The dust has settled on Barisha in northern Syria where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on 26 October. Thousands of his followers and their children are today detained in insecure camps. It is a good moment to take stock of the rise and fall of Da’esh and Al-Qaida, their persistence, and their future heirs. For while the removal of their leadership dealt them a blow, no-one seriously believes this is the last chapter in the history of religious extremism.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh were both bi-products of war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Twenty years ago almost nobody foresaw that clandestine organisations manipulating a violent distortion of Islam would regularly inflict significant civilian casualties around the world. Who, twenty years ago, would have imagined that substantial new resources, military, police, intelligence, would be needed to apprehend people planning religiously motivated terrorist acts? And who would have foreseen the need for preventative measures to address the motives, thoughts and feelings of potential terrorists, and the reaction to them? The world was unprepared.
Religious terrorism offers spurious legitimation for preexisting hatred and violence. Against an Islam preaching a merciful and compassionate God in the modern world, Da’esh posited the resurgence of an – imagined - beleaguered seventh century Medina community mutating by Allah’s power into a militarised expansionist political entity, a Caliphate. Al-Qaida re-interpreted the Islamic duty of jihad, abandoning the original concept of a defensive war, a community obligation requiring authorisation by the Caliph, for an individual obligation and decision to take up arms. Al-Qaida’s individualism was perversely modern. Following a distinctive approach, Da’esh advocated war to revive the Caliphate, and did so, making it the touchstone and supreme test of obedience to Allah.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh disagreed about when a Caliphate might be re-founded. From its origins Al-Qaida decided that creating a Caliphate would be premature and that any attempt to found one would bring down the wrath of the ‘kafir’ superpowers. Al-Qaida was both right and wrong. Da’esh made Raqaa in Syria the capital of a functioning, geographical political entity. It performed several functions of a militarised State or Caliphate, and provided both an allegedly legitimate outlet for violence and a supposedly Islamic community for its members. And as Al-Qaida had predicted, Da’esh did provoke a powerful military response (as, of course, did Al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers after 9/11).
Al-Qaida’s and Da’esh used similar recruiting techniques but with significant differences. Al-Qaida’s propaganda was wordy, textual and mapped onto the logical, linear reasoning processes characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere. It shared with Da’esh a sharply binary world of divinely sanctioned right and wrong, no grey areas, and espoused a single value, jihad, in the face of the clashing values of a multicultural, multi-religious modern world.
Da’esh, on the other hand, became adept at visual propaganda so its appeal has greater reach. Its simple, powerful messages, spread through social media, mapped onto the brain’s right hemisphere and limbic system where the core emotional and motivational centres are located. The Caliphate was presented visually as an end-times utopia. In it recruits would find redemption from a sinful past withdrawn from the hostile world of infidels, a place where all desires were fulfilled. Da’esh recruits took on a new identity, solidarity, and the camaraderie of a closely knit in-group. Such promise of belonging was a powerful pull.
The extreme brutality of Da’esh provided an emotional counterpoint to the warm feelings of belonging. Da’esh’s own violence was presented alongside films about Western killing of Muslim innocents shockingly portrayed in video clips. Recruits’ emotions were doubly assaulted and captivated: by moral shock and by a sense of Muslim victimhood stimulating fear, fight, flight, freeze responses. The effect was to short-circuit moral thought by generating a state of anxiety, anger and fear in which brutality became normative.
Da’esh propaganda made independent thinking highly dangerous. It truncated time, conflating an ideal past and a blissful future with their actual brutal militarist, patriarchal rule. The concept of the Caliphate, in the past but lived now, collapsed linear time. The shock of watching videos of decapitations and torture was countered by the promised rewards of the Caliphate: an idealised family life – even fluffy kittens appeared on their media sites – and the long-desired just society. The visual impact of this emotional and cognitive bombardment was to eliminate and displace moral reflection and rational thought. The violent behaviour of Da’esh jihadis, their misperception of social and political reality, the torture, rape and murder around them, stems from something grievously awry in the structure of their thinking and their emotions. The particular horror of this for Muslims was the way elements of Sunni - Salafi – religious discourse were used and twisted to legitimate a descent into barbarism.
A common feature of the young people to whom extremist propaganda appealed seems to be their need for simple binary explanations of, and solutions to, problems of mental health, anger, identity and belonging. The number of petty criminals who become jihadis was significant. The high level of cultural dissonance and social mixing resulting from migration, and the recent communications-led wave of globalisation, which called identities into question, contributed to radicalisation of the few in leadership positions. And there were clearly recruits, difficult as it is to imagine, who went to Iraq and Syria out of a misplaced idealism. The key to Da’esh success was its use of social media to change minds and change perceptions of the world.
What difference has the death of Al-Baghdadi made? Killing him and Bin Laden has worked political wonders for American Presidents. But it fails to touch the root of the problem: the recruitment methodology and manipulation of Qur’anic verses that attracts young people and affects their mindset. There are estimated to be 45,000 children detained in the Da’esh family camps many of whom will be at risk of radicalisation. They have to be offered an Islamic alternative. Youth radicalized, for whatever reason, need to discover that their ideals can be lived out without violence and without the tragic loss of family, friends, and life. Everyone needs to have their identity and deepest values respected. Coercion does not work. It is vital to create an environment in which thinking develops spontaneously as the consequence of a new set of social interactions, gainful employment, new friendships, and without invalidating the needs and core values that drew the would-be, or actual, extremist into a Da’esh or Al-Qaida cell.
As things stand this seems an impossible dream. Yet it is vital that the 45,000 young occupants of the Da’esh family camps are given some hope, some future, or in only a few years’ time they will follow their fathers, and some of their mothers, into terrorism. Their different nation-states of origin should urgently take responsibility for them before it is too late. This is not simply a matter of international humanitarian and moral concern it is a matter of national security.
See also “What’s Next for Al-Qaida and Da’esh” TheArticle.com 30/10/2019
“We’re ready and champing at the bit for an election”, Jeremy Corbyn wrote to Labour Party members last week. He must have been using the royal “we”. No-one I know in the Labour Party thinks he will win the next general election. Meanwhile 38 people who had lost love-ones, killed by the IRA, wrote to Mr. Corbyn asking for an apology for his repeated failure to single out IRA murders during the Troubles for condemnation, "giving succour" to the Republican movement.
Contrary to Mr. Corbyn’s belief that he can repeat his performance in the June 2017 election – which he and his coterie and followers seem to forget he lost – the political situation has become significantly different. Boris Johnson is an engaging campaigner. Theresa May wasn’t. The Conservative Party are now aping Labour’s sky-high financial commitments to public services. The Johnson and Swinson BREXIT positions will be clear in their manifestoes. And given the mind of the country’s polarised voters, who seek resolution and clarity, Corbyn’s laboriously acquired non-position on BREXIT will be a recipe for defeat. He is tarnished by his past. Quite simply he lacks political judgement.
The political charge sheet against Mr. Corbyn has filled up. The first charge was that he was an IRA sympathiser not a peace-builder. Two weeks after the Brighton bombing in October 1984 - aimed at killing Mr. Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues and notably Margaret Thatcher - he met in the House of Commons with two former, convicted, IRA volunteers, Linda Quigley and Gerard MacLochainn, to discuss prison conditions. The insensitivity, or political stupidity, of this meeting after five had died and 31 injured by the IRA bomb beggars belief. Between 1986-1992 he attended official Irish Republican commemorations of dead IRA members. Peacemaking?
Mr. Corbyn, aspiring to be Prime Minister responsible for the country’s security, has not provided any evidence to support his belated explanation for this behaviour, that he was working for peace rather than supporting the IRA. Seamus Mallon, the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Deputy Leader of Labour’s sister Party, the Social and Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), is damning: “I never heard anyone mention Corbyn at all. He very clearly took the side of the IRA and that was incompatible, in my opinion, with working for peace”.
Let’s be charitable to Mr. Corbyn. These were heady ideological times on the Left and he was only a back-bench MP. Perhaps he believed himself to be a potential mediator. It was a time of liberation struggles around the world and, perhaps, he did not realise that the IRA were rivals of the burgeoning 1960s human rights movement that could have brought about change. IRA violence, at first ostensibly to protect the Catholic community, shut down democratic redress for Catholic and Nationalist grievances. The Provisional IRA did not, as had many of the national liberation struggles worldwide, taken up armed struggle as a last resort against tyranny. That is why the Irish Catholic bishops opposed them. The Provos ruthless violence pre-empted a peaceful struggle for human rights; and their strategy was rejected by the Official IRA. In a democracy there were other options as the SDLP tried to demonstrate.
Time moved on leaving Mr. Corbyn beached on the shoals of the 1970s. The second charge that he was anti-Semitic, exposed in March 2018, happened in 2012. Tower Hamlets Borough Council (with, note, a strong Muslim presence) ruled that an anti-Semitic cartoon by a graffiti artist, Kalen Ockerman, put up on a wall in Hanbury Street in London’s East-End, had to be removed. It depicted Jewish bankers counting money on a monopoly board resting on the backs of naked black workers. Ockerman complained on Facebook about the mural’s removal. Mr. Corbyn defended him on grounds of freedom of speech. "Why? You are in good company. Rockefeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin”. The mural by Viera, a celebrated Mexican artist, was commissioned for the Rockefeller Centre in New York and removed as a result of a public outcry in 1934.
After this exchange on Facebook came to light, Corbyn admitted that freedom of speech does not justify reproducing Nazi anti-Semitism. As leader of the Labour Party, he regretted that he “did not look more closely” at the mural. Even on cursory inspection, the grotesque beaked noses of the bankers copied the worst of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. Had he viewed it through his anti-capitalist spectacles and simply missed its gross anti-Semitism? How could he not have noticed the similarities to Nazi portrayals? We will never know.
Time passed. With an election in the offing, Mr. Corbyn is stranded in his BREXIT dilemmas like a sick whale floundering in the Thames. The Times last week, harpoon at the ready, went on the attack with an investigation about his views on an Iranian Charity. Before he became leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Corbyn waxed lyrical about the London-based organisation, the Iranian Human Rights Commission (IHRC). The investigation turned up that the three directors of the Charity had unsavoury views about the West, Zionists, Sadiq Khan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the European Court of Human Rights. One director– who would have believed it? – thought Iran had a wonderful record of “standing against injustice”. He saw the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, as an example to the world. The IHRC “represents all that’s best in Islam”, declared Mr. Corbyn in an interview. “I like the sense of values surrounding it”. Ignorance is not bliss in public life. Might it not have been prudent to have “looked more closely”? The defence case might be that the Charity Commission has recently spent two years investigating the Charity and required no changes. But the ill-informed accolades are offensive to many, many Muslims. Can the Labour Party afford a leader as careless in his judgements as this?
We all make mistakes and we try not to be like the Bourbons who “learned nothing and forgot nothing”. But Mr. Corbyn’s repeated inability to “look more closely”, to demonstrate good political judgement and clarity of thought, has not been remedied by the passage of time, nor by the demands of leadership. The team he has assembled around him do not inspire confidence. He does not defer to wiser counsels. Today his ingrained ideological assumptions, his persistent lack of prudential judgement, form a major element of the BREXIT impasse. While he remains leader of the Labour Party three possible paths forward to resolve BREXIT, a Jonson agreement with the EU and a people’s referendum Mr. Corbyn makes more difficult, and a temporary government of national unity he makes impossible.
Sir Keir Starmer must now be given full authority to lead on BREXIT and allowed to perform his role as Shadow Secretary for Exiting the European Union.
Opinion polls suggest the public have concluded that Mr. Corbyn is part of the problem not part of the solution. For the common good, for the country, for the Labour Party, for all suffering under austerity, he should do the right thing and step aside gracefully now. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is Vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12.8).
See TheArticle.com 14/10/2019
Do Johnson, Corbyn and Trump feel guilt? Or, come to that, shame? If they do it is undetectable. But the Conservative and Labour leaderships are demonstrably great practitioners of blame. And these three, guilt, shame and blame, are surely alternatives, one arising in default of the other. How bad is that?
Guilt has had a bad press since Freud but most people’s instinct would be to say that guilt is somehow morally better than shame. After all it is a private, individual feeling and ours is an age of individualism. I’m not so sure. Why should a social emotion like shame, fear of the consequences of being found out and exposed, be less good than individual pangs of self-disgust? Or is it that an internal, private feeling of guilt – nobody need know about it - holds the promise of remorse, doing better next time, being “delivered from temptation?” to paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer. Guilt at least implies you have hit the ignition button of your conscience; and having a functioning conscience is usually considered a good thing. Whereas shame suggests you had better try harder not to get found out next time, and the skill of deceit is not widely applauded – unless you are a spy. Of course, acts that result in public opprobrium may shame you, with many people knowing, but being ashamed without anyone knowing borders on guilt.
If guilt and shame are denied or missing, the default position is blame. And why is blaming someone, something else, such an effective get-out-of-jail card - let’s be generous to Mr. Johnson - for the guilty heart, the joker in the pack of cards dealt by a Joker Prime Minister?
Instead of failing miserably to answer these questions, I will tell what I hope is an instructive as well as a true story. During the anti-apartheid struggle I got to know a young Catholic married couple who were ANC activists in Johannesburg. Repression had cranked up and was intense. Many were being arrested and jailed. The risk of detention was high. The couple faced difficult moral dilemmas. They wanted a child but would it be right to bring one into the world when there was a real risk of them being jailed and separated from their baby? They were afraid. ANC activists were being assassinated by a special unit of the security police, prisoners were brutalised, and jail sentences long. There didn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel. They later came to London, by chance at the same time as Jon Sobrino S.J. a liberation theologian from war-torn El Salvador. Of six Jesuit colleagues, their housekeeper and her daughter, only he had survived a bloody massacre at the hands of El Salvador’s military dictatorship in November 1979. When he got news of the murders Sobrino went straight back to his Jesuit residence on the campus of the Central American University in San Salvador where they had died.
Things had reached a violent head in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was shortly to be released. The two young South Africans, like Sobrino, had experienced fear of violence from unaccountable State agents themselves. They wanted to ask a famous liberation theologian why he had returned to danger and how he had dealt with his fear. We all were expecting a theologian’s answer, Christological and lyrical, in the style of Sobrino’s books. There was a pause after the question. Then he said: “Oh, I would have been too ashamed to have stayed away. What would my brethren have said?” I am still not sure whether he was referring to the Jesuit martyrs who had died or the living members of the Society of Jesus to which he belonged (as does the present Pope). I wondered if Sobrino wanted to present and encourage shame as a virtue, or was he simply in the habit of telling the truth. I think the latter. It was a lovely moment. Our weighty earnestness was punctured like a balloon. I almost laughed. We all felt there should be no shame in admitting human weakness and human pride. We all felt we had permission to be human.
So how does someone such as Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn handle shame? I have never seen two political leaders so shamed in public, derided and ridiculed for their pretensions. Perhaps the hope-filled, idealistic or feckless adulation of their followers is for them wrap-around mental body-armour. Donald Trump is another story. He shows most characteristics of narcissism and sociopathic disorder. He warns Turkey that he will devastate their economy if in “my great and unmatched wisdom” they appear to take advantage of his abandonment of a loyal US ally, the Syrian Kurds, whom he has left to the tender mercies of Erdogan’s armed forces. Estimates suggest that the Kurds lost over 10,000 troops fighting ISIS. And we also know how Trump handles being shamed. The brash, crude, nouveau riche boy on the New York block, shunned by the elite, rubbished and shamed by an upstart black President in front of his peers, seems to crave the comfort of cheering crowds, his tweet followers, and campaign banners. Obama’s ridicule probably resulted in Trump attempt’s to reverse every single one of the former US President’s achievements. Beyond Obama, Trump doesn’t go in much for blaming. He abuses and punishes.
Dealing with shame and guilt is not a matter of personality only, of inadequacies, of things missing from character and leadership. The absence or denial of guilt and shame is a growing element within our political culture, the medium in which such individuals now thrive, a medium which encourages the idea that lack of guilt and shame, apparently missing from political leadership, is of no consequence, that the blame game, part entertainment, part outlet for anger and resentment, is what matters. It does matter but because it removes responsibility from the executive. We are in trouble if we get used to this state of affairs. From the Left the blame falls on Blairites and international capitalists, from the Right it has fallen on Remainers and then the judiciary, it fell on EU negotiators, on Parliament, and then on the Irish, and then, eventually…. it will fall on you and me.
See also TheArticle 09/10/2019
For an hour of two last Sunday night, like a murmuration of starlings, a cluster of tweets appeared on-line; they were voicing interest in the news that the Queen had allegedly asked legal advice about sacking Mr. Johnson. Context is everything. It turned out that this prodigious and unprecedented happening, if indeed it happened, dated from before the Supreme Court’s ruling on the lawfulness of Mr. Johnson’s prorogation. A little more damaging than a hand-on-thigh allegation, you might think (though not say).
This on-line murmuration had been caused by a finely crafted article about to appear in the My View section of Monday’s I, written by its star journalist, Ian Birrell. “One well-placed source”, Birrell wrote, “told me the Queen had, for the first time in her reign, sought advice on sacking a prime minister before the Supreme Court verdict”, and Birrrell is a highly respected journalists’ journalist. It shows in the quality of his writing. “I have no idea if this is true – it would be denied by all concerned –“ he said “but the fact it was suggested by such a figure underscores the scale of Johnson’s difficulties”. It certainly does. Again context is everything, the opening of the Conservative Party Conference.
In the absence of any other “well-placed source” the rest of the Press and BBC kept away from the story. Nor did the tweets continue. Despite Birrell’s prudent, professional caveats, you could easily imagine the concern in Balmoral: Mr. Johnson had projected the Queen into the public domain as a woman without agency, almost subordinate to the Prime Minister from whom alone she took advice, advice which she must follow even if it might turn out to be unlawful and wrong. The Queen, though meshed in the web of conventions surrounding constitutional monarchy, is not without agency, even if this agency has to be conducted in an oblique, sensitive and sophisticated manner. Wouldn’t you, in this position, be thinking ahead and wanting to know your legal position as a monarch in the light of a range of possible eventualities? Would you be that displeased if the country learnt you weren’t sitting on your hands while the unity of the kingdom was in peril? Parliament was prorogued from 9 September and the Royal Assent was given that same day to the Benn Bill requiring Mr. Johnson to write a letter to the European Union asking for an extension beyond the 31 October date set for leaving. What if Mr. Johnson simply refused to do so?
Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General who preceded Geoffrey Cox, the present one, a man who seems to be auditioning for the part of the wicked uncle in this Christmas’ panto, provided an answer in the Daily Mail. The Supreme Court, Grieve explained, would issue a mandamus - Latin has recently become contagious amongst parliamentarians - a mandatory order compelling the Prime Minister to comply. And if he doesn’t, says Mr. Grieve, he “will be out in five minutes. He will be dismissed”. And, yes, the Queen would step in - effectively sacking him - though this was a “hypothetical position”.
I wonder just how hypothetical. Perhaps the Queen was not being unduly anxious if, indeed, she had sought legal advice. There are two scenarios: the first is that Mr. Johnson whispers in the ear of key European leaders, not that quietly, that they shouldn’t grant another extension, that there would be no point because Parliament would be unable to get its act together and put everyone out of their misery, one way or another, by decisive action. The Prime Minister would then write the required extension letter and hope Mr. Macron dug in his heels and refused to waive the 31 October deadline. The second would be that Mr. Johnson became a BREXIT martyr, refusing on grounds of conscience – italics necessary - to sign the letter, and thus be duly sacked, be cast very low only to be born aloft and back into power in a future election victory. Mr. Cummings, your choice.
One thing is clear: whatever happens next, Mr. Johnson will make sure “the people” are convinced it is not his fault if on 1 November we still remain in the European Union. There are dark warnings from Tory sources of mob violence, read threats, if we do. Eton mess flung across the Mace in the Chamber and so on. The Prime Minister shall be blameless, “the people’s champion”. Many, though, will share the blame: Larry the Downing Street cat, all the Remain “traitors”, the Irish Taoiseach, Brussels diplomats, Gina Miller, Joanna Cherry, Lady Hale and, if as was murmured briefly in the twitter-sphere and things carry on the way they are going, Mrs. Windsor herself. Then it will be Mr. Johnson and “the People” versus Parliament, the Supreme Court, more than 16 million voters, and possibly the Queen. No wonder Mr. Johnson has a problem with women.
See Also TheArticle.com 02/10/2109