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The terrorist who wasn’t

Vilified by the press and falsely branded a terror threat by Interpol, Tunisian-born Mohamed Ali Har

The Arab spring has changed the status of certain North African dictators. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, formerly a valued ally of the west in the so-called war on terror, has fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - propped up for decades by the US - faces charges of mass murder. Tony Blair's friend Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi got lynched. Life has changed, too, for the victims of these dictators. For years the British media, and western intelligence agencies, collaborated with Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi. One of the ways they did this was by defining domestic political opponents as "terrorists" while allowing the dictators to present themselves as "moderate" allies of the west. Now these "terrorists" are recast as freedom fighters.

Take the case of Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Tunisian dissident who endured spells of imprisonment and torture before escaping across the border to Algeria and eventually to London. Harrath's torturers asked for him to be added to Interpol's "Red Notice" list, a system of international alerts aimed at detecting suspected criminals or terrorists. The international police agency was happy to oblige.

There was no evidence that Harrath was more than a dissident. Nevertheless, for years he has been unable to travel without risk of arrest and extradition. After he set up the Islam Channel, a television station popular among Britain's two million Muslims, Harrath's fugitive status was ruthlessly used against him by a new set of persecutors: critics of Islam in the British political and media establishment.

When I visit Harrath at his offices in Bonhill Street in central London, his assistant shows me a bulging file of press attacks. These range from a campaign of character assassination in the Times and ignorant abuse in the Express to Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph at his most fluent and a rant by Melanie Phillips on her Spectator blog. Harrath, sporting a dark, bushy beard, jokes: "I have been called an extremist, an Islamist, a terrorist - all the -ists."

He was born in 1963 close to the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire just over a year ago, prompting the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. He came from an upper-middle-class family, which sent him to, in his words, a rigidly conservative boarding school. Harrath says he became politically active at the age of 13.

His first experience of journalism involved preparing news sheets, designed to be pinned up on the wall of the local mosque, which he says was the only vehicle for free speech in the western-backed Tunisian dictatorship. "I was fascinated by the power of the word," Harrath says. "I always believe the word is stronger than the bullet. Sometimes the bullet can silence the word, but then the word prevails."

He was arrested for the first time at the age of 18, while a student of textile engineering in Tunis, for "degrading the status of the president" - any criticism of the head of state was illegal. He was a founder of the Front Islamique Tunisien (FIT), whose avowed purpose was the destruction of the government. One ally was Rachid Ghannouchi, now leader of al-Nahda, the party that won last autumn's elections. Harrath insists that even though FIT urged armed insurrection as the only way of removing the regime, he was never involved in violence.

He spent most of his twenties on the run, in and out of jail. But, he says, "the prison is not the problem. As bad as it is, it cannot be compared to when you go through investigation." Those interrogated were sodomised with sticks and bottles, faeces were shoved into their mouths, they suffered mock-drowning and electric shocks. Amnesty International has described how some victims were tied to a chair for a week with an apparatus that pierced their neck with a needle whenever their head dropped through exhaustion.

“We were unable to go to the toilet on our own," Harrath recalls, "so we were carried by four or five friends." He knows of 30 people who died under Tunisian government torture. After a decade of struggle he realised there was no point fighting the regime in Tunis because Ben Ali was just a puppet ruler. The real enemy, he realised, was France, the former imperial power that provided security assistance and (through the European Union) diplomatic and economic backing.

Nomad's land

Harrath's predicament bears comparison with that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader held for many years in Egyptian jails. Zawahiri famously came to distinguish between the "near enemy" and the "far enemy" - between Mubarak's US-backed regime and the US itself. It was this analysis that led Zawahiri to move out of Egypt and launch his struggle against the US. Harrath says he wanted nothing to do with violence, so he abandoned the battle against Ben Ali and fled, walking from Tunisia to neighbouring Algeria via an uncharted route.

He got lost along the way and feared for his life. For five years he wandered the globe using false documents, "with a new name and personality every week". This nomadic period was used against him by critics who repeated Tunisian government claims - as usual with no evidence - that he worked with al-Qaeda.

When he arrived in London in 1995 he studied for a degree in politics at the University of Westminster, writing his undergraduate dissertation on Karl Marx ("good on the analysis but bad on the solutions" is Harrath's own verdict), and started to dabble in business. "I was working here and there, buying and selling - I did everything."

For 15 years he lived the life of a political exile. Then in 2004 he set up the Islam Channel. It was then, he says, that the harassment began: "I was vilified." First to strike, he claims, was the Inland Revenue. "They came here and stayed for nearly a month going through every single receipt, every single paper. What astonished me is that they were asking politically motivated questions. They are asking about our content, they are asking about programmes. They are the taxman, they have to see whether we are paying our taxes or not, but they went further than that."

The press attacks were persistent and vicious. Again and again his Interpol Red Notice status was used to turn him into a pariah. By now he was wanted in Tunisia for "counterfeiting, forgery, crimes involving the use of weapons/ explosives, and terrorism". In 2009 he spoke at a City Hall-sponsored event in London. The Sunday Express responded with a story headlined: "Boris terror link". The Times launched an innuendo-filled campaign, highlighting Harrath's alleged links to terrorism, while asserting that he was an adviser to the Metropolitan Police. "[It] was part of the vilification," he says. "It was aimed at damaging me within the community."

Harrath was never a police adviser and the claim was based on his having spoken from time to time (like many other Muslims) to the Met's Muslim Contact Unit. This did not stop the Conservative Party's shadow security minister Baroness Neville-Jones demanding in 2008 that he should be sacked from his non-existent post. In deference to the Ben Ali regime, Neville-Jones said: "The Tunisian government, an ally in the fight against terrorism, has asked for extradition of this man."

The Tories, then in opposition, showed a shocking readiness to operate within parameters set for them by a notorious North African dictatorship. There were some reasonable grounds for criticising Harrath. His channel broke Ofcom's impartiality rules, and one employee won an appeal for unfair dismissal and gender discrimination. Yet the central - and endlessly repeated - claim that Harrath has a background as a terrorist was false, a fact now officially acknowledged. In April 2011, shortly after the fall of Ben Ali, Interpol removed its Red Notice, telling Harrath that, "after re-examining all the information in the file", the organisation "considered that the proceedings against you were primarily political in nature".

End of al-Qaeda

Life is still not easy for Harrath, or for other Tunisian refugees. He is still subject to a European travel ban within the Schengen area and was arrested last year in South Africa. Nevertheless he feels reasonably optimistic about the future. "If the Arab spring is allowed to evolve without western interference, there will be no reason for al-Qaeda to exist," he says, "as its ideology is based on combating western support for Arab dictators."

He predicts that power will bring moderation to the victorious Islamist parties, which "will realise there are economic and social realities they have to adapt to", and because they have to adapt to these will have a more pragmatic approach. The danger, he warns, is if western powers try to suppress these parties.

I left Harrath's offices feeling ashamed. He arrived in Britain as a refugee from tyranny. Instead of being welcomed, he was treated like a criminal.
Interpol has questions to answer. For almost two decades its system of Red Notices appears to have been used by Tunisia's Ben Ali to harass and torment a leading dissident. The agency's purpose should be to help national police hunt down criminals, not to round up opponents
of dictatorship.

Meanwhile not one of the newspapers that so eagerly played up Harrath's non-existent terrorist past has apologised - or even reported how Interpol has lifted him off the red list. They have been far too ready to operate within the moral guidelines set for them by a dictatorship. Like Interpol, they owe Harrath a generous apology.

Peter Oborne is chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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