Books – recent titles reviewed

Revealing Britain’s darker side

Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture
Ian Cobain, Portobello, London, 2012, 320pp, ISBN: 978184627339

Britain has a reputation for being the isles of fair play, according to Ian Cobain, speckled with village cricket matches, country houses, suet pudding, red pillar boxes – and a deeply embedded culture of torture.

Most recently, this trait has included the prising of fingernails from young British Muslims detained in Pakistan in the War on Terror and the beating to death of prisoners in Iraq. A couple of generations ago, it included atrocities carried out during British colonial rule in Kenya, where an assistant commissioner of police found conditions in the Mau Mau internment camps “far worse than anything I experienced in my four and half years as prisoner of the Japanese”.

From Britain’s war against Nazi Europe to its quest 60 years later to bring democracy to Iraq, Cobain’s forensic account argues that British values of institution-building and democracy have routinely been accompanied by a well-trodden system of human rights abuse and torture.

“We have been ready to resort to torture when we have come to believe the country’s situation was desperate,” writes Cobain, “when an invasion of the south coast of England was thought to be imminent; when one prized colonial possession after another was being lost; when part of the United Kingdom appeared to be on the brink of civil war or when an imperfectly understood terrorist organisation showed itself capable of mounting simultaneous mass-casualty attacks upon the country’s most powerful ally.”

His brief incorporates the Second World War, the violent transitions in Kenya, Aden, Cyprus and other colonies, Northern Ireland and 9/11. He backs each insertion with evidence, sparely written, usually without comment, allowing the details simply to speak for themselves.

They shock in two ways. The first is the blood-thirstiness. One that sticks in my mind is the ordeal of Faisal Mostafa, a chemist from Manchester. Having been acquitted of terrorism charges in the UK, he was picked up and detained in Bangladesh. He was subjected to electric shocks, suspended upside down, beaten and – finally – “a drill was slowly driven into his right shoulder and hip”. All the time, asserts Cobain, the Bangladeshis were working closely with British intelligence agents.

The second – and this is subjective – is that many of us know that this type of thing goes on. Cobain has merely spelled it out for us scream by scream, confession by confession, death by death. The Mau Mau, the Malayan Emergency and Northern Ireland are not stones that have only just been turned over, and we have all read about waterboarding, Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition. We have seen the pictures from Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and enough time has lapsed in this post 9/11 cycle for the issue to have bled from the news headlines to the best-selling thriller charts and Hollywood.

So when we hear about cases like Faisal Mostafa, what do we think? Is it that he is collateral damage in a system that, in fact, saves lives and has made our nation more secure? Do we put our trust in government to make the right judgement calls? Or do we shift it to one side, refusing to confront a too difficult moral choice, knowing that the stakes of getting it wrong are too high to contemplate?

Among the many prominent figures who have endorsed Cruel Britannia, is senior British Member of Parliament David Davies, who twice ran for leadership of the ruling Conservative Party. Yet even Davies concedes that any election ticket that included a pledge to really stamp out torture in the security system would not make much headway.

That said, there is also evidence that torture is used far less now than in the past.

The appalling treatment of some Iraqis by some British soldiers was underlined by the beating to death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in 2003. As details emerged, so did the rule of law and news headlines – a far cry from the killing and abuse of Kenyans during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s. When, at that time, General Sir George Erskine fl ew to Nairobi to restore order, he concluded of the Mau Mau: “They are not normal human beings.” And after a police officer shot three prisoners, covering the jail wall in blood, he was merely told by his sub-inspector: “Bury them and see the wall is cleared up.”

The likelihood of any security force from any Western democracy carrying out such brutality away from the public eye now is slim. But the re-emergence of torture as an issue has done much to lose democratic governments the high ground when lecturing others on how to deal with conflict. It has, in short, diluted the morality of Western values.

Cobain’s work is a persuasive, convincing and invaluable contribution that will force questions to be asked that inevitably will bring in a higher level of scrutiny.

Humphrey Hawksley, BBC World Affairs Correspondent

Engaging Asia’s best brains

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
Pankaj Mishra, Allen Lane, London, 2012, 356pp, ISBN 9781846144783

The life stories of three very different Asian intellectuals are here recounted and placed in the context of their extraordinary times between the 1850s and the 1940s. Among their most striking common features were the extensive travels they undertook and their resultant cosmopolitanism. Most importantly, however, each of them chose to speak out against the encroachment of Western political and economic hegemony and called for different forms of resistance.

Throughout its different phases, the British Empire could hardly have encountered anyone quite like the Persian-born Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, whose self-appointed political campaigning work took him to India, Afghanistan, Turkey and Egypt in the second half of the 19th century. Mishra notes that al-Afghani was consistent in his anti-imperialism, although he flirted with different forms of political Islam through the changing allegiances he was obliged to make. “He advocated both nationalism and pan-Islamism; he lamented the intolerance of Islam; he evoked its great glories in the past; he called for Muslim unity; he also asked Muslims to work with Hindus, Christians and Jews, and claimed that rationality was intrinsic to Islam.”

Despite this inconsistency, al-Afghani was convinced that Muslims could move from being subjects of history into its makers, and believed in the importance of their acquiring science, education and military power.

A similarly prophetic role was carved out in China by Liang Qichao, whose experiences of Japan and especially the USA in the early years of the 20th century made him determined that China should shake off its humiliations. He was one of several public intellectuals of his day, and he was not afraid of asking difficult questions about democracy, autocracy, capitalism and socialism, as well as about the need for a common front among China’s many ethnic minorities.

The third public intellectual Mishra singles out is Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize-winning poet who despite being warmly welcomed into the drawing rooms of the West remained an anti-imperialist to the end.

By retelling the lives and thoughts of these three remarkable men, Mishra cleverly revitalises the historical events that shaped them and throws fresh light on the upheavals of the late imperial era, not least the rise of Japan and the communist revolution in China. However, it remains hard to discern the reasons for entitling the book From the Ruins of Empire when it dedicates so many pages to describing the British Empire at its height rather than its disintegration. But it could equally refer to the ancient Asian empires for which these three intellectuals were engaged in an ongoing search for effective successors.

Richard Synge, Consultant Editor, Global

An activist route to power

Outside In
Peter Hain, Biteback Publishing, London, 2012, 464pp, ISBN 9781849544108

“This is the story of an ‘outsider’ turned ‘insider’: anti-apartheid militant to cabinet minister,” so says Peter Hain in the book’s preface. Intended to be “readable rather than erudite”, his memoirs are in any case compelling.

Beginning with his early years in South Africa – which were, he says, “a mixture of excitement, stress and shock” – Hain recalls that his parents were activists in the fight against apartheid, and that the family was almost constantly harassed by the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS). By 1966, it had become impossible for Hain’s father to find work and the family left for Britain.

His account of anti-apartheid activism in late 1960s and early 1970s Britain, makes for riveting reading. As chairman of the ‘Stop The Seventy Tour’ (STST), Hain organised protests targeting visiting rugby and cricket teams from South Africa. The ensuing disruption at venues where the teams played proved to be a highly effective strategy, heralding the beginning of the apartheid nation’s isolation in the global sports arena – a bitter pill for sports-loving South Africans to swallow.

The success of the STST campaign could be measured in the efforts made by the South African security services to discredit Hain. Astonishingly, an attempt was made to frame him for bank robbery. And he faced the first of many tussles with the British judiciary when he was tried for conspiracy; the establishment, he says, was outraged at the chaos brought to its beloved sport.

It is ironic that such a radical start should lead to Hain’s becoming a minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet, some of whose controversial policies like student fees and the invasion of Iraq were to change Britain forever.

This makes the descriptions of the behind the scenes machinations of government particularly fascinating.

The account of the Northern Ireland settlement, in which Hain was instrumental, includes his much-publicised critical remarks about Judge (now Lord Justice) Girvan’s handling of a judicial review in Belfast in 2006. Outraged by the offending passage, the Northern Irish judiciary responded by bringing contempt of court proceedings against both author and publisher. Hain refused to change his comments but did write a clarification (included at the end of the paperback edition) in which he explains he had not intended to question Lord Justice Girvan’s capabilities as a judge. The prosecution was subsequently withdrawn, in what was hailed as a victory for free speech by Hain’s publisher Biteback.

Hannah Cochrane, freelance writer and researcher


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