Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamil Mattar

Facing up to the past

Gamil Mattar* seeks an end to the morally corrosive guilt that infects international relations

"There have been plenty of words of condemnation of suicide bombers but few on the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in particular the attacks on civilian installations," MP Andrew Turner told a panel on the Palestinian question and the war against Lebanon.

"Indeed, they [UK parliamentarians] blamed Hizbullah and the seizing of two soldiers for the conflict in Lebanon and for Israel's reaction to the seizing of those soldiers." In contrast, "Human Rights Watch condemns both sides pretty unequivocally for breaches of international law and of internationally recognised human rights. It condemns Hizbullah for taking hostages and using the soldiers as pawns to negotiate the release of prisoners held in Israel... and it condemns Israel over the lawlessness of its attacks on South Lebanon, for the extraordinarily high level of civilian casualties that followed."

"Those were the tactics of the Nazis in 1939 and 1940 -- attacking fleeing civilians from the air," he added.

Jews in the House of Commons and throughout Britain were deeply offended and demanded an apology from the MP for comparing Israel defending itself with the Nazi Holocaust. The head of the Conservative Party asked Turner to apologise, which he did. Israeli leaders, and Zionist leaders in Britain, went away satisfied; they had benefited considerably.

The whole incident provided an opportunity to remind the British public, and the wider world, of the holocaust, which is a permanent feature of the agenda of Israeli leaders and Zionist lobbyists abroad. The incident also proved a gift to Israel and British Jews since, in asking a member of his party to apologise, the Conservative leader landed exactly where Israel and British Jews want him. Henceforth, whenever his party so much as thinks of criticising Israel they will be able to remind him that it has anti-Semites in its ranks. Finally, the attack against Turner worked to re- instill in European leaders the fear of the axe of being labeled anti-Semitic which hovers over the heads of anyone who dares criticise Israel or ignore the facts of German history as it is currently being related.

In East and Southeast Asia, people are discussing the future of their relations with Japan under a new, strongly nationalistic prime minister who has shown no inclination to express regrets over his country's imperialist policies towards its neighbours. China is not alone in insisting that Japan apologise unequivocally for the crimes it committed in Manchuria and Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese war and World War II. Both Koreas, too, have demanded an apology for the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula and the inhuman and degrading treatment meted out against its inhabitants by the occupation authorities. The Philippines has similarly demanded an apology from Japan for forcing Filipino women into sexually servicing Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Japan has so far resisted offering an apology these countries find acceptable. Simultaneously, it remains aware that the issue could flare up whenever an Asian government finds it convenient to exploit it politically. A notable instance occurred last year when student demonstrations erupted -- or, more appropriately, were staged -- against Japan, in the course of which demonstrators trashed and burned Japanese commercial establishments in several Chinese cities. Given China's current circumstances the phenomenon is likely to resurface with every new domestic crisis, particularly those fed by the growing income gap, the lack of freedom and growing popular demands.

More recently France and Turkey came to loggerheads over a law passed by the French National Assembly criminalising denials of the Armenian Holocaust that took place in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Ankara denies the genocide, insisting that Armenians died in the Russo-Turkish War after siding with the Russians. The Armenians, however, insist that hundreds of thousands of them were indiscriminately slaughtered at the hands of Turkish forces.

As in eastern Asia contemporary politics have been instrumental in igniting this almost century-old fuse. In some Western nations, there are vested interests strongly opposed to Turkey's admission into the EU, and willing to go to great lengths to forestall this prospect. In addition in France, as in Germany, Netherlands, and elsewhere, there is growing xenophobia targeting Muslims in particular, and manifested, in part, in increasingly strident demands to restrict immigration and in overt hostility to immigrant communities.

On the other side of the equation Turkey remains bent on Westernisation; a fundamental part of the secularism upon which the modern Turkish state is founded. Simultaneously, Islamist forces, as well as the increasingly active Kurdish Labour Party, have the Ataturkists bristling.

It is difficult to imagine that Ankara will back down from its position or even offer a gesture that would make it seem as if it were backing down. Far more likely is that Turkey will respond in kind, accusing France of never having apologised for the atrocities it perpetrated in Algeria. The ploy is interesting in that it may well work. France is not in an enviable position on this issue, for while there is no hard documented and incontrovertible proof of an Armenian genocide for which the Turks should apologise, there is abundant evidence of French crimes in Algeria.

In fact, if Turkey, Algeria or other countries of Africa and Asia felt like it, they could raise any number of problems over the humanitarian crimes committed by colonial powers, many of which are still within living memory of the peoples of colonised nations. Neither Chirac, nor any other leader of Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, the US or other western powers, is about to let his country be the first, or only, nation to apologise to peoples that until not so long ago -- sometimes well into the second half of the 20th century -- were regarded as second class human beings.

Islamist leaders have demanded an apology from the Catholic Pope for a notorious paragraph in a speech he delivered in Germany and they are still demanding apology after apology from Denmark. And were it not for the fear that infected Arab and Muslim political leaders in the wake of 11 September, they would probably also demand an apology from Berlusconi for the remarks he made while prime minister of Italy.

In Central and South America indigenous peoples, and those of mixed descent, are demanding compensation for centuries of deprivation and displacement, and for the acts of genocide perpetrated against them since the Spanish conquest. Only recently has the voice of this large segment of the populace of the Americas had the opportunity to make itself heard. Leading minority figures affirm that their campaign is developing in the direction of an "organised uprising", the primary aim of which is to secure an apology from the governments of Spain and Portugal for the crimes and cruelties inflicted upon them by colonial authorities and, later, by the ethnically Spanish dominated governments that followed independence. I suspect the world will soon be hearing much more from the increasingly active movements representing more than 50 million indigenous Americans whose cultures and civilizations were shattered and, in some cases, wiped off the map.

For more than two centuries, the non- Russian peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus have resisted the attempts of Tsarist, Soviet and Putinist Russia to alter their identities and cultures by overwhelming their countries with large influxes of white Orthodox Christian Russians. Today these peoples, especially those of the northern Caucusus and of the recently independent nations of Ukraine, Georgia and the three Baltic states, have the right to demand an apology from Moscow, at the very least for the practices of the Stalinist period which ushered in nightmarish oppression, genocide and the mass transfer of peoples.

Other peoples of whom we have never heard but who probably lived on the islands of the South Pacific and South Atlantic -- now populated primarily by people of European descent -- will have no such recourse. Having been vacated from their islands, for military purposes, as was the case with Diego Garcia, or having died out or been killed off, they have no progeny to press for an apology for the destruction of their cultures and identities.

Our world will remain a dismal place in which people die in the thousands because of the refusal of wealthy nations, which formerly colonised these peoples' countries, to come forward with sufficient aid to rescue them from starvation. Congo, Sudan, Somalia and the countries of West Africa spring immediately to mind. At the same time other peoples -- in Palestine, Iraq and countries targeted by the project to create a New Middle East -- are dying culturally and spiritually because of blockades and foreign occupations forced on them by more powerful nations in the interest of their self-serving economic and political plans.

Civilization must begin afresh. Perhaps what is needed to set it off on the right track is an international charter drawn up and signed by the representatives of the member nations of the UN, of the nations that have yet to attain independence and of the minorities in existing nations. Under this charter all signatories would submit a written declaration, to be appended to the charter and regarded as an integral part of it, in which they confess to and apologise for the injustices they perpetrated against other peoples and which, in turn, are officially accepted by the peoples in question.

I doubt that those who are laying the groundwork for ever more horrendous tragedies, in the name of the clash of civilizations, the fight against terrorism, the war against the axis of evil and other such headings targeting Arab and Muslim peoples, will like this suggestion. But then neither will many others who are growing angrier and more embittered by the day under the pressures of oppression, economic strangleholds and flagrant injustices.

The world is plummeting towards an appalling precipice and is being pushed ever more rapidly in that direction by extremists of all political and religious hues, by racists and bigots from all races and faiths. These are the type of people neither inclined to give apologies nor accept them. Would Israel and the Zionist movement accept an apology by Europeans and others for crimes perpetrated against the Jews? Would Israel apologise for the crimes it perpetrated against the Palestinians and the Arabs, who are still a party in this conflict?

I believe that an official exchange of apologies and acceptances of apologies between Israel and other countries, and between other countries and other peoples would usher in a new era in international relations, in which rights are restored to the dispossessed, feelings of guilt fade and even the thirst for vengeance subsides.

* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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