Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The gun gets an olive branch

Wednesday 18 March 2009
NOW Lebanon
By Michael Glackin

Britain reaches out to Hezbollah

Those in Britain with an interest in political Islam suffered a blow over the weekend when it emerged that a Hezbollah official, Ibrahim Moussawi, would not be allowed into the United Kingdom to lecture on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies later this month.

The Home Office, the department responsible for the banning order, does not comment on individual cases, but department insiders told me that Moussawi’s application for a visa was denied on the basis that his presence in the UK “was not conducive to the public good.” It’s worth pointing out that Moussawi can appeal the decision, although the process is unlikely to offer him much comfort.

Moussawi will probably feel hard done by. Quite why his presence is now suddenly “not conducive to the public good” after he happily visited Britain’s shores last year and in 2007 without interference is a bit of a mystery. During Moussawi’s previous trips, Hezbollah was a proscribed movement. Now when the British authorities are openly talking to Hezbollah, he has suddenly found himself persona non grata.

Confused? Well it’s not the only confusing occurrence in the UK’s relationship with Hezbollah in the last week. Earlier this month Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, whose remit includes the Middle East, caused consternation when he announced that the government had just “reconsidered” its policy toward Hezbollah and would now talk to ‘‘carefully selected’’ contacts within the movement’s “political wing” – by which he meant members of parliament.

Unfortunately for Rammell, the policy he thought he was unveiling has been in existence for almost a year, and was first revealed in July 2008, five months after Moussawi’s last visit to the UK. In fact, the policy is even older than that. In December 2001, then-British Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Kinchen met with the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This “official contact” lasted until 2005, and ended because of a combination of factors, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the fact that it was yielding little positive results.

Putting aside Rammell’s blushes, not to mention his ignorance of his own department’s policy, the catalyst and purpose for this not-so-new approach was explained to me by a friendly but unenlightening Foreign Office spokesperson. She told me that Hezbollah’s decision to join the Lebanese national-unity government – which of course came about after it brought the country to a standstill and used force against the existing government – provided an opportunity for the UK to “engage Hezbollah.”

This meant that the British ambassador in Lebanon has been given permission to open what the Foreign Office describes as “low-level talks” with the aim of “encouraging Hezbollah to take a more positive role in the political process.” The government’s objectives are straightforward: “We want Hezbollah to disarm and stop supporting terrorism and participate in Lebanese politics as a democratic party. This dialogue helps us communicate these points to Hezbollah,” the spokesperson said.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hezbollah was already aware of what the UK and most Western governments wanted them to do for some time now. But in the spirit of this engagement, Moussawi was probably looking forward to explaining how these aspirations fit in with Hezbollah’s view of “political Islam” to a British audience, which was set to include a number of Foreign Office staff members.

Actually, Moussawi found himself caught up in purely domestic row. The government was heavily criticized after it banned Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders from entering the UK earlier this year for a screening of his controversial film “Fitna” – which links Islam to terrorism – at the House of Lords. The government faced accusations of being tough on critics of Islam and soft on Muslim extremists. The public perception that the British government is soft on Muslim extremism was further evidenced for many when a handful of such extremists were allowed to protest last week during a parade for soldiers returning from Iraq.

Moussawi aside, the new British policy toward Hezbollah is broadly in line with Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s speech in India earlier this year, when he poured scorn on the idea of the “war on terror”. It can also be viewed as part of what US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calls America’s “smart diplomacy”, although the White House insists, for now at any rate, that it will not talk to anyone from Hezbollah.

Has the UK’s olive branch to Hezbollah achieved anything?

The Foreign Office insists it is too early to say if the approach is working. The spokesperson said, “The jury’s still out. We’ll assess it on a regular basis. There is no open-ended check here.” But with Lebanon’s elections just under three months away, there may be some who think this very public rapprochement with Hezbollah, by a government that just a year ago was one of its most vociferous critics, will be money in the bank for the party on polling day. Maybe Rammell isn’t as ignorant as we thought.
Michael Glackin, a UK based journalist and former managing editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of NOW Lebanon.

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