Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial


May 22, 2015

Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial

http://inthesetimes.com/article/14415/christopher_hitchens_stands_trial

With great vim and gusto, a new book dissects the ever-controversial Christopher Hitchens.

By Gregory Shupak

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.”

Seymour at LSEBy the time of his death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens had built a status perhaps outstripping that of any contemporary intellectual: His passing was considered worthy of the New York Times’ front page, and he was mourned by Tony Blair, Sean Penn, David Frum and Patrick Cockburn, among others. It is from this altitude that he is yanked down by Richard Seymour in the clever, incisive Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. The slim critique of Hitchen’s ouevre focuses on his engagement with British politics and literature, his work on religion and his double-armed embrace of American imperialism.

Though only 35, Seymour has made a name for himself as a thoughtful political analyst, notably in his book The Liberal Defence of Murder, on how the language of humanitarianism helps camouflage imperialism, and on his blog Lenin’s Tomb, an indispensible source for analysis of neoliberalism, the War on Terror and Islamophobia. Ironically, Seymour’s literary style often evokes that of Hitchens at his best. Some of Seymour’s turns of phrase are positively Hitchensian, such as his opening salvo in the introduction to Unhitched: “This is unabashedly a prosecution. And if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result.”

And when writing in the prosecutorial mode, Seymour has, like his subject, a gift for reeling off an entire firing squad’s worth of bullets in a single sentence: “Hitchens was a propagandist for the American empire, a defamer of its opponents, and someone who suffered the injury this did to his probity and prose as so much collateral damage.” Seymour is also a Trotskyist, as Hitchens once was. But there the comparisons end, because Seymour is plainly a caliber of intellectual that his subject is not.

Accuracy, Seymour demonstrates, was not a major hang-up for Hitchens. Hitchens referred to Hugo Chávez as “the General” even though the Venezuelan never held that rank; said that Muammar Gaddafi turned over a “stockpile of WMD” although Libya never possessed even one such weapon; claimed in February 2003 that an invasion of Iraq would be justified because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s presence in that country demonstrated a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda even though Zarqawi was an opponent of al-Qaeda at the time and it wasn’t clear that he was in Iraq at all; and asserted that Tunisians revolted against the Ben Ali regime because they did not have to fear violent repression on the same scale that Iranian protestors face despite the fact that 224 Tunisians were killed in their uprising as compared to the 72 killed in the Iranian dictatorship’s crushing of the Green Movement in 2009.

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.” Here Seymour adduces Hitchens’ gross misreading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, his travestying of Marx’s view of history, and his crude theological discussions: for example, Hitchens interprets the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as divine endorsement for the murder of children, an unpersuasive claim given that the story had precisely the opposite function in the historical context in which it was written and received.

Hitchens’ record on intellectual honesty is also rather blotchy. Seymour is not the first to note this; he points to John Barrell, who argued in the London Review of Books that sections of Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were lifted from other sources without proper attribution. Seymour contends that Hitchens’ The Missionary Position was a re-write of research done by an Indian author who does not receive credit in the original hardback, and demonstrates convincingly that Hitchens’ essay “Kissinger’s War Crimes in Indochina” borrows from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s The Political Economy of Human Rights without crediting the authors.

If Hitchens was a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions, one might reasonably conclude that he ought to be ignored, and that a reader’s time and Seymour’s considerable talents be put to better use. But Hitchens matters precisely because of the inverse relationship that the quality of his work has to his status. His career reveals much about the function of the public intellectual.

The familiar narrative of Hitchens’ career has it that he made an abrupt turn from Left to Right in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but Seymour complicates this, noting that traces of Hitchens’ sympathy for empire could be detected much earlier in his career. As an example, Seymour cites Hitchens’ 1992 claim that European colonization of the Americas “deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.” While Seymour notes that Hitchens did some important writing prior to his ideological shift, particularly in his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, he says too little about the high-quality work Hitchens did in the 1980s on Palestine and Reagan’s wars in Central America.

That said, Hitchens’ later years and the enormous celebrity he enjoyed during that period are a case study of just how handsome the rewards are for those willing and able to serve as attack dogs for the dominant powers of their place and time. Hitchens’ main service to the American elite was to employ a combination of innuendo and character assassination to cast aspersion on virtually every high-profile figure critical of American foreign policy after 9/11—a roster that includes Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Michael Moore, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Cindy Sheehan, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal.

Hitchens could never have amassed such a large following—and perhaps more importantly, such a powerful following—had he not so entirely embraced American power and its corresponding ideologies after 9/11. Would Hitchens have been invited on as many talk shows if, rather than writing fawning biographies of safely institutionalized figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, he had taken as his exemplary subjects two others he professed to admire even near the end of his life, C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg? If, instead of levying facile criticisms of organized religion primarily at the United States’ enemies, Hitchens had selected neoliberal capitalism for his most ferocious late-career critiques, is it likely that 60 Minutes would have profiled him when he was ill with cancer, or that his audience would have been extended to readers of Newsweek, much less the Weekly Standard?

Seymour’s book makes clear that Hitchens provides the best evidence one can find for Chomsky’s hypothesis that as intellectuals achieve increasing degrees of power, “the inequities of the society will recede from vision, the status quo will seem less flawed, and the preservation of order will become a matter of transcendent importance.” Nor is there a more perfect embodiment than Hitchens of Said’s argument that “Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performance as much as … patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.”

To put the matter another way, consider Seymour’s justifiable revulsion at Hitchens’ revealing shifts in political friendships after 9/11: “It is one thing to sell out Sidney Blumenthal to the GOP, but to exchange Edward Said for Ahmed Chalabi? To smear Noam Chomsky yet endear oneself to Paul Wolfowitz?” Hitchens’ is the logic of an intellectual opportunist, of a man who has figured out the benefits of taking a clear stance with the established order: Relationships with Said and Chomsky will impress in certain circles, but they won’t get you the ear of the President of the United States or help you become chummy with the Prime Minister of England.

unhitched in 3dHitchens was what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual”: a person who claims to speak for the interests of either a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic class. And, despite Hitchens’ protestations and pretensions of working-class sympathies, Seymour’s book makes clear Hitchens sided manifestly with the ruling class, particularly those factions of it that are concerned with foreign affairs. The most concrete expression of this was probably his joining the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was initiated and headed by Bruce Jackson, a former vice president of Lockheed Martin. However, the primary task that Hitchens took up for America’s elite was to attempt to de-legitimize its opponents. In addition to his vicious but generally insubstantial attacks on critics of American empire, this took the form of him repeatedly asserting that all anti-capitalist movements were dead and that market forces are the world’s truly revolutionary force; of his sliming the alter-globalization movement and his justifying Arizona’s racist immigration laws (though these last two are among the few points that Seymour overlooks).

Hitchens thus stands in contrast to an organic intellectual of the counter-hegemonic kind—one who practices what Chomsky sees as the responsibility of intellectuals in Western democracies: to utilize “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

By no means is Seymour the first to call Hitchens a hack and a sell-out. In the aftermath of his full-throttled embrace of gunboat diplomacy post-9/11, unmasking Hitchens became almost a cottage industry for Left intellectuals. Among the finest of these are Tariq Ali’s chapter on his former comrade in Bush in Babylon, Clare Brandabur’s “Hitchens Smears Edward Said,” Norman Finkelstein’s “Hitchens as Model Apostate,” Glenn Greenwald’s counter-obituary, and more work by Alexander Cockburn and Terry Eagleton than I could list. But Unhitched offers a more thorough and in-depth discrediting of Hitchens than anything previously published. And in doing so, Seymour has made an important contribution to understanding the political role of the intellectual celebrity in our time.

Greg Shupak writes fiction, non-fiction and book reviews. He teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph.

The Positions he Takes on The Rights of Man


May 22, 2015

The Positions he takes on The Rights of Man

by John Barrell

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n23/john-barrell/the-positions-he-takes

Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography by Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens on Paine

If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason,’ wrote Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine on the dust jacket of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine.​* Thomas Paine and the Promise of Revolution. And as if to reinforce that message, he has now himself published a little book on Paine, a ‘biography’ of Rights of Man.

It begins with a dedication, ‘by permission’, to President Jalal Talabani: ‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.’ However selective this description of Talabani, who has been all this and almost everything else at one time or another, it is an opening that encourages us to expect a tract for the times: a demonstration perhaps of how Paine’s book can help us understand the complexities of the situation in Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights might have to say about the legislative and judicial innovations introduced into the US and Britain as part of the war on terror.

Will Paine help us adjudicate between the rights of those who died in the Twin Towers and those who have been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the suicide bombers of the insurgency and the non-combatants murdered by the Americans in Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that he will. ‘In a time,’ he writes in his final sentence, ‘when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.’ In the event, between the dedication and the final sentence the book says nothing about Iraq or the war on terror, perhaps in silent acknowledgment of the difficulty of knowing quite how to depend on Paine in these dark times, perhaps because Hitchens believes it best to let Paine speak for himself and to leave President Talabani and the rest of us to make the connections. I would be more persuaded by the wisdom of this method if the book made more effort to expound and to summarise Paine’s political philosophy. But compared with any other book on Paine I can think of, this one is casual, even perfunctory. Long before I reached the end of what is a very long short book, I was at a loss to know why it had been written.

Discussing the reasons why Burke, who had supported the revolution in America, should have been so hostile to the revolution in France, even in its earliest and most innocent phase, Hitchens remarks that ‘it is a deformity in some “radicals”’ – he has Marx particularly in mind – ‘to imagine that, once they have found the lowest or meanest motive for an action or for a person, they have correctly identified the authentic or “real” one.’ Quite right too; and if any radical, misled by George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite popinjay’, should suggest that this book was written out of vanity, he would surely be mistaken.

A vain man would have taken care to write a better book than this: more original, more accurate, less damaging to his own estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. The press release accompanying the book led me to expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it exclaims, ‘marvels’ at the forethought of Rights of Man, and ‘revels’ in its contentiousness. There is a bit of marvelling and revelling here and there, but it is as routine as everything else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.

Too tired, to begin with, to check his facts. Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke, along with Joseph Priestley and Mary Wollstonecraft, was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled.

According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing.

Paine was charged with seditious libel for publishing Part Two, and to escape arrest he fled to France, accompanied by the Wykehamist gentleman-lawyer John Frost, described by Hitchens as secretary of the London Corresponding Society (LCS). The LCS was a society of radical artisans, not a gentleman’s club, and its secretary was in fact the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. The trial proceeded in Paine’s absence, and according to Hitchens the future prime minister Spencer Perceval ‘opened for the prosecution’; in fact, though Perceval read the indictment to the court, the prosecution was much too important to be left to so relatively junior a barrister, and was opened by the attorney general himself.

In 1794 Paine published The Age of Reason, ‘probably’, thinks Hitchens, in reaction to a sermon by Richard Watson, the bishop of Llandaff, though, as Paine himself tells us, he had not heard of the sermon until it was advertised in Watson’s reply to The Age of Reason, An Apology for the Bible.

This is only a selection of the many errors in this book, and they are not trivial; they misrepresent matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writings, and it is in the course of Hitchens’s attempt to describe that context that they occur. It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane’s biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily – it must have been lying open on his desk as he was writing this book. Here for example is Keane on Watson’s Apology:

Watson … went so far as to admit that parts of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses and that some of the psalms were not composed by David … Paine took particular pleasure in some of the Bishop’s curious admissions. For example, The Age of Reason questioned whether God really commanded that all men and married women among the Midianites should be slaughtered and their maidens preserved. Not so, the Bishop indignantly retorted. The maidens were not preserved for immoral purposes, as Paine had wickedly suggested, but as slaves, to which Christians could not legitimately object.

And here is Hitchens: Watson, he tells us,

was willing to admit that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch and that David was not invariably the psalmist. But he would not give too much ground. Paine was quite out of order, wrote the good bishop, in saying that God had ordered the slaughter of all adult male and female Midianites, preserving only the daughters for rapine. On the contrary, the daughters had been preserved solely for the purpose of slavery. No hint of immorality was involved.

Or here is Keane on the problems Paine encountered in his efforts to publish Part One of Rights of Man:

Paine finished the first part of Rights of Man on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791 … The next day, Paine passed the manuscript to the well-known London publisher Joseph Johnson, who set about printing it in time for the opening of Parliament and Washington’s birthday on 22 February. As the unbound copies piled up in the printing shop, Johnson was visited repeatedly by government agents. Although Johnson had already published replies to Burke’s Reflections by Thomas Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Capel Lofft, he sensed, correctly, that Paine’s manuscript would attract far more attention and bitter controversy than all of them combined. Fearing the book police, and unnerved by the prospect of arrest and bankruptcy, Johnson suppressed the book on the very day of its scheduled publication.

And here is Hitchens again:

Having completed Part One on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791, Paine made haste to take the manuscript to a printer named Joseph Johnson. The proposed publication deadline, of 22 February, was intended to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the birthday of George Washington. Mr Johnson was a man of some nerve and principle, as he had demonstrated by printing several radical replies to Burke (including the one by Mary Wollstonecraft) but he took fright after several heavy-footed visits from William Pitt’s political police. On the day of publication, he announced that The Rights of Man would not appear under the imprint of his press.

Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’ – though if Hitchens had taken the trouble to find out more about Watson he would perhaps be less dismissive of him. Like Burke, Watson was sympathetic to the cause of the American colonists but strongly supported William Pitt’s war on terror, and so, like Burke, was regarded by radicals as having abandoned his principles.

Hitchens nowhere acknowledges the debt he owes to Keane’s narrative, though he does have footnotes to Keane, eight in all, which cite him simply as the source for quotations. With unexpected generosity, indeed, he three times acknowledges Keane for quotations that he must have found elsewhere, for the versions he gives are considerably longer than those in Keane’s book.

Hitchens’s casual attitude to facts is not compensated for by a corresponding precision with ideas, or any concern for the range, the richness, the complexity of Paine’s thinking. For example, we will not learn from Hitchens anything much about what Paine thought the rights of man actually were. ‘The great achievement of Paine,’ he tells us, ‘was to have introduced the discussion of human rights … Prior to this, discussion about “rights” had been limited to “natural” or “civil” rights.’ I have no idea what this means. For Paine, the rights we have by virtue of being human – the rights of man – take the form of ‘natural’ rights, ‘civil’ rights, ‘political’ rights, and he discriminates between them with increasing care; but he would surely have been puzzled by the notion of human rights as something beyond, something different from, not ‘limited’ to, natural, civil or political rights.

Hitchens seems similarly at sea in his brief discussion of Paine’s theory of revolution which he understands entirely in terms of ‘the sudden return or restoration’ of a lost golden age, holding Paine responsible (among others) ‘for the “heaven on earth” propaganda … that disordered the radical tradition thereafter’. This is entirely to ignore the trajectory in Paine’s thought from a ‘full-circle’ theory of revolution as a return to the founding contract of society, to one in which, as Mark Philip pointed out in his superb short book on Paine (1989), revolution is represented as a new stage of social organisation made necessary by social, economic and intellectual progress.

Edmund Burke: Conservative at heart


May 22, 2015

Phnom Penh

Edmund Burke: Conservative at Heart

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/opinions/a-c-grayling-edmund-burke-jesse-norman

Commentary by AC Grayling

AC GraylingConservatives in the United States began a post-mortem on their defeat with predictable calls for a return to the first principles and basic tenets of their political faith. High on the rhetorical list was a demand to revisit (or as some pointed out, to visit) the ideas of the man whom some call the father, others the patron saint, of conservatism: Edmund Burke.

What makes this 18th century Irishman, a Whig sympathetic to American independence, the patron saint of conservatism? Was he a political conservative before the French Revolution and its excesses? How does one square his tender sympathy for the Queen of France with his support for rebellion against the King of England?

Some of the answers to these questions are found in Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins, £20), a lively new biography by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, Policy Advisor to David Cameron. The book is not a comprehensive academic work, but rather an affectionate account of the life and thought of one of Norman’s heroes. “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years,” says Norman in the book’s opening sentence, setting the tone for what follows. Norman seeks to defend Burke from the familiar charges that he is inconsistent, irrelevant and reactionary. His Burke is the man who “forged modern politics” by establishing the principles of the party system and setting out the case for representative democracy. He highlights Burke’s arguments in favour of religious tolerance, his criticisms of liberal individualism, and his hatred of the injustices perpetrated by the British in America, Ireland and India.

In his bid to claim this 18th century figure as a light for our own century, Norman sometimes overstretches, as when he describes Burke as “the earliest postmodern political thinker.” But Norman’s biography is an engaging attempt to show how the intellectual debates of the 18th century can be deployed in today’s politics.

Burke was a conservative in his bones, and this means that it was not the sanguinary aspects of the revolution in France that made him one. Both of the great revolutions that occurred in his time prompted conservative responses in him, and similar ones. To see how, consider his outlook.

For Burke, the great opposition in political attitudes is that between respect for tradition and Burke by J Normanespousal of metaphysical abstractions. He was in favour of the first and emphatically opposed to the second. His thinking went as follows. Revolutionaries are motivated by the thought that reason can change and improve both people and institutions. But the problems generated by abstracting and idealising uses of reason are such that it would be better for people to rely on tradition, in which is deposited the accumulated experience of the past—“the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” as Burke put it.

Reason leads people to postulate principles of morality and politics which, because they are a priori idealisations, are disconnected from historical realities and their particularities. Principles only have their life and meaning in context, in relation to each other and the facts on the ground—and any attempt to thwart the course of history and its traditions by means of fancy new notions is “sophistical” and “delusive” and will lead to disaster.

On these grounds Burke dismissed the idea of equality between people, urged the importance of belief in a god, argued that the meaning to be found in life comes from such belief together with tradition and folklore, and committed himself to the somewhat Jungian idea of a collective mind, which is marinated in the old wisdom, beliefs and ways of living that traditions bring down to us.

He was, therefore, a Counter-Enlightenment figure, and in invoking the geist that informs tradition he was a political Romantic before the letter. The Enlightenment saw reason—in the form of scientific method applied to society and morality—as the liberator of humanity from the hegemonies alike of crowns and churches, those profiteers from beliefs about how sacrosanct we must think tradition to be. This is why Burke rejected that core Enlightenment thought. For him the nation is to be modelled on the family: social relations are or should be as close as blood relationships, and the forms and principles of political life should be like the “little platoons” of family, church and community, which pass down the traditions which alone, he claimed, give us meaning. One therefore sees why Burke attracts not only moderate British Conservatives such as Jesse Norman, but also the modern American right: God, family, tradition, and—in line with Burke’s “little platoon” notion (could it be stretched to cover gun possession?)—“little government,” too.

Too many people today know so little history and have such little awareness of the influence of ideas on its realities that they fail to gather the full implications of invoking names and theories given heroic status by the passage of time. Burke opposed the tendencies of political thought that gave us democracy, regimes of human rights, collective provision of such fundamental social goods as education and healthcare, which together help to promote social justice and to protect the weak against the strong; that is the respect in which he was a conservative.

Book Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia


April 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

by John Bethelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/book-review-hun-sen-cambodia/

In the western mind, as Sebastian Strangio so eloquently writes, Cambodia remains “nearly synonymous with the terror and mass murder that engulfed the country in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge seized power and embarked on a radical experiment in communism.”

Hun Sen's CambodiaThe country has struggled on from that period, modernizing and tearing down its forests, building dams and highways, destroying the gorgeous traditional architecture that once characterized Phnom Penh for the same faceless high-rises that have peopled so many Asian cities at the same time millions of tourists stream to the magnificent temple complex at Angkor Wat.

But in the 35 years since that devastating period, which took the lives of an estimated 2 million people in a senseless bloodletting on the part of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the country has continued to attempt vainly to cope with its past. The United States especially, and other western powers should struggle with their own disgraceful role in that past, backing the murderous Khmer Rouge in a misguided attempt to contain the Vietnamese and their supposed ties to the then Soviet Union.

 Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 25 of those years, has seen to it that except for one or two superannuated leaders, the rank and file have escaped judgment for their crimes. After negotiations got the trials back on track, “the only trial the United Nations wanted was one Hun Sen could not control.  The only trial Hun Sen wanted was one he could.”

The result is a country that has never come to terms with what happened. “There is no doubt Cambodia is in need of some sort of a reckoning, Strangio writes. “If there is one unifying theme to the country’s relationship with its ghastly past, it is this profound lack of resolution. After overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the ruling CPP promoted rituals of remembering, but also of forgetting.”

Most of the survivors have simply picked up the pieces and moved on as best they could, some finding consolation in Buddhism and others simply choosing silence.

Much of the country’s recent history has been dominated by the presence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of foreign NGO workers attempting to rebuild the institutions that were simply demolished as Pol Pot set out in his appalling attempt to revolutionize the country. About a third of the foreign aid goes ‘technical assistance,’ “the hiring of highly paid foreign development consultants to write reports and project assessments,” he writes. “In 2002, donors paid 700 international consultants an estimated $50-70 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the wage bills of 160,000 Cambodian civil servants.” Dependence on this foreign ‘consultariat’ means that large amounts of aid simply flow back out of the country.”

That has meant that the country today is stuck in what Strangio calls a “dependence spiral,” in which the lack of government capacity to run it is matched by continuing aid disbursals.

“What started out as an investment in Cambodia’s future has evolved into an entrenched development complex that has eroded democracy, undermined the livelihoods of the poor, and given powerful elites a free hand to keep plundering the nation’s resources for their own gain.”

Nonetheless, the presence of those myriad international aid workers has managed to keep some rein on Hun Sen’s proclivities towards dictatorship. Cambodian society, Strangio points out, is considerably freer than most Asian nations, with “fewer political prisoners than China, Vietnam or Burma.  It jails fewer bloggers than Thailand or Vietnam and prosecutes fewer journalists than Singapore.”

More than 2,600 NGOs are registered with the government, 80 percent of them local. Civil society groups employ 42,000 people “who are involved in every conceivable area of government from good governance land rights, environmental conservation and gender equality to health care, anti-human trafficking and wildlife rescue. They work tirelessly to monitor and document government abuses of every sort and their reports are transmitted via a vigilant English language press.”

But it is difficult to call Cambodia a democracy. “Twenty years after the UN jump-started civil society in Cambodia, it lives on under Hun Sen as a mirage for the benefit of well-intentioned foreigners and donor governments.  While Cambodia remains freer than many other Asian countries, the outcome is a purposefully selective freedom.  Indeed, few countries have seen such a wide gap between norms and realities.”

But, as he points out, the mirage of democracy is clearly better than no democracy at all although it is a mirage nonetheless. While the NGOs have fought to clean up the unspeakable disaster that Cambodia was left with in 1979, the country more than anything else has swung back to being what it was prior to the enlightened leadership of Norodom Sihanouk, the modernizing, quixotic and beloved king who walked a decades-long tightrope between the contending powers that sought to impose their will on it.

There is undeniable change.  The young have had enough of Hun Sen and, in 2013 elections, almost certainly would have thrown him out if the election had been anything near free and fair.

But today, “If the past 30 years of Cambodian history have shown anything, it is that political changes imposed from the outside are often superficial, and only last as long as foreigners can bring political leverage to bear on the country’s leaders,” he writes. “Outside attention is refocusing. With growing aid and support from China, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have an escape hatch from western pressure.  Twenty years ago it might have seemed if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.”

Cambodia has been the subject of a long list of very good books since William Shawcross published his brilliant “Sideshow” in 2002. This is an articulate and valuable addition to that library, by a longtime resident and former Phnom Penh Post reporter who struggles, in 322 pages, to come to his own conclusions about the cataclysm that overtook a gorgeous country and which continues to play itself out today as the Chinese especially increase their sway.

Why Islam needs a Reformation


March 21, 2015

MY NOTE: I posted Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s essay this morning to encourageDin Merican New rebuttals of her views from my enlightened readers. When I came back to my computer about an hour ago, I found to my horror that my post went missing. I do wish to speculate  what happened. I can only attribute its disappearance and comments from my readers to some technical error.

Ms. Ali’s essay is indeed controversial as the person herself. She was persecuted for her heretical views on Islam and had to live in the United States to avoid harm to her life and limb. But that is not the point.

My purpose in this blog is to encourage reasoned discourse and promote exchange of views on the state of Islam in our contemporary world, especially in our own country where PAS  including UMNO assemblymen has voted in favour of hudud with amendments in Kelantan. Politics has gotten in the way of religion, thanks to both PAS and UMNO and that cannot be to the good of Malaysian society. –Din Merican

The Saturday Essay

Why Islam Needs a Reformation

To defeat the extremists for good, Muslims must reject those aspects of their tradition that prompt some believers to resort to oppression and holy war

A Hirsi Ali“Islam’s borders are bloody,” wrote the late political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996, “and so are its innards.” Nearly 20 years later, Huntington looks more right than ever before. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 70% of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims. In 2013, there were nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks world-wide. The lion’s share were in Muslim-majority countries, and many of the others were carried out by Muslims. By far the most numerous victims of Muslim violence—including executions and lynchings not captured in these statistics—are Muslims themselves.

Not all of this violence is explicitly motivated by religion, but a great deal of it is. I believe that it is foolish to insist, as Western leaders habitually do, that the violent acts committed in the name of Islam can somehow be divorced from the religion itself. For more than a decade, my message has been simple: Islam is not a religion of peace.

When I assert this, I do not mean that Islamic belief makes all Muslims violent. This is manifestly not the case: There are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.

It is not just al Qaeda and Islamic State that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice. It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labeled as blasphemy and punishable by death. It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment. It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their “crime.”

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts. It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct.

Instead of letting Islam off the hook with bland clichés about the religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice. We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and to demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.

As it turns out, the West has some experience with this sort of reformist project. It is precisely what took place in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries, as both traditions gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past. Many parts of the Bible and the Talmud reflect patriarchal norms, and both also contain many stories of harsh human and divine retribution. As President Barack Obama said in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Yet today, because their faiths went through a long, meaningful process of Reformation and Enlightenment, the vast majority of Jews and Christians have come to dismiss religious scripture that urges intolerance or violence. There are literalist fringes in both religions, but they are true fringes. Regrettably, in Islam, it is the other way around: It is those seeking religious reform who are the fringe element.

Any serious discussion of Islam must begin with its core creed, which is based on the Quran (the words said to have been revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad) and the hadith (the accompanying works that detail Muhammad’s life and words). Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

The Shahada might seem to be a declaration of belief no different from any other. But the reality is that the Shahada is both a religious and a political symbol.

In the early days of Islam, when Muhammad was going from door to door in Mecca trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger.

After 10 years of trying this kind of persuasion, however, he and his small band of believers went to Medina, and from that moment, Muhammad’s mission took on a political dimension. Unbelievers were still invited to submit to Allah, but after Medina, they were attacked if they refused. If defeated, they were given the option to convert or to die. (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they submitted to paying a special tax.)

No symbol represents the soul of Islam more than the Shahada. But today there is a contest within Islam for the ownership of that symbol. Who owns the Shahada? Is it those Muslims who want to emphasize Muhammad’s years in Mecca or those who are inspired by his conquests after Medina? On this basis, I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: “We must live by the strict letter of our creed.” They envision a regime based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians “pigs and monkeys.” It is Medina Muslims who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.

The second group—and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world—consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was born in Somalia and raised as a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity—the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it. The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status.

Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn. Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims—those closer to Mecca than to Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith. I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel. But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group—only a few of whom have left Islam altogether—that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers—among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

How many Muslims belong to each group? Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that only 3% of the world’s Muslims understand Islam in the militant terms I associate with Muhammad’s time in Medina. But out of well over 1.6 billion believers, or 23% of the globe’s population, that 48 million seem to be more than enough. (I would put the number significantly higher, based on survey data on attitudes toward Shariah in Muslim countries.)

In any case, regardless of the numbers, it is the Medina Muslims who have captured the world’s attention on the airwaves, over social media, in far too many mosques and, of course, on the battlefield.

The Medina Muslims pose a threat not just to non-Muslims. They also undermine the position of those Mecca Muslims attempting to lead a quiet life in their cultural cocoons throughout the Western world. But those under the greatest threat are the dissidents and reformers within Islam, who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats—or face death itself.

For the world at large, the only viable strategy for containing the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformers and to help them to do two things: first, identify and repudiate those parts of Muhammad’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war, and second, persuade the great majority of believers—the Mecca Muslims—to accept this change.

Islam is at a crossroads. Muslims need to make a conscious decision to confront, debate and ultimately reject the violent elements within their religion. To some extent—not least because of widespread revulsion at the atrocities of Islamic State, al Qaeda and the rest—this process has already begun. But it needs leadership from the dissidents, and they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.

What needs to happen for us to defeat the extremists for good? Economic, political, judicial and military tools have been proposed and some of them deployed. But I believe that these will have little effect unless Islam itself is reformed.

Such a reformation has been called for repeatedly at least since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent abolition of the caliphate. But I would like to specify precisely what needs to be reformed

I have identified five precepts central to Islam that have made it resistant to historical change and adaptation. Only when the harmfulness of these ideas are recognized and they are repudiated will a true Muslim Reformation have been achieved.

Here are the five areas that require amendment:

1. Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.

Muhammad should not be seen as infallible, let alone as a source of divine writ. He should be seen as a historical figure who united the Arab tribes in a premodern context that cannot be replicated in the 21st century. And although Islam maintains that the Quran is the literal word of Allah, it is, in historical reality, a book that was shaped by human hands. Large parts of the Quran simply reflect the tribal values of the 7th-century Arabian context from which it emerged. The Quran’s eternal spiritual values must be separated from the cultural accidents of the place and time of its birth.

2. The supremacy of life after death.

The appeal of martyrdom will fade only when Muslims assign a greater value to the rewards of this life than to those promised in the hereafter.

3. Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.

Muslims should learn to put the dynamic, evolving laws made by human beings above those aspects of Shariah that are violent, intolerant or anachronistic.

4. The right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.

There is no room in the modern world for religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics.

5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

Islam must become a true religion of peace, which means rejecting the imposition of religion by the sword.

I know that this argument will make many Muslims uncomfortable. Some are bound to be offended by my proposed amendments. Others will contend that I am not qualified to discuss these complex issues of theology and law. I am also afraid—genuinely afraid—that it will make a few Muslims even more eager to silence me.

But this is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam. The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If my proposal for reform helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves, I will consider it a success.

Let me make two things clear. I do not seek to inspire another war on terror or extremism—violence in the name of Islam cannot be ended by military means alone. Nor am I any sort of “Islamophobe.” At various times, I myself have been all three kinds of Muslim: a fundamentalist, a cocooned believer and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan.

For me, there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the West to embrace. I left the faith, despite the threat of the death penalty prescribed by Shariah for apostates. Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.

But it is not only Muslims who would benefit from a reformation of Islam. We in the West have an enormous stake in how the struggle over Islam plays out. We cannot remain on the sidelines, as though the outcome has nothing to do with us. For if the Medina Muslims win and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world too will pay an enormous price—not only in blood spilled but also in freedom lost.

This essay is adapted from Ms. Hirsi Ali’s new book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,” to be published Tuesday by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp). Her previous books include “Infidel” and “Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.”

Borders Case: JAWI’s Persecution of Nik Raina continues


March 15, 2015

Update READ THIS:

Sisters in Islam condemns JAWI’s latest action against Nik Raina of Borders Malaysia

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/jawi-insulting-islam-with-latest-action-against-borders-staff-says-womens-g

 Borders Case: JAWI’s Persecution of Nik Raina continues

by Shazwan Mustafa Kamal
Nik Raina persecution

The Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) has appealed against the Federal Territory Shariah High Court’s February 26 decision to discharge Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz for selling a book deemed un-Islamic.

Aside from the continuing its years-long prosecution of her, Chief Sharie Prosecutor (KPS) Mohamad Adib Husain also took the unusual step of serving the notice of the appeal directly to Nik Raina at her place of work in the Mid Valley shopping mall.’Last  Friday, I received notice that the Ketua Pendakwa Syarie (KPS) has appealed to the Shariah Appeal Court against the order of discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) granted by the Shariah High Court.

“The KPS served the notice of appeal at Borders Gardens ignoring the fact that my firmRosli-Dahlan LHAG (Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill) are solicitors on record. The KPS breached the rule that they should not communicate with my clients directly,” Nik Raina’s lawyer, Rosli Dahlan, told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

According to the Lawyer, JAWI’s actions showed “arrogance” in deliberately wanting to intimidate Nik Raina by serving the notice directly to the bookstore manager instead of the lawyers representing her in the case.

Rosli added that the latest appeal puts Mohamad Adib and JAWI’s Director-General in contempt of both the civil High Court and Court of Appeal’s orders directing that the prosecution against Nik Raina be discontinued due to illegality.

“This appeal is a positive act and not just a passive omission by the KPS, which is in direct breach of the two orders of the superior courts,” Rosli explained.

“This will be a first in Malaysia if we take steps to cite the KPS/JAWI for contempt of a civil court order.”

Rosli also clarified that he was not in any way implicating the Shariah courts for the latest development, pointing out that the Shariah High Court clearly agreed with the civil courts’ orders when it gave Nik Raina a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

Nik Raina was charged for being a Muslim manager at a bookstore that carried the Irshad Manjibook, “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta”, which was translated from the English Version written by Canadian author Irshad Manji.

JAWI raided the Borders outlet in Mid Valley where she is a manager on May 23, 2012, even before the book was banned by the Home Ministry, and arrested her a week later.

On June 19 2012, she was charged under Section 13 (1) of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territory) Act for allegedly selling and distributing a book that is contrary to the Islamic laws. If convicted, she may be fined up to RM3,000 or jailed up to two years, or both.

On March 22, 2013, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that JAWI had acted illegally in raiding Borders, seizing the books and charging Nik Raina. It was then ordered to withdraw its charges against her in the Syariah court.

On December 30, 2014 the Court of Appeal also ruled in favour of Nik Raina, and said the prosecution against her was “unreasonable, irrational” and done in bad faith, and that it was against the “principle of fairness and justice” for JAWI to prosecute Nik Raina for an offence in the Shariah court simply because she was a Muslim and because it could not charge the company and her non-Muslim supervisor.