Notes From the Margins…


  • December 13, 2015
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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?

I’ve always found this advice useful.  When I was writing my history of terrorism The Infernal Machine, for instance,  I often asked what the individuals and organizations were trying to achieve, and then I considered the extent to which they succeeded.  Asking whether or not terrorism succeed on ‘my terms’ is more difficult, because moral judgements about terrorist violence can sometimes make it difficult to answer the previous two questions.

Nevertheless, I often realized how rarely the first two questions are asked.

Whether it was the ‘anarchist terror’ of the 1890s, the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency or even the IRA, governments generally promoted a very narrow version of terrorism that discouraged the wider public from looking at what its protagonists were trying to achieve, and subjected them to a moral and intellectual anathema that precluded thinking about terrorism beyond the official parameters.

Invariably terrorism was presented as a toxic and monstrous activity,  practised by moral aliens beyond rationality and understanding, and these representations often acted as a pretext for ‘virtuous’ counterterrorist violence, in which the violent extermination of terrorists could become a ‘sacred duty’, as the anthropologist Edmund Leach once put it.

Privately, governments might have a very different understanding of their terrorist opponents, and were able to analyse their tactics, strategies and political goals, but this knowledge rarely informed public debate about terrorism and was sometimes deliberately concealed.

The events of the last week have brought home to me once again how narrow these parameters can be.  Again and again over the last few days I have 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 – not to mention the political calculations behind such condemnation – the anathema that she and so many others have pronounced so readily nevertheless demonstrates once again that even our supposedly unprecedented global terrorist emergency is not that different from many of its predecessors.

Today, as in the past, civil society is expected to accept whatever our governments decide to tell us about the organisations they are fighting.  We are not supposed to think about why or how these organizations continually find new members.   We are not supposed to think about what their political aims are, what their political context is.  We are constantly told that they hate us because of our goodness.

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 may have contributed to it.

We have now reached such a level of hysteria and dishonesty that the British government is prepared to monitor Muslim toddlers for signs of ‘radicalization’, yet politicians like Reynolds deem it ‘unacceptable’ when writers like Floyd and myself consider that there might be political explanations behind some of the atrocities we have witnessed these last few years.

Again and again we are told  that jihadists are ‘death cults’ with no political aims, even when it is very clear that their organizations are using violence – however extreme and horrific – with clear strategic and political objectives.

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.’

These constraints will not help eliminate the lethal threat that these groups undoubtedly pose.  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, reckless, strategically-incoherent and just plain opportunistic military interventions have helped create precisely the conditions in which al-Qaeda 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, has the potential to go on indefinitely, precisely because it is unfolding in so many countries and in so many different contexts.

So unless we can get to grips with this phenomenon and design appropriate strategies,  it will grind on and on and 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 slowly 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.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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