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.

 

 

Why we should listen when the UN condemns the UK’s ‘extremist media’

British tabloid editors have never struck me as a particularly reflective and thoughtful breed of humanity, so I doubt they will be plunged into a mood of remorseful self-analysis by the very strongly-worded suggestion from the United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein that there is a connection between their skewed coverage of immigration and asylum and the horrors now taking place in the Mediterranean.

It is far more likely that they, their journalists and many of their readers will scoff at the impudence of some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner with an unpronouncable name who is probably a Muslim to boot having the temerity to criticize their courageous attempts to have a ‘debate’ about immigration and shrug off the politically correct shackles imposed on them by muesli-eating liberals from Hampstead.

That is what they’re like, and to our great shame, that is what they are making us like too.  Because it is really very difficult to argue with Mr Al-Hussein’s condemnation of the ‘  vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants’ that is ‘not only sapping compassion for the thousands of people fleeing conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation who are drowning in the Mediterranean’ and which has also ‘skewed the EU response to the crisis.’

These are very harsh words from an organization that is normally far more diplomatic and polite.  The immediate object of these complaints was Katie Hopkins’ ‘cockroach’ comments, which Mr Al-Hussein sees as a manifestation of a larger phenomenon:

‘Asylum seekers and migrants have, day after day, for years on end, been linked to rape, murder, diseases such as HIV and TB, theft, and almost every conceivable crime and misdemeanour imaginable in front-page articles and two-page spreads, in cartoons, editorials, even on the sports pages of almost all the UK’s national tabloid newspapers.’

Many of these stories, as the Commissioner pointed out, ‘ have been grossly distorted and some have been outright fabrications. Elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other countries, there has been a similar process of demonization taking place, but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’

This is horribly and depressingly accurate.  One of the great fantasies of the British right is that they are ‘not allowed’ to have a ‘debate’ about immigration, but there has never been a time in my lifetime when the right has not talked about it, and it has always done so in  negative and often grossly offensive terms.

Even as a child when  I came back to the UK from the West Indies in 1967, I was shocked by the racism oozing from the front pages of the tabloids, whether it was aimed at Enoch Powell’s ‘picanninies’, Ugandan Asians, or the ‘black mugger’ of the 1970s or the ‘people with a different culture’ who Margaret Thatcher said were ‘swamping’ Britain in the 1980s.

The idea that all this miraculously stopped, and that the UK suddenly became a ‘post-racial’ society that was comfortable with immigration and with its new ‘rainbow’ multicultural identity was always something of an overstatement.   Of course progress has been made since the days when Tories could fight election campaigns under the slogan ‘vote Labour if you want a nigger for a neighbor’, but there has always been a solid section of the white British public that has bitterly resented having to share the UK with foreigners of any kind, and dark-skinned foreigners in particular.

Beginning roughly in the early 90s, anti-immigrant rhetoric shifted away from earlier narratives about ‘race’ and ‘culture’ and began to develop a seemingly racially-neutral narrative about ‘numbers.’   This ‘numbers’ discourse was focused primarily on asylum seekers.  Shamelessly, dishonestly, and relentlessly, without even the pretence of trying to understand the phenomenon of asylum or explain its causes and its complexities, the British media disseminated an image of asylum seekers as parasites and liars flooding into the country and ‘abusing’ our generosity because they regarded Britain as a ‘soft touch.’

Following the ‘war on terror’ the discourse shifted again, merging Islamophobic fantasies of terror cells and a Muslim cultural/religious takeover of British society with xenophobic outrage against Eastern European immigrants who refused to integrate while they ‘took our jobs and services’ and created Polish and Rumanian ghettoes etc.

Whatever they did, immigrants couldn’t win.  If they came here ‘legally’ they were part of the phenomenon of ‘mass immigration.’  If they worked hard, they were exploiting us by taking jobs for low wages, even if they were being exploited themselves or doing jobs that British citizens wouldn’t do.  If they sent their children to school they were undermining the education of our children.   If they lived in a house they were stealing a house from ‘our people.’

Whatever they did they always had an unfair advantage over us.  They were always taking, usurping, queue-jumping, and undermining.   As for those who came here ‘without permission’ or ended up becoming ‘failed asylum seekers’,  they were the worst of all; criminal parasites living the life of Riley all over the country at the expense of ‘our people’ or using the Human Rights Act to escape deportation for crimes they’d already been punished for.

Whoever they were, they were bad, and taking advantage of our goodness, and there were always too many of them, in a country that was ‘full’ and which needed to put ‘our people first.’   And anyone who said that this kind of talk was unfair, dangerous, and maybe xenophobic and racist hatemongering to boot, why they were just trying to stifle ‘debate’ and smother the public’s ‘concerns.’

Out of those decades of bile, words like ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’ became pejorative terms of abuse onto which tabloids hung their prejudices and fanned the prejudices of their readers, and politicians pandered to them and fed them further.

The result, as Mr Al-Hussein pointed out, is that we now have a country where a columnist in a major newspaper can use the kind of language used by Nazis and Rwandan genocidaires to describe people drowning in the Mediterranean.  It’s a country where sick men and women who need medical treatment are now dying because they are afraid to seek it in case they are deported, a country whose rancid bitterness and fury towards immigrants is now transforming ideas and concepts that were once associated with fascism and Nazism into jokey blokey everyday discourse.

Katie Hopkins used that language because in her dim, grasping, attention-seeking way, she recognized that she lived in a country where such talk has now become acceptable and can even appear to be a kind of ‘common sense.’

The British media bears a huge responsibility for this outcome.   As the High Commissioner pointed out, the demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers also takes place in other European countries ‘ but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.’

He is absolutely right.  An extremist media is what we have got, and it is helping to create an extremist society drugged by fear, loathing and resentment that is in danger of losing its own humanity even as it denies the humanity of the men and women who want to come here.

 

The resistible rise of Katie Hopkins

Ok, I know I shouldn’t write about Katie Hopkins.  I am aware that she is a self-seeking toxic sociopath who feeds on toxicity and says hateful things in order to get people to talk about her.   Her motives for doing this are so painfully transparent they hardly bear scrutiny: she wants to become rich and famous and have a lot of people looking at her and reacting to her.

That’s  a common dream nowadays, and indeed the only dream that some people have.   Admittedly she has chosen a route that would shame anyone with even the most elementary standards of morality and decency.  Her motives for doing this are best left for a psychiatrist to analyse, but the significance of Katie Hopkins goes way beyond the ultimately pathetic figure of Hopkins herself.

Because when a columnist can publish an article in a major newspaper, using the language of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide to describe the men, women and children who are drowning in the Mediterranean, then we have to take a wider look at the forces that have made this possible.

Yesterday Laurens Jolles,  the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) in Italy, attributed the failure of European governments to respond to the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean on the ‘irresponsible rhetoric’ of a European-wide political dialogue on immigration, which had left Europe’s polticians fearful of losing elections.   ‘The level of this dialogue compared to 20 years ago is just incredible,’ Jolles declared. ‘It wouldn’t have been possible in the past, the racist rhetoric, the rhetoric of intolerance. In the 60s, 70s and the 80s, we would never have accepted this.’

Hopkins is not a politician but her ‘thoughts’ on the migration crisis are the most extreme manifestation of this transformation in any mainstream British publication.  Just to recap: She described the migrants crossing the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’, who recommended that Europe should fire on them with gunboats, declared ‘Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.’

This kind of talk is not original.  Northern League politicians in Italy routinely use such language.  Back in 2013 Italian senator Roberto Kayelongi compared Italy’s first black minister Cecile Kyengi to an orangutan.  Here in the UK such language was until recently more generally restricted to the darker corners of the Internet or far-right pamphlets. Back in 1997 Nick Hudson, the editor of the Dover Herald published a series of articles on the arrival of Roma asylum seekers in the UK which he claimed had left Dover ‘ with the backdraft of a nation’s human sewage with no cash to wash it down the drain.’

The Dover Herald was a minor provincial newspaper.  The Sun is not, and the fact that Hopkins can now publish the same kind of racist vitriol in its pages is an indication of what is now considered acceptable after eighteen years of incessant vilification of migrants and asylum seekers.

The racism-that-does-not-speak-its-name has clearly opened the door to the point when it is increasingly willing to openly declare itself.  In the last few years a pseudo-debate, generated mostly from the right,  about free speech and the supposed intellectual manacles of ‘political correctness’ has begun to legitimize cruelty, prejudice and hatespeech against many different groups of people, to the point when the ‘right to be offend’ has become a licence to hurt and wound and express contempt for anyone.

That what freedom and democracy are all about, innit?  Or so these 21st century Voltaires would have us believe.  Because after all, words are just words right?  And unlike sticks and stones, they have no consequences.  So just as we should giggle when Jeremy Clarkson has a go at the ‘slopes’, so we ought to chuckle and shake our heads when ‘Katie’ describes Palestinians as ‘rodents’ or insinuates that Asian men are all paedophiles.

Like, come on, get over yourself and grow a thick skin, you stuffy fun-hating liberals.

The Internet has enhanced these new ‘freedoms’ that we now enjoy.  Idiot trolls can now sit at their spittle-flecked keyboards and threaten a woman with rape because she campaigns for a picture of Jane Austen on a pound note.  Only words.  In the last week Sue Perkins of the Great British Bakeoff has left twitter after receiving a series of death threats because it was rumoured that she was going to take Clarkson’s job.  One tweet looked forward to seeing her burned alive.

Aww Sue, wussamatter, can’t take a joke?  And now Jack Monroe, single mother and low-budget chef, who is gay, has also left twitter complaining of ‘suffocating hatred and vitriol’ from trolls like this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Your sick form of Lesbianism and militant queerism is destroying this country. Get out and give us Britain back! #VoteUKIP.”[/stextbox]

Hey come on Jack.  It’s only words.

This is the world of Internet trolldom that Katie Hopkins came from, and which provided her with the springboard that began with attacks on vulnerable celebrities, fat people and food bank users, and which she is now using as a platform for racist hatemongering and genocial fantasising.  The dank and poisonous swamp that is the Sun is of course a natural habitat for a troll-journalist, but Hopkins’ transition from Queen of the Trolls to newspaper columnist and radio presenter is not just due to Rupert Murdoch’s perennial ability to drag British cultural life into the dirt.

Too many media outlets who should have known better gave her the publicity she craved in order to generate a few more hits on their website or increase their ratings. The Huffington Post bears particular responsibility for this.  Over the last few years it has assidiously reported every tweet that ‘Katie’ ever made with a post-modern smirk, accompanied by ‘whoops I did it again’ headlines like ‘You’ll never guess what Katie’s said now’ or ‘ Katie’s latest controversial tweet.’

The fact that the Huffpost and so many others pandered to Hopkins’ agenda and provided an outlet for her prejudices, didn’t mean that the Huffpost agreed or disagreed with them.  It was just wanted to titillate its readers.  No doubt the Guardian will soon follow up with a Decca Aitkenhead profile describing her as a contrarian controversialist and perhaps some kind of national treasure.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Hopkins now describes herself as a ‘journalist’ as well as ‘businesswoman.’   Or that there is now a twitter meme called ‘Je Suis Katie’, which says things like this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]No matter what, I always stand up for what I believe in. I will always fight the good fight & stand strong'[/stextbox]

And

[stextbox id=”alert”]I no longer give a damn what people think of me, If you aren’t offended by anything you are UNSTOPPABLE![/stextbox]

In the kingdom of Trolldom, a woman who stands up for what she ‘believes in’ by describing migrants as ‘feral humans’ and Palestinians as ‘rodents’ is a natural queen, and it is not surprising to hear her subjects paying homage to her.   But she should never have left those toxic realms.   And the fact that she is now able to pour forth a constant stream of dim hatred from a major newspaper and an LBC radio show is a depressing reminder that a significant section of the British media – and the public as well – has no more of a moral compass than Hopkins herself.

 

The EU’s Dystopian Borders

Many people, including myself, have asked how many migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Europe is prepared to tolerate before it takes serious action to try and prevent them.  After the events of last week I think we have the answer.  It is now becoming horribly and disturbingly clear that there may in fact be no upper limit at all.

At the beginning of the week it was reported that four hundred migrants had drowned had drowned trying to reach Italy from Libya.   Then on Wednesday 15 African Muslim migrants were arrested in Palermo and charged with homicide, after survivors from the boat they arrived on reported that they had drowned more than a dozen Christians in a ‘dispute about religion.’

Forty-one migrants are reported to have drowned in another incident.   And yesterday 70 migrants were rescued from a dinghy and taken to Lampedusa.  One woman was already dead, and was brought ashore in a black bag.  Many other passengers were suffering from from severe burns, which  they had incurred when a gas cannister exploded in the place where they were being held before their voyage.  Their traffickers had not allowed them to receive treatment in hospital.

The UN has characterized these deaths as a ‘human rights tragedy not a natural tragedy, and one that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive human rights-based approach, that is the shared responsibility of all countries.’  In a statement on last week’s deaths, EU Migration spokeswoman Natasha Bertraud described the situation as ‘grave’ and admitted that ‘ it will only get worse in the weeks and months to come.’

Though she insisted that the European Commission was fasttracking ‘ a new comprehensive approach on migration management’ she neverthless declared ‘ We do not have a silver bullet or any kind of panacea that is going to make the situation go away like that and no amount of fingerpointing is going to change that.’

There may not be a simple way to ‘make the situation go away’, but there is a great deal of fingerpointing that can be done when it comes to Europe’s mindboggling indifference to the carnage that is unfolding on its Mediterranean borders.  Last year the total number of migrant arrivals in Italy was 170,000, more than 300 % higher than it was the previous year, and the death toll was also higher than in any previous year.

The European Commission, and every European government, knew this when Italy closed down its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last December.   All indications suggested that the numbers of arrivals would continue to rise, and the smuggling  ‘migration season’ which was once limited to the summer was now being extended to the whole year, regardless of the rougher seas and the added risks of death.

All of this was common knowledge, yet no government answered the Italian government’s request for assistance in search-and-rescue.  The British government refused to participate in any such operations because it said that they only encouraged more people to come.  The unspoken corrollary of that shameful observation is that people dying in the Mediterranean would also dissuade people from coming.

Other European governments clearly shared the same expectations, even if they did not express them so openly.  Because the EU replaced Mare Nostrum  with the feeble Operation Triton, essentially a border enforcement operation rather than search-and-rescue with 7 ships, 4 planes and a helicopter at its disposal.  All this costs $3 million per month, compared with Mare Nostrum’s $10 million.

Exactly as was predicted, the death toll rose spectacularly.   Already it is fifty times higher than it was at the same time last year.  Yet the numbers have continued to rise too.  10,000 migrants have set out for Italy this month alone, so the absence of search-and-rescue does not appear to be a determining factor for those undertaking these journeys.

Even after last week, not a single one of the 28 EU member-states have pledged any new assistance.  So fingers can and should be pointed, not only at the European Commission, but at European governments who pay lip service to human rights and the principle of protection yet remain indifferent to the suffering and death that their border policies have engendered.

It isn’t only migrants who are feeling the impact of this passivity and indifference.   We are witnessing the death of a certain idea of Europe that was once crucial to the formation of the European Union and supposedly still is; the notion of a common political space that would be a model of human decency for the rest of the world.

That dream is dying, crumbling away before our gaping mouths and wringing hands at the EU’s dystopian borders.   And so too is the notion of pan-European solidarity, as border countries like Italy and Greece are left virtually abandoned to deal with a crisis that all the EU’s member states should be taking responsibility for.

We have had the chance to be generous and respond like human beings to human beings who needed our help.  Instead we have allowed our response to the awful tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes to be dominated by fear, resentment and political cowardice.

Last week the loathsome sociopath Katie Hopkins described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’ and said that gunboats should be used against them.  Hopkins probably didn’t know that this proposal that has already been made a few years back by Umberto Bossi of the Northern League.   She probably doesn’t care that describing black migrants as insects is the kind of language that we have come to expect from fascists and Nazis.

She did say in her Sun column:  ‘Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad – I still don’t care.’

Touching sentiments, to be sure, which few governments would ever express, but their passivity suggests that they don’t much care either.   The scaling back of search-and-rescue was based on the unspoken hope that the worse things get for migrants, the more likely it is that they will stop coming – a hope that always implicitly prioritises exclusion over saving lives.

That policy hasn’t worked even on its own dismal terms.  It needs to stop.  And while it may be true that there are no magic wands that can make the situation ‘go away’,   our goverments could stop handwringing and pontificating about the evils of people traffickers and send the ships, planes and helicopters and do that very simple, elementary thing that they have so far refused to do, and make the same kind of effort to save lives that they would undoubtedly be making if white people were dying in the same numbers.