Burkini Madness

Anyone who has travelled in France this summer will have found it difficult to ignore the  the ongoing state of emergency with which the French state has responded to Daesh’s savage provocations.    In Banyuls-sur-Mer, we found the main road by the beach guarded by armed soldiers, presumably mindful of a repeat of the attack on Tunisia last year.   In Chartres, we watched a band whose members were mostly in their 60s or 70s joyously celebrating the city’s summer fete in glorious French style, while a detachment of soldiers, some of whom looked as if they were barely out of school, guarded the entrances to the square where their gig was taking place.

It was poignant, funny and moving to watch these pensioners exuberantly sashaying their way to the stage dressed in white to the strains of La Compagnie Créole’s ‘C’est Bon Pour Le Moral’- It’s Good for the Spirit – while the crowd sang along from memory or printed out lyrics.  Age could not wither these minstrels and dancers, because even in the midst of so much gloom and mayhem, the French will not easily surrender their right to celebrate the summer,  even if soldiers are now needed to ensure that some ‘radicalized’ murderer will not try to kill them.

The blundering government of Francois Hollande is clearly desperate to demonstrate to the French public that it can provide security, and the French public is right to demand such reassurances – even if it is difficult to believe that any amount of soldiers can provide full protection against random acts of homicide that can take place anywhere and at any time.

The French government undoubtedly knows that it can’t prevent such attacks – no democracy can, without going onto an explicitly war footing.  On the one hand these armed patrols are a form of security theatre, designed to give the appearance of security.  But even if we may not like to see armed soldiers in the streets, their presence is understandable, and it’s difficult to argue that they aren’t necessary in the current climate.

All that is very different from what has been taking place on French beaches since  Nice, Cannes and some fifteen other towns announced last week that women would not be allowed to wear the full-body swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’ on the beach and that those who did would be fined.   Yesterday these measures reached a new pitch of hysterical idiocy when a group of armed police surrounded a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice and ordered her to take off the offending garment, while scowling French holidaymakers looked on.

Why has this happened?  What makes these women so dangerous? The massacres and murders of the last two years are obviously part of the explanation – but only in the sense that they have acted as a catalyst for the worst kind of state-enforced bigotry that is as slippery and dishonest in its justifications, as it is useless and counter-productive from the point of view of security.   The Cannes ordinance declares that: ‘Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order.’

What kind of risks?  According to the mayor of Cannes, Thierry Migoule: ‘If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order…It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion.’

So Migoule is protecting Muslim women from discrimination by punishing them for wearing clothing that might make them objects of discrimination?   Not exactly.  Migoule has also told Agence France-Presse that the burkini is an ‘ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us’.

Ah ha.  So women who wear the burkini are declaring their allegiance to Daesh then?     Let’s just consider for a moment the notion that women in Daesh-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq are flocking to the beaches dressed in their burkini ‘uniforms’.   While we’re at it, let’s also ponder the suggestion that Muslim women who wear burkinis in France are wearing ‘uniforms’ that declare their allegiance to the Caliphate and their support for the attacks of the last year.

Have you given these possibilities your full consideration, readers?  Good, then let’s move on, because such a idiotic idea isn’t really worth spending more than a micro-second upon.  Nor is there any evidence that women wearing the burkini have ‘drawn a crowd’ and disrupted public order, though these banning ordinances certainly increase that possibility, with their ludicrous allegations that stigmatise women who choose to go to the beach with their bodies covered as ideological or religious threats.

The Nice town council has tweaked its banning ordinance slightly differently, declaring that the burkini ‘overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.’  So for Cannes, the burkini symbolizes ‘extremism Islamism’, for Nice it’s ‘adherence to a religion’.   And now Prime Minister Manuel Valls has joined in, declaring the burkini to be a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women’  which is ‘ “not compatible with the values of the French Republic.’

Valls has supported the burkini ban on the grounds that ‘In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself.’  No one can be surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to get into the act and is using the burkini to smooth the path of a political comeback, in which he is trying to appeal to Front National voters without actually joining the party.

Sarkozy is a spectacularly unscrupulous politician who has played this game before. Like Valls, he sees the burkini as a ‘provocation ‘ since ‘we don’t imprison women behind fabric.’

How noble of ‘us’ that we don’t do that.    So are the cops who humiliate a harmless Muslim woman on a beach defending France from a threat or are they liberating her, or perhaps performing both acts at the same time?

We don’t really know, and the politicians who advocate such brain-dead acts of persecution probably don’t really know either.  They do know they can’t stop Daesh.  They won’t consider, say, not selling Rafale jets to Saudi Arabia.  But they will, it seems, declare burkini-wearing women to be a threat to public order, the identity of French society, and a hollowed-out notion of laïcité that is really only interested in what Muslims do – or what they’re perceived to be doing.

Let’s be clear about this: these measures will solve nothing and resolve nothing.  If the French state were to fine and even imprison Muslim women on every beach in the country it would not do a single thing to make the French public more secure.  These bans will not ‘liberate’ Muslim women and they are not intended to.  They will not promote ‘cohesion’ and ‘ assimilation’, but they will generate anger, humiliation, bitterness and alienation.

All this may give some satisfaction to the usual bigots and racists who would always like to lash out at any Muslim within reach.  In pandering to these unworthy sentiments, France’s politicians have made a major blunder.   In thoughtlessly and mindlessly mixing up and conflating very different notions of culture, religion and security, they threaten to institutionalize anti-Muslim bigotry still further,  even as they unleash an overbearing and hypocritical authoritarianism that may be useful to the politicians who promote it, but which threatens to make France look simultaneously ridiculous, two-faced,cowardly and stupid.

In instrumentalising feminism in the service of what is an inherently persecutory enterprise, they only disgrace themselves still further.  We can only wait now for politicians like Valls and Sarkozy to order that all Muslim women should be forced to go topless and wear thongs to prove that they aren’t ‘imprisoned’ and demonstrate their commitment to laïcité.

It’s up to French society to reach into its better traditions and bring this dangerous nonsense to an end, the sooner the better.  So come on France, give yourself a shake now and pull yourself together, and please try to remember that you have more important things to worry about these days than what Muslim women are wearing on the beach.  

 

 

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.

Bombing the Grey Zone

At some point in the future it would be good to imagine that our descendants may look back on our dark and savage world with sadness and horror, and regard it as a bygone tragedy that has been overcome and superseded by a more enlightened era. Perhaps historians will look back and seek to draw  lessons from our collective descent into the abyss, the way we now look back at the 1930s and the rise of fascism,  because the careful study of history can always provide salutary lessons to those disposed to look for them.

They may wonder how it came to be that human beings came to believe that mass murder was a testament of religious faith; that it was acceptable to slaughter unarmed and defenseless civilians  in Brussels, Baghdad, Paris, Ankara and so many other cities with the casual disregard of a child stepping on an ants nest.  Our descendants may notice that these actions did not take place in a vacuum.

Looking for context and motivation, they will observe that the crimes and atrocities perpetrated by Salafist/takfiri terrorists took place in a world seething with war, militarism, religious fanaticism, racism, hatred and injustice, whose leaders responded with indifference, incompetence or narrow self-interest.   They may trace the more perverse forms of globalisation that connected even the most seemingly distant and disparate protagonists to the same continuum of violence, whether it was petty criminals turned into ‘martyrdom bombers’ in Brussels or drone operators in Nevada surveilling targets in Waziristan or Somalia.

Our happy descendants may wonder why men with kalishnikovs and suicide belts only talked about God and faith as a justification for war and killing; why wars fought in the name of humanitarianism carved a swathe of devastation across the Middle East and North Africa; why men, women and even children fleeing these wars were regarded as dangerous intruders; why a voracious media selectively transformed certain terror-spectacles into universal events and ignored others.

In seeking to find an ‘explanation’ for yesterday’s terror-event and so many others, they may have to consider the strategic template outlined in an article published in ISIS’s English-language magazine Dabiq in November last year, which explained that it was necessary to destroy the ‘grey zone’ inhabited by Western Muslims and turn the societies where the lived against them:

“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens… Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of ‘Islam’ before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.”

Our future scholars may notice that Daesh aren’t the only ones who want to destroy this ‘grey zone’.  They may notice that yesterday’s atrocities provoked a Twitter hashtag #StopIslam;  that hatemongers across Europe blamed refugees for these attacks before any of them even had the slightest idea who actually carried them out; that Ted Cruz talked of policing Muslim communities in the United States; that Donald Trump wants a new license to waterboard and torture; that Marine le Pen called for France to shut its borders to refugees and immigrants.

Our descendants may well ask why so many people who claimed to despise Daesh/Islamic State seemed so willing to do its work for them.   They will hopefully be asking these questions about the past, not the present, because they will inhabit a very different world from ours; a world that has rediscovered true internationalism – not the truncated or fake versions propagated by humanitarian militarists and the ‘soldiers of the caliphate’; a world in which politics is no longer the degraded and horrific nightmare that it has currently become, but a common arena in which men and women of all faiths and beliefs can work towards the greater good in the interests of the many, not the few, and our best and most generous hopes, instincts and traditions as a species are reflected, rather than the worst.

In this world the murderers who we currently fear and despise would have no constituency.  Politically-convenient phantasms of national security would be replaced by notions of collective security and global justice that are truly borderless; useless and divisive counterterrorism programs and states of emergency will have been replaced by genuine outreach that embraces all communities, faiths and cultures, and sordid and destructive geopolitical resource wars will have been replaced by a common effort to protect and preserve the planet that we are fortunate to call our common home.

You might think that imagining such a future is an act of self-indulgence or a pointless distraction, especially after yesterday’s events, but  at the moment we are being herded with frightening speed towards a very different future by the murderers who carried out yesterday’s attackers – and also by so many who have used these attacks as a justification for hating and excluding people who had nothing to do with them.

In this future there will only be more wars and more atrocities, and more of the horrible dynamic in which each atrocity becomes another justification to intensify and extend the state of permanent pseudo-war that cannot coexist indefinitely with democratic governance; more barbed-wire fences, more militarised borders, more dead refugees, and above all more hatred and persecution.

No one can say where this will lead us, but we know where some people want it to lead., and you would have to really complacent to dismiss the worst-case scenarios that are beginning to loom on the horizon.

So it’s precisely now,  at a time when all of us are diminished and sullied by yet another brutal injection of horror into our mournful, dysfunctional present, when our best hopes seem futile and pointless and we are assaulted by all kinds of sinister possibilities, that we need to hold onto what is good and even noble about our species, and imagine the future once again as a place worth living in, and figure out a way to work towards it.