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  • Terrorism, and the urgency of addressing Radicalisation

    In the aftermath of tragedy, it feels as though there is no correct time to return to politics. It feels insensitive when you see parents pleading on social media for any information about missing children, or confirmations that children as young as eight are among the victims. The very act of doing anything which could be interpreted as using the situation to back up your agenda is horrific and deserves to be scrutinised.

    I hope, however, that this piece is actually timely, relevant and above all necessary. It is a reflection on contemporary terrorism as a whole, and comes from a burning desire to aid in the prevention of such tragedies occurring, despite the small readership I am able to reach.

    I’ve had an interest in Middle-eastern politics and terrorism for a number of years, primarily because I have long feared that the division in society on this subject is one of the most problematic and potentially catastrophic in our contemporary culture. I have always found the argument that terrorism is a complex issue with more roots in politics than Islamic culture compelling, and therefore I took an online short course at Georgetown University in Terrorism to expand my limited understanding on the topic and see how correct or incorrect this theory was.

    The surprising aspect of the course was its obsession with semantics and what ‘terrorism’ actually means. It went at great length to explain how - though there are disagreements amongst scholars and experts - that there are some very common similarities present when defining terrorism. The common similarities, and defining characteristics were:

    • Violence or use of force (used to attract attention and rally the masses)

    • Inherently political in nature (fundamentally about achieving a political aim)

    • Attempt to generate fear and anxiety (terrorists feel they can manipulate)

    • Threat of more violence to come (randomly done - people worry they could be at the wrong place at the wrong time.)

    I believe it is incredibly important for people to understand the above points. Terrorism is a word used so casually by the public and the press that its meaning becomes distorted. Combating ‘terror’ for example is completely different to combating ‘terrorism’. It also lays out in plain terms that there is a distinct difference in terrorism and acts of insurgent warfare for example, as terrorism care more about the effect and reaction rather than the act. This implies that the response we give to terrorist acts is to them (especially when it is hostile), their fundamental aim. Daesh has repeatedly said as much, stating that their principal aim was to align the world into two camps: ‘either you are with the crusade, or you are with Islam’. It is vital to understand that this is their goal, not the number of deaths caused by their acts (though the more shocking obviously results in the high publicity), but Muslims around the world to come to the same conclusion as them: they will have to choose which side they are on.

    This is why our response and our leaders’ responses to the acts are so important. It is common on social media to find an angry response to the ‘we will not be divided’ message of the progressive west. A regularly copy-and-paste comment seen is:

    We all know the protocol by now:

    1. This has nothing to do with Islam

    2. The guy was a mentally ill ‘lone wolf’

    3. Those who object to points 1 and 2 are racist bigots

    4. Change Facebook profile to flag of inflicted country

    5. Light some candles, hold a vigil and go on a peace march

    6. Wait for the next slaughter to happen

    7. Repeat

    My personal frustration with the mentality behind this comment is, essentially, that it is actually the correct procedure (minus point 3, as it is my belief that desperately wanting to find a cause for tragedy is not racist, but a genuine reaction, although in my view it is misguided to simplify the cause as just ‘Islam’). For example, I felt that the ‘we’re at war’ reaction of Francois Hollande in 2015 played directly into terrorist hands, despite seeming appropriate given the horrific attacks. The problem here was Daesh now had a sound bite for European muslims: ‘France is at war with you’ and so on. Simon Jerkins of the Guardian gave a powerful interview after the Westminster attacks, pleading the mainstream media to treat the attack in the same way that crime is reported and minimise the extent of the publicity given to it by the British press. When the aim of terrorism is understood, a viable counter-terrorism technique is, therefore, to not give the attack the level of publicity and the accompanying narrative that terrorists crave.

    Another section of the course was a detailed exploration of ‘who are the terrorists’. A fascinating finding of a study into Daesh militants recruited from European countries was that there was not one solitary profile, but a vast range of differing backgrounds, educations and religious affiliations. Two contrasting examples include: Richard Reid (the ‘shoe bomber’) was a secondary school dropout, juvenile delinquent and recruited in prison. Ahmed Sheikh was from an upper-middle class family, educated in posh schools and even received a scholarship to study at the London school of economics. There were also some similarities which included radicalisation due to following friends and peers, second and third generations being more susceptible and people who share frustrations and anger about their life and their role in their society.

    Although these points (amongst others) are all equally important, I would like to focus primarily on radicalisation.

    Pin-pointing radicalisation as the main concern above Islam or physically confronting terrorist groups itself might appear less engaging and irresponsible, but it is my belief and the belief of others that combating terrorism is inherently an ideological fight, much more than a military war. The theory is that you cannot kill an ideology with a gun and a bomb, it continues to radicalise individuals, creating a higher possibility of terrorist attacks conducted by locally born people. Though there have been substantial efforts to address this serious issue with promising results compared to neighbouring countries, its importance in the fight against terrorism often does not get the platform it needs. It is not as attractive as a loud sensationalised headline, but nevertheless it needs to be brought further into public awareness.

    There is further debate to be had about Islam itself. Although I believe that the points I have raised above would not exactly create a vast hostile counter-argument, any attempt to defend Islam however can generate a strong, negative response. I will not expand hugely on my view of the subject (as I believe it is deserving of a much larger post, and am already grateful to whoever has read this far), but I will mention my overriding view, which is that there are, naturally, problems in contemporary Islam. To name a couple; (i) the problematic element of the Quran being the ‘literal word of God’ means it is harder to criticise interpretations and differing views which many Muslims take away from their religious education and (ii) the dual complexity of ‘non-Muslims criticising Muhammad according to modern standards and Muslims who take the standards of his time as eternally valid.’ These are genuine criticisms which should encourage a debate, but instead of having that debate, the media and individuals are too keen to debate issues such as quotes without context and the merging of oppressive dictators and religious law (a frustrating conversation which, for example, uses Saudi Arabian politics as an absolute representation of Islam).

    The Daesh militant personnel findings also made a point that many militants had only a basic knowledge of Islam, this, along with the numerous polls which back an overwhelming percentage of Muslims worldwide who believe that bombings or any violence against civilians is rarely or never justified does support the argument that the threat of radicalisation is not inherently caused by religious devotion. Having read the Quran and biographies of Muhammad in the most neutral way I could, I personally found many arguments much more compelling than finding clear advocacy in the text. Arguments such as:

    • Frustrations about political or societal situations hostile to individuals and their culture (for example, Western intervention in Muslim majority countries).

    • The feeling of alienation from host or home countries (here studies show that second and third generation immigrations are most susceptible to radicalisation, those who feel ‘caught between’ two societies and not feeling like they belong to the one they’re residing in). (France and Belgium (both have the highest number of Daesh fighters from Europe) passed bills against Muslim dress shortly before the Syrian civil war began.)

    • Stigmatisation of individuals by divisive media and (press articles focusing on the terrorist’s religion are not as common when they are not Muslim).

    • Political rhetoric (Donald Trump’s speeches and ‘ban’ on Muslims, Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam manifesto).

     

    I’d like to finish with some pompous recommendations which I believe are needed to prevent radicalisation from happening at such an alarming rate. Having absolutely no governmental input might leave such recommendations weightless, but I will state them nevertheless, as an argument loses a great deal of legitimacy if you cannot suggest an alternative.

    Education.

    It has long been my belief that a misinformed or a misunderstanding of topics which fuel such division and hatred directly cause a continuation of the established consensus in the West, which often holds an anti-Islam form. Though personal opinions should naturally be kept to oneself, the lack of understanding of Islam by both Muslims and non-Muslims is something which could benefit from further education through an expansion on UK GCSE Religious Studies syllabuses. This should of course be included alongside other world religions, but I believe that it is necessary to teach these religions in relation to contemporary issues. It is a small alteration and admittedly includes many potential obstacles, but would be vital in encouraging educated debates rather than succumbing to sensationalism. A compulsory GCSE subject for politics could also encourage the population to be more familiar with the system.  

     

    Responsible journalism.

    This is hugely complex and cannot be condensed at all into a legitimate summary. Suffice to say that there is a real issue with bias in the UK media, much of which is owned by wealthy individuals who encourage politics to be reduced to a media spectacle. Ed Miliband, in response to the Leveson inquiry, suggested that new legislation would have to be introduced to change the rules on media ownership, specifically referring to the opinionated Rupert Murdoch’s News International owning a significant percentage of the UK’s media. A study from the University of Cambridge found that negative mainstream media reporting was a direct contributor to the rise in Islamophobia. As quixotic as it might sound, journalists should have the responsibility to report events in a neutral way, irrespective to a populist narrative.  

     

    Create a more inclusive culture.

    This one sounds the most loony, but it is in a way a summary of this entire post. If our schools, leaders and media embraced the urgency to deal with radicalisation without dangerously oversimplifying it then perhaps we will start to encourage a more progressive look at 21st century Islam. There are many liberal voices attempting to make themselves heard and constant reports of Islamic groups denouncing the likes of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. If the main ammunition they’re getting is the radicalisation of our own, then it might be time that we turn the pointing finger of blame onto ourselves and ask if we are also complicit in this disturbing phase of human existence. This can be achieved by not giving the terrorists the response they desire, by becoming more educated on issues such as religion, politics and indeed terrorism and especially by our media being more responsible with their coverage of events such as the horror of the Manchester bombing.

     

    There is no easy answer and certainly no likely solution. The atmosphere is still highly toxic and will likely continue in a similar manner unless the indirect cause of radicalisation is addressed more aggressively and openly. The sad reality that many are unaware is that a negative, hostile reaction - though completely and utterly logical - plays directly into terrorist hands. A responsible and structured debate is required, and should be encouraged at an early age by those we look up to. As tragic and sickening as each attack is, it requires a monumental amount of self-control to react in the only sure way of making terrorism a failure - by not giving it the publicity, the outrage and the division it so badly craves,






  • Taming the 'Bewildered Herd' - Social class and the Establishment

    While not quite in a fetal to genius sort of way, I've recently felt that I've been going through my own personal enlightenment period. A less pompous description for it might be rather a gradual understanding and clarification of the complexities that I (or more accurately, we all) have been living through and observing for a number of years. Most of this is actually semantics - which, admittedly, does not sound like it would set the pulse speeding in excitement - but it appears clearer to me on a daily basis how much of a difference words and the deviation of their original meaning can have on society as a whole. Realising that fighting contemporary injustices do not really seem to concentrate around conservatism, but neoliberalism. The difference between socialism and communism, or indeed the left and the right.

     But perhaps the most depressing and important realisation that has become known to me, is the word and meaning of 'class'.

     My initial understanding deviated from a trip to India a few years ago and being introduced to the 'caste' system which is essentially social stratification where you are born into a social sector and therefore indefinitely remain in that social sector, or in other words - eternal tribal-like classification. These people in rural India are from a different world let alone a different class than the Bollywood actors the children worship. One elderly man explained to me, in the small shack (generously described) that we met him in, that this was the family business, and he had worked there for as long as he could remember and will continue to do so until he could no longer work. This 'inescapable' system where social mobility is fantastical seemed shocking to me - coming from a place of apparent privilege where I could follow the career direction of my choosing.

     Fast forward nearly ten years and I'm vocally supporting politics designed (in my view) to open social mobility in my society, grateful that unlike the caste system we have an opportunity to bridge that gap if we are able to motivate voters and encourage politicians to do so.

     And it is at that precise moment of optimism that I stumbled across an essay by Noam Chomsky on Walter Lippmann (coiner of 'stereotype' and apparent liberal democratic theorist). Long before a society I'm familiar with, he set out his vision of society in a disturbing, pseudo-marxist way. Lippmann, like Marx, believed that society was separated by classes and like Marx made a distinction between the bourgeois and workers. Except to Lippmann these were defined as 'the specialised class' and the 'spectators' (or as he repeatedly, charmingly describes as 'the bewildered herd' or 'the other'). The specialised class were the executives in society, those who would be in control of planning and executing laws for the 'benefit' of all people. The bewildered herd have a function in this democracy too - to occasionally lend their weight to one leader or another from the specialised class. That privilege is known as an election, and once it is done - they are expected to sit back down and continue in their natural 'spectator' state.

     It all sounds rather run-of-the-mill until you get to the ugly explanation of what makes a specialised person or a spectator. To be part of the specialised class to Lippmann, you have to be able to understand the complexities of government life, and this is an ability in very short supply and usually only common in blood and similar social groups. The spectators are the bulk of the population, those deemed 'too stupid' to comprehend such matters, or those who are inherently irrational or who would cause trouble if left to run things. It is the 'duty' of the specialised class to protect the country from the 'herd', much like, as Chomsky puts it: 'using the same logic that says it would be improper to let a three-year-old run across the street'. They have to be controlled and tamed like animals.

     You fast forward again, this time close to a hundred years and we are in the so-titled progressive, western world. In the midst of this day-to-day life however, it is repeatedly stated that Lippmann's theory is as alive and relevant today as it has always been in times of monarchy, slavery and serfdom. The difference, of course, is we have universal suffrage. We technically have immense power to affect change if we mobilise and collaborate, but you would assume reading Lippmann's theory that the specialised class would never allow the vote to get in the way of their sworn duty to protect society from the ‘stupid’.

     The obvious weapon to use then is of course propaganda, or as Lippmann dubbed 'the manufacture of consent'. It's funny how things always seem to roll around to semantics again. When we say 'propaganda' we think of Goebbels, or North Korea's film industry, in another time or place distinctly different to our own - we think less of Channel Four's Benefits Street. Here comes the argument that sounds suspiciously like conspiracism but is rooted in simply looking around (acknowledging that that is usually the way that conspiracies are rationalised but bare with me).

     There seems to be a continuingly clear system in place which aims to direct any public anger away from 'the specialised class' and down towards 'the other'. The specialised class - to our modern understanding - would perhaps be best titled as 'the Establishment' - or people bound together by common economic interests and fitting smoothly into the accepted definition of neoliberalism, that those who are wealthy deserve to be so and remain so, even to the detriment of ordinary people. There is even some ironic relation between the modern Establishment, Lippmann and Marxism - where all three appear to be prepared for the 'other' class to inevitably and forcibly take power away from those at the top of society. A useful strategy to prevent this is essentially what is happening around us, where there is an attempt to shape public opinion to prevent the specialised class from losing their authority and power. In the Establishment, there is a constant link between the popular press and prominent government figures (at this point it should be necessary to point out that this is not limited to the Conservative party - as much as Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron's text buddyness would imply - as New Labour were as much in bed with neo-liberalists during the majority of their time in power (a sad fact that is still true today is that no party in recent memory has won an election which was not backed by News International)). And so we have the 'manufactured consent', or in other words: 'there is always somebody else than us to blame for your social ills'.

     Benefits Street is such an example. In a world recently turned over by the financial sector getting too greedy and then relying on the public to fork out over a trillion pounds to bail them out, you would imagine in a fair society 'Banker's Street: Scroungers of the State - a story how a small group of elites fucked up with full knowledge they'd be fine because they had you - the public - to carry the risk' being aired, depicting the 'socialism for the rich' on an unprecedented scale.  Or 'Tax Avoidance Street' - a story of how some people just deserve to profit off the state without contributing to it.' Instead we have the benefit fraud, scrounger culture of the last ten years. The Sunday Times 'End the something for Nothing Culture' sitting next to The Sun's 'Help us stop Billions to Benefit Scroungers'. A Yougov poll in 2013 showed that on average, those polled believed that 27% of social security was claimed fraudulently, compared to the true figure of 0.7%.

     Another example is the hysteria about the NHS' wasteful expenses. The Sun and the Daily Mail ranted about how irresponsible patients were causing the NHS to spend £87million on paracetamols, neglecting to mention that the NHS is often described as one of the most efficient health systems in the world and conveniently drifting the anger away from quite shocking underfunding from the Government. The bewildering narrative encouraged by neo-liberal think thanks suggesting that New Labour's public spending and expansive welfare state was 'irresponsible' and the direct cause for the 2010 economic situation is another example, one which holds its own as truly exceptional in managing to avoid mentioning the fact that the Conservative government backed virtually all of New Labour's spending until the crash. Accepting that austerity is the ‘responsible’ economic reaction is a further ‘success’ of this point.

     Slightly further back, and blaming Liverpool fans for the Hillsborough disaster where 94 people were crushed with two more dying of injuries later on - when the actions of the actual ones responsible, the South Yorkshire Police managed to be covered up by the Government for well over twenty years, while family members of the victims waited for Justice. Surviving fans who helped policemen carry victims on stretchers made from advertising billboards were said to have 'urinated on police, pick-pocketed dead victims and prevented brave PCs giving the kiss of life to some of the victims' in The Sun's ''The Truth' headline. Miners were described as 'the enemy within'. Stigmatisation of refugees and immigrants, especially in relation to classroom sizes.

     There are countless other examples to give where 'the specialised class' manage to bar the 'other' from fulfilling what Marx thought was inevitable, in reversing the ‘accepted’ system of power. Propaganda is very real and very current today, and though the concept of 'class' has changed dramatically, Lippmann's belief that society is essentially split into two distinctive fractions appears to have some basis. The success of our current 'specialised class' is the belief they've managed to instill into vast swathes of the population that 'there is no alternative'. Margaret Thatcher infamously described New Labour as her 'greatest achievement' and 'legacy', and though New Labour invested heavily into the public sector they also bowed down to the neoliberal dogma, accepting that 'there is no alternative'.

     This current election seems to be a continuation of this theme, where the narrative is being played according to the wishes of a select group of people at the top. There appears to be a worry - as has been felt since the working class first got the vote - that the 'bewildering herd' might be scraping closer and closer to the 'truth' which explains the hugely unequal society we live in. The rise of social media and citizen journalism along with the potential to go viral is a strong weapon to be used against such previous restrictions. How long the 'protectionism' of the Establishment continues, or at what point irresponsible journalism becomes such a concern that it cannot continue as it has done, remains to be seen. I do not believe there is any question of 'intellect' in regards to why people vote one way or another, or how they might respond to such propaganda, but I do not doubt the power and effectiveness of such a weapon. Whether or not an opposition to the current political consensus is able to break out loudly into the public sphere, now or by the next election is also a question left unanswered, as even if it does manage such a feat, I doubt that Lippman's men would not be able to find an alternative way to keep the 'three-year-olds' from ruling.

     Chomsky said:

     'An alternative conception of democracy is that the public must be barred from managing their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled'.


    It sounds scary, and slightly unbelievable, but maybe, that is just because it is real.

    Credit to Owen Jones and his book The Establishment for the major basis of this essay. 

  • The Time I Realised I Was an Intolerant Liberal

    Two years ago, the depressed Labour voter that I was, having just seen the party I voted for resoundingly defeated by its main adversary, I took to social media to post a scathing message to my contacts who voted Conservative in the UK General Election. Despite anger being a legitimate feeling to have after your side loses, I fell into the standard liberal trap of betraying my values and slipping into hypocrisy, forgetting that a major part of my politics had always been a call for greater tolerance.

    That post has gone on to define my politics surprisingly more than the election defeat managed to. I realised afterwards that whatever point I was trying to make (and I believe it was something along the lines of guilt-tripping my conservative friends into a moral direction of my choosing), it was completely undermined by the personal, bitter, direct character attacks. What was meant to be a genuine expression of my worry what their vote had promised our country, became a condescending, narrow-minded assassination of people I knew relatively well. There were some sarcastic replies, some legitimate counter points raised, and even some deletion (the modern day’s version of ‘cut out of your life’). All were completely valid, and I am sorry for the crass nature of my words. 

    My liberal bubble had burst, and amongst other fellow supporters I realised with absolute clarity that day about the simple and fundamental truth of freedom: anyone – even those you know and care for – might simply have significantly different views than you. Whatever young, naïve perception I had back then was immediately replaced by a more mature acceptance of political reality. The lesson I was forced to understand then was that individuals cannot be put into boxes, they cannot be labelled as only one thing or only another. It is all too simple to split them between right and wrong, good and evil. Each person has their own reasons to vote a certain way, and because I had believed some of these reasons to be ludicrous, I had automatically not taken the time to listen to the others.

    I realised that if I believed in pluralistic values, then I was compelled to listen to other points of view. I may not agree with them (and I am certainly no less passionate in standing up against those I disagree with), but whereas I once blocked my ears and vilified them, now I try my best to listen and debate. I realised if I believed in democracy, then I had to accept that sometimes the other side wins. If I believed in liberalism, then I had to give people the freedom to disagree with me. This, in my view, is where the left, at times, dwells, like me, awkwardly into hypocrisy. Whereas it is easy to watch Fox News and see clearly how opinion is spun effortlessly into fact, just because the left is not as shameless about it does not mean that they do not occasionally follow the same rulebook. The obsession of winning the debate, having the last word or delivering the best punchline are effective tools in galvanising our side, but they also succeed in convincing conservatives that despite being the self-titled champions of tolerance, we can be seen as being the opposite.

    I began to notice with increased regularity that even liberal news presenters and journalists had the same tendency as those we criticised on the conservative side – where they would shout over their disagreeing guests, minimize the context for the sake of a catchy title, cut interviews to make a particular issue seem dramatically worse. With the rise of fake news it became apparent that, while I thoroughly disagree with Trumpism on pretty much everything, there really were examples of left-wing news hoaxes across the web (amongst them a photo quoting Trump which went viral saying: ‘If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country’). I could even sense my own automatic defence against the very notion that my newsfeed needed to be fact checked too – and though I believe it is perhaps less frequent, to deny it is there would be blind. There is a tendency on both sides of the political spectrum to elevate ourselves into a superior position and to simplify the discourse, it is patronising towards the electorate, undermines intellectual diversity, belittles each of us and succeeds in nothing else than widening the divisiveness of recent years.

    I would like to make clear however that as a politically engaged person any ‘kinder’ approach I have developed or am advocating should not be confused with a passionate belief in making your point of view known and to challenge issues you disagree with. I certainly believe that a passionate opposition is requred in a successful democracy. I simply concluded that maybe we would be more effective in articulating our points if we created an atmosphere where our opponents would actually desire to converse with us. Granted, this is not always possible, and there will always be people on either side who will never be interested in hearing an alternative to their way of thinking, but there will always be some people who, if you offer them the chance to explain themselves, might have something relevant to say, something you hadn’t considered before. And who knows, in the spirit of tolerance, maybe then they will take the time to listen to your view too.