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.



Burkini Madness

Anyone who has travelled in France this summer will have found it difficult to ignore the   the ongoing state of emergency with which the French state has responded to Daesh’s savage provocations.     In Banyuls-sur-Mer, we found the main road by the beach guarded by armed soldiers, presumably mindful of a repeat of the attack on Tunisia last year.     In Chartres, we watched a band whose members were mostly in their 60s or 70s joyously celebrating the city’s summer fete in glorious French style, while a detachment of soldiers, some of whom looked as if they were barely out of school, guarded the entrances to the square where their gig was taking place.

It was poignant, funny and moving to watch these pensioners exuberantly sashaying their way to the stage dressed in white to the strains of La Compagnie Créole’s ‘C’est Bon Pour Le Moral’- It’s Good for the Spirit – while the crowd sang along from memory or printed out lyrics.   Age could not wither these minstrels and dancers, because even in the midst of so much gloom and mayhem, the French will not easily surrender their right to celebrate the summer,   even if soldiers are now needed to ensure that some ‘radicalized’ murderer will not try to kill them.

The blundering government of Francois Hollande is clearly desperate to demonstrate to the French public that it can provide security, and the French public is right to demand such reassurances – even if it is difficult to believe that any amount of soldiers can provide full protection against random acts of homicide that can take place anywhere and at any time.

The French government undoubtedly knows that it can’t prevent such attacks – no democracy can, without going onto an explicitly war footing.   On the one hand these armed patrols are a form of security theatre, designed to give the appearance of security.   But even if we may not like to see armed soldiers in the streets, their presence is understandable, and it’s difficult to argue that they aren’t necessary in the current climate.

All that is very different from what has been taking place on French beaches since   Nice, Cannes and some fifteen other towns announced last week that women would not be allowed to wear the full-body swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’ on the beach and that those who did would be fined.     Yesterday these measures reached a new pitch of hysterical idiocy when a group of armed police surrounded a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice and ordered her to take off the offending garment, while scowling French holidaymakers looked on.

Why has this happened?   What makes these women so dangerous? The massacres and murders of the last two years are obviously part of the explanation – but only in the sense that they have acted as a catalyst for the worst kind of state-enforced bigotry that is as slippery and dishonest in its justifications, as it is useless and counter-productive from the point of view of security.     The Cannes ordinance declares that: ‘Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order.’

What kind of risks?   According to the mayor of Cannes, Thierry Migoule: ‘If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order…It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion.’

So Migoule is protecting Muslim women from discrimination by punishing them for wearing clothing that might make them objects of discrimination?     Not exactly.   Migoule has also told Agence France-Presse that the burkini is an ‘ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us’.

Ah ha.   So women who wear the burkini are declaring their allegiance to Daesh then?       Let’s just consider for a moment the notion that women in Daesh-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq are flocking to the beaches dressed in their burkini ‘uniforms’.     While we’re at it, let’s also ponder the suggestion that Muslim women who wear burkinis in France are wearing ‘uniforms’ that declare their allegiance to the Caliphate and their support for the attacks of the last year.

Have you given these possibilities your full consideration, readers?   Good, then let’s move on, because such a idiotic idea isn’t really worth spending more than a micro-second upon.   Nor is there any evidence that women wearing the burkini have ‘drawn a crowd’ and disrupted public order, though these banning ordinances certainly increase that possibility, with their ludicrous allegations that stigmatise women who choose to go to the beach with their bodies covered as ideological or religious threats.

The Nice town council has tweaked its banning ordinance slightly differently, declaring that the burkini ‘overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.’   So for Cannes, the burkini symbolizes ‘extremism Islamism’, for Nice it’s ‘adherence to a religion’.   And now Prime Minister Manuel Valls has joined in, declaring the burkini to be a symbol of the ‘enslavement of women’   which is ‘  “not compatible with the values of the French Republic.’

Valls has supported the burkini ban on the grounds that ‘In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself.’   No one can be surprised that Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to get into the act and is using the burkini to smooth the path of a political comeback, in which he is trying to appeal to Front National voters without actually joining the party.

Sarkozy is a spectacularly unscrupulous politician who has played this game before. Like Valls, he sees the burkini as a ‘provocation ‘ since ‘we don”t imprison women behind fabric.’

How noble of ‘us’ that we don’t do that.       So are the cops who humiliate a harmless Muslim woman on a beach defending France from a threat or are they liberating her, or perhaps performing both acts at the same time?

We don’t really know, and the politicians who advocate such brain-dead acts of persecution probably don’t really know either.   They do know they can’t stop Daesh.   They won’t consider, say, not selling Rafale jets to Saudi Arabia.   But they will, it seems, declare burkini-wearing women to be a threat to public order, the identity of French society, and a hollowed-out notion of laïcité that is really only interested in what Muslims do – or what they’re perceived to be doing.

Let’s be clear about this: these measures will solve nothing and resolve nothing.   If the French state were to fine and even imprison Muslim women on every beach in the country it would not do a single thing to make the French public more secure.   These bans will not ‘liberate’ Muslim women and they are not intended to.   They will not promote ‘cohesion’ and ‘ assimilation’, but they will generate anger, humiliation, bitterness and alienation.

All this may give some satisfaction to the usual bigots and racists who would always like to lash out at any Muslim within reach.   In pandering to these unworthy sentiments, France’s politicians have made a major blunder.     In thoughtlessly and mindlessly mixing up and conflating very different notions of culture, religion and security, they threaten to institutionalize anti-Muslim bigotry still further,   even as they unleash an overbearing and hypocritical authoritarianism that may be useful to the politicians who promote it, but which threatens to make France look simultaneously ridiculous, two-faced,cowardly and stupid.

In instrumentalising feminism in the service of what is an inherently persecutory enterprise, they only disgrace themselves still further.   We can only wait now for politicians like Valls and Sarkozy to order that all Muslim women should be forced to go topless and wear thongs to prove that they aren’t ‘imprisoned’ and demonstrate their commitment to laïcité.

It’s up to French society to reach into its better traditions and bring this dangerous nonsense to an end, the sooner the better.   So come on France, give yourself a shake now and pull yourself together, and please try to remember that you have more important things to worry about these days than what Muslim women are wearing on the beach.    



Abderramane Sissako’s Timbuktu Blues

I have nothing against cinema as recreational entertainment, or going to the movies for the sake of escapism.  Cinema has always served these purposes, and there is nothing inherently ignoble about them.   But such expectations also tend to produce an awful lot of mass-produced ephemeral dross and formulaic over-hyped blockbusters drenched in Dolby sound and  CGI effects, with emotions and messages pitched at the average 12-year-old with a full bag of popcorn.

2015, like most years, was dominated by films like this, whether it was the frenetic and vacuous inanity of Mad Max Fury Road or the new Star Wars.  But that wasn’t all there was to it.  As is the case every year,  a trickle of films continued to aspire to art as well as entertainment, and you.won’t find a better example of the former than Abderrahmane Sissako’s magnificent Timbuktu, which I saw last night.

Set during the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu by the Salafist/Jihadist group Ansar Dine, Timbuktu is a beautiful, poetic and overwhelmingly powerful response to the fanaticism and dim-witted cultural reductionism practiced by Ansar Dine and so many other jihadist groups..

Sissako’s primary focus is the cultural repression inflicted on Timbuktu and northern Mali by Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, who imposed the most rigid and harsh Sharia law on the areas they occupied.  From the opening sequences of an antelope fleeing a group of armed jihadist hunters in the desert, followed by  a scene in which the same men riddle  wooden and clay sculptures with bullets,  Sissako depicts jihadism as a violent and alien intrusion into the rich cultural spaces of northern Mali and the Sahara.

Sissako’s jihadists are not depicted as monsters, even though their actions are monstrous.   They are clods, tyrants and fanatics, and also hypocrites.   They ban smoking while secretly smoking themselves.  They ban football and argue with each other over whether France really won the World Cup.   They fancy the same women who they order to cover themselves.  They attempt to dialogue with the people under their control and recruit them to their cause, but when  these attempts fail they impose their demands through coercion and the threat of violence.

The jihadists are mostly ignorant  of the societies they have taken over.  They don’t speak the local languages and don’t understand local traditions.  This ignorance is revealed in a number of  telling and sometimes comical scenes; when a group of jihadists enter a mosque where the locals are praying, the Imam asks them why they have come to a place of prayer with guns and boots on and orders them out.   In another scene, a despairing fishmonger berates the jihadists who order her to wear gloves when selling fish and points out that this restriction is completely impractical and that her honour does not need protecting.

Sissako is particularly concerned with the jihadists’ attempt to obliterate Mali’s world-famous musical traditions.   In one scene, a group of armed jihadists sent to stop some of the residents of Timbuktu from playing music discover that the musicians are singing songs of praise to God and the Prophet and are forced to call their superiors to ask what to do..  In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, armed jihadists interrupt a joyful domestic singing session and arrest its participants.

The female singer, played by the great Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, receives eighty lashes as a punishment, and in the middle of her brutal whipping she begins to sing.  Such resistance permeates the film.   Sissako shows the inhabitants of Timbuktu arguing with the jihadists and refusing to accept their restrictions or their forced marriages.  In one marvelously witty and beautiful scene,  a group local youths play football without the ball that has been confiscated.

In another episode the herdman’s wife Satima is washing her hair.  When  a jihadist who is clearly attracted to her orders her to cover it, she tells him to stop looking if it offends him and asks him why he always comes to visit her when her husband is not around.  There are so many great moments like this.    Some of them are deftly comical, but  if  Sissako is willing to mock the stupidity and the hypocrisy of the jihadists he portrays, he also shows their violence and cruelty in a film that acquires its emotional punch slowly and almost languorously before building up to its shattering conclusion.

At the core of the film is a tale of an accidental murder which unfolds as relentlessly as a Greek tragedy or a tale by Chinua Achebe, and which ultimately dooms its central characters, as it intersects with the wider tragedy of the jihadist occupation.  Timbuktu is not an indictment of Islam itself.  On the contrary, Sissako makes it clear that there many forms and expressions of Islam and that many of them are to be found in the ancient desert melting pot of Timbuktu itself.

His film is nevertheless an essential and unforgettable meditation on the global tragedy that we have all become so depressingly familiar with in the 21st century.  To have done all this with such lyricism, humour, compassion and understated insight is a really triumphant achievement.  Like every great film, Timbuktu is the sum of its parts.  From the music and cinematography, to the acting, script and direction, it is absolutely flawless.

In short readers, we are talking about an authentic cinematic masterpiece, which reminds us that cinema can still tell us vital stories about the world we actually live in rather than merely help us try to escape from it.

And if you see no other film from 2015, you really must see this, by any means possible.

Islamic State’s ‘radicalized’ British volunteers: a useful threat?

I feel sorry for the Bradford husbands and other British Muslim families whose children and relatives have absconded to join Islamic State’s savage utopia, but I don’t feel any sympathy at all for the ‘radicalized’ volunteers themselves who have gone to Syria.   It isn’t as if you have to look very far to know what ISIS is like.

We are, after all,   talking about an organization that believes it has a divine right to rape women from religious minorities; that beheads and buries alive children and adults; that murders prisoners of war and hostages en masse in exemplary execution-spectacles; that recruits even eight year old children to carry out suicide bombings; that forces homosexuals to jump off buildings; that has casually wiped out even the most ancient historical artefacts and remains in its attempt to establish an Islamic year zero at the heart of Syria and Iraq.

All this has been done in plain sight, and no amount of ‘grooming’ can conceal facts that ISIS doesn’t even begin to hide, because it is actually proud of its barbarity.     In short, this is a gang of fanatics driven by bigotry and sectarian hatred, that rules through the gun, the knife and the whip, whose language is blood and death, and which has trampled even the most basic and elementary laws of mercy and decency in war and peace that humanity has evolved over thousands of years through various religious and secular traditions.   Such an organization deserves only universal contempt, and those who go and fight for it deserve the same.

All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand how this monster came into being, or the socio-psychological motivations that have attracted so many young men and women to such an inherently repulsive and malignant political phenomenon.   But there is an essential contradiction at the   British government’s clumsy, ineffective and increasingly authoritarian attempts to counter pro-ISIS ‘radicalization’ amongst British Muslims that rarely receives the analysis it deserves; namely, that in Syria at least, these ‘radicals’ are fighting on the same side as the government that is trying to prevent their radicalization.

This isn’t just an accidental or coincidental relationship originating from the fact that ISIS and the West have the common objective of overthrowing Assad.       ISIS receives logistical and financial support from the UK’s main allies in the Middle East.   From very early on in the Syrian conflict, US intelligence services regarded the creation of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Syria as a strategic asset.   There is abundant evidence to suggest that Western governments have provided weapons and training to same extremist pool that gave rise to ISIS’ current ‘principality.’

Earlier this month, this relationship flitted briefly through the mainstream media, when the Swedish jihadist Bherlin Gildo was acquited of terrorism charges at the Old Bailey, after his lawyers successfully argued that British intelligence agencies were providing weapons and ‘non-lethal’ help to the same ‘terrorist’ groups that he was allegedly supporting.

Gildo’s lawyers based their defence on the grounds that he was helping these unnamed rebel groups before the emergence of ISIS, and cited press articles referring to Western armed supplies to Syrian rebels in 2013 that suggested that the West was doing the same thing in the same period.   The notion of a cut-off point before and after ISIS is misleading; Gildo had apparently worked with Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization with a very similar ideology and modus operandi to Islamic State, which the crown prosecutor as a ‘proscribed group considered to be al-Qaida in Syria.’

The startling suggestion, in a British court, that British intelligence services had been assisting ‘al-Qaida in Syria’ ought to have raised a few questions about the UK government’s anti-extremism agenda, such as why the UK has been supporting some of the same groups that it has described as a threat to British national security.

These relationships are hardly a historical novelty.   Western governments have often collaborated with extremist jihadist groups that they have regarded as useful foreign policy tools, no matter how often these groups have bitten the hand that feeds them.   In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and its allies favoured the most violent and extreme mujahideen groups in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’   NATO’s allies in Libya also included individuals and militias that belonged to the al-Qaeda franchise.

For all the talk about a ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria, such groups have received similar support from the Middle Eastern states seeking Assad’s overthrow for the same reasons,   and these efforts have received the tacit or direct support from the same Western governments, including our own, that also want to bring Assad down.

Some might call this policy ‘shortsighted’, but it really isn’t.   It’s a question of priorities.   For the time being, the reactionary Sunni states of the Middle East see sectarian war against Shi’ism as a tool of counter-revolution and a geopolitical lever that can be used to counter Iranian influence.   This dovetails neatly with the West’s determination to ‘rollback’ any regime seen as a) a potential obstacle to Western strategic domination over the region’s resources b) an ally of Russia, China or Iran and c) as a threat to Israel.

Of course these ambitions may leave a trail of devastated states and potentially destabilising political chaos, in which organizations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra can thrive. But that is a risk that our governments have clearly considered is ‘worth it’, as Madeleine Albright once said in a very different context but for very similar reasons, perhaps in the belief that the West and its allies will ultimately be able to reshape the wreckage in its favour.

So ISIS isn’t only a threat; it’s also a convenient threat.       Its savagery and barbarity acts as yet another justification for the endless projection of military force abroad, and a new domestic threat that can be politically mobilised to produce evermore authoritarian governance at home, and an increasingly McCarthyite attempt to eradicate a Muslim ‘fifth column.’

These are the calculations that have helped paved the way for the ISIS nightmare.     So let’s by all means talk about why young British Muslims are so drawn to an organization that ought to be an absolute pariah, but when we talk about ‘radicalization’ we ought to remember these ‘radicals’ may also have their uses – and not only for ISIS.