Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fred Halliday: A Tribute to a Uniquely Brave Middle East Scholar

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Fred Halliday: A Tribute to a Uniquely Brave Middle East Scholar

By Barry Rubin

Fred Halliday was a unique person, a man of courage, creativity, and spirit, which is rare in anyone and especially in Middle East studies. He was a dear friend for thirty years. And although I only realized it on hearing news of his untimely death, he is the person I’ve ever known who comes closest to being like George Orwell.

In his honor, I’d like to tell a few Fred stories and talk about why he was such a significant person. In the course of doing so, I’m going to make a few mild remarks about shortcomings in his work, but nothing I didn’t say to him personally and all with deep and genuine affection.

Fred was profoundly a man of the Left, in a way so fully possible only in a British person. Given Fred’s pride in his Irish ancestry, I know he’d wince at that phrase. He was thoroughly socialist, a strong supporter of the Labour Party, a self-defined rebel, and someone who could never imagine himself holding stances other than he did.

Here’s a story Fred told me. When he was a student at university in the 1960s, inclining toward Maoism at the time, he led in the heckling of a visiting Soviet speaker. Years later, he was in Afghanistan on a Soviet military base, with no other Westerners around and surrounded by elite Soviet soldiers armed to the teeth. He was introduced to the provincial governor. Fred realized that this was the man he had shouted down years ago and wondered if the Soviet official would recognize him and have him disposed of with no witnesses.

Fred was amused that the man didn’t recognize him.

In my opinion, a pivotal event for Fred was something that happened to him during the Iranian revolution, in 1979. As a doctrinaire leftist in the 1960s and 1970s, he saw the main enemies as American and British imperialism, the main solution as Marxist revolution in the Middle East. Indeed, I teased him several times that the problem was his typewriter—that’s how far back we go—was defective and merely automatically typed the word “imperialism” each time he typed the word “American.” He laughed.

When he wrote an important book about Iran in the late 1970s, Islam wasn’t mentioned at all and the name of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appeared once in passing.

Fred went to Iran to hang out with his leftist friends there in 1979. One day, as he visited the leftist newspaper there, run by people who supported the revolution but opposed Islamism, the new regime’s police arrived, destroyed the newspaper office and arrested all his friends, who were probably tortured in prison.

So Fred became even more of an enemy to the revolutionary Islamists. That’s why he was a firm supporter--yes, quite a contradiction but that's the Middle East for you--of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ended up visiting that Soviet base.

You might be thinking by this point that Fred was just a stereotypical leftist ideologue. But that wouldn’t be true. He would talk to anyone, kept an open mind, and was willing to change his thinking in the face of experience. Fred was a firm supporter of freedom and an enemy of dictatorship and oppression, even if it claimed to be on the left. Like many British leftists of the Labour party old school, his hatred of class snobbery made him a passionate champion of liberty and fairness.

One of my most vivid memories of Fred was his performance at a conference on Iraq at Exeter University that was, though I hadn’t realized it before attending, paid for by the Saddam Hussein government. The time was days after Iraq had invaded Iran in 1980. The speaker before Fred was a typically lithesome (and well-known) sycophantic Middle East studies type who had given a truly disgusting speech on how great Saddam Hussein was, comparing him to Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Fred strode confidently on the stage, in front of an audience full of Iraqi agents and toadies, and began by saying that if Saddam Hussein was so much like Nasser he should resign because he was going to lose the war. He then proceeded to tear apart the Iraqi regime as a repressive, aggressive dictatorship. It was a superb performance in every way.

By the 1990s, Fred had reconsidered his attitude toward Israel and wrote a really courageous article skewering the left for its hostility. He supported peace and truly tried to understand Israel, as well as going out of his way to invite Israeli speakers. For someone on the British left what Fred did was something akin to a Mississippi professor loudly announcing his support for civil rights to anyone who would listen.

Now I must confess my puzzlement at what was pretty much his last major speech, as president of the British society of Middle East studies, which I thought pretty much an apologia and back-patting exercise at how wonderful everything was in a domain he had often criticized.

But one can only ask so much of an individual. Fred was a really brave person who despite his powerful ideological beliefs—which he struggled to ensure never blinded him--did his best to meet real scholarly values, try to engage the facts, and scorn hypocrisy or cowardice. Fred was a man you could respect even when he was an adversary. He should be a role model for today’s leftist academics, but unfortunately they have chosen far worse exemplars.

I’ll keep thinking of him on that stage at the University of Exeter.

If there were more people like Fred Halliday, Western intellectual life and Middle East studies might be tolerable today.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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