How to stop the Islamic State brainwashing your children!

Do you have children and do you worry what the internet does to their tender minds? Well, fret not. The internet has been an established feature of social life for nearly 20 years now. That’s long enough for an entire generation of children to reach adulthood. But if the internet has been turning young people into a bunch of promiscuous, violent yobs then there is not much evidence for it. In much of the Western world, young people, confounding the low expectations of moralists, have been behaving better. In the UK, both teenage pregnancies and youth crime rates continue to fall. That is not to say that there are not problems. It’s tough being young, in many respects. Just think about how hard it is to get on the housing ladder – but that has nothing to do with the internet.

Still, there is no better target for adult moralists than the internet. Nicky Morgan, the UK Education Secretary   has demanded that schools in England must set online filters and monitor pupils’ internet use under plans to protect them from radicalisation.  Ministers are worried that extremists could target school children via computers. According to Mrs Morgan, some pupils had been able to access information about Islamic State at school.

Well, if they have, then so what? Pupils can access information about Islamic State for all manner of places. They hear about them on the evening news or maybe even on Newsround, the BBC’s long-standing news service for children. They might even be able to access this information from a computer at school. Does it matter if they do it at school or through Newsround? What do we fear will happen if they access it? That they’ll become suicide bombers? Why is it assumed that the Islamic State has such a lure for children?

Earlier in 2015 three East London schoolgirls of Bengali descent decided to run off to Syria, to join the Islamic State. It appears that Morgan’s proposals – a classic government knee-jerk reaction – are inspired by this example. We don’t know why the girls – on the verge of being young adults – decided to do what they did. It may well be they were inspired by an online recruiter but the girls’ former school’s principal has stated that the girls could not access social media from their school’s computers.

But we are missing the point. We are making all the wrong assumptions and asking all the wrong questions. We are assuming that the girls were ‘infected’ by an idea, that the internet was the vector of that idea and that, when so infected, they were no longer responsible for what they were doing. If only they were kept away from the source of the infection, all would have been well.

The assumption is that children are empty vessels, free of their own motivations. All extremists have to do is to come along and fill it. That assumption is false. Those girls were not automatons – they assented to an idea. We are asking the wrong question when we obsess about where they encountered the idea.  The question is what made them susceptible to that idea in the first place. What was the power of that idea? What appeal did it have to cause them to abandon their families for the hell-hole of a Syrian warzone?

Prevention is no doubt far better than cure. Mrs Morgan’s idea of prevention, to keep ‘our children safe’, is to insulate them from radical ideas. This is not going to work. There are only two ways it could work. One is to shut down the internet and ban all electronics.  The second is to develop an intensive system of prophylactic surveillance which in all likelihood would be directed against ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslims, carrying the implicit stigma that they cannot be trusted. The resulting resentment this will generate will create more problems than it solves.

Whether at school, at home, or on the street, children are going to encounter bad ideas. Or bad ideas are going to encounter them. The price of preventing this through yet more surveillance – as there is not enough surveillance already – is going to be too high to be worth pursuing.

What we should be doing is teaching critical thinking skills, to resist the lure of bad ideas. Teach children how to think. Give them examples of diseased thought systems against which to sharpen their wits. That means, teach them about the existence of extremist ideas in order to combat them. Don’t pretend movements like IS do not exist. Understand and critique the ideas. The same goes for other pernicious ideas that we want to keep children away from. Teach the holocaust in schools but teach holocaust denial, too, in order to learn the difference between genuine and pseudo-history.

This idea of prevention doesn’t pretend that no one will slip through the net. Despite our best efforts, some will be radicalised and there is nothing we can do about that. The better way – not the perfect way – is to combat bad ideas with better ideas. Children don’t need to be protected from adult realities. They need to be taught how to prepare for them.


Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part III

We saw in Parts I and II what Pilger thinks the root causes of terrorism are. Now for his supposed solution, and what we can do about it.

His proposed solution is two-fold. First, call a truce:

‘Across the world, from Northern Ireland to Nepal, those regarding each other as terrorists and heretics have faced each other across a table … A truce – however difficult to negotiate and achieve – is the only way out of this maze; otherwise, the atrocities in Paris and Beirut will be repeated. Together with a truce, the leading perpetrators and overseers of violence in the Middle East — the Americans and Europeans – must themselves “de-radicalise” and demonstrate a good faith to alienated Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home.’

Second, end arms sales to Israel and recognise Palestine:

‘There should be an immediate cessation of all shipments of war materials to Israel and recognition of the State of Palestine. The issue of Palestine is the region’s most festering open wound, and the oft-stated justification for the rise of Islamic extremism. Osama bin Laden made that clear. Palestine also offers hope. Give justice to the Palestinians and you begin to change the world around them.’

The first proposal is wishful thinking par excellence. There is not a chance in hell of any true being called. None of the combatants are interested in a truce. His call appeared on the day that Russian officials conceded the IS downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, leaving Putin swearing vengeance. Hezbollah is unlikely to take the bombing of their supporters in Beirut lying down (but perhaps the bombing in Beirut and the destruction of the Russian airliner are ‘payback’ for supporting Assad?). Assad has showed no sign of any interest in any truce, even when it looked like his back was to the wall a couple of years ago; he is even less interested now, with the Russians covering his back. ISIS itself is not interested in a truce. Pilger’s call is vain, in both senses of the word.

If a truce is not feasible, then what about addressing the broader context like Palestine? Pilger’s proposal to end arms flows to Israel defies logic. Arms flows to Israel are not the root cause of ISIL’s rise, still less the Paris atrocities. Why would cutting off arms flows to Israel do anything to bring the mayhem in Syria to an end? Recognising Palestine? ISIL is not fighting for Palestinian recognition. It is fighting to restore the Caliphate, not for a two-state solution for Palestine. There is no place in this project for Israel, even an Israel back inside its pre-1967 borders. Perhaps we can quote Al-Baghdadi (quoted in Jason Burke’s Article in Prospect Magazine, 30 Aug 2015):

“The Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate,” al-Baghdadi wrote. “Then their state ceased to exist, so the unbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as civilisation, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, Baathism, nationalism and patriotism, among other falsehoods.”

That’s a long list of grievances. I doubt that ending arms flows to Israel or recognising Palestine is going to assuage those. Nonetheless, how about his suggestion to deal with Muslim ‘alienation’ by ‘demonstrate[ing] a good faith to … Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home …’ There is, after all, a link between the war in Iraq and terrorism. But where is the comparison between Iraq and Syria here? Pilger talks much about Muslim anger against the West for what it has done in the Middle East. In Iraq, we reaped the Jihadi whirlwind when we overthrew Saddam. That made a lot of Muslims angry. But what is making many Muslims angry about Syria? The answer should be obvious but it’s not the one he offers. It’s not because we overthrew a dictator and killed lots of Muslims. The dictator is still there and he is killing lots of Muslims, with a lot of help from his friends.

I am astonished that he does not acknowledge this. According to King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 11,000 fighters from 74 nations had gone to Syria, mostly to join ISIS. This is biggest trans-national Jihadi mobilisation since the Afghan war on the 1980s, bigger than Bosnia and much bigger than Iraq (presumably because many of the anti-American insurgents were Shia). If that is so, if we want to show good faith to (Sunni) Muslims then we could do it by bombing Assad. If we want to show bad faith – then bomb his most effective opponents: ISIS.

As it happens, I do not think we should bomb Assad and I have serious reservations about whether bombing will work against ISIS but this is not the point I am making here. Whatever we do will be wrong. In Afghanistan, we backed Islamic insurgents against the Soviet Union. That was wrong. In Bosnia, we stood by (did not bomb) while Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats slaughtered Bosnia Muslims. That was wrong.

We are condemned for backing dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam and then condemned for overthrowing them. With Assad, what to do? Overthrow him and risk another Iraq and Libya, and have radical Islamists step into the vacuum? Back him, then, like we are backing the Egyptian Junta or as we once backed Saddam and a whole plethora of tyrants and risk making the problem worse, causing states to collapse and Jihadists to get in anyway? As the Al-Baghdadi quote shows, the list of grievances is wide, the threshold for taking offence low.

Pilger overlooks the significance of the Shia-Sunni divide across the Islamic World generally. This split is absolutely crucial if one is to understand the rise of ISIS, which is replete with blood curdling denunciations of the Shia. For starters, the deaths of 200 million Shia are an essential prerequisite to the establishment of paradise. If you leave the Sunni-Shia split out, then you cannot even begin to understand what this conflict is about.

Pilger simply ignores this. Again, he might want to read Patrick Cockburn, whose analysis of the IS, in his ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ if flawed and partial, at least identifies one of the roots of their rise: the oppression of Iraqi Sunnis under a post-Saddam Iraqi Shia-dominated state, a state made possible by the US-UK invasion – in other words, a sectarian state. That this state has been underwritten by Iran, the foremost Shia power, has also contributed to the rise of the ISIS (incidentally, one example of foreign interference that is glossed over in Cockburn’s account).

It is not that the West does not bear a significant proportion of the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East but this is not what Pilger is saying: he is saying that we bear all of it. He denies, without good reason, Assad’s violent repression of protests in 2011 contributed to the mess his country is in, that Hezbollah and Iranian intervention, a Shia guerrilla movement and a Shia power, has exacerbated Sunni resentment in the Middle East generally.

He uses the word ‘sociopathic’ to describe people like Francois Hollande but not the killers that ran amok in Paris on Friday 13 November – who are barely mentioned at all. His invective reaches the sort of heights we saw in ISIS’ claim of responsibility for those attacks (Hollande as the ‘imbecile’ of France). One thing can be said of Hollande: he is unlikely to take such offence to want to saw off Pilger’s head and film it.

It won’t come as any surprise to learn that the solutions he proposes are weak because his analysis that precedes them is weak. What are my solutions? I don’t have any. I did not write this post to get us out of the maze but only to identify where some of the dead ends are. All I can say is that I am not without hope. There are two things that we might draw comfort from. The first is the fall in birth rates in the Muslim world and the second is the slow rise of secularism and unbelief in the same. But more on those matters some other time. For now, with a sigh of relief, I take leave of John Pilger.




Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part II

Part I of this post discussed Iraq. He fingers the invasion of that country as the root cause of ISIL and hence the atrocities in Paris:

‘ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity. Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture. Their culpability is unmentionable in “our” societies, making accomplices of those who suppress this critical truth.’

The invasion created these forces and thus ISIS. He downplays that sectarianism was a force in Iraq before the invasion. The sectarian fanaticism that drives the movement is a novel phenomenon, of recent provenance. But we found no plausible reason for accepting his claims. ISIS’s anti-Shia fanaticism cannot be explained if we make no reference to sectarianism in Iraq as a fact of life in the country before 2003. Indeed, Pilger’s refusal to accept the power of sectarianism in Iraq mirrors that of the US invaders, who likewise ignored this reality, to their cost. The invasion unleashed these forces rather than created them but that is not an argument Pilger wants to accept as it leads to the inevitable conclusion that only dictator can keep these forces in check. But since Pilger condemned the US and UK for backing Saddam in the 1980s, he cannot bring himself to accept that.

Iraq and Syria are linked. In the first, we overthrew a dictator and many Muslims died. In the second, we have not overthrown a dictator. But many Muslims are dying. But we are responsible for that, too, citing a ‘leaked’ UK-US intelligence file, the chaos is down to our making:

“In order to facilitate the action of liberative [sic] forces… a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals [and] to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria. CIA is prepared, and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount minor sabotage and coup de main [sic] incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals… a necessary degree of fear… frontier and [staged] border clashes [will] provide a pretext for intervention… the CIA and SIS should use… capabilities in both psychological and action fields to augment tension.”

Never mind the alleged document was written in 1957 (!), according to Pilger, ‘it could have been written yesterday. In the imperial world, nothing essentially changes. In 2013, the former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas revealed that “two years before the Arab spring”, he was told in London that a war on Syria was planned. “I am going to tell you something,” he said in an interview with the French TV channel LPC, “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria… Britain was organising an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer Minister for Foreign Affairs, if I would like to participate… This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned.”’

This is a strange claim. Why would senior British officials have asked Dumas ‘to participate’ in an organised rebel invasion of the country? Him personally? He’s no spring chicken (he’s 93). Pilger gives the impression that Dumas had power and authority. That is what one is lead to believe if he was asked ‘to participate.’ But, in 2009, he was a political nobody. He had nothing to offer. He had neither men nor money to hand to support such a scheme. He was last Foreign Minister in 1993 and left the French government in 1999. What resources did he have which the British would have wanted him to contribute in 2009? Apart from that, Dumas doesn’t name the senior officials concerned and gives no explanation for why it took him four years to go public (and two years after the civil war in Syria broke out). Pilger, a veteran investigative reporter, seems remarkably credulous when repeating Dumas’ claims.

The claim that the Syrian civil war is nothing of the kind but an invasion of terrorists has met widespread acceptance on the left. Assad brands all his opponents as terrorists and Pilger agrees.

‘The only effective opponents of ISIS are accredited demons of the west – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia. The obstacle is Turkey, an “ally” and a member of Nato, which has conspired with the CIA, MI6 and the Gulf medievalists to channel support to the Syrian “rebels”, including those now calling themselves ISIS.’

Why would they do that? Because: ‘Supporting Turkey in its long-held ambition for regional dominance by overthrowing the Assad government beckons a major conventional war and the horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’

There has indeed been western interference in Syria’s civil war. The Americans admitted they had spent $500 million dollars training ‘moderate’ Assad rebels only to have them melt away in their first fire fight with ISIS, leaving their expensive American kit behind for good measure. How many rebels are we talking about? Fifty – not exactly the sort of numbers to raise hell. Against that, ISIS has some 30,000 fighters. There is no doubt foreign interference has added fuel to the fire but it did not necessarily light the fire in the first place. Pilger doesn’t agree all foreign interference is bad. We are told that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are the only ‘effective’ opponents of ISIL. So, presumably, some foreign interference is a good thing. Pilger is not only inconsistent here but just plain wrong in downplaying the role of these powers play in making the war worse. But we will deal with this in our final post.

But Pilger misses the point. There is massive evidence that what started as a peaceful uprising in Syria in 2011 swiftly degenerated into a civil war. It may be that some of these protests were violent but Assad meted out violent relation against peaceful and violent dissidents alike. Assad is not besieged by foreign terrorists but many of his own people. Outside powers have interfered. Foreign fighters/terrorists have flocked to the anti-Assad cause. But they have taken advantage of a situation Assad created – namely, his merciless attempt to crush all opposition, peaceful or otherwise.

Before 2011, Syria’s repressive reputation and its intolerance of any form of dissident was notorious. It’s not difficult to imagine that the slide in to civil war was a lot down to the regime’s failure to contain internal dissent, despite its fearsome security apparatus. Pilger would have us believe that sectarianism in Iraq was irrelevant or marginal before the 2003 invasion. In Syria, he would have us believe that the regime presided over a placid, contented population before 2011. If that is so, then that means that outsiders can whip up Iraqis and Syrians into a murderous rage against their fellows, in the absence of any real grievance or divisions to exploit.

Any theory, including Pilger’s own, needs to explain what’s going on. If there is some master plan to overthrow Assad, then how come the American military effort in Syria has mostly been directed against ISIS, one of the rebels which it allegedly has been ‘conspired’ to ‘channel’ support? Thousands of sorties have been flown and not one Syrian government or military target has been hit. This leaves a hole in Pilger’s theory. Not he seems to notice. It’s not the only one.

As for the conspiracy to aid and abet Turkey in its alleged drive for regional dominance? Then how come the greatest US effort in Syria made so far was in defending the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, an effort Erdogan refused to support, clearly preferring the town to fall to ISIL rather than the Syrian Kurds, refusing even to allow US planes to use Turkish airbases.

Pilger and Assad claim that NATO backs ‘terrorists’, the catch-all term for Assad’s opponents. But NATO is not a homogenous entity. In Kobane, the US and Turkey, nominally part of the same alliance, were at loggerheads with one another. The US bombed ISIS (Assad’s opponents) to support the Kurds (also Assad’s opponents). ‘NATO’ here was simultaneously backing and opposing the Kurds, the Americans by bombing ISIL and the Turks by refusing to throw a lifeline. ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are both enemies of Assad but in Kobane were the deadliest of foes.

The complexities don’t end there. Pilger overlooks that Turkey’s relationship with Assad was cordial and it was Assad’s violent crackdown which estranged Erdogan from the Assad regime. To speak of Turkey seeking regional dominance overlooks its tendency to pursue good relationships with western rivals like Iran and its refusal to participate in the American invasion of Iraq.

None of these nuances receive the proper attention they deserve. The simple, binary ‘Assad v terrorists’ narrative simply does not capture the myriad complexities of an intractable conflict. In any conflict, especially in the midst of a civil war, especially this civil war, it is impossible to draw a neat partition between the good guys and the bad guys. Many Syrians are prepared to fight and die for Assad, after all. But Pilger seems to make no effort to think the issues through and instead constructs a narrative where the black hats, like a good old fashioned western film, are worn by the West and its allies and the white ones perched unconvincingly on the heads of Assad and Putin.

Pilger’s blind spot is his failure to acknowledge that actors like Turkey and ISIS are local actors with local motives. He doubtless accepts that description of Assad (as I do) not but not of his opponents. This depends on the fallacy that allies of the West are puppets of the West. We saw in the second post how Turkey has not toed the Americans’ line. The same goes for puppets like Israel and Saudi Arabia.  For years the left postulated the inevitability of a US led war against Iran. This had some plausibility under the Bush administration but precious little under Obama, who has made strenuous efforts to broker a settlement regarding that country’s nuclear programme. This was in the teeth of opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the extent that Israeli premier Netanyahu lobbied the US Congress and Senate to undermine the agreement Obama brokered.

How does Pilger account for this? He doesn’t. He ignores it, presumably in the interests of creating a Manichean analysis. Instead, he posits the existence of a cabal of imperial plotters working in ruthless, coordinated unison, ignoring contrary evidence of real and serious divisions among the West and its allies which are not just tactical but principled.

Nonetheless, it is true that we nearly did bomb Assad in 2013. But that doesn’t actually do much for Pilger’s case. When we consider the matter, using the logic Pilger uses, then we will see that perhaps by failing to bomb Assad, we made a massive mistake. We’ll discuss that in the final post.








Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part I


There is a lot of argument about the root causes of what happened in Paris on Friday 13 November. John Pilger, writing an opinion piece on the Stop the War website, thinks he knows. To say that the man attracts a lot of dislike is to put it mildly. Still, he makes claims and arguments and these need to be discussed, and not simply dismissed with a brusque epithet. So this post is going to be long, and divided into three parts. It’s not a critique of Pilger personally but of his ideas, ideas which are widely shared. I am not interested in hatchet jobs. I am interested in taking the axe to bad ideas. That is the reason that drives me to write this piece. Part I will discuss the role of Iraq and the US-UK. Part II will discuss Syria. Part III will discuss what Pilger thinks should done about it. The use of his surname should be seen as a reference to the ideas he expresses; bad ideas, bad because poorly thought out, bad because pernicious, all the more so because the people who hold them think they have the moral high ground. But they don’t.

Naturally, the roots go back to Iraq. Writing on the Stop the War website (which the website presents as an op-ed, though it probably reflects what a lot of its staff and supporters think), he lays the blame for the rise of the Islamic State (and by extension responsibility for all its crimes) on Bush and Blair:

‘By most scholarly measure, Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of at least 700,000 people – in a country that had no history of jihadism. The Kurds had done territorial and political deals; Sunni and Shia had class and sectarian differences, but they were at peace; intermarriage was common … Bush and Blair blew all this to bits. Iraq is now a nest of jihadism… ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity … [a] horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’

France, of course, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the invasion of Iraq unleashed a hurricane of violence as the country tore itself apart on sectarian lines. Why? Why did the invasion set off not just one but several wars, with Sunni and Shia fighting the Americans as well as each other – savagely? If it was an insignificant fact of Iraqi life before 2003, then the subsequent intercommunal savagery we saw post-2003 simply cannot be explained.

However, not all on the anti-war left duck the issue. Patrick Cockburn, in his book ‘The Occupation, War and Resistance in Iraq’ details how exiled Iraqi opposition, in their efforts to entice the Americans to finish the job they started in 1991, deliberately downplayed sectarianism in the country. They talked in the same way that some of the war’s critics do. Cockburn says:

‘Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein were inclined to underestimate the extent to which their country was divided by deep sectarian or ethnic fault lines’. Iraqi exiles, drawn from the ranks of the secular middle class, had lost touch with realities in the country since their departure. But, Cockburn goes on, there was a further compelling motive for exiles to downplay sectarianism:

‘The Shia leaders knew that a reason why the US-led coalition had not overthrown Saddam Hussein in 1991 was the fear that he would be replaced by a Shia regime allied to Iran … After the crushing of the uprising of 1991 opponents of Saddam by and large came to realise that the only certain way to get rid of the regime in Iraq was for the US to launch a second war against it – and this time go all the way to Baghdad. The Americans were not likely to do this if they knew that the main beneficiary of Saddam’s overthrow was going to be the Shia allies of the Iranian regime’. (pp. 93-94) Relying on Iraqi exiles for their intelligence meant that the Americans ‘did not understand in 2003 the extent to which Iraq – and this was true of both Shia and Sunni – was a highly religious country …’ It took them a while to wake up:

‘Exaggerating the influence of secular Iraqi leaders and underestimating that of religious leaders was to be a recurrent theme of the US occupation. When it supposedly handed over sovereignty in June 2004, Washington backed Iyad Allawi, the former Baathist and leader of the Iraqi National Accord, as interim Prime Minister. It was only after Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi [an Iraqi exile who did much to downplay the sectarian divide] did so badly in the election December 15 2005 … that the US seems to have appreciated the weakness of the secular anti-Saddam leadership which it had cultivated for so long’ (pp. 95-96) Episodes like the American siege of Fallujah forged temporary solidarities – which did not last. The Shia sent a convoy loaded with supplies to the besieged Sunni city only to have seven Shia drivers executed by the very insurgents they had come to help (pp. 144).

Pilger shares the same blind-spot as the Americans did. He still does. But no one can write off Cockburn as an apologist for the invasion and occupation; he is a fierce critic of the war. But he has a greater sense of political realities than Pilger and most of Stop the War’s activists, including Jeremy Corbyn.

The invasion did not create the Jihadi forces we see running amok today. They unleashed them. If that is so, then a disturbing conclusion follows. They can only be reined in by the firm hand of a dictator. That is not a conclusion that, I suspect, Pilger can stomach. He was fiercely critical of British and US support for the Iraqi dictator in the 1980s (as were other critics like Harold Pinter). They were outraged we backed Saddam in the 1980s and outraged when we overthrew him in 2003.

Their inconsistency on this point is easy to understand if we accept that the source of their outrage was on account that doing both things forestalled the emergence of a progressive democracy in the country, founded on Enlightenment values, secular and non-sectarian. That was not a possibility in the 1980s and it’s even less likely now. Might it have been? There is no doubt that the wars (two out of three of them started by Saddam) and sanctions weakened the secular middle class in the country. Perhaps the decimation and impoverishment of this class in the 80s and 90s left Iraq ripe for the Jihadists’ picking in the 2000s.

It seems unlikely. Truly secular, democratic and liberal forces of any kind have never been strong in the Middle East. Over the last 40 years, the steady rise of political Islam has been felt everywhere in the region with polling showing a region-wide drift to the conservative right. Socialist and other secular ideologies were long discredited with their association with both unbelief and political repression. Even so-called secular leaders like Saddam and the Assads in Syria, father and son, have had to cloak themselves in Islamic garb and credentials to cement legitimacy in the eyes of their subject populations.

The much touted ‘multiculturalism’ of countries like Syria is not akin to its western practice. Syria ‘tolerated’ its minorities because of their political quiescence and because there were not many of them. They had no right to claim a share of power or representation in the state. The Egyptian dictator, Mubarak, presided over a steady Islamicisation of society but did little to counteract this, so long as Islamists made no concerted effort to challenge the power of the state. Christian Copts, 10 per cent of the population, found little in the way of protection from the supposedly secular state. Bomb attacks on Coptic places of worship met with calls for unity from Mubarak but not much else.

If the invasion had never happened, and we had kept Saddam in place as a kind of safety-catch on the Jihadi pressure cooker, would that have been better? Perhaps not. In Syria, a dictator finds himself beleaguered by Jihadists. In this case, repression has failed to keep the lid on. Indeed, it’s pretty certain that repression has added fuel to the fire. But Pilger does not think so. It’s to Syria we now turn.


The Paris Attacks


When Islamist gunmen murdered 18 people at the offices of a French satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January this year, some people were tempted to blame the victims. The Pope, who has become something of a darling of the liberal-left, said that if ‘you swear at my mother – or Islam – expect a punch.’ A snivelling cartoon by the (otherwise excellent )political cartoonist Joe Sacco seemed to flirt with the same notion. Both men – and some apologists who reasoned on the same lines as they did – overlooked the attack on the Jewish supermarket, which could not remotely have been construed as retaliation for a hateful cartoon. That was a sectarian, racially-motivated attack and the victims were singled out because they were Jewish.

Yes, Israel oppresses the Palestinians but this can hardly be a sufficient explanation, let alone justification. Islamist grievance against Jews and Judaism runs deep, not just limited to Israel but against Jews generally. The popularity of holocaust denial or hate screeds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion among many parts of the Islamic world attests to this. And it’s not just Jews – Shia and other minorities are subject to vilification from rabble-rousers, much of it sponsored by Saudi money.

I am not saying that the popularity of these tracts are down to the gullibility of the Muslim masses. It’s down to the circumscribing of free speech in much of the Muslim world, making such hate speech difficult to combat. Note what I am saying here. The peddlers of hate are committing speech acts. They can only be combated by speech acts in turn but to do that, the state needs to uphold the right to free speech. But few states presiding over Muslim-majority populations do (perhaps Turkey is partial exception).

Nor am I saying that Western societies are absolute paragons of virtue in this respect. I am saying is that Western societies are better at doing this. To the intellectually lazy, who fall back on relativism, because they flinch from anything that might actually mean that West is indeed the best, this is abhorrent.

The fact is, the right to free speech is well-protected in the West, as it is France. So, to answer to Joe Sacco’s question – what if Muslims didn’t find the cartoons funny? Apart from the obvious answer that they could have ignored it, given that the cartoons appeared in an obscure underground publication that till the attacks practically no one had heard of, there is the even more blindingly obvious answer: they could have protested against it.

Of course, France does not always uphold its own self-declared principles when it comes to freedom of expression (like passing laws against holocaust denial) but that does not make the point I am making here false: those offended by the cartoons could have protested using speech. The complaint of French double-standards fails against this observation. France would have allowed and does allow those offended by ideas expressed by others to talk back.

But, for the gunmen, the offence could not be answered by speech but only by the gun. It’s a mistake to assume that the men concerned were unhinged. They acted according to their convictions, convictions that overrode everything else– such as respect for the state’s laws. They did what they did because their sense of the sacred was offended and it was not enough merely to talk back to the offenders. Those who had given offence had to die. Those who say that it had nothing to do with religion have fallen into wishful thinking. It had everything to do with religion – or, at least, the killers’ interpretation of it.

Furthermore, the conviction that the victims were blasphemers and hence contributed to their fate probably extends to many in the law-abiding Muslim mainstream. If people like Joe Sacco can think it, then I am sure many otherwise moderate Muslims can think it. Yes, it’s true that a Muslim policeman was murdered doing his duty, trying to protect the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Muslims’ allegiances cut many ways. We are talking about millions of people and we want to avoid the sort of trap that Sacco and the Pope made when they talk of Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of ‘they’.

Having said that, the question remains as to how far the violent act of extremists find a degree of acceptance and even encouragement from within the mainstream. It’s not a question that can be ducked and it is too easy, as President Hollande has just done, to blame an undifferentiated, external other in the shape of the Islamic State, and refuse to ask questions about how far the values of the extremists grow from tacit approval from within the mainstream.

Sacco and the Pope seem to assume that the problem of ideological conflict between secular host and devout immigrant communities living in liberal societies is a matter of the hosts minding their manners and their speech – a matter of respect. This is too complacent an assumption. It goes a lot deeper than that. The latest attacks in Paris demonstrate this emphatically. This time, there appeared to be no obvious provocation. The victims were blown up or mowed down indiscriminately while they were out enjoying themselves and having fun. They did not insult the Pope’s mother, Islam or the Prophet.

We can of course reach for the standard rationalisations. Perhaps we can blame Iraq or Western foreign policy but the French opposed the US-UK led invasion of that country in 2003 and during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, Mitterrand was a champion of Bosnian Muslims in the face of Anglo-Saxon indifference. France gets little credit for this – instead Islamists complain about the banning headscarves in French public schools. If this is oppression, it is mild compared to that meted out to non-Muslim minorities in places like Iraq and Pakistan who don’t have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights to seek redress (as French Muslims do). Perhaps we can blame French colonial history in Algeria which was indeed exceptionally brutal but this explanation cannot account for similar conflicts we see in countries like Denmark and Sweden, with no comparable historical baggage.

Or we can stop flailing around for implausible explanations and take the Islamic State’s own justification seriously, that this was an attack aimed at ‘the capital of perversion and abomination’. The choice of targets adds weight to these words: a football match, a rock concert, pavement cafes; doubtless, all manner of perversions and abominations were underway until the brothers in their righteous zeal turned up with their explosive vests and Kalashnikovs. The French air force could stop bombing Syria tomorrow but Paris is unlikely to lose its status in Islamists’ eyes as today’s Sodom unless it closes down nightclubs, stadiums and pavement cafes, segregates the sexes, prohibits alcohol and forbids all smoking. Since the French are unlikely to do any of this anytime soon they, and the rest of us, similarly living lives of perversion and abomination, terms which the Islamists define very broadly, are going to have to live with the murderous indignation of Islamists for the foreseeable future.

So do we surrender to the clarion calls of the radical right, close our borders and step up police repression of minorities? Of course not. What is the answer then? The answer is that there is no obvious answer but I can suggest how to start thinking about the issue. The first is to stop denying that there is a genuine ideological conflict between host and immigrant communities. The second is to stop pretending that a major fault line of this conflict has nothing to do with religion. There are real conflicts over the definition of values, sacred and secular; these conflicts cannot be dismissed as a coded expression of other, secular disputes like the conduct of foreign policy. Third, and most importantly, it’s not a case of us v them. The fault lines run within immigrant communities and throughout the wider Islamic world. Extremists hate western values partially because of their godless content but also because of a fear that these values may actually appeal to the believers.

This is a war of ideas. How will it be won? By the slow diffusion of western values among Muslim communities, not just those living in the West. What values do I mean? I mean tolerance, agreeing to disagree, living with each other despite not having agreement on fundamental foundations for morality respecting unorthodox lifestyles like homosexuality, the relegating of religion to the private sphere and the whole host of values we call ‘liberal values’. These are, after all, the values the host communities are expected – rightly – to show toward their guests, whether they be refugees or immigrants. It stands to reason then that this expectation should cut both ways.

In the wider world, among Muslim communities at large, these values cannot be imposed by force. They have to be accepted by Muslims themselves. That will mean Muslims rejecting those who offer Islam as the ‘solution’ to the sorts of challenges that modernity presents. It will mean coming to terms with moral pluralism – not just the existence of other belief systems, secular and sacred, but accepting questioning from within the ranks of the faithful themselves. In everyday terms, that means accepting the right of Muslims to set up atheist blogs, or to become apostates without fear of reprisal. When a blogger like Saudi Raif Badawi is able to do what I do – and critics of the West living in the West do – without fear of the lash, then that will be a sign of progress.

Is it possible? The West’s own historical experience suggests that it is. In the 17th Century, Protestants and Catholics murdered each other in their hundreds and thousands. Germany in the 17th century, with its religious turf wars between Catholics and Protestants, was akin to today’s Iraq and Syria, with their own Sunni-Shia divides. In time, the religious wars of Europe burned themselves out. The Protestant and Catholic divide still exists today in Germany but no one is killing each other over it anymore. They have agreed to live and let live. How that happened is another story, too long and complicated to get into any detail here. Its contemporary significance is to show that a salvation-based religion, such as Christianity, can adapt to a world of secular pluralism. There is no reason why Islam itself could not do likewise. But it is going to take a long time.

Post script, 21 Feb 2017. Some brief reflections on the left-liberal criticism on the symbols of solidarity shown with France in the aftermath of the attacks in January and November 2015. It was interesting to consider how people like Brian Klug and Salon magazine stigmatised gestures like the colouring of Facebook profiles in the tricolour in the aftermath of the November attacks or the mass rally in the wake of Charlie Hebdo murders in January. Such collective expressions were entirely praiseworthy. In the wake of the attacks, enraged mobs did not descend on the Banlieues and murder its Muslim residents. In all too many places in the world, one reprisal follows another but not so in France. Not that the critics on the left were prepared to credit France and the French with such dignified, restrained responses. Instead, the gestures were considered on par with the acts they designed to rebuke. Curious days indeed. More on this in a future post.