Guest Writings
13/10/03 Islam: Enslaved by US, Blair bound by chains of war M. J. Akbar Gulf News

The smiles are much broader in the departure lounge than they are on arrival at Heathrow airport but that is not particularly British. All developed nations look upon a Third World visa-holder as a potential problem, and we periodically reinforce an unspoken reputation of being sneaks, of getting past by legal paper in order to vanish illegally into a vast brown swarm.

It might be called the Ludhiana women's cricket club syndrome. Two of the five women "cricketers" from Punjab who came to play cricket and stayed to play the field are still untraced. They will doubtless become visible after they have found men who will marry for money, and thereby give the women the right to stay in Southall or Ealing or wherever.

The British immigration counter is a Maginot Line. It is very pregnable. It keeps getting penetrated. Minor and major eddies of behaviour follow.

The taxi driver at Heathrow who discovers that he has picked a brown in the queue-lottery cannot camouflage the spreading pain on his face: this must be his bad-face day. Not because he is racist but because he is sick at the thought that the brown arrival's destination will be Southall, which is only minutes away from the airport, and from where he is unlikely to get another customer into white civilisation.

The relief on his face is palpable when he learns that I am going to St. James' Court, an Edwardian pile managed by the Taj next door to Buckingham Palace. Not because he loves the Queen, but because by the time he reaches England's premier tourist trap, he will be richer by £50.

Upward mobility

The news, meanwhile, from Southall is that the forces of upward mobility are once again on the move. The Sikhs who introduced Britain to chaat and the Muslims who inflicted balti curry upon the British (I can't imagine a more devious way of taking revenge upon the Raj) are giving way to Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan. Kabul's traditional Sikh community survived even the Taliban, or perhaps had little option except to live through the darkness of closed minds.

The more liberal regime of Hamid Karzai has made travel easier, and escape faster. The latest arrivals in Southall have also turned up with serious amounts of hard cash. Somehow Afghanistan and currency notes do not seem to sit at the same table, but one of the unique institutions that survived intact and unscathed through the Taliban regime was Kabul's currency market.

Currency traders continued to sit in the open with bundles of notes piled high in front of them.

What fuelled this hard-cash economy? Afghanistan's biggest export item, of course. Poppy. And here is the ironical fact that somehow seems to have lost the attention of both the White House and 10, Downing Street. The one positive thing that the Taliban did was crack down, as it were, on crack. They burnt and destroyed poppy crops since they too were against drugs.

Under the watchful eye of the American troops, the poppy crop is back as the greatest source of wealth accretion in Afghanistan. And Lucy is laughing in the Sky with Diamonds over Britain and America.

The most famous Prisoner of War in the world must surely be British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has become a prisoner of his own war, shackled by chains of deceit. He has the haunted, even wild, look of a man trying to break through a throttling net that reproduces another mesh each time Blair feels he has cut his way through to safety.

It must be a suffocating moment for Blair when a journal as pro-war as The Economist headlines a cover story featuring Blair and Bush with the caption "Wielders of mass deception?"

The television news on Friday was marked by two funeral ceremonies. One was in London at St. Paul's. Just how much the perception of the Iraq war has changed in Britain since Saddam Hussain's statue was brought down by US troops in Baghdad is evident in how this event changed.

It was first envisaged as a "victory parade", in the manner that Margaret Thatcher celebrated the triumph in the Falklands over Argentina, or US President George W. Bush promoted the official end of conflict in April. This was scaled down to a glittering parade through London, before morphing gradually into a mere "thanksgiving service".

When it became evident that there was little to thank for, the event became, more simply, "A Service of Remembrance, Iraq 2003". And, in a fine and moving British gesture, the service not only remembered the 51 British and 315 Americans who have died, but also all those who died in Saddam Hussain's armed forces, as well as the thousands of Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives in this brutal conflict.

Does not care

The mood of the moment was summed up by Rob Kelly, a bereaved father of a lost British soldier who refused to attend the service and told television reporters: "The prime minister does not really care. He just cares about his slot in history."

The prime minister must, at the very least, be wondering precisely how history will describe his decision to order war: because Saddam had his famous weapons of mass destruction (which could threaten Britain in 45 minutes!), or because Saddam was on his way to making a nuclear bomb, or because he had links to Al Qaida.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has pointed out in an interview this week to the New York Times, Saddam actually suppressed terrorists. He had no time or use for Al Qaida.

The second funeral shown on television on Friday took place in Baghdad: it was in some ways a celebration of two Iraqis who had given their lives in another suicide mission against the American occupation and its fellow travellers.

Crowds unafraid of being recorded by cameras chanted "Allah-o-Akbar" as they took the cortege towards the burial ground. A young man with a sophisticated gun in his hand and grim determination on his face led the procession. Bush and Blair have created an enemy that never was. You can see this truth etched in their eyes. Tony Blair may win another election, but he has lost his people.

Is Ian Duncan Smith related to Sonia Gandhi? Tony Blair's only strength now is the Opposition. Each time the British voter looks at the Tory alternative, Tony Blair seems reassuring, even if 59 per cent of Britain believes that he lied over Iraq. Smith drives the voter back to Blair in much the same way as Sonia Gandhi huddles the voter back to the BJP.

There are two differences though: Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's personal credibility remains untarnished, unlike Blair's.

And the Conservatives are not silent about their problem, unlike Congressmen. At the annual Tory conference in Blackpool this week, Smith was screaming at his own party MPs more than at Labour. It's always the same.

Facts never interfere with a loser's commitment to suicide. It's remarkable how quickly a natural party of government becomes a natural party of drift. The curious reality about British politics is that neither Labour nor the Conservatives know where they are going. Both are circling in a whirlpool. One whirlpool is in power, the other is powerless.

The writer is the Editor of The Asian Age
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