The death of Fred Halliday, a contributing editor of this magazine since 1977, leaves an enormous void in the lives of many of us who were part of MERIP’s first decades. He also served on the editorial board of New Left Review from 1969-1983, and taught international relations at the London School of Economics from 1983 to early 2008. Starting in 2004 he spent increasing portions of his time in Barcelona, where in 2008 he became research professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. He died there on April 26, 2010 of complications from cancer.
Fred was committed to internationalism in his politics and always ready to engage and challenge other writers and thinkers across the political spectrum. He numbered first among his intellectual mentors Maxime Rodinson, the great French Orientalist (whose work includes a masterful biography of Muhammad)—on several public occasions Fred referred to Rodinson as his murshid akbar, his “greatest guide.” His approach, like his mentors’, was grounded in Marxism—“not a set of answers,” he wrote later, “so much as a framework within which to examine” Middle Eastern societies and international politics.
This frame of reference also informed the project we called MERIP, and this magazine, and formed the basis for the association of more than three decades between Fred and us. It was also the basis for the Middle East Study Group, Britain-based academics and writers, Fred among them, who came together in the mid-1970s and many of whom became regular contributors to Middle East Report. (Like MERIP, the Middle East Study Group continues today.)
Over the course of some 15 years, between 1976 and 1990, and a span of some 100 numbers of this magazine, Fred’s byline was in more than one out of every three issues. More than this, he introduced us to many other authors who contributed to the pages of Middle East Report. His own contributions ranged from reviews calling attention to notable new analyses of Middle East politics and history in books in Arabic, German and Italian to the overarching essays introducing the theme of an issue that he helped to assemble—essays such as “The Gulf Between Two Revolutions,” surveying the developments in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula contributing to and following from the Iraqi overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 and Iran’s revolution of 1978-1979. Fred had an uncommon gift for identifying and deftly analyzing intersecting patterns of political behavior at local, national, regional and international levels.
Fred was an outstanding public intellectual of the last 40 years, without peer in his combination of great familiarity with key countries and conflicts and a sure grasp of political dynamics in the Middle East. All of us who heard Fred’s public talks—and on his frequent visits to North America he almost always made a point of stopping in Washington to do a public event on behalf of MERIP—came to appreciate his gift for succinctly weaving together key narratives and analyses of all these elements, spiced with vivid anecdotes from his travels or pungent distillations of political analysis, like his depiction of Osama bin Laden as “the bastard child of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.”
Fred was raised in Ireland, in the town of Dundalk, just south of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. “I owe much of what I know and feel about international relations to having been born and brought up in Ireland,” he said in early 2008, “not least my skepticism about nationalists, clergymen and merchants of identity.” A decade earlier, in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (1995), he had elaborated on how Irish history can, or should, attune one to the crises of the Middle East: “These would include the role, destructive and formative, of foreign domination and settlement; the illusions and delusions of nationalism, the divisiveness of political loyalties based on religion; the corrosive myths of deliverance through purely military struggle…and the dilemmas and agonies of secession and national unification.”
The Middle East was where Fred brought together knowledge of Arabic and Persian (along with most major European languages, and Russian) as well as deep familiarity with the political dynamics of several societies, notably Iran and Yemen. He visited Iran first in 1965, while an Oxford undergraduate, and North and South Yemen, and the armed Marxist movement fighting for the liberation of Dhofar, Oman’s westernmost province, in 1970 and 1973. Yemen was the point of origin of my own friendship with Fred, in late 1972 and early 1973: He was completing his first book, Arabia Without Sultans, and I had spent several months traveling in South Yemen (my account appeared in MERIP Reports in March 1973).
Arabia Without Sultans, published in 1974, vigorously challenged prevailing pieties about the claimed particularities and traditions underlying Arab authoritarian monarchies. Today, the sultans and their heirs are still with us, but the book’s close attention to the political dynamics in what was then North and South Yemen, and Fred’s experience with the Dhofari revolutionaries, make it still an essential read. Iran: Dictatorship and Development appeared in 1978, on the eve of the demise of the Pahlavi regime, and conveyed a comprehensive analysis of the material and social forces, Iranian and international, that produced the revolution. In this book Fred did not anticipate the weight of the revolution’s religious component—who did?—but Middle East Report was the venue in which he elaborated his analyses of the revolution’s unfolding over the following years.
Fred also contributed in a distinctive way to MERIP’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the kind of resolution required. Solidarity with Palestinian aspirations for national liberation was a key (though far from exclusive) element in MERIP’s founding, and that translated during the group’s formative years into broad endorsement of the program of the Palestine Liberation Organization for a single “democratic secular state” as the most appropriate resolution of the conflict, with an often unstated presumption that the political leadership of this state would embody left socialist values. In the May 1981 issue of MERIP Reports, in an essay entitled “Revolutionary Realism and the Struggle for Palestine,” Fred provided a substantive critique of this political dogma—its attachment to armed militancy above other forms of struggle, the absence of a strategy that took account of implacably hostile regional (i.e., Arab) and international forces, and, centrally, the need for any program for Palestinian emancipation to be consistent with socialist and internationalist values and any prospect of realization to encompass Israeli as well as Palestinian national rights.
The Gulf war of 1990-1991 created some political distance between Fred and Middle East Report. MERIP opposed Iraq’s invasion and attempted annexation of Kuwait, but did not share Fred’s support for the US-led military intervention to expel Iraqi forces, though many of us agreed that an end to the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein would have to stand on the positive side of any balance sheet of the war. But this distance never became a rupture: MER continued to publish Fred’s essays and reviews (his “revisit” of Arabia Without Sultans appeared in MER 204), though these did not appear as frequently, and Fred’s academic and other work often cited MER articles on the consequences of the war and US policies in the region. Fred often paid generous public tribute to MERIP for what he called “a unique combination of scholarship, moral commitment and independence of judgment.”
In an interview published several years ago in Salmgundi, Fred spoke of “the vocation of an internationalist intellectual” as “beyond supporting human rights in these [Middle Eastern] countries, actually to try and promote informed discussion which may feed into public debate and education.” For Fred I cannot think of a higher tribute than that he paid to Maxime Rodinson, his murshid akbar: “a man of the highest scholarly standards, firmest of analytic visions, and consistent and measured moral responses.”