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BBC Sunday Morning Live: Surgeons/transparency, returning jihadis and the meaning of Christmas

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Topics:

Should performance rates of surgeon be published?

What should we do about jihadists who want to return to Britain?

Have we lost the meaning of Christmas?

 

Panellists include:

Benjamin Zephaniah (poet), Douglas Murray (HJS), Henry Marsh (neurosurgeon), Myriam Francois-Cerrah (journalist) and Anne Atkins (novelist).

You can watch the show here (for 7 days)

SML surgeons SML jihadis group SML jihadis single

Written by Myriam Francois

November 24, 2014 at 10:40

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New Statesman: Theological explanations are a diversion when looking at the rise of Islamic State

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You can read the original piece on the New Statesman site here

In a “post-ideological” West, the “East” is persistently filtered through the lens of ideology, and, specifically, through the lens of Islam, with the latest moral panic over Islamic State (IS) its most recent manifestation.

For all the talk of ideology, our knowledge of IS is actually extremely limited. As Professor Alireza Doostdar points out, “We know close to nothing about IS’ social base. We know little about how it made its military gains, and even less about the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various groups — from other Islamist rebels in Syria to secular Ba‘athists in Iraq.” The fact is, much of what we take as “knowledge” about IS is gleaned either from their uncritically reproduced propaganda videos, which aim to present the group’s narrative as coherent and substantiated, or from Western devotees to the cause who in fact, make up only a small proportion of the group’s estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters and who’s motivations for joining might have far more to do with our representations of the group – as a counter-cultural challenge to the supremacy of Western ideals – than what the group is actually about. IS is certainly “anti-Western” in its outlook, but its objectives are local — controlling land and resources in order to establish a state in which a previously disenfranchised group will experience pre-eminence.

Given that a majority of recruits are in fact local, it is worth questioning the notion they’ve all undergone an ideological conversion before joining a group, which is just one of many arguing for the mantle of legitimate struggle and leadership in the region. Rather than ideas – because let’s face it, Al Baghdadi’s view that the world’s Muslims should live under one Islamic state ruled bysharia law is hardly an intellectual innovation – perhaps it is the group’s strategic and tactical abilities which have won them repute among fighters seeking a united leadership. Or in some cases, the calculation may simply be financial, with salaries reportedly ranging from $300 to $2000 per month.

The ideological narrative also implies widespread Sunni Iraqi support for IS which, less than a newfound commitment to radical ideals, is more likely often a reflection of political calculations in an extremely precarious climate. The populations within IS controlled territory are in many cases victims many times over of a systematic use of extreme violence to force population compliance. Why else do IS display severed heads on town railings? As useful as essentialist arguments for bloodthirty barbarians may be, the truth is violence is usually a strategic calculation to advance political objectives, in this case widespread docility of terrified locals.

The focus on theological explanations also obscures what the polls tell us about popular opinion in the Arab world. How else are we to reconcile the allegedly wide pool of IS supporters in Iraq with the fact the entire region, Iraq included, has seen a decline in support for political Islam (including the non-violent, participationist variants) and that despite a fall in support for democracy in Iraq – likely the result of domestic factors – 76 per cent of Iraqisagree or strongly agree with the statement: “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.”

In fact, defining conflicts in strictly ideological terms is simply a way of relieving ourselves from any substantive assessment of the environmental factors at play. Forgotten are the discussions of the real causes of a country’s malaise – which in the case of both Syria and Iraq are manifold, and instead is a singular discourse focused on a theological argument for an Islamic State. To quote Jeremy F. Walton, what is missing in the current discourse is “an account of the decades of communitarian inequality and war in Iraq and Syria, where two Ba‘thist regimes — Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and that of the Asad’s in Syria—yoked political representation and economic privilege to sectarian and ethnic identity, Sunni Arab in the case of Iraq and Alawite in the case of Syria.”

This isn’t to say that ideology or ideas more broadly have no explanatory power in assessing groups like IS, but surely the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, the absence of viable, let alone representative and accountable governments, and the use of violence as a political tool by both governments, like the Assad regime, or militant groups across the region, should be afforded greater prominence than the ‘ideological’ outlook of a group who’s most sophisticated theological output so far has been a Friday sermon!

Our obsession with textuality – even when in this case the texts themselves are conspicuously absent – is indicative of the persistence of philological readings of events in the Middle East. This has allowed for a variant of the same argument – Islam is the problem – to be used to both exculpate all other factors, be they foreign interventions or domestic dictatorships, from responsibility, while pinning blame on the populations themselves for their state of woe. What transforms Ancient Texts into radical handbooks for justifying mass murder? The political conditions under which they are being read.

And just as texts don’t speak for themselves, neither do IS propaganda videos, specifically designed and edited to convey the impression of a coherent narrative. And yet, we see very little effort to unpick the discourse, the constructed self-definition, little effort to look beyond the smokescreen because it reflects back precisely the sort of organisation we expect to see emerge from the ME, ideology incarnate. History, politics, economics, all deemed irrelevant in the face of this Islamic “essence” which represents the consistent explanatory variable in the behaviour of Eastern folk.

A recent report by the Washington Post pointed to Camp Bucca, one of the Iraq war’s most notorious prisons, as having funnelled 100,000 detainees through its barracks, and described the center as “an opening chapter in the history of the Islamic State” with many of its leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and nine members of his top command previously incarcerated there. These men had formerly been part of the insurgency fighting the US presence in Iraq and in prison, a convenient collaboration was to emerge between previously longstanding enemies, Baathist secularists and radical Islamists, united in a common purpose. There is no more telling evidence of the pragmatic accommodation of ideology to political necessity than the marriage of these two diametrically opposed and historically antagonistic outlooks, secular leftist and religious literalist.

The discussion of IS needs to move beyond both eschatological and philological diversions  – The roots of its violence isn’t cultural, but rather, as long argued by the scholar Mahmood Mamdani, political violence demands a political explanation.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 13, 2014 at 15:33

BBC Radio 4 Analysis: Conservative Muslims, Liberal Britain

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You can listen to my contribution to this discussion here (link expires after 7 days)

Below is the show description, though I should add that I disagree with the premise that Muslims somehow wish to “live separately” from mainstream society and moreover that polling evidence suggests Muslims strongly identify with British values  (whatever they are!).

The recent so called Trojan Horse dispute in some Birmingham schools shone a light on how separately from the liberal British mainstream a significant conservative bloc of British Muslims wants to live. Although some Muslim parents objected, most seemed happy to go along with rigorous gender segregation, the rejection of sex education and ban on music and arts lessons.
Why is it that so many British Muslims – especially from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds – seem to be converging much more slowly, if at all, on liberal British norms? Is this a problem in a liberal society and what are the future trends likely to be?
David Goodhart, of the think tank Demos, visits Leicester in search of some answers. He listens to many different Muslim voices from a mufti who advises Muslims on how to navigate everyday life in a non-Muslim society to a liberal reformer who is dismayed at seeing more women wearing the niqab.

Contributors:

Mustafa Malik, Director of the Pakistan Youth and Community Centre, Leicester
Saj Khan, Leicestershire businessman
Mufti Muhammed Ibn Adam, Islamic scholar, Leicester
Riaz Ravat, Deputy Director, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester
Dilwar and Rabiha Hussain, New Horizons organisation, Leicester
Gina Khan, human rights campaigner
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, journalist and PhD researcher
Jytte Klausen, affiliate professor at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University
Producer Katy Hickman.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 11, 2014 at 22:57

MEE: “The riddle of the UK’s young jihadis”

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You can read the piece on the Middle East Eye website, here

Of the many questions raised by the young British Muslims joining Islamic State, one has been why “middle-class” Britons would leave the trappings of their comfortable life for near-certain death in a foreign conflict.

According to intelligence sources, most British jihadists are in their 20s, are university-educated and are Muslims of British Pakistani origin. Much has been made in the media about university offers, comfortable homes, and in the case of Aqsa Mahmood the fact she “listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter”.

But why does their so-called “middle class” status seemingly render their choices any more incomprehensible than, say, if they were working class? Is it to do with the underlying suspicion of the working classes and their always latent potential for revolt? We don’t expect middle-class kids to turn bad because we expect “middle class” to mean accession to all that society has to offer and well –  what more could anyone want?

Well for a start, it is not entirely clear that many of the fighters are indeed middle class by any measure of the term. As Shiraz Maher, a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, points out: “British jihadis may be much better off than Muslims from the continent, but they’re not ‘middle class’ by UK standards.”

A brief perusal of the most high-profile cases suggests they are individuals from modest backgrounds –  a former car-park attendant, a Primark supervisor, or unemployed; many are from some of the UK’s most deprived communities and from some of our poorest cities (Cardiff, Portsmouth) and neighbourhoods.  As the rapper turned fighter L Jinny, aka Abdel-Majed Abdel-Bary, described in his music prior to joining IS, financial concerns were not entirely irrelevant to his life: “I’m trying to change my ways, but there’s blood on my hands, and I can’t change my ways until there’s funds in the bank.“

The discussion pertaining to the social class of these fighters also ignores two important considerations. Economic dislocation can also affect the middle classes, many of whom have high aspirations and find these thwarted once they enter the job market. What’s more, being middle class doesn’t mean uncritically accepting the parameters of one’s society, which might be perceived as dealing unjustly with those one identifies with the most – the poor;  immigrants; co-religionists at home or abroad.

Why do we imagine that being middle class should prevent someone from being vulnerable to an extremist ideology? If anything, history is replete with middle-class, university-educated social misfits who put their skills to the service of renegade groups.

Rather, what shocks our sensibilities is the question of how someone goes from “Nandos [restaurants] and PS4s [PlayStations]”, as one jihadi described life in the UK, to explosives and makeshift camps? If consumerism is the ideology that speaketh not its name, then how could these “middle-class” kids have slipped through the net and been open to an entirely other, oppositional ideology?

That those who are deemed to have reached the ranks of material success could turn their backs on it is utterly unintelligible because material success is the pinnacle of achievement in “free”, capitalist societies. Here, the term “middle class” serves as a shorthand for a sense of “Western freedom”, in which individual freedom is confused with and used interchangeably with consumer choice. The ability to consume should be setting us free –  why would anyone reject freedom?

Implicit within this discourse is that those who seemingly do not find their “peace” in the capitalist conception of freedom and happiness must somehow be resistant to our “ideals”. The renegade middle-classers then take on the role of a fifth column in our midst, those intractables who had it all could be turned; those trendy, party-going Muslims among you – even they represent a latent threat, a ticking time bomb of simmering anger that even shopping couldn’t cure.

These kids are our kids; they are products of Western culture, and we owe it to ourselves to ask what it is about our current culture that makes the appeal of joining a nihilistic anti-Western guerrilla group a more attractive prospect than remaining in the UK.

How are democracy, freedom and human rights being rejected in favour of an austere and violent understanding of Sharia law? The tendency is to locate the root of the problem elsewhere – within Islam, the fault of the misnomer which is religion, the last vestige of resistance to full integration within the capitalist dream of fashion consumption and reality TV dreams.

But even liberal democracies’ greatest advocates have argued that the 21st century has been a “rotten one for the Western model”. What if the values we claim to hold so dear have begun to ring hollow for many young people and more so even, for the young people targeted by Islamic State propaganda?

We can’t ignore the prevalence of recent “converts” (in the broad sense) among the fighters, young people with little knowledge of a faith they are then depicted as fighting in the name of. These individuals fit the profile not so much of spiritual devotees than that of young people attracted to an oppositional ideology, angry misfits emboldened by a pseudo-cosmic narrative.

It’s a virtual truism today to point out that young people are disillusioned with politics and wary of politicians. In the 2010 general election in the UK, only 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, the lowest turnout of all age groups and the apathetic subset from whence our young jihadis are drawn.

The same young people who have heard charades of democracy bandied about to justify Western interventionism, who have grown up experiencing the impact of the war on terror, and whose identity as Muslims has seen them labelled suspect citizens have little faith in the system.

The fact the actor turned social activist Russell Brand has created his own movement for “Revolution”, with alternative news (the Trews, with viewing figures to rival some mainstream news channels!), points to this broader state of malaise. Brand’s appeal is rooted in this wider cynicism with the vacuousness of the fame/money charade, which his personal narrative of megastar turning his back (!) on fame and fortune to focus on yoga and justice – embodies.

Brand offers young people a vindication of an alternative value system. His voice a vent for a smouldering resentment of the political class. But for those disproportionately represented in the overlapping circles of alienation – poverty, racism, politico-media witch hunts – is it any surprise this translates as a call for a more radical, violent revolution to create the “just” state.

Young people aren’t apolitical. The more mainstream appeal of movements such as Occupy and other grassroots political initiatives (Citizens UK) point to a very real interest in political matters outside of the Westminster paradigm.

But when alternative models of political expression are attempted, they are typically derided, ignored and even repressed, dismissed as the youthful folly of over-exuberant marginals, rather than recognised as the cri de coeur of a much broader segment within society which feels it doesn’t have a voice. These young fighters are merely the tip of an alienation iceberg.

For those left out of “success” as it has previously been defined, other ways of asserting one’s self worth are being sought. The “lost generation” has been blasted with fantasies of achievement and wealth but the reality is that a child from a modest background is less likely than ever to break the cycle of generational under-achievement.

As they find the traditional routes advocated to achieve that success closed to them, young people become deeply sceptical about society’s claims and more susceptible to a counter-narrative.

“The reality about the guerrilla group that arrogates the term “Islamic State” is, if you take away the word “Islamic”, what you have are young, disillusioned Europeans entranced by the concept of an idealised state, a utopia to rival the hollow claims of a system that has failed them.”

This isn’t to say Western or European cultures have nothing positive to offer. On the contrary, the fact that so many young fighters seem disillusioned with their foray into jihadism suggests they are beginning to recognise that for all the loss of democratic principles, for all the attempts to curtail civil liberties and erode basic freedoms, there is still much at good at home. But we mustn’t persist in the folly of assuming the appeal of anti-Western “jihad” has no connection to our current state of affairs.

In his book “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism”, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the liberal-democratic consensus of the modern age acts as a form of totalitarianism, impeding the imagination of alternative ways of being and doing.

For many young people who may have good reason to feel disillusioned with the current state of affairs, the oppressive mantra that liberal democracy somehow represents “the end of history” – something even Francis Fukuyama, author of the book of that title, has mitigated – engenders of a sense of a helplessness and apathy.

If this is as good as it gets, and we are not permitted to think beyond, then why bother? Or, as some clearly conclude, perhaps the system itself is the problem.

Written by Myriam Francois

November 5, 2014 at 10:06

Salon: Bill Maher’s horrible excuse: Why his defense of Islamophobia just doesn’t make any sense

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You can read the piece on the Salon website here

Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Her words seem particularly apt this week in light of Bill Maher’s recent opening of the Islamophobic floodgates during his “Last Word” interview with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. In the now infamous segment, Harris argues “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas” and that “We are misled to think the fundamentalists are the fringe.”

Muslim American academic Reza Aslan was subsequently called on by CNN to comment on Maher’s views, which he demurely dismissed, but what was most interesting was comparing the treatment of Aslan and Affleck, both voices arguing against anti-Muslim prejudice, by mainstream American TV anchors.

In his interview with CNN, Aslan, a professor of religion, was forced into an apologetic stance in which he sought to elicit a recognition that Muslims are diverse in their outlooks and beliefs, despite being persistently dismissed by both skeptical CNN interviewers.

The discussion subsequently continued without Aslan, his voice having largely been ignored until that point anyway, but what was telling was that his contribution was recast as a hostile and angry response by a third CNN presenter, Chris Cuomo: “His tone was angry. He wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

“Angry” is just another term used to invalidate someone’s position by attempting to root their arguments in emotion rather than rationality – it’s what men do to women in the “angry feminist” variation, and it’s what white people do to ethnic minorities (women especially, through the angry black woman stereotype). Cuomo was seeking to delegitimize Aslan’s perspective by making him appear as an extension of the irrational and angry faith the anchors had consistently upheld as the only valid perception of Islam.

Compare this dismissal of Aslan’s polite frustration with the response to Ben Affleck’s visceral anger and disgust at Maher’s original statements. “It’s gross and racist” Affleck retorted, his annoyance evident. But unlike Aslan, who’s subaltern identity meant he required approval from the anchors in order for his arguments to be given credence, Affleck’s white privilege allowed him to express a similar sentiment to Aslan in far cruder and more assertive terms, yet without being dismissed.

I was reminded in watching the clip of a statement by the activist Audre Lorde: “Black and Third world people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity.” Discussions involving Muslims begin with the assumption that Muslims must prove their humanity to a hostile audience, the same premise which requires Muslims with no connection to ISIL or violent jihadis to begin a campaign like “Not In My Name” so they can avoid guilt by association.

The debate has been framed as a discussion over the nature of liberalism but that is, frankly, to give Maher’s bigotry far too much credence. Maher called Islam “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing,” a statement which, when deconstructed, is a textbook illustration of bigotry.

For a start, religions don’t do or think anything – people articulate ideas or act in the name of religion; Affleck was spot-on when he queried whether Maher had somehow determined the “the codified doctrine of Islam.” And he was even more accurate when he lambasted Maher’s attempt to play on white victimhood by casting himself, a highly influential TV host, as part of an oppressed group whose voice was somehow being suppressed on issues relating to Islam and Muslims — all the while demonizing Islam and Muslims, largely unchallenged, on primetime Television.

This phony martyrdom is a classic example of what the writer Richard Seymour terms “white victimhood,” rebranding minorities as aggressors with the fictitious power to mimic the type of systemic discrimination actually experienced by those cast as outsiders. This attempt at “liberal victimhood” ultimately serves — just like white victimhood serves to undermine anti-racist struggles — as a way of delegitimizing the very real and enduring struggle against institutional racism and individual prejudice experienced every day by Muslims. ‎

TV hosts like Maher appear to revel in deliberately inviting debate with known moderate Muslim figures in order to seemingly undermine them, and thus simultaneously undermine the very notion of a moderate Islam. There are no moderates, the common refrain goes; or as Maher himself stated on the show, “Its not a few bad apples”, implying that the net of suspicion should be cast on every Muslim who isn’t merely a “nominal Muslim.” (The thinking here being that the only good Muslim is one who doesn’t actually identify with their faith.)

The sheer recklessness of claiming that Muslims share “too much in common with ISIS,” a violent guerrilla group which has incidentally beheaded far more Muslims than it has Americans, can hardly be overstated. There is an increasing and alarming consonance between the far-right discourse of Muslims — that they are an existential threat out to destroy western civilization — and the language spouted by Maher and others, who insist that it isn’t a minority, but the majority, of Muslims who represent a threat to liberal ideals. And this discourse isn’t happening in a vacuum. New York City public transit currently features a series of ads paid for by the polemicist Pamela Gellar, featuring the phrase, “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline,” above a picture from the beheading of James Foley. Meanwhile, the latest advertisement for TV series “Homeland” features Clare Danes as a blonde red-riding hood in what writer Laura Durkey describes as a “forest of faceless Muslim wolves.”

A consequence of this Islamophobia, and the ‎intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Western societies, is that Muslims are facing increasingly tough conditions. According to NYPD figures, anti-Muslim hate crimes are up 143 percent since last year.

Just as minarets or face veils have become imbued with a significance ‎beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination ‎against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the ‎fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, and thus are fair targets. But people don’t choose the significance that ‎others attribute to their symbols — especially when they themselves have so little access ‎to defining them for themselves. People don’t have a choice in the stereotypes and ‎assumptions people make on the basis of their skin color, nor do they have a ‎choice in the stereotypes concerning the symbols which people interpret ‎according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural ‎incompatibility. ‎To be Muslim in America today is to be first and foremost a walking signifier for other people’s prejudice — regardless of how many credentials come after your name.

It is the height of civilizational arrogance to assume you understand a creed, the manifestation of which varies not only in transit from Asia to Africa via the Middle east and Europe; but which also varies in its understanding even within nations and among peoples. And it is bigotry without bounds to suggest that those adherents of a faith — a faith persistently maligned in the public sphere, with little to no ability to rectify its public perception — are the ones wielding any power to redefine or even constrain American ideals.

American Muslims are literally being left out of the conversation over what it means to be American. When they are present, they are forced into justifying their own humanity in order to absolve their very presence in the debate. More typically, they are simply kept absent, a faceless monolith for Americans to cast their darkest prejudice upon, fuelled by a self-righteous notion that they are in fact the carriers of a superior moral ideal, under threat from the enemy within.

It is a telling indictment of our times that some of our most illustrious academics, who happen to be Muslim, should have to sit through the public humiliation of an interview in which their competency is questioned on the basis of their religious identity. In any conversation in which American values are being discussed, Islam is the image against which America constructs its own civility, the bogeyman against which to contrast American greatness and American Muslims are the unwitting casualties of a struggle which persistently dismisses them as the unalterable “other.”

Written by Myriam Francois

October 15, 2014 at 10:36

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

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You can read the original piece on the Middle East Eye website here

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 Myriam Francois

October 1, 2014 at 10:37

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

with 2 comments

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 Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:58

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