ISIS, Trolls, and the Language of Hate

In a powerful New Year’s video for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim,  remembers how he ended up being interrogated and tortured in a concentration camp by his favourite teacher during the Yugoslav Wars.    He  asks his viewers to learn the lessons of history, and bear in mind the possibility that such things are not unique to any particular time period:  ‘If you speak to anyone out there right now, they’ll tell you that they’re crazy if you tell them that something like that may happen. But now after I lived through such events, I know that it can happen to anyone.’

It certainly can, especially when the hateful thoughts and fantasies that people carry around in their heads individually are weaponised or become social currency. Consider the New Year’s message from ISIS claiming responsibility for the atrocious Reina nightclub massacre in Istanbul:

‘In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.’

In some translations, ‘apostate holiday’ has been translated as ‘pagan feast’, but it doesn’t actually matter much because these are words that debase those who utter them, and debase humanity itself.  It’s tempting to treat such words with the same appalled disgust that you might give to a serial killer who boasts of his crimes to the media to enhance his profile and mystique.

Morally-speaking this statement is on the same level of gibberish. No one ‘blessed’ the mass murder of random 39 nightclubbers – at least no one with any credibility beyond ISIS’s nightmare netherworld.   Murdering men and women in a nightclub is no more ‘heroic’ than John Wayne Gacy murdering young boys.

A man who has abandoned all known religious and secular traditions of mercy accumulated over centuries of war and conflict can never be a hero – unless he inhabits a moral universe in which all moral codes are inverted and turned upside down.  Going to a nightclub does not constitute an ‘apostate holiday’ or a ‘ pagan feast’ and no one has any moral right to kill people who go to one, whether they are Christians or members of any other group.

This should be obvious, and it is, even to ISIS.  Because ISIS is not mad.  There is always a strategic purpose behind its seemingly barking rantings and its most vile acts. In this case Erdogan is probably right that ISIS wants to destabilise Turkey and demonstrate to the Turkish people that the state that is now making war on ISIS in Syria can no longer protect its own citizens within their own borders.

So on one level the act and the justifying statement is a demonstration of ‘power’.  But the ISIS message is also designed to disguise the disgusting and repellent reality of the acts they purport to describe.  They are maledicta – words of hate – intended to render entire categories of people worthy of extermination.

This is what language can do, when it is used for such purposes, and it has always been thus, whether it was Spanish clerics describing seventeenth century Moriscos as vermin or Hutu radio stations in Rwanda denouncing Tutsi ‘cockroaches.’

Such dehumanising language is not limited to one ‘side’ in the 21st century’s media-drenched conflicts.  Consider these responses to a Channel 4 News report on refugees forced to sleeping in a Croatian cemetery near the Serbian border:

Hey rag head, no we hate Muslims they are cockroach’s (sic). They are evil vile and are the spawn of Satan himself. There will be no peace on earth till these savages are exterminated, just like a cockroach

Animals !! Burn theme (sic) alive , look in the eyes of this people , they animals (sic)

Some of those who posted these comments are Serbs, but others have joined from the English-speaking world:

No respect for the dead even less for the living Muslim scum

Men men Mrs Isis terrorists coming to rape the women of Europe

Disrespectful Muslim zombies

There is no doubt that the massacres carried out by ISIS in Europe over the last two years are intended to invite exactly this kind of response.  ISIS documents have clearly identified whipping up hatred towards Muslims who inhabit ‘the grey zone’ as a strategic goal.  They dream of a global ‘civilisational’ conflict that will leave Muslims nowhere else to turn to but them, and they have many people on the opposite ‘side’ who are only too willing to oblige them.

We like to use the word ‘trolls’ to describe the men and women who make below-the-line comments like the ones I’ve quoted, and there are many more where they came from, and in the last few years they have also been appearing above the line.  One of them has just been elected president of the United States.  Another has just been awarded a $250,000 book contract by Simon & Schuster.

Over here we have women like Katie Hopkins, who calls refugees ‘cockroaches’ in a national newspaper, and has now retweeted a neo-Nazi Twitter account in support of her claim that she is not ‘racist’.   Hopkins has said ‘ I genuinely believe “racist” as a word has been used so much.  I’m sorry for the word racist in a way. I love language.

Nothing I have ever read of Hopkin’s self-aggrandizing trolling suggests that she loves language – or anything at all for that matter.  She would be one more of the sick jokes that the 21st century keeps playing on us, were it not for the fact that she echoes and repeats in a marginally more acceptable from what trolls below the line are also saying.

That is why the mainstream media has fallen over itself to court her, not because she has anything coherent, intelligent or thoughtful to say about anything, but nowadays it seems to matter less and less what people actually saying as long as it attracts enough clicks or produces a minute or two of ‘good television’ or ‘good radio. ‘

Hopkins might think that she is ‘standing up to Islam’ or whatever it is she thinks she’s standing up to, but people like her are the gift to ISIS that keeps on giving, and so are the wretched hatemongers foaming at the mouth about Muslim invasions and ‘rapefugees.’

Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can draw from history is that very few people listen to the lessons of history.  And now, in 2017, it’s incumbent upon all of us, whatever background we come from to try harder, and reach back into our best traditions, not simply in order to ‘tolerate’ each other, but to find our way towards a coexistence that keep marginalise the murderers, the trolls and the haters.

Because if we don’t do this, we will never get out of the mess we’re in, and we will be laying the foundations for a future of endless war and endless violence that will make any kind of coexistence impossible.

 

 

The Atrocity Factory

At first sight, keep calm and carry on might seem like a rather banal piece of advice, faced with the seemingly endless and unstoppable conveyor belt of atrocities that is unfolding before us on a weekly and almost daily basis..  In Baghdad, Kabul and Istanbul, in Florida, Nice and Germany,  the most toxic and poisonous hatreds course feverishly through a world that is increasingly saturated with violence.

Shoppers being blown to bits in a Baghdad shopping mall; gay and lesbian clubbers; children watching fireworks; disabled residents of a care home; teenagers going to a music concert – all these victims have been selected as targets by mostly young men seeking to piggy-back their way to 15 minutes of notoriety on the bodies of men, women and children whose lives they have callously extinguished.

Open the paper one day and you can see the  grinning ‘militants’ of the US-backed Syrian rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zenki happily posing for a photograph as they prepare to cut off the head of a supposed Palestinian child soldier.  Now a baby-faced ‘lone wolf’ who was apparently ‘inspired’ by Daesh has cut off the head of an 84-year-old priest in France in a vicious act of sacrilegious murder that he still had time to film and presumably upload before he was predictably shot – because without a decent video to leave as your legacy, what’s the point, after all, of killing and being shot.

The perpetrators vary in their motives but their profile is often depressingly similar regardless of their ideology – assuming they even have one.   Some are victim-narcissists, Travis Bickle types torn between hatred and self-pity, seeking a few minutes of homicidal power and glory that adds meaning to otherwise pathetic and meaningless lives in which they have done nothing good or even aspired towards goodness.

Some of them want to kill immigrants because they were bullied.  Others want to kill gays because they’re gay.  Some of them are mentally ill.  Some are entirely ‘normal’.   Many of them – as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone – think that God will be pleased with. They shout God is great and might actually be stupid or deluded enough to believe that a God with any greatness or benevolence could ever sanction their absurd and  freakish acts of savagery.

Some of them may really believe that murdering defenceless and unsuspecting people going about their peaceful daily business guarantees them a place in paradise. They boast that they love death more than we love life, when they lacked the courage to live in the first place and valued their own lives as little as they valued the lives of others.

Whatever their motivations, their crimes diminish us all.  They drag the name of humanity into the gutter.  They challenge the very idea that human beings are worth saving.  Their crimes call into question the image of (wo)mankind evoked by Hamlet ‘ how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.’

We know that there is nothing noble, angelic or godlike about this procession of murderers and assassins, and their stubborn persistence  in our century reminds us how far we still have to travel to live up to the best expectations of our species, and the best of our common traditions, both religious and secular.

Now, in this vicious summer of blood, it’s easy to feel that we are all passengers in a speeding train being driven by a madman.  It’s tempting to feel demoralised and even crushed by this catalogue of jawdropping horrors that we are constantly obliged to gape at.

In times like these, one can feel that everyday life is impossible and even shameful, that words have no power or meaning, that politics is no longer a vehicle for the common good, that the future is dark and getting worse, that utopia or even a better world is impossible and that perhaps we’re already living in dystopia.

In the case of Daesh/Isis, it’s also tempting to respond to the deliberate malice and vindictiveness with an equally vindictive response, to seek safety, security and revenge in Trumplike walls; in wars and states of emergency; in visceral fantasies of vetting and repressing and even expelling immigrants and Muslim immigrants – as if Muslims weren’t themselves victims of these evil acts in far greater numbers than white Europeans.

Our politicians promise more wars – as if the wars we have already waged so disastrously have not been instrumental in creating the conditions for the nightmare that is now unfolding.  We hear that we must balance civil and human  rights against security, usually in order to tilt the balance in favour of the latter.

We would do well to resist these temptations.  Daesh may be a political and moral monstrosity, but it is a monstrosity with a very clear set of strategies, which vary from country to country.   In general these objectives are very clear:

  • to generate hatred, conflict and division through deliberate atrocity
  • to demoralise and destabilise Europe and create the conditions for the generalised persecution of European Muslims and an era of endless war in the Middle East
  •  to turn the continent against Muslim refugees in the hope that these refugees will turn back to Daesh.
  • to demonstrate a global presence and an implacable power that will compensate for its military reverses

To achieve these objectives, Daesh would like us to believe that everyday life is impossible, that we can’t be safe anywhere, and that its legions of depressed, marginalized and sometimes mentally-ill murderers represent the vanguard of the Caliphate’s army in a new religious war.

And it’s precisely because these goals are so crude, blatant and clearcut that we mustn’t allow Daesh and its cohorts to fulfill them.  If we want to be democracies, then we should not allow ourselves to be tempted by authoritarian pseudo-solutions to terrorism.  If we want to have open, tolerant societies that uphold civil and human rights then we should remain tolerant and open and continue to uphold and celebrate those rights.

If we want a common European home where men and women of different races, cultures and religions can coexist and prosper together, then we must continue to believe in that possibility and work towards it, no matter how many times Daesh kills and bombs.   Because in the end, a movement that can produce only murderers has no future except the one that we give it.

Historically, the essential aim of non-state terrorism, regardless of its aims or ideology,  is to lure its more powerful opponent into an over-reaction.  Daesh is no exception.  Here in Europe, it’s using atrocity as an instrument of political and social engineering with a ferocity and ruthlessness that no previous organization has ever achieved.

Yet now more than ever, it’s essential that a fragile and fractious continent that is already seething with dangerous political forces doesn’t allow itself to be terrorised into becoming something monstrous.

And one way – perhaps the only way – to ensure that outcome,,  is do what we can to protect ourselves, to hold onto our best traditions not reach towards our worst,  and  keep calm and carry on.

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Nice and the Spectacle of Terror

Yesterday evening I was driving to play a game of tennis and listening to the radio, when I heard the sounds of of screaming people being mown down by a truck in Nice.  I immediately turned it off.  This isn’t because I think I have some privileged right to ignore the escalating procession of horrors that is driving our fractured and ever-more deranged world ever closer towards catastrophe.

I don’t ignore these terrifying developments, and I would be stupid to do so.  But I don’t need to hear the sounds of children being murdered to know that what took place in Nice is utterly sad and tragic and yet another outrageous crime that disgraces the name of humanity.  And I know that the narcissistic murderers who perpetrate such horrors and the bloodthirsty morons who celebrate them want me to be watching and listening.

Like the psychopathic Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s Manhunter such men want an audience to ‘feel awe’ at their ability to transmit atrocity-spectacles through a mass media that thrives on such phenomena.  Both the man driving the truck and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ that has ‘claimed responsibility’ for Thursday’s act of mass slaughter have arrived in that peculiar moral wasteland inhabited by the great murderers and genociders of history, in which it is possible to kill anyone without mercy or restraint.

They see themselves as heroes and avengers.  I don’t.  They want me to feel afraid of their implacable ability to kill anywhere they like.  I just feel disgust, shame and sorrow that we belong to the same species.   No use calling them ‘beasts’ or ‘animals’, because animals don’t behave like this. These men are humans, even if the violence that they perpetuate is dependent on stripping its victims of any semblance of humanity.

We call such men ‘terrorists’ to establish some kind of moral distinction between us and them, and the use of the t-word immediately gives their actions a new moral and political significance, so that even the truck that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel used as a weapon becomes a ‘terror truck’, as the Sun called it today.

Politicians fall back on the same tropes and rhetorical devices.  We hear that these attacks were aimed at ‘us’ – a first person plural that almost always refers to non-Muslims regardless of the fact that far greater numbers of Muslims than Westerners have been murdered by Daesh and groups like it.   Nearly two hundred Iraqis died in a single bombing in Baghdad the previous week, compared with 84 in Nice – yet as always, attacks on Westerners become a universal media event, which politicians depict as an attack on  our ‘values’ and ‘freedoms’ and our ‘way of life.’

Such depictions ignore the fact that Daesh has a very clear strategy – in its attacks on Westerners anyway – of using atrocity and mass murder to create an unbridgeable chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims in order to eliminate the ‘grey area’ and drive European Muslims in particular towards a dystopian slave state that is inexorably crumbling.

Nothing about freedom or values here – just cold ‘intensification of calamities’ reptilian political thinking of the type that the Russian terrorist Sergei Nechaev once bleakly delineated, whose implications and consequences we ignore at our peril.  Yet again and again we do ignore them, and allow others to reinterpret them.

Today I watched an American ‘security expert’ warning of the danger to France from Muslim ghettoes where the population only obeyed ‘Sharia law’ not French law.   Now there might be marginalized and de facto segregated areas where mostly Muslim populations live in a state of what we politely call ‘social exclusion’ – but I never heard or read any conclusive evidence that such populations live under ‘Sharia law.’

And of course we have a host of pundits informing us that we are ‘at war’ – another essential component of the terror-spectacle.   Well this is true in the sense that every atrocity in Europe is part of a continuum of violence that extends from European capitals to Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and even further afield.  But it is precisely the wars and interventions that we have waged so gratuitously over the last sixteen years that have created the context in which organizations like ISIS can thrive and present themselves as Islamic holy warriors in a global battlefield.

Had our governments not done this, had they responded to the 9/11 attacks with a measured, calibrated and patient law-enforcement driven response to al Qaeda we might not have been in the situation we are now in.   Had our governments not chosen to bomb and invade one Muslim country after another, we might have drained the crucial – however spurious – legitimacy that groups like AQ and its offshoots have drawn on to present their actions as defensive or reciprocal.

So many what ifs? And it would be an exaggeration to suggest that there would have been no problem or at all if these things had not happened, just as it is crude and simplistic to suggest that every act of mass murder perpetrated by Islamic extremists is some kind of ill-conceived response to Western foreign policy.   But the problem might not have been as all-pervasive as it is now, had our governments not launched themselves into the various ‘wars on terror’ to ‘make us safe’, which have made nobody safe at all – not over here or over there.

Despite these manifold failures, Marine Le Pen would like to ‘begin’ the ‘war’ against was ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that according to her, hasn’t been fought yet.  How should it be fought?  She doesn’t say.  But others have been saying it for a long time. Forced assimilation; mass expulsions and deportations; turn their cities into car parks; European civil wars; ‘making life harder for Muslims across the board’ – we’ve all heard variants on what this ‘war’ might look like.

In the wake of the Nice attacks, Newt Gingrich has proposed that all American Muslims should be ‘tested’ to see if they believe in ‘Sharia law’ – and expelled if they do.  To me such notions are not only completely impractical – what does a drunk, wife-beating depressive and petty criminal who rarely went near a mosque have to do with ‘Sharia law’? – they have nothing to do with freedom or democracy and reek of incipient fascism.

Of course Daesh and its cohorts would love to see such ‘solutions’ implemented.  These groups don’t believe Muslims have any place in the West – a belief they share with the far right.  It’s safe to assume that they would be extremely happy with a full-blown program of persecution, deportations, and an outbreak of ethnic strife in either the United States or Europe.

For that reason alone, we shouldn’t want to give them that victory, though some clearly don’t care if we do.   There is no doubt that we face an extraordinarily complex and variegated terrorist emergency that is both local and global, whose provocations are designed – like those of so many of their predecessors in the grim history of terrorism – to provoke all-out confrontation and force supposedly democratic societies to reveal their ‘true’ repressive face.

We must resist that temptation, no matter what it takes.  We – Muslims and non-Muslims – must continue together the search for a world based on collective security and peaceful coexistence, on tolerance, justice and mutual respect.  Every atrocity, wherever it takes place, should galvanize us to renew this search not abandon it or conclude that it’s impossible to achieve, because if we stop that common search we are all lost, and the dregs of our species will win.

All governments have the obligation to protect their populations, but too many governments have used terrorist-spectacles as a justification for wars and interventions that have only increased the risks we face.  For this reason terrorism is too important to be left to politicians.   We need civil society to get on board. We need to deepen and widen democracy, not curtail it.   We need to think very clearly, honestly and precisely about who our enemies are and what motivates them .   In the age of the internet and social media, we may never be able to stop marginalised and narcissistic men from seeking redemption and notoriety through poisonous mythologies of grandiose violence.

But no matter how many terror-spectacles they perpetrate, no matter how many times they brag that they love death more than we love life, we must pick up the pieces afterwards and mourn those whose lives have been shattered and cut short.

And then we must forwards together towards our common future with as much serenity and conviction as we can muster, and  continue the search for a world in which these suicide-cum-mass murderers will never be able to see themselves as heroes, and will be treated with universal contempt.

Tony Blair Says Sorry (again)

The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication,  and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again.  Blair last did this back in October last year,  when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’

This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct,  used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’

This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible.  It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.

Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all.   So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:

‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’

There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour.  Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.

In these circumstances,  it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen.   In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself.    According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing.  Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’

Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’  Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed.  It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’

These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.

Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’.   Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it.  We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’

Blair received the same warnings from other quarters.  In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East,  took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:

‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.   To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’

So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that  he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case.   To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him.   His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.

Blair is not entirely wrong though.  He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq.   There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned  the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq.  Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’

No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning.  But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.