A clash of civilisations?

TOM MELLEN sees neocons and progressives clash over war and torture at a London conference.

Morning Star, 22 January 2007

CAMPAIGNERS, academics, religious figures and thousands of working people engaged in a fierce battle of ideas at the weekend on what the so-called “clash of civilisations” means to Londoners. Whitehall’s QE2 centre was packed to the rafters on Saturday, with people eager to discuss the urgent issues thrown up by globalisation and the “war on terror.”

The World Civilisation Or a Clash of Civilisations? conference saw notorious rightwingers Daniel Pipes and Douglas Murray rub shoulders with Venezuelan government official Andres Izarra and anti-racism campaigner Denis Fernando. Discussions ranged from Democratic Solutions in the Middle East to Anti-Semitism and were marked by a high level of popular participation.

BBC news presenter Gavin Esler chaired the opening debate between London Mayor Ken Livingstone and neocon US foreign policy adviser Mr Pipes, who claimed that the world faces a “clash between civilisation and barbarism.”

Noting that London itself draws strength from the diverse cultures that co-exist in the city, Mr Livingstone said: “People have the choice to select for themselves what they find attractive in all cultures – we are witnessing the emergence of a global civilisation. If you go onto the streets of a modern world city, whether that’s London or New York, Shanghai or Mumbai, you see young people working together, using the same technology and sharing the same concerns.”

But Mr Pipes sneered at the mayor’s “complacency,” describing Islamists as “ideological barbarians.” He claimed that this “tyrannical, woman-oppressing terrorist movement” threatens civilisation and that, “while Mr Livingstone looks to multiculturalism, I look to win the war.”

Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob pointed out that Mr Pipes’s logic lay behind the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that that conflict has “decreased, not increased our security.”

Mr Pipes responded by smearing critics of neoliberal terrorism as “poor benighted souls,” drawing howls of anger.

In the Can Colonialism Be Progressive? seminar‚ pro-war journalist David Aaronovitch answered “No,” but nevertheless made the case for “humanitarian interventionism.” Citing Britain’s role in the abolition of the slave trade and its decision in 1833 to blockade the west African coast “so that nobody else could engage in the trade either,” Mr Aaronovitch asked: “Was that colonialism?”

Congolese audience members accused Mr Aaronovitch of “playing with words.” They noted more recent covert interventions in their own country “for diamonds and cobalt” and insisted that “progressive colonialism” and “humanitarian intervention” were the same thing.

In a seminar on civil rights, counter-terror and torture, Centre for the Study of Human Rights director Professor Conor Gearty, Liberty campaigner Doug Jewell and right-wing columnist Alasdair Palmer debated the re-emergence of torture as an accepted instrument of government policy.

Mr Palmer asserted that “torture is a fact of life which can produce results which save lives,” but Mr Jewell insisted that it does not work and is counter-productive. “If people who are attacking a society believe that its values deny humanity to such an extent that it will use torture against you, some crazed individuals will think that it is proportionate to use terror against it,” he warned.

A Chilean victim of General Pinochet’s torture squads reacted angrily to Mr Palmer’s apologetics, saying: “It’s horrific that, 30 years on, we are having a discussion about how torture could be allowed – you must never try to intellectualise an act that is simply evil.”