Where would they obtain such a device? A.Q. Khan could probably answer that one. Pakistan’s peddler-in-chief of his country’s nuclear technology was not fussed who he dealt with. Even an impoverished pariah like North Korea had the wherewithal to buy what he was selling. ISIS are probably wealthier than Kim Jong Un’s cabal, so money would not be a problem. They would not even have to own or see the weapon. All they would have to do would be to contract out the job.
A Middle East with nukes in half a dozen national arsenals would be a dangerous place indeed. If a bunch of hard-core jihadists hiding out in camps and caves in the mountains of Afghanistan were destructive enough to embroil the US in a decade of draining conflict in Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad and Fallujah, how much more threatening would be a nuclear-enabled Islamic State? It would be one more waypoint on a road to disaster.
This is not to say that Kerry, Zarif, Lavrov and the other negotiators in Vienna would be able to erect permanent barriers on that road whose ending lies just out of sight, but not far away. Even if an agreement makes it more difficult for Iran to weaponise its enriched uranium, or prolongs the amount of time it needs to do so, it will take many more agreements to neutralise the underlying cold war – and yes, it is a cold war, but it’s getting warmer all the time – that led to the sanctions in the first place.
Without a rapprochement between the players in the Middle East’s cold war – Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its local allies – there will always be forces that will seek to exploit the divisions, whether or not the current bogeyman, ISIS, is defeated. And without that rapprochement those who feel most threatened will do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves in the long run. To reach a comprehensive settlement that sticks would seem to be an impossible ambition, at least without a road map that all parties could sign up to. But in a following wind created by a nuclear deal, their might never be a better opportunity to try.
So the discussions in Vienna should be the beginning, not the end, of a long road. And if the negotiating parties are unable even to take the first steps down that path, there’s another road with a mushroom cloud just beyond the brow that will keep getting shorter.
So yes, things are more complicated today. Probably more complicated than Nixon, Kissinger, Brezhnev and Mao Tse Tung could possibly have imagined all those years ago. More complicated and more dangerous. Which is why we should all hope that the initiative in Vienna ends in smiles and handshakes.
Otherwise, sooner or later, we might all be joining the Greeks as they face the prospect of surviving on vegetables and goats in their back yards.