26 August 2005

Is bin Laden really that different to Mandela?

In all the arguments about al-Qaida terrorism and what we should do about it, there is the general assumption that bin Laden is 'evil personified'. With this starting point it isn't surprising that the right and 'pro-war' left can argue that Islamist terrorism has not been influenced by the West's bombings and invasions in the Middle East and therefore there is no alternative to the 'war on terror'.

But what is the difference between bin Laden's sanctioning of civilian deaths now and Mandela's sanctioning of civilian deaths up until the ending of apartheid.

If you doubt that Mandela did sanction the killing of innocent civilians then here is the evidence.

But the cause of black majority rule in South Africa was a good one, I hear you cry! However does that actually make any difference. A lot of people would argue that bin Laden's cause of one Muslim state in the Middle East is a just cause. Certainly it is undeniable that there have been a lot of Western backed dictatorships which have repressed democracy there.

Now I would argue that both bin Laden's current motives and the West's previous motives in the Middle East have been anti-democratic. This anti-democratic meddling by the West has allowed extremists like bin Laden to develop and foster his movement by giving him a legitimacy he otherwise wouldn't have had.

Of course the added complication here is the power of the Islamic religion, which unlike Christianity has largely not adapted to modern values and is stuck in some 8th Century timewarp (although some Christians in the West are similarly misguided).

The big question is can Islam adapt away from Sharia rigidity or do we have to persuade Muslims to turn their back on Islam altogether.

Like all irrational beliefs, Islam is dangerous, but like Christianity it also has contradictions and different interpretations of its texts. Christianity has largly been pacified and Islam can be too. Because Islam has many professions of peace within its scriptures as well as dodgy stuff about stonings (the same as Christianity does), then I believe that religion is not the driving force here. If a similar religion like Christianity can be pacified then so can Islam.

So if Islam is not the core problem, what has been the driving force for bin Laden and his large support amongst Muslims.

The answer, as was the case with Mandela and in Northern Ireland, is political injustice. Now this is something that does give us an alternative to the relentless never ending 'war on terror' which is proving so obviously counter-productive. Just like hard line tactics didn't defeat the ANC and the IRA, we are losing the battle against the notional al-Qaida and the Islamist terrorists they inspire.

Mo Mowlem advocated negotiation with al-Qaida, she realised that the situation was no-different to Northern Ireland. It would be better to negotiate now than to wait until the situation develops beyond our control. In the 1960's Mandela winning the Nobel Peace Prize and being President of South Africa was as unthinkable as bin-Laden around the negotiation table. Just because we are taking a hardline with bin-Laden now, don't be surprised if he is as lauded a Statesman as Mandela in the future.

This re-writing of history that our governments do, was one thing that Orwell got spot on when he wrote 1984!


  1. Much of what you say is right, but I think you're mistaken on a key point. You say that political injustice is the cause of Osamam Bin Laden's / Al-Quaeda'a terrorism and that it is similar to Mandela's and th IRA's. The ANC's aim was to end apartheid and force democratic rule in South Africa. The IRA's aim was (and still is) a united Ireland. Therefore the grounds for negotiation were clearly laid out. What is Bin Laden's aim? On what terms do we negotiate?

    Well, first we remove all Western armed forces from the Middle East. We allow the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan an perhaps. Then all the Israeli Jews pull out of the occupied territories. Then the Jews pull out of Israel altogether. Then we pull UN forces out of East Timor, leaving the Timorese to suffer the will of the Indonesian Islamic government. Then the UN pulls out of Sudan.

    At this point, are the radical Islamists satisfied? What about removing all even slightly liberal governments from North Africa? All non-Islamist governments from the Middle East? Should we cede Southern Spain to Bin Laden?

    I know your argument will be that we, so far, haven't had to unify Ireland to get the Provisional IRA to down weapons. But we have had to make many concessions. With the IRA we are negotiating with people who are prepared to use democracy and politics to achieve their ends because they realise that it is a possible way forward, other than violence and terror.

    How do we negotiate with a group who answer only to God? They have, in their mind, no reason to concede or compromise anything. Our aim has to be to destroy Al-Quaeda (not necessarily through violence), while behaving in a way which doesn't encourage new recruits to the Islamist cause.

    The situation is different to Northern Ireland, and I, for one, will never laud Bin Laden as a "statesman".

  2. You will be surprised who our western Governments will laud as great statesman. Look at how Gadaffi is now a 'nice guy' according to Bush and Blair, when he was such an enemy we blew up his house and killed his son only a few decades back.

    I get your point about al-Qaida been only answerable to God. This is most definitely a problem, but what would be the harm in trying to negotiate? Nobody thought the IRA would ever give up terrorism without a united Ireland, they were proved wrong!

    Al Qaida are already doing their utmost to kill as many as possible and our actions in Iraq and elsewhere our lining up recruits for their cause. Maybe some of this could be stemmed through negotiation.

    Obviously only so much can be done. But the point for me, is that it is stuff we shouldn't be doing anyway! We shouldn't be meddling in Middle East democracy and invading countries. Saudi and Kuwait and others are not democratic. Israel should be pushed into a compromise with the Palestinians. This is all stuff we should be doing anyway whatever al-Qaida thinks. The side effect could well be that Muslims become more moderate. Surely this is worth trying?

  3. On one point, whatever Sharon's reasons for withdrawal from Gaza, Israel is at least attempting to create an environment where compromise is more likely. If the Palestinian authority can't make a move of their own it will be wrong. It reminds me of when the IRA offered to decommision an the Unionists demanded that photographic evidence be published - when one side makes a move (whatever the motives) the other has to move to keep up.

    Would it do any harm to negotiate? Of course not. You're right, and it should be one of the things we do to show that liberalism does work and there's more to us than carpet bombing and Belmarsh...

    Western governments have been beneath contempt for some of their actions - I won't consider Bin Laden a statesman, and I'd say the same about, for example, Gerry Adams, whatever the Labour government might tell us (sorry - not a deliberate mention of Labour - I'm Green by the way - see you at the next B&H local elections. I fancy us to get a bit of joy in Regency! Are you standing or just campaigning?)

    Last thing - "We shouldn't be meddling in Middle East democracy" - what democracy? I think we must intervene to stop a state which, for example, stones women to death for adultery and hangs homosexual men. We just have to do it right. Much easier said etc...

  4. The Gaza withdrawal was very good strategy from Sharon. There were just 8,000 Israelis in Gaza. It was great publicity for Israel to strengthen their case to remain in the West Bank. Hamas co-operated fully with the withdrawal by leaving well alone.

    Of course I welcome the Israeli withdrawal. It all helps, but it was a token settlement in Gaza and therefore a token gesture that has garnered the maximum sympathy for Israel.

    Strategically it has been a triumpth for them because they can now argue it is too difficult for them to withdrawal from the West Bank. Of course while this has been going on, they have been expanding their settlements elsewhere.

    It has also been useful in the demographic battle with the Palestinians. The Israelis want to encourage as many Palestinians as possible to move to Gaza so they keep control of areas under their control. The situation is similar to pre-apartheid South Africa, where blacks were pushed in 'homeland' states.

    Regency is going to be very tight. We are talking just 70-80 votes between the top three parties. I am just campaigning, I'm not a candidate.

    I really like the Greens, I agree with a lot of your policies, particularly electoral reform and the citizen's income. Of course I think you are honest on a lot of the environmental issues we face as well, which the main parties unfortunately skirt around. I think the Labour party and Greens should work closer together on a lot of issues.

    However, I'm sorry to say I've not been impressed with Keith Taylor. Why has his blog suddenly stopped now the election is over for example. I don't really want to criticise personalities, but he seems to be catching the Lib Dem disease of saying one thing to one group and another to another.

    This is sad because on policy the Greens are a lot more honest than the Lib Dems, who stand for totally different things depending on who you ask. The Lib Dems are just a spoiler party, but they are creating a profile for themselves here by pretending they have both cllrs here when they only have one. I prefer the Greens to the Lib Dems anyday.

    This is why I was particularly disappointed to see the attacks on Labour in your election literature. There seemed to be a lot of petty point scoring and I thought the Greens were above all that. I suppose its just the sad case that this sort of attack wins votes.

    I know Regency Labour Cllr Roy Pennington has been honest on a lot of issues, even where it has lost him support and knowing him personally I know he does a good job for the area, even though he doesn't agree (not surprisingly) with some of my more radical views. I think it will be very close again. The Lib Dems are the real enemy here with their duplicity.

  5. Remittance Man26/10/05 4:50 pm

    Living in South Africa as I do perhaps I can shed some light on the differences between Mandela and bin Laden as I perceive them.

    Mandela was the figurehead of the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle and yes he did sanction the use of armed force in that struggle. He was however in jail for most of the duration of the campaign.

    The ANC or Umknoto we Sizwe didn't manage any armed action before his arrest and not much for many years after he was sent to Robben Island. This is probably why he was jailed rather than hanged for the crime for which he was convicted.

    ANC documents now released show that the move to violent as opposed to non-violent action was a hotly debated issue within the ANC and only reached after much soul searching.

    Early MK actions against the police and army were unsuccessful largely due to the ability of the SAP and SADF to counter them. Thereafter the ANC found itself pretty much on the back foot. Bases in neighbouring countries were routinely attacked and the bulk of MK guerillas were committed to the war in Angola. The few actions that did take place in South Africa were against civilians because they were the only targets that offered some chance of success.

    Bin Laden, on the other hand seems to have chosen violence against civilian targets right from the start. Using (dubious) justification from the Koran his organisation made no direct attacks on the military of the west before they started attacking civilian targets.

    Mandela sought to bring a pluralist democracy to South Africa and he seems to have succeeded. As far as most people can tell bin Laden seeks to destroy western freedoms and impose a draconian, religious regime on whomsoever he can.

    On a personal note, I know quite a lot of Afrikaaners who, despite the years of "Total Onslaught" and National Party indoctrination, do actually give Mandela a deal of respect for what he acheived after his release. They don't agree with the ANC nor do they always like the changes that have happened to this country, but Mandela the man is a different matter. For the record, I probably fall into this camp as well.

    Somehow I cannot imagine many of bin Laden's adversaries ever feeling the same about him.

    The difference is probably that Mandela spoke about building and hope. To a fair degree he succeeded. Bin Laden appears only to want destruction and oppression.

    To equate Nelson Mandela with Osama bin Laden is to do Mandela a great injustice.