Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘John McHugo’

Making the Case for Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th November, 2015

LDFPEarlier this week I was honoured to be elected the new Chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, which aims to increase awareness and understanding among Liberal Democrats about issues relating to Palestine and to champion the recognition of Palestinian statehood. I follow in the distinguished footsteps of my former Oxford Oriental Institute fellow student John McHugo, who was recently appointed one of Party leader Tim Farron’s two advisors on the Middle East. Like John, I have spent a great deal of time in the region, in my case mainly as a writer and broadcaster, including commentating on Middle Eastern issues on TV channels from the area.

Israel PalestineBritish public attitudes towards Palestine and Israel have shifted quite dramatically over the past few decades. When I was a schoolboy, Israel was seen as a heroic little infant state battling for its own survival, experimenting with new forms of collective society and spearheading new technology in an otherwise under-developed part of the world. But almost half of century of illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Six Day War of 1967, coupled with the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza and disproportionate military action against the Gaza Strip have soured the perception of Israel. I deplore Gazan rocket attacks on Israel and the recent spate of knife and other attacks on Israeli citizens but these should not obscure the fact that Israel is in breach of international law in its occupation, the related settlement activity (which continues unabated) and the daily instances of human rights abuses and humiliations committed against Palestinians. There has also been an unpleasant recent rise in attacks on Palestinians by extremist Israeli settlers in the occupied territories which the Israeli authorities have failed to address adequately.

Palestine flagOn the international stage, Palestine has been gaining increased recognition, with the notable exception of Israel’s great ally the United States and most of the EU member states, including Britain. It is high time that Britain also extended recognition to Palestine and brought greater pressure on the state of Israel to abide by international law. Israeli settlement activity is in danger of making any two-state solution, to which in principle the West is committed, impossible. Israel in principle has so much to offer the Middle East, as does a viable Palestinian state. But there is going to have to be a fundamental shift in attitudes and policies on the ground to make any sort of bright future happen. Otherwise the violence and the hatred will continue and everyone will be the loser.

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John McHugos’ Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th July, 2014

JF interviewing John McHugoEarlier this week I was at Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, interviewing the writer and Arabist John McHugo about his new book on Syria. The topicality of the subject was doubtless one reason that the place was packed — and both John and his publishers, Saqi Books, deserve praise for turning the book round so quickly but professionally, so that it can become part of the national debate on Syria. John and I first met over 40 years ago, in the coffee room of the Oriental Institute at Oxford, though at that time I was studying Chinese with Japanese, while John was already grounded in Arab studies. This helped him greatly in the preparation of his last book, A Concise History of the Arabs (brought out by Saqi last year), but marrying Diana Darke, the author of My House in Damascus, which I reviewed earlier this year, certainly cemented his involvement in Syria in particular. His new book, Syria: From the Great War to Civil War (Saqi, £17.99), really brings alive the trials and tribulations — as well as some periods of relative calm — of the people of Syria over the past century. I was particularly interested in John’s treatment of the French Mandate period, which gets scan coverage in most English-language texts about the 20th century Middle East. He was able to draw on Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography of Hafez al-Assad to help portray the rise to power and its exercise by that remarkable man, who had a very clear vision for the role and future of his country, and was prepared to liquidate anyone who fundamentally disagreed. When the old man died and his second son, Bashar, took over, there was a false sense of reasssurance in many Western capitals, that this partly English-educated newcomer with his medical background would usher in a glorious period of reform — not that the presidential circle and narrow base of vested interests would ever have allowed him to be too radical in challenging the system of patronage from which they benefitted so handsomely. By chance, John and I were both in Syria — he in Damascus, me in Tartus — when the waves of the so-called Arab Spring finally reached Syria in March 2011. Had the authorities handled things differently then, instead of relying on oppression, things might have developed quite differently. Inevitably, in the question and answers at the Mosaic Rooms event, John got asked about what is happening now in what to an extent has become a proxy war, with different foreign powers and even religious ideologies lining up on one side or another. But I am sure he was right when he said that sectarianism between Sunni and Shia was not such  big issues for most of the period covered by his book, though now it is seen as defining the struggle that has so far cost over 150,000 lives.

[photo: Susannah Tarbush]

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A Concise History of the Arabs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th July, 2013

A Concise History of the ArabsJohn McHugoHistory was one of my favourite subjects at school and although it ended with “The Causes of the First World War” it gave us boys insights into the story of Europe (including Russia), Imperial China and the Boxer Rebellion, and of course the British Raj in India. But as a I recall no mention was ever made of the Arabs. It was if they were of no importance, or at least peripheral. So it was much later that I discovered the extraordinary contribution the Arab world made to civilization, from Algebra to music therapy. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, Baghdad was a centre of learning that not only preserved much of what the Romans and Ancient Greeks had produced but added to it. And Moorish Andalus and its great cities of Cordoba and Granada were legendary in their degree of artistry, philosophy and tolerance, centuries before the European Enlightenment. So there is every good reason why adults as well as children in the West should learn about the Arabs, though I suspect the motivation these days might be more linked to a desire to understand the social and political turmoil taking place in so much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the rise of militant Islamism. There have been a few, good single volume histories of the Arabs in English, notably by Albert Hourani and my old friend Peter Mansfield. But both died long before the recent Arab awakening or indeed the rise of petrol and gas states such as Qatar. So the publication of John McHugo’s A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi, £20) is timely. John and I were at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute together (though I was reading Chinese and Japanese while he did Arabic) and our paths have repeatedly crossed, more recently through the Liberal Democrats, and in particular the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (which he chairs). His book has the merit of being both erudite and accessible; his command of the subject is self-evident but he tells a story rather than giving a lecture. Inevitably a sizable proportion of the book relates to Islam; not all Arabs are Muslims, but most are, and the spread of both the Arab people and the Arabic language was intimately linked to Islam and the Qur’an. John is strong in his analysis of the European colonial period, especially in the Levant, its legacy and the later rise of various types of Arab nationalism. Many of the names of Arab political figures of the second half of the 20th century will be familiar to the general reader, as so many of them were around for such a long time. And that, of course, is a major reason why a new, angry, literate and often unemployed younger generation, from Tunisia to Yemen, decided enough was enough. 

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