On Heretics and Thought-Crimes

Bear with me readers, if I return to ‘InternationalBrigadegate’ one more time, because what I want to say is not really about me: it’s about us.  A lot of the writing I’ve done over the years, in books, articles, and blogposts, has been concerned with the subject of persecution.  I’ve always been concerned with the ease with which powerful societies can transform themselves into what the medieval historian R.I.  Moore once called ‘persecuting societies’.

These concerns have been present in all my books, from my history of terrorism to my novel The Devils of Cardona, which is due to be published next year.  Given these preoccupations, there has been a weird and bewildering irony about the events of the last week, which are still unfolding.

Today, for example  I came across a leftist blog attacking my Hilary Benn piece.  After the usual foaming at the mouth at my supposed iniquities, the writer contemptuously referred to my book about General Sherman’s March to the Sea,  with this observation:

 ‘The only walk to the ocean most people would like to witness on Carr”s part is one which ends with him lying ten fathoms deep.’

In the opinion of this self-proclaimed  ‘critical marxist’ therefore,  it is legitimate to recommend my death because of a sentence that I wrote and a thought that he believed I had.

Now I recognize that this is an extreme reaction, even by the standards of the past week.  Nevertheless day after day  newspapers, journalists, and politicians repeat my International Brigades quote or cite fellow-blogger Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, without any sign that they have read the pieces concerned, and with the kind of horror and disgust that you would now expect to be directed at Jimmy Saville’s memoirs.

I’m only surprised that these critics don’t brandish a crucifix or wear garlic round their necks.  Some of this, as I’ve said previously,  is clearly due to a blatantly McCarthyist campaign that is intended to destroy the Stop the War movement, and by association Jeremy Corbyn.

But what I find most shocking, and which I want to draw attention to here, is the fact that the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself  is based entirely on our thoughts and words  – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be.

In this sense, the incredible momentum that this campaign has acquired reminds me of medieval and early modern attitudes to ‘heresy’, when certain thoughts and ideas were considered so dangerous to society that they could only be purged and kept at arms length otherwise society faced complete destruction.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider my thoughts to be so earthshaking that they threaten society or the established order, and I don’t regard myself as a modern-day heretic.  But whatever you think I said, or whatever you think Floyd said, the fact remains that the moral opprobrium that has been heaped upon both of us has been entirely due to the fact that we expressed thoughts and ideas that are now considered illegitimate and taboo.

Were this not the case, it would have been perfectly possible to disagree with either of us, to criticize us, to say that our ideas weren’t well-expressed or whatever.  Instead the two of us have been objects of a collective rage, hatred and disgust, in some cases by people who have never read what they are condemning.

Some of this outrage is due to the disgust and horror that ISIS incites through its endless massacres and atrocities, and the (false) assumption that Floyd and I somehow condone or minimize or even approve of these actions.   But ISIS itself cannot explain the knee-jerk responses of so many people to a sentence in a screenshot and a single phrase.

ISIS doesn’t explain why it is now becoming difficult to think or say anything about it beyond certain consensual parameters, and why a single phrase or sentence can be held up as evidence of evil intent or collusion.  It doesn’t explain why a British politician is hailed as a great orator if he compares the bombing of another Middle Eastern city to the International Brigades; or why George Osborne can tell a New York audience that the UK has ‘got its mojo back’ because it has bombed Raqqa.

Yet MPs now read the words of two writers and bloggers out in parliament as though they were reading an indictment, and ‘leftists’ can call for the death of someone whose words they don’t like.  And even when Floyd and I have tried to explain and clarify our intentions, these emotions have made no difference to many of those who have read them, and some have even seen them as confirmation of our original ‘guilt.’

And all that, my friends, suggests that we have a problem, and that it is not the one that has been raised so hysterically and so dishonestly during the last week.



International Terror Day

In his memoir The Devil in France, the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger looked back on the historical circumstances that had resulted in his internment in a French prison in Tunisia during World War I,   and driven him into exile in southern France following Hitler’s ascent to power, and his internment in French concentration camps during World War II before he subsequently found another exile and salvation in New York.     Feuchtwanger reached the following conclusions:

‘There are as many rationally adequate explanations as one may wish for the particular course of my own trifling experiences no less than for the issues of greater moment on which they depended.   Ingenious minds stand ready to enumerate those reasons – economic reasons, biological, sociological, psychological reasons, reasons deriving from one or another of the philosophies of the universe.   I myself, for that matter, could write a book on the subject, sharpening my wits to find logical concatenations.

Deep down in my heart, however, I know that I have not the slightest understanding of the causes of the barbaric turmoil in which all of us are writhing…Some day, one may guess, “all the documents” will be available.   But what of that?     At the most we shall know only a little more about the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact.   The judgment we pass on the course of events as a whole will still be a matter solely of the interpreter’s temperament and throw light only on him.’

By chance I read those words yesterday evening, on a day when the ‘barbaric turmoil’ of our own times erupted once again into the headlines – or at least that particular dimension of the turmoil which inevitably garners more public attention than any other, that we call  ‘terror.’

It’s too early to say whether yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ was coordinated, or whether it was a random convergence of events whose perpetrators share the same commitment to ‘leaderless resistance’ jihad which makes it equally possible to murder ‘apostate’ Shia worshippers in a mosque or ‘kufar’ tourists in Tunisia.

Whoever they are, their broader intentions are not difficult to fathom.   Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Kuwait and Tunisia attacks.   Both are acts of ‘strategic’ terrorism.   The attack in Kuwait is clearly intended to foment the sectarian war that IS believes it can exploit for its own purposes.     The attacks in Tunisia are a blow aimed at Tunisia itself, whose struggling economy depends so much on tourism, and they are likely intended to pave the way for the transformation of Tunisia into yet another zone of chaos that can serve as an incubator for the glorious jihad.

The attack on the Imperial Hotel is also ‘political’ in that it is indended to show that   Western governments – and the British government in particular – cannot protect their citizens anywhere in the world.     These attacks may also be partly compensatory, at a time when Islamic State has experienced a series of military reversals in Syria and faces the prospect of being driven out of its base in Raqaa.

As for the attack in France, who can ‘understand’ why a Muslim employee decapitated his boss and left the head on a fence before driving a vehicle into a gas factory?   Ultimately, those who organized or inspired these repulsive acts are trying to communicate some ‘message.’   Like the ‘tooth fairy’ serial killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, they want us – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to ‘feel awe’ at their power and cower before them.

The tooth fairy’s audience was a man strapped to a wheelchair who had no choice but to cower.   We do have a choice.     We can refuse to accept Islamic State’s description of the man who massacred peaceful worshippers in a Kuwaiti mosque as a ‘knight’ and say that he was a worthless murdering bigot who has disgraced his religion and the name of humanity itself.

We can say that the ‘soldier of the caliphate’ who thought slaughtering at least 38 unarmed tourists was funny is no more worthy of respect than a Nazi concentration camp guard.     We can say that such men are not heroes and they are not brave, anymore than Anders Breivik and Dylan Rooff were brave.

When things like this happen, we want to say something, and in fact we need to, because acts of violence like these are intended to shock us and force us into a state of impotent fury or helpless, in which the ability to think and speak begins to seem pointless and irrelevant.

And if we don’t speak, we will allow our governments and their representatives to speak for us, and what they have to say is too often stupid, self-serving and duplicitous.     Consider for example,   today’s Daily Telegraph editorial, which   cited the Queen’s visit to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp this week as a reminder of what was required in the struggle against ‘radical Islamism’:

‘Bergen-Belsen is a reminder of why evil needs to be confronted and why the case for liberal democracy has to be remade each generation. Western values have to be rigorously defended and promoted in schools. Rights to free speech or assembly should be respected, of course, but laws necessary to root out extremism and defend liberty may prove decisive in this struggle.

Perhaps most importantly, the West must possess the capacity to resist terrorism with military means. There is an understandable reluctance to commit troops anywhere on the ground. But there is also a pressing need to do as much as is reasonably possible to push back the advance of Islamists in the Middle East. For the moment, the highest priority should be given to securing the Mediterranean border. ‘

So more repression and surveillance at home.     More of the ‘antiterrorism’ education of British Muslims that has had no demonstrable effect whatsoever on ‘radicalization.’       And above all more war abroad, including the unpalatable possibility of troops ‘on the ground’.   And the Mediterranean ‘border’ must be ‘secured’ – presumably against the migrants who are trying to cross it who have nothing to do with ‘radical Islam’ – in order to address the collapse of the Libyan state that took place as a result of the last war that the West just had no choice but to fight.

And as for these ‘Western values’ – please don’t make me sick.   On yesterday’s ‘day of terror’ Saudi planes carried out another round of air strikes in Yemen, in the same week that the UN announced that 21 million Yemenis – 80 percent of the population – now require humanitarian assistance.

Some of those bombings may have been carried out with British-built planes, because Britain not only arms the Saudis, but has explicitly expressed its support for the war against the supposedly Iran-linked Houthi rebels – a war that is bringing Yemen to the point of collapse.

Unless we are supposed to believe that the Saudis and the Egyptian dictatorship and the autocrats of the Gulf are standing up for liberal democracy, we can only conclude that this ghastly war has very little to do with ‘Western values’ and a lot more to do with geopolitics and statecraft.

And that, tragically, is also the case with much of the ‘barbaric turmoil’ that is currently convulsing the Middle East, and which is sucking one country after another into a terrifying vortex of limitless and inhuman violence.

At this point I ought to come up with ‘solutions’ and ‘alternatives’, but right now I don’t have any to offer except this observation: It may be true,   as Feuchtwanger once said, that ‘ the immediate causes and consequences of this or that particular fact’ pertaining to each individual act of barbarism may be elusive.   But those of us who have no choice but to be spectators of terrorist spectacles must understand that ‘terror’ is only one manifestation – and consequence – of a dark, amoral and unjust world that many different actors are responsible for.

And until we do that, I can’t help feeling that we are doomed to see yesterday’s horrors repeated again and again, and that we will remain trapped in a deadly dynamic in which terrorism feeds militarism and militarism feeds terrorism, and our prospects of creating a just and peaceful international order are ripped to shreds.





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.

The ISIS Caliphate: Salafism as a strategic asset?

I have yet to see any reference in the mainstream media to Monday’s publication by   the conservative foundation Judicial Watch of previously classified US intelligence documents obtained as the result of a freedom of information lawsuit   This inattention is alarming, because one of these documents provides some disturbing background behind the nightmarish Caliphate that is now being carved in blood across Syria and Iraq.

Take these observations contained in an information report on Syria by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dated August 12 2012   on the ‘general situation’ in Syria in the summer of 2012:

  • ‘Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction
  • The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.
  • The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition, while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime.
  • AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media.  
  • AQI had major pockets and bases on both sides of the border to facilitate the flow of materiel and recruits.’

In a section on ‘the future assumptions of the crisis’, the report put forward the following hypothesis:

‘Development of the current events into proxy war: with support from Russia, China, and Iran, the regime is controlling the areas of influence along coastal territories…On the other hand, opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighboring Turkish borders.    

Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey are supporting these efforts.   This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command center of the temporary government.’

So in the summer of 2012, opposition forces in which Salafi/AQI elements were the ‘major forces’ were seeking to control territory in eastern Syria with the support of the Gulf States, Turkey – and Western countries.     And the DIA was suggesting that such assistance might take the form of a safe haven, constructed under the rubric of a Libya-style no fly zone!     And what would these ‘safe havens’ be like? Well the DIA offered the following possibility:

‘If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).’

Might the world’s leading democracy have a problem with a ‘Salafist Principality’ for sectarian/strategic reasons?   Not as far as we can tell from this document, at least in Syria.   Iraq was another matter, however, because such an enclave so close to the Iraqi border would benefit al-Qaeda:

‘ This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the assumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters.‘    

This might even result in:‘ The renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena.’

The DIA’s assessment was ‘unevaluated intelligence’, so we don’t know how other agencies or the administration itself responded to the information that it provided.   Nevertheless the published document tells us that some elements in the US government at least:

1. Knew that al-Qaeda/Salafism was the dominant element in an opposition that it was still insisting at the time was largely ‘moderate’
2. That its allies regarded a ‘Salafi Principality’ as a potential strategic asset in order to combat and reverse the ‘Shia expansion’ and bring about regime change in Syria.
3. That the US might be prepared to support these developments through the construction of a ‘safe haven’ protected by western air power.

In the event, the no fly zone proved politically impossible. But the proxy war prediction proved to be horribly accurate. And so did the Salafi Principality scenario – in the shape of the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, a ‘Salafist Principality’ that now makes al-Qaeda seem like ‘moderates’.

At the very least, you would think that these documents would provoke a wider discussion about American foreign policy in Syria and the Middle East; about the long historical use by American intelligence agencies of jihadist/Salafist groups as strategic instruments; about the morality and the wisdom of supporting a ‘Salafist Principality’ while claiming that you were seeking to promote a moderate democratic opposition; about imperial collusion in a proxy war that was part of a wider sectarian conflict aimed at reversing ‘Shia expansion’ across the Middle East, which may threatens to wreak incalculable harm on the region   for decades; about the essential premises of the ‘war on terror’ in which al Qaeda can be an existential enemy in one country and a strategic asset in another.

But that would be an uncomfortable and unpleasant conversation to have.   It would entail asking all kinds of disturbing and questions that governments never like to answer.   So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that these revelations   have so far passed largely unnoticed and uncommented on.

Because who in their right mind would want to get involved in a conversation like that?