Inside the changing Middle East

Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays, by Fred Halliday, Saqi Books, RRP£14.99/$21.95

The late Fred Halliday was a singular figure in the study of international relations: one who situated himself firmly within a leftist tradition, but who increasingly found that many – even most – of those who might be his comrades had deserted the secular, enlightenment values to which he cleaved. Born of an English father in the Irish border town of Dundalk, he became among the most cosmopolitan of men, fluent in many languages, always itching to be somewhere else. And while he spent nearly all of his adult life in the academy, he revelled in his shadow lives as a militant and a journalist.

His main affiliation was with the London School of Economics; one of his last acts was to strongly advise the School against accepting a donation organised by Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator’s son who took a PhD there. Characteristically wise, but also undogmatic, he was for engagement with the regime, both to understand and attempt to enlighten it. But he was more alive than most to its cruelty. Even after it renounced weapons of mass destruction, he thought it best to distrust the Gaddafis; most of all when they brought gifts.

The polemicist in him increased as he grew older; he was only 64 when he died last year. He was passionate – the overused word is apposite here – about women’s rights, and lauded women from Middle Eastern societies who, at some or great risk, pioneered them. In the essays here he takes time to celebrate the Iranian Parvin Paidar, and the Lebanese Mai Ghoussoub (who founded Saqi Books, publisher of this collection), as the “finest and most principled exemplars of that proud and unheralded tradition, that of modern Middle Eastern feminism”.

He overstates: the tradition is not unheralded, and some of its protagonists win universal recognition. But it does run afoul of what became his ultimate bugbear: the sacrifice by leftists (and some liberals) of the secular, rationalist tradition for opportunist alliances with nationalists, sectarians and religious extremists. In one wonderful essay, “The age of the three dustbins”, he lambasts just this left-liberal irrationalism, variously accusing it of “an innocent when not indulgent attitude towards political violence” and “a capitulation to nationalist and religious bigots”. It is among a trenchant description of a trend which covers figures such as Ken Livingstone, and which still recruits the naive to the worship of Che Guevara (described here as simply “a cruel and dangerous man”).

Such views spring from Halliday’s main strength; knowing what he was talking about, deepened immeasurably by his intelligence and ability to understand his interlocutors. Earlier than most he understood that, by the middle of the past decade, neither the Palestinian not the Israeli leadership had the will to make the compromises necessary for peace. Earlier than most, he understood that since the 1979 revolution, Iran and its allies had become the leader of the no-compromise faction in the Middle East. More clearly than most, he understood the TV station al-Jazeera, at once a huge step forward for the Arab media and yet still an arm of the Qatari state with one large function: “to annoy Saudi Arabia”. And through all this he charts the separation of the liberation movements in the Middle East from their earlier leftism, and the decay of the progressive parts of the Arab political tradition.

In two things, though, he is relatively silent – areas which he might, as Stephen Howe suggests in an affectionate introduction, have broached in a promised never-to-be-written work. One is the nature of US power, about which he is generally critical – especially of the ignorance he saw in President George W. Bush’s administration. Yet though he never assumed that condemnation settles the matter, he also never provided a full account of what the world might look like without US power. And second – an urgent question once more – which of two bad choices, to intervene or not intervene, should have been made in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the former Yugoslavia and also now in Libya? The thoughtless left (indeed the thoughtless anyone) gives one or other version of the response, that they would not start from here. Halliday never did. A pity we cannot see what he would have made of it.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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