Sunday 30 June 2013

Al-Andalus: 'The ornament of the world'

I am stocking up my holiday reading -  one of the perks of my new life is I can say that reading history is now actually part of my job. At the moment I am reading The Ornament of The World - a history of Muslim Spain.

It's appropriate timing for all sorts of reasons: Every few days we hear another story about Gove's plans to re-orientate school history towards Britain's glorious and civilizing relationship with the rest of the world, and even more worrying every few days there seems to be another story about another attack on a mosque, Islamic school or community centre. You don't have to be a paranoid liberal to see a connection between the two trends. 

Which is why re-telling the largely forgotten  story of Al-Andalus might just be a timely addition to the school curriculum. Whilst most of Medieval Europe was in the grip of a near Church-monopoly on culture and ideology, Al-Andalus was for nearly 800 years, a prototype multicultural society where Muslims, Jews and Christians not only co-existed but actually interacted to produce a flourishing centre of arts and knowledge.

And the major threats to this society were religious hardliners of all faiths: Invading Fundamentalist Berber Muslims from North Africa who objected to the tolerance of the Ummayad regime, and Jews and Christians who objected to their own communities' adoption of Arabic culture. Ironically the final downfall of Al-Andalus was at the hands of the much celebrated El-Cid - a mercenary who had spent much of his life fighting for Muslim princes who bore a Muslim name.

I am aware that it is always dangerously ahistorical to transplant our own values to an age which was so fundamentally different to our own. But in these dark days of prejudice and mis-information it might just be worth trying to redress the balance with a look at a story that challenges the lie of an inevitable 'clash of civilisations'. It's a lie perpetuated both by the likes of Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, and in a more respectable and articulate form, by Michael Gove and Nial Fergusson.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The sinister face of British policing

Talking to some of my Turkish friends about the reports  of police brutality in the recent protests, you might get the impression that our own British bobbies are cut of a qualitatively different cloth.

Then just a couple of days apart, we get two shocking stories about the sinister machinations of our own police forces: 

Firstly, that an undercover cop was involved in writing the leaflet that prompted the McLibel case - the longest ever libel trial in British history. And secondly that another one was assigned the mission of digging up any dirt he could find that might discredit the Lawrence family's campaign to bring the racist murderers of their son to justice.

There's an element of humour in the first story, is so far that maybe McDonald's should now sue the Met police. Although I doubt the activists who devoted over a year of their lives to defending themselves  will find it quite so funny.  We already knew that the police had infiltrated anti-fascist organisations around the time of the Welling demo - but the news that they had done the same to the Stephen Lawrence campaign is beyond belief. Especially given what we now know about the police racism, incompetence and corruption that ran throughout their investigation.

Just as the British ruling class have been around longer than most, and consequently generally manage to keep us in our place with a seemingly lighter touch than in many countries - so maybe the police can afford to keep the water cannon and the tear gas back in reserve whilst they concentrate on 'black-ops.'

And if that sounds all a bit too paranoid, we should remember that  British history is riddled with instances of the state using infiltrators and provocateurs. Even before we had a police force, the Jacobean secret service connived in Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder plot to provoke an anti-Catholic back lash.  And government spies manipulated an emerging radical-democrat movement in the Cato Street Conspiracy as an excuse to bring in repressive legislation.

Of course all of this was in an age before the incentives of  book deals and fifteen minutes of fame to tease police whistle-blowers out of the woodwork - I predict more of these disturbing stories will follow ...

Saturday 8 June 2013

Solidarity with Taksim Square

In my part of North London we have a large Turkish and Kurdish community, with a whole host of very visible political and community organisations . 

Over the past few years I have had the privilege of working quite closely with one of them. They have unfailingly taken the position of working in a non-sectarian way with any section of the Left - or anyone else come to that - who shares their broad aims when it comes to local campaigns, and they have put their enviable facilities and resources at our disposal.

Very occasionally you get from them just a hint of exasperation at the sometimes pathetic nature of the British Left. Whilst we are arguing about the number of revisionists who can balance on a pinhead, and sometimes struggle to  mobilise two men and a dog, they regard any turnout of less than about fifty to a meeting as something of an embarrassment. 

And they are quite right. In so many ways their organisation is a microcosm of what a healthy new movement could and should be like in this country - part cultural, part social, part educational,  wholly inclusive and  none the less wholly political for it.

And I'm writing this because right now I am awe of their mobilisation of solidarity for what is going is Taksim Square. Frankly, they make the rest of us look like we are in a coma.