Published on Thursday, September 27, 2001 in the Irish Times
Fresh Signs of Hope Despite Talk of Revenge
by Mary Holland
Tony Blair flies to the United States with a copy of the Koran in his briefcase.
Copies of Islam's most holy text are sold out in New York, we are told, as Americans struggle to understand the terrible events of September 11th.
George Bush is not the only person who is on a steep learning curve. We all are.
Fortunately for the rest of us, we are left to continue our education in private.
In my house, books bought in hopeful periods of self improvement, and mostly left unread, have been dusted down: The Wisdom of Islam, The 25 Years War, Arabia without Sultans, Robert Fisk's magnificent Pity the Nation.
Now that the initial horror of the attack on the World Trade Center has faded just a little, I switch on any program which attempts to explain the complexities of politics across the Middle East.
Usually they raise more questions that they answer, not just about Osama bin Laden but much closer to home.
A young woman on an ITV "special" Understanding Islam says: "I was born in Yorkshire and Yorkshire is in my heart.
"But I am also a Muslim and how should I feel when I hear that there is to be a war against Islam?"
There must be many in our own Muslim community who are asking the same question.
It goes without saying that such programs would not be screened but for the tragedy in the United States.
One of the truths we have to accept is that the propaganda of the deed is appallingly effective.
We have heard more expressions of concern about the grievances of the Palestinians in recent days than for many months past.
Writing in yesterday's Guardian, Peter Mandelson referred to the lessons he learnt in Northern Ireland and pleaded for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan "to relieve the abject poverty, famine and degradation that affects the bulk of the population".
Such concern hasn't stopped at words. As the United States strives to bring the Arab states on board its grand coalition, the political implications of what happened on September 11th are already being felt in practical ways in the Middle East.
Some of what is happening is benign, at least for the moment.
Israel has been told to rein in its hostilities against the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been persuaded to allow his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to talk to Yasser Arafat, in the hope that this could lead on to new negotiations.
Jack Straw has been dispatched to woo Iran, until recently a political pariah to the west.
The British foreign secretary's comments in the Iranian press, to the effect that the Palestinian situation might have helped "to breed terrorism" caused huge offense in Israel.
Nonetheless, the message is clear. Iran is to be brought back into the international community.
Other changes will follow. In Washington, a senior White House official muses, publicly, that it is now necessary to construct an "acceptable post Kyoto strategy".
At a time when the talk is of terror and revenge, it is important to realize that some of what has happened since September 11th does hold out the hope of a better future.
Already it is evident that there are many people in the United States - and within the Bush administration - who accept that military action cannot defeat terrorism unless it is aligned to a wise and generous political strategy.
Where stands Ireland in all this? Already serious questions are being raised about this State's neutrality. We have a tendency to overstate its importance particularly in the context of what is happening now.
Ireland is not a military player on the international stage and we are unlikely to be called upon to play a warlike role in the days and weeks ahead.
But we are linked to America by ties of gratitude and blood that date back to the Famine and beyond.
At the present time, we owe the United States a huge debt for its support for the peace process in Northern Ireland.
It was American political clout which first persuaded Margaret Thatcher that Dublin must be involved in any solution to the conflict.
At crucial moments along the long and tortuous road to peace (remember the Gerry Adams visa?), the American president himself was prepared to act against the express wishes of the British government.
It is this experience, and the lessons learnt over the past 30 years, which we have to offer when Ireland takes up the chair of the UN Security Council.
Ironically, we are in a very good position to remind the United States and the international community that intractable conflicts can only be resolved by addressing the grievances that produce terrorism.
That was the policy to which Americans gave their unstinting support in Northern Ireland.
Despite the present blips in implementing the Belfast Agreement, these lessons are now more relevant than ever.
© 2001 ireland.com