Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Great Anti-Debate

 

#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.

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel

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8 Responses to Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Great Anti-Debate

  1. Great to see someone sticking up for the principle of free speech on the left, Naomi – what has it some to when we even have to do this? What are these people afraid of?

  2. nfoyle says:

    Thank you Brian. They said they were afraid of a ‘duel’, as if Idrees Ahmad would not be able to stick to a schedule or speak to any other issue audience members might ask him about. He is a hugely literate, eloquent and informed speaker, who would have made an invaluable contribution to the night, even if some of it made certain other panellists uncomfortable at times. They are also woefully underestimating the audience – I am sure many people would have greatly appreciated a frank exchange of views about Syria, one I particularly wanted to hear myself.

  3. riad el-taher says:

    Although one can appreciated the passion expressed by Naomi Foyle for free speech ,which I share, one also not be allowed to be drawn in to the narrative of the current conflict in Syria in isolation .What taken place in Syria is after affect of past struggle for control of the region’s resources .further more the platform is maar reflection of the arms trade which goes hand in hand with oil ….Both are worthy of wider discussion , and it will un fair to widen the discussion beyond the title ,and object of the event . do hope that Naomi Foyle will re consider

  4. nfoyle says:

    Thank you Riad, I appreciate your considerate tone and your wish for the wider context of the Syrian war to be aired. Dr Ahmad is the author of a book on the Iraq war and would have been well able to contribute to the wider discussion. I object to the organisers’ attempts to control the tone and content of his contribution, and from various Facebook posts I am now aware that this incident follows a pattern of StW excluding dissenting opinion from their panels and conferences. Anger is building up around this issue, and if StW do not allow debate on their position then unfortunately the issue of free speech will continue to overshadow their appearances.

  5. Thanks for your wise comments Naomi. I don’t want to invade your personal blog, but you have created the only space where it is possible to seriously discuss both the issue of Dr Ahmad’s treatment and the wider question of the British left’s at best absentionist position on the real War in Syria. Would you be happy with others contributing here or would you prefer to keep it as a personal space?. I would understand perfectly if you said the latter.
    In Solidarity with Syria – Brian.

  6. nfoyle says:

    Thank you Brian, and for your contributions to the Facebook events page. Yes I would be honoured to host a conversation here. If people want to join in they are most welcome. I think it would be good to have a permanent record of opposition to the organisers’ decision, especially as it is part of an alarming pattern of StW in particular excluding speakers and activists who disagree with them.

  7. Hi Naomi – in the event we have made most of our points on the event FB page. I wonder if you have had any further thoughts on your plans for Saturday? Might the most effective way to further challenge the organisers be to go and make a statement?
    What has really been most shocking about this affair has been the insistence of people who I would have expected better of on shutting down debate. Is there really no space in the Brighton left for even one voice that doesn’t cling to the received wisdom. There is no surprise in this coming from Stop the War, who are past masters of such tactics, but how people from the Greens could follow down this road is beyond me.
    We clearly have a long road to travel in defence of the Syrian people.

  8. nfoyle says:

    Hi Brian. I have decided not to go to the event, as I fear I will just be indulged and patronised, and replied to with lies about Idrees that he will not be able to refute in person to the audience. My presence might also convince the organisers of the democratic credentials of their event, whereas my absence, I think, is a stronger statement in itself. I am still on the case, however, and hoping to arrange an event on Syria and the Left in Brighton this summer. More anon!

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