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Global book reviews: Empire, al-Qaeda, Dag Hammarskjold, Malcolm X and tribal survivors.

Trouble spots engendered by empire

Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World
Kwasi Kwarteng, Bloomsbury, London, 2011, 465pp, ISBN 978-0-7475-9941-8

At the time of the Suez crisis of 1956, a particularly memorable cartoon by Vicky in The New Statesman showed Colonel Blimp, the moustachioed symbol of empire, lying in a sarcophagus. The caption was, appropriately enough, Shakespearean: Mark Antony’s “I’m dying, Egypt, dying.” Suez was probably the iconic turning-point in that death, when Britain’s belief that it was a major world power collapsed in a heap of unsustainable ashes in the face of super-power hegemony.

More than 50 years on, the idea continues to show signs of life, like a corpse still twitching. While the Commonwealth sometimes seems to have subsumed the more idealistic aspects of the empire in its thrust to be a ‘force for good’ in the world, a school of thought that laments the passing of empire seems strangely in the ascendant.

The debate has reached a new level of vituperation with an exchange in The London Review of Books between Pankaj Mishra, an influential Indian novelist, and Professor Niall Ferguson, the principal preacher of neo-imperial revisionism. Mishra was reviewing Ferguson’s Civilisation: The West and the Rest, criticising not just his belief that Britain need not have lost its empire, but his increasing defence of empires as a whole.

Ferguson denies he is a neo-imperialist and resents the charge of racialism, saying he is merely an objective historian trying to dispel myths. He is a good, fluent historian but his subtle and indirect apologia for all empires, especially European and, interestingly, American, have made him the darling of neo-cons. He has even been brought into the current British debate on how history is taught.

Mishra takes Ferguson to task, above all for not recognising the “structural violence” at the heart of how the British built their empire. This aspect would presumably be played down by those who want to tell ‘our island story’ in glowing terms. A truly objective curriculum would also include Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, which explores the violence inherent in imperial expansion up to 1850, and David French’s The British Way in Counter-Insurgency 1945-67, recounting some of the more brutal and unattractive chapters of the late empire.

Counter-balancing these febrile battlefields is a work of a more detached commonsense, coming from one of the children of Britain’s imperial adventure. Kwasi Kwarteng, who just happens to have been elected a Conservative MP at the last election, is of Ghanaian heritage but educated in Britain. Faithful to its full title, Ghost of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World relates how some of the world’s most serious current trouble spots were caused by some of the individual imperial rulers and the imperialists in London.

Stressing that he is not out to say whether the empire was a good or bad thing, Kwarteng’s detached attitude, and the way he ingeniously relates the broad view to the particular, is the making of this readable book. Particularly compelling is its short curriculum vitae of some of the individuals involved in running the empire, from Gertrude Bell to Herbert Kitchener. Kwarteng is particularly conscious of class and education, and the way these influenced the attitudes of the rulers to the ruled.

The places he selects have all had particularly troublesome post-imperial histories. He has four chapters on Iraq, which makes a particularly good case study, and passes through Kashmir, Burma Sudan and Nigeria, before ending with Hong Kong (generally considered as the concluding episode of the British Empire). Few of these places ended up in the Commonwealth, mostly for good reason: and Kashmir is still a bone of contention between the two largest Asian Commonwealth countries.

If a writer of Ghanaian origin should have preferred to write of Nigeria, it may be because Ghana nowadays is a success story. Both countries, however, had a troubled first 50 years of independence, the product of those who ruled, both before and after independence. As the Nigeria chapters indicate, it was the attitudes of many of the British that put Nigeria in one piece and led to the rifts that brought about the civil war. There are long analyses of the contrasting figures of George Goldie and Frederick Lugard, and, post-independence, there is a fascinating section on British perceptions of Odumegwu Ojukwu, the recently deceased Biafran leader. Kwarteng has found a mine of detail in some of the more caustic utterances of Sir David Hunt, British High Commissioner during the civil war, but provides no biography. Likewise, one could have done with at least a mention of his predecessor, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce (now Lord Thurlow), the man generally said to have been influential in the preservation of Nigerian unity at the crucial moment in 1966.

If the Ghanaian case history seems relevant, it is in part because I have been reading G.G. Norton’s book, Guggisberg and Ghana: Foundations for a Nation, which highlights how a very out-of-the-ordinary Gold Coast governor between the wars (whose origins were not at all typical of the Colonial Service) was one of those who, through education and economic development, helped build modern Ghana. But Kwarteng’s book already contains such a feast of information and perspectives that it seems churlish to express any disappointment at what he may have left out.

Kaye Whiteman, writer on African affairs

Clarifying debates over counter-terrorism

Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership
Robert Lambert, Hurst & Co, London, 2011, 402pp, ISBN 978-1-84904-166-9

Within Britain’s counter-terrorism establishment, Robert Lambert is regarded with suspicion and even, at times, dislike. One former commander told me that he’d “gone native.”

Lambert was a member of Special Branch for nearly three decades – he once ran a covert unit of undercover officers who infiltrated protest groups, including Greenpeace. In his book, Lambert divulges none of his former counter-subversion activities. Instead, he concentrates on his work as head of the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU), a counter-terrorism team established within Special Branch in the aftermath of 9/11.

The book’s primary narrative chronicles how British Muslim organisations collaborated with the MCU in order to challenge preachers who sympathised with al-Qaeda in two London mosques. At Finsbury Park Mosque, the MCU and local Muslims staged a virtual coup to regain control from the controversial preacher and tabloid celebrity, Abu Hamza. Similarly, at Brixton Mosque, the firebrand Jamaican-born convert, Abdullah al-Faisal, was ousted.

Surely, Lambert’s unit was deserving of high praise following such successful operations? In fact, the reverse occurred. Lambert was cold-shouldered and, after the London bombings of 7/7, the MCU was marginalised. For the government as well as numerous think tanks, there was a problem. The Muslims who worked alongside Lambert were Islamists – many were affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and their value system was rooted in the Quran. They also supported Hamas and the right of Muslims to resist foreign occupation.

Successive British governments have claimed that Islamists are “extremists” who provide a “conveyor belt” to terrorism. Even if non-violent, they are portrayed as terrorists in-waiting. “To those who say these non-violent extremists are actually helping to keep young, vulnerable men away from violence, I say nonsense,” declared David Cameron in 2011.

The importance of Lambert’s book is that it addresses the central question of who is Britain’s enemy in the borderless battlefield that some call the “war on terror”. Counter-terrorism discourse is riddled with inexactitudes and ill-defined language. Lambert takes an important step in clarifying some of it. What makes this book even more pertinent is that Islamists rooted in the traditions of the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to gain power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The British government must recognise a legitimate political role for Islamism, not just to make the country safer, but also to ensure cordial and equitable relations with a democratic Middle East. I suggest David Cameron reads Robert Lambert’s book before it’s too late.

Phil Rees, commentator on Islam and author of Dining with Terrorists

A dark moment in world history

Who killed Dag Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and white supremacy in Africa
Susan Williams, Hurst & Co, London, 2011, 306pp, ISBN 978-1-84904-158-4

Whoever did kill the most independent-minded Secretary General in the UN’s post-war history did not want people pointing fingers. And so they went to extraordinary lengths, first to hide the evidence of their involvement and then to spread blame in a deliberately messy way – so that the trail of fragmentary evidence could turn the heinous deed into an unsolvable mystery, perhaps for evermore.

Even the likelihood that Dag Hammarskjöld’s 17 September 1961 flight across Africa – on a mission to negotiate peace in Congo’s mineral-rich province of Katanga – was deliberately targeted for attack can still be plausibly disputed by the possibility of pilot error, particularly since the crash destroyed the aircraft and killed all 16 on board. But there are simply too many loose ends in the different lines of inquiry that have been followed. There were definitely interests that wanted the Secretary General dead. Hammarskjöld was so clearly willing to challenge the white supremacist interests that supported Katanga’s secession from the Congo, and there were influential people, and perhaps governments too, prepared to help cover up a successful assassination by the unscrupulous – and easily deniable – mercenary forces working with Katanga.

There is still too little evidence to enable a researcher to point the finger of blame with any certainty. This is the dilemma that Susan Williams faced in writing her review and analysis, prompting her to take the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the different theories and to interview surviving witnesses whose testimonies were overlooked at the time. Especially interesting are the crystal-clear memories of those living in the neighbourhood of the crash, who saw more than one aircraft and an explosion in the sky. For no reason other than their skin colour, such eyewitnesses were considered unreliable by the original Rhodesian government inquiry – which was conveniently able to blame the crash on pilot error.

At 50 years’ distance, it may seem unlikely that the UN Security Council would order an international inquiry that has the potential still to embarrass two, or perhaps three, of its permanent members. In the early 1960s, neither the UK, the USA nor France had clean hands in the diplomacy around the Congo crisis; the attitude they adopted towards the country damaged the independence and authority of the UN for decades, setting back the progress of liberation and democracy throughout southern Africa for many years to come. But Williams hopes that an inquiry might still happen. And the day could yet come that the three powers might want to unburden themselves of guilty secrets.

Richard Synge, Consultant Editor, Global

An icon deconstructed

Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention
Manning Marable, Allen Lane, London, April 2011, 608pp, ISBN 978-0713998955

Malcolm X did not trust the Western media. He thought that the journalists, American ones in particular, harboured all the prejudices of their society, and even sometimes reinforced them by constantly turning spokespersons of minority societies (like himself) into stereotypical figures set up for a fall.

But when he was interviewed by black journalist Alex Hayley, it turned out to be a propaganda coup for Malcolm, as well as a profitable enterprise for Hayley who used the access he had obtained to co-author, with Malcolm, an entire book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Hayley was so faithful to Malcolm X’s idea of what sort of book it should be that I even found my name in it – Malcolm had meticulously jotted it down as one of the people he had met in Accra, Ghana, during a visit there in 1964. Hayley profited from the huge sales the book made and persuaded a television company to adapt his novel, Roots – a runaway success.

If Alex Hayley was the faithful ghost writer recording what his subject said for posterity, Professor Manning Marable approached his task as if to prove that Malcolm X’s reputation had been overblown since his assassination in February 1965, which instantly turned him into a martyred icon for many.

Malcolm would definitely have described Marable’s book as containing too much material that was irrelevant to his mission in life, and he would have blamed it on the Columbia professor’s “white paymasters.” But all the detail amassed by the author (who died just before this book was published) only goes to show that Malcolm X was a man just like any other. The book’s focus on Malcolm ‘reinventing’ himself seems somewhat excessive because he himself acknowledged the change.

When I interviewed him for Drum magazine (October 1964), he told me: “One of the things the white man has done to us is to give us his vices… The Black Muslim Movement has done a lot of good in converting people from these vices… I myself have been helped tremendously by Islam – I was serving a seven-year jail term for narcotics offences when I was converted.”

Manning Marable would have said in his own defence that he wanted to paint Malcolm X “in the round”. Agree with him or not, he has left us a hugely fascinating book.

Cameron Duodu, writer and commentator

Examples of successful and sustainable living

Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World
Stephen Corry, Freeman Press, UK, 2011, 303pp, ISBN 978-1447424130

There are about 150 million people still living in tribal communities worldwide, yet relatively little is known about them outside their own regions. Stephen Corry’s book comes as an essential and timely guide to those few remaining tribes.

Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World is an introduction to the world’s indigenous communities and their histories. From Inuit to Maori, there are countless fascinating accounts drawn from Corry’s more than 40 years of experience as an anthropologist and human rights activist. He highlights different tribal peoples’ invaluable knowledge of their environment and the important contributions they have made to humankind.

Drawing on his experience as Survival International’s director since 1984, Corry is candid about the problems. The pursuit of resources has often been the root cause of decline for tribal peoples and it comes as little surprise that tribes still suffer mistreatment. Governments continue to sell land that has been occupied for hundreds of years, or ironically take it for conservation. Loss of resources destroys self-sufficiency while contact with outsiders can result in devastating illnesses spreading throughout communities whose immune systems are defenceless against common infections.

According to the International Labour Organization, a lack of respect for the cultures of these peoples has led to “social conflict and bloodshed in far too many cases around the world”. An example is the Bushmen tribes of southern Africa. These hunter-gatherers, who once numbered in their millions and whose ancestors are believed to be the source of all modern humans, have been largely decimated after hundreds of years of persecution. While a few survivors struggle to hold on to their lands, others work for low wages or live in slums and are driven to begging.

Corry believes we have much to learn from tribal peoples, that “their survival is in the interests of humanity” and it’s hard to disagree. A new study by the World Bank has revealed that deforestation is at its lowest levels in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. The culture of peoples who have lived so successfully and sustainably is surely of great value to the industrialised world as it continues to struggle with over-consumption and limited resources.

For over 50 years, Survival International has been campaigning for – and with – tribal communities. There have been some successes, not least that of the Dongria Kondh, a tribal group who live in Orissa state, India, and featured in Issue 8 of Global. Vedanta Resources has now halted plans to dig a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills, a region sacred to the tribe.

Hannah Cochrane, freelance writer and researcher


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