Civilisation and its Malcontents

In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces.  Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people.  The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.

Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples.  In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.

This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts.  With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.

In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’

The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled his Warsaw speech with references to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’

Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again.  And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’  Yeah, think of that.   And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget.   As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.

Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘ works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’

One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday.  According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’ and maintaining national security’.   Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.

But then no one would expect him to.  Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies.   No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the Sun stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh,  warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’

How so?  Because many refugees ‘have no ­experience of civil society.  They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these ­conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’  Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’

Is it?  The sneaky bastards.  Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside. No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’

Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation.  And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’

If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it.   In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’  I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.

Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws.  And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team.  It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing.  Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.

Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it.   Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis.  It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…

 

 

 

 

Terrortalk

Many years ago, when I was doing my A’ Levels, my English teacher gave us three basic rules of thumb to apply when reading texts: 1) What is the author trying to achieve? 2) To what extent does he/she succeed on his/her terms? 3) To what extent does he/she succeed on your terms?

Of course there are a lot more questions you can ask about books and writers, and even the three that have mentioned immediately raise a number of issues.   But I have always found my English teacher’s advice useful not when thinking about books, but on many other occasions.  When I was writing my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine, for instance,  I often tried to apply them to the individuals, organizations and movements I was writing about, as well as the states that were fighting them.

But in the process of researching that book, I often realized how rarely such questions are asked, not only in the abundant literature that has historically framed ‘terrorism’ as an un-Western, un-democratic and alien phenomenon of violence, but also in the wider discourse that has surrounded particular terrorist emergencies.

Whether it was the ‘anarchist terror’ of the 1890s, the Kenyan ‘Mau Mau’ or even the IRA, the societies that were on the receiving end of this kind of non-state violence were rarely encouraged to think about what its protagonists were trying to achieve, or whether they succeeded on their terms, and independent judgments about the causes and context of such violence were generally preempted by officially-orchestrated hysteria and anathemas that attempted to impose their own answers.

Conventional wisdom on the subject tended to present terrorism as an eruption of irrational and monstrous violence whose essential aim was nothing less than terror itself. The practitioners of this kind of violence were often depicted as moral aliens and wild beasts who were beyond rationality and understanding, and these representations often acted as a pretext for ‘virtuous’ counterterrorist violence, in which the extermination of terrorists could become a ‘sacred duty’, as the anthropologist Edmund Leach once put it.

Privately, governments might have a very keen understanding of their opponents, their tactics, strategies and political goals, but this knowledge rarely informed public debate about terrorism and was often deliberately concealed from the wider society.

Generally speaking, in the course of terrorist emergencies, civil society is discouraged from thinking or talking about terrorism beyond the very narrow parameters that governments seek to impose or disseminate.    The events of the last week have brought home to me how narrow these parameters have become.  Over the last few days I have often heard my words and those of my fellow-blogger Chris Floyd described as ‘unacceptable’ by the Labour MP Emma Reynolds and others.

Leaving aside the question as to whether Reynolds has even read or understood the pieces she has condemned, and the extent to which she was merely using them for political purposes, the hysteria and outrage that she and others expressed so readily nevertheless demonstrates that our current emergency is not that different from many of its predecessors.

Today, as in the past, civil society is expected to applaud dishonest and opportunistic depictions of the enemies we face that tell us much more about how our governments would like us to see them than the way they see themselves.  We are not supposed to think about what it is about these organizations that enables them to continually find new members.   We are not supposed to think about what their political aims are or the source of their global appeal in any other terms except their common hatred for everything that is good about us.

We are not expected to think about where that hatred may come from, and whether – at times – it may be related to things that our governments have done,  and not simply because we are all good people who love freedom.  We have now reached such a level of hysterical dishonesty that the British government is prepared to monitor Muslim toddlers for signs of ‘radicalization’, yet politicians dismiss any discussion that includes us as well as the demonic Other is considered to be ‘unacceptable.’

Often we are told that jihadists are ‘death cults’ with no political aims beyond death, even when it is very clear that their organizations are using violence – however extreme and horrific – strategically for political purposes.  Politicians like to tell us that these groups – whether al Qaeda or Daesh – are a new form of fascism comparable to Nazism – an explanation that should make it possible to understand them in political terms, yet try and write about the political context in which these groups emerged, as Chris Floyd attempted to do after the Paris massacres, and you hear that this ‘unacceptable..

The least that can be said about these constraints is that they are not helpful in eliminating the lethal threat that these groups represent.  Instead they leave the broader debate about terrorism to governments, thinktanks, ‘terrorist experts’ and establishment commentators, who too often reproduce the official interpretations of terrorism that have done absolutely nothing to bring the ongoing emergency to an end.

If we look back on the way that western governments have responded to the atrocities of 9/11, virtually everything they have done has played into the hands of their jihadist enemies.  Al Qaeda wanted to bring the ‘crusaders’ into the Middle East and Central Asia; we obliged them.   Jihadism feeds off weak or failed states; we have helped given them four.  Islamic State would like to have ‘crusader’ armies bombing Syrian cities and get involved in yet another open-ended war; we’ve done that too.

Again and again, ill-thought-out and often blatantly opportunistic forms of military intervention have helped create precisely the kinds of conditions in which al-Qaeda type formations thrive, while heavy-handed and authoritarian campaigns against ‘radicalization’ at home have only exacerbated the bitterness, alienation and anger that makes it easier for such groups to recruit.

The result is a global terrorist emergency that, unlike its predecessors, is not only global, but is potentially indefinite, because it is unfolding in so many countries and in so many different contexts.

The consequences of this situation have already been disastrous, and unless we can get to grips with it, and design appropriate strategies, both abroad and at home, they will certainly get worse and we will never find our way out on this dire trajectory of terrorist massacre, war, national security authoritarianism and racism that is choking our world to death.

In order to do that we need to be able to talk and think openly about terrorism and terrorists, regardless of  whether governments and politicians find what we say ‘acceptable’, because the evidence of the last fifteen years suggests that too many governments are not thinking about it at all, and that if they have applied the three very useful questions that my English teacher once recommended many years ago to the current state of emergency, then they are not telling us the answers.

On Heretics and Thought-Crimes

Bear with me readers, if I return to ‘InternationalBrigadegate’ one more time, because what I want to say is not really about me: it’s about us.  A lot of the writing I’ve done over the years, in books, articles, and blogposts, has been concerned with the subject of persecution.  I’ve always been concerned with the ease with which powerful societies can transform themselves into what the medieval historian R.I.  Moore once called ‘persecuting societies’.

These concerns have been present in all my books, from my history of terrorism to my novel The Devils of Cardona, which is due to be published next year.  Given these preoccupations, there has been a weird and bewildering irony about the events of the last week, which are still unfolding.

Today, for example I came across a leftist blog attacking my Hilary Benn piece.  After the usual foaming at the mouth at my supposed iniquities, the writer contemptuously referred to my book about General Sherman’s March to the Sea,  with this observation:

 ‘The only walk to the ocean most people would like to witness on Carr’s part is one which ends with him lying ten fathoms deep.’

In the opinion of this self-proclaimed  ‘critical marxist’ therefore,  it is legitimate to recommend my death because of a sentence that I wrote and a thought that he believed I had.

Now I recognize that this is an extreme reaction, even by the standards of the past week. Nevertheless day after day newspapers, journalists, and politicians repeat my International Brigades quote or cite fellow-blogger Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, without any sign that they have read the pieces concerned, and with the kind of horror and disgust that you would now expect to be directed at Jimmy Saville’s memoirs.

I’m only surprised that these critics don’t brandish a crucifix or wear garlic round their necks.  Some of this, as I’ve said previously,  is clearly due to a blatantly McCarthyist campaign that is intended to destroy the Stop the War movement, and by association Jeremy Corbyn.

But what I find most shocking, and which I want to draw attention to here, is the fact that the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself  is based entirely on our thoughts and words – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be.

In this sense, the incredible momentum that this campaign has acquired reminds me of medieval and early modern attitudes to ‘heresy’, when certain thoughts and ideas were considered so dangerous to society that they could only be purged and kept at arms length otherwise society faced complete destruction.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider my thoughts to be so earthshaking that they threaten society or the established order, and I don’t regard myself as a modern-day heretic.  But whatever you think I said, or whatever you think Floyd said, the fact remains that the moral opprobrium that has been heaped upon both of us has been entirely due to the fact that we expressed thoughts and ideas that are now considered illegitimate and taboo.

Were this not the case, it would have been perfectly possible to disagree with either of us, to criticize us, to say that our ideas weren’t well-expressed or whatever.  Instead the two of us have been objects of a collective rage, hatred and disgust, in some cases by people who have never read what they are condemning.

Some of this outrage is due to the disgust and horror that ISIS incites through its endless massacres and atrocities, and the (false) assumption that Floyd and I somehow condone or minimize or even approve of these actions.   But ISIS itself cannot explain the knee-jerk responses of so many people to a sentence in a screenshot and a single phrase.

ISIS doesn’t explain why it is now becoming difficult to think or say anything about it beyond certain consensual parameters, and why a single phrase or sentence can be held up as evidence of evil intent or collusion.  It doesn’t explain why a British politician is hailed as a great orator if he compares the bombing of another Middle Eastern city to the International Brigades; or why George Osborne can tell a New York audience that the UK has ‘got its mojo back’ because it has bombed Raqqa.

Yet MPs now read the words of two writers and bloggers out in parliament as though they were reading an indictment, and ‘leftists’ can call for the death of someone whose words they don’t like.  And even when Floyd and I have tried to explain and clarify our intentions, these emotions have made no difference to many of those who have read them, and some have even seen them as confirmation of our original ‘guilt.’

And all that, my friends, suggests that we have a problem, and that it is not the one that has been raised so hysterically and so dishonestly during the last week.

 

 

International Terror Day

In his memoir The Devil in France, the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger looked back on the historical circumstances that had resulted in his internment in a French prison in Tunisia during World War I,  and driven him into exile in southern France following Hitler’s ascent to power, and his internment in French concentration camps during World War II before he subsequently found another exile and salvation in New York.   Feuchtwanger reached the following conclusions:

‘There are as many rationally adequate explanations as one may wish for the particular course of my own trifling experiences no less than for the issues of greater moment on which they depended.  Ingenious minds stand ready to enumerate those reasons – economic reasons, biological, sociological, psychological reasons, reasons deriving from one or another of the philosophies of the universe.  I myself, for that matter, could write a book on the subject, sharpening my wits to find logical concatenations.

Deep down in my heart, however, I know that I have not the slightest understanding of the causes of the barbaric turmoil in which all of us are writhing…Some day, one may guess, “all the documents” will be available.  But what of that?   At the most we shall know only a little more about the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact.  The judgment we pass on the course of events as a whole will still be a matter solely of the interpreter’s temperament and throw light only on him.’

By chance I read those words yesterday evening, on a day when the ‘barbaric turmoil’ of our own times erupted once again into the headlines – or at least that particular dimension of the turmoil which inevitably garners more public attention than any other, that we call  ‘terror.’

It’s too early to say whether yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ was coordinated, or whether it was a random convergence of events whose perpetrators share the same commitment to ‘leaderless resistance’ jihad which makes it equally possible to murder ‘apostate’ Shia worshippers in a mosque or ‘kufar’ tourists in Tunisia.

Whoever they are, their broader intentions are not difficult to fathom.  Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Kuwait and Tunisia attacks.  Both are acts of ‘strategic’ terrorism.  The attack in Kuwait is clearly intended to foment the sectarian war that IS believes it can exploit for its own purposes.   The attacks in Tunisia are a blow aimed at Tunisia itself, whose struggling economy depends so much on tourism, and they are likely intended to pave the way for the transformation of Tunisia into yet another zone of chaos that can serve as an incubator for the glorious jihad.

The attack on the Imperial Hotel is also ‘political’ in that it is indended to show that  Western governments – and the British government in particular – cannot protect their citizens anywhere in the world.   These attacks may also be partly compensatory, at a time when Islamic State has experienced a series of military reversals in Syria and faces the prospect of being driven out of its base in Raqaa.

As for the attack in France, who can ‘understand’ why a Muslim employee decapitated his boss and left the head on a fence before driving a vehicle into a gas factory?  Ultimately, those who organized or inspired these repulsive acts are trying to communicate some ‘message.’  Like the ‘tooth fairy’ serial killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, they want us – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to ‘feel awe’ at their power and cower before them.

The tooth fairy’s audience was a man strapped to a wheelchair who had no choice but to cower.  We do have a choice.   We can refuse to accept Islamic State’s description of the man who massacred peaceful worshippers in a Kuwaiti mosque as a ‘knight’ and say that he was a worthless murdering bigot who has disgraced his religion and the name of humanity itself.

We can say that the ‘soldier of the caliphate’ who thought slaughtering at least 38 unarmed tourists was funny is no more worthy of respect than a Nazi concentration camp guard.   We can say that such men are not heroes and they are not brave, anymore than Anders Breivik and Dylan Rooff were brave.

When things like this happen, we want to say something, and in fact we need to, because acts of violence like these are intended to shock us and force us into a state of impotent fury or helpless, in which the ability to think and speak begins to seem pointless and irrelevant.

And if we don’t speak, we will allow our governments and their representatives to speak for us, and what they have to say is too often stupid, self-serving and duplicitous.   Consider for example,  today’s Daily Telegraph editorial, which  cited the Queen’s visit to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp this week as a reminder of what was required in the struggle against ‘radical Islamism’:

‘Bergen-Belsen is a reminder of why evil needs to be confronted and why the case for liberal democracy has to be remade each generation. Western values have to be rigorously defended and promoted in schools. Rights to free speech or assembly should be respected, of course, but laws necessary to root out extremism and defend liberty may prove decisive in this struggle.

Perhaps most importantly, the West must possess the capacity to resist terrorism with military means. There is an understandable reluctance to commit troops anywhere on the ground. But there is also a pressing need to do as much as is reasonably possible to push back the advance of Islamists in the Middle East. For the moment, the highest priority should be given to securing the Mediterranean border. ‘

So more repression and surveillance at home.   More of the ‘antiterrorism’ education of British Muslims that has had no demonstrable effect whatsoever on ‘radicalization.’    And above all more war abroad, including the unpalatable possibility of troops ‘on the ground’.  And the Mediterranean ‘border’ must be ‘secured’ – presumably against the migrants who are trying to cross it who have nothing to do with ‘radical Islam’ – in order to address the collapse of the Libyan state that took place as a result of the last war that the West just had no choice but to fight.

And as for these ‘Western values’ – please don’t make me sick.  On yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ Saudi planes carried out another round of air strikes in Yemen, in the same week that the UN announced that 21 million Yemenis – 80 percent of the population – now require humanitarian assistance.

Some of those bombings may have been carried out with British-built planes, because Britain not only arms the Saudis, but has explicitly expressed its support for the war against the supposedly Iran-linked Houthi rebels – a war that is bringing Yemen to the point of collapse.

Unless we are supposed to believe that the Saudis and the Egyptian dictatorship and the autocrats of the Gulf are standing up for liberal democracy, we can only conclude that this ghastly war has very little to do with ‘Western values’ and a lot more to do with geopolitics and statecraft.

And that, tragically, is also the case with much of the ‘barbaric turmoil’ that is currently convulsing the Middle East, and which is sucking one country after another into a terrifying vortex of limitless and inhuman violence.

At this point I ought to come up with ‘solutions’ and ‘alternatives’, but right now I don’t have any to offer except this observation: It may be true,  as Feuchtwanger once said, that ‘ the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact’ pertaining to each individual act of barbarism may be elusive.   But those of us who have no choice but to be spectators of terrorist spectacles must understand that ‘terror’ is only one manifestation – and consequence – of a dark, amoral and unjust world that many different actors are responsible for.

And until we do that, I can’t help feeling that we are doomed to see yesterday’s horrors repeated again and again, and that we will remain trapped in a deadly dynamic in which terrorism feeds militarism and militarism feeds terrorism, and our prospects of creating a just and peaceful international order are ripped to shreds.

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