Poles apart

Two compelling books on the Middle East - one focused on Israel and the other on Egypt - expose deep

Jonathan Cook and John R Bradley are maverick British journalists who specialise in writing about the Middle East. What distinguishes them from many other western commentators is that they have gone native in the Arab world, living among Arab people and immersing themselves in Arab culture. What also makes them stand out is the way they write with a manifest determination to make a difference, and that both have made more impact outside than inside Britain.

There the similarities end, however, because while Cook - whose latest book is Israel and the Clash of Civilisations - is preoccupied with the Israel/Palestine conflict, Bradley - whose new book is Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution - addresses the conflict no more than cursorily, focusing his attention instead on the political and social pathology of the Arab world. If it is instructive to compare them, it is because the bias of their sympathies epitomises a deep and general division of western opinion.

Currently resident in Nazareth, Cook exemplifies to an extreme degree the belief that when it comes to the Middle East, westerners of conscience are bound to be engaged with the Palestine/Israel conflict above all else. He regards Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as a mon strous injustice that must be resolved if stability is ever to be brought to the Middle East.

By contrast, the implication of the work of Cairo-based John R Bradley is that to become fixated on Israel's conduct is to ignore the inherent ills of Arab culture. Bradley subscribes to the view that even if you were to subtract Israel from the Middle East, and subtract to boot the role of Israel's indulgent benefactor, the United States, the Arab world would still be a scene of regression - and that, thanks not least to Islam, it is likely to remain so until it whole heartedly embraces western-style democracy and intellectual freedom.

Cook is a writer of forensic rigour, but there is no mistaking either his moral outrage at the west's readiness to turn a blind eye to Israel's violations of international law or his black-and-white view of the Palestine/Israel conflict. He finds it intolerable that, while holding forth about human rights, the west allows Israel to brutalise the Palestinians with impunity. His book Blood and Religion (2006) highlighted the systematic dis crimination directed by the Israeli state against the Arabs who live in Israel itself and who - unlike their fellow Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza - ostensibly enjoy full Israeli citizenship; it is their predicament, he insists, that exposes the intrinsically undemocratic, not to say racist, character of the Jewish state.

Cook's latest book arraigns Israel not just as a racist enterprise but as an increasing threat to world peace. It was Zionist determination to make the Middle East safe for the Jewish state, he argues, that did much to precipitate the Iraq War and the chaos and sectarian conflict that followed. He claims that, far from being unintended consequences of US policy, civil war and partition were seen by the pro-Israel neoconservatives who have dominated the White House under President George W Bush as serving both US and Israeli interests.

His central contention is that after the 11 September 2001 attacks Israel sold its "war on terror" in relation to the occupied territories as an integral part of the US war against global terrorism. "The question of what to do with the Palestinians," he writes, "has increasingly been tied to the question of what the west should do about Islamic extremism. Israel has therefore been nurturing a view of itself as on the frontiers of the west in an epoch-making clash of civilisations."

If Cook says what few Jews want to hear, John R Bradley says what few Arabs or their western liberal sympathisers wish to be told. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is Bradley's views that have found more favour with American newspaper and magazine editors. Never published in Britain but acclaimed in the US, his book Saudi Arabia Exposed (2005) was a portrait of a kingdom in crisis, an Arab state where Wahhabism, the austere variety of Islam with which the Saudi royal family has long allied itself, has become a double-edged sword, breeding zealots, chief among them Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers, and profoundly compromising the collusive relationship between the House of Saud and the US political Establishment. Brad ley's message was that it behoved the west to open better lines of communication with the Saudi people if it was not to find itself facing a Muslim theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Ordinary Saudis, he emphasised, are decent people who yearn to throw off the yoke of Wahhabism and who are eminently open to genuine western overtures.

Bradley's testimony was the more compelling because he had penetrated what was long a closed society and become managing editor of the leading Saudi newspaper Arab News. Not that he would be especially welcome in Saudi Arabia now. His book proved inflammatory. It remains to be seen how welcome he will be now in Egypt. Depicting a hopelessly dysfunctional country where poverty, torture and corruption are ubiquitous, Inside Egypt warns that the regime of the long-serving pro-US president, Hosni Mubarak, is increasingly threatened by Islamist extremism in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its promise to deliver the Egyptian masses from oppression. Mubarak and his son and likely successor Gamal are universally loathed, and great numbers of Egyptians, Bradley reports, would leave the country tomorrow if only they could. Many among the educated classes, meanwhile, have become "nostalgic" for the colonial era. Yet, according to Bradley, most Egyptians are Washington's "natural allies" and it is easy to exaggerate the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism to a country with a many-faceted religious and ethnic make-up. Like the House of Saud, he writes, the Mubarak regime has duped Washington into regarding it as an indispensable bulwark against Islamism, thus ensuring that it continues to be propped up by the US to the tune of billions of dollars.

Bradley argues that the US ought to make future economic aid to Egypt conditional on genuine democratic reforms; he argues, too, albeit in token fashion, that it needs to solve the Palestine/Israel conflict, which Mubarak exploits as a means of distracting his country's masses from their own misfortunes. To let things fester can only, he stresses, increase the chances of Egypt falling prey to Islamist extremism, with dire consequences for the whole Middle East. His feeling is that Egypt currently has much in common with Iran in 1979 on the eve of the fall of the shah.

Bradley's most provocative chapter deals with torture in Egypt. Abuse, he claims, is by no means confined to Egypt's "superarmy" of 1.4 million police. Rather, it has become an integral part of the fabric of Middle Eastern culture, making individuals complicit in the punishment that their regimes mete out. Compare, he writes, the "extraordinary outpouring of sympathy on the day of the execution of the Arab world's worst-ever butcher, Saddam Hussein, throughout Egypt and the wider Middle East, to the shedding of not a single tear for his hundreds of thousands of victims". This is a startling claim. Not a single tear? Shia Arabs whose relatives were among his victims certainly shed tears. But Bradley generalises here about Arabs in a way he would hardly generalise about Europeans or Americans. If truth be told, the reactions of many Arabs to Saddam Hussein's demise were mixed, their pride that he stood up to the US hyperpower mingling with very different emotions.

Bradley's book is published at a time of widely felt revulsion against Israel's punitive treatment of the people of Gaza, and just weeks after the pouring across the border from Gaza into Egypt of thousands of desperate Palestinians - a development perhaps viewed in Israel as a convenient means of turning them into Egypt's problem. What is striking, however, is the meagre attention accorded to Israel in Inside Egypt, especially considering how much might be said about torture in Israeli prisons and the many Palestinians arbitrarily detained in them. It is true that Bradley was no supporter of the US intervention in Iraq, but his book ministers to the belief of American and Israeli Zionists that the failings of the Arab world are largely of its own making.

Accepting the inevitability of US/Israeli dominance of the Middle East, John R Bradley is advocating continued, if "improved", western involvement in the region. Jonathan Cook, on the other hand, believes that confronting the imperialist thrust of US/Israeli policy is a moral imperative and that not to place the Palestine/ Israel conflict at the heart of the discussion about the Middle East is to demonstrate a basic and fatally counterproductive contempt for the Arab people. It is not a gap that separates what these two Middle East analysts stand for. It is an unbridgeable chasm.

The paperback of Neil Berry's Articles of Faith: the Story of British Intellectual Journalism will be published this autumn

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.