I FIND it quite amazing, the number of politicians from the Northern Irish peace process who have become involved in the Middle East. As former Assembly speaker John Alderdice invites MPs to hear a Hamas representative in Westminster, our deputy First Minister and a convicted loyalist killer bring together IDF soldiers and a would-be suicide bomber in Donegal. And why do a former MI6 agent and dissident republican agree that we have to talk to Hamas?Today, the Times reports how Martin McGuinness and Billy Hutchinson – both former paramilitary leaders – took part in Combatants for Peace in Donegal recently, alongside an Israeli Defence Force conscript and a Palestinian suicide bomber, caught before she could kill.
Another, perhaps more controversial, encounter will take place on Wednesday, when former Alliance leader John (now Lord) Alderdice invites a Hamas speaker to address MPs inside Westminster, albeit via video-link. It appears to be a result of his involvement in Conflicts Forum, set up by the remarkable Alastair Crooke, who also has a Northern Ireland connection – he served as an MI6 operative here.
As the EU’s liaison to Hamas, Crooke was responsible for helping defuse some fairly explosive situations in the Middle East, although his sympathy towards Palestinians was perhaps what led to his exit from official diplomacy.
His former employers may have felt they were right that he had ‘gone native’, when Crooke subsequently founded Conflicts Forum, which aims to deepen the West’s understanding of political Islam and to create dialogue between the two – not without controversy. Some of the Forum’s thinking is highly challenging; and I’ve little doubt that others, such as Israeli-sympathising unionists, will be pretty appalled.
Here, Crooke separates out the political Islamists from the ‘apolitical’ type (Salafism, Deobandism), arguing that the West often characterises the wrong people as extremist.
It’s perhaps odd to find a former MI6 man and a Irish republican dwelling on the same themes, but Anthony McIntyre’s review for Democracy and Security of Ekaterina Stepanova‘s Terrorism in Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects highlights how the West deals with the different strands of Islamism.
In particular Stepanova seems to develop her perspective from her observations of the Hamas experience. In it she sees a group that, whatever the theological leanings of its key figures, is very much tempered and constrained by its need to keep public support in the areas where it is most representative. This ?resort to nationalism? has a moderating affect on their violence. In the application of this to Iraq Stepanova argues for a move away from a security based policy of suppressing nationalist elements towards one which is more supportive of such elements. It has the ring of rather than unite and conquer the US forces should divide and conquer.
McIntyre reports how Stepanova believes that the West in “no position to compete with the extremists in terms of ideological mobilization” when she writes that: ?It is self-delusional to think that quasireligious extremism can be neutralized by using modern western style democratic secularism.?
But, adds McIntyre: Underpinning this radical assertion is a contention that the state has “something in common with even the most violent and radical ethnoseparatists, including those that employ terrorist means, the central focus on the state itself as the main point of reference.”
So, the common ground for the external State and the dispossessed Palestinian is statehood itself, as opposed, presumably, to the destruction of Israel or an idealised dream of an Islamic global caliphate. This political nationalism he compares to Sinn Fein and its entry into the democratic process by the British – coincidentally, I suppose, through people like Crooke, which kind of completes the circle for this post.
McIntyre writes that defeat of the IRA “was secured by the British state manoeuvring, cajoling, flattering, and squeezing the IRA leadership into a position where it too could poke its snout into the state gravy train. By contrast, religious terrorism operating outside the state framework shares no common ground which the state could fertilize, and out of which could sprout an accommodation with its violent adversary.”
Crooke’s project can perhaps be seen as on a kind of a continuum from Northern Ireland to Gaza; identifying those who can deal with Western governments on a political level ie, those with whom a deal can be struck, as opposed to the ideologically straightjacketed who have an ‘all-or-nothing’ view. Once identified, modes of communication are required, so both sides can understand the other. This is difficult, as seeking to explain a position can make an interlocutor or facilitator appear to be an advocate instead, sanitising an extremist viewpoint.
Perhaps Khalid Meshaal’s virtual appearance in Portcullis House could be regarded as akin to the end of the broadcasting ban on another Gaza visitor, Gerry Adams. The latter is regarded as the former mouthpiece of a terrorist movement that eventually gave up its arms and became assimiliated into a purely political process.
Could the same happen to Hamas?