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.



2016: All Aboard the Armageddon Express

One thing you can say about the maniacs who are intent on dragging our world to destruction is they don’t waste any time.   They don’t listen to seasonal bromides from the Queen or anywhere else asking us to light candles in the darkness.  Not for them New Year messages about peace, hope and goodwill.  In a global civilisation ravaged by war and violence and threatened by looming ecological disaster and the prospect of the next financial crisis, they can always be counted on to do whatever is likely to make matters worse at any given time.

Take the House of Saud’s execution of 47 men on terrorism charges yesterday, including the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The execution of a leading Shia critic of the Saudi monarchy is both a deliberate provocation and a clear demonstration of malign intent from a thoroughly rotten regime hellbent on fomenting an all-out Shia-Sunni sectarian war in order to shore up its declining power and influence.

Yet Saudi Arabia is also a key ally of the West  in the  global struggle between civilisation and terrorism that was unleashed after the 9/11 attacks and which is now entering its fifteenth year.  As such, it knows that it can do pretty much whatever it wants and that neither our government nor any of the other states that have fallen over themselves to sell the Saudis weapons will do anything about it.

The Saudis have also been among the most active promoters of the takfiri/Salafist jihadist groups that Western governments have been fighting. If we take seriously the idea that the ‘war on terror’ is really intended to eliminate terrorism and ‘keep us safe’, as our governments keep insisting, then an ally like this would be considered a massive liability rather than an asset.

Yet there is no indication that our government or anyone else’s has reached such conclusions. Rather than invite the public to consider the dangerous geopolitical alliances that have done so much to make Daesh/ISIS possible, our government, and so many others, prefers instead to whip the citizens of the West into a state of frightened paralysis, while they continue to wage an endless series of pseudo-wars that have already produced such catastrophic consequences, and which play into the hands of the enemies they are supposedly fighting.

In the 1870s, the Russian anarcho-Narodnik Sergei Kravchinsky, a leading propagandist in the ‘Nihilist’ political movement that assassinated Alexander II, advocated a strategy of assassinating high state officials in order to draw the Tsarist regime into a long and debilitating conflict in which ‘the strong is vanquished, not by the arms of his adversary, but by the continuous tension of his own strength, which exhausts him, at last, more than he would be exhausted by defeats.’

Since 9/11 Daesh and the other variants of the al-Qaeda franchise have pursued a very similar strategy with remarkable success. Consider this: the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 to $500,000, whereas the various wars on terror have cost more than eight million times as much.

Not only did the nineteen hijackers carry out one of the most cost-effective attacks in history, but their adversaries have given them everything they could have asked for, through a series of reckless, self-interested and incoherent wars and military interventions that have done nothing to diminish the security threat these wars are supposedly intended to eliminate.

Readers who want to think about how we got into this mess rather than merely rant about it might start with a  brilliant essay by the anthropologist Scott Atran on the rise of ISIS and its implications. In a discussion of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, Atran observes how:

‘Today, mere mention of an attack on New York in an ISIS video has US officials scurrying to calm the public. Media exposure, which is the oxygen of terror in our age, not only amplifies the perception of danger but, in generating such hysteria, makes the bloated threat to society real.This is especially true today because the media is mostly designed to titillate the public rather than inform it. Thus, it has become child”s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, the world”s mightiest, into theirs boosting a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that we could counter with responsible restraint and straight-up information, but we won”t.’

No we won’t.   Just as we won’t recognize the strategic objectives outlined more than ten years ago in a document called  The Management of Savagery/Chaos, written for the  Mesopotamian wing of Al-Qaeda, which urges its followers to : .

1) “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’


2) ‘If a tourist resort that the Crusaders patronise… is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.’

Today we have reached such a state of collective terror that ISIS achieve these objectives without striking at all.   Thus on New Year’s Eve the German authorities  received  a tip that militants from Iraq and Syria were planning New Year attacks in Munich, yet a police chief has now said that ‘  police could not find the suspects and are not even sure if they exist or are in the country.’

And yesterday Belgium  released the remaining three men out of an original six suspects, who were arrested for planning a terrorist atrocity during the annual fireworks display on New Years Eve, which was cancelled.  Despite these false alarms Europeans are now being told that threats, cancellations and lockdowns will become the ‘new normal’ over the coming months.

The  Belgian security expert  Professor Rik Coolsaet has warned  against conflating refugees and terrorism “into  something near hysteria. We must not confuse these two separate issues and we must be wary of any politicians who try and do that for their own ends, to the detriment of the very fabric of our society.”

These warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears, when they are aimed at governments for whom public hysteria increasingly seems to be a desired outcome.   As Pankaj Mishra notes in a typically  sharp column in the Guardian today:

‘The modern west has been admirably different from other civilisations in its ability to counterbalance the arrogance of power with recognition of its excesses. Now, however, it is not only the bankers who radically expand our notion of impunity. Their chums in politics and the media coax, with criminal irresponsibility, the public into deeper fear and insecurity and into blaming their overall plight on various enemies (immigrants, budding terrorists in Calais”s jungle, an un-American alien in the White House, Muslims and darkies in general).’

Absolutely right, and if the scapegoating succeeds, then Daesh will the the main beneficiaries.   In    a 12-page editorial published in ISIS”s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015 entitled ‘The Extinction of the Gray Zone’, its authors hailed the ‘blessed attacks’ of September 11 and announced that  “the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone.’

Today, as we look forward to another year of fear, hysteria, security paranoia and terrorist provocations, we need to resist these efforts to use atrocity to divide the world into warring camps.  But as the Saudi executions make clear, they aren’t the only ones seeking that outcome.

So let us resist the attempts by Daesh to reduce us to cowering wrecks.  But we should not allow  governments that seek to use their violence for their own ends to herd their terrified populations into fearful and hateful national security enclaves where we question nothing and accept everything.  Let’s do whatever we can, wherever we are, to sow the seeds of something different over the next twelve months.

Let us despise the terrorists  by all means,  but let’s also remember that the Armageddon Express has many different drivers, and it’s up to all of us to prise their hands off the wheel and find a way to get this world back on track towards a different kind of future, which reflects the best of us, rather than the worst.  .   .


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.



My life as a fascist sympathizer

No writer can be entirely assured that readers will understand  what they write in the way that they want, but there are times when you really wonder whether some of the people who read what you have actually written have any interest in even trying to understand what it is you’ve said.  Take my piece about Hilary Benn’s speech this week, in which I    attacked Benn’s politically-slanted reference to the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War on the following grounds:

‘To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron”s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century.    Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit  of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron”s bombing campaign except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.’

I also pointed out that

‘It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies.   Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of “radicalization” than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.’

These observations have produced twitter comments such as the following:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Sorry it’s total bollocks to compare International Brigades to Daesh. Just as bogus as Benn’s original comparison.[/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]Don’t recall International Brigade throwing gays off tall buildings.  Grow up.[/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]Is this from a parody account.  Insult to those that fought fascism.  [/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]memory of the Int’nal brigades were disgraced by @MattCarr55.  ISIL are not defending a people’s gov against a military coup[/stextbox]


[stextbox id=”alert”]Making any link between Daesh/Jihadism and the people who gave their lives fighting fascism is shameful.  Beyond words.[/stextbox]

This outrage has also spilled over into the Stop the War UK website, which has posted my pieces, where you can find comments like ‘Stop the War have actually just claimed that Jihadism is ” closer to the spirit of solidarity and internationalism”, as it stands in solidarity with ” oppressed Muslims.”

Some of these respondents are clearly from the ‘ Stop the War is decadent and corrupt’ crowd, and such people will always read what they want to read and nothing else.  But the suggestion that I have ‘insulted’ or ‘disgraced’ the International Brigades is also a personal smear.

Just to clarify: Back in 1996 I interviewed surviving members of the International Brigades in Barcelona on the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.  I celebrated their role in the war in a radio programme and also in a number of articles.  This year I have also been reading and writing about the International Brigades as part of an ongoing book project.   So I need no lectures about what the International Brigades stood for and what they fought for.

I also despise Daesh and organizations like it.  I have made that clear in numerous pieces on the subject for this blog, for example  here. and  here.   Directly above the paragraphs in my Benn piece referring to the International Brigades  I wrote:  ‘Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated’ – a sentence that some of these respondents seemed to have skipped over in their eagerness to score their ‘gotcha’ moment of moral outrage.

I’m not sure whether this determination to put sentiments into my mouth that I don’t have is politically motivated, or whether it stems from an inability to understand the English language, but either way it displays a complete ignorance of the historical roots of the modern jihad.

In my piece I refer to ‘the  jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh.’   Please note those words ‘jihadist movement’ readers, because some who came before you seem to have missed them.   What we now call ‘jihadism’ is a transnational movement that came into  the world during the Afghan war against the Soviets.  Its various members have drawn on the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb, Maulani al-Maududi and others to recast older notions of jihad into the modern world.

Crucial to this enterprise was the notion that Muslims had an obligation to defend oppressed Muslims anywhere in the world. Obviously that is a very narrow concept of solidarity and internationalism in comparison with the International Brigades,  in its emphasis on Muslims rather than the international working class, and it was also driven by very different political aspirations.

I  didn’t argue that jihadism was aimed at bringing about international socialism.  On the contrary, the modern jihad has been dominated by viciously reactionary, chauvinistic and bigoted religious zealots who have waged sectarian war against the same ‘oppressed Muslims’ they are supposedly fighting for.  As all the world knows, some of these groups have committed gross atrocities and crimes against humanity, which Daesh has taken to a whole new level.

Where the International Brigades fought in defense of a revolution (some of them anyway), jihadism has often been a tool of imperial realpolitik or regional power struggles, national secret services etc.  Nevertheless, that is not all there is to it.   Without the notion of pan-Islamic transnational solidarity, tens of thousands of  Muslims would not have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya,  Kashmir, Iraq… and Syria.

Back in the 1980s, the  Pakistani general Mohamad Yousaf described the volunteers who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as ‘the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era.’  Things have long since moved on from the ‘American jihad’, when all this was seen as a positive ‘freedom fighting’ phenomenon by western leaders, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone.    But I suspect that there are men – and women – who have gone to fight Assad in Syria with very similar motivations.

To recognize this does not mean that I regard  this movement as a positive or noble phenomenon, or that I place the organizations that they fought with on the same moral level as the International Brigades.   But it is absolutely indisputable that many Muslims who have fought in these wars were driven by their own form of internationalism, whether in response to Soviet or Indian occupation, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

To those who say that the International Brigades didn’t throw people off buildings or massacre civilians, well thank you for enlightening me.  But jihadists haven’t always done this either, and they didn’t always fight in these wars in order to be able to do so.   Not all of them wanted to murder office workers in the twin towers or kill ‘kuffar idolators.’

Read about the conflicts between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam that gave rise to al-Qaeda and you can see entirely different conceptions of what the jihad was supposed to achieve – and the methods that would be used to achieve these aims..  That’s why I used the words ‘movement that ultimately spawned Daesh’

Read accounts of some of the Muslim volunteers who fought during the Afghan war in the 1980s or in Chechnya and you will find men motivated by the same idealism, loathing of injustice and oppression, and spirit of adventure that I once encountered when I interviewed veterans of the International Brigades nineteen years ago.

But on the other hand, maybe you don’t want to read or even think about any of this, and you would prefer to regard me as a supporter of fascism or  a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.   .

If so, good luck with that.  And you might accuse me of ‘disgracing anti-fascists’, but as far as I’m concerned, people who make such dim, dishonest and ignorant observations disgrace themselves.