Peter Kosminsky’s Islamic State

The violence that we call terrorism has always been surrounded by a curious paradox. On the one hand virtually every terrorist emergency in history has declared terrorism to be a unique threat to society,  yet the societies under threat are generally not encouraged and are even actively discouraged from thinking about what terrorism is, who terrorists are, what they want, and why they are inclined to do the things that they do.

This reluctance is often fed by the belief that terrorism is so toxic that it cannot be analysed without its toxicity spreading.  Thus Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that no one should try to understand the IRA, because even trying to understand its motivations was the first step towards legitimisation.  And when the Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made his remarkable documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone about ETA, he was vilified by the Spanish government and also by the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which accused him of ideological collusion with terrorism.

Such reactions are on one level entirely ridiculous. Terrorism is a human activity and it should be liable to intellectual scrutiny, like any other activity.   It should also be possible to look at imaginatively, as writers do.  Crime writers do this every day without being accused of intellectual collusion with rape, gangsterism or paedofilia or serial killing.    Armies seek to understand the tactics and strategies of  their opponents and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

None of this should be rocket science.  Yet it’s amazing how unwilling we are to do this when it comes to terrorism.  Too often we allow governments and dubious ‘terrorism experts’ pushing very specific ideological agendas to interpret terrorist violence for us. They use terms like ‘radicalisation’ when we have no idea what this term really means or how it takes place.   They wage ‘wars against terror’ with no strategic coherence and no clear goals that only make the problem worse.

They use banal tautologies such as ‘the aim of terrorism is to terrorise’, when often it is quite clear that ‘spreading fear’ is only one component – and often quite a minor one – in the strategic intentions behind such violence.   They describe atrocities as wars on ‘our values’ when it is quite obvious that such crimes have a very different motivation and target.

Given this context, Peter Kosminsky has performed a valuable service in writing and directing a drama about the most vilified of all terrorist groups.  I am only two episodes into it, but it’s already clear that The State is a compelling and deeply disturbing journey into the nightmare caliphate created by Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which should leave no discerning viewer in any doubt that this ‘state’ is an abomination.

The Islamic State that Kosminsky describes is savage, reactionary, misogynistic, tyrannical, and cruel, fanatical, dishonest and manipulative.   It chops off heads and hands in front of young children and exposes its recruits to high-production atrocity videos in order to condition them to the cruelty that it expects.

All this is depicted from the point of view of four British Muslims who make the journey to Raqqa.  Kosminsky does not  spend much time on the personal back stories that motivated them to leave the UK.  He is more interested in exploring how Islamic State was able to manipulate them into embracing its vision of religious purity, by presenting itself as a defensive jihad on behalf of oppressed Muslims and as a rebellion against a supposedly corrupt and immoral world, that can only be purified through the most fanatical and reductionist version of the Sharia.

In one scene, the cult-like ‘mother superior’ who inducts the women volunteers lectures them on divorce, immorality, and commercialised sex of the world of jahiliya – Sayyid Qutb’s modern reworking of the state of pre-Islamic ignorance.   In another, a military trainer hectors the male volunteers on the evils of women who urinate and bleed.  Even in hospitals, ISIS is so obsessed with female behaviour that the British doctor-volunteer can only treat women and cannot be left alone with a man.

Kosminsky also shows the ‘positive’ appeal of ISIS: the ‘band of brothers’ bonding between the young fighters who receive their kalishnikovs; the yearning for a religiously pure and morally-unambiguous Islamic life; the sense of comradeship that comes from fighting in a meaningful cause; the artful propaganda; the teams of ISIS men who try and seduce women over the Internet into becoming ‘lionesses’; the eschatological and millenarian fantasies of the end of the world and the day of judgment that ISIS seeks to bring about through war.

So this is a serious – and in fact the first – attempt on television to imagine what ISIS is like and why people have been attracted to one of the most horrific political movements in modern times.  Kosminsky and Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for that.   But no one will be surprised that he has been vilified by the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail.  The Sun  quotes the Zionist neocon and former British army colonel Richard Kemp as a ‘terror expert’, who has called the drama ‘the jihadist equivalent of inspiring war epics such as Band of Brothers or Dunkirk. ‘

The best that can be said about this is that it is not a very intelligent observation, because it ought to be quite clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that Kosminsky’s characters are embarked on a journey to the heart of darkness that is not inspiring at all.  Kemp’s comments are not as dense as the witless Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail,  who has described the series as ‘pure poison – like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s.’  Well those films may have worked for the pro-Nazi Daily Mail at the time, but the comparison bears no scrutiny in relation to Kosminsky’s film.

Watson is shocked – shocked I tell you – that one of the characters refers to ISIS as ‘ ” a real supercool club”. There is no irony in her voice.’  Goodness, no irony.   Don’t Daily Mail critics actually learn how to analyse a text or a film?  Apparently not, because the ‘irony’ may not be in the character’s voice, but it is made obvious by the glaring discrepancy between the expectations of Kosminsky’s naive recruit and the horrendous reality all around her.

Stevens has little time for nuance or dramatic subtlety.  He wants his messages served up on a giant platter with a large sign pointing to them, and so he works himself up into the lather of Dacre-suppurating moral indignation that Daily Mail writers just can’t help, and describes  Kosminsky as ‘the epitome of the London media luvvie who is desperate to demonstrate that he is less racist than anyone else at his Hampstead dinner party. He’s been the subject of a South Bank Show profile by Melvyn Bragg. You get the picture.’

In fact we don’t.   And Stevens’s insistence that ISIS is a ‘death cult’ is not enlightening. It is just an insult and a cliché that explains nothing except what Stevens thinks ISIS is. Kosminsky’s drama, on the other hand,  attempts to understand what ISIS itself thinks it is, and any viewer with any serious interest in understanding this malignant phenomenon should pay it serious attention.

The Sun, the Express, and the Mail are  written by people who don’t want to think and clearly don’t want their readers to think either.  But given the magnitude of the mess we’re all in, we need writers who do, and The State is a rare and brave attempt to ask serious questions about something that is really too serious to leave in the hands of the likes of Christopher Stevens or Richard Kemp.

 

History, Peace, and Beauty: On Barcelona’s Ramblas

Of all the massacres perpetrated in Europe in the name of Islamic State, yesterday’s slaughter in the Ramblas has a particular personal resonance for me. I spent nine years in Barcelona, living near the Ramblas for part of that time. Even when I moved further away from downtown Barcelona, hardly a week went by in which I didn’t pass through it. This is because the Ramblas has a special place in the life of the Catalan capital. It’s where you go to meet people, at the Café Zurich at the top of the Ramblas, or by the entrance to the Plaza Catalunya station, or by any other point up and down this fabulous thoroughfare.

It’s where you go to shop at the marvellous La Boqueria indoor market, or look at the fruit and vegetable stands laid out with meticulous precision in dazzling displays of colour. More than anything else, it’s a place you go to stroll. Lorca famously described the Ramblas as a street that was so beautiful that you didn’t want it to end, and he wasn’t wrong. Despite the over-priced cafés, the dense thicket of tourists, the traffic running up and down alongside the pedestrian thoroughfare, the Ramblas remains a space of peace and beauty.

On Sundays it was a pleasure to join the families walking up and down the rows of plane trees, past the flower-sellers, bird stalls, and newspaper stands, to check out the dancers, the ridiculously elaborate living statues, musicians, the skinny little guy who used to perform astounding tricks with a football, the silver-painted Columbus I once interviewed for a radio feature.

Sometimes you might let yourself drift dreamily all the way down from the Plaza Catalunya to the Drassanes medieval shipyards; past the rebuilt Liceo opera house; the Miró mosaic where the murderer eventually crashed his van yesterday; past the Poliarama cinematograph where George Orwell spent three days reading detective novels in June 1937 while anarchists and Assault Guard soldiers shot it out in the Café Moka down below; past the seedy side-streets of the Barrio Chino, where Jean Genet had once picked up knife-fighting lovers in sleazy bars; past the former stamping ground of so many characters from Juan Marsé’s Barcelona novels; past doorways that still bore the marks of the high heels of prostitutes waiting for ships to arrive at the harbour.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here.

Murder in Westminster

So far nothing is known about the murderer who thought it would be a good idea to mow down a group of pedestrians and cyclists on Westminster Bridge and assault parliament with a kitchen knife yesterday.   The murderer is dead, having completed his homicidal spree with an act of suicide-by-cop that was presumably his ultimate aim in the first place.  Last night Channel 4 News bizarrely identified him as Trevor Brooks, aka Abu Izzadeen, the Islamist bigot linked to Andy Choudary’s group of Islamist bigots who once famously heckled John Reid.   This claim unraveled within minutes when it was discovered that Brooks is still in jail.

So the killer remains a blank, except that he was almost certainly a Muslim.  In the days and weeks to come we will probably learn some details about his trajectory.  More than likely it will match the familiar pattern: druggy/petty criminal background followed by ‘conversion’ and rapid ‘radicalisation’.  We may learn that he was ‘on the radar of the security services’; that he had been to Syria; that he was a member of a cell or an isolated ‘lone wolf’ who was ‘inspired’ by Islamic State.

For the time being, all this is speculation.   Yet within hours of the attacks, the familiar terror attack rhetoric was already unfolding like a machine, and Amber Rudd was depicting the attack as an assault on ‘our shared values’ and insisting that these values would never be destroyed.   And the blood hadn’t even dried when the sneering bigot Stephen Lennon who calls himself Tommy Robinson had arrived at Westminster with his personal cameraman to tell the world that ‘these people are waging war on us’ and that ‘this has been going on for 1,400 years.’

Lennon is a man who carries the stench of the political gutter with him wherever he goes, and his arguments are barely worth drawing breath to refute.   But his use of the first person plural was a fringe variant of the familiar terror rhetoric that invariably follows such incidents.   So far we don’t even have the remotest clue whether yesterday’s murderer was attacking ‘our’ values – if these values are deemed to mean freedom and democracy.

Whatever personal motives he may have had, they are likely to be have been legitimised – in his own eyes at least – by some grievance that he holds the British government and public responsible for.  It might be Mosul.  It could be RAF bombing sorties in Syria.  Whatever it is, it’s likely to be much more specific than the cosy invocations of the first personal plural suggest.  Strategically, yesterday’s attacks are more than likely to belong to the usual dismal jihadist playbook: stir up hatred against Muslims who inhabit what IS calls the ‘grey area’; provoke the government into a security overreaction; demonstrate that IS is everywhere and can attack anyone anywhere.

Such things are almost as predictable as the response to them, yet no matter how many times they happen, politicians continue to respond to them with the same meaningless incantations.  In the emotional aftermath of these horrendous events, it may be tempting to imagine that ‘they’ (Muslims) really are waging war against ‘us’ (Westerners, Democrats, Liberals etc) or against ‘our values (tolerance, democracy, freedom, female equality).

But it’s worth remembering that hundreds of Muslim civilians who are no less innocent than those who were killed yesterday have been murdered across the world in the last few months by Islamic State and by other so-called jihadist groups. They include the 30 wedding guests blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Tikrit on 11 March; the bomb attack in Lahore in February that killed 30 protesting pharmacists and wounded more than 100; the car bomb that killed more than 30 people in a Mogadishu market on 19 Feb;  the Istanbul nightclub massacre on 1 January: the multiple car bombings in Sadr City in Baghdad that killed 56 people and wounded more than 100

This is only the most cursory sample.   Look back on the seventeen years since George Bush  launched his war against evil, and you will see again and again that Muslims have been killed in far greater numbers than non-Muslims by the groups that the forces of civilisation are supposedly fighting.

No one can be surprised that an attack like the one that took place yesterday should dominate the front pages. But we ought to wonder why even bloodier acts of mass murder carried out by the same franchises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Somalia receive little no coverage at all, no calls for international solidarity, no facebook memes or twitter hashtags, no lofty rhetoric about freedom and democracy and shared values – and above all no first person plural.

On one level it’s inevitable that British society should pay more attention to an attack carried out here than it does to acts of violence that take place in what Neville Chamberlain once referred to as ‘faraway countries about which we know nothing’.  But something else is at stake here in a media-saturated world in which ‘faraway’ no longer means what it used to.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘we’ don’t actually care that much about these Muslim victims because they aren’t included in our definition of the first person plural or because such victims don’t fit into the ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ paradigm.   Or maybe it’s because they die in countries where we somehow expect people to die violently, so it somehow makes their deaths seem normal and routine, whereas ours are always an anomalous intrusion into normality.

But if the first person plural that politicians invariably evoke on occasions like this refers to humanity as a whole,  then it must include those other victims who don’t feature in the ‘them’ and ‘us’ narratives.  Because if there is a ‘war’ going on isn’t between Muslims and ‘us’, but between violent Islamist bigots that are as much a danger to their fellow-Muslims as they are to ‘us’.  Over the next few days ‘our’ bigots like Trump, Farage, and Melanie Phillips will undoubtedly come swimming through the dank swamp that Lennon and Katie Hopkins already inhabit, and use yesterday’s murders to stir up hatred.

In these circumstances it’s worth remembering that a motorcyclist called Ismail Hassan only narrowly avoided being killed on Westminster Bridge.  I have no idea if he was a Muslim, but whoever was driving that car towards him clearly didn’t care if he was or wasn’t.  Like his fellow-murderers in Brussels, Nice, Baghdad or Quetta he was prepared to kill anyone who got in his way, whatever their age, gender, nationality, religion or skin colour.

We need to hold onto that simple recognition, not only because we should not divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims, but because we cannot allow the bigots to use yesterday’s atrocity for their own ends and whip up precisely the kind of hatred that its perpetrators undoubtedly seek.

 

 

 

The World According to Bono

I’ve got  nothing against famous people getting involved in politics or embracing political causes.  On the contrary, there’s no reason why the accident of fame and the weird cult of celebrity-worship that comes with it should place anyone above politics  or preclude celebrities from taking moral and political positions on issues that they feel strongly about.

My reservations about celebrity politics are essentially four-fold: 1) when an issue becomes important or interesting simply because someone famous is associated with it 2) when celebrity-politics becomes an exercise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement 3) when celebrities think that being famous entitles them to say things that are idiotic and banal, and 4) when celebrities use their fame to confer political credibility and legitimacy on governments, individuals and institutions that actually deserve to be criticized .

The rock-star politician known as Bono sums up most of these reservations.   Many years ago, back in the early 1980s, I saw U2’s first gig in New York and thrilled to the Edge’s chiming guitar sound and the soaring anthemic songs that lifted the roof off a packed club in the Lower East Side.

I wasn’t quite as keen on Bono’s histrionic and somewhat messianic stage persona. In the years that followed it became obvious Bono was a rock star whose exaggerated but not disreputable belief in the power of music to change the world was coupled with an extremely grandiose conception of his own ability to change it, or simply to be seen to change it. .

Since then Bono has gone on to become the perfect embodiment of 21st century hip capitalism, combining philantrophy with tax avoidance, while hanging out with NGOs,  US generals, George Bush and Tony Blair, and now Lindsey Graham.  In his polemic The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power), writer Harry Browne has accused Bono of “amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful”.

He’s not wrong, In Bono the now quaint notion that rock n’ roll is inherently subversive force or a challenge to the status quo has become an advertisement for the status quo, in which even the most right wing politicians seek to acquire a veneer of cool humanitarianism and rock star chic by having themselves photographed alongside the man in the leather jacket and shades.

Bono’s appeal to politicians like Blair, Bush and Lindsey Graham resides in his willingness to tell certain governments and politicians what they want to hear about themselves, and leave out the things they don’t.  As a cool variant on missionary benevolence and Western good intentions, he makes them feel good, and he also makes them feel that they could be cool themselves.

This has been going on for a long time.   Nevertheless it was a novelty to hear that Bono has been summoned by the US Congress to give testimony to a Senate committee on the ’causes and consequences of violent extremism and the role of foreign assistance.’

It’s difficult to understand why the Senate felt it necessary to consult Bono on these matters. It’s true that the US doesn’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to dealing with ‘violent extremism’.  In fact  this phenomenon has grown exponentially across the world since 9/11, partly as a consequence of the insane and reckless militarism which the Bush administration embarked upon so disastrously, and which has been continued less overtly by his successor.  But is the US Senate really so desperate that it needs to seek advice on these matters from a man who believes that   ‘comedy should be deployed’ in the struggle against groups like Boko Haram and ISIS?

It seems so, and his audience at the Senate might chuckle at this fetching example of rock star naivete, but  one can’t help suspecting that Bono was serious when he observed that: 

‘The first people that Adolf Hitler threw out of Germany were the dadaists and surrealists. It’s like, you speak violence, you speak their language. But you laugh at them when they are goose-stepping down the street and it takes away their power. So I am suggesting that the Senate send in Amy Schumer and Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen, thank you.’

Yep, if only Hitler hadn’t ‘thrown out’ those dadaists and surrealists, why the whole German population would have quickly fallen about laughing at the sight of those goose-steppers, and their belly laughter would have ‘taken away their power.’   If you believe that, it’s perfectly possible to believe that ‘sending in’ Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Rock into occupied Mosul or northern Nigeria would help defeat ISIS or Boko Haram.  Because it’s like, as Bono says,  ISIS is showbiz,  and if you can just get people to laugh at all those floggings, executions, rapes and murders, it takes away their power.

No wonder Bono’s pronouncements have been working their way through the Internet, accompanied by the clacking of a thousand dropping jaws at what is surely one of the most idiotic pronouncements that any celebrity-politician has ever made.

But no one should be surprised that Bono would say such a thing.  What is really surprising – and alarming – is that  the government of the most powerful country should feel the need to call upon this posturing narcissist in the first place.

If the US Senate really wanted to understand its own contribution to violent extremism, it might have done better to invite Malik Jalal, the tribal elder from Waziristan who has just come to the UK to ask why the US has been trying to kill him by drone on various occasions over the last few years.  Jalal is a member of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC), which has been trying to broker peace with local Taliban groups in Waziristan.  In denouncing the American and British governments for his unwarranted inclusion on a US ‘kill list’ and the deaths of entirely innocent people that has resulted from the attempts to kill him, Jalal argued:

‘Singling out people to assassinate, and killing nine of our innocent children for each person they target, is a crime of unspeakable proportions. Their policy is as foolish as it is criminal, as it radicalises the very people we are trying to calm down.’

Too right.  And perhaps if the Senate invited people like Malik Jalal to its committees, the US government might have a better understanding of the roots of extremism than it has shown so far.

Unfortunately, it seems to prefer Bono.