Friday, 21 November 2014

Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence

Progressive Authoritarianism & the Death of Debate


"It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry." 
                                                                   - Thomas Paine

Before I get into describing the abysmal state of disrepair in which progressive thought currently languishes, I should start by pointing out that there never was a time when Leftist politics existed in a state of harmonious consensus. From the birth of the concept of left-right politics, when internecine quarrels amongst French republicans were settled beneath the blade of the guillotine, through to the bitter intra-socialist sectarianism of the Cold War, the Left have been a disputatious bunch, bickering over the narcissism of their various small differences.

The progressive movements of the early New Left were no different, encompassing a broad plurality of views, often at odds over ends and means. But there was, nevertheless, general agreement that the principal basis for civil rights activism and struggle lay in liberal, egalitarian, and universalist values. Relativist and separatist arguments were advanced by some, of course, but, until relatively recently, they lacked any meaningful currency. What galvanised activists were internalised Enlightenment-derived ideas of liberty, equality, and solidarity. For if people are fundamentally the same, irrespective of skin colour, gender, or sexuality, then on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?

With the clarity of arguments like these, progressive politics in the West achieved much. Activism, and the emergence of a vibrant and aggressively liberal counter-culture, precipitated a change in societal and political attitudes, which in turn led to the passing of transformative legislation: voting and labour rights were won; segregation was abolished; reproductive rights were enshrined and expanded; discrimination in all sorts of areas was outlawed; hiring and employment practices were reformed; attitudes to everything from racism to domestic abuse evolved (and continue to do so), while sexual and creative permissiveness flourished. As taboos collapsed with stunning rapidity, conservatism and traditional social values were forced into retreat.

But then something interesting began to happen. Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?

In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.

Having built progressive movements on the basis of liberal values, it became an imperative to kick those values apart with the same enthusiasm, just as a child might destroy a sand-castle which hadn't turned out quite as well as expected. The spread of French critical theory, multiculturalism, and post-colonialism in radical circles midwifed a thoughtless denigration of the West, scorn for the perceived complacencies of "the Enlightenment project", and the dismissal of the 'Dead White Males' whose ideas and writings had done so much to unshackle Europe from feudalism and superstition.

The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".

In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their  unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.

As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?

We are now reaping the harvest of liberalism's agonising slow death on the Left. Consider the following recent examples:
  1. According to a report in The Guardian, the political director of Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan, has just publicly recommended the introduction of what amounts to a de facto blasphemy law in order to combat what he calls 'Islamophobia'. The press, he announced, has been “singularly unable or unwilling to change the discourse, the tone or the approach” of its coverage. Casually eliding matters of race, ethnicity, and belief, he continued: “We’re not going to get change unless there is some sanction, there is some penalty. This is not just about Muslims; it is about all minorities.” Similarly, on an American talkshow, a visibly distressed Ben Affleck responded to Sam Harris's criticisms of Islam by denouncing them as "gross and racist".
     
  2. Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the awe-inspiring Rosetta satellite mission, found himself vilified by incandescent feminists when he appeared on television wearing a bowling shirt adorned with images of scantily-clad young women. It later transpired that the shirt had been hand-made for him as a birthday gift by a female friend and, as a rather touching token of appreciation, he had worn it on his big day. But an article for Verge decided that it was a symptom of the misogyny allegedly endemic within the scientific community, and reported Dr. Taylor's televised appearance beneath the headline "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing".

    The most risible offering in this embarrassing row came from (supposedly) sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, who spent the first paragraph of her post on the subject itemising her own involvement in the production of pornography. This, she appeared to think, placed her in the unique position of being able to explain that "freedom for me does not mean freedom for thee" as she policed the clothing of another adult: "[D]oing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, “Sex is awesome!” It says, “Women are for sex.”

    Christina seemed oblivious to those who would seize on this argument to call for the suppression of her own work, as well as all other kinds of pornography and erotica she defends in her writing. Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves. Nonetheless, clearly shaken by the uproar, Dr. Taylor ended up offering a tearful and humiliating public apology to his critics. It will be an individual of uncommonly thick skin who dares to transgress in this way in the future.
     
  3. Last Wednesday, the Independent ran an article by an Oxford University student named Niamh McIntyre, in which she crowed defiantly about the success of her campaign to cancel a debate between two male speakers, organised by a pro-life group to debate abortion. She explained herself thus: "The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups".

    Doubling down on her behalf, Tim Squirrell - the President of the Cambridge Union, no less! - took to twitter to declare that "shouting 'free speech' doesn't help anyone without a more nuanced conception of its impacts + aspects". He went on: "People have the right to feel...[s]afe from the expression of ideas which have historically been used to oppress them in very real ways."
     
  4. Late last year, in response to long-disputed and empirically dubious claims of an omnipresent culture of rape besieging women on university campuses, activists campaigned to have Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines banned from their Student Unions. When UCL joined upwards of 20 other Unions in banning the song from its premises, its Women's Officer Beth Sutton said: "UCLU have just passed motion to not play Blurred Lines in union spaces & events. Solidarity with all survivors!"

    [The same panic over 'rape culture' and anger over low prosecution rates for sex crimes has also led to unapologetic attacks from the Left, similarly advanced in the name of "solidarity with survivors", on the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, and due process. An analysis of this disturbing facet of the effort to delegitimise liberalism lies beyond the scope of this post.]
     
  5. A few months ago, the New Statesman columnist Sarah Ditum wrote a rather good article protesting the illiberal use of 'no-platforming' to silence unpopular views held by those "deemed disagreeable". However, her arguments were offered mainly in support of Julie Bindel, a radical feminist labelled 'transphobic' and 'whorephobic' for her views on trans rights and sex work. Ditum is, from what I can tell, largely sympathetic to Bindel's positions on these issues, which made her defence of Bindel's right to speak a relatively straightforward affair, causing her no significant ideological discomfort.

    But when it came to the no-platforming of a repellent male chauvinist and self-styled pick-up guru named Julien Blanc, Ditum's principled defence of free expression evaporated, and she wrote a new blog post explaining that this was a very different matter. "There is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc" she concluded. (In response to the outcry, Blanc has since been denied a visa to enter the UK.)
     
  6. This is not to mention the recent fracas over the Exhibit B installation, deemed unacceptable by anti-racist campaigners (which I covered in an essay here), or the hounding of feminist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for her opposition to the veil and the demonisation of 'white feminists' (which I covered in an essay here). The latter post, incidentally, led The Feminist Wire to describe what I wrote as "racist and anti-Black specifically", and an attempt "to maintain white supremacy".
This handful of examples barely scratches the surface of the problem. Not one of the writers or campaigners above was detained by the need to establish a causal link between the expression of ideas they dislike and consequent harm. Censors never are, despite the fact that, in an open society, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who would restrict individual freedom. Instead, those inclined to defend free expression were variously tarred with the brush of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, or rape apologism (depending on what was at issue).

When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the midst of this reckless and dangerous onslaught against liberal values and the belief in the axiomatic nobility of the oppressed, there should be no room for sympathy with the Middle East's only functioning liberal democracy. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] campaign, ostensibly mounted in support of Palestinian nationalism, but actually aimed at the disestablishment of the only Jewish State, has been slowly gathering mainstream support and legitimacy in the West.

Reprehensibly, the BDS movement seeks not simply the boycott of Israeli goods (which would be bad enough); it also explicitly attacks academic freedom. In the foreword to a recently released collection of essays entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, the American political theorist Paul Berman argues that BDS activists are only able to make such arguments because they have convinced themselves of a misperception: they see what they are doing as "modern and progressive" when in fact it is "retrograde and disgraceful".

The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

Gazing with mounting dismay at the escalating authoritarianism on the left of the political spectrum where my own political sympathies lie, I have been repeatedly reminded of a post published by the late Marxist theorist Norman Geras five months before his death. With a minimum of preamble, Geras quoted Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE, as follows:
I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I'm a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that's something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn't poststructuralist, was at least 'fellow traveling' with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that's really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I've become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn't maybe 30 years ago - that's a big shift.
Unfortunately, there appears to be scant appetite for Professor Brown's critical self-examination on the postmodern Left. Instead it clings to its metaphysical conspiracism, and disdains empiricism and a meritocracy of ideas derived from free and open debate in favour of the imposition of speech codes designed to stigmatise, shame, and silence.

In the name of a righteously-espoused 'inclusivity', such people have submitted to the worst kind of authoritarian elitism, and forgotten an elementary truism of Enlightenment thought. As the revolutionary 18th century pamphleteer and Dead White Male Thomas Paine observed in the short dedication with which he opened The Age of Reason:
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Siding with the Philistines

Exhibit B and Index on Censorship's Julia Farrington

A promotional still for Brett Bailey's installation, Exhibit B.
On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of 'human zoos', and is described by Bailey as follows:
What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.
Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it "both unbearable and essential", Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it "remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting", and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that "the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating".

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be "a highly problematic" and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey's work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But soi-dissant anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey's work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey's "racist" work. "If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery" Myers instructed, "this is not the way to do it." This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:
Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening's performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September - that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B's cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:
Those who read [Julia Farrington's] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.
This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey's right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side - with minimal equivocation - of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers's petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey's work - and although Farrington does mention this fact - she persistently misdescribes Myers's transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as "a boycott". And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for "ensuring dialogue is happening".

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, "what interests me here," she explains, "is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response." Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue's insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:
The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.
And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution - be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery - is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions "manage the space between the artist and the audience" as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. ("We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.")

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and - I would imagine - expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists' subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to "manage the space between the artist and the audience" actually require of the venue? 

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context "manage the space between the artist and audience" sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly."

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers's various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and "holistic reparations", she averred that she would "not necessarily" seek to interfere with an artist's vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted. 

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:
There's no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains...
A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark's hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a "white representation," she nodded: "Yes, it needed to be balanced." I don't know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors' concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as "woefully inadequate", and welcomed the activists' call for further "engagement and dialogue":
As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.
Myers's petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance's closure, two days after Farrington's article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down. 

How on earth did a free speech advocate find themselves so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the 'root cause' of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged 'institutionalised racism', a priori. As she puts it:
Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.
Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of 'structural racism'. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:
I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.
So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth. 

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don't fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that "since 1980s it is progress zero". Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an "independent arts consultant". Williams appears to think what's needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:
The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won't look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible. 

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled "Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal" looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:
Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.
Academic freedom and artistic freedom - both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth - are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left - those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of 'social justice' and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington's article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey's work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Euphemism, Dysphemism, and Masochism

On the Quarrel Over Lydda

Lydda (now Ben Gurion) airport, captured by the IDF in 1948. 
At Mosaic magazine, a fascinating dispute recently concluded over an incident that took place during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. The cause of the trouble, at least in the first instance, was a chapter in Ha'aretz journalist Ari Shavit's bestselling book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which deals with the conquest of the Arab city of Lydda. More specifically at issue was Shavit's description of what occurred there as a massacre, for which he held Zionism explicitly responsible.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a quick précis:

On 14 May 1948, as the last of the British forces withdrew, bringing the curtain down on Mandatory Palestine, Israel declared its independence. The next day, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, refusing to recognise the new state, declared war and invaded from the south, east, and north, respectively. Only 3 years after the Holocaust had ended, a state created as a refuge for a persecuted nation found itself faced with an eliminationist - and possibly genocidal - war on three fronts.

On 11 July, as the war turned in Israel's favour, Israeli forces approached the city of Lydda. The operational order of 26 June, codenamed Larlar, described their mission as follows:
To attack in order to destroy the enemy forces in the area of the bases Lydda-Ramla-Latrun-Ramallah, to capture these bases and by so doing to free the city of Jerusalem and the road to it from enemy pressure.
The battle for Lydda began with a charge of armoured vehicles during the course of which dozens of Arabs and nine Israeli soldiers were shot dead. The Arab irregulars stationed in Lydda, stunned by the ferocity of the raid, watched as Israeli forces took up positions in the town. The inhabitants were rounded up and ordered to report to the Great Mosque and the Church of St George where they were temporarily confined. It was assumed that Lydda had been taken and pacified.

The next day at noon, two Jordanian armoured cars entered the city, surprising the IDF. A firefight broke out and pandemonium erupted. Armed Arab irregulars, perhaps believing the Jordanian cars heralded further reinforcement, began to fire at Israeli soldiers, who were also reporting that grenades had been thrown from in or around a building known as the Small Mosque (distinct from the Great Mosque, where unarmed detainees were being held).

In response to the uprising, Israeli troops returned fire wildly, threw grenades into houses, and fired an anti-tank missile at the Small Mosque killing a large number of those inside. It was all over in 30 minutes. The IDF lost just four soldiers. The exact number of Arab casualties is disputed, but the losses are generally thought to be in three figures. Over the next 24 hours or so, the detainees were released and those Arab inhabitants of Lydda not already fleeing the city were expelled into the West Bank.

Part of the problem posed by Shavit's handling of these events is that he's dealing with history but approaching it as a journalist; this is a personal, emotional work, not a scholarly one. And because he's therefore concerned with the demands and possibilities of narrative and style, complexities inevitably get collapsed into big symbols and themes.

Shavit has structured his book so that each chapter represents a particular historical event, movement, or development. Thus, the chapter on Lydda represents the 1948 war - the triumph of Zionism and the tragedy of Palestinian defeat and expulsion, encapsulating his book's subtitle rather too neatly. It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that it was the chapter selected in advance of the book's publication to appear in abridged form in the New Yorker. When the article appeared on 21 October 2013, it generated a great deal of attention and comment. So did the book when it was published a month later.

Shavit conceives of what happened at Lydda in grandiloquent, quasi-Biblical terms: 'Zionism' - the Jewish quest for self-determination in their historic homeland - is here personalised as a vengeful deity descending on Lydda, massacring its people, and smiting the city. But it is on the ashes of these crimes, Shavit insists, that Israel has built a democracy worth defending. His story of Zionism and Lydda, then, is one of sin and redemption; an experience in expiation.

Shavit loves his country but feels he must atone for 1948. He invites the reader - or rather, the Zionist reader - to join him in a display penitence for events which occurred nine years before his birth. The sins for which Shavit and his liberal Zionist audience want absolution are also of a Biblical nature - they are the sins inherited from previous generations and passed down from parent to child like a curse. Lydda, Shavit warns portentously, symbolises "our black box", inside of which "lies the dark secret of Zionism". As an Arab town at the very heart of Israel, he writes...
Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.
The ugly truth, Shavit tells us, is that it was "Zionism" which "carrie[d] out a massacre in the city of Lydda". Then, as tens of thousands of Arabs stream out of the city and into the Jordanian West Bank, he states: "Zionism obliterates Lydda". Shavit's use of the term "obliterates" is obviously figurative. But is his use of the term "massacre" intended to be figurative or literal? The casual mixture of the literal and the figurative makes it hard to tell. There were, however, no shortage of people happy to take him at his word without inquiring further. I was one of them.

But when Ari Shavit's claim of a massacre at Lydda caught Israeli historian Martin Kramer's sceptical eye, he decided to look into it. In July of this year, Mosaic magazine published the results of his investigations: a 9000 word essay, entitled What Happened at Lydda, in which Kramer methodically analysed Shavit's version of events and found it wanting.

Unlike Shavit, Kramer's first responsibility as a practising historian is not to good storytelling but to establishing what most probably happened. Kramer contends that what happened at Lydda was not a massacre but a battle, albeit a chaotic one with highly disproportionate losses to the Palestinian side. Damagingly, he unearths further testimony given by Shavit's own interviewees that either contradicts or significantly complicates his version of events.

And, as Kramer invites us to notice, it turns out that Shavit's omissions and elisions all point in the same direction and support the same narrative demands. This happy coincidence is unlikely to result from sloppy scholarship. Shavit is just doing what storytellers have always done: fashioning a story in his own way, so as to emphasise the themes he wishes to explore. But in so doing, Kramer argues, he had helped to further defame an already slandered state.

Ari Shavit, regrettably, declined to respond. So in the interests of furthering the discussion, Mosaic invited the historian Benny Morris to weigh in.

Morris is well-placed to comment. As a member of those Israeli scholars who became known as the 'New Historians', he has emerged as one of Israel's leading authorities on the 1948 war, writing four books on the subject between 1988 and 2008, and editing a fifth.

The New Historians emerged following the declassification of large parts of the Israeli archives in 1978. This development prompted a surge of revisionist scholarship devoted, not just to updating the record, but to critically re-examining some of Israel's most sensitive foundational myths. Some of what they wrote has since been rejected or updated; much of it has become a part of accepted consensus; other areas - like this one, apparently - remain fiercely disputed.

Furthermore, it is on Morris's work that Shavit reveals he has relied for Lydda's casualty figures and his description of what occurred there as "a massacre". In his 2008 book, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris summarised what happened at Lydda like this:
A firefight ensued, and the locals joined in, sniping from windows and rooftops. The jittery Palmahniks [Israeli soldiers] responded by firing at anything that moved, throwing grenades into houses and massacring detainees in a mosque compound; altogether, "about 250" townspeople died and many were injured, according to IDF records. [pp. 289-90]
Morris, however, declared himself unimpressed by Shavit's account which, he wrote, "distorts in the grand manner". And he rejected Shavit's central contention that Zionism needed to be indicted. Lydda was not and is not Zionism's black box.

But then, nor was Morris all that persuaded by Martin Kramer's contribution, which he accused of trying to whitewash the Israeli crimes of massacre and expulsion. And he agreed with Shavit's claim (derived, as it was, from Morris's own writing) that "Lydda was the biggest massacre of the 1948 war".

Thereafter, the debate sets Ari Shavit's book aside and refocusses on trying to establish what actually occurred over 30 minutes in Lydda on July 12, 1948. From what I can tell the gaps between Kramer and Morris about the events themselves are fairly narrow. But the debate about numbers and testimony is complicated by mutual suspicion of a perceived agenda relating to how these events ought to be described.

Benny Morris is the sworn foe of euphemism. As a Zionist, he insists that Israel must be defended for what it is, not what we would like it to be, and that this requires historians to catalogue its crimes and mistakes with unsparing frankness.

Martin Kramer agrees that Israel should be defended for what it is. But what worries him is an overcorrection into dysphemism. Euphemism distorts reality by sanitising it and reducing argument to apologetics. Dysphemism - the substitution of a neutral term with a pejorative or inflammatory one - does the reverse; it distorts reality by poisoning it and reducing argument to invective.

And so, once the available facts had been disputed and discussed, the debate's conclusion turned on a question of language. About half-way through their final exchange at Mosaic, entitled The Meaning of Massacre, almost as an aside, Benny Morris suddenly appears to concede the point:
Perhaps part of the problem stems from the meaning of the word “massacre.” Of course, all would agree that if you line up 100 civilians or unarmed POWs against a wall and shoot them, you have a massacre. But what occurred in Lydda was more complicated.
A firefight with two Jordanian armored cars and sniping by armed townspeople provoked mass killing by a small IDF contingent that felt vulnerable and panicky: 300 to 400 men in the center of a town that they thought had surrendered (it hadn’t) and that contained tens of thousands of locals and refugees. And the Arabs were the ones who had started the war.
Here Morris defines "massacre" as I would understand it in this context: the deliberate mass killing of unarmed civilians or detainees. Since Morris acknowledges that this is not what happened in Lydda, that would appear to settle the matter. But he then stubbornly defends his use of the term anyway, only in a metaphorical sense - to covey recklessness and vastly disproportionate losses:
But whatever the extenuating circumstances, had IDF troops acted in such a manner today, given current legal and moral norms, they would most likely have been put on trial—by Israel. One can argue that one shouldn’t “judge” soldiers’ behavior in the past by today’s standards. Agreed. But this doesn’t change the fact that they committed a massacre.
This is a slippery defence, and its potential to mislead is large. When Morris writes in 1948 that Lydda witnessed "the massacring of detainees in a mosque compound", it evokes lurid images of helpless men, women, and children being arbitrarily dragged from their houses and having their throats slit by rampaging soldiers. Morris's use of the term "slaughter" during his debate with Kramer only reinforces this impression.

This obscure semantic dispute is important precisely because the rhetoric deployed against Israel has become so thick with abuse, that causal dysphemism is now central to the way the entire conflict is debated, reported, and discussed. In the most recent Gaza war, Israel was widely and routinely accused of committing "massacres", the term often meant to reflect the disproportionate casualty figures, but understood by many to mean the deliberate mass murder of civilians. Thus is the picture created in the mind of the uninformed or hitherto neutral observer of a state which pitilessly liquidates innocents.

But to misapply the term to the War of Independence, as Kramer argues Shavit and Morris have done, is to concede something of even greater value to those who would delegitimise the very existence of the Israeli state: the notion that it was created in sin. Such people are not interested in Zionism's redemption or liberal Zionists' tormented confessions.

For Israel's enemies, the only acceptable act of contrition would be the disestablishment of the whole rotten state. And to that end, if Israel's sin is indeed original, it may legitimately be denied credit for any achievement and condemned twice over for every crime. This accusation is made explicit by a Zionist in Ari Shavit's book: Zionism committed a massacre in Lydda, and it was a massacre without which Israel would not and could not have been created.

Massacres were sometimes committed during the 1948 war, of course. But in trying to ascertain how many, it is no more useful to re-describe a battle as a massacre than it is to whitewash a massacre as a battle. To do either creates not just a category confusion but also a moral one. And yet this confusion persists, in part, because it satisfies a peculiar need.

I find it interesting to note that, by Kramer's account, those most effusive in their praise for Shavit's book, and for the Lydda extract in particular, have not circulated his rebuttal. There are many possible reasons for this, but one of them, I suspect, is that Kramer's analysis did not offer them the same easy but perverse satisfaction as Shavit's account: the satisfaction of feeling good about feeling bad.


The entire discussion can be found collected into a single 36 page .pdf document here. It includes a contribution from historian Efraim Karsh, unmentioned above, which appeared in Mosaic after Kramer's essay but before Morris's first reply. I encourage those who have enjoyed this post to read the whole exchange. Aside from the issues at hand, seeing history debated this way is its own reward. 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Defending the Indefensible

Honour Killings and the Limits of Free Speech

Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar
On Tuesday 24 June, the Sydney Opera House announced the cancellation of a talk entitled "Honour Killings Are Morally Justified", scheduled to be delivered at the annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas by Uthman Badar, a Sydney-based spokesman for the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. The full statement read as follows:
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is intended to be a provocation to thought and discussion, rather than simply a provocation. It is always a matter of balance and judgement, and in this case a line has been crossed. Accordingly, we have decided not to proceed with the scheduled session with Uthman Badar. It is clear from the public reaction that the title has given the wrong impression of what Mr Badar intended to discuss. Neither Mr Badar, the St James Ethics Centre, nor Sydney Opera House in any way advocates honour killings or condones any form of violence against women.
Simon Longstaff, the executive director of the St. James Ethics Centre, which is organising and curating the Festival, then posted the following statement on twitter:


It is unclear from Longstaff's use of the passive voice whether he reluctantly assented to the talk's cancellation or whether it was a decision imposed upon him by the venue. Either way, he was clearly unhappy. But, like the venue, he conceded the title had been "a mistake" unreflective of Badar's arguments.

The difficulty with this is that by Badar's own account (which I have yet to see disputed by anyone connected with the event), the title of the session was not his idea, but was suggested by the St James Ethics Centre. He then wrote the talk to order. So if the title really does not match the content, it is because Badar did not deliver on his brief, which was the unambiguous defence of a barbaric practice. In a facebook post, published after the furore erupted but before the event was cancelled, Badar protested that this was indeed the case:
As for the content of my presentation, I wont [sic] be revealing much before the event itself. Surprise, surprise. I will, however, say that the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous and something I would normally not deem worth of [sic] dignifying with a response. Rather, this is about discussing the issue at a deeper level, confronting accepted perceptions, assumptions and presumptions and seeing things from a different perspective. Is that too much to ask of the liberal mind?
Had the talk's title been framed as a question rather than an assertion, this would be an acceptable defence. But it wasn't, so it's simply an admission by Badar that he had failed to defend the pre-agreed proposition. That this failure is now being used to berate his critics is both an amusing irony and indicative of his lack of integrity.

But even his protestation of failure is not entirely honest, since it is obvious from the pompous tone of the accompanying abstract that Badar did feel he had defended the proposition, at least to his own satisfaction. Having agreed to argue that honour killings are justified, he approached the topic as a student might approach an exam question which doesn't quite fit the answer he's pre-prepared. The brief abstract originally published (now deleted) on the Festival's website informed us:
For most of recorded history parents have reluctantly sacrificed their children—sending them to kill or be killed for the honour of their nation, their flag, their king, their religion. But what about killing for the honour of one’s family? Overwhelmingly, those who condemn ‘honour killings’ are based in the liberal democracies of the West. The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) westerner and the accused is the oriental other; the powerful condemn the powerless. By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned whilst others are celebrated. In turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything that is allegedly wrong with the other culture.
Or, more succinctly: "Mind your own business."

While this is not an assertion that honour killings are morally justified, Badar's apparent demand for moral neutrality precludes anything approaching condemnation, least of all from secular (white) Westerners.

Longstaff - who describes himself as "a philosopher focusing on the ethical dimension of life" - reckons this is all fascinating, and has said he finds Badar's arguments to be "sophisticated" and "nuanced". It's really neither of these things. Nor is it remotely surprising or unusual coming from its author. This is simply the expected jargon-sprinkled moral equivalence and cultural relativism which are the bread and butter of Hizb ut-Tahrir's tedious propaganda. No matter how grotesque the traditions and practices of the Muslim world may appear to be, it is always the West - demonic monopoliser of the planet's wealth and power - which is found to have the beam in its eye.

As for what illiberals like Badar may reasonably expect from what he scornfully calls "the liberal mind", the outcry which followed the announcement of the session was entirely foreseeable, not least because no-one - liberal or otherwise - likes to have their intelligence insulted.

Some may, as Longstaff claimed, not have bothered to read past the title, but given its lack of ambiguity that's perfectly understandable. Others may have decided to accept its plain declarative English over the burbling obscurantist sophistry of the attached abstract. Some may have resented the dishonesty of what appeared to be a bait-and-switch, and that it was an indictment of their own alleged hypocrisy to which they were to be treated. Or perhaps it was Badar's cynical racialisation of the argument they disliked. Or the re-description of those men who murder their kin as more properly belonging amongst the ennobled ranks of "the powerless".

For me, Badar's most objectionable claim is that condemnation of honour-based violence is particular to the West. Not only is this assertion demonstrably false, dismissing at a stroke the courageous women and men organising to fight for human rights in the Global South, but it carries the implication that those forced to submit to honour codes accept their subordination and abuse with uniform passivity and equanimity. These people, we are given to understand, have no need for peculiarly 'Western' notions of gender equality and individual autonomy, or the freedom to love and marry as they choose.

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, the Sydney Opera House's decision to cancel the talk was disappointing, and the latest in a regrettable string of incidents in which speakers have been stood down or disinvited in response to outraged protests. The title ought to have been altered so that it accurately reflected Badar's arguments and an apology ought to have been issued, but the session should have proceeded as planned rather than folding before a censorious campaign. After all, if the West's liberal press and academics are permitted to make identical arguments from moral equivalence, then why not a besuited fanatic at a Festival dedicated to the expression of supposedly dangerous ideas?

Instead, the event's cancellation has afforded Uthman Badar, an Islamist spokesman for a racist, misogynistic, theo-fascist organisation, the opportunity to denounce the West for its disgraceful 'Islamophobia' (which was, in any event, the idea all along) and to complain with righteous bitterness about his victimisation:
Things were assumed and outrage ensued. That is the way Islamophobia works. The assumption is ‘we know what the Muslims will say’. This a very instructive case as far as that goes. I think the hysteria says a lot about Islamophobia and about the extent and the depth of it in this country. It says a lot about the reality of freedom and the space that minorities have to move in in this country, Muslims in particular.
You don't say. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that an activist like Badar anticipated this endgame from the moment he agreed to speak. If anyone is guilty of naivety it is the St James Ethics Centre who have inadvertently helped to promote the Islamists' victimhood agenda and accomplished nothing else besides making themselves look ridiculous. But with dismaying predictability, The Guardian found it necessary to clear space for one Yassir Morsi to defend Badar as a guileless naif and unwitting pawn of the 'Islamophobia' industry:
Badar ought to have intuitively known better that this is what Muslims endure. He should have known about the industry of stereotyping. It was bad enough that the festival’s organisers were so insensitive. For a publicity stunt, they exploited the feelings about victims of, and those left to deal with, "honour" killings. What was also distasteful was their exploiting of a persistent Islamophobia to increase ticket sales and gain attention. It says everything about how attractive the Muslim is as a commodity that sells.
Islamists who complain of 'Orientalist' paternalism are quite prepared to assume the role of bewildered children when evading personal responsibility for their own choices and actions, and newspapers like The Guardian can be relied upon to provide mainstream support. In a comment posted below Morsi's article, the Council of Ex-Muslims Forum could barely contain its disgust:
[Hizb ut-Tahrir] have utilised the rhetoric of identity politics and multicultural tolerance to position themselves as victims, and this enables a liberal newspaper to publish apologia for them despite being far-right extremists . . . The Left should be on guard against far-right fascists and misogynists who superficially use the rhetoric of progressive causes to peddle their agenda. Let this be a wake up call for everyone about the decadent arrogance of cultural relativists on the Left who seem obliviously naive about who they empower and enable, and the far-right Islamists who make hay in their sunshine. Enough is enough.
Morsi neglects, of course, to remind his readership that the organisation of which Badar is a spokesman seeks the imposition of a totalitarian medieval Caliphate in which dissent is crushed, homosexuality and apostasy are punished by death, women and non-Muslims are subjugated, adulterers are stoned, murderers are publicly crucified, and thieves have their limbs amputated. The inclusion of such information might have required him to recalibrate the degree to which Badar’s hitherto wholesome reputation had been traduced.

Had Longstaff wanted Badar to defend a 'dangerous idea' in which he does believe, then any of these would have sufficed. The Hizb ut-Tahrir constitution is not short on 'provocative' material. On the other hand, had Longstaff really wanted the defence of honour killings their title advertised, he should have found a speaker prepared to provide it.

Simon Longstaff and the St James Ethics Centre's wish to provide a platform for dangerous or taboo ideas is a laudable and important one. Rationalism - the idea that all arguments must be fought and won on the basis of reason - is one of the most important and valuable legacies of the Enlightenment, and no-one has the right to declare a point of view unsayable or unhearable, no matter how controversial or repellent. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

Bestiality, paedophilia, incest, infanticide, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, slavery, torture, eugenics, Holocaust denial, female genital mutilation or any other taboo or abhorrent practices must remain acceptable topics for debate for as long as there are people willing to defend them, either as a critical exercise or from a position of unapologetic advocacy. And the unpleasant reality is that there are plenty of people alive today who hold that honour killing is not simply justifiable but a moral requirement and duty.

A particularly horrifying example occurred in May of this year when a young, pregnant woman named Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her family in Pakistan for marrying against her family's wishes. "I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it," her father was reported to have said when he was arrested.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that 869 women were slain in honour killings in 2013 alone, although this is thought to be a very conservative figure. But what made this particular case so shocking is that Parveen was murdered on the steps of the High Court in Lahore in broad daylight, allegedly in front of police officers who stood by impassively as her skull was smashed with bricks. A mere two days later, her husband, hitherto presented as a traumatised widower, casually revealed that he had strangled his first wife in order to marry his second.

For many in the West who have internalised the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the full implications of this terrible story are incomprehensible. But this is partly due to a reluctance to listen to what cultural chauvinists and religious fanatics actually say. Invaluable online resources like that of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) are making this easier to do. Quite apart from the need to defend the universal principle of free expression, it is now counterproductive to simply declare that the defence of honour violence must be suppressed or confined to mosques and madrasas far away from liberal eyes and ears. On the contrary, it would be instructive, I think, if Western audiences were to hear the murder of Farzana Parveen defended by those who truly value this tradition's survival. For if the honour code's pitiless and lethal misogyny is occasionally laid out by its impenitent defenders, it can no longer be dismissed as an Orientalist's fantastical misrepresentation.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas are not of course obliged to provide a platform to views like these. But when organisations do, they should not be criticised unless they affirm endorsement. Bring the advocates of honour violence forward. Let them explain why women must be made to bear the honour of their family, while men are excused responsibility. And why this burden of honour necessarily requires women to forfeit their autonomy. And why they must pay with their lives if they resist.

It may then become clearer to those disinclined to criticise any culture but their own how the lives of women can be considered so cheap that families are able to murder their own mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters without the disturbance of conscience. And it may become harder for Islamists like Badar and ethical thinkers like Longstaff to relativise away the benefits of liberal, secular democracy, and the suffering of those not fortunate enough to enjoy its rights, freedoms, and protections.


UPDATE: As I was completing the first draft of this post, CNN reported that a young newly-wed couple had been decapitated in Pakistan by the bride's family, who then turned themselves in.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Resistance is Futile

Owen Jones and the Surrender of Iraq


In response to news that the al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), had seized control of Mosul and surrounding territories in Northern Iraq, the Times journalist David Aaronovitch summarised the desperate situation [£] as follows:
Isis [now] loosely controls a big stretch of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq and has captured millions of pounds of cash in Mosul banks and tonnes of Iraqi military equipment donated or sold by the United States. It threatens the existence of a unitary Iraq, the safety of the Kurdish autonomous region and the stability of the whole area.
These same events prompted Owen Jones to publish his own article for the Guardian, which began like this: 
I have encountered no sense of vindication, no "I told you so", among veterans of the anti-war protest of 15 February 2003 in response to the events in Iraq.
The first thing one notices is that this sentence looks very silly indeed sitting beneath a headline which flatly declares: "We anti-war protesters were right: the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos".

Secondly, Jones's use of the term "veterans" to describe peace activists just a week after commemoration of the Normandy landings is unfortunate, to say the least. D-Day veterans are the survivors of a mission in which thousands gave their lives in defence of democracy. By contrast, those peaceniks (including Jones himself), valorised with this term in Jones's article, merely marched through London in lawful demonstration against government policy, and at no risk to themselves whatsoever. 

And, lest it be forgotten, they did so in opposition to an attempt to build a democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's fascist despotism. 

Whatever one's related views about the threat posed by Iraqi WMDs, there is, I'm afraid, no getting around this awkward fact. One might argue that the casus belli was manufactured and/or repeatedly altered, but the stated goal of democratisation, one central to neoconservative ideology, remained consistent throughout. Given that the anti-war movement were not exactly preoccupied with devising an alternative, peaceful means to this end (beyond the occasional, woolly reference to the 'Iraqi grassroots'), this left them objectively defending a totalitarian status quo.

Not that this is a morally reprehensible position per se. The utilitarian case for war can be countered with a utilitarian case against it; in other words, one can hold that the consequences of intervening have been worse than the probable consequences of not intervening, and that the West's stated goals were always unattainable and unrealistic. The problem is that, since the war did occur, a retrospective consequentialist argument for non-intervention depends upon acceptance of an unknowable counterfactual. We only have the facts of one half of the argument, and the consequences of non-intervention in Syria do not speak to an attractive alternative.

Nonetheless, it is with this kind of far-sighted thinking that Jones wishes to vindicate the arguments of the anti-war movement:
The catastrophic results of the Iraq invasion are often portrayed as having been impossible to predict, and only inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. If only to prevent future calamities from happening, this is a myth that needs to be dispelled. The very fact that the demonstration on that chilly February day in 2003 was the biggest Britain had ever seen, is testament to the fact that disaster seemed inevitable to so many people.
The February demonstration was testament to the breadth and depth of opposition to the war. It tells us nothing, by itself, about the marchers' reasons. Apocalyptic predictions of disaster are part and parcel of opposition rhetoric before any kind of armed conflict, and were just one of a battery of ever-evolving objections to the war in Iraq, many of which contradicted one another, and many of which have not been borne out.

What in fact drove opposition to the Iraq war wasn't sober and wise prognostication at all. On the contrary, opposition was ideological and visceral. In the wake of 9/11, America experienced a surge in support for a right wing President the European Left already mistrusted. Reflexively uneasy with national pride, they became uneasier still as they watched it being mobilised in support of not one but two Middle Eastern wars. Pacifists and those already inclined to believe that America had, to some degree or other, brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself were soon joined by those who felt that al Qaeda's atrocities were being exploited to advance a hegemonic geopolitical agenda. Some saw hubris, others saw something more sinister and dangerous. Suspicion only increased as the British and American governments sought to terrify their publics into supporting the approaching invasion with fear-mongering speeches and lurid intelligence dossiers filled with alarmist misinformation. 

What united opponents of the war was not a rational analysis of the likely effect on Iraq's Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Marsh Arab communities; it was hostility to the governments who would lie to their citizens and take them for fools, and hostility to American power in the hands of an administration they despised. One can sympathise with this kind of thinking or not but, either way, it requires no consideration of either Iraqis or their interests. 

Such consideration remains conspicuous by its absence from anti-war arguments offered today. The first part of Jones's column is a self-aggrandising reminder of how prescient he and the anti-war camp were; the second of how wrong and generally unsympathetic everyone else is:
The commentators who cheered on the conflict, far from being driven from public life are still feted: still writing columns, still dispensing advice in TV studios, still hosting think tank breakfasts.
Jones also writes columns and dispenses advice in TV studios, and he sits on the National Advisory Panel of a left wing think tank called the Centre for Labour And Social Studies. So the juxtaposition of pro-war elitism with his self-flattering portrait of principled grassroots stoicism is unpersuasive. What really irks him is that, having been so completely right about something so completely important, the West's most influential media organisations and foreign policy think-tanks have not been filled up with people who think like Lindsey German and Tony Benn. 

As for those commentators who ought to be shamed from public life to make way for them, Jones singles out David Aaronovitch and his article in the Times for particular opprobrium. He finds it simply incomprehensible that Aaronovitch is not broken by shame and remorse.

Irrespective of the hostages to fortune Aaronovitch unwisely conceded back in 2003, he never struck me as all that interested in quarrelling over the wording of Security Council resolutions or the dossiers about WMD. Along with a minority of like-minded Leftists, he decided that he wanted to see the back of Saddam Hussein's regime more than he hated the Bush administration, and that the mission to replace a Ba'athist dictatorship with a democracy was one worth supporting, not opposing. 

Mindful of the risks of doing so, Aaronoviotch arrived at this conclusion with considerably more reluctance and unease that Jones allows. But having offered Iraqi democrats his support, he has been consistent in his loyalty to their struggle ever since. Why should he apologise for positions he still holds? And why should he renounce his support for Iraqi democracy just as it faces its moment of greatest peril?

For Owen Jones and the war's opponents, the very idea of democracy in Iraq had to be smothered at birth. It was either derided as a sham - a mere pretext used to justify Western plundering of a Middle Eastern nation - or as a pipe-dream so foolish and quixotic as to be worthy only of scorn. For if Iraq's democratic experiment stood any chance of success, then what exactly were they opposing? 

In this way, opponents of the war developed a perverse ideological interest in the neoconservative project failing, irrespective of the cost to Iraq and its people in whose name peaceniks invariably claimed to speak. And so it was that they conceded the battle for a democratic Iraq before it had even begun. As the country began its slow, gory slide into civil war in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall and arrest, the bloody-minded schadenfreude from the anti-war camp, briefly silenced by the taking of Baghdad, began to gather confidence and authority, which were only reinforced by the non-appearance of WMDs. Not only was the growing mayhem a vindication of their opposition, but it would ensure that next time peace activists spoke on international affairs, democratic governments would be forced to listen.

But democracy in Iraq is not a failure, nor has the idea that Arabs deserve accountable governance been decisively discredited, as Jones and his allies appear to believe. It is a work in progress. A deeply imperfect one, but one in which important, if fragile, gains have nonetheless been made in the teeth of appalling violence. All such gains are now threatened by the advance of ISIS, who seek nothing more noble that the enslavement of the Iraqi nation and its people. Jones, however, appears remarkably eager to excuse ISIS and its forerunners all responsibility for their actions. He will enlist their depredations when they add colour to his canvas of post-war carnage, but condemnation of their culpability remains oddly absent:
The US massacres in Fallujah in the immediate aftermath of the war, which helped radicalise the Sunni population, culminating in an assault on the city with white phosphorus. The beheadings, the kidnappings and hostage videos, the car bombs, the IEDs, the Sunni and Shia insurgencies, the torture declared by the UN in 2006 to be worse than that under Saddam Hussein, the bodies with their hands and feet bound and dumped in rivers, the escalating sectarian slaughter, the millions of displaced civilians, and the hundreds of thousands who died: it has been one never-ending blur of horror since 2003.
Jones is not to be detained by the niceties of who has been killing whom and why. Instead, all post-war violence is simply reported as the by-product the invasion, responsibility for which lies exclusively at the feet of the West. There is no accountability expected for the "never-ending blur of horror" visited on Iraq, except Western accountability. Battles fought to reclaim insurgent strongholds are reported as arbitrary massacres and simply run together with the car bombs, executions and marketplace slaughters carried out by the insurgents themselves. 

To Jones, such actions are not premeditated acts of mass murder performed by actors who have chosen to pursue a merciless theocratic agenda. They are simply manifestations of abstract and unaccountable 'blowback'; a violent and uncontrollable counter-reaction unleashed by Western actions. They are, Jones avers with barely-disguised satisfaction, simply the chickens of American imperialism and Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite sectarianism coming home to roost.

The ISIS conquest of Mosul, we are given to understand, is just the latest development in an irreversible process, resistance to which is futile. "In a way," he sighs, "[the] opponents of the war were wrong. We were wrong because however disastrous we thought the consequences of the Iraq war, the reality has been worse."

Having remarked ruefully on the anti-war movement's noble failure and righteously denounced the war's unrepentant supporters, he abandons Iraq to despair:
What hope, then, for the future? It is difficult to see how the continuing collapse of Iraq can be avoided: the more informed the expert, the more despairing they seem to be. There will be those who champion more western intervention. But whatever happens, this calamity must never be allowed to happen again.
Jones gives no analysis of his own in support of this hopeless prognosis but, on the word of unnamed experts, we are assured that all is lost, just as he foretold. 

David Aaronovitch, on the other hand, is not minded to concede Iraq and its people to theocratic fascism just yet. Unlike Jones, he does not perceive ISIS to be a mere force of nature, but an army of organised, committed and extremely dangerous fanatics operating according to their own ruthless logic. Democrats in Iraq, he argues, need to be identified, supported and, wherever possible, protected from this menace. If this means airstrikes against ISIS positions, then so be it. In particular...
. . . [t]he Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq [KAR] and its 4.8 million inhabitants represent the one incontrovertible gain of the last Iraq war. We must do everything short of putting boots on the ground to help the Kurds to defend themselves against Isis and similar groups. Britain and France should give President Obama whatever encouragement he needs to take this action, and render whatever assistance the Americans might require. We don’t have to agree on anything else — 2003, WMD, Syrian red lines, whatever — just this.
This last appeal is completely wasted on Jones. Nowhere in his article, framed in part as an indignant reply to Aaronovitch, is any mention made of the Kurds, a stateless people whose plight was once so important to the Left that Harold Pinter wrote an unwatchable play about them. As the beneficiaries of an invasion he opposed, the Kurds now find themselves forsaken by Jones, whose only comprehensible recommendation in response to the current crisis is a demand for Western penitence and inaction.

Should the KAR fall to ISIS, then perhaps the Kurds will reclaim the attention of Owen Jones: for by then they will be just another inevitable casualty of a war he'd opposed, and further evidence that he has been right all along.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Victimisers as Victims

Mehdi Hasan and the "New Jews"

The Jewish Museum in Brussels, Begium, where four people,
including an Israeli couple, were murdered on 24 May.
On the 29th of May, Mehdi Hasan published another piece about Islamophobia at the Huffington Post. It came in the wake of alarming gains made by far-right parties in the European elections. As acknowledged by its author, it also came in the wake of a shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in which an Israeli couple and a Belgian woman were shot dead. A fourth victim, critically injured during the shooting, succumbed to his injuries as I was drafting this post.

The only suspect in the shooting, an Islamist jihadi and French national named Mehdi Nemmouche, was not identified and arrested until the day after the publication of Hasan's article. However, similarities to the shooting carried out by Mohammed Merah at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 were already apparent, as was the attack's probable anti-Semitic intent.

Nevertheless, Mehdi Hasan thought that now would be good time to say this:
In some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe. The vile shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May, in which three people were killed, might make this statement sound odd. Anti-Jewish attacks are indeed on the rise in Europe, which is deplorable and depressing, but thankfully anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn't. These days, most anti-Semitic attacks are carried out by second-generation Arabs and are linked to anger over Israeli policies.
For whatever it's worth, I do not believe that Mehdi Hasan is himself an Islamist. By which I mean that I have seen no evidence that he wishes his own freedom to be subject to the demands of State-imposed Islamic Law of any kind. That said, he displays a disturbing readiness to endorse Islamist arguments and talking points, the chief function of which is to re-describe the victimisers as victims.

Hasan's reference to the "Jews of Europe" is historically imprecise, but the phrase most immediately evokes the Nuremberg Laws, concentration camps, and gas chambers. In light of Nemmouche's arrest, and the revelation that he is probably a member of the al Qaeda splinter group ISIS, this sounds not merely "odd", but deranged. The qualifier offered by Hasan - that Muslims only resemble the Jews of Europe "in some respects" - is being asked to do more work than history or common sense will allow. The respects in which Muslims living in European democracies today are plainly not like the Jews of pre-war Germany so vastly outweigh the similarities that they invalidate the comparison.

But the real function of this risible meme is not to draw a historically literate comparison but rather to circulate the idea that Muslims have now replaced Jews at the top of a perceived hierarchy of suffering. For if Muslims are the "new Jews", then the Jews' own claim to this perversely coveted title must have, by definition, expired. To use the words "but thankfully anti-Semitism", a mere five days after an anti-Semitic multiple murder, strikes me as unwise. To do so as the basis from which to argue that Muslims have a superior claim to victimhood strikes me as political, a feeling confirmed by Hasan's next observation that attacks on Jews no longer come from the nationalist far-right but from "second generation Arabs and are linked to anger over Israeli policies".

I'm afraid I'm unable to see why being targeted by the Islamist assassins of al Qaeda is an improvement on being targeted by the nationalist far-right. And what exactly is the nature of this mysterious "link" by which Hasan connects the continuing occupation of the West Bank to the murder of two Israeli tourists in Belgium, who - for all Hasan knows - may have hated the Netanyahu government?

In their co-authored book, Myths, Illusions and Peace, the former Middle East negotiator and analyst Dennis Ross and the journalist David Makovsky describe this kind of "linkage" argument as "the mother of all myths" about the Middle East. Having examined the ways in which Arab governments have instrumentalised the conflict in Palestine as a means of pursuing their own political and geopolitical agendas, Makovsky and Ross turn to the matter of terrorism:
[The linkage idea] has also been used as an explanation for terrorism. By anchoring political violence to grievance, terrorist perpetrators sought not only to justify their actions, but to neutralise those who would oppose them.
The authors remind us that, in his earliest fatwas, Osama bin Laden displayed scant interest in the Palestinian conflict. He was instead preoccupied with forcing the removal of "crusader" (ie: American) soldiers from sacred Saudi Arabian soil, with toppling the illegitimate Saudi monarchy, and with re-establishing the Holy Islamic Caliphate under a particularly austere and cruel reading of Sharia Law. But...
. . . after 9/11, bin Laden discovered the utility of the Palestinian issue. Suddenly, he began more openly trying to tie his actions to the cause of the Palestinians. In one videotaped message after 9/11, he declared, "Neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine."
As Ross and Makovsky point out, if this ex post facto rationale for the premeditated murder of almost 3000 people is to be believed, it must be reconciled with the knowledge that the 9/11 atrocity was being planned as talks to resolve the conflict in the Middle East were ongoing. Besides which, al Qaeda's broader revolutionary agenda includes a non-negotiable rejection of a Jewish State on Muslim land in any form. It defies plausibility that, had a conflict-ending agreement been signed at Camp David in July 2000, the mission would have been called off. Nonetheless, the idea persists that the conflict in Palestine is responsible, at least in part, for Islamist terror directed at diaspora Jews.

It remains to be seen whether or not Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged Brussels assassin, decides to invoke the suffering of Palestine in his own defence. But during the siege following the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012, the assailant Muhamad Merah, also a self-described member of al Qaeda, let it be known that he had shot 3 Jewish children and a rabbi dead in order to avenge "Palestinian children".

The French Party of the Indigenous of the Republic [PIR] (about which I have written previously) responded by releasing a statement, which read in part:
We also feel anger and bitterness at the act of a young man claiming to support the cause of Palestinians and Afghanis. His act distorts the goals of these just causes, muddies the message and reinforces the side he claims to oppose . . . However, it would be wrong to believe that Mohamed Merah’s vengeful fantasies came out of nowhere. The terrible violence that he displayed this week was fed for years by the cold reason of the murderous wars being led by major powers in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere with the support of the Israeli state. How could we not predict that all this would lead one day to violent actions in which Jewish French people, constantly linked by French propaganda to Zionism, would be the target? . . . How could the possibility of the growing Islamophobia expressed ad nauseam, and becoming a major electoral refrain this year, moving some members of violent sects to action be ignored? Such a political-ideological context could not be ignored.
Mehdi Hasan would, I think, struggle to disagree with any part of this sophistical attempt to reclothe a murderer of Jewish children in the rags of political martyrdom. After all, the same two mitigating elements deployed by Hasan post-Brussels are present and correct here: injustice in Palestine and Islamophobia at home.

Unexamined "root cause" arguments for Islamic terror are highly expedient to Islamists who target civilians - they provide a comprehensible explanation for apparently arbitrary acts of savagery; they help disguise Islamism's supremacist agenda beneath a counter-narrative in which Islamists cast themselves as history's most abject victims; and they shift the focus - and ideally the blame - from the assassins themselves onto the policies to which they object.

And they are, of course, also highly convenient to mainstream commentators like Mehdi Hasan, and the broadsheet Left's perverse Noam Chomsky tendency, since they add ballast to their own anti-war arguments. But what makes "root causism" dangerous is that it encourages the idea that democracies are to blame for the political violence committed against their citizens, and that foreign and domestic policy must therefore be altered to meet terrorist demands. This is what's also known as appeasement.

Mehdi Hasan's defenders will object most strenuously (they always do) that he has spoken out about what he called the "dirty little secret" of Muslim anti-Semitism, and that he received considerable abuse from his co-religionists in general, and Islamists in particular, for his trouble.

Indeed he has, and indeed he did. And returning to his 2012 article on the subject today, it should be noted that some of the language he used to describe the problem remains striking and emphatic:
It is sheer hypocrisy for Muslims to complain of Islamophobia in every nook and cranny of British public life, to denounce the newspapers for running Muslim-baiting headlines, and yet ignore the rampant anti-Semitism in our own backyard.
Upon publication, Hasan's courage in addressing this taboo topic was applauded by many unaccustomed to agreeing with him (including me). However, what's odd about the piece on reflection is the absence of analysis. Having publicly identified the problem and listed a handful of anecdotal examples, Hasan neglects to explore it:
The truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected members of the British Muslim community, both young and old. No, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict hasn’t helped matters. But this goes beyond the Middle East. How else to explain why British Pakistanis are so often the most ardent advocates of anti-Semitic conspiracies, even though there are so few Jews living in Pakistan?
It is interesting to note that in 2014 Hasan argues that European anti-Semitism is largely the product of "Arab anger at Israeli policies". But in his piece about Muslim anti-Semitism a year earlier he had argued that the Middle East was a subordinate factor - something that "hasn't helped" but which does not, by itself, explain the conspiratorial Jew hatred which he tells us is "rampant" in Muslim communities. He was closer to the truth the first time around. But as for "how else" to account for this poisonous phenomenon, no answer if forthcoming. Having opened his inquiry, Hasan abruptly abandons it when its conclusions threaten to become toxic.

One of the difficulties faced by Hasan and the 'anti-Imperialist' Left in combatting Islamist propagandising on terrorism and Israel is that their anti-Westernism and anti-Zionism predispose them to agree with most of it. And, having become comfortable endorsing Islamist narratives regarding foreign policy and the Middle East, they find themselves more at ease defending their new allies in the increasingly bitter disputes over multiculturalism, and what has become known as "non-violent extremism".

Hasan's lamentable response to the row between the Home Office and the Department of Education suggests it is enough to discredit the 'conveyor belt' theory of radicalisation in order to discredit the government's focus on non-violent extremism. Surely, it ought to go without saying that those who advocate the murder of apostates, gays, and Jews, the subjection of women and non-Muslims, and the restoration of medieval hudud punishments present a threat to the welfare of others, irrespective of whether or not they have foresworn terrorism as a means of achieving these regressive goals.

But when Islamist organisations seeking to impose their beliefs on secular space and discourse meet with resistance from liberals and secularists of all kinds, it is by the Islamists' side that Mehdi Hasan tends to stand in solidarity:
Social media has emboldened an army of online Islamophobes; in the real world, mosques have been firebombed and politicians line up to condemn Muslim terrorism/clothing/meat/ seating arrangements.
Hasan's juxtaposition of arson committed by criminals with the condemnation of Islamist terrorism by elected politicians is simply bizarre. Would he prefer it if Muslim terrorism were not condemned? Or would he just like to see it tempered by a bit more Western penitence and moral equivocation? And does he really believe that attempts to introduce gender apartheid and discriminatory dress codes into free societies are of no consequence or concern - matters to be euphemised as false quarrels over "clothing" and "seating arrangements"?

It seems to me that there's a struggle going on within Islam to which Hasan has been paying insufficient attention. It is one in which embattled reformers could use his solidarity and support. For such people, the spread of religious veiling and gender apartheid are neither benign nor desirable phenomena, but sinister developments to be resisted in the name of secularism, female autonomy and gender equality.

But those Muslims mobilising against Islamism tend not to benefit from Hasan's sympathy. Time after time, most recently during the row over the Jesus and Mo cartoon fiasco, when multicultural controversy erupts, he has reflexively lined up with the reactionary tendency, recycled their mitigating excuses, and rehearsed their diversionary arguments from victimhood.

Perhaps the most galling of these offered in his Huffington Post piece, and one characteristic of the bad faith that informs Hasan's writing on these matters, is his closing invocation of the massacre of over 8000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. Hasan wonders aloud if his fears regarding the current climate of Islamophobia are the result of paranoia, before answering his own question as follows:
If only. Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were lined up and shot in the heart of Europe. It was the worst genocide on the continent since the Second World War and was made possible by a far-right campaign of demonisation and dehumanisation. I wish I could believe the mantra of "never again". But these European election results fill me with dread. 
If the Srebrenica genocide typified the Muslim experience in Western Europe, then Hasan's fears would be irrefutable. But it doesn't. On the contrary, not only did NATO (eventually) intervene to halt Serbian-backed VRS atrocities, it deployed 60,000 troops to implement the Dayton Accords, provide humanitarian aid and begin reconstruction. Four years later NATO intervened in the Balkans again, this time to protect the Muslim population of Kosovo and, following the subsequent downfall of the Milosovic regime, it extradited Serbia's former leadership and brought it before the ICTY in the Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity.

And it did all this over the objections of people like Hasan, whose absolute opposition to the use of Western power requires him to watch the slaughter of even his co-religionists - whether in the Balkans or the Levant - with equanimity. As he remarked in an unpardonably sanctimonious article at the height of the Ukraine crisis:
It is “illegal and illegitimate” for Russia to try to detach Crimea from Ukraine by means of a dodgy referendum, Hague says. Indeed, it is. But was it any less illegal or illegitimate for the west to detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign?
A very silly analogy indeed. But notice that once again the victimiser, in this case Serbian nationalism, is recast as victim in the service of anti-Western polemic. Hasan damns the West for its complicity in the mass-murder of over 8000 Muslims on European soil, and then damns it again for preventing a possible re-run of this atrocity in another part of the Balkans just four years later. (Needless to say, he also compares Putin's annexation of Crimea to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, another analogy that could do with further thought.)

Hasan's bitter denunciations of the country in which he lives and for which he affects to feel such pride ("My seven-year-old daughter is counting down the days until she can watch England play in the World Cup" he offers), betray a childish and self-pitying ingratitude.

Contemporary Britain, for all its faults and imperfections, has been good to Mehdi Hasan. It has offered him the opportunity of a world-class education (he's an Oxford graduate) and a successful career as an influential journalist, broadcaster and opinion-former, and it has affording him complete freedom of conscience as a Shia Muslim to believe, profess and worship, something he would not be afforded in many Muslim majority countries. Not only that, but in spite of his constant bleating about 'Islamophobia', polite society has been exceedingly forgiving of his own bigotry, freely expressed when he thought no-one who would mind was listening.

If it is true, as Saif Rahman reported on a recent blogpost, that Hasan has recently been on a trip to America financed by the Islamist front organisation CAIR, then it may be that the "joke" he reports telling his American wife about fleeing Europe's terrifying racism for the States is in fact a signal of his intention to do just that. I'm speculating, of course, but an intelligent and eloquent dissembler like Hasan would prove extremely valuable to CAIR. And I have no doubt they have highly agreeable things to say on the subjects of Israel, American foreign policy, and the desirability of using the term 'Islamophobia' as promiscuously as possible. Were CAIR to offer Hasan a position, and were he to accept, then my assumption at the top of this post that he is not an Islamist would start to look very unsafe indeed.

But there exists another possibility, although I'm dubious about how much faith or patience it deserves. This is that Mehdi Hasan starts to appreciate the scale of the danger posed by Islamism: a homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, chauvinistic, misanthropic, conspiratorial, millenarian, expansionist and totalitarian ideology, of which there is no known 'moderate' strain. What separates al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri from an ostensible democrat like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, or an imam like Yusuf al Qaradawi from an apparently urbane academic like Tariq Ramadan, is not a matter of substance but one of mere strategy. The oppression of millions across the Muslim world already subject to Islamism's punishing rule and pitiless violence cannot simply be waved away with a reference to Palestine or Iraq.

It is not just Islamism that benefits from the excuse-making of people like Mehdi Hasan; when centrists and Leftists fail to confront the threat Islamists present, the xenophobic right and far-right are only too happy to step into the breach. The surge in support for nationalist parties in the European elections, eager to capitalise on fear of and hostility to Islamist designs, is extremely concerning. Reactionary and provincial nationalists are no kind of solution to anything. Armed with their own demagogic and self-pitying grievance agenda, they pose a threat, not just to Muslims, but to everyone.

The answer is not to appease Islamist grassroots activism and violence, or to seek refuge in tribal apologetics or to proceed on the suicidal assumption that the enemy of one's enemy is one's friend. It is to organise against, expose, and marginalise all intolerant, identitarian and totalitarian politics, irrespective of whether its provenance is Islamic or European.