Fred of Arabia

August 9, 1996

Fred Halliday manages to combine an empathy for old Soviets and their Arab clients with an affection for the US. But then the son of an Englishman raised in the guerrilla country of Dundalk is used to navigating choppy waters. Lucy Hodges reports

For the young Fred Halliday, politics, international relations, frontiers and clashes of culture were the stuff of everyday life. He grew up with them in the little town of Dundalk in the Irish Republic, headquarters of the IRA and dubbed Gundalk by Ian Paisley.

"When I used to come to England, people would say 'Oh, you're interested in politics are you?'" explains Halliday, international relations professor at the London School of Economics and the author of numerous books on the Middle East, the latest of which, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, was published earlier this year. "Well, it was a bit like saying 'Do you like a cooked breakfast?' or 'Have you ever been to a rugby match?'" Some of his earliest memories are of the start of the IRA's bombing campaign in 1956. The IRA used to train in the mountains very near the Halliday family home. Living in Dundalk meant they were surrounded by danger. So, Halliday p re, who was English and ran a shoemaking factory, always made a point of hiring a gardener who had been in the IRA, who had fought against the treaty dividing the North and South and had been interned after the civil war in the South.

The young Halliday's babysitters were these gardeners. "Not that I was sympathetic to the IRA," he says hastily. "But I understand where they're coming from." It helped that his mother was Catholic, that her family were nationalists - some of them imprisoned for their views in the first world war - and that his father's family were nationalists too - and Quaker.

Ever since, Halliday, now 50, has made a speciality out of left revolutionary politics and understanding the positions of people whom right-thinking westerners regard as abhorrent. Like few other British international relations experts, he has been able to empathise with the former Soviet Union, Iran, and South Yemen, understanding their history, culture, ideology and religions while being critical of their oppressive regimes.

Because he has been so deft at explaining regimes such as those in the former Soviet Union and its satellite in Afghanistan, he has laid himself open to charges of being an apologist for unsavoury governments. Halliday agrees his work has been influenced by Marxism. Asked if he is a Marxist, he says: "If it's not open to misinterpretation, yes. But, if it is open to misinterpretation, no, because there's a lot of it I don't agree with and never have done."

His work is probably more unpopular with some Middle Eastern regimes than with figures in western establishments. It should also be noted that he is something of an old fogey with students because of his antipathy to postmodernism.

For all his new-found success, his chair at the LSE, his 14 books, countless articles, innumerable appearances on television and radio, Halliday has had a pretty unconventional career for an academic. And it took him a long time to land an academic job. He did not join the LSE until well into his thirties, having spent much of his time until then engaging in dialectical discussion as a member of the editorial committee on New Left Review, then the leading Marxist journal, and working part-time for New Left Books, now Verso Publishing, and the Transnational Institute, a liberal thinktank with headquarters in Washington and Amsterdam.

Today he has replaced politicking in shabby, smoke-filled rooms in north London with politicking in shabby rooms at the LSE, where he has been elected a member of the Court of Governors. He is part of the group trying to find a new director for the institution. His dark locks have given way to grey hair and a bald patch, but the eloquence and good humour remain. Ever the dialectician, he still ventures out on to the streets to address the odd meeting of Islamic militants in Brick Lane and to take part in some argy bargy.

Educated at Ampleforth, to which he was packed off as a boarder at the age of seven, Halliday grew up a Catholic and remains sympathetic to aspects of Catholicism - to a sense of moral concern about the world and a sense of cultural tradition - but not to the notion of a divine being. "It and the Irish experience gave me a deep scepticism about the role of the clergy in politics that obviously affects my views on the Middle East as well," he says.

By the time he went to Oxford to read PPE, in which he got a first, he had already developed an interest in the Middle East. As a student he hitchhiked round Iran, staying with the families of friends and later wrote a Penguin, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, which drew on that experience.

After Oxford came the School of Oriental and African Studies where Halliday did an MSc in Middle East politics and got a distinction. While at SOAS, he learnt to read Arabic, and to speak it a little. (He also has a working knowledge of Persian.) He then went straight into a career in publishing and writing, having secured a contract from Penguin to write a book on the upheavals in southern Arabia.

There had been the civil war in Yemen, the British had left Aden in 1967 and a revolutionary guerrilla group had come to power; moreover a war was going on in the Sultanate of Oman, a country which nobody from Britain visited, though the SAS was present on the government's side.

Halliday visited Oman, the only person from the British Isles to visit the guerrilla areas. His first book, Arabia Without Sultans, published in 1974, was an account of the nationalist and radical movements in southern Arabia, Yemen and in Dhofar province, in Oman. Just getting there was part of the thrill. Halliday had to take a little boat along the coast, and then walk through the mountains because the terrain was so rough it couldn't be traversed by horse or donkey.

He reckons this is the only book for which he will be remembered. It was highly critical of the rulers of the Arabian peninsula and also of British policy. It shocked a lot of people. As Halliday puts it: "It was written in the radical idiom of the time."

The Saudi Arabian minister of the interior bought dozens of copies in order to prevent other people buying them. The Saudis often buy up all the copies they can of books they don't like, according to Halliday.

His PhD thesis at the LSE on the foreign relations of South Yemen took him a staggering 17 years to complete. In his defence, he says it was finally published as a book and sold 713 copies. Two months after the book came out, South Yemen disappeared. It merged with North Yemen. "I had just waited too long," says Halliday.

While working at the Transnational Institute, the radical writer developed a strong affection for the United States. Halliday finds the anti-Americanism of the right and the left in Britain and the Continent unpleasant. "I am an anti-anti American," he explains. He loved visiting Washington, carrying out research there, talking to people and going on speaking tours, giving speeches about the cold war or the Middle East. And he relished the unstodgy, undogmatic American radicalism and freshness he encountered.

He adds: "In my intellectual and political life, every radical idea that has affected Britain or Europe has come not from the Soviet Union, not from the poor old Third World, but from the United States." He cites the opposition to the Vietnam war, the student movement, women's movement, gays, civil rights, freedom of information and anti-smoking, all of which have come from America.

The LSE and he are a good fit because of all the North American blood. Halliday teaches international theory to masters students, plus three postgraduate options - on the Middle East, women in international relations and the international dimensions of revolutions.

Halliday obviously relishes teaching but remains a prolific writer. His latest book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation is an attempt to show that the Middle East is not radically different from the rest of the developing world because of Islam. It seeks to show that the rise of fundamentalist movements can be explained in political and social as well as religious terms - unemployment, foreign domination, corrupt government and so on.

He is also critical of Edward Said's work, which has sought to apply literary critical methodology to the Middle East and to resuscitate the notion of "Orientalism" - seen by Said as a discourse of domination, a product and instrument of European subjugation of the area.

In fact Said and Halliday have fallen out. They used to correspond, but no longer. Halliday was much more supportive of the Oslo agreement between the PLO and Israelis than Said. At a conference at the LSE last year on Jerusalem Said walked out when Halliday got up to speak. "People can read what he says and they can read what I say, and make up their own minds," says Halliday. "But it's a matter of regret to me that the debate between us has broken down."

Another reason for writing the book is that Halliday has no fear of Islam as a religion, having experienced it at close hand for so long. Fundamentalists are another matter. Fundamentalist Islam is a threat - to Muslims above all else, he says. "Just look at what they've done to Iran." The book is dedicated to four Iranian friends who were killed by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's government.

Essentially, the book is a critique of western anti-Muslim prejudices as well as of fundamentalist prejudices about the West. There is a lot of hostility to Muslims abroad, which is not theological, but a gut feeling expressed as "We don't like Muslims as people", according to Halliday. Such feeling is comparative and modern, he explains. It was not always thus. A lot of the hostility is racial. And although it draws on the past, it is a creation of contemporary politics. Ditto the feeling of fundamentalists who advocate confrontation.

Halliday has gone out of his way to support Salman Rushdie. By defending him he feels he is defending the right of all Muslims to speak freely in their own way. He is appalled at the way British establishment figures have slagged off Rushdie and likes to tell the story of an Iranian family who were in Britain recently on a visit. Asked what they thought of Rushdie, they said they loved him. They did not know what he had written, but said it must have been good to have annoyed the mullahs so much.

Halliday is not at all popular with the Iranian government these days. He annoyed them by giving a talk earlier this year with a deliberately provocative title, "Post-ahoundism" (a rude word for a cleric). In other words he talked about what would happen in Iran once the clerical dictatorship ended. The Iranian delegation boycotted the conference on the grounds that he had insulted the clergy, and Halliday has been subject to attack in the Iranian press ever since. But navigating such political shoals is nothing new for the boy from Dundalk.

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