What do we do in the Middle East? An alternative view

Let me paint a very simple picture of recent history. In the Middle East, the West backed the wrong horse, and has paid the price ever since.



Backing this particular Arabian stallion has, however had its advantages. The House of Saud have been providing petroleum for our cars, central heating systems and aeroplanes since the 1930s.

The price for this has been our reticence – to the point of complicity – regarding the regime’s human rights abuses, a silence which, through decades of ever-increasing dependency on oil, has only grown louder.

A few more churns on this sickening cycle have been notched in recent days. First, a High Court ruling that arms sales to the Saudis – arms which are pouring over hospitals, water plants and schools in Yemen – are lawful (useful, as BAE finalises the transferral of the last of 27 cruise fighter jets to the Arabian Peninsula).

Days later, Home Sec Amber Rudd withheld the classification of a document detailing where funding for domestic terrorism was coming from. Last year, another secret report was leaked, highlighting the link between the Saudis and the instigators of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the provocation for a ‘War on Terror’ which shows no sign of ending.


More still, in her revealing new book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, Helen Thompson reveals how a drastic change in the price of ‘black gold’ precipitated the fall of the Global Economy in 2008. This completes the outline of the world’s principle power relation: one in which Western powers, drunk on the tantalising fumes of petroleum, sacrificed their liberty for one more hit from a dodgy dealer.

Now, like any addict, we have reached breaking point. Our continual financial and military aid for the Kingdom must now be explained to a Western populace with increasingly hostile views towards ‘Islamism’.  This caricature of Islamic culture – conservative, sandy and intolerant of democracy – appears in part to stem from our legitimisation of the Saudis.

We must find another horse in this increasingly bloody and complex race. The question is: which?

This is a question which Mark Levine’s 2008 book Heavy Metal Islam attempts to answer.

Heavy Metal Islam. Seems like an oxymoron, right? Yet there is something inherently radical about an oxymoron. It burns through your imagination, producing a sense of something unsettlingly new. For an instant, an image pierces your retina; collapses on to your psyche, fades in to familiarity. The light becomes dark; the dead are enlivened; what was false now appears as true.


Levine’s book rebukes the kind of cultural myopia which leads Westerners like me to view Heavy Metal Islam as contradictory. Iraqi guerrilla filmmaker Oday Rasheed politely illuminates this ignorance, telling Levine ‘I know all your artists and cultural figures – Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, F Scott Fitzgerald. But I also know my culture – Oum Kalthoum, Farid al-Atrash, and Adonis. How many (Westerners) even want to know my culture, let alone take the time to do so?’

It isn’t simply the traditional culture of Middle Eastern society which fails to register in Western minds, however; Heavy Metal Islam is an account of Levine’s five year exploration of music genres with indelible roots in Western culture: Islamic rap, metal and rock.

Journeying across six different Islamic nations, Levine finds a musical movement of staggering diversity. Yet a common thread unites the book’s protagonists: fear of persecution from the authorities.

In Egypt, we find a scene still smarting in paranoia from the arrests of 100 metal heads in 1997 on charges of Satanism. To conservative regimes, metal’s aesthetic is provocative enough to warrant surveillance and repression, even if no explicit political message comes with it. The Egyptian chapter ends with one of the scenes leading musicians – known to the reader as ‘Marz’ – demanding his full name be printed: an act, in context, of defiant heroism.

Yet it highlights how limited the scope is for these musicians to resist authority. Readers searching for a perfect X Factor ending will find Levine’s book disarmingly inconclusive. Many musicians offer only veiled critiques of their leaders. Many have given up even trying.

Existence, however, can often be politically potent in and of itself. For Levine these scenes matter beyond their artistic output, because they symbolise an interpretation of Islam that is ‘far more radical than (that of) the supposed radicals of al-Qa’eda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, who are distinctly reactionary in their reliance on violence and conservatively grounded religious and political imaginations’.

These are the cultural terrorists, hidden in the recesses of their society, and evoking the kind of latent fear which only those in the shadows truly can. When considering who to throw our lot in with, we can often look with immediacy to the conventional corridors of power. In doing so, we fail to spot the dark horse in the outside lane.

The music scene in Palestine is perhaps the most chaotic, restricted yet fascinating that Levine explores. Rap groups like Ramallah Underground and Palestine Rapperz, unable to develop internally, rely on the support of foreign fans to survive and flourish.

What if those of us who lament Western cultural hegemony consciously attempted to undermine it? What if we gave the money we (typically) aren’t giving our local musicians to those in countries such as Egypt and Palestine? What if we began seeking political solutions not through parliaments and commissions, but through people, through art?

Heavy Metal Islam is an eye-opening book. For it to hold power, however, it should only be our introduction.

Pictures from: 





For more, check out this article on the metal scene from this year…


And Mark Levine’s companion playlist to the book, ‘Flowers in the Desert’.




Corbyn and the corporatocracy: John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man


Thomas Jefferson once claimed if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Today, the children of Jefferson’s beloved nation don’t seem to have taken the hint. A Newsweek survey found that three-quarters of Americans didn’t know why they had been involved in the Cold War. Around two-thirds of respondents to a National Geographic poll couldn’t find Saudi Arabia or Iraq on a map of the Middle-East, while a Washington Post survey in 2005 found 70% to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for 9/11.

In the midst of this amnesiac haze, 2004 saw a book reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list that threatened to teach the citizenry a thing or two. John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man would go on to sell more than a million copies; yet it contained unsettlingly weird chapter titles for the average American reader. ‘Panama’s President and Hero’; ‘The Saudi-Arabian Money Laundry Affair’; even the Bible-Belt antagonising ‘Jesus seen differently’, in which Christ appears to Perkins – not as a blonde and blue-eyed Californian – but as an Indonesian beggar.

Perkins’ personal story is, however, unambiguously riveting. He plays an ‘Economic Hit Man’, rebelling against a sanitised upbringing by entering the corrupt and conniving world of the ‘corporatocracy’. His official role as ‘Economic analyst’ belies his true role as an Empire builder, forcing nations around the world to take on prohibitive loans while paying American corporations for their infrastructural development programmes.

The narrative contains everything a good thriller requires: crime, intrigue and Jesus hallucinations, eventually ending in our protagonist’s cathartic renunciation of his evil ways. CEHM’s bad guys are really bad: corporate bosses, Saudi kings, Ronald Reagan; its heroes on the other hand – defiant populists like Omar Torrijos and Jaime Roldós, leaders of Panama and Ecuador respectively – are inspirational.

This, however, isn’t a novel. In what novel would the heroes die in secretive and mysterious plane crashes, and the villains keep on winning? Our tendency in the developed world is to regard the assassinations, corruption and corporate ownership of poorer nations as tragic yet detached political concerns. Stories like Perkins can almost feel fictional in this way; his dramatic writing style, though powerful, threatens to leave us with a sense of detachment to the events it recounts.

This ambivalence is all the more unsettling given the tragedy of it all. Take Perkin’s account of a mammoth Ecuadorian oil rig: 75% of its profits go directly to the (American) oil company, while of the rest, three quarters goes to paying off national debt, and ‘less than 3% goes to the people who need the money most, those whose lives have been so adversely impacted by the dams, the drilling and the pipelines, and who are dying from lack of edible food and potable water’. It is impossible not to feel the injustice; but when it is happening so far away, we have a tendency to overlook.


Change, however, is in the air. Reflecting on the indigenous Ecuadorians affected by the oil rig, CEHM concludes that their desperate situation means ‘All of these people…are potential terrorists’. Last week, in the midst of the present electoral circus, the leader of the opposition dared to echo this view. His wording was cautious, measured, tentative; yet its symbolism cannot be underplayed.

Jeremy Corbyn is a pacifist, a socialist, and a lifelong critic of Western foreign policy and its vast network of corporate interests. Should he walk in to Number 10 on June 9th, his victory will legitimise a field of previously fringe views regarding global politics and the location of power.

This poses a serious threat to what CEHM calls the ‘corporatocracy’. Corbyn will be entering a political conflict with an international order ruthless in its disposal of regimes that oppose it. Perkins’ book tragically illuminates this, and if we are, as progressives, to regard his narrative as detached from own political moment, we risk falling prey to the very same mechanisms Perkins once was complicit in.

Over half of our stock market is foreign owned. Hinckley Point, the controversial nuclear facility under construction, is funded by China and France, while our Trident missile programme is, predominantly, American. With the help of modern Economic Hit Men, Britain is being colonised. As it is, the distance we feel from Perkins’ stories of Panama, Ecuador, Singapore and Iran should be drawing in.

Yet for most, it remains an invisible subject within political discussion. In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell claimed that most of the British public were unaware of the Empire their society was built on. Today, that ignorance lingers, both regarding the active role we take in ensuring the dominance of modern corporate Empires, and how that same system is expanding its control over our own domestic landscape.

Reading Perkins’ book today, with less than a week to go until the impossible dream of the British left may be realised, is humbling. Jeremy Corbyn may overcome the machinations of his own party; of the mainstream media; of the most entrenched political establishment in the world. It would be nothing short of a miraculous achievement should he do it. But Perkins’ book is a warning: far greater opponents will lie in store. The tragic stories of Omar Torrijos and Jaime Roldὀs are reminders, moreover, that their destructive capabilities must not be underestimated.

Americans may (mostly) be able to point to the UK on a map of Europe. But this will not exempt us from the consequences of disobedience. Were their closest ally to turn red, America will act, just as they have done throughout much of the world. After he was elected Labour leader, an anonymous General told the Times that a coup would ensue should he be elected Prime Minister. Suddenly, the events of Perkins’ book seem a little less distant…

Picture from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_of_an_Economic_Hit_Man