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.



Britain’s detention gulag: the ‘animals’ rebel

Three weeks ago Channel 4 News produced a shocking undercover report on Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, using a hidden camera.     The report was painful, infuriating and utterly shameful viewing.     Yarl’s Wood was outsourced to Serco in 2007, and its guards can be seen using viciously sexist and racist language towards the female detainees, who they refer to as ‘bitches’, ‘caged animals’ and ‘beasties.’ .

This was followed by an equally grim report on Harmondsworth immigration removal centre,   where the independent research group Corporate Watch secretly filmed for three months.   Harmondsworth is also privately managed by the Mitie group, and Corporate Watch’s footage depicted a harsh and inhuman pressure cooker environment that has reduced detainees to despair after months in detention, where new ‘efficiency measures’ introduced by Mitie now oblige them to remain locked up in their cells for 10 to 12 hours a day, and where even the guards believed that conditions in the centre had reached breaking point.

These reports should have caused an outcry.   They ought at the very least to have generated an urgent debate about the morality of migrant incarceration and the way the UK treats vulnerable people whose single crime has been to seek asylum; about the brutal inhumanity of indefinite detention; about the conditions in Britain’s ‘detention estate’ and the policy of outsourcing which has so often made these conditions worse.

It would be wonderful to report that a shamed government – prompted by an outraged and galvanized opposition,   pledged to close the detention centres that have so often been associated with the kind of institutional cruelty and inhumanity that the Channel 4 reports so glaringly revealed,   or rescind the policy of outsourcing to companies like Serco, that have demonstrated time and time again that their single overriding interest in immigration detention is how to make a profit out of it.

Perhaps British society might have begun to ask itself searching questions about all this was allowed to happen, and why it has chosen to regard asylum seekers in much the same way as the Yarl’s Wood guards see them – as the lowest of the low and something less than human.     The British media might have facilitated this debate by following up Channel 4’s important contribution.       It might have harried the government, and Serco, and Mitie, and all the other corporate profiteers who have been deliberately allowed to get away with so much.

But all this belongs to an alternate universe.   Because none of the above happened.   True, the Home Office ordered a ‘thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme’ and told Channel 4 News that they ‘will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response.’

And Serco have also promised to carry out ‘ an independent review into our work at Yarl’s Wood in response to the investigation, . and insists that it prioritises ‘decency and respect’ for the detainees under its management.

None of this can be taken seriously for a millisecond.   Allegations of rape and sexual abuse by Serco guards at Yarl’s Wood have been rife for years, yet the Home Office refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to visit the centre last year.   Eight people died at Harmondsworth before it was taken for Mitie last year.       In total there were 21 deaths in UK immigration detention centres in 2014.

Given this record there is no reason to believe that the government or Serco or any of the other corporations that manage the UK’s detention centres will take any serious action – not without major political and public pressure.     But such pressure has been conspicuously absent from a society that always seems to have more important things to think about, such as how to get Jeremy Clarkson back on Top Gear.

And now, once again, faced with the passivity of the British government and society, the ‘animals’ have taken matters into their own hands.     Two weeks ago, on 8 March, detainees at Harmondsworth announced a hunger strike in protest against the ‘indefinite deprivation of liberty and human rights.’   On Tuesday the Morning Star reported that as many as 240 detainees were involved in the strike, in a centre with a 600 capacity.       The protests have spread to other detention centres at nearby Colnbrook, at Morton Hall in Leicestershire, at Dover, at Gatwick airport’s Brook House, at Penine House near Manchester, at Campsfield House in Oxfordshire,   and Dungavel in Scotland.

All this amounts to the most serious unrest in Britain’s ‘detention estate’ since the protests at Harmondsworth and other centres last May.     But the British media has once again been been largely indifferent to these developments.     The only major media outlet that has taken any interest in the protests is Russia Today, which as we all know is nothing but a propaganda outlet for the new Hitler and is just aiming to make us look bad.

Nevertheless the Home Office has now banned RT journalists from visiting Harmondsworth for two months.   In Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Church of Scotland have written to Theresa May and the manager of Dungavel to ask that a delegation be allowed to visit the centre, where up to 70 people are believed to have gone on hunger strike.

South of the border the silence remains deafening.   But these protests suggest, once again,   that a detention system created largely to reassure public ‘concerns’ about immigration has become a human rights disaster that shames the nation.   And anyone concerned with the elementary principles of solidarity, humanity and compassion that British society has effectively abandoned, should acknowledge and support the desperate resistance of the men and women that the Home Office would like to ensure remains invisible.

It’s raining threats, hallelujah

One of the great things about living in a democratic society is that we don’t have propaganda.   That is something that authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran do.   They have stations like RT and Press tv which do nothing but mindlessly and uncritically promote the agenda of their respective regimes.

Here in the free world we have news, and real journalists, who speak truth to power, who interrogate their governments and never cease to call their more dubious assertions into question.     You know, like Fox News, which as improbable as it may seem, has just been voted the most trustworthy news outlet in America.   Or the BBC, or CNN or Channel 4 News.

I was reminded how delusional these assumptions are when I watched yesterday’s coverage by Channel 4 News of foreign secretary Philip Hammond’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on intelligence and security.   Hammond’s speech was essentially an uncritical glorification of the security services and an argument in favour of expanding their powers in the face of a proliferation of state and non-state threats ‘to our safety and security’.

These threats include North Korea, Iran,   Boko Haram, al Qaeda, Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the ‘illegal proliferation of military technology, ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, organised crime, challenges in cyberspace, you name it, it threatens us. So thank God we have the security services to ‘keep us safe’ – an expression Hammond used so many times one can imagine his audience repeating it drowsily like a mantra before they go to sleep at night.

On one level Hammond’s dire world of threats is nothing new.   We have, in one form or another, been hearing about the ‘complex threats’ to western security ever since the end of the Cold War, when new phenomena like ‘megaterrorism’ and ‘dirty bombs’ were presented as disturbingly unpredictable and unwanted consequences following the disappearance of the more wholesome and comprehensible Cold War threats of mutual assured destruction.

And now an old threat is back in a new form, because:  ‘The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons, combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military, including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of NATO members states, are all significant causes for concern.’

Not only is this a cause for concern, but ‘ Russia”s aggressive behaviour [is] a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the greatest single threat to our security.’   And all this aggression, even though ‘We worked in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, to help Russia take its rightful place, as we saw it, as a major power contributing to global stability and order. We now have to accept that those efforts have been rebuffed.’

There are so much of this ‘good West versus bad world’ narrative that could be called into question.   How many of the threats that Hammond mentioned were due in part to the actions and policies of the West itself, for example in Iraq, Syria, and Libya?   Haven’t Western states also been modernising their military forces in recent years?   Isn’t it true that US military spending is now more than three times higher than China, its nearest competitor?   Is that a good thing or a bad thing?     Is it a good thing that Saudi Arabia is now the fourth highest military spender in the world, thanks to the weapons it brought mostly from Europe and the US, whereas Iran is not even in the top fifteen?

We know it makes some companies and corporations richer to chuck weapons around like this, but does this global diffusion of weaponry really help to ‘keep us safe?’     Did the West   really act towards Russia with a spirit of ‘openness, generosity and partnership’ after the Cold War?     Do Western states bear some responsibility for the ‘destabilising of Ukraine’ that Hammond refers to?

Is it true, as the foreign secretary suggested, that ‘The exposure of the alleged identity of one of the most murderous ISIL terrorists over the last few weeks has seen some seeking to excuse the terrorists and point the finger of blame at the agencies themselves’ and that those who have done this are acting as ‘apologists’ for the terrorists?  Is criticism now synonymous with apologism?

None of these questions were asked or even considered in Channel 4’s report, which focused almost entirely on a single question: whether we are spending enough on our armed forces.     It referred to ‘angry MPs’ who want us to spend more and interviewed   Liam Fox – neocon militarist on the extreme right of the Tory party – who naturally thought that we need to spend more.

This was followed by British military commander Sir Richard Dannatt, and Professor Michael Clarke from RUSI, both of whom expressed their anxiety about the level of defence spending.   The only dissenting voice was Sergei Markov, from the Russian Institute of Political Studies,   who dismissed Hammond’s suggestions and argued that the West had generated many of the threats it was now concerned about.

But this was a Russian speaking, and so Snow dismissed these arguments somewhat condescendingly as mere ‘beliefs’ – a categorisation that was not extended to his previous interviewees, even though their arguments were no less ‘beliefs’ than Markov’s.

Channel 4 News is one of the better news channels, but at no stage in this report did it even inch outside the official narrative and subject any aspect of the British government’s claims to serious scrutiny.   Instead it stuck so rigidly to the government’s talking points that it might as well been the official voice of the foreign office.       But that’s the thing: it isn’t.     Unlike RT or Press TV,     Channel 4 is an independent network without state funding.   It has the opportunity and to really think outside the box and ask ministers some serious questions about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Yesterday, faced with a series of dubious assertions by a government minister on matters of security, war and peace, it merely nodded obediently and decided not to ask any, and that may not be propaganda, but it certainly isn’t serious journalism.