All posts by TPPA = CRISIS

Hi, my name is Hans Hilhorst. I am just a private individual hoping to contribute to our debate about matters of Political Economy. I am not affiliated with or a member of any commercial entity, political party or organization of any kind. - All my life I have been interested in psychology and economics, the things that define human society. I have also always been an avid reader of everything remotely related to those topics and I have gained a fair bit of ‘research material’ and ‘empirical evidence’ during my career through the Neoliberal nightmare, or ‘User Pays’ as we call our brand of Neoliberalism down under. - My opinions are neither here nor there, they are mine alone. I share them merely to throw in my 5 cents, looking for common spirits and clear young minds, open to new thinking. I endeavor though to keep my contributions controlled and prefer to put forward those of the multitude of academics, scientists, thinkers, authors and whoever else of credible authority. Those who have done the research, spoken to the victims, walked in their shoes and dealt with the consequences of our economic and social policies. In this way I hope to show that the cry for urgent attention to our social economic policies is not just the sound of a leftist mob, but a well supported and professional crowd of experts from around the globe. - I wish to stir the debate on our economic direction. I think it has been lopsided. Not because we are biased or stupid, but because we have been deliberately misinformed, censored and deceived. - At this juncture in time we are truly faced with the consequences of our progress: Robot Domination! Will it be like SkyNet and Arnie’s goldmine or just a happy invasion of our workplaces, allowing us time for ‘the good life’, the beach, and reading. - Hans

Mass starvation is humanity’s fate if we keep flogging the land to death – George Monbiot. 

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before it’s too late.

Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic.

Research published in the journal Agriculture & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with fewer than five hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the UK has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global sea grab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. About 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how exactly do we accommodate it?

Land required per gram of protein Square metres

The profligacy of livestock farming is astonishing. Already, 36% of the calories grown in the form of grain and pulses – and 53% of the protein – are also used to feed farm animals. Two-thirds of this food is lost in conversion from plant to animal. A graph produced last week by Our World in Data suggests that, on average, you need 0.01m2of land to produce a gram of protein from beans or peas, but 1m2 to produce it from beef cattle or sheep: a 100-fold difference.

It’s true that much of the grazing land occupied by cattle and sheep cannot be used to grow crops. But it would otherwise have sustained wildlife and ecosystems. Instead, marshes are drained, trees are felled and their seedlings grazed out, predators are exterminated, wild herbivores fenced out and other life forms gradually erased as grazing systems intensify. Astonishing places – such as the rainforests of Madagascar and Brazil – are laid waste to make room for yet more cattle.

Because there is not enough land to meet both need and greed, a global transition to eating animals means snatching food from the mouths of the poor. It also means the ecological cleansing of almost every corner of the planet.

The shift in diets would be impossible to sustain even if there were no growth in the human population. But the greater the number of people, the greater the hunger meat eating will cause. From a baseline of 2010, the UN expects meat consumption to rise by 70% by 2030 (this is three times the rate of human population growth). Partly as a result, the global demand for crops could double (from the 2005 baseline) by 2050. The land required to grow them does not exist.

When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.

Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.

There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal- to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

The looming tower. Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 – Lawrence Wright. 

Prologue

On Saint Patrick’s day, Daniel Coleman, an agent in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation handling foreign intelligence cases, drove down to Tysons Corner, Virginia, to report for a new posting.

The sidewalks were still buried under gray banks of snow from the blizzard of 1996 a few weeks before. Coleman entered an undistinguished government office tower called the Gloucester Building and got off the elevator at the fifth floor. 

This was Alec Station. Other stations of the Central Intelligence Agency are located in the various countries that they cover; Alec was the first “virtual” system station, situated only a few miles from the headquarters building in Langley. On an organizational chart it was labeled “Terrorist Financial Links,” a subsection of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, but in practice it was devoted to tracking the activities of a single man, Osama bin Laden, whose name had arisen as the master financier of terror. 

Coleman first heard of him in 1993, when a foreign source spoke about a “Saudi prince”who was supporting a cell of radical Islamists who were plotting to blow up New York landmarks, including the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and even 26 Federal Plaza, the building where Coleman worked. Now, three years later, the bureau had finally found time to send him to look over the intelligence the agency had compiled to see if there was any reason to pursue an investigation. 

Alec Station already had thirty-five volumes of material on bin Laden, consisting mostly of transcripts of telephone conversations that had been sucked up by the electronic ears of the National Security Agency. Coleman found the material repetitive and inconclusive. Still, he opened an intelligence case on bin Laden, largely as a placeholder in case the “Islamist financier” turned out to be something more than that. 

Like many agents, Dan Coleman had been trained to fight the Cold War. He joined the FBI as a file clerk in 1973. Scholarly and inquisitive, Coleman was naturally drawn to counterintelligence. In the 1980s, he concentrated on recruiting communist spies in the populous diplomatic community surrounding the United Nations; an East German attaché was a particular treasure. 

In 1990, however, when the Cold War had just ended, he found himself on a squad devoted to Middle Eastern terrorism. There was little in his background that prepared him for this new turn—but that was true of the bureau as a whole, which regarded terrorism as a nuisance, not a real threat. It was difficult to believe, in those cloudless days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that America had any real enemies still standing. 

Then, in August 1996, bin Laden declared war on America from a cave in Afghanistan. The stated cause was the continued presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia five years after the first Gulf War. “Terrorizing you, while you are carrying arms in our land, is a legitimate right and a moral obligation,” he stated. He presumed to speak on behalf of all Muslims, and even directed some of his lengthy fatwa to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry personally. “I say to you, William, that: These youths love death as you love life…. These youths will not ask you for explanations. They will sing out that there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck-smiting.”

Other than Coleman, few in America—even in the bureau—knew or cared about the Saudi dissident. The thirty-five volumes in Alec Station painted a picture of a messianic billionaire from a sprawling, influential family that was closely connected to the rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He had made a name for himself in the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. 

Coleman had read enough history to understand the references in bin Laden’s war cry to the Crusades and the early struggles of Islam. Indeed, one of the striking features of the document was that time seemed to have stopped a thousand years ago. There was now and there was then, but there was nothing in between. It was as if the Crusades were still going on in bin Laden’s universe. The intensity of the anger was also difficult for Coleman to grasp. What did we do to him? he wondered.

Coleman showed the text of bin Laden’s fatwa to prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. It was droll, it was weird, but was it a crime? The lawyers puzzled over the language and found a rarely invoked seditious conspiracy statute from the Civil War era that forbids instigating violence and attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. It seemed a stretch to think that it might be applied to a stateless Saudi in a cave in Tora Bora, but on the basis of such meager precedent, Coleman opened a criminal file on the figure who would become the most wanted man in the FBI’s history. He was still working entirely alone. 

A few months later, in November 1996, Coleman traveled to an American military base in Germany with two U.S. attorneys, Kenneth Karas and Patrick Fitzgerald. There in a safe house was a jittery Sudanese informer named Jamal al-Fadl, who claimed to have worked for bin Laden in Khartoum. Coleman carried a briefing book with photographs of bin Laden’s known associates, and Fadl quickly identified most of them. He was selling a story, but he clearly knew the players. 

The problem was that he kept lying to the investigators, embroidering his tale, depicting himself as a hero who only wanted to do the right thing. “So why did you leave?” the prosecutors wanted to know. Fadl said that he loved America. He had lived in Brooklyn and he spoke English. Then he said he had run away so he could write a best-selling book. He was keyed up and had a hard time sitting still. Obviously, he had a lot more to tell. It took several long days to get him to stop confabulating and admit that he had run off with more than $100,000 of bin Laden’s money. When he did that, he sobbed and sobbed. It was the turning point in the interrogation. 

Fadl agreed to be a government witness should a trial ever occur, but that seemed unlikely, given the modest charges that the government lawyers were considering. Then, on his own initiative, Fadl began talking about an organization called al-Qaeda. It was the first time any of the men in the room had ever heard the term. He described training camps and sleeper cells. He talked about bin Laden’s interest in acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons. He said that al-Qaeda had been responsible for a 1992 bombing in Yemen and for training the insurgents who shot down the American helicopters in Somalia that same year. He gave names and drew organizational charts. 

The investigators were stunned by his story. For two weeks, six or seven hours a day, they went over the details again and again, testing his responses to see if he was consistent. He never varied. When Coleman got back to the bureau, no one seemed particularly interested. Fadl’s testimony was chilling, they agreed, but how could they corroborate the testimony of a thief and a liar? Besides, there were other more pressing investigations. 

For a year and a half, Dan Coleman continued his solitary investigation of bin Laden. Because he was posted to Alec Station, the bureau more or less forgot about him. Using wiretaps on bin Laden’s businesses, Coleman was able to draw a map of the al-Qaeda network, which extended throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Central Asia. He was alarmed to realize that many of al-Qaeda’s associates had ties to the United States. He concluded this was a worldwide terror organization dedicated to destroying America, but Coleman couldn’t even get his superiors to return his phone calls on the matter. 

Coleman was left to himself to puzzle out the questions that would later occur to everyone. Where had this movement come from? Why had it chosen to attack America? And what could we do to stop it? He was like a laboratory technician looking at a slide of some previously unseen virus. Under the microscope, al-Qaeda’s lethal qualities began to reveal themselves. The group was small—only ninety-three members at the time—but it was part of a larger radical movement that was sweeping through Islam, particularly in the Arab world. The possibilities for contagion were great. 

The men who made up this group were well trained and battle hardened. They apparently had ample resources. Moreover, they were fanatically committed to their cause and convinced that they would be victorious. They were brought together by a philosophy that was so compelling that they would willingly—eagerly—sacrifice their lives for it. In the process they wanted to kill as many people as possible. 

The most frightening aspect of this new threat, however, was the fact that almost no one took it seriously. It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic. Up against the confidence that Americans placed in modernity and technology and their own ideals to protect them from the savage pageant of history, the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and even pathetic. And yet al-Qaeda was not a mere artifact of seventh-century Arabia. It had learned to use modern tools and modern ideas, which wasn’t surprising, since the story of al-Qaeda had really begun in America, not so long ago. 

*

The Martyr 

In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith. “Should I go to America as any normal student on a scholarship, who only eats and sleeps, or should I be special?” he wondered. “Should I hold on to my Islamic beliefs, facing the many sinful temptations, or should I indulge those temptations all around me?”

It was November 1948. The new world loomed over the horizon, victorious, rich, and free. Behind him was Egypt, in rags and tears. The traveler had never been out of his native country. Nor had he willingly left now. The stern bachelor was slight and dark, with a high, sloping forehead and a paintbrush moustache somewhat narrower than the width of his nose. His eyes betrayed an imperious and easily slighted nature. He always evoked an air of formality, favoring dark three-piece suits despite the searing Egyptian sun. 

For a man who held his dignity so close, the prospect of returning to the classroom at the age of forty-two may have seemed demeaning. And yet, as a child from a mud-walled village in Upper Egypt, he had already surpassed the modest goal he had set for himself of becoming a respectable member of the civil service. His literary and social criticism had made him one of his country’s most popular writers. It had also earned the fury of King Farouk, Egypt’s dissolute monarch, who had signed an order for his arrest. Powerful and sympathetic friends hastily arranged his departure. 

At the time, Qutb (his name is pronounced kuh-tub) held a comfortable post as a supervisor in the Ministry of Education. Politically, he was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, a stance that placed him in the mainstream of the vast bureaucratic middle class. The ideas that would give birth to what would be called Islamic fundamentalism were not yet completely formed in his mind; indeed, he would later say that he was not even a very religious man before he began this journey, although he had memorized the Quran by the age of ten, and his writing had recently taken a turn toward more conservative themes. 

Like many of his compatriots, he was radicalized by the British occupation and contemptuous of the jaded King Farouk’s complicity. Egypt was racked by anti-British protests and seditious political factions bent on running the foreign troops out of the country—and perhaps the king as well. What made this unimposing, midlevel government clerk particularly dangerous was his blunt and potent commentary. He had never gotten to the front rank of the contemporary Arab literary scene, a fact that galled him throughout his career; and yet from the government’s point of view, he was becoming an annoyingly important enemy. 

He was Western in so many ways—his dress, his love of classical music and Hollywood movies. He had read, in translation, the works of Darwin and Einstein, Byron and Shelley, and had immersed himself in French literature, especially Victor Hugo. Even before his journey, however, he worried about the advance of an all-engulfing Western civilization. Despite his erudition, he saw the West as a single cultural entity. The distinctions between capitalism and Marxism, Christianity and Judaism, fascism and democracy were insignificant by comparison with the single great divide in Qutb’s mind: Islam and the East on the one side, and the Christian West on the other. 

America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterized Europe’s relations with the Arab world. At the end of the Second World War, America straddled the political chasm between the colonizers and the colonized. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anticolonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. The country’s power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notions of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. 

Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for. And so, Qutb, like many Arabs, felt shocked and betrayed by the support that the U.S. government had given to the Zionist cause after the war. Even as Qutb was sailing out of Alexandria’s harbor, Egypt, along with five other Arab armies, was in the final stages of losing the war that established Israel as a Jewish state within the Arab world. 

The Arabs were stunned, not only by the determination and skill of the Israeli fighters but by the incompetence of their own troops and the disastrous decisions of their leaders. The shame of that experience would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history. “I hate those Westerners and despise them!” Qutb wrote after President Harry Truman endorsed the transfer of a hundred thousand Jewish refugees into Palestine. “All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch, and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many.”

The man in the stateroom had known romantic love, but mainly the pain of it. He had written a thinly disguised account of a failed relationship in a novel; after that, he turned his back on marriage. He said that he had been unable to find a suitable bride from the “dishonorable” women who allowed themselves to be seen in public, a stance that left him alone and unconsoled in middle age. 

He still enjoyed women—he was close to his three sisters—but sexuality threatened him, and he had withdrawn into a shell of disapproval, seeing sex as the main enemy of salvation. The dearest relationship he had ever enjoyed was that with his mother, Fatima, an illiterate but pious woman, who had sent her precocious son to Cairo to study. His father died in 1933, when Qutb was twenty-seven. 

For the next three years he taught in various provincial posts until he was transferred to Helwan, a prosperous suburb of Cairo, and he brought the rest of his family to live with him there. His intensely conservative mother never entirely settled in; she was always on guard against the creeping foreign influences that were far more apparent in Helwan than in the little village she came from. These influences must have been evident in her sophisticated son as well. 

As he prayed in his stateroom, Sayyid Qutb was still uncertain of his own identity. Should he be “normal” or “special”? Should he resist temptations or indulge them? Should he hang on tightly to his Islamic beliefs or cast them aside for the materialism and sinfulness of the West? Like all pilgrims, he was making two journeys: one outward, into the larger world, and another inward, into his own soul. “I have decided to be a true Muslim!” he resolved. But almost immediately he second-guessed himself. “Am I being truthful or was that just a whim?”

His deliberations were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside his stateroom was a young girl, whom he described as thin and tall and “half-naked.” She asked him in English, “Is it okay for me to be your guest tonight?” Qutb responded that his room was equipped with only one bed. “A single bed can hold two people,” she said. Appalled, he closed the door in her face. “I heard her fall on the wooden floor outside and realized that she was drunk,” he recalled. “I instantly thanked God for defeating my temptation and allowing me to stick to my morals.”

This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad. 

Qutb arrived in New York Harbor in the middle of the most prosperous holiday season the country had ever known. In the postwar boom, everybody was making money—Idaho potato farmers, Detroit automakers, Wall Street bankers—and all this wealth spurred confidence in the capitalist model, which had been so brutally tested during the recent Depression. Unemployment seemed practically un-American; officially, the rate of joblessness was under 4 percent, and practically speaking, anyone who wanted a job could get one. Half of the world’s total wealth was now in American hands. 

The contrast with Cairo must have been especially bitter as Qutb wandered through the New York City streets, festively lit with holiday lights, the luxurious shop windows laden with appliances that he had only heard about—television sets, washing machines—technological miracles spilling out of every department store in stupefying abundance. Brand-new office towers and apartments were shouldering into the gaps in the Manhattan skyline between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Downtown and in the outer boroughs, vast projects were under way to house the immigrant masses. 

It was fitting, in such a buoyant and confident environment, unprecedented in its mix of cultures, that the visible symbol of a changed world order was arising: the new United Nations complex overlooking the East River. The United Nations was the most powerful expression of the determined internationalism that was the legacy of the war, and yet the city itself already embodied the dreams of universal harmony far more powerfully than did any single idea or institution. 

The world was pouring into New York because that was where the power was, and the money, and the transforming cultural energy. Nearly a million Russians were in the city, half a million Irish, and an equal number of Germans—not to mention the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans, the Poles, and the largely uncounted and often illegal Chinese laborers who had also found refuge in the welcoming city. The black population of the city had grown by 50 percent in only eight years, to 700,000, and they were refugees as well, from the racism of the American South. Fully a fourth of the 8 million New Yorkers were Jewish, many of whom had fled the latest European catastrophe. Hebrew letters covered the signs for the shops and factories on the Lower East Side, and Yiddish was commonly heard on the streets. 

That would have been a challenge for the middle-aged Egyptian who hated the Jews but, until he left his country, had never met one. 

For many New Yorkers, perhaps for most of them, political and economic oppression was a part of their heritage, and the city had given them sanctuary, a place to earn a living, to raise a family, to begin again. Because of that, the great emotion that fueled the exuberant city was hopefulness, whereas Cairo was one of the capitals of despair. 

At the same time, New York was miserable—overfull, grouchy, competitive, frivolous, picketed with No Vacancy signs. Snoring alcoholics blocked the doorways. Pimps and pickpockets prowled the midtown squares in the ghoulish neon glow of burlesque houses. In the Bowery, flophouses offered cots for twenty cents a night. The gloomy side streets were crisscrossed with clotheslines. Gangs of snarling delinquents roamed the margins like wild dogs. 

For a man whose English was rudimentary, the city posed unfamiliar hazards, and Qutb’s natural reticence made communication all the more difficult. He was desperately homesick. “Here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call ‘the new world,’ I feel as though my spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness,” he wrote to a friend in Cairo. “What I need most here is someone to talk to,” he wrote another friend, “to talk about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars—a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul.”

Two days after Qutb arrived in America, he and an Egyptian acquaintance checked into a hotel. “The black elevator operator liked us because we were closer to his color,” Qutb reported. The operator offered to help the travelers find “entertainment.” “He mentioned examples of this ‘entertainment,’ which included perversions. He also told us what happens in some of these rooms, which may have pairs of boys or girls. They asked him to bring them some bottles of Coca-Cola, and didn’t even change their positions when he entered! ‘Don’t they feel ashamed?’ we asked. He was surprised. ‘Why? They are just enjoying themselves, satisfying their particular desires.’”

This experience, among many others, confirmed Qutb’s view that sexual mixing led inevitably to perversion. 

America itself had just been shaken by a lengthy scholarly report titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues at the University of Indiana. Their eight-hundred-page treatise, filled with startling statistics and droll commentary, shattered the country’s leftover Victorian prudishness like a brick through a stained-glass window. 

Kinsey reported that 37 percent of the American men he sampled had experienced homosexual activity to the point of orgasm, nearly half had engaged in extramarital sex, and 69 percent had paid for sex with prostitutes. The mirror that Kinsey held up to America showed a country that was frantically lustful but also confused, ashamed, incompetent, and astoundingly ignorant. Despite the evidence of the diversity and frequency of sexual activity, this was a time in America when sexual matters were practically never discussed, not even by doctors. One Kinsey researcher interviewed a thousand childless American couples who had no idea why they failed to conceive, even though the wives were virgins. 

Qutb was familiar with the Kinsey Report, and referenced it in his later writings to illustrate his view of Americans as little different from beasts—“a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money.” A staggering rate of divorce was to be expected in such a society, since “Every time a husband or wife notices a new sparkling personality, they lunge for it as if it were a new fashion in the world of desires.” The turbulent overtones of his own internal struggles can be heard in his diatribe: “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.”

The end of the world war had brought America victory but not security. Many Americans felt that they had defeated one totalitarian enemy only to encounter another far stronger and more insidious than European fascism. “Communism is creeping inexorably into these destitute lands,” the young evangelist Billy Graham warned, “into war-torn China, into restless South America, and unless the Christian religion rescues these nations from the clutch of the unbelieving, America will stand alone and isolated in the world.” 

The fight against communism was being waged inside America as well. J. Edgar Hoover, the Machiavellian head of the FBI, claimed that one of every 1,814 people in America was a communist. Under his supervision, the bureau began to devote itself almost entirely to uncovering evidence of subversion. When Qutb arrived in New York, the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun hearing testimony from a Time magazine senior editor named Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified that he had been part of a communist cell headed by Alger Hiss, a former Truman administration official, who was one of the organizers of the United Nations and was then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

The country was riveted by the hearings, which gave substance to the fears that communists were lurking in the cities and the suburbs, in sleeper cells. “They are everywhere,” U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark asserted, “in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private businesses—and each carries with him the germs of death for society.”

America felt itself to be in danger of losing not only its political system but also its religious heritage. “Godlessness” was an essential feature of the communist menace, and the country reacted viscerally to the sense that Christianity was under attack. “Either Communism must die, or Christianity must die, because it is actually a battle between Christ and the anti-Christ,” Billy Graham would write a few years later—a sentiment that was very much a part of the mainstream Christian American consensus at the time. 

Qutb took note of the obsession that was beginning to dominate American politics. He was himself a resolute anti-communist for similar reasons; indeed, the communists were far more active and influential in Egypt than in America. “Either we shall walk the path of Islam or we shall walk the path of Communism,” Qutb wrote the year before he came to America, anticipating the same stark formulation as Billy Graham. 

At the same time, he saw in the party of Lenin a template for the Islamic politics of the future—the politics that he would invent. In Qutb’s passionate analysis, there was little difference between the communist and capitalist systems; both, he believed, attended only the material needs of humanity, leaving the spirit unsatisfied. He predicted that once the average worker lost his dreamy expectations of becoming rich, America would inevitably turn toward communism. Christianity would be powerless to block this trend because it exists only in the realm of the spirit—“like a vision in a pure ideal world.” Islam, on the other hand, is “a complete system”with laws, social codes, economic rules, and its own method of government. Only Islam offered a formula for creating a just and godly society. 

Thus the real struggle would eventually show itself: It was not a battle between capitalism and communism; it was between Islam and materialism. And inevitably Islam would prevail. 

No doubt the clash between Islam and the West was remote in the minds of most New Yorkers during the holiday season of 1948. But, despite the new wealth that was flooding into the city, and the self-confidence that victory naturally brought, there was a generalized sense of anxiety about the future. “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible,” the essayist E. B. White had observed that summer. “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.” White was writing at the dawn of the nuclear age, and the feeling of vulnerability was quite new. “In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning,” he observed, “New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.” 

Soon after the new year began, Qutb moved to Washington, where he studied English at Wilson Teachers College. “Life in Washington is good,” he admitted in one letter, “especially as I live in close proximity to the library and my friends.” He enjoyed a generous stipend from the Egyptian government. “A regular student can live well on $180 a month,” he wrote. “I, however, spend between $ 250 and $ 280 monthly.”

Although Qutb came from a little village in Upper Egypt, it was in America that he found “a primitiveness that reminds us of the ages of jungles and caves.” Social gatherings were full of superficial chatter. Though people filled the museums and symphonies, they were there not to see or hear but rather out of a frantic, narcissistic need to be seen and heard. The Americans were altogether too informal, Qutb concluded. “I’m here at a restaurant,” he wrote a friend in Cairo, “and in front of me is this young American. On his shirt, instead of a necktie, there is a picture of an orange hyena, and on his back, instead of a vest, there is a charcoal picture of an elephant. This is the American taste in colors. And music! Let’s leave that till later.”

The food, he complained, “is also weird.” He reports an incident at a college cafeteria when he saw an American woman putting salt on a melon. He slyly told her that Egyptians preferred pepper. “She tried it, and said it was delicious!” he wrote. “The next day, I told her that some Egyptians use sugar on their melons instead, and she found that tasty as well.” He even grouched about the haircuts: “Whenever I go to a barber I return home and redo my hair with my own hands.”

In February 1949 Qutb checked into the George Washington University Hospital to have his tonsils removed. There, a nurse scandalized him by itemizing the qualities she sought in a lover. He was already on guard against the forward behavior of the American woman, “who knows full well the beauties of her body, her face, her exciting eyes, her full lips, her bulging breasts, her full buttocks and her smooth legs. She wears bright colors that awaken the primitive sexual instincts, hiding nothing, but adding to that the thrilling laugh and the bold look.” One can imagine what an irresistible object of sexual teasing he must have been. 

News came of the assassination of Hasan al-Banna, the Supreme Guide of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, on February 12, in Cairo. Qutb relates that there was a hubbub in the street outside his hospital window. He inquired about the reason for the festivities. “Today the enemy of Christianity in the East was killed,” he says the doctors told him. “Today, Hasan al-Banna was murdered.” It is difficult to credit that Americans, in 1949, were sufficiently invested in Egyptian politics to rejoice at the news of Banna’s death. The New York Times did report his murder. “Sheikh Hasan’s followers were fanatically devoted to him, and many of them proclaimed that he alone would be able to save the Arab and Islamic worlds,” the paper noted. 

But for Qutb, lying in his hospital bed in a strange and distant country, the news came as a profound shock. Although they had never met, Qutb and Banna had known each other by reputation. They had been born within days of each other, in October 1906, and attended the same school, Dar al-Ulum, a teacher-training school in Cairo, although at different times. Like Qutb, Banna was precocious and charismatic, but he was also a man of action. He founded the Muslim Brothers in 1928, with the goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state. Within a few years, the Brothers had spread across the country, and then throughout the Arab world, planting the seeds of the coming Islamic insurgence. 

Banna’s voice was stilled just as Qutb’s book Social Justice in Islam was being published—the book that would make his reputation as an important Islamic thinker. Qutb had held himself pointedly apart from the organization that Banna created, even though he inclined to similar views about the political uses of Islam; the death of his contemporary and intellectual rival, however, cleared the way for his conversion to the Muslim Brothers. 

This was a turning point, both in Qutb’s life and in the destiny of the organization. But at this pregnant moment, the heir apparent to the leadership of the Islamic revival was alone, ill, unrecognized, and very far from home. 

As it happened, Qutb’s presence in Washington was not completely overlooked. One evening he was entertained in the home of James Heyworth-Dunne, a British Orientalist and a convert to Islam, who spoke to Qutb about the danger of the Muslim Brothers, which he said was blocking the modernization of the Muslim world. “If the Brothers succeed in coming to power, Egypt will never progress and will stand as an obstacle to civilization,” he reportedly told Qutb. Then he offered to translate Qutb’s new book into English and pay him a fee of ten thousand dollars, a fantastic sum for such an obscure book. Qutb refused. He later speculated that Heyworth-Dunne was attempting to recruit him to the CIA. In any case, he said, “I decided to enter the Brotherhood even before I left the house.”

Greeley, Colorado, was a flourishing agricultural community northeast of Denver when the recuperating Qutb arrived in the summer of 1949 to attend classes at the Colorado State College of Education. At the time, the college enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most progressive teaching institutions in America. Summer courses were always swollen with teachers from around the country who came to take advanced degrees and enjoy the cool weather and the splendid mountains nearby. 

In the evenings, there were symphonies, lectures, Chautauqua programs, and outdoor theatrical presentations on the leafy commons of the college. The college set up circus tents to house the spillover classes. Qutb spent six months in Greeley, the longest period he stayed in any one American town. Greeley offered an extreme contrast to his disagreeable experiences in the fast-paced cities of New York and Washington. Indeed, there were few places in the country that should have seemed more congenial to Qutb’s sharpened moral sensibilities. 

Greeley had been founded in 1870 as a temperance colony by Nathan Meeker, the agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. Meeker had formerly lived in southern Illinois, near Cairo, above the convergence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, in the “Little Egypt” portion of that state. He had come to believe that the greatest civilizations were founded in river valleys, and so he established his colony in the rich delta between the Cache la Poudre and the South Platte rivers. Through irrigation, Meeker hoped to transform the “Great American Desert” into an agricultural paradise—just as Egyptians had done since the beginning of civilization. 

Meeker’s editor at the Tribune, Horace Greeley, vigorously supported the idea, and his namesake city soon became one of the most highly publicized planned communities in the nation. Greeley’s early settlers were not youthful pioneers; they were middle class and middle-aged. They traveled by train, not by wagon or stagecoach, and they brought their values and their standards with them. They intended to establish a community that would serve as a model for the cities of the future, one that drew upon the mandatory virtues required of every settler: industry, moral rectitude, and temperance. 

Surely, on such a foundation, a purified and prosperous civilization would emerge. Indeed, by the time Sayyid Qutb stepped off the train, Greeley was the most substantial settlement between Denver and Cheyenne. Family life was the center of Greeley society; there were no bars or liquor stores, and there seemed to be a church on every corner. The college boasted one of the finest music departments in the country, with frequent concerts that the music-loving Qutb must have enjoyed. In the evenings, illustrious educators spoke at the lyceum. James Michener, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tales of the South Pacific, returned to teach a writing workshop at the school where he had studied and taught from 1936 to 1941. 

At last Qutb had stumbled into a community that exalted the same pursuits that he held so dear: education, music, art, literature, and religion. “The small city of Greeley that I now reside in is beautiful, beautiful,” he wrote soon after he arrived. “Every house is like a flowering plant and the streets are like garden pathways. One observes the owners of these homes toiling away in their leisure time, watering their yards and manicuring their gardens. This is all they appear to do.”

The frantic pace of life that Qutb objected to in New York was far away. There was a front-page article in the Greeley Tribune that summer chronicling a turtle’s successful crossing of a downtown street. 

And yet even in Greeley there were disturbing currents under the surface, which Qutb soon detected. A mile south of campus there was a small community of saloons and liquor stores named Garden City. Here the teetotalers of Greeley held no sway. The town got its name during the Prohibition era, when local rumrunners hid bottles of liquor inside watermelons, which they sold to students at the college. Whenever there was a party, the students would visit “the garden” to stock up on supplies. Qutb would have been struck by the disparity between Greeley’s sober face and the demimonde of Garden City. Indeed, the downfall of America’s temperance movement earned Qutb’s disdain because he believed that the country had failed to make a spiritual commitment to sobriety, which only an all-encompassing system such as Islam could hope to enforce. 

America made him sharply aware of himself as a man of color. In one of the cities he visited (he doesn’t say where) he witnessed a black man being beaten by a white mob: “They were kicking him with their shoes until his blood and flesh mixed in the public road.” One can imagine how threatened this dark-skinned traveler must have felt. Even the liberal settlement of Greeley was on edge because of racial fears. There were very few black families in the town. Most of the Ute Indian population had been run out of the state after a battle that left fourteen cavalrymen dead and Nathan Meeker, the founder of Greeley, without his scalp. 

In the twenties, Mexican labor was brought in to work in the fields and slaughterhouses. Although the signs forbidding Mexicans to remain in town after dark had been taken down, the Catholic church still had a separate entrance for nonwhites, who were supposed to sit upstairs. In the handsome park behind the courthouse, Anglos kept to the south side and Hispanics to the north. 

The international students at the college occupied an uneasy place in this charged racial environment. Students from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as well as a number of Hawaiians, formed the core of the International Club, which Qutb joined. The college also hosted a small Middle Eastern community, including recent Palestinian refugees and several members of the Iraqi royal family. For the most part, they were well treated by the citizens of Greeley, who often invited them into their homes for meals and holidays. 

Once, Qutb and several friends were turned away from a movie theater because the owner thought they were black. “But we’re Egyptians,” one of the group explained. The owner apologized and offered to let them in, but Qutb refused, galled by the fact that black Egyptians could be admitted but black Americans could not. 

Despite the tensions of the town, the college maintained a progressive attitude toward race. During the summer sessions students from the Negro teachers colleges of the South came to Greeley in abundance, but there were only a couple of black students during the regular school year. One of them was Jaime McClendon, the school’s star football player, who was a member of the International Club and roomed with one of the Palestinians. 

Because the barbers in Greeley refused to serve him, he had to drive to Denver every month to get his hair cut. Finally, several of the Arab students escorted him to the local barbershop and refused to leave until McClendon was served. Qutb would later write that “racism had brought America down from the summit to the foot of the mountain—taking the rest of humanity down with it.” 

The 1949 football season was a dismal one for the Colorado State College of Education. McClendon sat out the season with an injury, and the team lost every game, including a memorable defeat (103–0) to the University of Wyoming. The spectacle of American football simply confirmed Qutb’s view of its primitiveness. “The foot does not play any role in the game,” he reported. “Instead, each player attempts to take the ball in his hands, run with it or throw it to the goal, while the players on the other team hinder him by any means, including kicking in the stomach, or violently breaking his arms or legs…. Meantime, the fans cry out, ‘Break his neck! Crack his head!’”

It was the women, however, who posed the real threat to this lonely Egyptian bachelor. Far more than most settlements in the American West, Greeley expressed a powerfully feminine aesthetic. The city had not been settled by miners or trappers or railroad workers who lived in a world largely without women; from the beginning, Greeley had been populated by well-educated families. The female influence was evident in the cozy houses with their ample front porches, the convenient and well-ordered shops, the handsome public schools, the low-slung architecture, and the comparatively liberal political climate, but nowhere was it more powerfully expressed than in the college itself. 

Forty-two percent of the 2,135 students enrolled during the fall semester were women, at a time when the national average of female enrollment was about 30 percent. There were no departments of business or engineering; instead, three great schools dominated the college: education, music, and theater. City girls from Denver and Phoenix, country girls from the farms and ranches of the plains, and girls from the little mountain towns—all of them were drawn to the college because of its national reputation and the sense of entitlement that women were awarded on its campus. Here, among the yellow-brick buildings that embraced the great commons, the girls of the West could sample the freedom that most American women would not fully enjoy for decades to come. 

In this remote Western town, Sayyid Qutb had moved ahead of his time. He was experiencing women who were living beyond most of their contemporaries in terms of their assumptions about themselves and their place in society—and consequently in their relations with men. “The issue of sexual relationships is simply biological,” one of the college women explained to Qutb. “You Orientals complicate this simple matter by introducing a moral element to it. The stallion and the mare, the bull and the cow, the ram and the ewe, the rooster and the hen—none of them consider moral consequences when they have intercourse. And therefore life goes on, simple, easy and carefree.” The fact that the woman was a teacher made this statement all the more subversive, in Qutb’s opinion, since she would be polluting generations of young people with her amoral philosophy. 

Qutb began his studies in the summer, auditing a course in elementary English composition. By fall, he was sufficiently confident of his English to attempt three graduate courses in education and a course in elocution. He was determined to master the language, since he harbored the secret goal of writing a book in English. One can appreciate the level of his achievement by examining an odd and rather disturbing essay he wrote, titled “The World Is an Undutiful Boy!”, which appeared in the student literary magazine, Fulcrum, in the fall of 1949, only a year after he arrived in America. 

“There was an ancient legend in Egypt,” he wrote. “When the god of wisdom and knowledge created History, he gave him a great writing book and a big pen, and said to him, ‘Go walking on this earth, and write notes about everything you see or hear.’ History did as the god suggested. He came upon a wise and beautiful woman who was gently teaching a young boy: History looked at her with great astonishment and cried, “Who is it?” raising his face to the sky. “She is Egypt,” his god answered. “She is Egypt and that little boy is the world …” 

Why did those ancient Egyptians hold this belief? Because they were very advanced and possessed a great civilization before any other country. Egypt was a civilized country when other peoples were living in forests. Egypt taught Greece, and Greece taught Europe. What happened when the little boy grew up? When he grew up, he had thrown out his nurse, his kind nurse! He struck her, trying to kill her. I am sorry. This is not a figure of speech. This is a fact. This is what actually happened. 

When we came here [presumably, to the United Nations] to appeal to England for our rights, the world helped England against the justice. When we came here to appeal against Jews, the world helped the Jews against the justice. During the war between Arab and Jews, the world helped the Jews, too. Oh! What an undutiful world! What an undutiful boy! 

Qutb was quite a bit older than most of the other students at the school, and he naturally held himself somewhat apart. There is a photograph of him in the campus bulletin showing a copy of one of his books to Dr. William Ross, the president of the college. Qutb is identified as “a famous Egyptian author” and “a noted educator,” so he must have been accorded some respectful notice by his peers on the faculty, but he socialized mainly with the foreign students. 

One evening, the Arab students held an International Night, where they prepared traditional Arabian meals, and Qutb acted as host, explaining each dish. Otherwise, he spent most of his time in his room listening to classical records on his turntable. There were polkas and square dances in town several times a week, and the college brought in well-known jazz bands. Two of the most popular songs that year were “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Hai,” both from the musical South Pacific, based on Michener’s novel, and they must have been in the air constantly in Greeley. 

It was the end of the big band era; rock and roll was still over the horizon. “Jazz is the American music, created by Negroes to satisfy their primitive instincts—their love of noise and their appetite for sexual arousal,” Qutb wrote, showing he was not immune to racial pronouncements. 

“The American is not satisfied with jazz music unless it is accompanied by noisy singing. As the volume increases, accompanied by unbearable pain to the ears, so does the excitement of the audience, their voices rising, their hands clapping, till one can hear nothing at all.”

On Sundays the college did not serve food, and students had to fend for themselves. Many of the international students, including Muslims like Qutb, would visit one of the more than fifty churches in Greeley on Sunday evening, where, after services, there were potluck dinners and sometimes a dance. “The dancing hall was decorated with yellow, red and blue lights,” Qutb recalled on one occasion. “The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love.” 

The minister gazed upon this sight approvingly, and even dimmed the lights to enhance the romantic atmosphere. Then he put on a song titled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a sly ballad from an Esther Williams movie that summer, Neptune’s Daughter. “The minister paused to watch his young charges swaying to the rhythms of this seductive song, then he left them to enjoy this pleasant, innocent night,” Qutb concluded sarcastically.

In December a new tone entered his letters to his friends. He began talking about his “estrangement,” in both soul and body. By then he had withdrawn from all his classes. 

Sayyid Qutb spent another eight months in America, most of that time in California. The America he perceived was vastly different from the way most Americans viewed their culture. In literature and movies, and especially in the new medium of television, Americans portrayed themselves as sexually curious but inexperienced, whereas Qutb’s America was more like the one sketched by the Kinsey Report. 

Qutb saw a spiritual wasteland, and yet belief in God was nearly unanimous in the United States at the time. It was easy to be misled by the proliferation of churches, religious books, and religious festivals, Qutb maintained; the fact remained that materialism was the real American god. “The soul has no value to Americans,” he wrote to one friend. “There has been a Ph.D. dissertation about the best way to clean dishes, which seems more important to them than the Bible or religion.”

Many Americans were beginning to come to similar conclusions. The theme of alienation in American life was just beginning to cast a pall over the postwar party. In many respects, Qutb’s analysis, though harsh, was only premature. 

Certainly the trip had not accomplished what Qutb’s friends in Egypt had hoped. Instead of becoming liberalized by his experience in America, he returned even more radicalized. Moreover, his sour impressions, when published, would profoundly shape Arab and Muslim perceptions of the new world at a time when their esteem for America and its values had been high. 

He also brought home a new and abiding anger about race. “The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy,” he declared. “The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives…. We are endowing our children with amazement and respect for the master who tramples our honor and enslaves us. Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children. Let us teach these children from the time their nails are soft that the white man is the enemy of humanity, and that they should destroy him at the first opportunity.”

Oddly, the people who knew Qutb in America say he seemed to like the country. They remember him as shy and polite, political but not overtly religious. Once introduced, he never forgot anyone’s name, and he rarely voiced any direct criticism of his host country.

Perhaps he kept the slights to himself until he could safely broadcast them at home. It is clear that he was writing not just about America. His central concern was modernity. Modern values—secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism—had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism. America now stood for all that. 

Qutb’s polemic was directed at Egyptians who wanted to bend Islam around the modern world. He intended to show that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible. His extraordinary project, which was still emerging, was to take apart the entire political and philosophical structure of modernity and return Islam to its unpolluted origins. For him, that was a state of divine oneness, the complete unity of God and humanity. 

Separation of the sacred and the secular, state and religion, science and theology, mind and spirit—these were the hallmarks of modernity, which had captured the West. But Islam could not abide such divisions. In Islam, he believed, divinity could not be diminished without being destroyed. Islam was total and uncompromising. It was God’s final word. Muslims had forgotten this in their enchantment with the West. Only by restoring Islam to the center of their lives, their laws, and their government could Muslims hope to recapture their rightful place as the dominant culture in the world. That was their duty, not only to themselves but also to God. 

Qutb returned to Cairo on a TWA flight on August 20, 1950. Like him, the country had become more openly radical. Racked by corruption and assassination, humiliated in the 1948 war against Israel, the Egyptian government ruled without popular authority, at the whim of the occupying power. Although the British had nominally withdrawn from Cairo, concentrating their forces in the Suez Canal Zone, the hand of empire still weighed heavy on the restive capital. The British were present in the clubs and hotels, the bars and movie theaters, the European restaurants and department stores of this sophisticated, decadent city. 

As his people hissed, the obese Turkish king, Farouk, raced around Cairo in one of his two hundred red automobiles (his were the only cars in the country allowed to be red), seducing—if one can call it that—young girls, or else sailing his fleet of yachts to the gambling ports of the Riviera, where his debauchery tested historic standards. 

Meanwhile, the usual measures of despair—poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and disease—grew recklessly out of control. Governments revolved meaninglessly as stocks fell and the smart money fled the teetering country. In this rotten political environment, one organization steadily acted in the interests of the people. 

The Muslim Brothers created their own hospitals, schools, factories, and welfare societies; they even formed their own army and fought alongside other Arab troops in Palestine. They acted less as a countergovernment than as a countersociety, which was indeed their goal. Their founder, Hasan al-Banna, had refused to think of his organization as a mere political party; it was meant to be a challenge to the entire idea of politics. 

Banna completely rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government, which contradicted his notion of universal Islamic rule. “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet,” he wrote. The fact that the Brothers provided the only organized, effective resistance to the British occupation ensured their legitimacy in the eyes of the members of Egypt’s lower-middle class, who formed the core of Brothers membership. 

The government officially dissolved the Muslim Brothers in 1948, following the killing of the hated police chief Salim Zaki during a riot at the medical school of Cairo University; but by that time the Brothers had more than a million members and supporters—out of a total Egyptian population of 18 million. 

Although the Brotherhood was a mass movement, it was also intimately organized into cooperative “families”—cells that contained no more than five members each, giving it a spongy, clandestine quality that proved difficult to detect and impossible to eradicate. 

There was a violent underside to the Society of the Muslim Brothers, which would become deeply rooted in the Islamist movement. With Banna’s approval, a “secret apparatus” formed within the organization. Although most of the Brothers’ activity was directed at the British and at Egypt’s quickly dwindling Jewish population, they were also behind the bombings of two Cairo movie theaters, the murder of a prominent judge, and the actual assassinations—as well as many attempts—of several members of government. By the time the government murdered Banna, in an act of self-protection, the secret apparatus posed a powerful and uncontrollable authority within the Brotherhood. 

In retaliation for raids against their bases, British forces assaulted a police barracks in the canal city of Ismailia in January 1952, firing at point-blank range for twelve hours and killing fifty police conscripts. 

Immediately upon hearing the news, agitated mobs formed on the streets of Cairo. They burned the old British haunts of the Turf Club and the famous Shepheard’s Hotel. The arsonists, led by members of the Muslim Brothers’ secret apparatus, slashed the hoses of the fire engines that arrived to put out the flames, then moved on to the European quarter, burning every movie house, casino, bar, and restaurant in the center of the city. 

By morning, a thick black cloud of smoke lingered over the ruins. At least 30 people had been killed, 750 buildings destroyed, fifteen thousand people put out of work, and twelve thousand made homeless. Cosmopolitan Cairo was dead. 

Something new was about to be born, however. In July of that year, a military junta, dominated by a charismatic young army colonel, Gamal Abdul Nasser, packed King Farouk onto his yacht and seized control of the government, which fell without resistance.

For the first time in twenty-five hundred years, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians. Qutb had taken up his old job in the Ministry of Education and returned to his former home in the suburb of Helwan, which was once an ancient spa known for its healing sulfur waters. He occupied a two-story villa on a wide street with jacaranda trees in the front yard. He filled an entire wall of his salon with his collection of classical music albums. 

Some of the planning for the revolution had taken place in this very room, where Nasser and the military plotters of the coup met to coordinate with the Muslim Brothers. Several of the officers, including Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser’s eventual successor, had close ties to the Brotherhood. If the coup attempt failed, the Brothers were to help the officers escape. 

In the event, the government fell so easily that the Brothers had little real participation in the actual coup. 

Qutb published an open letter to the leaders of the revolution, advising them that the only way to purge the moral corruption of the old regime was to impose a “just dictatorship” that would grant political standing to “the virtuous alone.” Nasser then invited Qutb to become an advisor to the Revolutionary Command Council. Qutb hoped for a cabinet position in the new government, but when he was offered a choice between being the minister of education or general manager of Cairo radio, he turned both posts down. 

Nasser eventually appointed him head of the editorial board of the revolution, but Qutb quit the post after a few months. The prickly negotiation between the two men reflected the initial close cooperation of the Brothers and the Free Officers in a social revolution that both organizations thought was theirs to control. In fact, neither faction had the popular authority to rule. In a story that would be repeated again and again in the Middle East, the contest quickly narrowed to a choice between a military society and a religious one. Nasser had the army and the Brothers had the mosques. 

Nasser’s political dream was of pan-Arab socialism, modern, egalitarian, secular, and industrialized, in which individual lives were dominated by the overwhelming presence of the welfare state. His dream had little to do with the theocratic Islamic government that Qutb and the Brothers espoused. The Islamists wanted to completely reshape society, from the top down, imposing Islamic values on all aspects of life, so that every Muslim could achieve his purest spiritual expression. That could be accomplished only through a strict imposition of the Sharia, the legal code drawn from the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, which governs all parts of life. Anything less than that, the Islamists argued, was not Islam; it was jahiliyya—the pagan world before the Prophet received his message. 

Qutb opposed egalitarianism because the Quran stated: “We have created you class upon class.” He rejected nationalism because it warred with the ideal of Muslim unity. In retrospect, it is difficult to see how Qutb and Nasser could have misunderstood each other so profoundly. The only thing they had in common was the grandeur of their respective visions and their hostility to democratic rule. 

Nasser threw Qutb in prison for the first time in 1954, but after three months he let him out and allowed him to become the editor of the Muslim Brothers magazine, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin. Presumably Nasser hoped his display of mercy would enhance his standing with the Islamists and keep them from turning against the increasingly secular aims of the new government; he may also have believed that Qutb had been chastened by his time in prison. Like the former king, Nasser always underestimated his adversary’s intransigence. 

Qutb wrote a number of sharply critical editorials calling for jihad against the British at the very time Nasser was negotiating a treaty that would nominally end the occupation. In August 1954 the government shut the magazine down. By that time, ill will between the Brothers and the military leaders had hardened into cold opposition. It was clear that Nasser had no intention of instituting an Islamic revolution, despite his highly publicized pilgrimage to Mecca that same month. 

Qutb was so infuriated that he formed a secret alliance with the Egyptian communists in an abortive effort to bring Nasser down. 

The ideological war over Egypt’s future reached a climax on the night of October 26, 1954. Nasser was addressing an immense crowd in a public square in Alexandria. The entire country was listening to the radio as a member of the Muslim Brothers stepped forward and fired eight shots at the Egyptian president, wounding a guard but missing Nasser. 

It was the turning point in Nasser’s presidency. Over the chaos of the panicked crowd, Nasser continued speaking even as the gunshots rang out. “Let them kill Nasser! What is Nasser but one among many?” he cried. “I am alive, and even if I die, all of you are Gamal Abdul Nasser!” 

Had the gunman succeeded, he might have been hailed as a hero, but the failure gave Nasser a popularity he had never enjoyed until then. He immediately put that to use by having six conspirators hanged and placing thousands of others in concentration camps. Qutb was charged with being a member of the Muslim Brothers’ secret apparatus that was responsible for the assassination attempt. Nasser thought he had crushed the Brothers once and for all. 

Stories about Sayyid Qutb’s suffering in prison have formed a kind of Passion play for Islamic fundamentalists. It is said that Qutb had a high fever when he was arrested; nonetheless, the state-security officers handcuffed him and forced him to walk to prison. He fainted several times along the way. For hours he was held in a cell with vicious dogs, and then, during long periods of interrogation, he was beaten. “The principles of the revolution have indeed been applied to us,” he said, as he raised his shirt to show the court the marks of torture. 

Through confessions of other members of the Brotherhood, the prosecution presented a sensational scenario of a planned takeover of the government, involving the destruction of Alexandria and Cairo, blowing up all the bridges over the Nile, and numerous assassinations—an unprecedented campaign of terror, all in the service of turning Egypt into a primitive theocracy. The testimony also demonstrated, however, that the Brothers were too disorganized to accomplish any of these dreadful tasks. 

Three highly partisan judges, one of them Anwar al-Sadat, oversaw these proceedings. They sentenced Qutb to life in prison, but when his health deteriorated, the sentence was reduced to fifteen years. Qutb was always frail. He had a weak heart, a delicate stomach, and sciatica, which gave him chronic pain. After a bout of pneumonia when he was thirty years old, he suffered from frequent bronchial problems. He experienced two heart attacks in prison, and bleeding in his lungs, which may have been an effect of torture, or tuberculosis. 

He moved to the prison hospital in May 1955, where he stayed for the next ten years, spending much of his time writing a lucid, highly personal, eight-volume commentary called In the Shade of the Quran, which by itself would have assured his place as one of the most significant modern Islamic thinkers. But his political views were darkening. 

*

from his book:

The looming tower. Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11

by Lawrence Wright

get it at Amazon.com

‘We were just a normal family’: Che Guevara’s daughter remembers her father – Sophie Haydock. 

On the right is my father, cigar in hand, talking to his lifelong friend Fidel Castro, a fellow communist revolutionary. 

The angle makes it look like my father is holding out his cigar to me, but that’s not the case. It was unusual that he’d smoke around me. I don’t remember this picture being taken, or by whom; I was too young. I’d have been around three at the time. I was born in November 1960, and I’ve since been told it was 1964 in Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

I am the eldest of Che’s four children with my mother. Papi was known around the world as the Argentine revolutionary, a guerrilla leader and major figure of the Cuban revolution, but we were just a normal family. I never felt special as his daughter. Where I did feel special was as the child of a couple who loved each other dearly.

As children, we enjoyed Papi very little. I was only six when he was executed in Bolivia 50 years ago, on 9 October, 1967. Our mother formed our values and kept him alive in our memory long after he died. She never used him as a way to tell us off or threaten us. Papi was always the good guy.

We never enjoyed any privileges: my father was opposed to that, and my mother maintained the line. When she became a widow with four small children, my father’s friends wanted to help. They couldn’t replace the affection that had been lost, so tried to give us material things. My mother wouldn’t permit anything at all. She told us, “You must have your feet firmly on the ground, and let pass everything you haven’t earned yourselves.” That was an important lesson.

We went through difficult periods. In my teenage years, she’d make trousers for my brothers with material from her old blouses. But we were happy: we’d play, we’d laugh. We grew up like Cuban children, alongside the people in our community.

I was close to Fidel and comfortable with him. I have very fond memories – I would call him “mi tío”, which means “my uncle”. I maintained a relationship with him right up until the end of his last year. 

He’s holding me and I’m relaxed, smiling. My father and Fidel were always happy and joking together; there was much mutual respect and confidence there.

Fidel wanted to break the news to us children when Papi died, but my mother insisted it was her duty. But he told us that Papi had written a letter saying that if one day he fell in combat, we were not to cry for him: when a man dies trying to achieve what he wants to achieve, one doesn’t need to. The next day, I was called in to see my mother, who was in tears. She sat me on the bed and pulled out the farewell letter from Papi.

“When you see this letter,” it said, “you will know that I am no longer with you.” I started crying, too. The letter was very short. It ended with the words: “Here is a big kiss from Dad.” I understood I no longer had a father.

I still live and work in Havana, as a paediatrician, and feel hopeful for the future of Cuba. Do I have hope for humanity? None of us has a crystal ball, but if we want a different world, we need to work to achieve it. We can’t wait for it to fall out of the sky. We have a duty to forge that future ourselves.

The Guardian 

The Sunni-Shia divide. Islam’s ‘Toxic’ Schism – John McHugh. 

Embodied in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunni-Shia divide is a schism that threatens to tear the Islamic world apart. Though its origins go back to the beginnings of Islam, its present toxicity is a recent development.

The words Sunni and Shia only emerged into public consciousness at the end of the 1970s. Before then – except among Sunnis and Shia themselves – the terms had been largely confined to the rarified world of Islamic Studies faculties. But in 1978 it became obvious to journalists grappling with the early stages of the Islamic revolution in Iran that the Shia clergy, dismissed as irrelevant ‘black crows’ by the soon-to-be-toppled Shah, were actually very important. Few political analysts – including those in the CIA and MI6 – knew much about them.

Since then, we have gone from one extreme to the other. Today, far too many commentators latch onto the Sunni-Shia divide as the root cause of all the difficulties currently faced by the Middle East and much of the rest of the Islamic world. This explanation is facile, if convenient. Nor is it confined to neo-conservatives or right-wing identity entrepreneurs in the West, who relish writing about a Darwinian struggle for the soul of Islam that fits in with their own preconceptions about the essentially violent nature of the religion. Indeed, Barack Obama is on record as stating that ‘ancient sectarian differences’ are the drivers of today’s instability in the Arab world and that ‘the Middle East is going through a transformation going on for a generation rooted in conflicts that date back millenia’.

What truth is there in such statements? In order to answer that question, we need to establish how most Muslims became either Sunnis or Shia and examine why the split is still theologically significant. Is the Sunni-Shia divide really a driver for conflict or is it in reality a convenient cloak for political disputes? I believe that the latter is the case and that we hinder our attempts at analysis by using the divide as an explanation for modern conflicts.

*

The origins of the split may go back to the final hours of the Prophet Muhammad’s life in 632. When those close to him realised he was dying, they were forced to confront the question of who would lead the Muslim faithful after his death. The Muslims, followers of the new religion Muhammad believed had been revealed to him by God, now dominated Arabia. Yet there were different factions within the Muslim community and its roots were still shallow in many parts of the peninsula. Whoever became the new caliph, as the leader of the community came to be styled, would be faced with pressing political decisions, as well as the need to provide spiritual guidance. Moreover, his authority would never be able to match that wielded by Muhammad, since the caliph would not be a prophet.

Ali bin Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin, who had also married his daughter, Fatima, believed that the Prophet had designated him as his successor. But other leading companions of Muhammad considered Ali unsuitable. He was 30 years younger than Muhammad and therefore much younger than many of the Prophet’s leading companions. Some questioned the reliability of his judgment. Perhaps most crucially, he was perceived as too close to the Muslims of Medina, the Ansar. These ‘Helpers’ were the inhabitants of Medina who had given refuge to the Prophet and his followers after they left Mecca in 622. As such, they were not members of the aristocratic Meccan tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad had belonged. Ali was repeatedly overlooked as the leadership passed in turn to three much older companions of the Prophet: Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. Ali accepted this state of affairs with grudging resignation but never abandoned his belief that the Prophet had intended him as his successor.

During the 24 years in which Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman ruled the polity which Muhammad had established, it turned into an empire that conquered Greater Syria, Iraq, Egypt and much of the Iranian plateau. This success was nearly its undoing. Mutinous tribesmen, dissatisfied with their share of the booty from the conquests, murdered Uthman and it was only at this point, in 656, that Ali was acclaimed as caliph.

Ali’s rule was contested from the outset. Civil wars inside the Muslim community began within months. The Prophet’s widow, Ayesha, stirred up a rebellion against Ali under the leadership of two other eminent companions of the Prophet, Talha and Zubair, both figures of sufficient stature to be considered potential candidates for caliph. Ali defeated them and they were both killed on the battlefield, but then he had to fight the powerful governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, who was a kinsman of the murdered Uthman. There was a pause for negotiations but, before this dispute could be resolved, Ali was assassinated in 661 and the caliphate was taken over by Mu’awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled until it was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. Their caliphate lasted until 1258, although they had to bow to the control of families of warlords from 945 onwards. Most Muslims accepted Umayyad and then Abbasid rule, but the office of caliph decayed into little more than a symbolic source of legitimacy. Whatever power the caliph may (or may not) have once had to define Islamic teaching had drained away by the middle of the ninth century. 

The civil wars that shattered the Muslim community’s unity during Ali’s caliphate were a scandal and left a trauma. Islam was meant to bring peace and justice. Instead, it had been torn apart by violence leaving a legacy of bitterness and mistrust, as well as calls for vengeance. Some of Muhammad’s closest companions had led armies against each other. As a consequence of this discord, two competing narratives of the early history of Islam emerged, which led directly to rival conceptions of how the truths of Islam should be discerned.

All Muslims accept the Quran as their starting point. The question is: how can Muslims discern the teaching and practice of their faith when the text of the Quran does not provide a clear answer to questions about doctrine and practice. Most Muslims looked to the Prophet’s companions as the source of his wisdom, his customs and his practice of the faith. But this was problematic for those who believed Muhammad had intended Ali to follow him. This group saw the overwhelming majority of the companions as people who had betrayed the wishes of the Prophet after his death, when they rejected Ali. It followed that, however close those companions may have been to the Prophet during his lifetime, they were unreliable transmitters of the faith.

Ali’s followers clung instead to a belief in the Prophet’s family as the source for the true teaching of Islam, especially Ali and his direct descendants through Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. In each generation, the head of the House of Ali became known as the Imam (not to be confused with the more general title given to the leader of a mosque by Sunni Muslims). He was deemed to be sinless and to have a direct connection with the Divine that meant his interpretation of the faith would always be the true one. Such ideas were anathema to the majority of Muslims, who believed Ali had not been chosen by the Prophet as his successor.

These are the two communities we now call Sunnis and Shia. Sunnis are those who revere the companions of the Prophet and see them as the transmitters of his practice or custom (sunnah in Arabic); Shia are the partisans of Ali and his descendants through Fatima (Shi’ahmeans faction or party). The differences between them go back to their incompatible interpretations of the early history of Islam and each can find justification for its position in the historical sources. Shia see Sunnis as betrayers of the true Islam, while Sunnis see Shia as a group who have brought factional strife into their religion. Although most Shia clerics discourage this today, there have been many periods of history when Shia have cursed Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman as well as other important Sunni figures such as the Prophet’s widow Ayesha. For their part, many Sunni scholars throw up their hands in horror at the Shia veneration for the Imams, which they see as a form of idolatry. 

*

As long as the basic point concerning these rival narratives of early Islamic history and their theological significance is understood, there is no need to delve any deeper into the struggles between medieval dynasties in order to understand the tensions between Sunnis and Shia today. It is sometimes implied that those struggles have continued into modern times, but this is entirely wrong. What has survived into our own time is the existence of rival – and, to an extent, incompatible ­– teachings as to how the doctrines and practice of Islam should be discerned.  

Today, up to 90 per cent of Muslims are Sunnis. Among the Shia minority, an overwhelming majority are ‘Twelvers’. ‘Twelver Shi’ism’ teaches that the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into hiding in the late ninth century in order to escape murder at the hands of the Sunni Abbasid caliphs. He remains alive to this day but is hidden, or absent, from the world. He will reappear at the end of time to initiate a millenarian era of justice which will precede the struggle with the Antichrist and the Last Judgement. One consequence for Twelvers of the absence of the Imam until the end of earthly time is that their religious scholars have gradually taken over the Imam’s role in expounding the doctrines and practice of the faith. Iran and Azerbaijan are Twelver countries, while Twelvers constitute a majority in Iraq and Bahrain and are the largest single religious sect in Lebanon. There are also significant Twelver minorities in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and among the Muslims of India.

When people talk of the Sunni-Shia divide as an issue in international politics, they are generally alluding to the divide between Sunnis and Twelvers, since that is the divide that appears to have political significance today. Other Shia groups, such as the Ismaili followers of the Agha Khan, tend to have little significance in the politics of most Muslim countries, while others, such as the Alawis of Syria (who are an offshoot of the Twelvers) or the Zaydis of Yemen (who are not) are only of political importance in the particular countries where they are based.

It is often forgotten that the Sunni-Shia divide only became explosive internationally from the 1970s onwards. Before then, Twelvers had come to be accepted by many Sunnis almost as an additional law school alongside the four great law schools of Sunni Islam. Sunnis accept these four law schools, the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi’is and Hanbalis, as equally valid in their teaching of the practice of the faith. Twelvers are sometimes described as followers of the Ja’fari law school, named after the sixth Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq (died 765). It is worth noting in passing that, as well as being a Shia Imam, he was also hugely respected by Sunnis as a teacher of Muslim doctrine and practice. Malik bin Anas and Abu Hanifa, the founders of the Maliki and Hanafi law schools of Sunni Islam, were among his pupils.     

None of this means that tensions between Sunnis and Shia had been absent. After the creation of the modern state of Iraq, for instance, there were bitter struggles over whether the Sunni or Shia interpretation of the early history of Islam should be taught in schools. The majority Shia felt excluded from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni elite (although between 1945 and the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 there were four Shia prime ministers). Yet in many countries, including Iraq and Syria, secular politics based on nationalist and socialist ideas seemed to be the way forward. This made questions of sectarian identity among the Muslims there less important. When India was partitioned in 1947, Pakistan was conceived as a homeland for a new nation that would have Islam as the cornerstone of its national identity. Intra-Muslim sectarianism played no part in its creation. Frequently overlooked today (and sometimes airbrushed from history) is the fact that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a Twelver Shia. So were the Bhutto family. 

*

Why has Sunni-Shia sectarianism become so toxic? There are several reasons. The first is the tolerance of anti-Shia hate speech by the Saudi Arabian government, which, especially after it accrued massive oil revenues from 1973 onwards, has sought to export its brittle Wahhabi ideology. Saudi Arabia might see itself as promoting Muslim solidarity as a rallying point for conservatives against Arab nationalism, socialism and democracy, yet its founding ideology, Wahhabism, demonises Shia (and Sufis) as idolaters. The second reason is the Iranian revolution of 1979. This was ‘Islamic’, although not primarily in a sectarian sense. Ayatollah Khomeini’s ambition was to persuade all Muslims – Sunnis as well as Shia – to line up behind him. (That was his motive when issuing a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, for example). The spread of Iranian revolutionary ideas was seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia and all other western-aligned, conservative states with Muslim populations. As the decades passed, Saudi Arabia and Iran would both try to co-opt Sunni and Shia communities to their side in their struggle for regional power. Iran’s greatest success was in the mobilisation of the Twelvers of Lebanon and the formation of the political and paramilitary organisation, Hezbollah. It also did what it could to stir up trouble for Saudi Arabia among the Twelvers of the oil-rich eastern province of the kingdom, who were always looked down on with suspicion by the Saudi monarchy and excluded from key positions. In Pakistan, as a result of Saudi influence during the military rule of General Zia ul-Haq from 1977-88, a form of strict Sunni Islam became the governing ideology of the state. This excluded Shia and led to the sectarianisation of Pakistani politics 

The third reason is the decay of Ba’athism, the ultra-secular Arab nationalist movement  that came to power during the 1950s and 1960s in Syria and Iraq through a series of military coups and intrigues. Although Ba’athism pledged to remove religion from politics entirely, the manner in which Ba’athist regimes came to power ended up having the opposite effect. Military dictators have to build up power bases with patronage. Men like Saddam Hussein in Iraq (a member of the Sunni minority) and Hafez al-Assad in Syria (a member of the Shia Alawi minority) promoted family members, childhood friends from their own town or village, people from their own tribe and province and, almost inevitably, co-sectarians. It should be no surprise that Saddam’s Republican Guard were recruited from (Sunni) tribes near the president’s home town, or that the Alawis of the mountains where Hafez al Assad grew up supplied a disproportionate number of his secret policemen.

In both countries, democratic life ended in the late 1950s or early 1960s and the dictators were as brutal as expediency required. No wonder, then, that toxic sectarian politics should have found fertile soil in each of them. In Syria, this occurred when militant Sunni Islamists, who denounced Alawis and Ba’athists as apostates, took on the regime in Hama in 1982 and subsequently infiltrated the abortive revolution after 2011. In Iraq, Shia opposition to Saddam led to the flourishing of religion-based political parties linked to Iran, while the re-introduction of democratic elections after the 2003 invasion led to the flourishing of sectarian parties. The perfect storm created in both countries incubated ISIS with its extreme anti-Shia rhetoric. In Iraq, some Sunnis who felt excluded from the new order were tempted to fight under its banner, which also attracted a number of talented former army officers. In Syria, where those killed by ISIS are only a fraction of the number killed by government forces, some Sunnis could see ISIS as the lesser of two evils.    

Yet sectarianism is a blind alley. The ideals of the Arab Spring in 2011 and similar movements were non-sectarian. The sectarian identity entrepreneurs who have set up groups like Al Qaidah and ISIS may succeed in manipulating enough people in their communities to destabilise the region for years to come, but in the end the ideals which shook the Arab world in 2011 showed that the people of the region wish to travel in a different direction. Those ideals such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the wish for a modern, corruption-free economy (all summarised by the protesters by the one word karamah, ‘dignity’) still bubble away beneath the surface.

John McHugo is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi‘is(Saqi, 2017). 

*

History Today

GAZA, Preparing for Dawn – Donald Macintyre. 

Prologue: Shakespeare in Gaza 

Leyla Abdul Rahim had come to the line in Act IV of King Lear where the blinded Gloucester laments, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods. They kill us for their sport.’

Or, rather, the paraphrase offered in the textbook English for Palestine: ‘We are like flies and the gods are like cruel little boys. They torment us and kill us for fun.’ 

The teacher described children pulling the wings off a fly. ‘So the gods torment us for fun, to laugh, to play, okay?’ she said, quickly adding: ‘This is not related to our religion. It is away from our Islam. Allah doesn’t torment us, of course.’

It was tempting to point out from the back of the class that God isn’t supposed to do that in other monotheistic religions either. But that would have been an abuse of Mrs Abdul Rahim’s generous invitation to sit in on her Grade 12 English class at Bashir al-Rayyes High School for Girls in Gaza City. And the thirty students –preparing for the tawjihi, the high school matriculation, for which King Lear was a set text –were enjoying themselves. 

Hands shot up and there were repeated cries of ‘Miss, Miss’ whenever Mrs Abdul Rahim tested her seventeen-year-old charges, all but one in the standard uniform of pale blue smock, jeans and white headscarf. 

‘Goneril is now in love with Edmund. He’s evil. He’s like her exactly. Do you think Goneril respects her husband?’ (Chorus of ‘no’.) 

When Mrs Abdul Rahim ended the lesson, the girls burst spontaneously into applause. After the class, Khulud al-Masharawi said in English that she liked the play because ‘Lear began to feel sorry for people other than himself. He thought about people who had no home, or are on their own.’

It took a moment to remember that this classroom tour de force had taken place in an isolated, overcrowded 140-square-mile strip of territory corralled by concrete walls and electronically monitored fences, ruled by an armed and proscribed Islamic faction, and succinctly described in recent memory by Condoleezza Rice as a ‘terrorist wasteland’. Gaza, as often, was failing to conform to its stereotype. 

I had been brought to the Lear class by another English teacher, Jehan al-Okka. It was fair-minded of her, because she harboured doubts about the suitability for Gaza schoolgirls of Shakespeare’s tragedies, a sentiment clearly not shared by her colleague. For Jehan, Lear was at least an improvement on Romeo and Juliet. She had been among a group of Gaza teachers who staged a successful mini-uprising against a decision to include Romeo and Juliet in that year’s English curriculum for the tawjihi. (Despite the schism between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority since Hamas’s seizure of control in June 2007, the PA continued to supervise the syllabus from its Ramallah base for Gaza as well as the West Bank.) 

Jehan was convinced that Romeo and Juliet was the wrong play at the wrong time. ‘It encourages suicide and disobeying parents,’ she said. Jehan was also concerned that some of her pupils, upon learning that they were to study the play, had downloaded the film version; more, she thought, for the ‘immoral scenes’ rather than any educational purpose. She was relaxed about university students studying the play but felt it was unsuitable for impressionable teenagers. 

As it happened, Romeo and Juliet had been part of the high school syllabus from the years when Gaza had been under Egyptian control and then after the Six Day War and Israeli conquest in 1967. But Jehan, who wasn’t in Hamas, saw a ‘contradiction’between Islamic culture and ‘the things that Shakespeare is trying to convey in his tragedies’. She spoke of the conditions in Gaza: the ten-year Israeli blockade crippling Gaza’s economy which, she believed, had led to a rise in crime. ‘I’m not saying King Lear is encouraging it, but we are trying to reduce violence in our country. And for people who have psychological problems this makes it looks glamorous.’

When she was teaching Lear she said she was careful to warn her pupils: ‘this is not in our culture. None of you will do this.’ Despite her doubts, Jehan took pride in the conscientiousness with which she taught the play. And she was popular. Abir, one seventeen-year-old in the science stream class Jehan took for English, gently defied her teacher by saying she wouldn’t mind studying Romeo and Juliet instead of Lear. 

When we discussed the right age to get married, none of the girls wanted to do so before their twenties, despite the tradition of early marriage prevalent in some sections of Gaza society. But the independent-minded Abir suggested the highest age of all: twenty-eight. 

Jehan explained that some two-thirds of science stream pupils wanted to be doctors – ‘It’s a dream,’ she said. But Abir wanted to be an engineer. Were there many women engineers in Gaza? ‘Yes, many,’ the teacher said crisply, ‘without jobs. Unemployed. 

’Back in the principal’s office we returned to the subject of the English set text. ‘Why give the students something that is full of misery?’ she asked. ‘The students, when someone dies – they are all like, “why is he doing this, the writer?” Everyone dies by the end and the lovely Cordelia dies. Some of the students cried when I said Cordelia died. 

When I studied at university I was old enough to understand the value. For children, when they read something they take the image – killing, suicide, treason. And life in Gaza is bad enough not to increase that misery.’ 

This was the most challenging of Jehan’s points. She was right, for example, that suicide among young Gazans seemed to be on the rise. Are there societies so under pressure that they cannot safely absorb Shakespearean tragedy? Whatever Jehan’s concerns, the prevailing Gaza answer to that question appeared to be no. 

At Gaza City’s al-Mis’hal Cultural Centre, a staged version of Romeo and Juliet ran to appreciative audiences for eight nights in early May 2016. The prominent Gaza writer Atef Abu Saif and the director Ali Abu Yassin had set the play in modern Gaza with the star-crossed lovers Yousef and Suha belonging to each of the main rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, instead of to the Montagues and Capulets. 

It opened in a café where a clean-shaven Fatah doctor and a bearded Hamas businessman fall into an argument until they are thrown out by the owner. The café owner represented the Gazan everyman, enraged by the split between the two factions that has deformed Palestinian politics since 2007. 

But the ending differed from Shakespeare’s. Warned by the café owner that Suha’s family will never accept Yousef as an in-law, the young man, with the cries of Suha imploring him to stay ringing in his ears, leaves for Egypt through the tunnels to catch a boat for Europe, just like the dozens of Gazans believed to have drowned on a fatal voyage to Malta in September 2014. 

Nor did the denouement resolve the split between the two factions, as it had in the original. After years of futile meetings aimed at Fatah–Hamas reconciliation, such a finale would probably be too implausible for an audience of Palestinians now deeply cynical about the prospects of such a desirable outcome. 

Nor was this the only Gaza commemoration of Shakespeare’s death in the summer of 2016: students at the Nusseirat refugee camp in the middle of the Strip mounted their own video performance of Lear. It was advertised outside the Centre by a handsome poster of James Barry’s eighteenth-century painting, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia. True, Cordelia’s (very modest) décolletage had been Photoshopped to leave an orange blur in its place. But this was the only concession to the socially conservative sensibilities of Gaza’s Hamas rulers. 

The show was an imaginatively produced series of drawn and photographic tableaux with a voiceover by the high school pupils in faultless English and some entertaining visual effects. Lear’s palace was Blenheim, while Regan’s home was Buckingham Palace, complete with ceremonial troop of Grenadier Guards representing her visiting father’s unwelcome entourage. There were no Arabic subtitles. But as it was condensed into thirty-one minutes with every plot development intact, none of the parents who had loyally turned out for the evening seemed to mind. 

First, there were speeches. Dr Kamal Ghunaim, an Islamic University professor and chairman of the Centre’s trustees, was convinced that Shakespeare had read the Qur’an and suggested that Othello had ‘contextualised’ the work of the ninth-century Arab poet Deek al-Jinn al-Homsi, who talked about killing his wife after being told to do so by his cousin. 

Dr Ghunaim explained that the Lear project ‘aims to help bridge the gaps between Palestinians and other nations’. Yet before we sat down for the evening, I had asked the Directorate’s Head of English whether the British Council had been involved in the event. No, he said sadly. The Ministry’s contact with the Council had stopped in 2006, when Hamas was elected. The international political and economic boycott of Hamas was a cultural boycott, too.

Jehan al-Okka, the Bashir al-Rayyes High School Shakespeare sceptic, was thrilled in 2016 to be awarded a place on a US government-backed international six-week Excellence and Achievement Programme for teachers at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, coupled with a visit to Washington, DC. Among the programme’s aims was the building of ‘lasting relationships that promote mutual understanding and collaboration between the United States and international teachers and students through educational and cultural exchanges’. 

Except that in an experience wearily familiar to Palestinians in Gaza, Mrs al-Okka was refused by both Israel and Jordan the permits necessary for her to be able to leave. Maybe she wouldn’t have been converted to Romeo and Juliet as a high school text. But you couldn’t help thinking of the lively insights this spirited and engaging woman would have brought to discussions about teaching English in the Arab world. 

Amid the convulsions of the Middle East, from Syria to Libya, from Iraq to Yemen –and that of Gaza itself over the last fifteen years – a crushing mid-career disappointment inflicted on a high school teacher unable to improve her skills abroad seems trivial. But it was part of a larger story: Palestinian, Israeli and international, a story of how and why a population of two million at the south-east corner of the Mediterranean became so beleaguered and isolated from the outside world. 

*

Part One

From Ottomans to Oslo, 1917–1995

Reached by a sandy track through tall cypresses, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is the most tranquil spot in the whole of the Gaza Strip. These days its vast lawn and carefully tended beds of geranium and rosemary are a refuge for picnicking families and those who simply want to meditate quietly in the shade of the cemetery’s oleander and jacaranda trees. 

But the neat rows of 3,217 graves are also a reminder of Britain’s pivotal role in shaping modern Gaza. After terrible losses in the French trenches of the First World War, the new Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted a quick, high-profile victory over the Germans’ Ottoman allies, the imperial power in the Middle East for five centuries. What better conquest than Jerusalem? 

Following in the footsteps of great leaders of the past – Thutmose III, the great Egyptian warrior Pharaoh in the fifteenth century bce; Saladin, the general who led the Arabs against the crusaders; and Napoleon – the only route into Palestine was through Gaza. 

Sir Archibald Murray established a major camp at Deir el Balah (‘Dear old Bella’to the British Tommies) but twice failed to take the city in the spring and summer of 1917. Under Sir Edmund Allenby, who replaced Murray, the imperial forces broke through the Ottoman lines between Gaza and Beersheba despite fierce resistance; Allenby’s troops marched into Gaza City unopposed in November 1917. Within a month, Allenby was in Jerusalem, realising Lloyd George’s dream of capturing it by Christmas. 

Gravestone after gravestone –more than 700 of them inscribed with the anonymous ‘A soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’– commemorate the men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force killed during the three assaults. Eighty-year-old Ibrahim Jaradeh, the gardener awarded the MBE for looking after the cemetery with his family over more than half a century, said the British had always been good to him although, ‘of course, my job here made me hate war. These soldiers lost their lives when they were young.’ 

For a man who hated war Jaradeh had seen a lot of it: as well as caring for the graves of thousands who had fallen in the 1917 military campaign for Palestine, he himself had lived through an even more epic turning point for his nation thirty years later. 

Five days before Allenby’s troops had entered Gaza City, the British government had taken a momentous step, setting in train a process that would eventually culminate in that second war. 

In a letter to Lord Rothschild, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour wrote: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ 

While the Balfour declaration was a response to the long-standing Zionist urgings for a national home in Palestine after centuries of anti-Semitism and persecution in Europe and Russia, it was largely dictated by what the British government determined were its strategic interests. It held out the prospect of persuading Jewish leaders abroad to stiffen the resolve of the US, whose hesitant entry into the war was disappointing British expectations. 

At the same time, the secret Sykes–Picot negotiations with France to carve up the Middle East between the two powers after the war had been unable to reach agreement on Palestine, deciding it should be run by some form of postwar international administration. Thanks to Allenby’s decisive victory, the British were now anxious to retain control. 

As the historian Eugene Rogan put it: ‘On the face of it, Lord Balfour was offering Palestine to the Zionist movement. In fact Lloyd George’s government was using the Zionist movement to secure Palestine for British rule.’ 

In doing so, however, it cut directly across the promises of independence from foreign rule with which Britain had enticed the Arab leadership to rise up against the Ottomans in the First World War – aspirations which would be further encouraged by US President Woodrow Wilson’s dramatic pledge at the 1919 Paris conference of ‘an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’ in the region. 

It was hardly surprising that the increase in Jewish immigration between the two world wars would meet with stiff resistance, expressed in the Arab riots of 1929 and a full-scale revolt in 1936. 

Britain, now exercising power in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, would prove unequal to the task of reconciling the two conflicting aims of providing a ‘national home’ for the Jews while preserving the rights of its ‘non-Jewish’–overwhelmingly Arab –‘communities’, who were in the clear majority. Palestine would gradually become enmeshed in a triangle of rising and lethal violence between the Arabs, the Jewish underground and British forces. 

As David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first Prime Minister, had clear-sightedly remarked after the 1929 riots: ‘Politically speaking it is a national movement  .  .  . The Arab must not and cannot be a Zionist. He could never wish the Jews to become a majority. This is the true antagonism between us and the Arabs. We both want to be the majority.’ 

By the end of the Second World War the monstrous events which had unfolded in Europe – Hitler’s murder of some six million Jews in the Holocaust –immeasurably strengthened the case for a Jewish home in Palestine. Unable to find the basis of a peace agreement, Britain handed the problem to the UN, which in 1947 proposed a Palestine of two states: a Jewish one covering fifty-six per cent of the land and an Arab one on forty-four per cent. 

Most nations, including the US – after intial hesitation – and the Soviet Union, supported the partition proposal. But Arab leaders, both in Palestine and outside it, flatly rejected it. They saw partition of Palestine as requiring them, after having lived peacefully in earlier centuries with a local Jewish minority, and despite the promises of independence made by the Western powers during and after the First World War, not only to accept on their land, but also on a large part of it become subject to, a state controlled by immigrants from Europe – albeit including those fleeing persecution and now survivors of Hitler’s genocide. 

In 1947 the Arabs were still a two-thirds majority in Palestine. Cities like Haifa and Jaffa, designated as part of the Jewish state by the UN partition resolution, had large Arab majorities; the Arabs owned ninety-four per cent of Palestinian land and eighty per cent of its arable farmland. 

In fact a minority of Palestinians did support partition. A heavily autobiographical novel, Would They Ever Learn? by Mustafa Abdel Shafi, a Palestinian surgeon from an old Gaza family, gives a rare glimpse of Gaza in the 1940s and early ’50s. 

The life and loves of his hero, a conscientious and ambitious doctor named Basil, are set against the turbulent political background of the period. Coming from a family untainted by anti-Jewish prejudice –his father had been horrified by the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron and elsewhere in 1929 – Basil (like the author and his more famous brother Haidar, in real life) is among those who had very reluctantly taken the (almost taboo) view that they should accept the partition resolution. 

‘The plan is painful and unfair  .  .  . but we cannot resist it, ’Basil says at a family discussion. ‘Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that we had the military power. Would the powers that be sit hand-bound and watch us frustrate what they had schemed for so diligently?  .  .  . They would invoke shameful incidents, of which we are completely innocent, to justify their action. They would remind the whole world of the atrocities of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau to justify their determination to create a national home for the Jews in Palestine. We should follow the common saying “If you cannot beat them join them.” Let’s brace up, build our own state and let the future take care of itself.’ 

In view of subsequent events, this was far sighted, seen from the vantage point of a twenty-first century in which Palestinians are struggling for a state on twenty-two per cent of the land, half of what they were offered in 1947. 

But if rejection of the partition plan was as great an error as it is often described in hindsight – an ‘Arab mistake as a whole’ as the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, twelve at the time of the UN resolution, put it in 2015 – then the UK’s Labour government had done little to discourage it. Britain was drained militarily and economically by the Second World War, and armed insurrection – terrorism, as the British classified it – by Jewish groups had hardened public opinion at home against staying in Palestine. 

Britain abstained in the General Assembly vote. And having already decided to wind up its Mandate in May 1948, it did not seek to enforce the UN resolution. 

On the day the Mandate ended David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state. The first major foreign leader to recognise the fledgling country was US President Harry Truman (the second was Stalin). Truman had ignored the advice of his own State Department, which had been seeking a postponement of Ben-Gurion’s declaration in the hope of averting war between the Jews and their Arab neighbours. 

With a domestic election campaign only six months away, Truman had an eye on Jewish support – which could hardly be other than enthusiastic about the new state of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust. As when the Americans had voted with the majority at the UN Assembly the previous November, Truman’s recognition of the new nation –especially when contrasted with the slowness of Britain – would indelibly reinforce the Israeli view that the US was its most important supporter. Though occasionally complicated by serious disputes, the US–Israel relationship would deepen significantly over the next half-century. 

By now Gaza had become, like the rest of Palestine, engulfed in what became, for Israel, the War of Independence; and for Palestinians the nakba, or catastrophe. The military ‘Plan D’evolved by the Hagana, the paramilitary Jewish defence organisation which became the Israel Defense Forces after Israel’s birth, was to secure territory allocated to the Jewish state in the UN partition plan, ‘as well as settlements outside those areas and corridors leading to them so as to provide a solid and continuous basis for Jewish sovereignty’. 

A few years later, ‘Basil’, who, despite his reluctant backing of partition, remains a nationalist to his core, tells a Jewish audience in the American town where he is by then working that ‘they planned to occupy as much Arab territory as they could, trying to evacuate it of its rightful inhabitants’. Basil goes on to cite ‘the notorious massacre of Deir Yassin where scores of innocent unarmed men, women and children were killed in cold blood’. This, he says, was ‘aimed at terrorising other Arab villagers, to make them leave their homes  .  .  .’ 

Whether or not it was the ‘aim’, the April 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, a village outside Jerusalem (which was in turn followed by the retaliatory killing of seventy-three Jews in a convoy travelling to the Hadassah Hospital-Hebrew University complex in Jerusalem) did indeed give a ‘powerful push to the flight of Arabs from their homes elsewhere. 

In fact there were two wars, or a war of two phases. The first civil or ‘ethnic’war between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine lasted from the UN partition resolution in November 1947 until Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the state in May 1948. The second, from May 1948, was between the newly founded Israel and the armies of neighbouring Arab states that arrived to support the Palestinians: Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, the last of which, for obvious geographical reasons, formed a southern front that included Gaza and its surrounding countryside. 

According to Uri Avnery, who fought as a commando on the Jewish side in the 1947–8 war and later became a pioneering left-wing peace activist, it was in the second phase that ‘a deliberate policy of expelling the Arabs [living in Palestinian towns and villages] became an [Israeli] war aim on its own’. As Avnery also pointed out, no Jews remained in the land the Arabs conquered – like the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But that hardly compared with over 700,000 Arabs driven by the Jewish advances from their homes into permanent exile, internal or external, or with hundreds of Palestinian villages which (unlike the handful of Jewish neighbourhoods conquered by the Arabs but recovered twenty years later after the Six Day War) were subsequently destroyed. 

Refugees poured into Gaza not just from the surrounding villages but from major towns like Jaffa, Ashdod, Majdal (now Ashkelon, where Mustafa Abdel Shafi had been a GP) and Beersheba as they fell to the Israeli forces. The Gaza cemetery gardener Ibrahim Jaradeh’s family fled Beersheba, which was repeatedly hit by strafing and bombing by the Israeli air force on the nights of 19 and 20 October 1948. 

Israeli ground troops moved into the town on 21 October, in a conquest ‘accompanied by the execution of a handful of Egyptian POWs and wholesale looting by individuals and military units’. 

Aged eleven at the time, Jaradeh remembered the journey by camel to Hebron where they were eventually given temporary housing through the winter of 1948. ‘So it wasn’t only the immigration, God also made it harder with the cold and snow, we used to sleep next to each other, holding the [younger] kids to make them feel warm with the very light blankets.’ 

Then the family, plus two camels, and, said Jaradeh, a monkey, made for Gaza. His younger brother travelled in one of the camel’s saddle bags. Sixty-nine years later he told his British visitor that Ethel Mannin’s The Road to Beersheba was an authentic account of how ‘Israel stole our land’, but then added quietly: ‘God willing things will be for the better, we ask God for peace for the Jews and for the Arabs.’ 

Many refugees, including Jaradeh’s family (and indeed Gamal Abdel Nasser, who served as an Egyptian officer in the Gaza district during the war), blamed Egyptian failures for the loss of territory. Attia Hijazi was twenty-two and living in Deir Sneid, only half a kilometre from the Gaza district kibbutz of Yad Mordechai.

His father was the village mukhtar (local leader). ‘We had good relations with them [the Jews] before the war. They were Palestinian Jews and immigrants. My father regularly visited the Jews’ mukhtar. We were connected by the common interest of agriculture.’ When the war started, the residents were determined to prevent the village from being captured. But, said Hijazi, ‘when the Egyptian army came during the war they told our fighters they could take a rest, saying, “We’ll do it.”

’The Egyptians occupied Yad Mordechai after a five-day battle in May during which the local kibbutzniks, aided by a Hagana unit, had held out under heavy Egyptian bombardment, allowing Israeli forces time to halt the Egyptian army’s northern push. Hijazi said that when the Egyptians started to fall back to Deir Sneid, ‘the Jews attacked them, and we understood that the Egyptian army was covering its withdrawal, not fighting. 

By October, they left us all with no protection whatever and the Jews bombarded the place. My brother was injured. When we saw the Egyptian flag coming down at Yad Mordechai [in November], we left for Beit Lahiya [in Gaza].’ 

By the winter 13,500 refugees were sheltered in a former British Army camp at Bureij, south of Gaza City. ‘They had staked out little cubicles for themselves using rags or flattened gasoline tins. Everyone was very dirty and cold. In one cubicle we saw a group of ten people ranging in age from infancy to about seventy looking at an old woman on the floor who had just died.’ 

By then Basil/Abdel Shafi had become the only doctor at a clinic servicing refugees in Khan Yunis and agitating against the ‘unacceptable’ insanitary conditions in the camp, where, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimate, children were dying at the rate of around ten a day. 

The war ended with an armistice signed by Israel and Egypt in February 1949, followed by similar agreements with Syria and Jordan in the succeeding months. These divided what had been Palestine into three separate parts: first the new state of Israel, of course; second, a landlocked 5,640-square-kilometre territory under Jordanian control which contained East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and a sector that became known as (and still is) the West Bank (of the Jordan river); and, finally, the ‘Gaza Strip’, which came under Egyptian control and was cut off from the Jordanian-run East Jerusalem and the West Bank by what was now southern Israel. 

Israel had been offered fifty-six per cent of Palestine under the UN partition plan. It now held seventy-eight per cent; the rest was made up of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

The armistice brought little relief for the now 200,000 refugees in Gaza, numerically overwhelming the existing population. (There were up to 750,000 Palestinian refugees in all from what was now Israel: 280,000 in the West Bank, and most of the rest in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.) A new body, the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA), had taken over from Quakers and others who had been caring for them voluntarily. 

A year later Sir Ronald Storrs, who had been Britain’s first military governor, launched a series of appeals for clothing to be donated to UNRWA for refugees who had ‘fled their homes of more than 1,000 years’, quoting a UN official at one camp describing ‘children by the hundred, most of them half naked – shoeless, shivering.’ 

Uri Avnery always believed the moment that determined the subsequent history of the conflict was not so much the expulsion and flight of the refugees itself; rather, that ‘the real decision was taken after the war: not to allow the 750,000 Arab refugees to return to their homes’. 

The decision was ruthlessly enforced. Mustafa Abdel Shafi’s autobiographical novel describes his own indelible memory of carrying out post-mortems of impoverished refugees shot dead by Israeli forces on the new armistice line as they tried to get back to the villages where ‘they had earned their living by hard work’, if only to retrieve a few belongings: ‘There was a dead man, riddled with bullets and his intestines were exposed, for the first time Basil saw maggots in action; it was a ghastly scene  .  .  . On the way back he wondered when the massacre of these innocent, ignorant and unarmed people was going to stop.’ 

The plight of many of Gaza’s non-refugees was hardly better. The Gaza Strip was now under Egyptian control, but the armistice lines made it far narrower than the old Gaza district under the British Mandate; forty-one kilometres long and a mere twelve at its widest point. As a result peasant farmers whose land lay beyond the armistice line, and therefore in Israel, simply lost their livelihoods. Nor were they afforded even the rudimentary provision for refugees; their woefully undernourished children were sent begging, and some of the poorest were reduced to selling the doors and windows of their houses and even timber from the roofs. 

D. C. Stephen, the district officer of UNRWA, which became and still is to this day responsible for the education and welfare of the refugees, pointed out that the native Gazans had previously ‘made a fair livelihood according to standards generally accepted in the Middle East’. ‘They are of a proud race and it is as degrading for them as it would be for us to be in their present position  .  .  . The setting of the present boundary by the “Powers that Be” means that the people of Gaza have completely lost their only means of existence.’ 

Over the following eighteen years, Gaza –now under Egypt’s control – played a pivotal part in the hostilities between Israel and its Arab neighbours, which culminated in all-out war in 1967. 

The 1955 Gaza Raid, authorised by then Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion after Palestinian infiltrators killed an Israeli cyclist, and led by twenty-seven-year-old paratroop officer Ariel Sharon, killed thirty-seven Egyptian soldiers at a cost of eight IDF lives. It almost certainly put paid to a secret dialogue between Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Israel’s dovish Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, which might have dented the unremitting hostility of Arab countries towards the eight-year-old Israeli state. 

Instead, after the raid Nasser, who had hitherto restrained Palestinian fedayeen –nationalist volunteer militants mostly from refugee families – allowed them to carry out commando raids across the Gaza border. Ben-Gurion, who soon became Prime Minister again, in turn adopted a much more confrontational policy towards Egypt. 

The secret partnership between the United Kingdom, France and Israel to confront Nasser after he decided to nationalise the Suez Canal in July 1956 ended in disaster for the first two governments, causing head-on confrontation with US President Eisenhower and leaving the Canal in the hands of Nasser, whose prestige in the region greatly increased in the wake of the Anglo–French fiasco. But, at least in the short term, it was a military triumph for Israel, which overran both Gaza and the Sinai Desert in Egypt. 

Although Ben-Gurion too was forced to bow to US pressure, in his case to withdraw from both Gaza and the Sinai, and he did not succeed in overthrowing Nasser as he wanted, nevertheless the Israeli military destroyed the main fedayeen bases in Gaza during its four-month occupation of the Strip. And he secured a US guarantee that Egypt would allow free passage for ships bringing Iranian oil for Israel through the Straits of Tiran. 

In the following decade, which passed without military conflict between Egypt and Israel, Nasser moved to bring Palestinian nationalism under the wing of the Arab states, and Egypt in particular. He took the lead in the Arab League’s formation in 1964 of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) with its military arm, the Palestinian Liberation Army; their stated aims were the ‘restoration of the Palestinian homeland’–including the return of the 1948 refugees to their original homes in what was now Israel. In practice the PLA came under the strict control of its Egyptian, Iraqi and Syria sponsor governments.  

Nasser was also seeking to curb the activities of the more militant and independent Fatah. On 22 May 1967 Nasser decided to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. This was a dangerously provocative step, though it is unlikely Nasser intended it to lead to war. The Six Day War, which did indeed break out a fortnight later, on 4 June, was arguably the only Arab–Israeli war that ‘neither side wanted’.  

Nasser was under mounting Arab pressure to show solidarity with Egypt’s ally Syria, whose border with Israel was the focus of an escalating series of incidents culminating in an aerial battle in which six Syrian MIGs were shot down in April. The historian Avi Shlaim has persuasively depicted Nasser as having embarked ‘on an exercise in brinkmanship that was to carry him over the brink’, while also rejecting a widespread Arab view that Israel deliberately provoked the war to expand its territory.  

The huge expansion that did indeed follow Israel’s stunning military victory against the forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, was a consequence rather than a specific war aim. This did not make it any less traumatic for the Palestinians in the conquered territory. Israel now occupied all the land that since the 1949 armistice had been controlled by Jordan (the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including its holy sites) and by Egypt (Gaza). 

By 1967, the tents and makeshift huts in the still crowded and impoverished refugee camps set up in 1948 had largely been replaced by UNRWA with more solid housing. But the somewhat better conditions added to the bleak sense of permanent displacement among refugees, now reinforced by the catastrophic defeat of the Arab states. For the refugees it meant being controlled by the very forces who had driven them from their homes –sometimes on land that, painfully, they could still see from inside the Strip –nineteen years earlier. 

Mohammed Kardash, who was thirty-three and living in Jabalya at the time, remembered with disgust forty years later the bombastic claims of Ahmed Said, the Egyptians’ propagandist-in-chief, who declared Israeli warplanes were ‘falling like flies’, when in fact Egypt’s air force was destroyed on the first day of the June war. ‘We huddled round the radio all the time to listen to him. I believed what he was saying and so did everyone else. He said, “I congratulate the fish of the Mediterranean because they will eat the flesh of Jews.” ’Still furious at the deception, Kardash added: ‘There is a stain of shame in the way he was talking.’

After the war, Kardash, who had originally been brought to Gaza in a Turkish boat by his parents fleeing from his native Jaffa in 1948, would now be a refugee again, this time in Jordan, part of a limited and ill-starred scheme by then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to evacuate (with some money) refugees from Gaza after the 1967 war. (In fact, Kardash had hidden two rifles for his brother who had been in the Palestine Liberation Army. After what he said was a beating, ‘the [Israeli] army gave me a choice,’ he says, ‘to go to prison or to leave Gaza’. He never revealed the whereabouts of the rifles.)  

It was after the Six Day War that Fatah, the secular resistance organisation founded by Yasser Arafat ten years earlier, began its ascendancy in the Palestinian liberation movement. In 1969 it joined and immediately dominated the PLO. 

Arafat, whose chequered keffiyeh and battledress would become the global symbol of Palestinian struggle, had been born in Cairo to Palestinian parents. He had studied in the Egyptian capital, fought in the 1948 war and founded Fatah in the early fifties in Kuwait with a group including two Gaza-based refugees, both to become prominent PLO leaders. 

The militancy repressed by the occupation of 1956 resumed in Gaza after the Six Day War. Within a few months of the war ending, the military occupying authorities began to allow Palestinians out through Erez, the Strip’s northern crossing, to work in Israel. This would begin what was to be for three decades a major source of income for tens of thousands of Gaza’s families, albeit one entirely dependent on Israeli goodwill and the demand for cheap labour. 

As a boy growing up in the poor and overcrowded Shaboura district of the Rafah refugee camp, Fathi Sabbah, who would later become an activist and later still a leading journalist, remembered armed militants throwing grenades at Israeli buses transporting the workers, as well as ambushing soldiers in the camps’ narrow alleys and attacking military bases. ‘There was a saying that the Palestinian militants were ruling Gaza at night and the Israeli army in the daytime,’ he recalled.  

In 1971 Ariel Sharon – by now in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command – moved large forces into the refugee camps in a remorseless operation to crush the nascent resistance. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in Gaza in 1971–2 and thousands more detained and sometimes deported. His troops conducted house-to-house searches under curfew, bulldozed thousands of houses to create buffer zones and widen the roads to allow armoured vehicles easier movement through the camps. 

In Shaboura, Sabbah recalled, ‘the only street that was paved with asphalt was for security reasons, not for helping people. It wasn’t easy for their vehicles to withdraw. So they destroyed hundreds of houses and they deported people from Shaboura to the Canada and Brazil camps. ’Those two camps – named after the UN national contingents that briefly patrolled the border immediately after the 1956 Sinai campaign – were located on either side of what became the closed border, which cut Rafah in two and left thousands of Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side.

Now in 1971 – after the mass exodus of 1948 and further displacements in 1967 –refugees were on the move again. Sharon’s draconian tactics were successful. 

Elsewhere in the region, the following decade was turbulent: the ‘Black September’ conflict between the PLO and Jordan, the massacre of athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Anwar Sadat’s decision to address the Knesset in Jerusalem in 1977, the Israel–Egypt peace agreement in 1979 and Sadat’s subsequent assassination in 1981. 

But Gaza was relatively calm. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s ‘invisible’ occupation policy of trying to ensure ‘that areas of friction between the two [Israeli and Palestinian] peoples are minimal’ was intended to dilute Palestinian nationalism; but it had financial benefits. 

The opening of the borders to daily migrant workers was one; another was allowing farmers and manufacturers to trade with Israeli companies, though with restrictions to ensure their exports did not adversely compete with Israeli business (while no such restrictions applied to imports from Israel to Gaza). Exports abroad – beyond Israel and the West Bank –were invariably handled by Israeli agents. But when a generation later exports of goods and labour were barred and unemployment shot up above forty per cent, and above sixty per cent for youth, older Palestinian civilians often looked back on the 1970s as –paradoxically –something of a silver age. 

Munir Dweik started work in Israel at the age of fifteen. He had grown up in a desperately poor family of refugees in the Jabalya camp. His parents had been peasant farmers from Batani al-Gharbi, east of Ashdod, one of the villages targeted – and in most cases mortared – by incoming Israeli troops in May 1948 during the IDF’s Operation Lightning, under which the Givati Brigade was ordered to deny ‘the enemy a base for their future operations  .  .  . by creating general panic’.  

In a circuitous flight typical of the times, the Dweik family fled to Gaza through neighbouring villages, moving on as each also fell. With his father unable to find regular work, his steadfast and resourceful mother decided that tourmos – lupin beans, a regional staple and universally popular in Gaza – could provide a living for the family. 

Half a century later, now a fifty-two-year-old taxi driver, Dweik recalled every detail of the process. First his mother bought a sack of lupin beans and boiled them in a large saucepan; then she decanted the beans into half a dozen separate earthenware pots filled with sugary water to counter their natural bitterness. She changed the water three times a day, over several days, until they tasted good enough to eat. At 8 a.m., Dweik and his father would carry them in sacks 2.5 kilometres from the refugee camp to Beit Lahiya to sell, shouting ‘tourmos, tourmos’ when they arrived; if they could find a wedding, they might sell out by noon; if not they stayed into the afternoon. 

Dweik remembered the journeys back to Jabalya in summer on the scorching sand. His father had plastic shoes but he had none; sometimes to cool his feet he would sit on the ground and put his legs in the air. ‘It was boiling. Sometimes I was making a pee, and then put my feet in the pee to cool them, after that I was running, running to find some shade and wait for my father.’ 

A school friend suggested Dweik join him working as a chicken plucker and cleaner for a shopkeeper in Tel Aviv during the summer holidays. The boys took the bus through Erez early in the morning from Monday to Thursday, earning about 150 shekels a week. When he was sixteen, Dweik decided to work in Israel full-time; his mother resisted strongly because she wanted him to stay at school and complete his education, despite the parlous state of the family finances. ‘This is your future, you should continue studying and learning – maybe you could become a teacher or a doctor,’ his mother told him. 

Remembering his mother’s warmth and selflessness, Dweik put his hands over his face to cover his tears. From 1981 until restrictions were imposed on Palestinian workers in Israel during the 1990–91 Gulf War, Dweik worked full-time in Israel. As he improved his skills and became fluent in Hebrew, he worked for several Jewish employers, each of whom successively poached him with higher pay, till he was earning around 450 shekels a week. Dweik remembered nearly all his employers with affection. 

By now the right-wing Likud government elected in 1977 and led by Menachem Begin had begun to expand Jewish settlements in occupied territory. Like Palestinian refugee camps, settlements are the object of a frequent popular misconception. The camps now consist not of tents but residential buildings, even if usually ramshackle and heavily overcrowded, set along dusty narrow alleys. 

Similarly, settlements are not normally the remote, hastily assembled barbed wire-protected hilltop clusters of caravans the word conjures in the foreign imagination. Such outposts – many illegal even in Israeli law – have always existed, and usually as an embryonic settlement or the expansion of an existing one. But most settlements proper, essentially colonies in occupied territory, would in time become well-planned communities, often close to Palestinian villages or towns, and typically comprised red-roofed villas, often with shops, synagogues and leisure centres, making ample use of local water and land for agriculture and domestic purposes. 

The rural ones were and still are normally protected from the Palestinians (to whom they were such a daily affront) by their own armed security details, and by IDF troops stationed in the vicinity. Not only did the Palestinians see their land, including pastures and olive groves, swallowed up by the settlements and their surrounding military security zones, but they themselves, unlike the settlers, who enjoyed normal civil rights as Israeli citizens, were subject to the Israeli military justice system. 

The biggest settlements, those bordering the 1949–67 ‘green line’, like, say, Maale Adumim, close to Jerusalem, or Ariel, a great residential finger stretching through the West Bank from east to west, became essentially dormitory cities, many of whose breadwinners would work in Israel itself. 

The settlement building in Gaza and the West Bank had started, albeit falteringly, after the Six Day War under a Labour government, despite the written opinion of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s own legal adviser, submitted in secret to ministers, that it contravened international law, especially the Fourth Geneva convention, for a country to transfer civilians to occupied territory. 

That might be less significant had the lawyer not been Theodor Meron, who rose to become one of the world’s most eminent international jurists and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. A Holocaust survivor, Meron has never recanted, and in 2007 confirmed that this was still his opinion.  

Yet despite that legal view, widely shared by most Western governments, settlements steadily multiplied during the seventies in the West Bank and Gaza – where the most rapid growth would take place in the eighties. And that in turn convinced many Palestinians that Israel felt no real international pressure to end the occupation. For this and other reasons, the relative calm in Gaza in the early 1970s could not last indefinitely. 

The Palestinian sense of abandonment increased with the 1979 Egypt–Israel Treaty; Sadat effectively subordinated the Palestinian cause to Egypt’s own interests and Begin had little intention of implementing even the severely limited provisions for Palestinian autonomy contained in the treaty terms. 

At the same time, the factions were beginning to stir again. Fathi Sabbah recalled that when he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a smaller leftist faction within the PLO, in 1981 as a nineteen-year-old, he was part of a consciousness-raising group. ‘Our main duty was to read about what happened in the nakba . . . then we make a presentation to the group about it.’ The group then passed on what they had learned to high school students and others.

 The PFLP was rooted in the left and, unlike the Communist Party, had not rejected armed struggle. Its members studied Marx, Engels, Maxim Gorky, Che Guevara. They idolised Ghassan Kanafani, a PFLP official and among the greatest of Palestinian twentieth-century writers, assassinated by Israel in 1972 at the age of thirty-six. 

The PFLP also ran social programmes, including food donations, house repairs and street cleaning.

*

GAZA, Preparing for Dawn

by Donald Macintyre 

get it at Amazon.com

WHY THE LEFT LOSES.  The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective – Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy. 

Foreword 

Sheri Berman 

The decline of the centre-left over the past years is one of the most alarming trends in Western politics. During the latter part of the 20th century such parties either ran the government or led the loyal Opposition in virtually every Western democracy. 

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), once the most powerful party of the left in continental Europe, currently polls in high 20s or 30s. The French Socialist Party was eviscerated in the 2017 elections, as was the Dutch Labour Party. Even the vaunted Scandinavian social democratic parties are struggling, reduced to vote shares in the 30 per cent range. The British Labour Party and the US Democrats have been protected from challengers by their country’s first-past-the-post electoral systems, but the former has recently taken a sharp turn to the hard-left under Jeremy Corbyn, while the latter, although still competitive at the national level, is a minority party at the state and local levels, where a hard-right Republican Party dominates the scene. 

The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy. It has left voters free to be captured by extremist parties, particularly of the far-right populist variety, which threaten the liberal and perhaps even democratic nature of Western politics. In addition, centre-left parties played a crucial role in creating and maintaining the post-war order on which stable democracy was built following the Second World War. Without a revival of the centre-left, it is hard to see how this order and perhaps even well functioning democracy can be resuscitated. 

This book analyses the decline of the centre-left, and in so doing, may provide its supporters with the insights necessary to revitalise it. Why the left loses focuses on three main issues the centre-left must confront: leadership, institutions/ structural change and message/ vision. 

The first is the most straightforward, but nonetheless crucial. Leaders represent and personify what parties stand for; in order to win, the centre-left needs leaders who can connect to a diverse and demanding electorate, and attractively, forcefully and effectively convey their party’s messages. 

Attracting such leaders does not, of course, happen in a vacuum. Talented and ambitious individuals are drawn to parties they believe can deal with the challenges of the day. 

This brings us to issues of institutions/ structural change and message/ vision. Institutional and structural changes over the last decades in domestic and international political economies have created major challenges for all traditional political parties, but particularly for those of the centre-left. 

After 1945 in Western Europe (and beginning with the New Deal in the US), the West began constructing a new type of political economy, one that could ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s destructive and destabilising consequences. 

This order represented a decisive break with the past: states would not be limited to ensuring that markets could grow and flourish, nor would economic interests be given the widest possible leeway. Instead, after 1945 the state was to become the guardian of society rather than the economy, and economic imperatives would sometimes have to take a back seat to social ones. 

This post-war order represented something historically unusual: capitalism remained, but it was capitalism of a very different type than had existed before the war – one tempered and limited by the power of the democratic state, and often made subservient to the goals of social stability and solidarity, rather than the other way round. This was a farcry from the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist order that orthodox Marxists, communists and others on the far left had demanded during the pre-war period, but it still varied significantly from what liberals had long favoured – namely, giving as much free rein to markets as possible. 

This was, in short, a social democratic order – and it worked remarkably well. Despite fears after the war that it would perhaps take decades for Europe to recover economically, by the early 1950s most of Europe had easily surpassed interwar economic figures, and the 30 years after 1945 were Europe’s fastest period of growth ever. 

The restructured political economies of the post-war era seemed to offer something to everyone, and this, in turn, helped to eliminate the belief – long held by liberals, Marxists and others – that democratic states could not or would not protect particular groups’ interests. 

Because the centre-left was most closely associated with this order and the most determined defender of it, it had the most to lose from its demise. And so the pressures put on this order since the 1970s by increasing globalisation, growing government deficits and the neoliberal and eventually austerity policies adopted by the European Union (EU) have left the centre-left scrambling to come up with new strategies for getting economies moving again, while also ensuring that democratic states continued to protect citizens from the changes brought by ever-evolving capitalism. 

Alongside changes in domestic and international political economies, centre-left parties have also been challenged by social and cultural shifts that began in the 1960s and threatened traditional identities, communities and mores – a process further exacerbated, particularly in Europe, by growing immigration. Together these trends helped erode the social solidarity and sense of shared national purpose that had supported the social democratic post-war order and helped to stabilise European democracies in the decades following the Second World War. 

The US faced its own version of this with the growing political incorporation and mobilisation of minority groups since the civil rights era, and the increasing shift towards a non-majority white population destabilising traditional social and political patterns. 

But economic, social and cultural institutional and structural changes have not doomed the centre-left to oblivion. They represent challenges, and how the centre-left (or any other party) responds to challenges determines how voters react and political systems evolve. The problem for the centre-left, in other words, is not merely the challenges it has faced over the past decades so much as its lack of convincing and coherent responses to them. 

Here is where Why the left loses‘ third issue comes in: message/ vision. After the 2008 financial crisis many observers expected a significant swing to the left among Western electorates, since many blamed the economy’s problems on the neoliberal policies that had proliferated during the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. 

But the centre-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend out-dated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the centre-right. 

The centre-left also lacked a convincing message about how to deal with increasing diversity or a vision of social solidarity appropriate to changing demographic and cultural realities. Instead, the centre-left either ignored the challenge of diversity or especially among the intellectual left, put forward a message of ‘multiculturalism’ –neither of these responses was able to stem social conflict or electoral flight from the left, especially on the part of the working class. 

It has now become fairly commonplace to note the support given by traditionally centre-left voters to the populist right. This connection was on obvious display in the Brexit referendum, where many traditional Labour strongholds and supporters voted to leave the EU, and it has been a prominent feature of elections in Europe as working-class voters have flocked to right-wing populist parties. And, of course, a version of this was present in the US, where Donald Trump garnered disproportionate support from less-educated and working-class voters. 

What is still worth stressing, however, is the causal connection between the failures or missteps of the centre-left and the rise of right-wing populist parties that offered simple, straightforward messages in response to citizens’ economic and social fears. 

Economically, the populist right promises to promote prosperity, via increased government control of the economy and limits on globalisation. Socially, the populist right promises to restore social solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose, by expelling foreigners or severely limiting immigration, diminishing the influence of the EU and globalisation, and protecting traditional values, identities and mores. 

For those who bemoan the decline of the centre-left and the rise of the populist right, the challenge is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing, and if the centre-left can’t come up with more viable and attractive messages about how to solve contemporary problems, and a more attractive vision of the future than those offered by its competitors, it can expect to continue its slide into the dust heap of history. 

The following chapters provide an excellent starting point for the debate about the centre-left’s future. 

*

ONE 

Why the left loses: understanding the comparative decline of the centre-left.  

Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy 

Introduction 

Since the global financial crisis (GFC), if not before, there has been a general decline in the fortunes of social democratic and labour parties. Against these recent developments, there is a long-standing literature that appraises the electoral performance and impact of the left more broadly (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986; Kitschelt, 1994; Moschonas, 2002). 

Much of the literature on social democracy tends to be pessimistic, and there is a plethora of research that denotes recent developments as a ‘crisis’, on the ‘back foot’, ‘in retreat’, and perhaps most arrestingly, as ‘dead’ (Gray, 1996; Pierson, 2001; Keating and McCrone, 2013; Lavelle, 2013; Ludwigshafen et al, 2016). 

In a prescient address at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2011, David Miliband catalogued the general wreckage of the electoral fortunes of the centre-left across Western Europe. In his critical survey of European social democracy, he noted: 

• The UK General Election in 2010 – the second worst result for Labour since 1918. 

• Sweden, also in 2010 – the worst result since 1911. 

• Germany in 2009 – the worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic, with a greater loss of support than any party in the history of the country. 

• France in 2007 – the worst result since 1969. 

• The Netherlands in 2009 – a traumatic transition from a junior coalition partner to Opposition. 

• Italy – a yo-yo in and out of power, with personal and political divisions disabling opposition to Berlusconi. 

More recent results generally confirm this overall trend, with British Labour losing both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. 

The Dutch general election in early 2017 saw the worst-ever result for the Dutch Labour Party (PvDA, Partij van de Arbeid). The PvDA lost 29 seats, only holding 9 in the 150-seat Parliament. The Dutch result is something of an outlier for the misfortunes of the centre-left. 

Later in this chapter we survey the state of the left more widely. This collected volume investigates the electoral fortunes of the family of centre-left labour and social democratic political parties. In this chapter we set out the aims and scope of the volume, and its contribution to understanding the comparative political decline of the centre-left. 

After mapping the electoral fortunes of centre-left political parties, we then locate this volume in the current literature, and set out the distinctive approach offered here. From our perspective, one of the deficiencies of the current literature is that it focuses almost exclusively on the family of (mostly Western) European social democratic and labour parties. While much of this literature is incisive and important, we have a nagging concern that this narrow focus is missing a key part of the wider story. 

As we outline below, we need to expand the explanatory universe to better understand the current plight of the centre-left. 

We have been a little mischievous in the title of this volume – Why the left loses –and it would be useful here to clarify the book’s scope. The volume is not called ‘Why the left always loses’ or ‘Why the left will never win again’. Rather, the focus is on examining the current electoral performance of a cohort of the family of social democratic and labour political parties within a specific timeframe (broadly, 2008-16). 

The title of the volume is deliberately provocative, in part, because we hope that it will reach a wider readership than just the academy. The term ‘left’ is deployed here as a proxy for these groups of political parties. 

Our focus remains their fate of – often, but not always – the main carriers of wider social democratic values. The book does not seek to argue that the values and ideas associated with the ‘left’ are in decline –indeed, we argue that in a number of cases the opposite is true, that they have been readily co-opted by a number of parties on the centre-right, and other populist challengers. Nor are we suggesting that there are common or single causes for the current state of the full suite of centre-left political parties. And to be clear, by ‘left’ we mostly focus on the long-standing social democratic and labour parties rather than some of the alternative ‘socialist’ or ‘left’ parties such as Die Linke established in Germany in 2007. 

The social democratic parties remain important political actors, even if they are not in the best of electoral health. The risk with the title Why the left loses is that by the time the volume is published, there will have been a turnaround in the electoral fortunes of the social democratic parties. Indeed, it was just at the point of Blair and Schröder declaring the hegemonic victory of the Third Way/Neue Mitte that the fortunes of the left began to decline. 

As Ralf Dahrendorf noted in a telling intervention, the highpoint in the late 1990s for the centre-left masked other key changes in the party systems of the advanced industrial democracies: The real trend – which is underlined by the European elections – is towards non-traditional parties, many of which did not exist 20 years ago. (Dahrendorf, 1999) 

The key issue is that while the late 1990s may have signalled something like the ‘magical return’ of social democracy, we are more circumspect in predicting a ‘second coming’ by the time this volume is released. 

Moreover, if there were to be a revival of the centre-left, and clearly many of the writers in this volume would welcome a return to a more full-bloodied variant of social democratic politics, it would not necessarily undermine the central focus of the book. We look to explain why the left has been doing poorly in this period under review. Indeed, in one of our cases – state Labor in Australia – there has been something of a revival of the centre-left. 

Overall, we focus predominately on the period from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. The crucial event here is the impact of the global financial crisis (GFC), and the response of the parties to this latest rupture in the global capitalist system. The response has not been overwhelming. 

The state of the left

There have been a number of recent surveys of the family of social democratic parties (Keating and McCrone, 2013; Bailey et al, 2014, p 8), with the focus predominately on the European parties. Here we offer a related, but broader, survey. 

While there is no clear, uniform trend, the overall picture is rather dismal for centre-left parties (see Table 1.1). In France, the 2012 presidential election win proved a temporary highpoint for the Parti socialiste (PS) under François Hollande. Indeed, the seven-year term of the presidency arguably overstates the dominance of the PS. 

As outlined by Sophie Di Francesco-Mayot (see Chapter 10), there is a strong case that while the left was in office, it was ‘losing the battle of ideas’. It was striking, and perhaps not that surprising, when Hollande announced that he would not be contesting the 2017 presidential elections –the first post-war president not to seek office. Strikingly, PS did not make the second round run-off in the 2017 presidential election, much like the dismal 2002 election. Indeed, the Macron phenomenon would suggest a further decline and fragmentation of the centre-left. 

Table 1.1: Centre-left parties in Office and Opposition (2008-16)

Note: In Canada Justin Trudeau took the Liberal Party into office. There is a dispute as to whether to categorise the Liberals as centrist or social democratic, given the New Democratic Party espouses the clearest social democratic programme in Canada. Source: European data drawn in part from Bailey et al (2014, p 9) 

In Germany, the centre-left SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or Social Democratic Party of Germany) has been unable for quite some time to puncture the dominance of Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Since 2005, Merkel has been unassailable in German politics, with the SPD first as a junior coalition partner, then back in Opposition. At the 2013 election, Merkel reluctantly turned to the SPD as junior partner once again. 

In Uwe Jun’s account (see Chapter 7), the factors for the SPD’s electoral health are examined. What is striking about the SPD is that like other cases considered here, its troubles pre-date the GFC. To a large extent, the SPD, like the SAP (Swedish Social Democratic Party) and the UK Labour Party, is experiencing a prolonged hangover from its turn to the Third Way. 

In Spain, the picture is arguably more pessimistic for the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). Since losing office in 2011, the party has lost consecutive general elections in 2015 and 2016, and, as Paul Kennedy outlines in his overview (see Chapter 9), it faces a range of pressures, not least the emergence of the left-populist Podemos party in 2014. Over this time, the PSOE has been haemorrhaging votes. As Kennedy notes, while the PSOE has not yet faced its own version of ‘Pasokification’ (the ultimate destruction of the once dominant Greek social democrats), its future is far from assured. 

In Sweden, often claimed as having the purest form of social democracy, the SAP finds itself in turbulent times. It was in office from 1994 to 2002; it then lost both the 2006 and 2010 elections, and narrowly won the 2014 election, governing in coalition with the Green Party. The 2014 results obscure the thinness of SAP’s victory with only a minor improvement of its vote, at 31 per cent. 

Here, we see a clear example of arguably a structural trend facing centre-left parties –a narrowing of its voter base. Whereas the PSOE faces a left-populist challenge, the striking characteristic of the Swedish party system has been the emergence of the nationalist right-populist Swedish Democrats. As Claes Belfrage and Mikko Kuisma argue (see Chapter 8), the SAP is confronted by long-standing economic constraints imposed by the capitalist system and is playing something of a ‘losing game’. It remains unclear how far the 2014 result signifies a meaningful revival of the centre-left. 

While this volume confines its European focus to these countries, the outlook for the centre-left across Europe is mixed, at best. In Italy, the fortunes of the centre-left have been –in David Miliband’s words –something of a ‘yo-yo’. The centre-right was dominant from 2001 to 2006. Under Romano Prodi, the centre-left briefly resumed office (2006-08), before losing again to the centre-right in 2008. It is telling that after the GFC, the Italian electorate placed its faith in the ‘technocratic’ government of Mario Monti, until the centre-left bloc took over in 2013. This recent development, however, can hardly be considered stable government, and the development of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement presents another populist challenge to both left and right. 

In The Netherlands, the 2017 election was catastrophic for the PvDA. Prior to this calamity, it was in Opposition between 2002 and 2006, and again between 2010 and 2012. At the 2012 elections it entered as a junior partner in coalition with the centre-right VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). In the multi-party Dutch system, the PvDA has been unable to secure a firmer electoral base, and again, a xenophobic populist party – in this case, led by the ubiquitous Geert Wilders – poses both a strategic and ideational dilemma for both left and right. It appears that the left not only loses elections; it can’t win them outright either. 

In Austria, while the SPŐ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) has been the largest partner (just) in a grand coalition, Austrian politics has seen the emergence of the far-right, and both major parties recorded their worst ever results at the 2008 legislative elections. 

In Norway, Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour party (AAP) was a dominant force from 2005-13, but lost power to the centre-right bloc. 

While these cases are not considered here, they remain emblematic of a range of problems and dilemmas facing social democratic and labour parties, especially in the context of a shifting party system, with new populist challengers. 

We also include and survey the fortunes of the centre-left in the Anglosphere, and here we focus our attention on Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Controversially for some, we locate the UK Labour Party outside the core European family of social democratic parties (although the Brexit result provides further support for this case). 

As a range of writers and indeed, Labour figures, have pointed out, the UK Labour Party often has more in common with its Antipodean Labour sisters than its European social democratic counterparts.

 As Rob Manwaring and Matt Beech outline in Chapter 2, the picture here is fairly dismal for the centre-left. Labour has experienced ‘Pasokification’ in Scotland, and since the fall of New Labour in 2010 has been unable to claw its way back into power. While the 2010 result was widely anticipated, Labour’s loss to the Conservatives in 2015 was not. While Corbyn-led Labour secured a better-than-expected result at the 2017 general election, Labour has now lost three elections in a row since Tony Blair stepped down as leader. 

Elsewhere, there is a catalogue of defeat for the left. In two different contexts, Canada and New Zealand, there has been a dominance of the centre-right. From 2008-15, Stephen Harper’s Conservative party has dominated Canadian politics, and it is only with the recent win of Justin Trudeau that there has been some shifting back to a more left-leaning position. Yet, as David McGrane outlines in Chapter 3, the fate of the NDP (New Democratic Party) illustrates the difficulty of seeking to impose a social democratic settlement at a time of Liberal Party resurgence. Strikingly, at the 2011 election, the NDP seemingly made a key breakthrough under the leadership of Jack Layton, but the fortunes of the NDP have since declined. 

Likewise, in New Zealand, the NZ Labour Party has been unsuccessful in dislodging the centre-right National Party under the dominant leadership of John Key. Labour lost three straight elections, and despite the unexpected resignation of Key at the end of 2016, its chances of winning at the 2017 general election look marginal at best. Grant Duncan surveys the wreckage of the NZ Labour Party (in Chapter 4), and what is striking here is the flexibility of the centre-right, and, most notably, a shift away from a strident form of neoliberal politics. 

Finally, in Australia, after 11 years in the wilderness, the ALP (Australian Labor Party) took office under the, initially, strong leadership of Kevin Rudd. Yet, within the space of a few years, the ALP turned in on itself, and Julia Gillard (just) secured a minority government in 2010. And in another rancorous turn, the ALP ditched Gillard weeks before the 2013 election. Since then, despite a promising election campaign in 2016, the ALP remains in Opposition. 

As Carol Johnson examines in her chapter on the ALP (see Chapter 5), Labor was beset by a range of both institutional and ideational problems. Most critically, Johnson examines the central dilemma facing centre-left parties in the capitalist system. 

We also include in this volume a chapter on a much neglected story of the centre-left – the Australian state Labor parties (see Chapter 6). During the mid-2000s, a rather intriguing phenomenon occurred when Labor held office in every single state and territory. Since then state Labor has been on the back foot. The chapter therefore offers the reader a clear comparative case study of sub-national social democracy to illuminate why the left loses elections. 

If time and space permitted, we might also look beyond our cases and see the, at best, mixed picture for the centre-left. Critically, the 2016 presidential election victory by Donald Trump in the US seems to encapsulate many of the current dynamics of the modern party system, with a populist backlash against both major political parties. 

In Latin America, left-ist parties have also suffered setbacks (Aidi, 2015), although the extent to which we locate them in the ‘social democratic’ tradition is contested. 

The key issue from this brief survey is that the left is currently losing, or not winning well, and also recording some record losses in the period from the GFC to 2016. The aim of this volume is to explore and examine, comparatively, the reasons for this current state of play. 

It is worth making a few caveats to this overall survey. 

First, most liberal democracies in advanced industrial settings operate on some turnover of governments. We are circumspect in over-emphasising any ‘trend’ of the ‘left losing’. 

Second, in many cases, the left losing is, indeed, a noted part of their histories. To take the UK Labour Party as a prominent example, until New Labour, its electoral record was patchy at best (between 1945 and 1997 it held office for just 17 of those 52 years). 

Third, while we make comparative judgements, and see some common themes, such as populism, Third Way hangovers, out-dated political economic models, changing class patterns, and so on, there are specific conditions playing out. The left loses, but not always for the same reasons.

*

from

WHY THE LEFT LOSES.  The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective

Edited by Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy. 

get it at Amazon.com

Physicists Just Found a Loophole in Graphene That Could Unlock Clean, Limitless Energy – Usman Abrar. 

By all measures, graphene shouldn’t exist. The fact it does comes down to a neat loophole in physics that sees an impossible 2D sheet of atoms act like a solid 3D material. New research has delved into graphene’s rippling, discovering a physical phenomenon on an atomic scale that could be exploited as a way to produce a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.

The team of physicists led by researchers from the University of Arkansas didn’t set out to discover a radical new way to power electronic devices. Their aim was far more humble – to simply watch how graphene shakes. We’re all familiar with the gritty black carbon-based material called graphite, which is commonly combined with a ceramic material to make the so-called ‘lead’ in pencils.

What we see as smears left by the pencil are actually stacked sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a ‘chicken wire’ pattern. Since these sheets aren’t bonded together, they slide easily over one another. For years scientists wondered if it was possible to isolate single sheets of graphite, leaving a 2-dimensional plane of carbon ‘chicken wire’ to stand on its own.

In 2004 a pair of physicists from the University of Manchester achieved the impossible, isolating sheets from a lump of graphite that were just an atom thick. To exist, the 2D material had to be cheating in some way, acting as a 3D material in order to provide some level of robustness. It turns out the ‘loophole’ was the random jiggling of atoms popping back and forth, giving the 2D sheet of graphene a handy third dimension.

In other words, graphene was possible because it wasn’t perfectly flat at all, but vibrated on an atomic level in such a way that its bonds didn’t spontaneously unravel. To accurately measure the level of this jiggling, physicist Paul Thibado recently led a team of graduate students in a simple study. They laid sheets of graphene across a supportive copper grid and observed the changes in the atoms’ positions using a scanning tunneling microscope. While they could record the bobbing of atoms in the graphene, the numbers didn’t really fit any expected model. They couldn’t reproduce the data they were collecting from one trial to the next.


Thibado pushed the experiment into a different direction, searching for a pattern by changing the way they looked at the data.

The team quickly found the sheets of graphene were buckling in way not unlike the snapping back and forth of a bent piece of thin metal as it’s twisted from the sides. Patterns of small, random fluctuations combining to form sudden, dramatic shifts are known as Lévy flights. While they’ve been observed in complex systems of biology and climate, this was the first time they’d been seen on an atomic scale. By measuring the rate and scale of these graphene waves, Thibado figured it might be possible to harness it as an ambient temperature power source.

So long as the graphene’s temperature allowed the atoms to shift around uncomfortably, it would continue to ripple and bend. Place electrodes to either side of sections of this buckling graphene, and you’d have a tiny shifting voltage. This video clip below explains the process in detail:

By Thibado’s calculations, a single ten micron by ten micron piece of graphene could produce ten microwatts of power. It mightn’t sound impressive, but given you could fit more than 20,000 of these squares on the head of a pin, a small amount of graphene at room temperature could feasibly power something small like a wrist watch indefinitely. Better yet, it could power bioimplants that don’t need cumbersome batteries.

As exciting as they are, these applications still need to be investigated. Fortunately Thibado is already working with scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory to see if the concept has legs. For an impossible molecule, graphene has become something of a wonder material that has turned physics on its head. It’s already being touted as a building block for future conductors. Perhaps we’ll also be seeing it power the future of a new field of electronic devices as well.

This research was published in Physical Review Letters.

Sci-Tech Universe