Arabia – the demise of the old colonial order

The way the old British colonial empire divided up the Middle East is crucial to understanding today’s conflicts, writes John Lubbock

The First World War is 100 years old this year. You probably studied the causes of it at GCSE level history. Do you remember what it was about? Why we had to fight it? What we were fighting for? Nope, neither do I. Michael Gove does though. He reckons the soldiers who fought were “conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order”. I’m sure that the Labour movement, the Suffragette and Irish Nationalist movements, all of which won concessions in the face of government opposition, would be pleased to know that.

To be fair to Gove though, I’m pretty sure he never studied British colonialism or any of the liberation movements I just mentioned. He can’t help thinking it was a war to defend the ‘liberal order’, because wars where you win are ones where the state gets to make up comforting narratives which seek to justify the mass slaughter you’ve just taken part in. He probably doesn’t really understand how many promises the British government made to various groups during the war in order to defeat Germany and its allies.

It promised Palestine to the Zionist Federation. It promised all of Arabia to the Hashemite dynasty. It promised Syria and Lebanon to the French government and large parts of the Ottoman Empire to Russia. Maybe they were all so in awe of the zenith of the Pax Brittanica that they accepted these promises at face value. Perhaps they were all too engrossed in their respective conflicts to worry about the future.

It’s a historical fact, however, that the group which realised their respective promises the least were the Arabs, or specifically their Hashemite rulers. True, they didn’t represent all Arabs, and were the least well organised of the national bodies with which the British were attempting to do diplomatic business, but they nevertheless got left the highest and the driest when the dice stopped rolling.

Britain needed the support of the Hashemite leader, Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. As the protector of the holy sites and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein was the only person who could counter the Ottoman Caliph’s proclamation of jihad for all Muslims against the British and their allies. The British government was afraid this could carry weight among their Muslim subjects in India, and was desperate to blunt it with an opposite proclamation of jihad by the guardian of the holiest site in Islam.

There is a historical debt which Britain owes to the Arabs. Not to the self appointed rulers of Saudi Arabia, who represent but a small ideological and political grouping within the Arab world, punching far above its weight economically. But this compromised political entity, in its alliance with Wahabism, one of the most extreme, fundamentalist emanations of Islam, can never and will never represent the Arab people at large. It can only divide them with its unforgiving extremism, aiming its brutal pogroms at any group which does not ascribe to their ideology.

We are in danger here of repeating the mistakes of the past. Britain felt that the Jewish people were owed a historical debt, and lobbying at the highest levels of the UK government by Chaim Weizmann, head of the Zionist Congress, helped ensure that Jewish nationalist ambitions were promoted and used for their propaganda purposes and for British imperial ends (even though the British government knew from 1923 that it would not be possible to create a Jewish homeland while ensuring the rights of the native Palestinian population).

The lies and double-dealing of the British government as it tried to prevent the collapse of its empire left Arab countries divided and are felt up to the present in the masochistic religious conflicts which are currently rupturing the Arab world.

British rule with blood on its hands

Like anyone else, Arab people are not homogenous. They are divided by class, political affiliation, religion and tribe. Take Bahrain, the Gulf state which I have researched and written on for the past 3 years. Within Bahrain you have Arab Shia, who call themselves Bahrana, and feel themselves to be the original people of that land. Then you have the Arab Sunnis, who emigrated and conquered the island after the Persians lost it. Then you have the Persian Shia, who married into the Arab Shia, and then the Sunni Persians, who married into the Sunni Arabs. Even this is a simplification  of the ethno-cultural diversity of the island.

I once went to a book launch for James Barr’s A Line in the Sand, about the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which carved up the Ottoman lands between the colonial nations. I asked him whether the British government had ever considered the consequences of creating majority Shia states ruled by Sunni dynasties, like Iraq and Bahrain. He replied that Churchill had once asked a Foreign Office functionary to draft him a memo on this very subject, but asked that it be kept to less than 3 pages for the sake of expediency.

Britain shamefully let down the cause of Arab nationalism. Amir Faysal, who had led the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, was promised most of Syria, Iraq and central Arabia by Britain, and only accepted a Jewish homeland in Palestine under such conditions. In 1920, Britain reneged on its promise and left Damascus for the French to occupy. Faysal was defeated by French forces, many North African and Senegalese, at the Battle of Maysalun. Faysal went on to rule Iraq until his death in 1933, but the British and French partition of Ottoman lands ensured there would never be a unified Arab state. When Gamal Abdel Nasser revived the cause of Arab nationalism in the 50s, he was again thwarted by Western imperial economic ambitions. Arabs began to retreat from nationalism towards religion as a way of expressing their political will. Religion has been a very effective divide and rule strategy for the West, as it ensures constant infighting over petty religious differences.

Recently there has been interest by Western media in commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, along with surprise that the national memory of the tragedy has been purposefully obfuscated by the Chinese Communist Party. Yet in the UK, we do this not only with one shameful incident but with the entire 300 years of our colonial history.

There is much to atone for. Calls have been raised for HMG to apologise for particular colonial atrocities, such as the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Sadly this is not the only or the most recent massacre at Amritsar for which the UK bears some responsibility. Then you have the use of concentration camps in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau rebellion, less than a decade after the Holocaust. The surviving victims had to take their case to the High Court, where they won compensation and an apology of sorts. There will be no outright ‘sorry’ for these people, because the Foreign Office is worried that once they use the word, everybody will come asking for their own ‘sorry’. This in itself is the worst admission of colonial-era guilt.

These crimes stretch beyond the imperial era, continuing to affect people in the present day. Take the Chagos Islanders, who were forcibly evicted from their home on Diego Garcia so the US could build an air base there. Yes, that’s the air base they have been using for extraordinary renditions and extra-territorial interrogation practices. The US Navy even blew up part of the surrounding coral reef to get their construction vessels to the shore. In the 70s, the British informed the US that there were only ‘a few Man Fridays’ on the islands, and so evicting them would not be a problem. In 2009, a leaked US diplomatic cable showed this incredibly racist language was still in use at the upper echelons of US-UK diplomatic correspondence. This is to say nothing of the legally suspect invasion of Iraq and our vile arms trade, which has been used to support British foreign interests since the end of the empire.

When the UK is still committing vile, racist, exploitative acts against subaltern groups around the world, you can see why successive British governments want to kick the can of responsibility down the road. Eventually, someone needs to grow a backbone.

A large share of the problem rests on the fact that colonial history is not taught in school. You’d be forgiven for thinking that British history encompassed only 1066 to the Glorious Revolution of 1680, and then EVERYBODY WAS PLAYING CRICKET AND DRINKING TEA FOR 200 YEARS UNTIL THE CAUSES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR!!!!

Unless we confront our history honestly, as Germany has done (or was forced to do by their loss of the Second World War), we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan. See Jeremy Scahill’s fantastic and shocking Dirty Wars for an update on the latest imperial atrocities committed by our allies.

But have any of these actions had such devastating consequences as the selling out of Arab nationalist ambitions during the First World War? What did we get from this duplicity? Temporary control of Iraq and Palestine and access to oil. Plus ca change, rien ca change. The UK could have been just as prosperous by having good relations with an Arab state which it would have been the main actor in creating.

Another way?

To play alternate history for a moment, while it’s likely that Israel still would have been created, the impact of this on Middle-East tensions would have been hugely reduced by the creation of an autonomous Arab state under a moderate Hashemite dynasty (who still rule Jordan). I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to theorise that a more stable and unified Arab state would have been likely to become more liberal and politically progressive than today’s Arab states have ended up.

What the populations of Arab countries have been searching for since the end of the Ottoman era is to be part of a nation which is an equal partner, and not a client state of the West. An autonomous Arab nation would have prevented the rise of Saudi Arabia, and its export of extremist Wahabi Islam, which has fuelled sectarian conflict all over the Islamic world. Israel would not have been able to expand into Palestinian lands, the pre-67 borders would have been enforced, there would have been no Gulf wars, no 9/11, no interminable civil wars in Syria and Iraq. There may well have been other conflicts, but a more stable Arab state could have encouraged greater progressivist reform, which would have made the demands of minorities like Kurds, Bidoon, Druze, Coptic Christians and others easier to meet. It was the upheaval of the crusades which brought to an end the era of Islamic scientific progress. Relieved of such conflicts, what scientific heights could a modern Arab civilisation have achieved by now?

So what should the British government do about this, ideally? It would take a fundamental ideological shift at the heart of the state to end the pursuit of British neoimperialist ambitions through sales of military equipment as well as covert military action, as chronicled in Adam Curtis seminal 90s documentary series The Mayfair Set, as well as in Andrew Feinstein’s recent depressing account of the history of arms trade, This is a long term shift that requires a radical rethinking of British history to properly look at the hubris, racism, paternalism and genocide which accompanied colonial projects.

The conservative establishment has never given up its belief in the entitlement to power of the British state, but they must be made to do so. HMG spends £700m a year on R&D subsidies to the arms industry, which could be reallocated to the renewable energy sector to employ the engineers which the arms industry would no longer need. This would allow us to break our damaging military and economic ties to the Saudi state, who are funding extremists like ISIS and creating the conditions for the persecution of minorities like the Ahmadis and Hazara in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the outcome for the Arab world is no longer in Western hands. After ISIS’ capture of most of the North of Iraq, their statements indicated that their mission was to reverse the clumsy national engineering of the late colonial period:

Statements released by [ISIS] claimed that the assault on Mosul was the beginning of the end of the Sykes Picot agreement… Isis commanders say they are fighting to destroy the post-Ottoman nation state borders and restore a caliphate that submits to fundamentalist Islamic law.”

As well as the attempted establishment of this extremist new caliphate between Syria and Iraq, the chaos in the region is finally allowing the Kurds to establish their control over the oil rich region around Kirkuk. While the US and UK are busy propping up the old boundaries created 100 years ago, others are already redrawing them.

As in Iran, Western meddling in Arabia has produced a more radical, extremist kind of political expression which is less likely to want to adopt Western liberal democratic values. In the wider region, strongmen leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan are looking away from the Western model towards China and Russia for forms of stable state control which are able to produce development quickly. Even parts of Europe, such as the increasingly reactionary Hungarian government are following this model.

When I was at university studying International Politics and Human Rights, I studied with a couple of older Somali guys who had left their country before the last government collapsed in 1991. They bemoaned the fact that the West could not stop meddling in their internal affairs, like it was some kind of intricate wooden model that just broke a little bit more every time someone tried to apply a little superglue. If everyone just left us alone, they said, we would sort it out ourselves.

Of course, the game theory riposte is that ‘we can’t leave it alone, because our enemies won’t do that’. But this is a zero-sum argument, and ignores that sometimes you must rise above the fray, for your own benefit as well as for others’. Perhaps the only long term solution to this is when economically advanced states start realising that their stability and survival depends on positive-sum resource solutions. Only when they realise that renewable resource production is a goal which they can work together to achieve, rather than working against each other to exploit the last, dwindling scraps of fossil fuel, will they decide to give up their meddling in resource-rich, developing nations.

But this only begs the question: when will humanity’s consciousness leave behind its ‘State of Nature’, Hobbesian past? How much longer must we go on falling into the psychological traps of the past, condemned to repeat the mistakes of colonialism which we neither remember, nor know how to stop repeating?

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61 responses to “Arabia – the demise of the old colonial order”

  1. John Penney says:

    A good summary of an incredibly complex regional history. It does indeed appear that at present most of the politically expedient boundaries in the Middle East established after WWI by the then dominant colonial powers, France and Great Britain, are coming apart – with the ISIS-led Sunni insurrection in Iraq/Syria as the cutting edge of this unravelling.

    When this fundamental unravelling of states (which have been based on the forcing together by external colonial powers of communities with deep rooted antagonisms)occurs – the short term consequences are usually murderously dire for ethnic/religious minorities on “the wrong side” of the newly emerging political boundaries – witness the breakup of British India into India and Pakistan after WWII – and the more recent breakup of Yugoslavia.

    It is now quite clear that apart from Egypt, ALL the supposedly distinct “nation states” in the region were and are purely temporary, unstable colonial constructs – even Iran with its large Kurdish area. From Sudan ,Libya to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait , the Gulf states , and even Iran, a period of exceptional instability and widespread human calamity is now underway.

    In this situation all the old sloganized certainties applied to the region for generations will have little meaningful value. “Socialism” remains the long term answer, in the Middle East , as with everywhere, but realistically the Left, and class-based Socialist politics, are unlikely to have any meaningful mass traction for a long, long, time, in a region now in the grip of ethnic and religious hatreds which make class politics completely marginal . And of course US Imperialism and the rival small and large imperialisms (Iran, China, Russia) will not stop meddling in this growing cauldron of violence – if only because of the region’s vast oil reserves.

    Maybe our Left political demands need therefore to be more “case by case” humanitarian demands at present given our larger political irrelevancy – eg , “end the blockade of Gaza – humanitarian aid for Gaza – end the seizures of Palestinian Arab land ” – rather than the sterile unrealisable ultimatism of slogans like “Israel must cease to exist”(in its various less openly stated forms). And “protect the ethnic minorities currently under attack and facing extermination in Northern Iraq” – even though this inevitably does imply intervention by the capitalist imperialist powers – who for the entire 20th century and more recently have been a major cause of the overall problem in the region.

    Despite this – with millions of people facing death and starvation the bulk of the British public , even our Left-leaning working class target group, will rightly expect a Left party with a moral humanitarian core philosophy to make demands which aim to help to save the masses of humanity in danger NOW – rather than aiming only to score cheap political points against “US Imperialism” .

  2. John Tummon says:

    A really good piece! You stop short of saying the Left should be supporting ISIS, yet your analysis (and mine) indicates that what is at stake for Obama, Cameron and ISIS is precisely the 1919-22 imperialist settlement of the Middle East and the weak, divided nation states on which it is based. The same setltlment also drew up a parallel new reality in eastern Europe, with ethnic and religious division hard-wired into the new status quo. The end result of that, obscured by the start of the Cold War, was the ethnic cleansing of eastern Europe, not only of 6 million Jews but of 12 million Germans and 4 million Russian POW, made refugees or massacred from 1943 to 1948. If the Left feels ther was nothing wrong with Stalin providing an overarching stability to eastern Europe in these circumstances, despite all Stalinism’s attendant control freakery and exploitation, why should we by shy of supporting ISIS’s attempt to provide a new, overarching settlement in the northern Middle East? The status quo means the Sunnis have no state.

    This – the horrific 20th century histories endured by the peoples of the Middle East and Eastern Europe – is what Anglo-French imperialism needs to be held to account for.

    My brief comments:

    1. The First World War happened because Germany had been squeezed out of its ‘Place in the Sun’ (i.e. its right, via might, to rival British and French imperialism in Africa, the Mahgrib and elsewhere) by Anglo-French cooperation to ensure the continued virtual imperial monopoly of their 2-member cartel, and so Germany decided to build its empire at the expense of white European peoples instead. The British oligarchy then used a little-known treaty from 80 years before to lever themeselves onto the moral high ground, spouting hypocritical nonsense about the rights of white Belgians, the exact opposite of its lily-livered response to Leopold’s invasion and rape of the Congo, in which up to 11 million Congolese died. In other words, Britain’s motives for war were both racist and imperialist.

    2 Control of oil is what British capitalists got out of the UK government’s duplicity. Oil had been discovered in Persia in 1909, became the fuel of choice during the war and Palestine was wanted by Britain to provide the Mediterranean end of an oil pipeline. Iraq was duly invented out of nothing by a civil servant who drew its borders around the oilfields.

    3 The USA’s Janus policy towards the Sau’di regime allowed Amoco to ingratiate itself fully and the regime to lead its decades-long campaign against Baa’thism and Nasser. This reflected and strengthened the imperialists’ desire to thwart Arab nationalism. The House of Sau’d has been at least as important to western imperialism as Israel, a fact buried by the Left’s selective campaigning on the Middle East.

    4 The Foreign Office claims it has ‘lost’ most of the documentation on its Kenyan concentration camps, which was hastily spirited out of the country in the 1950s to an archive in Hertfordshire. Don’t forget the atrocities in Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

    5 The problem with your counterfactual is this: would your ‘stable Arab state’ under the control of the Arab aristocracy, such as the Hashemites, have behaved any differently with rather than without state power? What I am getting at is that the alienation of Arab land to Jewish settlment agencies was carried out behind the backs of the tenant -peasantry by Arab landowners based in the Arab cities. What would have stood in their way of doing exactly the same with the Hashemites in power? I suggest very little would have been different, except the policy options of the USA and Britain would have been mroe restricted, once jewish settlement had got to the point where Zionist Terror Groups decided to force the creation of an Apartheid state.

    We urgently need to find ways of getting the perspective we share into the public discussion of the First World War, but I have no ideas on how to do this. Do you?

    • Ray G says:

      John Tummon

      Have I misread this or are you really advocating support for ISIS/Islamic State???

      • John Tummon says:

        Ray G, I think this is an important discussion for us to have, which is why I have put it out there and given my schematic reasoning for. I know very well that there has been very little critical comment from anyone – the Left or British Muslims – against the US – UK elites deciding last week to start bombing ISIS and providing aid to their opponents, so this particular war is not one that has attracted demonstrations, like the ones in Iraq and Syria, but why do you think that is the case?

        I think this absence of opposition is because of the mainstream news outlets relentlessly projecting ISIS as an Al-Qa’ida – based outfit dedicated to terrorism and the slimly-substantiated atrocity reports that have peppered the same news programmes, so this is being presented to the western public as a humanitarian war, based on the Balkan & Libyan model. Since there is no state and no state spokesmen / women yet, the ISIS leadership can easily be demonised without counterclaims being aired.

        We need to somehow get behind this screen of propaganda and identify the real issues involved, which I think this thread is moving us towards, before we can produce a full analysis. My starting point is that a) the 1919-22 imperialist settlement & b) the current configuration of the nation states failing to give Sunnis political representation are the two main issues at stake. Behind both lies control of oil and the strategic attempt to paint all Muslim resistance to imperialism as terrorism.

        Over to you and others on this, but lets please base the discussion on analysis and trustworthy information, without faliing in line with the government policy and the propaganda behind it as if it were self-evidently true or false!

    • Pieter Nicholsky says:

      ” why should we by shy of supporting ISIS’s attempt to provide a new, overarching settlement in the northern Middle East?”
      Excellent point, I can see this being a real vote winner ‘on the doorstep’. We must make this a central plank of our appeal to the general public.

      • John Tummon says:

        I take it you are being tongue-in-cheek. Electoralism is everything, after all – if the media are demonising a group, we can’t go against that, can we, or we become unelectable! I think I’ve heard this somewhere before – in the 1980s debates about the unelectability of Left-wing ideas within Labour. Yes, that’s the same party we were set up to be to the Left of!

      • Simon Hardy says:

        John, I don’t think support a sectarian Sunni militia as it massacres unarmed Shia men or minority communities or wages war on the democratic forces in Syria is a smart move. For me the main issue isn’t that it would be unpopular, I think it would be deeply unprincipled and wrong to give any credibility to Islamic State and their project.

  3. Bazza says:

    Interesting stuff. On this issue I think we need to defend Respect’s right of free speech and that of the Lib Dems in Bradford West – they have Muslim votes to win! But I do wonder if it had been Jewish people who had settled in the 60’s to work in Northern town to work in textile mills would we now be seeing an Israeli flag on a Town Hall? I have just read Tariq Ali (who I would argue is a much more critical thinker) and he argues that the UK Bannerman Report (1907)seems to show that the rich and powerful wanted to plant a state in the Middle East to divide and rule Arabs – which was probably given a fresh impetus with post second world war oil exraction. Tariq in another piece also points out how the Palestinian Authority is powerless and a two state solution would give 80% to Israel and 20% to the Palestinians. Democratic socialists I woud argue should try to unite diverse working people and hopefully one day Israeli and Palestinian working people will work out out to share the land together. Youres in peace, hope and solidarity.

  4. John Tummon says:

    Now look at what happens when we are not on the streets about foreign policy issues – the two big Euro arms sellers (the same imperialist duopoly that re-shaped the Middle East & Eastern Europe in 1919-22) plan to flog arms to the Kurds (which will probably push the Turkish government even closer to China, further alienate British Sunnis and make Iran, which also has a Kurdish minority back down on its cooperation with Obama against ISIS). Germany wants to join in selling arms to the Kurds, too, now that its economy has stopped growing.

    Why this sudeen concern for the Kurds among the imperialist powers? They couldn’t even be bothered about them after Bush I beat Saddam back in 1990 or after the Bush II 2003 invasion. Now they are the new white Belgians – a humanitarian cause!

    • Pieter Nicholsky says:

      Selling arms to the Kurds doesn’t present as ludicrous as your characterisation ISIS as an
      “attempt to provide a new, overarching settlement in the northern Middle East”

  5. Rich Will says:

    Would it be possible to get the pro-Isis statements removed from this site? They discredit Left Unity. Thank you.

    • Simon Hardy says:

      Bit of a tricky one because I don’t think we can just remove comments from individuals based on their political views unless they are discriminatory. In my opinion what matters is the policy that LU adopts at the policy conference in November – rather than what this or that person says on the interwebs.

    • Lamia says:

      Too late. It’s been saved.

      The Left Unity party ought to have no place for people like John Tummon and Mark Anthony France who support inhuman butchers like ISIS. It ought to have made this clear at your recent conference.

      You do realise that if ever Left Unity raises its profile, the fact that Tummon and France are still welcome in your tent will be (rightly) held against you? Why not do the smart thing as well as the right thing and kick them out?

  6. John Smith Cohen says:

    “why should we by shy of supporting ISIS’s attempt to provide a new, overarching settlement in the northern Middle East?”

    You need a long lie down in a dark room. If you’re reasoning is so warped that you want to support a far-right religious orthodox movement that is massacring prisoners and civilians – including women and children – I respectfully suggest you leave Left Unity immediately.

    • John Tummon says:

      I think you need to learn how to partake in comradely discussion. It is not achieved by using the methods of PMQ. Left Unity aspires to have debates in which people are not intimadated into shutting up by threats of exit if you do not tow some line or other.

      • John Smith Cohen says:

        Get real. You are having the debate you sought. Don’t accuse people of shutting you up, you have just written half a novel on Left Unity’s site on why you support IS.
        You have gone down the line of `with us or against us`. Too weak to stick to anything approaching any kind of leftism I know – or have ever heard of – you have decided to embrace a right-wing movement which buries people alive, cuts the heads off children and places decapitated heads on spikes around cities it controls.
        The world is full of right wing movements flighting each other, killing civilians, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. And you – in your one-man bubble – have seen fit to embrace one of them. You chose that. Don’t whine when you get a response.

    • Simon Hardy says:

      I think we should respond to political points and try and deal with the substantive issue that John T is raising rather than “warped reasoning”.

      I do agree however, that from what I have seen of the murderous sectarian violence of IS it would be impossible to give them any kind of support whatsoever. If their agenda is to create a Sunni state in the region and they want to do this by slaughtering the minorities until they flee in terror and they are backed up by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in this conquest then I do not see at all how anything progressive can come out of it.

      There is a genuine desire by Sunni’s to have a say over their lives that the sectarian Shia government in Baghdad is not giving them – but this organisation is at the sharp edge of the wedge for the kind of violence that would see any socialist or anti-sectarian democrat campaigner in the area under IS control be killed pretty quickly. So no John T, I don’t think that an IS state is a progress on the current situation.

  7. Pieter Nicholsky says:

    “The United Nations security council votes unanimously to adopt a resolution to blacklist those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to Islamic State (IS) insurgents. The resolution currently places six members of IS, including the spokesperson Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, under an international travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo.”

    Apparently the UN is not impressed with the ISIS “attempt to provide a new, overarching settlement in the northern Middle East”

    • John Tummon says:

      The UN Security Council is not the international community – it is composed of the imperialist powers. There are another 190 or so nation states over and above this self-selected group.

      • Pieter Nicholsky says:

        Not sure what your definition of imperialist is ? The current members of the Security Council are:-
        Argentina (2014)
        Australia (2014)
        Chad (2015)
        Chile (2015)
        Jordan (2015)
        Lithuania (2015)
        Luxembourg (2014)
        Nigeria (2015)
        Republic of Korea (2014)
        Rwanda (2014)
        Plus the permanent members

  8. John Tummon says:

    Simon, do you really think we should try to build policy on the basis of the atrocity count? That is the Amnesty International approach, which results in no attempt to analyse cause and effect! Since you have produced the bones of an analysis, I am surpirsed at this departure.

    Who are these democratic forces in Syria that ISIS is attacking?

    Par of the unravelling of the Left in the 1980s was our inability to come to terms with Thatcher’s Falklands War. We were overwhelmed by the huge wave of media nationalism launched behind her.

    Since the Church of England made the crusading call on Friday, quite deliberately demanding that Christian vicitms of military attacks by ISIS should be privileged over Muslim ones & asking Christians to ‘prey for the government’, Cameron has moved to define the conflict with ISIS as a ‘generational struggle’ against the possibility of a ‘Terrorist state’ being established ‘on the shore of the Mediterranean’ capable of hitting targets in Britain.

    Basing policy on the atrocity count basically cedes the formulation of our policy to what the Church press release calls “the loudest media voie at the time”. Cameron’s censorship of ISIS pressstements on the internet ensures that we will only hear about ISIS atrocities, so your fomrulation will lead us into support for the government. If Left Unity ends up, through this, in support of a re-treaded ‘War on terror’, our number will be up – we will have made the change it took Labour a couple of generations to achieve just one year – we will be part of the mainstream centre of politics on international issues.

    • Simon Hardy says:

      As a socialist I agree that the borders and countries in the Middle East are arbitrary and a legacy of colonialism there is an urgent need to undo the tangled web of contradictions that the imperialist powers have created in the region.

      But likewise as a socialist I do not want to see a sectarian Sunni state created (like a particular Zionist state I could mention) as religious fanatics intent to redraw the borders in a reactionary way on the corpses of other religious groups. Islamic State has nothing to do with any progressive struggles at all – if anything they are parasites on the legitimate Sunni concerns in Iraq over sectarian discrimination from the Shia led government – but their solution is reactionary through and through. The number of dead is part of that reactionary logic.

      I am not a pacifist, if a cause is worth fighting for then I understand that there could well be casualties. But this is not that cause and those IS fighters are not the allies of the working class, historical progress or even basic principles of liberty, equality and fraternal relations between people.

  9. John Tummon says:

    ISIS is composed of Sunnis disillusioned with existing ways of fighting back against western imperialism and the Shia-minority nation states carved from the desert around oil fields. They believe that the world’s Muslims should live within one Islamic state ruled by sharia law. Simultaneous war and instability in Syria and Iraq have given it an opportunity to attempt to build a proto-state in the adjacent Sunni-majority areas of these two countries, before spreading further.

    This threatens the entire basis of the imperialist hold on the region – the 1919-22 settlement + the Sa’udi / Zionist states established since.

    What on earth do western Left wing observers expect the form of anti-imperialism to take in the modern Middle East, after everything that has happened since the Ottoman Empire was overthrown by Anglo-French arms and replaced by nation states devised to suit western economic and political interests? All the wars, the bombing campaigns, the use of ethno-religious rivalry to divide and rule, the exploitation of oil and the use of advanced military hardware at every stage, the wholesale destruction of infrastructure and the denigration and demonisation of Islam.

    Remember that the west and its Sa’udi & Israeli allies destroyed secular nationalism, so that is no longer a form that anti-imperialism can take.

    Remember that Muslims have always yearned for or lived in some form of polity that is not a nation state modelled on the Anglo-French one, because they regard their religion as above secular political authority. This cannot be wished away. Part of imperialism’s effect has been to keep the people of the Middle East held fast in an oppressive pre-capitalist economy and society in which religion – privately – has been the only form of refuge and – publicly – the form resistance has inevitably taken.

    The term ‘progressive struggles’ you use, Simon, as contrast to the ‘reactionary’ struggle of ISIS seems to come down to a view that a struggle based on religious identity must, ipso facto, never be supported. That is deeply eurocentric, deeply ignorant of the effects of history and how this history has squeezed alternatives you might regard as ‘progressive’ entirely out of the picture.

    What on earth is wrong with the concept of critical support in this context if you believe, as you claim to, that the existing imperialist borders need to be overthrown? Progression comes initially from breaking with the status quo; once that is done, options open up and those within the caliphate who want to mount struggles for a more tolerant, Sufi-based islam, or for a move towards inclusiveness for secular groups (all of which existed and characterised caliphates in the past) have a context within this is possible.

    Your argument amounts to saying ‘we don’t want to start from this historical conjunction, because it can only throw up options that are non-progressive in western terms; we need to get the Sunnis to jump several stages of awareness, rise above their historical and current oppression, and wage an anti-imperialist struggle which is recognisable to us’.

    That is utterly unrealistic and, in effect, ends up with you supporting Obama and Cameron.

    • John Penney says:

      The question posed by John Tummon (I hope rhetorically – for debating purposes only) as to whether we, The radical Left, should express support for the murderously religiously sectarian , pro theocratic dictatorship, anti women’s rights, Sunni Islamic fundamentalists of the Islamic State (and their Baathist fair weather collaborators) , as they cruelly pogrom their way across the old, collapsing, colonialist boundaries of Iraq, Syria, and eventually possibly the Lebanon and Saudia Arabia too is actually worth discussing.
      After all the Left has toxic “form” going way back for backing viciously anti-working class regimes and movements because they can be claimed to be somehow “furthering the progessive historical process against capitalist imperialism”. It’s called “substitutionism” – ie, in a situation of working class defeat or retreat, backing non-working class forces in the mistaken belief that somehow they are advancing the inherent world historical progress to” socialism”. Think of the Left and its often uncritical backing for the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union, its East European empire, and China. Think of sections of the Left and their support for the Pol Pot regime. Think of sections of the Left and their support for Serbia’s Miloševi? regime during the Breakup of Yugoslavia. Think of sections of the Left and their support for the Syrian Assad regime, or Gaddafi. Mass murdering kleptocratic class regimes all – but all supposedly “defending collective state property forms” and opposing the only “imperialist” power we apparently need to concern ourselves with, ie, US Imperialism. So why not also express support for a movement which is helping to unzip the French/British post 1918 Middle East colonial boundaries ?
      Because the Left was WRONG before to express support for all the other murderous reactionery movements and regimes. They all spelt death for the development of genuinely autonomous, progessive pro working class self activity, and progress towards socialism. And any Left movement which decided to express any support at all for a movement of absolutely profound reaction, just because this is a part of the destructive acidic supporating political poison oozing out of the now dying corpse of the post 1918 imperial carve-up of the Middle East, would be falling into the usual old trap – of thinking we always have to identify a “good side” and a “bad side. Sometimes, often in fact, there are no “good sides” in a historical process , and no “progressive” outcome – just a long period of massive death and destruction – the “mutual destruction of all classes” referred to as a dire possible outcome of class conflict by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.
      For us today, in the UK, we have to firmly grasp that the Islamic State/ISIS – and their sundry copyists and admirers in the West, who pop up with their “Islamist” black flags on demonstrations also supported by the Left – are our sworn enemies – just as much as more orthodox fascist groups are – in fact no fascist group would dare to turn up to a Left supported demo distributing the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” filth – but the supporters of the likes of Islamic State do. Conventional fascists wouldn’t dare to openly attack Jewish owned businesses today – but the supporters of the likes of Islamic State do under the guise of “opposition to Israel’s role in Palestine”. The Left needs to get its house in order and hound these profoundly reactionery, anti-Jewish, anti women, anti gay, and democratic clerico-fascists off our demonstrations, and out of our political alliances. They are our mortal enemies – and the mortal enemies of every progressive idea or movement, particularly women’s liberation and gay rights, within their own communities too.

      I think we on the Left can only support the longstanding struggle of the Kurds for national independence in the current growing Middle East catastrophe in Iraq/Syria – because they have proven so far to be unsectarian in their treatment of minorities. Every other actor in the conflict is either a stooge of various large and small imperialisms (the Kurds are USING US imperialism for their own ends), or pursuing a sectarian reactionary agenda which can only serve to leave the Middle East as a smoking wasteland of death and destruction.

  10. Ray G says:

    John Tummon

    Many of the points you make about imperial interests in the region, past and present are true and about imperialism’s role in creating absurd artificial states based around the imperial interests. You are also right about the hypocrisy about when and how the US and its allies decide to intervene “humanely” or otherwise. I have spent a lifetime opposing US imperialism wherever they have put their sticky paws (with the odd wobble, it is true, with regard to Kosovo, before I saw through it – I did not fall for it re Libya).

    But….but….there comes a time when the tired dishonest game of my enemy’s enemy is my friend just has to stop. Left Unity should absolutely NOT give any support whatsoever to a tendency who on almost any level are utterly reactionary.

    Can we please for once just look at the objective interests of working people in the region and decide whether ISIS/IS offer any shred of positive advance? Do they? What do you think? Will independent, left parties operate? Will there be any democratic rights for trade unionists other campaigners for justice, socialists or any working people (including, of course, women, or other groups such as religious minorities, etc)? Will these ISIS controlled societies offer equality, democracy, and justice?? No, no no!

    You make a good point that we DO need to try to look behind the shock headlines which always try to soften up the public to accept whatever the latest imperial adventure is, and not just take it on trust. Also, our precise resonse as a party to any military action from the US or its friends, or for that matter from Iran or Turkey or Saudi Arabia needs to be nuanced and carefully considered. But support for ISIS? Please.

  11. Ray G says:

    John Lubbock

    Very useful historical look at the region. It does demonstrate, albeit rather pointlessly, given the weakness of the left or progressive forces, that the problems of the region need to be solved on a pan-Arab basis, or at least a pan-middle eastern basis. North Africa is a different case to some extent, historically and culturally.
    These absurd gulf emirates and kingdoms, each one just a land grab by a particular pet of this or that imperialism (especially the British, we must acknowledge) have got to go. But the only agency that can achieve this without sectarian slaughter and fascistic repression is a non-sectarian left – which, of course barely exists. The current threat from the very worst kind of sectarian vicious wahabi lunatics needs to be defeated, as a precondition for any progressive movement to develop.

  12. John Tummon says:

    Ray G

    The area at present controlled by ISIS is mostly desert – what was called historically the Syrian desert – and so the geography outside the urban settlements does not permit anything like the economy or infrastructure that makes the questions and criticisms you raise relevant. Without industry (yes, the extractive oil industry is there, but the rest is small scale, mostly family-based economic activity), the working class, in the western sense in which the term is understood, barely exists. Neither do trade unions. The war-torn nature of the urban infrastructure, such as it it, makes this even more the case. Independent Left Parties are a dream from another world, for the same reasons.

    Without meaning to insult you, your critieria are extremely eurocentric and irrelevant to the options available for the region. Calling islamism reactiionary is similarly de-contextualised to the point of irrelevance. I recommend “Re-thinking Islamist Politics” by Salwa Ismail, which shows how Islamism in Algeria, Egypt and then in Gaza made gains among the poorest and most marginalised by providing important welfare, social & community services where the state was failing. This is the untold story of modern Islamism which the western paradigm of ‘Extemism, Fundamentalism and Terror’ leaves out & only this can explain what otherwise just seem the perverse attachment of huge sections of the Sunni masses to Islamist ideas.

    My question back to you, therefore, is do you think more space for progress exists within the staus quo or within a proto-Caliphate which breaks with the imperialist settlement? This seems the more real test; important western criteria like the ones you introduce takes us nowhere apart from ‘No, No No’ and where do we go then?

    • John Penney says:

      John, Islamic Fundamentalism is profoundly reactionary to its core , in every aspect of its outlook, in just the same way as Catholic and Protestant Christian fundamentalism is always reactionary – or Hindu fundamentalism. No digfferent at core to the clerico-fascist Catholic reactionary regime of Franco’s Spain, or the long period of clerico-authoritarianism in post independence Southern Ireland. They all share some common characteristics – the oppression of women (and gays), hostility to basic concepts of representative democracy of any sort – even bourgeois democracy, hostility to pro working class organisations – including trades unionism – and a protection of the rich against the poor (alongside empty invocations for the rich to “show charity” to the poor).

      Suggesting that the populations of the Middle East are in some form “culturally more suited” to rule by religious dictatorships – than representative democracy is actually the worst form of Western cultural arrogance. The current and past dictatorships of religious and non-religious types have been in place across the Middle East precisely because of the endless manipulations of political boundaries and states by Imperialism, and the lack of post 1918 boundaries reflecting workable ethnic and religious groupings – not because ” Arabs want to live under totalitarian Islamic caliphates”. In fact the 20th Century, particularly in the huge industrial zones in Egypt, have been marked by huge working class struggles – often misdirected by Stalinist/Baathist/Nasserist politics – but working class struggles for democracy and workers rights nevertheless. It is only the failure of both the Attaturkian bourgeois capitalist and statist secular neo-Stalinist, Baathist/Nasserist routes to economic development that have finally driven masses of people in utter despair into the arms of dead-end Islamist cleric-fascist reaction.

      You are digging yourself a deep political hole with this stance, John, Stop diggiong mate !

    • Ray G says:

      John Tummon

      a) I am not in any sense at all saying that parties with an Islamist ideology can never play a progressive role. I have written at length on this website to counter exactly that prejudice. Of course parties like Hisbollah and Hamas (on different sides of the Syria war, incidentally) can play a role in resistance to imperialism and in providing just the kinds of services you mention, though I would not actively support either of those organisations/parties if I had any direct role or influence in the areas concerned. I am sorry if I do not fall into a convenient Islamophobic stereotype straw man for you to knock down.

      b) I do not agree at all with your, rather astonishing, point that because the areas controlled are not urban, issues of democracy or human rights are not relevant. Moreover, the issues are also ones of right to religion or right to actually survive, which even rural people have an interest in, don’t you agree? In any case, ISIS have no intention of limiting themselves to the desert. Their aim is to control the entire Muslim world, starting with Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, with all its urban centres. the issue is not any islamophobia or euro-centrism on my part, but on the contrary, a patronising orientalism on yours, deciding from Britain which people are “developed” enough to deserve basic human rights. The triumph of Islamism is a recent development. Before that, Arab nationalism and secular democracy and some socialist ideas were current throughout the region, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Only the theocratic reactionaries in Iran after 1979, for example, finally crushed the trade unions and left parties.

      c)I am sorry to say that your views on this matter are a reflection of your other views on this website on supporting reactionary ideologies, born of impatience and despair at the demise of the left in the UK and internationally. You think that breaking the mould and smashing existing states is a good thing, regardless of what will take its place, even if it is a monstrous theocratic nightmare regime which will crush any progressive movements of any kind. I have clearly said that the borders of states in the region are artificial and need to be erased, but to leap from there to support ISIS is absurd – advocating a vicious experiment on the people of the region from the safety of Manchester.

      d) To answer your last question directly and bearing in mind my comments above, if I were forced to decide in the here and now between the existing regimes, borders etc, and a new theocratic caliphate under the control of ISIS, I would go with the former and oppose ISIS.

    • Pieter Nicholsky says:

      Desert ? They have captured Mosul ! In 2008 the population was estimated to be 1.8 million !

  13. John Penney says:

    Well put Ray G.

    Another directly related issue we in Left Unity, and the Left generally , will have to take on board urgently now, is the very believable threat by Islamic State as US airstrikes and UK air surveillance and logistics support increasingly enables Kurdish and other forces to destroy the rather thinly spread IS forces in Northern Iraq, to spread the war directly to “The West”.

    It is very possible that there could be some terrorist outrages in London or elsewhere in the UK by misled/indoctrinated extremist Islamic State supporters in the months ahead. In this situation, as well as from political principle, the Left needs increasingly to decisively distance itself organisationally and operationally from the utterly reactionary politics and reactionary practices of Islamic Fundamentalist extremism – whilst standing up resolutely for Muslim communities which could well come under retaliatory attack from the opportunist Far Right in such a dire eventuality . The Left also needs to try to explain the real background historical imperialist meddling reasons for the current Middle East turmoil to a wider public being fed on simplistic Islamophobic propaganda.

  14. Ian McNee says:

    Firstly we should recognise both the importance of this particular topic to a political organisation like Left Unity and the generally low level of knowledge of the region among our membership (I include myself there based not least on the quantity of reading I’ve had to do recently to begin to understand the context of current events). With that in mind the contributions of The Three Johns (I wonder what a “truther” might make of that coincidence??) represents a useful start in clarifying LU’s position and in educating those of us who have to date not studied this in any detail.

    I have a few observations and genuine questions as I’ve not settled on many firm positions as yet. By inclination my starting point is akin to that expressed by Seumas Milne in The Guardian last week ( – opposing imperialist intervention and supporting humanitarian aid. However this is just a starting point and is inadequate in terms of analysis and thus as a guide to action.

    Like others I balk at one of the implications of John Tummon’s thesis: that we should view IS as an insurrection against the post-WW1 imperialist settlement in the Middle East and critically support the development. But IS is hardly the only current manifestation of Middle Eastern popular resitance to imperialism. One of the most signifiacant was the overthrow of Mubarak and the temporary installation of the elected Muslim Brotherhood administration. This was a clear case in which much of the left (in Egypt, internationally and, to our shame, in Britain) either took a sectarian view of Morsi’s regime or failed to analyse correctly the unfolding imperialist-organised coup d’etat. Another example, as John P points out, is that of Kurdish nationalism (in its various flavours). I need not mention Hamas in Gaza, it’s been in the news I believe. And then, adjacently, is the AKP in Turkey.

    Of course none of these examples are entirely unproblematic from a left perspective (nor for each other in some cases!), but perhaps analysing these currents will lead us towards a clearer understanding of what IS represents (not something monolithic I suspect) and therefore what is likely to develop in the territories under its sway and how long-lived it might be. Where I am convinced that John T is on the money is that the British left has an unsophisticated understanding of political Islam. Hamas is not Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which is not Turkey’s AKP which is also somewhat different(!) from the various Kurdish currents. But these all come from predominantly Sunni populations. And as far as I can see none of them are anything at all like IS.

    So, some questions (and possible answers).

    Is Seumas Milne’s position adequate? For the Labour Party, yes (in fact it would be a big step forward!) but not for LU.

    How significant are IS really? John T seems to partially answers this by pointing out that they have occupied a lot of sand with a few significant settlements in two fractured states. The hoo-ha for imperialism is OIL (in Iraqi Kurdistan and – they hope – in a pipeline to the Med avoiding anything that smells vaguely like Russian soil) and MUSLIM TERRORISTS (their justification for…well…pretty much anything these days).

    If not IS then what anti-imperialist developments should we support in the Middle East? Clearly the Palestinians (most of the left has got over Hamas), but then surely also the ongoing resistance of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Mubarakist military regime led by al-Sisi.

    And the survival of the Syrian state? For demilitarisation and a political settlement I think (very tricky but as the imperialists are shitting themselves over IS this may be more possible now).

    Should we support anyone arming the Kurds? And which Kurds? Even if it were the pipe-dream of only arming the PKK rather than the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan that is problematic in that post-IS it will likely further the imperialist goal of destablising both the Iraqi and Iranian states.

    In relation to Iraq is the ousting of al-Maliki by al-Abadi significant? As far as I can glean al-Maliki was corrupt and sectarian, effectively opening the door to the IS insurrection, particularly in Sunni areas. But it also appears that he lost the support of the US because he was too close to Iran (and presumably the Syrian state too).

    I think that’s enough for now, maybe someone else will contribute on developments in Iran. Where I’ve “answered” my own questions these are just my first thoughts. I’m keen to hear other comrades’ analysis.

  15. John Tummon says:

    Some interesting posts here. I’ll come back to this next week, intending to flag up a proto -position that draws on contributions so far, re-defines my own ideas in the light of reactions on here & explains why islamism is a broad movement within which there are conflicts and dialogues. Just because the shi’a variant in Iran obscured these conflicts does not mean we should fall for the assumption that it is irredeemably violent, sectarian or repressive of women and minorities. If we fall for this piece of western propaganda, we relinquish our analytical independence.

  16. Ian Townson says:

    Whilst it is perfectly legitimate to have a historical perspective on the part played by British and French imperialism in the distortion of boundaries in the Middle East and elsewhere and the conflicts arising from this I think it is more fruitful to bring the analysis of what is happening closer to shore. Not sure ISIS can be seen as anti-imperialist in any meaningful sense of that word. Or brave fighters against a colonialist past. If we look at more recent history we might find a better explanation of what is happening in Syria and Iraq re ISIS.

    Firstly, the American’s have much to answer for in the 2003 invasion of Iraq regarding the fomenting of sectarian exclusion and violence. In the drive for regime change on lying pretexts they not only destroyed the Ba’athist powers that be but they also completely dismantled all the institutions of social control that could at least have guaranteed some form of law and order. This in itself led to massive chaos and disruption but more importantly there was a deliberate policy from Paul Bremer, Bush’s appointed dictator, to exclude Sunni Muslims from public office and political power because they were seen as siding with Sadam Hussein. This entailed the sacking of thousands of soldiers and police officers, the dismantling of the judiciary and the dismissal of many thousands in the civil service as a kind of cleansing process of Ba’athist influence. Coupled together with the installation of a puppet regime composed overwhelmingly of Shia elements that to this day continues to oppress and discriminate against Sunnis and you have the right conditions for a maelstrom of sectarian violence. It is little wonder under these circumstances that Sunni Muslims have joined up with ISIS as the only show in town fighting against their oppressors. Their support for ISIS has been reinforced recently by the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and again in Iraq by Shia Militias.

    Secondly, the fighters of ISIS have taken full advantage of the chaos of civil war in Syria to recruit members from the rebel factions. With a war that has continued inconclusively for over three years this has proved fertile ground for recruitment among the divided and confused opposition. The strength of ISIS’s commitment to its political and religious goals has also prompted attacks against other rebel groups that do not share their vision of the future.

    Thirdly, ISIS’s proclamation of a Caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq with pretensions at world domination (just like America though with different motivations/dynamics) is just that, a proclamation. No democratic process put them there. No-one voted them into office and no popular revolution sanctioned their powers. Their rule came out of the barrel of a gun backed by a rigid and uncompromising religious ideology. Their stance is much like any other Islamic fundamentalist group in that a strict interpretation of sharia law would be applied in the new Caliphate. This has to be seen in the context of resistance to ‘western values’ which are seen to be unclean, impure and corrupting. Hostility to ‘Modernity’ and the ongoing uncertainty and insecurity this brings, by which we mean the juggernaut of capitalist developments in culture, has always been a feature of Islamist fundamentalists fears (as it is of Christian and Jewish ones). Let us not discount the cultural aspects of Islamist resistance as well as the politico/economic ones.

    Lastly, let’s not forget that Syria, Iraq and indeed Egypt have secular, nationalist regimes that have attained a certain measure of freedom under a nominally socialist dispensation. In the past this has been attained under one party, authoritarian states with Kleptocrats in charge but at least they were secular without favouring any particular religious faction over others and are (or were) secure and economically developed to a degree that afforded many people, if not all, a decent standard of living. Do not read this as my defence of these regimes. I simply want to point out what fears there are of losing minimal progressive achievements under rule by Islamist fundamentalists. Witness what happened in Algeria in the 1990s with a bloody civil war against Islamists to protect the gains made by the Algerian revolution against colonialism and for a more progressive socialist system however inadequate. Al-Sisi’s ‘seizure’ of power can also be seen in this light. This was not the usual backroom, secretive coup d’etat by reactionary elements against progressive revolutionary developments. It was backed by millions of Egyptians against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government . The people of Egypt have now been betrayed by Al-Sisi as the new Mubarak. Watch this space for another revolution by the long-suffering Egyptian people?

    I have never agreed with the logic of not being able to oppose reactionary regimes and ‘western’ imperialism at the same time. For people on the Left to be critical of reactionary regimes under attack by the west is to be accused of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ or ‘Islamophobia’. Iran hangs homosexuals and stones women to death for adultery as do countries under the sway of Islamist regimes that apply strict sharia law. However these regimes are seen as bulwarks against imperialism. There are other regimes that will not tolerate free trade unions or workers organisations or indeed any kind of political dissent whatsoever but because they are under attack by the west they are at the forefront of anti-imperialist resistance. To give you one particular example. This twisted logic prompted George Galloway to be critical of Peter Tatchell’s attack on Iran for the above atrocities at a time when the USA was threatening to attack the country. In his usual way of Messianic pronouncement he stated that when the bombs start falling on Iran they will not discriminate against straight or gay people. In other words in a skewed way he is saying forget about your ‘little’ oppressions and worry about the bigger problem of imperialist aggression. To which, in my opinion, the correct response should be: ‘Fuck off!’ There is no reason why we cannot fight against reactionary regimes and imperialism as one inseparable struggle.

    So…where does that leave us in the present circumstances. Whatever is happening in the Middle East has to be seen in bigger geo-political terms . As in the past the Middle East is a playground for inter-imperialist rivalries. Russia has long had an ‘influence’ in Syria and Iran as has the USA and the ‘west’ in Egypt , Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry is around the fight for energy resources with the cover of neoliberal economic practices supposedly promoting ‘freedom’ and liberal values. The hammers of invasion, war and bombing together with crass and failed attempts at setting up puppet regimes has ensured that none of this has succeeded. There does not seem to be much in the way of progressive left movements as we know them in Syria and Iraq. I have no idea what to say next as a meaningful contribution to a way forward out of the morass of misery and destruction in the Middle East. One thing I do believe is that if Islamist fanatics gain an increasing hold over Syria and Iraq that will immeasurably retard any progress towards a liberal regime let alone a revolutionary socialist one. ISIS has to be stopped and to bite the bullet that might mean arming and training the Kurds and Peshmerga as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims to fight against this cancerous growth of reactionary religious movements. That and the end of sectarian divisions has to be achieved as preconditions for any kind of progress to be possible.

    Ian Townson
    Lambeth Left Unity

    • Ian Townson says:

      A small but important correction. The sentence about Iran should read:
      “…when the bombs start falling on Iran they will not discriminate between straight or gay people.”, not ‘against’ straight or gay people as originally stated.

  17. John Penney says:

    John Tummon. Please DON’T come back with another set of more detailed arguments in favour of some sort of accommodation by LU with Islamic fundamentalist extremism. For all the right political reasons you are so far in a minority of ONE in this online debate in believing that there is any progressive aspect to what is actually a Muslim version of what is usually called “Clerico-Fascism” – from its originally Catholic fundamentalist extremist roots in Francoist Spain. There are indeed many “conflicts and dialogues” within extremist fundamentalist Islamicism – but they are all to one degree or another reactionary and religious-sectarian in nature.

    Ray G has precisely captured the basis of your viewpoint with his (I must say , rather harsh !) statement :

    “your views on this matter are…… born of impatience and despair at the demise of the left in the UK and internationally. You think that breaking the mould and smashing existing states is a good thing, regardless of what will take its place, even if it is a monstrous theocratic nightmare regime which will crush any progressive movements of any kind.”

    Continuing to promote this profoundly mistaken, and deeply publically unpopular) viewpoint on our LU website, in my view, now goes beyond the mere “raising of a discussion point” , but raises the real risk of bringing our party into disrepute with the wider left-leaning public we need to target for support. In just the same way as would a repeatedly stated position arguing for a sympathetic attitude to , say, the French National Front, just because it has a very nominally “anti imperialist” line on the Transatlatic Trade and Investment Partnership – in amongst its wider racist, sectarian, xenophobic-nationalist agendas.

    In the interests of our party’s wider reputation I think this particular discussion should now be brought to a close on our website.

    • John Tummon says:

      What on earth is wrong with an open & honest discussion of these things, John? The idea that I should self-censor on the basis that potential recruits might be put off LU if they see something they disagree with and find shocking is not democratic, but centralist and controlling. People interested in LU actually must have open minds and be able to see through at least some of the propganda & manipulated consent that surrounds us. I find this notion deeply elitist and dismissive of people who are becoming radicalised by what is happening to them and the contrast between this and what they are told about themselves and others.

      Your notion that all shades of islamist opinion are “to one degree or another reactionary and religious-sectarian” is empirically wrong and I will demonstrate that EMPIRICALLY.

      You applaud Rag G for saying that I ” think that breaking the mould and smashing existing states is a good thing, regardless of what will take its place” when what I have actually said is that this is a matter of working out what offers the best chances of progress – sticking with the status quo of nation states with in-built ethnic minority rule over dissatisfied & hostile majorities or a Caliphate. Those are the two geopolitical options that Ian Townson alludes to as the nub of what is at stake and what we have to address. Which one offers space & opens up prospects for change in a progressive direction, regardless of the specific politics of those who will initially be in charge? I support Scottish Independence for the same reason – because, regardless of Salmon, progressive politics has a better chance if the country becomes indpendent.

      Self-determination is not something clean and progressive – it inhabits the real world in all its ugliness and all the poverty of imagination and circumstances that people in the imperialised, bombed parts of the world experience as normal.

      Eurocenttic Moralism is not an answer!

    • Ray G says:

      I agree JP (and touche) ;-)

  18. VN Gelis says:

    From the moment the EU took a geostrategic decision based on American instructions to stop indigenous production of raw materials for energy eg coal it would be dependent on foreign energy. Thus the advanced crisis of capitalism entailed recolonisation of oil in the Arab world. This fell through as the costs of occupation in both money and people forced the americans to end direct colonial rule. In its place the Americans propped up the sectarian quisling gangsters of Maliki. Mass protests took place for two years against them in 2012-13. These ended in abject failure as Malikis govt ruled with an iron fist. Eventually Iraquis took up arms and Maliki has lost half the country and lost his central role.
    America cannot re-fight a war they allegedly won in 2004 and won again with the surge. All they can do is try to engage all of Iraq’s neighbours other superpowers eg Russia to try and contain the fallout by isolating the iraqui resistance once it re-takes control of the oil wells.

    • John Penney says:

      This is a completely fanciful, grossly optimistic interpretation of the growing sectarian chaos in Iraq/Syria, VN Gelis. I assume by the “Iraqi Resistance retaking control of the oil wells” you actually refer to the murderously sectarian extremist minority Sunni IS/Baathist forces currently pogromming other lesser ethnic/religious minorities across Northern Iraq and Syria ? (and pocketing the revenues from captured oil wells purely for their own fundamentalist Sunni sectarian totalitarian Islamic Caliphate building purposes).

      Get a grip comrade – this is no sort of ” anti imperialist resistance” in any positive, progressive sense , but a sectarian reactionery clerico-fascist warlordist insurrection taking advantage of the collapse of the equally sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki . There are no positive “anti imperialist” gains arising from this chaotic mess – other than possibly the opportunity for the Kurds to finally achieve a nation state (but even there – the vicious factionalism within the Kurdish political/clan groupings does not bode well for a positive outcome even in this instance).

      • John Tummon says:

        Regardless of your viewpoint, John, the emotive, jargonised language you are using on this thread, which is unlike your other contributions, needs to be self-censored. You know very well that this kind of intemperate rant is no subsitute for reasoned & eividenced argument.

        Despite his chonologically flawed account of capitalist crisis (the West was reliant on oil for most of the 20th century not only as a souce of fuel, especially for military & transport purposes, but for the increasing high % of plastic manufactures within consumer commodities; this pre-dated the running down of coal production), VN Gelis points correctly to the fact that over the last 4 years refomism has failed the Sunni struggle against discrimination in Iraq and grassroots struggle against Assad morphed into a horrific civil war stand-off in Syria. Out of this has emerged a huge Sunni movement which has recently had to junk Arab nationalism, refomism and grassroots struggle in the face of imperialist & local power and so looks for the only alternative it knows of – the more radical one of a Sunni state spanning the whole of the Syrian desert and its urban centres. You are familiar with the process of failed reformism leading the masses to something more fundamental?

      • VN Gelis says:

        Its funny that the fall of Malikis regime installed by the American occupation isn’t a progressive event. In other words they should stay indefinitely so that US oil corporations continue to loot the country dry and any reaction to that will be termed …clerical fascist. Presumabely the occupation supported by the British Labour Party was an act of anti-fascism!

        The Libyan PM fled to Malta after calling on an american warship to stop the sale of oil to North Korea. Should the Libyans who went against this decision supported the US intervention as after all Blair had cut a deal with Gaddafi to supplement the loss of Iraqui oil as a consequence of the occupation or should have they supported attacks on their pro-American MP?

        National resources should belong to the citizens of each respective country not to foreign imperialism which via its corporate media labels those that are against its interests as …fascists, nationalists, nazis etc

  19. VN Gelis says:

    Up until 1980 the USA was the worlds creditor nation then it started to become a debtor nation and the role of the dollar as a reserve currency started to suffer immeasurably. Plans were hatched up in Washington to retake control of Arab oil directly and offload it to all its world partners eg EU and Japan. This would supplant the collapsing dollar.
    The Americans believed their own propaganda that iraquis would greet them with flowers without telling the world that it would be flowers for coffins. Now they are flapping that the end of history isn’t exactly like in a Hollywood movie where it all ends well and the good guys always win. The unipolar world the Americans believed they had inaugurated has collapsed like a house of cards and events in the Arab world will bring this out more and more in the open.

  20. John Penney says:

    Dearie me John Tummon – for an ex Big Flame feminist now to be an apologist for the sectarian clerico fascist women oppressors of Islamic State ! Unfortunately both John Tummon and VN Gelis are politically lost, floundering in the over-simplified concept of “only one world-wide imperialism requiring opposition – US imperialism” In this grossly simplified world view – ANY movement fighting against the US-imposed status quo is seen as somehow innately “progressive” ! This simplistic and simply incorrect ideological underpinning leads directly to expressions of support for the clerico-fascist reaction represented by the murderous sectarian rampage of the Sunni Islamic State/Baathist forces.

    Similar political mistakes by the Left have in the past led to expressions of support for both Stalinism in general and the crazed ” peasant Maoism” of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or even the current North Korean regime monstrosity. There is no excuse for mistaking the forces of sectarian reaction for those of potential social progress. The Kurdish forces at least have a progressive potential. The murderous sectarian forces of Islamic State ? Nope.

    • John Tummon says:

      I am certainly not arguing on the basis of the old Bedouin saying that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ but on the basis that the century-old nation states that replaced the Ottoman Empire have proven a recipe for religious sectarian conflict fuelled by British, French and US imperialism and that a Caliphate will give the most sizeable and oppressed minority in the Northern Syrian desert – the Sunnis – the chance to build something unconnected to imperialism. The ISIL-led war is more hijra than jihad: an attempt to get away from what has become an untenable, dangerous & economically bl;ighted existence for most Sunnis. The Syrian Sunnis are more clearly refugees but the Iraqi ones are just refugees in their own neighbourhoods under the regime imposed on them.

      As for the politics of ISIL, Cameron has closed down 40 websites in which we might have found out something the western media is not loyally feeding us on. The fact is that radical islam is decades old and has emerged precisley because of the imperialist domination of the Muslim heartland.

      The reasons for the increasing growth of Islamism are numerous, varied, and debatable. The most outstanding are: the decline of leftist and Pan-Arab movements in the Arab world; the prevalence of injustice, poverty, and oppression on the hands of Arab and Islamic regimes; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the waning of communism worldwide and, consequently, the regression of its influence on the Arab world. All the above compounded with the prominence of the Iranian revolution as a model of Islamic government; the hegemonic influence of the USA on the Arab and Islamic area and finally the unconditional American support to Israeli aggression.

      Robert Fisk, who has lived in the Middle East for decades and written prolificly on it says, “So ignorant are we of this Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – a dark land in which the reports we see of it are their own phone videos – that the Obamas, Camerons and Hammonds can only gnash their teeth at this unspeakable enemy. (–but-all-too-little-about-who-they-are-9681873.html).

      Fisk continues “there are hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims who live in the area of the Caliphate and who have NOT fled for their lives. This, of course, makes unhappy reading. If the “Caliphate” is so revolting, disgusting, gruesome in its purity-driven brutality, how come all these people – Iraqis and Syrians – did not flee along with their Christian brothers? Are a few thousand armed fighters really able to coerce so many people over such a vast tract of the Middle East?” & “In other words, the “Caliphate” obviously does not appear to be so terrifying to them as it does to us”.

      Fisk asks why are we saving Kurdistan? – “Kurdistan accounts for 43.7 billion barrels of Iraq’s 143 billion barrels of reserves, as well as 25.5 billion barrels of unproven reserves and three to six trillion cubic metres of gas? Global oil and gas conglomerates have been flocking to Kurdistan – hence the thousands of Westerners living in Irbil, although their presence has gone largely unexplained – and poured in upwards of $10bn in investments. Mobil, Chevron, Exxon and Total are on the ground – and Isis is not going to be allowed to mess with companies like these – in a place where oil operators stand to pick up 20 per cent of all profits”.

      The stereotyped view of radical islam that you reproduce John bears no relation to what you find if you bother to research it. Detailed research completed in 2009 on 20 islamist groups in the Lebanon ( ) revealed important doctrinal and strategic differences between adherents of an Islamic state (any civil system of governance) as opposed to a Caliphate, as well as on the significance of jihad. The study examined the reasons for the proliferation of groups. One of these reasons is the impact of Shi’ism – The position of Sunni islamist groups on Shi’a islam, on the Lebanese state and on the role of Iran “varies from alliance to absolute enmity, with many shades of fine differences, and it intersects in some cases with the attitude regarding Iran and the role it plays on both the Arab and Lebanese scenes”. The research identified a wide variety of positions on participation in the Lebanese state apparatus. SImilar research has been conducted in Jordan.

      What is particularly ironic is that ‘Al Qaeda’ means ‘foundation’ in Arabic but the political use of the phrase means ‘vanguard’. In so many ways, the politics of radical islamists is a mirror image of Trotskyist groups in the west – a finding I have come across in my reading of Jason Burke’s book ‘Al Qaeda’. What is remarkable about the Taliban and now ISIL is that these groups, unlike Al Qaeda the organisation, managed to attract hundreds of thousands of supporters who want to become citizens of a new type of polity based on an alternative to capitalism.

      • Ray G says:

        Oh John Tummon!

        Yes there are a myriad of different Islamist organisations, and to lump them all together is crass and foolish. So I don’t. The regime in Iran is nothing like the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is massively repressive (generally and specifically towars women) in a way that Turkey and Tunisia are not. Hisbollah and Hamas are legitimate national liberation movements (for all their faults.) Mursi formed the first democratic government in recent Egyptian history, until the army, disgracefully cheered on by sections of the left, removed him in a coup d’etat.

        The way some on the left put all Islam-based organisations into one box is unreasonable and short-sighted and does not take account of the way they represent in confused way
        a desire for justice and a better world. The left needs to understand and relate to that.
        Fine – we agree on all that.

        What divides us is your support for an organisation which by any Muslim or other standards is UTTERLY disgusting and reactionary – the very WORST example of Islamist ideology I have ever heard of, which horrifies virtually all international Muslim opinion, and any Mulsim I have spoken to recently (and I live in a heavily Muslim area of London and am actively involved in campaigning on Palestine. Their only support comes from those fabulously wealth and appalling Saudi Arabian individuals and possibly their “government” (ie the King)who are backing them in their holy war against the Shia, ‘heretics’ and Christians.

        Instead of lumping all Islamist organisations together as bad, you are lumping them all together as good. Your argument is just unsustainable.

  21. VN Gelis says:

    Every reaction or resistance to British or American imperialism was termed to be reactionary medieval or backward from Kenya, Cyprus, ex-Yugoslavia to present day Iraq and Syria. The indigenous forces were given multiple epithets from rapists, baby killers, devil worshippers ad nauseum. The only constant in the whole process is that whilst the perpetrators change the narrative remains essentially the same…

    • John Tummon says:

      Yup, VNG! The old saying that ‘Truth is the first casualty in wartime” is yet to be disproven. The only thing that has changed since the British and Germans pioneered atrocity propaganda in the First World War (not a peep about that in the entire deluge of pop pap histories of the war hitting the shelves and screens at the moment) is that in the early ’80s wars (Grenada and Malvinas), embedded journalism was born – specifically to pre-empt the kind of counter culture anti-war movement seen in the ’60s and ’70s in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

      It worked so well they have never gone back to a free-for -all journalism in war reporting; you need permission and almost always see a TV journalist crouching behind some wall or outbuilding in a ‘conflict zone’, dressed in everything from helmet to fatigues, reporting from behind the lines of the west’s chosen side. This week they are there behind the Kurdish lines; before that they were in Libya in similar positions; they were the ones who took those photos of starving Bosnians behind barbed wire fences (it emerged later that the wire surrounded the journalists, not the Bosnians). Websites where you might get the opinion or press releases of the other side are closed down and Al – Jazeera has been brought into line by Qatar as part of the award of the next World Cup to the fake nation.

      You can’t get ISIL’s point of view in this country, except via long-standing independent journalists like Fisk who the imperialists cannot recruit.

      • Ray G says:

        Just to point point out that the last person to question the veracity of the Bosnian concentration camp pictures was, rightly, sued and forced to apologise.

      • John Penney says:

        The very unusual feature of the “atrocity propaganda” emerging from the rampage of Islamic State across Northern Iraq and Syria is that a lot of it is being produced and avidly pumped onto the internet by Islamic State itself ! I don’t think there is any doubt about the murderous sectarian policies and actions of Islamic State, John. Face up to it, and if you can justify it – do so honestly.

        Trying to make excuses for barbarous movements by hiding behind the “it’s all made up by the Western mass media” nonsense is the worst form of moral and political cowardice. Accept Islamic State for what it is – a FASCIST movement of gross sectarianism and violence – feeding off the quite understandable mass alienation of the Sunnis under both Assad and Malaki – and the desire of the Iraqi Baathists to regain power. In those terms the political capture of millions of Germans in the 1920’s and 30’s by the siren song of Nazi politics – fed by the horrors of hyperinflation, national humiliation and the fear of Communism by the petty and Big bourgeoisie – was perfectly understandable – and certainly helped break up the existing political status quo ! I wouldn’t at the time have seen that that as a reason for offering “critical support” to the NSDAP though (in the forlorn hope that out of the breakup of the status quo “something better might arise out of Nazi barbarism”) !

        You even deny the veracity of the concentration camp photos taken during the Bosnian war ! No doubt you would have liked the Guardian Journalist, Richard Gott’s constant denials of the genocidal rule of Pol Pot in Kampuchia , as “Western propaganda” ? Justified by some Lefties because the Kymer Rouge was “solidly anti imperialist ”

        The profound political and moral blindness of most of so much of the Left to the crimes of Stalinism was based on just the sort of convenient doublethink and slippery rationalisations for supporting barbarous tyranny that you have displayed regarding Islamic State, John. That is a very sad place to end up politically.

  22. Pieter Nicholsky says:

    “If the “Caliphate” is so revolting, disgusting, gruesome in its purity-driven brutality, how come all these people – Iraqis and Syrians – did not flee along with their Christian brothers?”

    No doubt they are rejoicing in the new found freedom, prosperity and love , or could it be something else?

    • John Tummon says:

      Just two points about this source: 1 It is anonymised 2 The woman says she has had no contact with ISIS and has stayed out of public view in her house nearly all the time. It seems that there are lots of stories flying around in Mosul; maybe some have a % of truth in them and a % of urban myth, which is what happens in times of war and stress among civilian populations. Her figure of half a million who have left and a million who have stayed is one I hae not seen corraborated elsewhere.

      I am not an ISIL supporter, BTW, as, thanks to Cameron closing down websites, I do not have sufficient access to reliable information from contrasting sources. What I have argued is for epople to tell me what is wrong with a position of critical support. No-one has answered this. This should be a debate not a slanging match or a call for censorship.

      As a trained historian, I will continue to assess sources on the basis I taught my students to:

      What is its origin? What is the purpose for its production and circulation? What value does it have (eyewitness account; a product of interviews with eyewitnesses, etc) as testimony? What are its limitations?

      A context of atrocity stories is precisely the time to keep your critical faculties as keen and sceptical as you can; ther is such along history of retrospective discovery that they wer not what they seemed at the time they were deployed. Their use in a situation of embedded journalism and media blackout on any comment from ISIL (Just try googling ‘ISIL in their own words’ and all you get is pages of atrocity stories).

      I am not zealot, not religious, not in favour of the repression of women or anyone else. What I despair at is people who let their comfort zone and sense of what views are being squeezed out of respectablility guide them in international affairs.

      • Pieter Nicholsky says:

        Is anyone other than you surprised that the report is anonymised or that someone would seek to avoid contact with ISIS ?
        I see you accept that ISIS have taken Mosul not just desert ?
        Clearly Cameron has not closed down all ISIS websites otherwise they could not be broadcasting regular beheading of journalists ? Or do you think these are faked by the CIA?
        As a ‘trained historian’ I am amazed that your research capabilities don’t extend to accessing a variety of information sources.

        “Just try googling ‘ISIL in their own words’ and all you get is pages of atrocity ” – perhaps you need to fully reflect on why this might be.?

  23. John Tummon says:

    Ray G, you are putting words in my mouth. As soon as anyone starts using intemperate language to describe any political movment, including Fascists, analysis based on empirical investigation goes out of the window. A consensus is being formed via a process which has all the hallmarks of manipulation of consent in the past and you are buying into a significant part of it. No doubt ISIL has some desperate, unsavoury human beings in its ranks (all military and paramilitary organisations do) and it is operating in an environment which has long since been brutalised beyond anything Europe has known even this century, so it is probably brutal.

    The question for me is what comes afterwards and would it provide better prospects for political progress than business as usual? Those are the only two alternatives and the brutalised and often cruel treatment of people is an inevitable part of each of them, because of the context and background. There are and were already atrocities in that part of the world on a daily basis; all political actors in the northern middle east take that for granted. There ar no prospects for anything else, leat of all somethign most of the European Left would recognise easily as progressive.

    Shame on you if you want to shut me in a stereotype of a supporter of paramilitary repesssion. Let the debate continue, without stigmatisation. Play the ball not the man.

  24. John Tummon says:

    Everyone on this thread should be aware enough to know that powerful states have never shrunk from military terrrorism, military brutality, including torture, and non-deniable atrocities, all of which have happned very recently in Iraq and Syria. They sometimes justify this by saying the end justifies the means.

    Now, while two wrongs do not make a right, the use of atrocity stories by powerful states, in this current instance, to demonise and justify military action against ISIL, needs to be assessed against this context, as well as by testing these stories’ authenticity and significance according to accepted rules of evidence. This is incredibly diifcult when the west’s target is an organisation not a state with its own means of propaganda. When the balance of propaganda potential is so lop-sided, it is all but impossible to tell if something out of the ordinary run of brutality in wartime is happening. This, of course, is the intention of western governments and their media.

    Because of this immense difficulty in the empirical evidence, I go straight to the question of what are the respective ends of the two sides and what space each would probably give to the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist causes.

    My critics don’t recognise that there is a difficulty in the empirical evidence.

    • Pieter Nicholsky says:

      On this basis Stalin, Pol Pot and the North Korean dynasty would presumably all fit under your broad ” anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” umbrella?

  25. John Penney says:

    Sorry John, but there are actually real reputational consequences resulting from adopting a position which offers “critical” political support to an entirely reactionary clerico-fascist movement of very well documented murderous sectarian brutality. This is not an abstract debate about nebulous philosophical issues. You are attempting to also hide behind the always popular excuse that “the crimes of Islamic State might all be Western propaganda” (despite much of the footage of these barbarities being supplied by Islamic State itself !)

    If you don’t want to be seen as a supporter of “paramilitary repression” (itself rather a comfy euphemism for the reality of the murderous barbarism of Islamic State today ), simply stop producing reams of slippery argument which actually does precisely that !

  26. John Tummon says:

    John p, amnesty have produced a report on what Isis has done, but most of its content long pre-dates the west’s decision to act. Only when oil-rich Kurdish areas were attacked did this start to come together as something meriting military force.

    This should be a strategic debate, because genuinely geopolitical consequences are involved. There is no case of exceptional levels of violence requiring humanitarian imperialist intervention;this just more of the same ina context off brutalism.

    You keep using this phrase – reactionary clerical fascist – as if it made some sense. There is no equivalent of clericalism within Sunni Islam; fascism if it still means anything refers to a mix of corporatism and populism within the context of an industrialised state and isil is only reactionary in the sense of wanting to go back to what had been a sort of caliphate for 1,000 years until Versailles was imposed by imperial might.

    If going against the grain of manipulated public opinion is too worrying to contemplate you still need to be sure your arguments are well-founded, so what exactly are you relying on to back up your view that Isil has beenexceptional in meting out atrocities or represents a greater threat to the wester working class than westerngovernments, whichever is your argument?

  27. Pieter Nicholsky says:

    “The Islamic State armed group (ISIS) is committing crimes against humanity on a historic scale in northern Iraq. Entire communities are at risk of being wiped off the map of Iraq.”

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