Friday 14 August 2015

Tomorrow Belongs To Us

Thoughts On Totalitarian Violence and Ideology

(L-R) Abdul Wahid (Chairman of the UK Executive Committee), Jamal Harwood (UK Executive Committee), and Taji Mustafa (Media Representative) at a Hizb ut-Tahrir event in Whitechapel in 2013. (The misplaced hyphen on the event backdrop adds an unintentionally comical touch.)
In a post published in the wake of British Prime Minister David Cameron's July 20 speech on counter-extremism in Birmingham, the anonymous mugwump attacks 'Eustonites', the counter-extremist think-tank Quilliam, and of course Cameron himself in an effort to demonstrate that "there is no causality between Islamism and terrorism". 

Mugwump links to a number of studies and reports which I have not addressed here, since they are used to support an argument I believe has been built on faulty premises. Instead, most of this post is devoted to an alternative reading of the Prime Minister's speech which reflects my understanding of the government's view, as well as some wider thoughts about the nature of Islamist ideology.

Incidentally, while I am happy to accept the 'Eustonite' label, the 2006 Euston Manifesto (the only document 'Eustonites' have in common) takes no line on the relationship between Islamism and jihadism. So, in what follows, I speak for no-one but myself.

The 'Conveyor Belt Theory'

Mugwump's post accuses Cameron of blithely accepting a fatuous 'conveyor belt theory' of radicalisation, which he alleges has been foisted on the credulous Prime Minister by uninformed advisors at Quilliam.

To describe the 'conveyor belt' idea as a 'theory' is to over-promote it. A more accurate description would be a rather poor analogy, which seems to have its origins in a 2004 report on Hizb ut-Tahrir published by the Nixon Center, and authored by its then director of International Security and Energy Programmes, Zeyno Baran.

The limitations of the analogy's explanatory value are readily apparent. Items on a conveyor belt have no individual agency or psychology; they are passively processed by a machine before being churned out, fully reconstituted, at their final destination. But Baran's use of the term was never intended to suggest this kind of direct causality or mechanical and unidirectional progression.

She was speaking more generally about what she called "ideological preparation" as part of a "division of labour", and the recurrent formation of more radical splinter groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (1958), Al-Muhajiroun (1996), Akramiye (1996), and Hizb un-Nusrat (1999), by HT activists who had lost patience with the organisation's gradualist revolutionary strategy. Like every serious analyst dealing with counter-extremism, Baran was perfectly well aware that not every HT activist goes on to become a jihadist.

Nonetheless, Islamists were not slow to seize on the manifest failings of their own literalist interpretation of the term and to use them - absurdly - to claim that Islamist ideology therefore makes no contribution to Islamist terror at all. But pointing out that not everything with four legs is a dog does not alter the fact that dogs are quadrupedal. Unless and until someone produces a jihadist who is not also an Islamist, it ought to be possible for reasonable people to agree that Islamist ideology is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for Islamist terrorism.

The Quilliam View and the Cameron Speech

In his blog post, mugwump extracts and emphasises the following lines from Cameron's speech:
[Y]ou don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish . . . [We must confront] groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.
Mugwump then remarks:
The basic idea is that non-violent Islamist ideology -> violent Islamist terrorism. It’s an idea referred to as the “conveyer-belt theory of terrorism” propounded by (mostly non-academic) bodies like the Quilliam Foundation. 
No evidence is provided of Quilliam's advocacy of the conveyor belt idea, and if it is as central to the organisation's thinking on radicalisation as mugwump claims, it is reasonable to suppose there would be a substantial amount of Quilliam literature devoted to explaining and defending it. When I contacted the founding chairman Maajid Nawaz by email for comment, he was adamant: "Neither Quilliam nor I have ever advocated the ‘conveyor belt theory’ as understood by its straw-man building critics."

In their FAQs, the organisation argues that Islamist ideology pushes a grievance narrative which provides "the mood music to which suicide bombers dance" - a metaphor first used in Quilliam's 2008 launch publication - which reflects the more complex relationship indicated by Cameron's reference to "a climate in which extremists can flourish".

So while Cameron and Quilliam are indeed making a link between Islamist ideology and Islamist violence, the language they are using falls significantly short of describing the direct, causal link mugwump spends the rest of his post energetically attacking. Causality implied by the formulation "X -> Y" demands that effect Y necessarily follows from cause X, a relationship Cameron does not come close to asserting and which Quilliam's freely-available information explicitly refuses to endorse.

As Quilliam's FAQ page elaborates:
IS THERE ANY PROOF THAT EXTREMISM LEADS TO TERRORIST VIOLENCE? Certain factors, whether they lead to terrorism or not, are highly problematic in themselves in terms of social and national cohesion. It is our contention that ultimately, seeking or demanding empirical proof for complex human behaviour patterns is unhelpful. Just as there is no direct proof that the spread of neo-Nazi or Fascist ideas in society leads directly to violence against Jews or other minorities, we would nevertheless find it extremely problematic if such views were to spread, and would be concerned from a common sense approach about the danger of this rhetoric provoking violence. It goes without saying that all violent neo-Nazis were at some stage non-violent neo-Nazis before they commenced to attack their victims. The same is true of Islamism.

The Totalitarian Analysis Part 1: 
Identity and Victimhood

There are, I believe, two ways of analysing and understanding Islamism. The first approach seeks to understand it as a religious phenomenon. That is to say, to examine Islamism through the prism of Islamic theology and religious history. The second is to consider Islamism as a totalitarian political ideology.

These analyses overlap and both are valuable to a deeper understanding of what Islamism is and how it developed. But it is the latter which, to my mind, offers a clearer insight into Islamism's otherwise mysterious allure and the dangers it presents to liberal democracy. Not least because Western totalitarian ideas exerted a profound influence on Islamist thought, which first emerged in the writings of a handful of Egyptian theorists following the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.

In the section of his speech immediately following his mention of "certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish", Cameron elaborated on what those ideas are.
Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality.
Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation.
Ideas – like those of the despicable far right – which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others.
And ideas also based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.
And like so many ideologies that have existed before – whether Fascist or Communist – many people, especially young people, are being drawn to it. We need to understand why it is proving so attractive.
Cameron sketches an ideological framework which is anti-democratic, sectarian, supremacist, conspiracist, and anti-Semitic. His concluding lines, which directly compare Islamist ideology to the totalitarian ideologies of Communism and Fascism, invite us to consider Islamism, not as a primarily religious phenomenon, but as the inheritor and most recent incarnation of one of the twentieth century's most destructive and potent political myths.

This myth rests on a cosmic and paranoid but powerfully seductive view of world history, in which the righteous and the chosen have been dispossessed and persecuted by corrupt and powerful elites from without, and beset by treacherous forces from within. (Cameron returned to the theme of conspiracism repeatedly in his speech, mentioning it no less than nine times, in reference to both Islamist conspiracy theories and to those circulated about Muslims by the nativist far-right.)

This is not to suggest that Islamist ideology can be disentangled and neatly separated from Islam. On the contrary, Islamism is explicitly and fanatically Islamic, and Cameron was clear about his refusal to further indulge those who seek to decouple one from the other. But he was also careful to point out that, in the first instance, Islamism appeals to Muslims as members of an embattled community which uses Islam as a marker of identity. In this respect, its narrative closely shadows that of previous totalitarian mass movements.

For the Nazis, the victimised chosen few were the Aryan race. For revolutionary Communists, they were the Proletariat. For Islamists, they are Muslims, all members of a pan-national community of believers known as the Umma. In each case, grievance, resentment, alienation, and a paranoid siege mentality are encouraged and exploited where they already exist. Where they do not, they are sown and then carefully cultivated where the soil is found to be fertile.

Victimology is central to all Islamist propaganda, and as David Paxton's recent essay reminds us, it was a point of repeated emphasis in Osama bin Laden's 1996 Declaration of War, which Paxton describes as "wallow[ing] in the tropes of Muslim victimhood and conspiracism". In keeping with this narrative, anti-Semitism - the world's oldest conspiracist hatred, enjoining the inflammatory scapegoating of Jews (latterly referred to as 'Zionists') - turns out to be salient to all three ideologies.

Palestine. Kashmir. Chechnya. Iraq. Afghanistan. Bosnia. Burma. Sykes-Picot. European colonialism. American bases on sacred soil. Domestic counter-terrorism measures perceived as a mere pretext for the subjugation of Muslims. In the mouths of Islamist propagandists, real instances of persecution become indistinguishable from the complexities of ongoing conflicts and historical grievances stretching back decades, even centuries. Western intervention undertaken in defence of Muslim populations is disregarded, and the persecution and oppression of Muslim populations by other Muslims is either downplayed or somehow blamed on the West (and/or Israel) by proxy.

All of this stuff is simply grist to the anti-Western, anti-Zionist conspiracist mill, identified by Cameron in his speech, which contrives a version of reality in which the world of unbelief is at war with history's eternal victims.

The Totalitarian Analysis Part 2: The Utopian Promise

Totalitarian ideologies offer a millenarian, triumphalist answer to this selective and confected narrative of victimisation and despair - the marshalling of a revolutionary vanguard which will establish a peaceful, orderly, earthbound paradise in which the wretched will be redeemed, their tormentors will suffer, and justice will at last be served. The message may be summarised as: "We are the world's forsaken. But tomorrow belongs to us".

The establishment of a neo-Caliphate in defiance of Western power, international law, and even state borders has given this narrative its biggest shot in the arm since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and, as Cameron pointed out, it has helped to persuade many of its adherents that their redemptive hour is finally at hand:
[L]ike any extreme doctrine, it can seem energising, especially to young people. They are watching videos that eulogise ISIS as a pioneering state taking on the world, that makes celebrities of violent murderers. So people today don’t just have a cause in Islamist extremism; in ISIS, they now have its living and breathing expression.
For an anecdotal example of the pull this kind of utopian promise can exert on Western Muslims already persuaded that they live in a dystopian nightmare, consider the statement released by the Mannan family (unverified but generally thought to be genuine) which describes British democracy as "totalitarian" and the Islamic State as a "land that is free from the corruption and oppression of man made law and is governed by the Shariah, the perfect and just laws of Allah":
Yes, all 12 of us and why should this number be shocking, when there are thousands and thousands of Muslims from all corners of the world that are crossing over land and sea everyday to come to the Islamic State? That are willingly leaving the so called freedom and democracy that was forced down our throat in the attempt to brainwash Muslims to forget about their powerful and glorious past and now present.  
The simplicity and flexibility of the victimhood-and-utopia message on which mass movements are built is what has made it such an adaptable and resilient meme; one with an appeal so broad, it offers almost unlimited routes to identification and embrace. It knows no boundaries of class or gender and may seduce the educated and the unlettered, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural.

For those in search of meaning, mass movements provide an instantly comprehensible view of the world. For those estranged from the self, they provide identity. For the alienated, they provide belonging. For the frustrated, they provide purpose. For the lost, they provide order. They remove the need for independent thought, critical reflection, an appreciation of complexity, and personal responsibility, and they provide a convenient receptacle for every kind of personal, political, and psychological grievance, with the comfort of a shared redemptive struggle against injustice in the name of virtue.

And, perhaps most important of all, ignorance is no barrier to acceptance. Albert Camus once remarked that no-one was persuaded to become a Communist by the writings of Marx. "First they convert," he observed. "Then they read the scriptures". An unexamined belief in the manifest corruption of the West, 'Zionist' moral turpitude, and the hypocrisy of democratic ideas comes first; the prescriptive detail - whether found in Mao's Little Red Book or in 7th Century religious texts and the writings of the Islamist theorist du jour - follows.

But follow it must. Mass movements depend for their effectiveness on ideological discipline, which is why Islamist groups - from Raqqa to London's East End - devote so much time and attention to the indoctrination of hitherto uninformed recruits in 'study circles'.

When Cameron referred in his speech to the threat posed by Islamist ideology, he was not talking about the nuts-and-bolts of this-or-that recommended Hudud punishment for apostasy, homosexuality, or theft, but about a conspiracist worldview which insists that reality as we experience it is an illusory fraud. Muslims are the 'new Jews'. Zionists are the new Nazis. Democracy is despotism. Freedom is slavery. Truth is falsehood. Totalitarianism is emancipation.

In this light, Islamism is best understood, not simply as a religiously conservative strain of Islam presenting a threat to social cohesion and tolerant pluralism (although it is indubitably that too); it is foremost a supremacist revolutionary ideology, aggressively irredentist and imperialist in aim and politically fascist in character, which presents an existential threat to liberty and democracy.

Listening to Cameron's speech, I was reminded of something Michael Weiss said during a discussion at the International Peace Institute about ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the book he co-authored with Hassan Hassan:
At one point we were interviewing an ISIS fighter who was giving us this sense of having been completely brainwashed and having seen the true cause of the revolution through the eyes of ISIS clerics. And it reminded me of the end of [Koestler's] Darkness at Noon. Rubashov is going to his death, and he misremembers a passage in his own memoir [which] says something like: "We are past the ethical ballast of the 19th Century". In other words, all the morality - your false consciousness - is taken away from you, and you are seeing the world anew. 
And that's not just something resonant with Soviet Communism. If you read Orwell's review of Mein Kampf in 1940, he says "I don't understand. How is it that the most industrialised, civilised nation in Western Europe bows down before somebody who says 'I offer you death?'" Well, what happens when the late failure of radical hopes and liberal democracy turns to ash? Strong men come along with a very tidy understanding of the way the world works; they promise you absolution; they promise you heaven - either on earth or afterward - and you bow down. 
I keep saying that one of the problems US foreign policy has today is that we are thinking in a 'post-Cold War mentality' a little too much for our own good. Students of totalitarianism would have a better go at understanding ISIS - the appeal and how to fight it - than people who only know counter-terrorism.

'Non-Violent' Extremism and the Inevitability of Totalitarian Violence

Early in his post, mugwump offers the following distinction:
[A]n Islamist believes in the political application of Islam. A violent Islamist believes in the violent application of Islam. This is the dividing line between non-violent and violent extremism. Both are problems that should be tackled but the Quilliam view treats them as part of the same problem. Both are ideologies - which is why the idea that this isn’t an “ideological” problem is wrong, what matters is which ideology we’re talking about.
This strikes me as a very poor piece of analysis indeed.

First of all, Islamists all believe in both the political and the violent application of Islam given that, once established, an Islamist theocracy will reserve for itself a monopoly on violence with which to enforce Islamic law. Islamists diverge, not over the application of Islam, but over how to go about establishing the totalitarian society in which Islam is to be applied.

Secondly, an ideological commitment to jihad and the veneration of martyrdom are central to all Islamist doctrine. What separates 'jihadists' from those Islamist groups euphemistically termed 'non-violent' is a separate distinction between 'offensive' and 'defensive' jihad, and an understanding of the conditions under which each is permissible.

'Defensive jihad' refers to the use of violence (including terrorism) to overthrow illegitimate 'apostate' regimes on occupied Muslim land. This includes every country which has - at one time or another - fallen under Islamic rule, including the Balkans, Spain, and Southern Italy. 'Offensive jihad' refers to an expansionist holy war of conquest waged on the wider world of unbelief. 'Non-violent' Islamists and 'jihadists' agree that both of these are religious obligations, but the former hold that 'offensive' jihad may only be waged once the Caliphate has been successfully established. In the meantime, if 'non-violent' groups appear to renounce a commitment to 'defensive' jihad in certain theatres of operation, it is not a matter of ideology, but a tactical consideration, contingent upon what is conducive to the attainment of their strategic goals.

In most of the countries in which it operates, the Muslim Brotherhood professes to have foresworn terror for democratic activism and politics. The group's Palestinian chapter, however, is an avowedly jihadist organisation, and its commitment to the violent destruction of Israel is "an individual duty" repeatedly mandated in its foundational charter. As an organisation, it retains its foundational slogan which avers: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our path. Martyrdom in the way of Allah is our dearest aspiration." As recently as 2012, the Brotherhood's Egyptian President-to-be Mohammad Morsi could be heard defiantly bellowing these words into a rapturous Cairo rally.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, another Islamist group habitually referred to as 'non-violent', currently has activists in over 40 countries working to create the conditions for a seizure of power by violent coup within the Islamic world, and for the overthrow of non-Muslim nations once the Caliphate's subsequent war of conquest finally gets under way. At an HT rally in London in 2006, Asim Qureshi - research director at CAGE, another putatively non-violent Islamist organisation - said: "it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in [Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, and Afghanistan]" and, in 1988, HT's magazine al-Fajr issued an official edict sanctioning the hijacking of Israeli airliners and the murder of Jewish hostages. (I know of no Islamist organisation - Sunni or Shi'ite - which does not sanction and defend 'martyrdom operations' in Israel.)

In one of a series of 'Letters to the Youth', Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, justified the organisation's imperial ambitions with explicit reference to its fascist antecedents (this extract, previously unavailable in English, has just been translated from the original Arabic by Valentina Colombo, a senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy):
Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Hijaz, Yemen, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Marrakech, and every inch of earth upon which there is a Muslim who says "there is no God but Allah", all this is our great nation that we shall liberate, save, free and whose parts we shall bring together one after the other. If the German Reich imposed itself as a protector of all people who had German blood in their veins, then [the] Islamic faith compels every strong Muslim to consider himself a protector of all who have been impregnated by the teachings of Qur'an [. . .] Andalusia, Sicily, the Balkans, Southern Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean were all Islamic colonies and must return to Islam. The Mediterranean and the Red Sea have to become again two Islamic seas as it used to be. If Mr. Mussolini considered as his right to recreate the Roman Empire, whose so-called ancient empire was built on nothing but avarice and pleasure, then it is our right to restore the glory of the Islamic Empire which was founded on justice, fairness, and spread light and guidance among the people.
Even if an Islamist revolution were somehow to be achieved without a shot being fired or a neck being severed, consolidating and expanding power and control will unavoidably demand the purging - with extreme prejudice - of the ideologically impure, and the forcible imposition of ideology upon those recalcitrant free-thinkers unwilling and unable to submit to its conspiracist message.

In his short 1951 book about mass movements, The True Believer, the American writer Eric Hoffer made the following observation about the limits of propaganda and the inevitability of totalitarian violence:
Were propaganda by itself one-tenth as potent as it is made out to be, the totalitarian regimes of Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain would have been mild affairs. They would have been blatant and brazen but without the ghastly brutality of secret police, concentration camps and mass extermination.
The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something entirely new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe . . .
Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated. Their throbbing fears, hopes and passions crowd at the portals of their senses and get between them and the outside world . . . Indeed, it is easier for the frustrated to detect their own imaginings and hear the echo of their own musings in impassioned double-talk and sonorous refrains than in precise words joined together by faultless logic. . . [But] to maintain itself, a mass movement has to order things so that when the people no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force. 
Words are an essential instrument in preparing the ground for a mass movement. But once the movement is realised, words, though still useful, cease to play a decisive role. So acknowledged a master of propaganda as Dr. Goebbels admits in an unguarded moment that "a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be truly effective".
In 2000 Abdul Qadeem Zallum, Hizb ut-Tahrir's global leader between 1977 and 2003, published How the Khilafah was Destroyed in which he described what would be required once the Caliphate had been successfully established: "To spread Islam and to carry its message even if the disbeliever did not attack us.” The killing of civilians in pursuit of this aim would be permissible, he explained, and the massacre of 'apostates' - "even if they number millions" - would be compulsory.

To describe this ideology as 'non-violent' is to empty the term of meaning. No strain of Islamist doctrine is untainted by the cult of suicide and death because, whether or not an individual Islamist decides to engage in violent activity, violence is inextricably bound up in the logic of the ideology to which all Islamists adhere, just as it is inextricably bound up in the logic of all totalitarian ideologies. Quilliam's 2008 launch publication put it like this:
There remains a core of Wahhabite-Islamist activists and groups who continue to advocate separatist, confrontational ideas that, followed to their logical conclusion, lead to violence.
On twitter, mugwump pulled these 25 words from a 4000 word document and proffered them as conclusive proof of Quilliam's supposed commitment to the 'conveyor belt' idea. But, in so doing, he simply confirmed that he is at cross-purposes with those he attacks.

Belief in a 'conveyor belt' transporting radicals from non-violent Islamism into a violent variant presupposes that these categories can be neatly separated into two discrete and mutually exclusive groups in the first place. But this is mugwump's presupposition, not Quilliam's. If, on the other hand, violence is hardwired into Islamist ideology, then the problem becomes the ideology itself, as Quilliam contend. This requires a substantially more subtle and sophisticated reading of the relationship between ideology and violence than mugwump's myopic focus on notions of linear causality will allow.

As Quilliam's website makes clear, the "complex human behaviour patterns" which move an individual to decide that he or she will kill and die in the name of 'resistance' or to further their revolutionary goals are opaque, and likely to remain so: a murky mix of circumstance, strategy/expedience, and individual psychology.

But that some will be so moved should be neither controversial nor surprising, any more than the self-evident fact that Maoist ideology formerly inspired a plethora of revolutionary Marxist groups to radical action in pursuit of their aims. Is it precisely what revolutionary propaganda is purpose-built to achieve among those predisposed to accept it: the steady background drone of humiliation and despair, and the patient stoking of disaffection, hatred, rage, and paranoid despair - the mood music in Quilliam's eerie metaphor.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Lonely Nobility of Brendan O'Neill

FGM & The Case Against The Case Against Intervention.

In an angry article for the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill inveighs against provisions in the Serious Crime Act (2015), which authorise the confiscation of passports, and mandatory vaginal examinations of young girls thought to be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

O’Neill’s writing is often described as a merely contrarian. But, while his irritation with consensus and received wisdom is dependably palpable, his objections are more-often-than-not libertarian in impulse. And since libertarianism is primarily concerned with the defence of personal autonomy, he tends to be reflexively hostile to any intervention by the state in the lives of its citizens.

But the state does not present the only threat to liberty. Young girls undergoing FGM at the hands of their own families are forcibly restrained and may be subjected to a combination of one or more of the following: clitoridectomy, labial excision, infibulation, and – in the most extreme variant of the practice – cauterisation of the vagina’s interior. The harrowing procedure is usually suffered without anaesthetic.

20,000 British girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM of one kind or another every year. This is also, I submit, an intolerable assault on personal autonomy, and one which state-sponsored FGM prevention is specifically intended to eradicate.

The monitoring of young girls most vulnerable to this kind of abuse, the restriction of their freedom to travel, invasive medical exams and so forth, indeed constitute state infringement of personal liberty. But a thoughtful and intellectually honest libertarian analysis must acknowledge the corresponding costs of inaction. If it does not, it risks sacrificing the defence of personal autonomy to a perverse opposition to state intervention, irrespective of intention and consequence.

O’Neill expresses his alarm that excessively broad guidelines alerting school and law enforcement authorities to indications of abuse may well result in false positives. This is a legitimate problem, but it is one without an obvious solution.

In the UK, FGM is a covert cultural practice conducted within closed communities behind closed doors. Until comparatively recently, the West preferred to turn a blind eye. However, awareness-raising campaigns (often led by victims of FGM) and gathering public anxiety about cultural relativism have resulted in widespread revulsion and official condemnation, which only encourages greater secrecy among those convinced of FGM’s necessity.

How many false positives is O’Neill prepared to tolerate to prevent the mutilation of a single child’s genitals? Ten? Three? Zero? He does not say. Instead, he condemns state prevention efforts that profile young British girls of African heritage while neglecting to acknowledge the perfectly obvious reason for this. “Guess whose vaginas would be interrogated?” O’Neill wonders scornfully of proposals to subject young girls at risk to gynaecological examinations. “Not little Chloe’s – just little Abebi’s.” To which one can simply return the question: guess whose vagina will be mutilated in the absence of action?

O’Neill is at pains to insist that he is no cultural relativist. “I’m happy to say FGM is a backward, barbaric act,” he announces. “Those who say it’s just another cultural practice, and we should respect it, are moral cowards, incapable of making judgements.” Well, good. But his implacable opposition to state intervention on ostensibly libertarian grounds desires the same state paralysis, nonetheless.

Like a self-flattering pacifist who prefaces every anti-intervention argument with a mumbled acknowledgement of the cruelty of the totalitarian regime at issue, O’Neill’s condemnation of FGM feels suspiciously pro-forma. He offers nary a constructive proposal to counter those he denounces, and which might better serve the interests of the young girls in whose defence he professes to write.

Instead he closes on a solipsistic note, with a defiant declaration of conscientious objection to an illusory state-enforced racism. At which point, his article’s true subject swims into focus, and it is neither FGM nor its victims. It is the lonely nobility of Brendan O’Neill.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on July 21.

Sunday 19 July 2015

On Motes and Beams

"Islamic State Is An Enemy Of Freedom But...."

Last week, the Guardian reported on an intriguing new counter-extremism initiative. Organised in partnership with a Muslim charity called Upstanding Neighbourhoods, it has been launched in response to alarming instances of young Muslims absconding to live in the Islamic State. Schools such as Saltley Academy in Birmingham - which only last year was embroiled in the Islamist 'Trojan Horse scandal - have been inviting young Yazidi refugees from Iraq to address pupils with unsparing accounts of what life in the Islamic State is actually like.

The Guardian's report, however, prompted an indignant response from Ella Whelan over at Sp!ked Online. Whelan offered two objections, the first of which is strategic, the second of which is philosophical.

On the subject of strategy, she had this to say:
[I]n the absence of being able to say what British society stands for, what its values are, and why, therefore, it is superior to IS, the state instead uses a group like Upstanding Neighbourhoods to scare pupils into staying in Britain. 
The language is tendentious and shrill, but this sentence carries the seed of a legitimate criticism: that any approach to counter-extremism, which focuses on the brutality of the Islamic State at the expense of a thoroughgoing advocacy of the benefits of life in the West, is of limited use. In this much, I concur. But why should one preclude the other? Whelan elaborates:
[I]t is also odd that some think this is educational. Trying to scare children into line with tales of the bogeyman works with five-year-olds. But when it comes to older children, or young adults, and the problem of terrorist organisations, society and schools should be engaging all pupils in a real conversation about freedom, not selecting Muslim students and scaring them rigid with gory details and nightmarish scenes.
In other words, Whelan objects to the initiative per se. She seems to believe that these young Yazidi women are merely instruments of propaganda in the hands of a cynical state, used to terrify credulous children into conformity. The "bogeyman", bear in mind, is a fiction.

But Iraqi refugees are not being asked to lie to children. On the contrary, they are being asked to testify to the punishing reality of life in the Islamic State, a reality totally at odds with the utopian propaganda used to seduce young recruits, and a reality from which Whelan - perversely - seems to want children protected, even as she protests their infantilisation.

Education involves the provision of information to allow for informed choice, a necessary part of which is a frank discussion of risk and consequence. Those disinclined to believe the claims of politicians (whom Whelan casually depicts as incompetent and mendacious) or the media (which she accuses of over-hyping the terrorist threat) may therefore benefit from the hair-raising testimony of those who have actually experienced life in Raqqa firsthand, and whose warnings are not so easily dismissed. That is, of course, unless they are persuaded by articles like Whelan's that such voices are merely circulating falsehoods on behalf of sinister state power.

And what of the philosophical objection - the "real conversation about freedom" Whelan demands? On this score, she is determined to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

When the state of Oklahoma badly botched the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in April 2014, my twitter feed was suddenly awash with histrionic claims that the United States had now conclusively forfeited its right to criticise, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran for its use of the death penalty. Self-examination and sober reflection metastasised into a deranged moral equivalence which held that a democracy allowing for the use of lethal injection in a narrow set of circumstances is morally no better than a theocracy mandating the public stoning of adulterers and the hanging of gays from cranes.

By the same token,  Ella Whelan is not convinced that Britain is qualified to sit in moral judgement on the genocidal Islamic State. She concludes her article with the following:
The British government is keen to posit IS as an enemy of freedom, and rightly so. But Britain is compromised, too. It is a society in which the freedoms of its citizens are increasingly restricted by assorted speech laws; in which the therapeutic state all too readily seeks to nudge and nanny its citizens through their daily lives. The West can criticise the elimination of freedom abroad, and endlessly pretend that our own liberty is intact, but until we protect and celebrate freedom at home, the argument against IS will never be that convincing.
Undergirding this paragraph's various problems is a peculiarly absolutist view of freedom. That is to say, either you have it or you don't. And, as Whelan would have it, until such time as the West (childishly denigrated in her preceding paragraph as "supposedly civilised") has succeeded in constructing a perfectly free society, it has no moral authority on the subject of individual liberty. So an article which began by demanding that we defend Western values instead of terrifying children, concludes by claiming that any such defence is invalidated by the West's less-than-perfect adherence to what it preaches. This is, I'm afraid, cynicism without even the benefit of coherence.

Whelan appears to believe that she is unmasking a fraud. But the arrogant pretence of Western perfection is characteristically asserted, not by the West's defenders, but by its enemies who then proffer every flaw as a self-discrediting hypocrisy. It is news to no-one that Western democracies are riddled with inconsistencies, absurdities, and contradictions. Some result from explicitly pernicious ideas, others from the unintended consequences of well-meaning ones.

But defending the West and harshly judging theocracies does not require a stipulation that Western nations are themselves perfect, still less that their governments and/or populations are so. It requires an understanding that liberal democracy provides a framework within which all people can best win and defend their own emancipation. Democratically-accountable governance. Wide parameters of freedom of speech and inquiry. The separation of revelation from reason. An independent judiciary. An acknowledgement of the universal rights of individuals. Developments midwifed by Enlightenment thought, and essential to the subsequent pursuit of incremental Western progress.

The perfectly liberal and free society Ella Whelan apparently demands before she will seriously entertain Western criticisms of Islamic State will never materialise, and for the same reason that utopians favour totalitarianism as a means of achieving their ends: that liberal democracy renounces the pursuit of the perfect for the pursuit of the good. And, in so doing, it is able to offer something more valuable than a utopian mirage: a stuttering process of self-correction which has eventually led the West, stumbling through trial and error, to reverse the historic errors of slavery, empire, and discrimination and to enshrine rights and freedoms in law still denied to much of the world's population by despotism.

Western self-criticism - of which Whelan's article is a particularly crude example - has, of course, been instrumental in achieving such gains. But there is a tendency amongst those who take them for granted to surrender to a self-lacerating masochism as a means of advertising their own moral virtue. The democracies of secularised Christendom, with their internalised narratives of sin and redemption, are more vulnerable to this tendency than honour/shame cultures. It was Christ, after all, who is said to have cried:
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
Human fallibility being what it is, no eye will ever be completely free of blemish. And the world being what it is, the complete suspension of all moral judgement is neither possible, nor desirable. And so, instead, when evaluating imperfection, it is important - in the name of perspective, moral clarity, and sanity - to make unapologetic distinctions between motes and beams, and to remember which is which.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Reactionary Radicals

Owen Jones and the Rainbow Qur'an

In a 2012 article for the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland had defended his friend Mehdi Hasan by convicting Hasan’s critics of a strange form of racism:
[Subtle examples] can be confusing, because they often dress up in progressive, Guardian-friendly garb – slamming Islam as oppressive of gay and women's rights, for example – but the thick layer of bigotry is visible all the same. Call it progressives' prejudice.
An example of the pitfalls into which this kind of thinking can lead the Left was recently provided by a fractious twitter exchange on the subject of gay rights and Islam involving Freedland’s Guardian colleague Owen Jones [storified here].

The US Supreme Court ruling legalising gay marriage had been handed down a few days earlier and the summer’s Pride festivities had just begun. Profile avatars superimposed with solidarity rainbows swept social media in celebration of both; a touching display of the breadth and depth of support the once-lonely campaign for marriage equality has come to enjoy.

A mischievous variation on this theme was an image of the Qur'an, tweeted by the ex-Muslim writer and activist Saif Rahman, which a twitter user calling himself ‘Colt’ then gave a speculative punt in the direction of Owen Jones:

When Rahman asked why this had not been dignified with a response, Jones answered: "Because I think this is self evidently trying to provoke [rather] than win people over to LGBT rights? Are you LGBT (genuine question)?"

Owen Jones is a notoriously thin-skinned and bad-tempered tweeter, so the petulant tone was hardly a surprise. But I would imagine Jones is also understandably anxious to avoid accusations of bigotry from people like Jonathan Freedland.

The difficulty here is that Islamic homophobia is not a mere calumny or figment of ‘progressive prejudice’. Muslims are not simply the hapless victims of Western prejudice, as Jones and Freedland apparently prefer to believe; they are individuals perfectly capable of holding bigoted views of their own, which it is surely every progressive’s responsibility to oppose.

A 2006 Populus poll conducted for Policy Exchange found that 61% of UK Muslims thought "homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal", a figure consistent across genders and social class. This figure is admittedly nearly 10 years old, but the Populus also reported that younger generations were less tolerant on this issue than their elders, which does nothing to inspire optimism that things have been moving in the right direction.

Nevertheless, their survey did provide a reminder that UK Muslims’ views on homosexuality – whilst profoundly dispiriting – are not uniform. A majority appear to be deplorable and reactionary, but a minority – evidenced by projects like the Inclusive Mosque Initiative – are enlightened and progressive. The aim of gay rights activism, surely, is to stigmatise the former and empower the latter. And on this point, Colt's tweet to Jones was specific.

If Rahman's original image of the Qur'an was intended to mock the incompatibility of modernity and the Qur’an's 7th Century ideas, Colt's additional reference to LGBT Muslims and solidarity invites another interpretation: that LGBT Muslims living in communities and families hostile to the open expression of their sexuality deserve support in their struggle for acceptance under a modernised, gay-friendly Islam.

But, sensing a trap, Jones reflexively counterattacked with a spurious distinction between 'provocation' (bad) and advancing LGBT rights (noble), before accusing Colt and Rahman of the former.

To see a self-professed radical advance an argument of such painful conservatism makes me cringe for Jones. Had his activist forebears afforded reactionary attitudes the respect he demands from contemporary critics of Islam, he would not enjoy the freedoms he takes for granted today.

The overthrow of religious authority in the West – a necessary precondition of sexual liberty – was not achieved simply by the polite suggestion of a rationalist alternative. It also required the unrelenting mockery of its Enlightenment enemies who took great pleasure in making its ideas look ridiculous.

Nor was the later movement for gay liberation and acceptance bashful about provoking its opponents, for whom its mere existence was an affront. Provocation and offence were understood by activists to be engines of change, not its regrettable by-products.

In 1971, for instance, radical Gay Liberation Front activists in drag invaded a meeting of Mary Whitehouse's Christian pressure group, the Nationwide Festival of Light, held at Westminster's Methodist Central Hall, and began kissing one another and unfurling sloganeering banners before shutting off the power. The queer art, literature, music, theatre, and cinema that proliferated with the rise of gay activism likewise revelled in its capacity to generate traditionalist outrage.

Had he been alive, would Owen Jones have pursed his lips in disapproval and defended the sensibilities of offended conservative Christians?

But times have changed, and in the process radical opposition to reactionary inter-cultural ideas seems to have mutated into a perverse solidarity. Multiculturalism's emphasis on the need to show deference to cultural and religious difference, and the concomitant empowerment of all kinds of identity politics, has meant that a declaration of offence taken is no longer presumed to be the start of a discussion but its final word.

"Are you LGBT?" Jones had demanded of Rahman in his first tweet. An irrelevance to the matter at hand, but a question of pressing importance to Jones who - as an openly gay man - reserves for himself the right to decide who may and may not advocate for gay acceptance and under what circumstances.

"If you want to be a straight ally, welcome," Jones instructed Rahman. "But I'm done with people only mentioning LGBT rights when Islam is involved." When an Indian ex-Muslim calling himself ‘Desi Liberal’ pointed out that it was Jones who was proving himself to be a feckless ally by downplaying Islamic homophobia so as to comport with politically correct niceties, Jones retorted: "I'm not going to be lectured on LGBT rights by a straight man. Incredible."

It is undercover of this politics of identity and broad-minded respect for other cultures that, as a non-Muslim, Jones excuses himself from criticising even the most regressive elements of another minority group. In his own mind, it is not his business to do so. 

So, instead, he declares his unconditional and indiscriminate solidarity with all Muslims, irrespective of how hostile a given individual's views and values may be to his own. And, consequently, he finds himself objectively defending the Islamic religious right from the pressures of progress at the expense of those they victimise.

The message for LGBT Muslims may be the unintended consequence of a well-meaning impulse, but it is clear, just the same: gay liberation for me, but not for thee.

Friday 6 March 2015

The Ballad of Jihadi John

Terror, Apologists, and the Vindication of Gita Sahgal

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: Mohammed Emwazi (Left) and Asim Qureshi of CAGE (Right)
You might be surprised to know, but the Mohammed that I knew was extremely kind. Extremely gentle. Extremely soft-spoken. [He] was the most humble young person that I knew. We're gonna release all the emails . . . and what you'll see when you read those emails is somebody who, despite going through great difficulties in his personal life, he belittled that difficulty.
These were the now-notorious words Asim Qureshi, research director for the Islamist pressure group CAGE, used to describe Mohammed Emwazi, a British Islamic State fighter wanted for his part in the beheading of at least 5 hostages. They were offered at a catastrophic press conference called by CAGE in the wake of the Washington Post's unmasking of Emwazi as the IS executioner hitherto known as 'Jihadi John'. CAGE, the Post revealed, had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria.

Listening to Qureshi's lachrymose little eulogy, I was reminded of a Guardian profile of Mohammad Sidique Khan, published just one week after the 7/7 terror atrocity, which had claimed the lives of 52 people and maimed a further 700. It was headlined Mentor to the Young and Vulnerable, and it began like this:
Born in Leeds, suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan spent his working life with young, vulnerable children. The 30-year-old, father to a 14-month-old daughter, Maryam, was a mentor in primary schools for children with learning difficulties. He is known to have taught hundreds of children [. . .] One child who was taught by him at Hillside said: "He seemed a really kind man, he taught the really bad kids and everyone seemed to like him. He was there about three years and then he went on holiday and never came back. We just knew him as Mr Khan."
The narrative being advanced in both instances is of a harmless individual, naturally inclined to selflessness and compassion for the disadvantaged, transformed into a pitiless foot-soldier for the Islamist slaughterhouse by the actions and policies of the West.

The Guardian's profile of Khan had appeared under the joint byline of its then-crime correspondent Sandra Laville and a 27 year old trainee named Dilpazia Aslam. The day before, the Guardian had published an opinion piece by Aslam entitled We Rock The Boat: Today's Muslims Aren't Prepared to Ignore Injustice. "I think", Aslam had written...
...what happened in London [on 7/7] was a sad day and not the way to express your political anger. Then there's the "but". If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked.
"Shocked," he went on, "would be to suggest that the bombings happened through no responsibility of our own." This responsibility, he explained, lay with British support for the US-led war in Iraq in general, and the counter-insurgency operation in Fallujah in particular. Aslam noted that the Iraq war had resulted in "22,787 civilian Iraqi casualties to date", but neglected to mention that the vast majority of these were victims of the same jihadist terrorism that had just been visited upon his fellow citizens in London. Apparently, the injustice of Muslims - both Sunni and Shia - being blown to pieces in the marketplaces and mosques of Iraq by their co-religionists was not sufficient to stir his sense of moral outrage.

Nor did the language Aslam used to describe the crime suggest that he was exactly overburdened with disgust at the use of suicide terror as an instrument of protest. On the contrary, his article sought to valourise a new generation of Muslim activists who refused to fall into line behind the British establishment. "The don't-rock-the-boat attitude of elders," he concluded ominously, "doesn't mean the agitation wanes; it means it builds till it can be contained no more."

Last week, Mohammad Emwazi's behaviour was likewise explained as a consequence of Western actions, only this time his treatment at the hands of British intelligence was to blame. As CAGE's research director would have it, this mild-mannered and thoughtful bearer of "posh baklava" had been subject to a campaign of surveillance and harassment which had left him with no option but to behead aid workers and journalists.

Invited to condemn Emwazi's actions on Channel 4 news, Qureshi found himself conspicuously reluctant to do so. He preferred to emphasise the extravagant efforts CAGE had made to secure the release of Alan Henning, and accused Jon Snow of anti-Muslim prejudice for having the temerity to even ask him such a question. Undeterred, Snow pressed Qureshi for an answer and was finally rewarded with this:
Absolutely. If it's somebody, whether it's Tony Blair, George Bush, Dick Cheney - when somebody's involved in war crimes, they should be condemned for those war crimes and they should be held accountable for those war crimes.
"I am asking," Snow persisted impatiently, "about Mohammed Emwazi. Do you condemn what he's doing?" Qureshi:
Of course I condemn...erm...the...the...act of killing people or assassinating them or executing them. That is not really the way in which I think they should be going about doing things . . . But coming back to what CAGE thinks is important: when you have a cycle of violence; when you see things like Guantanamo Bay taking place; when we see the images of torture coming out of Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo and everywhere else, then what that does - that sends a message to other parts of the world that you can treat human beings like animals, and what we are seeing in Iraq right now is a manifestation of what we have seen elsewhere. 
The similarities between the sentimental narrative of self-pity offered on behalf of Mohammed Sidique Khan by Dilpazia Aslam and that offered on behalf of Mohammed Emwazi by Asim Qureshi are striking, right down to the last trope. Bombing tubes and buses is "not the way to express political anger" and beheading bound and helpless hostages in front of a video camera is "not really the way to go about doing things." This is not a coincidence.

Aslam, it turned out, was then a member of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, an openly imperialist, totalitarian, racist, and homophobic political organisation, with extremely regressive views regarding women's rights and emancipation. And while Hizb ut-Tahrir may not openly endorse violent jihad to establish the theocratic caliphate for which it yearns, it is extremely reluctant to criticise those who do, and happy to voice its support for the doctrine of 'defensive jihad'.

While Asim Qureshi denies any current affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, his views are indistinguishable from theirs. At a Hizb rally outside the US embassy in London in the summer of 2006, he boldly declared:
When we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is and where the victory lies. We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West. [video link here]
Notice the use of the word "incumbent" here. Holy war under such circumstances is not held to be a preference or a negotiable tactic, but a religious obligation.

When Dilpazia Aslam's Hizb ut-Tahrir connections were exposed in the week after his 7/7 articles appeared, the Guardian acknowledged that "several colleagues and some senior editors" were already aware of Aslam's involvement with the group, and conceded that his political affiliations ought to have been clearly disclosed. This oversight had apparently been an unfortunate error, not a deliberate attempt to mislead.

Be that as it may, a more pressing question remained. What was the Guardian doing with an Islamist propagandist on its payroll at all? It is inconceivable that it would employ a trainee it knew to be a committed BNP activist to speak on behalf of the white working class, still less to provide informed commentary in the wake of a white nationalist terror outrage.

But the Guardian was indignant and, in an article credited to an unidentified 'staff reporter', it accused "rightwing bloggers from the US" of engaging in a politically-motivated and "obsessively personalised" witch-hunt:
[This] episode was a striking illustration of the way that blogs and bloggers can heat up the temperature and seek to settle scores - as well as raise legitimate concerns about journalism and transparency - when something awful happens in the streets of London.
Nevertheless, in the face of gathering press criticism, the paper asked Aslam if he would resign his membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir. When he refused, they asked him to resign. When he refused to do that either, the paper "regretfully concluded that it had no option but to terminate Mr Aslam's contract with the company."

Aslam may have been left without a job, but he could reasonably say that his personal integrity was intact. The Guardian, on the other hand, had willingly compromised its values to accommodate a member of a fascist organisation. Aslam's Islamist apologetics were, after all, indistinguishable from much of the opinion on jihadist terror offered by its own columnists. He shared their hatred of Bush, Blair, Israel, and the West and this, apparently, was enough to set his eccentric views about democracy, the place of women, and the impermissibility of homosexuality to one side.

CAGE - formerly known as Cageprisoners - meanwhile, has sought to position itself as a legitimate member of the human rights establishment. On its website the organisation describes itself as:
An independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror. The organisation highlights and campaigns against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice.
What it actually does is to agitate for the unconditional release of any and all Islamists held on terrorism charges, irrespective of whether they languish in extra-judicial detention or they have been lawfully convicted by a properly constituted court under due process.

On 20 February 2010, for instance, Cageprisoners carried a post on its website [cached here] announcing a demo organised by 'The Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir' to protest the imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui (also known as 'Lady al-Qaeda'). Siddiqui had been tried before a New York jury and, on 3 February 2010, duly convicted on all seven counts, including two of attempted murder. For this, she naturally blamed Israel.

In 2011, the counter-extremism blog Harry's Place reported that Asim Qureshi had given a lecture at Queen Mary University in East London at which he had denigrated secular Palestinians, praised Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, endorsed the use of suicide terrorism (euphemised as "martyrdom operations") against Israeli civilians, and advised students of the legal and religious legitimacy of volunteering for jihad in Palestine, Chechnya, and Iraq. CAGE also maintained links with notorious extremists like Abu Qatada and al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki (at least until the latter found himself on the receiving end of an American drone.)

But none of this prevented CAGE from cultivating relationships with ostensibly respectable NGOs, journalists, activists, MPs, and celebrities who were all mesmerised by the organisation's groovy rhetoric about oppression and injustice and its opposition to rendition, extra-judicial detention, control orders, and Guantanamo Bay. Human rights organisations like Liberty, Amnesty International, and Reprieve have all forged links of various kinds with the group, co-sponsoring campaigns and co-signing letters; Peter Oborne, Clive Stafford-Smith, the Labour MP Sadiq Khan, and Vanessa Redgrave (of course) have spoken at the group's conferences and shared platforms with their activists; and CAGE has been pleased to accept six-figure donations from the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. All of this has damaged the reputation of the organisations and individuals concerned in the eyes of those who have been paying attention, whilst - disgracefully - helping to launder the reputation of CAGE in the wider public perception.

In 2010, the head of Amnesty International's gender unit Gita Sahgal attempted to warn her organisation of the dangers posed by its links with former Guantanamo detainee and Cageprisoners director Moazzam Begg. She maintained that while it was right that Amnesty should campaign for the release or trial of Begg and others likewise held in extra-judicial detention, they should not be decorating such people with their own moral legitimacy, nor forging links with Islamist organisations of any kind, irrespective of overlapping concerns. In an internal email, Sahgal protested:
I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International's integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgement. 
When her objections were brushed aside, Sahgal went public in a Sunday Times interview, an act of principle and moral courage for which she was rewarded with a P45 and a tsunami of abuse, perhaps the most egregious example of which came from blogger-turned-Guardian columnist Sunny Hundal:
Listen Gita, we get it: you’re angry. No one rallied to your support other than a bunch of discredited neocons who are best known for their mealy-mouthed apologies for torture.
Oh and Salman Rushdie, the man offering moral guidance after signing a letter supporting child-rapist Roman Polanski. I suppose not many sane people would be heartened with that kind of support. But Gita bravely kept giving more interviews to Christopher Hitchens so they could together take down Amnesty. Brave stuff.
Five years on, Sahgal has every reason to feel vindicated. As CAGE's credibility implodes in the wake of Qureshi's ill-advised paean to Mohammed Emwazi, those previously proud to stand beside its activists are suddenly scrambling to find a way to distance themselves without admitting that they had ever been wrong.

In 2013, the Community Security Trust warned the JRCT that CAGE were an extremist-linked and anti-Semitic organisation, but their concerns, like Gita Sahgal's, were waved away. However, on 2 March, in the wake of the disastrous Emwazi press conference, the Charity Commission announced that it was launching an investigation into the Roddick Foundation and the JRCT, and on 6 March, the Commission announced that "both the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have ceased funding CAGE and will not be doing so in future."

CAGE have every reason to feel betrayed by this unseemly flight. Like Dilpazia Aslam, they have never been ashamed about who and what they are, and their narrative of victimhood and innocence has been remarkably consistent. Interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC's This Week programme, Qureshi was unembarrassed by questions about his associations with Hizb ut-Tahrir ("a non-violent organisation") and his support for jihad ("the right to self-defence"). It is not CAGE that has changed but the political environment.

In 2001, the belief that America was somehow to blame for the attacks of September 11 was fairly widespread on the political Left. A generous interpretation of this phenomenon might be that it was - at least in part - an attempt to rationalise an event that was otherwise incomprehensible, and that this appearance of an explanation was nourished by a pre-existing reservoir of hostility to American hegemony and power. Likewise, there was a certain amount of misplaced sympathy for the idea that the Madrid and London atrocities were an inevitable consequence of misguided wars that the Left despised. If anything, this retrospectively reinforced the idea that 9/11 was an understandable - if excessive - blowback caused by American foreign policy (although exactly which aspect of American foreign policy was seldom specified).

But as time has worn on, the appetite for this kind of sickly, reprehensible masochism has been diminishing. Bush and Blair are both long gone. The righteous protests against the Iraq war are a receding memory. Yet still the attacks continue. And with every new Islamist atrocity committed on Western soil, fewer people are prepared to accept that this is somehow the fault of the victims.

Gazing at the moving scenes of crowds pouring onto the streets in the wake of the Paris attacks, I wondered if we were finally witnessing a perception shift. Since the controversy over the Danish cartoons in 2005/6, a lot more people seem to have concluded that what is being demanded of open societies is unacceptable, and that the punishment being meted out to those who disobey has become intolerable.

At the Guardian, a chasm opened up between columnists above the line, who were perversely committed to the idea that fanatical sensibilities were to be respected, and commenters below the line who had wearied of this craven tune. After all, even if cartoonists agreed to desist from depicting Islam's purported prophet, what on earth were Jews supposed to do?

And in the background, across the Muslim world, Islamist violence has run totally out of control. When people open their browsers now or watch the news, they see scores of defenceless children being massacred in Pakistani schools. They see the wholesale slaughter of villages by Boko Haram and the summary execution of mall shoppers by al-Shabaab. And they see the pornographic cruelty of the Islamic State: beheadings, crucifixions, mass graves, immolation, slavery, ethnic cleansing. None of this is intelligible as a resistance to American or Zionist imperialism anymore. The sheer arbitrariness of the spiralling carnage - in which cruelty is an end, not a means - inspires only revulsion and horror.

CAGE do not seem to have realised that with all this harrowing mood music, Muhammad Emwazi was always going to be a tough sell as a sweet-natured naif, no matter how florid the language marshalled in his defence. Nor is he simply some nameless beard rotting in a cell for something or other he may or may not have done somewhere miles away in the midst of some hated war. Long before Asim Qureshi delivered his pitiful defence, Emwazi's reputation as a ruthlessly malevolent sadist who barks demands and then slaughters his victims like livestock was already firmly-established.

Apologetics for terrorism depend upon a reversal of cause and effect. But in seeking to persuade people that Emwazi became a fanatic following interest from the security services rather than vice-versa, CAGE wildly over-reached. Given the available evidence, many understandably concluded that the problem here wasn't a surfeit of MI5 interest but the exact opposite.

For too long, much of the liberal commentariat and the widely-respected NGO establishment have allowed a combination of credulity and ideology to blind them to the toxicity of Islamism and those who espouse it, even as the corpses have stacked up before their eyes. And while CAGE looks to be finished, liberal apologia for others like them will not disappear overnight. Just as the controversy over Dilpazia Aslam's employment changed nothing at the Guardian, I suspect that the errors which led Amnesty and others into the arms of CAGE will remain uncorrected once this row blows over.

Nonetheless, Gita Sahgal and her supporters can take satisfaction in Sahgal's vindication. The humiliation of CAGE, and the collateral damage inflicted on its enablers, have been worth the wait for their own sake.

My previous essay about CAGE, Moazzam Begg, and philo-Salafism can be found here.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Free Speech and its Enemies [3]

Part Three: The Unreasonable Man

This is the final part of what was originally a 3-part essay. Parts One and Two can be read here and here, respectively.

Caroline Fourest is a feminist, writer, and journalist, and co-founder of the French anti-racist, anti-fundamentalist, and secularist magazine ProChoix. Unlike Will Self, she does not cringe with embarrassment before the imperfections of liberal democracy. And unlike Alan Rusbridger, she can find no reason to indulge Islamists like Tariq Ramadan in the name of open-minded toleration. In 2004 she published a book entitled Frère Tariq, in which she painstakingly analysed Ramadan's 15 books and his countless essays and speeches and concluded that, in their desperation for an eloquent spokesperson for a modern and moderate Islam, liberals were being hoodwinked by a duplicitous reactionary.

Two years later, when Jyllands Posten published its cartoons of Muhammad, she was working as a contributor at Charlie Hebdo. As Danish embassies burned, and Will Self was busy with his eccentric observations about what does and does not constitute legitimate satire, Fourest drafted a short manifesto.

Originally entitled Together Against A New Totalitarianism (later translated and re-published as The Manifesto of the 12), it first appeared in Charlie Hebdo on 1 May 2006, co-signed by 11 secularists - one signatory for each of the 12 Jyllands Posten cartoons - some of whom were practising Muslims. It began:
Having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism. We - writers, journalists, intellectuals - call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.
Unencumbered by moral relativism, Fourest's lucid analysis derives from a straightforward belief that the ideas of the Enlightenment and the progressive politics they midwifed are worth defending. What was unfolding, her manifesto declared, was to be a bitter struggle for ideas and values in which the excuse-making of apologists would only aid fanaticism at the expense of universalism and liberty:
[N]othing, not even despair, justifies choosing obscurantism, totalitarianism and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present. Its victory can only lead to a world of injustice and domination: men over women, fundamentalists over others . . . We defend the universality of the freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can be exercised in every continent, with regard to each and every abuse and dogma. We appeal to democrats and independent spirits in every country that our century may be one of enlightenment and not obscurantism.
Having published Fourest's manifesto, Charlie Hebdo was virtually alone in re-publishing the Jyllands Posten cartoons. Death threats followed, and in November 2011, Charlie Hebdo's offices were completely destroyed by a petrol bomb. A year later its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, explained his refusal to compromise by remarking "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees". On 7 January 2015, along with eleven others, he did just that.

The Post-Massacre Issue
At this point, the surviving staff could surely have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. Instead they produced a new issue featuring a cover illustration that is striking in its simplicity and humbling in its courage, its humanity, and its generosity: a stricken Muhammad declaring his solidarity with the dead beneath the words "Tout Est Pardonné". All is forgiven.

Two days after the massacre, Will Self had informed readers of his Vice article that: "When the demonstrators stood in the Place de la Republique holding placards that read "JE SUIS CHARLIE", they might just as well have held ones reading: "NOUS SOMMES LES TERRORISTES" "

Charlie Hebdo's post-massacre cover decisively answered his bitterness. The magazine's response to the massacre of its staff and fellow citizens was as dignified as Will Self's was reprehensible and squalid. Writing in Tablet, Paul Berman described the illustration as "a masterpiece . . . inspiring, moving, slightly mysterious, and entirely beautiful."
It is inspiring because, in the face of the ultimate in terrorist pressure, the editors and cartoonists have chosen to go ahead and put the drawing on the cover. The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo is the most defiant newspaper cover in the history of journalism—a bolder cover even than the cover of the 1898 Paris newspaper that presented Zola’s article, J’Accuse . . . Zola knew that, by publishing his accusation against the enemies of Capt. Dreyfus, he ran a danger of persecution, arrest, and imprisonment, but probably not murder. The editors, staff, cartoonists, printers, truck-drivers, and kiosk vendors of Charlie Hebdo are in danger of murder. And they are unfazed.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but its conquest. The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo had seen the power of the weak explode into their own offices and had decided that no, their raison d'être was not for negotiation. Richard Malka, the magazine's lawyer was blunt: "We will not give in, otherwise all this won't have meant anything."

In an interview with CNN, Fourest was similarly matter-of-fact. "After what happened - after this slaughter - it was really impossible for my colleagues and friends to not do a cover about what happened and it could only be a cover about, of course, Muhammad." Pressed by the (somewhat reluctant) anchor to accept responsibility for the subsequent violence that had erupted in Kurachi, where protestors burned French flags, and in Niger, where mobs burned churches and desecrated Bibles, Fourest was unequivocal: "But you understand that, when you put it that way, you are blaming, not the people who are killing because of the cartoons, but you are blaming the cartoonists. This is cowardice and it is exactly what the terrorists want."

When the French-Algerian academic and Guardian commentator Nabila Ramdani appeared on This Week to discuss the new cover, she likewise accused Charlie Hebdo of "inciting violence" and held the staff explicitly responsible for the violent protests that had erupted in the Pakistan and Africa. Michael Portillo responded by saying he was outraged. Were he to have then physically assaulted Ramdani in a fit of offended fury, I wonder if she would have been prepared to accept moral responsibility for her own injuries. If not, then she should be made to explain her apparent refusal to consider African and Pakistani Muslims as moral actors.

Ramdani had already written that the cover "symbolises egalitarian bigotry" (whatever that might be). Not to be outdone, her Guardian colleague Joseph Harker, the paper's assistant comment editor no less, had ruled in the same item that, by depicting Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo was "deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world . . . adding insult to injury . . . lashing out at potentially 1.6 billion people . . . [and most bizarrely of all] spreading guilt by association".

Nevertheless, even the Guardian finally relented and reproduced a two-inch high image of the cover on their website, albeit with a warning in bold type alerting readers to an appalling affront to decency that awaited them as they scrolled down. This placed them a rung or two above Murdoch's Sky News, which cut away from Caroline Fourest and apologised to its viewers, the moment Fourest attempted to display the magazine's new cover illustration.

Caroline Fourest
It is tempting to argue that Charlie Hebdo's courage and defiance puts an end to all excuse-making, at least from those like Stephen Pollard who need no persuading as to the merits of the re-publication arguments. Would that it were so. The dilemma with which sympathetic editors are faced remains unaltered. We do not yet know what price will be exacted by religious fanatics for Charlie Hebdo's insubordination. Days after the massacre in Paris, a German tabloid which had re-printed Charlie Hebdo's cartoons on its front page had already been firebombed. While it is important to emphasise that editors re-publishing cartoons of Muhammad - or, better still, commissioning originals - bear no moral responsibility whatever for any violence visited upon them as a result, that does not alter the fact that printing such images makes violent reprisal more likely.

Western democracies and those journalists who still understand the need to defend basic liberties are confronted with an impossible, disgraceful choice. Submission to Islamist demands will only inflame an appetite for further concessions. But to resist is to court lethal danger. The staff of Charlie Hebdo have gone back out on a limb. No-one asked them to - they did so on a point of principle they were determined to uphold, and they did so of their own volition. But they are out there on behalf of us all, exposed once more.
    I cannot bring myself to describe the reluctance of those who have not followed Charlie Hebdo's example as prudent. To do so would be to reduce what the staff there have done to an act of foolishness. It is too noble for that. But nor is it fair to accuse someone like Pollard of cowardice; only Charlie Hebdo's own staff have earned the moral authority to do that. From anyone else, it is not an approach conducive to persuasion. Ordinary people are bound to be frightened and to feel a responsibility to the well-being of their colleagues. What Charlie Hebdo's staff have done marks them as extraordinary people. As Robert Shrimsley remarked in the Financial Times before Charlie Hebdo's new cover appeared:
    Charlie Hebdo’s leaders were much, much braver than most of us; maddeningly, preposterously and — in the light of their barbarous end — recklessly brave. The kind of impossibly courageous people who actually change the world. As George Bernard Shaw noted, the “reasonable man adapts himself to the world while the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”, and therefore “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man”. Charlie Hebdo was the unreasonable man. It joined the battle that has largely been left to the police and security services.
    Nonetheless, it surely remains beyond dispute that the more brazen the defiance of fundamentalist demands, the more frequent, and the more widespread, the less risk there is for all involved. While it is relatively straightforward to pick off isolated publications who dare to defy them, terrorists cannot murder the entire Western press. The failure to stand alongside Jyllands Posten made it more not less likely that vengeance would be the reward for the few that did.

    But to defend something, it is necessary to understand its value and to refuse to become discouraged by resistance. Having seen his pleas for solidarity roundly ignored, Timothy Garton-Ash conceded defeat. In an essay for the New York Review of Books he concluded that getting journalists to act in concert is as futile as herding cats and he made a confused recommendation (in which I don't think he really even believes) involving linking to controversial material hosted on an anonymous website in Iceland. Defeatism like this gets us nowhere.

    It also misses some encouraging signs. It is easy to be cynical about the huge protests, the hashtag activism, the opportunistic gestures of solidarity by world leaders, and so on. But Jyllands Posten benefitted from none of these things. Meanwhile, the number of publications and networks prepared to re-print and broadcast drawings of Muhammad is slowly increasing, and the number of rioters attending furious demonstrations across the Muslim world is diminishing.

    There is nothing to be done but to keep repeating that no compromise should be considered. The freedom to criticise ideas in open societies must be universal and indivisible. As the 'Jesus and Mo' controversy last year reminded us, it is not just the liberty of white Westerners that suffers from a craven observance of Islamist blasphemy codes. Liberal, secular, and reformist Muslims, not to mention those wishing to discard Islam altogether, are their first and worst victims. They deserve our solidarity as much as courageous free-thinkers like Stéphane Charbonnier, Caroline Fourest and all of those at Charlie Hebdo, whenever and wherever they choose to take a stand on the matter.

    As Fourest observed during her CNN interview, "If we do not show the drawings that the fanatics do not want to see, we are killing ourselves. We are killing our rules of democracy if we cannot show a simple drawing due to fear . . . we cannot live under Pakistani law. We are in France. We are a satirical newspaper respecting French law, and French law is very clear: blasphemy is a right."

    Friday 6 February 2015

    Charlie Hebdo: Free Speech and its Enemies [2]

    Part Two: Re-Publish or Be Damned

    This is the second part of what was originally a three-part essay. Part One can be found here.
    I think next week there should be a European media week of solidarity. Every major newspaper, broadcaster and platform should re-publish a selection of the title covers of Charlie Hebdo - as Slate magazine has already done - carefully explaining why we're doing this: We wouldn't usually do this, but we are doing it show that violent intimidation does not pay. That the assassins' veto will not prevail. I think that without that solidarity, fear will have won and the assassins' veto will have won. 
    ~ Timothy Garton-Ash
    Islamism's attack on democracy and liberalism operates in two ways. The first is to menace and terrorise. The second - more insidious and dangerous - is to undermine from within. The latter serves to compromise our ability to resist the former. A combination of the two explains why, in the UK - unlike in France and Germany - very few papers were prepared to re-publish Charlie Hebdo's back-catalogue of Muhammad cartoons.

    But it is important, I think, to distinguish between those who resisted the urgings of Garton-Ash, Index on Censorship, and others because they were afraid, from those who have been persuaded - violence or no violence - to see things from the fanatics' point of view.

    In a series of tweets posted in the immediate aftermath of the murders [herehereherehereherehere, and here], Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was admirably frank about his hesitancy:
    Easy to attack papers for not showing cartoons. But here's my editor's dilemma. Every principle I hold tells me to print them. But what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point? Because this isn't a mere debate about principles. As today showed, this is about lives. These people are butchers. 
    No, Charlie Hebdo didn't provoke anyone. It published cartoons. 
    Get real, folks. A Jewish newspaper like mine that published such cartoons would be at the front of the queue for Islamists to murder. None of my points mean we shouldn't or wouldn't publish. I'm simply explaining it's a dilemma and not a simple issue of principle. 
    Thing is, every argument people are making to me about why we must print cartoons is not just valid but vital. But so are those not to print.
    Timothy Garton-Ash's impassioned plea was made at Guardian-sponsored event held the evening after the Paris massacre. The event's moderator, the Guardian's Giles Fraser, invited his editor, Alan Rusbridger to respond. Compare his reasoning with that of Pollard:
    Well, we talked about this a lot this morning because there was a kind of twitter feeding-frenzy last night I think to provoke people to print more and more offensive material. We did print 4 or 5 of the images from Charlie Hebdo, last night and this morning and that wasn't enough for some people. Some people were tweeting me saying, "Yes, but you haven't chosen the really offensive one" and then they wanted to choose a still more offensive one. And there are some very offensive ones that the Guardian would never in the normal run of events publish. 
    It was a replaying of the debate over the Danish cartoons. I didn't want to republish some of the Danish cartoons because the Guardian is the Guardian and the Danish newspaper [Jyllands Posten] is the Danish newspaper and Charlie Hebdo is [Charlie Hebdo]. We completely defend Charlie Hebdo's ethos and values and the right to offend in the way that they did. But it felt to me as though there was a sort of tokenism in demanding that the Guardian should change, and I take [panelist] Sunny [Hundal]'s point here, and I think the thing that is important is that we don't change as a result. 
    If they want us to change, and they want us to be more inflammatory, and to contribute to the hardening of attitudes in society, then I think one of the things the Guardian could do is not change, and that it should continue to apply its normal editorial values about what it should publish. And that we will carry on publishing [panelists and Guardian cartoonists] Steve [Bell] and Martin [Rowson]. And that was the decision we reached collectively as a paper this morning.
    The aphorism often misattributed to Voltaire holds that "I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it." Usually these noble words are employed in defence of free speech. But in the wake of the Paris atrocities, they were most often heard falling from the lips of those who wished to put as much distance between themselves and Charlie Hebdo as possible, without forfeiting their right to be considered defenders of liberty.

    What Rusbridger did not make clear was that the offensive images to which he referred were Charlie Hebdo's representations of Muhammad, and that it was a refusal to publish these pictures in particular that Rusbridger and his staff felt constituted a defence of their paper's values. He went on to point out that re-publication was by no means the only way of expressing solidarity, and that the Guardian Media Group had contributed £100,000 to Charlie Hebdo to help ensure that it was able to continue publication.

    Alan Rusbridger
    This was undeniably an act of meaningful and generous solidarity and one which would have a practical bearing on the magazine's ability to survive. It is also a change of subject. The images of Muhammad were not incidental to the deaths of nine journalists but the explicit reason given for their execution. The right to draw and print such pictures in a free society is precisely what is - or what ought to be - at issue.

    It is clear now that all those - myself included - demanding the widespread re-publication of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were making a tactical error. It was too prescriptive a demand and it allowed the discussion to get diverted away from the central issue of the taboo which Charlie Hebdo had repeatedly violated and into a separate - and frankly irrelevant - debate about whether the manner in which the taboo had been violated was something others ought to endorse.

    If Charlie Hebdo's representations of Muhammad were not to Rusbridger's taste, but he nevertheless felt that the right to depict him was one worth defending, he could have simply commissioned his own. But Rusbridger gives every impression of agreeing with the assassins that satire of Islam's most revered figure is something we would all be better off without. He is consequently far more preoccupied by the need to resist those who would pressure him into re-publishing such images than he is by the threat to free expression posed by masked fascists.

    Alan Rusbridger is not frightened. His reasoning doesn't put him in a position where he needs to be, which is probably why he wasted not one syllable on considerations of security or safety. But in 2012 his paper had illustrated an article about Andres Serrano's Piss Christ with a large and prominent photograph of the blasphemous exhibit. This artwork is far more objectionable than anything Charlie Hebdo ever produced, and yet it was - rightly - reproduced with nary a thought for the religious sensitivities of devout Christians. So, contrary to Rusbridger's protestations, the Guardian has already changed - it has made an exception for Islam, and it is an exception Rusbridger is determined to protect even as people are dying for disagreeing.

    This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the vast majority of the opinion and commentary that has appeared in the Guardian's pages since 9/11. In the debates around terrorism and multiculturalism, the paper has been a consistently wretched defender of universalism and secularism, and a reliable platform for Islamists and their miserable apologists to advance a narrative of Muslim victimhood that excoriates Israel and insists on the total culpability of the West. 

    Two days later, true to its editor's promise that it would not compromise on this line, the Swiss Ikwanist Tariq Ramadan appeared in the Guardian to lecture us as follows:
    To have a sense of humour is fine, but to target an already stigmatised people in France is not really showing much courage . . . media organisations [are] intent on publishing the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, claiming that it would strike a blow for free speech. I support free speech, but I would urge them to desist, for what they plan to do is not courageous and will do nothing to afford people dignity. It will be another example of targeting all Muslims.
    In the fraught quarrel over re-publication, any distinction that has put Stephen Pollard on the same side of the argument as Tariq Ramadan has been false. It is for precisely this reason that those who want to publish pictures of Muhammad but are afraid to do so must speak up, so that the proper distinctions may be made with greater clarity. Pollard understands the value of what Charlie Hebdo have been doing. Alan Rusbridger, hostage to a neurotic tolerance of even the most reactionary Islamic beliefs, does not.

    Pollard may be afraid, but his reasoning is not the enemy of press freedom. The termites which have hollowed out the Guardian and Will Self's cranium have not yet been allowed to inflict anything like the same damage on the Jewish Chronicle.

    The concluding part of this essay can be found here.