Kamel Daoud and the Rape of Europa

I’m a big fan of the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, which I read last year.  It was a brilliant deconstruction of L’Etranger, which movingly and provocatively imagined the voice of the Arab colonial subject that was missing from the Camus’s novel.

In doing so, it invited Camus’s readers to re-think the essential assumptions of a novel generally considered to a triumphant expression of 20th century humanism, and exposed the narrow prism through which Camus viewed colonial Algerian society, and which reduced its non-French members to props and bystanders in a supposedly universal existential fable.

The result was a combination of homage/critique and  essential  companion piece to Camus’s novel, which fused a profound meditation on the impact of French colonialism and French culture on Algerian society  with an equally unsparing overview of the failings of post-colonial Algerian history, from the War of Independence to the Islamist surge of the late 1980s and the bloody civil war that followed.

To  have achieved all this in 160 pages is no mean feat.  It was fearless, moving, and audacious.   All the more disappointing therefore, to read Daoud’s response to the Cologne sex attacks in the New York Times last week entitled  ‘The Sexual Misery of the Arab World.’.   To say that Daoud’s article is not helpful doesn’t really begin to describe it.   Where The Mersault Investigation challenged prejudices and received ideas, Daoud’s take on the Cologne attacks reinforces clichés, stereotypes and assumptions that routinely emanate from people far less intelligent than he is.

Daoud’s essential premise is that

‘The attacks on Western women by Arab migrants in Cologne, Germany, on New Year”s Eve evoked the harassment of women in Tahrir Square itself during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution. The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women.

Daoud rightly attacks some of the brutal absurdities resulting from fundamentalist sexual repression in Algeria and other  Arab  countries and the obsessive fixation with female sexual behaviour at the heart of it.    But his notion that what happened in Cologne was a product of a uniquely Arab sexual pathology seems oblivious and even indifferent to what actually took place, or to the utterly spurious interpretations placed on the horrific events of New Year’s Eve.

When news of the Cologne attacks first broke, they were initially blamed on refugees, and on Syrian refugees in particular. Across Europe Cologne was cited by the far-right as evidence of the cultural and civilizational incompatibility of Europe’s refugees or the product of  ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ savagery.   In newspaper comments pages, twitter and Internet websites the outrage at the treatment of ‘our’ women was often combined with a morbid and gleeful condemnation of Europe’s ‘bleeding heart’ liberals, who had led these savages into the metropolis and been hoist by their own petard.

In various European cities, this outrage spilled into chivalry, as militiamen and motorcycle gangs established vigilante groups to defend the flower of European womanhood by attacking anyone who looked like a refugee.  The  Cologne attacks also produced cultural commentary, such as this ‘satirical’ image from Charlie Hebdo:

In some German cities  local authorities handed  out leaflets informing refugees how women should be properly treated.  Personally, I suspect that the scumbags who carried out the attacks in Cologne know perfectly well how women should be treated – they simply chose to use their power of physical intimidation and domination, as some men will do pretty much anywhere when they get the chance.

Daoud sees these events as a product of an explosive collision between  the repressed and forbidden desires of the Middle East and the continual orgy that takes place in the liberated West. After all

‘Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.’

Yeah, sure it does.  And Daoud also seems to believe that the path to orgasm also runs through Cologne Central Station.   Never mind that Cologne was not quite what it seemed to be, let alone what it was portrayed as being.  According to the Cologne public prosecutor only three of the 58 suspects arrested in connection with these attacks were refugees.  In addition, 600 out of 1000 reported incidents that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were related to theft, and were not sexual attacks.

That still leaves 400 incidents that were sexually-related, so we are still dealing with a major incident of sexual violence and harassment perpetrated mostly by men of Middle Eastern or North African origin.   But that does not support Daoud’s crass notion of a cultural and civilisational clash that comes straight out of the counterjihadist playbook.

‘… today, with the latest influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe.  What long seemed like the foreign spectacles of faraway places now feels like a clash of cultures playing out on the West”s very soil. Differences once defused by distance and a sense of superiority have become an imminent threat. People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.’

Tommy Robinson and Pegida couldn’t have put it better.   Neither they – nor Daoud – seem to care that  this ‘disease’ was already present before the refugee hordes came here.  As I’ve argued in another piece, women have been subjected to  sexual harassment, rape and the threat of rape in liberated Europe for a long time.  Many women in Europe continue to experience ‘anxiety and fear’ at the hands of men on a daily basis.  German women are regularly assaulted at the Munich beer festival, amongst other events, yet such things only ever seem to become politically important when Arabs or Muslims are responsible.

Daoud’s intervention is no exception.   He notes that ‘ The West has long found comfort in exoticism, which exonerates differences’, yet he himself merely reinforces spurious notions of cultural difference and incompatibility that are already reflected in magazine covers like this one:

That cover ‘exonerates differences’ alright, even as it references long established cultural tropes about white women being sexually molested by brown-skinned savages as a kind of metaphor for the ‘Islamic rape of Europe.’

Daoud seems uninterested in why such things happen.  Where the likes of wSIECI have used the Cologne attacks to recycle racist imagery,  he  has used these attacks to support the notion of a cultural clash between a ‘sick’ Arab world and a presumably healthy and liberated West.

It’s shallow, crude, and dangerous stuff.  In The Meursault Investigation  Daoud was an unsparing critic of colonial and post-colonial Algeria.  Here he acts like a ‘native informant’, telling a Western audience what too many of its members already like to believe about themselves – and about the others who can never be like us.

Talkin’ World War III Blues

I know that the British media and political class have had a lot of important things to think and talk about recently, and far be it from me to distract from the seriousness of the debate that  has been taking place about our latest headlong leap into the Middle Eastern unknown.   Nevertheless, there are certain alarming events which I feel might just be worthy a nanosecond of our attention – just a smidgen and then we can move on, because I know that our politicians and journalists are men and women of real gravitas who don’t like to waste their time on trivia.

The first thing I wanted to mention is the curious fact that yesterday Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-member ‘Islamic anti-terrorism’ coalition  to fight Islamic State.    You in the back, stop laughing now.   Of course some cynics might think that a country that last year declared all atheists to be terrorists might not be the best state to be leading a coalition against Daesh.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has been mercilessly pulverising Yemen day after day in its war against Houthi rebels, regardless of the fact that its onslaught is pushing one of the poorest countries in the world towards the brink of total collapse – and all this with weaponry supplied by Britain, France and the United States.

But then we ought to remember that Saudi Arabia is the current president of the UN human rights council, thanks to a little support by the UK government, so I think you at the back should really stop that giggling and show a little respect.

Because today the Telegraph revealed that this coalition may send special forces into Syria in order to fight ISIS, with the approval of the British government.  According to the Telegraph:

‘British military sources told the Telegraph that while the UK would not provide boots on the ground, they were on standby to provide air support and ” command and control”.  But any Gulf or other forces would clearly add to or take the place of the 70,000 “moderate rebels” whom David Cameron, the Prime Minister, wants to be the “boots on the ground” to displace Isil in Syria but who say they already have their hands full fighting the Assad regime.’

And equally significant:

‘The Saudis and their Sunni Muslim allies would also be intent on preventing any vacuum being filled by the Bashar al-Assad regime, or its Shia Iranian allies, against whom the Gulf is facing off across the region.’

So in other words Saudis and their allies – some of whom have been instrumental in financing and supporting Daesh and other Salafi groups in a variety of ways, are now proposing to attack IS, and provide ground troops in Raqqa and other areas that have been bombed by the coalition..

This surely explains why Saudi Arabia  staged a conference of Syrian rebels – from which Syrian Kurds were naturally excluded – in Riyadh only last week in yet another attempt to forge the Syrian opposition into a unified front.  The Saudis are clearly intent on escalating the war no matter what the cost to Syrians or anyone else, and they aren’t alone in this. Because now the British government is proposing to provide air support and ‘command and control’ to a military offensive in Syria that will  almost certainly  pit the Saudi ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition – and the current bombing coalition that includes the United States, Britain, and France against Assad, Russia, and Iran.

A regional peacekeeping force in Syria that might safeguard a ceasefire and a political settlement is one thing, but there is nothing to suggest that Riyadh’s ‘Islamic antiterrorism coalition’ has any such intentions.  It is a Sunni coalition, not an ‘Islamic’ one – a carnival of reaction lumbering towards what even the Telegraph recognizes may ignite an all-out Shia/Sunni sectarian war – and our government appears to be disposed to go along with it and seems to regard it as a positive development.

So now we know where those 70,000 fighters came from, though none of this was mentioned when Cameron first made that claim.  Instead the Tory government, with the assistance of Hilary Benn and his conscience-stricken MPs, convinced themselves and the public that they were just planning a little recreational bombing, something to help us get our mojo back.

I don’t wish to be melodramatic or upset anyone, but this is how world wars start.    This is how entire regions as well as countries become battlegrounds. But all these possibilities were almost entirely absent  from the ‘mature’ debate that so many journalists congratulated our parliamentarians upon.

Instead we talked about Stop the War, and whether Jeremy Corbyn should go to their Xmas dinner, and what two bloggers did or didn’t say.

And now we are sleepwalking towards what threatens to become a global conflagration, and we don’t seem to be talking about it at all.

 

Terrortalk

Many years ago, when I was doing my A’ Levels, my English teacher gave us three basic rules of thumb to apply when reading texts: 1) What is the author trying to achieve? 2) To what extent does he/she succeed on his/her terms? 3) To what extent does he/she succeed on your terms?

Of course there are a lot more questions you can ask about books and writers, and even the three that have mentioned immediately raise a number of issues.   But I have always found my English teacher’s advice useful not when thinking about books, but on many other occasions.  When I was writing my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine, for instance,    I often tried to apply them to the individuals, organizations and movements I was writing about, as well as the states that were fighting them.

But in the process of researching that book, I often realized how rarely such questions are asked, not only in the abundant literature that has historically framed ‘terrorism’ as an un-Western, un-democratic and alien phenomenon of violence, but also in the wider discourse that has surrounded particular terrorist emergencies.

Whether it was the ‘anarchist terror’ of the 1890s, the Kenyan ‘Mau Mau’ or even the IRA, the societies that were on the receiving end of this kind of non-state violence were rarely encouraged to think about what its protagonists were trying to achieve, or whether they succeeded on their terms, and independent judgments about the causes and context of such violence were generally preempted by officially-orchestrated hysteria and anathemas that attempted to impose their own answers.

Conventional wisdom on the subject tended to present terrorism as an eruption of irrational and monstrous violence whose essential aim was nothing less than terror itself. The practitioners of this kind of violence were often  depicted as moral aliens and wild beasts who were beyond rationality and understanding, and these representations often acted as a pretext for ‘virtuous’ counterterrorist violence, in which the extermination of terrorists could become a ‘sacred duty’, as the anthropologist Edmund Leach once put it.

Privately, governments might have a very keen understanding of their opponents, their tactics, strategies and political goals, but this knowledge rarely informed public debate about terrorism and was often deliberately concealed from the wider society.

Generally speaking, in the course of terrorist emergencies, civil society is discouraged from thinking or talking about terrorism beyond the very narrow parameters that governments seek to impose or disseminate.    The events of the last week have brought home to me how narrow these parameters have become.  Over the last few days I have often heard my words and those of my fellow-blogger Chris Floyd described as ‘unacceptable’ by the Labour MP Emma Reynolds and others.

Leaving aside the question as to whether Reynolds has even read or understood the pieces she has condemned, and the extent to which she was merely using them for political purposes, the hysteria and outrage that she and others expressed so readily nevertheless demonstrates that our current emergency is not that different from many of its predecessors.

Today, as in the past, civil society is expected to applaud dishonest and opportunistic depictions of the enemies we face that tell us much more about how our governments would like us to see them than the way they see themselves.  We are not supposed to think about what it is about these organizations that enables them to continually find new members.   We are not supposed to think about what their political aims are or the source of their global appeal in any other terms except their common hatred for everything that is good about us.

We are not expected to think about where that hatred may come from, and whether – at times – it may be related to things that our governments have done,  and not simply because we are all good people who love freedom.  We have now reached such a level of hysterical dishonesty that the British government is prepared to monitor Muslim toddlers for signs of ‘radicalization’, yet politicians dismiss any discussion that includes us as well as the demonic Other is considered to be ‘unacceptable.’

Often we are told  that jihadists are ‘death cults’ with no political aims beyond death, even when it is very clear that their organizations are using violence – however extreme and horrific – strategically for political purposes.  Politicians like to tell us that these groups – whether al Qaeda or Daesh – are a new form of fascism comparable to Nazism – an explanation that should make it possible to understand them in political terms, yet try and write about the political context in which these groups emerged, as Chris Floyd attempted to do after the Paris massacres, and you hear that this ‘unacceptable..

The least that can be said about these constraints is that they are not helpful in eliminating the lethal threat that these groups represent.  Instead they leave the broader debate about terrorism to governments, thinktanks, ‘terrorist experts’ and establishment commentators, who too often reproduce the official interpretations of terrorism that have done absolutely nothing to bring the ongoing emergency to an end.

If we look back on the way that western governments have responded to the atrocities of 9/11, virtually everything they have done has played into the hands of their jihadist enemies.  Al Qaeda wanted to bring the ‘crusaders’ into the Middle East and Central Asia; we obliged them.   Jihadism feeds off weak or failed states; we have helped given them four.  Islamic State would like to have ‘crusader’ armies bombing Syrian cities and get involved in yet another open-ended war; we’ve done that too.

Again and again, ill-thought-out and often blatantly opportunistic forms of military intervention have helped create precisely the kinds of conditions in which al-Qaeda type formations thrive, while heavy-handed and authoritarian campaigns against ‘radicalization’ at home have only exacerbated the bitterness, alienation and anger that makes it easier for such groups to recruit.

The result is a global terrorist emergency that, unlike its predecessors, is not only global, but is potentially indefinite, because it is unfolding in so many countries and in so many different contexts.

The consequences of this situation have already been disastrous, and unless we can get to grips with it, and design appropriate strategies, both abroad and at home, they will certainly get worse and we will never find our way out on this dire trajectory of terrorist massacre, war, national security authoritarianism and racism that is choking our world to death.

In order to do that we need to be able to talk and think openly about terrorism and terrorists, regardless of  whether governments and politicians find what we say ‘acceptable’, because the evidence of the last fifteen years suggests that too many governments are not thinking about it at all, and that if they have applied the three very useful questions that my English teacher once recommended many years ago to the current state of emergency, then they are not telling us the answers.

Corbyn’s rebels

Lyndon Johnson once said of F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover that ” It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”  Perhaps that was the rationale behind Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to pack his shadow cabinet with so many people who did  not  reflect the new political direction that so many party members voted for.  Or perhaps it was motivated by the desire to maintain as much of a broad church as possible, and try to prevent a destructive schism in the Labour Party between the PLP and the grassroots campaign that so triumphantly and unexpectedly brought Corbyn to power.

Either way, from where I’m standing I can’t help feeling that the strategy has failed on both counts, and that  Corbyn would have done better to remember the wisdom expressed by the O’Jays, when they sang ‘ they smile in your face, all the time they wanna take your place, the backstabbers.’

Because some members of the PLP are merely critical of some of Corbyn’s policies, which is normal, but others are clearly so viscerally opposed to his politics in general that they are prepared to take any opportunity to undermine Corbyn and make his position politically untenable, and I mean any.    At the beginning of the week it was McDonnell’s somewhat clunking attempt to ridicule Cameron/Osborne’s courting of China, with Mao’s Red Book.

Let’s face it, that wasn’t a smart move, but McDonnell’s intentions were obvious to anyone who wanted to look.   Not to  Chuka Umunna apparently, who declared ” I haven’t quoted from a communist before,  and I have no intention of doing so in the future.”  Well, it’s always good to come across a politician with principles, isn’t it?

But such fakery is nothing compared with Syria, which many of Corbyn’s enemies now appear ready to wield as an instrument for his political destruction.  Because unlike Corbyn, I cannot believe that the decision of so many Labour MPs to support Cameron’s back-of-a-fag-packet bombing campaign is driven by moral considerations.

Perhaps some of them really see bombing Syria as a matter of conscience, but I cannot believe that they seriously believe that the case Cameron presented to parliament on Friday was any more ‘compelling’ than the case that Blair made for the Iraq War.   Even the Daily Mail found it shallow and unconvincing, yet Hilary Benn and co. appear to have swallowed it whole, without even chewing first.

Do they really believe that a government that has yet to explain what a bombing campaign would achieve has ‘learned the lessons of Iraq’, as Cameron claimed?  I have heard at least one Labour MP suggest that Corbyn is ‘out of his depth’ in Syria, as if the party that took the country to war in Iraq had some deep understanding about the Middle East that is informing its current thinking.

To hear people like Tom Watson reciting the mantra ‘ we-must-keep-our-country-safe’ without even apparently having thought through whether or not bombing would bring about this outcome, suggests something more than naivete or ignorance. Watson is one of the Labour MPs who voted for the Iraq War, and the seeming inability of politicians like him to understand the extent to which that war helped form the same enemy they now want to bomb, suggests that  militarism and Great-Britain-must-be-greatism  are as ingrained in their  political DNA as they are on the Tory Party’s.

And for all the talk about morality, I can’t help feeling that there is nothing moral about this, and that what these rebels would really like to do is use Syria to humiliate Corbyn and make it impossible for him to remain as party leader.  And I have a horrible feeling they might succeed, because, no matter how the vote turns out, and regardless of how many times McDonnell says ‘democracy doesn’t mean division’ , I can’t see how Corbyn can  fight an election campaign with a party as divided as the Labour Party now is,  over so many crucial issues.  

And I can’t see how he can remain in the same party as his enemies – at least not as leader.  It’s one thing to have the occasional Corbynite on the backbenches to give the appearance of a broad church, when you know that the party leadership will ignore everything they say.   It’s quite another to have him in charge, with a mandate from outside the PLP.

Too many Labour MPs have made it clear that they have more in common with the Tory opposition than they do with Corbyn, and that they will plot, leak and brief, and do whatever is necessary in order to destroy him and the movement that created him,  so that things can go back to normal – their normal.    

Perhaps they see all that as ‘moral’ too, but I really doubt it.