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Interview: John McHugo

The author talks about dismantling the West’s misconceptions about the Arab world by tracing its history back to the birth of Islam

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West for East: John McHugo chairs a group called the Liberal Democrat Friends ofPalestine, which raises awareness about the Israeli occupation
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I meet John McHugo at a café on Edgware Road. I am here to interview the international lawyer and Arabist about his new book “A Concise History of the Arabs”, a look at centuries of social, political and intellectual development in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. “The reason I wrote this book was I wanted to get people in this country to understand the Arab world,” McHugo tells Weekend Review. “And to understand why there are problems between the West and the Arab world.”

McHugo’s book has its origins not in some dusty tomes of Arab history, rather in his opposition to the Iraq war, against which he had participated in the great demonstration of February 15, 2003. With forty years’ association with the region behind him, McHugo tells me he began by studying the journalism of people writing in the British press who had supported the invasion. Different names popped up, such as Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail or Barbara Amiel in the Daily Telegraph. But there was one name in particular he felt could not be ignored. Bernard Lewis, the prominent scholar in Oriental Studies who was an early user of the controversial phrase “clash of civilisations” (later to be popularised by Samuel Huntington in his famous book), was an important influence on the pro-war lobby. McHugo believes that, more than anyone else, Lewis’s books and essays provided the intellectual underpinning for the arguments that swung many people round to supporting the war.

“Do you start [Arab history] with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait? ... Do you start with the Palestine problem? ”Tweet this

His writings has had an impact on various high-profile figures in the world of politics and journalism. “He certainly influenced vice-president Dick Cheney. And he also influenced a lot of journalists who wrote supporting the war. For instance, do you know Michael Gove? Who is now the Minister of Education? Well, he wrote a rather silly book called ‘Celsius 77’ after the July 7, 2005 bombings. And essentially you feel like an awful lot of what he has done, he has taken from Bernard Lewis.”

McHugo feels the problem with Lewis’s views of the Arab world is that he tries to blame the Arabs for the West’s mistakes. “There are things that the Arabs are to blame for, there are things that the West is to blame for, but to blame the Arabs for the West’s mistakes is I think very bad,” he says. “And this kind of mentality is what had made it possible for people such as Tony Blair and Michael Gove to lead this country to war against Iraq.”

Initially what McHugo saw himself doing was writing a rebuttal to the arguments posed by those who supported the invasion of Iraq. But he gradually realised that to properly do that he needed to give the background, in other words, the history. But the problem was — where did history start? “Do you start with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait?” he asks. “Do you start with Saddam coming to power? Do you start with the Palestine problem? The Balfour declaration? I thought you had to go right to the back to the beginning.”

And all the way back he went, to the time of the birth of Islam — even touching on some of the pre-Islamic history. “I ask if as a Westerner you go to countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and you see Petra in Jordan, all these things remind you of your own heritage,” he says. “So I ask how did it all come to change?” His book mentions fascinating facts such as how many people in the West are not aware that soldiers in Greater Syria once served on Hydrian’s Wall in Britain, or how Greater Syria and North Africa once gave Rome popes and emperors. As McHugo delved into the annals of Arab history, Edgware Road felt as the perfect setting to be having this conversation. Known as the “heart of Arab London”, the place is home to many Sisha cafés and Middle Eastern restaurants, a kind of melting pot of different cultures and dialects of the Arabic language.

McHugo studied Arabic in the 1970s and earned a BA in Oriental Studies from Oxford University and an MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo. Back then one of his first vacation jobs as a student was to earn some money interviewing Arab tourists for the British Tourist Authority (BTA). “They wanted to know what these strange people who had come from another continent wanted, and what would make them happy in London,” he recalls. “And so I used to go around Hyde Park, Queensway — that is the other half of Arab London by the way — Edgware Road and Marble Arch with a clipboard interviewing Arabs in Arabic.”

Having studied the language at university it was McHugo’s first good experience at speaking it. The arrival of people from the Middle East was still a new phenomenon, and he could see how this part of London was becoming very much a mixing place for Arabs from different countries. “I would meet a Saudi who was here for medical treatment, or I might meet another Saudi who was staying in the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane and had an MBA from Harvard,” he recalls. “And I had different quotas from different countries. So there would be some Syrians, some Egyptians, but many people from the Gulf. And I was therefore able to see the Edgware Road taking its shape as the heartland of Arab London.”

There are myriad chapters in Arab history to shed light on — from the medieval to the modern — and only so much can be covered in an interview. One seminal event in the region was the arrival of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798, which is discussed in McHugo’s book. He had an Arabic proclamation printed, which said that the French had come to save the Egyptians from their rulers, even suggesting oddly they might be Muslim themselves. “He tried to give that impression, which of course was very foolish because it wasn’t true,” McHugo says. “And the Egyptians were intelligent enough to see that.”

Is there anything to be learnt today from that particular chapter in Egyptian history? “Well, what I think we can learn from it is this kind of pattern of Western intervention that, if you like, was started by Napoleon,” he says. “Because Napoleon goes to Egypt, he brings with him lots of scholars, lots of scientists who do some good things, who have good intentions. But the reason he went to Egypt was not that. The reason he went there was as part of a grand strategy to defeat one of his big rivals, namely Britain.”

Once Napoleon realised that the strategy was not working, he got on a ship and sailed straight back to France to perform greater things. “He becomes the emperor and conquers Europe,” McHugo says. “He forgets about Egypt. He had only gone to Egypt for his own purposes. But, you know, at the same time there were good things about the French invasion of Egypt, in the sense that they were interested in seeing what they could do to improve the country’s agriculture, they were interested in trying to decipher their hieroglyphs, they were interested in trying to improve health. But these things were incidental — they were not the main purpose.”

McHugo points to how later on, in 1882, Britain takes over Egypt. “And again Britain does some good things, it does some bad things,” he says. “But the reason it is there is because it is in Britain’s interest. And of course it finally goes catastrophically wrong at the very end in 1956. You could say it went catastrophically wrong long ago before that. But when you had the Suez invasion in 1956, it was beyond any doubt that the British leadership of that older generation, represented by Anthony Eden, thought Britain had a right to be in Egypt. And there was a thinking of Britain’s position, not of what the Egyptians wanted, let alone what was best for the Egyptians.”

This pattern of disastrous intervention in Arab affairs can be traced to other conflicts. “I think they are finding this almost impossible to argue anymore, but for a long time many Zionists tried to argue that the Jewish [colonists] in Palestine went there to do good things for Palestinians,” McHugo says. “And sometimes there would be a doctor from an Israeli [colony] who would help local people. Surely good things happened but that wasn’t the purpose.”

And then you come to the most infamous foreign intervention in recent history. “The invasion of Iraq, again, what was the reason for that? You know different ones are given for different audiences. To bring democracy, end the rule of the brutal dictator, end the threat to international peace, but the point is the reasons may have been good intentions to an extent, but the reasons were, if you like, realpolitik.”

McHugo chairs a group called the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, which organises different events, including a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference in September. “We try and get awareness of issues,” he says. “We also talk to the party [Liberal Democrats] leadership, we talk to members of parliament and peers. For instance we are trying to get the party to come out in favour of recognising Palestine as a state. Now we are in coalition government, so we can’t do that unilaterally. But I am hoping at the next election we will campaign for that.”

Are the Tories holding it back? “I think there are some very dangerous people in the Conservative party on this kind of issue,” he says. “I think Michael Gove is verging on mad, frankly, when it comes to this issue. I don’t think he is rational. And I think the Liberal Democrats in government can claim to have helped swing the Conservative party in the right direction on this issue. Now people such as Foreign Secretary William Hague, or Alistair Burt, the minister in charge of the Middle East, both of whom are Conservatives, or Alan Duncan, another Conservative who is minister for overseas development, they all understand our position, and I think basically share it. And my position is — and this is good Liberal Democrat stuff — use international law to solve this problem. That is what people have not been looking at.”

McHugo says the part in his book on the history of Palestine and Israel is crucial for Western readers. “Now regrettable things have happened on both sides,” he says. “But what I try to show is that the Palestinian-Arab opposition to the Balfour declaration, the opposition to the proclamation of Israel as a state was rational, was principled. It was about people who were losing their rights. It was not about a lot of history of trying to find an enemy to hate.”

At one stage McHugo had toyed with the idea of writing a book on the whole conflict himself. But he felt a lot has already been written on Palestine. “There is a writer called Leon Uris, have you heard of him?” he asks. “Don’t bother! He was very influential in the 1950s and 1960s in making people in the West identify with the state of Israel and its fight against these ‘savage’ Arabs — you know that is the way it was portrayed. And what I try to do, in as cool and calm way as I can, is set things out objectively so that people can really know what happened.”

I ask him regarding the common misconceptions about Arab people prevalent in the United Kingdom. “You will be amazed at how many people are surprised to find out that Iran is not an Arab country, and that is a starting point,” McHugo says. “There is a very big misconception, in this country and among many people in the West, that in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab are the aggressors. That has gone right down to the psyche of many people.”

Yet one of the saddest misconceptions he has found is the lack of awareness of the good things the Arabs have to offer.”Frankly, I think, by and large Arab people are much more courteous than British or European people,” he says. “When you are talking to an Arab, I, as a Westerner, am very conscious that they are thinking of me as an individual and there is an element of respect there.”

The book took its time to complete. He began writing back in 2006, and the final draft was submitted to his publisher Saqi in January this year. After all the hard work he has put in, I wondered if he also sent a copy to that famous originator of the “clash of civilizations”, Lewis. “Oh no,” he responds. “I think Bernard Lewis is now nearly a 100. I would rather debate this with the students.” McHugo reveals there was a polemical section at the end of the book analysing Lewis’s writings on the Middle East. The chapter was eventually cut out. “I thought people are much more interested in the Arab world than they are in Bernard Lewis,” he says. “He still publishes occasionally, but he is becoming a historical figure. With the Arab Spring in particular, things have moved on.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.