Liberators and Terrorists: Reflections on Yasser Arafat

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Liberators and Terrorists: Reflections on Yasser Arafat

Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

THE twentieth century has been called many things. For colonial peoples everywhere it was the Century of Liberation. It was also the century which witnessed, if not the birth, at least the coming of age of international terrorism. Both aim to free peoples from foreign oppression, in effect to declare war on an established order. Both provoke the same response from those against whom their campaigns of fear, intimidation and propaganda are directed. There the similarity ends. There is a glamour about liberation movements. A New Dawn is a heady thing for those who experience it; they like to recall its freshness and sense of hope in the troubled day which follows. Its heralds--the leaders of successful liberation movements--achieve cult status of a kind which appears to be proof against disillusionment. It is a question of style and attitude, the knack of capturing the imagination, of encapsulating that elusive 'something' for which a people, particularly the younger generation, is looking. Che Guevara had a huge following in the student population throughout Europe and the Americas in the sixties. Beard, beret, curly hair and bandana knotted round his throat, he was the epitome of a certain type of radical chic, rivalling that of James Dean, and his image is to be found on the walls of student rooms even today. Others achieved the status of founding fathers and elder statesman. They include Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, Mandela, Kenyatta, Makarios and Nasser. Their campaigns were not overtly racist but it was mainly white, Western domination or the abuses of an entrenched oligarchy which they sought to overthrow.

Other such seminal figures include Mao and Castro, though their revolutions were not in essence anti-colonial. For Mao revolution became an end in itself, a permanent process. His revolution killed as many people as Pol Pot in Cambodia but he is venerated whereas Pol Pot is not. Every liberation movement, like revolution, is accompanied by violence, sometimes decades of it. Even those like Gandhi and Mandela, who sought to avoid violence were forced, largely by circumstance, if not to condone it, to accept it as the price a nation in the making has to pay for its making. All liberation movements and revolutions claim to be acting in the name of the people. Anyone with even the most superficial aquaintance with the history of the French revolution will know what that means, in nine cases out of ten.

Liberators take as their cue St Augustine's remark that there can be no law without justice. But they would nevertheless disagree with him that it is the subject's duty to obey even an unjust law unless to do so forces him into sin. They would surely argue that there comes a moment in every nation's history where revolt against the established order is unavoidable since tyrannical regimes can only survive by becoming more repressive, screwing the lid down tighter and tighter. Miss that moment and you condemn generations to a life of misery. The Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the military junta in contemporary Myanmar (Burma) are examples. Apathy and resignation is the ultimate state of an oppressed people, the ideal at which every tyrannical regime aims.

The phenomenon of revolutionary outcast become national hero is not a new one, indeed it has a respectable history. There were Cavour, Garibaldi and Kossuth in the nineteenth century and De Witt in the sixteenth-century Netherlands. But there were certain factors in the twentieth century which were perhaps uniquely helpful in nurturing the phenomenon. First the United States--which has its own revolutionary past--made it clear that it did not fight the Second World War to safeguard the colonial empires of its allies. The competition for international influence between East and West during the Cold War meant that Third-World countries were able to manipulate the market for client states to their advantage. Tyrannical and repressive non-colonial regimes might be supported if they could be presented as allies against Communism, but it was not always possible to go on making excuses for them. …

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