The Syrian people have suffered enough without having to endure a visit last week by Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party. When I first heard the news, I thought it was a joke, but its confirmation made it no less laughable.
He was invited by Bashar al-Assad on a “fact-finding” mission, as part of what the Guardian reported was “a delegation of far-right and nationalist European politicians.” This from a regime that has blocked U.N. investigators from establishing the facts surrounding chemical weapons use in Syria.
Griffin’s visit “is, one might think, the very last thing that Syria needs right now,” wrote the Independent’s Whitehall editor Oliver Wright. He described it as a “bizarre but graphic illustration of the old saying ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’,” referring to the BNP leader’s condemnation of the British government’s support for the Syrian opposition. Griffin “wasted little time pinning his colors to the Assad mast,” Wright added.
“Why turn stable secular state into Iraq-style hell of sectarian [sic] hate?” Griffin tweeted from Damascus. There is “no place in Europe for Islam,” which “does not fit in with the fundamental values of British society,” he said previously.
“Western values, freedom of speech, democracy and rights for women are incompatible with Islam, which is a cancer eating away at our freedoms and our democracy and rights for our women, and something needs to be done about it,” he added.
Given his constant complaints about the supposed Islamization of Britain and the wider continent, perhaps what should be done is invite Griffin to take up residence in this autocratic utopia that he so admires. The vast majority of Brits would be happy to see the back of him.
But wait, there is a minor problem: there are Muslims in Syria too, lots of them. That would not be acceptable to someone who has described Islam as a “wicked and vicious faith,” and agrees with Flemish far-right politician Vlaams Belang’s assertion that “we urgently need global chemotherapy against Islam to save civilization.”
This is the company that Assad is choosing to keep, and let us not forget, in case the Syrian dictator has, that he too is Muslim, as are his staunchest allies: theocratic Iran and Islamist Hezbollah. But this alliance is killing fellow Muslims in Syria, so that must make them palatable to Islamophobes.
Assad’s choice of friends is even more galling given Griffin’s stalwart support for Israel. The self-proclaimed defender of the Palestinian cause, and a member of the so-called “axis of resistance,” is extending a hand to someone who has proudly claimed that the BNP was the only British political party to back Israel’s “war against the terrorists” in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
“Asserting that he is a friend to Israel...makes him appear, to his supporters, anti-Muslim (which in today’s UK political climate carried far more benefit than being antisemitic),” wrote the Jewish Chronicle’s foreign editor Miriam Shaviv. Indeed, Griffin has said of the BNP: “We should be positioning ourselves to take advantage for our own political ends of the growing wave of public hostility to Islam currently being whipped up by the mass media.”
He travelled to Syria via Lebanon, where he visited the Bekaa Valley - a Hezbollah stronghold - despite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advising against all but essential travel to that part of the country. This “has led to speculation that he is travelling on an invitation from the Shia group,” wrote Times political reporter Laura Pitel. This is a logical conclusion, particularly in light of Griffin’s subsequent praise for Hezbollah.
However, it would be a highly illogical decision for the Lebanese movement, given that the BNP’s head of legal affairs, Lee Barnes, wrote on the party’s website: “I support Israel 100% in their dispute with Hezbollah. In fact, I hope they wipe Hezbollah off the Lebanese map and bomb them until they leave large greasy craters in the cities where their Islamic extremist cantons of terror once stood.”
Unsurprisingly, I cannot find any disavowal of this view by Griffin, whose moral compass includes describing the ailing Nelson Mandela just last week as a “murdering old terrorist,” and condemning the toppling of late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Reaching out to such a man can only be seen as an act of desperation by those who, facing increasing regional and international isolation, will seek friends wherever they can. All sides seem blissfully unaware that their political group hug is collectively self-defeating.
It is a shameful alliance of mutual unpleasantness. I can imagine Assad, Griffin, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin doing that walk from the film “Reservoir Dogs.” No doubt Griffin would want to be Mr White.
Assad has achieved the dubious distinction of uniting the far right and far left in supporting him, but even his most deluded followers will be hard-pressed to justify this latest sordid friendship.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash