Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays

August 4, 2011

Fred Halliday was an indefatigable traveller and a tireless writer. In David Hayes' selection from the 81 essays Halliday published on the openDemocracy website between 2004 and his untimely death last year, he seems to be everywhere: Madrid or Havana, Yerevan or Tehran, addressing conferences, interviewing leaders and political insiders, or - as at Auschwitz - reflecting on the place's human significance.

The geographical range of these commentaries is indeed wide: from the Dominican Republic to Tibet, via Ireland, the country where Halliday spent his early years, and Catalonia, where he settled in 2008 after leaving the London School of Economics. But his central focus was the Middle East, or rather "Western Asia" as he preferred to label the area between Yemen (where he began his scholarly research) and the Caucasus, and between Egypt and Afghanistan. Characteristically, his own label aimed to undermine the Eurocentrism of the Western worldview.

Equally characteristically, he was unfazed by the fact that his label does not work much better than the conventional one: it excludes countries such as Egypt and Libya, on which he offers a trenchant view here.

When the Libyan crisis broke, it revealed an embarrassing general ignorance about Africa's fourth-largest country - but Halliday had already penned a lucid assessment of that bizarre polity, the "state of robbers", to mark the 40th anniversary of the Jamahiriya. At a little under four pages in length, this essay orients us in a more confident and useful way than most of the media coverage this year. It has all the hallmarks of his openDemocracy pieces - terse, pugnacious, deeply informed and enlivened by personal experience.

Inevitably, it also shows the transience of political commentary. Halliday was confronting the Western attempt to normalise relations - symbolised by the notorious Tony Blair/Mu'ammer Gaddafi embrace - and arguing that optimism about the possible improvement of the regime was probably misplaced. How would he have reacted to the dilemmas posed by initial Western attempts to support rebellion without actually attacking the regime?

Many of the situations he unpicks in these essays - usually with a brisk sequence of numbered points, the instinctive codifying urge of the political scientist - will likewise soon have developed so far as to render some of his commentary out of date. He was aware of this, often insisting that the likely outcome of a situation is "anyone's guess". In Western Asia "a fire is burning and it is impossible to know how long it will rage, or who will emerge victorious". Sadly, his agonised question about the Israel/Palestine crisis - "are we really condemned to witness a fight to the finish?" - may well be answered in the positive.

But whatever turn events take, Halliday's underlying geopolitical thesis will remain relevant, as will his insistence on the law of unintended consequences. A frequent theme here is what he calls "solidarity", the issue of "our obligations as citizens of the world". Arguing that when in the Middle East (a term he went on using, despite his objection to it) political aspirations were voiced in Islamic terms, the real aims were universal - ideas such as nationalism, democracy, justice, employment, honest government. He insists that "solidarity with Iraq and its people is a recognition of this shared reality as well as a moral and political obligation". All these universal ideas, as he frequently notes, are secular, and for him secularism is an unarguable necessity.

These positive assertions run through Halliday's work, even though they are often almost submerged in the ferocity of his negative evaluations. Many people and institutions come under fire for their weak grasp of reality as Halliday perceived it. They include the proponents of the idea of a "clash of civilisations", a concept he denounced as depending on a view of "the Islamic world" that he dismissed as absurdly monolithic (despite using the term himself at times). The global anti-capitalist protest movement was "a children's crusade of dreamers, intellectual demagogues and unreconstructed political manipulators of the old and new Left".

His fiercest fire, though, was trained on the US policymakers who boast of their superior "realism". The American political elite was "bereft of understanding of the crisis the world confronts", and the US was "dragging the Western world towards a global abyss". This startlingly apocalyptic language was directed at the George W. Bush administration in late 2004; but it seems unlikely he would have seen much sign that the catastrophically solipsistic reaction to 9/11 has been significantly altered by his successor. Hearing US political philosopher Philip Bobbitt talking recently about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, one wished the interviewer could have had Fred Halliday's response. Whether or not the US listened, it is sad that his voice has fallen silent.

Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays

By Fred Halliday. SAQI Books, 350pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780863564611. Published 7 March 2011

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