On Saturday the Mayor held a conference / debate with the American polemicist Daniel Pipes as guest speaker. The event was seriously over-subscribed, with interest and passions running high. I only attended the morning event since the rest of the conference was peppered with boring sounding discussions with people who would end up largely agreeing with each other. My bet is that Livingstone didn’t want to invite too many of his detractors other than Pipes and Murray.
The morning opened with Ken Livingstone going first, then Daniel Pipes, then Salma Yaqoob and finally Douglas Murray. Each said nothing new but their arguments were interesting. I managed to ask Pipes a question at the end, with hilarious results. I’ll come back to that.
Livingstone’s was a rambly sort of speech without structure. He is an idealist and in essence said that London set an example of how a city can be multicultural, thriving and dynamic without descending into anarchy. He didn’t pre-empt any criticism that would be forthcoming nor venture into controversial territory – he stated in a round-about sort of way that the example of London illustrates that people generally want the same things in life and can easily co-exist. That would be fine in its own but it did not address the central point – how do you deal with people who want to destroy multi-culturalism and hate democracy.
Daniel Pipes’ speech, I will admit despite my distaste for his politics, was much more structured, well thought-out and argued. There were of course holes in his argument (and I’ll come back to that) but his central point was this – there isn’t a Clash of Civilisations as much as a Clash of Civilisations v Barbarism. The latter is defined as totalitarianism akin to fascism where (religious) supremacists want to destroy democracy and forcibly convert the rest to their ideology.
It is a simplistic analysis of course and will appeal to anyone who has watched a video by Osama Bin Laden, heard a speech by Hizb ut-Tahrir or even watched last week’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme. It’s not like there is a scarcity of religious nutjobs loudly demanding complete submission to their goals. Pipes said this is war and the west should not be afraid to fight it till death. He ventured into history without mentioning any American funding of Mujahadeen groups during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Salma Yaqoob followed with an ok performance. She made some good points, calling it a fight between two barbarian groups (the neo-cons and the Islamists) who thrived on war and confrontation, with most people stuck in the middle. While it was clear she had given thought to countering Pipes’ arguments in advance, she didn’t put forward any coherently argued solution except blaming the west for everything. She was happy to play to her own audience rather than win over new recruits. She shouts and rants a lot too, putting words into Pipes’ mouth, without carefully dissecting his words. He always came across as the more reasonable thinker.
Douglas Murray followed with a calm speech although he couldn’t help sneering every minute or so when mentioning anyone Muslim. He might as well have spat on the floor everytime he mentioned Salma Yaqoob or her links to various organisations (Birmingham Central Mosque, the trial of seven Yemenis, Respect party etc). Anyway, he didn’t say much that was new other than parrot the neo-con line.
A Q&A session with the audience followed with lots of people making rambly, incoherent speeches and lots making good points. Of interest to me were these points: Inayat Bunglawala pulled up Pipes on an interesting point – that while Pipes claims his problem is only with ‘Islamist’ Muslims in the speech, he had written an article in the Jerusalem Post recently implying the problem were Muslims in general. Or anyone that did not fit into his ‘Judeo-Christian values’ framework. In other words Pipes likes the kinds of Muslims who will do what he likes rather than just those who stay within the law. The latter will all be branded as ‘barbarians’ and presumably liable to indefinite stints in detention. Pipes didn’t counter well enough. That round went to Inayat.
He tore apart Salma Yaqoob though, who called 7/7 “reprisal attacks” against American aggression and firmly put herself into ‘should think carefully before speaking’ category. If Livingstone had invited someone a bit more thoughtful like Maleiha Malik then the neo-cons may not have won the day. Someone also pulled up Daniel Pipes on his infamous McCarthyite campaign ‘Campus Watch’, which was dismissed as an attempt to “provide more information”. Aren’t they always.
Livingstone let it be known he was against faith schools. He also made an interesting point about Al-Qaradawi. He clearly stated he didn’t agree with a lot of the latter’s policies but the dialogue was necessary and Qaradawi was a progressive. The change would come within Islam, he said.
Of course people are going to complain, but KL inviting Qaradawi over isn’t that different to Tony Blair inviting over the Chinese government, giving Narendra Modi a visa or selling weaponry to Saudi Arabia. No one seems to seriously suggest Britain cut off diplomatic ties with China, India or KSA.
My bigger worry is that he sees Qaradawi as a “progressive”. Compared to who, Genghis Khan? I don’t want to call myself progressive if Livingstone is bloody well going to put Qaradawi in the same category! Livingstone is also confused. He should try and understand there are already liberal strands within Islam and more progressive thinkers so he would be better off courting them instead of an establishment man like Qaradawi. There are plenty of popular reformers within Iran, Saudi, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Lebanon and other places for example. Qaradawi certainly isn’t likely to lead a call for Muslim women to be given more rights in the Middle East.
The problem is that Livingstone, who I sympathised with most out of a bunch of bad choices, does not have a solution. He even seems reluctant to admit there may be a problem. Unofrtunately no one managed to land a ‘killer punch’ (metaphorically) on Pipes.
After the event finished I approached him. This is essentially how the conversation went: “Mr Pipes I’m a great believer in democracy, freedom of speech and liberty etc, so I guess that puts me in the “civilised” camp according to your analysis. But how do you respond is your government is spying on its people, curtailing the rights of people and generally behaving as if it doesn’t take civil liberties seriously? Isn’t that what the barbarians would do?”
He replies: “Well… uhh… those people are the enemies… uh.. we are in a new era and we need to take those measures to figure out how to deal with them. The traditional methods don’t work… uhm..” *tries to move away*
But I persist. “What about places like Belmarsh prison and Guantanamo Bay? Aren’t we denying those people the same rights that you claim makes us civilised?”
He says, with a straight face, I kid you not, “Well you know, those people are treated marvelously they have their rights and facilities. Ask that lady there (mentions some name) who went there only last week and she’ll tell you how well they are treated.”
“Erm… thanks Mr Pipes I’ll, err… do that….” *still shocked by the fact he said that seriously.
Anyway, it shouldn’t be news that neo-conservatives generally live in their own world devoid of reality. According to them, actions have no reactions and other people behave exactly as the US military commands them to. If something goes wrong, it isn’t because the plan was bad but because they didn’t put enough military resources into it. These people are a threat to society.
Overall, the debate was indeed a “pro-wrestling exhibition” and I wasn’t convinced by either side. Livingstone and Yaqoob tried to sell an idealised version of society without dealing with problems (both saw US foreign policy as the only problem, a point most Londoners have gone past I’d say), while Pipes and Murray identified the problem but presented a terrible solution.
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