We had almost forgotten the terrorist threat midst our other troubles: COVID, Climate Change and BREXIT. The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and a sobering BBC broadcast by Ken McCallum, Director-General of MI5, was the reminder we needed: 31 significant terrorist plots had been disrupted in the last four years. Just because we hadn’t heard of these threats – eight of the plots incidentally were by right wing extremists – didn’t mean the threat had gone away. Indeed a future attack was ‘highly likely’ not least because of the encouragement given to jihadists by NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan.
The MI5 chief’s message was refreshingly clear. Our problem is how to identify and counter real threats of violence such as jihadism. With all eyes on the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the massacre of civilians and thirteen American soldiers at Kabul airport tragically illustrated he point he was making.
McCallum’s presentation avoided using the usual vague terms to identify what forces we ought to consider, to quote Tony Blair, ‘a first-order threat to security’. He avoided terms such as radical Islam, violent religious extremism, Islamism and Islamists. Tony Blair who is deeply concerned uses the words ‘radical Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ interchangeably to mean religion turned into a political ideology. And ‘the ideology’ is, in his view, ‘in inevitable conflict with open, modern, culturally tolerant societies’ though the exact nature of the threat is left open to a variety of interpretations.
Muslims are not alone in wanting to see religious principles carried into, or expressed within society and politics. See Christian Democracy and see the role of different forms of Judaism in Israeli politics. And ‘radical’ means getting to the roots of a faith not some perversion of it. Monks and nuns practise radical religion and no-one is much bothered when they adhere to their principles and vows, though, of course, they do not wish to impose their views on others. In its current usage ideology seems to mean nothing more than a set of ideas that we in the West don’t like or consider bad.
‘Is Islamism a problem or only in its expression as violent extremism?’ Blair asked in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) earlier this month, admitting that there are plenty of people who buy into parts of ‘the ideology’ but who eschew violence. He answers his own question by saying Islamism – a manufactured term - is ‘a first order threat to security’ both as an ideology and as violence. The template for this assertion seems to be the other old hostile ism, communism. This is a problematic assertion.
Firstly it implies that our intelligence services, like all organs of the British state with limited resources, should be expected to perform two highly labour intensive jobs, to detect and nip in the bud jihadist terrorist attacks, and to wean thousands of people from religious ideas with which we don’t agree and even find repugnant. Ideas about culture, society and politics, some of which they share with jihadists. Secondly it ignores the fact that Muslims from a Salafi and Wahabi tradition who reject violence can, and do, act as highly effective practitioners of what is usually called de-radicalisation. For that reason they were, for example, amongst the first to be murdered by Boko Haram in NE Nigeria.
At the heart of Blair’s approach to the problem of identifying and dealing with the causes of jihadist violence is his overestimation of the influence of religious ideology in the aetiology of today’s violent extremism. This leads him to focus on issues like the textual misuse of Qur’ānic verses, which he believes to be motivating behaviour, rather than focussing on the personality, the mind-set, the binary thinking behind the social perceptions that lead to violence. This approach treats as irrelevant the startling statistic that 40% of those who get caught up in extremist violence have suffered from some form of mental illness, and, amongst whom in addition, there is a high incidence of petty criminality. The focus on ideology over-intellectualises the motivations of most jihadists at the expense of the emotions. As a Muslim police officer once said to me “think of them as angry young men who have got lost”.
Except for the leaders and manipulative recruiters, jihadists often seem to be young people prone to violence who have found a justification for their inclinations, and a ‘solution’ to their problems, in a perverse interpretation of Islam, not the other way round. The question which their fellow Muslims ask and they cannot answer is: ‘Have you ever thought Allah might have another purpose for you in life other than jihad?’
Investment in our scandalously understaffed mental health services might reasonably be described as a key plank of counter-terrorism. Intelligence services do not have the resources to promote the set of values which we hopefully dub as ‘Western’ to counter religious ideas with which they conflict. But these values should inform the conduct of governments. Schools are consciously promoting these values and can, as in Birmingham, evoke Muslim protests. Something like the Prevent programme which ultimately depends on one-to-one mentoring is a last step. Meanwhile responsibility falls on Muslim leadership both to notice young people heading down the wrong path and with the skills and wisdom to help them turn back.
If your task is to keep Britain safe from jihadist attack then lumping together movements as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Boko Haram in Nigeria under headings such as radical Islam, Islamism and violent religious extremism, obscures more than it reveals and leaves you with no satisfactory solutions to local problems. These catch-all labels risk catching ordinary mainstream Muslims. Thanks to the internet there really is an international threat and the Taliban’s national success will encourage it. But the problem with Tony Blair’s expansive definition of our current ‘first order threat to security’ is that many ordinary Muslims, and most notably those able to change minds, may feel he is targeting them.
See also The Article 27/09/2021
This Chinese curse or Chinese greeting – it’s not clear which - seems to fit the years 2017-2021. We have been through ‘interesting times’ in all the ambiguous meaning of the proverb. Events with profound long-term consequences seem to have been following each other, or overlapping, with unprecedented speed and regularity. During this time I’ve tried to blog on a broad spectrum of themes, from terrorism to hedgehogs, sharing thoughts and ideas, primarily for friends and family.
Blogging is fun but ephemeral. Not like holding a glossy new book you’ve labored over for years. I hope that pulling these blogs on-line together under thematic headings in chronological order will both make them more reader-friendly and increase their life-span. Broaching some of these topics, getting some of the shared frustrations of the day into my website, may even have increased my own life-span. You can find the book by clicking on online books at the top of my website and then on May You Live in Interesting Times. The last piece to make it into the on-line book was on Afghanistan - sadly rather reinforcing the title. Dip in where your interests lie and explore. Meanwhile I will try to keep up the regular flow of the past four years.
Part One focusses on major themes that have characterised the period: Democracy and Politics, Human Rights and Terrorism. I have put Catholicism in this first section because I believe Catholic social thinking has much to contribute to the politics we need in order to overcome our contemporary crisis, especially in a culture dominated by secular assumptions about society, governance and economics.
Part Two moves more into the realm of the big events and actualité: government policy and practice, BREXIT, and changes in the Conservative Party. The disruption and damage created by these three has been prodigious. We have witnessed something unprecedented and potentially dangerous which will have an impact on generations to come as well as hastening the decline of the UK. But, yes, there is very little here on the biggest event, the COVID pandemic. With BBC News on the verge of running out of epidemiologists, virologists and behavioral scientists for comment, who can find much to add?
Part Three might be called international affairs, or at least events in countries of which I have, for one reason or another, some professional experience and, I hope, some insights. The section is led by the USA and Africa where my family has lived, and the Middle East and North Africa whose conflicts, generally made worse by the West, have dominated the period.
Part Four, Observations, contains what doesn’t fit neatly into the preceding sections, and opens up different themes. Some thoughts on COVID are to be found here.
Particularly those who turn to the Africa section may enjoy my other on-line book to be found alongside this one, Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire which came out of research in Northern Nigeria. I wanted it to be available to all Nigerians who might be interested but who would have had little chance of reading a hard-copy.
Finally, after the heavy-lifting editing of Jane Linden my thanks to some fine-tuning editing by Daniel Johnson, editor of TheArticle blogsite where most of these blogs have been published for most of the period covered. Edmund Ross was responsible for sorting this collection into thematic and chronological form and putting it in good shape into my own website.
So back to normal and worrying about what to make the subject of the next blog. We haven’t stopped living in interesting times.
Some 70 million US citizens are Roman Catholics, about 22% of the total population. In the 2020 elections the Catholic vote split half and half between Trump and Biden but only 44% of white Catholics voted for Biden. Some 20 million Americans identify as Latino Catholics (about 55% of the overall Hispanic population) and of these Hispanic Catholics the vote was 67% for Biden, 26% for Trump. Thanks to voter registration activists such as Stacey Abrams and Black Lives Matter, the black vote, especially in states like Georgia came out in force. It was even more pro-Biden than the Hispanic (polls indicated that in some states 90% of black female votes were going to Biden). American voters are racially split and the Biden presidency relies on minority voter turn-out.
These figures alone illustrate the problem for a white Catholic President who asserts his Catholic identity. Ethnicity and origins play an important role in determining voting behaviour, but three other features of the contemporary USA give Biden cause for concern. The first is that as a Catholic President he must position himself in relation to national politics riven by ‘culture wars’ turbo-charged by the Republican Party. The Tea-Party movement with its mixture of right-wing populism, shrink-the-federal state anti-Washington activism plus anti-immigrant policies, emerged in 2009. Trump’s drive for white supremacy, support for racist voter suppression, and rhetorical championing of favourite evangelical Christian themes, particularly opposition to abortion laws and same-sex marriage, made these goals seem politically achievable, but only by the Republican Party.
The second concern for a Catholic President is that the culture wars have seeped into the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. The American Church was already polarised - between a strict traditionalist social conservatism with an in-built bias towards Republican politics, even in its Trump extremes, and a liberalism committed to social justice at ease in the Democratic Party. Biden faces, and has faced, strictures from a minority of conservative bishops about his political position on abortion and to a lesser degree his attitude towards gay and divorced people receiving the Eucharist. “The President doesn’t believe what we believe about the sacredness of human life” Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the Catholic bishops’ Pro-Life Committee told the prestigious US magazine, The Atlantic. He was not referring to Trump’s accelerating the use of the death penalty during his last days in office.
The Democratic Party does not pick radicals for their Presidential candidates, that is why they rejected Bernie Sanders and chose the centrist Biden. Anyone who read Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti would see, that the Pope is politically a prophetic radical thinker who has more in common with Bernie Sanders than the President. But the Republicans perceive Biden as an ally of Pope Francis, who is himself under fire, and they have succeeded in placing the President firmly on the ‘enemy’ side of the culture wars in a Church divided nationally and racially as well as globally.
As Massimo Faggioli points out in his recent Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, Biden’s own Catholicism, pious, un-intellectual, and compassionate reflects the openness to the world of Pope John XXIII and the second Vatican Council. The Council document Gaudium et Spes (Joy & Hope), issued on 7 December 1965, the day the Council ended, begins with: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” The problem for Biden, who would endorse these words, is that since the 1970s the Council and its documents have been subtly, and not so subtly, undermined by neo-conservatives, re-interpreted and politicized. When the social conservatives in the American Church looked outwards they saw Obama as the leader of a militant secular modernization and an overweening federal State, with Biden as his misguided Catholic apprentice. And for many their enemies’ enemy, Trump became, at least electorally, their friend.
The third concern for Biden is that this polarization within the American Church has contributed significantly to division within the global Church that came of age with the appointment of an Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis. The cardinals chose a Pope from the global South further shifting the centre-periphery model of a Eurocentric Church towards a more networked, less command and control Church, a process described in my Global Catholicism: towards a networked Church, Hurst 2012. Rome remained pre-eminent but the Curial bureaucracy surrounding the Pope found itself downgraded and under serious pressure to reform. The large American Church, traditionally punching well below its weight, assumed more significance, especially when Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganò, Vatican ambassador to the USA from 2011 to 2016, lead a virulent attack in 2018 on Pope Francis alleging homosexual conspiracies and Vatican cover-ups of sexual abuse. Viganò, a former chief of Vatican Curial personnel, was able to draw on his wide range of personal contacts in his attempts to create a movement to marginalize and smear the Pope. He failed but the tension within the divided American Church remains.
Biden can expect more moral support from the current Pope than from his two papal predecessors but it is support that may come with a political cost. The President finds himself at the intersection of an unholy set of inter-related and interlocking pressures: notably the tens of millions of Catholics who voted for Trump ignoring his four years of attempted destruction of democracy. He and the Pope are singing from the same hymn sheet over the climate crisis, sharing a compassionate openness towards gay sexuality, and a commitment to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, notably to Mass in the vernacular. In America the Latin Mass had become something of a right-wing cause supported by several bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis the most prominent. These divisions within Catholicism mirror the divisions within the nation which President Biden has the enormous task of healing. He cannot look to the American Church to be part of the solution.
Biden’s leadership as Commander in Chief during the tragedies of defeat and hasty evacuation in Afghanistan has done nothing to heal divisions in a shamed nation. Even though his new thinking about US military intervention will have found approval in Rome he has received no accolades and derived little inspiration from the American Catholic hierarchy. It is high time they ended censorious and curmudgeonly criticism and show more concern for the future of democracy and the task of national healing that awaits America’s second Catholic President.
See The Article 02/09/2021