#thegreatarmstradedebate: 1914: the Western world is descending into the bloodiest war it has ever witnessed. Amid the waste of life, the waste of money and the wastelands of Europe, arms manufacturers thrived. What did people do to stop it? What means of protest did they have? And what are people doing now, 100 years later, to stop the arms trade? Join us with your ideas at a public, multimedia event. May 17, Brighton. Stalls, posters, artwork, leaflets, films, music, café…
Chair: Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty
Speakers and performers include:
Davy Jones (Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Kemptown)
Lindsey German (Stop the War Coalition)
Hannah Hills (Campaign Against the Arms Trade)
Naomi Foyle (Spoken word artist)
Dr Idrees Ahmad (Pulsemedia.org)
I was recently invited to read a poem at the above event, organised by The Green Party, Stop the War and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, in conjunction with Mia Marzouk, the local organiser. I am now withdrawing in solidarity with Dr Idrees Ahmad, and in protest at his disinvitation by the organisers.
When I was first invited to appear, I was very glad that disarmament was to be the focus of a lively and accessible Brighton Fringe Festival event, and eager to learn more about the issue. I was nevertheless concerned that a predictable and one-sided anti-interventionist view would be presented of current and recent military conflicts, including Syria, Libya and Ukraine. In particular I was not keen to share a platform with Stop the War if there was no panellist willing or able to counter their non-interventionist position on Syria. Without discussing StW at great length, just this one post by Lindsey German makes it clear that the organisation conflates revolutionaries with jihadis, here smearing the Free Syrian Army with the accusation that ‘opposition’ fighters have used chemical weapons – claims that have been soundly debunked in the past. And while denying that StW are ‘Assad-apologists’, by referring to Assad’s ‘government’ rather than his regime, German legitimises a tyrant, a man who tortures and butchers his own people, starting with the children. My objection may seem shallow semantics, but I fear the choice of the softer word here hints at something very dangerous: a tendency on the Left to exonerate the crimes of dictators simply because the West might be considering military action against them. I have also heard, for example, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire urge respect for Assad’s ‘elections’ and supposed popular support, and defend him from accusations of using sarin gas – simply because his Ministers told her that they didn’t. I am not naive about the West and its interests, but when Western powers receive calls for help from genuine popular uprisings, I believe that we need to take the ideological blinkers off, and find ways to effectively respond. How to do that, to my mind, is one of the most pressing questions for the anti-war movement today.
I was assured that the organisers did not wish the event to present a simplistic anti-war perspective, and they would be happy to recruit more speakers to broaden the debate. I myself approached Robin Yassin-Kassab, who I know from his many national radio and television appearances to be an excellent speaker on Syria. He could not attend but recommended Dr Ahmad, who is also a Facebook friend of mine. After Facebook messages and phone calls, an invitation was formally extended and accepted.
This week Dr Ahmad made a strongly worded post on his Facebook page, expressing his view about Stop the War – a post which did not insult any individual. The next thing I knew I received an email update on the event from the organisers explaining that Dr Ahmad had been disinvited because the comment had been ‘offensive in tone’, raising fears that ‘he intended to use his platform primarily to attack this organisation’, therefore potentially turning the event into a ‘duel’ rather than an ‘open and frank audience-focused discussion’. The email also said that in discussion with Dr Ahmad about these fears, he made the point that his FB page was his private forum, but also ‘made it clear that he … intended to use Saturday’s event to express [his] views in a very hostile manner.’
I added an approving comment to Dr Ahmad’s post, and if he is to be excluded on the basis of his comment, then I must be as well. I have spoken to the local organiser and emailed the other participants and organisers, stating my decision to withdraw. As I did to them, I want to also say several other things about this disgraceful occurrence.
1) Dr Ahmad’s strong views on Stop the War were clear from the outset in private Facebook messages I witnessed. They are also a matter of public record, and though I was not aware of his history contesting the organisation until today, I see no reason why StWC should be shielded from his criticism.
2) I have spoken to Dr Ahmad as well, who assured me he has many things to say about disarmament, including a discussion of his past collaboration with organisations like Reprieve that, through focused and sustained campaigning, are forcing a reconsideration of drone usage and paving the way for new legal restrictions. He wanted to use Syria as a case study for his talk, which seems entirely reasonable to me. We cannot talk about these issues in the abstract, or by using only historical examples. As a lecturer in journalism, Dr Ahmad is extremely well-placed, for example, to speak on the Syrian chemical weapons claims and memes, and how these have played out in the media: in fact, this is the subject of his next significant publication.
3) I was also told in conversation that the organisers feared Dr Ahmad had ‘no respect’ for one of the other panellists. But the event is billed as a ‘Great Debate’. Respect for other panellists’ views cannot be a precondition of a debate. Debate is precisely needed when people passionately disagree on a matter. A good Chair and a strict timetable can avoid any one panellist dominating, and if the audience doesn’t want to hear more about a matter, they will not ask about it. Rather than look forward to a robust exchange of opinions on some serious and contentious issues – ones the audience may well wish to hear about – the organisers have excluded opposition to their views, and are now trying to present the event as more of a festive occasion, strategy meeting, or ‘open discussion’. It would be better to call it an ‘Anti-Debate’, as the only person with dissenting views has been censored before it even starts.
My withdrawal has been accepted, though I have been asked both to reconsider, and invited to make all these points from the floor on the night. I feel angry and demoralised, however, and currently I do not wish to attend even as an observer.
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