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'Manifest Destiny'

THE SCOTSMAN Tuesday  16th August 2005


We are living in extraordinary times. The very structures and value systems of our society are being challenged and shaken by events. What is freedom? Where does civil liberty end and security begin? Who - and what - are we as a nation?  

The London bombings have created a turmoil of cross-currents. Suddenly the pressing issues of the post 9/11 dispensation and the ‘war on terror’ - debated  in Britain for four years at one remove from world events - are thrown into a more jarring and chaotic pattern by a sense that the front line is here , the war brought home.

The shocks on, and after, July 7th came in waves. We heard that the London attacks were Al Qaeda linked; then that they were by British Muslims; then that they were suicide bombings. The second wave of attempted bombings came quickly after the first. Then we witnessed the public shooting - execution-style - of an innocent man at Stockwell Underground station.

As has so often been the case since 9/11, the rate of events is breathtaking; the ability of the mind severely challenged to process and accommodate what we experience. The mere reiterating of the ‘facts’ seems inadequate, the emotions lagging behind , oppressed , startled.

One area of our culture, though, is perhaps better equipped than others to mediate the tumbling fall-out - the arts.

Unbound by the constraints of politicians to spin ,  unconfined to the factual discourse of academics, lawyers or the press, artists can let their imaginations run freely over  the issues raised since 9/11, and the immediate dilemma posed by July 7th and its aftermath this year in Britain.

The opera Manifest Destiny (of which I wrote the music to words by Dic Edwards), imagines a scenario in which the protagonists - would-be suicide bombers - are stopped in their tracks. Not by the security services, but by their own humanity: a process of love, springing from within the peaceful teachings of Islam and triumphing over their anger and fear. In the near-future envisaged in the opera, it is Mohammed, a Jihadist committed to violent direct action, who is transformed by discovering the human-scaled, yet overwhelming nature of his love for a fellow suicide bomber. Leila , a London-based Palestinian poetess turned potential Jihad martyr, has so overwhelmed his emotions that he can neither let her die, nor let her or himself kill others.

Mohammed betrays her to the West – to save her- and she is interred in Guantanamo Bay . There she discovers her true innermost spiritual core , and it is a heart of pure love for humanity. Secretly she writes a poem , completing a work she intended for her Jewish partner ,  the composer Daniel Xavier , when they lived together in London , before she was ‘ radicalised’ by 9/11.

After her death in Guantanamo the poem is discovered and returned to Daniel by Mohammed , now a double agent for the US , while retaining his cultural loyalty to the Muslim struggle. As an act of reconciliation between a Palestinian and a Jew , Mohammed brings Leila’s poem to Daniel. He will now set it , a paean to peace , as his new opera – Manifest Destiny , the opera the audience has just seen , the opera which we are about to perform in Edinburgh.

In reality  - which sometimes seems to me to strangely imitate the opera , written in 2003 -  who knows what inconceivable crashing-back-into-life the would- be bombers of July 21st must have suffered when their bombs failed to detonate? And could they die again after that? It seems not – when finally arrested, they clearly wanted to live.

In the opera, a shocked and incredulous Mohammed whispers that he loves life more than he loves death. Thus is set in motion an unleashing of love in place of violence, which flows through the music’s currents from the personal into the political.

Coincidentally , as we open in Edinburgh , another formally violent group - the IRA - has started down just such a peaceful path. Imagine the power of Al Qaeda announcing tomorrow that it would pursue justice through peace, not war. That would remove in one blow the basis for Bush and Blair prosecuting the wars which fuel the rage of Muslim cultures.

If Al Qaeda renounced violence, the impact on the West would be a greater weapon for justice for Muslims than any amount of suicide bombing.

It is not difficult to understand why some Muslims are willing to die and, in their anger , to kill. My friend Hamit Dardagan , of Iraqbodycount , recently issued with his colleagues a devastating study of civilian death in Iraq since the invasion and occupation. The figure in their report stands at nearly 25,000, and that is only up to last March. 56 dead in London is terrible , but where is our reaction of conscience to the 25,000 ?

The moral equation is not hard to calculate; the swervings of the Blair Government a comical exercise in denial that there is any connection between the London bombs and Iraq .

What we need now are visions of healing and light.  

It is the duty of artists to provide them.



[keith burstein]  [manifest destiny]

All music is copyright 1989-2011 by Keith Burstein and may not be used for commercial purposes without the author's consent.

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