Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Photo: Rajiv Ashrafi/Flickr
I gave up buying the Observer for the same reasons Nick Cohen gave up on the left: the Iraq war, which the paper championed. The joys of social media, however, mean I have kept up with the lengths to which he goes to promote his ‘What’s Left?’ thesis. In case you missed it, said thesis derives from a refusal to accept the left’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq and other ‘liberal interventions’, which persuaded him that by implication (and via some ‘useful idiots’) the entire left has lost the plot and tacitly supported/supports Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Hamas, suicide bombers, Colonel Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and so on. While he has made many perfectly reasonable arguments about the need for opponents of imperialism and injustice to apply the same standards to dictators and repressive regimes, the subtext is always the (neo-con) righteousness of war against ‘militant Islam’, which he equates with fascism.
His latest Observer column, ‘The agonies of Bangladesh come to London’, broke new ground in terms of dedication to this cause. The crux of its argument is as follows: (1) secular, Tahrir Square-type demonstrations are currently taking place in Shahbag junction in Bangladesh, inspired by a flawed trial for war crimes of members of Jamaat-e-Islami (an organisation that participated in the Pakistan army’s horrific atrocities against the uprisings that led to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971); (2) a solidarity demonstration in east London was attacked by stone-throwers on 9 February, allegedly by people sympathetic to Jamaat; (3) the attackers are allegedly connected to a mosque whose establishment has been supported by people on the ‘scoundrel left’, which supports Bangladeshi ‘Islamic extremists’; (4) multiculturalism ‘can’t be liberal’ because it allows Islamic extremism to flourish; (5) it’s 1936 all over again and the left is on the wrong side of history: both in Dhaka and London, liberals must ‘pick sides’.
So let’s take the Pepsi Challenge. At face value, #Shahbag is the latest incarnation of a wave of protests that have swept the world since Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square – it has already been branded a ‘Bengal Spring’. Young, liberal, tech-savvy Bangladeshis have occupied Dhaka and refuse to go home until their demands are met; the protests have spread throughout the country. So we’re on their side, right? Of course, except that a large, youthful demonstration does not a Tahrir Square make. Tahrir was primarily about democracy and revolution; Shahbag is first and foremost about vengeance and demands for the death penalty for convicted war criminals. Not an easy one for us liberals, as Nick points out.
But surely we can fall in line behind the Shahbag demands to expunge Jamaat-e-Islami – the ‘Islamo-fascists’ – from Bangladeshi public life. Sure, except that the Shahbag protests are not simply or even expressly anti-‘Islamist’ (a concept that is far easier to reconcile at Harry’s Place than in Bangladesh itself, which is of course an overwhelmingly Muslim country); they are against ‘Razakars‘, collaborators and war criminals. And they are against an entire generation of corrupt politicians that has failed to deliver social justice and development following the country’s violent birth – or at least they might be if the ruling Awami League wasn’t backing and exploiting the protests for its own political ends.
This elicits another problem for us liberals: as recently as 1996, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was part of the Bangladeshi government, in a coalition with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While all of the major Bangladeshi political parties are seen to harbour war criminals, the Awami League has selectively targeted JI and the BNP for ‘accountability’ in its discredited tribunals. It is of course horrifying, as Nick Cohen points out, that a prominent Shahbag blogger appears to have met his violent death at the hands of JI sympathisers, but the same organisation cannot be blamed for threats to journalists, the disappearance of opposition BNP members, deaths in police custody or extra-judicial killings. Politics may appear to have taken a back seat since the Shahbag protests erupted, but few would deny that civil war is a distinct possibility. Black and white enough for you to ‘pick sides’? What about peace and reconciliation and international law, a solution to which other liberal commentators have pointed?
We should not be deceived: only through the clarity of Nick Cohen’s righteousness can this be reduced to a simple tale of ‘liberals’ vs. ‘Islamists’ befitting a ‘clash of civilisations’. As for the ‘agony’ of ‘Bangladesh coming to London’, all these events really tell us is that diaspora communities bring their politics and their grudges with them (just like political commentators married to simplistic narratives). Using this as a stick to beat British multiculturalism is nothing but shameless politicking. The scoundrel right must be delighted in such articulate bidding.
I am grateful to Suhas Chakma for his comments on a draft of this article.
Ben Hayes is project director at Statewatch and a fellow of the Transnational Institute (Twitter @drbenhayes)
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya