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Lobbies and Standpoints

August 25, 2010

The other day, a friend lent me a copy of Standpoint, a relatively new British monthly magazine which I’d not seen before. It had launched in 2008 while I was in Riyadh, and obviously escaped my notice. The magazine has an impressive array of contributors, including Michael Burleigh, Lionel Shriver, Andrew Roberts, Nick Cohen and Clive James.

When I opened its pages, two articles immediately grabbed my attention, largely because on the front page a large caption read: “Clive James and Nick Cohen denounce the apologists for murder and misogyny”. The edition is actually a year old, but both writers produced articles no less compelling to a reader today.

I then took a look at Standpoint’s website, and found another piece by Nick Cohen in a later edition of the magazine, which referenced an American article criticizing Barack Obama for not raising the subject of women’s rights with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the King’s visit to Washington. The thrust of the piece was that the Jewish lobby in Washington is matched by an equally powerful Saudi lobby.

Clive James speaks eloquently against honour killings. He states that the murder of daughters who have been raped are far more prevalent in the Middle East and South Asia than in the West. He also points out that feminists have become reluctant to condemn such practices because they are afraid of accusations of racism.

Nick Cohen’s piece is in a similar vein. He believes that at the root of the reluctance of Western liberal opinion, particularly among feminists, to condemn attitudes about women and physical acts against them lies in physical fear of violent retribution. So, in his words “people do not own up to cowardice. They prefer to dress it up in fine clothes and call it respect for difference or celebration of diversity.”

Both pieces show an interesting perspective on Western attitudes about multiculturalism, and the authors turn their guns as much on people they see as apologists for the practices they deplore, as on the practices themselves.

Cohen also wrote a more recent piece about political lobbies, which quotes at length a piece by a journalist whom he refers to as “the admirably hard-headed David Keyes” on a US website called The Beast. Barack Obama is criticized for not raising the issue of human rights – and particularly women’s rights – with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on the King’s recent visit to the US. I think that the criticism is unfair for a couple of reasons.

I’m sure there’s a diplomat or two who can tell me otherwise, but it seems to me that lecturing other heads of state about issues such as human rights rarely achieves anything other than antagonizing person you’re lecturing. This is especially the case when there is an interdependent relationship. Any follow-on action in the event of a rebuff is likely to hurt the US as much as Saudi Arabia. We’re not talking about right and wrong here – this is realpolitik. Previous US presidents have made attempts to discuss human rights with their peers from China and the former Soviet Union, and have got nowhere. Where pressure on such issues can succeed is when the second party’s relationship with the US is based on dependence rather than interdependence. That certainly is not the case with Saudi Arabia.

There is also a big difference between pressure applied “for the gallery”, and quiet diplomatic moves that don’t end up publicly humiliating a visiting head of state. King Abdullah will be well aware of public opinion in the West about some aspects of Saudi society, and is more likely to be amenable to a quiet word than to a piece of grandstanding on Obama’s part that is designed to reinforce the President’s standing with the liberal element of the American electorate. Obama’s isolated stance on the Manhattan mosque issue is a perfect example of pleasing one group while alienating another.

One more piece in Standpoint worth looking at is the article about Faisal Rauf, the Imam who is at the centre of the Manhattan controversy. He’s been vilified by some of the right-wing media in the US. The article is an interesting and sympathetic view of Rauf, who’s just visited Bahrain.

Sadly, the US is so polarised these days that it’s almost impossible to express an opinion on a sensitive issue without facing the challenge: “are you with us or against us?” And if you listen to the loudest cries in the Muslim world you will hear the same refrain.

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