Featuring HOPI’s Yassamine Mather (in Farsi).
With Yassamine Mather on BBC Persian (in Farsi)
What lies behind the Mecca tragedy?
On September 24, the Saudi authorities told the world that 769 pilgrims had been killed and 863 injured during what was described as a “stampede” in Mecca, as Muslim pilgrims were beginning the Hajj ritual. A few days later, however, it was claimed that Saudi officials had given Indian and Pakistani diplomats 1,100 photographs of different corpses, and it was only after these revelations that Riyadh admitted the death toll was even higher.
According to Tehran, at least 246 of the dead and 630 of those injured were Iranians. Amongst those missing and presumed dead at the time of writing was Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi. Saudi administrators denied he was in Mecca, but Tehran produced a short film of him addressing Shia crowds during this year’s Hajj. Official figures released by Saudi authorities had the number of Iranian deaths at 131 – the largest national contingent (the second largest being Moroccans, of whom 88 are believed to have died).
Later the Iranian broadcaster, Press TV, quoted Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage organisation, who predicted there would be “3,000 to 3,200 bodies” in the 21 containers where the dead had been placed – clearly an exaggerated figure.1 The Iranian official claimed that “imprudence, irresponsibility and the mismanagement of the Saudi authorities are the main factors behind the tragic incident”.2 Iran’s Islamic republic has done its utmost to place the entire blame on the Saudi authorities, challenging the kingdom’s competence to run this “important event in the Islamic calendar”.
Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an investigation, and his demand was echoed by every Friday prayer leader in the country, prompting religious zealots to pour to the streets. Instructions from mosques were sent by text, urging Shias to demonstrate, in what was labelled “spontaneous protests”. Supporters of the regime, carrying black flags, shouted: “The Saudi regime is a friend of Satan” (part of the Hajj ritual consists of pilgrims throwing stones at ‘Satan’). One paper, Tasnim, carried a cartoon showing king Salman of Saudi Arabia as a camel riding over pilgrims and ayatollah Mohammad Kashani, addressing Friday prayers in Tehran, called on the Organisation of Islamic Countries to take over responsibility for Hajj, since the Saudi authorities were “incapable” of running it.
The war of words between the two regional powers rapidly escalated, with Saudi Arabia categorically denying “misleading and distorted allegations” about inappropriate road closures that it alleged had been started by Iranian state-controlled media. Iran’s allies were repeating the same claims, with Iraq’s discredited former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, stating that the disaster was “proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season” – a bit rich, coming from a leader who lost two of his country’s major cities, Mosul and Tikrit, to Islamic State in 2014, through incompetence and corruption. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah added his voice to the Shia chorus, saying the Hajj tragedy reflected a “malfunction in the administration”.3
Originally the Saudi authorities had claimed that African pilgrims had disobeyed instructions given by the Hajj authorities blocking the route of the procession. However, Press TV (not the most reliable source of information) countered that “the convoy of prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the son of Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz, had arrived at the site, forcing the pilgrims to change their original directions”.4Whereupon the Saudi media changed its story and Sabq News quoted unnamed “eyewitnesses”, who claimed that the “stampede” was actually caused by Iranian pilgrims. This was followed by a comment from Dr Khalid al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, who used his Twitter account to claim that “the time has come to think – in a serious way – about banning ‘Iranians’ from coming to Mecca, for the safety of the pilgrims”.5
The official Saudi response was more measured, with prince Mohammed bin Naff Al Saudi, the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, stating: “Claims that the stampede occurred following road closures because of a ministerial event or a dignitaries’ convoy are false.”6 However, Iran is not the only source claiming road closures played a part in the tragedy. On September 29 The Daily Telegraph quoted Libyan pilgrim Ahead Abu Barr as saying: “The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one.”7
To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s highest-ranking cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, implied that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy. He told Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef: “As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.”8 Unsurprisingly, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani disagreed and demanded an international enquiry.
As I have said, the Islamic republic’s allegations about Saudi culpability are exaggerated, but there is no doubt that Riyadh’s incompetence in running the only major annual event they host should be exposed and condemned. This is not the first time that hundreds of Hajj pilgrims have died. In 1990 in a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel, 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives – most of them Malaysians, Indonesians and Pakistanis (the Saudi authorities encourage groups of each nationality to walk together). On top of that, incidents in May 1994, April 1998, March 2001, February 2003, February 2004 and January 2006 cost the lives of pilgrims – around 3,000 have perished in the last 20 years.
Given the Saudi royal family’s pride in hosting the event, the direct responsibility falls on the crown prince himself, who just happens to be minister of the interior. It is truly incomprehensible why even such a bureaucratic dictatorship cannot organise a better process, ensuring the safety of the pilgrims as they progress through the various stages of Hajj.
Hajj is the fifth ‘pillar’ of Islam – the other four being Shahadah (testimony to a single god and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet), Salat (physical and spiritual worship), Zakat (obligatory religious tax), and Sawm (fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan). According to Islamic belief, every Muslim man or woman should undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, should they be healthy and financially able to do so. The ceremony involves wearing a simple white cloth (hiram) – the idea being to strip away all distinctions of wealth, class, status and culture. Not quite true: in the first place, the cost of travel only allows the wealthy to attend Hajj, especially when it comes to believers from east Asia or Africa.
According to Basharat Peer, an Indian journalist who has written on Mecca,
You could be an Arab prince, you could be a south Asian construction worker, you could be an Afghan warlord … you are all wearing the same clothes and you just walk through this barren landscape and it is miserably hot. But when you look a little more carefully what you see is that even during the Hajj the distinctions of wealth and class do not disappear.9
The Saudi authorities have helped ensure such class distinction by overseeing the building of luxury hotels, where wealthy Muslims pay astronomical sums for rooms with a view of the Kaaba – the black stone structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque. The experience of the wealthy pilgrims is very different from that of the poorer ones, who suffer in the often sweltering heat in camp sites or hostels with no air conditioning.
As with everything else relating to Islamic economics, the ownership of land and capital are key factors. The cost of Hajj might be paid by the pilgrims, but the real price is obtained from the surplus value of workers, whose exploitation allows the Muslim shopkeeper or workshop owner to undertake the pilgrimage.
Hajjis from Iran are often representatives of the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie and small capital, on whose support the regime relies. Traditionally, the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches (who have accumulated huge fortunes under the Islamic republic) prefer to spend their wealth in holiday resorts in Europe or North America, while the less well-off middle classes and those who cannot afford to travel far would escape up Turkey, Dubai or anywhere near Iran’s border, where they can take a break free from strict Islamic regulation regarding dress, alcohol consumption, etc.
After over 36 years of unpopular rule, then, Iran’s Shia clerics can only rely a petty-bourgeois minority – primarily the bazaaris and shopkeepers, the section of the population that tends to be obsessed by Hajj. Hence the regime’s overzealous response to the Mecca tragedy, which can be blamed in its entirety on Iran’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.
However, it is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. After all, Iran’s Islamic government cannot guarantee the health and safety of Iranian workers or flight passengers – let alone its political prisoners (many of whom ‘accidentally’ die in the regime’s many prisons).
Hands Off the People of Iran congratulates Labour’s John McDonnell on his appointment as shadow chancellor. The MP for Hayes and Harlington was a founding member of HOPI and is honorary president of the organisation. He has consistently opposed imperialist intervention in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as supporting movements for democracy from below.
We feature below a video of John addressing a day school held by HOPI in 2008.
Long before Tony Blair took the country into a disastrous war with Iraq, the foreign policy implemented by the Labour Party, in government and in opposition, had been virtually indistinguishable from that pursued by the Conservative Party, especially in relation to former colonies and the Middle East. There were Labour members of the war cabinet back in 1916-18, not to mention World War II. Sympathy for the new Zionist state, and the wish to remain a close ally of the United States, led the government of Harold Wilson to support Israel in the 1967 six days war and, although, under pressure from the party grassroots and the left, Labour took a more critical position to the Nixon administration’s alignment with Israel in 1973, the party’s foreign policy remained on the whole in alignment with that of the US.
It is clear that aspects of this foreign policy will change with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, which is why it is hardly surprising that almost every day the rightwing press comes out with another scare story about Corbyn’s international outlook and his current or past statements. His parliamentary record, his press and media interviews, on international issues have come under such intense and hostile scrutiny. The mainstream media have one aim: to demonise the new Labour leader.
The most recent ‘revelations’ were those in the Daily Mail and The Guardian about Corbyn’s interview with Press TV in 2011, during which he called the assassination of Osama bin Laden a “tragedy”, adding it would have been better if bin Laden had been tried in a court.
The readers of the Daily Mail and Rambo fans might be shocked by such a statement. However, many ‘moderate’ academics, lawyers and politicians have expressed similar opinions. In fact immediately after the execution of bin Laden, Dr Robert Lambert, a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, wrote an article in the very same Guardian, making a very similar point: “By choosing to execute the al Qa’eda leader, the US has denied justice to the victims of 9/11 and perpetuated the ‘war on terror’.”1 Similarly, in an article on the BBC website, entitled ‘Should Osama bin Laden have been caught and tried?’, Jon Silverman, professor of media and criminal justice at the University of Bedfordshire, made similar points,2 while Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, speaking on the BBC’s Question time in 2011, described the al Qa’eda leader’s “execution” without a trial as “wholly, wholly, wholly wrong”.3
The problem with the Corbyn statement is not that he called for a trial of Osama bin Laden, but the illusions this seems to demonstrate about bourgeois ‘international law’ and the judicial system under the capitalist order. In fact there can be no doubt that the United States would have never allowed such a trial. This would have opened up a whole can of worms about the origins of al Qa’eda and the CIA’s role in financing and arming it in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Saudi relations with the group would have been exposed too. And these are not allegations made only by the left. If you are in doubt about this, I recommend you view the video of Hillary Clinton and her statement to the US Senate.4
Corbyn’sillusions about ‘international law’ and the United Nations is also apparent in his comments about the Iraq war. There can be no doubt we should admire his consistency in opposing that war, and in opposing all military intervention and sanctions (itself a form of war) against Iran and air attacks on Syria. Corbyn’s anti-war record is excellent and he should be praised for it. But it is essential to establish whether the politics of the new Labour leader are different from those of the Marxist left. For us, war is the continuation of politics by other means and we have no illusions about international organisations such as the UN, which was set up to maintain the rule of capital and in practice acts to crown the supremacy of the US world hegemon.
In a statement to The Guardian, Corbyn said he would apologise to the British people for the “deception” in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and to the people of that country for their subsequent suffering. There is no doubt that the Labour government’s role in helping to drive the invasion was totally abhorrent and merits a clear and strongly stated apology. But Corbyn adds:
Let us say we will never again unnecessarily put our troops under fire and our country’s standing in the world at risk … Let us make it clear that Labour will never make the same mistake again, will never flout the United Nations and international law.
Leaving aside the question of “our troops” and whether they should “unnecessarily” be put under fire, it could be said that, given the current situation in the Middle East, in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – most of them direct or indirect consequences of the invasion of Iraq – what is at stake is more serious than the UK’s “standing in the world”. When it comes to war, the definition of ‘legality’ is not as clear-cut or straightforward as Corbyn implies. The UN sanctions imposed on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and more recently on Iran’s Islamic Republic were forms of war, aimed at weakening a ‘rogue state’, a dissident former ally, and paving the way for regime change from above. In the case of Iraq, the subsequent military invasion and occupation came after years of UN-approved ‘legal’ sanctions, but there can be no doubt about the damage they caused to the ordinary citizens of the country. The destruction of the Iraq’s infrastructure was also undertaken through the use of punitive sanctions justified by ‘international law’. They paved the way for both the invasion and regime change Rumsfeld-style.
In the case of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Corbyn rightly opposed sanctions and campaigned for their lifting. However, there can be no doubt that those sanctions were imposed under “international law”. They were ‘legal’ right up to July 2015, when the United States and other P5+1 countries signed a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear development programme. In fact the UN played an active role in the implementation and policing of sanctions that cost the lives of hundreds of Iranians, including hospital patients, the poor and the vulnerable.
Until we accept that these wars are international crimes, that they are not mistakes, whether or not they are ‘illegal’, we will not be able to deal with the massive problems they have caused. Unless the international left takes on the issue of ‘legality’ when it comes to imperialist war, we will see further alienation of the peoples of the region, as they fall into despair, anger and frustration, helping the jihadists to recruit volunteers, and eventually causing hundreds of thousands to flee the region.
Of course, at the time of the Iraq war, the Stop the War Coalition (including Corbyn as one of its leading members) argued that the coalition’s stress on ‘illegality’ helped attract large numbers to the anti-war cause. That might have been true in the case of the Liberal Democrats, for instance. However, it did not stop the warmongers in the US and elsewhere – and it certainly did not help the left recruit from amongst the radicalised youth opposed to the war. It did not help win people to oppose the imperialist pillage of the ‘third world’ or US world hegemony.
Whether or not the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal’, its occupation was swiftly approved by the UN security council. On day one of the occupation, the question became irrelevant. Having been given a platform from which to speak at the February 15 2003 demonstration, the Lib Dems returned to type. Once British soldiers were on the ground, the Lib Dems went patriotic and severed themselves completely from the anti-war movement.
As Mike Macnair wrote at the time,
By arguing against this invasion on the grounds of its illegality, we hand a weapon to the warmongers, which has been and will be used in other invasions. If – in whatever way – the US-led ‘war against terrorism’ is driven by the economic interests of US capital, the strategic problem of stopping the war drive becomes united with the problems addressed by the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement: the problem of world order in the 21st century. And it is here that international law comes back into the picture, as the symbol of a certain sort of strategy for dealing with these problems.5
To sum up this section of the article, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to issue a public apology over the Iraq war on behalf of the party should be welcomed and attempts to undermine the importance of such a gesture should be exposed. However, we should have no illusions in the new leader’s analysis of legality, war and imperialism in the 21st century.
Trident and Nato
Speaking at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament commemorative event in London in August, Corbyn reminded the audience that if he were prime minister he would not replace the Trident nuclear weapons system and would initiate a transition away from nuclear weapons entirely.
While he was criticised for jeopardising some 19,000 Scottish jobs, the strategy seems well planned and clearly defined in a document entitled ‘Plan for defence diversification’. This explains how the skills of those who work on Trident, as well as in other defence-related industries, will be protected and how “socially productive”, hi-tech industry and infrastructure projects will be able to use such skills. The document includes in its aims and objectives “making the case for a defence diversification agency, because we have a moral duty, and strategic defence and international commitments, to make Britain and the world a safer place.”6 It states:
As a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Britain should therefore give a lead in discharging its obligations by not seeking a replacement for Trident, as we are committed to accelerate concrete progress towards nuclear disarmament.
Corbyn’s anti-nuclear policy has attracted a lot of attention, with the rightwing press doing its best to ridicule it. However, there is nothing ultra-left about such proposals. In fact, as some journalists have admitted in the last few weeks, senior military figures have argued that the UK’s nuclear weapons are ‘militarily useless’ and its possession of such weapons encourages other countries to seek a similar arsenal, so undermining efforts being made to advance the cause of international nuclear disarmament. In 2009, field marshal Lord Bramall and generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach labelled Trident “irrelevant”.7
In my experience the majority of nuclear scientists and engineers would agree with such an approach, so the proposal is indeed fairly mainstream – it should, of course, be supported. The Scottish National Party campaigned on similar lines in this year’s general election campaign and the party’s defence spokesperson, Angus Robertson, pledged that an SNP group of MPs holding the balance of power in the House of Commons after May’s general election would make halting the renewal of Trident an “absolute priority” – and health and education would be the SNP’s “first call” on the billions of pounds freed up.8
Under such circumstances, it is extremely worrying that, according to The Daily Telegraph, Corbyn’s advisors have suggested that “scrapping Trident and leaving Nato” should be placed on the back-burner.9 On this I agree entirely with CND chair and Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson, when she writes: “Now is the time to stick to principles.”
Trident cannot be put on the ‘back burner’ because a decision on whether or not Trident is to be replaced is expected in parliament in early 2016. Labour will have to vote on it, and Labour needs a policy which represents the majority view of the population – which happens to be the view of Jeremy Corbyn: Trident should not be replaced. This is not something that can be deferred. This is without doubt a question for the first 100 days and it should not be fudged because a relatively small number of powerful Labour figures are attached to a cold war system of weapons of mass destruction.
If Jeremy’s advisors are trying to sanitise Jeremy, push him into the middle ground and drop policies that will challenge the Labour establishment, then they are doing him a grave disservice. Nothing is to be gained from ‘triangulating’ with the right. Maybe they want to keep Andy Burnham on side, but dropping a fundamental issue because he threatens to leave a shadow cabinet over it is just plain ludicrous. If anyone thinks that the party establishment will be satisfied with a few policy concessions – like Trident, for example – then they are seriously mistaken. They will come back and back for more, and eventually nothing will be left but a few gestures to those at the bottom of the pile.10
At the start of the leadership campaign Corbyn made it clear that he was calling for a withdrawal of the UK from Nato. However, by late August this was in doubt. According to reports that appeared on August 27, he appeared to water down his position by claiming that there is no “appetite” among the public to oppose Nato. When challenged by Andy Burnham on whether he would pull out, Corbyn said he would have a “serious debate about the powers of Nato”, but was silent on withdrawal. Instead it appears he will argue for Nato to “restrict its role”.
Admittedly, “I have criticisms of Nato – it’s a cold war organisation and it should have been wound up in 1990, along with the Warsaw Pact.” However, “I think there has to be a debate about the powers of Nato, the democratic accountability of Nato and why it’s given itself a global role.”
It is regrettable that so early in the process we are witnessing a compromise on this issue. You do not need to be on the radical left to be concerned about the international role played by Nato in maintaining the imperialist world order.
Hamas and Hezbollah
First of all, we should point out that Hamas and Hezbollah are very different organisations. Hamas is currently an ally of Saudi Arabia and in fact is in the process of considering a peace proposal put forward by Tony Blair. According to The Daily Telegraph (August 19), Blair is “holding secret talks with Hamas”, which “are apparently aimed at securing a deal that would guarantee Israel an eight- or 10-year truce in exchange for the Gaza Strip blockade, that has been in place since 2007, being lifted”.11
Corbyn has always made it clear he does not agree with Hamas or Hezbollah, but has said: “I think to bring about a peace process you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree.”12 It isn’t clear how the Blairites justify attacks on Corbyn for commenting that any peace deal must involve discussions with Hamas. True, on this Corbyn was years ahead of Blair! The same could be said of Hezbollah. And, as far as I know, unlike sections of the British radical left Corbyn never used the dreadful slogan, “We are all Hezbollah”.13
Since 2008, Hezbollah has been part of the Lebanese government, elected by the Shia population in the south as well as parts of Beirut. In other words, a call for talks with elected members of the Lebanese parliament and government is not exactly an extremist position. However, the fact that the press is paying so much attention to these statements shows how far Zionist propaganda and a pro-US international agenda has dominated the British political scene for the last few decades.
When it comes to Palestine or Lebanon, we cannot and should not expect left Labourites to propose radical solutions. It will be up to the Marxist left to argue for revolutionary positions in support of the Palestinian Arab cause, while at the same time opposing the anti-Corbyn, pro-imperialist positions of the rightwing press.
Jeremy Corbyn has consistently called for the immediate scrapping of sanctions on Iran, and for many years he had called for an end to the “demonisation” of that country by the west. Now that is more or less the mainstream US/European position – once more it could be said that Corbyn was ahead of his time on this issue. Following the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, European foreign ministers, including Philip Hammond, and prime ministers and heads of states are now queuing up to visit the country. Angela Merkel is about to go there, and president Barack Obama is likely to meet his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rowhani, when he visits New York later this year.
Having said that, it probably was not a good idea for Corbyn to do a trailer for a chat show on Press TV in July.Corbyn’s aids later made the claim that he was not aware of the connection between Press TV and the Iranian government.
But in general Corbyn’s anti-war position on Iran has to be lauded. As I have written before, he was also one of only two MPs (the other being John McDonnell) who have consistently defended Iranian workers against the attacks of the Tehran regime. It is a shame that in order to maintain peace with the rest of the STWC leadership he failed to take a principled position regarding the ban imposed on Hands Off the People of Iran. At the time his silence on the subject was taken as support for STWC’s apologist position regarding Iran’s Islamic Republic. Presumably, the conciliatory Corbyn did not want to confront others on the STWC leadership.
At this time, the radical left must combine robust defence of Corbyn’s progressive international statements with a commitment to move the arguments beyond the rightwing, Eurocentric colonial approach of mainstream press and media, and so open up a genuine debate about war, the world order and both the legal and illegal means. Some of these arguments will be beyond the comprehension of many who traditionally lead a bourgeois workers’ party, yet they remain vital if we want to change the dominant discourse about the ‘third world’, about current conflicts in Africa and the Middle East and about jihadist political Islam and ways of disarming and defeating it.
13. The slogan, used in pro-Lebanon demonstrations, ignores the fact that Hezbollah is associated with the Iranian organisation of the same name: ie, club-wielding government militia used to attack workers’ protests.
Stanley Heller interviews Yassamine Mather, Iranian exile, about the Iranian-US nuclear deal. 8/9/2015 : what the U.S. government was trying to do, the false hope that Iran after an “Islamic Revolution” would be free from imperial pressure, the frequent use of the death penalty in Iran and what the Iranian regime is doing in Syria.