Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Bavures and Shibboleths – language in Morocco

Morocco-school-MerzougaAs anyone who follows this blog knows, I am rather preoccupied with the question of language. Both the fus7adarija dimension, and the whole question of foreign languages. (And of course the matter of Tamazight.) To dispense with the first, I have little doubt that the very high levels of illiteracy (a recent op-ed in by Abderrahmane Lahlou L’Economiste quotes Ministry of Education figures for illiteracy as high as 76% at primary grade 4) are not going to be significantly reduced until the diglossia on which they rest is resolved.  This means some version of the Zakoura Foundation’s proposal to make darija the language of instruction at least in early primary, before converting to fus7a when pupils are ready. (Zakoura describes this process as building a passerelle, or footbridge, from the mother tongue to Arabic.) Champions of classical Arabic rest their arguments on Arab or Islamic solidarity, the price of which is widespread illiteracy, and Zakoura’s recommendations have been deliberately misrepresented by many who should know better.

There is no visible evidence that Arabic is well enough taught in Moroccan schools for there to be any hope of its prospering as the universal language of literacy. It is a discussion that needs to be conducted on evidence, but the scenes of emotional and histrionic disorder that break out in parliament whenever it arises suggest that the day of evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived. Parliament itself is not wholly qualified to handle the evidence: Houda Filali-Ansary wrote in La Vie Eco of the last parliament, si l’on trouve toujours des élus ayant le niveau d’études primaire, ils sont de moins en moins nombreux, tout comme l’élu totalement analphabète est une espèce en voie de disparition. Certes, dans un certain nombre de cas, il s’agit de députés d’un certain âge. In other words, a certain number of older MPs can’t read themselves, and others have only primary education. Well, it’s generally the old fellows waving their order papers and shouting.

As for foreign languages, which the King emphasized so strongly in his August 2013 education speech, French is becoming the language of an old elite. Demand for English is growing very fast, and that for French is not. A senior fonctionnaire said to me a couple of years ago “La francophonie, c’est une prison,” the language of a colonial and post-colonial elite which is of less and less currency in the world of ideas and research, let alone film, music and youth culture. Certainly there is much that is to be treasured in francophone Moroccan literature, and it will always be accessible, but English seems to be becoming the foreign language of choice for the younger generation. Willy-nilly.

As I said in response to a recent argument on Twitter on this subject, we may not like it – but complaining about it is a bit like complaining about the weather. I tweeted a link to an essay I wrote last year, towards the end of my four years in Morocco, called Bavures and Shibboleths: The Changing Ecology of Culture and Language in Morocco which I think adds something to the discussion, and I have added it to the masthead of this blog (or you can find it here).

Breaking things for spite, north of Baldock

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Ordering the library at Alexandria put to the torch in 642, Amr ibn al-‘As is supposed to have said that whatever was in it that agreed with the Quran was superfluous, whatever disagreed with the Quran, impious. The story is not true (the library had been burned several times before, and Amr was an ‘As, not an ass), but it makes for a good vignette of fanatical vandalism. In fact, something close to the opposite was more typical of the Muslim conquest of the Roman and Sassanian empires. Within a century of the first conquests the scientific and philosophical texts of the Greeks were being carried to Baghdad by the barrow-load and translated into Arabic. Baghdad became the greatest entrepôt of intercultural knowledge in the world for half a millennium, and the focus of the broadest, deepest literary culture the world had yet seen. While Rome was a sheep-grazed, bandit-infested ruin and Paris and London were daub-and-wattle villages, Baghdad held the torch for civilisation. And long after Baghdad had faded, sacked by Mongols in 1258, Cordoba in Andalus took up the same torch, becoming the window through which Christians could access the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of Greeks and Arabs. Audacious scholars like Friar Bacon of Oxford went there to study in the world’s greatest libraries at the knees of an older and intellectually much more sophisticated culture than their own.

So the current slew of destruction being visited on libraries, museums and monuments across Daechi bandit country is not consonant with the mainstream history of Islam, traditionally greedy for knowledge and attentive to the past; though it has often surfaced as vicious undercurrent, just as destructive iconoclastic puritanism surfaced in Byzantium and later in the West. It is easy (and absolutely right) to abhor this kind of ignorant, solipsistic vandalism, but in doing so we should also remember our own Reformation, which involved the wholesale destruction of monastic libraries (a century later Aubrey still laments finding manuscript pages lining pie-dishes), the purging of images from churches, the ripping-out of tombs, the smashing of stained-glass and the burning alive of conscientious objectors. Religious reformation is not a kind business, something often forgotten when supercilious commentators in the West opine that Islam still awaits its Reformation: Islam is arguably having its own reformation, right now, and it is very messy. Disintermediation, the impatient establishment of direct lines between the individual and God, the individual and the holy texts, is a radically destabilising business. In our case, fluffy Anglicanism was still several centuries away, so we would do well not to hold our breath as we wait for fluffy Islam.

We should remember too the destruction of war, and the libraries of Germany destroyed in Allied action – perhaps a third of all the books in Germany in 1939 were burned in the next six years, and many of the great buildings of the Reich. And closer to home, we must not forget how in Baghdad US troops allowed the Iraq Museum to be looted and the National Library to burn down. Little of this (though there are exceptions, like the Bosnian national library), in modern times at least, is the deliberate, nihilistic cultural warfare that Daech seems to revel in – and which is the mark of Wahhabi Salafism wherever it spreads its dark wings, from the destruction of the early Muslim graves and the houses of the Prophet’s family at Mecca to the desecration of sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mosul or Tunis. In the shadow of those same black wings universities are stripped of their books and their faculties, whole spectra of humanistic subjects banned and punished. As Ibn al-Ass said, even if Ibn al-‘As didn’t, “Whatever agrees with the Quran is superfluous, whatever disagrees with the Quran, impious.”

The uncompromising puritanism and relentless logic of uber-tawhid, the paranoid monotheism that tries to obliterate any distraction, any hint of reverence for the human, any wisp of suspicion of mediation between man and God – this is a recurrent but not dominant strand throughout Muslim history, the simplistic, assertive self-doubt of the outsider faced with things too complicated to grasp or too subtle to explore. In our day it has been propagated, and vastly inflated, by a tidal wave of money from the Persian Gulf in what one can only describe as one of the most successful cultural relations offensives of modern times.

And the more we hate it, the more they do it, because riling the West is very much part of the script in Iraq these days. Anything the Daesh can do to bait the old colonial powers (and contemporary manipulators) of the West is attractive: blowing up winged bulls and colossal buddhas is much more satisfying than just thumbing your nose. “Come and get us,” those sledgehammers cry – because their apocalyptic, chiliastic schema demands foreign troops on Muslim soil to provoke their Armageddon. It is tragic and extraordinarily ahistorical, the obsessive hyperlink back to the mid-seventh century, denying all the greatness of Islamic civilization that has come since, and the earlier civilizations on whose shoulders it stands. And that of course is just the point. What little information we can assemble about the educational background of the better-educated Islamists of Daech or the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that they are engineers, computer-programmers, doctors, vets and agronomists. Not a historian, archæologist or sociologist in sight: these are men trained in disciplines that only allow right and wrong answers. I’m reminded obliquely of Talat Pasa, reproached by Henry Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, with Turkish plans to blow up Ayya Sofia in case of an allied landing, who replied smugly, “There aren’t six men in the Committee of Union and Progress who care for anything old. We only like new things,”

But our being visibly traumatized probably does more harm than good, and much of the work of saving Iraq’s heritage necessarily goes on in secret, without fanfare, just as the libraries of Timbuktu were smuggled piecemeal to safety before the book-burning barbarians arrived in town. Better for us to document, and at a personal level, to remember. I have been looking through photographs and remembering Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur from my time in Iraq in 1989 and 1990, before the first Anglo-American (etc) War. We were privileged to be in Iraq at a time when all these extraordinary and wonderful places were intact, almost empty and mostly visitable. I climbed the ziggurat at Ur with my mother, at least as far as the soldiers in the anti-aircraft battery on the top would let us; I scrambled up the citadel at Nineveh among the fragments of ancient Assyria; I stroked the beards of the winged bulls at Nimrud – with one of them I photographed my daughter, and it is desolating to think of some hirsute imbecile destroying it with a bulldozer. In the alleys of Mosul I found smoky churches, thick with incense and ostrich eggs, that far pre-dated Islam; at Hatra the strange statues with giant blackberries on their heads which we have just witnessed hammered to oblivion; and by the banks of the Tigris we watched a Mandæan wedding, a congeries of rituals from long before the birth of Christ. In all this we were more fortunate than we then realized, and while I shudder at what is happening both to people and to history, I remember with a very real, if grim, joy. And I think of the Mesopotamian plain, cluttered with mounds as far as the eye can see, each one a town or city, still largely unexcavated and likely to remain so, however fast and hard the Daechi bulldozers loot.


I was reminded recently that Baldock in Hertfordshire is named after Baghdad. When the Knights Templar founded the market town of Baldock in the 1140s, they seem to have called it Baldac, or Baudac, both versions of the contemporary French name for Baghdad. Whether this represents a manifesto of their intention to retain the Real McCoy in the face of Muslim attempts to recapture it, or whether it was a piece of sympathetic magic meant to boost trade at their newly granted market by the spring of the river Ivel, I do not know. The great bronze canopy over the altar at St Peter’s is a baldaquin, or baldacchino, named for the Baghdadi taffeta of which less permanent regal canopies were made. Another Baghdadi taffeta, ‘ataba, gives us ‘tabby’ – first a cloth and then, by analogy a cat, though a cat that supposedly reached England from Cyprus in the baggage of another ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, as a gift for Archbishop Laud. It was known at first as a Cyprus Cat rather than a Baldock Pussy. That’s probably quite enough etymology, and I end by wondering how Baldock has missed the trick of twinning itself with Baghdad (somehow Eisenberg and Sanvignes-les-Mines lack the zing of – forgive me – the ur-Baghdad). I shall clearly have to refer henceforth to Baghdad as Baldock.

Herd Immunity and e-pidemics


In the case of Fnideq, with its extraordinary density of young terrorist recruits (see my last post) I find myself mulling not just over propaganda, but over contagion, and wonder if the tools of epidemiology might not be as useful to understand it as radicalization theory. I don’t of course mean by this simply the glib image of ‘radical Islam’ as a rampaging virus in a grubby turban. But I do think that there may be more interesting parallels in looking at the way information, acceptability, normalization and recruitment develop. The density of cases of departure on jihad in Fnideq, at one percent of the total population (and perhaps 15 percent of young men in the poorer quarters) is so great that it does seem to behave almost like a highly infectious disease. What proportion of cases per thousand of population would push – have pushed – the ‘epidemic’ beyond the control of public health, or in this case public security, officials to achieve an unstoppable momentum of its own? Is there a percentage of population that must succumb before the dam breaks, and what epidemiologists call ‘herd immunity’ – the level of inoculation or immunity that gives protection to the whole of a population group by making the vulnerable too few for effective transmission – breaks down?

It is reckoned that immunization levels of about 92-94 percent will guard a community against measles, those who are un-immunized being protected by their scarcity in a much larger protected population. When immunization levels drop (through ignorance, laziness, or faddish refusal to use MMH vaccine), hotspots emerge where immunizations levels are particularly low, and then they spread and join up. It is what has happened during the ebola epidemic in Monrovia and Freetown, and what the government of Freetown is trying to counter with its three-day city lockdown. Like infectious disease the jihad jumps from person to person opportunistically. Where resistance is low, progress is fast. Where each infected person infects more than one other, the epidemic grows – and where fewer, it shrinks and ultimately disappears. Moving from the former situation to the latter is as much the business of counter-terrorist thinkers as it is of epidemiologists.

It’s easy enough to see why immunity is low in the poor quarters of poor towns on the Mediterranean coastal plain, where hash-smuggling is a staple, education poor, youth unemployment appalling, and where the poor live in proximity to the very rich. In Fnideq everyone knows someone who has gone to Syria, and everyone has family across the border in Sebta where “the Moroccan quarter, called Principe, is a real nest of jihadists. It is in many ways a ghetto, and the Spanish police practically never set foot there.” Principe is, in public health terms, a source of infection. It’s actually quite hard to imagine that number of people in a small town simply taking off for jihad; and it’s certainly not sufficient, though it may well be necessary, to imagine each of them sitting in a lonely bedroom with a 3G key, independently reaching identical ideological conclusions. Personal contact is needed too, and the life-opportunities that the lads at the café talk about are as likely to be jihad as jobs. The idea of jihad, the jihadi meme, which hops from victim to victim, finds easy new hosts. ONERDH suggests that the virus has evolved as viruses do, so far, over two ‘generations’ of adaptation. We may see that as a parallel to the adaptive behaviour of a real virus, which, having exhausted the pool of those susceptible to its original form, evolves very fast and begins to try other ways of entering other hosts. The jihad virus/meme has mostly exhausted the pool of those accessible through religious means, and has moved on in slightly different form to hosts whose interests are – initially at least – more material and more self-centred.

I recently, courtesy of my student son, came across a fascinating article in the New England Journal of Medicine on – of all the strange analogies – the spread of obesity, a study using a long-term (32-year) network analysis to try and see whether obesity is at least in part socially transmitted. The study showed that for individuals at one degree of separation from obese members of the original group tracked, the chance of obesity was 45 percent higher than random, and if the two people were actually friends, it was 57 percent higher. Among the study’s conclusions is the suggestion that “the psycho-social mechanisms of the spread of obesity may rely less on behavioural imitation than on a change in [a person’s] general perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity.” And if that happens in social networks in the US, it seems very probable that dense radicalizing networks, like those in Fnideq, change the social norms regarding the social acceptability of jihad. And it makes good sense: we don’t really need the NEJM to tell us that if our friends are all doing something, we are more likely to do it too.

Perhaps this is a useful way of thinking about radicalization and jihadi recruitment. It is clear that there is a lot of internet flirtation with radicalizing materials. In an immunized population, this sort of sporadic, or stochastic, occurrence would flare occasionally and die out. But in a dense and susceptible population where immunization and resistance are low, and networking close-packed, it spreads like wildfire. Natural immunity may come at first from a lazy secularism, so the infection develops to spread through different channels: it appeals to the frustrated, jobless or marginally employed, bored, hopeless and listless young. The same sort of young people, in other words, who a few years ago would have slipped away to Europe.

What constitutes immunization in this metaphorical sense? It is perhaps a heady cocktail of jobs, healthcare, education, opportunity, respect and permission to hope for a better future, to engage in a political process with the hope and intention of change. In the absence of this serum, the germ spreads. It’s interesting to note the conclusion to the TelQuel article (on Daechi recruitment) that I quoted in my last post, and the evidence from Marrakech of a specifically religious immunization. In the Ochre City, it seems, herd immunity is intact:

One can’t yet predict the decline of ideological jihadism in favour of a jihadism … which has more to do with adventure. A city like Marrakech is proof that ideology and religious discourse still have their place, given that the number of departures on jihad [from Marrakech] is extremely low, thanks to a local salafist network that is firmly apolitical and pacifist. Even so, the migration (hijra) and combat to which Daech calls seem still to hit their mark: “A response to frustration,” suggests Mohamed Mesbah [a researcher]. Above all, it’s the emptiness they feel that all the candidates seem to have in common: an emptiness in politics, in spiritual life, in social life … that’s the common denominator.”

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The Pied Pipers of Fnideq


A couple of weeks ago I was in Morocco for a conference about the Social Media, at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane; and then went on down to Rabat for a day or two. It was a visit bracketed by terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sana’a, with much blood shed and much more, I’m afraid, to come. Odd, in the circumstances, that in all the perceptive and stimulating discussion of the social media at AUI there was no single mention of what is so close to the top of our own minds in Europe, the use of those same media for terrorist propaganda and recruitment. It’s not that it’s not happening in Morocco: it is. A former salafist prisoner is quoted in the Moroccan press this week as saying that while al-Qaeda’s recruitment was a relatively long, slow process of indoctrination, “Today, thousands of young people train themselves in their own bedrooms with nothing more than a 3G key.” It was a lacuna in a future-scoping conference, given the relentless virtuosity with which Daech has developed and deployed its social media skills.

I find a growing concern amongst Moroccan friends at the reach of the terrorists and the presence of returned jihadis; and growing discomfort at Morocco’s fecundity as a source of recruits. The attack on the Bardo in Tunis is a chilling reminder of how tourism offers a soft underbelly of a target, with immense economic implications. In recent months there has been a marked stepping-up of visible security in Rabat with hadar – vigilance – patrols of well-armed security personnel (always a policemen and two soldiers, a strutting dactyl in pink epaulettes) patrolling the city and the major roads around it.

I sat happily in Rabat cafés reading a pile of newspapers and magazines with my coffee. In Spain, I read, a Moroccan woman has been arrested after arranging the journeys of as many as 40 other women to Syria from right across Europe and the Arab world. A specialized e-procuress, targeting breeding-stock for the caliphate. Recounting the story of this 30-year old woman, originally from Tetouan, who emigrated to Spain in 2000, Akbar al-Yaoum writes that it all started when she turned to the internet to fill a void in her life. On Facebook she made a virtual friend who showed her a better future in Syria for her and her son, as well as a reasonable salary if she agreed to join the “women who defend Islam.” According to the paper, which picks up an article originally published in El Pais, Samira was quickly indoctrinated to turn even against her own husband. Furthermore, she quickly became an effective recruiter of women on behalf of Daech, and especially of young women of child-bearing age. The newspaper expresses astonishment that this young woman defended, tooth and nail, during her judicial interrogation, the doctrines of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, making it quite clear that she would happily show her young child the YouTube videos of hostages being decapitated by the bloodthirsty men of Daech.

And all this, at least according to the writer, because she needed something to fill a void in her emigrant life, and found that something in the abyss of the internet. It’s a useful prototype of the process – a personal emptiness solaced by virtual contact, with material inducements offered, followed only later by indoctrination – but indoctrination that seems to have led to real, tooth-and-nail commitment.

Meanwhile TelQuel has a cover story on Daechi recruitment, focusing on Morocco itself, where the Ministry of the Interior counts 1,500 jihadis who have gone to Syria and Iraq. A high proportion comes from the north coast, the old Spanish protectorate where the Rif runs down to the sea (and where of course lies Tetouan, home of Samira the e-procuress). Of Morocco’s 1,500 jihadis no fewer than 500 come from the single town of Fnideq, two kilometres from Sebta (Ceuta) on that coast. With a population of about 50,000, Fnideq has the – perhaps unique – distinction of seeing one percent of its entire population fighting in Syria and Iraq. Most of them come from the quarters that are, in that delicate French euphemism, defavorisés – quarters at the top of the town called Ras Lota, Kondessa, Lebrare, and Lmarja. Here the proportion is much higher than one percent – perhaps (and I’m guessing) ten or fifteen percent of young adult males.

Of the current second generation of jihadis, reckons ONERDH (the Northern Human Rights Observatory), 60 percent have in some sense been recruited through the internet and – as so often in Britain – they have mostly given no signs of radicalization before leaving. As one father from Fnideq put it, “He had no beard, nor anything else. He never went to the mosque. He was an electrician and earned a good living. One day he told me he was going to Larache for work.” Others are less prosperous, 50 percent in casual employment, 57 percent with no education beyond primary school. And 67 percent of them are under 24 years old. ONERDH identifies two distinct generations, already, of Moroccan jihadis. The first “was attracted by the prospect of helping destitute people, and by holy war.” The second, today’s, generation is driven by “self-fulfilment, the lust for adventure and the search for material well-being.”

This lattercategory are uncannily similar to the economic migrants who buy a dangerous passage on a fishing smack to Spain, and the ‘second generation’ analysis suggests that the motivations may not be dissimilar. The north coast of Morocco is prime migration country. In Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun describes the young men sitting listlessly after sunset at a seafront café looking across the strait to Spain: The customers know one another but do not converse. Most of them come from the same neighbourhood and have just enough to pay for the tea and a few pipes of kif. Some have a slate on which they keep track of their debt. As if by agreement, they keep still. Especially at this hour and at this delicate moment, when their whole being is caught up in the distance, studying the slightest ripple of the waves, or the soud of an old boat coming into the harbour. Sometimes, hearing the echo of a cry for help, they look at one another without turning a hair. The cafés of Fnideq are perhaps very similar, young men tempted by different dreams, different ways out, and looking across the sea for bright lights and transformative hopes.

Parents in Morocco as in Britain, say that their children showed no obvious signs of changing lifestyle before legging it to Larache or Gatwick. The process of radicalization, which we speak about as though we understood it, is as varied as the people who pass through it. Some are religious, many are not. The encouragement and support of a small group of friends seems important, as Marc Sageman pointed out as long ago as 2004: “social bonds play a more important role in the emergence of the global salafi jihad than ideology,” whether in a Fnideq café, a Sudanese teaching hospital or a Bethnal Green school. It also suggests an explanation for the role of online grooming, the constant iteration of messages from those who have gone before, calling like sirens to friends and acquaintances. Since Sageman wrote in 2004, the social networks themselves have spread across the world, and much of the intense conversation that used to take place in cafés and on street-corners now spins out internationally, in virtual space. Morocco’s security forces are pretty good at rolling up actual physical recruiting networks (a Daech cell was busted in Fnideq as recently as January). But the café and the 3G key seem still to provide simple answers to some of life’s old problems.




Electronic Sabine Women


When you are building a state you need women. Without them, the state is bunch of warriors who, however heroic, ferocious and bloody, and however magnificent their whiskers, will eventually get killed, grow old, go home. Without women there can be no state because there is no permanence, no real settlement, no homes, no children. Warriors in male communities like the ribats of North Africa grow no roots and, fickle as they are, will eventually drift on to other wars and other places. Women are the esparto grass that binds the sand-dunes together, to make a military camp into a state.

And a state is what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his myrmidons in Raqqah are very keen indeed to be acknowledged as having built. They are very touchy about nomenclature: they don’t like to be called Daesh (even though it is a perfectly good acronym, ad-Dawlat al-Islamiya fi-l‘Iraq wa-ash-Shams – ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’), perhaps because it rhymes with something.  It is always used, in the wonderfully prim word favoured by the British press, ‘pejoratively.’ Worse though, Daesh positively hates the way al-Jazeera refers to them insistently as ‘the Islamic State Organization’ (Tanzim). Their entire claim to legitimacy rests on being a state, not an organization.

Without a tangible, braggable state the Caliphate is not just flimsy, it is non-existent: a caliph without a state is like a belt with no trousers to hold up. Because number one amongst the attributes that make it both possible and perhaps even obligatory to declare a caliphate is the control of a large swathe of territory. A Tanzim  – organization – doesn’t have that.  A dawla – state – does. So al-Baghdadi needs to be recognized as having a state, otherwise his own legitimacy as caliph  is undermined. And while there are many other strands to Daesh’s self-justification, this is an important one. (It is also of course why we should never refer to his outfit as IS, or ISIS or ISIL, because every time we say the S-word Daesh gets a little more real – like children shouting “I believe in fairies” to revive the dying Tinkerbell at Peter Pan.)

Romulus, the founder of Rome, ran into the women problem two or three years after founding the city in 753 BC. He had lots of warriors and seven promising hills by the Tiber, but no women. His men were getting restless and thinking a great deal too much about sex. There was a risk that they would move on, and anyway no prospect of permanence in his new city-state unless he could get hold of some women. So he invited the various Sabine tribes in the vicinity of Rome to a party, and when they were all royally drunk, kidnapped their women and chucked the menfolk out of the city. This is referred to as the Rape of the Sabine Women, and although historians argue about whether the women were raped or just seized and later sweet-talked into ‘marriage,’ the argument at this distance is fairly academic because little Romans soon started to appear, and the rest is history.

The Raqqah caliphate needs a new generation of jihadi Muslims. The majority of its jihadis are locals – Iraqi Sunnis and former Ba’thists who were systematically alienated by the Shi’a regime, Syrian Sunnis who were systematically alienated by the crypto-Shi’a Alawi elite of the Asad family. Some at least of these have families to defend, but many, perhaps most, don’t. As one Syrian fighter puts it, The economic crisis casts its grim shadow over middle class people … struggling to survive in the face of soaring prices, high taxes and low incomes. Young men could not marry and start a family until they were over 30. This emasculation – the despair at having no prospect of job, a home or the means to marry and support a family – is a commonplace amongst young people across the Middle East and North Africa. Once combined with a political resentment and a justificatory ideological narrative, it is explosive.

To keep them happy and to breed the the next generation, the Caliphate needs women. There are local Muslim women in the area controlled by the caliphate – Arabs, Kurds, Circassians and others, and many reports of forced marriage of unmarried women to Daeshi fighters. In many cases ‘marriage’ may be a rather loose description of the transaction, but outright and wholesale rape of Muslim women, though it certainly happens, is not a long-term solution because the people of Raqqah and Mosul and the other Daeshi towns need to be kept on-side. The locals are known as Ansar, or supporters, and a minimum of orderly restraint is needed to retain their support – forcible ‘marriage’ to a man’s daughter is not the best way to his heart. Let alone hers.

The problem, however, comes in two parts, sex and marriage. The first is easily enough satisfied, by reviving the supposedly traditional and Prophetically sanctioned enslavement of non-Muslim women whose menfolk are defeated in war. These women are simply loot, ghanima, to be taken and used. One author (Weiss/Hassan, Inside ISIS, 2015) writes of a Daeshi fighter:

Abdelaziz … kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya or sex-slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the peshmerga forces in Sinjar. According to ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex-slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to ISIS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; and the remainder was divided amongst the rank-and-file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war. Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She ‘belonged’ to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other ISIS commanders.

Boko Haram does almost exactly the same thing, capturing Christian girls and enslaving them for sex and perhaps child-bearing. Some of these desperately unfortunate women are forced to convert to Islam, and become subject to the caliph’s interpretation of shariah law on the matter of marriage, which in this case means up to four wives and as much human loot as you can manage. But there is, in the caliphate (though perhaps not in Bornu or the Sinai), another source of women, referred to by Mohamed Tozy as those performing the Jihad de Sexe. These are the women from across the Muslim world, who throw up everything and head for Syria in order to be part of the Daeshi enterprise, pious citizens of their soi-disant state. They may represent as many as one in six of those going from western countries to the caliphate.

Why do they go? The question needs an answer, as we contemplate the three teenagers from Bethnal Green who used their half term holiday to slip away from their families to Turkey and on across the border into the Black Hole once known as Syria. They were good students, clearly apples of their parents’ eye, and they had given no obvious signs of excessive religiosity or jihadi sympathies. On the face of it they and others like them are going voluntarily to join an economy of female flesh that is hard to imagine any young girl contemplating without horror. They will almost certainly marry fighters, perhaps bear children and in due course, still in their teens, be widowed when their bearded husbands die in battle, or blow themselves up in a bus queue or vegetable market.

These premature, often adolescent, widows will then bring up their their daughters for the same throwaway, leave-behind-bride routine that they have undergone themselves. As for their sons, they will go to jihad school for a programme of systematic indoctrination – and brutalisation. Another recent book (Stern/Berger, ISIS – Inside the Terror State, 2015) describes the sort of thing: a young boy is being interviewed on a Daesh propaganda film. “What will you be in the future, if God wills it?” the interviewer asked. “I will be the one who slaughters you, oh kuffar,” the boy responded, grinning at the camera. “I will be a mujahid, if God wills it.” One 10-year-old boy from the video was seen in a subsequent release executing two prisoners. Such videos and images are far from rare. Isis members routinely post images on social media of children holding severed heads and playing on streets where dismembered bodies are splayed carelessly on the sidewalk. One image posted to Twitter showed a child playacting the beheading of American hostage James Foley using a doll.

The caliphate’s education policy seems clear (though the sources must always be approached with some circumspection). Isis strictly controls the education of children in the territory it holds. According to a teacher from Raqqa, Isis considers philosophy, science, history, art and sport to be incompatible with Islam. “Those under 15 go to sharia camp to learn about their creed and religion,” an Isis press officer in Raqqa told Vice News. “Those over 16, they can attend the military camp … Those over 16 and who were previously enrolled in the camps can participate in military operations.” But in Isis propaganda videos, even younger children are shown being trained in the use of firearms. And, as the authors add drily, Isis follows a trend of training ever-younger operatives. By doing so they hope to ensure a new generation of fighters. Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organisations that have children ready to step into their fathers’ shoes.

The effect that this has on children is barely imaginable (except that in the child armies of West Africa we have seen the desolating plasticity of the child forced young into violence, and the profound damage done to that child). But the question that comes back and back is: do young women setting off from western countries suspect the fate that awaits their unborn children and themselves? Do they welcome it? Do they think about it? Some of course move with their menfolk. But the real enigma is those, like the three young Londoners, who set off, starry-eyed, to join this blood-soaked ideological enterprise. They clearly want to share in the romantic adventure, the creation of a godly state. Some think they will fight, but are disappointed to find that this is not the purpose of the females imported into the caliphate – though some talk, in the poignant language of a disneyfied childhood, of “pulling a Mulan,” or going into battle disguised as boys. They don’t: their life is one of marriage, sex, breeding, cooking, cleaning and early widowhood, the lot of the soldier’s wife down the ages.

A recent report called Becoming Mulan (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) analyzes the trails of social media activity left by these young women, particularly those whose job is to lure others to follow them. It seems that on top of the jobs of the soldier’s wife down the ages, they are expected to use social media to attract others. This seems very clear in the way the three London girls followed another friend from their own school who had left for Syria a few weeks earlier. Radicalization by social media takes place in the bedroom, in front of a laptop, and female friendship is central: Beyond romantic attachment, and in common with their male counterparts, the women within our dataset speak of the sense of cameraderie and sisterhood they experience in ISIS-controlled territory, in contrast to the fake and surface-level relationships they have in the west. This search for meaning, sisterhood and and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.

Or, as Hanif Qadir, a former jihadi in Afghanistan puts it, You’ve got young men and women on social media platforms in the middle of the night when they should be doing their homework or should be in bed. But they’re being engaged or groomed online, even though they may not know it … these girls have been ripped out of their households to join a network of individuals who clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. How did this happen? Social media.

As I was contemplating this puzzle, I happened on a quite different news story, headlined Nuns turn to social media to tackle lack of recruits. It tells of how Spanish convents, unable to recruit novices to the religious life, have taken to using a website called Buscoalgomas, or ‘I’m looking for something more.’  One convent alone reports 200,000 visits to its website, 8,000 Facebook likes, 461 Twitter followers and 12 nuns recruited through the social media (augmenting the convent’s population by 65%). The average age of nuns is plummeting, with the convent’s own average now down to 35, and the typical electronically recruited novice aged 20-30. This rings a bell. So does the comment by one sister, They’re trying to find their place in the world and what attracts them about the convent is the joy and affection they find there. Or another, These days no one goes to a convent, so we have to be on Twitter and Facebook. And a third, We have to be in touch with reality, and listen to people who are suffering, both existentially and materially.

What this suggests to me is something more subtle and complex than simply the external cultivation – radicalization – of young men and women, clear though this is. These stories speak of a generation of young people looking for meaning. It is an emptiness and a search that clearly affects both Catholic Spaniards and Muslim Britons – and no doubt many more, too, trying to find their place in the world and looking for joy and affection through the medium of their generation – the internet.  The problem is that Raqqah is not a convent, the price is very high, and the street one-way.



A Heavily-armed Mediæval Hyperlink


At the very end of 2013 Patrick Cockburn was asked by his editor to nominate a Middle Eastern ‘Man of the Year.’ He named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a name that did not resonate much except with a small number of Western specialists – and a growing number of Iraqis and Syrians. In January al-Baghdadi’s troops seized Falluja, going on in the early summer to take Tikrit and Mosul. In June he declared a Caliphate – an ‘Islamic State’ – and himself Caliph. Large parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border were bulldozed and declared irrelevant, and by the end of the year the Daesh (as they tend to be called by unsympathetic Arabs, using their Arabic acronym) held a great arc of territory stretching from the edges of Aleppo to the gates of Baghdad. It’s hard to overstate the momentousness of this extraordinary series of events. The post-Great War imperial dispensation is gone: Sykes-Picot, with its red zones and blue zones demarcating British and French spheres of interest, is fading like the smile on the Cheshire Cat as the nations that those zones had become, in turn become fluid and interpenetrating.

Whatever else happens now, the Shia state of Iraq is over, quaint relic of a brief period of half-hearted Western state-building. An oppressed majority in Ba’athist Iraq, the Shia became the sectarian, unrepentantly oppressive and profoundly corrupt government after the US invasion. Then, as the focus opened up and national boundaries fell away, they were revealed once again as a vulnerable minority in a much wider Sunni Arab world that likes them not very much at all. They rely on Iran and the US for their survival. Under Saddam, inter-communal peace, if not always affection, was maintained. Inter-marriage was fairly common. But the Sunni strategists of the caliphate, driven by an abhorrence of the Shi’a shared by a range of Wahhabis, Islamists, Salafis and jihadis, have made sectarian warfare their signature. Shi’ites, with their reverence for tombs, shrines and imams are idolaters to the purists and so automatically apostates whose punishment is death. The insurgents have driven careful wedges between the communities with the bombings of Shi’i shrines in 2006-7 and the industrial sectarian murders that followed. Provoking civil war proved easy enough in the end, and the shedding of much blood is welcomed.

Al-Baghdadi represents the teeth of the wider Sunni world. Though the complexities of funding and support in this messy proxy war are complicated, he and his confrères in other jihadi organizations represent an urgent desire amongst Sunni monarchs to dish the Shi’a – and dished they probably now will be, unless the Iranians can save a rump state. The Iraqi government watched with flaccid incomprehension the collapse of its hollowed-out, venal army which threw down its arms at Mosul and fled before a tiny force of jihadis, and still seems incapable of putting up serious resistance to anything or anybody. What fight-back there is, is provided by Shi’ite militias and US bombers. Without the US, Arbil would be in their hands, Kobani would have fallen, and perhaps Baghdad itself. As it is, stasis may be reached for a time, but no easily visible kind of settlement.

This fast-moving and complicated scenario needs careful explanation, and it has got it, from Patrick Cockburn, in his excellent new Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution. It’s a short book, in modest and proper recognition that we don’t yet know very much; but everything that we do (or should) know about the geo-politics of the Daeshi ‘state’ is carefully and effectively marshalled by Cockburn in a powerful argument. This is no more than one expects from the single most interesting writer in English on Iraq and Syria. (If you don’t follow him in the London Review of Books, you should).

If we ever had any doubt, the deeply sectarian nature of the Middle East conflict is made very clear. “Government rule over the Sunni Arab heartlands of north and central Iraq has evaporated,” writes Cockburn, quoting the Iraqi Deputy National Security Adviser as saying that “when 100 ISIS fighters take over an area, they normally recruit five or ten times their original force.” Research by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss (to be published later this month) goes further in showing that “much of the senior leadership of Islamic State is actually made up of Saddam-era Baath Party members.” This is a seismic movement, which will have massive impact on the architecture of the Middle East, and perhaps of Islam. Not perhaps precisely the chiliastic outcomes that al-Baghdadi and his myrmidons trumpet, but one resulting nonetheless in a new regional order and a new Middle East.

One of the many fascinations is the way the West has been blind-sided by the whole business: to listen to Western governments is to realize that what Cockburn calls ISIS’s ‘Hundred Days’ came as a complete surprise to all of them. This is largely because of the impossible knots into which the West has tied itself over Syria, a Gordian tangle that Cockburn examines eloquently. By focusing for much too long on (and believing possible, without committing serious resources to) the removal of Bashir al-Asad and the Alawite regime in Syria, the US cemented itself into a labyrinth of impossible conflicts of interest. By supporting the anti-Asad forces it soon found itself supporting the jihadists, through a potent cocktail of ignorance about whose allegiances lay where, self-delusion over the reality of a secular third force, and inability to confront the lethal sectarian interests of its Sunni allies in the Gulf which were financing different fragments of the jihadi opposition to Asad. Cockburn uses the analogy of the Thirty Years War to describe the Syrian wars, and it is an apt one: a whole generation and more of ferocious sectarian strife inextricably wound up with national and dynastic ambitions, the self-perpetuating momentum of voracious mercenary bands, the vanity of rulers and generals, resulting in three decades of blood and escalating bestiality.

But there’s more. Cockburn examines with precision the ætiology of the caliphate, but he does not dwell on ideology. If we want to understand the appeal of the caliphal jihad to disaffected young Muslims across the world, we must ask what it is that a growing few of them find attractive, even irresistible, about the Daesh. In a very powerful article in the Atlantic this week, Graeme Wood has dissected the chiliastic rhetoric of the Caliphate to great effect. What is clear is that geo-politics isn’t the whole story. It’s easy to see the Daesh as a latter-day Mongol horde, deploying a theatre of blood to terrify its opponents into submission and propel its conquering fighters onward. Wood asks why they are doing this – what precisely are the ultimate objectives that the Daesh serves? And what is the elaborate rhetoric, verbal and sanguinary, all about, if we take the trouble to interrogate it closely?

His answers to the two questions are one and the same, and they make clear a dimension of the Daesh phenomenon that we have not yet understood very clearly in the West – its carefully scripted and referenced theatre, not so much of blood, as of Doom, in the Old English sense of that word. Daesh is set on hastening the apocalypse, and convincing susceptible Muslims that it is the handmaiden of the End-time, so that they can put their shoulders to the wheel and seel martyrdom in doing so. It seems to be having some success. “The inflow of jihadists that followed [the declaration of the Caliphate], from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.”

The argument rests on an understanding of the significance of the Caliphate, not as a historical succession of sometimes pious and sometimes impious rulers that was finally given its quietus by Ataturk in 1924, but as a concept in the wilder reaches of Salafist thinking. It is, seen in this light, the keystone to the arch of jihadi victory, and the trigger of the apocalypse. There has been no righteous caliph not just since 1924, but for a thousand years (some Muslims reckon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi only the eighth of twelve legitimate caliphs). Without a caliph Muslims cannot, it appears, fulfil their religious obligations. The election of a caliphate changes the rules: as Anjem Choudry of al-Muhajiroun (a tributary of the Daeshi river) smugly puts it, “Before the Caliphate maybe 85 percent of the Shariah was absent from our lives. These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa, and now we have one.”

The rightful Caliph must be descended from the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh; he must be physically and morally sound; and he must rule territory in which Islamic law is enforced. Al-Baghdadi seems to fulfil the first two criteria, but only since the middle of 2014 has he felt able to trumpet the third. Having done so, with Mosul in his hands, he demands the declaration of loyalty – the baya’a – of all Muslims. The election of a Caliph changes the dynamics of Islam for a significant minority of Muslims: if you accept this caliphal doctrine, then you have no alternative but to sign up. “The caliphate” – Choudry again – “is not just a political entity, but also a vehicle for salvation.”

And if you sign up, you are signing up to a code of behaviour that is based on what they call ‘the Prophetic Methodology,’ a literal recreation of what Daesh believes to have been the behaviours of the very first Muslims and the Prophet himself. “Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to reforming civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately bring about the apocalypse.” They took slaves, so you do. They beheaded captives and crucified them, so you do too. They punished certain offences by throwing the perpetrator off a high rock, so throw such sinners yourselves, substituting a multi-storey car park. They forced their enemies’ women into sexual slavery, killed pagans, taxed people of the book with jizya so you do it all too. Sufis, Shi’ites and rulers who even flirt with secular law are apostates and to be killed. By acting like the first Muslims, you increase spiritual proximity to them and by some kind of bizarre sympathetic magic bring forward the cosmic showdown.

This showdown will take place – according to a hadith – at a place called Dabiq, near Aleppo, where ‘the Muslims’ will defeat ‘Rome.’ Daesh thoughtfully secured Dabiq early on, and it is all ready for the final battle. References to Dabiq are frequent (it is the title of the Caliphate’s glossy magazine, apart from anything else), and there is a definite ‘bring-it-on’ tone to all references to US troops: they are required participants. (There’s an after-story, too, of Muslim defeat and a last, victorious stand of 5,000 righteous Muslims led – a little confusingly – by Jesus, which perhaps inures the Caliphate to short and medium terms setbacks,)

What all this suggests is that what looks like random extreme violence is nothing of the sort – it is a theologically dictated violence, designed to evoke the end of the world. And that’s a little hard to argue with. In fact the law is coercive: Dabiq (the glossy mag) said last October, “Enslaving the the families of the kuffar and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narratives of the Prophet … and thereby apostasizing from Islam.” And the penalty for apostasy is of course death, so the pious jihadi must sink any remaining scruples and get on with it.

Even – perhaps especially – the Caliph is hedged about with restrictions. He may not enter into diplomatic relations or treaties, and his every move is scrutinized by the ideologists of Doom. The most he can do in terms of peace (because it’s all the Methodology sanctions) is to sign partial and temporary truces which must not become permanent, and even then he must fight at least one campaign of jihad each year. Failure to do this and he too is an apostate. This is deliberately not a stable government, but one driven willy-nilly onwards by its own inherent radicalism. Like Robespierre, the Caliph will – or so the world must hope – be consumed by the tiger he rides.

Wood’s analysis is fascinating, but still preliminary. He quotes scholars working on the ideology of Daesh, and they will in due course produce the books that flesh out the picture. For now, if we take it simply as a working hypothesis, it is a good, and a sobering, first cut at the pathology, and the mediæval hyperlink, which the Middle East is now facing. Most Muslims are entirely horrified: it is, as Graeme Wood puts it, “the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.”

Daesh cartoon

Ash-sha’ab yurid … what, exactly?


At the beginning of 1973 I spent a few months in Cairo. War with Israel was in the offing, and preparations for it were under way. At the most mundane level, blast walls were built in front of the entrances to blocks of flats, and windows taped; at the Egyptian Museum Tutankhamun’s mask and regalia were protected by a thick emplacement of sand-bags and only visible with a flashlight, through narrow slits. One day in January or February that year I went to the Cairo Palace cinema off Alfi Bey Street to see Costas Gavras’s splendid film ‘Z’ about régime murder and cover-up under the Greek dictatorship. It was only shown once – the High Court had over-ruled a government ban, and ‘Z’ got just one token outing before the authorities closed the cinema and stopped it being shown again. For that one show, the cinema was surrounded by a cordon of riot police, an irony not lost on the unusually silent audience.

Before the screening of the main film, there was a black-and-white public information short, instructing the audience about how to deal with napalm attacks. Two bored soldiers stood in a slit-trench with their helmets lying on the sand-bagged parapet. Suddenly from off-screen dropped a great blob of what looked like egg-white, or snot, landing on one of the soldier’s helmets. At once, all was action. The soldiers jumped to, tipping sand over the (still obstinately not-burning) jelly, and the military equipment was vigorously and demonstratively saved from destruction. And that was that. It was an odd enough little vignette to remain in my memory 42 years later, a gloriously inept attempt to enjoin vigilance without too much panic, a paranoia sanitized to the point of meaninglessness.

This week I found on my twitter-feed a story (from Mada Masr) that brought it obliquely back to mind: In June 2012, paranoia against foreigners was already at an all-time high when an infomercial aired on both state-owned and private television channels warning people against the spies around them. The 40-second ad featured a blue-eyed man with a suspicious look on his face scanning a café, then sitting with young men and women who start to tell him about Egypt’s problems as he squints and flashes evil smiles. The narrator warns that the spy will blend in and “steal your heart” until you offer him valuable information. The spy in the video exclaims “Really?” in English as the gullible young people divulge information. He then proceeds to send text messages from under the table. The ad ends with the warning, “Every word is valuable, a word can save a nation.”

This ‘infomercial,’ issued just as Morsi took office, comes from the same stable. Foreigners, particularly those with blue eyes and agile texting-fingers – are a Bad Thing, determined to undermine Egypt.  A short and delightful visit to Cairo last week reminded me that distrust of the West lies only a little beneath the surface, and that a cultivated paranoia is part of the package by which the government, like all Egyptian governments, seeks to consolidate its support. However, as the man in the old joke said, “I’m not paranoid – it’s just that everyone’s out to get me;” and there really is quite a lot to be worried about in Egypt.

It was certainly a very difficult week, beginning with Revolution Day celebrations in which a blameless teenage girl was shot on Talaat Harb while carrying flowers to a commemoration in Tahrir Square. Another twenty  people, some of them considerably less blameless, were killed at demonstrations during that weekend, and a number of bombs exploded. Later in the week there was a devastating rocket attack by terrorists on army positions in the northern Sinai, in which another 30 or so soldiers – plus a number of Islamist expendables – were killed. It is clear that the Egyptian government and state are under attack, and that there is justified fear and serious concern. The murky nexus of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Daech represented by their myrmidons of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, is behind both domestic and external violence.

But there are no shades of grey in the cosmic war being fought out between the legions of hell and the boys in khaki. One is Right: the other is Wrong – which is which depends on your viewpoint. Accounts of atrocities by the army are regularly discounted on the basis that the only evidence for them is the foreign press which can’t be trusted, because it is sympathetic to the Brotherhood. And the Brotherhood’s infernally cunning operatives are said to fabricate enormous amounts of evidence, placing stories in the press and online to discredit the government. (Probably so, and I imagine the compliment is returned.) So I was told variously that I shouldn’t necessarily believe the story of mass treason convictions in Minya after a 20-minute trial (despite the newspaper reports); nor that the unfortunate Shaaymah al-Sebbagh was shot by a riot policeman (despite the film of the incident on YouTube).

But what I found most striking was the widespread belief that Western governments and the Western press support the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the Manichæan binarism of chaos and order has become a filter for virtually all information and opinion. It isn’t possible, ultimately, for a Western journalist or leader to condemn human rights infractions by the Eyptian army or government, without ‘being’ a supporter of their Islamist nemesis. You’re either with us or against us. All sorts of straws are adduced, meetings at State Department, the toleration of Brotherhood supporters in Western capitals. But I found it hard to begin to get my head round the belief that our governments support violent Islamist extremism. The opposite is true, whatever one may think of the actual policies that shape Western actions.

The opposite is true, and how could it be otherwise? All the countries of Western Europe are struggling with their own blowback from the Syrian-Iraqi wars and are desperate for Arab support in their reactions there. In Egypt, they find an uncompromising military government which is determined to break the Islamist insurgency, and of course they support that. The problem is one of method and style. At home in Europe we agonize, with endless argument, over how to confront Islamic militancy within a framework of human rights. In the Middle East there are fewer scruples about that framework, and this is a problem for our press and governments. Imprisoned journalists, mass treason convictions, wholesale killings and dead teenagers don’t prevent the West supporting General Sisi – they just make it uncomfortable and embarrassing. Writing in The Guardian this week, Ian Black is closer to the mark:

Sisi did not have to wait long for Western approval after he was elected to replace Morsi. In the last year his government has worked hard to burnish his and Egypt’s image. The growing insurgency in Sinai, now linked directly to Islamic State (ISIS) has helped too. Sisi was feted when he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

That the Muslim Brotherhood is a violent organization bent on overthrowing the Egyptian state (for starters) is quite clear. It is also profoundly dishonest and speaks with a decidedly forked tongue, as this screen-grab of two rather contradictory and simultaneous ‘official’ Brotherhood tweets (assuming it to be genuine) demonstrates: in English (@Ikhwanweb) the writer is all condolence for the dead soldiers’ families and soft soap, “We unequivocally condemn all acts of violence.” In Arabic (@IkhwanwebAr) he talks of “settling accounts for the blood of martyrs and prisoners,” and “the revolutionary reckoning awaiting tyrants.” Odd twittery bedfellows.


But there does seem to be a marked reluctance to let the truth do the heavy lifting and drive out the lies. Peter Greste of Al-Jazeera was released this week after 400 days in prison for reporting the Brotherhood. Part of a foreign – in this case Qatari – plot. His detention did infinitely more damage to Egypt than his ephemeral reporting, which would have been forgotten in 24 hours. I am not clear whether he has blue eyes.

I was pondering all this when I saw the papers at breakfast last Sunday, from which I take the two Brotherhood tweets. Something else was also very striking, the appropriation of the language and discourse of the Tahrir revolution. Al-Bawaba (outside whose Mossadeq Street offices there was reportedly a bomb earlier in the week) headlines in Arabic, against a background of army camouflage-fatigue, KULINA GEISH, ‘we are all Army.’ Quite legitimate (after all, half Europe is Charlie, and most of Jordan is Muadh), but a strange and uncomfortable echo of KULINA KHALED SAID, the website that laid much of the groundwork for the revolution in 2010-11 by focusing national identification with an Egyptian boy beaten to death by police.

Perhaps even more amazing is the smaller strapline above, which says ASH-SHA’AB YURID MAGLIS HARB – ‘the people want a Council of War.’ Amazing not for its sentiment, but because it picks up the urgent rhythm and words of the chants in Tahrir Square and on marches in Janaury 2011, ASH-SHA’AB YURID ISQAT AN-NIZAM, ‘the people want the fall of the regime.’ This is the insistent rhythm of the revolution, words chanted across the streets and squares of the Arab World in 2011, but tracing their origins to the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi and the first national anthem of independent Tunisia. It is hard to imagine protest in North Africa without this chant, and its assertive claim to ownership of the Will of the People. As Elliott Colla wrote of its universality a couple of years ago, “The logic of repertoire says nothing about the coherence or truthfulness of these claims – it respects only success. Given the success of popular claim-making, no party to the revolution can afford not to speak in the name of the people, and it is unlikely that this slogan will disappear anytime soon.”

It hasn’t. And it has become a part of the gathering solidarity of Egyptians behind their leader and the struggle against violent disorder. They have seen what that ideologically driven government brings, and they don’t like it. (Nor does any civilised person, anywhere.) One can only sympathize, while hoping that it will gradually become easier to focus a little more exclusively on the bad guys. Kulina geish, indeed.


A Warped Mirror


There’s a picture that comes up quite often in the social media, of a line of severed heads on a drystone wall in Morocco. It’s actually a picture postcard, with the caption SOUVENIR D’AGOURAI. NOS TIRAILLEURS FURIEUX DES MUTILATIONS INFLIGES A LEURS MORTS SE VENGENT, and the example I find on the web is stamped, and addressed to a Mme Robin in Bourges. The postmark is military, and it seems perhaps to be a trophy photograph taken when Senegalese tirailleurs had their sanguinary revenge on the Rifi bands who had bested them at the battle of Ehri in 1914.

A very nasty picture. But what is more extraordinary than the subject is that the sender – a young French officer writing to his mother, or aunt – writes nothing at all about the picture on his card. He tells her when he’s next coming home on leave, and says slightly resentfully (which may be the oblique point of the picture) that people back home think the army in Morocco is just doing rear echelon duties. No, he seems to be saying with his photo, we do the real stuff. So whenever it was that this card was sent to Madame Robin, the sight of a line of severed heads was so unexceptional as to need no comment. It was interesting, but mundane enough to be turned into a postcard suitable for mothers and aunts, and to be put proudly on a mantelpiece in Bourges.

The picture came to mind when I read last week that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre Marine Le Pen had called for the return of the death penalty in France – the death penalty for Muslims, of course, though she was too circumspect to put it quite like that. It is still not a very distant memory. The last public execution in France took place outside the prison at Versailles in 1939, and the fact that it was both photographed and filmed, and that those pictures were widely published, led to the more discreet prison-yard execution of future decapitees. The last was a Tunisian called Hamide Djandoubi, found guilty of a spectacularly nasty murder, and then judicially decapitated, in 1977.

The French penal system is an instrument disproportionately geared to processing Muslims. Andrew Hussey, in his 2014 book The French Intifada, explains that we can’t know for sure what proportion of the prison population is Muslim because Marianne is blind to her citizens’ faiths and has no record of them, but you can make a reasonable guess from the fact that no fewer than 70% of France’s prisoners order halal food. The total population of France is 66 million, the Muslim population perhaps 5 million, or about 7.7%. So that figure of 70% is a bit of a shocker. Even assuming that thousands of devoutly Catholic inmates order fattoush and tabouleh because, as Hussey puts it, “non-Muslim prisoners find prison food so disgusting that they buy halal food,” a mere half of that percentage figure – 35% – would still be a national scandal. It suggests that the majority of those executed to the clicking of Madame Le Pen’s knitting needles would be, like Djandoubi, Muslims – even before the additional business generated by jihadi terrorism.

France’s favoured method of execution since the Revolution has been the guillotine, and it would presumably remain so in the event of Mme Le Pen’s getting her way. Heads would roll once again, and this at a time when the beheading of Europeans by the thugs of the Raqqa ‘caliphate’ is causing such traumatic shocks. It would be a very unfortunate and unattractive symmetry.

It leads me to a book I have just read, published like Andrew Hussey’s, by Granta. Severed, written by a British anthropologist called Frances Larson, explores the polyvalent significance of the human head when it is separated from the body. Dr Larson’s fascinating account ranges from the relics of saints to the skull collections of phrenologists and race theorists, from trophies of war to anatomists’ subjects and painters’ models. What is very clear (and scarcely surprising) is that the human head is a part of the body endowed with a very special significance; and its removal is a highly symbolic act. More of a surprise is the extraordinary lengths of barbarity and illegality to which ostensibly respectable Westerners – soldiers, scientists, priests and painters – have gone over the last couple of centuries to get hold of human heads, and in astonishing numbers. Massive grave-robbery, the commissioning of murder, the ruthless encouragement of local wars, the taking of trophies – all filled museums, studies and billiard-rooms with bleached white skulls. There were thousand upon thousand in Europe and North America by the early twentieth century. And quite a few lined up on walls in Europe’s colonies.

Today we’re getting numbly accustomed to the horribly choreographed public executions of the Raqqa ‘caliphate,’ designed to shock and terrify, to mesmerise the West with the spectacle of frightened men kneeling in orange jumpsuits while a young ‘Muslim’ cuts their throats. We are dimly aware too that the much more numerous executions of fellow-Muslims serve also to keep wavering jihadists on-side. (As Voltaire – yes, him again – put it, commenting on the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757, it is done pour encourager les autres). The images run ahead of the rampaging hordes, in mujatweets and Instagrams, like news of Tamburlane’s ferocity, so that defenders of Mosul and other cities simply throw down their weapons, shed their uniforms and run.

Habituated as we are becoming to the news of such violent deaths, we find it difficult, I think, to place this savagery in a historical context. Dr Larson is helpful here.

First, lest we think that the Raqqa executions are in some way unique, she tells us a good deal about the cutting off of heads by American soldiers in the Pacific War. Mostly, but by no means exclusively, done after death, this trophy-collection (for such it was) is most common in wars between nations that see themselves as being of different ‘races.’ It was commonplace in the Pacific theatre, where racial differences were constantly stressed: demonisation of the enemy, deliberately honed by military trainers, led, as it does, to this kind of objectification of human beings on both sides. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60% of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Marianas Islands in 1984,” writes Dr Larson. And there have been reports of the same kind of trophy hunting (if generally of more portable body parts) by soldiers in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But I think what is most important is the macabre fascination with decapitation that the internet allows and encourages. The West has been profoundly shocked by films of the beheading of French, British and American hostages; but it has also lapped them up. Dr Larson reports that three weeks after the execution of Nick Berg in 2004, the top ten internet search-terms in the USA were all for film of his execution. Kenneth Bigley’s killing was downloaded more than a million times in its first month online. “One survey, conducted five months after Berg’s death, found that between May and June, 30 million people, or 24% of all adult internet users in the United States, had seen images from the war in Iraq that were deemed too gruesome and graphic to be shown on television …” and “half of those who had seen the graphic content thought they had made a ‘good decision’ by watching.”

Now I certainly haven’t watched any of this stuff. But I am strongly reminded of a comment that I quoted in this blog a few weeks ago, made by the American documentary film director Steve Jarecki, talking about the Daech and its use of film: “we [the USA] are also a page-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over. If we are watching Isis come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.” In other words the depravity of Daech is as much imitative as original. And whether it’s imitating the behaviour of colonial troops, or the makers of American horror films, or satisfying the apparently bottomless appetite of internet-users for the pornography of gore, real and constructed, it isn’t simply some kind of parthenogenetic barbarism, but something more complicated and even nastier, in which the West is culturally complicit. A warped mirror which may distort reflections, but doesn’t simply invent them.

I had an inkling of this a year or two back when channel-hopping on the TV in a Gulf hotel room. Up from nowhere came an appalling American film called (as I have since established), The Saw, of which I wached a minute or so. It turns out – as I discover when writing this piece – that there were seven of these feature films made, called with a pedestrian flight of imagination, The Saw 2, The Saw 3 and so on, each one devoted to ingenious and graphically filmed ways of chopping up living human beings. They are one of many blood-soaked franchises. I find myself asking what it means for a culture when a significant part of its own preferred entertainment is a mindless theatre of blood. In what sense is the murder of a compatriot on video different from the killing of a gore-spattered actor, or the messy destruction of an enemy in an on-line game? There’s no shock left, except for proprietorial outrage, and I suspect only a dim, and often elided, distinction understood between the real, the enacted and the virtual.

This is what Jarecki meant: we look into the Heart of Darkness and find ourselves. The guillotine, itself a theatre of blood, would simply push the tempo up a few notches. In some as yet unimagined way it would be reciprocated and amplified, and the dreadful ascending spiral of barbarity endorsed. Plus ça change …



An interesting footnote on Raqqa comes from a letter written by Edward Luttwak to the LRB this week: “The significance of the selection of ar-Raqqah as the Islamic State’s capital rather than very much larger Mosul has been missed: when in 796 the Abbasid star caliph Harun ‘Al-Rashid’ turned from carousing and culture to jihad against the Romans, and had another go at Constantinople (his huge venture in 782 had come close), he removed himself to ar-Raqqah from Baghdad’s urbanity, and long stayed there.” Or are we simply assuming too much cultural literacy on the part of the modern ‘caliphate’? I remember a great deal of pedantic speculation about the date of 9/11 having been chosen with the Siege of Vienna in mind. But perhaps this new ‘Caliph’ just likes Raqqa. By now he is probably in a diminishing minority in doing so.


Am I a right Charlie? Or a real Ahmed?

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Four million Frenchmen and women marched through the streets of France last weekend to protest against the murders at Charlie Hebdo. It was a devastating event, evil in the purest sense of the word – the cold-blooded murder of a bunch of mostly elderly cartoonists at an editorial meeting. It has brought France together – or so it seemed by Sunday evening – in a huge demonstration of national unity, an affirmation of ‘French values’ and an effusive demonstration in fervent support of absolute press freedom. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormous outpouring of emotion from almost all quarters of the nation for ‘liberty’ and for France.

But there’s a flicker of doubt in the back of my mind, even as I think about this tricky business of freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are (and we need to be quite honest about this) a sludge of potty-minded schoolboy squibs, insults levelled with a snigger against anyone in authority, any faith, any institution. If you like gratuitous insults, florid copulation, foul language and savage mockery of anything you may think serious or feel sacred, then Charlie Hebdo’s graphics are your thing. If you don’t, or indeed if you like your jokes funny, they really aren’t; and while this week’s 3,000,000 copies will no doubt sell like hot cakes, they are unlikely to find much actual readership beyond eleven-year old boys with some growing-up still to do. (Though as we are constantly reminded, savage scatological lampooning is a French Revolutionary Tradition, and therefore in some sense a Good Thing that may be enjoyed today by adult eleven year-olds, too).

So Charlie Hebdo and the awful, savage slaughter of its editorial team pose the question of press freedom in a very pure form. Are we so strongly committed to the right to publish offensive drivel that we are, as Voltaire allegedly claimed to be, prepared to die for the right to publish it of a magazine that makes Fat Slags look sophisticated? This is a question that relates to the world outside the Charlie Hebdo office as well as to those who worked there, because those who drew for and published the magazine had made a decision on their own behalves and knew the risk that they were taking in repeatedly choosing the Prophet Mohammed as their butt. Others were not consulted.

It ought not – of course – to have been a risk, but they knew quite well that it was, and the Charlie Hebdo office was guarded by armed police in recognition of that fact. The editor, ‘Charb,’ was clear, discussing radical Muslim threats to him and the magazine, saying rather magnificently that he’d rather die standing than spend his life on his knees. “Yet in spite of you, there is one crown I bear away with me … one thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own … and that is … my white plume,” as Rostand’s Cyrano puts it.

Now that’s his prerogative, and although at the time he was probably being mostly rhetorical, he knew he was genuinely at risk and pressed ebulliently and aggressively on. It is hard not to admire this quixotic sang froid. His death and those of his colleagues are a tragedy; but a tragedy foretold and not, I would wistfully suggest, as much of a tragedy as the death of the young policeman Ahmed Merebet who was shot in cold blood by one of the Kouachi thugs as he responded to the call for help from the Charlie Hebdo office. Charb dared the shadowy terrorists to react to his barbs, to come and get him. Ahmed on the other hand did exactly what Voltaire claimed to be prepared to do, to die for the right of someone else to publish material that he personally must have found nasty at best, and profoundly offensive at worst. And just as the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie gathered record numbers of posts on Twitter, the alternative #JeSuisAhmed assembled many of the more thoughtful. A Muslim French policeman, doing a job of which he was clearly very proud and at which he was very good, placed before the muzzle of an assassin’s assault rifle by the determination of a group of cartoonists to insult the beliefs of his co-religionists.

Freedom of speech and freedom to publish are very slippery concepts, and in no human society are they – or have they ever been – absolutes. Pretending otherwise is dishonest. And exercising a perfectly real ‘right’ with the specific purpose of seriously upsetting people, just because you can, is ethically contemptible. It is no more than bullying – not the satirizing of the strong by the weak that constitutes France’s, and England’s prouder traditions. If you know too that the people you are upsetting are liable to retaliate violently, your choice to publish has consequences for other people that are very hard to justify. Publishing and brandishing the cartoons in support of the dead cartoonists is quite understandable, a show of defiance, but it too has consequences: it may be a small thing, but the refusal of the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Salaheddin Mezouar, to march in Paris was because, despite his sympathy and support, he could not march beneath cartoons lampooning the Prophet. Now we hear that there will be a cartoon of the Prophet on the cover of three million Charlies this week: this seems gratuitously to risk alienating ordinary, civic Muslims in another act of – this time state-sponsored – bullying.

It is tempting to echo the splendidly defiant and unambiguous words of the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, addressed to the terrorists in France: “It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom,” he said. “But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven’s name pack your bag and leave … There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself. Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists. And if you do not like it here because humourists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.”

Tempting, but wrong, because wannabe terrorists will not take the blindest bit of notice, and those involved this week have already packed their bags and left – for Paradise and Raqqa. As for the rest of the Muslim population of Europe, they probably do not want – or need – such stark binary choices put to them. Binary choices are the problem, not the solution – there are too many bearded Svengalis putting binary choices from the other side for more to be a good idea. What has happened to nuance, to subtlety? To the pragmatist’s ability to smooth over differences and find mutually acceptable reticences? How can French Muslims be expected to “like freedom” when one of its most vaunted privileges is being abominably rude to them in ways that are carefully calculated to hurt, and to remind them of their relative powerlessness? This kind of graphic bullying works best with the weak and the unpopular, as Charlie Hebdo itself illustrates so clearly: they dish it out to Muslims and claim absolute freedom of expression, but in 2009 Charlie fired a cartoonist called Maurice Sinet for lampooning the Jewish connections of Sarkozy’s less weak, less powerless, son. As our own Private Eye might have said, “Shome mishtake surely? – Ed.”

But freedom of speech is only the superficial battleground here, the epiphenomenon. There is a bigger game being played out, and that is the driving of wedges between ‘France’ and its Muslims, the deliberate cultivation of alienation. It is the game that guerillas and insurrectionists play all over post-colonial world, the same game that Iraq’s jihadis played when they started the systematic targeting of Shi’ites and Shi’ite shrines a decade ago. It is the deliberate provoking of repression, animosity and violence with the aim of polarization and ultimately war, and it is very dangerous. Into this already lethal game Marine Le Pen steps with deliberation when she decries Islam and calls for the restoration of the death penalty. The death penalty, of course, for Muslims – since it is in response to what the right sees very clearly as ‘Muslim’ violence. Pegida, Geert Wilders and even Britain’s own Abu Faraj al-Ukipji in his beery way are all pouring petrol on the same fire.

So France’s enormous outpouring of emotion, shaped by a will to empathy, is certainly very moving, and may perhaps turn out to be important. But it isn’t universal. In the Place de la Republique on Sunday there are reports of groups singing repeatedly the chorus of the Marseillaise which ends “Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons” (May impure blood run in our furrows), to raucous cheers and equally raucous boos. More importantly, the Front National was not invited to the party, is not part of such consensus as there is, and stands tall and dark in the background like one of Goya’s giants, with more than a quarter of the popular vote in its pocket.

It isn’t a very popular view right now, but I find it hard to escape from the feeling that we are all largely missing the point. Those who value the future of France, Europe and Britain too need to be looking at root causes, not epiphenomena. The Kouachi brothers were orphaned early and brought up in a state orphanage. Amédy Coulibaly was one of seventeen children of poor Senegalese (or perhaps Malian) immigrants, brought up in poverty and soon delinquent and imprisoned. His wife, Hayet Boumedienne, was thrown out of home very young for objecting to her father’s remarriage too soon after her mother’s death, and serially fostered, quickly becoming delinquent herself. All three men were radicalized in prison (where some 70% of all prisoners are thought to be Muslims – thought because the only way of counting them in laique France is to count the halal meal orders): prison appears to be France’s very own factory of jihadists. These are marginal, brutally damaged people – and they have become very evil people under great pressure. They are the lost souls of the bleak concrete suburbs, hopeless, despised and insecure. But their adherence to the ideology of the jihad in all its intellectual and theological poverty is not to do with Islam per se (pace Rupert Murdoch) but with the awful need for a port in a storm, a simple and all-too available explanatory ideology, an undemanding solace and a casuistic justification to underwrite their inchoate passion for revenge. Fanon, in other words, not Ibn Taymiyyah.

Solutions must start with providing altogether different ports in which young men and women, migrants to Europe or children of migrants, can find shelter, and from which they can start new voyages in life. This means different education, different opportunities, different aspirations. The shining example of all this is the same Ahmed Merebet, a child of the 93ième who had worked his way up from the bottom, starting and running a cleaning business before becoming a policeman: he didn’t come from a broken family, as his funeral so poignantly demonstrated. He worked hard, seized opportunities and loved his job. There’s an awful symmetry about the two trajectories that crossed on the pavement of rue Nicolas Appert last week – the successful Muslim Frenchman casually murdered by (as his brother put it) “men pretending to be Muslims.” That’s why je suis Ahmed.

Paul Mason wrote on Monday in the Guardian, “Islamist terror cannot be stopped by the security and intelligence services alone. It has to be fought culturally and economically. But the only cultural response that is going to beat them is one that doesn’t play their game. It has to be based on the core values of European democracies – and this is true whether or not we like the Eurozone or even the EU as institutions. Where to start? Eradicate the slums, remove religious bigots from all educational contact with children and give kids brought up in obscurantist faiths an education that insists the prejudices of their parents may be mistaken. And find the young people jobs.”

Let us fight terrorism culturally and economically. And find the young people jobs.


Edward Casaubon and Global Jihad


The day after I posted about Peter Pan and the romantic, heroic vein of youth jihadism, a friend sent me an interesting article, which I recommend. Published in the New York Times, it is a profile by Danny Hakim, of a Jordanian called Suleiman Bakhit. Bakhit is fascinating because he has understood the craving for superheroes that jihad satisfies: but he didn’t just note it, he rolled up his sleeves and set about satisfying it.

He noticed that Daesh’s recruiters speak to their marks in whichever vernacular language they use, “and preach terrorism as a heroic journey. The biggest threat in the Middle East,” he goes on, “is terrorism disguised as heroism.” He suggests that the terrorist narrative is essentially a heroic journey narrative, as described and analyzed by the American Joseph Campbell: “a heroic journey is central to mythmaking.” I thought of Mohamed Tozy’s analysis of Abdallah ‘Azzam’s journey to the Panjshir in search of Ahmed Shah Masood (see my previous post), and Tozy’s insistence that this is a heroic journey deliberately cast in a non-religious, almost pre-Islamic mould. ‘Azzam told it afterwards in terms of dangers overcome, rugged landscapes, a ‘caravan’ crossing bare, steep mountain ranges and at the end a simple, hospitable, heroic fighting leader – the Lion of the Panjshir himself – whose virtues are those of a Bedouin warrior, not a Muslim saint. Bakhit sees this trope of a journey through hostile terrain as echoing not just pre-Islamic poetry and values, but also the journey of the Prophet to the cave of the revelations, picked up again by Bin Laden in his journey to Afghanistan and his own caves.

Joseph Campbell was America’s leading comparative mythographer, its very own Edward Casaubon, and his reductive approach to mythology has been very popular, not just with academics (many of whom indeed question his relentless schematic over-simplification) but with gurus of popular culture – inspiring, or helping to shape, amongst other works, Disney’s Lion King and George Lucas’s Star Wars. (Campbell has a lot to answer for in this regard, and by way of recognition Luke Skywalker appears on the cover of later editions of his Hero with a Thousand Faces). Lucas later said “Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books … It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs … so I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent … I went on to read The Masks of God and many other books.”

Lucas fastened, and Bakhit fastens after him, onto what Campbell called the Monomyth, the single heroic narrative that he took to be universal.  In this monomyth, a hero is cast out and journeys in search of eternal wisdom, suffering great dangers and privations on the journey, eventually finding it and returning bearing his hard-won wisdom through more dangers to bring his own people freedom. This fits the ‘Azzam story, and it fits a great many of the luridly imagined journeys made by jihadis to Syria and Iraq: they go through great danger with purity of heart in search of wisdom, and either die on the journey or expect to return home with the virtue and the experience – not to mention the baraka – necessary to set their own people free. As Bakhit points out, it’s a win-win enterprise: “If you get killed you’re reunited with the Prophet and Allah. If you don’t, you’re still on your journey.” The purpose is sublimating self in a greater cause: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness,” as Campbell put it.

The primal monomyth fills the hole in the heart, the anomie of dislocation and deprivation, of unfulfilled expectations, sexual frustrations and frayed identities. It’s simple, it’s self-affirming and it obviates critical thought. Going to join Daesh has much in common with the quest of Luke Skywalker or Simba the lion cub, or any number of other heroes, both in its mind-numbing, trite sentimentality and in its linear chorography. A mildly interesting question is whether volunteers are following the primal pathway picked out by Campbell, or the cod-mythology of George Lucas and Walt Disney. But in the end it doesn’t matter: the monomyth is a communications tool, as George Lucas so lucratively discovered, and one which plays very well in a world saturated in American movies. This world stretches effortlessly across apparent cultural barriers, from Los Angeles to the refugee camps around ‘Amman.

Bakhit sees this clearly, and his answer is to fill the same void with heroes. He ran focus groups with Jordanian schoolchildren: “I went there and asked the kids, ‘Who are your heroes?'” he said. “‘We don’t have any heroes, but we hear a lot about Bin Laden, about Zarqawi,’ he said they told him … “I’m like, ‘What do you hear about them?’ The children replied, ‘That they defend us against the West because the West is out there to kill us.’ And this is the terrorist narrative and Propaganda 101.”

So Bakhit started producing comic books with a different kind of hero, designed to lead the young on journeys that may be no less transgressive, but lead in different directions. He learned to draw, set up a company called Aranim and started publishing comic strips – what used to be called trash-mags in my childhood – about Jordanian war heroes, followed by Element Zero (“a kind of Arabic version of Jack Bauer, the fictional counterterrorism agent in the television series 24”) and Saladin 2100 (“an apocalyptic Mad Max style comic set almost a century in the future”).

Bakhit takes no money from Western governments (though he started out with grants from the Jordanian government), understanding very well that any whiff of his being the instrument of the West would vitiate his entire enterprise. But he is clearly not the easiest of men, having gone on to run foul of the Jordanians (apparently for Saladin 2100, set in a Jordan of a hundred years hence, where it is not quite clear that the Hashemites still sit on the throne. Well I never did: someone obviously has no doubt about the power of these things).

But there is a very serious point here, and it lies in Bakhit’s remark that “The biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism.” If the recruiters of al-Qaida and now Daesh are consciously rolling out the carpet of archetypal heroic adventure, of the prophetic journey into the wilderness in search of wisdom, as a recruiting tool, then one important answering voice is clear. That heroic narrative needs to be recaptured and repopulated – the nature of the journey mercilessly examined, the hollowness of the wisdom exposed. And who better to do this than Batman? After all, (Campbell again, grammar and style apparently not his long suit), “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Accounting for the apparently magnetic appeal of the jihad demand of us that we see it for what it substantially is – a simplistic, ethically empty adventure movie for lost children whose minds, battered by bad education, alienation and computer games, are drawn to easy black-and-white stories which don’t challenge intellect or conscience. In that case, countering such things is not so much a matter of protecting the young from bad influences (of which we hear a great deal too much) but giving them other, more challenging stories, other aspirations, other opportunities for meaningful political engagement. Helping them to grow up, in other words, educating them purposefully, as all our children should be, not in the Monomyth but in the Polymyth.


A further footnote on Abu Faraj. Like all good whimsies it turns out to be true. There really is a jihadi called Abu Faraj. This one is called Abu Faraj al-Libi, and is, we are told, a particularly nasty piece of work, captured by the CIA in 2005 and filling a bit-part in Kathryn Bigelow’s torture-porn movie Zero Dark Thirty, where he is played by the Israeli actor Yoel Levi (an irony which would no doubt please him). I’m not sure whether he favours the Happy Ending or the Exploding Sphincter etymology of his name; but in any case it is clearly important that we distinguish him carefully from Abu Faraj al-Poujadi.


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