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Middle East Eye: The language of ‘evil’ doesn’t help us defeat IS

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You can read the full article here, on the MEE website

The horrifying beheading of British aid worker David Haines by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, and the spectre of future executions following the release of a video featuring journalist John Cantlie has once again shone the spotlight on IS’s violent tactics. Although the latest video seems to reflect a shift in strategy with Cantlie appearing alone, without the presence of an IS figure threatening him, his fate may ultimately prove no less brutal. Indeed the group has come to be associated with extreme acts of violence against both local populations and foreign nationals living in the region.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Haynes’ murder “an act of pure evil” and described IS as “monsters”. But how helpful to our understanding of IS is it to label their actions using cosmic references to wickedness, and how effective can our response be if we fail to assess violence as a deliberate strategy?

IS’s staged approach to its executions – set, scripted, filmed and edited – suggests the group revel in their brutal image. They feed off the shock which their carefully choreographed actions engender and the horror they elicit only fuels their sense of power. After all, the way they like to depict their captives, dressed in the sort of orange jumpsuits we’re more used to seeing on Guantanamo detainees, reflects precisely the sort of power relations they are seeking to present – the tables are turned they are saying, we are the super-power now, it is your citizens whom we will do with as we please.

But it is precisely because of the group’s efforts to manage its image as a seemingly well organised, fully functioning state, with PR machine to boot, that we must be attentive not to readily accept their crafted appearance. In fact, according to French security specialist Alain Chouet, IS could well struggle to manage the territory it has conquered due to a lack of both manpower and funds, a much needed depiction of the group’s real, rather than overstated capabilities, which redresses some of the often unwitting hype created around the group. Just because IS controls territory the size of the UK, doesn’t mean the group can or should be regarded as a state or even entity of any equivalence. To quote the Arab academic Nazih Ayubi, referring to the region’s actual, existing states, “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated.” The same is true but to a far greater extent concerning IS. A state suggests elements of legitimacy and consent wholly absent from this group’s engagement with local populations. To accept their self-declared status as a state is to implicitly accept their claim to representation, yet again favouring unrepresentative political pretenders over the drowned out voice of the people.

IS want to be perceived as a threat significant enough to be treated as an “equal” by Western states, and this is precisely why using the language of state actors, such as when both the White House and the Pentagon described the United States as “at war” with the group, only serves to reinforce the group’s mystique. In not adequately challenging IS’s narrative as an equal interlocutor, a rival “state”, we risk allowing the videos of these beheadings to become what the images of the fall of the Twin towers were for Al Qaeda, a victory totem and a rallying call to a group which seeks to build its support on an image of an ‘alternative utopia’ resisting Western might.

France recently announced it would no longer refer to the group by its chosen name, but by the derogatory term “Daesh”, partly to challenge precisely this narrative. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. (…) The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

In so doing, the French have actively rejected the group’s rebranding as “the Islamic State” and the concomitant attempt to lay claim to grandeur of Muslim empires by a guerrilla group who as Professor Fawaz Gerges from the LSE points outs, “actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base.” In fact, violence is central to the group’s strategy. Fawaz describes the violence as a rational choice, arguing that it represents a “conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.” That is to say there is a logic behind the use of extreme violence. A logic which belies notions of an ahistorical “evil”.

When we refuse to see the perpetrators of violence as anything more than moral renegades, we risk overlooking the ways in which violence has in fact been not only key to the construction of the modern state, but central in fact to the very narrative of progress. Clearly, not all violence is equal. We accept the necessity of violence when we attribute it to a higher moral cause, but deem it senseless if the violence doesn’t fit our own narrative of progress. In the case of IS, understanding what motivates their belief in “violence as progress” is central to defeating them.

The violence meted out by IS today is itself happening in a region which has experienced the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade: over 200, 000 in Syria in the last three years alone, and hundreds of thousands more in Iraq before that. In both cases, extreme violence has been justified in order to either midwife or ‘protect’ the modern state, and to advance given ideals, of nationalism or democracy-promotion.

Understanding that IS’s violence has emerged from the overlap of two of the deadliest conflicts in the region is to realise that the group represents a continuation of local aspirations for self-governance in a context where violence has been the language of power and rule. While modern democracies evolve non-violent methods for ensuring public acquiescence, linking participatory initiatives to political success, in the region IS currently occupies, despite attempts a democratic process, brute violence has been the mark of the successful ruler. What’s more, their methods – crucifixions, beheadings and other forms of cruelty have become increasingly common among other, less high profile groups, whose exclusively Arab and Muslim targets make for less prominent headlines.

Despite the temptation to view IS as Al-Qaeda 4.0, a more accurate representation would be the apogee of the guerrilla groups which have come to over-run the failed states in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s ‘transnational Jihad’, IS’s focus is state building in Syria and Iraq. While for Al-Qaeda, the main impediment to Muslim autonomy was Western meddling, rendering the West a target, IS’s main focus has been local targets they deem as “enemies”.

The focus on “evil Islamists” might be a useful bogeyman against which to rally public support, but it fails to understand IS’s violence either as a strategy to intimidate its opponents and inflate its weight, or as part of its internalised repertoire of state building.

Defeating them can’t possibly come through inflicting yet more violence on a battered region, nor in the form of Obama’s coalition of Western military interventionism teamed with notoriously repressive autocracies. The tried and hardly successful recipe, is unlikely to provide the necessary elements for a counter to the narrative of violence which has gained strength in the wake of the demise of the Arab uprisings, a narrative which claims political routes are ineffective and violence alone can build an independent Arab state. Ultimately, there is only one long term solution – a genuine process of inclusive state-building. Without it, the trumped up claims of impostor groups like IS seem far more convincing than they truly are.

Written by myriamcerrah

September 22, 2014 at 10:58

New Statesman: Where has the French Left gone?

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You can read the full article on the NS site here

Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.

Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.

The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.

The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.

Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.

And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.

The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.

For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.

Written by myriamcerrah

September 22, 2014 at 10:55

BBC Sunday Morning Live: How does Britain deal with home grown extremism

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you can watch the discussion here, featuring myself, Shiraz Maher, Lord Robert Winston, Douglas Murray and Dame Ann Leslie.

BBC London radio, Vanessa Feltz show: Boris Johnson, IS and civil liberties

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I discuss Boris Johnson’s flawed arguments in his Daily Telegraph column about how to deal with the potential threat posed by returning IS fighters – you can listen here (’35min in)

Written by myriamcerrah

August 25, 2014 at 11:21

BBC Daily Politics show: Soap Box “extremism vs social conservativism”

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You can watch me on the Daily Politics show with Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn with Conservative MP Priti Patel and Shadow Wales Secretary Owen Smith, to discuss social conservativism and extremism and whether the two are being confused in the fight against terrorism, here

Written by myriamcerrah

June 25, 2014 at 16:41

BBCR4 Moral Maze: British values

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You can listen to the show here (for 7 days only)

The 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta on the 15th of June next year has taken on a whole new level of importance and symbolism. It’s now become a major plank in the government’s response to the Trojan Horse controversy in some Birmingham schools. Historians may have argued for decades about the true significance of the document, but today politicians are clear – this is now about “British Values” – what they are and the role they should play in education. The only trouble is you have to define them first. And David Cameron wouldn’t be the first politician to come unstuck there. Writing about it this week he started one paragraph with “freedom”, followed quickly by “tolerance” and only 37 words later had resorted to “fish and chips”. So how do we define these values? Perhaps they’re being the kind of socially responsible parent who wants to instil their values into their children and who’s willing to dedicate a considerable amount of their spare time to become a school governor to help their local community? What if those parents happen to be Muslims who want their schools to have more of an “Islamic” ethos in an attempt to insulate their children against the “corrupting” effects of British society? What should you do when the values of a community clash with wider social norms? How tolerant should we be? Is it the role of the state to define and dictate what values should be taught in schools, or should that be the job of parents? Can you even teach values or are they something that we absorb gradually? Is this really about what is, or isn’t being taught in a small group of schools in Birmingham, or is it more a crisis of confidence in our society about what we should and shouldn’t value? Moral Maze – Presented by Michael Buerk.

The panel :

Anne McElvoy

Melanie Phillips

Claire Fox

Giles Fraser

The Witnesses :

Ted Cantle – Former local government leader who carried out an inquiry into the riots in Bradford and other northern cities in 2001. Now advises, writes and lectures on community cohesion.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah – Journalist and broadcaster and a D.Phil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

Sunder Katwala – Director of British Future, a think tank dedicated to opening up more public debate about identity, integration, migration and opportunity.

Alasdair Palmer – Journalist and former speech-writer for the Home Secretary, Theresa May.

Written by myriamcerrah

June 18, 2014 at 21:53

AJE: What are Cameron’s ‘British values’?

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The discourse on British values smacks of neo-imperialism in a post-colonial world.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on “British values”, published as an op-ed in The Daily Mail, had all the hallmarks of a colonialist eulogy. If the colonial project was about land and power, it was also a cultural project which involved exporting a presumed superior culture and imposing it on presumed inferior peoples.

We in Europe have a long history of defining ourselves in opposition to the great “other”. The Greeks often contrasted themselves with the Asians who were deemed to be servile, ruled by tyrants and corrupt, whereas Greeks were virtuous and freedom loving. Viewing Islam as the great threat also dates back to the days of competing empires, in which Islam came to be the measure against which European Christians forged their identity.

“[F]reedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” are values all human beings aspire to and the British have no monopoly over. In fact, a recognition of the multiplicity of routes through which humanity has arrived at these ideals, acts as a form of global solidarity, of mutual respect and ultimately, of equality. Although many societies lack these ideals in their formal structures, this shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of their rejection, but of the tumultuous conditions which impede their full realisation.

Any discussion of British values can’t be blind to the historical inequities undertaken in the name of those very values, and any assessment of other cultures cannot occur outside of an understanding of their position within the global system of wealth. When Cameron stated “I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity”, he could have inverted the sentence with far more accuracy to: “I strongly believe our prosperity forms the foundation for our values.”

We have come to formalise, institutionalise and uphold certain principles thanks to a level of affluence which not only came off the back of many nations but deprived them of the ability to achieve those same objectives. We absolutely should be bashful about our “greatness” because it came at the expense of others who continue to suffer the consequences to this day. The supreme haughtiness is to then decry the backwardness of the very nations which we helped relegate to the developmental dung heap.

What’s more, to speak of the need to assert the greatness of British values over a portion of society requires examining the power relations which govern those dictating the values and those being dictated to. As the educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse rightly points out, in reference to a number of schools in Birmingham targeted in Cameron’s “British values” speech, “what the proud city of Birmingham needs least is to be treated as a colonial outpost of London”.

Cameron’s op-ed is a clear means of expressing the dominance of white, secular liberal Britons, and articulating the commensurate respect of that supremacy from those deemed subordinate, in this case, minorities and specifically Muslims from some of the most impoverished areas in the country. It was also an attempt to arrogate the meaning of “British values” while excluding those targeted by the speech from inclusion in any discussion over their ultimate definition.

Identifying “the other”

The claims about historical truth made in the speech mask the very real construction of a narrative, a particular vision of “Britishness” in which some Britons apparently have no say. This vision is asserted as enduring and unchanging in nature when such narratives always involve a convenient reimagining of history, as illustrated through the grandiose extolling of the Magna Carta.
Inside Story – Extremism in British schools?

As the historian Dr Dominic Selwood points out in the Telegraph, “despite widespread beliefs about the charter’s contents, it actually contained very little of significance.” It also had a number of clauses we might not be so keen on highlighting today, such as “No one will be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband” and provisions against Jewish bankers.

The discourse concerning the “otherness” and danger posed by Muslims is reasserted through manufactured hysteria about otherwise mundane aspects of Muslim life.

From halal meat to circumcision, the construction of a mega-mosque or the amplification of abhorrent, but thankfully limited social injustices: forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation – all these are portrayed as inherently Islamic issues, despite evidence of their presence across ethnic and religious groupings.

The consequence is a social stigma attached to the Muslim label, reinforced through media associations of relatively uncontroversial issues, such as separating boys and girls for certain activities, with far more serious allegations, such as endorsing extremist speakers. An unconscious equivalence is drawn between the two, equating a practise otherwise normalised in other parts of British society such as single sex schools, single sex clubs or facilities with support for al-Qaeda-style views.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the problems identified within a number of schools in Birmingham somehow reflect the type of Islamic extremism “practised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network”. This slippage creates the notion of a monolithic Islamic threat, stretching across the globe. Such high-profile statements reinforce perceptions of essential “otherness” and of a latent threat posed by the so-called enemy within.

Other social issues are labelled in manner which essentialises them, as a means of locating the route of oppression within Muslim culture, rather than broader, patriarchal practises found across societies. The term honour killing suggests phenomenon culturally distinct from domestic violence, which afflicts 30 percent of British women.

The same might be said of forced marriages, for which new legislation has recently been passed. The establishment of a specific law to target this practice, one already criminalised under existing laws, reinforces the perception of a culturally specific crime, rather than recognising coercion as one of a myriad of patriarchal oppressions. As activist Amrit Wilson states, the reason prosecutions are so low isn’t to do with laws, or a lack thereof, but rather, “These are often not implemented, partly through lack of will and partly because most services which support women through the legal process have been abolished.” Such laws actually serve a distinct purpose: They are about defining ourselves against an imagined bogeyman, rather than recognising shared ideals.

‘A wink to the right’

Ultimately, the debate on British values hinges on the nature of liberalism and whether we think of liberalism as a tool which allows for the articulation of varied and mutually contradictory viewpoints, including illiberal ones, or if we consider it a narrow ideology, which requires a muscular imposition on those who fail to recognise its truth. The irony of the latter position should hopefully not be lost.
Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?

It is also an opportunity for the Tory party, which has lost support among its more conservative followers to pander to those voices who might otherwise be leaning towards the UK Independence Party or UKIP.

This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron’s choice to refer to “fish and chips”, rather than Britain’s national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of white Britain, untainted by these foreign influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.

Every empire has claimed it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy. Although the empire may be long gone, the mentality which views the descendants of the former colonies as subjects remains. The motivation for imposing “superior” British values on others was bound up in a doctrine of European superiority and racism. Back in the 19th century, it was a British mission to lead the backward non-European nations to civilisation. Today, it’s all about leading the backward non-European subjects to civilisation, a notion of British greatness constructed off the back of its own minorities.

What we do need as a society is a common language, a critical and contested understanding of global history and our place within it, and some common ideals. The ideals cannot be forged by a section of society as a civilising project, but rather should include a broad-based discussion on the nature and manifestation of those ideals. To paraphrase the great philosopher Aime Cesaire, no culture possesses “the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory”.

Written by myriamcerrah

June 18, 2014 at 15:43


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